Amazon envisions drone-filled skies

drone

Amazon.com

Source: Amazon envisions drone-filled skies, clarionledger.com

PDF: amazondrones

Amazon.com Founder Jeff Bezos has never been one to avoid dreaming big, and it’s paid off.

For the past 23 years, we’ve watched Bezos’ dream grow from one man’s dream to sell books over the internet into a global economic powerhouse worth more than $356 billion. But in the last couple of years, the company has been developing plans to (yet again) turn the package-delivery business on its head. Amazon believes the future is in the skies and is developing serious plans to launch an armada of drones that would drop off packages by parachute.

It may sound far-fetched, and for the moment, it is. The current regulatory framework in the U.S. places limits on the use of unmanned aircraft. But that hasn’t stopped Amazon from developing its plans. Recently, Amazon unveiled portions of its proposed PrimeAir service, which would theoretically bypass the need for trucks, trains, planes and other conventional transportation infrastructure to deliver packages to their destinations in minutes, rather than days. Amazon has already established a national network of regional warehouses, which could serve as origination points for their respective areas.

“It looks like science fiction, but it’s real,” the company claims on its website. “One day, seeing Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road.” The plan is fairly straightforward: unmanned aerial drones could swoop down to collect packages up to 5 pounds and deliver them in “30 minutes or less.” That’s a claim that would seem audacious, but Amazon has demonstrated a 13-minute delivery cycle in the United Kingdom, in which it delivered a package to a farmhouse in the English countryside, gently setting the box down in a field to the delight of the waiting customer.
Of course, delivering a package in the countryside is a lot different from doing it in a city, with its maze of structures, crowded airspace and security concerns.
As with any ambitious project, the devil’s in the details, but Amazon has been working them out. In a Valentine’s Day patent filing, Amazon outlined its plans to drop packages by parachute, and to control their descent with a variety of methods, avoiding the problems inherent in landing and taking off again. For example, actuators could push a package in a specific direction, accounting for variables such as wind and obstacles, and control surfaces on the package could help guide it to a specific destination.

If Amazon could pull it off, it would be a genius strategy. Imagine being able to bypass traffic to get your package delivered within minutes, via a low-cost drone. The vision is still just that; it’s not likely Federal Aviation Administration rules regarding unmanned aircraft will change anytime soon; having the skies full of package-delivery drones from a multitude of companies will present its own challenges. Aviation laws and regulations have to catch up.

Still, Amazon is planning for the future. And though numerous technical hurdles loom ahead, Amazon has proven doubters wrong many times before.

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How to ensure many happy (gift) returns

christmas_gift_returns

unmconnect.com

via Moak: How to ensure many happy (gift) returns, clarionledger.com, 12/23/2015

All across America, stores are getting their battle plans ready. You might think that they could relax a little, now that Black Friday is a distant memory and the crush of Christmas-gift procrastination has just a day or two left. But not so; every retailer knows the real battle is about to begin, as hordes queue up to return those awful ties, or trade in well-meant gifts for what they really wanted. Return season is upon us.

Holiday returns are huge business. The National Retail Federation estimates that this year shoppers will return $260.5 billion (with a “B”) worth of goods. If returns were an industry, the NRF points out, it would rank No. 3 on the Fortune 500 list, just ahead of Chevron and behind Exxon. That’s a lot of money changing hands.

And, of course, it naturally follows that wherever there’s money, there are people looking for ways to game the system, to take advantage of retailer generosity. Retail fraud is expected to surpass $9.1 billion (more money than the NFL brings in each year). The NRF’s annual Return Fraud Survey found that (on average) retailers believe 3.5 percent of their holiday returns this year will be fraudulent.

“Return fraud remains a critical issue for retailers with the impact spanning far and wide, in-store and online,” said Bob Moraca, NRF vice president of loss prevention. “While technology has played a significant role in deterring many in-person fraudulent transactions that would have otherwise gone unseen, there is little that can be done to prevent a determined criminal who will find a loophole one way or another. When it comes to retail fraud, retailers can build taller walls, but criminals continue to find taller ladders.”

