Wednesday, August 17, 2011

‘Cyber Patrols’ are the new Neighborhood Watch for ID Theft

Being social just isn’t what it once was. And neither is helping keep your neighbors safe from crime. And as crime begins to blossom, one of the first things that may spring up is a case we know and fear all too well: Identity theft. While identity theft is often represented under the umbrella of internet crimes, this is not always the case. Mail fraud has been, and most likely will continue to be, a major cause of identity theft.  In essence, it is important to protect both your computer and your front door.

There is token good news, though. Identity theft is currently on the decline — down 28%, according to a report by Javelin Strategy & Research. But that still represents a whopping 8.1 million cases. That’s 8.1 million people who at one point or another had someone else pretend to be them. By getting a hold of your personal information, these thieves open credit cards, purchase cell phones and commit a plethora of other crimes that tie back directly to your good name.

Is there any hope? Small town residents are nodding their heads. Remember those Neighborhood Watch programs? Once a trend in big cities like New York and Chicago, particularly in higher crime areas, these self-appointed keepers of the law saw their numbers dwindle as better security systems became available and increased funding for police departments took hold in the 1980s. And now, with identity theft representing such a huge slice of the crime pie in this last decade, neighbors are back to helping neighbors.

This time, though, they’re bigger and better and more technologically savvy than ever. With a little high-tech addition called “Cyber Patrolling,” some neighborhoods are beginning to employ both crime watchers outside and those who report hacking online. Now, besides keeping a watchful eye out for anyone caught snooping around your home, mailbox, or garbage; neighbors are alerting neighbors to threats emanating from their phones and computers, too.

Take Andy Wang. He’s the block captain in southern Los Altos, Calif. And, according to an article in the Los Altos Town Crier, he reports that his Neighborhood Watch Program proved most beneficial when an allegedly fraudulent telemarketer tried to retrieve personal information from his wife.

“He claimed to be tech support trying to get my wife to go to a website and give her identity away,” Wong told the Crier, noting that he immediately forwarded an email to his neighborhood group alerting them to the scam. “I think ID theft is a big thing we need to be more vigilant about.”

With cyber crime all around, credit information laying in your recyclables, and telemarketers asking way too much, explains why neighborhood watch programs, popular some 20years ago, are once again gaining popularity. While the “small town” location used to act as a safeguard from fraud: the internet makes crime an equal opportunity provider. With merely a laptop computer and a few pieces of identification, thieves can steal identities from Brooklyn, N.Y. to Los Altos, CA.

In California, police are encouraging communication among neighbors through activities such as potlucks and mailing lists to help combat crime. The 30,000-resident city boasts 95 block captains. The police force is instructing residents to keep a close watch on what’s going on in their areas.

The same rules apply nationwide. If you see suspicious activity, police say good descriptions of the perpetrator helps. Paying attention to details can make all the difference between whether or not an arrest is made.

So, how do you start a Cyber Patrol?

  • Chat with your neighbors. It’s very difficult to watch and alert a neighborhood as a lone wolf.
  • Head home from work a little early one evening and introduce your idea to your neighbors. Find out who is interested by visiting them door-to-door. Bring a buddy with you, no matter how confident you may be with knocking on doors.
  • Discuss crime problems in your area, explain the value of starting a cyber watch initiative, and determine a good time and place for your first meeting. Keep a list of everyone’s preferences and write down their comments.
  • Call your local police department and let them know of your interest in starting a cyber watch program. Depending on where you live, something of the sort may already exist. If it doesn’t, it always helps to get an officer on board. That way, once the cyber-safety-hunt gets going you’ll have a direct contact in law enforcement.
  • Use the internet to your advantage. Start a private neighborhood blog and/or email notifications or texts to alert those participating any time something suspicious occurs.
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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Six Financial Tips That You Can Learn From Harry Potter

We've loved him since the day we first read about him as that brave, green-eyed wizard with the lightning bolt scar. We crossed our fingers for him as he faced the Sorting Hat and smiled proudly as he landed in Gryffindor.  We listened as he hissed in Parseltongue, and prayed for the semblance of light as he faced the kiss of the dementors.  We cringed when he battled dragons, held our breath when he swam with mermaids, and cried as he won the Triwizard Tournament and lost a good friend forever.  Our anger simmered as he wrote with the “I-must-not-tell-lies” quill, boiled as we discovered Voldemort’s soul-splitting horcruxes, and exploded as Snape (seemingly) broke our trust and Avada Kedavra’d the kindest blue-eyed wizard of all time, Dumbledore. And, last weekend, we cried, laughed, smiled, cringed, and used up an entire box of Kleenex in under 130 minutes as we watched our favorite young wizard grow up before our eyes, literally.

Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived. We’ve sat on the edge of our seats, following his adventures for more than a decade. But now that the our favorite seven Harry Potter books and anticipated eight movies are officially over, it's hard not to feel like it's the end of an era. And, in a sense, it kind of is. Where else will we find secret passageways within portraits, a room that appears only when you need it the most, and stone statues that come alive to defend the most beautiful castle in the world?  

