Can You Trust Zelle?

By Robert McGarvey


Big banks have rushed to embrace Zelle – the new breed person to person payment tool – and credit unions too are joining the queue.

And now there is news about rising rates of fraud and criminality involving Zelle.

Time for a rethink?

First off, why Zelle?  Part of the answer is in the immensity of its primary backers, such as Chase, Bank of America, Citi, Capital One, Wells Fargo, USAA, and a handful of credit unions including BECU, First Tech, Schools First, Star One. Many more institutions – credit unions included – are in the queue to go live.

Zelle makes it very easy to send money to anyone with an email account or mobile phone number and a bank account.  No Zelle account is needed.

Some years ago I tried an experiment where I sent small payments to people using services such as Dwolla and the redemption rate was about zero. People asked me if I’d been co-opted by Nigerian scammers.  They just did not want to pick up money involving a service they hadn’t heard of.

Zelle is hard to not have heard of. A lot of TV ads and digital ads support it.

And then there’s how easy it is to get the cash.

Consider this a death warning to legacy but clunky services such as PopMoney.

But the trigger that launched Zelle was the PayPal fueled fire around Venmo which, out of nowhere, had emerged as the p2p tool of choice.  Bankers had snorted at tools like PopMoney but Venmo was different – users liked it, it had fintech heritage, and suddenly p2p was gaining the kind of enthusiasm many had predicted for it but that had stubbornly not materialized.

Bankers decided they needed their own weapon and thus Zelle, which in 2017 moved an estimated $75 billion, twice as much as Venmo, and the scariest bit is that this is plainly early days for Zelle.  Thought of a trillion dollar market is not far-fetched. Pymnts offered this dazzling buffet of Zelle stats: “Earlier this year, Zelle revealed that on average, close to 100,000 customers signed up each day for 2017. It also said it processed more than 247 million payments last year, which marks a 45 percent jump from 2016. It handled a total of $75 billion in peer-to-peer (P2P) payments in 2017, a significant increase from the $55 billion it made the year before.”

And now there are the stories about Zelle as a platform for fraudsters. The New York Times dropped the biggest bomb in a piece that began this way: “Big banks are making it easy to zap money to your friends. Maybe too easy.”

The Times continued: “Interviews with more than two dozen customers who had their money stolen through Zelle illustrate the weaknesses that criminals are using in targeting the network. While all financial systems are susceptible to fraud, aspects of Zelle’s design, like not always notifying customers when money is transferred — some banks do; others don’t — have contributed to the system’s vulnerability.”

Time to re-think Zelle? Not so fast.  Three years ago I wrote a piece for The Street headlined: “Are Peer-to-Peer Money Transfer Apps Unsafe to Use? Worries Focus on Venmo.”

The story started this way: “The Internet has been abuzz for a couple weeks with chatter about documented cases of theft of money from accounts of users of Venmo, the p2p (peer-to-peer) money transfer app that had been the the fast growing darling of Millennials.

One user, in a story reported in Slate, had $2,850 looted from a Chase checking account.”

Sound familiar? Indeed, it sounds exactly like the Zelle growing pains.  Regarding Venmo back then, PayPal told me they had moved fast to put in more security. File this under problem solved was their message.

Similar is getting said about Zelle.  Lou Anne Alexander, head of payments at Early Warning which runs Zelle, told the New York Times: “When there is a problem, we and the banks are proactive. It’s not something we’re putting our heads in the sand about.”

A lot is riding on Zelle for the banks and credit unions that embrace it.

There’s no present reason for a financial institution to panic about Zelle. If fraud reports continue and multiply, by all means, get worried. But for now this all sounds like growing pains and there are enough grown ups in the room to put in the needed fixes.

Color me optimistic.

How Safe Is Your Personal Data at Your Favorite Hotel?


By Robert McGarvey


All of us are atwitter about perceived loss of privacy when it comes to the acres of our thoughts, photos, outbursts that we have posted to Facebook and which, apparently, could be harvested by third party buyers.  

