Saturday, July 2, 2011

Landlord's demand to wire funds is sure sign of a scam

I found a bargain flat to rent on Craigslist but the landlord wanted me to transfer �900 via Western Union before I viewed it

I have spotted a new type of scam when trying to secure rental property via Gumtree and Craigslist.

Bogus "landlords" are demanding that potential tenants prove they have sufficient funds by arranging a money transfer via Western Union or MoneyGram, to a friend or relative, then supplying the receipt to the landlord. I haven't heard of anything like this before. SC, north London

You inquired about a one-bedroom property in Marylebone, central London, listed on Craigslist for the bargain rental of �400 a month ? which is very cheap for a property in that area.

The email reply you received was almost unreadable ? the first sign that this is a scam ? and asked you to transfer the security deposit and the rent fee (totalling �900) to a friend or relative in order to prove you have funds. This had to be done before you even arranged a viewing so the landlord did not have to "come in vain or come twice on basis of the rent".

All the landlord required was the "reciept" (sic) as proof that the funds were "remitted with Western Union in your name". Then the email casually stated that the landlord would follow you to the Western Union outlet close to the flat to receive his "rent fee", which would be deducted from your rent and refunded to you when you arrive to view the flat.

You were right to question this ludicrous demand, as it is clearly a scam. To be fair, Craigslist is clear about this, stating: "Never wire funds via Western Union, MoneyGram or any other wire service ? anyone who asks you to do so is a scammer."

Even so, Citizens Advice recently felt the need to highlight the scam in a study entitled Desperate times, desperate consumers, warning that competition for affordable private rented accommodation is currently fierce, and people who are desperate to find a home can be vulnerable to renting scams. Avoid anything like this like the plague.

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Global economic recovery slips into lower gear as industrial activity dips

? UK factory output grew at its slowest for two years
? Growth in manufacturing activity in China declines

The manufacturing boom that has spurred the global recovery of the last 18 months dropped into a lower gear last month as the UK, the eurozone and China registered a significant drop in growth.

Britain's manufacturing sector expanded at the slowest pace in nearly two years while the eurozone, dragged down by Italy and slowing Germany activity, fell from 54.6 points in May to an 18-month low of 52 in June.

A PMI reading above 50 indicates an expansion in manufacturing activity, while a reading below 50 indicates contraction.

China's main index of activity dropped to a low of 50.9 in June, a position that analysts fear could show contraction next month if a slide registered in recent months continues .

The general slowdown will pose a dilemma for central bankers who are all poised to raise rates to combat rising inflation.

A succession of weak indicators in the UK has in effect taken interest rate rises off the table, with the Bank of England governor Sir Mervyn King hinting that a rise is unlikely until at least the new year.

However, the European Central Bank gave its firmest indication it will raise rates for a second time to 1.5% next week, despite vociferous complaints from many countries still in recession that a shift to higher rates will choke off their recoveries.

Several left and rightwing commentators in Spain, Italy, Portugal and Ireland argue higher interest rates are solely designed to keep the German export boom in check without regard to their own recession hit economies.

Ireland's manufacturing sector shrank for the first time in nine months, while Italy, which has struggled to expand, saw its key manufacturing sector contract. Russian manufacturing expanded at its slowest pace in 15 months in June after the headline reading fell to 50.6 from 50.7 the previous month, its weakest since March 2010.

A sharp bounce in stock markets following agreement in the Greek parliament to pursue EU-sponsored austerity measures became more muted after it became clear a global slowdown in manufacturing was firmly under way.

"Over the past two months, [euro-zone manufacturing] output growth has weakened to the greatest extent since late-2008," said Chris Williamson, chief economist at Markit, which compiled the surveys.

The US was the only bright spot, adding to expectations the economy may be recovering from a recent slowdown. The US Institute for Supply Management said its index of national factory activity rose to 55.3 from 53.5 the month before. The reading beat expectations for a decline to 51.8, according to a Reuters poll of economists.

The UK's Markit/CIPS purchasing managers' index showed a bigger than expected drop to 51.3 from 52 in May, revised from 52.1.

