online shoppingIf you’ve ever been shopping on a site and been presented with the chance to join a “loyalty program”, you may have been looking at what the government is now investigating as a scam.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation is looking into three firms — Vertrue, Webloyalty, and Affinion — that engaged in post transaction marketing that caused consumers to receive charges to their credit cards that they never knew they had authorized.

The three firms worked with major online retailers to build pages that looked just like any other page from the retailer that offered consumers the chance to join a loyalty program.  The page would say that all it needed was for you to enter your email address, but in the fine print it said that by entering your email address you were authorizing them to charge your card a monthly fee.  The fees continued until the customers would find the charge on their cards, and in some cases people did not notice them for years.

All told, consumers were bilked for a reported $1.4 billion, with nearly half of that going to the retailers that partnered up with these firms.  Vertrue and Webloyalty say they have now changed the way people agree to the programs, while Affinion has not yet made any statements.

You can see the full list of sites at the bottom of this post of the companies involved with the scheme, and it is certainly a troubling roster.  This was not unknown mom-and-pop online stores, these were household names like Barnes & Noble, Time Life, Victoria’s Secret and more.

I have seen these offers over the years, and I honestly avoided them simply because I didn’t want more spam mail in my life.  There are some valuable lessons here though for all online shoppers as we enter what is expected to be the busiest ever holiday online shopping season:

  • If something seems odd, it probably is.  Why would a retailer ask for your email address after you just went through an order process?  They already have it.
  • Make sure to check your credit card bill every month, and make sure you know exactly what every charge is on that bill.
  • Always make sure to read the fine print of any offers.

This story couldn’t be timed worse with the holiday shopping season upon us, but it also couldn’t be a greater shame that companies you should be able to trust allowed themselves to be involved in such a scheme.

loyaltyprograms500

Categories: Shopping   
 

retrevoDon’t you wish you could quickly compare prices you find in brick and mortar stores with the going price online right there on the spot? Thanks to Retrevo this is now easier than ever.

We’ve all been in that spot where we are in a retail store and we think we find a bargain, but in the back of our head we start wondering what the reviews are like online, what are the prices on the Internet and so on. Well, thanks to price comparison site Retrevo, all of that information is now just a text message or Tweet away.

By simply sending a text message to the company shortcode, you receive a text message back explaining the going price online and if they recommend you buy it. The example the company provided was you send a request to shortcode 41411 with the following: “retrevoq Canon 500D” (minus the quote marks) and this is what I got back:

Canon 500D: Strong Buy if you want high end. Fair Price: $854. Range: $727 – $1043. http://bit.ly/1wSds2

By clicking on the link in the text I was taken to the corresponding page on the the Retrevo Web site with more in-depth information about the product.

If you prefer to use Twitter, you can get the same info by either sending them a public message or a direct message.  So if you sent them something like “@retrevoq Canon 500D” and you would receive the same information I received in the text message.

I was impressed with the speed of the reply text message, the formatting and the included information. My only complaint would be that the prices listed by Retrevo in general do not include Amazon’s price, but they do included about a dozen other sites, so you still are receiving a good range of choices.

There has been a need for a service like this for a long time, and seeing as it is free, you have nothing to lose. This is the perfect tool to help you with your shopping this coming Black Friday for those bargains you wander into by accident.

Categories: Cell Phones, Shopping   
 

xbox-liveWith the holiday shopping season upon us, it can be tempting to try to find a bargain for that big ticket item your child asked for, but when it comes to Xbox 360′s this year, buyer beware.

Recently Microsoft went through and banned Xbox 360′s that had been modified to play pirated games from being able to use the Xbox Live service. Reports indicate that anywhere from 600,000 to 1,000,000 Xbox 360′s are now unable from ever logging into Xbox Live ever again, even if you create a whole new account for the online gaming service.

The affected units had all been modified in some way by after market hardware chips and software that would allow them to play modified games, pirated games and more hacks. All of these activities violate the Xbox Live terms of service, so hence the banning by Microsoft.

According to a story on Yahoo, those banned units are now showing up on sites such as eBay and Craig’s List for sale in droves. While some sellers are being upfront about the status of their units, while others are not being so forthcoming. While these units will still play offline games, and even pirated games if you so choose, they will never again be able to log in to Xbox Live.

While some of these units may be a tempting purchase for the holidays, it is definitely “buyer beware” right now if you are looking to purchase a used Xbox 360.

Categories: Shopping   
 

amazon paymentsJust in time for the holiday shopping season, Amazon has introduced a new layer of security to its Amazon Payments system which is intriguing for what it might mean later on.

