Sunday, June 17, 2018

Possible Vacation Rental Scam

A friend asked me to check into an ad that she saw posted on Craigslist, under the "Volunteers" section.
We're currently seeking for someone that can post ads on craigslist for 2-3 hours daily and earn 300$ weekly. For more info you can buzz Fred on (802) 851-0347. 
NOTE: You must be 18 years or more and no pranks please. 
First, I found it rather odd that the ad would be posted under "Volunteers", instead of under "Jobs". I also noticed how they posted the ad five times in one day on June 6th, which pushes a few buttons on my Scam Sensor, right away. Plus, reading the ad indicates that they might not be a native speaker of the English language.

Okay, the phone number uses a Vermont area code, which is already a bad sign. Accepting any kind of job offer from someone out-of-State is usually inadvisable, unless you can verify their identity.

Attempting to call reveals it to be a Google Voice number, which provides a great deal of protection if you want to conceal your identity. The person behind it did respond to text messages, though. The phone number doesn't show-up in an Internet search, of course. So, there's no way to verify their identity.

From what I was told, the "job" consists of working between two and three hours a day. In that time, you'll be given about twenty ads to post for vacation rentals in South Carolina and in Hawaii. After a week's work, you'll get paid three hundred dollars, via Paypal, bank transfer, cash bank deposit or check. If you work seven days a week, three hours at a time and make 300 dollars, that comes to a little over 14 dollars an hour. If you're only working five days, that's twenty dollars an hour.

That ain't bad.

Before you begin posting ads, you're expected to set-up a new GMail account specifically for this job with an accompanying Craigslist account, the passwords for both accounts are to be shared with "Fred". His reasons for wanting the log-in details? He claims that he needs your passwords in order to verify the accounts. This is, of course, bullshit. You can verify any email account's existence by simply giving the other person your email address and telling them to send you a message. My friend did that and received an email from an account registered to James Owen, not Fred Jose. Supposedly, this is yet another person that had contacted Fred about the job and provided the log-in details for his GMail account. Another possible victim may be someone named Favian Hernandez. So, Fred won't send you anything using his own email address, preferring to use other people's.

He also claims that he needs to monitor the ads and follow-up with the responses. I've always understood that working in the vacation rental business involves working long hours and struggling for every dollar you can get your hands on due to the intense competition in that line of work. If I was working in the vacation rental business and had other people posting ads on my behalf, I'd have them forward the responses to me, so I could respond to them with my own account, answering any questions they had and close the sale. I certainly wouldn't trust some lackey with what is likely to be my main source of income.

Note: when people work for real vacation rental companies, they get a company email account, they don't use GMail, Hotmail, Yahoo, etc. That's one way to tell the real people from the frauds. You should also read this.

The person sending the texts to my friend identified himself as "Fred Jose", originally from Vermont, but has lived in Hawaii for five months. A search on Intellius reveals no person by that name in their records as having resided in Vermont.

He also claims to work for Holiday Lettings, which is a company based in the United Kingdom. Again, there is no listing I can find of anyone named "Fred Jose" working as an agent for that company.

In addition to setting-up a GMail and Craigslist account, then giving "Fred" the log-in details, he also wants you to provide him with your full name and address, along with your preferences for how you want to get paid.

You may be wondering why he would go through all this trouble? Why not simply set-up fake GMail and Craigslist accounts on his own under fictitious names?

Well, one reason is that one person can only post so many ads in a day or even a week. If you have two people posting 20 ads a day, seven days a week, that's 280 ads a week, adding 140 more ads per person that you recruit. However, the main answer is that it provides an extra layer of protection for himself. After all, when people learn that they've been scammed, they'll file a complaint with Craigslist, GMail and law enforcement to discover the identity and location of the scammer. All Fred has to do is add your address to the GMail account and the cops will come for you, not him. It's also quite possible, even likely, that Federal law enforcement could get involved with an investigation like this. After all, you're potentially defrauding people in other states and anything that crosses state lines automatically becomes a Federal matter. So, you could find yourself on the hook to reimburse people the money they lost, along with maybe doing time in a Federal prison.

As for Fred, he'll be safe and sound somewhere, spending your money on hookers & blow.

Yes, I have no doubt that "Fred Jose" is running a vacation rental scam, apparently targeting people in South Carolina, Hawaii and possibly other places. Why else to hide behind multiple email accounts and a Google Voice number? Fred offers no proof of his identity or employment, you're supposed to take his word for everything.

So, if you've answered the ad posted by "Fred", ask him to send you a picture of his business card, along with his company email address. If he won't, it's likely that he's running a scam and you can move on from there.

