Financial literacy begins with this little P.I.G.G.Y.

piggy

via Financial literacy begins with this little P.I.G.G.Y., clarionledger.com

PDF: PIGGY Plan-It Review

Financial experts have been warning us for years that Americans are becoming less and less financially literate. In April, Forbes’ Dana Pascarelli wrote that Americans are not saving enough, don’t understand the basics of investing and saving, and are not putting enough money away to cover emergencies and long-term plans. Most Americans couldn’t even pass a basic financial literacy test, she added.

This persistent problem, Pascarelli wrote, is causing financial instability now in the form of record personal debt, high default rates on student loans and inability to take advantage of an improving economy. Her point is that financial literacy education could help to alleviate these.

Here in Mississippi, groups such as the Mississippi Council on Economic Education have been working to reverse these trends, and are making great progress. And initiatives such as TEAM (Treasurers Education About Money) spearheaded by Mississippi Treasurer Lynn Fitch have built public-private partnerships to help get financial literacy training into schools.

While older adults are certainly not a lost cause when it comes to learning the basics of financial literacy, the future belongs to the young. And getting started early with good financial habits could create a brighter outlook for the next generation. That’s the idea behind a recently published book called “P.I.G.G.Y. Plan-It” (P.I.G.G.Y. stands for Prudent Investors Get Going Young). Three financial educators from the Jackson area collaborated to publish the personal finance primer, targeted at high school and college graduates and young professionals.

Nancy Lottridge Anderson, Ryder Taff and Susan McAdory work together at Ridgeland-based New Perspectives Inc., which Anderson founded in 1993. Anderson and Taff co-host Mississippi Public Broadcasting’s weekly “Money Talks” program.

Financial topics are often difficult for many of us to grasp, and many people could better understand it with the right tools.

“We wanted to find a way to educate our friends about personal finance without boring them to death,” the authors note in their introduction. “Surprisingly, not everyone is interested in the topic. Unless you major in finance or happen to have a keen interest in the stock market, it’s unlikely that you have a solid grasp on investing.”

That philosophy drives the book’s 15 chapters, each with a short summary at the end to make the main points easier to digest.

The book answers basic questions about personal finance, in clear and simple, jargon-free language that makes it easy to find advice on a variety of topics. Some of those include how to find a reputable and capable financial adviser; the importance of getting a solid education and building a financial safety net through savings and investments; understanding insurance; finding (and keeping) a career and building and managing credit. It even includes a chapter on planning for “the end of the world” and how planning for it can help you regardless whether — or how — things may fall apart.

The book contains many valuable nuggets of financial wisdom, complete with advice on where to find additional resources. It’s easy to read, with chapters short enough to be consumed when you have a few minutes.

I’d recommend it as a great gift for someone just starting out on a career, or if you just would like to finally understand 529 plans or the difference between a stock and a bond. I plan to keep my copy on my desk, for a handy reference when I write about financial matters.

P.I.G.G.Y. Plan-It can be found in most bookstores and online sources such as Amazon.com.

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Tick myth? It doesn’t sprout a second head

via Tick myth? It doesn’t sprout a second head

PDF: Ticks

If you grew up in the Deep South, you probably have heard all types of advice about dealing with ticks.

Spending time in wooded areas during a hot Mississippi summer means watching where you step, being sure to protect yourself against mosquitoes, heat and sunburn, and checking yourself for ticks, redbugs and other stowaways you might have picked up along the way. These persistent little bloodsuckers can hitch a ride on your clothes and travel instinctively to areas where they can latch on to you (or your pet).

Ticks are a serious health threat. Far from just being a nuisance, these arachnids can carry dangerous diseases such as Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and anaplasmosis.

“Ticks are the No. 1 cause of vector-borne disease in the U.S.,” said William Nicholson, a research microbiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a recent article in Consumer Reports.

The CDC reports that, of the seven tick species known to bite people in the U.S., five of them can be found in Mississippi and surrounding states. They include the American dog tick, the brown dog tick, the blacklegged tick, the Gulf Coast tick and the Lone Star tick. Some of these are more numerous and aggressive than others, with the brown dog tick being distributed across most of the continental U.S.

