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Herb's Financial Focus Tips

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Stock Market Correction Coming, So Don’t Panic

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

The stock market, powered by strong corporate earnings and the overall economic recovery, just keeps going up and up. The Dow Jones industrial average sets new records almost every week with relatively little volatility.

Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com, says this ride won't last forever.

"Don't get too used to that,” he said. “We will encounter volatility again, as we always do. Remember, markets just don't go up; they can go down from time to time as well.”

McBride says what's happening right now isn't normal. We need to prepare ourselves for the inevitable, so we don't freak out – or bail out – when that inevitable correction takes place.

"We’re overdue for a correction. We haven't seen a year with this little volatility in about 20 years, so this just goes to show that this is not typical,” McBride said.

Markets go up and down and McBride says the time to buy is when people get nervous.

“So when you see the market pull back, don't bail and head for the exits. Instead, buckle that seatbelt a little bit tighter and put more money to work,” he advises.

More Info:

Market correction coming very soon despite Dow's new record, Strategist Dwyer says

3 reasons a stock-market correction is coming in late summer or early fall


Watch Out for Fake Debt Collectors

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

August 2, 2017

Just because someone calls and claims to be a debt collector, doesn't mean they really are or that you really owe any money.

Fake debt collectors – and there are lots of them – are con artists who try to scare people into paying them money they don't owe. Some of these imposters pretend to be lawyers. They threaten legal action or jail time, if you don't pay right away.

Don't do it. Don’t let them rush you into doing anything or giving out any personal information.

Tell them to send you what’s called a “validation notice” that says how much money you owe. By law, a debt collector must send you a validation notice in writing, within five days of contacting you. If they don’t, the Federal Trade Commission warns, that’s a sign that you’re dealing with a fake debt collector.

If you ever get a call and the caller says you'll be arrested if you don't pay up immediately – hang up, you're talking to a crook.

More Info:

Fake Debt Collectors

Fake debt collectors impersonate real businesses


Scam Alert: Phishing Attack Targets Businesses in Washington

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

July 31, 2017

Identity thieves are targeting business in this state with an email phishing scam.

The bogus email is made to look like it’s from the Washington State Department of Revenue. The message says it's time to renew your business license and there’s a link to click to do it.

Don't click it. Don't reply or provide any information.

Any official message from the Department of Revenue about a business license renewal will simply alert you to a new message in your "My DOR" inbox.

If your business license renewal is coming due, play it safe – go directly to the DOR website and log in to your account.

More Info: Business Licensing Service subject of an email phishing scam


There’s A Reason It’s Called ‘Public’ Wi-Fi

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

July 17, 2017

Use public Wi-Fi and you run the risk of being hacked. It's as simple as that.

And yet, a lot of people put their personal information at risk by using Wi-Fi hot spots without taking proper security precautions.

The just-released 2017 Norton Wi-Fi Risk Report found that 92 percent of Americans have potentially put their personal information at risk while using public Wi-Fi.

Thirty-two percent have used a Wi-Fi hotspot to access a bank account or other financial information. Nineteen percent have entered personally identifiable information, such as their Social Security number or birthday.

Maybe you only use the apps on your mobile device when you’re at a Wi-Fi hot spot, so you feel safe.

Well, consider this. While the data sent via an app is encrypted when you're on a cell network, it may not be encrypted when that app connects to the internet using Wi-Fi.

According to research done by Norton, 38 percent of mobile apps do not encrypt their data when it travels across the internet. With those apps, your passwords and the data you’re sending are not protected.

“Anybody intercepting it can see it across the network,” said Kevin Haley, director of Norton Security Response. “It's not encrypted, so there's certainly a risk there."

The only way to safely connect to the web via public Wi-Fi is to use a VPN or Virtual Private Network from a trusted provider. A VPN creates a “secure tunnel” that encrypts everything that’s sent and received between your device and the Internet, including log-in information.

You can buy VPN software or get it for free. Before you decide which way to go, take the time to check out the reviews by reputable computer magazines.

More Info: Free Wi-Fi Doesn’t Mean Safe Wi-Fi, And Neither Does Having the Password


How to Get a Good Price on That New Roof

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

July 26, 2017

Sooner or later, every house is going to need a new roof - and the price can really set you back.

Choose the wrong roofer and you can spend thousands more than necessary and wind up with less-than-satisfactory results.

Kevin Brasler, executive editor of Checkbook.org, says they find that the price for the same job can vary greatly from company to company, so it’s really important to shop around. https://www.checkbook.org/

"Our undercover shoppers got bids for three different jobs here in the Puget Sound area and found just staggering differences from place to place,” Brasler said. “For one of the roofs, we got prices ranging from about $5,400 to more than $9,000."

Don't assume a low price means poor work. The two are not necessarily linked.

"When we compare the roofing bids we got with the ratings we get from consumers, we found that really good companies are just as likely to quote low prices as lousy companies,’ Brasler said. “The prices are all over the place; it's chaotic really in terms of how these companies bid."

Checkbook recommends getting bids from at least three companies. In most cases, you won’t have to be there when the estimator comes, so that’s easy to do.

Checkbook's ratings are for subscribers, but as a courtesy to KOMO listeners, you can use this link (until 8/31/17) to see the ratings for local roofers.

More Info: How to Find a Reliable Roofer


Where Would You Invest Your Money?

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

July 24, 2017

What's the best way to invest money that you won't need for 10 years or more?

When Bankrate.com asked people that question, most chose real estate, followed by cash and then the stock market.

Clearly, it makes sense to own your house, but for most people that's not where you put your retirement money. Real estate is not a liquid asset, it takes time to sell. And who knows where the real estate market will be years from now when you need the money.

The stock market isn't a sure thing, but over time it keeps going up. Bankrate says stocks are an especially good choice for younger investors who can weather any short-term market volatility.

And what about cash? While you do need some cash on hand for emergencies, a savings account is not a long-term investment. At today’s rates, you’ll barely keep up with inflation.

More Info: Real estate is top investing choice, with stocks only tied for third, survey finds


Does it Make Sense to Buy Tuition Insurance?

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

July 19, 2017

Does it Make Sense to Buy Tuition Insurance?

College tuition these days is a major financial commitment, so you might be tempted to spend a couple of hundred dollars a year to protect that sizeable investment.

Keep in mind: Tuition refund insurance policies only cover withdrawal for serious medical issues. While some students drop out or are expelled, few leave for medical reasons.

Consumer Reports reminds students and their parents that they may already have coverage. Most schools have a refund policy and don't limit reimbursement to medical issues. So before you do anything, be sure to check with your school.

More Info: Should You Buy College Tuition Insurance?


Beware of Credit Repair Offers

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

July 12, 2017

You need to boost your credit score and you don’t know what to do.

Lots of companies promise they can help – for a price, typically hundreds of dollars.

Unfortunately, these credit repair companies often overpromise and underdeliver – leaving their clients with a sizable bill and no change in their credit history.

Disputing an error on a credit report is your legal right. Something you can do on your own for free. And despite what they say, a credit repair company cannot do anything you can’t do on your own. They cannot remove negative information from your file if it is accurate and timely.

“In the world of credit repair offers, quick and easy usually means down and dirty,” said Bruce McClary, vice president for communications at the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. “This is especially true in situations where people are promised impossible results and asked to pay in advance. Anyone wanting to gain a better understanding of ways to improve their financial health or their debt management strategy would be better served by seeking guidance from a nonprofit credit counselor.

Keep in mind: Federal law prohibits a credit repair company from charging its customers any money until the service is provided. So if you’re asking to pay any upfront fees, you know it’s a scam.

The bottom line: There’s no quick fix for poor credit, no matter what the ads claim.

If errors are causing damage to your credit score, use the free tools available to report them. The CFPB has information on its website that explains how to dispute an error on your credit report. There’s also a consumer advisory that explains how to spot a company engaging in misleading credit repair services.


Beware of Fake Fraud Alerts

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

July 10, 2017

Chances are you've gotten a fraud alert from your bank or credit card company asking you to verify that you've actually made a certain debit or credit transaction. They do this when their security algorithms spot something that doesn’t seem right.

Even when the charge is legit, it's nice to know they've got your back. And the use of this computer technology does help reduce fraud – something we all pay for in the form of higher prices and interest rates.

But beware: Scammers are now trying to cash in on the spike in fraud alerts. They’ll call or text and pretend to be the fraud department with your financial institution or credit card company. They're hoping they can trick you into giving them your account number or other personal information.

Don't do it! Your bank or credit card company already has your personal information and would never call you and ask your for it.

Hang up the phone, look at your card and call the number on the back. Ask to speak to the fraud department. By making that call yourself, you know you’re not talking to a scammer.

More Info: Why credit and debit card fraud alerts have spiked


How to Avoid Travel Scams and Rip-offs

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

July 3, 2017

You can't keep the weather from ruining your vacation, but you can guard against travel scams and gotcha fees.

Before you book a room or tour or transportation, make sure you know the cancellation and refund policies. You may not be able to cancel. You might not get a refund once you pay.

With a hotel, find out the final price of your stay – including any "resort fees" or other mandatory charges. These resorts fees, which are generally part of the room rate, cover things like the pool and health club – whether you use these facilities or not.

It’s always best to pay with a credit card. You have more fraud protection with a credit card. I would never book travel with a debit card. That's the key to your checking account and if there’s problem, they money is gone while you dispute the charge.

Remember, if you get a call saying you've won a free vacation, hang up. It's a scam.

More Info: I’d like a scam-free vacation


Summer Jobs: A Great Way to Teach Kids How to Save

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

June 28, 2017

The kids have started their summer jobs. Great! Now's the time to teach them about saving some of the money they’ll make.

Encourage them to open a savings account and explain how they can have part of their paycheck automatically deposited into that account each payday.

Talk about a reason to save – maybe a new bike or their college education.

Then help them figure out how much they can save each month.

Savers who have a plan are more than twice as likely to make good or excellent progress toward meeting their savings goals, according to research done by America Saves for Young Workers.

Explain to your kids that savings is a process. It’s something that happens over time. Encouraging them to start this process with money they earn on a summer job is a good way for them to begin what hopefully will become a lifelong habit.


Constantly Paying Bills Late? Consider These Suggestions

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

June 25, 2017

There are lots of reasons why people pay their bills late. Sometimes they forget. Sometimes it's simply a cash flow problem – the bills arrive before you've made enough money to pay them.

Liz Weston, a personal finance expert at NerdWallet, says you can change that situation by changing when your bills arrive.

"For a lot of us, even if we have regular pay checks, our bills aren't regular, so we wind up with too much money at the beginning of the month and not enough in the end or vice versa,” Weston said. “That's a situation that you can actually help ease by changing the dates of your bills."

Most credit card companies, many cell phone companies and some utilities will do that for you.

By making those due dates better coincide with your payday, you can solve that constant cash flow problem and eliminate those steep late penalty fees.

If forgetfulness is the reason why you pay late, then you should consider setting up automatic bill pay.

More Info: 5 Possible Benefits of Changing Your Bills' Due Dates


Tips on Starting Your 401(k) Account

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

June 14, 2017

You company offers a 401(k) savings plan and you've decided to participate. Great!

How much will you contribute? The obvious answer: As much as you can.

Until the age of 50, you're allowed to deposit up to $18,000 a year into your 401(k) account.

The experts at Credit.com have this advice:

If your employer offers matching funds, you'd be smart to invest the full amount of the match. So if the match is up to three percent of your salary, you'd want to invest at least three percent. That way, you’ll get the maximum amount of “free” money from your company.

Remember: This is a retirement account, not a typical savings account. That means that in most cases, you’ll pay penalties and taxes if you withdraw the money before you reach the age of 59½.

Credit.com notes that you can take a loan against your 401(k) if your employer’s plan allows for that, but only for specific purposes like education, medical reasons or the purchase of your first home.

More Info: How to Set Up Your First 401K


Ways to Save at the Grocery Store

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

June 14, 2017

Want to lower your grocery bills? We all do.

The shopping experts at Consumer Reports suggest choosing store brands. They're trained taste testers have found that most store brands deliver the same or better quality than similar brand-name items – and they're typically priced 15 to 30 percent less.

When you go down the aisles, look high and look low. Lower-cost versions of many items, including cereal, cake mixes and paper goods, are often placed on the highest or lowest shelves. National brands pay a fee to be at eye level and they are more expensive.

If you have the options, shop on weekdays. Consumer Reports says some items are cheaper on weekdays, when stores want to clear inventory, Produce is the one exception. It tends to cost the most on Monday.

More Info: How to Save Time and Money Food Shopping


The Most Common Financial Regrets

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

June 12, 2017

We all have regrets and many of them have to do with money.

In fact, a new survey by Bankrate.com shows that three out of four adults in this country have financial regrets, something they wish they had done differently when they were younger.

Bankrate asked one thousand adults to name their biggest financial regret.

“And the number one answer was not saving for retirement early enough,” said Mark Hamrick, Bankrate's senior economic analyst. “So three out of four Americans have a financial regret and most of them deal with not saving enough for retirement."

Most of the other responses, Hamrick told me, revolved around failing to save for something, such as emergency expenses or their child’s education.

By the way, millennials said their number one financial regret was the amount of student loan debt they were shouldering.

The takeaway from this survey is pretty simple: No matter your age, saving for retirement needs to be a priority. Of course, the earlier you start the better.

More Info: 73% Have Financial Regrets


Helping Our Parents Manage Their Finances

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

June 7, 2017

As our parents get older, we sometimes need to help them with their finances. Research shows that our ability to make financial decisions peak when we hit our 50s and can rapidly decline after the age of 70.

Our parents may not want help or think they need it, so we need to tread lightly.

One thing you might encourage them to do is consolidate and simplify their finances. What does that mean?

Personal finance expert Liz Weston, who writes for the website NerdWallet, says it means they should have one bank, one brokerage form and maybe two credit cards. One card is for daily purchases and one is for automatic bill payments, Weston says.

Fewer accounts will make it easier for them to track their finances and easier for you to keep an eye on things.

More Info: How to Help Your Parents Protect Their Money


Why You Really Should Have a Home Inventory

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

June 5, 2017

Do you have a home inventory – a list of all the things in your home or apartment?

An inventory will be critical to getting an insurance claim settled quickly and fairly, if there’s a loss, such as a fire or your home is burglarized.

If the thought of writing down everything seems overwhelming, consider this suggestion from Consumer Reports: Grab your smartphone and make a video instead.

You want to document anything of value, such as clothing, appliances, furniture and wall art. Don’t forget bookcases. And remember to open cabinets, closets and drawers.

It’s a good idea to comment on what you see as you go and try to take close-ups of the model and serial numbers of appliances.

You want to store that video in the cloud or a fireproof safe or safe deposit box.

The Insurance Information Institute offers a free smartphone app that can simplify the process.

More Info: How to Create a Home Inventory


New Survey Finds Credit Score Confusion

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

May 24, 2017

Does carrying a balance on your credit card improve your credit score?

