Cybersecurity in the Midst of a Pandemic: How to Protect Yourself from Digital Scams

Pandemics are a cyber thief’s dream come true.

Hackers prey on the vulnerable — and with a contagious virus and an uncertain economy, we all become vulnerable.

The ability to think rationally dissipates with a worried mind. In times of survival, the everyday focus shifts to keeping a roof overhead, food on the table, and staying alive. Guards are let down. Things that would have normally been questioned before are suddenly overlooked.

Scammers know this. They take advantage of this.

Don’t fall victim to their traps.

Hackers are having a field day with Covid-19. The cruelest thing about scammers is they will kick you when you are down. People are working remotely and are no longer protected by their office’s cybersecurity standards. Unemployment is rising and people are desperate for jobs and money. Cyber criminals often target those they deem susceptible to being taken advantage of.

So how can you protect yourself?

Always check the sender of an email.

Did Facebook tell you you’ve been logged out, and you need to click this link to log back in? Did PayPal tell you your account has been compromised, and you need to click here to verify your identity? Did your bank tell you your settings have expired, and you can update them here?

Not so fast.

Phishing is when a scammer sends fake emails in order to gain access to your personal information. Always, always, always check the sender address. Phishers are clever and most of the time make the email address look believable. Instead of an official email from Google coming from @google.com, they might make the email from @help.support.google.

How can you be sure it’s actually from the sender they claim to be? Search the email address online. Visit the official website of the company and see what their official email addresses are. When in doubt, do not click any links. Make any updates from the secure website itself. It’s better to assume the email may be a phishing attempt and take a moment to do a little research, then to click a link that may contain a virus or to enter your personal information on a non-secure website. Automatically assume the email is suspicious until proven otherwise.

Make sure the job posting is actually real.

With the high unemployment rate due to the pandemic, scammers are having a field day. They know millions of people are searching for work right now and overall experiencing feelings of desperation. As a result, an uptick in fake job listings are being created in order to get your personal information or steal money from you. If you receive an email from a company saying they are recruiting you, check the email address. Visit the company website to see if the job is listed on there. If you see a career opportunity on a job posting website, make sure the information matches up with the actual company. Furthermore, make sure the company exists at all.

Cyber criminals take advantage of the fact many new jobs are 100% remote.  Since you never have to come in person to interview or start the job, it is easier for them to trick you. A common scam is when you will undergo an “interview” process, followed by being offered the “job.” In order to begin the job, however, they tell you that you need certain equipment for your home office. You are told to order this equipment using your credit card or by writing a check, and you will be reimbursed. That’s where the trick is. You send them a check and they either never send you the equipment, or they “reimburse” you using a fake check which will bounce. If you used your credit card to buy the equipment from them, they now have your credit card info. Bottom line: if a “company” is asking you to make a purchase using your own money before the job even begins, it’s likely a scam.

Another popular trick is the “employer” will say they need your personal information in order to register your application. Asking for your month and date of birth, location, and full name are normal. Asking for your birth year and full social security number are not. Never, ever give out your full social security number unless you are legitimately being hired at a legitimate company. If the personal information the employer is asking for doesn’t feel right, trust your gut and ask for proof.

Take caution with contract work as well. Maybe they aren’t hiring for a full time position, but for freelance or part time work. If this is the case, like with any work, make sure a contract is signed by both parties. Read every word on the contract and ask a legal professional to review it as well. If the employer refuses to provide a contract or accept the freelance contract you sent, that’s a major red flag. Without written agreement, they don’t owe you anything. This may result in your providing free labor and not getting paid, or it could be a scam in general.

Recognize if a call is suspicious.

The internet isn’t the only place scammers may try to reach you. Some will call you directly.

Never give personal information over the phone. If you receive a call from your car insurance company, ask yourself – have they ever called you in the past? Ask for proof they are actually who they claim to be. Most banks, phone service providers, and other companies would not call you directly if there was an issue. They would first send you an email or app notification. Assume any call is actually a scammer until proven otherwise.

Recently, many people have been getting calls from a scammer posing as an IRS employee claiming a payment needs to be made today or else there will be repercussions. NEVER give your credit card number or social security number over the phone.

Another popular scam is when they call and let you know you are a winner of some sort. They may use a well known brand name like a major hotel chain. Scammers know people are in need of money during these times and are more susceptible to believing they actually won a cash prize. Resist answering the call if you are not familiar with the phone number. If it was important, they’d leave a message. If you do answer and the call seems automated or fishy in any way, hang up.

Not sure if a phone number is legitimate or not? Run a quick Google search of the number first before picking up.

Do not allow remote access to your computer.

A recent common scam is a hacker that poses as an antivirus service, or as Microsoft or Apple. They will tell you that your antivirus software needs updating, or that your computer has a virus and they can help. Do not give remote access to your computer controls. Only purchase or renew antivirus software directly through the website of an established antivirus company. Do not give out your credit card info to anyone promising they are from one of these companies. I assure you Apple or Microsoft would not contact you directly asking to take over your screen. If there was an actual issue with your computer, you would be the one to bring it into the store or call them – not the other way around.

Keep your accounts secure.

Two-step verification is the extra step that keeps hackers out. With two-step verification, even if a hacker figured out your password, there is an extra layer of security. Any time a new login is attempted, a unique pass-code is sent to the email or phone number your account is associated with. It’s another step to keep your account safe and will deter hackers who are trying to get in by guessing your password, so make sure you activate two-step on all your social media accounts and email addresses.