But just maybe business travelers have a much bigger worry that should consume them: the safety of their personal data that is in the hands of the hotels where we sleep.

“Bigger?” Yes, definitely.

And that is not to minimize the size of the Facebook mess.  If you want to see how to check what data Facebook has on you – just about everything you’ve done since you signed up – and with whom it has shared much of it – just about anything with a checkbook – read Brian Chen’s NYTimes piece on this.  It’s quite easy to check and, in my case, I got my file from Facebook literally a few minutes after requesting it.  I’m not a terribly prolific Facebooker – your mileage may vary. Did I see anything that made me sick? Nope, but I have always been prudent about what I posted to Facebook, mainly because I understood that the business model of the free Internet services is to harvest user data and sell it to marketers and fellow travelers.  That is baked in. I am not sure there is a way around it. (Read my 2000 interview in MIT’s Technology Review with Google’s founders.)

Back to your hotel worry. Hotel lawyer Jim Butler wrote this: “Protecting guests’ information (and employees’ information) from hackers is one of the biggest business challenges faced by hotel owners today. ”

Hotel breaches have been epidemic in recent years.  Here are many accounts.  

Traditionally the focus have been on theft by hackers of information involving credit and debit cards used at hotels – and bars, restaurants and gift shops have been notoriously porous, so have loyalty programs – but what if the bigger concern is, well, your private info?

You check into the hotel.  You watch four hours of porn (maybe there’s a Stormy Daniels festival?). Drain the minibar’s Scotch.  Get in a loud, verbal argument with security over the volume of your TV. Maybe you go full gonzo and you use the in-room phone call up a local escort service for a little company.

Okay, that’s not you, nor me, but I have known business travelers who have done pretty much all of the above.

Here’s the rub: a good hotelier gets good by noting and collecting guest preferences.  I have a friend who told me he swore by Four Seasons because he personally dotes on very soft pillows, hates wool anything, and doesn’t like a bed covered with decorative pillows. Apparently Four Seasons noted his interests because as he traveled from city to city whatever Four Seasons he checked into knew his preferences and of course if he were forced into, say, a Ritz Carlton, they didn’t. And he grumbled accordingly.

Just how safe is that kind of data?  Could clever hackers find it?

All that kind of data is what data scientists call big data. And big data has emerged as a key to delivering us the personalized services we want without us having to ask.

Understand: credit card data falls under specific federal guidelines. It has to be handled with deliberate care.

That’s not necessarily so regarding guest preference data – big data – and a lot of it is not encrypted, not put under a meaningful lock and key.

Front Desk anywhere, in a blog post, noted: “For too long, the hotel sector has been viewed as a soft target by hackers seeking to steal guest data. While some hoteliers take guest data security seriously, there are still too many operators using inadequate technology and processes to fully protect data.”

Some hotel groups in fact promise to do a good job protecting your data. Here’s the Accor policy : “Confidentiality and security: We will ensure reasonable technical and organizational measures are in place to protect your personal data against alteration or accidental or unlawful loss, or unauthorized use, disclosure or access.”

Word of caution: ask at the hotels where you stay what the policies regarding guest preference data storage.  Be clear: we are not talking about credit cards. We’re talking about bedding and the many other little things that when they are done our way make a hotel stay much more comfortable.

The EU, incidentally, has a get tough attitude about data privacy.  Many companies that do business in Europe say they have brought those policies here.  And maybe some actually have.

If you have doubts about your data, ask and keep asking.

Personally, I want hotels where I stay often to remember me and to provide my preferences unasked. That’s what great hoteliers have always done and today’s big data tools make it easier to collect and share the random bits of information that shape who we are as a hotel guest.

I am all for that, when the data are shared within the hotels where I frequently bunk.

I just don’t want hackers to know what kind of pillows I like. 

Would you?


