From royal splits to PR crises, Queen Elizabeth had a rough 2020. But the pandemic gave her renewed relevance.

By Max Foster and Lauren Said-Moorhouse, CNN

London (CNN) — 2020 was a tumultuous year for most people, and that’s no less true for Queen Elizabeth II.

Britain’s monarch has long occupied two roles — one as the head of the state and nation, the other as the head of her own family — and over the past 12 months she has been forced to confront crises on both fronts.

Here’s a look back at one of the Queen’s most challenging years to date.

A rocky start

The new year was barely underway when Prince Harry and his wife Meghan announced to the world — and the rest of the family — they were quitting their roles as senior royals.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex said in a bombshell statement on their official Instagram account on January 8 they hoped to continue supporting the monarch but wanted to seek financial autonomy. The pair credited the Queen with providing the encouragement “particularly over the last few years” that led them to make such a dramatic announcement.

But CNN understands conversations over the couple’s future were already underway and the Queen was “disappointed” that her grandson had opted to reveal as much publicly. The monarch had explicitly told Harry to continue negotiations privately and was said to been left “upset.”

Prince Harry and Meghan depart Canada House on January 7 in London, England.”

Prince Harry and Meghan depart Canada House on January 7 in London, England.

Harry and Meghan had hoped to carve out a role the establishment had never seen before, a hybrid position where they would choose which formal positions they would keep and which they would leave behind while they developed their own private income streams and independence. It’s clear they also felt unsupported and unprotected by the palace machinery against what they felt was a constant barrage of media abuse and lies.

Related: Harry and Meghan’s decision to step back has been on the cards for some time

But royal roles are in the gift of the monarch, and the Sussexes’ “half-in, half-out” model wasn’t seen as workable. The Queen was left in the uncomfortable predicament of trying to give her beloved grandson what he wanted without compromising the institution. It was perhaps the most delicate moment for the British monarchy since the aftermath of Diana’s death in 1997.

The situation culminated in a crisis summit at her Sandringham residence where she was joined by the heir to the throne Prince Charles, his elder son Prince William and Harry. In a statement after the meeting, the Queen said Harry, Meghan and their son Archie would “always be much loved members of my family.”

“I recognize the challenges they have experienced as a result of intense scrutiny over the last two years and support their wish for a more independent life,” she said. “I want to thank them for all their dedicated work across this country, the Commonwealth and beyond, and am particularly proud of how Meghan has so quickly become one of the family.”

The terms of the split stipulated that while the pair would always remain part of the family, they would no longer use their HRH titles; they would receive financial assistance from Charles, and could supplement their income with appropriate opportunities.

Harry’s frustration over the result was evident. “It brings me great sadness that it has come to this. The decision that I have made for my wife and I to step back is not one I made lightly,” he told a charity event in London in late January.

“Our hope was to continue serving the Queen, the Commonwealth, and my military associations, but without public funding. Unfortunately, that wasn’t possible.”

By the end of March, Harry and Meghan’s transition out of their royal roles was complete. The current arrangements are due to be reviewed by the Sussexes and the rest of the family in March.

It was a dramatic start to the year, but arguably left the monarchy in a stronger position. The Crown can modernize as much as it likes, but ultimately it’s built on a hierarchy, and the direct line of succession — Elizabeth, Charles and William — showed a united front.

Related: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s media empire expands with Spotify podcast deal

Charles catches Covid-19

Having settled the family drama, the Queen was immediately presented with one the biggest crises she’s ever faced as head of nation — keeping everyone united as the Covid-19 pandemic hit and the country went into an uncomfortable lockdown.

As Covid-19 spread through the UK, she was prevented from doing what she does best when her busy diary of public engagements was suddenly curtailed. She made the decision to relocate from Buckingham Palace in London to form a bubble in Windsor with Prince Philip and key staff “as a sensible precaution.”

Prince Charles is seen on a monitor as he speaks during the opening of the “NHS Nightingale” field hospital, at the ExCeL London exhibition center, in London on April 3.

Those words rang true days later, when Prince Charles announced he had tested positive for the coronavirus. The Prince of Wales was said to have had only mild symptoms and is otherwise in good health, but the mere fact that the 71-year-old was unwell emphasized to all how the virus did not discriminate.

William also caught Covid-19 in the spring, but only revealed it later in the year, telling an “observer” that he opted not to go public with his diagnosis because “there were important things going on and I didn’t want to worry anyone.” His decision to initially withhold news of his illness from the public sparked some criticism.

Related: Why wasn’t the UK public told about Prince William’s Covid diagnosis?

