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Citigroup to Refund $700 Million for Deceptive Card Practices

A Citibank branch on Park Avenue in New York City.
Craig Warga—Bloomberg via Getty Images A Citibank branch on Park Avenue in New York City.

8.8 million consumers were affected by selling of illegal 'add-on' products by Citigroup

(NEW YORK)—Citigroup will refund $700 million to consumers and will pay $70 million in fines for illegal and deceptive credit card practices, the bank and federal regulators said Tuesday.

The order, coming from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is the latest multimillion dollar settlement against the largest credit card issuers for their role in selling “add-on” products to customers, such as credit score monitoring or “rush” processing of payments. Bank of America reached a similar, slightly larger settlement with regulators in 2014 and JPMorgan Chase was fined in 2013.

Under its agreement with the CFPB, Citi will issue refunds to 8.8 million affected consumers who paid for these types of add-on products, and will pay two separate $35 million fines to the CPFB and to the federal bank regulator the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

“We continue to uncover illegal credit card add-on practices that are costing unknowing consumers millions of dollars,” CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in a statement. “This is the tenth action we’ve taken against companies in this space for deceiving consumers.”

Some of the illegal activity by Citi goes back to as early as 2000, the CPFB said, and ended in 2013. In one case, Citi telemarketers allegedly sold consumers identity theft protection services with a 30-day “free” trial, when no such free trial existed. In another situation, Citi sold credit monitoring services when Citi wasn’t performing such services at all, or were not actively monitoring a consumer’s credit file with credit reporting bureaus.

Citi also allegedly misrepresented its customers by charging a $14.95 “expedited” payment fee to customers who made over-the-phone payments and did not disclose to no-fee options.

Credit card add-on services were a controversial but lucrative source of revenue for banks for several years, often aggressively sold to consumers as ways to protect their credit scores, identities or protect them if they lost their jobs. The marketing of such practices largely ended after increased regulator scrutiny.

In a statement, Citi said it stopped illegal practices in 2013 and is in the process of issuing statement credits to the affected customers. If the customer no longer has an account at Citi, a check will be mailed, the bank said.

Citi has already set aside the money to pay for the settlement, a spokeswoman said.

Citigroup shares rose 28 cents, or 0.5 percent, to $59.12 at midday amid a broad market decline.


New Scams Target People Buying and Selling Gift Cards Online

baona—Getty Images

In some cases, victims are out thousands of dollars.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation published an alert Thursday warning of a worrisome trend: Thieves are using gift card exchange and auction websites to steal money from unsuspecting card buyers and sellers.

There are several traps that target people selling gift cards in particular, the FBI reports.

In one scam, fraudsters pay you for a card (or the code on the card), but then dispute or cancel the charge after they have already used the gift card. In another, they ask you to buy a bunch of gift cards in exchange for an item on an auction site—and then never actually send you the purchase.

To avoid becoming a victim, the FBI suggests you take several precautions when you use gift card websites.

  • Check reviews of any website you use.
  • Always review gift card balances before and after purchasing the card.
  • If you are selling a gift card, don’t ever give out the card’s PIN until your payment transaction is complete.
  • Be wary of auction sites selling gift cards at a discount or in bulk.
  • If you are buying a gift card in a store, examine the protective scratch-off area on the back of the card for evidence of tampering.

And beware of social media postings offering vouchers or gift cards: Fraudulent messages can sometimes appear to have been shared by a friend when they really come from a scam artist.


MONEY credit cards

Can You Buy Marijuana With a Credit Card?

Conte's Clone Bar & Dispensary in Denver, Colorado
Craig F. Walker—Denver Post via Getty Images Conte's Clone Bar & Dispensary in Denver, Colorado

Despite legal uncertainties, some pot dispensaries accept plastic.

It’s been more than a year since legal recreational pot sales started in Colorado, and as much as dispensary owners enjoy the booming business, they’re sick of swimming in cash. Though the Department of Justice released regulations last year allowing banks to accept money from legal dispensaries, it’s still a federal crime — the announcement that the DOJ won’t pursue institutions that process legal pot money hasn’t been enough to make everyone comfortable.

It seems some Colorado business owners have run out of patience waiting for the banking industry to get on board with legal cannabis sales. According to a poll of 78 state-licensed dispensaries in the Denver area conducted by FOX31, 27 (or 47%) of them would be “willing to accept Visa or MasterCard as payment.”

