Thoughts

Rampant piracy in Romania

Not sure if you know this, but Romania is a virtual no man’s land when it comes to movies, books and music. Romanians often get to watch movies before they’re in theaters in the US, and there’s a large loophole in Romanian copyright law that makes it nearly impossible to prosecute those who break the law and share digital copies of movies, books or music online.

I consulted with our IP lawyer, and the gist of it is that in Romania, you’re allowed to make a copy of a “book” for “private, home use”. But since there’s no reference to movies or music or anything else in the law, courts extend that same privilege to them. And by “copy”, the courts have come to understand digital copies as well. As long as you don’t charge for them, the courts consider them “private” copies. So that leaves the door wide open for all uninformed (and informed) people to share “private copies” of movies, music and books all over the net.

Back in 2009, I wrote an article about software piracy in Romania, explaining that when software costs $300 to buy (i.e. Windows), a typical Romanian won’t be able to afford it, because that’s their monthly salary. My advice back then, to those who wanted to do the right thing, was to look at Ubuntu, which is free, friendly and completely legal. Now I can add OS X to the list. At $29, it’s certainly affordable for a Romanian, and for the tech savvy people, it shouldn’t be too hard to put together their own Hackintosh. Although not entirely legal, as pointed out in this comment, it’s still a better alternative to running a pirated copy of Windows.

Something I cannot condone though is the piracy of books, movies and music. Their price is affordable to the typical Romanian. A book costs somewhere between $10-30, often even less than that. A movie can cost anywhere from $1-5 to rent and $5-20 to buy — or you can subscribe to Netflix and watch all the movies and TV shows you want for $7.99/month. Music costs $0.99-1.99 per song. There is no excuse for stealing these. Most anyone can save 20-50 RON in order to buy a book or a movie, if they really want it, and anyone can most definitely spare 3 RON to buy a song. And yet, most Romanians don’t. They willfully elect to download pirated movies, music and books whenever they can.

When did it become acceptable to steal something just because you can’t afford it? If you can’t afford it, then you can’t have it. Save up for it and get it later, you’ll appreciate it a lot more than if you steal it.

Want to hear the sad part? It’s not the poor Romanians who are stealing books, movies and music. No, it’s people who have the means to buy these things in the first place, who could afford to part with a few RON in order to get the latest song from their favorite artist, or to see the latest movie. Their lame and legally/morally invalid excuse is that the artist/movie studio/writer is already rich or that everybody’s doing it, because society’s progressing and the old ways no longer work. Which old ways would that be? The need to pay for a service or a good? Well, when I can pay for my utility bills or my mortgage with a movie I downloaded from a torrent website, that’s when we’ll talk about the old ways no longer cutting it.

Since when did someone who has no idea about the hard work that goes behind making a song or a movie or writing a book and getting it published, get to make a judgment about the artist’s financial health or about whether or not it’s okay to steal their work? When did it become okay to steal? This is tantamount to stealing a piece of clothing from a store, or a chocolate from a supermarket.

These same people who complain they have no money then go out and eat at restaurants, they have vacations at sea side resorts, they spend their weekends in the mountains. That is hypocrisy. Ever since my wife and I came to Romania, I keep hearing there’s a financial crisis going on, and everyone’s complaining about how little money they’re making, but whenever I travel the country, mountain resorts are full, seaside resorts are booked up, restaurants are full, coffee shops are full, marketplaces, supermarkets, stores and malls are full of people, everyone’s barbecuing, there are tons of cars on the streets, and money’s flying left and right. Where’s the financial crisis? 

I don’t care if the law’s not up to snuff, stealing’s never okay. Romanians always brag that they’re good Christians. If they were good Christians, they would know the eighth commandment says, “Thou shalt not steal.”

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Thoughts

Emperor Trajan was a “real American”

As I think upon the wars and conflicts of recent times (Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Syria), and the reasons for their occurrence, I’m reminded of Romania’s past, and its conquest by a newly elected Roman emperor by the name of Trajan.

If the picture isn’t clear to you by already, let’s connect the dots.

Back then, the region now known as Romania was known as Dacia. It was a sparsely populated but very rich country: the soil was fertile, and I’m not just talking about agriculture. Dacia had incredibly large (and easy to get to) deposits of gold, silver and other important metals. The Dacian kings had so much wealth they didn’t know what to do with it.

