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Court rules FTC can continue its data-speed lawsuit against AT&T

A Monday court ruling restores the FTC’s regulatory authority over large internet service providers

An appeals court has determined that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has the authority to carry out its case against AT&T for allegedly throttling data on unlimited data plans of millions of consumers.

The issue began back in October 2014 when the FTC filed a lawsuit against AT&T claiming that the company marketed its data plans as “unlimited”, but ultimately throttled speeds once customers hit certain thresholds such as 5GB within a month.

"In 2011, AT&T began reducing the data speed for its unlimited mobile data plan customers—a practice commonly known as 'data throttling'. For example, if a customer with an unlimited mobile data plan exceeded a certain usage limit, AT&T would substantially reduce the speed at which the customer’s device would receive data for the balance of the customer’s billing cycle,” the FTC said.

“Customers experienced reduced speed when they exceeded the preset limit, regardless of actual network congestion. AT&T did not apply the data-throttling practice to customers on tiered plans," the agency added.

The wireless company countered that the FTC didn’t have the power to regulate the practices of common carrier services.

‘Unfair and deceptive’

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reached its decision to grant the FTC authority to punish AT&T on the basis that the carrier’s acts were “unfair and deceptive” to consumers, Reuters reported.

The ruling, however, exempts “common carriers,” which AT&T argued that it is. That notion was dismissed by the court.

“Permitting the FTC to oversee unfair and deceptive non-common-carriage practices of telecommunications companies has practical ramifications,” said Circuit Judge M. Margaret McKeown in a published court summary.

“New technologies have spawned new regulatory challenges,” McKeown continued. “Reaffirming FTC jurisdiction over activities that fall outside of common-carrier services avoids regulatory gaps and provides consistency and predictability in regulatory enforcement.”

FTC Chair Maureen Ohlhausen called the ruling “good news for consumers” and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai said the decision “reaffirms that the Federal Trade Commission will once again be able to police Internet service providers after the Restoring Internet Freedom Order takes effect."

“In the months and years ahead, we look forward to working closely with the FTC to ensure the protection of a free and open internet,” Pai said in a statement.

An AT&T spokesman said the court decision “does not address the merits of the case” and that it is “reviewing opinion and continues to believe we ultimately will prevail.”

An appeals court has determined that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has the authority to carry out its case against AT&T; for allegedly throttling data...

AT&T reveals 5G plans for three U.S. cities in 2018

Dallas, Atlanta, and Waco will be among the first metros to benefit from the high-speed wireless service

AT&T has pegged Dallas, Atlanta, and Waco as the first of 12 metro areas to receive its new 5G wireless service this year. That trailblazing move makes the company the only U.S. carrier to roll out plans for the high-speed technology in 2018, according to its announcement.

“After significantly contributing to the first phase of 5G standards, conducting multi-city trials, and literally transforming our network for the future, we’re planning to be the first carrier to deliver standards-based mobile 5G – and do it much sooner than most people thought possible,” said Igal Elbaz, senior vice president, Wireless Network Architecture and Design. “Our mobile 5G firsts will put our customers in the middle of it all.”

AT&T’s news comes on the heels of a Trump administration announcement that a nationwide 5G network is near the top of its wish list. Such a centralized network would make it easier to safeguard the country’s wireless systems from Chinese spying and economic threats. China is considered by many to be the chief malicious rogue in the digital information world.

The need for speed continues

Having access to 5G (fifth-generation) service raises the playing field for everyone. This upgrade brings with it three new, significant features: the ability to move more data with greater speed, the power to connect more devices at the same time, and more responsive access with lower latency.

Just how fast will 5G go? In layman’s terms, almost 100 times faster than the current average internet speed. You’ll be able to download a 100 GB 4K movie in under four minutes and a 50 GB game in less than two minutes.

Smartphones aren’t going to be AT&T’s first touchpoint, though. The company’s initial plans are built around a device called a "puck" that will act like a mobile hotspot and make it possible for consumers to connect existing devices to the enhanced 5G network.

Unfortunately, consumers who want to take advantage of 5G for their smartphone will likely need to buy a new device when the technology fully rolls out. If you remember the changeover from 3G to 4G, your 3G phone didn’t support 4G. The shift to 5G will likely produce the same limitation and an upgraded phone will be necessary to support both 4G and 5G.

AT&T; has pegged Dallas, Atlanta, and Waco as the first of 12 metro areas to receive its new 5G wireless service this year. That trailblazing move makes th...

AT&T: first 5G device won't be a smartphone

The company plans to produce a device that will work like a 5G modem

Telecom giant AT&T is moving ahead with plans to develop its 5G wireless network, but company CEO Randall Stephenson says the first device to connect to the super high-speed network won't be a smartphone.

In a conference call following Wednesday's AT&T earnings report, Stephenson said smartphone manufacturers are still on the drawing board when it comes to making a 5G phone. So Stephenson says AT&T will produce a device, called a "puck," that will act like a mobile hotspot, allowing consumers to connect their existing devices to the 5G network.

AT&T has not said when the puck would be available or how much it would cost. However, Stephenson says the device will be a way for customers to sample the 5G service before purchasing a 5G smartphone.

"We're getting the equipment manufacturing moving, we're getting the supply chains moving, we're doing the sell-side acquisition, we're doing all the build type work, but getting the handsets at scale penetrated into the market will slow things down," Stephenson told investors and analysts.

"So, that's why we're going to be offering pucks in the first part of our deployment in these 12 markets, so it is a mobile solution."

Will work like a modem

Stephenson says consumers will be able to use the pucks like a modem. Once connected, they will be able to access the internet using AT&T's 5G network with a full gigabit throughput.

But Stephenson said he thinks one of the biggest advantages 5G will offer is a huge reduction in latency, the time between an online command is entered and when it is executed. Reducing latency will make 5G more efficient for certain uses, such as virtual reality and self-driving vehicles.

"People say 5G and you're thinking about speed," Stephenson said. "And speed and throughput are important. But the most important element is latency and having low latency 5G is the first technological innovation that truly gets us to low latency."

Twelve markets this year

A month ago AT&T announced that it would deploy 5G wireless service in at least a dozen markets by late 2018, as the first step in a nationwide build out. In December, Verizon also announced it planned to offer 5G wireless service in up to five U.S. markets in 2018.

Telecom experts say the transition from 4G to 5G will be a fundamental, not incremental, change. Instead of being limited to connecting hundreds of millions of cell phones and tablets used by people, 5G networks will support billions of connected things.

Stephenson told analysts that once a nationwide wireless 5G network is up and running, it could replace most fiber optic networks.

Telecom giant AT&T; is moving ahead with plans to develop its 5G wireless network, but company CEO Randall Stephenson says the first device to connect to t...

T-Mobile, AT&T offer free data, calls, and texting for consumers going to the Winter Olympics

Travelers visiting South Korea between February and March can take advantage of the deals

Consumers traveling to South Korea for the PyeongChang 2018 Olympics will get free high-speed data and unlimited calls to the U.S, as well as free texting.

T-mobile says its customers can enjoy these rewards for free from February 7 through March 20 if they will be traveling anywhere in South Korea during that time. All they have to do is use their plan.

“The Winter Games are full of unforgettable moments, and now, T-Mobile customers in South Korea can snap, tweet, and share those big moments without worrying about bill shock when they get back home,” said John Legere, president and CEO of T-Mobile.

Free and unlimited data and calling will become available the moment Un-carrier subscribers step foot in South Korea, he added.

“While the carriers’ travel plans confuse, restrict and gouge customers, Un-carrier customers can simply enjoy the games in South Korea – with zero hassles or extra fees,” the company said.

T-Mobile also wants to help its customers communicate with friends and family as they make their way from the U.S. to South Korea. Free texting throughout flights as well as a free hour of smartphone Wi-Fi will be available to those traveling to see the Winter Games, thanks to T-mobile’s partnership with Gogo.

AT&T has also announced that it will give customers access to free International Day Passes for the time they are in South Korea for the 2018 Winter Games, which will give them unlimited talk and text. However, AT&T customers will have to sign up for the pass ahead of time.

To sign up, click this link and follow the steps to add the feature to your plan.

Consumers traveling to South Korea for the PyeongChang 2018 Olympics will get free high-speed data and unlimited calls to the U.S, as well as free texting....

T-Mobile adds a free Netflix subscription to its plan to draw in customers

CEO John Legere says the partnership brings together two industry disrupters

Wireless providers are constantly trying to outdo each other with the deals they offer in order to draw in more customers. In an effort to stand out, T-Mobile has announced that consumers who sign up for at least two lines on an unlimited plan will also get a Netflix subscription, according to a Bloomberg report.

The move was announced in a video Wednesday by T-Mobile CEO John Legere, who said the new partnership represents a coming together of video and mobile services.

“You know, Netflix has totally disrupted entertainment and T-Mobile has totally disrupted wireless, and the world is about to find out what happens when you bring two disrupters together,” Legere said.

"Growth over profitability"

A standard Netflix video-streaming service currently costs consumers around $10 per month, but subscribers will be able to access it at no extra charge under the new offer. T-Mobile says that plans with two lines costing $120 per month, including taxes and fees, will be eligible for the promotion.

The company did not disclose specific details of its deal with Netflix, but T-Mobile Chief Operating Officer Mike Sievert said that the carrier will receive a small discount off Netflix’s standard subscriber rate. Chief Financial Officer Braxton Carter added that the additional cost shouldn’t affect T-Mobile’s bottom line.

However, experts say that the carrier's business approach could end up costing it in the long-run. Analyst Roger Entner with Recon Analytics LLC said that the carrier has been “prioritizing growth over profitability” and that the new giveaway is indicative of an industry that is currently more interested in adding more features to draw customers in rather than lowering prices.

Good news for Netflix

All of that won’t be any skin off Netflix’s nose, though, as it will most likely only gain from the deal, according to analyst Walt Piecyk of BTIG LLC.

“With T-Mobile now paying the monthly bill, the risk of seasonal churn and hence higher revenue growth for Netflix is clear,” he said on Wednesday. “The marketing dollars that T-Mobile will spend promoting this offer will also be a clear benefit to cementing Netflix as one necessary source of content in the future of consumer consumption.”

Consumers can learn more about the offer by visiting T-Mobile’s site here.

Wireless providers are constantly trying to outdo each other with the deals they offer in order to draw in more customers. In an effort to stand out, T-Mob...

Judge turns aside pleas for cheaper phone calls for prisoners

Nothing gives prisoners the right to reasonably priced calls, the court finds

Back in the last millennium, Congress tried to increase competition in the telephone industry and passed a gigantic bill that, a few decades later, has created a patchwork in which some types of consumers enjoy plenty of companies competing for their business while others enjoy nearly none.

Residents in affluent areas, for example, often have multiple broadband carriers offering high-speed fiber connections at competitive prices while rural consumers are stuck with slow-speed telephone lines.

But of everyone affected by the legislation, no one has fared worse than prisoners and their families. Local and state governments, seeing an opportunity to make a few bucks off the backs of prisoners, have cut deals with private providers who operate the jailhouse phone systems, charging exorbitant rates to those unlucky enough to place or get a call from prison.

You might think the courts would outlaw the practice, but despite a few limited actions, that hasn't been the case so far. Just yesterday, a federal judge in California pitched four lawsuits challenging the price-gouging, according to a Courthouse News Service report. 

"Grossly excessive" rates

Plaintiffs had charged that Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties had contracted with Global Tel Link Corp. and Securus Technologies, allowing them to charge "grossly excessive" rates to inamtes and their families.

The plaintiffs had argued the Ninth Circuit has recognized a First Amendment right to telephone access, and that the commissions amount to unconstitutional taxes on that right.

But U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers granted a motion by the counties to dismiss the suits.

“That the commissions charged may result in higher phone rates, which, in turn, may reduce the frequency and length of phone calls made, does not constitute a governmental restriction on plaintiffs’ constitutional rights,” Gonzalez Rogers wrote in a 26-page order.

Gonzalez Rogers said the Ninth Circuit ruling applied to prisoners who were denied access to a telephone and did not deal with pricing issues.

The judge also turned aside the claim that the counties were in violation of antitrust laws, noting that state law bars antitrust action against governmental units.

Back in the last millennium, Congress tried to increase competition in the telephone industry and passed a gigantic bill that, a few decades later, has cre...

How difficult is it to resolve a problem with your cellphone company?

Survey links problem-solving with customer satisfaction

If you are the typical cellphone customer, you're generally happy with your carrier's coverage and service plans.

In fact, you're pretty content -- until a problem crops up. And if you're the typical cellphone customer, that's when you tend to lose your patience.

A new report by J.D. Power finds that customers' biggest complaint about cellphone companies is they make the customer work too hard to solve a problem. Automated phone trees are a huge bone of contention.

Getting a human on the line

The survey asked consumers if it requires a lot of effort to speak with a live representative. When consumers "strongly" or "somewhat" agreed, J.D. Power found consumers' satisfaction level dropped by 210 points.

Also, the survey found that average hold time and time spent on the line have a lot to do with customers' perceptions of their wireless provider. The shorter the average hold time, the more likely consumers were to give the wireless company higher marks for the way it resolved problems.

When consumers were left hanging from 10 to 21 minutes, on average, there were much more likely to say it required a lot of effort to resolve a problem with their wireless carrier.

Getting it right the first time

Consumers also lose patience when their wireless provider can't resolve the problem on the first attempt. The consumers who were able to get satisfaction 85% of the time on their first try were much more likely to give their carrier high marks than those who had to make repeated efforts.

The survey also uncovered this interesting fact -- consumers who post reviews on sites like ConsumerAffairs and social media end up experiencing much higher levels of satisfaction than consumers who do not.

Peter Cunningham, technology, media & telecommunications practice lead at J.D. Power, says consumers don't want to spend a lot of time dealing with an issue that they shouldn't have had in the first place.

"Customers believe carriers have a ways to go when it comes to reducing the amount of effort involved in problem resolution," he said.

By focusing more effort on problem resolution, the report concludes that wireless companies can not only make their customers happier, but reduce the number of defections to other companies.

If you are the typical cellphone customer, you're generally happy with your carrier's coverage and service plans.In fact, you're pretty content -- unti...

Sprint expands lease option, with accelerated upgrade

Customers will now be able to lease any phone and upgrade a year later

Increasingly expensive cars have given rise to a huge increase in automotive leasing in recent years. Could the same thing be happening to smartphones?

Sprint has announced that it will allow customers to lease any smartphone and upgrade it after one year. Previously, leasing was limited to the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy models.

Robert Hackl, Sprint's senior vice president of leasing, made the announcement in an interview with Reuters.

"We want to give full flexibility to our customers because you don’t want to get stuck with an old phone," Hackl told the news service.

More costly phones

In recent months the big four cellular carriers have stepped up the competition on service plans, providing more data and lowering costs. At the same time, the cost of smartphones has continued to rise.

The price of Samsung's Galaxy S8 Plus is $840. Apple has made no announcement about its next generation iPhone, expected later this year, but CNET estimates it will sell for $850 to nearly $1,100.

But just as some consumers lease expensive cars they really can't afford, consumer advocates are cautioning that the same thing can happen when leasing a smartphone, albeit on a smaller scale.

The Los Angeles Times reported last year that many prepaid wireless companies offer leasing plans, but at very high interest rates.

High interest rates

“Is it a good idea for consumers to get a phone when they end up paying 100% interest for it? I wouldn’t do it,” Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director at U.S. Public Interest Research Group, told the Times. “Rent-to-own companies make the promise of the American dream — that you can own anything — but the price is high.”

Fierce Wireless reports the Sprint lease deal appears to be less costly. It says the terms for low-priced devices is $25 down and $5 a month and $30 down and $10 a month for more costly phones. Customers can upgrade after a year at no charge.

Increasingly expensive cars have given rise to a huge increase in automotive leasing in recent years. Could the same thing be happening to smartphones?...

Illinois bill would protect against unwanted geolocation tracking

Websites would have to ask for permission in advance

A "geolocation privacy" bill that earlier was approved by the state Senate has won passage in the Illinois House of Representatives and is on its way to the governor. The bill would give consumers the right to opt out of having their location tracked by online services.

Although legally binding only in Illinois, the measure would likely result in sites adopting the practice nationwide, although Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) has not said whether he will sign the measure.  

The Geolocation Privacy Protection Act would require websites to add text to a pop-up box that appears when consumers use a mobile app or service for the first time. The additional text would inform users that their location data will be collected, used, or disclosed, and for what purposes – and users would then be asked for their permission.

“This is common sense legislation that simply requires companies to let you know before using and sharing the geolocation data they collect when tracking your whereabouts," said Rep. Ann Williams (D-Chicago), the bill's chief sponsor in the House. "We believe people have a right to know who has their information and how they plan to use it.”

Consumers queasy 

Studies show consumers are growing less likely to extend their trust to online services. A recent survey revealed that more than 94 percent of Illinois residents disapprove of corporations collecting, sharing, or selling personal data without their consent, yet companies do this constantly and without transparency, backers of the measure said.

Dozens of tech startups, enterprise software companies, and web development shops around Illinois supported the bill, saying it is necessary for the protection of citizens’ privacy rights and critical for ensuring consumer trust in their industry.

“Enhancing consumers' privacy by making data collection practices more transparent will not hamper the ability for small businesses and tech startups in Illinois to thrive – in fact, it will do just the opposite,” said Derek Eder, partner at DataMade, co-founder of Open City, and leader of Chi Hack Night.

Groups supporting the measure include the Digital Privacy Alliance, American Civil Liberties Union, Center for Democracy & Technology, Illinois PIRG, Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, Cook County Sheriff’s Office, and Illinois Attorney General’s office.

A "geolocation privacy" bill that earlier was approved by the state Senate has won passage in the Illinois House of Representatives and is on its way to th...

States warn FCC not to block consumer protection rules

Telecom companies have been trying an end run around the states

The Federal Communications Commission is on the receiving end of a warning from a bipartisan coalition of 35 state attorneys general. They're warning the FCC not to block states from enforcing false advertising laws related to internet speeds.

Under its new chairman, Ajit Pai, the FCC has been busily dismantling internet neutrality and other consumer protections enacted over the previous eight years and is now considering a petition from the telecom industry asking it to bar states from enforcing their consumer protection rules.

The state AG group, led by New York Democrat Eric T. Schneiderman and Texas Republican Ken Paxton argues that the proposed action would exceed the FCC's authority and upend longstanding federal-state regulation of deceptive practices.

Truthful advertising

“As the chief law enforcement officers of our respective states, we understand the vital importance of protecting consumers against unfair and deceptive business practices—including those of broadband providers," the AGs said. "Like others providing goods and services to consumers in our states, providers of broadband Internet service must be truthful in their advertisements. ... The states’ traditional consumer protection powers must be left undisturbed to protect consumers from false and misleading claims by broadband providers."

Several state attorneys general have opened investigations into whether fixed and wireless broadband providers have been truthful in their advertising to consumers, including for consumers in underserved, rural communities.

New York's Schneiderman filed a complaint against Charter Communications and Spectrum (formerly Time Warner Cable, Inc.) on February 1, 2017, alleging that they had failed to deliver the Internet speeds and reliable access to content promised to subscribers. Similarly, the West Virginia Attorney General’s investigation of Frontier Communications’ advertising and delivery of Internet services resulted in a November 2015 settlement that secured relief for many rural consumers in the state.

The Federal Communications Commission is on the receiving end of a warning from a bipartisan coalition of 35 state attorneys general. They're warning the F...

Court strikes down caps on prison telephone call prices

Calls to the outside will still be costly

Years ago, all long distance calls were pretty expensive. Today, with cellular proliferation and unlimited talk plans, only calls from prison are still pricey.

In fact, calls placed by inmates from prison can get incredibly expensive, so prison reform advocates persuaded the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to rein them in by placing caps on what telephone service companies can charge.

Now, a federal appeals court has ruled the FCC went too far, exceeding its authority. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has struck down those caps. FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, an Obama administration appointee who strongly backed the caps, is disappointed.

“It is a sad day for the more than 2.7 million children in this country with at least one incarcerated parent," Clyburn said in a statement. "But the families who have experienced the pain, anguish and financial burden of trying to communicate with a loved one in jail or prison, are still counting on us, so we will press on.”

Regulatory authority

The issue before the court was whether the federal agency had the authority to regulate the price of in-state telephone calls. The three-judge panel voted 2-1 that it did not, even though the justices acknowledged "extraordinarily high" rates and a general lack of competition to provide these services.

In many situations, jails and prisons work with private telephone companies to establish accounts to pay for inmate telephone calls. Inmate family members deposit money into the accounts to pay for the calls, and sometimes the institution takes a cut.

Prison reform advocates have long attacked the practice as exploiting what is literally a captive audience.

Not giving up

“I remain committed to doing everything I can from working with my colleagues at the Commission, to supporting the efforts of Congress and those in the states to bring relief to millions who continue to suffer from the greatest form of regulatory injustice I have seen in my 18 years as a regulator in the communications space,” Clyburn said.

Global Tel*Link, the telephone company that sued to overturn the FCC caps, provides this telephone service to many prisons and jails. Consumers posting reviews of the service at ConsumerAffairs have noted not just the cost of the calls, but the quality of the service.

"I've been using their services for four months now and calls would drop after four to five minutes of talking and they would charge for the whole 20 minutes, Kate, of Oklahoma City, wrote in a post.

Years ago, all long distance calls were pretty expensive. Today, with cellular proliferation and unlimited talk plans, only calls from prison are still pri...

New York City getting fourth area code

Because of the growth in mobile devices, Verizon is running out of numbers

The proliferation of mobile devices is requiring more and more telephone numbers. So many that Verizon has announced a fourth area code to cover parts of New York City.

Starting Saturday, June 10, customers in Manhattan requesting new service, either on a landline or using a wireless service, will be assigned a telephone number under a new area code – 332. The new area code joins 212, 646, and 917 as area codes covering Manhattan and surrounding boroughs and suburbs.

Since there are a finite number of numeric combinations with a three-digit exchange and four digit number, the need for additional area codes shows the impact of mobile phones. Until the 1990s, Manhattan was easily served by the 212 area code.

Status symbol

The 212 area code was so closely identified with New York City that it became something of a status symbol after the new 646 area code was introduced, a sentiment that inspired the scene below from the 1990s sitcom “Seinfeld.”

Verizon notes New York's population might not be growing that fast, but the population of mobile phones is. To ensure the supply of telephone numbers, it says it is overlaying the 332 area code over the borough of Manhattan served by the other three area codes.

Verizon stresses the new area code changes nothing for existing customers. No one is being reassigned to the new area code, it will only be used for new customers. In addition, Verizon says calls between the area codes will remain local calls.

“From your landline phone, you will continue to dial 1+ area code + telephone number for all calls,” Verizon said in a release. “From your mobile phone, you will continue to dial either the area code + telephone number or 1+ area code + telephone number for all calls.”

When listing your telephone number, Verizon say New Yorkers should continue to use all ten digits, including area code.

By the mid 1990s many U.S. cities had more than one area code, driven at first by the use of pagers and fax machines, then later the increasing use of cellphones. Today, landline growth is flat or declining while the need for numbers for mobile device continues to rise.

The proliferation of mobile devices is requiring more and more telephone numbers. So many that Verizon has announced a fourth area code to cover parts of N...

Congressman wants action on battery fires, explosions

Wants to know what the CPSC and FDA are doing about the problem

A New Jersey Congressman would like to energize the federal agencies he thinks should be doing more about the problem of fires and explosions caused by lithium-ion batteries.

The problem is not exactly new. The batteries have been causing problems for years, in hoverboards, laptops, smartphones, e-cigarettes and other gadgets, and Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) says the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should do something about it.

In a letter to the heads of each agency, Pallone is asking for a briefing to find out what, if anything, is being done. He notes that both agencies made an initial effort but that not much appears to have happened since then. 

Known fire risks

“For at least a decade, the known fire risks associated with lithium-ion batteries has resulted in countless Americans suffering from burns and disfigurements,” Pallone wrote. “It is a welcome start that CPSC has directed staff to address battery hazards, and that FDA has conducted a public workshop to explore the dangers of e-cigarette batteries. But work at both of your agencies has only just begun to address known battery safety problems that have harmed consumers. The federal government – through CPSC, FDA, and other agencies – must take even more decisive action with regard to the batteries themselves.”

Specifically, Pallone asked:

  • What are CPSC and FDA doing to collect data on the number of incidences of dangerous battery safety failures, such as fires or explosions?
  • What research has staff at CPSC and FDA done to inform policy actions, such as a consumer product safety rule or other safety standards?
  • What are CPSC and FDA doing to coordinate with each other and with other federal agencies?
  • Do CPSC and FDA have adequate resources to address battery safety problems in consumer devices?

Pallone is the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. His letter went to CPSC Acting Chairman Ann Marie Buerkle and FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb.