Some of them may be working with financial institutions that have decided to accept money from legal cannabis sales, despite federal laws, but they’re probably trying to downplay or conceal the nature of the business, FOX31’s investigation suggests. Credit card transactions conducted at legal dispensaries produced receipts with company names like “AJS Holdings LLC” and “Indoor Garden Products.” Even though the federal government has said it will stand by and let legal dispensaries use the banking system and the credit card transactions it enables, that hasn’t erased the concerns over Drug Enforcement Agency audits for money laundering.

Given that credit card processing at marijuana dispensaries remains risky, it’s interesting that nearly half of the companies polled by FOX31 said they’d accept credit cards. (It was unclear from the story if the dispensaries polled actually have the ability to process such payments or if they’d merely like to.)

If it’s becoming more common for dispensaries to accept credit card payments, that’s both good and bad for consumers. The good thing is the ability to pay as you prefer and allow you to walk into a dispensary without a bunch of cash in your wallet. On the other hand, using a credit card may lead consumers to spend more than they can afford, potentially accumulating credit card debt. Then again, all consumer goods pose that threat — the important thing is to spend within your means, whether you’re buying indoor gardening products or “Indoor Gardening Products.” What you put on your credit card doesn’t matter to your financial and credit stability, but how much you charge and how you manage that balance does.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.


3 Ways to Avoid Costly Rental Car Insurance

airport sign for car rental companies
Chris Rank—Bloomberg via Getty Images

When you rent a car, you will be asked if you want car rental insurance. You might already have it — but it may have gaps. Here's how to figure it out.

I’ve been rear-ended in a rental car by a hit-and-run driver. And on my last business trip, the rental agent almost foisted a car with a scratched-up bumper on me. (Thankfully, I remembered to inspect the vehicle before I left the lot and asked for a different one.) So I know firsthand the importance of making sure you have adequate coverage when you rent a car. Without it, you could face enormous bills and a damaged credit rating if you can’t pay them.

But I am also frugal, so there is often a tug-of-war going on in my head when I rent a car: do I pay for the rental car company’s coverage or not? Purchasing it can literally double the cost of a car rental. Sometimes the coverage is even more expensive than the daily rental rate.

Fortunately there are some good alternatives for those who want to be protected and save money.

1. Your Own Car Insurance

If you own a car, then you (hopefully) have car insurance, and this is probably your first line of defense. You want to make sure you are adequately covered in four areas:

Loss of use: If you wreck a rental car, the rental agency will charge for the days that car is unavailable to other customers. My own auto insurance does not provide this coverage, so I use a credit card that fills this gap. (More on that in a moment.)

Collision/Comprehensive: Collision coverage typically covers damage to the vehicle if you are involved in an accident, while comprehensive coverage often pays for damage to the car due to theft, vandalism, flood, fire etc. Remember, your current deductible will apply. (Using the right credit card to pay for the rental can be helpful, since it may cover your deductible.)

Liability: This generally covers damage to another vehicle(s) and/or medical bills to others injured in an accident you caused. If you have an umbrella policy, that coverage may provide additional protection.

Medical/ Personal Accident Coverage: Does your personal auto insurance offer coverage for medical bills sustained in an accident, and will that extend to a rental car? Do you have good medical insurance? (Note, consumers who are injured in an accident sometimes find their own medical insurer balks at paying those medical bills.)

2. Your Credit Card Coverage

Many credit cards offer rental car coverage. This insurance is usually secondary to your personal auto policy, and that the claim will first be filed with your own insurer. (A few credit cards automatically include primary coverage.) But it may cover deductibles or expenses that your personal auto insurance doesn’t, such as loss of use. However, you’ll need to be aware of exclusions, which may include rentals in some foreign countries, certain types of vehicles such as pickup trucks or full-sized vans, or travel on unpaved roads. Full-time students may also be excluded from coverage.

Like most third-party coverage, it typically covers expenses related to the rental car but not to other cars you damage or people or property you damage in an accident. For example, when I reviewed the coverage offered by the credit card I use most often, I noticed the following are not covered:

  • Damage to any vehicle other than the rental car;
  • Damage to any property other than the rental car, owner’s property, or items not permanently attached to the rental vehicle;
  • The injury of anyone or anything.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind here is that you need to read the details about what is and isn’t covered before you get to the rental car counter.

