Yahoo! Homes/Thinkstock - Scammers tell people that they're late on a utility bill and that their service will be cut off, then instruct people to purchase a prepaid debit card to pay their bill. Thieves then …
By Cameron Huddleston | Kiplinger.com – WeMay 8, 2013
The Better Business Bureau says that a new utility bill scam is popping up throughout the U.S. and Canada. And it involves an approach to get people to part with their money that's been growing in popularity over the past couple of years: prepaid debit cards.
The BBB reports that scammers are calling people and claiming to work for a local electric, water or gas company. The callers tell people that they're late on a utility bill and that their service will be cut off if they don't pay immediately. Then they instruct people to purchase a prepaid debit card to pay their bill and call them back with the card number. Thieves then drain the value from the card.
Scammers have turned to prepaid debit cards recently because wire transfer services have increased their fraud detection systems -- making it more difficult for them to use this once-popular method of stealing money from people. Scammers also like prepaid debit cards because they don't have to show a photo ID to collect or spend money on the cards.
For help spotting a utility scam, the BBB offers these tips:
It's a red flag if you are asked to pay by prepaid debit card. Utility companies usually accept a check or credit card. If you pay with a prepaid debit card, the transaction cannot be reversed, according to the BBB.
Watch out for high-pressure tactics, such as threats to cut off your service unless you make an immediate payment. End the call then call the customer service number on your utility bill to ensure that you speak with a real representative.
If someone comes to your home claiming to be from your utility company, ask for identification. Do not let the person in your home if you did not schedule a service appointment. Call the utility company to confirm that it sent someone to your home.
PYONGYANG (The Borowitz Report)—As controversy swirled around the Department of Justice’s move to obtain journalists’ phone records, the White House picked up a vote of support today from an unexpected source, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un of North Korea.
“I honestly don’t see what the fuss is all about,” Mr. Kim said in an official statement today. “Of course it’s the government’s right to know what people are doing at all times—and journalists would be right at the top of the list.”
Mr. Kim also offered a vigorous defense of the I.R.S. policy of auditing the tax returns of organizations that oppose the government: “Again, this is something I wouldn’t lose a wink of sleep over, and I know Dad felt the same way.”
In what was an otherwise laudatory statement about the activities of the U.S. government, Mr. Kim offered one small critique: “They could save themselves the work of conducting audits and obtaining phone records if they would just get rid of journalists and anti-government groups in the first place. But, you know, baby steps.”
All in all, news of the I.R.S. audits and phone-records scandals have given the mercurial dictator hope that North Korea and the United States might have warmer relations in the future: “We have a lot more in common than I thought.”
By JOSEPH E. STIGLITZ A CERTAIN drama has become familiar in the United States (and some other advanced industrialized countries): Bankers encourage people to borrow beyond their means, preying especially on those who are financially unsophisticated. They use their political influence to get favorable treatment of one form or another. Debts mount. Journalists record the human toll. Then comes bewilderment: How could we let this happen again? Officials promise to fix things. Something is done about the most egregious abuses. People move on, reassured that the crisis has abated, but suspecting that it will recur soon.
The crisis that is about to break out involves student debt and how we finance higher education. Like the housing crisis that preceded it, this crisis is intimately connected to America’s soaring inequality, and how, as Americans on the bottom rungs of the ladder strive to climb up, they are inevitably pulled down — some to a point even lower than where they began.
This new crisis is emerging even before the last one has been resolved, and the two are becoming intertwined. In the decades after World War II, homeownership and higher education became signs of success in America.
Before the housing bubble burst in 2007, banks persuaded low- and moderate-income homeowners that they could turn their houses and apartments into piggy banks. They seduced them into taking out home-equity loans — and in the end, millions lost their homes. In other cases, the banks, mortgage brokers and real-estate agents pushed aspiring homeowners to borrow beyond their means. The wizards of finance, who prided themselves on risk management, sold toxic mortgages that were designed to explode. They bundled the dubious loans into complex financial instruments and sold them to unsuspecting investors.
Everyone recognizes that education is the only way up, but as a college degree becomes increasingly essential to making one’s way in a 21st-century economy, education for those not to the manner born is increasingly unaffordable. Student debt for seniors graduating with loans now exceeds $26,000, about a 40 percent increase (not adjusted for inflation) in just seven years. But an “average” like this masks huge variations.
