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15 posts from May 2010

Halliburton and BP: You Suck

Words alone cannot convey the anger and frustration I feel with:

  1. The actual oil spill,
  2. Lax MMS and federal government oversight before the oil spill,
  3. An unhealthy relationship between federal oil regulators and private industry long before the oil spill,
  4. To clean up the oil spill BP is using an oil dispersant that may do more harm than good,
  5. BP may not be using the best oil dispersant or approach,
  6. Possible crimes and a cover-up by BP, Halliburton, and Transocean executives,
  7. An oil-spill cleanup technology that is stuck in the 1980's,
  8. Federal legislation that limited oil company liability to $75 million, and
  9. Transocean seeks to limit its liability to $27 million after already receiving $400 million in insurance payments

Let's not forget about the politicians and industry pundits who advocated, "Drill, baby, drill" in 2008.

While accidents happen, an industry that cannot plug a leak a mile below sea level should not be drilling a mile below sea level. And after an oil spill and inability to plug a leak, it has lost my trust and the right to perform deep water drilling. Yes, there needs to be a total ban on deep-sea drilling. A 6-month moratorium is not enough.

This video does a pretty good job about conveying how I feel about the disaster in the Gulf:

Yes, I am participating in the boycott of BP and all of its brands. I hope that you will participate, too.


Boston Business Journal: BigBad Agency Closes

My former employer was in the news again this week. The Boston Business Journal reported:

"Digital marketing firm BigBad Inc. has shuttered... In recent years the firm has worked with the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Connecticut College, among others. BigBad’s board of directors voted to shut down the agency in March... At least one company that was a client when the agency closed received a letter notifying the company of BigBad’s closure..."

In March of this year, the Boston Business Journal reported the agency's problems. While the agency has taken down its website, its Facebook and Twitter pages were still available today.

I enjoyed working there at the company focused on the higher education and health care verticals. My projects included some really innovative website redesign work in 2009 for Wooster College, Miami University (Ohio), and other higher education website redesign projects that haven't yet launched. The iWooster application appeals to a wide variety of users, from prospective students to current students to alumni to parents of students.

What made my time at BigBad (about 18 months) really special was my coworkers... a really collaborative and supportive group of professionals. I wish them all the best and hope that we work together again soon.


Update on Just Energy Sales Tactics

Perhaps you read this prior blog post about my encounter with a Just Energy sales representative. I strongly urge all consumers to watch this CBS 2 news report which aired in Chicago in February 2010. Advice to consumers:

  • Know what a therm is. It is not the same as a gallon of gasoline.
  • A "price protection" plan does not guarantee savings. Ask any sales representative for proof of savings
  • Don't show the door-to-door sales repreesentative your electric/gas bill. Some consumers have been "slammed" -- their account number used without their permission and signed to a contract without their knowledge.
  • Check with the Better Business Bureau or your state's consumer protection agency before doing business with any door-to-door sales representative or company.
  • If you can't read English, don't sign a contract. Get somebody who can read English to read the contract for you.

Thanks to KeyFrame5 for the link to the video!


Survey: 60 Percent of Facebook Members Consider Deleting Their Accounts

First, several bloggers posted animations of the changing privacy situation at Facebook. Second, a Fortune Magazine blog post disputed the backlash notion. I guess that somebody has to be contrary and highlight the opposite position.

Third, there are the findings from a SOPHOS survey of 1,588 Facebook members. When asked via an online poll if they think that they would quit Facebook due to privacy concerns:

  • 30% said it is highly likely they would quit
  • 30% said they would possibly quit
  • 16% said they already quit
  • 12% said it's not likely they would quit
  • 12% said flat out that they wouldn't quit

Add up those numbers however you choose. 30% would consider themselves likely to quit is not a good statistics for any business. Combine "highly likely" and "possibly" and you arrive at the 60% statistic mentioned in the blog post. Combine "highly likely" and 'already quit" and you get 42% -- no small number to ignore either.

And, it is difficult to effectively set the privacy options on your Facebook account.

Most people I have talked with have no idea how to do it. I guess that is why usage of the Reclaim Privacy site has taken off. The site offers an open-source browser-based mechanism that Facebook members can use to inspect the privacy settings of Facebook account. If you want to learn more, Mashable provides a good review of the Reclaim Privacy site.

