Friday, June 21, 2013

How to send money internationally and get the best rate on wire transfers

Making a payment or sending money to a business or individual in a foreign country is trickier and more expensive than I initially thought. Why? Paypal isn't a universal option. In many countries people are unable to link their bank accounts to their Paypal account. You can see what payment and withdrawal options Paypal supports for different countries here. If Paypal is a workable option for the country you are trying to send money to, by all means, use it! If not, find the best rate for sending money internationally through one of these payment options:

  1. Bank to bank wire transfer through your bank
  2. Bank to bank wire transfer through 3rd party service
  3. Payments by prepaid debt card, through an agent, or held for pick up.

International wire transfers through your bank

When you contact your local bank about their fees for international wire transfers you will likely be quoted a price between $40 - $60 per transfer. Take a look at this chart of wire transfer fees to see how your bank's fees compare to those of the ten biggest banks in the United States as of Apr. 2013. 

International wire transfers through a 3rd party service

There are a number of 3rd party services that connect with your bank account and handle the wire transfer rather than your bank. This is a good option for reducing the cost of making an international wire transfer. Two that I found are FX International Payments by American Express and Xoom

FX International Payments charges $35 for international wire transfers in USD or $10 + a slight exchange rate cut for wire transfers in foreign currencies. You don't have to have an American Express card or other account with them to signup to use the service. It appears their service is primarily targeted toward businesses.

Xoom charges $30 for bank to bank payments. It was not immediately clear from their website whether the payment is an actual a wire transfer or some other type of transfer / payment.

Other services for foreign payments

If the person on the receiving end of your payment is willing to go to an office or ATM to receive the money, there are a number of services that handle this type of international payment. Here are two services I looked at in my research. 

ATM Cash mails a debit card to the person you are paying. Upon receipt, they go to an ATM and withdraw the money. Their fees vary based on how you make the payment and the costs for mailing the card. Note that they charge the recipient a withdrawal fee and impose a monthly maintenance fee on the card.

Western Union offers a variety of payment and pickup options that vary depending on country. Their fees range from $4.00 to $12.00 depending on how quickly the funds need to be picked up and the method of payment / pickup you choose. 

Do you have a preferred foreign payments or international wire transfer service? How do you get the best rates when you need to send money internationally? Tell us about it in the comments. 

Friday, February 10, 2012

A Strange BotNet that Processes Javascript? Signature: Windows / Internet Explorer, New Unique Visitors, Direct Navigation to 1 of 3 pages (evenly divided in thirds), 100% Bounce Rate

I noticed an odd direct traffic spike in Google Analytics.
A fairly large site I monitor started seeing some suspicious traffic around Jan. 26, 2012. Google Analytics reported a direct traffic spike that I initially attributed to a media mention. When I probed into it further though I noticed some oddities. The traffic was exhibiting an overly high bounce rate (over 90%) and the traffic spike was limited to Internet Explorer users (all versions). The strange traffic was being reported as all new visitors and was limited to three pages on the site (the main page, and two pages that are off the beaten path). I setup an advanced filter for this signature and the bounce rate was nearly a 100%.

Is my site being attacked by a botnet?
At this point I began thinking it was some sort of botnet attack. The visits matching the signature were spread out geographically according to Google Analytics although they were primarily coming from Canada. Since it was just a thousand or so visits, I thought it would go away on its own. Several days later it mushroomed to 40,000 unique visits matching the signature, this time primarily coming from the US, still geographically spread out though with no dominant network source. Another oddity--the three pages being visited had a neat one third access distribution across each one. How do a 150,000 random people achieve that randomly?

But, do botnets process Javascript?
Now I am second guessing the botnet assessment. From what I've read so far, botnets don't process javascript. If it were a traditional botnet, why would Google Analytics' (and Quantcast's) javascript tracking code be triggered?

Why would a Denial of Service attack limit itself to one request?
On the denial of service attack line of thinking, I find it odd that each computer makes only one request.

Is this a new website attack?
I currently have more questions than answers. The attack / odd traffic continues. As I have not been able to find anyone else with this issue I thought I would start a post about it. Please chime in if you have thoughts, ideas, or are experiencing the same thing.  I will post back as I learn more.

---2/13/12 Update---
Traffic matching the signature is starting to subside. I've done some analysis of raw access-log files and discovered a few things:
1. IPs made more than a single request. Several sample IPs I explored made 20+ page requests a day distributed across the three urls. Each one had an empty referrer. They must not have loaded cookies because Google Analytics saw each request as a new visit.
2. Whatever was making the page requests also sent GET requests for css, js, and graphic files referenced in the page.
3. I saw two oddities in the logs when exploring IPs making requests that matched the signature:

