More mail scam

Here is another classic of its genre. Note the very serious threat in the middle of the envelope. This is totally unnecessary,  it is there simply to intimidate and frighten the receiver.  It also demands on the front of the envelope “to be opened by addressee only.  PEASE RESPOND WITHIN FIVE DAYS”


So what can be so important? It’s nothing more than a car warranty scam. Importantly,  I don’t even own the car anymore,  it was sold some 7-months ago.  Yet the letter warns me of all the dire consequences of breakdown and unexpected Expenses.

Another clue it’s a scam,  is unlike the norm in the USA of including a return name and address,  the only address present is the paid for address,  no company  name. In fact,  having opened it,  it doesn’t contain the company name anywhere,  unless the company name is “Vehicle Administration Center”.

This is a disgrace, purely to intimidate the elderly and less aware into buying something they don’t need. If it really were a good idea, well priced and useful, it could be packaged up in a much more positive, less threatening way.

Shame on VW Leasing for selling my details to these scam operations. I will not do business with VM Leasing again.

Hate Mail

One thing I’ve grown to hate in my last 9-years in the USA, and increasingly in Austin as I’ve lived at the same address for 7-years, is the scam and fake mail that arrives at regular intervals.

There are those “official” looking envelopes that include seals, official government like crests and demand attention and immediate opening and often a response. I got a letter today from the Worth Finance Corp. They apparently have offices all over central Texas. They at least got my information from Transunion Credit, who pre-screened me.

Right at the top of the letter it says “It’s true, You are holding a real check for $800.00” and goes on empathise with me and my need to be ready for the “expenses the new school year can bring”. Which only goes to show they know absolutely nothing about me.

19895_10151794977230915_1445898368_nThe letter, with attached $800 check, helpfully included pictures of good looking kids. Inside the horror of the letter and the scam is revealed. You can borrow $800, at a staggering 81.26% interest rate.

Which means it will cost you a minimum of $396 in interest almost half of what you borrowed. If you pay everything on time, you’ll pay back $1194. This is total daylight robbery at a time when interest rates are at record lows. The worst you can do from the credit union I use is 9.5% and I consider that 3x what I’d pay, and certainly for much more than $800.

These letters are no more than scams and fishing trips to lure poor, uneducated , the elderly and needy people in America into into doing something they wouldn’t otherwise do. The sorts of information in these letters includes details which are in most civilised societies considered private, like the amount of the mortgage you have on your house; the status of your insurance etc. In many cases the types of information included is not only private, but would be subject to data protection laws in the UK, Germany, France etc. Not just because it is private information, but exactly to stop this sort of high pressure scam and selling which can frighten those who don’t know better.

I would call Transunion at 1-888 567-8688 but took the risk of doing it via the web – I’m also going to spend some time in the morning tracking down the CEO and send him/her a fake Cease and Desist letter with a fake crest on the envelope.

Someone knocking at the door

We had a spirited discussion over coffee today about the whole NSA data collection fuss  and sparked by the continuing refusal of the UK Government to accept there is a case to be concerned,  even if you have “nothing to hide”.

Think of it this way.  You are sat at home,  there is a knock at the door.  You answer  it’s that nice man from the NSA,  he says “excuse me,  we’d like a few minutes of your time,  can you just write down every phone call you’ve made in the last 3-months, what time of day you made the call,  what number you called,  how long the call lasted.”. –  you say why,  they say,  dunno,  may make some sense in the future.

Going to give it to them?  Going to call a lawyer?  Done anything wrong?  –  well good news,  you don’t need to,  they won’t come knocking,  they’ve got all the data anyway.

Then,  remember that phone call you had?  You know,  the crazy guy that your cousin thought would be a an interesting match up,  he called you? No?  Well never mind,  the NSA does. 

He called you from his Walmart cellphone,  me they want to  know what you discussed.  At the time when he ranted on about the PM of Saudi Arabia you never gave it a 2nd thought,  turns out a couple of years later the PM was assassinated by some nut job who had that phone on him…  You remember what you said?

Dam right the NSA shouldn’t have any of your digital data unless they get permission from you,  before collecting it.

