MONEY Odd Spending

8 Ways Somebody Is Making Money Off Ebola Fears

Clorox and Lysol on shelves in store
Patti McConville—Alamy

The buzz over Ebola has triggered sales that might be described as overboard (body suits), ironic (Ebola Halloween costumes), or downright bizarre (protective masks featuring a hip-hop artist's face).

On Monday, the World Health Organization declared that the Ebola outbreak is officially over in Nigeria. Yet fears of the deadly virus continue to grip the world, meaning that sales of Ebola-related products like these are likely to continue being strong.

Anti-Germ Products
Disinfectants, Clorox, Lysol, and hand sanitizer are among the germ-fighting products that have experienced a boost in sales since Ebola fears have hit the U.S. and other nations. In a recent four-week period, for instance, Clorox sales were up 28%. Anecdotally, travelers report that hand sanitizer and other anti-germ products are appearing more often near the checkout areas of airport shops, though that may be partly just because it’s flu season.

Protective Gear
After word spread that someone in the U.S. was being treated for Ebola, sales of medical-grade masks, gloves, body suits, and other protective gear made by one Chicago-area firm spiked. The number of phone calls the company handled increased fivefold almost overnight, and sales of face masks jumped by 40%. Sales of a wide variety of infection protection and doomsday prep kits have soared as well. And speculative investors see opportunity in the situation, too. One day in early October, the stock price of Lakeland Industries—which manufactures industrial protective gear worn by professionals who might come into contact with dangerous chemicals and viruses—surged more than 50% (before retreating significantly of late).

Hip-Hop Ebola Masks
Basic polypropylene masks sell for less thanb 10 cents apiece when purchased in bulk. But when you’re going to the trouble of protecting yourself from germs with a mask, why not go the extra step and protect yourself in style? That, presumably, is the sales pitch from the rapper Cam’ron, who is selling polypropylene masks for $19.99 each, featuring an image of his likeness on them—oddly, while he’s speaking on a pink flip phone. Perhaps even more oddly, the item is only available for preorder at the moment. “Ships 11/7/14,” the order page explains. You’ll have to hold your breath or (gasp!) use a lame, basic mask until then.

Ebola Halloween Costumes
Thanks to the world’s lightning-fast-moving attention span, we’re guaranteed that anything that’s been buzzing in the news or has achieved meme status in October is bound to pop up in some form as a Halloween costume. Even if it’s a subject as grim and deadly serious as Ebola. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the “hot costume” label has been applied to Ebola-related outfits, including Ebola containment workers, Ebola victims, and Ebola zombies.

Ebola Toys
To be fair to Giant Microbes, the Connecticut-based “Learning & Fun” company has been manufacturing plush toy versions of Bed Bugs, Chickenpox, Dengue Fever, Black Death, and no fewer than three Ebola products long before Ebola sales became trendy. In any event, sales of Giant Microbes’ “uniquely contagious” Ebola toys have been off the charts since the virus became a mainstay on cable TV news; the company has been completely sold out for days.

Fake Charity Scams
The Better Business Bureau warned consumers about “a variety of Ebola-related scams and problematic fundraisers” that have popped up in recent days, including crowdfunding ventures that aren’t necessarily providing any aid to Ebola victims and sketchy phone solicitations that aren’t tied to any genuine, known charities.

Vitamin C
Essential oils and herbal remedies are among the many unproven “cures” that have been suggested as strategies for fighting off Ebola, but of all the groundless theories for protecting oneself, none has gotten more attention than Vitamin C. One opportunistic New York businessman has been selling up to 14,000 packages per day lately of a supplement with 554% of the daily recommended intake of Vitamin C—which he packages under the name Ebola-C.

Science blogs have felt compelled to combat the misinformation, describing one effort to pump up sales of the vitamin as a “particularly irresponsible bit of quackery promotion.” In a Los Angeles Times story about purported Ebola “cures,” Gerald Weissmann, editor-in-chief of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology and professor of medicine at New York University, said that while Vitamin C is part of a healthy diet and helps build up one’s immune system, “there’s no evidence it has any effect on infectious disease” when taken in higher doses. What’s more, “all this quack stuff takes money and effort away” from legitimate research devoted to coping with Ebola and other health dangers.

