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Debt Help

The Debt & Personal Finance Blog and Magazine

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Convenience of a Check Card and a Loan Shark All Rolled Into One

loan sharkPerhaps this has happened to you. You go to buy something at the store. It's been a busy week, so you haven't been watching your bank balance as closely as you should. The cashier rings you up. You swipe your check card and the cashier says, “It didn't go through. Do you have another card?” What happened? A check card draws money from your checking account, so your balance must have dipped too low to pay for your purchases. It happens.

Well... not anymore, it doesn't.

I switched my checking account to Bank of America a few years ago when I refinanced my adjustable rate mortgage into a home equity line. Back then, my credit was solid and it seemed like it would be easier to have my checking account within easy reach of my second mortgage and my Bank of America credit card. And like my other bank, Bank of America sent me a check card so I could make purchases with the ease of a credit card, minus all those pesky finance charges.

The first time I received an overdraft fee, I didn't think much about it. When you buy gas, the charge doesn't always show up right away and if you forget to keep track of your pending charges, sooner or later you're going to overdraw the account, especially if you're living paycheck to paycheck. The fee was hefty, but it was a small price to pay to make sure my charges were covered. Bank of America would have commended me for my attitude.

Then things started getting tight between paychecks, with more and more checks and charges floating around, and I started getting negative balance numbers that looked strangely plump. I thought maybe someone over the internet had stolen my account number, but the charges were all mine. In fact, I'd made several of them that same day. Twenty dollars here, six dollars there, twelve dollars somewhere else... and even though the balance must have been precariously low when I made the first of the three transactions, I was sure that the other transactions should have been declined. Furthermore, the fact that those two had gone through after the account dipped below zero meant that Bank of America had assessed another $70 in overdraft fees.

If I went to an ATM and tried to withdraw the same amount of money, Bank of America would have checked the balance and said, No dice. If I used my check card, on the other hand, it would authorize the charge regardless of whether or not I had money in my checking account. What mad, tortured logic was this? I could understand having to pay a fee when one too many floating charges collided because I hadn't been keeping a balanced checkbook. What I couldn't understand was how transactions kept getting approved after my account dipped below zero. It didn't make any sense.

My first credit card was a Capital One gold card, offered to me when I was still in high school. It had a $2000 dollar limit back then, and I can remember the exact moment that I reached that limit because the cashier handed it back to me and said, “It was declined, sir.” I'd gone over the limit and couldn't use the card any more. There was an over-the-limit fee and everything. I don't recall how far I'd gone over the limit, but it didn't take more than a single payment to get me back to $2000. One thing I remember very clearly was calling to ask Capital One whether I would be assessed another fee if the finance charges pushed the balance back over the limit. The customer service rep told me, “No, as long as you don't make any charges while you're over the limit, there won't be any more over-the-limit fees.”

It seemed logical to me. If I was to be penalized for using the card when my available balance was too low, that was fair, but if the credit card company could stack fees on top of each other until I got another over-the-limit fee, that was ridiculous. What Bank of America was doing with my check card charges seemed equally ridiculous.

In a single month, Bank of America charged me $350 in overdraft fees, spread out over ten separate charges. Many of these charges should have been declined in the first place, but I was noticing something else. Bank of America had an ugly habit of clearing charges in order from largest to smallest, often draining the account with the first charge and causing multiple overdrafts when clearing them in order would have overdrawn on only the largest transaction. This policy was the source of class action lawsuit against Nationsbank, which became Bank of America, that was settled in 1999. Since then, they've been informing new account-holders of the policy per the settlement agreement, but I don't recall being told about the policy by the manager who set up my account. I'm sure it's in the stack of papers he gave me to sign, or in the folder full of pamphlets I didn't have time to read after the account was processed.

The check clearing policy, however underhanded, is now an industry standard. Most banks will clear your largest checks first, claiming that this is “for your own good.” You want your mortgage payment to go through, don't you? What they don't say is that the three or four smaller transactions after the mortgage payment will go through as well, to the tune of $140.

From the Bank of America website:

Though the Bank of America Visa Check Card is accepted nearly anywhere VISA Cards are accepted, it's not a Credit Card and it's not tied to a line of credit.


Fair enough, but if it's not really a credit card, why do so many transactions go through after you overdraw your account, sometimes days after your account has fallen to a negative balance?

Bank of America explains their methodology:

We charge an overdraft fee when we pay a check or other withdrawal even though you don't have enough available funds in your account to cover these transactions.

In some circumstances, Bank of America may choose not to pay the check or other withdrawal. In this case, we will return it to the payee as unpaid, and may charge an Insufficient Funds Fee.


So, if they decide to pay the charge that should have been declined, they assess a fee. If they decide not to pay the charge, they also assess a fee. That's a pretty profitable arrangement. How exactly do they decide whether or not to pay a fee? Is it even possible to drop so far into negative numbers that your check card will be declined?