Despite what most people commonly believe, merchants have no legal obligation to accept returned merchandise, unless it’s defective or was sold deceptively.Return policies originated as a way to build good will among customers. For a long time, many merchants have just accepted the reality that some percentage of sales will be returned, and some were very generous. But in recent years, as fraud increased, many retailers began to crack down on return policies. Now, most retailers have some limitations on what can and cannot be returned, and under what conditions.

Causing the biggest concern among merchants is stolen merchandise that is returned for refund or credit (reported by more than 90 percent of retailers). These tactics are often used by organized-crime rings, which target high-value items to steal, then send someone in to “return” the item, getting store credit or even cash. These tactics take advantage of generous return policies, but are likely to cause merchants to carefully weigh the risks against the possibility of losing customer good will.

Another questionable return practice is “wardrobing,” in which people return non-defective merchandise after minimal use. For example, if you want that cocktail dress for an upscale holiday party, but can’t afford it, you might buy it with no intention of keeping it. When you return it, though, the retailer has a problem; they can’t sell it as new, and they take a loss. Some retailers are getting more aggressive when it comes to preventive measures. For example, Bloomingdales has begun putting an obvious black tag on the front of high-end cocktail dresses, which must be in place if the item is returned. This tactic would likely deter style-conscious abusers.

The statistics in the study do indicate some reason for hope, however; it appears some areas of return fraud have declined considerably since last year. But the good news comes with an asterisk: the use of e-receipts to commit retail fraud is growing. Fully a third of merchants reported they had been presented with fraudulent e-receipts.

“Retailers have the difficult task of providing superior customer service by always giving the benefit of the doubt to their shoppers when it comes to returns, while simultaneously working to make sure they protect their business assets,” continued Moraca. “We expect retailers to continue their tried and true ways of combating fraud through increased usage of identification verification, as well as seeking new and innovative approaches on the back end.”

While I know none of you faithful readers would do such things, you are likely to be in one of those return lines. To help keep things as safe and sane as possible in the return line this year, here is our annual advice for returning items:

  • It’s still a good idea to keep receipts. Despite some advice I’ve read, the era of the paper receipt isn’t over. Although many merchants can verify your purchase by using the credit or debit card with which you paid, some merchants require the receipt. At the very least, it will provide some backup should there be an issue, or you can’t remember how you paid. Some stores provide a gift receipt, to be given with the item.
  • Read the fine print of the merchant’s return policy. Stores vary widely in what they will and won’t accept; it would be a bummer to stand in line for an hour, only to be turned away at the return desk.
  • Relax; you have time. Most merchants have a long window for returns. In most cases, you have 30 or more days to return the item, so you don’t need to get in that Dante’-esque return line. But again, read the policies; some items may have shorter windows of time in which you can make exchanges.
  • Expect “restocking” fees. Although many consumers consider it unfair for a store to charge a fee to return something, merchants have put these in place to deter unnecessary returns. But you might be able to get the fee waived, depending on the store and its policies.
  • Stand your ground, but be polite. Retailers know their most valuable asset isn’t the merchandise on their shelves; it’s you, the customer. This gives you a big advantage. In today’s social media-intense environment, most businesses are hyper-protective of their online reputations, and — to avoid an embarrassing Facebook fiasco — may consider making an exception to a return policy. But it’s a two-way street; coming across as demanding or causing a scene can limit your options (or worse, get you thrown out by security or even arrested). Be as polite and patient as possible. Calmly ask for an exception, with the understanding the clerk might not be empowered to make the decision on her own. And, if you are denied, accept the situation and move on, or address it through corporate channels.

Walgreens to drop “be well” slogan

If you have shopped at Walgreens in the past couple of years, you probably heard at least one employee tell you to “be well” during your visit. Two days ago, a Walgreens employee told me the phrase over the phone. I thought it was a nice touch, and despite the fact that employees were required to say it, it was nice to hear the sentiment. Everybody did not agree, however; some people evidently got fed up with what they considered an insincere marketing ploy and even started a Facebook page to complain about the practice.

For whatever reason, it’s come to light that Walgreens employees will no longer be encouraged to tell us to “be well.” A corporate memo obtained by the Chicago Tribune reportedly told the company’s employees that they should instead try to learn the customer’s name, and greet them warmly. According to the story in the Tribune, Walgreens spokesman Michael Polzin said that the slogan was being discontinued because it had “accomplished its goal of reinforcing our branding.” Some have noted that the new tactic could bring its own challenges. “Mr. Smith, how’s that Preparation-H working out for you?” Uh, no.

