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17 Dec 19:31

Texas Plumber Sells Truck, Gets Branded A Terrorist

by Laura Northrup

terrorist_tweetOur global, interconnected economy is an amazing thing. Of course, it doesn’t seem so amazing right now to the person answering the phones at Mark-1 Plumbing in Texas City, Texas. The business has had to remove the batteries from its cordless phones to stop the phones from “ringing off the hook” after a truck with its name emblazoned on the door ended up in the hands of an Islamic militant group in Syria.

Normally, just selling your old truck doesn’t lead to an international furor. The plumbing company just traded its old truck in at a local dealership last fall, and didn’t expect to hear about it again. (Update: a local newspaper reports that the trade-in happened three years ago, a timeline that would give the truck more time to make its way to Syria.) That’s how trading your truck in works. Only what they failed to do was remove the business name and phone number from the door.

The company’s owner assures the public that they are not sponsors of any militant groups in other countries, but that hasn’t stopped angry members of the public from calling them and even making threats. “We have a secretary here, she’s scared to death. We all have families. We don’t want no problems,” the company’s owner told TV station KHOU. They are no longer answering the phone.

The dealership sold the Ford F-250 at auction, and from there it disappeared into the used car market. Until it reappeared in a photo posted to Twitter by a group of Islamic militants fighting in Syria’s civil war, with an anti-aircraft weapon mounted on the back. Unfortunately, the name and phone number of the plumbing company in Texas were still on the side.

That’s one useful piece of consumer advice from this story: when you trade in or sell a vehicle, don’t simply assume that the buyer will remove decals or emblems. Apparently, you can never predict where your old truck might end up.

Texas City truck seen on Islamic military group’s Twitter feed [KHOU] (Warning: auto-play video)

17 Dec 19:18

L.A. Medical Marijuana Dispensary Removes Pot-Smoking Santa Painting From The Window After Complaints

by Mary Beth Quirk

If the legal marijuana industry learns anything from Big Tobacco’s experience in this country, it’s that mixing kids and smoking is just not going to fly, as the industry found out with the banishment of Joe Camel and his ilk. So even if medical marijuana is legal in California, it’s not legal for anyone under 18. You know, or anyone who might believe in Santa Claus.

Members of the public who are complaining about a painting of Santa Claus on the window of a Los Angeles medical marijuana dispensary that shows him as quite the Jolly St. Nick, puffing away on what appears to be a cinnamon stick blunt while holding a smoking bong, say kids are going to get the wrong idea.

NBC Los Angeles reports that people are worried that because the dispensary is in an area where a lot of children tend to be — there’s a junior high school nearby, one critic noted — those kids might see what Santa’s doing and want to copy him.

As such, the business has agreed to remove the Christmas scene, which also included a snowman holding a prescription pill bottle.

Despite the outcry on social media and elsewhere, the store manager tells the station that he didn’t realize people were ticked off about the paintings. After talking to NBC Los Angeles, he reportedly called the artist in charge of the paintings and asked him to scrape his work off the windows. No sign of smokey Santa as of yesterday afternoon.

Residents Riled Over Christmas Display of Pot-Smoking Santa [NBC Los Angeles]

17 Dec 18:42

CFPB Lawsuit: Sprint Made Millions Off Consumers Acting As A “Breeding Ground” For Bill-Cramming

by Ashlee Kieler

Just a day after rumors surfaced that Sprint could be facing a $105 million from the Federal Communications Commission for allegedly overcharging customers using a practice known as “bill-cramming,” the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has filed a lawsuit against the carrier for the bogus charges placed on customer’s phone bills.

The CFPB announced today that it has filed a lawsuit against Sprint Corporation for illegally billing wireless consumers tens of millions of dollars in unauthorized third-party charges.

According to the Bureau’s complaint [PDF], which seeks refunds for affected consumers, Sprint operated a billing system that allowed third-party servicers to “cram” unauthorized charges on customers’ mobile-phone accounts and subsequently ignored consumers’ complaints about the charges.

Like previous cramming allegations against T-Mobile and AT&T, Sprint allegedly tacked unasked-for and unauthorized subscriptions for things like ringtones and text messages containing love tips, horoscopes, and “fun facts” onto bills.

From about 2004 through 2013, regulators say nearly all wireless carriers’ third-party billing involved products called “premium text messages” or “premium short messaging services” (PSMS) because they were frequently delivered by text messages.

In Sprint’s case, the company outsourced payment processing for these digital purchases to vendors called “billing aggregators” without properly monitoring them.

Because of the lack of oversight, regulators allege that Sprint’s system attracted and enabled unscrupulous merchants who, in some cases, only needed consumers’ phone numbers to cram illegitimate charges onto wireless bills.

The charges typically ranged from one-time fees of about $0.99 – $4.99 to monthly subscriptions that cost about $9.99 a month.

In all, the CFPB estimates that Sprint received a 30% to 40% cut of the gross revenue from these charges.

The CFPB reports that most affected Sprint customers were initially targeted by the third-party products online.

“Consumers clicked on ads that brought them to websites asking them to enter their cellphone numbers,” officials with the CFPB say in a news release. “Some merchants tricked consumers into providing their cellphone numbers to receive ‘free’ digital content and then charged for it. Many others simply placed fabricated charges on bills without delivering any goods or communicating with consumers.”

The CFPB claims that Sprint essentially welcomed the third-party charges with open arms.

Sprint allegedly did not allow customers to opt-in to third-party billing. Instead the wireless company automatically enrolled customers without their consent.

This policy helped to perpetrate the egregious actions by the third-party companies because many customers did not spot unauthorized charges, as they were unaware that third parties could place charges on their bill, the CFPB reports.

In addition to providing a hospitable environment for exploitative merchants, Sprint regularly disregarded red flags showing its system was a “breeding ground” for unauthorized charges, the CFPB alleges.

“Sprint continued to outsource to billing aggregators despite lawsuits about cramming against the very same aggregators that Sprint used,” the CFPB says. “In addition, Sprint should have known that cramming was a major problem as the company had already been subject to a law enforcement action related to the issue.”

