Friday, October 12, 2018

Consumer Version of Google+ Platform to be Shut Down Over the Next Several Months


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Social media is an important aspect of most people's lives. For some, social media is a way to keep up with what's happening in the lives of their friends and family members. For others, social media is a platform by which they can advertise their business or find the latest news updates. Although each platform tries to compete with others to some extent, the different platforms tend to attract different types of users, and often users will have accounts on multiple social media sites. LinkedIn draws in job-hunters and business professionals. Facebook and Twitter tend to be for general connectivity, although the former is more for friends and family, while the latter is more general.

Google+, while not on the same level of popularity as Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, filled a similar niche, intending to connect users and improve social media reach through Google's impressive search engine optimization algorithms. Unfortunately, according to Sam Dean's L.A. Times article, SEO wasn't enough to keep the users engaged. Alphabet Inc., Google's parent company, recently announced that Google+ is getting wound down over the next several months. The company expects to have the social media platform completely shut down by August. This week, a Wall Street Journal article came out claiming that Google discovered a security breach on Google+ months ago, and the company never informed its users. Some analysts believe that this breach in customers' trust could be what brought about the announcement on Monday.

However, it seems very likely that the privacy breach (although it may have been the last straw) was not Google's main motivator for shutting down Google+. The real reason was probably one of simple economics. Google+ just wasn't bringing in enough revenue. Social media platforms, since they tend to be free to use, bring in money by selling advertisements. Advertisers will only pay a company if they can see that the number of potential new customers justifies the cost. If a company can pay Google a set amount of money each month for advertising on Google+, and be guaranteed an increase in customers and sales, then they will gladly make that leap. However, if they know that 90% of Google+ users spend less than 5 seconds per session, the company is unlikely to believe that their advertisements will ever be seen, so they will be unlikely to put an advertisement in the first place.

Although the consumer version of Google+ is getting shut down over the coming months, Google is still planning to keep up its enterprise platform, through which corporate customers interact and provide information that can be integrated into Google's other features, including Google Maps. It's impossible to tell which of the issues (low user rates or recent privacy concerns) really made Google finally flip the switch and shut Google+ down, but other social media platforms may soon follow suit. Due to several recent issues with Facebook's handling of user data and bugs in their operating system that allowed hackers to access the same data, governmental agencies like the Federal Trade Commission have stepped up their levels of oversight. Even the House of Representatives and the Senate are getting involved, looking to investigate and improve laws to keep data safer than before.

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Friday, October 5, 2018

Experian Security Flaw Exposed PINs Needed to Unfreeze Credit Profiles


Image result for experian pin

With identity theft and consumer fraud constantly on the rise, every potential security breach is important for consumers to know about. All consumers, even those without credit cards, should constantly be prepared, and on the lookout for signs that they may be the targets of fraudulent activity. Recently, it was discovered that one credit reporting agency, Experian, had an overlooked security flaw that allowed criminals to access a consumer's PIN. According to Liz Weston's article, this failure of security has since been addressed, but for several hours this week, pretty much every person's credit profile was at risk.

If someone is the target of a cybercriminal and discovers that fraudulent activity has happened on their account, the first step they tend to take is freezing their credit so that more fraud can't happen in the time it takes to investigate the original fraud. This isn't an ideal solution, as some people who live paycheck to paycheck rely on their credit to survive, but overall, it's the best option currently available, as many consumers can go a few weeks without borrowing money from a lender or charging expenses to a credit card. In order to undo the freeze, to make the user's account accessible once the fraud issues have been cleared up, a user usually has to input a PIN code online and answer a few security questions.

This type of system, while convenient to the consumer who needs to unfreeze their credit as quickly and easily as possible, has its downsides too. The main issue with this system was revealed this week. In order to get into someone's account without their PIN code, a criminal would need to know certain financial information like name, Social Security number, date of birth, and street address (all of which can be purchased illegally through the dark web from criminals who had previously hacked companies like Equifax). Additionally, the hacker would usually have to also answer security questions that only the real user would know the answer to (name of a favorite teacher, favorite foods, etc). However, this Thursday, it was discovered that if a hacker (or any user, really) answered "none of the above" to the security questions (even if the correct answer was available to choose), the system would allow the unapproved user access, which could enable them to unlock a frozen credit profile.