The Roman empire lay to the south of Dacia, and it took plenty of money to run it. They started to feel the bottoms of the coffers as they dug in for more aureus and denarius. The kings of Dacia weren’t exactly bright when it came to not advertising their wealth. They advertised it, alright — so much so, that the Romans, who were allies with the Dacians, knew exactly where to look when their money was no longer sufficient.

What did the Romans do? Exactly what the Americans did when it came to Iraq. They invented a reason for going to war with the Dacians. They manufactured a dispute over the border between the Roman Empire and Dacia and once the pretext was in place, they invaded. They were pushed back the first time, but Trajan was persistent. After all, he didn’t have a choice. It was either Dacia’s money or he’d have to run Rome on a budget, and we all know how budget disputes work (hint: just have a look at current-day Washington, DC).

Before long, he’d succeeded in invading Dacia. He didn’t stop there though. He murdered virtually all of Dacia’s nobility, tore down all its cities and temples, erased any sign of Dacia’s culture, and began a decades-long exploitation of Dacia’s mineral reserves, pouring all of it into Rome’s hungry coffers. It’s estimated that he stole over 3,000 tons of gold and over 5,000 tons of silver, all in all. And he didn’t stop there, either. No, he colonized Dacia with Romans. He took all sorts of people from all corners of the Roman empire, people who were more than happy to rape and pillage their way across Dacia, and he let them pick their favorite spot and settle down with their loot. But that wasn’t enough for him, no. He had to build a monument, Trajan’s Column, to commemorate his murderous deeds. It still stands in Rome to this day, a monument to his legacy.

The Bush administration tried to do the same sort of thing in Iraq. They wanted to get at the oil reserves, they needed a pretext, they made it up and went in. But you see, things are a lot murkier in modern times. These days you can’t massacre people and suspend human rights like you used to be able to do it in ancient Rome. So getting at the oil proved to be a lot trickier than the Americans thought. They had to tack on a bunch of other goals to their mission, like “installing a democratic regime in Iraq”, “restoring peace and order to the country”, “training Iraq’s police and army”, “restoring Iraq’s infrastructure”, etc. How many years has it been since they went in? I lost count. They’re still not out of there, and I don’t know how much oil they’ve actually managed to get out of the whole ordeal. And how much money did they spend so far? I don’t want to think about it, because as an American taxpayer, I have to foot part of the bill for it…

I have no idea why the Americans went into Afghanistan. I think they had to do it in order to pump new life into the pretext for attacking Iraq, which was WMDs and Osama bin Laden. They went in there to get him but over time they found they had to tack on a bunch of other goals to their agenda, like in Iraq… And we’re still not out of there, nor will we be out of there any time soon…

The Americans tried a different approach with Egypt and Syria. They encouraged revolts (the CIA’s good at that sort of stuff, they’ve done it plenty before) and let their chosen “rebels” topple those governments. They also co-opted NATO, so they could share the costs and (unfortunately) the loot. The idea was to install people who favored them and hopefully that would make it easier to get at the oil reserves. Things were hit and miss for a while, but so far, so good, sort of… Again, things are a lot murkier these days, you just don’t get the same bang for your buck that you used to get back in the day. Things are on track for the oil contracts, but who knows… these rebel governments often turn on you, as they’ve done in the past and history speaks for itself there. We’ll see.

Let’s end this little trip through memory lane, shall we? I hope I’ve connected enough dots for you to see the whole picture, right? Emperor Trajan was the mythical “real American”. He was a go-getter. His empire had a problem and he went in there and solved it within a few years. Became a hero. The Romans revered him.

It didn’t go the same way for Dubya, although he wanted it so badly. The guy even went on a battleship, flew a fighter jet and said the war was over… about a decade before it even started to end, but hey, maybe history will be gentler on him, who knows.