That action was closed when Sprint settled charges of wireless cramming with the Florida Attorney General.

Officials with the Bureau say that Sprint further failed its customers by ignoring their complaints regarding unauthorized charges.

“Sprint failed to track customer complaints about unauthorized charges, and as a result, lacked the most basic alert mechanism that could have revealed flaws in its monitoring systems,” regulators say. “Sprint also failed to provide full and prompt remediation to consumers subjected to these charges.”

In many cases, Sprint refused to provide customers with refunds and only offered instructions on how to block future third-party charges.

While action by the FCC against Sprint – rumored to be a $105 million fine – is still pending, Commission spokesman Tom Wheeler provided a press statement on the CFPB’s lawsuit against the wireless company.

“Protecting consumers from unauthorized fees on their phone bills is a team effort,” Wheeler says. “The Commission has a great working relationship with CFPB and state law enforcement partners. Together, we are pursuing joint enforcement actions to protect consumers from unauthorized fees on their wireless bills. Our agencies have agreed to continue our close cooperation on this and other cases on behalf of wireless customers nationwide.”

If the FCC moves forward with the speculated $105 million fine, it would mark the third time this year a major wireless carrier has faced action regarding bill-cramming.

In October, AT&T entered into a deal with the Federal Trade Commission, FCC and attorneys general from 50 states and the District of Columbia to pay $105 million to settle allegations that it profited off of bill-cramming.

The FTC claimed that AT&T kept about 35% of all the fees it took in from these charges; in some cases, the company earned upwards of 40% of the revenue from the third-party charges.

The CFPB’s lawsuit against Sprint marks the second such action against a mobile carrier this year.

Back in July, the Federal Trade Commission sued T-Mobile for similar practices, accusing the company of making hundreds of millions of dollars off of premium text-messaging premium.

T-Mobile’s response to that lawsuit was to claim that it shouldn’t be sued because it stopped allowing these illegal charges.

The FTC alleged that T-Mobile received anywhere from 35-40% of the total amount charged to consumers for subscriptions (mostly $9.99/month) for things like “flirting tips, horoscope information or celebrity gossip.”

Continued allegations and action against carriers regarding bill-cramming may not come as much surprise after a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation report released in July found that wireless providers often turned a blind eye to cramming because it resulted in billions of dollars in revenue for carriers.

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Sues Spring For Cramming Consumers With Unauthorized Third-Party Charges [CFPB]

17 Dec 16:08

Kmart Apologizes For Layaway Debacle, Says Some Cancellations Were “Inadvertent”

by Mary Beth Quirk

Yesterday, after we posted a story about Kmart customers who’d been told that many of the items they’d paid for on layaway had been canceled, with the fate of refunds for many of those people up in the air, we heard from many Consumerist readers who are in the same boat. Kmart contacted Consumerist to issue an apology for what is still a very confusing situation.

When we started combing through our readers’ tales of woe over the Kmart situation, many said they’d later received yet another notice about their layaway items, saying that their entire layaway contract had been canceled.

This, after many items had already shipped or arrived at their homes. Confusing, but the sort of good news is that Kmart says it somehow issued “inadvertent cancellations” on contracts, without saying how many were affected.

The full statement Sears Holding issued to Consumerist:

We deeply apologize to our customers affected by this online layaway issue. Some of our online layaway customers received inadvertent cancellation notices on their layaway contracts and have not received certain items they ordered through online layaway. This issue is specific to layaway contracts online for ship to home and does not impact in store layaways. We are in the process of contacting those customers who have been affected and are working with them to resolve the issue.

Not all of their contracts were cancelled and many of them have already received some of the items that they ordered through online layaway. For the undelivered items, we’ve been able to find many of the items through our supply channels and are leveraging alternative sources to try and locate the remaining items. We are sensitive that this is a special time of year and are working hard to find and deliver these items to customers before the holidays, including expedited and free shipping to those affected.

The gist of that is — Kmart is scrambling to fix things, if it can. In some cases, it appears to be working, as our readers have reported items arriving even after the notice that the entire order was canceled. We’ve asked Kmart to clarify the best steps customers can take to get their situations resolved and cleared up, and will let you know what we hear.

Lisa writes that she received an apologetic email from Sears offering to procure “similar” items at a discounted rate, “but they were not similar at all so they said they would issue me a $20 gift card which was supposed to come yesterday and I’m still waiting on,” she says.

“Over all, my situation could have been worse… but even for that one day thinking my kids would go without was just awful,” she adds. “We celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas so if the refund really would have taken 14 days like they said, they would have had no Hanukkah presents at all. Just terrible.”

Another reader, Christina, sent Consumerist a copy of the letter she sent to Kmart and posted on the company’s Facebook wall about her ordeal — she had paid off her layaway order in time for Christmas and now that her items weren’t coming, she couldn’t go shopping as a single mother with three kids in tow. She says local media arrived at her home and did a story on her plight, and from then on, things worked out. Magic.

“Thirty minutes after the story aired the corporate office in Illinois called me and said they were going to overnight all but two of my items,” she says. “The day after that I got a call that those two items would be shipped out plus a $50 gift card.”

She also received a call from Sears Holding’s corporate office she says, asking if she was satisfied with the resolution.

Christina writes that she is satisfied now, but reader Jessica, who wrote to us yesterday, says not so much. She adds that she also got another email canceling her entire order, only to then receive an item she thought was canceled… but it’s broken. Sigh.

“I received the part of my shipment that wasn’t canceled. I had ordered this [mixing bowl] set for my daughter for Christmas. The largest bowl is completely shattered in the box, which means now I have to deal with attempting to return something to this horrid company,” she says.

We’ve heard from many of our readers so far about canceled orders with varying results — keep the emails coming and let us know if and how your situations have been resolved, if you’ve received full or partial refunds or replacement items that suit you: Send an email with the subject line KMART LAYAWAY to tips@consumerist.com.

