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AN EXPERIENCE LIKE NO OTHER – MOVING TO PANAMA
Here is yet another writeup on someone's experience moving to Panama, and an interesting and somewhat different one at that. The writer and his wife decided England was too expensive and the weather too dreary. After considering Costa Rica as well, they chose Panama for reasons detailed.
His after-move assessment: “The benefits of living in Panama are many. Financially it is so much better; weather-wise it is far, far better; environmentally it is stunningly fantastic; for recreation and pastimes, well, if you enjoy wildlife then this is the place for you. ... It really is a wonderland if you like nature and activities.”
This is going to be like “a message in bottle.”
What I write here is my experience only and not someone else's and it comes with a considered warning. Relocation is not everyone's cup of tea but, if you are open, willing and need to start to enjoy life away from a lot of stress and strain, consider it. I did and I am glad I did.
Panama, a strange small country in Latin Central America forming a bridge between the North and South American continents has an unusual topographical orientation but is blessed with so very many natural attributes of nature.
I am an Englishman, proud of it, retired Police from the Greater Manchester area and not your typical male. For much of my life I spent in the service of The Queen and have seen and experienced unimaginable things both good and bad.
As a divorcee (twice), I remarried and my wife Diana and I used to live in Whitley Bay, Tyne and Wear in the northeast of the country up until a couple of years ago.
England will always be my home, but a place 2 1/2 years ago that we decided we just could not afford to live if we wanted a decent lifestyle. It was not just the money either, but the weather, the environment; even dare I say it, the atmosphere. England, as distinct from Scotland and Wales, is a very crowded place and became even more so when the EU opened its doors to the Eastern European workers. I am not against migrant workers but the numbers that were allowed to come and work was just, for me, too overwhelming. Britain's Immigration Policy too, and this is just my personal opinion, has generated far too many problems for my liking and not on a racial level. Britain and England in particular, is not (in comparative terms) a big country but in actual fact a very small island and it is filling up fast. All you need do is to look at the roads and traffic jams and repairs going on as just one indicator. You cannot move anywhere quickly and easily.
My work had taken me all over the country, until, finally, I settled in Northumberland. This truly, is a wonderful area and if there had been any possibility of staying there, we would. No, the cost of living, taxes and increasing costs of foods, petrol, clothing, utilities and everything, just made it too hard to battle through. Every month we dreaded the postman with the bills which we would have to meet, causing far too much stress in our lives. So much stress is unhealthy and can be debilitating. So, we discussed everything and chose to sit down and consider our options. We researched for a long time on the internet for alternatives and one thing kept recurring. Relocation. Living overseas. Retiring overseas to a lower cost of living.
We both have living family and many friends and the initial thought of leaving them all behind was quite disturbing. My mother, sister, brother (and the rest) still live in Oldham, Lancashire where I was born and raised. My wife's two sons live in the London area. So we considered it, discussed it with our families, who matter most to us, and researched some more and eventually came to a decision. We would try it. We could after all, always return home. There should never be restricting permanence should there? So, having made the decision, where do we look to, where do we consider as a possible destination?
I have always been able to make friends easily so that was not a concern. This is, I think, because of my socio-personality and emotional interaction with others that I developed during my police career. I have also, throughout my life, traveled around the world so being in foreign lands is not new to me. My wife too is a wonderfully giving and an outgoing person and so making friends also comes easy to her.
So, what questions do we, did we need answering? What are our wants and needs? What do we require on a personal level in a new living environment?
Lists of questions were compiled and then the "real" research started. The criteria was quite tight: low cost of living, warm climate, nature, wildlife, sun sea and sand (hopefully), safe environment, taxes? These were the main issues because all I had was my police pension to live on and so that was our main limiting factor.
After hours on the "net" we enrolled on a seminar in Panama. We had looked at and seriously considered Costa Rica but, looking at what Panama was offering by way of very attractive benefits for their Pensionado Visa Programme we decided to have a look at Panama instead. Check out this link and scroll down the page for details of the benefits you get. By the way, this website is a very good place to start finding out about the region and what is available.
So, having packed up, suitcases in hand, we set off for the sun for a holiday and fact-finding mission.
What we found when we got here seemed idyllic to such an extent that we traveled all around the country soaking up the experience, meeting friendly people and seeing smiling faces, read all the information presented to us and came to the decision quite quickly that we would give it a go.
We found and made an offer on a small house just outside a pretty little town in the province of Chiriquí (pronounced cheery-key) which was on a large plot of land at a very, very affordable price. We bought a 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom Panamanian house sitting on 1/2 an acre of gardens with a further 2 acres of land. That is like 2 soccer pitches end on end. Back in England this would have cost an absolute fortune, and I mean "a fortune," but here, in relative terms, property values are (even) still extremely low.
Two weeks later, we returned to our home land to prepare and pack and say our tearful but happy farewells. Not goodbyes because we will always have the ability to return home in very short time should the need arise.
Arriving back in Panama for the second time did not seem like the first time because our emotions were orientated differently. We now had our emotional orientation focused on making a new life here. We faced living in rented accommodation until we could get in to our new home, buying a car, registering it and all the other imponderables. We needed help of course because we could not communicate effectively but friends here rallied and helped us sort out the bureaucracy. It took us 4 months to get in to our home and get the vehicle of our choice.
The legal wrangling of getting our Pensionado Visa was to continue for another 8 months nearly. Every 90 days we had to present ourselves (with our Lawyer) to Immigration in the main City of David for a temporary extension until the "real" Visa was granted. Bureaucracy and processes in a 3rd [World] country require ... "plenty plenty patience," as the old Chinese sage would say. Getting all the utilities re-registered is not a simple affair here either. Things do not "flow" in Panama, apart from the rain and rivers. The systems you are faced with are cumbersome, inefficient and largely ineffective. However, perseverance and good friends usually irons out the wrinkles.
Our vehicle is a big thirsty American V8 Dodge SUV and was something I had always wanted but could never, ever have afforded back home. Petrol, or gas as it is called here, was at a level of $1.80 per gallon and with the exchange rate being $1.90+ at the time, driving around was very, very inexpensive. There is no road tax here, no MOT requirement (that is a Test Certificate for you non-Brits) and our insurance was also very, very inexpensive in comparative terms. The cost of living was, and still is, quite remarkable.
Food is of good quality, fresh, plentiful and cheap. Clothing is inexpensive. And household goods a fraction of the price back home.
Let me give you some examples. Right now, this month (April 2009), my outgoings consist only of $25 per month for our electricity, $4.50 for cooking gas (and this lasts us about 2 to 3 months), and our water is $3 per month. We have wireless internet, our connection with the outside world and our chance to earn an extra groat or two, is $75 per month but this is only because we live out in the countryside and miles from the nearest city. Our friends typically pay around $25 to $30 per month for their internet. Food bills are very low and petrol very cheap as well. So, our monthly outgoings are around $105 without the foodstuffs etc. We have no taxes whatsoever. So, at today's exchange rate it costs us about £75 (pounds) for the MONTH.
We are "Debt Free" and you know something, it is a wonderful thing to say this. "We are Debt Free." The low price of real estate and properties here meant that what little we had in capital we were able to buy everything outright -- even the car. We have "zero" loans, zero credit cards and zero mortgages. We owe nothing to anyone. How many can say that?
Eating out here typically costs around $15 for the two of us and that is with a bottle of wine. We live in one of the most beautiful areas of Panama called Chiriquí. Where we live we are 40 minutes pleasant drive from the Pacific Ocean beaches or 3 hours drive from the wonderful Caribbean Sea over at the world famous Bocas del Toro. The nature and wildlife here is stunning, just wonderful.
Even temperatures of around 80 degrees year round means that our aches and pains have diminished tremendously. Medical facilities here are as good as back home and if you want to see a specialist, it is almost the same day appointment. I had to have a consultation recently with a specialist and it cost me $30 for about an hour. With the Pensionado discount of 20% I only paid $24. What is more, he was excellent.
So, my present opinion of Panama and living here is -- for all you readers back in the UK or the rest of Europe (and not forgetting our friends "across the pond" in the U.S. and Canada) -- living here is an excellent alternative and well worth a thought or two.
Obviously there is a drastic change of environments and some things you have to learn to live without, like the corner fish and chip shop, a meat pie with good pastry, Branston Pickle or Marmite but these things you can do without (if you try hard enough). It is certainly, and dramatically, less stressful and far more affordable than anything we experienced back home. My recommendation is, think about it, consider it, try it.
