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.

The army general apologises to states who will get fewer Pfizer doses than they were expecting.

‘God will forgive me or not’: Inside the world of a people smuggler

By Hafizullah Maroof

Before he got on the boat to make the clandestine crossing, Shafiullah called his family in Afghanistan to tell them he was OK and on his way to Turkey.

After the call, Shafiullah, who was 16, boarded the boat. He was one of about 100 passengers that night, last June, and one of thousands of men who have have fled Afghanistan every month this year in search of a more secure life in Europe.

Shafiullah was already inside Turkey, but the people smugglers he had paid to ferry him to Istanbul were heading across Lake Van to avoid police roadblocks. The lake’s waters are dangerous, and the smugglers were setting out at night.

Somewhere across the water, the vessel they had chosen to carry their human cargo – including at least 32 Afghans, seven Pakistanis and one Iranian – sank. Sixty-one bodies were recovered, but the rest, including Shafiullah, are missing. Some bodies could be deep below the surface, Turkish authorities told the BBC, making recovery unlikely.

At least four of those thought to have perished, including Shafiullah, were sent by a smuggler in Kabul. The BBC approached the smuggler and he agreed to talk on the condition that his identity was disguised.

‘Everything is arranged by phone’

Elham Noor (not his real name) has well-established links with other criminals and claims a high success rate in sending people to Italy, France, and the UK.

“Smuggling is not an individual business, it’s a huge network,” he said. “We have connections with one another.” Nppr doesn’t travel with the migrants though. “Everything is arranged over the phone,” he said.

Noor has no shortage of clients. Many Afghans are desperate to leave their country. Afghanistan is among the poorest in the world, it has been ravaged by decades of war. According to the United Nations, 2.7 million Afghans are currently living abroad as refugees – putting Afghanistan behind only Syria and Venezuela in the list of countries which produce the most migrants and refugees.

So Noor has no need to advertise. His clients call him. Young Afghans looking to make the journey will typically seek out a trafficker who has already sent somebody else from their region.

But only a small percentage of those who try to reach Europe succeed at their first attempt, and some never return.

Shafiullah’s uncle Sher Afzal said the family knew the journey would be dangerous. “But we didn’t anticipate this,” said.

Afzal is in mourning, but it’s a strange, hollow kind of grieving that lacks certainty. Shafiullah is still listed as missing. The family, who live in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, would like to hold a memorial service for Shafiullah, but they have no remains. There has already been a ceremony for the two migrants whose bodies were recovered.

“Now we want to see his dead body. We don’t expect him to be alive,” Afzal said.

Shafiullah saw no prospect of a future in Jalalabad. He contacted Noor to get passage to Italy, paying the trafficker $1,000 (£741) as a first instalment. He was bundled together with other migrants and moved from one place to another in cars, trucks, and sometimes on foot.

Shafiullah crossed Iran and entered Turkey, but his journey came to an end on Lake Van, moments after he called his family.

Noor told the BBC he paid the money back to Shafiullah’s family and to others whose journey’s were cut short. Shafiullah’s family confirmed that they had received the money.

$8,500 to get to Italy

Noor said the tragedy had added to his misgivings about people smuggling. He recognises the human cost when things go wrong, he said. But it is a lucrative trade, and a hard one to leave after so many years.

“We charge $1,000 for Afghanistan to Turkey,” Noor said. “From Turkey to Serbia, it is $4,000. From there to Italy, we charge another $3,500. It is $8,500 altogether.”

These are huge sums of money in a country where the average per capita annual income is just over $500. Noor pockets between $3,000 and $3,500 for every migrant who successfully reaches Italy.

And all Noor has to do to is pick up the phone, arrange some money transfers and pay the occasional bribe to the Afghan authorities. He never meets anyone in person who is not known to him or a close relative or friend. He relies on his reputation to bring in clients and is wary of speaking to strangers.

It’s a comfortable life, particularly by Afghan standards, and the trappings of wealth are obvious – the cars, the clothes, the houses.

Noor knows that migrants face a risky journey without travel documents. They are kept hidden during the day and moved at night, using the network’s safe houses along the way, in cities like Tehran, Van and Istanbul, he said.

The migrants are advised not to carry any valuables like expensive jewellery or watches which could attract thieves. Noor usually tells the migrants not to carry more than $100 in cash.