If you’re thinking about getting a new credit card that provides rental car coverage, keep in mind that your credit score will be a factor in whether you’re approved. You can check your credit scores for free on Credit.com to see where you stand.

3. Private Third-Party Coverage

If you purchase travel insurance, you can often add rental car coverage for a small additional fee, says Damian Tysdal, publisher of TravelInsuranceReview.net. But, as with credit card coverage, it usually doesn’t cover everything. “It is really just for collision and loss of use,” he says. “It won’t cover a car you hit, or harm to others.”

You can also purchase coverage through a third party, even if you don’t buy travel insurance. For example, American Express cardholders can buy “Premium Rental Car Coverage” for most rentals for a flat fee of $19.95 or $24.95 per rental (not per day). It is primary coverage, and there is no deductible. It also provides additional coverage for accidental death and secondary coverage for medical expenses, and covers vehicles the basic automatic coverage doesn’t (such as luxury vehicles and SUVs).

Other third-party services such as Protect Your Bubble, offers rental car coverage for $7.99 per day and covers rental car damage and theft, and personal effects protection, with no deductible. However, like other third-party coverage, it doesn’t include additional liability coverage or personal accident insurance so you’ll want to make sure you are adequately covered there through your own insurance policy or find out whether that coverage is available through your rental agency.

“If you are looking for the best coverage, look to your personal auto insurance,” says Tysdal. If you don’t own a car or have minimal coverage on your vehicle, you may need to piece together the best coverage you can from the options available.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.


Why More Access to Credit Is Not a Good Thing

Getty Images

It's basically like getting the keys to a race car we don't know how to drive

According to a recent survey from the New York Fed, Americans today feel pretty good about their ability to get credit. The percentage of people applying for credit cards ticked up over the last quarter, and it’s up about three percentage points since October 2013, while the percentages of rejected credit card applications and involuntary account closures have fallen. The percentage of people rejected when they ask for a credit limit increase has fallen even more sharply; as of last quarter, more than 75% of people who asked for increases got them.

And we think the good times are going to keep rolling. The same Fed survey found that more people expect to ask for credit limit increases — and get them — over the next 12 months. Abut 12% of survey respondents expect to apply for credit cards in the next year, a jump of about four percentage points over the previous quarter.

This would be all well and good, except for one tiny detail: We really have no idea what we’re doing when it comes to credit, and being clueless can cost us big bucks.

The 2015 Chase Slate Credit Survey finds that about 40% of us have never checked our credit scores, and people in this camp have a fuzzy grasp of what a “good” credit score entails. People who have never checked their credit think, on average, a score of 668 is good (it’s really not terrific).

Even among the people who have checked, they think a score of 719 is good — which is better, but still not where you need to be if you want to get the best rates. With a score like that, you’ll probably be able to get credit, but you might pay more, and these survey results indicate that many of us might not even realize we could be doing better and saving money in the process.

Chase also shows that we’re overconfident about our credit smarts in other ways. While almost 90% of people who say they’re in a “poor financial situation” have a good handle on what constitutes a good credit score, only about 80% of those who think they’re in good shape, credit-wise, know what that really means.

A survey by credit bureau TransUnion finds a similar knowledge gap: More than two in five of the people in its survey who checked their credit in the last month think your income is included in a credit report, and almost half of those who have checked their score in the last year think getting a raise automatically boosts your score. (Neither is true.)

And while we’ve got great intentions, we don’t always follow through: Although two-thirds of respondents to the Chase survey say they want to improve their credit over the next year, only about a third of respondents say they have a plan to do so, and more than one in five say they’ve never lifted a finger to improve their credit. More worrisome: A majority of people surveyed don’t even know paying bills on time is the top factor that contributes to your credit score.

Sometimes, this lack of knowledge can prevent us from educating ourselves further: 20% of respondents in TransUnion’s survey who checked their score in the last year think doing so lowered their score, which could keep them from checking it more frequently. In reality, checking your own score doesn’t hurt it; it’s only when a lender makes an inquiry that your score takes a small hit.

So, while lenders are happy to keep giving America credit and borrowers are eager to take it, many of us are doing so without even a basic grasp of how the system works. This isn’t blissful ignorance; this is potentially expensive ignorance, and the worst part is many people don’t know how or why to improve their credit.


MONEY Credit

A Creditor Took Me to Court. Now What?

court gavel
Oliver Cleve—Getty Images

A creditor filed a judgment against you but you weren't notified—now it's ruining your credit. What can you do?

