Texas Realtor Tom Grisak Helps Attorney General Fight Bad Company

Note: The following story about Thomas Grisak appeared in the Nov. 3, 2017 Watchdog column in The Dallas Morning News.


For more than 30 years as a Realtor, Tom Grisak from Allen had a spotless record with his clients. He knew of no major complaints against him.

Until there was one.

An anonymous online post accused him of being too harsh when talking to a potential client  after he didn’t win a house listing. He says it’s not true.

“In all honesty, I should have ignored it and lived life,” he says. “But I didn’t want my clients to think I was anything less than above board.”

He hired a reputation management company he found online. The California company, Solvera Group, promised to handle his problem. He paid $10,800.

Solvera handled it, for sure. Solvera handled his negative online post and posts hurting several thousand other worried customers in a way that should get recognized as one of the more dastardly Internet schemes of all time.

The company created fake complaints and then orchestrated their removal.

The company’s strategy was brilliant in its design. To fix negative comments, the company, run by the elusive Chris Dinota, allegedly had to fool not only customers, but also Texas lawyers, state judges and even the big dog itself, Google. All of them fell for the scheme over and over. Web pages were removed from public search.

Grisak and other victims are at the center of an extraordinary lawsuit brought by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and his legal staff against Solvera. Paxton’s lawsuit appears to have helped shut down the company. Phones are disconnected, and its websites are offline. The company hasn’t responded to the lawsuit, and there’s no attorney of record for Solvera.

The Watchdog couldn’t find Dinota, the president. No personal records about him could be found. And although the suit was filed Aug. 24, he still hadn’t been served with papers. He’s tough to find. You gotta hear about this crazy company.

Remove negative online comments

Solvera’s public names were InstantComplaintRemovers.com and DefamationRemoval.com. Before the websites were taken down, they bragged of being the “#1 Rated Content Removal Solution” and promised to “Remove Complaints in as Little as 48 Hours.”

The websites said the company helped celebrities, political leaders, lawyers and doctors. The company boasted it could remove negative comments from YouTube videos, blogs, news articles, Yelp reviews and many more.

Dinota told CNN.com in a 2014 story, “We can remove something that shouldn’t be there.”

Big promises. But they were often kept. Forbes describes the elusive Dinota as “The man who duped Google into suppressing bad corporate reviews.”

How Solvera did it

This is how the attorney general says it worked:


Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton

After Realtor Grisak signed a contract, Solvera paid a blogger to post a second negative comment on the targeted post. Then it hired a Texas attorney to handle a defamation lawsuit against the complainer whom Solvera claimed it had identified (even though it’s the wrong person).

The hired lawyer would then file a lawsuit with legal papers Solvera wrote and prepared. Lawyers involved were misled.

Nobody told Grisak he was about to sue anyone. He says he never would have agreed to that. But Grisak Properties vs. Baroro is now a public record — even though that’s not his company’s actual name. Fake names were used in the fake lawsuits.

The judge in his defamation lawsuit was presented with an agreement that both plaintiff and defendant supposedly liked (even though they’re actually one and the same). Judge signed a final judgment “premised on a complete falsehood,” the attorney general’s lawsuit says.

The judgment is an order to Google and other search engines to “de-index” the troublesome web page. De-index means the page is still on the Internet, but is invisible in search results, meaning no one will find it.

Google follows judges’ orders.

So there you go. Judges, lawyers and Google have no idea what’s going on.

And what did go on? The original complainer was never found, and the second one was a dupe. It doesn’t matter. The entire web page vanishes.


Until Paxton sues.

Not so brilliant anymore.

A big case for Ken Paxton

There are names for the strategies employed: libel takedowns and de-indexing injunctions. But few others used these tactics as strategically as this company.

In a statement, Paxton says, “My office will not allow Texas consumers, attorneys and courts to be confused and deceived by this unlawful behavior.”

Like everyone else, I couldn’t find Dinota, the disappearing ex-CEO.

A Google spokesperson told me: “We have measures in place to safeguard the integrity of our search results against bad actors seeking to game the system with fraudulent court orders. We work with law enforcement to combat fraud and abuse of the judicial system and have assisted law enforcement in their ongoing efforts on this issue.”

The Realtor says: “It all became smoke and mirrors. If I’d known that’s what Solvera was planning to do, I would have run away from them so fast and they’d never hear from me again.”

He didn’t know. How could he? Now he’s helping the attorney general make things right.

DallasNews.com staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.

Watchdog Nation celebrates 3 new consumer laws


You did it!

Watchdog Nation celebrates the passage of three new laws aimed at helping Texans protect their pocketbooks and their privacy.

As readers of the Dave Lieber Dallas Morning News Watchdog column know, The Watchdog asked for your help to push state lawmakers into solving five of the most annoying consumer problems in Texas.

We promoted five bills in the 2015 Texas Legislature.

