Ten ways to avoid being a crime victim

Posted by Ginkgo100 | 9:00 AM

I just got an e-mail from a friend whose other friend who was robbed two days ago at a local grocery store. I read the account of what happened, and it could have easily happened to me. And I should know better, having more background in law enforcement than the average person. So here are some tips, both for your benefit and to remind myself, on how to avoid being a victim of a crime while out in public.

  1. Keep your head up. If you are aware of your surroundings, you are more likely to spot potential trouble. But there's more to it than that: an alert, confident person makes a very unattractive victim. Criminals like easy prey — the person not paying attention, the person acting nervous, the person not able to react quickly.
  2. At the grocery store, accept "help out." The grocery store where the robbery took place always offers to help me out to my car, and lately I have been accepting because it's hard to load both the car and the kids. There are crime-prevention reasons to accept help, too: First, you will be with another adult, which is a deterrent to criminals. Second, having help to load your groceries — especially if you are also loading up small children, are pregnant, or have any physical handicap — will make you less vulnerable. Criminals see distractions as opportunities.
  3. Keep your car locked. You should lock it even if you are getting out just for a minute — in fact, especially if you are getting out just for a minute. This leads to the next tip...
  4. Never leave your purse or other valuables in the car. Again, this is true especially if you are getting out just for a minute. Criminals know you are least likely to lock up and most likely to leave valuables behind if it's only for a moment. They patiently watch for opportunities, and they move fast.
  5. Be extra vigilant at school, day care, or the gym. These are situations in which women are likely to leave their purses behind, either because they are just running in to pick up their kids, or because they don't want to have to rent a gym locker. Bad plan: Criminals know that these are common habits. Even if you do lock up, they won't think twice about breaking your side window to get to your valuables.
  6. Don't store your car keys in an obvious location. Burglars like to check the garage for easy-to-steal getaway vehicles. If you keep your keys in an obvious location like a key hook or basket near the door of your house (or worse, in the car itself), you may lose your car if your home is ever burglarized.
  7. Don't leave your car running. In cold climates, car thefts skyrocket in the winter because people leave their cars running to warm them up. Even if you lock the doors, a car thief finds this situation irresistible. This is even more important if you have kids in the car. Don't leave it running so the kids can have air-conditioning while you step out. If you will be gone long enough for them to need air-conditioning, then you will be gone too long for them to be left alone, anyway. Which leads to the next tip...
  8. Never, ever, ever leave your kids unattended in the car. Not even older kids, and not even for a few minutes. You will not believe what can happen to them. I know of one person who was left in the car when she was a tween and was targeted by an exhibitionist pedophile. Thankfully, he did not make contact, but she will never forget the image.
  9. If you are targeted for a property crime, don't fight back. Some of us would never fight back, but others, like myself, are likely to be impulsive and try to defend our property. This behavior, unfortunately, is what can turn a theft into an assault.
  10. If, God forbid, you are assaulted, don't let yourself be transported to another location. This is a situation in which you should fight back. If your attacker takes you somewhere else, they are likely planning to murder you. Act accordingly.

Update: Texas Association for Infant Mental Health denounces "Baby Borrowers"

Posted by Ginkgo100 | 5:24 PM

The Baby Kidnappers

The Texas Association for Infant Mental Health (TAIMH) brings to six the list of organizations denouncing "Baby Borrowers." In fact, this organization feels so strongly that the front page of their website is devoted to the subject. Thanks to commenter Carol for the update.

TAIMH contacted a number of the sponsors of "Baby Borrowers" and published responses from three of them on their website. Nestlé Corporation immediately withdrew their ads. In statements reeking of corporate Newspeak, Pervetti Van Melle (manufacturer of Mentos) and Combe Incorporated (manufacturer of Just For Men, Odor Eaters, and other personal care products) were not courageous enough to do the same and instead referred the issue to their marketing directors.

Is Knol a "Wikipedia Killer"?

Posted by Ginkgo100 | 1:12 PM

Knol is Google's newest launch. It's a site where authors can write articles on any topics they like. "Knol," if you were wondering, is a neologism meaning "a unit of knowledge."

ProBlogger wondered whether Knol will be a Wikipedia-killer. I love Darren's ministry very helpful site, but I have to say that if he is even asking that question, then he does not know very much about Wikipedia.

