MONEY privacy

5 Things You Didn’t Know About Using Personal Email at Work

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton
Jason DeCrow—AP Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton

Hillary Clinton is in trouble for mixing up her personal and business accounts—and you could get in trouble too.

Hillary Clinton has come under scrutiny for exclusively using her personal email account for all of her work communications when she was secretary of state, according to a report in the New York Times. That’s actually a huge problem. Under federal law, Clinton was required to preserve all of her communications.

But you don’t have to be a former secretary of state and favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination for your work emails to be preserved for posterity, and someone might be interested in their contents: your boss.

Here’s what you should know about the privacy of your work emails—namely, that you don’t have any.

1) Your employer can monitor pretty much anything you access on the company’s computer system, even your personal email account.

In most cases, courts have taken the position that employers have the right to monitor what employees do on the employer’s computer systems and equipment, says Catherine E. Reuben, employment lawyer at the firm Hirsch Roberts Weinstein LLP.

To start, that means your boss can see any messages you send using your work email. But that’s not all. “When you send an email from work, the company server doesn’t know or care whether this email is on your company email account or your personal Yahoo account—it monitors everything,” says Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute. And that’s completely legal.

One gray area: A recent National Labor Relations Board case ruling found that employees have a presumptive right to use their employer’s email system for union organizing, although labor laws restrict employers from surveillance of union organizing activities. That means the NLRB may eventually conclude that employers are not able to monitor emails related to union organizing, even if they are sent using the employer’s server or equipment. “That is an unsettled issue,” Reuben says.

2) Assume any email, text message, or other electronic communication you send on your employer’s system can be used against you.

“In my personal experience, employers will monitor email when there is a business reason to do so,” Reuben says. “For example, if an employee accuses another employee of sending sexually harassing emails, the employer would naturally want, as part of its investigation, to review all of the email communications between the two employees.”

Adverse consequences are not uncommon. In 2007, a survey by the American Management Association found that 28% of employers had fired employees over “e-mail misuse.” The most common kinds of misuse: violation of company policies, inappropriate language, excessive personal use, or breaking confidentiality. (“Internet misuse” was even more common; another 30% of employers said they had terminated employees for excessive personal use of the Internet at work, viewing inappropriate content at work, or other violations of the employer’s electronic use policy.)

And your emails could cause a problem long after you send them. “Remember that emails, text messages, other electronic documents can live on forever, even if you delete them,” Reuben says.

3) Beware of “George Carlin software.”

You probably assume your boss doesn’t have time to monitor every email you send. That’s true, Maltby says, but you’re forgetting about the IT department. “People in IT can look at anything, anytime they want to, for any reason they want to,” Maltby says. “They are agents of the employer, and it’s the employer’s system.”

One very common practice: Some employers have keyword software to detect sexual harassment. Maltby calls it “George Carlin software” (note: that link is NSFW) because it can flag certain inappropriate words. But the software can pick up false positives. “If a female employee sends an email with the word ‘breast’ to her oncologist through the company system, it’s going to be read,” Maltby says.

The simple solution: Send any sensitive, personal messages from your own device.

4) Emailing company documents to your personal account could get you in trouble.

You have more work to do, but you just want to go home—and accessing your employer’s email remotely is a huge hassle. So you just forward your files from your work email account to your personal account and finish your work at home.

The problem? That could later create the impression that you are trying to steal the company’s confidential information.

“Make sure you read and understand your employer’s policies, and don’t download company information without permission,” Reuben says. “Do your best to protect the company’s trade secrets, confidential information, and data.”

5) When you set up your company’s email on your personal phone, you often give your employer the right to delete all of your personal data.

Want to check your work email on your personal iPhone? Your employer probably asked you to sign a “bring-your-own-device” agreement. If you didn’t read it, do that now—you likely waived some of your rights.

There’s good reason for that: Companies need to secure their information systems. “What the policy is essentially saying is, if you want the privilege of accessing our proprietary, confidential systems and the convenience of accessing those systems on your personal device, you’ve got to waive your right to privacy,” Reuben says. “Many employers in such a policy will reserve the employer’s right to monitor the employee’s activities on the device and to remote-wipe the device if there is a security risk, for example, if the device is lost or stolen.”

You read that right: You probably gave your employer permission to delete all of your personal data. Your company might want to do that if your device could be compromised—or if you just no longer work there. “When you leave the company, the company will probably wipe your cell phone, and they’ll probably wipe everything,” Maltby says. “Pictures of your kids, bank records, and God knows what else have been erased forever.”

The takeaway: Actually read your employer’s electronic use and BYOD policies. And back up those photos somewhere else.

MONEY Health Care

Here’s the Tough Choice the Uninsured Have to Make Now

piggy bank and bottle of pills balancing on either side of a seesaw
Pogonici—Shutterstock

The deadline to enroll in a health insurance plan has been extended—but a quirk in the rules leaves the uninsured with a tricky decision to make.

Americans who didn’t sign up for health insurance by the February 15 end of open enrollment face two serious risks: no insurance coverage for the rest of 2015, and a possible tax penalty next April. Open enrollment for 2016 plans doesn’t start until next October.

What’s more, many who went without health insurance last year—when Obamacare’s requirement that all Americans have insurance, what’s known as the individual mandate, went into effect—are already facing a penalty on their 2014 tax returns.

Many of these uninsured Americans got a break last week. The Obama administration announced a special open enrollment period last Friday. If you still don’t have 2015 health coverage, you did not know about the tax penalty until you worked on your tax return, and you owe a penalty for 2014, you can enroll in a 2015 plan via Healthcare.gov between March 15 and April 30. The second chance is available to people who live in the 34 states with a federally-run insurance marketplace and who file their federal taxes after February 15.

