Category Archives: Marketing

‘Tis the season for stopping robocalls


Nothing puts a damper on the holidays like unwanted calls interrupting your day.

Maybe you’ve gotten one — you answer the phone and hear a recorded message instead of a live person. Internet-powered phone systems have made it cheap and easy for scammers to make illegal sales robocalls from anywhere in the world.

Fortunately, you have some options to block robocalls and other unwanted calls. Some are free and others cost money.

  • Check with your carrier about call-blocking services. Many carriers now offer services that block unwanted calls for wireless phones and for some types of home phones, too.
  • Try a call-blocking app. These apps use blacklists to weed out or flag unwanted calls and give you options about how to handle the calls — ringing through with a warning, going straight to voicemail, or blocking the call altogether. Many apps also let you flag additional numbers that should have been blocked, which helps improve the app. Some apps even use complaints to the FTC as a source of information.
  • Use features built into your mobile phone. These features can let consumers block specific contacts, identify unwanted incoming calls for future blocking, and set “do not disturb” hours.
  • Consider a call-blocking device for your home phone. Devices can be installed directly on a home phone.

During the last few years, the FTC has stopped billions of robocalls that offer everything from fraudulent credit card services to so-called auto warranty protection. We recently announced a case against a company offering allegedly bogus credit card interest rate reduction services.

If you get a robocall, hang up the phone. Don’t press 1 to speak to a live operator and don’t press any other number to get your number off the list. If you respond by pressing any number, it could lead to more robocalls.

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Shopping for airfare deals | Consumer Information


You want the best deal for your next flight, but the choices can be overwhelming. Will you book directly on an airline’s website, or buy through a site that lets you compare costs across multiple airlines? These tips will help you weigh your options and avoid surprises you didn’t bargain for.

On cost comparison sites, what seem like apples-to-apples comparisons may not be – if baggage or other fees aren’t included. Cost comparison sites can also charge you more than the airline’s fees for services like changing or canceling a flight. When you make a reservation for a flight that is at least a week away, the airline must allow you to cancel for free within the first 24 hours after booking, but you could still be charged if you didn’t book directly with the airline.

Having a reservation is not the same as having a ticket. Normally, you make your reservation and then the airline issues a ticket, but things can go wrong. We’ve heard from people who used unfamiliar booking sites and learned at the airport that they did not have a ticket to fly. People also have told us that small errors like misspelled passenger names caused big headaches. Some people had to pay fees to fix mistakes, and some even missed their flights.

If you’re thinking of using an unfamiliar booking site to reserve tickets, first look for reviews and ratings of the site to make sure it’s reputable. You can search the site’s name with words like “complaint,” “review,” or “scam.”

Also:

  • consider fees as you comparison shop, and take change and cancelation policies into account
  • check cost comparison and airline sites to find the best overall deal, and keep in mind that some airlines only book directly
  • confirm directly with the airline well before the day of your flight that you have a ticket and everything is in order

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How Do Advertisers Track You Online? We Found Out

– By Digital Trends Staff

When you search for something online — say, a vacation to Vegas — it’s not unusual to see adverts for cheap flights and hotel deals in Sin City on every site that you visit thereafter for the next few days. Few of us understand what’s actually happening behind the scenes for those ads to be served.

“The modern web is a mash-up, which means the content that you’re looking at on the page, which just looks like one single Web page with text and graphics, is in fact assembled from multiple different sources, sometimes dozens, and these different sources can be a variety of different companies,” explains Arvind Narayanan, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Princeton, “When you look at a Web page, there’s content visible to you and invisible stuff purely for the purpose of tracking what you’re doing.”

Online advertising has been there since the early days of the Internet, but it has grown far more sophisticated in recent years. The ads we see now are often the product of digital stalking as companies try to track our every browsing move. But how does this happen in the first place?

Eyes in the shadows

“What this technology is really good at doing is following you from site to site, tracking your actions, and compiling them into a database, usually not by real name, but by a pseudonymous numerical identifier,” says Narayanan, “Nevertheless, it knows when you come back, and it knows to look you up, and based on what it has profiled about you in the past, it will treat you accordingly and decide which advertisements to give you, sometimes how to personalize content to you, and so on.”

