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Health records are an easy target for identity thieves

Tue, 2014-08-19 13:46

Community Health Systems, a large hospital operator, got hacked. The word is Chinese hackers stole some 4.5 million health records from the company.  The files included everything from patient Social Security numbers to birth dates and addresses, a veritable goldmine of information for identity theft.

Healthcare providers have been digitizing our records to make everything from treating patients to filing for insurance more efficient. But in their rush towards efficiency, cyber security has gotten lost, says Stephen Cobb, a security researcher at ESET.

“I think a lot of the problem is cultural,” says Cobb. “Doctors and nurses get up and go to work everyday to help people" -  not to protect people from criminals, he says. “An example would be, 'how many hospital systems have chief security information officers'?”

His answer: not many. Plus, he says, many computer systems were put in place before cyber crimes became a real threat, and so a lot of those systems have holes.

Protecting medical records is more difficult than say, protecting your banking records, because they’re constantly being shared and transferred online, says Mac McMillan, CEO of CynergisTek.

“If you look at the average number of people who have access to your information in a hospital encounter, the number I’ve heard is around 150 people,” McMillan says. Each of those people are potential security threats.

Complicating cyber security even further is the "Internet of Things," says Michael Coates, director of product security at Shape Security. He says almost everything in a hospital is wired these days - from printers to “imaging devices or tablets being used by doctors on the wireless network."

Coates says many of these devices aren't secure, and if hackers can break into one device, they can potentially break into the whole system. 

The big business of tear gas, explained

Tue, 2014-08-19 13:40

Tear gas may be one of the most ubiquitous images on the news looking back over the past several years. White clouds - and people running from them - appear in newsreels depicting uprisings from Ferguson to Cairo. 

Nonlethal weapons are a $1.6 billion-a-year business, according to Visiongain, a market research firm. 

“Seventy percent of that is anti-personnel,” says Michael Emery, defense editor and analyst. Anti-personnel weapons means something used to immobilize or incapacitate people without – ideally – killing them.  This could include rubber bullets and stun-guns. 

“Tear gas is possibly the second most important element after Tasers,” he says, largely because it’s so effective and less lethal. “A few canisters of tear gas can be used to disperse a hundred people, whereas a Taser is one-to-one.”

The science is still out on the long term effects of tear gas, says Sven Eric Jordt, professor of anesthesiology at Duke University School of Medicine.  It can be dangerous for children, the elderly and people with breathing problems, but its general effects aren’t conclusively known. Still, tear gas is less lethal than other options. Rubber bullets, though designed to be sub-lethal, have killed people and water hoses have maimed them.  

The largest consumer of non-lethal antipersonnel weapons, including tear gas, is law enforcement, says Emery, overwhelmingly in the United States.  “The U.S. is by far the largest market for nonlethal systems and due to that there’s a concentration of companies within the U.S.”

Wyoming-based Defense Technology (part of Canadian firm Safariland) appears to be the source of at least some of the tear gas used in Ferguson, Missouri.  Other U.S. companies include  the Pennsylvania-based Combined Systems Inc. and Non Lethal Technologies Inc.  There's also AmTech Less Lethal in Florida.  Another major producer, Condor Non Lethal, is based in Brazil.

Between 2013 and 2014, sales of nonlethal anti-personnel weapons grew 2.2 percent globally.  It’s a moderate number, tempered by security spending cuts.  But Emery says he expects future growth to be much higher.  One reason is that after so many uprisings from Tunis to Rio to Ferguson, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that lethal force makes things worse.

But another reason is that police departments and citizens are getting inured to seeing such weapons deployed, including tear gas.  “The [increased] massive use world wide has decreased the threshold in western countries to deploy tear gas,” says Jordt.

The question is how law enforcement will strike a balance between using it more, and using it well.  

Volkswagen brings German-style vocational training to the US

Tue, 2014-08-19 13:19

One of the world’s largest automakers has stepped into the fringe of American education. Volkswagen has imported its German-style apprenticeship program to the U.S., and American labor officials hope it might become a model.

“It’s a totally different mindset. It’s a totally different culture,” says Ilker Subasi, who heads the Volkswagen Academy on site at the company’s Chattanooga plant.

Subasi sees a stigma in the U.S. against technical education. But in Germany, more than half of high school graduates go into vocational programs like VW’s. Subasi himself was once a VW apprentice.

