Friday, December 21, 2018

Private Content Thought Deleted Before Posting is Often Saved Anyway

Growing up, you may have been warned by parents and teachers that if you did something bad, it would end up on your "permanent record." Of course, eventually, you found out that such a record doesn't actually exist... at least not in a physical format. Most people are aware that everything you do or say online stays around forever. Even if you delete something, there's almost always a way for a tech-savvy researcher to dig up an old post or shared picture. However, what might come as a surprise to most internet users, as explained in Drew Harwell's L.A. Times article, is that many websites record words typed and images uploaded, even if you delete the content before it ever gets posted.

Many social media users have been in a situation where they were preparing a scathing review or an angry post, then decided to not post it at all, whether for personal or business concerns. Even though they deleted the words they had typed, and never approved the post to go out to their friends and followers, social media platforms (Facebook in particular) save what was deleted"until it is no longer necessary to provide our services and Facebook Products, or until your account is deleted." While it is unnerving to find out that the thoughts and pictures you believed were private were actually being stored on Facebook's servers, some might consider the privacy issue to be not too concerning. However, when Facebook recently accidentally exposed millions of those undeleted photos to third-party apps (not the first of their privacy faux pas this year), their customers were justifiably upset.

It's more than just social media sites that are gathering information you didn't intend to give them. Some online chat services for customer service (LiveAgent for example), show the responder a real-time view of what the customer is typing. These companies claim that this allows responders to more quickly reply to questions, yet they don't inform their users of what some might consider a breach of their privacy. If you knew that every word you typed could be seen, not just the ones you sent, you would probably be more careful with everything you write. I know I would.

According to research done at Princeton University, there are hundreds of websites that record all of the mouse movements and keystrokes made by a user while on the site. This could give companies and cybercriminals access to all kinds of personal and sensitive information, from passwords to credit card numbers. Such websites included WordPress, LiveJournal, and Spotify, among many others. The research couldn't conclusively determine whether a specific website actually had a record of the user's actions; it only showed that the sites had the ability to make such a record.

Not all websites and social media platforms fall into this category. Snapchat, for example, saves an unset message for 24 hours before deleting it completely, but during that time, the content is saved in an encrypted form that can't be accessed without the decryption key, which is only accessible if the message is actually sent. Platforms like Twitter and Instagram will save messages and images in drafts until the user chooses to post, but the content is saved locally, to the user's device, and is never uploaded to the platforms' servers. You should just be aware that in this day and age, everything you do on a computer (or even on a mobile device) could be recorded, saved, and possibly released to the wrong audience. As usual, be mindful with what you post online, and even be careful with content that you don't ever plan on revealing to the public.

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Friday, November 30, 2018

Most Californians Have Insufficient Insurance Coverage

Owning real estate has inherent risks. From burglary to floods and fires, your possessions or your home itself could be damaged substantially by forces outside of your control. Fortunately, we have insurance to deal with those exact circumstances. In fact, when we handle an escrow for a real estate transaction involving a lender, the buyer is almost always required to get fire insurance (especially in California) before the purchase is allowed to go through. The lender (usually a bank) provides the buyer with the capital they need to purchase the property, so it makes sense that the lender would want to protect their investment in case of a disaster like a fire.

Over the past few weeks, many California home-owners were struck by tragedy when forest fires did damage to thousands of homes, some burned completely to the ground. In the aftermath, now that the fires have been contained, they have to figure out exactly how far their insurance coverage will get them since homeowners on average tend to be significantly underinsured. Insurance companies, like all other companies, are in business to make a profit. They don't want to pay any more money than they have to, so if you're one of the unfortunate Californians having to deal with this, you really need to be proactive.

Even if your home isn't in one of the current fire zones, you need to be vigilant for the future, because these forest fires have become an almost-yearly feature for Californians. Be careful with every document you sign regarding your insurance coverage. In order to maximize their profits, especially in a high-risk state like California, some insurers have been adding extra provisions to policies when customers come in for seemingly-routine renewals. The new provisions will often limit coverage for smoke damage (as opposed to damage from actual flames) or will set a short time limit within which a customer must report such damage.

One of the most common issues that homeowners run into is not being insured enough. Often, it's because of the rising costs of building materials. Now, insurers suggest that you get coverage for more than what you think you need. You can overapproximate material and labor costs, and some policies even let you include upgrades for changes to the house's wiring or for the cost of personal property, like televisions and computers. To get coverage for those products, though, you should take a video of your home and its contents, to provide proof to your insurance company if they try to give you a hard time about it.