When it comes to advice about removing a tick, there are as many old-wives’ tales and home remedies as there are creative people to come up with them.

People have long known that ticks are dangerous, and hundreds of years of history have given us the notions that you can suffocate an embedded tick (with Vaseline, etc.); that it’s best to remove it with a lit match; that a tick will grow a new body if the head is left intact; and many others. (By the way, I know many people will continue to swear by their favorite cures regardless of what anybody says; six years of writing this column have taught me that people have strong opinions that are harder to dislodge than…well, an embedded tick.)

Regardless, experts in this sort of thing are constantly trying to set the record straight on the best ways to deal with ticks. Consumer Reports last week published some advice that is worth heeding. In an article titled “4 Common Myths About Ticks Debunked,” writer Catherine Roberts noted that although a lot of repellents and various chemicals have been said to be effective in keeping ticks away, none is more effective than deet, which is the active ingredient in many bug sprays.

“…Consumer Reports’ tests have shown that bug sprays billed as natural — containing substances such as lemongrass, citronella, peppermint and rosemary — usually don’t perform as well as those that contain deet,” Roberts noted.

A second myth that is often cited is that ticks climb trees, from where they can drop onto people passing by. In reality, ticks may climb a short distance (such as into tall grass or a bush) to wait for an animal to pass, then latch on. But since they aren’t likely to find hosts high in trees, it’s unlikely they’d use this hunting strategy.

Roberts also tackled the “lit-match” strategy for dislodging a tick. Although many people swear by this method, and although it will kill the tick, its mouthparts are already hooked into the skin. Instead, use a pair of tweezers to grasp the tick firmly as close to the skin’s surface as possible, then use steady and firm pressure to pull it out. The goal is to keep the tick’s head connected to its body, because a detached head embedded in the skin can become infected.

Other myths include that you can feel a tick bite, although some people claim to be able to feel it. For most people, it’s just the opposite; ticks secrete a small amount of anesthetic into the bite, which makes their victims unaware they’re being bitten.

As with many other pests, the best strategy is to avoid being bitten in the first place, by using deet-containing chemicals, covering up as much as possible, and aggressively checking yourself for ticks after your trip.

For more on ticks and their removal, visit http://www.cdc.gov/ticks/removing_a_tick.html, and http://www.ticksafety.com.

 

Insurance costs rise with teen drivers

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Travelers Insurance Co.

via Insurance costs rise with teen drivers, clarionledger.com

PDF: Teen drivers more costly

As a teenager, I couldn’t wait to get my license. When I finally got that green-and-white plastic card at 15, it was a ticket to freedom and independence, although it also came with a lot of responsibility. Nearly four decades later, I still remember the exhilaration of driving without supervision for the first time. For generations now, a key rite of passage to adulthood has been getting behind the wheel of a car or truck.

You might think that’s still the case, but there has been a generational shift in the enthusiasm for getting a driver’s license. A 2016 study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute found the number of 16-year-olds with driver’s licenses plummeted from nearly 50 percent in 1983 to just under a quarter in 2014. In 1983, about 90 percent of 19-year-olds had their driver’s licenses, while the number in 2014 was just under 70 percent. Perhaps in the age of Uber and Lyft, driving has lost some of its appeal. The trend is mirrored across all age groups.

While newly licensed teens are busy taking their license selfies, they’re probably not thinking about how much all this is going to cost. But you can be sure their parents are; adding a teen driver is expensive. Not only does it mean possibly adding a vehicle, as well as car tags, gas, maintenance, school parking permits and so on, it also means your car insurance premium is about to rise dramatically.

Insurancequotes.com recently published some shocking statistics showing that, on average, adding a teen driver can increase your auto insurance premium by 82 percent. (That means, if your monthly premium is $200, your next bill after adding a teenage driver might be $364). And that’s just the averages: your actual increase could be a little less or a whole lot more.

“Besides driving history, two factors that have a large part in determining your auto insurance rate are your gender and age,” noted personal finance expert Natasha Rachel Smith in a blog post about the study. “Age has the biggest impact on your rate since young drivers with no experience have statistically shown to be more immature behind the wheel. And that leads to more insurance claims, making them much more expensive to insure. In other words, the younger the driver the higher the rate.”

