MONEY identity theft

Here Are the Companies That Have Been Hacked — And What to Do If You’re a Customer

You're not just imagining it: Lately, a new data breach has been reported almost every week. Here's how to find out if your information has been exposed.

By mid-October, the Identity Theft Resource Center had already identified more data breaches this year than it had in all of 2013. In other words, it’s more likely than not that some of your personal information has been compromised. “There are two kinds of consumers — there are those who know they’ve been breached, and those who don’t,” says ITRC president and CEO Eva Velasquez.

Source: Identity Theft Resource Center. Data as of Oct. 30, 2014.

Many Americans are in the first camp. According to a new Gallup poll, 27% of Americans say their credit card information has been stolen in the past year, and 11% say their computer or smartphone has been hacked. And the rest are scared: Almost 70% of Americans worry that hackers will steal their credit card numbers from retailers, and 62% worry that hackers will target their personal devices.

It’s hard to say whether there has really been an increase in the number of data breaches, or we’ve just gotten better at detecting and reporting incidents, Velasquez says. Either way, the outdated magnetic stripe technology in the United States probably makes it too easy for hackers to run off with your credit card number.

“Thieves are going to go where it’s easiest to steal,” Velasquez says. “We’ve got the most antiquated technology protecting the actual cards, and we’re the biggest issuer of those cards – we’re a treasure trove.”

At MONEY, we’re tracking the major data breaches that may have exposed your personal information in recent months. Read on to see if you’ve been affected. If so, we’ll walk you through what you need to know about protecting yourself from identity theft.

MONEY Out of the Red

How I Paid Off $158,169 in Debt

G. McDowell Photography

Think there's no way to get out from under your obligations? This first in a series of profiles of people getting "Out of the Red" proves that it's possible.

Rachel Gause just wanted to give her three kids more than she had growing up. So, though she was receiving a secure income along with child support, she found herself living beyond her means every month—eventually racking up six figures in debt. With a whole lot of determination and almost a decade’s worth of belt-tightening, she’s climbed most of the way out. This is her story, as told to MONEY reporter Kara Brandeisky.

Rachel Gause
Jacksonville, N.C.
Occupation: Master Sergeant, United States Marine Corps
Initial debt: $179,625
Amount left: $21,456
When she started paying it down: 2006
When she hopes to be debt-free: November 2015

How I got into trouble

“I was just trying to keep up with everybody else. I’m a single parent to three kids, ages 10, 14, and 16. I was always spending extra on Christmas and on birthdays. Also, growing up, I didn’t have new clothes and new shoes at the start of every school year. But I wanted to make sure my kids always did.

Looking back, I wish I would have known not to rely on credit cards. I wish I would have known that it’s okay to keep your car for four or more years, as long as you maintain it.

I started going into debt when my first daughter was born, 16 years ago. I remember I had to get a furniture loan. By 2006, I had $55,848 in credit card debt and $76,711 in car loans. Then there were the personal loans. I had a consolidation loan that I used to pay off my credit cards. Altogether, it came out to $179,625.”

My “uh-oh” moment

“I wasn’t aware of how much debt I was in. The turning point for me was when I hit the 10-year point in the Marines, and I saw other people around me retiring. I wanted to sit down and see where I was at. And that’s when I realized I didn’t want to retire in debt. I didn’t want to be that person.

At the time, I had a Toyota Sequoia, and I couldn’t make payments on it. I knew I was in way over my head.

Even though I had three kids, we didn’t need that big truck. It was going to put my family at a financial challenge. So I spoke to a lady at my church, and I said, ‘I have this truck, and I’m going to trade it in for something smaller.’ And she said, ‘I always wanted a Toyota Sequoia.’ I sold it to her and got into a Corolla instead.

I realized buying that truck was a bad choice, and I knew I needed to develop better habits from there. That was my first step forward.

How I’m getting out from under

Now I put roughly $2,100 a month toward my debt.

For the rest of my income, I use the envelope system. Before I get paid, I do my budget. Then I have 13 envelopes—one for groceries, one for clothes and shoes, one for charity, one for dining out, one for gas, and so on. I go to the bank, take the money out, and divide it between the envelopes.

I don’t spend anything that doesn’t come out of those envelopes. Debit cards are nice, but swiping is less emotional. Cash makes me more aware of what I’m spending my money on. If I run out of money for something that month, I don’t buy it. But I’ve never run out of money for something important—now I’m more aware of how much I’m spending.

