Identity theft can happen when someone gets access to your personal information, like your name or social security number. If you are like me you just want to know what you can do to protect yourself. Simple as that. The key is to be conscious of HOW identity theft happens. Common ways include:
- Stolen wallet or credit cards-Your cards don’t have to ACTUALLY be stolen to do this. Think more borrowed. I just watched a movie where servers at restaurants were swiping card information while running your card to pay for the bill. The card was never actually stolen. Just borrowed.
- Documents or receipts in the trash– Yes, people will dig through your trash. It just takes one credit card bill or pay stub.
- Phone or email scams-People will call and pose as your bank or credit card company and ask for your SSN to identify yourself. Be careful. I worked for a major bank for years and we never made phone calls like that. Ask if you can call back to verify their identity.
- Hacking unsecured computers and wireless networks
The number of identity fraud victims jumped from 13.1 million in 2013 according to a new report from Javelin Strategy & Research. Scary, isn’t it? How does a person even begin to protect themselves. Identity theft victims can suffer years with denied credit, erroneous collection activity, and even tax implications – not to mention the emotional damage from stress. Avoid being a victim…protect yourself with these 7 tips.
1. MIND YOUR PURSE AND WALLET
When out and about don’t carry every credit card, debit card and bank account number with you. Limit the number of personal information items you have on you at all times. Never have your social security card in a purse or a wallet. Keep a list of all account numbers and a contact number for the creditor locked in location that is readily available should you need it.
2. BEWARE OF WHAT YOU SHARE
Social media is where we share our lives…but, just think. You are going on a family vacation and share it all on Facebook. Your house is obviously empty. Thieves watch for this sort of thing. Don’t accept friend requests from people you don’t know and be smart about what you share.
3. PROTECT YOUR PERSONAL INFORMATION
The most basic personal information is often the only information that is actually needed to commit fraud. Your social security number and birthdate are often enough. Never use those numbers as part of a username or something that is commonly seen by others. This includes apps on your mobile device. Make sure you are downloading only reputable apps and be smart about what you share.
4. BEWARE OF “PHISHING”
E-mails that are sent from a legitimate site will never ask you for your personal information, so if you ever see one that is coming from a bank or a creditor, be very wary. Contact the institution who “sent the e-mail” right away for further instructions. If you’ve entered in your information, it’s possible that thieves already have it.
5. REVIEW CREDIT CARD AND BANKING STATEMENTS
Review all of your statements to verify that the charges were made were made by you and you alone. If you don’t recognize call the bank or financial institution right away to dispute the charge as there are time limits on disputes.
6. SHRED DOCUMENTS WITH SENSITIVE INFORMATION
Never toss in the garbage any paperwork with sensitive information on it. Thrown away statements and information make obtaining account numbers easy. Shredding unneeded documents is probably one of the easiest ways to protect your identity.
7. REGULARLY REVIEW YOUR CREDIT REPORT AND SCORES
Each year you are entitled to a free credit report from all three of the major credit bureaus. These reports would be a good place to look for any sort of unusual activity, including new lines of credit and address listings. Be diligent with your finances…protect yourself and your family to get some peace of mind.
If you’ve already become a victim of identity theft, read “Identity Theft Help” by Ashley Hagelin.
Want a second set of eyes to decipher your credit report? Contact LSS at 888-577-2227 to schedule a Credit Report Review. Or if you want to set up a budget to conquer your debt, call us or visit www.ConquerYourDebt.org to get started online. It’s never too late to improve your finances – take action today!
When counseling my clients, I admit to them all the time that I come to this line of work from a checkered financial past. I’m not ashamed of it. Managing finances isn’t an ability, it’s a skillset. Skillsets need to be taught. If you weren’t taught (which I wasn’t), then you probably don’t know how to do it.
There were a lot of initial hesitations and resistances to learning that skillset for me. One was self-doubt. I wasn’t sure I could learn it (hint: I did. You can, too.) Another was just the uncertainty of doing something new. Change can sometimes be scary (hint: Sometimes change can be for the best. This is one of those times.) Perhaps the biggest hurdle for me to get past, though, was how tedious and detailed I assumed it was going to be (hint: “Assumed” is a key word, there. Budgeting can be as simple as you want or need it to be—and it’s way better to have a simple budget than no budget, at all.)