There are even ways to associate two different devices belonging to the same user.

We know that companies are collecting data about us, but there’s very little transparency in terms of the techniques they use, and there are a lot of misconceptions. We don’t really know exactly what data they are collecting, or what they might use it for.

“The information that’s most useful for them to collect is your browsing history and your search history,” Narayanan explains, “This gets compiled and profiled into behavioral categories.”

Ostensibly, this data is collected, analyzed, and used to target us with relevant ads, but it can also be used in other ways.

“It’s not just tracking, but using that data to do data mining and see what you can infer about that person’s behavior and their preferences,” Narayanan says, “In some cases research has shown, data may even be used to tailor prices. Sometimes prices for the same product being subtly different, sometimes it’s different products with different price ranges being pushed to the consumer.”

Back in 2012, it was discovered that travel website Orbitz was showing Mac users pricier hotel options than PC users. Later the same year, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Staples website was tracking visitor’s locations and only applying price discounts if there was a competitor store within 20 miles of them.

How are they tracking us?

“It turns out that every device behaves in a subtly different way when the code on the web page interacts with it, in a manner that’s completely invisible to the user,” Narayanan explains, “and this can be used to derive a fingerprint of the device, so the third parties can tell when the same user of the same device is visiting again.”

Server Farm

The same servers that feed you websites are quietly tracking your browsing habits.

This technique is known as canvas fingerprinting. When one of these scripts is running on a website you visit, it instructs your browser to draw an invisible image. Because every device does it in a unique way, it can be used to assign a number to your machine and effectively track your browsing.

If that sounds like the kind of shady thing you’d only find in the dark recesses of the Internet, then you’ll be disappointed to hear that all sorts of popular, and even well-respected sites, from Whitehouse.gov to perezhilton.com, are running these scripts. The University of Leuven, in Belgium, hosts a complete searchable list of sites with these tracking mechanisms.

Beyond the cookie jar

There are other techniques being used to collect data that are difficult to understand. Most of us have some awareness of cookies, but advertisers have developed new methods to exploit or circumvent the cookie system.

“One of the areas that concerns me the most is the data sharing that’s going on behind the scenes,” says Narayanan.

Arvind NarayananArvind Narayanan, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Princeton

A process called cookie syncing, allows the entities that are tracking you online to share the information they’ve discovered about you and link together the IDs they’ve created to identify your device. They can compare notes and build a better profile of you. And this is all done without your knowledge or input.

Bypassing the normal cookie system altogether, there’s also something known as a super cookie.

“These are cookies that are in nooks of your web browser that allow information to be stored, but they’re not in the main cookie database,” says Narayanan, “A particularly devious type of super cookie is one that stores itself in multiple locations and uses each of these locations to respawn the others should they be deleted so, unless you delete all traces and forms of that cookie at once from all of your browsers on your computer, then that cookie is going to come back.”

There are even ways to associate two different devices belonging to the same user. Companies can establish that they’re owned by the same person, even without attaching your name to them.

“Let’s say you have a laptop and a smartphone, and you’re traveling with them, and you’re browsing the web through Wi-Fi,” says Narayanan, “The advertiser, or other company, notices that there are two particular devices that always connect to the website from the same network. The chance of this happening coincidentally is similar to the chance of two people having the same travel itinerary, so, after a period of time, if it keeps happening, they can deduce that its the same person that owns those two different devices. Now they can put your browsing behavior on one device together with your browsing behavior on the other device and use it to build a deeper profile.”

Are we really anonymous?

We’re often sold the line that companies are only collecting anonymized data. This is something that Narayanan takes exception to, for a number of reasons.

“The impact of personalization, in terms of different prices or products, is equally feasible whether or not they have your real name. It’s completely irrelevant to their calculations and the intended use of the data for targeting that is so objectionable to a lot of users,” he explains.

We also have more to worry about than just the advertisers.