According to a new survey of 2,000 adults commissioned by the website NerdWallet, a lot of people mistakenly think it will.

It won't. Carrying a balance does not improve your credit score. All it does is cost you money... money you could use for a lot of other things.

NerdWallet points out that to a lender someone who pays off their credit card balance in full each month is considered to be a lower risk than someone who doesn't.

The NerdWallet survey also found that:

• About half of Americans (49 percent) don’t know that having bad credit can limit a person’s options for cell phone service.

• Almost a quarter of Americans (23 percent) think a person has just one credit score. Most consumers have many scores, and they can vary based on the information used to calculate them. The score provider and score model your lender will consult depends on the reason you’re looking for credit. For example, there are auto-specific and mortgage-specific scores.

More Info: How Costly Is Bad Credit? Many Don’t Know, Survey Shows


Federal Student Loans are Going to Cost More

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

May 22, 2017

Borrowing money for college is going to get more expensive. The interest rates for federal student loans for the 2017-2018 academic year adjust in July – and they're going up.

The government hasn't announced the rates yet, but our news partners at Consumer Reports did the math based on the formula used.

The new interest rates for the popular Stafford Loan will jump from 3.76 percent to 4.45 percent for undergrads and from 5.31 to 6 percent for graduate students.

Rates on PLUS loans, available to parents, will go to 7 percent.

Federal loans will still be a relatively good deal, almost always a better choice than a private student loan.

Even so, Consumer Reports cautions families and students that they need to be extra careful about how much money they borrow to pay for that college education

A good rule of thumb: Your student loan payments should be no more than 10 - 15 percent of your expected gross income when you graduate.

More Info: Federal Student Loans Are About to Get More Expensive


A Low Credit Score Can Raise the Cost of Homeowner's Insurance

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

May 17, 2017

The price you pay for homeowners insurance is based on a number of factors. They include: Where you live, the value of your home, the age of your home, the amount of coverage you have, as well as the deductible.

And then, there's your credit score.

That's right; your credit score can affect insurance premiums. Why? Because in most states, insurance companies are allowed to use them, even though consumer advocates think that’s unfair.

A study done for InsuranceQuotes.com found that nationwide, homeowners with a fair credit score, pay an average of 36 percent more for home insurance than someone with excellent credit.

In this state, if your credit rating drops from excellent to poor, you can expect to see your average annual premium more than double – increasing by about 112 percent, the survey found.

The takeaway here: If you have good credit, work at keeping it there.

Pay your bills on time, don't run up too much debt, and don't let your credit card balances get above 30 percent of your total credit limit.

If you don't have good credit, work on boosting your score.

More Info: Why Poor Credit Can Triple Your Homeowners Insurance


How Much Should You Have in Your Emergency Fund?

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

May 15, 2017

You hear the advice all the time: You need to have an emergency fund. But how much should you have set aside in that fund?

Most financial experts would like to see you have enough money to cover six months of living expenses. That would include money you'd need for the mortgage or rent, utilities, food, medical and transportation expenses.

That money should be in a regular savings account. You won’t get much interest, but you don’t want that money in a CD that has a penalty for early withdrawal. You want that money to be readily accessible, so you can get to it right way.

How do you get started? Get started! Put a little away each month. An automatic deposit from your paycheck into a savings account is the smart way to go.

You never know when you’re going to need just a little extra cash to cover an unexpected expense. A study by the Urban Institute finds that even as little as $250 in an emergency fund could help prevent a financial disaster for some families.

More Info: Liz Weston: Are You Financially Healthy?


Simple Ways to Teach Your Children the Value of Money

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

May 10, 2017

Kids don’t learn how to be financially savvy on their own; you need to teach them these skills. And you can start those lessons at a very young age. A few suggestions from Credit.com:

Ask the kids to help you make the weekly grocery list and then take them to the store with you. While there you can explain to them how much food costs, the value of comparison shopping, the benefit of using coupons, and why having a family budget is so important.

If you give your children an allowance, open a bank account and encourage them to put away some money each week. Explain to them that by adding to their savings, they’ll have the money they need to buy something they really want in the future.

Keep in Mind: This is not a one-shot deal. By frequently including the kids in the family’s financial discussions and decisions, they’ll pick up the skills they’ll need to have when they grow up.

More Info: 7 Things You Can Do Now to Solidify Your Child’s Financial Future


Good Credit Means a Better Mortgage Interest Rate

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

May 8, 2017

Having a good credit score is really important when you go shopping for a mortgage. In fact, it's one of the key factors lenders use to set the interest rate.

A good score will mean a better rate and a lower monthly payment. That can be the difference between a mortgage you can afford and one that's a budget buster.

For example: Let's say you want a $500,000 mortgage with a 30-year fixed rate. Using the FICO Loan Savings Calculator we found that boosting your credit score from average to good, would save about $40,000 on interest payments over the life of the loan.

More Info: How Much a Credit Score Can Cost You When Getting a Mortgage


Are You Paying 'Inactivity Fees' on Old Bank Accounts?

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

May 3, 2017

Most American families have a few savings and checking accounts. Sometimes we open new accounts to get a better interest rate. Sometimes we do it because a bank or credit union is running a special promotion.

Over time, we tend to focus on our primary accounts and forget about these other ones. That could be costly.

Many financial institutions will charge you a monthly "inactivity fee" if you don't make at least one deposit or withdrawal within a certain time frame.

"This could be anywhere from two dollars a month to more than $10 a month,” said Ken Tumin, founding editor of the Bank Deals Blog at DepositAccounts. "Make sure you know how long that inactive account period is; it varies by banks. And make sure you know what the fee is that the bank will charge. Then, make sure you set up alerts and have a system in place so you won't get hit with an inactivity fee."

A deposit or withdrawal should be enough to keep that savings and checking account active. Sometimes, talking to a customer service representative at the bank will do the trick, Tumin said.

Bottom Line: If you don't need the account, it makes sense to close and avoid that monthly inactivity fee.

More Info: Beware of Inactivity Fees at Your Bank or Credit Union


A Few Ways to Invest Your Tax Refund

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

May 1, 2017

So what are you going to do with your tax refund?

The IRS says the average refund is going to be about $3,000 this year. You'd be smart to put that money to good use. Financial experts offer these suggestions:

Pay off your high-interest credit card. Remember, rates are expected to go up even more before the year is over.

Once that's done, it's time to build-up your emergency fund. The goal is to have enough cash on hand to cover three to six months worth of expenses.

Another good way to invest that refund is to boost your retirement savings. Maybe it's time to start a Roth IRA. With a Roth IRA, you get to withdraw the money tax-free when you retire.

Do a little home remodeling. With the right projects, you can improve your living space and boost your home's value.

Or save the money for your vacation and to cut down on how much you need to charge on your credit card.

Remember: If your refund was substantial, consider adjusting your tax withholding at work. That will increase your take-home pay all year long.

More Info: Smart Ways to Spend Your Tax Refund


Tax Documents: What to Toss and What to Keep

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

April 24, 2017

Your taxes are done and you're ready to toss a lot of those old documents. Before you do anything, consider this: Some of that paperwork needs to be kept for a few years.

"The IRS generally only has three years past the tax filing deadline to initiate an audit, so a lot of your supporting documents from beyond that time period can get shredded now,” advises Kim Lankford, a contributing editor at Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine.

But some documents should be kept for more than three years. If you have a lot of self-employed income, you might want to save your records for seven years. That's because IRS audit period extends to six years for anyone who underreports their income by 25 percent or more.

Any documents relating to the purchase of a house, and any major improvements you’ve made to it, should be kept for three years after the house is sold.

Any records that show when you bought stocks, mutual funds or other investments should be for three years after you sell those investments. You'll need them to determine the capital loss or gain when you sell them.

For those with a business, keep purchase records for any assets that are still being used or depreciated.

And what about the returns themselves, how long should you keep them?

"I also recommend keeping your returns, the 1040 and Schedule C and things like that as long as possible,” Lankford said. “You can now download those, keep them digitally, they don't need to take up a lot of space. That's because there can be all kinds of reasons why you might need them in the future.”

More Info: When to Toss Tax Records



How to Pay Off Your Mortgage Sooner

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

April 19, 2017

Buying a home is one of the best ways for the average person to build wealth. But that mortgage is a long-term obligation that will impact your finances for years to come.

If you can pay off that mortgage early, you may be able to retire sooner. Credit.com suggests three basic ways to do that:

Set up a biweekly payment plan where you pay half the monthly amount every two weeks. By doing this, you make an extra payment every year.

Pay more than what's required. Add 10 percent to those monthly payments and you can pay off a 30-year loan in just 25 years.

Make an extra payment each year. If you do this, make sure the lender knows you want that extra money applied to the principal.

Take it from someone who’s done it: Tearing up that mortgage early is one of the great pleasures in life.

More Info: 3 Easy Ways to Pay Off Your Mortgage Faster


Budgeting for Your New Baby

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

April 18, 2017

You're going to have a baby. Congratulations!

Do you have any idea how much your new bundle of joy is going to cost you the first year?

You can figure about $10,000, according to a survey of new mothers by BabyCenter. Forty percent of the moms said having a baby cost a lot more than they expected. And, they said, it was those unexpected expenses that hurt their budget the most.

While there's no way to anticipate every expense, expectant parents would be smart to do a bit of pre-baby budgeting to help cushion the financial blow.

You need to calculate your family income and expenses - and the sooner you do it, the sooner you can adjust your spending before the baby arrives.

You may find that in order to cover the added costs you need to cut back on some things you can live without - maybe that premium cable service, those daily lattes or going out to lunch every day.

The key is to know where you stand financially, so you can deal with it accordingly. BabyCenter has a First-Year Baby Costs Calculator that can help you get started.


Mistakes Can Slow Down Your Tax Refund

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

April 12, 2017

The race is on to get those tax returns done. When you rush it’s easy to make simple mistakes that will slow down the processing of that return by the IRS. And that could delay your refund.

You can avoid many common errors by filing electronically. IRS e-file is the most accurate way to file your tax return. The software does the calculations, flags common errors and prompts you for missing information.

Seven out of ten taxpayers can use IRS Free File software at no cost.

If you can’t make the April 18 deadline, request an extension - this will prevent late-filing penalties. Remember, while that extension gives you extra time to file, tax payments are still due on April 18.

More Info:

Avoid Common Tax-Filing Errors; IRS Encourages e-filing, Careful Review

IRS: Get an Extension to File Your Return

IRS Offers Free Help to Last-Minute Filers


Why a Big Tax Refund is Not Necessarily a Good Thing

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

April 5, 2017

You're getting a new tax refund this year and you're very excited about that. For some people, this is a forced way to save.

But look at it rationally: Getting that big refund check from Uncle Sam is not a smart way to manage your money. It means you’ve overpaid your taxes - gave the government an interest-free loan.

And most importantly, you didn't have that money throughout the year to pay your bills or add to your savings.

The goal is to break even - or come as close to it as you can.

The IRS has a calculator on its website that can help adjust your withholding. That’s something you can do right now and as many times as you want during the year.

More Info: Why It’s Not Smart to Get a Big Tax Refund Each Year


The Pitfalls of Cosigning Private Student Loans

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

April 3, 2017

Students headed to college in the fall are scrambling to find enough money to pay for their education.

When financial aid and federal loans aren't enough, some families take out private loans. And that can be a mistake, financial experts warn.

Most private student loans require a cosigner - typically a parent - who must put their good credit on the line to get the loan approved.

Mark Kantrowitz a vice president at the college and scholarship search site Cappex.com, reminds parents that a cosigner is a co-borrower.

"You're equally obligated to repay the debt,” he said. “You're essentially putting your financial future in the hands of a college student. Unless that student is extremely responsible and you are capable of repaying that loan in full entirely on your own, you probably shouldn't do it."

Keep in mind: Cosigning a loan will add to your debt load which can lower your credit score. If your child pays late or misses payments, your credit score will get clobbered.

A better option is to talk to the school's financial aid office to see if you can get more assistance, experts tell me. Or maybe you need to make the tough decision and pick a school that’s more within your price range.

Kantrowitz suggests this rule of thumb: A student's total debt at graduation should be less than their annual starting salary. His website, privatestudentloans.guru, has objective information and expert advice about these loans.

The website LendEDU recently interviewed 500 parents who co-signed private student loans and found that:

57% said their credit scores dropped as a result

34% said these lower credit scores hurt their ability to qualify for a mortgage, auto loan or other type of financing

One-third admitted they did not fully understand the potential consequences

35% said they now regret doing it

Fully half said they felt that their child's student debt was putting their retirement in jeopardy

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's website has extensive advice on paying for college.

More Info: Cosigning a Loan? Your Credit Score Will Drop and You’ll Retire Later


Survey: Some Americans Not Saving Anything

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

March 29, 2017

Saving money isn't easy - you have to work at it. But a lot of people aren't doing that.

A new survey by Bankrate.com finds that two out of 10 working Americans say they are not saving any of their income. Nothing.

Why? The top reasons given are too many expenses and I just haven't gotten around to it.

But you need to get started - and the sooner the better.

The best way to save is automatically. Take advantage of that 401(k) account at work or open an IRA and have money taken out of your paycheck and directly deposited into that account.

The only way to save is to make it a priority.

More Info: Americans have a big disconnect about saving money


How to Pay Down Those Credit Card Balances

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

March 27, 2017

You have several credit cards with unpaid balances and it seems like you’ll never be able to pay them off. Sound familiar? A lot of people find themselves in this situation right now.

A recent study in the Harvard Business Review found a way to pay that increases your chances of success.

Study co-author Remi Trudel, assistant professor of marketing at Boston University, says focus on one credit card at a time - starting with the lowest balance.

While the idea of paying a total debt of $15,000 on multiple cards may seem insurmountable, looking at the individual accounts seems more attainable.

“So in essence you're much more motivated and encouraged by seeing progress toward paying off one of those smaller accounts,” Trudel said.

His advice based on this study: Pay the minimum on all of your accounts every month. Then put the rest of what you can afford on your smallest account. Once that one's paid off, move to your next larger account and so on.

Focusing on sub-goals, one card at a time tends to be more motivating, he said. It’s like running a marathon. It’s easier to deal with one mile at a time than all 26 miles at once.

More Info: With More Rate Hikes Coming, Here’s the Best Way to Pay Off Your Credit Card Debt


Consumer Alert: Tax Preparer Fraud

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

March 22, 2017

Tax Day is almost here - April 18 this year - and a lot of us will pay someone to get our returns done on time. This race to the finish line creates a major opportunity for fraudulent tax preparers.

Most tax preparers are honest, but not all. The dishonest ones charge inflated fees and file inaccurate returns. They create bogus deductions to claim inflated refunds. Sometimes the customer profits, sometimes they keep the extra cash for themselves. The really bad ones use the personal information you provide to commit identity theft.

