Monday, February 28, 2005

New Cell Phone Law

I don't know if you've heard, but starting next month you will no longer be able to use a cell phone while driving unless you have a "hands free" adapter. . .

I went to Best Buy and they wanted $50 for a headset with a boom microphone for my cell phone. Having a friend in the cell phone business, I talked with him and was able to come up with an alternative, workin through Office Depot.

These kits are compatible with any mobile phone and one size fits all. I paid $0.08 each because I bought a whole bunch. I can give it to you for free.

I've tried them out on Erickson, Motorola, Nokia and Verizon phones and they worked perfectly.

Take a look and let me know if you want one.

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I can hear you laughing! I thought you could use a laugh.
Remember, Laughter is better for your health than a chocolate candy bar!

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Potential ID theft victims eye information

SAN FRANCISCO - Warren Lambert thought it was just another piece of junk mail until he read the letter more closely and learned that con artists may have obtained his Social Security number, name and address — just what they need to steal his identity and ruin his credit.

Lambert is one of nearly 145,000 Americans rendered vulnerable by a breach of the computer databases of ChoicePoint Inc., a leading trafficker in a growing pool of information about who we are, what we own, what we owe and even where we go.

The Georgia-based company began mailing the warning letters after acknowledging this month that thieves opened more than 50 ChoicePoint accounts by posing as legitimate businesses.

Lambert, a retired banker in San Francisco, now spends several hours a day phoning customer service agents, poring over credit card statements, ordering credit reports and checking bank accounts.

He worries that thieves will eventually do to him what sheriffs detectives in Los Angeles say they've done to more than 700 other people — reroute his mail, ring up credit card debts, buy a car or even commit a felony in his name.

"Now I have to be on a credit monitoring service and look over my shoulder for the rest of my life," said Lambert, 67. "I feel sorry for the younger victims who are eventually going to buy a house or a car. They'll try to buy and then they'll discover that their credit is ruined."

More than 9.9 million Americans were victims of identity theft last year, crimes that cost the nation roughly $5 billion not including lost productivity, according to the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. The Federal Trade Commission ranks identity theft as the No. 1 fraud-related complaint.

Many victims are dumbfounded by the dearth of federal and state laws aimed at protecting their credit histories and other information about them that data brokers gather and sell to institutions including news organizations, banks and, increasingly, companies vetting prospective employees. Victims are also frustrated by the amount of time it takes to re-establish identities.

According to a 2003 survey by the San Diego-based nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center, the average victim spends at least 600 hours over several years recovering from identity theft. And based on wages of people surveyed, it cost the average victim nearly $16,000 in lost or potential income — not including what they might have paid for bogus purchases creditors wouldn't reimburse.

Even worse than the drain on time and income, victims say, is a sense of helplessness and doom they feel — the notion that thieves could strike again at any time.

"I don't think anyone fully recovers from these events," said the resource center's co-executive director, Linda Foley, whose identity was used to get credit cards and a cell phone in 1997. "It alters the way you look at things for the rest of your life."

One victim in the ChoicePoint attack has already filed a lawsuit seeking class-action status in Los Angeles Superior Court.

And on Thursday, Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said he would schedule hearings on identity theft and information brokers in wake of the ChoicePoint fiasco.

The company's chief executive, Derek Smith, said in an interview Thursday with The Associated Press that he supports congressional hearings and tighter regulation of the data collection industry, if necessary. And ChoicePoint issued a statement this week that it was "going to extraordinary lengths to assist people whose identities may have been compromised."

But critics note that the ChoicePoint breach — first detected by investigators in October — didn't become public until the company began complying this month with a California law requiring that people be notified when their personal data is compromised.

Consumer advocates want the data-brokering industry subjected to federal oversight, as credit ratings companies are. And even that industry isn't adequately regulated, critics say.

In December 2003, President Bush signed the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act, which allows consumers to put a free, 90-day fraud alert on their credit reports. The alert forces banks, car dealers and other lenders to apply additional scrutiny whenever anyone tries to apply for credit in that person's name.

Well aware of the law, many criminals who obtain such data horde it for use more than 90 days later.

Gail Hillebrand, a senior attorney with Consumers Union, calls the so-called FACT Act relatively toothless.

"The crooks are getting smarter," Hillebrand said. "Unfortunately the way the law is structured, consumers have to do their own legwork. You have to follow up, write letters, give information."

