MONEY online shopping

How to Beat Online Price Discrimination

different price stickers
Feng Yu—Alamy

A new study found that major e-commerce retailers show some users different prices or a different set of results.

Do you think you can find the lowest prices by shopping online? Think again.

A new study by researchers at Northeastern University confirmed the extent to which major e-commerce websites show some users different prices and a different set of results, even for identical searches.

For instance, the study found, users logged in to Cheaptickets and Orbitz saw lower hotel prices than shoppers who were not registered with the sites. Home Depot shoppers on mobile devices saw higher prices than users browsing on desktops. Some searchers on Expedia and Hotels.com consistently received higher-priced options, a result of randomized testing by the websites. Shoppers at Sears, Walmart, Priceline, and others received results in a different order than control groups, a tactic known as “steering.”

Overall, the study confirmed what we’ve known for a long time: Online prices are all over the map, even for the same products. Search results can be influenced by a whole bunch of factors, including your search history, what kind of device you’re using, and where you’re located. For example, two years ago Orbitz was found to be “steering” Mac users towards more expensive hotels. Staples charged different prices for staplers based on where the shopper lived.

A majority of Americans think this kind of price discrimination is illegal. Sorry, it’s not.

Rather, as the Northeastern researchers explain, it’s a bedrock economic principle: Merchants should always try to establish “perfect price discrimination,” whereby a customer is always charged the absolute most he is willing to pay for any given product. Some customers are “elastic,” meaning they have very high price ceilings; others are “inelastic,” and if the price of a product increases just a little bit, they won’t bite.

In brick-and-mortar days, retail assistants might have profiled well-dressed customers as price-elastic and subtly directed them toward more expensive merchandise. Coupon-clippers might have received different treatment. Now, thanks to the Internet, retailers can make much more accurate guesses about how much different customers might be willing to pay, by using cookies to track buying patterns across the web.

Of course, retailers say this isn’t discrimination so much as using the tools and technologies at their disposal. “Presenting different booking paths and options to different customers allows us to determine which features customers appreciate most,” Expedia spokesman Dave McNamee told the Wall Street Journal.

Fortunately, you can play this game too. Here’s how to make sure you see the cheapest prices when you shop online.

Delete your cookies. Retailers use cookies to track you and collect information about your preferences. If you want to see unaltered prices, delete cookies by clearing your browsing history.

Browse privately. The problem with deleting your cookies is that information they contain might also work in your favor—remember that users logged into Orbitz or Cheaptickets sometimes saw lower prices than shoppers who were not logged into the site. So look at products using a “private” window, which will not send the website any information about you. See if the price is higher or lower in that mode. (On Google Chrome, go to “File,” then “Open Incognito Window.”)

Wait. Be inelastic. Put an item in your shopping cart, but don’t buy it. Some online retailers will cut the price to close the deal.

Use tools to price-watch. Try CamelCamelCamel.com, which sends you an alert when the price drops on an Amazon product. When MONEY tried it, the price of a vacuum fluctuated between $212 and $268 over the course of a month.

To bargain-shop like a pro, read MONEY’s feature about how to snag the best deals online.

MONEY halloween

4 Reasons Your Halloween Candy Just Got More Expensive

Hershey's chocolate bars
Scott Olson—Getty Images

Some candy-market watchers say Ebola is partly to blame.

Hey, all you trick-or-treaters, don’t be surprised if your candy haul is a little bit lighter this year. The cost of Halloween just went up. The consumer price index for candy and gum rose 2.1% in September, the biggest increase in three years.

The price jump shouldn’t come as a complete surprise. Hershey’s—maker of Reese’s Cups, Kit Kats, Kisses, and the eponymous bar—announced an 8% price hike back in July. Mars soon followed suit with a 7% hike on its products, which include M&Ms and Snickers bars. Both candy manufacturers blamed the increases on the rising cost of doing business.

“Over the last year key input costs have been volatile and remain at levels that are above historical averages,” Hershey’s President of North America Michele G. Buck said in a statement. “Commodity spot prices for ingredients such as cocoa, dairy, and nuts have increased meaningfully since the beginning of the year. Given these trends, we expect significant commodity cost increases in 2015.”

Still, until recently the candy index stayed low. Here are 4 developments that may account for the change.

