Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A De for the black

As I looked at the paper this morning, I couldn't help reading the headlines on the front page and feeling that cold, fuzzy feeling of... well... sadness. A few of the articles in question:

Rupee at all-time low of 52.15, to impact everyday life
Black money offenders may escape prosecution
Govt plans Rs.30,000cr bailout for Air India
Maha govt has spent Rs.16cr on Kasab so far
In the last decade, over 4 died in custody daily

How are these all linked? Well, it all starts with a question... how can I increase the amount and value of the black money I've got?

Before we begin, here's a little background.

A while ago, news reports told us that Sonia Gandhi went to the US for an operation. There's been no official statement (to my knowledge at least) as to what operation this was or what it was for. Most folks would rack this up to a personal privacy concern - which I would think of as the right thing to do. Illness in the family is hardly something you want splashed all over every form of media as 'breaking news', however, quoting from an article from Zee News:
Confirming the news, Congress spokesperson Janardan Dwivedi said, “Sonia Gandhi has been unwell for quite some time and the doctors attending her had advised her to undergo a surgery, for which she had flown to the United States recently.”
Briefing the press reporters on her health, Dwivedi said, “The abdominal surgery performed on her has been successful and she had been advised to take full rest.”
I've heard that her trip out of the country was to handle some 'money matters' - this could be related to the operation costs. I've been told that there were reports of Rahul stopping by in Switzerland on his way to the US to visit his mother after her surgery - this would seem a little cold. I'm off to visit my mom - she's just had an operation... heeeeey, wanna stop by in Switzerland on the way? When I tried searching for articles related to this, I only found articles suggesting that neither of them had gone to the US at all and were both in Switzerland. I haven't linked to any of these since they weren't mainstream media sites. Other subsequent reports say she's got some form of skin cancer or something. Maybe she should either tell the media to shut up or set them straight in reporting the truth.

Anyway, it's generally accepted in India that there are lots of people in the country with lots of black money. It's also accepted here that the people with the money are the ones in control. I read an article a while ago which suggested that the government would make it easier to bring back black money without having to pay anything in way of penalty. Just the regular tax would be deducted. It figures that people with large amounts of black money would want to go easy on people with large amounts of black money, and allow them to bring it back without prosecuting them for having that amount of undeclared money.

Which brings us to the first article I've mentioned in the post. Some news papers and channels have suggested that the government could have done something to control the sliding rupee before, but now it's going into freefall - and there's not much that can help prevent that. Heck, if I've got US Dollars and Euros, my cash is now worth 10% more than it was a couple of months ago. If I've got enough that I'm planning on bringing back to India anytime soon, I'd like it if the Rupee slid further. With all this talk about all the black money stashed abroad, if/when it DOES come back, there's a significant drop in the loss to the owner of this cash.

The next article is about how black money offenders may escape prosecution. The Income Tax department, which normally manages to worry even the most well connected people in the country would appear toothless when it comes to larger deviations from the rules. If they haven't paid tax on the money stashed abroad, they should at LEAST be made liable to have that tax deducted - freeze their local bank accounts if necessary. Any 'unexplained' assets should be made property of the country. The ED (Enforcement department) in our country is (to my understanding) only involved when it comes to prosecution. If the details can't be shared between the IT department and ED because of the Double Taxation Avoidance Treaty (DTAT), then handle the prosecution of these people once Germany gives clearance - the country would benefit, in the meantime, from infusion of a huge amount of cash. Our president went to Switzerland and Austria to talk about the issues of the DTAT, but so far the only mainstream media report I could find on this was this one, published before the trip. This would suggest that the trip didn't go well for the Indian public so details weren't published by the media. The BJP has jumped on this with the input that since the people on the list didn't EARN the money abroad, they aren't liable to pay taxes abroad - sounds straightforward enough. 

With all this behind-the-scenes activity, we, the people of the country have to be thrown a bone once every now and then - with all the reports of all the scams, it's getting hard to see what rules/laws/amendments the government is coming up with to protect themselves from prosecution. It's in the interest of most political parties to protect the corrupt. This dance would appear to be for the benefit of the Indian people so that when people finally DO get caught, they get a slap on the wrist, spend 6 months or so incarcerated in luxury, then get out to spend their ill-gotten gains - the rules still don't allow for recovery of any of the money stolen.

