Beware of newfangled data deception and old-fashioned check fraud

October 1, 2019 Leave a comment

For business purposes, a Facebook “like” apparently is worth about 4 cents. Website visits, in contrast, are worth less than a penny apiece. At least, those appear to be the going rates.

I’ve received emails lately from a national marketing service offering to help me bolster my online business presence by providing Facebook likes, traffic to my website, positive reviews and related online services.

For $80, I could 2,000 Facebook likes, 10,000 website visits, 10,000 Instagram followers, 20 Google reviews or some other fake indicator of online vitality.

No, thanks.

The practice of selling or using false or deceptive data seems unethical, like creating fake news. I knew that kind of data was available to organizations that are not overly burdened with a conscience, but I didn’t know the price. So I found the product list interesting.

Coincidentally, I also recently participated in a webinar about maximizing social media marketing the right way. It was hosted by KeyMedia Solutions, a reputable online marketing firm in Sioux Falls. I asked webinar presenters Evan Gentry and Tobaria Ruffin about the practice of selling or buying deceptive data, and they agreed that it was unethical.

Using fake numbers can create credibility problems for businesses that use them because the data might not hold up under scrutiny, they said. A business is better off growing its online popularity organically, they said.

I followed up with Korena Keys, CEO of KeyMedia Solutions. She said the key to success in online business is to build customer engagement, not data numbers.

That makes sense.

So, you might want to be suspicious of websites that have a high level of positive indicators but offer little else to justify the data.

Keep watch on checking accounts, too

I went on the road for a couple of days this past summer to do a magazine story, which was enjoyable. I had an unpleasant travel experience, however. My checkbook was stolen in or near a hotel.

I’m 90 percent sure it was stolen, but there’s an outside chance that I simply lost it. Regardless, the checkbook has not reappeared.

I took the checkbook along on the trip as a financial backup and never used it. I didn’t even notice that it was missing from a briefcase until I returned home.

After I returned, I reported the missing checkbook to my bank, the hotel and to law enforcement.  I also closed the checking account, opened a new one and froze my credit, all of which was kind of a hassle.

The incident got me wondering if crooks still write bad checks. Considering all the data breaches that occur these days in national organizations (my personal information has been exposed at least twice), writing checks almost seems safer than using credit cards.

Anyway, I recently learned that, yes, crooks still write bad checks. In fact, check fraud remains a highly popular type of financial scam, according to Sadie Bell and Elizabeth Duffy, executives at First Bank & Trust in Sioux Falls. In terms of incident volume, check-related fraud remains the biggest threat facing small businesses, they said.

Duffy and Bell were the presenters at an August workshop about fraud prevention. The workshop, which I attended, was hosted by the Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce.

In addition to Duffy and Bell, I talked to a couple other financial and law enforcement officials about check crimes. I was told that rather than simply alter checks, crooks might try to use the routing number to divert money or use personal information to help create a false identity.

Although I’ve done what I can, my hassle might not be over yet. I’ll be keeping my financial guard up.


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Cashless businesses, sweaty hands, pet rocks and other random thoughts

March 2, 2019 Leave a comment

I don’t claim to suffer from Cobbler’s Children Syndrome. Comparing myself to the proverbial cobbler who was too busy to make shoes for his own children would be unduly flattering.

Freelance writing work keeps me pretty busy, though. So I don’t post a lot of personal blogs. Random topics that have aroused my curiosity have been piling up in recent months, however, so I thought I’d address a couple of them.

Let’s start with a mini trend that started getting national media attention during the holiday shopping season. Some retail services no longer accept cash. (I assume they don’t accept checks, either.) The businesses want customers to pay with credit cards, debit cards or other digital services. That’s quite the turn-around from the days when a lot of businesses didn’t accept credit cards.

I understand the need for alternative form of payments for online purchases and to pay on-site bills of, say, more than $100. But I refuse to use a card or a phone to pay for a $7 sandwich. I pay cash. The less my personal financial information is exposed in business data bases for thieves to possibly steal, the better.

Besides, aren’t businesses in the United States obliged to accept cash?  Consider that this message is printed on paper money: “This note is legal tender for all bills, public and private.”

Massachusetts has had a law since 1978 that requires merchants to accept cash. More recently, New Jersey and a couple of major cities have been moving toward imposing a similar requirement. Perhaps the South Dakota Legislature, which has grown fond of micromanaging whatever it can, should fill up one of its empty bills with similar provisions.

O.K., before I slip back into procrastination mode, let’s move on to another random topic: hyperhidrosis.