A New Jersey Congressman would like to energize the federal agencies he thinks should be doing more about the problem of fires and explosions caused by lit...

Is your train spying on you?

BART Watch app claims to be anonymous but suit says it isn't

Is your train spying on you? It might be if you live in the San Francisco area, where a consumer has sued the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, claiming it provides a smartphone app that tracks passengers' identities and movements.

Pamela Moreno alleges that the BART Watch app collects users' personal information from their smartphones and then tracks their location and movements, all without user consent, Courthouse News Service reported.

BART encourages passengers to download the app and use it to anonymously report crimes in progress, but Moreno's suit claims it does much more than that. 

“Defendants have amassed a trove of data through the app,” Moreno says in the complaint. “BART, or any of the agencies it shares resources with, now have the ability to match previous nondescript numerical identifiers with personally identifying information.”

Similar to Stingray

Moreno's suit says the app, manufactured by Elerts Corp., is similar to the Stingray cell phone tracker, widely used by police agencies. The Stingray mimics cell towers and forces cellphones within range to disclose their numeric identifiers. 

The Stingray doesn't capture any personal information, but Moreno claims that the BART app captures the cell phone numeric identifier and the users' personal information, then links them together, allowing BART to identify passengers and track their movements.

BART denies Moreno's allegations and says the app reveals a passenger's location only when the passenger is using it to report a crime in progress.  

“The safety and privacy of our riders are a priority and we want to make clear we are not using ELERTS system for any other purpose than responding to security and safety reports made by our riders,” a spokeswoman told Courthouse News. 

But BART does not tell users that it has their cyber "fingerprint" and misleads them into thinking they can report a crime anonymously, Moreno's suit argues. 

“[S]hould a transit user submit an ‘anonymous’ tip, defendants still collect and transmit to their servers identifying information. As such, these reports are not anonymous at all,” the complaint states.

Is your train spying on you? It might be if you live in the San Francisco area, where a consumer has sued the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, claiming it...

Net neutrality fight turns nasty

Verizon VP accuses opponents of using the issue to raise funds

The fight over net neutrality is turning nasty. Although it's a topic that doesn't stir much interest in your average consumer, those who have opinions hold them very strongly.

Take Craig Sillman. He's a Verizon vice president in charge of what is called "public policy" (i.e., lobbying), and he is not happy with groups that describe themselves as "public policy" advocates, like Free Press and Fight for the Future.

Sillman says a lot of these groups are just out to raise money from their supporters and will say whatever it takes to make their point.  

"You gotta understand, there are a lot of advocacy groups out there that fundraise on this issue," said Sillman. "So how do you fundraise? You stir people up with outrageous claims. Unfortunately, we live in a time where people have discovered that it doesn't matter what's true, you just say things to rile up the base."

So is this a gotcha' incident? Something Sillman said behind closed doors? No, oddly enough it's part of a video released by Verizon recently. It's what you might call a "fake news" video in which an apparent Verizon employee identified only as "Jeremy" questions Sillman as though he were a reporter.

But despite Sillman's rather self-serving claim, non-profit advocacy groups aren't the only ones expressing concern about the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman's plan to deep-six net neutrality rules -- and not everyone is driven by financial motives.

"Open and equal access"

“The internet must remain open and accessible to everyone,” said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan in a recent statement. “Open and equal access to the internet is crucial to information sharing and competition. The FCC’s proposal would allow internet service providers to pick winners and losers among content providers and their customers. I urge the FCC Commissioners to vote against this proposal.”

Sillman would perhaps say that Madigan is just saying what she thinks voters want to hear, but judging from the mail and the reader statistics that let websites like ours count how many people read a given story, net neutrality is not exactly a barn-burner topic.

It is true that conservative interests and Republicans tend to favor deregulating big telecom companies like Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast while liberals and Democrats generally want to treat them like utilities, regulating rates and requiring that all users get the level of service they're paying for.

In the case of net neutrality, the rules put in place by the Obama-era FCC require companies like Verizon to treat all traffic equally. Since Verizon owns AOL, Yahoo, and other content providers, critics say it might tend to favor its own traffic over competitors. This is the allegation that Sillman and new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai say is strictly theoretical and doesn't have to be dealt with until and if it actually becomes a problem.

Critics like Madigan disagree. "Existing net neutrality rules prohibit internet service providers like AT&T or Comcast from discriminating among customers and content providers. They also ensure that when consumers purchase internet access, they can reach the content of their choice without interference and that any website can reach customers without having to negotiate or pay for special access," she said.

What could actually happen if net neutrality rules are scrapped? Madigan lists these possibilities:

  • Consumers being unable or forced to pay to access certain websites;
  • Decreased competition as start-ups fight for access with larger, established companies; and
  • Telecommunications companies that also own media companies giving preferential treatment to media content they own, putting smaller content providers and their customers at a disadvantage.

"No evidence of systemic failure"

FCC chair Pai has argued that there was no need to implement the net neutrality rules in the first place. 

"There was no evidence of systemic failure in the Internet marketplace. As I said at the time, 'One could read the entire document . . . without finding anything more than hypothesized harms.' Or, in other words, public-utility regulation was a solution that wouldn’t work for a problem that didn’t exist," he said in a speech late last year. 

The FCC is expected to vote at its May 18 meeting to eliminate the new rules. Free Press, one of the groups that drew Sillman's wrath, has been trying to raise $100,000 to fight the repeal.

"It's official. Trump and Pai plan to destroy net neutrality," says the FreePress.net site, insisting it's not too late. "Chairman Pai could still back down if he wants to leave the dark side."

The fight over net neutrality is turning nasty. Although it's a topic that doesn't stir much interest in your average consumer, those who have opinions hol...

Digital advertising company settles charges it deceived consumers

Turn's privacy policy misled consumers about how they could block tracking, FTC charged

Turn, a digital advertising company, has bowed to Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that it continued tracking consumers even after they opted out of online tracking and then misrepresented its actions to those consumers.

The Redwood City, Calif., company uses technology that enables advertisers to target digital ads to consumers through their mobile devices. Its privacy policy told consumers they could block targeted ads by using their web browser to block or limit cookies.

But the FTC charges that Turn used unique identifiers to track tens of millions of Verizon Wireless customers, even after they blocked or deleted cookies from websites. The opt-out mechanism also only applied to mobile browsers.

The FTC consent order bars Turn from misrepresenting the extent of its online tracking or the ability of users to limit or control the company’s use of their data. Turn also must provide an effective opt-out for consumers who do not want their information used for targeted advertising and place a prominent hyperlink on its home page that takes consumers to a disclosure explaining what information the company collects and uses for targeted advertising

Turn, a digital advertising company, has bowed to Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charges that it continued tracking consumers even after they opted out of...

Samsung seeking a reset with the Galaxy S8

New phone said to offer greater speed and safer battery

After last year's traumatic withdrawal of the Galaxy Note 7 smartphone, which turned out to be a fire hazard, Samsung is hoping to turn the page with the release of the Galaxy S8. The company this week began releasing details about the device.

The Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+ will be the company's flagship smartphones, designed to go head to head with the Apple iPhone, which got a huge break last year as its rival struggled with the Note 7.

Samsung is touting the S8's Infinity Display, as well as the introduction of new services and apps. It promises the new phone will bring a new level of functionality and convenience.

'Regaining your trust'

“The Samsung Galaxy S8 ushers in a new era of smartphone design and fantastic new services, opening up new ways to experience the world,” said DJ Koh, President of Mobile Communications Business, Samsung Electronics. “The Galaxy S8 is our testament to regaining your trust by redefining what’s possible in safety and marks a new milestone in Samsung’s smartphone legacy.”

The reference to safety obviously has to do with the fact that the company's most recent smartphone offering had the distressing tendency to catch fire. It occurred in dozens of instances when the lithium ion battery overheated and exploded.

In one high-profile case, captured on a video that went viral, it occurred on a commercial aircraft moments before take-off. It prompted airlines to ban the device from flights.

Performance boosting

In praising the new device's other attributes, Samsung says the S8 raises the level of performance, equipped with a 10 nm chip, boosting speed and efficiency. The camera features an 8MP F1.7 smart autofocus front camera and 12MP F1.7 dual pixel rear camera.

Samsung says the new device is optimized for video viewing, providing much richer colors than in previous models. It's graphic technology is optimized for gaming and comes with Game Pack, which includes a variety of popular games.

In its review, Tech site CNET focuses on improvements in Bluetooth technology. It says the phone's Bluetooth 5 short range networks send data twice as fast or four times as far. It also says Samsung spent a lot of time and effort on developing a battery that doesn't overheat.

The phone is available for pre-order at many retailers, including Sam's Club, which is also offering members who order the phone by April 12 a free Samsung Gear VR and controller plus $50 in Oculus content.

After last year's traumatic withdrawal of the Galaxy Note 7 smartphone, which turned out to be a fire hazard, Samsung is hoping to turn the page with the r...

Apple releases its latest upgrade, giving a boost to storage

The upgrade uses a new file system which packs more data into the same space

If you have an iPhone or iPad, it's time to download and install the latest upgrade, officially known as iOS 10.3. Perhaps the most interesting feature is that the upgrade frees up space on your device.

That's because it replaces Apple's 31-year-old Hierarchical File System (HFS) with a new system dubbed Apple File System (APFS). HFS was originally designed for floppy discs whereas APFS is written with iPhones and other modern devices in mind.

To update your iPhone or iPad, go to Settings, General, and then Software Update. Can't be bothered? You can simply wait and Apple will eventually download the update to your phone automatically and ask you to accept it.

Do a backup

However you download the file, before you click the Install button, you should back up your existing data (learn how here), since it's possible the conversion to a new file system will result in some data loss. The device should also be plugged in, since the conversion can take quite a while.

The primary advantage of the new file system -- which is completely invisible to the average user -- is that it makes better use of the space available on your hard drive. Also, it automatically encrypts all data, making it harder for prying eyes to eavesdrop or make off with your private information.

The new software also includes a feature that helps you find lost AirPods, the wireless earphones that are used with the iPhone 7. 

If you have an iPhone or iPad, it's time to download and install the latest upgrade, officially known as iOS 10.3. Perhaps the most interesting feature is...

Could smartphones get even smarter?

A Rutgers team is trying to help your phone understand you better

Your smartphone can often clamor for your attention like a three year-old. There are chimes for text messages, Twitter posts, email arrivals, and news alerts. Sometimes it seems like your phone never shuts up.

What if your smartphone was a little smarter, only interrupting you for things that were really important to you, and only when it was convenient to receive them? It would have to know you a little better and be a little smarter.

“Ideally, a smartphone notification management system should be like an excellent human secretary who knows when you want to be interrupted or left alone,” said Janne Lindqvist, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in Rutgers’ School of Engineering.

Since all of us seem to struggle with time management, Lindqvist says a smartphone could actually be a help instead of a nuisance.

Options are limited

But currently, he says, your options are pretty limited. You can turn off the ringer, but then you might not get any notifications. Lindqvist and his colleagues have been working on a system that would turn your phone into an assistant that would recognize your patterns of use and behavior, then alert you to things you really need to know about, but otherwise minimize interruptions.

The Rutgers study looked at smartphone records from 22 participants over a four-week period. From that, researchers were able to determine how busy the participants were. They then built a model to tell the smartphone how open to being interrupted the participants were, at different times and places, and when they were engaged in a range of activities.

For example, some participants were happy to be interrupted when they were in medical facilities, probably because they were waiting to see a doctor and were bored. They were less agreeable to smartphone alerts when they were studying, working out at the gym, or driving.

A smarter smartphone system

With that data in hand, the Rutgers team is working on a system for smarter smartphone notifications.

“We could, for example, optimize our model to allow smartphone customization to match different preferences, such as always allowing someone to interrupt you,” Lindqvist said. “This would be something an excellent human secretary would know. A call from your kids or their daycare should always pass through, no matter the situation, while some people might want to ignore their relatives, for example.”

Ideally, says Lindqvist, a smartphone should learn this automatically. As of now, though, notifications depend on a user's settings, such as turning on or off certain alerts. The Rutgers system, should it come to fruition, would be more like a human secretary, he says, in that it is able to make smart predictions.

Your smartphone can often clamor for your attention like a three year-old. There are chimes for text messages, Twitter posts, email arrivals, and news aler...

New app improves the survivability of a heart attack

Carmaforlife uses timers and protocols to direct practitioners through a cardiac event

A new study from Bridgeport Hospital in Connecticut showed that a recently released app called Carmaforlife can be an effective tool in improving the survivability of a heart attack.

The app features educational content designed to help practitioners guide a code blue team through resuscitation. The idea behind Carmaforlife is to keep medical health professionals up to date on the Advanced Cardiac Life Support protocols set forth by the American Heart Association.

The new study found that Carmaforlife helped improve survival rates of a cardiac arrest by 21%, from 57% to 78%. Additionally, the number of patients who were able to go home after having a heart attack improved by 64%.

'Immediate results'

The founder of the company behind the app, ACLS Solutions, detailed the impressive results of the study at the Joseph A. Zacanino conference at Yale New Haven Health System recently.

“All of the resident physicians and critical care doctors and nurses have come to rely on this app and they know that in the most difficult and stressful situations they face it has made them better practitioners and they see the immediate results,” said Gloria Bindelglass, ACLS Solutions’ CEO and founder.

Carmaforlife (also known as the Cardiac Arrest Resuscitation Mobile Application) aims to assist doctors in situations where precise timing is critical via a series of countdown timers. The different protocols for each different type of cardiac arrest are listed in detail and interact with the timers to direct practitioners.

Helps with timing

An audible metronome within the app and practice sessions with mock code simulations help practitioners pace their chest compressions perfectly.

As the code progresses, the app documents everything being done in real time. This feature not only saves doctors time by eliminating the need to record manually, it could improve the accuracy of the medical record and allow for a more detailed review of the performance by the team.

Finally, the app helps the team leader determine the possible cause of the heart attack, which could help expedite and improve patient recovery. ACLS Solutions suggested that the app could be used not only in the hospital, but in the prehospital setting by paramedics in the field or even by corpsman in the military.

A new study from Bridgeport Hospital in Connecticut showed that a recently released app called Carmaforlife can be an effective tool in improving the survi...

T-Mobile responds to Verizon's unlimited data plan

The company is making some offers of its own to boost the competition

In a recent report, we detailed Verizon’s decision to introduce an unlimited data plan. Executives boasted that it was a move that would allow the company to build for the future, but the folks over at T-Mobile have a few bones to pick with the decision.

In an announcement on the company website, T-Mobile President and CEO John Legere alleged that Verizon’s new offering was a move of necessity prompted by other carriers that offer better deals – namely, T-Mobile.

“I don’t blame Verizon for caving. They just lost their network advantage, and they know it. . . and more importantly, more and more customers know it. Their back’s against the wall,” he said. “This is what the Un-carrier does – drag the carriers kicking and screaming into the future. Next up, we’re going to force them to include monthly taxes and fees. Mark my words.”

Upping the ante

To back up these strong words, T-Mobile declared that it would be making some offers of its own. Starting on February 17, the company said that T-Mobile ONE unlimited data subscribers would no longer be charged for watching full HD non-throttled video.

It is also increasing the cap for free data tethering to 10 GB per month for customers who like to use their phones as mobile hotspots and connect other devices to the internet. After reaching this cap, users will still have access to unlimited 3G data through the end of the month. Lastly, it said that it will be offering two new lines on T-Mobile ONE for $100.

Customers who want to take advantage of the new offers will be able to do so on February 17 by activating them in the T-Mobile app or online at my.t-mobile.com.

While T-Mobile’s actions will undoubtedly raise some consumer eyebrows, it may prompt additional actions by other carriers like Verizon who feel they need to offer more to retain customers. And, thankfully, while all that is going on, consumers may be able to rake in great savings and attractive new features.

In a recent report, we detailed Verizon’s decision to introduce an unlimited data plan. Executives boasted that it was a move that would allow the company...

Five apps to help you plan the perfect Valentine's Day

For help securing a reservation or booking tickets, look no further than your phone

With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, you might have already started thinking of ways to make the day a special one for your significant other. But who couldn’t use some help planning the perfect Valentine’s Day?

Last year, nearly 91% of consumers said they would buy something for their spouse or significant other and planned to spend roughly $147, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF).

This year, shoppers are expected to spend slightly less ($136.57) on Valentine’s Day gifts, experiences, and other purchases. But although consumers may be feeling more frugal this Valentine’s Day, the occasion is still expected to be a popular day for gift-giving.

Luckily for those who aren’t the most gifted gift-givers, a few apps are available to help you spoil your sweetheart.

Helpful apps

Whether you are planning to treat your significant other to dinner and a movie, flowers, or the gift of a memorable experience, there’s an app out there to help you execute those plans.

The following apps can help you plan a very special Valentine’s Day, according to the experts at Gazelle ecoATM:

  • OpenTable. Those dinner reservations aren’t going to make themselves. With OpenTable, you can make them on your phone. This app can help you secure a reservation at the restaurant of your choice before it’s all booked up.
  • Flixster. Flixster lets you see what movies are playing in a theater near you, when, and what people think of them. You can even get your tickets through the app.
  • Spotify. Every memorable day needs a soundtrack, and Spotify can help you create the perfect Valentine’s Day playlist. Short on time? The app also has pre-made Valentine’s Day mixes.
  • LivingSocial. Roughy 40% of shoppers want an experience-based gift this year, according to the NRF. Whether your partner is into kayaking, wine tasting, or spa treatments, LivingSocial can help you find the perfect discounted activity for your Valentine’s afternoon.
  • ProFlowers. Fresh flowers are a Valentine’s Day must-have for many. Apps like ProFlowers let you order flowers and have them delivered right to your doorstep.
With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, you might have already started thinking of ways to make the day a special one for your significant other. But...

New FCC chairman is no friend of net neutrality

Consumer privacy protection rules also likely on the chopping block

As expected, President Trump has named Ajit Pai chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, spreading joy throughout the advertising and telecommunications worlds.

The Association of National Advertisers greeted the expected announcement jubilantly, anticipating a quick end to the privacy and net neutrality rules pushed through by Pai's predecessor. In an unusually blunt statement, the organization gave Pai his marching orders. 

"ANA anticipates Pai will likely respond positively to its request – made alongside ISP’s and other industry groups – for a full reconsideration of the sweeping privacy rules imposed on ISP’s under former Chairman Tom Wheeler," said the ANA in a news release.  "And as Pai now leads a Republican majority of the FCC, he will also likely reexamine the expansion of the Commission’s regulatory authority under net neutrality rules."

Pai's appointment came at about the same time as the Federal Trade Commission's release of a staff report warning of the privacy risks presented by cross-device tracking of consumers. 

The FTC report recommends that, at the very least, companies that engage in cross-device tracking have an obligation to tell consumers they're doing it and to offer them a chance to opt out. Those who track such sensitive data as health and financial information should be required to seek permission in advance, the report recommends.

"Days are numbered"

Pai, a Republican, was nominated to the FCC by President Obama in 2011. (By law, only three of the five commissioners may be members of the same party). A Harvard Law graduate, he is the son of immigrants from India and grew up in Parsons, Kansas. He has been a critic of many of Wheeler's initiatives, particularly net neutrality. The FCC in March 2015 adopted rules that treat broadband service as a utility and require internet service providers to treat all traffic equally. 

In a speech in December 2016, Pai said the rule's "days are numbered," arguing that the net neutrality rules were adopted without any evidence that they were needed.

"There was no evidence of systemic failure in the Internet marketplace. As I said at the time, 'One could read the entire document . . . without finding anything more than hypothesized harms.' Or, in other words, public-utility regulation was a solution that wouldn’t work for a problem that didn’t exist."

Privacy rules

In October 2016, the FCC adopted new rules protecting consumer privacy on the internet. The rules give broadband customers tools to make informed choices about how their personal information is used and shared by internet service providers.

"It's the consumers' information," said then-FCC Chairman Wheeler when the proposal was unveiled, "and the consumer should have the right to determine how it's used."

Industry groups fought the proposal bitterly. USTelecom called it a "naked power grab." On Jan. 3, the group filed a petition asking the FCC to modify the rules, "to reflect cost-benefit consideration" and avoid conflict with existing FTC privacy rules. 

"Broadband for all"

In a speech to the FCC staff today, Pai said that "bringing broadband to all Americans" would be his top priority. 

"There is a digital divide in this country—between those who can use cutting-edge communications services and those who do not," he said. "I believe one of our core priorities going forward should be to close that divide—to do what’s necessary to help the private sector build networks, send signals, and distribute information to American consumers, regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or anything else."

As expected, President Trump has named Ajit Pai chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, spreading joy throughout the advertising and telecommuni...

New app uses AR and VR technology to showcase a property's potential

RoOomy Reality lets home buyers see their interior design vision in different spaces

While meandering through an open house, you might pause to imagine your interior design vision executed in the space. But imagining a home that isn’t yours decked out in furnishings and accessories that you love isn’t always easy.

In fact, 90% of consumers have difficulty visualizing a space, according to the experts at Climb Real Estate and VR home design startup roOomy. To help solve this dilemma, the companies partnered with the augmented reality team at Google’s Tango to create a new app called roOomy Reality.

With roOomy Reality, consumers can virtually decorate various rooms, then take their designs to open houses and see what their vision would look like in different homes with the AR Google Tango camera.

Real-time view of interiors

By combining live views of interiors with a consumer’s own ideas, the roOomy Reality platform aims to help consumers “make informed purchase designs on homes and home furnishings.”

Users can bring their interior design vision to life by browsing roOomy’s catalog of 100,000 3D products from 35 home furnishing retailers -- and they can toggle between AR and VR views while doing so.

In addition to helping buyers visualize various spaces, the app may also help real estate agents showcase their properties.

Use in real estate

Home staging can expedite the process of selling a property, but roOomy may take the benefits of home staging a step further by helping consumers picture a space filled with furnishings that suit their taste.

“Homes that are well-staged sell faster and for more money as consumers struggle with fully visualizing a space’s potential,” said Pieter Aarts, CEO and Co-Founder of roOomy. “roOomy is eliminating this problem with its AR/VR app by allowing shoppers to easily experience how interior design styles and home furnishing products will look room to room.”

“RoOomy’s platform powered by Tango utilizing mobile devices will be an invaluable tool for our agents, buyers and sellers alike,” added Mark Choey, CTO and Co-Founder of Climb. “We are excited to offer home buyers an experience that will help them feel more confident in their big purchases, while providing our agents with a way to better showcase their properties.”

RoOomy will initially be rolled out to a group of real estate agents at Climb Real Estate, but will be available in the Google Play Store later this month.

While meandering through an open house, you might pause to imagine your interior design vision executed in the space. But imagining a home that isn’t yours...

Qualcomm monopolizes cell phone component markets, FTC charges

The company says the FTC doesn't understand its business and is using a flawed argument

It's possible that you've never heard of Qualcomm, but chances are you have one or more of its products in your smartphone, tablet, or other consumer electronics product. In fact, Qualcomm is so dominant that it's a virtual certainty you do.

That, says the Federal Trade Commission, is the problem. It has filed suit in federal court charging Qualcomm with using anticompetitive tactics to maintain its monopoly in the supply of a key semiconductor device used in cell phones and other consumer products.

Qualcomm says the suit is "based on a flawed legal theory, a lack of economic support and significant misconceptions about the mobile technology industry." 

Qualcomm is the world’s dominant supplier of baseband processors – vital components in cellular communications products. The FTC alleges that Qualcomm has used its dominant position "to impose onerous and anticompetitive supply and licensing terms on cell phone manufacturers and to weaken competitors."

"Never withheld"

Qualcomm denies that. "Qualcomm has never withheld or threatened to withhold chip supply in order to obtain agreement to unfair or unreasonable licensing terms. The FTC’s allegation to the contrary -- the central thesis of the complaint -- is wrong," the company said in a prepared statement.

By excluding competitors, Qualcomm impedes innovation that would offer significant consumer benefits, including those that foster the increased interconnectivity of consumer products, vehicles, buildings, and other items commonly referred to as the Internet of Things, the suit argues.

Qualcomm says that argument is flawed. "The complaint seeks to advance the interests and bargaining power of companies that have generated billions in profit from sales of products made possible by the fundamental 3G and 4G cellular technology developed by innovators like Qualcomm," it said.

The complaint alleges that Qualcomm:

  • Maintains a “no license, no chips” policy under which it will supply its baseband processors only on the condition that cell phone manufacturers agree to Qualcomm’s preferred license terms.   
  • Refuses to license standard-essential patents to competitors.  
  • Extracted exclusivity from Apple in exchange for reduced patent royalties. 

FTC Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen voted against the filing and issued a dissenting statement, saying the FTC's action "lacks economic and evidentiary support ... was brought on the eve of a new presidential administration, and that, by its mere issuance, will undermine U.S. intellectual property rights in Asia and worldwide.” 