Here are a few "red flags" that signal a preparer is dishonest:

They want you to sign a blank return.

They say their fee is based on the size of your refund.

They claim to have super-secret ways to lower your tax bill that the IRS doesn't want you to know about.

We all want to get the biggest refund possible, but remember you are responsible for your return - even if someone else prepares it. And you risk fines, fees or an IRS audit, if that preparer files an incomplete or incorrect return.

So do a little homework and make sure you choose someone you can trust.

More info: Watch Out for Fake Tax Preparers Who Steal Your Identity and Run Off With Your Cash


Those Unpaid Credit Card Balances are Getting More Expensive

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

March 20, 2017

Those Unpaid Credit Card Balances are Getting More Expensive

The cost of borrowing money is going up. That’s what the Federal Reserve wants. It raised its short-term interest rate last week which caused banks to boost their prime rate. And that will drive up the rate for consumer loans that are based on the prime.

“You're going to feel this first on variable rate debts, like credit cards, home equity lines of credit and adjustable-rate mortgages,” said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com . “These are going to be your biggest exposures as interest rates continue to rise."

Rising interest rates mean its time to deal with your credit card debt. Credit card interest rates are some of the highest most consumers will ever pay. The nationwide average right now is about 16 percent, according to Bankrate. As rates go up, those unpaid balances cost you more.

"Look to lock in fixed-rates on credit cards and bag those zero percent and other-low rate balance transfer offers now while you still can,” McBride suggested. “Do what you have to do to get that debt paid off once and for all because the cost of carrying that debt is only going to go up as interest rates climb.”

And it’s a pretty sure bet that’s going to happen since the Fed has signaled that it expects to raise interest rates two more times this year.

More Info: How the Fed's Interest-Rate Hike Affects Consumers


An Auto Insurance Claim Can Result in Sizeable Premium Increase

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

March 15, 2017

You have a car accident, so you file an insurance claim. Better expect to get hit with a price hike.

A new report from insuranceQuotes.com finds that drivers in Washington who file a single claim of $2,000 or more will see their premiums spike by 39 percent. That’s actually lower than the national average of 44 percent.

File a second claim in one year, and the price will skyrocket even more. The national average for that is a 99 percent annual premium increase, according to the insuranceQuotes survey.

The price hikes vary by the type of claim filed. Bodily injury (liability) claims are by far the most expensive. A comprehensive claim that pays for damage from something other than a collision, such as fire or theft, typically results in an average premium increase of less than 2 percent, the survey found.

InsuranceQuotes says these price hikes typically kick in for accidents where you are at fault. If someone hits you, his or her insurance will cover the claim, and typically your rates won't be affected, the study noted.

One bit of good news: Premium increases resulting from a claim don’t last forever; typically it's about three to five years.

More Info: Filing an Auto Insurance Claim? Expect a Big Spike in Your Premium


Top Auto Picks for 2017 from Consumer Reports

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

March 13, 2017

Consumer Reports is out with its annual auto issue that includes a list of top car picks. These are the top-performing models in 10 categories - cars and trucks that are reliable, safe and satisfying.

Small SUVs are now the most popular cars on the road. The Subaru Forester tops the list in this category. The editors say the Forester “sets the standard for small SUVs” with excellent fuel economy, super-easy visibility, and top-notch safety ratings.

Top pick for midsize sedan is the Kia Optima. It beats out the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. The Optima is stylish, responsive and a good value at around $25,000.

Need a smaller car at a great value? The roomy Chevrolet Cruze has a smooth and quiet ride with very impressive fuel economy - 47 miles per gallon on the highway. And its overall score in Consumer Reports testing beats the popular Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla.

Looking for a new compact pickup? The redesigned Honda Ridgeline handles and rides far better than any other pickup. It also gets impressive gas mileage and has a versatile tailgate and under-bed storage.

Consumer Reports also looks at data across an entire model line to come up with its annual Brand Report Card. This year, the top three are all German automakers - Audi, Porsche and BMW. At the bottom of the list are Mitsubishi, Jeep and Fiat.

More Info: 10 Top Picks of 2017: Best Cars of the Year

Which Car Brands Make the Best Vehicles?


Top-Rated Tax Preparation Software

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

March 6, 2017

To save money, a lot of people do their own tax returns, which is why there are so many software programs on the market.

The editors at Kiplinger's Personal Finance Magazine just reviewed some of the most popular programs. They found TurboTax, the industry leader, to be the easiest to use.

Senior assistant editor Sandra Block, who oversaw this program, said TurboTax was the most expensive software they tested, but it had the most sophisticated navigation.

"That is my favorite program,” Block told me. “But I would encourage people who want to save money to check out H&R Block Deluxe because I think it's almost as good and a lot cheaper."

H&R Block Deluxe was found to be user-friendly with a lot of helpful tools, but Kiplinger says it's difficult to get guidance from a tax pro.

TaxAct, typically the most frugal choice, raised its price this year and was found to have clunky navigation and a weak help section. Unlike some of its competitors, TaxAct does offer a “price lock guarantee." This means it won't raise its prices as the tax deadline nears.

Maybe you can file your tax return for free.

There's H&R Block More Zero for taxpayers who file 1040EZ or 1040A and those who itemize and claim the most common deductions. If you have a fairly simple return and only claim charitable and mortgage interest deductions, Kiplinger recommends H&R Block More Zero.

Credit Karma Tax, is also free and not limited to those with simple returns, but the company will use your personal information to market related products to you. You can opt out if you don’t like that.

If your adjusted gross income is $64,000 or less, consider using IRS Free File.

"They have a lot of options there and they tend not to be limited to easy tax returns,” Block said.

Twelve different private software companies are taking part in the IRS Free File program this year.

More Info:

Guide to 7 Top Tax Software Programs, 2017

7 Ways You Can File Your Taxes Free


Scam Alert: Tax Identity Theft

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Feb. 27, 2017

You've heard the news: There's been a big spike in tax-related identity fraud recently.

And yet, most Americans are not all that concerned about it and not always doing what's needed to protect this very personal and highly-sensitive information, according to a new survey by the digital risk management firm CyberScout.

"It's a serious problem when people don't securely store their data,” said Adam Levin, founder and chairman of CyberScout.

Forty percent of the people surveyed said they store tax documents on their computer or in the cloud. Both are vulnerable to a variety of attacks. And of those who keep tax documents on a USB drive or on their computer, only 18 percent have that information encrypted.

"You need to use encrypted hard drives,” Levin said. “Then you only have to remember where you put your hard drive and your password - hopefully, a long and strong one.”

Tax ID fraud is a real threat, one that needs to taken seriously. Remember: Tax documents have your Social Security number, date of birth and other personal information. If this personally identifiable information is stolen, it's a real pain to clean up the mess that can result.

The safest way to get your refund

The IRS says more than 70 million taxpayers will get a refund this year. Many will have the IRS mail them a check.

Not only is that the slowest way to get your money, it's also the least secure way to get it - especially if you don't have a locking mailbox.

The CyberScout survey found that less than a third of those expecting a refund check from Uncle Sam have a secure mailbox. Not good. Mail theft can happen any time of the year, but especially at tax time.

Play it safe: The quickest and safest way to get your tax return is via direct deposit.

More Info: 9 Tips to beat tax identity theft


Survey: Most Americans Don’t Have a Will

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Feb. 22, 2017

Sooner or later, all of us are going to die - but most of us don't have a will.

In fact, only 42 percent of the adults in this country have prepared estate planning documents, such as a will or living trust, according to a new study from Caring.com.

The main reasons people gave for not having a will were: they hadn’t gotten around to it yet and they didn’t have enough assets to leave to anyone.

“If you don't mind letting the government decide what happens to your stuff, if you're not there, then you don't need a will,” said Katie Roper, vice president of caring.com. “But most of us would prefer to have some say over what happens."

It's not just what happens to your assets. It’s also who takes care of the kids. And that's the really scary finding in this survey. Only 36 percent of the people with young children have a will.

“If you don't deal with this, you're potentially leaving your children and the people caring for them with a terrible mess,” Roper said.

It’s critical for anyone with children or financial assets to have a will.

More Info: Nearly 6 in 10 U.S. Adults Don’t Have a Will


Home Sellers in Some Areas are Willing to Negotiate

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Feb. 20, 2017

It's a seller’s market right now in most of Western Washington. But in some areas, buyers should have an easier time finding what they want. These are places where home sellers are more likely to be willing to lower the price to close the deal.

According to a new report from Zillow, the top five buyer’s markets around here are: Eatonville, Stanwood, Mukilteo, Gig Harbor and Graham.

The top 5 sellers markets are: Kirkland, Bothell, Lynnwood, Bellevue and Redmond. Don’t expect to negotiate a better price in these neighborhoods.

Click here to read Zillow’s full report.


Millions Are Being Targeted by Tax Scammers

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Feb. 13, 2017

The phone rings and the callers says, “I’m with the IRS - you owe us money and you need to pay up right now.” What do you do?

You hang up!

The IRS doesn’t call people about tax problems, so anyone demanding payment over the phone by credit or debit card is a crook. Anyone telling you to buy a gift card to pay a tax bill is also a criminal. The IRS doesn’t accept payment via gift cards.

If you owe money, the IRS will mail you a bill. Yes, snail mail!

These IRS imposters can be mighty aggressive. They often threaten immediate arrest or deportation. They call over and over again. Don’t fall for the high-pressure scare tactics.

The IRS doesn’t arrest people or deport people who owe taxes.

Don’t let these phone bandits intimidate you. Hang Up!

Identity thieves are also hard at work right now, trying to steal your personal information and your money, by using the IRS name and logo on their bogus email.

The IRS reports that there has been a 400 percent surge in phishing and malware incidents during the 2016 tax season.

These phishing emails are designed to look like they’re from the IRS or your tax preparation company.

You may be asked for personal information, such as date of birth, Social Security number or PIN codes.

Or you may be instructed to click a link which will either load malware onto your device or take you to a bogus website run by the scammers. It looks like the IRS site and is designed to steal your personal information.

Remember: The IRS initiates contact with taxpayers via snail mail, not email.

When in doubt, contact the IRS, you can call the toll-free number 1-800-829-1040 before you do anything that you can’t undo.

More Info: IRS TAX SCAMS ALERT


Scam Alert: Amazon and iTunes Gift Cards are Not for Paying Bills

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Feb. 8, 2017

Scammers are always coming up with new ways to steal your money. Right now, they like to get paid with iTunes and Amazon gift cards. That’s because these gift cards are a quick and untraceable way to get your money.

Here’s a typical scenario. A fraudster calls and pretends to be with the IRS or a debt collector or your local utility. They claim you owe money and they want payment right now via these cards, or else. They might threaten arrest, a lawsuit or turning off your utility service. It doesn’t matter what they say - don’t do it. It’s a crook on the other end of the line.

If you buy the cards and give them the codes, they’ll drain all the money from the card. There’s no way to get the money back and you probably won’t get help from Apple or Amazon.

Remember: Amazon and iTunes gift cards are for shopping online at these two stores. They’re never a way to pay someone who calls you on the phone. Never!

More Info:

iTunes Gift Card Scams

Amazon Gift Card Scams


ID Fraud Hits Record High in 2016

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Feb. 6, 2017

It's a staggering number: 15.4 million people were the victims of identity fraud last year, according to a new report from Javelin Strategy & Research. In most of these cases, a thief somewhere in the world used their credit or debit card to make unauthorized purchases.

There's nothing you can do to guarantee that you won't get hit. I've had my credit card number stolen. The best you can do is to be on the lookout for fraud.

"You need to check your bank and credit card accounts frequently to see if there's any suspicious activity - anything that doesn't look right,” said Adam Levin, privacy expert and chairman of CyberScout.

You should also set up text or email alerts with your financial institutions and credit card companies so you can keep track of transactions in real time.

"It's very important to know as quickly as possible because as soon as you know, you can contact your financial institution or credit card company,” Levin said. “If you don't check it frequently, it may take days or weeks for you to find out that you have a problem. And at that point, it could be too late."

More Info: Identity Fraud Hits Record Number of Americans in 2016


Don't Let Low Interest Rates Discourage You from Saving

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Feb.1, 2017

Interest rates are on the rise. Mortgage rates are up and so are credit card rates. But not the interest rates paid on savings accounts. Those rates, which are dismally low, are holding steady.

The average savings account right now pays a measly one-tenth of a percent, according to Bankrate.com.

It’s easy to convince yourself that low interest rates mean you don’t have to save. That’s simply wrong! Low rates are not an excuse to avoid having that rainy day savings account.

Bankrate's chief financial analyst, Greg McBride, says you need to have some cash on hand to cover an unexpected expense.

"Don't consider it part of your portfolio,” McBride told me. “Consider it as your buffer between you and that 15 percent interest rate on your credit card. Suddenly, it looks like a pretty good investment when you put it in those terms"

When rates do start to go up, you'll need to shop around. McBride says we won't see all financial institutions raise their interest rates at the same pace.

More Info:

Increases in Interest Rates on Savings Accounts Remain Slow to Materialize


Big Tax Prep Services Offers Tax Refund Advance

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Jan. 30, 2017

The big three tax-preparation services - H&R Block, Jackson Hewitt and Liberty Tax - have come up with a mighty tempting offer: Get an advance on your tax refund with no strings attached.

When your refund arrives, the advance is deducted and you get the difference. If the refund winds up being less than the advance, you keep the difference.

Of course, you can’t apply for the refund advance until you have your taxes done by that company. And as Consumer Reports reminds us, having someone do your return will probably cost significantly more than if you did it yourself. But if you’re going to use one of these tax preparation services anyway, it’s something you might want to consider.

Keep in mind: If you’re getting a big refund, you’d be smart to adjust your withholding, so that you get to keep more of your money during the year. Why give Uncle Sam a tax free loan?

More Info:

Should You Apply for an Advance on Your Tax Refund?

The Earned Income Tax Credit May Help You Get the Biggest Refund


Get Ready to Do Your Taxes

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Jan. 25, 2017

Tax filing season started this week, but it may be awhile before you have all the documents you need to prepare your return.

The website Credit.com suggests making a checklist of all the outstanding documents you need.

If you were employed last year, you’ll get a W-2 from work. You’ll also get 1099 forms for other sources of income, such as banks or brokerage firms, or freelance jobs.

Have a mortgage? The mortgage company will send a form that shows how much interest you paid. And you’ll get a form if you have student loans.

Remember, the quickest way to get return processed is by e-filing. That means you should get your refund sooner. The quickest and most secure way to get your tax refund is by direct deposit.

More Info: Hate Tax Season? These 4 Tips Will Help You Get It Over With


Order Valentine’s Day Flowers Now to Get the Best Price

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Jan. 23, 2017

Valentine’s Day is still weeks away. That’s why you should be ordering your flowers now. The website Brad’s Deals tracked the price of a dozen red roses last year. They found that prices started to spike around January 15. So the longer you wait, the more expensive they’ll get.