Speaking of passwords – you should be updating yours at least once a month for all accounts. Do not use the same password for all your accounts, or passwords that are similar with just a change in number or letter. In that case, if a hacker knows your password for even one account, they can get into all your accounts. Each password for each account should be unique and difficult to guess. For example, don’t make your password something like your dog’s name or your birth year – that’s easy for hackers to figure out just by researching public info about you. Make your passwords a random assortment of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters. 

Frequently check your login activity. Platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and Gmail can tell you when you last logged in and from where. If you’re living in Los Angeles and use an iPhone but see there was a recent login from Bangkok at 2:00am on an Android, clearly something is wrong. Immediately log out of all devices and change your passwords. You can log out from all devices anywhere in the world with the click of a button. Quickly update your password before they can get back in. If suspicious login behavior continues, report it to the platform.

Be wary of social media platforms “contacting” you.

A scam that has been on the rise over the course of the pandemic is when you receive a Whatsapp or text message from a phisher posing as Instagram or another social media platform. The message reads that your account has been compromised and you need to follow this link to log in. When you follow the link, you are prompted to enter your username and password. This is how the scammer learns your login info. From there, they take over your Instagram page and hold it hostage. They may direct message your followers asking them for money, or they may demand you pay them directly to get the account back. Instagram can pick up on this suspicious behavior and shut down your page entirely, resulting in you losing everything.

This scam usually targets influencers and accounts with large followings since these pages are valuable, but remember that anyone can be targeted at any time. Know that social media companies like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Youtube, and so on would never reach out to you over something like Whatsapp. Only update your password / profile info directly in the website or the app – not through an external link you were sent.

Educate and protect your family.

Since hackers are savvy, they recognize that you yourself may not open a suspicious email – so instead, they target your family members. The scammer may find the email address of your sibling, child, or parent and pose as you. They can either hack your personal email or create an email address similar to yours and contact your family members pretending to be you, making the subject line something like “Check out these photos of us!” or “I thought you’d be interested in reading this article!” But when the email is opened and the attachment or link is clicked, it actually leads to a virus.

Keep your loved ones informed and train them to be alert and vigilant when it comes to cyber thievery. Share this article with your friends and family to help educate and protect them so they do not fall victim to a scam.

When building digital strategies and expanding the online presences of my clients, I assure all accounts are secure and protected. If you are unsure if you are being scammed or want to know how you can improve your online security, reach out to me on the Contact tab.

Six Everyday Ways You Can Continue Making Change Long After The George Floyd Protests

Let’s talk about the changes we can make in our everyday lives and continue to practice for years to come. Here are six recommendations for what you can continue to do long after the height of the protests.

If you have children

Teach them. It all starts with conversation. Don’t rely on the school system to properly educate them on social movements, race, or prejudice. Teach your children to have love and compassion for all of humanity, and that stereotypes and racism have no place in your home. Raise them to be more culturally aware.

If you have relatives

Help them understand. Talk with them. Don’t turn it into an argument. Provide view points, resources, facts, stories. Discuss. Let them ask questions. Be patient and help them to empathize. It’s more than a one time talk, it’s going to be an ongoing journey. If they refuse to listen, well that’s on them. At least you tried.

If you are a brand or business

You can post hashtags all day long, but if you don’t incorporate diversity into your business model, it will show. Think of how many PR disasters and marketing flops could’ve been prevented if there was even one person of color in the room to call it out! Hire people of color, and actually listen to them. Include more black people in your branding, your visuals, your panels, your speaker series.

If you are an employee

Do not tolerate racism in the workplace however insignificant the comment or “joke” may seem. Help stand up for your minority coworkers. Maybe they’re afraid to say something because they don’t want to spark attention and put their job in jeopardy. Recognize workplace microaggressions and make it clear it’s not funny nor okay.

You can also write or speak to your employer noting your concern about a lack of diversity in the company. Here are factual talking points for making a case for diversity in the workplace. Follow up and ask what actions they plan to take.

If you are a friend

Check in on your black peers. Instead of only saying “how‘s it going?”, let them know you’re here for them if they need anything – and that you genuinely mean it.

Don’t ask them to educate you. They’re going through enough and can’t spend their energy now trying to teach you. There are endless resources out there, so that’s on you to read up! Don’t make it about you (“I feel your pain, this bad thing happened to me once”) – it’s not about you. This being said, please don’t shy away because you’re afraid to “say the wrong thing.” It’s more hurtful to not say anything at all.

For yourself

The learning doesn’t end here. Vow to keep listening and learning long after the protests. There are incredible resources online for how to be anti-racist, ways to be an ally, and which causes to help support. Read books written by black authors. Observe art from black artists. Watch shows and movies from black creators. Follow black voices on your social media channels. Support black owned businesses. Dive into your personal biases and evaluate where you can grow. Continue to ask yourself the difficult questions and build on self improvement.

Anti-racism isn’t a trending hashtag; it’s a way of living.

I hope you can put these tips to good use.

How to help Angelinos in need right now

Countless people are facing turmoil as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic and are in need of immediate help. Covid Mutal Aid Network is an ambitious initiative run by the organization Ground Game- Los Angeles to put donations + help directly in the hands of those who need it. Please consider the following:

𝐃𝐎𝐍𝐀𝐓𝐄:

  • Donate money of any amount to their fundraiser. It will be directly given to those who are suffering financially as a result of Covid-19 and need immediate help paying for rent, food, and general survival.
  • Donate materials to those who cannot afford or access essential items. This includes food, clothing, toiletries, medicine, household supplies, sanitizer, masks, and anything else you can think of. You can drop off the supplies at their donation center OR arrange for a volunteer to come safely pick it up directly from you.