Some insurance companies have decided to leave California entirely, stating that it's too expensive to provide insurance in an area so prone to wildfires. Others charge incredibly high rates, set exorbitantly expensive to make sure they can cover their costs in the case of a disastrous wildfire. One state-sponsored program, the California FAIR Plan, provides less costly coverage than most private companies, but will only provide up to $1.5 million in replacement costs, so you should think carefully about whether you would be sufficiently covered before you purchase such a plan.

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Friday, November 9, 2018

Common Real Estate Scams and How to Avoid Them

Just like with most other areas of business, the real estate industry has been the target of many types of very creative and successful scams. While scammers are an unfortunate part of all industries where the exchange of money is involved, real estate especially has been a focus in recent years, likely because many more real estate investors these days are not local, and instead invest from afar. When someone can afford to invest in lucrative real estate across the country without ever leaving their home, they gain valuable convenience, while at the same time opening up themselves to risk.

One of the common scams is referred to as a "land contract sale" scam. A land contract is a document that spells out the legally-binding agreement between a seller and buyer, in which the seller of the property agrees to finance the buyer's side of the sale. Basically, the seller of the property becomes like a bank, in situations where the buyer doesn't have the credit history to get a real bank loan. So, instead of getting a mortgage and paying the interest and principal to the bank over an average of 30 years, they work out a payment plan where they pay the seller "mortgage-like" payments over 30 years (or often a shorter period, with a balloon payment at the end).

The existence of land contracts is important in the real estate industry, in that it allows people with little credit history to start down the path to home ownership earlier than they normally would be able to. Unfortunately, because of how the contracts are designed, sometimes sellers are able to take advantage of their buyers. The seller will put extremely strict requirements in the contract, intended to force the buyer to break the restrictions, thus making the property revert back to the seller's ownership. Or, they might make the interest rate on the payments much higher than any rate a bank would set. Sometimes, they even choose not to file the land contract and take out loans against the property, until it gets foreclosed upon. Land contracts don't always have bad outcomes, but if you're ever in a situation where you might need one, you should have your legal representation take a thorough look.

Lending scams tend to be very common as well, especially among people with little credit history (or very bad credit scores). Some (often unlicensed) lenders will be willing to lend an investor a lot of money to purchase a property and fix it up but will charge a much higher interest rate and have a shorter period in which the borrower must pay back the loan. They will also often charge high upfront fees for "loan insurance." The way to avoid this type of scam is to be wary. If a lender doesn't have very many questions for you, or if they don't ask for your credit information, it's probably a scam. As the saying goes, "If it seems too good to be true, then it probably is."

Rental scams, which don't necessarily affect real estate investors directly, do affect people in the real estate industry quite often. The scammer will find vacant houses, often for sale or for rent, and will post their own listings, claiming to be looking for tenants. A potential renter will sign a fake lease created by the scammer, will wire or mail a security deposit and the first month of rent, and will never receive the keys to the property in response. The scammer will tell their target that they live out of town, which is how they explain why they can't give the prospective tenant a tour. They also quote a rent price significantly less than the going market rate, to help convince tenants to move fast on the "opportunity." It is suggested that homeowners looking to sell or rent should clearly place signage with contact information, in a location that can be clearly seen by prospective tenants.

One of the most costly scams out there is a classic. The scammer (sometimes the actual seller, or sometimes just a random person), will convince the prospective buyer (usually an out-of-town investor) that the property is of higher condition than it actually is. They accomplish this by insisting on using their own inspectors, who give the prospective buyer a false report. They will also not disclose liens on the property or significant unseen damage (like termites or mold in the walls). One way to avoid this scam (though not foolproof by any means) is to only purchase properties listed on trusted platforms like the Multiple Listing Service (MLS). Additionally, out-of-state investors who aren't able to come and actually see every property they invest in should still visit the area at some point and find real estate agents and inspectors who they can trust to be honest. There's no perfect way to stop yourself from getting scammed in any industry, but being careful in all of your business decisions is a good start.

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Friday, October 26, 2018

FHA: Housing Providers Required to Accommodate Service Animals

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Over the past few years, accommodations for service animals have become a much more prevalent issue in most industries, from housing to transportation. Where once service animals were only seen in very limited capacities, mainly as dogs serving people with visual or auditory disabilities, the definition of a service animal has expanded considerably. Now, there are a variety of animals filling those roles, including cats, parrots, ferrets, and even miniature horses, although none are quite as common as dogs. They serve people with all kinds of impairments, from deaf or blind people to people with PTSD or anxiety. These animals considerably improve the lives of the people they serve but are sometimes seen as problematic by store/restaurant owners and landlords. Fortunately, the Fair Housing Act has laid out a set of standards that can help property owners and property managers determine their legal responsibility in accommodating individuals with disabilities.