Mortgage Business at Risk in the Digital Age


By Robert McGarvey

For Credit Union 2.0


Put the new Bank of America 2018 Homebuyers Insight Report high on your reading pile.  And you may find yourself reading it as a contemporary horror story. That’s because the central message of the report is that today technology has become inextricably intertwined with the homebuying process.

The question for a lot of credit unions has to be: can we continue to hold onto any mortgage business?

Steven Boland, head of consumer lending at Bank of America, wrote in the report: “Perhaps the biggest takeaway [in this report] is that NextGen technologies are here today, and their influence will continue to grow. Many buyers report they are already comfortable using technology throughout their homebuying journey, with room for evolution. Over the next decade, many even predict open houses will only be done through virtual reality.”

The future is coming, ready or not.

Credit unions have been gobbling up marketshare in mortgage origination.  Will that last?

In 2005 credit unions had about 1.9% of mortgages.  In 2014 that had grown to 8.3% according to CUNA.

But in recent years the headline in the mortgage business has been the rocketing growth of non banks such as Quicken which now has a bigger share than Bank of America and Wells Fargo.

Non banks in fact now grab five of the top 10 spots in mortgage origination. And Quicken Loans is in 1st place.

What is going on is found in the B of A homebuying report and that is why it is critical reading for credit unions that want to continue to stake a role in first mortgage residential originations.

A number that jumps off the page: 32% of us told B of A we are comfortable applying for a mortgage online.  

Just 20% of us like online dating.  Only 37% are comfortable shopping for groceries online.  

Think on that. Almost as many who are comfortable buying kibble and chickpeas online are comfortable with applying for a mortgage online.

The majority – 52% – of those who are comfortable with applying for a mortgage online are or already have done.

Personally I got a mortgage, via USAA, almost entirely online in 2013. In 2004 I did similar with Countrywide.  The tools exist, they work, and at least to me the online process is more comfortable and faster than doing it in a bank or credit union office.  A bonus is that at home I have all the necessary paperwork on hand. I honestly cannot imagine going through a mortgage application at a remote office.

And more of us are coming to think similarly.

The data goes on.  According to B of A, “92 percent agree that technology makes them feel more in control of their financial decisions. They also see technology playing a role during every stage of the homebuying journey.”

One interesting data point from B of A: 4% of us say we’d make a home purchase offer based only upon an online review of the property.

Surprised it’s that many? I’m surprised it’s that few. In 2004 I sold a home in Tucson to a buyer in Hawaii who had seen the house only online. She made a full price offer.  She did want a contingency where she could pull out at closing if the house had been presented deceptively. I knew it hadn’t been, I consented, and at closing she did the deal.

Expect more changes. According to B of A, in the next 10 years 55% of us expect the mortgage process to be paperless.   I’m surprised that isn’t 90%.

53% expect the process can be completed within a few days.  Note: some lenders already promise same day approvals and that will become the new norm. Some promise approval in minutes.  

6% of us expect appraisals to be done by drones in the next 10 years.  Count me in the 6%, at least for production houses and condos. Already many appraisals are drive-bys.  A drone is just an extension of that trend.

What’s the lesson to learn from these many data points? The main one is: go digital. Make sure your credit union has an online application process that works. Really. Honestly. Ideally, both in a mobile app and online – but definitely online.

Lack of a good online mortgage app is becoming a deal breaker for many.

How good is yours? Get a half dozen friends – not credit union employees – to go through the online process. Gather their feedback. Did any quit in exasperation?  How many made it to the finish line? How long did it take them. (And do cancel out all the apps before the process moves to the next stages or you will lose friends.)

Don’t be shocked if there are loud grumbles about your online mortgage processes.  That may be the credit union norm. But it’s not good enough. Not today. Definitely not tomorrow.

We are coming to a time, very soon, when most mortgage applicants will expect to do this online, just as the vast majority of credit card customers expect.

That is tomorrow’s reality.  Get ready for it today.