This deadline extension could help a lot of people: Late last year, 44% of uninsured Americans said they had heard little to nothing about Obamacare’s individual tax penalty, according to a poll by the Urban Institute.

There’s a twist, however: To qualify for the extension, you must be subject to the tax penalty, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. But most Americans who are still uninsured could qualify for an exemption from the tax. Take it, and you don’t get more time to buy health coverage for this year.

The Choice

There are more than two dozen ways to get out of paying the Obamacare penalty: you earn less than the tax filing threshold, your cheapest plan costs more than 8% of your income, you were uninsured for less than three months, you filed for bankruptcy, or you had some other hardship.

Altogether, the government estimates that only 2% to 4% of taxpayers will owe the fee. Another 10% to 20% are uninsured but are exempt from the penalty. Those taxpayers have two options:

  1. Pay the tax for 2014 and buy health coverage for 2015 during the special enrollment period, which has the added benefit of getting you out of the penalty next year.
  2. Claim an exemption from the tax for 2014 and go without health insurance again in 2015 (and potentially face the tax again next year).

“The taxpayer needs to make a choice,” says Tara Straw, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “It would seem a no-brainer, a week ago, that you would claim an exemption if you were eligible for it. But now, there really should be a discussion about whether it’s better to take the exemption someone is eligible for, or pay a penalty and have a special enrollment period.”

The Potential Penalty

The penalty for being uninsured for all of 2014 is either $95 per person in your family (capped at $285), or 1% of your income (capped at the price of the average premiums for a bronze plan), whichever is higher.

H&R Block has found that so far, the average Obamacare penalty for its clients is $172, decreasing the average refund by 5%.

“It’s definitely a significant amount of money for people who might be low-income and might have a lot of plans and expectations for what they might do with the tax refund,” Straw says. “But we need to weigh that against the fact that the penalty next year is much higher.”

In 2016, the penalty will be either $325 per person in your family (capped at $975), or 2% of your income (capped at the price of the national average premium for a bronze plan in 2015—to be determined), whichever is higher.

The Bottom Line

Are you faced with this choice? Keep in mind that health insurance may be less expensive than you think. If your income is less than 400% of the federal poverty level—$95,400 for a family of four in 2015—you’ll likely qualify for a subsidized premium.

HHS found that 87% of the people who bought an Obamacare plan qualified for this tax credit, bring the price of health insurance down to an average of just $82 a month. Use the Kaiser Family Foundation’s calculator to get an estimate of your costs.

Also, if your income is less than 133% of the poverty line—$15,654 for a single person in 2015, $32,253 for a family of four—you could qualify for Medicaid. You can sign up for Medicaid any time during the year, Straw says.

“It’s unfortunate that some people might be put in this position, but at the end of the day, if someone can enroll in coverage and avoid paying a penalty for 2015, that’s still a good deal,” Straw says.

MONEY privacy

Your Embarrassing Online Searches About Health Problems Aren’t Private

camera aimed at laptop
Thomas Jackson—Getty Images

A new study found that 91% of health-related web pages reveal potentially sensitive information to third parties like data brokers and online advertisers.

Hypochondriacs beware: That Google search for “STD symptoms” could go into your digital dossier.

A new study has found that health-related web pages often leak information about you and the information you access to third parties, raising concerns about online privacy.

To conduct the study, University of Pennsylvania PhD student Timothy Libert analyzed the top 50 search results for 1,986 common diseases, some 80,000 web pages. He found that on 91% of the pages, third parties like social networks, advertisers, and data brokers could access information about who was viewing the page, like the user’s IP address. On 70% of the pages, those third parties could see information about specific “conditions, treatments and diseases” viewed.

Altogether, 78% of the health-related web pages sent information about you to Google, 31% sent information to Facebook, and 5% sent information to Experian, a credit bureau and data broker.

What’s the big deal? Libert has two major concerns about these practices. The first is that the third parties could match you with your medical search results, a problem he calls “personal identification.” This isn’t a totally imaginary scenario—data brokers routinely collect information about you from your online activity, shopping habits, and public records, then turn around and sell that information to advertisers. That already includes sensitive medical information: One data broker was caught hawking lists of “rape sufferers,” “domestic abuse victims” and “HIV/AIDS patients.”

Second, advertisers could discriminate against you based on your medical searches, regardless of whether your search results are ever connected to you personally. That’s called “blind discrimination.” In other words, advertisers could serve you certain ads and offer you certain promotions based on the websites you read. Again, this practice can be innocuous, but it can also have a dark side. “It’s like any other form of discrimination,” Libert says. “If you’re going to extend a favorable offer to somebody, your best client probably isn’t somebody with terminal cancer.”

The tech-savvy might think their searches are private because they delete cookies or use a private browser, like Google Chrome’s “incognito mode.” Sorry, but no.

That’s because of the way websites work. Libert explains that a web page is like a recipe. The code says, “display an image from this file” or “play this video from Youtube.” To pull in content from another website’s server—like a video from Youtube—your server makes a “request” to that third-party server, and reveals information about you in the process. For example, the third party can see the name of the webpage you’re visiting, which may sound harmless, but can reveal a lot. You might not, for example, want advertisers and data brokers to know that you recently read “www.cdc.gov/hiv”.

“Even if you’re using incognito mode or something, the HTTP requests, at the very basic level, are still being made,” Libert says.

And you usually don’t even know it’s happening. While you can see evidence of some third-party requests, like Youtube videos and Facebook “like” buttons, Libert says most requests are bits of code invisible to the non-programmer’s eye.

Legally, this is all aboveboard. The HIPAA law protecting medical privacy only applies to medical services like insurance claims, not other businesses.

So while Libert wants lawmakers to beef up online privacy protections, he says in the meantime, your best bet is to install a browser extension like Ghostery or Adblock Plus.

