Friday, December 30, 2011

Newspapers discover how to make money doing nothing

The newspaper industry has figured out how to get customers to pay for NOT receiving the paper.

In the past, newspapers would credit subscribers during a "vacation stop" for the days when the paper was not delivered.  This seems common sense -- no one should pay for a product they don't receive, right?

But that practice seems to be ending. Calls to the Los Angeles Times and Long Beach Press-Telegram confirm that those papers no longer give credit during a vacation stop. And online reports suggest that such papers as the Chicago Tribune and Salt Tribune have similarly changed their practice.

The representative with the Los Angeles Times said the no-credit policy has become the "industry standard."

Still, a representative of the New York Times said that paper does continue to offer a credit to subscribers during a vacation stop.

Newspapers that do adopt this practice are clearly gambling that most subscribers won't notice that they're paying for something they're not getting. Smart consumers could choose to cancel the paper when they go on vacation, and restart when they return. But given the many online news options, some consumers may not restart at all.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Steps to take before leasing a car

Leasing a car is not for everyone. But if you like getting a new car every few years, don’t drive more than 10,000 to 12,000 miles a year, and recognize that your monthly payments are essentially just rent, leasing may be for you. A few things to keep in mind before leasing a car:
  •  Educate yourself. Leasing has its own unique jargon, so check out car leasing guides at sites such as or so the salesperson can’t baffle you with terms like “residual value” and “money factor.” Use an online car lease calculator to estimate your payments.
  •  Check manufacturers’ websites for leasing specials. Then call or email four or five dealers in your area and ask for their best offer on the car you want. To best compare offers, make sure the upfront payment, number of miles allowed (you pay a penalty if you go over), and length of term are the same.
  •  Consider the length of the lease. says that a three-year term is best. “The majority of carmakers offer three-year bumper-to-bumper warranties. If your lease is for three years you will always be under warranty without paying extra for an extended service contract.”
  •  When you contact dealers by phone or email, evaluate the sale person. You want a salesperson who is honest and open, not someone who tries to manipulate you.  “Ask yourself if you feel comfortable dealing with him,” said. “Is he impatient and pushy? Or relaxed and open?”
  •  Watch out for extra costs. When you go to the dealer to complete the deal, Edmunds warns that they may try to sell you extra items such as extended service contracts, fabric protection, alarms or a LoJack vehicle locator. “In most cases, we recommend turning down these extras,” the website said.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The rules for using bank gift cards

Gift cards that can be used at multiple retailers have long been laden with various fees that are not permitted in California with single-store cards. But federal rules instituted last year give consumers more protections when using these so-called bank gift cards, which carry a Visa, MasterCard, Discover Card or American Express logo. Some things to know:
  •  While single-store cards cannot expire under California law, bank gift cards can. But the new federal rules say they cannot expire for at least five years after purchase, and any money added to the card must be usable for five years. The expiration terms must be “clearly and conspicuously” stated on the card.
  •  You cannot be charged an “inactivity” or “dormancy” fee unless the card has been unused for 12 months. Even then, you can only be charged one fee per month.  Fees must be clearly stated to the buyer before purchase regardless of whether the transaction is done in person, by phone or online.
  •  "Virtual” or “e-gift” cards have the same protections as physical cards. You can buy an electronic credit online and give it as a gift. The recipient either prints out the code or uses it to make purchases over the Internet.
  •  You may be charged simply for buying the card. “Purchase fees” are typically $3 to $7 for each card, though there’s no limit under the law. So it may be smarter to give cash or a check. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Book review: "Batavia's Graveyard" by Mike Dash

When the Dutch trading ship Batavia wrecked on the rocky shores of an uninhabited Indian Ocean atoll in 1629, the 322 people aboard probably thought things couldn’t get any worse.  Little did they know that a madman would soon make their lives a living hell.

“Batavia’s Graveyard” is the true story of the shockingly barbaric events that followed the wreck of the Batavia off the coast of Western Australia.  It is a book that is often fascinating, yet readers should be warned that the brutality of the story can be stomach-turning.

