Free Money! (No, Seriously)

Back in the good old days (late 1990’s) companies like AllAdvantage paid us just for browsing the web (and having a small window that covered the bottom of our screen and rotated ads). I made some money off these programs (I think maybe $100 from AllAdvantage), but due to abuses these programs turned down (folks found ways to automate the process of appearing as if one was using the computer).

Bag of Money, image thanks to mcol and OpenClipart.
Bag of Money, image thanks to mcol and OpenClipart.

Well, it looks like the good old days may be coming back to us – so get in while you can. Okay, honestly, I think at least this company has a more sustainable and less cheatable model. I actually think its a bit of genius and I expect them to do well – though some competitors might come onto the scene who will offer them a run for their money.

What am I talking about? An Android application called Locket. If you have an Android smartphone (e.g. Verizon Droid, Samsung Galaxy, HTC One, and almost all smartphones that aren’t Apple iPhones), you can use this application.

The concept is simple. When you turn on your phone’s screen to take some action (make a phone call, browse the internet, text message, play a game, write a note, check your bank balance) you are immediately presented with the “lock screen.” You may a swipe motion to “unlock” the screen – this “lock” mechanism prevents you (at least theoretically) from accidentally pocket dialing folks.

Locket is a small Android application that “takes over” your lock screen. When you turn on your screen you’ll see an image (an ad). Its unintrusive, oftentimes interesting, and you can unlock like usual. Every (well almost every) time you unlock your phone, Locket gives you $.01.

Granted, that isn’t much. You aren’t going to get rich off this program – but seriously, it doesn’t reduce your productivity at all and I actually find the lock swipe mechanism to be better than that included by default with my Samsung Galaxy S3.

I’ve been using Locket for around 24 hours and have earn $0.18. Hahaha. Yeah, it isn’t much, but lets multiply that times a year: 365 * .18 = $65.70. It still isn’t much – but it almost covers a month with Verizon or AT&T of cell service and you are essentially being paid to do nothing.

I don’t use my phone super frequently. I use it for more than most people do (e.g. note taking, medicine adherence monitoring, banking, health monitoring, and so on) but not as frequently as many (I hate texting and phone calls) – so I imagine that others might earn a fairly easy $150 a year. Nothing to sneeze at, imho.

So, go get it. What does it cost you? No, I’m not getting paid to say this…I just like for people to use good products (and sometimes I do get paid, but not this time). 🙂

Plink – An Interesting Rewards Program.

Plink's Logo
Plink’s Logo

I’m always interested in rewards programs. I’ve been doing them for years and have made a decent chunk of change doing so. Nothing amazing, but a few hundred bucks without a lot of effort. Recently I stumbled upon Plink – which is an interesting variation on traditional rewards program – and one which I think has a lot of potential.

Essentially, one signs up for a free account and links one’s credit card/debit card to the account. You are then able to select from a number of businesses you’d like to earn “points” from. You receive points as you make purchases from these businesses.

Right now the businesses available to me include Dollar General, Kmart, Sears, Old Navy, Gap, Burger King, Outback Steakhouse, Arby’s, 1-800-Flowers, Taco Bell, Regal Cinemas, United Artists Theatres, 7-Eleven, Red Robin, Quiznos, and Dunkin Donuts.

Honestly, I don’t really use any of those – so for me it isn’t that effective at the moment, but if they add say Chick-fil-a, Target, and BP – I’d be all over it.

The one annoying thing is that there is a cap to the amount of points one can receive from each business. In other words, spend too much money and you’ll stop earning additional points. I understand why Plink does it this way – it is better for the businesses – they only have to “pay out” for customers for a short time and hopefully get the long-term benefits of customers who stick around.

Plink also offers the ability to earn points through gift cards and travel. Some of the businesses here include Red Robin, REI, Lowe’s, CVS, and Regal Cinemas. Now, I’d consider buying my gift cards for Lowes through here – not b/c I give away gift cards but b/c I could buy them for myself, use them, and earn points at the same time.

Finally, Plink allows one to earn points through travel related purchases – and this would be a nifty way for anyone who travels frequently to earn points. Some of the partner businesses include Holiday Inn (including Express), Staybridge Suites, Candlewood Suites, American Airlines, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and Alamo Rent a Car.

But, lets say I do use Plink. How easy is it to actually rack up rewards? Well, it appears that a plink point roughly translates into $.01. So, 2,500 plink points will get you a $25 gift card, 1,000 plink points a $10 gift card.

I’d estimate for someone who frequents the available businesses and/or travels you could easily earn $25-$100/yr. in gift cards without expending significant effort.

After looking further at the points awarded for purchasing gift cards, I don’t think I’d utilize it – the hassle of purchasing gift cards to make purchases is too high and the number of points received (15 per $10) is too low to make it worthwhile (unless you are a business).

A Detailed Journal of My Experiences Applying for HAMP.

Update

So, I discovered that SPS had left me some voicemails, but I use Google Voice for my voicemails and for some reason Google Voice threw the voicemails into my SPAM folder. While I’m still not happy with the responses SPS gave when I called in, I’m much less upset knowing that they did make an effort to return the calls (unbeknownst to me).

See the bottom of this article for continuing updates about the process.

Introduction

For various reasons[1] I’ve experienced significant struggles financially.

The government has created some programs to assist those in this situation – especially homeowners – one of these programs being the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP). I am currently in the process of applying to my mortgage provider (Select Portfolio Servicing, Inc.) for HAMP.

