MONEY Odd Spending

4 Things to Know About (Legal) Cuban Cigars

A box of large cohiba Cuban cigars.
A box of large cohiba Cuban cigars. David Curtis—agefotostock

For the time being, it still won't be easy to procure legal Cuban cigars.

In 1962, President John Kennedy reportedly stockpiled 1,200 Cuban cigars before signing the decree to cut economic ties with Cuba. Now that President Obama has reestablished diplomatic ties and lifted the outright ban on cigars, you might be eager to build your own stash.

Not so fast. Here’s what the new rules actually mean for you.

1) Cuban cigars are still not legal for sale in the United States.

President Obama reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba. He did not lift the embargo on Cuba—that will take an act of Congress. While the United States will soon ease restrictions on travel and banking, for the time being, the ban on trade remains in place. Which means you won’t be able to buy legal Cuban cigars from American retailers anytime soon.

Current law says the penalty for importing Cuban cigars is up to $250,000 in fines and up to 10 years in prison. Under the new rules, travelers to Cuba can bring back $400 worth of goods, only $100 of which can be cigars and alcohol.

2) Only “licensed travelers” can get them.

If you want legal cigars, you need a license to cross the straits of Florida. The White House says the government will allow Americans to travel to Cuba to visit family, to conduct official government business, to produce journalism, for professional research, for educational activities, for religious activities, for public events, to support the Cuban people, for humanitarian projects, to act on behalf of private foundations, to transmit information materials, and to conduct “certain export transactions.”

That said, the Associated Press reported that 170,000 Americans visited the country legally last year. If you’re thinking of traveling to Cuba now that the United States has restored full relations, here’s what else you should know.

3) Yes, Cuban cigars really do taste different.

Cuban cigars been contraband for half a century. So are they really as good as people say, or does the “forbidden fruit” taste sweeter?

Aaron Sigmond, founding editor of The Cigar Report and Smoke Magazine, says yes: Cuba’s terroir—its soil and climate—does produce different tobacco. “The Dominican Republic and Nicaragua both make exceptional cigars, but nothing is like Cuba,” Sigmond told Bloomberg. “It’s analogous to wines. California, Oregon, Italy all make exceptional vintage wines, but the wines of France reign supreme simply because of the terroir in Burgundy and Bordeaux.”

Researchers agree: One study found judges could distinguish between Cuban and non-Cuban cigars, and judges consistently ranked Cuban cigars higher, Vox reports. That’s significant, since previous studies have found that people struggle to distinguish expensive and inexpensive wines.

But if you’re not a cigar aficionado, you might not be able to tell. Many people are snookered by counterfeits. “Most people are not getting what they think are Cuban cigars,” Roland Boone, tobacconist for the Buckhead Cigar Club in Atlanta, told Bloomberg. “Many are made in Mexico, with a facsimile of a band that appears like a Cuban band.”

4) If you want to try a real Cuban, it’ll probably run you $10 to $20 a cigar—or more.

Real Cubans are expensive. Slate estimates that they start at $10 a pop. Sadly, that means the rules could exclude the best Cuban cigars. Stephen Pulvirent at Bloomberg writes:

“While prices vary greatly—not all Cuban cigars are created equal—the $100 allotment will generally cover no more than a dozen high-end cigars from makers such as Partagás and Cohiba. There are vintage and limited edition cigars for which a single stick will still be too pricey to make it into the U.S.”

READ NEXT: Thinking About a Trip to Cuba? 5 Things You Should Know

MONEY holiday shopping

Why Gift Cards Are a Crime Against Christmas

rack of gift cards
Sarina Finkelstein

The act of gift-giving is an act of affection. Show a little effort.

Whether you celebrate Christmas, Chanukkah, Kwanzaa, or all or none of the above, the holidays are always about one thing: showing your family and friends how much you care.

That’s why the average person spends 14 hours shopping for gifts for their loved ones. That’s why kids scrape together $400 to fly across the country to spend Christmas Eve with their cousins in Cincinnati. That’s why husbands watch Love Actually.

The holidays are a time to say to your family and friends, “Although you drive me crazy all year round, my life would be empty without you.” But that’s weird, so you buy your mom a stupid embroidered pillow that says it for you.

Gift cards, on the other hand, aren’t about any of that. Gift cards are about efficiency. Gift cards are about corporate profit. Gift cards degrade the entire exercise of gifting. (Unless you are my colleague Jake Davidson, whose impassioned defense of this deplorable practice you can read here.)

A gift card says, “I couldn’t be bothered to think of you this holiday season; help yourself to exactly $25 worth of crap from Target.”

Gift cards are a crime against Christmas.

Let’s start with the basic etiquette problem. The first rule of gift giving is, don’t say how much you paid for your gift. Simple. So why get a gift receipt for one person, then hand the next person a gift card emblazoned with the exact amount of money you spent? You’ve just put a definitive monetary value on your relationship. When did we decide this was an acceptable social practice?

