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    The Weekly Hack: Atlanta held for ransom and must pay in Bitcoin

    Atlanta officials say the city is being held hostage

    Welcome to the future. Hackers are currently holding a major American city for ransom and are demanding that they be paid in Bitcoin.

    Atlanta officials confirmed on Monday that a ransomware attack had kicked much of its computer system offline. Without the system functioning, Atlanta is unable to collect online bills from residents, which perhaps isn’t such a bad thing for people who are behind on their water bills or traffic ticket payments.

    But the attack has frightening implications for government agencies. "This is much bigger than a ransomware attack, this really is an attack on our government," Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms told a news conference. "We are dealing with a hostage situation."

    The attackers have indicated that it will not restore Atlanta’s websites or computer system until they are paid $51,000 in Bitcoin.

    Ransomware, as its name suggests, freezes or infects computers and then provides a message asking for a ransom if users want their systems unlocked. Like other malware, it works by sending an email to unsuspecting users with a “phishing” link.

    Atlanta officials have not yet indicated whether they will pay the ransom.

    As of Friday afternoon, Atlanta’s page for allowing residents to pay their water and sewer bill was still not loading. The municipal court online payment webpage says; “City of Atlanta is currently experiencing technical issues which is impacting the ability to take payments at this time.”

    Under Armour

    Under Armour warned a whopping 150 million people on Thursday to change their password. The company owns a popular application called MyFitnessPal that tracks nutritional intake and workout routines. Hackers gained access to all 150 million users’ passwords, names, and email addresses.

    The company denies that credit card information was accessed but says they are getting law enforcement involved.  

    “We do not know the identity of the unauthorized party. Our investigation into this matter is ongoing,” the company announced.

    Italian soccer (football) team

    It happens to the best of us. The Italian newspaper Il Tempo is reporting that SS Lazio, a football team in Italy, was tricked into paying the final portion of a player’s contract to hackers.

    A Dutch soccer club had traded their star defender, 26-year-old De Vrij, to SS Lazio in 2014. A hacker impersonating the Dutch team recently sent SS Lazio an email asking for the final installment of his contract, or two million Euros.

    The Dutch team says they never sent that email and never received the final payment. Authorities are reportedly investigating the issue.

    Welcome to the future. Hackers are currently holding a major American city for ransom and are demanding that they be paid in Bitcoin.Atlanta officials...
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    Judge rules coffee sold in California must carry cancer warning

    A consumer group sued Starbucks under Prop 65

    A superior court judge in Los Angeles has ruled in favor of a consumer group that demanded Starbucks and other coffee sellers in the state post cancer warnings to customers.

    The warning stems, not from the beans, but the chemicals used in the roasting process.

    The Council for Education and Research on Toxics, a nonprofit group, filed suit against nearly 100 coffee companies, including Starbucks, claiming they were violating a California law requiring warnings on a wide range of chemicals that can cause cancer.

    Acrylamide, a chemical used in the roasting process, is officially classified as a carcinogen.

    'Not enough to be harmful'

    Coffee companies argued that the chemical is not present in coffee to an extent to be harmful. They claimed the suit, brought under The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, better known as Proposition 65, was not meant to regulate chemicals in such small amounts. They also argued that coffee, overall, is a healthy beverage.

    The judge, however, disagreed, saying the coffee industry hadn't proved it -- at least not in his courtroom.

    In a statement, the National Coffee Association said the industry is considering all options, including appeals and other legal action. It also says cancer warning labels on coffee would be misleading, pointing out the U.S. government’s own Dietary Guidelines say coffee can be part of a healthy lifestyle.

    “Coffee has been shown, over and over again, to be a healthy beverage," said National Coffee Association CEO Bill Murray. "This lawsuit has made a mockery of Prop 65, has confused consumers, and does nothing to improve public health.

    Decades of conflicting studies

    Coffee has been the subject of conflicting health findings over more than four decades. In the early 1970s, it was linked to heart disease. Later, if was found to be both a cause of cancer and a prevention against it.

    Over the years, ConsumerAffairs has documented the conflicting findings here.

    In 2016, the World Health Organization reviewed 25 years of research in concluding that coffee should not be considered a carcinogen and that it may have positive health effects. The report's only caveat was that any "very hot" beverage runs the risk of cancer.

    A superior court judge in Los Angeles has ruled in favor of a consumer group that demanded Starbucks and other coffee sellers in the state post cancer warn...
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      Under Armour says 150 million MyFitnessPal accounts were affected by data breach

      Users are being urged to change their account password right away

      Under Armour has disclosed that 150 million MyFitnessPal diet and fitness app accounts were affected by a security breach. The number of records compromised make this the largest data breach this year and one of the top five in history.

      The company said it became aware of the hack on March 25, but it believes that an unauthorized party had access to the accounts since late February. Information made vulnerable to cyber criminals in the breach includes users’ email addresses, usernames, and hashed passwords.

      “The affected data did not include government-issued identifiers (such as Social Security numbers and driver's license numbers), which the company does not collect from users,” Under Armour said in a statement.

      “Payment card data was also not affected because it is collected and processed separately. The company's investigation is ongoing, but indicates that approximately 150 million user accounts were affected by this issue.”

      Users urged to change passwords

      Four days after discovering the breach, Under Armour notified MyFitnessPal users via app and email notifications. The company said users could safeguard their account and information by taking the following measures:

      • Change your password for any other account on which you used the same or similar information used for your MyFitnessPal account.

      • Review your accounts for suspicious activity.

      • Be cautious of any unsolicited communications that ask for your personal data or refer you to a web page asking for personal data.

      • Avoid clicking on links or downloading attachments from suspicious emails.

      Under Armour said it doesn’t know the identity of the unauthorized party and is currently working with data security firms to assist in its investigation. It did not provide details on how the hackers got into its network in the first place.

      “We continue to monitor for suspicious activity and to coordinate with law enforcement authorities,” Under Armour informed its customers. “We continue to make enhancements to our systems to detect and prevent unauthorized access to user information."

      Under Armour has disclosed that 150 million MyFitnessPal diet and fitness app accounts were affected by a security breach. The number of records compromise...
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      Facebook memo puts besieged company on the defensive again

      The company says the 2016 memo was purposefully provocative to stir debate

      On a day when Facebook took additional steps to tamp down the furor over its handling of user data, company CEO Mark Zuckerberg was forced to explain an internal Facebook memo that surfaced in the media.

      BuzzFeed published a 2016 Facebook memo to employees in which company vice president Andrew "Boz" Bosworth argued that Facebook should be prepared to do whatever is necessary to increase user growth.

      “We connect people. Period," Bosworth told Facebook employees. "That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified. All the questionable contact importing practices. All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends. All of the work we do to bring more communication in. The work we will likely have to do in China some day. All of it.”

      Fuel for critics

      Facebook critics were quick to pounce on the memo, calling it further evidence that the company plays fast and loose with user privacy. Facebook has been pilloried since it revealed that an app developer obtained Facebook user data, then sold it to a political marketing group.

      Zuckerberg released a statement strongly disavowing the contents of the Bosworth memo. However, he pointed out that Bosworth was often purposely provocative in an effort to bring critical issues into the open for debate.

      "Boz is a talented leader who says many provocative things. This was one that most people at Facebook including myself disagreed with strongly," Zuckerberg said. "We've never believed the ends justify the means."

      Bad timing

      The memo's release comes at a bad time for Facebook, which has spent much of this week taking steps to reassure lawmakers, regulators, and users. On Thursday, Facebook's vice president for product management, Guy Rosen, participated in a conference call with reporters to discuss steps Facebook is taking to protect election security for the upcoming midterms.

      Rosen identified four main election security areas that Facebook is working on:

      • Combating foreign interference

      • Removing fake accounts

      • Increasing ads transparency

      • Reducing the spread of false news

      "This is a comprehensive approach we deploy in elections around the world, and we’re here today to share our thinking about what we are doing so that you can better understand our approach," Rosen said.

      Also this week, Facebook announced tweaks to the site that will cause all Facebook users to see more local news in their news feeds. Previously, the change was made only for U.S. users.

      Facebook also moved this week to exclude third-party data providers from its advertising platform, limiting what marketers know about users' shopping habits. According to industry insiders who spoke with CNBC about the move, it makes data brokers less effective while giving Facebook more control over the data used to target ads.

      On a day when Facebook took additional steps to tamp down the furor over its handling of user data, company CEO Mark Zuckerberg was forced to explain an in...
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      FCC approves SpaceX’s plan for broadband internet satellites

      The U.S. government wants to bring high-speed internet access to rural areas that lack service

      The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has approved Elon Musk’s SpaceX plan for a 4,425-satellite broadband network.

      The broadband service -- which is currently set to go by the name “Starlink” -- would deploy satellites that operate 700 to 800 miles above Earth. The FCC will require SpaceX to launch at least half of the units in its 4,425-satellite constellation within the next six years.

      "This is the first approval of a US-licensed satellite constellation to provide broadband services using a new generation of low-Earth orbit satellite technologies," the FCC said in a statement. "With this action, the commission takes another step to increase high-speed broadband availability and competition in the United States."

      Providing broadband to rural and remote places

      FCC Chairman Ajit Pai presented Musk’s plan for approval back in February. In his presentation, he told fellow commissioners that satellites can help extend broadband to consumers who live in rural or remote places where fiber optic cables and cell towers don’t reach.

      "Although we still have much to do with this complex undertaking, this is an important step toward SpaceX building a next-generation satellite network that can link the globe with reliable and affordable broadband service, especially reaching those who are not yet connected," Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer at SpaceX, said in a statement.

      SpaceX plans to start launching operational satellites for the network starting next year. It will be competing with rival space internet provider OneWeb. Musk has said he hopes Starlink will have more than 40 million subscribers by 2025.

      The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has approved Elon Musk’s SpaceX plan for a 4,425-satellite broadband network.The broadband service -- which...
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      Barclays to pay $2 billion to regulators for its role in the 2008 financial crisis

      The bank’s CEO said he was ‘pleased’ with the DOJ settlement

      Ten years after the 2008 housing crisis triggered major losses in the world’s economy, a British banking giant accused of helping fuel the meltdown has finally reached a settlement with United States regulators -- and it’s about $3 billion less than what the feds originally asked for.

      Barclays has agreed to pay $2 billion to the United States Department of Justice to settle a longstanding investigation into its subprime mortgage loans.

      The housing crisis cost the United States economy an estimated $12.8 trillion, but banking institutions accused of fraudulent loan practices that led to the disaster have escaped criminal charges. The Department of Justice has instead leveled civil fines on financial institutions, though the penalties have made up a fraction of the financial damage that they said the banks caused.

      “Pleased” by the outcome

      Before the disaster, Barclays had sold $31 billion worth of mortgages to investors, half of which were later defaulted on, the DOJ said. The feds say that Barclays cost the American economy “billions” in losses.

      Barclays has fared better than other banks ordered to pay civil penalties in the wake of the crisis.

      The DOJ had originally asked for $5 billion, but Barclays refused to pay, sparking the agency to file a lawsuit in 2016.  From the beginning, Barclays said it would refuse to pay more than $2 billion, as Bloomberg reported in 2016.

      The recent announcement indicates that Barclays finally got the DOJ to fold. As part of the settlement, Barclays is not admitting to any wrong-doing alleged in the government’s investigation.

      “The settlement came at the bottom end of expectations and much sooner than expected,” Ian Gordon, an outside investment analyst, told Bloomberg News. He described the settlement as a “very happy Easter” for the bank.

      “I am pleased that we have been able to reach a fair and proportionate settlement with the Department of Justice,” CEO Jes Staley told the Guardian.

      Staley was recruited to head the bank in 2015 with a  $12.6 million compensation package. He recently praised the United States government for adopting a new tax policy that he says is “very business friendly.”

      Ten years after the 2008 housing crisis triggered major losses in the world’s economy, a British banking giant accused of helping fuel the meltdown has fin...
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      Walmart reportedly in talks to buy Humana

      The deal could continue a trend of consolidation in the healthcare industry

      The nation's largest retailer is reportedly in talks to acquire one of the nation's largest healthcare providers.

      The Wall Street Journal reports Walmart is in the very early stages of discussions with Humana that could continue the trend of retailers joining forces with the healthcare industry.

      Such a deal, should it occur, would be Walmart's largest acquisition. Humana currently has a market cap of around $37 billion, compared to Walmart's value of $260 billion.

      Walmart already operates pharmacies in 4,700 U.S. stores. It also has walk-in clinics in many of its locations that dispense vaccines and other routine healthcare services.

      CVS and Aetna

      The acquisition of Humana would follow CVS's announcement in December that it is acquiring Aetna, combining a large pharmacy chain with a major health benefits provider.

      Health benefit companies like Aetna have enormous bargaining power with pharmaceutical companies. Combining that leverage with its own, CVS Health could be in a position to strengthen its competitive position in the marketplace, even against the likes of Amazon, which has reportedly been shopping for a healthcare partner.

      A deal with Humana would take that company off the table, keeping it from linking up with Amazon, and help Walmart consolidate its foothold in the healthcare market. In particular, Humana's specialization in Medicare clients could help Walmart with seniors.

      Cigna and Express Scripts

      In early March, health insurance provider Cigna announced a $67 billion deal to acquire Express Scripts, a pharmacy benefits manager (PBM). The two companies said the merger would lead to a full suite of medical, behavioral, specialty pharmacy, and other health engagement services to give customers more options when it comes to their healthcare.

      For consumers, it could all mean the lines between specific industries are blurring. When it comes to healthcare, it could shift from the doctor's office to a nearby retail store.

      Reacting to the CVS-Aetna merger last December, Gerald Anderson, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says consumers would likely end up with fewer choices..

      "If you have insurance through Aetna, most likely you are going to be going to a CVS and one of their Minute Clinics for healthcare," Anderson told ConsumerAffairs.

      The nation's largest retailer is reportedly in talks to acquire one of the nation's largest healthcare providers.The Wall Street Journal reports Walmar...
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      State Department proposes that all visa applicants disclose social media identities

      The move expands the Trump administration's cross-check of U.S. visitors and immigrants

      The U.S. State Department wants to widen its scrutiny of U.S. visa applicants by asking them to unveil their social media handles.

      According to a Bloomberg report, the new visa applications will ask applicants to “provide any identifiers used by applicants for those platforms during the five years preceding the date of application.”

      This move broadens the Department’s vetting of visa applicants. It’s possible the new information could uncover any possible ties to groups, sympathies, posts, or messages that warrant concern.

      What information will be asked for

      If this request is approved, additional questions will ask for five years of previously used telephone numbers, email addresses, and international travel information; whether the applicant has been deported or removed from any country; and whether specified family members have been involved in terrorist activities.

      Prior to this, email addresses, phone numbers, and social media identities were asked for from applicants who the Department thought should be more closely examined. Last year, about 65,000 people fit that profile.

      Visa processing is a heavy burden for the State Department. There are an estimated 14 million visa applications a year that take 21 million annual hours to process.

      A diligent and thorough process

      In the aftermath of the 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, Congress raised concerns about the use of social media by terrorist groups and requested that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) broaden its social media background checks.

      In turn, DHS established a task force for using social media to screen immigration applicants. Additionally, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) tested programs that expanded social media screening of those applicants.

      Last December, DHS got the approval to put those supplemental background checks in place.

      The State Department provides a full list of FAQs for anyone considering applying for a visa. Also available are updated answers to questions regarding the Trump administration’s immigration restrictions.

      The U.S. State Department wants to widen its scrutiny of U.S. visa applicants by asking them to unveil their social media handles.According to a Bloomb...
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      Tamarack recalls Eclipse Kratom

      The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

      Tamarack Inc., of Roy, Utah, is recalling Eclipse Kratom-containing powder products that may be contaminated with Salmonella.

      No illnesses have been reported to date.

      The recalled powder products are packaged in plastic heat sealed pouches or plastic sealed bottles and sold in one gram capsules and powder.

      An estimated 120 units were sold directly to five retailers in Utah.

      What to do

      Customers who purchased the recalled products should not consume them, but return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

      Consumers with questions may contact Tamarack by e-mail at 51tamarackinc@gmail.com.

      Tamarack Inc., of Roy, Utah, is recalling Eclipse Kratom-containing powder products that may be contaminated with Salmonella.No illnesses have been rep...
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      Toyota recalls Prius C vehicles sold in Puerto Rico

      The front passenger airbag label may be missing

      Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling 19 model year 2018 Toyota Prius C vehicles sold in Puerto Rico.

      The front passenger airbag and recommended child occupant seating positions label may not have been attached during assembly.

      If the label is missing, occupants may not follow the proper restraint usage guidelines, increasing the risk of injury in the event of a crash.

      What to do

      Toyota will notify owners and will mail the removable labels to all known owners of the vehicles, free of charge.

      The recall is expected to begin April 15, 2018.

      Owners may contact Toyota customer service at 1-888-270-9371. Toyota's number for this recall is J0L.

      Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing is recalling 19 model year 2018 Toyota Prius C vehicles sold in Puerto Rico.The front passenger airbag and rec...
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      King Arthur Flour Company organic coconut flour

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

      King Arthur Flour Company is recalling 6,300 cases of Organic Coconut Flour

      Testing has revealed the presence of Salmonella in one pouch of flour.

      There have been no reports of any injuries or illnesses associated with this recall.

      The recalled product comes in a 16-oz. pouch with Best If Used By Dates of 10/25/2018, LOT: CF22017E, and 12/04/2018, LOT: CF22017E which can be found on the back of the pouch near the bottom of the panel. The UPC is 0 71012 10702 5.

      It was sold through retailers and distributors nationwide.

      What to do

      Customers who purchased the recalled products should not consume it, but discard it or return it to the place of purchase for credit or refund.

      Consumers with questions regarding this recall may call the King Arthur Flour consumer hotline at 866-797-9178.

      King Arthur Flour Company is recalling 6,300 cases of Organic Coconut FlourTesting has revealed the presence of Salmonella in one pouch of flour.Th...
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      Automakers hoping to sell consumers on electric cars

      Companies are going all-in on a product that's just not that popular

      Throughout 2017 and last year, the world's automakers stepped up their commitment to all-electric vehicles.

      Honda began delivering the Clarity, an all-electric sedan at select dealerships in Oregon and California. General Motors said it will introduce two new all-electric vehicles in 2018, the first of at least 20 new electric cars it hopes to put on the road by 2023.

      Mercedes-Benz said it will offer electric versions of its entire fleet by 2022. Volkswagen committed to an all-electric vehicle lineup by 2030. VW Group CEO Matthias Mueller said that automakers must "respond to the push for electric vehicles."

      Who's asking for it?

      But push from whom? It's certainly not coming from consumers. With gasoline prices relatively low since 2015, consumers have renewed their love affair with the SUV.

      Sales of compact SUVs/crossovers rose 5 percent in 2017, according to Kelley Blue Book, making it the most popular category of vehicle, making up 17 percent of sales. Electric vehicles currently make up about 1.2 percent of U.S. car sales.

      Price may be just one factor. In February, the average transaction price on an electric vehicle was $38,062. The average transaction price for a compact SUV was $10,000 less.

      Practicality could be another factor. According to U.S. News, the Tesla Model S, with an average sticker price of over $100,000, will get more than 300 miles on a single charge, but it is the exception. The Fiat 500e only has a range of 84 miles. Recharging an electric car currently takes hours, instead of minutes at a gas pump.

      Government pressure

      Even though consumers aren't asking for them, carmakers plan to build more electric vehicles, mainly because governments are pressuring them to do so. The state of California recently passed a measure banning gasoline powered automobiles by 2040.

      The Association of Global Automakers, an industry trade group, pointed out the obvious -- someone was going to have to sell consumers on the idea and make it more attractive.

      "California has laid out another ambitious goal that will unfortunately be unachievable unless the state substantially increases and maintains public investment in incentives and infrastructure," the group said in a statement. "A self-sustaining market, based on consumer demand for green technologies, will be much more powerful and long-lasting than government mandates or regulations.”

      Consumers should expect to soon be seeing advertisements urging them to go electric. Seven states -- Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont -- are joining with automakers to fund an ad campaign called "Drive Change. Drive Electric."

      Global Automakers CEO John Bozzella tells Reuters that at this point, the automakers are ahead of consumers, going all-in on a product that just isn't that popular.

      Throughout 2017 and last year, the world's automakers stepped up their commitment to all-electric vehicles.Honda began delivering the Clarity, an all-e...
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      FDA may reconsider what ‘healthy’ means for food products

      The agency announced a new initiative to improve consumer health

      The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wants to improve Americans’ diets by rethinking what it means for food products to be considered “healthy.”

      In a speech delivered Thursday at the National Food Policy Conference, Commissioner Scott Gottlieb outlined a “nutrition innovation strategy,” an initiative aimed at reducing obesity rates and preventing avoidable illnesses.

      The agency’s agenda may include a focus on reducing salt consumption and the creation of an icon or symbol to label food packages that meet the possible new definition of healthy. The FDA also wants to allow companies to use more easily understandable ingredient names (to make it clear, for example, that potassium chloride is a salt).

      Cutting obesity rates

      Gottlieb compared the initiative to the agency's new tobacco policy, which includes a proposal to reduce the amount of nicotine in cigarettes to minimal or non-addictive levels.

      "Like our efforts to reduce tobacco use, our work in nutrition can do much to reduce the burden of chronic disease and the early death we see as a result of avoidable illness," Gottlieb said in the speech.

      "It can also help to break cycles of poor health, poor educational attainment, and complications from chronic disease that exacerbate burdens of illness and risk fracturing society along socioeconomic lines,” he added.

      Updated targets for salt consumption would be aligned with recommendations currently being developed by the National Academy of Sciences, Gottlieb said.

      "Improving the nutrition and diet of Americans would be another transformative effort toward reducing the burden of many chronic diseases, ranging from diabetes to cancer to heart disease," Gottlieb said. "The public health gains of such efforts would almost certainly dwarf any single medical innovation or intervention we could discover."

      The agency will open a docket and hold a public meeting this summer on the proposals.

      The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wants to improve Americans’ diets by rethinking what it means for food products to be considered “healthy.” In a...
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      Bumble files suit against Match for allegedly stealing trade secrets

      The company says Match Group fraudulently obtained confidential information

      Earlier this month, Match Group -- owner of the dating app Tinder -- filed a lawsuit against its rival Bumble for alleged patent infringement and misuse of intellectual property. Now, Bumble has escalated the feud by filing a lawsuit of its own against Match.

      The lawsuit comes two weeks after the women-founded dating app published a full-page, anti-bullying open letter slamming Match’s allegations in the New York Times.

      “We swipe left on you. We swipe left on your multiple attempts to buy us, copy us, and, now, to intimidate us,” Bumble said. “We’ll never be yours. No matter the price tag, we’ll never compromise our values.”

      “We swipe left on your attempted scare tactics, and on these endless games. We swipe left on your assumption that a baseless lawsuit would intimidate us. Given your enduring interest in our company, we expected you to know us a bit better by now,” the company added.

      Bumble’s allegations

      In its lawsuit, Bumble accuses Match of stealing trade secrets, among other things, and argues that the patent lawsuit is baseless. The lawsuit isn’t Bumble’s response to Match’s initial lawsuit -- it’s a separate one altogether, TechCrunch points out.

      Bumble acknowledged that the two companies had been discussing acquisition over the past six months. However, Bumble alleges that once Match found out there were other companies also interested in investing in or acquiring Bumble, Match filed suit to make Bumble seem less attractive to those other companies.

      Bumble alleges that Match Group requested that Bumble provide “confidential and trade secret information” which Match said they “needed to provide a higher offer for Bumble” -- an offer that ultimately never came.

      Finally, Bumble claims that Match “published false or disparaging information about Bumble, including statements in the press falsely claiming that Bumble infringed Match’s intellectual property, as well as false statements in the Lawsuit”.

      Bumble says the information published by Match has potentially affected future investment and acquisition opportunities. The lawsuit requests relief in the form of monetary damages (an estimated $400M), as well as a permanent injunction preventing Match Group from using any of the confidential information it obtained during acquisition discussions.

      Earlier this month, Match Group -- owner of the dating app Tinder -- filed a lawsuit against its rival Bumble for alleged patent infringement and misuse of...
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      Report says average consumer can't buy a median-priced home

      Prices are up 6.2 percent in all 20 markets monitored by Case-Shiller

      With the spring homebuying season just getting underway, home shoppers are facing a double challenge. There are fewer homes to buy and they cost more. In fact, there is new evidence suggesting that the average wage-earner is getting priced out of the housing market.

      This week, the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller Indices showed home prices rose in January in all 20 monitored real estate markets, with prices rising 6.2 percent year-over-year. Seattle, Las Vegas, and San Francisco saw the biggest year-over-year gains in the 20 cities.

      Home prices in Seattle made the biggest jump, rising 12.9 percent. Las Vegas and San Francisco were not far behind, with gains of 11.1 percent and 10.2 percent respectively.

      No longer affordable

      Attom Data Solutions reports additional discouraging news for buyers. In 68 percent of the 446 counties it analyzed, it found that the median-priced home is no longer affordable for the average wage-earner.

      The firm reached that conclusion by calculating the amount of income needed to make monthly house payments, then assumed a 3 percent down payment and a 28 percent maximum "front-end" debt-to-income ratio.

      Among the markets where the average consumer can no longer afford the median-priced home are Los Angeles County, Calif.; Maricopa County (Phoenix), Ariz.; San Diego County, Calif.; Orange County, Calif.; and Miami-Dade County, Fla.

      The report found the average consumer can still afford a median-priced home in Cook County (Chicago), Ill.; Harris County (Houston), Tex.; Dallas County, Tex.; Wayne County (Detroit), Mich.; and Philadelphia County, Pa.

      'Affordability aftershocks'

      "Coastal markets are the epicenter of the U.S. home affordability crisis, but affordability aftershocks are now being felt further inland as housing refugees migrate from the high-cost coastal markets to lower-priced markets in the middle of the country where good jobs are available," said Daren Blomquist, senior vice president with ATTOM Data Solutions. "That in turn is pushing home prices above historically normal affordability limits in those middle-America markets."

      The problem appears to stem from increased competition for a limited number of homes. David Blitzer, managing director at S&P Dow Jones Indices, says fewer homes for sale is one of two problems facing the housing market. The other is a low vacancy rate.

      "The current months-supply -- how many months at the current sales rate would be needed to absorb homes currently for sale -- is 3.4," Blitzer said. "The average since 2000 is 6.0 months, and the high in July 2010 was 11.9."

      But Blitzer disagrees that affordability is a concern. He says his data shows that a family with median income can still afford a mortgage for a median-priced home. They'll just have fewer to choose from.

      With the spring homebuying season just getting underway, home shoppers are facing a double challenge. There are fewer homes to buy and they cost more. In f...
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      Consumers earned more last month but spent less

      Inflation ticked up but remains in check

      Consumers showed some increased financial discipline last month, taking home more pay but not spending all of it.

      A report by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, part of the Commerce Department, shows incomes rose a healthy 0.4 percent in February. Consumer spending increased, but only by 0.2 percent.

      Inflation increased in February, but not enough to cause concern. The Personal Consumption Expenditures Price (PCE) index, closely followed by the Federal Reserve as it tracks inflation, rose 0.2 percent during the month. Over the last 12 months, the rate rose slightly, but last month’s increase was the biggest in a year.

      Consumers also saved more. The nation's savings rate went up for a second straight month to 3.4 percent, recovering after a consumer spending binge at the end of last year.

      Analysts say the numbers suggest consumers are moderating their spending habits after running up huge credit card bills last year.

      The Federal Reserve, under new chairman Jerome Powell, is keeping a close eye on inflation this year. The Fed's Open Market Committee hiked its discount rate a quarter point in mid-March, signaling it will do so again if prices begin to rise too quickly.

      Consumers showed some increased financial discipline last month, taking home more pay but not spending all of it.A report by the Bureau of Economic Ana...
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      Poppies International recalls Delizza Belgian Custard Cream Mini Eclairs

      The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

      Poppies International of Battleboro, N.C., is recalling Delizza Belgian Custard Cream Mini Eclairs made from March 5 – 9, 2018.

      The product may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

      No illnesses or adverse health effects resulting from these events have been reported to date.

      The recalled product contains lot number (L1M1018 Best Before 09/09/19) on the side of each tub by the lid.

      What to do

      Customers who purchased or received the recalled product should immediately stop using it and return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.

      Consumers with questions may contact the company at info@delizza.us or 252-442-4016 Monday through Friday from 9am – 5pm (EST).

      Poppies International of Battleboro, N.C., is recalling Delizza Belgian Custard Cream Mini Eclairs made from March 5 – 9, 2018.The product may be conta...
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      Toyota recalls model year 2018 Camrys

      The engine could lose power and stop running

      Toyota Motor North America is recalling 1,730 model year 2018 Camrys.

      The vehicle’s engine may be equipped with pistons from a particular production period produced with a diameter larger than the specification. In certain conditions, this may cause the vehicle to run rough, create an abnormal sound, emit smoke from the exhaust, and illuminate warning lights and messages.

      In some cases, a reduction of power may occur and the engine could stop running, increasing the risk of a crash.

      What to do

      Toyota dealers will check the production date code of the pistons in the engine. If involved pistons are found, the engine will be replaced with a new one at no cost to customers.

      All known owners will receive a notification by first class mail by late May.

      Consumers with questions may contact Toyota at 1-800-331-4331.

      Toyota Motor North America is recalling 1,730 model year 2018 Camrys.The vehicle’s engine may be equipped with pistons from a particular production per...
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      Safety investigators looking into fatal Tesla crash

      The company can't yet say whether the car was in autopilot mode at the time

      The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has sent investigators to California to look into Friday's fatal crash of a Tesla Model X.

      The federal agency doesn't normally investigate fatal car accidents, but because Tesla has an autopilot feature, it is drawing heightened scrutiny. In a Tweet, the NTSB said it is only investigating the post-crash fire and safety issues involved in the removal of the wreckage.

      Tesla said it can't confirm whether the vehicle was in autopilot mode at the time of the crash because it hasn't been able to retrieve logs from the car.

