Our Picks From 2016: Editors’ Favorite Stories Of The Year

We write thousands of posts every year at Consumerist, and before we hit “publish,” we tell each of them that they’re our favorite. That’s a lie, though: when we look back, there are always posts that stand out. Whether it’s because of their real-world impact, important insights, important topics, or use of the phrase “Underwear Time,” we each have our favorites out of our work for the year. Each of our writers chose theirs along with some honorable mentions, and explained what made them love that post just a little more than the others.

Mary Beth Quirk

17 Commercial Failures From Brands With Spectacularly Bad Ideas
I’m a sucker for history, both recent and long past, so I enjoyed hunting around for these failed ideas from big brands that are still around today. While there were a few familiar products that have received the lion’s share of ridicule, some lesser known entries surprised the entire staff.

“This Is Underwear Time” — The Most Brilliant Catalog Cover You Will See Today
The title of this catalog alone is enough to make it one of my favorite posts of the year, if not of all time.

From Cash Registers To Escalators To Shopping Carts: 11 Important Firsts In Bricks-And-Mortar Retail History
Again, I love delving into history to find interesting nuggets of the past, including technological innovations that blew everyone’s mind back then and paved the future for today’s breakthroughs.

Why Is An Old Billboard A Treasured Symbol But A New One Is An Eyesore?
Have I mentioned I really like old stuff?

Fairly Used: Why Schools Need To Teach Kids The Whole Truth About Copyright
All sarcasm aside, I believe the children are our future. And because of that, I think they should know what the heck their rights are.

Honorable Mentions:

Yes You Can Milk A Reindeer: 9 Dairy Animals That Don’t Say “Moo”
6 Things We Learned About The Test To Become A Certified Cheese Professional
10 Things You Should Consider Before Paying For Any Retail Membership

Laura Northrup

Image courtesy of Nicholas Eckhart

53-Year Kmart Employee Was There When Store Opened, Will Help Close It Down
Kmart Realizes Maybe It Should Try Communicating With Its Own Employees
Candle Company Creates Hills Snack Bar Scent, Entire Mid-Atlantic Freaks Out

I spent a lot of this year writing about discount stores: nostalgia for disappeared chains, the slow shutdown of Kmart, and what happened when Target sold its pharmacy business to make some money from it.

Yes, There Really Is A Dentist’s Office In A Kmart In Miami
There is a prosperous dentist’s office inside a Kmart. While it might seem impressive that there’s still anything prosperous connected with Kmart, the practice dates back to the building’s previous occupant, a Jefferson Ward discount store. It’s the only Kmart Dental anywhere, and I loved learning more about this unique feature of the store.

Customers: CVS Takeover Erased Everything Good About Target Pharmacies
Where Did The Target Prescription Bottles Everyone Loves So Much Come From, Anyway?
CVS: Nope, We Aren’t Bringing Back The Target Pharmacy Bottles Everyone Loves
There’s probably some bottom-line calculation that we don’t get to see, but Target’s executives clearly don’t understand what made customers use their pharmacies in the first place. I thought that I was fond of the former Target Pharmacy bottles… and then I heard from our readers.

Honorable Mentions:

Remember: Your Eye Doctor Should Give You Your Prescriptions After Your Exam
5 Strange Things We Learned About Sudden Closures Of Old Country And HomeTown Buffets
The Grocery Shrink Ray Hit Seattle Bakeries In 1916
United Passenger Leaves iPad On Plane, Has Joyful Reunion With Airline’s Help (Update)
Did Target Stop Selling Miracle Whip? Depends On Where You Live

Kate Cox

The 3 Big Things We’ve Learned About Your Cable Bill
This story was the culmination of a months-long, truly crowdsourced effort. We asked Consumerist readers to send us their cable bills, and dozens responded. As we read them all, we were able to break them down, separating the simple from the misleading and explaining what’s really going on in that mess of fees.

It also led us to hear from more than 3,300 readers who answered our survey about negotiating with their cable companies. The TL;DR? It’s a lot easier to get free stuff than it is to get a lower rate.

Honorable Mentions:

How Much Control Do You Actually Have Over Your Private Data?
Overall, less than you’d think — but it’s important to know what the real rules are, and what to do if someone’s breaking them.

These Toys Don’t Just Listen to Your Kid; They Send What They Hear to a Defense Contractor
Because it shouldn’t be hard for parents to find out what their kids’ toys are doing… and it shouldn’t be hard for kids to keep some privacy.

When it Comes to Food, “Generally Recognized as Safe” May Not Mean What It Sounds Like
There’s a huge category of stuff in prepared, packaged foods that basically companies can claim is safe without anyone checking up on it. Lots of it probably is, but the fact that nobody really knows is… not good.

It Takes Dozens of Companies to Make your iPhone
Global supply chains are important… and super complicated.

You Can Take Jeremy Bentham’s Mummified Head through Airport Security… But Please Don’t.
The modern world has a layer of absurdity to it that it’s worth pausing to observe, every so often.

Ashlee Kieler

Image courtesy of frankieleon

$164 Per Mile: Surprise Ambulance Bills Are A Growing Problem & Difficult To Avoid
This was the final story in our Surprise Medical Bills series, and it was a doozy. You never really think about how much an ambulance ride to the hospital will cost, because, you know, it’s probably an emergency. But it turns out those short rides can be extremely costly. And while you might be able to find out if your doctor or hospital is in-network and covered by insurance, that’s nearly impossible for ambulances. It’s an issue that many of us will encounter someday, whether we’re prepared or not.

