So Now Do You Trust TripAdvisor?

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

TripAdvisor has brought out the megaphones, hired the brass band, and is busily proclaiming that its fraud team has made TripAdvisor reviews a safe place for us to find the information we need to book the right accommodations. It’s a story with a lot of fake reviews, even an arrest.

Should we break out the bubbly?  Maybe not yet.

TripAdvisor crowed online: “Back in 2015, our dedicated team of fraud investigators identified a new illegal business in Italy called PromoSalento that was offering to write fake reviews for hospitality businesses to boost their profile on TripAdvisor. Several Italian businesses forwarded the emails to us, which kick-started an investigation that would ultimately see the person behind PromoSalento sent to jail!”

Tnooz, a trade pub, reported on this outcome: “In June of this year, the Criminal Court of Lecce found the owner guilty of using a fake identity to commit fraud. He has been sentenced to 9 months in prison and will have to pay 8,000 euros in costs and damages.”

Posting fake reviews is in fact illegal in some of Europe.

Question: Is it illegal to pay for fake reviews in the US? It’s not clearly illegal although posting such reviews has and could result in litigation that would be expensive to fend off.

What I can say is that I have seen numerous solicitations to pay writers to create fake reviews. Rates, incidentally, are paltry – often $10 or under. Sometimes $5. 

But for the right writer – particularly in the right low cost country – $5 might be a decent wage for a few minutes work.

Often, too, I have spotted an avalanche of fake reviews posted by hotel staff or maybe their friends.  

TripAdvisor says they have their eyes open for this and they point to their detailed work to hunt down the Italian behind the paid reviews in his country. “Over the course of our investigation, our technical analysis identified and then either blocked or removed more than 1,000 attempts by PromoSalento to submit reviews to the TripAdvisor site on hundreds of different properties.

“PromoSalento attempted to avoid our scrutiny by regularly changing their usernames and email addresses, but our fraud detection processes use a suite of advanced technologies to evaluate hundreds of review attributes such as IP addresses, browser types and even the screen resolution of a reviewer’s device. Based on that analysis, we were able to see a trail of digital and behavioral ‘breadcrumbs’ that led our team straight back to PromoSalento.”

Hold your applause.

What TripAdvisor did is good – that’s obvious – but it also did it to protect its core functionality.  A Gresham’s Law applies online where bad reviews drive out good and so TripAdvisor cannot allows its service to be overwhelmed by bad reviews.

Particularly not when it is all so blatant.

Just a few problems that lead me to be restrained in saluting TripAdvisor.

First, there are many ways to buy fake reviews that probably will sidestep algorithms that hunt for fraud – e.g., paying writers only when their review had been posted by them and gone live. That leaves no trail back to the buyer and, from what I hear, the market for fake reviews remains brisk.

Second, there are – to my eyes – obviously fake reviews generated internally that still pop up with regularity.  TripAdvisor doubtless has algorithms that hunt for fakes. But give a hotel employee a VPN and imagine how many reviews he/she can post.

TripAdvisor itself has warned hotel employees to cool it.  That tells you the problem is bad.

It gets worse, a lot worse.

The bigger problem: TripAdvisor itself has a history of deleting negative reviews that aren’t fake, anything but. They just stung hotel and restaurant employees who insisted they come down.  And they did. Some of those deleted reviews in fact alleged rapes by hotel employees.

That is information a potential guest very much would want to know.

TripAdvisor of course has said its corrected its behaviors, even putting in a badge notification for establishments that may have had allegation of rapes and assaults.

Is that good enough for you?

Know your rights. Congress last year passed the Consumer Review Fairness Act which makes it illegal to threaten to sue consumers or seek to penalize them financially for negative online reviews.  

The FTC has said it will slap companies that ignore the law.  

Personally I want more from the FTC.

But, mainly, I want more from TripAdvisor.  A reliable review site would be a very good thing in the fragmented hotel business – and a marvelous thing for those of us who travel internationally where, in many countries, independents are the only choices.  So there isn’t that same brand promise that guides us to many hotels in the US.

