Drivers say automated car systems prevented crashes

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via Drivers say automated car systems prevented crashes, clarionledger.com

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A few months ago, I wrote in this column about how pedestrian deaths are becoming increasingly common on our roadways, with some of the alarming increases blamed on our being distracted by the ever-present devices we have with us constantly. While reading through on the findings of a study of the phenomenon, one statement, in particular, caught my eye: The number of pedestrian deaths might be higher still, if not for the installation of automated collision-avoidance systems now on many vehicles.

Our cars and trucks are steadily becoming self-thinking robots. Today’s cars can automatically apply the brakes if the vehicle in front of you suddenly slows or stops; sound an alarm if you’re nodding off at the wheel; alert you if you’re about to hit a vehicle in your blind spot; keep you from backing into an object, animal or person behind you; enable your vehicle to parallel-park itself and many others.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, of the 35,092 people who died in vehicle crashes on American roads in 2015, the vast majority (94 percent) were at least partially caused by human error or poor decisions.

All these technologies are paving the way toward a future in which the vehicles will be doing much — if not all — of the driving. Depending on your point of view, that could be comforting or alarming. It’s an established fact that humans are just not very good at making decisions all the time, and we can suffer from fatigue, distraction, poor judgment and lack of impulse control. On the other hand, we know computerized systems are subject to security flaws, equipment failure, and poor programming.

But in labs and research facilities around the world, engineers are working towards a more automated future, and are watching as these features are tested on a massive scale on today’s roads. The results, Consumer Reports noted recently, can be found in saved lives and happier drivers. Consumer Reports asked its subscribers to report on their experiences with some of these technologies and found most of them reported they were not only satisfied with these systems but also, in some cases, credited those systems with avoiding crashes.

More than 57,000 vehicle owners responded to the magazine’s request to provide information, reporting that their vehicles included such features as automated emergency braking, forward-collision warning, blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic warning and lane-departure warning. Consumer Reports noted that drivers were most appreciative of blind-spot warnings and rear cross-traffic warnings (although these systems have been panned in the past; the American Automobile Association in 2015 cited high error rates for RCTA systems).

In particular, for vehicle owners who said these features had saved them from accidents, blind-spot warnings were cited for preventing 35 percent of potential crashes. Even experienced drivers can fail to see a car that’s in their own vehicle’s blind spot and sideswipe neighboring vehicles when changing lanes. A blind-spot warning system sounds an alarm when it senses you’re about to change lanes into another vehicle.

While many of these features simply give you a visual, auditory or even tactile warning that a collision is imminent, others actually take control of the vehicle if the system senses a dangerous situation. For example, lane-keeping systems use cameras to detect lane markings and will steer your vehicle back to its lane if you’re drifting out of the lane. AEB will automatically apply the brakes if it senses you’re about to rear-end the vehicle in front of you.

Of course, with all of these technologies comes the potential for errors, which can annoy drivers and cause them to lose faith in the technology. For example, owners of vehicles equipped with forward-collision warning reported the highest number of false alerts. About 45 percent of these drivers reported getting at least one false alert.

Still, Consumer Reports (and many consumer advocates and regulatory bodies) think these technologies are a great idea (even with the occasional error) and recommend more of these technologies become standard equipment in the future. “Consumer Reports believes that FCW and AEB should be standard equipment, even with occasional false alerts,” noted the survey authors. “The latest study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety supports this: Rear-end crashes are cut by 27 percent when a vehicle has FCW and by 50 percent when it’s also equipped with AEB.”

To read Consumer Reports’ full article, which includes more results about each of the technologies covered, visit http://bit.ly/2twfCBc. For more on each type of feature and videos to explain them, visit the NHTSA’s site at http://bit.ly/2oCBSVM.

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Getting the most from your car’s A/C

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edmunds.com

via How to get the most out of your vehicle’s AC, clarionledger.com

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If you’re of a certain age, you probably remember the old “4/40” system for keeping cool while driving in the summer months. Driving around at around 40 miles per hour with all four windows down got the air moving in the torrid heat of a Southern summer, and provided a welcome escape for generations of Mississippians.

While most of us consider air conditioning to be a necessity in our vehicles, it wasn’t always so. Early automobiles were uncooled, even as the new air-conditioning systems (if you could afford them) made homes and businesses feel like a crisp March morning even in the dog days of August. In 1933, Popular Science reported that a New York company had installed an air conditioning unit in a commercially available vehicle for the first time.