Many thought little would come of these proposals, which we called the “Good Deal” platform.

We used as our bully pulpit The Watchdog column in The Dallas Morning News — and, most important, its thousands of readers, some of whom participated in the campaign to help lawmakers who sponsored the bills. These everyday constituents sent letters and emails stating their support.

It worked.

So how did we do in the 2015 Legislature?

Three of our five bills passed. Three for five! The Watchdog rarely uses exclamation points, but that’s a .600 batting average, good enough to get into a hall of fame.

That’s why Watchdog Nation launched The Watchdog Hall of Fame. Six state lawmakers who worked hard on behalf of these five causes are the inaugural 2015 inductees.

We’re proud to tell you their names: Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano; Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin; Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown; Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker; Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake; and Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston.


Inaugural inductees of The Watchdog Hall of Fame – 2015




Let’s look at what happened in each of the five areas and give lawmakers Good Deal grades.

Insurance policy questions | Grade: A+

A key to my Watchdog Nation consumer rights movement is the idea that we should always ask a bunch of questions before making financial decisions.

But you couldn’t do that in Texas with your homeowners or auto insurance policies without risking a premium increase. Some companies took advantage of a loophole in the law to penalize customers who made inquiries. No more.

Thanks to Watson, it will be illegal in Texas for auto and homeowners insurance companies to penalize customers who only ask questions about their policies, but never seek actual claims.

The insurance industry, in its all-knowing wisdom, decided that simply asking about your policy shows a propensity for accidents. They figure you’ll eventually cost them money.

One man I found considered filing an auto claim but in the end didn’t file and never received any insurance money. His premiums went up for five years anyway.

Watson tried two years ago to get this law passed but didn’t succeed. This time he succeeded.

Support from Watchdog Nation “certainly helped,” Watson spokeswoman Kate Alexander says.

Watson says, “Giving customers the freedom to ask questions about their insurance policies without repercussion is just common sense.”

Learn more: Senate Bills 188 and 189

Kirk Watson Hall of Fame plaque

Roofers’ licensing | Grade: D+

The Watchdog sought a licensing system for roofers to weed out the bad guys.

When two lawmakers — Capriglione and Rep. Kenneth Sheets, R-Dallas — introduced bills that would create a voluntary certification (Capriglione) or registration program (Sheets) that was weaker than licensing. But still, it was an added step of consumer protection.

Unfortunately, neither bill advanced out of House committees to make it to the full House for a vote.

“The countless emails from North Texas readers helped to support the cause of the bill,” Capriglione says. “But it is also important to contact the members of the committee and show them the support for the bill, and more importantly, be at the committee hearing to testify for the bill.”

Live and learn. The Watchdog is paying close attention.

The city of Arlington has taken an extra step to protect its residents from crooked roofers. Last month, the city created a roofers’ registration process that screens roofers who want to work in the city.

Giovanni Capriglione Hall of Fame plaque

Electricity shopping reform | Grade: D-

Priority one for The Watchdog was my idealistic “Retail Electricity Reform Act of 2015.” This proposal had no chance of passage in 2015.

The only reason the grade is not an F is because Turner, who is retiring, did what he always does: fight for electricity customers in Texas.

He authored a bill that would have eliminated the hated penalty fees for customers who don’t use a required minimum amount of power each month. These fees are especially unfair to the elderly and the poor who try to conserve, then get socked with monthly penalties.

These penalties didn’t exist until recently when electricity companies figured out a new way to exploit customers.

Turner’s bill failed. Still, he’ll be missed. No one else in the legislature seems to care about helping consumers navigate the confusing retail electricity market. Rates are advertised with and without added fees. Door-to-door electricity salesmen will say almost anything to make a sale. Annoying fees — unregulated — are tacked on to monthly bills by electricity companies.

Behind the scenes, electricity companies and their lobbying groups convinced lawmakers that there’s nothing major wrong with the system. Public Utility Commission officials also take the attitude that no major changes are needed.

Many Texans disagree.

At least my campaign generated attention. Pros and cons were discussed by me and others on radio, on TV and in two energy newsletters read by industry members across the state and nation.

I’m disappointed that the power industry doesn’t want to clean up its shady marketing practices. Keep it up, and their credibility will match roofers.

The Watchdog is not giving up.

Sylvester Turner Hall of Fame plaque

Debit/credit card surcharges | Grade: A+

Yes, it’s illegal for retailers and others to add a surcharge penalty to customers who pay with a debit or credit card. Governments are excluded and allowed to charge extra.

When somebody complains, merchants get a warning letter from the state. That’s it.

No longer.

Thanks to hard work by Schwertner, anyone who violates the law will get more than a warning letter. They can expect a $500 fine.