That’s because I also got a small composition book from Dollar General to track my spending. Every time I spend money, I write it in that book. Then I compare that to what I’m supposed to be spending, according to my budget.

I also do a quarterly audit on myself to make sure I’m not spending too much more on my cable or cell phone bills.

But it’s not all deprivation. We have a chart that we color in every time we reach a milestone, and we treat ourselves to something nice. For example, recently I went on a trip with my high school classmates to Atlanta—funded totally in cash.

My kids have been understanding about our debt-free journey. They know that mommy has made some bad financial decisions in the past. Now I teach them about needs and wants.

The other day, I was coming home from work, and I said, “Do you need anything from the store?” My son said, “We don’t need anything, but we’d like some candy.”

If they want a video game, they know they need to save their money to get that video game—and that means there’s something else they won’t be able to get. They understand if you have a big house, that means you have to pay big electricity and water bills. I’m teaching them to live within their means and not just get, get, get to try to impress people.

What I’ve learned that could help someone else

My advice would be to sit down, see where you’re at—first, you have to know how much debt you’re in—and then create a spending plan. (Some people are scared of the word “budget.”) You have to tell your money where to go, or it’s going to tell you where to go.

The numbers may scare you in the beginning. It takes two or three months before you can get the budget right.

And you have to be consistent. If you don’t put 100% into it, it’s not going to work. You can’t be half, ‘I’m trying to get out of debt,’ and half, ‘I still want to spend money.’ You have to sacrifice.

My hopes for the future

Once I become debt-free, I plan to build up my emergency fund and then start actively investing and saving for retirement.

Then I hope to get my kids off to a better start.

My daughter will go to college soon. We’ve talked about student loans.

The main reason I joined the military was to obtain my college degree for free. I earned my degree in business administration from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington last year. But while I was there, I saw so many kids taking courses for a second and third time because they were failing and they weren’t going to class.

So I told my daughter, you’ll pay for that first year, and we’ll see how you manage. Then I’ll assist you with your second, third and fourth years. But first, I need to make sure you’re dedicated.

After I retire from the military, I want to become a certified financial counselor so I can help people break the vicious cycle of being in debt and dying in debt. My passion is to put together financial classes for non-profit organizations like women’s shelters, churches, and organizations for military service members. There aren’t that many in this area, and I see a real need. I see so many people struggling to survive, living paycheck to paycheck.

I’ve already started counseling some people who ask for help.

Every now and then, I get a message on Facebook from someone I helped that says, ‘I just paid off another credit card’ or ‘I paid off my car.’ That’s my motivation now. I don’t want to stop – the need is out there.

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

Check out Money 101 for more resources:

MONEY mobile payments

This Is How Walmart Can Win Its War With Apple

141028_EM_WalmartPay
Frederic J. Brown—AFP/Getty Images

Retailers rejecting Apple Pay is just the latest salvo in a longstanding war between merchants and banks. Now the battle is coming to a head, pitting the world's biggest retailer against the world's most powerful tech company.

Corrected — 5:21 P.M.

When Apple Pay triumphantly launched last week, there was hope in the air. The service generally worked as advertised. The reviews were mostly positive. For a brief moment, it seemed, the emergence of phones-as-wallets would be one technology transition that happened smoothly.

But it’s never that simple; not with this much money on the line. Over the weekend, news broke that Rite Aid and CVS were dropping support for Apple’s payment system. An in-house memo, leaked by Slashgear, revealed the reason: The merchants plan to release their own mobile wallet next year. Until then, users of Apple Pay—or Google Wallet, or any other mobile payment service—would simply have to pay with plastic.

Apple Pay is not simply a fun new feature for your smartphone. It’s the most audible shot in a larger conflict that pits retailers against credit card companies and banks in a battle for the future of payment. Apple is just the most recent—and most visible—belligerent in this battle, and now the fight is finally spilling over into the mainstream.

What This Is Really All About

Doug McMillon, CEO of Walmart, is at war with credit cards. From his perspective, American Express, Visa, Mastercard, and the banks who issue their products are shaking his company down for billions each year. Whenever a customer swipes a credit card, part of that payment—between 1% and 3%—goes to the card’s issuer in what is known as an interchange or “swipe” fee. That means Walmart, and other major retailers, are losing serious money every time someone pulls out the plastic.