The journey to Turkey, a major hub for Afghans heading to Europe, can take from a week to a couple of months, depending on what happens on the way.

One migrant who made it to Istanbul, passing through on his way to the West, was Hazrat Shah, a former soldier in the Afghan army.

After his village came under the control of the Taliban, the 25-year-old feared reprisal attacks on his family, so he deserted from his unit and decided to leave the country. He set off from Nangarhar in eastern Afghanistan earlier this year, attempting to make it to Italy.

“After reaching the border [between Turkey and Iran], it took almost a month to arrive in Istanbul. I stayed there for a few months and worked in hotels to earn money to pay for the smugglers,” Shah told the BBC.

The eastern Mediterranean route, which involves crossing the sea between Turkey and Greece, is particularly favoured by migrants. The European border agency estimates that in the first 10 months of this year, more than 17,000 people crossed over to Europe through this route, and almost a quarter of these are thought to be Afghan.

It was difficult to get from Greece to Bosnia – Shah was deported several times before he made it – but his attempts to move further met with repeated failure.

“It was horrible. In the last attempt I was injured as well. The police beat me a lot,” he said. “They took our shoes and jumpers. We were forced to return in the dark. It is so hard to get through.”

‘The smugglers can’t help’

Shah is not sure if he will ever get to Italy, but he is in no mood to call the people smugglers back in Afghanistan for help. They disappear at the first sign of trouble, he said, and many who undertake the journey regret trusting them.

“There is a possibility that you can die or be injured or abducted at every stage of the journey – and nobody can help you,” he said. “It is not possible for them [the people smugglers] to help as they are afraid of the police. It is a dirty game.”

Shah said he had lived in horrific conditions for many months and has seen many die on the way.

“You will receive very little food and water to keep you alive. I saw people dying of thirst without water. Other migrants can’t help them because if you give your water to them, you face the same situation,” he said.

According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), more than 1,000 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year. This is mainly because they are forced to travel on overcrowded boats, often during rough weather. Many others, like Shafiullah, die before reaching the Mediterranean and are not even included in this statistic.

But there is no shortage of Afghans wanting to migrate. After an explosion near the German embassy in Kabul in 2017, which killed at least 150 people, most European countries closed their visa application centres in Afghanistan, which has made travelling legally to Europe even harder and only increased the flow of clients seeking the services of smugglers like Noor.

From migrant to trafficker

Noor himself was once in a similar situation. Like so many others, he too once dreamed of living a comfortable life in the UK. He undertook the same journey when he was just 14. His dad paid $5,000 to smugglers.

“I still remember the difficulties of my journey, particularly in Bulgaria where we were kept hidden in trains – I was even forced to jump from a moving train,” Noor said.

In Calais, Noor was offered a commission of 100 euros (£90) for every migrant he introduced to a smuggler. This is how he got his start in the business of people smuggling.

Noor reached the UK illegally and continued to work with smugglers. But he returned to Afghanistan at the age of 21 when he realised the police were looking for him, he said.

Some of the migrants who managed to reach Europe through Noor’s network passed on his details to others, and his network and reputation grew.

“Despite the uncertainty, people still trust me to take them out of the country,” he said.

Noor said about 100 people who paid him to deliver them to a better life were currently on their way to Europe. But he insisted they would be the last. He was getting out of the business, he claimed. He said the disaster with Shafiullah’s boat had hurt him, but the migrants knew the risks.

“I apologised many times to the families. I told them clearly in the beginning, anything can happen on the way,” he said. “They have accepted this. God will decide whether to forgive me or not.”

Another trafficker who knew Noor said he would find it difficult to stop.

“People will continue to call him for years to come, and the chance to make money won’t simply go away the moment he calls it quits,” the trafficker said.

Whether Noor gets out or not, the people smuggling will continue. Many thousands Afghans will still be desperate for a safer and better life.

In Autumn, not long after Shafiullah’s boat sank, two of his relatives made it as far as Turkey. They have just been deported back home.

When the weather gets warmer next summer, they may try again.

Damage from border wall: blown-up mountains, toppled cactus


GUADALUPE CANYON, Ariz. (AP) — Work crews ignite dynamite blasts in the remote and rugged southeast corner of Arizona, forever reshaping the landscape as they pulverize mountaintops in a rush to build more of President Donald Trump’s border wall before his term ends next month.