      "We are currently working closely with the authorities to recover the logs from the computer inside     the vehicle," Tesla said in a statement. "Once that happens and the logs have been reviewed, we hope to have a better understanding of what happened."

      Car smashed into a highway barrier

      The accident occurred when the car smashed into a highway barrier near Mountain View, Calif. Tesla says its records show Tesla owners have driven this same stretch of highway with autopilot on some 85,000 times since the feature was introduced in 2015.

      The company also said the accident was made worse because a highway safety barrier which is designed to reduce the impact of hitting a concrete lane divider, had either been removed or crushed in a prior accident without being replaced. The full force of the collision was between the vehicle and the concrete barrier.

      Tesla has stressed on numerous occasions that the autopilot feature on its cars is not autonomous driving technology, but rather is meant to assist drivers. Tesla says drivers should keep both hands on the steering wheel at all times, even when the autopilot is engaged.

      A Tesla with the autopilot engaged slammed into a tractor-trailer on a Florida highway in 2016, killing the driver. After an investigation, the NTSB found that Tesla was not at fault, saying the driver had ignored the company's warnings to stay in control of the vehicle at all times.

      The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has sent investigators to California to look into Friday's fatal crash of a Tesla Model X.The federal a...
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      Apple faces dozens of lawsuits over throttled iPhones

      Fifty-nine lawsuits could be combined into a single class-action suit tomorrow

      Apple has reportedly been hit with numerous lawsuits following its admission that it deliberately slowed aging iPhones to preserve battery life.

      At least 59 separate lawsuits have been filed by iPhone customers since December, when news of the software update that slowed older iPhones first broke, the Wall Street Journal reports.

      Apple customers have accused the company of slowing their phones in order to drive sales of new iPhones, according to court records.  

      Those who filed claims are seeking an unspecified financial award, attorneys’ fees, and free iPhone battery replacements, as well as a corrective advertising campaign. A legal meeting in Atlanta tomorrow aims to combine all the U.S. cases into one class-action lawsuit.

      Negative impact on the brand

      Apple has maintained that slowing down the batteries in older iPhones keeps them from automatically shutting down during certain high-speed tasks. However, iPhone customers who filed lawsuits claim the practice is used to encourage people to shell out more money for a newer iPhone model.

      Wayne Lam, a smartphone analyst with the research firm IHS Markit, believes the class-action suit “won’t amount to a hill of beans.” Experts say it’s more likely that the lawsuit will damage Apple’s brand, which could lead to even bigger problems for the company.

      “It’s the brand damage that is even more risky and expensive for Apple,” said Holger Mueller, a technology analyst with Constellation Research.

      The Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission are investigating Apple over potential securities violations related to the way it informed consumers about the update that slowed older iPhones.

      Apple has reportedly been hit with numerous lawsuits following its admission that it deliberately slowed aging iPhones to preserve battery life.At leas...
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      Uber says it won’t renew permit to test self-driving vehicles in California

      Uber is pulling its driverless vehicles from California roads after its deadly crash in Arizona

      After one of its vehicles fatally crashed into a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, Uber has decided not to renew its permit to test its self-driving technology on public roads in California. Its existing permit is set to expire Saturday.

      The company temporarily suspended its self-driving operations in a number of test cities following the incident, and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey -- who had initially welcomed Uber to the state with “open arms and wide open roads” -- ordered an indefinite suspension of Uber’s public road testing of driverless cars in the state of Arizona.

      In a letter sent Monday to Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, Ducey called the incident an "unquestionable failure" to meet public safety expectations.

      “In the best interests of the people of my state, I have directed the Arizona Department of Transportation to suspend Uber’s ability to test and operate autonomous vehicles on Arizona’s public roadways,” Ducey wrote.

      Halting operations in California

      Now, Uber is taking its testing hiatus a step further by choosing not to renew its permit to test on public roads in California.

      “We proactively suspended our self-driving operations, including in California, immediately following the Tempe incident,” Uber spokesperson Sarah Abboud said in a statement. “Given this, we decided not to reapply for California DMV permit with the understanding that our self-driving vehicles would not operate on public roads in the immediate future.”

      The ride-hailing company said it does not know when it will reapply to test its cars in California.

      If Uber wants to renew its permit in the future, California’s Department of Motor Vehicles said in a letter on Tuesday that it will need a new permit and will have to address the results from the investigation into the Arizona crash.

      “Any application for a new permit will need to address any follow-up analysis or investigations from the recent crash in Arizona and may also require a meeting with the department,” wrote Brian Soublet, DMV deputy director and chief counsel.

      Uber says it is continuing to cooperate with investigators. The National Transportation Safety Board and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are working with Tempe police on the investigation.

      After one of its vehicles fatally crashed into a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, Uber has decided not to renew its permit to test its self-driving technology...
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      California Jerky Factory recalls beef jerky

      The products may be underprocessed

      California Jerky Factory of South El Monte, Calif., is recalling approximately 1,238 pounds of beef jerky products because of due to a deviation that may have led to under processing.

      There have been no confirmed reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products.

      The following items, produced and packaged on December 4, 2017, December 5, 2017, January 2, 2018, and January 24, 2018, are being recalled:

      • 3-oz. packages containing, “Beef Jerky Store Beef Jerky Original Crispy,” with “EXP” dates of 120418, 120518 and 010219.
      • 6-oz. packages containing, “Beef Jerky Store Beef Jerky Original Crispy,” with “EXP” dates of 120418, 120518 and 010219.
      • 3-oz. packages containing, “Beef Jerky Store Beef Jerky Teriyaki,” with “EXP” dates of 120418, 120518 and 010219.
      • 6-oz. packages containing, “Beef Jerky Store Beef Jerky Teriyaki,” with “EXP” dates of 120418, 120518 and 010219.
      • 1.5-oz. packages containing, “California Jerky Factory Crispy Beef Jerky Original,” with “EXP” dates of 120418, 120518 and 010219.
      • 3-oz. packages containing, “California Jerky Factory Crispy Beef Jerky Original,” with “EXP” dates of 120418, 120518 and 010219.
      • 7-oz. packages containing, “California Jerky Factory Crispy Beef Jerky Original,” with “EXP” dates of 120418, 120518 and 010219.
      • 1.5-oz. packages containing, “California Jerky Factory Crispy Beef Jerky Teriyaki,” with “EXP” dates of 120418, 120518 and 010219.
      • 3-oz. packages containing, “California Jerky Factory Crispy Beef Jerky Teriyaki,” with “EXP” dates of 120418, 120518 and 010219.
      • 7-oz. packages containing, “California Jerky Factory Crispy Beef Jerky Teriyaki,” with “EXP” dates of 120418, 120518 and 010219.
      • 10-lb. packages containing, “Eurasia DELIGHT Beef Jerky Du Du Bo Kho,” with “EXP” date 012419.
      • 10-lb. packages containing, “Vua Kho Bo Beef Jerky Du Du Bo Kho,” with “EXP” date 012419.
      • 10-lb. packages containing, “Vua Kho Bo Beef Jerky Lemon Grass,” with “EXP” date 012419.

      The recalled products, bearing establishment number “Est. 18995” inside the USDA mark of inspection, were sent to retail locations in California, Hawaii and Nevada and sold on the internet.

      What to do

      Customers who purchased the recalled products should not consume them, but discard them or return them to the place of purchase.

      Consumers with questions may contact Nghia Pham (Ben) at (626) 417-8486.

      California Jerky Factory of South El Monte, Calif., is recalling approximately 1,238 pounds of beef jerky products because of due to a deviation that may h...
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      Model year 2018 Tiguan long wheel base vehicles recalled

      The engine support bolts may not have been tightened properly

      Volkswagen Group of America is recalling four model year 2018 Tiguan long wheel base (LWB) vehicles.

      The engine support bolts on these vehicles may not have been tightened properly.

      If the engine support bolts were not properly tightened, an unexpected engine breakdown or loss of engine power may occur, increasing the risk of a crash.

      What to do

      Volkswagen will notify owners, and dealers will replace engine support bolts, free of charge.

      The recall is expected to begin in March 2018.

      Owners may contact Volkswagen customer service at 1-800-893-5298. Volkswagen's number for this recall is 10F7.

      Volkswagen Group of America is recalling four model year 2018 Tiguan long wheel base (LWB) vehicles.The engine support bolts on these vehicles may not...
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      Mercedes-Benz recalls model year 2017 E300 4Matics, E300s and E43 AMGs

      The low beam headlights may insufficiently illuminating the roadway

      Mercedes-Benz USA (MBUSA) is recalling 20 model year 2017 E300 4Matics, E300s, and E43 AMGs fitted with LED headlights.

      The headlights may be misadjusted, possibly resulting in the low beam headlights insufficiently illuminating the roadway.

      An insufficiently illuminated roadway may increase the risk of a crash.

      What to do

      MBUSA will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the headlamp adjustment, adjusting it as necessary, free of charge.

      The recall was expected to begin March 23, 2018.

      Owners may contact MBUSA customer service at 1-800-367-6372.

      Mercedes-Benz USA (MBUSA) is recalling 20 model year 2017 E300 4Matics, E300s, and E43 AMGs fitted with LED headlights.The headlights may be misadjuste...
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      Sen. Mitch McConnell wants to legalize cannabis (but not weed)

      A bill introduced by the Senate majority leader would legalize hemp, a non-psychoactive variety of the cannabis crop

      Whether he knows it or not, U.S. Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is fighting to legalize a cannabis crop that bears a striking physical resemblance to marijuana.

      In a joint announcement with Kentucky's Republican Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles, McConnell said he wants his home of Kentucky to become a leader in hemp cultivation. The senator and Quarles said in a news release on Monday that they plan to introduce the Hemp Farming Act of 2018, which would remove hemp from the list of illegal controlled substances where its been for decades.

      Federal drug laws have long banned the cultivation of hemp, a cannabis crop that looks like marijuana but does not have enough THC to create a high. But advocates and farmers note that it has thousands of potential uses. Much of the agriculture industry has already been lobbying to declassify hemp as a Schedule I controlled substance.

      Farming groups support hemp initiative

      The Farm Bureau, National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, National Farmers Union, and the National Conference of State Legislatures have all argued in recent years that lawmakers need to remove hemp from the same list that has relegated marijuana to an illegal controlled substance under federal drug laws.

      “To negate any talk that this is a left-leaning fringe issue, 14 current and former GOP governors have enacted hemp legislation under their watch – including Vice President Mike Pence,” writes Jim Holte, the former president of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, in an editorial calling for the decriminalization of hemp.

      Over 30 states, including Indiana during Mike Pence’s reign as governor, have passed laws to pilot hemp cultivation in response to an Obama-era measure that defined hemp as a crop distinct from marijuana. Indiana has yet to produce hemp, however, as their pilot program depended on clearance from the feds, which has not yet been given.

      The 2014 Farm Bill for the first time in decades said that states are free to regulate the cultivation of hemp -- but the provision came with several caveats. Hemp could only be grown “for agricultural research purposes where permitted under state law,” according to the Obama-era farm bill.

      Over 30 states since then have launched pilot programs to grow hemp with some sort of research component, though the state laws vary in strictness because of conflicting interpretations of the federal farm bill.

      Some state lawmakers, for instance, have already allowed farmers to begin growing hemp and are speaking optimistically about the revenue they hope the crop will generate. Others, however, are limiting hemp cultivation to strictly research purposes or waiting on additional federal legislation before they implement their programs.

      As it turns out, McConnell’s home state of Kentucky has taken one of the more liberal interpretations of Obama’s farm bill. Kentucky’s industrial hemp program has been well underway and the state recently permitted its first CBD oil facility -- which is technically in violation of federal drug laws.

      CBD problems

      People who find medical benefits from using marijuana but who do not want to experience a high often turn to cannabidiols (CBDs), a product derived from hemp that does not create a high. Anecdotal evidence suggests that consuming CBDs in oil form (such as via a pill or a candy) may benefit people suffering from certain medical conditions, such as epilepsy or depression. However, federal drug laws in the United States currently do not allow researchers to study its potential uses.

      The DEA has maintained that CBDs are illegal, even in light of the 2014 Farm BIll. The agency in 2017 issued a statement to the site The Cannabist alerting consumers that it still considered CBD oil to be a Federal I controlled substance that cannot legally be produced in the United States.

      “At present, this material is being illegally produced and marketed in the United States in violation of two federal laws,” the agency said..

      As with marijuana, many states have defied those federal laws, and some vendors have been in the crosshairs of local police agencies specifically for selling CBD oil. Legal weed dispensaries in Alaska and stores in Tennessee have both been raided by law enforcement agencies  for selling CBD oil -- to the confusion of patients and advocates who contend that the product doesn't even make users high.

      Kentucky emerges as leader in hemp industry

      Despite the DEA’s stance on CBD oil, numerous states have decided to allow hemp farmers to extract it from their crops, including Kentucky.

      Under Kentucky’s popular hemp pilot program, the state department of agriculture last year announced plans to build the first CBD oil processing plant in the United States, which they also claimed will be the world’s largest.

      The Kentucky Department of Agriculture issued permits in December to Kings Royal Biotech of Kentucky to produce “pharmaceutical grade” CBD. The firm is partnering with Chinese investors, and the $30 million facility broke ground several weeks ago.

      In his announcement of the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2018, McConnell pointed to Kentucky as a model for the rest of the country. “The Hemp Farming Act of 2018 will help Kentucky enhance its position as the leading state on hemp production,” McConnell said in his announcement, which did not mention CBD oil specifically.

      A message left with McConnell’s office have not yet been returned to ConsumerAffairs.

      Whether he knows it or not, U.S. Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is fighting to legalize a cannabis crop that bears a striking physical resem...
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      BMW sued for allegedly cheating emissions tests

      The lawsuit claims BMW dodged emissions standards by equipping vehicles with defeat devices

      BMW has been hit with a class-action lawsuit for allegedly cheating emissions tests on diesel vehicles, including its X5 and 330d models.

      The lawsuit, which was filed in a New Jersey court on Tuesday, alleges that the German automaker installed emissions-cheating software in tens of thousands of diesel-powered BWW vehicles.

      "BMW's representations were misleading for failure to disclose its emissions manipulations," the suit said.

      Manipulating exhaust levels

      The models under investigation are the 2009-2011 BMW X5 and 2009-2011 BMW 335d. The suit claims the vehicles emit levels of nitrogen oxide "many times higher than their gasoline counterparts."

      "The vehicles' promised power, fuel economy, and efficiency are obtained only by turning off or turning down emission controls when the software in these vehicles senses that they are not in an emissions testing environment," the suit said.

      The pollution emitted by the vehicles is said to be up to 27 times the legal standard.

      “At these levels, these cars aren’t just dirty – they don’t meet standards to be legally driven on U.S. streets and no one would have bought these cars if BMW had told the truth,” stated Steve Berman, managing partner of Hagens Berman.

      Shares hit

      BMW has not yet issued a public statement on the allegations, but the company has in the past denied its cars are equipped with illegal defeat devices. Shares in BMW reduced sharply following reports that the automaker installed emissions-cheating software in diesel vehicles.

      Back in 2015, the company’s German rival Volkswagen admitted to using emissions-cheating software and was forced to shell out $4.3 billion to settle the charges. The automaker agreed to plead guilty to three criminal felony counts and pay a $2.8 billion criminal penalty.

      Additionally, VW was forced to pay $15 billion to owners of the Volkswagens, Audis, and Porsches equipped with 2.0-liter TDI Clean Diesel engines and the $1 billion it has agreed to pay to consumers with 3.0-liter diesels.

      BMW has been hit with a class-action lawsuit for allegedly cheating emissions tests on diesel vehicles, including its X5 and 330d models. The lawsuit,...
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      Waymo and Jaguar to launch luxury self-driving SUV

      The company will test in Arizona despite Uber’s recent publicity crisis in the state

      Waymo, Google’s self-driving car arm, has announced that it plans to turn the new Jaguar I-Pace electric SUV into a self-driving luxury taxi.

      The joint venture with Jaguar will start testing in Phoenix, Arizona this year. The high-end SUVs will operate alongside the company’s existing self-driving Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans and Lexus 450h SUVs. Consumers will be able to request rides using a smartphone app.

      “We want to build a self-driving car for every passenger and every trip,” Waymo CEO John Krafcik said at a press event at Chelsea Piers in New York City.

      The companies said they expect as many as 20,000 of the all-electric crossover SUVs to comprise Waymo’s fleet of autonomous taxis in two years’ time, with the goal of serving a potential 1 million trips a day.

      Testing in Arizona

      Arizona’s favorable weather conditions have made it an ideal location for companies to test self-driving car services. However, one of Uber’s autonomous vehicles was recently at center of the first fatality resulting from a self-driving vehicle mishap.

      A week after the incident, Uber suspended all of its autonomous vehicle testing operations. Arizona governor Doug Ducey ordered an indefinite suspension of Uber's public road testing of driverless cars in the state.

      But other companies, including Waymo, are still testing -- and Waymo is the only company that has vehicles on the road with no human backup drivers in the front seats to take over in an emergency.

      In response to questions about the accident, Krafcik referred back to Waymo’s previous comments on the matter, which stated that Waymo’s technology is “robust enough” to avoid a crash like Uber’s.

      “We made some comments over the weekend over the situation in Arizona, and those comments suffice for now,” said Krafcik. “Today, we’re talking about moving forward into the future with technology we’re very confident in, with the I-PACE, and integration of our driver with I-PACE is a safe benchmark for the world.”

      Waymo, Google’s self-driving car arm, has announced that it plans to turn the new Jaguar I-Pace electric SUV into a self-driving luxury taxi. The joint...
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      Are you feeling good or bad about the economy?

      Competing surveys disagree

      The Conference Board's monthly survey shows consumer confidence declined in March, following a February increase.

      The survey came out the same day CNBC released its own survey, showing Americans' economic optimism is the highest it has been since the recession ended a decade ago.

      The two surveys use different methodology, but it's rare to find them moving in opposite directions. The Conference Board employs Nielsen to conduct its research, based on a probability designed random sample. It found consumers in the sample have less confidence in both the present economic condition and the future.

      Lynn Franco, Director of Economic Indicators at The Conference Board, notes that confidence reached an 18-year high in February and has retreated only slightly.

      “Despite the modest retreat in confidence, index levels remain historically high and suggest further strong growth in the months ahead,” Franco said.

      Tempering their enthusiasm

      In fact, consumers aren't turning sour on the economy; they may  be tempering their enthusiasm. The percentage of consumers who say business conditions will improve over the next six months fell from 25.0 percent to 23.0 percent. Those expecting conditions will get worse increased from 9.4 percent to 9.8 percent.

      In the CNBC survey, a little over 50 percent of Americans rated the current economy as good or excellent, the same as February. CNBC says that's the first time at least half the respondents gave the economy such high marks in back-to-back polls in the 11-year history of the survey.

      At the same time, 38 percent of Americans said they expect the economy to improve even more next year, the second-highest number since the recession.

      The CNBC poll also tracked consumers' feeling about the economy with President Trump's job approval numbers, suggesting the President isn't benefiting from a surge in economic optimism. In fact, it found Trump's approval for handling the economy dipped from 47 percent in December to 45 percent.

      Also, the survey showed that just 32 percent of Americans reported having more take-home pay following last year's tax cut. More than half said they saw no change on their pay stubs, while 16 percent said they weren't sure.

      The Conference Board's monthly survey shows consumer confidence declined in March, following a February increase.The survey came out the same day CNBC...
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      IRS: Don't forget to report cryptocurrency profits

      Being paid in virtual currency can also have tax consequences

      If you were one of the fortunate investors who made a killing on Bitcoin in 2017, or maybe just earned a few bucks on a digital currency transaction, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is reminding you to report it on your tax return.

      The tax agency says a profit from a cryptocurrency transaction is no different than a capital gain on a stock or real estate transaction. Using a virtual currency to pay for goods and services can also have tax consequences, the IRS says.

      The IRS outlines some of the issues a taxpayer must consider here. In some instances, the tax issues raised by cryptocurrencies can be somewhat complicated.

      For example, a taxpayer who receives virtual currency as payment for goods or services must, in computing gross income, include the fair market value of the virtual currency, measured in U.S. dollars, as of the date that the virtual currency was received.

      Big profits in 2017

      The IRS reminder may have been prompted, in part, by the fact that some taxpayers who purchased Bitcoins early in 2017 and sold late in the year reaped enormous profits. At the start of 2017, one Bitcoin was worth less than $1,000. By mid-December it was worth almost $20,000.

      The IRS says taxpayers who do not properly report the income tax consequences of cryptocurrency currency transactions can be subject to audit and be liable for penalties and interest. But should you neglect to report thousands of dollars in Bitcoin profits, things could get a lot stickier.

      "Taxpayers could be subject to criminal prosecution for failing to properly report the income tax consequences of virtual currency transactions," the IRS warns. "Criminal charges could include tax evasion and filing a false tax return."

      A tax evasion conviction could result in a prison sentence of up to five years and a fine of up to $250,000.

      If you were one of the fortunate investors who made a killing on Bitcoin in 2017, or maybe just earned a few bucks on a digital currency transaction, the I...
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      The government is investigating Facebook’s privacy issues

      The FTC confirmed that it has opened a 'non-public' probe

      The Federal Trade Commission has confirmed it has opened an investigation into Facebook's privacy practices.

      The announcement from Acting Director Tom Pahl said the agency responds when any company does not live up to its promises to protect privacy.

      "Companies who have settled previous FTC actions must also comply with FTC order provisions imposing privacy and data security requirements," Pahl said in a statement.

      "Accordingly, the FTC takes very seriously recent press reports raising substantial concerns about the privacy practices of Facebook. Today, the FTC is confirming that it has an open non-public investigation into these practices.”

      Facebook once again in FTC crosshairs

      Facebook has dealt with the FTC on privacy issues in the past. It signed a consent decree with the FTC in 2011 after a privacy issue arose. The agreement required Facebook to notify users and get permission before sharing personal data beyond the user's privacy settings.

      Rob Sherman, deputy chief privacy officer for Facebook, released a statement saying the company appreciates the opportunity to answer any questions the FTC might have.

      Facebook found itself at the center of a media firestorm over a week ago when it was revealed that an app developer who legally accessed Facebook user data, with user's permission, then sold the data to a political consulting firm, in violation of Facebook's terms of service.

      The Federal Trade Commission has confirmed it has opened an investigation into Facebook's privacy practices.The announcement from Acting Director Tom P...
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      Facebook accused of collecting call and text messages on Android phones

      The company claims it’s something users opt-in to, but can easily change

      New reports suggest that Facebook has been logging Android users’ call and SMS (text) history without their permission. The company says that’s not exactly the case, but text history logging is something the user can choose as an opt-in feature.

      According to an Ars Technica report, a New Zealander was poring through an archive of his personal data that he had downloaded from Facebook. What he found was not only the typical photos, posts, and contacts, but nearly two years worth of data including names, phone numbers, and the length of each call he made from his Android phone.

      After last week’s PR bloodbath, Facebook was quick to step up and clear its name the best it could.

      “People have to expressly agree to use this feature,” the company said in their response to the story. “If, at any time, they no longer wish to use this feature they can turn it off in settings, or here for Facebook Lite users, and all previously shared call and text history shared via that app is deleted. While we receive certain permissions from Android, uploading this information has always been opt-in only.”

      Contact importing is commonplace in social apps. FourSquare, Cloze, Brewster, and others all use some form of contact collection. Not wanting to be left out on a good idea, Facebook also introduced a version in their Messenger app in 2015, then followed up with a “lightweight version” of it in its Facebook for Android app.

      How it works

      Many people gloss over things like fine print, opt-ins, and opt-outs, and this latest development seems to fall under that category. The way Facebook has this option set up is that when a user signs up for or logs into Messenger or Facebook Lite on an Android device, they’re given the option to have a running upload of contacts as well as call and text history.

      In the Messenger app, users can either turn it on or off, or click on the “learn more” or “not now” options. On the Facebook Lite app, the choices are to turn it on or select “skip.” For users who decide to turn the feature on, Facebook logs that info as it happens.

      Curious Facebook users who do their social networking on an Android device can see what information has been gathered by using Facebook’s “Download Your Information” tool.

      How you can change the info Facebook collects

      If a user no longer wants their calls and texts tracked, all they have to do is turn the feature off in their settings. For added security, users can also go here to see which contacts they have uploaded from Messenger and delete any uploaded contact information they want to.

      Given all that’s erupted out of Facebook’s data collection dust-up, it’s smart for users to double-check what information they’ve given Facebook and others access to.. The company offers a laundry list of ways to update a user’s settings and enhance the security of their data. In a few simple steps, users can decide what apps and games they want to grant permission to collect personal data.

      New reports suggest that Facebook has been logging Android users’ call and SMS (text) history without their permission. The company says that’s not exactly...
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      Spending bill lacks funds to stabilize health insurance market

      As a result, Affordable Care Act premiums will surge in October

      The $1.3 trillion spending bill Congress passed last week has more money for the military and domestic programs, but what it doesn't have could send health insurance premiums sharply higher.

      Bipartisan efforts to include funding for health insurers that provide policies under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) failed when Republicans and Democrats couldn't agree. Without the money, health insurers are warning that premiums will surge during October's open enrollment period, just before the midterm elections.

      Not surprisingly, Democrats and Republicans are blaming each other for the failure of the health insurance funding provision, authored by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Me.) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).

      'Last opportunity'

      “Let me be crystal clear: our proposal is the last opportunity to prevent these rate increases, which will be announced on October 1st," Collins said in a speech on the Senate floor prior to the vote. "And our package will help to stabilize the insurance markets and make them more competitive. Every study has shown that our bills would make health insurance more affordable.”

      Alexander singled out Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), saying she blocked the measure because of language restricting abortion. Because the measure failed, Alexander said the average premium would go up $8,000 over three years.

      Murray agrees that partisan politics got in the way of the healthcare funding, but she says it's the GOP's fault. Murray said Republicans sabotaged the bill by inserting a provision they knew Democrats wouldn't support.

      'Partisan bill'

      "This partisan bill also pulled the most worn page out of the Republican ideological playbook: making extreme, political attacks on women’s health care," Murray said in a speech on the Senate floor. "This partisan bill would take huge steps beyond current law—making it so that women can’t even buy abortion coverage using their own money.”

      Collins said the measure only included the traditional abortion funding language that she said had applied to appropriations bills since 1976, and that apply to all government health programs.

      No matter where the blame lies, consumers who depend on ACA health insurance policies will pay the price later this year. Blue Cross Blue Shield predicts the resulting rate hikes could be as much as 10 percent.

      The $1.3 trillion spending bill Congress passed last week has more money for the military and domestic programs, but what it doesn't have could send health...
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      Twitter announces a ban on cryptocurrency ads

      The social media platform says the decision will help keep users safe

      Today, Twitter announced that it will be joining the likes of Facebook and Google in banning advertisements for initial coin offerings (ICO) and token sales.

      The decision comes after weeks of speculation that the social media platform would begin blocking ads for cryptocurrency exchanges, initial coin offerings (ICO), cryptocurrency wallets, and crypto token sales.

      “Advertisement of Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) and token sales will be prohibited globally,” a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement. “We know that this type of content is often associated with deception and fraud, both organic and paid, and are proactively implementing a number of signals to prevent these types of accounts from engaging with others in a deceptive manner.”

      Discouraging fraud and deception

      Tokens, wallets, and exchanges carry potential risks (such as scams, fraud, or other financial crimes) and tend to be volatile. Twitter says its new policies will help it ensure the safety of its users.

      Going forward, cryptocurrency exchanges and wallet services ads will be limited to those that are provided by a public company listed on major stock markets.

      Earlier this month, Google announced an update to its financial services policy that will restrict advertising for "cryptocurrencies and related content" starting this summer.

      The new policies on cryptocurrency ads that have recently been adopted by major social media platforms have caused the value of the digital asset to decline rapidly. Bitcoin approached the $8,000 level today and has decreased in value dramatically since December when it hit an all-time high of $20,000.

      Today, Twitter announced that it will be joining the likes of Facebook and Google in banning advertisements for initial coin offerings (ICO) and token sale...
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      Remington files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy

      Despite financial and legal difficulties, the company plans to keep making guns

      Remington Outdoor Co, one of the oldest and largest gun and ammunition manufacturers in the country, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

      The gun maker has been dealing with a heavy debt load and slumping sales, as well as lawsuits from families of the victims of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. The company manufactures a variety of handguns, shotguns, and rifles, including the Bushmaster AR-15-style rifle that was used in the 2012 mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.

      Remington has also been hit with lawsuits from individuals claiming some guns are defective; the company has voluntarily recalled some of its models.

      The filing will allow the 200-year old company to reduce its debt by $700 million and contribute $145 million to its subsidiaries. Control of the company will be transferred to its creditors. The proceedings may be completed as soon as May 3, according to court papers.

      Remington’s filing allows it to stay in business while restructuring its debt. The company said operations “will not be disrupted by the restructuring process” and added that it plans to continue paying its vendors and employees while under bankruptcy protection.

      Activists call for gun control

      The filing comes amid increased attention on the issue of gun control following the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. In response, many companies and retailers have stepped up their efforts to restrict firearms sales.

      Last week, Citigroup Inc. announced that it would require its retail-sector clients to sell firearms only to customers who passed background checks. Citi also said it would no longer sell high-capacity magazines or sell guns to those under 21 years old.

      Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods have also changed their policy to prohibit gun sales to those under the age of 21. Orvis, an outdoor goods company, recently updated its gun sale policy to require that customers seeking to purchase a firearm either be 21 or show proof that they have taken a hunter education and safety course.

      Remington Outdoor Co, one of the oldest and largest gun and ammunition manufacturers in the country, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.The...
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      Apple CEO Tim Cook calls for new regulations on data and privacy

      Cook says the data breach at Facebook is ‘dire’

      At the annual China Development Forum in Beijing on Saturday, Apple CEO Tim Cook called for stronger data privacy regulations to prevent “dire” situations like the leak of Facebook user information from happening again.

