Thursday, November 6, 2014

PayPal Isn't Ready for Prime Time as the Premier Mobile Credit Payment System

I just spent about six hours on the phone with PayPal and PayPal Credit.  They ARE the same company, but they don't act like it (different operations centers, and they apparently don't share any information).  Let me set the record straight. I have a PayPal account.  I have had it for years. I do NOT have a PayPal Credit Card, nor have I ever applied for one. I have always found it mildly annoying that they default to my bank account for an EFT transaction for payments instead of the Credit Card I have on file with them, but that is not the issue here, and I think the issue with that is obvious.

Today we received a letter from Comenity Capital Bank c/o Pay Pal Credit out of Timonium, MD.  We were informed:

"This letter is in response to your recent request to open a PayPal Credit account.  Our records show that you requested a PayPal Credit account on 10/21/2014 in connection with a purchase of $16.63 at eBay-Turbo Checkout.
We regret that we are unable to approve you for the service at this time for the following reason:
There was limited recent credit history in the credit file provided to us.
Our credit decision was based in whole or in part on information obtained in a report from the consumer-reporting agency listed below.  You have  a right under the Fair Credit Reporting Act to know the information contained in your file at the consumer reporting agency.  The reporting agency played no part in our decision and is unable to supply specific reasons why we have denied credit to you.
You also have the right to a free copy of your report from the reporting agency if you request it no later than 60 days after you receive this notice.  In addition , if you find that any information contained in the report you receive is inaccurate or incomplete, you have the right to dispute the matter with the reporting agency.
Trans Union
2 Baldwin Place
PO Box 1000
Chester,PA 19022
(800) 888-4213"

Now, I think it would be fair to assume that the most likely scenario is that someone was trying to commit identity theft and/or credit card fraud using my name, especially since we have an excellent credit history.

I called PayPal.  After an incredibly long wait on hold I was told, after explaining the situation, that I was going to have to speak with the PayPal Credit Department.  I was transferred and waited on hold for another half hour.  I spoke with the PayPal Credit Card Department and they really didn't want to deal with me because I did not have a PayPal Credit Card.  I asked to speak to their Fraud department. I was given the run around (I don't think they have a Fraud department).  After 5 calls back to them over the course of the day, They said that it was not clear what happened.  They have no record that I, or anyone posing as me, had applied for a PayPal Credit Card. 

So, then I wanted to make sure that there was no damage done to my credit report as a result of their denial of credit.   I called Trans Union about the matter.  They assured me that for neither me nor my wife was there a credit inquiry by anyone anywhere near the dates that Comenity Bank claimed to have made the inquiry.  Further, there was no inquiry by either Comenity Bank or PayPal Credit at any time in the past in our files.

I think it was reasonable for me to take the letter at face value and make sure that there was no identity theft in progress. Little did I suspect that PayPal had fabricated the transaction and allegations out of thin air.  What I think is reprehensible is that they put me through about six hours of work for absolutely nothing, AND in the process in response to any of my questions alway answering with hypothetical reasons as to what could have been the reasons as to what really happened.  No one at PayPal could offer any concrete explanation for why they sent me the letter or any facts to even affirm that they really sent the letter.

What a bunch of turkeys.  I sure am glad that Apple Pay is out there providing a real service for mobile payments.  

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Zestimates from Zillow are Worthless

Zestimates are what  Zillow calls its market estimate of a real estate parcel's value.  And Zestimates aren't worth as much as the electrons it takes to get them sent to you over the Internet.
In other words -- they are worthless in most cases.  For those instances that they are accurate, you have no way to judge that to be the case without some independent method being applied to the property at hand, so it is worthless in all cases.

According to Zillow, "Nationally,...Zestimate has a median error rate of 8.3%."  To put that in more concrete terms, "half of the Zestimates in an area are closer than the error percentage and half are farther off."  But note that a Zestimate may be above or below by that 8.3% to qualify for being within 8.3%. Note also that the maximum error off the median on the closer side cannot be more than 8.3%, but the error on the farther side could be considerably greater.  In other words, the price differencial between the Zestimate and your true market value (appraisal) may be very significantly more than 8.3%.

In my case, I looked at the value of my house on Zillow and I think I have figured out what they think they are doing.  My house was put on the market for a rental and the real estate broker inadvertently listed the monthly rental price as the sale price. Two days later, realizing the mistake, the realtor removed the listing.  Now, you can well imagine that the monthly rental price is only an infinitesimal fraction of the selling price.  But, then the Zillow Zestimate took a nose dive in value.

