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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Mouthshut.com shuts me off

Attention all visitors and members of community review website Mouthshut.com: This is to notify that I, Shrinidhi Hande (Mouthshut user name enidhi) am hereby disassociating myself from Mouthshut.com and do not own/approve/support any reviews or other contents/activities at the site under my identity. I requested them to delete my entries but they disabled my account instead-I can’t login and have no control over contents displayed/activities performed there under my name-hence this warning.

Initial days
I was a long term member of a leading Consumer Review website Mouthshut.com till my account was disabled last November (most probably because I asked them to delete my reviews-exact reason not communicated.) This post shares my experience with Mouthshut.com, review of recent developments at this site and few thoughts about ownership of your content when you contribute at third party websites.

Mouthshut.com, in its initial days was a pure play Product review website where members reviewed various products and Services, based on their personal experience. Members could select a product and write review of the same while other members would rate and comment these reviews. One can’t write detailed review without actually experiencing the product or service, so most of the reviews were firsthand experience accounts and were of very high quality. The member base was less and a new review used to stay on home page for several hours. I signed up at this site and became a MS member on Aug 3 2002 and over next 6 years have contributed about 80+ reviews, most of them rated “very useful” by other members. My MS member profile (Its live at the time of posting-not sure how MS will act on it if they notice this blog post)
Though I launched a blog, I continued to write at Mouthshut, because of some unique advantages I had there then- I had more readership in MS than my blog. Within minutes of posting a new review I used to get instant feedback in the form of some comments and rating, while same entry would take couple of days on my blog to evoke a response. Ready readership, a decent trusted circle (a closed group of MS users(MSians) who trust each other) forming a community of good writers made my stay at MS attractive. But slowly various negative/side effects started creeping in.

Couple of years back I won a “Review of the day” contest and was entitled to get a return air ticket from Mouthshut’s then travel partner flight Raja. Several months and multiple email follow ups later, my air tickets never came. I published a review to this effect on MS and both Mouthshut CEO Faisal and FlightRaja CEO commented that they’ll look into it. But nothing materialistic ever happened and I never got my air tickets. It is not about an air ticket, it was more about a promise made and not kept. [More about this incident in here and here]

Mouthshut started adding Google ad units all over the site and minting money. While MS made real money from adsense, its members, who contributed all the content on which these ads were put, were being granted some virtual points (which were practically useless -members can use these points to send virtual gifts i.e. just images of gifts to other members)

Evolution of Mouthshut.com
To earn more money by serving more ads they needed to have more pages and more pages can’t be had by reviews alone (one can review one product only once and he/she can’t review a product without properly experiencing it- so the content generated by reviews were not much) and MS management needed a mechanism to make its members spend more time on the site and create more pages. Thus the idea of “Diary posts” were introduced, under which members could write anything under the sun. While most of the members made judicious use of this Diary posts, few started spamming, by uploading email forwards and other junk in a quest to earn more MS points and become star writer soon (Star Writer is Mouthshut’s way of recognizing members who have written lots of (supposed to be of good quality) content, have good fanfare and express unquestionable faith in MS- No real life gain by becoming star writer, except for a star displayed next to your user name)

Mouthshut content team hardly made any attempt to eliminate spam or ban users publishing copy pasted stuff. Because of this, quality posts suffered a setback- it was difficult to identify genuine and quality entries amongst the heap of junk-this was a matter of concern for genuine writers and serious readers. As if diary posts were not enough, MS added several other features- SMS reviews (Spend 3-5 Rs per SMS and get it published in MS), Classifieds (known as MS Local), Photo Albums etc. Features such as bulletins, sending gifts to other members etc were introduced to encourage more activity among members. The core idea was to make people generate more content and spend more time at the site, but to me and several others it looked like Mouthshut is deviating from its USP of a serious product review site and trying to become a jack of all and master of none. The current Mouthshut.com looks like a kichdi of Mouthshut (product reviews) + Sulekha (regional classifieds)+flickr(photos)+blogger(diary posts)+ twitter (quick notes, via SMS in this case)+ Orkut (social networking). The focus on quality content got diluted and MS became more of a time-pass adda. Why don't they stay focused on their core competency as there're dedicated sites for other purposes- say orkut, flickr etc, with which MS will never be able to compete?

Mouthshut member base also increased and majority of new users are not serious about product reviews. Many of them just want to have fun uploading copied photos, email forwards or trying to make friends with others, specially female profiles. With phenomenal growth in volume of data created, a new entry, however good it might be, wouldn’t stay on homepage for more than few minutes. This means reduced readership and lesser number of comments. Even for a visitor it is tough to locate some good content worth his/her time. Though lots of readers come through search engines they never bother to comment, because to comment one needs to spend time registering at MS. The idea of trusted circle also started to become a joke, as new members started adding everyone else, irrespective of one's credibility, into their trusted circle, hoping that some of them will reciprocate.