Wikipedia may seem both wide and deep (with almost 2.5 million articles in the English version, more than twice as many as when I first started as an editor), but casual readers may not realize how much isn't there. The Wikipedia community loudly declares that it is not many things, among them "a publisher of original thought" nor a "manual, guidebook, or textbook." And while anybody is free to add to Wikipedia, they are not free to add anything they like to Wikipedia.

At least several hundred entire articles are deleted every day. Over 3000 pages were deleted in the last 24 hours (including articles, images, user pages, and all other types of pages). That's not counting content edited out of existing articles, which is immeasurable (literally — there's no way to tell from the logs).

I imagine that little of what will likely be found in the Knols will overlap with Wikipedia's scope. And virtually none of it will carry authority remotely like Wikipedia's. Since anybody with an Internet connection can change Wikipedia instantaneously, one might think Wikipedia would not have much authority, but the net energy put into keeping Wikipedia sound is far greater than the net energy put into Wikipedia misinformation and disinformation. And that is why so many people trust Wikipedia. (More than they really should; even Wikipedia rejects its own self as an adequately reliable source for Wikipedia.)

Knols may give About.com a run for its money, and may nudge a few Wikipedia articles around in the Google rankings, but Wikipedia is a behemoth that won't feel much from the little flies that are Knols.

Update on the debt villains

Posted by Ginkgo100 | 2:59 PM

Of our debt villains, Moriarty and Saruman are with the same bank. I called to try to see if I could combine them and lower our interest rate or our total monthly payment (so we can focus on another debt, probably Vader, with intensity). No dice.

Opening a credit card is something I am philosophically opposed to, even one with 0% interest or a bonus for balance transfers. However, in this situation I am tempted. I would not be using it to make any purchases, and I would actually be reducing our credit card count to one (though the total amount owed would stay the same). What would you do in this situation?

Worth a dime

Posted by Ginkgo100 | 9:00 AM

Generally, it's good for the family when one family member finds some money. Just not when that family member swallows it.

I spent the weekend at the hospital, getting this removed from the baby's esophagus. Notice the tarnishing? That's because it was in there for at least a couple of days. The baby was still able to eat normally, but I am not sure how.

Signs of a rip-off

Posted by Ginkgo100 | 9:00 AM

In my post "Is Rent-To-Own a good idea?" I mentioned some terms that are red flags for a rip-off. Here is a collection of them. Use of these terms does not necessarily signify a bad deal, but it is a sign for the buyer to be especially aware. Look out for any "deal" that mentions the following:

  • Buy now, pay later
  • No money down
  • Insider secrets
  • "They" don't want you to know
  • You'd be crazy not to
  • Extended warranty
  • Act fast
  • Important information — do no discard

Is Rent-To-Own a good idea?

Posted by Ginkgo100 | 2:41 PM

The August 2008 issue of Reader's Digest features an article called "7 Rip-Off Tip Offs." One of the rip-offs listed? Rent-to-own merchandise.

The advantage to rent-to-own merchandise

When you rent furniture or appliances, you can have the item immediately. You don't need to have the money available to purchase it outright — and you don't go into debt. You get instant gratification for a low price and no obligation.

The rent-to-own disadvantage

The savvy reader will notice the short length the paragraph above. I can only think of that one advantage: easy, instant gratification. And there is a very ugly disadvantage: You pay a very, very high price for the merchandise. Reader's Digest calculated the equivalent APR (annual percentage rate) of most rent-to-own items as between 75% and 350%. (And I thought 20% credit card rates were high!) At the end of that time, your very expensive sofa is out of style and your pricey flat-screen TV is obsolete. Since you were renting, you could have exchanged them periodically for newer models... but then you would have lost all the money you "invested."

It can make sense in certain situations to rent merchandise. That's just "rent," without the "...to own" part. Take a hint from the fact that Rent-A-Center and similar operations locate their retail outlets mainly in poorer neighborhoods.

Rip-off tip off words

Take a look again at the short "advantage" paragraph above. It contains red flag words: "no obligation" and "instant gratification." These terms are signals that the subject being discussed is a bad idea, financially speaking. Another red flag term, which certainly applies to rent-to-own schemes, is "no money down."

Don't borrow money to buy things for your house. But don't jump out of the debt frying pan and into the fire by renting to own!

Just say no to credit cards

Posted by Ginkgo100 | 11:05 AM

Credit cards are ubiquitous in America. Buying things with other people's money is a societal norm, and achieving a high "credit score" literally requires one to have a lot of debt.