A few days ago, an employee at a local McDonald’s told me, “It’s my joy to serve you” as I pulled away from the drive-thru window. That was nice, but I felt that it was a little forced – especially since I knew the company that owns that particular restaurant is called “My Joy, Inc.” But to be fair, these folks are at least trying. Forced or not, I’d rather have someone greet me with a nice sentiment than not make eye contact or speak to me at all. We’ve all encountered these folks at various establishments around town; they act as if you’re an interloper on their territory, rather than as someone who’s going to spend their hard-earned money with their employer and therefore provide the basis for their jobs.

Remember Moe’s Southwest Grill? To my knowledge, they’ve withdrawn from the metro area, and I miss them. I enjoyed Moe’s not just because of their tasty and cleverly-named food selections (who could forget the John Coctostan or the Homewrecker?) but because, when you walked in the door, every employee looked up from their work and shouted, “Welcome to Moe’s!” It made you feel like somebody knew you were there. It’s like in the old show Cheers, where the theme song went, “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.” If you were looking for anonymity, you were in the wrong place.

Of course, to be charitable, employees have got their challenges the same as anyone else. It might be a good idea to think about that before we get riled because the kid ringing up our order doesn’t act like we’re the most important person on the planet when we order our double with extra cheese. Who knows? Maybe she just got off the phone with her divorce lawyer, or maybe her kid is sick, or she’s facing one of a million challenges that day. A little empathy – and a smile — would go a long way.

Let’s face it: It’s hard to motivate people to provide good customer service. The people that actually get this right (I’m talking about you, Chick-Fil-A, and a few others) have learned that – although you can teach anybody the basics — good customer service is not something you can make people do; they have to want to do it. A slogan is fine, but it’s got to be sincere.

Originally published in the Clarion-Ledger in March, 2015.

Retailers putting a priority on mobile retail experiences

If you were somehow able to travel in time from 1950 to 2015 and walk around any American city, you would likely have a lot of questions: why does everybody walk around, zombie-like, never making eye contact? Why does everybody appear to be obsessed with exercising their thumbs on little hand-held boxes? What’s this “Google” thing everybody talks about? And what for the love of Pete is “Facebook?”

While the cultural canaries-in-a-coalmine have been tweeting (couldn’t resist that one) for years that our society is on the verge of sliding off the proverbial mountain as Google makes us stupid, smartphones have been quietly reorganizing our lives. That’s the world in which we live, and according to many who study such things, it’s not going away any time soon – if at all.

The change is perhaps no more profound than in the marketplace. A recent study by the National Retail Federation (NRF) caught my eye recently, titled (innocuously enough): “Mobile Still Tops Retailers’ Priority Lists, According to Shop.org/Forrester State of Retailing Online Report.” (You can read the entire study at NRF.com.)

As those who own and operate retail commerce are famous for keeping ahead of trends, we should probably pay attention to such findings; mobile shopping has profoundly changed the way we shop, and promises a future that makes today’s hectic environment seem bucolic by contrast. As the “Internet of Things” takes shape, promising to bring connect everything from the dishwasher to the lawn mower, technology is only going to get more pervasive.

One big observation from the study is in how e-commerce has already changed the marketplace. Smartphone sales (as a percentage of online sales) grew from 8 percent in 2013 to 12 percent in 2014, an increase of 50 percent.

“Consumers are flocking to retailers’ mobile sites at a faster pace and with more interaction than ever before, so naturally they expect retailers to offer fast, well-designed mobile services that meet their needs,” said NRF Senior Vice President and Shop.org Executive Director Vicki Cantrell. “With that in mind and with several years of mobile commerce now under the industry’s belt, retailers feel confident in their mobile investments. For retailers – when it comes to mobile strategies, small but continuous incremental changes really do go a long way to keep their savvy customers happy.”

If you asked them to tell you what’s at the top of their priority lists, most retailers would put mobile commerce at the top of the list. Nearly six in 10 (58 percent) consider it the most important priority for the nation’s retailers. That’s a five-point uptick from the year before.