The study found that Mississippi drivers can expect an increase of about 69 percent on average, making it the sixth-lowest in the country. Contrast that with Rhode Island, whose residents on average see a whopping 137 percent increase. (On the other end of the scale, Hawaii residents can expect a modest increase of about 12 percent, because insurers there can’t use age, gender or length of driving experience when determining premiums.)

We’ve all heard the conventional wisdom that boys cost more to insure than girls, and the statistics appear to support that. On average, adding a teenage boy to your policy will bump your premiums by 92 percent, while adding a girl results in a more modest (but still excruciating) 70 percent increase. The good news: as the teen gets older, the rates go down considerably. By the time they’ve reached 19, the worst is probably over.

The reasons for the increases are obvious: statistically, teens are just not that great at driving. Their inexperience and accident history make them a more-risky proposition for insurance companies.

“Unfortunately, teens just aren’t very good drivers because they don’t have much experience behind the wheel,” says Mike Barry, vice president of media relations for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute. “Teens are twice as likely to be involved in an accident and 50 percent more likely to be involved in a fatal accident. Anytime you add a driver that is likely to be involved in more accidents as well as more serious accidents, the rise in insurance costs will be steep.”

As with many services, you can often get better prices by shopping around. If you do so, be sure to compare “apples to apples”, and make sure each company quotes you on the same choices of deductibles, types of coverage, and other details. And be sure to inquire about discounts, such as “good-student” discounts, as well as multi-policy discounts and others. The insurance industry is highly competitive, and you have a lot of choices. Helping make sure your teen is responsible behind the wheel, learns proper driving techniques and adopts good habits can also reduce the impact.

For more tips, visit https://www.iii.org/article/safety-tips-teen-drivers.

Traffic tragedy: Unsecured loads create hazards

RCMP-SecureYourLoad_Banner

City of St. Albert

via Traffic tragedy: Unsecured loads create hazards, clarionledger.com

PDF: Unsecured loads

A few years ago, my wife and I narrowly avoided disaster from a ladder that fell from a pickup near the Madison exit. We had just entered I-55 in our car, and I had noticed the truck just ahead of us with an unsecured 8-foot stepladder bouncing in the truck’s bed. I had changed lanes so I wouldn’t be behind the truck, but suddenly the ladder went flying, landing directly in my lane. Instinct took over, and I swerved into the next lane. Luckily, I was able to regain control, but I could have easily hit the ladder or another vehicle, overturned or run off the road.

Such incidents are far from rare on America’s roadways, and in many cases are because of drivers failing to secure their loads. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reports that more than 200,000 crashes related to road debris were reported to police between 2011 and 2014, resulting in 39,000 injuries and 500 deaths. Nearly 40 percent of those deaths occurred when a driver swerved to avoid hitting something in their path (such as the incident I described). About two-thirds were the result of unsecured loads. Other crashes occurred from parts falling off vehicles, or towed trailers that came loose.

This is a big problem on our highways. A drive down one of the Magnolia State’s interstates will reveal things that have fallen from trucks, trailers or cartops including furniture, tools, construction materials (especially “sheet goods” such as plywood), large bags or boxes, yard debris and trash. Just last week, I saw a couch in the center of I-55 near Lakeland Drive.

We love our trucks and trailers here in Mississippi, but throwing something in the back of your pickup or trailer without properly tying it down is irresponsible and can lead to disaster.

“Load-securing should be a standard practice of Mississippi motorists,” said Melinda McGrath, a professional engineer and executive director of the Mississippi Department of Transportation. “Debris from unsecured loads not only becomes a road hazard for other motorists but it also contributes to 40 percent of roadside litter. It is also illegal.”

McGrath reminded drivers that failing to secure your load could cost you up to $500 and up to six months in prison. In addition, you can be held liable in civil court for a crash caused by the objects falling from your vehicle.