Although not commercially successful at first because of the unwieldy equipment required, cost and danger of carbon monoxide poisoning, the idea took off, and the technology made steady improvements. In the years after, Packard and Cadillac experimented with various technologies. But in 1953, the new Chrysler Imperial featured an optional air conditioning that would be recognizable as a modern system.

Since then, many more innovations have made air conditioning a staple on most vehicles. But many drivers still are probably not getting the most effective use of it. Recently, Consumer Reports’ Patrick Olsen wrote a great column with five tips:

Don’t pre-cool. Olsen explains that your car’s air conditioning works much better when you’re actually driving, because the faster the engine turns, the faster the compressor runs, which lets the system cool more effectively. Don’t waste time and gas by letting your car run before you go.

“If the interior is really hot, crank up the fan when you start driving, and open just the rear windows for 10 to 20 seconds,” Olsen advises. “This forces all the hot air out of the cabin. Don’t open the front windows — that only moves the heat out of the front of the car, and it will leave the air in the back of the cabin hot and stagnant.”

Go low. Since most vehicle air-conditioning systems cool the air to about 38 degrees, if you set the temperature higher, you can be making the system work harder since it must re-heat the air. Olsen advises setting the temp to the lowest setting, then using the fans to adjust the temperature.

Don’t recirculate. Most cars have a “recirculate” button, which takes air from the front of the cabin and pulls it back through the system. But while using this feature might make the driver and front-seat passengers comfortable, it can make rear-seat passengers hotter.

Turn off stop/start mode. Some newer vehicles have a system that stops the engine when idling, to cut down on fuel use and emissions. Olsen suggests turning it off, because it can make the compressor stop running, making your car hotter when stopped or in stop-and-go traffic.

Clean the filter. A dirty cabin air filter (just like the one in your house) can reduce the efficiency of your system and make it work harder. If your filter is easily accessible, clean it often.

And as for the age-old debate about whether using the air conditioner uses more gas than riding with the windows open, most expert sites I consulted noted, “it depends.”

Conventional wisdom says the air conditioner uses more gas, and that’s usually true. Car and Driver did a study in 2008 in which they tested this theory and recommended turning the air conditioner off and opening the windows (at lower speeds) to save a few miles per gallon. But at higher speeds, the engine is running faster, making the air-conditioning system use less fuel. Automotive site Edmunds.com notes, “in our experience, it’s not worth the argument because you won’t save a lot of gas either way. So just do what’s comfortable.”

Churches, charities hit in office supply scam

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via Churches, charities hit in office-supply scam, clarionledger.com

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If you run a small business or nonprofit organization, you already know it’s tough out there. Besides working in a tough economic environment, charities and small businesses find themselves having to look for ways to save a buck every way they can. Unfortunately, that can make them targets of scammers, promising amazing deals that never pan out or even trying to collect money for orders that were never made.

This week, federal regulators announced they’d put a stop to an office-supply scam that allegedly swindled child care centers, educational institutions, churches, hospitals and other nonprofits by calling them and tricking them into paying for overpriced supplies they never ordered.

The Federal Trade Commission got federal courts to freeze the assets of several companies based in Maryland and California that are accused of using a variety of tactics to get companies on the hook for unordered merchandise. The agency announced the action in a news release this week.

“The defendants lied to small businesses, charities and churches to get them to pay for overpriced supplies they didn’t order,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “That’s not only shameful, it’s also illegal.”

In the California case, Beverly Hills-based Telestar Consulting Inc. (also doing business as Kleritec and United Business Supply, and Karl Wesley Angel) allegedly used a variety of tactics to persuade consumers to pay for unordered merchandise. For example, the FTC alleges the defendants called the consumers to offer supposed deals on, or free samples of, items like art supplies and cleaning products.

They also asked consumers to accept an additional shipment by falsely calling it a ‘backorder’ that was supposedly part of an order the consumer had already paid for, and then billed them for the so-called ‘backorder,’” noted the FTC. In other instances, the defendants claimed consumers had agreed to multiple shipments, when at most they had agreed to only one shipment. In addition, in instances in which consumers agreed to make a purchase, the defendants allegedly failed to disclose the total cost and quantity of goods, and the terms of the sale.

If the invoices were ignored or not paid promptly, the companies allegedly threatened to send the organizations to collections agencies. “Consumers who paid under a mistaken belief that they had to do so — some paid thousands of dollars more than what they were legally obligated to pay — often received more unordered merchandise and bills for payment,” the release noted.

