Holiday Gatherings: Counting the Costs

From Thanksgiving to Three Kings Day, many Wisconsinites budget carefully for holiday gift giving. But what about holiday entertaining? Have you ever hosted a party where the guest list grew beyond what your budget – or location – could handle? Or maybe last-minute menu additions or Packer decorations pushed the price of your gathering skyward.

Whether you’re considering a Thanksgiving dinner, a Christmas morning breakfast, or a late-night New Year’s celebration, a little planning can help you relax and enjoy the event as much as your guests.

Food and beverages are often big budget items. If you’re a skilled chef and truly enjoy every minute spent in the kitchen, fine. If not so much, consider purchasing a main entrée or festive dessert from your local caterer and then adding your own sides, breads, and garnishes. You don’t need to serve each guest a mini beef Wellington. Google “frugal recipes” to find tasty dishes that fit both your budget and your available preparation time.

Remember, time is money, too. If you spend so many hours in the kitchen or on crafting party decorations that you’re exhausted by the time of the party, you will have defeated the point of the event – even if you do end up with useful leftovers or decorations you’ll reuse.

Don’t hesitate to ask your guests to help by bringing a dish they’re known for, a vase of flowers, a bottle of wine or jug of cider. If a guest has a flair for food presentation, maybe he or she would be willing to come early and help with the final touches.

Your guests might also like to help with any entertainment or the party ambience. They may have music, videos, or photos to share, or crafty decorations to show off. Crafting a wreath, ornament, or gingerbread house could even become a party focus, with guests taking home their creations.

Don’t forget craft malls or discount the discount stores. You may find the perfect invitations or decorations at your nearby Dollar Store or outlet mall. Your home may also be a source of items saved from previous years that you can adapt to your newest party theme. Hint: candles can dress up any table, even if the candle holder is hollowed-out apple or a mirror repurposed as a reflective tray.

If many guests have young children and you have the space, pool your resources to hire a teen to plan activities and watch over the young ones. The kids will be thrilled to have their own party and the parents will be happy their children are safe and close at hand.

For other ideas, visit these websites:

  •  The Wisconsin Public Service company offers energy saving tips during the holidays, including entertaining.
  • A Wisconsin Law Journal article offers tips for office parties, and some can be useful for consumers, too.
  • The Festival Network lists Wisconsin craft fairs where you can purchase exquisite items or collect ideas for decorations to create yourself.

 

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What’s This Computer Chip Doing in My Credit Card?

You may have recently received a new credit or debit card from your financial institution and noticed that it contains a computer chip. If you don’t have a chip card yet, though, you can expect to receive one by late 2015. What does the transition to chip cards mean for you?

A microchip makes it less likely your payment card will be used for a fraudulent transaction in person, such as at a store. “Compared to the magnetic stripe cards that we are accustomed to, it is much more difficult for criminals to create fraudulent cards that contain microchips,” said Jeff Kopchik, a Senior Policy Analyst at the FDIC. “Many European countries have been using chip cards for several years, and fraud rates for in-store transactions in those nations have declined significantly.”

Why is the chip card more effective in preventing the use of fake cards? “The chip will change the encrypted numbers for every transaction to ensure the authenticity of the card each time it is used,” added David M. Nelson, an FDIC Examination Specialist. “Hackers trying to get chip card authentication numbers are chasing a moving target that will be useless to them.”

You still need to be on guard against fraudulent purchases made with your card online, over the telephone or by mail. Unlike with in-store transactions, there is no card-reading device receiving the secret, one-time authentication code from the microchip that verifies the card’s authenticity. Kopchik said this largely explains why there was a significant increase in online card fraud in Europe immediately after chip cards were introduced.

What can you do to protect yourself? As with any credit or debit card, monitor your account on a regular basis and report unauthorized transactions to your financial institution as soon as possible. If your chip card is used in a fraudulent transaction, your liability will be limited by federal rules. Also under the rules, your card is considered stolen if a hacker steals your account information electronically.

You may need to begin using a PIN for credit card transactions. While chip cards are most effective against counterfeiting, they provide less protection if your chip card is stolen and used by a thief in person at a store or other business. To provide further protection in these circumstances, many chip cards will require the user to enter a personal identification number to authorize a transaction. This is similar to what debit card users have done for years.