      Last week, news surfaced that Facebook let Cambridge Analytica harvest data on 50 million users without their consent in an effort to target messages to voters during the 2016 presidential election.

      To protect users’ data, Cook said tech companies need "well-crafted" data privacy regulations.

      Change needed

      “I think that this certain situation is so dire and has become so large that probably some well-crafted regulation is necessary,” Cook said. “The ability of anyone to know what you’ve been browsing about for years, who your contacts are, who their contacts are, things you like and dislike and every intimate detail of your life -- from my own point of view it shouldn’t exist.”

      Cook said Apple has worried for years that something like the recent Facebook data leak might happen. "Unfortunately that prediction has come true more than once," he said.

      “We’ve worried for a number of years that people in many countries were giving up data probably without knowing fully what they were doing and that these detailed profiles that were being built of them, that one day something would occur and people would be incredibly offended by what had been done without them being aware of it,” he said.

      Curbing “platform power”

      Cook isn’t the first to suggest that tech companies need to be better regulated. Earlier this month, internet creator Tim Berners-Lee commemorated the 29th birthday of the internet with an open letter. In the letter, he urged for more regulation of big tech platforms.

      “Platform power” has made it possible for people to “weaponize the web at scale,” he said.

      “In recent years, we’ve seen conspiracy theories trend on social media platforms, fake Twitter and Facebook accounts stoke social tensions, external actors interfere in elections, and criminals steal troves of personal data,” he writes.

      To help solve the problem, Berners-Lee called for socially-minded regulation.

      "A legal or regulatory framework that accounts for social objectives may help ease...tensions," he wrote. "Today’s powerful digital economy calls for strong standards that balance the interests of both companies and online citizens."

      At the annual China Development Forum in Beijing on Saturday, Apple CEO Tim Cook called for stronger data privacy regulations to prevent “dire” situations...
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      Radagast Pet Food recalls chicken and turkey products

      The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

      Radagast Pet Food of Portland, Ore., is recalling one lot each of Free-Range Chicken and Free-Range Turkey Recipe.

      The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes.

      No pet or human illnesses have been reported.

      This following two lots are being recalled:

      Rad Cat Raw Diet Free-Range Chicken Lot 62762, Best By Date 10/19/18, shipped to distributors in May 2017 in California. Minnesota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island with the following UPC’s:

      • 8oz UPC 8 51536 00103 6
      • 16oz UPC 8 51536 00104 3
      • 24oz UPC 8 51536 00105 0

      Rad Cat Raw Diet Free-Range Turkey Recipe Lot 62926, Best By Date 05/03/19 shipped in December 2017 to California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, new York, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas and Washington, and sold through independent pet retail stores. The recalled product has the following UPC’s:

      • 8oz UPC 8 51536 00100 5
      • 16oz UPC 8 51536 00101 2
      • 24oz UPC 8 51536 00102 9

      What to do

      Customers who purchased the recalled products should return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

      Consumers with questions may contact Radagast Pet Food at 503-736-4649 Monday- Friday 9:00am – 5:00pm or online at www.RadFood.com.

      Radagast Pet Food of Portland, Ore., is recalling one lot each of Free-Range Chicken and Free-Range Turkey Recipe.The products may be contaminated with...
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      River Valley Sprouts recalls alfalfa sprouts and garlic alfalfa sprouts

      The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

      River Valley Sprouts is recalling its 5-oz. packages of alfalfa sprouts, garlic/alfalfa and variety sprouts, and 4-oz. Packages of alfalfa sprouts.

      The products may be contaminated with Salmonella.

      No illnesses have been reported to date in connection with this problem.

      The recalled sprouts were packed in a plastic cup or clam container, shipped from March 6 – 15, 2018, and sold in various grocery stores in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Some packages have March 15 – 25, 2018 sell by dates on the label.

      What to do

      Customers who purchased the recalled product should discard it or return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.

      River Valley Sprouts is recalling its 5-oz. packages of alfalfa sprouts, garlic/alfalfa and variety sprouts, and 4-oz. Packages of alfalfa sprouts.The...
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      Model year 2016-2018 Hyundai Sonata Plug-In Hybrids recalled

      The vehicle could lose power, increasing the risk of a crash

      Hyundai Motor America is recalling 2,840 model year 2016-2018 Hyundai Sonata Plug-In Hybrids.

      Thee vehicles are equipped with a Voltage Protection Device (VPD), designed to protect the high voltage battery module, that may activate inadvertently.

      If the VPD activates while the vehicle is being operated in Electric Vehicle mode, there may be a loss of power, increasing the risk of a crash.

      What to do

      Hyundai will notify owners, and dealers will remove the VPD switch and install a new Battery Management System that contains an Overvoltage Protection Device.

      The recall is expected to begin May 4, 2018.

      Owners may contact Hyundai customer service at 1-855-371-9460. Hyundai's number for this recall is 175.

      Hyundai Motor America is recalling 2,840 model year 2016-2018 Hyundai Sonata Plug-In Hybrids.Thee vehicles are equipped with a Voltage Protection Devic...
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      Briggs & Stratton recalls riding mowers

      The mowers can unintentionally mow when being driven in reverse

      Briggs & Stratton of Wauwatosa, Wis., is recalling about 18,300 Snapper, Simplicity and Massey Ferguson riding mowers sold in the U.S. and Canada.

      The reverse-mow option switch can malfunction and allow the riding lawn mowers to unintentionally mow when being driven in reverse, posing a risk of injury to bystanders.

      No incidents or injuries are reported.

      This recall involves Snapper, Simplicity and Massey Ferguson brand riding lawn mowers.

      The mowers were sold in red/black or orange/black color combinations with a Snapper, Massey Fergusen or Simplicity logo on the hood. Riding mowers with the following model and serial numbers are included in the recall:

      Model

      Serial Number Range

      2691325

      2017632053

      2017840824

      2691326

      2017723459

      2017953873

      2691329

      2017737659

      2017824706

      2691330

      2017603538

      2017772330

      2691331

      2017633942

      2017772150

      2691332

      2017603223

      2017775530

      2691333

      2017585284

      2017585883

      2691334

      2017707916

      2018012782

      2691335

      2017714879

      2018013046

      2691336

      2017727313

      2018003962

      2691337

      2017736304

      2018019132

      2691338

      2017716723

      2018018637

      2691339

      2017765556

      2018026629

      2691340

      2017751589

      2017751716

      2691341

      2017744904

      2017745146

      2691343

      2017649093

      2017652000

      2691345

      2017779918

      2017780488

      2691346

      2017648707

      2017779841

      2691361

      2017635133

      2017635247

      2691406

      2017649118

      2017824328

      2691407

      2017824420

      2017824578

      2691415

      2017734169

      2017985524

      2691418

      2017751179

      2018026900

      2691419

      2017762911

      2017820841

      2691450

      2017989272

      2018030491

      7800950

      2017654676

      2017682423

      7800951

      2017634484

      2017635097

      7800952

      2017595626

      2017667271

      The model and serial numbers are located on the frame near the front tires. If a black dot is present on either the equipment ID label or the shipping crate label, the product has been repaired and is not included in the recall.

      The mowers, manufactured in the U.S., were sold at Briggs & Stratton dealers nationwide from August 2016, through January 2018, for between $1,500 and $13,000.

      What to do

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled mowers and contact a Briggs & Stratton dealer to schedule a free repair.

      Consumers may contact Briggs & Stratton at 800-227-3798 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. (CT) Monday through Friday, online at www.briggsandstratton.com for more information.

      Dealers can be found using the dealer locator at www.simplicitymfg.com, www.snapper.com, or www.masseylawn.com for more information.

      Briggs & Stratton of Wauwatosa, Wis., is recalling about 18,300 Snapper, Simplicity and Massey Ferguson riding mowers sold in the U.S. and Canada.The r...
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      The Weekly Hack: Facebook users targeted and the biggest illegal hack of all time

      Universities were targeted in a state-sponsored campaign, prosecutors say

      News that the firm Cambridge Analytica harvested profile data from Facebook users to advertise for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and other right-wing candidates sparked a major backlash against the social media giant this weekend.

      Facebook denies that it was a hack, however, explaining to the New York Times that “no systems were infiltrated, and no passwords or sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked.”

      In fact, Facebook may have a point. As many have noted, Facebook's own policies didn’t block third parties from accessing user data until 2015, after Cambridge Analytica had already obtained information on an estimated 50 million users.

      Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg and CEO Mark Zuckerberg responded to the revelations publicly Wednesday with promises to review their policies. The site has approximately two billion users, or a quarter of the planet.

      Universities, companies, and governments

      In what the US Attorney’s office says is “one of the largest state-sponsored hacking campaigns ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice,” the DOJ said today that cyber-criminals in Iran stole $3.4 billion worth of data from 144 American universities. They also allegedly targeted 176 foreign universities, 30 private companies and five government agencies over a four-year period.

      The DOJ formally indicted the alleged hackers today, though they were not arrested because they are still in Iran. Prosecutors say they could face detention if they ever try to leave the country.

      More than 8,000 American professors were targeted in the attack as part of an effort to steal their research, the government says. The hackers allegedly have links to the Mabna Institute, a tech firm that the DOJ says works on behalf of the Iranian government and Iranian universities.

      Orbitz customers

      Orbitz, the third-party travel booking site owned by Expedia, announced this week that hackers accessed information on approximately 880,000 credit cards used by customers.

      Over a period of several months last year, hackers managed to mine credit information as well as names, birth dates, and addresses on customers who used the site anywhere from from January 2016 to December 2017.

      "We are offering affected individuals one year of complimentary credit monitoring and identity protection service in countries where available,” Orbitz said in a statement.

      Canadian credit card users

      Thieves made off with the rewards points earned by Canadian consumers participating in a grocery store loyalty program.

      PC Optimum is a new but popular program in Canada that allows consumers to earn reward points when they shop at certain grocery stores and other retailers.

      They may just be points, but they have real value; one victim said she lost more than one million points, allowing hackers to purchase over $1,000 worth of goods with her account. A total of more than 100,000 people had their points stolen.

      Physical therapy patients and employees

      ATI Physical Therapy, a chain of physical rehabilitation centers across the country, alerted over 35,000 customers yesterday that their data may have been accessed by hackers who were targeting direct deposit data of company employees.

      As is becoming the standard when these breaches occur, the company is offering consumers free credit monitoring.

      News that the firm Cambridge Analytica harvested profile data from Facebook users to advertise for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and other right-win...
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      AT&T/Time Warner merger trial opens in Washington

      The Trump administration is seeking to block the two media companies from joining forces

      Lawyers representing the U.S. Justice Department and AT&T faced off in federal court in Washington on Thursday as the government attempts to block the company’s merger with Time Warner.

      The outcome will likely shape the media landscape for years to come, affecting what entertainment is offered to consumers, how they access it, and what they pay for it. The government claims the union would create a media company that is just too big and powerful, which it says would limit competition.

      The Justice Department says AT&T is not only a huge wireless provider, it also owns DirecTV. Time Warner is already a huge content provider. It owns Warner Brothers Studios, along with cable channels like HBO, CNN, and TNT.

      But lawyers supporting the merger insist AT&T and Time Warner are not really competitors, arguing their services overlap. They also point out there is plenty of media competition from traditional broadcast networks, as well as over-the-top providers (OTP) like Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon.

      Early opponent to the merger

      Even as a candidate, Donald Trump was against the deal. When AT&T announced the merger deal in 2016, candidate Trump said his administration would block it, though some critics suggested his opposition had more to do with his intense feud with CNN than any antitrust concerns.

      Even so, the Consumer Federation of America this month found itself in the odd position of agreeing with the Trump administration, co-publishing a paper that argues the government's case against the merger is both warranted and consistent with past enforcement practices.

      The paper concluded that the proposed merger poses a “severe threat” to competition. It argues that when there are policies in place to prevent discrimination against independent service providers, consumers benefit in terms of the quality of content and consumer choice.

      Calling the current media landscape a “tight oligopoly on steroids,” the paper argues that the Trump administration's decision to oppose the merger is not only right on the facts but also in line with past enforcement of antitrust law. Reducing competition, the paper argues, would slow innovation, stifle the growth of online video distribution, and raise consumer prices.

      Best hope for consumers

      “‘Over-the-Top’ competition is the best hope consumers have, but network operators will kill that competition if they are not stopped,” said Dr. Mark Cooper, CFA's director of research. “The most effective way for antitrust authorities to protect competition is to reject vertical mergers that threaten to dramatically increase the market power of network operators like AT&T.”

      In opening statements, government lawyers argued that a combined AT&T and Time Warner would be “a weapon,” used to charge rivals more for access to consumers.

      Lawyers for the companies, meanwhile, promised that as the case goes forward, they would prove that wouldn't happen.

      Lawyers representing the U.S. Justice Department and AT&T; faced off in federal court in Washington on Thursday as the government attempts to block the com...
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      Billionaire launches effort to save Toys ‘R’ Us

      Isaac Larian has pledged $200 million dollars to save the retailer

      A top toy company executive is pledging hundreds of millions of his own dollars to save Toys “R” Us.

      Isaac Larian, the CEO of MGA entertainment -- the company behind Bratz dolls and Little Tike toys -- and two other investors have pledged $200 million dollars to save about 400 of the remaining 734 U.S.-based Toys “R” Us stores that are set to be liquidated.

      Larian has also launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise even more money. Through his contribution and publicity from the #SaveToysRUs campaign, he hopes to reach his goal of raising $1 billion by May 28.

      "$1 billion may seem like a staggering goal, but it would take a very large sum to create a successful bid for the acquisition of such a large entity. If the $1 billion goal is reached, it would make this campaign the highest-funded crowdfunding to date,” according to an announcement for the campaign.

      An ‘American icon’

      Larian -- who is a billionaire -- is investing his own money in the effort, not his company’s money. He says he sold his first toys to Toys “R” Us, which ended up being crucial to the success of his company.

      "This is an American icon that has to be saved," said Larian. “We can’t just sit back and let it disappear. I used to take my kids there instead of Disneyland. This needs to be saved for the next generation."

      Donating to the campaign will “help to ensure that generations to come can 'always be a Toys R Us kid,'” Larian says on the GoFundMe web page. Additionally, he claims saving 400 Toys “R” Us stores could save one-third of the 130,000 jobs that would be lost if the stores close.

      Donations are currently being accepted via GoFundMe.

      A top toy company executive is pledging hundreds of millions of his own dollars to save Toys “R” Us.Isaac Larian, the CEO of MGA entertainment -- the c...
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      Best Buy becomes the latest retailer to stop offering Huawei phones

      Mounting security concerns have detoured the electronics manufacturer’s inroads to the U.S.

      Best Buy is the latest to banish Huawei phones from its shelves. In January, both AT&T and Verizon announced they were doing the same out of concerns from the CIA, FBI, and NSA that Huawei might be utilizing its phones to harvest sensitive data to pass along to the Chinese government.

      The retailer will also pull Huawei’s smartwatches and laptops from its inventory as well.

      The growing concern over U.S.-directed security threats was first raised by Congress’ Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in 2012. The committee’s warning was blunt: Consumers have a  “growing dependence” on a small group of equipment providers and China has the means, opportunity, and motive to use telecommunications companies for malicious purposes.

      "We're deeply concerned about the risks of allowing any company or entity that is beholden to foreign governments that don't share our values to gain positions of power inside our telecommunications networks," said FBI Director Christopher Wray in testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee. He added this would permit “the capacity to maliciously modify or steal information. And it provides the capacity to conduct undetected espionage.”

      With Best Buy, AT&T, and Verizon out of the picture, consumers looking to buy Huawei’s new Mate 10 Pro have relatively few options left. A ConsumerAffairs survey of the market showed that the Mate 10 was still available at Amazon, eBay, and Huawei’s own online store, but that was about it. At this juncture, it’s difficult to forecast how taking Huawei out of the retail picture might impact competitors’ prices with one less rival in the mix.

      Who is Huawei and why should consumers be concerned?

      Huawei Technologies is China’s largest telephone-network equipment maker and one of the world's largest telecom equipment makers. The company’s global footprint is impressive. It moved more than 153 million handsets in 2017, making it the most successful Chinese brand and in the same league as Samsung and Apple.

      While American consumers might not recognize the name as a brand, many of the phones they use -- such as T-Mobile, TalkTalk, and Motorola -- employ Huawei’s mechanisms.

      The security concerns that Congress has raised tie directly to Huawei’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, who was an engineer in Chinese People's Liberation Army in the early 1980s.

      In 1994, Zhengfei convinced the Chinese government that international security is linked to  switching equipment technology and “that a nation that did not have its own switching equipment was like one that lacked its own military." The Chinese government reportedly agreed with this assessment and signed a deal with Huawei to build China’s first national telecommunications network.

      Congress has had their eye on Huawei’s desire to establish a presence in the U.S. for a while. In 2008, some members raised questions about the company's proposed merger with 3Com. Concerns over the company’s bid for a Sprint contract were also voiced in 2010. Following a review by the U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment, Huawei decided to back off on its purchase of 3Leaf systems in 2010.

      Best Buy is the latest to banish Huawei phones from its shelves. In January, both AT&T; and Verizon announced they were doing the same out of concerns from...
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      Report finds bleak conditions for first-time homebuyers

      Entry level homes are older, smaller, and more expensive

      The number of homes for sale rose in the first quarter for the first time in years, according to real estate marketplace Trulia. But it’s not good news for first-time homebuyers.

      The increase in housing inventory -- a gain of 3.3 percent -- was due only to the supply of premium homes rising by more than 13 percent. Buyers looking for an entry-level home still have fewer to choose from, and those that are on the market are a lot more expensive than last year.

      The Trulia Inventory and Price Watch found the number of homes priced in the entry-level category hit its lowest level in six years, while prices surged nearly 10 percent.

      More starter homes will need work

      Perhaps more discouraging for consumers hoping to buy their first home is the condition of the available homes in their price range. The report finds that starter homes on the market this spring are much less likely to be in “move-in” condition.

      According to Trulia, fixer-uppers now make up 11.2 percent of the market, rising  from 10.3 percent in 2012. On a national basis, starter homes are nine years older on average and about two percent smaller. Average square footage has shrunk from 1,211 six years ago to 1,187 today.

      To get into the housing market today, buyers must be prepared to spend a larger percentage of their disposable income. On a national average, paying for the typical starter home now takes 41.2 percent of the buyer’s income.

      And buyers looking in California may be completely out of luck. The state is the most expensive for starter homes in the country, with average buyers in San Francisco, San Jose, and Los Angeles needing more than 100 percent of their income to pay for the typical entry-level home in those markets.

      Perfect storm

      "First-time home buyers face a perfect storm this spring,” said Trulia's senior economist Sheryl Young. “Affordable, move-in ready starter homes have become harder to find amid rising home prices and mortgage rates.”

      Young says there are more fixer uppers now because sellers have little incentive to make improvements in such a tight, competitive housing market.

      Her advice to buyers is to be very careful when considering a fixer upper. Make sure you know the extent of repairs and improvements that will have to be made and what they will cost. Otherwise, you could end up paying a lot more for your starter home than you intended.

      The number of homes for sale rose in the first quarter for the first time in years, according to real estate marketplace Trulia. But it’s not good news for...
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      Natural Grocers Coconut Smiles Organic recalled

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

      Vitamin Cottage Natural Food Markets of Lakewood, Colo., is recalling Natural Grocers Coconut Smiles Organic.

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

      Six illnesses have been reported.

      The following product, packaged in clear 10-oz. plastic bags, bearing the “Natural Grocers” label and packed-on dates prior to 18-075 (Mar. 16, 2018), are being recalled:

      • UPC Code: 8034810
      • Description: Coconut Smiles Organic
      • Packed on date: ALL PACK DATES PRIOR TO 18-075 (Mar. 16, 2018)

      The recalled product was distributed to 145 Natural Grocers stores in Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. Consumers can find the specific locations of the Natural Grocers stores in those states at: https://www.naturalgrocers.com/storelocations/store-directory/.

      What to do

      Customers who purchased the recalled product should return it to the store for credit or refund.

      Consumers with questions may contact the company at 303-986-4600, ext. 80531, Monday through Friday 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. (MST).

      Vitamin Cottage Natural Food Markets of Lakewood, Colo., is recalling Natural Grocers Coconut Smiles Organic.The product may be contaminated with Salmo...
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      Self-driving Uber may not be at fault for killing pedestrian

      Local police say the woman abruptly ‘came from the shadows’

      Three days after a pedestrian was struck and killed by an Uber operating in autonomous mode, Arizona police say video footage of the accident suggests the self-driving car was not at fault for the crash.

      Although the human backup driver made no attempt to brake, Sylvia Moir, local police chief in Tempe, Ariz., said the accident would likely have occurred whether or not the vehicle was in autonomous mode.

      “It’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or human-driven) based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway,” Moir told the San Francisco Chronicle.

      Victim didn’t cross at crosswalk

      At the time of the crash, the vehicle was traveling at 38mph in a 35mph zone, according to the initial investigation. The woman hit by the Uber was 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, who was found unconscious at the scene and later died of her injuries in a local hospital.

      Herzberg was pushing a bicycle carrying numerous plastic shopping bags outside of a crosswalk when she walked out in front of the self-driving Volvo XC90. Local authorities suspect Herzberg may have been homeless.

      The self-driving car had a human backup driver positioned in the front seat, as required by local regulations. However, the backup driver was unable to take control of the vehicle in time to prevent the crash.

      “The driver said it was like a flash, the person walked out in front of them,” Moir told the Chronicle. “His first alert to the collision was the sound of the collision.”

      Although the video footage does not conclusively show who is at fault, Moir said that she believes the blame cannot be fully placed on Uber. “I suspect preliminarily it appears that the Uber would likely not be at fault in this accident,” she said.

      Video footage released

      Tempe police have released portions of the video footage captured from cameras both inside and outside the vehicle. Those who wish to view the video can do so here, but ConsumerAffairs warns that the content is graphic.

      The footage seems to show human safety operator Rafael Vasquez distracted and looking down moments before the crash. It also shows the driver's hands were not hovering above the steering wheel, which backup drivers are instructed to do in order to be able to take control of the car quickly in the event of an emergency.

      “The video is disturbing and heartbreaking to watch, and our thoughts continue to be with Elaine’s loved ones,” an Uber spokesperson said in a statement. “Our cars remain grounded, and we’re assisting local, state and federal authorities in any way we can.”

      The accident is the first known self-driving crash to result in a pedestrian fatality, but not the first death involving self-driving technology.

      In 2016, a man was killed while behind the wheel of a Tesla using its Autopilot feature. The vehicle’s computer vision-based vehicle detection system, which is different from what Uber uses, was not at fault in the crash, investigators later ruled.

      Three days after a pedestrian was struck and killed by an Uber operating in autonomous mode, Arizona police say video footage of the accident suggests the...
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      Facebook CEO goes public on data sale scandal

      The social media company is trying to get in front of backlash

      Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg has made a public statement in response to the controversy over one of its partner's illegal sale of Facebook data to a third party.

      The data, which includes profiles for an estimated 50 million Facebook users, was allegedly used to target political ads in support of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump during the 2016 election.

      "We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can't then we don't deserve to serve you," Zukerberg wrote in a nearly 1,000 word post on Facebook. "I've been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn't happen again."

      Facebook actually did nothing illegal. It had a partnership with a third party app -- This Is Your Digital Life -- that allowed the app developer to access data about people who downloaded the app, and their friends. People who downloaded the app were informed of the terms.

      Violations of terms of service

      What happened next is where it gets sticky. Facebook alleges that the owners of the app sold the data to a political marketing firm, Cambridge Analytica, in violation of Facebook's terms of service. Cambridge Analytica then allegedly used the data to target voters on behalf of the Trump campaign.

      In his statement, Zuckerberg said Facebook made a number of policy changes in 2014 that would have prevented the unauthorized distribution of Facebook data had they been adopted earlier.

      Among the changes:

      • Limits were placed on the data that apps could access

      • Apps could not access users' friends' data without permission from the friends

      • Developers must receive Facebook permission before they can ask for users' data

      Learned of the data sale in 2015

      Zuckerberg says it was not until 2015 that Facebook learned from journalists that the app developer had sold the data to Cambridge Analytica. It then demanded the data be deleted, and Zuckerberg says Facebook received certifications that the data had, in fact, been destroyed.

      "Last week, we learned from The Guardian, The New York Times and Channel 4 that Cambridge Analytica may not have deleted the data as they had certified," Zuckerberg wrote in his post. "We immediately banned them from using any of our services. Cambridge Analytica claims they have already deleted the data and has agreed to a forensic audit by a firm we hired to confirm this. We're also working with regulators as they investigate what happened."

      So far, Zuckerberg's public statement has done little to quell the controversy. An appearance on CNN Wednesday night didn't seem to help either.

      Critics say Facebook should have informed its users in 2015 that their data may have been sold to a political marketing firm. A Twitter campaign called #deletefacebook is urging angry Facebook users to abandon the social media platform.

      But writing on Engadget, technology journalist Nicole Lee says deleting Facebook is easier said than done. She notes that the site has become too important to too many people who depend on it to stay connected to family and friends.

      Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerburg has made a public statement in response to the controversy over one of its partner's illegal sale of Facebook data to a third...
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      Coinbase bug allowed users to send themselves unlimited amounts of cryptocurrency

      The finding is yet another bump in the road when it comes to cryptocurrency security

      Dutch financial tech firm VI Company uncovered a flaw in digital currency exchange Coinbase’s system that allowed users to add an unlimited amount of the digital currency Ether (ETH) -- a cryptocurrency running on the Ethereum network -- to their Coinbase account.

      In technical terms, Coinbase users were able to exploit a “smart contract” to send Ether to as many “wallets” they could set up in their Coinbase account. A smart contract is a computer protocol designed to digitally facilitate the negotiation of a contract.

      The bug has been patched, but the exploit is yet another example of how digital cryptocurrency platforms are not yet foolproof when it comes to security or design.

      Merry Christmas to… myself!

      In the spirit of giving, VI Company’s discovery of the bug came out of designing a Christmas “present” it would give out to clients.

      VI’s present was a small amount of Ether, but delivered in a way that gave the recipient a first-person look into how the technology behind Ether, smart contracts, and blockchains worked.

      “What we didn’t expect was that one of our colleagues, who decided to use Coinbase as his wallet, told us he received the Ethereum,” wrote blockchain specialist Jesse Lakerveld in a VI blog post. “After checking, we found out that no Ethereum had been sent to our colleague according to the smart contract. But according to his Coinbase wallet, he did receive it.”

      Lakerveld decided to try to reproduce the issue on a smaller scale and found that users could indeed add Ethereum to Coinbase wallets without “sending” the asset from a smart contract.

      Now what do we do?

      The bug VI uncovered was, in the company’s words “quite big.” The conundrum was how to clue in Coinbase in a “proper” way.

      VI’s team decided to go with HackerOne, a hacker-powered security platform that connects businesses with cybersecurity researchers. HackerOne is one of the good guys in the hacking world where its clients -- which include GM, Starbucks, Spotify, Nintendo, and the U.S. Department of Defense -- offer bounties to hackers who identify bugs in their systems and products.

      Lucky for VI, Coinbase was a HackerOne client. In late January, the platform confirmed that the bug had been fixed and happily paid a bounty of $10,000.

      “Analysis of the issue indicated only accidental loss and no exploitation attempts,” Coinbase officials said.

      Coinbase hasn’t always been so lucky

      Loopholes similar to what VI dug up have put Coinbase in a bind before. In January, a website glitch at Overstock.com allowed users to pay and request refunds in either Bitcoin or Bitcoin Cash. Overstock uses Coinbase’s merchant integration API.

      Coinbase was also blamed for a bug that accidentally charged users as many as 17 times for the same purchase. However, the company was found not to be responsible, and both Visa and Worldpay exonerated it. Coinbase has announced that it will issue refunds to any consumer who was affected by the bug.

      Dutch financial tech firm VI Company uncovered a flaw in digital currency exchange Coinbase’s system that allowed users to add an unlimited amount of the d...
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      Congress poised to pass $1.3 trillion budget

      The measure would avert a government shutdown at midnight on Friday

      In a rare show of bipartisan cooperation, lawmakers in Washington have proposed a $1.3 trillion budget bill that would fund the government through September.

      Passage before Friday at midnight would head off a government shutdown.

      The measure is designed to please both Republicans and Democrats. It contains additional spending on the military but also boosts domestic spending.

      'Adults in the room'

      Some conservative Republicans in the House oppose the measure because it adds to the deficit. Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) is leading the opposition, saying Washington must be more fiscally responsible.

      "We have to be the adults in the room," Walker said. "We have funding requests by the billions every single week – Republicans and Democrats – but someone has to step up. Republicans have to step up to be able to bend this back."

      But Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, supports the spending bill, noting that it adheres to the recently enacted budget “caps” agreement while providing an additional $80 billion for the Pentagon.

      The measure also provides funding to counter a growing opioid abuse epidemic, promote school safety and mental health, and improve infrastructure.

      'Negotiated in good faith'

      “This Omnibus Appropriations bill represents thousands of hours of work, consideration, and input by Members of Congress," Frelinghuysen said. "These 12 bills were considered and amended in committee and on the House floor in an open and inclusive process last year, and have been negotiated in good faith by committee leaders, House and Senate Leadership on both sides of the aisle, and the White House."

      In the Senate, the measure has the backing of many Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who praised the bill's increased funding for opioid treatment and rural broadband.

      Should the bill pass both the House and Senate, as expected, the White House has indicated President Trump will sign it.

      In a rare show of bipartisan cooperation, lawmakers in Washington have proposed a $1.3 trillion budget bill that would fund the government through Septembe...
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      Survey finds 39 percent of rewards cardholders are paying interest

      Carrying a balance cuts into a credit card's 'rewards'

      Rewards credit cards are popular with consumers. Some cards pay cash back on purchases while some provide travel perks.

      But consumers who load those cards up with debt that they carry month to month will find that interest charges erode many of those rewards. A recent survey by CompareCards.com found that 39 percent of consumers with a rewards card carry a balance. The researchers say the average balance is $2,547.