Once accepted, the company’s U.S. “mechatronics” students earn a small stipend over the course of three years while learning how to maintain robotics. If they stick with the program, they’re hired with a starting salary of $22 an hour. They also earn an associate’s degree from Chattanooga State Community College and a DIHK certification from the German American Chamber of Commerce, which would allow them to work at German auto plants around the world.

“At first, I was like, ‘Am I going to be pushing around a broom? Am I going to be changing light bulbs?’” recalls Alex Bizzell, a 22-year-old who graduated last week. “It’s been a substantial effort to do it, but now I know exactly what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.”

The VW school is heavily subsidized by the state of Tennessee as part of an incentive package to bring the automaker to the state in 2009. A stadium-sized building beside the plant that builds the Passat houses the classroom space and hands-on learning. 

Inside, a robotic arm two stories tall swings through the air, as a student practices programming machines like the ones used next door. Michael Regan says he tried a year of community college before applying.

“You know, I was never that really into writing and all of that,” he says. “I’m not that big of a writer. I was just always more of a hands-on person. That’s just how I learn better.”

At Regan’s graduation, a top executive told the dozen students he hopes they will ultimately retire with VW.

Some graduates are taking the option to spend a year working at a German plant. Others are deferring their job to finish a four-year degree. Regan starts work immediately – albeit on the night shift.

“Look at the benefits and the future he has with this company,” says Regan’s mom, Sharon. “And that’s why you go to college is to work for a big company – most people – to make a good living and have good benefits. And he’s going to have it at 22.”

What are you up to during a conference call?

Tue, 2014-08-19 13:06

Data provided by InterCall, the world's biggest conference call company, and collated by the Harvard Business Review, revealed what people actually do while they're on a conference call. According to the survey, which allowed multiple responses:

  • 65 percent said they do other work, whatever that may be.
  • 63 percent said they send an email.
  • 55 percent said they eat or make food.
  • And 47 percent said they go to the restroom, in a pretty gross display of multitasking.

Just as interesting were the places survey respondents said they took conference calls from. The fitting room, the beach and the ER were all represented.

To replicate their experience, maybe head to one of those places (or a bathroom) to revisit our interview with Zach Scott, who created the awe-inspiring/terrifying ConferenceCall.biz.

What can a 4-year-old learn at online preschool?

Tue, 2014-08-19 12:22

Monique Hurtado, a mother of three in Monrovia, California, doesn't send her 3-year-old to preschool. Hurtado has her own bookkeeping business and her husband works full-time as a laser supply stock clerk.

“Financially, we couldn't afford it,” Hurtado said of the nearby preschool options.

There was another reason too: “I just feel she should stay home with me."

So, she set up a preschool learning center. The big kitchen table is neatly divided into stations with paints, crayons and other art supplies. There are blocks and play dough in tubs.

And there’s a laptop computer.

Monique Hurtado found a preschool course for her child on the Internet. For years, websites have offered free preschool handouts or activity guides. Now, parents can get an entire preschool curriculum from a computer.

The companies behind online preschools

Two new companies for online preschool are ABC Mouse and CHALK preschool online. Neither was willing to share exact metrics on home-use of its online products, but both said their numbers are in the tens of thousands — and growing daily.

CHALK representative Jenna Capozzi said when the online preschool soft-launched in November 2012, there were 100 sign-ups per day. Now it’s in the thousands.

“Our retention rate is at 60 percent, which is encouraging, for we still consider ourselves a start-up and are learning every day about a unique market,” she said.

CHALK started out charging for the service but a year later, in November 2013, they began offering their content for free. CHALK online is a 30-minute class covering all the preschool basics, from literacy to science.

They're taught through videos created by Capozzi’s team, based on lessons taught in CHALK’s brick and mortar preschools. There are also many “off-line” activities attached to each day’s class that parents are encouraged to lead, like "take a nature walk and note the colors of flowers."

ABC Mouse also delivers online preschool curriculum developed by early education specialists. It rolled out a version in public libraries across Los Angeles this year, after it received interest and feedback from preschool teachers. Last year, the company said, 65,000 teachers used ABCMouse.com in the U.S. and Canada.

A sign of the times?

It's a sign of where early education may be headed in these times of high preschool costs and long wait lists.

Online preschool has even been adopted by the state of Utah as one arm of its early education services. Faced with a desperate need for more quality preschools, the Utah Legislature in 2008 funded an online preschool venture called UPSTART. The legislature studied student’s progress, and results came back extremely positive. An independent evaluation of the program's third year showed student's did two to three times better in literacy than students who had not used the online program.

Utah recently reauthorized – and increased — the funding for another five years. It's costing the state $900 per child to provide a full year of online preschool, and this year the state will spend $2.2 million on the program.