The Instacart Service Charge/Tips Debacle

Instacart Shoppers Say Getting Rid Of Tips Will Ultimately Hurt Customers
Instacart Replaces Tips With “Service Amounts,” But Are Workers Being Stiffed?
While a small change to its tip policy seemed rather innocuous at first, Instacart’s decision to ditch tips for a sharable service charge created quite a splash, both with customers and those who deliver their grocery orders. The way these shoppers banded together to fight for fair wages showed that change can happen when you work toward a common goal.

ITT Tech Closes All 130 Campuses
The for-profit college filled afternoon televisions with their incessant ads, and now they’re no more.

Honorable Mentions:

Why Did American Airlines Make Me Move My Child’s Safety Seat So Someone Could Recline?
Online Payday Lenders Could Be Worse Than Traditional Payday Lenders
Care.com Can’t Explain Why People Keep Texting Me To Babysit Their Kids

Chris Morran

Image courtesy of Great Beyond

Speak Freely America: New Federal Law Outlaws Gag Clauses That Punish You For Negative Reviews
I’ve written too many stories about companies using gag orders — and bogus copyright claims, threats of financial penalties, and frivolous lawsuits — to try to prevent their customers from simply saying things that are true. I’ve also written too often about potentially pro-consumer pieces of legislation that never make it a step beyond the initial press release.

So it was a huge, positive change of pace to see a Congress that couldn’t agree on the time of day be so united behind the Consumer Review Fairness/Freedom Act, which makes it illegal for companies everywhere in the U.S. to include gag clauses in their customer contracts.

Working on this particular story was also rewarding, getting to hear from the advocates, attorneys, and lawmakers who have helped push this issue into the spotlight, and to finally put this commonsense protection in place.

The Felon Dentist Who Tried To Erase His Past

A Georgia dentist who had been convicted on theft charges nearly a decade ago, was attempting to scrub the internet of other allegations made by former patients who claimed the doctor deliberately hit them in the face with a dental tool during procedures.

He tried to sue an anonymous YouTube user for defamation for doing nothing but posting a video of a 2009 local news clip about those allegations. Someone — possibly the doctor — falsely flagged the YouTube video as a scam in an effort to have it removed. They were successful, for about a day.

While all this was going on, we spoke to the YouTuber, who explained the importance of being able to remain anonymous, and in the end the dentist not only failed at unmasking the YouTuber, but also had to pay $12,000 in fees to the unnamed defendant.

Honorable Mentions:

Debt Collector Gets Out Of Lawsuit… By Buying The Lawsuit Out From Under The Plaintiff
Judges In Subway “Foot-Long Fraud” Appeal Ask Why Case Wasn’t Thrown Out Long Ago
Court Says Tattooing Is Protected Speech, Mocks City For Misrepresenting “Margaritaville” Lyrics
Why The Supreme Court Suddenly Cares About Cheerleader Uniforms
Is The Klingon Language Protected By Copyright? Paramount Thinks So


Source: Consumer Reviews

The 50 Most-Read Consumerist Stories Of 2016

After what feels like a decade, 2016 is mercifully over, but before we can move forward into the brave new year it’s time to bring the recycling bin over toward our locker and purge the bulging Trapper Keeper we’ve been cramming stories into for the last 12 months.

The six of us here at Consumerist somehow managed to crank out nearly 5,500 stories in 2016, so we thought it would be nice to look back at those articles that got the most attention from our loyal readers.

1. Dissecting Your Bills

This year’s most popular Consumerist story was our series of in-depth looks at cable and internet bills from Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Charter, Verizon FiOS, DirecTV, Dish, and AT&T U-Verse, culminating in this story where we showed how all cable and satellite companies are nickel-and-diming their customers through set-top box fees, maintenance fees, and most controversially through “Broadcast TV” and “Regional Sports” fees to help cable companies recoup the money they spend on access to freely available over-the-air stations and for local sports networks (that they sometimes have an ownership stake in).

In the months since the bill stories ran, we’ve seen add-on fees become the subject of a lawsuit from a Charter/Time Warner Cable customer who doesn’t want any money; just for the industry to admit that it is using add-on fees as hidden price hikes. Meanwhile, Comcast continues to increase these fees while not including them in the rates they advertise to customers.

These cable bill stories also came at a time when the FCC tried — and appears to have failed, dismally — to reform the multibillion-dollar set-top box market that is controlled almost exclusively by pay-TV providers. Before the Commission gave up on its efforts — which will likely be scuttled entirely under the incoming Trump administration — the cable industry had spent millions of dollars on an astroturfing campaign to paint set-top box reform as some sort of danger to smaller broadcast companies, falsely claiming that makers of the new boxes would be able to rearrange channel listings to relegate niche-market stations to some dismal corner of the guide.

2. CVS & Target: An Imperfect Pair

Image courtesy of Mike Mozart

In 2015, CVS made a $1.9 billion deal with Target to take over the retailer’s in-store pharmacy business, but it was in 2016 that Target customers say they began to see that this arrangement was not for the better.

This August we took an in-depth look at the many ways that CVS had damaged Target’s relationship with its pharmacy customers, from CVS’s decision to do away with the beloved ClearRX prescription bottles that had been a signature of Target’s pharmacy (and which CVS refuses to bring back), to the replacement pharmacists, to problems with prescription discount cards, to the quality of the actual medications being dispensed.

“I like shopping at Target, and now I have no built-in reason to go there every month,” one former Target pharmacy fan told Consumerist at the time. “Sad for them too, because I never, ever walked out of there with just a prescription bag. I probably spent anywhere from $25 to $75 every time I went in to get my refill.”

