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Current Events in December 2019

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    Official signing of Phase One China trade deal to take place January 15

    It could be the first step toward bringing a truce to the trade war

    It looks like the Phase One trade deal between the U.S. and China -- a small, first step in ending the trade war -- will soon be signed in Washington.

    The Chinese government reported Monday morning that the country’s vice premier had been invited to Washington to sign the agreement. President Trump confirmed the report in a tweet, saying the agreement will be signed on January 15.

    On Monday, White House trade advisor Peter Navarro told Fox News that he believed the signing would take place “in the near future.” But Navarro couched his comments by telling his interviewer to “never believe anonymous sources” and to get the information from President Trump. That information came shortly afterwards.

    “I will be signing our very large and comprehensive Phase One Trade Deal with China on January 15,” Trump wrote. “The ceremony will take place at the White House. High level representatives of China will be present. At a later date I will be going to Beijing where talks will begin on Phase Two!”

    No one really knows what’s in the agreement. Specifics have been hard to come by, and neither the U.S. nor China has released a text. While the agreement has been presented as a first step toward resolving larger issues, it reportedly does contain language dealing with U.S. intellectual property rights.

    Navarro called that a “good start” on forced technology transfers, which have been a sore point among U.S. technology companies doing business in China. The initial agreement was worked out in mid-December, but both sides were vague on its details. 

    Big increase in U.S. exports

    It was reported that China would nearly double its imports from the U.S., and President Trump canceled the latest round of tariffs on Chinese goods, which were scheduled to take effect within days.

    Under the agreement, China would still pay tariffs, just not as much. The U.S. will continue to levy a 25 percent tariff on $250 billion in Chinese imports, but U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said the 15 percent tariff on $120 billion in Chinese products would be cut in half.

    On CBS’ Face The Nation, Lighthizer said China has agreed to significantly ramp up its U.S. imports, which should please manufacturers and farmers. 

    “Keep in mind, by the second year, we will just about double exports of goods to China, if this agreement is in place,” Lighthizer said. 

    U.S. officials in recent days have said nothing to suggest the deal won’t be signed on schedule. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the deal is in place, but both countries are giving it a technical review.

    It looks like the Phase One trade deal between the U.S. and China -- a small, first step in ending the trade war -- will soon be signed in Washington.T...
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      Creating strong passwords helps protect consumers against hackers

      Researchers urge consumers to get as creative as possible when setting up new passwords

      Experts have compiled the worst passwords of the year for both 2017 and 2018 in an effort to help consumers avoid potential hacks. Now, researchers from the University of Plymouth want to warn consumers about their passwords as we get ready to head into 2020. 

      As cybersecurity threats continue to loom, it’s important for consumers to be diligent and creative when setting up new passwords. But despite many sites creating meters that gauge the strength of new passwords, these tools aren’t always the most accurate. In fact, the researchers say they can actually make consumers more vulnerable to cyber attacks. 

      “Password meters themselves are not a bad idea, but you clearly need to be using or providing the right one,” said researcher Steve Furnell. “It is also worth remembering that, regardless of how the meters handled them, many systems and sites would still accept the weak passwords in practice and without having offered users any advice or feedback on how to make better choices.” 

      Inaccurate password meters

      The researchers tested 16 of the most commonly used passwords in an effort to determine how effective password meters are for protecting users’ privacy and information. 

      Many sites will require users to create passwords with a variety of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols. However, the researchers from this study found that despite those parameters, many of these gauges, which are designed to ensure that passwords are strong enough not to be guessed by hackers, aren’t operating as planned. 

      Over 60 percent of the passwords tested were intentionally weak, as the researchers wanted to see what the meters were capable of detecting. Ultimately, just half of those passwords were rejected by the password meters; the other half were accepted as viable choices. 

      “What this study shows is that some of the available meters will flag an attempted password as being a potential risk whereas others will deem it acceptable,” said Furnell. “Security awareness and education is hard enough, without wasting the opportunity by offering misleading information that leaves users misguided and with a false sense of security.” 

      Better security

      While these findings urge against using common password options like “Password1!” or “abc123,” consumers should feel confident using a pre-generated password offered by a website. The researchers found that these types of passwords yielded positive results in all of their trials. 

      “Over the festive period, hundreds of millions of people will receive technology presents or use their devices to purchase them,” Furnell said. “The very least they should expect is that their data will be secure and, in the absence of a replacement for passwords, providing them with consistent and informed guidance is key in the quest for better security.” 

      Experts have compiled the worst passwords of the year for both 2017 and 2018 in an effort to help consumers avoid potential hacks. Now, researchers from th...
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      Indoor tanning services are becoming increasingly common at many gyms

      Access to indoor tanning could increase consumers’ risk of skin cancer

      Earlier this year, researchers discovered how tanning salons’ promotional packages and discount deals were great marketing strategies to attract young customers. 

      According to researchers from the University of Connecticut, many gyms are also becoming major outlets for indoor tanning, and that may not be good for consumers’ health.