Still confused?

Facebook socialgraph

facebook socialgraph bar

Yesterday the menu bar on my browser facebook page changed. I realized I’d been given access to their new SocialGraph feature but didn’t immediately realize the power of it. I tried it out a few times, did some obvious searches and went back to work.

Then late yesterday evening I came back to it, tried a few more things out and then suddenly, it was 3:05 a.m. The power of this is truly awesome. With power comes responsibility, in this case the responsibility lies with facebook users. Remember, when you are not paying for something, YOU are the product.

So, socialgraph is really helpful when you want to find a picture of you and a friend at an event, that either you, your friend, or someone else took. If you don’t get the query right, facebook will even give you helpful suggestions on how to search. The more information you put in the description, update, tags etc. the more specific the result will be. It’s really powerful.

Great. Well hold on. Remember YOU are the product. Turning to the dark side, it became really interesting to search for things, for example:

  • photos from 2006 of friends at college < Facebook was mostly still just emerging from “the facebook” back then. It was only colleges that could get access before that. Trust me, some of my friends need to seriously go back and delete their pictures, and especially pictures they are tagged in.
  • friends who are single women < Yes, facebook has gone from a psuedo dating hookup platform to a full blown competitor for Queries can be much more extensive, you can search for people who like something, that are single, live in a specific place and are between age and age.
  • People at work who like triathlon < I’ve been toying with the idea of running a small event to get feedback from a few people. So I decided to try people who work at xxx in yyy and like triathlon. Sure enough a massive list of specific people, with often there actual job titles, locations, etc. and of course, since they are on facebook, you can send them messages etc. Yes, messages to non-friends now charge if you want them to show up in their inbox, put I cut-n-paste 60 names into Outlook, pressed alt-k and yammo, resolved through the corporate name and address book.
  • People who like dance music and live in austin < now you don’t even have to like a page to give away your data. It’s available to mine for free. Again, the only gate here is that if they want to message you, they either have to pay or it ends up in your “other” inbox.

In general this has to be seen as a huge step forward in what you can do with facebook. It’s also hugely revealing in ways I’d never thought about that open us all up to commercial exploitation. Using this harmless question, I was really surprised at the results. My friends who are between 50 and 55 and like Jack and Adam’s Bicycles.

Definitely time to double check what information you’ve given facebook, especially in your profile, where you check-in and especially what businesses and hobbies you like. If you are a friend and noticed yesterday that I added an employer for the first time since I joined facebook, now you know why.

Doing who is searches is also included, but just retrieves information from bing. Amongst other things who is mark cathcart retrieved the following “Mark Cathcart read classics at Cambridge. He published as a City analyst with his innovative style earning him a top rank in international surveys for a number of …” < True, but not me. More on this problem up next.

Can’t get enough Fiber

So, it’s formally announced, Google Fiber is coming to Austin in 2014.

This is potentially a great announcement. The focus will be on the speed, which in my view is wrong. It should be on the affordability and open access. For the most part, as I’ve blogged numerous times, Time Warner Cable is more than fast enough for most homes, its just uncompetitively priced for most, and not affordable for many.

I’ll be especially interested to see how they do this, right down to if they lay new cables underground, using existing or new carrier pipes; hopefully it wont just be more optical cable strung between poles. Obviously what will also bet interesting is the plan, which neighborhoods first etc. The devil is in the detail though, here are some of my first thoughts on it.