At the heart of the story is a psychopath named Jeronimus Corneliez who leads a band of shipwreck survivors in savagely killing about 120 people in cold blood. Among the victims were children, pregnant women, even a baby.

Author Mike Dash gets the book off to a fast start as the Batavia, on its maiden voyage, violently runs aground in the rocky archipelago known as Houtman’s Abrolhos. After this invigorating start, the story slows WAY down as Dash goes back years in time to the Netherlands to set the stage for the story.

Dash has clearly done an extraordinary job of research for this book, delving into documents nearly 400 years old. But he sometimes goes into so much detail on arcane elements that it bogs the story down. In the first third of the book, Dash offers up descriptions of religious zealotry in 17th-century Europe, the history of the Dutch East India Company, the importance of the spice trade and the subtleties of Dutch social strata at the time. Some of this is interesting, but it just goes on too long and can be skimmed.

Once the voyage is underway, we see the seeds of a mutiny germinate on board, as antipathy among the top officers on board simmers alongside an unhappy crew. The mutiny never happens at sea, but after the shipwreck, with the top officers gone off in search of help, trouble explodes.

From a historian’s perspective, this is a terrific book, full of facts and details from long ago. I like Dash’s descriptions of shipboard life, and the problems of disease and malnutrition. Even his descriptions of brutal punishment methods, such as keelhauling, are interesting (if disturbing).

But for the more casual reader, the book has some weaknesses, one of the biggest being that there are no likeable individuals among the main characters. You just don't have anyone to root for. The most prominent “good guy,” Wiebbe Hayes, emerges late in the story, but Dash is unable to offer much detail about him.

There are some helpful maps in the book, but one small annoying element is that Dash continually refers to Hayes Island and High Island as being to the “north” of the islands where Corneliez and the other mutineers did the killing – yet the map shows those islands clearly to the west.

If you like this sort of book, you might consider Nathaniel Philbrick’s “In the Heart of the Sea,” the story of a 19th-century whaling expedition that goes very  wrong.  


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Saturday, December 3, 2011

Notable attacks, and attempted attacks, in the United States since 9/11


Oct.-Nov. 2001: Anonymous, anthrax-laced letters are sent to news organizations and two U.S. senators. Five people die and 17 are sickened. In 2008, the FBI concluded that the letters were sent by Bruce Ivins, a microbiologist at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases who had committed suicide a week earlier.

May 31, 2009: Scott Roeder, an antiabortion extremist, shoots and kills abortion doctor George Tiller during a Sunday service in the vestibule of a Wichita church. Roeder is later convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

June 1, 2009: American-born Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, 26, a convert to Islam, shoots into a military recruiting office in Little Rock, Ark., killing one Army soldier and wounding another. Police said he told them he was "mad at the U.S. military because of what they had done to Muslims in the past."

June 10, 2009: An 88-year-old white supremacist walks into the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington and opens fire, killing a security guard and sending visitors scrambling for cover, police say. The accused gunman, James W. von Brunn, dies in custody seven months later.

Nov. 5, 2009: Thirteen people are killed and 32 wounded at Ft. Hood, Texas, in an attack blamed on Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist. Witnesses testify later that Hasan shouted "Allahu akbar" – Arabic for "God is great" – before opening fire on a group of soldiers undergoing health checks in preparation for deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. Hasan is awaiting court-martial on 13 counts of premeditated murder.

Jan. 4, 2010: Johnny Lee Wicks, a 66-year-old retiree apparently upset over losing a lawsuit related to his Social Security benefits, opens fire in a Las Vegas federal courthouse lobby, killing a security officer and wounding another person. Wicks is killed in a shootout with court officers.

Feb. 18, 2010: A. Joseph Stack, a 53-year-old software engineer who had been feuding with the Internal Revenue Service, burns his house down, then flies a small plane into a building housing IRS employees. Stack and IRS worker Vernon Hunter are killed, and two people are seriously injured.