3. One Expensive Ambulance Ride

Image courtesy of Wade Morgen

Following up on one of our top stories from 2015, explaining why emergency room visits are increasingly resulting in surprise medical bills, this year we looked at another huge emergency cost that patients can do little to prevent: Ambulance rides.

As we found out while working on this story, even when if you know for sure that your hospital and doctor are part of your insurance network, you may still end up riding to that hospital in an ambulance that is out-of-network, leaving you with potentially huge bills after your insurance pays only a small amount of the total invoice.

“Insurance covered less than half the cost of ambulance travel, leaving $1,600 above the deductible,” one woman in Texas told us about her ambulance bill. “The insurance paid at what they considered reasonable and customary.”

One woman in Pennsylvania says she was stuck with a significant ambulance bill after a car crash because her injuries were minor and she was able to be treated without going to the hospital.

“Medicare said they would cover the cost only if I had gone to the hospital,” Lisa tells Consumerist. “My secondary insurance stated the same thing. They said that’s just the way it is, that’s their rule. They have guidelines that they follow and that’s one of them, ‘Too bad so sad.’”

4. Bizarre Booze Laws

Image courtesy of Zeetz Jones

Maybe in your state, you’re free to pull up to the drive-thru liquor store, or you can buy beer, wine, scotch, and gin in the same store where you buy a Hatchimal and an Adam Sandler DVD. Not in these states, where local restrictions on the sale of spirits and suds can sometimes seem downright Kafkaesque.

There’s Indiana, where “happy hour” deals are against the law, no cold beer at the grocery store, and where you can’t even buy warm beer at the store on Sundays.

Or Colorado, where grocery stores can’t sell full-strength liquor, wine, or beer, and where liquor stores are forbidden from selling food (other than “cocktail garnish”).

And don’t forget the controversial Texas law that forbids public companies with more than 35 shareholders from selling hard liquor in the state. Walmart is currently suing to overturn that ban, claiming it unfairly discriminates against corporations.

5. Amazon’s Plague Of Fake Reviews

You may already be savvy enough to take Amazon reviews — and any crowdsourced reviews — with a grain of salt, but when we investigated complaints about reviewers heaping praise on products they couldn’t possibly have tried, we saw that Amazon was either deliberately ignoring red flags, or was not enforcing its own rules about “compensated” reviews (i.e., reviews where the customer got the product for free or at a discount).

We found reviewers who somehow managed to post as many as 950 product reviews in a single month on Amazon, almost exclusively for items obtained through third-party marketing firms that provide free or cheap items in exchange for “honest” reviews.

One reviewer, “Andrea,” cranked out more than 200 5-star reviews in a single week, many of them for cellphone cases. She must have a menagerie of cellphones at her disposal, as her reviews covered cases for at least 14 different devices, including some that hadn’t even come to market yet.

In October, Amazon decided to change its policy on compensated reviews. Now, only customers who are part of Amazon’s own Vine reviews program are permitted to write up feedback for items they received on the cheap. Of course, some argue that this only stops the fakers from disclosing that they were compensated.

6. The Toys, They Are Listening

Isn’t it neat how toys today can have conversations with your kids? No, you’re right; it’s kinda creepy, but beyond the “ick” factor is the fact that some of these toy makers may be violating federal regulations regarding privacy and children.

Recently released research indicates that toys like the My Friend Cayla doll and the i-Que Intelligent Robot may be collecting audio recordings and personal information of children without providing proper parental notification or obtaining consent.

What’s more, the audio records collected by these toys is being sent to a company that can use the data it collects to improve the voice-recognition tools it sells to the military and law enforcement agencies.

“When a toy collects personal information about a child, families have a right to know, and they need to have meaningful choices to decide how their kids’ data is used,” explained our colleague Katie McInnis from Consumers Union, one of several advocacy groups to petition the Federal Trade Commission to investigate these devices.

7. Unforgettable Brand Disasters

While some long-gone brands and products are regarded with nostalgia, the 17 disasters on our list from June are largely considered huge embarrassments for the companies that thought they’d made the next big thing.

Those of us old enough to remember may have hazy memories of wondering what in the world Coke II was, or how awful Crystal Pepsi tastes (even as Pepsi tries to bring it back as some sort of ironic throwback).

Less well-known are inexplicable attempts to use a well-established brand to sell something utterly unrelated, like Bic underwear and hosiery, Colgate dinner entrees, and Frito-Lay Lemonade.

8. GMO Labels Crushed

Regardless of your personal feelings about genetically modified foods, the fact is that an overwhelming number of American consumers at least want to know if the food they buy has GMO ingredients.

Yet, just as Vermont’s law requiring a simple one-line GMO disclosure went into effect, and as a number of food and beverage giants — like PepsiCo, Mars, General Mills, and Campbell Soup — were beginning to offer this information, Congress rushed through a law that bars states from requiring these labels, and which may (but probably won’t) eventually replace them with scannable barcodes.

9. Tying Up Loose Ends

Image courtesy of Clarity

Coping with the death of a loved one is often a devastating emotional and psychological process, and for those tasked with tying up the loose ends of a late friend or family member, it probably doesn’t help when you’ve got to repeatedly explain to a seemingly endless string of customer service reps why they can’t speak to the account holder.

That’s why we spoke to experts about the best way to handle the grim, but necessary, business of closing out accounts for late loved ones — and how you can be better prepared so that the process isn’t as byzantine when you eventually have to face this sad reality.

