National News

Not just T-Mobile: how bogus charges get on your bill

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-07-02 04:00

The FTC says T- Mobile made hundreds of millions of dollars from bogus charges on consumers phone bills. The charges were from third parties, but T-Mobile’s cut was allegedly as much as 40 percent.

"These were charges for things like flirting tips, dating tips, horoscopes, and other things that the consumer didn’t want," says FTC attorney Malini Mithal. "This is a practice called mobile cramming."

And it’s not something that T-Mobile invented.  "It’s been going on for years—decades even," says David Butler, a spokesman for Consumers Union. "Long before the popularity of wireless phones, landline phone users were getting hit by cramming charges."

A Senate Commerce Committee investigation from 2011 estimated the costs to consumers across the industry in the billions. The committee report details just how consumers end up getting stuck with these charges: 

1. 100 Percent, straight-up scamming. Billers just submit customer phone numbers to telecoms.

That includes unpublished numbers that nobody actually uses for phone calls. 

"Numerous businesses and government agencies told Committee staff they have incurred crammed charges on telephone lines that are dedicated to alarm systems, elevators, modems, and other lines that are not assigned to any employees," says the report. Many of the numbers were completely unpublished. A fax line got billed for music downloads. An ATM line got billed for "Internet services." 

A man in Connecticut fought charges from "Talent & More," which was charging his mother-in-law for hosting an online profile marketed to casting agents. "My mother-in-law us 82 years old, does not have internet access, and would not know how to use a website," he wrote to the state attorney general.

2.  Dummy calls to get bogus "authorization"

Business owners told the Senate committee staff that when they tried to fight bogus charges, they were told there was a recording of them giving authorization. The committee got some of those recordings, which "show telemarkets quickly reading through long scripts, while employees answer 'yes' or 'okay' to questions they clearly do not understand." 

3. Soliciting business via text... and not taking "no" for an answer

One company allegedly sent text messages offering horoscopes, dating tips and other services, and (according to the complaint in a class-action lawsuit) started charging people even if they replied "STOP" or called to say they didn't want the service. 

4.  With telecoms generally turning a blind eye — and sharing the profits

The Senate committee estimated that phone companies, which take a cut from third-party transactions, made more than a billion dollars from the practice over a ten-year period, and found that telecom companies did little to help their customers fight charges, or to check out companies that were obvious scammers.  

Which is pretty much what the FTC is charging in T-Mobile’s case.  The FTC says the company ignored signs that charges were bogus. And that the company buried those charges deep inside phone bills.

For its part, T-Mobile doesn’t dispute that stuff like this happened. But the company says it stopped billing for these services in late 2013.

For further reading:  Our friends at Ars Technica have been covering the cramming story for years, starting with an account by editor Nate Anderson of his own experience getting crammed in 2008

Here's an example the FTC says comes from a T-Mobile bill:

 

Train-hopping in the digital age

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-07-02 04:00

Train hopping, or the act of getting on freight trains without permission and riding them from depot to depot, is illegal and dangerous. It's also something that is, for many, a romantic endeavor, capturing the American spirit of adventure and travel.

Ted Conover did some train hopping in his youth, later writing a book about the experience entitled, "Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America's Hoboes." When his son Asa read his book, he felt the impulse to go train hopping himself. So Ted and Asa took a trip together, discovering along the way that new technology had changed the game.

In Ted’s experience, one of the hardest things used to be knowing where one was geographically while riding on a train; less of an issue today in an age of GPS-enabled phones.

Smartphones also allowed Asa an advantage over his father's earlier train-hopping days: the ability to document the experience in greater detail.

“I was on the trip to see what riding trains was like, rather than what being a hobo was like,” Asa said.

In addition to keeping them abreast of their location, the smartphones they were using let them contact home, document the trip through photos, and download a digital copy of an older guide to riding the rails, which the pair used often during the trip.

But even with digital enhancement, Ted believes the basic spirit of the endeavor has remained the same:

“One of the things that hasn’t changed is that your ability to get from point A to B on the rails is 100% determined by your own ingenuity and what you bring to the table.”

Palestinians Clash With Israeli Forces After Teen Is Abducted

NPR News - Wed, 2014-07-02 03:35

In Jerusalem, violence follows the discovery of a body believed to be that of an abducted Palestinian teen. The crime is being seen as a possible act of retribution for the deaths of three Israelis.

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Watch It Swallow An Entire Tree In Seconds

NPR News - Wed, 2014-07-02 03:03

It's got big iron teeth and a powerful jaw. When it finds a 30-foot tree it goes to the top, opens its mouth and — watch this.

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PODCAST: Companies get healthy

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-07-02 03:00

More on the lawsuit filed against Goldman Sachs that highlights alleged gender discrimination at the banking firm. Plus, the US Marshals' auction of bitcoin may have had an unintentional positive side-effect for the digital currency. Also, a look into why some companies are trying to offer healthier products without any prompting from government or legislation. 