17 Dec 15:08

Report: Nearly Half Of College Students Don’t Know How Much Their Tuition Costs, If They Have Student Debt

by Ashlee Kieler

Over the past year we’ve read a number of reports that shone a light on just how prevalent student loans are: nearly 40 million consumer have taken out at least one loan to pay for their education. Now a new report takes a look at just how much students actually understand about the cost of their education and student debt. And, as we all probably should have expected, the findings aren’t exactly pleasant.

A new report [PDF] from the Brookings Institute, “Are College Students Borrowing Blindly,” found that most student are generally clueless about the cost of their education and how they are paying for it.

The report, which is based on student survey responses and administrative records on cost and borrowing, found that just 52% of college students could correctly identify what they paid for their first year of college.

While the figure isn’t great to begin with, when you consider that the report describes “correctly identified” amounts as those within $5,000 of their actual tuition, you might begin to see why lawmakers have been pushing for bills that would add transparency to student loans.

Of the remaining respondents 25% underestimated their tuition costs, 17% overestimated and 7% had no idea what they are paying for a degree.

Perhaps the most gut-wrenching statistic compiled by the Brookings Institute came in the form of just how little students actually understand about student loan debt.

While we know that the student loan debt tab is well over one trillion dollars and that most students have debt, the students themselves seem quite oblivious to the fact that they owe thousands of dollars to the government.

When asked if they carried any student loan debt, 28% of first-year students who had taken out federal loans reported they had no federal debt and 14% said they didn’t have any student debt at all.

Students’ lack of knowledge during their first year of college regarding their student debt sets the stage for a rude awakening when it comes time to repay their loans, the Brookings Institute reports.

“Students who do not have a good idea of their level of borrowing are likely to be surprised or even fearful when their first loan payments come due, which may impose an emotional burden on borrowers,” the report authors state. “More broadly, it may perpetuate popular narratives about crushing student loan burdens, which could discourage promising students from pursuing a college education.”

Are College Students Borrowing Blindly? [Brookings Institute]

17 Dec 14:57

Some States Move To Ban Powdered Alcohol Before It Ever Hits Shelves

by Mary Beth Quirk

itsbackRemember Palcohol, the powdered alcohol that when, mixed with water, is supposed to be the equivalent of one drink or shot of booze? Palcohol can’t even see store shelves from where the product is standing at this point, after first being an approved product and then having that approval yanked by regulators. But if and when it finds its way to the public, some states are preparing to keep it from shelves before it ever gets the chance to hit them.

Colorado is the latest state to join those considering banning Palcohol out of concerns it could increase underage drinking, reports the Associated Press.

“I think being proactive and jumping out in front of the problem is probably the right thing to do,” said Chris Johnson, executive director of the County Sheriffs of Colorado. “It really doesn’t have any place in our society, powdered alcohol. We have enough problems with the liquid kind.”

He says he’s worried the powdered rum or vodka will be tempting for kids to “sprinkle it on top of their Wheaties for breakfast.”

A state representative is sponsoring a bill to ban powdered alcohol in Colorado during the legislative session that begins next month.

One thing is for sure, you won’t see it in Alaska, Delaware, Louisiana, South Carolina and Vermont, as all those states have already banned powdered alcohol, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Minnesota, Ohio, and New York also are considering bans.

The company behind Palcohol says it won’t be available to buy until spring 2015 at the earliest, as there are still kinks to be worked out and labels to be approved by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

So is it going to be a reality? It sounds like it at this point, unless you live in a state that bans it: The Food and Drug Administration won’t be stepping up against it, as it says it doesn’t have the legal basis to block it after checking out the non-alcoholic ingredients in the powder.

The creators of the powder say it’s just meant to be convenient for things like long hikes, airplane rides or anywhere you need alcohol but don’t want to carry liquid. Palcohol’s director of communications says states should be working on controlling the product and how it’s sold instead of banning it outright.

“We believe it should be regulated and taxed,” she said in an email.

Previously: Palcohol Creator: You Won’t Get Drunk Faster Snorting Powdered Alcohol

Colorado considers pre-emptive ban on powdered alcohol [Associated Press]

17 Dec 17:43

Fairfax County Animal Watch - Washington Post


Fairfax County Animal Watch
Washington Post
No incidents were reported by the Animal Control Division of the Fairfax County Police Department. For information, call 703-246-2253. FAIRFAX CITY. The following incidents were reported by the animal control section of the Fairfax City Police Department.

and more »
17 Dec 03:38

Northern Virginia Taxi Drivers Targeted in String of Robberies - NBC4 Washington


Northern Virginia Taxi Drivers Targeted in String of Robberies
NBC4 Washington
Police say the same man is wanted for robbing five taxi drivers in the Manassas, Virginia area during the past few days. News4's Shomari Stone reports. (Published Tuesday, Dec 16, 2014). Tuesday, Dec 16, 2014 • Updated at 11:24 PM EST. Police say the ...
Police Seeking Public's Assistance in Armed Cab Driver Robbery SpreePatch.com

all 2 news articles »
16 Dec 19:29

5 Va. cab drivers robbed in 8 days - W*USA 9


W*USA 9

5 Va. cab drivers robbed in 8 days
W*USA 9
MANASSAS, Va. (WUSA9) -- Prince William County police are investigating a series of cab driver robberies in December. In all cases, the suspect, armed with a knife, robs a cab driver of money before fleeing on foot, according to police. He's described ...

and more »
16 Dec 22:19

Florida Lawmakers Want To Punish People Who Use Fake Service Dogs

by Chris Morran

While there are many Americans with legitimate needs for service animals, and who are legally allowed to take those animals into restaurants and stores where they would normally be banned, there are some people who exploit the service animal label without any bona fide medical or therapeutic need. Now some Florida legislators are looking to penalize these fakers with fines and possible jail time.

Florida HB 71 [PDF], introduced earlier this month, would amend the existing state law, which currently defines an individual with a disability as someone who is “deaf, hard of hearing, blind, visually impaired, or otherwise physically disabled.”

