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The Consumerist

Steve Jobs, John Lennon And Dora The Explorer On The List For Future Postage Stamps

Fri, 2014-02-21 20:00
(nebuladancing)

(nebuladancing)

Business titans of our time, brilliant musicians that changed the world forever, and a curious toddler with a talking backpack and wide, creepily blinking eyes. What do Steve Jobs, John Lennon and Dora the Explorer have in common? They’re all going to end up on U.S. postage stamps.

That beloved trio, plus Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Charlton Heston, Jimi Hendrix, Wilt Chamberlain and others are among the lineup of commemorative stamp subjects the Postal Service has on deck for this year and the next couple of years down the line.

Usually the stamp subjects are a closely guarded secret in order to maximize the buzz factor when the USPS announces them. But the Washington Post says it got ahold of the entire list of subjects. Some of those are in design while others are still waiting for approval from the USPS art staff.

Don’t set your heart on that Dora stamp quite yet, however, as the USPS’ executive director for stamp services and corporate licensing notes that subjects are “subject to change” at any time.

It’s worth noting that if the John Lennon stamp happens, a whole new can of worms could be opened. Having a Brit on a stamp would violate a rule that only Americans are allowed to appear on stamps.

Check out the full list below, via the Washington Post or click here.

Postage stamp subjects approved by U.S. Postal Service

Fitbit Voluntarily Recalls Rash-Inducing Force Wristbands

Fri, 2014-02-21 19:57

fitbit_rashSince the first reports of contact dermatitis caused by Fitbit Force movement trackers surfaced on the company’s forums (and gained publicity when Consumerist broke the story last month) customers have asked that the company recall the trackers. Fitbit has been happy to refund customers who have skin problems and send their trackers back. Today, the company announced that they’re recalling all Force wristbands.

This recall is voluntary, not prompted by the FTC. The company won’t state how many trackers they’ve sold or how many people have experienced rashes. A spreadsheet maintained by the vocal group of users on the Fitbit forums shows more than 500 documented cases of skin irritation resulting from Fitbit use.

Here’s the statement that Fitbit sent to Consumerist:

We wanted to provide an update on our investigation into reports we have received about Force users experiencing skin irritation.

From the beginning, we’ve taken this matter very seriously. We hired independent labs and medical experts to conduct a thorough investigation, and have now learned enough to take further action. The materials used in Force are commonly found in many consumer products, and affected users are likely experiencing an allergic reaction to these materials.

While only a small percentage of Force users have reported any issue, we care about every one of our customers. We have stopped selling Force and are in the process of conducting a voluntary recall, out of an abundance of caution. We are also offering a refund directly to consumers for full retail price. We want to thank each and every member of the Fitbit community for their continued loyalty and support. We are working on our next-generation tracker and will announce news about it soon.

Fitbit Force [Return Information]

FCC Wants First-Responders To Know Exactly Where 911 Calls Are Coming From

Fri, 2014-02-21 19:33
(bryanbope)

(bryanbope)

No one wants to be in a position where calling 911 is necessary, but if the situation does occur we’d all like to think first-responders could easily find us. But that’s just not the case now that more consumers are using cell phones to make emergency calls. Especially when those calls are being made indoors, out of the view of GPS satellites.

Of the 400,000 emergency calls made each day, nearly three-quarters are made with a cellphone. While it’s easy for 911 dispatchers to locate someone outside on a cellphone, pinpointing the location of someone inside a tall office building is more difficult, if not impossible.

The Federal Communications Commission recently announced a proposed requirement on wireless carriers and 911 dispatchers to improve indoor location accuracy, The Washington Post reports.

Currently, mobile devices can pinpoint a caller’s general location, but if you’re calling from a multi-story building there’s a chance first-responders are wasting time looking on other floors.

The proposed requirement aims to ensure that during the first 30 seconds of a 911 call dispatchers can pinpoint a caller’s location within 50 meters. Officials are hopeful that 80 percent of all wireless 911 calls will benefit from the new location capabilities in five years.

The FCC is looking at two ways to determine a caller’s precise location.

Wireless companies could use assisted GPS, which combines GPS location information with data from the cellular network. Another option is to use AFLT, a new technology which triangulates your position on the basis of your distance from multiple cell towers.

While the proposal would make significant progress in improving standards for indoor 911 calls, it has drawn criticism from regulators and the wireless industry.

FCC commissioner Michael O’Rielly is worried about how the proposal would affect consumer privacy. During a recent FCC meeting he said citizens should not have to worry about being tracked by law enforcement or other government entities in non-emergency situations.

Additionally, wireless carriers are pushing back, saying the FCC deadline of five years is impossible to reach.

New FCC proposal would require pinpoint location accuracy for 911 calls [The Washington Post]

The Tales Of Two Stolen Cars That Both Showed Up After Decades Away From Home

Fri, 2014-02-21 19:00
(jenni waterloo)

(jenni waterloo)

While going about my daily rounds on the Internet, there are constantly new and surprising little tidbits popping up, usually unrelated. Which is why it’s kind of nutty to hear that two separate car theft cold cases have suddenly been solved this week, decades after the cars were stolen, with both vehicles reappearing far from home.

The car version of Homeward Bound stars not fuzzy little pets wending their way across the great American countryside, but a 1957 Chevrolet and a 1965 VW Beetle.