“They don’t catch everything, but they catch a lot,” Libert says.

MONEY Health Care

The Obamacare Open Enrollment Deadline Has Been Extended

pill container
Getty Images

You can get more time if you tried to buy health insurance on the federal marketplace—but some states are offering more generous grace periods.

Did you miss the February 15 deadline to buy health insurance for 2015? The Department of Health and Human Services announced that you may have one more week to get insured.

If you tried to buy health coverage on the federal marketplace but couldn’t because of long wait times or website glitches, you may qualify for this special enrollment period. If you bought health insurance through the federal marketplace last year, however, you will not be allowed to make any changes to your coverage during this one-week extension.

Try again by going back to HealthCare.gov from now through February 22. You’ll need to attest that you couldn’t enroll by the deadline because of a website or call center problem.

After the deadline, that’s it—you won’t be able to buy individual health insurance for 2015 unless you have you have a “qualifying life event,” like marrying, divorcing, having a baby, moving, or losing your health coverage.

If you live in one of the 13 states with their own exchanges or the District of Columbia, the rules are a little different. Most states have announced extensions of some sort. In some states, you get more time only if you tried to sign up before February 15; in others, everyone has more time. Check acasignups.net for a good round-up of state policies.

Washington state currently offers the longest deadline extension: Residents have until April 17 to enroll. “This is the first year that residents may incur a tax penalty for not having health insurance under the Affordable Care Act,” Richard Onizuka, chief executive officer of Washington’s exchange, told the Wall Street Journal. “This special enrollment window will allow these individuals—as well as those who experienced difficulty completing their applications—additional time to get enrolled for 2015 coverage.”

That’s right: If you were uninsured in 2014, you could owe a penalty on your taxes this year. This year, the penalty is either $95 per person in your family (capped at $285), or 1% of your income (capped at the price of the national average premium for a bronze plan), whichever is higher. Go uninsured in 2015 too, and you could owe even more next year.

For more on buying a policy for 2015, check out this full guide to Obamacare open enrollment.

MONEY Health Care

What to Know About Obamacare Open Enrollment This Year

150209_FF_ObamacareDeadline
Jeffrey Coolidge—Getty Images

The Obamacare deadline to sign up for a policy is February 15. Here's what you need to do to make sure you're covered.

Update: The Obama administration has announced a special open enrollment period for people who did not realize they would need to pay a tax this year. So you have one more shot to get insurance for 2015, from March 15 to April 30. Here are our tips from February.

Time is running out. The open enrollment period for buying individual health insurance for 2015 ends February 15. Miss this important deadline, and you could remain uninsured all year—and face a steep tax penalty.

As of early February, about 9.9 million Americans had purchased or re-enrolled in private health insurance through the federal and state insurance exchanges created by Obamacare. But an estimated 29 million Americans remained uninsured as of the end 2014, according to the Commonwealth Fund.

Anne Filipic, president of Enroll America, a non-profit that educates Americans about health insurance, says too many people still don’t know that they can get financial assistance if they are struggling to pay for coverage.

“There has been a lot of confusion and misinformation,” Filipic says. “For a lot of people, they’ve heard of the ACA or Obamacare, but they don’t know what it means for them.”

Here’s what next week’s deadline means and what you need to know about getting covered in time.

1. February 15 is a hard deadline.

The window to buy individual health insurance for 2015 runs from November 15, 2014 to February 15, 2015. After that, you won’t be able to buy a policy this year unless you have extenuating circumstances. You may have to remain uninsured until 2016 (open enrollment for 2016 coverage doesn’t begin until next October).

There are exceptions. If you marry, divorce, have a baby, move to another state, lose your employer health insurance, or experience another “qualifying life event,” you can sign up for health insurance any time. You have 60 days after the event to enroll in a new health plan.

2. You have choices where to shop.

Under the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, you can buy private insurance through government-run shopping websites, also called exchanges or the marketplace. Some states run their own sites; others use the federal government’s site. You can find the option for your state at Healthcare.gov, where you’ll also be able to see if you qualify for financial help with your premiums.

You don’t have to shop on a government-run exchange. You can also get insurance from web brokers, such as getinsured.com, gohealth.com, or ehealthinsurance.com. But if you qualify for a premium subsidy, make sure you get a plan that is sold on the government marketplace.

3. If you can’t afford insurance, you may qualify for help.

Almost half of uninsured Americans say they didn’t sign up for Obamacare because they thought they couldn’t afford it, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll. Generally, that shouldn’t be the case. The government will pay for part of your health insurance if you earn between 100% and 400% of the poverty level.

The poverty level varies based on your family size. A single person earning between $11,670 and $46,680 this year is eligible for a tax credit. So is a family of four earning between $23,850 and $95,400. With a tax credit, your health insurance will cost between 2.01% and 9.56% of your total income.

The Department of Health and Human Services found that 87% of the people who bought a health plan on the exchanges got financial help, and those people paid an average of just $82 a month. “This is a little known fact for many people,” Filipic says.

And if you earn less than the poverty line? The plan was for households making less than 138% of the poverty line to enroll in Medicaid, a state-administered health care program for low-income Americans. Here’s the catch: The Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could not force states to expand their Medicaid programs.

As a result, some people in the 21 states that did not expand Medicaid may earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but earn too little to qualify for an Obamacare tax credit. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that 18% of uninsured Americans fall in this so-called “coverage gap.” Fortunately, about 30% of uninsured Americans are eligible for tax credits to buy private insurance. Another 18% are eligible for Medicaid.

4. If you’re not covered, the penalty is going up.

Another reason not to miss this deadline: Under Obamacare, most Americans are required to have a qualified health insurance plan, or pay a fine.