10. The Continuing Saga Of Val & David v. Goliath

Image courtesy of SarahMcGowen

For two years now, we’ve been telling you about the long-running legal battle between a California couple — Val and David — and one of the nation’s largest law firms. In 2010, the nursing home where Val’s mom was residing filed a nuisance defamation lawsuit against the couple for simply copying their mother’s legal aid attorney on an email. That complaint was quickly thrown out, but courts have repeatedly stymied Val and David’s efforts to hold the law firm that filed the lawsuit accountable for its allegedly frivolous actions.

In this latest story, we look at the timeline of the case to see how the law firm appears to have cooked up the defamation allegation long before any alleged defamation even occurred.

In a companion piece, we do our best to explain SLAPPS (lawsuits filed solely to stifle free speech) and to show the various ways SLAPP cases are being dealt with at the state and federal level.

More Popular Headlines From 2016

11. What’s Going Wrong With Samsung Galaxy Note 7 Exchanges — And What You Can Do
12. Tap Or Scan Here To Pay: Know Your Mobile Payment Apps
13. Candle Company Creates Hills Snack Bar Scent, Entire Mid-Atlantic Freaks Out
14. Court Rules That Police Can Force You To Tell Them Your Phone’s Passcode
15. 7 “Health” Products From The Past That Would Never Make It Onto Shelves Today
16. Comcast Admits It Incorrectly Debited $1,775 From Account, Tells Me To Sort It Out With Bank
17. 6 Things You Should Know About Heather Bresch, The CEO Behind EpiPen Price Hike
18. DOJ Sues To Shut Down Liberty Tax Franchisee For Giving People Fake Jobs Based On Their Hobbies
19. Comcast Workers Don’t Seem To Care That Their Truck May Have Caused Half-Dozen Accidents
20. The Southwest Rapid Rewards Points Disaster: A Cautionary Tale
21. 6 Questions To Ask Yourself Before Deciding Whether To Try ‘DirecTV Now’
22. Customers Accuse Comcast Of Using “Broadcast TV” & “Regional Sports” Fees To Illegally Hike Rates
23. Samsung Galaxy Note 7 Owners Report Phone Exchange Program Not Going So Well
24. Why Has My New Chevy Truck Been Sitting In A Toledo Rail Station For Two Months?
25. Do Not Set The Date On Your iPhone To Jan. 1, 1970
26. John Oliver Buys $15M In Medical Debt, Then Forgives It
27. Customer Sues Charter, Time Warner Cable Over “Broadcast TV” Fees; Doesn’t Seek Monetary Damages
28. Labor Group: High-Pressure Sales Goals Led T-Mobile Workers To Add Services Customers Didn’t Want
29. Can A Cashier Make Me Read My 3-Digit Credit Card Code In Front Of Other Shoppers?
30. Vermont’s GMO Labeling Law Is Now In Effect. Here Are The Labels The Senate Is Trying To Get Rid Of
31. “Dancing Baby” YouTube Lawsuit May Go Before Supreme Court
32. 12 Fictional Products And Companies That Exist In Real Life
33. Will Costco’s Switch From American Express To Visa Affect My Credit?
34. Debt Collector Gets Out Of Lawsuit… By Buying The Lawsuit Out From Under The Plaintiff
35. 5 Times The Cable Industry Embarrassed Itself During Today’s Senate Hearing
36. More Customers Say Kay Jewelers Swapped Out Their Diamonds For Fake Or Worse Ones
37. Does Cord-Cutting Always Automatically Save You Money?
38. Former ITT Tech Students Talk About School’s High-Pressure Sales Tactics, Underwhelming Classes
39. Listen To A U.S. Senator Try To Get Bogus $8 “Protection” Fee Removed From Cable Bill
40. Why Did American Airlines Make Me Move My Child’s Safety Seat So Someone Could Recline?
41. From Healthcare To Financial Protection: How Will The Trump White House Affect Consumers?
42. What Is Zombie Debt, And Why Won’t It Just Stay Dead?
43. Samsung Galaxy S7 Owners Say Camera Glass Shatters Unexpectedly
44. The Bankruptcy Of A Company You’ve Probably Never Heard Of Could Make Christmas More Expensive
45.Trilogy Of Set-Top Terror: Cable Box Horror Stories From Consumerist Readers
46. Did Net Neutrality Kill Broadband Investment Like Comcast, AT&T, Verizon Said It Would?
47. Walmart Ordered To Pay $31 Million For Retaliating Against Pharmacist Whistleblower
48. From Cash Registers To Escalators To Shopping Carts: 11 Important Firsts In Bricks-And-Mortar Retail History
49. Why Is Comcast Interrupting My Web-Browsing To Upsell Me On A New Modem?
50. Comcast, AT&T Lobbyists Help Kill Community Broadband Expansion In Tennessee


Source: Consumer Reviews

Alexa Has Very Explicit Response To Toddler’s Seemingly Innocent Song Request

In what could either be an innocent mistake or a set-up by wise adults, Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa gave one toddler a very interesting answer to his request to hear a specific song.

“Alexa, play ‘Digger, Digger,’” the tyke tells an Echo Dot sitting on an end table in a video posted on YouTube. Now, we’re not experts on children’s music, but this could be either the song “Diggers, Dumpers and Trucks” by Kidzone, or “Diggers (Diggers and Dumpers)” by a fellow named Tractor Ted.

Any way you slice it, Alexa’s answer is not either one of those options. Instead, she spews a string of obscene words including “dildo,” to the dismay and immediate amusement of the adults in the room who yell, “STOP, ALEXA! STOP!”