And for you wealthier people, who may read this, please do not make the mistake that more money means less stress. It does not. Investment opportunities here are fantastic even during this global financial crisis. Land and property bargains can still be found but for investments, this is a wonderful time here to realize and have investments appreciate rather than depreciate. The economy here is STILL one of the most stable in the world and the political influences mostly neutral. All in all, I have to say, Panama is a wonderful place in which to invest -- still. Let me tell you a little story to finish this article off.
Consider this. We have uprooted and transplanted ourselves in a new country and amid a new culture. We are making lots and lots of wonderful new friends -- English, Welsh, Scots, American, Canadian, Belgian, Dutch, Panamanian, Argentinean and Columbian. We face new experiences everyday which would be impossible back home. Life here is such an eye-opener. Talk about the "WOW Factor."
Recently, we have found ourselves walking a Pacific Ocean beach watching wild Red Backed Squirrel Monkeys playing in the Coconut Palms. We saw Howler Monkeys, Capuchins and Tamarins. We stroke wild cats like Ocelot, Oncilla and Margay.
We photograph snakes and birds and wonderful insects like the Golden Beetle (which really does look like a gold ornament). Life is just so different now. We have been on fishing trips out on the blue, blue Pacific Ocean, seen dolphins swimming underneath OUR boat which was spectacular; they were almost close enough to reach out and touch them. We have snorkeled on pristine coral reefs, all these things we only dreamed of or watched on the BBC and of which are now right on our doorstep.
Just after we got here, we had driven up to a high mountain town called Volcan. We had driven there to see a cultural Native Indian Festival and whilst there met two fantastic English people, Paul and Jenny Saban who became our fast friends and who own Paradise Gardens Wildlife Rescue Centre and Gardens. PG is situated above one of Chiriquí's most popular tourist destinations, Boquete. PG is a wonderful place to see and visit but, the point of this short item is, we also met another couple there who originated from England but had traveled the world, Steve and Michele Walker.
We found out that Steve and Michele had bought a 40 acre lot of forest and wilderness in an area called Chorcha and were in the throes of moving house. Of course, being loyal to us Brits, I offered to help and over the next few days I drove to their home near to Boquete, loaded up the car and trundled off driving through nature filled countryside and up 4 x 4 tracks to their new abode. They were calling their place Alouatta Lodge -- which in Latin (Alouatta) means Howler Monkey. They are building an Eco resort which is quite simply ... stunning.
Anyway, on my last loaded visit, I had emptied the car and was standing at the doorway of their new living area chatting to Steve whilst his wife Michele, Gareth his son and Rebecca his daughter, organized where their belongings were to go. Standing, leaning on the doorway, it was warm with a gentle breeze and then suddenly, something marvellous happened.
Imagine if you can, a man (me), 6' 4" tall, an ex-hairy "a---d" copper, standing there leaning with his left shoulder against the wall, my right hand hanging down whilst chatting to Steve when suddenly, and very, very gently, a small hand slipped in to mine. The hand was warm, very small and with soft skin. It gripped my fingers and I looked down to see two brown eyes looking up in to mine. Steve smiled and just said "Oh that's Yahoo, he likes tall people because he likes to climb up and sit on your shoulders so he can see all around." Yahoo, is a young male Howler Monkey and had been raised as an orphan by Steve and Michele when he had been brought to them some months previously.
Anyway, this was first contact and Yahoo then proceeded to climbed up my clothing easier than climbing a tree. Incredible. There he perched, his tail around my neck for balance and his hands on top of my head holding on to my hair. It was such a surprise, such an experience. Never ever could I have had such an experience had I been back in Whitley Bay near Newcastle or wherever else. Such an emotional and spiritual connection. Trust even. So striking an experience was it that it brought me to tears and when I got home, I wrote the prose you can see below. I do hope you enjoy it.
The benefits of living in Panama are many. Financially it is so much better; weather-wise it is far, far better; environmentally it is stunningly fantastic; for recreation and pastimes, well, if you enjoy wildlife then this is the place for you. The Moon Guide calls Panama a "Paradise for wildlife." It really is a wonderland if you like nature and activities.
My recommendation would be, consider it, seriously. Life is so much better without all that stress -- truly. I do not mind you getting in touch to ask any questions or to find help if you want -- Michael@lambda-mi.com or have a look at ChooseChiriqui.com for more information on Panama.
ST. LUCIA – THE NEW CARIBBEAN HOT SPOT?
St. Lucia is a mountainous independent island nation of 160,000 in the eastern Caribbean. This article from Caribbean financial services, including providing help getting a property mortgage, Conti contains a pretty insubstantial introduction to St. Lucia itself and a more illuminating introduction to obtaining a mortgage in the Caribbean. Among other items of interest, expect to make a 30% downpayment. We are also told the minimum loan is US$500 thousand, leaving unclear financial arrangements for cheaper properties not paid for with cash.
A Caribbean island often overshadowed by its more famous neighbours could be a hot tip for investment, according to recent reports. St. Lucia, already known for its friendly locals and idyllic scenery, is seeing a new wave of luxury property development, with prices which are still well below those in Barbados -- around 40% to 60% lower, according to the St Lucia tourist board. And, it is a year-round destination, with direct flights from the UK and USA. Such has the island's tourism increased, that British Airways recently started a direct service three times a week.
Just 27 miles long and 14 miles wide, St. Lucia lies between Martinique and St. Vincent and north of Barbados, in the shape of, according to many, a mango! In addition to its beautiful white beaches, banana plantations, coral reefs and tropical rainforest, it has grand plans for regeneration and redevelopment. ...
St. Lucia could also offer a solution to prospective property investors and people hoping to retire abroad, who are struggling to make a decision about location due to the global economic crisis. It seems that the Caribbean, and in particular the holiday island of St Lucia, seems to be holding its own -- for the time being anyway. In a recent report in the UK's Independent newspaper, Allen Chastanet said that property prices have remained robust throughout the financial crisis, the key being that they did not have a boom to begin with, so building levels were at sustainable levels.
Therefore, they are not having a bust. According to Chastanet, the only price softening that has taken place has been as a result of sterling weakening against the dollar, so sellers have been willing to bend prices a bit for British buyers to reflect this currency shift. Property, while not as affordable as hot spots such as Spain or Florida, ranges in price from around $300,000 right up to $4 million.
Some homes on the island are sold as owner-occupier, targeted more towards people looking to retire to a hot climate, but the majority of the properties are intended as an investment. What often happens is that the buyer can use the property for a certain number of weeks each year, and it is then rented out to holidaymakers for the rest of the time. ...
Buying property in St. Lucia
The property purchasing system in St. Lucia is similar to that in the UK except non-residents must acquire an “Aliens Landholding Licence” from the government and this must be registered by a local lawyer. There is a nonrefundable fee of $1,500 for this. There will be a 10% future tax liability on the property for when it is eventually sold. This tax liability, however, can legally be avoided by buying the property through a company which can be set up at the time of the purchase.
Company formation will take about 6 weeks and obviously comes at a cost itself. If the property is part of a resort development, and the overwhelming majority are, then service charges may apply, based on square footage. If the home is rented out, you can expect service charges to be higher as regular cleaning has to take place.
Affordability, affordability, affordability
It is vital that you determine how much you can afford before embarking on the purchase process. An “Approval in Principle” (AIP) will do just that -- it will tell you exactly how much you can borrow and what price range you can realistically consider when conducting your property search. And it will avoid potential disappointment later on in the buying process, if you have got your heart set on a property which is simply beyond your means.
An AIP will also put you in a much better position with developers, or private sellers, and prove to them that you are a serious buyer. Given a choice, they are bound to prefer a purchaser who can demonstrate that they have their finance in place, rather than somebody who has yet to consider how to fund their dream purchase. Buyers with an AIP could also be better placed to negotiate price.
Do your homework and take advice
If you are going to rent your property out, you need to check the terms of the income you will receive. For some investors, the income obtained relies on the resort as whole making a profit, whereas in other resorts, they receive a cut of the total revenue instead. As with any other destination, it is of paramount importance that you do your research before signing any contracts. Ensure that you visit the property. If the resort seems very quiet, then it may not be making a profit, in which case you are unlikely to get much of a regular income and you will have to rely on potential capital growth instead.
Take specialist legal advice and enlist the help of a tax expert, especially if avoiding tax is one of the main reasons you are buying in St Lucia. It is important to get it right in the first place and avoid complications further down the line.
And do not be tempted to rely solely on rental returns to pay your mortgage, especially if your repayments are in U.S. dollars and therefore subject to currency fluctuations. The rental market in St. Lucia is strong, but you can never take this as a given.