Expect to find a different type of card payment terminal at stores. You may already have noticed these new terminals at a few large stores. With some of them, the chip card is inserted into the terminal, similar to an ATM. “Just make sure you don’t get distracted, leave your card in the reader and walk out of the store without it, which people have been known to do,” warned Nelson.

For other payment terminals — those that accept what are called “proximity cards” — all you have to do to pay is to place your card in front of the reader or gently tap the card against the reader.

Initially, your chip cards will probably also have the conventional magnetic stripe on the back. This will allow you to use the card at merchants that have not yet upgraded to the new payment terminals. “Your new chip card may take some getting used to, but the added security is well worth the effort,” added Kopchik.

The microchip simply contains the same personal information that is printed on the outside of the card. Nelson noted that the chip in the card contains no personal information about the cardholder other than his or her name and account number, which also is the same as what is stored on the magnetic stripe.

If you are planning to visit Europe, you may want to request a chip card from your financial institution. That’s because many European merchants no longer accept magnetic stripe cards.

 

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What to Keep Where: From Bank Services to Document Storage Online

Certain financial papers and valuables are essential to keep secure and accessible. What should go where?

A safe deposit box may be the best place for important things that will be costly, difficult or impossible to replace and that you won’t need to access immediately. Examples include property deeds, car titles and U.S. Savings Bonds that haven’t been converted into electronic securities. In case there’s a flood or other water damage, seal important documents in waterproof plastic bags or containers.

Anything that might be needed in an emergency — such as your original “power of attorney” (your written authorization for another person to take certain actions on your behalf) — should probably not be in your safe deposit box in case your bank is closed for the night, the weekend or a holiday. Depending on state law, it might take even longer to access your safe deposit box if you die.

For guidance on where to store your original will and other documents needed if you die or become disabled, check with an attorney. And for cash, a federally insured deposit account is the safest place. Money in a bank account is protected up to the FDIC’s deposit insurance limits, unlike cash in a safe deposit box, a home safe or elsewhere. You can earn interest, too.

A home safe is less secure than a safe deposit box. A home safe is much easier for a burglar to get into, either by removing the safe or by forcing you or a family member to open it.

A waterproof emergency evacuation bag is the best place for essential items if you need to quickly leave your home because of a flood, fire or other crisis. Contents would likely include copies of identification cards, your birth certificate, and the front and back of your key credit and debit cards.

The Internet gives you options to keep copies of certain valuable items that you want to access from anywhere. Examples include some of the same documents in your emergency bag (in case you are away from home when a disaster strikes) as well as pictures or videos of your home’s contents for insurance purposes. An online “cloud” storage service from a reputable provider is one possibility. Another strategy is to e-mail yourself copies. “But remember to choose passwords that will be difficult for someone to guess, and only access your account through a secure Internet connection and not over a public Wi-Fi network,” recommended Luke W. Reynolds, Chief of the FDIC’s Outreach and Program Development Section.

In general, decide who you want to be able to access your personal and financial documents in an emergency. A trusted family member who would be responsible for your affairs if you suddenly become disabled or die should know where you may have a safe deposit box or a safe and where to find important documents.

For more information on preparing financially for life events, including who to turn to for guidance on how to make it easier for a loved one to access your safe deposit box after you die, see Expecting the Unexpected: Preparing Financially for a Disability or Death. To learn more about using safe deposit boxes and home safes, see our article in the Fall 2009 FDIC Consumer News (online at www.fdic.gov/consumers/consumer/news/cnfall09/five_things.html). And, for a variety of related tips from the federal government, see the “Managing Household Records” site at www.usa.gov/Topics/Money/Personal-Finance/Managing-Household-Records.shtml.

Reprinted from FDIC Consumer News, Summer 2014.  https://www.fdic.gov/consumers/consumer/news/cnsum14/whattokeepwhere.html
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How to Estimate Individual and Family Health Care Costs

While not as complex as some Internal Revenue forms, health insurance applications – and the decisions they call for – can seem to require a Ph.D. Whether you are deciding among several health insurance plans with different deductibles and co-payments or determining how much to set aside in an employer’s flexible spending plan, the question arises: How much will I spend on health care next year?