This image of a house is thanks to OpenClipart.org.
This image of a house is thanks to OpenClipart.org.

It has been a somewhat complicated and frustrating process and I thought perhaps by documenting my experiences here as I have them I could provide others with insights into the process and perhaps even some insight to the Federal Government and/or mortgage providers on streamlining the process.

This post will be an ongoing process until the application has been completed (whether accepted or rejected). I apologize that some of the earlier information is not as detailed as it might be – I did not begin tracking everything right from the get-go, but I have included as much information as I have been able to collect retroactively and will also keep better records moving forward.

Initial Application

I’m not sure how I originally learned about HAMP – I think I had heard about it on NPR, etc. In any case, I found information regarding the program on the SPS website under “Assistance Programs.”

The details for HAMP in particular are on: https://www.spservicing.com/AssistancePrograms/haModification.aspx. I believe these details may differ slightly from those presented by other mortgage companies, but that the general process will be the same.

The first thing I did was gather all the requested documentation:

  • Filled out an IRS 4506T-EZ Request for Transcript of Tax Return form. This allows the IRS to send specified previous year tax returns to SPS so they can use them to compare the info. I am submitting to what I submitted on my income taxes.
  • Next I gathered the two most recent pay stubs my wife had and then included invoices for all of my income up to the date of submission since I had become full-time self-employed February 1st.[2]
  • I missed including my most recent tax return, probably subconsciously thinking that IRS 4506T-EZ took care of the tax returns.[3]
  • And I filled out the Request for Mortgage Assistance (RMA) form.[4]

Let me take  a few moments to comment on the RMA form. It was nice that the form is an editable PDF so I could type in the information as I went but I don’t understand why the form is not savable (this would have made it easy to fill out the form in multiple sessions, and to edit and resubmit as necessary). One can fill out the form but cannot save the form with the data in it.

Additionally, the “Loan I.D. Number” fields on page 2 were not long enough when I attempted to include my second mortgage’s loan ID number. I had to write it in later by hand.

Finally, I included a fairly detailed letter explaining my situation and clarifying any aspects which I felt where unclear regarding my applications.

I put it in an envelope and sent it off with high hopes.

First Contact

SPS would eventually call me (I don’t remember the date I first sent the documents and when I received the phone call) and inform me they needed additional documentation. What documentation? Well, they needed the 2012 IRS Tax Return to expedite the process[5] and they also wanted three months bank statements from my checking account. As far as I know this was not mentioned as a requirement anywhere in the initial documentation process.

This is where HelloFax came in very handy. I was able to send 19 pages of bank statements[6] and 13 pages of my 2012 IRS tax return. It cost me maybe $2.[7] I sent these documents in on June 7th according to HelloFax.

After this I would receive several more contacts informing me that documentation was missing. It appears that for whatever reason they did not receive all of my faxed documents.[8] Thankfully, they informed me that I could email the documents to them via [email protected] So I sent over an email with the same documents I had faxed over – this was on June 10th. The subject line of my email was “Attn: (Name of Assigned SPS Agent), Required Documents as Needed, (Loan Number).” These were successfully received by SPS.

Lost in the System

I called SPS’ number several times to ensure they had received my documents. The number given was 866-820-6218. I had a specific extension for my assigned agent – but I could never enter it, the phone system lacked the prompt and/or ability to accept extensions directly.[9]

I ended up speaking with random representatives who told me I was missing documentation, I would inform them I had sent the documentation, they would confirm it had been received, and then I’d get a call telling me that I needed to send in more documentation – so I would call in again, have a similar discussion, and receive the same assurances.

I asked to be transferred to my agent on occasion, but was informed that the individual was unavailable. I requested a note be added for the agent to return my call, but no call was received. I also sent an email to my account manager requesting contact via SPS’ email [email protected] with the subject “Attn: (Account Representative), Acct: (Loan Number)” on the 12th of June like so:

“(Account Representative),
I attempted to call your number as printed on the letter I received from SPS (866-820-6218) and enter the extension given (extension) but it seems the system does not have any option for accepting extensions.
In any case, I wanted to confirm that you had received all the required documentation from me regarding the requested HAMP modification. I had faxed the documents over but received a call informing me that the documents had not been received so I sent them over via email, but did not receive any confirmation that they were received.
You can reach me at (my cell number).
Respectfully,
Dave Mackey”

I received an email from SPS the same day acknowledging (via automated system) that my email had been received, but did not receive a call back.[10]

Over the next number of days and weeks I would receive confusing letters from SPS – I wish I had kept physical copies. They essentially acknowledged again and again (I think I received fix or six) receiving documentation from me and that I would be contacted – but didn’t say what had been received or any other useful details.

I also received one that seemed to be asking me to reapply for HAMP from the get-go. This scared me, so I believe I called SPS again and was assured they had the documentation.

Finally, a few days ago, I think maybe June 28th, I received a letter from SPS entitled “INCOMPLETE INFORMATION NOTICE.” It stated that “If we do not receive the required documents by 7/24/13 we will consider your request for a modification to be withdrawn…” and so on. Well, that gives me a few weeks to try and send in additional info.

At the bottom of the first page it stated that the missing documentation was “Income Documentation” – and said I needed to submit two of the most recent paystubs – which I had for my wife (who is regularly employed) and had included several months of invoices for myself recording all my self-employed income.[11] So, I’m not entirely sure what this refers to, I’ve been unable to reach my account manager to clarify, and speaking with other representatives has not clarified the issue thus far.