UPDATE: I have been informed that Fred was asked to provide a picture of his business card and refused to do this. He stated that he only provides his business card when people are actually renting the property. Instead, he sent a picture of his supposed Colorado ID, which has the name "Daniel Madrid Jose", instead of "Fred Jose". He claimed that "Fred" is a nickname given to him by his friends.

Duane Browning

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The "Active Shooter" Game

Imagine being so devoid of humanity that you develop a game where people can play as an active shooter going on a murderous rampage through a school.

If you're Anton Makarevskiy, you don't have to imagine, since that's what he did. As if just thinking about making such a game wasn't bad  enough, he set-up an Indiegogo page to raise money in its support. To their credit, Indiegogo shut that shit down.

The name of their company is "Revived Games", which is unfortunately very similar to the name of another company, "Revived Gaming", who took no small amount of misdirected abuse because of the similarity. For the record, Revived Gaming is an e-sports organization; they don't develop games.

The website for this game is and its anonymously-registered in Russia, but their servers are Bluehost, which is an American company.

According to their forums, three people were behind the Indiegogo campaign. I'm including links to their respective Twitter accounts:
They also have a YouTube channel, where Makarevskiy publishes under the name "Arthur Belkin".

So, if you've sent an abusive Tweet or direct message to @Gaming_Revived, in the mistaken belief that they were behind the "Active Shooter" game, I hope that you'll do the Adult Thing and send a apology to the 100% innocent people that you abused, especially if you threatened them! 

While I personally find a "game" based on such a premise to be morally repugnant, there is no law against such games being created and I personally don't think that there should be such legislation.

Sure, you can send a Tweet to express your outrage to @ataberdyev and/or @ACID_WTF and I doubt that it would do any good because I don't think they care what anyone thinks. Russians haven't experienced school shootings like have in America, so they don't take them as seriously. I guess they see such incidents as a natural byproduct of our national love affair with high-powered firearms.

So, before you send an angry message to company because of something you think they've done, take the extra step and make absolutely sure they did it.

Duane Browning

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Drying Your Wet Shoes

Getting away from the serious stuff, I'm going to share how I dry my shoes when they get waterlogged over the course of my workday. I learned this method while working as a bike messenger in Honolulu and it has certainly helped prevent my having to wear soggy shoes the day after a heavy rain.

It's always a good idea to have, at least, two pairs of shoes that you can use for work or school during the week. So, while one pair is drying, you can wear the other.

Okay, you come home from work or school and your shoes are soaking wet. Your shoes are so wet that you're leaving little puddles with every step you take.

Take off your shoes and socks, but don't put your wet socks in the hamper or they'll stink-up all the clothes you have in there. Instead, wash your socks in the bathroom sink, using dish soap or bath soap to kill any kind of bacteria from your feet. Once you've done this, hang them from your shower rod to dry. Once they dry, you can throw them into the hamper.

Drying your shoes will take a bit longer, because they are made of thicker material than your socks. This is why it's good idea to have a spare pair of shoes.

First, take the laces off. Holding one lace firmly from one tip between your thumb and forefinger, pull the lace between your fingers to squeeze the water out. Do this until the water stops running out. Instead of using your fingers, you could hold the lace between two pens or anything that is firm and not absorbent.

Next, take some old newspapers, wad pages up into little balls and stuff them into your open shoes until there's no more space. Seriously, just shove wads of newspaper in there. Then re-lace your shoes and tighten the laces up and much as you can. This will reduce the amount of space inside the shoes and allow the newspaper to make physical contact with the wet interior of the shoe. The newspaper is naturally absorbent and will absorb the water from your shoes into itself. As you are tightening the laces, you'll notice water being forced out of the shoes because the insides are filled with newspaper.

For the final, open part of the shoe where your foot goes in, shove in more wads of newspaper and make sure that it makes contact with the sole and sides. Take a piece of string and wrap it around that part of the shoe to hold the newspaper inside.

You should make certain that there is no part inside the shoe that doesn't have newspaper. Any unfilled spaces will not get dried-out. Wrap each shoe individually with newspaper, top to bottom, front to back.

Leave the shoes to dry for about an hour. Personally, I leave them on my bathroom next to inside of my door to take advantage of the air circulation.

About an hour later, open-up the shoes without removing the laces and remove all the newspaper wads. You'll notice that the shoes are a lot less water-logged, but still not completely dry. Simply take more wads of newspaper, fill the shoes up  and wrap them again. Once you've done this, leave them for about two hours.

