March 26, 2023

Amid Recession and Rising Joblessness, Greeks Fall Prey to Employment Swindles

A month later, he was out $2,300 and still jobless.

“They told me to wire the money to cover procedural costs and the airfare,” said Angelos, 38, a father of two who declined to give his full name for fear of jeopardizing future employment possibilities. The airline ticket never arrived in the mail, and follow-up calls went unanswered. A 300-mile road trip from Athens to the northern port of Thessaloniki, the job agency’s stated location, led nowhere. The address did not exist.

Angelos, whose wife is also unemployed and who borrowed the money for the agency fee from relatives, is by no means the only Greek to have been duped in such frauds. The authorities say criminals are busy preying on increasingly desperate Greeks facing an ever-deepening recession and an unemployment rate of 27 percent over all and more than 60 percent for those under 25.

“People come to us regularly with such stories,” said a spokesman for the Greek police’s electronic crime squad, which recorded a doubling in cases of online fraud last year but has no statistics for the job swindles, which he called “a new but growing trend”

“They reel people in with offers of promising-sounding jobs, they get their money and then they disappear,” the spokesman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he works undercover, said of the rackets. Sometimes the advertisements refer to jobs that do exist but are exploitive, offering a fraction of the salary promised originally.

“We have evidence, but the investigation stalls as soon as it crosses the border,” said the spokesman, adding that the authorities had lodged requests for help with specific cases in Germany, Britain and other destinations favored by austerity-weary Greeks seeking a rosier future.

Thousands of Greeks have sought to emigrate since the spring of 2010, when the government signed its first loan agreement with international creditors in exchange for an array of austerity measures that have slashed living standards. There are no government statistics confirming the size, or breakdown, of the exodus. But most appear to be heading for relatively prosperous northern European countries like Germany, as well as Australia, which has one of the largest Greek immigrant populations in the world.

German government statistics showed a 43 percent increase last year in Greek immigrants and a similarly large influx from other debt-ridden euro zone countries in southern Europe, like Spain and Portugal. Many Greek émigrés are qualified professionals, with an estimated 120,000 moving abroad over the past three years, according to a recent study by the University of Macedonia in Thessaloniki.

The move is much harder for unskilled workers, particularly those who do not speak the language of the country they move to. It is they who usually fall victim to rackets, according to the police and employment sector officials.

The chief of the association representing private job agencies in Greece, Athanassios Kottaras, said he received six or seven complaints every week (they were almost unheard-of just two years ago) from Greeks moving abroad for jobs that turn out to be nonexistent or exploitive. Mr. Kottaras has appeared several times on Greek television to raise awareness about the problem, which he attributes to hundreds of illegal job agencies.

The head of Greece’s state labor inspectorate, Michalis Kandarakis, said there were about 300 such illegal job agencies in Greece, compared with the 90 legal ones represented by Mr. Kottaras. But he said closing them down was difficult, as they often changed names, staff and premises to elude the authorities. “They even lodge charges of harassment or attempted blackmail against inspectors to slow down the process,” Mr. Kandarakis said.

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Your Money: College Essays That Stand Out From the Crowd

If you’re a high school senior trying to seduce the admissions officer reading your application essay, this may not strike you as the ideal opening line. But Shanti Kumar, a senior at the Bronx High School of Science, went ahead anyway when the university prompted her to react in writing to the idea of “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.”

Back in January, when I asked high school seniors to send in college application essays about money, class, working and the economy, I wasn’t sure what, if anything, would come in over the transom.

But 66 students submitted essays, and with the help of Harry Bauld, the author of “On Writing the College Application Essay,” we’ve selected four to publish in full online and in part in this column. That allowed us to be slightly more selective than Princeton itself was last year.

What these four writers have in common is an appetite for risk. Not only did they talk openly about issues that are emotionally complex and often outright taboo, but they took brave and counterintuitive positions on class, national identity and the application process itself. For anyone looking to inspire their own children or grandchildren who are seeking to go to college in the fall of 2014, these four essays would be a good place to start.

Perhaps the most daring essay of all came from Julian Cranberg, a 17-year-old from Brookline, Mass. One of the first rules of the college admissions process is that you don’t write about the college admissions process.

But Mr. Cranberg thumbed his nose at that convention, taking on the tremendous cost of the piles of mail schools send to potential students, and the waste that results from the effort. He figured that he received at least $200 worth of pitches in the past year or so.

“Why, in an era of record-high student loan debt and unemployment, are colleges not reallocating these ludicrous funds to aid their own students instead of extending their arms far and wide to students they have never met?” he asked in the essay.