And when it comes to health insurance, is it better to pay for a higher deductible upfront or higher copayments in return for lower monthly health insurance premiums? The questions are complex.

At the same time, no one is better at estimating the health care costs of you and your family than you are. While no one can predict a sudden emergency, if your family has averaged one emergency room visit a year for several years, it’s reasonable to plan for one next year, too. Your past experience is one way to gauge future needs.

Like annual flu vaccinations, other needs can be planned in advance. Maybe next year is the year that you will address your need for bifocals, your spouse’s need for a hearing aid, or your child’s orthodontia.

Using this knowledge and experience, you can create two or three scenarios of your likely healthcare needs next year including the average number of doctor visits and prescriptions. Then, select the most likely scenario and review your options for insurance and/or medical flexible spending plans.

Count yourself lucky if your employer offers a health plan and your decisions are limited. If your employer offers several options or you are looking at a health savings plan or insurance through the Affordable Care Act, you may want to develop additional scenarios for different plans or payment options.

In addition to a cost-benefits analysis involving deductibles and copayments, remember that many health insurance companies limit coverage to physicians within their plan. Be sure that the doctors and hospitals you wish to use are part of the plan you select.

As with winter ice storms, there’s no guarantee that a health crisis won’t arise. But if it does, you will still have insurance to help with most costs.

Wisconsin offers several resources to help with your decision-making:

If you have a high deductible plan, Union State Bank may be able to assist you with a Health Savings Account.  Contact us at 1-888-958-6466 or visit us on the web at https://www.unionstatebank.org/hsa.htm to find out more information.

 

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Tips to Help Rebound From a Bad Credit History

For people grappling with a history of debt payment problems, improving their credit record may seem like a daunting task. Union State Bank and FDIC Consumer News offer these tips, which can help increase the chances of qualifying for better loan terms, lower insurance rates and perhaps even a new job or apartment.

1. Order your free credit reports and look for errors. Credit reporting companies, often referred to as “credit bureaus,” maintain reports that show how an individual handles certain aspects of his or her finances. Your credit report includes information on how much credit you have available, how much credit you are using, whether you pay loans and other bills on time, your payment history on closed accounts, and any debt collections or bankruptcy filings. Credit bureaus and other companies use the information in your credit report to generate a credit score to predict, for example, how likely you are to repay your debts or how reliable you may be as a tenant.

Federal law requires credit reporting companies to provide consumers with a free copy of their credit report once every 12 months, if requested. You can easily obtain your free credit reports from each of the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) at one Web site — www.AnnualCreditReport.com — or by calling 1-877-322-8228. Under other circumstances, such as being denied a loan or employment based on your credit report or if you believe you may be a fraud victim, you are also entitled to a free copy directly from the credit bureau that provided the initial report. Be cautious of costly subscriptions to additional credit-related services that you may be offered while requesting your credit report.

Because mistakes can happen, closely review your credit report(s) when you receive it. According to a 2012 study from the Federal Trade Commission, more than 25 percent of consumers surveyed identified errors on their credit reports that might affect their credit scores. “It is important to dispute inaccurate information, in writing, with both the credit reporting company as well as with the original source of the information so that the error does not show up again,” said Jennifer Dice, an FDIC Supervisory Consumer Affairs Specialist.

If you have a complaint about a credit reporting company, you can contact the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) at https://help.consumerfinance.gov/app/creditreporting/ask or by calling 1-855-411-2372.

2. Improve your credit history by paying your bills on time. Paying on time is one of the biggest contributors to your credit score. If you have a history of paying bills late, find out if your bank will send you an e-mail or text message reminding you when a payment is due. You may also consider having your payments for loans or other bills automatically debited from your bank account.

Once you become current on payments, stay current. “The more you pay your bills on time after being late, the more your credit score should increase,” Dice added. “The impact of past credit problems on your credit score fades as time passes and as your current timeliness in paying bills is reflected on your credit report.”

