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April 2014

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'Kill Switch' to Be Standard on Smartphones by 2015

Worried about losing your phone? Smartphone manufacturers and American cell carriers have agreed to make "kill switches" standard on all smartphones manufactured for sale in the United States after July 2015.

Huge names in mobile tech -- Apple, Google, Samsung, and Microsoft -- have all signed on to a new "Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment" aimed at beefing up anti-theft features on mobile devices. "Kill switches" would allow owners of compliant phones to remotely "erase contacts, photos, email and other information" as well as lock the device, reports CNN.

How will this "kill switch" program change your smartphone?

Some 'Kill Switches' Already on Market

Since smartphones have proliferated in the last decade, phone thefts are leaving consumers more and more vulnerable. A 90s-era flip phone contained very little sensitive data compared to a modern iPhone, and smartphone thefts in major metro areas have added up to millions of dollars in losses.

Because of this increased danger from smartphone thefts, some smartphones already include "kill switch"-type security features. The Find My iPhone app included with all current iOS devices has allowed theft victims to track down their stolen Apple devices and sometimes even catch the perp. With the latest version of iOS, Apple users can also remotely wipe or lock their phones, making it harder for thieves to sell the devices.

Android devices have a similar feature, allowing users to locate, lock, and even erase a phone or tablet remotely. While these features are fantastic security tools, they are not an industry standard on all smartphones sold today.

Push for Legislation Prompts Voluntary Program

Because there was no guarantee that your phone would have a "kill switch," legislators had been pushing to make them mandatory. In response to lawmakers, mobile manufacturers and cell service providers agreed to a voluntary commitment to make "kill switches" a reality in every phone by mid-2015.

In a release Tuesday, the participants in the "Smartphone Anti-Theft Voluntary Commitment" promised all compliant smartphones will offer:

  • Remote wiping of a user's data if a phone is lost or stolen;
  • Rending a smartphone inoperable without a PIN or password (except for 911 functionality);
  • Preventing reactivation without authorization, even with a factory reset; and
  • Reversing the "locked" state when the authorized user recovers the device.

This voluntary agreement is not a law, but it should provide that most smartphones in the U.S. market will have these features by July 2015.

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15 Online Behaviors That Make You Vulnerable to Scams

It seems like there's a new Internet scam or security breach happening every week, but truth be told, there are many typical online behaviors that can make you more vulnerable to scams.

An American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) survey found 15 specific behaviors that could open you up to Internet trickery. The survey found that one in five Americans engage in at least seven of the 15 online behaviors.

Here are the 15 online behaviors you should look out for:

  1. Clicking on pop-ups.
  2. Opening email from unknown senders.
  3. Selling products on online auction sites.
  4. Downloading apps.
  5. Signing up for free-limited-time-trial offers.
  6. Purchasing through an online payment transfer site.
  7. Visiting a website that requires a reading of a privacy policy.
  8. Visiting websites that require a reading of terms of agreement statements.
  9. Being impulsive.
  10. Feeling isolated or lonely.
  11. Negative change in financial status.
  12. Loss of a job.
  13. Being concerned about debt.
  14. Being unaware that banks don't send emails to customers asking for personal information or to click a link to verify personal information.
  15. Being unaware that a privacy policy doesn't mean the website won't share their information with other companies.

How to Protect Yourself

One of the most common ploys in the world of Internet scams is when the fraudsters sound like they're sending information from an "official" source. When monitoring your risky online behavior, it's important to remember that government officials will never contact you by phone or email to request personal or banking information or to tell you that you're in trouble with the law.

For example, a recent nationwide email scam had recipients believing that they were summoned to appear in court. The email would either contain attachments that had viruses or told the reader to pay money for overdue fines.

Getting scammed online isn't limited to middle-aged persons. Young people are vulnerable too, so exercise caution when you're engaging in these online behaviors.

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What Is the 'Heartbleed' Security Flaw? What Should You Do?

An online security flaw called "Heartbleed" has made many of the most popular websites vulnerable to data breach and left consumers uneasy.

What exactly is Heartbleed, and what can you do to protect yourself?

Heartbleed Cracks the SSL Lock

The Heartbleed flaw is a vulnerability in the open-source OpenSSL encryption technology used by many of your favorite websites. SSL is a popular Internet security protocol that allows Web surfers to make a secure connection with sites in order to send sensitive data.

Sites that use SSL to create secure connections are indicated by an "s" after the "http" in the address, as well as a small "padlock" icon in the address bar. But according to CNN, the Heartbleed flaw allows cybercriminals to crack this "lock," giving them access to personal data as well and possibly impersonate a secure site.