The proposed bill opens up this definition to be more in line with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act define a disabled individual as one with “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” And “major life activities” would include “caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, and working.”

It also expands on the definition of service animal to include work like “alerting an individual to the presence of allergens, providing physical support and assistance with balance and stability to an individual with a mobility disability, helping an individual with a psychiatric or neurological disability by preventing or interrupting impulsive or destructive behaviors, reminding an individual with mental illness to take prescribed medications, calming an individual with post-traumatic stress disorder during an anxiety attack, or doing other specific work.”

At the same time, the bill contains new restrictions that aren’t in the current statute, like the requirement for the animal to be leashed, harnessed or otherwise controlled by the handler.

And then there is the penalty for pretending that your furry friend is a service animal.

“A person who knowingly and willfully misrepresents herself or himself, through conduct or verbal or written notice, as using a service animal and being qualified to use a service animal or as a trainer of a service animal commits a misdemeanor of the second degree,” and could be punished with fines, community service, or even jail time.

WPBF-TV in West Palm Beach spoke to a local woman with cerebral palsy who uses a service animal and applauds the move to outlaw fakers.

“It is a prevalent problem,” she explains. “It makes it that much harder for us to travel or go into businesses with our legitimate service dogs when we’re constantly questioned.”

One roadblock to actually enforcing the law is actually contained within its text — and can’t really be changed as it’s in keeping with the rules set out in the ADA.

“Documentation that the service animal is trained is not a precondition for providing service to an individual accompanied by a service animal,” reads the bill. “A public accommodation may not ask about the nature or extent of an individual’s disability.”

An accommodation can ask if the animal is required because of a disability and what tasks that animal is trained to perform.

So if you’re a restaurant manager and a customer comes in with what he claims is a service animal but which you think is just a pet, you can’t simply ask him to leave or remove the dog (unless it is misbehaving or out of control).

And if the customer says the dog is trained to assist him with an unseen medical need — for example, detecting potential allergens — you can’t ask him to demonstrate the dog’s training or show some sort of documentation.

Thus, it may be difficult for operators of places like restaurants and stores to call out fakers who do a good job of pretending. Landlord and hotel/time-share operators would presumably have more time to determine if a person is faking to use a service animal. In any case, the police would ultimately need to be involved before any charges are filed, and some people won’t be willing to go that far to bust someone for pretending that their puppy provides a legitimate service.

[via Eater]

16 Dec 22:11

Seller Hit By Amazon Glitch Reportedly Threatens Buyers With Debt Collection If They Don’t Pay Full Price

by Ashlee Kieler

Following a major software glitch that allowed consumers to purchase hundreds of items on the Amazon UK marketplace for mere pennies, it appears that some retailers are trying to recoup their lost income from customers, even going as far as to threaten debt collection if purchasers don’t pay full price.

Bitter Wallet reports that one third-party seller sent a message to customers early this week asking them to pay the difference between the bargain price and the regular retail cost of products purchased during the glitch.

A reader says they received an email from the store that claims Amazon urged retailers affected by the pricing fiasco to contact customers for full payments, despite the fact that the discount charges have already been processed and the goods dispatched by Amazon.

The company, which says it could face liquidation as a result of Friday’s events, writes that it plans to recharge customers’ credit cards for the goods. And if customers don’t go along with the request, the company is threatening serious financial consequences.

“We understand that you think you may have grabbed a great bargain, but we have instructed amazon to revert the prices to our usual prices and recharge your card with the correct amount owed,” the email states. “We would like to offer customers a grace period of 7 days to create a return request and return any stock incorrect priced and dispatched. If this action isn’t carried out, we will seek to recover sums owed:
1. By recharging your credit/debit card
2. If funds are not available, passing to a debt collection agency
3. Informing Experian and getting your address added to the mail order black list.”

While Amazon has yet to respond to Consumerist’s request for comment regarding the matter, a representative did reply to a UK customer’s query about the seller’s request.

The rep assured the customer that Amazon will not be charging customers any extra than what has already been paid for the goods.

“Further, Please understand that the payments for these orders are through Amazon and there is no need to return the item which you have received,” the rep says in the email.

Friday’s hour-long buying free-for-all reportedly occurred when software used by third-party sellers to ensure their products are cheapest on the UK Amazon marketplace malfunctioned and reduced prices drastically, in some cases to just a few cents.

Officials with Amazon said at the time, that they had no choice but to fulfill orders in which consumers were already charged.

Being chased for full payment after 1p Amazon cock-up? [Bitter Wallet]

16 Dec 20:59

New York Makes It Illegal To Tattoo Or Pierce Pets

by Mary Beth Quirk

If you live in New York, your pet’s body is no longer allowed to be your canvas under the steely eyes of the law. Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill into law that goes into effect in 120 days, making it illegal to pierce or tattoos animals for cosmetic purposes. Yes, that includes tattooing Mr. Grobblesworth Wrinklefoot with your name in a heart pierced by a rose’s thorns.

“This is animal abuse, pure and simple,” Cuomo said, according to Reuters. “I’m proud to sign this common-sense legislation and end these cruel and unacceptable practices in New York once and for all.”

Pennsylvania enacted similar legislation to clarify the rules on tattoos and piercings soon after the 2011 case of a Pennsylvania woman who body-pierced kittens to make them more “goth.” Assembly member Linda Rosenthal sponsored New York’s legislation around that time, her chief of staff says.

“It’s simply cruel,” said Rosenthal, according to the Associated Press, noting that people have the choice to undergo the pain of a tattoo or piercing, while pets don’t have that option.

Exceptions to the rules include markings that are done under a veterinarian’s watch for medical reasons (like marking that a cat has been spayed by using a little green dot) or for identification. If it’s for ID purposes, the inkings can only include numbers and letters used for a tattoo identification registry.

People who break the law will face up to 15 days in jail and fines as high as $250.

Does this mean it’s legal in all other states to pierce your cat or tattoo your dog? Probably not — an animal care and control specialist for PETA told the AP that piercing and tattooing violates existing animal cruelty laws in all 50 states.