      The net result isn't all that rewarding. Let's assume that the average cash back on those purchases is 1.5 percent; that means a consumer would earn $38.20 in rewards. But with the average credit card interest rate north of 16 percent, the cardholder pays hefty interest on that balance each month.

      In a year's time, interest charges would amount to at least $407.52. While it's true that the rewards offset at least a small portion of those charges, the consumer would have been ahead by paying the balance in full each month.

      Rewards should be used for something fun, not paying interest. Ironically, the survey found that the most popular use of rewards was paying down debt.

      Many consumers have more than one rewards card

      The survey also found that while most people with rewards credit cards only had one or two, a quarter of those in the survey said they carried three or more rewards credit cards.

      The authors point out that having a lot of rewards cards isn't necessarily a problem, as long as you don't run up debt on all of them. When you do, they don't reward you -- they cost you.

      If you have a credit card with a large balance, the most rewarding credit card -- the one that saves the most money -- is a balance transfer card with zero percent interest for a lengthy introductory period.

      An example

      The Chase Slate Card is just one of several balance transfer cards, but it is attractive because there is no balance transfer fee if the transfer is made within 60 days of opening the account. The cardholder would pay no interest on the transferred balance for 15 months.

      Using the example of a $2,547 balance at 16 percent APR, eliminating the $407.52 interest charges beats the cash back rewards most credit cards will pay. Monthly payments of $169.80 would pay off the balance in 15 months without paying any interest.

      That’s not a bad reward.

      Rewards credit cards are popular with consumers. Some cards pay cash back on purchases while some provide travel perks.But consumers who load those car...
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      SMI Holdings recalls beef top sirloin steak

      The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

      SMI Holdings, doing business as Stampede Meat, of Bridgeview, Ill., is recalling approximately 484,800 pounds of raw beef top sirloin steak.

      The products may be contaminated with Salmonella.

      There have been no confirmed reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products.

      The following frozen raw beef top sirloin steak items, produced from February 19, 2018, through March 14, 2018, are being recalled:

      • Cases containing 64 6-oz. vacuum-packed packages of “USDA SELECT OR HIGHER BONELESS BEEF TOP SIRLOIN STEAKS,” (item #5404) with lot codes ranging from 05018 to 07318 (inclusive) and “Best By” dates from Feb. 19, 2019 to Mar. 14, 2019 (inclusive).
      • Cases containing 64 8-oz. vacuum-packed packages of “USDA SELECT OR HIGHER BONELESS BEEF TOP SIRLOIN STEAKS,” (item #5419) with lot codes ranging from 05018 to 07318 (inclusive) and “Best By” dates from Feb. 19, 2019 to Mar. 14, 2019 (inclusive).

      The recalled products, bearing establishment number “EST. 19113” inside the USDA mark of inspection, were distributed to restaurants nationwide.

      What to do

      Customers who purchased the recalled products should not consume them, but discard them.

      Consumers with questions may contact Adam Miller at (800) 401-8317.

      SMI Holdings, doing business as Stampede Meat, of Bridgeview, Ill., is recalling approximately 484,800 pounds of raw beef top sirloin steak.The product...
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      Ford Focus and Fusion vehicles recalled

      The clutch may fracture, resulting in damage to the transmission assembly

      Ford Motor Company is recalling 5,357 model year 2015-2016 Ford Focus vehicles equipped with a 1.0L GTDI engine and 6-speed manual transmission, and model year 2013-2014 Ford Fusion vehicles equipped with a 1.6L GTDI engine and 6-speed manual transmission.

      The clutch may fracture, resulting in damage to the transmission assembly and possibly a transmission fluid leak.

      A transmission fluid leak in the presence of an ignition source such as hot engine or exhaust components can increase the risk of a fire.

      What to do

      Ford will notify owners, and dealers will update the Focus vehicles with software that detects and prevents prolonged clutch slip, and will replace the clutch, as necessary, free of charge.

      Owners of Fusion vehicles will have their clutch assembly replaced free of charge.

      Parts are not currently available.

      Owners will be notified of the recall with an interim notification beginning March 26, 2018.

      A second letter will be mailed when the remedy is available, currently expected to be in the second quarter of 2018.

      Owners may contact Ford customer service at 1-866-436-7332. Ford's number for this recall is 18S07.

      Ford Motor Company is recalling 5,357 model year 2015-2016 Ford Focus vehicles equipped with a 1.0L GTDI engine and 6-speed manual transmission, and model...
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      Airline deregulation -- sky high profits for carriers, but no silver linings for flyers

      Is the airline industry doing everything it can to maximize profits, even to the detriment of passengers?

      Ticket prices up, seat sizes down, extra charges for almost anything that can be turned into a profit center -- everything seems to be fair game for the airline industry.

      While industry-wide revenues from passengers grew 9 percent in 2017 -- leading to earnings estimated at $581 billion -- flyer advocacy groups are saying it’s a win-lose situation for consumers, who are getting the short end of the deal. And there’s even more on the horizon for airlines if the Trump administration’s push for deregulation sees the light of day.

      Over the last four years, the seven largest U.S. airlines have averaged $19.65 “profit per passenger” per one-way trip, according to the Wall Street Journal. That’s up from an average post-tax profit per passenger of $2.05 in 2012.

      While $19.65 seems like a fair amount, it’s the gravy that’s churned out of everything else -- from seat upgrades and baggage fees to high-priced in-flight services -- that might raise red flags for consumers.

      Some examples include:

      • Delta Air Lines charging a $200 change fee for domestic flights and up to $500 for international flights;

      • Southwest recently canceling its “$5 Happy Hour;” and

      • American Airlines charging $75 for award tickets booked less than 21 days prior to departure.

      Pushing out third-party sites

      You may have thought that every trick in the book has been tried, but not yet. Nearly 50 airlines are now holding auctions for upgrades to business and first class. Some carriers are even considering ripping out the chairback entertainment screens on the assumption that most flyers carry a digital device they can use. In turn, using those devices might call for internet access, which the carrier is probably more than happy to sell them.

      To make matters worse, third-party airfare aggregators like Kayak, Momondo, and CheapOair (an Authorized Partner) might also get yanked to the chopping block.

      “The airlines are working to eliminate providers of independent travel information through actions including withholding schedules from consumers’ favorite travel websites, or refusing to allow them to display airfares, which are public information,” Kevin Mitchell, Chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, told ConsumerAffairs.

      “Some airlines actually demand that travel websites pay the airline for helping them sell you a plane ticket. You read that correctly – the airlines not only want to collect the price of the ticket from you, but on top of that, they want the travel website - that enabled you to easily compare all of your options before selling you a ticket - to pay the airline, too.”

      “Wringing” money out of travelers

      With airline profits clearly above the clouds, has the industry’s eagerness to fill seats gone too far? There are flyer advocacy groups that think so, and they are trying to keep carriers mindful that the passenger deserves better.

      FlyersRights.org has crafted a “passenger bill of rights” that ask for changes on everything from seat size to compensation for excessive flight delays and cancellations. The organization has also proposed several reforms to improve passenger well-being and deal with common issues that often occur in airports.

      Those requests include ending the ability of airlines to overschedule flights at popular times (which often creates chronic delays and deceptive schedules) and encouraging the use of larger aircraft to reduce congestion for long haul flights.

      FlyersRights also thinks many regulators may be turning a blind eye to how airports are leveraging extra revenue. Among their concerns are airport revenue from parking fees and taxi services and how things like airport shopping and remote car rental centers are “wringing more revenue from passengers.”

      Recent estimates show that total airport revenues have grown nearly 50 percent since 2000.

      Does anyone really care about the passenger?

      One would think that United Airlines’ public relations calamities, which include a passenger getting dragged off a flight and the recent death of a dog, would raise some industry concern on the perceived value of a customer. However, advocates say that getting the attention of airliners is like rolling a boulder up a mountain.

      “In short, they want to do what they want, without regard to comfort or well-being of the passenger,” reported Douglas Kidd, executive director of the National Association of Airline Passengers, after attending the US Chamber of Commerce Aviation Summit on March 1. “Both the airline reps and the TSA head spoke in glowing terms of the passenger experience and the passenger perspective, without any real appreciation of either subject.”

      But despite the Trump administration’s desire to deregulate the airline industry and kowtow to their wishes, there’s one congressperson who’s taken up at least part of the fight.

      U.S. Senator Susan Collins of Maine is spearheading an effort that would require the U.S. Department of Transportation to clearly disclose charges for airline fares, baggage fees, itinerary changes, and anything else that might cost travelers money.

      “I’m not trying to dictate what airlines can charge, or what services they can charge for," she said, in an interview with Maine Public. "But I do believe there should be complete transparency.”

      Ticket prices up, seat sizes down, extra charges for almost anything that can be turned into a profit center -- everything seems to be fair game for the ai...
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      Google launches new effort to combat the spread of misinformation

      Google News Initiative includes features to help publishers adapt to the digital age

      Google has made a $300 million commitment to elevate quality journalism and combat the spread of misinformation.

      The company is launching what it calls the Google News Initiative (GNI), which will include features to help publishers grow their number of subscribers, adopt innovative technologies, and change their business model to thrive in the digital age.

      "Over the next three years, we're committing $300 million toward meeting these goals. We're also deepening our commitment to building products that address the news industry's most urgent needs," Google said in a blog post.

      Tacking misinformation

      "It's becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish what's true (and not true) online," the company said. "Business models for journalism continue to change drastically. The rapid evolution of technology is challenging all institutions, including the news industry, to keep pace."

      To combat the spread of misinformation during elections and breaking news moments, Google teamed up with Harvard University’s fact-checking organization First Draft to create a “Disinfo Lab.”

      Disinfo Lab will identify inaccurate news stories and remove them from Google News rankings.

      To help publishers garner more paying subscribers, Google will offer a “Subscribe with Google” tool that lets consumers subscribe to multiple outlets via Google. The tech giant will take a minor cut of the subscription cost while publishers get a majority.

      The company has also partnered with the Poynter Institute, Stanford University, and the Local Media Association to develop MediaWise, an initiative to help middle and high school students be smarter consumers of news and information online.

      Boosting consumer trust

      The $300 million commitment towards elevating and strengthening quality journalism comes amid growing concern over “fake news.”

      The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer found that trust in traditional media is still on the higher end at 61 percent. However, the study found that more than half (59 percent) of consumers said they worried about fake news being used as a “weapon.”

      "The commitments we're making through the Google News Initiative demonstrate that news and quality journalism is a top priority for Google," Google said. "We know that success can only be achieved by working together, and we look forward to collaborating with the news industry to build a stronger future for journalism."

      Google has made a $300 million commitment to elevate quality journalism and combat the spread of misinformation.The company is launching what it calls...
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      Whole Foods shares Prime loyalty program details

      The grocer met with suppliers to address concerns over the Amazon acquisition

      Whole Foods met with some of its suppliers earlier this week to share details of its new affinity program and assure its suppliers that the Amazon acquisition isn’t reason for concern, Fortune reports.

      In the time since the grocer was acquired by Amazon last year, food companies have speculated that Amazon has been behind some of the less well-received changes at Whole Foods, such as asking suppliers for more fees to get their product on the shelves.

      During the meeting, Whole Foods reportedly talked about its new affinity program and “stressed to its suppliers that buying into the new program was a way for them to grow.”  

      Amazon has helped in terms of speed

      The company’s new affinity program will give Amazon Prime members exclusive discounts on some of the store’s most popular items, as well as additional weekly savings.

      Whole Foods executives say the acquisition has also helped the company move closer to its goal of changing its operations to strip unnecessary costs, which would ultimately help lower prices for consumers.

      “It’s the result of a lot of the work we’ve done over the last couple of years,” A.C. Gallo, Whole Foods president and COO, told Fortune. Gallo added that Amazon’s involvement has sped up the process of making the company’s goals a reality.

      “Amazon moves very quickly,” he said. “So many of the things we wanted to do over the last few years we didn’t have the ability or resources. They bring the big vision on what’s possible and where things are going.”

      Less complicated buying structure

      The Amazon acquisition has also made the business of selling product to Whole Foods less complicated, Gallo said.

      In the past, major national suppliers had to meet with global buyers in Austin and then each regional office, which was “cumbersome,” said Gallo. Per the new buying structure, larger suppliers will only have to meet with the global team in Austin.

      Nevertheless, the new buying structure has given rise to growing concerns, especially among smaller suppliers. But Gallo said the new structure will give buyers in local markets more time to scout new items. He also noted that Whole Foods added about 700 new local suppliers last year and will continue to grow its fleet of smaller suppliers.

      Whole Foods met with some of its suppliers earlier this week to share details of its new affinity program and assure its suppliers that the Amazon acquisit...
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      Here are the best and worst times to book 2018 air travel

      As always, booking too early or too late can be costly

      If you're busy planning your summer vacation, remember that when you choose to book airfare will have a significant impact on how much you pay for tickets.

      Each year, online booking company CheapAir.com analyzes millions of airfares to determine the best and worst times to buy tickets. For 2018, it found it pays to plan well ahead.

      In 2017, the best domestic fares were available approximately 54 days before departure. But this year, the company says you'll get the best price if you book 70 days before takeoff.

      Frustrating process

      Even the lowest fares don't stay the same. For any given trip, the lowest available fare will change an average of 62 times during the 11 months it is on sale. Each fluctuation will save or cost travelers an average of $36.

      “We hear from travelers all the time who are frustrated that a fare they saw one day is dramatically higher the next,” said Jeff Klee, CEO of CheapAir.com. “And it’s equally disturbing when you book a trip and find out two weeks later that the price has gone way down."

      Klee says understanding why airfares change will help you monitor available flights and find the booking sweet spot. Booking too early doesn't save you money, it actually drives up costs.

      Airlines want to fly with each seat filled. They also want to get as much money as possible for those seats. Much like a seafood market, it must set prices to attract as many purchases as possible before the fish spoils -- or in this case the plane takes off.

      Booking early can be costly

      Booking 169 to 319 days in advance of departure will get you the best seat selection, but tickets will cost, on average, $50 more than if you wait. If you book between 122 to 168 days ahead of time, ticket prices are only $20 more and you still have a great chance of getting the flight and the seat you want.

      If price is a bigger consideration than selection, consider booking your 2018 trip 21 to 121 days before departure. You may find fares move around a lot but are usually no more than 5 percent above the lowest price.

      Within 20 days of departure, fares generally begin to rise and seat selection is more competitive. Parties traveling together will likely be spread throughout the cabin.

      Waiting to within two weeks of departure is "playing with fire." CheapAir says you'll find fuller flights, but you won't find many deals.

      Fares rise dramatically in the last week before departure. Procrastinators will pay an average of $208 more for a ticket than those who bought tickets during the "booking sweet spot."

      If you're busy planning your summer vacation, remember that when you choose to book airfare will have a significant impact on how much you pay for tickets....
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      International Harvest recalls raw coconut

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

      International Harvest of Mount Vernon, N.Y., is recalling 14,620 lbs. of bulk and 24,270 bags of Organic Go Smile! Raw Coconut.

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

      The following product is being recalled:

      • Retail: International Harvest Brand Organic Go Smile! Dried Coconut Raw, in a 9oz poly/plastic bag, UPC: 7 39446 40220 7, with the following "Sell by Dates" on the back of the bag: 010118, 020118, 030118, 040118, 050118,060118, 070118, 080118, 090118, 100118, 110118, 120118, 010119, 020119, 030119.
      • Bulk: Go Smiles Dried Coconut Raw in a 25-bulk case labeled with the following batch/Lot #’s: OCSM-0010, OCSM-0011, Lot# OCSM-0014.

      The recalled product was sold to customers by online retailers, retail stores and distributors and distributed directly in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, California, Colorado, Oklahoma, Georgia, Vermont, Illinois, Florida, Maine, Washington, New Hampshire and Utah.

      What to do

      Customers who purchased the recalled product should return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.

      Consumers with questions may contact the company at 914-699-5600, Monday – Friday from 8:00am – 5:00pm.

      International Harvest of Mount Vernon, N.Y., is recalling 14,620 lbs. of bulk and 24,270 bags of Organic Go Smile! Raw Coconut.The product may be conta...
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      Standard Meat Company recalls beef sirloin

      The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

      Standard Meat Company of Saginaw, Texas, is recalling up to 53,154 pounds of raw beef sirloin that may be contaminated with Salmonella.

      There have been no confirmed reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products.

      The following frozen, marinated top sirloin items, produced between February 19, 2018, and March 14, 2018. are being recalled:

      • Approximate 20-lb. boxes containing “USDA Select or Higher Beef 6 oz Top Sirloin Steak Mechanically Tenderized” with case code 45966.
      • Approximate 30-lb. boxes containing “USDA Select or Higher Beef 8 oz Top Sirloin Steak Mechanically Tenderized” with case code 45968.

      The recalled products, bearing establishment number “EST. 33861” inside the USDA mark of inspection, were shipped to restaurants nationwide.

      What to do

      Customers who purchased the recalled products should not consume them, but discard them or return them to the place of purchase.

      Consumers with questions regarding the recall may contact Joe Brhlik at (866) 859-6313.

      Standard Meat Company of Saginaw, Texas, is recalling up to 53,154 pounds of raw beef sirloin that may be contaminated with Salmonella.There have been...
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      Washington demands answers from Facebook about data collection

      The company's policies will likely be under close scrutiny

      Members of Congress are calling for more oversight of Facebook after information about an estimated 50 million users was allegedly used to influence elections.

      Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a member of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, wrote a letter to the committee leadership asking it to hold hearings and solicit testimony from top Facebook executives.

      Markey and others are asking for an explanation of how Cambridge Analytica, a political marketing firm, acquired private data on Facebook users that was allegedly then used in the successful Brexit and Trump campaigns.

      In his letter, Markey cited published reports suggesting only a small number of Facebook users had agreed to their information being shared with a third party.

      “In light of these allegations, and the ongoing Federal Trade Commission (FTC) consent decree that requires Facebook to obtain explicit permission before sharing data about its users, the Committee should move quickly to hold a hearing on this incident, which has allegedly violated the privacy of tens of millions of Americans,” Markey wrote.

      Request for details

      Sen. Ron Wyden, (D-Ore.), is asking the social media company to detail the extent that private information was misused. He also suggested a review of how Facebook collects, stores, and shares information.

      In a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Wyden said the ease with which the site's default privacy settings were exploited for profit and political gain raises questions about the company's business model.

      "It also raises serious concerns about the role Facebook played in facilitating and permitting the covert collection and misuse of consumer information,” Wyden wrote. “With little oversight—and no meaningful intervention from Facebook—Cambridge Analytica was able to use Facebook-developed and marketed tools to weaponize detailed psychological profiles against tens of millions of Americans.”

      Highly-targeted ads

      Facebook has been successful because of the power of its targeted advertising. Commercial enterprises can buy ads that appear in the timelines of consumers of a specific age and gender who have certain interests.

      The fact that politicians would also take advantage of this power should not come as a surprise. In the wake of the 2016 U.S. election that sent Donald Trump to the White House, Facebook got a lot of unwelcome attention for the information that appeared in users' timelines -- information that looked like news stories but may or may not have been true.

      Facebook spent much of 2017 making adjustments -- such as downgrading links from certain sites and adding "related stories" to broaden the scope of coverage.

      However, part of the problem stems from the fact that for a significant number of consumers, Facebook is their primary source of news. The Pew Research Center reports that during the height of the 2016 presidential campaign, 62 percent of adults said they got news from social media sites.

      Members of Congress are calling for more oversight of Facebook after information about an estimated 50 million users was allegedly used to influence electi...
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      Airlines ask for industry-wide rule changes as part of Trump’s deregulation push

      On the chopping block are more than 30 flyer-oriented protections and regulations

      Major airlines have banded together and released a wish list of regulations that the industry would like to see the Trump administration repeal -- many of which were originally designed to protect travelers.

      If those wishes come true, the protection that travelers have gotten used to will move to the back of the plane. Gone will be dozens of rights travelers have enjoyed in recent years -- from the option of deplaning a flight that’s sat on the tarmac for more than three hours to seeing all taxes and fees in an airline’s advertised fare.

      “The lesson for us in Washington is to remove all onerous burdens,” said Derek Kan, the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) undersecretary for policy, in explaining the Trump Administration’s goal.

      While Kan emphasized that regulations that are “critical for safety” will “remain untouched,” the DOT’s viewpoint is that there are a number of regulations that “do not seem to have a cost-benefit” justification.

      Deregulation would “gut” consumer protections

      Airlines for America (A4A), a D.C.-based trade association and lobbying group that describes themselves as “advocates on behalf of its members to shape crucial policies and measures that promote safety, security and a healthy U.S. airline industry” appears to be the pilot of this effort.

      The organization wants to see more than 30 regulations abolished, and it has the wind of all the major airlines beneath its wings, too. The group’s members transport more than 90 percent of U.S. airline passenger and cargo traffic.

      Flyer advocates see a different picture, however. “There is nothing wrong with trimming back unnecessary regulations, but airlines now want no regulation or self regulation,” Paul Hudson, President of FlyersRights.org and member of the FAA Aviation Rulemaking Committee, told ConsumerAffairs.

      “That would gut the few consumer protections passengers have. And oh, airlines of course want to keep regulations that help them like prohibitions on foreign competition, antitrust exemptions and effective bars on new airport construction to relieve congestion.”

      How this may affect your next flight

      Among the list of potential regulations the airline industry might be looking to reverse are consumer rules that the DOT put in place in 2011 under the Obama administration. They include:

      • A passengers’ ability to hold a reservation without payment, or cancel a booking without penalty, for 24 hours after the reservation is made, if they make the reservation one week or more prior to a flight’s departure date;

      • An airline requirement to promptly notify passengers of flight delays of over 30 minutes, as well as flight cancellations and diversions;

      • Restrictions that prohibit an airline from increasing the price of passengers’ ticket after it is bought;

      • A requirement that all mandatory taxes and fees must be included together in the advertised fare;

      • A requirement that airlines and ticket agents have to disclose baggage fees to consumers when they book a flight online; and

      • The tarmac delay rule, which currently gives passengers the option to deplane if the plane they’re on was sitting on the tarmac for more than three hours.

      “Airline passengers have rights, and they should be able to expect fair and reasonable treatment when booking a trip and when they fly,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said when the new rules were established. “The new passenger protections are a continuation of our effort to help air travelers receive the respect they deserve."

      Major airlines have banded together and released a wish list of regulations that the industry would like to see the Trump administration repeal -- many of...
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      Safety regulators probe reports of non-deploying airbags

      The investigation centers on certain Hyundai and Kia models

      Federal regulators have begun an investigation of Hyundai and Kia vehicles in the U.S. following reports that airbags in certain models failed to deploy in head-on collisions.

      Specifically, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is looking at six accidents that claimed four lives and injured six others. The investigation centers on the 2011 Hyundai Sonata and 2012 and 2013 Kia Forte -- an estimated 425,000 cars.

      Some of the vehicles are subject to recall. In late February, Hyundai filed a defect information report (DIR) that resulted in a NHTSA recall. The company said it produced the DIR after post-collision inspections of the vehicles' airbag control units (ACUs).

      Electrical overstress condition

      Hyundai said the inspections showed what it called an "electrical overstress condition" of one of the components in the airbag system was present in three of the crashed vehicles. A fourth ACU is still being analyzed.

      At the moment, regulators say Hyundai has not found a way to repair the problem. It is still investigating the cause of the failure with the part manufacturer.

      Meanwhile, NHTSA said it is aware of an earlier recall where an electrical overstress condition appeared to cause airbag failure in certain Fiat Chrysler vehicles. It will try to determine whether the problem is present in vehicles from other manufacturers.

      Seeking answers

      NHTSA says its Office of Defect Investigations will evaluate the scope of Hyundai's recall and confirm whether Kia uses the same or similar part. The investigation will also review the root cause of the issue, with an emphasis on finding what is contributing to the part's electrical overstress.

      As an enhanced safety feature, airbags were introduced in passenger vehicles in the U.S. during the mid-1970s as an option in luxury cars. Passenger cars and light trucks built after September 1, 1998 were required to have airbags for the driver and the right front passenger.

      Credited with saving countless lives since then, the airbag has not been without its problems. Airbags made by Japanese manufacturer Takata have been the cause of the largest auto recall in the U.S., after it was determined that its airbag inflators could explode, spraying tiny bits of metal throughout the vehicle cabin.

      The defect is blamed for 13 fatalities in the U.S. Takata recently agreed to a $650 million settlement with 44 states and the District of Columbia while its automotive customers have paid out a total of more than $1 billion in settlements.

      Federal regulators have begun an investigation of Hyundai and Kia vehicles in the U.S. following reports that airbags in certain models failed to deploy in...
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      United Airlines suspends transport of pets in cargo hold

      The airline is conducting a ‘thorough and systematic review’ of its PetSafe program

      United Airlines is suspending new reservations for cargo-hold pet transportations after several incidents occured last week, leading to a wave of negative publicity. 
      Kokito, a 10-month old French bulldog, died last week after a flight attendant insisted that the carrier in which he was being transported be stowed in an overhead bin for the duration of the four-hour flight. Days later, several dogs were sent to the wrong destinations. 
      The airline says it’s taking time to review its pet program to ensure incidents like these don’t happen again. 

      Reviewing its pet program

      The airline will honor reservations confirmed as of March 20 for pets scheduled to fly in the cargo hold, but it will not accept new reservations. The review is expected to be complete by May 1. The suspension will not affect pets traveling in the cabin. 
      "We are conducting a thorough and systematic review of our program for pets that travel in the cargo compartment to make improvements that will ensure the best possible experience for our customers and their pets," said United spokesman Charlie Hobart. 
      United said it will partner with “independent experts” in pet safety, comfort, and travel in order to achieve this outcome.
      In addition to conducting a review, United recently updated its guidelines for dogs traveling in bags. The airline said it would require bags containing animals in the cabin to have a brightly colored tag attached to keep live animals from being placed in overhead lockers.  
      Following the recent death of a dog aboard a United flight, two senators introduced a bipartisan bill called the Welfare of Our Furry Friends (WOOFF) Act. The legislation would prohibit putting animals in overhead bins on flights. It would also direct the Federal Aviation Administration to impose fines for putting animals in overhead bins. 
      United had the worst rate of pet deaths in 2017 of any U.S. airline, according to the Department of Transportation’s Air Travel Consumer Report.
      United Airlines is suspending new reservations for cargo-hold pet transportations after several incidents occured last week, leading to a wave of negative...
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      Could Amazon be eyeing Toys ‘R’ Us locations?

      A published report says it can’t be ruled out

      Once Toys “R” Us completes its recently-announced liquidation, it will leave more than 700 large, empty retail spaces throughout the US. Could Amazon be poised to fill them?

      A report by Bloomberg News cites people close to the situation as saying the retail giant has kicked around the idea of picking up at least a few of them. It would be a quick and fairly inexpensive way to expand the company's physical presence.

      While dominating the retail world through online sales, Amazon has shown interest in recent years in establishing more of a brick-and-mortar presence. The company acquired Whole Foods last summer, giving it locations from which to make food deliveries.

      It has also opened the first cashless convenience store, where shoppers can fill their shopping carts and just leave the store, with sensors recording the purchases and charging them to a credit card. It's also launched a chain of bookstores.

      Picking up some of the soon-to-be vacant Toys “R” Us locations could be useful for whatever else the retail giant has up its sleeve. What that could be, however, no one knows.

      Possible uses

      Bloomberg speculates that the retail space could be used to display popular Amazon products, such as the Echo. Products could be felt, touched, and demonstrated in a physical store setting much easier than they can be online.

      The locations could also serve as mini distribution centers, allowing customers to pick up items faster than if they were being delivered to their homes.

      On the other hand, any discussions that may be going on might not lead anywhere. In 2015, Amazon reportedly negotiated to pick up some Radio Shack locations, but in the end it passed on the deal.

      Whatever the facts are, we may have to wait before we know. Neither Amazon nor Toys “R” Us have commented on the possibility of a deal.

      Once Toys “R” Us completes its recently-announced liquidation, it will leave more than 700 large, empty retail spaces throughout the US. Could Amazon be po...
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      Half of American households now subscribe to a streaming service

      A survey shows consumers spend $2.1 billion a month on video streaming service subscriptions

      Half of American households (55 percent) now subscribe to at least one video streaming service, according to consulting firm Deloitte’s 12th annual digital media trends survey.

      That figure represents an increase from last year, when 49 percent of households subscribed to at least one streaming service. The number has surged dramatically since 2009, when just 10 percent of consumers subscribed to a video streaming service.

      The average streaming customer subscribes to three streaming services, and U.S. consumers spend $2.1 billion a month on video streaming service subscriptions.

      Exclusive content important to many

      Of the 2,088 consumers surveyed, over half said they decided which video streaming service to subscribe to based on the amount and quality of exclusive content the service had. Others said factors such as commercial-free content and the ability to watch movies and shows at anytime guided their decision.

      The survey found that the average American consumes 38 hours of video content each week -- 15 hours (or 39 percent) of which is streamed.

      “Consumers now enjoy unparalleled freedom in selecting media and entertainment options and their expectations are at an all-time high,” said Kevin Westcott, vice chairman and U.S. media and entertainment leader for Deloitte.

      “The rapid growth of streaming services and high-quality original content has created a significant opportunity to monetize the on-demand environment in 2018.”

      Drop in pay-TV subscriptions

      The number of households that subscribe to a traditional TV service delivered via cable, satellite, and fiber has dropped to 63 percent from 74 percent in 2016, according to the report.

      Among millennials (ages 21-34), 22 percent said they have never subscribed to pay TV. Of those who said they no longer had pay TV, 27 percent said they had “cut the cord” within the past year.

      Nearly half (46 percent) of pay TV subscribers said they are dissatisfied with their service and 70 percent of all consumers said pay TV wasn't a good value. Around half (56 percent) of consumers who currently subscribe to a pay TV service say they keep it because it’s bundled with broadband service.