1. Ebola fears caused a temporary spike in cocoa prices. The world’s No. 1 producer of cocoa, Ivory Coast, is surrounded by Ebola-stricken countries. So is the world’s No. 2 producer, Ghana.

Jack Scoville, a vice president of the Price Futures Group, said some market watchers were afraid that if Ebola spread to either country and sickened the laborers who prepare the cocoa harvest, that could spell trouble for the chocolate industry.

“There was a very legitimate fear that the harvest and the merchandising could be disrupted. That spiked prices from $3,050 [per ton] to almost $3,400 in a matter of 10 days,” Scoville said.

Thankfully for everyone involved, neither Ivory Coast nor Ghana has experienced any outbreaks. And the price of cocoa has dropped back down, to around $3,100.

That said, even if Ebola fears don’t change the price of your Halloween candy, Valentine’s Day is another matter. “It takes some time to get the cocoa beans into an exportable position, to process the beans into cocoa and process the cocoa into candy bars,” Scoville explained. “If [Ebola] does become an issue—which is becoming an increasingly big ‘if’—it would be more of an issue around Valentine’s Day or Easter.”

2. A trade spat with Mexico has driven up sugar prices. While the rising cost of cocoa is probably the main reason candy prices are up, sugar has gotten pricier too.

U.S. sugar producers have accused Mexican sugar producers of “dumping” in the United States, selling sugar at subsidized prices that unfairly undercut domestic manufacturers. As a result of the dispute, wholesale sugar prices have risen 40% since March, according to Tom Earley, economist and trade policy specialist at Agralytica.

The trade dispute has yet to be resolved.

3. There’s a lag time before candy gets more expensive. While the retail price of candy remained relatively steady until recently, the cost of raw cocoa has been rising for the past several years:

Source: International Cocoa Organization

Still, it’s not surprising that it took a while for you to see the price hike at your grocery store, said Annemarie Kuhns, agricultural economist at the USDA Economic Research Service.

“With the foods that require more processing, there’s a longer time between the change in the price at the commodity level and a change in the price at the retail level,” Kuhns said. “They have more leeway to change their profit margins, and they’re not as quick to change their prices.”

4. Newly prosperous Asian consumers want more chocolate. If you want to know why the commodity price of cocoa is rising, look to Asia. Consumers there are hungry for Hershey’s. Over the past several months, manufacturers have built additional processing facilities in Indonesia to meet the rising demand in China and Southeast Asia. That demand is driving up the cost of chocolate for everyone.

“Over the past year or two, as incomes have risen, [Asian consumers have] discovered chocolate tastes good, and they want more,” Scoville said.

Well, American trick-or-treaters can understand that much.

MONEY identity theft

4 Reasons Why You Should Shop at Stores That Got Hacked

141020_EM_CCBreachStores
Mike Blake—Reuters

Almost half of all consumers surveyed are afraid to shop at retailers like Target. They shouldn't be.

This post was updated with news about Target’s new free shipping offer.

Retailers are gearing up for the holiday shopping season, but one thing has some consumers spooked: According to a new survey by CreditCards.com, 45% of respondents say they are less likely to shop at stores that have suffered a data breach, such as Target, Home Depot, or Michaels. Almost 30% say they will “probably” avoid stores that have been hacked, and 16% claim they “definitely” will.

While it’s hard to believe that half of all shoppers will actually skip the sales at major retailers come holiday season, Target did suffer a 5.5% decline in transactions last year after its data breach.

But shoppers, you’re being silly. You don’t need to avoid stores that have been hacked. Here’s why.

1) If someone steals your credit or debit card number, you have very limited liability.

You’ve got at least one reason to thank Congress: The Fair Credit Billing Act and the Electronic Fund Transfer Act cap how much money you’ll lose if someone steals your credit or debit card. If someone steals your card number but not your actual card — which could happen during a data breach — you are not liable for any fraudulent transactions. Read: You won’t lose any money. Just be sure to report any fraudulent debit card charges within 60 days of receiving your statement.

The rules are a little different if someone steals your physical card. With credit cards, you still won’t need to pay anything if you report the loss before a thief uses the card. Otherwise, your liability is capped at $50. With debit cards, you’ll only pay up to $50 if you report the theft within two days, or up to $500 if you report the theft within 60 days of receiving your statement.

