Current Events in June 2015

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    Shirk's Meat recalls pork and beef products

    The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

    Shirk’s Meat of Dundee, N.Y., is recalling approximately 2,478 pounds of pork and beef products.

    The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

    Some products may be frozen and in consumers' freezers.

    Ready-to-eat products should be reheated to 145 degrees with a 3 minute rest time.

    The following pork and beef items, produced between April 1, 2015, and May 12, 2015, are being recalled:

    • 2-lb. vacuum sealed packages of “Smoked Ham End Roast Prepared for Seven Bridges Farm” with a use by/sell by date of April 7, 2016.
    • 2-lb vacuum sealed packages of “Smoked Ham Center Cut Slices Prepared for Seven Bridges Farm” with a use by/sell by date of April 7, 2016.
    • 1-lb. vacuum package of “Beef Mild Snack Stix” with a use by/sell by date of May 8, 2015.
    • 1-lb. vacuum package of “Pork Mild Snack Stix” with a use by/sell by date of May 8, 2015.
    • 1-lb. vacuum package of “Beef Hot Snack Stix” with a use by/sell by date of May 8, 2015.
    • 1-lb. vacuum package of “Pork Mild Snack Stix” with a use by/sell by date of May 8, 2015.
    • 30-lb. bag of “Smoked Pork Andouille Sausage Prepared for Perfectly Pickled Products” with a use by/sell by date of May 9, 2015.
    • 1-lb. package of “Pork and Beef Hotdogs” with a use by/sell by date of April 15, 2016.
    • 10-lb packages of “Pork and Beef Hotdogs” with a use by/sell by date of April 24, 2016.
    • 1-lb vacuum sealed bag of “Pork Beef Hotdogs,” with use by/sell by dates of May 04, 2016.
    • 10-lb vacuum sealed bag of “Pork Beef Hotdogs” with a use by/sell by date of May 4, 2016.
    • 1-lb vacuum package of “Pork Beef Hotdogs Prepared for Triangle T Ranch” with a use by/sell by date of May 4, 2016.
    • 1-lb package of “Seven Bridges Farm Pork Mild Snack Stix” with a use by/sell by date of April 1, 2016.
    • 12 to 14-lb bucket of “Lard/Pork Fat” with a use by/sell by date of June 13, 2015.
    • 9 to 12-oz vacuum sealed bag of “Smoked Sausage with Cheese” with a use by sell/by date of June 6, 2015.
    • Random weights of “Smoked Whole Hams” with a use by/sell by date of June 13, 2015.
    • 12 to 16-oz vacuum package of “Smoked Pork Chops” with a use by/sell by date of April 16, 2016.
    • 1-lb vacuum sealed bag of “Smoked Ham Hocks” with a use by/sell by date of April 16, 2016.
    • Random weights of whole vacuum sealed “Smoked Whole Ham” with a use by/sell by date of April 23, 2016.
    • 1-lb package of “Beef Sweet Bologna” with a use by/sell by date of May 30, 2015.
    • 1-lb package of “Cooked Picnic Roll” with a use by/sell by date of May 30, 2015.
    • 2-lb package of “Smoked Ham Center Cut Slices” with a use by/sell by date of April 29, 2016.
    • 2-lb package of “Smoked Ham End Roast” with a use by/sell by date of April 29, 2016.
    • 1-lb package of “Smoked Ham Hocks” with a use by/sell by date of May 1, 2016.
    • 12 to 16-oz vacuum sealed package of “Smoked Pork Kielbasa Prepared for Triangle T Ranch” with a use by/sell by date of May 1, 2016.
    • 6 to 8-oz vacuum sealed bag of “Beef Mild Snack Stix” use by/sell by date of June 15, 2015. This product does not bare the FSIS mark of inspection.
    • 6 to 8-oz vacuum sealed bag of “Beef Hot Snack Stix” use by/sell by date of June 15, 2015. This product does not bare the FSIS mark of inspection.
    • 6 to 8-oz vacuum sealed bag of “Pork Milk Snack Stix” use by/sell by date of June 15, 2015. This product does not bare the FSIS mark of inspection.
    • 6 to 8-oz of vacuum sealed bag of “Pork Hot Snack Stix” use by/sell by date of June 15, 2015. This product does not bare the FSIS mark of inspection.

    The recalled products bear the establishment number “EST. 18894” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and were shipped to a various retail locations in New York.

    Consumers with questions regarding the recall may contact Naomi Shirk at (607) 243-5581.

    Shirk’s Meat of Dundee, N.Y., is recalling approximately 2,478 pounds of pork and beef products. The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytoge...

    Business names on Facebook? Punctuation makes it a scam. Period.

    Like-farming scammers use added punctuation to squat on company names

    If you spend enough time on Facebook, you're pretty much guaranteed to see lots of posts from “like-farming” scam pages.

    Like-farmers start pages and fill them with content dedicated to collecting as many “likes” or “shares” as possible in the shortest amount of time, in order to drive up the page's popularity ranking. Once it's high enough, the like-farmer removes the original page content and replaces it with anything from scam advertising to dangerous malware infections.

    Anytime you see a Facebook post with such phrases as “Like and share if you agree!” or “Like and share to win a valuable prize!” it's almost certain to be from a like-farmer seeking to drive up his popularity rank.

    Many like-farms take the names of legitimate businesses, but alter them slightly. If you see a company Facebook page with the company's own name misspelled, it's a safe bet you're looking at a scam page. For example, there are two Disney-branded theme parks in the United States — a California park with the one-word name “Disneyland,” and a Florida park whose full name has three words: “Walt Disney World.”

    So when you see Facebook pages with such names as “Disney Land” or “Disney World” or “Walt Disney Land,” you can dismiss them as fake pages without even inspecting their content.

    Problem is, this particular scam-detection method only works if you already know the full, exact, trademarked name of a given business well enough to recognize a fake (and there are lots of non-Disney employees who understandably can't be bothered to keep track of the differences between Disneyland, Disney Land, Walt Disney Land, Walt Disney World, Disney World, and so forth).

    Even easier

    But there's an easier way to detect a scammy Facebook business page that requires no “name knowledge” at all: look at the page's business name to see if there's any punctuation. If there is, it's probably a scam.

    Last month, we warned you about a then-new like-farming scam falsely promising the chance to win Disney theme park tickets and thousands of dollars cash spending money for anyone who “liked” and “shared” a particular Facebook post.

    That scammy like-farming Facebook page went by the name “Disney World.” — with a period at the end of the name. Of course, the incorrect name and the unnecessary punctuation weren't the only signs indicating a scam page: the real Walt Disney World Facebook page is identified as a “Theme Park” in its cover banner, whereas the “Disney World.” like-farming page (which, at press time, hasn't been updated since that May 14 like-farming fertilizer promising bundles of cash and “all paid for Disney World Vacation[s]” to 75 lucky winners) identifies as a “Transport/Freight” company in its banner.