MDOT, which had designated last Wednesday as “Secure Your Load Day” to bring attention to the problem, gave us these tips for securing the load:

  • Tie down the load with rope, netting or straps at the front, back, sides and top. Most pickups and trailers have tie-down points so you can secure the load. Make sure the load is tightly secured, so it won’t fly off when it catches the wind. Double-check the tightness periodically as you travel, and to ensure that items haven’t slid out of place.
  • Cover the load with a sturdy tarp to keep out the wind, and make sure the tarp is especially secure near the front, where the wind can dislodge it.
  • Avoid overloading the vehicle.
  • Use safety chains when hauling trailers.

“Secure Your Load Day” was part of a nationwide effort that began in 2004 after 24-year-old Maria Federici of Washington state was blinded and disfigured when a piece of particle board flew off a trailer and smashed through her car’s windshield. Federici’s mother, Robin Abel, has since gone on to advocate for stronger laws and public awareness of unsecured loads.

“Secure your load as if everyone you love is driving in the car behind you,” Abel said.

To learn more about travel safety, visit GoMDOT.com/DriveSmartMS, download the MDOT Traffic mobile app and follow @MississippiDOT on social media channels like Facebook and Twitter.

Internet hackers may have invaded your router

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Deathtostock.com

via Internet hackers may have invaded your router

PDF: Malware requires more than rebooting

Last week, cyber security experts warned pretty much the entire world to tighten its internet security in the wake of an infiltration by a nasty malware called VPNFilter, which had infected an estimated half million routers in 54 countries and counting as of May 30. The code could be used to monitor and steal your personal information, allow hackers to use your router as part of a vast network for illegal purposes, or even to shut down your service altogether, according to the FBI.

The Justice Department pointed the finger at Russian hackers, working under an organization called “Sofacy Group” (also known as “APT28,” “Sandworm,” “Pawn Storm,” “Fancy Bear” and “Sednit”). The bug they’ve set loose is nothing to play around with. VPNFilter is “able to render small office and home office routers inoperable,” noted the FBI in its statement. “The malware can potentially also collect information passing through the router.”

In the wake of the announcement, many news reports forwarded the FBI’s advice to reboot your router, but many security experts have since opined it might not be enough. It’s also important to update your device’s firmware (software that operates specific parts of the device), change your device’s password and disable remote authorization.

You might not even know you have a router, but if you have internet service, you have one. Routers manage the network and transmit data from a modem, which in turn comes into your home or business from the internet service provider. Sometimes the router and modem are separate devices, but most often they’re both in the same device. “A router is a key device in your network because it is the doorway between your home or business and the Internet,” noted David O’Gwynn, chairman of the Computer Science Department at Belhaven University. “If a bad actor can get in the doorway, then they can come in your house.”

Setting up a router and network are fairly straightforward processes, but most consumers don’t understand how to do them. Often, the router is set up by the person installing the service, then it sits forgotten for months or years. But regardless of whomever sets up the service, it’s important to keep the router and its security up to date. “You might check your doors before going to bed. In the same way, you might also want to check the door to the Internet periodically,” O’Gwynn advised.

Although lists of vulnerable routers have been published, it’s difficult to tell which routers have been targeted, and even to tell whether the infection is present. According to Krebs on Security, rebooting also needs to be accompanied by additional steps: you also need to update your router’s firmware and reset it to its factory-default settings, disable the router’s remote access, and change the password that came with the device. “Part of the code used by VPNFilter can still persist until the affected device is reset to its factory-default settings,” Krebs wrote in a post last week.

So, if you’re like millions of other Americans who are worried after hearing the news, what do you do? It depends upon how tech-savvy you are. For people well-versed in how these systems work, it’s a few simple steps. However, for many people who don’t know a gigabit from a terabyte (that’s probably most of us), here’s some advice from O’Gwynn:

Get in contact with your Internet Service Provider (ISP) to find out whether your provided router is affected. Do this especially if you haven’t updated your service in more than two years.

If you’re still worried about whether you’re affected, get in contact with a local computer sales and service professional. If you can’t find someone local, Best Buy’s Geek Squad is a possible second option. It will cost money to have someone come out, but the peace of mind might be worth it to you.

Just like with plumbers and carpenters, it pays to build a relationship with a competent computer service professional, especially one that has some experience in security matters. The computing world is growing in its scope and affect on our lives, and the bad guys are multiplying. “Trained, competent professionals are how we can best maximize safety and productivity in the process,” O’Gwynn noted.