      Half of American households (55 percent) now subscribe to at least one video streaming service, according to consulting firm Deloitte’s 12th annual digital...
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      Claire’s files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy

      Despite the decision, the company says it is continuing to grow and is safe from online retailers

      Claire’s has announced that it has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The company says it plans to pursue a financial restructuring to eliminate a “substantial portion of debt” and position itself as one of the world’s leading jewelry stores for young women.

      Claire’s expects to complete the Chapter 11 process in September and reduce its overall debt by approximately $1.9 billion.

      “This transaction substantially reduces the debt on our balance sheet and will enhance our efforts to provide the best possible experience for our customers,” said CEO Ron Marshall in a statement.

      “We will complete this process as a healthier, more profitable company, which will position us to be an even stronger business partner for our suppliers, concessions partners and franchisees,” Marshall said.

      Will continue to operate

      The company joins other retail chains that have been forced to file for bankruptcy as a result of lighter foot traffic in brick-and-mortar stores. Last week, Toys “R” Us announced it would close all 735 of its U.S. stores after filing for bankruptcy last year.

      But Claire’s says it’s not done doing business yet.

      "Claire's is growing, not shrinking," the company said. It expects to report net sales of more than $1.3 billion and net income of $29 million for the 2017 fiscal year. It also expects to add more than 4,000 stores in 2018.

      Claire’s, which first opened in 1978, says it has pierced more than 100 million ears around the world. The company says its business is safe from online retailers like Amazon because you can’t pierce your ears online.

      "The company’s iconic ear piercing services are unmatched and cannot be replicated online," the company said.

      The company will continue to operate its Claire’s and Icing brand stores worldwide during the restructuring.

      Claire’s has announced that it has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The company says it plans to pursue a financial restructuring to eliminate a “substanti...
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      BMW recalls X3 xDrive30i and X3 M40i vehicles

      The rear spoiler may detach while the vehicle is being driven

      BMW of North America is recalling 17,008 model year 2018 BMW X3 xDrive30i and X3 M40i vehicles.

      The rear spoiler may not have been properly attached during assembly, or may be missing screws, possibly causing the spoiler to detach while the vehicle is being driven.

      If the spoiler detaches while the vehicle is being driven, it can become a road hazard, increasing the risk of a crash.

      What to do

      BMW will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the spoiler, correcting its attachment as necessary, free of charge.

      The recall is expected to begin May 1, 2018.

      Owners may contact BMW customer service at 1-800-525-7417.

      BMW of North America is recalling 17,008 model year 2018 BMW X3 xDrive30i and X3 M40i vehicles.The rear spoiler may not have been properly attached dur...
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      Nissan recalls model year 2011-2012 Nissan Jukes

      The fuel pressure sensor may loosen and leak fuel

      Nissan North America is recalling 49,385 model year 2011-2012 Nissan Jukes.

      During an earlier recall, the fuel pressure sensor may not have been properly tightened, potentially causing the sensor to loosen and leak fuel.

      A fuel leak in the presence of an ignition source can increase the risk of a fire.

      What to do

      Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will tighten the fuel pressure sensor to the proper torque, free of charge.

      The recall is expected to begin May 7, 2018.

      Owners may contact Nissan customer service at 1-800-867-7669.

      Nissan North America is recalling 49,385 model year 2011-2012 Nissan Jukes.During an earlier recall, the fuel pressure sensor may not have been properl...
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      Google introduces ‘Shopping Actions’ to compete with Amazon

      The company wants shoppers to search for products and buy them through Google

      In an effort to compete with Amazon and make more money from product searches, Google has rolled out a new program called Shopping Actions.

      Aware of the fact that consumers often start their search for a product on Google but ultimately purchase the item on Amazon, the company has launched a program that will allow users to purchase items through Google Assistant and shopping ads in Search results.

      Consumers can save their payment information and make purchases from retailers with instant checkout. Google gets a part of the profit from each, which is different from its typical ad revenue model.

      ‘Google-hosted checkout flow’

      The number of searches containing the phase “how to buy” grew by a 85 percent in the past two years, according to Google. In launching Shopping Actions, the company is aiming to make more money from searches and give retailers a better chance of fighting off Amazon.

      “Shopper Kai can do a search on Google for moisturizing hand soap, see a listing for up & up brand soap from Target, and add it to a Google Express cart,” the company said as an example of how the service works.

      “Later, in the kitchen, Kai can reorder foil through voice, add it to the same cart using Google Home, and purchase all items at once through a Google-hosted checkout flow.”

      Google is encouraging companies to see the service as an ally against Amazon.

      “We have taken a fundamentally different approach from the likes of Amazon because we see ourselves as an enabler of retail...We see ourselves as part of a solution for retailers to be able to drive better transactions,” Google’s president for retail and shopping Daniel Alegre told Reuters.

      Google is working with several retailers on the new service, including Target, Walmart, Ulta Beauty, Costco, and Home Depot.

      In an effort to compete with Amazon and make more money from product searches, Google has rolled out a new program called Shopping Actions.Aware of the...
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      Twitter may soon ban ads for cryptocurrency products

      Reports suggest the social media giant will join the fray to protect consumers from fraudulent and manipulative pitches

      Recent reports suggest that Twitter may decide to block ads for cryptocurrency exchanges, initial coin offerings (ICO), cryptocurrency wallets, and crypto token sales.

      The decision would follow in the footsteps of Google, Facebook, and credit card companies, and it would also be in line with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) new stance on cryptocurrency. The ban will likely go into effect within the next two weeks.

      Twitter is a prime promotion forum for cryptocurrency. On an average day, more than 110,000 crypto-related tweets show up on the platform, and the kings of crypto have follower bases to rival the biggest celebrities.

      Charlie Lee, the creator of Litecoin, has 738,000 Twitter followers. Vitalik Buterin — co-founder of decentralized cryptocurrency platform Ethereum and known as the “boy genius of crypto” — has 703,000 followers.

      Why the concern?

      Ever since Bitcoin became the digital investment darling, there have been 1,661 new crypto offerings that have seen the light of day. All that activity spurred a total market cap of more than $317 billion and more than $18 billion of trading volume in a single day.

      And with any goldrush, there’s usually carpetbaggers and opportunists. The crypto company “Confido” (which means “I trust” in Italian) vanished with $374,000 of investors’ money in its pocket last November.

      In January, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission filed complaints against My Big Coin Pay, claiming that the company was behind a Ponzi scheme that resulted in $6 million being misappropriated.

      With social media being a sizeable meeting place for billions around the world, platforms like Twitter are natural hunting grounds for crypto peddlers. While Twitter’s move will have some impact, killing off all the deceptive snakes behind the currency won’t be easy, so government agencies have stepped up efforts to protect the consumer.

      The SEC has taken up the consumer’s case as best as it can, laying down the law that any exchange platform dealing with the new digital cash needs to register with the SEC as a national securities exchange or be exempt from registration.

      The Better Business Bureau and U.S. Commodities Futures Trading Commission have also produced guides to help consumers get a grip on virtual currency pump-and-dump schemes and “IRS-approved” virtual currency IRAs before they make an investment.

      Recent reports suggest that Twitter may decide to block ads for cryptocurrency exchanges, initial coin offerings (ICO), cryptocurrency wallets, and crypto...
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      One in four Americans are online ‘constantly’

      A new study shows consumers of all ages are spending more time on the internet

      As internet-connected devices become more widespread, a growing number of consumers admit to spending a majority of their day online.

      About 26 percent of adults in the U.S. say they’re online “almost constantly,” up from 21 percent who said the same in 2015. Forty-three percent of respondents said they go online “several times a day,” according to a new Pew Research study based on January data.

      Overall, the researchers found that 77 percent of Americans go online on a daily basis. Just 11 percent said they only use the internet several times a week or less; the same percentage said they don’t use the internet at all.

      Higher for younger adults

      Time spent online each day was higher for younger adults and people in higher income brackets, the research found. Thirty-nine percent of 18- to 29-year-olds now go online almost constantly and 49 percent go online multiple times per day.

      Americans between the ages of 30 and 49 aren’t too far behind, with about 36 percent using the internet almost constantly (an increase of 12 percentage points since 2015). Just 8 percent of those 65 and older go online almost constantly and just 30 percent go online multiple times per day.

      Mobile connectivity a key factor

      Adults with the ability to access the internet on the go through a mobile device are especially likely to be online for a significant portion of their day.

      A majority of mobile internet users (89 percent) go online daily and 31 percent go online almost constantly. By contrast, 54 percent of Americans who don’t use a mobile device to go online do so daily and just 5 percent say they go online almost constantly.

      Role of household income

      People in higher income brackets are also more likely to be on the internet frequently.

      About 35 percent of adults with an annual household income of $75,000 or more are on the internet almost constantly and 91 percent use it daily, according to the study. Just 24 percent of people making less than $30,000 are on the internet almost constantly.

      People living in non-rural areas are also more likely to be online a lot. Among adults who say they’re online almost constantly, 32 percent live in urban areas, 27 percent are suburban residents, and only 15 percent are rural residents.

      As internet-connected devices become more widespread, a growing number of consumers admit to spending a majority of their day online. About 26 percent...
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      Fed likely to raise interest rates this week

      The decision will boost rates on credit cards and home equity loans

      The Federal Reserve Open Market Committee meets this week and is widely expected to boost a key interest rate by 0.25 percent.

      The Fed meeting, the first under new chairman Jerome Powell, may indicate how aggressive the Fed intends to be in raising its discount rate back to "normal" levels. Rates have not been normal since the 2008 financial crisis, when the Fed cut them to zero percent in an effort to revive the economy.

      Since then, the economy has slowly recovered and unemployment remains near historic lows. A 0.25 percent increase in the discount rate this week would only raise it to 1.75 percent.

      By comparison, the Fed's discount rate in May 2007, just before the housing market crash, was 6.25 percent.

      Rate hike would affect consumers

      Whether the Fed raises rates, and by how much, is largely a concern of stock market investors. Rising rates will make stocks appear overvalued and send their prices lower.

      However, consumers also have a stake. Holden Lewis, a research analyst at NerdWallet, says a rising discount rate will make it more expensive for both businesses and consumers to borrow money.

      "If you have credit cards or a HELOC (home equity line of credit), every Fed rate hike affects your bottom line," Lewis told ConsumerAffairs. "The interest rates on your credit cards and HELOC go up whenever the Fed raises short-term rates."

      So if the Fed increases the discount rate by a quarter of a percentage point, that means your credit card interest rates will go up by the same amount. You should notice it in a billing cycle or two.

      Three or four rate hikes this year

      Last year, when the Fed raised interest rates three times by 0.25 percent, consumers with credit cards and homeowners with home equity lines of credit saw their interest rates increase by three-quarters of a percentage point.

      "Expect the Fed to keep raising rates this year, with this being the first of what's expected to be a total of three or four hikes of a quarter-point each in 2018," Lewis said.

      That's because all indications show the economy is fairly strong and getting stronger, which raises the possibility of inflation. The Fed policymakers use their discount rate as a way to slow the economy a bit when things start to heat up.

      By any measure, interest rates are still very low. Lewis says the Fed will likely use this opportunity to push them back toward normal levels so that it can reduce them again when the economy eventually softens.

      The Federal Reserve Open Market Committee meets this week and is widely expected to boost a key interest rate by 0.25 percent.The Fed meeting, the firs...
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      Splenda worsens symptoms of Crohn’s disease, study finds

      Researchers say Splenda induces changes in gut bacteria and gut wall immune cell reactivity

      A new study suggests that Splenda and other zero-calorie sugar substitutes can worsen gut inflammation, which is a symptom of Crohn’s disease.

      Researchers from Case Western Reserve School of Medicine found that mice with Crohn’s-like diseases who drank water with Splenda had greater numbers of Proteobacteria or microbes that include pathogens, such as E. coli and salmonella, in their intestines compared to mice fed plain water.

      Mice without the condition were not affected by sucralose (which goes by the brand name Splenda), the six-week long study revealed.

      Induces biological changes

      In addition to intensifying gut inflammation, researchers found that mice models who consumed the artificial sweetener had increased activity of the enzyme myeloperoxidase. Myeloperoxidase is an enzyme in leukocytes (white blood cells) that attacks disease-causing microorganisms.

      “Our findings suggest that patients with Crohn’s disease should think carefully about consuming Splenda or similar products,” Alex Rodriguez-Palacios, study author and assistant professor of medicine at Case Western Reserve University, said in a statement.

      The study showed that the sweetener induces changes in gut bacteria and gut wall immune cell reactivity, which could result in inflammation or disease flare-ups in susceptible people.

      "On the other hand, the study suggests that individuals free of intestinal diseases may not need to be overly concerned,” Rodriguez-Palacios said.

      Next steps

      Splenda, which includes sucralose and a digestible sweetener called maltodextrin, is about 600 times as sweet as sugar.

      The researchers say the study on animal models is “perhaps the closest we can get to provide experimental evidence that these ingredients together induce biological changes known to cause inflammation which could be harmful over time to susceptible animal subjects.”

      "Our next step would be to run experiments directly in patients, but that is more difficult to conduct given the large variability that is inherent to human genetics, microbiome and diet,” Rodriguez-Palacios said.

      Crohn's disease is an inflammatory bowel disease of the digestive tract, which can cause symptoms including abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, weight loss, and fatigue. Around 1.3 percent of adults in the U.S. have inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease, according to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

      The full study has been published in the journal Inflammatory Bowel Diseases.

      A new study suggests that Splenda and other zero-calorie sugar substitutes can worsen gut inflammation, which is a symptom of Crohn’s disease.Researche...
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      Model year 2009-2012 Dodge Ram 1500 trucks recalled

      The fuel tank to drop and make contact with the ground

      Chrysler (FCA US LLC) is recalling 270,254 model year 2009-2012 Dodge Ram 1500 trucks currently, or ever registered, in Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia.

      Exposure to environmental conditions such as water mixed with road salt may cause the front fuel tank strap frame "T-Slot" bracket to corrode, possibly causing the fuel tank to drop and make contact with the ground.

      If the fuel tank were to drop and contact the ground, a fuel leak could result. Additionally, in the event of a crash, the fuel tank may not remain secured to the vehicle, possibly causing a fuel leak. A fuel leak in the presence in an ignition source, can increase the risk of a fire.

      What to do

      Chrysler will notify owners and dealers will bolt a bracket reinforcement to the frame, free of charge.

      The recall is expected to begin April 27, 2018.

      Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is U04.

      Chrysler (FCA US LLC) is recalling 270,254 model year 2009-2012 Dodge Ram 1500 trucks currently, or ever registered, in Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, In...
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      Nissan recalls model year 2018 Nissan 370Zs

      The driver's side curtain airbag may have been installed incorrectly

      Nissan North America is recalling 22 model year 2018 Nissan 370Zs.

      The driver's side curtain airbag may have been installed incorrectly during production, possibly affecting its deployment, increasing the risk of injury.

      What to do

      Nissan will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the curtain airbag, correcting its installation as necessary, free of charge.

      The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule.

      Owners may contact Nissan customer service at 1-800-867-7669.

      Nissan North America is recalling 22 model year 2018 Nissan 370Zs.The driver's side curtain airbag may have been installed incorrectly during productio...
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      White House reportedly to propose death penalty for opioid drug dealers

      A report suggests tougher penalties are included in the latest plan to fight addiction

      The Trump administration has reportedly drawn up a plan to fight opioid addiction that includes the death penalty for drug dealers, in some cases.

      In an exclusive report, Politico cites internal documents that it says have circulated among administration officials in recent weeks. It says the plan calls for new treatment and preventive measures sought by many public health officials, but it also takes a harder line on law enforcement.

      The report drew a strong reaction from some Democrats. Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) released a statement, saying the report -- if true -- would be a major misstep in dealing with the opioid epidemic.

      “We will not incarcerate or execute our way out of the opioid epidemic,” Markey said. “We are still paying the costs for one failed War on Drugs, and now President Trump is drawing up battle plans for another.”

      'Extreme proposals'

      Markey warned that enacting what he called "extreme proposals" would backfire, perpetuating a stigma associated with opioid use disorders.

      "Patients and families suffering in this opioid crisis don’t need toughness, they need treatment," Markey said.

      The White House has not commented on the report, but Politico says the President could announce his plan early next week when he is scheduled to visit New Hampshire, a state hard hit by opioid abuse.

      Other features of the reported plan

      According to the Politico report, the administration plan would change how government agencies pay for opioid drugs as a way to limit access. It would also recommend to Congress changes in the Medicaid law to make it easier for people addicted to the painkillers to get treatment.

      There were more than 63,000 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A large number occurred in rural New England states.

      Late last month, the state of Maine reported it suffered 418 drug-induced deaths in 2017. Drug overdose deaths increased by 11 percent in 2017, driven by a sharp increase in deaths due to illegal fentanyl and fentanyl analogs. At the same time, heroin deaths decreased.

      The Trump administration has reportedly drawn up a plan to fight opioid addiction that includes the death penalty for drug dealers, in some cases.In an...
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      Intel promises its new chips will fix the Spectre and Meltdown issues

      The new processors are expected to ship in the second half of 2018

      Intel is banking on a new chipset to end recently discovered security concerns over flaws in the company’s chips and processors.

      It’s been a tough first quarter for the world's second largest semiconductor chip maker. In January, reports came to light about design flaws in certain Intel computer processor chips -- dubbed Spectre and Meltdown -- that put millions of computer users at heightened risk of a cyberattack.

      Soon after, Intel’s attempt at a patch against those threats caused those computers to slow down and occasionally reboot. Then, in February, Intel was hit with over 30 class-action lawsuits relating to the Spectre and Meltdown chipset vulnerability.

      Left with few options, the company announced yesterday that its Xeon Cascade Lake chip and 8th Generation Core processor should deliver the performance improvements people expect.

      “Our goal is to offer not only the best performance, but also the best secure performance,” said Brian Krzanich, the CEO of Intel Corporation. “There is still work to do. The security landscape is constantly evolving and we know that there will always be new threats.”

      What computer users can expect

      Intel’s expected ship date for the new chips and processors is in the second half of this year.

      Krzanich says that the newly redesigned parts will have features that protect against different variants of the Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities. He likens the features to 'protective walls' that can create additional obstacles for would-be hackers to overcome.

      If you have a computer that employed the old chipsets, Krzanich offered that Intel has published updates for “100% of Intel products launched in the past five years that require protection.”

      On Thursday, Intel published those updates in “Facts About the New Security Research Findings and Intel Products,” an outline which includes resources that computer owners can use to protect their computer system.

      There’s some work involved from the user’s end, though. While Intel’s software and firmware updates are supposed to mitigate the issues, the company says that end users should check with their operating system vendors and system manufacturers and apply updates as soon as possible.

      Intel wants computer users to know that, albeit hopeful, it’s not promising the moon with its new chips.

      “Our work is not done. This is not a singular event; it is a long-term commitment. With these updates now available, I encourage everyone to make sure they are always keeping their systems up-to-date. It's one of the easiest ways to stay protected," Krzanich said.

      Intel is banking on a new chipset to end recently discovered security concerns over flaws in the company’s chips and processors.It’s been a tough first...
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      GM reportedly eying peer-to-peer vehicle rental business

      The move could mark an industry transformation

      General Motors (GM) reportedly plans to enter the car sharing market later this summer by establishing a pilot program for owners of GM vehicles to rent their cars to other consumers.

      Bloomberg News cites people close to the alleged plans, reporting that the test will use GM's existing car-sharing platform, Maven. According to these sources, owners of GM cars will be able to list their vehicles on Maven and share any rental income with the automaker.

      GM has declined to comment on the story, but such a move might be another step in the auto industry's transformation from a business producing cars for every consumer to one selling transportation services.

      Lots of competition

      Should GM enter this market, it will have plenty of company.

      Turo (an Authorized Partner) is an app that works a lot like Airbnb. Individual car owners list their vehicles for rent to other consumers in need of a rental car.

      Instead of going to Hertz or Enterprise, Turo (an Authorized Partner) users meet the person with the car at a prearranged location and get the keys, as explained in the TV commercial Turo (an Authorized Partner) is airing nationally.

      Zipcar pioneered the car-sharing business model, launching in 2000. With Zipcar, users receive a card that unlocks the car when they pick it up. The keys are left inside.

      Turo (an Authorized Partner) uses a peer-to-peer business model, and both Turo (an Authorized Partner) and Zipcar claim it's easier to rent from them than a traditional car rental business.

      Who's sharing their cars?

      Not every car owner is comfortable turning over their car to a perfect stranger, even if they are being paid to do it. So who are the customers and suppliers in this emerging business?

      A 2013 report by Oregon Public Broadcasting found the business model had gained a foothold in Portland, with some people renting their cars for cash while others tried to make a political statement.

      Jesse Engum said he makes about $1,000 a year renting his car, but he told the network he doesn't do it for the money.

      “It doesn’t pay for the car,” he said. “But really, my motivation is just to support this type of movement.”

      One concern about peer-to-peer car rentals, besides someone spilling a soft drink in the seat, is insurance. Your car insurance policy probably won't cover your vehicle while you're making money on it.

      To answer that concern, peer-to-peer rental services have started offering their own insurance policies. Turo now offers a policy on listed cars that cover the replacement cost of the vehicle and provide $1 million in liability coverage.

      General Motors (GM) reportedly plans to enter the car sharing market later this summer by establishing a pilot program for owners of GM vehicles to rent th...
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      Spotify stocks to start trading April 3

      The company acknowledges that trading could start off on a volatile foot

      Following its decision to file for IPO in a non-traditional public listing, Spotify announced that its stock will start trading directly to consumers on April 3. The company will trade under the ticker name “SPOT” on the New York Stock Exchange.

      The music-streaming service announced the date at its “Investor Day,” a live-streamed, open-to-the-public event designed to introduce the company to public market investors.

      CEO Daniel Ek said he chose to go public via direct listing because “going public has not been about the pomp and circumstance of it all.” Spotify will forgo the traditional roadshow meetings and media interviews typically involved in an IPO.

      The company says the goal of this offering is simply to "offer liquidity for shareholders."

      Ups and downs expected

      The nature of direct listing is likely to result in ups and downs during its early days on the market. Spotify said in its filing that "the trading volume and price of our ordinary shares may be more volatile."

      Last year, the music-streaming company had an operating loss of $461.3 million and revenue of $4.99 billion. As of December, it had 71 million paying subscribers and more than 159 million monthly active listeners -- “but we’re just getting started,” Ek said in his “Investor Day” presentation.

      Transparency will be a key focus for Spotify going forward. Ek said the company plans to focus on upgrading free users to premium subscribers, reaching scale across multiple platforms, and adding personalization (both for users and for the company to collect data on users’ habits).

      Following its decision to file for IPO in a non-traditional public listing, Spotify announced that its stock will start trading directly to consumers on Ap...
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      FDA announces intent to lower nicotine levels in cigarettes

      The proposed move would drastically reduce the number of tobacco-related deaths

      The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced Thursday that it is taking a “historic” step toward making cigarettes less addictive.

      The agency is considering limiting the amount of nicotine it will allow in cigarettes to 0.3, 0.4, or 0.5 milligrams of nicotine per gram of tobacco filler. For context, most regular cigarettes contain about 10 to 14 mg of nicotine.

      “Cigarettes are the only legal consumer product that, when used as intended, will kill half of all long-term users,” FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in statement, noting that 480,000 Americans die every year due to tobacco-related causes.

      8 million fewer deaths

      An FDA-funded analysis found that reducing nicotine levels could lower the smoking rate from 15 percent of adults to just 1.4 percent, which would result in around 8 million fewer tobacco-related deaths by the end of the century -- “an undeniable public health benefit,” Gottlieb said.

      Under the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, the FDA is legally prohibited from completely eliminating nicotine from cigarettes.

      Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, said cutting nicotine levels would reduce their addictive power over individuals, which would help more adults succeed in quitting smoking. It could also potentially help keep young people who may be experimenting with smoking from becoming addicted.

      The nicotine notice follows Gottlieb’s announcement last summer that the FDA would pursue a comprehensive plan on tobacco and nicotine regulation in an effort to prevent millions of tobacco-related deaths.

      Open for public comment

      The notice will be open for public debate for 90 days. During that time, the agency is seeking input on what maximum nicotine level would best protect the public’s health and whether a new limit should be implemented gradually or all at once.

      Gottlieb is also seeking opinions on whether addicted smokers would compensate by smoking more or create a black market for high-nicotine cigarettes.

      “It’s critical that our policies reflect the latest science and is informed by the input we receive” from groups and individuals with a stake in the outcome, he added.

      The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced Thursday that it is taking a “historic” step toward making cigarettes less addictive. The agency is co...
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      Court strikes down proposed fiduciary rule

      Justices say the Obama Labor Department exceeded its authority in drafting it

      A federal appeals court has driven the final nail in the coffin of the fiduciary rule, an Obama Administration proposal designed to protect investors and retirement savers.

      The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Thursday struck down the yet to be fully implemented policy, saying it was unlawful. The court held that the Department of Labor exceeded its authority in expanding the definition of what constituted fiduciary investment advice.

      As proposed by the Obama Labor Department, the fiduciary rule had a simple premise. It stated that financial advisers must give clients investment advice that is in their best interests, without regard to the interests of the adviser.

      Conflict of interest

      The measure was proposed as a way to root out conflicts of interest in the financial services industry, preventing advisers from recommending investments that rewarded themselves with high commissions but might not help their clients build wealth.

      The Trump Administration delayed key provisions of the rule from going into effect, but the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other groups challenged the entire rule in court. They claimed the rule was too burdensome and would deprive the average investor of any financial advice.

      That suggests that if financial advisers were required to give advice that did not reward themselves in some way, they would be forced to charge steep fees for their unbiased advice, fees the average investor could not afford.

      Because of that, the Chamber of Commerce, Financial Services Institute, Financial Services Roundtable, Insured Retirement Institute, and Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, say the appeals court ruling is a victory for retirement savers, preserving their access to free advice.

      In a joint statement, those groups said they support the development of a "best interest standard of care," and called on the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to take the lead in developing one.

      Favored by consumer groups

      AARP was one of the original backers of the fiduciary rule, warning that retirement savers were being shortchanged by financial advice that was not always in their best interests. Last year the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) put a price on it.

      Heidi Shierholz, policy director of EPI, told the Labor Department that just delaying the key elements of the rule would end up costing retirement savers $10.9 billion over 30 years.

      Shierholz said she arrived at that figure by assuming the delay of the enforcement provisions would result in about a 50 percent compliance rate. The numbers, she says, could actually range from $5.5 billion to $16.3 billion, based on actual compliance with the rule.

      There are steps investors and retirement savers should take to make sure the financial advice they are receiving will benefit them as much as the adviser. Ask specific questions about fees and commissions associated with any recommended investment.

      When offered a recommendation, ask the adviser to suggest a couple of alternatives that are similar. Also, make sure you are dealing with an actual adviser and not a salesperson. You can do that by asking the person you are dealing with how he or she is paid.

      A federal appeals court has driven the final nail in the coffin of the fiduciary rule, an Obama Administration proposal designed to protect investors and r...
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      Mercedes recalls model year 2018 vehicles with AMG performance seats

      The backrest rail and fitting may not be properly welded

      Mercedes-Benz USA (MBUSA) is recalling 99 model year 2018 Mercedes Benz C43 AMGs, C63S AMGs, E63 S AMG Sedans and E63S AMG Stationwagons fitted with AMG performance seats.

      The backrest rail and backrest fitting may not be properly welded on the driver and front passenger seats.

      The incorrect welding may result in the seats failing in the event of a crash, increasing the risk of injury.

      What to do

      MBUSA will notify owners, and dealers will inspect the welds of the backrest frames, replacing the backrests as necessary, free of charge.

      The recall is expected to begin May 4, 2018.

      Owners may contact MBUSA customer service at 1-800-367-6372.

      Mercedes-Benz USA (MBUSA) is recalling 99 model year 2018 Mercedes Benz C43 AMGs, C63S AMGs, E63 S AMG Sedans and E63S AMG Stationwagons fitted with AMG pe...
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      PDX Aromatics recalls kratom powder

      The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

      PDX Aromatics of Portland, Ore., doing business as Kraken Kratom, Phytoextractum, and Soul Speciosa, is recalling kratom-containing powder products.

      The products may be contaminated with Salmonella.

      One confirmed illness has been associated with the recalled products.

      Kratom, according to WebMD, is a herb that advocates say “offers relief from pain, depression, and anxiety,” and “may hold the key to treating chronic pain and may even be a tool to combat addiction to opioid medications.”

      The Drug Enforcement Administration, on the other hand, has called kratom an “imminent hazard to public safety,” advocated making it a Schedule 1 drug -- the same as heroin, LSD, marijuana, and ecstasy."

      The following products, packaged in plastic heat sealed pouches and sold in 28, 56 and 112 grams, are being recalled:

      BrandProduct nameNet Wt
      Kraken KratomRed Dragon Kratom Powder28 g, 56 g, 112 g
      Kraken KratomRed Vein Borneo Kratom Powder28 g, 56 g, 112 g
      Kraken KratomRed Vein Sumatra Kratom Powder28 g, 56 g, 112 g
      Kraken KratomRed Vein Thai Kratom Powder28 g, 56 g, 112 g
      Kraken KratomSuper Indo Kratom Powder28 g, 56 g, 112 g
      PhytoextractumMaeng Da Thai Kratom Powder (Horn Red)28 g, 56 g, 112 g
      PhytoextractumRed Dragon Kratom Powder28 g, 56 g, 112 g
      PhytoextractumRed Vein Borneo Kratom Powder28 g, 56 g, 112 g
      PhytoextractumRed Vein Sumatra Kratom Powder28 g, 56 g, 112 g
      PhytoextractumRed Vein Thai Kratom Powder28 g, 56 g, 112 g
      PhytoextractumSuper Indo Kratom Powder28 g, 56 g, 112 g
      Soul SpeciosaMaeng Da Thai Kratom Powder (Horn Red)28 g, 56 g, 112 g
      Soul SpeciosaRed Dragon Kratom Powder28 g, 56 g, 112 g
      Soul SpeciosaRed Vein Sumatra Kratom Powder28 g, 56 g, 112 g
      Soul SpeciosaRed Vein Thai Kratom Powder28 g, 56 g, 112 g
      Soul SpeciosaSuper Indo Kratom Powder28 g, 56 g, 112 g
      Recalled products have any of the following LOT codes (represent packaging dates):
      LOT 20180118LOT 20180125LOT 20180201LOT 20180207LOT 20180214
      LOT 20180119LOT 20180126LOT 20180201LOT 20180208LOT 20180215
      LOT 20180120LOT 20180127LOT 20180202LOT 20180209LOT 20180216
      LOT 20180121LOT 20180128LOT 20180203LOT 20180210LOT 20180217
      LOT 20180122LOT 20180129LOT 20180204LOT 20180211LOT 20180218
      LOT 20180123LOT 20180130LOT 20180205LOT 20180212
      LOT 20180124LOT 20180131LOT 20180206LOT 20180213

      The products total an estimated 10,000 units and were sold directly to consumers on company websites between January 18, 2018, and February 18, 2018.