    Most obvious of all, the real Walt Disney World Facebook page is entirely filled with various forms of pro-Disney advertising: videos, photos and articles all hammering home the message “Look how much fun you could have, if you spent money here at Walt Disney World!” But like-farming pages only have posts offering valuable prizes if you like and share their content.

    A current search for Facebook pages going by the name “Disney World.” (two words followed by a period) shows over half a dozen different like-farms currently in operation: in addition to the “Transport/freight” page, there's “Disney World.” with a “Computers/Technology” banner, offering $5,000 cash plus Disney park tickets if you “like” and “share” their most recent post; “Disney World.” in the “Engineering/Construction” business offering $2,500 plus Disney tickets if you like and share; a Disney World-plus-period “University” (offering tickets plus $3,500); a “Food/Beverages” company (tickets and $2,000); a “Travel/Leisure” group (tix plus $5,000) and a “Community Organization” (ditto).

    You'll find similarly scammy offers on Disney-name variants such as “Disney-World.” (note the period and the hyphen).

    There's also such oddities as the “Walt Disney Land” page with a “Local business” banner which, as of June 18, has some fairly impressive statistics (27K people “like” this) and a page history dating back to 2010. Yet there's not a single post visible on that page, anywhere.

    How does a Facebook page collect over 27,000 “likes” without posting any content?

    It doesn't. What's happening is the “like farmer” has already stripped whatever posts he used to collect likes and shares – almost certainly posts promising the chance to win valuable prizes.

    Of course, Disney isn't the only company whose theme parks are used as like-farming bait. Six Flags is another whose legitimate Facebook page has many poorly punctuated like-farming doppelgangers.

    “Six Flags.” with a period includes a “Government Organization” whose most recent post, from January, offered the chance to win Six Flags tickets and $2,500 cash if you “Just Share & Like this photo. (Comment to double chances).”

    A particularly lazy like-farmer must've been behind “Six Flags.” the “Community” page, whose most recent post, offering Six Flags season tickets and VIP perks, dates back to September 2013. Equally out-of-date are the pages belonging to “Six Flag's Vacation's” whose banner photo identifies them as a “Fictional Character,” and “Six Flag's Vacations” the “Community.”

    But in all such cases, the incorrect name or unnecessary punctuation was only the first of many signs that these are scammy like-farming pages; the main clue is the content. With any post you see on Facebook, remember that if you see such phrases as “Like and share if you agree!” or “Like and share to win a valuable prize!” there's almost certain to be a like-farmer behind the post.

    If you spend enough time on Facebook, you're pretty much guaranteed to see lots of posts from “like-farming” scam pages. Like-farmers start pages and fi...

    600 million Samsung Galaxy devices vulnerable to hackers

    Security flaw discovered seven months ago, sitll not patched

    Samsung Galaxy owners beware: Researchers at a cybersecurity firm discovered that every Galaxy device from the S3 through the S6 contains a massive security vulnerability in its keyboard software that hackers could easily exploit in order to spy on you.

    Researchers at the security firm NowSecure say they discovered the flaw and first told Samsung about it in November, and went going public with the information this week, seven months later, only because Samsung has continued to not-address the issue.

    As NowSecure posted on its security blog:

    A remote attacker capable of controlling a user’s network traffic can manipulate the keyboard update mechanism on Samsung phones and execute code as a privileged (system) user on the target’s phone. This can be exploited in a a manner that requires no user interaction — a user does not have to explicitly choose to download a languagePack update to be exploited.

    The Swift keyboard comes pre-installed on Samsung devices and cannot be disabled or uninstalled. Even when it is not used as the default keyboard, it can still be exploited. It's estimated that 600 million Samsung Galaxy devices are at risk.

    So this security vulnerability is in a program that comes pre-installed on every Samsung Galaxy device, cannot be un-installed, and leaves you vulnerable even if you never use it.

    Exploit in action

    NowSecure also posted a YouTube video showing the exploit in action, and pointed out: “It can be seen that no user interaction is required other than connecting to a network, opening the keyboard, and rebooting the device.”

    NowSecure's CEO, Andrew Hoog, said that on a 10-point rating scale, with 10 being the worst possibly cybersecurity vulnerability, this one rates about 8.3.

    Hackers would definitely be able to take advantage of this exploit to hijack a mobile device connected to an insecure or public wi-fi network, but researchers say users also might be vulnerable even when they're on cell phone networks.

    Ordinary Samsung Galaxy owners aren't the only ones at risk here, of course; last autumn the National Security Agency officially approved Samsung Knox devices for official government use.

    Samsung, for its part, released a statement to reporters saying that it “takes emerging security threats very seriously... and [is] committed to providing the latest in mobile security,” and of course intends to patch the hole in its mobile device security very soon now.

    Samsung Galaxy owners beware: Researchers at a cybersecurity firm discovered that every Galaxy device from the S3 through the S6 contains a massive securit...

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      Medical debt collector hit with hefty penalty

      The company prevented consumers from exercising debt collection rights

      Syndicated Office Systems is being ordered by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to provide over $5.4 million in relief to harmed consumers, correct its business practices, and pay a $500,000 penalty for causing consumers “distress and confusion.”

      “Syndicated Office Systems mistreated consumers and prevented them from exercising critical debt collection rights,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “These violations are particularly egregious given the challenges many consumers already face who are attempting to navigate the medical debt maze.”

      High consumer impact

      The company, which does business as Central Financial Control, is a debt collection agency that primarily collects medical debt on behalf of hospitals, doctors and other healthcare providers. It's an indirect subsidiary of Conifer Health Solutions, which provides billing and other services to more than 600 hospitals nationwide.

      Tenet Healthcare Corporation, a publicly traded healthcare services company based in Dallas, Texas, is the parent company of Conifer Health Solutions.

      Companies that collect medical debt and supply this information to credit reporting agencies have a significant impact on consumers’ credit scores. More than 43 million consumers have medical debt adversely affecting their credit reports, and more than half of all overdue debt on consumer credit reports is from medical debt.

      A recent CFPB report found that the complex processes by which medical bills are incurred, collected by a wide range of debt collectors, and reported to credit reporting agencies can create unique challenges for consumers. The agency also found that medical debt can overly penalize consumer credit scores.

      A CFPB investigation revealed that Syndicated Office Systems failed to send debt validation notices to thousands of consumers. It also found that the company mishandled consumer credit reporting disputes by failing to investigate and respond to consumers within the 30-day timeframe required under the law. Because the company furnishes information related to past-due medical debt, the information consumers seek to dispute or validate has the potential to lower credit scores.