When you come back again to open the shoes, you'll notice that the wads of newspaper are a lot less wet than the previous batch. The shoes may now be dry enough to wear the next day and you could stop and this point, but I recommend filling the shoes up again with more ads of newspaper and leaving them overnight.

When you open-up your shoes the next day, they should be dry. If not completely dry, you still have your extra pair of shoes. If you decide to wear them, liberally spray 91%-strength isopropyl alcohol inside your shoes to remove any remaining moisture and kill-off any odd-causing bacteria. Let the alcohol work for a few minutes before putting the shoes on. If you decide to wear your other pair of shoes, spray the insides of your drying shoes with the alcohol and leave to dry for the day. When you get back, your shoes should be completely dry and odor-free.

Sure, it takes a bit of work. But, it's preferable than wearing soggy shoes for the whole day.

You're welcome.

Duane Browning

Saturday, June 2, 2018

I Got Robocalled

Twice this month, I received a robocall, supposedly from the American Coalition for Injured Veterans.

The voice, which I really can't refer to as "the caller", identified itself as "Chris". It was obviously programmed to react to specific words or phrases with a set response. Even when I didn't speak, the robocall asked me if I was still there.

The number displayed in my caller ID was 808-400-0492 and Googling the number revealed that a number of people had also been called and had reported it as a robocaller.

As far as the Hawaii-based phone number is concerned, it is not spoofed. You can actually call them back, but you won't speak to a real person. Instead, you'll get the robocall back on the phone. According to this site, the carrier for this number is Neutral Tandem - Hawaii, LLC.

Who Are They?

So, who is the "American Coalition for Injured Veterans"? Are they an organization that helps injured veterans, as the name suggests?

No, they aren't and their website is pretty honest about it. Here's what they say about themselves:
"American Coalition for Injured Veterans PAC is a non-partisan independent expenditure-only group established under Section 527 of the tax code. Through the support of like-minded concerned citizens we have pledged to push and fight government for stronger legislation and elections of candidates that support our Veterans,"
So, its purpose isn't to specifically help injured veterans, but as a lobbying group and to help elect candidates to public office. The website, Open Secrets, has labelled this organization as a Super PAC, which means that its purpose is to raise unlimited funds from people, corporations and unions but isn't allowed to contribute or coordinate with specific candidates. It was registered with the Federal Election Commission  on 27 December 2017.

So, their name is deceptive, to say the least. This group isn't about directly helping injured veterans, but is intended to influence political elections and decision-making.

Who's Running It

There's nothing on the website that identifies anyone working within the organization, so you don't know who is in charge. Fortunately, there are other ways to find out.

The FEC filings mention one person as both Treasurer and Custodian of Records; this person is also listed as the registrant of their website and his name is Zachary Bass.

Checking the Internet for any mention of Zachary Bass being any sort of advocate on veterans' issues didn't reveal anything. However, Zachary is somewhat prolific in creating websites
  • for volunteer firefighters
  • for firefighters, healthcare workers, military, law enforcement and teachers
  • for police and first responders
  • for "American Coalition for Injured Veterans" 
  • another site for veterans
There may be more, but I think these are enough to show a pattern. Mr Bass has set-up several websites that claim to exist to help specific groups of people and these groups are widely appreciated and supported across the United States, especially veterans and first responders. However, none of these sites include information regarding who is is actually running the organization. Instead, they include what basically amounts to clip art with a list of statistics thrown onto them, apparently to tug at people's heartstrings.

A rather shameless example of the use of clip art is this picture

Which is a commonly-used stock photo, sourced from Getty Images.

Seriously, Zachary? You're so concerned about veterans that you click-around the Web for some stock pictures to post on your website, instead of getting a camera and taking a picture of a wounded veteran yourself?

Aside from their homepage, they only have a Twitter account. They have no presence on Facebook, yet.

Where Are They?

Clicking on the Contact link at the top of their page provides a physical address, which is actually a post office:
American Coalition for Injured Veterans
​1200 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Ste 6701
Washington D.C. 20044
and they want all donations mailed to this address, which is actually a UPS Store.
National Mail Processing Center at:
2931 S. 108th St, #274
​West Allis, WI 53227
Okay, according to the website registration, Zachary Bass lives in Baltimore, MD. Since West Allis is almost 800 miles away from Baltimore, I'm wondering why he has the donations go there, instead of to his PO box in Washington DC? Who is supposed to be picking-up the donations at the UPS Store in Wisconsin?

Does Zachary Bass want to let us in on what is going to be done with donors' money?