But, while they understand the importance of keeping their toe in the digital ocean and realize consumers are saying, “ready or not, here I come”, most aren’t – yet, anyway – putting their money where their mouth is. Thirty-two percent of retailers surveyed reported spending less than $100,000 on their smartphone development efforts in 2014. However, eight in 10 retailers plan to increase their mobile budgets by at least 20 percent in 2015.

And while the smart money five years ago would have been to bet on apps, it could be that the rush of app development may have stalled in favor of mobile-optimized websites. “More than half (56%) of retailers surveyed say that apps are not a key component of their mobile marketing strategy, and an even greater percentage agree apps are not critical to their employee strategy either,” noted an NRF release. Instead, they are looking to optimize their existing websites to be able to “sniff” when a user is on a laptop, PC, smartphone, tablet or other device, and customize the content appropriately.

From a consumer standpoint, all of this is probably good news. Since we all have these devices anyway, having retailers to customize the experience will create a better shopping experience. And given the competitive nature of American commerce, they’ll be looking for ways to make us consumers happy as we navigate the strange, new world in which we find ourselves.

Know your rights when making funeral arrangements

via Know your rights when making funeral arrangements, on clarionledger.com

It’s not a pleasant experience for anyone, but at some point, most of us will have to go through the process of making final arrangements, either for ourselves or someone we love. Many people find themselves overwhelmed by the process, and making big decisions when dealing with all the emotions surrounding a loss can make you prone to mistakes.

It doesn’t help that the average funeral — and all the things that go along with it — amount to a major financial investment. The National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) reports that the average cost of final arrangements increased tenfold from around $700 in 1960 to more than $7,000 in 2012 (add another average of $1,200 for a vault), leading to the potential for bad decisions or even having someone take advantage. Therefore, it’s a good idea to educate ourselves before we have to make those decisions. Some of our rights are protected by what’s known as The Funeral Rule, enforced by the Federal Trade Commission.

The Funeral Rule gives you the following rights:

  • You only have to buy the arrangements you want. It’s your right buy your goods and services separately, and you don’t have to purchase a “package” that includes items you don’t want.
  • You can get prices on the telephone. Funeral directors must give you price information on the telephone if you ask for it. You don’t have to give them your name, address or telephone number first. Although they are not required to do so, many funeral homes mail their price lists, and some post them online.
  • You can get a price list at the funeral home. The funeral home must give you a General Price List (GPL) that is yours to keep. It lists all the items and services the home offers, and the cost of each one.
  • You can see written casket prices before you see them. That way, you can make a sound financial decision without being potentially swayed by an attractive display.
  • You can see a written outer burial container price list. Outer burial containers (vaults) are not required by state law anywhere in the United States, but many cemeteries require them to prevent the grave from caving in. If the funeral home sells containers, but doesn’t list their prices on the GPL, you have the right to look at a separate container price list before you see the containers. If you don’t see the lower-priced containers listed, ask about them.
  • You should receive a written statement after you decide what you want, and before you pay. It should show exactly what you are buying and the cost of each item. The funeral home must give you a statement listing every good and service you have selected, the price of each, and the total cost immediately after you make the arrangements.
  • You’re entitled to get a written explanation describing any legal cemetery or crematory requirement that requires you to buy any funeral goods or services.
  • You can use an “alternative container” instead of a casket for cremation. No state or local law requires the use of a casket for cremation. A funeral home that offers cremations must tell you that alternative containers are available, and must make them available. They might be made of unfinished wood, pressed wood, fiberboard, or cardboard.
  • You may provide the funeral home with a casket or urn you buy elsewhere. The funeral provider cannot refuse to handle a casket or urn you bought online, at a local casket store, or somewhere else — or charge you a fee to do it. The funeral home cannot require you to be there when the casket or urn is delivered to them.
  • Embalming may not be required. No state law requires routine embalming for every death. In Mississippi, a body must be embalmed or refrigerated if “final disposition” does not occur within 48 hours of death, or if it will be “transported within or outside of the state and the destination can’t be reached within 24 hours of the death.” In most cases, refrigeration is an acceptable alternative. In addition, you may choose services like direct cremation and immediate burial, which don’t require any form of preservation. Ask if the funeral home offers private family viewing without embalming. If some form of preservation is a practical necessity, ask the funeral home if refrigeration is available.

