Tag Archives: Amazon

Your Smart TV is Watching You

A recent study of smart TV privacy and security by Consumer Reports asked, “How much does your Smart TV know about you?” They looked at several major TV brands: LG, Samsung, Sony, TCL—which use the Roku TV smart TV platform—and Vizio.

Smart TVs connect to the internet, allowing users to stream videos from services such as Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Netflix. Consumer Reports found that all smart TVs can collect and share considerable amounts of personal information about their viewers. Not only that, so can the countless third-party apps that work within the platforms. 

The Oregon office of the FBI released a warning back in December cautioning consumers that some smart TVs are vulnerable to hacking and a number of them have built-in video cameras. The good news is that newer models have eliminated the cameras – Consumer Reports’ labs haven’t seen one in any of the hundreds of new TVs tested in the past two years.

However, privacy concerns are still an issue. Researchers at Northeastern University and Imperial College London discovered that many smart TVs and other internet-connected devices send data to Amazon, Facebook, and Doubleclick, Google’s advertising business. Nearly all of them sent data to Netflix –  even if the app wasn’t installed – or the owner hadn’t activated it. 

A third study, this one conducted by researchers at Princeton and the University of Chicago, looked at Roku and Amazon Fire TV, two of the more popular set-top streaming devices. Testing found the TV’s tracking what their owners were watching and relaying it back to the TV maker and/or its business partners, using a technology called ACR, or “automated content recognition.” There were trackers on 69% of Roku’s channels and 89% of Fire TV’s channels – the numbers are likely to be the same for smart TVs that have Roku’s and Amazon’s native platforms. 

Testing found the TV’s tracking what their owners were watching and relaying it back to the TV maker and/or its business partners, using a technology called ACR, or “automated content recognition.”

On the surface, we love the technology behind ACR because it’s what makes our systems intuitive and recommend other shows we might enjoy watching. The downside is that the same information can be used for targeted advertising or be bundled with other aspects of our personal information to sold to other marketers. 

Justin Brookman, director of privacy and technology at Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, says “For years, consumers have had their behavior tracked when they’re online or using their smartphones. But I don’t think a lot of people expect their television to be watching what they do.”

If you have privacy concerns about your Smart TV, check the manual on how to revert the device TV to factory settings and set them up again. Be sure to decline to have your viewing data collected.

For a more detailed analysis and instruction on protecting your privacy, check out Consumer Reports story How to Turn Off Smart TV Snooping Features.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Beware “Amazon’s Choice” Products

By Tracey Dowdy

If you’re an Amazon Prime customer, you’ve no doubt seen some products marketed as “Amazon’s Choice” a designation intended to convince customers to buy what Amazon is saying is “highly-rated, well-priced products.” It’s an effective strategy – according to a 2018 study. these items see a threefold increase in sales.

But are they really the “highly-rated, well-priced products” they’re promoted to be? Good question – and the answer is “No.” Some of the listings have inflated ratings and those glowing reviews have been written by customers who were promised compensation in the form of gift cards or free products by sellers in exchange for those five-star ratings.

Amazon’s official position on fake reviews or “incentified reviews” – those reviews posted for compensation without being identified as such – is against the site’s policy. Sellers who are caught violating Amazon’s rules have their accounts suspended or banned. “When a product we identify as Amazon’s Choice does not continue to meet our high bar, we immediately remove the badge.” 

Unfortunately, the policy doesn’t seem to stop third-party sellers because many know exactly how to evade the website’s moderators. Some listings with reviews explicitly mentioning free products frequently slip past filters despite the fact it’s a clear violation of Amazon’s policies regarding customer reviews. 