I know, I know—it’s hard to find thoughtful gifts for everyone on your list. But don’t think your friend will do a better job. It’s even more difficult for people to give good gifts to themselves. Here’s why: Researchers have found that when people are given “play money” like gift cards, they’re more likely to spend it on stuff they don’t need. In fact, they’re more likely to overspend. CEB Towers found that 65% of gift card users spend 38% more than the value of the card.

Alternatively, your gift card may sit, unused, in your loved one’s wallet or junk drawer. Industry insiders call this “spillage,” and companies can count on American consumers to spill almost $1 billion in gift card balances this year. Believe it or not, that’s down 88% from what it used to be, before Congress passed the Card Act, which put limits on expiration dates and inactivity fees.

And what happens to the money on unwanted gift cards? Obviously the retailer profits, but the Wall Street Journal has also reported that states in dire financial straits have tried to seize the value of unused gift cards using statutes that allow states to collect “abandoned property.” (You can check your state’s laws here.) In other words, buy a Target gift card that your friend never uses, and you’ve essentially given a gift to Target and/or your governor.

The worst are the general-purpose cards that you can spend anywhere. First of all, why didn’t you just give cash? Second, these “gift cards” aren’t actually gift cards in a legal sense. They’re prepaid debit cards, and they’re not subject to the same consumer protections as either gift cards or real credit cards. That means general purpose cards can come loaded with activation fees, inactivity fees, and other fees that degrade the value of the card.

And finally, if you go through all the hassle of finding a personalized gift for your loved one and then he doesn’t like it—so what? The act of giving is an act of affection. It’s not meant to be an efficient way of allocating goods. The Three Wise Men gave baby Jesus gold, frankincense and myrrh. Did a new mother, her betrothed, and the infant Son of God really need aromatic resin as they were fleeing persecution? Probably not. But that’s why the Three Wise Men were wiser than you.

COUNTERPOINT: Why Gift Cards Are The Only Present That Makes Sense

MONEY Debt

The Unknown Debt That’s Dragging Down Your Credit Score

pile of pills in dark lighting
Science Picture Co—Getty Images

A new report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau finds that 52% of all debt on credit reports is medical debt.

Even if you carry no debt on your credit card and pay your mortgage every month, another kind of debt might be ruining your credit: medical debt.

Almost 43 million Americans have overdue medical debt dragging down their credit, according to a new report from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But 15 million of those people, by CFPB estimates, have no other dings on their credit. And debt collection agencies pursue fairly small medical debts: The average medical debt on a credit report is $579, and the median is just $207.

The scariest part? You may not know that you have a problem. “Many, many people don’t even know they have a bill—much less that it’s affecting their credit score,” says Christina LaMontagne of NerdWallet.

The CFPB attributes part of the problem to a debt collection practice called “parking.” The federal agency says some debt collectors will ding the consumer’s credit before even notifying the consumer that there’s an outstanding medical bill. “Parking” the debt where it can do the most damage motivates the person to pay it off quickly. Sometimes insurers ultimately pay the costs—after a consumer’s credit may have already suffered.

“This is viewed by some collectors as a way to minimize costs, but it is not how the system is supposed to work,” CFPB director Richard Cordray explained in a statement announcing the report. “And the collection process should not depend on harming consumers by adverse reporting before a consumer even learns she owes a medical debt. If it takes a drop in her credit score or an adverse action notice to make the point, then even more damage has been done to her financial standing.”

Even if debt collectors haven’t “parked” medical debt on your credit report, medical bills can be a vexing problem. Patients often struggle to learn the cost of their health care beforehand and understand their bills after the fact, LaMontagne says. A NerdWallet study found that 63% of Americans say they’ve received unexpectedly high medical bills. And bills are often wrong: In an audit of Medicare claims, NerdWallet found that 49% contained errors, resulting in an average 23% overcharge.

As a result, one in five Americans may be contacted by a collection agency about medical debt this year, by NerdWallet’s estimate. That’s why all consumers should be on guard. Here’s what to do to keep it from happening to you.

Control costs

Of course, the best way to avoid debt is to keep expenses low at the outset. But with medical costs, that’s easier said than done. The most important thing? Stay in network.

“Most of the very high charges I see are for people who inadvertently saw out-of-network providers,” LaMontagne says. “Print out the statement that says this doctor is in network and have that to protect yourself down the line.”

Also, if you know you’ll need a procedure like an MRI, shop around first. “Leverage price transparency tools whenever possible,” LaMontagne says. “People do see huge variations in prices.”

Save for high deductibles

While the Affordable Care Act has provided health insurance to an additional 10 million people, most Americans still get health coverage from their employers, and employers have been steadily raising deductibles, LaMontagne says. That means many consumers have to pay much more out of pocket before insurance covers the bulk of their costs. So more Americans may be hit with unexpectedly high bills.

But that doesn’t mean high-deductible plans are bad, LaMontagne is quick to add. It just means people with these plans need to shop around for procedures and budget for health care expenses by setting aside money in tax-advantaged savings accounts like a health savings account (HSA).

Ask for an itemized bill

“It’s really hard to read a straight bill as they usually come in the mail,” LaMontagne says. Luckily, you’re entitled to an itemized one.

When you get it, look for doctors and procedures you don’t recognize. Compare the bill against your explanation of benefits from your insurer to see if your insurance has been applied correctly.