A few months ago, I found out the limits of Bank of America's largess when a series of overdrafts and the accompanying fees brought my account balance hundreds of dollars into the negatives. Knowing that the paycheck that would be direct deposited would be eaten up by the negative balance, I had no choice but to keep using the card to buy food and gas, each time watching yet another $35 fee join the transaction. $50 in gas? Let's just call it gas and a short term loan. A $35 fee for every purchase would be criminal if it was actually a finance charge, something akin to what a loan shark might charge, but I didn't have any choice if I wanted to gas up my car to go to work.

It seemed like they were willing to pay on anything as long as they could attach another overdraft fee, so I took one final look at my balance, $-643 and change, and I paid my electric bill. To my astonishment, the transaction was actually approved. I really hadn't expected it to work. A few days later, Bank of America changed its mind about this act of extreme generosity and canceled payment, charging me both the original overdraft charge, as well as the returned item fee.

Remember that thing I mentioned about their “biggest items first” policy, and how it was for my own good? I didn't use the card any more after that, but I forgot about a monthly membership charge that automatically debits the checking account in the amount of $9.96. That charge went through AFTER they declined to pay the debit to the electric company, and it was approved and paid, with the standard $35 overdraft fee tacked on, of course.

The policy of letting transactions go through even after an account's available balance reads $0.00 has become standard in the industry, and it's not even limited to check cards any more. My wife used a SunTrust debit card to buy about $50 worth of groceries last night, entered the PIN number at the Publix register, received approval and went home thinking that the charge was covered by money in the account, only to find a negative balance in the morning and a returned check fee.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Value of a Teacher? Not Enough to Collect Unemployment Benefits

unemployment2007 was a rough year for me. I was living off student loans, trying desperately to finish my degree in time to look for a teaching job at the start of the school year. I managed to find a job within a month of graduating, which was a lucky break, only to find out my school district would be paying me monthly, on the last day of the following month. My only consolation was that I managed to avoid the scourge of post-graduation unemployment, but before the school year was over, I was back on a collision course with the Florida unemployment system, thanks in part to the voters of my state.

In November of last year, the principal of my high school announced that his nightmares had come true, that Florida voters had passed a ballot initiative that increased the Homestead Exemption. I'd been teaching for only a few months, but I'd been made to understand by the other teachers that whenever the voters passed anything that would cut their taxes by a few hundred dollars, it cut the state budget by that same hundred dollars multiplied by millions of Florida tax-payers. That meant budget shortfalls for the every department of state government, including the Polk County School Board, which employed me as an English teacher. Within a few months, the principal told me what I'd already come to suspect. A first year teacher hired a month into the school year was at the bottom of the seniority totem pole, and I was one of the unlucky teachers whose units had been excised to cover the budget shortfall.

When the school year ended, I cleaned out my classroom, a portable trailer that was going to be condemned because of bad wiring only days after I left it, and I started looking for work. After a month or two without leads, I turned to the unemployment system.

I'd been dreading applying for unemployment benefits for a while because I figured it would be a long, horrifying process under hot lights, in the back room of some government office with Soviet-style bread lines out front. As it turned out, I didn't even need to wear pants to apply for benefits. In Florida, you can enter all your information into a government website and apply online. You can even enter your banking information and have the unemployment checks deposited directly into your account. I took note of when I was supposed to come back to the site and claim my weeks, entered my direct deposit information, and felt generally embarrassed that I'd worried about filing for unemployment in the first place.

You can't collect anything for at least two weeks, and there's a one week waiting period after that. This probably varies by state, but most people agree that you won't see any actual money for a month after applying.

While I was waiting, the state mailed me the first of several helpful updates about my unemployment claim, a sheet reminding me to claim my weeks on the appointed day, 8/19/08, through either www.fluidnow.com or by calling the toll-free number. It also explained in bold print that failing to claim my weeks would delay my benefits.

The next piece of correspondence I received was something labeled, “Wage Transcript and Determination,” which I correctly deduced had to do with how much I would be receiving from unemployment. At the bottom of the sheet, it listed my wage credits, and somewhere in the middle of a very misleading chart, it showed my eligibility, which they had rather curiously noted by putting an X under a box that said, “Insufficient Wage Credits.” That was the only hint that I would be receiving no benefits, as I received another letter a few days later which again reminded me to claim my weeks. The Wage Determination report itself was generic and poorly laid out, with its Ineligible and Eligible boxes side by side in such a way that I couldn't tell at first glance which one applied to me.

When I claimed my weeks on the appointed day and received nothing that week or the week that followed, I went back to that form and started to wonder if I'd misread it, which I clearly had. Maybe I'd seen the X under “Insufficient Wage Credits” and my subconscious had dismissed it as a mistake. I mean, it was ridiculous to think that my sister, who'd spent a few months working for an ice cream shop in Daytona, could collect unemployment benefits but teaching high school for a year wasn't worth sufficient wage credits.

Granted, her former employer had challenged her claim on the grounds that she'd been fired. My sister further clarified that she'd been fired because she left work to fly to New Jersey for our aunt's funeral and the manager had refused to give her the time off. She was awarded the benefits.

I called the number furnished by the Agency for Workforce Innovation, who was apparently responsible for administrating the unemployment program, but kept getting busy signals. I checked the documentation provided on the state's website to see if I could find out exactly why I didn't qualify for benefits.