Most of the time, businesses and rental properties have broad, overarching policies like "No Pets," to ensure that the animals don't cause damage to the carpets or upholstery and to avoid driving away other customers due to issues of cleanliness or allergies. This can lead to an awkward situation for managers when an animal that appears to be a normal pet (or even an uncommon one) is actually a service animal. For example, there was a recent story in the news about a woman who was removed from her flight because she insisted on bringing her "emotional support squirrel." While the airline in that situation took issue specifically with the fact that it was a squirrel (not allowed on the plane because of its status as a "rodent"), the concept of "emotional support" animals, in general, has been contentiously debated. Emotional support animals don't have the same status under the law as service animals, which can lead to trouble.

Under the FHA, if a tenant has a clear disability, a property manager cannot legally ask for additional documentation. For example, if the applicant is clearly blind, they don't need to provide a letter from their doctor explaining why a guide dog is necessary. However, if the disability is not apparent, the housing provider can ask for documentation, which usually amounts to a letter from a physician, mental health professional, or social worker. Those rules apply to "service animals," which are specially trained from a young age and are bred to do a certain type of job. Because those animals are so well trained, property managers tend to feel more comfortable with being accommodating. Emotional support animals, on the other hand, are something else entirely. An ESA can be any animal (usually the person's pet) that helps to treat emotional issues (usually depression or anxiety). The difference is that the animal doesn't usually require special training, and is only differentiated from a normal pet by a note from a doctor.

Even under the FHA's guidelines, a request for accommodation may be denied for several reasons, including if the animal poses a risk of harm to others or would pose an undue financial risk to the housing provider. Examples include if the animal has attacked people in the past, or if it causes health risks (like allergic reactions) for other tenants. From the perspective of a real estate professional, it can be uncomfortable to be in the middle of everything, where you don't actually have a say as to whether the request will be approved or not. All you can really do is support your client and make it clear to them that the housing provider has the final say.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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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Friday, August 24, 2018

Natural Hazard Disclosures for Real Estate Transactions

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One of the main purposes of using an escrow officer when moving forward with your real estate or business transaction is to make sure that both seller and buyer fulfill all of their requirements (both legal and contractual). The escrow officer holds onto all of the funds in the transaction until those requirements are met, at which point, the escrow officer is legally allowed to begin disbursement. One of those legal requirements that must be completed by the seller, at least for real estate transactions in California, is what is known as a natural hazard disclosure, or NHD. In general terms, this means that, before escrow can close, the seller must disclose any and all potential hazards related to the real estate property being sold.

In some cases, sellers will fill out the required documentation themselves, usually the Natural Hazard Disclosure Statement or on the Local Option Real Estate Transfer Disclosure Statement (if applicable), both of which allow the seller to outline all hazards in full. However, the vast majority of sellers elect instead to use a third-party service to prepare the disclosure statement. It is important to note that, even if a seller uses such a third-party, they are still legally responsible for any information that is not disclosed. So, if a seller wishes to use a third-party service, they should make sure to choose one that will deliver the required scope of information necessary.

Natural Hazard Disclosures need to have information regarding whether the property is located in an area that has a heightened risk of certain (usually significantly destructive) natural disasters. For example, the seller must disclose if the area is one of potential flooding and if it is located in Zone A or Zone V (specially-designated zones that have very high flood hazard). Additionally, the NHD will include whether the area has been designated as "high fire risk," or if it is within a designated wildland area. Finally (and perhaps most devastatingly, in California), the NHD must list if the property is in an area with heightened earthquake risk and if the property is located along a fault line.

So, now that you know what kind of information you need to disclose when selling real estate, make sure that you cover all of your bases before escrow closes. A recent analysis of several third-party NHD preparers discovered that several of the companies only included the major, state-mandated information, as outlined above. However, there are often local city or county regulations that require even more natural hazards to be disclosed. These additional disclosures can range from recent methane leakages to issues with hillside erosion or landslides. So, be careful when filling out your disclosure statement, and be even more careful if choosing a third-party. You don't want to be left without full legal and financial protection because of a couple of missing disclosures.

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Friday, August 17, 2018

Cryptocurrency as Funds in Escrow Transactions?

