Of course, state executives claim no such policy exists, while the employees responsible for protecting the state's environment reported that the policy was communicated verbally. Read more:
The Best Techie blog published a very interesting post about how easy it is for criminals to file fraudulent insurance claims for mobile devices. The problem isn't just the ease that the fraud is committed, but also that consumers probably aren't aware of fraud claims submitted against their accounts until they file a valid insurance claim:
"If you use one of the major carriers in the U.S. such as AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and/or Sprint the insurance you buy comes from a company called Asurion Insurance Services, Inc... : it appears Asurion’s claim system is very easy to defraud... The only real deterrent in the claim system is that you need to sign an affidavit and provide a photo ID but if high school students can get fake IDs, I’d imagine for a fraudster obtaining a fake ID to scan is laughably easy..."
The I've Been Mugged blog has reported about Asurion. When evaluating mobile insurance offers, it is wise for consumers to do the math first. You'll want to decide if you want malware protection, and if the one- or two-year total of monthly insurance premiums exceeds the cost of your mobile device.
According to the Best Techie report, the fraudster used a combination of the victim's name and valid phone number with a different residential address. You'd think that Asurion would have easily spotted that and contacted their customer at their current address to confirm the claim and the new address.
Consumers pay good money for mobile device insurance, and deserve better protection against insurance fraud. What are your opinions?
A reader shared the link to a good article at Kiplinger about switching banks. The article lists six reasons why consumers switch banks, based upon a survey by Harris Polls for Kasasa, a service that offers free checking accounts.
As you probably guessed, the number one reason why consumers switch banks is the monthly service fee. And, the cost of banks seems to be going up. Recently, Bank of America announced a new $25 monthly service for its checking accounts. The new fee was announced in New England with plans to go nationwide later this year.
The fifth reason why consumers switch banks are low rates in interest bearing accounts. I thought that this would have rated higher on the list. Read the Kiplinger article to browse the full list of ranked six reasons why consumers switch banks.
If you are thinking about switching banks, Kiplinger offered this advice:
"If you don't like the service you're getting [at your current bank], vote with your feet and take your business elsewhere... It's not as hard as you might think. Of those polled on behalf of Kasasa who switched financial institutions, 81 percent said it wasn't difficult..."
You can move your money from a big bank to a smaller, regional bank or to a credit union. If you are thinking about switching to a credit union:
"... you're twice as likely to find free checking at a credit union than at a commercial bank, according to a study by Bankrate... 72 percent of credit union checking accounts don't have balance requirements. Unlike commercial banks, which are usually for-profit institutions, credit unions are membership-based nonprofit organizations. Member are eligible to join because of a common bond, such as a place of employment, place of worship, school, geographic location... You can find and research credit unions at CUlookup.com and ASmarterChoice.org."
There are more resources. You might try Find A Better Bank (FBB), MyCreditUnion.gov, the Credit Union Locator tool at the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) site, and the Move Your Money Project website. I switched banks recently. if you switched banks or plan to, share below your reasons for switching. Did you find the switching process easy? I did.
A friend, who shall remain anonymous, posted the following photo on their Facebook timeline:
Click on the image to view a larger version. Along with the image, my friend posted this status message:
"So this appeared in my right-hand rail. Seriously Facebook, are you tripping? Why would I give you information about my household income? Because I'm so sure you won't abuse the information?"
This is highly confidential information. Does Facebook need to know it? Does Facebook deserve to know it? I wouldn't share this data with them, and nor should you.
After a long, hearty laugh, there wasn't much I could add to this status message. Lots of businesses, including credit reporting agencies, want access to your Facebook timeline (for applications you never intended). In its rush to make money, Facebook has had so many privacy intrusions, snafus, data collection tools masquerading as fitness apps, and failures, that my friend summarized it all concisely.
I did post this comment:
"Epic Facebook privacy fail."