David Noble, chief executive at the Chartered Institute of Purchasing & Supply, said: "The UK's manufacturing sector is slipping into 'growth-lite' mode, a far cry from the strong expansion seen earlier in the year."

For the second quarter as a whole, the average PMI reading of 52.6 is the lowest since the recovery began in the autumn of 2009. Export orders and employment slowed to the weakest growth rate since last September.

Rob Dobson, senior economist at Markit, said: "It is worrying to see that slowdown is not just being driven by the demise of domestic market strength, with growth in new exports having also slowed since the start of the year as the global economic recovery drifts into a softer patch."

Input price inflation slowed sharply to the slowest rate in one-and-a-half years, reflecting recent falls in the cost of oil and other commodities. Output price inflation ? measuring the prices charged by manufacturing ? was the weakest since last December.

China's factory production dropped to a 28-month low of 50.9 in June.

Lee Hopley, chief economist at EEF, the manufacturers' organisation, was hopeful the recovery remained on track.

"Despite the pace of expansion in [UK] activity easing for the fifth month running this shouldn't be overplayed. Behind the headline the figure the detail shows production, export orders and employment all still edging up, albeit at a more subdued pace than earlier in the year," she said. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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Private sector pensions are largely pointless | David Craig

Suffocatingly high fees mean nine out of 10 would lose more in benefits than they would get from their pension savings

As public sector workers protest about proposed changes to their pensions, many people in the private sector might be looking on with envy as they compare their likely meagre pensions with the supposedly gold-plated public sector final salary pension schemes. But the real burning question in this comparison is not envy, rather: are private sector pensions so small because workers are being overcharged by the companies running their pension schemes?

For a book project on the British financial industry, I recently compared the fees paid by pension scheme savers. British pension scheme charges average between 2-3% a year ? which may seem small. But when you take into account that most British pension funds have only managed growth of around 4% a year over the last 30 years, charges of two per cent or more mean that most of those who save in private sector pensions will see between 50 and 75% of all the growth in their pension savings disappear to pay those who have sold them their pension schemes and those manage their money.

I calculated that pension companies are taking over �80m every working day (�20bn a year) in fees and expenses from people saving for private sector pensions. These unwarranted high takings make it almost impossible for private sector workers to build up sufficient money to retire with a reasonable pension income. Only a consistently roaring economy over 30 years would save the British private pension holder. A simple example illustrates the problem. If you had invested �100 in Warren Buffett's company from the start you would now have stocks worth �300,000. But if you had invested it in Warren Buffett through a British pension fund you would have just �30,000 because of fees and charges.

The suffocatingly high fees taken by pension companies mean that eight out 10 private sector workers have less than �30,000 saved up by the time they retire. This would give them an inflation-linked pension of about �1,000 a year in addition to their state pension (if still in existence at their pensionable age). One out of 10 has between �30,000 and �50,000 in their pension fund, giving an income of around �1,750 a year. And just one out of 10 has more than �50,000. This makes saving for a pension pointless for nine out of 10 private sector workers as they would lose more in pension credits and other benefits than they would get from their pension savings.

The government is keen to point out how generous public sector pensions are compared with what someone in the private sector can expect. But perhaps our politicians are trying to deal with the wrong problem. Instead of cutting public sector pensions down towards private sector levels in a "race to the bottom", perhaps our leaders should be investigating why private sector savers are paying such huge sums in fees and commissions to pension companies and their very well-paid managers.