Web URLs
In 2008, a forward-thinking entrepreneur named Jon Schultz purchased the Ebola.com URL for $13,500. He’s now willing to part with control of the site for a mere $150,000, the Washington Post reported.

TIME Video Games

Anyone Claiming There’s a Grand Theft Auto V Beta Is Still Lying

It's not clear when or where the scams are occurring, but they're scams, each and every one.

For once, I’ve learned about a bizarre scam from the object of the scam instead of the scammers: Rockstar would like you to know that if you happen upon a site or person or email claiming there’s a Grand Theft Auto V beta, you risk being duped.

“Please note,” writes Rockstar in an undated web notice, “there is no pre-release ‘beta’ test for Grand Theft Auto V. If you see ads or solicitations to join a beta program, beware as this is likely some type of online phishing scam.”

If that parses a little weirdly to you, it’s because you’re probably thinking, “But Grand Theft Auto V’s already out, isn’t it?” Indeed, the game arrived last September for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. This presumably relates to the upcoming PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions due on November 18, followed by a Windows version on January 27, 2015. I’ll say again: presumably.

I’m assuming it’s not some kind of bizarre prerelease viral marketing thing, though it is a little odd-looking, poking around the echo chamber and finding no paper trails. No one seems to have evidence of the scam itself, and sites writing about supposed fake Steam betas and 19GB of virus-choked malware all seem to be linking to a site called Xboxer360, which hasn’t posted a news update in 10 months, and whose story about a Grand Theft Auto V beta scam is over a year old. Search on the phrase “GTA V PC torrent” and you’ll find a variety of links to obvious (well, obvious to me) shysters, but whose fake listings are pretty old.

I’ve asked my contact at Rockstar to verify this beta notice is indeed new. In any event, now that I’ve expended over 300 words writing about it, whether the scams are fresh or you’re a time traveler about to embark in your TARDIS on a trip to visit the nefarious corners of the interwebs circa late 2013, beware Grand Theft Auto V beta claims: they’re phony bologna.

[Update: I knew it. My Rockstar contact just confirmed the link up top is to an old 2013 warning. So consider yourself warned. Again.]

MONEY Taxes

Don’t Fall for the ‘Steve Martin’ IRS Phone Call Scam

Caller ID showing phone scam
Rod Crow—Alamy

Callers claiming to be government agents with names like "Steve Martin" and "Jack Dawson" say that you owe unpaid taxes, and you'll be arrested asap if you don't pay up. It's a big scam—apparently, one that's spreading.

A phone scam that first appeared nationally a year ago and has ripped off victims for more than $5 million is showing no signs of slowing down. In October 2013, the IRS issued a warning concerning a “pervasive telephone scam” that had popped in nearly every state in the country—victimizing recent immigrants in particular—that played out in the following way:

Victims are told they owe money to the IRS and it must be paid promptly through a pre-loaded debit card or wire transfer. If the victim refuses to cooperate, they are then threatened with arrest, deportation or suspension of a business or driver’s license. In many cases, the caller becomes hostile and insulting.

The Treasury Inspector General for the Taxpayer Administration (TIGTA) and the FTC followed up with warnings about the scam during tax season, by which time more than 20,000 suspect calls had been reported, and victims had been bilked of more than $1 million. Based on how lucrative this con has been for fraudsters, it’s no wonder that the calls keep on coming. By August, the IRS was compelled to send out another warning, alerting the public that the number of complaints about such calls had surpassed 90,000, and losses by victims had exceeded $5 million.

In recent weeks, amid continued reports in Ohio, Delaware, New Jersey, and other states, the FBI issued an alert with more details about the “intimidation tactics” used by callers. There may be threats to “confiscate the recipient’s property, freeze bank accounts, and have the recipient arrested and placed in jail. The reported alleged charges include defrauding the government, money owed for back taxes, law suits pending against the recipient, and nonpayment of taxes. The recipients are advised that it will cost thousands of dollars in fees/court costs to resolve this matter.”