      The CFPB order charges the company with violating the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and the Fair Credit Reporting Act. The violations specifically include:

      • Mishandling consumer credit reporting disputes
      • Preventing consumers from exercising important debt collection rights

      Together, these violations had the potential to harm thousands of consumers and in some cases, negatively impact their credit scores, the CFPB said, which can hinder consumers’ ability to obtain credit or increase the rates they may pay for credit.

      In some cases, the company reported inaccurate information to the credit reporting agencies and then failed to provide a timely response to consumer disputes about the errors. Some consumers may also have been able to avoid negative information on their credit reports if they had known about their right to assess and dispute the debt in question.

      Enforcement action

      To address these violations, the CFPB consent order requires Syndicated Office Systems to take the following actions:

      • Provide over $5 million in relief to harmed consumers
      • End illegal credit reporting and debt collection practices
      • Establish consumer safeguards
      • Pay a civil monetary penalty of $500,000

      Syndicated Office Systems is being ordered by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to provide over $5.4 million in relief to harmed consumers, c...

      Feds enlist international help against sales of unapproved drugs

      But consumers may be buying them because of sky-high U.S. drug prices

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has enlisted a number of international partners to help with its campaign against unapproved and counterfeit drugs.

      This week the FDA took action against against more than 1,050 websites, many based in other countries, that it says illegally sell potentially dangerous, unapproved prescription medicines and medical devices to U.S. consumers.

      These actions include a wide range of measures, from regulatory warnings to the operators of offending websites to the actual seizure of illegal medicines and medical devices worldwide.

      It was all part of the Eighth Annual International Internet Week of Action (IIWA), a global cooperative effort, led by INTERPOL.

      400 warning letters

      The international effort, called Operation Pangea VIII, resulted in warning letters to nearly 400 websites selling either unapproved or misbranded prescription medication. Nine other firms were warned about distributing unapproved or uncleared medical devices online.

      Working with other federal agencies, FDA inspectors screened and seized suspected illegal drug products and medical devices moving through International Mail Facilities (IMFs) in Chicago, Miami and New York. They flagged 814 parcels this week for further screening.

      The FDA says there is a distinct pattern to the illegal drugs being sold to U.S. consumers. Many claim to be FDA-approved generic versions of brand name drugs and include “Generic Nolvadex,” “Generic Meridia,” “Generic Valium,” “Generic Truvada” and “Generic Advair Diskus.”

      The appeal to consumers

      Why would U.S. consumers risk breaking the law by purchasing these drugs online? Perhaps they don't realize it is illegal or that the drugs might be unapproved knock-offs or out-and-out fakes.

      It's also possible they turn to shadowy Internet salesmen because the drugs they need are either hard to find in the U.S. or prohibitively expensive.

      For example, Nolvadex is used to treat breast cancer that has spread to other parts of the body, to treat breast cancer in certain patients after surgery and radiation therapy and to reduce the chances of breast cancer in high-risk patients. Truvada is used in the treatment of HIV.

      Specialized drugs

      Patients with chronic and specialized diseases routinely face huge costs for the drugs used to treat their conditions. People with multiple sclerosis (MS) provide a case in point.

      On Thursday a federal court invalidated a patent, clearing the way for the sale of a generic form of Copaxone, a common drug in the treatment of MS. However, The New York Timesreports the new generic version of Copaxone will still cost around $63,000 a year.

      But that's a bargain, compared to Sovaldi, a specialty drug used to treat hepatitis C. According to AARP, a 3 month supply will run about $84,000.

      Little wonder, then, that U.S. consumers look elsewhere, even to unknown and unreliable online dealers. The FDA that's not a real solution.

      That's because there is no way to know if the drugs you are purchasing contain dangerous ingredients or are anything more than placebo. In addition to health risks, the FDA says illegal online pharmacies and illegal online medical device retailers pose other risks to consumers, including credit card fraud, identity theft and computer viruses.

      The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has enlisted a number of international partners to help with its campaign against unapproved and counterfeit dr...

      Southeast Toyota Distributors recalls Tundras with tire pressure information issue

      The tire placcard incorrectly states the recommended cold tire inflation pressure

      Southeast Toyota Distributors (SET) is recalling 144 model year 2015 Toyota Tundras manufactured March 11, 2015, to April 11, 2015 and equipped with Nitto Terra Grappler G2 275/60R20 116S XL tires.

      The recalled vehicles have a tire placard that incorrectly states the recommended cold tire inflation pressure. If the operator inflates the tires according to the information on the tire placard, the tires may be underinflated, increasing the risk of tire failure which could result in a crash.

      SET will notify owners, and dealers will install a new tire placard with the correct cold tire inflation pressure information, free of charge. The recall is expected to begin July 14, 2015.

      Owners may contact SET customer service at 1-866-405-4226. SET's number for this recall is SET15C.

      Southeast Toyota Distributors (SET) is recalling 144 model year 2015 Toyota Tundras manufactured March 11, 2015, to April 11, 2015 and equipped with Nitto ...

      FCC beefs up consumer protections against robocalls, auto-dialers and spam texts

      Telephone companies freed to use robocall-blocking technology

      That constantly ringing telephone may finally fall silent for at least a few minutes. The Federal Communications Commission has adopted new rules intended to protect consumers against unwanted robocalls and spam texts, affirming that consumers have a right to control the calls they receive.

      The Commission also made clear that telephone companies face no legal barriers to allowing consumers to choose to use robocall-blocking technology, something consumer groups have been seeking for a long time.

       “We are especially pleased that the FCC has provided a “Green Light for ‘Do Not Disturb’ Technology,” which will enable wireless and landline carriers to offer robocall-blocking technologies to consumers, noted Delara Derakhshani, counsel with Consumers Union.

      The rulings are the result of thousands of consumer complaints about robocalls that have been pouring into the FCC every month. Complaints related to unwanted calls are the largest category of complaints received by the Commission, numbering more than 215,000 in 2014.

      “We applaud the FCC for holding the line to keep the plague of unwanted robocalls from becoming even worse,” added Susan Grant, director of Consumer Protection and Privacy at Consumer Federation of America. “Since the FCC has now clarified that telephone companies can block these types of calls, we expect the companies to act quickly to implement blocking options for their customers.” 

      Today’s action addresses almost two dozen petitions and other requests that sought clarity on how the Commission interprets the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), closing loopholes and strengthening consumer protections already on the books.

      The TCPA requires prior express consent for non-emergency autodialed, prerecorded, or artificial voice calls to wireless phone numbers, as well as for prerecorded telemarketing calls to residential wireline numbers.

      Landline and wireless protections

      Highlights for consumers who use either landline or wireless phones include:

      Green Light for ‘Do Not Disturb’ Technology – Service providers can offer robocall-blocking technologies to consumers and implement market-based solutions that consumers can use to stop unwanted robocalls.

      Empowering Consumers to Say ‘Stop’ – Consumers have the right to revoke their consent to receive robocalls and robotexts in any reasonable way at any time.