      “Gyms appear to be the new tanning salons,” said researcher Sherry Pagoto. “This is surprising because our sense had been that the tanning industry was on the decline. However, it appears that the industry is just moving tanning beds into novel environments -- with gyms being the most common.” 

      Exercise-related discounts

      The researchers chose three of the biggest gym chains across the country to conduct their study -- Planet Fitness, Anytime Fitness, and Gold’s Gym

      Over 1,700 locations responded to the researchers’ survey regarding their tanning offerings, despite having nearly 2,000 locations combined in operation around the country. According to Pagoto, the researchers conducted this study after discovering the high incidence of skin cancer among frequent exercisers, and the findings could point to why this is the case. 

      Of the gyms that were surveyed, nearly 80 percent had tanning beds. Planet Fitness offered customers the greatest chance to tan among the three chains, though the company recently reported it had dropped free tanning from its promotional offerings. 

      “Because people associate gyms with health, gyms are essentially putting a ‘health halo’ on tanning beds,” said Pagoto. “The public health community has been trying to communicate the message to the public that tanning beds are not safe or healthy, but gyms with tanning beds are obstructing that message.” 

      Doing the research

      Though the researchers found that these gym chains had a combined 4,660 tanning beds among them, further research revealed that it can be easy to avoid indoor tanning beds at the gym. 

      While this study was focused on Planet Fitness, Gold’s Gym, and Anytime Fitness, there are other nationwide gym chains, including both LA Fitness and 24-Hour Fitness, that have avoided such trends to focus strictly on exercise, health, and wellness. 

      “The good news is that there are gym chains that do not include tanning beds in their business model, and so consumers have a choice,” Pagoto explained. “I just have to question the motivation of any gym that uses a carcinogen to lure members. Is their priority really my health? Regardless of whether a consumer uses tanning beds, they should take pause when considering their choice of gym.” 

      Earlier this year, researchers discovered how tanning salons’ promotional packages and discount deals were great marketing strategies to attract young cust...
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      FTC wins case against mortgage relief scammers

      Victims were lured in with promises that their mortgages could be made more affordable

      The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has won a legal case against the Utah-based operators of a mortgage relief scam. The U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada granted the agency’s motion for a summary judgment against the scammers, who promised victims that they could make their monthly mortgage payments more affordable. 

      The scammers reportedly charged consumers an average of $3,900 in illegal advance fees for “expert legal assistance” that they claimed would cut interest rates and save homeowners hundreds of dollars per month. They also used other deceptive tactics, such as claiming to have affiliations with lenders and endorsements from the federal government.

      In its final judgment, the court ruled that the defendants violated the FTC Act and the Mortgage Relief Services Rule. It has imposed a penalty of $18.5 million against the defendants and has permanently banned them from working in the debt relief business. 

      The FTC says that funds collected from the scammers may be used to help redress the victims of the debt relief scheme. To contact the agency, consumers can reach out to the FTC’s Consumer Response Center or call the agency at 877-382-4357. 

      The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has won a legal case against the Utah-based operators of a mortgage relief scam. The U.S. District for the District of N...
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      Californians will have the tightest consumer privacy law in the land starting in 2020

      Gaining steam might take a while, but the new law is a much-needed first step

      Consumers worried about their privacy can only hope the axiom “As goes California, so goes the nation,” will be a dream come true.

      On January 1, 2020, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) goes into effect, marking the strongest pro-consumer privacy law in the land.

      Based on the tenet that every consumer has the right to take back control of their personal information, the Golden State’s new law takes its cue from GDPR -- the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation. That legislation has already put Marriott and British Airways in its crosshairs, spurred changes from Google, and elicited standing ovations from Apple and, would you believe, Facebook.

      Created by regular people, not politicians

      While any law has to make its way through the legislative process before it sees the light of day, one of the benefits of the new California privacy law is that the leadership team behind it is made up of a group of as-close-to-regular people that one could find.

      At the top of the organizational chart is the husband wife team of Alastair and Celine Mactaggart, who the New York Times called the “unlikely activists who took on Silicon Valley and won.”

      By trade, Alastair is a real estate developer who fell into his activist role one night over dinner with a Google engineer who told him, “If people really knew what we have on them, they would flip out.” 

      Here’s how it works

      Mctaggart’s go-to sermon is “it's not right that companies you’ve never heard of, can buy more information about you (and sell it for a profit), than even your closest friends know.” And, with that, a law was born. 

      Here’s the lay of the land on what rights the California Consumer Privacy Act gives consumers in regards to their private information: 

      • The permission to know any and all personal data that any business collects, twice a year, free of charge.

      • The guarantee that the consumer can refuse the sale of their information to another party.

      • In cases where there was a data breach, the right to file a lawsuit against the company that collected that data IF the company was reckless or negligent about how it protected the data. In other words, think “identity theft.”

      • The ability to delete any data a consumer’s posted.