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An escrow officer's main duty in any transaction, be it a real estate sale, liquor license transfer, or hard money loan, is to act as a neutral third party between the buyer and seller (or lender and borrower). The escrow officer holds funds in a trust account and only disburses those funds once both parties have fulfilled all of their obligations in the transaction. Sometimes those obligations entail performing repairs or professional inspections, and sometimes it's just a short period (often 30 or 60 days) in which the escrow officer can get all of the necessities taken care of (Grant Deed, Change of Title, insurance, property liens, etc). Throughout this process, the escrow agent has a fiduciary duty to safeguard the funds in the trust account until such time as they can be disbursed.

Because an escrow officer almost always has to hold onto funds for some amount of time (even in all-cash offers), the funds need to be in the form of a currency that will retain its value. Until recently, that was simple. In the United States, the value of the dollar fluctuates very slightly each year with respect to the currency of other nations, but will generally be worth approximately the same amount from one day to the next. An issue may arise if the buyer wants to pay with funds that are not American currency, or even any type of national currency. In some cases, buyers want to make a purchase using Bitcoin.

Bitcoin is a well-known type of blockchain-based cryptocurrency. A blockchain is a decentralized record of all transactions happening within an online peer-to-peer network. The benefit of such an innovation is to allow users to confirm the transfer of funds without the need for a third-party like a bank to wire the funds. Cryptocurrency is the "currency" that is being transferred through the online blockchain. In a general sense, cryptocurrency is a chunk of data that can be easily transferred between users. While cryptocurrency is a convenient way to transfer funds, there are several downsides. First, cryptocurrency has no intrinsic value. One Bitcoin is only worth as much as someone is willing to pay you for it. There is no guaranteed trade-in value for paper currency or other commodities such as gold or diamonds. Second, cryptocurrency has no physical form. There are no bills or coins -- nothing except a block of data that says how much currency a user owns.

Unlike the U.S. dollar, cryptocurrency doesn't have a stable value. There are owners of Bitcoin who put in thousands of dollars just to lose it all in days, and there are users who saw their Bitcoin investment increase a thousand-fold over the course of a year. There's no way of predicting if the value of a cryptocurrency will go up or down, as the value is determined by how much people want it. It is a currency that exists in the minds of its users. If all buyers are willing to pay $10,000 for one Bitcoin, then that's the value of the Bitcoin. If all buyers are only willing to pay $100 per Bitcoin, then that's its value. Such an unstable currency is unusable by an escrow officer because there's no guarantee that the seller will receive the amount of real money (U.S. dollars) that they had assumed based on the price of the cryptocurrency at the time when the purchase agreement was signed. During the 30 or 60 day escrow, while the currency is sitting in a trust account, it could just as easily go up in value as it could go down. That kind of volatility is bad for business, so even if a buyer can find a seller willing to accept the cryptocurrency, Escrow companies cannot accept this as currency as Bitcoin does not qualify as verified “good funds”.

Finally, there's the major issue that blockchain is decentralized, which means it doesn't have any official (governmental or otherwise) institutions backing up the currency. The decentralization is a good aspect to many users since it makes the transfer of funds relatively inexpensive, fast, and painless. However, decentralization also means that if your blockchain account gets hacked and you lose your cryptocurrency, you're on your own. With centralized systems (such as banks or credit cards), if you are the victim of cybercrime, your funds will generally still be safe, and the financial institution will take the burden of dealing with law enforcement in tracking down the criminal and getting the money back. With blockchain, there's nothing proving that a piece of cryptocurrency belongs to you. It's just a chunk of online data associated with an online account that someone else might gain access to. This is why the inherent instability of cryptocurrency in its current form is not an acceptable means of funding an escrow transaction. Perhaps in time, and with more regulation and security this could be the way of the future, though for now, escrow companies do not accept Bitcoin in lieu of U.S. currency.

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Friday, August 3, 2018

Disney's California Adventures to Remove "A Bug's Land" in Favor of Marvel Superheroes

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Disneyland is the most popular theme park in Southern California (based on attendance), and the majority of its visitors (over 18 million per year) are California residents. Because most of the visitors to Disneyland and Disney's California Adventures are from California, they tend to be repeat visitors, many with annual passes who come several times per year. That being said, they have strong opinions on what they want to see at the park. Some feel like Disney should change things up every once in a while to stop things from getting boring, while others prefer the nostalgia of seeing the same rides they enjoyed as a child. Well, according to Hugo Martin's L.A. Times article, Disney announced an impending change at their California Adventures theme park.