Loss of Interest in Mouthshut
Due to above developments I started losing interest in Mouthshut. Also my blog was gaining some visibility by then and had a decent readership. So I started focusing more on my blog. Some of my MS entries started contesting directly with my blog posts for higher position in Google search results, due to which I had to downgrade/dilute my MS posts. Mouthshut wanted high quality, exclusive content for free and with their reduced focus on quality and dwindling readership my interest was heading downwards. MS was not comfortable with me leaving my blog URL in the review (Review editor had some limitations in terms of word count, graphics, photos etc and I used to say, "for more details visit here" and give my blog post URL). MS member head Jasmin sent me mails not to leave my blog URL and I promptly mailed back reminding them of the return ticket they still owe me. Since I couldn’t delete my reviews I asked Mouthshut to delete some of my reviews and they promptly disabled my access to my account. My account and my reviews are still retained at MS as they have lots of residual value (attracting search engine traffic). MS neither responds to my mails, nor deletes my content.
Impact of ban
I don’t have anything to lose. Since I have a reasonably successful blog I don't need to rely on 3rd party websites to publish my contents. If my account was active I would have logged in once a while and contribute something. Else it’s ok. ಕತ್ತೆ ಬಾಲ.But since contents under my identity still exists at the site, without any flag that my account has been disabled, I need to inform everyone that I have no control over my account and won’t be responsible if MS uses their admin rights to modify my contents as per their needs, or someone else misuses it in any other way.

I’ve also noticed several good writers gradually exit mouthshut, most probably because of similar reasons. But Mouthshut management may not feel the effect immediately- they’ve a huge user base, loads of content(some of them are very good) and traffic which ensures continued cash inflow through ad revenues. It’s the quality of content and quality of users which they need to focus, along with a fair and transparent operational policies, if they wish to sustain a long term vision.

MS had introduced a corporate blog section, which is almost a flop. Not many companies have cared to open a corporate account and few who’ve cared are not serious about acting on complaints (we only see a generic reply like ‘we’re looking into the matter’).

Allegations against Mouthshut.com
Further, there’re several allegations emerging against Mouthshut.com, which prima facie appear to be true but readers’ discretion solicited. (Some can be verified by close observation of MS, few can't be investigated without cooperation from Mouthshut management and rest need to be concluded based on testimonies of former members) Some of them are listed below:
1 Not curbing fake users
There’re lots of fake Ids in MS which are created for some specific purpose such as promoting a particular brand or demeaning a competitor or such malicious intentions. Created either by MS itself or respective corporate, these IDs are easily identifiable by observing their activities. But MS took no interest in eliminating such users.
2 Not discouraging members posting plagiarized contents, email forwards, third party photographs and other such stuff3 Not giving any warning or fair chance to members to present their case before terminating their account
4 Moderating reviews and inter-member communications to delete anything remotely unfavorable towards Mouthshut
5 Partnering with certain companies for financial gains and delete negative reviews written against the company
6 Maintaining undue secrecy in their policies and adopting several unfair practices
7 Giving undue preference to certain members who dance to the tunes of MS.

For the interested, below are some links which detail various allegations against Mouthshut:
1. http://mouthshut-com-fraud-cheat.blogspot.com/2008/09/my-bad-experiences-with-mouthshut.html

This blog, among other allegations, claims that Mouthshut CEO Mr. Faisal I Farooqui who studied at the prestigious St. Stanislaus school in Bandra, Mumbai, cheated his institute by registering the domain meant for school in his personal name and refusing to transfer the same to school administration. This is something one should be able to verify without much efforts.

2. http://www.petitiononline.com/banms201/petition.html
(It is a 5 year old petition and has managed to secure just about 150 signatures so far)

3. http://www.dooyoo.co.uk/internet-sites/mouthshut-com/333593/
Seems Mouthshut launched an international version promising to pay users for their reviews and then cheating them by not paying

Another interesting reading:
http://www.Mouthshut.com/diary/eecjqttq/My-attempts-to-reach-Google-India
Mouthshut CEO explains his attempt to reach Google India. Google doesn’t deal directly with general public and is not bound to keep its staff accessible to public. But while bloggers like Amit Agarwal are able to get Google sponsor his events with just one tweet, CEO of a popular site (and probably a premium adsense publisher) doesn’t have a single contact in Google- How pathetic. 9 months since that post its not clear if he is still able to contact anyone in Google or what deal he cracked with major corporates including Yahoo!

