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Yes, you are getting lots of robocalls again

Americans received more than 4.6 billion robocalls in February, up 15% compared to January, according to new data from YouMail, a robocall-prevention service that tracks robocall traffic across the United States. About 159.1 million robocalls were placed each day last month.
This marked the highest monthly robocall volume since February 2020, notably right before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the United States hard. So far, 2021 is on pace to reach 51.5 billion robocalls, a big jump from 2020 (45.9 billion). Americans received 58.5 billion robocalls in 2019, up 22% from the year before.

“Because February was a short month, I think the first two months are lower than we’ll see going forward and we’re actually going to wind up much closer to 2019’s pre-pandemic levels overall,” YouMail CEO Alex Quilici told CNN Business, attributing the resurgence to economies’ reopening worldwide.

Americans experienced a significant drop in the amount of robocalls flooding their phones last Spring, helped by international call centers being shut down during the global pandemic and government efforts to stop Covid-19-related scams. At the time, YouMail reported the number of robocalls made to US phone numbers in April was the lowest in two years. That included both scam and legitimate calls, such as payment reminders from banks.

“Call centers are closed or running at much lower capacity due to social distancing around the world,” Quilici told CNN Business at the time. “There’s no point to robocall people if there’s no one there on the other end [to field it] when someone ‘presses 1’ or returns a call.”
The latest report noted that scam and telemarketing calls accounted for about 60% of last month’s robocall volume — a trend in line with past months. The leading illegal types of robocalls involved car warranties and health-related scams.

People are turning to Nextdoor for tips on getting a vaccine. Why that may be a problem

On the hyperlocal social network, where neighbors connect with neighbors, Kasim, who works on health policy and government affairs, came across a post from someone about a supposed new vaccination site in Montgomery County, Maryland, where her family lives. “It had been posted 20 to 30 minutes before — so I jumped on it,” said Kasim, who has been on Nextdoor since well before the pandemic. “I was all happy, jumping up and down, dancing all over my house. I thought, ‘This is so great — one thing off my to-do list.'”
But shortly after booking an appointment through the link — which asked her to provide her mother’s email address, age, cell phone number and maiden name — her father’s “spidey senses” went off. “My dad said, ‘where did you find this link?’ Because it seemed too good to be true. … It seemed a little thin on the details,” she said. “Sure enough, I went back on to Nextdoor and the link was gone.”

A fraudulent link could be shared on many social networks but it may carry unique weight on Nextdoor. The startup, founded in 2010 and most recently valued at $2.1 billion, was designed to give people a way to connect with neighbors virtually to do things such as buy and sell items from each other, and discover local businesses, services and, importantly, news at a time when local publications are in decline. People are required to verify their home address to use the platform, and, for some, that could lend more credibility compared to interacting with random strangers on other sites.

During the pandemic, Nextdoor has become even more central to communities. Households turned to it for tips on where to find toilet paper when it was sold out everywhere. Local public agencies have relied on the platform to communicate with residents about the virus and the vaccine. And some have used Nextdoor to help schedule vaccine appointments for others who need help navigating the process.

In the early months of the pandemic, the company said it had seen engagement increase globally, with daily active users up 60% in the US from the start of last year. The pandemic continues to be a key driver of conversation on the platform: In January, Covid-related posts were viewed more than 400 million times in the US on Nextdoor, according to the company, with posts about vaccine appointments accounting for the largest percentage of that.
“We’ve always known in times of crisis that that’s actually when Nextdoor often really sings as a platform,” said Nextdoor CEO Sarah Friar in an interview with CNN Business last month.
But some social media experts are uncomfortable with Nextdoor’s growing influence in communities. Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor of communication at Syracuse University who is focused on social media, called it “concerning” that people have started “over-relying” on the platform in the absence of fact-checked information reported by local news outlets.

“It is out of necessity but it is not ultimately good for our local communities, for societies, for democracy,” Grygiel said. “The risk is that Nextdoor is starting to serve as a place where people share information without the journalists who go and fact check it, and make sure that that isn’t misinformation. It becomes more like best-intentioned gossip.”
And as Kasim’s case shows, sometimes the gossip is just wrong.

The new king of local news?

Nextdoor’s rise dovetails with the decline of local news, but the company does not view itself as a journalism service, nor does it promise the same editorial standards.
“I think [Nextdoor] is really good for editorial around local news,” Friar said in the interview. “What I would never say we are in a position to do, is to be what you do — like fact-checking, really high integrity of a journalist — that is not our business. But the local editorial is important, right? What I love seeing on Nextdoor is someone pulling an article from a local newspaper, like, ‘Hey, they’re gonna put speed bumps on our roads. It’s about time.’ And then you get the back and forth.”
Yet, the platform now finds itself in the position of filling in not just for gaps in local news coverage, but also gaps left by the federal and local governments, as seen in the patchwork online registration process around the vaccine rollout.
“It is unreasonable, unfair, and in my view, unjust, to expect people to become very adept at going to a website and signing up and go through three to four pages before you sign-up, and even if you sign-up, sometimes you can’t save the page, and have to sign-up all over again,” Dr. Kasisomayajula “Vish” Viswanath, professor of health communication at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health, told CNN Business. “That’s the reason I go to my neighbor, who may say, I went down to the pharmacy and hung around and got a vaccine.”
That only adds to the stakes for how Nextdoor moderates the content users see on its platform, with or without more journalistic tools like fact-checking. It could also make Friar one of the most consequential social media executives of the pandemic era.