"A Bug's Land," an area of California Adventures themed around "A Bug's Life," one of Pixar's earliest animated features, is being closed down to make room for a Marvel-themed area, featuring superheroes from various comic books and movies owned by Disney since their purchase of the company in 2009. While "A Bug's Land" is popular among Disney's younger visitors, it's likely that the shift to Marvel will draw in more visitors, as superheroes tend to be more universal across age groups. However, since this change comes almost immediately after Disney opted to get rid of a classic and popular ride, "Tower of Terror," for a Marvel-themed attraction, "Guardians of the Galaxy - Mission: Breakout," they are likely to face many upset fans.

Marvel is a very popular franchise, and so far, the various movies that Disney has created under the Marvel brand have been well-received and have made a lot of money. However, people are generally resistant to change. They tend to be set in their ways and take a while to get used to new updates, especially in theme parks they have emotional attachments to. Because this shift is such a big one for California Adventures, some parents may choose to visit other theme parks, like Universal Studios, that provide more attractions for young children, like the "Despicable Me" ride. However, once the Marvel area has been completed and people have had a chance to enjoy the attractions, it is unlikely that Disney will suffer a loss of overall visitors.

Disney has released almost no information about what visitors can expect to see in the new area. It may have a focus on the Avengers, or the X-Men, or some other group of famous superheroes, or it may just be a general hub for all Marvel characters. Interestingly, the area will not be named "Marvel Land," or anything similar, as Disney's agreement when purchasing rights limits the company from using the word "Marvel" in any theme park names. It will probably be at least a few years before the area is fully up and running, enough time for Disney to come out with several more popular additions to their Marvel cinematic universe, so it's hard to tell what the park will really look like when all is said and done.

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Friday, July 27, 2018

Federal Law Prohibits Banks, Escrow, and Title Companies from Participating in the Sale of Marijuana-Related Businesses

The sale and consumption of marijuana, both medicinally and recreationally, is a pretty controversial topic throughout the United States. Some view marijuana as a dangerous substance that should be banned, comparable to hard narcotics like cocaine or methamphetamine. Many others view marijuana as a substance that should have limitations (similar to the sale of alcohol and tobacco), but not be completely illegal. Then, there's the even deeper issue of medicinal versus recreational usage. Some believe that marijuana should only be used when absolutely necessary (i.e. as a diagnosed treatment for a legitimate medical condition like glaucoma or nausea caused by chemotherapy), and some believe that cannabis isn't dangerous enough to be limited much, if at all.

The main difference between cannabis and substances like tobacco and alcohol is a lack of information. While there has been plenty of research done on the health effects of tobacco (cancer, asthma, etc.) and alcohol (impaired motor skills, liver disease, etc.) and even the effects on a fetus, there really isn't enough evidence to make a conclusive ruling on marijuana. However, for a while, it didn't matter whether marijuana was healthy or not. It didn't matter if it could impair motor skills or give a smoker asthma, because the sale and/or consumption of marijuana was illegal in the U.S., both on a federal and state level.

Over a decade ago, several states (California being one of the first) began to legalize medical marijuana, which could only be purchased from a licensed dispensary with a prescription from a doctor. Then, much more recently, states began legalizing recreational marijuana usage. However, that doesn't mean much from a business standpoint, because although marijuana is now legal in California, it's still illegal according to federal law. That may change within the next several years, but as of this moment, the law is the law, and that's all there is to it.

Because marijuana is still illegal federally, many businesses that must comply with state law (such as escrow/title companies), are not permitted to participate in any transactions regarding businesses that handle the sale of marijuana. In fact, in April of 2017, several national title companies received a memorandum from the Office of the Chief Underwriting Counsel that if the title company gets any indication from a buyer, seller, or broker that the Land will be used for growing, processing, distributing, or dispensing any types of marijuana-based products, they aren't allowed to be involved in the handling of any escrow or other funds of any type, issue any type of zoning coverage, or issue title insurance (except with the inclusion of an exception related to violation of federal law). This policy even applies to an entrepreneur looking to buy property that they will then rent out to tenants who may be involved in the marijuana industry,

Federal laws are taken very seriously by businesses involved in escrow and the transfer of funds, including banks. Banks are federally chartered, insured by the FDI, and use the Federal Reserve wire system. If those banks start breaking federal laws (even laws that don't exist at the state level), the bank can lose its charter and FDIC insurance, and eventually get shut down altogether. Just like banks, escrow companies lose their legal ability to operate if they break federal laws, especially in the financial realm, and for most of those businesses, it simply isn't worth the risk of getting involved in any transaction that might violate federal law.