Royal resilience

As cases and deaths from the virus across the UK started to spiral in April, so too did criticism of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic. In co-ordination with Downing Street, the Queen agreed to address the nation in a televised speech.

“I am speaking to you at what I know is an increasingly challenging time. A time of disruption in the life of our country: a disruption that has brought grief to some, financial difficulties to many, and enormous changes to the daily lives of us all,” the Queen said in early April.

The Queen seldom makes national addresses, save for Christmas and when a new Parliament is installed. The moment was a somber but reassuring acknowledgment of the hardships society was facing. News channels the world over — including CNN — broke in as the pre-recorded video was broadcast to the UK and the 54 nations of the Commonwealth.

In the speech, she drew on her first broadcast alongside her sister Princess Margaret in 1940 to relay that the nation and those watching would overcome the current crisis.

“We, as children, spoke from here at Windsor to children who had been evacuated from their homes and sent away for their own safety. Today, once again, many will feel a painful sense of separation from their loved ones. But now, as then, we know, deep down, that it is the right thing to do,” she said, while also thanking frontline healthcare professionals.

Royal expert and historian Kate Williams said the speech sounded a note of hope that many Britons needed to hear in that moment.

“It’s so rare that she gives an address [and] the address she gave was so striking,” Williams said. “It was dark days when everyone was very isolated, [and] couldn’t go out at all … it was a quite brilliantly delivered speech.”

That optimistic sentiment — which she would echo in other 2020 speeches marking events like Easter and the 75th anniversary of VE Day — reasserted her role as a hands-on leader and set the tone for how she and her family would conduct themselves for the remainder of the year. After imploring the public to remain at home, the royal family transitioned from walkabouts to video calls, embracing a new work-from-home life like millions of other Britons.

“We all knew Brexit was coming, but Covid is what we didn’t see coming … the Queen feels it’s her job to lead by example and to hold leaders to account,” Williams said. “I don’t think it’s been easy for her not being able to have face-to-face meetings with the Prime Minister — that’s what she prefers.

“This is one of the great crises of recent British history. More people have died than in the Blitz. It is like the war. I don’t think that she thought she was going to have a quiet few years in her 90s but … a lot of what she’s seen are political crises and diplomatic conflicts and conflicts, and this is very different. It cannot be solved by getting people together around a table.”

A new normal

The Queen would not reopen the royal diary of engagements until July 17, when she knighted Captain Thomas Moore — the 100-year-old World War II veteran who had raised millions for the UK’s National Health Service. Hours earlier, she had attended a private wedding ceremony for her granddaughter Princess Beatrice. And as the spring wave finally abated, members of the royal family resumed socially distanced engagements with the public at foodbanks, hospitals and businesses hit by the pandemic.

Williams said it has always been very important to the Queen to be there for the public and it will have been hard for her that Covid has limited her movements. She says the Queen knows for monarchy to work “it needs to be seen.”

“It’s part of the contract it has with the people. It doesn’t work if you just sit in the palace,” she added. “Monarchy has had to completely reinvent in the same way that businesses have had to.”

It hasn’t been a year entirely untainted by scandal: lingering questions remain over Prince Andrew’s relationship with the late American financier Jeffrey Epstein. The Queen never said anything publicly about the matter, but she made a major statement in accepting what was billed as Andrew’s decision to step back from public duties. The move came in the wake of Andrew’s disastrous interview with the BBC in late 2019, when he denied having sex with an underage girl and said he had seen nothing suspicious when he was around Epstein, a convicted pedophile. It would have been a painful decision for both Andrew and his mother but ultimately one that again she felt was right for the institution.

The latter part of the year also saw the family face several other challenges.

In October, the Queen undertook her first public engagement since the spring lockdown — a visit to Porton Down science park in southern England with William. But she was criticized by some for not wearing a mask despite a resurgence in the virus. In response, Buckingham Palace said the Queen had chosen to forego a mask after consulting her own medics and scientists at the military research facility. Social distancing guidelines were in place at the event and everyone the British monarch met had tested negative for the virus. A month later, she appeared in a mask for the first time at a commemorative ceremony in London.

The Queen during a ceremony in Westminster Abbey to mark the centenary of the burial of the Unknown Warrior on November 4.

The latest installment of “The Crown” brought a fresh flurry of international interest to palace gates in November. The fourth season of the Netflix drama heralded the arrival of Princess Diana, and painted Charles as a petulant prince and cruel husband. Critics said the portrayal of Charles — along with a number of other scenes — was inaccurate, and it prompted a call from one UK government official for Netflix to tack an extra disclaimer onto each episode of series.