I have reported the error to Zillow on a number of occasions and, try as I might, the folks at Zillow have never corrected the error, nor the Zestimate, nor have they tried to contact me, nor go to the public records to see if the house was ever listed at that price for sale.

Look at this Zestimate chart below.  The line on top is the Zestimate from mid 2008 through 2013 for my home.  You can see that it has fluctuated from a low of around $800k to a high of almost $1.4m.  What is most notable is the precipitous drop in 2012.  The coincident lines below are the Zestimate values for the town and Zip Code for this home.  Nothing dramatic there, and there was nothing dramatically different at this home other than the slip up on the part of the realtor who put the rental price in as a sale price.  How do you explain this kind of variation? By the way, the large increase at the end of 2009 was caused by a change in the property taxes on the property (due to an error by the assessor).  So, the comment that only a trained professional can appraise a house is very apt.  That appraisal can weed through the erroneous data and come to a reasonable number for the market value.  Obviously a Zestimate is fraught with problems in this regard.

Insert update.  This insert was placed here on 4/25/15
I have had so many communications with Zillow on this matter that I am not even counting anymore.
They have altered the erroneous data and the Zestimate has now changed.  Unfortunately, the system still appears to have some other kind of flaw.  Here is the same chart as above except with today's date and the history:

What I can't figure out is that the Zestimate, when corrected, showed just over $1.1m, and then, mysteriously, and precipitously it dropped to just under $1.0m.  I also find it curious that the Zestimate for the period of time before the original error was introduced into Zillow is different.
I have to conclude that they have little elves in their Zestimate factory making up these numbers.


Insert Update.  This insert was placed here on 5/3/15 (about one week after the previous insert)

I happened to take another look at the Zestimate chart.  It has changed again!

This is absurd.
Insert Update.  This insert was placed here on 5/3/15 (about 5 hours after the previous insert).
It seems that the Zestimates are changing more than once a day now.

Absurd isn't even the correct way to describe this!

I suppose, in a way, a Zestimate is sort of like a FICO score.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with what a FICO score is you can look it up, but it is the in reality the report card score of your financial health.  Every loan, morgage, car loan, credit card interest rate, is based upon your FICO score.

You could argue, no, it's not like the FICO score because the FICO score is based upon accurate experience information on the consumers' use of credit. The FICO score can have a significant impact upon a consumers' life, every financial or credit decision involving that consumer usually boils down to what his or her FICO score is. It's like that pesky SAT score that was on your forehead when you applied to college.

If your home is your largest financial investment and the Zestimate is the alleged "score" that you have achieved with that investment, it could materially affect the decisions that are made that involve your financial condition. Zillow is the first to point out in their terms and conditions that financial institutions cannot use the Zestimate as a basis for a loan. This makes me think of the porn sites that say that if you are under 18 years of age that you are not allowed to use the site. When was the last time you thought a teenager would heed such a notice?

 If the Zestimate is lower than it should be it could influence a potential buyer for your home should you want to sell it. If you are contemplating the purchase of a home it could impact your decision about whether to buy that home. Perhaps, you have applied for a business loan and as part of your Net Worth statement you list the equity in your home. No loan officer in the world is going to perform a CMA (Certified Market Analysis) on your home under those circumstances. It is too costly and takes too much time. A quick and easy Zestimate is available to check the number on that Net Worth statement.

Do we really believe that this computed value has any accuracy? This is easily measurable. Take a community and find every sale during a given period of time and compare the sale price to the Zestimate that was in effect at the time of the sale. Just how accurate can such a crude Zestimate actually be?

According to Carol Augustus, a Realtor with Pacific Union in Marin County California, Zillow itself cites the following figures as interpreted for Marin County:

1. 88% of Marin homes are in Zillow
2. 80% have Zestimates
3. 20% are within 5% of a recent 3 month sales price (80% are NOT)
4. 38% are within 10% of a recent sales price (68% are NOT)
5. 64% are within 20% of a recent sales price (36% are NOT)

I, quite frankly, don't know what to make of these numbers. Does this mean that a given home has a 20% chance that another home in the county sold within 5% of the price within the last 3 months? If so, what does that mean? It sounds almost meaningless.

Alternatively, if it means that 20% of the homes are within 5% of a hypothetical sales price, this would be dreaming of a dream. I don't have any other interpretations that could make sense of these cited statistics.

So, now the big question is, what if products like Zillow and their Zestimates become more pervasive and can meaningfully affect your daily life (either positively or negatively)?
Will you have the ability to redress your grievances if you feel you have been maligned? Will there be the equivalent of the Fair Credit Reporting Act to protect consumers from erroneous data being used negatively against them in these new financial marketplaces?