Can You Om Your Way to Airplane Comfort?


by Robert McGarvey


Can you om your way to happiness at 30,000 feet? Or at least to a state of heightened comfort?

That is the question that popped into my mind when I saw a story in Well + Good headlined, “Finally Airplanes Are Doing Something to Make Flying Less Stressful.”  The story’s pitch: airlines are taking steps to, well, make flying less stressful.

Are they giving us more pitch in coach? Making seats wider? Filling fewer seats? Pouring decent and free drinks? Serving edible – real – food?

None of the above.  Apparently – and Well + Good cites a NYTimes piece as backup – airlines led by United and JetBlue now are offering free access during flights to the popular meditation app Headspace.

Headspace is an entirely sincere meditation app company that has won substantial success as a paid app.  It’s gotten acres of press.  The basic plan is a monthly subscription ($12.99/month, or $7.99/month on an annual subscription) and lots of people praise it.

I’m not putting Headspace down.

I’m not putting meditation down.  I’ve personally put in hundreds of hours meditating at Shambhala’s Chelsea space and I have pointed a number of friends there.

No, I am not a meditation basher.

But when I read that United Airlines – that United, of Dr. Dao infamy and the recent death of a little dog — thinks that if we meditate we may be more tolerant of the airline’s gaffes, well, no.  Count me out.

Other airlines also are piling onto meditation, reported Well + Good. BA, apparently, has an inflight entertainment channel that offers meditations.  Swiss Air and Cathay also have offerings.

Let me inject some skepticism. As a veteran of many hours on the cushions at Shambhala I can assure you that – even with excellent in-person instructors leading small programs – it takes a lot of practice to begin to get the hang of meditating.

How does it go wrong? Let me count the ways. The essential issue is that to successfully meditate one must still the mind – in Shambhala’s case this revolves around a focus on the breath – and that just is not easy for a beginner.

It is especially not easy in a stressful situation and flying in today’s crowded coach, with grumpy passengers and not enough space, is a prescription for a stressful situation.

Go ahead, try to hold focus for 10 minutes. You probably can’t. If you get to five when you are beginning, kudos to you. You’re a natural.

Longtime meditators, many of them, have trouble going beyond 20 minute sessions.

How long is that flight, by the way?

Meantime, I’m looking at a 2015 article in Fortune that said “The average seat pitch, a rough measure of legroom, has dropped from 35 inches before airline deregulation in the 1970s to about 31 inches today. The average width of an airline seat has shriveled from 18 inches to about 16 ½.”

Pitch on some airlines has fallen to as little as 28″.

You think meditation will help you with that?

In India, there are holy men called sadhus who are said to be able to meditate for years. Some even master lying on a literal bed of nails (photos here). I suppose that being able to like a bed of nails might be a good prerequisite for a flyer in 2018 coach.

But is that a reason to take up meditation?

Personally, I really, really dislike seeing wonderfully good things – and meditation is one of them – co-opted by companies that deploy them in what looks to me like an attempt to get us to accept unpleasant accommodations.

“Stop your whining and meditate!” That is the only way I can interpret what some airlines seem to be practicing. It certainly is cheaper to shovel a meditation app our way than to actually address the deplorable conditions in coach.

Incidentally, there are many dozens of meditation apps – some free – in both Google Play and the Apple App Store.  Download a few, try them out, make it a DIY project. You don’t need an airline’s nudge.

Here’s a free YouTube video where Shambhala founder Chogyam Trungpa teaches meditation.

Here’s a short how-to write up by Trungpa.

You just may find meditation is exactly the thing for our age of stresses.

As for the matter at hand, can I personally attest that my hours of meditation study have made me a happier flyer?  I cannot.

But an unexpected upgrade to business class still works magic on my mood.


Hotels Want To Upsell You – Do You Want to Buy?

by Robert McGarvey


Research via PhocusWright pinpoints what the company identifies as a major revenue opportunity for hoteliers – and what may become a major annoyance for us.