Pre-Need Services

Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann’s office is responsible for the oversight of “pre-need” funeral plans, by which you can make your own arrangements ahead of time and save your family the process. By using pre-need services, you can specify all the details, and pay for it in advance.

Unfortunately, consumers can lose out when pre-need funeral funds are misspent or misappropriated. Back in 2009, Hosemann pursued charges against eight Mississippi pre-need providers because they had depleted funds which had been deposited by customers to pay for services.

Hosemann’s office has this advice when buying pre-need services:

  • Ask questions before you buy. Do not buy any plan that doesn’t specify exactly what you will receive. State law requires the contract to be specific regarding the range of services and the quality/grade of merchandise you are purchasing.
  • Look for specific descriptions of your purchases on the contract regarding the manufacturer or model description of what you are buying. Generic descriptions such as “casket” or “vault” are not acceptable.
  • Know whether the plan is “inflation-proof,” and look for assurances that the services will be covered regardless of how costs change.
  • Ask to see a copy of their registration with the Secretary of State’s Office, and their registration number.
  • Ask if their pre-need registration has ever been suspended or revoked by the Secretary of State’s Office.

True “Lifetime Warranties” make for happy customers

via True “Lifetime Warranties” make for happy customers, clarionledger.com

Thirty-five years ago, my Dad and Mom gave me a special gift for my 15th birthday. It was a shiny new Buck knife, complete with a leather carrying case, rosewood handle and beautiful brass accents. I treasured that knife, and used it for years. But over time, the brass began to fade, and the blade grew thin from sharpening, so it wound up in a drawer. Last year, I found it again and threw it into my camping box, where I had also stored a battery-operated lantern. The battery compartment had come open at some point, and the batteries leaked acid all over the brass, making it bluish in color.

I tried desperately to restore the shine to the brass, but with no luck. Going online to look for a solution, I noticed that people had talked about how Buck products have a Lifetime Warranty, and there were many reports of Buck accepting old knives for cleaning and refurbishment. So I sent the knife to them, eager to see the results. When I got the knife back about six weeks later, I was amazed. Although I knew it was my knife because of the markings on the wood, I would otherwise think they had just sent me a new one. The brass now gleamed like a mirror, the blade replaced, and even the wooden inlays on the handle were polished.

Once upon a time, companies stood by their products. The good thing is that many companies still do, and that’s part of the reason they have the reputation they do. For example, companies like Hammacher Schlemmer, Otterbox, L.L. Bean and many others are famous for going above and beyond to stand behind their products.

When you buy a product with a “lifetime warranty”, it’s important to understand what this means. In the case of Buck and other companies I’ve mentioned, it usually means the company will repair or replace the item. However, consumers are often confused by the term, as it’s used with varying degrees of truth and meaning. For example, whose life is it talking about? Is it your life? The life of your home or car? Many products, such as roofing shingles, come with a lifetime warranty, but in the fine print, the company may disclose that the warranty is not transferable when you sell your home.

There is longstanding point in federal law about lifetime warranties that reads, “If an advertisement uses ‘‘lifetime,’’ “life,” or similar representations to describe the duration of a warranty or guarantee, then the advertisement should disclose, with such clarity and prominence as will be noticed and understood by prospective purchasers, the life to which the representation refers.”

So, I’d like to hear your stories about outstanding service on lifetime warranties, or perhaps cases in which they didn’t quite live up to your expectations.Drop me an email or use the comments section.

This story and others show that there are still great companies out there, standing behind their products. To Buck, I say “kudos; you’ve made me a very happy customer.” But if you’re depending on that lifetime warranty –especially for products with a big investment involved — you should read the fine print, and when in doubt, check it out.

How about adopting Kindness as your New Year’s Resolution?

In this blog, I have commented several times about a key element that seems to be lacking in our culture, and leads to numerous ills of society. That element is kindness. It seems that we have either forgotten how to be kind, or just forgotten to be kind.

Kindness is, according to Merriam-Webster: “an act of kind assistance”, “the capacity for feeling for another’s unhappiness or misfortune”, or “sympathetic concern for the well-being of others.” (www.merriam-webster.com). Pretty simple in theory; much more difficult in practice. Being tender-hearted and compliant as a youngster didn’t keep me from learning hard lessons about kindness from my parents. For example, when I put clothespins on the cat’s tail and shut him up in the laundry room, I was justly punished. When I considered killing a bug just for minding its own business in the backyard, my Mom would remind me that God had placed that animal there for reasons that only he understood.

