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    Robocalls don’t just target American consumers

    A new report shows calls are up 325 percent on a global basis

    Spam robocalls are not just an annoyance for U.S. consumers. A new report by Hiya, a call-blocking app company, shows it’s a global problem.

    The company’s first Global Robocall Radar Report, released at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, estimates that machine-generated spam calls grew 325 percent to 85 billion worldwide. The report was compiled using an analysis of more than 12 billion calls per month worldwide.

    It found that Spain, the UK, Italy, France, Argentina, and the United States receive the lion’s share of these nuisance, and often fraudulent, calls.

    “As spam calls continue to skyrocket globally, the demand for protection from unwanted phone calls has increased drastically,” said Alex Algard, CEO of Hiya. “By combining industry-leading call spam detection with a solution that ensures calls from legitimate businesses are properly identified, it's our mission to make sure everyone across the world can confidently answer their phone again."

    In the U.S., Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai has delivered an ultimatum to mobile carriers to find ways the shield their customers from robocalls or face potential regulations that will do it for them.

    Crackdown on spoofing

    In November, Pai said he wants the industry to find a way to authenticate incoming calls so that scammers can't “spoof” other phone numbers to disguise where the call is originating. Pai has named stopping illegal robocalls as the agency's top consumer priority. But while preventing “spoofing,” may be helpful, it won’t prevent the calls from being made.

    Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in Congress have also pledged to work in a show of rare bipartisanship to adopt legislation that will also stop robocalls directed at consumers.

    It might come as a surprise to U.S. cell phone customers, but the U.S. is number six on the list of nations getting the most robocalls. According to the Hiya report, Spain is the global leader in these spam calls, with the average cell phone customer in that country getting nine robocalls a month, a spam rate of 24 percent.

    The UK is next, with an average of seven robocalls per month per mobile customer and a spam rate of 22 percent. Italy is third with an average of six calls per user per month and a spam rate of 21 percent.

    In sixth place, the average American cell phone user gets seven robocalls per month with a spam rate of 10 percent.

    Spam robocalls typically are trying to sell something of dubious value, and some are outright scams. Among the current robocalls bombarding U.S. consumers are pitches for worthless health insurance and enticements to purchase timeshares.

    Spam robocalls are not just an annoyance for U.S. consumers. A new report by Hiya, a call-blocking app company, shows it’s a global problem.The company...
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      Model year 2018 Lexus LS 500/500h vehicles recalled

      A crack could develop on the sidewall reinforcement layer of the tires

      Toyota is recalling about 6,300 model year 2018 Lexus LS 500/500h vehicles with run-flat tires.

      Because the tires were assembled to the wheels improperly, a crack could develop on the sidewall reinforcement layer of the tires.

      Under certain driving conditions, portions of the tire tread layer could separate, causing a reduction of vehicle stability and increasing the risk of a crash.

      What to do

      Toyota will notify owners and dealers will replace all four tires with new ones at no charge to customers if one or more tire(s) are run-flat tire(s) manufactured by a specific tire supplier.

      The recall is expected to begin in late April.

      Owners may contact Lexus at (800) 255-3987.

      Toyota is recalling about 6,300 model year 2018 Lexus LS 500/500h vehicles with run-flat tires.Because the tires were assembled to the wheels improperl...
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      Mercedes-Benz recalls GLC63 AMG Coupes, GLC63S AMG Coupes and GLC63s

      The front airbag may have a delayed deployment for unbelted front seat passengers

      Mercedes-Benz USA (MBUSA) is recalling 779 model year 2018-2019 Mercedes-Benz GLC63 AMG Coupes, GLC63S AMG Coupes, and GLC63s.

      In the event of a crash, the front airbag may have a delayed deployment for certain unbelted front seat passengers, increasing the risk of injury.

      What to do

      MBUSA has notified owners, and dealers will update the air bag control unit software parameters, free of charge.

      An interim letter was mailed to owners on February 8, 2019 to notify them of the issue. A second notification will be sent when the remedy is available.