From the Agency for Workforce Innovation:

Some of the reasons a person may be denied benefits are as follows:

  • Quitting either part-time or full-time work for personal reasons. Benefit payments can only be paid if you quit for good cause attributable to your employer, or for a personal illness or disability that made it necessary for you to leave the job.

  • Being discharged for misconduct connected with work. Misconduct is an intentional or controllable act or failure to take action, which shows a deliberate disregard of the employer’s interests. Misconduct may include breaking a known company policy.

  • Not being able to work or available for work. You must be able, ready and willing to accept a suitable job immediately. You must also be able to get to work and have adequate child care in order to be able to work.

  • Refusing an offer of suitable work.

  • Being on a leave of absence you requested.

  • Knowingly making false statements to obtain benefit payments.

I wasn't fired, and I'd worked almost a full school year earning around $15/hour. The unemployment system was being run by the state. I'd been employed by the state. Everything I said about my employment history was easily verified, right down to the budget cut that put me out of work.

• If your claim is not payable, the determination will explain the reason for denial and your appeal rights.


“Explain” here having the rather liberal definition of, “A box will be checked somewhere on a nondescript form, which you will then be left to interpret.” If this was because I hadn't accumulated enough wage credits, it would have been nice to know exactly how many I needed and how I was supposed to go about getting them. I turned to that bastion of knowledge, the Frequently Asked Questions link:

To qualify monetarily, a person must:

Have been paid wages in two or more calendar quarters in the base period;
Have total base period wages of at least 1-1/2 times the wages in the quarter having the highest earnings; Have at least $3,400 total wages in the base period.


Looking at my Determination, I had clearly earned more than $3,400 in the base period. It also showed that I had earned wages in two of the four listed quarters, though something was definitely off there. The four quarters were listed on my chart as 2/07, 3/07, 4/07, and 1/08, which seemed to suggest several quarters were only thirty days long and the last of them lasted from April all the way to the end of the year. I was an English teacher, but even I know how to divide a year into quarters.

The middle requirement, in which I needed to earn 1-1/2 times the wages of my highest quarter might be what they were counting against me, but based on how they were measuring their quarters, I couldn't be sure. In fact, what they listed for my earnings in the last quarter was only a fraction of what I actually earned, almost as though they'd carved off an entire portion of my 2008 earnings when they divvied the year into one-month or eight-month slices. It's very hard to make 1-1/2 times the total when one quarter doesn't even reflect half of what you actually earned.

I tried getting to the bottom of this again today, first checking the website for any information on my claim, and then calling the toll-free number. The website wasn't helpful, but it did tell me that there was an ongoing problem with the Internet Claims System and that I should call the Agency directly at the listed number. As before, the line was busy, but after an hour or so I managed to get through. An automated voice warned me that the call volume was higher than normal and that it might be an hour before someone could speak to me. It helpfully suggested using the Internet Claims System, then asked me to choose from a list of options. I chose the one that would connect me with an agent, fully prepared to wait however long it took to get some answers.

The automated voice warned again that the Agency was experiencing higher than normal call volume, then said, “There are no representatives available. Please call back later if you would like to speak to a representative.” The automated voice repeated this strange pronouncement a second, and then a third time, “There are no representatives available,” and then it terminated my call.

Apparently, the budget shortfall hit some departments harder than others.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

False Promises: Unraveling the Labyrinth of Fake Jobs and Online Universities

online university bait-n-switch, part 2In my previous post, I talked about getting bushwhacked by an online university promoter in the middle of what I'd been told was a job interview. Not long after, the “online university that's right for me,” Capella University, started hounding me with daily recruitment calls and spamming my inbox. I figured I'd dodged a bullet by not signing on with Capella and their insidious financing options. What I didn't realize was that I'm walking around in a war zone with a target painted across my chest.

While media pundits argue back and forth about whether or not this is a recession, the rest of us are living in this economy and it doesn't look good. Costs are rising, jobs are scarce, and those of us who took equity loans against our houses are starting to feel cold breath on the backs of our necks. I've been looking for work for a few months now, and it's starting to feel like my full time job is sorting the real opportunities from the scam artists trying to make a quick buck off my desperation.

The worst of these parasitic, for-profit outfits are the online universities. It's not that they plaster their ads all over craigslist.org, monster.com and every other site that hungry job-seekers frequent. That's what advertisers do. No, the thing that separates them from other businesses that just want to make a buck are these proxy sites they use to draw you in, sites with names like “Career Network” and “The Career Selection,” when all these sites seem to be doing is foisting their partner companies on you.

It starts as soon as you find the job ad. You get diverted to careernetwork.com or one of its similarly named, carefully disguised sister-sites. You fill out a job application that seems real enough (and may, in fact, be forwarded to a prospective employer, though why any legitimate employer would pepper their application with questions like, “Would you like information on how to increase your credit score?” is hard to figure). Then you get hit with the first innocuous question:

We value and support higher education. If you would like information about educational opportunities in your field, choose below.
I would like to receive information about higher-education opportunities.
I do not feel I would benefit from educational opportunities at this time.


