06 May 2013


Mermaid Beach (Queensland) MP Ray Stevens is reported to have come up with one of this year's most amusing proposals for crime control. Let's have a state-wide register - it's unclear whether it's to be online - of tattooed Queenslanders!

People with ink would reportedly have to register their tattoos with the Qld State Government as part of Stevens' plan to crack down on 'bikie gang money-laundering operations'. If reports are to be believed, the tattoos rather than the parlours are to the subject of registration.

According to one report the MP considers that
bikie gangs were using tattoo parlours as a front to launder their ill-gotten gains, and a form of tattoo register would stop them using fake names and inflated tattoo prices to do this.
Mr Stevens said fake names were used at bikie-affiliated parlours, with cash payments of thousands of dollars for bogus tattoo work.
"Under the Health Act there should be a register of people getting tattoos so that we can identify those people getting tattoos rather than have John Smith, Bill Brown and all the other fake names of people who are paying $5000 or $10,000 for tattoos. This is a way for these bikie clubs to clean their money," he said. "Considering the number of bikies and tattoo parlours I've seen in my area, considering the shootings in my area, I think it's a very worthwhile exercise to look into tattoo parlours and health activities associated with them."
Mr Stevens said the proposal could work with people required to give their name and identification to parlours when getting a tattoo with that information passed on to the Government register. Similar restrictions are used for the sale of cold and flu medication containing phenylephrine, which is targeted by criminals because it is an ingredient in making speed.
One immediate thought is that the parlours - supposedly run by crims - would be expected to contribute to a register that would demonstrate that criminal activity is taking place.

Let's not think about inconveniences such as verification or privacy.

Queensland Council for Civil Liberties spokesman Terry O'Gorman unsurprisingly is reported as commenting that the proposal is
a naive and extreme approach. "To require everyone who gets a tat to be registered is to require a huge number of the population who want it as a fashion statement to go on what would effectively be a criminal register," he said.
He said there was already a Federal Government body, Australian Transactions Reports and Analysis Centre, or AUSTRAC, which used high-tech means to investigate alleged money laundering, while if police had legitimate information to suggest a tattoo parlour was being used for laundering they would easily be able to get a phone tap and listening devices in place.

Foot-in-the-door Inc

The 54 page Strangers are calling! The experience of door to door sales in Melbourne's refugee communities [PDF] by Laura Berta, Gerard Brody & Cynthia Mackenzie (Footscray Community Legal Centre) examines
the impact of door-to-door sales practices on vulnerable consumers, including refugee communities, low-income families and public housing residents. By using the real life experiences of our clients at the Footscray CLC, this report examines the social and legal impact of door-to-door sales. This report finds that disadvantaged consumers are disproportionately affected by damaging and often illegal sales practices. Such practices have social and financial consequences for communities and individuals.
The report offers several findings - 
1 Door-to-door energy sales practices disproportionately affect vulnerable consumers. For the purposes of this report, “vulnerable consumers” include: (a) public housing residents; (b) concession holders; (c) non-English speakers including people of refugee background; (d) women, particularly when home alone; and (e) the elderly, and young people.
2 Vulnerable consumers are more susceptible to signing a new energy contract as a result of a door-to-door energy sale. They are more likely to ‘switch’ energy providers because they feel vulnerable and pressured; the practice of door-to-door sales often involves entering the protected, private space of a potential consumer (including single mothers, the elderly, and young people home alone).
3 Many vulnerable consumers receive misleading or false information about the nature and content of energy contracts. This can result in negative settlement outcomes for those consumers with a refugee background, who can suffer long-term effects, such as fear and distrust of strangers knocking on their door.
4 Our case studies demonstrate breaches of: (a) contract law; (b) laws regulating unsolicited consumer agreements (door-to-door sales); (c) prohibitions on misrepresentations and misleading and deceptive conduct; (d) prohibition against unconscionable conduct; (e) unfair tactics, such as undue harassment or coercion; and (f) energy-specific consumer protections.
5 Many vulnerable consumers are unable to provide “informed consent” in a door-to-door energy sales context. There is no evidence that post-sale telephone verification procedures overcome this problem. 6 Consumers of refugee background are commonly not able to utilize information provided by Consumer Affairs Victoria when responding to door-to-door sales, as this information makes a number of inappropriate assumptions about the skills and resources available to this group of consumers.
7 Self-regulated industry Codes of Practice are not an effective means of protecting consumers.
8 Independent enforcement against misleading or illegal door-to-door sales practices can be effective.
9 Beyond door-to-door energy sales. Alternative methods for providing direct energy sales to vulnerable consumers are available.
The complementary recommendations are - 
10 We call for inclusive energy policy. The Australian Government’s social inclusion agenda as well as the Department of Immigration and Citizenship’s settlement programs are being undermined by door-to-door energy sales practices. Migrants and refugees are telling us that door-to-door sales practices, in general, are harmful and unwelcome and have a negative impact on their social, emotional and physical well-being. The negative impacts are magnified when door-to-door energy sales are conducted in a misleading or illegal manner. We recommend that governments and service providers work together to ensure that issues of settlement, energy provision, and legal assistance is as consistent and inclusive as possible.
11 We call for support and expansion of the “Do Not Knock” campaign. We support the Consumer Utilities Advocacy Centre’s recommendation that the Essential Services Commission develop an online tool to allow consumers to be added to retailers’ “No Contact” lists via a central system. We recommend government funding be allocated to trialling “Do Not Knock” areas, which may include designated public housing flats with sufficient resident backing. We make this recommendation specifically in the context of energy door-to-door sales practices.
12 We support continued enforcement against illegal door-to-door sales practices. We commend the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) current focus on enforcement of door-to-door sales misconduct and support measures to educate vulnerable consumers and encourage them to invoke their rights.
13 We call on energy retailers to provide an alternative to door-to-door sales. We argue that maintaining a competitive market can and should protect the most vulnerable consumers. We recommend alternative strategies, which could include “Energy Market” events in which consumers can attend an open forum in a public space with energy retailers offering competitive rates. This could be supported by interpreters, community leaders and other service providers as appropriate.
14 We support targeted and appropriate community education. We welcome and support the targeted community education already provided by Consumers Affair Victoria (CAV) and call upon CAV and other service providers to expand the tools available for non-English speaking consumers with low literacy and numeracy rates and for those who may not have a computer. We suggest the models employed by Footscray Community Legal Centre and Victoria Legal Aid which use visual stimulants and community venues.
15 We call for an enhanced Code of Conduct from energy retailers. The industry Code of Conduct by Energy Assured Limited should include strategies to address systemic misconduct which can occur in door to door sales practices. Commission-based selling which encourages aggressive sales tactics must be addressed.