Cars are fast becoming like smart phones. They offer many of the same features: hands-free and voice-activated controls, video monitors, Internet access, WiFi hotspots, maps with turn-by-turn travel instructions, and much more. That's a good thing, right? Read on and judge for yourself.
You did you homework. You decided to buy a new car and not lease one. Many people dislike the restrictions with leasing contracts: mileage caps, required maintenance schedule, required maintenance at the dealer, and more. So, you own a new car and can use the mechanic of your choice for maintenance, repairs, and modifications, right? Not if automakers have their way.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is collecting consumers' signatures for a petition with the U.S. Copyright Office. What's the Copyright Office have to do with your vehicle? Plenty. The EFF petition is to ensure vehicle owners have the rights to access the software your vehicle uses. The automakers want to use the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to control who can access the software in the vehicles they make.
What's the big deal? Most automakers oppose the EFF petition for an DMCA exemption. No access to the software in your vehicle means you've lost the freedom to choose the mechanic of your choice for maintenance, repairs, and modifications of your vehicle. That means, you really don't own that new vehicle you just bought.
many of you are wondering: wasn't this problem fixed with the "Right to Repair" laws? After a vote in 2012, Massachusetts enacted in 2013 a "right to repair" law. In 2014, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the Association of Global Automakers, the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association, and the Coalition for Automotive Repair Equality agreed to a memorandum of understanding, based upon the Massachusetts law, to preserve consumer choice and not oppose "right to repair" legislation in the other 49 states.
Now, it seems that the fight has quietly shifted to software law: the DMCA and Copyright Office. Some people might call this an end-run by automakers around "Right to Repair" laws.
"Modern cars contain dozens of computers called electronic control units (ECUs), and the code on those ECUs is potentially covered by copyright. But many repairs require access to that code, as does research into vehicle safety... When auto manufacturers deploy technology to lock people out of the code controlling their own cars... The result is that only persons authorized by the manufacturer can effectively perform repairs, and independent audits of car safety and security take place under a legal cloud, if at all... Errors in ECU code can cause braking systems to malfunction, and security researchers have exposed vulnerabilities that would allow attackers to hijack vehicle functions. When this research takes place in public, it makes it much more likely that manufacturers will act to fix those problems... Some car modders have experimented and found that modifications to the code in vehicle ECUs can increase fuel efficiency. Others have implemented new vehicle functions using free space in the ECUs' memory."
Can drivers trust the auto industry to be forthcoming with problems in the software their cars use? Recent history suggests not: airbag-related deaths, ignition-switch-related deaths, massive numbers of recalled vehicles, and hacking concerns. The problems occurred outside the USA, too.
The EFF explained opposition by auto manufacturers:
"... They warn that owners with the freedom to inspect and modify code will be capable of violating a wide range of laws and harming themselves and others. They say you shouldn’t be allowed to repair your own car because you might not do it right. They say you shouldn’t be allowed to modify the code in your car because you might defraud a used car purchaser by changing the mileage. They say no one should be allowed to even look at the code without the manufacturer’s permission..."
"The DMCA essentially blundered into this space and called all tinkering and code inspection into question, even acts that are otherwise lawful like repairing your car, making it work better at high altitude, inspecting the code to find security and safety issues, or even souping it up for use in races on a private course."
Just like any desktop computer, laptop, smartphone, or tablet I'd expect to be able to install anti-virus software in my car to inspect the software and storage devices for malware. All of these devices are essentially computers that perform similar functions.
