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    PayPal launches Venmo-branded debit card

    Younger, millennial customers are Venmo’s target market

    Venmo has announced that it is launching a new MasterCard debit card that will allow users to make in-store and online payments with their Venmo balance.

    The card, which is issued by the Bancorp Bank, is being rolled out in an effort to expand Venmo’s monetization potential and help the company reach more younger consumers.

    The peer-to-peer payment app says that if a cardholder has a low balance, the card will reload using the user’s preferred funding source. Venmo says its new card will allow up to $400 in daily withdrawals. There’s a $2.50 fee to withdraw money from your Venmo account using an ATM, but no fee to make regular purchases.

    Card purchases will show up on a transaction history in the app, which will give users the ability to split charges among friends. Also within the app, users can deactivate the card when it’s misplaced and then reactivate it when it’s found.

    The card features a vertical design and comes in a choice of six colors -- yellow, pink, blue, green, black, and white. It has a chip for security and an icon near the chip that indicates support for contactless payments.

    Venmo says users can now “get in line” for the card, adding that it’s striving to quickly move people off the waitlist and process applications. There’s no fee to sign up for it, and it should arrive within 5 to 7 days after approval. The card can be used everywhere MasterCard is accepted, but only in the United States.  

    Last fall, PayPal added the ability for Venmo users to shop on the mobile web at almost everywhere PayPal is accepted. In the first quarter of this year, Venmo processed around $12 billion in payments.

    Venmo has announced that it is launching a new MasterCard debit card that will allow users to make in-store and online payments with their Venmo balance....
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    Wells Fargo Advisors settles improper trading charges

    The SEC says the bank pushed investment clients into multiple transactions to reap high fees

    Wells Fargo has agreed to a settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), resolving charges that its advisors unit engaged in misconduct in the sale of financial products, known as market-linked investments (MLI), to small investors.

    The SEC said its investigation found that the bank was able to charge large fees by encouraging its retail customers to actively trade the products, even though they are designed to be held until they mature.

    The SEC said that from 2009 to 2013, Wells Fargo Advisors improperly encouraged investors to sell MLIs before maturity, then invest the money in new MLIs. The bank assessed substantial fees on each transaction.

    $4 million penalty

    The bank agreed to pay a $4 million penalty and return money to investors. In a statement, Wells Fargo said it cooperated with the SEC investigation.

    The SEC said the improper activity took place despite bank policies that prohibited it. Investigators point to rules in place barring clients from engaging in short-term trading or "flipping" of assets, but they note that Wells Fargo supervisors routinely signed off on these transactions.

    “It is important that brokers do their homework before they recommend that their retail customers buy or sell complex structured products,” said Daniel Michael, Chief of the Enforcement Division’s Complex Financial Instruments Unit. “The products sold by Wells Fargo came with high fees and commissions, which Wells Fargo should have taken into account before advising retail customers to sell their investments and reinvest the proceeds in similar products.”

    Past transgressions

    This is far from the first time that Wells Fargo has run afoul of financial regulators. In September 2016, bank officials revealed that employees had opened checking and credit card accounts for millions of Wells Fargo customers without their knowledge or permission. The scandal ultimately resulted in a $185 million fine and dozens of lawsuits.

    In the last year, Wells Fargo has been under investigation by regulators and faced lawsuits for the way it conducted its auto loan and mortgages businesses. Last year, the bank faced a class action lawsuit by plaintiffs who said they were charged extra fees when their mortgage applications were denied, even when the denial was due to a bank error.

    The case revolved around rate-lock extension fees -- the fees borrowers pay to "lock in" an interest rate for a specific period of time, usually 30 to 45 days. If it takes longer than that for the loan to be approved, the borrower is charged an extra fee.

    Also in 2017, Wells Fargo revealed that 570,000 consumers who financed auto purchases through the bank may have been sold a collateral protection insurance (CPI) without their knowledge or consent.

    Wells Fargo has agreed to a settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), resolving charges that its advisors unit engaged in misconduct in...
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      New home sales jump in May

      But most of the gains were confined to one region

      Sales of new single-family houses rose sharply in May, an encouraging sign for the housing market as it continues to be plagued by a lower-than-normal inventory of available homes.

      In its monthly report, the U.S. Census Bureau said new home sales occurred at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 689,000. That's up 6.7 percent from April and is 14 percent higher than May 2017.

      The median sales price of new houses sold in May was $313,000, the lowest since April 2017. It suggests builders are offering more affordable homes, pulling down the median price. The average sales price was $368,500.

      Homebuilding is still occurring at about half the pace it was before the housing crash a decade ago. Builders say their costs have risen dramatically since then, which has forced them to focus on the high-end, luxury market.