I want TripAdvisor to work.  

I’m just unconvinced that it does.

Ask me again in six months. TripAdvisor just has announced a massive shift into professional content and a move away from consumer created content.  Is that the answer?

Color me skeptical.  A lot of “professional” content is anything but. And these days it proliferates like kudzu. But ask anyway in six months because maybe my answer will be cheerier.

Or maybe not.

 

What Happens When TSA Mangles Your Bag?

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

It’s a traveler’s nightmare. Something is stolen from your checked bag – it’s almost always the good stuff too such as jewelry or a slick camera – or maybe the bag and its content simply are demolished and what you retrieve at baggage claim is scrap.  Then what?

Surely you’ll be made whole, particularly when your gripe is with TSA, a federal agency, not an airline.

Hah.

An NJ.com story’s headline tells you what to expect: Good luck getting money from the TSA for your lost, damaged luggage.  

New data via Dorian Banutoiu – which looks at 16 years of claims, 2002-2017, is just as grim.  It shows that of 218,000 claims, 101,000 were denied, 9000 are pending, and 83,000 are marked paid.

The NJ.com research crunched data from only the 15 busiest airports – Newark included – and it found that: “Of the 34,127 claims filed at these airports from 2010 to 2017, almost 41 percent — or four out of every 10 requests — were denied. In contrast, about 26 percent were approved for payment or settled for a lesser amount. About 13 percent were under review, and the rest had been canceled.”

In the LA Times, reporter Hugo Martin – drawing on TSA data mainly from 2016 – concluded this: “Of the TSA claims that are resolved, 54% are denied, 24% are approved in full, 12% are settled for an amount less than what was requested and 10% are canceled or closed out for other reasons.”

Martin continued: “The most common items lost or damaged are bags, cases, purses, clothing, computers and accessories and jewelry.”

That’s right, the good stuff.  Nobody wants to take my 20 year-old LL Bean toiletry bag, please.

Martin added: “Jewelry, cash and camera equipment are the items rejected by the TSA at the highest rate, at least 70% of the time.”

The data also show that claims made at checkpoints are far more likely to be approved than are claims involving checked baggage.  That’s bad news because NJ.com data show that 75% of claims involve checked baggage. Just 24% are at checkpoints.

The average settlement amount over the past 16 years is $199.

Curiously, according to Travel Pulse, “If you are filing a claim, you are more likely to get repaid if you file it in the first half of the year, according to the data, which found that there was a lower average of payments approved in the second part of the year.”

NJ.com added: “Critics say the TSA takes an overly harsh approach, often claiming it can’t find evidence that it was responsible for the loss or damage. And the agency continues to deny the problem of theft at airports, they say, though there’s few other explanations for the losses.”

Theft, according to NJ.com, is the biggest issue: “About 60 percent of all the claims at these airports related to property loss.”

Some airports have so much theft that occasionally local police issue warnings, as happened not long ago at Orlando.  

Some grumbles about TSA are genuinely macabre, such as an NFL player’s complaint – with photos to prove his point – that TSA spilled his late mother’s ashes in his bag.  

Particularly interesting in the NJ.com data dump is its tally of which airports are most likely to see claims denied and the big winner – by far – is Las Vegas/McCarran where 56% of claims are denied.

The best airport for these matters is San Francisco where essentially all claims are approved.

Newark Airport, for what it’s worth, came in just behind San Francisco, approving roughly 65% of claims.

How not to become a victim? That’s easy. Never pack anything of value in checked baggage. Clothing, maybe. But jewelry, electronics, etc., nope, do not think about it. Carry it on. Or leave it at home.

Also, report any losses as soon as detected, ideally within 24 hours.  Procrastination will work against you.

Some passengers are also buying GPS trackers for their luggage – although there’s no clear connection between tracking a bag’s whereabouts and stopping theft of particular content.