New York state bans pet tattooing, piercing [Reuters]
New York Bans Cosmetic Pet Tattoos, Piercings [Associated Press]

16 Dec 20:31

Why Are Americans Losing Interest In Orange Juice?

by Laura Northrup

Why aren’t Americans as into orange juice as we used to be? It’s not just the Duke brothers asking that question: citrus growers and juice sellers all want to know why consumption of what used to be a staple breakfast food is down. Are carb-conscious consumers no longer interested in fruit juice?

Total orange juice consumption is the lowest that it’s been in the last 18 years, and research shows that bottled water is now a bigger seller than all fruit juices put together.

Not that we should cry too hard for the orange juice industry: remember that the country’s two biggest brands, Tropicana and Minute Maid, are owned by Coke and Pepsi respectively. As we move on and find other things to drink, those are the companies that sell those other things to us.

Still, orange growers still have an interest in keeping us drinking OJ. Right now, droughts in the OJ-exporting country of Brazil and greening disease in Florida are affecting global orange output, but growers don’t want us to kick the juice habit in the meantime.

The Florida Department of Citrus recently sent their comic-book mascot, Captain Citrus, over to Marvel Comics for a makeover, and the deal will result in a million free comic books distributed in schools where Captain Citrus hangs out with the Avengers. Will kids be convinced?

Take Our Poll

Orange-Juice Drinkers Vanish in Sign U.S. Rout Not Over [Bloomberg News]

RELATED:
Your Morning OJ Is The Result Of A Complicated Algorithm Designed For Maximum Tastiness

16 Dec 20:31

FCC Reportedly Planning To Fine Sprint $105M For Wireless Bill-Cramming

by Ashlee Kieler

Just two months after the Federal Communications Commission imposed its largest fine on AT&T for overcharging consumers using a practice known as “bill-cramming,” the regulator is reportedly poised to saddle Sprint with the same $105 million fine for similar practices.

Citing unnamed officials with the FCC, The National Journal reports that the agency is in the process of finalizing an enforcement action that would penalize Sprint for knowingly charging customers for third-party services they did not approve.

Like previous cramming allegations against T-Mobile and AT&T, the charges Sprint allegedly tacked on to bills were for unasked-for and unauthorized subscriptions for things like ringtones and text messages containing love tips, horoscopes, and “fun facts.”

While it’s currently unclear just how much was added to Sprint customers’ tabs, previous carriers were found to have billed consumers hundreds of millions of dollars in charges for third-party companies.

The National Journal reports that all five FCC commissioners are reviewing the proposed fine, but have not voted to take action yet. It is unclear whether or not Sprint and the FCC are still engaged in settlement talks.

The FCC declined to comment on this story.

If the FCC moves forward with the speculated $105 million fine, it would mark the third time this year a major wireless carrier has faced action regarding bill-cramming.

In October, AT&T entered into a deal with the Federal Trade Commission, FCC and attorneys general from 50 states and the District of Columbia to pay $105 million to settle allegations that it profited off of bill-cramming.

The FTC claimed that AT&T kept about 35% of all the fees it took in from these charges; in some cases, the company earned upwards of 40% of the revenue from the third-party charges.

While it’s believed that all wireless providers have allowed bill-cramming of some sort, the settlement with AT&T was the first regulators had reached with any of the country’s mobile phone carriers.

Back in July, the FTC sued T-Mobile for similar practices, accusing the company of making hundreds of millions of dollars off of premium text-messaging premium.

T-Mobile’s response to that lawsuit was to claim that it shouldn’t be sued because it stopped allowing these illegal charges.

The FTC alleged that T-Mobile received anywhere from 35-40% of the total amount charged to consumers for subscriptions (mostly $9.99/month) for things like “flirting tips, horoscope information or celebrity gossip.”

Continued allegations and action against carriers regarding bill-cramming may not come as much surprise after a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation report released in July found that wireless providers often turned a blind eye to cramming because it resulted in billions of dollars in revenue for carriers.

FCC Plans Massive Fine of Sprint for Bogus Charges [The National Journal]

16 Dec 19:52

Please Do Not Donate Your Cremated Loved Ones To Goodwill

by Laura Northrup

After someone dies, it’s normal to box up all of their stuff and take it to the nearest thrift store. However, it’s probably a good idea to give some of that stuff a cursory check first. Not just because you might be inadvertently giving away some serious valuables, but because the earthly remains of your relatives have a poor resale value at Goodwill.

This is a thing that actually happened at a Goodwill store in Lafayette, Indiana. A batch of donations included a box with a velvet pouch inside, which in turn contained two white boxes filled with cremains. The store called the police, not being sure what the laws are regarding what should happen when someone accidentally donates human remains to a secondhand store.

Fortunately for everyone involved, the Goodwill store was able to track down the family that had donated the original box in the first place: there were names and dates written on the boxes full of cremains.

Still, on behalf of order-sorters everywhere, please check your boxes full of junk for things that thrift stores really don’t need and would prefer not to dispose of.

Cremated remains donated to Goodwill [Journal & Courier]

16 Dec 18:05

Kmart Ruins Christmas By Canceling Layaway Orders, Holding Onto Refunds

by Mary Beth Quirk

There’s an unhappy wind blowing toward Kmart right now, and it’s coming from the direction of disgruntled customers who say that after the retailer notified them of a Dec. 12 deadline to pay off layaway balances in order to have their items delivered by Christmas, the retailer has been canceling orders left and right, saying items are “out of stock.” Not only that, but some shoppers say they’ve been told their refunds won’t arrive until after it’s too late to buy new Christmas presents to replace the canceled layaway items.

We got an email from a Consumerist reader tipping us off to check out Kmart’s Facebook page, where indeed, the rage over canceled Christmas layaway items is in full effect.

