Wednesday 27 November 2013

Skype voicemail scam

Boring, boring, boring. No, not Skype. Skype is good, and useful, and free, and fabulous when you want to talk to your sister in Spain for an hour without worrying about the cost. What's boring is the latest scam going around.

Have you received an email recently telling you that you've got a Skype voicemail - and to 'open the attached file' to listen to it?

This is an automated email, please don’t reply.

Voice Message Notification

You received a new message from Skype voicemail service.

Message Details: Time of Call: Wed, 27 Nov 2013 16:59:10 +0200

Length of Call: 37sec

Listen to the message in the attached file.

Take a closer look. The email address it's coming from, for a start. Mine was sent by Looks like an authentic Skype Customer services address, doesn't it? Not.

Don't even go there. Firstly, it's a zip file (clue: anything can be hidden in a zip file, which includes malware, so always view these with extreme caution to start with).

Secondly, Skype voicemail messages are only ever delivered through Skype itself; if you get a notification that you've a voicemail, it will be in the form of an alert to log on to your Skype account and listen to it there. If you want to check, do just that: log on to your Skype account in the usual way. If there's a legit voicemail for you, it will be waiting for you there. But there won't be: Skype wouldn't be sending it as an attachment.

Actually, almost any message that tells you to 'open the attached file' for further information has the potential to be dodgy. The bank? Ebay? PayPal? Facebook? All these will direct you to log on to your own private account, and any genuine requests or messages will be found there.

Oh, and what's that you say? You don't even have a voicemail facility set up on your Skype account? Well, there's a surprise.

Delete, delete, delete.

And tell your friends to do the same.

Friday 25 October 2013

Fake 'burglary' accusation

I was rather startled this morning to receive the following email in my capacity as President of apdo-uk - the Association that supports, promotes and develops our industry of professional organising and decluttering.

Name: Kathie
Email address:
Organisation: Kathie

Hello, I am writing in an unusual case ... Some time ago, I used your services, and one of your employees face was familiar to me. At dinner with my wife, it turned out that he was a burglar, who 5 years ago broke into our home!!! This is ridiculous!!! How you can hire criminals? I found at least 3 bad entries for him at website for background check!! I am sure there are more!!! Please do something about it, things like that are ridiculous!!!

I didn't have serious concerns about it, for several reasons. Firstly, apdo-uk is not an employer at all, but an Association, and we have clear disclaimers all over our site: it's the clients' responsibility to check the appropriateness and credentials of any of our members they wish to work with. Secondly, the email refers to a man, and out of 105 current members just five of them are men. They picked an organisation with entirely the wrong demographic for this message.

And then, of course, there's the overall style of the email. Poor grammar, excessive exclamation marks... the hallmark of a spammer.

I replied briefly in any case, pointing out the above, and also that I'd need explicit details before investigating any of our members further. However, a quick trawl on Google afterwards proved my suspicions. The (probably fictitious) Kathie Kearns has sent many such emails, especially to folks in the hospitality industry, as I found on this online noticeboard. [This particular gmail address appears also on several lists of noted spammers.]

The question was: why? The email I received contained no links nor attachments. If it was spam in the real sense, one of those would surely have been present. However, looking at the reports on the above forum from other folks that have been spammed, this idiot proves to be exceptionally bad at their job: in my email, they've missed out the link (to a site called Everifies, ostensibly providing online checks on businesses). I don't suggest clicking on it - although according to the forum, the website has now been taken down in any case.

I'm posting this to flag up the situation in the hope that my article will also appear in Google searches for key phrases or for this email address, if anybody else, like me, is suspicious. However, as one poster on the forum put it, "with 40 branches around the country it had me going for a minute". It would be very easy for a member of a large corporation to take the accusation seriously, and to follow a link to a site that may well have had malware.

Honestly. Even the quality of spammers is deteriorating!

Monday 30 September 2013

Private by default?

