- Created on 09 January 2013
(CNNMoney) -- Millions of Americans still receiving paper checks for Social Security and other federal benefits have less than two months to switch to electronic payments.
In an effort to cut spending, federal officials began retiring paper checks in favor of direct deposits and prepaid "Direct Express" debit cards in May 2011. Since then, the Treasury Department has required all new recipients of payments from federal benefits programs -- including Social Security, Supplemental Security Income disability, Veterans Affairs and government pension plans -- to sign up for electronic payments. It set a March 1, 2013, deadline for all other recipients to do the same.
Roughly 93% of payments are now being made electronically. But about 5 million checks are still mailed each month -- representing an additional $4.6 million in monthly costs since each mailed check costs 92 cents more than a direct deposit transfer, Treasury officials said Tuesday. The agency said if it didn't push for the switch to electronic transfers it would cost taxpayers another $1 billion over the next 10 years.
So now, the agency is urging remaining check recipients to beat the March 1 deadline. The department has partnered with more than 1,800 local, regional and national banks, credit unions, social service agencies and community groups to get the word out through mailings, public service announcements and its web site.
Anyone who fails to make the change will still receive paper checks, but will be the target of more aggressive communication efforts, such as additional mailings, said Walt Henderson, a Treasury official.
"We won't interrupt their payment, but we will be communicating with them in a more personal direct way," he said. "After March 1, they are not in compliance."
California, Texas and New York have the largest number of residents who have yet to convert to electronic payments, with more than 1 million people receiving monthly Social Security and disability checks as of November.
Electronic payments are safer than paper checks, Henderson said. In 2011, more than 440,000 Social Security checks were reported lost or stolen, while $70 million worth of checks were fraudulently endorsed.
"It's just really the best way to receive your payment," Henderson said.
Still, electronic payments come with their own fraud concerns.
Related: Scam targets seniors' Social Security benefits
In September, Patrick O'Carroll, inspector general of the Social Security Administration, told Congress that identity thieves fraudulently redirected seniors' benefit payments to different bank accounts using stolen Social Security numbers.
To prevent fraud, officials recommend that seniors never provide personal information to unsolicited callers and always check with a local Social Security Administration Office if contacted by someone claiming to be an administration employee. "The government won't call you asking for information," Henderson said.
To report suspicious activity, contact the Social Security Fraud Hotline at 1-800-269-0271.
To sign up for benefits, recipients can visit www.GoDirect.org, call a toll-free helpline at 1-800-333-1795 or speak with their local bank or credit union representative.
Recipients must have their Social Security or claim number, 12-digital federal benefit check number and the amount of their most recent federal benefit check. For direct deposit, recipients also will need their financial institution's routing transit number, (often found on a personal check) account number and account type (checking or saving).
- Created on 08 January 2013
(CNNMoney) -- A significant rise in smartphone attacks is predicted every year, and it hasn't happened yet. But that isn't stopping major security firms from saying this will be the year that phones will finally emerge as a major target for cybercriminals.
There are many reasons why smartphones are vulnerable. For one, they run most of the same software that smartphone users also use on their computers. Smartphones also have many additional capabilities that hackers can exploit. They can connect to other potentially vulnerable devices using Bluetooth and send and receive text messages, for example.
But smartphones are also increasingly being used as mobile wallets. That's why cybersecurity experts believe mobile payment systems are likely to be the next big target for cybercriminals.
According to research from Juniper Networks, 300 million smartphones around the world will be equipped with the near-field communications (NFC) chips needed for mobile payments. Juniper predicts global NFC transactions will total nearly $50 billion this year.
Though the underlying NFC technology is believed to be secure, the applications designed to use it "will be riddled with security holes, and massive losses will ensue," according to Rod Rasmussen, president of security company IID.
Mobile payments may be the most headline-grabbing phone attack method, but it won't be the only one. Security experts believe another prominent technique will be ransomware -- malware that takes control of a user's device and data, relinquishing it only if the user pays money.
Researchers from McAfee, an Intel subsidiary, think ransomware will become a "prominent trend" in 2013. Security firm Top Patch expects ransomware to graduate from attacking "celebrity victims" to regular consumers this year.