      Better than expected report

      Tendayi Kapfidze, chief economist for LendingTree, says the May new home sales report was better than the market expected, but he notes that the improvement was limited to just one area of the country.

      "Sales gains were driven by the South," Kapfidze said in an email to ConsumerAffairs. "An increase of 17.9 percent month-over-month in the South accounted for all the gains. Other regions were lower or flat."

      Kapfidze says rising mortgage rates may have contributed to builders' lower-priced homes selling better than the luxury market. The share of home sales over $500,000 was 15 percent in May, the lowest since February 2015.

      Homebuilders have complained that their labor costs have risen sharply in recent years, while the cost of land has also gone up. They say that it makes it difficult to deliver a new home at a price that is affordable for the typical first-time homebuyer.

      The Census Bureau report shows that the inventory of new homes at the end of May was an estimated 299,000. That represents a supply of 5.2 months at the current sales rate, sharply higher than the 4.1-month inventory supply of existing homes.

      The National Association of Realtors (NAR) reported a 0.4 percent decline in existing home sales, with a median sale price of $264,800. It notes total inventory rose 2.8 percent for the month, but that figure was still 6.1 percent lower than a year ago.

      Sales of new single-family houses rose sharply in May, an encouraging sign for the housing market as it continues to be plagued by a lower-than-normal inve...
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      Bumbleride recalls Speed 3-wheel jogging stroller

      The stroller does not meet Canada's sharp edge requirements

      Bumble ride Inc., is recalling approximately 600 Bumbleride Speed 3-wheel jogging strollers.

      The stroller does not meet the sharp edge requirements of the Carriages and Strollers Regulations in Canada as the metal edge of the back hinge located on the right side can be sharp, posing a potential risk of cut or laceration.

      No incidents or injuries related to the use of the jogging stroller have been reported.

      This recall involves Bumbleride Speed 3-wheel jogging stroller. The affected models are folding jogging strollers with Bumbleride imprinted on upholstery in the base of the seat.

      The following model numbers are being recalled:

      Model NamePart NumberSKU Number

      Speed Matte Black

      SP-300BLK

      812812014447

      Speed Maritime Blue

      SP-300MB

      812812014492

      Speed Camp Green

      SP-300CG

      812812014485

      Speed Dawn Grey

      SP-300DG

      812812014454

      Speed Silver Black

      SP-300SVB

      812812014881

      The recalled product, manufactured in Taiwan, was sold throughout Canada between April 2016, and December 2017.

      What to do

      Customers who purchased the recalled product should immediately stop using it and contact Bumbleride Inc. or register on their website to receive a retrofit kit.

      Consumers with questions may contact Bumbleride at (800) 530-3930 between 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. (PT) Monday through Friday, or by email at info@bumbleride.com.

      Bumble ride Inc., is recalling approximately 600 Bumbleride Speed 3-wheel jogging strollers.The stroller does not meet the sharp edge requirements of t...
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      People's Sausage recalls jerky and meat sticks

      The products were prepared without an approved voluntary grant of inspection

      People’s Sausage of Los Angeles, Calif., is recalling approximately 13,554 pounds of elk, bison and beef jerky and meat sticks.

      The products were prepared without an approved voluntary grant of inspection.

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

      The following shelf-stable items, produced from May 3, 2016, through June 15, 2018, are being recalled:

      • 4-oz plastic bags containing “MONTRAIL BISON WILD STICKS Hot and Spicy” with a use by date from May 3, 2018 to June 15, 2020.
      • 3-oz plastic bags containing “MONTRAIL BISON LLC. Elk Jerky Lemon Chile” with a use by date from May 3, 2018 to June 15, 2020.
      • 3-oz plastic bags containing “MONTRAIL BISON LLC. Elk Jerky Teriyaki” with a use by date from May 3, 2018 to June 15, 2020.
      • 3-oz plastic bags containing “MONTRAIL BISON Elk Jerky Sweet and Spicy” with a use by date from May 3, 2018 to June 15, 2020.
      • 3-oz plastic bags containing “MONTRAIL BISON Elk Jerky Old Fashioned” with a use by date from May 3, 2018 to June 15, 2020.
      • 3-oz plastic bags containing “MONTRAIL BISON LLC. Bison Jerky Lemon Chile” with a use by date from May 3, 2018 to June 15, 2020.
      • 3-oz plastic bags containing “MONTRAIL BISON LLC. Bison Jerky Teriyaki” with a use by date from May 3, 2018 to June 15, 2020.
      • 3-oz plastic bags containing “MONTRAIL BISON LLC. Bison Jerky Sweet and Spicy” with a use by date from May 3, 2018 to June 15, 2020.
      • 3-oz plastic bags containing “MONTRAIL BISON LLC. Bison Jerky Old Fashioned” with a use by date from May 3, 2018 to June 15, 2020.