In this economy, the difference between getting the job and getting left in the cold will come down to who has the most impressive resume. If you don't have a college degree and you're out there, trying to make ends meet, you know most employers place a premium on applicants with a degree. All the best jobs require an Associate's Degree or a Bachelor's from a four-year school, and if you have a degree, like me, and are still struggling to find something that pays, you're thinking about how much easier it would be if you'd stayed in school for your Master's Degree. The first time someone asked me if I consider higher education if I could afford it, I answered honestly, and you saw how that turned out.

This time I checked the second box. Thanks, but no thanks. I'll apply to Grad School the old-fashioned way and beg the Stafford Loan people for money if I can't make it with my BA. I submitted my information, sans educational opportunities, and started on the next page of the application. Along with the standard employability questions (“Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”, “Do you have a valid driver's license?”), I was also asked more troubling questions like how I would rate my credit score, followed by the question I mentioned earlier, asking whether I wanted to learn how to increase my credit score. It seemed like every third question on the application was trying to get me to bite on some other service or advertising partner, including yet another offer to find out more about higher education opportunities. I answered no to all the fishing questions, except the last, which was an offer to tell me about other jobs that matched my resume.

In just a few hours, I received this email:
Dear Christopher,

I recently noticed the credentials listed on your electronic resume. I believe you might be a solid candidate for a Family Interviewer opening I seek to fill. Your previous experience with education is outstanding. I would like to invite you to apply for this job. Below you can find some basic information regarding the opportunity.

Family Interviewer

Excellent Income with long term career growth

An ideal candidate will have exceptional verbal skills, along with dedication to the job. To view a detailed description of the job and to apply online, please click the link below. If your browser does not allow you to click the link, you may copy and paste it into your browser. The link will take you to an informative Web page with requirements and compensation packages.

http://thecareer-selection.com/

Our human resources department will go over your application and contact you within 24 to 48 hours. When they contact you, please be prepared to schedule an initial interview.

Best Regards,
Brittany Harmon
Sr. Recruiter, HR Division


I was incredibly excited. After leaving my information on a handful of these online employment sites, finally here was a tangible result. But then I started wondering why I had to apply for the job if they already had my electronic resume. Was it some sort of standard formality? I didn't want to chance losing the job, so I clicked on the link. I'd been horribly disappointed when one of the applications I filled out earlier turned out to be a front for Career Network, who scammed me the first time and got me onto Capella University's Do-Call-and-Stalk list. This was a different website, with an entirely different look surrounding the ad-copy for the job. Maybe this one was for real.

Then, I saw it down at the bottom of the page, that same question about whether I wanted to know more about higher education opportunities. I couldn't escape these people wherever I went looking for work. Then I filled out the rest of the application, dodged even more suspicious questions that would have sent my personal information to even more advertising partners, but I was in for a nasty surprise. After I submitted the application, the site shed its false window dressing and revealed itself as Career Network. I wasn't submitting a new application, I was navigating the same advertisement-saturated employment maze that I'd already been through. The job offer was just one more attempt to get me to say yes to online education and whatever other products they could push on me.

So far, I had applied for a teaching assistant position at a private school, a legal clerk position, and the intriguing but probably BS position of “Family Interviewer,” with all three leading me on a wild goose chase through Career Network and their partners in the online university industry. I was tired of this nonsense and wanted some answers. Was Career Network even a real employment company, or were all of these job ads the cruelest kind of spam imaginable?

Judge for yourself. In 2001, Career Network was cited by the Federal Trade Commission in an ongoing investigation of employment corporations exploiting unemployed workers with false job postings that promised government jobs. From www.ftc.gov:

The Federal Trade Commission today announced five law enforcement actions against nine companies and seven individuals promising jobs with the federal or state government or the U.S. Postal Service. Through classified ads, telephone pitches, Internet advertising and training school seminars, the companies misled consumers into paying $45 - $80 for practice exams and application forms.

[...]

Career Network, Inc., and its principals, Walter Turulis and Kathleen Key. Complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Hammond Division, on January 3, 2001. On January 3, 2001, the court granted the FTC's request for a temporary restraining order, asset freeze, and appointment of a temporary receiver. On January 9, 2001, the court entered stipulated preliminary injunction, continuing the terms of the TRO. Civil Action No: 2:01-CV-001-JM; FTC Staff Contact: Gregory A. Ashe, Bureau of Consumer Protection, 202-326-3719.


Seven years later, Career Network seems to have made a remarkable comeback from its receivership, either by starting over or selling its name to a new company in the career-making business. If they were ripping off people in 2001, who's to say they aren't running a new scam now, one that borders close enough to legality that they can operate with impunity and continue posting false job leads that hand unsuspecting applicants into the hands of online universities who offer the perfect solution to their job woes: a fully-financed college education.

The lengths to which these online universities will go to acquire new students and the money that they'll generate borders on the absurd. They must be paying a small fortune to Career Network, hiding their hooks in every job application on not one but two pages of the application, and that's not the only place where they go trolling for fresh fish.

The owners of this blog informed me that Allied University, an online university, recently contacted them with the following offer:

Hi, we are willing to sponsor specific content, online degree post on your blog.