It's possible that you've never heard of Qualcomm, but chances are you have one or more of its products in your smartphone, tablet, or other consumer elect...

New app can help determine your risk of catching a cold

ColdSense combines your health history with local data to create a personalized risk profile

Between the sniffles, sneezes, and the reading on the thermometer, it’s not hard to tell when you’ve got a cold. It’s also not too difficult to sense when a cold is coming on -- but figuring out when you were exposed to the cold is another story.

Now, there’s a new app that may help you find out. ColdSense, from the makers of Zicam, looks at various factors in your lifestyle and environment to analyze your risk of catching a cold. It does so with the help of smartphone sensors and data stored in your device.

"We live in an age when nearly everyone has a smartphone with them 24/7," said M'Lou Walker, CEO of Zicam. "And because we take them everywhere, our smartphones can help alert us to our likelihood of exposure to the common cold.”

The result, she says, is an app that gives consumers a way to analyze various health and environmental factors that could translate to an elevated cold risk.

Detects risk factors

In addition to listening for coughs, sneezes, and other symptoms of a cold, ColdSense looks at data in your smartphone to determine your risk of coming down with a cold.

With your permission, the app checks out your location, recent travels, calendar activities, sleep and health data, local weather, and even the frequency of coughs and sneezes in your area to help determine your likelihood of catching a cold.

"No one has time to put up with a cold for longer than necessary," said Lori Norian, vice president of marketing at Zicam, in a statement. "ColdSense uses the latest in smartphone technology to provide an engaging and playful way to detect potential risk factors throughout cold season."

Medication reminders

Users who are already taking medication for a cold can also receive a notification to let them know when it’s time for their next dose. The ultimate goal of the Zicam-sponsored app, said Norian, is to encourage consumers to be more mindful of their health.

“We just want to give a heightened awareness and consumer value,” she told the Observer. “If they’re sick, what contributed and how can they start treatment right away?”

While the app shouldn’t be used in place of a doctor or as a substitute for medical advice, it might make cold season a little easier to get through. ColdSense is available on the iTunes App Store.

Between the sniffles, sneezes, and the reading on the thermometer, it’s not hard to tell when you’ve got a cold. It’s also not too difficult to sense when...

Hidden fees cost consumers billions, report finds

Telecommunications providers the worst, often adding 25% to the stated price

American consumers are spending billions of dollars each year on hidden fees that are added on after the purchase decision has been made, a new report finds.

The National Economic Council's report documents how hidden fees on a wide range of goods and services cost consumers, and the just-released FTC Bureau of Economics research paper cites consumer harm due to hotels disclosing mandatory resort fees separately from the posted room rates. 

The studies follow a Consumer Federation of America report presented recently to the Senate Judiciary Committee documenting the abuse of market power by four companies (AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and Charter) that dominate communications services.

CFA estimated that this “tight oligopoly on steroids” facilitates the overcharging of consumers by about 25% (almost $60 billion) per year for needed services.

25% added to the total

“My household bills look very much like those of a typical consumer which we modelled in the paper – two cell phones, cable, broadband and landline telephone,” said Dr. Mark Cooper, CFA’s Director of Research and author of the CFA’s report. “Hidden fees – excluding the price of the service, taxes and governmental fees, added about 25% to my total bill.”

While companies in nearly every sector are guilty of the hidden-fee gambit, communications companies are the worst, Cooper said.

“The Hidden Fees report documents a pervasive pattern of abuse across many industries,” said Cooper, “but hidden fees on communications services are particularly troubling because these digital services have become absolute necessities in the American household.”

“Some of the hidden fees described in the NEC report, such as car dealer add-on charges for advertising, inventory, documentation and delivery, have been problems for years and little has been done to stop them,” said Susan Grant, Director of Consumer Protection and Privacy at CFA. “Consumers are being deliberately fooled by advertised prices that fail to include the full amount they’ll have to pay, not just for cars but for an increasing number of goods and services.”

The hidden-free epidemic makes comparison shopping difficult and, sometimes, impossible, said Charlie Leocha, President of Travelers United. “The new FTC research paper shows that consumers are harmed by misleading advertising that does not include mandatory fees and airlines still refuse to reveal ancillary fees everywhere airline tickets are sold.”

Cooper said the hidden-fee epidemic offers the Trump Administration an opportunity to provide middle-class consumers some relief by requiring businesses to disclose all fees upfront.

American consumers are spending billions of dollars each year on hidden fees that are added on after the purchase decision has been made, a new report find...

Feds want airlines to decide whether to allow in-flight phone calls

If calls are allowed, proposed federal rule would require airlines to notify passengers in advance

Should phone calls be allowed on airliners? Federal rules currently prohibit it, but that could change under a proposal from the U.S. Transportation Department, which is suggesting that airlines should have the right to decide what their policy is, as long as they notify passengers well in advance.

“Consumers deserve to have clear and accurate information about whether an airline permits voice calls before they purchase a ticket and board the aircraft,” said Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx.  “Today’s proposal will ensure that air travelers are not unwillingly exposed to voice calls, as many of them are troubled over the idea of passengers talking on cell phones in flight.”

Not everyone agrees, including the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. President Sara Nelson said anything short of a total ban is "reckless" saying that allowing calls "threatens aviation security and increases the likelihood of conflict in the skies."

The airline trade association, Airlines for America, said it doesn't think the government should get involved and spokesmen for various airlines were lukewarm to the whole idea and said they have no plans to allow in-flight calls.

Jurisidiction issues

It gets a little confusing because there's more than one agency potentially involved in setting rules. Currently, the Federal Communications Commission’s rules prohibit the use of cellphone frequencies to make voice calls on commercail flights.

However, the FCC rules don't cover Wi-Fi, Skype, and other methods consumers could use to make calls. But most domestic airlines prohibit voice calls and the Transportation Department (DOT), which includes the Federal Aviation Administration, is largely silent on the matter.

But with increasing bandwidth becoming available as airlines upgrade their systems, there is growing pressure from consumers and others who think calls should be permitted.

While not coming down firmly on either side of the issue, Foxx's agency is proposing that airlines could decide what to do, while notifying consumers at every step of the decision-making process. 

DOT said it believes that allowing voice calls, without providing adequate notice, would be an unfair and deceptive practice. As technologies advance, the cost of making voice calls may decrease and the quality of voice call service may increase, leading to a higher prevalence of voice calls and a greater risk of passenger harm, or at least annoyance.

The proposed rule requires airlines to notify passengers if voice calls are allowed on a flight but does not require any notification if calls are not allowed.

Have an opinion? You can go to www.regulations.gov, docket number DOT-OST-2014-0002, and submit your comments.

Should phone calls be allowed on airliners? Federal rules currently prohibit it, but that could change under a proposal from the U.S. Transportation Depart...

Gooligan malware infects 1 million Google accounts

Older Android devices are susceptible to the malware

An attack campaign dubbed Gooligan has infected more than 1 million Google accounts, with 13,000 new devices being breached each day, according to Check Point Software Technologies Ltd., a cyber security firm.

The malware, which affects older versions of the Android system, steals authentication tokens that can be used to access data from Google Play, Gmail, Google Photos, Google Docs, G Suite, Google Drive, and more, Check Point said.

“We’re appreciative of both Check Point’s research and their partnership as we’ve worked together to understand these issues,” said Adrian Ludwig, Google’s director of Android security. “As part of our ongoing efforts to protect users from the Ghost Push family of malware, we’ve taken numerous steps to protect our users and improve the security of the Android ecosystem overall.”

Gooligan can potentially infect about 74% of Android devices, including those running Android 4 -- which includes Jelly Bean and KitKat -- and Android 5 (Lollipop), the researchers said.

What to do

The malware is contained in tens of thousands of fake apps. Check Point has set up a test page on its site where you can see if your device is infected.

An attack campaign dubbed Gooligan has infected more than 1 million Google accounts, with 13,000 new devices being breached each day, according to Check Po...

Apple offers fix for iPhone 6 Plus 'touch disease'

The problem occurs after the phone has been dropped a few times

Owners of iPhone 6 Plus devices have been complaining of "touch disease," a flickering bar the appears at the top of the screen for no apparent reason.

Apple is now offering a fix for the problem, which it says occurs when the phone has been dropped on a hard surface too many times or has been subjected to other stresses. The repair costs $149. Customers who have already paid more than that can apply for a refund of the difference. More information can be found here.

There's some controversy about the cause of the problem. While it may be true that dropping the phone is the most obvious cause, some techies are saying it's a design flaw.

iFixit, a tech repair site, says the placement of touch-screen chips causes them to work loose "as the phone flexes or twists" during normal use. You may recall that when the rather lengthy 6 Plus was introduced, some users found that they could bend it with their bare hands, which was probably not something Apple designers expected.

The flexibility issue is at the heart of several class action lawsuits that have been filed against the company. Apple's offer to fix the problem for a fairly nominal charge may short-circuit that action.

Owners of iPhone 6 Plus devices have been complaining of "touch disease," a flickering bar the appears at the top of the screen for no apparent reason....

Mozilla introduces mobile browser that blocks tracking

For now, it's only available for iOS devices

Mozilla has rolled out a new mobile browser for iOS, Firefox Focus, that blocks third-party trackers, increasing privacy and possibly speeding up page-loading times.

"We live in an age where too many users have lost trust and lack meaningful controls over their digital lives," wrote Mozilla's Nick Nguyen in a blog posting. "For some users, it seems as though your web activities can follow you everywhere – across devices, across accounts."

Nguyen said that's where Firefox Focus comes in.

"For the times when you don’t want to leave a record on your phone. You may be looking for information that in certain situations is sensitive – searches for engagement rings, flights to Las Vegas or expensive cigars, for example. And sometimes you just want a super simple, super fast Web experience – no tabs, no menus, no pop-ups."

While the new browser, available in the App Store, is only for Apple iOS devices, Mozilla Firefox browser allows users to block third-party ads and prevent tracking by choosing the "private browsing" option.

A few years ago, Mozilla had said it would introduce a version of Firefox for desktop and laptop users that would block tracking by default, but the non-profit organization backed down in the face of strong protests by the advertising industry.

Mozilla has rolled out a new mobile browser for iOS, Firefox Focus, that blocks third-party trackers, increasing privacy and possibly speeding up page-load...

Switzerland-based ProtonMail brings tight security to email

Email doesn't have to be an insecure medium, as this fast-growing start-up shows

Everyone knows by now that email is not a secure transmission medium and that everyone from the NSA to Google's ad researchers are constantly scanning emails for purposes both noble and profane.

But like most things that everyone knows, it's no longer true. There are several email providers that promise secure, private, confidential service. Perhaps the most popular and user-friendly is ProtonMail, which uses end-to-end encryption to protect emails from snooping.

Oh, and did we mention that the company is based in Switzerland and has no servers on United States soil? That provides another layer of protection, since even a federal court order would not force ProtonMail to give up information about its users, as U.S. technology companies do routinely.

“One of the key things we want to do is control our servers and make sure all the servers are in Switzerland which will increase privacy because Switzerland doesn’t do things like seize servers or tape conversations,” said co-founder Andy Yen.

Private keys

Launched in May 2014, ProtonMail has had some growing pains. Early demand overloaded its servers but crowdfunding brought in $550,000 and the company recently raised another $2 million. It currently has about 350,000 users, including journalists, businesspeople, and activists who value privacy in their communications.

Yen told ConsumerAffairs that the encryption method his company uses ensures that no one -- not the government, a hacker, or even ProtonMail itself -- can gain access to a user's email.

That's because it uses a "key" system that encrypts each piece of email in the user's browser before it is sent. Only the user has the key, without which the email can't be unlocked. Even if a hacker broke into the ProtonMail system, he would not be able to read any of the emails on the company's servers without having each user's key, which is not stored anywhere on the system.

While most of us probably aren't exchanging information with confidential sources or moles deep within government agencies, many consumers worry with good reason about their emails being read by hackers, while others simply resent seeing advertisements based on subjects discussed in their emails. For such people, ProtonMail is the answer.

I've been using ProtonMail for the last week or so without incident. I had no trouble getting it up and running and found the layout to be attractive and intuitive. There are plans ranging from free to a few hundred dollars per year for corporate accounts that accommodate multiple domains and mailboxes. 

Keep in mind that ProtonMail is still in its early stages. Its email is just that -- email. There are no calendars, word processors or other bells and whistles, although there are filters, labels, and other enhancements we've all come to expect. The corporate plans accommodate multiple domains and mailboxes but each user must log into the master account to send and download mail, something Yen says will be fixed in the next iteration.

However, those are minor drawbacks for anyone who places a high value on privacy. 

Everyone knows by now that email is not a secure transmission medium and that everyone from the NSA to Google's ad researchers are constantly scanning emai...

GOP to FCC: Take the rest of the term off

Do nothing complex or controversial, the agency is told

It's not Jan. 20, 2017 yet and Barack Obama is still president of the United States, but Republican senators want the Federal Communications Commission to sit on its hands until the Trump Administration takes office.

The agency is scheduled to meet today, but in a letter yesterday, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) advised the commissioners to kick back and take life easy for the next few months. Thune is chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus. 

In a letter, Thune advised the agency not to take on any “complex, partisan, or otherwise controversial” initiatives, and said anything the FCC did or plans to do post-election day will get a closer look.

“Any action taken by the FCC following Nov. 8, 2016, will receive particular scrutiny,” Thune wrote. “I strongly urge the FCC to avoid directing its attention and resources in the coming months to complex, partisan, or otherwise controversial items that the new Congress and new Administration will have an interest in reviewing.”

Set-top boxes maybe?

While Thune didn't specify what he had in mind, the FCC has several complex and controversial items on its agenda, most notably the proposal to free consumers from having to rent set-top boxes to get cable TV service, something that the White House and Chairman Tom Wheeler have been supporting. 

The telecommunications industry is fervently against the notion while the online world and most consumer organizations are equally adamant in supporting it. 

It's estimated that consumers spend $20 billion a year to rent the boxes. Under Wheeler's plan, you would use a free app to watch pay-TV and streaming video on the device of your choice, such as Roku, Apple TV, Xbox One, PS4, smart TVs, or Windows, iOS, and Android devices

"Lack of competition has meant few choices and high prices for consumers – $231 in rental fees annually for the average American household," Wheeler has said.

There is, of course, also the proposed takeover of Time Warner by AT&T.; The FCC could weigh in on that issue but had not been expected to do so even before Thune's edict.

One commissioner -- Republican Mike O’Reilly -- jumped on Thune's idea.

“During the last presidential transition, the Commission Chairman wisely heeded the will of Congress in setting aside any remaining controversial agenda items for the next Congress and Administration to consider," O'Reilly said in a statement. "I thank the current leadership of both Senate and House Commerce Committees for calling this precedent to everyone’s attention today, and expect that Chairman Wheeler will honor their request.”

It's not Jan. 20, 2017 yet and Barack Obama is still president of the United States, but Republican senators want the Federal Communications Commission to...

Need to unplug after the election? This gadget can help

The Pause Box could make it easier to disconnect from your device

After the results of the presidential election rolled in, you may have watched your social media feeds take on a drastically different tone. If you’re an empathetic person, absorbing an icier-than-usual social media climate may feel exhausting.

Witnessing stressful events can cause the brain to try to mimic the tone of what we’re seeing, explained Dr. Deb Sandella, a psychotherapist and author of “Goodbye Hurt and Pain.” In an interview with CNN, Sandella noted that some people may be feeling physically drained after taking in the recent election coverage.  

If you’re among those feeling drained in the wake of the election, Sandella says now might be a good time to unplug. “You need to stay tuned in to your own brain and body. It will tell you when you need to stand up, take a walk, or remove yourself entirely.”

But removing yourself isn’t always easy. For those who don’t possess an iron will, a self-imposed social media hiatus may end mere hours after it began. Now, one new product could help you stick to your goal of unplugging.

Signal-blocking container

If disconnecting from your smartphone is easier said than done, you may be interested in learning more about a container called Pause. Putting your phone in a Pause Box does more than just hide it from sight -- it effectively shuts down your device.

Like a Faraday Cage, the container blocks Wi-Fi signals by interfering with surrounding radio waves and transforming them into electric fields and heat. When your phone is inside the box, it won’t emit any vibrations or alerts because it won’t be receiving any signals.

You could just turn off your device and attempt to ignore the siren song of your smartphone, but that’s no easy feat for most people, said Pause’s co-founder, Yuval Lazi.

“If people can put their phones in a drawer or turn them off then we absolutely encourage them to do so,” Lazi told Digital Trends. “The sad truth is that most people never do.”

The boxes, which can each fit up to six smartphones, could make it easier for families to disconnect and spend more quality time together. “It’s a smart and simple solution for a big problem,” said Tamir Leon, an educational advisor. “It is the perfect tool to create a family habit and to remind us all to disconnect.”

The company hopes to raise $36,000 in the next month in an Indiegogo campaign. Pause boxes are currently being sold for $40.

After the results of the presidential election rolled in, you may have watched your social media feeds take on a drastically different tone. If you’re an e...

Samsung says it's sorry its devices tend to explode and catch fire

The company apologizes for its smartphone problems in newspaper ads

Sometimes saying you're sorry isn't quite enough, but at least it's a start. That seems to describe Samsung's attitude as the South Korean conglomerate faces a consumer backlash from its Galaxy Note 7 disaster and its exploding washing machine recall.

With customers all over the world feeling annoyed, Samsung has its work cut out for it as it tries to make amends. For starters, it ran full-page ads in major newspapers and online this morning, saying it "fell short" on its promises and vowing to do better.

"Samsung is fully committed to identifying and addressing the source of the Note7’s battery issue," the ad reads. "We have already initiated investigations with independent third party experts to carefully revisit every aspect of the device, including the battery, hardware and software, and manufacturing processes. Once available, we will transparently share our findings."

The ads -- at least the ones we found -- don't mention the recall of 2.8 million washing machines in the U.S. that followed years of complaints about the machines basically shaking themselves to pieces and sometimes starting a fire in the process. 

It may take more than an ad to mollify some consumers, though. 

Scott of Alaska is miffed that Samsung has left many consumers to fend for themselves after their Galaxy Note 7 phones caused fire damage.

"Samsung Behavior Absurd. Henceforth, I choose not to purchase any Samsung products," Scott said in a ConsumerAffairs review. "Folks with collateral damage to their property and homes from EXPLODING PHONES will not be compensated by Samsung for the damage, according to Samsung. This could have been me. Thus, I wish to send a message in a language Samsung understands: behave unethically, and be prepared to experience fewer sales. Simple."

Refund denied

D.C., of Roswell, Ga., has one of the recalled washers but has been unable to take advantage of the recall, she told ConsumerAffairs.

“I was told they would refund my money,” D.C. wrote in her post. “Then my refund was denied stating my receipt was 'blurry.' I honestly feel retailers should step in and help consumers. I now sit with a washing machine that is not usable as it sounds like a jet ready to take off when it is in use.”

Leia of Nanaimo, B.C., said her Samsung washer started a fire in her home but Samsung has refused to take any action because she does not have a receipt showing she purchased the washer, which she said was already installed when she bought her home.

"They want me to track down the realtor to then get a hold of the person who originally purchased the set. I'm like 'are you kidding me? I could have lost my whole house because of your washer,'" Leia said.

Although not subject to any recent recalls, Samsung TVs haven't been winning any friends lately either, with more than 3,300 consumers posting reviews that range from mediocre to terrible.

"Buy one on your anniversary for a painful reminder year after year!" said Eric of Hermosa Beach, Calif., who complained of repeated problems with his curved-screen TV. 

Sometimes saying you're sorry isn't quite enough, but at least it's a start. That seems to describe Samsung's attitude as the South Korean conglomerate fac...

Three good smartphones for a bargain price

Most smartphones now cost over $600, but there are cheaper alternatives

Priced a new smartphone lately? It's definitely a different world since carriers have stopped subsidizing the cost of devices if you signed a two-year contract.

That meant consumers could upgrade to the latest iPhone or Android smartphone for around $200, as long as they extended the contract for another two years.

Now there is no “official” two-year contract, but the monthly payment on the full price of your phone just so happens to take about two years to pay off. So it's a contract by default.

If you want to avoid the two-year commitment, you can pay the full price of the phone up front and, no matter which phone you choose, it's going to be around $600 to $700 dollars.

But not in all cases. There are several smartphones on the market – not the latest models but not antiques either – that sell for around that old subsidized price of $200. Pay for the phone up front and you can switch carriers at any time.

If that sounds appealing you might consider either the Motorolo Moto G4, Nexxus 5X, or iPhone 5s, which can be purchased “unlocked.” We priced all of them at Amazon.com, though you may be able to find them at a cheaper price.

Motorolo Moto G4

The unlocked Motorolo Moto G4 comes in a 16 GB version for $149 and a 32 GB version for $229 on Amazon. Both are fully compatible with all four major carriers.

It possesses a 1.5 GHz octa-core processor, 2 GB of RAM, and a 5.5-inch full HD (1080p) display. It has a 13 MP camera and a 5MP wide-angle selfie cam.

Nexus 5X

The Nexus 5X starts to get pricier fast. The 32 GB H790 4G LTE model is $389 on Amazon. It has a 5.2-inch touch screen LCD display and the Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 1.8GHz processor, 2GB RAM, and a 2700mAh battery. The front camera is 5 MP and the rear is 12.3 MP, featuring IR laser-assisted auto focus.

It comes unlocked and works on the four major carriers.

iPhone 5s

The iPhone 5s is a few years old but still offers some attractive features for the price. It comes in 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB, with the price starting at $275.

The 5s features the A7 chip with M7 motion coprocessor, 16 GB Storage Capacity (12.2 GB Available) & 1 GB Ram. It has an 8MP iSight camera with True Tone flash and 1080p HD video recording.

It works with fewer carriers, however. It's compatible with GSM carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile as well as with GSM SIM cards, such as H20 and select prepaid carriers. It won't work with CDMA Carriers like Sprint, Verizon, Boost, or Virgin.

Make no mistake, these phones don't have the features or capability of today's latest smartphones. But they don't have the hefty price tag either.

Priced a new smartphone lately? It's definitely a different world since carriers have stopped subsidizing the cost of devices if you signed a two-year cont...

Don't let 'Ghost Push' haunt your Android device

Security firm says this malware is impossible to remove

A recent scourge for Android device users, maybe more so than an exploding Note 7, is a vicious malware called Ghost Push. It's a Trojan that some say can't be uninstalled and keeps downloading unwanted programs.

Cheetah Mobile's CM Security Research Lab says it discovered the nasty malware a little over a year ago, and, since then, it is downloading on unsuspecting consumers' Android devices an average of 10,000 times a day.

Ghost Push hides within what seem to be legitimate software and apps. Once downloaded it will in turn install annoying apps, such as Monkey Test and Time Service. When it was discovered, it quickly surged to the list of Cheetah's most widespread and infectious viruses.

By last October, monitoring results from CM Security Research Lab found over 600,000 android users had been affected within a single day. It first appeared mostly in Europe, Russia, the Middle East region, and southern China.

Not only does it install unwanted programs on mobile devices, it also pushes ads into status bars and often directs users to deceptive or pornographic sites, where additional malware is downloaded.

What to do

While Cheetah maintains the Trojan is next to impossible to uninstall, there are a number of internet posts with advice and tips for doing so. But use discretion in following any of these directions, making sure they are offered from reliable sources. Cheetah maintains the best course of action is to avoid getting infected in the first place.

For starters, be extremely careful where you get apps for your device. Avoid downloading from third party app stores and use only known and reputable sources.

Updating your devices to the latest operating system can also help. Cheetah says 90% of the infected devices are using out-of-date operating systems. Keeping devices updated means having the latest security patches.

Also, consider installing a reputable antivirus app on your phone or tablet. They can sometimes stop malware before they can take over your device.

A recent scourge for Android device users, maybe more so than an exploding Note 7, is a vicious malware called Ghost Push. It's a Trojan that some say can'...

FTC getting support in its throttling battle with AT&T

Allies are asking a federal appeals court to reinstate an enforcement action against AT&T

A U.S. senator and the Federal Communications Commission are joining forces with privacy and consumer advocates to support the Federal Trade Commission in its battle with AT&T over call throttling.

The FTC charged in October 2014 that AT&T duped more than 3.5 million customers by selling them unlimited data plans but then "throttled" their connections when they exceeded monthly allotments ranging from 3 to 5 GB. But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the FTC's action on procedural grounds.

The court held that the FTC does not have the authority to sue common carriers, even though mobile broadband wasn't considered a common carrier service at the time the FTC brought the case.

The FTC is asking for a new hearing and is getting support from the Federal Communications Commission and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), among others.

"A wide hole"

In a friend-of-the-court brief, Blumenthal argues that the appeals panel's ruling creates "a wide hole in FTC jurisdiction that undermines the agency’s ability to remedy deceptive acts committed by the growing range of companies that engage in common-carrier activity as well as non-common-carrier activity," MediaPost reported.