My Conclusions

I've heard about various groups that claimed to be raising money to help veterans, only for those groups to be revealed as frauds. Those people used vets as props in their quest to line their pockets, evoking images of gravely-wounded veterans, listing the tragic statistics of post-service life for many of them and plastering patriotic images all over their websites and literature.

Add to that, American Coalition for Injured Veterans' deceptive name, seeming to be about wounded veterans, when really it's just a political action committee.

It's possible that Zachary Bass really cares about veterans, first responders, etc and is really out to try to help them. But, when you resort to robocalling people, using clip art and not telling people who's running your organization, I'm a little doubtful of your honesty and I'm left wondering what are your true intentions.

There is so much about Zachary Bass' little organization that smells bad to me that I feel like I need to wash out my nostrils with lye soap!

My Recommendations

If anyone is really interested in donating their money to a reputable organization that helps veterans, here's a list of groups that have received high ratings from Charity Watch:

If you get a call from "Chris" at the American Coalition for Injured Veterans, just hang-up and go make a donation to one of the organizations I've listed.

Duane Browning

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Possible Spectrum Scam

I received a call this morning from 916-578-963‬ shortly after I woke up. The number only came through as nine digits, instead of ten.

A man with an Indian accent told me that he was calling from Spectrum. After all the India-based scams where people were posing as IRS agents, I was immediately distrustful. I told him that I was on my way to work and he hung-up. 

Later, I tried calling back and the number wouldn't connect, which makes me suspect that the number was spoofed.

I called Spectrum Technical Support and informed them about the phone call. As of the time I had called, no one else had reported being contacted by apparent scammers. It's possible that people have been contacted and either didn't answer the call because the number looked suspicious or had been duped and won't realize it until a later date.

Time will tell.

Duane Browning

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Duralock Proline Disc Lock

I bought one of these to secure a storage locker I rent in which to stash extra tools for work.
It came with two keys. I kept one on my keychain and stashed the other at home. Everything was going fine until I accidentally bent the key I carried and it broke when I tried to straighten it. 

That left the spare. But, if something happened to the spare, I'd be screwed. So, remembering that there's supposed to be a warranty on my padlock, I tried to contact Duralock to order a replacement.

Unfortunately, that wasn't as easy as I hoped it would be. There is no contact information on the label in order to take advantage of the warranty and an Internet search for the actual owners of the brand proved fruitless. It turns out that the locks are made in China and India, with no offices in the USA. So, I had hit a dead end.

But, all was not lost. I contacted Aloha Keys Awards & Gifts here in Honolulu and they were able to make me a new key in only a few minutes for a little over three dollars. They are a key distributor, which means that they have access to all key blanks, including those for Duralock. Their locksmith told me that thousands of people have already come to their shop to have new keys made for their Duralock padlocks, so I wasn't the first and I won't be the last.

I'll grant that Duralock isn't an expensive lock to buy, but it does the job well enough. So. if you need a replacement key, just go to your nearest locksmith company which stocks key blanks and have new key made.

In case you haven't guessed: that warranty is basically worthless.

Duane Browning

Friday, December 29, 2017

An Open Letter to James Cawley & Vic Mignogna

Dear James and Vic,

I felt that I owe both of you and all the people who have worked with you over the years an apology.

First, a little background:

Like both of you, I have been a fan of Star Trek from my childhood. I was a fan of all the Star Trek series and I’ve seen all he films featuring the original cast. I even had a collection of Star Trek books when I was growing-up, because I always wanted more Star Trek.

One evening, I discovered Star Trek: New Voyages and I was instantly in love! Sure, it wasn’t the same as the TV series and movies, but it was like a glass of cold water after a long walk in the desert. I watched every episode several times and eagerly awaited the next.

Then, Star Trek Continues arrived and though it took some adjusting because of having James Kirk portrayed by two different people, it was more Star Trek, which is what I wanted.

Then, I did what I am apologizing for: I became a donor for Star Trek Axanar.

I was introduced to Axanar via a Facebook post by James Heltzer, who was advocating that people should support it and become backers. Further encouraged by the advocacy of George Takei, I contributed $65 to help fund what I hoped to be an awesome Star Trek fan film. I didn’t have the opportunity to back either of your projects, so I wanted to be one of those who supported a professionally-made fan film whose trailer and Prelude to Axanar inspired me to part with some of my own money. I hoped to watch this film and see my name listed as one of the people who helped it become a reality.