3. Reduce the amounts you owe. You can get on track toward a better score by paying down balances owed.

It takes some discipline, so start by getting organized. Make a list of all of your accounts and debts (perhaps using your credit report, if it’s accurate, and recent statements) to determine how much you owe and the interest rate you are being charged. You may be able to reduce your interest costs by paying off the debts with the highest interest rate first, while still making the minimum payments (if not more) on your other accounts.

Also consider how to limit your use of credit cards in favor of cash, checks or a debit card. “While regular, responsible use of your credit card may help your credit score, it is best to keep your balance low enough so that you can pay the account balance in full, on time, every month,” suggested Heather St. Germain, an FDIC Senior Consumer Affairs Specialist.

4. Consider free or low-cost help from reputable sources. Counseling services are available to help consumers budget money, pay bills and develop a plan to improve their credit report. Be cautious of counseling services that advise you to stop making payments to your creditors or to pay the counselors instead (so they can negotiate on your behalf with the lender). These programs can be costly and may result in your credit score becoming even worse.

5. Beware of credit repair scams. Con artists lure innocent victims in with false promises to “erase” a bad credit history in a short amount of time, but there are no quick ways to remove credit problems on your record that are legitimate. “You’ll also know you’ve encountered credit repair fraud if the company insists you pay upfront before it does any work on your behalf or it encourages you to give false information on your credit applications,” said St. Germain. In general, before doing business with a for-profit credit repair company, learn how you can improve your own credit history at little or no cost.

Unfortunately Union State Bank has seen this with some of our customers.  Individuals have paid large sums of money to have a credit repair service help improve their score.  These services dispute every transaction in a credit report, even if the reporting is accurate.  If you have an issue with your credit report, file the dispute with the credit reporting agency or directly with the financial institution and save your money.

For more information from the FDIC, the CFPB, the Federal Trade Commission and other government agencies on topics such as credit reports, credit scores, fixing a credit problem and how to choose a credit counselor, go to www.mymoney.gov and search by topic.

Reprinted from FDIC Consumer News, Summer 2014.  https://www.fdic.gov/consumers/consumer/news/cnsum14/history.html
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Picking Up the Pieces: Managing a Loved One’s Finances After a Serious Life Event

Would you know what to do if you became responsible for handling the financial affairs of a loved one who has serious health issues? What if you were responsible for managing the money of someone who died? Union State Bank and FDIC Consumer News provides some basic strategies.

Helping an Elderly or Ill Person

Get a handle on the most important financial records. Look into getting a “power of attorney,” which is the legal authorization for you to manage matters like finances and health care decisions if your loved one becomes mentally or physically incapacitated. Ask about a will and a living will, in which a person specifies what treatment he or she wants or doesn’t want in case they can’t decide for themselves. Know where to locate his or her birth certificate, insurance policies, bank account statements and other important documents. Find out how to access online accounts and passwords, if necessary. Ultimately, you will need to identify all of the accounts and obligations, including debts.

A power of attorney appointment can be changed by the account owner at anytime.  Also, upon the death of the account owner, the power of attorney ceases and a financial institution will not be able to share any information with the person appointed as power of attorney.  At this point a personal representative must be appointed by the account owner’s trust or will and the court system.

Find ways to simplify their finances. “If you will be handling someone else’s bills, consider arranging for automatic or electronic payments, but also remember to keep good records,” said Bobbie Gray, an FDIC Supervisory Community Affairs Specialist. “Also have regular income from pensions and other sources deposited directly, which will save you time and avoid the risk that checks could be lost or stolen.”

Consolidating deposit accounts at one financial institution can make it easier to monitor the accounts and avoid low-balance fees, but be sure the accounts stay within the FDIC’s insurance limits (start at www.fdic.gov/deposit). If there are accounts that have not been used in a while but should be kept open, find out how to avoid paperwork and fees associated with “dormant” accounts.

“And if your loved one’s situation has resulted in a loss of income, consider how to eliminate unnecessary expenses,” said Luke W. Reynolds, Chief of the FDIC’s Outreach and Program Development Section.