"If the panel opinion stands, it will greatly limit the government’s ability to police unfair and deceptive practices in fields that Congress has long considered within the FTC’s authority," Blumenthal said, cautioning that the decision could leave the FTC unable to police companies like Google, which owns the internet service provider Fiber.

The FCC said in another brief that the panel's decision is "at odds with the realities of the marketplace, in which entities that provide communications common carrier services have expanded their lines of business to include non-common-carrier offerings (or vice versa)."

A group of law professors also sided with the FTC, saying the earlier opinion "creates serious risks for the privacy rights of every American."

"The panel opinion’s sweeping interpretation would immunize many of the largest information intermediaries in the modern economy -- potentially including companies such as Facebook, Google, and Yahoo -- from almost all meaningful privacy oversight," the law professors say. "This outcome would be disastrous."

The group Public Knowledge said the case "creates real problems for consumer protection by creating significant concerns about the FTC’s authority in a world where large corporations often engage in multiple lines of business." It said in a statement on its website that the appeals court "would be wise to overturn this unfortunate case."

AT&T revised its throttling practices last year, now only throttling people who consume more than 22 GB of data in a month and only when the network is congested.

A U.S. senator and the Federal Communications Commission are joining forces with privacy and consumer advocates to support the Federal Trade Commission in...

Giant cellphone scheme made fraudulent international calls

Customer accounts were compromised and used to make high-priced calls

A Florida man has pleaded guilty to operating a scheme that used consumers' cell phone accounts to make expensive international calls that they were then billed for, even though they did not place the calls.

Prosecutors said Jose Santana, 53, ran a "call site" in his West Palm Beach house that was used to relay calls from the internet to numbers in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and other high-cost countries, using customer account information that had been fraudulently obtained. 

The calls were provided at low cost to the internet users while the actual owners of the cellphone accounts got stuck with the bill, according to the plea agreement. 

Santana admitted that from December 2010 through October 2011, co-conspirators sent him more than 1,000 emails containing telecommunications identifying numbers associated with cell phone account holders around the United States.

Santana is the second defendant to plead guilty in the case. On Aug. 29, Edwin Fana pleaded guilty to similar charges and is scheduled to be sentenced on Dec. 22. Santana's sentencing has not yet been scheduled.

The FBI investigated the case, dubbed Operation Toll Free, which is part of the bureau’s ongoing effort to combat large-scale telecommunications fraud.

A Florida man has pleaded guilty to operating a scheme that used consumers' cell phone accounts to make expensive international calls that they were then b...

T-Mobile fined $48 million for 'unlimited' data claims

Customers are throttled when they exceed 17 GB of data usage in a month

T-Mobile's "unlimited" claims will cost the company $48 million. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says T-Mobile didn't adequately disclose the speed and data restrictions for its "unlimited" data policy.

T-Mobile said the disclosures dated back to 2015 and have since been updated to comply with FCC rules.

An FCC investigation found that T-Mobile policy allows it to slow down data speeds when T-Mobile or MetroPCS customers on so-called “unlimited” plans exceed a monthly data threshold while the company's advertisements may have led unlimited data plan customers to expect that they were buying better and faster service than what they actually received.

“Consumers should not have to guess whether so-called ‘unlimited’ data plans contain key restrictions, like speed constraints, data caps, and other material limitations,” said FCC Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc. “When broadband providers are accurate, honest and upfront in their ads and disclosures, consumers aren’t surprised and they get what they’ve paid for."

The Commission’s 2010 Open Internet transparency rules require broadband internet providers to give accurate and sufficient information to consumers about their internet services so consumers can make informed choices, LeBlanc said.

A T-Mobile spokesperson said that currently, less than 3% of unlimited customers fall into the category of heaviest users who might approach the 26GBs per month or more, and it resets at the beginning of each billing cycle.

"We never cap a customer’s data," said Bethany Frey, a T-Mobile communications manager. "All this means is that occasionally, in areas of network congestion and during peak times, the top 3% of customers who use the most data on the network may notice slower data speeds."

Frey said T-Mobile was giving all customers with Unlimited LTE data plans a promo code for 20% off any single accessory in stores. And if they have a mobile internet line, they’ll get an extra 4GB of mobile internet data. Customers should visit t-mobile.com/customerbenefit for more information.

Consumer benefits

Today’s settlement includes $48 million in total financial commitments from T-Mobile. This includes a $7.5 million fine in addition to $35.5 million in consumer benefits offered to T-Mobile and Metro PCS customers with “unlimited” plans and at least $5 million in services and equipment to American schools to bridge the homework gap facing today’s students. 

Eligible subscribers will be offered discounts on accessories and additional data.

The FCC opened its investigation after it received complaints from T-Mobile and MetroPCS customers who felt misled when they discovered their “unlimited” data plan included “de-prioritized” data speeds after using a fixed amount of data each month.

Under its “Top 3 Percent Policy,” T-Mobile “de-prioritizes” its “heavy” data users during times of network contention or congestion. This potentially deprived these users of the advertised speeds of their data plan.

Consumers complained that this rendered data services “unusable” for many hours each day and substantially limited their access to data. The bureau believes that the company failed to adequately inform its “unlimited” data plan customers that their data would be slowed at times if they used more than 17 GB in a given month.

Under the settlement, T-Mobile will update its disclosures to clearly explain the “Top 3 Percent Policy,” who may be affected by it, what triggers its application, and the impacts on data speeds.

T-Mobile's "unlimited" claims will cost the company $48 million. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says T-Mobile didn't adequately disclose the s...

Virginia Tech professor develops fireproof battery in wake of Samsung Note 7 fiasco

Replacing the flammable solvent in lithium ion batteries with a safer gel is the key

To illustrate just how worrisome the Samsung Note 7 fire problem has been for the nation's airlines, all of them carried fire containment bags on board commercial aircraft, and may still, even though the government has officially banned the devices from flights..

It's a precaution against a potential catastrophe if one of the smartphones somehow gets on board, explodes, and catches fire. It's bad enough if it happens in your kitchen. It could be fatal if it occurs within a small space flying at 30,000 feet.

An incident a couple of weeks ago, when a Note 7 caught fire while a Southwest Airlines jet was boarding, was a wake-up call and led a few days later to Samsung withdrawing the Note 7 from production.

It was a huge reversal of fortune for Samsung, since the Note 7 had been acknowledged as among the best new smartphones.

Its fatal flaw, apparently, is its lithium ion battery that can reportedly overheat to the point that it ignites. Fix that and you may have fixed the problem.

Samsung may be pleased to learn that a chemistry professor at Virginia Tech has proposed a fix, that he says would make all smartphones resistant to fire.

Spent five years studying the problem

In an interview with Blacksburg, Virginia TV station WDBJ, associate professor Louis Madsen said he has been studying the problem of overheating batteries for the last five years.

"Lithium has to transport across this battery and it actually moves through a liquid that's a flammable solvent,” he told the station. “If it gets too hot then it can boil, so some people may have seen batteries actually inflate if you overcharge them, I've seen a few of these. And then in the worst case, they can smoke or be heated up and start on fire."

The solution, Madsen suggests, is fairly simple, though it may increase the cost of producing the batteries. Just replace the flammable liquid solvent with a gel that won't burn. He says he has been working on just such a substance that he believes will lead to a safer lithium battery.

Madsen says he believes Samsung engineers pushed their batteries to produce too much power to run more functions. That becomes a problem, he says, because that can produce heat, and the liquid solvent within the batteries can ignite at 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The gel he's working on can supposedly withstand temperatures up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit, Madsen says.

To illustrate just how worrisome the Samsung Note 7 fire problem has been for the nation's airlines, all of them carried fire containment bags on board com...

Samsung reeling in aftermath of fires in Galaxy Note 7 phones and other products

Consumers seething over the company's business-as-usual response to fires

Samsung is feeling the heat from its disastrous handling of the fire-prone Galaxy Note 7 smartphones. Critics are comparing the bungled response to the Note 7 crisis to Samsung's handling of a rash of washing machine fires in Australia a few years ago.

Samsung recalled 150,000 Australian washing machines in April 2013 after a series of house fires were blamed on the machines. But first it tried to get consumers to use tape and a plastic bag to solve the problem, a solution that only increased consumer outrage and was itself blamed for several more fires.

Consumers in the U.S. have also reported fires in their Samsung washers, as we reported a few weeks ago, but so far no recall has been issued. Federal safety officials, however, warned consumers that the machines could shake themselves to pieces and cause injuries or damage.

Repercussions from the Note7 debacle are rippling through all corners of Samsung's business. A report today says that an expected deal with FCA (formerly Chrysler) has been delayed while Samsung, South Korea's largest company, tries to work its way through the aftermath of the smartphone recall and subsequent market withdrawal.

FCA and Samsung had been reported to be close to a deal involving electronic components for the company's Chrysler, Jeep, Fiat, and other auto brands.

The fallout from the Galaxy fires threatens to tarnish Samsung's other consumer products, which have experienced their own problems with unexpected fires and, more significantly, with a response that is best described as business as usual.

We heard from Lyn of Palm Harbor, Fla., about the red-hot charger that came with her Samsung tablet.

"Charger got so hot we had to use gloves to remove it from the wall. Went to the AT&T store ... where we purchased it, they told us we would have to contact AT&T corporate to get a replacement. Called corporate and we were told to contact the manufacturer," Lyn said. "We did and were informed that they would not replace charger. The warranty only covered the device. If you can't charge it you can"t use the device!!! Stay away from Samsung products. No Samsung, No FIRES."

Microwaves

Samsung microwaves have for years generated red-hot consumer complaints about fires, most recently from Bill of Palm Harbor, Fla.

"Bought new Samsung microwave (me21h706mqs) and after one week it caught on fire at the plastic piece in rear corner. Lucky we were at microwave watching or whole house could have caught on fire. Huge plastic smoke and horrible smell," Bill said in a ConsumerAffairs review a few days ago. Bill called Samsung and after calling three different numbers got little satisfaction.

"Samsung was not impressed their unit caught fire and really did not care. Said they would send tech in 2-3 days. ... Basically they hung up on me after I requested someone come out on Monday to remove."

Tracy of Winston-Salem, N.C., said she was boiling pasta when her microwave caught fire.

"I wasn't even using the inside of the microwave at the time. I was using the exhaust fan for I was boiling pasta on the stovetop. Flames all in the microwave, I had to use the fire extinguisher. I am so glad I was home when this happened! My model number ME18H704SFS."

By-the-book

A common theme in many of the microwave fire complaints submitted by ConsumerAffairs readers is the by-the-book response from Samsung's customer service representatives.

"Purchased Samsung Microwave Model Number ME18H704SFG on 07-03-2016 from HHgregg. They delivered the Microwave on Saturday 07-09-2016. Used the Microwave Saturday and Sunday. Monday morning 07-11-2016 my wife screamed 'FIRE' so I ran to the Kitchen where the Microwave door was open and a flame about 4-5 inches long was jetting out ... I got the Fire Extinguisher and put it out then unplugged it," said Joey of Sicklerville, N.J.

Joey said he called Samsung and "spoke to a lady there who gave me a transaction number and said a product specialist would call me back within 4 hours." The return call didn't happen, Joey said, but eventually a service call was scheduled for several days later. Like other owners of burned microwaves, Joey said he didn't want service, he wanted a new microwave.

 "I told her I did not want them to attempt to repair this unit and give it back to me. She said the service person would not take the unit but would take photos and send to Samsung where they would determine if it could be repaired. I told her I would not let that unit back into my home. She said if you refuse the service then you will be left with a broken microwave," Joey said.

Ovens & ranges

You expect a range to get hot but, ideally, the heat is confined to the oven and cooking surfaces. That's not always the case with Samsung ovens and ranges, consumers say.

"Our two year old Samsung NE58F9500SS began sending strong fumes of burning plastic upon oven preheat," said Nancy of Midlothian, Va. "Repeated email and phone contact with customer service about this fire hazard was a test of patience. Each contact told us to wait 24 more hours and we would be contacted by someone. Days passed. No oven. No stove. Wires attached to the back of the oven, melted. Plastic on the terminal block melted. This is DANGEROUS and deserves immediate attention," Nancy said. "We paid $1,533.35 for this poor workmanship and poor service."

Remi of Piscataway, N.J., wasn't as lucky as Nancy.

"I opened the broiler to place a tray inside and flames shot out of it and singed face and hair. The fire department, EMT and PSEG responded to the incident. The oven was tagged 'defective' and the gas line was shut off," Remi said. "I have been in constant communication with Samsung regarding the oven. I inquired about being compensated for food due to the 'loss of use' and was told that they do not provide compensation."

"Last week, I was advised that they would swap out the oven. I advised them that before I would commit to this resolution, I was like to know the cause of the fire. I was informed that this information could not be released to me," Remi said. "As a consumer who purchased this item, was injured by it and could have received extensive damage to my house, I believe that I should be informed of the cause and/defect of the unit."

Dinner was interrupted at Sheila's home in Albany, Ga. "Yesterday in the middle of preparing dinner, the range shot fire with a loud explosion. Samsung does not stand behind their products and you would think that a new stove that we paid $900.00 for would last longer than 2 1/2 years," she said.

Refrigerators

We haven't seen many reports of Samsung refrigerators actually igniting, but many consumers have complained of conditions that they thought were fire hazards.

"After 4 years of owning a French door Samsung refrigerator (RF267AARS/XAA), the coils started freezing up. I called out a Samsung repair service and they discovered that the evaporator coils had melted my liner and it is not repairable. It was so badly burnt inside that I am surprised it did not catch fire," said Jerri of Dripping Springs, Texas.

"When I contacted Samsung customer service about this hazard, I was put on hold for 30 minutes and then told that they could only refund me a partial credit for the refrigerator. When I asked if there have been similar problems with other refrigerators, they could not tell me," Jerri said.

Donald of North Kingstown, R.I., found singed components in his freezer compartment.

"After removing the cover in the freezer that covers the coils I found a lot of burnt areas and cracks in the freezer compartment. Also the defrost sensor was also burnt," he said. "I replaced the sensor and also took pictures of the freezer compartment showing the burnt areas and areas where the compartment was bubbling up from heat. This frig is a fire hazard."

Not everyone is so lucky. 

"Caused damage throughout house," said a consumer in Australia who asked to remain anonymous. "Had temporary accommodation for a year. Everything lost. Fire brigade recognised incident as a fridge fire. Fortunately happened when house was empty overnight. Samsung deny all liability and claim a waste bin must have caught fire in front of the fridge!"

Dishwashers

Aurelia of Wentzville, Mo., didn't have a fire in her Samsung dishwasher but was afraid that she was about to. She said numerous repair visits failed to resolve a water leak. After the last repair, "we ran a load [and] after 40+ minutes we got the LC* warning light."

"This indicated water to electric leak, it's recommended to shut off circuit to the unit to prevent further damage or fire.," Aurelia said. After all the attempts to repair her dishwasher, she said she expects to be told she is out of warranty and on her own.

Samsung has denied the incidents are linked and has said its warranty and repair services are adequate to handle the problems. Whether that is sufficient to reassure consumers is the question the company must now face.

Fire mars the back of a consumer's Samsung microwave.Samsung is feeling the heat from its disastrous handling of the fire-prone Galaxy Note 7 smartph...

Sprint announces initiative to provide low-income students with free wireless devices and service

The 1Million Project will help close the digital divide and give students equal opportunity to succeed

The educational system has been greatly enhanced through technology in recent years. While smartboards, interactive maps, and a plethora of online tools have benefited students in the classroom, having access to something as basic as the internet outside of school also lends a huge advantage.

Unfortunately, not all students are able to go online outside of school. Children of families that can’t afford expensive smartphones or other internet-connected devices can often lag behind, which contributes to ever-widening educational and opportunity gaps. But a new announcement from Sprint may go a long way towards evening the playing field.

The company announced today that it will be giving away one million internet-connected devices and providing four years of internet access to low-income high school students across the U.S. It marks the largest corporate initiative to bridge the digital divide and close the “Homework Gap," according to the company.

“Education is the foundation for our society to prosper, and the internet is an incredibly powerful tool for learning. But it’s a huge problem in America that we have 5 million households with children that lack internet connections. Those kids have a huge disadvantage and we are failing them. All of us at Sprint are committed to changing this by providing 1 million students in need with free devices and free wireless connections,” said Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure.

Equal opportunity to succeed

Sprint’s new initiative, called the 1Million Project, may go a long way towards giving low-income children an equal opportunity to succeed. A report from the Pew Research Center found that students who come from low-income families are four times more likely than middle- and upper-income students to have no access to broadband internet. This is a big problem, since the report also found that 70% of teachers are assigning homework that requires some kind of web access.

Not having access to the internet also tends to lower parent engagement in their children’s education. Teachers often choose to correspond with parents via email these days, and online grading systems make it possible for parents with an internet access to keep tabs on how their child is doing in class. Not having those connections can result in parents who are simply out of the loop.

And when it comes time for a student to graduate, not having internet access could hamper future prospects. Applicants often have to apply for jobs online, and students wishing to learn more about scholarship opportunities and college applications will find the information on the internet.

Providing devices

In order to accomplish its goal, Sprint will be partnering with various non-profit agencies and manufacturers to provide free devices. Students may choose to receive a smartphone, laptop, tablet, or hotspot device, along with 3GB of high-speed LTE data per month.

For students who go over the 3GB limit, unlimited data at 2G speeds will be available. Students who choose a smartphone will be able to use it as a hotspot and can use the device for unlimited domestic calls and texts while on the Sprint network.

Funding for the initiative will come from donations from device manufacturers and through special events, donation drives, and other events hosted by Sprint and the Sprint Foundation. A pilot program is planned for launch in January of 2017.

The educational system has been greatly enhanced through technology in recent years. While smartboards, interactive maps, and a plethora of online tools ha...

Samsung permanently halts production of its Note 7 smartphone

Consumers can choose to exchange it or get a full refund

Samsung has officially acknowledged the obvious. It has asked all cell phone carriers and retail stores to stop selling the Galaxy Note 7 smartphone.

“Consumers with an original Galaxy Note7 or replacement Galaxy Note7 should power down and take advantage of the remedies available, including a refund at their place of purchase,” the company said in a statement.

For Note 7 owners, it has been a stressful few weeks, to say the least. The critically acclaimed device, introduced August 19, was involved in dozens of incidents in which the battery overheated and caught fire.

Replacement phones

On September 2, Samsung announced it would replace the more than one million Note 7s that it had sold thus far with replacement phones, modified to prevent the overheating.

But a few of the replacement devices apparently still had the problem, including one that forced the evacuation of a Southwest Airlines jet. Samsung said it is working with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to get to the bottom of the issue, but in the meantime it will stop making and selling the Note 7.

What to do

Consumers who own a Note 7, and now are on their second device, will need to exchange their phones for another model. The mobile providers and other retailers have indicated they will try to make the process as painless as possible, waiving restocking fees and providing refunds for purchased accessories.

Samsung is instructing consumers with a Note 7, either the original or the replacement, to turn it off and take it to the retail outlet where it was purchased. Consumers who bought their phone directly from Samsung should call 1-844-365-6197 for instructions.

Consumers can receive a full refund, allowing them to purchase some other device, but Samsung is offering an incentive to those willing to go with another Samsung model. The Note 7 may be exchanged for a Samsung Galaxy S7 or a Galaxy S7 edge and the consumer will receive a refund of the price difference between the devices. Those who choose that option will receive a $25 gift card or bill credit.

Shop online

Verizon is instructing its customers to shop for a replacement phone online, then to bring their powered-down Note 7 to a Verizon location for a refund. Customers will also be credited any Galaxy Note 7 equipment charges.

AT&T is giving its customers similar advice, telling them they can exchange their phones for any other Samsung smartphone or any other smartphone.

Is this the end of the Note 7, which debuted a few weeks ago to praise from technology experts? Probably.

CNBC reports that the company has permanently ended production, noting it would be difficult to resume production, marketing, and sales of the device, even if it were to eventually get a clean bill of safety health.

Samsung has officially acknowledged the obvious. It has asked all cell phone carriers and retail stores to stop selling the Galaxy Note 7 smartphone.“C...

Mobile providers tell consumers to exchange Note 7 smartphones for another model

Note 7 issues have put Samsung in crisis mode

The status of Samsung's flagship smartphone, the Note 7, appears very much up in the air after isolated reports last week that new replacement models have also burst into flames.

At least two mobile carriers are now urging Note 7 owners to switch to another model.

An exploding battery issue forced the Korean electronics firm to initiate a recall of the phone, three weeks after its August 19 release. Last week, a Southwest Airlines jet, at the gate in Louisville, was evacuated when a passenger's replacement Note 7 caught fire. Airlines now routinely order passengers to power down their Note 7s as part of the boarding instructions.

Samsung's last official statement on the matter came Friday, when it reacted to the latest incidents.

“We continue to move quickly to investigate the reported case to determine the cause and will share findings as soon as possible,” the statement said. “We remain in close contact with the CPSC throughout this process. If we conclude a safety issue exists, we will work with the CPSC to take immediate steps to address the situation.”

Halting production?

On Monday, a Korean news agency reported that Samsung had temporarily suspended production of the Note 7. It based the report on a statement from an unnamed official at an unnamed Samsung supplier.

Forbes quotes a Samsung spokesperson as confirming that the company is “…temporarily adjusting the Galaxy Note 7 production schedule in order to take further steps to ensure quality and safety matters.”

Exchange them for another model

In the U.S., Computer World quotes AT&T spokesman Fletcher Cook as saying the mobile provider will suspend its program of distributing new Note 7s in exchange for the original model. Instead, AT&T said it is encouraging consumers to exchange their Note 7 for another model.

Similarly, T-Mobile has issued a statement, saying it is temporarily suspending all sales of the new Note7 and exchanges for replacement Note7 devices.

“Customers can still bring their recalled Note7 or the new replacement Note7, along with accessories they purchased from T-Mobile, to a T-Mobile store for a full refund and choose from any device in T-Mobile’s inventory,” the company said.

T-Mobile is also waiving restocking charges, and any customers who received promotional premiums for their Note 7 purchase may keep them.

In the meantime, just about everyone – not just the airlines – is advising consumers who own a Note 7 to power it down and leave it off.

The status of Samsung's flagship smartphone, the Note 7, appears very much up in the air after isolated reports last week that new replacement models have...

Burning Samsung phone causes airliner evacuation

Owner says it was one of the replacements but Samsung won't confirm

Brian Green had just boarded a Southwest Airlines flight in Louisville, bound for Baltimore. As he settled into his seat, he said he remembered to power down his smartphone – a Samsung Note 7. Then, he said something strange happened.

"I looked around to see what that popping noise was and there was just smoke billowing, pouring out of my pocket,” Green told Louisville TV station WLKY. “I pulled it out of my pocket and threw it on the ground real quick and it continued to smoke for about 4 or 5 seconds heavily, and then that kind of filled up two or three rows in front and behind us in the cabin."

The smoldering smartphone forced evacuation of the Boeing 737 as a precaution. The plane was still at the gate and no one was injured.

But the overriding concern at this point is that Green says his smartphone was not one of the original models recalled because of their fire danger, but one of the replacements. One that was not supposed to explode and catch fire.

Investigations launched

Late Wednesday, technology site TechnoBuffalo caught up with Elliott Kaye, Chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The site quotes Kaye as saying the agency has been in contact with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Samsung to investigate what happened and why.

Samsung, meanwhile, said it is trying to recover Green's phone so that it can fully investigate it. Until then, it said it will not confirm that it was one of the new replacement devices.

But The Verge reports it has independently confirmed the device prompting the evacuation was, in fact, one of the replacement Note 7s, distributed in the last couple of weeks. The publication said it spoke with Green, who said he picked up the phone at an AT&T store September 21.

It also reports a photograph of the box shows a black square symbol that marks it as one of the replacement models.

The Samsung Note 7 was introduced on August 19, but by September 2, Samsung began recalling all the phones it had sold, promising replacements, after a series of incidents in which the phones exploded or caught fire.

Brian Green had just boarded a Southwest Airlines flight in Louisville, bound for Baltimore. As he settled into his seat, he said he remembered to power do...

Google debuts a new smartphone line-up

The Pixel phones are potential iPhone-killers and won't do much for Galaxy Notes either

Since giving birth to corporate parent Alphabet, Google has been trying to grow up and act like a really serious business instead of a very successful advertising company that dabbles in technology.

In its latest strategy switch, it's introducing a pair of super-slick smartphones that will go head-to-head -- and maybe then some -- against Apple's iPhone and the svelte but troubled Samsung Galaxy Note7.

The new Pixel phones come in two sizes, sort of like the iPhone. There's the Pixel and the Pixel XL, the first phones to be conceptualized, designed, engineered, and tested in-house. Google markets Nexus brand phones but they are manufactured by someone else and have been regarded as a toe in the water rather than a full-out marketing attempt. 