𝐕𝐎𝐋𝐔𝐍𝐓𝐄𝐄𝐑:

  • Time is such a valuable resource to donate! The mutual aid network is actively looking for volunteers to help coordinate donations, deliver supplies via car, communicate with those in need, etc.

Ready to learn more and make a difference in your community? Visit the mutual aid network website and get started by clicking HERE!

Now is the time when we need to come together as a community and support one another. Through these dark times we must allow the light of humanity shine through. No matter how hard our personal situations are, there are always ways to give back.

Productivity in the time of Coronavirus: Making the most of a difficult situation

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With the global spread of Covid-19, many of us find ourselves following orders to stay home. With constant frightening headlines being thrown in our faces, it is hard to find inner peace. We worry about our loved ones, about humanity, and about ourselves. Many face unemployment or cut hours, worry about falling ill, or are simply overcome with uncertainty. It comes as no surprise that stress takes a toll on the body. According to psychology experts, stress can disrupt the communication between the brain and the immune system – which means that ongoing stress makes us more susceptible to illness and disease.

Right now is the time we need to be physically and mentally stronger than ever to fight through this.

Whether you are in quarantine, on lock down, working from home, or practicing social distancing, it is easy to find yourself feeling bored, lonely, or stir crazy. The healthiest way to combat this is to change your mindset. View this moment in history as a rare opportunity for quiet reflection. See this as a chance to reconnect with the people and things you care about. Take this as a moment to analyze what truly matters in your life. You will benefit greatly if you alter your mindset to view this as an opportunity rather than a prison sentence.

Here are 10 ways you can make the most of the current Coronavirus situation.

 

1. Check in and connect with family and friends.

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When we’re juggling our busy professional and personal lives, being in touch with those we care about sometimes falls by the wayside. With this newfound time on your hands, make the effort to pick up the phone and call.

“FaceTime dates” are a great way to have lunch, dinner, or tea “together” with friends or family via videochat and engage in conversation. For those of us who are used to eating in the company of others, this helps combat loneliness. You can also enjoy movie nights with friends online by watching a film or show on streaming services like Netflix Party or Amazon Prime Video and discussing your reactions in a group chat. Something I’ve found helpful is exchanging Whatsapp calls and voice notes with my friends from around the world in order to learn more about the current situation in their countries.

Whichever medium you choose, check in on those you care about and have a (probably long overdue!) catch up session.

2. Self reflect.

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I can’t remember the last time I sat down and took a moment to look inward. This week, however, I’ve been doing it almost every day. Check in with yourself. Take a deep breath and think of all that you’re grateful for. Analyze the patterns in your life. You might uncover some deeper questions, such as “Why do I allow toxic people in my life?” “Did I ever fully heal from this experience?” or “How do I break the chain of unhealthy behavior?” Without the excuse of having to be out somewhere and doing something, we now have the opportunity to look deep within and ask ourselves the things we may have been suppressing for a long time.

If you’re unsure of where to get started on your introspection journey, try these questions and exercises. Self reflection is essential to personal growth. Perhaps these realizations will guide you into better habits once life returns to a normal pace.

3. cook and learn new recipes.

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With many restaurants and dining establishments closed, you are bound to spend a lot of time in your kitchen. Rather than viewing cooking as a chore, find ways to fall in love with it. Get creative with recipes and experiment with different types of cuisines. You might discover a new favorite dish you want to cook for guests once this all blows over.

Cooking is also highly therapeutic. As you are chopping vegetables or kneading dough, your mind is simply focused on the task at hand rather than going down the rabbit hole of dark thoughts. According to this Movement Counselor, “Cooking helps mental health in that it can be a creative outlet. It’s a way to channel energy, can be used as a distraction, help build mastery in a skill, and a way to express emotions through a different medium.”

You don’t want to feel like you’re eating the same five things over and over again, so now is the time to experiment with new recipes. Not sure where to begin? Check out some online recipes and discover delicious yet easy to make meals to see how it’s done.

Allow cooking to become a highlight of your day. Take pride in the rewards of your efforts that went into making yourself a good homemade meal rather than ordering off a menu.

4. Start a home workout routine.

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If your local gym is closed, you can still find ways to exercise. Movement is important to keep your body strong during these trying times. Exercise has long been proven to improve your mood. According to Mayo Clinic, physical activity helps bump up the production of endorphins which are your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters. Regular exercise can increase self-confidence, aid in sleep patterns, and lower symptoms associated with mild depression and anxiety.

You don’t need an entire fitness studio to be able to work out. Even if you have a small apartment like me, you can move some furniture around and set aside a designated space to be your “home gym.” I turned my living room into a mini fitness area with three yoga mats, weights, and other small exercise equipment. If you don’t have these items, you can order online on Amazon or with fitness retailers.

If you are a yogi or wanting to learn yoga, there is a variety of at-home yoga videos available for free online. Fitness company Down Dog is making their popular exercise apps Down Dog, Yoga for Beginners, HIIT, Barre, and 7 Minute Workout – which usually require purchasing – completely free until April 1st. In light of school closures, they are also offering free access until July 1st for all K-12 and college students and teachers.

Plenty of free fitness tutorials and workout videos can also be found on the account pages of fitness gurus posting on Snapchat, Youtube, and Instagram. For example, trainer Katie Austin is sharing a daily series of home workouts you can do using less than five feet of space. 

If you are working from a computer for long hours, consider getting a standing desk. Otherwise, periodically take ten minute breaks to get up from your seat to stretch and move your muscles.