But being kind goes far beyond just avoiding the conscious infliction of pain upon another being. It also means taking account for our own actions, and considering how they might affect another. It means…compassion. A few months ago, I blogged about how I was nearly run over while entering my building by a woman with her attention glued to a cell phone. Letting the door slam in my face when I had my hands full didn’t fill my heart with joy. But it did make me resolve that day that I wasn’t going to let that happen to anyone else on my watch. (By the way, here is my disclaimer: I am a personal work-in-progress on this front, with miles to go before I sleep; my sweet wife teaches me a lot about this.)

So, what do we get in exchange for the minor sacrifices sometimes required for small acts of kindness? Well, for a start, perhaps better relationships. How about improved communication? Understanding of customers?

We seem to have become a “give-it-to-me-now” society, one in which success is considered getting to the finish line first, often without consideration for others. Technology, which was once considered a golden key which would free us from the mundane tasks and keep us from having time to get to know each other, only seems to make the problem worse.

It affects our lives as consumers, too. When was the last time you recognized “excellent” service from a business? (Hopefully you pointed it out, just as quickly as you would have it if had been the opposite.) But wasn’t it just a few decades ago that what is now considered “excellent service” was the minimum expectation? And really, what is excellent customer service but kindness, by another name?

Kindness is one of the Apostle Paul’s “fruits of the spirit”, as well as a key element in the Boy Scouts’ scout law, and is enshrined in many codes, creeds and religious traditions around the world. We are constantly reminded to be kind, but it can be hard to do with busy lives if we don’t make a habit of it. So….why don’t we?

There are many people out there with some good ideas for this. Here’s are a couple of them:

* The “Kindness Blog” is at http://kindnessblog.com/.
* Seattle etiquette expert Arden Clise has some great food for thought: http://www.cliseetiquette.com/2009/12/30/make-kindness-your-new-year%E2%80%99s-resolution/

So instead of making another pointless resolution to which we know we won’t adhere, what if we all made it our business to perform at least three acts of kindness each day? Don’t make a big deal of it, or seek recognition for it (that makes it self-serving and pointless); just award yourself with a mental pat on the back. How hard could that be, right? Who knows; maybe it’ll catch on.

(This was originally posted in the Clarion-Ledger on 12/30/2013.)

Holiday “return fraud” expected to cost $3.4 billion this holiday season

It starts out innocently enough. You’ve been invited to a special soiree at a highbrow restaurant with people you want to impress. Budget-conscious, you go to that store with the merchandise you can’t even afford to peruse. At this point, many people would just do the best they could, but many Americans have started wardrobing, or buying the item on credit or available cash, wearing it once and returning it. Many stores, with “no-questions-asked” return policies, would just take the item back and issue a refund. In recent years, as the economy nosedived and budgets were tightened, the practice has mushroomed, and now constitutes a major loss to many retailers.

Wardrobing has also become evident in the electronics sphere, for instance where sports fans buy that super big-screen TV for the Super Bowl, intending to use it once and return it afterwards. These may seem like normal practices to some people, but the practice is considered unethical and fraudulent. Items that are used, often can’t be sold as new, and may have damage that makes them unsellable.

Wardrobing and other types of retail fraud costs American businesses billions each year. The National Retail Federation (NRF) surveyed loss prevention executives at 62 retail companies. They found that retailers expect to lose $3.39 billion to return fraud during this holiday season alone.

“While coverage of this issue paints return fraud as one of the ‘less severe’ retail crimes, the fact of the matter is that returning used or stolen items, or even using false tender to purchase items is fraud, period,” said NRF Vice President of Loss Prevention Rich Mellor. “Recent efforts to combat fraudulent activity are slowly starting to work, but criminals are becoming more savvy and technologically advanced in their methods, making it even more difficult for retailers and law enforcement to keep up with the growing problem.”

There is good news among the bad, however; due to measures put into place by retailers such as the innovative “black tag” solution by Bloomingdale’s, wardrobing is down slightly. The retailers’ response has generated some controversy; some people apparently don’t see wardrobing as an ethical problem, as long as they return the item in good condition. But come on. Is it really hard to see why this is wrong?A victimless crime? Not at all. Not only do business lose, when they do, they must pass on the costs to — guess who — you and me. We end up paying more when others skirt the rules.