Google: Company accused of using search engines to threaten businesses

via Google: Company accused of using search engines to threaten businesses

PDF: Search Engine Scams

When was the last time you went to the second or third page of a Google search? For most people, the answer is “never” or “almost never.”

The typical search, though, yields millions of results.

For example, on the day I searched, typing “Jackson Mississippi blue cars” resulted in 2.2 million hits, with only 11 of those results listed on the first page (and five of those from the same company). Now, a lot of those results would likely not be pertinent to my search for blue cars in Jackson, but it’s still a lot of data.

If you want to sell cars (or anything else) in Mississippi (or anywhere else) and are trying to snag Google users, getting on that first page is key. Human nature being what it is, it’s clear that people really don’t like to go to additional pages. That makes the first page of any Google search as valuable as prime Florida beachfront property. And there’s a lot of competition for that real estate; for many businesses, it’s necessary for survival.

Since the advent of search engines in the 1990s, people have been figuring out how to push certain results higher in searches. Google’s computerized algorithm sends its billions of “web crawlers” over the Internet constantly to look for certain words and phrases, and it “likes” websites that are “Google-friendly.”

The process of making results appear on the first page is more complicated than it looks, but if you can do it successfully, you can make a lot of money. Whole industries have sprung up around the art and science of pushing results higher in searches (called SEO, or Search Engine Optimization).

All this cash potential has (surprise!) attracted the unscrupulous as well as the honest, and regulators have been taking action for several years to challenge and shut down predatory operations. Last week, the Federal Trade Commission charged a Florida-based company with “deceiving small business owners by falsely claiming to represent Google, falsely threatening businesses with removal from Google search results, and falsely promising first-place or first-page placement in Google search results.”

The FTC charged Point Break Media and 12 related defendants (among them the company’s senior officers) with robocalling business owners claiming that Google was about to label their businesses “permanently closed” unless they talked to a “Google specialist” and paid high fees ($300 to $700) to reinstate their business’ presence in Google searches. Once they pay, the businesses get a follow-up call to upsell them with products costing up to $949.99 and up to $169.99 per month.

The FTC also accused the company of taking money from their clients’ checking accounts without their knowledge, consent or authorization “with no apparent reason or justification” when high numbers of disputed transactions by angry customers caused Point Break to lose its ability to accept payments by credit cards.

Clearly, anyone who is in the business of helping businesses raise their profile in Google searches should know their business and should have an established reputation of being able to deliver results with integrity. It’s not easy for businesses, though, to tell which is which, and the potential of falling for a scam is high.

Lahle Wolfe, a marketing specialist writing in a column last month for The Balance (a career and small-business website), gave some sage advice for businesses to keep them from falling for scams and shady operators.

First, Wolfe wrote, avoid any services promising a “30-day trial.”

“Never, ever, (did I say never?) give your password and access information to anyone who offers you free trials,” she advised. “You might as well give them your car keys and ATM password, too.”

Secondly, avoid services that are way under (or over) the prevailing prices charged by others in your market area. Also, it’s important to avoid instant or quick results, without taking the time to understand your company and its website. “We cannot state this strongly enough,” she counseled: “SEO cannot be done quickly unless it is done poorly.”

After listing a dozen tips, Wolfe concludes with this excellent advice: “Until a marketing company actually does look at your site and your competitor’s websites, you really should tell them you have nothing to say to them except goodbye. Better yet — put their emails where they belong — in the trash.”

 

CDC: Pools, hot tubs harbor bacteria

 

p0517-swimming-related-diseases

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

via Pools, hot tubs harbor bacteria: CDC

PDF: Hotel pools 1Hotel pools 2Hotel pools 3

During summer vacations in the 1970s, my brothers and I looked for three things when we were about to check into a motel: air conditioning, a good TV, and a decent pool.

In the days before smartphones, in-vehicle TV screens and handheld games to fill the long, boring travel hours, the “vacancy” sign was like a beacon of hope for kids everywhere. My dad and mom, tired from driving and the stress of travel, were likely just looking for a comfortable bed and a clean room for as little money as possible. But as soon as we checked in, we were in our swimsuits and headed to the pool. Diving in with reckless abandon, we would splash and swim to our hearts’ content until Mom called us to get ready for supper.