If you went without health insurance for more than three months in 2014, you could owe the IRS up to $95 per person in your household (capped at $285 for large families), or 1% of your income, whichever is higher. And if you go without health insurance this year, the penalty increases to $325 per person (capped at $975) or 2% of your income. The penalty increases again in 2016.

However, you can qualify for an exemption, including for financial hardship. “Most people who are uninsured will qualify for an exemption because there’s a lot of exemptions,” says Karen Pollitz, senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation. You can apply for most exemptions right on the tax return; you can apply for other hardship exemptions using this form.

5. You can ask an expert to help you enroll.

Still confused? Get help. All across the country, there are thousands of experts, sometimes called “navigators,” who can assist you in-person, for free.

Getting help is especially valuable if you aren’t sure if you are eligible for financial help, Pollitz says. Oftentimes, assisters work year-round for free clinics or other public agencies, so if you’re in the Medicaid “coverage gap,” an assister might be able to connect you with other resources, such as nutrition assistance or free community health services. Plus an ACA navigator or another adviser could help you tally up your income and see if you can claim a tax credit.

You can find an assister near you on the government’s site, localhelp.healthcare.gov. Or sign up for an appointment online using Enroll America’s connector tool at getcoveredamerica.org/connector. There are about 65,000 appointments available before February 15 at some 4,000 locations, and Enroll America offers contact information for another 11,000 locations. “There’s help out there waiting for you,” Filipic says.

6. Even if you bought health insurance last year, you should shop again.

If you bought health insurance on the exchanges last year and then did nothing, you’ve been auto-enrolled in that plan or a similar plan from the same insurer. But you can still switch plans until February 15.

Take a minute to see if that’s still the best deal, especially if you chose the least expensive plan in the first go-round. Last year’s cheapest plans have gotten 9.5% more expensive, on average, according to an analysis by the New York Times. You may be able to lower your monthly premiums by switching.

And your benefits can change too, including your deductible and out-of-pocket maximums.

Another reason to re-enroll is to see if you qualify for a bigger tax credit. “Your tax credit from last year was also automatically renewed, but it may or may not be the right amount,” Pollitz says. “Even if your income didn’t change at all, you probably qualify for a little more tax credit just because you got older. It’s based on a benchmark plan for someone your age.”

And while you’re at it, think about how you liked your health coverage in 2014. “Are you satisfied with the network? Were you able to get in to seeing the doctors you wanted to see? Were there a lot of hassles getting your claims paid?” Pollitz says. “Now is a good time to see what your options are.”

This article was updated to clarify that you can claim most tax penalty exemptions on your tax return, and premium subsidies are only available for plans sold on the government marketplace.

MONEY Out of the Red

This Millennial Paid Off $23,375 in Student Loans in Just 10 Months

Jordan Arnold

"If you have a game plan, you can accomplish your goals," says 22-year-old Jordan Arnold.

Like many millennials, Jordan Arnold graduated from college five figures deep in student debt. Unlike most of his peers, he paid off all of his loans less than a year after graduation.

This is his story, as told to MONEY reporter Kara Brandeisky.

Jordan Arnold, 22
Bluffton, Ind.
Occupation: credit analyst
Initial debt: $23,150
Amount left: $0
When he started paying it down: May 2013
When he became debt-free: March 2014

How I started building debt

I always knew I was going to go to college, though I figured I’d go to community college for a year or two because it’s cheap. But my parents started talking to me about this private Christian school, Indiana Wesleyan in Marion, Ind. I took a visit, and I really liked it. It’s only like 3,000 students on campus, so it’s a tight-knit community.

Tuition and room and board was about $31,000 a year. And the first year I hadn’t applied for federal student aid, since I didn’t commit to the college until about 10 days before classes started. I got some scholarships and a grant from my church, though. So, ultimately, I owed approximately $9,000 that first year.

Getting to $23,000

I could only borrow up to $5,500 in subsidized loans from the government each year, so I worked to cover the rest so that I didn’t have to take out private loans. I also graduated in three years, which helped.

Still, altogether, I had to take out $15,150 in subsidized federal loans and $2,000 in unsubsidized federal loans. I borrowed another $6,000 from my parents.

My uh-oh moment

In the fall semester of my senior year, I remember being kind of nervous. I knew I had to start paying my debt within six months. It’s stressful, when you don’t have any money. And I heard all these stories about college students who get out of school, they have all this debt, and they can’t find jobs.

Getting my debts paid off was important to me. I didn’t want to get the point where I’d have to be paying student loans for another 10 years. Right now, I’m single. I don’t have any dependents that rely on my income. But I didn’t want to have these loans over my head when I’m trying to feed a family and put a roof over their heads. It’s not just about me, it’s about my future family.

My first step out of the hole

Luckily, I got a job right out of college at an insurance agency (I had majored in finance). I was on salary, and it was pretty good: $36,000 plus bonuses.

I didn’t have to pay my student loans for another four months, but over the summer I decided to go ahead and start making payments before interest began accruing.

I actually moved back in with my parents—which is hard when you have been out on your own. But I didn’t really have a reason to move out. And I was blessed that they actually preferred me to live there because I could help out around the farm they own, baling hay or feeding the horses. Living at my parents’ place for free was a lot better than having to pay $400 or $500 a month for rent.

Kicking it into gear

About four months into my new job, I picked up a second job, delivering for Pizza Hut, to help pay off my debt. I would start work at the insurance agency at 8:30 a.m., change in the bathroom at 4:50 p.m., get to Pizza Hut by 5, deliver pizzas until about 9:30, get home around 10, then shower, eat, and go to bed.

My monthly take-home pay from the insurance company was about $2,200, and I made about $1,000 at Pizza Hut. After gas, car insurance, tithing to my church, entertainment and food, I could put about $2,000 towards my debt every month.