If you think there’s a serious billing error, “call the doctor or call the insurance as your first line of defense,” LaMontagne says. But when all else fails, you can seek help from a professional medical bill advocate.

Check your credit report

Once a year, you’re entitled to a free credit report from each of the three credit bureaus: Experian, Trans­Union, and Equifax. So check every four months. Go to annualcreditreport.com to request your report. If you find an error, submit a dispute with the credit bureau.

Pay it off quickly

The good news: Fair Isaac, the company that creates FICO credit scores, announced earlier this year that medical debt will no longer drag down your credit score after it’s been paid off. Consumers with median credit scores and no other debt can expect to see their FICO score increase 25 points after paying off an overdue medical bill that’s been sent to collections.

So tackle medical debt quickly—it can make a big difference.

Read more:

MONEY College

How To Get Your (Or Your Kid’s) College Application to the Top of the Pile

Hand putting piece of paper on top of pile
PM Images—Getty Images

Fix this essay, don't answer that question, and don't think the college application process is over when you hit "submit."

Time is running out: As you no doubt know if you’re a college senior (or related to one), college application deadlines are fast approaching. And what you do in the next several weeks could still tip the scales in your favor.

Right now, you’re probably worried that your dream school won’t want you. So maybe it’ll make you feel better to know that schools will soon start worrying about whether you really want them. To tip this balance of power in your favor, you need to think carefully about how to present yourself to each school.

Happily, that’s not as hard as it sounds. Read on for seven application strategies that will make your applications rise to the top of the pile.

1) Find out what your favorite schools care about most.

You’ve heard the debates: The college essay is more important than ever before. No, it really doesn’t matter; it’s all about numbers. A low SAT score isn’t a deal-breaker. Except when it can be. The college admissions process is a total crapshoot. Actually, strategy does matter and isn’t that hard to execute.

The truth is, none of this conventional wisdom is true or false across the board because various institutions use a wide range of criteria and weigh them in different ways.

The good news: You can just look up how your favorite schools do it.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy, nationally-recognized college expert of The College Solution, recommends checking each school’s “common data set.” There, schools assemble a wealth of information about demographics, academic offerings, student life, tuition—and how they weigh different admissions criteria.

The answers may surprise you. For example, at the University of California Berkeley, the essay is “very important,” while class rank isn’t even considered.

Many schools post their common data set on their websites; search for it and then check section C7, “Relative Importance of Common Academic and Non-Academic Admission Criteria.” Or check collegedata.com to compare different schools, O’Shaughnessy says.

2) Narrow your personal essay topic.

“A lot of students do a miserable job of writing their college essay,” O’Shaughnessy says. “This is one of the ways to let a school know more about you, and students often do a very generic or very boring essay.”

The most common mistake? Trying to jam the essay with too much information. “The best essays are highly focused,” O’Shaughnessy says. For example, instead of writing about your love of music, O’Shaughnessy suggests focusing on just one event, like how you overcame stage fright at your senior recital.

Peter Van Buskirk, former dean of admission at Franklin and Marshall College and current president of Best College Fit, an advocacy group in support of students and parents in the college application process, agrees that it’s a mistake to just repeat what’s already in your resume.

“Take me to some part of your life experience I cannot find anywhere else in the application,” Van Buskirk says. “Get people to see the invisible you.”

3) Write shorter paragraphs—with more dashes.

You’ve got your winning topic. Now make sure the admissions officer will actually read your essay.

“The mistake that kids make is they don’t think creatively about their presentation,” Van Buskirk says. “This is a creative process. It’s not an academic process. If they have any level of creativity within them, they need to let it show.”

Start by forgetting what your English teacher may have taught you about writing. A lot of applicants submit personal essays with an ploddingly academic, five-paragraph format, Van Buskirk says. “It won’t hurt, but it doesn’t help,” he adds.

Instead, break up your paragraphs. Try using dashes, italics… even ellipses. Experiment with tone and style.

“What kids need to remember is their applications will be read by tired eyes,” Van Buskirk says. “When a set of tired eyes comes across an essay with three or four paragraphs, 150 words each, that’s dense stuff. Tired eyes wander away from it. It’s important to establish a flow.”

4) Rewrite your response to this question.

Many schools ask some version of the question, “Why do you want to go to this school?” If you could sub in the name of any other school and it would still make sense, throw out the essay and start over. Really.

“Kids tend to just do a boilerplate answer to all of them, like, ‘The academics are great, you’re located in a city, you have great faculty,'” O’Shaughnessy says. “That could describe any number of schools. [Admissions officers] will pick that up immediately.”

Van Buskirk says what the school is really asking with this question is “If we admit you to this institution, what do we get? What do you, the student, have to offer us that is different than the next guy?”

Be very specific and do some research. For example, don’t just say you want to major in neuroscience. Talk about how your volunteer work with disabled children has inspired you to pursue that field and how a particular academic program at the university could help you develop your expertise, Van Buskirk says.

The key is to demonstrate that you have thought about how this particular institution is uniquely able to help you achieve your goals.

5) Either skip this question, or double down.

