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    The amazing, ever-changing story of the Equifax hack

    From back-pedaling to clarifying to updating, the official story of the Equifax hack has a way of never staying the same

    There's no delicate way to announce that cybercriminals have stolen sensitive information about half of the United States population, but Equifax at least deserves points for trying.

    Equifax, one of “big three” agencies that control the shadowy credit reporting industry, first announced its discovery of an unfortunate “cyber security incident” in early September.

    The incident potentially impacted 143 million consumers, then-chairman and CEO Richard Smith said, adding that the firm “acted immediately to stop the intrusion.” An Equifax-led investigation into the matter would be complete in several weeks, the company said.

    That turned out to be an extremely optimistic assessment. Another eight months passed until, finally, in a May 8 filing to the SEC, Equifax quietly said its investigation into the breach was complete, at least where the hack of government-issued identification is concerned.

    “Through the company’s analysis, Equifax believes it has satisfied applicable requirements to notify consumers and regulators,” the credit reporting behemoth wrote in the filings. “It does not anticipate identifying further impacted consumers.”

    The filing, Equifax seems to hope, will finally bring this dark chapter in its history to a close. Over those previous eight months, the Equifax breach evolved from a “clearly disappointing event” that Equifax said would soon be resolved to an ongoing international scandal and criminal case.

    From a small sale to insider trading

    Though Equifax said it “acted immediately” upon discovering that consumer information was accessed on July 29 of last year, some people questioned why the official announcement about the incident did not arrive until September 7.

    It didn’t take much digging for financial journalists to find a potential answer. Later that day, Bloomberg News was reporting on its discovery that three Equifax executives sold $1.8 million worth of their shares in the company on August 1, one day after Equifax had said the breach was discovered.

    John Gamble, the company’s Chief Financial Officer, sold a reported $946,374 worth of stock. Joseph Loughran, the president of U.S. information solutions, and Rodolfo Ploder, president of workforce solutions, sold a respective half a million and quarter million worth of options.

    In a statement to Bloomberg, an Equifax spokesperson initially described the $1.8 million sale as “a small percentage of their Equifax shares” and added that the executives “had no knowledge that an intrusion had occurred at the time.”

    By November, Equifax had backtracked slightly, saying that it had agreed to launch an investigation into the sale. Luckily for the executives, the Equifax-led investigation found that the suspicious-looking stock dumping was perfectly legal.

    But by March, a former Equifax executive was facing federal insider trading charges -- only this executive was a different one from the three that were cleared in the company investigation.

    Jun Ying, a former information officer, "used confidential information to conclude that his company had suffered a massive data breach” and “dumped his stock before the news went public,” federal prosecutors said.

    It remains unclear why Ying knew about the breach while other executives did not. Equifax says it is cooperating with authorities, explaining to the press in March that "we take corporate governance and compliance very seriously, and will not tolerate violations of our policies.”

    John Gamble, the Chief Financial Officer who sold nearly a $1 million worth of his stock on August 1, remains at the company and is “responsible for all financial functions” at Equifax, according to his Equifax bio.

    Monitoring credit and giving away rights

    One potential way to keep people from panicking or getting angry about their data being stolen is to frame the unpleasant announcement as a chance to get something for free.  

    “Company to Offer Free Identity Theft Protection and Credit File Monitoring to All U.S. Consumers,” the first Equifax press release revealing the breach said in big, bold letters.

    Shortly after, Equifax had its new crediting monitoring website live and ready to go.

    At the unfortunately titled page equifaxsecurity2017.com, users were instructed to enter the last four digits of their social security numbers and their last names. From there, they could find out if they were impacted by the breach and enroll in credit monitoring.

    But some consumers reported being told that their data was impacted, regardless of whether they put in a correct name and matching social security number. And after reading through the terms and conditions, advocacy groups warned that consumers may be walking into a trap. By agreeing to the terms on the website, consumers were agreeing to waive their rights to sue the company, according to a vague arbitration clause included in the fine print.

    The National Consumer Law Center was among the advocacy groups warning consumers that the open-ended language in the clause would prevent consumers from taking Equifax to court.

    “Consumers and media have raised legitimate concerns about the services we offered and the operations of our call center and website,” CEO Rick Smith responded in an editorial in USA Today. “We accept the criticism and are working to address a range of issues.”

    Former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and other prominent Democratic lawmakers pressed Equifax about the arbitration clause. Equifax subsequently agreed to reword the agreement, explaining in the new fine print that the arbitration measure only applied to the credit monitoring service itself, not “the cyber security incident” in question.

    Meanwhile, as that controversy played out, the official Equifax Twitter account continued to urge consumers to visit their security page and sign up for free credit monitoring. It took several weeks for people to notice that Equifax had been sending people to the wrong page.

    Instead of sending consumers to equifaxsecurity2017.com, the Equifax Twitter account instead directed consumers to securityequifax2017.com, a fake phishing site that someone had created for the express purpose of ridiculing Equifax for creating “an easily impersonated domain.”

    Equifax eventually apologized for the confusion, admitted that it had shared the wrong link, and removed the offending posts.

    Credit locking, and more of the same

    Several months later, in February 2018, Equifax rolled out Lock & Alert, a service offering a credit “lock,” marketed as a step below a credit freeze. While locks are not as secure as credit freezes, they are also cheaper and easier to implement.

    In fact, Equifax said that its lock service was completely free. And, responding to the previous criticism about arbitration agreements, Equifax explicitly said that consumers who signed up for Lock & Alert were not agreeing to any arbitration provision.