I guess that is why Facebook is rushing to develop an easy to use privacy mechanism. If you have tried to effectively modify your Facebook account settings so only you friends can see your personal data, then you know what I am talking about. It's like (sorry for the bad pun) the Wack-a-Mole arcade game. I counted at least four different pages you have to view, and some of them are downright difficult to use. And any privacy settings you change today, Facebook can undo later whenever its executives decide to change the Facebook privacy policy (again).

I fully expect the backlash to continue to grown.


7 Ways To Protect Your Medical Records

The recently passed health care reform legislation in Washington included directives for doctors and hospitals to covert patients' medical records to electronic formats. That's a lot of good news.

The bad news: identity thieves view patients' medical records like gold. These records contain the most sensitive patient information (e.g., Social Security number, address, birth date, payment history and method) needed to create a new identity or assume another person's identity. Plus, experts say it can cost over $20,000 per victim to fix your medical records.

The AARP Bulletin reported the results of the National Study on Medical Identity Theft by the Ponemon Institute. The article listed seven tips for consumers to protect their medical records:

  1. Ask your health care provider to demand photo IDs from all patients to receive services.
  2. Ask your doctor(s) to make copies for you of everything in your medical file(s).
  3. Read every letter and notice you receive via postal mail from your doctor and health insurer. Check the dates, descriptions, and amounts to verify that the document covers a valid visit or procedure for you.
  4. Ask your health care provider or doctor for a list of benefits paid in your name and an "accounting of disclosures" to see who has received a copy of your medical record.
  5. Review your credit reports yearly for health care billing errors or fraudulent medical entries.
  6. Contact your health insurer immediately if you lose your insurance card.
  7. Avoid Internet and storefront retailers offering free treatments and supplies.

The Backlash Against Facebook Grows

After Facebook changed (yet again) its privacy policy, several sites created graphics to visually show the erosion of privacy of consumers' personal information. Below are a couple graphics I especially like. Click on the image to view a larger version at each site:

Matt McKeon: animation of privacy erosion at Facebook.com

Here is another:

MoveOn: loss of privacy at Facebook.com

Want to learn more about privacy issues related to Facebook? Click on any of the links in the near-right column under "Greatest Hits: Facebook." Another good read is this blog post by Jason Calacanis which explains how we Facebook members have been "Zucked."


Age Of Conversation 3 On Sale!

Images of the Age of Conversation 2010 Edition. Hardcover and paperback
Click on the image to view a larger version.

I am pleased to announce that the Age Of Conversation 3 book is available! You can buy the book at online retailers including Amazon.com and at Barnes & Noble. A Kindle version is also available! If you want to learn about social media, then this book is a must-buy.

Age of Conversation 3 (202 pages; hardcover; paperback; Kindle; ePub) captures the distinct shift from social media as a hypothetical consumer loyalty tool, as it was considered only a little more than a year ago, to its current state as a staple in the modern marketing toolbox. Although the book covers more than just social media, the topic is ubiquitous among the book’s 10 sections:

  1. At the Coalface
  2. Identities, Friends and Trusted Strangers
  3. Conversational Branding
  4. Measurement
  5. Corporate Conversations
  6. In the Boardroom
  7. Innovation and Execution
  8. Influence
  9. Getting to Work
  10. Pitching Social Media.

Age of Conversation 3 is the third book in the series which started as an online conversation between two marketing pros -- an American and an Australian —- and evolved into the first editions with more than 100 bloggers from nine countries. Today, the latest edition, with more than 170 bloggers from 15 countries, has grown into a treatise on the state of social media including the intersection of social media and marketing best practices.

Drew McLellan and Gavin Heaton have edited the latest book, which includes a veritable “who’s who” of the world’s leading marketing bloggers. McLellan heads the McLellan Marketing Group, a Des Moines, Iowa advertising agency, and writes the Drew's Marketing Minute blog. Heaton works for global software giant SAP, and writes the Servant of Chaos blog from Sydney, Australia.

Like the last edition, yours truly has contributed a chapter to the latest edition. Why did I write about? Well, you have to purchase a copy to find out.

Proceeds from the sale of the book are directed to a charity selected by the majority of contributing authors. The book was as published by new digital publishing company Channel V Books. A version of the book will soon be available as an ePub for other digital readers beyond the Kindle.


