Confusing, Sleazy Checkbox Syndrome

(Please see update below)

I am always amused by how even those companies you would think wouldn’t stoop to the foot-in-the-door tactics of spammers, do. Like this one from IBM, at the foot of a submission form — specifically for journalists, no less:


(The text reads:

This data may be used by IBM or selected organizations, such as Lenovo, to provide you with information about other offerings. To receive this via e-mail, check the first box below. Alternatively, if you would prefer not to receive such information by any means, check the second box.
    Please use e-mail to send me information about other offerings.
    Please do not use this data to send me information about other offerings.)

Why, specifically, two separate check boxes? What happens if you check both? Have you committed yourself to both receiving emails to get information about other offerings, and yet not allowing IBM to use this data to contact you? That would at least be a challenge for them. Leave both unchecked IBM cannot email you about other offerings, but they can use the data you just gave them (namely your email) to send you information about those exciting other offerings.

I urge you all to send them a query on their main submission form trying out both, and let me know what happens.

(Update Nov 2 2007: IBM have agreed having two checkboxes is confusing and unnecessary and promise to remove it. I have also tried leaving both unchecked, or checking both and error message is returned. So upon reflection I don’t think this is a fair example of Sleazy Checkbox Syndrome and I take back my harsh words about Big Blue. It’s poor form design, but it’s not done to confuse the user. Interestingly a more egregious example I recently cited also seems to have disappeared, as far as I can work out. Laplink have yet to respond to my request for comment.)

 IBM Press room – Contact a media representative

Even Mayors Get Dialer Scammed

It’s not just small fry getting hooked in the great modem hijacking/dialer scam.

The Derrick, a publication from Pennsylvania’s Oil City, reports the town’s former mayor has become embroiled, demanding Verizon forgive $1,200 in charges. Verizon has so far refused to forgive Malachy McMahon’s debt.

McMahon is going after Verizon, who he sees as complicit in the scam: “For a corporation to condone and profit from this is beyond me, in the case of Verizon,” the publication quoted McMahon as saying. “It’s illegal activity. They’re after phone usage. It’s big-time money when they go overseas.” Local prosecutors are looking into this and other cases.

Part of the problem is that the billing is not just to the telco. Another company, National One Telecom, claims he owes $76 for calls. National One seems to make its money from charging an “entertainment fee” for accessing certain websites — which are not named on the bills. Some of the fee goes to the telco, some to National One. This is how National Telecom describes itself:

National One Telecom, Inc.’s mission is to provide billing solutions for clients with audiotext services, videotext services, long distance services, and other telecommunications services.

Our goal is to seamlessly merge Internet technologies with technologies seen in traditional telephone networks. Together with our clients we create a bridge between the two allowing for better ecommerce and telephone access to a wide national audience.

In addition to this, we are committed to helping our customers understand these new billing solutions and are willing to walk them through step by step in case they have any questions or problems. Thank you for your business.

Hmm. The most amusing bit of the Derrick story is this end quote from a Verizon spokesman: Modem hijacking, while “an industry-wide problem, is not really a telephone-company issue per se. It’s really an Internet issue.” Sure. Telcos, watch out.

News: Pssst! Wanna See Some SMS?

 A sign of the times? ThreeZee Technology, Inc., a security research firm, has located a bug within the Verizon Wireless Text Messaging system which allows any Tom, Dick or Harry to “easily view mass lists of SMS messages sent to Verizon customers, including the telephone number and the text in the message”. Not just that: Tom (or Dick, or Harry) can then use the bug to intercept messages sent to any such phone, as well as the ability to make numerous charges to the customer’s phone bill. Yikes.
This is bad, of course, but it’s not a feature of SMS per se, more of the website that Verizon set up to allow folk to send SMS messages to Verizon phones. Still, hopefully Verizon will fix it. No sign so far of any mention of the problem on their website.

