MONEY Credit

Your Genes Might Affect Your Credit Score

150311_FF_DNAMoney
Jon Boyes—Getty Images

Your credit score isn't controlled by any one cause, but your genes may be a key factor.

There is the standard list of factors that influence your credit score: payment history, outstanding balances, the types of credit that you use and so on. But what you probably don’t realize is that your genes may also play an important role. Yes, your biological wiring might make you more likely to be more risk-seeking and take on more debt, which could lead to a lower FICO score.

I came across this intriguing discovery while researching my book Coined: The Rich Life of Money And How Its History Has Shaped Us. I wrote the book because I was working at a Wall Street investment bank during the credit crisis, and I wanted to know what leads people to make bad decisions with money. I learned that there are many things that guide our financial decisions, including our genes.

To understand how genes could sway our decisions, I asked a neuroeconomist. Neuroeconomics is an emerging and interdisciplinary field in which brain scans and other technologies are used to understand how we make financial decisions. Brian Knutson, a neuroeconomist at Stanford University, explained a study that he conducted with two colleagues, Camelia Kuhnen and Gregory Samanez-Larkin, on the link between our genes, financial decisions and even life outcomes.

They started with the multi-part question, “Do genes influence cognitive abilities, do they shape the way people learn in financial markets, or do they determine risk attitudes?” They concentrated on a gene known as 5-HTTLPR because it had been identified in previous studies as playing a role in how we make financial decisions. Specifically, they wanted to know whether there was causation between people who have a variant of this gene, possessing a short or long allele, and their financial outcome.

In the trial, they selected 60 individuals from San Francisco to participate. The participants shared demographic information such as their age, marital status and ethnicity. They also provided personal financial information such as their occupation, income level and debts. Some participants also disclosed their FICO scores. All participants had their DNA collected via cheek swabs for an analysis of whether they possessed the short or long alleles. Participants were then presented a series of financial decisions like how to allocate $10,000 across stocks, bonds and cash.

It turned out that those with short alleles made more conservative financial decisions than those with long alleles. Participants with short alleles allocated less money in equities and more in low-performing assets like cash. Moreover, in real life these participants had fewer lines of credit than the others. Those with two short alleles had higher FICO scores, some 93 points, than those with a long allele. FICO scores typically range between 300 and 850, so a swing of 93 points, or 17%, is statistically noteworthy.

Before concluding that genes were the reason for the variance in behavior, the researchers considered other possible factors: income, wealth and financial literacy. But they didn’t find that any of these things were meaningful in explaining the outcome of their study. Ultimately, they settled, “Overall, these results indicate that individual variation in the 5-HTTLPR genotype influences financial choice.”

Their conclusion is in line with other academic studies that find there are genetic determinants for financial decisions. For example, researchers compared the investment portfolios of fraternal and identical twins. They found that almost one third of the divergence in asset allocation might be attributable to genetic factors. Indeed, twins that were frequently in touch invested in a similar manner. But identical twins who grew up separately also demonstrated similar financial decisions. The researchers explain, “We attribute the genetic component of asset allocation—the relative amount invested in equities and the portfolio volatility—to genetic variation in risk preferences.”

However, Knutson and his colleagues sound a cautionary note: not all participants acted in accordance with how their genes might predict. Just because several studies reveal that genes appear to play a role in determining the financial decisions, doesn’t mean that they are the only things that matter. Even if someone is biologically wired to be risk-averse, they might demonstrate risk-seeking behavior depending on the situation. For example, say someone in her late 20s who is predisposed to risk aversion is setting up a retirement account. She has also taken two online courses that recommend more aggressive investing early in one’s career, so she decides to be more risk-seeking, and invests more money in stocks than bonds. In this case, knowledge triumphed over genetics.

That genes can influence our credit scores is an intriguing finding of neuroeconomics. Maybe one day, credit reports won’t just outline our borrowing and repayment history but how it deviates from expected behavior based on our genes.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

TIME deals

Visa Replaces American Express as Costco’s Credit Card

A Visa Inc. credit card sits on top of credit and debit cards arranged for a photograph in Washington on Jan. 29, 2014.
Bloomberg/Getty Images A Visa Inc. credit card sits on top of credit and debit cards arranged for a photograph in Washington on Jan. 29, 2014.

Costco announced that the retailer’s credit card network will be handled by Visa next year, an announcement that comes weeks after it sideswiped Visa rival American Express in a move that ended a 16-year relationship with the retailer.

The retailer, 19th on the Fortune 500, said Citigroup would be the exclusive issuer of Costco’s co-branded credit cards while Visa will be replacing American Express as the credit card network for Costco in the U.S. and Puerto Rico beginning April 1, 2016. Costco, known for issuing sparsely worded press releases, provided few details about the deal with Visa.