Yet sitting a preschooler in front of a screen to "watch school" is a concept that some question. The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended limited screen time for the preschool age group, one reason some online providers limit the lesson time to 30 or 60 minutes a day.

Screen time: Positive or dangerous?

Some experts, however, think limited and targeted screen time can be positive for young brain development. Dr. Gary Small is the author of "iBrain" and a professor of psychiatry at UCLA. His work looks at the effect of digital devices on the brain. He found computer and device use “allows us to exercise our brains” - even for little children.

“It can get your neurons happy [and] it allows your brain to challenge itself and to develop in many positive ways,” he said.

The danger, according to Small, is that children will not switch off the computer to do other necessary developmental activities, like building with blocks or getting dirty in the sandbox with friends. 

If a child is only using a computer or tablet, he said, “some of those three dimensional concepts that you get from hands-on play are not kicking in.”

Georgetown university professor Rachel Barr has also studied small children and what they learn from digital devices. One of her studies involved a puzzle that could be done on a digital device or with real physical blocks by toddlers aged 15 to 33 months.

When the children were shown how to build an object out of shapes on a touch screen, and then they were asked to repeat it on the digital device, they did very well. But they didn’t do so well when they were given real physical blocks and asked to build the same object.

“They seem to have some difficulty taking the information with them,” Barr said.   

CHALK, with its roots in a brick and mortar preschool, understands this, said Capozzi, Chalk’s lead content creator.

“At that age kids are learning very tactile-ly,” she said. Her program prompts parents to supplement the online program with offline, hands-on activities. “If they want to learn about how something can have a rough texture or a smooth texture, put those textures in front of your child to actually touch it."

Hurtado said she and her 3-year-old love Chalk preschool online.

“It is hard to try and come up with a curriculum, so that’s why I really like the online preschool because it does take a lot of the pressure off of me,” she said. “I can add to it, which I do, but I don’t have to think up all the things or spend the time to sing all the songs because it’s done for me.”

Hurtado believes her daughter is blossoming from her online preschool.

“I didn’t realize she was soaking in as much as she was,” Hurtado said. “I was really surprised.”

150 years of college football

Tue, 2014-08-19 11:11

Even if you aren’t much of a football fan, you have to admit that there's something special about a Saturday afternoon and college football. Maybe it’s the whole excuse-for-quality time-on-the-couch thing, or maybe it comes down to the pizza and chicken wings. But, there's definitely something about the excitement of it all that makes millions of Americans look forward to it every week.

"No other nation in the world can even fathom the notion of attaching a prominent moneymaking athletic operation to a university," says Michael Weinreb, author of "Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games". "The fact that college football has existed for nearly 150 years, and the fact that it remains one of the most popular sports in America, must say something about who we are."

Weinreb says college football represents America’s evolution politically and culturally, from race to economic status.

"Everything we argue about in America is essentially in there in the mix in college football," says Weinreb.

Listen to the full conversation in the audio player above.

The cost of orange juice is too damn high

Tue, 2014-08-19 05:00

One of American’s breakfast staples – orange juice – is disappearing off our breakfast tables. In fact, a Nielsen report this week shows orange juice sales have fallen to their lowest levels since 2002. So what's behind the sagging orange juice sales? Here are some contributing factors to sip on:

Growing Competition

Sales for coffee, pomegranate juice, and sports and energy drinks are up. 

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Bacterial Disease

A bacterial disease that is sometimes called “citrus greening” or “yellow dragon disease” is being spread by an invasive bug from Asia. The USDA reports the orange-tree population has shrunk nearly a quarter since 2003. All this leads analysts to predict the upcoming orange season may be the smallest crop in 50 years. 

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Breakfast is less popular

Studies show we aren’t eating breakfast as much as we have in the past. 

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Plus, it's expensive.

According to Nielsen, a gallon of “OJ” now  goes for about $6.50.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

 

So, in the near-term, it looks like several forces our driving our breakfast mainstay into a luxury buy.

 

 

 

 

 

PODCAST: Orange Juice down

Tue, 2014-08-19 03:00

It's hardly like World War II or anything, but Americans are increasingly finding ways to go without orange juice. Consumption has fallen to the lowest level since 2002 according to fresh numbers from Nielsen -- we have more on why the breakfast staple is becoming less popular. And as families pack their 18-year-olds for college, they're confronted by the tuition costs. Then there's the cost of text books: one estimate puts the average at $600 for books and materials; another estimate runs twice that. Some students save money by renting or buying textbooks. But others don't get the books at all, which can cause big headaches for the instructors leading their classes. As you've been hearing, two people were shot last night and more than 30 arrested in more confrontations in Ferguson, Missouri. Among the many issues that will be examined is the flow of post-9-11 federal money that critics say has lead to the militarization of American police forces.  And there are calls now for police officers to wear video cameras on the job. But that solution may only lead to more questions.