I know that there's a lot of banging on about privacy, or the lack thereof, on Facebook. However, there's one small thing that may have slipped your notice.

Your original 'default setting' was probably to publish your posts to 'friends only', which is sensible. (You'll find the 'default setting' under the 'cog' icon, along to the right of your name on the upper toolbar, under Privacy & Settings.) However: do you realise that if you change the privacy of an individual post, you then change that setting for the next time you use it?

Let's say that you've been happily publishing updates to 'friends', and then along comes one that you want to share to a wider audience - perhaps you want to advertise an event you're involved in and don't mind who sees it. More likely, you've 'shared' a public post - one of those 'thoughts for the day', charity appeals or attractive or funny images - which comes as 'public' to start with. When you share it, you keep that public status - and change your own default status to public, too.

It's very easy to tell what the status is that you're using. Look at your last post, and look at the icon at the right-hand end of the post. Here are a couple of mine.

I've got a cold right now (a particularly nasty one). Hence my silly post. It's shared with friends: that's the little two-person icon on the right, after the date and location of the posting. (Not that there's anything very security-sensitive about the fact that I'm feeling like death warmed up at the moment, but it's only really meant as a flippant remark for those on my friends list.)

This one's a bit different. It's a sharing of a video that I found funny. I have no problem at all with the post being seen by friends, friends-of-friends, or total strangers. So the privacy setting after the date is the little globe: public.

The point here is that after I'd shared, to a public audience, the silly Cockatiel video, my default setting for posts became public. So when I published my next update I needed to remember to change it back to Friends. Like this.

Why on earth you'd want to publish a post as 'only me' - in other words, nobody else could see it - I really can't imagine. However, the other settings all have their uses. 'Custom' gives you the choice to include or exclude specific people, and Public and Friends are what they say.

Have a check back on your Timeline and see what is posted as Public and what is shared with Friends. You can also view your Timeline as a non-friend would see it. Go back to the Privacy settings mentioned earlier, choose Timeline and Tagging Settings, and click on View As under 'Who can see things on my timeline?' It will display as a non-friend would see it. This gives you the chance to change anything that's not as it should be.

Going forward, it's easy enough to control as long as you keep your wits about you: every time you post, look for the little icon and make sure it says what you want it to say.

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Special offer: Back to school

Nearly the end of August, my goodness. At least this year we've had something approximating a real summer! I hope you've enjoyed it as much as I have.

Now we're all in that final week or so of 'back to school' mode. If you have children returning to school or college, you might be relishing the thought of regaining a bit of time and space for you! If it's back to your 'normal' (whatever 'normal' might be) routine after time away - or simply time out - you might (as I did) have had a bit of time to think about any changes you'd like to make to that life. There's nothing like a pause, or a different environment, to give you a change of perspective.

Are you wondering whether you could get your life into better working order? Looking at clutter that has accumulated and unable to know where to start, or where to dispose of it? Thinking (don't shoot me) about the fact that the Next Big Thing is Christmas, and all the organisation that goes with that?

You might be wary of spending a whole day on this project. It might be hard to find enough time - or enough money. However, you'd be amazed at how much can be achieved in a short space of time. (For a few ideas, have a look at this post from last year.)

As a 'back-to-school' incentive, I'm rerunning a successful promotion from this time last year: a two hour session at a special price, allowing you the opportunity to either target one specific matter and get some ideas and motivation, or to use it as an introduction to the huge difference that can be made to your life by a slightly longer-term approach.

Two hours of consultancy time is usually charged at £80. From now until the end of September 2013, I'm offering this at a very special £50. (See 'Practicalities' below.)

What could I help you with in two hours?

  • We could go through your house or office and find opportunities to improve storage, shelving, furniture placing, sourcing appropriate items online where necessary and creating your shopping list if needed.
  • We could actually declutter that cupboard, that set of drawers, that wardrobe you can't face - yes, it really could be possible in that time.
  • We could spend time at your computer, finding easy ways to achieve regular tasks, or helping you find faster, more elegant ways to do things.
  • We could look at ways in which you might streamline your diary and contacts.
  • We could work together on your use of social media, showing you how to control Twitter and Facebook, rather than letting it control you.