The Pixel line -- not to be confused with the top-end Chromebooks of the same name -- featured a Siri-like virtual assistant and are said to have the best camera ever built into a smartphone. 

The phones start at $649 and $769 -- or $27.08 and $32.08 a month when purchased through Verizon. They can be preordered online.  

The phones feature thin aluminum and glass frames that come in black, silver, or blue (a limited edition for the U.S.). The smaller model, which starts at $649 for 32-gigabytes of storage, features a 5-inch screen, while the bigger model, priced at $769, has a 5.5-inch screen to match the iPhone 7 Plus.

The Pixels will be the first to run on Android’s new Nougat 7.1 operating system. 

Since giving birth to corporate parent Alphabet, Google has been trying to grow up and act like a really serious business instead of a very successful adve...

Google adds incognito mode to its iOS app

It gives users the same privacy shield they can get in the Chrome browser

Want to keep your web searches private? Google has added an "incognito" mode to its iOS app, allowing iPhone users to keep their search histories private, just as in the Chrome browser's incognito mode.

Google says it has also added some "under the hood" improvements that will make the app run better and crash less often.

The incognito search is sometimes derided as nothing but protection for porn addicts, but recent research leaves little doubt that consumers are determined to eke out a little privacy on the web.

A Pew Research Center poll earlier this month found that 86% of internet users have tried to cover their online tracks, with many saying they would like to do more. 

Some actions that consumers say they've taken include clearing cookies, using phony names, and using virtual networks to mask their actual IP address.

"Social surveillance"

In addition, Pew found that 55% of internet users have taken steps to avoid observation by specific people, organizations, or the government. Many say the purpose of their attempted anonymity is to avoid “social surveillance” by friends and colleagues, rather than the government or law enforcement. 

The Pew research shows that virtual life isn't all that different from real life, with 33% of internet users saying they want to avoid hackers and criminals, 28% hoping to evade advertising, and 19% wanting to avoid people from their past. Rounding out the top five were certain friends, witih 19%, and people who criticize or harass them, at 17%. 

It's not all that different from ducking around the corner when you see a nosy neighbor or PTA loudmouth walking towards you.

Google said it also added another security feature. This one lets you open YouTube videos in the search results without having to open an app or go to the YouTube mobile page, thus reducing load time.

Want to keep your web searches private? Google has added an "incognito" mode to its iOS app, allowing iPhone users to keep their search histories private,...

Samsung Galaxy customers heating up over phone exchange

Like most recalls, this one is full of exceptions, misunderstanding, and confusion

Recalls sound simple, but whether it's cars, infant strollers, or smartphones, too often they just don't work very well in practice. Take the recall of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, which has a bad habit of bursting into flames.

The company said last week that it had shipped half a million replacement phones to the U.S. and urged consumers to immediately turn their phone in for a new one.

Sounds simple but it hasn't worked out well for many consumers. 

"Wasted hours of my time dealing with their support channels over a Note 7 recall," Matthew of Pittman, N.J., said in a recent ConsumerAffairs review (not yet posted at the time this story was filed). "Tried calling, using Twitter, direct messaging -- and got nowhere. Aside from the recall replacement phone having battery issues, they wouldn't even replace a screen protector I purchased for my original phone that was useless when removed from the recalled phone."

"Samsung has confirmed that I have a defective phone from them. However, they will not replace it," said Kellee of Pleasantville, Ohio,  "They expect me to send them my phone, wait for a repair, and then they will send it back. No help whatsoever, and I was told that if I am not happy with their process I should not buy Samsung products. Good idea people!"

Residence issues

Thomas of Brentwood, Calif., has a slightly more complicated problem. He bought his dual-SIM Note 7 in Singapore. When the recall was announced, he contacted the retailer who had sold it to him.

The retailer offered a refund but Thomas said he would rather have a replacement and quoted Samsung's web advisory -- http://www.samsung.com/sg/note7exchange/ -- which says phones will be replaced in the customer's country of residence: "Please contact the Samsung Customer Service Centre in your residing country for information on the exchange process in your residing country. We assure you that we will be assisting all Galaxy Note7 customers in the exchange, regardless of your residing country and the country where you purchased the device."

Thomas contacted Samsung in his home country and, after several days, was told to contact the Samsung office in Singapore, which expressed surprise that the matter hadn't already been resolved.

"After waiting several days, they said I can only exchange it if I send it at my own expense to someone in Singapore who is willing to bring it to Samsung and exchange it, then send the new phone back to me," Thomas said.

"If they won't exchange a Note7 from Singapore outside of Singapore, then they should have said so, rather than lying to the retailer and lying on their website," Thomas said. "I've wasted almost two weeks on this nonsense and in the end, Samsung did absolutely nothing. Even if I did know someone in Singapore, the deadline for arranging an appointment is Sunday, and I have a lot of things to do, so I doubt I could get it arranged in time."

Others get hot too

Of course, it's not just the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 that can get hot. Other smartphones, laptops, and many other battery-powered devices can heat up.

That's what happened to Lori's son, who is away at college.

"My son woke up to his phone extemely hot -- hot enough to burn his hand.
I cannot get through to anyone at Samsung. Multiple phone calls, emails, and perpetual hold."

Lori, who lives in Marietta, Ga., didn't say what model phone her son had. If it's a Note 7, she should go to the Samsung recall website to arrange an exchange. If it's another model, she should ask her son to take it to the retailer or carrier from which it was purchased -- perhaps Verizon, AT&T;, or T-Mobile.

The first rule of thumb for consumers is to be careful with battery-powered devices. Don't take them to bed with you and don't leave them lying around on flammable surfaces. If you take your phone or laptop on an airplane, turn it completely off.

Oh, and finally, don't fall asleep with your phone in your pants pocket.

Recalls sound simple, but whether it's cars, infant strollers, or smartphones, too often they just don't work very well in practice. Take the recall of the...

Charter following Comcast into the wireless business

Charter will resell Verizon spectrum and use its own Wi-Fi hotspot network

Cable was a big deal in its day, but wireless is a bigger deal today. Yesterday, Comcast announced it was getting into the wireless business, reselling spectrum leased from Verizon and its own network of Wi-Fi hotspots.

Now Charter says it will do the same, using an option to resell Verizon's wireless service that it picked up when it bought Time Warner Cable.

Chief Executive Tom Rutledge outlined the bare bones of the plan at an investors conference, saying the company will use its own Wi-Fi hotspots to fill in holes in Verizon's network.

Comcast has installed routers in customers' homes and businesses that create a private network for the subscriber but also broadcast a public network to Comcast subscribers nearby. Charter's plan is apparently similar to that.

Rutledge said Charter's cable network passes about 50 million, but only half are subscribers, the Wall Street Journal reported.  

Cable companies like Comcast and Charter and wireless companies like Verizon and AT&T; are all trying to do the same thing -- lure consumers into their "walled gardens," where they can sell bundles of streaming video, wireless communications, cable, and broadband access. 

Just today, AT&T; said its plan to produce a streaming version of its TVDirect satellite service is on track for later this year. Verizon also has a number of streaming options in the works. 

In theory, all this rearranging of the deck chairs should work to benefit consumers, as competition and bundling should -- at least for awhile -- produce more services at less cost. 

Cable was a big deal in its day, but wireless is a bigger deal today. Yesterday, Comcast announced it was getting into the wireless business, reselling spe...

AT&T's streaming version of DirecTV to debut later this year

The cost of the data will be included in the service for AT&T Wireless customers

The television universe is being turned inside out and upside down as companies maneuver to adapt to cable-cutting, the potential end of set-top boxes, and other cataclysmic events that are happening at ever-increasing speed.

In the latest attempt to get ahead of the game, AT&T; CEO Randall Stephenson says the giant telecom will launch an online streaming version of DirecTV called DirecTV Now. The idea is similar to Dish's Sling TV, except that Dish doesn't have a nationwide wireless network. 

AT&T; first announced the plan in March, but little has been heard about it in the intervening months. Now it looks like things are back on track.

Speaking at an investor conference, Stephenson didn't disclose details but said the service would feature "very, very aggressive price points" and will offer more than 100 channels when it debuts in the fourth quarter.

Data chunks

For AT&T; Wireless customers, the cost of the data will be included in the price. Customers using a different wireless provider will be responsible for the data chunks they consume.

Stephenson said the project is "about 90% there" with a few program providers holding out for a sweeter deal. 

The strategic goal, of course, is to lure more consumers into the AT&T; walled garden and provide "stickiness" that will keep existing customers there. 

“They don’t like buying a DirecTV subscription and then having to go and pay extra to see the same data on a mobile device or tablet,” Stephenson said, according to CNET. “They don’t want to buy an over-the-top subscription and have to pay again if they want to stream it to a TV."

The television universe is being turned inside out and upside down as companies maneuver to adapt to cable-cutting, the potential end of set-top boxes, and...

Comcast tip-toes into the wireless business

It plans to rent space from Verizon and use its Wi-Fi hotspot network

Comcast has been talking about getting into the wireless business for a long time and now says it's just about ready to do so, with the emphasis on "about." CEO Brian Roberts said Tuesday that the company will launch the service next year. 

Roberts told financial analysts he expects a "big payback with reduced churn, more stickiness and better satisfaction," the Wall Street Journal reported.

The idea, of course, is to have another line of business that will help glue customers to Comcast and make up for revenue that's being lost to cable-cutting. It would also put Comcast on a better competitive footing with AT&T and Verizon, which offer a full range of services -- cable, satellite (in AT&T's case), broadband, wireless, and landline. 

Hot spots

Comcast is going about it in a way that's either odd or innovative, depending on your point of view. It is leasing wireless spectrum from Verizon, thus avoiding the cost of building towers and other expensive network infrastructure, and it's also using what it says are its 15 million Wi-Fi hot spots.

Those 15 million hot spots consist largely of the routers that Comcast has installed in its customers' homes and businesses. Each router not only runs a local network at the user's address but also broadcasts a public channel that can be accessed by anyone in the vicinity.

This, the theory goes, will enable Comcast to handle more traffic by using both Wi-Fi and Verizon's spectrum. 

The service will be marketed only within Comcast's "footprint" to existing and potential customers, but presumably it will be usable nationwide, minus the Wi-Fi portion.

Consumer demand?

Consumers rate Comcast Cable Service

While it's easy enough to see why Comcast wants to do this, it remains to be seen whether consumers are very excited by the notion. There are, after all, four national wireless carriers with close to 100% market penetration. Whether Comcast will be able to offer bundles that are sufficiently attractive to lure customers away from the likes of Verizon and T-Mobile is uncertain.

Then there's the matter of brand loyalty. Do customers really have such warm and fuzzy feelings for Comcast that they want to trust it with their wireless service?

Those 15 million hot spots are also controversial in some quarters. A 2014 class action suit challenged the concept, with lead plaintiff Toyer Grear saying Comcast “has externalized the costs of its national wi-fi network onto its customers.”

These costs allegedly include electricity: Grear's lawsuit says the public-hotspot routers use considerably more electricity than the old private-only routers, resulting in electric bills up to 30 or 40 percent higher than before, which the lawsuit calls “a cost borne by the unwitting customer.”

At last report, the suit was still pending. 

Comcast has been talking about getting into the wireless business for a long time and now says it's just about ready to do so, with the emphasis on "about....

Replacement Galaxy Note 7 phones now available

A half-million replacement phones have been shipped to retailers

Samsung has confirmed that it has shipped 500,000 replacement Galaxy Note 7 smartphones to U.S. retailers so that consumers may start the exchange program.

All consumers who purchased a Note 7 from its release on August 19 to September 2, when the company abruptly stopped selling them, may turn in their old phones for a new one. The initial shipment makes up approximately half the phones sold in that two and a half week period.

The problem with the old phones, of course, is they have been deemed to be a fire hazard. There have been numerous reports of the batteries overheating, catching fire and even exploding. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued an emergency recall and urged consumers to stop using them immediately. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) banned them from checked luggage.

“Consumer safety is always our highest priority,” Tim Baxter, president of Samsung Electronics America, said in a statement. “Our collaboration with the CPSC to fast-track a voluntary recall in the U.S. addresses safety concerns by ensuring we reach Note7 owners quickly to exchange their devices.”

How to exchange

To exchange a Note 7 for a new one, consumers can go to samsung.com/us/note7recall for carrier and retailer specific instructions on how and where to exchange their device. Consumers may exchange their current Note 7 for a new one or for a Galaxy S7 or S7 edge with a refund of the price difference between the products. Consumers may also turn in their old phone and get a full refund.

Since the old phone and its replacement are nearly identical, Samsung is offering some help in telling them apart. A green battery icon has been included in three different software changes and constitutes the new phone's main identifier.

Samsung says the icon will be visible on the status bar, the display screen, and the power off prompt screen, which can be accessed by pressing and holding the power key.

Consumers can also easily make sure they are using the replacement Galaxy Note7 by looking for a square symbol on the label of the packaging box.

Samsung has confirmed that it has shipped 500,000 replacement Galaxy Note 7 smartphones to U.S. retailers so that consumers may start the exchange program....

Apple and Samsung's reversal of fortunes

It's been a great month for one smartphone maker, the other not so much

The tech world has spent the better part of this month wondering what went wrong with Samsung lately and what went right for Apple. It turns out the two things may be related.

There is no question the rivals' fortunes are moving in opposite directions. Samsung was forced to recall and announce plans to replace every one of the new Galaxy Note 7 smartphones it sold since its August 19 launch.

The phone won lavish praise from reviewers but soon was plagued by reports of overheating batteries that could ignite, and even explode. The phones are considered so unpredictable that the Federal Aviation Administration wants passengers to keep them out of checked bags and not to power them up while onboard the aircraft.

Samsung has told consumers who own a Note 7 to stop using them and exchange them for other phones, or for a loaner to use until Samsung can start producing Note 7s that aren't a fire hazard.

'China's different'

Samsung went to great lengths over the weekend to suggest Note 7 batteries are not the source of combustible phones that have been reported in China. The Wall Street Journal reports Note 7s sold in China have not been included in the global recall, at least not yet.

The timing of all this could not be worse for the Korean electronics firm. The Note 7 came out in mid-August, about three weeks before the anticipated release of the iPhone 7, which advanced press suggested would not move the needle very much.

Trying to one-up Apple

And it was this haste to one-up Apple that led to Samsung's problems, according to Bloomberg News. According to the report, based on interviews with people “familiar with the matter,” Samsung executives caught wind of a rumor: the iPhone 7 was going to be a yawner.

They then reportedly leaned on suppliers to rush production of components so the Note 7 would launch first. It did, but Bloomberg suggests at considerable cost. Haste makes waste, as they say.

Meanwhile, Samsung has initiated its Note 7 exchange program in the UK this week. Consumers there can trade in their barely month-old smartphone for a new and improved Note 7.

As for the iPhone, the rumors about it were apparently wrong. Consumers seem to think it's just fine, if initial orders are any indication. The phone has some nice features, a sleek design, and doesn't burst into flames.

The tech world has spent the better part of this month wondering what went wrong with Samsung lately and what went right for Apple. It turns out the two th...

Hey, stop using your Samsung Galaxy Note 7!

The fire danger is real and there are alternatives

On August 19, Samsung introduced its flagship Galaxy Note 7 Smartphone, a device that won rave reviews.

But on September 2, the company confirmed that it was recalling all of the phones that had been sold so far after more than 30 cases of the battery overheating and catching fire. The company said it would replace all the phones with new ones as quickly as possible.

But people who bought the Note 7 haven't stopped using them. After all, people just don't stop using their smartphone, even if there's a chance it might explode. Samsung has offered Note 7 users an exchange program for another model while engineers work to rectify the problem, but apparently hardly anyone has taken advantage of it.

Almost no one has stopped using it

Apteligent, a mobile app intelligence firm, reports that the Note 7's usage rate is almost exactly the same as it was the day of the recall. The company is urging users stop using the Note 7 immediately. Five days ago, Samsung delivered the same message.

“We are advising that you power down your Note7 and exchange it now, as part of our U.S. Product Exchange Program for all Galaxy Note7 owners,” the company said in a statement. “We strongly advise all customers to use this exchange program because your safety is our top priority. Additional sales and shipments of the affected devices have been stopped, but if you already have a Galaxy Note7, we strongly advise that you replace it.”

Late Thursday, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported Samsung had officially recalled the phone, which may provide new urgency to its appeal for owners to turn them in. The recall note also updated the incident reports, noting there had been 92 cases so far of these devices overheating and catching fire.

Two options

The company is offering consumers two options. First, consumers who want to wait for the Note 7 replacements, may obtain a Samsung J series phone through their carriers and use it until Samsung works out the bugs in the Note 7.

A second alternative is to exchange the defective Note7 for a Galaxy S7 or Galaxy S7 edge and replace any Note7 specific accessories, as well as get a refund of the price difference between devices. Get the details here.

The important thing is for consumers who own a Note 7 to turn it off and not use it. Already, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has strongly advised travelers not to pack a Note 7 in checked luggage aboard aircraft.

Slovenian airline Adria Airways has echoed that, but made it mandatory, banning the use of Samsung’s latest mobile phone on its flights due to safety concerns.

Bad timing

The recall could not have come at a worse time for Samsung. The Galaxy Note 7 was acknowledged by the tech world as a very nice device and sales were brisk up until September 2, when they were suspended.

Less than a week later, Apple introduced the iPhone 7, which the more experts look at it, the more they like it. Apple has said it will not release initial sales figures, but carriers report they have been swamped with orders.

On August 19, Samsung introduced its flagship Galaxy Note 7 Smartphone, a device that won rave reviews.But on September 2, the company confirmed that i...

AT&T, Verizon lift data caps for some customers

Net neutrality activists are unhappy about the 'zero rating' plans

Net neutrality is supposed to mean that all content on the Internet is treated equally by carriers, but wireless carriers are finding ways to push the envelope.

In the latest example, AT&T is lifting wireless data caps for customers who also subscribe to DirecTV or U-Verse, meaning those customers can watch life or recorded shows on their wireless device without burning up their monthly data ration. 

To take advantage of it, you'll need the latest DirecTV app, already available for iOS and coming soon for Android.

Verizon, meanwhile, has added NFL mobile service to its Go90 short video service on the "zero rating" list. Verizon Wireless customers can watch either without eating into their data cap. But be careful! If you gorge on ESPN or YouTube, it's a different story -- each digit will count against you.

You can thank T-Mobile for starting all this with its Binge On service, which offers zero data usage counts for a long list of video attractions.

It's basically a marketing ploy intended to encourage customers to load up on services from the same provider -- to get both wireless and satellite or cable TV from AT&T or Verizon. 

It's a sore point, though, for consumer activists, who say that while the zero rating deals may be technically legal, they violate the spirit of net neutrality. They're pushing the Federal Communications Commission to clamp down on the practice, but so far the FCC has apparently found nothing actionable about it.

Net neutrality is supposed to mean that all content on the Internet is treated equally by carriers, but wireless carriers are finding ways to push the enve...

iPhone 7 may be lacking a crucial element

The latest in the long line of iPhones was revealed today

[UPDATE 3:15 p.m. EST]

As expected, the iPhone 7 will have no earphone jack but will instead communicate wirelessly with a new series of earpieces and headphones. The wireless earphones are being called "Apple Airpods." Cute, no?

Eliminating the jack will make the 7 more waterproof and it supposedly will get two hours more battery life than the 6. The price stays the same, $649. The iPhone 7 Plus will start at $769.

The iPhone 7 also gets a second camera, as expected, increasing photo quality.

The Apple Watch 2 will also be water-resistant.

---

First it was Windows 95. Twenty-one years ago, August 24, 1995, lines snaked along city streets as the first mass-market graphical user interface (GUI, pron: "goo'-ee") showed its face. Jennifer Aniston narrated an hour-long instructional video to help users become accustomed to the notion of clicking on screen icons instead of typing commands.

But with Windows 95 came the "blue screen of death," "plug and pray," and other frequent disasters that took some of the shine off Microsoft's GUI, allowing Apple to jump the queue and snatch the gold ring signifying it to be the producer of all things worth waiting for.

And so today, the world waited for the unveiling of the iPhone 7, just as England once awaited the installation of its new king, Henry VII, who among his other achievements (six marriages) managed to separate the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church, sparking a schism that persists to this day.

He also invoked the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings, which hasn't worn all that well. And today there are those who speculate that the Divine Right of Apple to invoke shock and awe with each new product it foists upon the world is also about to go into eclipse.

The jack's been ripped ...

If indeed the world's most valuable company is about to lose some of its luster, it will not be for anything as pedestrian as an excess of amorous partners, but rather for want of an earphone jack.

Courtiers in the House of Apple have for months now sparked rumors that the iPhone 7 has not been beheaded but dejacked -- that it will be lacking an earphone jack, thus rendering useless the millions of little white earbuds by which the Apple Faithful have long displayed their loyalty. 

The rationale for this is that removing the jack makes it possible to render the iPhone more water-resistant, thus resolving a vulnerability that has long plagued the priceless smartphone. It of course means that earbud wearers will need new buds, but Apple has never been reluctant to render peripheral devices obsolete. 

Sales of the iPhone have lately been somewhat soft, a condition some attribute to a growing "loss of cool." Others, however, blame it on the new pricing policies of wireless companies like AT&T and Verizon, who are no longer subsidizing purchases of the devices, which can cost more than $600. 

When the purchase price was buried in the monthly cell phone bill, it was regarded as tolerable. But when it appears in stark black and white, iPhoners find it more objectionable. That's the theory, anyway. 

Henry VII was a robust and charismatic figure in his youth but became severely obese, bloated, and unappealing as he aged. Whether Apple suffers the same fate remains to be seen. 

First it was Windows 95. Twenty-one years ago, August 24, 1995, lines snaked along city streets as the first mass-market graphical user interface (GUI, pro...

Apps now account for more than half of internet use

Consumers use PCs to go online only 32% of the time

It wasn't that long ago that smartphones, for the most part, didn't exist. Consumers used cell phones for talking and texting.

Then, in 2007, Apple introduced the first iPhone, unleashing a host of competitors. Today, people are more likely to access the internet – for directions or to make a purchase – using a smartphone than a PC.

A new report from ComScore shows just how far that transition has gone. The report shows that smartphone apps now account for more than half the time we spend online.

Not much of a shock

“The high usage of smartphone apps compared to other media touchpoints shouldn’t come as much of a shock when you think about your daily online behavior,” the authors write.

“Chances are when you want to know what’s happening around the world, or in pop culture, or in your friends’ lives, your first move is to reach into your pocket and open one of the number of different social apps on your phone. And unless you already happen to be sitting at a computer, a smartphone app is probably your first option when you decide to listen to music, get directions to a destination, check the weather or catch up on email.”

The report shows that smartphone apps had reached a saturation point, accounting for 41% of web use by June, 2014. That saturation point reached 50% in just the next two years.

And because our phones are with us most waking hours, we are on them more than our PCs, which require us to be in one location. PCs account for just 32% of online time now.

Optimized for mobile

Apps are programs that optimize a particular site for mobile use, making it easier to access and use them rather than having the user navigate to the site using a web browser. One of the most popular apps is Facebook, allowing users to post easily from their phones.

More recently, the Pokemon Go app has been hugely popular, providing an augmented reality experience for gamers who no longer have to sit in front of a console or PC.

Apps can also increase a phone's vulnerability, since many have been infected with malware. As we reported last year, entertainment apps have been prime suspects as malware carriers. Consumers should use caution when downloading any app, using only trusted developers from trusted sources.

It wasn't that long ago that smartphones, for the most part, didn't exist. Consumers used cell phones for talking and texting.Then, in 2007, Apple intr...

Pokémon GO doesn't sell users' private info, it tells lawmaker

Users' movements are tracked but the data is 'aggregated' and not sold to third parties, the company said

A lot of companies know an awful lot about us. Among them is Niantic, the publisher of Pokémon GO, the augmented reality game that leads users around by their virtual nose.

But although Niantic tracks its users' movements, operating system, hardware information, and so forth, it doesn't sell the data to third parties, the company told Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who had raised privacy concerns about the game.

In response, Niantic general counsel Courtney Greene Power told Franken in a letter released Thursday that the app collects data about players' locations, mobile operating systems, device identifiers, and hardware.

Franken, top Democrat on the Privacy and Technology Subcommittee, called Niantic's response to his concerns "comprehensive" but said that he plans to have his office meet with company officials in the near future to clarify parts of their response and work together on protecting the privacy of the millions of users—many of whom are children—who play Pokémon GO.

"I appreciate Niantic's response, but I intend to work further with the company in the future to ensure that we're doing everything possible to protect the privacy of Americans—particularly American children—who play Pokémon GO," Franken said.

"Aggregated sets"

"Niantic uses mobile analytics services to collect and interpret data about the use of the app, and to receive crash reports," Power wrote in her letter to Franken. "From time to time, we also engage third parties to perform marketing, demographic and similar forms of analysis for us on aggregated sets of data."