Unfortunately, as I show in my book, this is but one of the ways in which the British financial industry charges for its modest services at a level that is palatial. Luckily for them, our politicians are immune to any worries about their own wellbeing in retirement. The pension an MP will receive amounts to around �50,000 being paid in every year and nearly double that for a government minister. While lecturing us about the need to control public sector pensions, government ministers and MPs keep very quiet about the fact that they have probably the most generous pension scheme in Britain. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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Friday, July 1, 2011

Forget Moss and Middleton, Withers-Bourne is the wedding to be at

If I don't get an invite to the nuptials of the season, I will be filled with self-loathing and forced to claim business overseas

It was said of the guestlist for Truman Capote's Black and White Ball that the host made 500 friends and 15,000 enemies. Legend has it that those most wounded at their non-inclusion fled New York, claiming business overseas ? but, in actual fact, to escape the shame of missing the social event of the century. I adore the story, but with that mixture of total fascination and total incomprehension that forms the bedrock of my interest in showbusiness. I have never angled for an invitation, nor been remotely upset to be NFI to any event. Being "forced" to spend the night at home instead, eating crisps and shouting at the telly? Chalk up another victory.

And yet, and yet ... in the name of all I hold sacred, is there anyone who can somehow get me an entree to the marriage of Miss Heidi Withers to Mr Freddie Bourne? By now you may be aware of Carolyn Bourne, whose emailed attempt to teach her future daughter-in-law a lesson in manners has gone viral. Heidi, whose sins included sleeping in and helping herself to more food when a guest at Mrs Bourne's house, has yet to break her silence. But we have heard from the father of the bride, who declares Mrs Bourne "so far up her own backside she really doesn't know whether to speak or fart".

The upshot is clear: I simply cannot miss those wedding speeches. Please do just take a moment to imagine them, and you'll see why the event has instantly eclipsed the nuptials of Kates Moss and Middleton ? to say nothing of the Princess Bride tribute act going on in Monte Carlo this weekend ? as the hottest ticket of the season.

In the meantime, let us address Mrs Bourne's 95 theses of guesthood. John Mortimer divided the world into cavaliers and roundheads, but it could be just as cleanly split into people who agree with Mrs Bourne, and people who back Heidi.

Alas, it gives me negative pleasure to admit that something ? nurture? Bitterness? Beaten-ness? ? has me siding with Mrs Bourne. It's not that I love how her job is "breeding pinks and dianthus flowers", nor that she appears to be a fictional construct spewed out by the Random Daily Mail Character Generator. It's that I have spent most of my life adhering to her wretched rules of guesting ? rising at dawn so as not to breach some nonexistent breakfast code, packing Mars bars so as not to faint from hunger, and generally coming to the conclusion that the only reason to spend so much as a night under someone else's roof is for the pleasure of returning home.

Furthermore, like the parents who have suffered horrific times at boarding school yet regard it as the most natural thing on earth to inflict the same character-building misery upon their children, I see no reason why everyone else shouldn't live this ludicrous existence too.

They don't, of course, as I well know ? being married to someone disposed to doing as he pleases no matter how excruciatingly in contravention of social niceties he may be. When visiting the houses of friends' parents he will think precisely nothing of locating their TV, drawing the curtains of the room it is in (even if they are in it), and holing up to watch sport all afternoon.

I recall one Boxing Day lunch with some septuagenarians ? I mention their age merely as shorthand for the more mannerly attitudes of a bygone age ? when, having announced he would be skipping lunch to watch the football, he returned just as we'd started eating. He urgently required their Sky password so he could buy the game on pay-per-view. Oh dear, they floundered, after a slightly dazed pause, they weren't sure they'd know where it would be, not having the remotest clue how to work the blasted box and so on, only having bought it for the cricket and not really being up on ? "Would you mind having a quick look?" he cut in, smiling brightly, "only kick-off's in five minutes." The hostess eventually returned to a cold plate 20 minutes later. Chelsea beat Villa 1-0.

Yet in the words of Kevin from The Wonder Years: I learned a lot that day. And not just that the greatest superpower, and one I will never possess, is the inability to feel shame. You see, not only did I actually want to watch Chelsea power their relentless and uninspiring way to a one-goal victory, I was far too repressed to say so. I'm not sure which is the least flattering of these two distinctly unflattering personality traits, but I think we can agree neither is anything to burnish the CV.