    “The consumer-empowerment approach that is offered through Lock & Alert is what people have come to expect,” Equifax said in promotional materials.

    Not long after, consumers discovered that the experience of locking one’s credit might not be as empowering as they were led to believe.

    It turned out that consumers who signed up for the service were unknowingly agreeing to let Equifax use their information for marketing purposes, according to advocacy group US PIRG, which reviewed the site’s fine print. And a reporter at NBC News found that the service didn’t work; an error message repeatedly appeared on the screen saying that “we are experiencing technical issues.”

    “I think it's fair to say as with any service we did have some initial operational issues shortly after the launch,” Equifax spokeswoman Nancy Bistritz-Balkan told NBC News. “But our team has been working around the clock to document the issues and address it appropriately.”

    Equifax goes abroad

    Equifax focused its breach investigation on United States consumers, giving only a brief mention to impacted people in Canada in the UK. “Equifax also identified unauthorized access to limited personal information for certain UK and Canadian residents,” is all the firm had to say about the matter in September.

    When people questioned what “limited personal information” for “certain UK and Canadian residents” actually meant, Equifax clarified that 400,000 people in the UK and 100,000 Canadians were affected.

    That might sound like a figure a little too significant to describe as “limited,” but Equifax said that the breach was related to something else, an apparent “process failure,” as the company called it, that occurred a year earlier.

    “This was due to a process failure, corrected in 2016, which led to a limited amount of UK data being stored in the US between 2011 and 2016,” Equifax told the British press.

    Several weeks later, Equifax revised the number yet again. The company announced that 700,000 UK residents would receive notices about their data being hacked.

    An additional 14 million records in the UK were also stolen,  Equifax clarified, but the cases were not considered serious enough to warrant direct notifications to those consumers.

    An Equifax spokesman later offered this explanation about the many discrepancies affecting British Equifax victims to the BBC: "This information does not change the number of consumers affected or any of the UK figures/statements already provided.”

    More people exposed

    In March, Equifax said that an additional 2.4 million consumers in the United States had their information hacked, bringing the original figure of 143 million Americans that Equifax had tallied closer to 145.5 million. Though the announcement seemed like new information, Equifax insisted that it was not.

    “This is not about newly discovered stolen data,” interim CEO Paulino do Rego Barros Jr. said. In what has become a familiar talking point, he said a new analysis of the stolen data had simply provided Equifax more clarity.   

    “It’s about sifting through the previously identified stolen data, analyzing other information in our databases that was not taken by the attackers, and making connections that enabled us to identify additional individuals,” Barros explained.

    Exposed phone numbers and passports

    In February, Equifax submitted a document to the Senate Banking Committee saying that hackers also accessed phone numbers, email addresses, and the expiration dates for credit cards. That appeared to be worse than the “ birth dates, addresses, and, in some instances, driver’s license numbers” and “credit card numbers” that Equifax said had been stolen to the public.

    An Equifax spokesman explained to Wall Street Journal that "in no way did we intend to mislead consumers." Rather, she said that the list given to Congress only reflected “minimal portion” of consumers affected.

    Based on the statements from Equifax, the public seemed to have the impression that their passport data at least was safe.

    “And some data — like passport numbers — were not stolen,” the Associated Press confidently reported in February.

    However, Sen. Elizabeth Warren published an independent report not long after claiming that passport information was, in fact, stolen. Equifax said that the senator’s characterization of what was stolen was not accurate.

    “The easiest way to understand this is that there was a field labeled passports [that was hacked] with no actual data in it,” an Equifax spokeswoman told the New York Post in February.

    But in an SEC filing in early May, Equifax indicated that scanned images of passports were stolen from thousands of consumers who had used the agency’s dispute portal.

    In a statement, Equifax said it hadn’t been trying to hide that information. The passport information that it said wasn’t hacked came from a different data set than the stolen passport data it had discovered more recently.

    “Our response earlier this year regarding passports was related to the data elements contained in the database tables accessed by the attackers,” an Equifax spokeswoman told ConsumerAffairs in a statement.  

    “In response to a request from Congress to provide quantities of each data element impacted, in the interest of completeness, we manually reviewed the images stolen from the dispute portal in order to include the numbers of government-issued identifications contained within those images,” she added.

    No unauthorized activity on core services

    Throughout its repeated “updates” and disclosures about what was hacked, Equifax has maintained that it found “no evidence of unauthorized activity on Equifax’s core consumer or commercial credit reporting databases.”

    What that statement actually means is up for debate. Senators and consumer groups have complained that the definition of “core consumer or commercial credit reporting databases” is overly broad.

    From a consumer standpoint, identity theft crimes possibly related to the hack already seem to be taking place, affecting “core” business at least where victims are concerned.

    Earlier this year, an accountant and several consumers went public with stories about identity thieves collecting government benefits on their behalf. Experts said the crimes could have been made possible thanks to the Equifax hack, as well as vulnerabilities on the social security website itself.

    “While I’m not entirely sure how the thief obtained my personal information, it’s likely that the Equifax data breach...contributed to the identity theft,” accountant Jim Shambo, one such identity theft victim, wrote in a blog post.

    Luckily for Equifax, such scenarios could turn out to be beneficial for the credit reporting agency. Or as Equifax CEO Rick Smith told a conference  in August;  “Fraud is a huge opportunity for us. It is a massive growing business for us.”

    Equifax has not yet returned an inquiry from ConsumerAffairs asking, among other questions, whether there is any truth to the allegations leveled by Warren and others that it has profited off its own breach.

