Carpenter v. United States: Impacts on privacy legislation – National Consumers League

The U.S. Supreme Court decision last week in Carpenter v. United States will shape the relationship consumers have with their wireless devices and the services they use every day for years to come. In a 5-4 decision, the Court held that by obtaining cell-site records, the U.S. government performed a search. By doing so without a warrant, this search was judged unconstitutional, violating petitioner Timothy Carpenter’s Fourth Amendment rights and reversing two previous decisions.

In the case, the FBI had requested records as part of an investigation into several Detroit-area armed robberies, and those records included details about call dates, times, and approximate locations. Carpenter asked that the cell phone evidence be suppressed because it was obtained in a search without a warrant.   

You’re thinking, “And? I’m not accused of armed robbery,” but it’s bigger than Timothy Carpenter. The Carpenter decision affects all of us, and in essence redefines government searches in a digital age.

Think of your relationship with your cell phone. According to Pew, 95 percent of Americans now own one. The same study found that for one in five of us, our smartphone is our sole source of Internet service. We carry them to work, to school, to our homes, and to meet up with friends. They go with us to our meetings, appointments, and vacations. They are a key vector through which we’re understood. Part of that is an unprecedented ability to locate us. When 95 percent of us are moving and communicating with our phones, and when 20 percent of us are using them as our only personal Internet connection, government access to when and where we use cell phones becomes an inroad to very intimate surveillance.

The FBI obtained records defined by the Court as “personal location information maintained by a third party” under the Stored Communications Act (SCA). SCA compels service providers to hand over records of electronically stored communications to government, without a warrant requirement, provided there is evidence for the information’s relevance to an ongoing investigation. Last week’s decision sets a new standard for expectations of digital privacy at a time when consumers and government are grappling with how to think about our lives online using documents drafted by the nation’s founders.

NCL has previously stated that consumer privacy is an integral part of the data economy, and we advocate for robust consumer protections in this space to encourage safe and secure use of online services. We applaud the Court’s decision and see it as an important step in the fight to safeguard consumers’ data in the United States and beyond.

Rebecca Kielty is spending the summer with John Breyault’s team, working on consumer privacy issues as NCL’s 2018 Google Public Policy Fellow. Rebecca received her B.A. from the University of South Florida Saint Petersburg and her M.A. from Georgetown University.

The differential impact of tariffs on Chinese tech – National Consumers League

Earlier this spring, the Trump Administration announced plans to follow up its tariffs on imported steel and aluminum with 25 percent tariffs on approximately $60 billion worth of imports from China. News about a potential “hold” notwithstanding, one area that hasn’t gotten enough attention is the impact of these potential tariffs on the digital divide generally, and low-income consumers and communities of color specifically.

First off, let’s acknowledge that if you have a smartphone in your pocket – regardless of brand – chances are that it probably has one or more components in it that originated in China. For example, most smartphones require the use of so-called rare earth materials in things like screens, batteries, and other components. Estimates are that China controls 90 percent or more of market for rare earth materials. China is also the source of components make modern smartphones the technological marvels they are.

While the devices themselves weren’t on the list of 1,000 products announced by the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) in April, smartphone components like touch screens, batteries, and printed circuit assemblies were. So while your next iPhone won’t come with a 25 percent price hike, components in that phone that are hit by the tariffs mean that phone prices could increase more than they otherwise would without the tariffs. In addition, because components like touch screens are on the list, getting that cracked iPhone screen fixed at the mall could be even more expensive. Cell phone bargain-hunters could get hit, too. Most cell phone companies collect older phones from their customers to repair, refurbish, and ultimately resell. Since that process can require the use of imported Chinese components, the price of those “certified pre-owned” phones that most carriers offer at a steep discount could go up. Finally, many of the components that go into modern networking equipment — the stuff that big cell phone carriers are using to build next-generation 5G networks — are affected by the tariffs. That will drive up carriers’ network build-out costs, which will ultimately be passed along to consumers in the form of higher monthly service charges.

Now, if Apple decides to pass the higher cost of their phones’ components along to consumers, not many will shed a tear for the Apple fanboy that has to pay more for their Apple iPhone X (starting price: $999). However, consumers at the lower end of the income spectrum — consumers for whom their smartphone is their primary way of accessing the internet — will feel the pinch, and that’s something that should worry those of us who believe closing the Digital Divide is a key public interest priority.

