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Multi-user VPN behind a single static IP

I needed to set up a connection whereby multiple users in different locations could simultaneously connect to a VPN with a single static IP. We needed to access a third-party network through a single IP. I looked into many paid and free external VPN services, but they almost all had restrictions on multiple simultaneous connections (from different locations); or they didn’t provide a static IP; or they only provided a simple proxy service (which meant we’d have to configure port forwarding for each HTTP / SSH / other connection). I decided to set up our own VPN on one of our web servers using the free OpenVPN application. It was quite straightforward to set up both the VPN server and the clients. The only requirement is that you must already have a server where you have root access.

I followed this tutorial for installing the VPN server on CentOS. There is also a similar tutorial for installing the VPN server on Ubuntu. I have only a few corrections / modifications based on the CentOS tutorial:

  • The “easy-rsa” key management package no longer comes with OpenVPN. You have to install it separately; for example: yum install easy-rsa. Then you’ll find the “easy-rsa” files in /usr/share/easy-rsa.
  • There is a useful comment below the tutorial about how to set up TLS authentication for better security.
  • If you want to use the same key for multiple clients, use the “duplicate-cn” setting in the server.conf file
  • When you create your client.ovpn configuration file, you might want to reference the certificate files instead of pasting them directly into the configuration.

On the client side, there is an OpenVPN GUI client that works well. If you are using Ubuntu on the client side, you can use the built-in Network Manager; just add OpenVPN support — apt-get install network-manager-openvpn — and then import the .ovpn configuration file as outlined here.

Once you’ve set up the server and the clients, when you connect to the VPN, all of your network requests will run through the server.

Mobile Internet stick / hub on Vancouver Island

I was going to be travelling to Vancouver Island for 1 month and needed a backup Internet service for work in case the power went out or the Internet connection was spotty. Since I don’t have a smart phone data plan to tether to, I was looking for a mobile Internet USB stick. Bell ended up loaning me a hotspot / hub device for free. I just had to pay for the data plan, and the speed and reliability was great.

Since I only needed to use the device for 1 month, I was hoping to find a pay as you go plan. I first looked into Virgin Mobile, but apparently they don’t sell Internet sticks or hubs anymore. Wind Mobile was an option, but “Wind AWAY” zones (basically, outside of major Canadian cities) are charged roaming data rates of $1 per MB.

I was resigned to paying a large amount with one of the bigger wireless companies — Telus, Rogers, or Bell. Bell was actually at the bottom of my list, but they were the first store in the mall I went to. I explained my situation to them and we looked at the devices that I could buy. Unexpectedly, the customer service representative suggested that they would rent me the store’s mobile hub unit, a “4G LTE Sierra Wireless 763 Turbo Hotspot”, at no cost. I just had to pay a deposit, sign up for a monthly data plan, and then immediately call to cancel so that I would have only 1 month of service. I was grateful for the offer and went with it.

The hub fits in your hand and works by taking the cellular signal and providing a normal wireless network (just like a standard router) that you can connect to with your computer or other device. It has a battery that lasts at least a few hours and can be charged via its AC adapter or via a computer’s USB port.

Mobile Internet hub

The Bell mobile data “flex” plan starts at $10/month for up to 100MB. Then the cost automatically increases if you go over 100MB: it’s $30 for up to 500MB, $45 for up to 2GB, $70 for up to 6GB, and so on.

I ended up having reliable wired Internet on my trip, and there were no power outages. However, I did use the hub to make Skype calls in Crofton, BC (in a spot where Rogers and Wind phones had no signal), and I also used it on the entire ferry ride between Vancouver Island between Duke Point (Nanaimo) and Tsawwassen. Connection speed was up and down, but reliability was great — I never lost the connection. I ran a few speed tests at at different times and locations and got the following results:

  • HSPA network 0.46Mbps down, 0.54Mbps up
  • HSPA network: 5.6Mbps down, 1.81Mbps up
  • 4G network: 15.2Mbps down, 7.2Mbps up

XE Trade: sending money internationally fee-free

After trying out XE Trade last year to convert Canadian dollars into US dollars for my own personal use, I decided to try it for business use. My company has a sub-contractor in the UK, and our alternatives were to send a wire transfer or a cheque. A wire transfer typically charges both the sender and the receiver fees, while a cheque takes time to send, deposit, and clear.