      Reassigned Numbers Aren’t Loopholes – If a phone number has been reassigned, companies must stop calling the number after one call.

      Third-Party Consent – A consumer whose name is in the contacts list of an acquaintance’s phone does not consent to receive robocalls from third-party applications downloaded by the acquaintance.

      Wireless protections

      Additional highlights for wireless consumers include:

      Affirming the Law’s Definition of Autodialer – “Autodialer” is defined as any technology with the capacity to dial random or sequential numbers. This definition ensures that robocallers cannot skirt consumer consent requirements through changes in calling technology design or by calling from a list of numbers.

      Text Messages as Calls – The Commission reaffirmed that consumers are entitled to the same consent-based protections for texts as they are for voice calls to wireless numbers.

      Internet-to-Phone Text Messages – Equipment used to send Internet-to-phone text messages is an autodialer, so the caller must have consumer consent before calling.

      Very Limited and Specific Exemptions for Urgent Circumstances – Free calls or texts to alert consumers to possible fraud on their bank accounts or remind them of important medication refills, among other financial alerts or healthcare messages, are allowed without prior consent, but other types of financial or healthcare calls, such as marketing or debt collection calls, are not allowed under these limited and very specific exemptions. Also, consumers have the right to opt out from these permitted calls and texts at any time.

      Today’s actions make no changes to the Do-Not-Call Registry, which restricts unwanted telemarketing calls, but are intended to build on the registry’s effectiveness by closing loopholes and ensuring that consumers are fully protected from unwanted calls, including those not covered by the registry.

      That constantly ringing telephone may finally fall silent for at least a few minutes. The Federal Communications Commission has adopted new rules intended ...

      Should you worry if Greece defaults?

      In a global economy it's hard to measure the potential impact

      If you happen to be a consumer living in Greece, you probably spend a lot of time wondering what a default by the government on its massive debt means to you. If you're a U.S. consumer, probably not so much.

      In Greece, consumers have been lining up at ATMs to get cash out of the bank while the government and the rest of the European Union try to reach some kind of terms.

      In case you haven't been following the Greek drama, the country has been teetering for months, finding it increasingly difficult to repay the bondholders who have been lending the government money for years.

      Standoff

      Creditors have demanded the Greek government cut social programs and live more within its means as a condition for further aid. But in the last election, Greek voters elected a government that pledged not to give in to demands for austerity. So a standoff has ensued.

      If Greece ends up stiffing its bond holders, it will almost certainly leave the EU and stop using the euro. For Europe, and especially for Greece, things will be fairly chaotic for a while.

      But what about in the U.S.? What will a Greek default mean here? No one really knows for sure.

      Uncertainty

      While it is known that Greece owes billions in debt, it isn't precisely known to whom it owes the money. When it comes to markets and economies, uncertainty is a dangerous thing.

      U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew was before the House Financial Services Committee Wednesday, warning lawmakers that a Greek default could destabilize the U.S. financial system. That kind of warning hasn't been heard in Washington since 2008, when the subprime mortgage collapse threatened to bring down the banking system.

      Lew told lawmakers Americans shouldn't be complacent about what is happening half-way round the world.

      "In today's globally integrated financial markets, foreign shocks have the potential to disrupt financial stability in the United States," Lew told lawmakers.

      Ripple effect

      Unfortunately, U.S. banks don't have to hold Greek debt in order to be affected. U.S. banks could hold European bank debt and it could be the European banks that hold the Greek bonds. If that is the case, the ripple effect would surely reach American shores.

      There are only two weeks left to work out a deal between the Greek government and its extensive list of creditors. After that the International Monetary Fund bailout program expires and Greece will be essentially broke.

      CNBC “Mad Money” host Jim Cramer thinks the U.S. stock market would take a one- or two-day hit in the event of a Greek default, but the real impact, he says, will fall in Europe.

      Crammer says the European Central Bank may have to step up with new massive amouns of aid, just to keep Greece from starving and its population fleeing to other European nations, placing a massive burden on those countries' resources.

      If you happen to be a consumer living in Greece, you probably spend a lot of time wondering what a default by the government on its massive debt means to y...

      Safety groups raise alarm over cellphone 'deadwalkers'

      Injuries mounting because people aren't paying attention

      Perhaps there is no better sign of the times in which we live than a policy change at a Utah college.

      Officials at Utah Valley University (UVU) divided the stairway in the Student Life & Wellness Center into three lanes – one for walking, one for running and the third for texting. Students who want to check their phones while walking have their own lane, so they won't hurt themselves or others because they aren't paying attention.

      “When you have 18- to 24-year-olds walking on campus glued to their smartphones, you’re almost bound to run into someone somewhere; it’s the nature of the world we live in,” said Matt Bambrough, UVU’s creative director.

      Bambrough said adding the lane was not done with serious intent. He said it was actually an attempt at humor rather than a real attempt to direct traffic flow. But there are plenty of people who think people who are walking while distracted by their smartphones is serious business.

      Epidemic of fractures

      The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) says distracted "deadwalkers" are causing an epidemic of fractures and other orthopaedic injuries. The groups says more and more pedestrians fall down stairs, trip over curbs or other objects, and in many instances, step into traffic, causing serious injury, and even death, each year, prompting the creation of a public service campaign (below).

      "We know that the number of injuries to pedestrians using their phones has nearly tripled since 2004, and surveys have shown that 60% of pedestrians are distracted by other activities while walking," said Alan Hilibrand, MD, chair of the AAOS Communications Cabinet.

      Significant safety threat

      In fact, distracted walking injuries involving cell phones accounted for an estimated 11,101 injuries between 2000 and 2011 according to the National Safety Council, making it a significant safety threat. Most of these injuries, the group says, actually occur at home – not on a public sidewalk.

      "Whether we are in the car or on foot, it is important to be aware of our surroundings, even if they are familiar," said Deborah Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council. "More than half of all unintentional injuries each year happen at home, so don't take your safety for granted. No call, text or update is worth an injury."

      Statistics show distracted walking injuries involving cellphones were most common among women and those ages 40 and younger, but the recent study found older adults are contributing to the danger as well. Twenty-one percent of those injured in these accidents were 71or older.

      Despite the perception that texting while walking poses the biggest threat, talking on the phone accounted for 62% of injuries, the most common of which were dislocation or fracture, sprains or strains and concussions. In nearly 80% of these incidents, the injuries were were caused by a fall.

      The problem posed by both distracted driving and walking may have something to do with the sudden explosion in mobile devices. The National Safety Council points out there has been an 8-fold increase in mobile phone use in the last 15 years.

      Consumers adopted and began using these devices faster than society could come up with rules and established behavior governing their use.

      Perhaps there is no better sign of the times in which we live than a policy change at a Utah college. Officials at Utah Valley University (UVU) divided ...