It has been widely mentioned on scam warning Internet forums that the voices on the end of the threatening phone calls often have thick accents—variously described as Indian, Middle Eastern, or Asian—and that they identify themselves as IRS agents with names that are sometimes generic American (Julie Smith, John Parker, Barry Foster) and other times seem pulled directly from Hollywood movies. “Steve Martin,” the original “Wild and Crazy Guy,” is one of the favorite fake names used by the scammers. “Jack Dawson,” the name of Leonardo DiCaprio’s iconic character in “Titanic,” is another. At times, the callers have been known to become abusive and use foul language, telling the call recipients, “Don’t be stupid” and “your ass will wind up in jail.”

All of these “problems” can go away, the scammers say, if the victim makes a payment of $500 or $1,500 immediately—ideally in an entirely untraceable way, such as a prepaid money card or wire transfer.

Before rolling your eyes and thinking you’d never fall for such a scam, note that the con involves a caller ID trick that makes it look like the call is originating from a number that is indeed used by an IRS office. Yet as the FTC warned, “You can’t rely on caller ID. Scammers know how to rig it to show you the wrong information (aka “spoofing”).” What’s more, callers often have some of the victim’s personal information handy, such as the last four digits of a social security number. Further calls and bogus “IRS” emails may follow the original call, in order to the make the demand for payment seem more legitimate.

Rest assured, it’s not. If you’re at all uncertain if you’re dealing with a scammer, bear in mind the following:

• The IRS almost always contacts people about unpaid taxes first by mail, not by phone.

• The IRS never asks for immediate payment over the phone, never requests payment information (for example, a debit card number) over the phone, and never specifies a certain form of payment for unpaid taxes.

• It is not standard procedure for IRS agents to call after normal office hours are over, nor to threaten people that more calls will follow if you don’t comply immediately, nor to swear at taxpayers.

If you do get a call that you suspect to be a scam, do NOT give out or confirm any personal information, and most certainly do NOT wire money or make payment of any sort. Hang up the phone right away, and then report the incident at the TIGTA hotline (800-366-4484). File a complaint with the FTC as well.

MONEY home improvement

What Your Contractor Really Means When He Says…

Speaking with contractor
Getty Images

Understanding these common contractor phrases can minimize hassle and save you big bucks.

Home improvement contractors talk a good game—sometimes without saying what they actually mean. So until someone invents an app for translating contractor-ese into plain English, here’s a handy cheat sheet of the hidden meaning behind several common contractor words and phrases that every homeowner should understand. (If you have other examples to share, please send them to realestate@moneymail.com.)

When He Says: “I” or “We”
He Really Means: My crew. I don’t actually do the work myself. I spend my time bidding future jobs, organizing them, and sailing my boat.
What You Should Say: “Who will be doing the work, you or someone who works for you?” Unless he says it’ll be him, ask if he will be there at the start of every day to direct the crew, especially if it’s a complex improvement project like a full-house renovation or addition that involves numerous tradesmen. If he says yes, hold him to that promise. If he says no, hire someone else.

When He Says: “If I were you, I’d skip the permit and save some money.”
He Really Means: It’s a heck of a lot easier for me if you don’t get a permit, because I can disregard building codes, skip a lot of paperwork and inspection appointments, and dollars to donuts, nobody will ever even confirm whether I have a contractor’s license. So, I’m going to play up the permit fees and red tape, both of which are actually minimal.
What You Should Say: “Thanks, but I’d rather pay now than pay later.” Getting the proper permits assures that you won’t have problems when you try to sell the house later on, a situation that can arise if you do certain improvement projects without getting a certificate of occupancy, the town’s final approval on a project that has been fully permitted and inspected.

When He Says: “No problem. We can do that instead.”
He Really Means: I am happy to adjust the project as we go, but I will definitely be charging you for any change you make to the original plans I priced out for you. I’m not mentioning that now because I don’t want to discourage you from making this or other changes, because repricing the job is a hassle I’d rather put off until later, and because in the unlikely case I underestimated some other part of your job, I can make up that cost in the price of the changes if I wait to give them to you at the end.
What You Should Say: “Great, but before we make that change, could you jot down a quick description of the new work and what it’s going to cost me?” If the contractor doesn’t want to execute a formal change order, a simple handwritten notation on the back of the contract will do the trick. Then you can both initial it, and there will be no confusion about what the contractor is doing or what you’re paying.