The Costco business is a big coup for Visa, as Costco is one of the nation’s largest retailers. Shares of American Express dropped last month after the credit card company announced that its exclusivity deal with the wholesale club retailer was set to expire at the end of March in 2016. As WSJ reported previously, the agreement had driven a big chunk of business for American Express. But when the arrangement ends, millions of customers will be forced to use a different credit card when shopping at Costco.

Losing Costco’s business will dent results at American Express, as that business generated about 8% of the company’s worldwide billed business in 2014. Over 70% of the spending on those accounts occurred outside a Costco warehouse, so business was widely spread. American Express said it did try to win the business, but ultimately it was “unable to agree to terms that would have provided attractive returns for our company and our shareholders.” American Express warned it could book a restructuring charge and potentially cut costs if it isn’t able to generate enough business from other products to offset the lost business associated with the Costco co-branded portfolio.

MONEY credit cards

5 Ways Your Credit Card Can Be Stolen Right Under Your Nose

woman using ATM machine at night
Maciej Toporowicz—Getty Images/Flickr

Card thieves have many techniques for stealing your data without you noticing.

There are several things people freak out about when their wallets or purses have been stolen: knowing a thief has your ID (and your home address), losing irreplaceable gift cards or cash, and having to cancel your credit cards. That’s usually the first thing people do — call their banks — but it’s easy to act quickly when you realize you’ve been robbed. Sometimes, it’s not that simple.

Thieves steal credit and debit cards all the time without taking the physical card. The most common kind of card theft results from data breaches. Last year, millions of U.S. consumers had their cards replaced after their information was compromised in one of the massive cyberattacks on retailers, even if their cards didn’t show unauthorized activity. People have gotten used to the idea that data breaches are inevitable, but there are lots of daily activities that put your cards at risk for theft, without you noticing.

1. Drive-Thru

A Pennsylvania woman was recently arrested for allegedly swiping customer cards on a personal card reader while she worked the drive-thru at a Dunkin’ Donuts, WFMZ reports, reportedly using the information to create duplicate cards and charge more than $800 to the accounts.

That’s not the first time a story like this has popped up, and it’s likely to happen again, because the situation presents an easy theft opportunity to drive-thru workers: Customers hand over their cards and usually can’t see what the cashier is doing with it on the other side of the window. It’s not like you should avoid the drive-thru for fear of card theft, but it’s one of many reasons to regularly check your card activity for signs of unauthorized use.

2. Restaurants

How often do you see your server process your dinner payment? Usually, he or she takes your card away from your table and completes the transaction out of your sight. Many restaurant workers have taken advantage of this situation to copy customers’ cards and fraudulently use the information.

3. On the Phone

People are pretty trusting when making orders over the phone, assuming that whoever takes the order is entering the credit or debit card number, expiration date and security code into a payment system, not just copying it down for their own use. On the flip side, it might not be the person on the other end of the call you should worry about — plenty of people read their card information aloud within earshot of strangers, making it easy for someone nearby to write down the numbers.

4. RFID Scanners

Most radio-frequency identification (RFID)-enabled credit and debit cards have a symbol (four curved lines representing a signal emission) indicating the card has the technology for contactless payment. If you have one of these cards, you have the ability to use tap-and-pay terminals found at some retailers, because your card sends payment information via radio frequencies, received by the terminal.

That same technology also allows thieves to use RFID scanners to copy your card data if they get close enough to it and your card isn’t protected. If you’re not sure your card has RFID technology, call your issuer, and if it does, use signal-blocking materials and products to protect it.

5. Card Skimmers

Thieves have been installing copying devices at gas pumps and ATMs for years: They tamper with card readers to install skimmers that copy your card data when you swipe it, so a thief takes your credit or debit card information while you complete an otherwise routine transaction. Experts advise you look closely at card readers for signs of tampering, use ATMs serviced by your bank and check your card activity regularly for signs of fraud.

That’s really the best way to combat credit card theft: Watch closely for it. With online banking and mobile applications, it’s easy to check your accounts every day, making it more likely you’ll spot something out of the ordinary than if you only looked at card activity once a week or so. You can also check your credit score for sudden changes, which can be a sign of fraud or identity theft. You can get two of your credit scores for free every 30 days on Credit.com.

MONEY Debit Card

What Happens If I Swipe My Debit Card as “Credit”?

person swiping credit card
David Woolley—Getty Images

The answer may surprise you.

It’s a question we’ve all heard when shopping: “Credit or debit?” It seems straightforward, just the cashier asking you what type of payment card you’re using, but there’s actually a lot more history to that question than you might think.

