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Need CAPTCHA Technology on Your Website?

Last week I questioned the usability of CAPTCHA codes. One interesting project I found was a plug-in provider that allows you to add this technology to your website, no programming needed, for free. It’s called reCaptcha and their slogan is “Stop Spam. Read Books.”
It’s a very cool idea. They take words from books they are trying to digitize but the machine reader is having a difficult time deciphering. By adding reCaptcha to your site, you get a test of whether it’s a bot trying to exploit your form, and they decipher another scanned word.
But wait, you say – if the word was unknown by the digitizer, how does it know you entered the right CAPTCHA? There are actually two words you have to enter using this site. One word the response is known for, the other is not. If you get the one known word right, the system assumes that your entry for the second word is also correct and the scanned book is updated.
Pretty neat idea from the folks at Carnegie Mellon University.

Certified Goofy

Certified Goofy

Originally uploaded by Mike’s Adventures.

Here I am wearing my Marathon and Goofy’s Challenge medals.

Goofy’s Race and a Half Challenge is to run the Walt Disney World 1/2 Marathon on Saturday and then run the Walt Disney World Marathon on Sunday. In total, you run 39.3 miles (13.1 + 26.2) through 4 theme parks and end up with 3 medals if you’re successful.

I took a LOT of pictures (almost 200) across the 4 days I was there. Many of them were taken during the race. Yes, I stopped and had my picture taken with the likes of Captain Hook, Tarzan, and several others. It’s Disney!! I’ll post recaps complete with pictures for both the half and the full sometime in the next week. All my pictures will be up on my flickr account in the next couple of days.

Oh – in case you can’t figure it out based on the smile on my face in this photo – I HAD A GREAT TIME!!!!

Questioning CAPTCHA Usability

Since the first interactive form was put on the Internet, bot writers have been writing programs to automatically exploit them. To prevent this, programmers began putting those screwy images of warped letters and numbers on the screen and asking you to key them in. This is known as a turing test, a sort of intelligence test to tell a computer and a human apart.
This works fairly well for those of us who have our eyesight, but what about the visually impaired? Yesterday I sent you to get a $40 coupon toward a digital converter box. If you filled out the coupon, you were challenged with a CAPTCHA code. For the visually impaired, you would click on the speaker icon and hear a code for you to type in like this one garbledCaptcha.mp3.
I listen to that sequence and it just sounds terrible. Perhaps the problem is that I have all my senses, so my hearing is not heightened to make up for vision. I guess that the same exploits that attempt to decode CAPTCHA images are also used to parse these audio files, thus the poor quality and background noise. Still, I don’t think I would’ve gotten this one right.
In the case of the digital tv site, they provided a link to download a paper application to fill out. The visually impaired person would still no doubt need help in filling it out, but at least there were other options presented. Many sites don’t offer that capability (think of places like Ticketmaster where the only other option is slow service over the telephone).
Defeating the automated bots is a necessary task, but I think that the evolution needs to continue. Perhaps this would be a good route for a PhD thesis…