When He Says: “Hi, I just did a driveway [or insert other job here] in the neighborhood and have a load of leftover asphalt on my truck I need to get rid of, so I will give you a sweet deal to do your driveway today.”
He Really Means: Hi, I’m an unreliable and unprofessional contractor you’ve never met before—or I might even be an out-and-out scam artist—and I’m trying to entice you into making a bad decision with the promise of a big discount. I know that you’d never normally hire a contractor without getting recommendations and doing your due diligence, but I’m hoping to catch you off guard with my surprise approach, winning smile, and promise of huge savings. When you discover my work is shoddy, you’ll also realize you have no idea who I am or where to find me.
What You Should Say: “Thanks, but no thanks.”

MONEY Odd Spending

You Can Buy the Mona Lisa for $25,000

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, oil on wood
Is it real...or is it a Mark Landis? Fine Art Images—Getty Images

It's a forgery rather than the real "Mona Lisa" by Leonardo da Vinci, of course. But the asking price is still pretty steep.

The world’s most famous portrait hangs on a wall at the Louvre. It’s not for sale, and it’s hard to imagine that it ever will go on the market. But perhaps the next-best thing went on sale this week, at a coffee shop in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood.

The Bedford + Bowery blog reported that a painting that some are calling the “Fauxna Lisa” is hanging on the wall at the Mercer Street Think Coffee shop. This portrait is most definitely for sale, with an asking price of $25,000.

Such a sum for what’s admittedly a forgery might seem absurd. Until you learn that the creator of this artwork, while not a household name like Leonardo da Vinci, is fairly famous—even infamous—in his own right.

The remarkably high-quality forgery was done by Mark Landis, a notorious art forger who has been profiled by the likes of The New Yorker and has done copies of artworks by sources ranging from Picasso to Disney. The quality of his reproductions has been good enough to fool dozens of museums, including the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Landis is also the subject of a new documentary called “Art and Craft,” and apparently the makers of the film approached Think Coffee recently with a proposal to hang Landis’s faux version of the “Mona Lisa” on the walls and sell it.

By one account, Landis completed the “Fauxna Lisa” in just 90 minutes. In a recent “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit, however, the painter said that the reproduction of the “Mona Lisa” was the most challenging forgery he’s ever done. “It took me a whole weekend,” he wrote in response to a question on the forum. When asked how he was able to do such intricate work, and so quickly, Landis responded, “Well, it’s like a magic trick you know. If I told people, it wouldn’t be worth anything anymore.”

Surprisingly, Landis says that he has never benefited financially from his forgeries; in most cases, he simply donated them to institutions. He was busted (but not arrested) in 2010, and while it was originally reported that proceeds from the sale of his “Fauxna Lisa” were intended to go to the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, which is located in the Mississippi town where Landis is from—and which, fittingly, was duped in the past into accepting a forgery by Landis, a museum representative reached out to MONEY and said this is not true.

[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story reported that proceeds from the sale of Mark Landis's "Mona Lisa" forgery would benefit the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art. The museum's director of marketing said that this is not the case.]

MONEY Scams

5 Ways You’re Being Duped by Food & Drink Labels

Whiskey barrels
William Baker—Alamy

Think that "natural" food you're buying is made without artificial ingredients? Think again.

You might think that labels describing products as “local,” “craft,” and “natural” indeed mean that they’re local, craft, and natural. To a disturbing degree these days, you’d be wrong. Here are five examples of how food and drink labels can be vague, meaningless, or downright fraudulent, and how consumers are being duped as a result.

Liquor That’s “Local” and “Craft”
In a story about the emerging small-batch craft liquor trend, the Denver Post recently asked an interesting question: “Ever wonder how a brand-new distiller is offering 8-year-old whiskey?”

The answer is that the new company is buying the hooch, typically from an industrial factory in another state like Kentucky or Indiana. The truth is that often, according to the Denver Post investigation, the packaging and marketing of supposedly hand-crafted, locally produced whiskeys, vodkas, and bourbons are the only things actually concocted by the company on the label. In related news, a class-action lawsuit in Iowa against the makers of Templeton Rye whiskey received approval to proceed this week; the suit alleges that consumers were tricked into believing the product was made in Iowa when in fact it was made in an Indiana factory.

