Volkswagen scandal undermines public confidence – National Consumers League

sg.jpgIt’s hard to explain how a company such as Volkswagen, with a strong reputation among consumers for making affordable, safe, and reliable cars, could have gone so far astray. VW computer engineers, we’ve learned of late, developed and installed software for emissions testing in their diesel cars intended to trick the system and falsely improve emissions scores.The Germans take great pride in their auto-manufacturing prowess. In my years as Senior Product Safety Counsel at Consumers Union, I marveled at how German cars – Audi, Mercedes, BMW, and VW  – were often well ahead of the curve in innovative safety technologies – frontal and side air bags, anti-lock brakes, backup cameras – often adopting important safety technology long before the American-built vehicles.

Apparently in this VW scandal, the software was set up to detect when testing was going on and reduce emissions. But during normal driving conditions, when the vehicles had better performance, they produced as much as 40 times the acceptable amount of nitrogen oxide.

VW’s dirty tricks affects 480,000 cars in the United States and will require a major fix, the experts say, involving perhaps 10 hours of work for each car. More than 11 million cars globally are affected. The head of VW America, who testified this week in Congress, said that a few engineers rigged the engines without the knowledge of higher ups.  That sounds suspicious to me but okay, maybe they did. Like hackers who get their jollies designing malware or computer viruses just to see if they can mess things up for a few million unsuspecting users.

Time will tell whether this deception was conceived by company officials or indeed a scheme developed by a few rogue software engineers. Regardless, this further undermines the public’s confidence in automakers to do right by their customers.

How to make life harder for the hackers – National Consumers League

breyault.jpgThis post appeared as a guest blog on the Family Online Safety Institute site on September 24, 2015.

It’s easy to get discouraged about data security. With news of a new data breach practically every day — often affecting thousands or even millions of consumers — you may feel like throwing up your hands in frustration. Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet when it comes to preventing the harm that stems from data breach incidents, but you can reduce your risk by getting educated and taking some fairly simple steps to better protect your personal information.First, it’s important to understand that it’s practically impossible to 100% protect your personal information from cyberthieves. So, short of completely unplugging from the digital economy, what’s a consumer to do? Here are five simple steps that YOU can take to make life harder for the hackers.

#1 – Don’t make life any easier than it needs to be for crooks

Keep your digital hygiene up to snuff. That means installing software updates, especially for your Web browser and operating system but also for your antivirus and other Internet-connected apps and programs. Cyberthieves know that many consumers don’t keep their software up to date, so they take advantage of known vulnerabilities to attack out-of-date computers.

#2 – Use strong, unique passwords

Cybercrooks count on consumers re-using the same email/password combination password across multiple websites. Because of this, if crooks hack the user data for one website, they quickly use those same email address + password combinations at other sites to try increase their access. You can help reduce this risk by using unique passwords at different websites. A password manager can be an invaluable tool in helping create strong, unique passwords without having to go through the hassle of trying to remember them all.

#3 – Take advantage of multi-factor authentication, especially for your primary email account

With multi-factor authentication (also known as two-factor authentication, MFA or TFA), you’ll add an additional layer of defense. Instead of just needing an email address and password, crooks will need access to another device – usually your cell phone – in order to access your sensitive accounts. Many online services currently offer MFA (here’s a handy list), so be sure to take advantage of it, especially for your primary email service.

#4 – Check your credit report regularly

Even with the best online security, fraud can still happen. Make sure to pull your credit report regularly and dispute any suspicious activity, such as lines of credit being opened that you don’t recognize. By law, consumers can access their credit report for free once per year from each of the major credit reporting bureaus at https://www.annualcreditreport.com. You may also want to consider putting a fraud alert or even a credit freeze on your credit reports.

#5 – If you suspect identity theft, act quickly!

ID thieves can do immense damage to your credit, potentially costing you thousands of dollars in higher interest rates, lost job opportunities and delayed tax refunds (just to name a few potential harms). If you think that there’s something fishy with your credit report or you receive another warning of ID theft, take action sooner rather than later. The Federal Trade Commission has a great step by step guide for recovering from ID theft at www.identitytheft.gov.

BONUS – Get educated about other tools to help reduce your data security risk! – The National Consumers League is a proud partner of AT&T’s DigitalYou campaign. They offer great tips for protecting your privacy and security and useful tools for Internet newbies, young people, parents and  people with disabilities. Check it out!

Kickstarter advances public responsibility over profit – National Consumers League

sg.jpgAs game-changing technologies like Uber, AirBnb, and Dropbox consider going public with profitability for founders and investors in the billions, it is interesting to read that Kickstarter, a crowdfunding startup, is choosing to take another course.The founders of Kickstarter are opting to become a B Corporation, which is a voluntary designation certified by a nonprofit group called B Lab. According to the New York Times, B Lab requires companies to meet rigorous environmental and social responsibility standards, which they report annually to their shareholders.  And according to the B Corporations website, “B Corp is to business what Fair Trade certification is to coffee or USDA Organic certification is to milk.” Although the status has no legal impact, it does speak volumes about Kickstarter’s vision and commitment to better business practices. The e-commerce site Etsy, which went public in April, and Warby Parker, the glasses retailer that is injecting some much needed competition into the prescription glasses market, are two other companies that have decided to become B Corporations. The B Corporations website reports that the growing number of Certified B Corporations from 33 countries and over 60 different industries are all “working together toward one unifying goal: to define success in business.”

I think these new technologies are exciting and incredibly good for the market. But so often a few lucky and ingenious entrepreneurs and their equally lucky investors earn the vast majority of the profits when the companies go public. Kickstarter founders Perry Chen and Yancey Strickler have very clearly conveyed that they do not want to go public in the New York Times piece saying, “We don’t want to ever sell or go public … That would push the company to make choices that I don’t think are in the best interests of the company.”

Kickstarter has been profitable in the last three years at the tune of about $5-$10 million and pays dividends to investors and shares profits with employees. Both founders own stock and will earn income based on their initial investments as the company grows and earns profits. Kickstarter also donates five percent of its profits to groups that fight inequality and to others that promote the arts.

The Kickstarter business model allows startups to put their idea before the public to determine whether these ideas are worthy of investment. It is a worthy mission to advance business in the name of accountability and transparency, which Kickstarter and all B Corporations are committed to doing. Other companies would be doing a service to all consumers by committing to do the same.