Verify that there is adequate insurance coverage. Confirm, for example, that there is homeowner or renter insurance. And, consider checking to see whether the person is eligible for government-coordinated insurance, such as Social Security disability insurance and Medicare or Medicaid.

Avoid financial crimes. Help loved ones monitor their bank, investment and credit card statements plus their credit reports (visit www.AnnualCreditReport.com or call 1-877-322-8228) to look for suspicious transactions. Be wary of phone calls or mail promoting get-rich-quick investments and other schemes. For tips, see When People Face Tough Times, Crooks Try to Profit.

Learn more about your duties as a financial caregiver and where you can go for help. Check out guides from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) called “Managing Someone Else’s Money” (www.consumerfinance.gov/blog/managing-someone-elses-money) and the U.S. government’s official Web site for caregivers at www.usa.gov/Citizen/Topics/Health/caregivers.shtml. Also, the U.S. Administration on Aging helps caregivers connect with organizations that can assist with a variety of problems (call 1-800-677-1116 or go to www.eldercare.gov).

Managing the Affairs of a Deceased Person

Take precautions against identity thieves who target the deceased. Criminals look in obituaries and other sources for details about deceased individuals they can use to try to open or access accounts. Among the first steps to take soon after a loved one dies is to notify his or her banks and investment firms so they can scrutinize attempts to withdraw funds from the account. Also consider reporting the death to the fraud departments of the nation’s three major credit bureaus (Equifax at 1-800-525-6285, Experian at 1-888-397-3742 and TransUnion at 1-800-680-7289).

Also quickly contact the Social Security Administration (www.ssa.gov/agency/contact or 1-800-772-1213), pension providers and others who may be paying money to the deceased. It’s also good to safeguard the deceased’s driver’s license and Social Security card.

Locate important documents needed to wind down the deceased person’s financial affairs. Examples include insurance policies, the most recent will (an original, not a copy) and multiple copies of the death certificate (needed to apply for death benefits from life insurance policies or Social Security and to access bank and brokerage accounts).

Inventory the deceased’s financial accounts. Stop automatic payments from the person’s bank account or credit cards. Inform the credit card issuers about the death so they can cancel the cards and prohibit future transactions.

Compare several funeral homes before committing to one. Prices and options can vary considerably.

Check if all deposits are federally insured. Depending on the types of accounts the deceased had, the death could result in some funds exceeding the $250,000 federal insurance limits. However, the FDIC’s rules allow a six-month grace period after a depositor’s death to give survivors or estate planners a chance to restructure accounts. For more guidance, go to www.fdic.gov/deposit or call 1-877-ASK-FDIC which is 1-877-275-3342.

Know your rights if a debt collector contacts you to pay debts of the deceased. “Any debts typically are paid from the estate of the deceased, not by family members,” advised Gray. If there isn’t enough money in the estate to cover the debt, it usually goes unpaid, but there are exceptions, such as for co-signed loans. If you have questions, talk to a lawyer. And, if you are contacted by a bill collector seeking to collect on a questionable debt, request proof of the debt and include a copy of the death certificate. Learn more from the Federal Trade Commission at www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0081-debts-and-deceased-relatives. For sample letters to use when dealing with debt collectors or to file a complaint to the CFPB, start at http://www.consumerfinance.gov/newsroom/consumers-report-being-hounded-about-debts-not-owed.

 

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Your Next Car: New or Used? Buy or Lease?

Worried that your clunker won’t last another Wisconsin winter? Many people shop for new vehicles in the fall, hoping to get a great deal on outgoing models and last quarter sales.

car deal

For most consumers, buying a used car makes more financial sense than purchasing a new one. Used cars cost less, depreciate less, and have lower insurance premiums.

On the other hand, a new vehicle will be more reliable and present lower maintenance and repair costs. If you are financing your purchase, dealer zero-percent-interest and other incentives may make a new vehicle as affordable as a used one if you plan to keep it six years or longer.

When considering a new vehicle, consumers are often attracted by the lower monthly payments of leases. Leases, which typically run for three years, do have some advantages. In addition to lower monthly payments, they may offer lower maintenance costs, and the consumer can simply turn the car in at the end of the lease or buy it for a preset price. If you use a leased vehicle for your own business, the monthly payment sometimes can be deducted on your income tax return (check with your tax professional).