One of the largest sites affected by the Heartbleed flaw was Yahoo, and Yahoo Mail usernames and passwords were vulnerable to theft as a result, reports CNET. Yahoo has since reported that it has corrected the problem across its various sites (including Tumblr and Flickr), but vulnerabilities may still remain.

Tech consultant Filippo Valsorda has created a "Heartbleed test" to determine if your favorite sites are vulnerable to this security flaw, which initially revealed issues with sites like OkCupid and Imgur.

Protecting Your Data

You may receive a notice from a compromised site explaining the details of their security changes and how you should proceed. Steve Lohr of The New York Times notes that simply changing passwords will not help if the Heartbleed flaw has not been addressed.

Users should wait until they receive confirmation that their favorite sites have been fixed, and should avoid logging on to those sites until then. If you are worried about smaller businesses that may have your sensitive data, like small vendors or banks, contact them and request an update about the Heartbleed flaw.

While you wait for these sites to get their security ducks in a row, this would be a good time to review your own password practices to make sure you aren't leaving yourself vulnerable.

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Top 5 Legal Tips for a Pawn Shop Loan

Pawn shops provide a quick way for consumers to borrow money, but there are legal aspects that you should consider before handing over your goods as collateral.

So here are five legal tips to consider when getting a pawn shop loan.

  1. How pawn shop loans work. In general, a pawn is deposit of personal property with a pawnbroker as security for receiving a loan. Until the loan is repaid within a specific time period, the pawnbroker keeps your property. If the loan isn't repaid on time, the pawnbroker may sell your item.
  2. What do you need for a pawn loan? The only things you need for a pawn loan are the item you're pawning and identification. You'll also need to provide a complete description of the merchandise. The information is usually sent to law enforcement to prevent stolen goods from ending up in a pawn shop, according to the National Pawnbrokers Association.
  3. Know how much interest you're paying. In addition to holding your property as collateral for a loan, most pawn shops will charge you interest in your loan. While the interest amount will vary by shop, it's important to know up front how much interest you'll be paying because you risk having the pawnbroker sell your item if you're loan isn't repaid on time.
  4. Are pawn shops regulated? Pawn shops must follow state and federal laws. Under federal law, the pawn industry is regulated by the Truth in Lending Act, Equal Credit Opportunity Act, and the Federal Trade Commission rules on Data Privacy and Safeguard of Consumer Information, the National Pawnbrokers Association states. All legal pawn shops must be registered with their states and abide by each state's laws.
  5. Should you call the police or hire a lawyer? If you've repaid your pawn shop loan on time, but the broker refuses to return your property, you may report the theft to local law enforcement. On the other hand, you may also be able to sue the pawn shop for breach of contract. A local consumer protection attorney can help you identify your causes of action and help you get your misappropriated property back.

While pawn shops may be a quick way to get a short term loan, be sure to check that the pawn shop is legally operating in your state and to understand the terms of the loan before pawning your property.

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Chicken Nuggets Recalled From Sam's Club After Plastic Shards Found

Bags of frozen chicken nuggets are being recalled by Tyson after Sam's Club customers found small plastic shards mixed in with the nuggets.

The 5-pound bags of Tyson frozen chicken nuggets were sold at Sam's Club stores nationwide, but the affected nuggets were only produced on two days at one of Tyson's 40 chicken-production facilities, reports CNN Money.

As 75,320 pounds of nuggets are being recalled, what can Tyson's consumers do to avoid chomping down on plastic?

Consumer Complaints Trigger Voluntary Recall

In a press release Friday, Tyson acknowledged that "a small number of consumers" had contacted the food corporation after finding "small pieces of plastic in the nuggets." This prompted the company to issue a recall on the 5-pound frozen nugget bags, a voluntary recall not prompted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In the event of a food recall, voluntary or required, consumers can check the "use by" or "sell by" dates on food products to determine if they've purchased recalled food. In the case of Tyson's questionable nuggets, consumers should look for 5-pound bags of frozen, fully-cooked white meat chicken nuggets with "best if used by" dates of:

  • January 26, 2015, and
  • February 16, 2015.

This recall only affects nuggets with these expiration dates purchased from Sam's Club stores. Similar to Kellogg's recall of Special K boxes in February, the affected bags can also be identified by UPC codes, which can be sent in to Tyson for a refund.

What Injuries Are Possible?

CNN reports Tyson has received reports of "minor oral injury due to the consumption of nuggets." That may seem like small potatoes to some, but even small oral injuries can potentially mean huge liability for Tyson.

Like any product put on the market, frozen foods must not be dangerous to consumers. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and USDA have the authority to pull a product from shelves even for a remote possibility of injury.

If you were injured by Tyson's frozen nuggets, consider speaking with a personal injury attorney about your options. All consumers, regardless of injury, can call Tyson Foods Consumer Services at (866) 328-3156 with any questions about the chicken nugget recall.