So far, the vast majority of mobile malware has infected smartphones that run Google's Android operating system. But some experts say iPhone users shouldn't rest assured. Though Apple is very restrictive about allowing third-party apps to communicate with other software, that also makes antivirus apps less potent to defend against Web-based attacks.
"Apple's 'walled garden' approach makes it difficult for third parties to protect it," said Todd Kellerman, head of cybersecurity at Trend Micro and former commissioner of President Obama's cybersecurity council. "We will see many more viable attacks on iOS, because hackers know that the wealthiest people tend to own Apple devices. The walled garden will ultimately fall."
Kellerman added that malware will soon be written specifically for the iPhone, just as there are now more attacks targeted directly at Apple's Mac computer.
In addition to smartphones, cybercriminals will also be after the growing "Internet of things" -- an emerging world in which everything is connected online.
"From thermostats to garage door openers to security systems and appliances, traditional electronics are now Internet-connected," said Michael Sutton, head of security research at cloud security company Zscaler. "The hardware industry unfortunately has a rather abysmal history when it comes to 'baking security in'; so expect this wave of connected hardware to present a vast amount of low-hanging fruit for security researchers."
McAfee co-president Todd Gebhart backed that view.
"All of these devices have been developed without the thought of security," he said.
Still, the biggest security risk remains old-fashioned carelessness.
Data is most often taken from mobile phones when they're lost or stolen and aren't protected by a password. It's an open invitation for thieves to go rummaging around. Those kinds of attacks will "far exceed" mobile hacks and malware in 2013, Verizon predicts.
- Created on 03 January 2013
Six states have officially made it illegal for employers to ask their workers for passwords to their social media accounts, reports CNET.com. As of 2013, California and Illinois have joined the ranks of Michigan, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware in passing state laws against the practice, according to Wired.
With Congress not being able to come to agreement on the Password Protection Act of 2012, individual states have taken the law into their own hands. Both California and Illinois agreed on password protection laws in 2012, but the laws didn't go into effect until yesterday.
The laws are designed to prohibit employers from requiring an employee or job applicant to provide their username and password for social media accounts, such as Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Assemblymember Nora Campos, who authored the California bill, called the law a "preemptive measure" that will offer guidelines to the accessibility of private information behind what she calls the "social media wall."
It's unclear how many employers have actually demanded access to workers' online accounts, but some cases have surfaced publicly and inspired lively debate over the past year. In one instance last April, a teacher's aide in Michigan was suspended after refusing to provide access to her Facebook account following complaints over a picture she posted.
According to Campos' office, more than 100 cases before the National Labor Relations Board in September involved employer workplace policies around social media. Facebook has also said it has experienced an increase in reports of employers seeking to gain "inappropriate access" to people's Facebook profiles or private information this past year.
While these six states now ban employer snooping on private information, all public information posted on social media accounts is still fair game.
- Created on 04 January 2013
(AP) — U.S. employers added 155,000 jobs in December, a steady gain that shows hiring held up during the tense negotiations to resolve the fiscal cliff.
The solid job growth wasn't enough to push down the unemployment rate, which remained 7.8 percent last month, the Labor Department said Friday. The rate for November was revised up from an initially reported 7.7 percent.
The government also said hiring was stronger in the previous month than first thought. November's job gains were revised up 15,000 to 161,000, while October was nearly unchanged at 137,000.
Stock futures inched higher after the report was released at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
The "gain is perhaps better than it looks given that firms were probably nervous about adding workers with the fiscal cliff looming," Paul Ashworth, an economist at Capital Economics, said. "Nevertheless, the overall picture is that the labor market remains lackluster."
Robust hiring in manufacturing and construction fueled the December job gains. Construction firms added 30,000, the most in 15 months. That increase likely reflected hiring needed to rebuild after Superstorm Sandy and also gains in home building that have contributed to a housing recovery.
Manufacturers added 25,000 jobs, the most in nine months.
Other higher-paying industries also added jobs. Professional and business services, which include jobs in information technology, management and architecture, gained 19,000 positions. Financial services added 9,000 and health care created 55,000.
Lower-paying sectors were mixed. Restaurants and bars added 38,000 jobs. Retailers cut 11,300, a sign that the holiday shopping season may have been weak. But the cuts came after three months of strong gains.
Governments shed 13,000 jobs, mostly in local school systems.