(Originally posted 12/7/13 on Clarionledger.com)

When a gift card is not a gift card…

Go into just about any grocery or discount store these days, and you will see a selection of gift cards. These displays, often set near the checkout counter, are designed to catch your attention and get you to make impulse purchases of these cards. Gift cards are the most-requested item on Christmas lists, because they can be used to purchase items you want, rather than sticking your brother-in-law with yet another ugly tie. Actually, some businesses have found that selling gift cards is a way to generate sizable profits, since many gift cards are actually never redeemed and non-redemption equals instant profits.

Last year, retailers made billions off the purchase of gift cards, but be warned: some cards that say “gift cards” are actually prepaid cards, and can expire without restrictions. Cardhub.com has produced a good checklist of things to consider when deciding whether to purchase gift or reloadable cards. Other things to consider are whether the cards can be used only in the specified store, or elsewhere. For example, if you get a gift card branded with the Bass Pro Shops logo, if it doesn’t have a VISA or Mastercard logo, it can probably only be used at Bass Pro Shops. Also, check whether there is an expiration date. The CARD ACT of 2009 mandates that gift cards must allow at least five years for redemption before expiring; “prepaid” cards have no such restrictions.

One other great suggestion from CardHub: this is a good opportunity to rummage through drawers and cabinets, looking for cards that still have value. These can be used, or even sold online.

Happy gift card shopping!

(Originally published in the Clarion-Ledger on 11/25/2013.

Aaron’s Rent-To-Own Chain Settles FTC Charges That it Enabled Computer Spying by Franchisees

Can you say, “Creepy?” Aaron’s, Inc., a national, Atlanta-based rent-to-own retailer, has agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it “knowingly played a direct and vital role in its franchisees’ installation and use of software on rental computers that secretly monitored consumers including taking webcam pictures of them in their homes.” The FTC released the details of the settlement earlier today.

According to the FTC’s complaint, Aaron’s franchisees used the software, which surreptitiously tracked consumers’ locations, captured images through the computers’ webcams – including those of adults engaged in intimate activities – and activated keyloggers that captured users’ login credentials for email accounts and financial and social media sites.

“Consumers have a right to rent computers free of cyberspying and to know when and how they are being tracked by a company,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “By enabling their franchisees to use this invasive software, Aaron’s facilitated a violation of many consumers’ privacy.”

The complaint alleges that Aaron’s knew about the privacy-invasive features of the software, but nonetheless allowed its franchisees to access and use the software, known as PC Rental Agent. In addition, Aaron’s stored data collected by the software for its franchisees and also transmitted messages from the software to its franchisees. In addition, Aaron’s provided franchisees with instructions on how to install and use the software.

The software was the subject of related FTC actions earlier this year against the software manufacturer and several rent-to-own stores, including Aaron’s franchisees, that used it. It included a feature called Detective Mode, which, in addition to monitoring keystrokes, capturing screenshots, and activating the computer’s webcam, also presented deceptive “software registration” screens designed to get computer users to provide personal information.

Under the terms of the proposed consent agreement with the FTC, Aaron’s will be prohibited from using monitoring technology that captures keystrokes or screenshots, or activates the camera or microphone on a consumer’s computer, except to provide technical support requested by the consumer.

In addition, Aaron’s will be required to give clear notice and obtain express consent from consumers at the time of rental in order to install technology that allows location tracking of a rented product. For computer rentals, the company will have to give notice to consumers not only when it initially rents the product, but also at the time the tracking technology is activated, unless the product has been reported by the consumer as lost or stolen. The settlement also prohibits Aaron’s from deceptively gathering consumer information.

The agreement will also prevent Aaron’s from using any information it obtained through improper means in connection with the collection of any debt, money or property as part of a rent-to-own transaction. The company must delete or destroy any information it has improperly collected and transmit in an encrypted format any location or tracking data it collects properly.

Under the agreement, Aaron’s will also be required to conduct annual monitoring and oversight of its franchisees and hold them to the requirements in the agreement that apply to Aaron’s and its corporate stores, and to terminate the franchise agreements of franchises that do not meet those requirements.