At that rate, I was projected to pay off my debt in May 2014. But I got a $3,000 refund on my taxes, and paid off the rest of my debt with that.

How I celebrated being debt-free

I made my last payment the first of March, then I went to Florida with some friends two weeks later. It was pretty rewarding after a 10-month battle. I had probably worked 65 to 70 hours a week for seven or eight months. It was exhausting, but it was worth it.

What I’d tell someone else in my place

If you have a game plan, you can accomplish your goals. I have an account on Mint.com, that’s where I kept my budget. That’s a big part of it—just seeing your progress and knowing you’re getting closer.

Also, have an emergency fund. While I was paying off that debt, I had a small car accident. I was delivering a pizza, and I hit something in someone’s driveway. It cost me about $760 to fix the car. But I had a $1,000 emergency fund, which was kind of a buffer that I kept because life happens.

Finally, don’t be afraid to move home if you have to. That was a big part of how I got out of debt.

My plan for the future

I quit my Pizza Hut job in April after paying off my debt, and now work at a bank analyzing commercial and agricultural loans, which is more in line with what I wanted to do.

I actually haven’t moved out of my parents’ house yet. Instead I’m saving up for a down payment on a house. I’m putting away 50% of my take-home income for that, and I should have a down payment by mid-summer. I also started investing. I started a Roth IRA, and I plan to max it out this year.

Staying true to myself

Some people have made the argument, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t have paid off the debt so fast because the interest rate is cheaper than what it will be for you to borrow for a home.’

That makes sense in my head, but in my heart, I didn’t want this hanging over me. I want to be responsible with my money and build a strong foundation.

Are you climbing out of debt? Share your story of getting “Out of the Red.”

Check out Money 101 for more resources:

MONEY identity theft

Anthem Health Insurance Was Hacked. Here’s What Customers Need to Know

150205_FF_AnthemHacked
Darron Cummings—AP The corporate headquarters of health insurer Anthem, in Indianapolis.

Unfortunately, this hack is much worse than the average data breach.

Anthem customers might be feeling a bit ill this morning. The nation’s second-largest health insurance company just announced that hackers have stolen members’ Social Security numbers, names, birthdays, medical IDs, and more sensitive personal information in a massive data breach. The breach affects an estimated 80 million customers and employees. At this point, Anthem does not believe the hackers accessed credit card or medical information.

“Safeguarding your personal, financial and medical information is one of our top priorities, and because of that, we have state-of-the-art information security systems to protect your data,” Anthem President and CEO Joseph R. Swedish said in a statement. “However, despite our efforts, Anthem was the target of a very sophisticated external cyber attack.” Anthem does not yet know who was responsible.

Anthem says members of multiple health plans were affected, including Anthem Blue Cross, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Georgia, Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield, Amerigroup, Caremore, Unicare, Healthlink, and DeCare.

The company has promised to individually notify every person who was affected and provide free credit monitoring. You can visit www.AnthemFacts.com or call 877-263-7995 to learn more from Anthem.

Unfortunately, this 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 refund and causing chaos at the IRS.

Scared yet? If your Social Security number could have been compromised, 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 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.

Actual 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.

Contact Experian, Trans­Union, or Equifax to institute a freeze.

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.

Again, 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.

This article was adapted from an earlier story, What to Do If Your Social Security Number Was Leaked like Sylvester Stallone’s.

Related:

MONEY Taxes

What Obama’s Tax Plan Would Mean for Your Wallet

150129_FF_TaxPlanWallet
Peter Dazeley—Getty Images

The president's State of the Union proposals probably won't go anywhere. But if they did, the true "middle class" would barely notice a change, a new study concludes.

In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama said his tax reform plan would lower taxes for middle-class families. According to a new analysis from the Tax Policy Center, that’s not quite the case. According to the TPC’s calculation, Obama’s tax proposals would hike taxes on top earners, offer tax relief to low-income Americans—and change little for everyone in the middle.

Though there’s a next-to-zero chance that Congress will pass Obama’s plan as is, here’s what it would look like, in dollars, if it were implemented. The Tax Policy Center found that the lowest 20% of earners—households making less than $25,260 a year—would save an average of $174 in 2016. The top 20% of earners would pay an average of $1,818 more.

The richest of the rich would take the biggest hit. Households in the top 1%—those earning more than $663,130 a year—would pay an extra $28,983 in taxes on average. And the top 0.01% would owe another $168,006. That sounds like a lot, but the top 0.01% of households earn more than $3.4 million a year. Under Obama’s tax plan, their after-tax income would shrink by 2.6%.

So with the ultra-rich paying much higher taxes, the upper-middle class would still make out okay. Households at the lower end of the top 20%, in the $141,662 to $200,181 range, would actually keep another $116 on average.

And “middle”-middle class? They would pay just as much as they pay right now. Households earning between $49,086 and $84,055, the middle quintile of earners, would see almost zero change in their after-tax income. They would pay $7 more, on average.

In fact, households in the middle 60%—if you earn between $25,260 and $141,662, this includes you—would see a 0% to 0.1% increase in their after-tax income, on average.

Obama’s plan has two main components. First, roll back tax laws that primarily benefit higher-income Americans. Second, create, expand, and consolidate tax credits that primarily benefit Americans with lower incomes.

For starters, Obama wants to increase the capital gains tax rate from 25% to 28% for taxpayers earning more than $500,000. That’s the tax on your profits from the sale of assets such as stocks, bonds, mutual funds, or real estate. Unsurprisingly, the Tax Policy Center reports that high-income Americans report the most capital gains.

The president also wants to close what he calls the “trust fund loophole.” Today, when you inherit an asset and later sell it, you owe taxes only on the gains you’ve earned since getting your inheritance (what’s called a stepped-up basis). Obama is proposing taxing all gains based on the original value of the asset.

