Alleged Sellers Of Magic Disease-Curing Laser Arrested, Indicted For Fraud

There are medical conditions that can be treated with lasers. Laser eye surgery is safe and commonplace, for example. Skin disorders and arthritis pain can be treated with lasers, too. However, what you can’t do is cure every disease known to medicine by paying thousands of dollars for a handheld laser from some dude in South Dakota.

Three people were arrested and indicted [PDF] on charges related to the QLaser device, including its inventor, Robert “Larry” Lytle. The device was sold as having healing properties and able to cure every disease in existence, including ALS, HIV, diabetes, and cancer.

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If you’re curious about how the QLaser was marketed back in the day, a version of the ad that ran in a Florida newspaper is available on Google Newspapers, and includes a very unimpressed-looking senior golden retriever being treated with the laser. We got the link from a snarky critique of the ad and the product written by a medical doctor.

“The use of the QLaser to treat such serious conditions is unsupported by any published clinical, scientific studies, and not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration,” the U.S. Department of Justice helpfully explained in its press release about the device.

Lasers don't cure dog diseases, either.

It also points out that the creator and head of the company, billed as “Dr. Larry Lytle, D.D.S., Ph.D” was no longer licensed to practice dentistry: his license had been revoked for “engaging in fraud and material deception,” and his diploma mill Ph.D was in nutrition.

Naturally, the QLaser was advertised in newspapers and targeted at the elderly, costing between $4,000 and $13,000. The government’s investigation showed that the laser could actually be dangerous if used as directed, and the people charged in the indictment are accused of continuing to sell the lasers anyway in defiance of the court order.

Since the lasers were being sent through the U.S. Postal Service, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service took the lead in the criminal investigation. A federal grand jury indicted three people associated with the company, including Dr. Lytle, with criminal contempt, mail fraud, and wire fraud. A fourth defendant, who was a QLaser distributor, pleaded guilty. [PDF]

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“As the indictment alleges, these individuals targeted vulnerable citizens for years, preying on weaknesses brought about by chronic illnesses and fear of death — all to enrich themselves, and even where the scheme entailed violating a direct court order to stop,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Chad A. Readler of the Justice Department’s Civil Division said in a statement.


Source: Consumer Reviews

Coach Is Already Doing Better By Raising Purse Prices

Accessory companies haven’t been doing so well for the last few years, especially brands that are pricey but not too pricey, like Coach, Michael Kors, and Kate Spade. A few years ago, Coach decided to pursue wealthier customers and sell higher-priced bags, and that strategy is apparently paying off.

Brands in this price range end up competing with themselves, confusing consumers, and hurting their own reputations by offering merchandise in boutiques, in department stores, and in their own outlet stores. Kenneth Cole recently shut down all of its stores, most of which were outlets.

Coach began to fight this problem in 2014, taking aim at the higher end of the handbag market. Its 1941 collection, with list prices between $295 and $1,500, has become more popular than one might have expected a few years ago. Sales of bags that cost more than $400 are up, and the top seller in the last few months of 2016 has been the brand’s Rogue bag, which starts at $795.

“That’s a bag that a year ago, we wouldn’t have had permission to sell,” the company’s president of global marketing told Fortune magazine. They could have sold it, but customers wouldn’t have accepted it — or, more importantly, probably wouldn’t have paid list price for it.

It’s not a coincidence that in the last year, the company pulled its products from department stores, believing that their relentless discounting hurts luxury brands and confuses customers.

Did the brand really turn around that quickly? Customer surveys indicate that apparently we all have short attention spans; more consumers thought of the brand as a “discount” one a year ago compared to now.


Source: Consumer Reviews

Hormel Investigating Supplier Accused Of Abusing Animals

Hormel Foods has suspended buying from one of its largest suppliers and opened an investigation into its practices after an animal rights group secretly taped workers at the plant allegedly mistreating and abusing pigs. 

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports that Hormel opened an investigation into supplier, The Maschhoffs, after Mercy for Animals published undercover video footage that reportedly showed pigs suffering injuries and illnesses, such as workers removing testicles and tails without pain relief.

The group — which has previously filmed footage at other several chicken farms used by Tyson — also claims in the footage from the Oklahoma sow farm that mother pigs are kept in tight gestation crates leaving them with little ability to move.

