Feds Say New York’s “I Love NY” Highway Signs Violate The Law

Whether or not you actually feel affection toward New York, drivers cruising the state’s highways and byways are no doubt familiar with the proliferation of blue “I Love NY” signs that dot the roadside promoting tourism. But there’s one party that definitely doesn’t love the state for using those signs — the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Transportation warned the state that signs aren’t compliant with federal standards as cited in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices [PDF], which says that tourist information signs either constructed within rest areas on freeways and expressways or located within close proximity to these facilities cannot contain “an excessive number of supplemental panels… so as not to overload the road user.”

New York’s signs are too big and filled with too much information, the federal DOT warned the state — before they started going up more than five years ago — and thus, could be dangerously distracting to drivers, The New York Times notes.

But the state went ahead and put up 514 of the signs anyway, and officials are not shy about how much they love them.

“The goal is to get people who are on the roads off the roads and into communities and fostering and promoting the economy of the State of New York,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said in his State of the State address in 2014, three years after federal officials first called attention to the issue.

New York is now facing fines and the potential withholding of federal financing for state highways, with state and federal transportation departments slated to meet next month to discuss things. That being said, the state doesn’t seem ready to give up its beloved signs: officials see the signs as an important way to promote tourism, and industry that generated $102 billion for New York in 2015.

“This issue has been discussed for years and involve issues like the interpretation of rules,” a spokesman for the state Transportation Department told the NYT, including things like which direction the signs can face, and whether or not they can include email addresses and the like. “This isn’t high crime, but minor disagreements that we look forward to meeting with the feds in order to resolve. The ‘I Love N.Y.’ tourism program is highly successful and a big economic driver.”

Federal officials say they aren’t messing around, however.

“We have been clear with the New York State Department of Transportation that its tourism-related signs are out of compliance” and need to be removed, a spokesman for the federal transportation department told the Times. “If it becomes clear that is not going to happen, we will make a determination about the penalty. It could be a range of things, from withholding federal approval for projects to withholding highway funding. We hope it does not come to that.”

Source: Consumer Reviews

The ‘Legendary Franchisee’ Who Invented The Big Mac Has Died

While you might want to believe that Ronald McDonald cooked up the first Big Mac, McDonald’s signature sandwich was in fact created by a Pittsburgh-area franchisee who had the earth-shattering idea of stacking two patties and buns into a single sandwich that would fill the bellies of his super-hungry customers. Now we bring you the sad news that this visionary franchisee has passed away.

Michael James “Jim” Delligatti — who started selling the Big Mac locally in 1967 before it went national the next year — didn’t live to celebrate the 50th birthday of his creation, but he did live to the age of 98. His son claims that he kept eating Big Macs more or less weekly for decades, which is probably not a longevity secret that other people should try.

According to the Associated Press, Delligatti owned 47 McDonald’s franchises around Pennsylvania. The McDonald’s menu was pretty simple at the time, something that current franchisees probably long for. Local customers wanted a bigger sandwich than a plain burger, and he listened. The chain resisted complicating the menu at first, but eventually added the popular burger stack to its menu. It became a signature item, and the company is even adding both larger and smaller versions to its menu as a limited-time offering.

As if that weren’t enough, Delligatti was also one of the early franchisees to create a fast food breakfast menu including hotcakes and sausages, originally meant for for night-shift steelworkers looking for breakfast food after their work day. In a statement, McDonald’s described him as a “legendary franchisee within McDonald’s system.”

Source: Consumer Reviews

Student Loan Repayment Programs Will Eventually Forgive $108B In Debt

While several recent reports have suggested that many student loan borrowers face needless hurdles when trying to reduce their monthly payments through the Department of Education’s income-driven repayment plans, a new study has found the programs are working and will eventually forgive $108 billion in outstanding student debt. 

The Wall Street Journal reports that a soon-to-be released Government Accountability Office report estimates that $137 billion of student loan debt currently enrolled in the Dept. of Education’s income-driven repayment plan will never be repaid.

While $108 billion is a huge amount of money, it’s just a sliver of the $1.26 trillion — yes, with a “T” — in outstanding student loan debt currently held by the government.

Still, according to the report, students enrolled in the plans — which cap a borrower’s student loan payment at a percentage of their monthly income — owe some $355 billion. Of that figure, $137 billion won’t be repaid, including $108 billion that will be forgiven after 10 or 20 years, per the terms of the plan.

The remaining $29 billion will be written off by the Department because a borrower has been disabled or has died.

