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November 18, 2013 Complain About Them, Get Dinged $3500

Filed under: Internet,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:10 am

An Internet seller of novelties, gadgets, and toys found a unique way to discourage customers from writing negative reviews about the company. It threatened to bill customers $3,500 for taking any action that negatively impacted the company’s reputation or products.

Jen Palmer and her husband found out about this policy the hard way when she posted a complaint about the company online after waiting over 30 days for her order:

KlearGear story
Watch KUTV TV news video

Three years after she posted the complaint, her husband received a bill for $3,500 as a penalty for his wife having posted the complaint online, and his nonpayment of the “fine” was reported to the credit bureau.

How did the company make known to customers they could suffer these consequences for exercising their constitutional right to free, truthful speech? The provision was tucked in the “terms of use” section of the website.


KlearGear terms

The company defended its practice to the TV station, but curiously that penalty clause has now disappeared from the company’s website.

Nothing like a little media attention to an outrageous practice to bring people to their senses.

• • •

November 11, 2013

When Advertising Masquerades as News

Filed under: Business,Internet — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:13 am

When you go to a respected news site online, you expect to find links to many different stories that the publisher has on its own website, and that it has found elsewhere and recommends.

Reuters, one of the two leading newswire services, is no exception. When you click on a particular story link, you are taken to a page with that story. Surrounding the story are various lists of popular stories, recommendations of other stories, and conventional advertisements.

Here is such a page captured on October 27, with red outlines added for emphasis [see full size]:

In the left column is a box entitled “Recommended,” where various video stories are listed. [Note: screenshots below were captured prior to October 27 on a different page of Reuters and sent to Reuters for comment.] One would naturally believe that Reuters’ editors have chosen this content as their recommendations to readers.

Recommended Video

In the bottom right-hand corner of that box is a tiny question mark. If you click on it, an explanation pops up:



It says that a firm called “Outbrain,” not Reuters, has selected these videos and they were paid to place these links here and make these recommendations.

Similarly, further down the page, there is a box with a list of stories that says “More from Reuters” on the left, and another list of stories captioned “From Around the Web” on the right. That little question mark appears inconspicuously in the corner again.

Reuters recs


The same disclosure is made about Outbrain there too, and one might believe that the stories in the right column are Outbrain’s recommendations (if you knew enough to click the link), but you would never imagine that the stories on the left where it says “More from Reuters” might also be paid links. (No matter what story you click on in that box, the status bar of your browser indicates that link first goes through Outbrain.)

In all there are six sections on this page (see red boxes) where news stories are linked but where that content is not actually recommended by Reuters. Someone has bought advertising space on the Reuters website to promote those stories (or the advertisements that might be on those pages). While sections labeled “Sponsored Content” should signal the reader that this is really an advertisement, other sections with just question mark or a little logo, do not clearly convey a similar message.

The Federal Trade Commission has worked with Google, for example, to ensure that paid search results that are really advertisements, be completely segregated from actual search results, be labeled as “ads,” and in some cases be on a contrasting background. Don’t news organizations have the same obligation not to misrepresent the content on their webpages and to better distinguish paid links to news stories from actual recommendations of the host site?

Mouse Print* sent Reuters detailed questions regarding the concerns raised by their sponsored content boxes, but received no response.

The Federal Trade Commission is said to be planning a roundtable discussion next month about this issue, which is referred to as “native advertising” or “sponsored content.”

[Please note: Reuters is but one of many news sites that feature these story recommendation boxes (CNN, Time, and 90,000 other sites use Outbrain), and Outbrain is just one of the firms that deals in sponsored content.]

• • •

November 4, 2013

How Crapware Gets on Your Computer

Filed under: Computers,Internet — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 6:06 am

MrConsumer’s friend always complains about pop-ups and unfamiliar toolbars taking over his browser. I show him how to remove most of them, and advise him to be more careful when installing new software.

Unfortunately, MrConsumer didn’t follow his own advice recently when downloading and installing a utility package to help get a new movie editing program working properly. The movie software company advised me to go to c|net, a respected website owned by CBS, to download the codec package I needed.

c|net has you download a small file first, and then the larger one. As I was installing the program, you first see this screen:

cnet 1

I then proceeded to the next step and chose “full installation (recommended)” since I knew little about these codecs and the options/settings.


cnet 2

Lurking near the top of the next screen were the words “special offer” and in the description of “full installation” was a notation that a “Sweetpacks” toolbar would be installed in my browser and my homepage would be switched to a different search company. Didn’t see that, and like most us, just clicked “next step.”

