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01/19/09

Permalink 12:51:10 am, by Paul ROBINSON, 100 words   English (US)
Categories: Announcements [A]

The last words of a Sri Lankan Journalist

On the Politics section I have decided to include an editorial written by Lasantha Wickrematunge, a newspaper editor and journalist for The Sunday Leader in Sri Lanka, and his prophetic statement that he would be murdered and giving clues as to whom he suspected would be responsible.

I first heard his posthumously presented words which were dramatized on a BBC World Service radio program and they shook me so strongly I cried. I cannot improve upon his words, thus I have decided to include all of the editorial, and I urge anyone who looks at this blog to read it.

Permalink 12:45:42 am, by Paul ROBINSON, 102 words   English (US)
Categories: Announcements [A]

This site is on a new service

I have moved this site over to a new service; if you read it before you'll notice it no longer has an ad banner because, now knowing how much traffic it gets, I can host it on a server I pay the charges for, and thus I don't have to use an ad-supported server to pay the costs. Only thing I forgot was that this was a vanilla (stock) installation of B2Evolution, which means the YouTube plugin wasn't installed, so the YouTube flags don't work to automatically embed content. I have to put that plugin here, which I shall do shortly.

01/16/09

Permalink 05:42:14 am, by Paul ROBINSON, 85 words   English (US)
Categories: Announcements [A]

My first recommended film

I got a recommendation for a video on YouTube, and I watched it. This was one of the funniest videos I have seen in a long time. I wanted to recommend it to anyone. It's only 18 minutes, and it's teriffic. You can get to it directly at the following link:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cbk980jV7Ao

But I liked it so much that I'll include it as an embedded video if you want to see it now:

01/12/09

Permalink 04:22:51 pm, by Paul ROBINSON, 3637 words   English (US)
Categories: Announcements [A], News, Background

I'm getting a credit union account

This article is kind of rambling and probably should be split into more than one article because it deals with several issues all intertwined but I'm too tired to do it right now; I might do so later. Part of it was I wanted to get all of my thoughts down, so please excuse the length and breadth of the article.

After several months, I've been informed that (now) the State of Maryland will pay my Medicare premiums backdated to when I filed the paperwork with the state; that will increase the amount of money I get from my disability payment by a nice chunk of change. However according to what my bank says I have, either I've been dinged with about $400 in service charges for overdrafts - and I know I did not spend that much extra, I did keep count on what was in my account - or Social Security screwed up, sent me the refund of what Maryland has admitted that they will pay for the Medicare premiums I was charged for the last few months, and has failed to send me the normal check for December (which is paid in January) in addition to the refund.

Calling my bank's automated system seems to imply this; they show one deposit for the several months of Medicare premiums which have been refunded to me but does not appear to show a deposit for my usual Social Security Disability check. (Either that, or again somehow I've run over $400 in electronic overdrafts and fees and I do not believe I could have, I don't even think I've run any transactions.)

[Update 1/21/2009] Okay, I'll admit it, I did. My new statement came in and I probably spent over $200 that I didn't even realize. I see all the transactions and I recognize them, so I presume I made them But ouch, ouch, ouch over $130 in overdraft charges; a $35 charge for a $6 overdraft and another for an $8 one, plus some others. So except for on-line transactions where I have to use a card and don't have enough credit, I will no longer use my debit card; I now pay cash for everything. I'm also going to bring my credit card down to zero and use that since they will not allow me to run an overdraft. Also this practice must be irritating a lot of people, and banks spoiled it for themselves: the Federal Reserve is proposing a change to Regulation E, as I understand it, will forbid this sort of automatic "overdraft protection" and it's either going to require the customer have signed up for it or allow the customer to opt-out. Well, BB&T, you had your chance to get me to be a customer of your overdraft protection service, if this goes into effect your greed will cost you my business in allowing electronic overdrafts. At $7 it wouldn't have been as bad (although that's ridiculous for small overdrafts), but $35 plus $30 more if it sits for a week is ridiculous. Even Check cashing companies aren't that rapacious! It gives me 1/2 a mind to try something mischievous, like go to a store and try charging something to my Visa Debit Card that is way beyond what I have, say a $1500 computer and see what happens. Of course, before I did that I'd move my direct deposit somewhere else. [End Update]