To be clear, incentivized reviews are nothing new.  Buzzfeed News exposed Amazon’s Fake Review Economy in a story they broke last year. The problem that there’s a difference between incentivized and fake. When customers buy an item or service listed as Amazon’s Choice, there’s an assumption that the service is peer-reviewed and has earned its positive reviews via customer satisfaction. The truth is, the selection is determined bu an algorithm. Buzzfeed’s story led to Democratic Senators Bob Menendez and Richard Blumenthal raising concerns over Amazon’s Choice products through a letter to Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos.

In response to their letter, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, Brian Huseman, admitted that Amazon employees “do not manually review” Amazon’s Choice products, but instead, they’re chosen by an algorithm that takes into account multiple factors, such as inventory, pricing, and return rates, in addition to reviews. 

He further states that products have to have a four-star or above-average rating to qualify for the label. According to Huseman, that translates to more than 2 million products automatically earning the designation every month. Huseman added that in their defense, abuse of customer reviews is “an industry-wide problem” but Amazon is the exception to the rule claiming in September that “over 99%” of reviews on the site were authentic.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Gift

Holiday Shipping Guide

By Tracey Dowdy

There’s nothing like making a list and checking it twice only to discover you should have checked it sooner. Making things even trickier, Thanksgiving was late this year – almost a week later than last year – so the holiday shopping season got even tighter. Despite the crunch, according to Adobe Analytics data, “U.S. online sales will increase 14.1 percent, totaling $143.7 billion, while total retail spending – both online and offline – is expected to increase 4.0 percent.” 

Whether it’s because you see last minute shopping as a personal challenge, a competitive sport, or because you suddenly have to ship a gift to an out of town in law, a snowbound sibling, or someone you won’t see til January, you have more options than simply emailing a gift card. Although, if your imagination can’t think of anything more creative than socks, Amazon has a ton of gift cards that include a digital code the recipient can print out and there’s no worry about will it/won’t it make it in time. 

The good news is that because the holiday shopping season is abbreviated, many retailers have extended their Black Friday and Cyber Monday prices and deals. 

These are the three major carriers’ recommended send-by dates for expected delivery by December 25:

U.S. Postal Service

Dec. 14: USPS Retail Ground shipments

Dec. 18: Alaska to mainland First-Class Mail

Dec. 19: Hawaii to mainland Priority Mail and First-Class Mail

Dec. 20: First Class

Dec. 21: Priority Mail; Also deadline for Alaska and Hawaii to the mainland through Priority Mail Express

Dec. 23: Priority Mail Express

International shipping and military mail deadlines are earlier. Learn more at www.usps.com.

 

FedEx

Dec. 9: SmartPost

Dec. 16: Ground and home delivery

Dec. 19: Express Saver

Dec. 20: Two-day options

Dec. 23: Overnight options

Dec. 25: FedEx SameDay, FedEx SameDay City Direct and City Priority

Find rates and transit times at www.fedex.com.

 

United Parcel Service/UPS

Dec. 13: Last day to ship some UPS Ground packages

Dec. 19: UPS 3 Day Select

Dec. 20: 2nd Day Air

Dec. 23: Next Day Air 

Learn more at www.ups.com

Retailers like Walmart, Target and Kohl’s all have similar though in some cases longer, shipping windows, depending on the items you’ve ordered. 

This year, Best Buy has promised overnight delivery for 99% of customers, however be aware that if the item you want or the ZIP code you’re shipping to doesn’t allow for it, overnight delivery isn’t guaranteed. 

Amazon has announced the dates for Prime members and all customers to place orders for delivery by Dec. 25. However, buyer beware as dates can vary by item and delivery speed. Not all items are sold by Amazon, some are through third-party sellers and not eligible for Prime delivery. 

Dec. 14: Last day to order and get free delivery on orders over $25, free for all customers

Dec. 18: Last day to order items eligible for standard shipping, free for Prime members

Dec. 22: Last day for free delivery on tens of millions of items for Prime members

Dec. 23: Last day for free one-day delivery on more than 10 million items for Prime members

Dec. 24: Last day to order millions of items eligible for Same-Day Delivery (free for Prime members in eligible areas on orders over $35, order by 9:30 a.m. local time). Also free two-hour grocery delivery, reserved exclusively for Prime members in select cities.

