TBT: 3 tips for sorting real from fake

Originally published Dec 19, 2013. Now more than ever, knowing what is and isn’t reliable information in the media matters. These tips are still relevant.

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fake-news-3843976_1280I love digital media. As one who makes a living helping financial institutions marshal their marketing power, I’d be a fool not to.

Even so, digital media they can be a mixed blessing. They put mass audiences, once the exclusive province of the moneyed, within the reach of all. But like any pipeline, they care nothing about what flows through them. They deliver trash as readily as treasure.

This places the responsibility for sorting through the morass on the shoulders of individuals at the receiving end. Sadly, it is a responsibility that many neglect. Which is how bogus tales catch fire and spread.

Recent examples of fakes include a story about sending rude messages on napkins to a whiner on an airplane, one about an insulting message left on a check for a server, and tales of insensitive quotes from the celebrity or politician of your choice.

Some fast-spreading fakes may be harmless, but not all. As I write, digital media are spreading nonsensical anti-vaccination hysteria that kills children. Get-rich-quick schemes are depleting people’s life savings. False accusations are costing innocent people their jobs, marriages, and community standing. Bogus medical treatments are keeping seriously ill people from seeking appropriate care. Once limited to small, word-of-mouth circles, these and other instances of harmful misinformation now spread virally and cause real harm.

Who knows? The next bogus story to go viral might just be about your financial institution.

When trusted friends or generally reliable news sources post a story, how do we know what to pass along and what not to? Here are three tips: 

1. Focus on the journalist, not the journal. With shrinking budgets, even many respected journals can no longer afford the kind of fact-checking that was once de rigeur. But over time you may identify individual writers who are more conscientious than others about checking their facts.

2. Use fact-checking resources. With a quick visit to sites like Snopes.com or FactCheck.org, you can confirm or debunk much of what you encounter in digital media. Both sites do a good job of sticking to facts and avoiding ideological biases.

3. Learn to spot logical fallacies. We are all prey to logical fallacies, that is, reasoning that appears to make sense but under scrutiny does not. A working knowledge of them can provide a shortcut to not being taken in. Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab offers a great introduction to logical fallacies.

Please share these tips liberally. Together, we might just reduce the amount of nonsense in circulation. And maybe even prevent a bit of harm.

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Pandemic fraud: Forearming via forewarning

CyberfraudTwo weeks ago I posted heartening examples of humanity rising to its best in a crisis. But I’m no Pollyanna. Crises also provide opportunities for scum to rise to the surface, and here the current pandemic is proving no exception.

Topping the list this time around are medical scams. Some sell “testing kits” that are, of course, either nonexistent or bogus. Others offer “vaccines.” Claims of cures that “They” don’t want you know about, or that government bureaucracy or “Big Pharma” (take your pick) are holding up, appeal in particular to fans of conspiracy theories. I hope I needn’t point out that no coronavirus vaccine has been proven effective as of this writing.

More pertinent to this blog are money-related frauds. People who must stay home but whose jobs cannot be performed via telecommuting are rightfully concerned about their short and long term economic prospects. Moneymaking scams hold out false rays of hope, cheating victims out of funds when they can least afford it. Florida news station WMAC has warned viewers of:

… a rip-off robocall promoting an Amazon work-from-home scam that claims to pay $400 a day … emails from fake public health agencies asking for donations … [and so-called] “investment opportunities.” The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is warning people about online promotions, including on social media, claiming that the products or services of publicly-traded companies can prevent, detect, or cure Coronavirus and that the stock of these companies will dramatically increase in value as a result.

NPR’s Cheryl W. Thompson reported:

Federal officials on Wednesday charged a southern California man with attempted wire fraud. They claimed he solicited investments in a company marketing pills to prevent people from contracting the coronavirus … Federal and state officials in Virginia have launched a task force aimed specifically at clamping down on coronavirus-related scams … Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey says her office has also seen a steady rise in complaints over the last few weeks—fake charities, bogus vaccines.

In the old days, con artists were limited to in-person and by-mail scams. No longer. As the infamous Nigerian money scams and others like them have shown, anyone with a computer can defraud anyone else with a computer anywhere in the world. 

in his Forbes piece, “Coronavirus Scams: Watch Out For These Efforts To Exploit The Pandemic,” Matt Perez lists a number of coronavirus scams. The article is well worth reading and bookmarking, for Perez promises continued updates. Some of the scams Perez has listed to date include malware originating from Lybia that, via text, “… promises to share data and stats about the coronavirus but instead watches you through your smartphone camera, listens using its microphone or parses through text messages.” There’s also “a bogus coronavirus offer for a free iPhone [that] links to a fake Fox News site promoting a coronavirus-curing CBD oil.” 