5. Take up those hobbies you’ve been putting off.

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I have a bookshelf filled with books I haven’t touched in years. Guess who rediscovered the joys of reading this week? I bet you have at least one interest you’ve been neglecting simply because you are too busy with work and your outside life. Reconnect with your hobbies and rediscover the gratification they bring you. For me, this means writing poetry, editing my photography, organizing the hundreds of videos from my travels, updating my website, practicing salsa, drawing, discovering new music… the list goes on.

Until now, I didn’t realize how many personal hobbies I let go by the wayside and all the small joys I was robbing myself of. Hobbies can also be healthy distractions from the daunting 24-hour news cycle. Take a break from the statistics and focus your mind on an activity you haven’t done in a while. You are bound to feel more productive as a result. 

6. Organize your home.

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You know those chores that only take 15 minutes to do but you’ve been putting off for two months? Yeah.. it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to them! Since you are in your home all hours now, you might as well make it a space you feel good in.

Reorganize your closet and sort your dresser drawers. Rearrange your furniture and try out new decor. Tidy your space by doing simple things like wiping down counter tops and making your bed every morning. Perhaps become a “plant parent” and adopt plants to breathe some life into your home. You now have time for those more mundane tasks like vacuuming, mopping, shampooing the carpet, doing the dishes, and tackling that mountain of laundry, so take advantage. If your home is messy and cluttered, your life will feel like it, too.

Remember the Danish concept of hygge and do things that make your home feel cozy – like lighting candles, using soft fuzzy blankets, and hanging twinkling lights . You’re going to be here for a while, so create a clean and tidy space you’re proud to call home.

7. Give back.

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No matter how difficult your situation is, there are always others out there that need help. This is the time when humanity needs to come together and support one another. Everyone is affected by this virus in one way or another; some of us more than others. Do research and uncover how you can help your local community.

For example, I found an organization in Los Angeles that will come to your home and pick up supplies and redistribute the materials to those who need them. So far I have donated shampoo, soap, conditioner, disinfectant/sanitizer, face masks, toiletries, pet supplies, and other household items to those in need without having to leave my apartment building. Money is the fastest way to help. If you are financially able to, make donations to organizations who are aiding those affected. Consider directly donating to individual fundraisers.

Being in isolation doesn’t have to mean cutting yourself off and adopting an “every man for himself” mentality. See if there are any elderly people in your building or neighborhood who need help getting things like groceries or medicine. Check in on your neighbors and let them know how you can be of help. Compassion and care are how we will get through this. In dark times, the most beautiful aspects of humanity can shine through.

8. stay informed of policy updates and assistance.

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There are forms of assistance for those who are struggling. Read up on the latest policies in your area that help protect citizens financially affected by the pandemic.

The Trump administration is suspending all foreclosures and evictions until the end of April to help those affected by the virus. The Treasury Department and IRS announced that the federal income tax filing due date is extended from April 15th to July 15th. Here in Los Angeles, drivers will rejoice to discover that parking tickets are being suspended. Utility suppliers such as conEdison have announced electricity will not be shut off if you are unable to pay. Additionally, late payment fees will be waived, there will be no fees for payments made with credit/debit cards, and customers can arrange for payment extensions online.

New policies are being put in place, so stay up to date on the ways you can be aided. If you need food, supplies or household items, research local organizations that are donating to those in need. In Los Angeles, Ground Game is accepting both donors and recipients for funding and materials. Reach out to see if your friends know of resources or look online on Google and Facebook. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. These are trying times and there should be no shame in getting the help you need.

9. Evaluate your career path.

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We are usually too occupied by the day-to-day motions to reflect on the larger goals. Are you happy with your career path?

If you unfortunately lost your job as a result of the pandemic, evaluate what your next steps are. What kind of jobs do you see yourself doing? What type of careers will be needed in the years to come versus which ones will likely dissolve due to automation and artificial intelligence? Read up on the Emerging Jobs Report. You can start your job search by visiting your state’s career service website, reaching out to recruiters on LinkedIn, and browsing job listings on websites such as Indeed, CareerBuilder, LinkedIn Jobs, and Monster

During times of crisis, people and companies reveal their true colors. If you are still employed, how did your employer react to the virus outbreak? Did your manager callously ignore health concerns and still force you to come into work? Did your company’s board step up to the plate and show that they truly care about the safety and well-being of their employees? Would you say you are in an encouraging work environment or a toxic one? Do you see a path for growth? Ponder these questions and make a plan for the near future. Really think about what your goals are in advancing your career. If your career path is no longer serving you entirely, think of what type of job would bring you fulfillment.

Now is also a great time to take online courses to sharpen your skills and watch digital tutorials to help build new ones.

10. Practice healthy habits.

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If you’re following the news cycle all hours of the day, you’re going to psych yourself out. While it is important to stay up-to-date and informed, do not drown yourself in headlines.

Limit your social media consumption by giving yourself an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening to check your feeds. Keep your body fueled with nutritious foods such as vegetables, legumes, and fruits: save the packaged non-perishables for down the line. Keep water by your side at all times and stay hydrated. If weather permits, keep your windows open to allow air circulation. Have fun with your beauty routine and pamper your skin – this means getting around to trying those facial masks and exfoliating scrubs that have been sitting in your bathroom for months! Most importantly, catch up on all that sleep you’ve been missing. Take advantage of not having to commute by sleeping in an extra hour.

While some will succumb to heavy snacking and couch potato habits, make a conscious decision to nurture your body/mind/spirit. It needs all the extra love it can get right now.