First, Sir Beetle The Lost: This 1965 Volkswagen was reported stolen from Tennessee in the 1970s, reports ClickOnDetroit.com, and has shown up now in — you got it — Detroit. Because the source link, see?

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said officers in that city were checking documents on the car while it was being shipped from Michigan to Finland, and realized it had been reported stolen in 1974.

“Part of safeguarding our nation is to make sure that all exports are legitimate and lawful,” said Acting Port Director Marty Raybon. “Recovering a vehicle reported stolen 40 years ago is a testament to the vigilance and attention to detail on the part of CBP.”

The car and its parts for restoration have been seized by CBP, and it’s unclear if anyone is in hot water for this 40-year-old crime.

Then there’s Mr. “I Once Was Lost But Now I’m Found” Chevy: This 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air has a history of being pilfered, reports the Santa Rosa Press Democrat — it was stolen twice in the early 1980s and is one of the most droolworthy cars among collectors.

This week, after 30 years away and four other owners, it’s finally home in Northern California after being rescued from a container bound for Australia. And as a bonus, it’s been fully restored since the last time it was stolen in 1984.

“Somebody put a whole lot of work and money into that car,” the owner, its owner, a 65-year-old told the paper. “It was all disassembled and put back.”

The California Highway Patrol notified the man a few weeks ago that U.S. Customs inspectors had found the hot wheels at the Port of Los Angeles, bound for Down Under.

And oddly enough, its vehicle identification number was on file with the National Insurance Crime Bureau, so it’s mystifying how the Department of Motor Vehicles has allowed it to be passed from one owner to another without any red flags being raised. The CHP says it’d been through four owners during its time away.

The owner said he’d long given up being reunited with his vehicle — he couldn’t spot a mid-50s Bel Air on the road without wincing, the Press Democrat says.

But it sounds like having it back in all its newly-restored glory is going a long way to ease that past pain.

“There’s all kinds of chrome added under the hood,” he said. “The headers look brand spankin’ new. The tires, they look like they haven’t even been around the block.”

“I imagine somebody in Australia must be awful upset,” he added.

Stolen VW Beetle found in Detroit after 40 years [ClickOnDetroit]
Stolen Chevy returned to owner 30 years later [Santa Rosa Press Democrat]

Safeway’s “Gluten Free” Shelf Labels Could Use Some Work

Fri, 2014-02-21 18:15
 (Your Protagonist)

(Your Protagonist)

We commend Safeway for making it easier for customers with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity to find products that they can eat on the store shelves. However, it’s probably not such a good idea to just go around printing any old shelf tags on the “Gluten Free” paper once you run out of other paper.

Is Amazon Prime Price Hike In UK A Sign Of Things To Come?

Fri, 2014-02-21 18:05

(formatc1)

(formatc1)

Last month, Amazon revealed that after nearly a decade of charging $79/year for its Amazon Prime service, it was mulling over the possibility of adding anywhere from $20 to $40 to that amount. Now comes news out of Europe that the online giant is increasing Prime rates for customers in the U.K. and Germany.

The justification for the Prime price hike — going from £49 ($81) to £79 ($131) in the U.K., and from €29 ($40) to €49 ($67) in Germany — is that customers in these countries will now have access to Amazon’s LOVEFiLM streaming collection as part of their Prime membership. Previously, Prime only included expedited shipping and access to the Kindle Lending Library.

Of course, Prime members in the U.S. have had access to streaming video content for quite some time, and it was offered at no additional cost beyond the $79 annual fee.

And it’s worked out well for the company. In its recent quarterly earnings report, Amazon says there are now “tens of millions” of Prime members around the world. The company has never provided specific numbers on Prime subscribers.

Keeping that many people happy requires investment in content. Amazon said it recently increased its Prime video library in the U.S. from 33,000 titles to 40,000, and it is currently in the process of launching a second series of original shows. It also requires investment in technology in order to deliver quality streams across numerous platforms.

It’s possible that the price increases overseas are just bringing fees up to the same profit level Amazon makes off U.S. Prime members, but it seems more likely that it’s an indicator of changes to come stateside.

What may be biting Amazon in the butt is its annual fee model. People see headlines about $20 or $40 price increases and — understandably — their immediate response is often a negative reaction. Whereas, were Amazon talking about going from $6.59/month (the current level, if you broke it down into monthly payments) to $8.25 or $9.92 a month, people may not be so quick to charge the Amazon gates with torches and pitchforks.

What’s interesting about the European price increases is that Amazon is allowing people to lock in existing rates if they sign up in the next couple weeks. Additionally, it is continuing to offer LOVEFiLM as a standalone streaming service for customers who don’t want to pay for the Prime benefits.

Amazon will have to raise the price for Prime at some point (or begin offering tiers of Prime service) and some members will undoubtedly quit the program, whether out of anger or because they don’t see the value in Prime anymore. But if Netflix could make it through the whole Qwikster debacle, which saw the company split its DVD and streaming services and effectively doubled the monthly rate for customers who wanted both, Amazon will probably survive a Prime price increase.