Each blast in Guadalupe Canyon releases puffs of dust as workers level land to make way for 30-foot-tall (9-meter-tall) steel columns near the New Mexico line. Heavy machines crawl over roads gouged into rocky slopes while one tap-tap-taps open holes for posts on U.S. Bureau of Land Management property.

Trump has expedited border wall construction in his last year, mostly in wildlife refuges and Indigenous territory the government owns in Arizona and New Mexico, avoiding the legal fights over private land in busier crossing areas of Texas. The work has caused environmental damage, preventing animals from moving freely and scarring unique mountain and desert landscapes that conservationists fear could be irreversible. The administration says it’s protecting national security, citing it to waive environmental laws in its drive to fulfill a signature immigration policy.

Customs and Border Protection said in a statement Friday that it has worked with the National Park Service and other agencies to minimize damage in construction areas, including not using groundwater within 5 miles (8 kilometers) of Quitobaquito Springs in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, home to endangered species like the Sonoyta mud turtle. The agency said it also has replanted salvageable cactuses and has identified 43 places for small wildlife corridors along the Arizona border, with installation of some underway.

Environmentalists hope President-elect Joe Biden will stop the work, but that could be difficult and expensive to do quickly and may still leave pillars towering over sensitive borderlands.

The worst damage is along Arizona’s border, from century-old saguaro cactuses toppled in the western desert to shrinking ponds of endangered fish in eastern canyons. Recent construction has sealed off what was the Southwest’s last major undammed river. It’s more difficult for desert tortoises, the occasional ocelot and the world’s tiniest owls to cross the boundary.

“Interconnected landscapes that stretch across two countries are being converted into industrial wastelands,” said Randy Serraglio of the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson.

In the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge near Guadalupe Canyon, biologist Myles Traphagen said field cameras have captured 90% less movement by animals like mountain lions, bobcats and pig-like javelinas over the past three months.

“This wall is the largest impediment to wildlife movement we’ve ever seen in this part of the world,” said Traphagen of the nonprofit Wildlands Network. “It’s altering the evolutionary history of North America.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1982 established the nearly 4-square-mile (10-square-kilometer) refuge to protect water resources and endangered native fish. Diverse hummingbirds, bees, butterflies and bats also live there.

Since contractors for Customs and Border Protection began building a new stretch of wall there in October, environmentalists estimate that millions of gallons of groundwater have been pumped to mix cement and spray down dusty dirt roads.

Solar power now pumps water into a shrinking pond underneath rustling cottonwood trees. Bullfrogs croak and Yaqui topminnows wiggle through the pool once fed solely by natural artesian wells pulling ancient water from an aquifer.

A 3-mile (5-kilometer) barrier has sealed off a migratory corridor for wildlife between Mexico’s Sierra Madre and the Rocky Mountains to the north, threatening species like the endangered Chiricahua leopard frog and blue-gray aplomado falcon.

The Trump administration says it’s completed 430 miles (692 kilometers) of the $15 billion wall and promises to reach 450 miles (725 kilometers) by year’s end.

Biden transition officials say he stands by his campaign promise — “not another foot” of wall. It’s unclear how Biden would stop construction, but it could leave projects half-finished, force the government to pay to break contracts and anger those who consider the wall essential to border security.

“Building a wall will do little to deter criminals and cartels seeking to exploit our borders,” Biden’s transition team has said. It says Biden will focus on “smart border enforcement efforts, like investments in improving screening infrastructure at our ports of entry, that will actually keep America safer.”

Environmentalists hope for an ally in Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Customs and Border Protection.

Until construction is stopped, “every day, it will be another another mile of borderlands being trashed,” Serraglio said.

Environmental law attorney Dinah Bear said Biden’s administration could terminate building contracts, which would allow companies to seek settlements. What that would cost isn’t clear because the contracts aren’t public, but Bear said it would pale in comparison to the price of finishing and maintaining the wall. Military funds reappropriated under a national emergency declared by Trump are now funding the work.

Bear, who worked at the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality under Republican and Democratic administrations, said she wants to see Congress set aside money to repair damage by removing the wall in critical areas, buying more habitat and replanting slopes.

Ecologists say damage could be reversed in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where thousands of tree-like saguaros were bulldozed, with some reportedly replanted elsewhere.

They say keeping floodgates open could help ease damage done by damming the San Pedro River, which runs north from just below the Mexican border through the central corridor of the Sierra Madre’s “Sky Islands.”