It appears that for unknown reasons, Alexa was attempting to play a 27-second track with a very vulgar title (warning: probably NSFW) that’s included on an album called “Ultimate Comedy Ringtones: Vol. 2,” which sounds a warning that the phone’s user has too much porn on it for an incoming call to go through.

“Warning, warning! Too much porn detected on this device,” a man’s voice declares in the track. “There is too much porn on this phone! You must delete some porn now to make way for this incoming call,” and on for a bit in that same vein.

As for why “Digger, digger” would prompt Alexa to search for that ringtone track, you’ve got me. It’s been a weird year.

(h/t NYMag, Gizmodo)


Source: Consumer Reviews

The FTC Has Some Questions About The Bass Pro Shops-Cabela’s Merger

Earlier this year, Bass Pro Shops offered to buy up one of its biggest competitors, Cabela’s, for $5.5 billion. The Federal Trade Commission is reviewing the deal now, and is raising concerns that this might be too much consolidation in the hunting and fishing market.

According to the Wall Street Journal, a combined Bass/Cabela’s would control about 20% of the U.S. sporting goods market, and even more of the more niche industry catering to outdoorsy types. In their stores, catalogs, and websites, these two retailers sell gear you’re not likely to find in your local Dick’s or Walmart.

We know about the feds’ request for more information because the smaller partner in this merger, Cabela’s, is a publicly traded company and is required to report such things to the Securities and Exchange Commission so its investors and the public know. Does this necessarily mean that the FTC is going to object to the merger? Nope.

“The issuance of such a ‘second request’ does not indicate that the FTC has concluded that the transaction raises competition concerns,” notes the document that Cabela’s filed with regulators. “The ‘second request’ reflects a determination by the FTC that it requires additional information to assess the proposed transaction.” Maybe the FTC officials assigned to the case aren’t big hunters.

Part of this deal was for Cabela’s to sell its credit card business to Capital One, and the retailer shared in the same filing that the credit card sale would not go through until October 2017 at the earliest. Both retailers had anticipated that the merger could be completed in the first half of the year: that might have to wait until next fall if Capital One is involved.

This year, the FTC shot down another retail mega-merger, that of Staples and Office Depot, though the government’s concerns were on behalf of the companies’ corporate customers, not retail shoppers who can buy their printer cartridges and resume paper from Walmart or Amazon.


Source: Consumer Reviews

From Jelly Donut Burgers To Fish Stick Pizza: The Year In Stunt Foods

Who wants a plain ol’ burger when you can have a burger burrito? Or cheese sticks when you can have Cheetos-dusted sticks fulfilled with macaroni? In 2016, you could have these interesting mashups and so much more, as fast food restaurants and snack companies continuously tried to one-up each other. 

From Burger King to Oreos, the stunt foods making appearances on menus and shelves in the last 12 months were plentiful. Whether or not these franken-foods stick around into 2017 is another thing, however.

So, without further ado, here are some of the craziest, most interesting sounding, apparently edible food stunts of the last year.

Everyone Wants Chips

Chips: They’re a great snack. And in 2016, they became a go-to ingredient for food companies to incorporate into their menu staples or new items.

Mac n’ Cheetos: Back in June, Burger King shocked the world when it combined cheese sticks, macaroni and cheese, and Cheetos into one portable, apparently congealed, snack. While the concoction certainly caught consumers’ eyes, they received underwhelming reviews. Still, four months later, the items expanded to Sheetz convenience stores.

Cheetos Chicken Fries: Burger King just couldn’t say no to Cheetos in 2016. Four months after debuting Mac ’n Cheetos, the company offered up Cheetos Chicken Fries. That’s right, long chicken nuggets with a Cheetos crust.

Doritos Burger: Taco Bell had a hit with its Doritos Locos Tacos, so why couldn’t Burger King do the same with its burgers? In September, the company debuted a Doritos-covered burger in Spain.

Cheetos Crunchwrap Sliders: Cheetos seemed to be the new Doritos at Taco Bell this year, as the company began a test of a limited-time cheesy, chip-y creation — a Cheetos Crunchwrap Slider — in Canada.

Cheetos Burrito: Just months after Taco Bell debuted a Cheetos Crunchwrap slider in Canada, the company said it would test a similar concoction, a Cheetos Burrito stuffed with Cheetos, buttery white rice, seasoned beef, and nacho cheese at an undisclosed location in the U.S.

Weird Burgers

Burgers come in all shapes, sizes, forms of meat, and with an array of toppings that could give anyone anxiety. But this year, several fast food chains and grocery stores took their turn customizing burgers, sometimes in weird ways.

Doughnut Burger: While you would have to travel to Israel for Burger King’s latest burger creation, it might be worth the trip if you like a meaty doughnut. The “SufganiKing” burger, made special for Hanukkah, is a normal Whopper burger but with doughnuts for buns, and a ketchup filling instead of jam.

Whopperito: Burritos are delicious, Whoppers are delicious (to some), so why not combine them? That’s the idea behind Burger King’s Whopperito that went national this summer. As one might expect, the Whopper-burrito hybrid is just the contents of the burger — flame-grilled beef, American cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, ketchup, pickles, and white onions — shoved into a tortilla.

The Bleeding Beet Burger: Is a burger a burger if it doesn’t contain meat? What if it bleeds? Whole Foods in Boulder debuted the Beyond Burger in May. The meal is made of peas and contains pulverized beet juice to give it the look, smell and feel of the real deal.

