May 27, 2024

Bucks Blog: Why You Can Ignore Those Odd $1 Credit Card Charges

I usually check my credit-card accounts online regularly, to keep on top of spending and to help spot any unauthorized purchases. Recently I noticed something odd I hadn’t seen before — a series of $1 charges, from the convenience store where I usually gas up my car.

I always use a credit card, rather than a debit card, when paying at the pump for gas. (That helps avoid the potential damage from “skimming,” in which crooks try to steal card numbers with illegal readers. Consumer protections typically are greater with credit cards than with debit cards in such situations, according to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse). But I was perplexed as to why I was being charged an extra dollar for filling my tank.

Each charge for a fill-up had a corresponding $1 fee added, for a total of $3. Not exactly budget-breaking, but who likes paying extra fees, when gas is already pricey?

When I contacted the bank that issued my MasterCard, a representative named “Sophie” explained during an online chat that the apparent charges were not charges at all, but temporary preauthorizations done before charging the entire amount. Some merchants, like gas stations and hotels, do this routinely, as a way to verify that the card is active before authorizing the total amount, she said. “The amount of $1 is authorized so that the card can be checked without placing a large hold on the customer’s account,” she said, adding, “This $1 will drop off the account automatically.”

I called MasterCard for more details. A spokesman, Seth Eisen, said that when consumers use both credit and debit cards to pay, there are some instances — such as when a customer pays for gas at the pump — when the final amount of the transaction is not known right away. So it is standard practice for the merchant to get a $1 authorization from the user.

“The issuer does not know when the card is initially swiped how much gas will be pumped, or what the final transaction amount will be,” he said. The card issuer — the bank that issued the card to the customer — will not know this until the completed transaction is submitted to MasterCard by the merchant’s own bank, and then subsequently sent back to the issuer. “It’s at this point that the final purchase amount is placed on the cardholder account and the $1 hold is removed from the account,” he said.

Sure enough, when I checked my official credit-card statement for the month, there were no $1 charges to be found.

Have you noticed “authorization holds” on your card account?

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DealBook: British Regulator Looking Into Currency Rates Trades

Banks at Canary Wharf in London.Andy Rain, via European Pressphoto AgencyBanks at Canary Wharf in London.

LONDON – Britain’s financial regulator said on Wednesday that it was examining claims that traders at large banks manipulated some foreign exchange benchmark rates and that it might start an official investigation.

The Financial Conduct Authority is talking to individuals in the foreign exchange market and seeking more information about claims that traders rigged the so-called WM/Reuters rates before deciding whether to open an investigation.

Bloomberg News reported that employees had been manipulating the rate by pushing through client trades before and during 60-second windows when the benchmarks are set. The rates are used by fund managers to calculate the value of their holdings and by index providers like FTSE Group, Bloomberg reported.

A spokesman for the F.C.A. said the agency was already looking at the foreign exchange market before the Bloomberg report, adding that it was still too early to say whether its findings would lead to an official investigation.

Because the foreign exchange market is not regulated, any F.C.A. inquiry would focus on individuals authorized by the regulator to act in the market and whether companies did enough to prevent market abuse.

“The F.C.A. is aware of these allegations and has been speaking to the relevant parties,” said Stewart Todd, a spokesman.

Bloomberg News, citing two unidentified traders, reported that rate manipulation occurred daily and had been going on for at least a decade, affecting the value of funds and derivatives.

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Bloomberg Admits Terminal Snooping

More than 315,000 Bloomberg subscribers worldwide use the terminals for instant market news, trading information and communication. Reporters at Bloomberg News, a separate division from the terminal business, were nonetheless told to use the terminals to get an edge in the competitive world of financial journalism where every second counts, according to these people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the company’s strict nondisclosure agreements.

The company acknowledged that at least one reporter had gained access to information on Goldman Sachs after the bank complained to the company last month. On Sunday, Ty Trippet, a Bloomberg spokesman, said that “reporters would not have been trained to improperly use any client data.”