The "databasification" of information — Internet-connected computer servers that store billions of pieces of information on almost every American — has made it ever easier for thieves to make purchases using personal information stolen from the elderly and the deceased — or even to clone someone else's identity and live and work under it.

The ChoicePoint attack may be an example of something else — fraud perpetuated by an organized crime ring. A Nigerian was sentenced to 16 months in jail for his alleged role in the scam, which authorities say spanned about a year. He has refused to cooperate with authorities, they say, but the volume of compromised data is so huge he can't have acted alone.

ChoicePoint also won't reveal details of the crime, citing an ongoing investigation. And that's incredibly frustrating for Lambert, who can't find out what exactly is in his ChoicePoint dossier beyond his name, address and Social Security number.

After spending hours on the phone with ChoicePoint representatives, he was told Thursday that he had to sign a release simply to find out what information the company kept on him.

"They have no damage control. Nobody knows what they're doing," Lambert said of ChoicePoint. "It's beyond comprehension that in the 21st century this could happen."

Friday, February 25, 2005

Smuggled Goods Flood Malls and Markets

Our latest offering is a four-part series on smuggling in the Philippines. The series begins by giving an overview of the extent of the problem: the estimate of the revenues lost to smuggling range from P89 billion to P200 billion a year, enough to wipe out a big chunk of the budget deficit and to finance the building of thousands of schools and one million low-cost houses.

The series examines the impact of housing on both agriculture and industry. Farmers cannot sell their produce because the market is swamped with cheap imports and manufacturers are forced to downsize or close down operations because of the entry of dirt-cheap smuggled products.

Almost every industry in the country has been affected: illegal imports range from onions to shoes, from chicken legs to pork belly, to floor tiles, tires, garments, resins (used to make plastics) and even charcoal. These wares flood both wet markets and upscale malls, easing out local goods.

The series cites the example of onion farmers in Nueva Ecija and shoemakers in Marikina who are being driven out of business by smuggling. It focuses on technical smuggling-which involves the misdeclaration undervaluation, misclassification of goods, and other kinds of importation fraud. It shows figures from industry organizations and government studies to show that technical smuggling is now being done on a massive and unparalleled scale.

Technical smuggling, in fact, is the main way in which goods are brought into the country. Outright smuggling, where goods are slipped in without going through Customs, is minor in comparison. And yet, the Bureau of Customs does not acknowledge the magnitude of technical smuggling in the country, much less take measures to contain it. The series examines the collusion between Customs officials and technical smugglers as well as the inability of government agencies to get their act together on smuggling.

BONGABON, NUEVA ECIJA ­ In 1987, Carlito and Lita Bayudan, both New People's Army guerrillas, came down from the hills to begin a new life in this quiet farming town northeast of Manila. About to become parents for the first time, they traded their rifles for hoes, venturing into onion farming, the occupation of 80 percent of Bongabon residents. The young couple knew they would have to work hard, but they looked forward to a simple and peaceful life. Seven years later, Lita Bayudan finds herself in the midst of another battle ­ this time against smugglers.

Now a 34-year-old widow and mother of two, Ka Lita has gone from monitoring troop movements in the hinterlands to monitoring the volume of smuggled onions from China that are being sold in Divisoria. She has reason to be vigilant: this December, the cooperative to which she belongs is expected to make the first payment on a P750,000-loan, and she fears that they might not have enough cash because smuggled and dirt-cheap Chinese onions have flooded the market. "The money to pay for our loan is in storage," says Ka Lita, referring to the sacks and sacks of onions that they had harvested and now cannot sell without absorbing a huge loss. Ka Lita knows that the problem of smuggling is not new.

But even government agencies and officials say the situation has gone from bad to worse, with technical smuggling ­ which includes misdeclaration of goods, undervaluation, misclassification, and other kinds of importation fraud ­ now being done on a massive and unparalleled scale. Almost every industry in the country has been affected as illegally imported products now range from onions to shoes, to floor tiles, tires, garments, resins (used to make plastics) and even charcoal, with these wares flooding both wet markets and upscale malls and easing out locally produced goods.