Hormel tells the Star Tribune that it has a strict code of conduct for suppliers, and policies in place related to animal care and welfare.

“We will not tolerate any violation of these policies,” the company said in a statement.

To investigate the footage, Hormel says it has sent third-party auditors to the farm and other Maschhoffs properties.

While the company probes the allegations, the Star Tribune notes that Hormel is currently transitioning its own hog farms to group sow housing to allow for more mobility — a project that is expected to be completed next year.

However, 94% of Hormel’s pork is raised by suppliers. To that end, The Maschhoffs launched its own investigation into the footage and issued warnings to employees and farm managers that it has a zero tolerance animal care policy.

“We have launched a full-scale investigation in response to this video,” Maschhoffs President Bradley Wolter said in a statement. “Any animal care deficiencies discovered will be addressed in the quickest manner possible.”

Mercy for Animals has produced several undercover videos at plants used by food companies. Last year, a video shot at four Tyson Foods’ supplier allegedly showed birds are suffering in windowless sheds and enduring injuries.

Two months later, the company said it had fired 10 employees from the four Virginia processing plants.


Source: Consumer Reviews

Comcast Launching Xfinity App For Roku, But Not Ditching Set-Top Box Just Yet

With the FCC officially dropping set-top box reform from its agenda, the best we can hope for is a gradual shift toward app-based access to pay-TV programming. Comcast and Roku helped nudge things an inch in that direction today, announcing an Xfinity TV app that comes with as many questions as it does benefits.

The app has just launched in a beta test, the companies announced today. Among other things, that means it may not yet contain its full functionality, may not always work quite right, and is still subject to change in both look and function.

The app is also not yet going to be available for every Roku device owner; the initial list of devices on which it will work for now includes the Roku Express, Roku Express+, Roku Streaming Stick, Roku Premiere, Roku Premiere+, Roku Ultra, Roku 4, Roku 3, and Roku 2.

Here’s the big catch, though: For now the app will only be available to customers who “currently subscribe to Xfinity TV and Xfinity Internet service, have at least one Comcast-provided TV box, and have a compatible Xfinity IP gateway in your home.”

Rather than being a set-top box replacement, it’s basically another way you can log in to your existing Comcast cable account and view content, just like the website or mobile device apps.

There’s another big catch: The app is free for now, but may not always be.

“Customers will not pay equipment charges with respect to their use of Roku devices,” Comcast writes in its FAQ, “during the Beta trial, additional outlet charges for services to outlets connected to Roku devices are being waived. On conclusion of the trial, you will be informed of the charges that will apply for connecting this device with your XFINITY TV service and will have the opportunity to opt in.”

This arrangement may sound familiar to you. It’s almost exactly what the FCC proposed as an alternative to subscribers having to rent set-top boxes monthly from their cable providers.

Comcast, however, stood adamantly against that proposed rule, claiming before it was finalized that it would hurt innovation, raise prices, and somehow lessen consumer privacy protections. Later, while the FCC was still developing a final rule, Comcast claimed it would be impossible to comply with a regulation requiring its service to be made available as a third-party app.

After the finalized rule was announced, Comcast immediately issued a fiery statement saying that mandating cable companies make content available through apps would “stop the apps revolution dead in its tracks by imposing… heavy-handed regulation in a fast-moving technological space.”

That statement came in September; the FCC was supposed to vote to adopt the rule later that month but scrapped it from the agenda for the September meeting. Now, with the change of administration, new chairman Ajit Pai has been able to kill it off entirely.

Given the timelines of corporate partnerships and app development, it seems plausible at least that Roku and Comcast were already in talks regarding this app through 2016. And that certainly casts Comcast’s objections in a different light: perhaps it wanted not to guarantee constant revenue from X1 rentals, but rather to be allowed to charge for this Roku app and other future apps like it — something the FCC rule would have prohibited.

Meanwhile, getting the app successfully tested and launched does open up a future possibility: Why not install it on any Roku, or other similar device, in the country? Doing so would let Comcast turn broadband subscribers in any part of the country where it isn’t — like, say, Charter customers — into Comcast cable customers, even if it runs no wires anywhere near there at all.


Source: Consumer Reviews

Guinness Opening Its First U.S. Brewery In 60 Years

The Guinness brewery in Ireland is a popular tourist destination for American fans of the dark brew, as it’s been 63 years since Guinness made any beer stateside. That will soon change.

