When it comes to heated divorce, pets aren’t people too

NEW YORK — In the eyes of the law, pets are property when it comes to divorce, but new ways of working out custody of the dog, cat or parrot have sprung up with special mediators and “petnups” to avoid courtroom disputes.

Alaska, California and Illinois are among states that have enacted laws giving judges leeway to consider the best interests of pets, not unlike what they do for children. A bill is pending in New York state to take the same approach.

“Someone’s cat or someone’s dog is a part of their family and should not be treated like a piece of furniture or their Honda Civic,” said Sen. James Skoufis, chief sponsor of the New York measure and proud dad to a cat named Ruth, for the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Some judges around the country have been taking the approach on a case-by-case basis, Skoufis and matrimonial attorneys said. But couples are left to the whims of whichever judges they’re assigned should they choose to go to trial.

Adam Citron, a New York lawyer who has handled dozens of divorces, said pets are “constantly an issue.” He’s among lawyer who’ve sometimes see the worst in people in divorce court and advocates for prenups covering pets. A “petnup” is especially helpful for animals acquired during the marriage.

More laws specifically addressing the interests of pets are needed, he said, because custody issues over furry, feathered or scaled loved ones are far more emotional and difficult to resolve than claims over a set of china or the wedding silver.

In states that haven’t taken the new approach, Citron suggests agreeing at the time a pet is acquired during a marriage whose name will appear alone on registration or adoption papers. That person should pay any costs out of a separate bank account. Such measures are especially helpful if one party is trying to weaponize a pet in exchange for other coveted property.

While some mediators work to settle pet disputes through joint custody, others said that’s not always best for the animal, particularly dogs. Dogs are most often at the center of pet custody disputes.

Memphis divorce lawyer Miles Mason Sr. has seen the worst-case scenario writ large. Several years ago, a couple went to war over their two German shepherds. The wife had taken training to handle the dogs, while the husband had not.

Before the divorce, while on a walk with the husband, one of the dogs bit and killed another dog. The wife claimed it was because the husband failed to give the “stand down” command in German as the dog was trained. During a divorce proceeding, he sought visitation rights. A judge barred him from unsupervised time with the dogs outside the wife’s home, but reserved the right to reconsider if he took the schutzhund training.

“We believe the judge had experience with German shepherds because he understood the concerns with highly trained and disciplined dogs,” Mason said.

Karis Nafte has been an animal behaviorist for nearly 26 years. Two years ago, she started working as a pet custody specialist for couples seeking divorces through pre-trial mediation.

Nafte is usually brought in at the recommendation of lawyers, mediators or divorce coaches.

“Part of what I try to help people understand is that even if a dog feels like a child in your heart, it isn’t, and if you’re treating it like a child, it’s actually a disservice to the dog,” she said. “Having that voice, that kind of expert eye on the situation, calms things down. A lot of times, people just don’t know what to do. They just don’t want to say goodbye to their dog.”

Visitation schedules or shared custody, Nafte said, can be far more stressful for a dog than a goodbye forever. The back and forth between two homes and the emotions attached to each reunion can lead to behavioral problems, she said.

Nafte suggested putting pet custody at the top of divorce negotiations. It can make the rest of the process run more smoothly. So can couples therapy for some.

Marriage therapist Sharon O’Neill has helped couples through divorce in New York’s Westchester County for more than 20 years. In one case, during a joint therapy session, a wife was adamant that she keep the dog, while the husband didn’t believe she cared enough to take responsibility.

“In working with her alone, I came to understand that it had more to do with hurting her husband because she truly believed he loved the dog more than he had ever been capable of loving her,” O’Neill said. “We managed to get to the practical truth that it would be a responsibility she really preferred to live without. We found something else she could ask for in lieu of getting the dog: several pieces of beautiful furniture that she didn’t want to split up with her husband. They both agreed.”

Cristina Stella, a managing attorney for the advocacy nonprofit the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said more laws empowering judges to consider the emotional needs of pets are needed.

“What we would like to see is to have animals considered in the most holistic way possible,” she said. “Who is the animal bonded to? Who can provide for the animal’s overall health and well-being going forward?”

Philip Tedeschi, director emeritus of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection at the University of Denver, said that while dogs are still seen as property legally speaking, they have complex emotions and cognition in their interactions with humans.