According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, almost 13 percent of student-loan borrowers of all ages owe more than $50,000, and nearly 4 percent owe more than $100,000. These debts are beyond students’ ability to repay, (especially in our nearly jobless recovery); this is demonstrated by the fact that delinquency and default rates are soaring. Some 17 percent of student-loan borrowers were 90 days or more behind in payments at the end of 2012. When only those in repayment were counted — in other words, not including borrowers who were in loan deferment or forbearance — more than 30 percent were 90 days or more behind. For federal loans taken out in the 2009 fiscal year, three-year default rates exceeded 13 percent.
America is distinctive among advanced industrialized countries in the burden it places on students and their parents for financing higher education. America is also exceptional among comparable countries for the high cost of a college degree, including at public universities. Average tuition, and room and board, at four-year colleges is just short of $22,000 a year, up from under $9,000 (adjusted for inflation) in 1980-81.
Compare this more-than-doubling in tuition with the stagnation in median family income, which is now about $50,000, compared to $46,000 in 1980 (adjusted for inflation).
Like much else, the problem of student debt worsened during the Great Recession: tuition costs at public universities increased by 27 percent in the past five years — partly because of cutbacks — while median income shrank. In California, inflation-adjusted tuition more than doubled in public two-year community colleges (which for poorer Americans are often the key to upward mobility), and by more than 70 percent in four-year public schools, from 2007-8 to 2012-13.
With costs soaring, incomes stagnating and little help from government, it was not surprising that total student debt, around $1 trillion, surpassed total credit-card debt last year. Responsible Americans have learned how to curb their credit-card debt — many have forsaken them for debit cards, or educated themselves about usurious interest rates, fees and penalties charged by card issuers — but the challenge of controlling student debt is even more unsettling.
Curbing student debt is tantamount to curbing social and economic opportunity. College graduates earn $12,000 more per year than those without college degrees; the gap has almost tripled just since 1980. Our economy is increasingly reliant on knowledge-related industries. No matter what happens with currency wars and trade balances, the United States is not going to return to making textiles. Unemployment rates among college graduates are much lower than among those with only a high school diploma.
America — home of the land-grant university, the G.I. Bill and world-class public universities from California to Michigan to Texas — has fallen from the top in terms of university education. With strangling student debt, we are likely to fall further. What economists call “human capital” — investing in people — is a key to long-term growth. To be competitive in the 21st century is to have a highly educated labor force, one with college and advanced degrees. Instead, we are foreclosing on our future as a nation.
Student debt also is a drag on the slow recovery that began in 2009. By dampening consumption, it hinders economic growth. It is also holding back recovery in real estate, the sector where the Great Recession started.
It’s true that housing prices seem to be on the upswing, but home construction is far from the levels reached in the years before the bubble burst of 2007.
Those with huge debts are likely to be cautious before undertaking the additional burdens of a family. But even when they do, they will find it more difficult to get a mortgage. And if they do, it will be smaller, and the real estate recovery will consequently be weaker. (One study of recent Rutgers University graduates showed that 40 percent had delayed making a major home purchase, and for a quarter, the high level of debt had an effect on household formation or getting further education. Another recent study showed that homeownership among 30-year-olds with a history of student debt fell by more than 10 percentage points during the Great Recession and in its aftermath.)
It’s a vicious cycle: lack of demand for housing contributes to a lack of jobs, which contributes to weak household formation, which contributes to a lack of demand for housing.
As bad as things are, they may get worse. With budgetary pressures mounting — along with demands for cutbacks in “discretionary domestic programs” (read: K-12 education subsidies, Pell Grants for poor kids to attend college, research money) — students and families are left to fend for themselves. College costs will continue to rise far faster than incomes. As has been repeatedly observed, all of the economic gains since the Great Recession have gone to the top 1 percent.
Consider another dubious distinction: student debt is almost impossible to discharge in bankruptcy proceedings.
We’re a long way from the debtors’ prisons Dickens described. We don’t send debtors to penal colonies or put them in bonded labor. Although personal bankruptcy laws have been tightened, the principle that bankrupt individuals should be allowed a fresh start, and a chance to discharge excessive debt, is an established principle. This helps debt markets work better, and also provides incentives for creditors to assess the creditworthiness of borrowers.
Yet education loans are almost impossible to write off in bankruptcy court — even when for-profit schools didn’t deliver what they promised and didn’t provide an education that would let the borrower get a job that paid enough to pay back the loan.
We should cut off federal support for these for-profit schools when they fail to graduate students, who don’t get jobs and then default on their loans.
To its credit, the Obama administration tried to make it tougher for these predatory schools to lure students with false promises. Under the new rules, schools had to meet one of three tests, or lose their eligibility for federal student aid: at least 35 percent of graduates had to be repaying their loans; the typical graduate’s estimated annual loan payments could not exceed 12 percent of earnings; or the payments could not exceed 30 percent of discretionary income. But in 2012, a federal judge struck down the rules as arbitrary; the rules remain in legal limbo.