Here’s the punchy headline: A $28 Billion Opportunity for Hotels.

I shudder to think how annoying every hotel stay is about to get in an attempt to sell us all manner of ancillary services.

The model – the source of hotelier envy – is that airlines rake in billions selling us everything from beer to snacks, credit cards, and better seats.  Airline estimated ancillary revenues are above $80 billion globally – the top 10 carriers alone took in north of $28 billion in 2017, more than tenfold more than in 2007.

A flight on many carriers in coach increasingly resembles a stroll down Canal Street in Lower Manhattan.  Maybe without the counterfeit gear. But certainly with all the brazen hustle and salesmanship.

Do you want your hotel stays to be similar experiences?

PhocusWright sets the table this way: “[H]otels are increasingly turning toward the sale
of ancillary goods and services to help drive additional revenue. For hotels, the phrase ‘ancillaries’ typically refers to optional guest add-on products and services…. These may take the form of in-hotel ancillaries, such as room upgrades, food and beverage services, additional in-room amenities or spa/wellness/entertainment products offered by the property itself. Alternatively, ancillaries may also include in-destination ancillaries such as sightseeing tours, car rental, transfers or event tickets, typically provided by third parties.”

What do I want from a hotel room on a business trip? A place to sleep, a place to do some work (ideally a desk but I’m flexible – a decent chair and lighting will suffice), good WiFi, probably a lobby coffee shop (or – better still – one outside within a short walk), and that’s about it.

I have never bought spa/wellness/entertainment products from a hotel, at least never for myself.  I have never bought sightseeing tours, not on a business trip (in London, yes, on vacation).  I have never bought event tickets.  And I generally seek to avoid hotel f & b, unless I am very pressed for time.

Color me a bad candidate for upselling.

What about you?

PhocusWright, which surveyed a large number of consumers, said that in fact we are eager to buy ancillary products and services.  “A substantial potential market currently exists for both in-hotel and especially for in-destination ancillary products and services. Two types of on-property offerings – dining at the hotel and early check-in/late checkout – are the most popular services that consumers would be willing to pre-book from hotels. However, guests are also open to purchasing a diverse range of alternative, externally provided products and services, including museum/attraction tickets, sightseeing or other tours, event tickets and transportation.”

I read that and am speechless, almost.  Very, very few hotel restaurants are so busy that it requires advance booking to snag a table and what’s hard about making one’s way to the Metropolitan Museum in NY or the Heard in Phoenix? A few museums make advanced booking highly desirable – I’m thinking of the Uffizi in Rome but we simply booked ourselves online a few days before.

*If* a ticket is hard to get – think Hamilton when it was Broadway’s darling – I would gladly have tipped, generously, a concierge who could have delivered seats, but PhocusWright seems to be talking about hotels acquiring easy to come by ducats and marking them up.

Who needs that?

PhocusWright continued: “Facilitating the pre-booking of in-destination ancillary products and services clearly represents an interesting opportunity for U.S. hotels. Eighty-one percent of respondents indicated that they had participated in a bookable in-destination activity during their last trip. The most popular of these activities were day trips, excursions and sightseeing tours (42%); visiting museums, galleries or cultural attractions (30%); and outdoor activities (28%).”

Mind you, iSeatz, which sponsored the research and just a few days ago replayed it on Tnooz, insisted that “the majority of business travelers surveyed are very interested in purchasing either on-site or off-site extras. The research also identifies business traveler segments and details the preferences on when, where, and what extras business travelers are interested in buying.”


iSeatz continued in Tnooz: “many business travelers are interested in booking products such as trip cancellation insurance (45%), high-speed wi-fi (41%), parking (41%), transportation options (23%), and museum/attraction tickets (25%) at the time that they are booking their stay.”

Nah. I just don’t buy this, and I don’t see business travelers buying much on this list. Okay, I can in fact see business travelers purchasing late check out or early check in, room upgrades, and airport transfers.