      IIHS rates LATCH hardware in vehicles for ease-of-use

      Most vehicles are sorely lacking; BMW, Mercedes, VW models earn good rating

      Of the more than 100 vehicles evaluated by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), only three have child restraint installation hardware that earns a good rating for ease of use. More than half have hardware that is poor or marginal.

      LATCH, which stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children, is intended to make it easier to install a child seat properly. Child restraints installed with LATCH, rather than with vehicle safety belts, are more likely to be installed correctly, research has shown.

      The Institute's new LATCH ratings will serve as a resource for families looking for a vehicle that makes it easy to transport their children safely. They also are intended to encourage vehicle manufacturers to pay attention to this equipment and make improvements.

      Greater protection offered

      Properly installed, age-appropriate child restraints provide considerably more protection for children in crashes than safety belts alone. However, observational studies have found that parents and caregivers often fail to secure them tightly or make other installation mistakes.

      But in many vehicles, LATCH hardware could be better. Parents are more likely to install the seat correctly when the LATCH hardware meets certain key ease-of-use criteria.

      "LATCH is meant to simplify child seat installations, but it doesn't always succeed," said Jessica Jermakian, an IIHS senior research scientist. "Parents often struggle to locate the anchors in the vehicle or find it’s difficult to attach the seats to them. We believe fixing these problems will make the task less frustrating for parents and increase the likelihood that children will ride in properly installed seats.”

      Good LATCH defined

      LATCH has been required in vehicles and on child restraints since 2002. In a vehicle, the lower anchors are located where the seatback meets the bottom seat cushion, an area known as the seat bight. Attachments at the bottom of the child restraint connect to these. The top tether connects the top of the child seat to an anchor located on the vehicle's rear shelf, seatback, floor, cargo area or ceiling.

      Child restraints can be installed with lower anchors or safety belts. A top tether should be used with every forward-facing child restraint, whether it is secured using the safety belt or using the lower anchors.

      In the new ratings system, vehicle LATCH hardware is rated good if it meets the following criteria:

      • The lower anchors are no more than 3/4-inch deep in the seat bight.
      • The lower anchors are easy to maneuver around. This is defined as having a clearance angle greater than 54%.
      • The force required to attach a standardized tool to the lower anchors is less than 40 pounds. (The tool
      • represents a lower connector of a child seat, though the actual force required when installing a seat varies depending on the specific connector.)
      • Tether anchors are on the vehicle's rear deck or on the top 85% of the seatback. They shouldn't be at the very bottom of the seatback, under the seat, on the ceiling or on the floor.
      • The area where the tether anchor is found doesn't have any other hardware that could be confused for the tether anchor. If other hardware is present, then the tether anchor must have a clear label located within 3 inches of it.

      Under federal regulations, most vehicles must have at least two rear seating positions with full LATCH hardware and a third with at least a tether anchor. The IIHS ratings are based on the best two LATCH positions available in the vehicle's second row.

      To earn a good rating, two LATCH positions must meet all 5 criteria, and a third tether anchor also must be easy to use. For an acceptable rating, 2 LATCH positions must each meet at least 2 of the 3 requirements for lower anchors and at least 1 of the 2 tether anchor requirements. If either position meets neither of the tether anchor requirements or meets only one of the lower anchor requirements, then the vehicle is marginal. If even fewer criteria are met, the vehicle is poor.

      The ratings measure ease of use only. A correct installation in a vehicle with poor LATCH is just as safe as a correct installation in a vehicle with good LATCH. The same is true for an installation with a vehicle safety belt: If it's done correctly -- including attaching the tether in the case of a forward-facing restraint -- the child will be just as safe as with an installation using lower anchors.

      How vehicles rate

      Of 102 current models that IIHS has rated for LATCH, the three good ones are the BMW 5 series, a large luxury car; the Mercedes-Benz GL-Class, a large SUV; and the Volkswagen Passat, a midsize car. Of the rest, 44 are acceptable, 45 are marginal, and 10 are poor.

      The poor-rated vehicles run the gamut of vehicle types from minicars to large pickups. Most glaring is the Toyota Sienna. As a minivan, it's commonly bought to ferry children.

      The online ratings information helps consumers understand exactly why a vehicle gets the rating it does. A diagram for each vehicle shows the location of all LATCH-equipped seating positions and which criteria those positions meet and which they miss. The location of extra tether anchors, for use with restraints attached with vehicle safety belts, is also shown.

      In some cases, center seating positions don't have their own lower anchors, but manufacturers allow anchors to be "borrowed" from adjacent positions. The rating diagrams show when such borrowing is allowed by the vehicle manufacturer. (Some child restraint manufacturers advise against using borrowed anchors; consumers should check the restraint manual.)

      "Even if you're not in the market for a new vehicle, our ratings can be a helpful source of information about a vehicle you already own," Jermakian says. "We're essentially providing you with a map of where child seats can be installed most easily in your vehicle, including the specific hardware available for each seating position."

      Seating configurations and LATCH hardware can vary depending on the trim level or type of seats. The rating details indicate which specific vehicle was measured.

      Good+ to reward greater flexibility

      The Institute plans to award extra credit to vehicles with good-rated LATCH that also provide parents with additional LATCH options beyond the two required seating positions. In particular, the "good+" rating would encourage the availability of LATCH in the second-row center position, the safest place for children to travel. Currently, no vehicles qualify for good+.

      A 2-row vehicle that meets the criteria for a good rating and also has acceptable or good LATCH in the center will be rated good+. The center LATCH position may use either dedicated anchors or borrowed anchors.

      A 3-row vehicle must have one additional full LATCH position and tether anchors in all rear seating positions to earn good+. If the vehicle has a second-row center seating position, it must have the ability to use LATCH there as well.

      Of the more than 100 vehicles evaluated by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), only 3 have child restraint installation hardware that earns ...

      Getting released as student loan co-signer is not that easy

      Study finds 90% of requests for release as co-signer are rejected

      Many young people heading off to college are unable to secure student loans without a family member or friend co-signing for them. But co-signing situations often go awry and student loans are no exception. There are pitfalls for both borrower and co-signer.

      For example, in 2010 the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimated 3 out of 4 co-signers were left to pay off a loan because the borrower had defaulted.

      Having a co-signer on a private student loan can also be risky for the borrower. Let's suppose you needed a co-signer in order to get a private student loan. Maybe a grandparent volunteers. You received the loan and started making payments.

      But then your co-signer died. Many private college lenders have a provision in their loan documents that allows them to demand full repayment if the co-signer dies, even if the borrower is making on-time payments. It's called auto-default.

      Almost impossible to separate

      But here's the rub. Once two parties come together as borrower and co-signer, it is very hard to separate.

      The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) Student Loan Ombudsman investigated procedures private lenders put in place to allow co-signers to withdraw, then looked at how many were actually permitted to do so. The CFPB analysis found that the lenders and servicers granted very few releases. Of those borrowers who applied for co-signer release, 90% were rejected.