There’s another reason to prefer credit over debit. When someone makes fraudulent charges on your credit card, you can challenge the bill when you receive it. But when someone else uses your debit card, that money comes straight out of your account, so it could take a little bit longer to recover your funds.

And if you’re really afraid, just stash the plastic. CreditCards.com reports that 48% of shoppers say data breaches have made them more likely to spend cash.

2) Avoiding these stores won’t protect you from the scariest kinds of identity theft.

When someone steals your credit card number and spends your money, that’s considered “existing account fraud.” Banks and credit card companies have gotten pretty good at identifying abnormal spending patterns, so you’re likely to catch existing account fraud early, and your liability is limited.

But if someone steals your Social Security number, opens a new credit card in your name, provides a new billing address, and runs up big charges, it might take you a while to notice. That’s called “new account fraud,” and it’s a real headache.

To catch new account fraud, check your credit report three times a year. It’s not hard to do, and it’s free. Your report will show all your accounts and debts, as well as your payment history. Check to make sure all of the information is accurate and all of the accounts actually belong to you. (Go. Do it now. Did you catch a problem? Here’s what to do.) If you’re afraid that your social security number has already been stolen, you can put a free fraud alert on your credit file to let lenders know or freeze your credit so that no one else can open new accounts in your name.

But you don’t give out your Social Security number every time you swipe your credit card, don’t worry about going shopping.

3) Safer cards are on the way.

Are you sick of all these data breaches? So are businesses — after all, they’re the ones on the hook for fraud, not you. That’s why Visa and Mastercard are sending out new “chip-and-pin” cards. These cards have embedded microchips, which are more secure than magnetic stripes. If you’ve ever traveled abroad, you might remember what chip-and-pin technology looks like; Europeans have been using this system since the 1990s. While not foolproof, these cards are a great improvement. President Obama signed an executive order last week requiring that all government credit cards use chip-and-pin technology.

Practically speaking, chip-and-pin cards won’t do much more to help consumers at point-of-sale — remember, you have limited liability. But starting Oct. 1, 2015, the liability will shift to whichever business has the oldest technology. If credit card companies don’t update their cards, they will be liable for any fraud; if retailers don’t offer chip-and-pin terminals, they’ll be on the hook. So everyone has an incentive to make payment systems more secure, which is ultimately in consumers’ best interest.

4) Retailers that got hacked are working harder to win back your trust.

Guess which retailer is installing chip-and-pin technology in all of its stores and on all of its branded cards — Target!

Guess which retailer offered free credit monitoring to all its customers — Target!

Guess which retailer just started offering free shipping — Target!

Given that there have been 606 data breaches already this year, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center, you can probably expect more to come. But the retailers that have already been hacked are beefing up security and offering free identity theft protection services to consumers, so you’re probably safer there than everywhere else.

If that doesn’t put your mind at ease, here are some more steps you can take:

 

MONEY credit cards

Obama’s Credit Card Was Declined—No, Really.

US President Barack Obama tells a story about his credit card was recently declined at a restaurant
Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images

The president shared a story about his own credit card troubles during an executive order signing at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

First, we heard that the former chair of the Federal Reserve couldn’t get a mortgage. Then we learned that one of the most powerful economic figures in the world makes less money than at least 113 of her underlings.

Now we find out that President of the United States had his credit card declined.

At an event at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau today, President Obama said a New York restaurant rejected his card last month. But it wasn’t because he maxed out his credit (or so he says).

“I guess I don’t use it enough, so they thought there was some fraud going on,” Obama said. “I was trying to explain to the waitress, no, I really think that I’ve been paying my bills.”

The President made his remarks while signing an executive order to improve security features on government credit cards. “Even I’m affected by this,” Obama joked.

Luckily, Michelle picked up the tab.

Read on for more help with common credit woes:

Read next: Obama Signs Order to Secure Government Credit Cards From Data Breaches

MONEY Careers

Microsoft’s CEO Wasn’t the Only Male Exec to Say Something Clueless About Women This Week

Microsoft Satya Nadella gives a lecture about dream, struggle and creation at Tsinghua University on September 25, 2014 in Beijing, China.
Microsoft CEO Sayta Nadella isn't smiling after his comments about women in the workplace were universally panned. ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

Yesterday, Microsoft's CEO said something really wrong about women. But he's just one of a number of tech executives to make similar gaffes in the last few days.

