You Are One Guessed or Stolen PIN Away from Disaster: Be Careful With Your ATM Card in China (or Anywhere)

A friend of mine in Shanghai just had 9000 RMB (US$1500) stolen from his Korean bank account by somebody using his ATM card number in Poland. His bank is unsympathetic. They claim that he must have given his card or PIN number to somebody and that is how they  took the money out. But he never gave it to anyone, though someone may have rigged an ATM machine to read his info.

Your ATM card is a disaster waiting to happen. If someone gets your number and your PIN, by theft or guesswork, you may have no recourse. You must limit the use of your card to avoid having thieves scan it and not keep too much money in any account that can be stolen using an ATM card.

Whenever you use your card with a retailer, there is a chance that the retailer is keeping your PIN, perhaps inadvertently, and this PIN can then be hacked and sold to thieves. See the 2006 story from NBC News which explains some of the basic threats.

The more you use your card, the greater your risk. The more money in your account, the greater your risk. Keep some of your money in accounts that cannot be accessed with an ATM card using the terribly inadequate 4-digit PIN security system.

Surprisingly, money may be swiped from your account using your ATM card number even if the thieves don’t know your PIN number. Sound impossible? Our experience proves otherwise.

Recently someone in Germany started pulling about $300 a day out of our US bank account using our ATM card number from our US bank. This is a card we rarely use–I think we have never used it China but did use it on our trip to Italy in February 2014. the thieves struck in May 2014. They took the most they could each day for 3 days in a row before I happened to check my online bank account and notice the unexpected withdrawals. It was very fortunate that I noticed this right away instead of after our account was drained dry. Amazingly, there was no anti-fraud alert to the surprise bleeding that was underway. Bet they could have taken everything if I hadn’t noticed.

I immediately called the bank and they inactivated the card. Whether I would get the money back or not depended on one thing: did the thieves use my PIN number when making the withdrawals? If they had, then the money would be lost forever. No recourse. But because the bank in Germany that dispensed the money was not able to provide proof that the PIN had been used, my bank ruled in my favor and refunded the money.

How the thieves got money out of my account without my PIN was never explained. But it did happen, so it seems, and that means it can happen–to you! Check your account often for fraudulent charges. Use your card as little as possible. Don’t use it in shady locations–whatever that means. Assume every operation is shady and vulnerable. Guard your PIN zealously and watch for unusual attachments to ATM machines, and realize that people may be watching the keys you push, so cover the keypad and use false moves as well.

On the other hand, when PINs are just 4 characters long, someone could simply guess the PIN after enough tries with enough cards (several tries each on a thousand or more cards) and then they have a money machine. The chances of someone guessing your PIN on the first try are just 1/10,000. After 10 tries, though, it’s 1/1000. How many people have been trying to guess your PIN? Does your bank every tell you? Probably not. Your card might get inactivated with lots of bad guessing–a huge inconvenience, but better than losing everything. Check with your bank and understand their anti-fraud systems and what recourses you have to fraudulent withdrawals.

Remember, you are just 4 numbers away from disaster, and those numbers can be stolen or possibly even guessed.

By |August 18th, 2014|Categories: Consumers, Finances, Products, Scams|Tags: , , |Comments Off

Why Do So Many Foreigners Shop at Carrefour? Too Expensive, Not Superior Quality

Now that we’ve moved out to the Gubei/Hongqiao area in Shanghai, we are close to the large and popular Carrefour grocery store. We’ve been there 3 times now, but we’ve decided to shun it as much as we can now that we’ve seen how consistently high the prices area and how iffy the quality can be.

The high prices are my main complaint–many things are 20% to 50% or more what you would pay at E-Mart and maybe twice what you might pay if you shop around a little more. But price is not the only problem. We’ve had some quality problems already.

Produce purchased on Saturday in several cases went bad by Sunday. I could tell it was getting on in age when I bought it, but having to throw vegetables away after one day is ridiculous. We found their baked bread quality to be poor (burned flavor from overcooking). Staff are not that helpful (likely to give you wrong directions or just point you in a general direction without really helping you).

Food is not the only problem we’ve had. A DVD player we purchased was dead out of the box and had to be returned, but returning was difficult because the staff person in the electronics area had us pay her cash and she put it on her card to get credit for the purchase. Took a lot of talking, but finally we were able to get a refund. Also, when you need a fapiao (for example, some people need to get them and turn them in to their employer to help them get some kind of tax benefits I guess), they take and keep your entire receipt so all you have is the fapiao that you might have to turn into the office. If something needs to be replaced, you won’t have your proof of purchase anymore. Good luck. Other stores like E-Mart let you keep the receipt when you get a fapiao.