Amazon Payments has been popping up all over the Web as a way for customers to pay for purchases with the information they have stored with the mega-retailer.  Well, starting today, you can now use the payment system without ever having to enter your credit card information on another site that uses the system, and you can also check out in just three steps.

PayPhrase is a system where you create a phrase unique to you – each phrase can only be used once in the system, so expect some wacky combinations cropping up – that you will enter anywhere you see the Pay Phrase dialog box.  You enter your phrase, enter your pin number when prompted, click the order button, and you’re done.  Pretty simple, and also fairly secure as only Amazon will have access to your credit card information.

While this is already potentially handy, we here at StarterTech think the true genius of this system will be realized once it shows up in mobile applications.  It doesn’t matter how good your smartphone is, typing all of your information in for an order on a mobile device gets annoying.  The less you have to type in on your cell phone, the better, so this could be a major step forward for mobile payments.  Heck, we could even see it being used in restaurants.  Imagine a waiter walks over with an iPod Touch that has your bill shown, you type in your PayPhrase and pin number, and your bill is paid for.  Your waiter never touches or even sees your credit card.

Some people are laughing this system off, saying that if people can never remember their password, how will they ever remember this?  Give it some time, but we think this new tool could revolutionize several different aspects of commerce.

Categories: Security, Shopping   
 

amazon logoAmazon is ready for you to start your holiday shopping for the video game fan on your shopping list right now.

Amazon is running a video game promotion from now until Oct. 31st wherein if you purchase $80 worth of video games, you will receive a credit for $40 off your next video game purchase.  The credit voucher will be emailed to you seven days after our order for $80 ships to you.

This isn’t the type of thing we normally cover around here at StarterTech, but we were struck by the selection of games including some very recent releases such as Batman:Arkham Asylum, Wet, The Beatles: Rock Band and so on.  You normally expect in sales such as this for them to only offer up older games that a company is overstocked on, but this offer really is worth it considering how expensive new releases are running now.

Even if you have no one to buy for, this deal is worth checking out for your own collection if you have been putting off purchasing some of the newest releases.

Categories: Shopping, Video Games   
 

amazon logoEver wished you could get your Amazon products the same day you ordered them? Well, now you can … for a price.

While we are reluctant to reprint press releases in their entirety on this site, sometimes there is just so much information to convey that it almost seems silly to not do it.  With that being said, here is Amazon’s release about its new shipping options:

Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN) today announced the launch of “Local Express Delivery,” a new shipping option giving customers same-day delivery in seven major cities including New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, Las Vegas, Seattle andWashington D.C. The service will be extended to Chicago, Indianapolis and Phoenix in the coming months.

Thousands of items are now available for Local Express Delivery. Amazon Prime* members pay just$5.99 per item for the service. Full details, including the rate card for all other customers, are available at www.amazon.com/help/shipping.

Items ordered before the following local cut-off times will be delivered the same day:

  • New York City – Order as late as 10 a.m.
  • Philadelphia – Order as late as 10 a.m.
  • Boston – Order as late as 10:30 a.m.
  • Washington D.C. – Order as late as 10:30 a.m.
  • Baltimore – Order as late as 10:30 a.m.
  • Las Vegas – Order as late as 11 a.m.
  • Seattle – Order as late as 1 p.m.

Customers will find delivery cut-off times on each product’s detail page.

“We want to make online shopping as convenient as possible,” said Girish Lakshman, vice president of Transportation at Amazon. “We’re continuously working to speed up delivery times and customers receiving items on the same day as ordered is an exciting step. Now, if a customer needs a last-minute present for a birthday or wants a copy of their book club book before the weekend starts, they can order from Amazon instead of the hassle of a last-minute trip to the mall.”

Amazon has also expanded Saturday Delivery options. Now, items ordered before the cut-off time on Thursday using Two-Day Shipping will be delivered on Saturday instead of Monday. For Prime members, Thursday-to-Saturday delivery is free using Two-Day Shipping. For all other customers, the service is offered at the current Two-Day Shipping rates. Saturday Delivery is also available for orders placed before the cut-off on Fridays for $6.99 per item for Prime members and an additional charge for all other customers. Full details can be found at www.amazon.com/help/shipping.