Sometimes, the first time you find out you’ve had a judgment entered against you is when the judgment-holder seeks to enforce it. While due process is supposed to notify all parties to a court action ahead of time, there are many reasons why you may not have gotten that notice. You may have moved from the address where notice was delivered and it did not follow you to your new address. Or someone might have received your notice and simply tossed it away. Or you got the notice, but did not fully understand what it meant.

Looking at your credit report regularly is one way to see if there are any judgments against you. Judgments are listed in the public record section of the credit report. However, credit reports are not always completely accurate or up to date.

If there is any doubt in your mind, you should contact the court where you think the judgment might have been entered. Many courts have online access where you can check your name without leaving your seat. Others require an in-person visit to view the public record of judgments. Here’s a list of the various courts and what can be done to access them. And here’s what you need to know about dealing with a judgment.

When You Didn’t Know About the Lawsuit or Judgment

There are various scenarios that allow you to ask a court to reopen a judgment — for example, if you weren’t notified or served the original papers. However, as the judgment in the case gets older, the likelihood of succeeding under that argument goes down dramatically. The rules and time periods vary greatly from state to state. This is one of those times when it is best to consult with a qualified lawyer who knows the court rule and laws on the subject.

When the Judgment Is From Another State or a Federal Court

Federal court judgments are enforceable in every state, as the jurisdiction of a federal court is national. However, because the required amounts of a federal lawsuit are so much larger, you probably have a greater problem than just the entry of a judgment. You would know if you are being sued in federal court.

State court judgments, however, do not have power beyond that state’s borders. In order to enforce an out-of-state judgment against you in your home state, the judgment has to be domesticated, or registered in the courts of your home state. The requirements for that can vary from state to state and the process for the creditor can be quite expensive and time-consuming. It is not common for out-of-state judgments to be enforced in another state because the process can be daunting and expensive. But the record of that judgment will likely appear on your credit report.

Can a Judgment Be Enforced If You’ve Been Paying?

Many judgments will contain an order of payments. The court’s rules or state statutes may require that you be allowed to pay the judgment in installments. But an installment order does not carry a requirement that you receive a periodic statement like a credit card or loan. Some installment payment orders may require weekly, not monthly, payments. There is usually no grace period on the due dates for payment and no provision for changing the payment terms unless the court orders it. So if you are a day late in making your payment, or even a penny short in paying the full amount required, the judgment creditor may be entitled to ask the court for an order enforcing the judgment. This can mean a wage garnishment, a bank account attachment or a lien on your house.

Even though you may have been making payments on the account to the original creditor, it does not mean that you have been making the payment in the proper amount or paying on time. Or you may have been sending money to the wrong party. The account may have been sold or transferred and the place where you are sending money is the wrong place, which can be money thrown out of the window. Always make sure you know who you are paying, pay the required amount and pay on time. Your contract may require that you pay off the entire balance you owe at once if you default in your payment terms in place, amount or time.

Judgments Can Be Altered

Even if the judgment is final and cannot be reopened, it does not mean that the terms of the judgment cannot be changed. For instance, if the judgment does not allow installment payments, terms for installment payments may be added. Or if the payments are beyond your ability to pay, then they may be lowered to fit your income. Be aware however, since judgments typically allow for interest on the debt to continue running at some rate, too small a payment may be just throwing money away since it never covers the accruing interest. If you have insufficient income or assets to pay a judgment, then you may want to explore bankruptcy as an option. With certain limited exceptions, judgments can be discharged in bankruptcy.

Judgments Can Be Sold

Much like any other account receivable, a judgment can be sold by a creditor to another entity. When judgments are sold, the transfer must be recorded on the court docket or it is not valid. Before you make payments on a judgment, make sure that the payments are going to the right person. That is why it is so important to obtain from the court file the name and address of the judgment creditor. If you pay the wrong person, you won’t get credit for those payments.

Document Your Payments On the Judgment

It is vitally important to keep good records of every payment you make on the judgment. Accounting errors occur and you want to make sure that you get credit for every payment you make. Since interest may still be running on the debt and there will be additional amounts added to your balance for court costs and attorney fees, you must keep track of the balances and the payments. It’s not a bad idea to periodically contact the holder of the judgment to determine your balance if you are paying on it to make sure your numbers jibe with theirs.