The retail giant has been fighting this situation for more than a decade. Back in 2003, Walmart was one of around 50 retailers to join an antitrust suit against Visa, Mastercard, and the banks that issue their cards, accusing them of conspiring to inflate credit-card fees above market rates. The card companies offered merchants $5.7 billion in compensation, as well other other concessions, but Walmart rejected the settlement in favor of filing separate lawsuits against individual companies.

It’s not hard to understand why Walmart turned down the deal. Depending on how many of the company’s customers are using credit cards, major retailers can spend billion of dollars in a single year on fees. That’s why, at the end of the day, Walmart felt that money alone could not make things right. “The settlement does nothing to reform the price-fixing payments system that has let credit card swipe fees skyrocket over the past decade and nothing to keep them from continuing to soar in the future,” explained Mallory Duncan, general counsel at the National Retail Federation, after his group (which includes Walmart) rejected the deal.

What merchants like Walmart really want is their own payment system — one that isn’t controlled by third-party financial companies who take whole percentage points of revenue for their services. So they decided to make one.

Wallet Wars

The retailers faced two challenges in trying to disrupt credit-card companies: One, getting a competing payment system into the hands of consumers; and two, creating a cheaper system to process those payments.

On the first count, companies like Starbucks have proven that consumers are willing to embrace proprietary wallet apps if they get deals in return. The coffee giant’s app, released in 2009, allows users to fill a virtual Starbucks card with money and then pay by scanning an advanced bar code called a QR code. Loyal customers are rewarded with free coffee. The Starbucks app now accounts for 11% of the company’s sales and over four million transactions a week. (Benjamin Vigier, the mastermind behind Starbucks’ application, joined Apple in 2010.)

While apps emerged as a good consumer-facing approach to a modern payment system, merchants were also hard at work developing behind-the-scenes payment-processing systems. Target’s REDcard looks like a normal debit card (it even offers cash back), but works only at Target stores and dodges traditional payment networks. “It’s a debit card in the sense that it’s debiting straight from a bank,” explains James Wester, research director of global payments at IDC, “but using different rails.”

Cheaper rails, that is. Target uses something called Automated Clearing House (ACH) to process REDcard transactions. Michael Archer, a global financial services expert at Kurt Salmon, estimates ACH transactions are one-tenth as expensive for retailers as credit cards, and a little less than half the cost of a normal debit card transaction. Multiply that times billions of transactions and it’s a lot of savings.

In 2012, a group of retailers led by Walmart decided to combine these two approaches and make a mobile wallet app that would work across all of their stores. The companies formed a group—Merchant Customer Exchange, or MCX for short—and set to work creating a product that would be as usable as credit cards and work over a cheaper payment network, just like REDcard, by connecting directly to a user’s checking account.

The result was CurrentC. The app, which is set to launch in the first half of 2015, works on iOS and Android phones and allows users to pay at participating retailers by scanning a code at checkout. CurrentC will automatically apply coupons and loyalty programs at the register, giving consumers an incentive to choose CurrentC over competing e-wallets.

Apple the Underdog?

Initial reviews of CurrentC are not flattering. TechCrunch called the service a “clunky attempt to kill Apple Pay and credit card fees” and complained that the system seems built for retailers, not consumers (which, after all, is true). Quartz mocked MCX merchants’ penchant for developing anti-consumer technology (like this comically long receipt) and others worried the app was a conspiracy to grab customer data.

Apple Pay supporters have a point. CurrentC is clunky—at least in its current beta state—and Apple Pay certainly wins on privacy by keeping all transaction data away from merchants. But as hard as it is for Walmart detractors to admit, CurrentC also also has some advantages over Apple Pay.

For one, the largest retailers in the country have hitched their horse firmly to the CurrentC bandwagon. Apply Pay may have some big names—such as Walgreens, Toys R Us, McDonalds, and of course, Apple itself—but MCX has more. CurrentC’s coalition includes Walmart, Target, K-Mart, 7-Eleven, Best Buy, Gap, Banana Republic, Dunkin’ Donuts, and a host of other major retailers from a diverse mix of industries. Together, the participating merchants process more than $1 trillion in payments every year.

This stable of retail powerhouses puts CurrentC in a powerful position. Are consumers going to boycott their favorite stores just because they’re asked to scan a code (or swipe a card) instead of wave their iPhone? Unlikely. Especially considering Apple Pay is limited to iPhone users only. The cross-platform CurrentC app may win fans simply because it’s available to millions more people, and works at more popular stores.

