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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Friday, September 1, 2017

FreedomPop Cell Phone Service Focuses on Providing Customers with Lowest Prices



In the United States, from the wealthiest entrepreneur to the poorest student, from teenagers to retirees, almost everyone has a cell phone. While cell phones were once a conveniently mobile alternative to landlines, to allow people to make calls outside of their homes, from almost anywhere in the world, they have now become much more than just phones. With the advent of text messaging and smartphones, many users now rarely use their phone for calling, opting instead to text or surf the internet using their mobile data or surrounding Wi-Fi signals. Most cell phone providers, especially the "Big Four" carriers, charge upwards of $40 per month for a cell phone plan. According to Paresh Dave's L.A. Times article, there's a smaller company, called FreedomPop, that is able to provide users with cell phone plans for less than $5 per month.

FreedomPop isn;t the ideal cell service provider for everyone. In fact, they only have about 2 million customers, compared to the hundreds of millions of subscribers at companies like Verizon or AT&T. About half of their users have service for "free," although they do have to pay a monthly fee of $7.99. The "free" portion of their service has limits on data usage, calls, and texts, and their customer service hasn't been rated very highly, but for many people, their low prices make the switch a no-brainer. Some of their most all-inclusive plans include unlimited talk, text, and data for around $20-30 per month, which is significantly less than their larger competitors. Users mainly have to have a credit card attached to their account, and they get charged extra fees for going over their allotted usage, but users seem to feel that the low prices make it worthwhile overall.

The company is able to keep prices so low by going against common industry practice. At its inception, the main focus of FreedomPop was to provide everyone with access to the internet. To do that, they chose to accept lower profit margins, which means they can charge less for their service. Even though the company's user base is small, it has had enough of an impact on the industry that large competitors like Verizon and T-Mobile are lowering their prices in response. The goal of FreedomPop is to gain as many customers as possible, around the world, both to achieve their vision statement and to maximize revenue. The more revenue they take in, the more room they have to cover their fixed costs and provide service at a low price. Besides the lower profit margins, FreedomPop cuts costs by minimizing the amount they spend on marketing and by doing careful research on exactly which potential customers they choose to target.

FreedomPop has received over $100 million in venture capital investment to keep doing what they're doing. They are also looking at an acquisition offer, but investors don't seem interested in selling the company. FreedomPop is different from other cell service providers. They handle customer service efficiently by providing refunds when they receive complaints (modeled similarly to larger companies like Google Express) because they have found that giving a $5 reimbursement immediately makes a customer more likely to stay with the company and provide good reviews. However, as would be expected with a company that provides service at an average of $15 per month, customer service and quality sometimes have to suffer to some extent. It's really a choice that each customer has to make. Do you pay more for service through a "Big Four" company (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, or T-Mobile), or do you pay less for a up-and-coming company like FreedomPop?

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Friday, August 25, 2017

DriveShare Aims to Encourage Vintage Car Ownership



Inventors are continually innovating and making the world a better place. Some of their innovations include new medications or life-saving devices. Other inventions are to make life easier or more convenient, or just to allow people to have more fun. No matter how you look at it, though, most people would agree that technological growth has given people access to everything they might ever need. There's food delivery, transportation, short-term housing, and car rental, all available through apps on your cell phone. Now, Charles Fleming's L.A. Times article points out, there's even an online service designed specifically for lovers of vintage cars.

Airbnb, one of the most popular apps on the market, makes billions of dollars per year in revenue, by facilitating the rental of homes and apartments on a short-term basis. Apps like Getaround and Turo allow users to rent cars owned by other users in order to get around, but some users are looking for different styles of cars not usually offered by those ride-sharing apps. To address that demand, a group of innovators created an online service, dubbed “the Airbnb of classic cars,” called DriveShare, which allows users to rent (or rent out) vintage and classic cars.

Vintage cars are one of those commodities that just gain popularity as the years go on. In the modern day, where vehicles tend to be made of cheaper materials, with more electronic bells and whistles, some drivers prefer the experience of a sturdy, solid metal, classic car. They like the way they run, they like the way they look, and they especially enjoy how much more durable classic cars tend to be. Eventually, at some point in the future, "classic cars" won't be a thing anymore, because many of them are over 40 years old and only last so long, but for now, this business seems to be working.

The company was founded by a merger between a rental company called Classics&Exotics and one of the nation's largest vintage car insurance companies, Hagerty. The merger allowed for the company to gain access to a database of a million vintage vehicles, with around 300 types of car to choose from. The rental prices range from $99 to $3,300 per day for Porches to Lamborghinis and everything in between. According to the founders, this service has two goals: to give people the experience of driving a vintage car, to help them see if they might want to buy one themselves; and to help vintage car owners somewhat subsidize the cost of their vintage car by renting it out on a day-to-day basis. Both goals point toward one thing: the innovators who created DriveShare really seem to want people to have every opportunity to drive, or even own, a vintage car.

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Friday, August 18, 2017

Long Beach to Propose Stricter Enforcement of Noise Curfew Ordinance



Finding a great place to live can be a balancing act. It can be next to impossible to find a good building with affordable rent in a popular area. People often have to commute to work in order to find their dream home or sacrifice some of the items on their wish list and settle for something less than ideal. Living near an airport, for example, has both positive and negative aspects. Prices for homes in the area tend to be much lower than those further away, but residents have to deal with increased traffic and greater noise issues. Even with noise curfew rules, some airlines find ways to get around it. However, according to Hugo Martin's L.A. Times article, the Long Beach Airport has proposed a crackdown on noise violators in order to address some of the more blatant rule-breakers.