The combination of predatory for-profit schools and predatory lenders is a leech on America’s poor. These schools have even gone after young veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are heart-rending stories of parents who co-signed student loans — only to see their child killed in an accident or die of cancer or another disease — and, like students, can’t easily discharge these debts.
Interest rates on federal Stafford loans were set to double in July, to 6.8 percent. Good news came on Friday: it appears that there is a temporary reprieve, as Republicans have come around. But the stay would be temporary and would not address a more fundamental issue: if the Federal Reserve is willing to lend to the banks that caused the crisis at just 0.75 percent, shouldn’t it be willing to lend to students, who will be crucial to our long-term recovery, at an appropriately low rate? The government shouldn’t be profiting from our poorest while subsidizing our richest. A proposal by Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, for lower student-loan interest rates is a step in the right direction.
Along with tougher regulation of for-profit schools and the banks they connive with, and more humane bankruptcy laws, we must give more support to middle-class families struggling to send their children to college, to ensure that they have a standard of living at least equal to that of their parents.
But a real long-term solution requires rethinking how we finance higher education. Australia has designed a system of publicly provided income-contingent loans that all students must take out. Repayments vary according to individual income after graduation. This aligns the incentives of the providers of education and the receivers. Both have an incentive to see that students do well. It means that if an unfortunate event happens, like an illness or an accident, the loan obligation is automatically reduced. It means that the burden of the debt is always commensurate with an individual’s ability to repay. The repayments are collected through the tax system, minimizing the administrative costs.
Some wonder how the American ideal of equality of opportunity has eroded so much. The way we finance higher education provides part of the answer. Student debt has become an integral part of the story of American inequality. Robust higher education, with healthy public support, was once the linchpin in a system that promised opportunity for dedicated students of any means. We now have a pay-to-play, winner-take-all game where the wealthiest are assured a spot, and the rest are compelled to take a gamble on huge debts, with no guarantee of a payoff.
Even if compassion isn’t a factor — even if we focus just on recovery now and growth and innovation tomorrow — we must do something about student debt. Those concerned about the damage America’s growing divide is doing to our ideals and our moral character should put student debt at the top of any reform agenda.
WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report)—A deep divide has emerged within the Republican Party over whether to waste Congress’s time investigating Benghazi talking points or repealing Obamacare, G.O.P. lawmakers confirmed today.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Virginia), sounded the first discordant note at a press briefing this morning, telling reporters, “The time for wasting day after day investigating Benghazi is over. The American people are counting us to waste our time repealing Obamacare yet again.”
Warning that “the American people don’t have an endless appetite for meaningless political theater,” Cantor added, “If we’re going to do something that’s purely symbolic, pointless, and detached from reality, I say it should be repealing Obamacare for the thirtieth or fortieth time.”
Rep. Cantor’s comments drew a strong rebuke from Darrell Issa (R-California), who has spearheaded the investigation into Benghazi: “Quite frankly, we have all the time in the world to blow repealing Obamacare. The moment to waste our time investigating Benghazi is now.” Noting that previous attempts to repeal Obamacare had cost the taxpayers approximately fifty million dollars, Issa said, “I think we’re entitled to spend at least that much, if not more, investigating Benghazi again and again and again.”
But even as the debate raged over whether Obamacare or Benghazi was more worthy of Congress’ wasted time, House Speaker John Boehner offered a third point of view: “Personally, I think the time we’re wasting on Benghazi and Obamacare could be better spent blocking progress on guns and immigration.”
NASA scientists don’t often learn that their spacecraft is at risk of crashing into another satellite. But when Julie McEnery, the project scientist for NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, checked her email on March 29, 2012, she found herself facing this precise situation.
While Fermi is in fine shape today, continuing its mission to map the highest-energy light in the universe, the story of how it sidestepped a potential disaster offers a glimpse at an underappreciated aspect of managing a space mission: orbital traffic control.
As McEnery worked through her inbox, an automatically generated report arrived from NASA’s Robotic Conjunction Assessment Risk Analysis (CARA) team based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. On scanning the document, she discovered that Fermi was just one week away from an unusually close encounter with Cosmos 1805, a dead Cold-War era spy satellite.
The two objects, speeding around Earth at thousands of miles an hour in nearly perpendicular orbits, were expected to miss each other by a mere 700 feet.