My guess is that I mailed out the initial application around June 1st and it is now July 1st. The length isn’t too concerning, I know these things take time…and hopefully I can overcome these hiccups and move forward with the application.

I’m going to try and send them perhaps a summarized sheet of income from Feb 1st to the present for my self-employed income and see if that “fixes the glitch” and simultaneously I’ll continue attempting to contact my account representative via email and phone and hopefully can get some clarification on this issue.

Well, that brings you up-to-date on my process thus far. I’ll continue to expand this post as I take additional steps and receive additional communications from SPS. Let me know if you have any insights on the process and I hope this documentation will be helpful to others, especially those who might be customers of SPS, but I think it will also be useful to anyone attempting to apply for HAMP.

Ongoing Journal Entries

  • 7/2 – Received a phone call from SPS account manager (not the one I’d been assigned) informing me they needed a profit/loss statement for the past quarter. I generated one in Freshbooks and sent it over via email (asked if I could send it in this manner and they indicated this was acceptable). Hopefully I’m unlost. =)
  • 7/10 – As of yet I have not received any further communications from SPS. However, there was the Fourth of July holiday, so if we are generous, it has only been three full days since last communications (this being the fourth).
  • 7/13 – Received a phone call from SPS. They informed me that they had received my profit/loss statement and added it to my file two days ago, but that underwriters had not yet looked at it – but that they should within the next week (I’m guessing by 7/19). After which time, if everything is correct (and they didn’t state, but I assume, I meet the requirements) it will be passed on to the Treasury (I assume the U.S. Treasury Department). From there the representative informed me it is usually a thirty day turn-around period before the Treasury Department responds…So, sounds like some forward momentum, but also sounds like I won’t know anything for sure until almost September.
  • 7/24 – Discovered that SPS had left some voicemail messages but Google Voice had thrown them in the SPAM folder – so I never saw them until just a day or two ago. Makes me less upset with SPS.
  • 7/?? – Received another notice from SPS. It seems to be the same sort of form letter I have received so many copies of previously and doesn’t appear to show any different information.
  • 8/13 – Waiting…and waiting…and waiting.
  • 8/20 – Called SPS and requested an update on the status. The representative indicated that I had completed documentation in mid-July and that it could take “30-45” days for a decision to be made. So, I guess that means I should hear something early in September…hopefully, maybe even before.
  • 8/31 – Received a letter from SPS indicating that we had been accepted into the HAMP program. This was great news! The new estimated payment is significantly lower and will be a great help. It sounds like the taxes and homeowner’s insurance are also rolled into this – which if true, makes the new lower payment even more amazing. Now we are in a “trial” period. Fingers crossed!
  1. [1]Namely, a failed business venture in 2008, and the fact that my real estate taxes are not included in my mortgage payments.
  2. [2]Note, this was a mistake I made. They wanted a profit/loss statement apparently, not what in my mind was the equivalent of pay stubs.
  3. [3]When I later spoke to SPS on the phone, they informed me that it takes a significant period of time for the IRS to send over the returns, so they can expedite things if I send them the most recent copy.
  4. [4]This was a bit of a struggle for me. My Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) makes these sort of forms really frustrating and anxiety provoking. I pay a decent bit to H&R Block each year to perform my taxes for me to relieve this stress/anxiety. I have submitted the taxes myself for a number of years, but it is so anxiety provoking and does not reduce in anxiety with the passage of time, that I decided the expense was worth it.
  5. [5]I had forgotten to include this in the initial application.
  6. [6]Yes, they include a lot of extra blahh that doesn’t really need to be there – but I’ve tried just faxing the relevant pages to financial organizations before and been told they need all of the pages even if not relevant, so I included them all.
  7. [7]HelloFax offers free faxing, but I had gone over my limit…but it is still a lot cheaper/easier than buying a fax machine, going to a local store and paying for faxes, etc.
  8. [8]I’ve found HelloFax to be entirely reliable in the past, so I would lean towards believing that the documents were misplaced or the fax machine malfunctioned at SPS’ end. But that is neither here nor there, faxing is such an antiquated technology it needs to be dealt a long overdue death.
  9. [9]I know, I know, “Dave, you just don’t know what you are doing” but I swear, I tried multiple times and I’m pretty tech savvy, including a fair amount of familiarity working with PBX’es and Automated Call Attendants from the administrative/technical side.
  10. [10]As you’ll note, I’ve eliminated the account representatives’ name. The rep. could have been on vacation, ill, overloaded with other cases, etc. and I don’t want to subject the representative to any form of harassment when journals of activities such as this have been posted on the web.
  11. [11]I figured I’d give them extra, as I know they oftentimes want extra documentation when it comes to self-employment.

The State of IP (Web-Based Thermostats) 2013 Edition

Introduction

In June of 2011, nearly two years ago, I wrote an article summarizing the state of IP (web-based) enabled thermostats. I revised this article in April of 2012, over a year ago. Now, it seems appropriate, to create a new post reflecting the state of IP enabled thermostats in 2013.

This article will include all information still relevant from the older article along with new information regarding developments from 2012 until now.

I welcome comments regarding this post including:

  • Any IP based thermostats I may have missed.
  • Your experiences with various IP based thermostats.