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NHTSA to Require 'Backup Cameras' in Most New Cars by 2018

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has issued a final safety rule that will make it mandatory for many new vehicles to include a "backup camera" to increase rearview visibility.

NHTSA will require new vehicles under 10,000 pounds to include rear visibility technology if they're manufactured on or after May 1, 2018, according The Associated Press. The ruling includes buses and trucks.

The backup cameras will expand the driver's field of vision to encompass a 10-by-20-foot zone directly behind the vehicle and hopefully reduce the number of traffic injuries and fatalities in backup accidents.

Accident Statistics

On average, 292 people are killed and more than 18,000 people are injured annually in accidents involving a vehicle backing up. Frequently, the victims are young children or elderly people.

Among those killed in backup accidents, approximately 100 are children under the age of 5. Further, children in this at-risk age group account for about 2,000 injuries each year.

Kids may dart into the street to chase after a toy or simply be unaware of their surroundings and walk directly into the path of a car that's backing up. With backup cameras in more vehicles, drivers will have a better view of what's happening behind their vehicles, and it could eliminate some blind spots.

Costs to the Automobile Industry

Under NHSTA's new rule, the cost to the auto industry to implement the changes is projected to be between $546 million to $924 million in 2018. Although the cost is huge, the NHSTA thinks that 59 to 73 percent of all vehicles purchased in 2018 will already have the cameras installed, according to The Detroit News. In fact, Honda and Subaru have both announced that they're voluntarily making cameras standard in all their vehicles.

Since it'll be costly for the auto industry, NHSTA rolled out a staggered backup camera plan. So after May 2016, automakers need to produce 10 percent of vehicles with cameras. That number climbs to 40 percent after May 2017, and all vehicles must be equipped with the backup cameras by May 2018, The Detroit News reports.

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Recalls: Chrysler SUVs, Dyson Portable Electric Heaters

First there was the GM power steering recall this week and now there's the Chrysler SUV and Dyson portable electric heaters recalls.

Dyson is recalling about 393,000 of its portable electric heaters due to potential electric short and overheating problems, according to the Associated Press. As for Chrysler, the company is recalling about 800,000 of its SUVS to fix a defect in the brake systems, Reuters reports.

Here are the recall specifics:

Dyson Recalls

For Dyson, the recalled heaters are:

  • All Dyson Hot heaters and Dyson Hot+Cool heaters with the model number AM04.
  • All Dyson Hot+Cool heaters with model number AM05.

The model number can be found above the Dyson logo on the product information sticker located under the heater's base.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission states that consumers should immediately stop using and unplug the recalled heaters. Consumers can contact Dyson for a free repair of their defected products.

Chrysler Recalls

Last year, Chrysler recalled some of its SUVs due to airbag deployment problems and potential transmission leakage issues. This time around, Chrysler is recalling its SUVs due to brake problems.

The recalled SUVs include:

  • Jeep Grand Cherokees from the 2011 to 2014 model years.
  • Dodge Durango SUV from the 2011 to 2014 model years.

According to the Associated Press, the crimp joints in the brake boosters may corrode if they're exposed to water. This is a problem because if the water freezes, the boosters won't assist in braking as they're supposed to.

If your car is recalled, at no cost to you, Chrysler dealers will install a shield to protect the boosters or replace any boosters that aren't functioning properly. The company will also notify owners of the recalled vehicles.

People who've been injured by these or other recalled products should consult a product liability attorney in their area for more help on their legal remedies.

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Yet Another GM Recall, This Time for Power Steering Problems

GM has issued yet another recall, this time for power steering problems in 1.5 million older vehicles.

Drivers will know right away if their power steering system fails because there will a chime and dashboard message. Although the car can be steered without power assist, it'll be much more difficult and could make the car more susceptible to a crash, GM warns.

So is your car part of the recall?

Which Cars Are Recalled?

Although GM is no stranger to recalls this year, the power steering recall involves the following makes and models:

  • Chevrolet Malibu: All 2004 and 2005 models, and some from model years 2006, 2008, and 2009.
  • Chevrolet Malibu Maxx: All 2004 and 2005 models, and some from 2006.
  • Chevrolet HHR: Some non-turbocharged models from 2009 and 2010.
  • Chevrolet Cobalt: Some model year 2010 vehicles.
  • Saturn Aura: Some model year 2008 and 2009 vehicles.
  • Saturn Ion: All model year 2004 to 2007 vehicles.
  • Pontiac G6: All model year 2005, and some model year 2006, 2008, and 2009 vehicles.