We, advertiser will create content and you will only need to post it.

Please let me know details about your terms of service and handles payment.


I can think of no better advertisement for the quality of an online university education than that.

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Friday, September 05, 2008

Would You Like a Free Degree With That? The Online University Bait-and-Switch

bait-n-switchHow would you like to earn a doctorate in record time, or a master's degree in less than a year? Sounds great, right? And think of the convenience to you when you discover that you don't even have to look for a university that offers these phenomenal program, they'll come right to you, sometimes while you're interviewing for a job.

If you've spent any time hunting for jobs online, you've probably answered an ad or two that sent you to a company like Career Network, where you had to sign up for an account in order to send your resume to the job poster. I found an ad through Yahoo Hot Jobs for a teaching assistant position at a private school I'd never heard of. Private schools often pay better than public schools, so I tried to apply. I was redirected to www.careernetworkjobs.com and asked to register with the site for my resume to be considered for the job. A little bit of a hassle, but I was willing to spend a few minutes filling out yet another application. I uploaded my resume and, within a few days, Career Network left two garbled messages on my phone about a job interview (from an out-of-state area code) and an email that said, "After reviewing your application we have determined that you meet our initial employment requirements."

I was a little unclear on whether I'd gotten the job or not, so I called the number that left the two cryptic messages and was transferred from New York State to an employment pre-screener in Orlando, who explained that his company was contracted to interview prospective employees and send the best applicants on to the next stage of the interview process. It was like being on a strange game show where the only questions you get asked are your name, address, and "Do you have plans to continue your education?" I confirmed my information and said, sure, I'd love to continue my education if I could afford it, who wouldn't? Not only did this get me to the next round of the interview process, I activated the special bonus round, and the pre-interviewer said,

"You sound like someone who cares a lot about his education, so I tell you what I'm going to do... I'm going to transfer you to someone at one of our partner companies who can find an online, accredited university that can offer you financial aid and help you finish your education."


Perhaps I should have been skeptical. I'd never been on a job interview that offered me higher education before, not even on a pre-interview. I certainly liked the sound of what they were offering. I'd exhausted most of my financial aid options getting my bachelor degree, and it was fast approaching the time when Sallie Mae would be asking what her investment in me had produced, aside from an out-of-work English teacher.

A new voice came on the line, and I was introduced to a no-nonsense woman from Education Connection, a company that would find me the perfect online university. All I had to do was tell them what I wanted a degree in. A master's in Psychology? No problem. She found just the school for me, with exactly the program I was looking for, at Capella University. Someone from admissions would be contacting me within the week, she said, and that was the end of the call.

It was a little strange to me that I'd called to interview for a teaching assistant job and somehow ended up applying to an online university, so I googled Capella University to see what I'd gotten myself into. Capella University was, according to my research, an accredited university. They even had a website with an .edu domain, something which most diploma mills, for-profit scam factories that take your money and give you a degree without even pretending to offer a legitimate education, couldn't manage. Was it possible to be an accredited university and still be a scam?

I asked a friend of mine who recently earned a master's degree the hard way, defending her thesis in front of a room full of professors, and she said, "It's been my experience that most online universities aren't taken seriously by the academic community." Keith L., a business professional on Yahoo Answers had this to say about job applicants with online universities on their resumes,

"...Given two applicants were equal, I would almost always give the edge to someone who went to a reputable school over someone [who got a degree from an online university] like Walden University. It’s easily the lowest rung of higher education out there. Maybe someone can create a Tier 5 for them to inhabit."


There are easily thousands of people online who claim to be working hard on their Capella University classes, and others who've earned degrees from online schools like this who believe they worked hard for them, but you'll find just as many students who felt cheated and ripped off by their online school, especially when they find out their school retains faculty that earned their degrees at schools like Lacrosse University, which is fully unaccredited as opposed to merely questionable. Disgruntled students from Capella University report being locked out of their online classrooms for spurious reasons, failing without explanation from their professors, and having additional fees sneak onto their tuition bill after being hounded by snake-oil selling admission counselors day and night to earn a degree at Capella.

It's been over a week since I was "interviewed" for that job, and I've heard nothing from the school that posted the ad, if they ever existed in the first place. On the other hand, I've gotten two or three calls from Capella university every day and just as many emails touting the school's excellent financing options. When I was considering attending the University of South Florida, no one called to try and sell me on the school. When I was thinking about buying a new car, on the other hand, dealers fell over each other to get in touch with me and convince me they had the best financing, but even a used car salesman won't barrage you with phone calls like an online university.

The worst part is that for many people of limited means, online universities dangle the dream of a college degree and full financial aid, never letting on that most employers will consider that degree a joke, even if you did work your tail off for it. Not every online university is a diploma mill, but it's absolutely true that a degree from a university that is entirely based online will not carry the same weight as a traditional degree. And how could they, when the schools that offer them do their recruiting with phony bait-and-switch job ads and daily phone and email spamming until you talk to one of their admission counselors/salespeople?

If you really value your education, do yourself a favor and get an associate degree from your local community college and financial aid through their financial aid counselors. Then apply to a real brick and mortar university as a transfer student. Don't get suckered by free financing and a new set of radial tires.