      The recalled products bearing establishment number “EST. 4160” inside the triangle shaped USDA mark of inspection, were shipped to retail locations in Montana.

      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 Mark Bianchetti at (213) 627-8633.

      People’s Sausage of Los Angeles, Calif., is recalling approximately 13,554 pounds of elk, bison and beef jerky and meat sticks.The products were prepar...
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      Security researcher says breaking into locked iPhone not that hard

      Apple disagrees, calling the testing 'incorrect'

      Apple's security for its locked iPhones is said to be ironclad, but a cybersecurity expert says it can be circumvented, as long as you have a Lightning cable connecting the phone to a computer.

      As a security feature, an iPhone can only be unlocked if you enter the correct password, and to prevent someone from guessing, the device only gives a user 10 tries. After that, a user is locked out, sometimes permanently.

      The issue was in the news a couple of years ago after police seized the iPhone belonging to a man who murdered co-workers attending a holiday party in San Bernardino, Calif. Apple refused to unlock the phone, forcing authorities to turn to outside experts in an effort to crack the device.

      'Brute force'

      According to Matthew Hickey, a security expert and co-founder of Hacker House, a cybersecurity firm, it's not that hard to open a locked iPhone using a "brute force" method. In a series of tweets, Hickey said that if you connect the phone to a computer using a Lightning cable and enter passwords using the keyboard, instead of typing directly on the phone, you can enter an unlimited number of passwords with no adverse consequences.

      When technology websites began reporting this over the weekend, Apple responded, saying it's not true. Technology site Engadget reports an Apple spokesperson as saying the phones have no vulnerability and the claim that they do is "the result of incorrect testing."

      Hickey, meanwhile, posted a video on Vimeo, demonstrating his methods of cracking an iPhone.

      Apple's security for its locked iPhones is said to be ironclad, but a cybersecurity expert says it can be circumvented, as long as you have a Lightning cab...
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      AT&T managers allegedly encouraged unethical DirecTV Now sales pitches

      Former employees say they were pushed to trick customers into purchasing subscriptions

      Former AT&T employees are speaking out against the company for allegedly pushing unethical sales practices on its sales teams in hopes of getting customers to subscribe to its streaming service, DirecTV Now. The groups says that consumers paid for unexpected services once they were subscribed. The company’s subscription service currently has 1.46 million subscribers.

      According to an investigative report by Hawaii News Now, employees were getting fired for engaging in the very practices that upper management had been encouraging.

      The report details how sales representatives would offer customers a trial service of DirecTV Now and promise to cancel the subscription for the customer prior to the automatic renewal that would cost $35 per month. Cancelling the trial for customers goes against AT&T’s policy, but employees were urged to go ahead with the practice.

      “We were told by managers to cancel it to avoid any future headaches, but a lot slips through the cracks,” said Abraham Buonya, a former AT&T employee and Hawaii’s leading AT&T salesman for two years.

      Getting into trouble

      Though encouraged by upper management to cancel subscriptions -- even though it was against policy -- many AT&T employees say they didn’t always cancel customers’ subscriptions, leading to charges of $35 per month. Some subscribers were paying the $35 for up to seven months, despite not ever using the DirecTV Now subscription.

      In some cases, AT&T sales representatives would allegedly sign a customer up for three DirecTV Now subscriptions on one single account.

      All of this supposedly occurred while AT&T was running a promotion that gave customers the DirecTV subscription for just $10. However, AT&T’s system allowed employees to sign up a single customer for three individual subscriptions on one credit card, thus increasing the total number of subscriptions and meeting the quota placed on AT&T retailers.

      “My manager picked up my iPad, which was signed in under me, made a fake email and then activated a DirecTV Now subscription on the email and then said if I can do it, here you go, you can do the next one,” a fired AT&T employee told Hawaii News Now.

      The former employees say retailers used a similar tactic when customers came in to buy a new phone. Sales representatives would tell the customers that the purchase carried a fee, even though it didn’t. The fee could be waived, however, if the customer agreed to sign up for a trial of DirecTV Now. The trial -- which was $10 -- cost less than the fee, and customers would oftentimes agree to try the service.

      “Last fall, we detected some simultaneous customer orders and cancellations of a free product trial,” an AT&T spokesperson told Hawaii News Now. “We determined some employees had violated our policies and based on our findings we took appropriate action.”

      Why was this so important?