Matthew Winkler, editor in chief of Bloomberg News, underscored that the practice was at one time commonplace. In an editorial published on Bloomberg View late Sunday night, he said the practice of allowing reporters access to limited subscriber information dated back to the inception of the news arm of the giant financial information company founded by Michael R. Bloomberg.

“The recent complaints relate to practices that are almost as old as Bloomberg News,” Mr. Winkler said. “Some reporters have used the so-called terminal to obtain, as The Washington Post reported, ‘mundane’ facts such as logon information.”

It was a striking admission from the man who wrote “The Bloomberg Way: A Guide for Reporters and Editors,” considered among the quintessential handbooks on ethical business reporting.

In his editorial, Mr. Winkler apologized for the practices that had taken place in the newsroom for decades. “Our clients are right,” he said. “Our reporters should not have access to any data considered proprietary. I am sorry they did. The error is inexcusable.”

Bloomberg’s more than 2,400 journalists go through hours of compulsory training on how to use the superfast data-splicing terminals, and several former employees said that training included informal tips on how to use a function called UUID to locate sources who were also subscribers.

The sheer amount of data available on the terminals created a dynamic in the Bloomberg newsroom in which some reporters favored breaking news over strict subscriber confidentiality, former reporters said.

“There was always a discussion in the newsroom of how to use the terminals to break news,” said one former Bloomberg journalist. “That’s where it gets nuanced because I’m sure that in encouraging people to break news, Matt did not mean in this way,” this person added, referring to Mr. Winkler.

On Friday, Mr. Winkler reminded reporters of the company’s policy that prohibits journalists from discussing nonpublic Bloomberg documents and proprietary information about the company and its clients in their reporting. Last month, he contacted Goldman Sachs to apologize after the bank had complained about the reporting technique.

Bloomberg reporters also are accused of monitoring JPMorgan Chase executives’ login information last summer, when the bank suffered a multibillion-dollar trading loss, according to people briefed on the situation. The bank never formally complained to Bloomberg representatives about the practice.

The Federal Reserve and Treasury Department are also investigating whether reporters tracked employees. Bloomberg terminals sit in the highest echelons of power — including central banks, rival news organizations, Congress and even the Vatican.

Daniel L. Doctoroff, chief executive of Bloomberg L.P., said that making limited customer data available to reporters was a “mistake” and that it would not happen again. The company said the functions that led to the controversy had been disabled in the newsroom last month. The company also appointed a senior executive to the newly created role of client data compliance officer. (Mr. Bloomberg stepped back from the company’s day-to-day operations when he became mayor of New York.)

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Common Sense: Sham Shareholder Democracy

It turns out there are many stronger cases — 41.

That’s the number of publicly traded companies where directors actually lost their elections last year, meaning that more than 50 percent of the shareholders withheld their votes of approval. Yet despite these resounding votes of no confidence, they remained in their posts.

At least at H.P., all the directors got a majority of the votes cast, and even then, two resigned and a third gave up his post as chairman. But at Cablevision Systems Inc., the New York cable and media company controlled by the Dolan family, three directors lost shareholder elections twice in the last three years — in 2010 and 2012 — and received only tepid support in 2011. Nonetheless, the three remain on the board.

“As fiduciaries, we can’t sit by and let the board make a mockery of our fundamental right to elect directors,” said New York City’s comptroller, John Liu, who oversees the city’s pension funds, which own more than 532,000 Cablevision shares. “Shareowners need accountable directors who will ensure the company isn’t being run for the benefit of insiders at our expense.”

Mr. Liu sent the company a letter earlier this month urging it not to nominate the three again and threatening a proxy fight. “The fact that all three directors remain on the board suggests that one of the few rights” afforded shareholders is “illusory,” he wrote. Mr. Liu warned that he’d oppose their election and that “my office will also encourage other shareholders to join us.”