There are two possibilities; (1) based on what I had and what I think I spent, I had a certain amount of money, and Social Security has send me the refund of the Medicare premiums backdated several months, and has not sent me my regular check; (2) they sent me the refund of Medicare premiums and my regular check, but based on what I have I had a -400 balance in my checking account which ate that piece. [Update]: I got through the voice menus, and that's exactly what happened; I got two deposit transactions the same day, and based on what I have now and the amounts they were, I must have had a -400 balance in my checking account; I have no idea how. [End Update]

And if that is the case, it's not because I bounced checks. It's something more sinister and worse.

I am basically sick and tired of a slimy and reprehensible practice from BB&T that I can't seem to make them stop. I would like my checking account to be hard stopped from running overdrafts as a result of an electronic transaction. If the transaction would cause an overdraft the transaction should be refused. The reason being that it would allow me not to overdraw my account and would not cost me anything.

But it's interesting how BB&T will allow me to run an electronic overdraft that, even if it's for $1.50, will cost me $35 and if it's not paid off in a week, ding me for another $30 on top of that. But they can't issue me a less expensive overdraft account which will only charge me $7. That wouldn't bother me so much, but no, my credit doesn't qualify me for that type of account even though they'll be happy to let me run lots of electronic overdrafts at $35 each.

Nor do I seem to be able to get BB&T to red flag my account or otherwise prevent accepting an electronic transaction - which they know in advance before they accept it - that is going to cause an overdraft.

It might even be arguable such charges are not lawful because of the general requirement to mitigate damages, and the simplest way to mitigate such damages are not to allow them in the first place. Further, state law here is based on strict negligence; if there is negligence in an accident or incident where damages occur, you must be 0% at fault or you're not entitled to collect anything. Here, their collecting of fees for electronic overdrafts is based on invited error; had they refused the transaction there would have been no monetary damage and no overdraft would have occurred. (There would also have been no fee collectable by them.)

Note I'm not talking about a bounced check or NSF (Non Sufficient Funds) fee. I have never bounced a check this century, over eight years now, at something like six different banks I've used. It's only when I used my check card to make a purchase that exceeded the amount of cash I had in my account. They covered and approved the transaction, this caused me to trigger an overdraft, and I'm also dinged an additional charge of $35 for the electronic overdraft.

If I was writing a check, and the check was presented and I had insufficient funds, that would be understandable, the bank has no way to prevent the check from being presented and they can either cover the check or bounce it at their choice, and in such a case it's my fault for bouncing the check. It's 100% my fault, and clearly it's reasonable for them to get an overdraft penalty.

However, in the case of an electronic transation, the bank has the last clear chance to refuse the transaction at no cost; they know to the penny exactly how much money I have in my account, they can refuse the transaction but they choose to allow it anyway because if they accept it they can get an extra fee. Thus the fault is also theirs, and according to our state's strict liability standard they should not collect anything at all. This is the same rule as Virginia and DC, so even if I ran a transaction in ATMs there or at a store, the same rule should apply.

Well, anyway, my current strategy is in two parts. First, while I'm still a resident of Prince George's County, I want to get an account with the Prince George's County Credit Union; depending on what the new owner of the building my unit is in decides to do about wanting to terminate my statutory lease, I may be leaving sooner than expected. Once I have a credit union membership I remain a member even if I would no longer qualify to get one.

So I'm going to take all of the extra funds out of my BB&T account above enough to cover usual automatic transactions, and open share and share draft accounts (share is savings, share draft is checking) according to whatever the credit union's rules are. And I'll ask if I can have my share draft account "locked" or "red flagged" (or whatever the term is) so that an electronic transaction that would cause an overdraft will not be approved (or in the alternative, do something like a sweep account.) I have enough time to also move the direct deposit of my Social Security check there.