Some users tested out the security flaw themselves to see if they could trick the system into giving up their PIN, and found that they succeeded quite easily. After broad public backlash, Experian announced this week that they were confident of the security of everyone's credit information, but is still working on making things even more secure to improve customer satisfaction. Late in the afternoon, users began to find that the security flaw had stopped working, a positive sign for worried consumers. However, as these issues keep arising and credit companies don't fix the security issues until after the fact, many consumers believe that the credit agencies don't have their customers' best interests at heart. However, there isn't much a consumer can do right now except be vigilant and keep insisting that credit agencies continue improving security.

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Friday, September 28, 2018

Amazon-Snapchat Partnership Expected to Substantially Impact Snap Inc.'s Future Business Prospects


Image result for snapchat amazon

Online commerce constitutes a huge portion of all merchandise being purchased, and each year, the proportions keep increasing. While some people prefer to go into a store to actually feel an item or try on some clothes before making their purchase, services like Amazon Prime make it easy and convenient for consumers to shop online, then return anything they don't like, free of charge. With a feature that was recently added to Amazon's app, which allows a user to take a picture of an item in the real world in order to search for it on Amazon, the online market will continue to grow exponentially. Interestingly, although Amazon already has this feature on their own app, according to Sam Dean's L.A. Times article, the corporation has recently partnered with Snapchat to give the social media app the same shopping capabilities.

Economic analysts are unsure as to what Amazon's end goal might be. The corporation already has an app capable of leading a user to an item for sale based on a captured image. Why does Amazon want to add the same feature to Snapchat's app? Similarly, what could Snapchat possibly be getting out of the deal that it makes it worthwhile for them to use their platform to help an indirect competitor like Amazon? The explanation for Snap Inc.'s end of the partnership is simple: money. Online platforms that push business in Amazon's direction get between 1% and 10% of the sale price of a purchased item as a commission. So, the more Snap customers purchase on Amazon (which can be improved with this image-recognition feature), the more money Snap Inc. can bring in.

For Amazon's side of this partnership, no definite conclusions have been drawn. Some believe that Snapchat has a user base that is significantly different from Amazon's, to the extent that the benefit of increased sales would far outweigh the cost of adding the feature to Snapchat's app. According to a study, over three-quarters of all internet users between the ages of 18 and 24 use Snapchat, and that demographic tends to be much more likely than the average consumer to make online purchases on a whim. Others believe that this partnership is part of a far larger plan on Amazon's part. History has shown that when Amazon partners with a smaller company, they tend to only play nice until they fully understand the company's business model, at which point they put them out of business.

Alternatively, this tentative partnership could be a plan on both sides to improve the odds of a peaceful transition of ownership in the near future. Snap Inc. recently hired Tim Stone (a long-lasting executive at Amazon) as Snap's Chief Financial Officer. Also, because of Facebook's blatant copying of Snap's intellectual property over the years, if Snap executives were ever to consider liquidating the company, they would likely strongly oppose selling to Facebook, their business enemy. So, it isn't unbelievable to think that Snap might be gearing up to sell to Amazon soon, and this update to Snapchat's features could be their first step in testing such a combination of the companies.

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Friday, September 21, 2018

Online Advertising in the U.S. Outpaces Print for the First Time


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A company can be the best in the business and can be producing the highest-quality items at the lowest prices, but those facts don't matter much if no one hears about the company. So, in many ways, the reach of a company's advertising efforts can be a far more important factor in the business' success than the business itself. In the past, a company's outreach efforts involved advertisements posted in the local newspaper. Eventually, that developed into short commercials on the radio, then on television. Now, in the digital age, advertisers have to make use of the internet if they want to get noticed. In fact, according to Wendy Lee's L.A. Times article, over half of all advertisements in the U.S. this year were online.

Since companies are looking to target more consumers from the younger demographics, and since it's well-known that younger consumers tend to spend far more time on mobile devices than older consumers, those companies have pivoted their marketing strategy to focus on platforms like Google and Facebook. This pivot was so significant that in 2018, advertisers will spend a total of more than $100 billion on online advertisements, a 16% increase from last year's expenditures. Studies have found that the online advertisements are more successful in targeting consumers, provides the advertisers with more information about the targeted consumer, and even costs less overall.