‘We’re never going to be perfect’

Friar took over the top spot at the company in December 2018 after six years serving as chief financial officer at payments company Square, where she worked alongside Square and Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey. She and Nextdoor have focused on the word “kindness,” taking steps to weed out “potentially offensive or hurtful” comments on the platform that go against its guidelines. In 2019, the company introduced a “kindness reminder,” a tool that uses machine learning to identify potentially problematic comments and prompts users to check community guidelines and reconsider before commenting.
But not unlike larger social media platforms, there are trouble spots the company has had to grapple with. Well before the pandemic, some users of the platform had raised concerns about Nextdoor being used to racially profile within communities, for example. (In June, the company removed its “forward to the police” tool that allowed neighbors to alert local law enforcement to their posts about crime or safety-related issues, citing its anti-racism efforts — but it still lets people send direct messages to law enforcement through the platform.) Over the past year, with the election and the public health crisis, there has also been a greater spotlight on the platform’s handling of misinformation.

With the pandemic, the company returned to its approach of trying to slow people down with a prompt. Nextdoor introduced a pop-up notification encouraging users to check information before posting about the virus and the vaccine to ensure it reflects guidance from public health officials. (Other platforms, including Twitter, have leaned on prompts to direct users to a public health resource when their search is related to vaccines. Twitter has also attempted to slow down the sharing process at times.)
“If you think the thing you’re going to post is going to be reviewed, people act better,” Friar said.
As with any system, however, it is imperfect and may not deter those who simply don’t work to verify a source, or who are determined in their point of view.
Nextdoor’s approach to content moderation relies on a combination of having people report posts that go against its guidelines, technology to detect questionable content, and a team of volunteer moderators — a system rife with its own challenges — as well as in-house moderators. Friar told CNN Business the in-house moderators handle more sensitive posts such as content around alleged discrimination as well as misinformation. Nextdoor declined to comment on how many in-house moderators it has and where they are based.
The company is in 272,000 neighborhoods globally; Friar said that multiplying that number by two or three community “leads,” who are volunteer moderators, is “starting to get in the zone of how many people are moderating on the platform.” (The site has an education hub for moderators to familiarize with moderation tools, understand community guidelines, undergo anti-bias training, and more.) Over the summer, Nextdoor added a new role — “community reviewers” — who are also volunteers that have the ability to vote on keeping or removing content but don’t have the full suite of controls that leads have.

Some other sites like Reddit and Wikipedia have long offered versions of community moderation. And Twitter recently launched Birdwatch, which leverages its community to help combat misinformation.
“We do try to be very much on our front foot,” Friar said. “We’re never going to be perfect, but I think we have a unique way of doing it, that other platforms are only starting now to get closer to.”

Twitter is testing an 'undo' option after sending tweets

The company confirmed to CNN Business on Friday it is testing an undo option that would potentially let users retract or correct a tweet before it’s officially posted on the platform.
The feature was discovered by Jane Manchun Wong, an app developer who has a strong track record of uncovering new tools on social networks before they’re released. Wong posted a GIF on Twitter that shows a blue “undo” bar appearing beneath the words “Your Tweet was sent.” (It’s possible the feature could change before it formally rolls out — if it ever does.)

It’s not quite the edit button users have long requested, but it’s a step toward helping users proactively catch errors and slow down before sending impulse tweets.

The feature is reminiscent of Gmail’s existing recall tool, which allows users up to 30 seconds to retract sending an email.

Last year, Twitter (TWTR) told investors it was mulling a subscription service and was evaluating exclusive options for paying users, including an “undo send” feature. At the time, the company said it asked users in a survey to evaluate which options were most or least important to them.

“Over the course of this year, you’ll see us test subscription products in public,” the company’s investor relations’ Twitter account teased earlier this week. “You’ll hear more about them. And hopefully, you’ll see some of these products roll out as well.”
Last month, Twitter said it is exploring other subscription opportunities, such as a way for users to become paid subscribers to Twitter accounts they like to receive additional content such as exclusive announcements and newsletters. The company has also set an ambitious goal to double its annual revenue by the end of 2023.

Virgin Galactic stock tanks as chairman cashes out $200 million personal stake

In a statement, Chamath Palihapitiya said he sold off a personal investment worth about $200 million for “a large investment I am making towards fighting climate change.” He added that the details “will be made public in the next few months.”
“I continue to be a significant investor in Virgin Galactic through Social Capital Hedosophia Holdings and I remain as dedicated as ever to Virgin Galactic’s team, mission and prospects,”

Social Capital Hedosophia is the special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, that took Virgin Galactic public last year. Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive, took on the chairman role at Virgin Galactic after the merger.