On the plus side, their fresh herbs were fresh (ah, great mint for my favorite Brazilian pineapple-mint drink) and reasonably priced for the quality. And another big plus for Carrefour in Gubei is the Food Republic food court on the first floor with a dozen or so great places to eat at reasonable prices, including one of my favorite gelato/ice cream places, Ice Season, where natural mint is my flavoite flavor Not too sweet, and perfectly flavored.

On the down side, getting home from Carrefour is a chore if you want to take a taxi. There is along taxi line but very few taxis coming by. Since most of the people there are going short distances to get home, fares will be low, so cabbies aren’t motivated to go there. It’s about a 10-minute walk to the Shuicheng Road subway station on Line 10. Much easier to use that if you can.

But for better deals and fresher produce, go to your local wet market. Or try other grocers or other supermarkets like E-Mart at Laoximen. Much better prices there, and generally good quality.

By |July 29th, 2014|Categories: China, Consumers, Food, Restaurants, Shopping, Surviving||Comments Off

Food Poisoning: Beware of Hamburgers and Other High Risk Items

food poisoning shanghai burgers hospital preparation

Was it the meat? The mayo? the lettuce? Or maybe the shake? It’s hard to know with food poisoning.

I had a call at 2:15 AM this morning from a victim of food poisoning, a friend who had just been taken to one of Shanghai’s many hospitals with quaint names. This one was the Armed Police Hospital of Shanghai on Hongxu Road near Yan An Road in Hongqiao, not far from where we live. He had been out with some friends eating at Munchies, a popular joint serving basic Western food like hamburgers, shakes, and fries. I ate there once a few months ago and thought it was OK but not interesting, and avoided the hamburgers due to my concerns about the risks of food poisoning. Hamburgers are already a common source of food poisoning in the States, and I think the risks will be higher here.

My friend had eaten a hamburger, shake, and fries. He guessed that his food poisoning came from bad oil in the fries or bad cream in the shake. My guess is the hamburger was the culprit. Hamburger is so often contaminated with bacteria and is too easy to undercook or recontaminate with sloppy handling. But who knows, it could have been bacteria on dirty lettuce in the burger. I doubt that bad oil would give the violent food poisoning reaction he had, with hours of pain and loss of everything in his digestive tract.

He eventually became so dehydrated and weak and in so much pain that he realized he was in medical trouble, so he called for help and soon was being carried away in an ambulance. In his weakened state, he forget to bring a wad of cash with him. Mistake! Bring lots of cash when you go to the hospital. Bringing an ATM card can work, but if there is trouble, then what? He was so weak when he got to the hospital that his fingers kept slipping as he tried to enter the long password code for his bank card, and after 3 tries, his card was locked and unable to be used at all. He called the bank to clear it, but was told he had to come in personally when the bank opened again later. Not good at 2 AM when you need to pay now for urgent help.

In China, if you don’t pay upfront or have proof of adequate insurance (that may not work in many cases), you aren’t going to get treatment, as far as I know. Understand that and be prepared. The hospital staff suggested he call a friend. I normally put my phone in silent mode when I go to sleep to prevent unwanted calls in the middle of the night. Last night was an unusual exception, and I’m glad I didn’t. I was able to rush over and help out, handling the payment. 650 RMB is all it cost for him to get a lot of good attention (once payment was made), an IV with several bags of fluid, medication, etc. The kit of supplies I received for him after payment was really impressive. Treatment was good, the place was clean, and the staff were efficient and friendly. Pretty good for a public hospital in the middle of the night. Remarkably low cost. Not bad.

What is bad is food poisoning. It can really hurt and make life miserable. Staying hydrated when you are hit with it is a real challenge. Drink lots and lots of fluids, even though you might lost them swiftly. Gets some salts also. Gatorade might be a good beverage to keep on hand for such cases. But do your own research to prepare. Keep some cash in your wallet or in a handy place at home to take with you to the hospital, along with one or two bank cards, your cell phone, and a cell phone charger, etc. Be ready. And especially be careful about what you eat. It’s a key to surviving in Shanghai, China.