Because this has meant cheaper goods at a time when the peso's buying power is at its weakest, consumers are not complaining. But what many don't see is the hundreds of billions of pesos bilked out of the government in the form of lost tax revenues each year, as well as the massive layoffs and bankruptcies that are now taking place in sectors that cannot compete with smuggled goods. Meanwhile, the anti-smuggling efforts of the government and the private sector are being defeated by unscrupulous traders and corrupt and incompetent state officials and personnel, especially those at the Bureau of Customs. Even incentives meant to encourage exports have been abused by technical smugglers.

The amounts of money involved are staggering. Last year, for example, a report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development or Unctad showed that, based on the records of the country's trading partners, imports to the Philippines totaled $45.4 billion. Philippine government records, however, reported imports of only $34.5 billion. The discrepancy of $10 billion could most likely be accounted for by smuggled goods. This translates into a P86-billion tax revenue loss for the government, given an average duty rate of 6.19 percent in 2003 according to the Tariff Commission, 10 percent value-added tax, and an exchange rate of P54.20 to the dollar for that year.

That P89.4 billion, however, would cover only the unpaid duties and taxes on the $10-billion worth of "missing" goods. As much as 60 percent of all imports may be assumed to be non-dutiable, with some of them supposedly meant for re-export. But re-exporting often doesn't happen, as the imported goods end up being sold locally. Even if one assumes that only one-fourth of all non-dutiable imports involved some form of fraud, the total revenue loss for the government could reach as much as P200 billion.

The Fair Trade Alliance (FTA) and the Federation of Philippine Industries (FPI) estimate that tax leakage from the collection of import duties and taxes is P174.2 billion annually, or P52 billion more than what the finance department claims could be generated from the president's proposed new tax measures. Former Sen. Wigberto Tañada also pointed out that the amount of leakages could pay for one million new low-cost houses every year or 11,611 school buildings with 30 classrooms each. It could also be used to finance 11,613 barangay health centers, each measuring 30 square meters and with minimum equipment worth P1.5 million, or perhaps 19,352 kilometers of concrete roads. Tañada, who is the FTA's lead convenor, added that the amount of uncollected import duties translates to an annual subsidy of P58,056 for three million Filipino farmers.

The likes of Ka Lita prefer earning their own keep instead of relying on subsidies. To recoup their investment and generate some profit, onion farmers should sell at a farmgate price of at least P650 per 30-kilo bag or P26 a kilo. The going rate these days, however, is more like P480 per bag or P19 a kilo. Some traders even want to buy at P17 a kilo, which is how much Chinese red onions are being sold for. "Luging-lugi (We will have to take a huge loss)," complains Ka Lita, who worries that she might be sued for estafa if her cooperative defaults on its loan. As the cooperative's president, she signed the loan papers and the six postdated checks her group gave the lender.

Ka Lita knows this wouldn't have happened if those who were supposed to be keeping watch were doing their jobs properly. But not one of the agencies she approached would own up to its responsibility regarding the matter. Because the Bureau of Customs (BOC) is supposed to monitor the importation of goods, among other things, Ka Lita asked a representative of the agency why it was allowing imported onions when the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) was not issuing permits needed for these. She says she was referred to the Plant Quarantine Service, which the customs representative said had the duty to detect imported onions that didn't have these permits. Ka Lita reports that the respective chiefs of the BPI and the Plant Quarantine Service had no concrete answer to her queries about the illegal imports.

"They're pointing at each other," the diminutive ex-rebel says in disgust. She says she told them to meet face to face so that they would stop blaming one another. There is no doubt, however, that the customs bureau is supposed to be on top of matters when it comes to imports. The bureau does not deny that smuggling exists, but downplays the extent of revenue losses due to smuggling. No mention of such losses were made when the BOC made a presentation before the now-defunct Cabinet Oversight Committee on Anti-Smuggling (COCAS).

On the contrary, even as government insiders and businessmen complain of escalating technical smuggling, the bureau has been crowing about its achievements. Its 2003 annual report says that it had exceeded its collection target of P100 billion by "a whooping (sic) P13.055 billion or 13 percent higher than the target." It calls last year "a moment of triumph." What its report leaves out, however, is how much higher the collected revenue would have been were it not for what insiders, businessmen, and observers describe as rampant technical smuggling. Many say technical smuggling cannot exist without the collusion of unscrupulous traders and corrupt government personnel and officials. In an interview, Customs chief George Jereos describes corruption in his agency as being "petty." But many other people think otherwise.