To be fair, many companies besides automakers have issued DMCA-related threats and lawsuits. The EFF compiled a list in 2013. You'll probably recognize some of the corporate names. Here's one example from the list:
"In 2009, Apple threatened the free wiki hosting site BluWiki for hosting a discussion by hobbyists about reverse engineering iPods to interoperate with software other than Apple’s own iTunes. Without a work-around, iPod and iPhone owners would be unable to use third-party software, such as Winamp or Songbird, to “sync” their media collections between computer and iPod or iPhone. The material on the public wiki was merely a discussion of the reverse engineering effort, along with some snippets of relevant code drawn from Apple software. There were no “circumvention tools,”... Apple’s lawyers sent OdioWorks, the company behind BluWiki, a cease and desist letter threatening legal action under the DMCA. Bluwiki ultimately sued Apple to defend the free speech interests of its users. In response, Apple dropped its threat, and BluWiki reinstated the deleted pages."
Auto-industry executives aren't stupid. They've watched consumers spend massive amounts of money to buy smartphones and wireless data plans. Those smartphones are tethered (via contracts) to a specific wireless service provider (e.g., AT&T, Verizon, Sprint), operating system software, app store, and device manufacturer. So, don't blame auto-industry executives entirely.
For years, consumers have chosen convenience over the freedom of choice:
Having watched all of this, auto-industry executives probably have concluded that they can get vehicle owners to accept similar trade-offs: convenience over freedom of choice.
If this bothers you (and I sincerely hope that it does bother you), then sign the EFF petition, especially if you had problems fixing or modifying your vehicle because you were locked out of the software. And, write to your elected officials.
What are your opinions of automakers using DMCA law? When you buy a new car, do you expect to take it to the mechanic of your choice? What are you opinions of trading convenience for freedom of choice?
You've probably seen the television commercial. If not, it features an attractive blonde with a calm, reassuring voice emphasizing America's bright future from hydraulic fracturing (a/k/a "fracking") for oil and gas:
The energy is often contained in shale rock, which must be fractured or broken apart in order to release and access the energy supplies. Many people are concerned about safety and contaminated ground water. If you listen closely to the commercial, it briefly mentions safety:
"... new technologies are safely unlocking vast domestic supplies of oil and natural gas ..."
So, how safe is fracking? Does it threaten ground water? ProPublic investigated and reported:
"A peer-reviewed study published in 2014 found that drinking water wells near fracking sites in Pennsylvania and Texas were contaminated with methane that had the chemical signature of gas normally found only deep underground. Rob Jackson, a Stanford University professor of earth system science who coauthored the 2014 study, told us that drilling that uses hydraulic fracturing has “contaminated ground waters through chemical and wastewater spills, poor well integrity, and other pathways.”
The report emphasized that how one defines the term "fracking" matters when discussing safety:
"Fracking involves injection of a large volume of water, sand and a cocktail of chemicals (known as fracking fluid) deep underground to fracture the rock and allow gas to seep out. It is also used for oil extraction... the term “fracking” is sometimes used to describe the entire process of drilling for natural gas, but that isn’t accurate. After a well is drilled, cemented and prepared in other ways, only then is the well “fracked” — the actual stimulation of rock far beneath the earth’s surface to allow extraction of the gas."
So, it is critical to define fracking as the whole process, not a subset such as only the fracturing of rock:
"... the scientists we interviewed say that it doesn’t make sense to separate fracking from the entire gas and oil production process, and there is ample evidence that the overall process can cause contamination of water supplies. As we noted above, the new DOI rules cover the entire process including fracking, well casings and other activities."
Some of that evidence:
"Among the first studies specifically linking natural gas development and fracking to water quality was a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014 that analyzed drinking well water near fracking operations in Texas and Pennsylvania. In that study, which was coauthored by Jackson at Stanford, researchers identified the presence of methane — the primary component of natural gas — in drinking well water near unconventional drilling sites in the Marcellus Shale region in Pennsylvania and the Barnett Shale region in Texas. Using chemical signatures of certain gases, the researchers were able to determine in several cases that the methane was from deep underground — evidence that the drilling operations had caused the contamination. The study found that faulty and leaky wells were likely to blame...”
When you view a commercial or hear a fracking proponent claim that there's no proof that fracking contaminates ground water (e.g., it's safe), you now know otherwise. During an open, honest, and complete conversation about safety everyone defines the terms they use, and hopefully address the entire process. If it's unclear, demand clarification.