Debit and credit transactions are processed differently: Here’s how MasterCard explained it in an emailed statement to Credit.com: When you use a debit card and your PIN (personal identification number), the transaction is completed in real time, also known as an online transaction — you authorize the purchase with your PIN and the money is immediately transferred from your bank account to the merchant. With a credit card, or using a debit card as credit, it’s an offline transaction.

“The funds for offline transactions are deducted after the merchant settles the purchase with the credit card processor and typically take 2-3 days to be reflected in your account balance,” MasterCard says.

Issuers used to charge merchants different fees for accepting credit cards than for accepting debit card transactions with a PIN. Before the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was passed, Sen. Dick Durbin added a provision, now called the Durbin Amendment, that restricted interchange fees to 12¢ per transaction. By the time the bill was signed into law, the cap was set at 21¢, much lower than the previous average of 45¢ per transaction. (On Jan. 20, the Supreme Court declined to hear retailers’ challenge to that 21¢ cap.)

With the cap on interchange fees, banks saw their revenue source for things like debit card rewards and free banking dry up, which is why you’re unlikely to find those things these days.

“There’s several thousand community banks and credit unions, what the act refers to as unregulated, who can actually charge greater interchange on transactions,” said Nick Barnes senior vice president of retail banking at ACI Worldwide, a payments system company. The Durbin Amendment only impacted financial service providers with $10 billion or more in assets. “That’s why you go to these tiny banks you’ll still see free banking and debit rewards.”

Should You Choose Debit or Credit?

Credit cards and debit cards are very different products, each with their own advantages and drawbacks that should influence when and how you use them. As for hitting the “credit” button when you’re using a debit card: It doesn’t really matter.

Other than the changes banks may have made as a result changing interchange fees, choosing to use a debit card as credit doesn’t really impact you. You often have the choice to use your debit card with or without the PIN, and how you use it is a matter of personal preference. Running a debit card as an offline transaction still ends up doing the same thing — taking money from your checking account — and it doesn’t help you build credit, like using a credit card does.

Read next: Help! I’ve Fallen In Love With Someone Who Has Credit Card Debt

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

Read next: Why You Need to Get a Credit Card

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MONEY

Here’s How Your Credit Score Stacks Up

overhead view of hand holding credit card and using laptop
John Lamb—Getty Images

More than 75% of Americans have a credit score below 700.

As lessons learned during the Great Recession become more distant, consumers are increasingly spending money again on everything from clothes, to cars, to condos, and the bills are piling up, especially for consumers who took a lump or two to their credit score over the past few years.

Climbing again

The amount of money Americans owe on revolving loans, such as credit cards, has marched from a post-recession low of $837 billion to $882 billion in October. Motor vehicle debt reached an all-time high of $943 billion in the third quarter, and the amount of money borrowed from banks to buy property has climbed for six consecutive quarters.

That may be good news for credit card companies like Discover Financial DISCOVER FINANCIAL SERVICES DFS -0.84% and banks like Wells Fargo WELLS FARGO & COMPANY WFC -0.48% , but it may not be good news for consumers, who are discovering that lenders are focusing more attention than ever on credit scores compiled by companies like Equifax EQUIFAX EFX -0.03% . Those credit scores determine whether or not a credit card or loan will be approved, and what interest rate the borrower will be charged.

How do you stack up?

According to the credit tracking firm Credit Karma, more than 75% of Americans have a credit score below 700.

That’s not good news given that banks are likely to offer their best terms to borrowers with scores that are above those levels.

Those better terms can mean less money from the borrower up front, and far lower interest rates that can produce thousands of dollars in savings over time.

For example, according to myFico, a borrower with a credit score below 660 who is taking out a five-year loan of $20,000 to buy a new car would pay an annual interest rate of 10.385%, or $5,724 in interest over the life of the loan. If that same person had a credit score north of 720, the interest rate would be a paltry 3.245%, which works out to total interest payments of just $1,693.

That $4,031 difference in interest payments is a lot of money, but that isn’t the total financial impact of a lower credit score. Investing that $4,031 for 30 years in something like an index fund that returns a hypothetical 6.5% per year would result in an extra $26,662 in retirement savings, which means a lower credit score could mean the difference between pocketing an extra $26,000, or spending an extra $4,000.

Making changes

If you’re one of the many who have a credit score below 700, there’s no time like the present to begin making changes that could have a major impact on your retirement savings.

Rating agencies like Equifax are continuously updating credit scores, and as a result, changes made today can have a positive impact quickly.

One way to give a boost to a credit score is to reduce the balance carried on credit cards to below 30% of each card’s credit limit. Credit card utilization has a big impact on credit scores, so making an extra monthly payment, or paying a bit more than the minimum payment every month can pay off fast.