By |July 6th, 2014|Categories: Consumers, Food, Health, Shanghai, Surviving|Tags: , , , |Comments Off

More Tips on Moving in China: Trucks, Boxes, Etc.

When you are moving in China, there are several things to do to prepare.

First, review your current rental contract and make sure you give adequate notice and comply with other terms needed to ensure you have a good chance of getting your rental deposit back. It’s often two months of rent, so you don’t want to lose this money. Be a good tenant, give adequate notice before the end of the contract so they have time to find a new tenant (if leaving mid-year, you may not be able to get your deposit back at all). Make sure you leave the place clean and handle outstanding bills for utilities (this may include leaving enough money in the hands of the landlord to cover estimated costs, or taking other steps).

Second, prepare well in advance with the supplies you will need such as boxes, tape, bubble wrap, scissors, string, etc. If you move, you may want to get a lot of boxes. These can be hard to find on sale, but you can get them at B&Q for about 15 RMB each. Cheaper is to track down a recycler carrying loads of boxes and boxboard down the street. He’ll sell you boxes for maybe 2 RMB each. Cheaper still is to go to department stores or other places discarding boxes and take away used boxes for free. Keep some boxes around the house–they often come in handy and can be a pain to find when you need them. Also prepare by getting bubble wrap, newspaper or wrapping paper, and lots of good packaging tape, which isn’t always easy to find. When you see it, get some well in advance. You can also order boxes and tape online at Taobao.

Third, arrange for help such as a moving service to get you and your stuff to your new place. This often involves using a local moving service. Order a truck that is bigger than what you think you need so you can avoid two trips. A medium truck going across town might cost you 700 RMB if just one or two people are needed. Since we were moving a piano, we had a large truck and a crew of four, which costs us more than we expected: 1700 RMB. But it was a solid half-day of work for four people, and the extra-large truck had a 500 RMB surcharge. But had we negotiated ahead of time as we should have, I think we might have only paid 1300 RMB or maybe 1400. Lesson learned, maybe. While arranging for moving muscle, it’s also wise to hire an ayi or two (maids) to provide cleaning muscle for your new place and your old.

Fourth, pack early. Don’t wait until the night before the move. Your stuff is important and you don’t want to lose it or misplace it through careless packing. Mark boxes so you know what is where. Wrap delicate things carefully and be prepared for rough treatment. Make sure you don’t take things that are part of the apartment, either. Spend a few hours every night for a week to get prepared, if you can.

My experiences in moving in China have been limited to Shanghai, but the principles should apply to other large cities as well.

Related posts:  Tips on Finding an Apartment in Shanghai, Renting in Shanghai

Related pages: Surviving in China

By |July 1st, 2014|Categories: China, Consumers, Housing, Shanghai|Tags: , , |Comments Off

Finding an Apartment or Moving to a New Apartment in Shanghai

After 3 great years in the Lao Xi Men area of Shanghai (West Gate Apartments on Xizang South Road a little south of Fuxing Road), we have moved close to the Yili Road subway station on Line 10, which puts us in the Gubei area. It’s quieter, cleaner, and with a surprisingly high concentration of fun restaurants and beautiful spots such as the marvelous New Hongqiao Park. We moved because my wife already has too long a commute, and I just found out that my office will be moving to a location closer to where she works, so, as our previous contract was coming to a close, it made sense to move rather than renew. We were delighted with what we found, and it even saves us money.

Finding an apartment in Shanghai begins with finding a good real estate agent. Quality varies wildly. Some are inexperienced and not very helpful, while others go the extra mile to get your the right place at a good price and make your move a success.

Our move to a new place was greatly assisted by one of the best real estate agents I’ve ever worked with. He speaks terrific English and goes the extra mile to help, not just before the deal is closed but especially after. After the deal was signed and his fee pay, he continues helping us. He has helped us set up our Internet service, he made the calls to get our budget TV subscription turned on, he helped us solve some other minor problems, he told me today which office to go to and what to bring to register with the police after our move, he picked up and delivered our fapiaos, and he even came over to show us how to change the combination on our door. He’s extremely kind and really committed to serving his clients. He can help clients anywhere in Shanghai. I can give you his cell (email me at jeff at jefflindsay d0t com)if you wish.