Conclusion
There’re several websites on the net which survive purely because we, the users chose to contribute contents to them, for free. Most of them expect us to spend our time and effort writing for, engaging other users and promoting their site, in exchange for no tangible returns. Few sites like Sulekha give full ownership of contents to users while others declare that they own whatever stuff added to their site (Even facebook tried this recently and resulted in awareness of privacy concerns). While it’s good to have well defined guidelines and policies in place to enforce discipline, expecting absolute loyalty and cultism is not fair. Though well established sites give better readership than a newly launched blog, serious writers should work on building their own identity via blogs or otherwise and must evaluate content ownership issues and privacy policies before dealing with websites like Mouthshut.com

Similar posts: SEO: Writing for humans vs writing for search engines * My journalism experiences * Excessive blogging syndrome & compulsive writing disorder * Nishindra Verma on future of print media * TOI lifts my photo (and publishes clarification later) *

Nov 2009 Update: One year later, MS has still retained my profile and reviews, doesn't seem to have changed its ways and appears to have lost a level in Google pagerank (down from 6 to 5)

March 2016 Update: Mouthshut has started offering Rs 50 for 'Negative' review. I am sure the intention is to show them to brands, scare them off and extract a much bigger fee to take these reviews offline.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Big bazaar ad & Rice Price Rise

This post is inspired by a Kannada post run by “Shree

See the ad below, issued by Big Bazaar. Their claim is this: “We’re buying 26000 tons of rice every year. Since we buy in such a bulk quantity we are able to buy them at amazingly low prices, which we eventually pass on to you”. Might sound logical and one may feel thankful to Big Bazaar for being so kind. But then, there’s another side to it- Since these supermarkets have started buying goods in 1000s of tons and store them in their racks and warehouses, they have created a huge demand for all necessary items and the prices have shot up. With everyone selling their stuff to supermarkets in bulk, small retailers are unable to procure them at low prices. Do you feel prices would have been lower if these supermarkets didn’t exist in the first place?
Normal rice (unsubsidized) was costing less than 20 Rs per kg one year ago. Now it costs twice that amount. I have a feeling that supermarkets never bargain enough (or in case they bargain enough, they are not passing all of it to consumers-sell at market price and pocket the gains) with their suppliers. Just think: If only all major retail companies take a stand: “We’ll not pay more than 20 Rs a kilo for rice” there will be no takers for such a huge quantity of rice and suppliers will be forced to reduce the price of rice to 20 Rs a kg. Instead, these supermarkets buy it at whatever price quoted by supplier and then sell it by adding their margins. Since suppliers got an idea that retail giants will buy from them even at high prices, there’s no hesitation to hike the price, which eventually is getting transferred to consumers like you and me. Since Big Bazaars and the likes are ready to pay higher price, small retailers can’t fight but shell out more.

For a moment let us assume there’re no supermarkets- there’ll be no bulk purchaser for that 26000 ton rice and sellers would have to divert them to small retailers and in all probability for a much lesser price. Agree?

If it was some other item, consumers would have forced a price correction-for example when tomato price shoots up to Rs 40 a kilo, people reduce preparing tomato based dishes and shift to some other cheaper vegetable. But rice is a basic item everyone is heavily dependent on (wheat based products are a substitute, but not so famous in South India). So with supermarkets and their suppliers manipulating the price, consumers are forced to pay more. At least if the high price reaches the farmer who grew paddy we can take some console, but often it’s the middlemen who pocket all the profit.

What's your take?

Also read: Cautions to be exercised at super markets * It happened in India by Kishore Biyani-Book review * Branded vs Local goods * Facts you'd like to know about Big Bazaar *

Thursday, April 23, 2009

10 Innovations I wish come true

Technology has changed our lives a lot. Today we are able to do lot of things which 50 years ago people never believed possible. But I feel there’re still lots of features/innovations/inventions possible which hopefully someone someday turns into a reality.

I’m listing few of the inventions I would like to see materialize- may sound absurd or stupid at this point of time, but serious thinkers can start working on it. You never know-100 years later all this could be for real.

1. 1.1. Digitize Food

Wont it be cool for your mom to be able to cook food for you and sent it as an email attachment? We’re able to send voice and video over net-wish someone invents ways to convert real objects into 0 and 1 such that your mom can indeed upload the delicious food and you can download and eat it next moment, sitting thousands of miles away.

2. Search real objects

I need to chop vegetables but unable to locate the knife. Is it at the bottom of the sink or is it hidden somewhere in vegetable basket or is it lost elsewhere? How nice if I can use Google search to find it out.

3. Bluetooth enabled brains

How nice it will be if we can exchange knowledge between two brains? You know a lot about calculus while your friend doesn’t? Just transfer it via Bluetooth to him. Nice na?

4. Be able to Backup brains

In line with previous wish, how about being able to backup whatever you have studied so far? One can reload contents relevant to a particular subject before going for exam on that subject or many other uses can be derived.

5. Be able to compress real objects

The road is not wide enough? How about being able to compress your vehicle a bit so that you can zip ahead? Airline has a 45kg luggage limit? Why can’t we use a winzip like utility which can reduce weight a bit?

6. Be able to deposit time and withdraw it later

As we can deposit money and earn an interest on it, why not a feature to deposit time when we have lots of it and withdraw it when we need (say the day before exams?)