    But, in the grand tradition of Equifax disclosures, Smith also appears to have changed his story and updated his perspective on the matter.  A month after saying fraud was a “huge opportunity” for Equifax, the CEO published an editorial in USA Today clarifying that the Equifax hack had been “humbling” and bad for the company.

    “We are devoting extraordinary resources to make sure this kind of incident doesn’t happen again,” Smith wrote. “We will make changes and continue to strengthen our defenses against cyber crimes.”

    Two weeks after making that promise, Smith suddenly decided to retire. He left with a compensation package worth $90 million.

    There's no delicate way to announce that cybercriminals have stolen sensitive information about half of the United States population, but Equifax at least...
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    California Senate votes for stricter net neutrality rules

    The new rules are facing backlash from telecom companies

    On Wednesday, the California Senate voted to enforce net neutrality rules that are stricter than what is required by federal regulations.

    The new laws would replace the ones that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to overturn at the end of 2017. Despite passing through the Senate on a 23-12 vote, the law will now go to the State Assembly before making its way to the governor. As it stands now, it looks like the law will pass, as both the State Assembly and Governor are Democrats.

    Under the proposed bill, California’s regulations would mirror the current countrywide bans on blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization that were implemented in 2015 by the FCC. However, as the state aims to impose stronger state-level net neutrality regulations following attempts from the FCC’s Republican leaders to eliminate federal rules, the bill would also ban zero-rating arrangements that allow internet providers to charge online services for data cap exemptions.

    “When Donald Trump’s FCC took a wrecking ball to the Obama-era net neutrality protections, we said we step in to make sure that California residents would be protected from having their Internet access manipulated,” said bill sponsor Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco). “I want to thank the enormous grassroots coalition that is fighting tooth and nail to help pass [this bill] and protect a free and open Internet.”

    AT&T fights back

    AT&T and the lobby group that represents Comcast, Charter, Cox, and other cable companies haven’t held back in voicing their adverse opinions on the bill to lawmakers.

    Both AT&T and the California Cable & Telecommunications Association (CCTA) have distributed documents analyzing California’s proposed bill and highlighting the ways it is too strict when compared to federal regulations. The documents emphasize that Wiener’s bill goes far beyond the FCC regulations, and the groups also argue that the FCC’s 2015 regulations are more comprehensive when it comes to defining all relevant terms and clearing up any potential confusion with consumers.

    From Wiener’s standpoint, these lobbyists are “trying to create the inaccurate impression among legislators that the bill deviates significantly from the 2015 FCC order.”

    “You can’t go and get federal net neutrality protections repealed and then be surprised and indignant and complain that states are stepping in to protect consumers and the economy,” he said.

    However, AT&T stands by its critical stance.

    “Recognizing that there may be instances in which paid prioritization is beneficial, the FCC waives the ban if the petitioner demonstrated the practice would provide some significant public interest benefit and would not harm the open nature of the Internet,” the company wrote.

    Looking back and looking ahead

    Net neutrality has garnered much attention in the press lately, as the FCC repealed the Obama-era policy last December. However, by mid-May, Democratic senators overturned the FCC’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order by a vote of 52-47 under the Congressional Review Act (CRA).

    While the action is set to go into effect on June 11, the vote was more symbolic than anything else. The GOP controls the majority of the House of Representatives, and while it doesn’t intend to take similar action, Democrats need to get at least 25 Republicans on their side. From there, President Trump makes the final executive order, which doesn’t look favorable for Democrats -- or consumers -- as he agrees with the FCC’s proposed policy.

    “A vote against this resolution will be a vote to protect large corporations and special interests, leaving the American public to pay the price,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

    Should net neutrality be voted down again, it could be disastrous for consumers. Critics of the FCC’s new regulations worry that the public could pay more for slower and less consistent internet service.

    “The repeal of net neutrality is not only a blow to the average consumer, but it is a blow to our public schools, rural Americans, communities of color, and small businesses,” Schumer said. “The Internet should be kept free and and open like our highways, accessible and affordable to every American, regardless of ability to pay.”

    On Wednesday, the California Senate voted to enforce net neutrality rules that are stricter than what is required by federal regulations.The new laws w...
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    Virginia expands Medicaid coverage to 400,000 consumers

    Democrats credit 2017's election results with giving them the winning margin

    The Virginia General Assembly has approved a budget that contains an expansion of Medicaid, covering an additional 400,000 state residents.

    Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, is expected to sign the measure, which overcame years of Republican opposition. In the end, however, the measure got enough GOP support to get it across the finish line.

    In the Virginia Senate, four Republican members joined all 19 Democrats Wednesday to approve the measure and send it to the House, which passed it on a 67-31 vote.

    'Five years of effort'

    “This budget is the culmination of five years of effort to bring our taxpayer dollars home from Washington and expand Medicaid," Northam said in a statement. "As a doctor, I’m so proud of the significant step we’ve taken together to help Virginians get quality, affordable care."

    But Virginia Republican Kathy Byron voted against the budget because of the Medicaid expansion, telling Richmond radio station WCVE that building the state's budget with federal dollars accessed through Medicaid is fiscally reckless.

    "Having served for 21 years in this body I can readily attest...this is a turning point for Virginia," Byron said.

    Turning from red to blue

    In fact, Virginia has been evolving politically. Once a reliable state for Republicans, it has elected Democrats in two consecutive gubernatorial races and went for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the last three presidential elections.