Some schools, and some financial aid forms, will ask you to list other schools that you’re applying to. This question poses some risk, so tread carefully.

Most schools aim to maximize their “yield,” i.e. the percentage of students admitted who actually attend. So you could gain an edge if a school believes it’s one of your top choices. But if admissions officers have reason to think you’ll go elsewhere—if you reveal a preference for other comparably competitive schools, for example—they may turn you down even if you otherwise meet their criteria.

If your heart is absolutely set on a particular school, you may want to rank it at the top of these lists even at the risk of alienating other institutions. It also can help when it comes to aid because your second or third choices may try to lure you with money. Scott Bierman, president of Beloit College, recently told MONEY’s Kim Clark that his school’s best merit aid offers go to top students who have also ranked Beloit in their top three picks. (That’s why it’s helpful to check that “common data set” and see how much a school considers the “level of applicant’s interest.”)

On the other hand, some experts think ranking a school high on these lists can hurt you even when it comes to merit aid. “The No. 1 choice school will say, ‘They really want to go here, so we don’t have to give them money,'” O’Shaughnessy says.

The upshot? “There is no good that can come to the student in providing that information,” argues Van Buskirk. “My advice to the student, when the school asks, is to leave it blank.”

Sometimes, of course, you have no choice. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) asks for a list of schools. In that case, you just have to realize that you might be showing your hand. You can try to maintain your poker face by putting the schools in alphabetical order. Just know that admissions officers may still draw inferences about your list.

6) Explain any weaknesses.

Maybe your grades dipped one semester. Maybe you didn’t do as well on the SAT as you had expected. Maybe you got into some trouble at school. Providing an explanation can make a big difference.

“Students need to understand admissions officers are cynics by nature,” Van Buskirk says. “In many applications, the student has an opportunity to complete an optional essay. I strongly recommend the students do that. They don’t want to put the reader in the position of having to piece it together themselves.”

The optional essay is an opportunity to disclose a learning disability, explain other medical or family issues that have impacted your performance, or talk about what you’ve done to make amends after a disciplinary issue, O’Shaughnessy says. Make the essay about “how you’ve overcome the challenges other kids don’t have,” O’Shaughnessy says. “Those are things that can help you get in.”

7) Don’t think you’re done when you hit “submit.”

At competitive schools, your make-or-break moment might not be the day you submit your application, or the day an admissions officer first reads your application, or the day you get moved to the admit list. It might be a moment during the last two weeks of March, called the “move down weeks,” Van Buskirk says.

That’s the moment when enrollment managers often realize they have too many applicants on their admit lists, and they risk overspending their financial aid budgets. Representatives for each geographical region might be instructed to move a certain number of students in their area from the admit list to the waitlist, and the college might reduce the amount of aid it had planned to offer certain students.

“It is at this point when the little things can make a difference,” Van Buskirk says.

Here’s how Van Buskirk says you can stay off the waitlist: First, keep your grades up. Second, keep in touch. If you receive email surveys and other communications that prompt a response, respond. If you have the option of interviewing with an alum, sign up. If you can visit, pack your bag. If you have a question about the school that you can’t answer with some Googling, send your regional recruiter an email.

“A big mistake is the students assume that once the application is submitted, they don’t have to manage it anymore,” Van Buskirk says. “The whole business of predicting who will enroll has become really big business. Kids need to make sure they continue to be alert.”

 

For more:

MONEY Health Care

Why Millennials Hate Their Least Expensive Health Care Option

Health plans that shift more up-front costs onto you are rapidly becoming the norm. But millennials don't seem happy about taking on the risk, even in exchange for a lower price.

Millennials want their parents’ old health insurance plan. A new survey from Bankrate found that almost half of 18-to-29-year-olds prefer a health plan with a lower deductible and higher premiums—meaning millennials would rather pay more out of their paycheck every month and pay less when they go to the doctor. Compared to other age groups, millennials are the most likely to prefer plans with higher premiums.

That surprised Bankrate insurance analyst Doug Whiteman. “One would assume people in this age group were not likely to get sick, so they’d choose the cheapest possible plan just to get some insurance,” he says.

In theory, millennials are perfect candidates for high-deductible plans. The conventional wisdom is that since young and healthy people tend to have very low health-care costs, they should opt for a higher deductible and keep more of their paychecks.

If, for example, you go to the doctor only for free preventive care, switching from the average employer-sponsored traditional PPO plan to the average high-deductible health plan would save a single person $229 a year in premiums, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2014 data.

Millennials shopping in the new health insurance marketplace last year didn’t want the cheapest plans either. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, more than two-thirds of 18-to-34-year-olds chose silver plans, which have mid-level premiums and deductibles. Only 4% picked catastrophic plans, the ones with the lowest premiums and out-of-pocket limits of around $6,000.

Why Millennials Are Risk Averse

Why are millennials choosing to pay more for health care? Turns out the “young invincibles” don’t feel so invincible after all, says Christina Postolowski, health policy manager at a youth advocacy group called—as it happens—Young Invincibles. “Millennials are risk-averse and concerned about their out-of-pocket costs if something happens to them,” Postolowski says.