7. Academic capsules

C urrent approach of having to spend 20 precious years for education is a total waste of time. If we spend so much time reading something that's already been studied upon, when will we have time for innovations? Just the way software programs come in a CD, why not have some capsules with all knowledge pertaining to a specific subject is stored and by consuming that tablet one can gain all knowledge of that subject. A tablet for English language, a tablet for wannable software engineers, a syrup for management skills….

8. Online voting in General elections

This is technically possible even now, but the question is will the politicians of our country ever let it happen. Why can’t I comfortably cast my vote online from the comfort of my home? Why should I go all the way to my hometown (where I’m listed to vote), stand in line for whole day and cast my vote in a 50 years old fashion? Well, online security is not foolproof at this point, but that can be fixed and is reasonably better option than risking life in some pole related violence.

9. Heat generating cubes

There’re chemicals which cause exothermic reactions, thereby releasing heat, when they are mixed with certain other chemicals. What I am looking for, is a compound, which is consumable/harmless and can generate heat when added to water.

Currently while on camping, to heat water, we need to setup fire, use a vessel and struggle a bit to get hot water (say, to make noodles). If we can have something like heat generating cubes, which if added to water instantly get dissolved and make water hot, it will be great. (There’re some chemicals which react with water to generate heat-but they are not edible and we just can’t consume that water post reaction.

10. Climate Control Solutions

Despite so many technological advances, we continue to be humble and helpless in front of mother nature (some of us may feel that’s how it should be). We are unable to protect a cricket match from rains or ensure fogs don’t disrupt our air traffic. We often fail to predict disasters like earthquakes- let alone control it. If our weather forecasting becomes little more advanced and if we manage to give at least 12-24 hour warning lots of life and property can be saved. Despite so much advances in technology we are not in a position to alert our farmers “tomorrow there‘ll be a sudden unexpected heavy rain-go protect your crops” Poor farmers lose lots of their harvest to flood, rain, draught and so on. I feel lot of inventions are due in this space.

I don’t know if this wish list will ever materialize. But if it does, I can take credit for being such a visionary. Can’t I?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Tippu drop की कहानी, Muniyappa की जुबानी

Despite staying in namma Bengaluru for 4 years I didn’t have a chance to visit Nandi hills so far. Finally visited this place with relatives last weekend. Since loads of stuff about Nandi hills already online, let me skip detailed descriptions and give you some details about Tippu Drop, one of the attractions in Nandi hills.

Tippu drop is an assassination spot in Nandi hills. It’s said that Tippu Sultan used to kill criminals by throwing them down from this spot. A steep vertical fall ensures that no one will survive the fall or crash landing. When we reached this spot an old gentleman greeted us and started an unsolicited talk giving details of Tippu drop. This visibly aged man, named Muniyappa, was like an unofficial tourist guide there, probably making a living from any small amount tourists cared to give him for his explanation of the place.

This post lists few of his narrations- not sure to what extent they are true.

Sir M Vishvesharayya built this road to Nandi hills- I was a small kid going to first standard then” Muniappa began and pointed to Tippu drop and explained how death is certain if someone jumps from here (At other places one may survive with major injuries due to trees and other obstacles). For the kids in the group he took extra efforts to explain how Tippu Sultan used this place to get rid of criminals (there was no courts or judicial system those days-whatever King says is an order) by throwing them down from this point.

Lots of people come here to commit suicide-I’ve seen many people jumping right in front of me, but I couldn’t do anything. Just by seeing the face of a person I can tell if he/she is thinking of suicide” Muniappa revealed the alternate usage of Tippu Drop. “See this writings- It reads Ravi and Veda-they were young lovers from Shivamogga (a district in Karnataka)-they wrote down their suicide note in a notebook and jumped off from here, before I could realize what they were upto. After their death Govt has set up some fencing” Mr. Muniappa went on.

Rest of Nandi hills was good too. A monkey snatching my sister’s bag (which contained mobile) is a point worth mentioning. Either because of sustained efforts by everyone to scare it or because it realized there’s nothing eatable in it, the monkey eventually threw the stuff down from tree-the robust Nokia mobile survived crash landing. (Remembering a childhood story I suggested that all of us should throw our bags and mobiles away, seeing which monkey would do the same, but no one were ready to listen to me)

Made an attempt to identify Skandagiri from Nandi hills, but failed. Also while I was parking Innova’s driver side power windows started giving trouble. (Got stuck and wasn’t rolling up- Apparently the motor had developed some problem) Various people around gave different suggestions- one gentleman suggested that I should open the bonnet, look for one particular chip and reset it. Luckily after trying various techniques to make it work, little bit of shaking (moving the vehicle front and back) brought it back to life and I could finally roll it up. (Self drive rental from Car Club)

