Mobile commerce: what’s all the buzz? – National Consumers League

You may have seen advertisements for things you can purchase using your wireless phone, such as jokes or ring tones. This new form of shopping, called mobile commerce, lets consumers order products or services using their phones or personal digital assistants (PDAs), with the charges usually appearing on their next wireless bill. NCL’s got the latest on how mobile commerce works and what to watch out for.

How mobile commerce works

Products and services may be offered on either a per-item or an ongoing subscription basis. It’s important to understand that the price and terms of the offer are set by the company selling the product or service, not by your wireless service provider.

Let’s say an advertisement for a ringtone catches your eye online or on TV. This could be a chart-topping musical hit, a popular television theme tune or a sound effect. You are usually provided what is called a “short-code” (Example: Hip1234). To make a purchase, you typically send a text message from your wireless phone to the seller at the number shown in the advertisement and type in the short-code for the ringtone you’ve chosen. The seller sends instructions for downloading the ringtone to your phone, and the corresponding charge will appear on your next wireless bill.

If the offer is for a single ringtone, you will be charged once; if it is a subscription package that enables you to download up to a certain number of ringtones in a specific time period, there may be monthly charges on your wireless bill.

Alternatively, you might pre-arrange to have the charges for products or services you’re going to purchase billed to a credit card or debited from a bank account or prepaid account.

Unfortunately, some sellers don’t make the cost or terms of their offers clear or use good procedures to ensure that consumers are only charged for purchases they agreed to make. Sometimes products or services advertised as “free” may require a subscription. Read advertisements and the terms of sale carefully.

Before you make a purchase, it’s important to know…

  • Exactly what products or services you’re buying
  • Whether it is a one-time purchase or an ongoing subscription
  • The full cost, and how and when you will be billed
  • Whether you can cancel, and the terms of any cancellation policy
  • How to reach the seller in case there is a problem – when signing up, make sure the seller has an 800 number

If you are purchasing music or other downloads, it’s a good idea to make sure you know whether it will work on your mobile device. If it turns out your phone can’t handle the download, some sellers may not offer a refund, so be sure to check to ensure compatibility with your particular phone or PDA before signing up or downloading.

It is also important to know the contract terms of your wireless service provider. Some add charges for downloading content or sending / receiving text messages.

Kids and mobile commerce: set rules

Many parents allow their children to carry a wireless phone to make communicating easier, especially in case of an emergency. Some have found out the hard way, however, that it’s easy for kids to rack up hefty phone bills with text messages or other purchases. Children may make mobile commerce transactions without understanding the charges or asking for parental permission.

Parents should set firm rules for what their kids are allowed to purchase and monitor their accounts closely. Parents may also have the option to block their children from purchasing certain types of content. Ask your wireless provider and companies that sell products and services through mobile commerce what controls are available to you and how they work. Remember, you may be held responsible to pay for purchases billed to your account. For the same reason, don’t lend your mobile device to others to use.

Consumers should choose vendors that…

  • Provide clear and complete information about their offers in their advertisements, including the costs and whether they are one-time purchases or subscriptions
  • Send a text “welcome message” confirming the purchase, the cost, and the terms of sale
  • Provide clear instructions for downloading content
  • Provide multiple protections to ensure only those consumers who agreed to buy products services are billed for them
  • Offer a simple, uncomplicated method to end subscriptions without further obligation
  • Have 800 numbers and live operators available to assist consumers with technical problems and billing questions
  • Provide refunds in the event that children fail to seek parental permission to make purchases
  • Respect your privacy and won’t send you offers you didn’t request

Review your credit card and wireless bills carefully. If you find any questionable charges for mobile commerce transactions, call the number shown for billing inquiries and complaints (or, if you get your bills online, you may see an email or Web site address to use for that purpose). Be sure to notify the company that billed you on behalf of the seller – your wireless service provider or credit card company – if you are contesting the charges, and pay the rest of your bill on time. If you are unable to resolve the problem contact your state or local consumer protection agency or the local Better Business Bureau for help. You can also report a problem to the Federal Trade Commission,, (877) 382-4357.

Social networking security and safety tips – National Consumers League

Social networking sites enable people to post information about themselves and communicate with others around the world. While you can make new friends through social networking sites, you may also be exposed to embarrassing situations and people who have bad intentions, such as hackers, identity thieves, con artists, and predators.

Protect yourself by taking some common-sense precautions.