    “Going forward, my team and I will review this budget when it reaches my desk to ensure that there are no technical issues or unintended problems that may warrant an amendment and act upon it as quickly as possible,” Northam said.

    Northam credits the November 2017 election, which not only put him in office but closed the GOP's once wide margin in the Virginia house to just two seats.

    The Virginia vote also represents the first expansion of health benefits in the U.S. since the Trump administration began rolling back key provisions of the Affordable Care Act.

    The Virginia General Assembly has approved a budget that contains an expansion of Medicaid, covering an additional 400,000 state residents.Gov. Ralph N...
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      Walmart offering employees college tuition for $1 a day

      The retailer says it will subsidize tuition, books, and fees to help workers with the application and enrollment process

      Walmart will start paying for its workers to pursue a college degree, the company announced Wednesday.

      Through its new associate education benefit program, employees will be able to access affordable, high-quality associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in Business or Supply Chain Management. Workers will only need to contribute $1 a day, or the equivalent of about $75 per semester.

      “Just a $1 a day. That’s all associates have to contribute to start earning a college degree,” said Beth Harris, internal communications manager at Walmart, in a blog post. “After that, Walmart takes care of tuition, books, and fees.”

      “That also means there’s no need for a student loan — wiping out the thousands of dollars of debt associated with other degree options. What’s even better: Associates can earn college credit for paid training at Walmart Academies, saving them substantial time and money,” Harris added.

      Three universities

      Degrees will be offered through the University of Florida, Brandman University, and Bellevue University -- nonprofit schools selected for their high graduation rates among working adult learners, as well as their online offerings.

      The program -- which will be made available to all Walmart U.S. and Sam’s Club associates who have worked at the chain for at least 90 days -- will be made possible through a partnership with education benefits company Guild Education.

      “Walmart has kicked off what might be the nation’s most scalable approach to creating educational opportunity for America’s workforce, now available to its U.S. associates and their families,” said Rachel Carlson, CEO and co-founder of Guild Education.

      “Walmart is also leading innovation at the intersection of workforce development and higher education by helping associates earn college credit for their on-the-job training,” Carlson said.

      Walmart executives estimate that as many as 68,000 employees (as much as 5 percent of the company’s 1.5 million employees) might sign up for the program in the first five years.

      The retailer, which has been criticized over its treatment of staff, has made several other changes to its business in an effort to retain employees and improve engagement at work. Earlier this year, Walmart raised its starting wage rate for hourly employees to $11. It also expanded maternity and parental leave benefits.

      Walmart will start paying for its workers to pursue a college degree, the company announced Wednesday.Through its new associate education benefit progr...
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      Sears closing 63 more stores

      The retailer says it has identified 100 more unprofitable locations

      Sears announced Thursday that it will be closing another 63 stores “in the near future.” 

      More closures could be on the way, as the retailer indicated that the 63 stores it plans to close are among a list of 100 unprofitable locations.  

      In January, the retailer announced that it would be shuttering 150 unprofitable Sears and Kmart locations. A few months later, the company said in an SEC filing that there was “substantial doubt” that it could continue operating unless it found a way to raise additional capital.

      Eddie Lampert, the company's CEO, said the company would “continue to take difficult yet necessary actions,” and “closely evaluate the longer-term viability of stores where a clear path to return to profitability is not in sight.”

      The 125-year old company has closed nearly 400 Sears and Kmart locations over the past 12 months.

      Slumping sales

      The closures come amid declining sales, with revenues falling 31 percent in the most recent quarter. First quarter sales were $2.9 billion, compared with $4.2 billion a year earlier, Sears said. The company reported a loss of $424 million due to lower sales.

      "We continue to evaluate our network of stores, which are a critical component in our transformation, and will make further adjustments as needed and as warranted," Sears said in a statement announcing its first-quarter results.

      Shares of Sears Holdings Corp. fell as much as 13% before the start of regular trading on news of the results.

      Stores set to close

      Here's the full list of Sears and Kmart locations the company said it is closing: 

      Arizona

      • Sears, 10001 N Metro Parkway, West Phoenix, AZ

      California

      • Kmart, 910 North China Lake Blvd, Ridgecrest, CA
      • Sears, 100 S Puente Hills Mall City Industry, CA

      Colorado

      • Kmart, 9881 W 58Th Avenue, Arvada, CO

      Florida

      • Kmart, 5400 E Busch Blvd, Tampa, FL
      • Sears, 7902 Citrus Park Town Center, Tampa, FL
      • Sears, 320 Towne Center Circle, Sanford, FL

      Georgia

      • Sears, 2201 Henderson Mill Road N.E., Atlanta, GA
      • Sears, 1300 Southlake Mall, Morrow, GA
      • Sears, 2100 Pleasant Hill Road, Duluth, GA

      Hawaii

      • Kmart, 4303 Nawiliwili Road, Lihue, HI

      Illinois

      • Kmart, 5909 E State Street, Rockford, IL
      • Sears, #2 Hawthorn Center, Vernon Hills, IL
      • Sears, #2 Fox Valley Center, Aurora, IL
      • Sears, 6136 W Grand Avenue, Gurnee, IL
      • Sears, 104 West White Oaks Mall, Springfield, IL

      Iowa

      • Kmart, 2535 Hubbell Avenue, Des Moines, IA
      • Sears, 320 W Kimberly Road, Davenport, IA

      Indiana

      • Sears, 2415 Sagamore Pkwy S, Lafayette, IN
      • Sears, 40 Muncie Mall, Muncie, IN
      • Sears, 6020 E 82Nd Street, Indianapolis, IN