In my opinion, to claim something is safe while only addressing part of the process is simply dishonest. Words matter. Definitions matter.
ProPublic also reported:
"Partially in response to [safety] concerns, the Department of the Interior finalized a regulation on March 20 regarding hydraulic fracturing and related activities on public and tribal land. The regulation includes a number of provisions related to fracking and other aspects of natural gas drilling activity. For example, the rule includes “[p]rovisions for ensuring the protection of groundwater supplies by requiring a validation of well integrity and strong cement barriers between the wellbore and water zones through which the wellbore passes.” It has specific requirements for constructing cement casings for wells, and monitoring pressure on certain well parts during fracking operations. And it also requires disclosure of the chemical contents of fracking fluids."
That sounds sensible to me, since the regulation looks at the whole process. Of course, fracking proponents oppose the federal regulations, and want to shift regulations locally to the states:
"Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, opposes the regulation. He, along with 26 cosponsors, introduced a bill that would specifically put the responsibility for regulating relevant oil and gas operations in the hands of the states rather than the federal government."
That sounds like: if you can't fool all of the people all of the time, then maybe you can fool some of the people. Ground water supplies don't magically stop at state lines or boundaries. Ground water contamination doesn't magically stop at state lines, either.
When I think of fracking and safety, it is important to remember the history of how we got here:
"The federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 contained a provision that has come to be known as the "Halliburton Loophole," an exemption for gas drilling and extraction from requirements in the underground injection control (UIC) program of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Other exemptions are also present in the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act."
So, this law was enacted during the Bush-Cheney administration's tenure. That energy producers pursued these exemptions before starting the current fracking boom speaks volumes. They probably knew that water contamination was likely, and/or that they couldn't safely drill and extract oil and gas. So, too, did compliant politicians.
You can't have a bright future with polluted drinking water and groundwater. Inhofe's proposed legislation should be opposed. Contact your elected officials, and tell them what you think.
What are your opinions of fracking? Should regulations be shifted to only the states?
This seems to be the week to receive phone calls from telemarketers.
The first call this week was 2:10 pm Tuesday afternoon. It was a robocall offering electric power discounts for people who qualify. The automated message asked me to have my monthly bill ready and to press "5" to speak with a representative. Previously, I have received both phone calls and visits by door-to-door sales people, Plus, I am aware of several utility scams. I was curious to learn what the latest pitch is, so I pressed "5" to continue the call.
A representative quickly joined the phone call and asked if I had my bill ready. I said yes, but that I needed to know first who I was talking with. The representative said his name was Robert. No last name. Then, I asked for his company's name and phone number. He said his company was "Power Source," and that he was in their call center. He refused to give a phone number (a typical habit of scam artists; especially those calling from outside the country).
Our phone call was off to a bumpy start, and it quickly got worse. I asked Robert for his company's website address. He replied that I could Google the company's name to learn more. Not a very friendly answer. It seemed to me that Robert (probably not his read name) was not going to disclose anything meaningful about Power Source (probably not its real name). Yet, he felt perfectly fine asking me to share details from my utility bill, which I consider highly confidential.
The Power Source name is strikingly similar to EverSource, a real, publicly-traded utility holding company that provides residential energy services in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. EverSource was created when Northeast Utilities merged with NSTAR Electric & Gas. Northeast Utilities included Connecticut Light & Power, Public Service of New Hampshire, Western Massachusetts Electric, and Yankee Gas.
I told Robert that since he was unwilling to share any detailed information, neither was I. He said thank you and hung up.
My online search for "Power Source" did not find a website for a power or electric company named "Power Source." More importantly, this robocall was illegal. Why? The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) explains:
"You've probably gotten robocalls about candidates running for office, or charities asking for donations. These robocalls are allowed. But if the recording is a sales message and you haven't given your written permission to get calls from the company on the other end, the call is illegal. In addition to the phone calls being illegal, their pitch most likely is a scam."