Consumers may also want to contact their lender and ask them to forgive a late payment. If there are only one or two late payments on the account’s credit history, and the borrower’s history has otherwise been good, lenders may be willing to make a one-time adjustment. Borrowers may also want to ask their lender if they’d be willing to bump up their credit card limit. Lenders probably won’t do that for borrowers with credit scores at the low end of the range, but for those with scores closer to 700, they might. If so, bumping up the credit limit could improve the credit utilization ratio used to calculate the borrower’s credit score, too.

Finally, consider keeping a bit of cash handy for day-to-day purchases, rather than using a credit card. That can go a long way toward making sure credit balances don’t sneak their way higher, and setting up automatic payments through your lender may help avoid late payments and related fees that can really hurt credit scores, too. While these tips won’t fix credit scores overnight, they should go a long way toward healing any lumps to credit suffered in the past.

Todd Campbell has no position in any stocks mentioned. Todd owns E.B. Capital Markets, LLC. E.B. Capital’s clients may or may not have positions in the companies mentioned. Todd owns Gundalow Advisors, LLC. Gundalow’s clients do not have positions in the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Wells Fargo. The Motley Fool owns shares of Discover Financial Services and Wells Fargo. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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MONEY Debt

4 of the Weirdest Reasons People Have Gone Into Debt

Girl surrounded by stuffed animals
Maarten Wouters—Getty Images

These cautionary tales show how NOT to handle your finances.

For more than a decade, I’ve worked in the field of debt resolution, helping thousands of people overcome their debt issues. Most clients come to me in debt due to what I would call “typical” reasons for falling into debt. This includes loss of income or unexpected medical issues in the family, which become difficult to manage when there are bills to pay. However, sometimes we see some unusual situations that led to debt, which I call “doozies.” Here are some doozies that top the list.

1. The Child Spoiler Client

A few years ago, I had a client with a large amount of credit card debt. So as we usually do with clients, we discussed the reasons for the debt. He put his chin down, looked away and said, “Really, this is because of my child, she’s my only child and I just can’t say no.” These expenses included private school at 5 years old, and horseback riding lessons at almost $2,000 a month. The compulsiveness – or, really, obsession – with his only child had put him into debt. He was spending more money on her every month than his mortgage and car payments combined.

My Advice: Stop the horses! Overspending will put you in debt, whether for you or others. Learning to say no, instilling good spending habits and limits will keep you off that pony ride.

2. The Dream Wedding Client

A couple came to me shortly after their wedding. They said they had a lot of credit card debt, and had expected to be able to pay it off after the wedding. When they told me they had $75,000 of debt, I asked how the amount got to be so high. They said they felt that their wedding was important to them and they never budgeted the expenses and just assumed they would rely on gifts to pay off those expenses from the wedding. They told me that they didn’t expect some of their relatives to be so “cheap” with gifts and as a result they received less money than they expected. They then fell short on paying the bills.

Furthermore, falling behind on your payments will also hurt your credit score, which causes a number of issues, including making the cost of debt more expensive for you over time. (You can see how your debt is affecting your credit scores for free on Credit.com.)

My Advice: Take a tier off of the cake! Make a budget and stick to it. Never rely on future money to pay off bills.

3. The “Don’t Tell My Spouse I Have Debt” Client

I was a bit surprised when one client came to me and said, “My husband doesn’t know about this debt so you cannot call my house or send any paperwork there.” This scenario really isn’t that uncommon. One partner has debt and the other has no idea about the debt or if they do know, they don’t know how much is really owed. These clients have even given me lists of times we can call and alternate addresses to send paperwork to. For these clients, the trend to keep secret debt often starts early on in the relationship where one has a credit card outside the relationship and begins to spend and not tell the other. This infidelity continues until the one partner simply doesn’t have the funds anymore to pay the bills and they are forced to come to us to resolve it for them secretly.

My Advice: Avoid financial infidelity at all costs. Communication is a key element in any good relationship, and talking to your partner openly and honestly about finances is no exception and can actually keep you out of debt.

4. The House Flipper Client

A few years ago I had a steady stream of clients who came to me after they lost money in attempts to flip houses in places like Florida and Vegas. They told me that their friends made money doing this so they thought they’d try it, too. My flippers believed that they could purchase a cheap house in a short sale and invest in improvements and then sell the property for a profit. While this is a great idea if you’ve budgeted for time post-construction if the house doesn’t sell, it can jam you financially if you don’t have the money to pay the bills until the house is sold. Which is exactly what happened to them when the market fell out. They couldn’t sell the house in a short time and they were left with a house they couldn’t afford and mounting debt.

My Advice: There are lots of good ideas to make money, but before making any attempts, make sure you’ve done your homework and are prepared to handle the worst-case scenario.