A few months ago, I didn’t know the meaning of hyperhidrosis, or excessive sweating. Then some TV ads caught my attention. They were promoting a special lotion for people who suffer from extremely sweaty hands.

My first thought was, are there really enough people with sweaty hands to justify a national advertising campaign to sell a special hand lotion? (Lotions also are available for people with uncontrollably sweaty feet and underarms.) The ads reminded me of politicians who offer solutions to nonexistent problems.

Then I did a little research, and it turns out that hyperhidrosis is a real thing. Indeed, there is an International Hyperhidrosis Society and, according to the organization, extreme sweating affects 4.8 percent of the population.

So, I’ll be jiggered. (Does anyone say that anymore?) My journalistic cynicism had paid off in a small way. I won’t be investing in no-sweat wipes, but I learned something about a human condition and gained a little insight into an institutional marketing tactic.

In a future blog, I’d like to talk about some of the grass-roots marketing geniuses of my lifetime: boxer Muhammed Ali, motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel, and Gary Dahl, who invented pet rocks. The late Mr. Dahl, especially, is among my personal heroes because before he made millions in the mid-1970s selling ordinary rocks for $3.95 apiece, he was a freelance copywriter.

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So long, Dave Kranz. Thanks for the baseball memories

June 27, 2018 1 comment

Here’s a little secret about David Kranz, South Dakota’s late, great political pundit. On baseball vacations, he would dress in layers of clothing, not for warmth but to preserve luggage space for souvenirs and gifts.

Dave’s passing on June 23 stirred all sorts of memories in me about his passion for baseball as well as his legendary career as a newspaper journalist.

I worked with Dave throughout his 27 years as an editor, reporter and columnist at the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, and I got to witness his folksy brilliance on many occasions before he retired in 2010. Fellow journalists, political leaders and friends of his have been publicly sharing moving insights about his professional skills. So I’m going to focus on his passion for baseball.

I went on several trips with Dave in which baseball was the main focus. We went on a couple of vacations to Florida to watch spring training games. Dave paid for his first trip by cashing in a few of his rare baseball cards.

In Florida, we met up with mutual friend and former Argus Leader colleague Chuck Raasch. Baseball writer Mel Antonen, another former Argus Leader colleague, would join us sometimes, too. We’d spend a few days driving from city to city to watch games.

One night in Cocoa Beach, we decided to go for a walk on a sandy beach. Dave looked like he just stepped out of the newsroom, complete with black dress shoes but minus the slightly rumpled sport coat and weirdly knotted tie. He probably had a notebook in his back pocket. The rest of us were in shorts, T-shirts and gym shoes.

Dave and I also went on a baseball trip to Washington, D.C. and again hooked up with Chuck. Some political networking and sightseeing were involved on that trip. While roaming the Capitol grounds, Dave would spot members of Congress, such as Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, and casually strike up a conversation. It was impressive to watch.

We also went on baseball trips to Atlanta to see his beloved Braves in the World Series, and to Minneapolis to see my Twins or Vikings. We talked about going on a baseball trip to Arizona, but never made it. I wish we had.

Dave loved old baseball stars from the Braves, such as Hank Aaron, Dale Murphy and Tom Glavine. I wasn’t with him, but he once managed to land an interview with Aaron, a former home run-hitting superstar, at a hotel in Hawaii. Aaron was there attending baseball meetings. Dave was on an SDSU alumni trip.

Also high on Dave’s list of favorite players was little-known shortstop Sam Khalifa, a high school star in Arizona who went on to play two seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Dave really wanted Khalifa to succeed as a pro. His support had to do with the Khalifa family’s Middle Eastern background and the rarity of ballplayers who come from that part of the world.

That was a reflection of Dave in everyday life: Embrace an underdog and cheer him on.

During one of our game stops in Florida, Dave got to meet Khalifa, get his autograph and chat with him. It was a great day not only for him, but for our little group.

Thanks for creating so many good memories, old friend. Rest in peace.


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More emphasis on pedestrian safety is welcome

July 23, 2017 1 comment

I’ve been encouraged in recent weeks by news reports about pedestrian and bicycle safety in Sioux Falls. Organized efforts are being made to try to improve safety for pedestrians and bike riders in the downtown area and in the city’s core neighborhoods. I’d like to see the campaign expanded to every corner of the city.

Sioux Falls has a lot to brag about, but it is definitely not a friendly city for pedestrians. It might have something to with drivers being used to uncluttered roads. I don’t know.

I do know that I’ve had more than one close call.

Last year, while trying to cross East 26th Street with the “walk” light on, I got nicked by a van. The driver told me later that he hadn’t seen me. He heard a thud, then looked in his rearview mirror and saw me on the street, hobbling back to the curb.