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

      Mercedes-Benz USA (MBUSA) is recalling 779 model year 2018-2019 Mercedes-Benz GLC63 AMG Coupes, GLC63S AMG Coupes, and GLC63s.In the event of a crash,...
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      BMW recalls model year 2007 through 2014 X series vehicles

      The passenger front airbag inflator may explode

      BMW of North America is recalling 83,016 model year 2007-2013 X5 xDrive30i, X5 xDrive35i, X5 xDrive48i, X5 xDrive50i & X5 M vehicles; model year model year 2008-2014 X6 xDrive35i, X6 xDrive50i & X6 M vehicles; model year 2009-2013 X5 xDrive35d vehicles and model year 2010-2011 X6 ActiveHybrids.

      The vehicles are equipped with airbag inflators assembled as part of the passenger front air bag modules used as original equipment or replacement equipment.

      In the event of a crash necessitating deployment, these inflators may explode due to propellant degradation occurring after long-term exposure to absolute humidity and temperature cycling.

      An inflator explosion may result in sharp metal fragments striking the driver or other occupants resulting in serious injury or death.

      What to do

      BMW will notify owners, and dealers will replace the passenger front airbag module, free of charge.

      The recall is expected to begin March 4, 2019.

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

      BMW of North America is recalling 83,016 model year 2007-2013 X5 xDrive30i, X5 xDrive35i, X5 xDrive48i, X5 xDrive50i & X5 M vehicles; model year model year...
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      Congress once again takes up high drug prices

      Pharmaceutical CEOs will appear before Senate panel

      The U.S. Senate is holding hearings today to investigate drug prices in hopes of learning why they keep going up.

      Lawmakers on the Senate Finance Committee have called the CEOs of major pharmaceutical firms to testify and shed light on how drugs are developed and marketed. You may remember lawmakers went through a similar exercise two and a half years ago.

      After Mylan Pharmaceutical significantly raised the price of its EpiPen injector over just a few years, lawmakers called company CEO Heather Bresch to explain why the severe allergy antidote went from $109 to $600 in nine years.

      During her testimony, Bresch blamed the way drugs are priced in the U.S., citing the Wholesale Acquisition Cost, or WAC.

      Doing the math

      “The WAC for a 2 unit pack of EpiPen AutoInjectors is $608, Bresch told lawmakers. “After rebates and various fees, Mylan actually receives $274. Then you must subtract our cost of goods which is $69. This leaves a balance of $205. After subtracting all EpiPen Auto-Injector related costs our profit is $100, or approximately $50 per pen.”

      Since then, there has been a lot of talk about drug prices but not a lot of action. In January, many drug companies started 2019 by announcing price hikes on scores of prescription drugs, ignoring White House pressure not to.

      Allergan raised list prices on 51 drugs at the start of the new year. The prices of about 27 of its key medications saw a 9.5 percent increase, while the rest saw a 4.9 percent increase, well above the rate of inflation.

      Drugmakers have blamed the rebates and discounts they must give to middlemen for increasing medication costs but said some of those rebates could be returned to patients.

      Doctors and other healthcare professionals have led the campaign to lower prescription drug costs because they see first hand the impact it has on their patients. They say some patients don’t fill their prescriptions because of the cost.

      Doctors speaking up

      In 2015 doctors at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center concluded that most of the preferred drugs used to treat blood cancers are too expensive to even be considered cost-effective. Since then, a number of health organizations have joined a concerted effort to roll back prescription drug prices.

      In 2016, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, writing in Forbes, said the current system of drug rebates does, in fact, mean that many consumers pay less than the list price through their health plans. But the problem, he says, are those patients who don’t have coverage. They are faced with the full price.

      “The question is how we can bring more prudence to this complex system, in which drug discounts don’t flow evenly to the patients who need access to these medicines,” he wrote.