Back to Romania (or Dacia). Whichever. It’s all the same, even now. Romania still has some gold left, because Trajan didn’t steal all of it. The technology of his time didn’t allow it, or he would have. And this time, the Americans (or is it Canadians) want it. Actually, they want the money, not necessarily the gold. In the end, it boils down to yet another exploitation of Romania. Except these days things are a lot murkier (I keep saying that). And the company that wants to steal abscond take buy Romania’s gold has found that they too have to tack on a few extra goals to their agenda in order to sell it. So they’ve promised to set up a village museum, to make sure they don’t pollute (they will actually poison the whole area with cyanide), to do a bunch of other pointless things, etc, but in the end it still boils down to 96% of the gold for them and 4% of it for the puppet Romanian government. What a steal!

The moral of the story is this: it sucks to be Romania. Actually, it sucks to be a country with any important natural reserves, because unless you’re the bully on the block, you will be invaded, raped, pillaged, colonized, stolen and partitioned — and this will happen to you over and over and over and over, throughout history, until you will no longer have anything worth stealing, in which case you will then have to become a bully and start doing unto others as they’ve done onto you.

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Thoughts

The story of one cellphone theft

My mother’s mobile phone got stolen on Friday (12/11/09). She visited her bank, made a transaction at the counter, left her cellphone there by mistake, went out to the car, realized it was missing, came back to get it, but it was gone. In spite of asking everyone around for help, and even though the phone was bright red, nobody saw it or wanted to say they saw it.

It wasn’t the loss of the phone itself that troubled her. It was the text messages she had stored on the SIM card — a historical archive that went back to 2006 and contained information of sentimental value about her parents (my grandparents), who have since passed on. These were texts back from when they were still alive.

She didn’t know what to do, so she called her own number, in the hope she’d be able to reach someone. Finally, she did. A woman picked up at the other end. My mother pleaded with her to return the phone, but she hung up and never answered again. Then, my mom logged on the T-Mobile website and saw that illegal international calls had been made to Haiti from her cellphone. I took a couple of screenshots from her call log and posted them below. As you can see, the thief, a woman, wasted no time in taking advantage of the fact that my mother’s cellphone was enabled for international calls, and started calling her relatives right away, as soon as she stole the phone.

illegal-calls-to-haiti-1

illegal-calls-to-haiti-2

Then, my mother got another clue. The woman who had stolen her cellphone took a picture of her child, possibly in their yard. I took a screenshot of that photo from my mother’s T-Mobile account and posted it below.

stolen-cellphone-photo

I can’t get at a larger size of the phone because my mother asked T-Mobile to freeze her account. The T-Mobile website logs either of us out when we try to get to that photo in the web album, but thankfully it is there for the police to review, which brings me to the next step my mother took. She contacted the police and filed a report for her stolen cellphone. I hope the thief who took it gets all that’s coming to them.

What’s sad is the thief is a woman, and what’s more, she’s a mother. We know she’s likely from Haiti, or she wouldn’t be making calls to that country. I have to ask, what kind of life is she preparing her son for? He’ll likely grow up a thief, just like his mother. He’ll grow up thinking it’s okay to take things from other people, that it’s okay to abuse other people’s kindness and money, that it’s okay to ignore their pleas to his better nature, that it’s just fine to step over someone’s feelings. That’s the kind of a person he’s going to be, and it’s all thanks to his mother, who didn’t blink at the thought of stealing someone’s cellphone from a bank counter instead of letting them know they forgot it.

It’s very probable that the thief, the Haitian woman, was still inside the bank when my mother went back to ask if anyone had seen her phone, and can probably be identified from the security tapes. As I said before, I hope she gets all that’s coming to her.

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Condensed knowledge for 2008-03-26

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Condensed knowledge for 2008-03-07

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Thoughts

How many of my photos were stolen?

For the moment, this is a rhetorical question. I’ve been re-thinking the way I publish my photos online in view of the recent and very prominent theft of Rebekka Guðleifsdóttir‘s photos from Flickr. Call me naive, but I really believed, and still would like to believe, that people will wish to stay legal and pay for the right to use my photos, especially for commercial purposes. That’s why I’ve been publishing my photos at full resolution. I wanted folks who weren’t able to pay (developing countries, for instance), or only wanted a nice desktop background, to be able to download a photo of mine and enjoy it without financial obstacles.