Facebook And Your Afterlife...

[Editor's Note: Today's blog post is by guest author R. Michelle Green, the Principal for her company, Client Solutions. She is a combination geek girl, personal organizer, and career coach. She helps others improve their use of technology in their personal or professional life. Most consumers want to maintain control over who accesses and uses their personal information. Today she tackles a control issue that affects all social media users and few want to discuss.]

By R. Michelle Green

Facebook logo No one wants to think about death. I know from personal experience it can be sudden, random, and inexplicable. There’s law and precedent to guide what happens to your estate upon death, but what happens to the things you leave behind online? Facebook says you own all the data you post on their site. Does that ownership and control transfer to your heirs as physical property would? In a word – No.

Of course, it’s not that simple.

On Facebook as with any site, ownership is operationalized through the use of your ID and password. If your executor or next of kin knows the magic word, control of your virtual assets is no problem. If not, things become more complex. If no one tells Facebook anything, the account stays up and viable, even if there is no activity. Surprisingly, Facebook does not close or deactivate accounts just for inactivity, no matter how long they may be fallow.

An account can be deactivated and reactivated at will with the password. It can be deleted outright, an action that cannot be undone. Facebook Terms say that no one can access the data in a deleted account, and that Facebook will never use the data. For technical reasons things like photos may be on their servers for a little while after deletion (likely until it's overwritten with more data – or until Mark Zuckerberg decides that even dead people want to share everything). No such promises are offered in the FAQ for memorialized or deactivated accounts.

The relevant Facebook FAQ privileges the option to 'memorialize' the page of the dead person (a close family member must provide a link to an online obituary). With this action, no one else can friend the account. If you are already a friend, you can post things to the page and share your grief or memories with others in the dead person's existing circle of friends. Facebook removes key data from the profile (contact info, addresses, etc.), and pulls it from searches on or off Facebook (only friends can search Facebook and find it). It also stops the "you might know X why don't you friend him" suggestions, which is only appropriate.

It felt a tad scary to me that Facebook only requires an obit or a news article rather than a death certificate. As Jeff Goldblum knows, with internet connectivity and today's instant news cycle, that can be problematic. I also found it quite tacky that while searching for death at Facebook's help center, I got ads for several death-titled games along side the straightforward FAQs:

Searching Facebook FAQs for information about death
Click on image to view larger version.

Being an Izzard fan, the “Cake-or-Death?” app caught my eye. If I were really grieving would I find this offensive? Someone at Facebook should have enough class to keep such a juxtaposition from occurring.

What’s the best approach? All have some value – the issue is making sure someone knows what you think would be best for you and your family, and that you have the ability to follow that path. Some online commenters suggested the will should say explicitly whether account deletion or memorialization is desired; click here to read a moving vote for the latter.

To have the most options, you may want to be sure that someone knows your passwords (or how to deduce them) upon your death, particularly if you frequently shop or pay bills online. As Facebook might lock family out once apprised of the owner’s death (recall that only the owner has permission to use the account under Facebook's terms), whatever actions heirs want to take should be timely. There are service providers who will maintain your passwords for you, as well. As a fan of informed choice, I especially appreciated this article for its thorough analysis about our virtual property after death.

Now the awkward cynical questions -- how much ad revenue do they get from those memorialized pages? What could Facebook do with its “non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license” to use our photos and videos (a license we grant each time we upload content, and which ends only with the account’s closing)? Given that a memorial is only available to friends, does Facebook now get to reset any privacy settings previously customized to lists? What about access from those in one’s network? If any of our readers can shed light on these questions, please do.

By the way, I find no villain in this scenario. Our technological capabilities almost always outpace the law, and Facebook is just part of that landscape. As the current 400-pound gorilla of social networking, however, Facebook’s actions (and inactions) set precedent, for better or for worse. (The Bemister family would vehemently disagree with the pass I’ve given Facebook. A second article has more detail about the evolution of social network technology versus law and precedent, with a couple of anecdotal horror stories.)

Talk to you later. I gotta go work on my will.


© 2010. R. Michelle Green. Reprinted with permission.


Just Energy: A Good Deal?