These high mountains have ecosystems dramatically different from the desert below, with 300 bird species, including the yellow-billed cuckoo, nesting along what was the Southwest’s last major free-flowing river. The white-nosed, racoon-like coati and the yellow-striped Sonoran tiger salamander also live there.

In the nearby Coronado National Monument, scientists are using cameras to document wildlife as crews prepare to start building. Switchbacks have been slashed into mountainsides, but 30-foot (9-meter) posts aren’t yet up along where a Spanish expedition marched through around 1540.

The government plans to install the towering pillars 4 inches (10 centimeters) apart where there are now vehicle barriers a couple of feet high with openings large enough to allow large cats and other animals to cross to mate and hunt.

Biologist Emily Burns of the nonprofit Sky Island Alliance said construction will hurt elf owls, the world’s littlest at less than 5 inches (13 centimeters) tall. The birds are too small to fly over the fence and likely wouldn’t know to squeeze through.

“This kind of large-scale disruption can push a species to the brink, even if they aren’t threatened,” said Louise Misztal, alliance executive director.

Authorities know where the kidnapped Nigerian schoolboys are, says state governor

By Eoin McSweeney, CNN

(CNN) — The location of 337 students who were unaccounted for after gunmen attacked a school in northwestern Nigeria on Friday, is now known by government authorities, according to state governor Aminu Bello Masari. Talks are ongoing to secure their release and the children are safe, he told CNN’s Becky Anderson on Wednesday.

“We’re not hearing any concrete demand, but we’ll make sure that the children are simply back home,” he said. “All the areas have been secured but the security forces here are not firing because we want to make sure that… we don’t get any collateral damage.”

Local police said a large number of attackers riding motorbikes ambushed the all-boys Government Science Secondary School in Kankara, Katsina State, last week. The attack may have been a kidnapping-for-ransom attempt, they said.

There have been varying estimates of the number of children kidnapped from the school. Government officials said it was difficult to accurately track the numbers, as some children ran away during the attack and others escaped and made their way back to villages and to the school through the weekend.

“We [the government] are ultimately responsible,” said Masari.

A man claiming to be a leader of Boko Haram said on Tuesday the terror group was responsible for the kidnapping, according to a short audio message shared with Nigerian media and reviewed by CNN.

“I am Abubakar Shekau and our brothers are behind the kidnapping in Katsina,” said the man in the recording. Shekau is the leader of one of Boko Haram’s factions.

Masari did not dismiss the voice note entirely but cautioned that “more concrete evidence” was needed before it could be confirmed that Boko Haram was involved.

The kidnappers have not made a direct demand yet, but a child of a teacher who was among the kidnapped contacted his father. He only complained about the air force flying overhead and mentioned they may need money.

When asked if he would pay a ransom, Masari said it’s not “the policy of our government” to do so.

“We’ll find other ways of securing the lives and the freedom of the children,” he added.

The kidnapping is outside Boko Haram’s usual area of activity. Their operations have generally focused in the northeast of the country, though security analysts believe that their reach has shifted after a security crackdown in that region.

Boko Haram claims to have kidnapped Nigerian schoolboys, in unverified audio message

There have been multiple kidnappings for ransom in Katsina State in recent years, but not on this scale.

Several witnesses told CNN that those who targeted the school were Fulani gunmen, an ethnic group that has been involved in kidnappings and criminal activities in the area.

Shekau’s faction of Boko Haram was behind the 2014 kidnapping of nearly 300 schoolgirls in Chibok. Their captivity lasted years and many of the children were never returned after a negotiated release.

In 2018, a breakaway faction of Boko Haram known as ISWAP kidnapped more than 100 girls in Dapchi. All but one was released weeks later, after negotiations.

While these are the most high-profile examples, Boko Haram has abducted well in excess of 1,000 children since 2013, according to UNICEF.

“We are now responsible and will live up to our responsibility of ensuring and making sure that we do the best we can to safeguard the lives of our people and now [the] priority is to make sure that these children are safely back into their families and back into school,” Masari said.

Amnesty condemned the attack on Wednesday and said it was a “serious violation of international humanitarian law” which “undermines the right to education for thousands of children in northern Nigeria.”

Ghost boat carrying 1,400 pounds of cocaine washes up on remote Pacific island

This December 15, 2020 photo shows a box filled with 2.2-pound (1-kg) bricks of cocaine found on a boat that washed up in the Marshall Islands.