Power added that the company doesn't share data about users younger than 13 with those outside companies.

Power conceded that Niantic plans to offer some data to sponsors but says the data will be "aggregated," so that it can't be tied to any individual.

"Niantic does not and has no plans to sell Pokémon GO user data -- aggregated, de-identified or otherwise -- to any third party," Power wrote. "As we continue to develop our sponsored locations program, we will provide certain reports to sponsors about visits and game actions (such as redeeming a promotion at the location), but these reports will contain aggregated data only."

McDonald's and other companies pay to have their businesses featured in the game. In Japan, McDonald's paid to have nearly 3,000 establishments turned into virtual gyms, which were then swarmed by Pokeman Go players.

As for chldren, Power said Pokémon GO asks users to provide their birth dates. If they are under 13, their parents must open an account in their name and give consent for their children to participate.

A lot of companies know an awful lot about us. Among them is Niantic, the publisher of Pokémon GO, the augmented reality game that leads users around by th...

Samsung stops sales of Note 7 over reports of exploding batteries

Company says it will replace every device that has been sold so far

Samsung has confirmed it is recalling its new Galaxy Note 7 smartphone and will replace every device that has been sold since its introduction on August 19.

The extraordinary step comes amid 35 reports of exploding batteries, mostly in Korea. The company also said it is suspending sales of the Note 7 temporarily.

The Galaxy Note 7 hit the market in mid August to mostly rave reviews. Consumer Reports praised its design and toughness, noting it is one of the first smartphones “to protect its screen with Corning’s Gorilla Glass 5, which Corning says can help smartphone screens survive a “1.6-meter, shoulder-height drops onto hard, rough surfaces up to 80 percent of the time.”

It was also impressed with the phone's battery, which it said should be powerful enough to allow for more than 40 hours of mixed use. Now, of course, it is that more powerful battery that is at the center of what is undoubtedly a marketing and PR crisis.

35 incidents in about two weeks

“To date there have been 35 cases that have been reported globally and we are currently conducting a thorough inspection with our suppliers to identify possible affected batteries in the market,” Samsung said in a brief statement.

The Note 7 is the flagship of the Samsung smartphone line up, with advanced features, a spectacular camera, and the ability to make notes using a stylus. The timing is also not favorable to the Korean electronics firm.

Next week, Apple is expected to introduce the latest upgrade in its product cycle, the iPhone 7. Samsung and Apple have long been rivals in the smartphone space, even suing one another over the years for patent infringement.

While Samsung has agreed to replace the one million devices that have already been sold, it has yet to provide these consumers with details on how to get a replacement. The company said those details will be forthcoming next week.

Samsung has confirmed it is recalling its new Galaxy Note 7 smartphone and will replace every device that has been sold since its introduction on August 19...

Verizon promises 50% faster peak data speeds

LTE Advanced uses multiple channels to deliver more speed when it's needed

Verizon Wireless has rolled out an advertising campaign for something it calls LTE Advanced. 

What is this LTE and where can you get one? LTE itself is like 3G, 4G, and other wireless terms. It's basically a made-up word that describes a concept rather than an actual standard. It stands for "long-term evolution" and is supposed to suggest that wireless service just keeps getting better.

In the case of LTE Advanced, Verizon says it offers 50% faster peak speeds in more than 450 U.S. cities. It uses software that combines multiple channels to increase data speeds and is usable by customers who have one of 39 updated smartphones and tablets (see list below), according to Verizon.

New devices released by major manufacturers are expected to be capable of using the upgraded service. 

“Our customers just received a major network enhancement for no additional cost,” said Tami Erwin, head of operations for Verizon’s wireless unit, in a press release. “Verizon LTE Advanced works like a turbocharger on an engine. Speed boosts kick in when you need it most, with big data use. That’s when you get the big peak boost of Verizon LTE Advanced.”

Verizon said that LTE Advanced currently uses a combination of two-and three-carrier aggregation. Customers will get typical download speeds of 5 – 12 Mbps, but two-channel carrier aggregation has shown peak download speeds of up to 225 Mbps, far exceeding the current speeds being experienced by wireless data networks nationwide. Three-channel carrier aggregation provides even greater efficiency, reaching speeds greater than 300 Mbps.

Capable devices

Current devices that are Verizon LTE Advanced-capable include:

  • Apple iPhone 6

  • Apple iPhone 6 Plus
  • Apple iPhone 6s
  • Apple iPhone 6s Plus
  • Apple iPhone 5 SE
  • Apple iPad Pro
  • Apple iPad Pro 9.7
  • Apple iPad Air 2
  • Apple iPad Mini 4
  • Asus Zenpad Z8
  • Blackberry PRIV
  • HTC 10
  • HTC Desire 626
  • HTC One M9
  • LG V10
  • LG G4
  • LG G5
  • Microsoft Surface 3
  • Motorola Nexus 6
  • Moto X
  • Moto Z Force Droid
  • Moto Z Droid
  • Motorola Droid Turbo 2
  • Motorola Droid Turbo
  • Netgear MHS AC791L
  • Novatel MiFi i6620L
  • Novatel MiFi USB620L
  • Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge Plus
  • Samsung Note 5
  • Samsung Galaxy S6
  • Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge
  • Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge
  • Samsung Galaxy S7
  • Samsung Galaxy View
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab S2
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab E 8.0
  • Samsung Galaxy Note 7
  • Sony Xperia Z3v
  • Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet
Verizon Wireless has rolled out an advertising campaign for something it calls LTE Advanced. What is this LTE and...

If you do nothing else, update your iPhone today

Three newly found vulnerabilities could let hackers take over your phone

If you don't want to know the details, that's fine, but don't stop reading quite yet. It's very important that you update your iPhone today. Follow the link for instructions.

Now, the gory details: recently discovered malware is targeting three previously unknown vulnerabilities in iOS, the iPhone's operating system. The vulnerabilities could not only let hackers take over your phone, they could also track your movements and turn on your microphone.

All of this came to light earlier this month when a human rights activist in the United Arab Emirates got a suspicious text that promised new details of torture in UAE prisons. If he had followed the link in the text, it would have implanted highly dangerous malware on his phone. 

Fix prepared

Fortunately, he didn't and the vulnerability was identified by cybersecurity experts at Citizen Lab, according to an account in The Verge. It was reported to Apple, which prepared fixes for the vulnerabilities in today's release of iOS 9.3.5

To get the update, go to Settings/General/SoftwareUpdate. If you have a high-speed connection, it should take less than 10 minutes to download and install the update.

This is the first time that three vulnerabilities have been discovered in iOS at the same time, and it's a bit sobering for those who like to think their iPhones are more secure than Android phones. They probably are, but today's revelation is a reminder that, in today's world, nothing is totally secure.

If you don't want to know the details, that's fine, but don't stop reading quite yet. It's very important that you update your iPhone today. Follow the lin...

Sprint vs. T-Mobile: it's getting nasty

Both say they are getting rid of data plans

On the heels of AT&T's announcement that it is doing away with overage charges on its data plan, T-Mobile upped the ante Thursday, announcing it is doing away with data plans altogether.

It says its new Un-carrier 12 will offer customers unlimited talk, text, and data for one price. Company CEO John Legere announced the move in a video blog.

“The era of the data plan is over,” said Legere. “After Un-carrier 12, the wireless industry will never be the same again.”

Who's idea was it?

But shortly afterward, Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure took to Twitter to accuse T-Mobile of stealing the idea. It turns out Sprint was preparing to launch essentially the same promotion on Friday, but went ahead and released it Thursday.

“@tmobile & @JohnLegere, so nice of you to follow us after our successful #unlimited marketing trials,” Claure Tweeted from his personal account.

But reportedly, the language was much harsher. CNBC reported that Claure referred to Legere as “a con man” in a previous Tweet, that appears to have now been deleted.

High stakes

The bruising rhetoric may reflect what is at stake. With the U.S. cell phone market saturated at this point, carriers must now grow by taking one another's customers. By offering packages that put no limits on data, smaller players like T-Mobile and Sprint may see the opportunity to feast on larger rivals like Verizon and AT&T.

T-Mobile's Un-carrier 12 is built around the T-Mobile ONE plan. It offers unlimited talk, text, and high-speed data. Under the plan, four lines cost an average of $40 per line and additional lines can be added for $20 a month with auto pay. It's $5 more a month per line without auto pay.

In announcing T-Mobile's plan, Legere saved his barbs for his larger rivals.

“Only T-Mobile’s network can handle something as huge as destroying data limits,” he said. “Dumb and Dumber can’t do this. They’ve been running away from unlimited data for years now, because they built their networks for phone calls, not for how people use smartphones today. I hope AT&T and Verizon try to follow us. In fact, I challenge them to try.”

Sprint Unlimited Freedom

Sprint's expedited press release gives its pricing nearly identical to T-Mobile's. The argument is over who came up with it first.

Under Sprint's Unlimited Freedom plan, a family of four can get four lines for $60 for the first line, $40 for the second and $30 each for the third and fourth lines. Sprint said it is also introducing a plan called Unlimited Unhook'd. Customers will get:

  • Unlimited talk, text, and optimized streaming videos, gaming, and music
  • Unlimited nationwide 4G LTE data for most everything else
  • $50 a month for one line
  • $30 a month for a second line up to five total lines

“Wireless customers want simple, worry-free and affordable wireless plans on a reliable network,” Claure said. "There can be a lot of frustration and confusion around wireless offers, with too much focus on gigabytes and extra charges.”

Disruptive forces have rocked the cellular industry over the last couple of years, as restrictive two-year contracts are now largely a thing of the past. The battle now, apparently, is to see who can take it to the next level and be the biggest disrupter.

Regardless of who it is, consumers are likely to be the winners.

On the heels of AT&T; announcement that it is doing away with overage charges on its data plan, T-Mobile upped the ante Thursday, announcing it is doing aw...

AT&T drops overage charges from data plans

When you go over the limit, the speed drops

Though it was largely overshadowed by competing plans from Sprint and T-Mobile that eliminate data plans, AT&T is addressing the overage issue.

The carrier is sticking with its measured data mobile plan, but is eliminating added cost when you exceed your monthly allowance. Standard practice in the past has been for carriers to give you more high-speed data for the rest of the month, but to charge you for it.

Starting Sunday AT&T customers can choose from the AT&T Mobile Share plans that completely do away with overage charges. Instead of paying extra for additional high-speed data, a customer going over the monthly limit will see data speed reduced to a maximum of 128 kbps for the rest of the billing cycle.

The company has rolled out a revamped plan line-up, allowing customers to choose the amount of data that meets their needs. As an example, AT&T points to the current 5GB Mobile Share plan with two lines, for $100 a month.

An extra gigabyte at the same price

That plan is moving to 6GB a month at the same price. For consumers who need more data, there is a plan with 10GB at $120 a month. Neither plan would incur overage charges should the customer exceed his or her allowance.

Monthly plans for one line start at 1GB of data for $30 a month and go all the way up to 30GB for $135. The plans include rollover data, unlimited talk and text, and unlimited texting from the U.S. to 120 countries.

Customers who need even more data on a monthly basis can choose from 40GB to 100GB Mobile Share Advantage plans. Business accounts offer up to 200GB per month.

AT&T's move reflects the evolving industry trend. Verizon recently introduced “Safety Mode,” which it says addresses the overage issue, giving customers more control over their data.

Smaller rival T-Mobile eliminated overage charges two years ago and has now joined Sprint in doing away with data pans altogether.  

One drawback to a measured data mobile plan is the added cost when you exceed your monthly allowance. Standard practice in the past has been for carriers t...

Sprint joins Southwest, Delta in bad backup derby

9-1-1 service fails throughout the Washington, D.C., area

Everyone tries to be on their best behavior in Washington, hoping Congress won't get annoyed and crush them. Too bad no one told Sprint about that before it joined Southwest and Delta airlines in staging a spectacular display of poor redundancy.

It all started Tuesday when the Fairfax County (Va.) Police Department issued a warning that some cell phone calls weren't getting through to its 9-1-1 center. Then it narrowed it down a bit more, pinpointing Sprint as the carrier that was having problems.

As the day wore on, the problem spread to D.C. and on into Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and the tristate peninsula known locally as the Eastern Shore. Sprint chimed in and said that some landline calls were also going nowhere.

What could it have been?

Like the Southwest and Delta failures, the Sprint debacle started small and then quickly got out of hand when backups didn't work as expected and small failures cascaded into big ones.

Sprint said a fire in D.C. caused problems at Sprint's data center in Reston, Va. How a fire across the street from Sprint's switch in D.C. caused issues 20 miles away wasn't quite clear, but apparently, emergency Sprint generators in D.C. didn't kick in as they were supposed to and, as so often happens, one thing led to another.

Things were apparently back on track Wednesday morning. As far as is known, no one was harmed because of the outage, but it was another reminder that the systems consumers count on to be there when they need them don't always come through. 

And by the way, emergency responders for years have insisted on referring to the nationwide emergency number as "9-1-1" -- with dashes -- on the theory that if we call it "nine-eleven," panicked callers may look in vain for the "11" button on their keypad. 

Could be, but in the age of texting, do we really expect anyone to text "9," then "-," then "1," then "-" and so on?

Just asking.

Everyone tries to be on their best behavior in Washington, hoping Congress won't get annoyed and crush them. Too bad no one told Sprint about that before i...

Strava app's new feature can help outdoor runners stay safe

Beacon gives designated contacts the ability to track an athlete's location in real-time

Runners often reap numerous physical and mental health benefits, as do those who spend time outside. It stands to reason, therefore, that the minds and bodies of individuals who exercise outdoors may be even better off.

But exercising outdoors, especially for those who do so alone, isn’t always the safest. Hitting the trails solo may give runners some much needed alone time, but being isolated presents its share of risks.

Keeping family and friends in the loop regarding your location is one way to stay safe. Now, a new feature added to a popular fitness app called Strava may help runners, cyclists, and hikers do just that.

Real-time tracking

Before venturing out for a workout, Strava Beacon has users designate up to three “safety contacts.” These contacts will receive a text message with a link to a map where their loved one is exercising.

Real-time tracking is a far cry from a vague message on a sticky note, says Ethan Hollinshead, Senior Product Manager. Allowing friends, family, and spouses to track your movements can help everyone involved worry less.

“Let’s say it’s 3:30, you said you’d be home at 3:00 and you’re not moving towards home. That’s a good indication that they should reach out to you and see what’s up,” Hollinshead said, adding that Beacon can help contacts quickly distinguish between “running a little late” and “stuck on the side of the road.”

Additionally, Beacon lets safety contacts know if their outdoor athlete is out of network range or if their phone battery is almost depleted. 

Strava Beacon, for iOS and Android, is available on Strava Premium for $7.99 a month or $59.99 a year.

Runners often reap numerous physical and mental health benefits, as do those who spend time outside. It stands to reason, therefore, that the minds and bod...

Carriers ready for Samsung Galaxy Note 7 preorders

iPhone 7 release date still six weeks away

Remember the days when consumers would camp out in front of cell phone stores to be first in line to buy the hottest new smartphone? When was the last time you saw that?

These days, new smartphones are not exactly a cause for excitement. One reason is new releases don't redefine the space as they once did.

That said, Verizon Wireless and its competitors are trying to work up some excitement about the Samsung Galaxy Note7, which it says will be available for preorder starting Thursday. The phone will be available at Verizon stores August 19.

AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile are also taking preorders for August 19 delivery.

Verizon says the new Samsung phone features an enhanced version of the S Pen, water-resistant design, and iris scanning security. Samsung has upgraded the S Pen feature, utilizing a smaller pen tip and heightened pressure sensitivity. The result, the company says, is better control over what you write or draw on the screen.

Users can also employ the S Pen to access functions and easily erase mistakes. Smart Select allows you to capture and save anything on the screen – even video clips.

Security upgrade

Samsung says it has upped its game when it comes to security for the Galaxy Note7. Options for access control now include PIN, fingerprint entry, and iris scanning technology. The result, the company says, is secure contacts, photos, bank records, and documents, without having to remember or type in a password.

The phone comes with 64GB of internal memory and a 12-megapixel rear camera with dual-pixel technology, making it easier to lock in and focus on a subject, even in low light. It runs Android Marshmallow 6.0.1.

The phone is expensive, especially in this era of no carrier subsidies. You can pay the upfront cost of more than $800 or select a monthly payment plan that all carriers offer. At AT&T, it's available on AT&T Next for $29.34 per month for 30 months or AT&T Next Every Year, costing $36.67 for 24 months when you have eligible service.

Meanwhile, iPhone users will have to wait a little longer for an upgrade. The iPhone 7 release date has been set for September 16.

Remember the days when consumers would camp out in front of cell phone stores to be first in line to buy the hottest new smartphone? When was the last time...

Apps pose a big danger for teens behind the wheel

Two of three teens use apps while driving, study finds

Texting has long been considered a threat to the safety of teens who drive, but another smartphone-related risk has recently come to light.

Nearly 70% of teens report using apps while driving, according to new research by Liberty Mutual Insurance and Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD). And it seems teens may not have a clear understanding of just how dangerous app use while driving could be.

When asked to rank risky driving behaviors from most to least dangerous, teens said posting to social media apps or checking a notification while driving was significantly less dangerous than texting and driving or driving under the influence.

Researchers surmise that teens may perceive music and navigation apps as “utilities,” which may cause them to see apps as less of a driving danger.

Beliefs Vs. Actions

To uncover teens real thoughts on issues pertaining to app usage while driving, researchers used implicit association testing -- a method that employs fast-paced word associations to unveil gut-level reactions.

It may or may not surprise parents to learn that what teens believe is often quite different from what they say and how they act. For instance, 41% of teens stated that using a GPS app while driving is dangerous, but 58% reported using them while in the driver’s seat.

The case for music apps was no different; more than half of teens (64%) agreed that using music apps while driving is dangerous, but 46% still reported using them while driving.

Eliminating distractions

Experts say music and navigation apps aren’t inherently dangerous, but how teens interact with them behind the wheel may be. Perusing a playlist or typing in an address on a navigation app, for example, may cause teens to become distracted.

To help mitigate the risk of app-related distraction on the road, it’s important for parents to talk candidly with their teens about driving habits. 

Additionally, parents of teen drivers may consider taking the following precautions before handing their kids the keys.

  • Hide the phone. Teens may not be great at ignoring the siren song emanating from their phone (which is nearby while driving for 73% of teens). Parents can ask teens to keep their phones out of reach and on silent while driving.
  • Set directions in advance. Navigation apps can be invaluable tools in helping teens get where they need to go, but 42% of teens say they text while driving to get directions. Ask teens to chart their course prior to starting the engine or to pull over if they need to program their navigation app.
  • Set expectations. Having teens sign off on a Teen Driving Contract may help family members stay on the same page when it comes to driving rules.
Texting has long been considered a threat to the safety of teens who drive, but another smartphone-related risk has recently come to light. Nearly 70% ...

New app interrupts unproductive screen time with learning moments

Finny may help parents stave off device addiction in kids

Parents of kids who are constantly glued to devices may desire a way to surreptitiously incorporate a few learning experiences into their screen time.

Now, a new app called Finny may be able to help parents make device time productive.

The average kid now spends more than seven hours a day on media and devices, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. And more often than not, it’s games and social media apps that capture a child’s attention.

By enabling parents to transform an unproductive app into an occasionally educational experience, Finny sees itself as a platform that can help end device addiction.

Monitors device usage

“Their games, your rules,” is the motto behind the app, which is free for Android and iOS. A hybrid of parental control and education, the app works by monitoring device usage.

Not only does Finny give parents an idea of how their 7 to 14 year olds are spending their time on mobile devices, it can keep kids from wasting time on unproductive apps.

Before a child can become too consumed by an unproductive game or app, Finny will interrupt with a learning moment. Educational interruptions could be anything from the introduction of new academic content, reinforcement of old academic content, or the promotion of physical activity.

Promotes balance

"We love the idea of taking an everyday occurrence, like a child playing on a smartphone, and turning it into a learning opportunity," Liza McFadden, president of the Barbara Bush Foundation, said in a statement.

"Innovation in the EdTech arena -- like the work that Finny is doing -- has the potential to make a positive impact on families,” McFadden adds.

And Finny seems to have already had a positive impact on many families. In a study, over 90% of users reported improvement in their child’s device habits.

For kids, the platform may offer another benefit: a more peaceful household.

“I don’t have to argue with my parents over screen time anymore,” says the child of a Finny user, adding the app helps him balance his device time.

Parents of kids who are constantly glued to devices may desire a way to surreptitiously incorporate a few learning experiences into their screen time. ...

Robocall strike force seeks solution to pesky calls and texts

At FCC's urging, AT&T agrees to lead industry effort to block automated calls

Considering all of its blather about customer service, the telecommunications industry has been rather reluctant to do anything about robocalls, perhaps the most hated of modern annoyances.

But after prodding from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), AT&T has agreed to lead an effort to limit the calls using technology that will use a "Do Not Originate" list identifying suspicious calls originated outside the United States.

AT&T had been arguing that it didn't have the legal authority to block robocalls, even though the FCC last year had clearly said the industry had its permission to do just that.

Last week, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler decided to try again, writing to AT&T and other major carriers urging them to "offer call-blocking services to their customers now -- at no cost."

Task force

A few days later, AT&T said in a blog post that AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson would head up an industry task force to "accelerate the development and adoption of new tools and solutions to abate the proliferation of robocalls and to make recommendations to the FCC on the role government can play in this battle."

In other words, don't look for anything to happen right away. Wheeler, however, took it as a sign that things may at last be starting to move.

“I applaud AT&T for committing to make robocall-blocking technology available to its customers, as I requested in a letter to the company last week," Wheeler said in a statement and said he hoped to see recommendations in 60 days.

"Since giving consumers meaningful control over the calls and texts they receive will require collective action by the industry, I am gratified that AT&T will lead an industry strike force to develop an action plan for providing consumers with robust robocall-blocking solutions. ... I strongly urge industry participants to join the effort and to produce conclusions within 60 days.”

Wheeler also wrote to "intermediary carriers," the companies that connect robocallers to the consumer's phone company, reminding them of their responsibility to help facilitate the offering of blocking technologies.

Last summer, the FCC made clear that there are no legal obstacles to carriers offering consumers robocall-blocking services, the agency noted, adding that some IP and mobile phone networks are already doing just that. 

"The Commission is committed to doing everything it can to further empower consumers to control unwanted calls and texts," the FCC said.

Considering all of its blather about customer service, the telecommunications industry has been rather reluctant to do anything about robocalls, perhaps th...

Businesses warned about Pokemon Go security risk

Security expert calls it a 'nightmare' for corporate networks

Sometimes it can be risky mixing business and pleasure. The International Association of Information Technology Asset Managers (IAITAM) is warning businesses such a risk could occur if employees download the insanely popular Pokemon Go app on company-owned devices.

The association has recommended corporations prohibit the installation and use of Pokemon Go on any devices used for business purposes. The group says that includes "bring your own device" (BYOD) phones/tablets with direct access to sensitive corporate information and accounts.

AITAM CEO Dr. Barbara Rembiesa goes so far as to call the new augmented reality game a “nightmare” for firms trying to keep their email and cloud-based information secure.

“Even with the enormous popularity of this gaming app, there are just too many questions and too many risks involved for responsible corporations to allow the game to be used on corporate-owned or BYOD devices,” Rembiesa said. “We already have real security concerns and expect them to become much more severe in the coming weeks.”

She said to be safe, organizations must keep the app off any device the connects to the organization's network. Here are her concerns:

Data breaches

Rembiesa says the original user agreements for the game allowed Niantic to access each user's entire Google profile, including his or her history, past searches, and anything else associated with a Google Login ID.

That is no longer the case in current versions, but Rembiesa says this meets the definition of a data breach for corporate-owned devices. It's also not clear to what extent data breaches took place before the change and what happened to the accessed information.

Risky knockoffs

Rembiesa says she has seen reports that some versions of the app that are on non-official download sites may include malware. The illicit software may allow cyber-criminals to take control of an infected phone or tablet.

Rembiesa worries that unsophisticated users might not be aware of the risks inherent in downloading from any third party provider, especially if the device is used on a corporate network. She says Proofpoint, an online security provider, has already reported knockoff Android copies of Pokémon Go in the wild containing a remote controlled tool (RAT) called DroidJack.

Encouraging bad behavior

Making an exception and allowing the use of a game app on a corporate-owned device sets a bad precedent, Rembiesa argues. She says employees need to understand the importance of sticking with approved software.

Despite its popularity, she says Pokemon Go must be considered a "rogue download," which is “any software program downloaded onto a device that circumvents the typical purchasing and installation channels of the organization.”

Sometimes it can be risky mixing business and pleasure. The International Association of Information Technology Asset Managers (IAITAM) is warning business...

