Wednesday, November 14, 2018

How I Almost Fell For A Slick New Phishing Scam

I like to think that I am fairly savvy when it comes to phishing scams, but I came very close to falling for one last week. It was pretty slick and if I was not sitting at my computer when the call came in, I might have been a victim.

The Scam

I get so many telemarketing calls on my cell phone these days, I never answer the phone unless it’s from a number I know. One of the tricks telemarketers are using now is to fake a local number that shows up on your caller ID. This is called “neighbor spoofing” and the thinking is that people will be more likely to answer a call from an unknown number if it looks like it’s from someone nearby. This is actually pretty easy for me to spot because last year, I moved from Arizona to Washington, but I kept my same cell phone number, which has an Arizona area code. If it’s a neighbor or local business calling me, they will have a Washington phone number, not Arizona, so I simply ignore all calls from Arizona that I don’t recognize.

But the call I received last week was from an 866 number, so I answered it. The person on the line claimed to be from Verizon and was calling to confirm that an authorized user on my account had ordered 4 new phones. He claimed the person was waiting on his other line while he authorized the transaction.

Of course, I said I did not authorize this. The caller than said they would help me press charges if I wanted to and said they would help me change the password to my Verizon account.

This is where I was glad I was at my computer when this call came in. As soon as I was told this guy was an authorized user on my account, I logged in to the Verizon website to look for his name. While I was doing this, the scammer told me I should reset my password and, if I wanted, he could initiate that for me. Of course, I said ok. He said I would be getting a text message from Verizon with a password reset link. He wanted me to tell him when the text arrived – which it did seconds later.

But at this point, I was already logged in to my account, so I asked the scammer where on my account I could find the authorized users page. He told me I would not be able to log in to the account because he just reset my password – which was true because I just got the text message. I told him I was already logged in to my account, which I had done before he reset the password, so where could I see the list of authorized users? At this point, he hung up, which was a pretty clear indication this was a scam 😀

He was able to actually reset my password, so I did have to go through that process, but the scammer no had no way to get that new password and my account was still safe. After giving this some thought, I think I figured out how this scam works.

Here’s How It Was Supposed To Go

This scam is possible because the Verizon website allows you to log in using your phone number as well as a username. Because phone companies are assigned blocks of numbers, it’s very easy to tell what phone company a particular number is from. The scammers had my phone number and could tell I was with Verizon.

For better security, they should not allow a phone number here

So they call me up, claim to be from Verizon, and make me think my account has been hacked. When I agree to have them help me reset my password, they enter my phone number on the Verizon website and click the “Forgot my password” link. This brings you to a page where you can enter your user ID or phone number. The scammer enters my phone number and Verizon resets my password and sends me a text message with a link to create a new one.

Had I not become suspicious at this point, causing the scammer to hang up, I’m pretty sure his next step would be to have me read him the reset link from the text message to “confirm” I got it. If I read the link to him, he would enter it into his browser and change my password to whatever he wanted, thus gaining control of my account.

This is probably not what would happen though, because I would immediately be locked out of my account, which would raise my suspicions. Instead, I think he would have entered the link on his computer and asked me to give him a new password, which he would type in himself. Now he would have access to my account, but so would I and I would not be suspicious at all. He can hang up and get into my account at any time to do whatever nefarious things he was planning on. Sure, I could have changed my password again after I got off the phone, but why would I? I should be thinking I was dealing legitimately with Verizon and everything was taken care of.

Pretty Slick

This was a pretty slick scam for a couple of reasons. First, it used Verizon’s legitimate password reset tool. Second, he told me the supposed phone buyer was still on the line and that he would help me press charges. This does two things: it creates a false sense of urgency and it appeals to my desire to prosecute someone scamming me, both thoughts that are designed to make me eager to work quickly with the real scammer and not think too hard about what is going on. Lastly, and this is based on my conjecture on how this scam would have concluded, it gets the scammer access to my account without immediately raising my suspicions, giving him precious time to rip me off before I take notice.

How To Avoid Scams

I got lucky in that I was able to force the scammer off-script by immediately logging into my account before he could initiate the password reset. At that point, he didn’t know how to proceed, so he just hung up. But even if you aren’t able to log in to your account while the scam is in progress, there are a couple of things to remember that would protect you from this.

The password reset process is designed to be completely automated. There is never a need to speak to someone. This is simply a matter of cost control for companies. It would be too expensive to have help desk people taking calls from people who forgot their password. Therefore, the entire process is designed to be done without any assistance from a live person at the company.