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Thank you for reading. I wish that you and your family will remain safe, healthy, and well. Take necessary precautions such as avoiding social contact and staying home. Visit the CDC website for official Covid-19 guidelines and information. If you are experiencing symptoms of the Coronavirus, seek immediate medical attention.

 

CITY GUIDES

I’ve had the pleasure of living in three of the greatest American cities: New York, Boston, and Los Angeles. To share the love with visitors and newcomers alike, I compiled top things to do in each city – including sightseeing, culture, activities, museums, nightlife, and of course.. food. Click below to read my city guides. Don’t forget to bookmark them for your next trip!

LA

NYCity

BOS

“The Right to Vote”: Midterm Elections & the Silenced Voices

This is an Op-Ed article tying back to informed research, factual current reporting, and public policy.

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The day is November 6th, 2018 and you’re surrounded by “I VOTED” stickers placed proudly on the shirts of those around you. You look on as your peers smile because they believe they have an impact in shaping the future of their nation. You wish you knew this feeling, too.

But you don’t.

Because you’re not allowed to vote.

This is what November 6th was like for an untold number of Americans who never got to cast their votes at the ballot because of “technical issues” at their designated polling place — or because they live in states that don’t allow early voting — or because they’re part of the six million Americans with felony convictions — or because they’re green-card holders — or because they’re DACA recipients — or because their absentee ballot mysteriously never arrived— the list goes on.

If you are the one who gets to preach “Get out and vote!” without hesitation, then also remember those whose voices are intentionally silenced.

According to research by Pew, “In the five years since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key parts of the Voting Rights Act, nearly a thousand polling places have been shuttered across the country, many of them in southern black communities.”

The truth is, we are living in an era of voter suppression. In cities nationwide, extra hurdles are thrown at minorities in an effort to keep them from voting. According to Pew, “Polling places have often been used as political tools to shape the outcome of elections. Officials can reduce the voter participation of certain groups by eliminating polling places, and increase participation in other groups by placing precincts in key neighborhoods.” In many a case, this has meant making access to polls easy in primarily white middle & upper-class areas while making access to polls in primarily ethnic and lower-income neighborhoods increasingly difficult.

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On November 6th’s Midterm Election, many strange “coincidences” arose. You may have friends that never received their absentee ballots despite requesting one with plenty of time in advance and taking all proper steps. Maybe, you yourself never received yours. Mysterious, isn’t it?

In Fulton County, Georgia, many voters were left to wait hours to cast their ballots after the county mistakenly only installed three voting machines, according to The Hill. Many voters wound up leaving the polling site due to the long wait. Let us take a moment to reflect on this. If you are in charge of a polling place, how do you “forget” to install voting machines? And what if I told you the voters waiting for hours were majority African Americans? Just a coincidence, right? What if I told you a similar situation happened also in an African American-majority area in Snellville, Georgia where the machines were not connected to power cords and ran out of battery power? Don’t you just love when people forget to power up the polling machines?

In Dodge City, Kansas, Ford County Clerk Debbie Cox moved the only polling place in the city from a convenient central location to a new location half a mile outside the city limits, according to The Wichita Eagle. The new polling spot is not accessible by sidewalk and has no regular public transportation. To make the obvious more obvious, this means the new polling center is only accessible by car. To make the obvious even more obvious, this would exclude low-income voters who rely on public transportation and bicycle to get around.

Over in El Paso, Texas, the U.S. Border Patrol had sent out a press release stating they would be conducting a “mobile field force demonstration” crowd control exercise. Why plan to conduct such an exercise on Election Day that may deter voters from coming out? Well… what if I told you El Paso is a border city with a large Latino population?

The list of “coincidental accidents” that occurred on polling places on November 6th goes on and on, but hopefully you get the picture by now.

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Change is needed even in areas that are known for being more liberal. New York City, which has been carried by a Democrat in statewide and presidential elections since 1924, still bears restrictive policies. New Yorkers cannot access absentee ballots without meeting particular criteria, and New York state does not offer early voting. Early voting allows millions nationwide to access polls in the weeks before the election. This is helpful to parents, those working irregular hours, firefighters, doctors, or anyone who has a busy life in general. Without early voting access, an untold number of voters in New York state may not make it to the polls the day of. Further more, New York holds a Closed Primary system. This means that when it comes time for the U.S. Primary Elections, only those who are registered as Republican or Democrat can vote. According to Times Union, “over a quarter of all voters in NY state — 3.2 million who are registered to vote but not enrolled in a party — are shut out of voting in closed primary elections.” That’s more than all of the registered voters in the entire state of Connecticut.

Voter reform is desperately needed across the United States in order for our election processes to be fair. People of our nation deserve the right to vote without policies or “mistakes” intentionally put in place to restrict voices from being heard.

Next time you peel that “I VOTED” sticker on to your shirt, do your part to learn about voter suppression and how it affects those around you. Be a part of the reform that gives others a say in shaping the places they live and the everyday lives they lead. This is what we pledged when we said “Liberty and Justice for all.”

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Cracking the Code: How to Navigate Facebook and Instagram’s Secret Algorithms

    Gone are the days where posts appear chronologically in your Facebook and Instagram feeds. Both social networks developed their own unique algorithms to determine what you see on your social feed, and in what order. While the algorithms are kept top secret, research and personal experience moves us further toward cracking these ever-changing algorithms.