[via GigaOm]

Study: Chemical Banned For Decades Still In Yellow Clothing, Paper In “Worrisome” Levels

Fri, 2014-02-21 18:00

Yellow dyes and pigments are under the lens. (SOBPhotography)

Yellow dyes and pigments are under the lens. (SOBPhotography)

A new, unpublished study is turning the spotlight onto a chemical that was banned in the United States 35 years ago, but is still present today in everything from yellow clothing, to yellow paper and other consumer products using yellow pigments. Researchers say traces of polychlorinated biphenyls — or PCBs — are leaching out of everyday products found around the globe.

But if PCBs are banned, how can this be possible? That’s because PCB-11, the form of the chemical found in yellow dyes, inks and paints, is an unintentional byproduct of pigment manufacturing, explains Scientific American, and therefore is exempt from U.S. laws regulating the compounds.

PCB-11 showed up in almost all samples of paper products sold in 26 countries and clothing sold here in the U.S., the researchers say in the study, which is undergoing peer review and is expected to be published this year.

Although it doesn’t accumulate in the human body or waterways like other PCBs, it’s still a matter of concern, the study’s authors say.

“It’s out there in levels that are worrisome,” said Lisa Rodenburg, an associate professor of environmental chemistry at Rutgers University and senior author of the study. “Even at the parts per billion levels, if you find it in almost everything you test, that means people are in almost constant contact.”

There are no studies on the health effects due to coming into contact with trace amounts of PCB-11, unlike the old, banned PCBs which have been linked to reduced IQs, cancer and suppressed immune systems.

However, because it’s showing up in so many products used by people, that seems to indicate that people are constantly exposed to PCB-11, which allows for it to show up in tests. The study found that all 28 samples of non-U.S., ink-treated paper products, including advertisements, maps, postcards, napkins and brochures, contained PCB-11 in the parts-per-billion range. U.S. paper products had PCB-11 in 15 of the 18 paper products tested.

Furthermore, all the 16 pieces of clothing tested that are sold in the U.S. contained PCB-11, mostly kids’ items bought at Walmart but manufactured overseas.

“PCB 11 is ubiquitously present as a by-product in commercial pigment applications, particularly in printed materials,” the authors say in the draft of the new study.

Federal regulations “recognize that some products (e.g., pigments and dyes) contain inadvertently generated PCBs,” an Environmental Protection Agency spokespersons said.

These compounds can be excluded and aren’t regulated “as long as they are reported to EPA and the PCB concentrations do not exceed specified limits,” she said, adding that the EPA is looking into any potential risks from PCB-11.

The study’s lead researcher notes that while we still don’t know what effect there could be, if any, from PCB-11 exposure, the fact that it appears to be everywhere is a cause for concern.

That idea is echoed by Dr. David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany-SUNY.

“Everyone has ignored the lower chlorinated congeners, primarily because they are not persistent and are relatively easily metabolized in the human body,” he explained to Scientific American, adding that it’s a “very real and important issue.”

“If they are in the air and one breathes them in every day, there will be continuous exposure to what I suspect are very toxic substances,” he explained.

Meanwhile the paint industry is paying attention, says the vice president at the American Coatings Association, which represents paint manufacturers.

“We’ve been aware of it and we’ve alerted the pigment manufacturers, but as of right now, it’s an unavoidable byproduct in these pigments.”

You can follow MBQ on Twitter if you want, PCB-free: @marybethquirk

Yellow Pigments in Clothing and Paper Contain Long-Banned Chemical [Scientific American]

Big Banks Don’t Want To Be Transparent About Checking Fees If Little Banks Don’t Have To Be

Fri, 2014-02-21 17:11

(afagen)

(afagen)

If we were to play a word-association game with the nation’s largest banks, we’re sure that terms like “fair” and “equitable” would be right on the tip of peoples’ tongues. And because big banks always play fair with everyone else, they are asking that their checking-account fees not be put under the regulatory microscope if smaller banks’ fees aren’t going be subject to the same scrutiny.

Bloomberg reports that the banks are attempting to put up a fight against proposed regulations that would require banks to include detailed breakdowns of their revenue (about $30 billion a year) from fees on customers’ accounts in the public quarterly reports they file with the FDIC.

The banks’ argument? That it’s unfair because banks with assets under $1 billion are exempt from the reporting requirement.

And even though the total amount of fees taken in by big banks is significantly larger, small banks are more reliant on these fees.

The original regulation had indeed included smaller banks, but Bloomberg’s sources claim that the little institutions were able to put up enough of a fuss to get the FDIC and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency to agree to the $1 billion ceiling for exemptions.

But even then, the operators of mid-sized banking operations are calling for that exemption threshold to be increased to $10 billion.

“The information-gathering effort put forth in the notice represents the latest in a long line of new regulatory burdens faced by these institutions,” wrote a VP for the Independent Community Bankers of America trade group in a recent letter to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

One of the main goals of the new requirement was to provide the public and the CFPB with regular, detailed information about bank account fees. The Bureau maintains that having this data would allow it to better understand and regulate controversial issues like overdraft fees.

A CFPB report from last June found that the average consumer was spending some $225 a year on overdraft fees and that these fees alone accounted for 60% of banks’ fee-based revenues each year.

It’s the CFPB’s plan to use the data for analytical purposes that has the larger banks questioning whether the bureau has legal authority to change the requirements of the quarterly FDIC Call Reports.

Last year, trade groups for the nation’s biggest banks complained to the regulators that this data demand “would be a major diversion from the existing purposes of the Call Report.”