So I must confess the most wistful admiration for Heidi, whose ability to sleep till mid-morning in someone else's house makes her, in my book, freer than the freest of spirits at Woodstock. But some drilled-in madness means I must confess it through the pursed lips of her ghastly old future ma-in-law, too pointlessly defeated to realise that half a morning not having to tend to guests is bliss indeed, and that the best way to ensure it keeps happening is to mash a sleeping pill into dinner that night. I can only hope that this ? which comes from a place of love, as well as one of rancorous self-loathing ? is enough to secure me an invitation to the undisputed wedding of the year. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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Harrods 'ladies' code' drives out sales assistant

Legal expert says store could be sued under Equality Act after Melanie Stark was told she had wear full make-up at all times

A sales assistant at Harrods claims she has been "driven out" of her job over her refusal to wear makeup.

Melanie Stark, 24, said her battle with the Knightsbridge store left her "exhausted, stressed and upset".

On two occasions she was sent home; on another she was sent to work in the stockroom.

Stark, based in the HMV department in Harrods, said she had been described by one manager as among the best of their employees and worked without makeup for four years, before being asked to comply with the store's strict dress code.

The two-page "ladies" dress code stipulates: "Full makeup at all time: base, blusher, full eyes (not too heavy), lipstick, lip liner and gloss are worn at all time and maintained discreetly (please take into account the store display lighting which has a 'washing out' effect)."

When she refused she was offered a makeup workshop and told, 'You can see what you look like with makeup', she said.

"I was appalled. It was insulting. Basically, it was implying it would be an improvement. I don't understand how they think it is OK to say that.", she said.

I know what I look like with makeup. I have used it, though never at work. But I just could not see how, in this day and age, Harrods could take away my right to choose whether to wear it or not."

Stark had complied with all other aspects of the dress code. "But it's not like wearing black trousers, or a black shirt. This is my face.

"Make up can change your features completely, especially if I was to wear all of what they were asking. I would look like a different person to me. And I never chose to look like that."

Last week she resigned rather than comply with the code after working at the store for five years, three of them part-time while a philosophy, religion and ethics student at King's College London, and the last two years full-time after completing her masters. "I was happy there, but I've been driven out."

One legal expert said Stark could have grounds to sue Harrods.

Lawrence Davies, director of Equal Justice solicitors, said she might have a claim under the Equality Act 2010. "On the facts, she performed her role well for five years without makeup, so it is clearly not a valid prerequisite for her role."

Of the dress code, he said "custom and practice would suggest that her contract has changed over the years to allow her to not wear makeup".

Stark said she had been given a copy of the dress code when she joined HMV at Harrods aged 19, and had been given store approval after an interview during which she did not wear any makeup. Harrods had not sought to enforce the code until last August when, after a "floor walk" by senior managers, she was sent home for refusing to wear it.

In a letter to Harrods at the time she said: "To be told that one's face is inadequate is extremely degrading." She had a commendation for customer services, had been awarded 94% in a "mystery shop", on which unsuspecting staff were monitored, and met every other requirement in HMV's music section.

The next day, she was put to work in the stockroom, away from view.

She had received good support from HMV throughout, she said. The conflict was with Harrods.

Stark was summoned to a meeting with her Harrods floor manager During this, she said, she was told: "You've got two options. You wear make up or you leave". She said she was told: "We're not making you look like the girls on the beauty counter" and it was suggested she could "just wear eyeliner and lipstick". She said: "But if that was my choice, surely I had the choice to wear none."

On that occasion, Harrods appear to have backed down. She returned to work and continued without wearing makeup until three weeks ago, when, during a Powerpoint presentation a new floor manager told staff: "Girls. I want you to be made up."

"Alarm bells started ringing," she said. "Off I go again, another meeting." She was briefly transferred to HMV's Bayswater store while a resolution was sought - but had already decided to resign.

"I just could not go through with it all again. I wasn't going to compromise, but neither were they," she said. "And I felt it was time to move on."

A Harrods spokeswoman said: "All our staff are subject to a dress code which they sign up to on joining the company, which relates to an overall polished appearance. Our records show that discussions with Melanie Stark concerned a general lack of adherence to the dress code. However, no action was taken and she subsequently decided to leave the business of her own accord with no reference made to dress code."