In response to excessive noise issues over the years, the City of Long Beach has a Community Noise Ordinance that makes it illegal for people to make loud noises that affect residents or visitors during certain time periods. Some examples include leaf blowers, construction equipment, and amplified music. Mainly, the ordinance addresses repeat offenders with disruptive behavior above certain limited standards. One such standard is that for the airlines operating out of the Long Beach airport. The airlines have a limited "noise budget" that they have to stay under or they will be fined.

While many of the airlines have followed the rules of the Noise Ordinance, some of the busier airlines have chosen to prioritize their business over the wants of the community. JetBlue has been the most flagrant offender this year, with over 94 violations in the five-month period at the beginning of 2017. Delta AirLines and SkyWest, next in line, have a combined total of only 3 violations. JetBlue claims that its disruption of the noise levels between 10 PM and 7 AM throughout the year was due to delays at busier airports on the East Coast and in Northern California. They claim that the noise was unintentional and are working with the city to solve the problem.

When the ordinance was enacted in 1995, it set the fines for first-time offenders at $100 and set the fine at $300 for any airline breaking the rules more than three times. While these fines may have once been a deterrent to some airlines, it makes more financial sense for JetBlue to operate as many flights as possible, and just pay any fines they may incur. In response to that, city officials are looking into updating the fines on the ordinance to thousands of dollars per transgression, with the option to terminate an airline's ability to operate out of the airport if the airline accumulates more than 20 citations in a two-year period. It will still take some time to get the proposal before the city council, but it is expected that they will vote on it in the early months of 2018.

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Friday, August 11, 2017

Scam Uses Stolen Credit Card Data to Illegally Resell Gasoline



Improvements in technology are great in many ways. They save money, make life more convenient, and help people to do good in the world. However, technological advancement can often have drawbacks as well. One of the main issues in recent years is the average criminal's increasing ability to get away with financial crimes. The more technologically advanced something is, the more opportunities there are for criminals to hack in or scam people. According to an article by the Associated Press of the Los Angeles Times, one of the latest scams involves using stolen credit card information to resell gasoline on the black market.

The first part of the scam involves attaching 3D-printed credit card "skimmers" to ATMs or other credit card readers, such as those at gas stations. When someone swipes their card through the skimmer without realizing that it's not actually part of the machine, it records the credit card's data for the scammer's use. Then, the scammer is able to transfer the information to a fake card later, which they can use to make purchases. As devices get more advanced and criminals become more tech-savvy, the crimes continue to increase.

Once they have the counterfeit cards with someone else's data on it, the thieves go to gas stations with specially-designed trucks with hidden fuel tanks that can hundreds of gallons of gasoline. Then, they go off and empty the fuel from the trucks into 4,500-gallon industrial tankers. Finally, the tankers turn around and sell the gasoline back to the gas stations or to people on construction sites or to truckers looking to get a discount. Even the smallest gangs of criminals can steal thousands of dollars per day in gasoline, which can be more profitable with fewer risks than other money-making scams.

These types of crimes started sometime around 2006 when the skimmer technology was first developed. Since then, thieves have been using the strategy more and more, mainly in populous states with many busy interstates, such as California, Florida, and Texas. At first, law enforcement did little to combat these crimes, since they were only targeting a couple hundred dollars per transaction. It was seen as a "victimless crime," because the targets could dispute the charges on their credit card statements and generally get the money back. Because of the "slap-on-the-wrist" view of this type of crime, more and more thieves joined up, to the extent that some gangs are making up to $20 million per year off of stolen gasoline.

Because this is a financial crime, the US Secret Service is  involved and is investigating various gangs of criminals, shutting down these groups when they can, and are working on instituting tougher laws to dissuade other criminals from going after the "low-hanging fruit." Gas stations are also looking into installing devices on their pumps that shut the machine down if it is tampered with. Generally, everyone should just be on alert and do what they can to avoid being targeted by a similar scam. Be careful when using your credit card somewhere you don't trust, and if something looks suspicious, you should report it to the authorities.

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Friday, August 4, 2017

New System to Alert Passengers via Mobile App if Luggage is Lost in Transit



Many people often need to travel often in this day and age. Technology has helped people to become more connected and some businesses even operate out of multiple countries at once. Therefore, people conducting business and people looking to visit friends and family will usually need to resort to flying to their destination. Because flying has become so mainstream and efficient, it's not unheard of for some individuals to board multiple flights per month. However, with all that popularity comes mistakes. Flights get overbooked, luggage gets lost, and the whole trip can be a frustrating experience. According to Hugo Martin's L.A. Times article, American Airlines is addressing one common issue: lost luggage, in the hopes of making the experience a little bit better for everyone.

Airports, especially those located in major cities, host many flights per day, with planes from dozens of different airlines. It's no surprise that luggage gets misplaced among so many thousands of travelers. The more frustrating part for many passengers is that they have to wait by baggage claim for every piece of luggage to exit the plane before they can definitively determine that their luggage is gone. Then, they have to go through the whole process and fill out paperwork so that when their belongings are found, they can be returned. People nowadays value efficiency and look to save time in every situation, so a big time-waster like that is not appreciated.

American Airlines is beginning to use a new system of scanning luggage at multiple checkpoints along the boarding and transport process, which keeps better track of everything. Additionally, all of the data is being uploaded to their system, and an alert gets sent out to a passenger if the system finds that their luggage was lost along the way. Because the passengers are getting a text message or app alert, they are able to immediately go to fill out the paperwork instead of first waiting for baggage claim, which can make an inherently stressful situation a little bit easier. In the coming years, lost luggage may be a thing of the past. New technology has been driving down the number of bags misplaced each year, and some research shows that use of RFIDs and other similar technology could lead to a 99% success rate on tracking bags, which could save millions of dollars in the long-run.

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