Friday, November 17, 2017

New FCC Rules Can Help Phone Companies Block Scammer Calls



No one likes getting dozens of calls a day from people they don't know. Whether from robocallers, telemarketers, or scammers, it can be annoying or even costly to deal with unwanted callers. Millions of Americans have placed themselves on the national Do Not Call registry, which makes it illegal for telemarketers to call you, but scammers don't care if they're breaking the law. Fortunately, according to an article by the Associated Press of the L.A. Times, the Federal Communications Commission passed a set of rules this week that will give phone companies greater ability to block unwanted phone calls from reaching their customers.

Before this week, phone companies could already block some unwanted calls. They were able to prevent scammers from using some types of technology that trick callers with fake Caller ID numbers. With the help of the FCC's latest update, they can also block calls that are likely to be from scammers. Some examples are calls from 911 area codes and calls from phone numbers that haven't yet been assigned to any customers. So, by leveraging the rules and some relatively simple computer programming, the phone companies can develop an automated way to block the worst of the scams from reaching you.

Tens of millions of robocalls are received throughout America each day. Some of those calls are legitimate, from pharmacies alerting you about a prepared prescription or from your local congressional representative trying to garner support in an upcoming campaign. The calls that people have more of a problem with are those that claim to be the IRS or tech support. Those calls can be annoying at best, and in many cases, can lead to identity theft and other costs, especially among elderly targets.

Some phone companies have developed databases where users can input information about calls received, which over time, can help future recipients to avoid and quickly block scam calls. They are also working on other technology that can determine if a call is actually coming from the person they're claiming to be. Either way, there is no definitive way at the moment to make 100% sure that you can't be contacted by a scammer. That being said, you can reduce your risk by avoiding answering the phone to numbers you don't recognize. You can also hang up immediately if a call sounds like a scam, and avoid giving any personal information. Be careful. Scammers can do a lot with any information you give them, so don't give them that opportunity.

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Friday, November 3, 2017

Millions of Kidde Fire Extinguishers Being Recalled



Emergency preparedness is important for everyone, both at home and at work. From earthquake kits to fire extinguishers, having the right equipment available can help you keep a bad situation from becoming disastrous. However, having a fire extinguisher won't do you much good in an emergency if it doesn't work properly. According to an article by the Associated Press of the L.A. Times, your fire extinguisher may currently be subject to recall.

Over 40 million extinguishers made by a company called Kidde are being recalled and replaced. This Thursday, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a notice regarding safety issues with 134 models of Kidde's plastic handle fire extinguishers. Over the years, various customers have reported issues with the extinguishers. The extinguishers didn't function properly for emergency personnel dealing with a car wreck in 2014, and since then, others have reported clogging of the nozzles.

The various extinguishers being recalled have been on the market for the past 4 decades, since 1973. Over 300 reports have been made of the extinguishers clogging or the nozzle coming off in emergency situations. Because of those issues, over a dozen injuries, nearly 100 reports of property damage, and a death have occurred. Kidde is offering replacement extinguishers to anyone affected by the recall. Their contact information is: (855) 271-0773 or at www.kidde.com.

Be safe. Emergency preparedness can go a long way toward protecting yourself and your loved ones (as well as your property) from irreversible damage. If you have a Kidde fire extinguisher, make sure to get it replaced ASAP. Even though the issues listed above were uncommon versus the number of extinguishers that worked properly, your safety is not worth the risk. Safety first!

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Thursday, October 26, 2017

"Honey" Browser Extension Automatically Inputs Coupon Codes for Online Shoppers



Many consumers prefer to do their shopping online as opposed to in brick-and-mortar stores. Shopping online, especially when you know exactly what you're looking for, can be cheaper, easier, and more expedient than taking the time to go to Wal-Mart or Target and pick up the latest device. Still, consumers want to get the best deal possible, especially when shopping online. Research shows that consumers are often hesitant to place an order online due to a feeling that they may be paying too much. In his L.A. Times article, David Pierson describes an innovative browser add-on called Honey that automatically finds discount codes for many shopping websites.

The extension is free for download on all Firefox, Safari, and Google Chrome browsers, and requires absolutely no effort on the part of the user. Simply by installing the add-on, the discounts will immediately begin popping up when a user goes to check out on thousands of shopping sites. The extension uses user-inputted data (like Waze) to determine which discount codes work best and which don't work at all, so each consumer using the app helps to make it better for the next user. Honey has over 5 million users, who have saved an average of $32 per month on items that they were going to purchase anyway.