But a lease gives the consumer no equity in the vehicle, limits the number of miles driven (usually 12,000 or 15,000 per year) without penalty, and requires higher insurance premiums. A lease also prevents the consumer from customizing the car and may include added fees that increase the overall cost. Plus, if circumstances change and a consumer needs to end the lease before the contract ends, this can be costly. For most consumers, buying makes more financial sense than leasing.

Of course, other factors may trump financial ones – if the latest technology and amenities are important and you plan to upgrade every three years, a leased vehicle may make perfect sense. But if you commute long distances and could not reasonably limit your mileage, or have young children and pets and are concerned about wear and tear on a leased vehicle, buying may be your best option.

Whether you buy or lease a new or used vehicle, decide what you want before you enter a showroom. Focus on the total price, not just the monthly payment required. And be willing to walk away if the deal you are offered isn’t what you want.

Web resources worth checking out:

  • USAA on the best and worst times to buy a car.
  • Consumer Reports on buying vs. leasing. This site also offers many calculators to explore various options for your family.
  • Visit Edmunds.com for an analysis of buying a new or used Honda Accord vs. leasing one.
  • The Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions offers a brochure on leasing, including the need for Gap insurance, to cover your costs if, in the event that your vehicle were totaled or stolen, the balance of your lease exceeded what you would receive from your insurance claim.
Reprinted from Community Bankers of Wisconsin Consumer Tips.

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When People Face Tough Times, Crooks Try to Profit

Facing a personal hardship can be tough enough. But often making matters worse are con artists who try to take advantage of these situations to steal money or valuable information. “We’ve seen everything from criminals pretending to be from disaster-relief organizations asking for ‘donations,’ to scammers offering fake jobs to individuals who are looking for employment,” said Michael Benardo, manager of the FDIC’s Cyber Fraud and Financial Crimes Section. “The fraudsters know that people dealing with serious events may be distracted and easily deceived.”

Here are some precautions.

Protect personal and financial information. Don’t provide bank or credit card numbers or other personal information over the phone, through e-mail, as a text message, or over the Internet unless you initiate the communication and you know the other party is reputable. Review financial statements so you can quickly report any irregularities. And always keep your checkbook, blank checks, used checks, account statements, credit cards and other financial items in a secure location.

Look out for the people you care for. Since many scams target the ill or the elderly, pay attention to suspicious behavior, such as a sudden and unexpected major purchase, the opening or closing of a bank or card account without a good reason, or hiding financial statements to conceal what may appear to be an embarrassing mistake. Also take note if your loved one mysteriously starts to spend significantly more time with new “best friends” and less time with the family. “Scammers and con artists tend to target the same people over and over with offers for things the person may not really need,” said Kathryn Weatherby, an Examination Specialist for the FDIC.

Only give to charities that you are familiar with or have researched. Check them out with the state government office that regulates charities, which you can find at the Web site of the National Association of State Charity Officials at www.nasconet.org/documents/u-s-charity-offices.

Use caution when making online donations. Go directly to a charity’s Web site by independently confirming the address. Don’t click on a link in an e-mail or on a random Web site because that may lead to a fake site.

Walk away from any offer or request that involves pressure to act quickly. Be suspicious if you are asked for money or personal information on the spot. Be particularly wary if someone says you previously agreed to send money and you don’t remember doing so.

If you’re a disaster victim, be careful about accepting unsolicited offers to make repairs. Ask people you trust for recommendations of licensed and insured contractors. Check out local businesses, including complaints against them. Start by contacting your state Attorney General’s office (www.naag.org/current-attorneys-general.php) or your state or local consumer affairs office (www.consumeraction.gov/state.shtml). Ask for prices and other important information in writing before you agree to anything and understand any document you are asked to sign.

Be aware that con artists sometimes pose as debt collectors. Following a disaster, crooks know that people fall behind on bills so they attempt to collect on non-existent debts, often by posing as belligerent debt collectors or officials from the government or a law enforcement agency. To learn more, see our Spring 2013 article at www.fdic.gov/consumers/consumer/news/cnspr13/debtcollector.html.