While driving down made an attempt to switch off the engine and drive. Realized that it is just impossible to maneuver Innova without power steering (power steering gets turned off along with ignition)
We also visited Muddenahalli, birthplace of Sir.M Vishveshwarayya, some 15 kms from Nandi hills (5-7 kms from Chickballapur). His house is converted into museum with lots of interesting artifacts belonging to the legendary engineer, visionary and architect. Photography is not allowed inside, which is a disappointment.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Deals worth Rs 23 lakh facilitated by this blog

April 20th Update: Looks like many of my readers didn’t quite get the sense of how we facilitated business worth 23 lakhs-About six people whom I met last weekend in Bangalore asked me to explain on it. Here’s a brief: Timeshare membership is a kind of investment/purchase where people buy holiday memberships, which entitles them for a predefined type/duration (Say a 2 bedroom cottage, for one week per year during non-peak season) of vacation every year for a specified duration of years (say 25 years) from timeshare companies. Members pay in advance hoping that it will protect them from future price increases. Sometimes due to various reasons those who’ve paid few lakhs to buy a timeshare membership wish to sell it off (just the way you may wish to sell your car) but there weren’t any ideal platforms where one could put their timeshare membership for sale. This is where we stepped in to provide a simple platform for such people and rest of the post is about how some people successfully used this blog to close a deal.-Hope this makes things a bit more clear.

------Original Post-------------

Just scratching my own back again-bear with me.

Happy to announce that this blog has facilitated a business amounting to more than 23 lakhs during past one year (Yes, 42000 US$)

Because there were no dedicated portals(or sections in classified sites) to buy/sell used timeshare membership and because this blog was drawing lots of traffic related to Club Mahindra we (I and Bhupesh, a CM member) thought of providing a platform for users to buy/sell timeshare memberships (Club Mahindra, Zest, Sterlings, Country Club etc). A blogpost that was created for Buying and selling used timeshare memberships last April has proved to be a phenomenal success and this post is to share the same with you.

The post was created on 10th April 2008 with an embedded Google spreadsheet wherein users could add their timeshare details for buying or selling. First entry was received on 18th April 2008 and since then, there’ve been about 244 entries till date (excluding some entries which appeared to be redundant or spam that were deleted). That’s about 2 entries every 3 days.

Of the 244 entries, about 12 users were able to successfully sell their membership (or buy, as the case may be), which translates into a success rate of 5%.

The total approximate value of these 12 deals which were successfully closed, through their entry in the said post amounts to about 23 lakhs.

Recently dropped a mail to all users who’d submitted their membership details-Was happy to note that all those who responded appreciated the efforts, though many were yet to find a buyer for their sale. Few said they used the post to understand the cost of membership and then bought new membership directly from Club Mahindra, instead of buying a used one.

Note:
1. We don’t verify the info entered by users. This post is based on the assumption that the details entered by users are accurate. Readers may use their discretion.
2. We won’t know unless a user tells us that he/she has closed the deal and we can strike off the entry. The estimated sales value is derived based on those who updated us via mail or comment that they could indeed sell/buy their timeshare membership. There could be more closed deals which we may not be aware of.
3. Total value is derived by summing the amount at which members had put up their membership for sale. This amount might be slightly inaccurate in case of negotiations
4. This remains a totally free service. No money was charged to anyone for this. (if we’d charged Rs 50 per entry or say 1% commission we would have earned 2 to 20 thousand rupees… Anyway that was not my objective in creating this post)
5. We only facilitated the deal by bringing buyers and sellers together. We're not involved in any financial transactions, legal formalities or in any other way whatsoever.

Some of the few feedbacks received from users

Hi Shri,
I would be honest in my opinion. This site has been really useful for me and my family. I had been able to buy four memberships for me and my cousins. The comments also has helped us understand the workings of club mahindra in depth. I am genuinely thankful to you and your team for creating a very practical, excellent, wonderful, realistic site. It has indeed helped us save a good amount and also has helped the person who wanted to sell their membership. Would be grateful to you forever.
Hope you come out with more such sites in different areas and would be ready to help you in whichever way I can.
Prashant Shah - Chennai
I find most of the entries in buyers' list fake. When I call those who have expressed interest to buy membership, no one picks up the phone. My deals are still pending.- Mohamed Hanif Syyed
In my case I received around 12 leads and will be finalising the deal in a couple of days possitively.I thank every one involved in this great job.-L S Shekhar
Well i did not buy from the web site but it did help me about the price and all i took it direct from club mahindra- Manish Kothari
I did get many inquires and calls regarding my post to sell my CM membership but unfortunately none of them materialized as everyone thought that this was some kind of distress sale which it wasn't and tried to get membership at ridiculous low prices. I would also like to add here that CM advts giving free LCD TV's etc are quite successful as everyone harped on the same while bargaining forgeting that actually its him buying the LCD TV from his own money.
Anyway I must thank you for the useful blog you have created and giving us a platform to buy/sell our CM memberships.- Rajesh Bahuguna

Bhupesh Gupta, a CM member has been very instrumental in helping me in this, so I take this opportunity to thank him as well.