If I can get them to lock the account so I can't run an electronic overdraft, fine. If they also can't do that, then I go back to BB&T and tell them to lock my account, (and then I'll watch my Credit Union account to not run an overdraft there) and if BB&T still won't allow me to force-lock my account from overages, I'll sue them over the service charges they've previously dinged me and try to get a court order to force them to lock my account or to have the charges declared illegal (and you can bet we will see that their supposed "inability" to prevent overages suddenly becomes possible to fix). I am sick and tired of being dinged for huge and egregious service charges. Especially as I'm a pensioner on a fixed income and egregious charges for small overdrafts they shouldn't have approved in the first place are ridiculous. If they try to argue their depositor agreement includes a clause using arbitration I'll try to get it struck so I can still sue as being unconscionable (because the amounts involved are so small and the arbitration fees are usually quite high) and because it probably can't allow for injunctive relief. And because the arbitrator is going to tend to favor the bank because they would lose business if they started supporting the customer in these cases. Too many of these arbitration cases favor the bank even when, as I see it, the win percentage shouldn't be so high.

In every single case where an electronic transaction caused an overdraft, had the transaction been refused, I had enough money on me that I could have paid the transaction in cash or I had a credit card I could have used. It would have also warned me I'd made a mistake somewhere (or the bank has, not all that hard) on calculating my account; I do keep a list of my transactions. When I run a transaction I save the receipt, then I enter it in my spreadsheet and it keeps count. I cannot figure out where the leakage is coming from; I keep having electronic overdraft transactions which shouldn't be occurring. If I couldn't overspend and triggering charges that benefit the bank, I might find out either I'm forgetting something I have legitimately run a charge for (probably the most likely case) or in some fashion someone is stealing from me either by running an unauthorized transaction or running a charge for more than I authorized.

But there still is no excuse for this other than greed by the bank; if it wasn't so profitable to allow electronic overdrafts, banks would have hard locked everyone who didn't purchase an overdraft plan a long time ago. I think someone said that NSF charges (back before they could do the same thing with electronic transactions) were one of the biggest profit centers of banks.

Well, anyway, if I could turn the checking account's "allow electronic overdraft" feature on-and-off I wouldn't fight them over it; when I needed it I'd accept the $35 fee and be done with it. The only other alternative would be - presuming there was a pay phone around - to call the bank every time I was going to do anything and check my balance. Or pay cell minutes to call their 800 number, which means any time I wanted to use my check card I'd end up paying 50c in cell phone charges to find out what my balance was. (They charge more than that to check your balance at someone else's ATM.) But even that might not be right, sometimes the electronic phone system doesn't record transactions which the network or check reception system gets. So I might still run an electronic overdraft for something that I checked on before I used it.

Another thing I noticed, BB&T has "improved" their statement by simply listing all transactions but it does not give you daily balances; when you get dinged for an overdraft you have no way to know why the overdraft occurred, you have to reconstruct the daily balance yourself. A big pain.

As much as I dislike HSBC for that slimy trick of charging me (or trying to, anyway) $59 for a Sears Mastercard they promised was fee-free, one thing they have done, more than once, is to refuse a transaction that would have caused me to go over my credit limit (currently $300) that procedure is one I actually appreciate, because, since they refuse the transaction, I don't get hit for an overdraft, I have no fee and I thus know I'm either at or too close to my limit. Maybe they think they're punishing me for fighting them. Actually, it's the best thing they could have done for me, and if I can't get a check card hard lock and don't sue, I might stop carrying a balance on the card, pay them off every month, and use them instead of my ATM card.

The only real reason I'm carrying a balance with HSBC is to make sure it's been on my credit record long enough to show up; otherwise I'd have paid it all off every month. I actually used to do that until I realized that by carrying a balance and paying a little interest I might actually increase my credit rating. It's only $250 that I owe them, just enough to be something so it will show up once I've had it around six months, and yet not enough to be dangerous. A credit card with a $300 limit is fine for me; a credit card with a $3000 or $5000 limit might be dangerous if I had a reason to use it. Although I had one, once. I saw this one company offering a business credit line and ordered it for my Sister, no annual fee. They approved her for a $15,000 limit, surprise. So I had them issue me and my brother tied accounts, and to make sure we didn't make a mistake, I set the limit low, no more than 3 times what we might possibly charge in a month, which was $3,000 for each of us. This way if I or my brother had to go get her something we could use her card, or I'd ask her if I had to charge something for myself personally. When I left, I gave her the card back, more-or-less same as if you turn in a company credit card when you leave a job.