(CNN) — A small, unassuming boat washed up on a remote island in the Pacific last week carrying no passengers — but loaded with around 1,430 pounds (649 kg) of cocaine.

The 18-foot (5.4-meter) fiberglass vessel was discovered on a beach at Ailuk Atoll in the Marshall Islands, a chain of coral atolls and volcanic islands between the Philippines and Hawaii.

The cocaine came sealed and wrapped in blocks, according to the Marshall Islands police, who then collected and destroyed most of the packages by burning them in an incinerator. Photos of the blocks show stained, yellowing plastic, stamped with a red logo that bears the letters “KW.”

One resident on Ailuk, which is home to around 400 people, discovered the boat last week, according to CNN affiliate Radio New Zealand. The vessel was too heavy for residents to lift onto the beach — so they investigated the inside, where a large compartment under the deck revealed the bricks of cocaine.

<img alt=”Marshall Islands police transport the confiscated packages of cocaine to an incinerator on December 15, 2020.” class=”media__image” src=”//cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/201217112646-02-marshall-islands-cocaine-large-169.jpeg”>

Marshall Islands police transport the confiscated packages of cocaine to an incinerator on December 15, 2020.

The residents notified the authorities, and police brought the drugs back to the capital of Majuro, on another island. This week, police brought the cocaine to the incinerator; only 4.4 pounds (2 kg) were saved for the US Drug Enforcement Agency to conduct laboratory analysis, authorities said.

In total, the haul is worth an estimated $80 million, according to RNZ — and is the largest amount of cocaine to ever wash onto the Marshall Islands.

Authorities said they believed the boat had drifted over from South or Central America, and could have been at sea for one or two years.

<img alt=”Marshall Islands Police Captain Eric Jorban (left) empties packages of cocaine into an incinerator in the capital Majuro, on December 15.” class=”media__image” src=”//cdn.cnn.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/201217112647-03-marshall-islands-cocaine-large-169.jpeg”>

Marshall Islands Police Captain Eric Jorban (left) empties packages of cocaine into an incinerator in the capital Majuro, on December 15.

This may be one of the biggest drug hauls, but it’s certainly not the first; islands in the Pacific are on a major international drug trafficking route, and numerous drug packages have previously been seized or discovered in the Marshall Islands.

A resident found nearly 40 pounds (18 kg) of cocaine in 2016, and was arrested for not immediately handing it to police; a fisherman reeled in 105 pounds (48 kg) of suspected cocaine in 2018; just this year, police suspect a supply of cocaine may have washed up on Maloelap Atoll and contributed to an explosion in drug use and drug-related health complications.

Many of the packages that wash up are professionally wrapped; sometimes residents take the drugs instead of reporting them, fueling widespread drug availability and use. The problem has escalated so much this year that the Marshall Islands parliament established a drug task force in May as part of a larger crackdown effort.

US Joint Chiefs chairman meets with Taliban on peace talks

BY ROBERT BURNS, Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The top U.S. general held unannounced talks with Taliban peace negotiators in the Persian Gulf to urge a reduction in violence across Afghanistan, even as senior American officials in Kabul warned that stepped-up Taliban attacks endanger the militant group’s nascent peace negotiations with the Afghan government.

Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met for about two hours with Taliban negotiators in Doha, Qatar, on Tuesday and flew Wednesday to Kabul to discuss the peace process with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

Although Milley reported no breakthrough, his Taliban meetings represent a remarkable milestone — America’s top general coming face-to-face with representatives of the group that ruled Afghanistan until it was ousted 19 years ago this month in the early stages of what became America’s longest war. Milley served three tours of duty in Afghanistan, the first in 2003 and the last in 2013-14.

Milley’s meetings came amid a new drawdown of U.S. troops, although under current U.S. policy a complete pullout hinges on the Taliban reducing attacks nationwide.

“The most important part of the discussions that I had with both the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan was the need for an immediate reduction in violence,” Milley told three reporters, including one from The Associated Press, who accompanied him to Qatar and Afghanistan. “Everything else hinges on that.”

Under ground rules set by Milley for security reasons, the journalists traveling with him agreed not to report on either set of talks until he had departed the region. It was Milley’s second unannounced meeting with the Taliban’s negotiating team; the first, in June, also in Doha, had not been reported until now.