For more about how to protect yourself, see back issues of FDIC Consumer News (online at www.fdic.gov/consumernews) and the Federal Trade Commission’s “Scam Alerts” Web page at www.consumer.ftc.gov/scam-alerts. And if you think you may be a fraud victim, you can report the matter online at www.lookstoogoodtobetrue.com/complaint.aspx, a Web site co-sponsored by the FBI and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, or by calling the FTC at 1-877-382-4357.

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Tips for Safe Shopping

Criminals often try to steal money or commit fraud by targeting consumers as they are buying and paying for things or by obtaining valuable personal information from previous purchases. We have compiled simple ways to help you be as safe as possible.

When Shopping in Person…

Provide only the information that you are comfortable giving. Be careful about sharing your Social Security number with a merchant. “A retailer may legitimately ask for your Social Security number and other personal information if you are applying for store credit, but that information is not needed for an ordinary sales transaction,” said Michael Benardo, Chief of the FDIC’s Cyber Fraud and Financial Crimes Section. “Giving personal information to a retailer when you’re using a credit card is a voluntary decision. If you say ‘no,’ the worst that can happen is that you’ll have to take your business elsewhere.”

The Social Security Administration suggests that you “ask why your number is needed, how it will be used and what will happen if you refuse. The answers to these questions can help you decide if you want to give out your Social Security number.”

Never “flash” your cash. When paying with dollar bills, keep large amounts of money concealed. You don’t want to attract the attention of a thief.

Only carry the checks, credit cards, debit/ATM cards or cash that you plan to use. The more you take along, the more you risk having lost or stolen. Consider limiting the number of credit cards you own by canceling the ones you rarely use, but weigh the benefits of doing so against the possible lowering of your credit score, which could increase your future cost of credit. And keep your Social Security card in a safe place and not in your wallet.

When Shopping Online…

Create “strong” PIN numbers and passwords and keep them secret. Numbers, letters and symbols can be combined to form a password that is tough for someone else to figure out. Don’t write the PIN numbers in your wallet or use your birthdate or address, which can easily be determined if your wallet is stolen. While using the same password or PIN for several accounts can be tempting, doing so can put you at risk that a criminal who obtains one password or PIN can log in to other accounts.

Protect your computer. Install software that protects against “malware” (malicious software that can steal personal information, such as passwords or account numbers you’ve typed). Also use a firewall program to prevent unauthorized access to your PC. Protection options vary, and some are free. Once you’ve installed the software, set it to automatically update.

Be careful where and how you connect to the Internet. Whether you are shopping, banking or otherwise conducting financial transactions online, only access the Internet using a secure connection. “A public computer, such as at an Internet café, hotel business center, school computer lab, or public library is not necessarily secure. You never know if there is security software on these types of computers or if it is up-to-date,” said Amber Holmes, a Financial Crimes Information Specialist with the FDIC. “They also may be infected with malware that may capture your credit or debit card numbers as you type them.”

Also, don’t use your own computer (including a tablet or smartphone) for shopping or banking if you are unsure about the wireless connection, as is the case with many free Wi-Fi networks at public “hotspots,” like coffee shops. “It can be relatively easy for fraudsters to intercept the Internet traffic in these locations,” Holmes explained.

In addition to a secure connection, you can have greater confidence that a Web site is authentic and that it encrypts (scrambles) your information during transmission by looking for a padlock symbol on the page and a Web address that starts with “https://.” To learn about additional safety features, start with your Web browser’s user instructions. These precautions are not totally foolproof, as evidenced by the recent news about the “Heartbleed” Internet flaw, but they may still provide your best protection. And, be aware that the FDIC and other regulators directed financial institutions to review their security systems and make any needed upgrades as soon as the Heartbleed vulnerability became known.

Be suspicious of unsolicited e-mail offers that ask you to click on a link or download an attachment. It’s easy for criminals to copy a reputable company or organization’s logo into a fake e-mail. By complying with what appears to be a simple request, you may be installing malware. Your safest strategy is to ignore unsolicited requests for personal information, no matter how legitimate they may appear.