“The kinds of stress that would be placed on a family related to a divorce also have impacts on the emotional and health lives of animals,” he said. “We’re really largely lagging behind in recognition that non-human animals have emotional lives, have feelings. Even opinions.”

Aurora police arrest man connected to fatal shooting of a woman on Saturday

Aurora police have arrested a 39-year-old man after a woman was fatally shot Saturday.

Ryan Scott Avery is being charged with homicide in connection with the death of a woman he knew on the 1600 block of South Granby Street.

Police say the woman’s body was not found until about 8:30 a.m. Sunday, when officers discovered her body inside the home.

Information about the woman who died was not immediately released.

Avery was also wanted on a warrant for attempted homicide in Elizabeth in a separate case, police said. That attack happened in the late evening Saturday, said Grace Erickson, assistant town manager.

She did not say where the attack occurred or if the person attacked also knew Avery. The person was unharmed and was being kept safe.

Avery was taken into custody without incident, police say.

Chinese swimmer Sun Yang banned again, misses Tokyo Olympics

GENEVA — Chinese swimmer star Sun Yang was banned for more than four years on Tuesday for breaking anti-doping rules, after a retrial at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

The court’s verdict ends Sun’s hopes of defending his Olympic title in the 200 meters freestyle in Tokyo next month. The ban is backdated to February 2020, meaning Sun could return for the 2024 Paris Olympics when he would be 32.

The judges found Sun “to have acted recklessly” when he refused to let anti-doping officials leave his home with a sample of his blood, the court said.

Sun denied wrongdoing and his original eight-year ban imposed last year was overturned on appeal to Switzerland’s supreme court which ordered a fresh prosecution.

Federal judges ruled the first guilty verdict unsafe because the chairman of the three-judge panel at CAS showed anti-Chinese bias in social media comments.

The retrial was heard by three new judges by video over three days last month and fast-tracked ahead of the Tokyo Olympics opening on July 23.

For the retrial, an addition to Sun’s Geneva-based legal team were lawyers who successfully represented Russia’s anti-doping agency and athletes in previous CAS hearings.

The case was about a failed attempt to take blood and urine from Sun by a sample collection team who made an unannounced visit to his home in China in September 2018.

It turned confrontational after midnight when he questioned the officials’ credentials. It led to Sun’s entourage ordering a security guard to smash the casing of a blood vial with a hammer so that it would not be valid for testing.

The World Anti-Doping Agency appealed to CAS when a tribunal appointed by swimming’s governing body, FINA, only warned the three-time Olympic champion about his conduct.

WADA requested a ban of two to eight years for a second doping conviction. Sun served a three-month ban in 2014 imposed by Chinese authorities after testing positive for a stimulant that was banned at the time. The ban was not announced until after it ended.

Sun’s second career ban was imposed after a rare CAS hearing held in open court and streamed live online. It lasted more than 10 hours in November 2019 at a special court session in Montreux, Switzerland.

A change this year to FINA’s rules in anti-doping cases meant the eight-year ban for a second offense could be reduced. This amendment “represents a newly flexible approach,” the court said.

The 6-foot-7 (2-meter) Sun was the first Chinese swimmer to win Olympic gold, in 2012 at London, and has long been a polarizing figure in the pool.

Rivals branded him a drug cheat at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, and two competitors refused to stand with him on medal podiums at the 2019 world championships.

Sun won a total of 11 golds in five straight world championships from 2011 to 2019, at each freestyle distance from 200 to 1,500.

Valor Christian’s Gavin Sawchuk, Colorado’s top-ranked prep football recruit, commits to Oklahoma

Gavin Sawchuk is Oklahoma bound.

The star running back, who’s entering his senior season at Valor Christian High School, committed to the Sooners over the weekend, according to 247sports.com.

“Boomer Sooner,” he tweeted Tuesday morning.

The 5-foot-11, 185-pound Sawchuk burst his way to 1,239 yards rushing on 131 carries and 17 touchdowns in eight games last season, helping the Eagles reach the 5A championship game as a junior. He was named the Gatorade Colorado football player of the year in May.

In 12 games as a sophomore, he had 197 carries for 1,786 yards and 23 TDs for Valor.

He is a four-star recruit, according to 247sports.com, and is the second-best running back and No. 43 overall player in the 2022 class. He had numerous offers from Division I programs, including Colorado, Colorado State, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Southern California.