In the Maryland case, the FTC charged six companies and three individuals around a scheme involving light bulbs and cleaning supplies. The scheme allegedly hired telemarketers who “falsely indicated that they had done business with the consumers earlier and that they were offering a free sample or catalog, without properly disclosing that they were making a sales call.”

The scheme allegedly relied on the fact the person ordering merchandise and the person processing invoices didn’t know what the other was doing. If invoices were paid, the company received future shipments of unordered merchandise.

This type of scheme is successful for several reasons. For one, many people believe unordered merchandise must be paid for (the law says that, in most cases, you don’t have to pay for anything you didn’t order). Secondly, scams use smooth-talking telemarketers, who trick people (on a recorded call) into answering “yes” to an unrelated question, doctoring the recording and using it as evidence the order was made. And finally, there is often a lack of good communication between those making purchases and those paying the invoices.

To read the complaint in its entirety, visit http://bit.ly/2utdLhC.

Wary widow thwarts grandparent scam

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US News Money

via ‘Grandparent’ scammer fails to hook Miss. victim, clarionledger.com

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A wary Mississippi widow has thwarted efforts by a crook whom she believes got information from an obituary, then attempted to use it to rip her off with the “grandparent” scam.

This story proves that scammers are not above taking advantage of people going through some of life’s greatest trials, but also how quick thinking and a healthy dose of skepticism can help you avoid becoming a victim.

You may recall that I recently wrote about this pernicious scam, in which the scammer calls an elderly person pretending to be a grandchild or other relative who’s in trouble and needs money fast. But they met their match when they called this 81-year-old Flowood widow one morning a couple of weeks ago. She didn’t want to share her name but wanted to tell her story to help others who may be at risk. “If I could save just one person from being taken in, it would be worth the trouble,” she told me.

Our potential victim, who lost her husband of 63 years in March, believes the crook used information gleaned from an online obituary for her husband. When she got a call recently purportedly from her grandson Brad in Omaha, Nebraska, she immediately sensed that something wasn’t right.

“It’s bad when they start using the obituaries,” she told me. “I can see where people in a bereaved state could be taken in by this scam.”

Her internal alarm bells began to ring immediately as she got the call, allegedly from Brad (but in a different voice than usual) who said simply, “This is Brad. The reason I’m talking like this, my nose is broken.” But that set off an immediate red flag, since Brad would never just start talking to her without addressing her as “Mom-maw.” But she went with it anyway, to see where the story would lead.

“Brad” went on to tell the potential victim that he had been in a “bad, bad wreck,” describing a situation in which a friend named “Sam” had asked for transportation to the doctor’s office. On the way, they had been in a car accident. “Sam,” the story went, was taken away in an ambulance, and “Brad” was charged with reckless driving. “Sam’s lawyer says if I can get the bail money he can get me out of jail,” he continued. “So, I thought maybe you could send me some money.”

But the wary widow wasn’t having any of it, and told the caller that all her money was tied up. “Why haven’t you called your dad?” she asked, then the caller hung up abruptly. She knew that, if Brad had really been in an accident, his first call would be to his dad, who lives nearby. “Brad would have called his dad before he even got out of the wrecked car,” she noted.

This is a textbook version of the grandparent scam, in which the caller lays out a potentially believable story, then asks for money — throwing in a few details along the way to make the story sound legit. Since obituaries contain a lot of details about the deceased person’s family, locations and interests, they can be a potential treasure trove of information for would-be scammers.

And, if our suspicious senior had not been skeptical about the call she got that day, she might have been taken in. But it’s the details that gave the scammer away: subtle differences in the words he used, departures from normal behavior and facts that just don’t add up. Unfortunately, many people each year fall victim to scammers using these tactics, sending millions via Western Union or GreenDot, never to be seen again. These crooks know their devious craft and do their homework.

This lady’s story illustrates the fact there is danger from these scams, and how having presence of mind can help you detect when a story is not all it’s being claimed to be. If you get a call like this one, exercising a bit of skepticism can keep you from making a costly mistake if you fall for it.

Do Southerners tip better than Northerners?

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via Tipping: Do Southerners tip higher than Northerners?, clarionledger.com

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Tipping has always been a source of controversy, and the beginning of many a discussion among people with strong opinions on both sides. Whether to leave a gratuity, how much to leave and why to leave a tip can even make or damage reputations overnight. Stories of extreme generosity (and accusations of extreme stinginess) regularly make the rounds on social media.