      “Parents and grandparents put their financial futures on the line by co-signing private student loans to help family members achieve the dream of higher education,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “Responsible borrowers and their co-signers should have clear information and standards for releasing the co-signer if the time is right. We’re concerned that the broken co-signer release process is leaving responsible consumers at risk of damaged credit or auto-default distress.”

      Lots of confusion

      The CFPB report also found that most borrowers and co-signers are in the dark about a lender's criteria for being released as a co-signer. Consumers reported being confused about their eligibility for obtaining a co-signer release as well as not understanding why they had been denied.

      Most private student loan contracts continue to contain auto-default clauses, despite promises last year by several lenders they would discontinue the practice. The report shows almost none of them have.

      The report also expressed concern that borrowers are at risk when loans are packaged and sold as securities on Wall Street. While a lender may have pledged not to invoke auto default, the report says the investors who buy the loan can change that.

      In addition to auto-default clauses, the CFPB analysis found other potentially harmful clauses hidden in fine print of some loans including “universal default” clauses. Lenders have long used these clauses to trigger a default if the borrower or co-signer is not in good standing on another loan with the institution, such as a mortgage or auto loan, that is unrelated to the consumer’s payment behavior on the student loan. These clauses can increase the risk of default for both the borrower and co-signer.

      The report calls for a number of policy changes, including improving transparency around co-signer release criteria and examining potentially harmful clauses contained in the fine print.

      Many young people heading off to college are unable to secure student loans without a family member or friend co-signing for them. But co-signing situation...

      Feds: Black & Decker Spacemaker coffee pot hazard wasn't reported promptly

      Dozens of consumes were burned when the coffee pot handle broke, suit charges

      The Justice Department is suing the makers of Black & Decker Spacemaker coffee pots, charging that the company knew that handles could break off the coffee pots but didn't report the hazard promptly, as federal law requires.

      The coffeemakers generated hundreds of complaints from consumers over more than three years before the company finally notified the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) of the carafe defect and recalled the product.  Dozens of consumers contacted the company to report burns related to the handle suddenly detaching. 

      Consumers rate Black & Decker Coffee Maker

      “Hundreds of consumers complained to the company about this dangerous defect over the years,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer of the Justice Department’s Civil Division.  “We rely on companies to report these safety issues immediately, as the law requires, to prevent unnecessary injuries." 

      “We believe Spectrum Brands and Applica Consumer Products knew about the hazard with these coffeemakers for years,” said CPSC Chairman Elliot F. Kaye.  “Despite the fact that these firms were required to report potential hazards and risks to CPSC immediately, it appears they chose to profit from continued sales instead.  Their failure to follow the law and report, resulted in dozens of injuries to unsuspecting customers.”

      The complaint was filed against Spectrum Brands, a Delaware corporation headquartered in Middleton, Wisconsin, that distributes a wide variety of brand-name small appliances, hardware, and home and garden products.  Applica Consumer Products was the Florida company that imported and distributed the coffeemaker.  Applica became a subsidiary of Spectrum in 2010, and the two companies merged in 2014.

      The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, charges that the companies knowingly violated the reporting requirements of the Consumer Product Safety Act with respect to defective carafe handles that could detach and cause hot coffee to pour onto consumers. 

      Kept selling them

      The government also alleges that, in addition to failing to notify the CPSC of the defect  “immediately” as required by law, the companies continued to distribute a small number of the defective coffeemakers to retailers even after the recall was announced.

      The companies distributed the coffeemakers from 2008 to 2012.  The complaint alleges that beginning as early as 2009 and continuing until April 2012, the companies received approximately 1,600 consumer complaints about defective carafe handles.  The coffeemakers were recalled in June 2012. 

      The Justice Department is suing the makers of Black & Decker Spacemaker coffee pots, charging that the company knew that handles could break off the coffee...

      Rising gasoline costs help push consumer prices higher

      Jobless claims slip

      A spike in the cost of gasoline was a major factor in the rise in the consumer price index (CPI) during May.

      Figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) show the CPI was up 0.4% last month, but that over the last 12 months, the index is unchanged.

      Energy and food

      Energy prices overall were up 4.3% in May following a decline in April, with gasoline costs shooting up 10.4%. Fuel oil edged up 0.7%, natural gas was unchanged and electricity prices fell 1.2%. Over the last 12 months, electricity is up just 0.5% -- its smallest 12-month increase since January 2013. The other energy components have sharply declined over the last 12 months, with fuel oil down 27.6%, gasoline off 25.0%, and natural gas off 15.4%.

      Food prices were unchanged in May. As was the case in April, the index for, with 4 of the 6 major grocery store food group indexes declining, led by the dairy and related products with a drop of 0.7%. Meats, poultry, fish, and eggs were down 0.5%, beef and veal off 0.1% and nonalcoholic beverages inching down 0.2%. In contrast, fruits and vegetables increased 0.3% and the “other food” category was up 0.1%. food at home index rose 0.6 percent For the 12 months ending May, prices were up 0.6%.

      Core inflation

      The “core” rate of inflation, which strips out the volatile food and energy categories was up just 0.1% last month after rising 0.3% in April. The cost of shelter rose 0.2% percent, airline fares soared 5.7% after declining in 5 of the last 6 months and medical care was up 0.2%. Also posting gains were new vehicles (+0.2%), tobacco (+0.4%) and alcoholic beverages (+0.2%). Apparel index, meanwhile, declined 0.5%, household furnishings and operations fell 0.3% and prices for used cars and trucks decreased 0.4%. Thew core rate has risen 1.7% over the past 12 months, compared with an increase of 1.8% for the 12 months ending April.

      The complete CPI report is available on the Labor Department (DOL) website.

      Jobless claims

      First-time applications for state unemployment benefits dipped last week.

      The DOL reports initial jobless claims plunged by 12,000 in the week ending June 13 to a seasonally adjusted 267,000.

      The government says there were no special factors affecting the claims level.

      The 4-week moving average, which is less volatile and considered a more accurate gauge of the labor market came in at 276,750, a decline of 2,000 from the previous week.

      The full report may be found on the DOL website.

      A spike in the cost of gasoline was a major factor in the rise in the consumer price index (CPI) during May. Figures released by the Bureau of Labor Stati...

      Feds target servicemember auto lender

      The company is accused of using aggressive debt collection tactics

      Security National Automotive Acceptance Company (SNAAC) -- an auto loan company -- is being accused of using a combination of illegal threats and deceptive claims in order to collect debts from servicemembers.

      The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has filed a complaint in federal court seeking compensation for harmed consumers, a civil penalty, and an order prohibiting the company from committing future violations.

      “Security National Automotive Acceptance Company took advantage of military rules to put enormous pressures on servicemembers to pay their debts,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “For all the security they provide us, servicemembers should not have their financial and career security threatened by false information from an auto loan company.”