“It’s a beautifully produced work of fiction, so as with other TV productions, Netflix should be very clear at the beginning it is just that,” Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden told the UK’s Mail on Sunday. “Without this, I fear a generation of viewers who did not live through these events may mistake fiction for fact.” Netflix refused to add the warning to the show.

And in December, several family members were accused of breaking coronavirus regulations. In pictures published by The Mail Online, William and his family appeared to be walking alongside his uncle Prince Edward and his family during an outing to a Christmas-themed woodland walk. The photographs seemingly contravened England virus rules, which limits outdoor gatherings to just six people.

The Queen and members of the royal family gave thanks to local volunteers and key workers for their work in helping others during the coronavirus pandemic and over Christmas at Windsor Castle on December 8.

Like millions of Britons, the monarch sacrificed the traditional holiday festivities with her family at Sandringham. Instead, for the first time in 33 years, she remained at Windsor with 99-year-old Prince Philip.

The situation is a fitting way to end the year, according to royal historian Williams. “It’s unprecedented for them to be spending it just the two of them. Even in the war, [Christmas] was a big family time,” she said.

The Queen acknowledged what a sad and unusual festive season it would be for many in her annual Christmas speech, assuring those missing out on time with loved ones, and whose only wish was for “a simple hug or a squeeze of the hand,” that “you are not alone.”

This year has seen the world grapple with something nobody could have predicted 12 months ago. For the Queen’s part, she has reaffirmed her position as the unifier-in-chief for family, and for nation.

At a time in her life when she might be expected to step back, the Queen has shown she is still in charge, even as she delegates more duties to Charles and William. Any rumors that she plans to abdicate and handover the crown have been quashed for another year.


Trump signs coronavirus relief and government funding bill into law after lengthy delay

By Kevin Liptak, Kate Bennett, Tami Luhby, Kaitlan Collins, Jason Hoffman, Phil Mattingly and Jeremy Diamond, CNN

(CNN) — President Donald Trump signed the massive $2.3 trillion coronavirus relief and government funding bill into law Sunday night, averting a government shutdown that was set to begin on Tuesday, and extending billions of dollars in coronavirus aid to millions.

Trump’s signature of the $900 billion Covid relief package extends unemployment benefits for millions of jobless gig-workers and independent contractors, as well as the long-term unemployed.

The estimated 12 million people in two key pandemic unemployment programs, who were facing their last payment this weekend, will now receive benefits for another 11 weeks. Plus, all those collecting jobless payments will receive a $300 weekly federal boost through mid-March.

When will you get a second stimulus check?”

However, because Trump did not sign the bill on Saturday, those in the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation programs will likely not receive a payment for the final week of the year. And the $300 federal enhancement may only last 10 weeks instead of 11 weeks for most folks. That’s because states can’t provide benefits for weeks that start before programs are authorized, but the legislation calls for the extra payments to end on March 14.

Also, because Congress waited until late December to strike a deal, those in the two pandemic unemployment programs will likely experience a break in payments of several weeks while state agencies reprogram their computers. But the benefits are retroactive.

The Covid-19 relief legislation was passed by Congress on Monday and was flown to Mar-a-Lago on Thursday to await Trump’s signature. But after sitting on the sidelines during the negotiations, Trump emerged with an eleventh-hour complaint that a separate provision in the deal, which the President’s own White House helped broker, would only provide up to $600 in direct payments. Trump wanted to send out $2,000 checks. Trump also took umbrage with certain items that were actually from the omnibus spending package and which he had requested in his annual budget to Congress.

Trump signaled in a statement Sunday night that he signed the coronavirus relief bill only after securing a commitment for the Senate to consider legislation to increase stimulus checks from $600 to $2,000. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, however, did not reference that commitment in his own statement Sunday night praising the President for signing the relief bill.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had seized on Trump’s call for $2,000 checks last week and brought to the floor a standalone bill that would have boosted the amount for relief checks on Thursday. House Republicans, however, objected to the bill over deficit concerns.

The Democratic-led House is set to vote on the expansion of the direct payments on Monday.

Calling the President’s signing of the relief bill “welcome news” for Americans whose benefits had lapsed, Pelosi said in a statement Sunday that Trump should “immediately call” on Republicans “to end their obstruction and to join him and Democrats in support of our stand-alone legislation to increase direct payment checks to $2,000.”

Here’s what’s in the second stimulus package.

Trump also claimed that the Senate will consider legislation that “repeals Section 230, and starts an investigation into voter fraud,” though it is not clear what that legislation would be. There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in November’s election.