Another gripe with the small-bank exemption is that it eliminates almost 90% of all U.S. banks from the additional reporting requirement; a decision which one economist says “leaves a huge gap in the data.”

So the question remains as to whether or not it would still be valuable to have the data from the few larger banks if the many small banks are not included. Perhaps that’s why the CFPB says it is continuing to study the matter and may consider other regulations.

Regardless of the fate of this fee-transparency requirement, it seems like an inevitability that the CFPB will continue to push for continued reform on fee transparency, especially when it comes to overdrafting. And given how much banks could lose if customers were to opt out of overdraft protection en masse, expect financial institutions to keep fighting any new regulation.

Girl Scout Provides One-Stop Shopping By Selling Cookies Outside Medical Marijuana Clinic

Fri, 2014-02-21 17:00

(Triborough)

(Triborough)

Kids should always listen to their parents when they talk to them about drugs. And in the case of one 13-year-old Girl Scout who’s probably racking up cash for cookies, it’s a good thing she listened to her mother when she suggested she set up shop outside a San Francisco medical marijuana clinic this week.

Because the movies tell me that when people smoke “the reefer” they sometimes get a little hungry and want to “munch” on things, the idea of drumming up business where there will surely be many marijuana users is pretty darn smart.

The business savvy mom says that her two middle-school-aged daughters have sold Girl Scout cookies outside California medical marijuana dispensaries before, though this is the first time she’s helping with her 13-year-old’s stand outside this particular business.

She set up shop this week, reports Mashable, and the patients have been coming out in force: She sold 117 boxes of cookies outside the clinic just on President’s Day, which is about 37 more boxes than she sold during the same time period outside a Safeway the next day.

And for any naysayers out there railing against her parenting methods, the mom says she usually has her girls try selling cookies at different spots around San Francisco so they can learn about new areas while they peddle their wares. She adds that it’s a good way to start the conversation with her kids about drugs, and explain that some people use marijuana as medicine.

“You put it in terms that they may understand,” she says. “I’m not condoning it, I’m not saying go out in the streets and take marijuana [...] It also adds a little bit of cool factor. I can be a cool parent for a little bit.”

The dispensary is all for it and gave permission to the group as soon as the mom called to ask permission.

“It’s no secret that cannabis is a powerful appetite stimulant, so we knew this would be a very beneficial endeavor for the girls,” a staff member at the clinic told Mashable. “It’s all about location, and what better place to sell Girl Scout cookies than outside a medical cannabis collective?”

And lest any fellow Girl Scouts are wondering how these girls are getting away with it, the Girl Scouts of Northern California are totally fine with it.

“Girls are selling cookies, and they and their parents pick out places where they can make good sales,” the director of marketing and communications for Girl Scouts of Northern California explained. “The mom decided this was a place she was comfortable with her daughter being at.”

“We’re not telling people where they can and can’t go if it’s a legitimate business,” she added.

Funnily enough, it’s a different story in Colorado, where marijuana is legal for recreational use now as well. When a Photoshopped pic of three scouts selling cookies outside a medical marijuana clinic supposedly in Colorado surfaced, that state’s Girl Scout organization put the kibosh on the idea.

https://twitter.com/GSColo/statuses/433636022375567360

The Girl Scout and her mom will be back to selling Thin Mints outside the clinic tomorrow afternoon.

You can follow MBQ on Twitter if you don’t mind her wishing constantly that there were Girl Scout cookies outside her place of business too: @marybethquirk

A Savvy Girl Scout Is Selling Cookies at a Cannabis Clinic in San Francisco [Mashable]

Consumerist Friday Flickr Finds

Fri, 2014-02-21 16:47

Here are eight of the best photos that readers added to the Consumerist Flickr Pool in the last week, picked for usability in a Consumerist post or for just plain neatness.

(Eric Arnold Photography)

(Eric Arnold Photography)

(Atwater Village Newbie)

(Atwater Village Newbie)

(JoelZimmer)

(JoelZimmer)

(Mento)

(Mento)

(softlad - resting between engagements)

(softlad – resting between engagements)

(pamelainob)

(pamelainob)

protected by snow

(stellarviewer)

(JD Hancock)

(JD Hancock)

Our Flickr Pool is the place where Consumerist readers upload photos for possible use in future Consumerist posts. Want to see your pictures on our site? Just be a registered Flickr user, go here, and click “Join Group?” up on the top right. Choose your best photos, then click “send to group” on the individual images you want to add to the pool.

Early Birds Beware: Buying Tickets To Europe Too Far In Advance Could Cost You

Fri, 2014-02-21 16:36

(I_am_Allan)

(I_am_Allan)

Planning a trip abroad? We’ve always been told that buying airfare far in advance was the best way to snag a good deal, but what if we told you that you could purchase significantly lower airfare just two months before your trip? You’d think we’re crazy. But we’re not.

Some travelers have a tendency to book international tickets months and months in advance, but depending on where you’re going, waiting until a month or two before departure could score you the best price.

A new analysis of million of searches made by U.S. travelers on the travel website Kayak found that the average fare for a flight from the U.S. to Europe will vary by $256 from when a ticket is first offered to when the plane actually takes off, Quartz reports.

The cheapest flights from the U.S. to Europe were found just 53 days before departure. The best deal for a flight from the U.S. to Africa was found a mere 33 days before takeoff.