Types of mortgage
The types of mortgages available in the Caribbean are similar to those offered at home. There are a variety of interest rates and these can be fixed or variable. The interest rate payable is usually driven by how much of a loan is required compared with the value of the property (the “Loan to Value” or LTV). Generally speaking, the bigger the deposit you have to put down on a property, the more competitive the mortgage deal will be. In the Caribbean, you will be expected to have at least a 30% deposit, the minimum loan is $500,000 or £250,000 and the mortgage can be on a repayment or interest-only basis. The length of the mortgage term may be shorter than you are used to at 15 to 20 years.
One major concern at the moment, particularly for Britons looking to buy in the Caribbean or America, is the fall in the value of sterling. Around this time last year, the pound was worth two dollars, but it now it buys a lot less. Someone looking to buy a property in dollars could consider “fixing” their exchange rate in advance, so that they know exactly how much they will need to pay. How this works is that you buy an option to buy a set amount of dollars at a set price at a specific date in the future. This insures you against any adverse currency fluctuations which happen between making an offer on a home and actually paying for it.
Generally speaking, the Caribbean mortgage market does lack the sophistication and range of products available in the mature mortgage markets of North America and Europe. But a mortgage specialist, such as Conti [the article writer] will have familiarity and understanding of the lenders and will know of any restrictions and administration requirements, which can save you a lot of time, cost and hassle when arranging a mortgage.
DOMINICA: WILD ADVENTURES ON THE NATURE ISLAND
The roughest and toughest of all the islands of the Caribbean.
Dominica is known for its natural beauty and its second passport program. This article explores the former from the perspective of a visitor. As the writer expresses it: “Dominica is geographically the roughest and toughest of all the islands of the Caribbean. ... The island is green, green, GREEN, as lush and fruitful as you can possibly imagine.”
So go and visit, even if you do not plan to stay.
Getting there was no picnic. And an unprecedented gasoline shortage on the island troubled us for a few days, more in mind than actual fact, but a few logistical flies in the ointment were the only flies we encountered. And they were nothing compared to the wonder, adventure and fun of that trip to Dominica. My first.
As a working father of two young teenagers, my travel the past 10 years had been mostly repeated trips to a relatively few destinations in the States. "Relatively" being the operative word there: visiting my kids' grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I would generally prefer an adventure to a new place. So when a great friend and mentor encouraged me to join him for a week or two of hiking on Dominica that February, I jumped at the chance.
My friend, Carl Cohen, published here recently, has been a world traveler during the 53 years that I have known him, and he is particularly fond of islands. Islands in the Caribbean of course, but not only there, all over the globe: Near Greece, Great Britain, New Zealand, Estonia, or closer to home in Lake Superior, the Canadian Bay of Fundy ... You name it, he knows it. Is Dominica his favorite? As a matter of fact, Yes. It is!
As Carl wrote, "Dominica is geographically the roughest and toughest of all the islands of the Caribbean. Some of the hikes are very demanding. So, as in your 5th-grade text book, when the moisture-laden clouds hit the mountains and are driven higher by the trade winds they cannot hold their water, and they drop it ... by the bucket, it rains. It rains a great deal! We are almost sure to get rained on during some walks -- but so what? The clouds pass, the sun comes out, and all is benign.
"And, the island is green, green, GREEN, as lush and fruitful as you can possibly imagine. And there are beautiful rivers (not deep but swift and clear) -- in some of which we will walk or crawl. And river pools for swimming, and waterfalls, big ones and small ones, water everywhere. ... and here is a happy final thought: You will not see or feel any bugs! No mosquitoes, no black flies, no ticks -- nothing like that! Here and there an insect comes whizzing by, but you can sit out on the veranda, with your drink, even with the light on -- and you will not be annoyed! Isn't that marvelous?"
Naturally my anticipation was great. I even began to worry that my excitement would result in eventual disappointment. But Carl, my teacher, said "never mind, you will enjoy." And it all turned out to be true. Let us proceed then to the particulars.
Having left Boston at 6:30 AM, by early afternoon out of Miami, I was able to look down on many of the Caribbean islands. Even from thousands of feet above I saw the white sand beaches and quiet turquoise waters so familiar from calendar photos and resort brochures. It was easy to imagine soaking up sun and planters punch on a lounge chair with a good book, punctuated by the occasional swim. But after passing 10 or 12 of what looked, from the sky, like pancakes and drips on the skillet made from runny batter, I returned to my reading and napping.
Missing a close connection in Antigua led to an overnight stay there as the airport near the northeast corner of Dominica has no lights, one cannot arrive late. LIAT flights the next day were standby only, which meant another early start. But getting up at 4:00 a.m. is a lot easier the second day running. Thankfully there was room on the first flight out.
The approach to Dominica stands in sharp contrast to what I had seen the day before. Powerful Atlantic waves splashed high against jagged cliffs. As we came over land and descended into the wind, the Melville Hall River tumbled over rocks and down ravines through a maze of folds in the landscape beside me. Deplaning, immigration and baggage took all of five minutes. And a host of friendly cab drivers were waiting at the door, ready to sort out passengers and destinations.
I wound up with Bobby. If you like roller coasters you will get a kick out of riding with him, I suspect it is the same with most. The roads are neither wide nor straight, and may be dotted with folks near the villages, walking to their destination or waiting for a ride. Of course Bobby knows each and every last one of them. It was never quite clear to me if the frequent horn blasts were greetings or warnings as we swung down, up, over, left and right through the many switchbacks in the village OF Marigot, near the airport heading South on the Eastern Coast to Domcan's Guest House near the village of Castle Bruce.
Dominica is the only island with a reservation and significant population of the beautiful and resourceful Carib Indians.
Along that route we passed through the Carib territory, an area set aside for those people native to the Island. Dominica is the only island with such a reservation and significant population of the beautiful and resourceful Carib Indians. There is a museum and cultural center, but the territory is not a tourist attraction. It is home.
Did I say "tourist attraction?" Dominica, as you may have heard, is unspoiled by tourism. How unspoiled is it? I could not even find a postcard! Actually, cruise ships do stop there, briefly, at the capital, Roseau. Every day it is a different boat and according to reports, passengers are universally taken to one spot: The Emerald Pool. The location seems to be a mild joke among the residents I came to know during my stay. They would smile broadly and nudge me. "Been to the Emerald Pool yet? Huh?" Despite the ribbing, I have no doubt it is lovely. But we steered clear, I did not see it. There at least is one reason to return.
Arriving at Domcan's I was greeted warmly, led to the verandah and offered a cup of hot coffee. I sat, sipped and gazed out over a valley and between two hills at the ocean beyond under broad rays of morning sunshine. Carl was still asleep. How thrilled he would be to wake and find me here already. Of course by then, I had drifted off myself. Soon enough we celebrated good fortune over the first of daily delicious breakfasts.
Grace's preparations may not be the stuff of fine cuisine. That sort of luxury is available if you stay up the road at Beau Rive, an even more picturesque, luxurious retreat where all is in the finest taste. But Grace's food was wholesome, hearty, plentiful, nutritious, yes. ...
In the nightly discussion of next day's plan I heard about many places I did not see, Sari-Sari falls, Grand Fond, Scott's Head at the Southern tip or a walk across the northern shore from Penville to Capucin. The highest mountain is Diablotin, in the north, and it is not the case that most island residents have been there. The trek to the top is not easily reached and is exceedingly difficult. We did not go there!
Also in the interior are Boeri, Freshwater and Boiling Lakes, reachable mainly from the village of Laudat. Boiling Lake is not just a moniker earned by some legend of islanders who may have seen steam rising from the surface some cool morning. Boiling Lake will cook your goose if you fall in, as one guide who lived to tell it once did. Story goes that his charge dropped a camera where it would have been dangerous to retrieve and so was advised to leave it.
The guide returned the next day to attempt it on his own however, and slipped. Only partially and briefly submerged he got out, injured and burned but whole, and lay for five hours before being discovered and helped. The walk is said to be 3 1/2 hours over tough terrain each way, so allow a full day and do not go it alone. I will have to go back to see this place, the others and more.
The walk we did take near Laudat was to a destination called Middleham Falls. A Wildlife and Forestry pass, available in the village for a nominal, worthwhile fee is required for these areas. The road to the trailhead is marked and there are rest rooms and a roofed seating area where you can wait out the downpour before you start, or snack afterward as the young group of European travelers we met there was doing.
In U.S. National Parks, signs often overestimate the time to complete a loop or reach a destination. Here, it was the opposite. 45 minutes in would have been too short anyway. With stops to ponder the tree ferns, umbrella leaves, bamboo stands and root systems spread across the surface of a broad incline or buttressing huge tropical hardwoods, it was well over an hour and well spent. Yes, Brazil has rain forests, but so do we! Cut logs form stairs to make steep or muddy passages manageable. I made the trip with a 12-year-old and a man who is either 78 or 29.