Just for your quick reference embedding the spreadsheet below. Closed deals are moved to the end of the table.

If you wish to make an entry, to buy/sell a used timeshare membership, click here

Other observations:
1. Seems there're few individuals/agencies dealing with used timeshare memberships- We have got several entries by such parties, stating "We deal with all types of timeshare memberships, come to us".

2. Though the post was meant for all timeshare companies, most of the entries are pertaining to Club Mahindra, which is understandably because my blog rates high on Club Mahindra related queries and someone searching for "sell Sterlings membership" is unlikely to land at my blog.

3. Sell entries outnumber buy entries, but good to see lots of business still happening.
4. Good to see so many people buying timeshare memberships-old and new ones.


April 21st Update: With one more user confirming sale, total value is 27 lakhs+ now

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Best practices in Credit card usage

Credit cards were primarily meant to make people spend money even when they don’t have any. It was like taking loan and I believed borrowing is bad. So till two years into my first job I didn’t have any credit cards and used to avoid all credit card agents outside my office. But little later I realized few possible advantages of credit cards and couple of compulsions (not being able to rent self drive cars or make certain online transactions with debit cards) and applied for one. The Bank Rep was surprised that I still didn’t have any cards. Since then (past two years) I’ve been content with a total of 2 credit cards and using them judiciously without ever paying a single rupee in interest. In this post I’m listing few of my observations related to credit cards and best practices. My points are focused on how to make cautious use of credit cards and save money and NOT about how to spend over your limit and evade paying interest for a longer time. Hope you’ll find them useful.

1. Remember the great laws of shopping
Don’t spend because you’ve a card. Don’t get tempted by offers. Stay within your limits. Kishore Biyani has promptly admitted in his book, “
It Happened in India” that his single point agenda is to dig deeper and deeper into consumers’ wallet. Always remember:
-With a great offer you may save something when you buy (say 70%), but if you don’t buy, you’ll save it all (100%) (personally, I don’t want shopkeepers to suffer a huge loss selling me items at such a discount, so I don’t buy unnecessarily)
-Shops may be running never before, never again offers, but trust me, shops won’t close down after the sale. Same item can be purchased at similar rates in future also as the shop continues to operate and discounts will be under some other pretext. (just check out how many days in a year are “Cheapest Day” s for Big Bazaar)
Related reading:
Cautions to be excersised while shopping at supermarkets
2. Understand the billing cycle
Banks offer 45-50 days free period before due date and if used carefully, this can be used to earn one or two months of SB interest on your money. A billing cycle around 20th of last month to 19th of this month with next month 10th as due date can be used to save 2 months SB interest while other cycles say 6th of last month to 5th of this month with this month 25th as due date can be used to save max one month’s SB interest. Savings Bank interests are calculated based on the minimum balance found in your account between 10th and 31st of each month. So if you can avoid withdrawing money during last week of a month and maintain a higher balance till 1st of next month, do that. The amount of interest earned could be small, still money is money (for 10000 Rs, per month SB interest could be about 30 Rs). Avoid big ticket purchases on last few days of billing cycle.
3. Understand how various charges apply
All that glitters is not gold and the same is true with credit cards. Understand that banks will have innovative ways to charge you. Some examples:
-You’ve defaulted on payment and you expect bank to charge interest starting from 51st day (after 50 free days), but banks can charge it from the date of transaction
-You’ve paid 80% of the dues and expect the bank to charge interest only for the remaining 20%-but banks can charge for entire amount
-Of the 10k bill you received, say you’ve a dispute for 2k (say duplicate billing etc). You pay 8k expecting the bank to adjust it against the undisputed amount, but bank can adjust it the way it wants, probably showing as if you defaulted on a legitimate purchase.
-The balance transfer rate of 0.3% looks exciting? Beware, it could be on a per day basis than per month.
-The salesman told its lifetime free, but Bank’s definition of ‘lifetime’ could be “initial 3 years only”
-The ‘interest free’ EMI comes with a processing fee which if calculated can amount to a reasonable value (A Rs 250 processing fee for Rs 5000 purchase is as good as paying 5%)

If you’re alert and retaliate immediately some of the above charges can be reversed, else you’ll pay more than what you need to. Bottom-line: don’t assume anything. Cross check with bank via internal messages and save a print screen of these messages (banks websites may delete old messages). Similarly, soon after you get your card, communicate with bank (via their website) and get mail acknowledgement from bank that whatever promises the DSA (Direct Selling Agent) made are valid.