You may remember the social-media firestorm of 2013, when New Orleans Saints Quarterback Drew Brees got takeout from a California restaurant and left a $3 tip on the $74 order. The internet exploded after someone posted a picture of the receipt online. Many used the opportunity to call Brees a cheapskate, while others rushed to his defense. The restaurant owner apologized for his employee’s behavior and pointed out that it was generous of Brees to leave a tip at all, since most people don’t tip on takeout orders anyway. Furthermore, to call Brees cheap is laughable; he’s raised millions for various causes, and is regularly cited among the NFL’s most generous players.

The incident, though, touched a nerve and rekindled a national debate about tipping. At the center of the controversy is the need to support the hardworking people who serve us meals, cut our hair, carry our bags and help us in a thousand ways. Many people in service professions are notoriously underpaid. And, according to a new study by Creditcards.com, apparently some of us are bigger tippers than others.

The survey, released this week, reports that the best tipper (statistically, anyway) is likely to be a male from the Northeastern U.S., a Republican baby boomer who adds his tip onto his credit or debit card instead of paying cash. He would leave a 20 percent tip at a restaurant. Conversely, the study claims that Southerners (ouch) are the most tightfisted regionally when it comes to leaving that tip for the server. Of course, these claims are likely to inflame political, regional, ethnic and gender tensions, because most of us consider ourselves to be pretty fair and hold our own counsel when it comes to the decision to tip.

For the study, Creditcards.com polled 1,002 adults. The survey found four out of five Americans claim they always tip at restaurants, averaging 18 percent. The statistics indicate people with higher incomes tend to leave better tips. Among other findings:

  • About two-thirds of us tip our hairstylist or barber, while 12 percent say they never do.
  • Nearly a third of people leave a tip for coffee-shop baristas, but slightly more people say they never tip them.
  • More than a quarter of people surveyed say they always tip the housekeeping staff at a hotel, but more (31 percent) said they never do.
  • Nearly 60 percent of men say they tip more than the historic customary 15 percent, while just under half of women say they do.
  • Younger restaurant patrons tend to tip less, older ones more.

Tipping psychology and practices have been studied endlessly, with various results. Some studies allege America’s tipping system is outdated, does little to improve service and might even be causing harm and furthering discrimination. Others say it actually helps improve service (albeit not as much as one might think). Some establishments have policies to stop their employees from accepting tips at all, while others have added a non-negotiable “service fee” to all checks in lieu of a gratuity, or started adding an automatic tip to bills for large groups.

Knowing whom to tip, under what circumstances to leave a gratuity and how much is a moving target, and often results in anxiety. Will the pizza delivery guy consider you a skinflint if you handed him 67 cents in sofa change after he stood in the rain with your extra-large pepperoni while you looked for your checkbook? Most likely. Would it make a difference if that pizza were a few minutes after the promised delivery time, or if he didn’t make eye contact as he handed you the box? All of these things and more affect the decision to tip.

But many people I know lean toward being generous. If you’ve ever waited tables, delivered pizza or cut hair, you may remember what it felt like to have done everything right, yet still get stiffed on the tip. Most people in service professions are not in control of the entire experience, and, like all of us, they have their good days and bad ones. On the other hand, a rotten attitude can result in poor service; most people would tend to be less generous in that case. With all these variables, it’s likely that tipping will remain controversial well into the future.

To read the entire study, visit http://bit.ly/2sVwcfv. And if you’re looking for some advice on whom to tip, and under what circumstances, some good tipping guides have been published; a couple of good ones are from AARP at http://bit.ly/2sX6bw2 and TripAdvisor at http://bit.ly/1XDtG63.

Credit scores may be on the rise

 

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Chicago Tribune

via Your credit score may have gone up July 1, clarionledger.com

 

PDF: Credit scores going up for millions

This month, up to 20 million Americans who keep a close watch on their credit scores will get a pleasant surprise as all existing civil judgments and many tax liens will disappear from credit reports. The result will be an immediate bump — as much as 20 points — in the credit scores from the “Big 3” credit reporting agencies. Many expected the changes to take effect July 1, so it may have already happened.

Because of new policies requiring more documentation, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion announced recently they’ll be removing these items from their credit reporting. The action comes after many regulators and advocates have expressed concerns over the reliability and accuracy of the information contained in many credit reports. In particular, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau called out the credit reporting industry in a March report, citing lax standards for researching the information contained in credit reports and leading to inaccuracies.