There is never, ever a need to tell your password to anyone, even if they legitimately work for the company. They don’t need to know it. Furthermore, they don’t want to know it because that creates a legal liability for the company. Suppose a bank requires you to tell your password to their phone agent. That agent can make a note if it, go home, and access your account. Or sell that password to someone else. In short, it’s a huge security risk for the company, so they have designed their systems so that their agents can perform legitimate tasks without your password.

Keep these tips in mind and you will go a long way towards keeping yourself safe from phishing scams.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Two Month Ownership Update

I've owned my Model S for almost two months now, so I thought I'd post another update on my ownership experience.

Electricity Cost

I recently got my first electric bill that included a full month of Tesla ownership. You may recall that I estimated my monthly Tesla electricity costs to be around $42.74. And although that was what I calculated, I actually have budgeted $50.

Turned out, I was pretty close. My electricity bill for September was $86.64 and for October was $132.82. That's an increase of $46.18. I did own the Tesla for a bit of September, so it's not quite an apples to apples comparison, but it's close enough for me. The weather here is starting to grow colder, so electricity costs for the car will creep up a bit, then decrease again in the spring as temperatures rise.

There are a couple reasons for this. First, batteries don't perform as well when they are cold. In fact, Teslas have a battery heater to keep the batteries from getting too cold. And B, when the batteries are very cold, the car limits regenerative charging until the batteries are heated. I have yet to see this happen (an indicator is displayed on the dash), but so far, it's only gotten down to the low 50s in my area. When December and January roll around and temperatures drop to the 30s, I expect to see this more frequently. Of course, if regenerative charging is reduced, that will increase the power needed from the wall connector to charge. Lastly, when it is colder, I'll probably be using the heater more. The seat heaters are more energy efficient, so owners tend to use those more than the cabin air heaters to stay warm. I'm not sure which method I will use more often. I will say that I like the heated steering wheel. My hands often get cold on my morning commute and gripping a warm steering wheel helps keep my fingers toasty!

Service Visit

I took my car in for some minor servicing. After driving it for a week or two, I noticed it seemed to be pulling to the left a bit, so I needed an alignment. I also found two paint issues on the hood - one was a small chip and the other looked like a little imperfection in the paint - like a small paint bubble was there and popped during drying. I also noticed the edges of the rear spoiler weren't firmly attached to the hatchback.

Tesla service was quite professional. A technician took my car for a drive and confirmed the alignment issue and also checked the paint. He said the paint issues were probably from debris while the car was being shipped to my delivery location on a carrier. The spoiler has to be replaced - they can't just glue the corners down. They didn't have a replacement spoiler in stock, so that is still on order.

All work was done with no charge and I was given an older Model S as a loaner while they worked on my car. They originally wanted to charge me for the alignment, but I said the car only had 1,000 miles on it (at the time), and I had noticed the alignment issue since I first picked the car up. I admitted it was probably my fault for not bringing it to their attention sooner and if they had to charge me, I would understand. My service adviser consulted with his manager and she approved a no charge alignment, which was nice.

Paint Coating

I opted to get a ceramic paint coating applied to the car. After reading comments from a bunch of other Tesla owners, I decided on Opti-Coat Pro. This is a ceramic coating that chemically bonds with the paint to form a protective barrier over the car. It takes a month to fully cure and harden, but once it does, it provides protection against chips, fading, and messes like bird droppings. It also helps keep a great shine on the paint and makes water bead more readily. When this coating is applied, any paint imperfections are basically frozen in place, so I wanted to get this done as soon as possible, before any washing swirls or polishing marks got into the paint. It was pricey (about $1,000), but I had that much saved in my auto maintenance budget for a planned suspension replacement on my old car, so I used those funds. I plan on keeping this car for at least 10 years, so I figure this was a good investment to keep it looking good.

Software Bug

I have come across a bug in the audio system. Twice now, the audio just didn't work. No radio, no Bluetooth audio from my phone. Even the turn signals stopped making sounds. The fix was to reboot the 17 inch main display. You can't do this while driving, but I pulled over and parked to do it. It only takes about 60 seconds for everything to come back online. Both times, this fixed the problem. This appears to be a known issue from at least a year ago. I forgot I can submit a bug report from the car, so I'll do that if it happens again.

Road Trip!

We've planned our first Tesla road trip! For the holiday season, we'll be driving down to Arizona to visit family. I spent a couple hours using the trip planner at We're going to try to make the entire trip using only free Tesla Superchargers. I've made a spreadsheet of our route (because I'm a geek that way) and it looks like the trip will take about 25 hours of driving and 7 hours of charging spread over a three day period.

Planning the trip was an exercise in juggling several variables. Not only do we have to plan how long to drive and where to stop and charge, but, because we are also taking our dog, we have to plan our overnight stays at hotels that accept pets.