Fortunately, I wasn’t hurt. I didn’t immediately realize that I was OK, though.

I was a few steps off the curb when I realized a turning van was not going to stop to let me cross. I stopped but a tire caught the tip of my right shoe. My right knee and my hands thudded into the back of the van.  I fell to the street and crawled back to the curb.

I think I yelled something profane in the direction of the van. Then I sat on the sidewalk and took personal inventory. My heart was racing. My foot appeared to be OK. My knee and palms were reddish and stung a little, but there didn’t appear to be any serious damage.

About that time I heard someone yelling at me from a half-block away. It was the van driver. To his credit, he had pulled over, parked the van and ran back to check on me. He asked me if I needed a ride to the hospital. No, I said, but what the heck happened? Didn’t you see me? I asked.

No, he answered. He hadn’t seen me. The sun might have gotten in his eyes, he said, or he might have been distracted by a child strapped into a carrier seat in the back. But it was probably the sun, he said.

Out of curiosity, I returned to the site at the same time the next day ­– about 6:30 p.m. on a warm summer evening ­– and checked the position of the sun. It wasn’t a factor. A crying child could have been a factor. Or, perhaps, a cell phone. Motorists fiddling on mobile phones have become major threats to pedestrians, bike riders and other drivers on public roadways.

I suspect hundreds of people in Sioux Falls, maybe thousands, have stories they could tell. Tragically, some victims of distracted drivers have not survived to tell their stories.

Sioux Falls should do more to promote pedestrian safety.

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An upcoming anniversary is fading from memory and that’s just fine

January 12, 2017 Leave a comment

(I wrote this column as a testimonial for the American Heart Association, which recently published it online. I’m sharing it here.)

For more than 20 years, I quietly observed the anniversary of the minute that I quit smoking for good. Every June 1 at 2:30 p.m., I would take a mental break to congratulate myself for going another year without a cigarette and renew my personal commitment to nonsmoking.

In recent years, however, the anniversary minute has been slipping by unnoticed with increasing frequency. I’ve been a couple of hours or even a day late in realizing that the minute had passed, and that’s fine. I consider it proof that tobacco doesn’t control my life like it did years ago.

On June 1, 2017, I’ll have gone 30 straight years without smoking. I’m proud of that.

I’m one of those guys who started smoking as a teenager because it seemed kind of rebellious and cool. Soon after finishing high school, I was hooked. The need to smoke became a financial and scheduling priority.

My physical dependence on cigarettes lasted about 15 years. Then I started getting concerned about the health risks. Society’s views about smoking started changing in the 1980s. That encouraged quitting, too.  Today, laws and rules continue to get more protective of nonsmokers, and I support the movement.

It took me a couple of years to quit smoking for good. I only lasted a few hours the first attempt. But I kept trying. I quit for a few weeks, then for a few months and finally for good. Taking a no-smoking class and practicing self-hypnosis helped me quit. Exercise helped me stay quit.

Today, I’m a committed nonsmoker. I oppose the recreational use of tobacco in any form, but especially smoking because drifting smoke endangers other people. I encourage smokers to quit, regardless of whether they just started or have smoked for decades.

Here’s one of the most helpful hints that I recall from a no-smoking class: The urge to smoke will pass regardless of whether you smoke, so let the urge pass.

There is no right way to quit. There are lots of good options. If you smoke, I urge you to find a strategy that you like and follow it seriously. Then, quit for yourself, not just for someone else. You won’t regret becoming a nonsmoker.


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Cookies, bowls and other random thoughts for the holidays

December 23, 2016 Leave a comment

As 2016 winds down, my thoughts are scattered. Guilt about putting off chores, confusion about the election, warm feelings about the holidays and friends, and frustration about my sports teams are competing for attention.

Should I have sent more Christmas cards? I wonder if anything will replace Obamacare? Did I miss a work deadline? Run the ball; no, wait, pass, pass! More cookies and coffee, please.

Rather than trying to tie a bunch of unrelated thoughts together, how about some stream of consciousness to wrap up an eventful year:

·         Should customers really have to ask for their change, even if they only have a couple of cents coming? I pulled through restaurant drive-through recently. The clerk gave me my order but no change, even though I’d reached out my hand. She said something like, “It’s only a couple of pennies.” I drove away but quickly regretted not asking for the money.

·         When I call federal offices and large business organizations, I often seem to get a recorded voice warning me that wait times are “longer than normal.” Indeed, wait times on the phone always seem to be “longer than normal.” Shouldn’t the definition of normal be changed?

