Sunday, June 6, 2010

Recent Scams

Various people have been trying to take my money recently! In one case, it was obvious enough; in a second, by a close shave; and in a third, by an office of my employer.

Case 1: The Appeal to Ignorant Vanity
This last one is probably more well-known, but over the last month, I've received three separate requests for biographical information for such fine publications as The Marquis' Who's Who in America. I've heard about this one before. I remember looking up this wacky character who asked me an incoherent questiona bout quantum mechanics in my first ever public lecture (the lecture didn't have anything to do with quantum mechanics): most of his CV were dozens of listings in "Who's Who"-type publications and lectures to local inmates on quantum mechanics and philosophy (captive audience!). The thing I love about the Who's Who books is that the end product — which no one buys except the fools, I expect (let's hope most public libraries know better) — contains a list of the fooled. On the other hand, this guy had tenure, so perhaps he was allowing himself to be scammed in order to scam his higher-ups.

Case 2: The Spurious Internet Domain Registration
My quasi-professional photography site has its own domain name: www.visualdetail.com. I pay various parties modest amounts to host the photos and keep the domain name registered to me. The domain end of this only comes up every three to five years or so, so it's never fresh in my mind what the deal is, when the next re-up is due, what phone number I used to register, even what company I registered with! So I get this letter from Domain Registry of America (a Canadian company) requesting that I renew my domain name for another one, two, or five years. The amount seems familiar and I have very little recollection of the company. As I'm writing the check, a glimmer of a memory comes back about my actual registrar (called "Joker"). So what the hell is this company all about? Turns out I've never paid or contacted them, but that they are able to look up the address of anyone who owns a domain name, send them something which looks very much like a legit bill, but is actually a contract to transfer my domain name to them for a fee. Given their careful wording, it appears that little can be done about them legally. 

Case 3: The Parking Ticket
There is a row of parking on the Bucknell campus, up the hill toward the observatory which is often my last resort when close things fill up. It is not posted as anything, I see other faculty/staff stickers in it, it's adjacent to posted staff-parking, so I figure that it is fair game for anyone. One day, having parked there without incident many times, I get a $20 ticket for "EMPLOYEE IN STUD. PARKING". Am I not studly enough? The ticket reports further that it is "NOT APPEALABLE". And yet, somehow, contravening laws of logic or nature, I am able to email the office and appeal.
Ticket #09B00455
Appeal Reason:
=========================================

Hi there, I got this ticket for parking in "student parking" but there's no indication whatsoever on the street that I can see (I just drove by again) that it is student parking. It was the parking just off of the stadium. I'm fine to not park there, but if you're going to ticket there, you must have things posted better. Thanks!

Matthew Slater
Assistant Professor of Philosophy
My appeal is heard and denied on the grounds that the ticket is unappealable.
Dear, MATTHEW SLATER
Thank you for your parking ticket appeal. The University Parking Appeals Board, consisting of faculty, staff, and student representatives, carefully reviewed your appeal
with the below resolution 
. . . .
The following ticket appeal has been denied. You are responsible for payment of this citation. Thank you for your time and cooperation. University Parking Appeals Board
Decision: Staff in Student parking is not able to be appealed per the University parking regulations.

When I protested that this really seemed absurd — to ticket for parking in an unmarked area, to make certain kinds of tickets "unappealable" — my second appeal received a personal response: "I have checked as well, and if you'll notice there is a sign post that has no sign on it. These signs are taken to be placed in dorm rooms or just taken on a dare by students. We will have facilities replace the sign which did state Student Parking." I pointed out that no sign had ever been there since I had come to Bucknell (nor have I seen it go up again). I guess the sign post was supposed to have clued me in enough to call parking services as I was driving around looking for parking? (I'm pretty sure that's illegal in PA.)

So are these three cases scams? My inclination is to say yes, though I note that they all appear to be legal. The first two involve companies offering real services: publishing books with names and short biographies of people (perhaps also selling that information to spammers, but never mind that) and registering domain names. It's just that you probably don't need these services. The last is merely a nifty way of helping the bottom line of a university or other highly bureaucratized institution: have unlabeled parking areas you police with unappealable tickets. Sure feels like a scam! It's like a tax on new employees.
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