Savile Row claim

Company dress codes and "look" policies are common but their legality has been challenged, with mixed results. The US clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch was accused of "hiding" a sales assistant in a stockroom at its flagship London outlet in Savile Row because her prosthetic arm did not fit with its "look policy".

Riam Dean, a 22-year-old law student from Greenford, west London, claimed she was removed from the shopfloor when management became aware of her disability. Dean, who was born without her left forearm and has worn a prosthetic limb since she was three months old, sued for disability discrimination after she was left "personally diminished and humiliated" when she refused to remove her cardigan at work last summer. In 2009 a tribunal awarded her �8,000 for unlawful harassment.

Clare Murray, of the specialist employment law experts CM Murray, said case law supported the right of employers to impose dress codes with different requirements for women and men provided there were "equivalent" requirements. "But employers must be able to show a good business reason," she said. Employers also needed to consider religious and cultural implications. Caroline Davies

Harrods dress code


Hair Trimmed regularly and styled to flatter features. May have subtle highlights or colour but must be natural looking and complementary to skin tone. No regrowth.

Jewellery One earring per ear. Pearls or diamond studs preferred. One ring per hand with exception of wedding & engagement rings. No visible tattoos, sovereigns, mismatched jewellery, scrunchies, large clips or hoop earrings.

Footwear Smart black leather shoes such as court shoes with stiletto or kitten heel.


Hair Clean, well groomed, complementary to skin tone.

Beards Clean shaven or full beards. NO goatees or moustaches of contemporary style.

Sideburns Must be no longer than mid-ear length or wider than one inch.

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Pension funds among biggest land investors in poor countries | Mark Tran

Research by NGO Grain shows pension funds in Europe and US are major investors in land deals in developing countries

Some of the biggest investors in farmland in developing countries are US and European pension funds, according to a report released Friday.

Grain, a research group that supports small farmers, says pension funds - often managed by private companies on behalf of unions, governments, individuals and employers - are investing US$100bn (�62.4bn) in commodities, with some $5bn-$15bn reportedly going into farmland acquisitions.

"We usually read about Gulf states or China investing in farmland, but some of the biggest investors are much closer to home," said Henk Hobbelink, one of Grain's co-founders. "As a percentage of the total funds they manage it is not large, but in terms of their impact on small farmers it has a tremendous impact."

International investment in farmland in developing countries, such as Sudan and Ethiopia, has sparked accusations from Grain and other NGOs of "land grabs" that often fail to deliver the promised benefits of jobs and economic development, while contributing to environmental and social problems in the poorest countries in the world. Grain also says the new surge of money will push up global food prices that will hit the poor and rural communities the hardest.

Figures from the Grain report shows that the three pension funds with the biggest investment in agriculture are from the Netherlands, the US and Sweden. APG, in the Netherlands, (administering the national civil pension fund) has invested euro 1bn (�904m) - 0.5% of total assets under management - Ascencion Health, in the US has invested $1.1bn and AP2 Second Swedish National Pension Fund has invested $500m in grain farmlands in America, Australia and New Zealand. The other big players, according to Grain, are CalPers (California Public Employees' Retirement System), Dow Chemical, New Zealand Superannuation Fund, PGGM, also from the Netherlands, and PKA, from Denmark.

Grain says commodities such as farmland make up, on average, 1%-3% of pension funds' portfolios, with the figure expected to rise to 5% by 2015. Pension funds now hold about $23tr in assets, with the biggest pension funds held by governments.

Research published last month by the Oakland Institute in the US suggested that prestigious universities, with large endowment funds, such as Harvard and Vanderbilt, have invested heavily in African land in the past few years. Much of the money is said to be channelled through London-based Emergent Asset Management, which runs one of Africa's largest land acquisition funds, run by former JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs currency dealers.

As for pension funds, Grain says they may be one of the few "classes of land grabbers that people can pull the plug on, by sheer virtue of the fact that it is their money. This makes pension funds a particularly important target for action by social movements, labour groups and citizens' organisations". © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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