According to the Pew Research Center, 24 percent of African-American and 35 percent of Hispanics do not use broadband at home, but own a smartphone. In addition, 31 percent of consumers with annual incomes below $30,000 depend on their smartphones as their primary means of broadband access. A key component of obtaining broadband access for those communities will be the cost of a device. Even a small increase in the price of a smartphone is likely to reduce adoption rates among communities for whom the smartphone is the sole internet access device. Not being able to afford a phone affects low-income consumers’ ability to access a range of important social services, employment opportunities, support networks and other critically important content.

While protecting U.S. manufacturing jobs — one of the Administration’s rationales for the tariffs in the first place — is a laudable goal, tariffs are a blunt instrument to try and do so. The impact of the proposed tariffs on vulnerable populations and the digital divide needs more attention. The USTR should take these downstream consumer impacts into account as they consider a final list of goods that will be hit by the tariffs.

The promise and peril of always-on ad filtering – National Consumers League

Last year, we examined whether the growth of ad blocking was partly a logical response to consumers’ desire to reduce their data security risk. The catalyst for that blog post was Google’s announcement that it intended to include ad filtering-by-default in its Chrome browser, the most popular browser on the market. Earlier this year, that promise became a reality as Google rolled out an update to Chrome that included the ad filtering function.

Much of the online discussion around this move has centered on whether Google’s move, while laudable for pushing for less-annoying ads, should be viewed as a way for Google to give its advertising business an unfair leg up. That conversation is one that needs to happen to ensure that Google doesn’t abuse its market position as both the leading browser maker and the Web’s dominant advertising platform. However, it’s also important to consider whether and how consumers’ data security could benefit from this move. In this blog posting, I take a look at some of the data security benefits that could flow from the growth of always-on ad filtering.

First, however, we must acknowledge that the Coalition for Better Ads (whose Better Ads Standard serves as the basis for Chrome ad filtering tool) had limited goals. One reason for this may be that the Coalition didn’t include any consumer organization representatives as it developed its standard, who would have probably pushed for a broader scope. While removing annoying ads is certainly a plus for consumers, this limited scope means Chrome’s ad filter won’t address many of the reasons that consumers have increasingly embracing third-party ad blockers. As our colleagues at the Electronic Frontier Foundation recently noted:

This industry membership explains the limited horizon of the group, which ignores the non-format factors that annoy and drive users to install content blockers. While people are alienated by aggressive ad formats, the problem has other dimensions. Whether it’s the use of ads as a vector for malware, the consumption of mobile data plans by bloated ads, or the monitoring of user behavior through tracking technologies, users have a lot of reasons to take action and defend themselves.

Given this limited scope, what data security benefits can Chrome’s ad filtering provide to consumers? For one, filtering out annoying ads can help reduce consumers’ data security risk. When we first looked at this issue, we noted studies by UC Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara (supported by Google) and security firm Namogoo showing that tens of millions of browsers visiting popular websites were infected with malware and spyware.

Second, by having a default ad filtering function built in to Chrome, consumers’ need to install a third-party ad blocker can be reduced. While plenty of consumers install ad blockers for legitimate privacy reasons, scammers have found a lucrative side business in creating fake ad blocking software. For example, five fake ad blockers on the Chrome Web Store were downloaded more than 20 million times before the company shut it down this April.

Finally, as the impact of ad filtering on Chrome takes hold throughout the digital ecosystem, there will be pressure on other browser makers to improve their own technology to better protect consumers from ad-based malware. For example, in March, Mozilla announced that they will be rolling out ad filtering on their Firefox browser this fall. It seems likely that if consumers vote with their mouse clicks and choose more secure browsers, we’ll see other browser makers implement this technology as well.

Going forward, we will be monitoring whether default ad filtering on Chrome and other browsers has a demonstrable impact on browser infection rates. Ultimately, regardless of their browser choice, the goal should be for consumers to have a reasonable level of protection against browser-based malware attacks.

Guide to good med smartphone apps – National Consumers League

92_med_apps.jpgThree out of four Americans struggle to take their medications as directed, and this costs our healthcare system $300 billion every year! New smartphone apps can help consumers — especially those with chronic conditions or multiple medications — take their medication as directed and become healthier. These apps can be a great tool to help you keep track of your meds, but not all medication apps are alike and some are more useful than others.

Today’s health apps range from helping users eat healthier, to looking up symptoms, providing daily motivation tips, or helping you take your medications as directed (or adherence). 