      What to do

      Customers who purchased the recalled products should not consume them, but return them to PDX Aromatics.

      Consumers wishing to receive a refund should visit the site from which they purchased the products (http://krakenkratom.com/recall, http://phytoextractum.com/recall, or http://soulspeciosa.com/recall) and follow all instructions for returning recalled products within 14 business days.

      Consumers with questions may contact PDX Aromatics at 503-850-9225, 9am – 5pm (PT), Monday-Friday or by email at media@pdxaromatics.com.

      PDX Aromatics of Portland, Ore., doing business as Kraken Kratom, Phytoextractum, and Soul Speciosa, is recalling kratom-containing powder products.The...
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      Helvetia Sports recalls SwissStop bicycle disc brake pads

      The brake pads can separate from the backplate, posing a fall hazard

      Helvetia Sports of Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, is recalling about 750 SwissStop EXOTherm disc brake pads.

      The brake pads can separate from the backplate, posing a fall hazard to the user.

      The firm has received two reports of the brake pads separating from the backplate. No injuries have been reported.

      This recall involves SwissStop EXOTherm cycling disc brake pads sold separately as aftermarket spare parts. Only disc pads with models listed below are included in the recall:

      SwissStop EXOTherm Disc 25

      SwissStop EXOTherm Disc 30

      SwissStop EXOTherm Disc 26

      SwissStop EXOTherm Disc 31

      SwissStop EXOTherm Disc 27

      SwissStop EXOTherm Disc 32

      SwissStop EXOTherm Disc 28

      SwissStop EXOTherm Disc 34

      The brake pads, manufactured in Taiwan, were sold at various cycling shops nationwide from October 2015, through June 2017, for between $40 and $50.

      What to do

      Consumers should return the recalled brake pads to the store where purchased for full refund.

      Consumers may contact Helvetia Sports toll-free at 866-358-5218 between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. (ET) Monday through Friday, by email at steve@helvetiasports.com or online at www.helvetiasports.com for more information.

      Helvetia Sports of Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, is recalling about 750 SwissStop EXOTherm disc brake pads.The brake pads can separate from the backpl...
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      Tesla employees say flawed parts are causing Model 3 production delays

      The company denies the claims and cites normal testing protocols

      Current and former Tesla employees say the automaker is manufacturing a surprisingly high ratio of parts that are flawed and need to be reworked, leading to Model 3 production delays.

      An employee told CNBC that “40 percent of the parts made or received at its Fremont factory require rework. The need for reviews of parts coming off the line, and rework, has contributed to Model 3 delays.”

      “Another current employee from Tesla’s Fremont factory said the company’s defect rate is so high that it’s hard to hit production targets. Inability to hit the numbers is in turn hurting employee morale,” the report said.

      Last weekend, the company confirmed that it had been forced to halt production on its Model 3 cars.

      Tesla denies report

      Tesla denied the claim and said CNBC is conflating “remanufacturing” and “rework.”

      “Remanufacturing is a process that literally every automaker on earth performs. CNBC is extracting a few lines from two job descriptions posted online and making gross assumptions about the roles that are inaccurate.”

      "Our remanufacturing team does not 'rework' cars," a spokesperson said. The company also said every vehicle is subjected to rigorous quality control involving more than 500 inspections and tests.

      Elon Musk previously claimed the company planned to produce 20,000 vehicles per month by the end of 2017. Current estimates place the actual figure at 5,000 units per month by the summer.

      Current and former Tesla employees say the automaker is manufacturing a surprisingly high ratio of parts that are flawed and need to be reworked, leading t...
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      California bill seeks to impose strong net neutrality protections

      Lawmakers say the proposal is even stronger than the original version of net neutrality

      A prospective net neutrality bill in the California state legislature would ban payments for the type of data cap exemptions that carriers like AT&T and Verizon have imposed on its internet customers.

      The state’s lawmakers are taking an aggressive stance for the sake of consumers and staring down the Trump administration’s recent rollback of the free and open internet -- one that users have known since 2015 when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled in favor of net neutrality and the law went into effect.

      When the FCC originally created its principles of “network neutrality,” the agency said the move was meant to “preserve the vibrant and competitive free market that presently exists for the Internet” and “to promote the continued development of the Internet."

      The FCC’s move at the time piggybacked Congress’ feeling that the internet had educational and informational importance and that it represented “a forum for a true diversity of political discourse, unique opportunities for cultural development, and myriad avenues for intellectual activity."

      Lawmakers also said that net neutrality played “an important role in the economy, as an engine for productivity growth and cost savings."

      California has consumers’ backs

      The California bill (SB 822) -- introduced by state senator Scott Wiener -- is even more comprehensive than the original protections. Wiener’s proposal “prohibits any practice that hinders or manipulates consumer access to the Internet to favor certain types of content, services, or devices over others.”

      In no uncertain terms, Wiener’s bill says it would prevent “blocking or speeding up or slowing down of favored data, paid prioritization, charging services (whether businesses, nonprofits, government agencies, advocacy organizations, etc.) access fees to reach certain consumers, and economic discrimination practices that distort consumer choice.”

      “An open Internet is essential to maintaining our democracy, growing our economy, protecting consumers, and preserving critical health, safety, and energy services,” Senator Wiener said in a blog post on Wednesday.

      “Late last year, when the FCC made the disastrous decision to repeal net neutrality, I announced I would pursue legislation to protect net neutrality in California,” Wiener said. “Over the last two months, I’ve been working with civil rights and privacy advocates, public policy experts and lawyers, former state and federal commissioners, and business leaders to craft the strongest and most comprehensive set of net neutrality protections in the country.”

      Zero-rating and how it affects the internet user

      Specifically targeted in the bill is something called “zero-rating,” a method of providing internet access without any costs under certain conditions, such as by only permitting access to certain websites or by subsidizing a company’s internet service with advertising.

      For example, an internet provider might choose to “zero-rate” its own services in order to gain a competitive advantage. A case-in-point was what Comcast did with its “Stream TV” on-demand video service. If a customer watched shows via that service, it wasn’t counted towards Comcast’s data caps, but content from competitors like Netflix did.

      Other programs like T-Mobile's BingeOn and Music Freedom allowed users to stream unlimited amounts of audio and video from select services, although it slowed down a user’s video connection if they used BingeOn. While there was no built-in ban on zero-rating, the fact that the provider offered a way to opt-out prevented it from violating the no-throttling rule. When a customer opted-out, the audio/video would stream at full quality, but it would count against the user’s data cap.

      Zero-rating has been a thorn in the side of Congress, the consumer, and thousands of small ISPs for a while, and it is thought to be one of the sticking points in the Comcast-AT&T merger. In the situation of small ISPs that were bringing broadband to underserved rural areas, the argument was that since those providers didn’t own the content, it lacked the muscle to negotiate fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory access to content.

      Senator Wiener’s California-directed proposal comes less than a week after a federal judicial panel decided to give the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) repeal of net neutrality an appeals hearing

      Last week, Washington became the first state to pass a net neutrality law, one identical in scope to the proposed California law.

      A prospective net neutrality bill in the California state legislature would ban payments for the type of data cap exemptions that carriers like AT&T; and V...
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      iHeartMedia files for bankruptcy

      The company has spent years dealing with massive debt

      iHeartMedia Inc., the parent company of iHeartRadio, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after years of struggling with $20 billion worth of debt.

      The radio broadcasting network announced that it has reached an agreement with creditors to restructure more than $10 billion of that figure, essentially cutting its debt load in half.  

      Bob Pittman, chairman and CEO, said the agreement is “a significant accomplishment, as it allows us to definitively address the more than $20 billion in debt that has burdened our capital structure.”

      “Achieving a capital structure that finally matches our impressive operating business will further enhance iHeartMedia’s position as America’s #1 audio company,” Pittman said in a statement.

      Listeners won’t be affected

      The bankruptcy proceedings won’t affect iHeartRadio listeners or concert-goers. iHeartMedia “will continue operating the business in the ordinary course as a leading global multi-platform media, entertainment and data company,” the company said.

      iHeartMedia has been burdened by debt since 2008 after the leveraged buyout of billboard company Clear Channel Outdoor. The company spent upwards of $1 billion on interest payments last year and has more than $8 billion in debt maturing by the end of 2019.

      "The heavy debt burden became unsustainable during the persistent long-term secular decline of the radio broadcasting business," analyst Sharon Bonelli of Fitch Ratings told CNN.

      The bankruptcy comes just two months after Cumulus, the second-largest radio company, offloaded $1 billion in debt.

      iHeartRadio owns around 850 stations across the country, as well as a streaming service and an outdoor advertising company. It also runs the iHeartRadio Music Awards and other live events. By the end of 2016, the corporation had 14,300 employees.

      iHeartMedia Inc., the parent company of iHeartRadio, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after years of struggling with $20 billion worth of debt. The...
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      Taxpayers vulnerable to new phishing scams

      A report shows scammers are impersonating legitimate tax prep websites

      Tax season means phishing scammers are out in force, trying to steal consumers' identities and cheat them out of their tax refunds.

      DomainTools, a threat intelligence firm, has released a survey which suggests that an increasing number of consumers are vulnerable to these threats because they take them too lightly.

      The survey found that barely half of consumers pay adequate attention to emails from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and various tax services to determine their authenticity.

      About 20 percent of the consumers in the survey said they’ve clicked on a bad link in an email because they thought it came from the IRS. One of a phishing scammer's oldest tricks is to send out emails that claim to be from the tax agency.

      Bogus tax prep websites

      Because so many taxpayers now use an online software tool to file their taxes, DomainTools found that scammers are creating websites that impersonate real and well-known tax filing sites.

      The object is to trick taxpayers into entering all of their tax information -- personal as well as financial -- into the bogus site.

      "With the help of PhishEye, we uncovered a number of domains that disguise themselves as TurboTax, further validating that scammers are actively looking to prey on unsuspecting online tax filers this year," the report's authors write.

      Check out the URL

      To avoid these schemes, the authors say taxpayers should never use a link provided in an email to go to a tax preparer's site. Instead, go to the site directly.

      "Take the time to look at the URL used in an email -- purportedly from the IRS or your tax provider -- for any strange affixes, or additions to the domain," the authors advise. "It is important to note that the IRS does not use email to initiate contact with taxpayers to solicit personal information."

      Taxpayers who want to file online may have the option of do so at not charge. If you meet eligibility requirements, including an income of $66,000 or less, you can use the IRS Free File option to access TurboTax and other commercial tax preparation software.

      You can start the process here by finding out if you are eligible.

      Tax season means phishing scammers are out in force, trying to steal consumers' identities and cheat them out of their tax refunds.DomainTools, a threa...
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      Google says it removed 3.2 billion ‘bad ads’ last year

      The company says it is taking preemptive measures to combat fraudulent ads

      Every year, Google gets faster and more efficient at clamping down on ads that violate its policies. In a blog post detailing its annual ‘bad ads’ statistics, the company said it removed a total of 3.2 billion ads for violating one or more of its ad policies. 
      Bad ads that were removed in 2017 included: 
      • 79 million ads for linking to malware
      • 400,000 sites for hosting malicious ads
      • 66 million “trick-to-click” ads
      • 48 million ads attempting to get users to install unwanted software
      • 320,000 website publishers for failing to meet its policies for publishers
      Two million pages were removed every month for policy violations, which Google says has been “critical in scaling enforcement for policies that prohibit monetization of inappropriate and controversial content.”

      One hundred ads removed every second

      All told, Google’s ad-removal efforts equated to an average of 100 bad ads removed every second.
      “In order for this ads-supported, free web to work, it needs to be a safe and effective place to learn, create and advertise,” said Scott Spencer, Google’s director of sustainable ads. 
      “Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Whether it’s a one-off accident or a coordinated action by scammers trying to make money, a negative experience hurts the entire ecosystem.”

      Combating ad fraud

      In addition to removing harmful or intrusive ads, the tech giant is also taking measures to keep the ad ecosystem free of ads related to promoting fraudulent financial products. 
      Starting in June, Google will ban ads for things like binary options, cryptocurrencies and related content, and financial spread betting. The move comes at a time when governments around the world and financial experts have warned of the risks associated with investing in cryptocurrencies. 
      Companies like Twitter and Facebook have already announced similar plans to protect users from cryptocurrency scams.
      Google said it has also updated its gambling ads policies to “address new methods of gambling with items that have real-world value (e.g., skins gambling).” The company also plans to introduce a new certification process for rehab facilities, which will allow legitimate addiction treatment centers to connect with people in need. 
      Every year, Google gets faster and more efficient at clamping down on ads that violate its policies. In a blog post detailing its annual ‘bad ads’ statisti...
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      Ford recalls 1.3 million Ford Fusions and Lincoln MKZs

      The steering wheel could detach from the steering column

      Ford Motor Company is recalling 1.3 million model year 2014-18 Ford Fusions and Lincoln MKZs.

      The vehicles have potentially loose steering wheel bolts that could result in the steering wheel detaching from the steering column, leading to a loss of steering control and increasing the risk of a crash.

      The automaker says it is aware of two accidents with one injury that may be related to this condition.

      The following vehicles are being recalled:

      • Model year 2014-17 Ford Fusions built at the Flat Rock Assembly Plant from August 6, 2013, to February 29, 2016;
      • Model year 2014-18 Ford Fusions built at the Hermosillo Assembly Plant from July 25, 2013, to March 5, 2018; and
      • Model year 2014-18 Lincoln MKZs built at the Hermosillo Assembly Plant from July 25, 2013, to March 5, 2018

      About 1,301,986 of the recalled vehicles are in the U.S. and federalized territories with 62,479 in Canada and 14,172 in Mexico.

      What to do

      Dealers will replace the steering wheel bolt on the vehicle with a longer bolt with more robust thread engagement and larger nylon patch placed properly for proper torque retention at no cost to customers.

      Ford's reference number for this recall is 18S08.

      Ford Motor Company is recalling 1.3 million model year 2014-18 Ford Fusions and Lincoln MKZs.The vehicles have potentially loose steering wheel bolts t...
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      Volkswagen recalls various vehicles with airbag inflator issue

      Excessive internal pressure may cause the airbag inflator to explode

      Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 51,352 model year 2009-2014 Volkswagen CCs, model year 2010-2014 Golfs, model year 2010-2011 Eos vehicles, model year 2007-2010 Passat Sedans, and model year 2007-2010 Passat Wagons.

      Upon deployment of the driver's front airbag, excessive internal pressure may cause the inflator to explode with metal fragments striking occupants potentially resulting in serious injury or death.

      What to do

      Volkswagen will notify owners, and dealers will replace the driver's front airbag inflator free of charge.

      The recall was expected to begin March 15, 2018.

      Owners may contact Volkswagen customer service at 1-800-893-5298. Volkswagen's number for this recall is 69Q9.

      Volkswagen Group of America is recalling 51,352 model year 2009-2014 Volkswagen CCs, model year 2010-2014 Golfs, model year 2010-2011 Eos vehicles, model y...
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      Starwest Botanicals recalls Organic Cardamom Pods Green

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

      Starwest Botanicals is recalling Starwest Botanicals Organic Cardamom Pods Green (Whole).

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

      No illnesses have been reported to date.

      The following product, which is packaged in Mylar 1-lb. bags and bulk packs, is being recalled:

      • Starwest Botanicals Organic Cardamom Pods Green (Whole) 1-lb. with UPC 7-6796302528-9. The item# 209735-01 and lot number (75593) can be found on the label affixed to the bag.
      • Starwest Botanicals Organic Cardamom Pods Green (Whole) bulk pack with UPC 7-6796302527-2. The item# 209735-00 and lot number (90186-00) can be found on the label affixed to the bulk pack.

      The recalled product was sold between January 15, 2018, and March 2, 2018, and was either shipped directly to Starwest Botanicals customers who purchased online from firm’s website or mail order customers, or held for pickup up by the customer at Starwest Botanicals.

      What to do

      Customers who purchased the recalled product may return it to Starwest Botanicals in Sacramento, Calif., for a full refund.

      Consumers with questions may contact Starwest at 1-800-800-4372 Monday through Friday 8:00 am – 4:30 pm (PST).

      Starwest Botanicals is recalling Starwest Botanicals Organic Cardamom Pods Green (Whole).The product may be contaminated with Salmonella.No illness...
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      Amazon recalls portable power banks

      The power bank’s battery can overheat and ignite

      Amazon of Seattle, Wash., is recalling about 260,000 AmazonBasics portable power banks.

      The power bank’s battery can overheat and ignite, posing fire and burn hazards.

      The firm has received 53 reports of the power banks overheating in the U.S., including one report of chemical burns due to contact with battery acid and four reports of property damage, including fire and smoke damage.

      This recall involves six versions of AmazonBasics’ portable lithium-ion battery chargers/power banks: 16,100 mAh; 10,000 mAh; 5,600 mAh; 2,000 mAh with micro USB cable; 3,000 mAh and 3,000 mAh with USB micro cable.

      The rubberized or metallic power banks are black and rectangular, and measure about 3 inches long by 1.4 inch high by 0.9 inch wide.

      They were sold with or without a USB charger cable and a carrying pouch.

      The AmazonBasics logo is printed on the front of the unit. Product ID number B00LRK8EVO, B00LRK8HJ8, B00LRK8I7O, B00LRK8IV0, B00LRK8JDC or B00ZQ4JQAA is printed on the back of the unit.

      The power banks, manufactured in China, were sold at Amazon.com, Amazon Bookstores and Amazon Pop-Up Stores from December 2014, through July 2017, for between $9 and $40.

      What to do

      Consumers should immediately unplug and stop using the recalled power banks and contact Amazon for instructions on how to return the unit and receive a full refund. All known purchasers are being contacted directly by the firm.

      Consumers may contact Amazon toll-free at 855-215-5134 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (ET) Monday through Saturday or online anytime at https://amazonpowerbank.expertinquiry.com/ to register the product and receive a full refund.

      Amazon of Seattle, Wash., is recalling about 260,000 AmazonBasics portable power banks.The power bank’s battery can overheat and ignite, posing fire an...
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      Google cracks down on ads for Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies

      The company says the assets have too great a potential for harm

      Google is banning all advertisements relating to cryptocurrency, the company recently announced.

      Google ads, which run on Google pages and third-party websites, will no longer feature initial coin offerings, wallets, online exchanges, or even trading advice relating to cryptocurrency beginning in June 2018.

      In an interview with CNBC, Google’s director of sustainable ads cited “consumer harm” as the reason for banning the ads. "We don't have a crystal ball to know where the future is going to go with cryptocurrencies, but we've seen enough consumer harm or potential for consumer harm that it's an area that we want to approach with extreme caution," he told the station.

      While cryptocurrencies have made instant millionaires out of some investors, they are not regulated by financial institutions and have proven to be especially vulnerable to hacking.

      “Exchanges” don’t meet standards

      Google’s move follows a similar policy implemented by Facebook and a recent warning by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) about cryptocurrencies.

      Last week, the SEC said that operators of online trading platforms, or sites where investors can trade cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, were misleading consumers by portraying themselves as “exchanges.” The SEC reminded consumers that it does not regulate such platforms, despite what the term “exchange” might imply.

      “Many platforms refer to themselves as ‘exchanges,’ which can give the misimpression to investors that they are regulated or meet the regulatory standards of a national securities exchange,” the SEC said.

      “Although some of these platforms claim to use strict standards to pick only high-quality digital assets to trade, the SEC does not review these standards or the digital assets that the platforms select, and the so-called standards should not be equated to the listing standards of national securities exchanges.”

      A bubble waiting to burst?

      Proponents of cryptocurrencies cite limited regulations, and a decentralized, universal currency as the major appeal of the trade. But financial institutions and banks have repeatedly claimed that online cryptocurrencies are a dangerous investment.

      Goldman Sachs, in a report last year, said that Bitcoin is seven times more volatile than gold. More recently, a major investment firm in Europe described Bitcoin as essentially worthless.

      Allianz Global Investors, the investment arm of Europe’s largest insurer, published a report last week about the Bitcoin “bubble.”

      “... it appears to us that bitcoin mania is a textbook-like bubble – and one that is probably just about to burst,” author Stefan Hofrichter wrote.

      Google is banning all advertisements relating to cryptocurrency, the company recently announced.Google ads, which run on Google pages and third-party w...
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      Former Equifax CIO faces insider trading charges

      The former executive allegedly sold $1 million in shares just before the Equifax data breach was announced

      A former Equifax executive has been charged by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) with selling nearly $1 million worth of shares before the company announced last year’s massive data breach.

      Jun Ying, the former chief information officer of Equifax's U.S. Information Solutions, was allegedly entrusted with non-public information about the company’s breach before the news was disclosed to the public, the SEC said in a statement.

      “As alleged in our complaint, Ying used confidential information to conclude that his company had suffered a massive data breach, and he dumped his stock before the news went public,” said Richard R. Best, Director of the SEC’s Atlanta regional office.

      “Corporate insiders who learn inside information, including information about material cyber intrusions, cannot betray shareholders for their own financial benefit,” Best said.

      Ying avoided more than $117,000 in losses by selling his shares before the stock price plunged after news of the breach was publicly announced. The US Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia is also filing criminal charges against Ying, the SEC said.

      Largest breach in history

      Nearly 150 million Americans were impacted by Equifax's data breach, making it the largest breach in history.

      News of the breach was made public Sept. 7, but authorities say Equifax discovered suspicious activity on its network on July 29.

      On Aug. 28, Ying allegedly used his confidential information to sell his shares before the news broke. He exercised all his available stock options and received 6,815 shares of Equifax stock, which he sold for more than $950,000 -- a total gain of more than $480,000, prosecutors said.

      A former Equifax executive has been charged by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) with selling nearly $1 million worth of shares before the compa...
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      Dog dies on United flight after being stored in overhead bin

      The flight attendant who told the owner to stow the dog insists she didn’t know there was a live animal in the bag

      A 10-month-old puppy died Monday on a United Airlines flight after a flight attendant allegedly told its owner to store the animal and its carrier in an overhead locker. Passenger Maggie Gremminger said she witnessed a flight attendant instruct the dog’s owner to stow the carrier with the dog inside in an overhead bin.

      “The pet owner was very adamant that she did not want to put the pet carrier up above,” Gremminger said.

      “She was saying verbally, ‘My dog is in here, no, this is my dog.’ The flight attendant, in response, really just continued to ask her to put it above because it was a hazard where it was, it was a safety emergency, someone could trip.”

      Once the dog, Kokito, was found dead, Gremminger said the flight attendant became “frazzled” and insisted she didn’t know there was a dog in the carrier. However, passengers say the flight attendant was aware that the dog was in there because he barked though takeoff.

      "We didn't know it was barking a cry for help," Gremminger posted on Twitter. By the time the plane landed almost four hours later, the French bulldog was dead.

      “Tragic accident”

      United apologized Tuesday for the death of the passenger's dog, calling it a “tragic accident.” A United spokesperson said the death “should never have occurred, as pets should never be placed in the overhead bin."

      “We assume full responsibility for this tragedy and express our deepest condolences to the family and are committed to supporting them,” United said in a statement.

      The airline said it is refunding the family’s tickets, paying for a necropsy, and “thoroughly investigating what occured to prevent this from ever happening again.”

      Highest number of animal deaths of any carrier

      According to United's pet policy, animals must be in a carrier and "fit completely under the seat in front of the customer and remain there at all times."

      In 2017, 18 animals died and 13 were injured while flying through United’s PetSafe cargo program, according to data from the Department of Transportation. That works out to a rate of 2.24 per 10,000 transported animals.

      Last year, two women blamed the airline for the deaths of their dogs in incidents that occured just weeks apart.

      A golden retriever named Jacob died just hours after disembarking from a United flight. “His stomach flipped due to the stress of his journey that was 20 hours longer than expected, and suffocated his organs,” Jacob’s owner wrote on Facebook after the incident.

      In a separate incident, a pit bull terrier named Sadie arrived deceased to a layover. The airline contended that each of the deaths were caused by “preexisting conditions.”

      A 10-month-old puppy died Monday on a United Airlines flight after a flight attendant allegedly told its owner to store the animal and its carrier in an ov...
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      Retailers are tracking how many items you return

      An obscure California firm is monitoring your activity

      There are many reasons consumers may need to return a purchased item to a retailer, but what most consumers may not realize is that retailers are keeping track of those returns.

      A little-known California firm called The Retail Equation monitors how often consumers return an item and furnishes these reports to national retailers. These retailers may block a consumer from returning items if they decide the consumer is abusing the privilege.

      The reports are intended as a defense against fraud. According to The Retail Equation, fraudulent returns cost retailers more than $17 billion a year.

      The most common forms of return fraud involve returning stolen merchandise to a retailer to receive cash. To make these schemes profitable, it's necessary for a consumer to make multiple returns.

      Wrongly targeted

      While the service is meant to catch scammers, sometimes regular consumers are wrongly targeted. The Wall Street Journal reports that a Best Buy customer from California returned cell phone cases on three different occasions, causing him to be targeted in one of The Retail Equation's return reports. The consumer told The Journal he was banned from making returns at Best Buy for a year.

      The Retail Equation says it will provide a copy of a consumer's return activity report to those who ask for one. The company explains how to go about receiving a copy here.

      The company says its system is designed to "identify the 1 percent of consumers whose behaviors mimic return fraud or abuse." The National Retail Federation (NRF) says fraudulent returns are a significant problem for retailers after every holiday season, when there is a surge in returns.

      “While coverage of this issue paints return fraud as one of the less severe retail crimes, the fact of the matter is that returning used or stolen merchandise — or even using false tender to purchase items — is fraud, period,” NRF vice president for loss prevention Rich Mellor said in 2014. “Efforts to combat fraudulent activity are slowly starting to work, but criminals are becoming more savvy and technologically advanced in their methods.”

      Return policies vary

      Retailers have different return policies. Some are designed to make it easy for customers to return a product that's the wrong size or wrong color. Some make the process a bit more difficult.

      Walmart says it accepts returns of most items purchased in a store within 90 days. However, exceptions include computers, most cameras, digital music players, tablets, portable video players, and GPS units. Those must be returned within 15 days of purchase.

      Walmart also requires all of the original packaging materials and, "if possible," the receipt.

      Target says most unopened items in new condition that are returned within 90 days will receive a refund or exchange. Like Walmart, Target has exceptions that it says will be noted on the receipt.

      The company also says merchandise that has been opened, damaged, or does not have a receipt may be denied a refund or exchange.

      It's a good idea to get familiar with a store's return policy before making a purchase.

      There are many reasons consumers may need to return a purchased item to a retailer, but what most consumers may not realize is that retailers are keeping t...
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      Start-up company unveils new self-flying taxi

      The aircraft won’t require a pilot, or pilot’s license, to operate

      Google founder and Alphabet CEO Larry Page has debuted his new autonomous flying taxi, Cora. The pilotless, fully electric flying taxi is made by Page’s new company Kitty Hawk. 
      According to the company’s website, Cora will operate using “self-flying software combined with human oversight.” The aircraft is designed “to make flying possible for people without training.” 
      Cora will not be sold to the public, but it will be “part of a service similar to an airline or ride share,” according to the company. Below is a video that shows off some of the air vehicle’s capabilities.

      Pilotless

      Another video of the prototype that Kitty Hawk first flew back in 2014 was released in December. Now, the company is taking steps to make flying cars a reality by working with the New Zealand government to commercialize its air taxis. 
      “We think this is the logical next step in the evolution of transportation,” Fred Reid, CEO of Zephyr, says in the new video. “We are looking forward to being able to share our product with the New Zealand public when the time is right.” 
      "New Zealand's Central Aviation Authority has the respect of the worldwide regulatory community. A people who embrace the future. And a dynamic economy that could serve as a springboard for Cora," Kitty Hawk explained in a press release.
      The company says on its website that it has more aircraft in development, but it has yet to release a deployment timeline.
      Operating Cora does not require a pilot’s license because it is considered by FAA regulations to be an “Ultralight aircraft.”. Since it takes off and lands vertically, it doesn’t need a runway to operate. 
      Google founder and Alphabet CEO Larry Page has debuted his new autonomous flying taxi, Cora. The pilotless, fully electric flying taxi is made by Page’s ne...
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      Spring homebuyers could face higher mortgage payments

      A government policy change could push payments even higher

      The spring homebuying season is getting underway, and a couple of nasty surprises could await consumers hoping to purchase a home.

      Home prices are still going up, mainly because of a shortage of homes for sale, and interest rates are also moving higher. The two factors will combine to create a higher monthly payment.

      Home prices are up 10 percent year-over-year, according to real estate marketplace realtor.com listings. At the same time, rates on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage have increased 28 basis points, raising the payment on a median priced home by $168 a month.

      But that's just the average. Realtor.com reports monthly mortgage payments have gone up dramatically in six of the top U.S. markets, where home prices are rising faster than the national average.

      The company projects the payment for a median priced home will increase an average of $449 in Seattle, $378 in San Francisco, $363 in Los Angeles, $242 in San Diego, $236 in Minneapolis, and $213 in Atlanta.