When you are looking for an apartment, start with the region you are interested in and find an agent that serves that area. A good company like David’s can access broad listings and work local connections to help you find candidates where you want. Some just have listing for fixed regions, but they can he helpful, too. Your agent will take you to view available places. A lot depends on whether you want furnished or unfurnished. Then you need to set a budget (ouch, they are expensive here!) and determine what total area you want to consider (e.g., around 50, 100, or 150 square meters) and how many rooms you want and what other features you want. The more places you look at, the more you can recognize what features are important.

For us, having a big kitchen with either an over or a space where we could install one was important because we do a lot of entertaining and a lot of cooking, and our style of cooking often requires an over, something most apartments in China do not have. China is a nation of stove-top cooking. Ovens in apartments are rare. But you often can take out the ubiquitous and worthless “sterilizer” unit in many kitchens and replace it with an over, though electrical connections will have to change and the landlord must be on board (and make it clear what happens with the unit when you move away). In our last place, we agreed to a higher rent in return for the landlord buying an over that would stay with the apartment–good deal for him. We’re buying the oven in the new place. Will cost about 4800 RMB.

When you rent, you will normally be asked to pay a deposit of two months’ rent in addition to one or two months rent up front, so you really need a wad of cash to get started. Foreigners coming to work in China often don’t know this. In addition, the renter will typically pay the commission to the agent, which is normally 1/3 of a month’s rent, sometimes a little higher. Before you rent, make sure you negotiate any significant changes that are needed like painting the walls, repairing things, replacing or adding furniture, etc. Make sure you know how to handle utilities, how to get Internet and TV, how to register with the police, etc. If you need a fapiao, this costs 5% of the month’s rent, so make sure you know who is paying for that (it is normally included in the monthly rent).

Everything can be negotiated, so perhaps you can close a deal for less (typically around 10% less) than the asking price. Ask for too low, though, and the landlord will throw you out and not negotiate further.

Landlords in China might often own just one rental apartment that they rent out. It’s a precious piece of property to them and they may be evaluating you as much as you are evaluating the unit. If you seem too demanding, slovenly, or irresponsible or do anything to create a negative emotional reaction, they might not rent to you, even if you accept the asking price. I know two Chinese guys who were planning to rent an apartment together and had agreed on the price, but the landlord got nervous about how clean two men would be and decided at the last minute to turn them down. End of story. For best results, dress nicely and radiate “clean, responsible, friendly” if you can.

When you close the deal, you’ll sign a contract, typically in Chinese and English, and it’s almost always for a year. Have someone you trust review it. In this case, the contract was standard from Oriental Real Estate which we already trusted, and it worked out fine.

If you move, you may want to get a lot of boxes. These can be hard to find on sale, but you can get them at B&Q for about 15 RMB each. Cheaper is to track down a recycler carrying loads of boxes and boxboard down the street. He’ll sell you boxes for maybe 2 RMB each. Cheaper still is to go to department stores or other places discarding boxes and take away used boxes for free. Keep some boxes around the house–they often come in handy and can be a pain to find when you need them. Also prepare by getting bubble wrap, newspaper or wrapping paper, and lots of good packaging tape, which isn’t always easy to find. When you see it, get some well in advance. You can also order boxes and tape online at Taobao.

I also recommend hiring an ayi (local maid) to come in and clean your new place before you move and also to clean out your old place after you move out, leaving it in good condition to keep a landlord and the next tenants happy.

By |June 24th, 2014|Categories: Consumers, Housing, Shanghai|Tags: |Comments Off

Shopping in China: Are the Prices in Department Stores Fixed or Negotiable?

One of the challenges of shopping in China is knowing when the marked prices are firm prices or just an inflated asking price subject to haggling. In grocery stores, the prices are generally the real prices and there is no sense trying to argue anything down. But in many other settings, the marked prices might be negotiable, meaning they could be way too high and you shouldn’t pay that much.

Sometimes a store will have fixed prices on one aisle, and negotiable (inflated) prices on the next. If there are friendly sales people servicing a particular set of products or section of a store, let that be a warning sign. Why does this store have five or six people anxious to help me buy blankets or vitamins, but no one in other sections of the store to help me buy batteries or copy paper? It may be because the people selling blankets or vitamins are on commission. They may not even be employees of the department store, but employees of a manufacturer. They are highly motivated to see you the product for as much as possible. This can happen in malls, department stores, and even grocery

One way to know if the prices are flexible is to simply ask if they can lower the price a little. “Keyi pianyi yidiar?” If they say something like, “Well, since you can speak a little Chinese, I’ll give you the friend discount of 10%,” then you know the price is flexible. If they pull out a calculator and type in the price to display it for you (this allows them to show you a price privately without revealing it to other customers within earshot), that’s a sure sign that the price is flexible, and a sign that what they are asking is way too high.