Dec. 22, 2001: Richard Reid, a 28-year-old British citizen and Muslim convert, tries to set off two bombs in his sneakers on a trans-Atlantic flight heading to the U.S.  After a violent struggle at 30,000 feet, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Reid is  subdued by flight attendants and at least six passengers and eventually sedated. Reid is later convicted and sentenced to three life sentences plus 110 additional years in prison.

March 2004: Officials reveal that Al Qaeda had planned to attack Los Angeles’ tallest building – Library Tower (now U.S. Bank Tower ) – and Chicago’s Sears Tower in the months after Sept. 11 as part of a second wave of strikes that was never carried out.

Feb. 10, 2006: FBI agents in Puerto Rico search five homes and a business to thwart what the agency said was a "domestic terrorist attack" planned by militants favoring independence for the U.S.  island territory.  Critics, however, accuse the FBI of using the specter of terrorism to turn the public against those advocating Puerto Rican independence.

Dec. 25, 2009: Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian, attempts to detonate explosives in his underwear aboard a Northwest Airlines jet over Detroit, but is thwarted by other passengers and the crew.  He tells interrogators that he had been trained and outfitted with the bomb by the Yemen-based branch of Al Qaeda.

May 1, 2010: Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani immigrant and naturalized U.S. citizen, parks an SUV loaded with three homemade bombs in New York’s Times Square and tries to set them off. They fail to detonate and Shahzad is arrested as he boards a flight out of the U.S. He is convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Nov. 27, 2010: Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a 19-year-old a naturalized U.S. citizen from Somalia, is arrested and accused of trying to explode a powerful car bomb amid throngs of people at a holiday ceremony in downtown Portland, Ore. Investigators say that Mohamud had been working with two men he thought were terrorists, but were actually undercover FBI agents.


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Friday, November 25, 2011

Just in: Los Angeles to enforce its laws. Well, one law, anyway.

In a bold move, the mayor of Los Angeles said on November 25 that the city will soon be enforcing one of its laws. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the city will stop allowing people to illegally camp in a park adjacent to City Hall, a mere seven weeks after the first campers showed up. (See "Villaraigosa announces impending shutdown of Occupy L.A. Camp.")

Villaraigosa and Police Chief Charlie Beck said campers who refuse to leave the park will be dealt with harshly and may not get the free housing or other incentives the city will be giving to the others. Or at least they won't get as much.

No word yet on whether Los Angeles may try to enforce other laws.


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Who is Sutherland Mortgage Services?

If you're looking for a home loan or trying to refinance, you may have come upon Sutherland Mortgage Services. This Texas firm appears to offer attractive rates. But who are they?

Sutherland was formerly known as Profolio Home Mortgage, according to the National Mortgage Licensing System, and a little research on that name makes it clear why the company changed its name. Online reviews of Profolio Home Mortgage are decidedly negative, with such comments as these:

"They are shady, unethical, unprofessional, and overly aggressive. AVOID THEM!!"

 "This company wasted my time and money and screwed me out of getting a refi."

"Profolio repeatedly mis-represented their lending costs, their loan requirements, and their ability to close the loan. ... They kept stalling and not responding to my phone calls nor emails for weeks on the second loan. No one even answered their customer service phone for a day!"

A year ago, I attempted to use Profolio myself for a refinance, and I don't find these complaints at all surprising. Looking back at the 10 refinancings I've done in my life, no company was as incompetent as Profolio.  They wasted my time, failed to deliver on their promises and still owe me $350.

So what do you do when your company gets a bad reputation? Well, you could try to improve, but in the case of this company you simply change the name.


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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The perils of automated online ads

The New York Times has a story today about how caller ID is being misused by telemarketers, collection agencies and criminal scammers to fool people into answering their phone. The article points out that "it is illegal to transmit inaccurate or misleading caller ID information 'with the intent to defraud, cause harm or wrongfully obtain anything of value.'"