Remember, maintaining good financial health can come down to good old-fashioned common sense. So many of these “doozies” could have been avoided had many of these people simply taken the time to stop, think about what they were doing, and focus on the reality of spending and budgeting.

More from Credit.com

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

MONEY best of 2014

7 Ways Tech Made Your Life Better in 2014

A new reason to ditch your cellphone contract, safer credit cards, and five more bright ideas that can help you save money in the year ahead.

Every year, there are innovators who come up with fresh solutions to nagging problems. Companies roll out new products or services, or improve on old ones. Researchers propose better theories to explain the world. Or stuff that’s been flying under the radar finally captivates a wide audience. For MONEY’s annual Best New Ideas list, our writers searched the world of money for the most compelling products, strategies, and insights of 2014. To make the list, these ideas—which cover the world of investing, retirement, health care, college, and more—have to be more than novel. They have to help you save money, make money, or improve the way you spend it, like these seven tech innovations.

  • Best Side Effect of the Hacking Mess

    Chip and Pin credit card transformed into a lock
    Image Source—Alamy

    Safer Credit Cards…Finally

    Chip-and-PIN credit cards include a special chip that makes them harder for hackers to replicate. Though you’re legally protected from having to pay most charges when a card number is stolen, more-secure plastic can save you a lot of hassle. Card companies had been slow to roll out chip-and-PIN—until millions of credit card numbers were stolen from major retailers such as Target and Home Depot. “The frequency and size of the breaches absolutely are driving more rapid adoption of the technology,” says Paul Kleinschnitz of First Data, a payment technology firm. Here are two more things to know about the new cards:

    They don’t eliminate all your risk. Chip-and-PIN makes it harder to create fake plastic but doesn’t stop numbers from being used at online stores. So you should still check your statement regularly for weird charges. Chip-and-PIN is already common in Europe; the new cards work in automated machines there that don’t accept old-fashioned plastic.

  • Best Smartphone Savings

    No-Contract Plans

    Old way: Commit to a contract and pay $200 for a smartphone that really costs $650. Of course, you still pay for the phone as part of your monthly bill.

    New way: Wireless companies are making it easier to separate the cost of the phone and the price of service.

    You can shop for a new plan with your old phone. Low-cost players and now the big carriers offer no-contract plans, which may be $100 cheaper per month for a family. Check with carriers for phone compatibility; look up network quality in your area at rootmetrics.com.

    Or get a new phone. You can buy a phone outright or on installment, and combine that with a no-contract plan. Sometimes, but not always, the total price beats the comparable contract option, so run the numbers. If you do go contract, mark your calendar: After 24 months, switch to no-contract if you don’t care to upgrade.

  • Best Reason to Rent, Not Own, Your eBooks

    Amazon Kindle

    All-You-Can Read Subscriptions

    As with music, books are moving toward an all-you-can read subscription model.

    The Services: The service you pick will hinge on the device you prefer to read with. Scribd ($8.99 per month) lets you read an unlimited number of books, and it quintupled its library this year to 500,000, with 30,000 audiobooks. The service now includes many titles from the big publishers Simon & Schuster and HarperCollins. Works on: iOS, Android, Kindle Fire (but not e-ink readers), Nook tablets.

    Though Scribd is the better service overall, it doesn’t work on Kindle e-ink readers. If you’re devoted to that device, Amazon has its own options. With an Amazon Prime subscription, you can choose from thousands of titles to read for no extra charge (one per month). Kindle Unlimited ($9.99) is like Scribd, but customers and reviewers say it’s hard to find books from the “Big Five” publishers. Works on: iOS, Android, Kindle Fire, and Kindle readers.

    The Gadget: Phone and tablet apps are fine for many readers, but e-ink devices provide a more booklike experience. The new Kindle Voyage has a screen that’s 39% brighter than its predecessor.

  • Best Reason to Rent, Not Buy, Your Music

    Streaming Services

    Why buy songs that you’re rarely going to listen to in a few months? What if you could listen to just about anything—except for a few famous holdouts, like Taylor Swift and the Beatles—for less than the price of one CD per month? (Remember those?) A smart new pricing plan could make 2015 the year you make the switch from buying music to legally streaming it.

    The Service: Spotify lets you listen to any song you want in its vast catalogue. A free version, with ads, works on desktops or allows you to play artists or albums on Shuffle on your phone. Paying up for Spotify Premium ($9.99 a month) gets you no ads and total control on any device. Spotify has rolled out a family plan that lets you add new users for $4.99 each; that way two people in your family can play their own tunes at the same time. Works On: iOs, Android, desktop

    The Gadgets to Listen On: Docking stations are easy to use, with no setup or wires required. The $130 iHome iDL48 works with most iPads and iPhones. A portable speaker lets you get your music off your little earbuds and carry it to any room. The reliable Jawbone Mini Jambox ($130) connects to smartphones, tablets, and most computers through Bluetooth. If your existing stereo has an auxiliary input, an easy fix (in you’re not a hi-fi purist) is to run a cable from the headphone or line-out jack on phone, tablet or PC. Cords are $5 to $10 at Monoprice or Amazon.