You may recall that, last October, Attorney General Jim Hood announced a settlement with the Big 3 over a variety of supervisory practices that led to large numbers of errors affecting thousands of consumers. The companies agreed to pay more than $7.1 million to settle the charges, gave Mississippi residents free credit reports (see below), promised to remove certain liens and judgments and said they’d make substantial changes in their practices.

The credit report — and the scores generated from them — are extremely powerful in determining whether you get credit, a job or even a place to live. But with the increase in their usage, it’s more important than ever that the information is accurate. Errors can unfairly ding your credit and limit your options when it comes to credit.

Credit scoring — typically called “FICO” or “Vantage”— uses a computer algorithm to look at your credit history, including how much debt you have and how long you’ve had it, how much of your credit you’re using, whether you’ve been responsible with credit in the past and several other factors. It all comes down to a number between 300 and 850. (Wallethub reports that the average FICO score in the U.S. is 699). People on the high end generally get better credit, while those stuck in the low end of the range are often out of luck.

The credit report is divided into several sections, one of which is Public Records. In this section, you’ll find whether you’ve been the subject of negative actions by the government or courts including tax liens and civil judgments. For example, if you’ve lost a lawsuit and the court has ordered you to pay, it might appear on your credit report as a civil judgment. If you’ve gotten behind on your taxes, the government can claim some of your assets until the debt is paid. That would be considered a tax lien. These are simple examples, but both civil judgments and tax liens can be quite complicated.

The latest action by the credit bureaus wipes the slate clean on civil judgments and many tax liens in credit reports, removing civil judgments entirely and removing at least half of tax liens. (It doesn’t mean new ones won’t be reported; just that the old ones will be eliminated.) In the future, civil judgments and tax liens must contain your name, address, Social Security number or birthdate, and must be updated at least every 90 days.

Eliminating these items from credit reports, Wallethub notes, will mean 6 to 9 percent of Americans (in other words, 12 million to 20 million people) will see their scores improve. The average person will see their scores rise by 10 points, up to a maximum of about 20 points. Most of those seeing an increase, Wallethub adds, are people whose current scores are between 351 to 500; those with scores above 600 are less likely to see a bump. Some credit-industry watchers have expressed concerns the changes might be good for some consumers, but could increase lending to high-risk borrowers. However, most believe the effect on the industry will be minimal.

If you read this column on a regular basis, you know that you’re allowed by law to review your credit report once every 12 months from annualcreditreport.com. And Mississippians, as I noted above, can review their credit reports as often as they want by getting an activation code. (But don’t delay; you have until July 24 to get your code at http://www.mississippicreditreportsettlement.com/.)

“While any credit-score increase associated with these changes is unlikely to exceed 20 points, every piece of negative information that falls off your credit reports is good for your credit score,” advises Wallethub in its article. “So we definitely recommend reviewing your credit reports on a regular basis, both to confirm the removal of problematic public records and to make sure no other mistakes wind up costing you money.”

“Grandparent scam” on the rise again

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via ‘Grandparent Scam’ on the rise again, clarionledger.com

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During the past few years, scammers have gotten better at figuring out ways around potential victims’ natural skepticism. Using a variety of lies and trickery, they steal millions each year from unwary marks.

In this column, I’ve written numerous times about a particularly odious form of thievery known as the grandparent scam. Unfortunately, seniors in the Magnolia State are increasingly getting calls like this — often in the dead of night.

Purveyors of this lie will call seniors pretending to be a grandchild in trouble, another family member or friend. Tactics vary, but a typical ruse is to pretend to be in jail, to claim they’ve had all their money stolen while traveling or say they’re been hospitalized in a foreign country. But it eventually gets around to a request for cash to be wired. Often, they’ll put someone else on the line to lend credibility to the call, pretending to be a police officer, lawyer or doctor. If you respond, your money will vanish without a trace. Attorney General Jim Hood issued a warning this week about this activity.

“Wiring money is identical to mailing cash,” Hood noted in a news release. “There are no protections for the sender and no way to reverse the transaction, trace the money, or recover payment from the telephone con artists. These scammers will try to convince their victims to send any amount — from several hundred to several thousand dollars — and they may even call back hours or days later asking for more money if they were successful the first time.”