Mr. Liu didn’t get a response, but a Cablevision spokesman told me this week, without being specific, that Mr. Liu’s letter was “woefully misinformed, inaccurate and political.” In proxy materials released by Cablevision this week, all three directors — Thomas V. Reifenheiser, John R. Ryan and Vincent S. Tese — were renominated for new terms.

Even directors who resign after losing votes don’t necessarily leave. Two directors of Chesapeake Energy in Oklahoma, V. Burns Hargis, president of Oklahoma State University, and Richard K. Davidson, the former chief executive of Union Pacific, were opposed by more than 70 percent of the shareholders in 2012. Chesapeake requires directors receiving less than majority support to tender their resignations, which they did. The company said it would “review the resignations in due course.” (After a shareholder outcry, Mr. Davidson left a month after the vote, but and Mr. Hargis only left last month.)

At Iris International, a medical diagnostics company based in Chatsworth, Calif., shareholders rejected all nine directors in May 2011. In keeping with the company’s policy, they submitted their resignations. And then they voted not to accept them. The nine stayed on the board. (The company was acquired in late 2012 by the Danaher Corporation.)

A list of companies retaining directors who were rejected by shareholders in 2012 — so-called zombie directors — was compiled by the Council of Institutional Investors, which represents pension funds, endowments and other large investors. The list includes not just smaller, family-controlled companies, where disdain for shareholder views may be more ingrained, but also Loral Space Communications, Mentor Graphics, Boston Beer Company, and Vornado Realty Trust.

“It’s appalling,” Nell Minow, a co-founder of GMI Ratings, which rates companies based on risk to shareholders, including corporate governance issues, told me this week. “It’s the No. 1 issue in corporate governance.” She noted that the reason such a thing is possible is that many companies operate under a “plurality” voting system, in which directors run unopposed and just one vote is enough to be elected. And even companies that require a majority vote may decline to accept a director’s resignation.

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A Respite in Efforts by Wal-Mart in New York

The company has pulled back after its push to open a store in the East New York section of Brooklyn fell through and after it terminated its contracts with five lobbyist-consultants it had hired to help it win approval for that project.

The plans have stalled during this year’s intensely fought mayoral primary in which several of the Democratic candidates are fierce critics of Wal-Mart and have backed union efforts to block the retailer’s entry to New York. Having saturated many suburban and rural areas, Wal-Mart has long had its eyes on New York City, the nation’s largest center for consumerism, as part of its effort to expand into highly populated urban areas.

Steven Restivo, a Wal-Mart spokesman, acknowledged a partial pullback.

“Once we knew we weren’t moving forward in East New York, we made a common-sense decision to scale back some of our Brooklyn-related activities,” he said. He confirmed that Wal-Mart had cut back on the lobbyists and consultants it used for the Brooklyn project.

One of those consultants, who insisted on anonymity for fear of angering Wal-Mart officials, said the retailer had all but shut down its efforts in New York. “They’ve not pushing at all,” the consultant said in an interview. “They’re all but packed it up and left.”

However, a person familiar with Wal-Mart’s plans in the city, who asked not to be named because publicly speaking about the company was not authorized, said it was now interested in sites already zoned for retail to minimize conflict with public officials.

“Coming to New York’s a big deal, and if you do it, you want to get it right and to be successful,” this person said.

Many public officials say they will continue to fight a Wal-Mart city store. They hailed the latest developments, asserting that Wal-Mart had been beaten by union and community opposition.

Mr. Restivo said Wal-Mart was not giving up. “We remain committed to opening stores all across the U.S., including in large cities,” he said, adding that Wal-Mart would continue to evaluate opportunities in the city.

Wal-Mart’s reputation has been undercut by recent bad publicity, including accusations reported in an investigation by The New York Times that Wal-Mart executives had bribed many Mexican officials and that some of its suppliers were major customers of an apparel factory in Bangladesh where a fire killed 112 workers in November. Labor unions have done their utmost to keep Wal-Mart out of New York City, asserting that its wages and benefits are too low and that it could put union supermarkets out of business.