Diageo — parent company to Guinness, Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff, and many other brands — announced today that it will open a new version of the Guinness Open Gate Brewery in Relay, MD.

The company will brew new Guinness beers created especially for the U.S. market, while Guinness Stouts will continue to be brewed in Dublin, Diageo says. It will also include a visitor’s center, which will run tours and host beer tastings.

The plans have yet to be finalized, but Diageo hopes to start construction this spring and open in fall 2017 timed to the 200th anniversary of Guinness imports to the U.S.

According to the company, the new facility will bring 40 jobs in brewing, warehousing, and an agile packaging operation, which may include canning, bottling and kegging. The new Guinness visitor experience will also create about 30 jobs, Diageo says.

In other Guinness-related news, the St. James’ Gate brewery has plans to develop a whiskey distillery on the site, after 258 years of solely brewing beer. The new brand made there will be called Roe & Co, Diageo says.


Source: Consumer Reviews

Uber Signs Deal To Add Mercedes-Benz Vehicles To Self-Driving Fleet

For its first generation of self-driving cars, Uber partnered with automakers Ford and Volvo, and used the driving technology that it has developed itself on cars that it now owns. The transportation network company has now made a deal with Daimler AG to add the company’s Mercedes-Benz autonomous vehicles to the Uber fleet once they’re ready.

It’s no secret that ride-hailing apps like Uber are investing in driverless technology so they’ll be able to rely on human drivers less in the future. Humans have unfortunate habits of sleeping, eating, and using the restroom. Worse, some drivers have also been known to illegally discriminate against passengers, file lawsuits, assault passengers, and go on strike. Some of those things are objectively bad and others are just bad if you’re Uber, but relying less on human drivers is helpful either way.

The company also tries to give the driverless future a halo of safety and eco-friendliness: CEO Travis Kalanick predicts fewer cars sitting idle on paved parking lots and fewer accidents in the future when we’re able to hail roving autonomous cars instead of owning our own.

Uber’s current autonomous fleet consists of hybrid Ford Focus cars in Pittsburgh, and Volvo SUVs in Arizona that started out in San Francisco until the state DMV objected. The difference with the Daimler program is that Uber owns its current self-driving fleet, using its own driving technology and developing the cars with Ford and with Volvo. The Daimler cars will not belong to Uber, and will use Daimler’s own self-driving technology.

Instead, they’ll be part of an open platform where automakers sign their vehicles up to be part of Uber’s network. Now drivers sign up with the cars that they own or lease: in the future, automakers could sign up with their own driverless fleets.

There’s no date announced yet for when the Daimler cars will begin hitting the roads, and Uber also didn’t announce the financial arrangements.

(via Reuters)


Source: Consumer Reviews

Lenders, Real Estate Brokers To Pay More Than $5M For Alleged Kickback Scheme

The home buying process is complicated and expensive enough without mortgage servicers and real estate brokers tacking on illegal and costly fees. To that end, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has ordered Prospect Mortgage and three other companies to pay more than $5 million to settle allegations they participated in an illegal kickback scheme. 

The CFPB announced the enforcement action Tuesday, accusing Prospect Mortgage of paying illegal kickbacks to real estate brokers ReMax Gold Coast and Keller Williams Mid-Willamette, and lender Planet Home in exchange for referrals of customers purchasing homes.

According to the complaint [PDF] against Prospect Mortgage — which operates more than 100 branches across the country — from 2011 to 2016, the company used a variety of plays to pay kickbacks for referrals of mortgage business in violation of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA).

To create the system, Prospect allegedly established marketing services agreements with companies — like ReMax Gold Coast and Keller Williams Mid-Willamette — which were framed as payments for advertising or promotion services. However, the payments were actually for business referrals.

The payments, which ranged from $25 to $500 per lead, would then be passed along to agents at the broker companies.

In all, the CFPB alleges that Mid-Willamette [PDF] received at least $145,000 from Prospect between 2012 and 2015. ReMax Gold Coast [PDF] received more than $500,000 from Prospect between 2014 and 2016, the complaint states.

The CFPB claims that Prospect paid brokers to require that potential homebuyers prequalify for a mortgage with Prospect, even if the customer had already been prequalified by another lender.

One method the company used, the complaint alleges, involved requiring brokers to engage in a practice of “writing in” Prospect into their real estate listing.