      • The right to ask a company exactly what categories of data its collecting (e.g. age, zip code, and education, as well as the categories of third parties with whom data is shared.) As ConsumerAffairs understands that, if one company collected a consumer’s age under a “date of birth” category and shared that information with another company that placed that information under a category it calls “age,” the consumer has the right to know that.

      • The mandate that a company must get opt-in approval from any person under the age of 16 if they want to sell their information. 

      • A statement explaining the purpose for which the company collecting the user’s information is. An example would be an advertising agency that collects data about a client’s users.

      Is this THE answer?

      While California’s law may be a step in the right direction for the consumer, it’ll be years before we know if this is the end-all and be-all.

      “It still has a long way to go before it can adequately protect the personal data of consumers,” writes Nicholas F. Palmieri III in the Hastings Science and Technology Law Journal. “As such, the law in its current form acts merely as a transparency law for Californian consumers and is truly not a system that consumers would want the country to adopt, at least as the law currently stands.”

      “Other states, following California’s lead many still adopt data protection laws of their own. Following a similar trend as when the states adopted data breach notification laws, these data protection laws will likely contain the same broad principles as the CCPA but with some very important variations. While the deviations are important in the data breach context, they do not perfectly map onto a data protection context, but would still provide very important and necessary protections.”

      Consumers worried about their privacy can only hope the axiom “As goes California, so goes the nation,” will be a dream come true.On January 1, 2020, t...
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      Amazon and Ring face class action suit over data breach

      Plaintiffs say their information was compromised due to negligence

      Earlier this month, ConsumerAffairs reported on a data breach affecting over 3,600 Ring users. Though some information about the leak first came to light in September, the number of affected users and the information that was compromised became more prominent in recent weeks.

      Now, a class action lawsuit has been filed against Ring and Amazon on behalf of affected consumers. 

      “Ring promises its customers ‘peace of mind’ with its Wi-Fi enabled smart security systems. Unfortunately, Ring’s cameras fail to deliver on its most basic promise. Lax security standards and protocols render its camera systems vulnerable to cyber-attack,” the suit alleges.

      “Terrorizing” homeowners and children

      The suit cites reports detailing how hackers were able to gain unauthorized access to Ring’s security cameras in order to “terrorize” users’ homes. It points to several interactions between hackers and young children, but it also cautions that some hackers who didn’t make their presence known could be doing the most damage.

      “Hackers who choose not to interact with occupants have gone unnoticed for days, months and even years during which time they spied on occupants and their homes, gathering an array of private [information] which can subsequently be sold and used for a host of nefarious purposes,” the suit states.

      “As a result of Ring’s defective design, and its failure to imbue its Wi-Fi cameras with sufficient security protocols, its customers’ most basic privacy rights were violated along with the security and sanctity of their homes.”

      The plaintiff of the suit is seeking relief for themselves and other class members, including awards for damages, costs and expenses, attorney’s fees, and other relief that may be assessed by a jury if the case makes it to trial. 

      Earlier this month, ConsumerAffairs reported on a data breach affecting over 3,600 Ring users. Though some information about the leak first came to light i...
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      Retailers crank up their after-Christmas sales

      In some cases, the bargains rival Black Friday

      Now that the holidays are behind us, retailers haven’t stopped offering bargains. In fact, there’s evidence they’re offering even better deals in some cases.

      That’s good news if you got some gift cards in your stocking or plan to return some gifts for a refund. Sara Skirboll, a shopping and trends expert at RetailMeNot, says the time between Christmas and New Years Day is a great time to find after-holiday sales.

      “Plus, it is a great time for shoppers to make any returns or exchanges for those unwanted gifts and use up those gift cards they have received throughout the season," Skirboll said.

      Just about every retailer has something on sale this week, with many of the sales extending through most of January. Bath & Body Works has slashed prices up to 75 percent on a number of products. The sale ends on January 20.

      Coach has marked down select items up to 50 percent for a sale running until January 7. It’s also offering free shipping.

      Express has slashed prices up to 70 percent on a large number of products, with some clearance items marked down 40 percent. The sale runs through January 9.

      TVs and video games

      Best Buy’s after-Christmas sale features smart and UHD TVs in a variety of sizes, with savings of up to $70. The sale also includes $150 off the X-Box One X 1TB Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order deluxe edition console bundle and up to $200 off select laptops.

      The Gap is selling everything for 40 percent off in a sale that ends January 7. JCPenney is holding its big winter wrap-up sale, with discounts of up to 70 percent. The sale ends on January 27.

      Yankee Candle has launched its semi-annual sale with online discounts of up to 75 percent. The sale ends on January 21. Michael Kors’ semi-annual sale is also underway, with savings of up to 70 percent. The promotion ends on January 28.

      H&M has a 60 percent off winter sale underway through January 3. TOMS is knocking 25 percent off all markdowns in a sale that runs until January 8.

      Kohl’s, Lands’ End, Madewell, Macy’s, Target, Walmart, and Amazon started marking down select items right after Christmas, but those deals expire soon.

      Now that the holidays are behind us, retailers haven’t stopped offering bargains. In fact, there’s evidence they’re offering even better deals in some case...
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