But it is my contention that credit cards should always be avoided. Here are a few reasons:

1. Universal default

With a few exceptions, the credit card contracts offered by banks have a provision called universal default. The bank monitors your credit history, and if you fail to pay (default) on any loan, your rate is raised to the default rate (the highest possible) — even if you never paid late on the credit card in question.

2. Increased spending

According to Dave Ramsey, when you make a purchase with a credit card, you spend 12-18% more than you would have if you had used cash. Swiping a credit card is painless; there is no sense of money actually leaving you. And with small purchases, there may be internal pressure to spend more "to make it worth it," since it seems silly to run a credit card for only a dollar or two. There is often external pressure as well: many businesses have a minimum purchase for credit cards, which offsets the fee that banks charge merchants to accept credit card payments.

3. Lack of privacy

Your credit card statement records where and how much you spend. Think nobody's paying attention? CompuCredit, which issues a subprime Visa card, makes decisions about its customers' credit-worthiness based on where they use their card, according to Businessweek. Their attorney says, "These scoring models are commonplace across the industry."

What do you think?

Do you think credit cards should always be avoided? Or is it OK — even wise — to use them in some cases? Leave a comment with the pros and/or cons of credit cards.

Four Ways to Earn Extra Money: A Review

Posted by Ginkgo100 | 9:01 AM

Maybe you already have a job and would like a little extra cash, or maybe you are unable to take a regular job because of children, school obligations, or disability. There are a lot of alternative opportunities tantalizing people in your situation that promise a few extra dollars.

I have tried several of these, and here is a review of how well they worked for me, and whether I made any money at them.

1. Mystery shopping

Corporations need a way to find out whether their retail outlets are really following company policies, or just talking the talk. Enter the mystery shopper. It sounds sexy and exciting: a sophisticated, professional shopper who is also an undercover agent! You are promised up to $50-$100 for each "shop," and you usually are reimbursed for any merchandise you purchase, which you get to keep.

My experience was that most shops actually paid no more than $10-$15. I was assigned mostly cell phone stores and pet stores; other mystery shoppers I have talked to mostly got chain restaurants like Bennigan's. The rules are very strict as to what time of day you must come and who you can bring with you. If you are a mom, forget about being able to do this with your children in tow. You usually have to memorize a script, and remember a lot of details for your report. Of course, you cannot make any notes, or you will blow your cover, in which case you don't get paid.

The bottom line: The time spent traveling to and from the store, memorizing the script, conducting the shop, and completing the report make this opportunity not worth the trouble for most people.

2. Filling out surveys online

Market research is big business, and to motivate consumers to participate, many companies offer financial compensation. In return for filling out questionnaires, you get cash money.

I signed up with a company that was recommended to me (not one I found through a banner ad on some web site). My experience is that more often than not, I don't qualify for the surveys offered me. When I do, the compensation often works out to a pretty paltry hourly wage. On the other hand, the time I devote to the questionnaires is time I would otherwise most likely waste goofing off online, and it is kind of fun, at least for me. After about three months, I've made around $25.

The bottom line: If you spend a lot of time online anyway and you are not always 100% productive, it may be a nice way to make a few (very few) bucks. Otherwise, it is probably a waste of time.

3. Attending focus groups

Focus groups give market research companies the chance to gauge the reactions of real people to their efforts. You offer your opinions on some sort of presentation or discussion. You are paid on the spot with no deductions taken out, either by check or in cash.

A number of websites offer to hook you up with marketers looking for focus group participants. Individual opportunities can often be found on Craigslist, and once you get on the lists, they often call you when something is available. Participants provide their own transportation to the site. You may, for example, be asked your reaction to commercials that are still in production, or you may participate in a mock jury trial. You may have to agree not to disclose any details of your experience, especially for mock trials.

Sessions are often held during the day on weekdays, which may not be compatible with many schedules. Moms will still have to find child care, and you need transportation. If you can work around these issues, focus groups can be very lucrative, paying $50-$200 or more per session.

The bottom line: Definitely worth it if you can work around the logistics issues. They will never be frequent enough to provide more than pocket money, though.

4. "Work from home" programs.

The ads are everywhere, from banner ads to telephone poles. They promise riches enough to make you quit your day job, and you don't even have to leave your house. All you need is a computer with an Internet connection. It's supposed to be perfect for students and stay-at-home moms.