Five fun apps for runners seeking motivation

Why not run from zombies, explore new trails, or donate to charity on your next run?

From exercise and endorphins to the ever-coveted runner’s high, there is a lot to be gained from running.

But while running has been called the most accessible sport, the road to becoming a runner isn’t always easy. Novice runners and seasoned pros alike may face progress-hampering challenges along the way. Fortunately, technology is here to lend a hand.

Fun and helpful running apps

Whether it's fitness, fun, or the ability to conquer longer distances you're after, these apps may provide the motivation you need to achieve your running goals.

  • RunGo (Android / iOS). Running a new trail is exercise and an adventure rolled into one. Getting lost, however, might just sap the fun out of the experience. With RunGo, you can hear turn-by-turn directions as you go. Choose from featured routes (around a scenic or historic location, for instance) or create your own. Runners can even choose a path that will create a fun shape on the map, such as a Darth Vader head.
  • Couch-to-5K (iOS / Android). As its name suggests, this popular app helps gradually prepare you to run a longer distance than you might be used to. Couch-to-5K has aspiring distance runners jog three times a week for 30 minutes each session. Just 9 weeks later (and with the help of a virtual coach), you’ll be ready to run your first 3.1 mile race.
  • Runtastic Story Running (Android / iOS / Windows phone). For those who prefer to listen to podcast or books while running, Story Running (which is downloaded within your Runtastic app) may be the perfect digital companion. Story Running is designed to give you a jolt of adrenaline through stories that create a sense of urgency. If exercise alone isn’t motivation enough, perhaps being tasked with rescuing hostages from aliens or escaping from Alcatraz will help you reach the finish line.
  • Charity Miles (Android / iOS). Let the spirit of giving motivate you to go a few extra miles on your next run. Charity Miles allows users to pre-select a participating charity. For every mile run, the app automatically donates 25 cents.
  • Zombies, Run! (iOS / Android). Similar to Story Running, this app aims to light an adrenaline-fueled fire under you as you complete your workout. You’ll be dropped into a zombie apocalypse, which will have you so busy running for your life and protecting your base that you’ll be done with your run before you know it.
From exercise and endorphins to the ever-coveted runner’s high, there is a lot to be gained from running. But while running has been called the most ac...

White House funds 5G effort despite health advocates' objections

The ultra-high-speed broadband technology poses unknown risks, critics say

The White House is throwing $400 million into an effort that's supposed to speed development of the Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G wireless technology, a move some health advocates say is premature and unwise.

The federal dollars will be flowing into something called the Advanced Wireless Research Initiative, which is supposed to test and ultimately implement new 5G wireless networking and IoT technologies in the U.S.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last week voted to adopt new rules that open up the 24 GHz spectrum for so-called 5G (5th generation) high-speed broadband. When fully deployed, 5G will make the internet about 100 times faster and supposedly enable widespread development of "connected" cars and appliances.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler calls U.S. leadership in 5G "a national priority."

"High-speed, high-capacity, low-latency wireless networks will define our future," Wheeler said at Friday's announcement of the funding for the initiative. 

More towers

Because of the extremely high 24 GHz frequencies, the waves emitted by transponders are extremely short and don't travel very far, meaning that there will need to be many more -- though smaller -- cell towers than today.  

Not everyone thinks this is a good idea. Richard H. Conrad, a biochemist and consultant, says the White House and FCC are putting the cart before the horse -- deploying new technology without first ensuring that it is safe.

"I am a biochemist with a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins and know without a doubt, from the findings of thousands of research papers published by scientists with independent research funding, that there are many harmful biological effects of non-thermal levels of EMF that are relevant to humans," Conrad said in an open letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

Conrad contends that boosters of wireless technology have argued, in effect, that critics must prove the technology is unsafe by showing exactly how it causes harm.

"This is a myth; no one yet knows how smoking causes cancer, or the actual mechanism behind gravity," Conrad said. "Honest and independent research into health effects of 5G is absolutely necessary before actual deployment, and is therefore desirable before 5G system designs and standards have progressed very far."

"Increased productivity"

In a statement, The White House compares the IoT effort to historic breakthroughs achieved by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, George Washington Carver, and Samuel Morse.

"This effort will help spur innovation in many ways, from pushing the frontiers of tele-medicine through robot-assisted remote surgeries, to testing of autonomous vehicles that talk to each other to keep us safe, to the roll-out of smart manufacturing equipment in factories, to providing more connectivity for more people," administration officials Jason Furman and R. David Edelman said in a blog posting.

"Each one of these innovations has the potential to support increased productivity growth that can put more money in the pocket of American families," said Furman, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, and Edelman, Special Assistant to the President for Economic and Technology Policy.

Like the FCC's Wheeler, Furman and Edelman have no training in biological sciences, a sticking point for Conrad.

"Wheeler is a businessman, lobbyist and politician with no training in biological or medical sciences, no understanding of biochemistry or biophysics, no biological research experience, and he listens to advice on biological safety only from scientists who have been bought by industry and tell him what he wants to hear," Conrad said in an email to ConsumerAffairs.

"Wheeler is relying on myths and 'tobacco science' to sweep real science under the carpet, the enormous body of science that shows harmful effects of even low levels of pulsed microwave, yes, non-ionizing, radiation," Conrad said.

The White House is throwing $400 million into an effort that's supposed to speed development of the Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G wireless technology, a ...

What doctors love about Pokemon Go

The app's mental and physical health benefits have physicians singing its praises

The quest to catch ‘em all has Pokemon Go users upping their activity level, and doctors are a-okay with that.

Group Health physicians say the app is helping users stay fit by taking boredom out of the exercise equation. This unexpected effect could be of particular benefit to kids who are prone to sedentary lifestyles, experts say.

“The ability to search and find as many as 150 exotic and powerful monsters is having a great appeal," said Dr. Jessie Fudge, a Group Health physician and specialist in Activity, Sports, and Exercise Medicine.

But in our device saturated world, kids aren’t the only ones who could use a little motivation to step outside. The augmented reality app is giving users of all ages the motivation they need to engage in some light outdoor activity.

Activity disguised as a game

"With obesity and inactivity growing epidemics with significant consequences, the need to find ways to get off the couch and away from the computer to exercise is critical,” Fudge said in a statement. “If you or your kids like video or cell phone games and are looking for walking motivation, this just might be it."

The subtle nudge to go out has positively impacted users’ mental health, as well. Pokemon Go players who suffer from depression or anxiety are getting a healthy dose of happiness as a result of getting outside and getting active.

The game is no substitute for professional treatment, of course -- but it can help. Dr. John Grohol, an expert on technology's impact on human behavior and mental health, tells Engadget the game is “a great adjunct to other kinds of treatment, such as psychotherapy and medication.”

Safety tips for players

For all its benefits, the game still has risks. The task of hunting for Pokemon in the real world carries with it the risk of distraction-related accidents and injuries.

To help you stay safe, Fudge recommends the following Pokemon Go safety tips:

  • Follow real world rules and focus on your surroundings to prevent incidents like this from happening. 

  • Never play the game while driving or on a moving vehicle, such as a bike or skateboard; walking or running is the best way to play.

  • Start slowly. If you’re not usually very active, limit your playing time for the first few days and gradually increase your distance/time with each session.
The quest to catch ‘em all has Pokemon Go users upping their activity level, and doctors are a-okay with that. Group Health physicians say the app is h...

App shows how your skin type will react to current UV levels

When it comes to your skin's health, UVLens can help keep the forecast bright

The summer sun may encourage us to spend more time outdoors, but it isn’t always kind to our skin once we’re there.

Sun bathers and outdoor activity enthusiasts who frequently step out sans sunscreen may be at risk of developing skin cancer later in life.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, one in every five Americans will get some type of skin cancer in their lifetime. Even more shocking: almost half of Americans over the age of 65 will have had at least one type of skin cancer.

We all know the sun’s rays can be harmful, but not everyone knows the answers to other sun-related questions. For instance, you may not know how vulnerable your unique skin type is or how often sunscreen should be applied at different UV levels.

But now (you guessed it), there’s an app for that.

Calculates burn risk

A new app called UVLens (free on iOS and Android) measures UV levels and tells users if they need to apply sunscreen and/or grab a hat and sunglasses before heading out.

All info is neatly displayed on a color-coded wheel, which shows the hourly UV forecast and lets you know how quickly you would burn as a result of it. Users can also see other valuable information, such as what time of day to be most diligent about covering up.

In addition to providing general UV level-based info, the app gets a little more personal. After taking a skin type assessment, you’ll learn all about the skin you’re in -- specifically, how your skin type reacts to the sun and how quickly you’re likely to burn.

UVLens also seeks to encourage healthy sun habits by educating users on what precautions to take depending on the strength of the UV rays.

The summer sun may encourage us to spend more time outdoors, but it isn’t always kind to our skin once we’re there. Sun bathers and outdoor activity en...

Just how water-resistant is the Samsung Galaxy S7 Active?

Consumer Reports says it tested the company's marketing claims

We're not sure why anyone would want to go swimming with their smartphone, but these devices often end up getting wet one way or the other. For any piece of electronic equipment, water is usually a killer.

Samsung has made a point of marketing its flagship Galaxy S7 as one you can get wet and it will be none the worse for wear. The company has said the phone can survive being in five feet of water for 30 minutes.

To our friends at Consumer Reports, that sounded like a challenge, so lab technicians put the Galaxy S7 phones to the test. According to Consumer reports, the standard S7 and S7 Edge passed the test. The S7 Active, however, failed.

Now, it should be noted that neither Samsung, nor any other smartphone manufacturer, claims its devices are “water proof.” Water resistant can mean different things, but generally it is assumed spilling a drink on it or getting caught outside in a downpour won't make it stop working.

Consumer Reports concedes that companies using the “water resistant” claim can cite a variety of benchmarks. But it says Samsung got fairly specific with its claim of survival after 30 minutes in five feet of water. So that's the standard it used.

Putting the phones to the test

Lab techs put the devices in a water tank pressurized to 2.12 pounds-per-square-inch to mimic a depth of five feet and and waited a half hour. When they retrieved the S7 Active, they said there were green lines on the screen, the camera lenses were obscured by tiny bubbles and the touchscreen was unresponsive.

To make sure it wasn't a fluke, Consumer Reports said it tested a second phone exactly the same way and got similar results.

“After we removed it from the tank, the screen cycled on and off every few seconds, and moisture could be seen in the front and back camera lenses,” the company writes. “We also noticed water in the slot holding the SIM card.”

The technicians waited a couple of days to see if there would be any improvement. They write that the screens of both phones would light up when plugged in but the displays weren't readable.

In a statement to Consumer Reports, Samsung said Galaxy S7 Active device is as rugged as they come, but conceded there's “an off-chance a defective device is not as watertight as it should be.”

In all other respects, Consumer Reports says the Galaxy S7 Active is a great phone, but has scratched it from its list of recommended phones because it “didn't operate as claimed.” Samsung's other phones, the standard S7 and S7 Edge, top Consumer Reports' list of best smartphones with ratings of “excellent.”

We're not sure why anyone would want to go swimming with their smartphone, but these devices often end up getting wet one way or the other. For any piece o...

Pokémon Go goes viral; crooks take advantage

Stick-up artists use the game to lure victims to isolated areas

It's bigger than Tinder and may soon be bigger than Twitter. It's Pokémon Go -- the smartphone gaming app that puts Pokémon characters into real-life settings.

Unfortunately, it's also proving to be a handy tool for stick-up artists, according to police in O'Fallon, Mo., who say crooks are using Pokémon Go to lure consumers into isolated places where they are assaulted and robbed.

"The way we believe it was used is you can add a beacon to a pokestop to lure more players. Apparently they were using the app to locate ppl standing around in the middle of a parking lot or whatever other location they were in," O'Fallon police said in a Facebook posting.

Four suspects are in custody after police investigated a report of a hold-up early Sunday morning. 

Drop a Lure

Players use the game to "drop" a Lure module in a location that other players then visit over the next 30 minutes. Besides hold-ups and assaults, there have been numerous skirmishes involving homeowners angered by hordes of unwanted visitors. Also, some businesses have planted lures to bring traffic to their store.

The Pokémon Company and Niantic said they were aware of the incidents and issued a statement urging caution.

"We encourage all people playing Pokémon GO to be aware of their surroundings and to play with friends when going to new or unfamiliar places. Please remember to be safe and alert at all times," the companies said. 

It's bigger than Tinder and may soon be bigger than Twitter. It's Pokémon Go -- the smartphone gaming app that puts Pokémon characters into real-life setti...

'Breathe' app helps users disengage from anxiety

Calming breathing exercises may help reduce overall stress

Americans are all too familiar with stress. Work stress, health stress, and even Pinterest stress can creep into our consciousness making it difficult to relax.

Stress is part of being human, of course, but too much of it could take a toll on your physical and emotional health. Symptoms of stress-related tension include headaches, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, and trouble sleeping.

Now, the very device that may deliver stress-inducing news can also help you relax. Breathe for iPhone guides users through simple breathing exercises with the goal of helping to stave off stress and anxiety. 

Focus on breathing

The goal of Breathe is to shift a user’s focus from the stress of the day to the simple act of breathing. But sometimes, mentally changing gears can be a challenge.

If you’re among those who finds it difficult to downshift into meditation mode without guidance, the app can help.

Breathe calls itself “an app that shows you how to breathe.” It does so via tips and customizable inhale/exhale settings, all of which work together to arm you with the ability to visualize your breathing.

Even those with only a short window of time may benefit from firing up the app. Focusing on your breath for just a few minutes, whether at the beginning of the day or during your morning commute, may help lower your stress level.

And, like a good friend, the app will send you gentle reminders to take deep breaths throughout the rest of your busy day. 

Breathe is available for free on the App Store. For Android users, a similar app called Stop Breathe & Think is available.

Americans are all too familiar with stress. Work stress, health stress, and even Pinterest stress can creep into our consciousness making it difficult to r...

Security firm warns of widespread Android malware threat

HummingBad now used to generate revenue but could have more sinister purposes

Check Point, a cyber security firm, has warned that millions of Android phones are infected with a dangerous malware known as HummingBad.

The company says it discovered the malware in February, warning that it establishes a rootkit on Android phones. The purpose of the malware is to generate fraudulent advertising revenue, but it could potentially have other sinister purposes.

Check Point said it made the discovery when its researchers gained “unprecedented access” to the Chinese cyber criminals who developed it. The group, called Yingmob, works in tandem with a legitimate Chinese advertising analytics company.

Check Point made the discovery when it followed a slender trail of data that led to the Chinese hackers' servers, giving them an inside look at what turned out to be a fairly vast criminal enterprise.

The Chinese group is described as highly organized with 25 employees. These employees are divided into four groups that are responsible for developing HummingBad.

Highly profitable

In a report, Check Point researchers say the scam generates around $300,000 a month, but financial gain is just the tip of the iceberg. When the group is successful in its attack on a phone, it can create a botnet, carry out targeted attacks on businesses or government agencies, and even sell the access to other cybercriminals on the black market.

Data on compromised devices is at risk, including enterprise data if the owner happens to be using the phone for both personal and business purposes. Being able to access this data, the researchers say, creates a steady stream of income.

“Emboldened by financial and technological independence, their skillsets will advance – putting end users, enterprises, and government agencies at risk,” the authors warn.

According to technology website CNET, the most effective way to get rid of HummingBad is also pretty extreme: a factory reset.

“So backup your files and contacts, write down your favorite apps, and then reset your phone,” the site advises.

The way to avoid becoming infected again is advice you probably have heard before – don't download apps from untrusted sources.  

Check Point, a cyber security firm, has warned that millions of Android phones are infected with a dangerous malware known as HummingBad.The company sa...

New iPhone operating system to support organ donation

You can register with the Health app and keep proof with you at all times

In most states, when you get a drivers license you also get the opportunity to declare yourself as an organ donor. Starting with the release of iOS 10, you can do the same thing with your iPhone.

Apple says it is teaming with Donate Life America to facilitate being an organ donor by using the iPhone Health app. The registrations go directly from the iPhone to the National Donate Life Registry managed by Donate Life America.

Apple says it is the first smartphone maker to build in a system allowing users to become a nationally-registered donor and to enable them to keep proof of that status with them at all times.

“On average, one person dies every hour in the United States waiting for an organ transplant because the demand for lifesaving transplants far exceeds the available supply of organs — and one donor can save as many as eight lives,” said David Fleming, President & CEO of Donate Life America.

Will reside in the health app

Fleming says the Health app will also make it easy for consumers to learn about organ, eye, and tissue donation and quickly register.

“This is a huge step forward that will ultimately help save lives,” he said.

More than 120,000 Americans of all ages are in need of a transplant and stand to benefit from the joint effort. By making the decision to become a donor in advance, families don't have to make it at the worst possible moment – when a loved one dies.

Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer, says teaming with Donate Life America is in keeping with Apple's mission to create products that have an impact on people's lives.

The Health app currently provides a complete medical ID profile, making critical health information available to first responders and is available even when the screen is locked.

The public beta version of the iOS 10 operating system will be available later this month. The final operating system will be available for free download this fall, according to Apple.

In most states, when you get a drivers license you also get the opportunity to declare yourself as an organ donor. Starting with the release of iOS 10, you...

Judge rules against Amazon in charges run up by children

Google and Apple have already refunded more than $50 million

One of the most basic principles of contract law is that both parties must be competent adults, meaning that children can't enter into or be bound by contracts.

You would think that companies like Amazon, Google, and Apple would know that and respect it, but you'd be wrong. Google and Apple have already paid more than $50 million in refunds to parents whose children ran up big in-app charges online. It seems Amazon will be next, now that a federal judge has granted the Federal Trade Commission’s request for summary judgment in the agency’s lawsuit against the company.

Summary judgment is what laypersons might refer to as "open and shut." It simply means the judge had heard enough and rendered a verdict without sitting through an entire trial. 

Surprise charges

The judge’s order in the case finds that Amazon received many complaints from consumers about surprise in-app charges incurred by children, citing the fact that the company’s disclosures about the possibility of in-app charges within otherwise “free” apps were not sufficient to inform consumers about the charges.

“We are pleased the federal judge found Amazon liable for unfairly billing consumers for unauthorized in-app purchases by children,” said FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “We look forward to making a case for full refunds to consumers as a result of Amazon’s actions.”

The court will now gather evidence to calculate how much Amazon will have to return to the wrongfully charged parents.

One of the most basic principles of contract law is that both parties must be competent adults, meaning that children can't enter into or be bound by contr...

What you should know when calling 9-1-1 with your cell phone

The dispatcher will need more information than if you call from a landline

Increasingly, consumers are opting not to have the monthly expense of a landline telephone, but rather relying solely on their cell phones.

While it does save money, it might leave these consumers vulnerable in the event of an emergency when they call 9-1-1 to summon help. The nation's 9-1-1 system was designed for landline phones, and wireless phones can present the system with some problems.

The biggest issue is for systems employing Enhanced 9-1-1, or E-9-1-1. These systems are able to pinpoint exactly where an incoming call originated – if you are calling from a landline, or in many cases, a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) line. It's important information if the caller is barely conscious, incoherent, or doesn't have time to give the dispatcher his or her location.

According to the Ooma Institute— the non-profit arm of the VoIP telecommunications provider – the chance of emergency dispatchers being able to determine your location based on your cell phone's GPS data ranges from as low as 10% to as high as 95% nationwide.

In Virginia, it says 71% of 9-1-1 cell phone calls failed to provide the caller's location. In Washington D.C., that figure jumped to 90%.

Majority of 9-1-1 calls are wireless

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) now estimates that some 70% of 9-1-1 calls are placed from wireless phones.

“The FCC has adopted rules aimed at improving the reliability of wireless 9-1-1 services and the accuracy of the location information transmitted with a wireless 9-1-1 call, as part of our efforts to improve public safety,” the agency said on its website. “The improvements help providing Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) with meaningful, accurate location information from wireless 911 callers in order to dispatch local emergency responders to the correct location and to provide assistance to 911 callers more quickly.”

The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) says consumers should understand that when calling 9-1-1 from their wireless phone, their call might not go to the appropriate emergency center, slowing response time.

When calling for help from a wireless phone, the FCC advises consumers to always start by giving the dispatcher their location. Next, provide your number, in case the call is dropped. When buying a new wireless phone, ask about its 9-1-1 features. Some phones now come with better location-capable features and some providers may offer incentives for consumers to purchase them.

Increasingly, consumers are opting not to have the monthly expense of a landline telephone, but rather relying solely on their cell phones.While it doe...

New asthma app offers a handheld way to manage symptoms

AsthmaCare tracks symptoms and triggers, helping to keep kids out of the emergency room

Hot and humid summer weather can trigger asthma symptoms, which can quickly turn an afternoon on the playground into an evening in the emergency room.

About every 20 seconds, someone is rushed to an emergency room in the U.S. to be treated for asthma. And half the time, it’s a child.

Managing asthma effectively is possible, but it requires some level of organization. In addition to remembering to take medications, asthma sufferers must follow a schedule and plan for emergencies.

Now, a new doctor-developed app called AsthmaCare is helping pediatric patients track and manage their asthma symptoms.

Sends reminders

“It's hard for anybody to remember to take medications every day, especially when they're feeling well which is often the case with asthma, so we wanted to create something to help people better self-manage their condition,” said David Stukus, MD in a statement

Stukus, who developed the app with colleagues at Nationwide Children's Hospital, adds that the app is designed to help children stay on a schedule with their medicines and follow a plan if symptoms occur.

AsthmaCare can send reminders to take medication, track symptoms in a symptom diary, and even help users stay one step ahead of allergens. 

Tracks environmental triggers

The app is also connected to pollen stations via Wi-Fi, which enables it to give users data on allergen levels. It can even notify users of nearby triggers such as dander, dust, and cigarette smoke.

And while an app isn’t the only way to manage asthma, it seems to have an edge over traditional, written care plans -- especially in the eyes of teens.

In a study, teens used the easy-to-use app every day. Eighty-one percent of the time, they used it more than once a day.

The app can also help make life easier for parents. Joyce Kelso, mother of a 3-year-old with asthma, says the app has helped her and her child manage the condition.

“It’s changed our lives in the fact that my child’s not going to the ER constantly, she’s not having as severe of asthma attacks, and it’s kind of keeping me on top of medicine.”

The free app is available on iPhone and most Android devices.

Hot and humid summer weather can trigger asthma symptoms, which can quickly turn an afternoon on the playground into an evening in the emergency room. ...

Study: T-Mobile's Binge On not what it seems

Subscribers may get low quality video without knowing why, researchers caution

Nearly all advertising skims over certain unpleasant details, and a study by Northeastern University suggests that T-Mobile's description of Binge On falls into that category. 

"We set out to learn exactly how Binge On works, and we com­pared what we found with its stated poli­cies," said researcher David Choffnes. "There were sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences between the two." 

Binge On is a promotion that offers subscribers "free" video streaming of videos from selected providers. Choffnes and other researchers have raised questions about whether Binge On violates Open Internet regulations that require all content providers to be treated equally. 

But perhaps more significantly to consumers, Choffnes said T-Mobile subscribers who rely on Binge On may wind up getting lower-quality video.

Video quality

"When Binge On is enabled, it can have a very large impact on the quality of the video that you're watching," says Choffnes.

T-Mobile says that the res­o­lu­tion for Binge On streaming is 480p (pro­gres­sive scan) or better, which is con­sid­ered stan­dard for DVD movies. How­ever, the researchers did not find evi­dence to back up these claims. In their trials using YouTube, the res­o­lu­tion was only 360p, notice­ably blurry on a modern smartphone, Choffnes said.

On the other hand, when they turned off Binge On, they achieved a whop­ping 1080p, or full HD res­o­lu­tion.

T-Mobile claims that 480p or better is pos­sible but cur­rently requires a specific Android device that works only for cer­tain video providers.

Accurate tracking

The researchers also ques­tioned T-Mobile's ability to track video streaming at all, given that con­tent providers are not required to iden­tify the kind of con­tent they send over the internet.

They found one case in which T-Mobile incorrectly labeled video, resulting in subscribers enjoyiing high-quality streaming even though the provider was not included in the Binge On list of approved sources.

More importantly, says Choffnes, is that the reverse is also true.

"T-Mobile's detec­tion methods are very simple, so there's no way they can always be right," he says. "That means that Binge On is likely slowing down traffic that is not video. This raises serious con­cerns about com­pli­ance with the Open Internet Order."

On by default

While there is no charge for Binge On for T-Mobile customers on certain plans, there is the little question of whether every subscriber wants to participate, given the possible degradation of video quality.

