Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Where There's Smoke, There's Fire (Usually. But Not Always.)

I try not to leap to conclusions about ethically questionable behavior. Sometimes, there's a perfectly simple, perfectly reasonable, explanation for something that looks like (for example) collusion.

It's just that I can't think of one, off the top of my head.

According to a Brian X. Chen article in today's New York Times, New York's attorney general is investigating why a "kill switch" hasn't been incorporated into smartphones.

Apparently, the major carriers (the AG is asking for "assistance" from AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, T-Mobile US, and US Cellular) have been reluctant to add the feature that Samsung has developed for its phones, which "would have allowed users to 'brick' their phones, or disable the devices remotely, to discourage criminals from stealing them."

Smartphone and tablet thefts have become increasingly popular, accounting for more than 14% of all crimes reported in New York last year.

Back at the dawn of time, a.k.a. the '80s and '90s, when I worked in the automotive industry, stealing high-end car radios was the popular crime of opportunity. Automakers and their sound-system suppliers developed removable radios that would be "bricked" (we didn't use the term, but that was the effect) if the correct code was not entered when the radio was powered up. And, surprise: radio thefts declined dramatically.

So why would wireless companies be reluctant to see this security feature added?

A Sprint  representative said that the company was "working with" vendors to come up with a solution, and Verizon Wireless said that "it would support an antitheft tool for Android phones if and when a manufacturer came up with a solution." Hmmm.....

Meanwhile, San Francisco's district attorney said that he had reviewed emails between a Samsung executive and a software developer, which "implied that the carriers were concerned that the software would eat into the profit they made from the insurance programs that many consumers buy to cover lost or stolen phones."

Doesn't that look like a little flame in all that smoke?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Today's Least Surprising Headline. Sigh.

Today's New York Times carries a Shaila Dewan article with this headline: "Banks Fail to Comply With Parts of Mortgage Settlement, Report Says"

Who here is surprised? Not me.

According to the article, the court-appointment monitor of the settlement requirements found that Citibank, Bank of America, and JPMorgan Chase all failed several key tests, meaning that "some borrowers are still trapped in a tangle of red tape and errors as they try to save their homes from foreclosure."

(For those of you who -- like me -- have trouble remembering what this deal, reached early in 2012, involved, click here for a basic primer.)

Early on, there was a lot of skepticism as to how well the deal would really work out for consumers, as opposed to the banks. As the Times' Gretchen Morgenson wrote,
There’s no doubt that the banks are happy with this deal. You would be, too, if your bill for lying to courts and end-running the law came to less than $2,000 per loan file. 

(Click here for her full February 2012 analysis)

Looks like Gretchen was right.

While banks appear to have fulfilled "the bulk" of their financial obligations ahead of schedule, they're doing far less well on the improvement "in areas like ensuring that a loan was actually delinquent at the time that a foreclosure was initiated, and that the homeowner had been given accurate information in writing, and notifying homeowners of missing documents in their file in a timely manner."

Dewan noted that banks can be fined "up to $5 million if they do not improve their performance on a failed test." But what's $5 million to these guys?

Chump change.