  1. Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, but there is nothing revolutionary about google fiber. Many communities already have this sort of speed, it’s just not from google
  2. When and if it arrives in the ’04, it will come with a bunch of infrastructure that will require users to give up more data on themselves and what they do, what sites they visit etc. How much should google know about you?
  3. On the plus side its competition for TWC, which if you’ve been following along, is what I’ve been campaigning for, writing letters, making calls.
  4. They have a free offering. How this is used, who it is made available too is key; with more and more services going online we can’t afford a class of citizens who are denied access. Should we look for ways to subsidize the install/sign-up fee?
  5. If they just string fiber optic cable between existing polls, boooo. On the other hand, if they do it right and runs the optical fiber(glass cable) underground, are you ok with them digging up the streets. I am. We need to get all the cables underground to improve service, reduce maintenance costs, and get rid of the visual mess it creates.
  6. If you just have a one or two wireless devices, you are unlikely to notice the speed-up, and thats OK. Sure there are new standards that will enable a wireless device connect to the Internet at a theoretical speed that matches your Internet connection, as others have pointed out, Wireless N can already exceed the basic TWC services. Except for multiple people gaming, a couple of HD movies streaming though, you’ll be hard pushed in most homes to notice the difference.
  7. Start downsizing your TWC services now, I effectively shaved $60 off my monthly total bill for TV, HBO, Internet access, TWC need to understand that they can’t depend on the fact y’all have too much money and are too apathetic to go through the change. Lets create some real competition…

It’s no coincidence then AT&T, apparently smarting from the widely leaked google announcement, I can’t even get their service on my urban, less than a mile from city hall street, despite the fact they have two poles and cables on my block, responded by saying “we invest more than any other public company.”. Not here you didn’t.

How Turbo tax is keeping taxes complicated

As we head towards US Tax season and the whole circus that surrounds it, I am as always bewildered how complex and how much effort has to go into filing your annual personal taxes, so much so, I’m behind and won’t be ready again. Worse still, for Tax Year 2012, I have my personal taxes and 2x businesses taxes to file.

Like so many things, Americans make, and thus assume taxes have to be complex. Businesses make marketing campaigns out of tax refund checks, you can get everything from interest free payments “until you get your refund”, to payday loan advances o n your refund check. And we all know that any kind of payday loan is the scum of the earth no matter how broke you are.

So why am I shocked, disappointed and angry to find out that the bellwether of tax filing, Turbo Tax aka owner Intuit, is not only against this, but actually spent some $12-million lobbying against a totally simpler process. It’s a disgrace. However, the longer I’m in the US, the more I’ve become disappointed with how selfish and backward these businesses are, like all businesses, faced with a challenge rather than adapt, and move on; look for new business, they defend their monopolies, or duopolies in this case, since apparently H&R Block also opposed this change.

So, whats the fuss?

  • Most of us in the employment of someone else have taxes taken from our paycheck
  • Many are outraged by this “interest free loan” to the government, but have you checked interest rates lately, good luck making more than the price of postage from the interest you’d get from most monthly tax deducations.
  • It’s your money if you get it back, if you don’t, it wasn’t yours in the first place
  • It’s obvious, if you regularly get a refund check, you should up your witholdings and have less deducted

In the UK it works just the same; only you don’t have the ridiculous end of tax season circus. Yes, the top 20% of tax payers, which included me when I was there, had to file annual returns. Yes, those with stock, shares etc. benefited from filing these returns as you can claim precisely sold, profit, loss, capital gains etc. Obviously those in self employment and those with complicated tax affairs had to file returns, but for the working person, you got a tax code which reflected

  • Previous income
  • Marriage status
  • Number of tax dependents inc. children and other qualifying dependants

The amount of tax deducted from your pay is based on that code. If you need to adjust your code, because of circumstances, or because its wrong, you can. Each year the government sends you a summary account, based on your earnings, deductions, and a new code for the following year taking into account any legal or tax code changes.

If your circumstances or the tax code change significantly, you can end up owing money, or getting a refund. The refunds in rare cases can be big enough to warrant a refund but are more normally handled by changing your tax code for the following year to balance out. If you end up owing the government money, if it’s a small amount, they can alter your tax code, if it’s a large amount, you have to work it out direct with them. And thats all there is to it.

Like so many things, here in America, eveything is a battle, no one trusts the government, and everyone hates paying taxes, even though they are quick enough to demand benefits, medicare or medicaid when they need it, even though most Americans pay less than 2/3 what the average UK worker does in payroll taxes. Honestly, I don’t understand why the taxes are done the way they are.