Nutella Burger: Why not combine dessert with your main meal? The Verge reports that McDonald’s restaurants in Italy did just that in November, debuting the Nutella Burger: a hamburger topped with the iconic hazelnut spread.

The Angriest Whopper: Because its black buns went over so well last year, Burger King chose to introduce a red, hot sauce-flavored bun for its uber-spicy The Angriest Whopper that comes topped with onions, bacon, jalapenos, and something called angry sauce, MassLive reports.

Brats, Hot Dogs, & Beer

Hot dogs are just a part of life for some people, especially during the summer. This year, restaurants and sporting venues took their customers’ love for hot dogs, brats, and beer to another level.

Burger King Hot Dogs: With a name like Burger King, you’d think hot dogs would be the last thing on the menu. But the fast food chain made “Grilled Dogs” — a classic and chili cheese — permanent menu staples.

Cracker Jack & Mac Dog: Going to a baseball game isn’t complete without a hot dog, right? A year after the Wilmington Blue Rocks of Delaware introduced the Krispy Kreme Donut Dog, PNC Park in Pittsburg debuted a dog topped with Cracker Jacks and macaroni, combining all of baseball fans’ stadium loves, the Post-Gazette reports.

Brat & Beer Chips: Lay’s is always asking customer to try out some weirdly flavored chips. This year, the company debuted Beer & Brat potato chips, the Cap Times reports, noting that the snack was only available in certain markets.

Fries, Rings, & More

The best side dish for a fast food meal is french fries, of course. This year, many chains took their love and transformed them into a different, tasty option.

All The Fries: While not a new menu item, McDonald’s made headlines earlier this year when its store “Of The Future” in Missouri said it would offer all-you-can-eat french fries. A second McDonald’s followed suit later in the year.

Garlicky Fries: Ketchup, mayo, ranch, there’s no shortage of condiments and spices that people put on their fries. This year, McDonald’s began testing Gilroy Garlic Fries, even selling out.

Tacos & Fries: Taco Bell waded into the U.S. french fries world this month announcing tests of loaded fries at one location in Irvine, CA.

Chicken Rings: While it’s not actually a fry or a ring, Burger King used those staples as the basis for turning its popular Chicken Fries into Chicken Rings this year.

Dessert Drinks

There are innumerable ways of getting your coffee fix: cold brew, drip coffee, and fancy drinks. This year, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts tried their hand at weird, too-sweet drinks.

Fruitcake No-No: Just in time for the holiday season, Starbucks thrust upon the world a Fruitcake Frappuccino. Thankfully, the sugary drink — filled with dried raisins, currants, and cranberries — was only available for four days.

Almond Joy & Heath Coffee: If you want to sweeten up you morning cup of java, you can add a bit of flavored syrup or some sugar. At Dunkin’ Donuts you could have just ordered an Almond Joy or Heath candy-flavored coffees.

Cheerwine Kreme: Cheerwine and Krispy Kreme partnered again this year to introduce a super-sweet cheerwine-doughnut drink sold only in certain North Carolina, South Carolina, and Savannah, GA stores.

Coffee Beer: In October, Starbucks combined its adult-boozy evening move with its bread and butter: coffee. The Espresso Cloud IPA  is created when a chilled shot of orange and vanilla-flavored espresso is dropped into a glass of IPA. As if a shot of espresso in your beer wasn’t enough coffee flavor, the glass is topped with coffee froth.

Crimes Against Pizza (And Tacos)

Some food combinations just don’t belong together (speaking of which, have you taken our Divisive Food survey yet?). But companies just can’t stop slapping the most random things together and selling them to customers.

Beer-Infused Pizza: Pizza Hut in London combined your dinner and drinks back in May, creating beer-infused pizza. The one-day trial involved adding craft beer to the pizza’s dough, the Huffington Post reports.

Garlic Knot Pizza: Pizza Hut was back to its usual tricks in January when it announced a new pull-apart crust for its pies, this time with garlic knots.

Grilled Cheese Pizza: You like cheese, you like carbs, so Pizza Hut figured you’d like a grilled cheese-crusted pizza in September, Eater reports.

Breaded Fish Stick Pizza: To celebrate the Chinese New Year, Pizza Hut China debuted a pie with breaded fish sticks on top of it.

KFC’s Chicken Tacos: The fast food chicken joint’s South Korea locations began experimenting with tacos containing fried strips of chicken this year.

Oreos, Pop-Tarts & Other Weirdly Sweet Treats

Image courtesy of The Impulsive Buy

Deep Fried Twinkies: A staple of state fairs around the country, you no longer have to wait until the summer for a deep-fried dessert from Hostess. The company began selling “deep fried Twinkies” in Walmart’s freezer aisle in August.

(Related: 9 Outrageous Menu Items You’ll Only Find At A State Fair)

Cinnamon Bun Oreos: Cinnamon bun flavored Oreos, first announced last year, were spotted in the wild in January.

Cupcake-Filled Oreos: In February, Oreo parent company Mondelez opened the door of the “Oreo Wonder Vault” for Filled Cupcake Oreos. The cookies are pretty much regular chocolate-filled Oreos with a dollop of vanilla-flavored creme in the middle.

Strawberry Shortcake Oreos: The company debuted another limited-time cookie in April, strawberry shortcake.

Beverage-Flavored Pop-Tarts: Pop-Tarts introduced seasonal novelty flavors of Orange Crush and A&W Root Beer pastries this spring.

Cadbury Creme Egg McFlurry: Oreos, M&M’s, and other sweets aren’t enough for McFlurry lovers in Canada and Australia, where McDonald’s sold a Cadbury Creme Egg version of the dessert.