Some online florists will let you place your Valentine’s Day order now and lock in the current price. This could save you as much as 40 percent in some cases.

Brads Deals reminds us that many of the big national online florists offer Valentine’s Day coupons or promo codes that can lower the price, so be sure to check.

Kevin Brasler, executive editor at Checkbook.org, says their undercover price shopping shows that you can get some really good deals on flower arrangements at the supermarket.

"The big advantage to buy in a supermarket is price,” Brasler said. "I mean, the prices are far lower than those offered by retail florists."

Remember, you can save money by choosing something other than red roses, such as a nice, full arrangement of different flowers that are available.

More Info:

Which Florists Offer the Best Service and Prices?

Key things to know before you buy flowers for Valentine's Day


Most Americans Don’t Have Savings to Cover a Small Emergency

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Jan. 18, 2017

Your car breaks down, your hot water heater fails or you get sick. Life happens! Could you handle a financial emergency like this?

A new survey from Bankrate.com finds that most people can't. Six in 10 Americans don't have enough in savings to pay for an unexpected expense between $500 and $1,000.

If something unexpected like this happened, most would charge it and finance it at a high interest rate. Others would make drastic cuts to their spending and a few would ask a family member for help.

Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com, says everyone should have a rainy day fund

"Savings is all about the habit. You've got to establish the habit, that's the first step and the toughest step,” McBride said. “After that it almost becomes a little bit addictive. You can increase the amount you save as your pay increases over time. But taking that first step is really the most important - setting up that direct deposit and establishing that habit, that automated process of saving."

You want to make that account something you don't touch except in an emergency.

More Info: Bankrate survey: Just 4 in 10 Americans have savings they'd rely on in an emergency


Ransomware Can Lock-Up All of Your Computer Files

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Jan. 16, 2017

The top threat on the Internet is going to get even worse this year with more victims and more money lost. Ransomware is nasty malware that encrypts all the data on your computer or mobile device. To unlock your files, you must pay hundreds of dollars in ransom, typically by bitcoin. The average ransom demand right now is about $680, according to the digital security firm Symantec.

The criminal gangs that distribute ransomware took in about a billion dollars in 2016, so this is a big problem that you need to take seriously. All computing devices, including smartphones, are vulnerable. And Apple products are not immune.

Cybercriminals have various ways to spread their ransomware, but infected email is still the most common method. The message often claims there’s an invoice you need to pay or a package that couldn’t be delivered. You’re instructed to click a link or open the attached file.

Don’t take the bait. If you click on the link or open the file, your machine will be instantly compromised.

Because this threat is so widespread now, it is more important than ever that you constantly back up all of your data, on your computers and smartphones. That way, you’ll be prepared should the worst happen.

More Info: Ransomware: Now a Billion Dollar a Year Crime and Growing


Why You Should Have a Family Budget

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Jan. 11, 2017

Make any financial resolutions for the New Year? A lot of people resolve to get their family finances in order. And that's good.

So how are you going to do that?

The best way to start is to make a family budget. Actually sit down and write down all of your expenses from last month. Your list should include the big things - food, transportation, housing and utilities - and little expenses for entertainment, haircuts, and the kids’ allowances.

Will you make enough this month to cover all of that?

If not, you need to cut back. Once your expenses are lower than your income, you'll have some money each month to pay off those bills or put into savings.

By the way, it's best to automate your savings. Have a little taken out of each paycheck - even if it’s only $20 - and have it deposited into a savings account. If you don’t have it, you can’t spend it.

More Info: How to Create a Family Budget, Step By Step


It’s Time to Get Serious About Reducing Credit Card Debt

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

January 9, 2017

Interest rates are going up.

Banks are raising their prime rate after the December rate hike by the Federal Reserve. And because credit card rates are often based on the prime, they’re going up, too.

So what's this mean to you?

It means you need to make it a top priority to pay down those unpaid credit card balances because carrying a balance month-to-month is going to cost you even more.

And if the Fed raises rates again this year, as is expected, those credit card interest rates will go even higher.

Keep in mind: Making the minimum payment won't get you anywhere. You need to put as much as you can afford into paying down that balance. The sooner the better.


Hang Up on Utility Billing Scammers

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Jan. 2, 2017

The phone rings and the caller claims to be with your local power company. He says you haven't paid your bill and owe them a lot of money.

Then he threatens you. Pay right away, he says, or they're going to shut off your service.

Don't do it. It's a scam.

"Hang up the phone and call your utility,” says Anna Gill with the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission. "Utilities will never ask you to immediately make a payment to prevent a disconnection. They're always going to give your written notice before any disconnection and they're also going to give you multiple options to pay any past due balances."

Some of these scammers try to convince you to give them you credit or debit card number over the phone. Others want you to go to the store and buy a gift card or prepaid card. Utilities don't accept gift cards.

One more tip: Don't get fooled by your caller ID, even if the number on the display shows that it's your local power company calling. Scammers can spoof caller ID to display any number they want.


Home Prices Keeping Going Up and Up

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Dec. 26, 2016

The Seattle-area is one of the hottest housing markets in the country, along with Portland and Dallas. Prices here are going up about twice as fast as the national average, according to a new report from Zillow.com.

The average price for a home in King County right now is $550,000. In Snohomish country it’s $387,000, and in Pierce County it’s $280,000. By comparison, the median home value for the country is $191,000.

Will things ever start to cool down? Yes, but not for a bit longer. Zillow expects a change from a buyer’s market to a seller’s one in late 2018 or 2019. In Seattle, it’s probably later than that.

Renting a place to live is also more costly here. The average monthly rent payment nationwide is now $1,402. In Seattle, it’s $2,087 a month, Zillow reports.


Before You Donate to an Unknown Charity, Check Them Out

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Dec. 19, 2016

‘Tis the season for giving. In fact, many charities receive most of their donations at this time of year. When you give, it’s important to give wisely.

Take the time to check out any unknown organization before you make a donation. You don't want to give your hard-earned money to a group that spends way too much on overhead - or worse yet, is run by scammers.

Watch out for sound-alike names. Dozens of non-profits have works like “cancer,” “disease,” or “children’s fund” in their names.

Two simple checks can make all the difference.

Visit the Secretary of State's GiveSmart charities page to make sure the group making the solicitation is registered in Washington. By law, any charity soliciting money in this state must be registered.

Go to a site that rates charities, such as Give.org (run by the Better Business Bureau), CharityNavigator.org or CharityWatch.org, to find out how that group uses the money it receives. In some cases, unfortunately, it’s very little.

Finally, don't let anyone who calls pressure you into donating on the spot. A legitimate charity will be happy to send you more information.

More Info: Before You Donate to a Charity, Get the Facts


Holiday shoppers should know their credit card's free perks

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Dec. 12, 2016

A lot of people don't like to use credit cards for their holiday shopping, and I understand that. But really, there's nothing wrong with using a credit card.

As long as you stick to your to your budget, and pay off the bill when it comes, that card is the same as cash. Actually, it's often better.

Your credit card can offer some pretty nice perks. A new survey from CreditCards.com found that:

Most major credit cards (81 percent) extend the manufacturer's warranty for free - usually by two years - if the item is purchased with that card. This can be a real money-saver.

"I think of lot of us have been at a store where we bought a TV or something expensive where they've asked us if we wanted to purchase an extended warranty. And if your card has that coverage, you would no longer need to do that,” said Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com.

Other common credit card perks noted in this survey:

Fifty-seven percent will reimburse you for items that are lost, stolen or damaged in the first few months after purchase

And almost half (47 percent) will refund the difference if the price drops within a few months after purchase.

Check your card to see what free perks it offers.

More Info: Most Credit Cards Offer Little-Known Perks


How Special Holiday Financing Offers Can Backfire

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Dec. 7, 2016

You've probably seen the offers - buy now with no interest for 6 moths, 12 months or more! Sounds like a great money-saving deal. And it can be.

But consumer advocates warn that these "deferred interest programs" can end up costing hundreds of dollars, if you're not careful.

Miss a payment, make a late payment or have an unpaid balance, no matter how small even a dollar - at the end of the promotional period and you’re in for a nasty surprise. You’ll get hit with retroactive finance charges for the entire purchase price even what's been paid off.

And that rate on this deferred interest programs is typical sky-high. The average interest rate right now is 24 percent, but it can go as high as 29.99 percent, according to the National Consumer Law Center. By comparison, the average interest rate on a basic general purpose credit card is currently 15 percent, according to Bankrate.com.

So if you go this route and sign up for one of these special financing offers - read the rules and follow them to the letter.

Note: If you already made a purchase using a deferred interest program, keep track of your payments and payment dates. You don't want to pay late and you don't want to have any balance remaining at the end of the promotional period. Keep in mind: Simply making the minimum payment each month will not pay off the balance in full in time.

More Info: How Zero Percent Offers Can End Up Costing You Much More


Year-End Reminder: FSA Accounts Are Use it or Lose It

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Dec. 5, 2016

It’s getting near the end of the year. That means it’s time to figure out where you stand if you have a flexible spending account through your employer. You put part of your pay into that FSA account to pay for medical bills and child care.

But remember the rules: You need to use that money by the year-end deadline or you lose it.

Some companies offer a grace period that will let you carry up to $500 forward until March of 2017. Otherwise, you need to make qualified purchases by December 31.

If you’re not sure what your company does, you’d better check while there’s still time.

By the way, if you haven’t signed up for an FSA plan and your open enrollment period at work hasn’t closed yet, you should seriously consider it. Remember, this is a great way to shelter that income from taxes.

More Info:

2017 FSA Changes: How Flexible Spending Accounts Can Save You on Taxes

Why You Really Shouldn’t Ignore a Flexible Spending Account


Online Military Consumer Toolkit Launched to Help Military Families

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Nov. 30, 2016

When you're in the military, the financial decisions you make will affect more than your family. They can also impact your security clearance and mission readiness.

It's important to know how to manage your money - and how to spot a rip-off.

That's why the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Defense, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and other federal agencies teamed up to create the Military Consumer Toolkit.

Want to buy a car, manage your money during deployment or continue your education? The Military Consumer Toolkit gives you short, mobile-friendly tips.

Get started on your phone at Military.Consumer.gov.

More Info: Military Consumer, Your Tool for Financial Readiness


Beware of Fake Shopping Apps Lurking in Legitimate App Stores

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Nov. 23, 2016

Shopping apps are extremely popular right now and crooks are trying to cash in on this by creating fake shopping apps and putting them in reputable online app stores.

Bob Sullivan an award-winning tech reporter who runs the website BobSullivan.net, says it’s really easy for a scammer to create what looks like a genuine app.

"They're creating these look-alike apps that seem like they belong to actual retail stores, but when consumers download them, instead of it actually being an app for the store, the bad guys control it,” Sullivan said.

The mischief done once you use the app can range from annoying to identity theft.

“It can be anything from just mischief to them trying to get your email address to showing you ads - so they can make a little cash - to them actually using it to steal your credit card or banking information,” Sullivan said.

The New York Times recently reported that it found “hundreds of retail and product apps” in Apple’s App Store. Most are from developers in China.

This is especially concerning since Apple, unlike Google, reviews apps before they are published.

The lesson here: You can’t rely on the app store, you need to protect yourself.

The only way to be absolutely sure you're getting a store's real app is go to that site and download it from there.

“You need to go to www.whatever.com, wait for the site to load and then do what you have to do, that's the only way to make sure you're really at the right place,” Sullivan cautioned.

Yes, it takes a little more time. But do you really want to run the risk of giving your credit or debit card number to a thief?

More Info: Fake Apps Fool Smartphone Users, Newest Form of ID Theft (video)


Mortgage Rates on the Rise

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Nov. 21, 2016

Mortgage rates are going up. The average rate for a 30-year fixed rate loan is approaching four percent. And no one’s really sure if this trend is going to continue.

Why is this happening? There’s some concern in financial markets that if President-elect Trump increases government spending and borrowing, inflation could increase.

There’s no need to panic, but if you’re planning to refinance your mortgage, you might want to get going. Waiting will likely cost you. For some, it’s now too late.

For those who are looking to buy a house, you’re not about to rush your decision because rates are going up. But if you’re shopping around right now, it’s one more thing to consider.

Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com, says rates could come back down, once the new administration is in place. And he points out; a four percent rate is still good. That’s where we were in January and no one was complaining then.

More Info: Interest Rates Rise, as Mortgage Borrowers Worry


Get Ready for Black Friday Deals

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Nov. 16, 2016

Black Friday is almost here and retailers are already advertising their sales. You can go to your favorite stores websites or check out sites like dealnews.com, Black Friday@GottaDeal.com, bradsdeals.com and bfads.net.

Don’t assume you have to give up Thanksgiving to wait in line in order to grab the bargains. You may be able to snag the same deals online.

Before you start your holiday shopping, make a list of who’s going to get a gift and how much you can spend. This is the best way to stick to your budget.

And remember, even though you can find some great prices on Black Friday, these aren’t necessarily the lowest prices of the year.

More Info: Top 10 Black Friday Shopping Tips for 2016


Changing the Due Dates on Your Bills

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Nov. 14, 2016

Sometimes your cash flow and your bills are out of sync. When that happens, it can result in late payments.

Not good. You’ll get hit with a late payment fee and this will drag down your credit score.

Most people don’t know this, but you can ask your credit card issuer to change the due date. Typically, they’ll be willing to do that.

Just call your credit card company and tell them what you’d like to do. The customer service number is right there on the back of the card. In some cases, you can do this online.

You probably want to make the new due date several days after your paycheck arrives. If you get paid every two weeks, make the credit card due date later in the month. That way you can pay your most important bill - your mortgage or rent with the first paycheck.

More Info: 5 Possible Benefits of Changing Your Bills’ Due Dates


A Few Simple Ways to Cut Your Home Heating Bills

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Nov. 9, 2016

The days are getting shorter and the nights are getting colder. Your home heating bills are about to go up. Of course, there are some things you can do to reduce the financial blow to you budget. Here are a few tips from the editors at Consumer Reports:

Did you have your furnace serviced this year? If not, that’s a good place to start.

Do you have a programmable thermostat that automatically lowers the heat when you’re asleep or out of the house? If not, consider upgrading.

It’s also important to seal up your house to keep the warm air in and the cold air out. Seal the leaks around the doors, windows and other openings. You do that with weatherstripping, caulk and expandable foam.

If you have a forced-air heating system, make sure you’ve replaced the dirty old filters from last year. For optimal efficiency, you should replace those filters every few months.

More Info: How to Lower Your Utility Bills This Winter


What to Do If Your Credit Card Application Is Denied

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Nov. 7, 2016

Just because you apply for a credit card doesn't mean you'll get one. About 15 percent of the applications are rejected.

The reasons vary. For example, you could have bad credit, little or no credit history, or not enough income to qualify.

“When you're denied a credit card, it's not to say that you can't have any credit, it's just that the card you chose to apply for wasn't the right one,” said Sean McQuay, a credit card expert with NerdWallet.com.