Amazon has introduced these shipping enhancements just in time for the holidays. For the 2009 holiday season, the following order deadlines apply for delivery by Dec. 24**:

Dec. 17: FREE Super Saver Shipping

Dec. 20: Standard Shipping

Dec. 22: Two-Day Shipping (order as late as 7 p.m. PST; varies by item; free with Amazon Prime)

Dec. 23: One-Day Shipping (order as late as 3:30 p.m. PST; varies by item; just $3.99 per item with Amazon Prime)

Dec. 24: Same-Day Shipping (order as late as 1 p.m. PST; varies by item; just $5.99 per item with Amazon Prime)

*Amazon Prime is an annual membership program that gives customers fast shipping on millions of items for only $79 a year. Members receive FREE Two-Day Shipping on millions of items sold byAmazon.com and sellers utilizing Fulfillment by Amazon. Upgrades to One-Day Shipping are only$3.99 per item ($6.99 for one-day Saturday delivery). To become a member of Amazon Prime, or to learn more about the membership program, customers can visit www.amazon.com/prime.

**Some restrictions apply; visit www.amazon.com/help/shipping for the full details and additional information about Local Express Delivery, Two-Day Shipping, Saturday Delivery and all otherAmazon.com shipping options.

This new same-day option from Amazon almost seems like it was inevitable and will now really raise the bar for other online retailers to come up with something akin to this. Don’t be too surprised to see Barnes & Noble announce something similar prior to Christmas.

Categories: Shopping   
 

spamWe aren’t sure who it is that still reads spam, let alone makes purchases from it, but please stop.

According to Ars Technica, a security researcher from Sophos names Dmitry Samosseiko did some sleuthing, and was able to find his way into the administrative backend of a spamming network.  What he discovered was that there is still big money being made from spam emails, and the conclusion is that so long as people continue to purchase Viagra and other drugs via these emails, we will all suffer.

In a lengthy report (PDF link), Mr. Samosseiko details how the one spam network he got into has about 30 sales a day, totaling up to $4,000.  $1,600 of that goes to the spam software generator, a group named GlavMed, while the rest goes to the person using the spam bots.  In other words, GlavMed makes around $584,000 a year from spam, and this is just one of possibly many spam networks set up by them.

The latest iteration of spam seems to be centered on Russians setting up the networks to sell the drugs that come out of Canadian pharmacies.  While there is no way to know for sure, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that this is tied in with the Russian mob, but that is purely speculation on my own part.

It is amazing to me that there are still people even reading their spam emails after the endless warnings that have been made by security groups over the dangers of even opening these emails, let alone clicking on any links in them.  You are opening yourself up to viruses, Trojan horses, identity theft and any other slew of nastiness by even reading this junk mail.

The other problem is that you are subjecting everyone else on the Internet to continue receiving them because even a small percentage of them work.  It costs next to nothing to send out hundreds of thousands of spam emails, so why should the spammers care if only 30 a day result in a sale?  The only way for this to end is for everyone to just stop looking at them, but somehow I doubt that will ever happen.

Maybe we need a new slogan, something like, “Every time you read a spam email, God kills a kitten”.  Think that would finally get the point across?

Categories: Opinion, Privacy, Security, Shopping   
 

amazon basicsIt seems Amazon wants a bigger slice of the profits when it comes to selling items in its consumer electronics division.

Amazon has been playing around with launching their own brands in a few divisions over the past few years, but expanding in to the consumer electronics market could be their biggest move yet.

Marked as “Amazon Basics“, the new line’s first offerings are things like Ethernet cables, HDMI cables, blank CDs and a few other items.  Considering that Amazon has turned in to one of the largest electronics retailers in the country, it isn’t difficult to imagine that the retailer will eventually expand in to other products such as flat panel televisions, computer parts and more.

There is always more money to be made when you are manufacturing the items, so this seems like a natural progression for the company.  It just makes you wonder what else they may have planned for further down the road.

Categories: Shopping   
 

iPod Family 2009With new iPods out in force, how do you judge if it’s time for you to upgrade your current model, buy new or which one to give as a gift this upcoming holiday season? Hopefully we’ll be able to help you with all of those questions.

The new iPods for 2009 were announced yesterday, and while there weren’t a tremendous amount of upgrades to the overall line, it can still be difficult to pick one out.  Our first recommendation would be to go back and read our post from last year, How To Choose An iPod, as all of the questions it asks are still relevant.  After you read that, come back here and we’ll get down to the nitty gritty of this year’s models and what we recommend for each.

-sips coffee while he waits for you to read the other article-

Done reading the other article?  Good, here we go!

iPod Shuffle 09

iPod Shuffle

The iPod Shuffle is a bit of an odd duck in the iPod family of devices because it is the only one to feature actual buttons on the body of it. All the controls are operated from the headphones, and you have no way of seeing what songs are next and so on. While it is certainly the “kiddie” version of an iPod, it would be a good choice for someone who is rough on devices, young children, good for the gym due to potential accidents with weights and so on. For anyone over the age of 12, in general we would recommend a different model as the Shuffle is just too small for most people’s purposes.