      "Buyers can expect to see more of their paychecks go to their mortgage payments this year," said Danielle Hale, chief economist for realtor.com. "Tight inventory has limited options for buyers and sent home prices soaring in many markets. Now, home buyers will also have to factor in higher mortgage rates."

      Potential changes at Fannie and Freddie

      But it could get worse. Zillow reports Congress is considering changes to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to reduce the risk to taxpayers if the housing market crashes again. These government-sponsored enterprises (GSE), which protect lenders against defaults, have never quite recovered from the 2008 housing market crisis. They've been kept afloat by $150 billion in taxpayer funds.

      Zillow's analysis of the proposed changes suggests they could tack on as much as $400 to a monthly mortgage payment, at a time when these payments are getting bigger because of higher rates and rising home prices.

      According to Zillow, altering the guarantee from Fannie and Freddie could remove the lid from interest rates. It says a different kind of guarantee could mean shorter loan durations or escalating interest rates.

      Shorter loan, higher payment

      A shorter loan would increase the size of a monthly payment but would not add to the cost of the loan. In fact, the borrower would pay off the loan faster and pay less interest over the life of the loan.

      But not every homeowner has an extra $390 in monthly cash flow -- which would be the difference in payments between a 15-year and 30-year fixed rate mortgage on the median home.

      "Some GSE reform proposals could lead to the end of the 30-year mortgage as we know it, which has long been the bedrock for financing homeownership in America," said Zillow's senior economist Aaron Terrazas.

      Terrazas says the result would not very pleasant for current homeowners either, since he predicts that would lead to a decline in home prices.

      The spring homebuying season is getting underway, and a couple of nasty surprises could await consumers hoping to purchase a home.Home prices are still...
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      Walmart expands home delivery to 800 stores

      The retailer is upping the ante in its race with Amazon and Target

      The grocery delivery wars are heating up.

      Walmart has fired the latest shot, announcing that it will expand its fledgling grocery delivery service from its current six markets to more than 100 metro areas -- covering 800 stores -- by the end of this year.

      The retailer estimates that will make 40 percent of U.S. households eligible for its grocery delivery service.

      Size matters

      Greg Foran, CEO of Walmart U.S., says the company is making the leap with the aid of new technology. He says when it comes to ramping up home delivery service, size matters.

      “We’re serving our customers in ways that no one else can," Foran said. "Using our size and scale, we’re bringing the best of Walmart to customers across the country.”

      Home delivery has emerged as a key marker in grocery competition. When Amazon purchased Whole Foods last year, it announced plans to deliver food items to its Prime members. It has rolled out in four markets -- Austin, Cincinnati, Dallas, and Virginia Beach -- with plans to expand throughout 2018.

      Target recently purchased Shipt, a grocery delivery service, and in February it launched same-day deliveries in key markets in Florida. Target plans to add more markets during the spring.

      Extra costs

      Home delivery for both Amazon and Target require a membership fee. Walmart says its home delivery service will require a $9.95 fee and a $30 minimum order.

      To get home delivery, consumers will place orders online at Walmart.com/grocery or use the Walmart Grocery App. Prices, the company says, will be the same as for items found in Walmart stores.

      When an order comes in, a personal shopper will take the list and fill a shopping cart with the requested food items, which are then delivered to the customer's door. Walmart says the new delivery service is separate from its current Online Grocery Pickup service, which is now available at 1,200 stores.

      Tom Ward, Walmart's vice president for digital operations, notes that 90 percent of consumers live within 10 miles of a Walmart store. As the home delivery service expands, he says more people will be able to save both time and money without leaving home.

      The grocery delivery wars are heating up.Walmart has fired the latest shot, announcing that it will expand its fledgling grocery delivery service from...
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      Fitbit introduces its new smartwatch and kid-oriented health tracker

      The new devices focus on women’s health and children’s physical well-being

      Fitbit has expanded its wearable tech product line, jumping into the kid’s exercise tracking game and amping up its run at the smartwatch market.

      Fitbit Ace is the company’s new activity tracker designed for kids 8 and older. The unit tracks the same activities that traditional trackers do like steps and sleep, but it comes with a “family account” where parents can monitor activity and control who their kids connect with in the Fitbit app.

      The kid-oriented tracker was developed out of a Fitbit research study that found most parents believe their children are less active than they were when growing up. Add to that the concerns about their child’s weight, the foods they eat, and the universal worry over child obesity.

      “As childhood obesity rates continue to rise, it’s more important than ever to empower the entire family to embrace a healthy and more active lifestyle,” said James Park, CEO and Co-founder of Fitbit.

      “It can be hard to start and stick to good habits, and we know from our community that network effects are key to getting and keeping people motivated. By bringing that experience to families, it can make healthier habits feel more achievable by making it fun and engaging.”

      Fitbit Ace is priced at $99.95. It’s available for presale on the company’s website and expected in stores in the next three months.

      A smartwatch designed with women in mind

      The company’s newest foray into the smartwatch market comes in the form of its smartphone-compatible Fitbit Versa. Fitbit claims that the unit will come with a simpler activity-tracking dashboard and enhancements such as on-screen workouts and on-device music. The company also says it will be the lightest smartwatch available on the market.

      Part of the Versa’s appeal is its intuitive personalization that takes cues from the wearer’s activities. Prompts include reminders, celebrations, sleep summaries, and challenges from a user’s social media network.  

      One of the comparative advantages Fitbit is banking on for the Versa is its female focal point. The new device is designed to track menstrual cycles and keep tabs on a wearer’s holistic data.

      A recent Fitbit study found that there was a profound lack of awareness about women’s health. Eighty percent of the women surveyed did not know how many phases are in a menstrual cycle and more than 70 percent were unable to correctly identify the average length of a cycle.

      The smartwatch market continues to grow

      The company’s smartwatch launch couldn’t come at a better time for its investors. The worldwide wearables market continues to grow and holds great promise. In the third quarter of 2017 total shipment volume reached 26.3 million units, up 7.3 percent year-over-year, according to the International Data Corporation (IDC).

      "The differing trajectories for both smart and basic wearables underscore the ongoing evolution for the wearables market," said Ramon T. Llamas, research manager for IDC’s Wearables team.

      "Basic wearables – with devices coming from Fitbit, Xiaomi, and Huawei – helped establish the wearables market. But as tastes and demands have changed towards multi-purpose devices – like smartwatches from Apple, Fossil, and Samsung – vendors find themselves at a crossroads to adjust accordingly to capture growth opportunity and mindshare."

      The Fitbit Versa is available for presale today at $199.95, with global retail availability coming in April 2018.

      Fitbit has expanded its wearable tech product line, jumping into the kid’s exercise tracking game and amping up its run at the smartwatch market.Fitbit...
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      Redbarn expands dog chew recall

      The products may be contaminated with Salmonella

      Redbarn Pet Products of Long Beach, Calif., is expanding its earlier recall of dog chews to include all lots of the product.

      The products may be contaminated with Salmonella.

      No illnesses, injuries or complaints have been reported to date.

      The following lots of Redbarn, Chewy Louie, Dentley’s and Good Lovin’ brand products with best by dates ending in BC are being recalled:

      Item #REDBARN - Product DescriptionBest By Code EndingUPC
      205001Redbarn 5" Bully StickBC785184205006
      207001Redbarn 7" Bully StickBC785184207000
      207016Redbarn 7" Bully Stick 6pkBC785184207161
      209001Redbarn 9" Bully StickBC785184209004
      230001Redbarn 30" Bully StickBC785184230015
      236001Redbarn 36" Bully StickBC785184236017
      245002Redbarn Steer Stick 6pkBC785184245026
      245010Redbarn 5" Steer Stick 10pkBC785184245101
      247000Redbarn 7" Steer StickBC785184247006
      251005Redbarn 7" Bully Stick 3pkBC785184251058
      290091Redbarn 9" Bully 1lb BagBC785184290095
      C207001Redbarn 7" BullyBC785184207017
      C207016Redbarn 7" Bully Stick 6pkBC785184207062
      C236001Redbarn 36" Bully StickBC785184236116

      Item #Chewy Louie - Product DescriptionBest By Code EndingUPC
      807101Chewy Louie 7" Bully StickBC785184807019

      Item #Good Lovin' - Product DescriptionBest By Code EndingUPC
      2729250Good Lovin' 10pk SteerBC800443272732
      2729381Good Lovin' 6pk Bully StickBC800443272862
      2729410Good Lovin' 7" Bully StickBC800443272893
      2729461Good Lovin' 5" Bully StickBC800443272947
      2729532Good Lovin' XL BullyBC800443273012
      207004Prime Cuts 7" Bully StickBC800443104798
      207005Time for Joy Holiday 7" BullyBC800443287781
      207013Prime Cuts 7" Bully 3pkBC800443120446

      Item #Dentleys - Product DescriptionBest By Code EndingUPC
      920068Dentley’s 7” Bully StickBC737257479852

      The recalled products were sold in pet specialty and grocery retail stores nationwide.

      What to do

      Customers who purchased the recalled products should discontinue using them and return them to the place of purchase for a full refund.

      Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-800-775-3849, Monday – Friday, 8am – 5pm (PST) or by email at info@redbarninc.com.

      Redbarn Pet Products of Long Beach, Calif., is expanding its earlier recall of dog chews to include all lots of the product.The products may be contami...
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      Texas-based company reveals plans for 3D printing affordable homes

      The company says homes could cost under $10,000 and benefit those in need

      ICON, a Texas-based construction technology company, has made a breakthrough in affordable housing by 3D “printing” a single story, 600-800 square foot home in under 24 hours for less than $4,000.

      The company demonstrated its innovation in Austin at SXSW’s annual Interactive Festival, constructing their prototype in real time.

      ICON’s zero energy, thermally efficient model features a living room, bathroom, bedroom, a study that could double as a second bedroom, and a wraparound porch. The company’s co-founders told The Verge that it will be using the model home as an office to see how its idea shakes out.

      These homes aren’t part of the “tiny house” movement and you won’t see suburbs of these 3D houses popping up across America. ICON is focused on creating homes in parts of the world that don’t have the economic wherewithal to house the poverty-stricken.

      While the company’s main objective is to help reverse the global housing crisis, it also plans to build community-wide buy-in through the creation of manufacturing jobs that utilize local labor in those impoverished areas.

      How these houses are built

      The spotlight on this breakthrough falls on ICON’s proprietary 3D printer “Vulcan” that uses a unique mix of concrete that hardens as it is printed. Vulcan’s technology is a perfect match for ICON’s vision as it was designed to work in the worst of circumstances and places where things like potable water and technical assistance are lacking.

      “The walls of the printed house are stronger than cinder blocks after a few days of hardening,” said Icon co-founder Evan Loomis, “although the house is ready for human occupation after the home is set up — which entails crew members installing windows, a wooden roof, basic plumbing, and electrical plumbing as the house is printed.”

      The plan

      For this venture, ICON is collaborating with New Story, a California-based non-profit that describes itself as a “non-profit working to create a world where no human being lives in survival mode.” To date, the company has built more than 1,500 low-cost, high-efficiency homes in developing countries like Bolivia, Haiti, and Mexico.

      “New Story has been working to provide safe shelter for the last 3 years. But we knew traditional methods wouldn't make the linear change that's needed to impact the 1 billion people in need,” New Story’s CEO, Brett Hagler, told ConsumerAffairs.

      “We set out researching new and unique models to get homes faster & cheaper without sacrificing quality. 3D printing had been our on radar but it wasn't until we got connected to ICON that we felt it would be a feasible possibility.”

      Now that the proof of concept has been finished, ICON and New Story will be moving into phase two by taking the idea to El Salvador and printing its first homes there. The companies are targeting the end of 2018 for the first homes to be printed and expect to have the first 3D printed community completed by 2019.

      ICON, a Texas-based construction technology company, has made a breakthrough in affordable housing by 3D “printing” a single story, 600-800 square foot hom...
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      These are the states with the highest levels of income inequality

      Income inequality increased all over the map since 2010, according to recent data

      A recent analysis from career website Zippia suggests income inequality increased in all 50 states between 2010 and 2016, despite some people’s efforts to stop it.

      The report, which drew its findings from the U.S. Census’s American Community Survey, found that income inequality is worsening at a faster rate in Montana than in any other state.

      Between 2010 and 2016, the state’s Gini coefficient (a statistical measure of income inequality) jumped 2.2 points. The next-largest increase in income inequality over the same timeframe took place in California (up 1.9 points), followed by Rhode Island, and Maine (up 1.8 points each).

      States with the highest income inequality

      Although the rate of income inequality is growing fastest in Montana, income inequality isn’t currently as prevalent there as it is in other states.

      New York claimed the dubious distinction of having the highest level of income inequality, followed by Connecticut and Louisiana. Alaska had the lowest levels of inequality between high and low earners.

      Wyoming and South Dakota had the smallest changes in income inequality between 2010 and 2016, according to the report.

      Here are the top ten states where income inequality is highest:

      1. New York

      2. Connecticut

      3. Louisiana

      4. California

      5. Florida

      6. Massachusetts

      7. Georgia

      8. Texas

      9. Mississippi

      10. Illinois

      The complete ranking can be viewed here.

      A recent analysis from career website Zippia suggests income inequality increased in all 50 states between 2010 and 2016, despite some people’s efforts to...
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      Tesla raises prices for use of its Supercharger stations

      Rates increased by 20 to 40 percent in most regions

      Tesla has raised the prices-per-kilowatt hour of its Supercharger stations across the country. While some states have seen 100 percent increases, the average increase varies from 20 to 40 percent.

      Rates doubled in Oregon from $0.12 per kilowatt-hour to $0.24 per kWh. In California, rates jumped from $0.20 per kWh to $0.26 per kWh.

      Price rates by state can be viewed on the company’s website.

      ‘Will never be a profit center’

      The automaker says the price increase isn’t an attempt to pull a profit. The rate adjustment simply reflects changing electricity and usage rates in various parts of North America.

      “We occasionally adjust rates to reflect current local electricity and usage. The overriding principle is that Supercharging will always remain significantly cheaper than gasoline, as we only aim to recover a portion of our costs while setting up a fair system for everyone,” Tesla told Electrek. “This will never be a profit center for Tesla.”

      Last year, the automaker announced it would expand its Supercharging network to include city centers. By rolling out fast-charging stations in cities, the company aimed to make it possible to charge vehicles in urban settings where consumers may be farther from home or work plug in locations.  

      Tesla currently has more than 1,100 supercharging stations across the country.

      Tesla has raised the prices-per-kilowatt hour of its Supercharger stations across the country. While some states have seen 100 percent increases, the avera...
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      Annual remodeling survey finds small projects pay off the most

      Labor costs make big jobs less practical

      Consumers considering a major home remodeling project, with an eye toward resale, would do better to think small.

      In its annual Cost Vs. Value Report, Remodeling Magazine finds that homeowners undertaking big kitchen and bathroom upgrades in hopes of selling their homes won't recoup as much of the expense than if they target smaller, less expensive projects.

      In 2018, the magazine's editors found that replacing garage doors will provide the biggest return. The average cost is $3,470 and the average addition to the home's sale price is $3,411 -- a return of 98.3 percent.

      Of course, garage doors aren't what they once were. Today, smart garage doors can be controlled from a remote location by using a smartphone app -- something today's tech-savvy homebuyers may find appealing.

      Better curb appeal

      The second most cost effective remodeling project is adding manufactured stone veneer to a home's exterior. The idea is to improve curb appeal.

      Removing a 300-square-foot continuous band of existing vinyl siding from the bottom third of the street-facing exterior gives a home a dramatic new look from the street, and first impressions are important.

      This project costs an average of $8,221 but adds $7,986 to the sale price, a return of 97.1 percent.

      Another simple and inexpensive upgrade that pays off in resale is replacing the front door. The average cost is $1,471 but it adds an average $1,344 to the sale price, a return of more than 91 percent.

      It's easy to price your home out of reach

      Because home prices have risen so quickly in the last four years, major remodeling projects can push the price of a home out of reach for many potential buyers. That's why expensive kitchen and bathroom upgrades have fallen out of favor.

      In 2018, a major kitchen remodel costs an average $63,829 but only adds $37,637 to the sale price, a return of just 59 percent.

      A major bathroom remodel costs an average of $61,662 but returns just $34,644 -- less than 57 percent.

      Overall, the magazine's editors found a slight decline in the average payback for 20 common professional remodeling projects in 100 major markets. They attribute the modest change to the cost of doing those projects -- costs rose for all 20, while values rose for only about two-thirds of them.

      Consumers considering a major home remodeling project, with an eye toward resale, would do better to think small.In its annual Cost Vs. Value Report, R...
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      Cost of living slows in February

      Gasoline and rents kept inflation in check

      The cost of living rose in February, but not as much as in January. Lower gasoline prices and moderating rents helped keep inflation in check.

      The Labor Department reports the Consumer Price Index (CPI), a measure of the cost of goods and services at the retail level, rose a modest .02 percent last month, slowing from .05 percent in January.

      Over the last 12 months, the nation's inflation rate sits at 2.2 percent, just above the Federal Reserve's inflation target of 2.0 percent.

      The cost of housing, clothing, and car insurance were all up for the month, while food costs remained the same as in January. In fact, the cost of food prepared at home actually went down last month.

      'No cause for alarm'

      "Inflation growth moved back into 'no cause for alarm' territory with the February CPI report," Robert Frick, Navy Federal Credit Union’s corporate economist, told ConsumerAffairs.

      Frick said many analysts were bracing for bad news based on the big increase in the January CPI. But the February numbers were largely reassuring.

      "We saw that auto prices were down significantly, which shows that the impact of the hurricanes last year is finally wearing off, and the trend toward lower vehicle prices is finally kicking in, as predicted," Frick said.

      With millions of cars coming off lease, together with slightly lower demand after recent record years, Frick predicts smart car shoppers will find bargains for the rest of the year, and that should offset any increase in car loan rates that have been edging up lately.

      Oversized effect of gas prices

      But the February numbers may have been influenced by an unusual drop in gasoline prices. A volatile crude oil market and robust refining activity sent retail gasoline prices down nearly a full percent in February. Those prices have largely rebounded this month.

      But in some good news for consumers, Frick notes that the tame inflation numbers may persuade the Fed that it doesn't need to boost its discount rate more than three times this year.

      Since credit card companies base their interest rates on the Fed's discount rate, that means credit card rates may not rise as much as expected in 2018.

      The cost of living rose in February, but not as much as in January. Lower gasoline prices and moderating rents helped keep inflation in check.The Labor...
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      Chrysler recalls model year 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvios

      The windshield wipers may operate only at the low-speed setting

      Chrysler (FCA US LLC) is recalling 1,505 model year 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvios. The software for the wiper motor may incorrectly interpret the wiper motor as overheating, limiting the windshield wipers to operating only at the low-speed setting.

      Limited wiper function can reduce the driver's visibility, increasing the risk of a crash.

      What to do

      Chrysler will notify owners, and dealers will replace the wiper motor, free of charge.

      The recall is expected to begin April 25, 2018.

      Owners may contact Chrysler customer service at 1-800-853-1403. Chrysler's number for this recall is U24.

      Chrysler (FCA US LLC) is recalling 1,505 model year 2018 Alfa Romeo Stelvios. The software for the wiper motor may incorrectly interpret the wiper motor as...
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      Tucker’s Pork-Bison Box recalled

      The product may be contaminated with Salmonella

      Raw Basics of Pleasant Prairie, Wis., is recalling 540-lbs. of 5lb. Tuckers Pork-Bison Boxes.

      The pet product may be contaminated with Salmonella.

      No illnesses have been reported to date.

      What to do

      Customers who purchased the recalled product should return it to the place of purchase for a full refund.

      Consumers with questions may contact the company at 1-800-219-3650.

      Raw Basics of Pleasant Prairie, Wis., is recalling 540-lbs. of 5lb. Tuckers Pork-Bison Boxes.The pet product may be contaminated with Salmonella.No...
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      Twitter suspends accounts for ‘tweetdecking’

      The social network is cracking down on coordinated spamming

      As part of its mission to crack down on spam bots, Twitter has suspended accounts linked to “tweetdecking,” or the process of mass retweeting stolen content in order to help it go viral.

      Popular “tweetdeckers,” including Common White Girl, Dory, and Finah, were suspended from the site because they violated the social network’s spam policies that forbid mass duplication.

      Last month, Twitter announced new rules that would aim to prevent users from creating or controlling accounts in an organized fashion to achieve a particular goal (such as making a post appear to have more support than it actually does).

      Under the new rules, users are not allowed to “sell, purchase, or attempt to artificially inflate account interactions.” Violating this policy is grounds for permanent suspension, the company said.

      Manufactured virulity

      Tweetdeckers operate by retweeting posts across multiple accounts in Tweetdeck in an effort to spread other users’ -- as well as paying customers’ -- tweets into forced virality. Several suspended tweetdeckers had amassed hundreds of thousands or even millions of followers.

      "One of the most common spam violations we see is the use of multiple accounts and the Twitter developer platform to attempt to artificially amplify or inflate the prominence of certain Tweets," Twitter wrote of its initiative to crack down on spam.

      "To be clear: Twitter prohibits any attempt to use automation for the purposes of posting or disseminating spam, and such behavior may result in enforcement action,” the company added.

      Twitter hasn’t confirmed whether or not the suspensions are permanent or commented on individual suspensions.

      As part of its mission to crack down on spam bots, Twitter has suspended accounts linked to “tweetdecking,” or the process of mass retweeting stolen conten...
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      Residents of coastal housing markets may be on the move

      An analysis shows growing interest in more affordable cities

      Coastal real estate markets, where big salaries have boosted home prices well beyond the national average, may get a little smaller this year.

      Markets like Las Vegas and Denver have begun to draw people from California's most expensive markets. It's a trend that began last year but is likely to accelerate this year because of changes in the tax law, reducing the value of some homeowner deductions.

      "Constricted affordability will continue to be a recurring pattern in the housing market in 2018, and we anticipate growth to be concentrated around areas where home prices still have room to grow," Javier Vivas, Director, Economic Research at realtor.com, told ConsumerAffairs back in January.

      Experts at real estate marketplace Redfin agree. Their analysis of search data shows a surge in interest in markets in the middle of the country, such as Atlanta and Nashville, as well as in lower-priced Western markets like Phoenix and Sacramento.

      "We expect that in 2018, this migration pattern will intensify as tax reform becomes a reality and more people choose to relocate in search of a lower cost of living," the company writes in its blog.

      Lower-cost metros gaining appeal

      The New York Times recently accompanied a group of Silicon Valley venture capitalists to rust belt markets to survey investment opportunities.

      It reported that several of the California residents were distracted by real estate and smitten with the revitalization progress made in Detroit, Youngstown, and Cleveland. They drooled over the large and stylish homes that sold for a fraction of the cost of a San Francisco condo.

      Madison, Wisc., was the number one destination in last year's U-Haul Survey of American Migration Trends. Austin and Boise were second and third on the list.

      “People leaving coastal hubs in search of affordability has been a consistent trend for the last five years,” said Redfin chief economist Nela Richardson. “Late last year there was a twist. Many of the popular migration paths that we saw Redfin.com users exploring yielded tax benefits along with increased affordability. We expect these trends to continue and will be monitoring them closely in 2018.”

      The Redfin analysis shows more than 18 percent of Redfin searches for homes in Las Vegas in the fourth quarter of last year came from Los Angeles. According to the agency, a family earning $150,000 a year could save nearly $7,800 a year in taxes by moving to Las Vegas, and homeowners would most likely pay significantly less for a similar home.

      Coastal real estate markets, where big salaries have boosted home prices well beyond the national average, may get a little smaller this year.Markets l...
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      How much money does it take to achieve personal happiness?

      Researchers say it’s more than what most people in the U.S. make

      How much money does it take to achieve happiness and personal fulfillment? Researchers say they’ve pegged the perfect salary at $95,000 -- more than most U.S. consumers take in each year.

      Researchers from Purdue University and the University of Virginia  reached that figure after surveying 1.7 million individuals from 164 countries. They say that people making this amount of money each year are best able to manage their work/life balance.

      Satiation points

      While a salary of $95,000 is optimal for achieving long-term life satisfaction, the study suggested that making $60,000 to $75,000 may be sufficient for those seeking day-to-day feelings of happiness.

      “It’s been debated at what point does money no longer change your level of well-being. We found that the ideal income point is $95,000 for life evaluation and $60,000 to $75,000 for emotional well-being,” said lead author Andrew T. Jebb.

      This amount is for individuals and would likely be higher for families, the researchers noted.

      Once these thresholds are reached, the benefits of making more money tend to decrease. That’s because making more money than the optimal amount required to meet basic needs, purchase conveniences, and maybe pay off loans may result in a mindset that ultimately lowers well-being.

      Too much money can fuel social comparisons

      People making more money than what is optimal may be driven to pursue more material gains and compare themselves to their peers, the authors say.

      “At this point they are asking themselves, ‘Overall, how am I doing?’ and ‘How do I compare to other people?’” Jebb said. “The small decline puts one’s level of well-being closer to individuals who make slightly lower incomes, perhaps due to the costs that come with the highest incomes.”

      The average household income for the U.S. is $65,000, and 75 percent of American households earn less than $75,000.

      How much money does it take to achieve happiness and personal fulfillment? Researchers say they’ve pegged the perfect salary at $95,000 -- more than most U...
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      Things to watch out for on a spring break beach vacation

      Contaminated water is just one concern

      If you're headed to the beach for spring break, checking out the condition of the water before your arrive is not a bad idea.

      TexasBeachWatch.com, a site operated by the State of Texas, rates the state’s beaches according to their cleanliness. Recently, it listed a handful of public beaches along the Gulf Coast as having higher-than-normal amounts of fecal matter in the water.

      Specifically, the website listed Corpus Christi Bay and North Padre Island as having significant amounts of fecal bacteria. The site also notes a rise in contamination at Freeport, Matagorda Bay, and along the Galveston coast. You can check out current pollution levels here.

      The State of Florida also maintains a close watch on its water quality. Florida Health has an online tool where vacationers can check the most recent water quality at hundreds of the state's beaches.

      Health risks

      Swimming in contaminated water carries obvious health risks. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says untreated sewage can get into the ocean in a variety of ways. It can come through runoff from heavy rains, washing animal wastes into the water, as well as inadequate sewage treatment facilities.

      When it does, it can expose swimmers to microorganisms called “pathogens” that can make swimmers sick. The most common illness is gastroenteritis. Its symptoms include nausea, vomiting, stomachache, diarrhea, headache, and fever.

      Swimmers who come down with ear, eye, nose, and throat infections may have also come in contact with polluted water.

      Other threats

      Spring break vacationers headed for the beach should also remember that illness isn't the only thing that could spoil a vacation. Waves and water currents in the ocean are very different from other bodies of water and require heightened awareness.

      In particular, the Red Cross warns beachgoers to be aware of rip currents that can carry even strong swimmers very far offshore. Rip currents are not easy to spot and can form in low spots and breaks in sandbars, or near structures such as jetties and piers.

      While swimming on a public beach, it is always a good idea to do so in water close to a lifeguard. Children and inexperienced swimmers should also always wear a flotation device while in the water.

      If you're headed to the beach for spring break, checking out the condition of the water before your arrive is not a bad idea.TexasBeachWatch.com, a sit...
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      The Weekly Hack: Applebee’s data breach and continued cryptocurrency concerns

      Hackers targeted Applebee’s franchises and Japan is cracking down cryptocurrency exchanges

      People who dined at certain Applebee’s franchises sometime between November 2017 and January 2018 should pay extra attention to any suspicious activity on their credit cards.

      RMH Franchise Holdings announced today that the computer system used by its Applebee’s stores was infected with malware, allowing hackers to access the names and credit card information of customers.

      “We are providing this notice to our guests as a precaution to inform them of the incident and to call their attention to some steps they can take to help protect themselves,” RMH alerted customers in a press release.

      RMH said it initially discovered the security breach on February 13. The company owns 167 Applebee’s restaurants across the country.

      Cryptocurrency

      Hacks involving Bitcoin or one of its many imitators are becoming a regular part of the news cycle. Financial regulators in Japan are now responding by cracking down on seven platforms where people trade cryptocurrency, including the popular application Coincheck, which is based in Japan but used by cryptocurrency traders worldwide.

      Coincheck consumers lost an estimated $530 million to hackers in late January in what experts said was the largest cryptocurrency theft to date. The company’s CEO Yusuke Otsuka has promised that affected victims will be compensated.

      In the United States, the SEC also released a warning on Wednesday about the security risks that online trading platforms pose.

      Meanwhile, users of another cryptocurrency exchange called Binance recently became suspicious that they were being targeted by hackers. Affected individuals reported seeing bizarre discrepancies on their accounts via Reddit, which prompted a response from CEO Changpeng Zhao.. On Wednesday, he took to Twitter to say that “All funds are safe” and promised an investigation.

      The announcement didn’t come soon enough for Bitcoin traders. Value of Bitcoin dipped below $10,000 this week, which Mashable reports is likely due to the Binance hack rumors and the SEC warning.

      Tennessee senate candidate

      A hacker may have impersonated Tennessee Senate candidate Phil Bredesen and emailed his contacts, Bredesen’s campaign warned in a letter to the FBI. Bredesen, the former governor of Tennessee, is running as a Democrat in a race that The Hill newspaper reports is a toss-up, raising concerns among Democrats that hackers could be trying to interfere with the midterm elections.

      Academics

      A hacking group known for going after government agencies in Asia has been sending emails to Japanese professors in an attempt to steal their research. The group reportedly pretended to be from the Japanese government and sent professors downloads that contained malware. The campaign serves as another obvious reminder to never download unknown files.

      People who dined at certain Applebee’s franchises sometime between November 2017 and January 2018 should pay extra attention to any suspicious activity on...
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      Accidental discovery could prompt new treatment for multiple sclerosis

      Researchers believe targeting a specific brain protein could help consumers build a resistance

      It’s not uncommon for medical discoveries to be made completely on accident.