This marks the fifth straight year the top-ranked Colorado prep player in 247Sports’ composite rankings committed to an out-of-state school. The last top-ranked player to commit in-state was Pomona offensive lineman Jake Moretti, who signed with CU in 2017. He is also the only top-ranked commit from Colorado to sign with CU or CSU since 2010.

Three of the top five Colorado Class of 2022 recruits, per 247Sports’ composite rankings, have already committed to out-of-state schools, including Fairview athlete Grant Page (Nebraska) and Eaglecrest offensive lineman Brayden Miller (Michigan State).


Should I stay or should I go?

Colorado has had a hard time hanging on to its top high school football players over the past 13 years. Over that period, just one recruit listed atop 247Sports’ composite rankings has remained in-state and seven have committed to schools outside the Pac-12 and Mountain West conferences.

Year Player, Pos. (high school) School Star rating*
2022 Gavin Sawchuk, RB (Valor) Oklahoma ****
2021 Terrance Ferguson, TE (Heritage) Oregon ****
2020 Andrew Gentry, OL (Columbine) Virginia ****
2019 Luke McCaffrey, QB (Valor) Nebraska ****
2018 Adrian Jackson, LB (Mullen) Oregon ****
2017 Jake Moretti, OL (Pomona) Colorado ****
2016 Carlo Kemp, DE (Fairview) Michigan ****
2015 Eric Lee, CB (Valor) Nebraska ****
2014 Christian McCaffrey, RB (Valor) Stanford ****
2013 Chris Fox, OL (Ponderosa) Michigan ****
2012 Cyler Miles, QB (Mullen) Washington ****
2011 Brendon Austin, OL (Chaparral) Stanford ****
2010 Chris Martin, DE (Grandview) Florida ****

*Per 247Sports.com composite rankings

Snooze lands at Denver International Airport in time for travel’s big return

United flyers will notice an extra perk this summer with the addition of Snooze An A.M. Eatery inside Denver International Airport.

The Denver-born breakfast chain now has 48 locations across the U.S., but this is the first airport landing for the brand. Snooze is pulling into the mezzanine of B Concourse — home to United Airlines — starting at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, June 23.

“Denver holds a special place in our hearts as it’s the birthplace of Snooze,” David Birzon, Snooze CEO, said in a statement. “It means a lot to us to be given the opportunity to establish a location within Denver International Airport, where travelers from all over the world will get to experience Snooze, many for the first time.”

Snooze’s motto is “breakfast but different.” It serves pancake flights (pineapple upside down, blueberry danish, sweet potato), a whole list of eggs Benedict and house bloody marys, plus more boozy drinks. Denver’s airport will be home to the largest Snooze bar, with 30 seats, as well as a large dining room open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Brothers Jon and Adam Schlegel founded Snooze in Denver in 2006; now the city is home to nine Snooze locations, including the latest at DEN. The breakfast business focuses on sustainability and giving back to its communities by donating 1% of revenue. In 2019, Snooze donated $1 million to various non-profits.

Check snoozeeatery.com for updates to hours and menus.

Subscribe to our food newsletter, Stuffed, to get Denver food and drink news sent straight to your inbox. 

 

Colorado wildfires: Blazes continue to spark and spread, with much of the state under red flag conditions

The Front Range once again has felt the effects of wildfires burning in Colorado and across the Southwest.

Heavy smoke moved into Denver on Monday night, coming from a fire that sparked Sunday. Another blaze discovered in Eagle county on Sunday spread, bringing a smoke plume over Colorado Springs.

Currently, 47 large fires have burned 519,761 acres across the country, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

In 2021, 29,149 fires have combined to burn 1,118,377 acres, forcing the NIFC to declare preparedness Level 4 for the second earliest time since 1990. That entails “three or more geographic areas experiencing large, complex wildfires requiring incident management teams. Geographic areas are competing for wildland fire suppression resources and about 60% of the country’s wildland firefighting personnel are committed to wildland fire incidents.”

In Colorado, five active fires are have burned a combined 13,221 acres, according to the NIFC.

“An upper low will remain off the California coast with upper ridging over the Intermountain West,” the NIFC wrote in its Tuesday fire forecast. “Dry and windy conditions will continue for the southern Great Basin into the Colorado West Slope. Thunderstorms are likely near and east of the Continental Divide in Colorado and New Mexico.”