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, was long rumored to become a tenant at the Gateway II development in Brooklyn, but in September, the company said it would not open there after all. Wal-Mart officials said its East New York plans fell through because it could not come to financial terms with the developer.

Nevertheless, Christine Quinn, the City Council speaker and a Democratic candidate for mayor — and a frequent critic of Wal-Mart — said, “However Wal-Mart wants to spin it, they were up against tremendous political and community opposition that made it impossible for them to open a store in New York.”

“As long as Wal-Mart’s behavior remains the same, they’re not welcome in New York City,” she added. “New York isn’t changing. Wal-Mart has to change.”

Bill de Blasio, the New York City public advocate. who is also running for mayor, said Wal-Mart was no longer nearly as loud or visible in New York as it was a year or two ago.

Mr. de Blasio, who has issued several anti-Wal-Mart reports, including one that argued that Wal-Mart’s entry would cause a loss of jobs in New York, said Wal-Mart mounted a vigorous public relations campaign in 2010, 2011 and part of 2012. Radio ads, direct mail and targeted charitable donations were made to try to win community support.

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World Briefing | Europe: Russia: Ex-Defense Chief Faces Accusers

State investigators on Friday accused the former defense minister, Anatoly E. Serdyukov, of obstructing a corruption investigation into real estate dealings by the Defense Ministry, and suggested that he might soon face criminal charges. Mr. Serdyukov, who was dismissed by President Vladimir V. Putin in November, invoked his constitutional right not to incriminate himself during an interrogation, a spokesman for the state Investigative Committee said. Several of his former aides have already been charged in the case.

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Media Decoder Blog: Vieira to Leave ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’

Disney is searching for a new host for the syndicated game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.”

Meredith Vieira, the host since 2002, said Thursday that she had decided to leave the show at the end of her current contract cycle. “It’s been a great 11 years,” she said in a statement. “I am about to embark on a new adventure with NBC and I have a digital venture which will be announced shortly. This just seemed like the right time to make the move.”

Ms. Vieira was a co-host of NBC’s “Today” between 2006 and 2011. She is now a special correspondent for the network. An NBC representative declined to comment on what Ms. Vieira’s “new adventure” was. Last week Ms. Vieira filled in for Kathie Lee Gifford on the 10 a.m. hour of “Today.”

“Millionaire” was originally hosted in prime time by Regis Philbin, then reformatted for the daytime with Ms. Vieira and distributed to local stations. A spokesman for Ms. Vieira said she was the longest-serving female host of a game show in television history.

Disney, the distributor, said a new host would take over for her in the fall.

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House G.O.P. Looks to a Round 2 Obama Hopes to Avoid

“I will not have another debate with this Congress over whether or not they should pay the bills that they’ve already racked up through the laws that they passed,” the president said, pausing to repeat himself. “We can’t not pay bills that we’ve already incurred.”

But it is not clear exactly how Mr. Obama can avoid engaging in just such a tug of war.

In the wake of the president’s victory on taxes over the New Year’s holiday, Republicans in Congress are betting that by refusing to unconditionally raise the $16.4 trillion debt ceiling, they can force Mr. Obama to the bargaining table on spending cuts and issues like reform of Medicare and Social Security.

That would inevitably reprise the bitter clash over the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011, when the government came close to shutting down before lawmakers and the president agreed to a $1.2 trillion package of spending cuts in exchange for Republican agreement to raise the debt ceiling by about the same amount.

And that is exactly what Republicans want.

The party’s caucus in the House will discuss its debt ceiling strategy at its retreat in Williamsburg, Va., in a couple of weeks, according to a top Republican aide, who said it was determined to insist again on spending cuts that equal the increase in the amount the country can borrow.