“Some of our research has shown how the NSA can actually piggyback on these cookies for their own mass surveillance or targeted surveillance,” says Narayanan, “These third party services are making the NSA’s job easier.”

There’s also a real risk that the anonymized data may be exposed and linked to your actual identity.

“It’s possible to de-anonymize these databases in a variety of ways,” explains Narayanan, “We’ve seen accidental leakages of personal information. What one needs to keep in mind, is that if you have this anonymized dossier, it only takes one rogue employee, one time, somewhere, to associate real identities with these databases for all of those putative benefits of privacy anonymity to be lost.“

Narayanan even objects to the word anonymous. Computer scientists use the term pseudonymous, which emphasizes that you’re not really anonymous, you’ve just been assigned a pseudonym. If your identity becomes known you’ve lost your imagined privacy, and there are many ways that could happen.

These third party services are making the NSA’s job easier.

“Many of these databases in which our information is collected started out with innocuous purposes, or purposes that consumers are comfortable with, but when you combine it with the complete lack or transparency, accountability, and regulation there’s an enormous opportunity for misuse,” explains Narayanan, “What happens when the company goes bankrupt, the database gets hacked, or there’s a rogue employee?”

There’s also evidence of a growing industry that’s aiming to tie together your online tracking with your offline purchasing habits. Onboarding companies, like LiveRamp, offer ways to link this data and give companies more insight. If a store asks you for your email address at the counter when you make a purchase, they may share it with a company like LiveRamp, which can identify when you use it to sign in to certain specific websites that they’re in business with and then link it to your device. Now companies can put a real name to the data.

How do we safeguard our privacy?

“There’s not one magic bullet solution,” says Narayanan, “If someone is selling you one solution or device that claims to take care of your privacy concerns, they’re almost certainly selling you snake oil. But if you’re willing to invest a little time, it’s possible to protect your privacy.”

There are lots of browser extensions, and end-to-end encryption tools out there. Narayanan suggests starting with Tor and Ghostery. He also recommends reading the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Electronic Privacy Information Center, if you want to learn more.

“Research technology a little bit, learn about the privacy implications of the products that you’re using, learn about the privacy tools that are out there, but also the right way to use them,” suggests Narayanan, “If you’re not fully aware, you’re not going to make a fully informed choice, but for each person it’s a trade-off on where they want to be on that spectrum of convenience and privacy.”

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What’s affiliate marketing? Should I care?

by Rosario Méndez

Many of the ads you see online are created by marketers who are paid each time you click on their ad. And if that click takes you to a website where you sign up to try a product or you make a purchase, the marketer may get paid even more. These are affiliate marketers. They are hired by the owner of the product to promote it on social media, on websites, and through email. Sometimes networks of affiliate marketers negotiate the rate marketers will get paid per click, per sign-up to try the product, and per purchase. Everyone from the merchant to the affiliate marketers gets a cut. And all these people may be tracking you, too, just from that one first click.

Affiliate marketing is a good way to promote a product or service as long as the ad is truthful. The problem is that some dishonest affiliate marketers put out ads with exaggerated claims or misleading information to get people to click. They may say anything to get you to click on their ad because they have an incentive – getting paid. Check out the infographic we created to explain this.

Sometimes deceptive ads could be bait for a scam. Take, for example, a low-cost trial scam that the FTC stopped recently. People who clicked on ads placed by affiliate marketers for a “free” trial ended up on a website that offered the product trial for $1.03. That amount is not much, but it’s not free. In fact, people who bought the trial for $1.03 ended up being charged almost $200 monthly for a second product they didn’t even want. We explained what happened in this infographic.

So, the next time you see an online ad, pause before clicking. Ask yourself:

  • How do I know who’s truly behind the ad?
  • Do I know if they’re being truthful? Is someone being paid to get me to click?
  • Who is tracking me when I click on the ad? And who is getting that information about me?

And if the ad says one price, but when you click on it you land on a website that says something else, you may have landed on a scam. No matter what, check your bills to be sure you’re not being scammed.

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