The National Weather Service in Boulder issued a red flag warning for nearly the entire western half of Colorado, mirrored by the significant drought those regions face.

Single-digit relative humidity, dry thunderstorms, and strong gusts are predicted for much of Colorado Tuesday afternoon. The widespread but scattered storms will bring gusty and erratic outflow winds.

Here’s the latest on some of the fires burning in Colorado:

Oil Springs fire

The largest of the wildfires currently burning in Colorado is the Oil Springs fire in Rio Blanco County. It stands at 7,183 acres and 0% containment, with lightning being the suspected spark on June 18.

West fire

The West fire has grown to 3,000 acres and has no containment. The fire is burning mostly on Bureau of Land Management land on Middle Mountain, about 100 miles northwest of Craig, near Utah and Wyoming. The fire has exploded, growing from around 700 acres just 24 hours ago. About 120 people are working the fire.

Sylvan fire

The Sylvan fire, which may have been started by lightning, is burning 12 miles south of Eagle. It grew to about 2,630 acres by Tuesday morning, rapidly spreading since it began Sunday. Nearly 70 people are working the blaze.


Wildfire map

Click markers for details, use buttons to change what wildfires are shown. Map data is automatically updated by government agencies and could lag real-time events. Incident types are numbered 1-5 — a type 1 incident is a large, complex wildfire affecting people and critical infrastructure, a type 5 incident is a small wildfire with few personnel involved. Find more information about incident types at the bottom of this page.

How Big Tech created a data “treasure trove” for police

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — When U.S. law enforcement officials need to cast a wide net for information, they’re increasingly turning to the vast digital ponds of personal data created by Big Tech companies via the devices and online services that have hooked billions of people around the world.

Data compiled by four of the biggest tech companies shows that law enforcement requests for user information — phone calls, emails, texts, photos, shopping histories, driving routes and more — have more than tripled in the U.S. since 2015. Police are also increasingly savvy about covering their tracks so as not to alert suspects of their interest.

That’s the backdrop for recent revelations that the Trump-era U.S. Justice Department sought data from Apple, Microsoft and Google about members of Congress, their aides and news reporters in leak investigations — then pursued court orders that blocked those companies from informing their targets.

In just the first half of 2020 — the most recent data available — Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft together fielded more than 112,000 data requests from local, state and federal officials. The companies agreed to hand over some data in 85% of those cases. Facebook, including its Instagram service, accounted for the largest number of disclosures.

Consider Newport, Rhode Island, a coastal city of 24,000 residents that attracts a flood of summer tourists. Fewer than 100 officers patrol the city — but they make multiple requests a week for online data from tech companies.

That’s because most crimes – from larceny and financial scams to a recent fatal house party stabbing at a vacation rental booked online – can be at least partly traced on the internet. Tech providers, especially social media platforms, offer a “treasure trove of information” that can help solve them, said Lt. Robert Salter, a supervising police detective in Newport.

“Everything happens on Facebook,” Salter said. “The amount of information you can get from people’s conversations online — it’s insane.”

As ordinary people have become increasingly dependent on Big Tech services to help manage their lives, American law enforcement officials have grown far more savvy about technology than they were five or six years ago, said Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group.

That’s created what Cohn calls “the golden age of government surveillance.” Not only has it become far easier for police to trace the online trails left by suspects, they can also frequently hide their requests by obtaining gag orders from judges and magistrates. Those orders block Big Tech companies from notifying the target of a subpoena or warrant of law enforcement’s interest in their information — contrary to the companies’ stated policies.

Of course, there’s often a reason for such secrecy, said Andrew Pak, a former federal prosecutor. It helps prevent investigations getting sidetracked because someone learns about it, he said –“the target, perhaps, or someone close to it.”

Longstanding opposition to such gag orders has recently resurfaced in the wake of the Trump-era orders. Apple in 2018 shared phone and account data generated by two Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee, but the politicians didn’t find out until May, once a series of gag orders expired.

Microsoft also shared data about a congressional aide and had to wait more than two years before telling that person. Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president, last week called for an end to the overuse of secret gag orders, arguing in a Washington Post opinion piece that “prosecutors too often are exploiting technology to abuse our fundamental freedoms.”

Critics like Cohn have called for revision of U.S. surveillance laws drawn up years ago when the police and prosecutors typically had to deliver warrants to the home of the person being targeted for searches. Now that most personal information is now kept in the equivalent of vast digital storehouses controlled by Big Tech companies, such searches can proceed in secret.