Customers want to know, among other things, why items weren’t placed on hold when they they were put on layaway? And how does Kmart expect people to pull the money out of thin air — money they already paid to Kmart’s layaway program — to replace those gifts that won’t be coming? Shoppers have reported hearing anywhere from 3-5 days for their money back, or even up to 14 days in some cases.

Here’s one example:

What a joke this company is, sold products out from under our layaway contract. I even paid it off early before the deadline for Christmas and after I complained 2X they sent me a canceled layaway email, a week after I paid the layaway off! I talked to customer service and after they patronized me and talked to me like I was stupid they said it would take 7-14 business days to get my money back. That is way after Christmas, how does that help my child not having the gifts?

And another:

Shame on you, Kmart! You seriously need to re-vamp your online layaway program. What kind of company lets you put in your layaway online in mid November, pay it off online at the first of December, and then sends you an email a week AFTER you’ve paid it off to inform you that the items are ‘out of stock’, will not be delivered AND it will take 3-5 business days to refund your money? Good luck finding that item somewhere else before Christmas, eh?

Not over yet:

You guys are the absolute worst. I will no longer be shopping at Kmart, and Sears. I had 2 layaway orders, both placed early last month. Finish paying them, excited to get my son’s Christmas shopping done earlier than normal, only to be told all the items I’ve purchased are out of stock. How very professional of you. When I have items on layaway at another store, like Walmart, they take those items and put them back to prevent this sort of thing from happening. How absolutely ridiculous of your company. You’ve lost my business and the business of family, friends, and anyone else willing to listen to my complaint. Seeing as I now only have 10 days to find all these items for my son, my FULL refunds better be in my account very, very soon.

People are already using the “L” word:

To whomever is organizing the class action lawsuit regarding Kmart layaway – Please add me to the contact list, as I too have been duped. Notified of cancellation 9 days before Christmas, no refund in sight and no idea what to do about it. Way to ruin the holiday Kmart!

There’s been a generic reply so far, but it doesn’t seem to be going over too well:

“We are very disappointed to hear that you had to go through this experience with your layaway order. Please let us know if you do not see your refund within 5-7 business days,” Kmart responded to some posts.

But that doesn’t seem to be enough for many:

We don’t want to hear that you are sorry or let you know if there is any problem receiving a refund. You are avoiding our questions…. I want to know how this can happen????? How do you have something on layaway and pay on it and hold your customers money without holding the product also? I expect an answer. Not your generic reply that you have replied to all of us.

There are also all these other people: Not happy here, others ready to call the local news and there are even thsoe who haven’t even used layaway who are ticked off.

We’ve reached out to Kmart to get more information from their end on how this kind of thing could happen, and see how widespread it is. We’ll let you know if we hear anything back.

In the meantime — did this happen to you? What kind of items did you purchase — toys, electronics, clothing? Send us your stories and emails from Kmart to tips@consumerist.com with the subject line KMART LAYAWAY.

16 Dec 17:25

FedEx Truck Rollover Spills Packages On New Jersey Highway

by Laura Northrup

fedex_crashYesterday was the busiest shipping day of the entire year for the U.S. Postal Service and for FedEx, which could have made a tractor-trailer accident that happened early on Monday morning in New Jersey even more disastrous. While the driver sustained only minor injuries, the accident spilled packages across the highway and affected traffic for the rest of the morning.

The road, an exit ramp for I-287, remained closed for more than seven hours. As you can see in the screen grab above, FedEx employees were on the scene loading packages from the tandem trailer to other company vehicles. Yes, that’s a double load of packages at a crucial time of year for “The safety and security of our customers’ shipments, especially during this time of year, is a top priority,” a FedEx spokesperson told NorthJersey.com. Yes, it’s hard not to picture your own precious package there in the massive pile, but FedEx says that their workers grabbed the packages in order to “avoid” delays, so customers may not notice any problems at all.

The driver claims that he swerved to avoid a tire in the road. Police issued him two summonses for careless driving and for failure to maintain his lane.

Route 287 reopened after FedEx tractor trailer overturns in Mahwah, dumps packages [NorthJersey.com]

16 Dec 15:06

Screaming hairy armadillo finds home at National Zoo

One of the National Zoo's newest additions is worth shouting about.
15 Dec 23:07

December Recall Roundup: Nobody Likes A Melted Battery Charger

by Laura Northrup

The Recall Roundup for December is not very merry, especially if you’re in the market for electronic devices. Here’s a collection of appliances and devices that could cause overheating and discomfort or actual property damage.

Home
Cost Plus World Market Modular Storage Bars – Mounting plate may fall out when things are actually hung from the bar. Injury hazard.
Folding Lounge Chairs (Ross Stores) – Chair may tip over or recline too quickly. Five falls reported in Ross stores, with a few minor injuries.
Venmar Ventilation Air Exchangers – Unit may overheat, posing fire hazard. There have been 30 fires in the U.S. and Canada, resulting in a total of $1.1 million in property damage.
Daesung Celtic Enersys Tankless Water Heaters – Risk of overheating. There have been 40 reports of overheated units, including two fires with property damage and some burned walls.
DD Brand Candles (Hobby Lobby) – Expanded recall. High flame can ignite things that are not candles. There have been 29 fire reports; nine with property damage and one injury.
Mohawk Rugs (Home Depot) – Do not meet flammability standard.
Daikin Streamer air purifiers – May overheat and catch fire.
Ethan Allen Harwood Floor Lamps – Risk of electrical shock. One user reported being shocked.

Toys
Hello Kitty Birthday Lollipop Whistles (McDonald’s Happy Meal Toy) – Pieces of the whistle may detach and be inhaled. There are two reports of this happening, with one child receiving medical attention.

Tools & Gardening
Bob-Cat Zero Turn Riding Mower – Steering control arm may break, and steering is important. There have been 22 reports of this part failing.