Without further ado…

The Selection

ecobee

  • Offers 24% cost savings on heating and 21% on cooling as compared to leaving thermostat fixed on 72 degrees.[1]
  • I was unable to find an RSS feed using Feedly to keep up with ecobee’s blog…That is a big no no!
  • Offers solutions for home and business.
  • Website is very nice, apps, etc. appear well-finished – but no noticeable distinguishable features at consumer level, though business units offer administrative flexibility beyond that found in home units.
  • Prices appear to start around $200 and go up.
  • Conclusion: Might be worth considering for larger building where administration controls are needed, otherwise, seems neck-and-neck with competition.
Images of ecobee's thermostat and remote management.
Images of ecobee’s thermostat and remote management.

Radio Thermostat

  • Two different models are available direct from Radio Thermostat – the CT80 ($250) and the CT30 ($140).
  • Requires either a “C” or “Common” wire or an external power adapter.
  • 3M used to rebrand/resell these under the Filtrete brand via Home Depot, but appears to have stopped doing so.
  • They also lack an RSS feed (or even a real blog), the website design is outmoded, and the devices are not as slick as competitor options. That said, they do have online and public forums.
Radio Thermostat's WiFi thermostat.
Radio Thermostat’s WiFi thermostat.

Proliphix

  • Has a blog with RSS feed.
  • One of the oldest IP thermostat manufacturers.
  • Pricing is not available on the website.
  • Used to have residential solutions, but there is no mention of them on the site anymore.

Bay Controls

  • Site is pretty horrific.
  • No blog.
  • Installs in 30 minutes.
  • No recurring costs.
  • Has an iPhone client.
  • Looks to have significant customizability but at cost of user friendliness, a geek’s friend, but perhaps not for the average consumer.
  • Pricing starts at $220.
Bay Controls' Scary Geeky Thermostat
Bay Controls’ Scary Geeky Thermostat

Network Thermostat (Net/X)

  • Receives disappointing site award alongside Bay Controls.
  • Offers web-based and PC based management software which looks nice and feature-filled.
  • The web management console is a server built into the device, no cloud services.
  • Pricing starts around $450.
  • Offers special pricing for non-profits.

Intwine Energy

  • Company website was slow, consumer facing site appears to be down.
  • Most recent press release is from 2011.
  • Wouldn’t recommend due to lack of activity on site, though devices look fine.

Nexia Home (Formerly Schlage LiNK)

  • Appears to be rebranded via American Standard and Trane.
  • Offers the advantage of also supporting cameras, lighting, locks, and sensors.
  • Monthly fee of $9.
  • Utilizes Z-Wave technology, not WiFi per say.
  • Pricing starts at $150 for just the thermostat, but you’ll also need a bridge. A bundle is available for around $230.
  • No blog.
Nexia's Thermostat, Bridge, and Power Bundle
Nexia’s Thermostat, Bridge, and Power Bundle

Nest Thermostat

  • Created by former Apple folks, has gotten a lot of the recent press and consumer love.
  • Website and device appear beautiful.
  • Has partnered with energy utilities to offer the device for free if you sign up for select providers (only available in some states).
  • Has a blog, including RSS feed.
  • Devices are available from Amazon as well as Lowes and Home Depot.
  • Price is $250.
  • This system does not require a C wire.
The beautiful Nest thermostat.
The beautiful Nest thermostat.

Enphase Energy

  • Seems like Enphase is moving away from focusing on intelligent thermostats and focusing more on solar panels?
  • Uses the ZigBee protocol and thus requires a bridge device.
  • Website is slick and has a blog with RSS.
  • Only sells via distributors, no pricing easily available.

Venstar

  • Offers both residential and commercial solutions.
  • Offers the Surveyor product which allows for HVAC, lighting/electrical, and mechnical systems monitoring.
  • Claims (for Surveyor) “Go Green for No Green” (no cash up front, no capital expense, cash flow positive from day one). Didn’t see details on this program.

Energate

  • Has a blog, but no RSS.
  • Appears to work only through utilities.

EcoFactor

  • No blog.
  • Appears to work through utilities.

Trane

  • Offers the ComfortLink and ComfortLink II – both of which are web enabled.
  • The Nexia branded home thermostat starts at $150.
  • Thermostats are full color (except Nexia).

LockState Connect

  • Pricing starts at $170 for IP thermostat.
  • Ongoing monthly costs of $.99 for basic services for first device or $1.98 for premium (this includes email/sms alerts). Additional devices are $.99/mo.
  • Uses WiFi, not ZigBee or Z-Wave.
  • Also supports cameras, locks, and power strips.
  • No blog.
  • Requires a “C” wire, but also supports a 24VAC transformer.
Nexia's Thermostat, Bridge, and Power Bundle
Nexia’s Thermostat, Bridge, and Power Bundle

Honeywell

  • Full color available from $250 from Home Depot, monochrome from $120 for button-based and $150 for touchscreen. Appears slightly better pricing is available via Amazon.
  • All of these units require a “C” wire. If you have an older home/business you may not have this wire run to your thermostat. There are instructions on how to check on the website. It is quite unfortunate, there WiFi-less models have batteries that allow them to operate without the “C” wire, but these apparently don’t.
Full Color Honeywell WiFi Thermostat
Full Color Honeywell WiFi Thermostat
The Monochrome Honeywell Touchscreen WiFi Thermostat
The Monochrome Honeywell Touchscreen WiFi Thermostat
The Button-Based Monochrome Honeywell WiFi Thermostat.
The Button-Based Monochrome Honeywell WiFi Thermostat.