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

How to Get Paid and Go Broke Without Really Trying: A Job Offer Scam to Watch Out For

scamSometimes when you're desperate, the right job just falls into your lap, and if you're really desperate, you may not realize you're being suckered into an international money-laundering scam.

I lost my teaching job this year because of county-wide budget cuts, which has put a severe financial strain on my family while I look for something to pay the bills until a permanent teaching job opens up. There aren't a lot of places where a BA in Creative Writing gets you more than minimum wage, so when I saw an ad for English teachers on Craigslist.org, I jumped at it.

Reply to: amfrank007@yahoo.com
Date: 2008-08-27, 11:26PM EDT

I need a good and reliable English Tutor for my Kids....Attracts Great salary and benefits...Send your resume.

Adalberto Martinez Frank


In a flash, my resume was on its way to Mr. Adalberto Frank, and within 24 hours, I received a response that made my poor, unemployed heart flutter.

Hello [real name censored] ,

Good to hear from you and sorry for the late response, I have been busy with work and family at the same time .I acknowledge receiving your application and your resume which is very impressive. Please be informed that you are among the three people shortlisted for the teaching job.

Note: The teaching lesson will take place in my residence and here is the address where we will be living in the US and We will be arriving precisely by September 9th

6500 International Drive
Orlando, FL 32819
My childrens' name are John and Prisilia (A boy and a girl). We are originally from Spain but right now in the UK, my children speak little of the English language and i want my children to be tutored together for 6hrs to 10hrs per week. My children always get along together and they are very active. I can offer $30 per hour for both children because i want the best to prepare them to start school at fall.

I want you to reply me with the following details below 1. The days in the week you will be available to teach the children and numbers of hours per day starting from september 10. The children are available to be tutored any time and any day during the weekdays and weekends. 2. Your suitable charges per hour for both children if $30 if not suitable for you. Also your total charges per week because i will like to make payment weekly 3. The total cost of gas/transportation to my residence per week.
Regards
Adalberto Frank


Maybe I should have been suspicious that he found my resume so impressive. I'd only taught high school English for a single year, after all, and from what he was saying, he needed someone with ESOL (English as a Second Language) teaching experience. But the money was too good to pass up. $30/hour was more than I'd made during my teaching year. I couldn't softball how much it was going to cost to drive to Orlando, otherwise it would end up costing me more in gas to tutor the kids than I was being paid, so I sent back a lengthy reply, hoping that my transportation costs didn't bump me right off the short list. I mean, he could easily find someone in Orlando with at least as much teaching experience as me, right? And why was he looking for English teachers in Tampa anyway if he was moving to Orlando? I didn't dwell on these questions for very long because the prospect of a paying job was intoxicating. It didn't matter if it meant two hours of daily commute for the sum total of $300 dollars a week.

He replied briskly and apologized for the imperceptible delay in communication. Apparently, his father in Spain was very ill and that was occupying much of his time while he made preparations for the move. Then, he gave me the good news:

This is to notify you that you have been given a provisional appointment to be the English teacher for my children. You are selected based on your experience and passion to teach children.

A little background check was done on you this was to ensure that the data provided is accurate and that you have impeccable criminal-free record. (This is necessary because you are coming to be teaching in my apartment).

We will be arriving precisely by Sept.9th and the lesson begins on Sept 10th.
Here is our agreement:

1.Teaching for 10hrs/week.
2. That i will be paying you $540/week including Transportation as I prefer to pay weekly.
3. That you will tutor my children for 10hrs/ weeks for about 4weeks or more independing on catchups.Please confirm this agreement and let me know ASAP so i can arrange our commitment fee....

Frank Adalberto

Not only was he going to pay my travel expenses, he was going to pay me an extra $140 a week. I was floored. I had no idea what a commitment fee was, but I promptly agreed and ignored the fact that Mr. Adalberto Frank was now Mr. Frank Adalberto. He was foreign and wanted to pay me over two grand a month to teach his kids English. The commitment fee sounded like something I wasn't going to like, and I was prepared to turn the whole thing down if he wanted me pay some sort of nonsense fee just for the privilege of teaching his kids, but it turned out that he was the one paying the fee, which meant that I would be receiving a check in the mail for my first two weeks before I even met the guy and his kids. It sounded too good to be true, but he was the one paying, so there was no risk to me at all.

This is how I almost got suckered in. Frank, with his sick father and two young kids who needed a tutor, sounded incredibly convincing. His emails were frequent, his responses brief but direct. These weren't some spambot-generated, rote responses. I was talking to a real human being, so I didn't even think twice when he emailed me to say there'd been a mixup and the fee for the moving company was included in the amount his client paid me. Not to worry, he said, just cash the check and he'd let me know where to send the moving company's payment.

It's called an overpayment scam. According to the FBI agent I spoke to, the scheme is based overseas, with middlemen in the US to handle the checks. They offer you an advance on what you're supposed to be paid, then mistakenly send you a check for too much, usually double the correct amount. You cash the check and send it back to them via Western Union, and by the time your bank discovers that the check didn't clear, you're out of luck. The phony check gets cashed against your account, so it's your account that the bank will drain to cover the expense.

