Monday, March 28, 2011

Manic Monday: In Which We Lock Ourselves Out in the Rain at 5 AM and Our Son Calls the Police

I'll bet my Monday morning was worse than yours.

Around 5 AM, I heard a soft, whimpering bark from the crates downstairs, and my husband and I stumbled out of bed, threw on sweatpants and bathrobes, and felt our way downstairs in the dark to take the puppies outside to pee.  Bernie unlocked the back door while I located my shoes, and then we all headed into the screen porch to access the back yard.  As soon as I pulled the door shut behind me, I knew something was wrong.  Bernie just changed the front and back door hardware yesterday (I didn't like the bright brass color, and the lever style had long annoyed me for its tendency to get caught on sleeves and pockets) and the new exterior handlesets will allow you to turn the knob to get out even if they are locked, but then you can't get back in.  When I pulled that door shut behind me, the doorknob didn't twist at all.  We were locked out of the house at 5 AM, shivering in our pajamas in the pouring rain.  Ah, Mondays!

Of course my husband immediately blamed me for locking the door last night and for pulling it closed behind me, and I retorted that he was the one foolish enough to go out the door without unlocking it first.  Unhappily, finger-pointing did nothing to resolve our dilemma.  Meanwhile, our puppies looked up at us with their big, brown eyes, wondering why we weren't feeding them their breakfast. 

Bernie has ensured that our house is pretty secure, so it's not like we could get in through a window or anything, either.  Lars and Anders, who sleep more soundly than any Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, wouldn't wake up on their own for hours, and even then they'd probably head up to the third floor toyroom instead of coming to look for us.  So I grabbed an umbrella that we'd fortunately left in the screen porch the night before, and went around to the front door.  I rang the doorbell over and over for a good 20 minutes.  I alternated ringing the doorbell with pounding the brass door knocker.  I tried staccato rhythms on the door knocker; I tried tapping out the Star Wars theme on the door knocker, desperately hoping one of my kids would wake up and let me in the house, but my house remained dark and silent.  I did notice lights coming on in some of my neighbors' houses, though.

Bernie finally went into the garage (thank goodness for the garage door keypad!) and got a ladder.  He climbed up to Lars's second-story bedroom window and started knocking on the window and calling in what he thought was a loud enough whisper, "Lars!  Wake up!  It's Daddy!"  Meanwhile I was standing there on the front step, still slamming the door knocker and ringing the bell.  In the pitch dark, freezing cold, pouring rain, in a bathrobe.  Are you getting a good visual image?  Right about then is when we heard the police sirens...

So yes, Lars woke up when he heard the incessant pounding on the door and delirious doorbell ringing.  He was terrified and went straight to our bedroom to get his Daddy, and was even more frightened when he discovered that we were missing.  He called 911, and was advised to stay away from the window and not go downstairs.  When he heard his Daddy's voice talking to the police officers (no longer whispering, ahem!), Lars finally came downstairs and opened the screen porch door, tears streaming down his worried little cheeks -- AND HE PULLED THE STINKING DOOR SHUT BEHIND HIM, so we were STILL locked out!

We had one more sleeping child locked in our house, one more hope of salvation, but Anders is the type of child who could sleep peacefully through the Armageddon.  While Lars and I chatted with the police officers and introduced them to our dogs (excellent socialization opportunity!), Bernie dragged the extension ladder out of the garage, brought it around to the back of the house, and climbed up to Anders' bedroom window.  Anders eventually woke up and came downstairs to let everyone in and save the day.  It was nearly 6 AM and I wished the day was over instead of just beginning.

However, it did get better.  Check out this picture of the puppies napping belly-up in their crates just outside my office while I was working this afternoon:

Lulu & Otto Taking it Easy in their Crates
And here are their sweet little faces, wondering why I keep pointing this little metal toy at them that makes a bright light flash in their eyes:
Here's hoping Tuesday morning will be a bit less eventful!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Dr. Seuss Meets the Symphony in the Lollipops Series Green Eggs and Ham Concert

Michael Boudewyns as Sam I Am
If you live in the Charlotte area and you have kids, you should have been at the Belk Theatre this morning for the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra's third concert in the family-friendly Lollipops Concert Series, Green Eggs and Ham.  This was a single date engagement, so if you missed it, you're out of luck.  However, this is a traveling performance so if you live in another metropolitan area, this concert could be coming soon to a symphony near you!