I made my contribution and eagerly awaited the airing of the film and the arrival of my perks, both promised by December 2014, only a few months after I had sent in my money. I Liked the Axanar page on Facebook and joined the Fan Group, in order to keep up with the progress of the film.

It was shortly after I joined the fan group that I began to suspect that I had made a mistake. Alec Peters seemed to have an extremely thin skin when it came to criticism, even from people who had made contributions far larger than my own. Rather than simply start making the film, Peters was talking about renting a warehouse and setting-up his own for-profit studio, even though that plan hadn't been previously mentioned on the Kickstarter page. I had erroneously assumed that Axanar would be filmed using the Star Trek Phase 2 sets, since he had appeared in the Going Boldly short and someone from New Voyages had posted positive comments on an Axanar video. I had wrongly assumed that the two were somehow connected. After all, why reinvent the wheel? Why build your own studio when a studio and experienced staff were already available and supporting your work?

Taking a fresh look at the Kickstarter page, I realized that my earlier assumptions were incorrect. There were announced plans to rent a warehouse - for one year, not the three years Peters ended-up paying the rent on - and build a studio from scratch. Over the eighteen months from the end of the Axanar Kickstarter campaign until the lawsuit, there was more than enough time to get the whole thing accomplished. Axanar had met both its $275,000 and $400,00 stretch goals, but very little was done of what they said they were going to do once those stretch goals were met. Like many others, I began to wonder what was being done with our money, but asking those types of questions often elicited a hostile response from Peters and resulted in people getting kicked-out of the Donor Group.

I also noticed a post on Mr Cawley’s Facebook page that mentioned that someone he had helped in the past had betrayed him, somehow. James didn’t mention any names, but I suspected that the alleged betrayer was none other than Alec Peters.

My discomfiture grew as Peters’ behavior in the fan group became often hostile to even the slightest hint of impatience from donors or supporters. Things were being pushed back and the date for the expected arrival of Axanar and my perks, December 2014, came and went without the slightest hint of when the project would be completed. It was always “Back to making Axanar!”, without mentioning exactly how much progress, if any, had been made. An online store was opened and pictures of patches were posted in the fan group, but none were ever shipped. It was like they kept dangling a carrot for us, expecting donors to giggle with glee at all the cool stuff that would soon be ours.

In December 2015, about eighteen months after I had made my contribution and a year after my perk were supposed to have already arrived at my door, Axanar got sued. As a result of the discovery phase of the trial, I learned about how Peters had used donor funds, including mine, to pay for lavish meals, new tires for his car, his insurance, phone bills, travel expenses and much more. The biggest expense was for the much-vaunted studio in which not a single inch of film had been shot for Axanar or anything else.

All that money was gone forever and Axanar was no closer to completion than it had been on the day I had first heard about it.

I felt like a fool. But, the worst was still to come.

When Paramount released its fan film guidelines, I instantly realized that not only was Axanar doomed to either be a short film under thirty minutes, which was not what we had been promised and the reason we had all given Peters our money, or that Axanar would never be released and our money had simply been wasted.

But, worse than that was the fact that Star Trek Phase 2 and Star Trek Continues weren’t going be able to keep producing films anymore. So, the two fan film productions that I had enjoyed were about to fade away…

and I was partly responsible.

Certainly, others had contributed more than I did, some in the thousands of dollars. My $65 was a drop in the ocean of the over one million dollars raised to support Axanar. But, however small my part had been, I did have a part in helping it along. By supporting Axanar, I had contributed to the outright demise of Star Trek: Phase 2 and the early conclusion of Star Trek Continues, both projects for which many people had contributed their time, hard work and money to produce labors of love that I was lucky enough to have discovered and enjoyed for many hours of repeatedly watching episodes back-to-back.

I wish that I could take it back. I wish that I could take back my $65 and delete every post I made that supported Axanar and feel like my hands were clean of this awful trainwreck. But, I did what I did and it came back to bite me. Worse than my own sense of being suckered by Peters is the fact that I had inadvertently contributed to destroying two fan film productions that I loved as much as the TV series that I’ve watched over the years.

Alec Peters recently sent out another email announcing the establishment of his new studio in Georgia. As if the donors hadn’t been exploited enough, he stated that another $150,000 would be needed to finally make Axanar and to send out the three-years-late perks.

Don’t worry, gentlemen. I won’t be repeating my earlier mistake and send him any more money. I’ve learned my lesson.

I just wish that the lesson I learned hadn’t come at your expense and the expense of your teams.

Again, I sincerely apologize for the part, however small, I played in all this. I wish there was a way I could help undo the damage I helped cause.

Live long and prosper.

Duane Browning