So what's up with our national carrier? How does that tie in? As far as I see, it's just one more set of scams. The airline industry in the country's not doing particularly well - and for all the rubbish people have been coming up with like 'they're badly/inefficiently managed', or 'Indigo is doing well', I have this to say to you - inefficiencies can make a difference, but not THIS much of a difference. Indigo (or rather Interglobe) is making profits FROM the other airlines rather than from it's airline service. I understand the owners were smart enough to book a large number of aircraft which are being delivered - and sold/leased out to other airlines since delivery schedules are in terms of years for aircraft manufacturers. The politicians have been known to use the national carrier (Indian) like their own personal charters - the Civil aviation ministers (and lots of other folks apparently) are guaranteed a lifetime of free tickets. Not that the rest of the government pays in any case. Now they're giving them a 30,000cr bailout rather than paying their dues. No wonder they didn't want to give it back to the Tatas to run - they'd have objected to letting so many folks fly everywhere for free.

Rs.16cr (Rs.160million) on Kasab. This has gone on food, drink, accommodation and security over the last 3 years. That's on average Rs.1.46L (Rs.146K) per day. I thought he was in jail! Okay, so lets assume he's got prime property in Bombay. Lets peg that at 14K/day on just space and electricity - there are much more expensive hotels, but hey, this guy doesn't get room service does he? Take a few (5 or 6) of the higher pay-scale cops and pay them a little more - that's another 14K/day. Food? What the hell - lets get him 5 star rates - that comes up to (with difficulty) 10K/day. One full rate return trip to Pakistan per month (which I'm sure he doesn't get) - including rental car and security detail - Rs.2L/month (averages at 7K/day). Where's the rest of this money? Court fee/lawyers? 100K/month? We've got pictures of the guy shooting folks up. We've got an admission of guilt. There are enough eye witnesses AND he's been found guilty already... I'm guessing the rest is something to do with someone making a lot of money on the side... like by providing him with food at the price of gold, while 4 people die in custody because they've been mistreated/manhandled/not been cared about enough.

The sad bit is that all this political 'VIP' nonsense is the root of all these headlines.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

De multifold coverup

Take this scenario:

A large bunch of (not particularly intimate) criminals have evidence of each others crimes. They'd rather not be prosecuted at all, so in the interest of their own safety do not 'rat out' any of the others.

Now, lets thicken the plot a little - one of these criminals gets caught for one crime in which a few other folks are involved. He's going down... there's no escape for this guy at all... he's in a particularly bad mood because he gets the feeling that someone took him down and doesn't feel like he should take the rap alone. He rats out the other folks involved in this particular crime.

We now have a few folks going down - some of their enemies decide to kick-em-while-they're-down assuming that they don't have proof of any of their own crimes. Things start getting more complicated now because now all of them have started thinking along the lines of 'if I have to take a fall, I'm pulling everyone else in with me.'

Suddenly, there's chaos in parliament. All the thievery, murders, scams, embezzling, laundering, kickbacks and lies have started hitting everyone, but the politicians have started warring... none of the parties are covering their 'friends' let alone their enemies. Some of them think that by starting one more controversy they can lessen the scope of their own prosecution by diverting attention away from their own issue. In most cases, this next controversy involves more people. With any luck, most of them will kill each other (metaphorically if not literally) and we'll be left with the few misfits in our government with some form of ethical standard. I'm just hoping there's not going to be a truce call between the 'dons' before the bloodbath's finished. It's a little sad that the only time the Delhi police have averted a full on terrorist strike, the terrorists were planning on doing us a favour - destruction of the parliament building would have been upsetting, but the place could definitely use a good fumigation.

Friday, February 04, 2011

De Shopping Experience

With e-commerce set to jump out of the bag with the coming of actual broadband and 3G in India, you'd think it's safe to get out there and buy stuff online here...


It's neither safe, nor prudent to give any of these web sites too much of a chance till they start respecting privacy and/or up the security on the data that you have to give them. I've had some pretty sad experiences with spam happening from places I'd have least expected it to come.

The Setup
It all started with me getting so much spam on my old Hotmail account that I more or less stopped using it altogether. It had been relegated to that old account where I had a few subscriptions, or that I gave to any website that required registration... and my personal address? Well, that's personal... why let anyone see that at all?

Unfortunately, I found that I was getting more spam in my inbox than in my "Junk mail folder", and the spam management and amazing search functionality on Hotmail just didn't help at all (searching for the word "dentist" yielded no results despite the fact that bulk of my inbox was filled with mail with the same word in the subject). I needed another way to sort through that account - frankly, I only wanted to keep it since it's one of my first e-mail addresses and if anyone still uses it they should be able to (eventually) elicit a response from it, so once a month I check it.

I've found that the best (and easiest) way to track spam is to use your own domain with a mailbox there for every site you may have low trust issues with. It's quite convenient for companies (like amazon.co.uk@mydomain. com) so you remember the login details (since if you reached the website, you're bound to know what email address you've passed them). I've managed to take it to a level where it takes a matter of seconds to setup an account for someone, access it automatically with a password shared across accounts, and with limits only on the collective size of inbox, I've found I'm relatively sorted on this part. Once you're sure that they're not evil spammers, you can give them your proper e-mail address.