The income-driven repayment plans are designed to prevent borrowers from defaulting on their loans.

Borrowers of federal student loans are eligible to enroll in income-driven repayment programs that cap a borrower’s student loan payment at a percentage of their monthly income. Additionally, borrowers who make payments under income-driven plans can have their debts forgiven after a minimum of 20 years of payments.

According to the GAO report, the $108 billion in forgiven student loan debt doesn’t include any funds the Dept. writes off as part of the “Borrower Defense” program. Under that program, student loans are forgiven if a student can prove their college lured them to enroll with deceptive practices.

The tab for that particular program will likely see a significant increase in coming years following the demise of several for-profit college chains, including ITT Technical Institute and Corinthian College Inc’s Everest University, Heald College, and WyoTech brands.

While the GAO report notes that it will likely take 40 years before the entire cost of the programs is known, past budget proposals have shed a bit of light on the increasing costs.

In 2015, the Washington Post reported that the President’s 2016 budget proposal contained a revised estimate of the costs of the repayment plans, totaling $22 billion more than previously expected.

For a little perspective, in April 2014 the estimated cost of the same program was expected to reach $14 billion, exceeding government expectations by 90%.

U.S. to Forgive at Least $108 Billion in Student Debt in Coming Years [Wall Street Journal]

Source: Consumer Reviews

AT&T Confirms Live Access To NBC Is Still Mobile-Only On ‘DirecTV Now’

Earlier this week at the official launch event for the DirecTV Now live-TV streaming service, I and others noticed that while the live feed for the local NBC affiliate was showing up on the DirecTV Now mobile app, the channel was absent from the lineup of stations available for viewing on your actual TV. AT&T staff that we spoke to at the event insisted that this would not be the case when the service launched, but DirecTV Now is now live — and NBC is still not working on users’ TV sets.

When we asked about the lack of NBC in the demo version, AT&T explained that this was because we were being shown a beta version of the app; the launch version would include NBC in the markets where the network owns the local affiliate (New York City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, D.C., Boston, San Francisco, Dallas, among a handful of others).

We’re currently trying DirecTV Now out (NOTE: We are paying for access and not using any discount or media access code) in Philadelphia, and immediately noticed this afternoon that the local NBC station appears to work just fine on the mobile app, but is nowhere to be found when watching DirecTV Now through an Amazon Fire TV stick.

READ MORE: 6 Questions To Ask Yourself Before Deciding Whether To Try ‘DirecTV Now’

A rep for AT&T now tells Consumerist that the lack of NBC on TV is a “technical issue” that the company hopes to correct “in the coming weeks.”

It’s unclear what that technical issue might be, or why AT&T can stream various other NBC properties.

While NBC isn’t currently available live on DirecTV Now users’ TVs, the network’s on-demand library is available for streaming to your TV. So you’ll miss your local news, but you can watch The Blacklist. Whether that’s a good tradeoff will depend on your tolerance for late-model James Spader.

Here are some other issues and concerns we’ve heard about from readers:

• The lack of regional sports network (RSN) coverage. AT&T had told us on Monday that “if an RSN is available on DirecTV in your market, then it will be on DirecTV Now.” However, that doesn’t appear to be true. For example, DirecTV in NYC carries YES, MSG, and SNY sports channels, but DirecTV Now only appears to carry YES. More baffling is the lack of ROOT Sports channels in some markets, as AT&T owns this brand.

• If you want to use a Google Chromecast to bring DirecTV Now to your TV, you’ll need an Android device. That option won’t be coming to iOS until next year some time.

• While the service is portable, access to local stations is not. For example, we started using the service this morning on a mobile device in the New York City market — but with a Philadelphia billing address. As a result, no local TV stations were available until the device reached the Philadelphia area. So don’t plan on being able to watch your local stations on the road, or being able to watch the local stations of whatever town you’re visiting.

• We’ve heard about — and experienced — numerous problems with logins, password resets, error messages, and unavailable customer service. For now we’re willing to chalk that up to launch day glitches and congestion.

Source: Consumer Reviews

You Could End Up Paying More For Your Christmas Tree This Year

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas in many homes across America, but could tree shortages caused by droughts and other problems in some states dampen holiday spirits?

Although you’ll likely be able to find plenty of trees, you might end up paying more for a tree this year in some parts of the country, or finding there’s less variety to choose from.

For example, one grower in drought-stricken Southern California said prices went up by 10% because many sellers have left the market in the last few years.

“We’ve never seen a shortage. Nothing like this at all,” he told CBS Los Angeles of his 37 years in the Christmas tree business.