XE Trade was easy to use, fee-free, and fast. By “fee-free” I mean that they did not charge an extra fee on top of their regular currency exchange spread — and I’ve found their spread to be quite competitive. I just had to choose “ACH/EFT” as the sending method. I now intend to use XE Trade on a regular basis for my company.

The setup process required me to send XE Trade quite a few company documents electronically. Once set up, however, I just had to enter the recipient’s bank account information and then pay a bill as if it were any regular bill (such as a credit card bill). For more information on that general process, see my previous review.

Here is the timeline in business days for how long it took for me to set up a business account with XE Trade and send a payment in Canadian dollars from a Canadian bank to be deposited in British pounds in a UK bank.

Day 1: Registered for an XE Trade account
Day 1: Received an e-mail (in my spam folder) asking that I send over scanned documents (driver’s licence, certificate of incorporation, articles of association, names of shareholders owning 25% of more of the business) to verify my identity
Day 2: Received a reminder e-mail asking that I send over scanned documents to verify my identity
Day 3: I sent over scanned documents
Day 4: Received notification that the account was activated
Day 5: I initiated a trade (CAD in Canada to GBP in the UK) with a locked in rate based on that day, chose “ACH/EFT” as the sending method, and paid the bill through my bank’s online interface
Day 8: Received a notification e-mail that the money was sent to the recipient
Day 11: Money was deposited into the destination account; no fees were deducted on either end

The time between sending and receiving money took 6 business days.

2015 update: I now use CanadianForex and have found their rates to be better than XE Trade.

Credit card merchant fees in Canada

I have long been a fan of rewards credit cards (see one of my first ever blog posts). Cash back, travel rewards, reduced foreign currency transaction fees, and travel insurance are just some of the rewards you can get just by using your credit card for everyday purchases. Factor in sign up bonuses, and you can get hundreds, if not thousands of dollars of perks every years just by using various credit cards. Every year there are newer cards with better rewards and the savvy consumer is certainly winning.

However, consumers aren’t the biggest winners — it’s the credit card companies. Visa, MasterCard, and American Express are posting record profits and their stocks are sky-rocketing.

Consumers and credit card companies are winning at the expense of the merchants. Why? Because merchants pay a fee for every single credit card transaction that they process (which is the motivation for them to run some ridiculous marketing campaigns encouraging you to use your credit card on purchases big and small). For Visa and MasterCard, the processing fee is between 1.65% to 2.71% or more. American Express fees aren’t as widely available but they can apparently be 3.5% or more. (You can imagine that to be the biggest reason why AMEX isn’t more widely accepted.)

The worst part for businesses accepting credit card payments is that the credit card processing fee they pay can be higher for rewards cards. This means that a Capital One Aspire World MasterCard might cost merchants 2.71% (or more) of the total purchase amount whereas a CIBC Classic VISA Card might cost merchants 1.65% of the total purchase amount. (See this document for a breakdown of many credit cards’ merchant fee.) Of course, merchants aren’t allowed to refuse your “premium” travel rewards card while accepting your no-reward card.

Merchants much prefer debit card payments (where they might pay a flat 12 cent fee per Interac transaction, no matter what the amount) or cash. But most merchants would lose business if they stopped accepting credit cards.

And are consumers as a whole actually winning with high credit card usage and lots of rewards? Arguably not. If merchants have to pay to receive credit card payments, they either have to reduce their profit or increase prices. (In reality it is more complicated than that, but it illustrates the point.) Consumers have to pay the increased prices.