Playing recorded classical music at home or in the car is all well and good, but there's nothing like taking children to the symphony for a real, live performance.  Unfortunately, children have shorter attention spans than adults, have more difficulty remaining silent throughout the performance, and are prone to late-night meltdowns around the time that the orchestra is typically tuning up and ready to go.  The Lollipops concerts are on Saturday mornings, and because there are more kids in the theatre than adults, you don't feel like your child's questions, comments, or ants-in-the-pants antics are ruining anything for other audience members.  What's more, each of these concerts has done an excellent job of engaging audience members of all ages, from tiny preschoolers up through adults.  There are activities in the lobby prior to the concert, such as opportunities for kids to try out percussion instruments with symphony musicians, as well as themed word searches and coloring sheets.  Today's performance involved actor Michael Boudewyns, whose Cat In the Hat voices had my husband laughing so hard that tears were streaming down his face, as well as delightful soprano Kimberly Schroeder, who sang about how she would not, could not, eat green eggs and ham.  What a fantastic way to introduce small children to the operatic concept! 

Jacomo Rafael Bairos, Assistant Conductor, Charlotte Symphony Orchestra
As usual, our favorite artist was Portuguese-American conductor Jacomo Rafael Bairos.  He has been with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra for less than a year, and he brings so much energy and enthusiasm to the podium; you can tell he is passionate about sharing music with children.  Anders, who brings his own conductor's baton to every performance and "helps" the Maestro from the Grand Balcony, got a chance to talk to Mr. Bairos after today's performance and even got an autographed program and some career advice.  Maestro says, if you want to be a conductor someday, learn to play the piano!  If that's the case, Anders is well on his way.

Prior Lollipops performances have involved puppets, and I understand that ballet dancers from the North Carolina Dance Theatre School of Dance will be assisting the Symphony with their next Lollipops concert, Carnival of the Animals on April 30th.  You can buy tickets to that concert here.  I hope to see you there!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Small Business Identity Theft & Other Nuisances I Don't Have Time to Deal With

So, a couple of weeks ago, I received a voicemail message from a man in Boise, Idaho, who said that his bank had contacted him regarding a suspicious attempted charge to his credit card.  He said his bank gave him my phone number and the business name Custom Coverings by Rebecca (which is the original name of my design business -- I changed the name to Custom Interiors by Rebecca about 3 or 4 years ago) as the merchant for the transaction.  I checked my merchant credit card processing account as well as the business bank account that any credit card sales are deposited into, and found no record of the transaction.  I assumed it was an error, maybe a couple of digits transposed in the merchant number for the transaction, and put it out of my mind.

But then today I got another call on my business line, this time from a woman in Colorado Springs, Colorado, telling me the same thing -- her bank had red-flagged a debit card transaction because the card number was keyed in manually and because the transaction was in Charlotte, North Carolina and the cardholder lives on the other side of the country.  Again, supposedly my business is the one keying in her card number.  What's going on here?!  If these charges were being run on my equipment, or on any equipment associated with my merchant credit card processing account, the transactions would show up in my bank records.  I'm alarmed that I've gotten two of these phone calls now.  Obviously some crook somewhere has impersonated my business to establish their own merchant credit card processing account -- they're running phony charges on stolen card numbers, with the money depositing into some bank account somewhere with my business name and information on it, and then they withdraw the cash from the bank.  It's a variation on old-fashioned credit card fraud, where thieves try to make purchases with stolen cards at retail locations.  You can read more about delightful scams like these involving other small businesses here, and here.   