Moreover,

Last week, the FTC and FDA jointly called out seven companies for peddling products that purported to help or cure people afflicted with the coronavirus: The Jim Bakker Show, Herbal Amy, Inc., N-Ergetics, Vital Silver, Quinessence Aromatherapy Ltd, GuruNanda, LLC and Vivify Holistic Clinic.

It’s wise to view every claim with a skeptical eye, even claims from people whom, at least theoretically, we should be able to trust most. That includes well-intended relatives and friends who may be misinformed. Perhaps more important, it includes public figures you’d hope you could but should not trust. The above-referenced Jim Bakker, whom The Washington Post describes as “a disgraced TV preacher in Branson, Mo.,” was recently and rightly slapped down the New York attorney general’s office. ABC News reported:

New York Attorney General Letitia James on Wednesday sent cease and desist orders to the Silver Edge Company and Sherrill Sellman for marketing products, such as “Silver Solution” and “Micro-Particle Colloidal Silver Generator,” as successful treatments and cures for COVID-19. Last week, she sent a cease and desist order to televangelist Jim Bakker, who was also promoting supplements as effective treatments.

I am not personally acquainted with anyone who considers conservative radio host Alex Jones to be a reliable source, but it’s clear that many do. Jones, too, has been slapped down by a cease-and-desist order from the New York State attorney general. According to the New York Times:

Mr. Jones, according to the attorney general, made a series of claims: That his products could act as a “stopgate” against the virus, that his Superblue brand of toothpaste “kills the whole SARS-corona family at point-blank range.”

It’s also important to beware communications masquerading as official statements from trusted organizations. Perez writes:

Additionally, users should be mindful of phishing emails that disguise themselves as coming from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, with the latter noting that WHO emails are addressed “.int” and that “WHO does not send email from addresses ending in ‘@who[.]com’ ,’@who[.]org’ or ‘@who-safety[.]org’.”

Financial institutions can provide a valuable service in the form of forearming clients by forewarning them. Naming names, as I have done here, can be risky*, but a financial institution can probably reference in safety “Avoiding Coronavirus Scams” from the Federal Trade Commission website. 

Moreover, advice for staying safe tends to remain consistent. Among other tips, the FTC advises fact-checking, dealing with trusted suppliers, hanging up on robocalls, ignoring home testing and vaccination device offers, and not clicking on unknown links.

Clients still tend to trust their financial institutions. This is a good time to put that trust to their benefit with information that can help keep them safe.

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*This would be a good time for me to point out that I speak here only as Matt, and—most emphatically—not as a representative of or on behalf of my employer.

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TBT: 10 Tips for Creating Effective Online Surveys

SurveyThis one never seems to go out of date. Writing and distributing surveys is easier than ever. So is doing it wrong, a proud tradition that many companies seem bent on continuing. Originally posted March 31, 2011

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Thanks to the Internet, many tools once exclusive to professionals are now widely available at low or no cost.

Nowadays, just about anyone with a computer can design a page, retouch a photo, or even compose music. But if you’ve ever had to hide crossed fingers behind your back while muttering something nice about a friend’s would-be masterpiece, you know that tools don’t ensure competence.

This is particularly true when it comes to conducting online research. An array of affordable web-based tools makes it a cinch to build and distribute an interactive survey. But there remains an art, even a science, to designing the questions. The results of an unwittingly but poorly framed question can be costly. Besides wasted time and expense, there is a danger of basing important strategic decisions on “facts” which later turn out to be fiction.

Even the seasoned research pro must exercise ongoing vigilance to avoid ending up with abundant-but-useless feedback. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind:

1. Some pitfalls are less obvious than others. For instance, even the order in which questions are listed has been documented to influence answers. So has a survey’s background color. To ferret out hidden problems, try randomly mixing things up. Perhaps each respondent can receive the questions in a different order, in different colors, on different days, etc.

2. Word choice matters. Spotting and pruning potentially biasing words is trickier than it seems. Though technically the same, people may have a different reaction to a question about a “rule” than about a “regulation.” For that matter, more people would rather “not lose” than “save” or even “gain.”

3. Never ask respondents to predict or even report their behavior. They can’t do it. At least, not with any degree of reliability.  Yet if you ask, they will try to answer, and they will be sincere in what they tell you. The problem is that people perform poorly when it comes to correctly identifying what they do today, much less predicting what they’ll do tomorrow.

4. Caveat to the prior question: Unless, that is, you want to reveal something else. Asking people to predict their behavior won’t tell you anything about what they will or won’t do, but it can tell you a lot about how they see themselves.