      Unfair, deceptive and abusive practices alleged

      SNAAC, an Ohio-based auto finance company that operates in more than 2 dozen states, lends money primarily to active-duty and former military to buy used motor vehicles.

      The CFPB claims the company violated the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act’s prohibitions against unfair, deceptive, and abusive acts and practices by using aggressive collection tactics that took advantage of servicemembers’ special obligations to remain current on debts.

      Both active-duty and former servicemembers could encounter trouble with the company if they missed or were late on payments. Once consumers defaulted, they became subject to repeated threats to contact their chain of command. In many other instances, the company exaggerated the consequences of not paying. Thousands of people were victims of the company’s aggressive tactics.

      The CFPB alleges that the company has:

      • Exaggerated potential disciplinary action that servicemembers would face: The company told customers that their failure to pay could result in action under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, as well as a number of other adverse career consequences, including demotion, loss of promotion, discharge, denial of re-enlistment, loss of security clearance, or reassignment. In fact, these consequences were extremely unlikely.
      • Contacted and threatened to contact commanding officers to pressure servicemembers into repayment: The company would repeatedly contact commanding officers to disclose the debts in an effort to force payment, and suggest that the servicemembers were in violation of military law and other regulations. These company’s tactics, the CFPB claims, took advantage of the servicemembers’ inability to protect their interests in their transactions with the company and was unfair.
      • Falsely threatened to garnish servicemembers’ wages: The company implied to consumers that it could immediately commence an involuntary allotment or wage garnishment. But such consequences could not or would not occur because -- through the military pay system -- involuntary allotments are only processed once a judgment by a court is obtained. The company would threaten to pursue an involuntary allotment before they had even determined whether the servicemember would be sued.
      • Misled servicemembers about imminent legal action: In many instances, the company threatened to take legal action against customers when, in fact, it had not determined whether to take such action. In fact, in numerous instances, the company did not intend to take such action at the time.

      Through its lawsuit, the CFPB seeks to stop the alleged unlawful practices of the company. It has also requested that the court impose penalties on the company for its conduct and require that compensation be paid to consumers who have been harmed.

      The complaint is not a finding or ruling that the company has actually violated the law.

      Security National Automotive Acceptance Company (SNAAC) -- an auto loan company -- is being accused of using a combination of illegal threats and deceptive...

      Foreclosure activity moving higher again

      But the May numbers don't suggest a housing market relapse

      Numbers don't lie but at times they can be misleading.

      So it is with the May foreclosure report from RealtyTrac, an online marketer of foreclosure properties.

      The report shows foreclosure filings, which include default notices, scheduled auctions and bank repossessions (REO), were up 1% in May from April but a more attention-getting 16% over May 2014, a 19-month high.

      While that might sound like cause for alarm, Daren Blomquist, vice president at RealtyTrac, says it really isn't. At least, not entirely.

      “May foreclosure numbers are a classic good news-bad news scenario, with the number of homeowners starting the foreclosure process stabilizing at pre-housing crisis levels but the number of homeowners actually losing their homes to foreclosure still well above pre-crisis levels and on the rise,” Blomquist said. “Lenders and courts are pushing through stubborn foreclosure cases that have been languishing in foreclosure limbo for years as options to prevent foreclosure are exhausted or left untapped.”

      Bank repossessions surge

      So many of the foreclosure filings that show up in the May numbers aren't really new. They might have started years ago but became active again last month when the lender took possession of the property. Bank REOs were down slightly from April but up 58% year-over-year.

      May's REOs were 56% below the peak of 102,134 REOs in September 2013 but still nearly twice the average monthly number of 23,119 in 2005 and 2006 before the housing bubble burst in August 2006.

      But the numbers certainly have significance for people who want to buy or sell a home. If you are trying to sell your home in a neighborhood where several REOs suddenly have come on the market, it could affect how quickly you can sell and what you'll be able to get for your home.

      REOs typically sell for well below the market value. Not only will the REOs siphon off potential buyers, their comps set the market price lower in your neighborhood.

      Increased inventory

      If you are hoping to buy a home, this might help. The market in many areas has suffered from tight inventories, forcing potential buyers to compete for available properties. In areas where REOs are coming on the market, inventories should rise and prices may be less firm.

      Real estate varies market to market so the effects of the increase in repossessed homes hitting the market won't be felt evenly across the country. According to the RealtyTrac reports, New Jersey had the biggest rise in REOs at 197%. Bank repossessions were up 116% in New York, 114% in Ohio, 108% in Georgia and 106% in Pennsylvania.

      “As available housing inventory begins to increase, we are noticing slight increases in foreclosure activity across Ohio,” said Michael Mahon, president at HER Realtors, which covers the Cincinnati, Dayton and Columbus markets.

      Mahon says much of the REO activity in Ohio has occurred for properties under $200,000 – many of them he says triggered by home equity lines of credit coming due and the homeowners being unable to pay.

      Numbers don't lie but at times they can be misleading.So it is with the May foreclosure report from RealtyTrac, an online marketer of foreclosure prope...

      Pinnacle Foods Group recalls poultry products

      The product contains monosodium glutamate, which is not declared on the label

      Pinnacle Foods Group of Fayetteville, Ark., is recalling approximately 668,316 pounds of poultry products.

      The product contains monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is not declared on the label.

      There are no reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products.

      The following poultry dinner item, produced between December 11, 2013 through June 9, 2015, is being recalled:

      • 383-g frozen dinners of “Swanson Stuffing Baked Turkey.”

      The recalled products bear the establishment number “P-138” inside the USDA mark of inspection, and were shipped to retail locations in Canada.

      Consumers with questions about the recall may contact the company at (888) 815-6480.  

      Pinnacle Foods Group of Fayetteville, Ark., is recalling approximately 668,316 pounds of poultry products. The product contains monosodium glutamate (MSG)...

      Colnago recalls bicycles and frame kits

      The front brakes can detach from fork during use

      Colnago America of Chicago is recalling about 434 bicycles and bicycle frame kits in the U.S> and Canada.

      The front brakes can detach from fork during use, posing a crash hazard.

      No incidents or injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves all Colnago CF10 and Colnago V1-r racing bicycles and bicycle frame kits that fit 28-inch wheels. "Colnago for Ferrari" is on the downtube and the Ferrari logo is on the seat tube of the CF10. "Colnago" is on the downtube and the Ferrari logo is on the crossbar of the V1-r. Model numbers CF10 or V1-r are on both sides of the front fork.

      Model CF10 frames come in the colors black with white letters and red trim, and black with white letters and yellow trim. Model V1-r frames come in the colors black with white letters and red trim, gray with black letters and black trim, gray with white letters and white trim, and white with silver letters and silver trim.

      The bicycles, manufactured in Taiwan, were sold authorized Colnago dealers from August 2014, to April 2015, for between $4,800 and $12,000.