Yesterday evening, a young man rang my doorbell claiming to offer a better, environmentally-friendly energy deal than my current electric company. He said that he represented Just Energy, and promptly asked me for a copy of my electric bill so I could sign up for this better deal.

This young man had the bad luck of ringing my doorbell. First, this blog is all about informing and empowering consumers. So, I am always alert for identity theft, fraud, scams, and deceptive offers. Alarms go off whenever a sales representative immediately asks for personally identifying information before I have a chance to review their offer in detail.

Second, I am a member of the neighborhood watch group on my street. Third, I am the co-webmaster of my neighborhood civic association. So, it's really easy for me to get the word out to neighbors.

I thanked him for sharing his energy offer and told him that, besides not knowing him, I don't disclose the personal information he asked for. He showed me a badge which he said validated that he was from Just Energy. I told him that his badge didn't do a thing for me, and asked him to leave a business card or brochure with a phone number I could call to verify him and his company.

He left a brochure which pitches wind energy, and that Just Energy's "JustGreen Rate Flex program provides consumers with electricity from a clean, renewal energy source. The brochure doesn't mention directly but seems to capitalize on the Cape Wind project, which when built will be the nation's first offshore wind farm. The wind farm, approved in April by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior after 9 years of environmental studies and political wrangling, will be built in Massachusetts off the coast of Cape Cod.

After the young man left my front porch, I called 9-1-1 to have the local police verify his credentials. Then, I went back to work. Later during the evening, I had some time and decided to research Just Energy. A quick Google search produced a link to the Chicago Better Business Bureau, which rated Just Energy an "F" (on a scale of A+ to F). Why? 536 complaints, 42 unresolved complaints, and 28 complaints unanswered by the company.

An article in the Consumerist blog described some consumers' experiences with the company in the borough of Brooklyn in New York City. Similar problems there. I called the phone number (866-587-8674) on the company's brochure and a recording said its offices were closed and to call back during business hours.

Is Just Energy's deal a good one? You'll have to decide that for yourself. Me? I'll pass on the company's offer.

Has anybody else encountered this company? Did you sign up for one of their energy plans? If so, what was your experience?

[Editor's Note: in January 2015, Just Energy agreed to a settlement agreement with the Attorney General's Office for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.]


7 Things You Should Stop Doing On Facebook

To avoid identity theft and fraud, Consumer Reports listed the seven habits of many Facebook members that expose themselves, their personal information, and the personal information of family members (e.g., children):

1. Using weak passwords: in November 2007 I wrote about the need for consumers to use strong passwords. If your password is the same as an item in your Facebook profile, then you are making it easy for identity criminals and hackers. Use something different and swap out several letters with numbers, special characters, and so forth.

2. Displaying your full birth date: I first wrote about this risk in March 2009. Your birth date is a key personal data item criminals use to distinguish you from other people with the same name. Regardless, many of my Facebook friends seem more interested in getting birthday wishes than effective data security and continue to display their full birth date.

3. Ignoring Facebook's privacy controls: there are several pages with privacy settings within your Facebook profile. You should spend the time and visit all of these pages.

4. Displaying a child's name under a photo: this is just irresponsible by Facebook members who haven't set their privacy controls to limit who can access their personal information. It's like walking down the street and telling strangers your children's name and ages.

5. Posting while you are away from home: location-based services are the new "in" thing and criminals love this. It tells them when your home is vacant and ripe for a break-in.

6. Setting your profile to be found by search engines: if you have been a Facebook member for a while, then you are already connected to most or all of your friends. So this setting is an unnecessary risk.

7. Allowing children to use Facebook unsupervised: this should be obvious given items number 1 through 6, since many children and teens aren't aware of the risks or consider themselves immune. They need to be taught good data security habits. 9% of social media users experienced some form of abuse last year: computer viruses, scams, identity theft, and/or harassment.

Also, I found this survey result troubling: 73% of adult Facebook users think that they are communicating only with friends, but only 42% have actually set their Facebook profile privacy controls accordingly. So, about 30% are placing their personal information, their family's personal information, and the personal information of their friends at risk.


Voting With My Facebook Profile

Given Facebook's new terms and Privacy Policy, my Facebook friends will now see my updated Facebook profile:

My new Facebook profile. Click to view a larger image.

Click on the image to view a larger version.