Trump last week vetoed the National Defense Authorization Act — which passed both chambers of Congress with veto-proof majorities — in part because of his frustration over Section 230, a law that shields internet companies from liability for what is posted on their websites by them or third parties. The House is expected to act Monday to override Trump’s veto. But House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has suggested many Republicans won’t vote to override Trump’s veto, despite having voted for the bill itself, so it’s unclear if the override attempt will be successful or if the veto will stand.

Trump also said in his Sunday statement that he would submit a request for Congress to cut specific spending items in the Covid relief and government funding package, a nod to his litany of complaints about foreign aid. But that request, beyond freezing new spending on the specified items for a period of 45 days, will have no meaningful effect. Trump will be out of office before Congress could act on any of his requests.

Unemployment benefits and eviction protections extended

Trump chooses chaos with delayed signature of Covid relief bill

The relief package extends two programs that were part of the historic expansion of the nation’s unemployment system that Congress enacted as part of the $2 trillion CARES Act in late March.

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program allowed independent contractors, the self-employed, freelancers and gig workers to qualify for up to 39 weeks of payments. It also opened up the program to those who can’t work because of the pandemic, including if they or family members are ill or quarantining or if their children’s schools are closed.

And the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program provided an additional 13 weeks of federally paid benefits to those who run out of state payments, which typically last 26 weeks. The programs technically would have expired on December 31.

The third CARES Act measure — an extra $600 a week in federal payments — expired at the end of July.

The new stimulus deal extends the two pandemic programs for up to 11 weeks. Each closes to new applicants on March 14, but continues through April 5 for existing claimants who have not yet reached the maximum number of weeks.

The relief package also extends eviction protection to January 31 and provides $25 billion in rental assistance for those who lost their sources of income during the pandemic.

A US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order halting some evictions was set to expire at the end of the year. Since the order does not cancel or freeze rent, all of a tenant’s back rent would have been due January 1 if the moratorium had been allowed to expire. Without rent relief or an extension of the protection, many struggling renters would again face eviction.

An estimated 9.2 million renters who have lost employment income during the pandemic are behind on rent, or 23% of such renters, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

A lengthy delay

Trump signed the bill almost a week after calling it a “disgrace” and demanding Congress amend the legislation. Trump’s complaints came only after Congress passed the bill with a veto-proof majority and after the President stood on the sidelines during weeks of negotiations.

Aides had prepared for the President to sign the bill as early as Christmas Eve, when it arrived at Mar-a-Lago for his signature. But the plan was scrapped at the last minute, two sources with knowledge of the circumstances told CNN.

In anticipation of the signing, the smaller of Mar-a-Lago’s two ballrooms was prepped for a 7 p.m. ceremony, complete with a desk and chair for Trump to sit, and his customary pens at the ready, according to the source.

However, as the hour approached, aides were informed the President would not be signing the relief bill that evening. One source told CNN that Trump had “changed his mind.”

The country, Congress and many of Trump’s closest aides and advisers had remained in the dark as to what he intended to do. He had not offered any clarity since posting the video objecting to the bill on Tuesday night.

When a deal was struck between congressional leaders, Trump’s aides had signed off believing the President was on board, though two officials previously told CNN they did not believe he was walked through the package in detail.

In fact, throughout his video message asking Congress to amend it, Trump railed against several provisions that were part of the omnibus spending bill, not the Covid relief bill.

“It is called the Covid relief bill, but it has almost nothing to do with Covid,” the President said at one point.

While the omnibus spending bill — which appropriates money for all the federal agencies for the rest of the fiscal year — was combined with the stimulus deal, funds allocated to the omnibus bill don’t mean less is available for the Covid relief bill.

Still, the President had publicly maintained his opposition to the legislation — leaving small business support, jobless benefits and relief checks for millions of Americans in limbo.

You can now get Scotch whisky KitKats — but only in Japan

By Rob Picheta, CNN

(CNN) — Nestlé has launched an elaborate new line of KitKats in Japan, using chocolate aged for six months in whisky barrels in Scotland.

The gourmet bars are available only for the winter season in the country, and use cacao nibs shipped over from Islay — home to a number of ancient distilleries.

The company says the new bar is “a bitter chocolate for adults that lets consumers enjoy a hint of refined whisky aroma and taste.”

The Scottish island of Islay is home to several ancient distilleries.

“During the 180-day period, whisky barrels are manually rotated at a pace of once a week and this puts all of the cacao nibs in the barrel into contact with the whisky barrel’s interior,” the company said.

The bars are only available online in whisky-loving Japan and from KitKat’s speciality Chocolatory shops, located in a handful of Japanese cities, at a price of 300 yen ($2.90).

The chocolate was aged under the supervision of Japanese chef Yasumasa Takagi, the company said.