Army Gen. Scott Miller, the top commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, said in an interview at his military headquarters in Kabul on Wednesday that the Taliban have stepped up attacks on Afghan forces, particularly in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, and against roadways and other infrastructure.

“My assessment is, it puts the peace process at risk — the higher the violence, the higher the risk,” Miller said. Miller meets at least once a month with Taliban negotiators as part of Washington’s effort to advance a peace process.

Speaking in the same interview, Ross Wilson, the ranking American diplomat in Kabul, said he also sees growing risk from Taliban violence. He said it has created “an unbearable burden” on the Afghan armed forces and the society as a whole.

In the so-called Doha agreement signed last February by the United States and the Taliban, the administration of President Donald Trump agreed to a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops, going down to zero troops by May 2021 if the agreement’s conditions are upheld. One condition is a reduction in violence by the Taliban, leading to a nationwide ceasefire. The Taliban also agreed to begin peace negotiations with the Afghan government, which are in an early stage.

The Taliban have demanded a halt to U.S. airstrikes, which have been conducted since February only in support of Afghan forces under Taliban attack.

Miller said he was saddened by what he called the Taliban’s deliberate campaign to damage roadways, bridges and other infrastructure as part of the militants’ effort to limit the Afghan government’s ability to reinforce its troops.

“Military commanders on the ground are now starting to do things that are not conducive to peace talks and reconstruction and stability,” Miller said, adding, “Clearly, the Taliban use violence as leverage” against the Afghan government.

Miller said he is executing Trump’s order to reduce U.S. forces from 4,500 to 2,500 by Jan. 15, just days before Joe Biden is sworn in as Trump’s successor. Miller said troop levels are now at about 4,000 and will reach the 2,500 target on time.

Biden has not said publicly whether he will continue the drawdown or how he will proceed with the Doha agreement negotiated by Trump’s peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad.

Biden has not laid out a detailed plan for Afghanistan but has made clear he prefers a small U.S. military footprint and limited goals. He has acknowledged that he dissented from then-President Barack Obama’s decision in December 2009 to vastly increase troop levels in hope of forcing the Taliban to the peace table.

“I think we should only have troops there to make sure that it’s impossible for… ISIS or al-Qaida to re-establish a foothold there,” Biden told CBS News in February.

Trump has argued for withdrawing entirely from Afghanistan but was persuaded in November to reduce the force to 2,500 and continue the current missions of counterterrorism and training and advising Afghan forces.

Some believe that the further thinning of U.S. forces in coming weeks could lead to renewed Taliban gains on the battlefield and a weakening of the Afghan government’s position at the peace table.

Stephen Biddle, a defense policy expert with the Council on Foreign Relations and professor of international relations at Columbia University, says the main contribution of U.S. forces at this stage is political rather than military.

“In military terms, the war is a slowly decaying stalemate,” Biddle said in congressional testimony last month. “The U.S. presence can slow the rate of decay at the margin, but we cannot reverse it absent a major reinforcement that seems highly unlikely. This means that if the war continues, the Taliban will eventually prevail regardless of plausible variations in the size or nature of the U.S. troop commitment.”

Milley’s visit comes in the 20th year of a war initially aimed at overthrowing the Taliban regime, running al-Qaida out of the country and laying the groundwork for a global “war on terrorism.” It turned into something more ambitious yet less well-defined and became far more costly in blood and treasure.

Looking back on the long-stalemated war, Milley earlier this month proclaimed the U.S. and its coalition partners had achieved “a modicum of success.”

14 million American households are at risk of eviction as protections expire

By Rosa Flores and Sara Weisfeldt, CNN

Fort Lauderdale, Florida (CNN) — John Ayers’ face filled with pride as he listed everything he used to be able to afford as an insurance agent — $2,000 monthly rent, hundreds of dollars in prescriptions for his severe arthritis and diabetes, and even a regular Uber driver, known as Fast Ice, to take him grocery shopping in a black Mercedes-Benz van.

But the pandemic — which Ayers described as a “wicked, giant octopus with very long tentacles” — upended his life.

“Fortunately, I haven’t gotten the virus, but I’ve fallen victim to it,” Ayers said recently, sitting outside the rental home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he lives with his certified companions Bella and Bear — a red nose pit bull and a pit bull mix.

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His eyes filled with tears as he described losing his job early last summer, exhausting his savings paying for rent, medications and utility bills, and getting slapped with an eviction notice.