The bad news of course is that, in coach, the battle for the overhead bin is as fierce as ever, as a USA Today headline shouted.  That forces many passengers to check bags and that triggers many possible miseries.

There is a cure. My advice regarding valuables is if you don’t need it, don’t bring it.  Personally I travel with an old Chromebook – not worth $100 – and if it went missing I’d shed no tears.  I bring no jewelry.  Nothing of any real value. Haven’t in some years.

Spartan? I suppose. But very, very practical in today’s travel marketplace.  

 

 

 

Sustainability, Business Travel and You

 

By Robert McGarvey

87% of us want to travel sustainably, said a recent poll via Booking.com. But more of us fail than succeed.  39% said they always or usually travel sustainably. But 48% of us admit we fail.

Business travel is a substantial offender. Said pwc: “Business travel remains our single largest source of carbon emissions, and – as we’ve continued to reduce our emissions from energy – has grown to around 80% of our total carbon footprint in 2017.”

Most big businesses would have to say ditto. Where their pollution is biggest is in travel.

The prime offender of course is air travel:  it amounts to 70% of our total emissions, per pwc.

The more I dig into sustainability and business travel, the more questions and concerns I have.  Suddenly sustainability seems a life or death issue.

One look at starving polar bears ought to persuade you that this stuff is serious, it is way beyond a crunchy granola fear.

Here’s the idea that frightens many business travelers: “The simplest way to cut emissions caused by travel is to avoid it,” said pwc.  

Yep.

I am a product of a time and a work culture where a possible trip produced quick assent: sure, I’ll go.  It could be a convention in Chicago, an angry client in Washington DC, a prospective new client in Los Angeles, or a speech in Boston. It didn’t matter. Sign me up.

Now I am beginning to question every trip: is it necessary? Can I do it via telephone?  

When the impact of business travel was mainly on my time, I shrugged off the time burdens and said sure.  Now – increasingly – the impact seems to be on the planet itself and that is a much bigger issue.

A bonus: traveling less is also good for our personal health.  The evidence is strong that a heavy travel load is bad for our bodies.

That’s another reason to really question our trips.

Do you remember when it was common for a big company to send a few hundred junior execs off to a conference center to spend three or four days learning, say, Lotus 123 or WordPerfect? That was the norm and, for many Boomers, it seemed fun.

Millennials, who today are carrying the bulking of the business travel load, aren’t buying the rationale of that trip, mainly because they know that they could learn new software perfectly well at their desks – with no new carbon hits such as are associated with those those trips of yesteryear to learn new software.

Oh, I also vividly recall a story told me by the VP of HR at a Fortune 100 company where, in the mid 1980s, as a junior exec, he was sent off to one of those trainings where he in fact learned Lotus 123. Just one problem.  When he returned to his office, he still did not have a computer and by the time he got a computer a few years later, he didn’t remember a thing about Lotus 123.

But he did tell me that under his leadership the company was minutely scrutinizing all planned educational meetings – and he hoped to eliminate most.

That’s a harsh reality. As I look back I see a lot of trips that I now see as unnecessary.  

I am a fan, incidentally, of big, glitzy, high energy sales conferences – they pump up attendees in ways that won’t happen when you sit at a desk and watch a video of even a high impact speaker like Tony Robbins.  In person just is more powerful.

Small meetings where intimate exchanges happen also can only be in person.

But a lot of business travel remains a product of habit, of how we have always done business.  And maybe it’s time to rethink.

Right now, hotels are tripping over themselves to announce they will no longer use plastic straws.  Some also are replacing individual toiletries with bulk dispensers. Many others encourage us to use towels and sheets multiple days.

So what?

All those steps are good as far as they go but they don’t go far and if you never use a plastic straw again in your life it will have zero impact on polar bears.

We probably shouldn’t be in that hotel room at all.

What really matters is flying only as necessary.  Using public ground transportation. Walking is better still.