Once I realized this might be a scam, I did a search on the email address posted with the ad and was surprised to discover identical ads posted on lasvegas.craigslist.org and catholicjobs.com. Both were from amfrank007@yahoo.com and the Adalberto family, which meant that this was either a scam or three entirely different Adalberto families would be needing English tutors in San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Tampa. The very nice lady I spoke to at the FBI told me this was unlikely.

English tutors are not the only people at risk from these kinds of scams. I've seen postings from Math tutors, Spanish tutors -- and all of them answered similar ads from people who weren't always as convincing as Mr. Frank/Mr. Adalberto. But all of them eventually sent checks and all of them encountered similar mishaps that resulted in the overpayment of the would-be tutors. Right now it's tutors who are being targeted, but this sort of scheme is very easy to run on anyone who is happy to receive a fat advance and who is good-natured enough to return any money they weren't due.

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And if they're willing to pay you before they see you work, no matter how qualified you think you are or how much you're accustomed to getting, don't cash that check if it's for more than you're supposed to be paid. Just forward the information and the check to the FBI email fraud unit.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

How Safe is Your Car? Getting Bullied into Unneccessary Repairs by a National Auto Repair Chain

MechanicUnscrupulous mechanics have been ripping off naive customers long enough that it's almost a cliché, something you take for granted when you're dealing with a national chain like Just Brakes, but small-time operators aren't the only mechanics who deserve an unsavory reputation. If my experience with the hustlers at Just Brakes is any indication, it may be that the last honest mechanics are the small, family-owned outfits and that corporations with slogans like, "At Just Brakes, We Really Do Care!" should offer their customers a complimentary bottle of water, considering what they expect you to swallow.

I went to Just Brakes because I saw an ad that offered new brakes for $89.99, and a friend said that was a pretty good deal. I know next to nothing about cars, and my brakes had been squeaking for a while, so, advertisement in hand, I took a drive down to the nearest Just Brakes shop to see how quickly they could take a look at my beaten-down Chevy. All but one of the shop's bays were empty, so the counter man took my keys and said to have a seat. While I was waiting, I marveled at just how many people Just Brakes paid to work the counter. At first, it looked like just the one, but two more neatly dressed men with “Sales Associate” tags showed up to loiter behind the counter. These weren't bored mechanics, and it set me wondering why the place employed as many people behind the counter as they did in their garage.

About ten minutes later, a grim-faced mechanic came to the office and asked if I was the one who brought in the Chevy. Together with the sales associate who took my information down when I first arrived, they ushered me into the garage to explain just how screwed up my car really was. The counter man took out a little clipboard and started jotting down every thing the mechanic said, while the mechanic focused on visual aids, like the sheet where he'd written down the measurements for my brake pads. He talked fast, and I lost track of the names of parts and systems right after calipers and rotors. The only thing I heard really clearly, before they started talking price, was when he showed me the range of numbers my brakes should have matched, the “safe” measurements, and I thought it was odd that what he wrote down for my brakes seemed to fall into the “safe” range, only he didn't say that my brakes were safe. He said everything from the brake pads all the way to the ruptured shocks would need to be replaced.

“How much are we looking at?” the sales associate asked, eyes on his clipboard.

“This much work, probably a thousand or more.”

It felt like the bottom had dropped out of my stomach. I didn't have anywhere near that amount in my checking account. I probably could have bought another car for a thousand dollars. Instead of saying that, I told them I couldn't afford the repairs.

The sales associate nodded compassionately. “What do you think? Is there anything we can do for him? I mean, man's got to get his car fixed. We can't let him keep driving around in a car that's not safe. How much can we shave off that?”

I watched the mechanic's eyes and suddenly I understood exactly what was going on. This was a routine, rehearsed, performed, perfected. There were three people working the counter because it was a two-man job. First, the mechanic bombards you with a list of brake problems, ticking them off so quickly you don't have time to examine the evidence. Then his partner, the man with the clipboard, backs him up and asks for a number that's way too high. The mechanic obliges. Then they conveniently cut the price, so it looks like you're getting a bargain.

My bargain was still going to run more than $600, so I told him again I just couldn't afford it. I didn't tell him I thought I was being scammed and just wanted out. That's when the salesman with the clipboard got in my face, angry and aggressive, and asked me why I was wasting his time. “Why'd you come here and waste my time if you haven't got any money?” I said I had the money for the brake replacement they advertised, but not for almost a thousand dollars worth of work. He kept the pressure on. “You understand, this car is unsafe. If I let you out of here with this car, you're going to be driving around in an unsafe vehicle. I can't just give you new brakes if the rest of the car is unsafe. You feel me?” I explained again that I couldn't afford the repairs and he backed off. They had me wait out front and drove the car out to me a few minutes later, emphasizing again that the car was unsafe and that if I had a credit card or something I could use, someone who could loan me the money, it was in my best interests to get the repairs done because they couldn't be held responsible if I drove off in an unsafe car.