Those increased tax revenues would fund a new tax credit for two-earner families, expand the earned income tax credit for low-income taxpayers, and consolidate several education tax credits into a more generous American Opportunity Tax Credit for college students.

However, don’t get too attached to your new tax return—Republicans have called the whole tax plan a “non-starter.”

In fact, Obama has already had to abandon one of his ideas in the face of bi-partisan opposition. His plan initially included a new tax on 529 college savings accounts—your 529 investments would still have grown tax-free, but you would have paid taxes on your earnings when you withdrew the money, even if it was to pay for college. (The Tax Policy Center did not take the 529 proposal into account in its analysis.)

White House spokesman Eric Schultz said the administration dropped the idea because “it was a distraction.”

And it goes to show how hard it is to change any aspect of the tax code.

MONEY Health Care

What Consumers Should Know About Rising Health Care Costs

A conversation with Steven Brill, author of "America's Bitter Pill," on what Obamacare did—and didn't do—for consumers.

In 2013, Steven Brill brought new clarity to the American health care system with his award-winning TIME cover story, “Bitter Bill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us.” Now he’s out with a new book on the same theme: “America’s Bitter Bill: Money, Politics, Backroom Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System.” In it, Brill explores how the American health insurance system has evolved, the special interests that shaped the Affordable Care Act, the slow and troubled implementation of health care reform, and challenges we still face. He spoke to MONEY reporter Kara Brandeisky about his book and the key takeaways for health care consumers. (TIME and MONEY are sister Time Inc. publications and share a website. This conversation has been edited for length.)

MONEY: Your book is a comprehensive look at how the Affordable Care Act came to be. But it starts with this personal story about the experience you had as a health care consumer. How did your own open-heart surgery influence the way you thought about health care policy?

BRILL: Well, it sort of drove home something that I knew intellectually, which is that if—when—you’re a consumer in the health care marketplace, it’s not like being a consumer in any other kind of marketplace. We like to live in the illusion—or some people do—that health care can be bought and sold on the market the way any other product can because consumers can make a choice and they know what they’re doing and all the rest of it.

And the fact is that when I was lying there on that gurney, I didn’t know—and I didn’t care—what the price of anything was. I had no idea what I needed. I had no idea what the bills were going to be. When I got the bills, I had very little idea of what they meant—and I’m supposed to be, you know, an expert on this now. And when I got my explanations of benefits, not only did I have no idea, but—as you read in the book—the CEO of United Healthcare had no idea what it meant.

Who should Americans hold responsible for rising prices?

The members of Congress that, for example, passed a law that doesn’t allow Medicare to negotiate the price of prescription drugs. The members of Congress and local legislators and regulators that allow so-called nonprofit hospitals to enjoy very high profits and charge $77 for a box of gauze pads. It’s a matter of the United States deciding that it is going to join the rest of the developed world in controlling health care costs because it is not a free market that can function as a free market.

Obama said in his State of the Union that health care inflation is at its lowest rate in 50 years. [Former director of the White House Office of Management and Budget] Peter Orszag responded to your book, “The cost curve in health care is bending more drastically than I even believed possible in the fall of 2009.” What’s your response to that? Do you think we’re making enough progress at this point?

No, we’re not. And as the book recounts, Peter Orszag and his staff, until the very end, were writing memos complaining to the President and to the political staff that there’s next to nothing in this law that’s going to control costs. So he sort of is on both sides of the issue. And, you know, Peter wrote another piece in Bloomberg several months ago complaining that the law’s panel that was set up to judge comparative effectiveness is doing nothing to judge the comparative effectiveness of expensive treatments, and it’s time that we do something about that.

But saying health care inflation is low is not saying that costs are coming down. It’s just that health care inflation is now maybe two or three times overall inflation in the United States. And all that data that they cite are from the years 2011, ’12, and ’13, which are all before the core of Obamacare, the exchanges, even went into effect at the beginning of 2014. So I don’t know what they’re talking about.

But more important, if you take the trouble to read the law, all 965 pages of it, you will be hard-pressed to find anything except at the edges that does anything to address cost. There’s nothing in there that addresses prescription drug costs. There’s nothing in there that addresses what hospitals can charge and profits of hospitals, except for one provision that allows the IRS to restrict the billing collection practices of nonprofit hospitals for people who need financial aid.

And that is a provision—it’s very important. It’s a big deal. Senator Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, is the one who added that provision to the law. And that provision could have taken effect in March of 2010 when the law was passed, and it took the Obama Administration nearly five years, just until very recently, to write the regs to put that into effect. I could have written those regs in an hour and a half.

I thought some of the saddest stories in your book were about sick people who were burdened with outrageous bills because the Affordable Care Act regulations weren’t in effect yet or they hadn’t been written. What took so long?

You tell me. One of the motifs of the book is that the Obama people, from the President on down, are maybe really good at policy, but they’re just really bad at the nuts and bolts of governing. There is no explanation for why it would take five years to write that provision. It is not complex. It’s either that they were still in the grip of the hospital lobby or they were just not paying attention, just the way they weren’t paying attention to launching a website that would work.

You went and talked to Americans who could benefit from health insurance reform, and you found that they were pretty misinformed about some of the basic tenets of the law. What were some of the biggest misconceptions you encountered?

Well, it starts with the notion that this is a government takeover of health care. It’s exactly the opposite. It’s a plan that has its roots in something that Richard Nixon proposed in the 1970s that is a government subsidy of the private health care marketplace. Basically the government is subsidizing millions of Americans—which I think is a good thing—to go buy health care from private insurance companies who are going to insure them for services provided by private health care providers: hospitals, drug companies, medical device makers. So it buttresses the private sector. It certainly doesn’t interfere with it, let alone take it over. That’s one misconception.