If they say, “No, I can’t lower the price,” say “OK” and walk away. It’s when you walk away that you see if they are serious or not. If you walk away and they say, “OK, OK, 10% off!” then you know the price can be lowered. If they say nothing, the price probably is firm.

Many electronics, appliances, bedware (blankets, linens, quilts, mattresses, etc.), and relatively high-margin items have prices that can be negotiated when shopping in China.

The next challenge is knowing what the real price is. Sometimes you can only hope to shave off 20% or 30% from the price. Other times the asking price might be 10 times the real price (this is especially true of gifts like pearls or jade items). This is where knowledge is power. Chinese people ask each other what they pay for things all the time in order to learn real prices. Do your homework before you buy. But if you don’t have time, you can try several different shops and start very low, and seeing if they call you back after you walk out. Again, it’s only when you walk that you see if your offered price might actually be acceptable. You may have to walk away several times, raising your asking price each time, until you find a taker and realize that you’re close to the real price.

On the other hand, if you are not in a bind financially, don’t be too tight-fisted in China. Spending a little extra money for what you buy can mean a lot to the merchants. For a small extra amount that is still a fair price, you can bring a lot of cheer, and if you feel that a merchant is kind, helpful, and honest, giving him a “healthy price” can keep him or her happy to serve you and help you in the future. That’s my view, anyway.

By |June 14th, 2014|Categories: Business, China, Consumers, Shopping||Comments Off

1975 Lorem Ipsum For Sale – Excellent Condition

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By |January 12th, 2008|Categories: Consumers, Crazy, Humor, Products, Uncategorized||Comments Off

Alum in Potato Salad? Check the Ingredients!

My wife recently has purchased potato salads from Wal-Mart, Aldis, and Woodmans in Appleton, Wisconsin. The potato salad from Woodmans made by Garden Fresh Foods of Milwaukee had a peculiar flavor, my family noted. There was an unpleasant feeling in the throat similar to the irritation that sodium benzoate, a preservative, causes in some fruit punch drinks like Sunny Delight. Sure enough, sodium benzoate was an ingredient in the potato salad. But even more disturbing was the inclusion of alum. Hey, there is no need to dump alum into food. Alum contains aluminum ions, and higher aluminum levels have been found in the brains of Alzheimers patients. No, we don’t know if they are part of the problem or just a symptom, but while that remains unknown, I think we should be deliberately avoiding aluminum in our diet.

For information on the issue of aluminum and human health, see the objective page from the Ministry of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.

By |July 14th, 2007|Categories: Consumers, Health, Uncategorized||Comments Off

International Flavors and Fragrances: Impressive Breakthrough in Orange Flavor

I’m thinking of investing in International Flavors and Fragrances, a $5 billion market cap company with a strong suite of flavors and fragrances, including a new breakthrough in orange flavor. Many scientists collaborated to identify the key flavor components in orange juice and then sought to mimic them with relatively low-cost materials, relying less on citrus oils that can add a bitter aftertaste and vary wildly in price. I marvel at how inadequate artificial orange flavor is in drinks and foods. I look forward to a long overdue improvement, and if it’s as good as they say, expect a strong increase in sales for IFF.

By |June 17th, 2007|Categories: Consumers, Investing, Uncategorized||Comments Off

The Mysteries of Ink Jet Cartridges: Print Often or Clog!

Consumers are often perplexed about how few prints they get from ink jet cartridges before they have to buy news ones. Some cartridges will result in “low ink” warnings, others will just quit printing properly, after only a few uses – if the caretridge isn’t used regularly. The problem is that the ink dries or gels near the print head and clogs the printer. Some inkjet companies, such as Lexmark, are said to actually put gelling agents in their inks (this is according to the experts at Cartridge World), which almost guarantees that you will have to buy a new cartridge if your old one sits unused for more than a couple weeks. But the Cartridge World inks that are supposed to be so much better don’t seem to do any better, as far as I can tell, for printers that aren’t used much.

If you have an ink jet printer, print something in color at least one a week. You’ll use more ink, but you’ll probably use fewer ink catridges that way.

By |March 23rd, 2007|Categories: Consumers||Comments Off