“I need help,” the 62-year-old widower gasped. “I am about to be homeless.”

With the pandemic as a backdrop, more than 14 million American households are currently at risk of eviction and have an estimated $25 billion in rental debt, according to a report by Stout, a global investment bank and advisory firm. And 4.9 million of them are likely to receive eviction notices in January after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eviction moratorium expires on December 31, Stout found.

Help is not in sight, as negotiations over relief continue to stall in Congress. Despite efforts by state legislatures to fill the gap, states have run out of money. While Washington drags its feet, hardworking Americans around the country are on the brink of financial ruin and homelessness in the middle of a raging pandemic.

“Any meaningful pandemic mitigation strategy must include robust rent relief and eviction moratoria, or interventions will be thwarted,” said Emily Benfer, a professor at Wake Forest University Law School and co-creator of the Eviction Lab Covid-19 Housing Policy Scoreboard, a dataset of evictions in America.

Florida residents have fewer protections

Tenants in Florida are among those at the highest risk of eviction, according to Benfer, in part due to the lack of tenant protections like rent control and late-fee restrictions. More than a million renters in the Sunshine State have “slight or no confidence” in their ability to pay next month’s rent.

Thousands of evictions have been filed in Gainesville, Jacksonville and Tampa since March 15, according to the Eviction Lab project.

In Broward County, evictions are expected to triple during the first three months of 2021, from 5,000 to 15,000, according to Administrative Judge Robert Lee of Broward County Court.

With all court proceedings held virtually, Lee said, he has told his team of judges “we’re going to have to roll up our sleeves.” To meet the skyrocketing demand, judges in the criminal, medical and insurance claims divisions are being diverted to hear eviction cases, said Lee. He is also boosting support staff and mediation teams who offer free services paid for by the county.

Patrice Paldino deploys attorneys to food-lines to help tenants fight to stay in their homes.

Patrice Paldino deploys attorneys to food-lines to help tenants fight to stay in their homes.

“It’s a strange time for us,” he said.

Pro bono attorneys are bracing for what could be a “tsunami” of eviction cases in southeast Florida in the new year, says Patrice Paldino, executive director of Coast to Coast Legal Aid of South Florida.

Many tenants think they have eviction issues but once they consult attorneys, Paldino says, they realize they also have garnishments, credit card debt and other collections. Some of her current eviction clients are seniors, veterans and people with disabilities.

“I believe housing is health care and you have to keep people in their homes for their mental, physical and emotional health,” Paldino said.

Paldino has hired three extra attorneys. Due to the surging pandemic, she deploys some of them in the community in a “mobile justice” van retrofitted into a law office, with a walk-up window. Lawyers and clients are separated by acrylic glass for safety.

Evictions compound pandemic risks

Evictions are linked to an increase in Covid-19 infections and death because they result in overcrowded living environments, limited access to health care and an inability to social-distance or exercise hygiene, Benfer’s research shows.

“The United States’ repeated failure to address the eviction crisis is jeopardizing lives and the health and well-being of the nation,” said Benfer.

In Miami-Dade County, homelessness is on the rise, according to Ron Book, chair of the Miami-Dade Homeless Trust. The call volume at Camillus House, the trust’s shelter, increased from an average of 800 calls a month to 1,200 last month.

“I’m deathly concerned,” Book said. He fears the “floodgates” of homelessness will open and thousands of people, including senior citizens, will be on the streets once the CDC moratorium ends.

More than 6,400 evictions were filed from March 13 to November 30 in Miami-Dade County, according to a county courthouse spokesperson. Book estimates those evictions could impact about 18,000 people.

John Ayers looks through eviction documents as his eviction date looms.

“The fact is that we’re going to lose lives in a massive potential proportion if we don’t find a way to solve keeping people in their homes,” Book said.

As for Ayers, he’s still looking for a job. He can’t afford his medications, and short of a miracle on his Gofundme page, he’ll be homeless on New Year’s Day.

His eyes swell when he explains he’s not worried about himself, he’s worried about Bella and Bear.

“[Being] hungry I can deal with,” Ayers said, sobbing. “It’s the thought of being out there [on the street] with a dog.”

In the midst of his desperation, he counts one new blessing: Fast Ice now drives him to the grocery store free of charge.

“There are still people in this world who have a kind heart and a wonderful spirit,” Ayers said.