But most of the upsells are just annoyances.

That’s why my hope is that hoteliers bury this report and ignore its findings.

But – shudder – I doubt they will.


The 50 Most Convenient Credit Unions


By Robert McGarvey


For Credit Union 2.0


Did your credit union make the 50 most convenient list?  Stop wondering, click to see the MagnifyMoney ranking.

What this ranking is about is how easy it is for a member to access the services he/she wants, when he wants them, and so it looks at both the analog and digital worlds, branches and mobile apps, among other touchpoints.

Understand a couple things about the ranking: it ranks only the 50 biggest credit unions and, according to the data, the top rated credit union notched 90 points out of a possible 100. The lowest rated pulled down only 46.6 points.

That represents a huge spread.  The #1 credit union in this convenience scorecard – Alliant – literally grabbed twice as many points as the lowest scorer, Mountain America.

There may well be many more credit unions, outside the biggest 50, that also outscore Mountain America.

So what exactly is getting scored?  MagnifyMoney looked at 5 fields: opening hours (more means more points); how many ATMs; telephone service hours; mobile app (how satisfied are users); and data portability (do accounts sync with Quicken, etc.)?

A complaint about that group of five is that different members want very different touchpoints. I couldn’t care less about branch hours because I live around 2500 miles from the nearest branch at my chief credit union.  I care only about digital access. But I have relatives who care only about branches and phone services. So it makes sense that MagnifyMoney sifts different channels.

It also breaks out top 10 scores in each category.  Here, for instance, are the top five scorers for mobile app:  Eastman Credit Union; ESL Federal Credit Union; Redstone Federal Credit Union; SEFCU; Wright-Patt Credit Union.

Here are the credit unions with the best surcharge-free ATM coverage: Alliant Federal Credit Union; Hudson Valley Federal Credit Union; Northwest Federal Credit Union; OnPoint Community Credit Union; Suncoast Federal Credit Union; Wings Financial Credit Union and Wright-Patt Credit Union.

As for longest hours, the winner is Hudson Valley Federal Credit Union, with 59.9 hours per week.

You want 24/7 access? MagnifyMoney found a handful of top 50 credit unions that in fact offer exactly that via phone: Alaska USA Federal Credit Union

  • Alliant Credit Union
  • BECU
  • Delta Community Credit Union
  • First Technology Federal Credit Union
  • Navy Federal Credit Union
  • Redwood Credit Union
  • Security Service Federal Credit Union

How did credit unions do as a whole? MagnifyMoney co-founder Brian Karimzad said that generally credit unions are not competitive with big banks on branch opening hours and telephone service hours. But, in the other categories, credit unions do very well.  Shared ATM networks – via CO-OP and CuLiance, for instance – give participants ATM networks numbering in the many thousands and those are numbers that stand tall against the ATM fleets of the biggest banks (more than 15,000 each at Chase and Bank of America; CuLiance claims more than 75,000 surcharge-free ATMs in its network).

As for how credit unions fare on convenience against other credit unions Karimzad stressed that there are “wide disparities.”  But the key is providing what matters to this member. A generic score is good to know but where the pedal hits this metal is in measuring how convenient the credit union is to this member.

Karimzad, incidentally, said in an interview that MagnifyMoney readers express a lot of interest in credit unions, usually because credit unions typically offer some of the best deals on loans, credit cards, and similar.  The movement already has significant recognition for its highly competitive rates.

And maybe now more consumers will understand that credit unions also can be very competitive on convenience, too. The reputation endures that credit unions keep short, banker’s hours, are laggards in technology, and are nearly impossible to join. The reality of course is very different.

And that’s why, despite the quibbles, it’s a good thing that rankings such as MagnifyMoney’s convenience scorecard get out the message that in many ways credit unions equal – maybe even beat – banks when it comes to how easy they are to use.

The more consumers that get that, the better for all credit unions.

