"The potential windfall was probably far greater than the contents of a bank vault, and they didn't even need a getaway car. All they needed was a phone and a computer." --FBI Assistant Director Kevin Donovan, on an identity fraud that victimized 30,000 people The Maryland Bar Assn.'s annual directory of lawyers and judges is hardly a page-turner. But considering the $57 price tag, it's not difficult to understand why a member of the bar might want to loan the book to, say, a financially strapped nephew in law school.
Forget it, says the bar. The Maryland Bar Assn., along with hundreds of other trade groups, is shrink-wrapping a contract with many of its publications. The contract is meant to be binding on anyone who breaks the plastic seal. Among its terms: No reselling, loaning, or giving away the book.
The groups are taking a page from software makers, who for years have used the gambit to discourage copying. There's just one problem: Shrink-wrapped contracts for books could be illegal. They conflict with the federal first sale doctrine, which allows the buyer of a book to resell it, burn it, or give it away. "If anybody should know better, it's the bar association," says Miriam Nisbet, an attorney with the American Library Assn.
The associations say the contracts are needed to keep their directories from being turned into mailing lists. But even they don't seem quite certain of the legality of the tactic. Says Paul Carlin, a lawyer and executive director of the Maryland Bar Assn.: "I'm getting legal counsel to look at it." While the stock markets are still a long way from the heady days of the dot-com bubble, a funny thing has happened: As of Nov 25, IPO returns on online retailers edged back into the black.
Since shares of eBay (EBAY), Expedia (EXPE), Hotels.com (ROOM), and Amazon.com (AMZN) have surged recently, they and a few others now bail out every bad e-tail IPO put together. If you had invested $1,000 in each of the 57 e-tail IPOs since 1997, you would now have some $63,500, including proceeds from companies that were sold. A grand invested in eBay is now worth about $22,700. On the flip side, the same bet on Priceline.com nets just $125.
Why the runup? Profits. The stocks are all at least cash-flow positive, as are about two-thirds of the remaining publicly traded e-tailers. More consumers are shopping online. On Nov. 22, the Commerce Dept. reported that retail spending on the Net jumped 34% in the third quarter, excluding travel and auctions.
IPO gains have long been concentrated among a few winners. Since 1980, 1% of companies that have gone public have created 82% of long-term IPO gains, a recent Morgan Stanley study says. True, e-tailers are way off their 2000 peaks. So one lesson for investors is clear: When Wall Street throws a party, come early, or just stay home. College students are disturbed by recent corporate scandals: Some 84% believe the U.S. is having a business crisis, and 77% think CEOs should be held personally responsible for it.
But when the same students are asked about their own ethics, it's another story. Some 59% admit cheating on a test (66% of men, 54% of women). And only 19% say they would report a classmate who cheated (23% of men, but 15% of women--even though recent whistleblowers have been women).
The survey of 1,100 students on 27 U.S. campuses was conducted by Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE), a nonprofit that teams up with corporations to teach students ethical business practices. "There's a lack of understanding about ethics and how ethics are applied in real life," says Alvin Rohrs, SIFE's CEO. "We have to get young people to stop and think about ethics and the decisions they're making." Otherwise, today's students may be tomorrow's criminals. Environmentalists and safety hawks have long griped that sport-utility vehicles waste gas, crowd highways, and endanger motorists. Now, with the geopolitics of oil much in the news, SUV-bashing is mounting. "A growing number of consumers are jumping on the anti-SUV bandwagon," says analyst Wes Brown of researchers Nextrend. However, he doesn't expect to see a wave of trade-ins anytime soon. "We are probably at the fringe of some people recognizing that an SUV [isn't] the best thing to own."
So when syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington wrote on Oct. 22 that money spent fueling SUVs indirectly funds terrorism, she received so much support that she set up a fund for an anti-SUV ad campaign. She raised $35,000 in a month. Now, with Pulp Fiction producer Lawrence Bender, she's trying to get money for airtime. German auto maker BMW already runs anti-SUV ads, likening the vehicles to dinosaurs while touting its Mini Cooper.
A more broad-based push against SUVs comes from the Interfaith Coalition for the Environment, a group of Christian and Jewish clergy. Claiming 150,000 congregations as members, the group's leaders took hybrid Toyota Priuses to Detroit on Nov. 20 to urge the Big Three to make more environmentally responsible cars.
Still, it won't be easy: Last year, sales of light trucks topped those of cars for the first time.
Corrections and Clarifications
"SUV haters of the world, unite" (Up Front, Dec. 9) incorrectly identified a coalition of religious congregations trying to discourage the use of sport-utility vehicles. The group is called the Interfaith Climate & Energy Campaign.
Want to cut spam by 20%? A new feature of AOL's version 8.0 may allow you to do just that. AOL's Report Spam button gives users something to punch every time they see a pesky cybergram. A pop-up window then promises the user that all future e-mail from that address will be blocked. AOL (AOL) has long enabled users to report spam, but this is the first time it has provided a one-click solution.
The button does seem to provide more than mere psychological relief, even though spammers constantly change their e-mail addresses. AOL says the reports have increased tenfold to about 2 million a day since the button appeared in mid-October. That has helped cut spam on its network by 20%. On Nov. 11, for example, after tens of thousands of clicks on the button, AOL blocked mail from porn site superhotemail.com, set up five days earlier in Athens, Greece.
Rival MSN says it uses filters to keep out spam, and scoffs at AOL's button. "It's "technologically unsophisticated," says MSN product manager Larry Grothaus.
The button may not wipe out spam, but it certainly can curtail the worst offenders--while giving users a chance to vent. Cell phones--supposedly the lifelines of the mobile crowd--are going the way of umbrellas and sunglasses. They're easily lost, and few bother to reclaim them.
More than 400,000 passengers move through New York's historic Grand Central Terminal each day, and an awful lot of them leave their phones behind. Every year, 3,000 handsets are turned in to the station's lost and found, says manager Mike Nolan. There might be hundreds of phones in his office at any one time. "We do our best to get them back to their owners," he says, mostly by dialing numbers in the phones' directories. About 60% of the devices are returned within the 90 days state law says Nolan must hold on to them.
Each month, 100 phones go unclaimed--probably because a third of users get their phones free of charge, and 80% pay less than $100, says Yankee Group's Roger Entner. "Cell phones have become throwaway items, almost."
Eventually, abandoned phones are donated to a charity that reprograms them to call 911 and gives them to victims of domestic abuse--where the phones may save a life, instead of annoying fellow commuters.