      Kansas

      • Sears, 1781 Sw Wanamaker Road, Topeka, KS

      Louisiana

      • Kmart, 4070 Ryan Street, Lake Charles, LA
      • Sears, Alexandria Mall, Alexandria, LA

      Massachusetts

      • Sears, Hwys 114 & 128, Peabody, MA
      • Sears, Eastfield Mall, Springfield, MA

      Michigan

      • Sears, 3191 S Linden Road, Flint, MI
      • Sears, 18900 Michigan Avenue, Dearborn, MI
      • Sears, 14100 Lakeside Circle, Sterling Heights, MI
      • Sears, 1212 S Airport Road W, Traverse City, MI

      Minnesota

      • Kmart, 215 North Central Avenue, Duluth, MN
      • Sears, Shingle Creek Crossing, Brooklyn Ctr, MN
      • Sears, Miller Hill Mall Duluth, MN

      Mississippi

      • Sears, 1000 Turtle Creek Drive, Hattiesburg, MS

      Missouri

      • Sears, 250 S County Center Way, St. Louis, MO
      • Sears, #1 Chesterfield Mall, Chesterfield, MO

      Montana

      • Sears, 1515 Grand Avenue, Billings, MT

      North Dakota

      • Sears, 2800 S Columbia Road, Grand Forks, ND

      New Jersey

      • Kmart, 24 34 Barbour Avenue, Clifton NJ
      • Sears, 300 Quaker Bridge Mall, Lawrenceville, NJ
      • Sears, 2341 Rt 66, Ocean, NJ
      • Sears, 2501 Mt Holly Road, Burlington, NJ

      New Mexico

      • Kmart, 2100 Carlisle Avenue, Albuquerque, NM
      • Sears, 10000 Coors Bypass N.W., Albuquerque, NM

      New York

      • Kmart, 1000 Montauk Highway, West Babylon, NY
      • Kmart, 25301 Rockaway Blvd, Rosedale, NY
      • Sears, 3649 Erie Blvd E, Syracuse, NY

      Ohio

      • Sears, 2400 Elida Road, Lima, OH
      • Sears, 17271 Southpark Center, Strongsville, OH

      Oregon

      • Kmart, 12350 N E Sandy Blvd, Portland, OR

      Pennsylvania

      • Kmart, 1072 Mountain Laurel Plaza, Latrobe, PA
      • Sears, 300 S Hills Village, South Hills, PA
      • Sears, 1000 Robinson Center Drive, Pittsburgh, PA

      South Carolina

      • Sears, 205 W Blackstock Road, Spartanburg, SC
      • Sears, 3101 N Main Street, Anderson, SC

      South Dakota

      • Sears, 3400 Empire Mall, Sioux Falls, SD

      Tennessee

      • Sears, 2931 Knoxville Center Drive, Knoxville, TN

      Texas

      • Kmart, 5000 San Dario Laredo, TX
      • Sears, 2401 S Stemmons Freeway, Lewisville, TX
      • Sears, 1800 Green Oaks Road, Fort Worth, TX
      • Sears, 11200 Lakeline Mall Drive, Cedar Park, TX
      • Sears, Golden Triangle Mall, Denton, TX

      Washington

      • Sears, 4502 S Steele Street, Tacoma, WA
      Sears announced Thursday that it will be closing another 72 stores “in the near future.” The list of stores scheduled to be closed will be announced later...
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      Federal Reserve proposes loosening additional regulations on banks

      Under the proposal, not all banks would be covered by the Volcker Rule

      The Federal Reserve is proposing another loosening of a regulation on banks, put in place after the 2008 financial crisis.

      A number of factors contributed to the crisis, among them bad investment decisions that put the nation's banks at risks. Not only were banks making risky loans, they were engaging in highly speculative trading in pursuit of higher and higher profits.

      Congress and the Fed placed tougher regulations on banks after the crash, including the so-called Volcker Rule, which generally prevents banks from risky asset trading, or taking major stakes in Wall Street hedge funds.

      The reasoning behind the rule was simple: limiting risky trading by banks might have limited the wave of bank failures that took place in the years after 2008. Depositors were protected, up to $250,000, but it cost the taxpayers billions of dollars.

      Not all banks would have to comply

      Fed Chairman Jerome Powell has put forth a proposal to amend the Volcker Rule, applying it to banks and financial services firms based on their trading activity.

      "The agencies responsible for implementing the rule see many opportunities to simplify it and improve it in ways that will allow firms to conduct appropriate activities without undue burden and without sacrificing safety and soundness," Powell said. "The proposal will address some of the uncertainty and complexity that now make it difficult for firms to know how best to comply, and for supervisors to know that they are in compliance."

      Under the proposal, banks would be placed in three categories that would determine their level of regulation. Banks whose trading gains and losses totaled at least $10 billion would continue to comply with the Volcker Rule, as written.

      Banks with trading assets and liabilities less than $10 billion but more than $1 billion would face less rigorous compliance standards. Banks trading less than $1 billion would not have to comply with the regulation.

      Previous rollback drew opposition

      The proposal may draw heated opposition from some Congressional Democrats, who opposed successful efforts earlier this month to roll back some of the Dodd Frank financial regulations that were implemented in 2010.

      The original regulations placed new requirements on banks with more than $50 billion in assets. The measure passed by Congress last week raises that to $250 billion, exempting some large regional banks, as well as smaller community banks.