The purpose of medication management apps is to help you take your medication(s) as directed. Once you download a medication management app, you are often asked to input information about all the meds you are taking, including the dose (how much), how often, and when you take them. The apps usually offer an alert or reminder when you are supposed to take each medication.

Before picking a medication management app check to make sure it has the following features:

  • Good Security – Apps often store your private, personal information so be sure to pick an app that has safeguards in place to protect you. The app should have a log-in that requires a password and a disclaimer that guarantees that your information will not be shared with third parties without your knowledge. The app should not ask you to provide sensitive, identifying information, such as your social security number.
  • Reminders – Reminders, often sent as alerts, remind you when to take your medications according to the times you have set. The best systems let you indicate that you have taken the medication, need to delay taking the medication, or have stopped taking the medication altogether. Make sure the reminder is in a format that works for you.
  • Personalizing Information You should be able to input medication in the form of pills, inhalers, injections, liquids, or other forms. Some medication management apps only allow a certain number of medications, which is not helpful if you are taking many medications or if you are managing medications for more than one family member.
  • “Notes” Field You should be able to add in additional information about who prescribed the medication, directions about taking the medication, or any additional information in a “notes” field.
  • Functionality (or usability) Make sure the app is available for your particular type of smart phone or tablet, and you feel comfortable using it. 

These additional features are helpful in a medication management app, but might require additional fees:

  • Tracking missed doses Apps that let you record whether you have taken or missed doses and use visual reports to track your progress can help you identify areas of weakness to improve overall adherence.
  • Sharing information with health care providers and family caregivers Apps that let you email, print, or export your prescriptions and habits can help make it easier to share this information with health care providers and family caregivers. Some apps allow your health care providers (with your permission) to update your medication regimen on your app and send you information automatically, which can be helpful when you need to make changes.
  • Dose limits Some medications have strict dose limits. For example, for pain medications with acetaminophen, it is important to not take more than directed. Apps that monitor the dose limits you input can be helpful to make sure you don’t take too much. These apps can adjust next dose reminders according to when you indicate you took your last dose, rather than on a strict “every X hours” type schedule, which could be harmful if you ended up taking your last dose late.
  • Options for caregivers If you manage the medications of one or more family members, some apps allow you to organize medication information and schedules for multiple family members.
  • Other reminders Some apps incorporate medication reminders that involve more than just an alert when it’s time to take your next medicine. This includes when you need to refill your prescription or when your prescription is about to expire.
  • Reminders for more complicated medication schedules – If you have a complicated medication schedule, make sure your app fit your needs. Does that app let you mark a medication “as needed” but with strict dose limits? Does it let you mark a medication “every X days rather than every day? Can you group your meds?
  • Medication database These apps access a database of medications that allow you to enter, search, and select medications. This feature can save time and improve accuracy when entering your medication’s name and schedule.
  • Accessing the app online Some apps have a companion website that allows you to input information from a computer and sync it to your smart phone or tablet.

Make sure the app you pick works for you and makes it easier to manage your medications. Always ask your health care provider if you have questions about when and how to take your medication. Medication management apps can help you take care of your health by helping you take your mediation as directed.

Fraud warning: Malware scams locking computers for ransom

92_computer_lock.jpgCrooks are targeting consumers and businesses with sophisticated technology that, spread through email and difficult-to-detect downloads, encrypts the contents of a hard drive, making it impossible to use one’s files. Hackers target unsuspecting users and then claim that their data is being held for ransom — and, once a consumer pays, there’s no guarantee that the data will be unlocked.According to the Federal Trade Commission, after the malware is installed by an unsuspecting computer user, the Cryptolocker crooks send a ransom note demanding hundreds of dollars in payment via Bitcoin or another anonymous payment method before they will unlock the files. Once a consumer pays the ransom, there’s no guarantee that the fraudster will not simply ask for more money.

Even if you pay the ransom, are you really willing to bet that the criminals running this scam will honor their promises and unlock your computer files? Experts say it’s unlikely.

Ransomware has been around for a decade, but the frequency and severity of CryptoLocker scams appears to be on the rise, raking in millions of dollars for crooks.

A study by the University of Kent found that 2 out of every 5 CryptoLocker victims pay the ransom. This malware is especially sneaky, as it can be disguised as JPEG images, as PDF files, as Microsoft Office files, and other innocuous, familiar files. There are even reports that Facebook could be one of the likeliest places to get a CryptoLocker malware. Businesses have also been reported to be victimized by these scams.