Hammering me over and over again with how unsafe the car was achieved the desired effect. I went straight to a local mechanic, Bob Clarke, who'd been doing my oil changes for years. I figured if the brake problems were real, my mechanic wouldn't try a two-man con job just to sell me on the repairs. Mr. Clarke looked the car over himself and came back a little while later with a funny look on his face. “What exactly's wrong with it, Chris?” I told him as much as I could remember from the laundry list of problems Just Brakes had described, and Mr. Clarke said there was nothing wrong with the brakes, the car, anything. He couldn't in good conscience charge me for anything except cleaning the brake pads, which wasn't even necessary, he said. One thing he did notice that troubled him, however, was that the radiator cap had gone missing. When I said how I'd been treated at Just Brakes and how angry the salesman had been when I didn't authorize the repairs, Mr. Clarke said he'd seen just this sort of thing before. An unscrupulous mechanic will do a minor bit of sabotage, like stealing a radiator cap, so that the car will seem fine for a while... and then, dramatically, go bad. He suggested before I go calling the dealer for a replacement, that I call Just Brakes. “Just see what they say when you mention that the cap is missing. Most people wouldn't have noticed a thing like that until the damage was already done.”

I did just what Bob Clarke suggested, and as luck would have it, it was my sales guy who answered the phone. I asked if he remembered me stopping in earlier in the day. He did. His tone was very neutral. I said that when I checked under my hood, my radiator cap seemed to be missing. Long pause. He said to come right back and they'd take care of it. As soon as he saw me pull up in front of the Just Brakes garage, he was already walking outside with a replacement radiator cap in hand, still mint in the plastic bag. He handed it to me, said nothing, and walked back inside.

Not only did these hustlers try to con me into hundreds of dollars in repairs that I didn't really need, they tried to set me up for engine problems by snatching my radiator cap. Maybe it was a simple mistake, and in their haste to get rid of me when I couldn't pay for their fake repairs, the mechanic forgot to put it back. That would have explained why they gave me a new one, no questions asked, but why give me a whole new radiator cap? What happened to my actual cap? And how many other people were rooked into paying for ridiculously expensive repairs because they were bullied into thinking their cars were unsafe?

I've read up on Just Brakes since then, and I am not the first person to be hustled by them, nor will I be the last. At least one former manager from the company has come forward and exposed the company's sleazy tactics and dozens of customers have reported them to the Better Business Bureau and online consumer sites like RipOffReport.com. If you see one of their ads, no matter how promising the bargain, steer clear or you may find yourself driving an “unsafe” vehicle, too.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Unforeseen Consequences of Keeping a Card in "Good Standing"

A few months ago, I called Capital One as part of my rounds when I tried to make arrangements with all the credit card companies I could no longer afford to pay. I started missing payments earlier in the year, after a surgery kept me out of work for a month. My wife and I are teachers, and summers are usually the lean months, which leaves us spending most of the year trying to catch up on our debt instead of getting ahead of it. That one month was like the pebble that started the avalanche, and soon I was missing or late with payments on most of my credit cards, instead of letting one slip so I could catch up on the others.

I had financial trouble the year before, which I fixed for the most part, except for my interest rates, which had jumped to insane and unreasonable levels. When I had to choose between paying the mortgage on my house or making payments on several credit cards I hadn't been able to use in years, I chose to let them slide. My interest rates were already terrible at 37.17% for the Bank of America card, 25.83% for First USA, and a variable rate with Capital One that never went lower than 21%. I had a Best Buy card floating around as well, but the last time I'd gone to their website, they refused to take my payment and sent me to a customer service number, clearly part of some brilliant scheme to get me to pay by denying me access to my usual method of payment.

The rates were already out of control, how much worse could they possibly get? And how exactly did they think that I could pay twice my normal payment if I couldn't pay the regular payment the month before? Maybe if I spent a few months trying to catch up on my overdue utilities, I could put together enough money to tackle one of the ever-expanding minimum payments and start fresh.

Even as I was missing these payments, I still made an effort to pay Capital One on time. It was my oldest credit card, with my largest balance, and like so many Americans with debt problems, I made the mistake of treating the highest balance as the highest priority. Here's what I received from Capital One in return: while all the credit card companies I had been unable to pay were willing to place me in programs that would accept lower payments, offer lower rates, or even just cut out the ridiculously high late payment fees, Capital One wouldn't.

By paying them when all of my other cards were getting late or no payments at all, I kept them in good standing. That was, apparently, a mistake. I was informed that they could not possibly put me in their program because my account was in good standing. They would only do that if I missed several payments.

I asked to speak with a supervisor, and the supervisor confirmed that even though I was trying to avoid damaging my credit by making arrangements, they could not make arrangements with me as long as my account was in "good standing." "Okay, so what you're saying to me is that the only way you'll be able to put me in a program is if I stop making payments for a while and destroy my credit with you?" The supervisor hedged a little, but he basically agreed. They only offer the program to people who haven't paid.

So I took his advice and stopped making payments. I put the money toward payments I negotiated with the other credit card companies, who were very understanding about my situation. It's been about 90 days now and I've finally fallen from Capital One's good graces. They sent me a letter urging me to call them and make arrangements so that my credit won't be further damaged. Imagine that.

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