      Because of the tight competition amongst AT&T retailers nationwide, many stores allegedly felt compelled to go to great -- even unethical -- lengths to be the top store. Phones don’t pull in as much of a revenue for AT&T, and so TV sales are an important part of day-to-day transactions.

      Hawaii had been one of the top DirecTV Now subscription sellers in the country, though an employee who asked to remain anonymous said that roughly 90 percent of those sales were done unethically.

      Buonya reported that goals for stores “would be met” no matter how lofty they seemed to employees.

      “They kept pressuring us to do it,” Buonya said. Buonya was among five people at his store that were fired.

      Both current and former AT&T employees are encouraging customers to be extra diligent when reviewing their statements. The phone company also reported they will be reversing unauthorized charges for customers that were affected by these sales tactics.

      “Check your statements,” a current employee said. “I have no doubt that there are still people that are being charged.”

      Former AT&T employees are exposing the company for pushing unethical sales practices on its sales teams in the hope of getting customers to subscribe to i...
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      Party City chain to open ‘pop-up’ Toy City stores

      There will be 50 locations to start, all alongside Halloween City sites

      Party City, the largest party goods retailer in North America, is hoping to fill the void left by the collapse of Toys 'R' Us.

      The company’s strategy will be built around the concept of "pop-up" locations, a trend of opening short-term sales spaces. There will be 50 temporary Toy City sites starting in September 2018, all alongside the retail chain’s existing Halloween City pop-up stores. At present, the chain’s intent is to have the stores open through the holiday season.

      "Party City is the unmatched leader when it comes to relevant product offerings for everyday occasions and seasonal celebrations, and we’re always looking for opportunities to enhance these assortments for our customers," said James M. Harrison, Party City’s CEO.

      "The creation of a Toy City concept to complement our temporary seasonal retail strategy is a logical extension of our brand; one that will allow us to leverage our existing pop-up store capabilities and capitalize on the category whitespace that has recently been created."

      Concurrent to the pop-up locations, Party City is also expanding its toy line through its online store.

      The pop-up concept continues to grow

      Pop-up shops have been around for centuries in one form or another, but it only began to gain traction in the last 10 years.

      Some -- like Party City’s Halloween City -- are seasonal and most are in empty spaces where short-term leases can be had at an attractive price. Other retailers use the temporary space to test products or spur a marketing buzz.

      The pop-up idea is estimated to be a $50 billion industry. Much of the concept’s pay-off is attributed to millennials, who are only the largest demographic segment in the U.S., but who’ve also demonstrated a fondness for the pop-up experience.

      Party City, the largest party goods retailer in North America, is hoping to fill the void left by the collapse of Toys 'R' Us.The company’s strategy wi...
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      Consumers are spending more for used cars

      The average transaction price was $19,657 in the first quarter

      Even though a near record number of cars are hitting the used car market this year, used car prices have never been higher.

      Edmunds, an automotive publisher, reports the average transaction price (ATP) for a used car in the first quarter was $19,657, up 2.2 percent from the same period a year ago.

      That doesn't mean the price of all used cars went up, it only shows that consumers are choosing to purchase more expensive used cars. In this case, it might be because the market is top-heavy with three year old models coming off leases.

      "Used-car shoppers are typically more price-sensitive to changes in the market, but this is the first time in years that we're seeing renewed demand for smaller vehicles," said Ivan Drury, senior manager of industry analysis at Edmunds. "With rising fuel costs breathing fresh air into this segment, subcompact and compact cars are finally retaining value again."

      Trucks and SUVs still popular

      But there is still strong demand for SUVs and trucks, mainly because newer models are much more fuel efficient than vehicles from a decade ago.

      "For now, SUV and truck segments are insulated from rising fuel costs, but a large spike or steady creep past the $4 a gallon threshold could spell disaster for resale values," Drury said.

      As trucks and SUVs became more popular in the recent era of low gasoline prices, small sedans have seen much slower sales. But Edmunds says that has begun to change in 2018, and as a result the prices of these vehicles have bounced off their lows.

      Small sedans are more expensive now

      The average price for a three year-old compact car has increased by 3.9 percent, and time spent on the lot has decreased by 7 percent in the first quarter of 2018, compared to the first quarter of 2017. Subcompact prices have increased by 3 percent, with time on the lot declining by 8.5 percent.

      While consumers were willing to pay more for a used car in first quarter, they also bought more of them, defying predictions that auto sales would decline in the "sharing" economy. So far, there's no sign of that.

      The sales of 10.57 million used cars sales in the first three months of 2018 was the highest for the period, going back to 2013.