It was rather funny in that it was her account, but she was telling someone on the phone the other day how when I was managing her bookkeeping she worried every time she ran a charge wondering what I was going to say to her about the money she spent! Hey, it wasn't my money, and I don't think I ever tried to be criticizing, it was more on the order of, 'This bill says you spent $1200 last month at Home Depot, is that right?' If I'm checking someone's books and finances to determine what their bills are and who gets paid, it's important to make sure the numbers are right.

When I get the statement from either my credit card or my bank, I can usually do a visual verify that it's right in about 15 seconds because I can remember everything I do. I'm not a busy person, I know the places I visit, I know where I've spent money, and I usually even know approximately how much I spent there. So I see a statement, and I see $25 from the transit authority (metro access tickets, okay). $49 at a dollar store (some goodies and sundries like trash bags, check.) $75 at Shopper's Food Warehouse (groceries); $12 at McDonalds one week; and a special case where I treated myself to Johnny Rockets once; and so on; all the charges in general I recognize, and then BAM! $35 for an overdraft and $30 for a collections charge because I can't get out to cover the overdraft because by the time they mail me the postcard to tell me I need to cover the overdraft it's been a week. Ouch.

And yet I can't figure out how come I'm behind when the numbers I have should indicate I didn't run an overage, in fact I should still have something left over. So I don't even know what I'm doing wrong.

Now, going back to the idea of either not allowing the Credit Union account to run an electronic overdraft or getting BB&T to stop, if you know me or you read between the lines, what I will effectively be doing is keeping one account that will allow me to run an electronic overdraft. In emergencies - especially back when I had no credit card - the ability to run a little extra over saved me from severe or unpleasant inconvenience, including once where I was able to rent a motel room vs. having to sleep in my (broken down) car as well as buying a one-way ticket on Greyhound. Call it maybe $150. I got called by the bank about it, I explained that two days later I'd be getting paid and my paycheck would bring me up to date, and the clerk said okay. I never complained about the two overdraft charges. Had they not approved it, I would have had to get someone to wire me money for the bus ticket or pay them for the ticket at another site and it would have cost at least as much if not more.

Which brings up another issue: money transfers or the equivalent thereof are expensive, at least for transfers within the U.S. It's like $10 to wire money to Mexico (actually that's for 3-day delivery; immediate is $14.99). Check how much it costs to send money or the equivalent within the U.S. and it's more than that. Sending someone $200 for immediate transfer will cost $23.99, and in 3-days costs $17.99 which is clearly ridiculous in either case. There's a lot of money to be made in (electronically) moving money where it isn't, and because they can get away with it, transactions where you have to get money or money equivalents to someone else not near you are often very expensive. If I go to a Greyhound station and pay at the counter for someone, the cost for Greyhound to issue a ticket is exactly zero. But they charge a "gift ticket fee" of $18, or at least they did for a fictional ticket for today from Denver to Philadelphia. (I also note that you can't find out how much the fee is in advance; they won't tell you unless you place an order.)

On another ticket, I made an example, it's for March from LA to Chicago. If the ticket is picked up at "Will Call" it's an $18 gift fee; if it's mailed, it costs $21. Okay, a $3 fee is reasonable for mailing; it's costing them money although it might be arguable that since they're getting the purchase price ahead of time, they're already compensated for float and all it's really costing them is the 42 or at most 83c to mail the ticket since the clerk has to handle the ticket anyway there's no real extra cost to them. But I won't quibble over $3. That would also be a reasonable fee for allowing a network ticket. But $18 is sheer greed. The cost of data transactions is near zero; the fact we get tons of spam shows that the cost to send an electronic message is zero. It is entirely possible to allow anyone to be ticketed electronically without it being an exorbitant charge - or really any charge at all - but they can get away with it so they do it.