That last barrier is something I’ve been thinking about, lately. First of all, let me say that I think if you start out with a more detailed budget, it gives you a much better grasp of your situation. Your awareness of your cash flow is higher. I think it’s a good idea to at least sit down and do a pretty detailed budget once, just to engage you in the process and really get you thinking about how you spend and what you spend it on; and I mean EVERYTHING. Soak in that process. If you find numbers that make you uncomfortable, ask yourself 3 important questions:
- Why am I uncomfortable about it?
- Do I feel like I need to change it?
- What would I feel comfortable changing it to?
So now let’s say you’ve done all that. You sat down, you spent some time working on a detailed budget, and now you’re looking forward to moving on and sticking to the plan without the plan’s details bogging you down. Here are a few thoughts on how to do that.
First of all, consider that there are a number of things in your budget that likely won’t change month to month. Your mortgage or rent might change once a year. Your car payment is what it is. So is your insurance. In fact, when you think about it, I bet there are almost more categories that don’t change than there are that do.
The categories that almost certainly will have changes in how much you actually spend are things like gas, groceries, entertainment, and eating out. Those categories that are a little more fluctuating are also probably the categories that you need to be a little more on top of. (Doing a full, detailed budget can help you figure out where your “problem” areas exist.) So how do you do that?
Well, to be honest, there are lots of ways—but they’re all based on the exact same principles. Those principles are: 1) Setting a limit; and 2) Doing something to help stay within that limit.
One example of that might be groceries. Let’s say that my grocery limit is $150 for the month. That’s the limit that has been set according to how it fits into the rest of my budget. So then I have a few different options I can use to try and help facilitate staying within that limit.
Maybe I have a sub-savings account at my credit union or bank and I have $75 out of each check automatically transferred in there. And then when I go grocery shopping, I make sure to take the cash out of that account. When that account is empty, I’m done grocery shopping for the month.
Maybe another option is to buy a gift card for $150 from the grocery store when I first go at the beginning of the month. Then, I never buy groceries with cash but, instead, I always pay for them with my gift card. When I run out of money on the card, I’m done grocery shopping for the month.
Maybe a third option is to put $150 in an envelope on the kitchen counter at the beginning of each month (or put $75 into it from each paycheck.) When I go to the store, I take the cash out of that envelope. When I run out of money, I’m done grocery shopping for the month.
A fourth option could be to collect receipts and keep a running total each time I shop using a ledger. When I hit my $150 of expenses, I’m done. A fifth option might be to use a smartphone app that allows me to punch in transactions as I do them, and when the app tells me I’ve hit my limit of $150, I’m done.
I’m sure there are more options than that, too. Again, the best system is whatever system works best for you, so don’t be afraid to experiment. All of those examples are basically based on those same two concepts from before. (As an aside, you know that if you keep hitting your limit halfway through the month, it means that you probably need to revisit the budget and rework your plan. Same thing if you find you’re actually only spending $100 a month, too. Revisit, rework.)
You just need to find some system for yourself that also works within those two concepts for whatever those “problem” spending areas are: 1) Set a limit; and 2) Take action to stay within the limit. It doesn’t have to be tedious. It doesn’t have to bog you down. And I suspect that you’ll find that making the (I promise you not-too-overwhelming) effort to stick to those concepts will have big gains for you in your ability to control (and enjoy) your money.
Dan Szymczak is a HUD certified housing counselor at LSS Financial Counseling. If you want help from a certified credit counselor or have questions about how to find a budgeting method that works best for you, call us at 888-577-2227 or visit www.ConquerYourDebt.org to get started now.
Here we are, well into January now. Have you already fallen off the wagon with your resolve to stop eating so much or get more exercise? Don’t give up for the year! Even if those resolutions didn’t stick, there’s no law that says you have to wait until January 1, 2016 to try another one. A
s our regular readers know, our bloggers are financial counselors by day. We are in the trenches with debt and budget issues day after day. And, we have some valuable advice to offer. This piece of advice will make a good Anytime of the Year resolution:
Schedule a regular date to visit your finances at least monthly, but preferably bi-monthly or weekly.
A common theme we observe in our offices is hectic, busy lives leading to disorganization, overspending, and expensive debt. (That expensive debt can mean hundreds of dollars spent each month on credit card interest charges, on overdraft fees, on revolving payday loans, or on any other devious ways that suck us dry.) And the reality is, there is no substitute for devoting space in your life to your finances to gain control.
Pick a time when you can have peace and quiet, even if only for 20 minutes. Some time is better than no time. Put it on your calendar as a recurring date. For your date, have a nice cup of tea or cool drink, depending on the season. Make sure the kids are distracted or locked away. Now that you are settled in, what do you do on this date with your finances? Oh! There are so many ideas!
- Check your balance in your bank account.
- Review your debit card transactions.
- Look at your credit card statements—the full statement—and force yourself to look at your interest rates and monthly interest charges along with all the transactions.
- List your fixed monthly bills (rent, phone, electricity, student loan payment, etc.) with due dates.
- Calculate your net income.
- Set a savings goal, and then set up an automatic transfer or direct deposit to savings.
- Plan out your paychecks—when will you pay which expense?
- Do the math—after fixed expenses and savings, what is left for everything else?
- Schedule an appointment with a financial counselor to develop a debt repayment plan.
The list can go on, and get into deeper areas. Are you and your partner on the same page? What are your long-term goals? What steps do you need to take to get there? Don’t try to cover everything on each date. The routine maintenance checks listed above will become easier and faster, leaving time for the other financial issues. The point is to just start. It is a small commitment. Not like having to exercise an hour a day. Who wouldn’t fall off that one in the middle of January?! The payoff for the small commitment is huge—control, peace of mind, success!
Need some professional guidance to get you started? Visit our website at www.ConquerYourDebt.org. Here’s to a Prosperous New Year everybody!
Author Mary Ellen Kaluza is a Certified Financial Counselor at LSS Financial Counseling. Give us a call at 888.577.2227 to learn how to start Conquering Your Debt!
I’ve had several identity theft victims in my office in recently. They all said they didn’t know where to start to deal with it. So, here it is:
Where to Start
Identity theft is the most frequent complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission (the agency created in 1914 to protect the public against unfair commerce practices, later charged with much greater consumer protection duties.) I always encourage clients to file an identity theft complaint with the FTC. They publish an annual report of complaints, cited by everyone else as the barometer of consumer issues. The more data the FTC has, the better the statistics and allocation of resources.
FYI: One statistic I found very valuable is that young people (20 -29) are the most frequent victims of identity theft. You can be sure I will be quoting that to my 23 year old daughter!
Let me start by saying that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is my go-to source on identity theft. Bookmark this website: http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/features/feature-0014-identity-theft.
Preventing identity theft is, of course, preferred over being victimized. See our blog 7 Tips to Protect Yourself from Identity Theft . Unfortunately, we see people after they have been victimized.
Know the Signs
- Withdrawals from your bank account you don’t recognize.
- Bills or other mail don’t arrive.
- Your checks are refused.
- Debt collection calls about debts that aren’t yours.
- Unknown accounts, inquiries or addresses on your credit report.
- Medical bills for services you didn’t have.
- IRS notice that a tax return has already been filed in your name.
- Notice that your information was compromised by a data breach.
First Steps (The sooner you take action, the less damage to repair)
- Get a notebook and folder to record and save all action such as phone calls, letters, etc.
- Place a fraud alert on your credit reports. The fraud alert is good for 90 days.
- Contact one of the 3 major credit bureaus as they are required to pass on the information to the others:
- Experian 1-888-397-3742
- TransUnion 1-800-680-7289
- Equifax 1-800-525-6285
- Mark your calendar to renew the fraud alert at the end of the 90 days.
- Consider putting a credit freeze on your credit reports. This prevents new creditors from accessing your reports instead of requiring them to verify your identity as with the fraud alert. Credit freezes may cost money, depending on your state laws. (They take time to unfreeze so you must plan ahead if you are intending to apply for credit.)
- Order your credit reports from each credit bureau at the numbers above. Explain you have placed a fraud alert on your reports. This entitles you to a free report. Review the reports carefully for any suspicious information. Meet with a financial counselor if the reports make your head spin. (link to counseling here?)
- Create an Identity Theft Report (aka Affidavit) through the FTC. This helps you gather the information you need to file a police report, provides important statistical information to the FTC, and is useful when dealing with companies who want you to pay for fraudulent activity.
- File a police report with your local police department and get a copy or report number. Here in Minneapolis, it can be done through our one-stop city service resource called 311 Minneapolis. Maybe your city offers a similar service.
- Call your credit card companies to alert them to the identity theft.
The Next Step: Clean Up
Write the credit bureaus. Specifically request the fraudulent activity be removed. Send certified mail.
- List of fraudulent information from your credit reports.
- Copies of credit reports showing the fraudulent activity.
- Copies of the affidavit and police report.
- Copy of your identification.
- Call the companies of your existing accounts if you have fraudulent charges.
Let them know you are a victim of identity theft and ask what they need from you. Make sure to send the needed information certified mail and log your phone calls with notes from the conversation, dates letters were mailed; and keep copies of everything sent. The FTC has very detailed instructions and sample letters: http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/pdf-0009-taking-charge_0.pdf
It is a lot of work dealing with identity theft. It can take months, even years to fully recover, depending on the extent of the damage. So, take the old Ben Franklin quote to heart: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Author Mary Ellen Kaluza is a Financial Counselor at LSS Financial Counseling. Give us a call at 888-577-2227 or visit our website at www.ConquerYourDebt.org to learn more about LSS.
Charging more each month that you make in payments.
Paying only the minimum amount due on your credit cards.
Using credit and cash advances for items that used to be purchased with cash, like gas and groceries.
Having a total credit balance that rarely decreases.
Being at or near your credit limit and applying for new cards.
Needing a consolidation loan to pay existing debt.
Not knowing the total amount you owe.
Never opening your mail or answering the phone in fear of debt collectors contacting you.
Making late payments consistently.
Experiencing feeling of anxiety and stress whenever you use your credit cards.
Do any of these sound like you? We’ve all had moments of financial chaos. I get that. But if debt starts to affect you more often than not…give us a call at 888.577.2227 or visit our website at www.ConquerYourDebt.org. We can help. A financial counselor can help look at your debt picture and make a plan to move forward.
It’s been a good garden year for me. I’ve supplied my household, friends, family, passersby, and the local food shelf with a variety of beautiful, fresh, organic produce. I couldn’t even begin to calculate the dollars saved. (Add in the physical and environmental benefits of gardening and the economic payback rises significantly.)
It is early October and the first frost has yet to hit the Twin Cities in Minnesota. I’m still harvesting summer squash, tomatoes, greens, herbs, peppers, and more. When frost is finally in the forecast (any time now!) you will find me in the garden that evening frantically picking the remaining green tomatoes by flashlight.
- My counters will be full of green tomatoes, as they are every year. Green tomatoes extend the delicious bounty of summer long into the short chilly days of fall.
- Green tomatoes are quite nutritious providing vitamin C, several B vitamins, vitamins A and K, calcium, and various minerals, protein, fiber, and more.
Keep some to continue ripening. I put them in a single layer in a box and cover, checking them periodically. You can have red ripe tomatoes on your Thanksgiving salad!
What else can you do with green tomatoes?
- Fried Green Tomatoes, of course, are a well-loved dish. (Like good fried chicken, though, they require skill and practice.)
- Add chopped green tomatoes to stir-fries, soups and stews for a delicious and nutritious tang. No skill required.
- Freeze to use in the dead of winter. So easy—just chop up and pack into containers.
- Pickle them to put on sandwiches, burgers, salads. Or to eat right out of the jar. Pickled green tomatoes are my favorite pickle.
- Make salsas and relishes.
- Bake cakes, sweet breads, or pies with green tomatoes. The first time I made my grandmother’s Green Tomato Pie for some friends, they were very skeptical. Now, each fall they ask me when I’m making another pie.
- Find dozens of recipes and other ideas online.
So, if you are one of the growing multitudes of home or community gardeners, keep your eye on the forecast and pick those green tomatoes to continue reaping the innumerable benefits of growing your own food!
Gram’s Green Tomato Pie
4 Tablespoons four
2 Tablespoons sugar
Pastry for a 2 crust pie
Combine flour and sugar, sprinkle ½ over the bottom crust. Reserve the rest.
5 cups thin sliced green tomatoes
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon each cinnamon and nutmeg
Put into pie shell, sprinkle with 1 Tablespoon lemon juice, sprinkle reserve flour and sugar mixture, dot with butter. Cover with top crust and seal. Brush with milk and sprinkle sugar over. Bake 10 minutes at 450°, then reduce to 350° and bake for 1 ½ hours.
Author Mary Ellen Kaluza is a Financial Counselor at LSS Financial Counseling. LSS specializes in helping people conquer their debt. Visit our website at www.ConquerYourDebt.org to learn more.
A while back, I wrote a blog called “Avoiding Beneficiary Horror Stories.” At that time I discussed many potential problems that may arise when you don’t review your forms periodically to ensure they’re accurate. Since then, I have come across a few other scenarios I wanted to share so you can avoid these unfortunate blunders.
Just like we were all born into this life, we will also pass away from this life. Although not much fun to think about, it will happen sooner or later. Since we have no idea when that may be, it’s always best to be prepared. One way to do that is to make sure you have current beneficiary designations for all of your financial accounts from retirement funds to checking and savings accounts.
Tips for beneficiary forms:
1. Never name a minor as a beneficiary:
Under the law, minors are not allowed to inherit money or assets directly. In many states the age of majority is 18 but check the law where you live to find out for sure.
Further, unless a guardian has been appointed, funds cannot be distributed to minors. Since the guardian will take control over the assets, it should be someone you trust with the minor’s best intentions at heart.
Since minors typically inherit the assets once they become legal adults, ask yourself if it’s best for this child to inherit a large sum of money at such a tender age. While some young adults will do just fine, others will have one big party until all the money’s gone. If you have any doubts, consider other options.
2. Never name a beneficiary that receives government assistance:
Rules for receiving government help are pretty restrictive about how many assets or cash a recipient can own and still qualify for help. The last thing you want to do is inadvertently pass on an inheritance that would cause someone to lose their government benefits.
If you have a family member with special needs, it’s often better to set up a special needs trust that can help financially over the beneficiary’s lifetime without jeopardizing their eligibility for government assistance. Speak to an estate planning attorney for more information on this topic.
3. Beneficiary designations trump a will or trust:
Many people mistakenly believe their will or trust will direct how assets should be distributed or utilized when they die. Although that may be generally true, if your beneficiary designation conflicts with your will or trust, the beneficiary form will control. Countless court cases have been fought over this very argument and typically the beneficiary designation comes out on top.
4. Never name just 1 beneficiary:
Some folks name just 1 beneficiary with the belief they will share the spoils evenly with all the other heirs. But legally the sole beneficiary has no obligation to do so and could easily keep all the money for him or herself. Rather than assuming your beneficiary will do the “right thing,” you should make your intentions clear up front.
5. Always name a back-up beneficiary:
It’s always best to name a contingent beneficiary in case something happens to your original beneficiary. Life happens and sometimes so quickly, we don’t have time to catch up.
You can also name multiple beneficiaries by designating a percentage of how much each should receive upon your death. Just make sure your numbers add up to 100%.
6. Never put your beneficiary designation forms on auto-pilot:
The last thing any of us wants to do is disinherit a loved one because we didn’t review our beneficiary designations following a major life event. Review your beneficiary designations if you’ve had any of the following changes to your family’s circumstances:
- A change in your marital status
- A birth of a child or grandchild
- A death in the family
- New job or promotion
- Problems with your health
Although there are many laws and other considerations to think about with your estate plan, you can keep absolute control over any funds you want to go directly to specific heirs by using beneficiary designations. Just be sure to review them occasionally to make sure they are up to date and will convey your legacy to loved ones as you intended.
Have questions? Give us a call at 888.577.2227 or visit our website at www.ConquerYourDebt.org for more information. There is never a better time to Take Charge of your Life Again.
Author Barbara Miller is a Financial Counselor at LSS Financial Counseling.
A growing number of adult children are turning to the Bank of Mom and Dad and Grandparents. Many families have the impulse to be generous as they watch their young-adult children struggle with a tough job market and challenging economy, so they lend their children money to help pay for basics like rent, debts owed, transportation … or, let adult children move back home. Parent’s want their children to be successful and ultimately not struggle.
This poses a huge dilemma for a parent or grandparent. You want to help your children succeed but in doing so you can jeopardize your own retirement, and their own autonomy. It’s important to ask yourself two basic questions.
Ask yourself these two questions:
- How much if any can you really afford to give your adult child?
- What steps is your adult child taking so they won’t always need financial help?
Sometimes it is important to let our loved ones find their way into hard choices that will let them grow confident in themselves. If your adult children could benefit from creating a budget and a plan, send them to a nonprofit financial counselor. LSS Financial Counseling offers free budget and debt counseling, with 8 offices in MN. Call LSS at 888-577-2227 or visit our website at www.ConquerYourDebt.org.