We asked you to write in and tell us stories about scams you've encountered and you flooded our inbox with some pretty horrific experiences.
John from Miami, Fla. emailed us with a particularly striking story. He lost $150,000 to a Ponzi scheme run by a lifelong friend and unwittingly got several members of his family caught up in the racket as well.
Hillary and Jim from Birmingham, Mich., wrote to us to tell us how they were scammed out of cash by an automated ordering scheme through their L.L.Bean credit card.
Toni wrote to us on Facebook about a time she and her fiance used Craigslist to hire movers and got taken for a ride along with their furniture.
And Marie from Winthrop, Mass., wrote to us via the Public Insight Network. Several years ago she purchased her first home in Southern Maine, a fixer-upper in a nice neighborhood. She now realizes the broker, the seller, the closing attorney, even the home inspector were in cahoots during her deal.
Click play on the audio player above to hear those stories and the lessons you can learn from these scams.
We want to hear from you, too. Submit your personal finance question by filling out this form and it will land in our email inboxes. Next week on the show we'll be talking about money and travel, so send your travel-related questions our way.
U.S. GDP grew at an annual pace of 2.5 percent in the first quarter, falling short of the 2.8 percent that economists predicted and disappointing investors. But should we be feeling so pessimistic about the report?
"We set up a lot of false expectations for ourselves before an announcement like GDP," said the Guardian's Heidi Moore. "Two-point-five percent is significantly better than what we had at the end of last year, which was a meager 0.4 percent -- we really thought we were on the edge of recession."
"However, there are other measures that we should be looking at. For instance, one of the reasons GDP grew so much was because more consumers are spending. That sounds great, but what we know is, right now consumers are spending by borrowing, so they're just adding to their credit card debt."
"It's better than we had before," said the Wall Street Journal's Sudeep Reddy. "But the thing is, there's so many technical factors that lead to the choppiness between every quarter."
Reddy broke it down even further.
"If you look at where we are over the course of a year, we've been basically growing 2 percent, which is what we've done in 2010, 2011, 2012...If you look back at it, we're at this depressingly slow pace of growth and we're probably going to remain there for a little while longer before we have much of a chance of an upturn into the 3 to 4 percent growth that will actually signal a clear, strong recovery."
Listen to the full audio above for more analysis.
The Weekly Wrappers offers their #longreads suggestions for the weekend.
Heidi Moore writes:
- A week after the Boston attacks, we're still combing through what we know, and there's been a lot of self-punishment by the media on getting things wrong in the heat of reporting. This New York Times story makes a good point that even authorities get things wrong, and feed that information to reporters. It's a good reminder that we should be slowing down the news cycle for no other reason that often, in a crisis, breaking "news" is not actually news -- it's junk information we'll have to correct later. Journalism is about presenting the world as it is, so we should be asking not just what the experts know, but how they know what they know. Very often, they're guessing.
- One of my longreads is actually embedded in a tweet: an Atlantic article about the case for intervening in Syria. What makes it interesting is that it was retweeted by a division of the State Department, indicating a pretty high-level diplomatic machinery is paying attention. As journalists, we get wrapped up in news that moves fast and forget about news that moves slowly, like the Syrian conflict. This week, I attended the Overseas Press Club awards, which rewards reporters and organizations that do brilliant reporting from war zones; Syria was one of the big themes, and many who had survived the conflict there said it was the worst armed conflict they had seen in decades. Yet, most of us barely even read one story on it a week. It deserves more attention.
- The last read is a great story, also from the Atlantic, about the future of oil. It's well-written and very, very bracing.
Sudeep Reddy suggests:
- Don't try this at home or anywhere else: the science of smuggling cocaine inside a body (as part of the drug trade).
- How Ethiopian farmers ended up with their first trading floor in 2008, shifting the balance of power in commodities trading.
- A Massachusetts doctor is making short films to counter unwanted treatment, "American medicine’s dark continent," and change end-of-life care.
Canadians love hockey. It's been called a national religion. And with accelerated immigration from South Asia, the number of Punjabi speakers has grown to 1.1 million.
That gave the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation the idea to take an iconic show -- Hockey Night in Canada, equivalent to Monday Night Football in the U.S. -- and produce a version in Punjabi.
Harnarayan Singh is the host Hockey Night in Canada in Punjabi on the CBC. He was profiled in the New York Times, Friday. He grew up loving hockey. While English was his first language, he's now grateful that his parents, who migrated to Canada in the 1960s, taught him fluent Punjabi.
"Punjabi is the 3rd most popular language in Canada, after ... the official ones, English and French," Singh says. The CBC he says, "initially started this as just a pilot project, but it took off and we're in our sixth season now."
Hockey terms in Punjabi were an initial challenge for the program; there weren't any. So Singh and his collaborators improvised, using "aloo tikki" (potato pancake) for puck. Listening to him call a game, English words are littered thorughout as well: hockey, team names, stick, goal, shot.
"There wasn't a term for slapshot," Singh says. "So slap to the face is a chapeRR and so we call it a chapeRR shot... We cooked up some more because we realize it was drawing people to the broadcast."