If someone has any time, the simplest and safest way would be to buy a prepaid card or gift card for $5 or less, put enough on it to cover the transaction, make the transaction and mail them the card. Or if it's an actual prepaid credit card as opposed to a gift card, allow them to order it and the card company will mail it to them with their name on it. Net cost: $5 above the amount loaded on the card.

You just have to have enough time to wait for the card to be mailed to you, call it probably 5 days.

What it really comes down to is people who don't have the time to wait are hit twice, first because they have to get someone else to help them, and second, they get hit with an extra-high service charge because they don't have the time or capacity to wait.

Also, there is the nasty feature that prepaid cards (with your name on them) charge a $5 a month fee to keep them. And these cards for people with bad credit - e.g. as bad as my credit is, theirs is worse - they'll get a card with a $200 limit and over $100 in fees! At least the worst HSBC was going to ding me for - until I called them on their slimy attempt - was $59.

01/07/09

Permalink 03:32:11 pm, by Paul ROBINSON, 1570 words   English (US)
Categories: Announcements [A], News, Background

Typical, More problems and I probably have to move again!

I don't know if this counts for much, but if there is someone who reads this who has a unit or a room that isn't really expensive that is in or near the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area that is accessible by someone in a wheelchair who wants a quiet tenant who pays his rent on or before it it is due, give me a call on my cell phone at 703-868-7654 and my voice mail number is 240-345-6675; messages left there are e-mailed to me. (Once I move these numbers will be removed from future copies of this message.)

What, am I just kidding myself? The only people who read this other than me are probably the spammers who try to excrement all over this blog. But I have to start somewhere; I'm probably going to have to move soon. I will have to move, the only question is how fast.

Apparently the prior landlord was in pre-foreclosure or foreclosure while he was renting the building holding the unit I'm living in. The property has since been foreclosed. What I've gotten 3rd party from some of the other tenants of the other units is the typical tricks financial organizations pull on the uneducated. The bank wants the property empty (obviously so it can sell it), is supposedly being so gracious as to give us a little time to move, and is claiming that the people here who rented their units from the prior landlord are trespassing.

Yeah, right. You can get away with that sort of crap with the uneducated and those who do not know their rights, which refers to people other than me. I used to work for a real estate office in California; I know the rules. I also know all the tricks that professional deadbeat tenants can use if I want to go to scorched earth defense, which I'm probably not going to use unless I am forced to do so. I'm not waiving anything and I'm standing on the letter of the law. I rented the property in good faith, paid rent promptly and have valid tenancy. Further, California is much less sympathetic to tenants and Maryland law grants several additional privileges to tenants above and beyond what California law does.

They don't call this place "The People's Republic of Maryland" for nothing. The law grants tenants in residential property certain rights and explicitly forbids as contrary to public policy any attempt to try to claim the tenant has waived those rights.

If they went me to move early, they're going to have to throw money at me. If they want to pay me to give up some of my rights, that's one thing and I have no problem negotiating a figure. But I will not simply waive them or give them up without compensation and without fighting. And I know enough about what the requirements are to make it a lot more expensive for them to fight me over it than to pay me off.

The biggest thing that bothers me is someone out-and-out lying about this sort of thing. I don't blame them for not telling us what our rights are, that's our job to know them. But to lie and commit fraud (a knowing lie made for the purposes of someone to rely upon it to the extent of causing them to take a financial loss constitutes fraud) is a personal insult to me and when I get insulted (especially by dishonesty from others) I expect compensation for their misconduct.

I'm normally a pleasant person, and I do not want to be a bastard but on this issue I will be. If I have to I go to state court to get an injunction to require they follow the rules and prevent an illegal eviction or self-help eviction or the equivalent thereof, or I go to Federal court to get protection under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

I'm also not handing out any prizes or making any give aways as to what they have to do or are required to do. I don't tell anything I don't need to; that's what they pay their lawyers to tell them what their requirements are. I'm not being paid to tell them how to comply with the law. They fail to follow the letter of the law and I fight, if necessary I go to court to enforce the rules.