  • Guard your financial and other sensitive information. Never provide or post your Social Security number, address, phone number, bank account or credit card numbers, or other personal information that could be used by criminals.
  • Picture social networking sites as billboards in cyberspace. Police, college admissions personnel, employers, stalkers, con artists, nosy neighbors – anyone can see what you post. Don’t disclose anything about yourself, your friends, or family members that you wouldn’t want to be made public. And remember that once information appears on a Web site, it can never be completely erased. Even if it’s modified or deleted, older versions may exist on others’ computers. Some social networking sites allow users to restrict access to certain people. Understand how the site works and what privacy choices you may have.
  • Be cautious about meeting your new cyber friends in person. After all, it’s hard to judge people by photos or information they post about themselves. If you decide to meet someone in person, do so during the day in a public place, and ask for information that you can verify, such as the person’s place of employment. 
  • Think twice before clicking on links or downloading attachments in emails. They may contain viruses or spyware that could damage your computer or steal your personal information – including your online passwords and account numbers. Some messages may “spoof,” or copy the email addresses of friends to fool you into thinking that they’re from them. Don’t click on links or download attachments in emails from strangers, and if you get an unexpected message from someone whose address you recognize, check with them directly before clicking on links or attachments.
  • Protect your computer. A spam filter can help reduce the number of unwanted emails you get. Anti-virus software, which scans incoming messages for troublesome files, and anti-spyware software, which looks for programs that have been installed on your computer and track your online activities without your knowledge, can protect you from online identity theft. Firewalls prevent hackers and unauthorized communications from entering your computer – which is especially important if you have a broadband connection because your computer is open to the Internet whenever it’s turned on. Look for programs that offer automatic updates and take advantage of free patches that manufacturers offer to fix newly discovered problems. Go to or to learn more about how to keep your computer secure.
  • Beware of con artists. Criminals scan social networking sites to find potential victims for all sorts of scams, from phony lotteries to bogus employment and business opportunities to investment fraud. In some cases they falsely befriend people and then ask for money for medical expenses or other emergencies, or to come to the United States from another country. Go to to learn more about how to recognize different types of Internet fraud.

Copyright laws and Digital Rights Management – National Consumers League

The National Consumers League recently commissioned a survey to explore consumers’ attitudes and expectations regarding their DVD collections of backed-up or copied movies and music. Amidst the backdrop of a troubled economy, Americans believe it should be their right to copy their collections. But what about copyright laws and artists protecting their content?

Consumers’ ability to copy or save content from their movie or music collections involve issues surrounding something called “Digital Rights Management.”

What is DRM?

Digital Rights Management, or DRM for short, refers to a r ange of technologies used to control access to digital media. As entertainment content has shifted to digital media, content producers, copyright holders, and hardware makers have increasingly turned to DRM as a way to protect their content from unauthorized use, such as piracy, and to preserve traditional revenue streams.

DRM is used by many major content producers, software and hardware vendors. Some examples include:

  • Apple – until recently, iTunes’s FairPlay DRM software prevented iTunes customers from using music purchased directly from iTunes on any portable music player beside iPod, the iPhone, and a few authorized cell phone models.
  • Microsoft – Microsoft’s 3-play technology, which is integrated into its Zune portable music players, restricts music files received from other Zunes to a maximum of three plays. Song recipients also cannot re-send received music files to other users.
  • Sony – MiniDisc player usage is restricted by the company’s proprietary MagicGate DRM software.

Under international and federal law, most software that circumvents DRM restriction is illegal. In the United States, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, passed in 1998, makes it a crime to disseminate technology allowing users to circumvent DRM. However, these restrictions have not stopped a thriving trade in software that can crack most DRM restrictions.

How does DRM affect DVDs?

DRM affects consumers most often through their inability to transfer content from one medium (a DVD, for example) to another (a computer hard drive). In a recent survey commissioned by NCL, 4% of consumers reported that they had tried to save the content of a DVD to their hard drives, but failed due to DRM restrictions.

Since 1996, DVDs have generally come encoded with DRM technology called Content Scrambling System (CSS). HD-DVDs and Blu-ray discs are controlled by DRM software called Advanced Access Content System (AACS)

To legally copy a DVD to their hard drives, consumers must currently purchase an “expanded pack” edition of a DVD at an additional fee. These “expanded packs” generally contain a separate “DRM-free” disc that allows the copying of the disc’s contents. NCL’s survey found that consumers overwhelmingly desire the ability to copy DVDs to their hard drives for back up purposes or simply so that they do not have to carry around bulky DVD discs in order to watch movies while on the go. In addition, more than half of those surveyed were bothered that they can’t save most DVDs to their hard drives without cracking the encryption or having to purchase an expanded version of the DVD.

Additional Resources

HowStuffWorks: How Digital Rights Management Works

Electronic Frontier Foundation Primer on DRM

Electronic Privacy Information Center backgrounder on Digital Rights Management and Privacy, a project of the Free Software Foundation

Protect your privacy, safety, and security online – National Consumers League

Computers and the Internet have changed our lives in many ways: how we keep in touch, learn, work, shop, pay bills, and even keep track of our accounts. But with the advantages come risks; your computer contains sensitive information, and it’s up to you to protect it!

  • Install anti-virus and anti-spyware software to protect against malicious programs that may be planted in emails, documents, or Web sites – programs that can damage your computer, capture information such as your passwords, or cause other harm. Set them to run automatically and update them regularly.
  • Use a strong firewall to keep intruders out of your computer.
  • Patch it up! Keep your software current with the free patches offered by manufacturers to fix flaws. If your system automatically notifies you about new patches or security upgrades, don’t delay — download them immediately.
  • Keep a lid on your personal information. Only provide your passwords, account numbers, or answers to security questions when you are sure who you’re dealing with and why they need the info. Talk to your kids about privacy and monitor their online activities. Take advantage of parental controls that software manufacturers and Internet service providers may offer.
  • Don’t click on links in emails asking for your personal information. They may lead you to fake versions of legitimate Web sites, where criminals hope you’ll hand over your personal information.
  • Never enter your information in a pop-up screen. They may be planted on legitimate Web sites by identity thieves.