Learn more: Senate Bill 641

Charles Schwertner Hall of Fame plaque

Fingerprinting for driver’s licenses | Grade: A+

The curtain officially comes down on the Texas Department of Public Safety’s dream of capturing a full set of fingerprints from every Texan with a driver’s license or state ID card in the next decade. The plan was to include us in a state and ultimately, a national database.

The Watchdog first reported the fingerprinting scheme last year. In February, Taylor and Laubenberg met with DPS Director Steven McCraw and DPS’ top lawyer to talk about ending the program.

Laubenberg met with House Speaker Joe Straus. Taylor met with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott’s chief of staff. Under fire, McCraw stopped the program.

To make it stick, though, a new law was needed.

Laubenberg, Taylor, Schwertner and rookie Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, tried various maneuvers to place into law that only a thumbprint is required. They also wanted DPS to destroy the hundreds of thousands of fingerprints collected during the one year the unauthorized collection took place.

Taylor, a rookie senator, added a Senate amendment to a bill about commercial driver’s licenses. The amendment enacted the thumbprint rule and also required that fingerprints collected from innocent drivers be destroyed by the end of the year.

When that bill got to the House, its author, Capriglione, agreed to let the added portion of the bill stand. It passed.

Learn more: House Bill 1888

Jodie Laubenberg Hall of Fame plaque

Van Taylor Hall of Fame plaque

I’ll be watching for your ideas about consumer matters you want to see fixed in the 2017 session. We’ll battle together. Onward and upward.

Thanks to Michael Hogue of DallasNews.com for designing our Hall of Fame plaques.

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Deja vu: Texas DPS vows to try again to take full fingerprints of innocent Texans

KRLD-AM news radio’s Mitch Carr interviews Dallas Morning News Watchdog columnist Dave Lieber on the surprise news that Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw vows once again to try in 2017 to get all Texas drivers to give full fingerprints for a driver’s license.

Read Tom Benning’s full story www.dallasnews.com/news/politics/h…gerprinting.ece

Here’s the audio interview:




Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.\

Still here? Visit Dave Lieber’s other fun websites: DaveLieber.org

Watchdog Nation exposes ‘the surveillance state of Texas’

The surveillance state of Texas.

That’s what Watchdog Nation founder Dave Lieber calls the current state of affairs in the Lone Star State.

Watchdog Nation is one of the leading voices in favor of privacy rights for Texans. We exposed the Texas Department of Public Safety’s unauthorized collection of full fingerprints of every driver in the state of Texas. We led the fight to stop the practice. And thanks to House Bill 1888, the practice is ending.

We also revealed for the first time the sweetheart, no-bid contract that Gov. Rick Perry’s government (through DPS) secured with a firm staffed by retired FBI agents to set up a system, operated by retired CIA agents, that was supposed to prevent terrorism. TrapWire is a “surveillance detection system” designed to find terrorists in pre-planning stages.

And we showed how DPS claimed 44 arrests were made because of the expensive TrapWire program, but actually there are none. Unfortunately for DPS, this claim was made in a warning email to state lawmakers on the eve of a Watchdog report. DPS warned legislators that The Watchdog’s report on TrapWire could be inaccurate. Turns out it was DPS who made the error.

Now, collected in one place, see the actual stories from Dallas Morning News Watchdog columnist Dave Lieber and Marina Trahan Martinez in which they show piece by piece the surveillance state of Texas.

Catch up here. Read all of our reports, which won top prizes in 2015 from the Society of Professional Journalists, Houston Press Club and National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

The latest:

Watchdog: Turns out DPS’ claimed arrests didn’t happen

The inaccurate report about its TrapWire super-surveillance fits a pattern of stonewalling and deception at the state law enforcement agency.


Former Gov. Rick Perry (left) and the man he appointed, “Colonel” Steve McCraw, DPS Director

Watchdog: Did your Texas legislator make the hall of fame?

The Watchdog asked for your help to push state lawmakers into voting up or down on the Texas Department of Public Safety’s collection of full fingerprints from all Texas drivers. Find out which legislators stopped this invasion of privacy of innocent people in the 2015 Legislature.

Watchdog Extra: Texas lawmakers end full fingerprinting of driver’s license applicants

Some Texas lawmakers were angry when the Texas Department of Public Safety started taking full fingerprints from applicants for driver’s licenses and state ID cards.

tx dps logo

Watchdog: Does Texas DPS share your driver’s license pic with the FBI?

Internal Texas DPS emails show agreement with feds to send driver’s license pics to the FBI. DPS says don’t believe it.

Watchdog: Rather than answer hard questions, DPS fights the press

The Texas Department of Public Safety alerts state lawmakers to what it expects to be critical news reports hours before the news even comes out.

Watchdog: How Rick Perry set up a surveillance state of Texas

The former governor and Texas DPS worked with former FBI and CIA agents to set up a secretive statewide surveillance detection system.

Watchdog: Is DPS ‘surveillance detection’ just plain spying?

The agency works with companies that employ ex-CIA agents to conduct “surveillance detection,” not spying, officials say.