What other products are there out there now, or can reasonably be expected to appear on the web near you in the not too distant future? I'd like to hear from you. Please let me know your thoughts on this issue.

And shame on you Zillow.

(Note: I have subsequent to the writing of this post, written a few other posts on this subject, most notably one called The Zillow Bump, which I think you might enjoy reading.)

Friday, February 14, 2014

New York Times Sucks

Much to my amazement today I discovered that I have an online subscription to the Digital New York Times.  I called the credit card company to find out why.  Turns out I have been billed for this for about 8 months now.  I do recall receiving an offer for 12 weeks for 99 cents. I tried the service and found it not worth the $15 a month fee so I did not sign up for it.  Well they signed me up anyway.
I called to cancel the service.  They did everything in their power to waste my time on the phone, putting me on hold a number of times for prolonged periods.  In the end they cancelled the service after they tried to get me to sign up for the same 99 cent special. What kind of a cheap shot is that.

Sunset Magazine Customer Care Woes

For two years now I have had great difficulty paying my Sunset Magazine subscription charges.
This year I received a bill from Sunset. I use an electronic bill payment service.  The bill was promptly paid electronically with an ACH transaction by the bill pay service.  For those of you unfamiliar with this type of transaction, it is a checkless transaction where the money is electronically debited from your account and credited to the recipient's account.    I thought I was done with the matter for another year.
About two weeks later I received yet another bill. Upon research, I confirmed that I had, in fact, paid the bill earlier.  I call the customer care number and tried to resolve the matter.  They confirmed, a full two weeks after the electronic transfer that they had not received payment.  Upon further examination, for some reason I do not understand quite yet, they had billed me with a different account number than the account number I had with them during the previous year.  Therefore, I had paid to an account different than the account they had billed me for.  I pointed this out to them.  Upon completion of their research they assured me that I had not paid the bill.  I assured them that I had paid the bill.
They wanted to know the check number for the payment.  I explained to them that there was no check number, since it was an ACH electronic transaction.  They said that they could not help me and that I would have to pay the bill again. Poppycock!
Using their website I sent them an email with all the details and I also got a "proof of payment" from the bill pay service demonstrating that I had, in fact, paid the bill.  In response I got an email that they would get back to me within two business days.   At the end of the second business day I received an email that they had reviewed the matter and that I still owed the money and that if I had any questions I should contact their customer care unit at the telephone number given.
I called the customer care unit and learned that no one at that unit has the ability to see any of the email correspondence. They wanted me to start all over again as if there were no history to the problem.
After much shuffling around from one person to another and repeating the story over and over again, I was told that there just was no record of a payment and that I would just have to pay the bill.  If I wanted to get a refund for the other payment I would have to bring that up with my bill pay company.  This was getting preposterous!
After spending more than three hours going around in circles I resigned myself to the fact that I would just not be getting this subscription any longer.
The very next day I received an email from them saying that they have now received the payment I made and that I am paid in full.  What I find so surprising is that they claim that the payment was received a full two weeks after it was sent electronically!
Something is wrong at Sunset.
Have you had trouble with paying for your subscriptions? Please let me know. I'd like to hear about it.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Rite Aid Ain't doing it Right

I must confess that I have a passion for pistachio ice cream.  The only place around here where I can get my fix is at the local Rite-Aid store.  I usually try to buy it when it is on sale (usually, 2 for $6.00).  Then, sometimes, they have manufacturer's coupons right on the package (35 cents). Through time I have noticed that the ice cream with the manufacturer's coupons were manufactured earlier and it is the way the manufacturer can get rid of their older stock. I have also noticed that both the date of manufacture and the expiration date are on the bottom of the package.  One final observation is that the ice cream with the manufacturer's coupon on it does not taste as good as the ice cream that is fresher (what a surprise!).  In fact, the older ice cream has frozen crystals of ice within the ice cream, making it unsmooth.  Not very tasty.

So, this evening I went down to the store to get my fix.  No sale, no coupons.  I picked up the first package and turned it over: manufactured almost 5 years ago, freshness expiration about 3 years ago. Give me a break. I went looking for other expiration dates. They were all over the place. Many expired.  I even found one that was manufactured within the last 30 days! (this is the one I bought).