Second, Apple Pay isn’t especially appealing to retailers. The payment system costing merchants interchange fees every time it’s used and they don’t get any consumer data from purchases. The QR code technology that powers CurrentC is also less expensive than the NFC terminals required by Apple Pay, and many more stores already have QR readers installed.

Another problem with Apple Pay is that it’s not built to support merchant loyalty programs. “The real value of mobile wallets is merchants can put loyalty in them and get repeat business,” says Henry Helgeson, CEO of Merchant Warehouse, a company that provides point-of-sale technology for both platforms. (Helgeson predicts Apple will add loyalty features in the next version.)

“Apple Pay is a different form factor for the same things that have been plaguing [retailers] for decades,” says IDC’s Wester. “Other than getting a very vocal group of people who are loyal to Apple, I’m not sure a good value proposition has been shown to merchants yet.” CurrentC, meanwhile, has the potential to save the MCX coalition billions annually in processing fees.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, Apple Pay isn’t really a great deal for customers, either. Industry experts are skeptical the masses will adopt a mobile wallet that offers a slightly more convenient experience, and not much more. “‘Hey, I get to use a credit card on my phone’ is not a sufficient value proposition,” argues Archer, the financial services analyst. “Ongoing use requires a return of value. ‘Cool’ is good for one time. Probably not beyond that.”

The research backs him up. In a recent study by his firm, 61% of current mobile wallet users said rewards and loyalty programs are the primary reason they use their smartphone to make payments. CurrentC is built around these sorts of deals. Apple Pay decidedly is not.

Who Should We Root For?

Of course, neither side is really in it to help consumers. Apple is arguably in league with the banks and card companies, accepting a slice of each transaction as a reward for helping perpetuate the credit-card status quo. Meanwhile, Walmart is in this fight to lower its expenses, not make things cheaper for the average Joe.

However, despite MCX’s less-than-pure motivations, its wallet app is more likely to save customers money. Target’s REDcard offers 5% off all purchases as a reward for using a cheaper payment processor and giving Target information on what you buy. If CurrentC ultimately offers similar deals, consumers will be forced to choose between cool and cash — and many may ultimately opt for the latter.

One thing’s for sure: Neither side will go down without a fight.

Correction: A previous version of this article said Apple Pay did not support debit cards. In fact, some debit cards are supported.

MONEY Banking

Use These Tools to Find the Best Banks and Credit Cards for You

Kissing Piggy Banks
Getty Images

Answer a few simple questions, and we'll help you find a bank that will earn you more and a credit card that will cost you less.

Which bank has the most branches in your neighborhood and the lowest ATM Fees? Which credit card is best to take on your international travels? Check out MONEY’s annual rankings of the Best Banks and Best Credit Cards, and use our new Bank Account Matchmaker and Credit Card Matchmaker tools to find the accounts and plastic that are right for you.

Click here for the Bank Account Matchmaker

Click here for the Credit Card Matchmaker

 

TIME relationships

Why You Need to Talk About Your Partner’s Credit Card Debt

couple-talking-credit-card-laptop
Getty Images

This article originally appeared on Refinery29.com.

The modern dating scene is tough — we know that all too well. Finding a great partner feels like hitting the jackpot, so you might be tempted to overlook certain serious red flags in the name of love. But, what if you’re ready to take the next step with your partner and discover that he or she is deep in credit card debt? This is an issue you definitely shouldn’t dismiss — money is one of the main reasons couples fight. Failing to address your partner’s debt before you move in together or get married could cause heartache down the road. So, should you move forward or hit pause? Here’s how to decide.

Consider The Why
Discuss your financial situations. It’s important to get to the bottom of why he or she is dealing with debt. Asking specific questions about how the balance was incurred will give you a better sense of your beloved’s overall level of financial responsibility.For instance, did your partner face a major emergency that they didn’t have the cash to cover? In this case, the debt can be chalked up to an expensive, one-time event. It doesn’t indicate a pattern of irresponsible financial behavior. But, if your partner carries credit card debt due to reckless spending, you should give this some thought. If you budget carefully and live within your means, you might have a hard time coupling up with someone who doesn’t share your values.

(MORE: Why I Don’t Feel Guilty About My Credit Card Debt Anymore)

Consider The How
Next step? Consider how your significant other is dealing with the shortfall to decide if the relationship is worth pursuing. Even if a mountain of credit card debt is the result of frivolous spending, your partner may have realized the blunder. If your mate is taking steps to pay off the balance — moving to a smaller apartment, going out less, taking on an extra job — count these as good signs. Everyone makes mistakes, and working hard to correct a financial misstep means your partner is trying to get on the right track.However, if he or she seems unconcerned about the debt and isn’t making an effort to pay it off, you should take a step back. Credit card debt is a serious financial burden, and your partner should be treating it as such. Ignoring a lingering balance could signal a lack of judgment when it comes to money.