Not all international destinations are so welcoming of short lead times. According to Kayak, flights to South America were cheapest when booked 162 days before the date of departure. By comparison, if you buy those tickets to South America super-early (9-10 months in advance), expect to pay 20% more than you would have if you purchased them around the 5-6 month mark.

If you’re planning to travel to Asia the conventional wisdom of purchasing far in advance still holds true. The best deals on flights were found 270 days, or nine months, before departure.

But don’t wait too long to buy your tickets. Fares jumped significantly during the week of departure. Fares from the U.S. to Europe increase by 15% in the week before departure.

Here’s why you shouldn’t buy a US-to-Europe flight more than two months in advance [Quartz]

Colorado, Utah Propose 21 As Legal Age To Smoke; Florida Mulls E-Cig Ban For Minors

Fri, 2014-02-21 16:09
(NoNo Joe)

(NoNo Joe)

Following the lead of New York City’s former health cowboy — err, mayor Michael Bloomberg, two Western states changing how wild the West can be for anyone under 21: Colorado and Utah are both considering raising the legal age to smoke tobacco from 18 to 21. Meanwhile down in Florida, legislators are proposing banning e-cigarettes for minors

Both Colorado and Utah voted favorably on proposals yesterday to treat tobacco like alcohol, reports the Associated Press, in an effort motivated by new research about how early smokers start smoking.

“By raising the age limit, it puts them in a situation where they’re not going to pick it up until a much later age,” said one Utah resident who testified in favor of the idea there.

A similar show went down in Colorado, where testimony stated that it would make it harder for teens to get into the habit and then perhaps lead to fewer adults smoking.

“What I’m hoping to do is make it harder for kids to obtain cigarettes,” said Rep. Cheri Gerou, a Republican who sponsored the measure.

There are still more votes that will need to happen before either proposal becomes law. But this is a big move — they’d be the first states that have gone this far to cut down on smoking rates. New York City’s council voted last fall to up the smoking age to 21, but that is only a citywide rule.

FLORIDA TO BAN E-CIGS FOR MINORS?
Traveling back east and south to Florida, state lawmakers are making moves to keep electronic cigarettes out of teens’ hands. A Senate panel approved a proposal yesterday that wouldn’t allow anyone under 18 to buy the devices.

“We don’t allow minors to buy cigarettes,” Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, said, reports the Miami Herald. “We should certainly not allow minors to buy these products, as well.”

The bill has already done well in two other committees, winning unanimous support, so it could be among the first proposals heard on the Senate floor when the legislative session begins March 4.

Some municipalities have already outlawed the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, with Miami apparently headed that way as well.

“We became aware of the issue and felt we needed to start the discussion now, rather than waiting on the state,” Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez said. “Nicotine is an addictive substance.”

E-cigarettes are starting to earn a certain cachet among teens, apparently, perhaps partly because celebrities are often seen taking a toke off them. A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that the amount of middle and high school students using e-cigs had more than doubled in just one year, from 2011 to 2012.

“We think it’s time now that we drew the line in the sand, so children could not have access to those products and not develop those habits down the line,” Benacquisto said.

COLORADO, UTAH MOVE TO HIKE SMOKING AGE TO 21 [Associated Press]
Proposed Florida law would ban sale of e-cigarettes to minors [Miami Herald]

Famous Philly Eatery To Pay $8.5 Million For Short-Changing Servers’ Tips

Fri, 2014-02-21 14:38

candpMore than 1,200 current and former employees of a well-known bar/restaurant chain in Philadelphia are going to share in an $8.5 million settlement over allegations that the eatery’s owner illegally demanded servers’ tips and also failed to pay minimum wage and overtime to tipped employees.

Among some folks in the Philadelphia area, Chickie’s & Pete’s is a beloved spot to grab some beer and some crab fries while watching a game at the bar; there are even Chickie’s locations at Philly sporting venues and in the airport.

But for some of the people who worked at the chain in recent years, the behind-the-scenes pay issues left a bad taste in their mouths.

The Fair Labor Standards Act allows for restaurants and other businesses with tipped employees to pay the workers as little as $2.13/hour, so long as the tips they receive make up the difference between that lower wage and the $7.25/hour federal minimum wage.

Complaints from employees alleged that they were only paid $15 per shift, meaning they were making below #2.13/hour when a shift stretched beyond seven hours.

Tips are also legally the property of the employee who receives the money. The only case in which a tipped employee can possibly take home less than the amount given to them during a shift is when they are part of a legitimate, agreed-upon tip-sharing pool. In any case, non-tipped employees and management are never allowed to demand a portion of a server’s tips.

However, some Chickie’s workers claim they were required to pay the so-called “Pete’s Tax” of between 4-6% of total table sales. About 40% of that would be paid out to the restaurants’ bartenders, which may be okay under the law if the pool is agreed-upon in advance. But what wasn’t legal was that the remainder of the docked pay allegedly went into the pockets of management.

Making matters worse, this “tax” was expected to be paid at the end of each shift, regardless of whether the server had received enough cash tips to make the payment. Thus, says the Labor Dept., which investigated the allegations, some workers had to borrow cash or go to an ATM just to pay the money they should not have been required to turn over in the first place.

Investigators calculated that employees at the chain’s 12 locations lost out on a total of $4.5 million in just the 32 months leading up to Dec. 2012.