Antioch College seemed to think that was a perfectly reasonable question and accepted him, though he will attend Oberlin College instead, to which he did not submit the essay.

“It’s a bold move to critique the very institution he was applying to,” said Mr. Bauld, who also teaches English at Horace Mann School in New York City. “But here’s somebody who knows he can make it work with intelligence and humor.”

Indeed, Mr. Cranberg’s essay includes asides about applicants’ gullibility and the college that sent him a DHL “priority” envelope, noting inside that he was a priority to the college. “The humor here is not in the jokes,” Mr. Bauld added. “It originates in a critical habit of mind, and the kind of mind that is in this essay is going to play out extremely well in any class that he’s in.”

Admissions professionals often warn people away from the idea that they can write their way into the freshman class. “The essay is one document that, even in the best of circumstances, is written by an individual telling one story,” said Shawn Abbott, the assistant vice president for undergraduate admissions at New York University. “I don’t believe that any one writing sample should trump what they did over four years.”

Still, he acknowledged that his staff had been taken with the story told by Lyle Li, a 19-year-old Brooklyn resident who applied this year. He wrote about his family’s restaurant and his mother, an immigrant from China who once wanted to be a doctor and now works behind a cash register in a uniform.

“When I visit my friends, I see the names of elite institutions adorning the living room walls,” wrote Mr. Li, a senior at Regis High School in Manhattan. “I am conscious that these framed diplomas are testaments to the hard work and accomplishments of my friends’ parents and siblings. Nevertheless, the sight of them was an irritating reminder of the disparity between our households. I was not the upper-middle-class kid on Park Avenue. Truth be told, I am just some kid from Brooklyn. Instead of diplomas and accolades, my parents’ room emits a smell from the restaurant uniforms they wear seven days a week, all year round.”

Twitter: @ronlieber

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Your Money: What Happens When You Dispute a Credit Card Charge

The card issuer generally takes your word against the merchant or service provider at the outset, restores the money to your bank account temporarily or issues a credit and then goes about its investigation. It essentially demands that the merchant or service provider who supposedly did you wrong prove that it did no wrong at all.

But if you have never wielded this power tool of consumerism, there are a few things you should know first. The cat and mouse game that goes on behind the scenes can be tilted much more — or much less — in your favor, depending on which charges you dispute and how you go about disputing them.

Chances are you will need to use the dispute process sooner or later. We live in a world where you often cannot use cash to buy cocktails on an airplane and any individual can attach a card reader to a smartphone and accept card payments from anyone else. Mistakes will inevitably be made.

Meanwhile, all sorts of online businesses depend on recurring subscription revenue to stay afloat. Mistakes will inevitably be made again. Oops, we somehow forgot to honor your request to cancel your subscription. Oops, we forgot again. Oh, but now it will take until the next billing cycle. Sorry!

You have had the legal right to correct these mistakes ever since 1975, when the Fair Credit Billing Act went into effect. The law dictates that there be a process by which you can question unauthorized charges, billing errors and transactions involving goods or services that you never received or that merchants did not deliver in the way they were supposed to.

This creates a number of problems for merchants. Plenty of people pretend that they never received products that were supposed to arrive by mail and then dispute the charge, hoping that their card company won’t be able to figure out that they are liars and thieves.

Even legitimate beefs or misunderstandings create a large number of problems. Visa processes over 50 billion transactions each year. While cardholders dispute just 0.037 percent of them, that adds up to over 18.5 million complaints. According to MasterCard, 0.05 percent of its transactions are subjects of dispute, so its card issuers will deal with almost as many complaints.

Several million of these disputes involve outright fraud, though none of the card networks would break out the exact percentages. Avivah Litan, an analyst at Gartner, figures about 20 percent of all disputes involve fraud.

The rest of them require a lot of manual labor. Every time someone initiates a dispute, the bank that issued the card has to look into it. That means someone has to contact the merchant and wait for a reply that may include a receipt or other documentation that arrives via fax machine or by some other Jurassic process.

Merchants must carve out time to respond to each dispute. They also pay one-time fees for the privilege and may end up paying higher overall fees to accept cards if a pattern of too-frequent disputes emerges. Or they just get cut off from accepting cards altogether, as American Express tried to do with online pornography sellers in 2000.

The true cost per dispute to the banks of all of this back and forth ranges wildly from $10 to $40, according to a 2010 estimate by the consultants at First Annapolis. Given that cost, according to Scott Reaser, a principal there, many banks will simply absorb the disputed charge on a consumer’s bill and never contact the merchant if it is below a certain threshold.