Reese’s Inside Reese’s: There’s never enough chocolate and peanut butter. In May, Reese introduced Peanut Butter Cups stuffed not only with peanut butter but Reese’s Pieces.

Blueberry & Fruity Pebbles: In May, Oreo introduced a duo of limited-time cookies with Blueberry Pie and non-branded Fruity Pebble snacks.

Choo Chip Cookie Cookies: Oreo combined all sorts of cookie goodness in July with its Choco Chip Cookie Oreos.

Easter Sundae M&M’s: Ice cream and Easter don’t exactly sound like a typical combo, but M&M’s apparently thought so. The candies have chocolate just inside the shell, and inside that is what the bag describes as “white.” Not white chocolate: just white.

Swedish Fish: Oreos are cookies, Swedish Fish are gummy candies. Swedish Fish-flavored Oreos are gross, so says PopSugar, which reviewed the limited time cookie sold at Kroger in September.


Source: Consumer Reviews

AT&T Scrapping $35 DirecTV Now Pricing In January; Bumping Bundle To $60

Well, that really didn’t last long. The promising $35-per-month price for AT&T’s DirecTV Now streaming bundle was always billed as “promotional” and time-limited, but that time appears to be short. Super-short. As in: ending on Jan. 9, in just over a week.

AT&T launched DirecTV Now exactly a month ago, on Nov. 30. The service is basically cable-free cable: like competitors Sling TV (Dish) and PlayStation Vue, it allows viewers to sign up for a bundle of linear (the fancy name for live TV) and on-demand networks delivered over the internet to a device of your choosing. It has its pros and cons, but one big selling point for the service was the price: $35 per month for a 60-channel bundle.

That time is now come and gone though. As Variety reports, the $35 option is going the way of the dodo, and will be replaced by a $60 fee for the same service tier for customers who sign up after Jan. 9.

At the time AT&T announced the pricing, it claimed that customers who signed up during the promotion would have their price grandfathered in if the cost went up around them. So if AT&T is trying to create a big spike in sign-ups before the first full week of January is out, this could be one way to do that.

However, as Variety notes, AT&T has said that fees can increase at a later date — and that channels, features, and terms of service are subject to change or be discontinued at any time, without notice.

AT&T, which finished acquiring DirecTV last year, has been arguing that its over-the-top (streaming) and mobile services will “disrupt” the traditional cable model. Part of that disruption includes bringing content in-house by acquiring Time Warner, but that deal is still very much pending.

But while on the back-end the system may be different — skipping satellite and cutting co-ax in favor of internet transmission — from the consumer perspective of bills that are too high for content bundles they may not want, it’s starting to look like the same-old same-old.


Source: Consumer Reviews

USPS Gives Woman 7 Canaries To Replace Smashed Package Of Dead Birds It Delivered Before Christmas

A story that sounds like “The 12 Days of Christmas” gone horribly wrong is wrapping up with a happy ending (unless you happen to be a recently deceased canary): after delivering a smashed box filled with a half-dozen dead birds to a woman in Alabama, the U.S. Postal Service has successfully replaced the deceased avians with seven live canaries.

The woman had ordered the canaries as a birthday present to herself, AL.com reported earlier this month, and was upset when the package of dead birds arrived at her salon.

“When my postmaster got there he told me, ‘Well, your birds arrived, but they’re not alive,’” she told AL.com. “This happened right in front of my clients. I was handed this box with tire tracks on it and bird carnage hanging out.”

At the time, the USPS said it planned to reimburse her the money for the bird and shipping, and promised to apologize. The agency has now made good on that pledge, the Associated Press reports, paying for seven new canaries plus the postage needed to send them to the woman. They arrived safely on Thursday (photo above is just a canary, not one of the replacement birds).

The woman says she’s pleased to finally have the calming songs of live birds greeting her ears.

“It’s not going to replace the other birds, but they did the next best thing and I’m proud of them,” she told the AP. “It’s just beautiful, soft, harmonizing, orchestrated music.”

Despite the horror of receiving mangled birds, the woman says she’d use the USPS again. Whether or not she’ll ship live canaries ever again is unclear.


Source: Consumer Reviews

Michigan Bans Local Governments From Banning Plastic Bags

While states like Hawaii and California have enacted bans on plastic bags, Michigan is going the exact opposite route, passing a law that bans local governments from banning plastic bags or putting fees on disposable containers.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley signed the bill into law on Wednesday, acting in place of Gov. Rick Snyder who is out of state spending time with his family, MLive.com reports.

The bill passed the House 62-46 and the Senate by 25-12, despite opposition from lawmakers like Rep. Jeff Irwin of Ann Arbor.

“This is a bill that attacks local control,” Irwin said in arguments on the House floor.

Right off the bat, the law will affect Washtenaw County — home to Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and the University of Michigan — which planned to start enforcing a $0.10 charge on paper and plastic grocery bags in 2017.

The Michigan Restaurant Association is pleased as punch, as the bill prevents chain restaurants and other retailers from having to comply with various local container laws, the group’s Vice President of Government Affairs, Robert O’Meara, said.

“With many of our members owning and operating locations across the state, preventing a patchwork approach of additional regulations is imperative to avoid added complexities as it related to day-to-day business operations,” he said in a statement [PDF].