Electronics
Tectron 3-in-1 iPhone and mini USB Chargers – Fire hazard. Sold at school fundraisers. Two melted chargers reported.
Visonic Amber Personal Emergency Response Pendants and Kits (Life Alert) – Battery may drain faster than anticipated, and “low battery” status much shorter than users were told.
Olympus DS-5500 digital audio recorders – May overheat while charging. There have been three reports of overheating.
AP Specialties Power Bank Chargers (given as freebies at trade shows, meetings, and conventions) – May overheat and cause fires. There have been three overheating incidents and one fire that caused damage.
Goal Zero Sherpa rechargeable battery packs – May overheat, melt, bulge, or catch fire. There has been one fire and two cases of property damage reported, and one user reported becoming ill after inhaling fumes.
Lenovo Computer Power Cords for the IdeaPad B-, G-, S-, U-, V- and Z-series and Lenovo brand B-, G- and V-series computers. – May overheat, posing fire and burn hazards. There have been 15 incidents outside of the U.S. and Canada of overheated cords
HobbyZone Super Cub S Ready-To-Fly and Super Cub S Bind-N-Fly Power Supply and Charger – Battery may overcharge

LARGE_436A

Babies & Kids
Graco Umbrella Strollers – Fingertip amputation hazard.
Leatherman Children’s Leap Multi-Tool – Lock mechanism may release the blade instead. No injuries reported.
Dream On Me Recalls Incredible Play Yards – Rails may collapse, strangling child

Clothing
Open Vest Sweaters by Leith (Nordstrom) – Do not meet federal flammability standard.

Sports & Outdoors
Aqua Lung buoyancy compensators with SureLock II weight pocket handles -Handles may detach, posing a drowning hazard in an emergency
Ventamatic Cool Draft Misting Fans – Wiring is not grounded; fire and electric shock hazard. There have been two incidents, one of which included a user being shocked.
Black Diamond Equipment Whippet Ski Poles – Hand grip may come apart. There have been no reports yet of this happening in the wild.
Hoppe’s Semi-Auto Gun Bore Cleaner – Child-resistant cap of poisonous product is easier to open than anticipated. A child opened the bottle and spilled some on himself.
UVEX Bicycle Helmets – Chinstrap anchor may fail, causing helmet to slip down or off the head.
GCI Outdoor Stadium Seats – Back rest may fail. One user fell off the back of a set of bleachers and was injured.
Salsa Bearpaw Bicycle Forks – May break or bend

15 Dec 21:01

Former Salvation Army Bell Ringer Offers $21K To Return Widow’s Donated Wedding Rings

by Mary Beth Quirk

Remember the story of the widow who donated her wedding rings to the Salvation Army? One good turn deserves another, as another anonymous donor is stepping up to buy the rings for $21,000 — so she can return them to their generous owner.

The diamond engagement ring the woman placed in a kettle in Boston with a note that the jewelry should be sold and the proceeds used to buy toys for need kids was valued at about $1,500 on its own, reports the Associated Press, but its new buyer is shelling out more than 10 times that for the ring and the wedding band that goes with it.

The buyer is also a widow, who says the rings should go back where they belong.

“I want to be involved in this because it’s about the spirit of Christmas, the spirit of giving,” the buyer told the Salvation Army. “My wish is that the rings can be returned to this woman who gave them up in memory of her husband for the sake of children at Christmas.”

The rings got multiple offers, but the $21,000 bid won out, said a Massachusetts Salvation Army Major.

“One expression of love has inspired another grand gesture to help those in need during the holiday season,” he said. “Because of these two amazing individuals, our Salvation Army officers, staff and individuals will be able to extend our outreach to the many families and children in need. We are dedicated to fulfilling the sentiment behind these two heartfelt donations.”

The only problem is that the Salvation Army doesn’t know the name of the original donor. They’re now hoping she comes forward, a rep for the group says.

“We’re hoping this incredibly generous person reaches out so we can set up a very quiet meeting” to return the rings, he said.

Rings Given to Salvation Army Fetch $21K for Toys [Associated Press]

15 Dec 12:40

Study: Your all-electric car may not be so green

People who own all-electric cars where coal generates the power may think they are helping the environment. But a new study finds their vehicles actually make the air dirtier, worsening global warming.
15 Dec 19:05

McDonald’s Customers In Japan Can Only Order Small Orders Of Fries Due To Potato Shortage

by Mary Beth Quirk

(avlxyz)

(avlxyz)

The next time you pull up to a McDonald’s drive-thru window and order a large serving of French fries, drop one on the ground for our comrades in Japan, where customers can only get small orders of fries right now. What fresh hell is this?

In a move that might have the more enterprising customers buying multiple small fries just to get the potatoes of a large fry, Kotaku cites a report from Asahi News that says Japanese McDonald’s locations are only selling the smallest size because of a labor contract dispute that’s holding up shipments at U.S. West Coast ports and cutting off the country’s supply of American potatoes.

The fewer potatoes you’ve got, the fewer french fries you can churn out. Thus, the cutbacks. Meals that usually come with medium fries will be 50 yen cheaper, so it’s not like customers will be paying the same for less fry-age.

Right now, it’s unclear when the potatoes will return in abundance to the island. The fry rationing starts at McDonald’s locations around the country on Dec. 17. There’s no word if there’s a per-person fry order limit, or if hungry customers can just order like multiple small fries instead.

McDonald’s Is Only Selling Small-Sized Fries in Japan [Kotaku]

15 Dec 15:42

Yoplait Copes With Sales Drop Amidst Greek Yogurt Mania

by Laura Northrup

Back in 2008, things were different in the yogurt aisle: Chobani hadn’t yet stirred up consumer tastes with its thick Greek-style yogurts, and Yoplait, owned by General Mills, had more than a third of the market. Since then, consumers have gone Greek yogurt-mad, and Yoplait isn’t selling as well, now comprising less than a quarter of the market. How is Yoplait coping? By selling its own version of Greek yogurt, of course.

Yoplait’s own version of Greek yogurt trails behind brands that got there first, like Chobani and the Oikos line from Dannon. While the brand has lost sales (just like its breakfast pals and fellow General Mills products, cereals) the Wall Street Journal reports that it recovered some of those lost sales by changing its products: its Greek yogurt products no longer have “thickeners,” and they’ve phased high fructose corn syrup out of sweetened yogurt packages.