This browser extension seems to be a win-win-win for everyone involved. Consumers get to find discounts that they wouldn't have otherwise been able to use on items that they were planning on purchasing anyway. The shopping sites tend to make more money because shoppers are 55% more likely to finish checking out when Honey has checked for potential discounts. Honey itself makes money because certain merchants pay to have their discounts made more visible, to increase customer traffic. Everyone is making money, without much of a risk to any one party.

About 9,000 of Honey's 21,000 affiliated merchants pays the company a commission for driving customer sales. One of their biggest issues, however, is that they have so far been unable to convince Amazon to get on board. Because Amazon has such a large share of the online shopping market, that could pose problems for Honey in the future. They hope that consumers will choose to use other websites, to keep the Seattle-based company from monopolizing the market and raising prices, but time will tell whether their efforts will be successful. Until then, Honey has an integrated feature for Amazon shoppers to let them know when prices of items in their cart have fluctuated. That feature may be enough to help Honey stay relevant in the Amazon-saturated market.

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Friday, October 20, 2017

Key Reinstallation Attacks Can Allow Criminals to Hack Your WPA-2 Wireless Communication



Technological advancement, which can be greatly beneficial in many ways, can also make it more difficult for you to protect your personal information. Years ago, before the advent of the internet, rates of identity theft were far lower than they are today. Identification documents and private data were not nearly as available before the era of the internet. However, now that hacking is so prevalent, we must do what we can to improve our cybersecurity and prevent hackers wherever possible. According to Samantha Masunaga's recent L.A. Times article, the latest vulnerability to address lies in WPA-2 protocol, the current industry standard for Wi-Fi protection.

WPA-2 is the fundamental protection built into most wireless communication available around the world. Until recently, it was considered the best way to protect your online information, but researchers in Belgium found a vulnerability in the WPA-2 protocol that can allow a hacker to use "key reinstallation attacks" to intercept wirelessly transmitted information, even over encrypted networks. The hacking technique, also known as "Krack," is able to target systems powered by operating systems including Windows, Apple, Android, and Linux. From computers to modems to Wi-Fi enabled refrigerators; anything on your network could potentially be hackable.

The researchers found that Kracking is most effective against computers running Linux and devices running the latest version of Android OS. The hack could be used to capture information in sent emails, credit card numbers, browsing data, and even photos and videos sent to contacts. The hacking technique, while powerful, may not be as great a cause for worry as might be expected. According to the analysts, the hacker would have to be highly skilled and in close proximity to the targeted device. Therefore, any hacker looking to use Krack would likely target large corporations, where they might find a better payout.

To protect yourself, you should download any patches released by manufacturers as soon as they are released. For Windows devices, leaving "automatic updates" selected will let your computer take care of the threat for you. Many Apple devices have already received fixes for the vulnerability and others will receive software updates within the next couple of weeks. Google is working on releasing patches for Android devices as quickly as possible. Until that's all wrapped up, you can protect yourself by sending encrypted emails, being careful with online transactions from certain devices, and adding passwords to shared files that contain sensitive information.

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Friday, September 29, 2017

Ikea Acquires TaskRabbit App, Helping Customers Connect with Furniture Assemblers



Tens of thousands of Americans have tasks that they don't want to do themselves. Either the jobs are physically impossible, or require skills that they don't have, or are simply not worth their time. In an effort to address that common problem, in 2008 Leah Busque founded a company called RunMyErrand, which later evolved into the app known as TaskRabbit. People around the country can use the app to hire "Taskers" to run errands or do odd jobs, and TaskRabbit keeps a percentage for connecting users to workers. According to Tracey Lien and Samantha Masunaga's L.A. Times article, Ikea recently acquired TaskRabbit in order to pair up furniture-building Taskers with Ikea's customers.

TaskRabbit was one of the very first on-demand apps, where users could pay a fee or an hourly rate to get a job done. Since then, many other companies have come in to fill the market, from Uber to Postmates and everything in between. The acquisition of TaskRabbit was a logical one for Ikea because their customers generally already outsourced the job of putting together their furniture anyway. Many customers can't figure out how to assemble Ikea furniture, so it is often simpler for them to hire someone to do it instead. By acquiring TaskRabbit, Ikea is able to get the business on both ends.

From another perspective, Ikea acquired TaskRabbit as an investment, given that the app has been pretty successful over the years since its conception. The company provides a smartphone app that allows Taskers to connect with users looking to hire help. In exchange for providing the service and convenience of their app, TaskRabbit receives 30% of the hourly payment being given to the Tasker completing the job, which is a pretty large chunk of money when movers and furniture assemblers can be making anywhere between $30 and $80 per hour. Neither company has released a public statement about how much the company sold for, but it can probably be assumed that Ikea made a sound investment.