That is to say, the trail can be handled at most any skill or fitness level, and besides beauty and interest there is some challenge in it for all. This is no simple stroll; when you get there you will know you have done something.
Clamber down to the railed platform and look nearly straight up to see where the water comes over the top straight toward you and begins its drop of near 100 feet through the air. About 25 feet below is the pool, its surface continually swept with spray from the falling water and the strong drafts created there. But if you can face the wind in a chilly rainstorm for a moment, there is plenty of room to get in. Where the water is not boiling, I have got to go in.
To Dominicans it may be cold, but to a Michigander now living in Rhode Island, it is merely cool, refreshing and a completely invigorating setup. Try it, you will come out full of energy for the trip back.
SWITZERLAND STANDS OUT AS THE MOST ATTRACTIVE RESIDENCE DESTINATION FOR THE MOBILE WEALTH SET
London in 2nd place; Singapore is 3rd.
Scorpio Partnership, “a strategy consultancy to the wealth management industry,” conducted a survey of the “mobile wealthy” with the goal of ranking the 11 world financial centers “consistently described by the mobile wealthy and their advisors as the most attractive locations in which to live and work” with regard to their attractiveness to rich expats as an actual place in which to reside. What they discovered is rather interesting.
Despite the severe pressure that has been placed on Switzerland to rat out its financial refugees, the country is ranked #1. Scorpio’s survey was conducted during 2008 and the first quarter of this year -- well after the pressure had been stepped up and after Switzerland had made some concessions -- so the results are not based on a legacy reputation. Our guess is that the strong resistance Switzerland has put up is appreciated, but Scorpio’s rankings are derived from 11 criteria of which only one is pure fiscal considerations. Switzerland’s all-around financial and cultural attractiveness, as well as its proximity to other places the “mobile wealthy” like to visit, put it on top -- at least based on Scorpio’s methodology.
London was ranked second overall. On the “Tax and Immigration” criterion London ranks second to last, ahead only of New York, while Switzerland comes in 5th place and Monaco is #1. Scorpio’s report implies, without directly stating, that London (where Scorpio is based) would have ranked highest were it not for the UK government’s moves over the last year to tax wealthy resident expats more heavily. UK-associated Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man neatly rank numbers 4 through 6 overall.
Of the two major Asian financial centers, Singapore ranks 3rd and Hong Kong ranks 8th. Singapore ranks first on employment and business opportunities and security. (Armed-to-the-teeth Switzerland ranks only #9 on security.) Scorpio’s assessment is that “Singapore is viewed by the mobile wealthy as the hub from which to do business in and throughout Asia and the Government has moved to make its fiscal environment attractive in the international environment.”
“Tax and Immigration” highest-ranker Monaco comes in at only #9 overall, due to -- among other things -- lack of quality housing and employment/business opportunities. Somewhat surprisingly, Monaco also ranks last in depth of financial services sector. The competition is stiff there.
Lots of material to chew on in this Scorpio Partnership survey.
Scorpio Partnership, the leading business strategy advisor to the wealth management industry, has reacted to the continued discourse on the attractiveness of London as a residence for the wealthy by developing the world’s first index judging the attractiveness of the most popular financial centers to the mobile wealthy. The Mobile Wealthy Residency Index (MWRI) is the result of qualitative research by Scorpio Partnership with senior advisors to the world’s mobile wealthy.
The main findings of the report were:
In today’s economic environment, where wealth, taxation and the offshore environs are seemingly etched into every discussion in the wealth management industry, in the UK and beyond, the Scorpio team has pooled the collective knowledge and thoughts of the advisory community to measure where the mobile wealthy judge to be the best jurisdictions to meet their wide ranging demands.
- Switzerland is the most attractive jurisdiction for residency for the international mobile wealthy individual and family due to its “rounded offer”;
- London, in second spot, has been damaged by the UK Government’s aggressive fiscal moves to penalize the mobile wealthy community;
- Singapore’s rapid development and implementation of a modern framework with attractive policies sees it take third spot;
- The mobile wealthy are choosing a jurisdiction in which to reside on a far wider range of factors than just the headline tax rates;
- A clear distinction has emerged between the large “all-in” global centers such as Switzerland and London and the smaller “niche” centers such as Jersey, Monaco and Cayman.
The result, in stark contrast to the battering it has taken recently, still sees Switzerland top Scorpio Partnership’s first MWRI. The alpine state shows that its attractiveness is far more than just a center for booked assets. In fact, its number one ranking is clear evidence of a key theme in the selection of a jurisdiction in which to reside -- the mobile wealthy take into account a whole host of criteria when taking the decision on where to reside. Switzerland’s wide appeal places it ahead of key competitors such as London, Singapore, New York and Hong Kong in the beauty parade for a potential residence for the mobile wealthy.
The Alpine state has a strong positioning across almost all of the principal 11 criteria used by the mobile wealthy when making a decision on where to reside. In short, Switzerland offers would-be residents the best all-round package. It scores top for “Economic and Political Stability”; “Legal Considerations”; “Education for Children”; “Proximity”; and “Culture/Infrastructure” and ranks 2nd and 3rd for “Employment and Business Opportunities” and “Depth of Financial Services” respectively.
According to Scorpio, that breadth of attractiveness is of great significance in an environment where fiscal incentives are often seen as the be-all and end-all of the selection process. Switzerland receives an average ranking for “Fiscal Considerations and Immigration”. Monaco, on the other hand, was top ranked for “Fiscal Considerations and Immigration” but only ranks 3rd bottom overall. Switzerland’s top spot is therefore not down to tax. Rather, tax is perhaps the headline while other factors are the meat in the sandwich, says Scorpio.
“To the mobile wealthy, Switzerland is still very nearly all things to all people. Right across the spectrum of criteria it scores well in this Index, offering the mobile wealthy the headline fiscal incentive as well as all the underlying criteria such as stability, employment and business opportunities, infrastructure and education for their children,” said Stephen Wall, Director. “Indeed, most anecdotal evidence from the market suggests Switzerland has been and will continue to be the biggest beneficiary of any moves away from London, particularly in the mid to HNW and above segments.” This is in spite of the various attacks on the Swiss state from E.U. and U.S. governments, the OECD and others.
London is second in this first MWRI even amid the current aura of negativity surrounding its continued attractiveness to the mobile wealthy. The UK capital retains an inherently strong position vis-à-vis its competitors and is undoubtedly still the dominant centre internationally for the mobile wealthy community at all levels. London remains strategically well positioned between East and West with a convenient time zone, a strong and alluring professional services industry and numerous good travel links. All these factors help to further reinforce London’s perception as a hub.
What is clear, however, is that its positioning in 2nd place is largely due to the damage done by recent regulatory and fiscal changes impacting the mobile wealthy. “The government’s stance has engendered a sense of mistrust and uncertainty among the mobile wealthy and their advisors. They definitely feel undervalued and over-scrutinized in the current environment,” said Sebastian Dovey, Managing Partner at Scorpio. This is reflected in London scoring poorly for the fiscal considerations and immigration in this index. However, the fact it still takes second spot re-emphasises the fact that tax, an area where London has been shot in the foot more than once recently by its national Government, is but just one area of attraction.
Singapore is a demonstration that the East has risen fast as a destination for the mobile wealthy. This is a very positive reflection of this City’s growth plans which have seen it put in place a successful framework over the last decade implementing international best practice. Spurred on by the experience of the Asian financial crisis it has done much to make itself attractive to the mobile HNW community. Singapore is viewed by the mobile wealthy as the hub from which to do business in and throughout Asia and the Government has moved to make its fiscal environment attractive in the international environment.
What is also abundantly clear is a clear distinction between the large “all-in” global centers such as Switzerland and London and the smaller niche centres such as Jersey, Guernsey, Isle of Man, Cayman and Monaco. While these latter locations are rated among the top 11 locations for the mobile wealthy community and often offer them preferential treatment and opportunities, as one they struggle to compete with the major centers that can offer a wider and deeper range of benefits related to business, lifestyle, property and a concentration of other mobile wealthy residents with the same expectations, outlook and demands, notes Scorpio’s report.
This emerging trend is largely due to the larger global centers active courting of the mobile wealthy as part of their long-term strategy. There is a strong sense that the mobile wealthy feel that city hubs are on their way to tying up the market due to their scale and smaller centers will increasingly need to focus on offering niche opportunities.
About the Mobile Wealthy Residency Index (MWRI)
The MWRI is a ranking of the 11 centers consistently described by the mobile wealthy and their advisors as the most attractive locations in which to live and work. The Scorpio team examined each across 11 criteria of competitiveness identified by the mobile wealthy as key drivers in their decision making process when choosing somewhere to live. Each jurisdiction was then scored through a combination of qualitative and quantitative measures.