The other misconception—and this is the Administration’s fault—is that a lot of the reporting talks about the premiums and says the premiums are $1,000 a month for a certain kind of plan. Well, they are, except for the fact that 87% of the people who are going on the exchanges are getting a subsidy, so that if you’re a family making $60,000 a year, a family of four, that $1,000 a month premium might actually cost you $300 because the government is chipping in a $700 subsidy.

The Obama Administration was really reluctant to talk about that because they were embarrassed that this was a major income-redistribution program, which is what it is. Once upon a time, the Democrats would have been proud of that. Now they’re really gun shy about it. As I point out in the book, just the Medicaid expansion in the law called for more people to get free health care—to get money from the government for health care—than the entire welfare program that Ronald Reagan ran against in 1980. And yet you didn’t see much about that. The Administration didn’t talk about it, and the press didn’t write about it.

In your original TIME story [“Bitter Pill”], chronicled how these hospitals were charging these outrageous prices, and hospital executives are making multimillion dollar salaries. So I think readers might be surprised that in your book, you say a solution is to let these hospital systems get even bigger and start insuring patients, as well. How did you come to that conclusion?

Well, because you’ve only described half of the solution. I say let them do that, but then treat them like the oligopolies or monopolies that they are, and stringently regulate their profits, their prices, even the salaries of their executives. In other words, if they’re going to be monopolies and oligopolies, and they’re going to keep their tax exemption as nonprofits, you can take a much different regulatory stance. I mean, it is totally beyond me that we have antitrust laws on the books that are supposed to regulate monopolies, and yet, Yale New Haven Health System, which is a monopoly by anybody’s definition when it comes to providing health care in New Haven, is not regulated.

And so my answer is, well, not only regulate Yale New Haven, but tell them to sell health insurance. In other words, if I live in New Haven, I’d rather buy my health insurance from Yale New Haven because it’s a great brand, it’s a great hospital. They’ve bought up so many of the doctors and clinics in and around New Haven. They own the Bridgeport Hospital. They own everything. So I could go to them and say, “Here’s my $10,000 a year for my health insurance. You keep me healthy.” And if that happens, they have no incentive to over-test or over-bill or keep me in the hospital an extra day because they’d only be charging themselves for that because they’d be the insurance company. And that all works fine again if there is real regulation, there are ombudsmen in place who really make sure that they don’t skimp on care now that they’ve gotten my $10,000.

But I think that is a realistic solution because it’s happening anyway. All these hospital systems are expanding and buying up doctors’ practices. Something like 70% of the doctors in the country are in practices owned or affiliated with the hospitals, owned by the hospitals or having some financial relationship with the hospitals.

And you also seem hopeful that tort reform could help drive down health care costs.

It would do a decent share of it, because it’s not about malpractice rates. It’s about the fact that if you go into an emergency room today and just use the word “head” as in “I have a headache,” “I fell on my head,” or even “I have to head to the bathroom,” if you use the word “head” you’re getting a CAT scan. And indeed, if you go on Google—or at least it used to be true, I haven’t done it lately—and type in “emergency room CAT scans,” all the ads on the right-hand side will be for trial lawyers. And so hospitals either have the excuse or the reason to over-test. And in the United States, we use CAT scans and MRIs three or four times as much per capita than they do in Germany, in France, in Japan and all those other places. And again, our results are no better.

[Since you’re a lawyer] I’m curious how specifically you think the system could be reformed.

Just have higher bars to lawsuits, penalize the frivolous suits, make it easier to get them thrown out. You could even have special courts which have doctors sitting as jurors. There are all kinds of proposals. The idea is not to make it impossible for someone to collect for actual malpractice, but to drive away the current system where in many places if there’s any kind of a bad result in a hospital or in a doctor’s practice, there’s a lawsuit and people have to settle it to keep going. And what doctors will do and hospitals will do is again they’ll say to someone who talks about a head, “Let’s give him a CAT scan so if anything bad happens we can always say, ‘Hey, we gave him a CAT scan,’ ‘We gave him an MRI. We did all this. We did belts and suspenders.’” That’s your defense. And that’s a very expensive defense for a lawsuit that doesn’t even necessarily happen.

You told [NPR’s] Terry Gross that as costs continue to rise you think there’s going to come a point where “something is going to snap” because “we can’t pay for this.” I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about what that breaking point might look like for consumers.

Well, we’re getting to a point where, in your own health insurance, your deductible keeps going up, your co-pays and your coinsurance keep going up, the amount you have to chip in for prescription drugs keeps going up. And that’s not because the insurance company profits are going up. It’s because their costs are going up, and so they have to keep raising their premiums and your employer can’t afford those premiums.

At some point, that’s going to become—I mean, I think it is becoming—unsustainable for people who even have good health insurance. And by the same token, it’s unsustainable for the federal government to be subsidizing ever-increasing insurance premiums for people who are buying insurance on the exchanges. So there’s nothing in the law that does anything about the core costs, the hospital costs, the drug costs. And it’s going to keep going up, and the share that the taxpayers are paying and that individuals are paying is going to go up even faster. And I think at some point, someone is going to organize a campaign around this.

Fifty years from now, how do you think historians will view the Affordable Care Act and what it did for consumers?

As a milestone, as an important milestone. Because at the bottom line, it went a long way toward erasing a national embarrassment, or disgrace even, which is that we’re the only developed country that hasn’t made some provision for all or most of our citizens to have access to health care. Now, in theory at least, every American has access to an insurance policy that will be affordable—although it’s not as affordable as it should be—and that will cover them part of the way so that they won’t either not get care and therefore have their health in peril, or even their lives in peril, or be sued into bankruptcy if they end up in the emergency room with a $9,000 bill for a bunch of CAT scans and an hour and a half of waiting.