To begin with, economists and businessmen say, the BOC's targets are too low. "You start from a low base due to technical smuggling and corruption, your projections will be lower than what they should be," says economist Nonoy Oplas, who also heads the Minimal Government Movement. Even the defunct National Anti-Smuggling Task Force (Nastaf) described the bureau's collection targets as "unrealistic/too low" in its final report to President Arroyo. Nastaf also said that Customs collection has failed to keep pace with the growing value of imports.

Citing data from the National Statistics Office, Nastaf noted that the ratio of collection to the value of imports has declined through the years. In 1995, it said, Customs collected P1 billion for every P7 billion worth of imports. By 2002, P1 billion was collected for every P19 billion worth of imports. Oplas says that even if tariff rates are declining because of the country's commitment to the World Trade Organization and other trade agreements, these could still be compensated by larger import volumes. "If percent increase in imports volume is much larger than percent decrease in tariff rates," he says, "then total collections should still increase." Observers say one only has to look at official figures to realize that the customs bureau is probably doing its math wrong if it feels entitled to puffing its chest. In 2003, for example, 67 percent of imported yarns were entered in the customs ledgers under warehousing, which means these were supposed to be re-exported as part of finished products. Yet only five of the top 20 yarn importers were included in the Garments and Textile Export Board's (GTEB) list of Top 100 garment exporters for that year.

The same was true for fabrics: 80 percent of the total imports for 2003 were declared under warehousing. Of the top 20 fabric importers, only 11 were listed among GTEB's Top 100 garment exporters. Garment industry insiders surmise that much of the "warehoused" fabric and yarns were sold to the domestic market without the importers paying any taxes. As incentive to exporters, warehousing entries ­ which are called such because they have to be stored in a customs-bonded warehouse ­ are tax- and duty-free. Jose Sereno, executive director of the Association of Petrochemical Manufacturers of the Philippines (APMP), believes something similar has been happening in the petrochemical industry. He says that as late as 1998, only 25 percent of imported resins were placed in customs-bonded warehouses.

Today, close to 72 percent are being placed under warehousing. "This is questionable because we do not see an equivalent increase in exports of plastic products," says Sereno. "Besides, many of the local resin users are APMP's clients, so we know their volume of consumption." Overall figures quoted in a Nastaf report indicate that this may have already become a common experience among Philippine businesses. In the first half of 2003, imports declared as warehousing comprised 42 percent of imports, while consumption entries, meaning imports bound for the domestic market, made up the remaining 58 percent. In 2002, imports totaled $35.4 billion, of which $15.5 billion, or 44 percent, was declared as warehousing entries. Only 4.8 percent of the imports declared under warehousing, however, were re-exported. "At least 95 percent of warehousing entry may have been diverted to the domestic market,"said Nastaf.

The rise in the proportion of consumption and warehousing entries means that an increasing volume of imported products are being placed in customs-bonded warehouses purportedly for re-export. Without a corresponding rise in export figures, however, it is likely that a generous share of the warehouse entries wound up in the local market. Still another indication of the rampant diversion of imported items declared as warehousing entries is the accumulation of uncollected bonds that had been posted by importers.

The Nastaf report estimates these to be anywhere between P5 to P10 billion annually. Data provided by Customs meanwhile show that the value of unliquidated/expired bonds for 2000 to 2003 is P1.27 billion, covering the Port of Manila, the Manila International Container Port, and the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. The bureau says this figure represents 95 percent, "more or less," of its total expired bonds for the same period. Customs bonds are intended to guarantee payment of taxes and duties as well as other charges in case a company that has warehousing entries does not re-export these as intended. Articles entered for warehousing may remain in bonded warehouses, owned and operated by the importers, for a maximum of one year, from the time these arrived at the port of entry.

Surety companies that issue the bonds are supposed to collect those that are forfeited, but this rarely happens. Under the present system, Customs does not go after the importer that does not re-export warehoused items, but is supposed to hunt down the surety companies that issued the bonds. More often than not, however, these companies fold up as fast as they are formed. It may seem unlikely that illegally imported onions were passed off as warehousing entries and then later dumped in the local market and spelled doom for the modest dreams of Ka Lita, who is now growing other vegetables while contemplating what to do next with her cooperative's onion stock. But representatives from several industry sectors say the absence of audits has made anything possible in the customs warehousing system.