  • Best Retro Tech

    2015 Ford Focus
    2015 Ford Focus

    Dashboard Knobs are Back!

    For years cars have become more tech-laden, with systems to let you make phone calls, find local pizza joints, or answer email. Which is nice, unless you prefer to keep your focus on driving. Interiors became a maze of numeric keypads and other control points. Ford says its research shows drivers don’t use or want all that tech. Now it’s retro time. For the 2015 model year Ford Focus, the automaker has eliminated many buttons, and added old-fashioned knobs to systems such as heat and A/C. In the next Fusion, the company is even getting rid of touch screens. — Bill Saporito, Time assistant managing editor, car reviewer at Money.com

  • Best Online Security Fix

    Two-Factor Verification

    Worrying about bank and brokerage hacks is understandable. But money can be replaced—and you have legal protections. What you should worry about is a hacker mining your more vulnerable iCloud photos, Facebook page, or email account and impersonating you. Two-factor verification, a login protocol, makes it vastly harder for hackers to steal your digital life. Here’s what you need to do to set it up:

    Select “login approval” or “two-factor verification” under settings at sites you want to protect. The first time you visit that site on a new computer, you will have to enter a code that’s texted to your phone. (You only need to enter this code the first time you log in from a new computer.) In case you lose your phone, you can print out backup codes, which work once. Once you’ve done this, a hacker would need to guess your password and have physical access to your computer in order to steal your data.

  • Best Apps to Get Before You Travel

    Chi Birmingham

    Taxi Apps

    It’s not always easy to scare up a cab in an unfamiliar city. (Where are the best streets to try to hail one? Should I find a taxi stand? Call ahead?) But smartphones are making it much easier to get around. The Uber app can summon a for-hire private car in numerous cities in 45 countries (though the service has recently come under fire in a few cities). In some big towns, like New York, it will also hail a traditional taxi. Curb and Flywheel also grab regular cabs—check first if they work in the town you are visiting. Want help navigating subways and metros? Hopstop has stop-by-stop directions and travel times, as do the transit directions on the Google Maps app.

MONEY Credit

FICO vs. FAKO: What’s Your Real Credit Score?

fingerprints in cement and hand trying to fit them
Glow Images—Getty Images

Your "fake" credit score might still be important.

There are a lot of different credit scores out there, and this has naturally led some consumers to ask: Which scores should I pay attention to, and what’s my real credit score? People gravitate to the well-known FICO score, by all accounts the market leader in credit scores (meaning more banks use FICO scores than other scores). In fact, many refer to non-FICO scores as “FAKO” scores, but is that moniker accurate? Let’s take a step back and look at the credit score landscape.

First things first: The fact that consumers know anything at all about credit scores is impressive given that they were not intended for popular consumption when originally developed. They were really just meant to be a risk shorthand for lenders — a quick and clear way for a lender to determine whether to issue a loan to a consumer, and at what interest rate. Beyond that, credit scores are an important part of the securitization process. Banks bundle loans and sell them off to investors. Credit scores help determine the value of those investments. But there’s no one credit score used to make these determinations.

Each of us has dozens of credit scores used by financial institutions to judge our creditworthiness. FICO alone offers more than 50 different FICO scores to financial institutions and in some cases, directly to consumers. In addition to FICO, the company VantageScore offers credit scores, each of the three major credit bureaus – Experian, Equifax and TransUnion – offer their own credit scores, and a number of other companies have credit scores, too. There are also a number of “educational” credit scores that banks do not use, but instead are intended for regular people to use to get a better sense of their creditworthiness. Because these scores are not intended for use in lender decisions, they are often thought of as “FAKO” scores.

But what exactly is in a credit score, and what makes one score different from another? The vast majority of credit scores are configured using the information in your credit report. Specifically, the scores are based on payment history, debt usage, the age of your credit accounts, the different types of credit accounts on your credit report and credit inquiries. These scoring models are essentially formulas that weight this information in different proportions. One model, for example, may weigh credit age a little bit more than another model. Beyond that, different scoring models can use data from different credit bureaus. For example, one lender may use a credit scoring model with data from your Experian credit report, while another lender may use the same scoring model with data provided by TransUnion, and another from Equifax. So even if the models are exactly the same, the scores will be different if the credit reports don’t exactly match (which is not unusual).