Hunter

  • Used to offer the Hunter Universal WiFi Internet Thermostat for $100, but it has been discontinued.

Lennox

  • Offers the icomfort Wi-Fi Touchscreen Thermostat.

Insteon

  • Requires a hub ($130~).
  • Pricing starts at $150 for thermostat.
  • Also supports lights, dimmers, switches, cameras, security, sprinkler and so on.
  • No blog.

Residential Control Systems (RCS) Technology

  • Has Z-Wave, ZigBee, and native WiFI thermostats.
  • Products are monochrome
  • No blog.

Evolve Guest Controls

  • Thermostats start at $150.
  • Monochrome.
  • Has a blog with RSS.

2GIG Technologies

  • Uses Z-Wave.
  • Pricing around $150.
  • No blog.

Vaporware?

Conclusions

I’d be hesitant to utilize anything that runs over Z-Wave, ZigBee, or Insteon. I think WiFi is the wave of the future – but that might just be me. What do you think?

The Nest, LockState Connect, and Honeywell options look the most attractive to me. I just signed up with a new energy utility and they are sending me a free Nest…so that is what I’ll be using at home.

  1. [1]Not that anyone with a programmable thermostat does that anymore.

Did Hackers Gain Access to All Your Personal Information?!?

Introduction

“Out of sight, out of mind.” This is true of so many important aspects of life. We know we should do something about them, but we don’t – because we forget about them or the effort seems greater than the benefit.

Unfortunately, sometimes these important aspects of life decide to blow up in our faces. For example, most of us have learned the importance of keeping oil in our cars and performing regular oil changes. We know that while this is “out of sight” it cannot be “out of mind.” But, have you ever been in a that ran out of oil? I have and it is not a pleasant experience. The engine implodes on itself with many strange, loud, and scary sounds while smoke billows from the hood and nauseous odors waft through the vents. The car slows to a stop and never starts again. Cue tears, tow truck, and etc.

Burglar from OpenClipart.org. Thanks to tzunghaor for his generosity.
Burglar from OpenClipart.org. Thanks to tzunghaor for his generosity in making this image freely available.

It is time that our technology security becomes one of these “out of sight” but better not be “out of mind” aspects. It has long been time…but if you are a casual technology (computer, smartphone, etc.) user you probably don’t think much about security – and if you do, I hate to say it, but a good bit of your knowledge is probably based on outdated or downright false information.

Today, LivingSocial, a company with over 50 million users, was hacked. This follows a few weeks after Evernote was compromised with its similarly millions of users. Whether you are or are not a customer of these services isn’t the point. What is the point is this: Your identity, personal information, and financials are not safe.

Don’t wait until your Facebook page is plastered with pornographic images to change your password. Or until you send all of your friends emails explaining how you are really lost in London and need them to send money orders to a bank near you. Or until your credit report shows debts you never accumulated. Or your personal emails and documents are flouted across the web for all to see.

Don’t Unplug

Resist the temptation to unplug the computer. I know what I’m saying is a lot of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) and in general I hate when people use FUD. It is usually uncalled for and unproductive. In this case I think it is both called for and productive – but it will only be productive if you take the right steps. The right steps are not to unplug your computer and abandon technology forever. The right answer is to take the time and energy it will take to learn how to live and act in a more secure way in a technological world.

Why not just unplug? Good question – this is the usual action folks who spread FUD about technology are hoping to provoke. That or they want to convince you to buy expensive technological solutions to resolve your issues. Let me give you a few good reasons not to unplug:

  1. Technology is not going away. To withdraw from it is to withdraw from reality. Yes, technology can be overwhelming, addictive, insecure, and bad – but you have to learn how to utilize technology and not be enslaved to it. This is necessary for your job, for communicating with friends and relatives, and for living a productive life.[1]
  2. This isn’t just about your connection to the internet. Look, part of this is simply an educational campaign, b/c the truth is that technology security is horribly weak everywhere. You can unplug from technology – but you can’t force your bank, your relatives, your credit card companies, or so on to withdraw – and so your information is still out there.
  3. We are on the edge of extinction. By this I mean, don’t allow fear to control your life. Take reasonable steps towards risk management – but don’t stop living. Look, this entire world, this entire universe is crazy. At any moment we could all be dead. Don’t believe me? Look at the earthquakes that hit Haiti and Japan or the tsunamai that wiped out hundreds of thousands of lives in moments just a few years ago. “But Dave, that wouldn’t happen here. We aren’t on tectonic plate faults, etc., etc.” Then look at the Spanish Flu which wiped out millions of lives – many of the young and strong – during the early 1900’s, the millions that died in World War I and World War II in combat, or even better – look at the Black Plague which wiped out perhaps 50% of the world’s population a few hundred years ago.
  4. Manage risk, don’t run from it. Let me reiterate on the above point – everything is a risk. We can’t avoid risk, we aren’t in control. We can manage stupid risks. Don’t run in front of someone with a loaded gun; don’t drive a car at excessive speeds in bad weather[2]; and don’t wait until your identity or finances have been compromised to get serious about security.

What Should I Do?

