It’s time for another visit to the world of survey results. As I wrote when I last visited, poll numbers are not my favorite kind of numbers, but they are way better than no numbers at all. Particularly on economic issues, poll numbers are less informative than how people and companies actually spend money, but they are way more useful than mere words put out by people like me. (Note I said "like me" not "me". My analysis is always first-rate.)
If you know the world through words from the media, some of the numbers the pollsters find may be jarring. For example, Gallup recently found that 45% of Americans think there is too much government regulation of business and industry and only 24% think there is too little. That’s a fairly wide margin in favor of less regulation, but what may be truly surprising is that in the past year that plurality has widened. In September 2008, just before it all hit the fan, too much beat too little by 38%-27%. In fact, 45% is the highest number in at least a decade.
You might have thought, and I will admit to having thought this, that the Great Recession had won over enough converts to the unbridled-capitalism-is-bad camp that there was now a broad consensus that we needed more regulation, with only the details of what and where to be worked out. Turns out the opposite is true. The GR seems to have, miraculously, won over more people to the less-government-is-better-government side. Go figure.
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The latest hot topic on the identity theft front is a paper published on Monday in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science by two professors at Carnegie Mellon on how easy it is to guess a person’s social security number.
That day Ars Technica reported on it. Also, the authors of the paper started a blog on it. The AP picked it up Tuesday. CrunchGear blogged on it then too. And Wednesday brought posts from Wise Bread and Wallet Pop.
This is a great story. It combines several of my favorite themes. There’s the ever amusing hysteria over identity theft, which apparently renders a person incapable of rational thought and perspective. There are the unintended consequences of seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time government policies. And there is the recurring phenomenon of folks who report and comment on academic papers without reading and/or understanding them.
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One of the things I have learned writing this blog is that I have no power to predict which topics and posts are going to be popular. Sometimes I write what I think is an insightful and even controversial post and it gets five ho-hum comments and no links. Then I write what I think is a forgettable few paragraphs on a unimportant topic and next thing I know there are 30 impassioned comments and links to it all over the web.
My post last week on LifeLock’s legal woes fell into the surprisingly popular category. I thought it was a modestly interesting wrinkle on a rather unexciting topic. I didn’t understand what a hot button identity theft is for some, and what a great business it is for others.
Controversy and money is a combination I can’t stay away from, so I decided I needed to learn more about identity theft. It hasn’t been going that well. It seems the more I read the more confused the picture gets and even answers to some basic questions become more murky and ambiguous the more I dig.
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You have seen the ads for a company called LifeLock. They’re the ones with the CEO’s Social Security number. It must be a very effective campaign. The company currently has 1.5 million subscribers at $10 a month each.
And what do you get for your $120 a year? Well, a few things, but the major one is that LifeLock will place a "fraud alert" on your credit reports. These warn potential grantors of credit that something is fishy and tell them to contact you directly to confirm that it was really you that asked for the loan. Fraud alerts expire after 90 days, so LifeLock dutifully renews them for you four times a year.
That’s a nice little business they’ve got. $180 Million in recurring annual revenue for not a lot of work. But before you slap your forehead and ask why you didn’t think of it first, you should know that it looks like the party’s over.
LifeLock’s use of fraud alerts is pretty clearly abusive. They were created by federal law as a way for consumers to place a red flag on their credit reports if they were currently involved in fraud, not as a precautionary step to be taken by millions. (The LifeLock website says that to use the service you must "confirm that you have a good faith suspicion that you have been or are about to become a victim of identity theft." Wink wink.)
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