I learned what these are really about when I clicked a banner ad as a favor to someone, hoping to help that person get some advertising revenue from her site (most ads are pay-per-click). I should have just given her fifty cents and saved myself the aggravation.

These work-from-home schemes aren't exactly scams — that is, they don't lie to you, or take your money and run — but they are hardly what they are cracked up to be. Generally, they want you to set up a website (you have to pay for the domain name and hosting, usually around $100) to market some product. Your income is completely dependent on how many people visit your website, so you have to market it aggressively.

I didn't take any of these people up on the pitch. And yes, if you answer one ad, you will be called by about a dozen different organizations, all operating on the same basic business plan. I can't say whether you can really make worthwhile money on this, but doubt it works out for most people.

The bottom line: Smells very fishy. I would recommend giving "work from home" opportunities a wide berth.

Do you have any experiences with alternative ways to make money? Share them with in a comment!

Automated phone systems don't play nice with children

Posted by Ginkgo100 | 9:00 AM

Online banking hiccuped this morning, and the website told me to call their online banking hotline. Here is a transcript:

PHONE RECORDING: Welcome to phone banking! Para español, diga espa—
BABY (sitting on my lap): Gaaaah gah!
PHONE RECORDING: (pause) ...Welcome to phone ban—
BABY: Heeehhh!
PHONE RECORDING: You selected mobile banking. Mobile banking options:
ME: Unprintable *hangs up and redials*
PHONE RECORDING: Welcome to phone banking! Para español, diga español. What is the reason you are calling today?
PRESCHOOLER: *swings his toy golf club at the cat*
ME: Cut it out!
PHONE RECORDING: (pause) ...I'm sorry, I didn't understand that. What is the reason you are calling today?
ME: (speaking slowly and clearly) Can't access account online.
PRESCHOOLER: (simultaneously) Mama, watch this!
PHONE RECORDING: I understand you are having trouble with your debit card. Please—
ME: No!
PHONE RECORDING: (pause) ...Okay. Let's try again. What is the reason you are calling today?
BABY: Ehhhhhh haaahh!
PHONE RECORDING: (pause) ...I'm sorry, I didn't understand that. What is—
ME: Unprintable

And this is why automated phone systems should stick to "Press one for..."

AACAP and State of Connecticut denounce "The Baby Borrowers"

Posted by Ginkgo100 | 9:00 AM

Update: The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology and (reportedly) the Connecticut State Child Advocate have joined the list of organizations issuing negative statements about "The Baby Borrowers."

Women's wage equality and Glassdoor.com

Posted by Ginkgo100 | 9:15 AM

May an employer base an employee pay decision solely on her gender? In the United States, this has been illegal since the Equal Pay Act of 1963. This statute requires charges to be filed "within one hundred and eighty days after the alleged unlawful employment practice occurred." In May 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Ledbetter v. Goodyear that "unlawful employment practice" refers only to the initial discriminatory pay decision.1 Unfortunately for plaintiffs, that decision is likely to have been made much more than 180 days before an employee becomes aware of any pay disparity.

In an article in Time magazine,2 Lisa Takeuchi Cullen remarked on Americans' reluctance to share their own salary information. She suggested that we might all be better served by openly sharing the details of our compensation with others.

The trouble with this plan is that many workers fear their employers will disapprove of their sharing — even retaliate against them. In fact, in some workplaces, employees are expressly forbidden to discuss their own compensation terms with coworkers.

A new website, Glassdoor.com,3 has the potential to become a useful weapon in the fight for pay equality. Members are encouraged to "contribute an employer review or salary report," "save [their] information to a free and anonymous account," and "get full access to the reviews and salaries shared by our community." A site like this could be useful in shedding light not just on illegal discrimination, but also on legal but unfair policies practiced by some companies.

A bill to allow employees to bring suit within 180 days on their most recent discriminatory paycheck (rather than the initial one, which may have been issued years before), passed in the House of Representatives but failed to pass in the Senate in April 2008.4 (Had it passed, the Bush White House had promised to veto it anyway.) Taking advantage of every opportunity, such as that offered by Glassdoor.com, to share salary information may be the only way for employees to guard against unfair compensation.


  1. Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Inc. See the complete text of the decision (PDF).
  2. May 5, 2008. "Coming Clean on Workers' Salaries.
  3. The author has no affiliation with Glassdoor.com and is receiving no compensation for this post.
  4. Results of Senate vote reported in IPMA-HR Washington Update, May 2008.