But rather than wallowing away in the end of something wonderful, we can ask ourselves what there is to learn from Harry's timeless adventures. Believe it or not, Harry was quite the financial analyst. Sure, he trained to be an Auror (a job in which he had to protect the wizarding world from the Dark Arts) but he was also quite the savvy businessman.  Even in his youth, he dealt with investing, choosing the right bank and the responsibly of dealing with a generous inheritance.  Don’t remember J.K. Rowling using that financial terminology? You just have to read between the lines. Follow along to read six financial lessons that we learned from our very own biz wiz, Harry Potter. 

1.       Find a Safe Bank For Your Galleons

Gringott’s Wizarding Bank, where most magical folk stash their savings, is owned and operated by goblins. Its main offices are located in Diagon Alley and – according to our lovable giant friend Hagrid – Gringotts is the safest place in the Wizarding World (not counting Hogwarts of course).

What can we, mere Muggles, learn from this bank? More than a few things. For starters, it’s best to keep your money in an FDIC insured account. Make sure your cash is safely tucked away in a vault that is untouchable by anyone except you. All threats of identity theft should be closely monitored, so be sure to stick primarily to one branch. If you visit often enough, it will be easier for your personal banker or teller to spot an imposter (like when Hermione tried – somewhat successfully – to pass as Bellatrix Lestrange). Even if your local bank doesn’t have an underground rollercoaster to access vaults, a fire-breathing dragon, or a multiplying gold charm, be sure to go to a bank that keeps your finances secure. 
2.                   Don’t Give Up on Your Small Business Dream

We’ve all heard the “If you have a job you love, you’ll never work a day in your life” expression. And what better characters to exemplify this life lesson than our favorite witty redheads - Fred and George Weasley? These twins are hilarious, and went a long way to make their dreams of owning a prank store a reality. They start off small – advertising their hilarious aging spells and fireworks across Hogwarts. Then, by the sixth book, the infamous boys launch their successful dream business, “Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes.”  If your own small business would make your life bright, keep in mind that sometimes to achieve greatness, you have to start with a bang. Like, say, a free giveaway of popping fireworks! Giveaways are a great way to promote your product. When they decide to ditch Hogwarts and crazy cat-lady Headmistress’ Umbridge, they set off a rainbow of fireworks that multiply in starry sky. The twins gain a lot of recognition and cheer, and Gryffindor students react by demanding their attention-grabbing pranks. Muggle lesson learned: start small, promote wide, dream big. 
3.                      Find a Trustworthy Investor

The Weasleys got the money for their shop from loyal pal Harry Potter, who donated 1000 Galleons of his Triwizard Tournament winnings.  Because Harry gave them their start-up loan, Fred and George allowed him to help himself to as many love potions, pimple banishers, and extendable ears that he liked – free of charge. They do ask Harry, as well as Ron and Hermione, to help spread word of their shop around the castle. This form of word-of-mouth advertising, especially from your investors, is essential to operating a successful new business. This applies for us non-magical folks, as well as the witches and wizards who have an extendable ear or two. So remember, if you’re looking for someone to invest, find someone you trust – who believes in the success of your business. Whether you’re trying to sell edible dark marks or Pygmy Puffs – you won’t regret this business decision. 
4.                   Don't Steal; You'll Get Caught 
Mundungus Fletcher, one of the original members of the Order of the Phoenix, is known for having a case of the sticky fingers. He forever longs for the five-finger-discount, a discount that involves him sneaking valuable items into his cloak without shedding a single gold galleon. Fletcher is not trusted and not particularly liked. Harry even caught him red-handed once, selling items which had been stolen from his godfather, Sirius's, house. One of these items was even a locket, a locket that contained the purest of evil – a horcrux. Muggle lesson: don’t steal. Seems pretty basic, but with this economy and job market down in the gutter, people all too often stoop to these levels, not realizing how negatively it may one day affect their lives. And while American prisons don’t have chilling dementors floating around, possible jail time for theft doesn’t sound like a walk in the park. 
5.                   Monitor Your Finances, Even If You’re Wealthy 
Harry’s got several things from his parents: his mother’s almond-shaped emerald eyes; his father’s undeniable knack for getting into trouble; and a hefty inheritance check. Sure, he spent the first 11 years of his life living under the stairs in a teeny closet-sized space. But even after his first visit to Diagon Alley, when Harry was first introduced to the stacks of gold coins in his Gringott’s bank account, he chose to use his money wisely. And that’s a lesson that witches, wizards, and muggle folks can all take home with them. No matter how much you want that cherry red Ferrari or that Nimbus 2001 broom, frivolous spending won’t get you far. And besides, waiting for the broomstick-of-your-dreams from your godfather (rather than buying one yourself) means more anyway.  
6.                   Money May Make the World Go Round…But It Sure Doesn’t Buy Happiness

Most readers would agree that the happiest family in the Harry Potter series was the Weasley clan. Sure, they lived in a cramped, cluttered, and crooked burrow. And yes, they recycled their school books, used near-sighted owls, and (unfortunately for Ron) shared non-unisex dress robes. But, it seems safe to say that they were happy. The Malfoys, however, with overflowing bank accounts, their battered servants, and their cold glances are some of the unhappiest characters in all the novels. That’s not to say that we Muggle-borns shouldn’t reach for the stars in our money-making endeavors. We should. It’s just a reminder that some things (say a nurturing family, a set of professors who would quite frankly die for you, and two best friends who would stand up to the world’s greatest evil on your behalf) are worth more than all world’s gold.  