High-deductible plans saddle young adults with risk they can ill afford. According to Kaiser, the average employer-sponsored high-deductible plan made singles pay $2,215 out-of-pocket in 2014 before they ever saw a co-pay.

Yet according to Bankrate, 27% of 18-to-29-year-olds have no emergency savings. A $2,200 bill could sink them. Indeed, Bankrate found that the two groups most likely to prefer a low-deductible plan are millennials and those with incomes between $30,000 and $49,999.

“Young people don’t have money in a bank account to pay for high deductibles,” Postolowski says. “Our generation is carrying $1.2 trillion in student loan debt. An unexpected medical incident isn’t just physical pain. It can be economic pain too.”

That’s why Bankrate’s Whiteman thinks millennials are being “really smart.”

“One of the concerns I have is too many people might only look at the price and neglect the fact that some of these plans that seem really cheap can come with deductibles as high at $6,000,” he says. “That’s a significant amount of money out of your own pocket.”

Fighting the Tide

Some young workers, however, have little choice, or won’t soon. Employers are increasingly shifting to health plans that make workers shoulder more of the costs. Towers Watson found that 74% of employers plan to offer high-deductible plans in 2015, and 23% of them will make it the only option.

Plus, across all employer plans, you have to pay more out-of-pocket than in years past. According to Kaiser, the average deductible for single coverage in 2014 was $1,217, up 47% from five years ago. The generous, low-deductible health plan your parents once had probably won’t be available to you.

How to Make the Best of It

If you end up in a high-deductible plan, learn to make the most of the tax-free savings plan that goes with it—a health savings account (HSA). Yeah, a monthly HSA contribution is one more recurring expense on top of your student loan payments, car payments, rent, and (hopefully) 401(k) contributions. But at least this one can give you the peace of mind that you’ll have the funds to cover a health emergency.

Here’s how an HSA works: You make contributions with pre-tax income. The money carries over year-to-year. You can invest the funds in your HSA, the way you invest the money in your 401(k), and the account will grow tax-free. If you need the money for medical expenses, you withdraw it, again, tax-free. Or, if you stay healthy and have money leftover at age 65, you’re free to spend it on anything.

You qualify for an HSA if your deductible for single coverage is $1,300 or more, or $2,600 for family coverage (and if you’re not claimed as a dependent on someone else’s tax return). And your company might help you out. Some employers make contributions to their employees’ HSAs, of $1,006 a year on average, according to Kaiser.

For ultimate peace of mind, save enough to cover your entire deductible. But if you’re feeling pinched, at least put away the money you saved on premiums by switching from a more expensive plan.

More:

Read next: 4 Ways Millennials Have It Worse Than Their Parents

MONEY identity theft

What to Do If Your Social Security Number Was Leaked like Sylvester Stallone’s

Sylvester Stallone taking a selfie
Xaume Olleros—AFP/Getty Images

This breach is a bad one: Criminals with access to your Social Security number can do far more damage than those with a hacked credit card number.

Hackers have done it again. This time, they went after Sony Pictures Entertainment, exposing Social Security numbers, contracts and taxpayer-identification numbers for 47,000 employees. That total includes some big names, including Sylvester Stallone and Judd Apatow. Even worse, the hackers have posted the information online. Guardians of Peace, a group thought to be affiliated with North Korea, has claimed responsibility for the hack.

This monumental hack is much worse than the average data breach. If your debit card number is compromised—think of Target’s data breach—the worst thing that happens is, after some headache, you get your money refunded and a new card. But if your Social Security number is compromised, identity thieves can wreak havoc on your life.

With a Social Security number, fraudsters can apply for credit cards, mortgages and other lines of credit in your name, racking up debt on your tab. That can ruin your credit, making it difficult for you to get a new credit card, mortgage, or even a job. Identity thieves can also file fraudulent tax returns in your name, robbing you of your return and causing chaos at the IRS.

Scared yet? If your Social Security number is ever compromised in a data breach, here’s what you should know about your options.

You probably can’t get a replacement Social Security number

You might wish you could just get a new Social Security number. Don’t bother, says Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. First, it wouldn’t be effective: Government agencies, credit bureaus and businesses will still associate you with your old, compromised number. Meanwhile, you’ll need to rebuild your credit history from scratch, which will make it harder to get your finances in order.

Plus, the Social Security Administration rarely issues replacement numbers after data breaches, Stephens says. If it did, half the country might be eligible.

“I’m not aware of any situation where someone has gotten a new Social Security number because of identity theft,” Stephens says. “That is very difficult to do, and consumer advocates advise against doing so. It further complicates things for you, and the act of getting a new Social Security number is not really going to impact the ability of a criminal to use your old Social Security number.”

If you want to try anyway, gather documentation to prove your citizenship (with a birth certificate or passport), your age (with a birth certificate, religious record, hospital record or passport) and your identity (with a drivers’ license, state-issued ID, or passport).

The SSA says you need to “provide evidence you are having ongoing problems because of the misuse” to be considered for a new number. So if your Social Security number has been exposed but you’re not yet a victim of fraud, don’t waste your time.