  1. Remember, we are talking about risk management – not risk elimination. These steps will reduce the likelihood of exposure, but they won’t eliminate it.
  2. Invest some time into learning about technology generally and security specifically. The better you understand what you are working with, the better you can utilize it safely. For learning about computers generally, check out GCF’s Free Computer Training courses. For information on security specifically consider reading materials available from US-CERT[3] They are a government organization focused on technology security and offer a number of documents aimed towards the general reader.
  3. Begin utilizing LastPass to manage your passwords, ensure you have secure passwords, eliminate weak passwords, and so on. It is a little bit of a learning curve – but once configured it’ll make life easier and it is free.
  4. Continue to learn about technology generally and technology security specifically on an ongoing basis. Think about how many hours you spend using technology (not just on a computer but also a phone, tablet, using an atm, credit card checkouts at local stores, and so on) and also about all the ways your information is used technologically (banks, schools, non-profits, government, and so on). Consider the total number of hours you spend each year and then choose a reasonable number (say five or ten…or maybe twenty five…depending on how quickly you pick up on technology subjects) to spend on learning about technology and security in the upcoming year. Note how small of an investment you are making relative to the amount of time and energy you spend with these technologies.
  5. Consider talking to someone who knows technology who can make more personalized suggestions for you and who can review your technology overall for safety. If this individual tells you not to spend any time on security – find someone else. Make sure what they are saying is lining up with what you are learning from US-CERT or similar authoritative sources of security information.
  6. On a similar note, most techs (in my experience), including myself don’t mind talking to people about security – but feel frustrated when asked about security and then ignored. Please make the conscious effort to listen and understand. Far too many technology conversations are started with someone asking me a technology question and immediately letting their eyes glaze over. This communicates two things, “What you are saying isn’t important” (and for many of this, this is our livelihood) and “I didn’t mean I wanted to learn, I meant can I use you to make me secure so I don’t have to learn?” (okay, okay, maybe you wouldn’t put it in those words, but when we regularly get these questions with a regular lack of interested in the answers…it is hurtful).[4]
  7. Consider the practices your employer utilizes for maintaining security. Do they exist? Are they realistic? Many companies are horribly insecure…and it might be time to sit down with your boss (if they are open to that sort of conversation) and talk to them about the need for technology security in the workplace.
  8. Share this article or similar articles and the documents from the US-CERT with friends, family, and co-workers. Help raise awareness about the significant issue that is before us in a way that encourages others to do something about it rather than being overwhelmed by fear and running away.

Conclusion

Technology security is everyone’s concern. This is not a hopeless awareness issue. We’ve brought awareness about drinking and driving, drug addiction, mental illness, and healthy eating to varying levels of public awareness – the same is necessary for security.

You will be safer and more productive using technology securely. You will be a better employee but helping encourage safe technology at work. You will be a helpful citizen by encouraging proper security implementations at local, state, and national governmental levels.

I’m available to answer questions, comments, and criticisms via

the comments on this post. Please feel free to write me with your technology security concerns, if any of this is confusing, or if you find the materials I provided for training in technology or technology security too difficult and I will do my best to assist you in finding materials which will work with your current knowledge level regarding technology.

  1. [1]Those who aren’t convinced might consider reading Kirkpatrick Sale’s Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age.
  2. [2]Or at all, but I’m just trying to emphasize the outrageous.
  3. [3]United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team.
  4. [4]Yes, geeks/techs do have feelings, even if they may not express them.

Web-Based Invoicing Options.

Image representing FreshBooks
Image via CrunchBase

Freelancing and self-employment seem to be growing in popularity and with them come an increasing need for invoicing software. At one juncture I was researching my options and compiled a list – figured I’d share it for anyone else out there looking into invoicing options as well.

I don’t do a ton of invoicing – but I do use Freshbooks. I’m currently on their free plan, which has been adequate. I wish they had more tiers or lower prices or something, as I would like to move up but can’t really justify the price yet. I’ve been using Freshbooks for a number of years now and it is reliable and intuitive.

  • Freshbooks – This is the service I use. I probably stay with them b/c (a) they have a decent feature set, (b) all my data is in their system, (c) I haven’t needed to purchase a premium plan.
  • invoicedude – Offers hosted and self-hosted options. It is free for hosted. This was one of the ones that was more attractive to me.
  • Cashboard – Has a free plan and then a premium plan ($15/mo.).
  • Simple Invoices – A free, open source, self-hosted solution.
  • CurdBee – This was another interesting option. It has a generous free option, then jumps up to $5/mo. for pro with even more features.
  • Invoiceable – Entirely free, based out of somewhere in the European Union.
  • Blinksale – $15/mo.
  • Invoice RA – Starts at $20/mo.
  • Zoho Invoice – Zoho has a whole suite of productivity web apps. Has a free plan and then moves to $15/mo.
  • WP-Invoice – Another interesting option, self-hosted, uses WordPress, free.

The Target Credit Card.

Target
Target (Photo credit: kevin dooley)

I like Target. I prefer it over Walmart. I don’t do a lot of shopping, but if I am shopping, Target is one of my main stops…which brings us to the Target Credit Card. The card comes with a grace period on payments (if you pay in full, then you aren’t charged interest) and no annual fee (take that American Express). In addition it offers a 5% discount on every purchase made at Target using the card. You read that right – not a measly 1 or 2% on some purchases – but across the board, 5%!

Is that all? Well not quite. Don’t forget that when you use the Target credit card online you’ll get free shipping and handling on your purchase and extra time (+30 days beyond the usual) to return your items. Yeah, it is a little like Amazon Prime without the subscription fee.