Learn more at www.amazon.com/holidaydelivery.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Best Free Movie Streaming Services of 2019

By Tracey Dowdy

Once upon a time, if you wanted to stream a movie or TV show, you turned to Netflix. Over time, their model spawned more and more similar platforms, leaving viewers with a virtual smorgasbord of streaming services. 

Many of these services are fee-based, so if you’re tired of spending more and more of your budget to access content, these platforms may be an option. You won’t be able to choose from the latest Hollywood blockbusters, but their libraries are extensive, and best of all – they’re free. 

Crackle is an ad-supported streaming service offering both movies and TV shows as well as original content. It’s available across a number of devices without a subscription plan or the need to set up an account. However, if you want to create a list of your favorite movies and TV shows, get recommendations, or resume playback if you switch between devices, you’ll need to create one. 

IMDb  – yes, that IMDb – has its own streaming service – IMDb TV.  The streaming site formerly known as FreeDrive was purchased by Amazon back in 1998, the site offers free, ad-supported streaming for movies and TV shows (U.S. only). It has a standalone channel on Fire devices like Fire Stick, Fire TV Cube, and Fire tablets, stream from your laptop directly from the IMDb site. 

I’ve mentioned Hoopla in “Best of” lists before and here we are again. Hoopla is a digital media service offered through local public libraries. It allows users to borrow movies, music, audiobooks, ebooks, comics, and TV shows to enjoy on your computer, tablet, or phone or smart TV – all you need is a library card. Content can be watched immediately or downloaded and watched within the next 72 hours. It’s up to your local library how many titles you can borrow each month. 

Tubi TV has a monster-sized library but you need to remember some monsters are like Godzilla while some are more like this guy. In other words, some of the content on Tubi is great like both Kill Bill movies, Meatballs, Monster, and Dial M for Murder, while some of it is, well, less blockbuster and more feel-good cult-classics like Teen Wolf, Kentucky Fried Movie, and Good Burger. 

Pluto TV is owned by CBS giving it access to a vast library of content. It offers both live-streaming and on-demand movies — including old James Bond titles, comedy classics like So I Married an Axe Murderer and Meatballs, and a variety of titles from the Discovery Channel.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Delete and Stop Sharing Voice Recordings with Amazon, Google, and Apple.

How concerned are you about your smart device randomly recording your conversations? Not to be an alarmist, but after revelations that “The ‘Big five’ tech companies – that’s Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft – have all been recording and listening to private conversations, all in the name of “improving services,”  you should be concerned. 

Of course, since they were exposed, Google, Apple, and Amazon have either suspended having humans review voice recordings or have begun allowing people to opt-in or out. 

If you have lingering concerns about your privacy, there are ways to prohibit strangers from listening to your voice commands and erase your interaction history from your Google Home, Amazon Echo, and HomePod. Here’s how:

Amazon

Earlier this year, CNET exposed Amazon for keeping transcripts of users Alexa recordings, even after the audio portion of the interaction had been deleted by the user. 

In the Alexa app, go to Settings > Alexa Privacy > Manage Your Alexa Data. Then tap the toggle switch that says “Use Voice Recordings to Improve Amazon Services to Develop New Features.”

Google  

In September, Google agreed that it would no longer store recordings of users’ voices by default. Now users who engage with their Google Assistant will have to opt-in when setup their Google Assistant if they want to have their voice recorded or reviewed by human monitors through the Voice & Audio Activity (VAA) program.

Go to myaccount.google.com > Web & App Activity. Then, uncheck the box that says “Include voice and audio recordings.”

Apple 

Back in August, Apple announced it would no longer listen to Siri recordings without your consent, and they can only receive your audio data should you choose to opt-in. 