So there I was... I felt comfortable with this system of distributing email addresses. It confuses people and gets funny at times as well... I've been asked a few times if I work with Dell (while on the phone with support).

I'm guessing majority of the leaks start at customer care. We need to educate the call centre employees on privacy and ethics. Most of them wouldn't think twice about giving anyone their own addresses and phone numbers out and wouldn't think of it as a breach of agreement or even privacy. I don't think anyone would bother trying to hack into many of the customer databases... it's easier to hang out outside the call centre (I'm sure it wouldn't be difficult to get the location/address through the phone) and offer someone a couple of hundred rupees for all the email addresses.

To help or not to help
It's really sad where all I get spam from. Oxfam India was responsible for my receipt of mail offering to "Make it stronger. Last a lot longer." It should be good enough that I contribute to their causes in cash - why would they sell my data?

Travel issues
You want to book flight, train or bus tickets or a hotel room from/in India online? Yatra delivers quite a good experience on the actual business side... on the side business, I've received spam from LIC (which IMHO is just about acceptable seeing as it's a respected Insurance company - just the source of the email address and the option to opt out should be included in the mail). One thing I DIDN'T expect from them was to get a Facebook invite from Shalini Ahuja - you're thinking this would possibly be a bot or a very lonely person? The invite said :
Lowest Fares on www . EaseMyTrip . com Just Compare Fares Once Before Issuing Tickets Online.... Also Earn Upto Rs.50,000/Month or More by Joining EMT Franchise Network !!
Sounds like a competitor to me... does this mean all Yatra customers were sent FB invites from EaseMyTrip?

A company that wanted to sell projectors and services related to projectors has contacted me on my Yatra account. This information also seems to have reached an "offers" website, who have offered me "Resort homes" in India.

Does this mean that Yatra sells user data? Probably not - one rogue employee or someone may have given this data out. I don't get too much spam through them... a total of 4 emails that I've managed to track - it's a little bit of work. In fact, I'd spoken with some pretty senior people (at Yatra) about this and haven't received any more spam on that address.

Khojguru has managed to get my Dominos pizza email address and send me mail about it. They even included a link to allow me to unsubscribe from their list - I didn't want to click on it since this would confirm that it's an active address and allow the spammer (Khojguru) to validate this as a "good lead". The next mail I got on this address (some insurance comparison site) actually said that it was being sent from kgurumail.com, so at least when Khojguru sends my mail address on to more spammers, they keep me in the loop.

An online auction site sent me spam at my book my show address, and were nice enough to include a coupon just above the (unused) unsubscription link.

There's an email provider here who (apparently) pays you back for using their email service and in the spam they've sent to my Dominos account (again via Khojguru), they've even mentioned a donation they've made to charity, aside from offering me great deals.

Dominos gets the prize for versatility though... from email that pays you to use it to "Compete in yacht size? Nowadays it is of no use - boost your bed energy!"

The Bad
Okay, so now the story gets a bit murky... an internet provider (Spectranet) sent my Ferns and Petals account a flyer about affordable long distance calling... heck, if an internet provider buys/obtains this data illegally, who's stopping them from sharing their customers data or even spying on the actual data that's being exchanged by users online?

My Ferns and petals account also received junk from The Economist offering me a subscription - hey at least they're keeping it classy! Or maybe not... IndusLadies sent me a newsletter, and offered to take feedback/unsubscription requests which lead to a "sendfnpemail.com" url, but then ALL links do... it's almost like they're running campaigns for people who want publicity and using their customers mail addresses to send all of this crap out. Bad, bad FnP! No Froyo for you!

All of these so far are just standard sites or organisations that are either too stupid/enethical to hold my data with a degree of respect. They're not really very big on the online shopping front.

I've had so much spam at my Ngpay address it's not funny. Ngpay is a service which partners with online retailers, travel sites, gift sites, movie sites... it's an aggregator of sorts, but it's mobile! It delivers a near seamless experience (or had in the past when I used to use it), but since they have to pass on your contact details to their partners, someone or the other (read: fnp.in) would start sending you spam. I don't hold this against them, but would like them to try it the Google way... not pass the actual email address, but a time limited alias which could be deactivated on confirmation from the customer.

The Ugly
Shop Your World... this one actually deserves a separate post, but hey, I'm not here very often :)

I got a flyer from one of my banks telling me I could now shop on Amazon.com or bestbuy.com in Indian Rupees, have the product shipped to India, and get to see the complete cost (delivery to my doorstep) upfront... they'll handle purchase, shipping, customs duty and delivery, and I get what I bought at the US price plus a bit on shipping and tax. It winds up a lot more cost effective for me to buy this way... it also winds up a lot more convenient - at one point, if you bought something from a US store and had them ship it here, they'd give you a call when it reached customs and you'd have to go pay and get it out.