Watch Singh call a game in Punjabi:
At least Yahoo is hitting a sweet spot for marketers: SNL has built a strong brand and loyal audience since debuting on NBC in 1975.
"When you're going after content, you go after content where you can define the demographic, so you can build advertising and other programming around it," says media industry analyst Rob Enderle. "SNL has a defined demographic, mostly older."
And they have long, fond memories of their signature SNL moments, like the Land Shark , Tina Fey's Sarah Palin and King Tut reincarnated as Steve Martin.
Yahoo snatched the exclusive rights to the SNL archive from NBC.com and Hulu (which is owned by NBC Universal). According to the New York Times, in the past those rights have cost some $10 million a year. Yahoo hasn’t commented on what it’s paying, but you can bet the price has gone up. Yahoo struck the deal with Broadway Video, a company owned by SNL creator Lorne Michaels. Yahoo had to woo his product away from NBC.
So from September, SNL skits – but not entire shows – will be available only on Yahoo. Analyst Enderle says this move is part of an Internet arms race for content.
"Everybody and their brother has the idea that cable companies are dead and they're going around them," he says.
Netflix is producing its own shows and gobbling up studio series. Google is awash with YouTube videos, and Amazon has big video ambitions too.
April 24, 2013
As CEO Marissa Mayer -- who tweeted about the SNL deal -- angles to reinvent Yahoo, expect more news like the SNL deal, says Enderle. Yahoo wants to be more than a site where people browse for news and stock quotes. Soon, visitors will be able to drop in on SNL for a delicious recipe or two.
The U.S. economy, now a $16 trillion behemoth, grew in the first quarter. By 2.5 percent.
That would be ONLY 2.5 percent. That seems the upshot of today's instant analysis -- a disappointment. Why the negativity?
When the GDP number came out this morning, the headlines shouted: misses expectations. Less than forecast. Fears of a stalled recovery.
Economic forecaster Joel Naroff explains the dominant frame of reference here is financial markets -- folks who bet based on expectations.
"Investors look at the numbers very very differently," Naroff says. "They'll look at this number as 2.5 percent and say this is a disappointment, because we could have had above three percent."
It's true there are clouds out there: Consumer spending may soon ebb. The sequester's coming, jobs are soft. But zoom back the frame, and Mark Vitner at Wells Fargo notes 2.5 percent growth beats the recent average.
"It's actually 2.1 percent on average since the recession ended," Vitner says. "From that perspective, we're a little bit better in the first quarter on average than since the recession ended."
Ended, as in recovery. In a weak world market. In our very big, post-industrial U.S. economy.
Michael Goldstein teaches finance at Babson College: "We're the world's largest economy. How fast could we possibly grow? When you're huge, you're going to grow slower. 2.5 percent is probably what you could reasonably expect. We're not, I mean, we're not Bangladesh, nothing against Bangladesh."
He says news organizations tend to overdo the negative. In a not-too-fast, not-too-slow Goldilocks recovery, he says, no one likes to report on room-temperature porridge.
The average amount a family will spend on prom this year is up to $1,139, according to a recent survey from Visa, based on interviews with 3,000 households across the country. That’s a 40 percent increase from just two years ago. One statistic that's caught special attention is how the spending breaks down across various income brackets. Surveyed parents who fell in lower income brackets, below $50,000 a year, planned to spend more on their children’s proms than parents who made more.
Those sorts of trends have inspired headlines like: Crazy Prom Spending: Even Financially Challenged Families Spend More Than $1,000 on Prom. But the spending doesn’t seem so crazy to Sue Rosenberger. She owns Fantastic Finds, a prom dress store in Lansing, Michigan, where she says plenty of customers have splurged on prom, even if their budgets were tight.
Some will save up for months, and pay in tens and $1 bills.
“There was one girl that came in who loved the dress she was in,” Rosenberger says. “A gorgeous metallic dress, the styling was fabulous, just fit her like a glove.” It cost $525.
That was much more than the girl and her mother could spend, “so the dialing of the phone starts, to the grandmother, to the aunt,” says Rosenberger. They put it on lay-away, and each week, for months, family members chipped in with checks and credit cards.
After the financing came together, Rosenberger says emotions were high. “The girl was crying. She was appreciative of the fact that everybody would pitch in and help her, and she got her dream dress.”
Rosenberger says her better-off clients often don’t always spend as much. “I think it’s a matter of what different income levels really want,” she says of the choice to splurge on something like a prom dress. “Sometimes it’s not important to somebody who has the means to buy anything. Maybe they’re going to Disney World for Spring Break, getting the kid a used car for graduation.”
For girls in lower-income families, Rosenberger says it can be a “whole different divvying up of the money. It’s their main social event that they have.”
That rings true for Barbara Jensen, author of “Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America.” Jensen, a family therapist, grew up in a working class family, but married a man from the middle class. She now works with cross-class couples and people who “have a foot in each class,” as she puts it. She says spending habits are often a big source of tension and misunderstanding.
“Working class people tend to be much more generous with their money when it comes to special occasions -- holidays, proms,” she says. “Working class people tend to want to share money with other people. It’s part of the ethic of solidarity that is strong in the working class.”