I have no relationship with a company named Power Source, and my home phone is registered in the national Do Not Call Registry. Consumers can report illegal robocalls at the FTC website. I did. So, if you receive a robocall from Power Source, you now know what to do with it.
The second call was 6:15pm Wednesday afternoon. It was a traditional phone call and not a robocall. Again, I asked the caller to identify himself. He said his name was James, who also offered energy discounts for home owners. Again, I asked for his company's name, phone number and website address. He identified his company as Solar Green Energy, but refused to provide a phone number.
Notice a pattern?
During the second call, I went online. A quick search for "Solar Green energy" found a dot-com website with that name. The site was for sale, and it didn't provide any details about the company nor its offerings. James insisted that if I qualified, he'd schedule a representative to visit to fully explain the service. I held firm and told him I wasn't sharing anything until I knew more about who I was talking with. He repeated his request for me to share information from my utility bill, and I hung up.
Afterward, I thought about both phone calls. They weren't really a surprise given huge electricity rate increases recently in Boston:
"... the Bureau of Labor Statistics said electricity prices in Boston were 63 percent higher than the national average in February — well up from last year, when local prices were 29 percent higher. Utilities have blamed insufficient pipeline capacity to supply the region, coupled with high winter demand."
To avoid getting slammed (e.g., your utility service changed without your permission) or being over-charged by a company practicing deceptive marketing, the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office advises consumers to:
For me, it's simple. If a caller asks me to disclose my personal information while refusing to fully identify their self, their employer, and the services offered, then I don't do business with them. Period. And, I definitely don't do business with illegal robocallers. I expect telemarketers to clearly and completely explain their discount program, first.
Have you received phone calls from Power Source or Solar Green Energy? If so, please share your experiences below including the date, time, company name, representative's name, and content of your call.
In a news article titled, "A Revolt Is Growing As More People Refuse to Pay Back Student Loans," the Washington Post reported about a loan repayment strike by students of Corinthian Colleges:
"Remember those 15 people who refused to repay their federal student loans? Their “debt strike” has picked up 85 more disgruntled borrowers..."
What led up to the strike by students:
"... they would not pay a dime of their student loans because the school broke the law. Corinthian, which runs Everest Institute, Wyotech and Heald College, has become the poster child for the worst practices in the for-profit education sector... Clouded by allegations of deceptive marketing and lying to the government about its graduation rates, Corinthian lost its access to federal funds last year, forcing the company to sell or close its schools."
The students organized into a group called Debt Collective. They already approached the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). The Washington Post reported that some of the striking students met today with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) seeking cancellation of their student loans:
"Although the CFPB doesn’t have the power to grant that request, the agency’s overture shows that the strike is being taken seriously."
The strike should be taken seriously. Students are future human capital for businesses. They are future leaders and workers. There seem to be four distinct issues, all of which are important and must be addressed:
Last month, Forbes reported about student loan debt:
"... the New York Federal Reserve released its Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit for the fourth quarter of 2014... While most forms of household debt saw improvements in borrowers making on-time payments, a big exception was student loan debt. Student loan debt saw delinquencies (debt that has not had a payment made in 90+ days) rise to 11.3% of outstanding debt. The report also shows that student loan debt has the highest amount of delinquent debt compared to all other forms of household debt (mortgages, auto loans, and credit cards)."
Why student loan delinquency rate is increasing:
"While most other forms of household debt can be discharged in bankruptcy, student loan debt cannot – which means that past delinquencies compound onto new delinquencies, and until borrowers as a whole start bringing their loans current, the delinquency rate will continue to rise. What many student loan borrowers forget is that student loan debt is basically a secured debt – it’s secured on the borrowers future earnings... recent graduates who have struggled to make even their first payment on their student loan debt, or who simply don’t know how to go about making their student repayment plan affordable given their current situation."