      Consumers should stop using the recalled bicycles and bicycle frame kits and contact Colnago America for a free inspection. If the hole in the front fork for the brake mounting bolt is not at least 12 mm in depth, the front fork will be replaced free of charge.

      Consumers may contact Colnago America toll-free at (844) 265-6246 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., CT, Monday through Friday.

      Colnago America of Chicago is recalling about 434 bicycles and bicycle frame kits in the U.S> and Canada. The front brakes can detach from fork during use...

      AT&T fined $100 million for throttling “unlimited data” connections

      Company plans to fight FCC fine, claims throttling is actually network management

      A record-breaking $100 million fine has been levied against AT&T; for throttling the connections of its “unlimited data” customers (although AT&T; has said it intends to fight the fine in court).

      AT&T; started throttling its “unlimited” customers' connections in 2011, ultimately affecting millions of its customers, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

      What exactly is “data throttling,” and why would AT&T; inflict it on “unlimited data” customers? To make an analogy: imagine you paid for an “all you can eat” buffet promising “unlimited” amounts of food. But there's a catch. Turns out that, after you finish your first full plate of food, your buffet connection is henceforth “throttled” so you're required to eat far more slowly than people usually do: anytime you swallow a mouthful of food, you have to wait a full minute before you're allowed to take another bite, and after cleaning your plate you must wait ten minutes before going back for a refill. So in theory, you can eat all the food you want, but in practice you can't even enjoy an ordinary-sized meal under such restrictive conditions.

      That's essentially what AT&T; has done to its mobile customers, only restricting data rather than food. Last October, the Federal Trade Commission sued AT&T; for its data-throttling practices, claiming that some smartphone customers with unlimited data plans had their data speeds reduced by as much as 90%. The FTC alleged that AT&T; began throttling data speeds in 2011 for its unlimited data plan customers after they used as little as 2 gigabytes of data in a billing period.

      And in March, a federal judge rejected AT&T;'s attempt to hide behind common-carrier exemptions to avoid the FTC's lawsuit.

      It is true that sometimes, when networks are congested from heavy use, a certain level of throttling (especially against the heaviest data users) genuinely is necessary to keep the network running smoothly for all.

      On a related note, that's why when hurricanes, major earthquakes or other natural disasters damage infrastructure and knock out utilities over a wide region, cell phone and smartphone users are asked to use light-bandwidth text messages rather than heavy-bandwidth voice or video calls to keep in contact with friends and family.

      Should you ever have the bad luck to find yourself in a literal disaster area someday, don't be surprised to discover that everybody's wireless connections have been throttled so that streaming video and other data-heavy online activity is impossible for the duration.

      Revenue enhancement

      But that's not what AT&T; has allegedly been doing. Long before the FTC filed its lawsuit, AT&T;'s critics have claimed that the company uses data throttling not for network management reasons but for revenue enhancement — and pointed to the company's own advertised pricing policies as evidence.

      For example: in January 2014, AT&T; launched its then-new “Sponsored Data” program, which it said would shift “mobile data costs from the consumer to the content provider.” (In other words, websites would have to pay in order to ensure AT&T; mobile visitors could access them in a timely fashion, in complete opposition to proposed “net neutrality” rules.)

      At the time, TechDirt called the program “an admission that data caps have nothing to do with congestion.”

      Today, in its press release announcing the $100 million fine, the Federal Communications Commission explained that:

      AT&T; began offering unlimited data plans in 2007, allowing customers to use unrestricted amounts of data. Although the company no longer offers unlimited plans to new customers, it allows current unlimited customers to renew their plans and has sold millions of existing unlimited customers new term contracts for data plans that continue to be labeled as “unlimited”.


      In 2011, AT&T; implemented a “Maximum Bit Rate” policy and capped the maximum data speeds for unlimited customers after they used a set amount of data within a billing cycle. The capped speeds were much slower than the normal network speeds AT&T; advertised and significantly impaired the ability of AT&T; customers to access the Internet or use data applications for the remainder of the billing cycle.

      Locked in

      Consumers rate AT&T; Wireless

      Adding insult to injury, the FCC also said that “Consumers also complained about being locked into a long-term AT&T; contract, subject to early termination fees, for an unlimited data plan that wasn’t actually unlimited.”

      So AT&T; not only sold an unlimited data plan that actually had strict secret limits, it penalized customers who then tried to get out after learning that AT&T; wasn't upholding its end of the promised bargain.

      To return to the all-you-can eat buffet analogy, this is like locking customers in the restaurant and forcing them to slowly eat all of their meals there.

      AT&T;, for its part, says it will “vigorously dispute the FCC’s assertions.” The company is also implying that its data throttling practice is actually legitimate network management (akin to throttling video in a storm zone). As The Verge noted:

      [AT&T;] argues that the commission has "identified this practice as a legitimate and reasonable way to manage network resources," although that's sort of ignoring what the FCC is actually saying. The commission isn't taking issue with AT&T;'s throttling for the purpose of "reasonable network management," it's taking issue with AT&T; throttling customers indiscriminately because they've used a lot of data.

      Trick or treat

      And it's alleged that AT&T;'s own behavior strongly supports the FCC's claim. Last September, for example, AT&T; offered a then-new promotion slated to run through Halloween: new customers who signed up for AT&T;'s “Mobile Share Value Plan” before Halloween would get double the data limits of ordinary mobile customers. At the time, the standard Mobile Share Value Plan offered customers 15 gigabytes (GB) of data per billing period, whereas new customers who signed up before Oct. 31 were offered 30 GB per billing period.

      Meanwhile, customers with “unlimited” data plans had their connections throttled after only 5 GB per bill period. To recap: AT&T; users with unlimited data plans got throttled after only 5GB, whereas “ordinary” new customers got at least 15GB unless they signed on during that special Halloween promotion in which case they got 30GB – six times what “unlimited” data users enjoyed before throttling. And that was with the smallest data plan; AT&T; offered another with a whopping 100GB of shared data – for $375 per month.

      Yet the same company that can provide up to 100 gigabytes of shared data to certain customers also claimed that “network management” obligates it to throttle any unlimited data user who shares a mere 5 gigabytes of data. That's how math works at AT&T; company HQ: 5GB from an “unlimited” plan causes more congestion than a 100GB limit, and putting strict limits on unlimited data.

      Still, AT&T; said, in response to the FCC's latest fine, that “The FCC has specifically identified this practice [data throttling] as a legitimate and reasonable way to manage network resources for the benefit of all customers, and has known for years that all of the major carriers use it …. We have been fully transparent with our customers, providing notice in multiple ways and going well beyond the FCC’s disclosure requirements.”

      Photo © v.poth - FotoliaA record-breaking $100 million fine has been levied against AT&T for throttling the connections of its “unlimited data” custo...