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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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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Recovering from Identity Theft

topic-icon-identity-theftLast week Joyce mentioned identity theft in a MoneyTip$ post, and that reminded me of a new resource released last month by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).  The new tool combines two important functions of the FTC: 1) providing a place to report identity theft; and 2) providing information about what steps to take after you learn or suspect your identity has been misused.

As part of the updated and improved Identity Theft website, those who report an incident will then be guided through a personalized recovery plan.  After you enter details about what types of accounts have been misused or other specific details pertaining to your case, the personalized recovery guide will prompt you with steps you need to take based on your situation.

I browsed through the site, and I’m impressed.  The idea of a one-stop shop where I will be prompted to take needed steps is very appealing.  Every person who has told me about recovering from identity theft has mentioned how much work it can be.  I think people can find it overwhelming.  With a central location where you can keep track of what has been done so far, and be reminded of what to do next, I think it would be easier to keep moving forward, rather than giving up.

The one-stop shop also helps encourage people to report identity theft to the FTC.  It still needs to be reported to the police, but also reporting to the FTC helps them gather information about the kind of identity theft that is taking place.  In the long run, that may help authorities take steps to prevent identity theft.

If you, or someone you know, has been affected by this rapidly-growing crime, turn to the federal identity theft website for guidance.  ~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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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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Identity Theft from Smart Phones

Have a Smartphone?

You may ask what that has to do with protecting your identity?  Based on data collected by the Identity Theft Resource Center, seven percent of Smartphone owners were victims of identity fraud.  This is 33% more likely than the general public.

Smartphone users can take two straightforward steps to reduce risk of identity theft: 

  1. Update to a new operating system when it becomes available.  Currently, 32 percent do not update their phones. 
  2.  Use a password on their home screen.  Sixty-two percent do not at this time; this allows easy access to information if the phone is lost.  Since 32% of smartphoners save log-in information (e.g. for facebook, email, etc) on their mobile device, a home-screen password is the only thing protecting those accounts from strangers.

Young adults aged 18-24 took the longest to detect identity theft – 132 days on average!  The average cost to young adults ($1,156) was roughly five times the cost incurred by other age groups, according to Javelin Strategy and Research.

Identity Theft has been the top consumer complaint to the Federal Trade Commission for the past twelve years.  Of the 1.8 million complaints filed to the FTC in 2011, fifteen percent related to identity theft.  During National Protect Your Identity Week, find more ways to protect your identity at www.ftc.gov  ~Susan

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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