False and deceptive advertising by for-profit schools is also a problem. It robs students of the educational benefits they are paying for, and expect to use both to land future jobs and pay off their loans. When deceptive marketing happens, taxpayer money (federal and state) is wasted for students and for veterans' education. According to the Center For Investigative Reporting:
"... $600 million dollars in GI bill money had gone to hundreds of for-profit schools in California with low graduation rates and high rates of student loan default."
And, that's just the State of California. The students' frustration is understandable. They rightly feel deceived by the school, and didn't get the education they paid for.
It will be interesting to watch what happens. What are your opinions of the strike? Is it a revolt?
If you think that money has not corrupted the political process in the United States, then read this Raw Story news article. If they don't get their way, several big banks have threatened to withhold campaign contributions:
"Representatives from Citigroup, JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America have met to discuss ways to urge Democrats, including Warren and Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, to soften their party's tone toward Wall Street... Bank officials said the idea of withholding donations was not discuss at a meeting of the four banks in Washington but it has been raised in one-on-one conversations..."
The threat is not to only to candidates, but to organizations, like the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, that raise funds for candidates. The gesture would be symbolic, since the most a bank can give directly is $15,000 per year. They all probably give more indirectly through super-PACs.
Let's briefly review some of the banks' history:
|Bank of America||August, 2011: Bank Of America To Settle Class-Action Lawsuit With Overdraft Fees
December, 2011: Bank Of America Agrees to Pay $335 Million To Settle Discrimatory Lending Lawsuit
March, 2012: Bank Of America To Test New Fees
September, 2014: The U.S. Justice Department And Bank Of America Agree On Record Settlement Amount
March, 2015: Bank of America Raises Prices For Its Checking Customers. What You Need To Know And How To Avoid The New Fees
|Citigroup||March, 2010: Citibank Breach Exposes Sensitive Personal Information of 600,000 Consumers
June, 2011: Citigroup Increases Number of Breach Victims To 360 Thousand
July, 2011: Customer Losses From Citigroup Data Breach At $2.7 Million
October, 2011: Citigroup To Pay $285 Million To Settle An SEC Lawsuit About Mortgage Backed Securities
July, 2014: Citigroup To Pay $7 Billion Settlement For Misleading Investors About Toxic Mortgage Backed Securities
|JP Morgan||September, 2013: JPMorgan Chase To Pay About $1 Billion in Fines To Settle Charges By Regulators
October, 2013: JPMorgan Chase and U.S. Justice Department Reach Tentative $13 Billion Settlement About Mortgage-Backed Securities. What Next?
December, 2013: Settlement Agreements Require JP Morgan Bank To Pay Record Amount of Fines
December, 2013: JPMorgan Chase Bank: Data Breach Affects 500,000 Prepaid Cardholders, And The Bank's Sordid History
December, 2013: You Gave JPMorgan Bank A Whale Of A Christmas Gift
Given this history, these banks should be focused instead upon strengthening their data security, eliminating banking deserts, and improving their customers' satisfaction and loyalty. Yes, banks are free to donate money to the candidates of their choice. Similarly, consumers are free to deposit their hard-earned money in the bank (or credit union) of their choice. I'm glad that I moved all of my money out of Bank of America.
What are your opinions of the banks' threats?
The Los Angeles Times reported about an investigation to Pacific Gas & Electric Company:
"Money collected from ratepayers and earmarked for pipeline safety was instead spent on executive pay raises by the state's largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., in the months before a deadly pipeline explosion in 2010... The new head of the Public Utilities Commission wants to increase financial penalties against Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to a record $1.6 billion for negligence related to the 2010 pipeline explosion that killed eight people and leveled a neighborhood in the Bay Area suburb of San Bruno."