“You cannot get a new SSN to avoid the consequences of filing for bankruptcy, to avoid the law or your legal responsibility, or if there is no evidence that someone is using your number,” SSA spokesman William “BJ” Jarrett said in an email. Jarrett advises that if you believe someone is fraudulently using your Social Security number, you should first file a police report and contact the Federal Trade Commission (877-438-4338). “If you have done all you can to fix the problems resulting from misuse of an SSN and someone is still using it, Social Security may be able to assign a new number.”

The Federal Trade Commission also warns that there are companies that offer to help you apply — for a fee, naturally. But you don’t need their help and you shouldn’t have to pay any money; the application for a replacement Social Security number is free.

You can put a fraud alert on your credit report

This one is easy—and you can do it even if your information hasn’t already been exposed. A fraud alert tells creditors to double-check whenever someone applies for credit in your name. For example, when a credit card issuer receives an application for a new card, a fraud alert tells the company to contact you and make sure you’re really the one who submitted the application.

Contact Experian, Trans­Union, or Equifax to place a 90-day alert. It’s free. If you’re a confirmed identity theft victim, the alert lasts seven years.

You can monitor your credit reports

However, you shouldn’t stop there. Under the law, you’re entitled to a free credit report from each of the three credit bureaus every year. Check it.

“If you opt for just the fraud alert, you need to be aware that fraud alerts are not infallible,” Stephens says. “We would recommend that you continually regularly examine your credit reports. Get them every few months and make sure that there’s nothing on there that’s fraudulent.”

You can also sign up for credit monitoring—just don’t pay for it. After a data breach, it’s become the norm for companies to offer free credit monitoring to victims, Stephens says. He also recommends free monitoring from Credit Karma and Credit Sesame.

You can put a security freeze on your credit report

This is the most foolproof thing you can do, but there are downsides. A freeze means no one can pull your credit report—so no one can apply for new lines of credit in your name, not even you.

Identity theft victims can get a freeze for free, but others have to pay. Prices vary by state. It can cost up to $30 to institute a freeze and $12 to lift. You have to “lift” the freeze every time you apply for credit, so that the creditor can check your report.

In other words, there could be a $12 surcharge every time you apply for a credit card, mortgage, or even a job or apartment. For that reason, credit freezes aren’t always a practical solution, especially not for young people who move around a lot.

Again, contact Experian, Trans­Union, or Equifax to institute a freeze.

Related:

MONEY sex discrimination

Everything Working Women Need to Know About Pregnancy Discrimination

U.S. Supreme Court Peggy Young UPS
Raimund Koch—Getty Images

The high court is hearing arguments on Wednesday on a case in which a UPS worker was forced to take unpaid leave when she got pregnant. Here's what every woman should know about this case and her rights in the workplace.

Any woman in the vicinity of her child-bearing years will want to pay attention to a case that’s being heard by the Supreme Court today.

The high court’s findings on Young v. United Parcel Service should address the gray areas of what workplace protections are guaranteed for pregnant women.

The least you need to know:

What’s the case about, anyway?

The plaintiff in the case is Peggy Young of Lorton, Va., who had worked as a delivery truck driver for UPS.

As part of her job description, she needed to be able to lift packages weighing up to 70 pounds. But when she got pregnant, her midwife wrote her a note that said she should not lift more than 20 pounds.

Young asked for a temporary “light-duty” assignment, but the company’s occupational health manager determined that she was ineligible.

Young says the division manager then told her she was “too much of a liability,” and she was not allowed to return to work until after she had given birth. So Young had to take an extended unpaid leave of absence, which caused her to lose her health coverage.

Wasn’t that discrimination?

That’s the question the court has to answer.

In 1978, Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act which clarifies that discrimination against pregnant women is a form of sex discrimination. That means your employer can’t fire you or deny you job benefits because you’re pregnant, you might become pregnant, you’ve given birth, or you have any related medical problems. Your employer has to treat you the same as people who are not pregnant but similar in their ability to work.

To prove sex discrimination, however, Young needed to show four things.

First, that she was a woman. Second, that she was qualified for the job, or the job benefit. Third, her employer denied her the job or benefit she wanted. And fourth, a similarly situated man received the job or benefit that she wanted.

The fourth presents a particular challenge: Since men can’t get pregnant, which men are in a similar situation?

Young says UPS did give some other workers—employees who were injured on the job or had their drivers’ licenses were temporarily revoked—the light duty she wanted. Therefore, Young says UPS owed her the same accommodations.

However, lower courts disagreed with Young.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reasoned that UPS’s policy was “pregnancy-blind.” UPS wouldn’t have offered light duty assignments to, say, a man who threw his back out by lifting his kid or a woman who injured herself during a volunteer firefighter shift. Since UPS didn’t give all its temporarily-disabled workers light duty, the court found that UPS didn’t have to give light duty to Young.

Many women’s groups, health providers, labor advocates and even pro-life activists strongly disagreed with that ruling.

“If at some point during her pregnancy, a pregnant worker needs a minor adjustment to her job duties in order to continue doing her job safely, the employer has an obligation to provide that,” says Liz Watson, director of Workplace Justice for Women at the National Women’s Law Center.