If your application is rejected, the credit card issuer must tell you why. This "adverse action notice” will come to you in the mail. It’s often sent separately from the rejection letter.

Read it. Find out what happened. See if there's something you need to do to get accepted next time.

"Check your credit reports and figure out if there's anything on there that looks amiss,” McQuay said. “Is there anything I can fix that would help me with my next application?"

If the problem is a lack of credit history, apply for a store or a gas station credit card. They're typically easier to get. The interest rates on these cards are much higher, but if you pay the bill in full each month, that’s not a factor. Eventually, you can move to a general purpose credit card.

A secured credit card is another option: It doesn't require a credit check and only involves a cash deposit in order to open a line of credit. Your credit equals how much you deposit. If the creditor is sharing your payment activity with the major credit reporting agencies, a secured credit card can be a useful tool to establish a credit history that can pave the way to better credit options.

You’ll find more tips for establishing credit can be found on the National Foundation for Credit Counseling website.


Fixer-Uppers Sell Quickly These Days

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Nov. 2, 2016

It’s no secret - we have a housing shortage around the Northwest right now. That’s created an opportunity for people with a less-than-perfect house to put it on the market “as is” rather than spend a bunch of money to fix it up.

And thanks to the over-heated demand, there’s no need to cut the price dramatically with an “as is” listing.

According to a new report from Seattle's Zillow.com, there are 35 percent more fixer-uppers on the market in Seattle right now as compared to a year ago.

Aaron Terrazas, a senior economist at Zillow, tells me fixer-uppers are selling - and selling quickly.

"In Seattle we're seeing fixer-uppers sell for about $24,000 less than other homes, Terrazas said. “That's a big cost savings, but not necessarily when you factor in all the repairs you may need."

Zillow says many buyers, especially millennials, are willing to buy a place that needs a little TLC.

Even so, experts say a few simple and relatively inexpensive things, like improving curb appeal and some fresh paint, can really boost the price you get.

More Info: Fixer-Uppers on the Upswing


Consumer Reports Names the Most Reliable Vehicles

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Oct. 31, 2016

Buy a new car and you want a reliable ride. While cars these days are built better than ever, some are much less likely to need repair work.

Toyota, Lexus, Buick, Audi and Kia are the most reliable brands, according to the just-released 2016 Reliability Survey from Consumer Reports.

Subaru dropped out of the top 10 list of reliable brands this year. The popular Japanese automaker was down six spots to come in at number 11. The editors said that’s because of multiple problems in the Subaru Legacy sedan and Outback wagon, which now have average reliability.

The results are based on subscriber data about more than half a million vehicles, covering more than 300 models from 2000 to 2016, plus a few early 2017s.

Two hybrids, the Lexus CT 200H and Toyota Prius are the most reliable new models. The Chevy Cruze and Toyota Corolla are the most reliable compact cars. And the most reliable compact SUV is the Toyota RAV4.


Beware of Credit Repair Scams

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Oct. 26, 2016

You have bad credit and you need help. There are lots of companies that promise they can help you with that - for a price.

Don't believe it.

Be wary of anyone who “guaranteed” to get rid of negative credit information in your credit file and quickly boost your credit score. No one can make that promise.

And never pay upfront for this so-called service. In fact, under federal law, a credit repair company cannot require you to pay until they've completed the services they promised. If they demand money in advance, it's a scam.

In most cases, you can deal with credit problems on your own or with the help of a non-profit credit counselor. You can find someone in your area by visiting the National Foundation for Credit Counseling website.

The truth is: It takes time repair a credit file. No one can get negative information removed from your file IF that information is accurate.

The Federal Trade Commission has information on credit repair scams.


Time To Shop For Summertime Items

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Oct. 24, 2016

If you want to save some serious money on the things you use during the summer, now’s the time to go shopping.

The experts at Consumer Reports say you’ll find some super discounts on bicycles, gas grills, lawnmowers, patio furniture and other warm-weather items stores want to get out the door.

The selection will be limited, so it’s important to check the reviews to make sure you’re getting a good product for that price.

Consumer Reports tracks prices year round and the editors find that October is also an ideal time to get deals on computers and digital cameras. You may also find some winter coats priced to move.

Just remember: It isn’t a bargain if you don’t need it or won’t use it.

More Info: 4 Products on Deep Discount in October


Fraud Alert: Tech Support Scammers

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Oct. 17, 2016

It’s the scam that just won’t go away and the losses now total tens of millions of dollars.

Fraudsters, claiming to be with Microsoft or Apple are calling with what sounds like an urgent message. They say they’ve noticed a problem with your computer.

Sometimes they say it’s a performance issue. Sometimes they claim you’ve been infected with a virus. It’s all a lie designed to get you to give them access to your computer.

Their phony diagnostic tests always find a problem. Then they demand hundreds of dollars to fix it.

Once they have access to your computer they can install malware or do other harmful things.

Get one of these calls - Hang up!

These con artists are also using pop-up ads to find their victims. The ads are designed to look like they're a warning from Microsoft and Apple about a serious computer problem.

Take the bait and call the phony tech support center and you’ll go down the same path: bogus diagnostic test, problem detected, pressure into paying hundreds of dollars to fix it.

You never let a stranger have remote access to your machine.

Get one of these pop-ups - just ignore it. They’re not from Microsoft or Apple or any other reputable company.

More Info:

Tech Support Scams

FTC Shuts Down Phony Computer Techs


Do you really need it, or just want it?

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Oct. 12, 2016

You know you’re spending too much, but you’re not really sure how to get back in balance.

Here’s a suggestion from the folks at Credit.com. Separate your needs from your wants and then eliminate those non-essential things. Or at least find a way to spend less on them.

You need to eat but do you really need to go out to lunch every day? Bringing your lunch to work is a lot cheaper.

You may decide you need cable TV, but premium channels are something you want and could live without.

If you can cut down on the wants and focus on the needs, you’ll have more money at the end of the month to pay your bills or put into a savings account.

Yes, it’s tough. But unless you can figure out a way to make more money, it may be your only way to make ends meet.

More Info: How to Cut Your Budget When There’s Nothing Left to Cut


New Rules Protect Military Families from Abusive Interest Rates

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Oct. 10, 2016

The federal government wants to protect military families from abusive lending practices. That’s because sky-high interest rates could hurt the family’s financial stability and put the servicemember’s security clearance and career at risk.

A new rule, part of the Military Lending Act, took effect last week that caps how much active duty service members and their dependants can be charged for payday, car title and other high-cost loans.

The interest rate and fees on these loans is now limited to 36 percent. Yes, that’s a lot. But it’s significantly lower than the triple-digit interest rates some lenders have been charging.

The Department of Defense estimates that the new rule will reduce involuntary separation caused by financial hardship which should result in savings of $13 million or more a year for the federal government.

“We applaud the Obama Administration and DoD for adopting these important protections and ensuring that service members and their families will no longer be put at risk by abusive lending practices,” said Tom Feltner, director of financial services at the Consumer Federation of America.

The new rule does not cover credit cards. That takes place a year from now.

More Info: Critical Military Financial Protections Adopted by Obama Administration and Department of Defense Go into Effect


U.S. Consumers Taking On More Credit Card Debt

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Oct. 5, 2016

Credit card debt is going up - and that concerns me.

As people start to earn more, they're buying more with their credit cards. That's fine as long as you can pay the bill when it comes. But all too often, that's not happening.

A new study from the consumer finance website WalletHub finds that the average unpaid balance right now is around $7,800.

The WalletHub study shows that American consumers racked up a record-setting $34.4 billion in credit card debt during the second quarter of 2016.

“Not only was this the largest second-quarter debt build-up since at least 1986, when quarterly statistics first were logged, but it also comes on the heels of two equally foreboding financial feats, appearing to solidify a very ominous trend,” the report noted.

WalletHub projects that the U.S. will end the year with outstanding credit card balances above the $1 trillion mark for the first time and push the average amount owed by indebted households to $8,500.

With an average interest rate of 15 percent that balance can easily grow out of control and become a problem before you know it.

Getting back on track can take years.

Do yourself a favor. Get that monkey off you back and pay down those balances. Just think of all the money you'll save in wasted interest. That’s money you’ll have to spend on other things.

More Info: 2016 Credit Card Debt Study: Trends & Insights


It's time to File the Free Application For Federal Student Aid

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Oct. 3, 2016

Here's some important news for students who need financial aid to attend college next year. You need to start applying now.

In the past, families filed Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form at the start of the year. That's been moved back to October.

After you file, you'll get a student aid report that tells you the type of federal aid you qualify for, including federal loans and grants. You might also learn that you qualify for scholarship programs.

It's really important to file that FAFSA form as soon as you can. Financial aid is typically given out on a first-come first-served basis.

It's also tough to know which school you can afford to attend until you find out how much financial aid is available to you. This is something you need to do before you take out any student loans.

Remember: You can file the FAFSA form before being accepted to any colleges or universities.

To get started go to fafsa.ed.gov.

More Info: Parents: Get your finances ready for the FAFSA


Free Trial Offers Can Be Costly

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Sept. 28, 2016

Free is a very good price. That's why so many ads - for everything from skin cream to diet products - use "free trial" offers. They get your attention and make you want to respond.

Better watch out! That freebie could wind up costing you a whole lot of money.

Here's why. In order to get that free sample, you'll need to pay for shipping and handling. And that means giving the company your credit or debit card number.

A dishonest company can use that information to sign you up for future purchases that you didn't want and didn't knowingly ask for.

"They take your account information and they ping it repeatedly, month after month," said Lois Greisman with the Federal Trade Commission. "We have seen this time and time again - the lure or a free sample, a free trial offer is great."

People who don't check their monthly credit card or bank statements may not even realize what's happening.

Those who do spot the charges may have a tough time contacting the company to get them to stop the bogus billing.

"It can be very hard," Greisman told me. "You don't know what number to call. You don't know how to identify the merchant."

Her advice: You'd might want to skip that free trial offer, unless it's from a company you know and trust. Ask yourself: Is that freebie worth the possible hassle, if that company isn't legit?

More Info:

Free Trial Offers?

"Free" Trials Can Cost You


The Boring Way to Invest In The Market

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Sept. 26, 2016

When it comes to investing, simple is often the best way to go.

That’s the secret of index funds. These plain vanilla mutual funds buy a specific set of stocks, such as the S&P 500, Russell 2000 or Wilshire 5000, and then they just let the market do its thing.

Yes, they're boring. But they work.

"They're cheap to own because they're essentially just keeping up with the index, you're not paying a high-priced mutual fund manager to take of them,” said Jean Chatzky, the Today Show’s financial editor.

And over time, the fees charged by an actively-managed fund can dramatically lower your earnings. You just don’t realize it because those fees come out of your account automatically.

So how do index funds perform when compared to one that actively buys and trade stocks to try to beat the market? Chatzky says they do surprisingly well.

"If you look at index funds versus actively-managed mutual funds, year in and year out, the index funds tend to do better,” she told me. “Plus, they cost less, so you end up with more money in your retirement when you get there."

When they first hit the scene about 40 years ago, no one took index funds seriously. Today, hundreds of billions of dollars a year are being invested this way.

More Info: 10 reasons to own index funds


Making the Minimum Payment Each Month Is Not Enough

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Sept. 21, 2016

Those credit card bills are more than you can handle, but you’re careful to make the minimum payment each month. You assume that by paying the minimum on time, every time, you’ll protect your credit score.

Unfortunately, that’s not going to cut it.

Yes, paying on time is critical to a good credit score, but the second most important factor is how much of your available credit you use.

Carrying high balances will lower your score, even if you make those minimum payments on time.

So what do you do? Limit the new charges and pay down those balances and you should see your score start to improve.

If you can’t afford to pay more than the minimum, it’s time to see a credit counselor. You can find a non-profit credit counseling agency in your area by going to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling website.

More Info: 4 Ways You Can Wind Up With Bad Credit & Not Even Know It


Your Homeowners Insurance Doesn’t Cover Everything

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Sept. 19, 2016

The standard homeowners insurance protects you from various losses. It covers the contents and structure if you have a fire. It covers most items if there’s a burglary. There are limits on jewelry, artwork and antiques or valuable collections, like stamps, unless you get a separate rider. It also covers damage should a tree fall on the house or lightning hits the roof. And it provides protection if someone is injured on your property, like from falling on a slippery patio or walkway.

It does not cover flood damage, when the water is coming from outside the house. And it does not cover damage from an earthquake, or from earth movement stemming from a landslide or sinkhole. You need to buy separate policies for that.

Chances are your basic policy won’t pay for damage caused by a sewer backup. It may not cover medical costs should your dog bite someone. Mold is also most likely excluded.

If you’re not sure what your policy covers, talk to your insurance company or agent. You want to know before something happens.

More Info: 10 Events Homeowners Insurance Doesn’t Always Cover


When to Start a Retirement Account - As Early as Possible

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Sept. 14, 2016

One of the kids in my neighborhood, Matthew, was telling me about his job and he wanted to know what to do with some of the money he earned.

I suggested he open a ROTH IRA, even if his initial deposit was only a couple of hundred dollars. By law, he can contribute as much as he made in wages this year, up to $5,500.

By starting his Individual Retirement Account now, that money will start working for him and growing for years to come. The money will grow tax free!

As Kiplinger’s Personal Finance noted in a recent article:

A 15-year-old who contributes $3,000 today will have more than $34,000 by age 65 just from that initial contribution, assuming his investments earn 5% per year.

If he continues to contribute $3,000 every year and his investments earn 5% per year, his account will be worth more than $650,000 by the time he turns 65.

Most importantly, by starting now Mathew will get into the habit of saving. And for a young person, that’s key.

Once Matthew has that IRA, the next step is to make automatic deposits each paycheck to continue adding to his nest egg.

More Info:

Roth IRAs Are for Kids, Too


Public WiFi Means Anyone Can See What You’re Doing!

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Sept. 12, 2016

Public WiFi makes it easy to stay connected while you’re on the go. But there’s a reason why it’s called “public.” It’s not secure. Everything you do could be intercepted by a crook.

A recent survey by AARP found that one third of those who use public WiFi shop with credit cards. Thirty-seven percent said they’ve done banking. That’s just crazy!

You can use public WiFi to check the weather, read the news, play a game or look up something.

It’s not for shopping or banking or logging onto social media accounts. That puts all of your personal information at risk. Thrust me - the threat is real.

More Info:

Survey Says Unwary Consumers at Risk on Public Wi-Fi Networks

Tech Savvy Kids Could Bring Malware Back Home From Public WiFi


Should a College Student Have a Credit Card?

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Sept. 7, 2016

Your son or daughter is going to college and they want a credit card. What should you do?

Start by asking yourself this question: Are they responsible enough to limit their purchases and make their payments on time?

If so, having a credit card will help them build credit for when they graduate.