“The speaker told the president to his face that everything you want in life comes with a price. That doesn’t change here,” the Republican aide said. “I don’t think he has any choice.”

That strategy could risk a new round of criticism aimed at Republicans from a public weary of brinkmanship. The 2011 fight ended with a last-minute deal but led to a downgrade in the rating of the nation’s debt and a slump in the economic recovery.

But Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner, said Republicans had made it clear what they wanted in exchange for a willingness to allow borrowing to increase.

“If they want to get the debt limit raised, they are going to have to engage and accept that reality,” Mr. Buck said. “The president knows that.”

In fact, the White House has been on notice for months that Republicans view the debt ceiling as leverage in the next budget fight. Now, the question is what Mr. Obama and his advisers can do to sidestep that fight.

One possibility is to turn to business executives for support. Many top chief executives view the possibility of a debt ceiling crisis as a significant impediment to the nation’s economy just as it is beginning to grow again. Those executives might try to pressure Republican lawmakers not to use the country’s credit as a negotiating tool.

Mr. Obama might also take to the road again, using the power of his office to try to convince the public that another fight over the debt ceiling risks another economic crisis. Public polls after the last debt ceiling fight suggested that more people blamed Republicans for the threat of a default.

The president and his aides have signaled that they will try to educate the public by explaining that the increase in the borrowing limit is necessary to cover debts that the government has already incurred. In his statement on Tuesday night, Mr. Obama warned about what would happen if the country did not meet its obligations.

“If Congress refuses to give the United States government the ability to pay these bills on time, the consequences for the entire global economy would be catastrophic — far worse than the impact of a fiscal cliff,” Mr. Obama said.

In the coming days and weeks, Mr. Obama is likely to try to focus negotiations on the other looming issue: how to avoid deep across-the-board cuts to the nation’s military and domestic programs. The deal passed on Tuesday postpones those cuts for two months, but Mr. Obama and lawmakers in both parties are eager to avoid them.

Instead, the president wants a debate over spending cuts and tax changes that would remove loopholes and deductions for wealthy Americans.

That fight is coming. The question is whether the president can avoid conducting it in the middle of a nasty, drawn-out debate over the debt limit.

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U.S. Is Expected to Extend Google Antitrust Inquiry

The agency’s chairman, Jon Leibowitz, has consistently said that the commission was aiming to finish its inquiry by the end of 2012, and all signs have been pointing to an imminent settlement, including reports of a Google proposal to avoid formal punishment by promising to change some of its practices.

Two people who have been briefed on the investigation said that some commissioners had asked for more time to consider possible penalties after recent reports portrayed Google as having persuaded the F.T.C. to give the company little more than a slap on the wrist.

For almost two years, the F.T.C. has been studying whether Google’s dominant search engine intentionally produces search results that favor its own commerce and other services. Companies with competing search engines as well as commercial sites that specialize in airline ticket information or shopping have complained that Google has stifled competition by its actions.

Those competitors have reacted with outrage over the last week to reports that the F.T.C. planned not to file charges of antitrust violations or unfair competition. The commission was prepared to accept Google’s written assurances that it would alter some practices related to search, according to the reports. The F.T.C. could enforce compliance with such a written assurance.

Google’s competitors, which have been urging regulators to take action, stepped up their protests after the recent reports. That outrage has apparently reverberated in the halls of the commission, where displeasure has grown at the portrayals of the commission as having been cowed by the technology giant.

The people briefed on the inquiry said that the F.T.C. would most likely conclude its effort in early to mid-January.

The commission is also continuing its look at whether Google abused its control of certain patents concerning mobile phone technology.

Adam Kovacevich, a Google spokesman, said the company would “continue to work cooperatively with the Federal Trade Commission and are happy to answer any questions they may have.” An F.T.C. representative declined to comment.

Google will also apparently be extending into 2013 a parallel three-year inquiry in Europe, but with hope of avoiding a big fine or a finding of wrongdoing.