Critics say that most of the rapidly growing legions of new players in the craft liquor space are mere marketers, not manufacturers, and that they intentionally mislead buyers into thinking the booze is made in-house. Sometimes the language on labels is an indication—the words “produced by” rather than “distilled by” may be a giveaway that the brand doesn’t make its own product—while other times the labels are even more vague or simply false, and the hope is that no one really unearths the truth.

Thankfully, authentic craft liquor makers tend to be geeky types who dwell on every last detail of production and happily run through the process step by step on websites and tours. If you’re unsure about a brand and want to know more about how the product came to be, all you likely have to do is ask.

“Local” Farmers Markets
When you buy, say, kale at a farmers market, it’s reasonable to assume the kale is grown at the farm whose representatives are doing the selling. But perhaps you shouldn’t jump to such conclusions.

One apprentice who worked farmers’ markets for his employer in New England explained in a confession published by Modern Farmer that he was unknowingly selling kale that came from a farm in Georgia. The New England farm was also passing off Canadian asparagus and California salad greens as its own “local” produce at farmers markets. The confessor confronted his boss about the produce of questionable origins, and “he said that not all of it was coming from the farm, that some of it was coming from other farms, and I asked was it coming from local farms and he said some of it was not.”

Previous investigations, in metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles and Detroit, revealed pretty much the same: farmers passing off produce from somewhere far away as home grown and local.

“Natural” Foods
More and more, American consumers say that eating healthier diets is important to them. According to the 2014 Food & Health Survey, taste and price are be the two biggest reasons people purchase food and beverages (listed by 90% and 73% of consumers, respectively), but the healthfulness of what’s put inside one’s body is catching up as a key factor: 71% said it was very important, compared with 61% in 2012.

Quite naturally, many of these health-minded consumers are likely to be drawn to foods labeled as “natural.” There’s just one problem: The word means pretty much … nothing. Consumer Reports found that three out of five consumers check specifically for “natural” products, “despite there being no federal or third-party verified label for this term.” And this summer, the consumer advocacy group decided to do something about the fact that millions are seemingly being misled into believing the term “natural” only applies to foods that are made without pesticides, artificial ingredients, or genetically modified organisms.

“Due to overwhelming and ongoing consumer confusion around the natural food label, we are launching a new campaign to kill the natural label because our poll underscores that it is misleading, confusing, and deceptive,” Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety & Sustainability Center, said in a statement in July. “We also don’t believe it is necessary to define natural when there is already another label—organic—that comes much closer to meeting consumer expectations and is accompanied by legal accountability.”

Any Kind of Fish You’re Buying
An alarming study released last year by the nonprofit group Oceana showed that the mislabeling of seafood sold in restaurants, sushi shops, and supermarkets happens all the time. In a study covering 21 states around the country, one-third of all samples were listed as the wrong kind of fish—the “snapper” turned out to be rockfish, for instance. Restaurants in northern California misidentified fish in a whopping 58% of the samples taken, while Pennsylvania was the worst state overall, with 56% of the seafood in grocery stores and restaurants turning out to be something other than what was listed on menus and pricing labels.

Meanwhile, a series of Boston Globe stories that predate the Oceana study also showed that restaurants and supermarkets routinely mislabel the seafood they sell. Investigators followed up that analysis with another study indicating that shoppers were regularly paying too much for seafood in supermarkets because the fish weight (and therefore, price) was inflated thanks to ice being factored in during the weighing process. In all likelihood, this means that some consumers have been charged excessively for seafood for two separate reasons—because of ice skewing the true amount they were paying for, and because they were duped into thinking they were getting a pricier kind of fish.

“Craft” Beer
Blue Moon, Shock Top, and Goose Island are beer brands that claim to be authentic craft beers, and many consumers assume that’s what they’re getting. Yet all three brands are owned by the world’s two biggest brewing companies—MillerCoors for the first two, and AnheuserBusch InBev in the case of Goose Island. In other words, these brews fall under the domain of the same companies manufacturing and marketing Coors Light and Budweiser, brands that are as mass-market and non-craft as you can get.

Amid the rapidly growing craft beer craze, it’s understandable that bigger companies would try to cash in on the trend by selling brews that appear to be made with personal care and “small batch” appeal. Just as understandably, the independent craft beer community, as embodied by the Colorado-based Brewers Association, has taken umbrage at the way that multinational corporations are trying to stealthily pass off mass-produced “crafty” beers as true craft product.