What happens next?

Young appealed. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case Wednesday and issue a ruling sometime before the end of this term, in late June.

But in a “friend of the court” brief, the Justice Department argues that it might be a moot point.

In 2008, Congress passed a law amending the Americans with Disabilities Act that should make it even easier for pregnant women to qualify for accommodations like the one Young sought. Now, injuries that temporarily limit your ability to lift, stand, or bend should also qualify you for accommodations under the ADA.

And UPS has already reversed its policy. “While UPS’s denial of [Young’s] accommodation request was lawful at the time it was made (and thus cannot give rise to a claim for damages), pregnant UPS employees will prospectively be eligible for light-duty assignments,” the company’s brief says.

In the meantime, what are my rights if I’m pregnant or plan to become pregnant?

You are afforded the same protections as Young through the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. So you can’t be fired or denied benefits. Also, depending upon the size of the company, you may be entitled by law to up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Additionally, under Obamacare, employers are required to allow mothers reasonable break time and a private space to express breast milk, Watson says.

I think an employer violated my rights. What can I do?

You can contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to file a complaint, Watson says.

You’ll have more company than you might expect: From 1997 to 2011, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received over 74,000 complaints of pregnancy discrimination.

You can also contact your state’s fair employment practice agency. Some states and municipalities have even stronger protections for pregnant women in the workplace. In the past 18 months, Illinois, Delaware, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, West Virginia, Philadelphia, New York City, Providence and Pittsburg have all passed new laws, Watson says.

Or call a lawyer. “We unfortunately speak to women a lot who have suffered pregnancy discrimination,” Watson says. “What happened to Peggy Young, being forced off the job because she brought in a doctor’s note, is happening to women all across the country.”

MONEY Health Care

Why 1 in 3 Americans Is Scared to Go to the Doctor

surgeon removing money from wallet
Paul Tillinghast—Getty Images

More insured Americans are skipping out on health treatments that they need because of cost, a new Gallup poll finds.

The Affordable Care Act kicked into gear over a year ago. And more than 86% of Americans now have health insurance, up from 82% in mid-2013.

Even so, according to a new Gallup poll, a third of Americans say they aren’t getting the medical care they need because of cost.

In fact, more Americans are putting off medical care than ever before in the 14-year history of the poll.

Source: Gallup

Uninsured Americans aren’t the only ones delaying medical treatment. Some 34% of Americans with private health insurance say they’ve skipped out on care because it was too expensive, up from 25% last year. Additionally, 28% of households that earn $75,000 or more report that family members have delayed care, up from just 17% last year.

One likely culprit? Rising out-of-pocket costs. Americans who get healthcare coverage through their employers have seen deductibles more than double in the past eight years.

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Source: Kaiser Family Foundation, Employer Health Benefits 2014 Annual Survey. Note: Data is for covered workers with a general annual health plan deductible for single coverage.

It’s part of a movement towards what’s come to be termed “consumer-driven health care.”

The thinking is, when patients are more aware of healthcare costs and more discerning about what care they really need, they will also be more discerning in their usage—which in theory would lower costs for everyone involved. Two-thirds of large employers think consumer-driven healthcare is one of the most effective tactics to reduce costs, according to the National Business Group on Health.

But Gallup found that more Americans are skimping on care that they think they really do need. According to the survey, 22% of Americans say they’ve put off treatment for a serious condition, vs. 19% last year. The percentage of Americans who say they put off care for a non-serious condition stayed flat at 11%.

Previous studies have found that when consumers are asked to share more of the costs, they put off both necessary and unnecessary care.

For example, one study found that people on high-deductible plans are less likely to buy expensive, brand-name drugs (which may be sensible), but they’re also less likely to buy generic drugs they need to treat chronic conditions (likely not sensible).

When forced to pay more out-of-pocket, men in particular are more likely to skip care for serious problems like irregular heartbeats and kidney stones.

What’s especially frightening about these findings is that delaying needed care to save money in the short term may result in more costly complications and more difficult-to- treat health issues in the longer term. Skipping the cholesterol screening now, for example, could mean racking up a $100,000 tab for a heart attack later.

Are you avoiding treatment you need because you’re afraid of the bill? Try these strategies to get the same healthcare for a quarter of the price. If you’re on a high-deductible plan, use your Health Savings Account to budget for your expected—and unexpected—costs.

MONEY identity theft

Here’s How to Make Sure You Don’t Get Cyber-Scammed on Cyber Monday

141128_EM_CyberTheft
Patrick Strattner—fStop Images/Getty Images

'Tis the season for identity theft. Online shoppers, protect yourselves.

As consumers start their holiday shopping, virtually everyone has the same Christmas wish: Please, don’t let anyone steal my identity.

A recent survey from TransUnion found that 96% of Americans say they’re worried about identity theft this holiday season, and almost two-thirds are more worried this year than they were last year.

And they’re not wrong—identity thieves like to strike during periods of high activity, like Black Friday and Cyber Monday. “Criminals fish where the fish are,” says Ken Chaplin, senior vice president for TransUnion. “This time of year, a lot of people are fairly busy and flustered and just trying to get things done, and they might not be as careful or diligent.”