In measuring the relative attractiveness of the locations the report is inevitably aspirational rather than actual. Crucially, however, and particularly in the current environment, this study gives a valuable insight into where the mobile wealthy may be considering moving to next.
11 jurisdictions [ranked]: Cayman, Hong Kong, London, Dubai, Isle of Man, Monaco, Guernsey, Jersey, New York, Singapore, Switzerland.
11 criteria: Economic/Political Stability, Proximity/Convenience, Employment and Business, Opportunities, Education for Children, Fiscal Considerations and Immigration, Security, Legal Considerations, Concentration/Critical Mass of Mobile, Wealthy, Depth of the Financial Services Sector, Culture/Infrastructure, Availability of Quality Housing.
This is the first study aimed at judging the relative appeal of international locations according to this audience. The MWRI represents a global assessment of the factors that influence the world’s mobile wealthy populations’ decisions to move to one city or location over another. As such, it is not purely a report on fiscal considerations as there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that, whilst important, tax is far from being the only reason for this group to favor one location over another.
Definition of the “mobile wealthy”
While the media around the world has tended to focus on high profile examples such as the Russian oligarchs, this group of ultra HNWs represents a small proportion of the world’s mobile wealthy population. The majority of the mobile wealthy are professionals such as doctors and dentists, architects, lawyers, accountants, entrepreneurs and financial services executives and they represent the largest section of the mobile wealthy whose views were consulted by Scorpio Partnership before the creation of this report.
All in, this work is based on over 400 qualitative interviews conducted by Scorpio Partnership during 2008 to April 2009 with the leading international advisors to the world’s wealthy mobile including lawyers, accountants and bankers across the 11 jurisdictions. This represents over 250 hours of first hand data gathering research. While many of the categories judged will not have changed significantly over this time frame (quality of housing, security, culture/infrastructure etc.) there have clearly been huge changes recently to the business, economic and fiscal environment.
COSTA RICA HIGH COURT BACKS BANKS WHO PUT SQUEEZE ON EXPAT CASH
War on Cash collateral damage includes workaday expats.
This article from Costa Rica A.M. indicates that Costa Rican banks are getting every bit as intrusive as U.S. banks, and other financial institutions around the world running scared of the OECD/U.S.’s war on cash. The Costa Rican banks seem to be acting in compliance with anti-money laudering laws and more. In one example cited a bank account with a balance of US$64 was shut down because the account holder did not respond rapidly enough to a demand for information.
Suffice it to say that such actions will not raise the ranking of Costa Rica versus Switzerland (see immediately above) as a leading financial center for high net worth individuals.
Costa Rica is not an offshore financial haven by any definition, and is highly dependent on its U.S. sponsor. So their reaction is explicable by those facts alone. But we are talking a matter of degree rather than kind. All offshore havens are worried. Those most dependent on financial services for their economic well-being, and those which are economically independent, may be expected to be most circumspect in reponse to pressure from the big boys. But they will respond.
Expats who have been annoyed, upset and angered at the prying demands of bank officials should not count on help from the Sala IV constitutional court.
The constitutional court has dismissed out of hand appeals from two Banco Popular y de Desarrollo Comunal customers who have had trouble with frozen accounts.
The two persons who made the separate appeals appear to be Costa Rican, but expats who have accounts at Banco de Costa Rica or Banco Popular have been complaining about the excessive demands and presumed invasion of personal privacy by bank employees.
Even A.M. Costa Rica columnist Jo Stuart had her account frozen for a time. A La Fortuna woman, Ellen Neely, complained in a letter Monday about the demands of the Banco de Costa Rica branch workers there. She said she only had $885 in the account.
A Parrita woman complained by telephone to a reporter Wednesday that a bank employee there demanded to see three years of her U.S. tax returns. [Note: Article dateline is Friday, May 22. All references to days of the week are to earlier in the same week.]
This is all part of the bank efforts to know their customers, as required by anti-money laundering laws. The process is called in Spanish actualization de datos.
Basically Banco de Costa Rica wants its account holders to bring in the same type of documents that they needed to open the account. These include a current utility bill, a residency cédula or cédula de identidad for citizens and a personaria jurídica for a corporate account. But some bank workers are demanding to see Costa Rican tax returns, reports to the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social, U.S. bank statements, and in some cases contracts between the account holder and those customers who do business with him, her or the corporation.
Expats are particularly vulnerable because they frequently have international financial activities. Some have significant funds deposited to meet immigration requirements. In the La Fortuna case, Ms. Neely made certain payments from her account here to credit card companies in the United States.
The Parrita woman said that she received a monthly payment of deferred commissions from the United States. Many expats receive U.S. Social Security payments here.
Banco Nacional has not yet begun checking on its patrons, but that will come soon. Private banks have been checking on significant deposits and major activity for years in their accounts. One private bank customer said his bank closed his account this week because he did not respond rapidly to their demand for information on the account holder. A bank messenger delivered a check the next day, he said. The account balance was $64.
A reporter had a brief discussion Tuesday with Mario Rivera Turcios, general manager of Banco de Costa Rica. Rivera promised to provide a definitive list of documents that bank customers will have to supply to update their records. A bank public relations worker promised to send the list Wednesday. It had not arrived Thursday.
Bank workers are justifiably gun shy because Banco Popular was just hit with a 300 million colon fine by the Superintendencia General de Entidades Financieros. That is about $525,000. Bank employees were carrying money across the Panama border for deposit in a Banco Popular branch there to benefit three customers of Banco Universal de Panamá.
The banks are operating to comply with the demands of Chapter 5 of a 2001 law, No. 8204, which requires financial institutions to have a full identity check of their customers, particularly when the funds involved are more than $10,000 and when the account is being opened. The law covers individuals who just have a safe deposit box at the banks. The financial institutions also have to keep five years worth of records on each account, says the law.
The requirements of banks and other financial institutions, like stock brokers, is contained in a law that is mostly about drugs and refers to laundering of drug proceeds. The banks seem to be acting more aggressively than the law requires.
The Sala IV constitutional court did not appear to have a detailed hearing on the case. The vote was to throw out the two requests for court aid. It appears that the court did not dwell on the merits of the arguments. The legal term is rechazó de plano.
The first appeal came from a man identified as Gerardo Valderrama González. He filed his brief March 30 after Banco Popular refused to accept a deposit. It appears the holders of the account on which the deposit check was written had not provided their up-to-date information to the bank.
The second appeal came from a man with the last names of Villalobos Delgado, who filed after the bank froze his account because he had not provided up-to-date information.
The Poder Judicial said that the constitutional court did not find any rights violations in the actions of the bank, although the one sentence decisions suggest that the cases were not examined closely. The court decision was made April 30 but was not made public until Thursday.
WAL-MART LOSES STATE INCOME TAX APPEAL
Case may have implications for the way in which U.S. businesses organize their corporate structures.
Wal-Mart has been configuring its real estate operations such that the retail stores pay tax-deductible rent to another subsidiary which is structured as a Real Estate Investment Trust. An REIT avoids corporate income taxes as long as it pays out most of its income to the (unrevealed, in the case at hand) unit holders. Apparently this legal configuration saved Wal-Mart $230 million in taxes over a 4-year period.
The state of North Carolina decided to “look through” this paper shuffle and assess a extra tax by effectively disallowing some of that rental deduction. The state Court of Appeals recently sustained that interpretation of law. If the state Supreme Court reaffirms the decision and other states follow suit, it could instigate a major reshuffling of formal legal ownership among firms such as Wal-Mart.
U.S. retail giant Wal-Mart has lost a legal battle to reclaim $33.5 million in tax it paid to the state of North Carolina in a case that may have implications for the way in which U.S. businesses organize their corporate structures.
Wal-Mart was appealing the $33.5 million bill for back taxes, penalties and interest imposed by North Carolina, which had argued that rental payments made by the company to a Wal-Mart subsidiary were improper. However, the state Court of Appeals ruled on May 19 that the state Secretary of Revenue “acted within his lawful authority” when he assessed additional taxes against the company.
“The language of the statute is broad, allowing the secretary to require combined reporting if he finds as a fact that a report by a corporation does not disclose the true earnings of the corporation on its business carried on in this state,” wrote Judge Donna Stroud in her opinion, which was supported by the two other judges on the panel.
North Carolina assessed the additional taxes on Wal-Mart after taking issue with the way in which the company had organized its business to claim a large state tax deduction.