    Getting your social post to the eyes of viewers is essential, whether you’re blogging for fun or for business. A post that receives more exposure is likely to generate more followers, fans, and sales if applicable. The amount of likes received can determine how well an account is respected, and in some situations, can even mean money. The more eyes a post or ad is seen by, the more of a chance a brand has to gain a larger following and new consumers.

    So is this new algorithm for better or for worse? Many ‘Grammers were upset when Instagram rolled out its new system of ordering posts. Some think Instagram is no longer “fair game” – that now photos get lost in the shuffle, and many do not even appear on the feed at all. When viewed from a different perspective, however, the new Instagram algorithm can actually help your photos rise above. It used to be that the more you post, the more you appear on the feed. This is no longer necessarily the case. “Serial posters” – users who post many photos a day, but photos that are low quality – will sink, while those who share compelling visuals on a less frequent scale will rise. Think of it this way: quantity over quality shifted to quality over quantity.

     With the latest algorithm update, Instagram prioritizes active users. This is a marketing trick to keep users on the Instagram app longer and checking more frequently. So what constitutes as an “active user”? An active account is one that engages frequently. This means facilitating conversation, writing captions that tell stories and pose questions, posting to Instagram stories and IGTV, and commenting and interacting with other users. Instagram also wants to see you make the most of their features. This means sharing in-the-moment to your Story and using Instagram Live. This is also a good way to keep your audience engaged and up to date with your life, even when you are not posting a photo.

    The focus is now on how to make your Instagram photos original and creative. According to Kevin Systrom, co-founder of Instagram, “People miss about 70 percent of the posts in their Instagram feed. What this is about is making sure that the 30 percent you see is the best 30 percent possible.” This is good news to marketers. If your photos are compelling and you seek an authentic following, you will have an advantage over spam accounts with purchased followers. When viewed from this vantage, the new Instagram algorithm will be helpful to people and brands making the effort to produce quality content. When authenticity is key, spam doesn’t stand a chance.

    Facebook takes a similar approach with its new algorithm. You won’t notice every single post on your Facebook feed, but you will notice the ones that rise to the top. The posts that make it to the top of the feed are typically the ones gaining the most interaction. The Facebook algorithm picks up the amount of activity (in the form of likes, comments, and shares) a post is receiving. The more engagement a post receives, the more Facebook identifies it as important and relevant. This is why it is helpful to respond to comments left on your posts.

Ever notice how a “So and so are Engaged” post will show at the top of you feed? Facebook looks for keywords when it comes to sorting posts with the algorithm. Terms such as “birth,” “engaged,” “married,” “congratulations,” and anything regarding current events will be flagged as important, and therefore will receive priority. If you want your brand’s post to gain attention, avoid using dull words.

    Content posted directly through Facebook takes precedence over content shared from an external source. For example, someone doing a Facebook Live video will likely be placed higher on the newsfeed than someone who shared a video from Youtube. If you want your content to be spotted, make sure you are posting it directly through Facebook’s uploading system and not from a source that will direct the viewer off of the Facebook platform. After all, these sites/ apps want you to stay as long as possible scrolling on their server.

    The new Facebook algorithm poses potential threats for businesses. Posts from Pages as opposed to personal user profiles are less likely to appear on the newsfeed. Pages can pay money to have their ads/posts appear to more viewers, but not every company has the funding for this method. This particularly hurts small businesses. If you are a blogger or company with sufficient funding, use paid promotion on the posts that are showing signs of success in order to expand the positive reach even further. If you are a blogger or a business with limited funds, there are still ways to help your posts be seen. Post content natively, and make sure the content you are creating appeals to your target audience. See which posts of yours have received a lot of hype and which have flopped and learn from it. Likes – or the lack of – are telling when it comes to figuring out what your target audience wants to see. The new Facebook algorithm does not encourage clickbait and promotional wording, so make your posts as organic and relatable as possible. Create engaging content, and don’t be afraid to play around with Facebook’s new visual features such as 360 videos/photos. It all comes back to the theme of quality. Quality content will attract more attention, thus gaining more Shares, thus reaching more viewers.

    Unless you’re Mark Zuckerberg, there is no way to know the specifics of the hundreds of factors that go into arranging the newsfeed. The above practices, however, will get you started on the right path. Create engaging content, continuously reply to comments and messages, and be persistent. Do not get discouraged and do not expect overnight results – genuine growth takes time and can sometimes feed tedious, but it is incredibly more effective than artificial growth. Keep at it every day, have patience, and the change will be noticeable.

    Remember that these complex algorithms weren’t created to hurt, but to help. The ultimate goal of the algorithm is to display content the platform determines is most relevant to the user. There’s nothing wrong with a little competition for feed placement if it means a decrease in spam and a push for quality. It’s not about beating the algorithm – it’s about learning to work and grow with it.

For A Swiss Chocolatier, Winning Over Tastebuds With Flavors Of Home

It’s a windy day in Boston, but all is calm inside the Teuscher chocolate shop as owner Stefan Bieri organizes a display of sweets. The store on Newbury Street is filled with brightly hued decorations of springtime flowers and miniature bunnies wearing bows, all shipped in directly from Switzerland. As a customer enters the shop, Bieri hears the words he is all too familiar with:

“I’ll have a box of Champagne Truffles, please.”

It’s the brand’s most famous chocolate, and it’s been rocking tastebuds since 1932 when a man named Dolf Teuscher created it in his home in the Swiss Alps. Forty years later, the Champagne Truffle found its way from the mountainsides of Switzerland to the United States – and eventually, in 1996, right here to Newbury Street.