Even with the gains, hiring isn't strong enough to quickly reduce still-high unemployment. For 2012, employers added 1.84 million jobs, an average of 153,000 jobs a month, roughly matching the job totals for 2011.
But the stable hiring last month shows that employers didn't panic during the high-stakes talks between Congress and the White House over tax increases and spending cuts that weren't resolved until New Year's.
That's an encouraging sign for the coming months, because an even bigger federal budget showdown is looming. The government must increase its $16.4 trillion borrowing limit by around late February or risk defaulting on its debt. Republicans will likely demand deep spending cuts as the price of raising the debt limit.
Friday's report did point to some weakness in the job market. For example, the number of unemployed actually rose 164,000 to 12.2 million. Approximately 192,000 people entered the work force last month, but most of them didn't find jobs.
The unemployment figures come from a survey of households; the number of jobs that were added each month comes from a separate survey of businesses.
A broader gauge that counts the unemployed, plus part-time workers who want full-time work and people who have given up looking for a job, was unchanged at 22.7 million.
Still, the economy is improving. Layoffs are declining. And the number of people who sought unemployment aid in the past month is near a four-year low.
The December jobs report showed that hourly pay is staying slightly ahead of inflation. Hourly wages rose 7 cents to $23.73, a 2.1 percent increase compared with a year earlier. Inflation rose 1.8 percent over the same period.
The once-depressed housing market is recovering. Companies ordered more long-lasting manufactured goods in November, a sign that they're investing more in equipment and software. And Americans spent more in November. Consumer spending drives nearly 70 percent of economic growth.
Manufacturing is getting a boost from the best auto sales in five years. Car sales jumped 13 percent in 2012 to 14.5 million. And Americans spent more at the tail end of the holiday shopping season, boosting overall sales that had slumped earlier in the crucial two-month period.
- Created on 02 January 2013
Congolese technology company VMK is attempting to break into the smart phone and tablet market by unveiling the first homegrown devices specifically geared towards Africans, The Grio reports.
VMK announced the launch of the new Way-C tablet and Elikia smart phone earlier this week. To market the devices as authentically African, the budding tech company chose the names Way-C, which means "the light of the stars" and Elikia, which translates to "hope" in the local Lingala language.
"Only Africans know what Africa needs," says Congolese entrepreneur and founder, Verone Mankou. "Apple is huge in the US, Samsung is huge in Asia, and we want VMK to be huge in Africa."
While the specs of the devices are not quite 'top of the line' compared to its competitors, its reasonable price tag is what Mankou believes is the biggest selling point for local African communities. The 27-year old entrepreneur says the aim is to get these products into the hands of African locals by making the products more affordable, according to his statement at the Tech4Africa conference in Johannesburg last month. Both devices use Google's Android operating system.
Although the company has high ambitions to compete with mobile juggernauts Apple and Samsung, there has been some negative speculation amid the tech community surrounding the authenticity of VMK's products because the devices are manufactured in China. This reaction is due to the tainted reputation that other African tech companies have garnered in the past for producing copies of other products.
For instance, Smartplanet reports that a Nigerian-based company a few years ago first claimed to have released Africa's homegrown tablet; however, it was soon discovered that the device was simply an OEM product sold throughout the world under different names.
While Africa's tech reputation has plummeted in recent years, VMK firmly states that the design and engineering of their products are authentically African-based, even though they are manufactured overseas.
"We are somewhat offended by the disregard of those who persist in denying the authentication of our products, despite evidence," according to statement from VMK's website. "Most of those critics are either Afro-pessimistic (who argue that 'nothing good' can come from Africa'), or just (future) competitors who have [an] OEM on the market or are planning to market and/or commercialize one."
He says that their reason to outsource the manufacturing process to China was due to lower costs and limited availability of factories in the Congo.To make it even more clear, Mankou decided to engrave "Designed in the Republic of Congo, assembled in China" on the devices, which mimics the engravings on Apple's iPhones and iPads that read "Designed by Apple in California."
The three-year-old tech company also says that unlike previous "African-based" smartphones and tablets, there are no products on the market matching VMK devices in other countries under different branding.
VMK plans to sell the devices at retailers across 10 West African countries in addition to releases in Belgium, France and India.