  • One IP which made a number of calls to the pages had mixed in among mostly empty referrers this suspicious referrer: (DO NOT VISIT THIS SITE) followed by a long string of numbers / characters. I did a whois lookup and found it was registered to Club Freedom, Yamir Jayantilal in India. The IP it is hosted on is in Latvia. When I did a Google search on the name server "" I discovered this site that keeps a log of urls associated with malicious activity. I didn't find the specific URL but I did find a series of similar urls (i.e. DO NOT VISIT THIS SITE) listed as "malware calls home." These domains were registered to the same person / club as the one I noted in the logs.
  • Another abnormal series of entries for an IP that made calls to the same pages also had entries for GET requests to: /crossdomain.xml and /text/javascript 
I am not sure how these two relate to the rest of the requests because I am not finding other IPs with the same oddities. On the other hand I am wondering if this could be some type of malware related activity. Are malware infected computers attempting to phone home to my website? I've done a comparison of the three pages to the file versions stored in our Git repository and am not finding any discrepancies. 

---2/19/12 Update---
Just when I thought I could post that the non-human traffic had officially disappeared... it returned. This time it is just hitting one of the three pages it previously hit. I added a graph above from Google Analytics showing just the traffic that matches the signature of the odd traffic.

---4/21/12 Update---
An updated on the Unidentified Non Human Web Traffic (AKA: Zombie Robots, Cyborg Attack). I wish I could report the traffic has gone away but it just won't die. Here is the latest screenshot from Google Analytics:

It appears to be somewhat cyclical.  Every three to four weeks there is a new 3 day rise in traffic that matches the pattern followed by gradual drop off and a lull. 

Other people are reporting the same odd traffic now:
One interesting solution others have used to protect advertisers from inflated impressions is to wait to load ads until  some type of user activity is detected via javascript like a mouse move.

We started capturing headers for traffic that matched the fingerprint of the pattern. Here is a sample of a few (cookie info and host removed) :

Accept: text/html, application/xhtml+xml, */*
Accept-Language: en-US;q=0.5
User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (compatible; MSIE 9.0; Windows NT 6.1; Trident/5.0)
Accept-Encoding: gzip, deflate
Connection: Keep-Alive
Cookie: #############

Accept: */*
Accept-Language: it-ch
User-Agent: Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 8.0; Windows NT 5.1; Trident/4.0; .NET CLR 1.1.4322; .NET CLR 2.0.50727; .NET 
CLR 3.0.04506.648; .NET CLR 3.5.21022; .NET CLR 3.0.4506.2152; .NET CLR 3.5.30729)
Accept-Encoding: gzip, deflate
Connection: Keep-Alive
Cookie: #############

Accept: */*
Accept-Language: en-ca
UA-CPU: x86
Accept-Encoding: gzip, deflate
Cookie: #############
User-Agent: Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 7.0; Windows NT 6.0; SLCC1; .NET CLR 2.0.50727; Media Center PC 5.0; .NET CLR 
Connection: Keep-Alive

Common traits are that the headers are fairly simple and contain no other cookies aside from one we set as part of the traffic control process we've been using to identify and roadblock this strange traffic. Normal users tend to have a string of GA related cookies show up in the header info. I am no http header expert. If you are and see something odd about these headers let me know!

I am wishing there was some expert to turn to for unraveling this mystery. It seems some big names like Google and Microsoft as well as security / anti-virus companies and major ad networks would want to be on top of this. Unfortunately it is very difficult to reach upper level people at these companies that would recognize that this merits some review.  Something is flying under the radar that has the potential to morph into far worse than a traffic nuisance. Since it started we've had 3/4 of a million unique visitors that match the fingerprint--all of which fool traffic analysis programs into thinking it is a human request. Again, most of these are unique IP addresses spread out geographically and from a variety of networks. It is impossible to block this on the network or IP level. 

Hoping for better news to report in the next update.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

How to use Gmail with ACT! 2010 CRM by Sage

I helped a co-worker get Gmail working with the CRM software ACT! 2010 by Sage today. ACT! does not naturally work with Gmail. Gmail uses SSL and non standard ports for its incoming and outgoing POP and SMTP connections which are not supported by the program. There is however a work around using the program Stunnel (an SSL Wrapper).

1. Download and install the latest version of Stunnel. Use the "Windows Binaries" for installing on a machine running Microsoft Windows. The installer comes with all of the necessary files to run it. During install it will prompt you to add shortcuts to your Start Menu. This is worth doing as it gives you an easy way to start and stop the service. Default install location is: C:\Program Files\stunnel

2. Using Notepad or another text editor, edit the stunnel.conf file to have the following:
client = yes
accept = 110
connect =
accept = 25
connect =

3. Configure Stunnel to run on startup. From the the Stunnel folder added to the Programs in your Start Menu select, "Service Install." When that is complete, run the "Service Start" shortcut--also in the Stunnel Start Menu folder. Stunnel is now running as a background service and should startup automatically when you restart your computer.

4. In ACT! edit your email settings via the "Tools -> Preferences" menu item. Update your incoming and outgoing server settings as follows:
Incoming POP3 Server: localhost
Outgoing SMTP Server (SMTP): localhost
6. Finish the email setup wizard and do a send/receive to make sure it is all working.