Always ask, is this trip necessary? Really?

What’s the lowest carbon impact to get this business handled?

The encouraging reality is that more of us are genuinely asking those kinds of questions and acting accordingly.  The old days of “sure, boss, I’ll be in Houston tonight, no prob” are over. Maybe we’ll go to Houston, maybe we won’t, and what’s new now is that we’ll carefully assess the alternatives. When flying is the better choice, off we go. When it isn’t, home we stay. And that’s a better reality. For us and for the planet.

The Good News About AML: Technology to the Rescue

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

For CU2.0

 

Talk with credit union AML/BSA staffers as well as senior executives and you will hear a torrent of woe is me complaining about rising workloads, intransigent regulators, too tight budgets, and inadequate resources.

And then there is a new report from Aite Group’s Julie Conroy – based on extensive interviews with over 40 BSA/AML experts – and the title tells you the theme: The AML of Tomorrow: Here Today.

In the second paragraph Conroy puts out the good news: “Advanced technologies such as machine learning, robotic process automation (RPA), and natural language processing and generation are helping to even the playing field by enhancing both detection and operational efficiency. The even better news: Regulators are gradually growing comfortable with the use of these advanced technologies for AML.”

Read that again.  What she is insisting is that financial institutions now have access to technologies that will let them keep pace with – maybe get a step ahead of – criminals who want to launder money.

The stakes are high.  Two credit unions in the past decade have effectively been put out of business because of AML deficiencies – Bethex and North Dade.  

No credit union wants to be linked with money laundering. But, frankly, trying to keep up with this with a small staff who are doing everything by hand is a loser’s tactic.

How much money is laundered annually? Nobody knows. The United Nations has estimated it’s somewhere between $800 billion and $2 trillion.  The high end is about the GDP of Brazil and more than Italy’s.  That’s a lot of money in motion and, accordingly, you have to assume that the people who have put it in motion are savvy, wily, and of course know exactly the defenses used by banks and credit unions.

Accordingly, FIs are spending a lot to defend themselves – much of it on payroll. Conroy cited a report from the Clearing House that estimated that major US FIs spent $8 billion on compliance in 2017. She also noted that one large US FI interviewed for her report employed more than 5000 in compliance and “can’t hire fast enough.”

All those workers push out an avalanche of SARs. In 2013 they filed 1.22 million. By 2017 that rose to 2.03 million.

Conroy also pointed to a numerical disconnect that frustrates AML workers and their bosses.  “the fact remains that there are on average only 1,200 moneylaundering- related convictions per year in the U.S., compared with over 1 million SARs filed per year.”

In other words: is all the work really worth the effort and expense?

It gets worse. In many institutions, said Conroy, business line execs grumble that AML teams are “hassling” their customers, making it harder to do the business that brings in money to the FI.   AML, in many institutions, is seen as a nuisance that wastes money while making it harder to make money.

Ouch.

Wrote Conroy: “All of this points to the need for the AML function to find technology that enables precise detection while minimizing false positive noise.”

She continued: “The trifecta of increasing criminal sophistication, a steady increase in regulatory expectations, and under-resourced AML departments are bringing AML efforts to a breaking point. As a result, financial services firms are beginning to embrace technologies such as machine learning, RPA [robotic process automation], and natural language processing and generation.”

“Today’s AML function can no longer rely on legions of AML analysts, investigators, and rules-based automation. The use of advanced technologies is needed to aid AML departments in the gathering, filtering, and meaningful assessment of data from multiple sources in multiple formats.”

That prescription puts fear in the hearts of many credit union leaders – they worry about the costs and also the complexities of advanced technologies.

But Conroy has this absolutely right. The only way to stay ahead the AML wars is with technology that can automate much detection and even reporting.  There just aren’t enough AML staffers to be hired and so they get paid ever more.

But – and this is crucial – many of them are burning out, even quitting.  

The machines won’t quit on you.

What should your next step be?