Updated—3:52 P.M.

This has not been a great week when it comes to equality in the workplace. On Thursday, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella made waves when he advised women against asking for pay bumps. “It’s not really about asking for the raise,” he told a mostly female audience at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, “but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along.”

By Thursday night, Nadella was in full damage-control mode, renouncing his previous statement in an email to Microsoft staff. “If you think you deserve a raise, you should just ask,” he wrote.

It’s good that Nadella acknowledged his mistake, but the gaffe shows how many in the business world still have difficulty understanding the prejudices faced by their female colleagues. And as our colleague Margaret Magnarelli points out, “he still doesn’t realize it’s not as simple as ‘just asking’ for us.”

What’s more, the Microsoft chief wasn’t the only boss even in the past few days to make clueless comments about how women should behave in the workplace. Earlier at the same conference, a group of male execs from Facebook, Google, GoDaddy, and Intuit participated in a panel purporting to offer tips on how both men and women could help stamp out tech’s bro-centric culture. A video of the event is available here, and Readwrite gave the blow-by-blow.

It did not go well. Here are a few of the most most off-base observations:

“It’s more expensive to hire women, because the population is smaller.” – Mike Schroepfer, CTO of Facebook

Actually, it’s not. While Schroepfer was trying to say that it’s more expensive to recruit women because they are underrepresented in computer science, it’s been widely reported that women make 78% of what men make. This is the so-called gender pay gap.

And yes, the gap persists even in the supposedly meritocratic tech world: According to a recent analysis of Census data, men with a graduate or professional degree working in Silicon Valley earn 73% more than women with the same degrees working in the same industry.

While some of the pay gap is explained by factors like experience level and industry choice, economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn found that even when you control for those factors, 41% of the gap remains “unexplained.”

In fact, at a conference last month, Australian tech mogul Evan Thornley made the opposite point: that women are “Like Men, Only Cheaper.” That quote comes directly from his slideshow. “Call me opportunistic,” he elaborated, “I thought I could get better people with less competition because we were willing to understand the skills and capabilities that many of these women had.” Thornley later apologized.

“The only thing I would add is speak up … Speak up, be confident.” – Blake Irving, CEO of GoDaddy

This isn’t bad advice by itself — studies have shown that women who self-promote and negotiate harder do end up with with higher salaries — but like Nadella’s email to employees, it fails to acknowledge that women are often punished when they do speak up. “Assertive or competitive qualities are usually associated with men, and are thought to be essential for successful leaders. But for women, they can be a landmine,” said Daina Middleton, global CEO of Performics, in an interview with Fast Company.

Need evidence? Economist Linda Babcock ran a study where she videotaped men and women asking for raises using the exact same script. Viewers of the tape agreed that the man deserved the raise. But they did not like the woman who asked for the exact same thing, in the exact same way.

“People found that to be way too aggressive,” Babcock told NPR. “She was successful in getting the money, but people did not like her. They thought she was too demanding. And this can have real consequences for a woman’s career.”

Other data suggests that women entrepreneurs also get turned down more often than men do. One study found that investors are more likely to accept pitches from male entrepreneurial teams than from female teams — even if they’re making the exact same pitch. In another study, business school students read a prospectus for a mock company. In some versions, the CEO was listed as male; in others, the CEO was female. The students were four times more likely to recommend the company led by the male CEO.

“It will be twice as hard for you … but you can make a big difference in your company.” – Alan Eustace, senior vice president of search at Google

True, but unfortunately women are often absent from the kind of high level positions that would allow them to “make a big difference.” Only 4.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs are female — and those 24 women represent a record high.

Women already know it’s at least twice as hard for them to succeed. They just wish business leaders would do something about it.

To Eustace’s great credit, he acknowledged the panel’s issues on Twitter and made a great suggestion for future male allies.

 

MONEY mortgages

Wells Fargo Settles Charges It Refused Mortgages to Moms

A woman walks past teller machines at a Wells Fargo bank in San Francisco, California.
Wells Fargo promised to enact new Temporary Leave Underwriting Guidelines and educate their loan officers. Robert Galbraith—Reuters

A woman says a mortgage loan officer told her, "Moms often don’t return to work after the birth of their little ones."