Take additional precautions with your tablet or smartphone before conducting online transactions. Consider opting for automatic updates for your device’s operating system and “apps” (applications) when they become available to help reduce your vulnerability to software problems. Use a password or other security feature to restrict access in case your device is lost or stolen. And, beware of unsolicited offers and downloads that come via text message, e-mail or through social networking sites and apps.

To learn more about safe shopping and paying, including key points to remember when using debit, credit or prepaid cards (the latter may not provide the full range of federal consumer protections that apply to the other cards), see previous articles in FDIC Consumer News at www.fdic.gov/consumernews. And, watch the FDIC’s multimedia presentation “Don’t Be an Online Victim” at www.fdic.gov/consumers/consumer/guard/index.html. For ways to protect yourself from data breaches, see More About How to Protect Yourself from Data Breaches.

Reprinted from FDIC Consumer News, Spring 2014. 
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Refinancing Loans: Not Just for Mortgages

Most people know they can refinance a mortgage – that is, replace an existing loan with a new one that may offer better terms. But did you know you also can refinance personal loans, including auto loans, credit cards and student loans?

“Refinancing a personal loan may save you money, especially if you get a lower interest rate, a lower monthly payment or other benefits,” noted Susan Boenau, Chief of the FDIC’s Consumer Affairs Section. “However, refinancing does not always equate to saving money or better terms.”

Here are ways to see if refinancing makes sense for you.

Think about your goals. For example, if you want to simplify your life by consolidating multiple credit card accounts, most card lenders allow you to transfer balances from other accounts for a fee. “Once you determine what you want to accomplish, you can make a better decision about whether refinancing is right for you,” Boenau added.

Understand potential pitfalls. While you may be able to take advantage of promotional offers, such as introductory zero-percent interest or low Annual Percentage Rates (APRs), by transferring a balance and closing a credit card account, you also may have a higher APR than what you were originally paying when the promotional rate ends.

Closing a credit card account also reduces your available credit and may adversely affect your credit score, which lenders often use to determine your interest rate. To avoid a reduction in your credit score, consider keeping cards you have managed well for a long time.

A balance transfer also may result in your account having multiple interest rates (such as one for your “purchase balance” and one for your “transfer balance”), so know how your payments will be classified. For instance, if you only pay the minimum required each month, a creditor can generally apply that payment any way it chooses. This includes applying your minimum payment to lower-rate balances first, which means higher-rate balances will keep accruing higher interest costs. Depending on the circumstances, a large balance transfer also may trigger fees for going over your credit limit until you can bring the balance down.

Other examples include the following:

  • You may be assessed a prepayment penalty if you refinance a loan before it matures.
  • If you trade in a car loan for a new one with a longer repayment period, perhaps for five or more years, you may get lower monthly payments but you might not save money in the long run. “You’ll likely end up paying more in total interest, plus your car’s resale value may fall below what you owe on the loan,” noted Frances Tam, an FDIC Senior Consumer Affairs Specialist. “Then when you want to sell or trade in your car, you may have to put in additional money to pay off the loan.”
  • While multiple federal student loans may be consolidated (combined into one loan with a single monthly payment), individual federal loans generally can only be refinanced (paid off and replaced with a new loan) through a private lender, and that could result in the loss of important federal benefits. “Understand the benefits you may be giving up, such as loan forgiveness for entering public service and income-based repayment options, before refinancing a federal student loan,” warned Heather St. Germain, an FDIC Senior Consumer Affairs Specialist.

If your credit score is low, consider waiting to refinance until you can raise it. You can protect yourself by ordering a free copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus (visit www.AnnualCreditReport.com or call toll-free 1-877-322-8228) and correcting inaccurate information.

Also remember that, for purposes of improving your credit score, the most important things are to be financially responsible and to correct any errors in your credit reports.

For more tips on improving your credit report and score, see Your Credit Reports and Credit Scores: Simple Steps to Make Them Better.

Union State Bank has a variety of loan products available to help you consolidate debt or refinance to a more manageable payment.  See a loan officer for complete details.

Reprinted from FDIC Consumer News Spring 2014.
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