“Our surveillance laws are really based on the idea that if something is really important, we store it at home, and that doesn’t pass the giggle test these days,” Cohn said. “It’s just not true.”

Many tech companies are quick to point out that the majority of the information they are forced to share is considered “non-content” data. But that can include useful details such as the basic personal details you supply when you register for an account, or the metadata that shows if and when you called or messaged someone, though not what you said to them.

Law enforcement can also ask tech companies to preserve any data generated by a particular user, which prevents the target from deleting it. Doing so doesn’t require a search warrant or any judicial oversight, said Armin Tadayon, a cybersecurity associate at advisory firm the Brunswick Group.

If police later find reasonable grounds for conducting a search, they can return with a warrant and seize the preserved data. If not, the provider deletes the copies and “the user likely never finds out,” Tadayon said.

In Newport, getting a search warrant for richer online data isn’t that difficult. Salter said it requires a quick trip to a nearby courthouse to seek a judge’s approval; some judges are also available after hours for emergency requests. And if a judge finds there is probable cause to search through online data, tech companies almost always comply.

“Most of the companies do play ball,” Salter said. “We can speak with people, get questions answered. They’re usually pretty helpful.”

Nearly all big tech companies — from Amazon to rental sites like Airbnb, ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft and service providers like Verizon — now have teams to respond to such requests and regularly publish reports about how much they disclosed. Some of the most dramatic increases in requests have been to tech companies that cater to younger people.

As the messaging app Snapchat has grown in popularity, so have government requests for its data. Snap, the company behind the app, fielded nearly 17,000 data requests in the first six months of 2020, compared to 762 in the same period of 2015.

Salter said the fact that we’re all doing so much online means police detectives need to stay tech-savvy. But training courses for how to file such requests aren’t hard to find.

For those worried about the growing volume of online data sought by law enforcement, Salter said: “Don’t commit crimes and don’t use your computer and phones to do it.”

“Judges are not going to sign off on something if we don’t have probable cause to go forward,” he said. “We’re not going to look at people’s information without having something to go on.”

But Cohn said more tech companies should be using encryption technology to make all personal information, including metadata, virtually impossible to decipher without a user key to unlock it.

Until then, she said, police can short circuit constitutional protections against unreasonable searches “by just going to the company instead of coming directly to us.”

Liedtke reported from San Ramon, California.

Background checks blocked a record high 300,000 gun sales

SALT LAKE CITY — The number of people stopped from buying guns through the U.S. background check system hit an all-time high of more than 300,000 last year amid a surge of firearm sales, according to new records obtained by the group Everytown for Gun Safety.

The FBI numbers provided to The Associated Press show the background checks blocked nearly twice as many gun sales in 2020 as in the year before. About 42% of those denials were because the would-be buyers had felony convictions on their records.

The increase in blocked gun sales largely tracks with the record-setting surge in sales that took hold along with the coronavirus pandemic and has continued into this year, through historic demonstrations against police brutality, deep political divisions and an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

It comes as Congress has failed to pass major legislation on guns despite the Democratic majority and President Joe Biden’s push. A bill that would strengthen background checks is stalled in the Senate. The House in March passed the legislation requiring the checks on all sales and transfers, as well as an expanded 10-day review for gun purchases. Most states require background checks only for sales at federally licensed dealers. But the legislation faces an uphill battle getting any Republican support in the Senate.

According to the data, the rate of barred would-be gun buyers also increased somewhat over the previous two years, from about 0.6% to 0.8%. That could be in part because many of the people who tried to get guns in 2020 were buying them for the first time and may not have been aware that they were legally barred from owning them, said Adam Winkler, a UCLA Law professor specializing in gun policy.

“Some may have a felony conviction on their record and not think about it,” he said.

Making a false statement in connection with a background check is a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a hefty fine, but few people are prosecuted for what would amount to lying on the form filled out before a gun purchase, he said.

In 2017, just 12 of the 112,000 people denied a gun purchase, about 0.01%, were federally prosecuted, largely due to limited resources for the time-intensive investigations, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report.

Everytown’s research found that 16% of would-be gun buyers in 2020 were prohibited by state law, like the extreme-risk protection orders or red-flag laws passed in several states. Another 12% were related to domestic violence, either people subject to a protective order or convicted of a misdemeanor domestic violence crime.