You might be thinking, "So what?  They aren't stealing anything from you, and the people who called you didn't lose any money either because their banks stopped the charges."  True, but how many other transactions are there besides these two people who took the extra time to call me and tell me that the charges weren't legit?  The man in Idaho wanted to know if someone had come into my "store" (I have no store; I work out of my home) with a fake card that had his number on it, and the woman from Colorado was concerned that my "store" had been defrauded out of whatever goods the criminal had purchased with her stolen debit card number and wanted to let me know what had happened.  I wonder how long this has been going on, and how many other victims are involved that I don't know about?

Also, it's not so easy to open a merchant credit card processing account.  You have to fill out paperwork listing all the information that would go on a loan application, like your EIN or Social Security number if your business is a sole proprietorship like mine, with your address, how long you've been in business, phone number, and bank information so they know where to deposit the money when someone pays you with a credit card.  The credit card processing company is supposed to verify all this information.  If this crook set up his account using my business name AND my business phone number, what other information do they have?  Do they have my Social Security number?  If so, what's to stop them from taking out small business loans in my name?!

The really annoying thing is that I haven't been able to figure out what to do about this yet.  Obviously I want the fake merchant account closed down, but I don't know who to call to report that it's a fraudulent account.  It's not like there's just one MasterCard/Visa Merchant Services number I can call.  There are tons of different companies offering credit card processing services to merchants, just like there are lots of different places where consumers can apply for these credit cards.  I tried calling the number for voice authorization, but they transferred me to a couple of different departments and ultimately decided there was nothing they could do to help me.  I tried calling the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department to file a police report, but after waiting on hold for 45 minutes I was simply told that there was nothing I could do about it because I was not the victim of a crime.  I even called the local office of the FBI, and they told me that it wasn't any of their concern, either.  Somewhere, somebody has to have a database of merchants who accept credit cards, and someone needs to shut this operation down, don't they?! 

I HATE CREDIT CARDS!!  Please, if there's anyone out there reading this who knows who I should call to resolve this issue, PLEASE let me know in the comments section.  All I can do at this point is to notify the credit reporting agencies to put an alert on my file and notify me if anyone attempts to open a new line of credit in my name, but meanwhile someone is still impersonating my business to steal from innocent consumers across the country, and I feel powerless to stop them.  I don't know the merchant account number that they're using, or which card processing company set up the account, and there are hundreds of them...

As of March 2nd of this year, my business no longer accepts credit cards.  I finally closed my real merchant account this month because so few clients are choosing to pay by credit card anymore, yet every month there's a $35 fee for having a merchant card processing account, and whenever I did have a charge transaction the credit card companies would take a percentage of those sales.  Every other month it seems I was getting another notice from MasterCard and Visa about rate increases, or new security procedures requiring me to sit on hold for half an hour in order to update my credit card terminal...  Since credit card transactions never accounted for even 10% of my business, and since I've only had one credit card transaction in the last 6 months, I decided to cancel my merchant account and stop accepting credit cards altogether.  It felt good to simplify things a little and tell the Merchant Services people to go take a hike.  I just wish I knew for sure that my personal information is still secure and that the fake Custom Coverings account was shut down.

UPDATE 3/22/2011: Yet another call today from a woman whose debit card was fraudulently charged by the lowlife scum impersonating my business.  This morning I called Bank of America Merchant Services, my former credit card processor, and the woman I spoke with there told me there is no way to find out which of the hundreds of card processing companies out there set up this fraudulent account, and the processing company is the only entity who can shut it down.  The Bank of America rep suggested that I check my credit report, which would list a new merchant account opened in association with either my Social Security number or my business EIN.  I checked my credit reports, and there's nothing there -- so the thieves must have used someone else's name and social security number in association with my business name.  I found a MSNBC article online about that happening to another business.  The thieves used the name and Social Security number of another individual who had no connection with the company they were impersonating and listed this guy as the CEO on the merchant services account application.  They also made some slight changes to the business address in hopes of ensuring the monthly merchant services statements get lost in the mail instead of delivered to the legitimate business they are impersonating.  That seems to be what has happened here -- if I got a welcome package or statement in the mail for an account I did not authorize, I'd just call the number on the statement and have it shut down.  Grrr...  The only good news is that the thieves do not seem to have my Social Security number and there are no crazy loans out there that I didn't know about.  I just feel terrible when these people keep calling me about the charges being made to their credit cards in my name!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