Back in those days, nobody gave much thought to what terrors might be lurking in the water (and I’m not talking about sharks and alligators). The pools were chlorinated, usually looked pretty clean, and reports of water-borne illnesses from pools were rare. That has pretty much been the case up until the past few years, but with better science and increased understanding of microbiological hazards, health officials are increasingly worried about some microscopic nasties that could make you sick. The findings prompted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a warning earlier this month.

In its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report issued May 18, the CDC reported that eight people died and more than 27,000 people got sick from parasites in pools, hot tubs and water playgrounds from 2000 to 2014. During those years, health officials in 46 states and Puerto Rico reported 493 outbreaks of parasites such as Cryptosporidium, Legionella, and others. Of the 393 cases in which the presence of parasites was confirmed, most (58 percent) of illnesses were linked to Cryptosporidium (which causes predominantly gastrointestinal illness). Others included Legionella, which causes Legionnaires’ disease and could be linked to six of the eight deaths; Pontiac fever, described as “a milder illness with flu-like symptoms”; and Pseudomonas, which causes hot tub rash and swimmers’ ear. Of all the cases, the largest number came from hotel pools and hot tubs.

The CDC’s report noted that Cryptosporidium (“Crypto”) is particularly hard to kill and is resistant to chlorine, which is effective at killing other pathogens. Crypto results from people going swimming when they have diarrhea. Swimmers ingesting the water can become very ill. “Swallowing just a mouthful of water with Crypto in it can make otherwise healthy kids and adults sick for weeks with watery diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea and vomiting,” noted CDC’s Healthy Swimming Program chief Michele Hlavsa. “Chlorine cannot kill Crypto quickly. We need to keep it out of the water in the first place. Don’t go into the water, and don’t let your kids go into the water if sick with diarrhea.”

As for Legionella, Hlvasa noted that some people are more likely to get sick from exposure, including people 50 years or older, current or former smokers, people with chronic lung disease and those with a weakened immune system. “These people should see a doctor right away if they develop pneumonia symptoms and let the doctor know about any possible exposures to Legionella, including recent hot tub use,” the CDC noted in its news release.

Besides calling on operators of pools, hot tubs, and other water activities to adopt more stringent cleaning practices, the CDC suggests these practices before using an unfamiliar pool or hot tub:

  • Don’t swim or let your kids swim with diarrhea. Especially if Crypto has been identified as the cause of diarrhea, wait until two weeks after diarrhea has stopped to go swimming.
  • Ask for the inspection report. The operator of the facility should have a recent inspection report from city or state inspectors.
  • Test the water. Before getting in the water, use a test strip from your local retailer or pool supply store to check if the water’s pH and bromine or free chlorine level are correct.
  • Don’t swallow the water.
  • Take kids on bathroom breaks hourly, and change diapers in a diaper-changing area and away from the water.

‘Neighbor spoofing’ is robocalling to dupe customers

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via ‘Neighbor spoofing’ is robocalling to dupe customers

PDF: Neighbor spoofing

At least three times over the past couple of months, I’ve unwittingly answered calls from telemarketers. Ordinarily, I screen out these calls, but these particular ones came from a number that appeared to be a local number with the same area code and prefix as my own.

“Hi, is Leslie there?” asks the caller when I’ve picked up the phone. When I reply that there is no one named Leslie here, the caller starts his spiel. “Well, maybe you can help me,” he asks politely, then launches into a pitch designed to get me to buy whatever he’s selling.

It happened again yesterday. As soon as he asked for Leslie, I immediately recognized the ruse, attested to “Leslie’s” non-presence and hung up. After each previous call, I’ve added the number to a contact in my phone named “Spam,” calls from which I’ve instructed my phone to refuse. But this tactic only works if the caller ID information lists the same number as before. When a new number appears, the whole thing starts again.

This caller is using a trick called “neighbor spoofing,” which makes it look like the call originates from your local area even though the caller is probably sitting in a cubicle somewhere, waiting on robocalling equipment to deliver a potential customer. (Some consumers have reported their own numbers appearing in the caller ID!)