If you opt-in but later change your mind, go to your Settings > Privacy > Analytics and Improvements > Turn off Improve Siri & Dictation.

Delete your voice recordings

Amazon

Amazon offers two Alexa commands that allow users to delete voice transcripts by asking Alexa.  Say, “Alexa, delete what I just said,” or “Alexa, delete all my commands from today.”  

If you prefer to delete your entire history, open the Alexa app and go to Settings > Alexa Privacy > Review Voice History > Delete All Recordings for All History.

Google

To delete your voice command history, go to myaccount.google.com > Data and Personalization > Web & App Activity > Manage Activity > tap the three stacked dots at the top of the screen > Select Delete activity by and choose from the options listed – all-time, last hour, last day, etc. Then tap Delete to confirm.

You can also tell Google to delete your entire voice command history by saying “Hey Google, delete everything I just said.” 

Apple

Apple’s iOS 13.2 update finally allows users to delete all of their recordings. Open your Settings > Siri & Search > Siri & Dictation History > and select Delete Siri & Dictation History.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

Spot Fake Reviews in Online Retail

By Tracey Dowdy

Amazon likes to think of itself as a level playing field for sellers where the best products rise to the top through honest feedback posted in the product reviews. In a perfect world, consumers buy a product or service through Amazon and then post a genuine review, free from any kind of incentive from the seller.

However, that ideal is far from reality. A Buzzfeed News story uncovered an entire industry built on fake reviews. The competition among third-party sellers is intense, so much so that shady sellers offer “black hat” services to boost rankings and help the seller appear higher than they should in search results.

Renee DiResta, director of research at cybersecurity company New Knowledge, told BuzzFeed News, “The extent to which sellers go to game the system, and the amount of resources they devote to doing it, [are] a testament to how Amazon’s recommendation and ranking algorithms shape consumption. While Amazon repeats that ‘even one fake review is too many,’ the fact remains that manipulative tactics from dishonest sellers make honest business owners afraid that they can’t remain competitive. And when manipulation is successful, it’s Amazon’s customers who are the victims.”

Amazon has made an effort to police manipulation of its marketplace, but a business model this successful is difficult to rein in. It’s so successful, a YouTube search for the term “super URL” results in heaps of tutorials on how to game the system and manipulate product and service rankings. These black hat consultants hide in plain sight attending and even speaking at Amazon seller conferences and events. Many have Facebook pages promoting their services.

Where does that leave us as consumers?

Rick Broida, a Senior Editor at CNET, offers two valuable tips for identifying fake reviews on Amazon, Best Buy, Walmart and other online retailers.

First, make use of Fakespot, a site that evaluates product reviews using artificial intelligence to identify fake reviews. Just copy and paste the link to the product’s page, then click “Analyze.”  Even better, add the Fakespot extension to Chrome for immediate results. Just hit the Fakespot icon while you’re on the product page, and it will instantly tell you whether what you’re reading is legit or not. You can download the Fakespot app for both iOS and Android, so you always have reliable information at your fingertips.

Currently, Fakespot works on Amazon, Sephora, Best Buy, WalMart, Steam, TripAdvisor, and Yelp.

To give perspective on the scope of the problem, Fakespot found that over 50% of Walmart’s product reviews were “unauthentic and unreliable.” Best Buy, on the other hand, had less than 5% fake reviews.

Once analyzed, Fakespot provides a letter grade – A to F – based on the total number of reviews and the percentage that were flagged as unreliable or fake.

Another option is ReviewMeta, that exclusive screens Amazon reviews. They are clear from the moment you click on the site that their analysis is an estimate, not a fact. “ReviewMeta is not able to determine which reviews are ‘fake’ and which are not with 100% accuracy.  We’re simply looking at different trends and making a ‘best guess’ estimate about the reviews.” They also caution that a Pass/Fail/Warn does not necessarily indicate the presence or absence of a fake review.

