Guard Your Identity, Resources in 2015

Midwesterners, Wisconsinites in particular, are often friendly, trusting, and willing to help a stranger. But sometimes such laudable traits can backfire. Before you respond to a promotion or a plea for help, ask about documentation and security safeguards.

A few common scams have become well-known and most people know not to respond to a money-making deal emailed to them from Nigeria or to a phone call requesting money to get their grandchild out of jail. Yet some scams are less well known and seemingly innocent. If you are contacted by a charity that you’ve never heard of and it seems to be doing wonderful work, don’t take the message at face value. At a minimum, contact their headquarters and check to see that they are listed on the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions’ list of registered charitable organizations: https://www.wdfi.org/ice/berg/Registration/Search.aspx.

Other fraud is less visible, as when a criminal steals customers’ identities through a retailer’s vulnerable computer network. To prevent and limit the damages of identity theft, avoid giving out personal information unnecessarily. And remember to check your debit and credit card statements frequently for unknown purchases. If you find that your account has been robbed, contact your card holders, financial institution, police, and credit bureaus as soon as possible.

Some vendors-such as tax preparers, investment professionals, insurers, and medical offices-have legitimate needs to see personal information. Be especially watchful of any transactions that require the sharing of your Social Security number, birth date, or other personal information.

The Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions, for example, recently reminded investors to be “vigilant about asking questions about a financial firm’s level of cybersecurity preparedness. They should ask about what specific steps the firm has taken to protect personal client information.” said Patricia Struck, administrator of DFI’s Division of Securities.

A good investment firm will not be put off by your questions, but will know that you are careful about safeguarding your identity and resources. Ask if the firm has ever experienced a cybersecurity incident and what safeguards it has in place.

In September 2014, the North American Securities Administrators Association reported that 62 percent of state-registered investment adviser firms participating in a pilot survey had undergone a cybersecurity risk assessment, and 77 percent had established policies and procedures related to technology or cybersecurity.

Likewise, consumers can reduce their risk of becoming the victim of cybercrime or other fraud by identifying areas of potential risk, asking questions, and being vigilant.

Additional resources:

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Your Savings Plan: Balancing Long- and Short-Term Goals

How many savings goals does your family have? Many Wisconsin consumers have a long list of needs and wants. Retirement, college education, a new(er) car, and an emergency fund might top the list of needs. The list of wants is more varied: charitable giving, a boat, a Harley, a snowmobile, an ATV, or maybe an Alaskan or Caribbean cruise. How can you ever fulfill these wants and get ahead?

Whatever your dreams, some goals require a longer period of savings (retirement, college), while others are short-term: adding a deck to the house, taking a fishing trip on Lake Superior, or buying a camper.

Consider tackling them one at a time in 2015. Begin with an emergency fund. Financial experts suggest saving at least three months of expenses as a cushion in the event of a layoff, or to handle a major car or furnace repair. Determine how much you need to meet expenses if your major source of income suddenly ended.

Next consider retirement, college education, or other long-term goals. Depending on your age, available employer programs, and the age of your children, this number will vary.

Then, decide how much to set aside for each goal monthly, beginning in January. If your emergency fund is nonexistent, you may need more than a year to build it up before tackling short-term goals.

Finally, prioritize your short-term goals. If everyone in the family would enjoy camping in Wisconsin state parks, maybe a camper is a higher priority than an item that only one family member will use.

Once you know what you want, its’ easier to strategize how to fulfill your goals. Count yourself lucky if an employer offers a retirement savings plan that can leverage the funds you set aside. Visit your Wisconsin community bank to set up a regular transfer of money into your emergency fund, so that savings happens automatically.

This planning exercise may reveal that your income is too low – or your monthly expenses too high – to meet your savings goals. If that’s the case, revisit your budget to search for costs that might be cut or consider ways to increase your income.

When your emergency account reaches your goal, set up a separate account for your priority short-term goals and have your automatic deposit go to this new account. Whenever you withdraw funds to pay for something from your emergency account, you can return to making deposits to it until it again reaches the level you set. Eventually you will have both an emergency fund and an account to use for some of the items on your “most wanted” list.

Family financial management is an art as well as a science. Your financial plan impacts your daily life, reflects what’s important to you, and shapes your legacy.

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How Long to Keep Financial Records?

If paper decluttering was one of your New Year’s goals, you may be wondering which financial documents you can safely shred. While some documents need only be kept for a few months, others should be kept for several years, or in some cases indefinitely.

The length of time varies according to the reasons you might need the documents in the future. You might need older W2 forms to answer a tax question from the Internal Revenue Service or Wisconsin Department of Revenue. Documentation of home or property maintenance costs might be useful when you decide to sell your property, and utility records might be helpful when deciding to upgrade your furnace.

The IRS has three years to audit your tax return, and you have three years to file an amended return. Still, the IRS can challenge your return for up to six years, so it’s a good idea to keep these records for seven years:

  • W-2 and 1099 income forms
  • Year-end bank and brokerage statements
  • Receipts or cancelled checks for deducted expenses
  • Home purchase or closing statements, insurance records, and receipts for

Home ownership is a special case and homeowners should keep these records for six years after selling their home. They should also retain records of legal fees and commissions related to selling their home. These expenses are added to the original purchase price or cost basis and can lower their capital gains tax.