Professors struggle to adapt as students forego books

Tue, 2014-08-19 02:00

On the last day of a pediatric dentistry course offered this summer at the University of Minnesota, adjunct assistant professor Jen Post asked her class a pointed question.

"For the purposes of planning for next year, I'm just wondering how many of you bought the book for this course," she asked. "Anyone?"

Not one aspiring dental hygienist raised a hand.

The $85 textbook was, technically speaking, optional. But Post says even when it was required in years past, few students bought it. They also didn't even try to rent or borrow it.

"Then they didn't know answers on exams. They didn't know where it was coming from," says Post.

Faculty at several other schools report similar problems. In a survey conducted last fall by the National Association of College Stores, nearly a third of students polled said they didn't buy or rent at least one item required for a class, often a textbook. And an equal share of students waited until after the start of school to buy anything.

"They want to make sure that whatever's required of them to purchase or rent or borrow from someone else, that they're going to be used," says Richard Hershman, vice president of government relations for the trade group.

Niki Marinelli, a senior in the dental hygiene program at the University of Minnesota, says she often just relies on study guides or will borrow a textbook from a friend to avoid buying books.

"Sometimes I see how I did on the first test and go from there. I see if I feel a book would've been helpful if I didn't do so well," she says. "Most of the time I'm okay. I'll go in if I have any questions."

Marinelli says loans cover the $10,000 she pays each semester in out-of-state tuition. But book costs come out of her own pocket. And she already works two jobs.

Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, says professors need to be sensitive to textbook affordability. But he says it's shortsighted of students to spend thousands of dollars on tuition and then skimp on books.

"It's a case of students essentially seeming to think they're paying for the credential for the degree but they're not all that concerned about the learning that goes along with it," he says.

Jen Post is concerned about it. Post now filters the textbook content down to 50-minute powerpoint presentations, which are the basis of lectures and exams. It's the best way to ensure students get exposed to the information in the book. Post says if she didn't do this, her students would turn instead to Google and YouTube for answers to their homework assignments. And those answers are often wrong.

"They're just thinking everything's at their fingerstips," she says, "when it might be in the book."

 

Equipping cops with cameras is only half the problem

Tue, 2014-08-19 02:00

Civil unrest in Ferguson has put a spotlight on the issue of excessive force by the police. One possible answer: have officers wear cameras while on the job

With video cameras and cloud storage  getting cheaper by the day, it would seem outfitting police with cameras should be easier than ever, right?

Jennifer Lynch, an attorney with the civil liberties group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says taking videos is the easy part - the hard part is managing the data.

“What happens to the data after the fact? How long is it stored for? What’s done with the data after an investigation has concluded?” Lynch said.

Another issue: If the video is being used as evidence, how do you secure it from hackers and establish a chain of custody?

Putting those systems in place takes technical expertise and money, something many police departments are short on, said Jen King, with UC Berkeley’s School of Information.

King says that because of the sensitive nature of the videos, public agencies can’t always use off-the-shelf products.

“It’s not like they can just buy cloud space,” she said.

Some jurisdictions don’t allow public agencies to store information in the cloud and so they have to maintain their own servers - which is another cost.  

Ferguson story highlights Twitter's role as source

Tue, 2014-08-19 02:00

The protests that have erupted in Ferguson, Missouri in the wake of Michael’s Brown’s shooting by the police have opened another conversation about the role of social media during fast breaking news events.

David Carr, media and culture columnist for the New York Times, sees a similarity to the coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, when police made it difficult for the media to cover the events by pushing cameras out of the area. In that instance, social media became a large part of the eyes and ears of the media. Ferguson is being covered in much the same way, with images of militarized police responding to protesters going viral.

With the evolution of smartphone technology, Carr points to how the delivery of video and pictures has become more discreet than ever:

“Walking around with a camera is like walking around with an 800 pound pencil: you can be a target for either the police or the protesters.” Meanwhile, with a smartphone, one can blend into the crowd and simply record events.

Newsrooms have also been leaning heavily towards Twitter as opposed to other social networks, especially during fast moving events.