That number will differ for every bank, though it probably averages around $25. Some large retailers, it turns out, have similar strategies, according to a 2009 Government Accountability Office report. So even if the bank does contact a merchant about the dispute, the merchant itself may choose to give up and allow the customer to win the dispute without bothering to investigate the complaint. The report did not say what the threshold was, and the G.A.O. is not permitted to identify the retailers it spoke to.

It is tempting to come to the conclusion that you can get away with disputing any old thing under $25 and not have to worry about tangling with the merchant ever again. But given that frequent disputes can lead to higher costs down the road, some merchants vow to fight every single one.

Or they have consultants who make them fight as a condition of offering their assistance. That’s how Monica Eaton-Cardone, the co-founder of, works with her merchant clients to help them keep their dispute rates down and get out (or stay out) of trouble with the companies that control their ability to accept cards.

Twitter: @ronlieber

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Bucks Blog: Social Security Benefits Verification Letters Now Online

Social Security recipients can now get their benefits verification letter and conduct other business online, as part of enhanced Web services introduced Monday by the federal government.

The letters, which state the amount of the recipient’s monthly benefit, are used to verify income when, for instance, someone is applying for a loan or for special programs, like those offering reduced rent based on income. The letters are now available online for those who are retired and receiving Social Security, as well as those who receive Supplemental Security Income, which pays benefits to those who are disabled.

Recipients can also change their address and manage electronic delivery of their monthly benefits payment on line.

The availability of the letters and the other options represent the first “significant expansion” of the agency’s online service, known as mySocialSecurity, since it debuted in the spring, said Michael Astrue, commissioner of Social Security.

The service initially made online access available to annual Social Security statements, for those who are still working. The statements list the annual income used to calculate benefits, as well as estimates of future benefits based on one’s age at retirement.

To access information online users must set up an account, which requires them to answer questions to verify their identity before choosing a user name and password.  Users can also opt for enhanced security, which requires providing additional information–such as a partial credit-card number. The system’s verification system has been set up to balance convenience with the need for protecting an individual’s privacy, Commissioner Astrue said. About three million people have created accounts so far.

Previously, recipients seeking benefits verification letters had to wait for one to arrive in the mail or visit a Social Security office in person. Last year, the agency processed about nine million requests for such letters, he said. Reducing the number of people who come into Social Security offices for such letters will allow staff at the offices to spend more time on more complex transactions, he said.

(Verification letters are separate from the annual notification to Social Security recipients of any increase in their benefits due to cost-of-living adjustments, an agency spokesman said.)

Have you set up an online account with Social Security?

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You’re the Boss Blog: Can Entrepreneurship Solve the World’s Problems?

You’re the Boss offers an insider’s perspective on small-business ownership. It gives business owners a place where they can compare notes, ask questions, get advice, and learn from one another’s mistakes. Its contributors also interpret news events, track political and policy issues, and suggest investing tips.

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Bucks: Some Tax Refund Checks Still Not in the Mail

For most of us, the tax-filing season seems a distant memory as the summer season unfolds. But for some unlucky filers, it isn’t over quite yet.

Back in the spring, Bucks looked at refund delays affecting taxpayers who bought a home in 2008 and took that year’s version of the first-time home buyer credit on their federal tax return. At the time, the Internal Revenue Service said the issue was related to computer problems in processing Form 5405, which is used for repayment of the credit. (The earliest version of the first-time home buyer credit — for homes bought from April 8, 2008 to Dec. 31, 2008 — functioned like a no-interest loan. First-time buyers could take a credit on their 2008 tax return of up to $7,500. But the catch was that they had to repay it over 15 years, beginning with their 2010 tax return.)

Couples filing joint returns, and those who filed before Feb. 22, were particularly affected by the processing problems. Filers who tried to repay more than the minimum required amount also experienced glitches. The agency said employees were manually processing returns for these taxpayers and expected most, if not all, of those affected to get refunds by April 5 or the following week — assuming there were no other issues with the return.

That is little comfort to one couple in Bowie, Md.

Brandon, a 30-year-old information technology specialist — he asked that his last name not be used, for privacy reasons — said he and his wife, who are expecting their first child, are still waiting for their refund of nearly $10,000, almost five months after they filed their return. He contacted me out of frustration, saying that his accountant has verified that all forms were filed correctly and that the I.R.S. has said there is no other problem with the couple’s return. But at least eight estimated payment dates provided by the agency have come and gone, with no refund in sight.