For that reason, escrow companies (just like title companies and banks) don't take part in transactions involving property (or businesses) that are connected to the marijuana industry. It can be next to impossible for an entrepreneur to start that kind of business with a loan from a bank, because banks won't provide the loans and title companies won't close the sale (a closing is usually required by a lender). However, in some situations (where the sale is an all-cash offer, with no financing), there are law firms with real estate experience that can close real estate transactions. As of now, federal law makes it nearly impossible to do business in the cannabis industry if you need bank financing or plan to go through an escrow company. The laws may change in the future, but for now, it is what it is.

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Friday, July 13, 2018

Amazon to Enter Prescription Pharmaceuticals Market with Purchase of PillPack

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Amazon Inc. has been growing by leaps and bounds over the past couple of decades since it was first founded. What started as an online bookstore has since become a platform so broad that it can't really be classified as any one type of store. Especially over the past couple of years, Amazon has continued to expand into new areas as it consumes all kinds of different businesses. Whole Foods helped them to get a grip on the groceries industry, and various entertainment sources have allowed Amazon to build a sizable streaming platform. Most recently, according to a recent Bloomberg article, Amazon is looking to expand into prescription pharmaceuticals and has already begun to make a name in the generic drugs industry.

Amazon is such a large company that sells such a large quantity per day that it is able to easily lower item prices just enough to undercut competitors while still making a healthy profit. For every industry into which Amazon expands, there are dozens of brick-and-mortar chains losing business because many consumers choose the convenience of online shopping. Last August, Amazon introduced its line of generic drugs last August, and has since expanded from about 35 to 65 different products, all items that someone could buy at their local drugstore. The upshot is that the drugs Amazon is selling are not a store brand, which means the online retailer can charge much less, making the choice much more enticing to potential customers.

While Amazon already has better prices on over 70% their Basic Care products than the same products at local stores like Walgreens and CVS, those drugs are all non-prescription, which means that many consumers still have to go in to a physical pharmacist to pick up many of their medications. Many of those same customers would get their prescription drugs online if it were possible, where it could be shipped directly to their home without having to wait in long lines or deal with other customers at a brick-and-mortar store.

Well, those customers are in luck, since Amazon just announced that they will be purchasing a company called PillPack, a pharmacy company. Almost immediately after the announcement, the stock prices for companies like CVS dropped, likely correlated with investors' expectation that many consumers will choose Amazon over their local stores for filling prescriptions. Amazon may run into some legal snags when it comes to selling prescription drugs online, but it is very likely that very soon, you too will be able to get your prescriptions delivered right to your door (possibly with free delivery if included on Amazon Prime!).

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Friday, July 6, 2018

Twitter and Facebook Introduce "Ads Transparency" Tools

Facebook Pages ad transparency tool

In this day and age, it's difficult to get around without utilizing online resources, but in many cases, using those resources require the user to give up quite a bit of their personal information, from names and birthdates to shopping preferences. Because of this, private companies have access to a lot of their customers' personal information.  Yet, although that personal data is being sold to companies to enable their "targeted advertisements" to work better, the customers being targeted rarely receive any information in return about the organizations trying to target them, especially when those organizations are political in nature. Fortunately, according to a recent Bloomberg article, both Twitter and Facebook are in the process of revamping their advertisement policies to make it apparent to all users where the ads are coming from, who paid for them, and how much they paid.

While understanding the identities and motivations of the companies and organizations trying to target you through social media can be nice, that kind of data isn't nearly on the same level as the browsing history and other product-preference data the companies have on you. But, since many of their customers have recently opted to discontinue use of several social media sites after various data scandals, the social media platforms had to make some sort of gesture to try to regain their customers' trust. Twitter was also recently under fire by US lawmakers for not having a system in place to identify and deal with fake accounts that are used for spam or scams, especially in the political arena, as that's the category on which lawmakers tend to focus.

The new Twitter tool, called the Ads Transparency Center tool, lets users search for any Twitter account and see all advertisements run by the account over the past week. For politically-related advertisers, even more data will be released: demographic-targeting data, the amount spent, billing information, etc. All of that data should help lawmakers and analysts determine if certain accounts are being designed specifically to produce misleading or false advertisements for the purpose of impacting US political races.

It's an interesting change in policies. Until now, there was very little oversight regarding advertisements on social media. But, it does make sense that there should be just as much regulation for a Facebook political message as for one that is played over the radio or on the television. Some lawmakers are even putting forward bills to require that social media advertisements meet the same honesty requirements as any other ads. Overall, these changes seem to have little to do with making the individual customers happy, and more to do with obliging with the wishes of lawmakers, but sometimes the two categories overlap.