So it came as a complete shock to find that the US Government has been trying to setup the same process. There is no conspiracy behind it, just a much simpler way to handle the tax affairs of a couple of hundred million Americans. You would:

  • Still be able to file a separate tax return
  • Still be eligible to a refund for overpayment, or owe for underpayment

Think of the time, effort etc. saved once the system was up and running. Both the current President, and before you howl about the plot, and former President, Republican and tea-party icon, Ronald Regan supported simplified filing, using pre-filled forms.

Really, there is no plot, the government does a calculation on your tax anyway, only now it would share the result with you, instead of holding it in secret and waiting for you to file and then using it to decide to audit you.

In 2005, Norquist testified before the President’s Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform arguing against return-free filing. The next year, Norquist and others wrote in a letter to President Bush that getting an official-looking “bill” from the IRS could be “extremely intimidating, particularly for seniors, low-income and non-English speaking citizens.”

Unlike say all those very official, fake government letters they get now from loan sharks, life insurance sales, car warranty companies etc. that show up on a regular basis.

If you are considering using Turbo Tax or H&R Block this year to help with filing taxes, think again. They are like drug dealers, making you dependent on a broken system and keeping you there. Go find a local non-profit to help; pay a local tax attorney if you can’t do it yourself. Sure, they won’t help you model your tax return to get the refund check you want, even if you do owe money, but better that than funding lobbyists to keep you dependent.

TEDxAustin Fear<ess


I have a TEDxAustin viewing party at my place, should be open for business between 10-4:30pm.

Free and Freedoms aka the Instagram drift

Update 12/18 7:15pm: Instragram explains. I don’t think it will change my view, we’ll see.

For context, from the late 1970’s until, well probably 2002 I spent a considerable time arguing for free software. Free as in rights, not as in beer, as early as 1985 I had a letter in Computer Weekly on the topic.

Over the last few years, the explosion of free “as in beer” software has been staggering, everything from Facebook, and the google empire. Increasingly the amount of advertising is making the apps unusable, and their claims of ownership over your personal information, and the content that you create have grown to a point where I’m amazed that people are just clicking away so many rights via that “accept” button.

In the late 1990’s I was the “free” software/open source evangelist in IBM Software group, and Simon Phipps was in the Java Technology Center at IBM; Simon took over that mantle and has gone on to make an exemplary career and some brilliant contributions in the understanding of the cost and value of open software via his speeches and writing. Recently Simon posted this It’s Not Free If It Cost My Liberty which made me stop and think.

Instagram was one of those iPhone things, everyone was raving about it, it had some cool features and I’ve been using it more and more recently. The recent change to the Instagram ToS though was one step too far for me. Instagram, like owner Facebook, now not only claims ownership of your content, it also claims the right to sell it for their profit.

This article in the Atlantic sums up my position well I think. I simply don’t understand why people are prepared to become essentially slave workers for these hugely profitable software, social media companies, donating their time, profit, content and privacy, for what?

It’s time for a new model, why not pay a small amount per year for access to these services with your own choices of what you are and are not prepared to pay for. Want it for free, then be prepared to give it up. Prepared to pay, then you retain rights.

(CC)I’ve not closed my Instram account, but will be avoiding it. I’ve also deleted my Google+/Picasa web albums over their stance on Tax avoidance in the UK; and restarted using Flickr, both via the web and on mobile. Why there are still constraints on rights, at least as an individual user I can control the license, and make my content free as in rights.

Apps, bad for your kids, worse for your privacy

(c) Some rights reserved by flickingerbrad on flickr
(c) Some rights reserved by flickingerbrad on flickr

I’ve argued this position from first hand experience for about 18-months. Apps in the stores both iTunes and Android have the ability to collect and direct information collected to unapproved websites. In a couple of instances, insisting on this has got me more trouble than I wanted.

Now days it’s much more common for an app to ask for permission and for people to accept and install without reading the permissions requested and thinking through the consequences of that. So it was interesting to see this in relation to the way adults let kids use this technology. Just last night at a dinner in a new, upscale restaurant, I watched a parent pull out an iPad and give it to her 9yr old child who then worked her way through dinner playing online. Seems innocent?

Yes, except you are giving away your location, and a lot of personal information which will be used to at least Spam you online or through apps in exchange for what? This article by the LA Times covers the issues.