But I talked with my brother this morning, and he told me some things that made me think twice about my approach. He’s a professor at a university in Transylvania (Romania), and he does a lot of field research in ethnology and religion. He takes a lot of photos, and shoots a lot of video. When people ask him for copies of his work, he’s very nice about it and does so, hoping they’ll respect his academic work and cite him or ask for his permission when they use it. But he’s been finding out that they don’t. They’ll reuse his photos and his videos, and he won’t hear about it until he sees his work somewhere else. Just recently, someone entered one of his videos in a contest as their own creation, and he found out about it only after that person won. It was very disheartening. He’s now thinking of watermarking both his videos and photos, and of only publishing lower resolution copies on the Internet. He’s tired of constant theft and no attribution.

So I had to ask myself: how many of my photos have already been stolen? I haven’t yet heard of or seen a particular instance, but I also haven’t really looked around to see. It’s probably just a matter of time before I start finding my work in someone else’s portfolio, website or printed materials. When you combine high-resolution photos with people that have no respect whatsoever for someone else’s hard work, you’re asking for trouble. As much as I’d like to believe otherwise, good people, those that respect other people’s property, are few and far between, and it’s best not to tempt the thieves or uneducated ones by making good photos easily available.

I’ve taken some steps already. I used to upload to Flickr at full resolution. Not anymore. Since they offered Rebekkah no help whatsoever, and even deleted the photo where she complained of image theft, along with the thousands of comments that she received there, I’ve lost respect for them. If that’s how they’re going to treat one of their best users, then I sincerely hope they get what’s coming to them, and I hope it’s a wallop.

I may also start to watermark my images. As much as I hate this (it uglifies an image, imo), I’ll do it, just to make it harder to pass my photos around without crediting them properly. I may also start to copyright my photography with the Library of Congress, and pursue damages to the full letter of the law (up to $150,000 per incident).

Finally, I may also stop uploading at full res to Zooomr. I keep waiting for them to push out the Mark III upgrade, and it seems that every time Kris is ready to do it, something happens to stop it. This week was the third time the promised upgrade didn’t materialize, and I’m pretty disappointed. Mark III is supposed to have this really nice image theft prevention built in, so I could continue to upload a full res, but restrict the sizes available to casual visitors or even my contacts at certain resolutions, and only make the full res size available to buyers. But if Mark III doesn’t show up any time soon — and since Zooomr has no photo replace feature like Flickr — I may just delete all of my photos, or make them all private. I do not want to see my hard work go to waste.

It’s a real shame that we can’t function equitably as a society, at the local, state, national or global level. If only everyone would respect other people’s property (physical or intellectual), things would work a lot better. One would think the concept of property has been around long enough for most people and cultures to grasp it…

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Condensed knowledge for 2007-05-14

Today’s calorie-free serving:

  • Clive Thompson from the NYT has a detailed write-up of what’s involved if small bands want to get their name out there these days. The almost-requisite MySpace page is a given… But while the web makes it easy for them to get their names out there, keeping up with the fans becomes a full-time computer job — just what they were trying to avoid when they became musicians. And at some point, the relationship reaches a plateau. A single human being can only keep up with a limited number of fans before they are overwhelmed. But the fans don’t care, they each want personal interaction. Sounds like a very non-fun experience for the musician.
  • Mandy Sellars in England suffers from a very rare condition called Proteus Syndrome. She will likely lose her legs. The article talks about her desire to experience life, and daily struggles.
  • This is good reading for us IT geeks: Top 7 things system administrators forget to do.
  • The NYT has a great profile of Walt Mossberg. The article not only talks about his career, but also about where things are going in terms of journalism when you factor in this “new media” we keep hearing about…
  • Mental_floss talks about the world’s most wanted (and expensive) poo. It’s ambergris. Yuck.
  • Look At This has posted a full-length movie called “When the Wind Blows“. It’s about an elderly couple who build a bomb shelter. When nuclear war breaks out, they survive, but unfortunately succumb to the fallout radiation while waiting for the government to help them. Here’s a direct link to the video.
  • According to this article, Bill O’Reilly uses old propaganda techniques to bias his listeners toward those he doesn’t agree with. Interesting stuff.
  • A pair of falcons has made their nest in the building of the San Jose City Hall, and they’ve installed a falcon cam for us web visitors. Neat!
  • Some charlatan who claims he’s Jesus Christ incarnate is fooling plenty of people down in Orlando. Don’t these people bother to read the Bible?
  • A brave little terrier saved 5 New Zealand kids from being torn up by violent pit bulls. Unfortunately it ended up so injured they needed to put him to sleep, but the children weren’t hurt.
  • Apparently ceiling height can affect how people think and act. A taller ceiling can make you more creative and artistic. Very interesting stuff!
  • Weirdomatic has a post with examples of old, creepy ads. I don’t know, Max Factor’s beauty micrometer seems reasonable enough, given the need to look fairly perfect on screen. Have a look and decide for yourselves.
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Reviews