Our first overnight stop will be in Mt. Shasta, California at the Best Western Plus Tree House hotel. This site has 4 Supercharger stations available at the hotel and there are 16 more right across the street. This will be interesting because the location is up in the mountains and the temperatures in December are in the mid 40s. That adds up to significant energy usage.

Our second overnight stop will be in Riverside, California. This stop is not quite as convenient, but only because we are travelling with a dog. There are 24 Superchargers on the top floor of a parking garage (open 24 hours and free for Tesla charging), but the closest hotel that accepts pets is about 10 miles away from there. Not bad, but not quite as convenient as charging right outside your hotel door. We'll have to stop and charge a bit on the way to the hotel (at the end of our full day of driving) and top off again the next day on the way out at the start of the next day. I want to leave Riverside with a full charge, because from there, we cross the California desert and don't charge again until we hit Quartzsite, just across the Arizona border. I'm pretty surprised we can go that far, actually. The trip planner says we can make it using only 65% of our battery. I used to make this trip when I drove from California to Arizona State University back when I was in college, so I know there is a serious elevation drop (about 3,400 feet, according to the trip planner), which is likely why the energy usage is low. And if things look a little dicey, there are a couple Superchargers in Indio where I can always top off. (Going back will be a different story, though. I haven't planned that trip yet.)

Hotel charges will be about $200 and I figure maybe $250 in food costs. That's one-way, so double that for the return trip. Energy is free, so I'm looking at about $900 total cost for the trip. A quick search on Travelocity shows a single round trip plane ticket for our travel dates is about $750, plus we'd also have to pay about $100 in pet fees. That means we're looking at a savings of about $1,450 over flying for my family of three plus dog. Of course, I'm trading time for money, but my wife and I both have vacation time we need to use before the end of the year and my daughter will be on winter break from school, so we've got the time to spare.

It's going to be a different type of road trip for us. We normally want to drive fast and get to our destination quickly. But with an electric car, we need to watch our speed (going over 80 MPH or so really burns energy) and we'll have to stop to charge every 2 hours or so. I think this will be a more relaxing drive (especially with Autopilot), but who knows. The slowness might drive us crazy.

Still Love It!

All in all, the car is amazing and I still love driving it every day. And it keeps getting better! Two days ago, the software was updated to include a "navigate on autopilot" feature. A new dash cam feature was also deployed as part of the recent Version 9 software update. It had some issues initially, like corrupting the thumb drive it stores files on if you didn't manually turn off recording before shutting off the car. A software update about a week later seems to have fixed that issue.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Net Worth Update: End Of October 2018

At the end of each month, I post an update of my net worth, including a brief discussion of any notable events that might have occurred. The latest month's figures can always be found under the Featured menu in the menu bar at the top of the blog.

Last updated: End of October, 2018
Net Worth: $867,812
Change from last Month: -$45,658

Events Of Note Last Month:

My SQL courses on Udemy generated $53.57 of income. Not all that impressive. What is impressive however, is the fact that I now finally crossed the $11,000 lifetime income threshold! Sales have slowed over the past 3 months and I expect they will continue to stay low or drop further. As I talked about last month, this doesn't bother me.

My courses on SkillShare, meanwhile, earned $22.11. This is more of less in line with typical earnings. My courses have been on that platform now for a year. The highest month was $92.80 and the lowest (full) month was $9.88. The average monthly earnings works out to $34.16.

Net Worth Update

I normally wait until the month is completely finished before doing this post, but since the 31st falls on my normal publishing day this month, I'm going to publish this before the month technically ends. Truthfully, one more day won't make that much of a difference. Our net worth took a nose dive this month, dropping by $45,658. Ouch!

September 2018 October 2018

The decline was due to drops in two areas: the stock market and the housing market. The S&P 500 sunk by about 300 points this month. The index funds I'm invested in track the S&P 500, so that means losses for me. I'm looking at the S&P 500 drop as a buying opportunity. The end of the year is coming and that is when many index funds pay out dividends and capital gains. In fact, my fund of choice, SWPPX, only pays out once a year instead of quarterly, so I'm happy to accumulate as many shares as I can before the end of the year when its payout happens.

The housing market in the Seattle area has cooled off considerably as well, causing my home value to drop by about $20,000 from last month. The net result of these two things is a big drop in my net worth. It kinda sucks to see, but it pays to remember that financial figures rarely go up every single month. The important thing is to keep on saving and investing and the market will go back up again eventually.