(MORE: Do You Really Need A Credit Card?)

In The End, It All Depends — But Tips Help
Money is a highly personal and emotional topic, so only you can decide if your partner’s credit card debt is a deal-breaker. The important thing is to discuss the issue before taking a major step in your relationship, and keep the lines of communication open. This will help you assess the direction of your partnership and keep you informed about how your mate’s financial situation is evolving.If you want to help improve your partner’s credit card habits, consider sharing these tips: Keep a budget and track your spending — this will keep you from spending more than you can afford to pay off. Pay your bill in full by its due date — you’ll stay out of debt and keep your credit score healthy. Never use more than 30% of your available credit — this will help you achieve and maintain good credit. Read your monthly statement carefully — you’ll be able to spot fraud if it occurs.

The Takeaway
Understanding why your partner is in credit card debt and how he or she is dealing with it is an important step to take before getting serious. Consider it one more stepping stone on the road to finding “the one.”

(MORE: How to Keep Your Finances Safe After a Breakup)

TIME Spending & Saving

5 Weird Reasons Your Credit Card May Be Declined

American Express, Discover, MasterCard and Visa credit cards are displayed for a photograph in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, May 18, 2010. Credit-card firms caught off-guard by U.S. Senate passage of curbs on debit fees are facing what one executive sees as a "volcanic" eruption of legislation, including possible limits on interest rates. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Bloomberg/Getty Images

You might never see these major headaches coming your way

When President Obama mentioned that he’d recently had his credit card declined at a New York City restaurant, the news was kind of funny. The leader of the free world getting his card rejected? But all joking aside, it can happen to anybody, for any number of reasons. “I guess I don’t use it enough, so they thought there was some fraud going on,” the President said.

That’s actually a pretty common reason issuers will freeze a card, experts say. Here are some other unexpected reasons your card could be declined. Here are some others they say you should watch out for, so you’re not stuck standing at a payment terminal trying to explain, like Obama, that no, you really do pay your bills on time.

You hit the road. “[If] you make purchases the same day in distant locations — you buy breakfast in Toledo and then you’re shopping in New York that evening — your card issuer may not know you’re traveling and could decline the purchase,” says Gerri Detweiler, director of consumer education for Credit.com.

You’re paying a foreign company. If you’re traveling overseas, especially in a country where card fraud is more prevalent, or if you’re making a payment to a business based overseas, that could get your card flagged, experts say.

Your limit was cut. If you got a limit decrease on a credit card that you forgot about, or if you missed the notification, you could be denied if a purchase would push you over that new limit, says Odysseas Papadimitriou, founder and CEO of Evolution Finance. On a related note, if your card has expired and you’re not using the new one, you could be declined.

Your funds are tied up in a hold. Businesses including gas stations, hotels and rental car companies often put a hold for a certain amount — which can be hundreds of dollars — onto your card when you initiate a purchase, warns Edgar Dworksky, founder of Consumer World. “If you are near your limit before this, these temporary charges could put you at your limit, and subsequent purchases elsewhere will be denied,” he says.

You’re spending big. “A large purchase like electronics, appliances or an expensive vacation all could trigger a decline if it’s outside your normal spending pattern,” Detweiler says. Likewise, if you’re spending big bucks on luxury goods popular with credit card crooks like jewelry or electronics, your issuer might suspect fraud.

MONEY identity theft

4 Reasons Why You Should Shop at Stores That Got Hacked

141020_EM_CCBreachStores
Mike Blake—Reuters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) Safer cards are on the way.

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

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

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

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

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

Guess which retailer just started offering free shipping — Target!

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

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

 

MONEY credit cards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luckily, Michelle picked up the tab.

Read on for more help with common credit woes:

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

MONEY College

This “Smart” Way to Pay for College Could End Up Costing You an Extra 3%

A senior at Western Kentucky University walks past flowering cherry trees on WKU's campus on his way home from class.
Western Kentucky University has one of the highest credit card surcharges. Alex Slitz—AP

A new study from CreditCards.com finds that colleges are increasingly adding surcharges for charging tuition. And these fees typically exceed any potential miles or cash back earned from your card.