“These just weren’t violations,” explains a Labor Dept. rep. “This was part of [the] business model.”

In a statement that is presumably ignorant of the irony dripping from every syllable, the chain’s owner explains that he agreed to the $8.5 million settlement because “Our employees are the backbone of our company, and they deserve our respect and appreciation.”

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, $6.8 million of the total settlement will be split by 1,159 current and former employees to resolve the Labor Dept investigation. Another $1.68 million is going to settle federal lawsuits filed by about 90 Chickie’s workers.

The restaurant’s owners must also pay a $50,000 civil penalty. The settlement will not be finalized until a court signs off on it.

Chickie’s & Pete’s to pay $8.5M in short-tipping case [Philly.com]

UPDATE: DHL Did NOT Use Color-Changing Packages To Trick UPS Into Delivering Giant DHL Ads

Fri, 2014-02-21 13:13

UPDATE: We were correct to doubt the authenticity of this “prank.” A rep for DHL tells Consumerist that while the shipping company is aware of the video, DHL did not actually pull the prank or have anything to do with the actual production of the clip that has already been viewed more than 200,000 times on YouTube.

“This was not something that was initiated by DHL,” a rep for the company tells Consumerist in an e-mail. “The video was created by an external agency for their own internal competition. We were aware in advance of the intention to use it for this purpose. We were not aware of any plans to share it externally.”

—-Original Post —

Picture a McDonald’s employee seen in line at Taco Bell, or a Coca-Cola delivery driver quenching her thirst with a Mountain Dew. Now imagine those people were somehow tricked into those compromising situations. That’s the idea behind a viral video that may or may not have been produced by the package-shipping folks at DHL.

It’s a simple idea, really. Print a DHL ad on temperature-sensitive foil and wrap it around some very large boxes. Then chill those boxes down so the DHL ad vanishes and call up the competition to have those boxes delivered.

The above video shows drivers for DHL competitors like UPS and TNT trying to deliver huge yellow parcels that now clearly read “DHL is faster.”

Thing is, we’re not 100% sold on this video being authentic.

First, it’s currently not on the DHL YouTube channel, nor could we find any mention of the campaign in a DHL press release or in any of its official social media channels.

Second, the boxes don’t appear to have any shipping labels whatsoever on them. It’s possible that DHL affixed the shipping labels in just such a way as to not be visible on camera, but what about the labels that shipping companies tend to slap on the sides of boxes as they go through the routing process?

There is also the issue of the weight of the boxes. The video claims that the shipments were sent to addresses that are difficult to reach with such sizable parcels and shows delivery drivers struggling to cart these boxes up steps. But other shots show drivers easily carrying the boxes without the use of a cart. Why would a driver try to drag a box up steps on a dolly if it could be carried up by hand?

Then there is the incredibly convenient camera placement that just happens to have crystal clear footage at the precise time and location that the boxes are being delivered, including a hidden camera in an elevator and one shot where a box is coming off a truck at the exact moment that the black packaging fades to reveal the DHL message.

Finally, the deliveries in the video all appear to be occurring in DHL’s home country of Germany, but “DHL is faster” is printed in English on all the packages. Granted, many people in Germany speak English, but it strikes us as odd that DHL would choose to perform such carefully orchestrated and public stunt in a language that was a secondary or tertiary tongue for the people who witnessed it.

We’re not saying this can’t be the real deal — and we certainly hope it is, because it’s a pretty amusing prank. We’re just saying we have reason for doubt.

We’ve reached out to DHL’s media team to see if anyone there will confirm whether this is a legitimate prank or if it was staged. If we get any answer, we’ll let you know.

Why DirecTV and Dish Customers Should Care About Time Warner Cable/Comcast Deal

Fri, 2014-02-21 13:00

Comcast-TWCLogoWhile many cable subscribers around the country are dreading the impact that a merged Time Warner Cable and Comcast could have on pricing for TV and Internet service, some satellite customers have shrugged off the news. But a tie-up between the two largest terrestrial cable companies could have far-reaching consequences for all pay-TV subscribers.

In a conference call to discuss quarterly earnings yesterday, DirecTV CEO Mike White had some cautionary words about the pending marriage of Comcast and TWC.

“If the deal is approved as proposed, it clearly represents an unprecedented media concentration in one company,” explained White.

How exactly would that unprecedented concentration affect the satellite TV business?

CONTENT ACQUISITION
A combined Comcast/TWC would result in the largest subscriber base of any TV provider, giving the merged business the most leverage when it comes time to make deals with the networks and other content providers.

“A merged Comcast/TWC, with a large and growing cost advantage in content acquisition, will only make things harder” for DirecTV and Dish, industry analyst Craig Moffett said after yesterday’s remarks from White.

BUNDLED UP
While satellite subscribers can get Internet service through DirecTV and Dish, that service is ultimately coming from a third party; usually a satellite-based ISP or DSL service through local phone companies.

Thus, satellite customers often get their broadband connection through whichever terrestrial cable company services their areas. They also tend to pay more each month for their Internet than their neighbors who get both TV and Internet from the Comcasts and Time Warner Cables of the world.

As cord-cutting continues to proliferate, it only makes sense that cable operators will make an even bigger push to sell customers on TV/Internet bundles that keep them from fleeing.