5. An online survey may not be representative of your market. For one thing, only customers who are online can participate. Responses will only come from those who care to and have the time to participate. Thus your data may be weighted toward people with complaints, people with time on their hands, people who are bored, or people who enjoy completing forms.

6. Provide a “does not apply” option. This keeps people from checking a box, any box, just to keep you happy.

7. Don’t overlap. Say if you want to know how many employees a company has. Do not offer choices like “up to 100” and “100 or more.” Make the categories distinct: “Under 100” and “100 or more.”

8. Keep it simple, but not too simple. Too many questions, too many steps between “strongly agree” and “strongly disagree,” too-long pull-down menus, and too many essay-type questions can lead respondents to rush or simply quit. On the other hand, too few options won’t get to the nub. Seek for a balance.

9. The more respondents, the more reliable the data. I have seen companies that should know better than to base big decisions on opinions from 10 or 20 people. While no response is 100 percent reliable, try for at least 5,000 respondents. And do your best to ensure that they represent a good cross-section of your market.

10. Research is not invincible. Take care as to how you use survey results. Treat them as suggestive, not conclusive. If they lead you to a hunch, test the hunch before betting the farm. A little caution now can spare you a lot of trouble and expense later on.

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Can AI be sexist? You bet it can.

symbol-1179119_1280It’s tempting to assume that AI in banking is non-sexist and cannot be otherwise. After all, AIs are genderless, so how could they possibly identify with or prefer one gender over another? 

Except, well, AIs mine databases. If biases happen to be built into data-gathering processes—and not necessarily by design—AIs can hardly avoid emerging with similar biases. 

In her article for Finextra, “Women in finance: How AI is shining a light on diversity,” Senior Reporter Madhvi Mavadiya shines a much-needed spotlight on the basic problem as it pertains to hiring: 

… technology can be as biased as humans if it replicates past hiring decisions and in the past, AI recruitment tools have realised that it discriminated against women because it attempted to find employees like its current workforce, namely, men.

Mavadiya’s focus is on hiring, but it’s not unreasonable to wonder if similar prejudices find their way into other AI-driven financial decision-making, such as product development and targeted marketing. 

Sexism is certainly good at passing under the radar in other areas. In her article “Can snow plowing be sexist? Yes it can,” Susan R. Madsen, Ed.D., Orin R. Woodbury Professor of Leadership & Ethics in the Woodbury School of Business at Utah Valley University and Founding Director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project, wrote that in Karlskoga, Sweden,

… local officials were trying to implement gender-equality initiatives and someone remarked that at least snow removal was safe from “the gender people.” But as the data were analyzed, they discovered that the transportation patterns of men and women were different, and that only men were considered in snow plowing decisions.

Madsen cites other examples:

… when mostly male doctors outlined the typical symptoms of heart attacks in medical textbooks, it went unnoticed that women present very differently. As a result, women suffering heart attacks today are still treated half as often as men because their symptoms aren’t “typical.” And recent studies show that because crash test dummies are based on male specifications, accidents result in more injuries for women … when data are not collected on all genders, decisions are not benefiting all residents.

What started me mulling this topic was this year’s International Women’s Day. It was on March 8, and celebrations took place around the world. (Check out this piece in The Guardian for not just stunning but inspiring photos.) But then the pandemic hit, demanding immediate attention, which is why I’m writing about International Women’s Day only now.

I might add that I find it not a little daunting to write about women’s issues, since, as you may have gathered from my name and photo, I hardly know what it’s like to be a woman. But I was born to a woman, I’m married to one, and I have two daughters, so at the very least I can rightfully claim that women’s issues matter to me.

In his book A People’s History of the United States, historian Howard Zinn wrote:

It is possible, reading standard histories, to forget half the population of the country. The explorers were men, the landholders and merchants men, the political leaders men, the military figures men. The very invisibility of women, the overlooking of women, is a sign of their submerged status.

Yes, we’ve made progress. But then, the United States still hasn’t passed the Equal Rights Amendment, which the Senate sent to the states for ratification 48 freaking years ago. The 19th Amendment, which guarantees a woman’s right to vote, barely squeaked by only a century ago. My parents’ generation hotly debated whether women should be “permitted” to work outside the home, a debate that continues in many parts of the country. Only recently have law enforcement and the courts considered that maybe, just maybe, a woman should have a right not to be sexually harassed, a notion that many yet greet by digging in their heels. And the United States Congress apparently remains unconvinced that equal pay for equal work is fair and long overdue. 