They say some importers even make it appear that they exported items placed in customs-bonded warehouses through what insiders call "paper exporting": they rent a container and ship it empty to a foreign port.
"Nobody in Customs is checking," says a broker. "If I want to send a bomb to New York, the best place to ship it from is Manila."

Next: Fictitious firms, fake papers used in smuggling

............ We have flown the air like birds and swum the sea like fishes, but have yet to learn the simple act of walking the earth like brothers. - Martin Luther King ............

Monday, February 07, 2005

Senate Bill No. 1840 - Connecting Subic, Clark & Manila

Introduced by Senator Richard J. Gordon

The State is primarily tasked to promote entrepreneurship and create job opportunities through full and efficient use of its resources. Infrastructure assets such as the three (3) airports in Subic, Clark and Manila, two (2) seaports in Subic and Manila, and one (1) connecting highway and railway in Luzon, when integrated and optimized effectively and efficiently, and vast idle lands nearby, when utilized gainfully as Special Economic Zones to accommodate industrial, agricultural, tourism and other enterprises with the direct participation of the local government units and the private sector as collective stakeholders, could become an economic engine of growth to encourage entrepreneurship and investments and create job and business opportunities.
The State must be aggressive in taking advantage of the strategic infrastructure in Subic, Clark and Manila as international transportation hubs. The development of Special Economic Zones in the municipalities nearby, bordering the highway and railway and connected to the airports and seaports in Subic, Clark and Manila must be encouraged as this will bring jobs to the people and work to the workers and promote a rising standard of living and an improved quality of life for all.
The development of these Special Economic Zones will embody a decentralized local government and private sector-led development that will display the potential that can be achieved when local people set their own priorities and initiatives. Overcrowded areas will be decongested, as industries will be dispersed to other locations in Luzon, because of the global accessibility and direct access of Subic, Clark and Manila to domestic and foreign markets worldwide by air, by land and by sea.
To fully utilize Subic, Clark and Manila as international service and logistic centers in the Asia-Pacific region, a law strengthening and expanding the powers of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority and the Clark Development Corporation, allowing them to develop other Special Economic Zones in Luzon to optimize the three (3) airports in Subic, Clark and Manila, two (2) seaports in Subic and Manila, and one (1) connecting highway and railway in Luzon, and for other purposes must be enacted to empower the local communities to chart their own destinies and ensure local growth and nationwide economic success.

Senate Bill No. 1866 - Volunteerism

Introduced by Senator Richard J. Gordon

It is the policy of the State to inculcate patriotism and nationalism, and encourage the involvement of the people in public, social and civic affairs that promote the welfare of the nation. As such, this proposed legislation seeks to encourage volunteerism, which is service without compensation in a non-profit organization or governmental entity, as a value that the State should recognize, promote and develop among its people. The spirit of volunteerism reflects the ability of a people to put the interests of the community before their own, and the foresight and maturity to appreciate the value of short-term sacrifice for long-term gain.
The positive experience of the people of Olongapo City regarding the conversion of the former Subic Naval Base into a self-sustaining industrial, commercial, financial and investment, and tourism and recreation center is a sterling example of the feat that volunteerism can achieve. The willingness to work for a cause and not just for compensation brings out the best in the Filipino, which must be encouraged and replicated, if the nation is to rise from the ashes of its present fiscal difficulty. However, the willingness of volunteers to offer their services is deterred by the potential legal liability that may arise out of their endeavor. As a result, many non-profit organizations and governmental entities, including voluntary associations, social service agencies, educational institutions, and other civic programs, are adversely affected.
The contribution of these non-profit organizations and governmental entities to specific communities, in particular, and the nation, in general, is thereby diminished, resulting in higher costs and fewer benefits than would be obtainable if volunteers were participating. Because of the problems created by the legitimate fears of volunteers about frivolous, arbitrary and capricious legal actions against them, the protection of volunteers through the clarification and limitation of liability risks that they assume is, therefore, an appropriate and important subject for legislation.
This bill also allows the grant of incentives to volunteers in the form of insurance for injury, sickness, disability, or death of the volunteer during his or her incumbency in a non-profit organization or governmental entity. It also allows the giving of a token of recognition after the accomplishment of volunteer work, to the volunteer, for services rendered in a non-profit organization or governmental entity . Such measures reflect the protection and importance that volunteers deserve for performing a service crucial to the development of the nation.