On the other hand, some documents need to be kept for only a few months. There’s no need to hold onto most canceled checks (or their electronic copies) or debit and credit card receipts for more than three months after you’ve reconciled them with your statements. If, however, the purchase will be reported as an itemized deduction on your income tax return, keep this documentation for seven years.

And there’s no need to keep monthly loan statements once you have received a year-end summary, but always keep final payoff notices in case the loan mistakenly goes into collection and you need proof.

Still, there’s no getting around it: some records should be kept indefinitely, for example:

  • Records of IRA contributions (particularly nondeductible contributions)
  • Annual summaries of retirement/savings plan statements
  • Copies of your tax returns
  • Receipts for big purchases – jewelry, rugs, appliances, antiques, cars, collectibles, furniture, computers – as proof of their value in the event of loss

To reduce paper clutter, you can scan your records and save them as PDF files. (Be sure to back them up!) And before tossing any document that contains a Social Security number or bank account number, shred it to deter identity theft.

Additional resources:

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As you begin or continue your holiday shopping on Black Friday, the Independent Community Bankers of America® (ICBA) and Union State Bank are encouraging consumers to Go Local this holiday season with their purchasing, dining and spending. By supporting small businesses throughout the holidays, consumers will be putting money back to work in their communities.

“As consumers across the country prepare their holiday shopping lists and get started with purchasing either in stores or online, it’s important to remember that many locally owned and operated small businesses offer exceptional products and services,” said John Buhrmaster, ICBA chairman and president and CEO of 1st National Bank of Scotia, N.Y. “By going local for the holidays—even if it’s not every item on your list—you you will make a huge difference in your local economy by putting dollars to work in your neighborhood.”

Union State Bank and its employees realize the importance of America’s small businesses, and are looking forward to continuing our support of them throughout this holiday season We are proud to support fellow small businesses and play a part in helping our local economy thrive.

Happy Thanksgiving!   Go Local!   Happy Shopping!

 

 

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Online Holiday Shopping TIps

The holidays are right around the corner and consumers are being bombarded with ads for discounted merchandise, free shipping and other special deals during the holiday season, and in particular for Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Last year, more than $1.7 billion was spent online on Cyber Monday, making it the highest volume day in history for online sales.

Online sales are expected to be significant again this year.

How can you maximize your transaction security? If the offer seems too good to be true, it probably is. Don’t get blindsided by the lure of great discounts – the security of your information is what’s most important. If you aren’t prepared and cautious, you could become the next cyber crime victim, the cost of which could far exceed any savings you might have received from the retailer.

When purchasing online this holiday season and all year long keep these tips in mind to help minimize your risk:

  1. Secure your mobile device and computer. Be sure to keep the operating system and application software updated/patched on all of your computers and mobile devices. Be sure to check that your anti-virus/anti-spyware software is running and receiving automatic updates. Confirm that your firewall is enabled.
  2. Use passwords. It’s one of the simplest and most important steps to take in securing your devices, computers and accounts. If you need to create an account with the merchant, be sure to use a strong password. Always use more than ten characters, with numbers, special characters, and upper and lower case letters. Use a unique password for every unique site.
  3. Do not use public computers or public wireless for your online shopping. Public computers may contain malicious software that steals your credit card information when you place your order. Additionally, criminals may be intercepting traffic on public wireless networks to steal credit card numbers and other confidential information.
  4. Pay by credit card, not debit card. A safer way to shop on the Internet is to pay with a credit card rather than debit card. Debit cards do not have the same consumer protections as credit cards. Credit cards are protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act and may limit your liability if your information was used improperly. Check your statements regularly.
  5. Know your online shopping merchants. Limit your online shopping to merchants you know and trust. If you have questions about a merchant, check with the Better Business Bureau or the Federal Trade Commission. Confirm the online seller’s physical address, where available, and phone number in case you have questions or problems.
  6. Look for “https” when making an online purchase. The “s” in “https” stands for “secure” and indicates that communication with the webpage is encrypted.
  7. Do not respond to pop-ups. When a window pops up promising you cash or gift cards for answering a question or taking a survey, close it by pressing Control + F4 for Windows and Command + W for Macs.
  8. Do not click on links or open attachments in emails from financial institutions/vendors. Be cautious about all emails you receive even those from legitiatmate organizaitons, including your favorite retailers. The emails could be spoofed and contain malware. Instead, contact the source directly.
  9. Do not auto-save your personal information. When purchasing online, you may be given the option to save your personal information online for future use. Consider if the convenience is really worth the risk. The convenience of not having to reenter the information is insignificant compared to the significant amount of time you’ll spend trying to repair the loss of your stolen personal information.
  10. Use common sense to avoid scams. Don’t ever give your financial information or personal information via email or text. Information on many current scams can be found on the website of the Internet Crime Complaint Center:http://www.ic3.gov/default.aspx.
  11. Review privacy policies. Review the privacy policy for the website/merchant you are visiting. Know what information the merchant is collecting about you, how it will be stored, how it will be used, and if it will be shared with others.
  12. Join Our Twitter Chat. Join the Center for Internet Security (@CISecurity) and Sophos (@Sophos_news) on Tuesday, November 25, 2014 at 2 p.m. EST/11 a.m. PST for a Twitter Chat with more tips for staying safe online this holiday season. Use #ChatCyberMon to join us!

What to do if you encounter problems with an online shopping site?

Contact the seller or the site operator directly to resolve any issues. You may also contact the following:

The Federal Trade Commission – http://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov

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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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