      Gottlieb is now the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

      The U.S. Senate is holding hearings today to investigate drug prices in hopes of learning why they keep going up.Lawmakers on the Senate Finance Commit...
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      Appeals court rules AT&T/Time Warner merger can proceed

      The ruling comes two years after the companies announced their intention to merge

      A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that the $85 billion merger between AT&T and Time Warner can proceed, marking a victory for AT&T and a defeat for the Justice Department.

      “The merger of these innovative companies has already yielded significant consumer benefits, and it will continue to do so for years to come,” AT&T General Counsel David McAtee said in a statement.

      “While we respect the important role that the U.S. Department of Justice plays in the merger review process, we trust that today’s unanimous decision from the D.C. Circuit will end this litigation.”

      Loss for the DOJ

      AT&T first announced its intention to merge with Time Warner in 2016.

      Last summer, the Department of Justice appealed U.S. District Judge Richard Leon's approval of the merger, arguing that Leon didn't understand how the merger could affect competition and lead to higher prices for customers. The Department said ruling in favor of AT&T ignored "mainstream economics."

      But in December, Leon said the government had not proven its antitrust case and advised the department's lawyers not to challenge his decision in a higher court. A three-judge panel ruled unanimously on Tuesday that the merger can proceed with no conditions.

      "In this evidentiary context, the government's objections that the district court misunderstood and misapplied economic principles and clearly erred in rejecting the quantitative model are unpersuasive. Accordingly, we affirm," the judges wrote.

      A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that the $85 billion merger between AT&T; and Time Warner can proceed, marking a victory for AT&T; and a defeat for t...
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      SEC asks judge to charge Elon Musk with contempt

      The agency claims that the Tesla CEO violated last year’s fraud settlement

      The feud between Tesla CEO Elon Musk and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is heating up again.

      Musk narrowly escaped prosecution for fraud last year when he famously -- and incorrectly it turned out -- tweeted that he was taking Tesla private and that the funding was “secured.” But there was no money and Tesla remains a publicly traded company, and as such under the jurisdiction of the SEC.

      That means it has to abide by strict SEC rules, including not making false or misleading public statements that could affect the company’s stock price. At the time of Musk’s “funding secured” tweet, the CEO was engaged in a battle with investors who were shorting Tesla stock -- again, questionable behavior for a CEO.

      In October, Musk and the SEC reached a settlement whereby Tesla would replace Musk as chairman and pre-approve his public statements about the company’s operations. That brings us to last week.

      Questionable tweet

      In a Tweet, Musk said Tesla would produce 500,000 cars this year. A few minutes later, he corrected the message to say that number would be between 350,000 and 500,000 -- a range reported during the company’s last earnings call.

      This week the SEC charged Musk with contempt, saying he and Tesla have violated the terms of last year’s settlement. Those terms included having Tesla officials review and approve any public communication by the CEO.

      "Musk did not seek or receive pre-approval prior to publishing this tweet, which was inaccurate and disseminated to over 24 million people," the SEC said in a filing summing up its complaint. The agency has asked a federal court to hold Musk in contempt.

      Trolling the SEC

      For his part, Musk took to Twitter to once again troll the federal agency. The CEO said the information in last week’s tweet wasn’t anything new, that the range of 350,000 to 500,000 vehicles had been released during the most recent conference call.

      “SEC forgot to read Tesla earnings transcript, which clearly states 350k to 500k,” Musk wrote. “How embarrassing.”

      The SEC isn’t buying it, saying that Musk’s expressed belief that he was simply re-stating published production information “isn’t credible.”

      The latest dust-up comes at a time when Tesla stock has been under pressure and the company has grappled with assorted growing pains. The confrontation with the SEC isn’t helping, as Tesla stock slipped 3 percent in pre-market activity Tuesday.

      The feud between Tesla CEO Elon Musk and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is heating up again.Musk narrowly escaped prosecution for fraud l...
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      FCC offers additional funding to expand rural broadband access

      The offer applies to carriers that increase internet access and speeds

      As part of its effort to close the digital divide, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has offered to give roughly 200 carriers in rural areas of the U.S. an additional $67 million as part of its Connect America Fund.