The "public" view for Everyone shows even less. Why I made this change: reason #1, reason #2, and reason #3. I insist on being in control of my personal information, and expect the erosion to continue. I am in the process of removing most of my photos. Important information for new Facebook members.

What do you think of the new Facebook terms and privacy policies? How are you adapting to the latest changes?


Just How Helpful Can Facebook Be?

[Editor's Note: Today's blog post is by guest author R. Michelle Green, the Principal for her company, Client Solutions. She is a combination geek girl, personal organizer, and career coach. She has studied what makes some individuals embrace or avoid information technology. (She’s definitely one of the former.) Michelle helps others improve their use of technology in their personal or professional life. Here's her take on Facebook's Open Graph.]

By R. Michelle Green

I wanted a new purse recently, and did some online searches. Days later, I’m still getting ads for purses even though my searches have moved on to nature documentaries. Why is it still focused on purses? Is my laptop trying to encourage me to be more fashion forward? Or is it behavioral advertising, in the context of the Social Graph?

What is the Social Graph you ask? According to Brad Fitzpatrick, the founder of Live Journal, it’s “the global mapping of everybody and how they’re related.” I probably had Gmail open while I searched for purses (no doubt using Google Shopping). Now, I’m looking for nature documentaries on Amazon.com, where I do not have a public profile.

I hate filling out profiles, and more often seek another solution if a site requires me to create an account. If only we didn’t have to build a new profile every time we found the latest cool thing online, or didn’t have to bother with pesky account IDs and passwords…

Thank goodness Facebook.com CEO and Founder Mark Zuckerberg is looking out for us.

He feels specialized networks like Pandora or Yelp should be open and cross-pollinating, and not just available by password. New Facebook tools will make the social graph more open to everyone – hence his April 21, 2010 announcement of Facebook’s Open Graph Protocol. He’s letting FB business partners tell signed-in users which of their friends are using their sites and what they liked there.

For example, when I visited The Huffington Post, it told me about the activities of several friends:

Open Graph example at the Huffington Post. Click to view larger image.

At first glance, this may feel a little like magic. Why is Facebook telling me about a great Szechuan restaurant a block away? Why now? How does it know I’m hungry? I’ve signed in to Facebook at noon using my GPS-enabled mobile device; the restaurant is using Open Graph to reflect its location; and I clicked “like” on a Szechuan recipe at Epicurious last week.

This is the vision: if your Facebook general information will inform your experience at a site, Facebook will share it without extra work from you, even the very first time you visit.

Could be cool right? Your profile can be a living document now, automatically updated whenever you click on a Facebook ‘like’ button anywhere else on the Web. Instead of a news feed visible only to users in some finite window of time, your recommendation will become visible to your friends when it’s timely for them: when they visit the site. This is “just-in-time” inventory for the digital age. If you’re tired of managing more and more complex ‘strong’ passwords at multiple sites, let Facebook open the world’s accounts to you with Facebook Connect –- and open you to those accounts with Open Graph.

A big downside is managing all those privacy rubrics. For the good of the business model, everything should be public by default.

Today, I was given a forced choice at Facebook log-in: delete my connections with my alma mater and my high school, or check them as public information. I found I could work my way back through account settings and reset that to the more nuanced “Only Friends;” at least I can right now.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation suggests FB settings alone will not be sufficient to the task without the onerous action of opting out of Instant Personalization at each relevant site. (As of this writing, only Yelp, Pandora and Microsoft’s docs.com use FB’s Instant Personalization. As for social plug-ins like the ‘like’ button, 50,000 web sites were on-board within a week of the announcement. Many of Facebook's 75 launch partners are visible at the end of this video.) A writer on a recent Chowhound thread is struggling even to ascertain if the privacy settings she set at FB are in play.

And that does not constrain FB from sending you info about your friends’ less private settings. Do I need to know that a work acquaintance read an article about Rush Limbaugh when I visit CNN.com? In an unrelated article about Amazon and sales tax, a law professor went a step further. Voicing concerns over the amassing of large amounts of personal data in the hands of private aggregators, Joel Reidenberg said, “The bleed from privately held data to state surveillance can happen very quickly.”

Just how helpful do we need Facebook to be anyway?