Wells Fargo Home Mortgage agreed Thursday to pay $5 million to settle allegations that its home loan officers discriminated against pregnant women and women on maternity leave out of fear that the mothers would not return to work, potentially jeopardizing their ability to repay the loans.

Six families alleged that loan officers employed by Wells Fargo, the biggest provider of home loans, made discriminatory comments during the mortgage application process, made loans unavailable to them, and even forced mothers to end maternity leave early and return to work before finalizing the loans. One of the six complainants was a real estate agent who alleges he lost a commission due to discrimination against one of his clients.

Lindsay Doyal, one of the women who filed a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, says that she was denied a mortgage despite providing several letters from her employer confirming that she intended to go back to work, the Washington Post reports. Doyal says she received an e-mail from a Wells Fargo loan officer that said, “moms often don’t return to work after the birth of their little ones.”

Since 2010, HUD has received 90 maternity leave discrimination complaints, 40 of which have been settled, with a total of almost $1.5 million going to loan applicants. The families in the Wells Fargo case will receive a total of $165,000, and Wells Fargo will create a fund of up to $5 million for other affected mortgage applicants.

“The settlement is significant for the six families who had the courage to file complaints, and for countless other families who will no longer fear losing out on a home simply because they are expecting a baby,” HUD Secretary Julián Castro said in a statement. “I’m committed to leveling the playing field for all families when it comes to mortgage lending. These types of settlements get us closer to ensuring that no qualified family will be singled out for discrimination.”

Wells Fargo promised to enact new Temporary Leave Underwriting Guidelines and educate their loan officers.

“We resolved these claims to avoid a lengthy legal dispute so we can continue to serve the needs of our customers,” Wells Fargo said in a statement. “Our underwriting is consistent with longstanding fair and responsible lending practices and our policies do not require that applicants on temporary leave return to work before being approved. The agreement resolves claims related to only five loan applications from a period when Wells Fargo processed a total of approximately 3 million applications from female customers.”

[Washington Post]

MONEY Health Care

The Biggest Healthcare Benefits Decision You’ll Have to Make This Year

Teddy bears with bandages
Zachary Zavislak—Prop Styling by Linda Keil

This year, your company may push you to a high-deductible health plan that looks cheaper, but it may not be.

This benefits open-enrollment period, your employer may ask you—even force you—to enroll in a high-deductible health insurance plan with a health savings account. Nearly three-quarters of companies expect to offer this type of plan as an option for 2015, up from 63% in 2014. And 23% say it will be the only option, Towers Watson found.​

While premiums on high-deductible health plans are typically 10% less than those of more tradi­tional PPO plans, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, co-insurance doesn’t kick in until you’ve paid much more out of pocket.

On average, you’ll foot the first $2,200 in costs as an individual, or $4,500 as a family. (Employers like the plans because they motivate you to be more discerning about your spending.) To pay the bills, you can save pretax dollars—up to $6,650 for a family—in a health savings account (HSA). Most companies throw in cash to sweeten the pot.

According to conventional wisdom, high-deductible plans save money for the young and healthy, who rarely see doctors. But with deductibles and premiums rising across all plans and more companies offering only this coverage, everybody needs to know how to best use high-deductible plans. “Whether we like it or not, higher levels of cost ­sharing is the way of the future,” says University of Michigan Medical School professor Dr. Jeffrey Kullgren. Here’s how to assess your options if you have options—and how to hedge your risk if you don’t:

If you have a choice of plans

Compare costs for a typical year. Your employer, hopefully, will make this easy for you: This fall, 76% of companies plan to offer tools to help employees assess plan options, says Towers Watson. Often these build in your current year’s usage of health services.

No such luck? Estimating your total costs under each plan isn’t easy, but it’s necessary to make the right choice. Start by reviewing your 2014 explanation of benefits statements—probably available on your insurer’s website—to see the insurer-negotiated prices for your usual services, says Paul Fronstin of the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Add the premiums to your expected out-of-pocket costs in each plan—up to and after deductibles—and subtract any employer HSA contribution for the high-deductible option.

Assess a worst-case scenario. In more than 58% of high-deductible plans, families could rack up bills exceeding their yearly HSA contribution limit, according to Kaiser data. In such cases, if you suffer a health crisis, “you’re at risk of using a lot of post-tax dollars,” says Katy Votava, founder of health insurance consulting firm Goodcare. “I like to see an out-of-pocket max that isn’t much more than the HSA limit.”