After meeting with Eric E. Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, the European Union’s competition commissioner, Joaquín Almunia, said in a statement Tuesday that “we have substantially reduced our differences.”

“I now expect Google to come forward with a detailed commitment text in January 2013,” Mr. Almunia said.

Mr. Almunia is also focusing on whether Google’s search engine thwarted competition by favoring the company’s services in presenting results of search queries.

He said Tuesday that in their discussion, the company indicated it would change “the way in which Google’s vertical search services are displayed within general search results as compared to services of competitors.”

The other areas in which Mr. Almunia said he expected to reach a deal included how Google uses and displays content from other companies in its search tool, and the restrictions that Google places on advertising and advertisers. Any concessions Google offered would be tested in the marketplace to assess their acceptability to other companies, before becoming binding, Mr. Almunia said.

If there is a settlement, Google will avoid a possible fine of as much as 10 percent of its annual global revenue, about $37.9 billion last year. It would also avoid a guilty finding that could restrict its activities in Europe. “We continue to work cooperatively with the commission,” Al Verney, a Google spokesman in Brussels, said.

Exactly what concessions on search services Mr. Almunia can wring from Google remained an open question Tuesday, though antitrust specialists agreed that he had more leverage than his American counterparts.

While Google is the dominant search engine in the United States, it holds even greater sway in Europe, accounting for more than 90 percent of searches in a number of large markets. That is one factor giving the Europeans greater leverage in trying to set rules on how Google ranks competing services.

Another factor is European antitrust law, which has long given competitors more protection than United States law provides.

Antitrust law in Europe, and the commission’s approach to it, has shifted in recent years, raising the hurdles for complainants against dominant companies, said Emanuela Lecchi, an antitrust lawyer in London with Watson, Farley Williams.

Even so, Ms. Lecchi said, Europe still offers rivals greater protection. Compared with the United States, European regulators “are more inclined to try and make sure there is always a choice of players on markets, and that’s something that might allow Google’s rivals to make more progress at the end of the day,” she said.

Edward Wyatt reported from Washington and James Kanter from Brussels. Steve Lohr contributed reporting from New York.

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DealBook: Goldman Sachs Cuts a Little Deeper

It isn’t getting better out there.

Wall Street, which has been paring its ranks over the last year as it struggles with lackluster markets and new regulations, is cutting deeper as it heads into what is expected to be a rough summer.

Goldman Sachs laid off roughly 50 people last week, according to people briefed on the matter but not authorized to speak on the record. The cutbacks have rattled some people in the firm, in part because a number of the employees were managing directors and on the higher end of Goldman’s pay scale. Managing directors make a base of $500,000 and receive an annual bonus that can climb into the millions of dollars.

Last week’s layoffs are seen as a sign that Goldman is looking further up the food chain for additional cuts after already slashing 8.5 percent of its work force, or 3,000 people, in the last year. In addition it has cut more than $1.4 billion in noncompensation expenses from its operations over the last year or so.

A Goldman spokesman declined to comment.

The layoffs are largely economic; the firm like the rest of Wall Street is confronting a number of challenges to growth, in part because of Europe’s debt woes. Already, analysts have begun ratcheting down their second-quarter earnings estimates for the banks.

Yet, Goldman has also named new managers in some crucial divisions recently, which has led to some staffing cuts, whether for strategic or budgetary reasons. If markets don’t pick up, it is almost certain that the firm will make additional cuts later this year.

And Goldman isn’t the only firm cutting staff. Morgan Stanley reduced its work force by 2,935 during the 12 months that ended March 31. While it is a similar number to Goldman’s, this represents just 4.7 percent of its work force. If markets continue to deteriorate this summer, Morgan Stanley is likely to make additional small cuts.

Other firms have been cutting aggressively. Credit Suisse, for instance, had laid off people and earlier this year filed filed a notice with the New York Department of Labor, saying that it planned to lay off 109 people in the state before May 1.

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