Production on some of Scotland’s world-renowned whisky islands has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, with travel to the locations being sealed off and bars and restaurants across the UK closed in response to the virus.

In 2019, the country exported 1.3 billion bottles to 175 markets around the world, bringing in £4.9 billion ($6.5 billion) to its economy.

Ardbeg, Lagavulin and Laphroaig are all produced on Islay, with production of each whisky lined up on a narrow two-mile stretch of coastal road on Islay’s southern shore.

But the entire island was sealed off during the British lockdown earlier this year; the only ferries that arrived were delivering supplies, and the only people allowed off-island were those with medical emergencies.

Shut down by corona, Berlin restaurant opens for homeless


BERLIN (AP) — The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t made life on the streets of Berlin any easier for Kaspars Breidaks.

For three months, the 43-year-old Latvian has faced homeless shelters operating at reduced capacity so that people can be kept at a safe distance from one another. And with fewer Berliners going outdoors, it’s much harder to raise money by panhandling or collecting bottles to sell for recycling.

But on a chilly winter morning this week Breidaks found himself with a free hot meal and a place to warm up, after the German capital’s biggest restaurant, the Hofbraeu Berlin — itself closed down due to coronavirus lockdown restrictions — shifted gears to help the homeless.

“Other homeless people at the train station told me about this place,” Breidaks said, removing a furry black hat with long ear flaps as he sat on a bench in the warm, spacious beer hall near Berlin’s landmark Alexanderplatz square. “I came here for hot soup.”

It was a restaurant employee who volunteers at a shelter who proposed opening up the shuttered Bavarian-style beer hall — patterned after the famous Munich establishment of the same name — to the homeless.

It was a clear win-win proposition, said Hofbraeu manager Bjoern Schwarz. As well as helping out the homeless during tough times the city-funded project also gives needed work to employees — and provides the restaurant with welcome income.

In cooperation with the city and two welfare organizations, the restaurant quickly developed a concept to take in up to 150 homeless people in two shifts every day until the end of the winter, and started serving meals on Tuesday.

It’s only a small number compared with the 3,000 restaurant guests, primarily tourists, who would pack the establishment during good times. But the spacious halls have proved perfectly suited to bring in the homeless and give them each plenty of space to avoid infections.

“Normally, during Christmas time, we would have many groups here for Christmas parties and then we’d serve pork knuckles, half a duck or goose … but not at the moment,” said Schwarz. “We’re still doing delivery, but obviously that’s only a drop in the bucket.”

In addition to serving food and non-alcoholic drinks and offering the warmth of indoors, the restaurant provides its bathrooms for the homeless to wash up, and the GEBEWO and Berlin Kaeltehilfe relief groups have workers on hand to provide counseling and new clothes, if needed.

For its new clientele, the restaurant opened a second-floor, wooden-decorated hall, and put up 40 long tables.

“We’ll offer them something different from the regular soup kitchen food — real dishes on porcelain plates, with different sides, we’ll try to offer Christmas-style dishes with lot of flavors,” Schwarz said.

Breidaks came to Germany three months ago looking for work. But he says a promised meat factory job never materialized and he ended up on the streets of Berlin begging for the money needed to replace a stolen passport and buy a bus ticket back home.

He’s one of an estimated 2,000 to 12,000 people who remain homeless in this city of 3.6 million, even after another 34,000 were put up in community shelters, hostels and apartments by social services and private welfare groups.

“The corona pandemic has seriously worsened the situation for homeless people, they live in very precarious conditions,” said Elke Breitenbach, the Berlin state government’s senator for social issues, whose department supports the restaurant-turned-shelter financially.

“They don’t have enough to eat and when it’s cold they must have places to warm up,” Breitenbach added.

On Thursday, the first shivering group that entered the Hofbraeu along with Breidaks were served either Thuringia-style bratwurst with mashed potatoes, sauerkraut and onion sauce, or a vegetarian stew with potatoes, zucchini, bell pepper and carrots. For dessert there was apple strudel with vanilla sauce.

For Breidaks, that was more than he had expected after spending a night with sub-zero temperatures huddled up next to the walls of a big department store on Alexanderplatz.

“All I need is hot soup,” he said. “And, God willing, I will go back home in January.”

Hackers are sending customers fake shipping messages appearing to come from Amazon and UPS as a ‘shipageddon’ is expected during a hectic shopping season

Fake delivery notices imitating Amazon, UPS, FedEx surge during biggest online shopping season ever

By Katie Schoolov, Business Insider

Online shopping is in the midst of its biggest season ever, with Amazon reporting third-party sales of $4.8 billion in the days after Thanksgiving, up 60% from last year. Now, hackers are sending out fake shipping notification links to capitalize on the surge.