Most kids under the age of 21 can't get a credit card on their own. They need a co-signer.

That’s something you probably don’t want to do. Being a co-signer is not a good idea because you legally obligate yourself to their debt, If your son or daughter misuses the card - max it out, pay late or not at all - your credit score will be negatively affected.

Here’s a better option: Make your child an authorized user on your account. That keeps you in control. You’ll see what they do - since you get the statements each month - and you can cancel the card at any time.

They’ll learn to be responsible and start building that all-important credit history.

More Info: I’m Going to College. Can I Get By Without a Credit Card?


College Students Are Prime Targets for Identity Thieves

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Aug. 31, 2016

College students aren't always focused on protecting their personal information. This makes them highly vulnerable to identity theft.

As your kids head off to school, remind them to guard all of their account numbers, PINs and passwords. They should never be shared and only given out when absolutely necessary.

Credit cards, debit cards and checks should never be left out in the open where someone could grab them. They need to be kept in a secure place at all times.

One more thing: College kids need to be reminded that public WiFi and shared computers, such as those at the library, are not secure and should never be used to buy things, pay bills or access financial accounts.

More Info: College Students Face High Risk of Identity Theft


Best Laptops for College Students

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Aug. 28, 2016

Students heading to college this fall will need a laptop.

Before you go shopping, check with your school. Most don't care if you choose a Windows-based or Apple machine, but some do have specific requirements.

"On college campuses you're going to see a lot of Mac laptops. Except when you go to an engineering building, in which case you'll see a lot of Windows laptops,” said Rich Fisco, laptop expert at Consumer Reports.

Price is the next thing to consider.

"Mac laptops tend to be expensive. You're probably going to pay $1,000 or more for anything they have to offer. But in our survey, they are the most reliable,” Fisco said.

Windows laptops offer a much wider range of pricing

As for size, Consumer Reports says 13-inch laptops offer a good compromise between screen size and weight.

Recommended 13-inch models include the MacBook Pro for $1,300 and the Dell XPS non-touch for $1,000.

If you’re looking to spend less, the 14-inch Acer Aspire at $700 is a Consumer Reports’ Best Buy.

More Info: Consumer Reports Computer Buying Guide


Does Shopping for a Mortgage Ding Your Credit Score?

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Aug. 24, 2016

You want to shop around for the best mortgage rate, but you’re afraid that multiple loan applications will hurt your credit score. So, what’s the smart move?

According to Credit.com a single credit inquiry will ding your score by less than five points, so it’s not a big deal.

Most computer models for credit scores are designed to deal with multiple credit inquiries about the same type of loan, such as home, car or educational.

There’s no set rule, but Credit.com says you’ll be safe if you make all of those loan applications within a 14-day period. That should keep any damage to your credit score to a minimum.

More Info: How Long Can I Shop Around for a Mortgage Without Really Damaging My Credit Score?


Help for Those Who Can’t Pay Tuition Bill in Full

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Aug. 22, 2016

Here’s a tip for parents who can’t pay that college tuition bill in full when it’s due. See if the school has a payment plan that lets you spread out the cost.

Consumer Reports says most schools have some sort of monthly or quarterly installment plan - and most are interest free. Paying over time could mean you don’t need to take out a costly loan.

If your school doesn’t offer a payment plan directly, Consumer Reports says you may be able to set one up through a third-party company, such as Tuition Pay, Higher One or Tuition Management Services.

More Information: Tuition Payment Plan Can Make Paying the Bill Easier


Money-Saving Tips for Back-to-School Shopping

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Aug. 15, 2016

Yes, it back-to-school shopping time again. And unless you're careful you can easily bust your budget.

Before you head to the stores, make a list of the things your kids will need and see what you already have at home.

Then make a budget. And keep a list of everything you buy. That's the best way to prevent going way overboard.

Stores have already started their back to school sales. You'll find deep discounts on all sorts of supplies: crayons, notebooks, pens, pencils, and glue. That means now's the time to stock up for both your kids and your home.

Just remember, the deals on a lot of items should get better at the end of August and early September. So, if you don't really need it now - you'd be smart to wait a few weeks and save even more.

If you're buying clothing or electronics, check to see if the store offers student discounts. You may be able to save even more.

College students can get discounts on a variety of electronic products at Best Buy. Lenovo has discounted laptops, tablets and desktop computers. Banana Republic offers students 15% off the full-price on in-store purchases.

Most student promotions will require you to have a valid student ID.

More Info:

The Do's and Don'ts of Back-to-School Shopping

Making the Grade: 3 Tips to Save Big on Back-to-School Shopping

15 Back-to-School Savings Tips You Shouldn't Overlook


New Federal Rule Protects College Students Who Receive Financial Aid

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Aug. 10, 2016

College students who receive financial aid often have some money coming to them, after the school deducts the cost of tuition and fees.

A new federal rule prevents colleges and universities from steering their students to bank partners who want them to open a new account to receive that aid.

You can get your money any way you want, including your existing checking account. And the school must tell you that. If you need to open a new account, shop around. Don’t assume the one affiliated with your school offers the best deal. And just because an account is called a student account, doesn’t mean it has low fees.

The U.S. Department of Education said its new rule will enable students to “freely choose” how to receive their federal student aid. Schools must provide “objective and neutral information” about financial aid disbursement options and students can no longer “be forced to pay excessive fees” to access their aid money.

If a student chooses an account offered by a company involved in disbursing financial aid funds for the school, there will now be limits on allowable fees. That account cannot have overdraft fees, fees for opening the account, balance inquiry fees or point-of-sale fees. The financial institution is required to have a reasonable number of ATMs where the student can get cash without fees.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has information on its website - Student Banking 101 - to help young people open their first bank account.

More Info: Now Students Can Access Financial Aid Without Using High-Fee Credit Cards


Some Good Used Cars for Your Teen Driver

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Aug. 8, 2016

Your teenager is ready for his or her first car. So what are they going to drive?

Do you buy them a new car or give them a hand-me down?

Consumer Reports suggests giving the newest driver in the house the newest car.

Mike Quincy with Consumer Reports Autos says a late-model used car is a good choice because it should have the latest safety equipment.

"We're talking stability control, forward collision warning, automatic emergency breaking and head protection air bags,” Quincy said. “All of these features give the new young drivers a better chance for street survival.”

Consumer Reports says your best bet is a moderate-sized sedan or hatchback, or small, car-based SUV.

"One in particular is the Subaru Legacy which has great visibility, easy to use controls, and lots of available safety equipment,” Quincy said.

Other good choices are the Honda Accord, Honda Civic, Toyota Camry, Kia Soul, Ford Focus and Buick Regal. (See full list of Top Used Cars for Teens)

Consumer Reports cautions that you avoid full-size pickups and larger truck-based SUVs because they are more prone to a roll over in a sudden move.

More Info: Teen Driving: When Your Kid Takes the Wheel


Maybe You Should Check Your Credit Score More Frequently

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Aug. 3, 2016

It’s hard to know how you’re doing if you don’t track your progress. Hopping on the scale once a day helps some people lose weight.

A regular check of your credit score might encourage you to do things that would improve that score.

According to a new study by Discover, 73 percent of those who checked their scores seven or more times a year said it had a positive effect on their behavior. For example, they felt motivated to pay their bills on time.

Only 44% of those who checked their score once a year reported the same positive effect.

These days, it’s easier than ever to get your score for free.

More Info: Discover Survey: Consumers Who Regularly Check Their Credit Score Say Doing So Improves Credit Behavior


What is 'Credit Utilization' and How Does it Affect Your Credit Score?

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Aug. 1, 2016

Want to build that credit score? Then pay your bills on time and limit your debt.

You want to watch what’s called your “credit utilization” - how much of your available credit you use.

Ken Chaplin with TransUnion, one of the big three credit reporting agencies, explains why high credit utilization lowers your credit score.

"If you're using all of your available credit every single month and something happens that you're not able to make those payments, the likelihood of default in the lender's eyes increases,” he said. “So someone with a lower credit utilization rate is a lower credit risk because they've got some cushion on a month-to-month basis for unseen events."

Experts say you should keep your credit utilization below 30 percent. For example, if you have a credit card with a $10,000 limit, don’t carry a balance of more than $3,000.

Of course, paying off the bill in full each month is the goal.

As you lower that credit utilization rate, you should see your credit score go up over time.

A recent survey by TransUnion found that Millennials have the least amount of available credit, but are using a higher percentage of it (79%) than other age groups.

More Info: Credit Utilization: How This Key Scoring Factor Works


Cost Needs to be Considered When Choosing a College or University

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

June 27, 2016

The numbers are staggering - about 43 million Americans owe $1.3 trillion dollars in student loan debt.

A recent survey by Consumer Reports finds that many former students now buried in debt question whether they made the right decision.

Forty-five percent of the 1,500 people responding to the survey conducted in March said college was not worth the cost. Of those who said college wasn't worth the money:

38 percent didn't graduate

69 percent have had trouble making loan payments

78 percent earn less than $50,000 per year.

The data show that college graduates are more likely to get a job and earn higher wages than someone with just a high school education. But that doesn’t mean you should go to a school you can’t afford, run up enormous debt and hope to pay off huge loans after graduation.

Experts say families need to be realistic about the high cost of higher education and keep that student loan debt in sync with their income. In some cases, that might mean your son or daughter will have to go to a less expensive school, so you or they can borrow less.

Mark Kantrowitz is publisher and VP of Strategy at Cappex, a website that lets you compare colleges and find scholarships. His advice: As long as your total student loan debt at graduation is less than your annual starting salary, you should be able to afford to repay your student loans in 10 years or less.

More Info: Putting Off Marriage, Not Buying a Home: How People Live With Student Debt


Why Cash is Not an Appropriate Long-Term Investment

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

July 25, 2016

If you had some money to invest for the long term - 10 years or more - what would you do with it?

The folks at Bankrate.com asked people across the country that question.

Real estate, which is a good long-term investment, was number one.

Cash was a close second.

The stock market, despite hitting record highs, was a distant third.

Greg McBride, Bankrate’s chief financial analyst, finds the results to be disconcerting.

“Cash is great for short-term needs, that emergency fund that we all should have. If you squirrel away $100, then you know you've got $100 there if you need it for a car repair or something,” he said. “Cash is not an appropriate long-term investment.”

Right now, cash investments are returning very little. In most cases, they’re not even keeping pace with inflation.

While those who are averse to risk often worry about losing some of their principal, the loss of buying power can also be damaging.

“Inflation is going to chew away at the buying power of that money and when you go to access it, it's not going to be worth what you put away in the first place,” McBride told me.

Yes, the market is risky, but experts say, it still makes sense as a long-term investment.

Short-term money should not be in the market. That's where people get in trouble. They see the market drop, they panic and they sell. That locks in their loss.

More Info: Real estate is top investing choice, with stocks only tied for third, survey finds


Fraudsters Try to Score Gold With Olympic Scams

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

July 20, 2016

Cyber thieves want to cash in big on the Summer Olympics and you can be a target even if you don't go to Rio.

"Any time you have a large group of people involved in some type of event where they will want to click on things, try new things, download new apps and have new experiences, that’s a major opportunity for the bad guys,” said Caleb Barlow, vice president of IBM Security.

The crooks are already sending out loads of spam related to the Rio Olympics.

The bogus email says you’ve won free tickets in an official lottery run by the International Olympic Committee and the Brazilian government.

The bad guys hope you’ll take the bait, reply and give them your personal information to receive the non-existent prize.

Delete spam... don't respond.

If you’re planning to go to the games and make your arrangements online, be sure to use a well-known travel website. Security experts tell me fraudulent sites are up and running - and they look legit.

But these fakes are designed to do one thing - steal credit card and bank account information.

More Info: Hack Alert: How to Keep Your Info Safe at the Olympics


Many Millennials Don’t Invest in Stocks

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

July 18, 2016

With all the recent volatility, it’s easy to forget that the stock market has been going up for seven straight years now.

And yet, more than half of Americans don’t invest in the market, according to a new survey by Bankrate.com.

Millennials, those who are age 18 to 35, are even less likely to own stocks.

Why? Most Millennials say they don’t have money to save or don’t know about stocks.

The financial experts at Bankrate.com say you’d be wise to find a way to start now. Think low cost mutual funds instead of individual stocks.

Remember, when you’re young, you can ignore the markets ups and downs. You’re in for the long haul.

More Info: Millennials slow to start investing in stock market, Bankrate survey finds


Fraud Alert: Identity Thieves Hijack Mobile Phone Accounts

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

July 13, 2016

Identity thieves have come up with a new scam. They're hijacking mobile phone accounts.

While a common criminal might try to snatch your smartphone for some quick cash, these clever crooks take over your wireless account.

They go into a store and pretend to be you. They buy new phones, bill them to your account and then sell them. As soon as they switch the service to those new phones, your current phones go dead.

If the ID thief keeps the phone that now has your phone number, the potential harm to you is much greater.

Taking over someone's phone account means you may be able to access their financial and social media accounts. Until those hijacked phones are turned off, the criminals can load mobile payment services onto them and go shopping.

There's one way to protect yourself - create a password or PIN that's required before any changes can be made to your mobile account.

Each of the four major carriers - AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon - offers this feature, but in a slightly different way.

More Info: Fraud Alert: ID Thieves Hijack Mobile Phone Accounts


A Simple New Way to Spot a Phone Scam

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

July 11, 2016

The Federal Trade Commission just made it a bit easier for you to spot telephone scams.

It's now illegal for telemarketers to ask for payment by money transfers - such as MoneyGram and Western Union - or by having you give them the PIN code from reloadable cash cards, like MoneyPak and Vanilla Reload.

Scammers love these payment methods because they're quick, anonymous and they usually can't be reversed.

Legitimate telemarketers never ask customers to pay this way. They're happy to get a debit or credit card number or even payment by check.

If someone calls and wants you to pay by wire transfer or reloadable cash card - it's a scam. Hang up!

More Info: New Limits on Telemarketers


A Low Credit Score Could Drive Up your Auto Insurance Costs

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

June 27, 2016

Car insurance premiums are based on a number of factors, including your age, the kind of car you drive, how much you drive, and if you've had any accidents or moving violations.

Some insurance companies also consider your credit score. That's right, your credit score!

Insurance companies insist there's a link between credit history and insurance claims. Consumer advocates believe the cost of insurance should be based on factors that increase your risk on the road, but this practice is legal in our state.

A new report from WalletHub.com finds that car insurance premiums in Washington can vary by as much as 47 percent depending on your credit score. It's one more reason why you want to be responsible with credit and keep your score high.

What should you do if your insurance company says it will increase your premium because of your credit score and you know you have good credit? Get copies of your credit reports and find out if they contain any erroneous information that might be dragging down your credit score.

More Info: 2016 Car Insurance & Credit Scores Report


Millennials Shy Away From Credit Cards

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

June 22, 2016

Millennials aren't big on credit cards.