Should I upgrade if I have an older model? I wouldn’t bother, nothing has really changed, and if you have a Shuffle with buttons, I would be reluctant to give it up.  If you have an older Shuffle, and you do have a hankering to buy a new player, I would highly recommend moving on to a completely different iPod unless you have really serious reasons to have a Shuffle.

iPod Nano 09

iPod Nano

The iPod Nano got the most serious upgrades this year, and become a better all around solution for your casual music listner, and is also sure to be a hit with teens this year due to the addition of the camera.

Holding either 8GB or 16GB of media, the Nano is a great choice for those with a decent sized music collection of music, and the wherewithal to actually sort out what songs they want to take with them when they leave the house or office.

With the additions of the built-in video camera, pedometer, FM tuner, microphone & speaker and other new items, the Nano has quickly become a whole lot more than a music player.  Due to its small physical size, the Nano fits so many scenarios such as travelling, being carried in a purse, strapped to your arm in the gym, slipping in your pocket and a whole lore more.

Should I upgrade if I have an older model? I would say this would be tempting this year just due to the addition of the camera.  The size of the camera lens troubles me some, but if you just want to shoot party videos or the like, this thing is perfect!  You can entertain the party AND photograph it at the same time.  I would recommend to anyone who buys a Nano this year go for the 16GB version, though.  The 8GB version costs $149, and the 16GB is only $30 more at $179.  Not springing for the bigger one could be a decision you very, very quickly regret, especially with the video function in the mix now.

iPod Classic 09

iPod Classic

The Classic is the work horse of the iPod family.  Sure it can play videos and display photos, it’s number one job is playing music, and lots of it.

The Classic is the only iPod to retain the original form factor of the popular device, and it hasn’t changed in quite a while now except to get thinner and bigger hard drive.  That is the other thing about the Classic, it is the only iPod to still run on a physical hard drive as opposed to flash memory like all of the other members of its little family.

While the Classic first had a 160GB hard drive in 2007, it fell back in size to 120GB in 2008 to keep its thickness down.  Well, this year it is back to 160GB while retaining the 120GB price of $249.

This iPod is only for people with giant music collections and no desire to sort what they take with them while on the go.  (-cough- guilty, party of one over here)

Should I upgrade if I have an older model? Only if you’re older one is broken, otherwise there is about zero reason to buy this year’s model.

iPod Touch 09

iPod Touch

The iPod Touch was introduced in 2007, and since then it just hasn’t changed that much.

Introduced as a simpler version of the iPhone (or simply an iPhone for people who didn’t want to deal with AT&T), the fancy iPod just isn’t getting updated like other members of the family over the years.  In 2008 the Touch received an external speaker, a memory bump and physical volume buttons.  This year it received an increase in processor speed and an increase in the memory capacity.  Why it didn’t receive a camera is a mystery, but there was no sign of it in the newest information.  (some rumors say there were technical problems, but that has still yet to be confirmed, and doubtful it ever will be as Apple is a very secretive company.)

This particular iPod fits in perfectly with college students who have frequent access to Wi-Fi, and is also great dor business users who want some of the benefits of the iPhone while not giving up their current phone.

Should I upgrade if I have an older model? I wouldn’t.  If you have a first generation (2007), maybe consider it, but if you have a second generation (2008), it is really pointless to do so.  Here’s hoping something significant will happen next year with this product.

Categories: Apple, Gadgets, How To, Shopping   
 

giftcardresccue.comEver gotten a gift card you just have no use for? Now there is an easy way to turn that card in to cold hard cash.

Okay, I’ll admit it, I saw this site on Shark Tank tonight, but I thought it was such a great idea, and something I hadn’t heard of, so I had to share it.  GiftCardRescue.com is a site that will buy your unwanted gift cards from national chains for approximately 65 percent of its face value.  Once they receive your card, they pay you within 24 hours of receipt via PayPal.

The site then takes that card and offers it for sale to other people for anywhere from 7 to 20 percent off the face value.  For instance, the site currently has an Ann Taylor gift card with a face value of $300 that can be purchased for $240 with free shipping.  So, in other words, you essentially get to shop at Ann Taylor and receive an instant discount of 20 percent on whatever you choose to purchase.  Not too shabby if you ask me.

Seeing as the gift card industry has hit $80 billion in sales annually, and $8 billion of those cards go unused each year, this is a win-win situation for both sides of the transaction.  College students get tons of these cards at Christmas, imagine what a university student can do with the cash that mom and dad don’t know about… what?!?  Stop looking at me like that!  I’m just mentioning one potential use!

Joking aside, we here at StarterTech love the idea of this site and think it is well worth your time to check out.

Categories: Shopping   
 
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