Under this structure, Wal-Mart transferred ownership of all of its stores to a Wal-Mart subsidiary. In most states, this enables Wal-Mart to deduct the “rent” it pays the subsidiary (i.e., the rent it pays itself) from the income that is subject to state corporate taxes. The subsidiary receiving the rent is not taxed because it qualifies as a tax-exempt Real Estate Investment Trust under federal and state law -- provided it distributes at least 90% of its income in dividends.
According to a 2007 Wall Street Journal report, this structure saved the retailer $230 million in taxes in many states over a 4-year period.
The North Carolina Appeals Court decision could strengthen the cases of other states which are seeking to outlaw such practices, and could affect other companies with similar arrangements to those of Wal-Mart.
The company, however, could appeal the latest decision to the state’s Supreme Court.
While Wal-Mart was still reviewing its legal options at the time of writing, a company spokesperson said that taxpayers should be able to rely on “clearly defined laws that are reasonably and fairly enforced.”
STATES TARGET THE RICH
How to drive out millionaires without really trying.
Like any good herd, U.S. state governments go through trends of raising and lower tax rates together. Now we are going through a bull market in rates. In the high-tax states the rates are going high enough on low enough income levels that they surely will drive at least some people away. Of course given that so many states are raising rates together the options for the world-be emigrators is more limited ... unless they are willing to leave the U.S.
Forbes 400 member B. Thomas Golisano built his fortune in New York and has run for governor there three times. In May he changed his official residency to Naples, Florida. Why? In April New York socked millionaires with a 31% tax hike – raising the tax rate on income over $500,000 from 6.85% to 8.97%. (It also added a 7.85% rate for income over $300,000 for a couple.) Florida has no state income tax.
After decades of competing to cut income tax rates, revenue-hungry states are raising them, especially on wealthy folks. “States are piggybacking off the Obama rhetoric,” says Joseph Henchman, at the Tax Foundation in Washington, D.C.
The definition of rich tends to hover around the $250,000-per-couple income level that President Obama has targeted for federal tax hikes. In May the Democratic-controlled Hawaii legislature overrode Republican Governor Linda Lingle’s veto to add 9%, 10% and 11% individual income tax rates to the state’s old top rate of 8.25%, giving it the highest state rate in the nation.
The most recent rate hikes are temporary, if you believe the language in the laws. New York’s new rates are supposed to expire after three years, Hawaii’s after seven. In the late 1980s state rates ran as high as 13%. Then came a burst of supply-side thinking, and by 2000 all were below 10%.
State Top Rate (%) On Income Over
(For a Couple)
Hawaii 11.00 $400,000 California 10.55 $1,000,000 Rhode Island 9.90 $372,950 Vermont 9.50 $372,950 Oregon 9.00 $15,200 Source: Tax Foundation.
More hikes are likely, says Jamie Yesnowitz, of Grant Thornton’s state and local tax group. New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine wants a temporary 0.75 increase in the top 8.97% rate on income over $500,000. Wisconsin Governor James Doyle wants a permanent one-percentage-point increase, to 7.75%, in the rate on income over $300,000 for a married couple.
A side bar article to this one, “How High Is Your Tax Burden?”, includes a great map showing relative tax burdens across the states. A slider bar allows one to see how these relative burdens have changed in the last 30 years.
IRS TRIUMPHS IN “SON OF BOSS” CASE
Court rules that lack of economic substance invalidates use of tax shelter.
A U.S. federal court has upheld the IRS’s contention vis-à-vis the notorious “Son of Boss (BLIPS)” tax shelter, that the lack of economic substance meant the tax savings obtained from using the shelter were invalid. The court concluded that “no reasonable possibility of profit existed” for the shelter transactions, thus they lacked economic substance.
This is the kind of ruling one would expect from the branch of the federal government known as the courts. While at some detached abstract philosophical level we see the justification for the ruling, in the end we think that either you met the objective requirements of the law as written or you did not. Unless there was a specific requirement of a well-defined economic substance, that consideration should not enter into the decision. Better yet, simply the tax code so that issues of this sort never arise in the first place.
A U.S. federal appeals court has upheld a decision denying over $50 million in claimed tax losses arising from two taxpayers’ investment in a “Son of Boss (BLIPS)” tax shelter.
In the case Klamath Strategic Investment Fund v United States, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that “a lack of economic substance is sufficient to invalidate the transaction regardless of whether the taxpayer has motives other than tax avoidance.” The court concluded that “no reasonable possibility of profit existed” for the transaction in question.
Son of Boss tax shelter schemes evolved from an earlier incarnation known as “Boss” (bond and option sales strategy). The scheme utilizes a complex set of derivative transactions to reduce tax liability and was commonly used in the late 1990s to offset large one-off gains such as the sale of a business.
In March 2005, the Internal Revenue Service announced that more than $3.2 billion was collected from over 1,000 taxpayers who had participated in a Son of Boss tax shelter settlement scheme launched almost one year earlier. This amnesty scheme also benefited the coffers of various state governments, with Arizona, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Utah and Virginia collecting more than $23.5 million from voluntary state tax return amendments.
The appeals court ruling affirmed an earlier decision by a district court and joins the majority of circuits which have ruled on the question.
“We are pleased that the Fifth Circuit has joined all the other appellate courts in ruling that ‘Son of Boss’ tax deductions are not permissible,” said John A. DiCicco, Acting Assistant Attorney General at the Justice Department’s Tax Division.
“We are also pleased that the court has recognized that determinations of this sort must be made on the objective evidence irrespective of the claimed motives of the individual investors,” he added.
PEOPLE SEARCH ENGINES: THEY KNOW YOUR DARK SECRETS ... AND TELL ANYONE
Social search engines can turn up your Amazon Wish List, photos of your kids, your musical tastes, and much, much more. What else is out there that you do not want everyone to know, and what can you do to protect yourself?
Anyone with any privacy-preserving instincts at all should feel an instinctive aversion to joining Facebook, posting an email address which can easily be tied to you on Amazon or other public forums, or even just filling out on online survey. There have been too many stories about the privacy invading potential of the internet for one not to be suspicious, and give the non-benefit of the doubt to disclosing information. Just what that all leads to if you do not exercise considerable care in managing your online disclosures and indentity are covered in this piece from PC World.
Several services have created “people search engines” which go well beyond where Google and the like crawl – or at least beyond what they make available publically. These PSEs troll through forum postings, online music playlists, Amazon reviews and wishlists, etc. and link things together into what can be a surprisingly extensive and intrusive personal profile. This fact alone should suggest certain appropriate actions one can take as countermeasures, an obvious one being to use many different email addresses – including throwaway ones – across your different internet presences. Further actions are offered below.
[Editor’s note: While researching this story, JR Raphael discovered the Coldplay radio station I created on Pandora on August 13, 2006; found that I had looked into purchasing a 4-foot iPod-compatible 3.5mm audio cable in October of 2007; and sleuthed out what my StumbleUpon user name is. Though only my musical taste was mildly incriminating, it was freaky to see what details popped up. (Do I want my hipster friends to know that I like Chris Martin and his melodic cohorts?) Read on to find out how deep these searches can go.]
I know things about my lawyer I absolutely should not know. He is 55 years old, listens to the music of the band Creed, and screams like a little girl when riding roller coasters. He also relaxes with New Age spa treatments and is thinking about getting an electronic nose hair trimmer. And that is just the start.
Now, let me be clear: I have never spent a single moment outside the office with this guy (and for what it is worth, I would just as soon not be privy to his personal grooming habits). I learned all of these details by tracking his social footprint across the Web -- and he probably has no idea that he has left such a vivid trail behind.
In our age of social sharing, we expect some of our thoughts to be public. But as we slowly put more and more pieces of ourselves online, specialized search engines are making it easier than ever to pull them together into a highly detailed (and potentially invasive) profile of our virtual lives (read “Online Stalking Made Easy”).
I will let you in on a little secret: The picture is not always pretty. And even if no rap sheet turns up, do you really want the world to know that you look at bad breath cures online or post awful Star Trek fan fiction?
The Depths of the Deep Web
You hear a lot of terms bounced around when you talk about this growing breed of search engines. Some services like to be called “social search” utilities, while others prefer the phrase “people search.” Many boast of their ability to delve through the “Deep Web” that even Google does not touch.
“Even though most people think the size of the Web is basically the Google crawl index, there is actually a lot of information that Google does not crawl,” says Harrison Tang, founder and CEO of Spokeo -- which, taking a mash-up approach to its identification, describes itself as a “social people search engine” service.
Spokeo, like its competitors Pipl and CVGadget, is designed to let you dig up information on friends, foes, and anyone in between. Spokeo goes a step farther than many of the other services, though, by importing your entire e-mail address book.