News that Palihapitiya divested his personal stake sent Virgin Galactic shares tumbling as much as 14% Friday. That piled on to a multi-day selloff — fueled by investors steering away from tech stocks — that caused Virgin Galactic to shed nearly a third of its stock value. Shares were trading around $26 per share on Friday, far off the record high of more than $60 per share that it hit in early February.

Virgin Galactic had been a darling of investors hoping to get in early on the space craze. It became the first “new space” company to list on the stock market, and analysts have hailed the company for its potential. But more recently, Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas warned that it was becoming overvalued.
During its last quarterly earnings report, Virgin Galactic also revealed that it likely won’t begin full commercial operations before 2022 — another long delay after years of pledging that milestone was right around the corner. Three years ago, for example, the company’s CEO had said Virgin Galactic was on track to begin commercial passenger space flights by the end of 2018.
The company also underwent a significant leadership shakeup recently. George Whitesides, who served as CEO for years before moving to the role of “chief space officer” last year, announced this week that he is leaving his post. Whitesides, a a NASA and FAA veteran, was a longtime public face of the company and he even reserved a ride to space on one of Virgin Galactic’s space planes.

Last month, the Washington Post, citing an upcoming book from New Yorker journalist Nicholas Schmidle, revealed that Virgin Galactic encountered a potentially serious safety hazard during the company’s second high-altitude test flight in 2019. A safety probe was ordered to investigate why a seal on its space plane’s wing had come undone, risking loss of the vehicle and the lives of three crew members on board, according to the Post. No one had been harmed in the test flight, which was publicly deemed a success.
Virgin Galactic did not respond to a request for comment about the report on Friday.

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John McAfee facing charges for alleged cryptocurrency 'pump and dump' scheme on Twitter

McAfee, 75, and a member of his “cryptocurrency team,” 40-year-old Jimmy Gale Watson, Jr., allegedly exploited Twitter and “enthusiasm among investors in the emergency cryptocurrency market to make millions through lies and deception,” US Attorney Audrey Strauss said in a statement on the indictment, which was unsealed Friday in Manhattan federal court.
FBI Assistant Director William F. Sweeney Jr. said the allegations boil down to “an age-old pump-and-dump scheme.” The DOJ alleges McAfee, Watson and others would buy cryptocurrencies, hype them to McAfee’s Twitter followers, which numbered about 784,000 at the time, to boost prices and then sell for a profit — in addition to promoting cryptocurrency offerings without disclosing they were allegedly receiving payment to do so.

The two men are charged with multiple counts of conspiracy to commit fraud, as well as a single count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. According to the indictment, if convicted of all charges, each could face up to 100 years in prison and financial penalties.

The DOJ said the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodities Futures Trading Commission have also filed civil charges against McAfee and Watson in parallel enforcement actions.

McAfee is currently detained in Spain on other criminal charges. It was not clear who is legally representing McAfee or Watson in this case. CNN Business sent an email to Janice McAfee, McAfee’s wife, in an effort to reach him for comment.
It’s not the first time McAfee — founder of the eponymous antivirus software firm, with which he is no longer affiliated — has had a run-in with the law.
The Friday indictment is just the latest episode in the bizarre saga of McAfee’s life over the past decade. In 2012, McAfee briefly vanished after fleeing his home in Belize because local police tried to question him on the death of his neighbor. (He has denied involvement in the death and claimed he fled because he feared for his life).
He spent time in Guatemala, and then moved to Montreal, Canada, where he worked on a documentary about his life. He ran for President in 2016 as a Libertarian and launched a new security product that he called “a f—ing game changer.”

In October 2020, McAfee was arrested in Spain after being indicted by US prosecutors in a separate case related to alleged tax evasion. Currently, McAfee remains detained in Spain and his extradition to the United States is pending.

The indictment filed Friday details two schemes McAfee and Watson and other unnamed “McAfee Team members” allegedly carried out from December 2017 to October 2018 that prosecutors say defrauded cryptocurrency investors.

The alleged schemes

The first is an alleged “pump-and-dump” scheme in which prosecutors claim the group bought up large numbers of publicly traded cryptocurrency “altcoins” at low prices before McAfee used his Twitter account to recommend that people buy those cryptocurrencies — without disclosing that he owned them. After the tweets helped inflate the cryptocurrencies’ market value, the DOJ alleges McAfee and the team sold off their positions at the higher prices.
“Through this scalping scheme, McAfee and other McAfee team members … collectively earned more than $2 million in illicit profits while the long-term value of the recommended altcoins purchased by investors declined substantially as of a year after the promotional tweets,” court documents state.
In the second alleged scheme, McAfee and his team used his Twitter account to promote initial coin offerings, without disclosing that he was being compensated by the ICO issuers for his tweets. The Securities and Exchange Commission had previously warned that securities law required disclosing any compensation earned from publicly promoting initial coin offerings on behalf of the issuers.

McAfee and his team earned more than $11 million in “undisclosed compensation that they took steps to affirmatively hide from ICO investors,” the complaint states.
“When engaging in illegal activity, simply finding new ways to carry out old tricks won’t produce different results,” the FBI’s Sweeney said about the use of social media to carry out the alleged schemes.