Don’t Ignore a Judgment Once You’re Aware of It

Judgments do not have a short lifespan. A judgment in Connecticut, for example, is good for 20 years, and it does not end there. Before the judgment expires, it can be renewed for another 20 years. For many people, 40 years is the length of an adult working life. Again, the duration of a judgment varies greatly from state to state, so consult with an attorney and do not ignore it. While a judgment might stay on your credit report for seven years, it may remain effective long beyond that date. Like zombie debt, a judgment may come back to life when you least expect it.

When You Pay the Judgment in Full, Get a Release

Unless you are making your payments directly to the court, the judge has no way of knowing that you have paid the judgment off. When a judgment is paid in full, the person holding the judgment should file a satisfaction of judgment with the court to show that it is paid in full. When making your final payment, not only should you document that it is your final payment, but you should request a copy of that satisfaction of judgment document and make sure that a copy is filed with the court. Do not assume that anyone else will take this step.

Similarly, if a lien has been filed on any property to secure the judgment payments, you will want an original of a release of judgment so that you can be sure that it is filed with the appropriate authorities. Some states require a filing in the land records in your town or county clerk’s office or with the Secretary of State where the property is located. Again, without proper documentation, the records offices will have no knowledge that the judgment is paid. Although bankruptcy can discharge most judgments, you must take additional steps to get a release of the lien in a bankruptcy case so the record is clear that there is no further claim against your property.


When the judgment is paid in full, be sure to get a fresh copy of your credit report to determine that it is being reported on your credit report as paid. Nothing will hurt your creditworthiness more than to have a credit report showing that you have a judgment against you that remains unpaid.

You can get your free annual credit reports on AnnualCreditReport.com. You can also watch for changes by getting your free credit score every month on Credit.com.

MONEY credit cards

How Does Amazon’s New 5% Cash Back Card Measure Up?

Amazon Prime

Amazon has a new store credit card that offers Amazon Prime members 5% back on qualifying purchases. But how does it compare to the competition?

Amazon and Synchrony Bank released a new credit card offer for Amazon Prime customers last week, offering 5% cash back on qualifying purchases and even promotional financing for orders over $149.

The store credit card is a credit product you may be familiar with at bricks-and-mortar retailers. Often, these cards offer a discount at sign-up, and promises of exclusive discounts or or coupons in the future. With the 5% cash-back offer on all purchases, is the new Prime card a good fit for frequent Amazon shoppers?

How This Card Works

Subscribers to Amazon’s Prime service are eligible to receive 5% cash back on qualifying Amazon.com purchases as a statement credit. Or, they can receive a variety of promotional finance offers. For example, cardholders will pay no interest on charges of $149 or more if the balance is paid in full within six months of purchase. Otherwise, the standard interest rate of 25.99% will apply. In addition, new applicants will receive an Amazon.com gift card loaded into their account instantly upon approval.

This card is offered by Synchrony Bank, and is not affiliated with any payment network, so it is only valid for purchases from Amazon. Applicants must be members of Amazon Prime, which costs $99 per year and includes free two-day shipping and access to their streaming video and music services. There is no annual fee for this card, but cardholders must be current Amazon Prime subscribers to receive the 5% discount or the promotional financing offers.

There are other store cards and credit cards that also allow you to save money on Amazon purchases. Here are a few offers so you can weigh your options.

Amazon.com Rewards Visa Card From Chase

Chase offers this card that earns 3% back for purchases from Amazon.com, 2% back at gas stations, restaurants and drugstores, and 1% back on all other purchases, and is accepted anywhere Visa is. New cardholders also receive a $30 Amazon.com gift card applied to their account at the time of approval. There is no annual fee for this card.

Sallie Mae MasterCard From Barclaycard

This card offers 5% cash back on the first $250 cardholders spend each month on gas and grocery purchases, and the first $750 spent each month on eligible book purchases. Interestingly, Amazon.com is coded as a book store, a legacy of their early origins as just a book retailer. Cardholders earn 1% cash back on all other purchases, and there is no annual fee for this card.

SimplyCash Business Card From American Express

Another strategy for getting discounts from Amazon purchases is to use Amazon gift cards, which can be purchased at some office supply stores. The SimplyCash Business Card from American Express offers 5% cash back for purchases at U.S. office supply stores and on wireless telephone services. It also features 3% cash back on a category of your choice including airlines, hotels, car rentals, gas stations, restaurants, advertising and shipping, and on all other purchases. There is no annual fee for this card.