A major reason why, Carr argues, is that Twitter is a light piece of infrastructure that can carry info from other platforms, such as embedded photos and short videos, quickly and easily.

You can rent your car out at the airport for cash

Tue, 2014-08-19 02:00

If you hate to pay for long-term parking at the airport, would you consider letting someone else drive it while you’re away?

A peer-to-peer company called FlightCar will take your car while you’re out of town and rent it out. Currently, it has offices in Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

“Say for instance you’re going on a 5-day trip. We would wash it. Prep it. Make it look nice and clean. And then we would rent it the whole time you’re gone. And when you do arrive back, you would receive a check for your car being rented,” says assistant manager Kenneth Boyd.

I left my own car with them – a 2003 Honda Civic. For a car like mine, lenders can expect to earn around 10 cents per mile.

But some customers aren’t financially motivated.

“The money is less important than the idea of participating in a sharing economy, and sharing my car with somebody who might need it while I’m not using it,” says Leslie Tamaribuchi, who has left her Fiat with the company six times.

To get the full experience, I also rented someone else’s car: a 2011 Mercedes C 300, which cost me $60 a day – less than half of what competing rental companies charge.

The car’s owner, Brett Hobbs, needed a place to store his Mercedes while he was away for almost four months.

“You get an email every time your car is rented out. And as soon as we left, the emails started pouring in, saying that, ‘Good news. Your car was rented.’ And, I sort of realized: 'Wow. My car really is a rental car now,'” says Hobbs.

If someone crashes the car while it’s being rented, FlightCar will provide up to $1 million in liability coverage.

Someone who rented Hobb’s Mercedes was involved in a fender-bender.

“FlightCar took care of the damage before we got home,” says Hobbs.

In the end, renters put 6000 miles on his car. In return, Hobbs got paid about $1,500.

How does the income compare to the depreciation of the car? Hobbs says, “I think it’s probably pretty close to a wash.”

Hobbs says he’d use FlightCar again, but next time, he’d leave his older car – a 2006 BMW.

In my case, my Honda was rented twice. Within a week, I got a check in the mail from FlightCar for a little more than $5 - enough to cover the cost of driving to and from the airport.

Professors struggle to adapt as students forego books

Tue, 2014-08-19 02:00

On the last day of a pediatric dentistry course offered this summer at the University of Minnesota, adjunct assistant professor Jen Post asked her class a pointed question.

"For the purposes of planning for next year, I'm just wondering how many of you bought the book for this course," she asked. "Anyone?"

Not one aspiring dental hygienist raised a hand.

The $85 textbook was, technically speaking, optional. But Post says even when it was required in years past, few students bought it. They also didn't even try to rent or borrow it.

"Then they didn't know answers on exams. They didn't know where it was coming from," says Post.

Faculty at several other schools report similar problems. In a survey conducted last fall by the National Association of College Stores, nearly a third of students polled said they didn't buy or rent at least one item required for a class, often a textbook. And an equal share of students waited until after the start of school to buy anything.

"They want to make sure that whatever's required of them to purchase or rent or borrow from someone else, that they're going to be used," says Richard Hershman, vice president of government relations for the trade group.

Niki Marinelli, a senior in the dental hygiene program at the University of Minnesota, says she often just relies on study guides or will borrow a textbook from a friend to avoid buying books.

"Sometimes I see how I did on the first test and go from there. I see if I feel a book would've been helpful if I didn't do so well," she says. "Most of the time I'm okay. I'll go in if I have any questions."

Marinelli says loans cover the $10,000 she pays each semester in out-of-state tuition. But book costs come out of her own pocket. And she already works two jobs.

Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, says professors need to be sensitive to textbook affordability. But he says it's shortsighted of students to spend thousands of dollars on tuition and then skimp on books.

"It's a case of students essentially seeming to think they're paying for the credential for the degree but they're not all that concerned about the learning that goes along with it," he says.

Jen Post is concerned about it. Post now filters the textbook content down to 50-minute powerpoint presentations, which are the basis of lectures and exams. It's the best way to ensure students get exposed to the information in the book. Post says if she didn't do this, her students would turn instead to Google and YouTube for answers to their homework assignments. And those answers are often wrong.

"They're just thinking everything's at their fingerstips," she says, "when it might be in the book."

 

"Buy the rumor, sell the news"

Tue, 2014-08-19 02:00

There’s a saying on Wall Street: "Buy the rumor, sell the news."

It can be a nifty way for traders to make money. Here's how it works: Be the first to find out about a big company announcement. Then, buy the stock low, and sell high. 