      The agency will give the carriers the money if they agree to “significantly expand” access to broadband with at least 25Mbps downloads and 3Mbps in uploads. If the providers hold up their end of the deal, the FCC claims that as many as 110,000 consumers across 43 states would have improved internet service.

      "The Connect America Fund is key to this effort, providing funding in sparsely populated rural areas where the cost of providing and deploying service can be high," the FCC said in a statement.

      Carriers have 30 days to decide whether or not they will accept the money.

      Expanding rural internet access

      The FCC has said that expanding rural access to high-speed internet is its top priority. Earlier this month, the federal agency said in a draft report that it’s making headway on its goal of expanding broadband access in rural areas.

      “We’ve been tackling this problem by removing barriers to infrastructure investment, promoting competition, and providing efficient, effective support for rural broadband expansion through our Connect America Fund,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement

      The report said the number of Americans who lack access to a fixed broadband connection dropped by 25 percent in one year, from 26 million to 19.4 million between 2016 and 2017. However, Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel noted that there is still a great deal of work to be done.

      “Millions of households -- in rural and urban communities -- have no access to high-speed service,” she wrote in a tweet. “That’s a fact.”

      The FCC plans to distribute up to $1.98 billion over 10 years as part of its Connect America Fund Phase II.

      As part of its effort to close the digital divide, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has offered to give roughly 200 carriers in rural areas of t...
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      Consumers’ savings rate keeps falling

      It’s now at the lowest point since the financial crisis

      Amid rising student loan and credit card debt, American consumers are saving an increasingly smaller percentage of disposable income.

      The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the savings rate in November matched the lowest since the 2008 financial crisis - 6 percent. In 1969 the savings rate was 10.8 percent.

      George Barany, Director of America Saves, a consumer organization promoting increased savings, calls it a crisis that puts many consumers’ financial future at risk.

      “We know stagnating wages and increasing costs make it hard for many Americans to make it from one paycheck to the next, let alone save for the future, he said. “But America Saves Week provides tools to help.”

      This week has been set aside to promote savings by showing consumers ways to do it. More than 1,500 banks and other financial institutions are working together to encourage consumers to start setting aside a little money each month in savings.

      Tools for savings

      Banks and credit unions are using incentivized savings accounts, encouraging the use of direct deposit and split deposits to save automatically. Other groups are providing financial counseling and social media encouragement.

      Consumers aren’t saving for two reasons. One set of consumers is financially strapped, living paycheck-to-paycheck, with no extra money in the budget. The second group is getting by but hasn’t seen the need to save money.

      Having no savings can turn into a disaster when an unexpected medical expense or car repair bill comes along. In mid-2018, Bankrate reported that consumers weren’t doing a very good job of saving money but weren’t all that concerned about it.

      According to the report, only 29 percent of consumers had enough money in savings to cover at least six months of expenses – the amount recommended by financial planners. The savings rate has been trending lower over the last five years as the economy has improved and unemployment has hovered around record lows.

      Emergencies happen

      Still, emergencies can happen at any time. Kathy Kraninger, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), echoed that sentiment, saying that unexpected expenses can happen to anyone.

      “Having savings to absorb unplanned shocks can help people protect their financial future while meeting emergency needs,” she said.

      Without savings, consumers will have to expand their credit card debt to pay for it, and that assumes they have a credit card. If they don’t, these consumers often end up taking out payday loans and embarking on a cycle of expensive debt.

      Amid rising student loan and credit card debt, American consumers are saving an increasingly smaller percentage of disposable income.The Bureau of Labo...
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      Apple testing sleep-tracking functionality for Apple Watch

      The company could add it to the device as early as 2020 if tests are successful

      Apple is currently testing a built-in sleep tracking functionality for the Apple Watch, Bloomberg reports. If the tests are successful, a source says the company plans to add the functionality to the Watch by 2020.