USPS Priority Mail is anything but that

USPSRecently mailed a package with Priority Mail, and it didn’t arrive at its destination on time. All the USPS website would tell me is that the shipping info was received. When I called them 7 days later — remember, Priority Mail is supposed to be a 2-3 day delivery — I told them I had a shipping/label number and asked what happened to my package. They couldn’t tell me anything. Their official answer was: “We can’t track Priority Mail packages.”

What’s the point of offering a tracking service if you can’t track it?

So I asked them, is there a way to start an investigation, and find out what happened to that package? What if it’s lost, what if someone stole it? What happens now? Their answer? “We can’t investigate Priority Mail packages. We can only investigate Express Mail packages.”

So I asked them what weight is carried with all of their “official” notices that say that tampering with or stealing postal mail is a theft, and is punishable under the law, etc. If there’s no way to tell where a Priority Mail package is, and they’re not willing or not able to start an investigation, does that mean people can go ahead and steal Priority Mail packages? No answer there.

There you have it. Not only is Priority Mail more costly than First Class Mail, not only does not take 2-3 days for mail to get there (it usually takes a week and the USPS only offers excuses when that happens), but the tracking service is non-existent, and you can’t find out what happened to your package if it never arrives at its destination.

What lesson are we to draw from this? My take on it is that Priority Mail is inferior to other shipping services out there. It may be cheaper than UPS or FedEx, but the packages can get stolen, they can get trampled on, they can be late or never arrive at their destination, and the USPS won’t care.

Updated 11/14/2007: I held a book drawing here, and one of my readers won it. After mailing the book via Priority Mail to him, the envelope got there damaged, opened and empty. We know we sealed it properly right at the post office and paid $8 to ship it. To add insult to injury, the message stamped on the envelope from the post office in his town that said the envelope was received opened and damaged. So not only did they damage my package and lose the book, but they lied about how the book got to be “lost” in the first place.

Updated 12/13/2007: The USPS has managed to top its previous performance. It has now taken them 13 days to deliver a local package to a distance of 25 miles.

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How To

Mechanical locks on the way out?

At least their current iterations, anyway. Turns out a $1 bumpkey – a key whose every notch was cut to its lowest setting can easily open any lock of a given brand. (You need a bumpkey for each brand/kind of lock). Basically, this bumpkey then becomes the master key for all of the locks that use a particular kind of key. Since there are about a dozen kinds of locks on the market, all a thief needs to carry around is a dozen or so bumpkeys, and he can get into your home in less than a minute.

It gets worse: insurance companies don’t reimburse for theft due to bumpkeys, because no damage is done to the door. They can’t determine that someone forced their way into your home, and they’ll simply assume that you left your door open, or are trying to scam them.

Both Make and Engadget are talking about this, and there’s a video as well. You won’t believe your eyes!

Lest you forget, you can open “tough” bicycle U-locks with a BIC pen.

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Caveat Emptor: Global Internet Solutions (GISol)

Updated 11/4/2008: See FOX News expose GISOL for the crooks they really are, and watch the two people behind the scam literally run from the camera. Watch the video on YouTube or below, and read the post, as well as the numerous comments here or on this post (over 300 comments in total). My thanks go to Mike of Report-Gisol.com for doing the legwork to get these criminals on TV.

These same crooks have been calling me from private phone numbers, harassing me, and trying to intimidate me into letting them post responses on my website. They’ve tried repeatedly to post comments on this post and on my other post about them, and I refuse to let their lies go through to the live site. They need to be in jail.

This is one web hosting company you should not touch, not even with a 10-foot pole!