05 May 2013

Time and Purchase Cycles

From Gillian Tett's 'The cost of hand-to-mouth living' in this weekend's Financial Times regarding corporate tracking of consumer spending in 'pay cycles' (eg purchases clustering around paydays), with one marketer "spending a lot of money to monitor its customers with big data" -
[I]t is not simply watching what they do or do not buy. These days it is increasingly scrutinising the micro-level details of pay and benefit cycles in every district in America. The reason? Before 2007, this executive said, consumer spending on food and drink was fairly stable during the month in most US cities. But since 2007, spending patterns have become extremely volatile. More and more consumers appear to be living hand-to-mouth, buying goods only when their pay checks, food stamps or benefit money arrive. And this change has not simply occurred in the poorest areas: even middle-class districts are prone to these swings. Hence the need to study local pay and benefit cycles.
“We see a pronounced difference between how people are shopping today and before the recession,” the executive explained. “Consumers are living pay check by pay check, and they tend to spend accordingly. Then you have 50 million people on food stamps and that has cycles too. So for our business it has become critical to understand the cycle – when pay [and benefit] checks are arriving.” ....
[O]ne in seven Americans (about 50 million) are now thought to be living in poverty and a similar number in “food insecure” households. Meanwhile, six million are using food banks and 47 million are on food stamps. And when the Brookings Institution tried to look at this fragility issue a couple of years ago, by analysing how many households could find $2,000 in a hurry, it concluded that a quarter of families had no access to ready, rainy-day funds. “Although financial fragility is more severe among low-income households, a sizeable fraction of seemingly middle-class Americans are also at risk,” the study concluded. 
The Brookings research is reflected in 'Financially Fragile Households: Evidence and Implications' (Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Spring 2011) [PDF] by Annamaria Lusardi, Daniel Schneider & Peter Tufano.

Tett comments that  what is
 intriguing – if not tragic – is what it reveals about our attitude towards time. During most of the past century, it has often seemed as if a hallmark of modern “progress” is that our planning horizons, as a society, have expanded. Unlike peasants or herdsmen in the pre-modern age, who lacked the ability to measure the passage of time or calculate future risks with precision, 20th-century man appeared to have so much control over the environment that it was possible – and desirable – to take a long-term view. No longer were people destined to scramble in a reactive manner; they could plan ahead, mastering time. The fact that people were no longer foraging for food each day, but were able to visit a supermarket proactively at pre-planned intervals, was a good metaphor for a much bigger social and cognitive shift.
But, as the past five years have shown us, history does not go in a straight line, or proceed homogeneously. If you were to ask wealthy Americans to visualise the future, they might well describe it as a carefully calibrated road along which they expect to travel. But if you ask poorer Americans, who are scrambling from pay check to pay check, they are more likely to perceive the future as a chaotic series of short-term cycles. Economic polarisation, in other words, creates different cognitive maps, and also creates, of course, those subtle shifts in spending patterns that the big data experts in consumer goods companies now want to track.