Fines? Jail time seems appropriate instead. People died, and:
"Records released a few days after the explosion showed that PG&E received approval in 2007 to spend $5 million of ratepayer money to replace a high-risk section of the 30-inch pipeline north of the San Bruno blast site. The work on the 1950s-era pipe was never performed. And in 2010, the utility asked for another $5 million to do the same job, according to PG&E documents submitted to the PUC."
Each state's Public Utility Commission (PUC) oversees and the utilities (e.g., water, electricity, gas), including how much they can raise prices to ratepayers. Consumers and businesses are ratepayers. The California PUC's mission:
"The California Public Utilities Commission serves the public interest by protecting consumers and ensuring the provision of safe, reliable utility service and infrastructure at reasonable rates, with a commitment to environmental enhancement and a healthy California economy. We regulate utility services, stimulate innovation, and promote competitive markets, where possible, in the communications, energy, transportation, and water industries"
Seems like the public interest wasn't served very well, if at all. When scheduled (and paid for) maintenance and safety work isn't performed, one has to question whether the state PUC is doing its oversight job effectively.
This news story deserves monitoring. It makes one wonder where else this type of executive wrongdoing happens. Meanwhile, a Massachusetts state legislator is investigating huge electricity rate increases in Boston:
"... the Bureau of Labor Statistics said electricity prices in Boston were 63 percent higher than the national average in February — well up from last year, when local prices were 29 percent higher. Utilities have blamed insufficient pipeline capacity to supply the region, coupled with high winter demand."
63 percent is a huge rate increase. Huge. Did you pay go up 63 percent? Mine didn't, and I doubt that yours did either. Did your electricity consumption go up 63 percent? Mine didn't, and I doubt that yours did either. The "public good" is a balance between the needs of ratepayers and the utility providers. Things seem lopsided.
Besides the negative impact upon the Boston and metro-area economy, the huge electric rate increase is especially difficult for retirees on fixed incomes. State politicians, the Boston Mayor's office, and the Massachusetts PUC need to explain how they let this huge increase happen.
What are your opinions of the above events in California? Massachusetts residents: what do you think about the recent rate increases in your electric bills?
There have been several high-profile data breaches recently at health care providers. You've probably heard about them, including the massive breach at Anthem that affected 80 million patients. Earlier this month, Software Advice released the results of an online survey. It found:
"...45 percent of patients surveyed are “very” or “moderately concerned” about a security breach (which we defined as their medical records and/or insurance information being accessed without their consent, and potentially resulting in identity theft). We also asked the 45 percent who are very or moderately concerned to list the reasons behind their level of concern... The highest percentage of respondents (47 percent) say they are concerned about becoming the victim of fraud or identity theft."
When criminals use stolen health care credentials, it is usually to gain access to expensive treatments under the victim's name, and/or to gain access to prescription drugs. The victims are often liable for any co-payments. Experts warn that resolving medical identity fraud can be costly, time, consuming and require plenty of effort and expertise since the victim's medical records have been corrupted with the thief's medical and health information.
The researchers surveyed 243 people. The survey explored how patients' security concerns affect their relationships with their physicians:
"... we asked respondents whether data security concerns lead them to withhold personal health information from their doctors. We defined “personal health information” as including their own (or their family’s) prescription, mental illness and substance abuse history. While the majority of our sample (79 percent) say this “rarely or never” happens, it is significant (and unfortunate) that 21 percent of patients withhold personal information from their physicians specifically because they are concerned about a security breach."
That equals one in every five patients withholding personal information. And, there's more. Many patients fail to read the privacy notices from their physicians or health care providers:
"... we wanted to see how many actually read the Notice of Privacy Practices (NPP) at their doctors’ offices. NPPs are written explanations of how a provider may use and share health information, and how patients can exercise their privacy rights. Patients usually get NPPs (which typically look like this) during their first visit to a health care provider. HIPAA requires NPPs be presented to all patients, but patients do not necessarily have to read or sign the forms. In fact, 44 percent of our sample tell us they “rarely or never” read NPPs all the way through before signing, and 3 percent simply “never sign” them."