·         Why don’t more of South Dakota’s elected leaders embrace voters’ decisions on ballot measures rather than complain about them? The answer is obvious, I guess: Their biggest concern is how changes affect them personally. Constituents’ wishes are secondary.

·         President-elect Trump’s use of Twitter as a primary communications vehicle makes me kind of glad that my account is dormant. If I was active on Twitter, I’d probably just be saying stupid things on a more frequent basis.

·         A former boss of mine once described editorial writers (which I was at the time) as people who watch battles from afar, then descend from a hilltop and shoot the wounded. That’s how a lot of news coverage has become, too. There’s more post-event rehashing than proactive probing.

·         There are 41 bowl games, plus a national championship game, this year at the top level of college football. More than 8,500 players are involved. Any college coach or athletic director who criticizes children’s leagues for giving out participation awards should be ignored. They’re hypocrites.

I’ve been slack in recent months about posting personal blogs. I’ll try to post more regularly in 2017. Maybe. At least if there isn’t a good game on TV or something else doesn’t get in the way.

Merry Christmas, and happy New Year!

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Hang up on fraudsters, then file a complaint

June 29, 2016 Leave a comment

The calls seem to come in waves. Four times in the past two weeks I’ve gotten live calls on my landline from a representative of the “Windows Technology Department” or some similarly fictitious office.

A few weeks ago, I also got a warning on my answering machine, supposedly from the IRS, advising me that I was going to be arrested within two days unless I contacted the caller and, presumably, paid off some phony debt.

In addition, a crude form of ransomware infected my laptop a few months ago. A white box popped up and covered most of the screen. A message within the box advised me to call a number to get the problem fixed.

I hung up on the scam callers, ignored the fake arrest warning and managed to fix my laptop without calling anyone. But I remain concerned about the large volume of fraudulent calls and Internet scams that continue to pollute the nation’s phone lines and cable networks.

Consumers aren’t the only people who suffer. Legitimate charities suffer, too. With one exception, I no longer pledge contributions over the phone or online.

I’ve debated how to deal with those surprisingly persistent scam calls, in particular. For a while, I pretended to put callers on hold by placing the phone receiver in front of a radio speaker. Or I pretended to transfer the caller to my own technology department by randomly pushing a few keys on my phone. Now I just hang up immediately. I don’t want to waste any time with them.

For now on, however, I think I’m going to take the time to report scam calls to the Federal Trade Commission at The FTC doesn’t investigate individual complaints, but the agency says complaints help detect patterns in fraud and abuse that might lead to investigations and possibly the elimination of some practices.

Complaints are logged into a national database that is used by local, state, federal and international law enforcement agencies.

Lodging a complaint for statistical purposes probably isn’t a highly valuable use of time, but it seems like the right thing to do. Maybe investigating fraud eventually will become a higher national and international priority.

Meanwhile, be on constant alert for crooks who combine old tricks with new technology. Don’t give them your money, personal information or your time.

For official tips from the FTC on how to avoid fraud, see

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Family helps keep memory of circus worker alive

May 27, 2016 2 comments

This time of year, cemeteries are busy places for the living. The Memorial Day weekend is a popular time for people to visit the burial sites of loved ones and tend to their graves.

Some kind-hearted souls even tend to the gravesites of people they didn’t knew. The grave of George Mitchell, a young circus worker killed in a freakish accident, gets that kind of treatment.

Mitchell is buried in a cemetery near my hometown of Lake Preston, S.D. No one seems to know his full story. Even the final seconds of his life are clouded in speculation. Why did he leap to his death?

Here’s what’s known, based on a 1928 report from the Lake Preston Times, a weekly newspaper:

Mitchell was about 19. He had joined a circus sideshow in Texas about seven weeks before his death. After a performance in Salem, S.D, the Zellmar Bros. Circus headed north. Just south of Lake Preston, one of the trucks passed over a railroad crossing just before a train rolled by.

An apparently startled Mitchell, who had been sleeping, jumped out of the back of the truck, perhaps seeking safety. Instead, he hit the train engine and was killed.

His colleagues thought he had family in Ohio or Missouri, but no relatives could be reached, at least not immediately. So workers took up a collection to pay for his funeral. A memorial service was held in a show tent in Doland, S.D. The funeral service was held at an undertaker’s parlor in Lake Preston, and Mitchell was buried in the Lake Preston Cemetery.

The graveside is marked by a plain, rectangular headstone that says: “George Mitchell died on Zellmar Bros. Circus 5-25-1928.”

Here’s where the story takes an uplifting turn.

I’ve been aware of the story about the circus worker for decades. However, I just recently learned that members of the Wilde family of Lake Preston have been tending to Mitchell’s gravesite – pulling weeds, planting flowers and watering the vegetation.