Is there anything else that you hope consumers will take away from your book?

Well, I think consumers reading the book will certainly have a better understanding of how to read their own health care bills, how to complain about them, how to try to do something about them, how to ask the right questions. So there’s a consumer-friendly aspect of the book, too, I think.

What are the “right questions”?

“Why did I need that?” “What did that cost you?” Well, the first thing is, “What does that mean?” since most hospital bills are in code. It took me months to figure out what different hospital bills meant. But now there’s enough of a movement around that, after my article and after the stuff that Libby Rosenthal did [in her New York Times series, “Paying Till It Hurts”], that hospitals are finding they have to answer those questions.

And the power of embarrassment is not to be dismissed. If you start asking your hospital, “What is that mucus control device on the bill that’s $18?” And they say, “Well, that’s the box of tissues you got.” They may say, “You know what? Forget the mucus control device. We’ll take that off the bill.”

MONEY 529 plans

Why Obama Wants to Tax College Savings

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 20, 2015.
Mandel Ngan—Reuters

In this week's State of the Union address, the president proposed ending a popular tax break on 529 plans. Here's what's behind that pitch.

In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Obama promised to make college more affordable for low- and middle-income families. But one way he would pay for that would be to make college more expensive for millions of upper-income Americans.

The president proposed ending a key tax break on state 529 college savings plans. Today, the money you invest in a 529 plan isn’t deductible on your federal taxes (34 states and the District of Columbia give you a break on state taxes), but your savings grow tax-deferred, and you won’t owe any taxes on your earnings when you withdraw that money to pay for higher education expenses, including tuition, room and board, and books. Under Obama’s plan, those investment profits would be taxable, even if the money went toward college.

President Obama says he’d use the estimated $2 billion in additional tax revenues to raise the American Opportunity tax credit, which is a $2,500 write-off targeted at low- and middle-income families paying tuition bills. The administration points out that 529 plans disproportionately benefit higher-income households.

In essence, Obama is proposing making college more expensive for an estimated 2 million mostly upper-income families to ease the tuition burden for more than 8.5 million low- and middle-income families.

A Question of Fairness

This proposal—which is already facing Republican opposition in Congress—is based on concerns about the fairness of the 529 tax breaks that have been widely discussed among education-related think tanks and experts of all political leanings for years.

In all, federal taxpayers spend more on educational tax breaks than they do on popular financial aid programs such as Pell grants, noted a 2013 report by the Reimagining Aid Design and Delivery (RADD) Consortium for Higher Education Tax Reform. Not only are all the education tax breaks confusing and hard to collect, “students from families with the least financial need receive the most tax-based aid,” the report noted.

In theory, 529 plans aren’t just for the rich. Anybody can open one of these tax-protected colleges savings account for a child or for themselves. You can choose either a prepaid tuition plan, which lets you buy tuition credits ahead of time, or a college savings plan, which lets you set money aside for a future college student.

That tax break that the president wants to eliminate has been a key to 529 plans’ popularity. Since President George W. Bush signed the 529 tax exemption into law in 2001, families have opened nearly 12 million new 529 accounts and have socked away almost $250 billion for college.

And states have been marketing the savings programs. In 2012, the GAO found that 14 states offered matching grants to encourage low-income families to save. Some states even offered 529 brochures to new parents leaving the hospital.

Despite these efforts, very few low- or middle-income families have managed to save very much in 529s. In 2012, more than 97% of families had no special college savings account, according to a Government Accountability Office report. (The large number of accounts may be due to some families opening separate accounts for each child and parent.)

One reason for the low participation: Many still don’t know about 529s. Of parents who say they’re planning to send their kids to college, 49% don’t even know what a 529 plan is, Sallie Mae found in its annual “How America Pays For College” report.

Another factor: Low and middle-income families pay comparatively low taxes, so the tax break is not much of a lure to lock up money for one purpose. Families can take money out of 529s to spend on non-college expenses, but they’ll have to pay regular income taxes, plus an extra 10% penalty, on any earnings.

As a result, 529 investors tend to be wealthy. Families with 529s earned a median annual income of $142,400 and reported a median of $413,500 in financial assets, according to the GAO. About half of families with 529s (or similar Coverdell accounts) had an income above $150,000 in 2010.

And, in part because high earners typically owe higher taxes, the wealthy reaped large tax breaks from using 529s. In 2012, the GAO found that Americans who made less than $100,000 withdrew a median $7,491 from their 529s, saving just $561 on their taxes. But Americans who earned more than $150,000 withdrew a median $18,039, saving $3,132 in taxes.

In place of the tax break at withdrawal, Obama wants to expand the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which is currently phased out for families earning more than $180,000 a year.

The administration would like to expand the write-off to more students, such as those who attend college part-time. “It’s targeted in such a way that it will be most impactful to the students who need the assistance the most,” says Cecilia Muñoz, White House domestic policy director.

What Changes You’ll Really See

What does this all mean for you: Not much, at least for the near term.

If you’ve already got money in a 529, don’t worry. The president’s plan wouldn’t be retroactive. It would repeal the tax break on earnings only for future contributions.

And if you’re planning to start saving for college, there’s probably not much to worry about either. Republicans, who control both houses of Congress, have come out in opposition to the proposal. “You don’t produce a healthy economy and an educated workforce by raising taxes on college savings,” Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told the Wall Street Journal.

That means there probably won’t be extra money in the budget for much additional financial aid for low- and middle-income families. So you may as well start saving for tuition bills. Here’s how to find the best 529 plan for you.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the proportion of new tax revenues that would come from families earning above $250,000 if Obama’s proposal was enacted. The reference has been removed.

 

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