      Bloomberg notes that Apple will have to increase the battery life of the Apple Watch or figure out a way to run the sleep-tracking functionality in low-power mode while the person sleeps. Alternatively, the company could also just ask users to charge their battery in the morning.

      “Each Apple Watch model to date is advertised as being able to last a day with the need to charge it each night,” Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman wrote. “In comparison, Fitbit’s watches with sleep tracking are marketed as being able to last as long as a week on one charge.”

      New health- and fitness-related functionalities for the Apple Watch are put through “rigorous testing at labs around its campus,” Bloomberg said.

      “The company also conducts in-house testing for new sensors on exercise equipment such as treadmills and bikes and has analyzed the Watch’s swim-tracking feature with testers at on-site swimming pools,” according to the publication. “The company also has testing chambers to mimic outside weather conditions and monitor users’ breathing and perspiration.”

      Focusing on health

      Adding a sleep-tracking functionality to the Apple Watch would expand its lineup of health and fitness tracking offerings. The Apple Watch already informs users if their heart rate has reached an unusually high or low rate and can detect irregular rhythms that could indicate risk for atrial fibrillation (AFib).

      The company has also modified its Health App to allow users to view parts of their medical records. In November, the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple may be aiming to allow patients to share their health information with other health apps.

      Earlier this year, Apple CEO Tim Cook said health will likely be the company’s greatest contribution to mankind.

      “If you zoom out into the future, and you look back, and you ask the question, ‘What was Apple’s greatest contribution to mankind?’ It will be about health,” Cook said in an interview with CNBC’s Jim Cramer.

      Apple is currently testing a built-in sleep tracking functionality for the Apple Watch, Bloomberg reports. If the tests are successful, a source says the c...
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      New study reveals patience is key when trying to save money

      Thinking ahead to what you can have later can help consumers’ finances

      Saving money certainly isn’t easy, as consumers contend with necessities like bills and grocery shopping and extras like new clothes or trips. However, a new study has revealed that the key to saving could come down to one important attribute: patience.

      According to researchers from Duke University, the key to vigilant saving comes from inherent patience that what you’ll have later will be more beneficial than what you have now. Based on an experiment the researchers conducted, this can easily be determined through observing eye movements.

      “We can see the savers’ decisions in their eye movements as their eyes jump back and forth between two dollar amounts,” said researcher Scott Huettel. “They don’t integrate information about time and money to determine how much a choice is worth, but instead use a simple rule that helps them make quick but good decisions.”

      The eyes tell all

      To see why some consumers are more inclined to save than others, the researchers performed an experiment that tracked participants’ eye movements when presented with two monetary options: getting $5 instantly or getting $10 in a month.

      The study included over 200 young adults, and the researchers used cameras to track their eye movements when having to choose between the instant gratification and delayed gratification, which is ultimately the choice consumers have to make when saving.

      “Figuring out how people make decisions is helpful for pinpointing where the decision process can go awry,” said researcher Dianna Amasino. “It could give people strategies they can use without having to increase time and effort.”

      The eye trackers were able to break down what participants deemed the most important, which  ended up being which outcome would leave them with the most money. The researchers found that patient people were not only more likely to save, but they also weren’t concerned with when they’d get the money, just that they’d get it at all.

      “Patient people are not doing more analytic work,” Huettel said. “They actually make these decisions the fastest.”

      The researchers hope these findings promote better savings habits for consumers, and they encourage more people to focus on the money -- not the time it might take to get the money.

      “The way a decision is approached matters,” said Amasino. “Focusing on the long wait to accumulate savings can feel overwhelming. Focusing on the returns to savings and investments can be motivating.”

      Important findings

      This study could prove to be very beneficial for consumers, as several reports from the last few years all have a similar theme: consumers are struggling to save.

      Despite not putting money away regularly, a recent study found that not too many consumers are concerned about their savings accounts. Last year, 40 percent of adults reported not having enough in their savings in case of an emergency and would need to borrow from a friend or use a credit card to come up with $400.