Bill King is a market strategist at M. Ramsey Securities, Inc. Before that, he was a trader for about 20 years.  

“The smart guys are getting out and they’re looking for the suckers to take their positions off their hands," says King.

By positions, he means stocks, or whatever investment they made to exploit the rumor.

And "buy the rumor, sell the news" can work with some big global events. Traders watch international news closely, looking for trends.

“Is it the beginning of something new? Or is it the beginning of, you know, just a temporary event that's kind of a blip on the screen?” says Doug Roberts, Chief investment strategist at Channel Capital Research.com.

Take the 1973 oil embargo, when members of OPEC wouldn’t sell to the US. People in the know bought before oil prices shot up. But, Roberts says buy the rumor, sell the news doesn’t work all the time. It sounds neat and easy, but it’s just one tool for traders. 

 

 

Where all those charges on your phone bill come from

Mon, 2014-08-18 14:53

Starting on Sept. 1, Chicago residents will see their phone bills go up, thanks to higher fees collected by their city government. The nominal purpose is to fund 911 operations.

However, the acknowledged goal is to raise money that the city desperately needs to pay for pensions. And the widely-understood rationale among politicians is: If we raised the same amount by hiking property tax bills, people would notice, and complain. But people are used to seeing taxes and fees tacked onto phone bills. Who’s going to notice another few bucks? 

Which raises the question:  What are all those damn fees on your phone bill? 

1.  No matter where you live, some are sneaky taxes from all levels of government.

Experts confirm: Government officials love to sneak taxes and fees into phone bills— and anywhere they can that isn’t an actual tax bill.

"The bias is toward hiding taxes," says David Brunori, a professor at George Washington University and deputy publisher of Tax Analysts. "That is true at every level of government. Politicians would rather have you pay the tax and not know about it."

And yes, wireless phone bills in particular have become a favorite hiding place, says Scott Mackey, a consultant to the wireless industry with KSE Partners. "Really from 2003 to about 2012 we saw sort of a steady upward increase in wireless taxes and fees," he says.

2.  Though in some places, you'll pay more taxes than others.

Mackey publishes a report every couple of years on wireless tax rates from state to state.   The Tax Foundation made a sortable list from his last report.

"Chicago is going to be prominently featured in the 2014 report," says Mackey.  The new 911 fee will make the effective tax on cellphones the country's highest.  

3. A lot of items that look like taxes are just extra charges from your phone company

Chicago politicians are not the only ones who figure they can sneak an extra charge into your bill without you noticing. Your phone company probably does the same thing. Marc-David Seidel is a business professor at the University of British Columbia and the co-founder of a site dedicated to making sense of phone bills.

He says the heading "taxes and fees" on your bill should be a giveaway. 

"The fact that it’s grouped together called taxes and fees, instead of just taxes, is a really high signal that there’s other stuff in there that’s actually not mandated," he says. "It’s just a company-specific fee."

Every company charges a different mix, he says, and they change all the time. If you really want to know what you’re paying— and why— he recommends looking for a consumer-advocate office in your state.

4. And then there's the cramming scam.

The FTC recently accused T-Mobile of bilking customers out of millions of dollars by allowing third parties to place bogus charges on their bills, and taking a cut.  T-Mobile's public defense was essentially:  Hey, we stopped doing this a few months ago—and it's not like the other carriers are better. 

Marketplace recently looked at how those charges end up on phone bills in the first place, and our friends at Ars Technica have been covering the story for years.

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

How police presence in Ferguson shut down one business

Mon, 2014-08-18 13:51

Not far from the Swiish Bar and Grill, business owners are boarding up their windows and preparing for another night of clashes between protesters and police in Ferguson, Missouri. Swiish’s owner, Corey Nickson-Clark, is absolutely certain his business will be safe. The parking lot out front is filled with police vehicles and police officers.

Lindsay Foster Thomas/Marketplace

Nickson-Clark’s popular hangout spot is tucked into one corner of a large, suburban mall in the town of Jennings, just down the road from where the Ferguson protests turned violent. About a week ago, he and his wife got a call from the property owner, who told them the parking lot was going to be used as a command center for the police. In the past week, Nickson-Clark has seen a lot of the police.

“I’ve seen St. Louis County, I’ve seen St. Louis City,” he said. “I’ve seen state troopers. I’ve seen some FBI. I think pretty much every department of the police department has been here.”

Nickson-Clark’s sister, Andra Crawford, who was keeping him company in the silent, empty bar, can barely believe what she’s seen: helicopters landing in the parking lot, tanks being loaded.