      Even though a near record number of cars are hitting the used car market this year, used car prices have never been higher.Edmunds, an automotive publi...
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      Uber appeals licensing ban in London

      The company is seeking to have its license to operate in London restored

      Uber is fighting to keep its license to operate in London after its bid to renew its license in the British capital was denied last fall. The ride-hailing company will appear in Westminster Magistrates' Court on Monday to appeal the decision.

      In September, the Transport for London regulatory agency rejected Uber’s application to renew its license to operate in London. The agency argued that Uber London Limited "demonstrated a lack of corporate responsibility" in how it reports serious incidents.

      Based on its shortcomings in the arena of public safety and security, the agency declared that the company is not “fit and proper to hold a private hire operator licence.”

      Uber claims to have changed

      Since then, Uber has implemented a number of changes to its business model, including reporting crimes directly to police and controlling drivers' working hours.

      “Over the past year we’ve been working hard to put right past mistakes as we’ve gone through a much-needed period of reflection and change,” Uber’s UK general manager Tom Elvidge wrote in the London Evening Standard newspaper.

      “Our new global CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, is establishing a new culture and direction for the company from the top, while in the UK we’ve brought in three experienced independent directors to help us stay on the right track. If there are times when we fall short, we are committed to being open, taking responsibility for the problem, and fixing it.”

      The court hearing kicks off today and is expected to last several days. Uber has been allowed to operate normally in London during the appeal process.

      Uber is fighting to keep its license to operate in London after its bid to renew its license in the British capital was denied last fall. The ride-hailing...
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      More oil from OPEC could mean lower prices at the pump

      But rising demand could limit how far prices will fall

      A month ago, the national average gasoline price was pennies away from $3 a gallon. However, the cost of fuel has dropped in the last four weeks, and an OPEC decision could send prices even lower.

      The member nations of the oil cartel have voted to increase oil production by 1 million barrels a day to meet growing demand. As a result, world oil prices have begun falling, lowering the costs for refiners who turn oil into gasoline.

      While that's good news for consumers, Patrick DeHaan, Head of Petroleum Analysis at GasBuddy, said gas prices may not respond immediately.

      "Perhaps eventually, but it will take time for oil production to rise, so in this case we may not see that additional oil until the second half of the summer at best," DeHaan told ConsumerAffairs. "I wouldn’t expect much change just yet."

      Uncertainty remains

      That's because there remains some uncertainty over how much extra oil refiners will see. The 1 million barrels a day is a target, but analysts say not all members will be able to meet it. At the same time, U.S. oil producers are expanding production to take advantage of higher prices.

      OPEC said over the weekend that it could increase production even more than what has been announced in an effort to keep rising energy costs from damaging the world economy.

      Despite recent high prices for oil and the increase in demand for gasoline, motorists have gotten some relief at the gas pump in recent weeks. The AAA Fuel Gauge Survey shows the national average price of regular gasoline is $2.84 a gallon, down from $2.89 a week ago and 12 cents lower than a month ago.

      In a statement, AAA said the long-term outlook for consumers is positive. With the increase in crude production, AAA says crude oil prices are expected to decrease, and in turn, lower the cost of producing refined products, including gasoline.

      A month ago, the national average gasoline price was pennies away from $3 a gallon. However, the cost of fuel has dropped in the last four weeks, and an OP...
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      Italian Center Shop brand ground veal recalled

      The product may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7

      Messinger Meats of Red Deer, Alberta, Canada, is recalling Italian Center Shop brand ground veal.

      The product may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

      There have been no reported illnesses associated with the consumption of this product.

      Italian Center Shop, sold in Alberta, Canada, is being recalled:

      Common NameCode(s) on ProductUPC
      Veal –Ground Alberta 13095

      Best before MA.28.18
      Packed on MA.07.18

      Best before JN.04.18
      Packed on MA.14.18

      Starts with 0 213095

      What to do

      Customers who purchased the recalled product, should not consume it, but discard it or return it to the store where purchased.

      Consumers with questions may contact the company at (587) 273-3838.

      Messinger Meats of Red Deer, Alberta, Canada, is recalling Italian Center Shop brand ground veal.The product may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7....
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      Report: Uber safety driver was watching Hulu just before fatal Arizona crash

      Tempe, Ariz., police report calls the accident 'entirely avoidable'

      Police in Tempe, Ariz., have released a report finding that the safety driver behind the wheel of a self-driving Uber, which struck and killed a pedestrian, was streaming a Hulu program on her phone just before impact.

      The report says the crash that claimed the life of Elaine Herzberg, who was walking her bicycle across a roadway, was "entirely avoidable."