Additionally, the CFPB claims that Prospect and Planet Home Lending [PDF] had an agreement in which Planet would identify and persuade eligible consumers to refinance with Prospect for their Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) mortgages. Once a refinance was completed, the companies would allegedly split the proceeds of the sale.

For their part in the alleged schemes, the CPFB accused ReMax Gold Coast and Keller Williams Mid-Willamette of violating RESPA by exploiting consumers’ reliance on its recommendations for services by pointing them to Prospect.

As for Planet Home Lending, the CFPB claims the company violated RESPA, as well as the Fair Credit Reporting Act, by accepting fees from Prospect and unfairly marketing Prospect to consumers.

As part of Tuesday’s enforcement action, Prospect will pay $3.5 million to the CFPB’s Civil Penalty Fund, while ReMax Gold Coast must pay $50,000, Keller Williams Mid-Willamette must pay $145,000 in disgorgement and $35,000 in penalties. Finally, Planet Home will pay $265,000 in redress to harmed consumers.

Each of the companies must also refrain from paying for referrals or entering into agreements with service providers to endorse the use of their services.


Source: Consumer Reviews

Charlie Brown & The Peanuts Gang Up For Sale

Three months after MetLife cut Snoopy and the rest of his Peanuts pals loose, the company that owns the rights to the characters is reportedly putting the gang up for sale.

According to Reuters, debt-strapped brand management company Iconix is exploring a sale of its majority stake in Peanuts Worldwide LLC. That company owns the rights to all the cartoon characters, people familiar with the matter said. Thus far, some Chinese companies and other investors looking to score some U.S. media and licensing assets might be interested.

The company also reportedly wants to unload its Strawberry Shortcake brand, a character many ‘80s kids probably remember as a spunky, fragrant fruit-themed doll and TV character.

Charles Schulz’s Peanuts characters have been licensed in more than 100 countries, and gross about $30 million a year for Iconix, according to Reuters.

Why sell Charlie off now? Iconix — which also has Ed Hardy, Fieldcrest, Mudd, London Fog, Danskin, Candie’s, Mossimo and more under its umbrella — has been struggling under the weight of some major debt, a situation that was not made easier by MetLife’s recent decision to drop the Peanuts characters as mascots.


Source: Consumer Reviews

Auto Industry: Possible Border Tax Would Raise Prices, Even On American-Made Cars

Facing a possible new tax on imported goods, some of the biggest names in auto manufacturing and retail are calling on lawmakers to rethink the tax, claiming it will hurt their businesses and lead to higher prices.

While no actual legislation has been introduced, the proposal that has been kicking around Capitol Hill for the last month or so involves cutting the current corporate income tax rate of 35% to 20%. To make up for that rate drop, companies would no longer be able to deduct the cost of imported goods from their profits.

So, for example, imagine a U.S. company that imports $1 million worth of product, and sells them for $2 million stateside after spending about $500,000 domestically, resulting in a profit of $500,000.

Under the current tax code, the company deducts the import and domestic expenses, and pays 35% tax, but only on the $500,000 profit. If this proposal is put in place, that company would not be able to deduct the $1 million of import costs, so it would pay the lower 20% tax, but on $1.5 million instead of $500,000.

Given the volume and cost of imported cars into the U.S., it’s little wonder that the automotive industry is making a big push for Congress to rethink this tactic.

The American International Automobile Dealers Association — a trade group that lobbies lawmakers on behalf of some 9,500 U.S. car dealers — has called on its members to pen letters to legislators, arguing that automaking is an inherently international industry, so taxing imports is going to drive up the cost of vehicles regardless of where they are assembled.

“Auto parts would be subject to a BAT, so even the most American-made vehicle sold in the U.S. today – the Toyota Camry – would be subject to a significant price increase,” writes AIADA. “Rising prices will drive away regular Americans looking for a new car and, as a result, vehicle demand will drop. Both American auto manufacturing plants and retailers like you will feel the pain, and be forced to shed jobs.”

Speaking of Toyota, while the company does assemble a significant number of vehicles in the U.S., it still imports about half of the 2.4 million units it sells in America each year.

Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota North America tells Reuters that “Cost is going to go up, as a result demand is going to go down. As a result, we’re not going to able to employ as many as people as we do today. That’s my biggest fear.”