When you shop at a brick-and-mortar store this season, it’s mostly up to retailers to keep your information secure. But when you shop online, you can fall into traps. Here are the do’s and don’ts for staying safe:

DON’T click on links in retailer emails.

Hackers like to prey on deal-hunters by sending “phishing” emails that look like they’re from brands you know and trust, says Joe Siegrist, CEO of LastPass, a password management and information security company. Then when you click on the email link, the hackers redirect you to a fraudulent site and steal your information.

If you see a great deal, double-check. “Go directly to those sites instead of clicking on links in the email,” Siegrist says. And legitimate businesses should never contact you to ask for your account information or password—if you get an email that does, go directly to the business’ website and enter your information there, or call the business to make sure the request isn’t fraudulent, Chaplin adds.

DO check to make sure you’re shopping at a secure website.

The tell: the URL. The address line should begin with https. That “s” is key—it means the information is being sent over a “secure” line, Chaplin says.

“You might do a web search for an item, and then you’ll click on some sort of a link, and that link might take you somewhere that’s not where you want to go,” Chaplin says. “Be sure that you do business only with websites that have the proper security measures in place.”

DON’T shop on public WiFi networks.

Thinking of sneaking out to a coffee shop to do a little online shopping on your lunch break? Be careful, Chaplin says. Only enter sensitive financial information like credit card and bank account numbers on secured WiFi networks with passwords. On networks without passwords, “whatever you’re typing and viewing online could be seen by someone else,” Chaplin says. “An open WiFi network is not secure.”

Phishers love open WiFi networks, too. “It’s a lot easier to fool you into thinking you’re on a legitimate site when you’re not,” Siegrist says. “They can replace the contents of the page with something they want to be shown.”

DO keep your software up-to-date.

To protect yourself from identity theft, keep your computer safe from malicious adware, Siegrist says. There are a number of adware removal tools out there, but here’s the free and easy way to protect your device: Say yes to software updates. That means installing Windows and Mac updates as they become available instead of always clicking “later.”

And pay extra attention to your internet browser of choice. “Your browser is a very important one—make sure you keep that up-to-date,” Siegrist says. “You have to actually restart your browser to get [the updates]. Don’t run your browser for days on end without a restart, especially if it’s indicating to you that it needs to.”

DON’T use a debit card for online shopping.

Credit cards have better liability protection than debit cards. And when you use a debit card, funds come straight out of your account, so it can take longer to recover your money if someone racks up fraudulent charges.

DO use a different credit card for online purchases.

If you can, use one credit card offline and a different credit card online, Siegrist says. That way, it will be easier to detect fraud. Need a new credit card? Check out MONEY’s Best Credit Cards for holiday shopping and for all year round.

DON’T save your credit card information on websites.

When you shop online, retailers will often prompt you to save your credit card information so that you can buy more items quickly and easily at a later date. Don’t do this.

“You definitely increase your risk when you store your credit cards at these sites,” Siegrist says. “The site itself is then keeping that credit card stored—that makes it a target for hackers.”

DO change your account passwords.

If you do have accounts at different online retailers, change your passwords at least once after Cyber Monday. That way, if any of the sites are hacked during the holiday season, your accounts will be more secure. “It’s good internet hygiene,” Chaplin says.

When you change your passwords, don’t reuse passwords across multiple sites—or else you’ll be giving hackers the master key to multiple accounts. Use this trick to create really secure passwords that you’ll actually remember.

And whenever possible, set up two-factor verification. That way, no one can get into your accounts without both 1) your password and 2) another separate piece of information sent to just you—like a text message or a code retrieved from an iPhone app. Here’s how to enable two-factor verification.

DON’T stress about credit card fraud.

Look, it’s no fun when a hacker steals your credit card number. But credit card number theft won’t wreck havoc on your financial life like other kinds of identity theft. Your liability for fraudulent charges is extremely limited, especially when a hacker just steals your card number and not your physical card. In that case, you owe nothing. And after a big data breach, your financial institution might mail you a new card no matter what, just to be safe.

(If someone steals your actual card and uses it, you could be out up to $50 on credit cards or $500 on debit cards—but that’s not relevant in cyberworld.)

Be worried if a hacker gets your social security number. In that case, a fraudster could open new accounts in your name and ruin your credit. If that’s what you’re afraid of, here’s what to do. But you shouldn’t be sharing your social security number when you shop online, anyway.

DO check your statements.

That said, you should still keep a close eye on your credit card and bank statements for suspicious activity, especially at this time of year. That aforementioned liability protection is only helpful if someone detects the fraud. With credit cards, you’ll want to identify fraudulent charges before you pay your bill. With debit cards, you need to report any fraudulent charges within 60 days of receiving your statement to get your money back.

And read the statements closely. “Criminals are a lot smarter than they used to be,” Chaplin says. “It used to be a huge charge would show up on your card and your bank would call you. Oftentimes now a charge will be $20, $30 a month, and you might not be aware of it.”

But never fear—though identity thieves may have gotten smarter, you can still outsmart them.

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