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act are laws enacted to protect patients' privacy and medical information. The HIPAA law specifies which health care providers and entities (e.g., "covered entities," "business associates," "subcontractors") are required to comply with HIPAA privacy and data security requirements. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) federal agency operates the official HIPAA privacy web site.
So, too many consumers (and especially teenagers) have a bad habit of ignoring privacy policies at health care providers, just as they ignore privacy policies at websites in general. (Granted, the legalese makes most privacy policies difficult to understand. And, many mobile app developers avoided publishing privacy policies, until forced to do so.) That must change because consumers are only hurting themselves.
Another key finding from the survey:
"... 54 percent of respondents say they would be “very” or “moderately likely” to change providers as a result of their personal health information being accessed without their permission. Digging deeper, we asked patients in that 54 percent if there would be anything their provider could do to retain them in spite of a breach... While 28 percent say there is nothing their provider could do that would convince them to stay, the greatest percentage of our respondents (37 percent) would stick with their doctor if they provided specific examples of how the practice’s security policies and procedures had improved after the breach."
Patients were especially likely to switch health care providers if the breach was caused by staff members. Good. It's one way to hold health care providers accountable when they fail to protect patients' sensitive medical information. And, good data security and privacy makes for good health care practices. After a data breach, it is even more important for health care providers to perform explicit actions to regain patients' trust.
Informed consumers know that their medical information is very valuable to criminals. How valuable? The Pittsburgh-Post Gazette reported:
"The value of personal financial and health records is two or three times [the value of financial information alone], because there’s so many more opportunities for fraud... Combine a Social Security number, birth date and some health history, and a thief can open credit accounts plus bill insurers or the government for fictitious medical care... Hackers also can comb through clinical information, looking for material to blackmail wealthy or powerful patients..."
The newspaper described the troubling history and increasing number of data breaches in the health care industry:
"In 2011 and 2012, combined, there were 458 big breaches involving a total of 14.7 million people, according to the federal Department of Health and Human Services. In 2013 and 2014, there were 528 involving 19 million people. Around 10 percent of breaches stem from hacking, while around half are physical thefts of records or computers. The rest are inadvertent losses, unauthorized disclosures or improper disposals of health information."
You can browse details about many of those breaches in this blog. Select "Medical Fraud" or "Health Care/EHR" in the categories tag cloud on the right.
Another privacy threat for consumers is when non-covered entities, like social networking websites and fitness apps, collect medical and health information. Consumers don't realize that they share personal medical information with non-covered entities, they lose HIPAA privacy and data security protections.
Who are these non-covered entities? The Privacy Right Clearinghouse website provides a good description of HIPAA Basics, including:
"Here are just a few examples of those who aren’t covered under HIPAA but may handle health information: life and long-term insurance companies; workers' compensation insurers, administrative agencies, or employers (unless they are otherwise considered covered entities); agencies that deliver Social Security and welfare benefits; automobile insurance plans that include health benefits; search engines and websites that provide health or medical information and are not operated by a covered entity; marketers; gyms and fitness clubs; direct to consumer (DTC) genetic testing companies; many mobile applications (apps) used for health and fitness purposes; those who conduct screenings at pharmacies, shopping centers, health fairs, or other public places for blood pressure, cholesterol, spinal alignment, and other conditions; certain alternative medicine practitioners; most schools and school districts; researchers who obtain health data directly from health care providers; most law enforcement agencies; many state agencies, like child protective services; courts, where health information is material to a case"
So, the next time you hear a corporate apologist claim that breaches at health care providers don't matter, you now know how ridiculous that claim is. Breaches matter to patients. Hence, they matter. Period. No excuses. If health care entities archive data in cloud services, they'd better protect it and commit sufficient resources. Smart health care providers listen to their patients' needs. Woe to those that don't.
What are your opinions of the survey?