Now, where did your credit union rank?


Are You Less Safe in an Uber?


By Robert McGarvey


Blunt question: do you feel less safe in an Uber or Lyft than you do in a properly medallioned taxi driven by a properly licensed taxi driver?  The National Limousine Association is betting that you do – at least that you will after seeing its fear provoking TV ads.  

The pitch is that ride sharing drivers haven’t been drug tested or thoroughly background checked.

But licensed taxi drivers are both, said the National Limousine Association.

Ask the passengers of John Worboys about that. A black taxi driver in London – thus a certified possessor of “the knowledge” – in 2009 Worboys was sent to prison for sexually assaulting at least 12 women, usually after drugging them in his cab.  He is said to have been one of the most prolific sexual assaulters in UK history. Over 100 women stepped forward and accused him.  Police believe his victim count could have exceeded 500.

Closer to home there is Sherman Jackson II, owner and operator of Sherman’s Safe Ride in Butler County, OH, who was charged with sexually assaulting two Miami University students. (Jackson denied the accusation.)  

In Washington, DC, Yared Geremew Mekonnen, a taxi driver, was arrested for raping a passenger who, incidentally, had fallen asleep in the backseat of Mekonnen’s cab. When she awoke, she said he was raping her.  Mekonnen too denied the allegation.

In Chicago, a taxi driver was arrested for raping drunk Loyola students, according to claims by the prosecutor.  

The list could go on. Travis Bickle isn’t the only criminal taxi driver – there are plenty of deviants in real life.

I also could quickly assemble a collection of cases involving Uber and Lyft drivers. Absolutely.

My point is that the National Limousine Association is just plain ignorant if it believes it can make a case that passengers feel less safe in an Uber than a licensed taxi and that they should feel less safe.

In many cases, by the way, ride share drivers are former taxi drivers who say they make more money with the ride share outfits. At least that’s what I have heard from a number of drivers.

Understand: I personally drove a taxi, off and on, in Boston and Cambridge, Mass.  I had hackney licenses issued by both towns. As I recall, the vetting – conducted by the city issuing the license – consisted of taking my fingerprints and running them through an FBI database.  


In Phoenix, where I now live, getting a taxi license apparently involves providing a criminal background check.  

I am not anti taxi driver.

But I am also not anti Uber driver.

I am against inflammatory ads that hope to stoke groundless fears however.

Look, background checks aren’t that hard.  Recently, I offered myself as a volunteer in the Catholic Church in Phoenix.  I learned that volunteering requires watching a “Safe Environment” video and filling out a fairly extensive personal history as well as providing three or four personal references and agreeing to a criminal background check.

That may seem a lot but given the Church’s recent history it quite clearly is necessary.

If I can do that much to serve as a volunteer, surely ride-share drivers can do similar.

At Uber they do in fact – which makes the National Limousine Association argument that much more baffling.

Lyft does too.  

Also, with Uber and Lyft your ride is logged by the computers.  There’s a record of the route and time. That’s more than usually documents a taxi ride.

I am not saying that therefore your safety is guaranteed in an Uber ride – or a medallioned yellow cab. Use your wits. If you feel unsafe, get out.  Don’t doubt your instincts.

But very, very probably all will be well, no matter which transportation mode you choose.

Oh, one last slap at the National Limousine Association. A few years ago I was a passenger in a licensed Journal Square, Jersey City taxi where the driver’s license was prominently displayed. I look at such things, probably because of my personal background.

In this case, the photo caught my eye because it was an entirely different person!

And I’m supposed to feel safer in a taxi?

That ride proceeded without incident by the way.

They almost always do.


Just Say No To Hotel “Urban Fees”


Would you pay a $25 “urban fee” to stay at a hotel near Times Square?

The question is not academic. A growing number of hotels – many clustered around Times Square – are dinging guests $25 extra per night in an “urban fee,” modeled on a resort fee of course.