Price hikes for Internet-only customers seem inevitable as doing so would help offset the revenue lost by cord-cutters. And with the lack of competition in the ISP marketplace, satellite customers may have no option but to pay more — or ditch the dish and switch to cable.

PRESSURE FOR FURTHER CONSOLIDATION
White said on Thursday that the Comcast/TWC deal “certainly creates some significant changes in the competitive landscape that we need to think hard about,” adding that DirecTV “will continue to look at options for how we could strengthen our company for the long term.”

Long before there was any talk of a Comcast/TWC merger, there were concerns about how Dish and DirecTV would ultimately fare in a world that is quickly transitioning away from traditional TV-viewing habits.

Yes, both Dish and DirecTV have substantial online content offerings, but they are not the one actually delivering that content to the end-user. As mentioned above, this content is coming through third-party ISPs. What will be the point of running a satellite TV service when we reach the point where most subscribers get their content online?

That’s why there is renewed chatter about the need/possibility of a merger between DirecTV and Dish, with some saying such a deal is necessary for the long-term survival of satellite TV.

The odds of such a merger being approved are lower than those facing the Comcast proposal, as it would leave only one major satellite provider in the U.S. and create a subscriber base that is many times larger than that of most large cable operators.

Dish is already a potential suitor for acquiring T-Mobile USA from Deutsche Telekom. It’s the kind of arrangement that could help both companies — or potentially sink them if mishandled.

WHAT’S NEXT?
Comcast plans to file its merger documents with the appropriate federal regulators by late March, kicking off antitrust and competition reviews by both the Justice Dept. and the FCC.

Stakeholders like DirecTV and Dish will certainly have their say during that process and Comcast will undoubtedly tweak its offer in ways designed to quell those concerns. The question is whether those concessions will be enough to allow the merger to be finalized.

DirecTV CEO Voices Opposition to Comcast-TWC Deal [WSJ.com]

DirecTV Urges Feds to Scrutinize Comcast-Time Warner Deal [TheStreet]

Comcast filings with regulators expected at end of March [Reuters]

This FTD Flower Arrangement Says, “My Love For You Is Gnarled And Dessicated”

Thu, 2014-02-20 23:40

John’s husband ordered flowers for him for Valentine’s Day, using a Groupon voucher for FTD.com. That’s what a loving but frugal spouse does, right? Only what showed up on John’s doorstep were really dead. No, not buds that hadn’t opened yet.

It shouldn’t be too much to expect to order red roses on Valentine’s Day and expect them to be, you know, alive.

Here’s what was on the Groupon page. We don’t know exactly what his husband ordered, but they were expecting something fresh and lovely like this to arrive.

Expectation

Here’s what John got.

dead_flowers

“I called FTD and they promised a re-delivery on Tuesday, 2/18,” John wrote to Consumerist. “I accepted, but was disappointed when my ‘replacement’ order came– It was only 4 roses and a small teddy bear, nothing like the bouquet I was ordered the first time.”

four_roses

It’s not as bad as it could be…well, assuming that John likes stuffed animals. FTD were supposed to deliver bouquet #3 today, but we haven’t heard back yet.

What leads to dashed expectations like this? As we learned last year, deals like this often end up costing your local florist money, even before they send multiple replacements. When you order from the national FTD site, the company takes a cut and then sends the order on to the local florist who actually arranges and drops it off for you.

You presumably have access to the Internet: that’s why we recommend going direct. We recommend calling up a nice local florist directly, or finding one online (being careful to avoid fake local florists.)

Everyone Hates Spirit Airlines, Keeps Buying Tickets Anyway

Thu, 2014-02-20 23:13

(afagen)

(afagen)

Spirit Airlines is one of the fastest-growing airlines in the country. No, really. Sure, they’re a regular contender in our Worst Company in America tournament, and it seems like everyone who has tried the airline complains about the experience. But many of them can’t resist their rock-bottom fares, and just keep coming back.

NPR’s Planet Money economics reporting team did all of the normal stuff that reporters do when writing about an airline: they researched the company, and visited its headquarters to interview delusional CEO Ben Baldanza. To get there, the reporters sought the full Spirit experience. They boarded a Spirit flight from New York City to Fort Lauderdale, Florida and talked to passengers and staff.

They found that there are really three kinds of passengers on Spirit: those who know exactly what they’re getting into and enjoy the no-frills experience, those who don’t and are horrified to learn that they need to pay to put items in the overhead bins, and the hate-flyers.

See, many Spirit passengers know exactly what they’re getting into, complain about it, and then come back anyway. Team Planet Money calls these customers hate-flyers. You know, like hate-reading: visiting a website or picking up a magazine again and again because it makes you so mad that you get a perverse joy out of it. That’s how many of Spirit’s passengers feel about “the dollar store of the skies.

Spirit Airlines Taps A Nation Of Hate Fliers [NPR]

Want Those Dairy Cows To Produce More Milk? Turn On Some Slow Jams To Set The Mood

Thu, 2014-02-20 23:00
(Darren Sethe)

(Darren Sethe)

First of all, I hope you all read that word in the headline as “mooed,” because, get it? Wordplay! Anyway, if you’re a dairy farmer this probably isn’t news to you, but for the rest of us out there with no cows to milk, it’s interesting to hear that a good way to get the cows producing is to play some soft, smooth, slow jams.