WOOF!! Puppy Love at First Sight: Meet Otto & Lulu

We took the plunge last weekend and drove to Bargersville, Indiana, to check out German Rottweilers from Guardian Rottweilers!  I didn't buy any puppy gates, food dishes, leashes or crates ahead of time, because Bernie was expressing ambivalence a few days before we left and saying things like "Why do you always have to run down the hill?!"  I promised him we were "just looking" at the dogs and puppies, and that if he had any reservations whatsoever, we would drive home empty-handed.

As if!  We got within an hour of our destination around 11 PM on Friday night and stopped at a hotel near Indianapolis.  Before turning in, I asked Bernie if I should set an alarm on my phone.  "It's Saturday -- I'm sleeping in!" was his grouchy response.  But at about 6 AM the following morning, Bernie woke me up with a big "WOOF!  I want to go see the puppies!" 

Breeder Alice Velasquez of Guardian Rottweiler was just wonderful.  Guardian Rottweilers is located on about 10 beautiful acres of land in rural Indiana.  There were maybe a dozen or so adult Rotties there, and they were all majestic, calm, and friendly.  Any concerns we had about the breed were dispelled within minutes, but of course Alice is breeding specifically for show dogs with calm, stable, family-friendly temperaments and all of her dogs and puppies are socialized with small children, cats, and people coming and going.  There are plenty of other breeders who are not as careful, which is why we drove 10 hours each way to get our puppies instead of just going to the closest breeder we could find. 

Long story short, my husband went from cautious indecision to enthusiastic "Let's get the dogs and get going because it's a long drive!" pretty quickly.  Alice spent a lot of time with us, and helped us select the best pups for our family based on their individual temperaments and interaction with one another.  As first-time Rottweiler owners, we wanted puppies who were more laid-back and less dominant, more mellow than alpha, and Alice helped us select a male and a female from a litter born on January 5th. 

Otto & Lulu, 9 1/2 weeks old
Our puppies' names are Otto and Lulu.  Aren't they adorable?!  They did pretty well on the car ride home, although I had to sit in the back seat with them the entire way. 

Bernie with Lulu
As you can see, my husband melts into mush when there are puppies around.  Forget running down the hill -- Bernie has fallen head over heels down the mountain in love with these puppies!

Lulu is the mouthy one of the pair -- she has to chomp on everything, which is fine because we stocked up on a collection of doggy chews and toys, and we just pop a puppy nylabone or rope bone in her mouth to redirect her.  But when she pounced on one of the daffodils in our yard and bit into one of the blooms, suddenly "poisonous" popped into my head.  I whipped out my iPhone and did an internet search for "daffodils poisonous dogs" and sure enough, all parts of daffodils are actually lethal to dogs, even in small doses, and the bulb is the most toxic part of all.  So it's a good thing Bernie loves the dogs, because he was pretty bummed about digging up the daffodils just as they were starting to bloom.  We'll have to relocate them to the front yard, to make the fenced-in back yard safe for the furbabies.

Goodbye, Daffodils! 
To my dismay, Holly, Azaleas, Tulips, Hydrangeas, Lily of the Valley, and several other plants in my yard are also deadly if ingested by dogs.  I haven't told Bernie that the azaleas need to be moved out of the yard yet, but the dogs have been attacking one little azalea in particular and I don't want to take any chances.

To those of you who expressed concern that dogs might destroy my home, take a look at Exhibit A:

The hand-tied silk tassel fringe on these pillows were chewed by my children, not by my dogs!  These pillows live in the comfiest reading chairs in my living room, and I have given up trying to save them from the mouths of little boys who are so engrossed in what they are reading that they don't even realize they are chewing a pillow.  I wonder if that bitter apple stuff works on kids?  Anyway, the puppies are either playing in the back yard (supervised), playing in the screen porch, (supervised), playing in the gated kitchen (supervised), or sleeping in a puppy pile together in their crate.  They haven't destroyed a single thing, and because they get taken outside frequently and consistently, there have only been a couple of potty training accidents.