Column: Bluetooth primer

Loose Wire — Wireless With Strings
By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 1 August 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
 By now you’ve probably heard of Bluetooth technology, but chances are you’re not quite sure what all the fuss is about. I don’t blame you. If its name — better suited to a dentist specializing in unhappy teeth — isn’t enough to put you off, then you might be forgiven for wondering, “Just how is this going to improve the quality of my life?” I’m not about to suggest you go Bluetooth-crazy, but I reckon it’s worth getting a handle on because one day Bluetooth will make linking your PC, gadgets and telephones a lot easier.
First, let’s get the name out of the way: Bluetooth was the nickname of a Danish king called Harald. Through his impressive communication skills — no one is too specific about this, but I suspect that as a Viking they didn’t involve throwing baby showers and Tupperware parties — King Bluetooth united Norway and Denmark in the 10th century. Hence Bluetooth is a wireless standard that allows users to unite through communication. Get it? Gadgets with no fuss. Or cables. In short, one gadget with Bluetooth built in — say your handphone — should link up automatically with another gadget — say your laptop — without you doing much more than putting them in the same room.
This works using the same free part of the radio spectrum that WiFi, or 802.11, wireless devices use. But while WiFi connects devices over longer distances, Bluetooth gadgets only hook up within a 10-metre range. Where WiFi evangelists dream of large networks without wires, Bluetoothers dream of little informal clusters of computers, printers, personal digital assistants, handphones, headsets, cameras, floppy drives and CD-ROMs all connected wirelessly. Unlike infrared they don’t need to be pointed at each other, and they’ll also work through a door or wall.
It’s a great idea, so why isn’t it happening yet? Well, when Bluetooth first appeared in 1998-99 the hype raised expectations to a silly level, particularly since there was only a handful of products with Bluetooth built in. But three years on, there are still problems: There are now dozens of Bluetooth products, and more in the pipeline, but Bluetooth chips are still too expensive, meaning that few of these gadgets cost less than $100. That’s too pricey for most people.
Part of the problem, I’m sorry to say, is Microsoft. The latest incarnation of their Windows software, XP, doesn’t have Bluetooth capability. If you set up your PDA within sight of your laptop, chances are you’d hear a funny buzzing sound and the two would try to set up an infrared link to each other. If you plug a peripheral — say your new printer — into your computer the PC would recognize the printer and probably install the drivers for you so you can get printing. The same goes for most WiFi cards. Not with Bluetooth.
The result is that it’s easy to set up a Bluetooth Ericsson handphone, say with an Ericsson headset — just turn them both on, fiddle in the phone menu and hey presto. Try the same with the phone and a Bluetooth-enabled PC and you’re asking for trouble. Manufacturers get around the lack of Windows support by building their own software, but it’s a bit like asking your plumber to redesign the living room: Everything looks a bit odd and nothing seems to work properly. Gadgets come tantalizingly close to hooking up with each other but then fail to do what they promise.
Having said that, there are occasional glimpses of its potential. AmazingTech’s Bluegear offers a low-cost ($125) way to hook up two or more computers to share files and an Internet connection, via charming little blue pegs, or dongles, that fit into the USB ports most computers come with nowadays. Anycom, which focuses exclusively on Bluetooth, has some nice gadgets, including a wireless-printer module which slots into your printer’s parallel-port slot. Now, in theory, any Bluetooth device can print out stuff from across the room, cable-free. After much tweaking and a little outside help I was able to get all these to work, and had that heady sensation one sometimes gets from good technology. I had to sit down.
But all this is still too fiddly for prime time. And just because two gadgets are called Bluetooth doesn’t mean they’ll set up house together. Bluegear’s dongles won’t yet talk to other gadgets, though AmazingTech say something is in the pipeline. Ericsson’s T68i phone worked like a dream with the Ericsson CommuniCam MCA-10 camera and an Ericsson headset, but won’t talk to a TDK dongle or the Anycom Bluetooth Compact Flash card.
This is not what Bluetooth is supposed to be about. So while some pundits say Bluetooth has arrived, I’d suggest some caveats: Buy with care, don’t expect too much, and be ready for a bit of pain. The future may have fewer wires, but there are still plenty of strings attached.