Since I have several friends and coworkers who use the same exchange as I do, the gambit is that I’ll answer the call. A telemarketer or scammer can’t sell you something or overcome your objections if they can’t get you on the phone. Millions of Americans have been targeted by this tactic, and even the head of the Federal Communications Commission isn’t immune.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told National Public Radio that he had been tricked into answering calls this way. “(The call will) seem to be coming from the 202 area code, which is here in Washington,” Pai told NPR. “And I know for a fact that, you know, it’s probably not someone calling from the office.”

Pai told NPR’s Rachel Martin that call centers in India were reportedly making about $150,000 each day by calling Americans posing as the IRS and scaring them into paying for fines and fees they didn’t owe.

This financial windfall for scammers has made robocalling more prolific than ever. An estimated 2.5 billion robocalls (spoofed or not) are made every month to American phone numbers. And according to some sources, the number of spoofed calls has risen dramatically in the past two years, probably accounting for more than 20 percent of robocalls.

Spoofing is legal unless it’s intended to “defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value,” as defined in the 2009 Truth in Caller ID Act. Earlier this year, President Trump signed into law the Spoofing Prevention Act of 2017, which — among other things — expanded the law’s reach to cover international calls. In a very few cases, spoofing can be used for good causes. For example, domestic violence shelters may use spoofing to hide the organization’s true number, which could be tracked and used to locate the center. But most uses of spoofing are nefarious.

To avoid falling victim to neighbor spoofing, there are several tactics you can use. Consumer Reports suggests you investigate call-blocking software, such as Nomorobo. In addition, many providers offer this service to their customers. Check with your service provider.

Secondly, don’t answer unfamiliar numbers. Let them go to voicemail. And if you do find yourself on the receiving end of a spoofed call, don’t engage in conversation. It’s OK to hang up immediately. Finally, if you do get such a call, resist the urge to call the number back and give them a piece of your mind. Doing so will only invite more calls, and it’s possible that the number you’re calling actually belongs to a real person who is a victim, too.

 

Secret shopper scams leave victims holding the bag

via Secret shopper scams leave victims holding the bag

PDF: Secret shopper scams

You probably think of yourself as a pretty good shopper. Most of us do; after all, we spend a lot of time doing it. We hone our shopping skills almost daily at all types of retailers and get pretty good at spotting a good bargain. “If only,” you sigh to yourself as you plunk down the money for your purchase, “…somebody would pay me to put those skills to work!”

One day, a check arrives in the mail. Finally, somebody has recognized your awesome retail skills and is offering you a job. A company wants you to help assess the shopping experience at a nationally known retailer such as Walmart as a “secret shopper.” Of the $1,955.45 check, you can keep $300 for yourself.

Although you’re skeptical, you deposit the check. After a day or so, the bank tells you the money is in your account; it looks as if the whole thing might be legit after all.

The instructions in the letter tell you to deposit the check and conduct your first “secret shopper” assignment at the store by testing the in-store wire transfer services at Western Union, Moneygram or similar services. Dutifully, you wire a portion of the money to the supplied address and await your next set of instructions.

Well, you probably can guess the rest. After a few days, the “check” bounces after being discovered as a fake. The bank comes after you for the money you wired from your own account. Looking around, you discover the whole thing was smoke and mirrors. You find yourself holding the bag, embarrassed that you were conned so easily.

The “secret shopper” or “mystery shopper” scam is making the rounds again, having proven a highly reliable way for scammers to persuade people to send them money. What makes it so durable is that it exploits multiple vulnerabilities to get past our skepticism. Among them: need, greed and pride.

Many victims of this scam are in financial need, often in desperate need because of job loss, mounting debts or bad decisions they’ve made in the past. There’s also the added factor of greed. Most people would like something for nothing, a job that offers a high payout for a minimum of work.

Finally, these scams exploit pride. We all like to be valued and respond when someone recognizes an ability we value in ourselves.

One additional tactic of this particular scam is that it also exploits a weakness in the U.S. banking system, in which a fake check can take days or even weeks to be discovered. The scammers tell you you need to act quickly, or the opportunity will be gone. (That’s also the window of time the check could be expected to fool the banking system before it’s discovered.)