These are just a few ideas. What do you think? Go on, give it a try... contact me today, and let me know how I can help you.

A few practicalities:

  • This offer is open to work booked by 30th September, and performed by 31st October, 2013.
  • Travel expenses will be charged at 45p per mile.
  • For a two-hour session, it's not really practical for me to travel further than around 15 miles in each direction! So this offer is limited to those roughly within that area (have a look here for my location in the heart of Norfolk).
  • Usual terms & conditions and payment conditions apply.
  • This offer cannot be combined with any other special offers (e.g. the Taster session).

Monday 19 August 2013

Selling things

Putting my money where my mouth is...

From time to time, I have a major blitz in my own home. Books, music and clothes are our main clutter culprits (yes, even when it's my profession these things happen). A lot of the stuff goes to local charity shops; but there are a few places where I can make a bob or two by selling things reasonably easily.

If you'd like to see what I have available, please follow the following links to my accounts and listing pages:

Green Metropolis: books sold at a fixed rate of £3.75 mostly books

Ebay: anything and everything

- and, of course, if you want to try out these selling avenues yourself and want some help, just let me know!

PS: and when I want to get rid of something really obscure, or large, or heavy, and just want it to go to a good home, there's always Norfolk Freegle.

Friday 9 August 2013

Facebook scams & hoaxes: fight back

It's no news to any of my friends that I turn into a Rotweiller when faced with yet another pointless / manipulative / malicious / downright brainless posting on here. I love Facebook for the social, sharing, inspiring and amusing possibilities it affords, but I suppose it's human nature that there will always be morons who want to spoil it for others.

Some will be seriously harmful (taking you to websites with malicious code). Some will compromise security. Some will be 'likewhores' (gathering as many likes and followers as possible purely in order to sell the pages on at inflated prices). Some will be tasteless and distressing. Whichever category they come into, these are the clutter of social media (the more of the ugly and useless you can discard, the easier it is to find the useful and the beautiful).

So here's a very quick set of tips:

  • When you see something SHOCKING and using LOTS OF CAPITAL LETTERS and EXCLAMATION MARKS! - be suspicious.
  • When you see something that urges you to 'share this with all your friends now' - be suspicious.
  • When you are asked to do something that seems entirely pointless ("Name a drink without an E in it! I bet you can't!") - be suspicious.
  • When something (e.g. a free iPad or Macbook Air, a high-value voucher, a hugely expensive airline ticket) sounds too good to be true... well, you know the rest of that one.

Not sure?

  • Google a key phrase from the posting.
  • Search Facebook for the real page for the business purporting to give away some high-value prize. It will be there, trust me.
  • Check out one of the pages listed below.
  • Ask me.
  • Above all: please, please don't repost it 'just in case'.

Now: Follow the guys who know. Ensure that these pages' posts turn up in your Timeline and you'll quickly become aware of what's real and what's best avoided.

Just do it. Click through to these, 'like' them, keep an eye out for what they say. It's not hard, it can save us all a lot of irritation and hassle, and it keeps our social media lives the way they should be: fun, informative and generous.

Oh, and if you need to ask a specific question and you want a friendly geek, you know where I am:

Thursday 8 August 2013

Cutting an image down to size

Digital photography has come a long way in the quality stakes. The photos that can be taken even on your SmartPhone, never mind on a 'real' camera, can be of sharp enough quality (DPI, or dots-per-inch) to be printed to poster size.

However, this does have a drawback if you want to upload an image to somewhere on the internet. A photo that comes out of your camera as, say, 2500 x 1900 pixels, and as a result is around 3-4 MB in size, won't be appropriate if what you're wanting to do is to use it as your Twitter photo, or as a mugshot - which would be displayed at, say, 200 pixels wide. Some websites won't accept anything that large; and if you do upload it to your website at full size, it will take an irritatingly long time to download - especially for those (like myself) in areas where broadband is much slower.