The data shows how necessary the legislation is, said Sarah Burd-Sharps, Everytown’s director of research.

“There’s no question that background checks work, but the system is working overtime to prevent a record number of people with dangerous prohibitors from being able to buy firearms,” she said in a statement. “The loopholes in the law allow people to avoid the system, even if they just meet online or at a gun show for the first time.”

Gun rights groups have pushed back against the proposal, and Alan Gottlieb, founder of the group the Second Amendment Foundation, said the increase in denials might be partly because more states have been updating their records of restricted people. There are sometimes false positives as well, he said. “A day doesn’t go by that our office doesn’t get complaint calls from people who’ve been denied wrongly,” he said.

The data also comes as a growing number of conservative-leaning states drop requirements for people to get background checks and training to carry guns in public.

Texas last week became the latest state of about 20 to drop permitting requirements amid a push that began gathering steam several years ago. Gun rights groups say those requirements are an unfair burden for law-abiding gun owners, but firearm safety groups worry it’s a dangerous trend that will allow more firearms in the wrong hands.

Denial data is released by the FBI, but the information collected by Everytown breaks it down by year and includes data from states such as California and Florida, which conduct their own background checks.

Banks slowly offer alternatives to overdraft fees, a bane of struggling spenders

By Tara Siegel Bernard, The New York Times

In less than a week, Keri Fitzpatrick, a self-described lunch lady, was dinged for $175 she definitely didn’t have.

A succession of automated payments over two days — for her phone, two credit cards and car insurance — pushed her TD Bank account into the red, socking her with $140 in overdraft fees. Then another unexplained fee surfaced Friday, even though her paycheck had landed and she couldn’t find any other pending charges.

Fitzpatrick, 29, said she should’ve been paying closer attention — she assumed she had more money in her account. But she still couldn’t believe how quickly the charges piled up.

“It’s not like one fee comes out for one day. It is $35 for each of those,” said Fitzpatrick, of Peterborough, New Hampshire, who oversees a middle school cafeteria. “It is just outrageous.”

Overdraft fees, initially marketed as a convenience, have proliferated in the past quarter-century. Rather than bouncing a check or other payment, these programs reassure customers that a bill won’t go unpaid or an emergency purchase won’t be denied — even though they can turn a $3 coffee into a $38 extravagance.

Since then, overdraft protections have become known as an aggressive way to siphon fees from consumers. Although customers must opt in to overdraft protections for debit or ATM withdrawals, banks don’t need their permission to charge fees for online payments or checks instead of letting them bounce.

All told, overdraft fees are worth billions of dollars to banks each year. Overdraft charges were so lucrative to one midsize institution that its CEO once named his boat after them.

But the tide may be changing: An increasing number of banks are introducing services, including grace periods and small short-term loans, that provide less-punitive alternatives — if users qualify. Generally, that means having a consistent deposit history, such as regular paychecks, or other qualifications that may include a long-standing account.

No electronic distribution, Web posting or ...
Tristan Spinski, The New York Times

Gerard Cassidy, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets, at his office in Portland, Maine, Aug. 21, 2014. Cassidy said that overdraft fees weren’t going away but that fewer customers might have to pay them as banks offered attractive alternatives.

The biggest shift occurred this month when Ally Bank said it would eliminate its $25 overdraft fee altogether, giving customers six days to get in the black again before it potentially limits how they use their accounts.

A number of other banks are taking smaller but still notable steps. PNC Bank introduced a “low cash mode” service that alerts customers when their balance drops to $50, and again when it goes negative. If that happens, they have at least 24 hours to make it right before they are hit with a $36 fee, capped at one a day.

Bank of America introduced a credit line called Balance Assist in October: For a $5 fee, customers can borrow up to $500 that they must repay in equal installments over the next three months.

And in May, Chime, a popular financial technology firm that offers banking services, increased the limit of its SpotMe overdraft service to $200, which is recouped from the customer’s next paycheck.

“It’s a very low-cost thing for us to do that creates tons of goodwill,” said Chime CEO Chris Britt.

Together, these changes are a meaningful shift in the way banks deal with customers who can least afford these fees, including a disproportionate number of lower-income Black and Latino households.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that frequent overdrafters — those with 10 or more annual occurrences — made up only 9% of all bank accounts but paid 79% of all overdraft and nonsufficient-fund fees, according to a 2017 analysis that studied data from several large banks.