“Under federal law, banks must make deposited funds available quickly, but just because you can withdraw the money doesn’t mean the check is good, even if it’s a cashier’s check or money order,” explains the American Bankers Association on its website. “If you have any questions about whether or not the check is good, talk to your banker. Be sure to explain the source of the check, the reasons it was sent to you, and whether you are being asked to wire money back.”

Other variants of the scam involve purchasing reloadable cards or gift cards, such as iTunes cards, with instructions to take photos of the cards and their PIN codes. And law enforcement authorities remind us that just about any type of financial paper can be faked, including traveler’s checks, cashier’s checks and money orders — no matter how legitimate they may appear.

If you get such a solicitation, drop it in the shredder immediately. Remember that, no matter how enticing the bait the fisherman uses, the hook always comes — often painfully.

For more on fake check scams, check out the ABA’s advice at https://www.aba.com/Consumers/Pages/FakeCheckScams.aspx.

 

Hear this: Personal amplifiers may not be hearing aids

via Hear this: Personal amplifiers may not be hearing aids

PDF: Personal amplifiers and hearing aids

I don’t know exactly when or why my hearing began to diminish, but by the age of 40, I began to notice it was more difficult to hear voices and sounds that others heard clearly. I would often ask others to repeat themselves and would turn up the volume or use the closed-captioning when watching TV.

My concerned wife would ask me if I heard some particular sound, such as a digital watch’s high-pitched beep or a faint whisper. Each time, the answer was no. As I got older, the problem seemed to get worse.

Last year, after seeking medical help, I was diagnosed with a moderate hearing loss and was fitted with a pair of small, unobtrusive hearing aids. These little devices have made a huge difference, enabling me to hear many of the little sounds we take for granted.

My case is not unique; hearing loss is reaching record levels among Americans. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, I’m one of about 35 million Americans who suffer from some degree of hearing loss, with the number increasing steadily, probably because of our increasingly noisy world.

So many people are desperate to hear better that it’s caused some to spend millions on products that claim to be effective in helping. Many of these products are touted as “approved” by medical professionals, or even government agencies such as the FDA. They’re often what are called “personal sound amplification products” (PSAPs), which are actually amplifiers designed to make sounds louder. But they’re not intended (and may not legally claim) to be effective for people with hearing loss.

Technically, the FDA defines a hearing aid as “a sound-amplifying device intended to compensate for impaired hearing.”

“Hearing aids and personal sound amplification products … can both improve our ability to hear sound,” noted Dr. Eric Mann, deputy director of FDA’s Division of Ophthalmic, Neurological, and Ear, Nose, and Throat Devices, in an article on the FDA’s website. “They are both wearable, and some of their technology and function is similar.”

PSAP manufacturers, though, can get into trouble if they make claims that can’t be backed up.

One Florida-based company raised the ire of the Federal Trade Commission for claiming in ads that their PSAP was “independently tested to help you hear up to 30 times better.”

Global Concepts Ltd. Inc. sold nearly 3 million MSA 30X sound amplifiers with ads on TV and websites using those and similar claims. The device looks a lot like a standard hearing aid and fits over the ear, with rechargeable batteries. You’ve probably seen one of their commercials, which show people happily going through life wearing their MSA 30s.

The FTC took issue with the company’s claims that the device was “independently tested” to improve hearing up to 30 times, and fined Global Concepts $47 million (later reduced to $500,000 because the company said it couldn’t pay). According to the FTC, the company “did not possess adequate evidence that the MSA 30X actually helped consumers hear better in the advertised circumstances. Likewise, the FTC alleges defendants did not possess independent tests showing the MSA 30X helped consumers hear thirty times better.”

Although devices like the MSA 30 may actually help you if you just need to hear things louder, they’re not designed for people with hearing loss. Don’t purchase a PSAP to correct your hearing loss (or think you might have it). Instead, seek the services of a qualified health care professional.

Once diagnosed, look for a reliable provider. Stay away from products with “too-good-to-believe” prices and look for dealers who are willing to give you a trial period.

For more advice on this topic, visit https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0168-buying-hearing-aid-0.