Related:
That Craft Beer You’re Drinking Isn’t Craft Beer. Do You Care?
The Demise of BK’s ‘Satisfries’ and the Sad History of ‘Healthy’ Fast Food

MONEY Investing

Kickstarter Backers Are Investors, and It’s Time They Got Used To It

iStock

Many Kickstarter users still don't quite understand what they're getting into, or why the site is predicated on risk.

It’s been a rough September for Kickstarter. After a three-week period during which two major projects—each of which had raised more than $500,000 on the site—failed spectacularly, the crowdfunding platform has begun to look a little less like a harmless way for underdog visionaries to fund their passion projects and a little more like a casino. It hasn’t helped that a handful of Kickstarter scams and con men were exposed in recent months.

Recently, Kickstarter appeared to respond to the bad press by revising its terms of service. The new document does a better job of laying out the responsibilities creators have to their backers. No scamming, do your best, try to make it up to people if you fail, and so on. But that move likely won’t fix the deeper problem: That most of the site’s users believe that their donations entitle them to some kind of tangible reward, be it a smart watch or a bamboo beer koozie. In reality, nothing of the sort is guaranteed. That’s because Kickstarter backers aren’t customers making a purchase. They’re investors. And like all investments, Kickstarter projects have a chance of going bust.

To an extent, the confusion is understandable. Kickstarter calls itself “a new way to fund creative projects,” which sounds a lot more innocuous than “Craigslist for angel investing” — even though the latter may be closer to the truth. Backers generally have limited information about the people they are supporting. And once a project is funded, they’re on their own when it comes to enforcing contracts with a creators — to the extent that such contracts even exist. In the event that a scammer takes everyone’s money and runs, Kickstarter won’t offer a refund or even chip in for legal fees. But at least in those cases there’s a clear basis for taking legal action (fraud); when money is squandered in a more conventional way — through bad business decisions — funders have no recourse at all.

However, before anyone deletes their Kickstarter app or swears off crowdfunding for good, it’s worth pointing out that you may have staked your retirement on a similar system: The stock market. Equity ownership, after all, comes with startlingly few guarantees. If Tim Cook decides tomorrow to spend all of Apple’s capital on a strategic Cheetos reserve, there’s really not much the average investor (without a controlling stake in the company) can do about it other than sell off the stock. Sure, the stock market does have additional important protections: greater transparency; legally empowered and (theoretically) independent boards of directors; dedicated regulators and watchdogs, and more. But in both cases investors take on a large amount of risk.

Does that make Kickstarter a bad deal? Not at all. In fact, the risky nature of Kickstarter is arguably the very thing that makes it worth using. Project creators offer something to backers — even if it’s just early access to their product — as a reward for taking a chance on a risky idea.

But it’s important to remember why the maker of that sweet felt iPhone case is giving you priority treatment: Things could all go south. And if they do, you’re the one who’ll take the hit.

MONEY Tech

5 Outrageous Ways People Try to Game Online Reviews

Crowd of Pinnochios
iStock

The inn that threatened $500 fines to guests writing negative reviews is hardly the only example of an attempt to manipulate the user-review system.

How much do user reviews and ratings matter to businesses? Consider this: According to one study, millennials trust online opinions even more than the input of people they know. In other words, online reviews matter A LOT. The consensus thinking is that a restaurant with a slew of nearly unanimous five-star ratings is a can’t-miss, while only a fool would book a hotel with just a dozen reviews, 10 of them two stars or less.

Because these comments can make or break a business, it’s understandable that attempts to game the system and boost one’s ratings are widespread. With Yelp celebrating its 10th anniversary this week and instances of review manipulation still going viral, now seems like a fine time to recap the many ways that businesses, their customers, and even the review sites themselves have compromised the integrity of online reviews.

Threatening to Fine Negative Reviewers
The revelation that an upstate New York inn would charge you $500 if it hosted your event and any of your guests posted an negative online review went viral this week. “If you stay here to attend a wedding anywhere in the area and leave us a negative review on any internet site you agree to a $500 fine for each negative review,” states the policy of the hotel, the Union Street Guesthouse in Hudson, N.Y. The move—and corresponding bad publicity—hasn’t exactly helped the establishment’s online ratings. At last check, the guesthouse had 1.5 stars on Yelp, with many reviews (and one-star ratings) posted after word spread about the $500 fine.