      “The finding that four in 10 adults couldn’t cover an unexpected $400 expense without selling something or borrowing money is troubling,” said Greg McBride, Bankrate.com’s chief financial analyst. “Nothing is more fundamental to achieving financial stability than having savings that can be drawn upon when the unexpected occurs.”

      Experts suggest starting an emergency savings fund, and no amount is too small to put away each month.

      Saving money certainly isn’t easy, as consumers contend with necessities like bills and grocery shopping and extras like new clothes or trips. However, a n...
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      Nicotine exposure can cause ADHD, new study suggests

      Pregnant women who had nicotine in their system were more likely to have children who were diagnosed with ADHD later on

      There’s yet another reminder to put your cigarette out if you’re in the company of a pregnant woman. A new study suggests that nicotine can cause attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in the children of women who were exposed while pregnant.

      The report, published in the journal Pediatrics, evaluated blood samples from 10,79 children. The study found that higher levels of nicotine in a pregnant woman's blood corresponded with a greater risk that her child would be diagnosed with ADHD.

      “We found, in a large nationwide sample that mothers who smoked during pregnancy, in particular those who were heavy smokers, had offspring with a fairly high risk for ADHD,” author Dr. Alan S. Brown, a professor at Columbia University, told Reuters.

      Women for decades have been discouraged from smoking while pregnant, but some people apparently haven't gotten the message. In 2016, the most recent year for which data was available, the federal government said that 7.2 percent of American women admitted to smoking while pregnant.

      There’s yet another reminder to put your cigarette out if you’re in the company of a pregnant woman. A new study suggests that nicotine can cause attention...
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      J Bar B Foods recalls ready-to-eat smoked sausage

      The product contains milk, an allergen not declared on the label

      J Bar B Foods of Weimar, Texas, is recalling approximately 51,188 pounds of ready-to-eat cheddar smoked sausage.

      The product contains milk, an allergen not declared on the label.

      There have been no confirmed reports of adverse reactions.

      The following item, incorrectly labeled as “Original Smoked Sausage” and produced on January 19, 2019, is being recalled:

      • 14-oz. vacuum-sealed packages of “H-E-B MADE IN TEXAS ORIGINAL Smoked Sausage” with a sell by date of 5/19/19 and lot code LN2 90149.

      The recalled product, bearing establishment number “7066A” inside the USDA mark of inspection, was shipped to retail locations in Texas.

      What to do

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

      Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Bonnie Hymen at (830) 788-7511, ext. 271.

      J Bar B Foods of Weimar, Texas, is recalling approximately 51,188 pounds of ready-to-eat cheddar smoked sausage.The product contains milk, an allergen...
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      Mercedes-Benz vehicles with steering issue recalled

      The Active Steering Assist system may malfunction

      Mercedes-Benz USA (MBUSA) is recalling 5,754 model year 2018 AMG S63 4MATICs, AMG S63 4MATIC sedans, AMG S63 4MATIC Cabriolets, S450 4MATIC sedans, S560 4MATIC coupes, S560 4MATIC sedans and Maybach S560 4MATICs.

      Due to an incorrect steering boot installation, the Active Steering Assist system may remain engaged despite the driver's hands not being on the steering wheel for a prolonged period of time.

      If the system remains active despite the driver not having his hands on the wheel, the driver's inattention may increase the risk of crash.

      What to do

      MBUSA has notified owners, and dealers will inspect the vehicles and correct the steering boot installation, as necessary, free of charge.

      An interim letter was mailed to owners on February 14, 2019 to notify them of the issue. A second notification will be sent when the remedy is available.

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

      Mercedes-Benz USA (MBUSA) is recalling 5,754 model year 2018 AMG S63 4MATICs, AMG S63 4MATIC sedans, AMG S63 4MATIC Cabriolets, S450 4MATIC sedans, S560 4M...
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