Numlock News: June 13, 2023 • Autopilot, Catfish, Dog Poop
By Colin Sholes
Today our guest writer is Colin Sholes, who writes all about scams and the people who do them in his excellent newsletter.
Good morning! In Walt’s absence, I’ve been instructed to fill your inboxes full of scam and scam-adjacent stories this morning. Please enjoy this rich sampler of guile, deception and blatant criminality.
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Tesla’s Autopilot driver-assistance software has been involved in far more crashes than previously reported, according to updated NHTSA data. Since 2019, Teslas have caused at least 736 crashes and 17 fatalities with driver-assist engaged. The new data is incomplete, since regulators often can’t determine whether assistance software was enabled during a wreck. These partial numbers still account for the vast majority of driver-assist accidents and nearly all the fatalities reported by any car manufacturer, due to Tesla’s widespread rollout of its systems and lax oversight. Tesla’s CEO insists “Full Self-Driving” tech is safe despite a recent mass recall due to safety concerns, a laissez-faire attitude that tracks with his approach to most of the companies he runs.
Let Me Be the One
Early in the gig economy, customers may have been inclined to deliver an honest — or scathing — rating of their ride-share or delivery driver. Once it became common knowledge that doing so could endanger the precarious livelihoods of those propping up our increasingly entitled on-demand existences, app users made it rain stars. Lyft expects drivers to maintain a rating of 4.8 or higher on the app or risk disciplinary action. The average Airbnb rating in the U.S. is 4.7. Ride-share drivers, in a perfect encapsulation of the gig economy writ large, are even more generous, with the average Uber passenger scoring a truly absurd 4.9 out of 5 stars.
Our Lips Are Sealed
Finance podcast enthusiasts may have noticed a recent rash of ads by firms offering to help businesses claim the Employee Retention Credit (ERC), a tax incentive for companies who paid out wages during the COVID-19 pandemic while their operations were fully or partially suspended or their revenues declined. If companies meet the ERC criteria, they could be eligible for up to $26,000 per employee, which makes for a great marketing pitch while you’re halfway through an episode of Odd Lots. But the IRS has zeroed in on companies filing fraudulent claims via dodgy firms, going so far as to add the ERC to its annual “Dirty Dozen” list of tax scams, due to its ease of filing and the aggressive marketing campaigns that have sprung up around it.
My Whole Crew is Loungin’
In the United States, public housing has long been associated with poor living conditions, poverty and systemic racism. At the federal level, it’s limited to low-income families and individuals, and demand wildly outstrips supply. Even the wealthiest cities in the country have slashed budgets and can’t keep up with building repairs. What would it look like if public housing’s stigma were removed? In Vienna, a century-long project to build affordable accommodations has led to 80 percent of residents qualifying for public housing, and 80 percent of the city’s inhabitants renting rather than owning. Once admitted to the program the contract never expires, and caps on rent mean renters spend a fraction of their income on housing, often in the single digits, which is around what the average American family spends on food each month.
Catfishing involves creating a fake persona to lure someone into a relationship. Sometimes it’s a play for money, sometimes it’s a convenient fiction to juice your NFL draft prospects. Whatever the motivation, modern day catfishing is easy and lucrative. So lucrative that networks of romance sites have sprung up all over the internet, spawning remote freelancer networks to provide humans to operate the fake profiles. Companies like vDesk use elaborate systems to build and run accounts called “virtuals,” paying the freelancers behind them as little as 7 cents a message. The targets of said catfishing pay up to €2 per message to talk to a stranger impersonating a romantic interest in two-minute increments. The industry exists in a sort of legal limbo because most sites include language in their terms of service stating profiles may be virtuals, and most sites operate out of privacy-friendly foreign countries like Cyprus and Switzerland.
It’s Everyday Bro
If, hypothetically, you were a powerful real estate investor with deep ties to the state attorney general, like, say you had hired his mistress and remodeled his house in exchange for him keeping your companies out of legal trouble, how long would that protection last after said attorney general was impeached and removed from office? The answer to this particular question is around two weeks: Austin developer Nate Paul was arrested this week and charged with eight counts of making false statements by federal prosecutors. While seemingly unrelated to the impeachment proceedings, the government alleges Paul was able to accumulate the vast wealth he deployed to, uh, make powerful friends by lying about his holdings to score bank loans and snap up valuable Austin property.
Sue Jack Daniels
Despite its recent track record, not all the cases the Supreme Court hears want to strip civil rights and protections from millions of the most vulnerable Americans. Some are about dog poop. Well, one is, though if any court historians are reading this and have further precedent please email me. Last week, the justices sided unanimously with Jack Daniel’s against VIP Products, maker of the “Bad Spaniels Silly Squeaker” toy which is shaped like a bottle of Jack and boasts “43% POO BY VOL.” and “100% SMELLY” which spirits company Brown-Forman took issue with, claiming people could easily mistake a different bottle of brown, disgusting substance for their whiskey. The Supreme Court stopped short of issuing the broad IP protections Jack Daniel’s sought, which free speech advocates worried would restrict First Amendment rights to parody popular products.
If you enjoyed today’s edition, check out A Scammer Darkly.