So how do you resize a photo to a sensible size? Some sites will automatically do this resizing for you - Facebook does, for example. However, it's worth knowing how to do it yourself.

There are many excellent free options around, including Irfanview, Google Picasa and many more. [Just search for 'photo editor' and you'll find plenty to choose from.] If you want to get a little more creative about using your photographs, it's well worth investing a little time in learning how to use these valuable tools (and you know where to come if you need help!).

However, for a quick editing tool, online and without the need to install any software, there are loads more options. Try this:

It's very intuitive.

  • Click on Browse; find the photo you want to edit; open it. 
  • Choose Adjustment; choose Resize. You'll see the number of pixels used in your original photo. 
  • Leaving Keep Proportions in place (so the shape stays the same), change one of the two dimensions to the desired size. Apply. 
  • Click Save. Choose the quality you want (slide it to 100% to preserve the original image quality). The new file size will be displayed. 
  • Finally, if you don't want to overwrite the original image, type in a new name. 

Abracadabra - a much smaller and more web-friendly image.

Friday 28 June 2013

Keeping a balance : considering curating

I was introduced to a great new phrase to use in my organising work recently: Curating. This refers to capturing things, especially experiences, which can be shared and valuable for yourself and for others.

A few months ago I made contact with the lovely Joel Zaslovsky, who is based in Edina, MN, USA, and responsible for the fascinating Value of Simple website. The contact came about because he created a first-class post about the organising profession (you can read it here).

As a result of ongoing conversations, I found myself recording a podcast for him for use on his Smart and Simple Matters show (I'll shout about it when I know when it's due to be made available, probably later this summer). He interviewed me about my role as President of apdo-uk, about my background, about what brought me to professional organising, and much more.

A couple of days ago, Joel responded to my follow-up email after the recording, sharing with me a YouTube video of a talk he gave recently at Ignite Minneapolis ("a high-energy evening of 5-minute talks by people who have an idea - and the guts to get onstage and share it with their hometown crowd"). It gives some great thoughts and ideas about this topic, and it got me thinking.

'Curating' has an interesting place in the world of the professional organiser. It involves assessing the value of items and experiences, and having decided that they are worth keeping, choosing the most user-friendly and elegant ways of capturing them to share with others. Joel has some excellent suggestions for these tools, such as EverNote, Pinterest, or his "personal favourite" (mine too!) - the Excel spreadsheet. The challenge here is to make those choices to curate - or to abandon, forget and move on. In other words, whether to declutter and dispose, or to keep and to organise.

The truth is, of course, that as in all parts of life, the answer lies in finding a sensible balance between the two. While I have great respect for the work and philosophies for advocates of the minimalist life, such as the lovely Joshua and Ryan at The Minimalists, or the inspiring couple Betsy & Warren Talbot at Married With Luggage (who effectively sold everything they owned and invested the proceeds in travel and all the experiences that came their way), I recognise that this complete paring down of absolutely everything that is not completely necessary to your existence is not for everybody. I prefer to read the writings of such people to find inspiration, clarity, ideas and motivation; I don't have to stick rigorously to everything they say. And, more importantly, neither do my clients. My business is to make life workable, not necessarily perfect.

Joel observes, quite rightly, "Most of your experiences are empty, but some of them are powerful, even transformational; not just to you, but to everyone around you." These are the moments, the resources, that Joel believes you should learn to curate, to capture, to share, for the benefit of yourself and those you meet.

However, it struck me, when listening to Joel's talk, that "curating" could, in careless hands, come to represent the very opposite to minimalism, the enemy of true efficiency: a desperate drive to create records, to capture, to ensure absolutely nothing is lost.