Published: Business Insider

Online Bait Luring Patrons In The Door

Scores of people out during First Thursday’s Art Walk last month wedged their way into the Thalia Surf Shop as residents and curious tourists united for an evening of photographs, surfboards, and art.

Nick Corores, who owns the shop and planned the event, didn’t send any snail mail invitations to recruit guests for the show. In fact, he resorted to a tool that may forever change the way small businesses, like the Thalia Surf Shop, communicate with clients: social media.

Cocores said that he’s been using a combination of Facebook, Twitter, and a Thalia Surf Shop blog over the past eight years to promote his business. The shop has been around since 2001. A link on the upper right hand corner of Cocores’ store website invites visitors to follow them on Facebook, where the shop currently has over 3,500 ‘likes’.

And that’s exactly what he used to draw attention to the show.

“We have events and giveaways going on all the time,” Cocores said. “Our email list and Facebook page generates the most return.”

Can social media really help small business owners in Laguna Beach? Some think it’s possible. More proprietors in Laguna and elsewhere are turning to social media as a tool to help them advertise their goods and services and broaden their customer base.

Jessica Hoffman, four-year district manager of Unique Tan, 1100 S. Coast Highway, has used Facebook, Twitter, Yelp and Groupon successfully for the past three years.

“In social media, our goal is to show prospective clients the Unique Tan experience. We use it to strengthen our communication and to answer any questions they have about our salons and the tanning process,” she said.

Small business isn’t ditching traditional marketing altogether. “We still use traditional print ads for our holiday sales. Once or twice a year we will advertise in Surfer Mag,” Cocores explained. “[But] most all of our marketing is done online through our email list and social media. In the slow months, we push really hard to bring in online sales.”

But for many local merchants, raking in steady profits in the months between September and May is not easy. With the U.S. economy still on a slow path to recovery, small businesses have had to work harder than ever to remain afloat. Even small business success rates have been in the dirt lately. Nearly 50 percent of small businesses fail within the first five years and over the lifetime of a business just 40 percent are profitable, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration and National Federation of Independent Business, respectively.

One option for small businesses experiencing hardships or with extra inventory is utilizing deal-of-the-day websites to pitch a discount. Groupon’s success has spawned a host of imitators, which locally include OC Register’s Deal of the Day, Kgbdeals and Laguna Beach-based RealDeals.

A merchant offers a deal on a site, and in Groupon’s case, at least 10 people much purchase it (it’s often limited to one purchase per person), for the deal to become valid and live on the site for others to buy in also.

The site sees more than 30 million visitors each month. Usually, the profit made from the 24-hour live period of the deal is split 50-50 between the store owner and Groupon.

Chad Nason, a spokesman, said utilizing social media is “an extremely effective marketing tool. Exposure is invaluable.”

Some managers of Laguna businesses agree.

Of 50 to 75 mostly local customers that open the doors daily at Unique Tan, about 40 percent step into the shop by way of social media, Hoffman said. “We have found this to be one of the most successful ways to run specials and advertise for events. We like to reward our Twitter followers and Facebook friends with our best specials,” she said.

In Laguna, the population can temporarily triple on weekends during summer, as day-trippers and out-of-towners swarm the beaches for sun and recreation. But vendors find social media most useful in the off-season.

Agreeing is Scott Sanchez, director of digital media for Firebrand Media’s, a coastal Orange County portal. He wants to help small businesses on a hyperlocal scale with Real Deal, a discount site that has its heart set on locality.

“We don’t want to tell someone, ‘Go drive for 10 or 20 miles for this deal’,” said Sanchez. He maintains consumers won’t bite without proximity. “We’re trying to make it so you can find a deal 500 yards away from your home,” he explained.

Are merchants jumping at the opportunity? Sanchez said that since the website launched in late May, 12 store owners have posted deals. “Our buyers are local,” Sanchez said. “After using Real Deal, they’re more inclined to come back.” Sanchez believes giving vendors a tool that cultivates customer loyalty will pay off.

Unlike Groupon, which advertises primarily online, Real Deal promotes itself in traditional print media in its sister publications. “We want our customers to know that they can just flip to page 5; that’s where Real Deal exists,” Sanchez said, referring to the Indy.

Do these sites offer advice about nurturing customer loyalty during the less sunny months of the year?

“It’s always a good idea for businesses to schedule the redemption peak during off-peak times,” argued Nason, of Groupon, especially true in resort towns. “Physically, the people aren’t there during the off season. You want to make sure you still have the opportunity for people to see you,” he said.

So, when summer trolleys quit cruising, the sand chairs are stowed away and the coastline empties out on weekdays, proprietors this season may forego end-of-summer sales and instead  try out social media.