Lindsay Foster Thomas/Marketplace

Nobody has been able to tell Nickson-Clark why the parking lot of his small business, with it’s two-for-one happy hours and famous strawberry chicken wings, was chosen as a command center, rather than the Target, Schnucks grocery or Foot Locker that occupy the same mall. Their parking lots are at least partially accessible.

“Those guys are able to open at some point during the day,” he said. “I’m not able to open at all. At least they’re able to get some type of revenue coming in.”

Nickson-Clark guesses he’s lost around $30,000 in the past week. He admits that if he’d purchased riot insurance, he’d be covered, but he asks, with disbelief in his voice, "when was the last time there was a riot here? The 1950s?

Lindsay Foster Thomas and Noel King/Marketplace

The officers outside Swiish don’t know why this part of the parking lot was chosen, either. “That’s above my pay grade,” said Sergeant Al Nothum of the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

Nothum says he hates to see a small business owner losing money, but the police plan to stay until the situation improves.

“There’s not one of us here that want to be here any longer than we need to,” Nothum said.”We want things to settle down. We want the citizens of Ferguson to know we’re doing the best we can. And that we’re looking for a good resolution to this whole thing here.”

Thus far, though, there has been no resolution. Sunday night was one of the worst nights in Ferguson to date. The National Guard is being sent in... and Nickson-Clark has just found out they’re going to be using his parking lot, too.

Lindsay Foster Thomas/Marketplace

 

Behind the indicators: Job quality vs. job quantity

Mon, 2014-08-18 13:34

Keil Hubert is a part-time writer and cyber-security consultant.

He is also an indicator. 

He’d rather not be. But he is. 

“Since April of 2013 I’ve applied for 476 positions, not one of which has led to an actual offer for full-time work.” 

Hubert reached the maximum number of years allowable at his government job, and had to retire from public service. But at age 45 he isn’t ready to retire, and finds himself routinely overqualified for many private sector jobs. So, he is left working part time.

“Even with part time and unemployment benefits it’s not enough to get by,” he says. “It’s a little frustrating.”

Hubert is what the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls a part-time worker “for economic reasons.” It means that he is looking for full-time work but can’t find it. His situation is invisible if one looks only at the unemployment rate (6.2 percent), but it’s still important because it’s a glimpse into job quality, as opposed to quantity.

“It’s an indicator of job market slack,” says Gary Burtless, economist at the Brookings Institution. “A lot of Americans have been forced to accept jobs in part-time positions when they would prefer to work full time.”

Ten years ago, about 4.5 million Americans fit that bill. Today, around 7.5 million do. That’s up slightly from 7.3 million in January, though the number fluctuates regularly. 

This is tied to the long term unemployed – those out of work for six months or longer – whose levels have also been slower to come down, says Burtless. “That is pushing a lot of Americans to take second or third or fourth or fifth choice jobs rather than the jobs and occupations and levels of hours they would prefer,” says Burtless.

Perhaps one of the most important “quality of jobs” indicators is wages and compensation, says Joe Kalish, Chief Global Macro strategist with Ned Davis Research. “One of the indicators that’s really been getting a lot of attention on the part of Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and other members as of late, is what’s going on with wages and compensation.” This, says Kalish, “is where we really haven’t seen much of a pick up at this point,” despite four years of recovery.

Given the state of indicators regarding the quality of jobs and the tightness of the labor market, the Fed is unlikely to put the brakes on and raise interests before June of 2015 by Kalish’s estimate. 

The cost of travel, according to the federal government

Mon, 2014-08-18 13:34

The federal government has released its per diem lodging rates for federal road warriors for the coming fiscal year.

Those rates matter to the hotel industry. After all, the American Hotel & Lodging Association says the government generates billions of dollars in travel spending.

The spending, however large, isn't changing — the standard federal travel per diem is staying flat compared to last year at $83. The federal government is also trying to keep its travel budget down, cutting spending by 30 percent through 2016. 

“We do not include the luxury brands like the Ritz-Carltons or the Four Seasons types,” says Christine Harada, associate administrator of the Office of Government-wide Policy at the General Services Administration. “But we also want to be cognizant of our travelers' safety so we try not to go too, too budget.”

The rate is more flexible in many big cities. For example, it might run up to $300 a night in New York, depending on the time of booking.  Regardless of location, fancy hotels are generally off limits. 

Harada says lodging per diems are determined by market data. They're going up in about 270 areas and falling in 50.