      The Volcker Rule, now being considered for softening, covers a part of banking that did not exist until relatively recently. In 1933, in the wake of the Great Depression, Congress passed Glass-Steagall, prohibiting commercial banks, which serve consumers, from making risky financial investments.

      Congress repealed two key provisions of that law in 1999, removing the wall that separated consumer banking from investment banking.

      The Fed will submit the proposed changes to the Volcker Rule for public comment.

      The Federal Reserve is proposing another loosening of a regulation on banks, put in place after the 2008 financial crisis.A number of factors contribut...
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      Upcoming meetings and appointments negatively affect productivity, study finds

      Researchers say workers are less likely to accomplish tasks in between scheduled events

      For many consumers, a typical work day can involve several meetings that keep them moving all day long. But is the time in between those appointments being wasted?

      Researchers from Ohio State University say that may be the case. In a recent analysis of several studies, they found that most people do not make full use of free time leading up to a bigger task. As a result, they say that many people feel that this transition period feels shorter and not as revitalizing.

      “We seem to take a mental tax out of our time right before an appointment,” said study co-author Selin Malkoc. “We figure something might come up, we might need some extra time, even when there’s no need to do that. As a result, we do less with the available time.”

      Factoring in preparation time

      The researchers’ conclusions are drawn from several different studies that gauged how much time people thought they needed to prepare for a given task.

      In one case, participants were asked to take part in either a 30-minute or 45-minute study before an appointment that was an hour away. Those who selected 30-minute period were paid a compensatory fee of $2.50, while those who chose the 45-minute period were paid $5.00.

      Despite the 15-30 minute buffer period, the researchers say that the participants were far more likely to choose the 30-minute study period to give themselves extra wiggle room before their other appointment.

      “It was clear they would have plenty of time to finish and have extra time before their next appointment, but they still were more likely to choose the 30-minute study – even when they had clear financial incentive to choose the longer study,” said Malkoc.

      Increased productivity

      In another study involving college students, the researchers found that participants also tended to accomplish more when they didn’t have another task to worry about.

      During the experiment, a researcher told two different groups of students one of the following: (1) that they had a task coming up soon and had about five minutes before they could get started; or (2) that they simply had five minutes of free time to do what they wanted.

      The results showed that the second group tended to complete more tasks during their five-minute period (such as sending a text message, responding to an email, or visiting a social media site) than members in the first group.

      “You don’t feel like you can get as much done when you have a task coming up soon. The time seems shorter,” said Malkoc.

      Smarter way of scheduling work days

      The researchers say their findings could provide insights for companies on how to schedule work days to get the most out of their employees. Malkoc suggests that managers and senior staff stack meetings together to give workers longer, uninterrupted times when they may feel more motivated to tackle bigger projects.

      Additionally, she says that it’s important for companies to recognize how much time during the work day employees have to accomplish tasks and adjust accordingly.

      “We feel that if we have a meeting in two hours, we shouldn’t work on any big projects. So we may spend time just answering emails or doing things that aren’t as productive,” she said. “We seem to overestimate the things that might happen to take up our time, so we don’t get things done.”

      The full study has been published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

      For many consumers, a typical work day can involve several meetings that keep them moving all day long. But is the time in between those appointments being...
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      IKEA recalls SLADDA bicycles

      The bicycle belt can break, posing a fall hazard.

      IKEA Supply of Switzerland is recalling about 5,100 SLADDA bicycles sold in the U.S. and Canada.

      The bicycle belt can break, posing a fall hazard.

      No incidents or injuries have been reported in the U.S.

      This recall involves IKEA 26-inch and 28-inch SLADDA bicycles. The recalled bicycles are a light grey and have an aluminum frame, with IKEA printed at the bottom of the seat tube near the crank.

      Model

      Article Number

      SLADDA 26”

      303.267.28

      SLADDA 28”

      603.267.36

      The article number is printed on a sticker at the bottom of the down tube.

      The bicycles, manufactured in China, were sold exclusively at IKEA stores nationwide and online at www.ikea-usa.com from August 2016, through January 2018, for between $400 and $500.

      What to do

      Consumers should immediately stop using the recalled bicycles and return them to any IKEA store for a full refund.

      Consumers may contact IKEA toll-free at 888-966-4532 anytime or online at www.ikea-usa.com and click on Press Room at the bottom of the page, then on Product Recalls at the top of the page for more information.

      IKEA Supply of Switzerland is recalling about 5,100 SLADDA bicycles sold in the U.S. and Canada.The bicycle belt can break, posing a fall hazard.No...
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      Model year 2018 Hyundai Genesis G80 and Genesis G90 vehicles recalled

      The windshield and rear window may have been installed incorrectly

      Hyundai Motor America is recalling 37 model year 2018 Hyundai Genesis G80 and Genesis G90 vehicles.

      The windshield and rear window on these vehicles may have been installed with incorrect primer, potentially reducing the glass bonding strength.

      If the glass bonding strength is reduced over time, the windshield and rear window may detach while the vehicle is being driven, increasing the risk of a crash.

      What to do

      Hyundai will notify owners, and dealers will replace the front and rear glass, free of charge.

      The recall is expected to begin June 30, 2018. Owners may contact Hyundai customer service at 1-855-371-9460. Hyundai's number for this recall is 177.

      Hyundai Motor America is recalling 37 model year 2018 Hyundai Genesis G80 and Genesis G90 vehicles.The windshield and rear window on these vehicles may...
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      San Francisco subpoenas Uber, Lyft

      The city is seeking evidence on whether the companies are properly classifying employees

      On Tuesday, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera sent subpoenas to Uber and Lyft demanding that the companies provide records of how drivers are classified, as well as records on driver pay and benefits.