Watchdog extra: DPS stops collecting full sets of fingerprints from driver’s license applicants

The reason? “Concerns and questions” raised by “a number of legislators,” DPS said in a surprise announcement.

Watchdog: You and me. Let’s push legal fixes in 2015

The Watchdog suggests several new laws to protect Texans in the 2015 Legislature. With your help, we can succeed.

Watchdog: Texas DPS, here are the facts on fingerprinting

The Watchdog answers DPS Director Steve McCraw’s op-ed by challenging him on the back facts.

Watchdog: DPS whistleblower insists officials aren’t being candid

A whistleblower pokes holes in DPS’ arguments.

Watchdog: Lawmakers say they didn’t gives DPS OK to fingerprint

Texas state lawmakers are angry. They say they never approved DPS’ program to capture fingerprints of every Texas driver in the next decade.

Watchdog: Whistleblower blasts DPS for taking fingerprints

A whistleblower who worked for the DPS Fingerprint Bureau steps forward.

Watchdog: Driver’s license centers snatch your fingerprints

The first report that DPS quietly began taking full fingerprints of all driver’s license applicants. No public announcement was ever made until The Watchdog’s revelation.

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Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.\

Still here? Visit Dave Lieber’s other fun websites: DaveLieber.org

Top 10 Consumer Tips for 2015

This video shows the best tips for 2015 from Dallas Morning News Watchdogs Dave Lieber and Marina Trahan Martinez.

How did we figure this out?

Based on our mail and the most common problems we see. If you hit most of these correctly, you’ll lessen your chances for a hassle-free ’15.

Happy New Year from The Watchdog Desk at The Dallas Morning News.

Watch Dave live on NBC5.

Read the full column this is based on here.

For desktop and laptop viewers, here’s the information in a cartoon we made.

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More Watchdog Nation News:

Watchdog Nation Partners with Mike Holmes

America meets Watchdog Nation/Listen to Fun Radio Interview

Watchdog Nation Debuts New e-Book and Multi-CD Audio Book

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Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.\

Still here? Visit Dave Lieber’s other fun websites:

Personal: YankeeCowboy.com

Hipster site: DaveLieber.org

Did you get slammed for unwanted $29.95 a month credit monitoring? You can get a refund.

Call me naive, but I imagined a company that tricks people into paying $29.95 a month for a credit-monitoring service they didn’t know they ordered would be headquartered in a faraway land.

A company that lured people with the promise of free credit scores in big print but hid the actual cost in tiny print must be offshore, right?

A company that informs surprised customers it can cancel anytime but isn’t available to take cancellations? Hidden somewhere on an island nation?

Nah. Try the 8100 block of Walnut Hill Lane in Dallas.

one tech b

As readers of The Dallas Morning News Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, One Technologies Inc. is headquartered on the sixth floor of a corporate tower.

I first learned about the company weeks ago after my wife, Karen, tried to get her free credit report from the government-sponsored site and accidentally ended up on one of the dozens of websites run by the Dallas company.

She typed in her personal information, then pulled back when asked for credit card information.

No payment is required on government-sponsored annualcreditreport.com. But One Technologies has gamed the Internet so its dozens of websites confuse people.

The company, which uses many names including ScoreSense and MyCreditHealth, is easily found through its use of common search terms linked to its many websites. The sites’ names carry common keywords such as “free credit report” and “check credit scores.” The company also purchased click-on ads to attract users.

This month, the façade of respectability disappeared for One Technologies. The Federal Trade Commission, working with the states of Ohio, Illinois and Texas, successfully brought legal action to stop the company’s sales practices.

The FTC, in legal filings, reports 210,000 complaints against the company from banks, credit card companies, law enforcement agencies and the Better Business Bureau.

One Technologies “participated in deceptive acts,” according to a final court order agreed to by company officials and made public this month.

One Technologies must pay $22 million into a restitution fund for victims.

The company can no longer hide its online terms of purchase in obscure web boxes that users must open to see. Terms must be clear and conspicuous. Frustrated customers must be allowed to cancel immediately through an available call center.

Last week, I visited the company in its office tower and expected to find it shuttered. That’s what Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office promised in a news release.

Abbott’s headline bragged, “State of Texas Shuts Down Bogus Online ‘Free’ Credit Scores Scheme.”

Imagine my confusion when I walked into the company’s sixth floor suite and found people working.

Turns out Abbott’s office oversold. After the company complained, the headline was changed: “State of Texas Stops Online Scheme that Claimed to Offer ‘Free’ Credit Score Schemes but Charged Monthly Fees.”

That’s not the only mistake I see in this enforcement action against a company that capitalizes on customers’ mistakes. In its only public statement about its comedown, One Technologies attempts to turn a national disgrace into a crowning achievement.

The company headlines its public statement: “ScoreSense/One Technologies Sets New Benchmark for Industry Transparency and Disclosure.”