Read Your Phone Bill Carefully

Last night was bill paying night at my house. I hate bill paying night. It went smoothly until I opened my AT&T bill for my home phone (I know, I know, how 1990’s of me to have a home phone). Anyway, the amount was different than last month – $15 different thanks to a company called ILD Telecom.
According to the information I’ve found, ILD Telecom is a telecommunications billing clearinghouse. This would be similar to credit card clearinghouses that make it possible for you to swipe your credit card at any merchant, who can use any bank, and the charge end up on your account at any other bank. So, this company enables merchants to bill you through your phone bill and receive services in return. Other than phone sex operators I can’t really think of a valid reason for doing this, but surely there must be.
So I called the 800# that appeard next to their name and after entering my home telephone number I was routed to a customer service representative with a company called MyIproducts. After bringing up my account (using just a telephone number) she asked if I knew a “Leah Christensen” and of course I do not. She indicated that this person signed up for their service, which is a voice mail service, and must have entered the wrong phone number. She then asked me what the date of billing was on that I was looking at and I told her. She said there was another bill the following month, but she was cancelling this person’s service and crediting my account for the two months that had already been billed. I have her name, employee number, and a confirmation code. I now think this is pretty much worthless information, but I’ll hold onto it for giggles. Satisfied, I finished paying bills and went to bed with LSU comfortably leading a repeatedly pitiful Ohio State team.
This morning as I cranked out my yardage in the pool (at 2750 yds maybe I should refer to it as mileage) and thought about the whole scheme and it sounded fishy. First – who is going to use an Internet provider for $15 a month for voice mail?? You can almost get a cell phone w/ voicemail for that. And second – why did she ask me for the first date of billing? Can’t you see it? How many people miss this charge for a few months because they actually use their home phone for long distance or something and don’t get a credit for that?
Intrigued, I went to their website and poked around. It certainly looks legitimate, but then I decided to explore their products and services further. On this page, they list 4 products. Each with a two line description. I guess they didn’t want to overload us with info. Interestingly, there is no pricing information, just a link if you’re ready to become an iMail customer. Sure – sounds great to me… I click the link and get a page not found error. There is no way to sign up for the service. The page name it linked to was on their site at /restaurant/restaurant.aspx. RESTAURANT?? HUH?
Based on my personal experiences and investigation, I think it is safe to say that this company is a crammer. They sign people’s phone bills up for a charge to appear and collect money from the LEC (local exchange carrier) who in turn bills the customer. They continue to collect money until they are told to stop. I am hoping that they stopped in my case but it will be 2 billing cycles before I know for sure. They only refund what you tell them they billed you, not what they actually billed you.
I did some googling and found some other people with the same “Oh, someone must’ve misentered their telephone number excuse”. Wow – this company must have a marketing list of the clumsiest and most naive people on earth. $15 for voicemail and they can’t enter their own number right? Here is some info I found from a purported former employee. I believe him… but I have no way to prove that he ever worked there so I take it with a grain of salt. Although it all adds up.
So You’ve Been Crammed, What Now?
1) Call the 800# that appears next to the 3rd party billing company’s info. Do not get off the phone until you are satisfied that they are removing the charge. Get names and confirmation numbers so you at least feel it is a legitimate claim process. I don’t know that I would tell them the billing date you think the first charge appeared – I’d ask what the first date they see is and then go from there. You have a date in mind, but maybe they’ll offer up an earlier date (e.g. maybe you missed the charge one month).
2) Call your local phone company. Tell them you’ve filed the claim with the 3rd party and am paying your bill minus the disputed charge. They told me that was all I had to do, but I think it is best to be on record as calling in to talk about the bill. They are required by law to bill for these companies that present “proof” of your agreeing to be billed in this manner. Note the air quotes around the word proof.
3) Pay your bill, but subtract out the fraudulent charges (this is why you called the phone company in step 2).
4) From here, it is up to you. If you’re dealing with the company I’ve mentioned, I’d say talk to your State Attorney General’s Office, and maybe file a consumer complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.
5) Check your bill religiously. Not just to make sure these charges are removed, but to also prevent any further fraudulent charges from being placed.
Yes. I am pissed off. Thanks for noticing. But to AT&T’s credit, I don’t think it is their fault. My wait time from the moment I pressed 1 for English to getting to talk to someone was under 1 minute, and the representative I talked to was very knowledgeable, friendly, and helpful. Kudos to AT&T.

Get Your $40 Off Coupon For a Digital TV Converter Box

2009 will supposedly be the year that traditional analog television signals cease to be broadcast. In response to the people who live in caves and don’t have cable or satellite, the government has taken some of the money normally set aside for cheese and is subsidizing the purchase of up to 2 digital tv converter boxes per home.
I bring this up because even if you have digital satellite or cable, you are charged extra for the high-definition package. Yes, this gets you ESPN, Discovery Channel, and other out of market offerings in HD, but I bet if you think about your viewing habits, it is primarily the major in market stations that you watch most. You can pick up these HD signals over the air with a pair of rabbit ears for free.
Check out for more information about the conversion to digital broadcasts, what it means to you, and perhaps even pick up a coupon or two for $40 towards the purchase of a digital converter.