      A preliminary report found that the sensors in the self-driving car saw Herzberg in the road but did not recognize her as something to be avoided. Therefore, the car did not slow down or take evasive action. Police say the safety driver could have done so.

      Watching The Voice

      As part of their investigation, police obtained the records from Hulu and found driver Rafaela Vasquez was streaming an episode of the reality TV show The Voice up until the moment of the crash. Because police determined that the accident could have been avoided had Vasquez been watching the road, they say the driver could face vehicular manslaughter charges.

      So far, Uber has not issued a public statement on the police report. Neither Vasquez nor her attorney have commented on the report.

      The accident in March sent a shockwave through the autonomous car industry. As a result, Uber suspended its testing of self-driving vehicles in its fleet.

      Uber moved its fleet of self-driving cars to Arizona in late 2016 because the company argued it should not have to comply with California self-driving car regulations. At the time, Arizona rules were much more lenient.

      California also requires companies to report all crashes involving their test cars. The information is then published on the California DMV website.

      In compiling its report, the Tempe police relied on several sources of information. Among them is video footage from inside the vehicle.

      Video footage

      The report says the footage shows Vasquez was looking down for much of the trip, reacting to something she was seeing. The report described her as "distracted and looking down" for about a third of the time before the car hit the pedestrian.

      While autonomous cars are being promoted as a way to make the highways safer, a number of consumer and safety groups worry they are being rushed onto the road without proper testing.

      Last fall, a coalition of safety groups voiced opposition to legislation to speed up autonomous vehicle testing on public roads, saying the legislation exempts autonomous car makers from many federal safety standards.

      Currently, only 2,500 vehicles are exempt from Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), since they are being tested. Under the proposed bill, they said that number jumps to 50,000 in the first year and then 100,000 in year three.

      Police in Tempe, Ariz., have released a report finding that the safety driver behind the wheel of a self-driving Uber, which struck and killed a pedestrian...
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      In Obamacare suit, Jeff Sessions calls for return of 'discriminatory premium rates'

      The Trump administration is asking a federal judge to invalidate the protection for pre-existing conditions

      The Trump administration is planning to drop health insurance protections for consumers with pre-existing health conditions, according to legal filings signed off on by the Department of Justice (DOJ).

      Texas and nearly a dozen other Republican states have been fighting the Affordable Care Act since Obama was in office and filed a new lawsuit in February once again attempting to strike the law down.

      In a legal brief filed in mid-June in response to the ongoing lawsuit, the DOJ agreed with the states, at least when it comes to gutting what is perhaps Obamacare’s most popular provision, the mandate that prevents health insurers from charging consumers higher rates if they have “pre-existing conditions.”

      The DOJ’s legal brief, which is just the start of a lengthy policy battle, requests that the federal district judge in Texas presiding over the case invalidate pricing protections for people with pre-existing conditions. But the DOJ’s filing also asks District Judge Reed O’Connor to refrain from making a decision on the matter until January 2019, safely after the midterm elections this fall.

      While the federal government typically defends its own laws when it is sued, Sessions said in a public letter to Speaker Paul Ryan that he wants to eliminate regulations "prohibiting discriminatory premium rates” and other Obamacare mandates, framing it as a money-saving measure for consumers.  “...otherwise individuals could wait until they become sick to purchase insurance, thus driving up premiums for everyone else,” Sessions wrote.

      Driving up costs

      But experts say that discriminatory pricing only serves to prevent people from getting covered. Allowing health insurers to once again charge people more for experiencing conditions that range from diabetes to pregnancy could cause 52 million Americans to drop their health insurance, according to a 2016 analysis by the Kaiser Family Health Foundation.

      People who viciously fought the Affordable Care Act when Obama was in office are now protesting the DOJ’s decision. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Health Committee, told Politico that Sessions’ arguments against protections for patients with pre-existing conditions are "as far-fetched as any I've ever heard."

      A bipartisan group of state governors on Monday sent a letter to Trump calling for continued protections for consumers, urging his office to “reverse their decision and instead work with Congress and Governors on bipartisan solutions to protect coverage and lower health care costs for all Americans, all while protecting those with preexisting conditions.”

      Even Americans Health Insurance Plans, the lobbying group that represents the health insurance industry, appears hesitant to be allowed to return to its old ways. The group told The Houston Chronicle that “removing those provisions will result in renewed uncertainty in the individual market.”

      However, the industry does not plan to lower rates in response to the news. Instead, health insurers claim that this “uncertainty” will cause  “rates to go even higher for older Americans and sicker patients, and make it challenging to introduce products and rates for 2019.”