Six tips for beefing up your computer’s security – National Consumers League

Computers have revolutionized how we learn, work, shop, pay bills, keep track of our accounts, and communicate with others. Your computer is like your home – it contains sensitive and valuable information, so it’s a good idea to keep it locked and be careful about who you let in.

Intruders lurking in cyberspace or those who have physical access to your computer may try to steal financial information stored in your computer, or use it to attack other computer systems.

Some individuals simply enjoy sending out viruses that can destroy your files and require expensive computer repairs. By taking some basic security steps, you can use your computer with confidence and protect yourself and your personal information from abuse.

Step One: Pick an Effective Password

Passwords are the keys that unlock access to your email, accounts, and other computer activities. They must be chosen to prevent intruders from correctly guessing them based on knowledge about you or cracking them with software programs that try every word in the dictionary until they get a match.

  • Use a combination of letter and numbers.
  • Avoid obvious things such as your birth date.
  • Pick passwords that you can remember.
  • Don’t write passwords down where others may find them.
  • Keep your passwords private and be suspicious of people who ask for them claiming to be from companies that should already have them.

Step Two: Build a Firm Firewall

A firewall is like the fence around a fort – it makes it harder for intruders to get into your computer from cyberspace. This is especially important if you have a high-speed Internet connection through your cable provider or DSL (digital subscriber line), because the doorway from your computer to the Internet is open whenever your computer is on, even if you aren’t doing anything online at that moment.

  • Check to see if your computer hardware or software already has a built-in firewall.
  • If it does, it may be necessary to turn the firewall feature on.
  • If you don’t already have one, you can find free firewall software on the Internet or purchase software.
  • Another option is using an external firewall device that connects to your computer.
  • Firewalls differ, and some can be customized to suit your particular needs, so read the descriptions carefully.

Step Three: Avoid Catching a Computer Virus

Your computer can become infected and infect other computers with viruses that may be planted in emails or attachments to emails, in programs or files that you download, in floppy disks, and even in Web sites that you visit. The first line of defense is an anti-virus program. This is not the same as a firewall – both are needed since they protect you from different types of attacks. You can buy anti-virus software online or in retail stores.

  • Get an anti-virus program that updates itself automatically.
  • Look for programs that can also repair damage caused by a virus.
  • Don’t open email or email attachments unless you expected the message and know who it’s from.
  • Only download files and programs and use disks from sources you know and trust.
  • Don’t forward email warnings about new viruses to your friends – they could be hoaxes designed to spread a virus instead of warn against them.

Step Four: Back It Up

Just as you might use a safe-deposit box to guard valuables, consider safeguarding important items that are in your computer so they won’t be lost if a virus strikes, your computer crashes, or there is some other kind of disaster. Financial records, research, writing, original artwork, and work files that would be difficult to reconstruct or replace should be backed up regularly.

  • Don’t rely on paper copies for things that would require inputting the data all over again, such as computerized check registers.
  • Use floppy disks to back up small files, CDs or removable disk drives for larger files.
  • Some items, such as bank records, should be backed up every time a change is made, while others might require less frequent back-ups.
  • Set schedules for backing up files and stick to them.
  • Store back-ups in a locked, fireproof container.

Step Five: Keep Up to Date

“Hackers” (outsiders who try to get into computers through the Internet) and virus creators are constantly looking for new ways to get around the protections that are put in place to thwart them. To keep your computer secure, you need to keep one step ahead of them.

  • Take advantage of “patches” that your software manufacturers may offer when they discover flaws in their programs that can make them vulnerable to hackers, viruses, and other problems. These can often be downloaded at no charge from the manufacturers’ Web sites.
  • If your anti-virus software doesn’t automatically update itself to detect and stop new viruses, get updated software at least once a year.
  • Update your firewall regularly.

Step Six: Control the Use of Your Computer

If you share your computer with roommates, children, or other users, it’s crucial for everyone to follow the same security rules.

  • Make sure that all users understand the dangers of security breaches and how to avoid them.
  • Turn the computer off when no one is using it.
  • Don’t share passwords that would enable others to get into personal accounts that you may have set up in your computer.
  • Keep the computer in a common area where you can see who is using it and what they’re doing.
  • Instruct all users to tell you immediately if they suspect there is a security problem.

Don’t panic if a security breach occurs. Report viruses and hackers to your Internet service provider (ISP). If you have high-speed Internet access through cable or DSL, unplug the phone or cable line from your computer. Your ISP and software and hardware vendors may offer advice about how to remedy the problem. If you believe that someone has obtained your financial information, contact the financial institution immediately. Try to determine how the security breach occurred so you can strengthen your protection in the future.