Someone at the New York Times ought to look at the bottom of the page where the online version of this story is running.  There, you can find an ad that boasts, "Spoof Caller ID Now. Totally Private. Totally Fun."  See below.

See the NYT story here.


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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Review: "War Reporting for Cowards" by Chris Ayres

The image of the war correspondent is well-known. The intrepid reporter ventures fearlessly into combat, dodging bullets and bombs, in order to provide breathless eyewitness reports of front-line action. In the end, the journalist emerges from the dust and debris slightly scuffed, his hair tousled, but eager to do it all again.

Then there's Chris Ayres, a reporter for the London Times who didn't really want to go to war and once he was there couldn't wait to leave. Ayres' "War Reporting for Cowards" offers up a funny and fresh view of war reporting.

Ayers gives a down-to-earth accounting of being "embedded" with the U.S. Marines during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. No mundane detail is spared
he describes the necessity of digging a hole in the absence of a bathroom, the claustrophobic gas masks, the mud and dirt, and the barely concealed hostility of the Marines with whom he was traveling. It's hard to see the glory in this war story.

"Waking up in a Humvee ... on the front lines of an invasion, is different," Ayers writes. "The first thing you notice is the contortion necessary to sleep inside the vehicle: the head dangles inches from the bare metal floor; the right leg is to be found somewhere behind the left ear. The spine feels as though it has been splintered like a cocktail stick. If the war doesn't kill you, sleeping in the Humvee might."

Most of the book actually takes place before the war.  Ayers was in New York when the 9/11 attacks occurred and describes how, while other reporters ran toward the catastrophe, he ran as fast he could to get away. Later he moves to Los Angeles to cover celebrities, but is called to embed as the 2003 war approached (he accepted only because he feared to do otherwise would kill his career).

Given a list of supplies the military says he will need, he takes a comical shopping trip to an upscale sporting goods store to buy what he needs (he had never camped before). "You don't look the type," says the youthful salesman. "Doesn't the London Times have, like, war correspondents? Don't they need you to cover the Oscars or something?"  

The book is not without its flaws. Ayers sometimes meanders into social and political commentary that falls flat or is just puzzling.  At one point, he writes, "We learn from an early age that New York is the Best City in the World, and that to be a New Yorker is something noble and proud." Huh?  Who learns that? Certainly no one I know.

Still, these lapses can be skipped over, and as long as Ayers is telling his personal story and offering up his self-deprecating humor, it's worth reading.

If you like this sort of book, you might consider "This is Your War," by the famous World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle. Or for something much more serious, try "The Forever War," by Dexter Filkins, about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.


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Friday, November 11, 2011

What to do if your personal information is stolen

There are many ways your personal information could be stolen. Hackers break in to computer systems, thieves snatch laptops, disgruntled employees pilfer information. If you believe that your social security number or other personal information has been revealed to someone who may use it to impersonate you, here are key steps to take:

  • Contact the fraud department of one of the credit reporting agencies – Experian, Equifax, or TransUnion. When you ask for a fraud alert from one bureau, it will notify the other two, says the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. A fraud alert tells companies to take additional steps to confirm your identity before issuing credit.

  • Get a copy of your credit reports.  After establishing a fraud alert, you will get a letter from the credit bureaus explaining how to get free copies of your credit reports. You can request that the reports show only the last four digits of your social security number

  • Once you get your credit reports, look them over carefully for accounts that aren’t yours and other evidence of identity theft.  If someone is trying to open accounts using your name, each attempt will be shown on your credit reports.  Close accounts that are not yours.

  • Consider asking the credit bureaus for a security freeze. This prevents anyone from getting credit in your name. This can be inconvenient, though, since you will have to get the freeze lifted if you want to apply for new credit. There may be a fee for the freeze.

  • If the breach involves your credit card or bank accounts, monitor those accounts closely, checking online for unusual activity – every day if possible. Contact the company if your account statement doesn’t arrive in time – someone may have changed the address on the account. 

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