In its opening sentence, the company claims that it “set a new standard for the industry’s clearest and simplest subscription disclosures.”

The company brags that it has helped “to establish industry best practices for enrolling customers” in online businesses.

Denying what it agreed to in the court order, the statement refers to government claims against it as “alleged” and states that “the terms of One Technologies’ offers have always been disclosed to the consumer.”

Fred Loeber, an executive, is quoted: “We call on our competitors to adopt this new benchmark.”

Shameless audacity.

“No fines or penalties were imposed,” the statement continues. “One Technologies will establish a fund for providing refunds to certain past customers.”

How nice. An established fund. Sounds like a scholarship. There’s no mention of $22 million in the company statement.

This company accused by the feds and three states of deception shows in its own words that it hasn’t learned the lesson. Shameless audacity.

Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.

Follow Dave Lieber on Twitter at @DaveLieber.

Check out The Watchdog on NBC5 at 11:20 a.m. Mondays talking about matters important to you.

# # #

In the Know

Get free credit reports from annualcreditreport.com. Type the address correctly.

Here’s a list of websites used by One Technologies:















3-in-1 creditscore.com
































SOURCE: Texas attorney general’s office




Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.\

The Watchdog: In computer security, you’re as good as your weakest link

The last person in the world a spammer should send a brazenly criminal email to is me. My email address alone — watchdog at dallasnews.com — has a ring of authority to it. Sure, I’m not the FBI, but my coverage beat includes idiots who do things like that.

But every day I get them. Just like you.

How about my poor friend Carol S.? Did you know that on a trip to the Philippines she was attacked by unknown gunmen? Yes. It’s terrible. She even sends me a note seeking my help.


“All we need is 2,500 USD,” she writes. What American doesn’t know that you write it as $2,500? That’s the tipoff that something’s wrong — and it’s not Carol stuck in Manila.

Poor Carol somehow typed her email password into the wrong place, giving a hacker the chance to take over her account and pretend to be her to all of her friends. I bet Carol has never even been to the Philippines.

Beverly A. gets a note from her cable TV company. “We are currently upgrading Charter.net with a hard spam protector.”

The note asks for her email address and password. If she doesn’t send it, “your email account will be deactivated from our database.”

Carol isn’t sure what to do.

“I didn’t respond,” she tells me. “Should I?”


I take my computer mouse and hover the cursor above the charter.net email address the note supposedly comes from. A popup box shows the real address: a gala.net domain. Fake. But I’ve got to admire the chutzpah of someone sending a spam note while pretending to be a spam protector.

The University of Texas at Dallas sends The Watchdog an important note: “Hello, we have upgraded our old server (ODS7AT) to a new server (NWS70GZ) for better delivery service. So endeavor to update your webmail account status.

“Full name:

“Date of birth:



I hover my mouse over the address and see that it doesn’t come from utdallas. edu, but from another domain. Then I type ODS7AT into a Google search box and see the results. Scam.

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More Watchdog Nation News:

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“We are aware of scams where the UT-Dallas name is used in an attempt to obtain personal information about the recipients,” university spokeswoman Katherine Morales tells me. “While it used the UT-Dallas name, it was not distributed by UT-Dallas computer systems.”

As readers of The Dallas Morning News Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, the threat to personal and business computers is that it takes only one gullible person to compromise an entire network. If you knew my business password, for instance, you could instantly impersonate me to the outside world.

You could write to all the people in my contacts, as me, and ask them to download something really bad on their computers to take over their machines for criminal purposes, install viruses and remove sensitive information. Or you could ask them to send you money in USD.

That’s why I want to tell you what Tom Cochran did last month. He’s the chief technology officer for Atlantic Media, which publishes The Atlantic magazine and other publications. Before that, Cochran was director of new media technologies at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Cochran pranked employees at the company, but it wasn’t for fun. He sent everyone on staff an email asking for their password. He didn’t want them to do it. He only wanted to see who would fall for it. Bad news — 123 staffers did what he didn’t want them to do.

Cochran scolded employees in a companywide email: “Across our entire company, 58% of us clicked the email after opening it. Wow. Fifty-eight percent! With those odds, all a scammer needs to do is craft an intriguing enough subject line and they have a great chance at getting your account information. Then, you’re hacked and so is Atlantic Media.”

In the company, 67 percent of corporate staff fell for it, and 73 percent of staffers at Quartz, an online magazine, tripped up, too.

“All it takes is one stolen password and we are hacked,” Cochran continued. “Then we could have a website defaced, Twitter account tweeting false information, financial information leaked, expose your sources and a lot more.”

Cochran tells me hacking is “the No. 1 drag on the digital economy. All this fraud and fear. You’re really only as secure as the weakest link in the company.”

He adds, “It’s not that you should be scared. The tools are available.”