Column: Ethel fights back

Loose Wire — Tea, Sympathy And Service

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 25 July 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
If you want good customer service on-line, try impersonating a little old lady. It worked for me.

Frustrated by the poor response to my own e-mail enquiries to big companies — I’m not naming names here, except to say I’m still waiting for replies from the likes of 3Com, Fujitsu and Linksys — I figured things might work better if I metamorphosed into Ethel M. Girdle, a septuagenarian who claims to have typed her way through World War II while flying Spitfire fighter aircraft and is a dab hand at growing roses and laying on tea parties for the local pastor.

First stop for Ethel was fixing her Zanussi dishwasher. “Hello, young man (or lady),” she wrote to the customer-service centre in Britain. “My washer makes a noise like one of those newfangled leafblower things and my crockery doesn’t get clean. Can you send one of your nice young chaps round to fix it, I’m having the vicar for tea on Friday and if he sees the china in this state he’ll think I’ve gone over to the other side. Yours, Mrs. Girdle.” Zanussi responded with impressive speed and grasp of the gravity of the situation. “Dear Mrs. Girdle,” they wrote. “Sorry to hear of the problems that you are experiencing with your dishwasher, if you would kindly let me have your postcode I will be able to look up the details of your nearest service centre for you so that one of our engineers can come and repair your appliance so that your china gets nice and clean again.”

My own experience of airlines and the Internet has been woeful, so I was interested to see how my fictional friend got on. She wanted to visit her grandson and fired off e-mails to several airlines: “I’m coming to Hong Kong/Sydney/Tokyo/Singapore to see my grandson, who is doing a grand job running one of your banks. This is not the first time I’ve flown (I used to fly during the war, don’t you know) but it’s been a while. Is it OK to bring my cocker spaniel, Poppy? He won’t be any trouble, unless you’ve got rabbits on the aircraft! And may I bring my own teapot on board? I do like a cup of tea in the afternoon.”

Ethel’s still waiting to hear from Japan Airlines and Qantas, while British Airways’ Web site had no functioning e-mail address for ordinary folk. Singapore Airlines offered a form letter, Cathay Pacific was somewhat intimidating: “Please kindly note that domestic animals of any description are not permitted to be carried in the passenger cabin on any Cathay Pacific flights.” But Virgin Atlantic rose to the occasion well: “I can assure you that our crew will make sure you receive a nice cup of tea on the flight or more than one in fact! It would not be necessary to take a teapot with you. Unfortunately Virgin Atlantic do not have a licence to carry pets of any description, even though I am sure he is no trouble.”

Next, Ethel decided to buy a computer. “I need the following,” she e-mailed IBM: “A nice keyboard (if possible an electric one, the manual ones tire me out) and a nice screen to look at. Could I use my TV instead, and save a few dimes? It’s a big one, though black and white and takes forever to warm up. My grandson says I need a CD drive but I think I can just drag the stereo over and plug it into the computer, yes?”

IBM were very helpful. “Please note that all our NetVista (desktops) come with a standard keyboard. However, we are unsure of what you mean by “electric” vs. “manual”, they wrote, before gently pointing out that hooking up her black-and-white TV and CD player to the PC was a no-no.

Encouraged, Ethel went back for advice on the Internet: “Do I need some sort of passport, or special goggles, or something? My grandson says the connections are very fast these days, I don’t want to mess up my hair.” IBM was reassuring, saying a passport wouldn’t be necessary.

Overall, I was impressed. Customer service on-line has a long way to go — shame on those companies that didn’t reply — but at least there are some bright and helpful folk at the end of those e-mail addresses. And for those of you not getting customer satisfaction on-line, feel free to impersonate Ethel. I know I will.