It’s not easy to relax in a noisy dairy, notes Modern Farmer at its lengthy look at the influence of music on milk cows that’s currently making the rounds on the Internet. Because of all that stressful noise, many farmers find that a great way to make happy cows and keep the oxtyocin flowing and milk pumping is to turn on some good music.

There have been studies on this kind of thing in the past, most notably a 2001 study by a pair of psychologists at the University of Leicester in England. They showed that slow music played at a large dairy farm increased cows’ milk production by 3%, in contrast to fast music which basically didn’t do anything.

But beyond the professional researchers, farmers themselves swear by their own music methods.

“In the days when there were tie stalls and stanchions, there was the discussion about how if you played music in your barn, you would increase milk production,” says one farmer who milks about 250 cows on her dairy farm in Minnesota. “At our farm you can always tell when the radio is not on because the cows are way more jumpy and less likely to come into the parlor.”

Others in the industry point out that slower and calmer is better. Some Barry White or Kenny G, perhaps?

“In terms of music, in my 30 years working with dairy cows, I have found that music can be beneficial to the well-being of the cows, but it must be consistent and calming,” says the executive vice president of a large dairy corporation centered in Boulder, Colorado. “If the music volume is kept constant and the style of music is consistent, and everything else in that parlor is well managed and maintained, music can have a positive effect on milk let down.”

Dairy farmers should unite to create a calming playlist for everyone to use — with songs like “Everybody Hurts” by REM and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” on the recommended list from the Leicester study, we’d like to think cows might like some updated fare as well. Adele does a great ballad, but let’s keep Miley Cyrus out of the parlors.

And definitely no Willie Nelson, says another farmer.

“Our cows will tolerate some country and western, but they do not like Willie Nelson,” she reports. Their milk production doesn’t drop, but The Redheaded Stranger just riles up the cows somehow.

Milking to Music [Modern Farmer]

5 Ways Couples Can Avoid Disastrous Money Mistakes

Thu, 2014-02-20 22:52
Some couples are just made of money. (mikemilton)

Some couples are just made of money. (mikemilton)

Dealing with finances is one of the least fun aspects of being an adult. Dealing with finances when you’re in a committed relationship is even less enjoyable. Of course you love your spouse, boyfriend/girlfriend, fiancé, or whatever, but you don’t have to love the way they handle money. Seamlessly transitioning to a ‘we’ financial situation doesn’t have to be full of mistakes or a completely painful situation.

There are several ways to ensure that your financial future with your sweetheart isn’t going to be full of doom and gloom. Kiplinger recently released a list of 9 mistakes couples make with money. Here are the ones we thought would be of interest to Consumerist readers…

1. Have the ‘money talk’ before marriage. No, you don’t need to browse each other’s credit reports on the first date, but earlier you talk about it the better. As we recently wrote in this guide on merging your money when you marry, communication truly is key.

2. Remember to amend your single-filer tax returns. Now that you’ve spent thousands of dollars on a wedding, how about a little gift from the federal government? To do so, make sure you change your single-filer tax returns. If you somehow forgot you were married, you can go back as far as 2010 to amend previous filings and watch those tax bills drop.

3. Keep a separate bank account. What’s your is mine, unless it’s a personal bank account. Each person should have their own account for their splurges and a joint account can be used for boring things like paying the mortgage.

4. Share in the fun (or burden) of managing household expenses. Both members of the relationship should take active roles, unless of course you like doing a thankless job alone. Of course knowing the ins and outs of your household finances is always a plus if/when your partner dies or you break-up.

5. Plan for your future, your kids can deal with their own. Ask yourself are those children going to provide for you when you’re retired and all the money you had planned to put in your 401(k) actually went to their college education? Forego the college account and save for retirement instead. After all, your kid can just get a student loan and deal with their own crippling debt, right?

Isn’t money fun when you’re in a couple? Remember, you love your significant other, not their money.

9 Money Mistakes Couples Make — And How to Avoid Them [Kiplinger]

Not Interested In Bikini Baristas? Maybe You’d Like Shirtless Men Instead

Thu, 2014-02-20 22:22
These baristas are both attractive and talented.

These baristas are both attractive and talented.

Sure, not everyone finds the idea appealing, but coffee shops and stands with scantily clad ladies behind the counter are a popular diversion and source of caffeine. Yeah, there are the occasional accusations of stripping and bringing new meaning to “bottomless cup of coffee,” but they’re not a big deal. They just aren’t terribly interesting unless you’re attracted to women. A new coffee stand in Spokane, Washington solves that problem.

As communities fight over bikini coffee stands that some people say push the boundaries of decency, this stand quietly opened last week and began to draw a lot of repeat business. “Most of the customers that come here anyway are women,” the owner explained to the Spokesman-Review. “Really I haven’t had a lot of male reaction.” Men do have an incentive to stop by: they receive a $1 discount on their coffee.

Hot Cup of Joe has an incredibly appropriate name, and opened on Friday. We just learned about the business from Foodbeast, and checked out some of its promotional pictures on Facebook. We can’t really get behind all of their serving suggestions.

Um.

Um.

No G-strings and pasties at Hot Cup of Joe, though. The owner says that they’re going to remain a classy topless coffee stand. The baristas may eventually leave their jeans behind and serve up coffee in what the owner calls “cute, classy underwear.”

New Spokane coffee stand to feature shirtless men [Review-Spokesman]

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