Source: Consumer Reviews

Lawsuit: Government Illegally Garnishes Disability Benefits To Repay Student Loans

Earlier this month, a Government Accountability Office report found that $171 million was garnished from older Americans’ Social Security benefits in order to repay federal student loan debts. Now, one of those borrowers is suing several government agencies accusing them of taking money from his monthly disability checks despite the fact he was eligible for a student loan discharge. 

The lawsuit, filed in September and amended last week, accuses the Department of Education, Social Security Administration, and Department of Treasury of unlawfully garnishing his Social Security disability benefits to collect on defaulted student loans despite the fact he was eligible for a full discharge of the debts.

According to the lawsuit [PDF] – which also names Dept. of Ed. Secretary John King, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, and Social Security Administration Commissioner Carolyn Colvin – the 67-year-old man received a notice in 2013 indicating that a portion of his disability benefits would be garnished in order to pay off the student loans he obtained in the 1970s.

While the man attended college for a short time, he dropped out due to hospitalizations, and eventually defaulted on the loans. In 1973, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and began receiving Social Security disability benefits.

Because of his diagnoses and disability, the man was eligible to have his debt wiped away under the Total and Permanent Disability discharge, which is available to borrowers with a disability that is not expected to improve.

Despite being eligible for the discharge, the lawsuit claims the man was never made aware of this option, even when he spoke with a government-hired debt collector and notified the collector that he was disabled and asked for help to avoid the offset.

“The debt collector was amply rewarded for withholding the information because it received significantly more compensation from the DOE for getting [the man]into a repayment plan than getting his loan discharged due to a disability,” the suit states.

As a result of not receiving the eligible discharge, $177 was taken out of each disability check. While the man eventually worked out a deal to pay $100 month toward the debt to avoid the larger offset, the suit claims it was still a hardship.

Eventually, the man learned that he was eligible for the TPD discharge. However, it took 11 months to prove he was eligible for the discharge, during that time the government garnished $1,300 that the plaintiff claims he “desperately needed for basic necessities.”

With the lawsuit, the man is seeking the return of funds that were garnished by the government.

The lawsuit claims that instead of focusing on getting disabled borrowers the relief they are entitled to under federal law, the Dept. of Education uses federal debt collection tools and incentive plans for hired collectors to unfairly offset SSA disability benefits.

In fact, the lawsuit accuses the Department of “providing incentives for collectors to force disabled borrowers into coercive payment plans and to withhold information about the statutory right to a disability-based discharge of student loan debt.”

For example, in 2014 a collector reportedly earned $150 for referring a borrower for a disability discharge, while they earn 16% of any money that is a borrower pays through a collection plan, according to the suit.

Because of these types of plans, the suit claims that more than 170,000 Social Security recipients, most of who are disabled and poor, have their benefits offset for student loan debts.

That figure mirrors findings of the GAO report earlier this month that revealed Social Security offsets for student loans increased from 31,000 in 2002 to 172,000 in 2015.

The Dept. of Education has taken steps this year to to make it easier for borrowers who qualify for disability discharges to receive the benefit.

In one step, the Department worked with the SSA to identify 387,000 borrowers that matched the criteria for a discharge, accounting for $7.7 billion in federal student loans.

Of those borrowers, 179,000 of those people were currently in default. The Dept. has worked to forgive about 100,000 of those consumers, removing their risk of losing federal tax refunds or having their Social Security benefits offset.

Consumer advocates praised the process, telling MarketWatch that it has potentially helped some of the people who would qualify for discharges, but it doesn’t provide notice to everyone.

“We shouldn’t involuntarily take money from people who if all the ‘i’s were dotted and ‘t’s were crossed wouldn’t owe the money,” Persis Yu, the director of the Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project at the National Consumer Law Center, tells MarketWatch. “If we have reason to believe that you don’t owe the money we shouldn’t take your Social Security benefits or your tax refunds or whatever assets folks are using to survive.”


Source: Consumer Reviews

North Pole’s Santa Claus Returns To Facebook After Proving His Identity

Is Santa Claus real? Yes, Virginia, but he had to prove that to Facebook before the company would restore his social media account.

Santa Claus is indeed a real person, reports the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. This Santa doesn’t live at the geographic North Pole with a workshop full of overworked elves, but about 1,700 miles away in North Pole, Alaska, where he’s also a city councilman.

Mr. Claus — his legal name — created the Facebook account eight years ago, and amassed some 300,000 followers, all before Facebook suspended the page. The jolly bearded one felt slighted by the move, especially since there are so many fake Santa accounts on the site.

He says he wasn’t given a reason and was asked to verify his identity several times. So he sent in his Alaska driver’s license, his letter of appointment to the North Pole City Council, and a letter of appointment to the Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission signed by Gov. Bill Walker. Nothing worked.

“They just don’t believe my name is Santa Claus or I live in North Pole,” he said. He often posts Santa Claus-like quotes on his page and says he enjoyed interacting with folks in the comments.

When asked about suspending Claus’ account, Facebook apologized for what it called a “mistake.”

“The account was removed in error and restored as soon as we were able to investigate. Our team processes millions of reports each week, and we sometimes get things wrong,” Facebook said in a statement to the News-Miner.

This isn’t the first time he’s been asked to prove he is who he says he is, Claus wrote on Facebook after his account was restored.

“I realize and am grateful that Facebook has afforded me a ‘free’ platform to express and share my views for more than eight years,” he wrote, adding, “I am blessed to live in a relatively small community and have friends and neighbors and hundreds of thousands of folks who like my page who are willing to help right wrongs, perceived and real. My Facebook page is a labor of love, and I would never intentionally abandon you. Thank you for your understanding.”


Source: Consumer Reviews