So what’s a non-geek FB user to do? First stay informed! Understand what these tools mean, and if the new world works for you, surf on. If you disagree with Zuckerberg that we always wanted to share everything, we just didn’t have the tools, what can you do? Use any available tools to manage your privacy settings; opt out of Instant Personalization; ask your friends to do the same; and don’t stay signed in to accounts like FB when you surf.

Higher energy alternatives: speak up! Take advantage of opportunities, whether it’s the exercise of your voice, your vote or your veto. Sign up for the FB governance page and tell them what you think of these tools. Read the Terms of Service when you use sites. Vote with your feet if the terms don’t meet your approval. You can’t stop the things that make Open Graph possible IMHO, but you could be instrumental in making associated processes and tools more transparent. If you’re online, you’re exposed, but you can at least understand when you’re aiding and abetting the marketing beast.

Instant Personalization at Web sites feels to me like when you meet someone for the first time at a networking event, and they ask about your kids by name and school: slightly creepifying, as Mal Reynolds would say. We all Google each other, but wise and gentle folk serve up that information discreetly and diffidently, if at all. As behavioral advertising and social graph programming evolve, such tools will likely become smarter, more discreet, less visible and less creepy.

I hope.

Stay tuned.


© 2010. R. Michelle Green. Reprinted with permission.


Poll: Readers' Attitudes About Offshore Outsourcing

Over the past few months, I ran an informal poll on this blog asking readers about their attitudes toward offshore outsourcing. While corporations are good at assembling resources and products from various geographic areas to deliver low-priced goods to consumers, a seldom discussed aspect is that corporations also transmit customers' sensitive information between offices and vendors in several countries.

Consumers are well aware of offshore outsourcing when they talk with a customer service representative who clearly has an accent and is located in another country. Many offshore outsourcing activities are hidden from consumers and customers when those activities are performed in back-office or support operations. I explored in a four-part blog series the issues with offshore outsourcing by the major credit reporting agencies. For example, when consumers submit via paper corrections to their credit reports, those corrections are often entered by staff or vendors located in other countries.

With all of this in mind, I asked I've been Mugged readers to select the statement which best describes their attitudes about offshore outsourcing and consumers' credit information. Here are there responses:

  • 14% of respondents felt that companies should not perform offshore outsourcing under any circumstances
  • An equal number (14%) felt that offshore outsourcing is okay generally, but shouldn't be used for financial and credit information
  • The greatest number of respondents (36%) felt that companies should notify customers if they perform offshore outsourcing and customers should have a choice to opt-out
  • Far fewer respondents (9%) felt that companies should notify customers if the company's offshore outsourcing includes customers' sensitive data
  • 18% of respondents felt that U.S. Congress needs to do more about offshore outsourcing (e.g., legislation for oversight, auditing, data breach notification, etc.)
  • 5% felt that credit monitoring services shouldn't perform offshore outsourcing
  • 5% don't care whether companies perform offshore outsourcing or not

What to make of these results? First, this was an informal poll. So, it captured the opinions of only I've been Mugged blog readers. Readers of this blog are consumers who have been affected by identity theft, fraud with bank accounts, fraud with their credit reports, and/or data breach victims.

So, the readership of this blog is somewhat of a self-selecting group that has an interest and knowledge about privacy and their sensitive personal information. For the results to be applicable to the entire U.S. population, the survey participants should have included a random selection from the broader U.S. population.

Second, I believe these results are directional in that consumers want to be informed and want control over their sensitive personal information. It was not surprising to me that the greatest number of respondents (36%) felt that companies should both notify customers if they perform offshore outsourcing and provide their customers with an opt-out mechanism.

This indicates that consumers want to be notified and want control over who has access to their sensitive personal information. The company-customer relationship is built on trust. This sensitive customer information It is not for corporate executives to treat as if it is theirs alone.

Like it or not, companies will have to recognize and deal with this reality.


Shelton & White Travel Rewards: Legitimate Offer or Scam?

On Saturday, my wife received a letter via U.S. postal mail from a company named Shelton & White:

"April 26, 2010

Note: You must respond no later than May 5th, 2010

Dear Alison,

I am pleased to inform you that you have qualified for an award of 2 roundtrip airline tickets. Congratulations. These tickets are valid for travel anywhere in the Continental U.S. The retail value of this award is up to $1,400.00. Certain restrictions apply.