It’s not just individuals who are vulnerable. but even computers for whole businesses. ABC 33-40, a news station in Birmingham, Alabama, was hit with the Crypto Locker virus. The director of engineering for ABC 33-40, Ron Thomas, described his station’s experience with the virus. “You buy this $300 Green Dot MoneyPak, you cannot use a credit card for it, it had to be cash or debit card. Once they claim the funds, they unlock your files. If those files had been lost, it could’ve affected 10 years’ worth of work by several departments,” said Thomas in a local news report.

Avoid Cryptolocker and other malware scams!

  1. Back up your files frequently on a separate device (which does not remain connected to your main computer) or use free cloud storage systems that are available online.
  2. Be on the lookout for suspicious looking phishing emails and links. Do not click on links or attachments from untrusted senders.
  3. Consider using ad-filtering applications that are free for your web browser to avoid clicking on suspicious links from ad pop-ups either by accident or by compulsion.

Target data breach a wake-up call for retailers, policymakers – National Consumers League

92_creditcard.jpgAmericans assume that, when they shop, their personal financial information will be kept private and away from identity thieves. Unfortunately, that is not always the case, as evidenced by the more than 4,000 data breaches that have been reported since 2005 — an average of more than one a day over the last nine years. The latest headline-making breach involving the mega retailer Target is making many of us wonder just how safe our data is.

After data breaches occur, the burden for monitoring credit cards and recovering lost funds typically falls squarely on the affected consumers’ shoulders. This can cost the consumer significant time and money. If you think your personal information may have been stolen by cyber thieves in the Target data breach or any other data breach make sure you follow these tips:

  • Check credit card statements and your bank account every day to see if there are any unfamiliar charges. If you see any suspicious activity, report it to your bank immediately.
  • Monitor your credit report. It is a good habit to check your credit report at least once a year. If you think your personal information may have been compromised, check it sooner. Consumers can obtain one free credit report per year from each of the three credit reporting agencies via annualcreditreport.com.
  • Stay vigilant. Fraudsters may wait months to use your personal information.

Consumer advocates hope that the scale of the Target data breach will serve as the impetus for much needed data security reform. The time for change is now!

Although consumers’ financial information will never be 100 percent secure, there are things that can be done. Retailers can use advanced encryption technology and more secure firewalls. Credit card companies can encourage the use of “Chip and PIN” technology in their credit cards. Our politicians can pass legislation establishing a national data breach notification standard and urge the Obama Administration to explore incentives and penalties to encourage private sector businesses to better protect consumer data. These changes will not happen without pressure from consumers.

Target has provided a “responses and resources” page for consumers affected by the breach. Click here for more information. The FTC also has information for consumer online here.

Smartphone theft a ‘national epidemic’? – National Consumers League

92_shopping_apps.jpgThe explosion in smartphone use has put the Internet in the palms of consumers’ hands. Consumers use smartphones every day; whether it is for work, to pay their bills, or to find out who “that guy” from “that movie” is. Now imagine that little device vanishes. Might someone use the personal and private information on your phone against you?

 

This is a fear that too many people are facing. Smartphone theft in the United States is increasing at an alarming rate. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in New York City alone smartphone thefts increased 40 percent in just one year. In other cities the problem is even more dire. In San Francisco, about half of all robberies involved mobile phones and nationwide one in every three robberies involve a stolen cell phone. In total, 1.6 million Americans had a handheld device stolen last year. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon has called smartphone theft, “a national epidemic.”

High demand for stolen smartphones on the black market is fueling this trend. A typical stolen iPhone can be sold on the street for around $200. However, many stolen smartphones are sold internationally for even more money. According to the California Department of Justice, a stolen iPhone can sell for upwards of $2,000 in Hong Kong.

In 2012, former FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, in collaboration with major police department chiefs, wireless companies, cell phone manufacturers, and members of Congress, launched a broad initiative to address the increase in smartphone thefts. The project’s two major goals were to build a national database to prevent the use of stolen cellphones and to educate consumers about how to better protect their smartphone.

So far, the initiative has proved to be a great success. Many U.S. wireless companies have set up stolen phone databases that will allow them to see if a phone, reported stolen, is reactivated and can then prohibit it from being used on their network. Many smartphone manufacturers have also taken steps to improve security. For example, Apple’s iOS7 mobile operating system includes a “Find My iPhone” app and requires the user to log in before he or she can do anything with the lost/stolen device. Also, Samsung’s Galaxy S4 smartphone customers, can purchase a LoJack system, which is very difficult for thieves to remove without damaging the phone.