Although the forecast indicated a close call, satellite operators have learned the hard way that they can’t be too careful. The uncertainties in predicting spacecraft positions a week into the future can be much larger than the distances forecast for their closest approach. With a speed relative to Fermi of 27,000 mph, a direct hit by the 3,100-pound Cosmos 1805 would release as much energy as two and a half tons of high explosives, destroying both spacecraft.
Published on Apr 30, 2013
The update on Friday, March 30, indicated that the satellites would occupy the same point in space within 30 milliseconds of each other. Fermi would have to move out of the way if the threat failed to recede. Because Fermi’s thrusters were designed to de-orbit the satellite at the end of its mission, they had never before been used or tested, adding a new source of anxiety for the team.
By Tuesday, April 3, the close approach was certain, and all plans were in place for firing Fermi’s thrusters. Shortly after noon EDT, the spacecraft stopped scanning the sky and oriented itself along its direction of travel. It then parked its solar panels and tucked away its high-gain antenna to protect them from the thruster exhaust. The maneuver was performed by the spacecraft based on previously developed procedures. Fermi fired all thrusters for one second and was back doing science within the hour.
In 2012, the Goddard CARA team participated in collision-avoidance maneuvers for seven other missions. A month before the Fermi conjunction came to light, Landsat 7 dodged pieces of Fengyun-1C, a Chinese weather satellite deliberately destroyed in 2007 as part of a military test. And in May and October, respectively, NASA’s Aura and CALIPSO Earth-observing satellites took steps to avoid fragments from Cosmos 2251, which in 2009 was involved in the first known satellite-to-satellite collision with Iridium 33.
Ron Paul on Monday dismissed Republican and White House claims about Benghazi as a “sideshow” and said GOP criticisms on the issue are politically motivated.
“Republicans smell a political opportunity over evidence that the administration heavily edited initial intelligence community talking points about the attack to remove or soften anything that might reflect badly on the president or the State Department,” Paul, a libertarian-leaning former Republican congressman and presidential candidate, charged in a column posted on Monday.
His comments came as reports indicated that official talking points about the deadly Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. outpost in Benghazi, Libya, had been stripped of references to terrorism. President Barack Obama, for his part, on Monday rejected criticism over the talking points as a “sideshow.” Paul, too, used that word — but in a very different context.
“The real lesson of Benghazi will not be learned because neither Republicans nor Democrats want to hear it,” he concluded. “But it is our interventionist foreign policy and its unintended consequences that have created these problems, including the attack and murder of Ambassador Stevens. The disputed talking points and White House whitewashing are just a sideshow.”
Paul’s son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), on Friday took a different tack, laying responsibility with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
She is “absolutely responsible,” the younger Paul, considered a possible 2016 candidate, said last week. “She was in charge of the State Department. She was asked repeatedly for increased security for Benghazi. Some of the media have been reporting that because she didn’t read them she’s protected – she wasn’t responsible because she didn’t read them? I fault her absolutely for not reading the cables.”
The elder Paul, a vocal critic of interventionist foreign policy, noted that many Republicans had supported the Obama administration’s 2011 military actions in Libya that contributed to the fall of Muammar Qadhafi. Those steps, he argued, helped facilitate last fall’s attacks in Benghazi, which killed the American ambassador, Chris Stevens, as well as three other Americans.
“Who can blame the administration for wanting to shift the focus?” Paul wrote. “The Islamic radicals who attacked Benghazi were the same people let loose by the US-led attack on Libya. They were the rebels on whose behalf the US overthrew the Libyan government. Ambassador Stevens was slain by the same Islamic radicals he personally assisted just over one year earlier.”
It’s been five years since the onset of the financial crisis — the rescue of Bear Stearns in March 2008 — and we still don’t know whether the financial system is safe. In a recent speech, Daniel Tarullo, the Federal Reserve’s point man on regulation, contended that substantial, though incomplete, progress has been made. As an example, he cited the doubling of equity capital for the 18 largest bank holding companies from $393 billion in late 2008 to $792 billion at the end of 2012. Equity capital is shareholders’ money; it acts as a buffer against losses. Interestingly, JPMorgan Chase’s well-publicized $6 billion loss by the trader nicknamed the “London Whale” confirms the point. Despite the loss’s size, it never threatened a panic or overall financial stability.
Then there’s Dodd-Frank, the 848-page law named after its now retired champions, Sen. Christopher Dodd and Rep. Barney Frank, who as chairmen of the relevant congressional committees presided over its creation. Although hugely complicated, the law embodied a simple theory of the crisis. Banks and other financial institutions brought it on through bad judgments and ethically questionable practices. This justifies tougher rules and regulators to avoid future lapses. With hindsight, Dodd-Frank might seem to have been inevitable.