“Overdraft is often serving as a very expensive form of credit,” said Alex Horowitz, a senior officer for Pew Charitable Trusts. A third of overdrafters treat the programs as a way to borrow small amounts of money because they don’t have access to more traditional forms of credit, according to a report from the charity’s consumer finance project.

Despite the fine print of newer overdraft-avoidance services, Horowitz said they were likely to help habitual overdrafters because the programs were largely based on account history, which tends to be more accommodating than credit scores.

Overdraft fees have been a boon to banks. Revenue was $31.3 billion in 2020, according to Moebs Services, an economic research firm, down 10% from $34.6 billion in 2019. (Banks account for 78% of overdraft and insufficient-fund fees, followed by credit unions at 20% and savings banks and fintechs at less than 2%.)

Overdraft fees peaked at $37.1 billion in 2009 and then began to decline after new regulations required banks to receive consumers’ consent to opt in to overdraft services covering debit transactions and ATM withdrawals. These recent moves by banks could push that number down further: PNC, for example, said its low-cash alert program would cost it up to $150 million a year in revenue.

“We do expect an evolution of these products that allow customers to avoid having to pay an overdraft fee,” said Gerard Cassidy, head of U.S. bank equity strategy at RBC Capital Markets.

Consumer advocates say financially vulnerable consumers shouldn’t have to rely on the magnanimity of banking executives and have urged regulators to tighten the overdraft rules, which were last addressed more than a decade ago.

“The most egregious practices are largely the same as they have been for nearly 20 years,” said Rebecca Borné, a senior policy counsel at the Center for Responsible Lending, an advocacy group. “Charging a fee averaging $35 apiece for things that cost the bank very little, charging overdraft fees on small debit transactions, charging up to $140 in fees in a single day and calling that a limit.”

It’s not clear whether the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or other regulators will pursue any changes. “Overdrafts have the potential to be very costly for consumers,” a bureau spokesperson said, “and we are continuing to monitor market activity in this area.”

But lawmakers have taken notice. Democrats in both chambers of Congress plan to reintroduce bills that would create more overdraft protections, banning overdraft fees on debit transactions while adding other safeguards.

And during a hearing last month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., rebuked big bank executives for continuing to charge overdraft fees to struggling consumers during a pandemic.

Warren called Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, “star of the overdraft show,” noting that his bank collected nearly $1.5 billion in overdraft fees last year. (A JPMorgan spokesperson said it waived more than $430 million in overdraft fees at customers’ requests from January 2020 through March.)

Many large and regional banks offer accounts without overdraft fees, where overdrawn amounts are simply declined, but some have begun only recently: Chase began offering such account in 2019, and Wells Fargo started last year. The top 20 banks nonetheless collected about $6 billion in overdraft fees in 2020, down 32% from 2019, while the three largest banks — Bank of America, JPMorgan and Wells Fargo — accounted for $4 billion of that, Cassidy of RBC Capital said.

In many cases, however, it has been smaller banks that have netted outsize fees. Aaron Klein, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, recently found that several small banks had become “overdraft giants, relying on overdraft fees as their main source of profit.” At six banks, overdraft revenues accounted for more than half of their profit, he said.

“It is insane that our financial regulatory system has allowed these banks to operate with this business model,” Klein said.

One bank that drew scrutiny over its fees in the past is TCF National Bank, an institution whose former chief named his boat Overdraft. The bank was recently purchased by Huntington, a bank based in Columbus, Ohio. This month, Huntington said it would provide a line of credit of between $100 and $1,000 that could help consumers cover emergency expenses and avoid an overdraft if it was tapped within 24 hours. The loan is free if the customer agrees to sign up for automatic payments to pay it back over three months.

That’s in addition to an expansion last year of another consumer-friendly policy. Huntington already provided a 24-hour grace period for customers to bring their account back into balance before charging any overdraft fees. In September, it said customers wouldn’t be charged fees even if they remained $50 overdrawn, up from $5.

All of these efforts can help distressed consumers, but some consumer advocates aren’t convinced they go far enough. “Improvements like these made by a few or even a significant number of banks are not likely to add up to the systemic reform needed to stop consumers from getting hammered,” said Borné, of the Center for Responsible Lending.