One odd new product that will hit the market soon will be Greek yogurt “whips,” which will be a lighter, less dense version of Greek yogurt. Isn’t that… regular yogurt? No, the head of the Yoplait division assures the WSJ. “Greek just means higher protein to most people,” he says. Will these “whips” actually have more protein? Maybe that doesn’t matter: just slap the word “Greek” on a yogurt container and people will buy it.

General Mills Whips Yoplait Into Shape [Wall Street Journal]

15 Dec 14:40

PetSmart Sells To Private Investment Firm For $8.7B

by Ashlee Kieler

Who knew that pet care could be such a lucrative business? Just as the year comes to an end, PetSmart announced it would sell itself for $8.7 billion to a private equity firm, fetching the title of largest private equity deal of 2014.

The New York Times reports that officials with PetSmart announced the gargantuan deal Sunday to sell itself to a group led by European-American investment firm BC Partners.

The sale comes just months after the retailer came under pressure from two hedge funds to explore a sale. Ultimately, BC Partners, which is a previous investor of Office Depot, along with several smaller firms, including a Quebec pension fund, won a months-long auction for the retailer.

Under the deal, BC Partners and its limited partners will pay about $83 a share in cash, about 6.8% higher than PetSmart’s closing Price on Friday, the Times reports.

PetSmart currently operates more than 1,300 stores in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico, selling everything from pet toys, food and feature adoptable pets through local rescues.

“The question is, ‘Why haven’t there been more people interested in PetSmart?’” Raymond Svider, a managing partner of BC Partners, says in a statement. “The category of pet products has been growing in the U.S. and abroad consistently for a number of years.”

The times reports that the transaction is expected to close in the first half of next year, pending approval from shareholders and regulators.

PetSmart to Sell Itself to Investor Group for $8.7 Billion [The New York Times]

14 Dec 11:00

Friends say they pushed UVA 'Jackie' to call cops

Three friends of an alleged victim of gang rape at a University of Virginia frat house say a magazine article wrongly portrayed them as uncaring students who were more concerned about their reputations than her well-being.
13 Dec 16:27

Demonstrators block streets, fill Freedom Plaza over police action

Protesters in D.C. join "National Day of Resistance" over police action.
12 Dec 22:59

Santa Exists, Dropped $20K To Pay Off Toys ‘R’ Us Layaway Accounts

by Laura Northrup

News stories about “layaway angels,” people who stop by a retailer’s layaway counter and pay off the balances of strangers, became very popular during the holiday season of 2011. They’ve since become a recurring tradition, and this year we have mostly heard about people spending five-figure amounts to pay off everyone’s balance in a show of generosity.

This week, staff at the Toys ‘R’ Us in Bellingham, MA had the tedious but completely amazing task of calling layaway customers and letting them know it was time to pick up their purchases: they had been paid off in full by an anonymous stranger. The benefector, who gave out plenty of hugs at the store but didn’t provide her name. We choose to believe that she is, in fact, Santa. Toys ‘R’ Us confirmed that she paid around $20,000 to close out all of the store’s layaway accounts.

While she didn’t talk to the media, one store employee says that the woman said that making sure local children would have toys for Christmas would “help her sleep better at night.” One local mother was stunned, having put $50 worth of toys on layaway for her sons and struggling to make the payments. “I almost wanted to cry. It was only $50, but to me that’s a lot of money, and that someone would go and do that gave me chills,” she told the Milford Daily News.

Santa also lives in Ohio, where a man visited Walmart and paid off $15,000 worth of layaway accounts, asking to focus on accounts containing toys or other items for kids.

Toys ‘R’ Us is a popular store for layaway angels to visit, which makes sense. Another shopper in Massachusetts paid off the accounts of everyone standing in line behind him in the customer service line, which cost about $1,500.

You don’t need massive stacks of money to play Santa if doing this appeals to you: a few years ago, one Consumerist reader declared paying off one family’s layaway account to be the best $100 she had ever spent.

Touched by a ‘layaway angel’ [Milford Daily News]

12 Dec 22:00

The LEGO Female Scientists Are Back, Maybe Indefinitely

by Laura Northrup

P1070985m4Earlier this year, LEGO introduced a limited-edition set of minifig female scientists along with essential work equipment like a telescope and a dinosaur skeleton. They sold out quickly, and many female fans of LEGO and/or science were disappointed that the set wouldn’t become permanent. Just in time for Christmas, LEGO quietly put the set back up for sale, and they may be available permanently in the company’s retail stores.

The site says that the set will ship on December 21, but is available only in “limited quantities,” so hurry up if you want a miniature research institute of your very own. The more important piece of information on the page is the second sentence, which says:

It is coming soon to LEGO® Brand retail locations and is expected to be available within two weeks.

Could it be that the petition worked, and the Lego Research Institute will be a permanent institution? LEGO representatives didn’t get back to the New York Times, but it looks like the set will be revived for now. We might not be able to get them in time for Christmas, but life can’t be perfect.

Take it away, Jesse:

LEGO’s “Research Institute” Female Scientist Set Is Back In Stock And Going Fast! [The Mary Sue]

13 Dec 14:57

Charges dropped in Nokesville auction cruelty case - Inside NoVA


Inside NoVA

Charges dropped in Nokesville auction cruelty case
Inside NoVA
Prosecutors this week dropped charges against a Nokesville auction owner who had been charged with animal cruelty. Larry Sams, owner of Cross States Stables on Va. 28 in Nokesville, had been scheduled to stand trial in Prince William General District ...

10 Dec 03:30

Therapy dogs help draw out reluctant readers - Washington Post


Therapy dogs help draw out reluctant readers
Washington Post
Third-grader Marylin Alvarez Lopez eagerly entered a quiet room at Haydon Elementary School in Manassas recently, where she was greeted by Paula Street and her King Charles spaniel, Kaddie. Marylin sat on the floor, opened her book, placed her hand ...