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Friday, June 29, 2018

AMC Theatres Unveils "Stubs A-List" Subscription in Response to MoviePass

MoviePass, the service that allows users to view one movie per day in theaters for only $10 per month, has had a controversial history. Although the company is relatively young, its existence has caused plenty of drama within the movie theater industry. To some theaters, the subscription service is great in that they make money off of the movie tickets either way and can encourage greater concessions sales due to the lower ticket prices. To others, most notably AMC Theaters, MoviePass is giving customers unrealistic expectations of future ticket prices, which could cause issues for AMC if or when MoviePass eventually goes out of business. According to an LA Times article, AMC is looking to address those concerns by coming out with their own, similar, service, called AMC Stubs A-List.

Where MoviePass enables users to view up to 7 movies per week at pretty much every local theater, AMC A-List costs double the price and limits viewership to 3 per week, and only at AMC theaters. To the average MpviePass customer, this may seem like a terrible deal. Why would anyone pay double the price to see fewer movies per month at a smaller range of theaters? Well, it all ties into the economics of the subscription service. Yes, on a basic level, MoviePass is a much better deal in the short run. However, if you take into account that MoviePass is running a loss on every customer, it seems to be just a matter of time before the company has to either raise their prices or go out of business.

AMC's planned subscription service isn't as great of a deal initially, but because their pricing scheme is much more reasonable, AMC is much more likely to survive in the long run, from an economic perspective. So, if MoviePass were to one day go out of business, the A-list customers would not regret spending a little more per month for a better guarantee at a lasting service. Then again, MoviePass may survive after all, in which case their loyal customers will continue to reap the rewards.

It's not like AMC Stubs A-List is a bad deal. In fact, it's quite the opposite. The ability to watch up to 12 AMC movies for only $20 is a great deal, especially when the normal price for an AMC theater can be up to $16 for general admission, is incredible. Consumers are only looking down on AMC's subscription service compared to MoviePass' because MoviePass is just so great of a deal. However, AMC's subscription will be about more than basic movie tickets. It will also enable viewers to see IMAX or 3D movies and will provide discounts on various concessions. To many, this deal will seem worthwhile and could trigger a change. AMC's best bet in really capturing that market could be to focus on providing a better service than MoviePass. Many customers are upset with MoviePass that they not require uploaded images of purchased tickets, and by focusing on those complaints, AMC could really make a dent.

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Friday, June 15, 2018

Boring Co. Lands Contract for Chicago Underground Bullet Train

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Elon Musk, the CEO of such companies as Solar City, Tesla Motors, and SpaceX, has recently been expanding his reach from outer space and green electricity to various other industries. One of his other companies, Boring Co., has become known for two main things: flamethrowers and high-speed tunnel travel. Musk's "Temperature Enhancement Device" (the name given to the flamethrower to avoid shipping regulations) has amassed huge popularity and thousands of the devices have already gone out to customers around the world. However, Boring Co.'s most exciting future development is a high-speed underground bullet train between Los Angeles and San Francisco. If the project ever reaches fruition, it could drastically improve the housing markets throughout the state. According to a Bloomberg article, Boring Co. just won a bid to develop a similar bullet train in Chicago, which could be a huge stepping stone for the future of Boring Co.

In working out the plans for this high-speed train, Musk has come to some sobering realizations. Where his original plan featured speeds of over 700 mph, designed for connecting cities that are a few hundred miles apart. After more research, it was concluded that the underground train from downtown Chicago to O'Hare International Airport will travel at speeds of roughly 150 mph, still much faster than any other options, but not nearly as fast as Musk had dreamed. Even after the disappointing results, Musk still seems certain that his planned Hyperloop system will one day reach his high-speed goals, but for longer trips, such as Chicago to New York.

Even though Musk won't be able to get the Hyperloop design he wants, this Chicago project will still be great practice for the 18-month-old Boring Co. Many investors believe strongly in Musk's ability to get things done, but as the company has very little construction experience, it is good that they have the opportunities to figure out how to meet their promises of faster, cheaper, and less disruptive tunnel creation when compared to current technological options. So far, Boring Co.'s tech has only been tested in Hawthorne, but if it shows promising results in Chicago, that could be the kickstart the company needs to get its other projects in LA, New York, and Washington DC fully funded and moving forward.