That next step brought up an end user license screen that most us just click and accept without reading.



This time, I noticed “special offer” and the fine print said I was agreeing to install the Lucky Leaf toolbar and to get offers and coupons. I hit decline. But those who didn’t see that, probably most of us, would just hit “accept” figuring if you don’t, you won’t be able to install the software.

The next screen had yet another “accept” button to agree to “terms and conditions.”


cnet 4

And it had another “special offer” for a plug-in for faster browsing and turning text into links. I hit “decline.”

After a configuration screen came up with options that I clearly didn’t understand, I abandoned the installation and cancelled it.

Sure enough, and to my surprise, when I opened Internet Explorer, my Consumer World homepage was replaced with AVG search. What? Where did that come from? I changed the homepage back to Consumer World, and disabled AVG search under “add-ons.” When I re-opened IE, now Sweetpacks was my homepage. GRRRRR. Went back in and found it, and removed it.

So even having cancelled the installation of the main program, all of this crapware had already been installed on my computer.

The lesson is that we simply can no longer click “next, next, next” when installing any software, even from what you believe to be a reputable source, because these programs are being preloaded with crapware.

• • •

October 28, 2013

What’s the Beef?

Filed under: Food/Groceries,Health,Retail — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:48 am

It is, or should be common knowledge that some supermarket chains “zone price.” That means the price of items can vary from one neighborhood to another, usually depending on the level of local competition.

Stop & Shop, a large regional chain in the Northeast, uses zone pricing so it was no surprise that one of its big featured items recently was advertised at different prices in different stores.

What seemed like a very good price reduction, 40% off on porterhouse steaks (usually $11.99/lb, now $7.19) was actually lower two towns over where it was advertised for only $4.99 a pound.

SS Choice SS Select

MrConsumer raced to the meat counter to look at the $4.99 steaks but was immediately disappointed because the steaks were not well-marbled — a sign they would not be a very flavorful or tender steak.


The reason these steaks were cheaper also became apparent — they had a “Select” sticker on the package.

Most beef sold at retail is graded by the USDA. The highest grade is “Prime” followed by “Choice” and then “Select.” While “Select” steaks may be healthier because they are less fatty, they are likely not as tasty, tender, and juicy as a “Choice” or “Prime” steak.

If you look back at the advertisements above, you will see the USDA Choice shield on the steak on the left, but it is missing from the steak on the right. The steak on the right says “Select Fresh Bone-in New York Strip Steak, …” The average person would probably have skipped over the word “Select” because it appears to be used fancifully (like “hand-picked”) rather than indicating that the advertised steak is USDA Select grade.

While one might reasonably expect the advertised price to vary from one location of a chain to another, one would not expect the grade or quality of the same advertised product to be different as well.

• • •

October 21, 2013

Target Finds Sneaky Way to Make Robocalls

Filed under: Electronics,Retail,Telephone — Edgar (aka MrConsumer) @ 5:58 am

Target’s red debit card provides a host of benefits that few department stores offer: free shipping with no minimum from their .com store, an additional 5% discount off most purchases, and a 30-day extension to their regular return policy.

When MrConsumer recently applied for a Target debit card, he was taken aback by the company’s tricky maneuver to allow it to make robocalls to its cardholders’ cellphones.

When one applies for the card in-store, you fill out the simplified application that appears on the little signature screen of the credit card terminal at the customer service desk. In addition to entering your social security number on one screen, and your date of birth on another, two screens also come up requesting your home phone and cellphone numbers.



On the left of the two phone number screens is a disclosure granting Target permission to make robocalls to your cellphone. MrConsumer only provided a home phone (a landline) and left the cellphone screen blank. The application did go through.

Why did Target tuck that disclosure into the on-screen process, while leaving all other disclosures to a fine print booklet? The reason is that the FCC requires companies to get the consumer’s explicit written permission before any robocalls or texts can be made to a wireless telephone.

Most consumers probably won’t catch the disclosure, and won’t they be surprised when Target targets texts to them.

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