The fraudulent delivery messages appear to come from Amazon, FedEx, UPS and other major shippers, but they launch malware or mine for personal information. Cybersecurity firm Check Point Software Technologies found these messages impersonating shippers were up 440% from October to November, and 72% since November last year.

Long Beach realtor Tom Hoehn was expecting a package from UPS when he got one of these emails.

“It looked like it was from UPS and it said we were unable to deliver your package. However, if you click on the following link you can look up the tracking information on that package and then you can reroute it back to your place. At that point, I clicked on the link and my screen started flashing,” Hoehn said.

“The message said, ‘You have been hacked. We have encrypted all of your files. Send, I think it was like 150 bitcoins to this address.”

A fake shipping link can launch ransomware like it did for Hoehn, or it can redirect to a counterfeit branded page that asks for credit card or personal information to reroute a package, or tricks you into entering your username and password.

When Hoehn chose not to pay the ransom of some 150 bitcoins, the equivalent of more than $66,000 at the time, he lost everything on the computer including his family pictures and business contacts. Months later, the IRS informed him his identity had been stolen. Then his email was hacked, with phishing emails sent to thousands of his contacts.

“We have our mind on other things like pandemic and our kids getting remotely educated,” said Brian Linder, a threat prevention manager at Check Point. “And it’s a perfect time for these bad actors to prey on consumers that are not paying close attention.”

Check Point found that 65% of fake shipping messages in the U.S. impersonate Amazon.

“They’re successful because most of us are doing business with Amazon. We’re ordering on Amazon. And for us to get an email from Amazon about a package we ordered would be perfectly normal and expected,” Linder said.

Amazon told CNBC it works with the Federal Trade Commission or Better Business Bureau to go after scammers and said in a statement, “Any customer that receives a questionable email, call or text from a person impersonating an Amazon employee should report them to Amazon customer service. Amazon investigates these complaints and will take action, if warranted.”

The phishing messages also commonly impersonate UPS, FedEx and DHL, which all have their own dedicated reporting emails. The companies that make our devices are also on guard. Microsoft, for example, has a Digital Crimes Unit that works with law enforcement and claims to have “rescued” more than 500 million devices from cyber criminals since 2010. Apple, meanwhile, offers public recognition and even bounties of up to a million dollars to users who report security issues.

Some big warning signs to watch out for include slight misspellings or incorrect logos, unencrypted landing sites, and messages with a countdown urging consumers to act quickly.

The best protection, experts say, is to prevent the scam messages from reaching your device in the first place. Operating systems have built in security protections, which is one reason software updates are crucial. Apps like Nomorobo offer additional blocking features, and users can help by changing passwords often, turning on two-factor authentication and using a variety of different email accounts and passwords for different online activities.

Investigations into phishing attacks are usually conducted by the Federal Trade Commission.

“It’s really important that we empower and adequately fund the agencies that go after these scammers. Number one, the Federal Trade Commission, they have a huge responsibility to police unfair and deceptive practices across the entire economy and yet their workforce and their funding is only a fraction of what it was in the 1970s,” said John Breyault, vice president of public Policy, telecommunications, and fraud at the National Consumers League.

As enforcement struggles to keep up, scammers are constantly finding ways to exploit the next trend.

“Consumers should really expect to start seeing messages on social media, emails, phone calls, text messages offering to get you to the front of the line for the vaccine if you’ll pay some money up front. That is a big worry for us.”

If you do fall victim to one of these scams – or even just come across one – report it directly to the Federal Trade Commission or through the Better Business Bureau’s Scam Tracker tool. You can inform mobile carriers of a spam text by forwarding it directly to SPAM.

U.S. Will Close Last Two Consulates in Russia

By Pranshu Verma, NY Times

The closure would leave the United States with one remaining diplomatic outpost in Russia amid heightened tensions between the two countries.

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has notified members of Congress that it plans to close the last two remaining United States consulates in Russia.

In a letter dated Dec. 10, the State Department said it plans to close the consulate in Vladivostok, a major port city in far-east Russia, and temporarily suspend its operations at the consulate in Yekaterinburg, east of the Ural Mountains.

The closure of these consulates would leave the United States with one remaining diplomatic outpost in Russia — the embassy in Moscow — amid heightened tensions between the two countries.

The State Department notification was sent days before reports emerged of a suspected Russian cyberattack against numerous federal agencies and companies. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday said that “we can say pretty clearly that it was the Russians that engaged in this activity.”

According to the notification to Congress, the consulates are being closed because of caps imposed by Russian authorities in 2017 on the number of American diplomats allowed to work in the country.