Boring Co. won the Chicago bid partly because of the CEO's notoriety, but also because its bid was so much lower than all other competitor offers. In fact, because this is sort of a practice run for Boring Co., and a way to get more publicity, Musk's bid was to do the entire project for free. He predicts that it will cost somewhere around $1 billion, but is confident that he will have no problems in securing the necessary funding. Some Chicago officials have welcomed Musk with open arms, excited for the upcoming project, while others have loudly criticized the project as a bold political ploy by the current Chicago mayor. It may take a little time until the project officially gets underway, as the specifications and details of the project still need to be negotiated, but based on Musk's previous projects, the Chicago transportation arena has an exciting future.

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Friday, June 8, 2018

Over Half of American Households Rely Solely on Cell Phone Communication

Image result for landline phones being phased out

New technology is the way of the future. While some consumers choose to stick with old-fashioned versions of modernized innovations, the vast majority opt instead to implement the advancements as soon as they become available. One such technological innovation is the mobile telephone. Where people once had to use a payphone to make contact while outside of their home and office, remote communication has become a staple in pretty much every American's life. To that end, according to Tracey Lien's L.A. Times article, over half of the households in America have completely phased out landline telephones.

Landlines were once a valuable necessity in the home, and to this day still have a few benefits. However, they also have significant drawbacks, especially as technology becomes more interconnected in this day and age. In 2006, a survey was conducted that concluded that only about 16% of American households didn't have a landline connection. Since the advent of smartphones and other such devices, that statistic has climbed to 54% in the most recent survey. That number has continued to climb each year. In fact, some European countries have over 80% of households relying solely on wireless phone connectivity, so it is very likely that one day, it could reach 100% in most areas of the world.

Millennials especially have been the ones to push the cord-cutting trend. It's an economic choice. Basically, if they already have a cell phone line that they pay for each month, why would they make a second payment each month to have a phone line that isn't even accessible on the go? The logic isn't completely perfect, as landlines are very beneficial in emergency situations or during power outages. However, if it comes to hundreds of dollars per year in extra cost, many consumers opt to save money, even with the minimal cost to their peace of mind.

New renters or homeowners are choosing to cut costs wherever they can, whether by using video streaming platforms instead of cable or by cutting out the landline phone option. Landlines are more often targeted by telemarketers, and consumers (especially those of the younger demographics) tend to send messages more than speak on the phone anyway, so a landline becomes pretty much useless except in an emergency. 10 years ago, not having a landline was risky. Today, it still has a bit of inherent risk, but with the way technology has been advancing, the risk decreases exponentially each year. It is likely that landlines may one day be gone from homes completely, only present in places of business or governmental institutions.

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Friday, June 1, 2018

YouTube Most Popular Social Media Platform Among U.S. Teens

The internet has evolved so much since it was first created. The internet's growth from a hub of research sharing to the vast interconnected network that exists today is simply mindboggling. None of its original developers could ever have imagined how far their project would come one day. Although the internet is still used for that original intention (sharing research), consumers use it for so much more today. They can go shopping or communicate or socialize or really do pretty much anything they want. The internet is such a dominant force in our society that many online companies can make plenty of money just by getting users to visit their sites. According to a Bloomberg article, one such popular site, YouTube, has become the most dominant social media site, at least in terms of users aged 13-17, the "trendsetting demographic."

These days, the money-making ability and success of a social media company are dependent on how many users it can attract. Even though most of those kinds of sites are free to use, they make money off of advertisements. A few years back, Facebook was well in the lead and was able to make the statement that 71% of teenagers in the United States actively used the site. Now, there isn't one single definitive leader when it comes to favorite social media sites for US teens. The three market leaders are now YouTube, Snapchat, and Instagram, while Facebook has only captured 51% of their possible teen market. YouTube is in the lead currently, with 85% of teens in the US using the site, according to a Pew Research study.

Even with a decrease in their capture rate of that ideal demographic,  Facebook still does very well for its shareholders. Facebook makes approximately $23 per user each quarter and has over 185 million users in the US and Canada alone. Those numbers could change pretty quickly in the future, though. Even now, the study found that only 10% of the respondents reported using Facebook as their main social media platform. Conversely, 33% said that Youtube and Snapchat are their top sites, and 15% said that Instagram is visited most often. Facebook's relatively recent acquisition of Instagram could be their saving grace.

Social media apps and plenty of other online platforms have had increased usage over recent years. This is likely because getting on the internet continues to become easier as technology becomes more and more advanced. Where a user once had to go to a physical desktop computer, the advent of portable computing made everything more accessible to so many people. From laptop computers to smartphones, users are now able to get online pretty much anywhere and anytime they want to. In fact, the Pew study found that 95% of teens either have a smartphone or have regular access to one. Also, 45% of teens say that they are online nearly constantly. That kind of ease of use is beneficial to the companies and consumers alike.

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