To the individual consumer, the incentive to use credit cards less is not obvious. You don’t personally pay more to use a credit card (unless you don’t have the money to pay your bill, of course) — the flip side being that you don’t usually pay less for using cash. Since we’re all paying for the increased prices, the logic is that each one of us might as well try to get something back in the form of credit card rewards. Otherwise you’re somewhat paying for someone else’s rewards.

When I’m patronizing a small business I might choose to pay with cash or debit, but for purchases made at big companies, I don’t really care if MasterCard is skimming Esso’s profit margin. And that’s a shame.

The Brick: beware of blanket coverage warranty and bonded leather couch

Several years ago I purchased my first couch: a bonded leather couch / sofa. It was from The Brick. The salesperson made such a convincing pitch that even though I swear off warranties, I also purchased the “Blanket 5 Year Furniture Plan” warranty — also called “blanket coverage”. It also came with something called “master surface coverage”. Today, I will no longer buy anything from The Brick, I’ve learned to be wary about “bonded leather”, and I believe that the warranty was completely mis-represented.

The salesperson had told me that if anything happened to the couch for any reason, including cracking and peeling, The Brick would repair the couch and usually they would just replace the couch. He then emphasized the point by saying that if someone sat down with scissors or a knife in their pocket and punctured the couch, it would be covered.

I didn’t expect anything to happen to the couch, nor did I use it for anything other than casual sitting and napping. Less than 2.5 years in, small cracks started to appear in the middle cushion. I figured that this was a good time to get The Brick to repair the cracks, so I called their customer service. They sent someone out to look at the couch. When he arrived, he first grumbled that they probably didn’t have the right colour to repair it with. Then he proceeded to suggest that I either had a pet who scraped up the couch or I had scratchy pants (neither of which is true). He left assuring me that he would report his findings to The Brick and they would call me back.

A month later nobody had called me back, so I called The Brick to ask about the status of my warranty claim. They said it was unclear why I hadn’t been called, but that they would investigate the notes on my file and call me back. A couple weeks later, they hadn’t called me back again, so I once again called them — this time they said that there was a note on the file to acknowledge the cracks but that my claim was denied and that there was no reason given. The customer service rep on the other line said she couldn’t find any explanation for it. She then assured me someone would call back. I foolishly let it slide when no one had called back, thinking that I could just live with the cracks.

By the time the couch was 4 years old, the cracks had really worsened. Small pieces were peeling off seemingly every day, and cracks were appearing at random places all the time (the arm rests, the back, the other cushions, etc.). The middle cushion was hideous:

Peeling bonded leather couch from The Brick

I figured I would try calling The Brick again. This time they argued that actually the warranty I purchased didn’t cover the material of my couch. The warranty covers leather but not bonded leather. Of course, I was very shocked and appalled at this — I argued my case given what the original salesperson had told me, and I insisted that I speak to a manager. I was offered a $100 gift card, proof via e-mail that my warranty didn’t cover my couch, and that the manager of the store would call me back. They never called me back. I declined the gift card (which was equal to the price of the warranty I purchased) because I didn’t intend to shop at The Brick anymore, nor did I wish to encourage anyone else to do so.

I have since learned that bonded leather is closer to plastic than leather, and the word “leather” is quite misleading. In this article from Ellen Roseman, a representative from The Brick suggests that their bonded leather couches aren’t even expected to last 5 years:

“I’m not aware of anyone in the industry that covers bonded leather. We said we’d cover it for new purchases, but I’m a little concerned about that because I’m not sure if it lasts for five years or not.”

Complaints against The Brick are very common, and a Google search will return many stories of bonded leather couches falling apart and The Brick not honouring their warranty. Some people have had better success with The Brick’s customer service, while others have successfully sued The Brick to get a refund on their couch or to get a new couch. For some reason I don’t feel like fighting this one any further — it’s been a frustrating learning experience.