On the list are Hilton New York, Marriotts around Times Square, even Le Parker Meridien.

When a staffer at the UK Independent called Marriott to inquire about the fee, here’s what they learned.  “A member of staff said it was a fee reflecting the hotels’ proximity to a ‘tourist attraction,’ that it was specific to Times Square, and that none of the other Manhattan hotels charged a fee.”

Do we have to put up with this?

The urban fees are in fact not new. As far back as 2013, Reuters noted that urban fees were showing up at some hotels.

It’s not just Manhattan either. In San Francisco, some 34 hotels charge an urban fee, up from just three in 2016.

What do you get for this fee? Not much. Usually hotels point to allegedly “premium” Internet access, maybe gym access, possibly a local newspaper, probably local phone calls – and, really, this is just stuff I don’t want or use and before it was usually free.

Even some hotel executives know such fees are hinky. At a recent conference, co sponsored by Hotel Business,  Bob Habeeb, CEO of First Hospitality Group, said: “I think the tricky thing with resort fees or amenity fees is they’ve got to represent a real value for the consumer and not be just a veiled play for ADR. During the waning days of the Obama administration, the FCC called Katherine Lugar [the CEO of AHLA] and said we’ve been looking at the way your industry uses these amenity fees as a backdoor way to collect unspecified and undisclosed revenue, and I think we’re going to look at this.”

Habeeb added that in the Trump era pressures from Washington appear to have lessened. But he added: “It’s inevitable that consumers are going to push back if these fees don’t represent something that they can find value in. It’s a great idea to have little packages people can buy into and enhance their experience, but you’re on slippery ground when you start talking about charging a fee for things people perceive should be part of what they paid for in the first place.”

I am on record, for some years now, as a loud opponent of  resort fees.  They are just a way for hoteliers to sneakily grab your money.

Resort fees in some locations have crept up over $50 daily.  I am not against hotels charging more – we live in a capitalist society. What I am against is showing one price as the daily rate and then adding on taxes and fees that can significantly raise the daily rate.

Hotels love fees. In 2017, NYU professor Bjorn Hanson estimated they’d rake in around $2.7 billion in fees and upcharges.

Hanson, incidentally, has stated that hotels are doing a better job of plaininly disclosing fees.  “Some fees and surcharges are sometimes unfairly called ‘hidden’ or ‘surprise,’ but disclosure on websites, confirmation emails, ‘tent’ cards in guest rooms, room service menus, and guest service directories continues to increase in the nature of the disclosure. In interviews for this update, the issue is more about unpopularity of fees and surcharges rather than fees and surcharges being ‘hidden’. One of the reasons for the sense that some of these fees and surcharges are ‘hidden’ or ‘surprise’ is because the categories are often established and the amounts are set hotel-by-hotel rather than by brand, and both can change frequently.”

The bad news: as hotels have gotten better at disclosure they also have dug in their heels about erasing them. Used to be, four or five years ago, if you made a ruckus at checkout about the resort fee, poof, it disappeared. Not so fast anymore, frequent travelers tell me.

So how can you avoid the new urban fees? For starters, just don’t stay at hotels that charge the fees. There may be three dozen San Francisco hotels that charge an urban fee, but there are around 500 hotels in and very near the city that don’t.  The odds are with you.

As for Manhattan, mainly the urban fee seems to be found near Times Square – and whyever would you want to stay there?

Many, many hundreds of Manhattan hotels don’t charge an urban fee so if you stay at one that does it is on you. Just don’t.

The point: it’s up to us to avoid the fees we don’t want to pay.

Most hotels on the Las Vegas Strip now charge a resort fee. Most hotels in Scottsdale do likewise. Ditto Hawaii.  There just are places where it’s tough to duck a resort fee so we will pay it and grumble.

Urban fees are different. They are at a handful of properties and if we skip those properties – maybe even posting that a reason is the urban fee – hoteliers may get the message that this is one fee too far.

It’s up to us to just say no.