A State Department spokeswoman said that the Mr. Pompeo, in consultation with the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, John J. Sullivan, decided to close the two U.S. consulates in Russia to ensure the safety and security of the U.S. diplomatic mission in the country, as well as to streamline the work of U.S. diplomats.

Ten diplomats assigned to the consulates will be reassigned to the embassy in Moscow, according to the State Department notification. Thirty-three staff members who are locally employed will be laid off.

The consulate in Vladivostok has been closed since March because of the coronavirus pandemic. Its permanent closure is expected to save $3.2 million per year, according to State Department estimates.

The consulate closures, reported earlier by The Associated Press, will likely cause major inconveniences for American travelers and Russians in the country’s far-eastern region. All planned consular services — including visa applications and other travel support for Americans in the country — will now be run out of Moscow.

In 2018, Russian officials ordered the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg to close. This was in retaliation for the U.S. decision to close a Russian consulate in Seattle over the country’s reported involvement in the poisoning of an ex-Russian spy in Britain.

The exact timing of the closures was not disclosed, and it is unclear if they will happen before President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. takes office on Jan. 20.

Will Ghost Sharks Vanish Before Scientists Can Study Them?

By Annie Roth, NY Times

Much remains to be learned about the cartilaginous, little understood fishes that inhabit the deep-sea.

Take one look at a ghost shark and you may say, “What’s up with that weird-looking fish?”

Over the past few decades, scientists learned that these cartilaginous fishes, also known as ratfish or Chimaeras, have been around for hundreds of millions of years, and that they have venomous spines in front of their dorsal fins and “fly” through the water by flapping their pectoral fins. They even learned that most male ghost sharks have a retractable sex organ on their foreheads that resembles a medieval mace.

However, much remains to be learned about these strange creatures. Basic biological information, like how long they live and how often they reproduce, is lacking for most of the 52 known species. The absence of this key information makes it difficult for scientists to manage and monitor ghost shark populations, even as evidence mounts that some species may be at risk of extinction.

Scientists from the Shark Specialist Group, a division of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, recently assessed the extinction risk of all confirmed ghost shark species and determined that 16 percent are “threatened” or “near threatened.” The assessment, which was published this month in the journal Fish and Fisheries, also found that 15 percent of ghost shark species are so understudied that their extinction risk cannot be determined. Now experts are concerned that certain ghost shark species might go extinct before scientists have a chance to study them.

Ghost sharks can be found in all of the world’s oceans, except the Arctic and the Antarctic. Most inhabit the deep-sea, although a handful of species inhabit shallow coastal waters. Despite their name, ghost sharks are not true sharks, though they are closely related. Unlike their shark cousins, ghost sharks have long, thin tails and large, continuously growing tooth plates that give them a rat-like appearance. Some have long skinny snouts while others sport plow-shaped ones that they use to probe seafloor sediment in search of food.

“They’ve got a face only a mother or a researcher could love,” said David Ebert, director of the Pacific Shark Research Center at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in California and co-author of the assessment.

Nearly half of the species known to science were discovered only during the past two decades. “We’re just now starting to figure out that there are a lot more of these things around than we realized previously,” said Dr. Ebert, whose lab has been credited with the discovery of 11 of the 52 known ghost shark species.

Dr. Ebert is one of only a handful of scientists currently studying ghost sharks. Securing funding to study them has long been a challenge for scientists.

“Chimaeras don’t have much value commercially, so there’s not a lot of interest in getting more information about them,” said Brit Finucci, fisheries scientist at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in New Zealand and lead author of the assessment. “They’re also quite cryptic, so they’re hard to find and hard to study.” Several species of ghost shark, including the Bahamas ghost shark, are known from only one specimen.

Ghost sharks are primarily caught as bycatch. While their meat is edible, the majority of their commercial value comes from their livers, which contain an oil known as squalene that’s used in a wide variety of cosmetic and pharmaceutical products.

Although they are harvested and sold all over the world, 90 percent of ghost shark species are unmanaged, according to the IUCN assessment. This means that those who catch these species are not subject to limits and are not obligated to share data about their catch.

If fishing fleets continue venturing further into the deep-sea, experts fear that some species of ghost shark could disappear before scientists even notice that they are in trouble.

“How can we start to wrap our head around keeping them from going extinct if we don’t know anything about them?” said Dominique Didier, an ichthyologist at Millersville University in Pennsylvania.

In order to prevent ghost shark extinctions from occurring unnoticed, the authors argue, more scientists need to study ghost sharks, and marine authorities need to exercise more oversight and management of ghost shark fisheries around the world.