Drought is also affecting California’s neighbors to the north in Oregon, where consumers are also facing higher prices for their holiday flora, KGW.com reported.

Growers have left the market there as well, or are selling fewer trees, in response to poor weather and an overabundance of supply in recent years. Such a shortage in the Pacific Northwest might boost prices elsewhere in the country as well, as trees from that region are often sold to buyers outside the state.

According to WJHL.com, there may be less variety in Tennessee this season as well, due to wildfires that have been destroying any vegetation in their path, though growers report business is still okay the moment.

In North Carolina, Mother Nature might not disrupt the Christmas tree market this year, but farmers say drought in the western part of the state could cause problems down the road.

“I wouldn’t say it’s affected the crop this year, but the next year or two you’ll see a shortage in the trees because the amount of water, and the weather depends on how much the tree grows,” one grower told WWAY-TV.

There will be plenty of trees in Hawaii this year, but if you want a particular kind of tree, say, a Douglas fir, you should shop early, one grower explained to Hawaii News Now. That’s because the state imported 20,000 fewer trees this year than it did last season.

And in Alabama, some growers say they have enough trees, but they might be a bit smaller than usually because of a drought in that state, WHNT-19 reported.

Whatever happens, just don’t cut your own and then refuse to pay.

Source: Consumer Reviews

Why GM Is Okay Losing Money On The Electric Chevy Bolt

When it comes to electric vehicles, consumers have to be willing to spend a pretty penny in order to reduce their emissions. But it’s not just car owners that are shelling out for more environmentally friendly rides, carmakers are too: on top of the cost to create, test, and manufacture the vehicles, companies, like General Motors, are regularly taking a hit when it comes to putting keys in customers’ hands. But why?

Bloomberg —  citing sources familiar with the matter — reports that for each new zero-emission Chevrolet Bolt (not to be confused with the similarly named, but not all-electric Volt) sold GM will lose about $9,000.

While that isn’t a small chunk of change, it appears to be a necessary sacrifice for carmakers who want to continue selling vehicles in certain states with strict clean-air rules. Currently, 10 states — including California, New York, and New Jersey — have laws on the books that require carmakers to make up a certain percentage of their sales though electric vehicles.

In order to do this, many manufacturers are going into the red, and that’s apparently something they’re willing to do.

For GM, Bloomberg, citing a source familiar with the matter, reports, that means taking a $8,000 to $9,000 loss on each roughly $37,000 Bolt sold.

Of course, GM isn’t the only carmaker to take a hit: analysts estimate most carmakers are losing an average of $10,000 per electric vehicle sold. In 2014, Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne revealed that the company lost about $14,000 for every battery-powered Fiat 500e sold.

Last year, Reuters reported that Tesla had lost an average of $4,000 on each car it sold. The losses were an estimate based on the company’s operating costs and reduced production targets.

Still, Bloomberg reports that the losses are a necessary evil: companies have to sell EVs to stay compliant with the law and selling more means they can make other EV vehicles like trucks or SUVs that might be more appealing to buyers.

A big part of why carmakers are willing to take the losses are the zero-emission vehicle credits begin doled out.

According to Bloomberg’s math, in California GM would need to sell 30,794 Bolts or Volts to avoid hefty fines or being prohibited from selling vehicles in the state. For each car sold, GM will be awarded four credits. Any excess credits can then be sold to other carmakers, making GM money.

Bloomberg notes that it’s not all doom and gloom for manufacturers. One day, EV models could become the hallmark of carmakers — when charging-stations are widely available and battery prices are lower.

Until then for any would be EV owners, discounted cars and incentives — such as the $7,500 tax credit — could make buying a Bolt, 500e, or other EV model appealing in some cases, Bloomberg notes,

GM’s Ready to Lose $9,000 a Pop and Chase the Electric Car Boom [Bloomberg]

Source: Consumer Reviews

Senators Make Last-Ditch Attempt To Block Expanded Government Hacking Authority

There’s a change coming that could arguably make it a lot easier for feds to snoop through your digital stuff, even if you’ve done nothing but been the victim of some malware. If Congress doesn’t act to stop it, that change to Rule 41 becomes effective basically at midnight tonight. So a handful of Senators who want to block it are all but begging their colleagues to act now.

So what is Rule 41? Here’s the TL;DR version: it’s a section of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure that details how legal searches and seizures can be conducted.