While there is no guaranteed way to protect your smartphone from theft, there are several tips consumers can use to better safeguard their devices. These include:

  1. Be aware of your surroundings when using a smartphone. Thieves prey on distracted victims when they initiate the theft
  2. Use your phone’s security features, particularly password or PIN locks. Choose a hard-to-guess password and change it on a regular basis
  3. Consider installing an app that can remotely track, lock, or wipe the memory of a stolen smartphone
  4. Export sensitive personal information (photos, emails, contacts, etc.) to external devices like a computer or USB drive
  5. Consider purchasing a smartphone insurance policy if the you are prone to losing phones, particularly if the phone is a newer, more desirable model; and
  6. Write down the phone number or website to report a stolen phone to your wireless carrier and keep the information in a safe place. Report a stolen phone immediately to your carrier and local law enforcement.

More information about protecting your smartphone:

Federal Communications Commission advice
Helpful information from the wireless industry

Worrying trends emerging in mobile text messaging and malware – National Consumers League

Several new trends in fraud perpetrated via mobile phones are making it more important than ever for consumers to educate themselves about these next-generation scams.According to security firm Symantec, 31 percent of mobile users have received a text message from someone they didn’t know asking them to click on a fishy link or dial an unknown number. According to security firm Cloudmark, during the first week of September, text messaging (or SMS) phishing attempts increased by 913 percent, making this type of scam the single largest SMS messaging threat. In a typical SMS phishing scam, the consumer receives a text message purportedly from their bank, credit card company or even a health service provider. In each case, the consumer is asked to divulge sensitive personal information that can be used by the scammer to perpetrate fraud or identity theft.

While there’s no foolproof way to avoid these phishing attempts, consumers can take some steps to mitigate the risk:

  • First, don’t share your cell phone number widely, particularly on Web sites that ask for your number as part of a survey or sweepstakes.
  • Second, never click on suspicious links in text messages, particularly if they come from unknown or unfamiliar senders.
  • Third, many wireless carriers offer spam controls that can reduce unwanted text messages. Consumers should contact their carrier to get details. In extreme cases, you could even turn off the ability to receive all text messages.

Consumers can also help report suspicious text messages by forwarding them to 7726.

Malware threats

Smartphone users should also be aware of the increasing prevalence of malicious software, called “malware” for short. Mobile security firm Lookout predicts that four in ten American mobile users will click on an unsafe link this year. This unsafe clicking can lead to so-called “toll fraud” where consumers are billed for premium SMS services, often without their knowledge. According to Lookout, in the first quarter of 2012, toll fraud malware surpassed spyware as the most prevalent form of mobile malware. It is estimated that more than six million people were affected by mobile malware on Android phones from June 2011-June 2012 alone.

Consumers can take steps to protect themselves from mobile malware:

  • First, don’t click on suspicious Web links from your phone’s browser.
  • Second, be wary when downloading apps from independent app stores or unfamiliar sites.
  • Third, pay close attention to your monthly wireless bill and dispute any suspicious charge.
  • Finally, consider installing a mobile security app, which will scan new apps and can protect you from unsafe sites.

Consumers who have been a victim of SMS or mobile malware fraud should report these scams to NCL at Fraud.org.

Parents: Take control over your children’s use of technology – National Consumers League

From smart phones to tablet computers, to the hundreds of channels and thousands of on-demand video offerings on TV, consumers have never had more options for how to spend their time. For parents, however, the amount of content that is out there can often lead to anxiety – about what their children watch on TV, what Web sites they are visiting and who they are talking to from behind all those electronic screens. So what’s a concerned parent to do?

To address this issue, many communications carriers have created technology that gives parents control over their kids’ use of their devices and services. “Parental control technology” describes a wide variety of software and hardware solutions that parents and caregivers can use to restrict the content their children can access and the people they can communicate with.

The challenge is that, depending on the technology, medium, and service provider, parental control options vary quite a bit, so finding the most effective way to protect your children from adult content you’d rather not let them access can be tough.

To address this, NCL has created a new series of articles to help consumers navigate the landscape of parental control technology and find the options that are best for their families.

Best practices

Parents often worry that, compared to their tech-savvy teens and pre-teens, they have little hope of keeping up with their use of technology. The truth is you don’t have to be a computer or technical expert to prevent your young ones from accessing content that you deem inappropriate. Here are some basic rules of the road to keep your kids safe online.