The carmaker recently urged its network of 1,500 dealers to put pressure on the House Ways and Means Committee to not move forward with the import tax.

Reuters also notes that two major retailer — Best Buy and Target — have recently launched efforts to shut down this tax before it goes on the books.

Target CEO Brian Cornell actually met with members of the Ways and Means Committee, says Reuters. They discussed how a border tax would affect the cost of essential household goods, like baby supplies, that are imported.

Meanwhile, Best Buy has been making the case to members of Congress that the border tax would not only hurt U.S. retailers but would be a boon to overseas online merchants like Alibaba that ship directly to consumers.


Source: Consumer Reviews

Small Cable Companies, Indie Networks Ask FCC To Force Channel Unbundling

As cable packages have ballooned in both volume and price over the years, a growing segment of consumers has demanded options for unbundled, choose-your-own-channels cable. So far, those cries have gone largely unheard, except for a few streaming, internet-based options. However, it seems the à la carte option has a growing fan base clamoring to be heard: small cable companies themselves.

That’s the gist of a recent filing the American Cable Association has made with the FCC.

While the ACA membership roster does include some large companies like Comcast and Viacom, it also includes hundreds of smaller cable advertising, programming, and distribution companies. It is on behalf of those small companies that ACA — joined by independent channels Mav TV, Ride TV, and One America News Network — filed its comment [PDF].

You know how when you subscribe to cable, you don’t just get Network X, but also Network X1, Network X2, Netwok X3, and so on? That’s bundling, and it’s basically integral to TV distribution at this point.

Here’s how it works: a content company works out an agreement with a distribution company to get its channels in front of subscribers’ eyeballs. Cable Company A agrees to pay Network B a certain sum — say, $0.25 per month per subscriber who receives the channel — in order to distribute that channel on its service.

In theory, this benefits both parties: a consumer isn’t going to sign up for a cable package that doesn’t have any channels in it, so this brings in viewers. And it’s a revenue stream for the network, which they like because business is all about making money.

But over time, those agreements have continued to grow bigger and more unwieldy. Now, a company that owns 15 cable networks might say, “We’ll grant you carriage of our flagship network for a discounted price of $1 per head, but in return you have to carry our other 14 channels for $0.01 to $0.20 each, as well.”

The numbers, of course, vary widely, but the principle is the same.

An enormous company like Comcast — which is both the cable distribution company, and also owns the entire NBCUniversal family of networks — has the clout to demand good terms, and the budget to move some cash around to make deals work out as needed. But the ACA and the independent networks say that this kind of bundling is killing them, and “represents by far the greatest threat to the viability of independent programming.”

“The largest programmers universally bundle their most desirable channels with programming that is little watched and overpriced, requiring MVPDs [cable and satellite companies] to take all the channels or get none of them,” the ACA writes. “To obtain must-have programming, MVPDs must set aside huge amounts of their limited bandwidth and programming budgets to carry dozens of bundled channels in which they (and their subscribers) have no interest.”

The comment provides one example: “a small cable operator who wants to get the must-have programming from nine of the largest media groups — Disney/ESPN, Fox, Comcast/NBCU, Turner, Viacom, AETN, AMC, Discovery, and Scripps … must carry 65 channels at a minimum.”

A company with 250,000 subscribers doesn’t have the same kind of cash to throw around as one with 25 million, nor does it have the same negotiating leverage to convince the content company to take a lower fee. If carriers are forced into agreements of this type, then there’s simply no money left to give a fair deal to an independent network that isn’t part of a media conglomerate. Nor is money the only problem: distribution of digital cable takes bandwidth, and while, again, that’s not a problem for a behemoth like Comcast or Charter, carrying excess channels can actually overtax the network of a small enough provider and prevent it from carrying alternative traffic.

The FCC proceeding to which the comment was filed seeks input on rules around two kinds of broadcasting agreements: most favored nation (MFN) clauses, and the alternative distribution method (ADM) provisions. The ACA does encourage the Commission to revamp those, but says doing that alone simply doesn’t go far enough.

Failing in some way to address the issue of bundling, the ACA says, will make the rest of the rulemaking procedure effectively moot, and so it “urges the Commission to include regulations limiting forced bundling by programmers in the rules adopted through this proceeding.” The comment did not, however, specify in what way the FCC should do so.


Source: Consumer Reviews