Lars the Pillow Eater Snuggles with Innocent Pups

Left to Right: Otto, Anders, & Lulu
Lars, Otto, Anders, & Lulu
By the way, we are so glad that we brought home two puppies instead of just one.  When they are not eating or sleeping (about 18 hours a day at this age!), the puppies work off an incredible amount of steam chasing one another in circles and wrestling.  Not only is this terrific entertainment for us humans, but when I think about all that pent-up energy and frustration that a single puppy would have if he didn't have a canine play mate, it makes complete sense that so many puppies get into mischief.  I think it's healthier for the pups to be able to just be dogs with one another, and after they've raced around together for a little while they just conk out and collapse and it's very easy to move them to their crate for nap time.

However, puppies or no puppies, life must go on, and I've got plenty of work to get done while Otto and Lulu are napping this morning.  I've got February sales tax to file and some customer orders to check on, my drapery work room is patiently awaiting some work orders from me for new jobs that I dropped off, and I need to check in an order of drapery hardware that just arrived.  After lunch the puppies are going to the vet for their first checkup, and after that I'm headed out to a client's home to inspect a large wallpaper installation that is finishing up today.  Lars and Anders have choir rehearsal after school today, and I'll need to get everything ready for Lars's field trip to Raleigh while I'm supervising homework this evening.  The funny thing is that, as busy as we are, adding puppies to our lives hasn't really added stress.  Quite the opposite, actually -- they just melt stress and friction away with their puppy breath and wiggly tails.  Even Lars and Anders, who usually alternate between fighting ferociously and being the best of friends, have been more even-keeled and mellow since the puppies joined our family. 

Welcome, Otto and Lulu!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


My saucer magnolia is in bloom! This is the tree I ordered from Wayside Gardens several years ago that was supposed to be an amazingly rare yellow color that never materialized. However, I am grateful that at least Wayside Gardens got the growth habit right -- most saucer magnolias have a much wider, fuller shape than this one. The tall, compact shape of this tree is the only reason I was able to squeeze it in at the corner of my house. It certainly is happy there and has more than doubled in size since I planted it three years ago.

Some of my earliest daffodils are blooming already, too, like this frilly yellow princess.  I planted one of those "mixed daffodils for naturalizing" assortments from Colorblends a couple years ago.  I was way too busy last fall and I didn't get any tulips in the ground (tulips are pretty much treated as annuals here, because even those that are rated to do well in Zone 7 end up rotting from our ridiculous clay soil).  I'll be especially appreciative of my daffodils this year, since I'm going to be suffering from serious Tulip Envy in a few weeks!
I really shouldn't have planted the daffodils in this location, at the edge of a wooded area on one side and shaded by my house on the other.  They would be multiplying and blooming a lot better had I planted them someplace where they would get more sun.  Note to self: Instead of planting hundreds of  "annual" tulips in the front flower beds, I should plant daffodils there this fall.  They should do really well there, I won't have to replant every single year, and the yellow color will set off nicely against the dark purple-pink of the saucer magnolia on the corner.  I should just do the tulips in the pots on the front steps, where the cannas grow in the summer, or maybe in the Flower Dump.

One more happy Spring surprise before I get back to work this morning: although I haven't planted pansies or anything else yet this year, a few seeds from last year's pansies planted themselves and have popped up unexpectedly:
Ignore the weeds and the moldy old leaves.  I love little garden surprises like this -- it's a reminder that even in our carefully contrived, planned, and manipulated yards and gardens, nature and chance still determine which plants bloom and thrive in response to, or despite, our best efforts to control them.
It's also a reminder to keep our eyes open and notice the details -- one little pansy by its lonesome is easy to overlook at the corner of a neglected flower bed.

Today is another busy day crammed into a busy week.  I hope you enjoyed this little taste of Spring, especially if you're still dealing with ice and snow.