  • Talk to your children so they know what is acceptable, what sites you want them to stay away from, and who they are allowed to text, for example. This will help both you and your and children start a dialogue about safe use of technology.
  • Find out where they’re hanging out online. Get familiar with the Web sites your child or teen visits. Have them show you their favorite sites and discuss what they like about them.
  • Make sure your children understand that they should never give out identifying information about themselves, friends, or family members. This includes names, addresses, phone numbers, where you work, email addresses, passwords, social security numbers, and credit card numbers.
  • Create a technology “inventory.” Parents should know what technologies their children are using and what those devices are capable of. For example, does the families’ cable television service include on-demand content (potentially with access to adult programming)? Do the children’s cell phones include an Internet browsing capability? Are parental controls on the Internet browser’s software enabled?
  • Set up your computer in a central, open location, like the living room or kitchen, so Internet use can be supervised.
  • Create a family agreement for Internet use that includes items such as hours of use, what sites can be accessed, and what sites are off-limits.
  • Tell your children that if someone they are talking to online harasses, bullies, or makes them uncomfortable in any way, they should talk to a parent, teacher, or an adult they trust.

Every family is unique. We all have our own set of criteria for what we are comfortable with. Not all of these suggestions will apply to your family situation, and they are not intended to be a complete list of all available options. Hopefully, this can at least serve as a starting point to begin a conversation about safe practices for going online, watching TV, and connecting with others.

Parental controls and wireless phones

Many parents have come to the decision that their kids need access to wireless phones – for safety and peace of mind. Luckily, most carriers offer a variety of helpful features that give parents and caregivers a say in what their children see and do with their souped-up phones.

The use and accessibility of smartphones has skyrocketed in recent years, as more and more Americans now turn their wireless device to access the Internet. The ability to immediately access the Internet while on the go marks an important shift in the way we log on, and parents often worry that smartphones are just another way for their young ones to access inappropriate content, connect with strangers, and make unauthorized purchases—all while outside of the home. Luckily, most carriers offer a variety of helpful features that give parents and caregivers a say in what their children see and do with their souped-up phones.

Purchase blocker: prevents users from making purchases that are direct-billed to the account holder, such as ringtones, downloads, applications and games.

Content filters: Similar to blocking sites and services on your home computer, many wireless carriers offer content filtering features that help block access to mobile sites with mature content as well as filter out inappropriate sites from search results. Some carriers, such as Verizon, have created their own rating system of mobile content. Verizon offers three content settings: appropriate for ages seven and up, 13 and up, and 17 and up. These three setting are all easy to change and reset as your child grows and matures.

Usage restrictions: allow parents to set caps on the number of text messages or downloads allowed over a set period, as well as restrict when the phone can be used, who can be called or texted, and what kinds of content can be accessed online. Other restriction features include the ability to set a dollar limit on monthly downloadable purchases, selecting the amount of web browsing/data usage allowed per billing cycle, and creating lists of pre-approved “favorites” and blocked numbers for you child’s phone.

When your child begins to approach the monthly text, download, or talking limits, companies like AT&T will send an advance warning. Once a limit is reached, there will be a notification that the action is restricted and that the service will be stopped until the start of the next usage period. Depending on your wireless carrier, some of these features may cost a small monthly fee.

Family location services: Worried about where your kids are? Almost all major wireless carriers provide a tracking service that lets you know where your family members are. Using your phone or home computer to log on, you can set up certain boundaries for where you expect your child will be. When they move outside the arranged area with their phone, you can receive text or email alerts. You can also receive daily notifications at set times, assuring you that your child arrived home safely after school or other activities. All carries charge an extra monthly fee for this tracking service.

To find more about what options are available on your plan and carrier, contact your wireless service provider directly. For more general information on wireless parental controls, visit the Online Mom.

From phones to TV and computers, make sure your young ones understand that parental controls are not about punishment—they’re about safety. Talk to them about the importance of using the web responsibly instead of simply implementing tough restrictions. Teaching your kids about online safety can be a great opportunity to discuss good decision-making and time management skills. The Internet is an incredible tool that offers an amazing wealth of information and ideas. Go explore!

What are your kids watching?

Many shows on television, whether on broadcast or cable networks, are for adult eyes only. Like with their use of the Internet, there are a variety of different ways you can keep your children from stumbling across explicit or violent content.

Many shows on television, whether on broadcast or cable networks, are for adult eyes only. Like with their use of the Internet, there are a variety of different ways you can keep your children from stumbling across explicit or violent content.