The main tool is two-step authentication. This is important to know. In addition to signing in with your password, more websites, especially those for financial institutions and email accounts, are offering a secondary numeric password for entry.

You don’t have to memorize it. You get that password through your cellphone as either a text or a voice message during the sign-in process. Unless a hacker has your cellphone, he or she can’t get past the second step.

Cochran is proud that at Atlantic Media, everyone now uses two-step authentication. If it’s offered, take it. Don’t ever give out your password. And if you get an email from me saying I’m stuck on the other side of the planet and need USD, you know what not to do.

Avoid scams

Marcus Rogers, Purdue University computer professor, offers these self-protection tips:

•Never give up personal information to anyone who writes or calls seeking it. Most likely, he or she is a criminal.

•Don’t be fooled by an email or website that looks real. It’s easy to make copycat sites.

•Be mistrustful. When in doubt, use the phone to check if something is real. But don’t call the phone number in the email or on the website because that could be fake, too. Get the number elsewhere.

•If someone sends you a link, don’t click on it unless you know it’s real. Call or write to double-check its authenticity.
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The Watchdog: With your phone, you carry a spy in your pocket

Have you heard about mobile device tracking? That’s where your phone unwittingly gives away your location, even your personal information, without your permission. You don’t even know it’s happening.

Some say it’s an invasion of privacy. Of course it is. Why should you care?

Mobile device tracking is powerful enough that it can get you killed. Think terrorists who are tracked by their cell phones. Soon enough, bombs come flying through the air. Darn those pesky phones.









But what about you? You’re not a terrorist. Why would companies or the government track you? Answer: Because it can. Laws that protect our privacy for this don’t yet exist.

Turns out that when you walk through a mall, for example, you leave a digital footprint. Some retail stores are tracking your location through your cell phone’s unique identifying numbers — even if you don’t enter the store.

Ostensibly, the retailer wants to know which paths you take through its store, how long you stand at various displays and your wait time at a cash register.

One company that sells store sensors is Euclid, a self-described retail analytics company in San Francisco.

“Our plug-and-play sensor installs in two minutes,” the company explains in its marketing materials. “Just connect power and Internet. Each sensor is the size of a deck of cards and covers up to 24,000 square feet.”

The company says it does not receive information about your name, address, email or phone numbers — only anonymous identifiers that go to the retailer for analysis.

Still, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., wrote Euclid and asked this question: If police ask Euclid what stores someone has walked past, would the company be able to provide the answer?

Euclid answered yes, if the police supplied the phone’s information and all necessary legal processes were followed.

Franken said last year, “It’s one thing to track someone’s shopping habits through a loyalty card or credit card purchase. Folks understand that their information may be collected. It’s another thing entirely to track consumers’ movements without their permission as they shop, especially when someone doesn’t buy anything or even enter a store.”

There’s a second type of dangerous mobile device tracking. McAfee announced this month that a new survey shows that mobile phone apps that invade a user’s privacy “are dominating the landscape.”

McAfee collected data from thousands of apps and found that 82 percent track a user and collect location information. Some of the apps contain malware that gains access to personal information.

Why are they doing it? To target ads.

Which apps cause the most trouble? Games.

How does the malware come in? Usually under “Tools” or “System Tools.”

The phrase that pops up on the phone is harmless enough: “Would you like to use your current location?” Choices are Don’t Allow or OK. Guess which one protects you?

At a privacy seminar this week at the Federal Trade Commission’s headquarters, tracking expert Ashkan Soltani reported that popular iPhone music app Pandora sends information to eight trackers, including unique location data to seven, a unique phone ID to three and demographic data to two.

What do trackers collect? Access to user names and passwords, contacts, age and gender, location, phone ID and phone number.

And you thought the music was free? (Pandora also sells ad-free subscriptions for $36 a year or $3.99 a month.)

Before downloading an app, consider doing Internet research on the app’s privacy policy. Be careful when giving permissions to the app to access other parts of your phone such as photos or contacts. Remember that your contacts include the personal information of your friends who probably don’t want their secrets shared with unknown companies.

Another new technology project that’s coming along quickly is iBeacon. It’s an Apple product that can be placed in public and picks up signals from all Apple and Android phones in its vicinity. iBeacon can send messages or videos to a phone, too. Hey, shopper, welcome. Here’s a video about our sale!

Customers could use the system to pay for items, too. So far, the system has been tested at baseball stadiums and malls. You’ll start to see more use of iBeacons.

As I mentioned, this new technology is largely unregulated. Sen. Franken and others seek a national privacy law: “People have a fundamental right to privacy,” he said last year. “And I think neglecting to ask consumers for their permission to track them violates that right.”

The industry’s proposal is to create a special sign with a recognizable icon so that when you walk into a store and see it, you know you’re being tracked.

Privacy experts want people to opt in to tracking rather than opt out. Creating a blacklist of Americans who don’t want to be tracked — a Do Not Call for tracking — is considered a logistics nightmare.