The dispute is over some amendments to the rule written by the Judicial Conference of the United States, the policy-making body for the federal court system. In April, the Supreme Court approved those changes, which would allow federal magistrate judges to issue warrants that let law enforcement remotely search through computers outside of the court’s physical jurisdiction, and to seize data on those computers if the device’s location is “concealed through technological means,” or if the computer was part of a botnet used in a cyber attack.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation ran a deep-dive explanation of the implications of this change back in April, but in short, critics argue that the changes to Rule 41 drastically expand procedural power (the things law enforcement can legally, regularly do) to access more people’s stuff with less reason.

In May, several senators introduced the SMH Act (yes, really) seeking to limit the Rule 41 changes from going into effect.

“An agency with the record of the Justice Department shouldn’t be able to wave its arms and grant itself entirely new powers,” Sen. Ron Wyden (OR) said at the time. “The American public should understand that these changes won’t just affect criminal … the amendments would also dramatically expand the government’s ability to hack the electronic devices of law-abiding Americans if their devices were affected by a computer attack.”

When the bill was put forward, the Justice Department immediately fired back, saying the lawmakers’ concerns were unfounded.

The bill hasn’t moved yet, but meanwhile, in October, 23 members of Congress followed up with a letter to the DOJ, asking just what it plans to do with the expanded authority Rule 41 will grant it.

The DOJ responded to that letter last week, and some of the Senators who signed on to the original found its response to be lackluster at best.

And that brings us to today. The rule changes go into effect on Dec. 1, which comes in just a handful of hours. The deadline is here, and if anyone in Congress is going to act, it’s now or never.

So some of the Senators that have been raising this issue for months are pushing for now. Wyden, joined by Sens. Chris Coons (DE) and Steve Daines (MT) are asking the Senate immediately to pass or vote on measures that would either block or delay the implementation of the Rule 41 changes.

“By sitting here and doing nothing, the Senate has given consent to this expansion of government hacking and surveillance,” Wyden said in a statement. “Law-abiding Americans are going to ask ‘what were you guys thinking? when the FBI starts hacking victims of a botnet hack. Or when a mass hack goes awry and breaks their device, or an entire hospital system and puts lives at risk.”

“If we fail to act today, these changes to Rule 41 will go into effect tomorrow without any hearing or markup to consider and evaluate the impact of the changes,” Coons added. “While the proposed changes are not necessarily bad or good, they are serious, and they present significant privacy concerns that warrant careful consideration and debate.”

Daines was more concise, saying about it only: “We can’t give unlimited power for unlimited hacking – putting Americans’ civil liberties at risk.”

If Congress does not act before the clock chimes midnight, then the amended Rule 41 will be in effect.

Source: Consumer Reviews

Is It Time To Get Serious About Cracking Down On Stealth Instagram Ads?

If you’ve used Instagram, you’re almost certainly familiar with apparently real people touting tummy-flattening tea, an array of subscription boxes, the benefits of some multilevel marketing scheme, or the latest in fashion, beauty, and electronics. If these people are being paid to shill these products, then they have to clearly be flagged as ads. Though the Federal Trade Commission has pledged to get serious about going after advertisers who taint your Instagram feed with these stealth ads, some consumer advocates say the FTC simply isn’t doing enough.

In the last year, the FTC harshly scolded (but did not penalize) retailer Lord & Taylor for its misleading use of social media influencers to push its clothes. The store provided free clothing to these social stars — and paid them as much as $4,000 — to show off a particular new dress. Lord & Taylor had to approve the copy of these Instagram posts, but allowed them to be shared without any indication that these posts were bought and paid for.

The Lord & Taylor settlement made some minor headlines, and sources at the FTC told Consumerist that the hope was that other companies would see it as a warning to not follow Lord & Taylor’s example.

However, in a letter [PDF] to the head of the FTC’s Consumer Protection bureau, a coalition of consumer advocates points to dozens of examples of unmarked ads — many of them from A-list celebrities, including Ryan Reynolds and Vanessa Hudgens — taken from Instagram in just a span of a few weeks this fall.

“Undisclosed paid product endorsements continue to persist as a serious problem on Instagram, and the Federal Trade Commission has yet to take action to enforce its policy, which states that paid endorsements should be identified with #advertisement or #ad,” reads the letter, which called for enforcement actions against “serial offenders, marketing agencies and endorsers that continue to violate FTC policy.”

The letter includes 50 examples of what the appear to be ads but which carry no disclosures about these people getting paid or getting free stuff.