Now, there is one drawback to this whole Target credit card thing – and that is that you’ll be tempted to spend more time at Target. But for those who can resist the urge to splurge, the Target credit card makes a lot of sense and can be a real money saver.

I think Target is onto something great and hope that they will continue to improve their services. They are a brick-and-mortar store that is evolving with the times – but will they go far enough and fast enough? I hope so…

Just in case anyone from Target is pondering how they might go farther and faster, here are a few friendly suggestions:

  • Integrate Receipts – This would be huge. Make that line item for a $102.50 purchase at Target clickable and when I click on it show me the individual items I purchased. In this way I can keep better track of what purchases are household, pharmacy, clothing, automotive, entertainment, grocery, and so on…
    • Along with this could be an option to get rid of paper receipts. If I use a Target card let me set an option that determines if a paper receipt is printed or not on the site (or at a cashier). Not only is this good for the environment but it saves me the annoyance of carrying around that annoying piece of lengthy paper.

Ummm…I guess that is only two recommendations, the card is nearly that perfect. What is your favorite credit card? Are there other features that Target’s card is missing?

Avoiding Gigantic Cell Phone Bills by Understanding Data.

Introduction

A woman reading SMS messages on her mobile phone
A woman reading SMS messages on her mobile phone while standing on a bike in traffic. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I bought a used iPhone 4 for my wife to replace her dying iPhone 3G. A few days later she said, “I’m getting messages that I’ve used up 60% of my data plan and I’ll be charged for overages. What do I need to stop doing?” This is a great question. Wireless service providers (e.g. Verizon, AT&T, etc.) want to sell you as large of a data plan as they can – so you feel safe that you won’t get charged overages and on the other hand will charge you heftily if you do exceed your allotted data for the month. So how much data do you need and how can you avoid overage fees? This article will attempt to provide some simple guidelines and basic knowledge that should help you make informed decisions that will save you money and headaches.

The Basics

Smartphones are phones designed to operate as more than a phone – essentially a small computer. They are fantastically useful for organizing one’s life, but they need to transfer data across the internet in order to run most of the applications that make these phones so useful. So, if you have a smartphone, it is likely that you are paying your provide for voice service, text service (sms), and data service. You might have 450 minutes of voice, 500 text messages, and 250 MB of data per month on your plan. How do you determine if this is enough? That is what this article is all about.

What Uses Data?

First, lets talk about what consumes your data each month. There are a few major ways in which data is normally consumed on a smartphone:

  • Streaming Video – This could be from Netflix, Youtube, Hulu, or any number of sites that provide video access on your smartphone.
  • Streaming Music – This could be from Spotify, Pandora, Grooveshark, or a similar service.
  • Application Downloads – The various applications you install on your phone each are a certain size – and some of them can be fairly large. (does it warn you?)
  • Social Networking – This includes services like Google+, Facebook, Twitter, and so on.
  • Internet – This is general web browsing – say if you visit Yahoo or ESPN or Wikipedia.
  • Productivity – This includes applications like email and calendaring – which sync with servers out there on the internet to ensure your phone always has the latest communications and appointments available.
  • Other Applications – Once you have installed applications they generally use some data on occasion – though usually not a lot. This might be polling for updates, sending high scores to a central server, pulling down the latest weather or news, and so on.

Who Are the Troublemakers?

So we know what uses our data, but who are the real troublemakers? Should I stop browsing the web so much or is that not really consuming a lot of my data?

The two major culprits of data consumption are streaming video and music. Video is the largest culprit, but music runs a close second. Not only can the size of the files being transferred to your phone be large, but it is also a continuous process – for as long as you are utilizing the video or music.

Watching a few youtube clips probably isn’t going to consume all your data – but watching a few Hulu episodes? Expect to get some overage charges next month!

The internet generally isn’t a problem, unless you are browsing multimedia heavy sites (e.g. with lots of video/music). Otherwise the internet is largely text and small images – which don’t consume a lot of data.

Everything else will be minor contributors (generally speaking) to one’s data consumption. Though I wouldn’t recommend downloading a hundred large apps in a single month.

Avoiding Overage Charges

This doesn’t mean that you need to stop streaming video and music or downloading massive numbers of apps to your phone. It just means you need to take a few steps to avoid using the cell providers network to watch your video, listen to your music, and download your apps. Not that you have to do this all the time – but most of the time.

The easiest way to do this is to use other devices when they are available. For example, when you are at home and the laptop is sitting right by you – why use your smartphone to listen to music when you could use your laptop instead?

But you probably really want to use your smartphone…so what then? Well, your best bet is to use a WiFi connection. Most internet service providers give you a wireless router when you purchase internet service from them. This is what your computers throughout the house connect to…and your smartphone can connect to it too. When your smartphone uses your WiFi you aren’t charged for the data usage.

But this doesn’t help you when you are away from home – does it? Good news! You can also use other folks WiFi (as long as you have permission). For example, most folks have wireless internet at their homes and many are willing to give you access if you ask while you are visiting. Panera Bread, Starbucks, McDonalds, and numerous other stores offer free WiFi access as a service to their customers…not to mention airports and hotels.

But what if you know you are going to be on the road, you want to watch a video, but you are worried about consuming all your data? Well, that is a bit of a risk…but you can lessen it by downloading applications on WiFi. See, your data usage is cumulative from all the different ways you use it. So, if you download apps over WiFi that means that you have more data available for streaming videos or music or so on.