The New York Times has called Teuscher “the world’s finest” chocolate. National Geographic rated it 2012’s ”#1 Best Chocolatier in the World.” Bon Appétit Magazine has called their products “the most meltingly marvelous of all chocolate creations.” Then there’s the feature of Teuscher’s Champagne Truffle on the Oprah Winfrey Show, where she declared it as one of her favorites.

So why set up shop in Boston?

Stefan Bieri, who was orginally born in Bern, Switzerland, attributes it to Newbury Street’s international flare and “Boston’s sophisticated taste for the finer things.”

Bieri has been running the Newbury store for 13 years. For him, the Teuscher chocolate shop represents more than just yummy treats; it is a proud monument of Swiss culture.

“Chocolate represents one of the best things about my country,” says Bieri.

The shop draws in customers that are a balance between Boston locals and foreign visitors. The appeal for locals is mostly word-of-mouth hype about the Champagne Truffle. As for the international crowd – especially Europeans – the attraction lies in the composition of the chocolate. According to Bieri, the difference in taste is noticeable to European chocoholics when compared to mass-produced chocolates made in the US containing dyes and preservatives. Teuscher’s treats have no preservatives, no waxes, and no other chemical additives, he said.

A customer named Kyle, who currently lives in Jamaica Plain, has family in Lucerne, Switzerland. He says that with their fresh ingredients, Teuscher’s has “the best chocolate in Boston” in his opinion. For him, the rich flavors pay homage to his family.

Kyle chooses the aforementioned Champagne Truffle as his treat of choice. The truffle is composed of a blend of fresh cream, butter, and chocolate with a champagne cream center that is dusted with confectioner’s sugar. It is available in milk or dark, and accounts for approximately 60 percent of their sales.

How much money are customers willing to drop on one piece of chocolate?

“Teuscher’s isn’t cheap. But I can rationalize spending four bucks on a single chocolate because they are just so damn good,” he Kyle.

The prices are steep as far as sweets go. This certainly isn’t your typical pack of 99 cent M&Ms; A 24-piece Teuscher chocolate box can cost you $90, and a single chocolate bar can come in at $14. You better really want to impress your Valentine sweetheart, because if you seek a velvet heart-shaped box with 43 pieces, it’s going to cost you $175.

While Teuscher chocolates may not be for the budget foodie, some are willing to trade the extra cash for quality.

“You won’t find many like this in the US. I love Teuscher’s because they are all about the chocolate experience,” Kyle says.

The hefty price tag can also be attributed to the ingredients that go into the creation of the treats. Teuscher’s opts to spend extra on cocoa butter rather than cutting back costs by using hydrogenated oils and dairy fats. According to Bieri, the chocolates are infused with flavors from around the world, including jasmine tea from Asia, ginger from the South Pacific, pistachios from Turkey, and hazelnuts from Italy.

Many of the chocolates are handmade the same exact way they were in Switzerland 80 years ago. In fact, the goods are flown in to Boston via a direct flight from Zurich. As one could imagine, this means very careful packaging.

I question if competitor chocolatiers try to mimic their Champagne Truffle. Bieri shakes his head.

“It cannot be copied or duplicated,” he says. “We are the original.”

Teuscher Chocolates Boston
Location: 230 Newbury Street, Boston MA 02116
Hours: Monday-Saturday 11 am – 7 pm, Sunday 12 pm – 5pm

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Dia de los Muertos: Shining Light On Los Angeles’s Latin Community

Dia de los Muertos is a holiday synonymous with Mexico, but is widely celebrated by its northern neighbor: California.

Latinos make up approximately half of the population of Los Angeles. The strong Hispanic and Latin American communities present in LA means a greater exchange of culture.

Dia de los Muertos has been around for over 3,000 years and is a holiday about reuniting and honoring ancestors, family and friends and having the living commune with the deceased. Simply put, Dia de los Muertos is a holiday honoring the dead. Rather than being somber, the holiday is uplifting – it is a celebration of life. Loved ones are remembered as ofrendas (altars) are created and filled with photos of the person, objects that represent his/her favorite hobbies and interests, artwork, and colorful flowers. Pleasant smelling incense fills the air, and pan de muerto (dead bread) is eaten. Dancers dress up in traditional Aztec style garments complete with a headdress and perform to the beat of the drum. All around, people join together and celebrate.

The biggest Dia de los Muertos event held in Los Angeles takes place in the famous Hollywood Forever cemetery – a fitting location to honor the dead. Altars are set up around graves, a grand stage boasts live performances from Latin musicians, and tents selling Mexican food are lined up along the premise. Thousands show up to the event in extraordinary costumes, many with their faces painted to look like the sugar skulls. It is a grand-scale and glamorous event boasting famous performers and even more famous people (that happen to be underneath the ground). Prepare for massive crowds that can feel overwhelming at times.

Over on Olvera Street located in Downtown across from Union Station exists another Dia de los Muertos festival – only this one is more relaxed and less glitzy. The altars are smaller and the people are dressed more modestly. There is a greater feeling of authenticity as locals chatter in Spanish while lighting candles. A procession is led, usually dedicating the night to a specific person who has passed and those who have died in the same way, such as drug addiction. All along Olvera Street are small shops where you can purchase incense, sugar skulls, fans, Mexican blouses, paper marigolds, colored eggs, and many more items associated with the festivities. At the end of the night, all join together around the bandshell where live music is performed along with a ceremonial ritual with Aztec dancers. On Olvera Street, it’s less about the glamour and more about the community.