I have mentioned to the staff a few times, my findings that the expiration dates have passed on some of the ice cream.  Once, I actually saw them removing the ice cream.  Were they moving it to the rear so that after I left some other uninformed sucker got stuck with it.  I really can't imagine that they removed the ice cream from the freezer and put it into the garbage can, or on the shelf for the next deliveryman to return the ice cream to the manufacturer.

This evening I got a novel answer when I informed the staff that the ice cream freshness date was expired by a few years.  "Oh, the delivery people who bring the ice cream are supposed to check the dates and remove the stale product."   "Sure!" I said.

Look at CVS. They just announced last week that they will no longer be selling cigarettes in their stores and take a major hit on their bottom line for that decision.  The reason they state it that selling cigarettes is inconsistent with the health care objectives that they want to project to the public.  And what image does Rite Aid want to project onto the public with their de facto policy on stale food removal? And then again, if they do it with the food, what are they doing with the pharmaceuticals that they sell?  They have "sell by" dates on them too.  Exactly what is their policy?

Shame on you, Rite Aid.

Monday, January 27, 2014

AT&T Customer Service can't get any worse

Today, my U Verse internet service was not operating properly. I attempted to call customer service.  Upon identifying my account to the automated system I was informed that there were outages of service in my area and that it would be cleared up shortly.  I attempted to call to the technical support to hear that this was correct information for my service area, but went through the wringer only to find out that the office was not open for business yet. I would  have to call back at 8am.

I called back at 8am only to be placed on hold (anticipated wait of 10 minutes).  After 39 minutes a service representative answered the phone and we went through a verification process that required them to call me back.  After verification, I asked if there was a service outage in my area.  I was asked what area I was located in (this was a strange question to ask).  So, I asked them what service area they thought I was in.  I was told my service area was located in the state of Michigan.  Strange, since I live over 1000 miles from Michigan.  After a considerable amount of confusion it was determined that they had the wrong account number.   We started over again.

Now, I learned that there was no service outage in my area.  They did an equipment check and determined that the equipment I have was experiencing some technical difficulties.  They did not know if it was the U Verse modem or the line.  They scheduled a technician to come to the home later in the day.  I am still waiting.  In all fairness and with full disclosure, he is not scheduled to be here for another two hours.

Next, I noted that my monthly bill had increased from $29.95 to $46.00 without explanation. I was transferred to billing.  I explained the situation to the billing person, only to find that I was connected to the collections department.  He connected me to the billing department.  The billing department said that the $46.00 charge was correct and that there were no promotions to reduce that rate.  I told them that that was unacceptable and that I would switch to another provider and then cancel my service with AT&T.  They said that I might want to talk to the retention department.  They connected me to this department.

The retention department understood that I had called in to cancel my account.  I corrected them to indicate that I did not cancel my account, but, rather, that if there was to adjustment to the rate I was paying that I would seek out another provider and then cancel my account.

They then offered me a rate of $23.00 a month.  Total cost to me was about 2 1/2 hours of being on the phone for the two issues.  I still have to have the technician here this afternoon.

When is AT&T going to get their telephone act together?

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Air Train At Kennedy Airport in NYC gets a black raspberry

Yesterday I was returning from a trip to NYC. I drove my rental car to Kennedy Airport and dropped off the car. I then proceeded to the Air Train shuttle to go to my terminal to catch my plane.
I waited at the platform and got on the train.  I happened to notice that it was going in the wrong direction. It went to Jamaica Station instead of the airport terminals. Okay, I had plenty of time and waited for the train to get to the station, stayed on board and the same shuttle train took me back to the Federal Circle station where the car rental returns are located.  It turns out that the Air Train was not operating between the Federal Circle Station and the rest of the airport.  They had shuttle buses to get people between the various locations.  I left the station and went down to the shuttle bus.  This is all without any signs or notification to passengers whatsoever.  I got on the bus that was going to terminal #8.  There was one bus that was going to #s 5,7&8 and another to #s 1,2,3,&4. I don't even know if there is a terminal #6. It was impossible to see out the windows of the bus due to the slush on the road that had splashed up on the windows.  The bus driver was non english speaking, and, while I do speak Spanish, I could not understand a word he said about which stop we had arrived at.  I got out of the bus to find out we were at #4.  We next stopped at #5, then #7, and finally #8 where I got off. It was a horrible experience.  The bus was clearly overloaded with passengers and baggage.  The fellow next to me was going to terminal #3 and had clearly gotten on the wrong bus.  He asked me if there was some way to get from #5 to #3. I told him that normally the Air Train was the shuttle between terminals and that I had no idea if they were running bus shuttles.

The operators of the Air Train at Kennedy Airport get the black raspberry award for their handling of the situation.