Personally, I avoid watching video on my smartphone and I never have issues with overages. If you don’t watch videos (regularly) on your smartphone and aren’t a constant music streamer – it is very likely you can get away with a 200-250 MB data plan each month.

What About Texts?

It really bugs me that the service providers charge for texts separately from data – and that they charge so exorbitantly for texts. SMS is a money-making machine for service providers, the costs are negligible to the service provide to give this service and it is essentially just data. You could send thousands of emails each month and not touch your data limits, but send those messages via text and they become a much more expensive proposition.

So how do you avoid getting charged so much for texts? How can you reduce the amount of texts you pay for each month? Let me mention the easiest way as a somewhat humorous – yet actually the way I handle things – method: don’t text.

Yes, Yes, I do text…but I don’t use it as my main form of communication. You can (or should be able to!) type much faster on a computer – so use a computer to communicate. Stop banging away on that tiny keypad on your phone and send an email or a facebook message or write a blog post, etc.

Okay, Okay, I know I’m old fashioned this way (even when I do send texts, I usually use my computer, which then forwards them over to my phone and then over to the recipients phone – that way I can type faster!) and most folks aren’t going to listen to my voice of reason. So what about for the rest of the world? The best solution is to use an alternative texting service such as Google Voice or Textfree. These services generally offer unlimited texting but have the downside of using a separate number for texting. You’ll still get the messages on your phone – but folks who receive your messages will see it as coming from a different number from the one you use on your cell phone to make voice calls.

Another option is to bypass the tether to SMS entirely and to use a general messaging app. Facebook Messenger is one obvious option because of the massive number of folks who use it.

Note: These applications will use data, but the data should be negligible. You are generally transferring text which consumes a minuscule amount of data.

Don’t Leave It to Chance

These guidelines can help you choose a lower data/sms plan and/or help you avoid overage charges – but they are still guidelines and not a hard and fast way to avoid overages or measure usage…but you can do that as well!

Some smartphones now offer this capability built-in (as does my Samsung Galaxy S III – an Android phone), but if your phone doesn’t, there are plenty of applications available for free or at most a few bucks that can measure data usage – and provide you with insight on just how much of your data you’ve utilized over the past month. For example Mobidia’s My Data Manager, Sigterm’s Data Usage, or Onavo’s Count | Monitor Data application.

Concluding Thoughts

Expect in the next few years to see cell phone bills simplify. Instead of paying separately for voice, text, and data everything will be lumped under data. This should help reduce prices – though this is something the carriers will want to avoid.

Take the opportunity to save yourself some cash. Following these guidelines you can easily save yourself $20 or more per month – which adds up! Here is a summary of the ways to save:

  1. Monitor the amount of videos and music you stream to your phone – this is what consumes most of your data. Use other devices when available.
  2. Use WiFi at home and when free WiFi is available, this will reduce the amount of data you utilize.
  3. To lower SMS charges use an alternative application like Google Voice or Textfree.
  4. Monitor your data usage to avoid overages using an app. like My Data Manager, Data Usage, or Count | Monitor Data.

HelloFax – A Beautiful, Simple Service.

Fax machines are an annoying relic of a previous era. Most individuals don’t have one, most businesses do. They are slow, unreliable, clunky, space-consuming, and generally everything I hate. HelloFax is a simple, freemium alternative to a fax machine. I don’t need to send or receive faxes often – but when I do, it is a hassle. HelloFax removes this hassle.

Joseph Walla finally gets rid of my fax machine
Joseph Walla finally gets rid of my fax machine for signing docs with http://hellofax.com (Photo credit: Robert Scoble)

HelloFax allows you to send documents via their web service. They handle all the delicacies of actually delivering it to a physical fax machine – you just scan (or save) your document and then upload it to their service through a friendly, intuitive web interface. You can send five faxes for free each month. If you need additional faxes they are $.99/ea. Alternatively, you can sign up for their basic service at $5/mo. which allows you to send a whopping 50 faxes and you get your own fax number so you can receive faxes (without having a physical fax machine).

HelloFax allows for you to sign documents digitally and to request digital signatures. It also integrates with Google Drive, Box, and Dropbox – how nifty is that? Everybody give HelloFax a round of applause for being awesome.

Time for Dave to “Eat Crow:” Quizzle is worth your time…

I don’t like admitting more than anyone that I was wrong – but I was, and it is time to own up to it. Basically, take everything I wrote in the post, “Goodbye Quizzle, Thank You CreditKarma” out the window except for my applause for CreditKarma – which remains a great service.

I had decided Quizzle wasn’t worth the work because they only allowed one to pull a credit score once every six months whereas CreditKarma lets you do it every day if you wish. I was corrected by a representative from Quizzle who informed me that Quizzle offers not just credit scores but credit reports. So while I think it would be great if Quizzle let me update my credit score every day and view my credit report every six months – the point is that Quizzle does have something really valuable to offer: free credit reports.

What is the difference? A credit score is a number that gives you an idea of how good your credit rating is compared to everyone else’s credit score. A credit report tells you what exactly is contained in your credit file. This is a valuable service and one that I don’t think you can get anywhere else for free – except annualcreditreport.com – but that is only once a year.

So color me embarrassed, I re-endorse Quizzle, and am using my account…and you should too.