Gauge your cost tolerance. An American Medical Association study found that 43% of higher-income families in high-deductible plans had delayed or forgone care because of the cost. Almost a third of them reported greater stress, and 15% suffered a disability as a result of putting off care. If you’re likely to skip treatment to save a buck, this plan isn’t your best choice, particularly if you have a chronic condition.

09.15.14 PLA

If you go high-deductible

Budget for your costs. Set aside at least enough in the HSA—­including employer contributions— to cover your expected care, and ideally more, says Kullgren. That way, “when you need care, you’re not faced with the decision to get the service or go without.” Rather than worrying about saving too much, think of this as a backup account for retirement: Leftover funds carry over year to year, growing tax-free, and can be withdrawn penalty-free for any purpose once you’re 65. (You will owe income taxes if the funds are used for anything but health costs.)

Be a savvy consumer. High- deductible plans put the onus on you to be price-conscious. Learn the costs of procedures in advance, and ask questions like “How will this test result affect what you do for me?” says Jacksonville financial planner and MD Carolyn McClanahan. Prices vary wildly, so comparison shop for services like blood tests and MRIs. It’s in your interest to get the best deal you can.

MONEY data breaches

The One Foolproof Thing You Can Do to Protect Yourself from Identity Theft

JP Morgan Chase
Bloomberg via Getty Images

Place a security freeze on your credit.

Your private information may have been stolen… again: JPMorgan Chase disclosed on Thursday that hackers accessed 76 million accounts during a cyberattack this summer. JPMorgan Chase says hackers stole only names, addresses, phone numbers and emails, and not passwords or Social Security numbers. If that’s the case, it won’t be easy for crooks to steal your identity or your money.

But if you’re worried that one of the recent data breaches at Target, Home Depot, or P.F. Chang’s could make you vulnerable — or are just fed up with hearing about a new data theft every other week and want some peace of mind — you may be yearning for a foolproof solution. The simplest thing to do: Put a freeze on your credit.

Here’s how it works. Whenever anyone applies for credit, the would-be lender pulls their credit report from one of the three bureaus, Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion. If you institute a security freeze at each of the three credit bureaus, nobody will be able to access your credit report, so identity thieves won’t be able to open any new accounts in your name — period.

There are some downsides to this option. First, there’s the cost. The price of a security freeze varies by state — you can check yours here — but it’s typically $5 to $10 per credit agency. (It’s often free for people who have already been victims of identity theft.)

More of a problem is that whenever you want to allow someone to check your credit, you’ll need to pay a fee to lift the freeze. And that may happen more often than you expect because your credit report gets pulled not just for credit applications but often when you sign up for a cell phone contract or apply for a new apartment or job as well. The credit agencies will give you a password to lift the freeze and charge up to $12 each time you do it — so this option can get pricey.

Finally, if you’re afraid that an identity thief may already have used stolen information to open accounts in your name, a credit freeze won’t help. To find out if that’s the case, you’ll have to check your credit report, which you can do for free three times a year at annualcreditreport.com. If you suspect fraud, you’ll want to notify your financial institutions, change your passwords, watch your statements, and file a police report.

Ready to act? You can place a credit freeze online, right now:

RELATED:

MONEY Taxes

How Identity Thieves Stole $5.2 Billion from the IRS

Invisible Man at computer
Getty Images

And how to make sure you won't be their next target.

More than $5 billion, with a B: that’s how much the IRS estimates it mistakenly paid to identity thieves last year, according to a new study from the Government Accountability Office. The thieves filed fraudulent tax returns on behalf of unsuspecting citizens, and the IRS didn’t catch the fraud until after long after the refund checks had been sent. The only good news? It could have been a lot more money. The IRS estimates it identified and stopped another $24.2 billion in attempted fraud — but the agency acknowledges it’s hard to calculate the full extent of the problem.

Here’s how thieves get away with it: You usually receive a W-2 from your employer by the end of January, then file your tax return by April 15. During that time, thieves steal your identifying information, file fake returns on your behalf, and collect the refund check. It all happens pretty quickly, since the IRS tries to issue your refund within three weeks of receiving your return.