“ReviewMeta is not able to determine which reviews are ‘fake’ and which are not with 100% accuracy.  We’re simply looking at different trends and making a ‘best guess’ estimate about the reviews.”

So instead of a letter grade like Fakespot, ReviewMeta shows you product reviews with the questionable ones removed.

The challenge here is that the two sites often provide different results, sometimes very different, so you’ll need to trust your instinct. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

On the other hand, just because a product has fake reviews, that doesn’t necessarily translate to an inferior quality product, and, just because a product is first in the search results, you don’t necessarily see the best option. For example, if you’re shopping for a cheaper version of an OtterBox phone case, a search of “off brand otter box” will bring up over 8000 results. When I clicked on the first option with 4.5 stars, Fakespot gave it a C, while the first option on the second page with only 3.5 stars earned an A. The first phone case analysis comes with the warning, “Our engine has analyzed and discovered that 64.7% of the reviews are reliable,” while the second says, “Our engine has profiled the reviewer patterns and has determined that there is minimal deception involved.”

At the end of the day, the adage “buyer beware” is still your best defense.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

 

Tips for Shopping on Amazon

Once upon a time, big-box and department stores ruled the earth like gentle retail behemoths, and the thought of purchasing an item online, sight unseen, was madness. Who in their right mind would share their credit card information, home address, or shipping details like “leave package under the mat on the porch?” Then along came Amazon, and everything changed. Through my Amazon Prime membership, I’ve purchased everything from patio furniture to my Mother of the bride dress, and the possibility of never having to walk inside a mall again fills my heart with such happiness it brings a tear to my eye.

And before you condemn me for the collapse of the American small business economy, I buy local when I can. But, there are times when the convenience of Amazon collides with the time constraints of my life making it my go-to option in those moments. There’s a lot more to a Prime Membership than just free two-day shipping on many items, including Amazon Prime Music, Pantry, and Video. Make the most of your membership by taking advantage of these lesser-known features.

When you shop through Amazon Smile, The AmazonSmile Foundation will donate 0.5% of the purchase price from your eligible AmazonSmile purchases to the charity of your choice. There are over one million charities to choose from, so no matter the cause near and dear to your heart, there’s certain to be a charity that resonates with you.

Pay attention to your stage of life. Are you a student? If so, through Prime Student you’re eligible for six months of Prime for free, and a half-price discount going forward (only $59 per year). If you’re a parent, sign up for Amazon Family to get a 20% discount on items like diapers and baby food, a free Baby Registry Welcome Box, an emailed newsletter with parenting tips, product reviews, and exclusive deals. Plus, you get a 15% Baby Registry completion discount.

If you’re in the market for furniture, Amazon’s Ar View lets you view products in your home before you buy them. To use it, open the Amazon app on your smartphone, tap the camera icon in the search bar, and then scroll “view in your room” and select a product.

Make sure you’re getting the best price by paying attention to three things:

  • If you don’t need the item right away, check to see if a third party seller is offering it at a lower price. Many offer free shipping, and if you’re willing to wait a day or two longer, you may get a better deal. Just make sure you review their return policy as their terms may differ from Amazon’s.   
  • Check out Amazon Warehouse deals. These are products that have been returned by customers like you and me, so many are open-box but still quality products, often deeply discounted. For example, currently, there are Sony WH-CH500 Wireless On-Ear Headphones for just $14.12.  
  • Amazon’s Outlet offers closeouts, markdowns, and overstock deals for Prime members. Items are discounted anywhere from 10-70% off list prices.

While we’re talking savings, take advantage of Subscribe & Save to save up to 15% on items you frequently purchase like paper towels, pet food, baby wipes, and pretty much anything else you use regularly. There’s no long-term commitment, and you can cancel any time. You can also take advantage of ordering through Alexa Prime-eligible physical products. On supported devices, you can also ask Alexa to place orders for music.