That is it! Gmail should be setup to work in ACT! now.

You can also use Stunnel to get Gmail working with other CRM programs and email clients that don't support SSL or non standard ports. We used a smilar work around with FrontRange Goldmine: How to Setup Gmail in Goldmine

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Used Car Buying Questions

I live in a small city which means when I shop for a used car I have to drive a ways to go look at car I am interested in. After making a few hour long trips only to discover the car had a purchase stopping issue I could have discovered by phone if I had asked the right questions, I've slowly compiled a list of questions to ask about used cars.

- Is the car still available?
- Review of details and features:
- Make, Model, Year
- Mileage
- Color
- Extras that are important to you
- How many owners has the car had?
- How long has the car been on the market?
- What is the reason for sale?
- Has it been in any accidents?
- Is everything in working order? (AC, Power Doors / Windows)
- What is the condition of the upholstery and floor boards?
- What is the condition of the tires?
- Has it had any aftermarket additions?
- What mechanical work would expect the van will need in the first couple of years aside from oil service?
- Do you have service records?
- Was the work done at a dealer?
- If there are known issues this particular make / model tends to have ask about them. i.e. Has the car had any work done on its transmission?
- Has the car been owned by smokers?
- Does it have the original manuals?
- How much life is left on the tires?
- What is the condition of the upholstery and floor mats?
- Does it have a trailer hitch? (Can be a plus or minus. Cars with trailer hitches tend to have placed more wear on the transmission).
- What is the VIN?
- Are there are other parties interested in the van?
- How firm is your price? Are you willing to negotiate some?
- What is your test drive policy?

Used Car Dealer Specific Questions
- How did you acquire the car?
- What kind of work do you do to prepare cars you buy for sale?

So... its a fairly long list. I don't normally fit it all into one phone call. I first make an initial call with four or five basic questions. I call back later once I've processed the first conversation and maybe pulled a Carfax on the vehicle. If I let the seller know I am travelling a long distance to see the car, they tend to be helpful in answering the more detailed questions.

What questions do you ask before buying a used car? Please post in a comment. Thanks!

Monitoring Electricity Consumption - Individual appliance and whole house monitors

I spent several hours today looking at options for monitoring electricity consumption with an eye to reduce usage and save money. Here is the best information I found:

Whole house monitors:
TED 5000 (TED stands for "The energy detective)
This is the model that is compatible with Google PowerMeter. Starts at $200.

This device is sold in the US by Power Save. US version with two CT clamps and bundled with the web bridge sells for $169. This is also compatible with Google PowerMeter.

I found this TED-5000 vs. Current Cost Envi comparison review to be quite helpful.

I am currently leaning toward purchasing the Envi as it is easier to install and costs less.

I briefly looked at the Black and Decker Power Monitor but crossed it off the list since it was not compatible with Google Power Meter and also according to some reviews doesn't measure small watt increases.

Single Appliance Monitor
There are a number of products on the market that a measure the electricity usage of a single appliance. The Kill-A-Watt EZ by P3 International is the front runner. (Note: The EZ model is an improvement upon the Kill-A-Watt. Reviewers strongly recommend getting this newer version). had the best price on the unit. I ordered it for $30 with free shipping.

Another link worth mentioning is Mr. Electricity's page with his four part answer to the question "How do I measure the amount of electricity something uses?" At the end he gives a detailed explanation of how to measure electric usage using your existing meter instead of using on of this consumer products.

Friday, August 13, 2010

MissingSourceFile Error

I launched the webrick server to work on a Rails project today and kept getting the following error when trying to access the site via http://localhost:3000:
MissingSourceFile (no such file to load -- ./../config/../config/routes.rb)
Turns out it matters were you launch the webrick server from. I had run: ruby ./server from the script folder instead of running: ruby script/server from the rails application root folder.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Used Honda Odyssey Minivan Shopping

In the process of looking for a minivan. I will be adding notes as I go.

First off I suggest reading this Wikipedia article all about Honda Odyssey minivans. It gives a breakout of each generation of the vehicle and also has more in depth information about the transmission issues mentioned frequently in connection with Honda Odysseys.

2001 Honda Odyssey

2002 Honda Odyssey

Reviews and Ratings:

Price Range: $5,900 - $7,000

2003 Honda Odyssey

Transmission Issues

From an article about the transmission problem: Honda's Unexpected Gear Shift
Of 1 million vehicles sold in the U.S. with those transmissions, Spencer said, Honda has replaced the transmissions in about 16,000, or 1.6%.
Cost to replace transmission: $3,000 - $4,000 at a Honda dealer.
Reason to replace transmission at a Honda Dealer: longer warranty on new transmission.

Motor Mount Issue
A number of consumer reviews mention they've needed to replace motor mounts around 90K miles. More information needed. May be good to ask specifically about this if you get a mechanic to inspect the vehicle prior to purchase.

Research Resources