The advertisements tend to focus mainly on social media and internet searches. For example, if you like a Facebook page related to cooking, you might tend to see more ads on your Facebook feed related to cookware. Or, if you search on Google for a specific product, the next time you use the internet, advertisements will be more likely to show you products similar to the one you searched for, or related products from the same company. Online advertising has the benefit that it can target specific demographics of consumers and can record how many people are actually affected by the ads (determined by the ratio of ad clicks to purchases).

It makes sense that companies are making the shift to online advertising. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have millions of users who log on every day, and a targeted ad can draw in many more potential customers than a generic advertisement in the local paper or a catchy commercial on TV. Especially as streaming services become more popular (thereby decreasing the percentage of the population who actively watch cable television), TV commercials become less effective and more annoying to the common viewer. Online ads are still seen as annoying, but if done in the right way, they can catch a consumer's attention without distracting a consumer from the posts and online content they are actually there to see.

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Friday, September 14, 2018

Vigilance is Key in Avoiding Consumer Fraud


Image result for consumer fraud

As the internet and computer-based technologies become more and more advanced, the strategies used by criminals evolve to keep up. Where once a criminal had to actively confront their victims to steal money or personal property, many criminals now use the internet to enable them to steal money and personal information from the comfort of their own home. However, it's a common misconception that cybercriminals are highly-skilled hackers who can crack your bank's encryption and empty your account. It's much more common for a criminal to attack through misleading or illegitimate emails that trick the target into giving up personal information.

Consumer fraud is commonly defined as "any instance in which an individual suffers a financial or personal loss because of unfair, deceptive, false, illegitimate or misleading business practices." In recent years, consumer fraud has tended to be focused on identity theft, Social Security fraud, and credit card fraud. Additionally, the targets of such scams tend to be individuals with little financial and life experience, like college students, or those who are not very technically-savvy, like the elderly. However, all demographics of the population have been successfully targeted by fraudsters.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the main agency that works to protect Americans from being defrauded by these criminals, and in recent years, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has also joined the fight, especially regarding mortgage scams, banking/wire fraud, and student loan scams. Their goal is to educate the more vulnerable consumers, to try to prevent the fraud from happening to begin with, but they also step in to help get things back on track for people who have unfortunately been targeted successfully.

There are several common methods of consumer fraud that you should learn to quickly recognize so that you can more easily avoid being defrauded in the future. One strategy is referred to as phishing. Basically, the cybercriminal sends you an email that appears to come from your bank or credit card company. The email will say something about your account being compromised or terms of service being updated, then will provide a link that seems to take you to the website where you can sign into your account. This webpage is actually a clever copy that just looks like the real webpage, so when you input your username and password, the cybercriminal records that information for later uses.

In other situations, the criminal gets ahold of your Social Security number (often through phishing attacks, but they sometimes use other methods), and they open up credit cards using your identity. Millions of Americans every year experience this kind of identity theft, and for the inexperienced or elderly, who don't know enough to keep track online, this attack can leave their credit score trashed for many years to come. Targets of identity theft often don't even find out that it has happened until much later, at which point their banks or credit card companies make them jump through all kinds of hoops to try to clear things up. One thing to note: no matter how careful you are with your cyber security and keeping your personal information private, you could be the target of a cyber attack. Being vigilant and suspicious in your online financial life can save you months of stress and frustration down the road.

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Friday, September 7, 2018

Outdated or Incorrect Information Could be Holding Back Your Credit Score


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Credit is probably the most important aspect of your financial identity. Your credit score can tell lenders how trustworthy of a borrower you are, or how likely it is that they will make their money back. A good credit score can mean the difference between a low interest rate and an exorbitantly high one, and a bad enough score could even get your application for a loan dismissed entirely. There are a few major aspects that determine your score: length of credit history, total amount of debt, and the regularity of debt repayment tend to be the biggest factors. By adjusting those variables, you can raise or lower your score over time. According to an L.A. Times article by David Lazarus, changes to the largest credit agencies' calculation may have recently upped your score, but that doesn't necessarily mean it will stay that way in the near future.