Finally, take heart if you’re one of the 26 million Americans who’ve lost packages to porch pirates, Amazon may replace that package for you at no additional cost. To make your case to Customer Service, you’ll need to have purchased directly from Amazon, not a third-party seller, and include your tracking numbers. Don’t expect to be compensated if this is a recurring issue – Amazon tracks who reports stolen items – and in future, consider using an Amazon locker or Amazon Hub to protect your purchases.

Reuse or Recycle Your Android or iOS Device

By Tracey Dowdy

The first iPhone shipped to customers back in June of 2007 – less than 12 years ago, but somehow, it feels like smartphones have been around forever.

In those 12 years, we’ve seen a lot of changes and updated features for our smartphones and tablets, which encouraged us to upgrade, and upgrade again, and again…to the point there’s a good chance you have an old phone or outdated tablet sitting in a drawer or taking up space on a shelf. But instead of hanging on to digital clutter, consider these options to put your old devices to new use.

Smart Home Center – With devices like Google Assistant, Alexa, Nest, Hue, Smart TV’s, and Amazon’s Fire Stick becoming more common and accessible, it makes sense to repurpose your old phone or tablet as a dedicated hub for your smart home enabled tech. You can even use them to set up a media streaming center. The simplest way is to clear unused apps and free up as much data as possible. Download the streaming apps you need, along with any tools you’re using — Google HomeAmazon Fire TV RemoteNest, Hue, etc. – connect to the same network as the devices, and you’re good to go!

Your Child’s First Device – If you’ve ever handed off a $500 phone or tablet to a toddler, you know the gut-felt fear usually only seen in horror movies. But, handing off a phone or tablet that’s been sitting in a drawer or is being replaced with an updated version is a great idea. You’ll want to be sure to lock down any features you don’t want them to access through Parental Controls, and invest in a sturdy case as any device in the hands of a toddler is likely to take a fair amount of punishment.

 Digital Photo Frame – Remember the first digital photo frames? They were the hottest Christmas present of the year when they were first introduced, but the image quality wasn’t great, and they weren’t really reliable. But, your old Android tablet or iPad can make an excellent scrolling photo display, rolling through hundreds of photos an hour. How To Geek has a simple, easy to follow tutorial on how to make it happen on your Android tablet, and CNET has instructions for your iPad. Besides the vast improvement in image quality, both are WiFi connected, so you can set it up to automatically update to new images.

Security Camera/Baby Monitor – There are plenty of options for home security systems available, but remember, security cameras are simply network connected video cameras. Even the older versions of phones and tablets have network connectivity, so they’re perfect for use as home security cameras, baby or even pet monitors. There are many options available for both iOS and Android devices, but one that receives consistently positive reviews from experts is Alfred. The app allows any Wi-Fi connected phone to broadcast its camera feed to any other phone attached to the same account with no limit on the number of cameras you can connect to a single account.

Dedicated eBook Reader – I will always prefer an actual physical book to an eReader, but there are times when they come in handy. Using your old iPad or tablet as a dedicated reader, particularly for cookbooks, spares your cookbooks and primary device from the inevitable mess that comes from cooking and baking.

Help Scientific Research – Did you know you can take part in important scientific research with apps like BOINC for Android and DreamLab?  Both apps use your device’s processing power to run calculations for a variety of research projects – BOINC focuses on research on diseases, global warming, and space, while DreamLab focuses on finding a cure for cancer.

Recycle, Sell, or Donate – If none of these options are viable for you, you can always recycle, sell, or donate your old phones and tablets. The Environmental Protection Agency has a list of locations where you can take your unwanted tech and have it safely disposed of.  Many retailers like Target and Best Buy offer trade-in options, and the website Gazelle offers consumers cash for working or broken devices, and offers deals on refurbs, providing less expensive options when upgrading.

Lifewire has a list reviewing trade-in programs, including the good and the bad about trade-ins with Amazon, Flypsy, and YouRenew.   

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.