So the onus remains on consumers to navigate the system and find better options where they can. Violet Rae, a 31-year-old former campaign consultant who uses gender-neutral pronouns, started using a mobile-only financial institution, Aspiration, about two years ago. It doesn’t charge for an accidental overdraft, giving users 60 days to make it up.

But the stress of experiencing repeated $36 overdraft fees from Chase in the past has stuck with Rae. Just last month, a phone alert sent Rae into a panic — their account was 47 cents overdrawn. But there was no associated overdraft charge to send their balance deeper into the red.

“It was really comforting,” Rae said, “but also really disappointing and depressing to know how many people out there are also struggling.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

For the juiciest grilled chicken, just add yogurt

By Melissa Clark, The New York Times

Of all the things to get excited about as grilling season kicks in — the crisp-edged pork butt, the herb-rubbed lamb legs, all those resplendent peppers and eggplants and burgers galore — humble chicken thighs fall to the bottom of the list.

It’s not because chicken thighs are inherently less delicious than burgers and lamb. It’s just that, being workaday staples you’re likely to whip up on any given Tuesday, they’re probably not the first thing you’re pining to throw on the grill.

This yogurt-marinated chicken aims to change all that.

With an intensely flavored marinade humming with za’atar, garlic and lemon zest, these chicken thighs are deeply savory, even when marinated for only a couple of hours. And if you accidentally overcook them — a risk faced by even the most experienced griller — the yogurt ensures they will still emerge juicy and piquant on the inside, and striped bronze and glistening on the surface.

A common marinade ingredient in South and Central Asia, yogurt has a centuries-long history of being used to tenderize meat destined for perilously high heat, like chicken tikka cooked in a tandoor or lamb kebabs seared on a charcoal grill.

Abetted by a little salt, the yogurt helps the meat retain its moisture when up against raging fire, and adds a mellow tang that you can easily perk up with whatever aromatics you have on hand. Any combination of alliums (garlic, onions, shallots) with herbs, spices and an optional chile can find a happy home in the marinade bowl. As long as you make sure to use enough salt — between 1/2 and 3/4 teaspoon salt per pound of bone-in chicken — you really can’t go wrong.

Another benefit of yogurt, according to Nik Sharma, cookbook author, food scientist and contributor to New York Times Cooking, is that it contains lactic acid, which is gentler than the vinegar and lemon juice found in other marinades. This gives you a longer window of marination time, letting you soak your meat for up to 24 hours without it getting mushy, he wrote.

All of this means you can toss everything together in the morning (or the day before) and then grill it when you’re good and hungry. Or if grilling isn’t in the cards, you can even throw the chicken under your broiler. Forgiving and adaptable, these chicken thighs will cook up beautifully textured and perfectly seasoned — no matter how you apply the heat.

Grilled Za’atar Chicken With Garlic Yogurt and Cilantro

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Total time: 30 minutes, plus marinating time

Ingredients

  • 6 garlic cloves, finely grated, pressed or minced
  • 2 lemons, zested
  • 1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro, plus additional sprigs for garnish
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, more for serving
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons za’atar, more for serving
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano or marjoram, plus additional sprigs for garnish
  • 1 3/4 teaspoons salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 1/4 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs

Preparation

1. In a large bowl or container, stir together 5 of the grated garlic cloves, half the lemon zest, 1/3 cup yogurt, the cilantro, oil, za’atar, oregano or marjoram, salt and black pepper. Add chicken and toss until well coated. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or overnight.

2. When ready to cook, light the grill to medium or heat your broiler with the rack 3 inches from the heat source. Remove chicken from bowl, shaking off any excess marinade, and grill or broil on one side until charred in spots, 5 to 8 minutes. Flip the chicken and grill or broil for another 5 to 8 minutes, until just cooked through.

3. While the chicken is cooking, place remaining 2/3 cup yogurt in a small bowl. Stir in the reserve grated garlic clove and lemon zest, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cut one zested lemon in half and set aside for serving (save the other zested lemon for another use).

4. To serve, place chicken on a serving platter and drizzle with olive oil and a large squeeze of the zested lemon. Top with cilantro and oregano or marjoram sprigs and serve with yogurt sauce.

Tip: If you’re broiling instead of grilling, you can line your sheet pan with foil for easier clean up. Don’t use parchment paper, it may burn.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.