 

Television

As parents are well aware, the Internet isn’t the only place where kids can be exposed to inappropriate content. Many shows on television, whether on broadcast or cable networks, are for adult eyes only. Like the Internet, there are a variety of different ways you can keep your children from stumbling across explicit or violent content.

Since 2000, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has required that all televisions larger than 13 inches be equipped with what’s called a V-chip. A V-chip lets parents and caregivers block programming that they don’t want children to watch. All television programs are assigned a rating according to a system established by the television industry, which appears onscreen during the first 15 seconds of the program. The rating is encoded with the program before it airs. Parents can use their television set’s remote control to program the V-chip to block programs that carry certain ratings. The current rating system deems what’s appropriate as follows:

  • TV-Y: All children.
  • TV-Y7: Children 7 and up.
  • TV-G: General audience – suitable for children and adults.
  • TV-PG: Parental guidance suggested – violence, sexual situations, coarse language and/or suggestive dialogue.
  • TV-14: Parents strongly cautioned – intense violence, sexual situations, coarse language and/or suggestive dialogue.
  • TV-MA: Mature Audience Only – graphic violence, explicit sexual content and/or offensive language.

For more information on the V-chip, including specific instructions on how to program your V-chip at home, visit the FCC guide by clicking here.

Cable and satellite TV programming

If your family has cable television, you have even more options on how to block access to programs you deem too mature for young eyes. Almost all cable and satellite providers give you an option of creating a PIN you can use to block programs in three different ways:

  • by channel
  • by rating
  • by time period

Depending on your service provider, you may also have the option of blocking specific programs (by date, time, and channel), adult titles in programming guides, and movies that receive certain MPAA ratings on premium movie channels.

For example, Verizon FIOS TV and AT&T U-verse allow users to

  • Selectively block programming by channel or rating.
  • Selectively block Pay-Per-View and On Demand purchases.
  • Set up user-defined PINs (to purchases and block programs.)
  • Hide adult programming from the TV Listings.

For more detailed information, visit the National Cable & Telecommunications Association’s site on getting started with parental controls.

Managing where they are surfing

The Internet is a powerful learning tool. It provides a world of information that is instantly available 24/7. However, the wide-ranging and anonymous nature of the Internet brings with it risks—from explicit or inappropriate content to predators lurking in chat rooms and using instant messaging services. Due to the Web’s potential dangers, many service providers offer free tools and software to help restrict certain types of content and features to keep young Web users safe.

Internet service providers (ISPs)

Web providers like Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast offer such free parental control features as the ability to:

  • Get a Web activity report that shows you all the Web sites your children visit or attempt to visit. You can check out the sites your kids have visited and block specific sites or types of sites you don’t want them going back to.
  • Create unique profiles for different family members with individualized online usage limits. This can be useful if you have children of different ages. One master account can be used to manage the settings of several “subordinate” account users.
  • Block access to certain Web tools such as instant messaging, gaming, chat rooms, and message boards, allowing parents to keep better track of what their children are saying and to whom.
  • Remotely manage your account with the ability to change parental control settings from any computer with Web access, whether in or outside the home.
  • View your child’s online activities as they happen with real-time Web tracking features
  • Allow young Web users to request permission to visit unauthorized Web sites for an adult to approve.
  • Receive a tamper controls alert if someone other than you tries to change the control settings.
  • Set up a timer that limits the amount of time users can spend online.
  • View search monitoring results that track the words and phrases your children search for online to help learn about what they are interested in. This way you can find out if they are trying to seek out blocked or inappropriate content.

To get more detailed information about exactly what controls are available to you, and what the system requirements are, the best bet is to contact your service provider directly. To lean more about the different Internet provider options, visit the Safe Families site here.

Internet browsers and search engines

While Internet service providers offer a variety of great parental control options, you can also set up similar controls on the Web browser (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Google Chrome, etc.) level. Most browsers let you restrict access to certain sites or pre-approve a list of sites your child has the ability to access. For example:

  • Safari users can create child user accounts that let you choose between three levels of Internet access:
    1. give your children unrestricted access to all sites
    2. a setting that only blocks access to certain restricted sites
    3. an option that only lets children access sites you that you have pre-selected. Email and chat features can be set up so that young users can only chat and email with contacts you know and trust. Weekday and weekend computer time limits can be put in place as well.
  • Firefox and Chrome have no built-in parental control features. But, if your computer uses one of these browsers, you can download extensions such as ProCon (which blocks accidental visits to adult sites), LeechBlock (which sets up time limits for different users), and FoxFilter (which blocks content based on user-defined criteria). To learn more about different extension options, click here.
  • Search engines like Google and Bing have “safe search” settings that screens for sites that contain explicit sexual content and deletes them from your search results. This can be a great option since kids often stumble upon inappropriate content by accident when searching seemingly innocent terms.