We have attempted contacting you several times without success. This is our last attempt. If we do not hear from you soon, we may need to issue the ticket vouchers to the alternate.

Please call us today at 800-363-8017.

Regards,

Cynthia Lux
Vice President
Travel Awards Division

New York - Chicago - Los Angeles
info@sheltonwhite.com - www.sheltonwhite.com"

My wife thought that this letter was suspect. She said that she hadn't entered any sweepstakes or contests, and hadn't received any prior letters or phone calls from Shelton & White.

After reading the letter, I agreed wit her. It seemed questionable. Several things about the letter didn't seem quite right.

First, the phrase in the letter "qualified for an award" seemed suspect. Either she won the award or not. And the poor grammar reminded me of the phishing e-mails we all receive online. Second, the letter emphasized an immediate reply within a short time period. A high-pressure offer always sets off alarms for me.

Third, the envelope was addressed by hand, and it was postmarked Phoenix Arizona. The actual letter didn't mention a Phoenix address, and only listed the three cities above: New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Fourth, we did a Google search on the company name to see what we'd find. I always do this because McAfee Site Advisor is integrated with Google search in my web browser. I like Site Advisor because it helps me avoid entering Web sites that are infected with computer viruses and malware. Our Google search results included an item from the Better Business Bureau (BBB) of Tucson, Arizona:

"Better Business Bureau of Southern Arizona is alerting consumers to Patterson Bell, Shelton White, Zimmerman Cain, Davidson Powell, Morrison Banks, Sutton Perry, Gilbert Turner, Sullivan Lang, Stanton Carney, Emerson Ross, Swanson Carr, Thompson Fuller, Richardson Blake, and Hoffman Sims, self proclaimed “Awards Redemption” agencies mailing letters to local consumers that state the recipient has qualified for airline tickets. Since Dec. 10, BBB has received over 30 inquiries about Patterson Bell from consumers seeking to determine if the offer is legitimate. Consumers who spoke to BBB said they had no recollection of ever entering a sweepstakes or contest for the airline tickets... Phone calls to Hoffman Sims and Patterson Bell each led the same representative who declined to provide any information regarding the mailings and refused to disclose either company’s Tucson address. The representative also refused to say whether Patterson Bell and Hoffman Sims were in any way affiliated."

That confirmed my suspicions. Other consumers also thought that the travel rewards offer was questionable. It was good to see alert consumers taking action by submitting inquiries to their local BBB office.

Fifth, just for kicks I visited the Shelton & White web site since Site Advisor indicated that the site was clean of malware. In my opinion, the site looked like somebody threw it together in 10 minutes. It didn't give me any confidence. I browsed to the "Our Locations" page and noticed that the city locations listed did not match the city locations in the print letter above:

(Click on the image to access a larger version.) This was icing on the cake. We decided to ignore the travel rewards offer. It seemed questionable at best.

Even if the offer was legit, I question a company's competence when they can't list something as simple as their office locations consistently on both their web site, print letter, and envelope. If you look closely, the web site lists the company name as "Shelton White" compared to "Shelton & White" in the print letter my wife received. If they can't get their address and name consistent, I wouldn't trust them with handling my sensitive personal information.

Last, I submitted an inquiry to the BBB. It's easy to do. Just enter the ZIP Code where you live and select the "BBB For Consumers: Check Out a Business or Charity" link. Complete the inquiry form and the site will direct your inquiry to the nearest BBB office. My inquiry:

"My wife received a letter on Saturday May 1, 2010 from Cynthia Lux, the Vice President of Travel Rewards Division at Shelton & White. the letter said my wife had "qualified for an award of 2 roundtrip airline tickets..." and that they had attempted to contact her several times previously.  (They had not.) The letter said that she had to reply by May 5, 2010. We checked online to verify this is a legit company and the locations in the web site (www.sheltonwhite.com) do NOT match the locations listed in the print letter. The letter is postmarked from Phoenix Arizona, but it lists locations only in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. My wife and I live in Boston, Massachusetts. I write about identity theft and this Shelton & White offer seems like a scam. Please investigate and verify."

I would like to know if any readers received this offer from Shelton & White? Did you reply? What was your experience with the company? Did you receive the airline tickets promised? What personal and bank account information did Shelton & White ask that you share?