I know from my own experience that this brings its own kind of clutter. I have met people whose organisational capability is quite stunning - they capture everything, from every morsel they eat to every item they buy - but their mechanisms for discrimination are sadly lacking. This kind of curating only exists, it seems, to give them an illusion of control over their lives and their belongings. Writing down a careful note of everything you eat does not necessarily mean that you don't overeat: it just means you can quantify it. [I speak from personal experience here, I assure you.] Noting every purchase doesn't stop you from buying things you don't actually need - just that you know exactly when and for how much you bought them.

I turned up a long-forgotten moment on television from my own mental filing cabinet (with help from that excellent aid to curating, YouTube). Ever Decreasing Circles was a gentle, beautifully observed sit-com, starring Penelope Wilton, Peter Egan and the late, lamented Richard Briers, which ran from 1984-1989. It's desperately understated, British and detailed; it is very funny, but often in a painful way. Martin - Briers' character - is "an obsessive middle-aged man who is at the centre of his local suburban community". He is a control freak of the first order. His life must be kept under complete, precise control, otherwise the whole thing will fall apart; the end of the world, in fact. The very first episode shows him (as he does frequently) disentangling the telephone cord, and asking his long-suffering wife "One thirty-five alright for lunch, love?".

The episode I particularly remembered - and finally tracked down - is the first one in the fourth series (1987). Take a couple of minutes to watch from 09:15 to 12:13 as next door neighbour Paul (Egan) takes Martin in hand to attempt to get him to relax his grip on unnecessary minutiae.

He starts with a pile of match results for the under-thirteens' football team, six years previously. The conversation goes like this.

"Do you actually need this piece of paper?" "Yes." "Why?" "To file." "Why?" "So that I know I've got it."

Any of my colleagues who has struggled to help a client to let go of inconsequential detritus will recognise this scenario. The point is that Martin's military-style precision in his record keeping has trapped him; but his organisational skills are superb. It's his skills in discrimination which are lacking.

As I thought this through, I recognised that my own style tends to the curating, too. My home is most certainly not minimalist; I am fortunate enough to live in a large property (which we don't own, I hasten to add; my husband is a minister in the Church of England, and it goes with the job). This gives me the luxury of being able to keep, and curate, items that in other circumstances would have to be disposed of. Specifically, we have one room dedicated to a library of theatre, music and literature. [That's the room in the photo at the top of this post.] These activities account for a huge amount of our leisure hours: we both love the theatre, as audience, performers and directors. We both have a fairly thorough knowledge of such matters, specialising in curiosities ranging from the Victorian & Edwardian operettas, through music hall and variety, to my personal enthusiasm for the works of Stephen Sondheim and Kander & Ebb. As such, in our wide circle of friends, it's no surprise that we are known to be 'experts' of a sort, and known to possess this library. Both our knowledge and the volumes are, of course, always available to anyone who wishes to make use of them. And, I would add, we are likely to find ourselves - at least annually, but more likely several times each year - involved in creating entertainments, workshops and fundraising events in our local community, for which these volumes will always be a valuable source.

A minimalist might look at our precious library, and say "But you hardly touch these volumes. They're clutter. You don't need them!". However, this resource is organised, acknowledged and available; the frequency with which any one item is required by us personally is neither here nor there.

An oft-discussed condundrum today is "the difference between a hoard and a collection". The difference is fairly simple. If, like us, you are fortunate enough to have sufficient space for the items; if you value them, display them, organise them and share them; if you can find them when they are required with minimal effort - it's a collection. If, on the other hand, the items are buried, invisible, inaccessible, forgotten, broken, mildewed or eaten by mice; if you cannot locate an item when it is required, by you or anyone else - then it's a hoard. Moreover, if that hoard takes up so much inappropriate physical space that it prevents you from living a comfortable, relaxed, hygienic life - it can't be classified as a collection in any true sense.