      The Trump administration is planning to drop health insurance protections for consumers with pre-existing health conditions, according to legal filings sig...
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      The Weekly Hack: In Australia, a paperless real estate transaction may have cost a woman her house

      On futuristic payment platforms, homeowners and cryptocurrency traders watch their money disappear

      Australia is currently in the process of rolling out a new law that requires all real estate transactions -- from mortgage payments to home sales -- to go paperless.

      The online-only property exchange and payment system is run by a company called Property Exchange Australia (PEXA), which is either a government-sponsored monopoly or an important disrupter and leader of the digital revolution, depending on who you talk to.

      But like other digital “disruptors,” the PEXA platform may not be as secure as the company would like the public to believe. Dani Venn, an Australian woman and a former contestant on the reality show MasterChef, recently lost $250,000 after hackers stole the funds she had earned from selling her home.

      Venn had planned to use the proceeds to purchase a new house. Instead, hackers somehow intercepted the payment, leaving the family homeless for the time being.

      PEXA is reportedly trying to help the family, but the company is also denying that it bears any responsibility or liability in relation to the theft. In an interview with a local newspaper, the company claimed that the hacker had gained access to the victim’s money because of a hack on her email account rather than attacking the PEXA system itself.

      But Venn does not buy that story. “I feel I want to pull out all my money from the bank. I don’t trust these big corporations. They don’t care about ordinary Australians,” she told the Sydney-Morning Herald.

      The theft comes just several weeks after another homeowner reported losing more than $1 million from the PEXA system. Independent property brokers in Australia told the paper that the PEXA system does not require users to verify their identity thoroughly enough.

      South Korean cryptocurrency market

      Repeated hacks are taking their toll on the cryptocurrency market. Less than two weeks after a multimillion dollar cryptocurrency theft in South Korea sent the value of Bitcoin tumbling worldwide, a different trading platform in South Korea reported falling victim to a similar attack.

      The South Korean cryptocurrency exchange Bithumb on Wednesday announced that about $31.5 million worth of its virtual coins had been stolen. Bithumb, which is the world’s sixth largest cryptocurrency trading platform, promised to compensate all affected customers.

      Still, a refund for victims doesn’t address the underlying security problem facing crypto-traders. “No security measures or regulations can 100% guarantee safety of virtual coins,” a security expert told the Guardian. “It is held anonymously and in lightly secured systems, which makes them an irresistible target.”

      Bitcoin’s value has so far remained steady following the more recent hack, hovering above $6,000.  

      Military contractors

      A group of hackers based in China are going after military contractors in the United States and Southeast Asia, according to the security firm Symantec. The hackers appeared to be interested in learning how affected companies operate.

      Symantec's report follows a Washington Post story last week detailing how a group of hackers backed by the Chinese government accessed 600 gigabytes worth of data that belonged to a United States Navy contractor. The hackers collected declassified but sensitive data, including information on a supersonic missile project, according to the FBI, which is now investigating the breach.

      Though troubling, this has hardly been the worst hack on a government contractor. The news once again highlights security holes that even companies that do military business are apparently not patching.

      Australia is currently in the process of rolling out a new law that requires all real estate transactions -- from mortgage payments to home sales -- to go...
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      Supreme Court rules police need warrant to track your phone location

      Proponents say the decision is a major win for consumer privacy

      The Supreme Court ruled on Friday that law enforcement must obtain a search warrant to get access to cell phone location information.

      The 5-4 decision was written by Chief Justice John Roberts, who sided with the court’s four other liberal judges.

      The decision is seen as a victory by advocates of increased privacy rights, who argued that protections were needed when the government gets involved with a third party -- like a phone provider -- to obtain information.

      This is seen as a loss by the Justice Department, which argued that an individual’s privacy rights are diminished when it comes to information that has been voluntarily shared with others.

      The background

      The ruling follows a contentious ruling regarding a series of armed robberies that occurred in 2010 and 2011.

      The police got a court order to get access to 127 days of cell phone tracking for a suspect named Timothy Carpenter. The location information found on Carpenter’s phone matched the robbery locations, and that information was used to convict him.

      However, Carpenter appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court on the grounds that the police need to first obtain a warrant before getting his location from a cell-phone provider, as is stated in the Constitution.

      Rather than obtain a warrant, which would have required the police to prove to a judge there was probable cause to believe the phone records contained evidence, the police opted to obtain a court order under the Stored Communications Act.

      “The government’s position fails to contend with the seismic shifts in digital technology that made possible the tracking of not only Carpenter’s location, but also everyone else’s, not for a short period of time, but for years and years,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote.