Ryan Meliker, managing director of equity research at MLV & Co, an investment bank, says hotels that get a lot of business from feds will likely set their overall room rates based on the per diem. 

“If you think about a hotel right next to a major Air Force base that's generating a lot of their business from government as a result of the Air Force base, it's going to have a bigger impact on them than it is somebody else,” he says.

Jan Freitag with STR, a hotel research company that provides market data to the federal government, says the federal per diems also have spillover effects at private companies.

“They say, 'Okay, if the U.S. government reimburses this much we just follow suit,’” Freitag says, “especially if they are a consulting company to the U.S. government.”

How much does a per diem get you?

How well can you travel on that federal government per diem? Or the similar one from your employer?

We compared Lawrence, Kansas — one of many small-to-mid-size cities covered by the standard per diem — to our home base, Los Angeles — which, like most larger cities has an adjusted per diem. We checked hotel rates for a single traveler in the first week of September and user-submitted cost-of-living estimates from Numbeo.com.

Lawrence, Kansas
Per Diem: $83 for lodging, $46 for food and incidentals (the standard rate)

Lodging: That allowance gives you (or your boss) a few hotel options in Lawrence, but your best bet is the local Holiday Inn or Baymont Inn and Suites. They both run around $80 a night, and the Baymont touts a free breakfast. Hampton Inn and Comfort Inn are just out of reach at around $100 per night.

Food: A morning cappuccino (or other coffee beverage) will run you about $3 in Lawrence. A lunch averages about $6.25 for fast food and $10 for an inexpensive sit-down restaurant, like local favorite the Burger Stand. Dinner at a mid-range restaurant like the Free State brewery will run you about $20 per person. That leaves something like $15 for incidentals or midnight snacks. Not bad.

Los Angeles, California
Per Diem: $133 for lodging, $71 for food and incidentals

Lodging: If you're a federal employee travelling to LA, you'll get more money for a hotel, but expect to stay pretty far from downtown, the city's hot spot. A room runs around $130 per night at the Holiday or La Quinta Inns by LAX or the Marriott Courtyard in Pasadena. On Airbnb, there are some modest rooms available in Hollywood and Santa Monica for under $100, if your government employer is more the gitz or beach type.

Food: $71 is the most generous per diem the government offers for food and incidentals, and you can eat pretty well with it. A cappuccino in Los Angeles averages just under $4, and a lunch at Mendocino Farms or other restaurant will set you back about $12. A decent dinner out at Baco Mercat, Bottega Louie or other mid-range restaurant will run you about $26 per person. But don't blow that extra money on desserts, because the rest of your per diem could go toward transportation. You could get a cab or rent a car, but you'll be shelling out at least $20 a day.

Who will win the dollar store bidding war?

Mon, 2014-08-18 13:34

Two dollar store chains are competing to buy a third, Family Dollar.

The retailer entertained an $8.5 billion merger deal with Dollar Tree last month, and Dollar General announced Monday it would pay a competitive $9.7 billion for the chain. While all of these discount stores are similar, they have several important differences.  

Here's a look:

Dollar General

  • Size: Biggest of the three.
  • Products: A lot of brand names, a mix of food and discretionary items like clothing and beauty products.
  • Placement in the Fortune 500: 164.
  • Locations: More than 11,500 locations in more than 40 states. Primarily in smaller towns, located in the southern and eastern U.S., as well as the Midwest and the Southwest.
  • Prices: About a fourth of their items are $1 or less.
  • How are they doing? Chain is thriving with $17.5 billion in revenue and $5.4 billion in profits.

Dollar Tree

  • Size: Smallest of the three.
  • Products: Mostly imported from China, focused on discretionary items like party supplies, beauty products, etc.
  • Placement in the Fortune 500: 342.
  • Locations: More than 5,000 locations in 48 states, mostly located in strip malls in small towns.
  • Prices: Most items cost $1 or less.
  • How are they doing? The chain is thriving and growing with $7.8 billion in revenue and $2.7 billion in profits.

The target of the bids: Family Dollar

  • Size: The takeover target, and second-largest of the three.
  • Products: A lot of brand names; focuses on food, also carries some linens and other products.
  • Placement in the Fortune 500: 271.
  • Locations: More than 8,200 stores in 45 states, mainly in urban and rural areas.
  • Prices: Most items are under $10.
  • How are they doing? Family Dollar has been struggling and closing stores. It tried raising prices and the plan back-fired. It has recently been closing stores. They have about $10.3 billion in revenue and $3.5 billion in profits.
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