Employers have until March to send their W-2s to the Social Security Administration, which later forwards the documents to the IRS. The IRS doesn’t begin checking tax returns against employers’ W-2s until July. The GAO has found that it can take a year or longer for the IRS to complete the checks and catch the theft.

The easiest way you can deter this kind of fraud? File early, and file electronically. Once the IRS receives a return with your social security number, the agency will reject any duplicate filings and notify you right away. The IRS is also piloting an initiative to issue single-use identity protection PIN numbers to taxpayers who have verified their identities.

Still, the danger could be growing: As recently as 2010, tax- and wage-related identity theft made up just 16% of all ID-theft complaints at the Federal Trade Commission. Last year that portion rose to 43%. Below are four more common ways ID thieves can strike — and what you can do to protect yourself.

1) Purloined paper.

Have tax documents sent to a P.O. box or delivered electronically so they can’t go missing. Shred extra copies. “Your tax return needs to be treated as an item of extreme privacy,” says Staten Island CPA John Vento.

2) Unsecure networks.

Never file electronically over public Wi-Fi or a network that’s not password-protected. Make sure you have up-to-date antivirus software and a firewall on your home computer.

3) Dodgy emails.

Be leery of any email claiming to be an IRS notice of an outstanding refund or a pending investigation; the IRS will never email you to request sensitive information. Forward suspect messages to phishing@irs.gov. Other electronic traps: fake websites similar to irs.gov, and tweets purporting to be from the IRS (@IRSnews is the verified handle).

4) Phone fakes.

In October of last year, the IRS warned of a sophisticated phone scam in which callers already knew the last four digits of your Social Security number and mimicked the IRS toll-free number on your caller ID. If the IRS calls you out of the blue, hang up and call back (800-829-1040).

This advice was excerpted from MONEY’s 2014 Tax Guide.

MONEY Travel

The Hardworking Person You’ve Forgotten to Tip

Tip at Marriott hotel
Jeff Greenberg—Alamy

A new initiative from Marriott nudges travelers to tip their housekeepers.

American travelers are a pretty generous bunch. Virtually everyone tips restaurant staffers — 97%, according to a recent TripAdvisor survey. More than 80% of Americans tip taxi drivers, and 79% tip bellhops. Skipping the tip makes Americans anxious: 23% report feeling guilty when they don’t tip, and one in three Americans has tipped someone even when the service was bad.

But when Americans travel, they sometimes forget to tip the people who clean up after them: hotel housekeepers. Americans are less likely to tip housekeepers than other service workers; more than 31% report that they don’t tip hotel maids at all, according to TripAdvisor.

Now Marriott wants to offer a reminder. In a partnership with Maria Shriver’s nonprofit advocacy group, A Woman’s Nation, the hotel chain has launched a new initiative to place envelopes in hotel rooms where customers can leave “tips and notes of thanks.”

“Hotel room attendants often go unnoticed, as they silently care for the millions of travelers who are on the road at any given time,” states Marriott’s press release. “Because hotel guests do not always see or interact with room attendants, their hard work is many times overlooked when it comes to tipping.”

How much money should you leave? The American Hotel and Lodging Association, an industry trade group, recommends tipping housekeepers $1 to $5 a night, depending on the level of service and cost of the hotel. The Emily Post Institute concurs — its website recommends a tip of $2 to $5 a day.

Other important etiquette rules: Leave the tip every day, to ensure that whoever cleans the room that day gets the money. And be sure to put the cash in an envelope or leave a note next to the money saying “thanks” — any good housekeeper will be afraid to take cash if she’s not sure it belongs to her.

Even though hotel bills are getting bigger, the people who clean the rooms still make a pittance. During the first half of 2014, travelers paid an average of $137 a night for hotels in the United States, up 5% from last year, according to Hotels.com. On average, maids and housekeepers in the traveler accommodation industry make just $21,800 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — below the poverty line for a family of four.

Which leads some people to ask — why doesn’t Marriott just pay its workers more, instead of asking customers to do it? For a $20.6 billion company MARRIOTT INTERNATIONAL INC. MAR 1.2568% , that’s a fair question. But for now, if your manners compel you to tip the taxi driver, the bellhop, and the concierge, don’t forget to leave a few bucks for the housekeeper, too.

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