It doesn’t help that mythology about innate, sex-linked abilities refuses to die. No, women aren’t intrinsically better at communication and intrinsically worse at math and science than men—but telling them that they are can have a deleterious effect. In her book Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine describes an experiment in which the mere act of having women note their gender on a form tended to lower their confidence in their own math abilities. 

I was about to say “don’t get me started.” Too late. 

Anyway: We in the financial services industry need to recognize that when data are sexist, AIs that mine them are doomed to be sexist as well. Right now, while AI is still in its infancy, is the time to make sure we don’t let that (continue to) happen. If fairness isn’t enough of a motivator, consider what else Madhvi Mavadiya pointed out:

… companies with more balanced gender ratios outperform their peer segments. On this, Tracey Davies, president of Money20/20, states that “for a financial services industry in the midst of a generational shift in technology, business models and consumer expectations, the benefit of more diverse leadership perspectives—gender and otherwise—can only improve the outcome for customers, regulators and stakeholders.”

It’s a rare opportunity when profit and fairness intersect. Let’s not waste it.

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TBT: How germ-free is your smartphone?

Originally posted July 22, 2018.  I thought this information could be useful at this time.

Germy phoneWhich payment system is the most germ-free?

In the wake of New York University’s 2014 Dirty Money Project, the switch from paper to digital currency was probably welcome news for germophobes. That was the study that revealed that some 3,000 varieties of bacteria hang out on the average American dollar bill. 

Most of the bacteria, of course, are benign. Indeed, we should thank our lucky stars that there are such things as benign and, often, helpful bacteria, since, according to the National Institute of Health, trillions of them—up to six pounds worth—make a living hanging out on our bodies every day.

Some people unwittingly up the germ count on their currency through their creative choice of “wallet.” Fed up with disgustingly sweat-soaked currency, owners of a Kentucky store announced they would no longer accept cash pulled from a bra, sock, or shoe. The announcement brought a brief surge in business from visitors who came to gawk at the rather blunt sign announcing the policy. The resourceful, defiant customer, however, needed only to retrieve ill-cached cash while out of view.

Not all the little bugs are benign. Paper currency also carries microbes that have a habit of causing diphtheria, gastric ulcers, food poisoning, and, according to an article in TIME, “a smudge of anthrax and diphtheria.” They are, however, relatively few in number and, either way, are unlikely to make you sick. Provided, the article advises, you resist any urge to lick your currency. 

Are plastics more germ-free than currency?

Certainly germophobes were pleased when payments began moving from cash to plastics. After all, paper currency is made from fibers that provide a rich environment in which germs can flourish. Plastic, not so much. Or so one would suppose from studies showing that fewer bacteria dwell on Canada’s polymer film currency than on paper currency. Last year none other than MarketWatch said, “If you want to avoid bacteria, you might be better off paying with plastic than dollar bills.”

Not so fast. MarketWatch and other publications reporting on the matter did not define fewer in “fewer bacteria,” nor did they place the word significantly in front of it. But they did point out that bacteria live longer on polymer film than on paper currency.

Missing definitions and modifiers side, contrary to what one would suppose, it turns out that plastic cards are dirtier than currency. A study by the University of Texas and CreditCard.com found, “Credit cards led all payment methods in the detection of a few particularly infamous bacterial species.” 

Again, there’s no need to panic. As with paper, the odds of picking up diseases from a credit card, provided one avoids licking it, are low.

How germ-free is your smartphone?

At last, contactless payment systems arrived to assuage the fears of the most ardent germophobe. Just wave your smartphone over the payment terminal and—voila!—payment is complete. No handling currency. No handling a card.

Except, once again, not so fast. Germs love to transfer from finger to finger via terminal touch pads. They also hitch rides from one person to another on the stylus you use to sign. 

Besides which, there’s the fact that smartphones are by no means germ-free. In fact, they’re worse. According to another TIME article

Research has varied on just how many germs are crawling on the average cell phone, but a recent study found more than 17,000 bacterial gene copies on the phones of high school students. Scientists at the University of Arizona have found that cell phones carry 10 times more bacteria than most toilet seats … Studies have found serious pathogens on cell phones, including Streptococcus, MRSA and even E. coli.

Fecal bacteria like E. coli frequently hitch rides on phones that owners bring with them into restrooms. Of course, that could only happen if someone were to be holding a smartphone while flushing. We know that no one ever does that.

Just to add to the ick factor, I might also point out that, unlike currency and credit cards, a phone is something you hold against your face. You know, as in near your mouth. Yum.

Since plastics carry more germs than paper bills, and smartphones pack more germs than plastics, what do health experts advise? 

Oddly enough, their advice is the same that Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis was mocked for proposing in 1847, only to be vindicated years after his death: Wash your hands.

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