In an important new book, “Act of Congress,” Robert Kaiser of The Post shows that the legislation’s prospects were touch-and-go for long stretches before its approval in 2010. One reason was that financial legislation competed for attention with President Obama’s health-care proposal, and financial overhaul had to wait. “The American political culture isn’t good at multitasking,” Kaiser writes. “We tend to let the most controversial or dramatic topic of the moment take up all the room for discussion and debate.”
But the larger causes were complexity and contentiousness. Yes, the status quo needed changing, but there were sharp disagreements over how. Many interest groups vied to shape the outcome — or protect themselves from it. Democrats demanded a new agency focused on consumers (ultimately, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau); Republicans feared duplication and favored leaving consumer regulation with the Federal Reserve. Despite intensive lobbying, Kaiser reports, big commercial banks and investment banks were less influential than the 7,000 or so smaller community banksand close to 18,000 auto dealers. Wall Street was blamed for the crisis; small bankers and auto dealers had deep local ties in congressional districts.
Virtually the only bipartisan agreement was: no more bailouts. (During the crisis, big banks and financial institutions borrowed from the Fed and received funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program.) Otherwise, Dodd-Frank didn’t attract much Republican support. The final legislation includes a new “Financial Stability Oversight Council” — chaired by the Treasury secretary — to spot dangerous trends, plus restrictions on banks’ “proprietary trading” (buying and selling securities for their own accounts, not clients’) and on the trading of “derivatives” (futures contracts, options and the like). Other provisions try to end the “too big to fail” doctrine that justified propping up weak financial institutions.
As Kaiser notes, Frank views the law as the third historic government intervention to save capitalism from its excesses. The first occurred in the early 20th century: Theodore Roosevelt deployed anti-trust laws to limit the power of massive industrial enterprises; under Woodrow Wilson, Congress created the Federal Reserve in 1913 to improve financial stability. Franklin Roosevelt orchestrated the second great intervention with the establishment of the Securities and Exchange Commission to police the stock market and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to prevent bank runs.
At least two problems might derail this rendezvous with history.
First, Dodd-Frank may have gone overboard. To be sure, banks’ stupid loans and risky investments nearly caused the entire financial system to crash. But the resulting financial crisis and Great Recession had already caused banks to tighten lending standards. Dodd-Frank’s outpouring of rules and restrictions — coupled with regulators’ more stringent attitudes — may compound caution. Stodgy banks would then impede a more dynamic economy, faster growth and lower unemployment.
A second possibility is that Dodd-Frank perversely worsens financial instability in another crisis. In 2008-09, the Fed relied heavily on section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act to make loans to stem the panic. In effect, section 13(3) expanded the Fed’s ability to be a “lender of last resort.” The Fed received broad lending authority and discretion in determining the worth of collateral. But reflecting public outrage over bailouts, Dodd-Frank curbed these powers. If the Fed can’t respond quickly to a crisis, panic may ensue and feed on itself. The last crisis may have stemmed less from lax regulation than from prolonged prosperity, which made both bankers and regulators complacent. If “good times” were to blame, future crises may be unavoidable.
Will Dodd-Frank save capitalism or suffocate it? It may be years before we know.
Alan: Although the following RadioLab always probes "deep waters," it can "get on one's nerves." However, the last "segment" (which begins at the 47:00 minute mark) is both "beautiful" and mind-bending. In essence, computers now produce music so good it is indistinguishable from Bach, Bartok, Vivaldi - or whatever "template."
What is music? Why does it move us? How does the brain process sound, and why are some people better at it than others?
We re-imagine the disastrous debut of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 1913 through the lens of modern neurology, and we meet a composer who uses computers to capture the musical DNA of dead composers in order to create new work.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated the dates of two performances of “Rite of Spring” and the time that passed between them. The performance that inspired rioting occurred on May 29th, 1913. The second performance that we discussed occurred in April of 1914. The audio has been adjusted to reflect this fact.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the “Rite of Spring” was used in the movie “Fantasia” during the part that featured mushrooms. It was in fact used during the part that featured dinosaurs. The audio has been adjusted to reflect this fact.
Chris Hadfield—astronaut, and commander of Expedition 35 on the International Space Station—is full of surprises. He's been tweeting amazing pictures from space for months, and has even sung a duet with a musician on the ground.
Still, this I did not expect: A full-blown music video of him singing and playing guitar to David Bowie's "Space Oddity". This is, quite simply, amazing.