      Present day

      Because of limited technologies seven years ago, the information used at Carpenter’s trial wasn’t as precise as location information taken off phones today. It didn’t log where he was when his phone wasn’t in use or where he was when he sent texts. Police personnel were able to see his location where he made phone calls within a mile to two miles, which worked in their favor in terms of the robberies.

      Last November when this case made its way to the Supreme Court, justices were conflicted on whether they wanted to break with the third-party doctrine, which states that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy when an individual shares information with a third party (phone provider). Under this doctrine, police wouldn’t need a search warrant to obtain the pertinent information.

      However, many justices have noted the stark differences in technology from when these laws were written to the present day. Chief Justice Roberts noted that allowing government access to historical GPS data represented an infringement of Carpenter’s Fourth Amendment Rights.  

      “This is a groundbreaking victory for Americans’ privacy rights in the digital age,” said ACLU attorney Nathan Freed Wessler. “The Supreme Court has given privacy law an update that it has badly needed for many years, finally bringing it in line with the realities of modern life. The government can no longer claim that the mere act of using technology eliminates the Fourth Amendment’s protections.”

      The Supreme Court ruled on Friday that law enforcement must obtain a search warrant to get access to cell phone location information.The 5-4 decision w...
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      Four cups of coffee daily may improve heart health

      A study of mice finds that caffeine can protect heart cells from damage and help them to repair

      A new study finds that drinking four cups of coffee daily could set off a sequence of internal events that could boost heart health, especially in older adults.

      Researchers from Heinrich-Heine-University and the IUF-Leibniz Research Institute for Environmental Medicine in Düsseldorf, Germany found that caffeine levels equivalent to around four cups of coffee protected against heart damage in pre-diabetic, obese mice, and in aged mice.  

      The study of mice found that caffeine induced the movement of a regulatory protein called p27 into mitochondria, which set off certain physiological events that are crucial to enhancing the function of heart cells as well as helping in heart attack recovery.

      Reached in humans by drinking four cups of coffee

      The study authors found that p27 -- an enzyme that normally slows cell division -- promoted migration of endothelial cells into mitochondria, which ultimately helped to protect heart muscle cells from cell death. It also triggered the conversion of fibroblasts into cells containing contractile fibers.

      These tasks are vital to the repair of heart muscle following a heart attack, the researchers explained.  

      "Our results indicate a new mode of action for caffeine, one that promotes protection and repair of heart muscle through the action of mitochondrial p27," said lead author Professor Judith Haendeler, adding that "enhancing mitochondrial p27 could serve as a potential therapeutic strategy not only in cardiovascular diseases but also in improving health span."

      "These results should lead to better strategies for protecting heart muscle from damage, including consideration of coffee consumption or caffeine as an additional dietary factor in the elderly population," Haendeler said.

      The study has been published in the journal PLOS Biology.

      A new study finds that drinking four cups of coffee daily could set off a sequence of internal events that could boost heart health, especially in older ad...
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      Delta Air Lines updates its policy regarding service and support animals

      Other carriers make similar changes following recent incidents

      Beginning July 10, Delta’s new policy regarding support animals will limit each customer to one animal. At the same time, Delta also instituted a ban against pit bull type dogs as service or support animals.

      This move punctuates Delta’s recent policy change that requires passengers flying with service animals to sign a statement that their animal is healthy and well-behaved before they can board a flight.

      "The safety and security of Delta people and our customers is always our top priority," said Gil West, Chief Operating Officer, in the company’s statement on the policy change. "We will always review and enhance our policies and procedures to ensure that Delta remains a leader in safety."

      "Ignoring the true intent of existing rules governing the transport of service and support animals can be a disservice to customers who have real and documented needs," the company added.

      Recent incidents in which several employees were bitten and an increasing number of fliers who insist their pets are service or emotional support animals has become a sore point for airlines. Not only has Delta’s policy changed, but similar changes have been implemented by American Airlines and United Airlines.

      What qualifies as a service animal?

      Delta says it’s had its hands full with what passengers claim to be "comfort" animals. It claims to have seen passengers attempting to fly with turkeys, gliding possums, snakes, and even spiders.

      The Department of Transportation defines a "service animal" under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) as "any animal that is individually trained or able to provide assistance to a person with a disability; or any animal that assists persons with disabilities by providing emotional support." The agency created the below video to explain further and provide more information.

      Legally, airlines have the right to ask for documentation to prove that an animal is an emotional support animal. The specifics of that documentation might vary from airline to airline, but according to US Service Animals, passengers should expect to provide proof from a licensed doctor or mental health professional stating that the animal is an essential part of treatment for a disability.

      Beginning July 10, Delta’s new policy regarding support animals will limit each customer to one animal. At the same time, Delta also instituted a ban again...
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