I mean, I think I represent the "dream tenant" every landlord wishes he would get. I have always paid my rent on or before it's due. I don't smoke, don't make a lot of noise and I stay in my room except when I'm out to fix something or I've left the building on an occasional errand. I don't ask for much; all I wanted was what the law required me to be granted: quiet enjoyment of my unit for the time I have paid rent in advance, and basically to be left alone to go to hell in my own handbasket, e.g. to do my thing and live my life.

But the rules are clear; the new owner has the same rights, and is subject to the same responsibilities as the former owner. We'll see what happens. I'm not unreasonable and I'm not greedy; make me whole and adequate to cover what it will cost me to move plus a little extra for the inconvenience that I, as a person with a disability has as a result of having to arrange to move and I'm gone. Be generous and I'm gone like lightning; be reasonable and I can be gone fast; be cheap it's going to be very slow with a hard road to hoe for them and will take lots longer. They pull any stunts and I hit back, hard. Pull self-help and they get sued for damages, big time. They want to cut off the electricity, then I'll start it up under my name or a company name. Ditto the water, or I might just buy drinking water at a store in the interim. But I will not simply allow myself to be driven out in violation of the law; I don't grant free concessions. I can't afford to be Mr. Nice Guy; for me to move is going to cost me money and someone is going to have to come up with it; I already spent a chunk of change to move. I am just now financially healing from the move I made just a short time ago which followed the last move. I don't want to have to move again so soon, and if I have to move it will be because the lease on my unit is up or I've been paid off to terminate the lease on my unit.

The letter of the law is what I insist on being followed, or pay me to waive the requirements. You don't get them for free; and you're already going to be into a chunk of change to take the place back, they can spend a few thousand to cover my costs to let them have what they want. Or they can be scrimy and cheap and it will cost them more. It's their choice.

Again, we'll see what happens. I think what I'll do is find out if anyone left a business card so I can talk to them. Failing that, I'll go down to the County Recorder and see what paperwork is present. But I'm not going to worry about it. If they don't cross all the i's and dot all the t's and do something not according to the rules I'm going to fight, and sue if necessary, and it will be even more expensive to them than if they followed the rules and/or paid me off.

When the landlord at my last place informed us he was not going to renew the lease, I respected that as being what the law required. We wheedled him into giving us 60 days instead of 30 which made it easier for me. But I got out without fighting over it because I respect someone who follows the rules and acts respectfully. But treat me as if I'm garbage and I'm likely to make them pay me for taking out the trash to which they are treating me as.

Looks like I will have to bulk up the minutes on my cell phone after all. I might just see about changing my MagicJack so that the number is forwarded to my cell phone so I have an area code 240 number that rings to me. We shall see.

Oh well, start subscribing to the Washington Post again and check out Craigslist every day for possible places. Oh yeah, I'm definitely going to have to bulk up my cell minutes. Or I can take Vonage for 30 days then cancel the service at no cost. That's an idea and would be cheaper. As luck would have it, I have a Vonage adapter I bought once and never used. I could try it right away. But I'll wait until I have to. I have two choices as far as my cell phone is concerned; buy a 90-day extension and extra minutes for around $30, or buy a one-year extension and 400 minutes for around $125, which then grants me double minutes. I'll think about it, considering I know that I am cheap and scrimy I prefer lower-cost options.

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Welcome to My blog! This is where I store my thoughts so that I can come back to them at some point in the future. This allows me a place like a journal to keep what I'm thinking about. But anyone else is welcome to visit; I make this place public so that other people can hear what I'm thinking.

This is where I make comments on any subject I find of interest. My political comments are in the Politics section, and technical items are in the Computers section. Note, if you want to make a comment, e-mail it to me at paul@paul-robinson.us. I am sorry that I had to disable comments, but after I had deleted the 300th worthless piece of spam comment on this blog and receiving exactly zero valid comments, I decided to stop allowing spammers to excrement all over me and my blog. If you have *anything* at all to say, send it to me in e-mail; if it is even the slightest bit relevant - even if I don't agree with it, I will post it. (As soon as I find a way to stop spammers from posting junk I'll allow direct comments.) Note that if you are a visitor and post a comment, it defaults to "draft" meaning I have to approve it before it is visible, so if you're posting spam, don't bother, nobody will see it.

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