Furthermore, different financial institutions use different scoring models for different reasons. One bank may use one credit score for their mortgage business and another for their auto loan business. A different bank could use entirely different scores.

So Which Credit Score Matters Right Now?

When people ask which credit score they should really be paying attention to, it’s important to consider the reason for the question. If you want to know your credit score so you can see the same score a lender will see when you apply for credit, that’s a very tall order. While FICO does control (by some estimates) 90% of the credit scoring market, it’s far from certain that the FICO score you get from one institution will be used by another. Even if you buy a FICO score directly from MyFico.com, it’s far from certain that the score you’ve purchased will be exactly the same as the one a prospective lender is pulling. In that case, for all practical purposes, a “real” FICO score may be no better than an educational “FAKO” score.

On the other hand, if you want access to a particular score that you know has at some point been used by a lender (even if it’s not your lender) specifically because it has been market-tested, then the FICO vs. FAKO dichotomy makes more sense. It’s important to remember, however, that in this case the distinction is more about peace of mind than any practical advantage. In this scenario, “real” credit scores cannot simply be limited to FICO scores. While VantageScore controls 5-10% of the credit scoring market, these scores are used by some lenders, and therefore, by this formulation, are just as useful as a FICO score.

These questions are naturally bubbling up these days because so many people are getting credit scores from so many sources. People see credit scores when they are buying a house. At the urging of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, more banks are providing people with access to credit scores as a part of their credit card account. Some student lenders are now providing access to credit scores. And, of course, there are plenty of free and paid websites that provide people with credit scores. Credit.com, for example, provides consumers access to two free scores — a VantageScore 3.0 and an Experian National Equivalency Score — along with an explanation of how your credit history is impacting the scores.

The problem is that often when people get their credit scores — particularly when they are getting them from banks — they don’t know which scoring model and bureau data are being used to generate the score. Further, some people don’t realize they have more than one score, and just assume that the score they are seeing is THE score. That can be particularly confusing if you’re getting multiple scores each month from different providers. People often assume that one or more of the scores is wrong.

The reality is that for the foreseeable future, for many Americans, confusion is effectively built into the system. However, the good news is that people in general are becoming more aware that credit scores exist and why they are important, and over time many more people will begin to understand the nuances of the credit scoring landscape and how to use it as a tool for their financial future.

This story is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its partners.

More from Credit.com

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

MONEY Debt

How One Couple Paid Off $147k of Debt (Even While Unemployed)

two birds escaping cage
iStock

Feeling overwhelmed by your debt? Look for inspiration on how to break free from this couple.

Jackie Beck and her husband once “owned” a six figure debt. They’d borrowed for their mortgage, credit cards, education, autos, and home improvement projects. Like most of us do, they’d borrowed over time, barely noticing as their balances grew and interest accrued.

Beck is not alone. The average American borrower owes $225,238 in consumer debt, including $15,263 for credit cards, $147,591 in mortgage debt, $31,646 for student loans, and $30,738 for auto financing.

What set Beck and her partner apart, however, is that they set out to pay off that debt, and after a 10-year journey, they succeeded. Today neither holds a traditional job, they maintain collective annual expenses of less than $12,000, and they’re free to pursue their passions. “Anyone can do it, too,” says Beck. “You don’t have to have debt. Life is a lot easier without it.” (See also: How One Inspiring Saver Found True Love, Shook Off Debt Denial, and Paid Off $123,000)

Getting Started

The Beck’s get-out-of-debt journey began when they decided to tackle their credit card balances. “We were just really sick of being in debt and feeling like all our money went toward the credit cards and interest,” says Beck. Paying off the balance on their cards took a full three years and Beck was unemployed for a lot of that time. “In the beginning, it took us a long time to pay things off,” says Beck. “Then we figured things out and we had more money because we had paid more off. You get better at it and it gets faster.”

She’d been deferring her student loan payments but, once the credit card bills were paid, that freed up some extra cash. “I’d been living for many years on very little money. I never would have been able to start paying on my student loans if I’d still had those credit card payments,” she says.

Beck viewed her student debt as a burden and she couldn’t wait to get rid of it. When finally she landed a job, she was able to speed her repayment schedule. “I continued to live on nothing. I put all my money toward my student loans,” she says. “Then it went super fast.” (See also: How One College Graduate Paid Off $28,000 in Three Years on a $30k Salary)

Maintaining Momentum

Beck’s husband was inspired by her student loan success and together they worked to amp up their efforts. They started paying for most of their purchases in cash, foregoing credit cards altogether. Then they decided to tackle their car loan. “After he saw what I did with my student loan,” says Beck, “he thought it would be nice to live without the car payment.”