Even for those who are not Hispanic, Dia de los Muertos is a beautiful holiday to honor those who have passed and to celebrate life itself. If you’re searching for a place to participate in the festivities but can’t quite make it to Oaxaca this year, Los Angeles should do the trick.

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A Dancer’s Inspiring Journey And A Show You Won’t Forget

It’s a cozy night in the theatre. The lights are dimmed, all are seated, and the audience is quiet as they wait for the show to begin. Titled “Traces,” some viewers may have been brought here by good reviews while others were recommended by friends. Little do they realize that for the next 90 minutes, they will be transported to another world: one of dance, acrobatics, music, energy, and emotion. In the blink of an eye, seven figures take the stage: six males and one female. There is no slow progression, no easing into things. They enter with zeal and vivacity, moving in the most electrifying kinds of ways and stunning the crowd with every subsequent stunt. The theatre is no longer quiet and mellow – it is brimming with life.

Those seven figures lighting up the stage are Les 7 doigts de la main. The name of the company translates to “the seven fingers of the hand.” It’s a twist on a French idiom used to describe different parts united in coordination toward a common goal, and it honestly couldn’t be more fitting. Each of these talented dancers has something unique to bring to the performance. The show itself is highly personal, involving speaking parts, solo scenes, and even childhood photographs. The audience is able to get a feel for each individual dancer and their different personalities.

One of the more outgoing, friendly personalities belongs to dancer Lucas Boutin. The cast of Traces hails from all different parts of the world, including Mexico, China, the US, Canada, and England – Lucas being the French counterpart. Growing up in France, his passion for performance arts and acrobatics came about early on. At just six years old, Lucas began circus training. With much practice and determination, he excelled at juggling, unicycling, and acrobatics. At the age of 15, he attended a special circus high school where he continued circus training alongside his education. Three years later, he moved on to London where he furthered his talents in theater and dance. It was here that Lucas made the art of Chinese pole his main focus. With all this experience under his belt, Lucas has taken his talents across the globe, traveling far and wide to pursue the thrills of performing before a live audience.

Lucas began performing with the Traces cast in March of 2012, with the full current crew having been united October 2013. Lucas dances in a variety of scenes, but his main act is Chinese pole. Watching his stunts can do one of two things to your heart: make it beat rapidly, or make it stop altogether. The audience holds their breath as he climbs up the pole and projects his body horizontally, no strings in sight. It takes an incredible amount of strength, balance and focus to succeed at the feat that is Chinese pole. As Lucas performs these stunts – one of which includes sliding down the pole head-first and stopping right before hitting the ground – it is only him and gravity. That, and the surrounding gasps of the crowd.

Though Chinese pole is his specialty, he cites Traces’ opening number as being his favorite to perform. This beginning scene is lively as it is chaotic, involving all seven of the dancers running around the stage doing jumps and karate moves. Lucas says this scene is exciting but challenging to do because the members are responsible for catching objects and even one another. Missing a beat is not an option when timing is of the essence.

The show features the dancers performing in a variety of forms, from contemporary dance to hoop diving to skateboarding to juggling to acrobatics to basketball to banquine and teeterboard flips. Even with all these adrenaline-pumping acts, dancer Naomie Zimmermann-Pichon says she finds the speaking parts to be the most challenging. (Ironic how the dancers can seem to flip through the air like it’s nothing, but find their hearts pounding when presented with the mic.) Throughout Lucas’s speaking parts, we come to know him as a comical and happy-go-lucky guy who is self-described as being curious, jealous, and naïve. He later mentioned to me that some more adjectives to describe himself would be smiley, happy, and passionate.

Passionate, indeed. Touring as a performer requires an immense amount of dedication. Waking up in a new city is a regular occurrence for Lucas. After the Traces crew’s run in Boston, the group takes their talents to China, then Japan, followed by France. Previously, Les 7 has performed in Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Mexico, Russia, New Zealand, China, Japan, and all over the US. Traveling great distances has brought Lucas many unpredictable experiences that have made for exciting stories. As if his risky stunts on stage weren’t adrenaline-boosting enough, he went skydiving during his day off in New Zealand. One time en route to Mexico, he faced airplane problems and arrived with only one day to spare before the premiere. In that one day, he had to learn the entire show.

Looking ahead, Lucas says he would be honored to do another Les 7 doigts de la main show, citing how he enjoys the personal aspect of the performances. According to him, even with the show’s pre-established style, the dancers are able to bring themselves into their tricks and make it their own. And it isn’t just a matter of acting – real emotion is put into each performance, making for a highly personal and unique experience.

Lucas says he believes the arts bring people together, and that theater and circus can act as a source of unification. This is why he cites the audience itself as being his biggest inspiration. He told a story of a girl who was struggling with depression at the time she went to see Traces. After the show, the girl approached the cast and told them “Thank you, you saved me.” It is moments like this that give meaning to what he is doing. “If I can impact even one person in the audience each night, I’ve done my job right,” Lucas says.

Traces is a show bursting with verve and energy, much like the dancers themselves. “Work hard, do what you love, and never let anyone stop you,” Lucas offers when asked to give advice to those seeking to fulfil their dreams. Even in times when others doubted him and what he was doing, he stayed true to himself and continued to pursue his passions. It is with this integrity that great achievement has come about. Les 7 hopes to bring viewers every night this message of doing what you love.

As the final scene of Traces comes to a close, the music fades, the curtain closes, and the lights go back on. The show has ended – but the feeling remains. The essence of empowerment, passion, and liveliness will stay with audience members for days to come.

To “lead a life fully” is Lucas’s personal philosophy. And from this performance, many will have been inspired to do the same.