An Ounce of Prevention

I shouldn’t be surprised by the increased number of bogus offerings, threats and scare-tactics arriving in my inbox, mailbox and phone. Scammers are offering everything from face masks to toilet paper and expedited deposits of the stimulus payments. Identity theft and related scams often spike during times of crisis. So…desperate times require extra diligence on our part, to protect our identity and our hard earned money.

The three national credit-reporting companies, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion, are offering free weekly online credit reports through April 2021. By requesting a free credit report at https://www.annualcreditreport.com/index.action, an individual will get a report from all three companies with the single application.

By establishing a “myEquifax” account at equifax.com/personal/credit-report-services/free-credit-reports  or by calling 866.349.5191, individuals can receive six free credit reports every twelve months from Equifax, through December 2026…that is in addition to the one free report that can be obtained each year from all credit reporting companies at AnnualCreditReport.com.

While checking your credit report is an important habit, there are other things individuals can do to protect their identity and improve their score.

  1. Pay all your bills on time if possible. It may get difficult with layoffs and furloughs, but try to make at least your minimum debt payments by their due date every month to avoid hurting your credit score.
  2. Contact your lenders for help and ask about hardship options as soon as possible—ideally before you miss a payment. Lenders may be able to temporarily lower your interest rate or payment amount, or pause your payments for a period of time. Lenders may also be able to place your loans in deferment or forbearance, which would eliminate payments for a time; as a result, there would be no late payments to report to the credit bureaus. Under the CARES Act, when a consumer contacts their creditor before falling behind in payments, and reaches an agreement with the creditor to a modified payment plan (reduced payments or forbearance), then the creditor may not report late or missed payments to the credit reporting company as long as the consumer follows the agreement. That protection for the consumer lasts until the later of July 26, 2020 OR 120 days after the COVID-19 national emergency declaration ends.
  3. Check your credit regularly and make sure the information is accurate. You can identify any potentially fraudulent activity and respond to it before it damages your credit.
  4. Dispute inaccurate information immediately. Remember that disputes need to be made with each credit bureau where the disputed information appears.
  5. Contact your service providers. If you do not think you can pay your utility, cell phone, cable or other monthly bills, reach out to your providers to see if they offer flexible payment options during this time.
  6. Be extra vigilant about protecting your identity. If you fear identity theft may occur or has occurred in your name, you can also place a free security freeze on your credit file so lenders cannot gain access to it. This prevents people from applying for credit in your name. You can lift the freeze at any time, for free.
  7. Seek financial management help. The Iowa Concern Hotline (800.447.1985) can put you in touch with a financial consultant who will provide confidential information and discussion, free of charge.
  8. For those with investment or retirement accounts, U.S. market fluctuations could cause significant concern. Before you make any rushed decisions with your investments, consult a reputable investment professional who can look at the details of your situation and provide personalized financial guidance on what actions, if any, you should consider at this time. Not sure where to start? The professionals at the firm holding your investments or with your employer’s retirement plan can be a first contact for analysis of your situation.
  9. Make a budget and plan ahead. If you think current conditions may affect your income or finances, consider tightening your budget to help make sure you have enough funds to cover your expenses.

For more information about free help and guidance during these difficult times, check out https://www.extension.iastate.edu/iowaconcern/.

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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Credit Reports: Changes in 2018

A big thank you is in order from Iowa consumers to the Legislature, Governor Kim Reynolds, and Attorney General Tom Miller for passage and enactment of Senate File 2177  . Beginning on July 1st you will no longer be charged fees to use a “freeze” on your credit report.

The Equifax Breach put many individuals in a pool of consumers whose personal information was compromised. Faced with potential misuse, one step to limit damage was freezing your credit report at the three credit reporting bureaus, but the cost was $30.  In passing the new law, Iowa government officials reasoned that consumers should not be forced to bear the cost when a reporting bureau is negligent.

The credit bureaus are also making other changes: what data they collect; how it is reported; and credit score calculations.

  • All public record information, except for bankruptcy, is being removed from files.
  • Reports on medically-related debts are held for six months before posting to allow for insurance closures.
  • Medical debt is given less weight compared to other consumer spending when calculating your credit score.
  • Rent data can now be included in your credit report; only positive reports will be accepted.
  • A series of auto or mortgage inquiries are treated as one event.
  • Paid collection accounts will be removed from reports.
  • Keeping a card open that is paid in full will not help your credit score if it isn’t used. A card that is not used in a 3-6 month time period is dropped from credit score calculations.

Checking your credit report for accuracy is a good habit to maintain. If you haven’t checked yours in the past 12 months, now would be a good day to start!

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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Credit Freeze?

ice-smThere’s a classic strategy to prevent impulsive credit card spending: put the card in a container of water and put it in your freezer. Then you will have to let it thaw before using it, forcing you to stop and think before spending. This strategy, while slightly messy, may have legitimate value for some folks.

There is, however, another kind of credit freeze, in which you can freeze your credit reports with the three national credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion). In this case, to “freeze” means to make your credit history unavailable to lenders (with an exception for those with whom you already have account relationships).

What’s the benefit? Lenders always check credit history before issuing loans or credit cards. If lenders can’t access your credit file, then they will not issue credit in your name. The benefit of a credit freeze is that no identity thief will be able to open any accounts in your name.

If you do not expect to apply for credit any time in the near future, a credit freeze is a tool that could help you prevent one type of identity theft. If you have already been a victim of identity theft, there is no cost to place a freeze on your file. If not, however, there is a fee. Rules vary by state; in Iowa, the fee is $10 to freeze your file, and if you wish to lift the freeze, the fee is also $10. Since there are three national credit reporting agencies, it would cost $30 to place a freeze on all three.

If you decide to apply for credit, you can temporarily lift the freeze for a fee of $12, just long enough for the lender in question to check your file. You will receive a PIN (personal identification number) to authenticate your request to lift the freeze.

A credit freeze is not an appropriate step for everyone, but for consumers who are unlikely to borrow money in the next several years, it can provide an extra level of security.

For more information, including laws in other states, go to the Consumers Union Guide to Security Freeze Protection.

~Barb

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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