It’s the latest example of businesses threatening guests or customers who dare to bash them in reviews. There is quite a long history of businesses suing individuals who have posted negative reviews on the web, and while such suits usually end up decided in favor of the reviewer, the threat of a lawsuit—or just some nasty emails—can have a chilling effect on how freely reviewers voice their opinions. Especially if they’re negative.

A Consumer Reports study on online ratings services, meanwhile, criticized Google+ Local because businesses could reach out to customers and convince them to swap out a negative review for a positive one, after some cajoling and perhaps, offering a refund or making other amends. “This can skew the ratings positively,” the story explained, “because assuaged customers can always delete their previously negative reviews.”

Campaigning for Rave Reviews
Last week, Businessweek took note of a curious ranking in central Florida. This area, of course, is where Walt Disney World, Universal Studios Orlando, and several other premier tourist attractions are located. And yet, according to TripAdvisor reviewers, the most popular tourism attraction not only in Orlando but for all of Florida is the Stetson Mansion, an obscure 10,000-square-foot 19th century home once owned by the man credited with inventing the cowboy hat.

As you might expect, when guests have a nice time visiting the mansion, they’re asked to offer their thoughts (and a five-star rating, hopefully) at TripAdvisor—which became a phenomenon as a hotel review site but has dramatically increased attraction reviews in recent years. No one has been suspected of fraudulently penning reviews of the Stetson Mansion, but it says something that Yelp discourages businesses from soliciting reviews in the manner of the mansion, due to the feeling that actively asking customers to post their opinions taints the process. (It’s not like restaurants or businesses would be asking unhappy customers to write reviews, now would they?) There are also bizarre instances of hotels having so many reviews that researchers assume the management has been attempting to game the system. How? Among other things, they ask favorite guests to flood the site with five-star reviews, with the hopes that they drown out the comparatively small number of negative reviews.

Writing Blatantly Fake Reviews
For a while, the fake review business operated pretty much out in the open, with entrepreneurial, ethically questionable individuals offering their opinions (and five-star ratings) to any business that forked over a few bucks. Just last summer, Edmunds.com, the car-research site, sued a company that spammed its user review section with fraudulent reviews of car dealerships.

Hotel staffers have been busted writing reviews that praise their establishment and criticize the competition, and Yelp once unearthed a conspiracy of local businesses that agreed to post positive reviews of each other to collectively boost their ratings. A cat-and-mouse game has developed, in which fake reviewer accounts are banned from the sites, prompting them to create new accounts, attempt to post at other sites, and otherwise continue to manipulate ratings. It’s enough for some consumer groups to give review sites awful reviews themselves.

Blackmailing on the Behalf of Reviewers
It’s not just the businesses that are trying to work the user review system. Reviewers themselves have been known to act in a way that’ll make you question the validity of any opinions you read online. “Yelpers don’t have any professional protocol,” David Chang, the celebrity chef in charge of Momofuku explained recently to FiveThirtyEight. “They sit down and say, ‘If you don’t do this, we’re going to give you a bad Yelp score.’ We’re like, what the f***?” (For that matter, Chang had little good to say about the quality and trustworthiness of legitimate Yelp reviews: “I’m just going to come out and say: Most of the Yelp reviews are wrong. They just are.”)

The (UK) Telegraph reported earlier this year that there has been a huge rise in restaurant, B&B, and hotel owners being blackmailed by customers. Essentially, they’ve been threatening that if they don’t receive free food or wine, or perhaps a discount on their room rate, they’ll bash the establishment in a TripAdvisor review. This week, Consumerist.com wrote that Yelp should reconsider its “Elite Yelper” program—in which frequent raters are given free swag and other perks—because quantity of reviews does not equate to quality, and because it opens up the door to businesses trying to bribe the elites in order to secure better reviews.

In early 2013, one company even created a frequent reviewer $100 membership program, complete with a card the user could flash when asking for a table at a restaurant or checking into a hotel. The idea was that showing such a card—dubbed “the douche card” by one pithy online commenter—would give you premium service. But what it really did was serve as a subtle threat to the business: Give me the best, or I will give you a horrible online review.