Even with successful milestones along the way, the Becks repaid their debt at a measured pace. “We spent a lot of time getting out of the debt we had gotten into,” says Beck. “You don’t have to live like a monk the whole time. We had more money coming in and it didn’t all go toward our debt. We spent some.”

The Becks increased spending somewhat over time but even so, they began to view their mission as preparation for an emergency. In the previous years they’d taken turns being unemployed, had undergone surgeries, paid expensive veterinarian bills for their pets, and even totaled a car. They’d taken out a $10,000 home improvement loan around this time, but even though the loan came with a 0% introductory rate for the first 12 months, they realized their attitude toward borrowing had shifted. They were no longer comfortable taking on new debt. “Gradually we realized that debt is dangerous and that something could go wrong,” says Beck.

Ultimately, the Beck’s took the remaining balance from their savings account and paid off the loan. “Life doesn’t work out perfectly and, when you don’t have debt, it really changes what you’re able to do,” she says.

By the time they were able to start tackling their mortgage, their journey had become about more than just safety. They started to view it a road to freedom. According to Beck, “The fewer expenses you have, the longer you can go without a job.” (See also: The Freedom of a Debt-Free Life)

Rewarding Yourself

For the Becks, freedom was defined by the rewards they chose for themselves after they paid off their mortgage. Beck had wanted to travel to Antarctica since she was eight years old and her husband had his eye on a new car. “After the house was paid off, we spent another year saving up for those things,” says Beck, “and then we went and did them.”

Beck also started developing other streams of income and eventually left her day job. “I created the app Pay Off Debt after I paid off my student loan,” she says. “I thought other people might want to obsess about debt as much as I do.” She also started to blog about her journey at TheDebtMyth.com, and even bought a couple of rental properties, paying for them in cash.

As a couple, they’d also learned to keep their collective expenses low.

“We can live on $12,000 a year if we need to,” says Beck. “We basically have no required bills and we’re not eating ramen,” she laughs. “My husband got laid off a week after I quit my job. Neither of us has a [traditional] job now. People who owe a lot of money don’t do things like that,” says Beck, “because they can’t.”

The Beck’s get-out-of-debt journey has changed the way they think about money altogether. Now it’s common practice for them to make their purchases — even big ones — in cash. They don’t carry debt and they can live their lives freely, without the burden of owing money to anyone. Beck is even thinking about a second trip to her dream destination, Antarctica. “I’m totally going back,” she says.

Because she can.

Read more articles from Wise Bread:

How One College Graduate Paid Off $28,000 in Three Years on a $30K Salary
How One Young Entrepreneur Paid Off $40,000 in Student Debt By Age 24
Our Worst Financial Mistakes and What You Can Learn From Them

TIME White House

Obama Signs Order to Secure Government Credit Cards From Data Breaches

US-POLITICS-OBAMA-CFPB
SAUL LOEB—AFP/Getty Images President Barack Obama signs an Executive Order to implement enhanced security measures on consumers' financial security following remarks at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in Washington, DC, October 17, 2014.

"Identify theft is now America's fastest growing crime," said Obama.

President Obama signed an executive order Friday to improve security measures for government credit and debit cards, equipping them with microchips in place of the standard magnetic strips and PINs. Obama discussed the new order during remarks at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Friday.

“Last year . . . more than 100 million Americans had information that was compromised in data breaches in some of our largest companies,” said Obama, referring to high-profile security breaches at Target and Home Depot. “Identify theft is now America’s fastest growing crime. These crimes don’t just cost companies and consumers billions of dollars every year, they also threaten the economic security of middle class Americans who worked really hard for a lifetime to build some sort of security.”

“The idea that somebody halfway around the world could run up thousands of dollars in charges in your name just because they stole your number or because you swiped your card at the wrong place at the wrong time—that’s infuriating,” said Obama. “For victims it’s heartbreaking. And as a country we’ve got to do more to stop it.”

Obama highlighted the efforts of Home Depot and Target to secure their systems after being hit by breaches this year. They will join Walmart and Walgreens in installing chip and PIN technology in all their stores, most by the beginning of next year. Obama also noted that the Federal Trade Commission will develop IdentityTheft.gov for victims to aide the reporting and remediation process with credit bureaus.

“Identity theft has been American consumers’ number one complaint for more than a decade, and it affects people in every community across the nation,” said Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Edith Ramirez. “I welcome the opportunity for the Federal Trade Commission to participate in this new initiative advancing efforts to address this insidious problem on behalf of consumers.”

The White House also called on Congress to pass data breach and cybersecurity legislation. “The current patchwork of laws governing a company’s obligations in the event of a data breach is unsustainable, and helps no one,” wrote the White House in a statement.

With reporting from Sam Frizell

 

 

 

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