In fact, a new survey by Bankrate.com finds that only a third of adults between the ages of 18 and 29 have a credit card. It seems that millennials prefer to use cash or debit cards, so they don't wind up in debt.

"It's good to shy away from debt, but that doesn't mean you should avoid credit cards altogether," said Greg McBride, Bankrate's chief financial analyst.

Paying with a debit card does not get reported to the credit bureaus, so it doesn't help build your credit history. And these days, it takes good credit to qualify for a decent rate on mortgage or auto loan. Some insurance rates are based on credit scores.

Responsible use of a credit card should help your credit score.

"Making small purchases and paying the balance in full each month is a great way to establish credit and you can't do that with debit cards or cash," McBride told me.

Look for a credit card with no annual fee. There are lots to choose from. If you don't plan to use it a lot, don't worry about getting a rewards card.

Just make sure you pay the statement on time - every time. Late payments can really drag down your credit score.

More Info: Survey: Surprisingly Few Millennials Carry Credit Cards


Scam Alert: Counterfeit Gold Coins

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

June 20, 2016

So you want to have some gold in your portfolio, just in case the economy starts to stall again.

Bullion coins are an easy way to do that. But watch out! The market is flooded with fakes. And these counterfeits are getting better, so they're harder to spot.

Counterfeit coins are "flooding the market at an astonishing rate," and compromising the investments of collectors, according to the American Numismatic Association.

Most of these counterfeits are coming from China. Criminals buy them in bulk and then try to resell them online or via newspaper ads to unsuspecting buyers.

These knock-offs are typically made from a base metal, like tungsten, that is plated with a little gold. If it's well-made, the fake will weigh the same as the genuine piece, making it even harder to spot.

If you want to buy gold coins, shop at a reputable dealer whether that's in person or online. You want a company that will guarantee what they sell you and stand behind it if there is a problem.

It might be cheaper to order from an unknown source, but that could wind up costing you thousands. And if you do get burned, you'll never see your money again.

More Info: Glitters, but Not Gold: Fake Gold and Silver Coins 'Flooding' Market


How Being a Co-Signer is a Risky Thing to do

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

June 15, 2016

You want to lend a helping hand to a friend or family member who needs someone to co-sign for that loan.

Do it and there's a good chance you'll get burned, according to a recent survey of co-signers done by CreditCards.com.

"About 40 percent of co-signers had to pay some or all of that loan because the primary borrower didn't," said Matt Schulz, the website's senior industry analyst.

Remember, by co-signing YOU are legally responsible for that debt, and if there's a problem, you will suffer all the negative consequences.

"It hits your credit the same way as if you were the only person on the account," Schulz said. "We saw that twenty-eight percent said they had their credit score dive because the other person paid late or didn't pay at all. That's an awful lot of people."

The survey also found that 26 percent of respondents said the co-signing experience damaged the relationship with the person they co-signed for.

If you do agree to do this, make sure you know and trust the co-signer, and keep track of that account to make sure things don't go south.

More Info: Poll: 4 in 10 co-signers lose money


Divorce Requires Dealing With Your Joint Creditors

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

June 13, 2016

A divorce means dividing up your assets and debts. Typically, the divorce decree will specify who's responsible for what debt.

While the court assigns the debt, it doesn't deal with your creditors. They're not a party to the divorce. It's up to the former spouses to contact those creditors and close or separate joint accounts.

You want your name removed from anything you're no longer legally responsible for. If you're still on that account and your ex misses payments, that's going to ding your credit history.

More Info: I'm Divorced, So Why Is My Spouse Still on My Credit Report?


Fraud Alert: Federal Student Tax Scam

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

June 8, 2016

You get a call from someone claiming to be an IRS agent and they say you owe a "federal student tax" that needs to be paid immediately by wire transfer. If not, you're told, this matter will be reported to the police and you could be arrested.

What do you do?

Hang up! It's a scam. There is no such thing as a federal student tax.

These IRS imposters may sound legit when they call. They often have some personal information about you, such as your college. And they may be able to spoof your Caller ID to make it look like the call is from a government agency.

More Info: Federal Student Tax: No Such Thing


Fraud Alert: Scammers Like iTunes Gift Cards

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

June 6, 2016

Telephone scammers are switching things up. Now they're tricking people into sending them money via iTunes gift cards.

Sounds crazy, right? But people are doing it and losing thousands of dollars.

The fraudsters may call and impersonate an IRS agent or debt collector. Or they may pretend to be a family member having an emergency. Whatever the pitch, they want you to go out and buy an iTunes gift card right away.

"iTunes is certainly a recognized name, but many people don't understand exactly how it works and that's what the scammers are depending on," said Karen Hobbs, a senior lawyer with the Federal Trade Commission.

Crooks like gift cards because they're very similar to cash - a quick, convenient and untraceable way to get money.

"iTunes gift cards make it really easy for these scammers to get money from their victims. They're basically just handing over the code over the telephone," Hobbs said.

Give them that 16-digit code on the back of the card and they can drain all the money from it.

The bottom line: "If you're not shopping at the iTunes store, you should not be paying with an iTunes gift card."

More Info: Fraud Alert: Scammers Get Victims to Pay With iTunes Gift Cards


The Serious Consequences of Stolen Medical Files

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

June 1, 2016

Identity thieves are now targeting medical records. That's because they contain so much personal information, your Social Security number, often payment information, where you're going for medical care and where you're getting your prescriptions.

An identity thief can use this information to get medical treatment, medical equipment or prescription drugs in your name.

Medical identity theft is much worse than the breach of credit or bank account numbers. When those are stolen, you can close the account and move on with your life. The damage that can result from stolen medical records can last a lifetime.

It's not always easy to know if your files have been breached.

That's why you should check once a year to look for anything that doesn't seem right.

When you get a letter in the mail from your health care provider or insurance company - that says "THIS IS NOT A BILL" - don't ignore it. Look for anything suspicious, such as a doctor visit or medical procedure you didn't have or a prescription that wasn't yours.

It could be an honest mistake, or the sign of identity theft. You need to follow-up.

More Info: Cyber Attacks and Negligence Lead to Rise in Medical Data Breaches


What to do When There's an Error on Your Credit Card Statement

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

May 25, 2016

You spot a charge on your credit card statement for a purchase you didn't make. What do you do?

If you know the company who placed the charge, you should contact them.

If not, or if they won't help, dispute the charge with your credit card company. That's one of the benefits of using a credit card.

It's best to dispute the charge in writing. This protects your legal rights.

Follow the instructions on your credit card statement. Don't mail the dispute letter with your bill; it typically goes to another address.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, the creditor must acknowledge your complaint, in writing, within 30 days after receiving it, unless the problem has been resolved. The creditor must resolve the dispute within two billing cycles (but not more than 90 days) after getting your letter.

During that time, you do not have to pay the disputed charged, but it may be put back on your bill, if the dispute is denied.

More Info: Disputing Credit Card Charges


Most People Regret They Didn't Save More

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

May 23, 2016

We all have regrets. A new survey by Bankrate.com finds that most Americans (75 percent) have financial regrets. The biggest ones are not saving enough for retirement and not saving enough for emergency expenses.

When it comes to retirement, most people said they wish they had started saving earlier in their lives.

Bankrate's chief financial analyst Greg McBride says even if it's just a small amount taken out of every paycheck, you need to start funding your retirement and building up that rainy day fund.

"You have to establish that habit and that's a habit that really pays dividends over the long term," McBride said.

Sure, you can make "catch-up contributions" to your workplace retirement plan or IRA, so there's some opportunity to make up for lost time. But wait too long and you may never be able to have the type of retirement you wanted.

More Info: Most Americans Have Financial Regrets, Particularly About Saving


It's A Good Time To Buy A Used Car

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

You need a new set of wheels and you're on a budget. Maybe you should consider a used car or truck.

With so many people leasing new cars the volume of low-mileage, late-model vehicles for sale is up dramatically.

As the supply goes up, the prices are starting to come down, especially on small and mid-size cars.

"A midsize sedan, say a Ford Fusion or Honda Accord, and smaller cars, like the Honda Civic and Ford Focus, those are not as popular with people right now, so those are probably the best deals in terms of price," said Michelle Krebs, industry analyst with Autotrader.

Whenever you buy used, check the vehicle's history and have it checked out by an independent mechanic - someone who can look for hidden problems or unreported accidents.

My advice: Do that even if the car you're considering is a certified pre-owned vehicle. You're going to pay a lot of money for that car or truck... you want to make sure it's going to be safe and reliable.

More Info: Why Right Now Might Be the Time to Buy or Lease a Used Car


Don't Lose Out On Free Money for College

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Families continue to struggle with the high cost of higher education.

A new survey by Discover Student Loans finds that more than half (55%) of the families with kids headed to college plan to use student loans to pay for tuition.

The survey also found that a majority of college-bound students could be missing out on the opportunity to get federal student aid. Only 44 percent of these families completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

It's something you really need to do. You want to know all of your options - including financial aid, scholarships, grants and work-study funds - before taking out any loans.

Other key findings from the survey include:

More than half of parents, 55%, say their children will use student loans to pay for college, up from 50% in 2012

32% of parents said student loans will be the main funding source for their child's college education, the highest in five years

Fewer parents, 43%, are limiting their child's college choice based on price, down from 48% in 2015

Majority of parents, 61%, said they are very or somewhat likely to help their child pay back their student loans, up from 55% in 2012

More Info:

Filling out the FAFSA

More Students Expected to Help Pay for College as Parents Become Less Worried about Costs


Shred it or Keep it?

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Tax day is now in the rear view mirror and you're ready to get rid of all the old documents you don't need. Great!

First, you have to decide what can go and what you really need to keep.

You can shred those credit card, bank deposit and ATM receipts after you've reconciled your monthly statement.

You'll want to keep tax-related documents, such as W-2 and 1099 forms, charitable deductions and the like. Consumer Reports recommends holding on to them for seven years.

You also need to keep purchase confirmations for any investments - such as stocks, bonds or mutual funds - until you sell them. Same goes for loan documents. Keep them until the loan is paid off.

More Info: How Long to Keep Tax Records and Other Documents


Are You Struggling To Pay Credit Card Debt?

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

A new survey finds that Americans are doing a little better job of saving, but more of us are running up credit card debt - carrying a balance that we don't pay off at the end of the month.

The National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) found that:

One in three (35 percent) adults carry credit card debt from month to month, up slightly from 2015

Fourteen percent roll over a balance of $2,500 or more in credit card debt each month vs. 11 percent in 2015

It's easy to convince yourself that you're doing OK as long as you make the minimum payment each month. But in reality, you're headed for trouble. Credit counselors tell me that's "a warning sign" that your family budget needs attention.

Credit card interest is expensive. The average credit card interest rate right now is 15 percent, but miss a payment and that rate can easily shoot up to nearly 30 percent. That interest is money you could use to pay current bills or save in your rainy day fund.

The smart thing to do: Contact a non-profit credit counseling agency. They can work with your creditors and set up a repayment plan that works for you. They won't judge you or lecture you. And there's no big up-front fee.

Go to the NFCC website to find a non-profit credit counseling agency near you or call 800.388.2227.

More Info: Americans Are Saving More, But Credit Card Debt Is Still a Problem


Cyber Threats Grow More Numerous and Dangerous

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

You're being targeted - every hour of every day - by crooks who want to break into your digital devices and steal your personal information.

Cyber criminals are launching more attacks and they're getting better at breaking into digital devices, according to the new Internet Security Threat Report from Symantec.

Symantec reports that more than a million new pieces of malicious software hit the net every day!

Click on a booby-trapped link or open an infected attachment and you can download this malware onto your machine - without even knowing it.

That's why it's so important to make sure all your software is up to date - and think before you click.

Ransomware: The threat grows

There's a big spike in what's called ransomware, malware that locks up all your files - encrypts them - and you have to pay the ransom to get the digital key to unlock them.

It typically costs $300 to $500 a computer to get the decryption key to regain access to your hard drive.

Kevin Haley, director of Symantec Security Response, says that's why it's so important to back up your system at least once a day

"If you have a problem with your computer and the backup is there, you can just restore it," Haley said. "If the problem is ransomware, you don't have to pay that $500 to get your files back, you simply restore them from that backup."

By the way, ransomware can attack PCs, Macs and smartphones. So they all need to be backed up.

We're all vulnerable

There's nothing you can do to guarantee you won't get taken by a scammer.

But you can reduce your odds of becoming a victim if you're always on guard and always skeptical.

Question everything: phone calls, mail, email and links on social media.

Don't take things at face value. Con artists know how to make their scams look and sound legitimate. They can doctor pictures, copy logos, spoof caller ID. It's easy to create fake websites that look just like the real ones.

So, take your time think it through... and check it out before you respond in any way.

Remember: Life in the digital age does not come with an "undo" button.

More Info: Cyber Threats Are 'Mind Blowing,' Crooks Getting Smarter: Report


How to Understand Those Financial Aid Letters

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

May first is just around that corner. That's when many high school seniors have to send a deposit to the college of their choice.

The financial aid offer letter is one of the keys to deciding what school you can afford to attend. It tells you what's being offered in grants and scholarships - money that does not have to be repaid.

Be advised: In most cases, that letter only covers the first year.

That's why Consumer Reports suggests that you check with the financial aid office. Find out if that grant is renewable. Does the scholarship require a certain Grade Point Average (GPA) to continue into another year? Make sure you understand what's being offered.

With the staggering cost of college these days, many students need take out loans to pay for their education. The financial aid letter also tells you how much money you can get in federal loans.

Start with federal loans. As Consumer Reports points out, the interest rates with federal loans are usually lower than private loans and the repayment options are more flexible.

The editors suggest that you start with subsidized federal loans. They're based on need. With a subsidized loan, you don't have to start making interest payments until six months after your leave school.

Everyone qualifies for an unsubsidized federal loan, but the interest starts accruing as soon as you get the money.

More Info: How to Decode a College Financial Aid Award Letter


Shred it or Keep it?

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Tax day is now in the rear view mirror and you're ready to get rid of all the old documents you don't need. Great!

First, you have to decide what can go and what you really need to keep.

You can shred those credit card, bank deposit and ATM receipts after you've reconciled your monthly statement.

You'll want to keep tax-related documents, such as W-2 and 1099 forms, charitable deductions and the like. Consumer Reports recommends holding on to them for seven years.

You also need to keep purchase confirmations for any investments - such as stocks, bonds or mutual funds - until you sell them. Same goes for loan documents. Keep them until the loan is paid off.

More Info: How Long to Keep Tax Records and Other Documents


What To Do With Your 401(k) When You Change Jobs?

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Chances are you'll hold a number of jobs during your work life. If you've accepted a new job and you have a 401(k) plan with your old company, you may be tempted to cash out your savings.

That can be costly. You may get hit with a 10 percent penalty for early withdrawal (if you're younger than 59 1/2) on top of the tax you'll pay.