A final note. One of my favourite personal collections is a single folder containing assorted cards, notes and letters from my husband. I know where to find it when I want a sentiment-fest. I don't want to burrow through mountains of rubbish to find that card that he wrote to me within weeks of our relationship starting. I value it and I honour it, so I curate it.

We all have the capacity for curating. We take photographs, create videos, write diaries. If the things and the people and the memories that we curate are of value and interest, to ourselves and to others, for today and for the future, we can learn best practice to make them meaningful and useful. But in the same breath, we must be selective, choosy, discriminating. We must recognise the differences between the 'empty' and the 'transformational'; and when we can comfortably choose between decluttering and letting go or curating and organising, then we will be truly empowered.

Saturday 1 June 2013

Facebook and the like-whores

Oh, no - not Facebook again. I'm sorry that so many posts on here seem to relate to this topic... but this blog seems the best place to put it.

I read an excellent article this morning, and shared it. It relates to the tedious problem of 'like-whores': folks who create pages specifically with a view to building up vast numbers of likes and shares, purely with a view to selling those pages. The sensible and well-informed Gary Moyers, inspired by an article by the equally intelligent Becky Worley, has explained this clearly and simply. You'll find Gary's article here and Becky's original posting here.

Briefly, you know those seemingly pointless but sometimes mildly amusing posts that you see appearing, asking you to like and/or comment on the post to see something happening? (If you've ever responded to one of these, you know that nothing happens - in which case, you've probably metaphorically shrugged your shoulders and moved on.) However, as Gary points out, something has happened: "Your activity has now spread this image and the page into the news feed of all your friends."

The  one doing the rounds at the moment is a jazzy prism image (the triangle & rainbow bit comes from the album cover of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, if you're one of those far too young to remember such things).

You are exhorted: “OMG it really works! Step 1: Click on the Picture. Step 2: Hit Like. Step 3: Comment “MOVE” Then see the Magic!!” There is, of course, no magic. Nowt. Nada.

It all seems harmless enough: but, as Becky and Gary both explain, you have essentially bumped up the price of that page when it later is advertised for sale. It's pure commercial gold.

Well, if you don't mind folks making big bucks by these rather sneaky means, and it's done no harm to you or anyone else, why not? Because frequently these 'like and share' exhortations are distressing and are harmful. They often make use of genuine photos of, say, suffering children (have you seen the one about the 'mermaid baby'?) - and then say that if you share this photo, or like it, Facebook will pay x dollars, or pounds, or euros to relieve the suffering of this poor little person. It shouldn't surprise you to know that no such payment will ever be made, not by Microsoft, Facebook, CNN, Richard Branson or any other super-rich individual or corporation. What will happen is that the child's genuinely tragic situation has been exploited and abused. Can you imagine what the child's parents will feel if they see their son or daughter's photograph going viral over the internet in this way?


I know: I'm re-writing what's already been done perfectly by Gary and Becky as explained above, and doubtless by many other intelligent folks. However, I just wanted to add one other thing.

You might read this, and feel so upset and horrified, so unable to trust anything you read online, that you immediately decide to cancel your Facebook account. You can't take part in anything where such unpleasant things happen. You don't know what to believe any more.

Please don't. The internet as a whole, and social media in particular, have (like most things in life) huge potential for both good and evil. It's up to us to keep our wits about us and understand the difference.

A friend of mine has (as have I) a father afflicted with serious dementia. In her case, her father has become so paranoid that he locks himself into his house; barricades himself into his bedroom at night; sits all day with the curtains closed and a large stick within reach. This desperate over-reaction means that he can't enjoy his life, and is missing out on so much. However, it's also true to say that not many of us would leave our doors unlocked while we slept. It's the difference between taking sensible precautions and becoming paranoid.

So with house locks, so with the internet. Shut out everybody, miss out on life; invite everybody in without caution, risk life and limb. It's all a matter of commonsense.

Check this stuff out: don't panic about it. You wouldn't drive a car without passing a test first; why should your computer be any different? Search. Ask. Question. Learn. And - before you click - THINK.