T-Mobile subscribers "are opted in by default," Choffnes notes, meaning that many could be experiencing substandard video without knowing why. T-Mobile explains this in the FAQ section of its site this way:

"Binge On is automatically enabled so your data will stretch up to 3 times further when you are streaming video, unless a provider chooses to opt-out. If you disable Binge On, video-streaming will no longer be optimized; video resolution will default to the highest available based on the streaming service (e.g., HD), but this will also result in your 4G LTE data being consumed faster, and all video streaming will count towards your high-speed data. Of course, you are free to disable Binge On at any time, and then enable it again whenever you like."

Choffnes also says it's quite possible that subscribers could get degraded video even if a content provider is not part of Binge On. 

"Our research showed that if a video provider does nothing, that is, nei­ther opts into or out of par­tic­i­pating with Binge On, its video traffic to T-Mobile sub­scribers who use Binge On will be given reduced band­width, but the sub­scribers will still be charged for the streaming," he said.

Choffnes' paper was accepted in May by the IGCOMM Internet-QoE work­shop. He has shared the paper with the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion (FCC) to help inform its inves­ti­ga­tion of T-Mobile's com­pli­ance with the Open Internet Order.

Nearly all advertising skims over certain unpleasant details, and a study by Northeastern University suggests that T-Mobile's description of Binge On falls...

New dating app matches couples based on shared political views

Matches based on a person's views on important issues

Differing political views can put a strain on any relationship, but romantic partnerships may struggle the most under the weight of a political divide.

Heated debates and politics-related tension may leave couples wishing they could have preemptively directed cupid’s arrow to a more politically compatible match. Now, a new dating app may be able to help singles do just that.

CandiDate, a multi-platform app by HelpsGood, can help couples lay the groundwork for a harmonious partnership by ensuring their political beliefs are aligned from the beginning.

Shared beliefs

The dating app's main goal is to help those looking for love find someone in their area who shares their views on important issues like gun reform, abortion, gay rights, environmental issues, and the economy. 

By helping singles choose someone with a compatible belief system rather than an eye-catching profile photo, the app seeks to create couples who are a better match over the long haul. 

In addition to helping you find someone whose passions and politics match your own, the app can help you hone your political beliefs. Using questions sourced from Vote Smart, the app will show you which politicians’ voting records are in line with your views.

And ahead of this year's election, the app's release may be well timed. 

"We're excited to launch candiDate on mobile devices and online in the midst of this very unique presidential election cycle," Michael Bellavia, CEO of HelpsGood said in a statement. "All around the world, Republicans, Democrats and Independents, Millennials and seniors, are using candiDate to find their own running mate and feel the burn of love."

The app is available for free on the App Store and Google Play, as well as online.

Differing political views can put a strain on any relationship, but romantic partnerships may struggle the most under the weight of a political divide. ...

Report: smartphone sales growth in sharp decline

Consumers have fewer reasons to upgrade their devices

Have you bought a new smartphone lately? Chances are, the answer is no. Fewer consumers, it seems, feel the need to constantly update their devices.

That wasn't the case just a few years ago. Then, manufacturers were racing to add new features and capabilities to their phones.

That gave consumers a reason to go out and buy the latest product on the market. As added incentive, the major cell phone carriers subsidized the cost in exchange for a two year service agreement.

In a report, Gartner, Inc. says worldwide smart phone sales peaked six years ago, when sales increased a staggering 73% year-over-year. This year, the company projects sales will grow a paltry 7%, hitting single digit growth for the first time.

Sales grew 14.4% last year, but Gartner projects much slower growth for the foreseeable future.

Cooling off

"The smartphone market will no longer grow at the levels it has reached over the last seven years," said Roberta Cozza, research director at Gartner.

In the U.S., as well as much of the developed world, the smartphone market has reached 90% penetration. Because a two or three year old smartphone is still pretty good, consumers are in no rush to replace it, especially since they now have to pay the full cost.

"In the mature markets, premium phone users are extending life cycles to 2.5 years, which is not going to change drastically over the next five years," Cozza said.

Apple hopes to buck the trend by offering upgrade programs that provide consumers with new hardware after only 12 months. But Cozza cautions that these programs are not for everyone. Most users, she says, are happy to hold onto their phone for two years or longer than before.

Incremental technology

“They do so especially as the technology updates have become incremental rather than exponential," she said.

Exactly. Remember when consumers used to stand in line outside a cell phone store in order to be the first to buy a new phone? They did it because of the “wow” features the device possessed. Now, no one wants to stand in line for a slightly better camera or one or two cool new apps.

"Consumers everywhere are getting savvy about how and where they buy their smart phones, and this is opening up new doors for OEMs and causing some traditional channels to lose some control of the hardware flow," said Ryan Reith, an executive with IDC, which also forecasts a sharp slowdown on smart phone sales this year.

More phones are being sold through eTailer channels rather through brick and mortar stores. Reith says these sales grew 65% last year and are expected to make up about 12% of total smart phone sales this year.

Which platform will feel the most pain? IDC says it's Apple, projecting Apple will experience its first-ever drop in iPhone sales this year.

Have you bought a new smartphone lately? Chances are, the answer is no. Fewer consumers, it seems, feel the need to constantly update their devices.Tha...

Remo MORE app adds 'Controlled Access Mode' feature

The update allows parents to block apps and internet on a child's device indefinitely or for a set time

Remo MORE, an app that helps parents protect and monitor kids’ online safety, recently announced the addition of an update called “controlled access mode.”

Previously, the app focused on giving family members the ability to control kids’ online activity, maintain devices remotely, monitor device usage, and locate family members. Now, parents and guardians will also be able to block apps and internet usage using the Remo MORE app.

The software company says the feature was frequently requested by parents concerned that their child was spending too much time using devices.

With Remo MORE’s Controlled Access Mode, parents can block installed apps, games, and internet on a child’s devices indefinitely or for a specific amount of time.

Renders kids’ devices useless

The new feature is “like a switch which will turn the device mode from smart to useless,” Omer Faiyaz, CEO of Remo Software, said in a statement.

Other key features of Controlled Access Mode include:

  • The ability to restrict access to apps and the internet, but allow phone calls to come through. (For Android users.)
  • The ability to block all third party and browsing apps in iPhone devices, so that only apps supported by Apple (including Facetime and messages) can be accessed.
  • In Windows PC, Microsoft default apps will be accessible, but internet browsing, Skype, Microsoft messenger and other third party apps will be disabled.
  • In Mac, internet browsing and third party apps will be disabled. Default Apple apps remain accessible excluding Facetime and messaging apps.

Protecting kids

Research shows that 82% of parents feel guilty about not being around to monitor their child's online activity.

Remo hopes to empower parents to protect kids from the potential dangers of devices and the internet -- and the Remo MORE app is one way to do so.

The app's new Controlled Access Mode aims to help parents address some of the issues surrounding parenting in the age of technology, such as device overuse and keeping kids away from unsafe places on the internet. 

Remo MORE, an app that helps parents protect and monitor kids’ online safety, recently announced the addition of an update called “controlled access mode.”...

Chick-fil-A launches new app to speed up service

Offers free sandwich as incentive to download

Fast food companies are well aware that hungry customers don’t enjoy waiting in long lines. For this reason, a growing number of fast food chains are coming out with apps that feature the ability to skip the lines by ordering ahead.

Chick-Fil-A is one such chain. The beef-averse company announced its new Chick-fil-A One app today, which will replace the restaurant’s previous app. The app will offer a wider range of customizable meal choices, as well as the ability to order and pay in advance.

The main goal of the app, it would seem, is to keep valuable time in the days of busy millennial parents and others who are pressed for time.

Speeds up the process

A recent survey commissioned by the chain revealed that 82% of millennial parents would do almost anything to avoid long lines at fast food restaurants when they are with their children. Forty-eight percent of those surveyed said they would rather not eat at all than stand in a line.

The Chick-fil-A One app seeks to ameliorate the problem of lines by speeding up the process of waiting at the counter or drive-through.  

Users of the app will also get access to its membership program, which offers freebies based on your taste preferences and previous orders. Customers can use the app to track how close they are to their next free offering -- which may not be so far away.

Those who download or update the app (which is available on the App Store or Google Play) before June 11 will receive an offer for a free sandwich.

Fast food companies are well aware that hungry customers don’t enjoy waiting in long lines. For this reason, a growing number of fast food chains are comin...

Ad-blockers are now used by 22% of the world's smartphone users, report says

Marketers continue to scramble for ways to advertise on the 'blocked web'

According to a new report, 419 million people (22% of the world’s smartphone users) are now using mobile ad-blocking technology.

PageFair's numbers also indicate that 408 million people are using mobile browsers that block ads by default.

Smartphone users in China account for 159 million instances of mobile ad-blocking, while India is home to 122 million people using browsers that block ads.

Mobile ad-blocking isn’t as quite as prevalent in Europe and here in North America, where there were 14 million monthly active users of mobile ad-blocking browsers as of March 2016.

Finding new approaches

Nancy Hill, CEO of 4A’s, says these numbers validate a long-standing concern in the digital media industry. The report also highlights a need for advertisers to rethink their marketing strategies.

“Consumers are pushing back on mobile and online ads,” said Hill in a statement. “Now is the time for advertising professionals and marketers to take a hard look at ourselves to understand why consumers are not responding to these types of ads, and figure out how we can correct the issue to better engage with the consumers we’re trying to reach.”

An earlier discussion, which sought the opinions of global stakeholders, delved into topic of sustainable advertising on the 'blocked web'. A report on the outcome of the discussion can be viewed here

According to a new report, 419 million people (22% of the world’s smartphone users) are now using mobile ad-blocking technology.PageFair's numbers also...

Microsoft exits consumer smartphone market

$7 billion Nokia investment didn't produce much return

Microsoft is giving up on the consumer phone business, shuttering what little is left of its Finland-based hardware business, which it acquired in its disastrous $7 billion acquisition of Nokia's phone unit.

It's the second shoe to drop. Last week, Microsoft said it was selling off the remains of its "feature phone" business.

But CEO Satya Nadella says the company isn't completely abandoning the phone business. Instead, it is working to adapt its software and services to the Android and iOS platforms, rather than trying to get consumers to buy Windows phones.

“We are focusing our phone efforts where we have differentiation — with enterprises that value security, manageability and our Continuum capability, and consumers who value the same,” Nadella said. “We will continue to innovate across devices and on our cloud services across all mobile platforms.”

Nadella also says Microsoft will continue to support its phones aimed at the business market and license Windows 10 to any hardware maker who wants to use it.

The "streamlining" -- as Nadella called it -- will eliminate about 1,850 jobs, mostly in Finland.

Microsoft is giving up on the consumer phone business, shuttering what little is left of its Finland-based hardware business, which it acquired in its disa...

How your phone can affect your sleep

Banishing technology from the bedroom may be the key to a good night's rest

The window of time right before sleep may seem like the perfect opportunity to catch up on your social media feeds or stream a video or two. But if you want to feel well-rested the next day, experts say you might want to ditch the device before dozing off.

Sleep disorders are common, affecting roughly 80 million Americans. And nearly 90% of adults sleep with at least one electronic device in their bedroom, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

Think there may be a correlation there? You may be right. Studies have found that using electronic devices around bedtime can throw off your body’s 24-hour internal clock, which may lead to poor quality of sleep.

So what is it about electronics that doesn't bode well for sleep?

Blame the blue light

The blue light pouring out of your phone, TV, computer, or tablet can trick your brain into thinking it’s daytime, thus suppressing the production of melatonin and delaying your normal sleep cycle. This can lead to a variety of sleep problems, ranging from moderate difficulty falling asleep to full-on sleep disorders like insomnia.

Getting a good night’s sleep can often be the difference between a productive day and one spent fighting the urge to fall asleep at your desk. So how can you prevent technology from robbing you of rest? These tips may be a good place to start. 

Tips for better sleep

To get the 7-9 hours of quality sleep your body so desperately needs, experts recommend keeping electronics out of your bedtime routine. 

Other tips on sleep from the Army National Guard's "Guard Your Health" campaign include:

  • Spending at least 30 minutes technology-free before you climb into bed.

  • Reading a book or magazine in bed instead of using an electronic device.

  • Making the bedroom a technology-free zone (no smartphones, tablets, laptops, TV, etc.).

  • Using your bed for sleep only -- this habit will create a connection in your mind between your bed and sleep.

  • For those whose smartphone is their alarm clock: try turning on your phone’s “do not disturb” function to keep texts and calls at bay while you sleep.

  • Using a program like f.lux, which changes the color of your computer's display to adapt to the time of day.

The window of time right before sleep may seem like the perfect opportunity to catch up on your social media feeds or stream a video or two. But if you wan...

'Smarter' JoikuSpot WiFi now available for Android

Enables users to share networks privately

JoikuSpot, an app that could once magically turn a humble Nokia phone into a free WiFi hotspot, is back with some new features.

Finnish mobile software company Joiku announced today that Android users can once again download JoikuSpot -- but the app has evolved since we last saw it.

Now, users will be able to safely share WiFi networks, hunt down places with good WiFi (and connect to networks automatically, without a password), and even sync to WiFi networks of different countries.

Smart sharing

Joiku hopes the new and improved version of JoikuSpot -- which features an increased attention to user privacy -- will help bring the concept of sharing WiFi networks into a “new era.”

Android users will now have the ability to share their WiFi networks safely, without having to reveal or store passwords in other phones. Users’ passwords can be encrypted via Smart QR codes and Access links.

Thanks to its Smart Sharing functionality, JoikuSpot users can privately share with friends not only their phone’s hotspot, but WiFi networks of their home or office as well.

Connecting to other networks

With WiFi Spotting, users can track down strong WiFi signals in the area. A map can guide users to the spot, then automatically (no password required) connect users to the signal.

Speaking of maps, frequent travelers might enjoy WiFi Globe: a feature that allows users to download and sync to the country WiFi networks of their choice. Those networks can later be easily dumped once they’re no longer needed, should a user need to free up space in their phone.

Finally, with Joiku’s Mobile HotSpot, users can turn their Android phone or tablet into a WiFi HotSpot simply by adding the hotspot icon to their device’s screen.

JoikuSpot is available as a free download for Android phones and tablets via Google Play. A version for iOS will be coming soon, according to the company.

JoikuSpot, an app that could once magically turn a humble Nokia phone into a free WiFi hotspot, is back with some new features.Finnish mobile software ...

International roaming charges continue to fall

AT&T ups the ante with new plan for Canada and Mexico travel

A few years ago, U.S. consumers had to be extremely careful with their cellphones when they traveled outside the U.S.

Reciprocal agreements among cellphone carriers were nearly non-existent. When a U.S.-based cellphone landed in France, for example, the roaming charges quickly mounted up, even if it were turned on but not in use.

ConsumerAffairs routinely heard from consumers who were shocked when they opened their cellphone bills after a trip abroad and discovered they owed thousands of dollars in roaming charges.

We even heard from consumers who never left the U.S., but who traveled close to the borders of either Mexico or Canada, and found their phones had connected with a tower across the border.

Companies respond

Companies finally responded by developing international roaming packages that drastically lowered the cost of using a cellphone outside the U.S. And starting May 20, AT&T; will launch a new roaming feature for Mexico, providing service for no additional charge if they switch to the company's new Mobile Share Value 15GB and higher plans.

As a result, these customers will get unlimited calling, texting, and may access their data in and between Mexico and the U.S.

For customers on the AT&T; Unlimited Plan, there will be no roaming charges in both Mexico and Canada. They can talk, text and use data in Mexico and Canada for no roaming charge. These customers will need to separately add the AT&T; Roam North America apps to each phone and tablet to access the free service.

Same experience outside the U.S.

"We know our customers want the same experience abroad they're used to domestically,” said David Christopher, chief marketing officer, AT&T; Entertainment Group.

Christopher says about 20% of AT&T;'s postpaid base crosses a North American border at least once a year.

Rival T-Mobile has been among the most aggressive of the carriers to reduce the cost of using a cellphone while traveling. Last September it added 20 more nations and destinations to its international roaming package. Using the package, customers can get unlimited data and texting at no extra cost and calls for 20 cents a minute. The program also extends coverage and calling across the U.S., Mexico and Canada for all Simple Choice customers at no extra charge.  

Verizon Wireless offers international roaming for $2 per day per device for travel in Mexico and Canada and $10 a day per device in 100 other countries.

A few years ago, U.S. consumers had to be extremely careful with their cellphones when they traveled outside the U.S.Reciprocal agreements among cellph...

Report finds Android devices have higher failure rate than Apple

Researchers cite a "glaring disparity in failure rates"

No doubt many smartphone owners will take issue, but a new report by a technology company maintains that Android devices are no match for Apple's iOS when it comes to technical performance.

In its Q1 “2016 State of Mobile Device Performance and Health,” Blancco Technology Group, an international data security firm, cites a series of diagnostics tests performed on a wide variety of iOS and Android devices using the SmartChk platform.

The results, the company says, show a “glaring disparity in failure rates” for Android devices when compared to Apple. It says Android devices failed 44% of the time in the tests, compared to just 25% for Apple's operating system.

The report said some of the most popular Android devices, such as the Samsung Galaxy S6, Samsung Galaxy S5 and Lenovo K3 Note, logged the highest failure rates.

Older iPhones performed better

Older iPhones performed better than newer ones. The company said the iPhone 6 and 5s had the highest failure rates among iOS devices – 25% and 17%, respectively.

The tests found crashing apps on 74% of Android devices. Open/cached apps were detected on 44% of the devices. There were many more failures on both platforms in Asia than in North America.

Android still leads in sales

The report's authors note that sales figures confirm that consumers buy more Android phones than iPhones. In fact, the latest numbers show Android increased its marketshare in the latest monitoring period, which ended in February. Android enjoyed strong growth in the U.S., Europe, China, Japan, and Australia.

"Android devices seem to be a contradiction in terms," said Pat Clawson, CEO, Blancco Technology Group. "On the one hand, Android is the number one operating system in terms of global market share. But despite this advantage, Android device performance still lags behind iOS and tends to be plagued by high rates of crashing apps and app cache.”

Of course, late 2016 could witness a shift, when there may be new products on the market for both platforms. Industry reports suggest Samsung could launch the S7 and LG G5 on the Android platform, while Apple is said to be preparing the launch of the iPhone 7.

For more information on the best available phones, providers, and consumer reviews, check out ConsumerAffairs cell phone guide.

No doubt many smartphone owners will take issue, but a new report by a technology company maintains that Android devices are no match for Apple's iOS when...

Three smartphones for $200 or less

You can still buy an affordable phone, even without carrier subsidies

Until recently, most cell phone customers could upgrade their smartphone every two years and pay around $200 or less. The carrier subsidized the price of a $650 phone in return for the customer agreeing to two years of continuous service.

Because smartphone manufacturers were adding faster chips, better cameras, and more “gee whiz” features with each product cycle, it made sense to get the new top of the line phone, especially if the cost was limited to $200.

It's different now. Carriers no longer subsidize phones. You pay the full price upfront or finance it over 18 months to two years. Either way, consumers now pay the full price.

Though it's too early to call it a trend, some industry analysts expect consumers won't upgrade as often under the new system, especially since recent product upgrades have mostly been minor tweaks and haven't included earth shaking technology advancements.

So will consumers keep buying the name brand, top of the line device or will they seek out cheaper alternatives?

Apple's iPhone remains pretty expensive, but Android phones are not only cheaper than iPhones, some are actually $200 or less – what consumers paid for the formerly subsidized phones. Here are three, costing $150 to $200, that deserve a look.

BLU Life One X

Externally, the BLU Life One X has a sleek design, crafted from aircraft aluminum. Inside, the Mediatek 6753 1.3GHz Octa-Core processor hums along with 2G of RAM, providing the speed and seamless experience you expect with an Android phone.

You've got 16GB of internal storage to start with, but it can be expanded up to 64GB with a Micro SD card. It runs on all GSM Networks including AT&T, T-Mobile, Cricket, MetroPCS, Straight Talk, and Pure Talk USA.

The phone features a 5.2 inch LCD display with 1920 x 1080 resolution, for HD viewing. It has a 13 MP camera, augmented by a 5 MP camera in front. It runs Android Lollipop 5.1 and starts at $149.99.

Motorola Moto G

The Motorola Moto G is a sharp-looking phone, powered by a fast Qualcomm Snapdragon 410 processor, quad-core CPU supporting up to 1.4 GHz, and advanced Adreno graphics. With it, you can switch back and forth between apps without slowing down.

It boasts a five-inch HD display, featuring Corning Gorilla Glass, and has IPX7-rated protection from splashes and accidental drops in water.

It comes with a 13 MP camera that includes a color-balancing dual LED flash. The price starts at $179.99.

Honor 5X

The third phone in our low-cost line-up is the Honor 5X, one of the slickest-looking phones at any price, featuring a sleek, metallic finish.

One of the unique features of the 5X is its fingerprint identification. Once set up, it's quick and easy to unlock and can be used to call people in your contacts or launch an app with just the touch of a finger.

The rear camera is 13MP, with the ability to go wide angle, as well as zoom in just inches from the subject. The front camera is 5MP, with an F2.4 aperture, 22 mm wide-angle lens with four elements, large 1.4 micron pixel size, and an 88-degree viewing angle.

It's powered by a Snapdragon big.LITTLE octa-core processor, along with 2GB of RAM. It starts at $199.99.

For more information on the best available phones, providers, and consumer reviews, check out ConsumerAffairs cell phone guide.

Until recently, most cellphone customers could upgrade their smartphone every two years and pay around $200 or less. The carrier subsidized the price of a...

‘Splurge Alert’ app can help you fight the urge to splurge

Phone alerts and social support step in when you’re facing temptation

Do you have a penchant for bringing home certain items that aren’t necessarily in your budget? Well, as you may have guessed, there’s an app for that.

“Splurge Alert,” created by online banking firm Ally Financial, aims to help consumers avoid unnecessary spending by using smartphone alerts. The alerts are designed to encourage you to steer clear of locations where you tend to overspend.

If Starbucks is your weakness, just tell the app and it will be deemed a “splurge zone.” Geotracking allows the app to recognize when you’re near a splurge zone; if you are, you’ll receive alerts such as, “Grab a nice big cup of ‘Get the heck outta here.’”

If an alert on your phone isn’t enough to keep you from buying that grande mocha frap, you can enlist the help of your friends.

Social support

The app has an optional “Splurge Buddies” feature, which notifies a designated friend or family member -- or five -- if you’ve entered temptation territory.

Splurge Alert is the first app of its kind to combine geotracking with social support to help consumers manage spending habits and break bad habits.

According to a survey by Harris Poll, 85% of Americans admit to splurging. What counts as splurging? The majority of consumers (71%) say it's defined as buying an item that is not needed, regardless of price. Food and beverage tied with clothing, shoes, and accessories are the top categories in which consumers typically overspend.

Small purchases add up

When it comes to budgeting, small purchases can have a big impact. For many, it's the small, daily expenses that can lead to the biggest budgeting problems. 

"Many people believe that large one-time expenses can throw their budgets off track," said Andrea Riley, chief marketing officer of Ally in a statement. "But it's actually the everyday purchases -- coffee drinks, smoothies, clothing items -- that tend to be a problem area." 

The intent of the Splurge Alert app, Riley adds, is to raise awareness about spending habits in the hope of helping consumers reach their savings goals. 

Ally’s Splurge Alert (which is free) is available for iOS devices as a beta. Sign up to test it here.

Do you have a penchant for bringing home certain items that aren’t necessarily in your budget? Well, as you may have guessed, there’s an app for that. ...

Flyover Country: an app to help air travelers learn more about the land below

Users don't need to purchase in-flight Wi-Fi to access the information

The window seat of an airplane can offer a hard-to-beat aerial view of the earth. Most of the time, however, it can be hard to determine where in the world you are from that view alone.

Now, there’s an app that can help you make sense of what’s down below. Travelers who use the Flyover Country app can get in-depth information about the land they’re seeing on the other side of the clouds. 

The app can tell you what city you're looking at, why a river bends the way it does, or even if dinosaur bones were discovered in a particular spot. How does it work? According to Travel + Leisure, the app uses maps and information from geological and paleontological databases to identify the landscape passing beneath a plane.

The app’s creator, Shane Loeffler, was struck with the idea for the app during a long flight home. Loeffler, a geology student at the time, wanted to know more about the landscape passing under him some 30,000-feet below. With the help of a grant, Flyover Country was developed.

Uses cached data

The app utilizes the GPS on a user's phone to provide detailed information about their current location. Travelers can learn about the natural features they’re passing over (such as glaciers) and man-made features (such as mines), all while they read Wikipedia articles about them. 

Thanks to the app’s use of cached maps, data, and Wikipedia articles, fliers can learn about what they’re seeing without having to purchase in-flight Wi-Fi.

Flyover Country can also come in handy during road trips and hikes. In the future, the app may even be able to amuse night time air travelers with meteorological and astronomy facts.

Flyover Country is available as a free download from Google Play and the App Store.

The window seat of an airplane can offer a hard-to-beat aerial view of the earth. Most of the time, however, it can be hard to determine where in the world...
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