On the other hand, she’s observed that her middle class clients are “raised to save their pennies, to be frugal.” She’s puzzled over this difference for years, and has a working theory. If you don’t make much money, she posits, “maybe you don’t really feel like it’s going to add up to much if you did save it all."
In her mind, one approach isn’t better or worse, “it’s just how people are raised.”
But for Adelaida Cruz, to spend a lot on a single prom night, is “crazy.” Cruz is a receptionist from Philadelphia with six kids. Her daughter, Ariel, is about to go to prom for the first time, after staying home last year because she couldn't' afford it.
Ariel says she’s looking for a dress in her favorite color, teal. “Something elegant, nothing too big or over the top.”
Her mom says they won't spend more than $400 on the dress, shoes, hair, prom tickets, and dinner combined. But she has friends who will. When she heard one talk of spending $800 on prom shoes for her son, she was shocked. “I was like, ‘that's ridiculous, girl. Do you know what you could do with $800!?'”
Still, Cruz says she understands the impulse to make the night a special one. Cruz dropped out of high school before she could go to her own prom. So her daughter's prom is a symbolic step.
“She didn't do like mommy did. Mommy had kids and then mommy couldn’t finish school. She’s very motivated. I’m so happy that I’m going to do anything that I can to help her complete school and do the prom and accomplish her dreams.”
Cruz says her daughter’s dreams include a memorable prom night, and hopefully, in a few years, medical school.
President Obama on Friday defended Planned Parenthood at the group's annual meeting and attacked new laws in several states that severely restrict when a woman can have an abortion. "When you read about some of these laws ... you want to make sure you're still living in 2013."
The tiny Gulf nation of Qatar has been "punching above its weight" diplomatically in the region in recent years. Now, it's taking a prominent role in Syria, arming rebels there. The U.S. wants to see such aid go to moderates. Qatar has its own approach.
According to a newly released survey by the Federal Trade Commission, more then 25 million adults were victims of fraud in 2011. Most bought fraudulent items through the Internet using email, social media and auctions sites. But telephone scams came in a close second. Of course, there are ringtone scams that hit your credit card with recurring fees, the bogus-lottery scams, the fake-check scams and the Nigerian 419 scam. But, there's also Rachel.
Rachel usually says something along these lines: "Hello. This is Rachel at cardholder services calling in reference to your current credit card account. There are no problems currently with your account. It is urgent that you contact us concerning your eligibility for lowering your interest rate. Your eligibility expires shortly so please consider this your final notice. Please press No. 1 on your phone now to speak with a live operator and lower your interest rate. Or press No. 2 to discontinue further notices. Thank you."
So who's Rachel? And what does she want?
"These are robocalls. In other words, you pick up the phone and you don't hear a human, you hear a prerecorded message. Usually they're claiming that they can reduce your credit card interest rate substantially and because of that you'll be saving thousands of dollars. Advances in technology have also made it easy for them to do what's called 'spoof' the caller I.D. information that the consumer sees on their telephone. So it might say the name of your bank or it might say cardholder services and trick consumers into thinking that they are talking about their own accounts when really that is not the case," says Kati Daffan, a staff attorney in the Federal Trade Commission's Division of Marketing Practices.
If you manage to click No. 1 and speak with a live human, he or she will try and see if you are eligible for the scam. If you meet certain criteria, you will forwarded to the next person in the chain, which is someone who will make charges to your credit card and claim that they will reduce your interest rates. But that doesn't happen and consumers may lose their money, get locked into a new credit card, or face recurring charges.
So why hasn't the FTC been able to stop Rachel?
"When you hear these calls you think they are coming from one particular entity or scam artist, but in fact this is a readily available recording and people have found that it's easily compressible, in other words it's very easy and cheap to send out this message to millions of people at the same time. So a lot of different fraudsters all over the world are using the exact same message and pitch," says Daffan. "The FTC has been able to stop a lot of them."
But there are still many of these types of robocallers out there.
"The vast majority of sales robocalls that people are receiving are completely illegal under the FTC telemarketing sales rule. Basically if you haven't given your expressed, written consent to receive that call from that entity, then it's an illegal call. But what we're finding is the changes in technology have made it so cheap and easy to do, that the calls are proliferating anyway. So we're taking a multi-pronged approach to that problem, which involves aggressive law enforcement," says Daffan. "And then we're also improving our targeting, making it more strategic."
Daffan says the FTC is also working with industry experts and others to try to identify technological solutions to the problem. In the meantime, what can consumers do if they receive a robocall?
"When you hear a prerecorded message and it's a sales pitch, just hang up the phone. Do not press 1, do not press 2 to get yourself removed from the list. These calls are illegal in the first place, so it's unlikely that somebody will actually be creating a list and not calling you back the second time. In fact we suspect that a lot of times they're just trying to identify which numbers are working telephone numbers and you might be added to lists and get more robocalls," says Daffan. "The one thing that consumers can do and that we really encourage is report these calls to the Federal Trade Commission at DoNotCall.gov. Those reports are really crucial to us in our targeting and law enforcement efforts."