“It has been an absolute nightmare,” he said in a phone interview. “This is ridiculous.” He contacted the agency’s Taxpayer Advocate Service,  but said that hasn’t helped get the issue resolved.

An I.R.S. spokesman was unable to provide updated information about the scope of the delays. And a quick look at a Facebook page established for filers experiencing delays suggests he isn’t alone. Some filers say they are being given estimated refund dates in August.

Are you still waiting for your 2011 tax refund? What reason were you given?

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You’re the Boss: Is America Really the Land of Entrepreneurship and Small Business?

You’re the Boss offers an insider’s perspective on small-business ownership. It gives business owners a place where they can compare notes, ask questions, get advice, and learn from one another’s mistakes. Its contributors also interpret news events, track political and policy issues, and suggest investing tips.

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Economix: The Price of Printing Bad Stamps

Stamps Previous Statue of Liberty stamps, clockwise from top left: 1923, 1971 and 1979.

The United States Postal Service admitted this week that its Lady Liberty stamp actually doesn’t show the famous statue in New York Harbor, but a half-size copy standing in front of a Las Vegas casino. But the post office’s assurances that it likes the design anyway may have less to do with aesthetics and more to do with the potential cost of replacing the billions of stamps already printed by three different firms — to say nothing of making instant collector’s items out of the uncounted number already used on mail.

What are the postal service’s options? The Lady Liberty stamps are printed by three different private firms, and The New York Post reported Saturday that the Postal Service has spent $880 million so far on this issue — “a very significant press run,” according to a spokesman, Roy Betts. Since so many have already been bought and used, the stamps will never be rare or valuable.

Stamp errors happen from time to time, with postal officials taking various approaches over the years.

stampBenjamin K. Miller Collection, The New York Public Library, via/Associated Press The 1918 “Inverted Jenny” that has a Curtiss “Jenny” airmail plane printed upside down.

Some famous mistakes, like the 1918 stamp with the airplane flying upside down, resulted from a printing accident and were released in very small numbers. At the time, postal inspectors tried to persuade the buyer of the first sheet to return his misprints for destruction, but since he had bought them legally at a post office in Washington, D.C., he stood his ground. His 100 examples turned out to be the only ones that surfaced, and collectors these days gladly pay six figures for one.

When a 1961 stamp honoring the late United Nations secretary general Dag Hammarskjold showed up with its yellow background inverted, the post office took the opposite tack. Officials deliberately reprinted the mistake in large numbers, so every collector could have one and no one could profit from the error.

But production errors are one thing. Design and factual errors tend to be more embarrassing. In 1999, a stamp inscribed “Grand Canyon, Colorado” was quickly replaced with a corrected version locating the landmark in Arizona. Millions of the goof-ups were reportedly destroyed, and only an advance publicity image was ever seen.

A similar near-miss happened on a 1913 2-cent stamp commemorating the imminent Panama Canal. Early photographs of the canal proved unsuitable for a stamp design, so officials instead photographed a scale model at the War Department, filling it with toy boats. The stamp’s engraver added little palm trees and a mountain range. When a sharp eye noticed that the scene was not the Gatun Locks, as per the stamp’s inscription, but rather the San Pedro Miguel Locks on the far side, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing scrapped all 16 printing plates plus the 20 million stamps already run off (.pdf, see page 20) and hurried out a new version, simply labeled “Panama Canal.” The bad stamps never saw the light of day, though a few proofs from the original steel die exist in collector hands.

Postal officials were less lucky with a 1993 stamp depicting a cowboy named Bill Pickett, one of a sheet of 20 different designs titled “Legends of the West.” Unfortunately, the guy on the stamp was really Bill’s brother Ben. Attempts to withdraw the erroneous stamps faltered when it became clear some had already been released to the public.

The postal service substituted the right man and reprinted the sheets. Then, to avoid creating a rarity, they opted to release the bad sheets anyway, through a lottery. In spite of a lawsuit by collectors seeking to safeguard the value of the few error stamps they had luckily acquired, about 150,000 sheets were ultimately sold. Today, they trade for $120 to $150 each.

In 1991, postal officials scrapped and reprinted 300 million stamps showing Hubert Humphrey because the sheet margins had him taking office in the wrong year. The cost of doing this, over a half-million dollars, was not borne by taxpayers because the Postal Service was self-funded.

How will the current brouhaha over Lady Liberty play out? Will the post office stick by its version and do nothing — or will the stamp be reissued showing the real deal? Philatelists, not to mention New Yorkers, await.

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