Margaret Wilde says her mother, Alice Wilde, and her aunt, Alyce Knutson, started tending to the gravesite more than 20 years ago. After the two women passed away in the late 2000s, Margaret and her sister, Susan Buer, took over the duty.

“I remember my mother saying, ‘It must be awful not knowing where your child is or what happened,’” Margaret says. “I think about how devastating that must have the parents.”

In addition to being an old friend, Margaret is a fellow journalist. She’s the assistant editor of the Times and the De Smet News. She keeps a copy of the Times’ original story about Mitchell’s death on her refrigerator. She looked up the story years ago to help satisfy her mother’s curiosity about Mitchell’s headstone.

Who knows? Maybe someday long-lost relatives of Mitchell’s will want a copy of the story. In the meantime, they can take comfort in knowing that George hasn’t been forgotten, and that his gravesite is being kept tidy.

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Go, Sioux Falls State!

January 27, 2016 Leave a comment

Years ago, critics of state spending on higher education feared that the University Center in Sioux Falls was on course to become South Dakota’s seventh public university. About the only feature missing was a football team. Sioux Falls State University, some people jokingly called it.

These days, the greater challenge is keeping the school a relevant and worthwhile educational option for students.

Enrollment has been dropping at the classroom center once known as USDSU, an odd name that combined the abbreviations of three state universities. Meanwhile, some other colleges in Sioux Falls are closing. Kilian Community College will close in May, and Colorado Technical Institute will shut down its Sioux Falls location in September.

The University Center, or UC, is not closing. However, the South Dakota Board of Regents is exploring a new role for the UC, which is short for the South Dakota Public Universities & Research Center. The center  currently offers limited classes from other state universities.

“UC offers a totally unique way for students to earn a degree from a state university without leaving Sioux Falls,” the institution says on its website. For example, a student could earn an MBA from the University of South Dakota, a nursing degree from South Dakota State University, or an IT degree from Dakota State University.

Turning UC into a junior college has been discussed. However, a more likely possibility apparently is that the school simply would offer more two-year degrees and one- year certifications and be administered by USD. There’s probably merit to that approach, but I prefer the junior college option.

Create a full-fledged, two-year, community college for students who might not be ready to attend a four-year school or might want to take classes on the side. Turning UC into a juco also would differentiate it from another public institution in Sioux Falls: Southeast Technical Institute.

DSU, SDSU and USD are close enough to Sioux Falls to serve students on their own campuses. The city’s two, prominent private colleges, Augustana University and the University of Sioux Falls, also can help fill gaps in local educational offerings.

Maybe the Regents could work Sioux Falls into the name of the revised school, so that South Dakota’s largest city finally has a state college and not just a classroom center. How about Sioux Falls State Community College?

Maybe SFSCC could even have a basketball team. Go, Sioux Falls State!

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Thank goodness for the ACA

December 6, 2015 Leave a comment

The rising cost of health care and health insurance recently hit home with me, and it struck hard.

I got a letter from the company that’s provided my health insurance for the past three years. The letter outlined changes in policy administration. Initially, I didn’t pay much attention it. I set the letter aside, and read it closer a few days later. That’s when I discovered that, to my horror, my insurance premiums were going up. Way up. Indeed, they already had increased.

Effective Oct. 1, my monthly premium went up 87 percent. Eight-seven percent!

My first thought was, well, that’s the end of self-employment; it’s time to find a regular job with benefits that include subsidized health care for employees.

My second thought was, hmm, do I really need health insurance? Am I a big enough gambler to go without it for a while?

After I regained the ability to think straight, I started checking healthcare plans available under the federal Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as Obamacare. I qualified for coverage and was steered in the direction of a basic plan. I signed up and, as a result, my insurance premiums will be going down in 2016, not up.

I probably should have checked out the AFC a couple of years ago, but it’s been such a political football. The law takes a lot of bashing from out-of-touch politicians and special-interest advocates who don’t need it and want to get rid of it.

From my perspective as someone who works but gets no paid vacation, sick leave or any other benefit, the ACA will be a big help. I’m glad it’s still around. I’m not going to call it Obamacare any more. That strikes me as derisive.

Though well-intentioned, I’m sure the ACA has flaws. I wish critics in Congress, regardless of party affiliation, would focus on fixing shortcomings in the law rather than constantly grandstand about the need to repeal it.

Supporters of the ACA at least tried to address the problem of health-insurance accessibility for less-than-wealthy Americans. For that, I’m thankful. It’s allowed me to stay self-employed and covered.

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