Here’s a pair of matching probably-ads from David and Victoria Beckham:

Speaking of celebrity families, here are two from the Kardashians. You’d think they would know better after the big to-do over Kim Kardashian got in trouble for doing a bad job of touting a prescription drug on social media:

In addition to celebrities (both bona fide famous people and “internet-famous” folks) getting paid, or receiving free stuff, in exchange for posting stealth ads, the advocates point to websites that “send users free products in exchange for reviews and social media posts. Once a user receives a free sample, they are encouraged to post a photo on Instagram to advertise the product to their friends. The more posts promoting a product that a user makes, the more free products they receive.”

And rather than tell users to include disclosures like “#ad” or “#advertisement,” some sites encourage users to employ less-transparent disclosures like “#GotItFree”:

Even when a marketing site does tell its users to include the proper disclosures, the advocates claim that many people simply fail to include this required information.

“Undisclosed paid product endorsements on Instagram are a consistent and dangerous problem that is not going away,” concludes the letter, signed by representatives for Public Citizen, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and the Center for Digital Democracy. “We urge the FTC to act immediately, aggressively and comprehensively to protect consumers from this deceptive advertising practice. We request that the FTC investigate the serial non-compliance with FTC’s endorsement policy among Instagram ‘influencers’ and hold those who violate FTC policy accountable.”

Source: Consumer Reviews

China Wants To Assign Every Citizen A Credit Score For Their Lives

Imagine if the authorities compiled a score based on your everyday actions, which followed you around and affected your ability to do everything from get your kid into college to booking a stay in a fancy hotel. While this sounds like a particular plot line from the most recent season of the Netflix series Black Mirror, it’s actually a new way that the Chinese government has devised to exert control over its citizens.

In this real-world application, a few local governments are trying out the idea of social credit scores. The Wall Street Journal spoke to a woman who got a $6 fine for using her son’s transit pass, but was warned that the infraction could affect her social credit score, affecting other areas of her life. It could even affect her son by limiting what schools he can get into in the future.

This is a system being tested locally in some cities now, and the Communist Party wants to deploy it nationwide by the end of the decade. Sure, the Party keeps files on every citizen, but the score is a way to make antisocial behavior affect them instantly and in more areas of their lives.

Spreading misinformation online (“misinformation” here being what the government considers to be false)? Jaywalking? Getting pregnant with an unauthorized additional kid? Neglecting one’s elderly parents? All of these are offenses that would become part of a “social credit” score, which the government uses to decide citizens’ worthiness for a variety of services.

Normal credit score infractions like paying a loan back late count too, of course, but compiling things like pedestrian crimes, birth control failures, and online activities is new and a bit frightening.

Human rights activists in China and around the world find this just a little bit terrifying. If you don’t, ponder one of the program’s slogans: according to the WSJ, planning documents repeat that the scores would “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”

(via Technology Review)

Source: Consumer Reviews

No More Free Parking At 8 Las Vegas Casinos

Like the drinks you get while gambling, casino parking in Las Vegas is often a “freebie.” But if you’re planning a trip to Vegas soon, be prepared to possibly pay for parking or driving around to find a free garage to dock your ride.

Caesars Entertainment Corp. announced Tuesday that it’s putting an end to free parking at eight of its nine properties in Sin City in favor of a a paid valet and self-parking initiative. The changes will roll out in December, though implementation dates will vary by location.

Every property besides the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino will now charge for parking: Linq and Harrah’s will start charging for valet services next month and charge for self-parking at a later date when new equipment is installed. Caesars Palace, The Cromwell, Paris, Planet Hollywood, Bally’s, and the Flamingo will implement the new policy in 2017.

Guests have reported that parking is scarce at its casinos, Caesars said, with the exception of the Rio, which has a bigger parking area and hasn’t had any crowding problems.

“We believe that implementing a paid parking program while also investing in LED parking guidance systems will help address these issues,” said Bob Morse, President of Hospitality at Caesars Entertainment, in a statement.

If you’re a local resident with proper ID or a Total Rewards loyalty member with Platinum status or higher, you can still self-park for free. Platinum and above rewards members can also get complimentary valet services. For more information on pricing at each property, check out Caesars’ parking page.

Caesars isn’t the first Las Vegas biggie to change its parking policy recently: MGM International announced its own paid parking program earlier this year, starting in June. That may have led MGM guests to seek free parking at Caesars properties.

Don’t want to pay? You can check out Las Vegas’ guide to parking — which as of Nov. 30, still had to be updated to reflect Caesar’s upcoming changes.

(h/t The Las Vegas Sun)

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Source: Consumer Reviews