Then, for a few bucks a month, it continually monitors your contacts and lets you know whenever anyone has done anything new, anywhere online. (The site’s home page promises to help you “uncover personal photos, videos, and secrets,” including “juicy” and “mouth-watering news about friends and coworkers.”) [Editor’s note: Pipl reports that my former boss donated $500 during the 2004 presidential election – candidate not named.]
Each individual bit of information may seem insignificant, but the cumulative effect of seeing it assembled in a neatly packaged portfolio is enough to give almost anyone pause. [Editor’s note: According to CVGadget’s quick search, my college roommate researched the game of bocce ball recently for a children’s book she is writing. And a former boyfriend I have not spoken to since the 1980s appears to be an actor in Santa Barbara. Who knew?]
“Aggregated identity is actually a new type of identity,” Tang says, theorizing about why so many people seem to use the word “spooky” when describing his service. “A lot of people know that they have a public MySpace page, a lot of people know that they have a public Twitter album. But, when combined together, it is not one plus one equals two -- you actually create a new identity.”
How Spokeo Works
Spokeo’s system uses your contacts’ e-mail addresses to track their activity on a few dozen services, ranging from basic blogs and social networks to a slew of photo- and video-sharing sites. That means the random photos of your kids you shared on Flickr two years ago (or perhaps those less innocent images from your spring break trip a decade earlier) will pop up right under your name, seconds after someone searches for you.
Less obvious sources such as Amazon Wish Lists, Pandora playlists, and movie rating sites fill in the colorful details that you may not have realized were out there at all--things like (in my lawyer’s case) an affinity for New Age jams and nasal maintenance.
I found Mr. Attorney’s age on an old MySpace profile and his roller coaster behavior on a personal YouTube video, but Pandora divulged his cravings for Creed and his suggested usages for the “Spa Radio” station he had created. As for the nose hair trimmer, he can thank his Amazon Wish List for sending that factoid my way.
For Sale: Your Information
Other services access the same data and then sell the information under the banner of marketing research. One highly visible example is Rapleaf, a company that describes its services as “data and people lookup.” Clients pay thousands of dollars to have detailed social profiles compiled of individuals in their own customer databases. As is the case with the data that Spokeo assembles, the information is all publicly available -- Rapleaf just brings it together. “Things that people have posted are out there for anyone to come and see,” says Joel Jewitt, Rapleaf’s vice president of business development. “As long as you are not going beyond that, that is within the privacy norms today.”
Most of Rapleaf’s clients, Jewitt says, are simply trying to understand how to use social media more effectively for marketing. An auto manufacturer, for example, might want to know which car models its customers are checking out and discussing on social Internet services. Armed with the company’s list of customer e-mail addresses, Rapleaf would crawl the Web and track down the information, person by person.
“It is pretty standard Web spidering,” Jewitt says. “We re-create in an automatic way what someone from the general public would be able to do if they were looking.”
Whether they target businesses or individuals, the services have one thing in common: Unlike the public record-driven search tools of the past, the new people-tracking utilities build a highly detailed dossier about you solely from information that you yourself published – a circumstance that may give you a distinct feeling of discomfort.
“What it does is make the ubiquity of the Internet and the sheer openness of the world tangible,” says Internet privacy expert Kevin B. McDonald, executive vice president of Alvaka Networks, a network management firm. “It makes the whole concept of the world sharing of information and the ‘no-walls’ approach that the Internet was designed for very real to people.”
The reality can be chilling if the information is going to certain interested individuals: a curious client, a boss big on background checks, or an obsessive ex, say. A recent study reported that half of all British Internet users surveyed admitted to having used the Internet to look up information on a former flame. The ease with which someone can arrange to monitor your every electronic move certainly adds a new dimension to the idea of fixation.
“It is a little ‘stalkery,’” says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “If the information is distributed, that is actually a form of privacy. When it is gathered up in one place, it creates some new risks.”
Rotenberg is no fan of companies that assemble nuggets of personal but public information to turn a profit. “The fact that someone’s made something public does not mean that someone else can sell it,” he contends. “I would say even with affirmative consent, if there is going to be a market for personal data, the user should get some percentage of whatever value the data has.”
The thing to remember, of course, is that these services are not doing anything illegal. The information they gather is information that anyone who knew where to look – and had the time to do it – could find. So rather than ignoring the king-size file that may have been collected on you, McDonald suggests, you should try to use it as a tool to understand and control your online identity.
“I have come to the point where rather than be driven by the Internet, I intend to drive it to the degree that I can,” he says.
“All you can do is learn to live with it,” McDonald says. “That is the confines of the world that we live in.”
For suggestions on concrete steps you can take to reduce your online exposure, see “People Search Engines: Slam the Door on What Info They Can Collect.” [See immediately below.]
People Search Engines: Slam the Door on What Info They Can Collect
Take these steps to stop the new generation social search engines from telling the world everything about you.
As we slowly put more and more pieces of ourselves online, specialized search engines are making it easier than ever to pull them together into a highly detailed (and potentially invasive) profile of our virtual lives.
In our story “People Search Engines: They Know Your Dark Secrets ... And Tell Anyone,” [above] we investigated the reality that these new social search engines – which include CVGadget, Pipl, Rapleaf, and Spokeo – can readily collect a mountain of personal details about you that you might prefer stay hidden (or at least widely dispersed) online.
Test requests that we entered at these sites uncovered random details about co-workers’ and acquaintances’ college roommates and boyfriends from the 1980s, political donations, shopping preferences and musical tastes. Fortunately, you can take steps to limit the information these sites may collect.
One way to grab control is to turn the tables and use the new services to search for information on yourself.
For instance, Spokeo lets you see a limited amount of data without subscribing, Pipl and CVGadget are totally free, and Rapleaf offers an open tool to manage your Internet footprint.
“You can come in and sign up and see all the things that we found about you,” says Rapleaf’s Joel Jewitt.
Once you know what kind of information is out there, you can decide whether to try to remove it. If you decide that you do, here are some options to consider:
1. Rapleaf offers the option to opt out of its services.
By entering your e-mail address on this Rapleaf page, you can have your data permanently deleted from Rapleaf’s database. There is no charge, and once you respond to Rapleaf’s confirmation message, your information will not appear in the company’s reports ever again.
2. Many other services, Spokeo included, update their caches based on your external settings.
In contrast to Rapleaf’s opt-out method, Spokeo and many of the other services work the way a standard search engine does: If the content disappears from the Web, it also disappears from the search results. That means you need to visit the individual sites connected to your e-mail address and adjust the privacy settings within each one. In the case of Spokeo, the info will stop showing up in searches within about a week of your making the changes.
3. Most well-known sites give you the option of making your data private. It just might not be obvious.
People search engines glean their material about you from many well-known sites,including Amazon.com, social networking sites such as Facebook, and music sites such as Pandora.
You will usually need to go within each individual site’s account configuration pages and look for the privacy options to adjust to suit your comfort level.
Here are some places to visit:
These are the steps for just a few of the most widely used sites that the people search engines scan. If you decide to rethink your level of privacy, the most important first step is to search yourself or your family members so that you will know exactly which sites’ privacy settings you need to reconfigure.
- Amazon: Wish Lists are made public by default. To change that setting, go to this page and select the option to sign in. You can then view any Wish Lists associated with your account and designate them as private.
- Facebook: Once signed in, look under the “Settings” tab at the top of the page to find the privacy control panel. Click the Profile option to set parameters regarding who can view your content.
- MySpace: Click the My Account button at the top of the page after logging in, then click Privacy to adjust your settings. Bear in mind that your age and location are typically displayed publicly even if your profile is set as private, as was the case in one of the examples cited in “They Know Your Dark Secrets ... And Tell Anyone.”
- Pandora: Your playlists are public unless you specify otherwise. Once logged in, click Account at the top of the page, and then follow the option to edit your profile info. From there, you will see a checkbox that you can select to make your profile (and thus your playlists) private.
Ultimately, the power is in your hands. Switch off autopilot and take control.
PC World’s site has many articles on online privacy, etc.:
10,001 WAYS TO LIVE LARGE ON A SMALL BUDGET: BOOK REVIEW
We ran across a reference to this book and, intrigued by the title, sought out reviews. Here is one that covers what sound like the book’s strong and weak points with minimal verbiage.
We have yet to read 10,001 Ways To Live Large On A Small Budget ourselves, but understand this: Every dollar (or euro, or gram of gold for that matter) you do not spend is the equivalent of totally and legally untaxed income. The (non)flow of funds is not tracked and in fact is completely untraceable.
What’s not to like?