      Herrera wants to make sure the ride-hailing companies are honoring a California Supreme Court ruling which requires that companies prove that their drivers are lawfully classified as independent contractors or, if they don’t meet that criteria, are being provided with appropriate benefits, such as minimum wage, sick leave, health care, and paid parental leave.

      "San Francisco's laws help ensure that employers provide a fair day's wage for a fair day's work," Herrera said in a statement. "We are not going to turn a blind eye if companies in San Francisco deny workers their pay and benefits."

      Documentation requested

      The subpoenas seek a complete list of drivers who began or ended at least one ride in San Francisco from 2015 onward, as well as documentation on their hours, wages, health care payments, and other benefits they received. The city is also seeking documentation showing how the companies classify the employment status of those drivers.

      Because Uber and Lyft drivers are classified as independent contractors, the majority don’t get paid time off and have to pay for expenses such as gas and car maintenance. Treating drivers as contractors allows the companies to avoid paying for costs such as benefits, overtime, and insurance.

      However, a decision made last month by the California Supreme Court makes it harder for employers to classify their workers as independent contractors. In order to do so, businesses must now prove that the worker is not under their direct control, does not perform a core function of their business, and engages in “an independently established trade, occupation, or business.”

      A new definition of “employee”

      Herrera says that California is reshaping how the term “employee” is defined, and that regulators will ensure that companies like Uber and Lyft provide eligible workers with necessary benefits.

      “We don’t know whether these ride-hailing companies are breaking the law until they provide the information we seek in these subpoenas. We are going to ensure that these companies comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling and with San Francisco’s laws,” Herrera said.

      “We are going to ensure that these companies pay their drivers what they’ve earned."

      On Tuesday, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera sent subpoenas to Uber and Lyft demanding that the companies provide records of how drivers are clas...
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      FCC Republican asks Amazon and eBay to crack down on pirate TV boxes

      Regulators are looking to remove these illegal products from the marketplace

      Late last week, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly wrote a letter to both Amazon and eBay in which he asked the companies to strictly enforce FCC set-top box rules.

      Pirate TV boxes have been falsely displaying the FCC logo, and O’Rielly is looking to the companies to remove the boxes from their websites.

      O’Rielly -- who’s part of the FCC’s Republican majority -- believes the devices to be particularly problematic as they “are perpetrating intellectual property theft and consumer fraud.” In his letter, the commissioner notes that the FCC has internal responsibilities to remove the set-top boxes from the marketplace regardless of use; however, in partnering with Amazon and eBay, he believes there is greater opportunity to put an end to consumer purchases of the illegal products.

      The letter explains that the FCC logo is usually placed on electronics that are authorized by the FCC’s Supplier’s Declaration of Conformity, which is required for products to legally be marketed in the United States. Equipment authorization is mandatory for part 15 devices -- which includes set-top boxes -- and must either be on the box in a visible location or on an electronic label.

      “Disturbingly, some rogue set-top box manufacturers and distributors are exploiting the FCC’s trusted logo by fraudulently placing it on devices that have not been approved via the Commission’s equipment authorization process,” O’Rielly writes. “Specifically, nine set-top box distributors were referred to the FCC in October for enabling the unlawful streaming of copyrighted material, seven of which displayed the FCC logo, although there was no record of such compliance.”

      O’Rielly notes that Amazon and eBay are two of the main platforms sellers are utilizing to distribute their illegal products to consumers.

      “Although outside the jurisdiction of the Commission, it is equally troubling that many of these devices are being used to illegally stream copyrighted content, exacerbating theft of millions of dollars in American innovation and creativity,” he said.

      Amazon and eBay respond

      Amazon responded quickly to O’Rielly’s letter, reaffirming the company’s continued efforts to prevent the sale of these products. Amazon plans to further crack down should any devices continue to be sold on the website in the future.

      “In 2017, Amazon became the first online marketplace to prohibit the sale of streaming media players that promote or facilitate piracy,” Amazon Public Policy VP Brian Huseman wrote in a response to O’Rielly. “To prevent the sale of these devices, we proactively scan product listings for signs of potentially infringing products, and we also invest heavily in sophisticated, automated real-time tools to review a variety of data sources and signals to identify inauthentic goods.”

      Huseman also noted that Amazon would be happy to further collaborate with the FCC to remove any fraudulent products bearing an agency logo.“If any FCC non-compliant devices are identified, we seek to work with you to ensure they are not offered for sale,” he said.

      eBay also expressed a willingness to work with the FCC, as the company continues to try to end the sale of these illegal products.

      “As outlined in [O’Rielly’s] letter, eBay utilizes a variety of measures to prevent these products from being sold on our platform,” the company said in a statement. “These include proactive filtering and manual site reviews to identify illegal products, as well as taking action on direct referrals received from the FCC. We look forward to continuing to work in partnership with the FCC to keep these illegal products off our site.”

      Continued efforts moving forward

      O’Rielly admits that Amazon and eBay have made strong efforts to remove these illegal products from their marketplaces. However, moving forward, he is looking for “further cooperation” from both companies as they work with the FCC to prevent the sale of fraudulent goods.

      “Unfortunately, despite your good work in this area, devices continue to make it to consumers through your websites,” he said. “Many of these devices contain harmful malware that will most certainly be passed on to the consumer. Moreover, the consumer may unwittingly believe that the device is lawful since they were able to purchase it from a legitimate company.

