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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