It’s getting harder to turn junior’s college tuition bills into free vacations for Mom and Dad.

Wealthy parents have long tried to lessen the pain of paying their kids’ tuition bills by charging the costs to a credit card that pays rewards, with the hope of getting a bit of cash back or a roundtrip flight to Rome out of the deal.

But colleges are now making this strategy less profitable by adding fees for charging tuition, according to a study released Tuesday by Creditcards.com.

The survey of the largest public, private, and community colleges found that 90% of the 100 biggest public universities that accept credit cards charge convenience fees, and almost 70% of the 100 biggest private colleges. (Only 12% of the largest community colleges add credit card surcharges, but community colleges tuition tends to be quite low.)

In most cases, the fees now exceed the value of frequent flier miles or cash back that the parents can earn on a rewards card.

The average reward mile or point is worth less than 2¢, says Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst for CreditCards.com. Meanwhile, the average big college now charges 2.62% for processing tuition through a credit card, according to the survey.

And some schools charge much more. According to the CreditCards.com survey, the big colleges charging the highest fees are:

School State Type Convenience fee rate
Western Kentucky University KY Public 2.99%
Saint Joseph’s University PA Private 2.99%
Roger Williams University RI Private 2.99%
Kansas State University KS Public 2.90%
Ohio University-Main Campus OH Public 2.90%
Kent State University at Kent OH Public 2.90%
University of Akron Main Campus OH Public 2.90%
Bowling Green State University-Main Campus OH Public 2.90%

The Impetus for the Fees

Such fees have become increasingly common in the last decade. A separate survey last year by the National Association of College and University Business Officers had found that 44% of colleges charged a fee for using a credit card, up from 14% in 2003.

Colleges have been adding surcharges in part because they have come under pressure to pare expenses. And credit card companies charge all vendors—including colleges—for processing payments. In 2013, for example, MasterCard’s fees ran from 1.05% to 3.16%.

In addition, schools that do charge fees appear to be encouraging their competitors to follow suit.

“I get a lot of complaints from other schools” that charge fees, says Michael Reynolds, executive director of student financial services at Auburn University, which doesn’t add a surcharge. Reynolds says Auburn absorbs the surcharge—which he estimates at between 1% and 2% of the amount charged—as a cost of doing business.

He estimates that about half Auburn’s tuition bills are put on credit cards. In most cases, he says, it’s just a matter of convenience for the parent or student. But he added that some families do seem to be trying to build up rewards.

The Better Alternative for Most

The fees are just one of many reasons financial experts warn parents away from charging tuition.

Credit card interest rates are usually so high that parents who don’t have enough ready cash to pay off the bill immediately could end up paying thousands of dollars in extra interest, says Kevin Yuann, director of credit cards for NerdWallet.

Anyone who can’t pay cash up front for tuition would really be better off with federal student or parent loans.

Compared to the 15.66% average annual percentage rate on credit cards, federal student loans charge just 4.9% this year, after fees are added in. Parent PLUS loans have a total APR, including fees, of 8.1%.

The federal loans also have much more flexible repayment options, allowing borrowers to stretch out payments for up to 25 years or adjust the payments downwards if their incomes fall. Students working in public service jobs can also get some of their federal loans forgiven.

The Best Reward for the Rest

Absolutely sure you can pay off the big credit card balance quickly? Contact your school to find out whether there’s a fee for swiping.

While the majority have one, there are still several schools that do not charge students or parents extra. For example:

School State Type
Auburn University AL Public
DePaul University IL Private
St John’s University-New York NY Private
The University of Alabama AL Public
University of Nevada-Las Vegas NV Public

And then, assuming there is no charge, make sure you’re getting the most back you can.

Nick Ewen, a frequent business traveler who writes often on rewards at ThePointsGuy.com, says parents with lots of ready cash can turn tuition into valuable goodies.

One British Airways card, for example, offers a free companion ticket to those who spend at least $30,000 a year. And Southwest Airlines offers a year’s worth of free companion tickets to those who earn at least 110,000 points each calendar year.

Or, consider the winners of MONEY’s Best Credit Cards of 2014. The Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite offers two points per $1 spent and miles can be applied to your credit card bill to offset the costs of any kind of travel. Or if you prefer cash back, Citi Double Cash and Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express each give you 2% on every purchase.

With the latter, you can direct your earnings to a 529 college savings account—thereby reducing the amount you have to charge next semester.

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