I signed up with them back in January of 2006, because I was attracted by their many features and low price. They were offering over 35GB of space, and unlimited bandwidth. While that last hook should have had me turning away, I fell for it. I anticipated increasing traffic to my sites, and was worried about bandwidth fees. Their many features blinded me. See the attached PDFs for the details of the hosting packages (Gisol Windows Hosting, Gisol Linux Hosting). GISol AdSure, there were signs this was a shady operation right from the start, but I ignored them. The cheesy site design should have clued me in, as well as the script, which is still running, and says there are so many more hours left until the “blowout sale” expires… As of the date of this post, that script’s been running for at least 6 months (January to June 2006).

I took the bait, and signed up. That’s when my problems started. I knew I should leave right away, but I was hooked on their Control Panel, which let me do everything easily. They were, and they still might be using the H-Sphere Control Panel, which lets one do just about everything (add/manage domains, sub-domains, DSNs, MIME types, databases, etc.) You name it, the control panel can do it. Unfortunately, that’s the ONLY thing that Gisol has which works well. Everything else is broken in one way or another.

Let me give you a few examples:

Their web servers always go down! By always, I mean always. It could be daily, it could be a few times a day. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, your sites will stay up for a few days, which is nothing short of a miracle when it comes to GISol. The funny thing is, they advertise 99.999% uptime on their site – look at the plan specs, linked above, or this beauty: Gisol Uptime Guarantee. I’m still not sure how they compute the percentage they list in the plan specs, but I think their formula automatically eliminates the downtime to the third decimal point…

Their web servers don’t store session variables. Yes, you heard me correctly! I used session variables for logins on one of my clients’ sites, including a couple of my own. I’d log in, and the site would kick me out, because I had the web pages look for the variables, and they couldn’t be found anywhere. I had to argue with their tech support for days, and finally appealed to management. They kept accusing me of being at fault, when their pathetic servers wouldn’t work right. Finally, they switched me to another one, and wonder of wonders, no more session variable problems… but of course, other problems awaited.

Their tech support is outsourced to India. Normally, I don’t really care where the tech support is located, as long as they can do their job, but when they can’t speak English, are obviously reading packaged phrases off some sheet, are rude to me, don’t solve my problems, and lay the blame on me when they’re at fault, I tend to get a little upset, and I think you would, too.

False advertising: they say they have millions of customers on their site. I doubt it. I think their real number of customers is somewhere between a few hundred and a few thousand. Why do I say that? Because:

  • They only had 1 mySQL server. Seriously. I’m not kidding. The name of that server was was mysql1, and they couldn’t move me to a new one when I asked.
  • I signed up for a Windows Hosting account, and my server’s name was win2k8. When I had problems with that, they moved me to win2k9, then win2k10.
  • I also signed up for a Linux Hosting account, and my server’s name was web16.
  • When I called Tech Support, I kept speaking to the same 3-4 technicians all the time.

I had numerous – and when I say numerous, I mean plentiful, as in plethora – database connection problems. Just about every time I tried writing to one of the mySQL databases, I’d get timeouts or connection problems, and they simply couldn’t solve them.

The user testimonials on their site are false. They have to be. I can’t imagine I’m the only one who’s had problems with them. Besides, the problems are so blatant that anyone but a blithely unaware novice would know they’ve got serious problems.

I made the mistake of buying a domain through them. When I wanted to switch to another web hosting provider, they held the domain hostage. It took several emails and phone calls to get them to release it. I kept getting bounced from one “department” to another. Welcome to Indian-style bureaucracy, right here in the States!

I cancelled my web hosting plans. On their site, they say they offer refunds any time, for any reason. That’s the biggest crock of crap I’ve ever seen. It’s now three weeks since I requested a refund, and I’ve still to get it. I spoke with their Billing “department” – and I use the term loosely. They passed me off to the Refund “department”, and told me I could call them at certain phone numbers – one was a toll-free number, and the other was a long-distance number. I called the first number, only to be disconnected right away. Then I called the second number, only to have it ring endlessly, then get disconnected. No, not even an answering machine. Finally, I wrote to their email address (refund@gisol.com). I’m still waiting for an answer. I’ve already started fraud proceedings with my credit card company.

All in all, I think I don’t exaggerate when I say you should beware of Global Internet Solutions (aka GISol). If you value your sanity and your wallet, stay far away from them!

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