Blue Cash Preferred Card From American Express

This card offers 6% cash back on up to $6,000 spent each year at U.S. supermarkets, which often sell gift cards for Amazon. In addition, this card offers 3% cash back for purchases from select U.S. department stores, and 1% cash back on all other purchases. There is a $75 annual fee for this card.

Before you apply for any credit card, it can be helpful to check your credit standing so you can target your search to credit cards that fall within your credit range. You can get two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com, and they’re updated every 30 days.

Note: It’s important to remember that interest rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products frequently change. As a result, rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products cited in these articles may have changed since the date of publication. Please be sure to verify current rates, fees and terms with credit card issuers, banks or other financial institutions directly.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

MONEY credit cards

Can You Pay Your Mortgage With a Credit Card?

best travel rewards credit card
Robert Hadfield

Sometimes, lenders allow you to pay one debt with another, but there are a lot of things to know before you charge a mortgage.

You can use a credit card to pay many kinds of bills, and if you have a rewards credit card you pay in full every month, you can use those payments to increase your rewards. It’s a common strategy.

Still, just because you have the ability to pay a bill with your credit card doesn’t mean it’s a safe tactic. Some consumers are tempted to use their credit cards to make mortgage payments, if they have that option, because large transactions generate more rewards, but doing that might actually cost you, rather than save you money.

It’s not very common to have the option to pay your mortgage with a credit card, but if you have the ability to do so, you’ve probably wondered about the risks and rewards of paying a loan with a credit card.

What to Ask Your Lender

If you can use your credit card to pay your mortgage, find out if there are fees associated with the transaction. Credit card transactions can be very expensive to process — it depends on the card you’re using — so the lender may charge you that fee so they don’t have to foot the bill

If there’s a fee, compare that to the rewards you might earn by charging your mortgage payment. Say you’re using a card that offers 1.5% cash back on all purchases — any processing fee exceeding 1.5% means you’re paying to pay your mortgage.

You should also ask how that transaction will be processed. A Reddit user recently posted about paying a mortgage with a credit card, and the payment went through as a cash advance on the card. Cash advances start accruing interest as soon as the transaction clears, which means they can get extremely expensive. Also, cash advances generally carry a higher interest rate than normal credit transactions, hitting you with a double-whammy of higher interest that starts accruing immediately.

Should your lender not charge fees in excess of your rewards, and if it codes the mortgage payment like a regular credit transaction, the strategy could work in your favor.

At the same time, you may set yourself up for some serious financial damage if you miss a payment on the card and have to pay interest on what might end up being a very large balance. You can see how your mortgage is impacting your credit scores for free on Credit.com.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

MONEY identity theft

These Are the Only Data Breaches You Really Need to Worry About

social security card breaking up into bits and floating away
Yasu+Junko—Prop Styling by Shane Klein

Every day seems to bring news of another hack that compromises your personal data. While you can't afford to get complacent, you don't need to panic about every leak. Here's how to know when to worry and what action to take.

At this point, you can bet a hacker has made off with some of your personal information. The number of data breaches hit an all-time high in 2014, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center. An estimated 86 million records—including credit card and debit card numbers—were compromised, with Kmart, Home Depot, and Staples among the companies that saw the greatest data spillage.

Perhaps the worst scare yet, however, came in early 2015, when health insurer Anthem reported that hackers accessed its customers’ Social Security numbers—pure gold to an ID thief. “This one is a nightmare,” says Ed Mierzwinski of advocacy group U.S. PIRG.

But you may be too weary to heed the wake-up call. Almost a third of Americans who receive breach notifications ignore them, privacy research group Ponemon Institute has found. While you can’t panic over every breach, you also can’t afford to get complacent. How much to worry and what action to take depend on what data you learn have been compromised.


How much to worry: A lot. A fraudster could apply for credit in your name, and you could spend years repairing your records, says Paul Stephens of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

What to do: Check your credit reports ASAP for unusual activity. You’re entitled to one free copy per year from each of the credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, TransUnion) via AnnualCreditReport.com. At minimum place a free 90-day fraud alert with one of the bureaus, which will inform the other two. This alert tells lenders to confirm your identity before extending credit.