Another problem, for most people, is that it’s difficult to turn off tracking on a phone.

The only good news: Americans now switch out their cell phones with upgrades faster than ever. When you get a new phone, you start with a clean slate.

Nobody knows who you are. Until you turn it on.

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Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.\

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The Watchdog: Don’t be fooled by Acxiom’s data release

An Arkansas company that collects information about us and then resells it to banks, retailers, insurance companies and others for a billion dollars a year in sales almost pulled a fast one on The Watchdog.

I was excited about the release of personal data by Acxiom on its free new website. I couldn’t wait to show you how to access your data so you can see what secrets a big-time data broker knows about you.

Great story: Your personal information released for the first time in history. What Big Brother keeps in his file.

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation won a 2013 writing award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists

As readers of The Dallas Morning News Dave Lieber Watchdog column first learned, then I studied why Acxiom did this. On the surface, the idea is that a watchdog columnist like me would brag on this new website. Wow. Cool. No corporate data broker ever did this before. How can you not respect Acxiom for being so transparent and revolutionary in the way it is suddenly treating us Americans?

You know, it almost worked.

A few things killed the positive vibe.

Turns out, Acxiom doesn’t have the purest of motives. Scott Howe, chief executive officer and president, has said in interviews that he wants his company to sit at the bargaining table when the federal government does what it so far has refused to do — set up regulations that show data brokers what they can do with information about us.

Hey, we’re open, the company’s message goes. We want you to see what we’re all about. “We are not going to get anywhere by hiding,” Howe told one reporter.

Oh really, sir? I went to the company’s new website — AboutTheData.com — and looked up my information. What I saw was a joke. This whole thing is a bogus public relations stunt. I’m not buying into it.

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The company’s information about me is mostly accurate. Acxiom knows the value of my house, the age of my youngest son and even my approximate income. But it also says I’m “interested” in the following areas: gourmet cooking, crafts, decorating and gardening. My wife is LOL when she reads that. (Who wants a watchdog doing that anyway? If I’m gourmet-cooking, making crafts, decorating and gardening, when would I investigate your problems?)

The problem for me is not that they got most things right and a few things comically wrong. My concern is what’s not in my report. My watchdog associate, Marina Trahan Martinez, showed me her personal report. It included her preferred political party, her recent online purchases and her family vehicles. My report didn’t include any of that information.

But that’s not all that’s missing. From my reading, I learned that Acxiom most likely possesses other information that it’s hiding from me.


The company uses shorthand slogans to categorize households — such as “Frugal Families” and “McMansions and Minivans,” The New York Times reported. My family’s nickname is left out.

The paper reported that Acxiom also sells descriptive phrases to customers about us with words such as “gambling,” “senior needs,” “smoker” and “adult with wealthy parents.”

Forbes reported that the company knows “some health topics of interest to you” such as diabetes or arthritis.

Other companies in the data broker business are said to collect information about sexual orientation, criminal and civil court records, credit history, health records and bank information.

Acxiom’s public disclosure only amounts to a sanitized version of a Big Brother file. This exercise is a feat of hocus-pocus, turning a glass of strong bourbon into a cup of milk. There’s no bite, no real privacy invasion, no truth to this data dump when compared with the type of information the company actually keeps.

I’d love to run all these thoughts by company leaders. I’ve been trying for two months to talk to them.

In July, the corporate communications manager answered that he would get in touch with me later. Last week, a company spokeswoman told me everyone is too busy. (Must be! Acxiom laid off 20 employees last month from its marketing division at Little Rock headquarters.)

I showed the AboutTheData.com website to Suku Nair, chairman of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Southern Methodist University. He’s not impressed.

“The site is not very secure,” he said. He’s right. To get your information, you type in only your name, address, date of birth and last four digits of your Social Security number. Think about that. Information you give all the time to others to confirm your identity is all that’s needed to enter this website.

Much of his personal information wasn’t correct, Nair said. The site allows you to edit your information and even opt out of Acxiom sharing your information with others. After this stunt, I’d recommend going to the site only if you want to opt out. Otherwise, don’t bother.

Nair instructs that by visiting AboutTheData.com and giving your personal details to enter, you confirm the latest information about yourself. You’re doing their work for them.

AT A GLANCE: Protect yourself

Learn some of what Acxiom knows about you at AboutTheData.com. Opt out of information sharing. Edit your data.

Remember, you can get a free credit report from each of the three credit bureaus once a year at annualcreditreport.com.

Read privacy notices from companies and opt out of sharing.

Don’t answer surveys or fill out cards for drawings with personal information.

To get your name off mailing lists, visit dmachoice.org. Click on “Email Opt Out Service” and “Register for EDDM” to stop receiving certain kinds of commercial mail.