In her report Conroy reviews the many technology options out there. Get the report, read her reviews.

And then what?  Her advice is simple: accept that you can’t wait, delay is not an option.

She added: “Try starting small. Cloud-based solutions can be implemented in modules that wrap around or interact with legacy systems to improve performance without a ‘rip and replace’ scenario. In this way, FIs can address the most pressing system deficiencies relatively quickly with less impact to budget and IT resources.”

It’s good advice.

Just don’t wait.

 

Fiserv Core Flaw Exposed Customer Data at Hundreds of Banks: Security Researcher

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

Highly regarded security researcher Brian Krebs has published a bombshell report that maintains a flaw in some Fiserv banking technology leaves customer data potentially exposed to criminals.

Krebs does not finger credit unions that may have fallen victim to this but there is no reason to think some aren’t.  

Krebs credited the flaw discovery to independent security researcher Kristian Erik Hermansen who noticed that when he setup an alert on his bank account, the alert was assigned an event number.  So Hermansen, on a hunch, tried to log into an event number a digit different and what he found was that he indeed could log in.  This matters because, said Krebs, “In an instant, he could then view and edit alerts previously set up by another bank customer, and could see that customer’s email address, phone number and full bank account number.”

That means a criminal could add his email address to the account and get alerts on, for instance, all transactions.

Krebs also noted that a criminal could hunt for customers who had set up high minimum balance alerts – $5000, say. Which would tell the crook he could siphon out $4999 and he might be undetected for some time.

Krebs said he personally signed up for accounts at two small banks that use Fiserv.  Here’s what he found: “In both cases I was able to replicate Hermansen’s findings and view email addresses, phone numbers, partial account numbers and alert details for other customers of each bank just by editing a single digit in a Web page request.”

He said he found “hundreds” more banks with similar vulnerabilities.

Krebs told Fiserv what he had discovered. The company responded this way: “Fiserv places a high priority on security, and we have responded accordingly,” Fiserv spokesperson Ann Cave said. “After receiving your email, we promptly engaged appropriate resources and worked around the clock to research and remediate the situation. We developed a security patch within 24 hours of receiving notification and deployed the patch to clients that utilize a hosted version of the solution. We will be deploying the patch this evening to clients that utilize an in-house version of the solution.”

Cave elaborated to Credit Union Times: “This is related to a one-way messaging feature on a limited number of bank websites. Upon notification, we promptly developed a patch to update the feature, deployed the patch to clients using the feature and completed testing to confirm the issue has been fully resolved. Our ongoing research and continued monitoring have not identified, and we have not received reports of, any adverse consumer impact.”

There is no count of the number of websites impacted by this flaw.

Any credit union running a Fiserv core and/or online banking ought to quickly contact Fiserv and inquire into the availability of that patch.  They ought also to see if they can replicate Krebs’ hack of the alerts system. And – above all else – check your own systems to see if you can replicate the Hermansen hack.

If you can, take action.

Krebs said that, in his inspection, the Fiserv patch in fact works.  “This author confirmed that Fiserv no longer shows a sequential event number in their banking sites and has replaced them with a pseudo-random string.”

But Fiserv is not blowing trumpets to announce the patch or the flaw.

A scan of Fiserv’s Twitter feed found no mention of the flaw or Krebs’ reporting or the purported patch.   

There’s silence over at Facebook too.

Julie Conroy of Aite told Krebs this about Fiserv’s customers: “These financial institutions use a core banking provider like Fiserv because they don’t have the wherewithal to do it on their own, so they’re really trusting Fiserv to do this on their behalf,” Conroy said. “This will not only reflect on Fiserv’s brand, but also it will impact customer’s perception about their small local bank, which is already struggling to compete with the larger, nationwide institutions.”

What she is saying is that big banks – that ordinarily don’t buy off the shelf technology from a Fiserv – may have a competitive advantage because they build their own.

I’m not sure that is true – I doubt most consumers have a clue as to whether their bank or credit union technology is off the shelf or bespoke.