Other on-demand service companies like Uber and Lyft or Sprig and Homejoy have either had to rely on millions of dollars in venture capital and debt financing or have failed to raise enough money and have had to go bankrupt before ever obtaining success. TaskRabbit is different in that it's been profitable for quite a while. The company's acquisition by Ikea is probably a good thing for its future growth. Now that they are connected to the largest furniture company in the US, they have the resources to expand more rapidly and reach a larger, international base of customers.

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Friday, September 15, 2017

California has Potential to be a Strong Contender in Amazon's Search for New Headquarters



Last week, an exciting opportunity arose for cities throughout North America. Amazon Inc. announced its plans to expand further by building a second headquarters, dubbed HQ2. Since the announcement, mayors and governors across the United States have been submitting proposals and offering tax incentives to the giant company, trying to get Amazon to choose them. According to Andrew Khouri's L.A. Times article, California won't be offering quite as much as other states when it comes to tax incentives, but instead, will be relying on its inherent attractiveness as a metropolitan area with good weather, education opportunities, and skilled laborers.

In some states, like Wisconsin or Nevada, billions of dollars in subsidies and tax incentives are offered to manufacturing and tech companies looking to make a move. They hope that the tax incentives they provide initially will be paid off in the future by thousands of more jobs in the area and an improvement in the housing market. Wisconsin is in the process of working out a $3 billion package with television producer Foxconn. In 2014, Nevada's $1.3 billion package earned them Tesla's lithium-ion battery factory, a factory that Governor Jerry Brown has been vying for.

The amount of money being offered may not matter as much for landing the Amazon deal. Amazon is one of the wealthiest companies in the world, and they have made the parameters of their new headquarters well known. They are looking for a metropolitan area with skilled workers, desirable housing, good distribution routes, and a strong base of customers. With its shipping ports, high quality of life, and many prestigious public universities, California could be a strong choice for Amazon's second headquarters.

Analysts believe that Amazon's main purpose in being so public about their search is to try to get competing offers from different cities so that they can use them to leverage a better tax incentive package from whichever city they actually want for their headquarters. That's why they believe that California has a good chance. Research shows that around 90% of the time, companies would choose the city they chose whether they got the same incentive package or not. It really seems to be up to California itself to shine. Either Amazon wants to build HQ2 here or the company doesn't. The amount of money being offered is unlikely to make much of a difference.

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Friday, September 8, 2017

How to Choose a Rewards Credit Card That's Right for You



Credit cards can have many uses to different consumers. For some, it is a convenient way to keep their finances organized: spend money on the credit card all month, then pay one bill at the end. Others use credit cards to spend money that they don't currently have so that they can pay off the bill later when they have the money to pay it. Still others use credit cards for the sole purpose of building credit, to help them get lower APR when buying a car or getting a mortgage on a house. For many users, according to Chanelle Bessette's L.A. Times article, it's the rewards and extra bonuses that interest people in various credit cards.

If used properly, rewards credit cards can help users to get cash back, airline miles, and other perks. However, as with anything, there are both pros and cons. The best rewards cards give thousands of points as a signing bonus for charging a certain amount of money in a designated amount of time. Then, they offer points (or miles or cash back) for every dollar charged to the card in the future. Users can often get a flat amount of cash back on every purchase or can get special rates like 5% cash back on gasoline purchases. Some cards offer miles on airlines, which can essentially let you fly almost anywhere in the world as a reward for spending on the credit card.

On the downside, many of the best rewards cards have annual fees. The better your benefits from a rewards card, the more likely it is that the annual fees are high. For some cards, the annual fees can be hundreds of dollars, so they are more beneficial for people who will use them a lot in the year, gaining as many rewards as possible. Also be aware that some rewards cards extra fees when used overseas, or may not even be accepted by overseas vendors.

So, when deciding if a rewards card is right for you, there are several factors. Do you have great credit? Better cards require higher credit scores.  Do you often carry a balance on your credit card? Rewards cards tend to have higher APR, so the interest you pay could outweigh the rewards. If you travel a lot, a rewards card that offers mileage could be a good choice. If you spend a lot of money in certain categories each month, like gasoline or groceries, you can choose the right rewards card for you to maximize your benefits. All in all, there is no right or wrong answer. Rewards cards should be obtained only after careful consideration, on a case-by-case basis.

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