Can companies Unilever and PepsiCo make us healthier?

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-07-02 03:00

For five years, Derek Yach pushed to make PepsiCo – the brand behind munchies like Lays and Cheetos – a producer of healthier, lower sodium, lower sugar foods and beverages.

The responses were both sweet and salty.

“There are parts of a company where the support and awareness of the needs to change are very high,” Yach reflects. “But of course there were many who isolated me.”

Yach is attending this year's Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado as corporate insiders reflect on their role in creating a healthy society. He was brought on by PepsiCo’s CEO, Indra Nooyi. Yach says she saw the potential of a multinational to influence public health with different products.

“While I was there, I saw the growth of hummus, the launch of dairy products for the first time, yogurt, and we saw a range of other healthier products being tested," says Yach.

Still, the company wasn’t willing to invest as much into research and new products as Yach had hoped. He's now with a health research group called The Vitality Institute, but says unlikely companies are coming together with an interest in health and prevention.

“They include companies like Samsung, Microsoft, General Electric, small startups,” he says. “They’re looking of a root to profitability through new products to promote better health, whether it's devices or smart phones, or alerts, or adherence. And they’re looking at how it’s going to benefit the bottom line, and people’s personal health.”

Power From Behind The Counter

Rather than wait for consensus, or for the government to make the first move, drugstore chain CVS is trying to make the products behind its counters healthier. In October, CVS will stop selling tobacco products altogether, wiping out an estimated $2 billion a year in sales.

Dr. Troy Brennan, Chief Medical Officer and Executive Vice President of CVS, says it will be only a short-term loss.

“If you’re creative, you’ll be creative to the bottom line,” Brennan says. “Taking two billion out now, long-term that’s going to be a smart decision.”

He admits a lot of people were holding their breath before the announcement, expecting the stock to drop. Instead, Brennan says, it went up.

“We’re beginning to know we have to do something to take better care of ourselves. Companies that do those sorts of things, I think consumers are attracted to that and that’s the business interest.”

Across the pond, supermarket chain Tesco is also trying to nudge customers towards healthier decisions. By the end of the year, Tesco will remove displays of chocolates and candies at the checkouts in grocery and convenience stores.

Many more corporations are turning inwards and focusing first on wellness among employees. Yach says whether companies are changing products in stores or implementing health programs for workers, evaluation by a third-party will be key to understanding what works.

“The win will come through seeing whether the companies who do the right thing will see the uplift on the share price over the long term,” he says.

How a hotel earns five stars: the checklist

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-07-02 02:00

Hyatt is building a five-star hotel on West 57th street in Manhattan. According to Forbes Travel Guide, there are only seven others in New York City. The hotel’s pool will feature underwater speakers with a custom soundtrack from nearby Carnegie Hall, and the hotel's bath amenities are perfumed with Tubereuse 40, a custom scent created by Le Labo. 

Hanya Yanagihara, an editor at large at Conde Nast Traveler, says there are various evaluative bodies - AAA, the Michelin Guide - that rank hotels. For a hotel to win that coveted fifth star, certain standards must be met. 

“There has to be a 24-hour reception area, and there has to be an onsite restaurant, there has to be 24-hour room service, there has to be express dry cleaning service,” she says. 

Forbes Travel Guide uses 800 standards on a checklist used to evaluate hotels. Michael Cascone, the guide’s president and COO, says 70 percent of its secret algorithm is tied to customer service.

"No one leaves a hotel and says, 'you know what? That lobby was beautiful, but the service was bad and I’m going back.'” 

Bruce Wallin, editorial director at luxury lifestyle magazine "Robb Report," which covers hotels, says five-star guests expect 400-thread count sheets and nice artwork.

He agrees that top-notch hotels need to maintain high-end facilities, or as he puts it: "It can't be fake wood and Formica."

But Wallin also points out that ranking systems can be too focused on checklist items, and as a result, might overlook the less tangible elements of a hotel. This could potentially excluding smaller, yet special, properties.

What really sets top hotels apart, he notes, is service and surprise.

“In Milan there’s a hotel where every afternoon, you get a knock on your door, and instead of housecleaning it’s a cocktail cart and they’ll make whatever drink you want, right in your room," says Wallin.

But the real surprise may be six and seven star hotels, which Yanagihara says can be found in Dubai.

"It can mean that every guest has acess to their own Bentley, or there’s a helicopter pad on the roof," she says. 

The ranking, notes Yanagihara, is not formally recognized by any governing body.

A Five-Star Rating by the numbers

Inspectors for Forbes Travel Guide’s respond with a “yes” or “no” answer to certain standards during an incognito visit to a hotel. The hundreds of yes's and no’s on the inspection report are tallied into a score that ultimately earns the hotel a "Five-Star," "Four-Star," or "Recommended" rating. Here's some more numbers behind a Five-Star rating:

800 items

The number of items on the checklist that determines star ratings.