Hood said his office has seen a recent uptick in reports about the scam, with Harrison and Hinds counties seeing the most activity. This variant of the scam requests the victim wire money through Western Union or MoneyGram, or in some cases, to provide bank account and bank routing numbers.

Nationally, the grandparent scam is a growing concern for law enforcement. In 2015, the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee on Aging reported more than 10,500 complaint calls came in about people impersonating family members or friends in attempts to convince victims to send money. Many took the bait, resulting in millions being wired to scammers.

Hood offered this advice if your phone rings:

Don’t wire money unless you have properly assessed the situation or in some way verified with others close to your loved one that they are really in trouble.

Be suspicious if your loved one requests or demands that you keep the phone call a secret by claiming to be embarrassed and/or scared.

Avoid panic. If you receive communication from a “loved one” (scammer) who claims to be traveling and is in some sort of distress or financial bind asking you to urgently wire them money, be calm and think. Does the story sound plausible?

Call before doing anything. Immediately after receiving the call or message, try calling your “loved one” back, but at the telephone number through which you normally reach that person to see if he or she reached out or attempted to reach out to you using an odd or long-distance number. It’s also a good idea to check with others to check out the story. For example, if the person claims to be your grandchild, call their parents or siblings and ask them to verify the details of the story.

“Our goal is to help educate and make our senior citizens and loved ones aware of these kinds of unfortunate and disheartening scams,” Hood said. “I strongly urge you to never give out any personal identifying information or account numbers to anyone unless you are certain the individual is who they claim to be and will use the information for the reason they have requested it.”

If you’ve been victimized or been approached with a scam like this, immediately report it to local law enforcement and the Attorney General’s Office of Consumer Protection Division at 601-359-4230 or 800-281-4418. You should also report it to the Federal Trade Commission at 877-FTC-HELP.

The attorney general’s office also has a publication called the Consumer’s Guide to Avoiding the Grandparent Scam. You can download it at http://bit.ly/2tBkOnP or call the Consumer Protection Division for a copy.

Correction to previous storyIn my column last week about the group Parents Against Underage Smartphones (PAUS) and their attempt to place an initiative on the ballot in Colorado, I misstated the number of signatures the group is seeking to collect. Many news outlets have reported the number as 300,000, but Dr. Tim Farnum, president of the group, emailed me to state that number was in error and the number is actually just shy of 100,000. We strive to verify everything, but occasionally we get it wrong. Our apologies for the error.

Business coaching schemes busted

via Business coaching schemes busted, clarionledger.com

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Starting a home-based business is difficult. While working from home or over the Internet can seem like a good idea because it’s cheap and easy to get off the ground, very few new home-based businesses live long enough to celebrate their first birthday. Such failures are not usually because of a lack of effort, motivation or even a good idea; the profit margins are slim, the competition fierce and the marketing landscape complex. Unless you’re very experienced at doing this, you’ll probably need some expert help.

To address this fast-growing market, “business coaching” services have popped up around the globe. This niche is different from “career” or “executive” coaching services, another fast-growing industry that especially caters to people trying to reinvent their careers. (Some experts note that the term “business consultant” is a more appropriate descriptor for the services provided by these businesses.) These folks are usually people with an established track record in a particular business, who put that experience to work helping others develop their own businesses. There is a good deal of crossover between the services offered, and no small amount of confusion.

Many of these are solid, relying on time-tested ideas and good advice. But there are also a lot of scams and shams among the thousands of opportunities.

Last week, the Federal Trade Commission announced they’d taken down a complex web of companies that promised big results from its “personalized” business “coaching” services. A Utah-based company called “Guidance” is accused of hiring telemarketers — known as “sales floors” — to pitch its services to hopeful consumers. Once on the hook, hopeful entrepreneurs were charged thousands of dollars to help them start their own businesses.

One tactic was to use a videotaped testimonial to persuade potential customers. “I’ve grossed over $12,000 last month alone,” bragged the salesperson. “Everything gets better all the time. I’ve got a whole stack of orders over here to prove it. Right behind me, this laptop, I bought this to start my online business. Before that I never owned a computer, I never touched a computer.”

If a potential customer seemed interested, the marketers would encourage them to share their personal stories to get details they could use to convince them to invest. Many potential customers reported they shared details such as their financial status and personal hardships, which the seller then used to tailor the pitch. Interested customers were then routed to a “closer” who asked for a credit card number to pay the initial cost of the program at a cost of up to $10,000, and then were pitched additional products.