But Conroy is right: in some ways the big banks keep expanding their technology lead over small institutions. That does not have to be the case. A smart credit union can use fintech alliances to create an institution that is the rival of even the most polished money center banks.

But the credit union has to want to get there.

And a necessary first step is cleaning up that Fiserv mess if your institution is a victim.  Do it now.

 

The 20% Travel Ripoff

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

Can you do basic arithmetic? Do percentages? Of course you can and, in fact, we learn in fifth and sixth grades how to compute simple percentages in our heads. Quick now, what’s 20% of $100 – or 20% of $250?

Sure, you can do the math. But now some MGM resorts in Las Vegas – notably Aria, Bellagio, and my once personal favorite, Vdara – will tack on a 20% upcharge when you get a massage, facial, haircut, and similar.

Bellagio, on its website, explains the upcharge: “For your convenience a 20% service charge will be added to each spa and salon service received. A portion of the service charge is dispersed to the spa and salon staff members who served you and the remainder is an administrative fee. Additional gratuities are at your discretion.”

The LATimes, in reporting on this, quoted an email from company spokesperson Brian Ahern: “Our employees go above and beyond to provide the best possible service, and it’s important that they receive recognition for a job well done.”

What?

A coerced tip somehow counts as “recognition for a job well done?’

When a masked man puts a gun in your gut and takes your wallet, is this recognition for a job well done?

It’s Vegas, baby.

But it is nonsensical.

It’s picking my pocket to let the employer underpay its employees and why, by the way, is the customer hit with an “administrative fee” when paying a tip?

Don’t ask, there is no answer.

The trouble is that what starts in Las Vegas often spreads, like a bad disease, across hospitality.  Consider resort fees.  Sure, a few Las Vegas hotels shun the practice but most slap a fee – $39 per night at Vdara and Bellagio, by the way – and you got me what you get in return.

Across America, many, many more hotels – some in cities – have climbed on and now impose “resort fees” or “urban amenity” fees mainly as a way to hike room rates without actually hiking room rates.  But that $99 hotel room has become $129 and the culprit is the resort fee.

Now, Las Vegas has decided we are too dumb – or cheap – to tip their salon and spa employees and, oh wait, isn’t it the employer’s job to compensate employees?  Not the customer’s?

It’s Vegas, baby.

A few years ago I ran across a spa in Arizona that hit customers with an automatic 20% tip and when I asked the company president what possibly justified this, he took offense. Didn’t I see that he was providing his spa customers with a convenience? Doing the math for them because, presumably, they are too blissed out by the spa treatment, or maybe just too stupid, to do a simple calculation that most 12 year-olds can do in an instant.

Johnny, what’s 20% of $120?

Jane, how about 20% of $160?

(Hint: just multiply 2 times the first two digits and, bingo, you have the sum.)

I am and have been opposed to mandatory gratuities – anywhere from cruise ships to spas.

I also, some years ago, drove a taxi and gratuities made or broke my night.  If I got stiffed by too many fares, I cursed them and I went home with a lot less dough than I had hoped for.

I understand the importance of gratuities.

But I resent it when they are shoved down my throat.

I am okay, by the way, with Danny Meyer’s campaign to end restaurant tipping and instead build tips into the prices for food shown on the menu. Of course I’ve eaten at enough Meyer places to believe his staff will deliver good service without the promise of a possible tip, or the withholding of one – and the difference between what Meyer believes is right and what MGM is forcing on customers is that Meyer shows one price, tip already built in, whereas in the hotel business there’s a service price and then, by magic, a service charge is tacked on so that $100 haircut now is $120.

With Meyer there is no chicanery. That’s the difference.

Automatic “gratuities” by the way seem rampant in the spa world and you have to ask: why is management so cheap that it won’t pay its employees adequately and why are customers so passive that they go along with this extortion?

Maybe what starts in Vegas really should stay in Vegas.