When I read the title of the book 10,001 Ways To Live Large I was reminded of Clemenceau’s quote, when he heard about Woodrow Wilson’s 14 point program: “Even the good lord had only 10.”
I wondered if the book promised too much, but, when I started reading this money saving book -- I found that it really delivered on the promise of its title.
I opened a page randomly and found advice on:
10 Things I Never Buy New
The list had DVDs / CDs, Video Games, Cars, Yard Toys and Workout Equipment among others.
I am an avid Wii gamer and I rarely buy any new games. I go to eBay and bid for old games, not only are they cheap -- they offer you the same quality as a new game would. I know that used cars provide a lot more value for money than new cars and I have a close friend who has bought most of his gym equipment in yard sales. So, my first sense of the book was that it offers advice that is quite practical.
I got the impression that the tips came from people who have actually done this at one point or the other, which is an extremely important factor to me for obvious reasons.
I flipped a few more pages and found that there is a whole section dedicated to Education and Self Improvement. In an age of millionaires who never completed their degree I am a big fan of education and knowledge. Wisebread’s money saving book has devoted a full section to education and self-development and is full of tips and tricks on lowering your education cost, getting cheaper text books, free food on campus and also on developing a more confident self.
I randomly read a few pages of any book to get a feel of the book and gauge whether I would like it or not. I liked what I saw in the first glance and settled down to read a little more.
After going through the book I can confidently say that someone who is looking for ways to live frugally (not cheaply) will find this book useful.
Here are some key things that you should know about this book.
The book is co-authored by several writers who have written books about thrift and personal finance in the past and are also actively engaged in managing their own personal finance websites.
Sections of the Book
As you can see, the book covers most of the major aspects of life that offer a frugal and better way of spending or managing money.
- Food and Drink
- Health and Beauty
- Fun and Entertainment
- Shopping and Bargain Hunting
- Green Living
- Financial Planning and Budgeting
- Credit Cards and Debt
- Investing Your Money
- Housing and Home Improvement
- Career and Money Making Ideas
They have broken the sections further into relevant subheaders and then discussed various tips within them. For example, the section about Food and Drink discusses Wine, Dining Out, Kitchen Gadgets, etc.
Language Used in the Book
The book is written in a simple, clear and concise manner. It is easy to read and you will be able to flip through the book quickly without scratching your forehead. The advice is common sense and even “folksy” and most people should like the positive tone of the book.
The book is strung together as a manual or hand book and you will not find any story here. That is pretty much what the title of the book says, but, I know that a lot of people (including myself) feel that any book they pick up should tell a compelling story. If you were looking for a book that had great tips as well as a story that weaved them together, then this is not the book for you.
On the whole, I really enjoyed 10,001 Ways To Live Large on a Frugal Budget and I think anyone who buys this book will not be disappointed with the 10 dollars they invest in it.
Perhaps the first tip should be to try and get a used copy of the book?
HOW TO BE OFFENDED
This piece caught our eye because these days offending someone has become a kind of de facto crime. It excuses all manner of remedies and counterstrikes by the aggrieved party. Moreover, it is used to shut down debate around various premises fundamental to our political system.
Think the U.S. federal government has usurped many powers retained by the states under the original Constitutional compact and become a dictatorial empire in the process? What are you? Some kind of states’ rights, racist, Confederacy apologist? That kind of stuff.
Here the author draws a distinction around properly and improperly used offense: “It is through taking offense that we discover the limits of our own knowledge, understanding, or compassion, and therefore it is at the point of offense that we have the greatest potential to grow as people.”
So feeling offended is an avenue of growth and an opening for genuine communication. Not an excuse for shutting down and lashing out. And, lest we forget: “Offense is not injury.”
I teach things that many find offensive. Whether it is articles containing racist language in my “Gender, Race, and Class” course or descriptions of oral insemination as part of the Sembia male’s coming-of-age rituals in my anthropology course, I know that some students are going to be offended, sometimes deeply.
Over the years, I have come to view offense as a particularly useful state of being -- but only when the offense one feels is used properly. Most people view being offended as an excuse for shutting down, even going (you guessed it) on the offensive. They refuse to be party to whatever offensive material is being presented to them, whether it is someone making a sexist joke or a politician’s attack ad.
Obviously I cannot have students shutting down -- or worse, feeling so put upon that they lash out at me or their fellow students. My classroom is, after all, a learning environment. But being offended is one of the key parts of the learning process. It is through taking offense that we discover the limits of our own knowledge, understanding, or compassion, and therefore it is at the point of offense that we have the greatest potential to grow as people.
Consider the kinds of situations that make us feel offended. We take offense when:
All of these situations can offer us an opportunity to grow as a person, whether by learning about value systems or ways of living that differ from your own (and which sometimes offer a more efficient, more fulfilling, or simply more reasonable way of doing things), or by increasing our understanding of other people (offering the opportunity, perhaps, to resolve conflicts before they become intractable), or simply by exposing the gap between the way others see us and the way we see ourselves (which can be eye-opening indeed).
- We are confronted with situations radically different from those we are used to.
- We experience situations that conflict strongly with our own values.
- Our belief systems are challenged or dismissed as inadequate.
- We are labeled or otherwise treated in ways that are inconsistent with our self-image.
This can only happen, though, when we recognize offense for what it is -- our mind’s way of processing unfamiliar experience. We have a whole set of mental standards that our minds are always comparing new experiences against to guide our actions and reactions. When no “entry” exists that we can categorize some situation into, offense kicks in -- “this is wrong,” it says.
At that moment, we can act in ways that prevent growth -- attacking someone, condemning them, walking away, or becoming defensive -- or we can use that offense as a trigger to kick us into “understanding” mode. Try thinking about these points next time you are offended:
Of course, there are situations where immediate action is necessary, as for instance when people are being injured. But a lot of us end up with a “think first, justify later” attitude that causes more conflicts than it solves. Welcoming offense as an opportunity rather than a problem is a step towards reducing the conflict around you -- by any measure, an entirely non-offensive thing!
- Offense is not injury. The most important step to keeping a level head in the face of serious offense is to remember that just because something offends you does not mean that it hurts you in any way. Be careful to sort out your immediate, emotional response from the actual practical effect of whatever offensive situation you are confronting -- most of the time, you will find your life can go on just fine regardless of this offensive thing.
- People are not stupid. For the most part, people do things for reasons that, at least at the time, seem like good ones. And when they have the weight of tradition behind them, they are usually right -- societies that do things that are actually and truly wrong tend to be extinct. No matter how difficult it is to accept, you have to acknowledge that many practices that seem utterly impractical and stupid have endured for hundreds or even thousands of years without killing, maiming, or traumatizing the people who practice them.
- There is more than one way to skin a cat. The way you do things will always seem like the right, best, and only way to do it -- but it is not. Try to recognize the value in the way other people do things. Often you will find that, as odd and offensive as it might seem at first, it actually manages to accomplish the same ends as your “right” way of doing things.
- You are pretty weird yourself. Never forget that to an outsider, everyone seems weird. We are always exactly as foreign to others as they are to us. Try to look at some of your practices from the outside and see just how weird you really are.
- Clarify, clarify, clarify. Since offense usually arises at the point of misunderstanding between two people, cultures, or social contexts, dampen your moral outrage for a second to ask some questions. Although asking a question or two might seem easy, in my observations it takes a great deal of courage to ask even the simplest questions -- we all want to protect our self-identity by refusing to look ignorant, vulnerable, or unprepared. But of course, we often are ignorant, vulnerable, or unprepared -- and sometimes all three. Make sure you actually know what is going on!
- Those shoes are tight. You know the saying “Before you judge someone, walk a mile in their shoes”? Well, it is one of those sayings that are actually pretty true. Try to see things from other people’s viewpoints -- and often enough, the offense just melts away.
Slowing Tax Receipts Drive China’s Fiscal Revenue Down 13.6%
The tax take by the Chinese government was off substantially in March due to a slowing economy and various tax cuts. Stimulus indeed.
Slowing tax income amid the global economic downturn have led China’s total fiscal revenues in March to drop by almost 14% on last year’s figures, the Ministry of Finance (MoF) has announced.
According to the MoF, combined central and local government March revenues have fallen by approximately 13.6% in the 12 months ending March 2009 to CNY589.72 billion (US$86.5 billion).
Much of the decline has been attributed to falling tax revenues and administrative fees. While corporate income tax collections are down by as much as 81% as businesses struggle with the consequences of the global recession, export tax rebates have soared.
The swathe of tax incentive measures introduced by the government late last year -- such as the increase in export tax rebates, reduction of taxes on car and house purchases and the Value Added Tax reform -- have all contributed to the reduction in government revenue.
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