      In 1928, Scottish physician and microbiologist Alexander Fleming came back from holiday and found that a spot of mold in one of his petri dishes had inhibited the growth of a colony of Staphylococcus that he was testing. The discovery would eventually lead to the development of penicillin.

      Now, researchers from the University of Alberta and McGill University may have accidentally discovered a new means of treating multiple sclerosis (MS). While studying human brain tissue, the team inadvertently found that samples from people who had the neurodegenerative disease had high levels of a protein called calnexin.

      The finding prompted further study using mice. The researchers found that subjects that lacked the protein were completely immune to MS. The team believes that controlling levels of calnexin could be a viable pathway for a new treatment.

      “We think this exciting finding identifies calnexin as an important target for developing therapies for MS,” said Luis Agellon, a professor and researcher at the McGill School of Human Nutrition.

      Unlocking the secret of treating MS

      Up until now, the researchers say that treating MS has been difficult because its causes are not well understood. However, they believe that high levels of calnexin could explain how the disease makes its way to the brain and causes damage.

      “It turns out that calnexin is somehow involved in controlling the function of the blood-brain barrier,” explains Marek Michalak, a biochemistry professor at the University of Alberta. “This structure usually acts like a wall and restricts the passage of cells and substances from the blood into the brain. When there is too much calnexin, this wall gives angry T cells access to the brain, where they destroy myelin.”

      The results of a 2016 study estimate that MS affects nearly 400,000 people in the U.S. and approximately 2.1 million people worldwide. Healthcare costs can range from just over $8,500 per patient to over $52,000 per patient depending on the severity and progression of the disease. The researchers believe their finding could lead to a treatment that helps stop the disease in its tracks.

      “Our challenge now is to tease out exactly how this protein works in the cells involved in making up the blood-brain barrier. If we knew exactly what calnexin does in this process, then we could find a way to manipulate its function to promote resistance for developing MS,” said Agellon.

      The full study has been published in JCI Insight.

      It’s not uncommon for medical discoveries to be made completely on accident.In 1928, Scottish physician and microbiologist Alexander Fleming came back...
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      Robocalls surge 24 percent in February

      Two government agencies plan events to help stop them

      Consumers were bombarded with nearly 2.75 million robocalls in February, up 24 percent over February 2017, according to YouMail, a visual voicemail service.

      That works out to more than 98 million robocalls per day, a new record volume counted by the YouMail Robocall Index.

      "We know the robocalling problem continues to bedevil U.S. consumers and businesses by wasting our time, costing us money and causing untold levels of frustration for Americans in all walks of life," said Alex Quilici, CEO of YouMail.

      Quilici says consumers should avoid answering calls from unknown numbers and instead let them go directly to voicemail. He also recommends an app that blocks robocalls.

      Government agencies, meanwhile, may take steps to reduce the number of these computer-generated calls, which are illegal when made to cell phones.

      In recent years, robocalls have become a favorite tool for scammers, allowing them to target thousands of potential victims in a matter of seconds.

      United front against robocalls

      In the next few weeks, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plan to hold joint events to fight illegal robocalls -- especially those that employ caller ID spoofing, a tactic which makes it appear as though the call is coming from a different number, exchange, or area code.

      “Scam robocalls and deceptive spoofing are real threats to American consumers, and they are the number one consumer complaint at the FCC,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “We’re committed to confronting this problem using every tool we have. I’m pleased to announce these efforts in our continued work with the FTC to protect consumers.”

      On March 23, the two agencies will conduct a policy forum to explore the regulatory challenges in controlling the proliferation of robocalls. Specifically, the forum will look for ways to allow telephone companies to block calls generated by machines. Registration is not required for this event.  It will be webcast at fcc.gov/live with open captions.

      Then on April 23, the two agencies will co-host a technology expo for consumers at the Pepco Edison Place Gallery in Washington, D.C. The event will feature technologies, devices, and applications to deflect unwanted robocalls.

      Additional information is available here.

      While the FCC previously proposed rules designed to curb robocalls, a coalition of consumer groups says the rules need more teeth. The FCC proposal would allow voice service providers to block some "spoofed" robocalls.

      Consumers were bombarded with nearly 2.75 million robocalls in February, up 24 percent over February 2017, according to YouMail, a visual voicemail service...
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      Why false news spreads faster on social media

      A new study finds that novelty drives the spread of false news

      Findings from a new study conducted by researchers at MIT show false news gets disseminated much more quickly than real news, especially when it comes to social media platforms like Twitter.

      Researchers say that’s because users tend to like and retweet “novel” news that they haven’t encountered before on the site without stopping to accurately discern whether it is true or false.

      “We found that falsehood diffuses significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth, in all categories of information, and in many cases by an order of magnitude,” said co-author Sinan Aral, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

      Bots aren’t always the culprit

      The researchers said they were “somewhere between surprised and stunned” at the stark difference in the trajectories of false and real news. They found that false news is 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than real news stories.

      While bots have often been blamed for the spread of inaccurate news, the team found that they’re not always behind the swift spread of false news. Ordinary people are primarily behind the rapid spread of inaccurate news within the social media ecosystem.

      “When we removed all of the bots in our dataset, [the] differences between the spread of false and true news stood,” said Soroush Vosoughi, a co-author of the new paper.

      Study details

      For the study, the team spent two years studying the role Twitter plays in spreading false news across the globe. They examined around 126,000 stories that had been tweeted out by roughly 3 million people worldwide.

      To determine if a story was real or fake, the researchers used six independent fact-checking groups, including politifact.com, snopes.org, and factcheck.org. The MIT researchers termed inaccurate news "false" as opposed to "fake,” because "fake news" is a term that involves multiple broad meanings.

      Of the 126,000 stories tweeted, politics accounted for the biggest news category, and its spread was more pronounced than for news in other categories. Truthful tweets took about six times longer to reach 1,500 people than false tweets.

      Novelty fuels spread

      The results of the study suggest that novelty plays a key role in the spread of falsehoods on Twitter. “False news is more novel, and people are more likely to share novel information,” said Aral.

      Spreading previously unknown (but possibly false) information can help social media users gain attention. As Aral put it, “people who share novel information are seen as being in the know.”

      The full study has been published online in the journal Science.

      Findings from a new study conducted by researchers at MIT show false news gets disseminated much more quickly than real news, especially when it comes to s...
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      Toys “R” Us to consider closing more U.S.-based stores

      The company may decide to liquidate all of its stores after a tough post-bankruptcy period

      Toys “R” Us may soon liquidate many -- or perhaps all -- of its U.S.-based stores, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

      Sources told the Journal that an announcement to that effect could come as soon as Monday when company officials and third parties are set to meet at a bankruptcy hearing in Richmond, Virginia. The number of stores the retailer decides to liquidate would depend on the liquidator bids it receives.

      A difficult road

      The news follows the retailer’s decision to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy back in September, a decision that CEO Dave Brandon called “the dawn of a new era.” Brandon said that the filing would allow the company to shrug off financial constraints that had held it back so that it could reorganize and return to profitability.

      However, a weak holiday sales season did little to help the company restructure over $5 billion in debt that it had accrued. The company ultimately decided in January to close nearly 20 percent of its U.S.-based stores, costing roughly 4,500 employees their jobs. Brandon once again said that the move would help the company prosper.

      “The actions we are taking give us the best chance to emerge from our bankruptcy proceedings as a more viable and competitive company that will provide the level of service and experience you should expect from a market leader,” he said in a letter to consumers.

      Brick-and-mortar retailers continue to decline

      The potential for more store closings shouldn’t surprise anyone who has paid attention to shopping trends over the past few years. As online retailers like Amazon have risen to prominence, many brick-and-mortar retailers have fallen by the wayside.

      A report from software company RetailNext shows that sales at brick-and-mortar retailers declined by seven percent year-over-year to begin 2018, with stores seeing a 4.4 percent drop in foot traffic. Average transaction value and shopper yield were also down, which further punctuated sales declines.

      Toys “R” Us may soon liquidate many -- or perhaps all -- of its U.S.-based stores, according to a Wall Street Journal report.Sources told the Journal t...
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      Job growth surges in February but incomes stay flat

      One economist calls it a bizarre set of numbers

      If you were looking for a job last month, chances are you found one.

      The Labor Department reports the U.S. economy added 313,000 non-farm jobs in February, leaving the unemployment rate unchanged at 4.1 percent.

      The economy added jobs in construction, retail trade, professional and business services, manufacturing, financial activities, and mining.

      However, fewer workers got raises last month. The report shows wages rose just .01 percent. Economist Joel Naroff, of Naroff Economic Advisors, calls it a "bizarre" set of numbers, noting that job growth was through the roof while wages went nowhere.

      "The increases (in jobs) were not just in unskilled sectors, so it is hard to understand why businesses have been saying they cannot find qualified workers," Naroff told ConsumerAffairs. "The rise in average hours worked was surprising given the large number of new workers. That implies a huge increase in total hours worked, which would indicate growth was also robust."

      Report full of surprises

      Naroff says the report is full of surprises. For example, he wonders why retailers suddenly added 50,000 new workers. And those 61,000 new construction workers, he says, could disappear in March if weather remains nasty.

      "Let’s just say this was a really amazing report but before we get too carried away, let’s see what happens in March," Naroff said. "I am glad to see all the jobs added, but I am cautious about whether anything close to this level gain is at all supportable."

      Among demographic groups, the jobless rate for African Americans fell to 6.9 percent but remained fairly steady for all other groups. The number of long-term unemployed -- those out of work for 27 weeks or more -- was essentially unchanged at 1.4 million. The labor force participation rate, while still very low, rose 0.3 percent last month.

      After the gains in construction and retail, sectors posting the biggest job additions were professional and business services -- up 50,000 -- and manufacturing, which added 31,000 jobs.

      If you were looking for a job last month, chances are you found one.The Labor Department reports the U.S. economy added 313,000 non-farm jobs in Februa...
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      Interstate Meat Distributors recalls ground beef and pork products

      The products may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7

      Interstate Meat Distributors of Clackamas, Ore., is recalling approximately 14,806 pounds of ground beef and pork products that may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

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

      The following raw ground beef and pork item, produced and packaged on February 10, 2018, and February 12, 2018, are being recalled:

      • 2.25-lb. wrapped packages of fresh “ALL NATURAL EXTRA LEAN GROUND BEEF” containing package code 04118 and with 96% lean and 4% fat on the label.
      • 2.25-lb. wrapped packages of fresh “ALL NATURAL GROUND BEEF CHUCK” containing package code 04118 and with 80% lean and 20% fat on the label.
      • 2.25-lb. wrapped packages of fresh “GROUND BEEF AND PORK BLEND” containing package code 04118 and with 80% lean and 20% fat on the label.
      • 2.50-lb. bag containing 10 quarter pound frozen “BROTHERS CHOICE 85% LEAN ANGUS GROUND BEEF PATTIES” containing package code 04318.

      The recalled products, bearing establishment number “965” inside the USDA mark of inspection, were shipped to retail locations in Oregon, Utah and Washington state.

      What to do

      Customers who purchased the recalled should not consume them, but discard them or return then to the place of purchase.

      Consumers with questions may contact Interstate Meat Distributors at (503) 656-0633

      Interstate Meat Distributors of Clackamas, Ore., is recalling approximately 14,806 pounds of ground beef and pork products that may be contaminated with E....
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      RockyMounts recalls Split Rail and MonoRail bicycle racks

      The upper portion of the rack could separate from the vehicle

      RockyMounts is recalling 565 Split Rail 1.25" bicycle racks, part number 11300; MonoRail 2" bicycle racks, part number 10004; SplitRail 2" bicycle racks, part number 11400; and MonoRail 1.25" bicycle racks, part number 10003.

      The weld that attaches the hitch tube to the pivot bracket may crack and fail allowing the upper portion of the rack with the bicycles attached to separate from the vehicle.

      If a portion of the rack and the attached bicycles separate from the vehicle, they can become a road hazard, increasing the risk of a crash.

      What to do

      RockyMounts will notify owners and will provide a new rack base, free of charge.

      The recall is expected to begin March 23, 2018.

      Owners may contact RockyMounts customer service at 1-303-402-0190.

      RockyMounts is recalling 565 Split Rail 1.25" bicycle racks, part number 11300; MonoRail 2" bicycle racks, part number 10004; SplitRail 2" bicycle racks, p...
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      Ford recalls model year 2017-2018 Ford Taurus vehicles

      The vehicle may roll away, increasing the risk of a crash

      Ford Motor Company is recalling 2,100 model year 2017-2018 Ford Taurus vehicles with mechanical key ignition systems.

      The keys may be able to be removed from the ignition when transmission is not in the PARK position.

      If the key is removed from the ignition while the vehicle is not in the PARK position and the parking brake is not applied, the vehicle may roll away, increasing the risk of a crash.

      What to do

      Ford will notify owners, and dealers will replace the shifter assembly, free of charge.

      The recall is expected to begin March 19, 2018.

      Owners may contact Ford customer service at 1-866-436-7332. Ford's number for this recall is 18C02.

      Ford Motor Company is recalling 2,100 model year 2017-2018 Ford Taurus vehicles with mechanical key ignition systems.The keys may be able to be removed...
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      Senators call for a new hearing on Takata airbag recalls

      Lawmakers want to ensure the recall process is moving forward

      Regulators and lawmakers are pressing forward with getting the Takata airbag inflator recall process moving. 
      A new hearing date is tentatively set for March 20, which will speed up a recall process that some lawmakers believe is moving too slowly.
      At the hearing, the U.S. Senate Commerce subcommittee that oversees the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will focus on the status of Takata airbag inflator recall -- a situation which the NHTSA previously called "the largest and most complex safety recall in US history.”

      Linked to hundreds of injuries

      Back in June, Takata said it had recalled or was expected to recall about 125 million vehicles worldwide by 2019. That figure included more than 60 million vehicles in the United States built by 19 different automakers. 
      To date, at least 22 deaths and hundreds of injuries have been linked to Takata airbag inflators, which can rupture under excessive force and send shrapnel flying throughout the passenger cabin. 
      Earlier this year, Takata reached a settlement with its creditors, auto industry clients, and representatives for drivers who were injured or killed by its faulty airbags. 
      The deal would pave the way for the company to end its Chapter 11 bankruptcy, as well as let Takata sell its non-airbag inflator businesses to Key Safety Systems, a Chinese-owned rival. 

      Keeping the process moving

      The office of Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), the chairman of the subcommittee, told Reuters that the upcoming hearing would examine the "current manufacturer recall completion rates, the Takata bankruptcy and transition to new ownership under Key Safety Systems, and what all stakeholders including NHTSA are doing to ensure this process continues to move forward.”
      Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said in a statement he hopes "we'll finally get a real plan to improve the still woeful recall completion rates."
      Just over half of the 40 million inflators recalled to date have been replaced, according to the NHTSA.
      Regulators and lawmakers are pressing forward with getting the Takata airbag inflator recall process moving.  A new hearing date is tentatively set...
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      McDonald’s flips its golden arches to celebrate women

      But not everyone is on board with the move

      In celebration of International Women’s Day (Mar. 8), McDonald’s decided to flip its trademark golden arches upside down. The fast food chain changed its logo from a golden “M” into a golden “W” at one of its California locations “in celebration of women everywhere.”

      Additionally, McDonalds will flip its logo upside on all of its social media channels, and 100 McDonald's locations across the country will have special “packaging, crew shirts and hats and bag stuffers.”

      "For the first time in our brand history, we flipped our iconic arches," McDonald's Chief Diversity Officer Wendy Lewis said in a statement. "From restaurant crew and management to our C-suite of senior leadership, women play invaluable roles at all levels and together with our independent franchise owners we're committed to their success."

      Social media backlash

      Although the move was intended to honor “the extraordinary accomplishments of women everywhere,” some consumers took to social media to point out the implications of flipping the “M.”

      “Now that it was inverted to make a ‘W’ for women, reversing it will make it an ‘M’ for men. Forever,” said one Twitter user.

      Others said McDonald’s should prove that it honors and celebrates women by paying its staff more.

      “You could also provide livable wages, better benefits, equal pay, legitimate career paths for the future, paid maternity leave…Or you can flip a logo upside down that works too,” another user quipped.

      In celebration of International Women’s Day (Mar. 8), McDonald’s decided to flip its trademark golden arches upside down. The fast food chain changed its l...
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      Aggressive blood pressure standards may be harmful, researchers say

      The debate over what constitutes high blood pressure is being renewed

      Researchers at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research say new blood pressure guidelines, that have lowered targets for blood pressure readings, may be causing more harm than good, at least for many patients.

      Writing in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, Dr. Joseph Diamond and colleagues conclude that as many as 10 million people receive unnecessarily aggressive blood pressure treatments.

      What constitutes high blood pressure has been somewhat controversial for a decade or more. Medical groups have lowered the threshold for hypertension, or high blood pressure, from a reading of 140/90 to 130/80. Under the new guidelines, a reading of 120/80 is considered healthy.

      After much debate and research, the new guidelines were formalized last year and backed by the American Heart Association, American College of Cardiology, and nine other professional health organizations. But the lower threshold now means 46 percent of American adults -- up from 32 percent previously -- are now considered hypertensive and in need of prescription medication.

      'Not warranted in all individuals'

      The Feinstein Institute researchers concluded that people at higher risk of cardiovascular disease could benefit from the lower blood pressure threshold, but they say patients at low risk might actually suffer harm.

      "After looking at data, my colleagues and I recommend using a different model for patients with high blood pressure than what was most recently recommended," Diamond said. "Identifying patients by degree of future cardiovascular risk identifies those who will most benefit from intensive blood pressure treatment goals. We do not feel that aggressive blood pressure lowering is warranted in all individuals."

      Based on a 10-year cardiovascular disease risk, the researchers conclude that aggressively trying to lower blood pressure in patients with a risk greater than or equal to 18.2 percent would be mostly beneficial. However, those with less risk would be better off using the previous blood pressure management approach.

      Recent controversy

      This is not the first time the medical community has questioned aggressively low blood pressure standards. In 2014, researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center reported that lowering systolic blood pressure below 120 did not appear to provide additional benefit for patients.

      “Frequently we treat patients’ blood pressure to the lowest it will go, thinking that is what’s best,” lead author Carlos J. Rodriguez, M.D., said at the time.

      Earlier that year, Duke University researchers ran an analysis and concluded that a proposal to ease the guidelines, and thereby raising the threshold of acceptable blood pressure to previous levels, would mean an estimated 5.8 million adults no longer needed blood pressure medicine.

      Researchers at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research say new blood pressure guidelines, that have lowered targets for blood pressure readings, may b...
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      Coke launching alcoholic beverage in Japan

      The product is unlikely to appear in the U.S.

      For the first time in 130 years, Coca-Cola plans to sell a beverage containing alcohol.

      The soft drink company is experimenting with Chi-Hi, a type of low-alcohol, carbonated beverage popular in Japan. It consists of flavored carbonated water and distilled shochu alcohol. Jorge Garduño, president of Coca-Cola Japan, disclosed the plans during a question and answer session on the company's website.

      "This is a canned drink that includes alcohol," Garduño said. "Traditionally, it is made with a distilled beverage called shōchū and sparkling water, plus some flavoring. We haven’t experimented in the low alcohol category before, but it’s an example of how we continue to explore opportunities outside our core areas."

      The new product is highly unlikely to show up on store shelves in the U.S., or most other countries. Japan, apparently, is a unique situation. Garduño says it is not uncommon in Japan for soft drinks and alcoholic beverages to appear side-by-side in stores.

      "It makes sense to give this a try in our market," he said. "But I don’t think people around the world should expect to see this kind of thing from Coca-Cola."

      Coke's history

      Coke was invented in the late 19th century by a Civil War veteran and was first produced in a drug store and used for medicinal purposes. It's initial popularity stemmed from the belief at the time that carbonated water was a health benefit. Its inventors made a number of health claims for the product, including that it could cure many diseases.

      Coke has ventured into other areas of beverage production in recent years. It now makes or markets DaSani water; Powerade, a drink for athletes; Fairlife milk; Kia-Ora, a fruit-based soft drink; Nestea, an iced tea beverage; and Hi-C fruit drinks.

      For the first time in 130 years, Coca-Cola plans to sell a beverage containing alcohol.The soft drink company is experimenting with Chi-Hi, a type of l...
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      Olli Salumeria Americana recalls ready-to-eat meat products

      The products may be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

      Olli Salumeria Americana of Oceanside, Calif., is recalling approximately 3,946 pounds of ready-to-eat meat products.

      The products may be adulterated with Listeria monocytogenes.

      There have been no confirmed reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of these products.

      The the following not-heat-treated, shelf-stable, ready-to-eat items, packaged on January 19, 2018, are being recalled:

      • 6-oz. packages of “Gusto NAPOLI APPLEWOOD-SMOKED SALAME” containing lot code 1000012821.
      • 6-oz. packages of “Gusto CHORIZO SMOKED PAPRIKA” containing lot code 1000012812.
      • 6-oz. packages of “Gusto SOPRESSATA BLACK PEPPERCORN SALAME” containing lot code 1000012811.
      • 6-oz. packages of “Gusto TOSCANO FENNEL POLLEN SALAME” containing lot code 1000012805.
      • 6-oz. packages of “Gusto PEPPERONI CLASSICALLY AMERICAN” containing lot code 1000012804.
      • 175-gram packages of “OLLI MOLISANA PEPPER + GARLIC SALAMI” containing lot code 1000012808.
      • 175-gram packages of “OLLI NAPOLI APPLEWOOD-SMOKED SALAMI” containing lot code 1000012810.
      • 175-gram packages of “OLLI CALABRESE SPICY SALAMI” containing lot code 1000012807.

      The recalled products, bearing establishment number “M-45334” inside the USDA mark of inspection, were shipped to retail locations nationwide and exported to Canada.

      What to do

      Customers who purchased the recalled products should not consume them, but discard them or return them to the place of purchase.

      Consumers with questions regarding the recall may contact Olli Salumeria Americana at oliviero@olli.com.

      Olli Salumeria Americana of Oceanside, Calif., is recalling approximately 3,946 pounds of ready-to-eat meat products.The products may be adulterated wi...
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      Sumitomo recalls Kelly Armorsteel KDA tires

      The tires are missing specific safety information

      Sumitomo Rubber USA is recalling 138 Kelly Armorsteel KDA tires, size 11R22.5 Load Range G, manufactured December 4, 2016, to December 17, 2016.

      The tires do not have the tire size, maximum load rate, speed restriction, number of plies, the word "tubeless" and the load range information marked on both sidewalls.

      If the tires are missing specific information such as the maximum load rate, they may be overloaded, increasing the risk of a crash.

      What to do

      Sumitomo will notify owners, and dealers will inspect and, as necessary, replace the tires, free of charge.

      The recall is expected to begin in March 2018.

      Owners may contact Sumitomo customer assistance at 1-800-592-3267.

      Sumitomo Rubber USA is recalling 138 Kelly Armorsteel KDA tires, size 11R22.5 Load Range G, manufactured December 4, 2016, to December 17, 2016.The tir...
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      Model year 2011 Hyundai Sonatas recalled

      The front airbags, seat belt pretensioners and side airbags may not deploy

      Hyundai Motor America is recalling 154,753 model year 2011 Sonatas. In the event of a crash, the airbag control unit (ACU) may short circuit, preventing the front airbags, seat belt pretensioners, and side air bags from deploying.

      If the front air bags, seat belt pretensioners, and side airbags are disabled, there is an increased risk of injury to the vehicle occupants in the event of a crash.

      What to do

      The remedy for this recall is still under development.

      The recall is expected to begin April 20, 2018.

      Owners may contact Hyundai customer service at 1-855-371-9460. Hyundai's number for this recall is 174.

      Hyundai Motor America is recalling 154,753 model year 2011 Sonatas. In the event of a crash, the airbag control unit (ACU) may short circuit, preventing th...
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      Amazon slashes the price of its Prime fee for Medicaid recipients

      The discounted rate will be half the standard rate

      Amazon announced today that recipients of Medicaid will be eligible for a discounted Prime membership of $5.99 per month -- less than half the normal rate of $12.99 a month.

      The move is the latest push by the e-commerce giant to reach lower-income customers. Last summer, Amazon joined a USDA pilot program that allows people receiving government food benefits to buy groceries through online markets like Amazon's FreshDirect or Walmart.

      The new program is an extension of the Prime membership discount program and comes with the same perks, including free two-day shipping, Prime Video, Prime Music, and Prime Now.

      No annual commitment is required, and customers can get the discount for up to four years. Customers can also sign up for a free 30-day trial of the service.

      Reaching more customers

      For years, Amazon has been taking steps to attract more customers and has focused efforts on targeting low-income Americans and millennials.

      On Monday, a report in the Wall Street Journal suggested Amazon was considering a debit-card like program for people without access to credit cards. In November, Amazon launched a program where people could add cash to their Amazon balance at participating convenience, grocery and drug stores.

      Discounted Prime memberships are available now to anyone with a valid Medicaid card or Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card.

      Amazon announced today that recipients of Medicaid will be eligible for a discounted Prime membership of $5.99 per month -- less than half the normal rate...
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      BlackBerry sues Facebook over patent infringement

      The company claims Facebook uses services that are based on BlackBerry’s patented technology

      BlackBerry Limited is suing Facebook over patent infringement, according to a lawsuit filed in a U.S. District Court in California.

      In the lengthy 117-page lawsuit, BlackBerry claims that Facebook “created mobile messaging applications that co-opt Blackberry’s innovations,” and use a number of patents that made BlackBerry’s products “such a critical and commercial success in the first place.”

      "[W]e have a strong claim that Facebook has infringed on our intellectual property, and after several years of dialogue, we also have an obligation to our shareholders to pursue appropriate legal remedies," BlackBerry said in a statement.

      Patents held by BlackBerry include message encryption, battery and message notifications, and combining messaging with gaming.

      Facebook dismisses claims

      Blackberry contends that Facebook, its Instagram photo sharing app, and its WhatsApp messaging service use technologies -- such as cross-platform sharing -- that are based on existing Blackberry patents.

      "As a cybersecurity and embedded software leader, BlackBerry's view is that Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp could make great partners in our drive toward a securely connected future, and we continue to hold this door open to them," BlackBerry said.

      Facebook dismissed the claims and said it plans to fight back.

      “BlackBerry’s suit sadly reflects the current state of its messaging business,” said Facebook’s Deputy General Counsel Paul Grewal. “Having abandoned its efforts to innovate, BlackBerry is now looking to tax the innovation of others. We intend to fight.”

      Blackberry is seeking “redress for the harm caused by Defendants’ unlawful use of BlackBerry’s intellectual property,” which may include injunctive relief and damages accounting for lost profits.

      BlackBerry Limited is suing Facebook over patent infringement, according to a lawsuit filed in a U.S. District Court in California.In the lengthy 117-p...
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      Uber’s self-driving truck fleet make its first road trip

      The evolution of the transportation industry heads towards job losses and big bucks

      Uber’s vision for self-driving trucks and truck drivers working together to move freight around the country has become a reality. As of yesterday, those self-driving trucks are on the road and making runs in Arizona. Uber’s been quietly testing the program’s viability in the Grand Canyon state since last November, and it feels it’s ready for prime time.

      When Uber bought Otto, a self-driving trucking company, less than two years ago, it wanted the world to know that the move was a “big deal.”

      “In order to provide digital services in the physical world, we must build sophisticated logistics, artificial intelligence and robotics systems that serve and elevate humanity,” said Travis Kalanick, Uber’s then-CEO and co-founder.

      “Together, we now have one of the strongest autonomous engineering groups in the world; self-driving trucks and cars that are already on the road thanks to Otto and Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh; the practical experience that comes from running ridesharing and delivery services in hundreds of cities; with the data and intelligence that comes from doing 1.2 billion miles on the road every month.”

      An example of self-driving trucking works

      The new self-driving technologies used in Uber’s fleet still currently require drivers to make deliveries and sync up with others on the road. Let’s take an Uber trucker named Jenny as an example.

      1. Jenny picks up a load in Los Angeles using Uber Freight. Her destination is Yuma, Arizona where she’ll complete a transfer.

      2. Right after Jenny crosses the Arizona state line, she meets up with Hank who’s manning one of Uber’s self-driving trucks. Hank’s been on a long haul drive from Chicago.

      3. Molly and Hank exchange cargo loads like they would in a normal, non-automated load-exchange scenario.

      4. After the transfer, Hank heads back east with his new load in a self-driving Uber truck and Jenny goes back to California with her new load in a traditional, human-operated truck.

      Uber’s self-driving trucks are fitted with hardware, software, and sensors tasked with detecting obstacles, identifying the best navigation paths, and interpreting relevant signage.

      However, the system is not literally “hands-off.” While the automated system takes control of the vehicle’s accelerating, braking, and steering, there’s still a driver behind the wheel monitoring the driving and ready to take over the controls if something goes wrong.

      Is this the end of the road for truckers?

      Just like Uber and Lyft signaled a change for taxis, Google, Uber, Tesla, and the major truck manufacturers are gazing toward a future where the 2 million truckers of today will be demoted, at the very least, to co-pilots.

      “They know their game is over,” observed one trucker watching Uber’s video overview of its new service. “I drove semi for like 9 months and then realized these geeks from MIT and Harvard are going to change this industry. Future truckers will only do city work until these geeks figure out how to navigate big semi in the city or companies move their yards outside the city limits.”

      Despite getting the self-driving truck idea to market first, Uber no doubt sees other competitors over its shoulders. It’s a technological footrace with all the markings of being contentious. Just last month, Uber handed Google $245 million in Uber stock to settle the latter’s claims that Uber had tried to steal trade secrets relating to Waymo, Google’s autonomous car development company.

      And, there’s a lot to be had, too. Trucking is a $700 billion industry, with more than $200 billion of that going to drivers. Grabbing a piece of that driver compensation is a big haul for any company.

      Uber’s vision for self-driving trucks and truck drivers working together to move freight around the country has become a reality. As of yesterday, those se...
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      Edmunds finds consumers most loyal to Toyota, Honda, and Subaru brands

      A report finds SUVs are high on drivers' wish lists