Giving Preferential Treatment to Advertisers
Over the years, the most common complaint about Yelp by businesses is that it basically forces them into advertising on the site. Doing so helps push the business up to the top of review pages, and failure to pay up allegedly means that sometimes a business’s positive reviews are harder for Yelp users to see. Yelp has always disputed this characterization, but this past spring, the FTC announced that thousands of businesses have filed complaints against Yelp for its passive-aggressive advertising sales push.

MONEY Scams

Thousands May Get Refunds on Undeserved Red-Light Camera Tickets

Red light camera
iStock

For years, Chicago and other cities have used red-light camera tickets to juice revenues. Soon, it looks like some of that money will be headed back into the bank accounts of drivers.

While countless drivers may very well feel like they have been given red-light camera traffic tickets without justification—and many would love to see these cameras disappear entirely—a new investigation apparently reveals that thousands and thousands of drivers in the Chicago area have proof that they were hit with tickets and fines they didn’t deserve.

The Chicago Tribune recently analyzed some 4 million tickets doled out via red-light camera surveillance since 2007. What researchers found has alarmed drivers and given conspiracy theorists fresh ammunition about Big Brother police tactics and even corruption regarding city contracts and roadside cameras in general. The paper found several instances of sudden inexplicable spikes in the number of tickets generated by cameras. Seemingly out of nowhere, cameras that usually captured a handful of infractions daily were generating dozens of tickets per day, sometimes for a couple of weeks, before returning to the normal pattern.

City officials and traffic experts haven’t been able to explain these sudden surges in tickets—tens of thousands of which investigators have deemed “questionable”—and the Tribune’s analysis concluded that there is “clear evidence” that they came about due to “faulty equipment, human tinkering or both.”

One example, for example, generated a dozen tickets to drivers rolling through right-hand turns for six months in 2011, and then produced 560 tickets for that same infraction over one 12-day period. The assumption is that someone or something changed how the rule was being enforced over that span, and no other bothered to inform drivers.

The traffic experts asked to look over the Tribune’s research announced right away that all drivers given undeserved $100 tickets should receive speedy refunds without hassle or the need to petition. Now those experts are being joined by several Chicago aldermen, who this week called on City Hall to launch its own investigation—and to hand out refunds whenever appropriate. Another Tribune story quoted one of the city leaders making the case for drivers:

“We want to find out what went wrong, and we want to see refunds where the ticket was wrongly issued,” said Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd. “That would be the way to do it. The basis would be refunds in cases where tickets were wrongly issued.”

What exactly happened to cause these odd sudden surges in cameras generating tickets? Unless the machines truly are taking over, it would seem all but certain that some human element was involved. It wouldn’t be the first time that something underhanded has happened with red-light cameras. Last summer, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel decided to drop the contract with Redflex, the company then operating the city’s roadside cameras, after a $2 million bribery scheme involving Redflex and a city official overseeing the camera program was brought to light.

While Chicago drivers have a right to feel road rage about its camera system, which appears to be corrupt, incompetent, or both, the fines they’re paying are chump change compared with some of the camera-generated tickets handed out in northern California—which sometimes amount to $480 after all the fees are added up. One notorious roadside camera in Oakland, Calif., hit drivers to the tune of $4.2 million in tickets in 2010 alone.

Scott Waguespack, the Chicago alderman, told the Tribune that he and many others have complained over the years to transportation officials that traffic lights turn from yellow to red much too quickly. But no one did anything about it. “They were like, ‘Don’t worry about it, everything is cool,’” Waguespack said. “Well, clearly it wasn’t.”

Not only are city leaders calling for an investigation and refunds, but several lawyers are now in the process of gathering affected drivers for a class-action suit, or perhaps several suits.

That may be one reason why many cities have decided to do away with roadside cameras all together. Several San Diego County cities, for instance, pulled the plug on their roadside camera programs in recent months. The number of U.S. cities with roadside cameras is on the decline too, from 540 in 2012 to 508 this year. Depending on how things play out in Chicago and in other cities where drivers are protesting roadside cameras, that number could keep on falling.

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