These days banks are facing difficult times due to various factors (no takers for new loans, those who borrowed are defaulting, poor recovery rates and increasing Operational expenses). One easy way to earn some revenue is to charge a small fee for various services which were hitherto free. So keep a watch to understand what is free and what is not. If you haven’t opened account at a nationalized bank yet, do it now. These public sector banks have improved a lot in terms of service and technology and are cheaper to deal with.
4. Avoid ECS
While opting for ECS has its convenience, I strongly recommend not to go for ECS and pay manually. With ECS we tend to get lazy and negligent towards our statements and may miss to notice excess charges/faulty billing. Also we’ll lose few hundred rupees unnecessarily if on the date of ECS debit there isn’t enough balance in the account (both bank and Credit card co charge penalty). Though it’s a bit inconvenient, pay manually after verifying the statement each month.
5. Be cautious on deals promoted by/in tie-up with credit card Cos
You’ll receive offers from insurance company the bank has tied up with or some deals from an online shop selling consumer durables- My suggestion is avoid buying from them. If you need insurance buy it from a trusted neighborhood insurance agent and not from the call centre, whose interest is limited to closing the deal and charging the amount to your credit card. (you may have to run from pillar to post later in case of any issues). Similarly the deals on consumer durables or other such offers also need due diligence. MRP and savings are overstated and a shop next street might give you similar or better deal. Even if it is 5% expensive it’s better to buy in person from a real shop.

Similarly evaluate real worth of co-branded cards/tie-ups. For example, say you get some extra benefit if you refuel at a particular fuel station, say HPCL. But if you’ve to drive 3kms extra to reach an HPCL outlet, one needs to check if the points are worth the extra fuel spent in reaching the outlet. A hotel room is available at throw away price at a far away destination-but are you sure you wish to spend 10times room rent on travel and other expenses?
6. Do online transactions during early morning hours
Avoid performing online purchases through credit cards during peak hours. Internet connectivity will be low and website also will be slow due to high user activity. There could be issues of connection breaking in the middle of a transaction and user meeting a situation wherein money is charged, but confirmation is not obtained on screen or having to perform entire transaction again. Do online transactions during non-peak hours, from a secure and speedy connection to avoid unnecessary troubles. Transaction integrity is still not reliable enough.
7. Miscellaneous
-Do not withdraw cash using Credit card from ATMs and do not opt for unsolicited offers like pre-approved loans.
-If you have multiple cards, keep one card aside and do not use it for few months- Bank will come back to you to check why you’re not using it and may offer some sweeteners like little extra reward points or some cash back to tempt you start using again. (warning-some banks will disable cards which are inactive for long time)
-At restaurants, don't let your card go out of your site. Better go in person and make payment.
-Have required info (card details/call centre info) handy so that you can you can block the card within minutes, if you realize that its been lost.
-Instead of waiting till the arrival of statement, proactively check your account couple of times a month, so that irregularities, if any can be noticed
-if paying by cheque, drop the cheque minimum of 3-4 days prior to due date and ensure that money is debited before due date.
-Avoid giving cc details to call centre guys to facilitate a purchase. Just not safe.
-Some companies insist on photocopy of credit card (like some airlines)- Be sure to darken sensitive info like CVV

Also read: How Banks can make credit cards safer

Monday, April 06, 2009

My Dog Marcus by Colin Howard

I was reading Shivu's post (in Kannada) about how street dogs took revenge on his newspaper distribution team. Thinking of how clever animals can be, first thing that came to my mind was "My Dog Marcus"
My Dog Marcus was one of my favorite animal stories from my school time English textbook. There were hundreds of other interesting stories in our CBSE English textbooks, but this is one story I still recall once a while and enjoy. (we had it in our 8th Std I guess- about 12 years ago- good old days). Suddenly this story came to my mind and felt like reading it again. I googled it but no result. (this proves Google still has lots of archiving to do). I couldn’t recall the author- contacted my classmates and drew a blank. Called our english teacher and she replied that the said textbook isn't in use anymore and english text book has been changed twice since we left and she'll try to get author's name. If any of you can identify who wrote this story please comment.

My dog Marcus is an interesting story. Since it is not available on internet, I’m rewriting an abridged version below, for your quick reference.

It’s a story of a family and their pet dog, Marcus. Marcus was a very good dog, but had one peculiar character-it hated being taken for a walk. Its owners had to wake it up and literally drag it along to give it some exercise.

One fine day, Marcus gets a novel idea to save itself from the trouble of going for a walk. It started acting deaf. It wouldn’t respond when called and behave with innocence as if it heard nothing. Initially the owners seriously believed that their pet dog has gone deaf and stopped bothering it much. They stopped troubling it for a walk and used to take its food to wherever it was. This went on for a while.

One day, while Marcus was away in a different room and the family was having lunch, a piece of meat falls down on the ground, making some noise. Next moment Marcus leapt from its room, ran towards the meat and started chewing it. The owners were shocked- how did Marcus hear the meat piece fall? They realized that Marcus wasn’t deaf at all and was cunningly acting as one.
Deciding to teach Marcus a lesson, the owner (husband and wife) avoided making any noise when Marcus was around. They would just make lip movements and act as if they were speaking-they would run TV on mute-and every other precaution to make sure that Marcus doesn’t hear any sound.