Last month, I mentioned I was shutting down a self-directed IRA. That process is still continuing, which is why my cash balance remains high. Next month, the final step of moving the funds into a regular IRA should be complete. I was surprised that this has progressed as quick as it has. I had to file some paperwork with the state of Arizona to close my LLC and they said that process could take 50 business days - two and a half months! It turned out not to take that long at all - just 3 or 4 weeks.  Now I have to wait for a closing bank statement showing the LLC's account is closed. That should be in the process of being generated today. Once I have that, I have to mail everything, including the funds, to the company managing the self-directed IRA, then initiate a rollover from them into my regular IRA at Schwab. None of this is complicated, but it does take time.

If you have any questions or suggestions for topics, please drop me a line in the comments section!

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

My Tesla Energy Costs Versus Gasoline

The Caveat

I'll state right off, that this whole post is based on very limited data. Sixteen days worth, to be precise, and my driving during this time involved mainly just my work commute and driving about on the weekend here and there. No long trips. I'll revisit this subject in the months to come, but because the Tesla is a new toy, I wanted to look into energy price comparisons now.

I thought I'd take a look at how much money, if any, I am saving by driving an electric car instead of a gas car.

Crunching The Numbers

Luckily, I have good data on how much I have spent on gasoline over the past year. Because I track all my spending in an app and on, I can easily pull close to a year's worth of data. For this study, I'm using data from November 2017 (the first full month we lived in our house in Washington) through August 2018. (I got my Telsa midway through September 2018, so I'm excluding that month from my calculations.) My gasoline costs include all taxes.

To calculate electricity costs, I need to be a bit more careful. Unlike some areas, my electricity costs are comprised of only two components: costs for electricity used and taxes. My power company does not assess a delivery fee or a base monthly service fee like they do in other parts of the country. Here's a copy of my bill. As you can see, no extraneous charges. Just energy costs and city tax. (State tax is included in the electricity price.)

Click to enlarge
Based on this information, I have what I need to create a basic spreadsheet to compare my monthly average gas costs with the average electricity costs for my Tesla. Last week, I posted some efficiency numbers for the car, but here's a slightly updated version (2 more days of data). My efficiency dropped by 1 Wh/mi. (Technically, it rose, but that means it got worse because lower is better for this metric.)

Here's my spreadsheet. Formulas are pretty simple. I extrapolate the electricity costs to a monthly value based on a 30 day month. Electricity costs and taxes are taken directly from my electric bill.

Click to enlarge
Note that my electric company does not offer a Time Of Use plan to residential customers, where electricity rates are lower during non-peak hours. They tried it once in 2001 / 2002 but most customers ended up paying more, so they cancelled the program.

"Oops. My bad!"
Given that 16 years have passed and electric cars are becoming more popular, I hope they may reconsider this decision and try the program again. If they did, I could program the Tesla to charge when rates are lowest and possibly save even more.

The Verdict

Based on this, I am saving an average of $51.56 each month by driving an electric car instead of my Prius.

Last month, I adjusted my budget by lowering my gas budget from $100 a month to zero and increasing my electricity budget by $50. I picked that number simply because it was half of my gas budget, but it looks like that was a good guess.

Some Final Thoughts

The car is not going to pay for itself via gas savings. I never thought it would and I've never heard anyone claim it would. But in addition to gas savings, there are a lot of other savings an electric car offers: No oil or oil filter changes. No radiator fluid or transmission fluid changes. No tune ups needed. No spark plugs. No timing belts. No air filter changes. No emission test fees. These savings will add up over time.

My old car was a Prius that got between 48 and 53 miles per gallon. If I drove a non-hybrid car, my savings could easily be twice what they are.

My initial thought is that living in a mountainous area might result in better energy usage numbers. Sure, I have to use more energy going up hills, but I regain a lot of it going back down. Compare this to a place like Arizona, where I used to live. There, the terrain is pretty much flat, which means there are next to no opportunities to charge via gravity. Of course, you still regain some charge from just slowing the car via regenerative braking. I wonder if anyone has compared energy efficiency on the two types of terrain...

Electricity is a price-regulated commodity (at least in most states, including my home state of Washington). This means wild swings in prices are rare. Gasoline, on the other hand, is not regulated and wild pricing swings are common and subject to various geopolitical forces.

A Time Of Use plan could be critical in some areas. In Arizona, the electric company charges three different rates during the year. Lowest rates are in the spring and winter. Rates are higher in June, July, September and October, and rates are the highest in August - peak air conditioning season. Charging your car in such an environment would necessitate being on a Time Of Use plan to charge at the cheapest rates possible.

Installing solar power at your home would increase your savings, although maybe not enough to pay for itself.

Where'd his glasses go in panel 7?