This is not an exhaustive list of the available browser and search options, but is intended to give you an idea of the types of useful features that are available. At the very least, almost all browsers will give you the option of blocking access to restricted sites, whether it’s a feature that’s available out of the box, or if it’s an extension you have to download.

Add Twitter to your customer service arsenal – National Consumers League

Consumers exhausted by customer service phone lines – and the muzak they’re subject to while waiting to speak with a real live human – are increasingly turning to an alternative: Twitter.

“Your business is very important to us, please remain on the line and a customer service representative will assist you in the order your call was received.”

“Due to extremely high call volume, your wait time is estimated to be…”

Many of us are all-too-familiar with these and other phrases that accompany the soothing muzak used by many companies to manage our limited patience when we’re on hold with their customer service departments. Unfortunately, even after a human is eventually reached, consumers often find that by the time they hang up the phone, the issue they called about remains unresolved. What can a frustrated consumer do?

One alternative that consumers are increasingly turning to is Twitter. By now, many of us are using Twitter, a social networking and microblogging Web site that allows its users to post short messages (known as “tweets”) that can be read by our “followers.” Use of Twitter has exploded in the past few years. At last count, Twitter users were tweeting nearly 50 millions tweets per day. 

Since Twitter is a public service, consumers’ tweets are visible to everyone on the Internet (unless the user blocks access to his or her account). Twitter has become a powerful megaphone for consumers. In the past, if a customer had a problem with a company, their negative experience was communicated mostly to friends and associates by word-of-mouth. In recent years, consumers have started voicing business reviews on the Internet, via blogs or review sites. With Twitter, there is even greater potential for thousands of users to hear – many, instantly – about bad experiences. For companies that are eager to protect their reputations, this is an issue they would be wise to manage. 

Numerous companies are doing just that — assigning staff to monitor Twitter for customers who are dissatisfied and respond directly (via Twitter) to that customer. Many Fortune 500 companies have set up their own Twitter accounts, allowing customers to direct their tweets to a designated Twitter agent for a particular company (via Twitter’s “@” reference system). Companies as varied as Comcast, JetBlue, Wachovia, Bank of America, UPS, and Blue Cross Blue Shield have set up Twitter accounts to complement their traditional customer service lines.

While the quality of Twitter-based customer service varies from company to company, consumers who have tweeted about their bad experiences have frequently received much quicker and more competent follow-up from the companies they’ve tweeted about.

So how can frustrated consumers make use of Twitter to improve their customer service experience? Here are some tips and tricks that might help:

  1. Try the conventional method first. Most companies have dedicated customer service lines that can address common problems, though time spent on hold should be expected.
  2. While you’re on hold, use a search engine to search for “[company name] Twitter.” This will usually bring up a list of Twitter accounts associated with a particular company.
  3. If the traditional customer service route doesn’t solve the problem, tweet away! Be succinct in your tweet (Twitter has a 140 character limit on tweets) and reference one or more of the Twitter accounts for the company in question, using the “@” reference. Example: “The widget I ordered from @acmewidgets showed up broken today. Customer service was no help.”
  4. Keep your expectations reasonable. Some companies have set up their Twitter accounts primarily to tweet about company news, not respond to customer complaints. Review the last few tweets of a particular company’s Twitter account to make sure your tweet goes to the right account.
  5. If you are contacted by a representative of the company, take your conversation to email or phone. This is a better way to describe the exact problem and get it fixed quickly.
  6. Look for Verified Accounts. Twitter’s openness has led to numerous accounts impersonating real companies or celebrities. Look for accounts that have been verified as legit by Twitter. Note that Verified Accounts for businesses are still in the beta, or testing, stage, so don’t rely on this exclusively.
  7. If your tweet led to the problem being solved, tweet about that, too! Companies will be more likely to help you and others in the future if they know that going the extra mile on Twitter led to positive feedback for all the world to see.

Twitter is a valuable tool in the consumer’s toolbox for resolving customer service issues. If going the usual route of calling the customer service line doesn’t solve your problem, don’t be afraid to try Twitter to express your displeasure. The old saying that the squeaky wheel gets the grease has never been truer.