The absolute silence went on for several days and Marcus started feeling worried. “Did I really go deaf? Why can’t I hear my owners talk?” it wondered and grew tense.
One fine day the owners decided to break the deadlock and announced “Marcus, let’s go for a walk” On hearing the words Marcus’s joy knew no bounds and it leapt with all its energy. Thereafter Marcus never complained about going for a walk. -with due credits to the author, whose name couldn't be recalled yet.

This abridged version is no replacement for the detailed original one. But hope you managed to get the essence of it. What’s your favorite story from your language textbooks? 

June 2010 Update: Thanks to vfive, I managed to trace the author and full story. My Dog Marcus is written by Colin Howard and full story can be found here

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Value & credibility of Online contests

Just imagine how does it feel to have a general election in following format
  • Polling is open from the date of nomination till date of declaration of results
  • Fetching voters to polling booth is responsibility of the candidate
  • Each candidate will be given his own polling booth where he can use special ballot sheets showing only his name (no obligation to show other candidates)
Luckily we don’t have such a ballot system. It’s obviously unfair to have rules like above, because when someone votes he/she needs to do justice for the vote by properly evaluating all nominated candidates and select a best one. Now let us consider the common characteristics found in most of the online contests and awards:

Online contests and awards-who really gains ?

Several contests and award programs keep happening online- for best blogs under different categories, for online recognition of some offline activities, to decide best photos/videos/other content. We get to know about these contests mainly due communications from people who’ve submitted their entry for the award and want our support by means of a vote.

I wonder what is the real worth of most of these online contests, is it worth participating in them or who gains something finally-the winners of prizes or the organizers of the contest?

Ideally, any contest or award program or talent recognition initiative should have following characteristics:
  • The contest should be well known and respected in the community
  • Ideally the organizers should identify prospective nominations themselves, without anyone having to say “See, here’s my entry, consider it for your award program”
  • If it is an open registration where anyone can enroll, then there has to be a rigid selection criteria to eliminate not so good entries and retain only best of the bunch for the final judgment
  • Judgment should be given by a panel of juries who are experts in the selected field. If user based voting is done all entries should get equal opportunity in front of a voter.
  • There has to be some physical/real reward (cash awards, momentum etc)
But, on the contrary most of the online contests/award programs will have following characteristics:
  • Most of them are hitherto unheard of. You come to know about them only when someone mails you asking your vote for their nomination
  • There won’t be much of selection criteria-almost every submitted entry gets nominated and is opened for voting (soon after its nomination)
  • Judgment is done based on number of votes received by online users and not by jury’s expert selection
  • The onus of driving traffic to contest site and make people vote for their entry lies with the participants, who take all the trouble of promoting the contest and asking all their contacts to vote for them- Ultimately it is not the best entry that wins-it’s the participant capable of driving maximum number of users towards the contest site and make them vote for his/her entry who wins.
  • Trouble taken by organizers of the contest is minimal. After some initial publicity participants take care of the rest. Host site gets lots of backlinks, huge publicity and other benefits as everyone tries to promote their nomination.
  • Rewards in these contest usually worth nothing. A little publicity on the event website and may be one special badge/banner which winner can put in his blog (thereby giving free publicity to the contest forever)
In specific, below are the reasons why I do not like most of these contests
Quantity wins, not quality
Why should I take every possible trouble to drive traffic towards event website and make people vote for me? If my entry is worth the prize it should win because of its quality-not because of quantity of users I managed mobilize. (also note that these contest sites never give a widget using which your readers can vote for you directly from your blog-they need you to promote their site with links and make people visit their site)

At least when all participants have equal opportunity (say promotion is done by organizers and those who vote do not have special interests in any one contestants) it could make some sense, else it is purely quantity winning over quality.

Should voters register at contest site?
Most of these sites need prospective voters to register at the site before voting. Why can’t I use open ID or email as an identity or some other measures to quickly vote and exit? Why should I spend several minutes, giving personal details to register there? It is obviously an attempt to increase their userbase.

Vote for me? Or vote for the best entry?
After someone gets his/her entry nominated, next task for the contestant will be to mail all his/her contacts saying “Here’s my entry, please vote for me”. You may be my friend but If I have to do justice for my vote, I need to evaluate all entries in that category and vote for the best one, which may or may not be yours. Ideally one should say “I’m participating in this contest, please check the entries and vote for the best one”. That never happens.

At the end of program, this is what each stakeholder does/gets
Non-winning participants end up giving free publicity and link juice to contest site, draw wrath of all his contacts for bugging them to vote for him/her, might get little traffic from the event site and eventually forgets about it and moves on

Winning candidate
Feel happy that all those trouble finally paid off, gets to collect his/her prize, provided it is worth something, Celebrate the victory, add a banner to his her blog giving even more publicity to the contest.

The contest organizer
Loads of back links, traffic, publicity and revenue (from ads and sponsors), Good user base of those who came to vote


Do you agree?