Lazarus writes that some of the larger agencies recently went through their data, and removed a lot of incorrect or outdated information, which presumably improved the scores of those borrowers being held back by such data. But, even though some of the information has been expunged, that doesn't mean they got all of it. In fact, it doesn't even mean they got most of it. The three biggest credit agencies are Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax, and just like all corporations, these companies exist to make money.

Credit agencies serve a necessary purpose. Without them, lenders would have many difficulties figuring out who to lend money to. This would likely lead to them reducing the number of people they loan to, which would, in turn, prevent innovators from getting loans they need to start a business or undertake some other financial activities that could positively stimulate the economy. That being said, although they serve an important utility, the agencies tend to have a lot of outdated information that can be a terrible hassle to get fixed. Various borrowers have reported issues with misspelled business names, which can be troublesome if not disastrous. Many others have had issues with incorrect reports of a trashed apartment or a late credit card payment, which could wreck their credit scores for years to come.

It is very difficult to get such mistakes removed from your credit report. One study showed that over a quarter of customers had at least one potentially harmful error, and another study showed that even after those customers went through 3 years of paperwork, the majority of those errors still remain. Although the odds are not in your favor (at least the way current laws work), there are some steps you can take to fix issues with your credit score.
1) Submit an online complaint to the credit agency.
2) Contact the "furnisher" (the entity that provided the incorrect information).
3) If all else fails, hire a lawyer who specializes in the Fair Credit Reporting Act.

All of those options take time to sort out, but with enough patience, you should be able to eventually settle the issues associated with your account. Unfortunately, that could mean that you get stuck with very high interest rates for the foreseeable future. Try reaching out to your local lawmakers. Maybe with enough pressure from enough of their constituents, lawmakers may introduce policies that force the credit-reporting agencies to take customer complaints more seriously.

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Friday, August 31, 2018

California Law Requires Majority Renewable Energy Sources by 2030


Image result for california energy commission solar panels

Energy efficiency is a popular topic around the world, especially when being discussed in relation to transportation and construction. The fact is, every time a new vehicle is produced or a new building is constructed, the total amount of energy usage in the world goes up. However, if engineers and designers are able to make the new products more energy-efficient than the ones they are replacing, then over time, energy consumption can realistically be reduced significantly. The main reason that many people oppose using "green" sources of power, like solar or wind, is that the types of equipment needed to produce and store renewable energy have very high initial costs when compared with non-renewable resources like gasoline and coal. Over time, the costs tend to be offset by lower electricity costs, but it can be difficult for a new homeowner to come up with an extra $10,000 or more to put up solar panels.

A law passed in California will make it so that new homeowners will no longer really have a choice on the matter. Surprisingly, the unanimous approval of the bill by the California Energy Commission was preceded by very little debate, which just goes to show how much of a priority clean energy is for Sacramento lawmakers. The new law now requires that, by 2030, over half of the energy used in the state will have to come from renewable resources (i.e. non-carbon fuels). Additionally, the electricity pricing scale in California is getting restructured over the next year. The new pricing is expected to adjust the rates based on what time of day electricity is being used. So, more energy-efficient homes (especially those with the capability of storing power) will be able to save money.

Even though California is already the country's leading state in terms of renewable energy sources like solar panels, solar power only provides about 16% of the state's total energy (significantly less than the future 50% requirement). In order to meet the expectations, builders/designers have two ways to incorporate solar power: they could design all new homes with solar panels on the roof, or they could design neighborhoods with a central hub of solar panels that can be used to supply power to all homes in the surrounding community. Analysts expect that the addition of solar panels to new construction houses will raise the price by at least $8,000. Although the electricity cost savings over years of solar panel usage will outweigh the extra cost over time, some homeowners might instead choose to "lease" the panels, by which they pay a monthly rate to use the solar panels instead of buying the panels outright.

There are other sources of green energy that don't involve solar panels, but many of them require a very large investment in local infrastructure. Generally, wind energy and nuclear power are difficult to collect on an individual basis. It's not like designers could realistically put up a wind turbine in every backyard. So, although the panels are costly and the technology still needs time to advance, solar energy seems to be the only way of accomplishing the legally-mandated goal by 2030 without having a private company take over the electricity grid. It's hard to tell what options will be cheaper in the long run, but for now, solar seems to be the safest bet.

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