According to the FTC, most people who signed up didn’t get the promised benefits. “In fact,” noted FTC blogger Lesley Fair, “the FTC says that the overwhelming majority of people who bought the defendants’ business coaching services were never able to establish a business.”

When choosing someone to help start your new business, it’s easy to make the wrong choice and responding to a telemarketing pitch is steeped in risk. Writing in Entrepreneur magazine, Doug and Polly White gave some great advice. “Too many small-business people aren’t willing to ask for help when they need it,” they noted. “Entrepreneurs by nature tend to be independent risk-takers. They started the company and it is their baby. Obviously, they should know how to raise it. However, none of us knows everything about growing and managing a business.”

The Whites listed five things you should look for in a consultant: unimpeachable character, solid experience, creative problem-solving skills, outstanding communication skills and excellent interpersonal skills. To read their excellent and concise article on the topic, visit https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/238710.

811 averts underground utility disasters

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Atmosenergy.com

via 811 averts underground utility disasters, clarionledger.com

PDF: The_Clarion-Ledger_State_20170701_A005_0The_Clarion-Ledger_State_20170701_A008_0

As I write this, I’ve been watching a crew working near my front yard, preparing for a fiber-optic cable being laid in our neighborhood. All around are colorful little flags, and the sidewalk, streets and even the grass are crisscrossed with spray-painted lines in various colors.

A large truck is parked in front of my house, and the crew has been using a high-pressure water stream to rapidly dig a hole near the street. As the workers blast the dirt and gravel, it’s all sucked into a large tank mounted on the truck and results in a deep hole with clean sides in just a few minutes. Soon, another crew will be pushing pipes through the ground to carry the new cables, and once the work is done, passersby won’t be able to tell all this activity has taken place.

It may seem tranquil on the surface, but below ground it’s a different story. Starting just inches below ground level is a maze of water and sewer lines, electrical lines, cable and fiber, telephone cables and other types of buried infrastructure used to provide services to our homes and businesses. Placing utilities underground has many advantages. Besides avoiding the eyesore of having pipes and wires running through the landscape, burying them can also keep them safe from damage, and keep us safe from them and their sometimes-dangerous cargo.

In most cases, this arrangement works pretty well. But occasionally, someone hits a buried pipe, wire or cable, with potentially deadly consequences. The Common Ground Alliance, an organization representing the underground-utility industry and which advocates for safe digging practices, reported in 2015 that 421 people had died and 1,906 people had been injured in the preceding two decades from striking underground utilities. The incidents had a financial cost as well, resulting in $1.7 billion in property damage.

The alliance produces an annual report called DIRT, short for Damage Information Reporting Tool. The report compiles data on damage to underground utilities throughout the U.S. and Canada. The most recent report (covering 2015) was released in October, and noted an encouraging trend: Requests to locate underground utilities were up significantly during 2015, while estimated damages from hitting them were down.

That good news is likely the result of increased public awareness. Here in Mississippi, a nonprofit organization called Mississippi 811 has the job of ensuring that damage doesn’t happen. They’re the folks you (hopefully) call before you put a shovel in the ground. 811 President Sam Johnson told me that, in the past year, 648 reports of underground utility damages have been reported in the state. That number is nearly 20 percent lower than the previous one-year period. In the same period, requests to locate buried utilities has increased significantly. “Hopefully, the increase in locate requests is an indicator that the public is paying attention,” Johnson said.

Johnson and his staff have been working hard to get the message out. 811 runs awareness ads on statewide radio and cable networks, as well as billboards, and sends out instructors to conduct awareness activities and train digging crews. Those efforts are augmented by utility companies that conduct their own efforts through ads, billboards and other awareness programs.

Many people wouldn’t think twice about digging a hole in their yard to plant a tree or put in a flower bed, but even digging a few inches with a shovel can sever a power line, cable or gas line. A free 811 call can not only keep you from getting yelled at by the neighbors when you cut their cable TV, it could keep you from being electrocuted by cutting into a power line or blowing up your neighborhood after rupturing a gas line. It can also save you money because you may have to pay for the damage, and you could be subject to fines under the new state law as well. (If you are a contractor and don’t make the call, your insurance company will probably not cover you for the damages.)

When you call, a crew will be dispatched to mark underground utilities running through your property. Crews will use paint and/or flags to mark where utilities are buried. Each type of utility has its own color: red for electrical lines, yellow for potentially dangerous or toxic materials such as natural gas, petroleum or steam; orange for telecommunications lines; blue for water lines; green for sewer lines; purple for slurry pipelines; pink for temporary survey markings; and white for areas with proposed excavations.