      “If your company is made aware by the Commission, with supporting evidence, that a particular device is using a fraudulent FCC label or has not been appropriately certified and labeled with a valid FCC logo, I respectfully request that you commit to swiftly removing these products from your sites.”

      Late last week, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly wrote a letter to both Amazon and eBay in which he asked the companies to strictly enforce FCC set-top bo...
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      Bayer and Monsanto merger wins regulatory approval

      The deal will create the world’s biggest seeds and pesticides maker

      Bayer has won U.S. antitrust approval for its $66 billion takeover of Monsanto on the condition that it sells about $9 billion in agricultural businesses and assets, the Justice Department announced Tuesday.

      The deal, which the companies first announced in September 2016, has already received approval from regulators in the European Union, Russia, and Brazil. The DOJ approval was the last major regulatory hurdle in creating the largest seed and agricultural-chemicals provider in the world.

      The $9 billion divestiture package is the largest in a U.S. merger enforcement case, said Makan Delrahim, head of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division.

      Addresses antitrust concerns

      In its original form, the Bayer-Monsanto deal would likely have led to "higher prices, lower quality and fewer choices" for many seed and crop protection products, the DOJ said. It would also have "threatened to stifle the innovation in agricultural technologies that has delivered significant benefits to American farmers and consumers.”

      The revised deal "preserves competition in the sale of these critical agricultural products and protects American farmers and consumers," Delrahim said. “We commend the parties for working with the Antitrust Division to resolve our concerns on behalf of American consumers.”

      Under the proposed settlement, Bayer will sell its canola, soybean, and vegetable seed businesses, as well as its Liberty herbicide business, which competes with Monsanto’s Roundup. The company will also sell its digital farming business, as well as "certain intellectual property and research capabilities, including 'pipeline' R&D projects," according to the Justice Department.

      “Receipt of the DOJ’s approval brings us close to our goal of creating a leading company in agriculture,” Bayer CEO Werner Baumann said in a statement. “We want to help farmers across the world grow more nutritious food in a more sustainable way.”

      Corporate power

      Critics of the merger argue that the deal will place too much power in the hands of one agribusiness giant.

      “The Trump DOJ just waved through a merger that will consolidate the world’s food supply and agriculture industry into fewer hands. I hate to imagine the control Bayer-Monsanto will have over every farmer in the United States,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Ill).

      Bayer has defended the deal by saying Monsanto’s expertise in agriculture and seeds will help to increase agricultural productivity as the world’s population grows.

      "Farmers will benefit from a range of new, superior solutions aimed at helping to advance the next generation of farming and to address some of society's most pressing challenges," the company says on a website advocating for the settlement.

      Bayer has until June 14 to close its purchase of Monsanto. The company has said that it’s confident the deal will go through.

      Bayer has won U.S. antitrust approval for its $66 billion takeover of Monsanto on the condition that it sells about $9 billion in agricultural businesses a...
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      Realtors say home price increases 'not sustainable'

      Home prices are growing much faster than wages, one economist says

      There continues to be warnings about the state of the housing market. The latest warning comes from the real estate industry itself.

      Reacting to another reported rise in home prices in March, Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors (NAR), said the 6.5 percent increase in home prices “is simply not sustainable,” because prices are growing much faster than consumers' income.

      “From the cyclical low point in home prices six years ago, a typical home price has increased by 48 percent, while the average wage rate has grown by only 14%,” Yun said. “Rising interest rates also do not help with affordability.”

      The March price report from S&P/Case Shiller showed the 6.5 percent increase in home prices matched the price increase for February. The hottest real estate markets showed the biggest gains.

      Seattle, Las Vegas, and San Francisco once again reported the highest year-over-year gains among the 20 cities in the survey. In March, Seattle recorded a 13 percent year-over-year price increase, while Las Vegas had a 12.4 percent increase.

      Another housing bubble?

      The rapid increase in home prices has triggered warnings of another housing bubble, like the one that crashed the housing market in late 2008. However, there are important distinctions between the two.

      The early 2000s housing bubble was fueled by extremely relaxed mortgage lending standards, resulting in a huge increase in demand for housing, often from consumers with poor credit who got stuck with subprime mortgages. When millions of these subprime loans went into foreclosure, it triggered a financial crisis as well as a housing crisis.

      Today, the situation is very different. There is strong demand from well-qualified buyers, but a shortage of homes to purchase. This demand and supply imbalance is what is sending home prices skyrocketing.

      Unfortunately, the result could be the same. If home prices not only level off, but actually retreat, it could leave some consumers – who purchased their homes at the very top of the market – owing more than their homes are worth.

      No one is suggesting the result could be as catastrophic as a decade ago, but if you happen to be one of those who pay top dollar for your home, it certainly won't turn out to be a good investment.

      More homebuilding needed

      Yun says the way out of this situation is to increase the supply of homes for sale. The best way to do that, he says, is simply build more homes.

      “Homebuilding will be the key as to how the housing market performs in the upcoming years,” Yun said.

      Weakening demand could also help. If fewer people are competing to purchase homes, there is less upward pressure on home prices. There's evidence that might be happening.

      A new report from real estate brokerage firm Redfin shows its Housing Demand Index dropped 13 percent from March to April for the third consecutive monthly decline. Redfin chief economist Nela Richardson believes the drop in demand is directly tied to lower inventory levels. With fewer homes to choose from, more would-be homebuyers are resigning themselves to renting.

      There continues to be warnings about the state of the housing market. The latest warning comes from the real estate industry itself.Reacting to another...
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