“We shouldn’t be waiting,” Dr. Finucci said. “Even though these animals are assessed with a lesser risk of extinction, we shouldn’t wait until they are actually a threatened species before we start studying them.”

US charges ex-Zoom employee with shutting down Tiananmen Square events

BBC News

US prosecutors have charged a former Zoom employee with disrupting video meetings marking the anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on protests in Tiananmen Square on behalf of China’s government.

The China-based executive, Xinjiang Jin, is accused of helping to terminate at least four video meetings in May and June, hosted by people based in the US.

A warrant is out for his arrest.

Zoom said it was co-operating with authorities. China has not commented on the case.

The California-based company said it had “terminated” the employee for violating its policies, and had “placed other employees on administrative leave pending the completion” of an internal investigation.

The pro-democracy protests and their suppression are strictly taboo in China.

Tiananmen’s tank man: The image that China forgot

What are the allegations?

A statement from the US Department of Justice said Xinjiang Jin, also known as Julien Jin, had been charged with “conspiracy to commit interstate harassment and unlawful conspiracy to transfer a means of identification”.

Prosecutors say that from January 2019 he conspired to “censor the political and religious speech of individuals located in the United States and around the world at the direction and under the control of officials” in the Chinese government.

Among the actions taken on behalf of China’s government, prosecutors allege that the 39-year-old and others terminated at least four meetings commemorating the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, some of which were attended by dissidents who had participated in and survived the protests.

They allege that he fabricated violations of Zoom’s terms of service to justify his actions to his superiors.

“Jin willingly committed crimes, and sought to mislead others at the company, to help [Chinese] authorities censor and punish US users’ core political speech merely for exercising their rights to free expression,” acting US Attorney Seth DuCharme in Brooklyn said in a statement.

According to the statement, the Chinese authorities “took advantage of information provided by Jin to retaliate against and intimidate participants” residing in China or family members of participants based in the country.

The statement does not mention Zoom by name, but the company confirmed that its former employee had been charged.

“We learned during the course of our investigation that the China-based former employee charged today violated Zoom’s policies by, among other things, attempting to circumvent certain internal access controls,” it said.

It added that the employee “took actions resulting in the termination of several meetings in remembrance of Tiananmen Square and meetings involving religious and/or political activities” and “also shared or directed the sharing of a limited amount of individual user data with Chinese authorities”.

Mr Jin is living in China and is not in US custody. He faces up to 10 years in prison.

What happened at Tiananmen Square in 1989?

Pro-democracy protesters occupied Tiananmen Square in April 1989 and began the largest political demonstrations in communist China’s history. They lasted six weeks, with as many as a million people taking part.

On the night of 3 June tanks moved in and troops opened fire, killing and injuring many unarmed people in and around Tiananmen Square.

Wang Dan one of the leaders of the Tiananmen Square protests

Afterwards the authorities claimed no-one had been shot dead in the square itself. Estimates of those killed in the crackdown range from a few hundred to several thousand.

China has never given an official figure for how many people died.

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United Airlines working with Centers for Disease Control after suspected COVID-related death during flight to California


Health officials are racing to contact those who traveled aboard a United Airlines plane after a passenger exhibiting coronavirus symptoms experienced a “medical emergency” during a flight from Orlando to Los Angeles earlier this week and subsequently died.

United Airlines flight 591 was forced to divert to New Orleans on Monday when a man aboard the aircraft became suddenly ill, according to USA Today. He was dropped off at an area hospital, where he later died, before the plane continued on to California.

United is working with the government to notify passengers who may have been exposed. (Shutterstock)

“At the time of the diversion, we were informed he had suffered a cardiac arrest, so passengers were given the option to take a later flight or continue on with their travel plans,” a United Airlines spokesperson said in a statement on Friday.

“Now that the CDC has contacted us directly, we are sharing requested information with the agency so they can work with local health officials to conduct outreach to any customer the CDC believes may be at risk for possible exposure or infection.”

Prior to boarding a flight, United Airlines requires all passengers to fill out a ready-to-fly checklist, promising they had not tested positive for COVID and did not have symptoms. The questionnaires operate on the honor system and travelers are not required to show proof of health.

A fellow passenger posted on social media in wake of the incident that the deceased’s wife had told emergency responders her husband had been suffering coronavirus symptoms, including a loss of taste and smell, before takeoff.

Four flight attendants who worked aboard Flight 591 entered a 14-day quarantine upon their arrival at Los Angeles International Airport, Taylor Garland, a spokesperson for Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, told NBC Los Angeles.

The CDC said in a statement that they are in the “process of collecting information and proceeding according to our standard operating procedures to determine if further public health action is appropriate.”