Great concept! Ebay.in has a similar concept, but they only handle particular suppliers from the US and ONLY ebay listings. Now I can get stuff from the US or UK at a reasonable price (Services here are cheap and involve cut-throat competition, but many products are generally much more expensive here), and I don't need to have an address abroad or have anyone pick it up, or have anyone bring it down... it reaches my door for a few rupees more.

A serious shopping site is the LAST place I'd expect to get spam from... one that my BANK recommends? I registered, left my mobile number, email address, house address, "spam" mobile number; a freely distributed number, and a phone in the shopping cart. I got spam from MTV. The spam was addressed to "Dear Sunil", so they hadn't just sold the address... the name was specified as well. I managed to catch an online agent to chat with and asked if they sold information. When I was told that this was against policy (as I'd already seen on their website), I persisted and was told that they didn't. If they're not selling or distributing my data and someone else has it, there's only one other natural assumption that springs to mind... they're low on security and/or have been hacked into, and data stolen. I don't really think I want to use an e-commerce site that's been hacked into, especially with the response I got from the agent... I had the transcript emailed to me. So far no one has gotten back to me - heck, maybe they lost my data :-D

The transcript of the conversation:
info: Please wait for a site operator to respond.
info: You are now chatting with 'Aditya'
info: Your Issue ID for this chat is LTK166010377008X
Aditya: Welcome to Shop Your World
Aditya: How may I help?
shopyourworld.com@mydomain. com: Hi Aditya, I'd registered on your site and had considered buying some things from there. I created a specific email address for your site
shopyourworld.com@mydomain. com: I received spam on this email address yesterday
shopyourworld.com@mydomain. com: I would like to know if you are distributing/selling my data
shopyourworld.com@mydomain. com: because this goes against the privacy policy mentioned on your website
Aditya: We do not share our Customer's Database with any other Company
shopyourworld.com@mydomain. com: then your system has been hacked into
shopyourworld.com@mydomain. com: which is even more of a concern
Aditya: I will pass this Information to the IT team
shopyourworld.com@mydomain. com: the only place this email address has ever been typed is on shopyourworld.com
Aditya: Ok
shopyourworld.com@mydomain. com: not good enough
shopyourworld.com@mydomain. com: I'd like you to have your management team contact me as this is a rather serious issue
shopyourworld.com@mydomain. com: I'm just glad I didn't buy anything from you or my credit card details might have been floating around the internet as well
Aditya: Like I said, I will share this Information with the IT Team to look into the matter and check if there are any gates open for the hackers to peep into our database.
Aditya: As of now we haven't received such Complaints, but considering this is the first, we would like to do something about it and avoid such complaints in future
shopyourworld.com@mydomain. com: if I don't get a revert from your management team in the next three days I'll blog this.
shopyourworld.com@mydomain. com: I don't think you're getting how serious this issue is
Aditya: The Credit Card Details are not stored in our database any which way as we use a 3D secure payment gateway
Aditya: You will have to go through VISA or Mastercard verified gateway for every transaction
shopyourworld.com@mydomain. com: I'm not going to waste any more time chatting with you. Please make sure someone contacts me about this in the next three days
Aditya: So security of your Card details shouldn't be a concern at all
info: Your chat transcript will be sent to shopyourworld.com@mydomain. com at the end of your chat.
shopyourworld.com@mydomain. com: selling the data would be enough of an issue - I got spam from rishik85@gmail.com with the subject MTV GANG NEXT 2.0 Auditions, which would suggest you've sold my information to an MTV affiliate.
shopyourworld.com@mydomain. com: the mail was sent from a Tata Teleservices internet account
shopyourworld.com@mydomain. com: was the IP
Aditya: We will have this checked
shopyourworld.com@mydomain. com: please have whoever contacts me at the given mail address provide a contact number
shopyourworld.com@mydomain. com: I will call back
Aditya: I have passed on the Information to the concern team
Aditya: We have your contact details registered with this Email ID
shopyourworld.com@mydomain. com: now you're getting my point - I've given you more details than I'd typically give to an untrusted site. So you can have them call me on my mobile.
Aditya: Sure
Aditya: You should get a call within 24 - 48 hours
shopyourworld.com@mydomain. com: thanks
Aditya: Cheers!
It's been a week and a day... should have been enough time for them to get back to me... they haven't. Maybe HDFC (and ICICI) should consider security of their partner sites - the sites themselves don't seem to care too much.