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Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.\

Still here? Visit Dave Lieber’s other fun websites:

Personal: YankeeCowboy.com

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The Watchdog: Secret scores supposedly reveal who consumers are

You probably know the score of the latest game for your favorite baseball team. You may know your credit score. But you probably don’t know about other secret scores that companies keep on you.

They are your consumer scores, sometimes called e-scores or predictive scores. Hundreds of them exist, but they’re hidden from view. Trade secrets. Except they’re about your life. And they could be wrong.

A report this week called “The Scoring of America” by the World Privacy Forum gives samples of these e-scores:

The Job Security Score is supposed to predict future income and ability to pay.

Churn scores predict when a customer will jump from one company to a competitor.

The Affordable Care Act health risk score is “a proxy score for how sick a person is,” the report states.

The Medication Adherence Score predicts if a person likely takes medication recommended by doctors. And on and on. Divorced? Pregnant? A hunter? A gardener? An antique collector? There’s scores for those, too.

Some of this sounds benign. But privacy experts say the problem is that these scores along with, say, your ZIP code and whether you’re using a Mac or a PC, a phone or a laptop, even what kind of Internet browser you use, are all in play now when you visit websites.

How? They show companies who you are, or something close enough.

Ultimately, you may pay a higher price for a service or a product based on your score, or where you live (or where your computer thinks you live). That’s called price discrimination, and it’s happening more and more. These scores could affect housing and employment opportunities and prices for products and services.

Most people don’t realize this is happening, the Federal Trade Commission says.

When you visit a website or read an item on a blog, that site usually places a “cookie” on your device — a random 20-digit number that records what you do on the Internet.

When you visit a Web page that has space for an ad, a real-time auction occurs in a fraction of a second between various computerized bidders who want to match up with certain high scores. The winner is the ad you see.

Other factors, such as purchasing habits and activities in the real world, also affect scores. Income. Car. Education. Political affiliation. Average offline purchase cost. Hundreds of details.

Scores affect us in ways we can’t know. At some company call centers, a score can determine how long someone waits on hold or whether a customer gets to speak to a high-ranking supervisor.

I learned about these scores at a privacy seminar presented by the FTC. Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for U.S. Public Interest Research Group, told everyone that the unregulated market is “a non-transparent system where thousands of bits of our lives are being collected about us, shared and used to decide not who should pay less, but who can pay more.”

He added that nobody wants to pay more “and it’s fine for a company to offer its better customers discount cards. But nobody wants to be put in a compartmentalized box where they are profiled in a secret way and where a set of scores is used to determine who will pay more.”

The best known example of price discrimination is a story about a stapler. In 2012, The Wall Street Journal tested online pricing for a stapler at staples.com. The results showed that the prices varied based on how close a customer lived to a competing office supply store. If rival stores were within 20 miles, Staples discounted its price. Staples did not respond to a request for information from The Watchdog.


That same year witnessed perhaps the most extraordinary example of predictive scoring. After President Obama won re-election by a larger-than-expected margin, attention focused on his election team’s predictive scoring system. Democrats claimed they could ID likely voters almost block by block. By comparison, on Election Day the Republicans’ turnout software crashed during crucial voting hours.

Targeting customers is nothing new in marketing. If you’re reading this on dallasnews.com, we’re reading you too.

In the case of the scores, though, the science behind computer algorithms has exploded. Science, as is usually the case, is far ahead of rule-making.

Yet there’s a clear path to follow: Several decades ago, personal credit scores were secretive and unavailable. Yet they played a similar role in determining financial offers and opportunities. But in the past decade, things changed. Now every adult American has a right to learn about her or his personal credit score. One can challenge inaccuracies and learn if a poor credit score hurt chances for a loan.

Scoring can’t be stopped, but there can be fairness and disclosure similar to credit score rules. Nobody expects Congress to act on this. The hope among privacy advocates is that rule changes will come from the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the FTC.

We should be able to see our scores. Correct them when they’re wrong. Opt out of them being used, if we wish. There should be no secret scores that affect our pocketbooks.

Final note: The Federal Trade Commission recommended in 2014 that this industry become regulated. Congress, however, is not expected to act on this.

IN THE KNOW: Web privacy

To protect privacy, periodically delete cookies from your computer or device. Use a search engine to find out how to delete cookies for your particular device and browser.

Anti-virus software programs provide various settings for collecting and rejecting cookies.

Use “private browser” or “privacy mode” on the Web to hide your identity when researching health and other private matters. This feature doesn’t save cookies, temp files and page history. But an Internet provider still knows what pages are accessed.

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More Watchdog Nation News:

Watchdog Nation Partners with Mike Holmes

America meets Watchdog Nation/Listen to Fun Radio Interview

Watchdog Nation Debuts New e-Book and Multi-CD Audio Book

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Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.\

Still here? Visit Dave Lieber’s other fun websites:

Personal: YankeeCowboy.com

Hipster site: DaveLieber.org