In addition, service parts installed in certain vehicles under a prior recall before May 31, 2010, are also a part of this latest GM recall. GM says it plans to replace whatever parts are needed to make the vehicles safe.

A Bad Quarter for GM

Monday's recall announcement came as GM executives prepared to testify before Congress about a separate issue: faulty ignition switches in compact cars that have been linked to at least 13 deaths over the past decade. The Justice Department has also launched its own investigation.

Because of the ignition-switch issue and other recalls so far this year, GM expects to take a charge of up to $750 million for the first quarter of 2014, the company said in a press release.

Owners of the recalled GM vehicles may be able to sue the manufacturer if they've been injured as a result of any defect, including power steering issues, or potentially because the recall and defect diminishes the resale value of their car. If you've been affected by any of the GM recalls, you may want to consult a motor vehicle defects attorney to learn more about your possible legal remedies.

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IRS Phone Scam Is Biggest Ever: $1M Lost, 20K Victims

The largest-ever IRS phone scam is making the rounds. Thousands of victims have been conned out of more than $1 million by fraudsters posing as IRS agents demanding tax payments.

The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) says it has received more than 20,000 complaints from people, including recent immigrants, about the scam, Reuters reports.

How does the massive tax scam work, and what should consumers watch out for?

IRS Tax Scam

The IRS phone scam begins with a call from someone posing as an IRS agent, telling intended victims they owe taxes and must pay using a prepaid debit card or wire transfer. The fraudsters threaten those who refuse to pay with arrest, deportation or loss of a business or driver's license, Reuters reports.

To make the scam seem more legitimate, the scammers often know the last four digits of the taxpayer's Social Security number. Don't rely on your caller ID to identify the scam -- the scammers can manipulate a victim's caller ID to display a local IRS office number.

In many cases, taxpayers -- particularly those who hang up on the call -- will get follow-up calls that appear to be from their state motor vehicle agency or the police. The scammers also send follow-up emails that mimic the IRS insignia and even appear to be signed by real IRS officials.

IRS Tax Scam Red Flags

The IRS contacts taxpayers by U.S. mail. The IRS will never do any of the following things:

  • Ask for payment via debit card or wire transfer;
  • Ask you to provide a credit card number over the phone;
  • Request personal or financial information by e-mail, text or social media;
  • Use threatening language if you don't pay immediately.

What to Do If You Get a Call

If you receive a call from someone claiming to be from the IRS and he or she is asking for payment, here's what to do about the consumer scam:

  • If you owe (or think you owe) federal taxes, hang up and call the IRS directly via a toll-free number, (800) 829-1040.
  • If you don't owe taxes, call and report the incident to the Treasury inspector general of tax administration at (800) 366-4484.
  • If you'd like, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. Add "IRS Telephone Scam" to the comments in your complaint.

Also, don't open emails that are purportedly from the IRS (and definitely don't open attachments or click on links in the email). Forward it to

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Bitcoin Phishing Email Alert: 3 Red Flags It's a Scam

If you receive an email announcing you've received Bitcoins, you may be at risk for a phishing scam.

Emails purporting to be from Coinbase, a San Francisco-based tech company that provides virtual "wallets" for the virtual Bitcoin currency, are the key to scammers gaining access to your data and personal information.

How can you avoid Bitcoin phishing attacks? Look for these three red flags:

1. An Email Beginning With 'Hi.'

As Slate reported on Friday, their office received a number of these Bitcoin emails which all began with "Hi," but were not addressed to anyone.

One sign of a malicious email is that it is unsolicited and has a very general subject. Phishing emails work by being sent en-masse to individuals, claiming to be from a trusted source. Although it would be mighty friendly to receive unsolicited hi's and hello's from our banks and government agencies, it's more likely that a general message like this is a phishing attempt.

2. Strange Email Addresses.

Another red flag that an email is a phishing attempt is that it came from a strange email address. Email addresses should generally match the person claiming to be the sender, but these phishing emails often have unfamiliar accounts listed as the sender.

Don't feel bad if you didn't look for this detail before, phishing attacks have even brought down The Associated Press.

3. Links to Who-Knows-Where.

This is a good practice to avoid all types of online scams: Phishing emails will often ask the recipient to "click this link" to receive information or funds. In the Coinbase Bitcoin phishing scam, the sender asks the recipient to click a link in order to receive some unclaimed amount of Bitcoins.

If you receive a link claiming to be from a person or entity you trust, contact that person first to verify the email came from that source.

Coinbase noted this security breach in January and has since updated its security to attempt to prevent future phishing attacks. But by keeping alert to these three red flags, you should be prepared.

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Common Law Vanguard Panel

The following firms have assisted the FindLaw editorial team in identifying emerging trends in consumer protection law and topics of importance to readers of this blog: