Equifax Breach: Next Steps

I’m in the pool of 143 million Equifax clients who are highly likely to have had their personal information compromised. It has been a major topic of conversation between co-workers and in the general public. Individuals are either concerned about steps to take OR they are over-confident they are okay.  What’s more, the scramble by Equifax to answer client questions has raised some concerns about their accuracy in identification of impacted clients.

Equifax is offering free credit monitoring for a year and has waived the requirement that you must relinquish your right to participate in a class action suit if you become a victim of identity theft. They have also stated that you will not be automatically billed for the service at the end of the twelve months of coverage. The credit monitoring is available to individuals who received a message they were likely to have had personal information stolen and for those who are getting the message they aren’t likely to be included.

A second step is to put a credit freeze on your accounts.  Innovis should be added to the list of three credit bureaus referenced in our Money Tips blog post. The steps for placing a freeze on credit reports will include costs and will mean additional management steps when opening new accounts or securing loans. There are exceptions if you are freezing a child’s credit report or have proof of identity theft.

A third step is to monitor personal credit reports.  As recommended, this means adding the step to your regular financial habits every three months.

You aren’t as likely to be able secure your tax information. Equifax is a data breach and not a confirmed case of identity theft. The IRS procedures to protect your information will only apply when there is a confirmed case of identity theft in filing taxes – this occurs when two different people file tax returns using the same social security number.

Stay tuned for future tips and news…..

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash is a Human Sciences Specialist in Family Finance who wants to keep you ahead of the curve on financial information.

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Who Has Your ID?

If you have been following MoneyTip$ for any length of time, you will have seen us more than once address the topic of Identity Protection.  The recent Equifax cyber-security issue is a reminder to take the precautions that are within your control.

The National Do Not Call Registry and the Opt-Out (Prescreened Credit Offers) are the two strategies we have mentioned most often, which cut down on phone call solicitations and credit card offers.  However, there are as many as 66 different ways individuals can better protect their identity.

A recent article published by Consumer Reports shared some of these strategies, and I was a bit disturbed by what I learned there.

DMA Choice allows you to select specific Catalogs, Magazines or other Mail Offers that you wish to stop receiving for a $2 fee. OR…you can select STOP ALL CATALOGS. To sign up for this service, you will need to provide an email, create an account password AND credit card information. There are free opt-outs for caregivers and those with a deceased relative.

Public School enrollment information about your children doesn’t have to be public.  I did not realize that  unless you request otherwise, schools are allowed to share a child’s address, place of birth, and the dates of attendance! A copy of the opt-out form can be picked up at your school or  downloaded  and then submitted to your school. You will need to provide your students ID number.

Financial institutions collect and share information that may include account balances. The Federal Deposit insurance Corporation provides a list of opt-out options for many of the large banks. You will need your account numbers (don’t forget your mortgage and investment accounts) and your social security number.

Acxiom is one of many data brokers that gather information such as family status, income, political affiliation and more. They are one of the few that provide an Opt-Out page. You will need to register your name, including any common misspellings, maiden names previous address and email addresses.

I think the one that bothered me most was the information available about children attending public schools. I plan to share this post with my kids so they can take steps to protect my grandchildren’s information. What about you? What will you do with this information to protect your identity?

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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Equifax Breach – What to do now

Informed consumers do everything in their power to protect their identity.  Unfortunately, sometimes events occur that are outside our control.  Today’s news of a major cybersecurity breach at Equifax is a reminder, affecting nearly half of American consumers.

Equifax has provided a way for consumers to find out if they were affected, and to take steps to protect themselves.  They’ve posted a page where you can enter your last name and the last six digits of your Social Security Number to find out if you were affected.  If there’s a chance that your information was compromised, you’ll be offered an opportunity to enroll (free) in an identity theft protection and credit monitoring service.

NOTE: Clicking on “Enroll” isn’t enough; you’ll need to follow up with more steps.  You will be given a date (mine was next Tuesday) when your enrollment is available.  At that time, you’ll need to go back to the website and follow instructions to enroll.  To enroll you’ll need to provide answers to several questions, and then respond to an email to finally activate your account.

Nobody likes to deal with issues like this, but if you are affected, be sure you take the steps required to protect yourself!

Phone Option:  Equifax has established a dedicated call center. The call center is available at 866-447-7559, every day (including weekends) from 7:00 a.m. – 1:00 a.m. Eastern time.  Note that the call center is currently experiencing high volume leading to busy signals for many callers.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Disaster! Be Prepared

September is Disaster Preparedness Month.  The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and the anticipation of Hurricane Irma are sobering reminders of the importance of being prepared.  Here in the Midwest, hurricanes are not part of our reality, but we are at risk for other types of disasters, many of which strike suddenly with little or no warning.

In a disaster, safety is first priority.  We need to be prepared to quickly evacuate from a fire or seek shelter in a tornado, for example, and have a way to stay warm if a winter storm causes an extended power outage.  Ready.gov is a central site for information on how to be as fully prepared as possible; they have many useful publications related to specific needs, as well.

There is a second aspect of preparedness that also deserves our attention: we need to be prepared for recovery.  This includes:

  1. Having insurance coverage that meets our needs, and reviewing it every couple of years to make sure it is keeping up with changes in our situation;
  2. Creating and updating a household inventory (typically via photos or video) to assist in filing insurance claims;
  3. Keeping irreplaceable documents (birth certificates, military records, property titles, and more) in a safe deposit box;
  4. Having copies of key documents and information stored away from our home – perhaps with a friend or family member in another community, or in secure cloud storage.  This includes insurance policies (or at least policy numbers and contact information), financial account information, most recent tax return, along with key medical information (including vaccination records) and contact information for both professional and personal contacts.  Pet vaccination records matter too.

The list above is NOT all-inclusive, but it’s a good starting point.  I am reminded that it has been a few years since I took household inventory photos — I’m going to update that this weekend.  What are you going to do?

Want more info? University of Minnesota Extension houses an award-winning disaster recovery toolkit (available for free download) and some related resources.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Smart Phones with Data Plans

When you ask individuals to decide if a smart phone with a data plan is a need or want, most will select the want column. When asked to explain, reasons are: using the data for social media, games, and video downloads.

My challenge question is: How, without WiFi services at home, would a family communicate with a school district posting grades, lunch account balances, and notifications on the internet? What about clinics that post medical records, schedule appointments, or post prescriptions online?

At a recent training, one team of agency staff selected need for the answer. They supply burner phones with data access so clients can apply for jobs and set up interviews.

By accident, WiFi was turned off on one of our family smart phones. We only have 2 gigabytes and usually burn through a small % each month. Half way through a billing cycle we were notified that all data had been used.

What changed? With the WiFi connection disabled, the phone was using carrier data for everyday use, even at home where it usually connects to WiFi. The peak time was at lunch when my husband checked the noon weather forecast, got caught up on agriculture news, and read updates for his favorite athletic teams (Go Cyclones).  You could argue that none of these tasks were essential; but with unlimited internet access, using WiFi becomes second nature (you can’t DVR the radio).  With WiFi turned off, it became extremely evident to us that controlling data use isn’t easy.

Our local paper reported that the city council had decided to turn the library WiFi off except for operating hours. They didn’t like people loitering outside in the evening. Perhaps they should poll the audience, some of the use was probably for social media, but I wonder?  I suspect some people may be using it for essential tasks after hours too.

Depending upon local internet options, smart phones with data plans might be the most reliable way to access the internet.

 

 

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash is a Human Sciences Specialist in Family Finance who wants to keep you ahead of the curve on financial information.

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Let’s Talk Trash – Food Waste – Eliminate Trash

Let’s talk trash! Doing so helps us to cut back on food waste, to save money, to improve access to food, and to protect natural resources.

A recent flyer from the United States Department of Agriculture indicated that about 90 billion pounds of edible food goes uneaten each year.  Most of that ends in our trash.  That trash weighs over 100 times the entire Empire State Building in New York City.

From an economic point of view – this costs consumers an average of $370/person each year.  Most of that cost -about $140 – is protein foods, which includes meat, poultry, fish, eggs and nuts.  Vegetable waste is the next largest category in terms of cost, at $66; dairy is close behind with $60, and fruit is $45.  Wasted foods with added fat and sugar are worth $37 and wasted grains are worth $22.

Recently, the city where I live began offering composting of food scraps; they let us recycle it in our yard waste.  We collect the food scraps in compostable paper, and add it to the curbside collection along with yard waste carts, cans or bags.  All food scraps (including meat and bones) can be recycled; in addition, we can recycle coffee filters and tea bags, all food-soiled paper cups and paper plates, and paper towels, placemats, napkins, and bags. Check to see if your city offers this program.

Reduce wasted food in your home with simple shopping, storage, and cooking practices:

  • Plan and Save – plan your weekly menu; make a shopping list and buy only what you need.
  • Be Food Safe – shop refrigerated or frozen foods just before checking out.
  • Remember that dates on  food packages help the store determine how long to display the product for sale.
  • Keep your pantry and refrigerator clean and organized.
  • Give leftovers a makeover when you reuse them in recipes.
  • Donate to shelters or food banks which provide meals for those in need.
  • Recycle & Compost your food scraps.
Susan Taylor

Susan Taylor

Resources are important whether you are looking to rent your first apartment, pay your bills, buy your first home or send your child to college. There are many ways to save money to reach your goals, and hopefully ISU Money Tip$ will be one of them. I enjoy traveling, needlework and am a novice gardener.

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Your Smiley Face to Impress

smileIs it your smiling face and eagerness to take out a loan that impresses the lender?  While that helps, it is probably not the key factor.

Your credit score is the lender’s first impression. Almost all lenders use a credit score to form their first impression of an applicant’s financial situation.  You actually have three credit scores –one each from Equifax, Experian and Trans Union.  Lenders may also have additional factors they consider in making a credit decisions, such as details of a person’s credit history, prior relationship with the company, or others.

The credit score is calculated to be a predictor of whether or not you will repay. Each credit reporting company has their own unique scoring model.  Some credit card companies like Chase and Discover offer your credit score monthly with their statement.  There are websites – Credit Karma.com, Quizzle.com and Credit.com that can show you a three-digit number representing your creditworthiness but it may only represent one of the credit reporting agencies – not all three. So be conservative when looking at those numbers.

Once a lender approves you for credit, lenders may pull your credit score or history regularly to determine whether you continue to be eligible for credit or qualify for special offers.

If you know you will soon need to replace a car or plan to buy a house – check your credit history about 4-6 months before your purchase.  If you find errors, you have time to correct them.  Start with www.AnnualCreditReport.com, the official free site to check your credit history.

 

Susan Taylor

Susan Taylor

Resources are important whether you are looking to rent your first apartment, pay your bills, buy your first home or send your child to college. There are many ways to save money to reach your goals, and hopefully ISU Money Tip$ will be one of them. I enjoy traveling, needlework and am a novice gardener.

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Paying for College with a 529 Plan

Last week a college student emailed a question about using money from his 529 Plan to pay for college costs, including room and board.  His question prompted this blog entry.

First some background: Qualified Tuition Programs, commonly known as “529 Plans” after the section of IRS code that created them, offer a great way to save for college with tax benefits.  When it comes time to take money out of your account to cover college costs, though, it’s critical to follow IRS regulations in order to avoid penalties.

If you are a student or have dependents who are students in college or nearing college, you may be aware that money you spend on tuition and required books makes you eligible for a really valuable federal income tax credit.  Most college students are eligible for the American Opportunity Credit, which can be up to $2,500 per student; in some cases eligibility rules mean that the Lifetime Learning Credit, which is smaller but still a nice credit, must be used.  The more you spend on tuition and books, the higher your tax credit will be, up to a limit of $4,000 in expenses.  The key, though, is that you can’t count any tuition or book expense that was paid for with money from scholarships or grants, or from tax-advantaged accounts.

Therefore, it’s not generally a first choice to use money from your 529 plan to pay for your entire tuition bill and books.  If you do, you won’t be able to claim that great tax credit.  Instead, try to use money from your regular savings or use student loan money to pay for your tuition (after any scholarships and grants that may cover part of the tuition).

“But I have this money saved for college in my 529 plan! Are you telling me I shouldn’t use it?”  No, that’s not what I’m saying.  The good news is that funds from your 529 plan can be used for room and board! So your first choice should be to use 529 plan funds for your room and board expenses, while using money from ordinary accounts to pay for tuition.

How much can I withdraw from my 529 plan for room and board?  As mentioned earlier, you want to stay within the rules for Qualified Distributions; those rules are spelled out in chapter 8 of IRS Publication 970.  There’s no set maximum dollar amount, since costs vary at colleges across the nation. Instead, the rules refer you to the room and board allowance set by your school for financial aid purposes.  You can make qualified withdrawals for room and board up to that amount, BUT it can’t be more than what you actually spent.  Therefore some suggestions:

  1. Look up your school’s room and board allowance and divide it per semester so you have a maximum figure for the current tax year.
  2. Keep track of your expenses so you can prove how much money your spend on room and board.

In addition to tuition, books, and room and board, you can also make qualified 529 plan withdrawals for special needs services, and for a computer and related equipment that is to be used primarily by the student for educational purposes.  See Publication 970 for details.

To learn more about Iowa’s 529 plan, go to www.collegesavingsiowa.com 

 

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Controlling Spending

Being frank about managing money hasn’t always been the way financial educators have started a conversation about helping consumers gain control of their pocketbook. A report by the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau begins with the following,  “Organizing financial materials, making a budget, and managing expenses involves paperwork, math, trade-offs, and constraints. In short it’s a hassle.”  What then must be done to make it easy?

Consumer Insights on Managing Spending  points out information about account balances doesn’t always arrive when you need it. A credit card transaction is just a swipe of the card.  You can enjoy the immediate gratification of a new purchase or savor the excitement of a special occasion.  The bad feelings come when you receive the bill 28 days later.

A test was done to see if  just in time information with modified cards and smart phone applications would change how consumers spend their money. Credit card receipts included the amount spent in a month and your total account balance. Cards were modified with a small screen showing current account balances. Individuals used smart phone apps that tracked spending and gave immediate account balances for budget items with preset spending limits.  Did it change spending?

The answer is yes, we do a better job of managing money when we have access to immediate feedback. Switching to debt cards has meant dropping old habits of writing the transaction in a checkbook at the moment of sale; individuals who kept a current balance did receive immediate feedback. Replacing that habit with new technology could be a way to make money management less of a hassle.

Joyce

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash is a Human Sciences Specialist in Family Finance who wants to keep you ahead of the curve on financial information.

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Strong Passwords

I recently received word that my cellular company had a security breach. In the past three years, I have received replacement credit cards 3 times because of a similar scare. We all most likely remember the negative publicity certain major retailers received around the holidays because of credit card issue, AND I just read about a major hospital accidentally posting personal information on a web site.  None of these examples are due to mistakes made on the part of the consumers. Despite the fact that all of these companies have departments full of individuals whose full-time job is to protect the sensitive information of those using their services, they still face challenges staying ahead of identity thieves.

For this reason, it is important to use a STRONG password for your online accounts; one that will be difficult for others to guess. Knowing that it is recommended that passwords be changed monthly or at least several times a year, here are a few tricks that will make remembering easier.

Using a phrase or string of seemingly random words (that mean something to you) is one way to create a password. When using a phrase, consider using capital letters at the END of each word (instead of at the beginning). Subbing a symbol in place of a letter is another way to make a password secure. For example: @pplEp1E&1cEcre@M (apple pie & ice cream is my favorite dessert). I replaced all the A’s with the @ symbol; the last letter of each word is capitalized and all the I’s are changed into the number 1. Another trick would be to remove all the vowels from my phrase, Apple Pie & Ice cream becomes pplp&ccrm.

Once you settle on a password, a number could be added at the beginning or end.  Then each month when you change the password, you could keep the phrase portion of the password, and make the change to only the number…maybe increasing or decreasing by 1 number.

Share strategies you use to make changing and remembering passwords easier.

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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