70%

The percentage of items on the checklist that are specifically related to service quality.

To receive a Five-Star Rating:

10 minutes

The amount of time within which bags should arrive after registration.

90 minutes

The amount of time within which the staff at the pool should offer a complimentary drink on a warm day.

5 minutes

The window of time surrounding the estimated time of delivery within which room service should be delivered.

24 hours

The amount of time that both a reception desk and a restaurant must be available and open.

To receive a five-star rating, a specific welcome gift should be provided, and bathrooms should be supplied with a variety of items the guest would find useful. For example, guests at Park Hyatt New York will be offered bathroom amenities scented with Le Labo Tubereuse 40, a custom designed scent for the hotel.

Bitcoin auction gives the currency more legitimacy

Marketplace - American Public Media - Wed, 2014-07-02 02:00

The US Marshals Service has announced that the bitcoins sold in its auction on Friday went to one, lucky bidder. Now, the almost 30,000 bitcoins have been transferred to that winner. 

The Marshals routinely seize the property of criminals, but only auction stuff off that’s legal. You wouldn’t have a heroin auction, for example. But they did auction the bitcoin seized from the black market website, Silk Road.

Why auction bitcoin?

“Because bitcoin is a legitimate asset," says Gil Luria, a managing director at Wedbush Securities. "And now the US Marshals Service has acknowledged that.”

But even with that legitimacy, bitcoin still isn’t easy to trade. To get it, you have to go to unregulated markets in places like Slovenia or China. Still, CoinDesk US editor Pete Rizzo says the auction helps.

“Is it raising awareness beyond where bitcoin was maybe a month ago?  I think absolutely," he says. "Does it still have a long ways to go?  I think yes.”

The new respectability has pushed up the price of bitcoin.  And even though it fell when the Marshals first announced their auction, it’s made up the lost ground, and then some.

 

 

 

 

 

A 'Lost Generation Of Workers': The Cost Of Youth Unemployment

NPR News - Wed, 2014-07-02 00:11

Youth joblessness remains remarkably high across the country, threatening long-term trouble for young people's career trajectories, earning potential and the overall health of the economy.

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For Sale: Vacant Lots On Chicago Blocks, Just $1 Each

NPR News - Wed, 2014-07-02 00:00

Empty lots have multiplied in parts of Chicago in recent years, so the city is selling them to homeowners dirt cheap. It's an effort to spark renewal in some of the city's most blighted areas.

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Targeting Overweight Workers With Wellness Programs Can Backfire

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-01 23:49

Companies say it pays to invest in employee health — productivity climbs and many costs of health care drop. But preserving worker privacy while encouraging fitness can be tricky.

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A Woman Wrestles With A Disturbing Family Memento

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-01 23:44

Carol Zachary was 9 when her grandfather gave her an invitation to a hanging he attended in 1917. She peppered him with questions, but the meaning of his gesture still remains a mystery, even today.

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Afghanistan's Slow-Motion Election Strains A Fragile Country

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-01 23:39

The presidential vote was held in April. The two-man runoff came on June 14. Preliminary results expected Wednesday have been delayed as one candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, claims widespread fraud.

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Still Off Florida's Coast, Tropical Storm Arthur Moves Northward

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-01 16:19

Arthur is the first tropical storm of the Atlantic hurricane season. It's forecast to become a hurricane by Thursday.

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Another Day, Another Reason For Voters To Loathe Congress

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-01 15:02

At a time when congressional approval ratings are at rock bottom, the House Ethics Committee quietly made it harder to track privately financed trips taken by members of Congress.

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Language Barriers Pose Challenges For Mayan Migrant Children

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-01 15:01

Indigenous children from Guatemala who arrive at the border speaking little or no Spanish present complications to officials and attorneys who are better primed to serve Spanish-speaking immigrants.

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Influx Of Children Creates New Strain On Beleaguered Immigration Courts

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-01 14:00

Tens of thousands of Central American children have been detained this year crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Many will now enter a legal system where cases can take 18 months or longer to resolve.

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Breeding Battle Threatens Key Source Of California Strawberries

NPR News - Tue, 2014-07-01 13:37

The University of California, Davis is the source of most commercial strawberries. Now, the university's strawberry breeders are going into business for themselves, and farmers are worried.

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People don't conference call during the World Cup

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-07-01 13:33

Today's US-Belgium World Cup game arrived at a most inconvenient time, coming as it did just an hour before deadline here at Marketplace.

20 mins before showroll, is @kairyssdal stressing about the day's script, or the defense in the #USAvsBEL game? pic.twitter.com/W473rkEdaf

— Marketplace (@Marketplace) July 1, 2014

We got the first half in.

But anyway: From the files of Intercall, a conference calling company, this little nugget (which we found on Quartz):

Conference call volume last week during the US-Germany game  was off 11 percent. That's "volume" as in the number of conference calls, not "volume" as in sound.

And to be honest, we were kind of lucky to get the show on the air today.

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