There is also a lot more at stake now if you don’t call. A new law signed last year by Gov. Phil Bryant will authorize legal penalties to people who violate the state’s digging laws and cause damage to buried utilities. The law authorizes a fine, ranging from $500 to $5,000 per incident.

“Anytime you hear a friend or neighbor say something about a project that will involve any excavation, be sure to remind them to call 811 at least two working days before they start their project,” he noted. “If you see someone that you care about, excavating but you don’t see any signs that the utilities have been marked (flags, paint, etc.), ask them if they have taken advantage of the free service to have the utilities marked. It’s the law, and it’s just the right and safe thing to do.”

Proposed smartphone ban for kids reignites debate

Smartphone – A Threat or a Life Savior for Kids

technews24h.com

via Proposed child smartphone ban reignites debate, clarionledger.com

PDF: Smartphones and kids

[Editor’s Note: Post has been updated to reflect accurate numbers of signatures being sought in the Colorado petition.]

Back in 2013, I posed a question to readers of this column: “Should young kids have their own cellphone?”

The answers back then were all over the map. Some readers said, “absolutely.” Others said, “absolutely not.” But most of the responses indicated something in between and reflected parents’ belief that it depended on their age and ability to be responsible with the technology. “Depends on the child” went the typical answer. “When they can pay for it” and “when they start driving,” said others.

In the four years since then, a lot has changed. Smartphones have almost completely eclipsed old-style cellphones in the marketplace, becoming much faster and accompanied by an explosion in the number of apps. Look around at any group of kids (of nearly any age) and most of them will have their eyes fixed on their device’s screen, their fingers a blur. They may be in a group, but they’re not interacting with each other — at least as they once did. In many ways, they’re just doing what all the rest of us are doing — leading distracted lives tethered to the ever-present devices.

Even toddlers are handed devices, often left to navigate cyberspace on their own. And just as those brains are developing, many are worried about the long-term effects. Furthermore, since the web is a virtual Wild West, children using the web unsupervised can be lured by predators, become the victim of cyberbullying and exposed to every type of pornography, violence and influence imaginable.

Many concerned parents have in recent years become alarmed at what they see as a vast, uncontrolled experiment on developing young minds, and some are turning their concern into political action. A group called Parents Against Underage Smartphones (PAUS) has had enough. The group has set its sights on Colorado, seeking to ban smartphone sales for kids under 13 in that state.

The group (www.pausamerica.com) aims to spread its message. “We are parents, grandparents, and concerned citizens standing together against the destructive force of easy nonstop internet access for children disguised as progress,” notes the group on its website. “We are willing to stand up and say what we all know in our hearts, that children do not need smartphones. There is very little benefit and so very much to be lost.”

The group’s Colorado measure has already gotten a lot of attention. The proposal aims to not only prohibit direct smartphone sales to kids 12 and under, but also requires retailers to collect information about who will use the phone. Retailers selling a phone to someone intending to hand it to an underage child will face a $500 fine for any infractions after the first one. Currently, the group is collecting signatures for a November 2018 ballot initiative, which will require just under 100,000 signatures.

Tim Farnum, a Denver-area anesthesiologist who founded the group, told the Coloradoan newspaper his goal is not to stop the use of technology, but to limit the potentially negative effects on developing brains. “Eventually kids are going to get phones and join the world, and I think we all know that, but little children, there’s just no good that comes from that,” he said, citing his own frustrations in dealing with his own kids’ phone usage.

The proposal has gotten a lot of response — both positive and negative. Some say it would constitute too much government intrusion in private life and would usurp parents’ authority in making such decisions. Others have pointed out that enforcement could be difficult, and that phones do have some positive benefits for kids.

Still, the initiative appears to have touched a nerve. A lot of parents worry about their kids’ smartphone use. Earlier this year, I wrote about how many teens are using their devices well into the night, disrupting their sleep patterns. Some in the tech world have gotten concerned, too. Back in April, Microsoft Founder Bill Gates told the London Mirror that he and his wife have a family policy prohibiting their kids from cellphone use until they turn 14, bans devices at the dinner table and limits his youngest daughter’s pre-bedtime screen usage.

Whether the group’s measure passes, they are growing. PAUS says it is expanding into 11 additional states and plans to start initiatives in those states soon.