A better move: Freeze your credit, preventing anyone from getting loans in your name. On the downside, you’ll pay up to $10 per credit bureau to place a freeze and up to $12 per bureau to lift it when you apply for new credit. A hassle, yes, and costly. “But for someone worried about ID theft, it’s the best $30 you can spend,” Stephens says.


How much to worry: Depends on what kind of site was hacked and whether you reuse passwords (61% of people do, identity protection firm CSID found).

What to do: Ideally, you’d change your password on the breached site and all others on which you used the same code. But if the idea of that much work leaves you paralyzed, the least you need to do is change codes for the most critical accounts (like email and financial sites), says Joseph Bonneau, technology fellow at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. And where it’s an option, set up two-factor authentication, which requires you to input an additional piece of information to log in. That will make it harder for hackers to break into your account next time a password is compromised.


How much to worry: Very little. When criminals steal just a credit card number, you’re not liable for any fraudulent charges, notes Chi Chi Wu of the National Consumer Law Center. With a debit number, you’re not liable for unauthorized charges you report within 60 days of getting your statement, and often banks will make you whole even if you don’t report until later. (The laws are different when a card itself is stolen, but, again, many issuers have zero-liability policies.)

What to do: Simply read your statements carefully, says U.S. PIRG’s Mierzwinski. Call the issuer if you see charges you don’t recognize, he says, “though usually your bank calls you first.” Don’t assume credit monitoring—which many breached businesses offer to customers for free—will do the job for you, Wu says. The services only tell you when a lender checks your credit, not when charges are run up on an existing account.


How much to worry: Very little. Criminals can’t commit ID theft with just your name, birth date, or email—though they may try to “phish” for more info by posing as legitimate businesses.

What to do: Stay vigilant. Avoid clicking on links in emails. And when a financial institution calls, hang up and call back. Better to seem rude than get rooked.



It’s Unbelievable We Still Haven’t Learned This Lesson

pieces of credit card in hands
Roy Hsu—Getty Images

At $57 billion, it's an expensive one

You’d think the Great Recession would still be fresh enough in everybody’s minds that we’d be going out of our way to avoid putting ourselves through the financial wringer once again.


We’re piling on credit card debt at a dizzying pace and experts warn we’re barreling towards a tipping point. The website CardHub.com’s annual study of credit card debt just came out last week, and the numbers are sobering.

In 2014, we piled on $57.1 billion in new credit card debt — a record number that’s 47% higher than the debt we added in 2013. After pulling back in 2009 and 2010, Americans have added a total of almost $180 billion in credit card debt in just a few short years.

Typically, the first quarter of each year sees a big pay down in credit card debt, as we leave the indulgence of the holidays behind (and probably make a few New Year’s resolutions about being more financially disciplined.) We started of 2014 behind the eight-ball by not paying off as much as we had in previous years, and just kept racking up those balances.

On average, every American household carries nearly $7,200 in credit card debt. That figure hasn’t been this high in five years, and it’s still climbing. “The average household’s credit card balance… is growing dangerously close to the $8,300 tipping point previously identified by CardHub as being unsustainable.,” the study warns.

That’s bad, but there’s another factor it’s likely all of these charge-happy American consumers aren’t taking into account: When lawmakers passed the CARD Act in the recession’s wake and prohibited credit card issuers from hiking rates for any old reason, the card companies pretty much en masse switched their customers from fixed-rate to variable-rate cards so they’d be able to raise rates when the prime rate increased.

In all fairness, it’s been pretty easy to overlook the prime rate of late, because nothing’s happening. It’s been sitting at a rock-bottom, near-zero level for years now, with any increase contingent on the Federal Reserve raising its benchmark rate, a move they’ve been reluctant to make — until recently.

With the unemployment rate improving and other signs of renewed economic vigor trickling in, economists expect the central bank to start raising rates sometime this year. And when that happens, the cost of servicing all that credit card debt is going to rise. Households who are just treading water making minimum payments are going to have to pinch pennies from somewhere else just to stay afloat.

How much rates will go up is the $64,000 question. Some think it will be a fraction of a percentage point, but others predict it could go up 1% or 2% this year. “I expect short term rates to rise during 2015, and hence credit card interest rates to rise,” Brigham Young University finance professor Hal Heaton tells CardHub.

In relative terms, that’s still a low rate, but if we’re adding rather than subtracting debt at the same time — which CardHub also predicts we’ll do — this could spell trouble for a lot of borrowers.

Read next: 5 Bad Money Habits You Can Break Today

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