Here's a better idea: If your new employer accepts 401(k) transfers, move your old investment into that new plan. It's easy to do. Or roll it over into an Individual Retirement Account (IRA).

You need to do this within 60 days of leaving your old job in order to avoid any penalty or tax consequence.

There is another option. If you have more than $5,000 in your company's 401(k) and it's a good plan, you may want to keep it there. And by law, you can do that.

More Info: Roll over or not? Smart 401(k) moves when you quit your job


Own Your Home Sooner

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

You don't have to win the lottery to pay off your mortgage early.

One of the easiest ways to speed things up is to make bi-weekly payments.

By making half-sized payments every two weeks, you make an extra monthly payment each year.

Let's say you have a $250,000, 30-year fixed-rate loan with a 3.8 percent interest rate.

Pay every two weeks and you'll shorten the loan by nearly four years and save more than $24,000 over the life of the loan, according to the calculator at the Mortgage Professor.

Or you can simply make an extra payment sometime during the year when you have some extra cash on hand. Be sure to identify that payment as going toward the principal.

More Info: 6 Painless Ways to Pay Off Your Mortgage Years Earlier


Why Long Car Loans Are Not A Good Idea

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Car loans are getting longer - and that's not good.

The average new car loan is now a record 67 months or five-and-a-half years. Jack Gillis, author of The Car Book 2016, says that's too long.

"It's a huge mistake," Gillis said. "One of the big problem is that at the beginning of that loan, for maybe two or three years, you are upside-down in that car. This means you owe more on the vehicle than it's worth."

So, if you get into an accident or if it's totaled or for some reason you want to get rid of the car, you'll end up paying money to get rid of it or paying money to get that totaled car fixed, Gillis explained.

A longer loan will lower your monthly payments, but it will cost you more in the long run because of the higher interest rate and the extra payments.

So how long is reasonable?

"I think the shorter, the better - the shorter the loan, the lower the interest rate," Gills said. "Four years is the maximum that most of us should focus on."

If the math won't work out at 48 months, make a larger down payment or think about getting a less expensive model.

More Info: Long Car Loans Can be Lots of Trouble


Why It's Important To Get Pre-Approved

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

You've heard the advice: Get pre-approved for a loan before you start shopping for a home. Right now, with the super-hot housing market in the Puget Sound area, that's critical.

Why do you want to do this? Pre-approval tells a potential seller that you're serious and can get a loan to buy that home.

To get pre-approval, a lender will want to verify your income and work history and check your credit report. Based on this information, you'll be told how much you can borrow so you can decide how much house you can afford.

Remember, pre-approval is an informal process. By doing this, the lender is not guaranteeing to give you a mortgage. That's a much more complicated process.

More Info: How to Get Pre-Approved for a Mortgage Home Loan


Tax Deduction vs. Tax Credit

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Here's something to remember as you race to get your tax return done - the difference between a deduction and a credit. A deduction lowers your tax liability based on your tax bracket.

Let's say you qualify for a thousand dollar charitable deduction. That won't cut your tax bill by a thousand bucks. If you're in the 28 percent tax bracket, you'll save $280.

A tax credit is different. It reduces the taxes you owe by the amount of that credit, dollar for dollar. Qualify for a thousand dollar child care credit and your tax bill drops by a thousand dollars.

The credit most often missed is the Earned Income Tax Credit.

If you're a low- or moderate-income worker, it can give you back some or all of the money you've paid in taxes. You might even get back more.

The amount of Earned Income Tax Credit you can collect depends on your income, marital status, whether you have children and how many children.

A single person without any children making almost $15,000 dollars per year can get more than $500. A married couple with three children making almost $50,000 a year could get back more than $6,000.

More Info:

What's the Difference Between a Tax Credit & a Tax Deduction?

Overlooked Tax Break- Don't Leave Money on the Table


When's the Best Time to List Your Home?

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

When it comes to selling your house, timing can be important. And the peak time around here is May, according to a new study by Zillow.com.

Even with the region's hot housing market, timing the listing can have a "significant impact on the final sale price," the company said.

Zillow found that in Seattle houses listed during the first two weeks in May tend to sell faster - 20 days faster than average - and for more money - $2,600 more, on average, or about 1.2 percent more.

By waiting, you could benefit from a bidding war. Here's the logic. By listing later into the shopping season, you may get buyers who are increasingly eager to purchase and more willing to pay a premium for the house.

May 1-15 was also the best time for people in San Francisco, Denver and Portland to put their homes up for sale.

Whenever you decided to sell, make sure you price it right. Better to be a bit too low and get several bids, than go way too high and have to drop the price. That's never good.

More Info: The Best Time to List? May is the New March


Americans Aren't Saving Enough for Retirement

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

If you want to have a comfortable retirement, you need to be saving for it. But according to a new report from the Employee Benefit Research Institute, most people are not doing that.

In fact, about one in four Americans says their family has almost no retirement saving - less than $1,000.

Experts say you should be saving about 10 percent of your income each year - more if at all possible.

Don't put it off. The sooner you get going; the longer there is for that money to work for you and grow.

"The earlier you start, the less you have go on a sort of financial starvation diet as you get near retirement and start to get nervous about it," said University of Chicago professor Harold Pollack, an expert on personal finance.

In his book, The Index Card, Pollock says the secret to saving is to make it automatic. You should have that money come right out of your paycheck before you can spend it.

"Almost all of my saving is done through my 401(k) account," he said. "It's just automatically taken out of my monthly paycheck. I'm never tempted, I don't have to think about it and there are tax advantages to doing that. My employer matches me up to a certain limit. It just happens automatically month after month."

More Info: 1 in 4 people have almost nothing saved for retirement


Maybe You Can Get That Late Payment Fee Waived

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

So, you just got a late payment charge on your credit card bill. What are you going to do about it?

If this was a one-time slip up, call your credit card company, explain what happened and ask them to waive the fee. You may be surprised at the response.

A recent survey by the website CreditCards.com found that most of the people (89 percent) who requested to have a late payment penalty removed were successful.

Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com, says most people don't ask for help. They just pay the $25 or $30 fee.

"People have way more negotiating power with their credit card issuer than they think they do and it's really just about making a phone call," Schulz said.

Something else you might ask for - a reduction in your interest rate.The Creditcards.com survey found that 78 percent of the cardholders who requested a lower rate got a better deal. If you have a good payment record, it's worth asking.

More Info:

Poll: Most who ask get late fees waived, rates reduced

Late credit card payments don't have to cost you


Can I Afford That Home?

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

You're in the market for a new home and you're trying to figure out how much you can afford. Obviously, the mortgage payment is number one on your list, but don't forget the other expenses that are part of owning a home.

Seattle homeowners pay an average of $11,500 every year in hidden and home maintenance costs, according to a new report by Zillow. These include everything from property taxes and insurance to yard maintenance and carpet cleaning.

Other things to consider: Maybe you'll need furniture or new appliances. And of course, something always breaks or needs repair.

Be sure to budget for these and other possible expenses before you make that offer to buy.

Zillow has an affordability calculator on its website that can get you started on running the numbers.


Consumer Reports Names the Best of the Best Cars

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Consumer Reports is out with its Top Car Picks for 2016. These vehicles represent the best of the best of the 260 cars, trucks, SUVs and minivans recently tested in ten categories.

To be a Consumer Reports Top Pick, a vehicle needs to drive beautifully, have a strong record of reliability, and be safe, and it needs to make its owners happy.

And the winners are...

Best Subcompact Car: Honda Fit

Best Compact Car: Subaru Impreza

Best Midsize Car: Toyota Camry

Best Large Car: Chevy Impala

Best Sports Car: Mazda MX-5

Best Small SUV: Subaru Forester

Best Midsize SUV: Kia Sorento

Best Luxury SUV: Lexus RX

Best Minivan: Toyota Sienna

Best Truck: Ford F-150

Here's more on this year's winners from the editors of Consumer Reports:

The Kia Sorento is a Consumer Reports 2016 Top Pick midsized SUV. For years, Toyota has won this category, but the Sorento has overtaken it. It has a powerful engine, did great in crash tests, and got high scores for reliability. And the great thing is that it feels luxurious inside, like you've spent a whole lot more money than you actually did.

Toyota did earn two spots on the list, the Camry among midsized cars and the Toyota Sienna among minivans.

Subaru also nabbed two spots, the Subaru Impreza for small cars and the Forester for small SUVs. Consumer Reports like Subarus because they're super-practical and really fuel-efficient. And for such small cars, they feel really large on the inside.

Only two American cars make the list this year, the Chevrolet Impala among large cars and the Ford F-150 among pickups. Ford took a big gamble by switching its F-150 from steel to aluminum construction, but it paid off in Consumer Reports tests, with better fuel economy and better acceleration. And in independent crash tests, it scored really well.

The Mazda MX-5 earns the top spot for sports cars under $40,000. Miata is totally impractical; it seats only two people, and the trunk is tiny. But when you take it out on a sunny day, it's more fun to drive than cars twice its price.

More Info: Consumer Reports 2016 Autos Spotlight


Consumer Reports Reviews Popular Real Estate Websites

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Whether you're buying or selling a house - or just curious about the market - some popular websites make it easy to get instant information.

Consumer Reports recently test-drove Realtor.com, Trulia, Zillow and Redfin. The editors say any of these sites can be very helpful, but they point out that because the sites use different Multiple Listing Services, you won't get a complete picture of the market by using just one.

"You may see different properties on different sites," said senior editor Tobie Stanger.

All of the services are free, so Consumer Reports recommends that you try them all.

"You could set up searches in each one of these sites for what you're looking for and get email or texts or updates," Stanger suggested.

These sites make it easier to find out how much your house is worth. All you have to do is type in your address. Based on its research, Consumer Reports advises that you "be skeptical" when using these price valuation tools.

"We found really wide variation in pricing depending on the site," Stanger told me. "If you really want a good price, you are probably better off asking a realtor because that realtor will really know your area best."

More Info: Real Estate Websites Review: Virtual House Hunting


Scam Alert: Impostors Pretend to be IRS Agents

By Herb weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

You answer the phone and the caller identifies himself as an IRS agent. He says you owe the government money and you need to pay up now or else.

What do you do? Hang up! That's a con artist calling.

The IRS warns that there's been a surge of these bogus calls recently. Thousands of people are falling for the scare tactics and sending the crooks millions of dollars.

By the way, if they get voicemail, these bogus IRS agents will leave a threatening message. Call back or be arrested, they say.

Watch out: These phone bandits can fake the caller ID to make it look like they're calling from an IRS office. Unfortunately, you can't trust caller ID any more.

The bottom line: The real IRS doesn't initiate contact by phone. The agency sends letters by U.S. mail. And it never demands payment on the spot.

Waves of Bogus Email Going Out

The fraudsters are also trying to cash in on tax season by sending out bogus email that looks very official.

They hope you'll click on the link and provide your personal information, so they can file a false tax return in your name - or do other nasty things. Clicking on that link could also secretly load malicious software onto your machine.

Be suspicious of any email that claims to be from the IRS or asks you to click a link and update tax information.

NOTE: A special heads up for anyone who uses TurboTax. Scammers are sending out fake notices that say the company needs you to provide your account information. Don't do it.

More Info:

IRS Warns Again About Phone Tax Scams

Phishing Remains on the IRS "Dirty Dozen" List of Tax Scams for the 2016 Filing Season

Tax Phishing Scam Targets TurboTax Users


Simple Ways To Boost Your Home's Resale Value

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Here's something to keep in mind as you get ready to sell your home. There's a new generation of buyers out there - Millennials - 75 million strong.

"Millennials want move-in ready," said Consumer Reports senior editor Dan DiClerico. "They want to cook in that kitchen from day one and entertain in the back yard that very weekend."

Consumer Reports says making the right renovations can boost your home's resale value by as much as 35 percent. Spend your makeover money where it will count the most.

A Consumer Reports nationwide survey of more than 1,500 Millennials found that a modern, updated kitchen tops their list of ideal home features.

An open floor plan with flexible living space is also another plus.

"Another good way to add value is by expanding the living space, maybe by finishing an attic or basement," DiClerico said. "And it's always a good idea to use materials that don't require a lot of maintenance."

Millennials also like durable hardwood floors. And don't underestimate the value of fresh paint, especially in high-teraffic areas.

More Info: 8 Ways to Boost Your Home Value


The Smart Way To Price Your House

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Want to get top dollar when you sell your home? Don't overprice it.

You want to pick a price that's in the middle of where other homes in the neighborhood have sold, not the high end, advises Nela Richardson, chief economist at Redfin.

She says that mid-range price should generate more traffic and multiple bids that will get you to a higher price.

"We know that a listing gets the most views the first two weeks of going on the market," Richardson told me. "So if you overprice from the get-go, you're going to lose views, the number of people who seek out your home and come tour and eventually make the offer."

The best way to price your house is to look at what other homes sold for in your neighborhood recently.

"Don't look too far back and don't try to come up with your own number based on what you think price growth should be," Richardson said. "Look at recent comps in your neighborhood. That's going to be your best bet for pricing accurately."

More Info: Home Sellers Shift Pricing Strategy; Economy Remains the Top Concern


You May Be Able To File Your Taxes For Free

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Here's a free offer - and it's legit.

If your adjusted gross income for 2015 is $62,000 or less, you can prepare and e-file you tax return for free. The industry's leading tax software companies have partnered with the IRS to help you do this.

Free File is quick and it's safe. The companies who provide the software are not allowed to use the information on your return for anything other than tax preparation without your consent. That means it won't be shared, sold or used to market you stuff.

This year's software has been updated with the new health care requirements. Most people who use Free File can simply check a box to report health care coverage for the entire year.

An IRS survey found that 98 percent of the people who used Free File would recommend it to others.

You'll find a link To Free File on the IRS website.


BEING BUYER-READY IS A MUST IN TODAY'S MARKET

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Want to buy a house around here? Then you'd better be pre-qualified and buyer-ready when you start looking.

In this super-hot market, where they are many more buyers than sellers, you must be able to act immediately when you find something you like.

Just look at the latest numbers from the Northwest Multiple Listing Service.

Open house traffic is up and the number of homes selling in the first 30 days is double of what's normal in a healthy market.

"We're selling virtually all of the new listings, many with multiple offers, in all the market areas of King, Snohomish, Pierce and Kitsap counties in the price ranges where 90% of the sales activity is happening," said Lennox Scott, chairman and CEO of John L. Scott Real Estate.

The lack of inventory, down about 30 percent around the region, is driving up prices. And although more homes will come on the market soon, inventory is expected to remain tight for the rest of the year.

More Info: Lack of inventory "a game changer" for home buyers


FIGHT BACK AGAINST ID THEFT

By Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Identity theft remains a serious and on-going problem.

About 13 million Americans became victims last year, according to a new report by Javelin Strategy & Research. That's up three percent from 2014.

The Javelin report found that many people don't do the simple things that could flag fraud. For example, have you set up real-time alerts with your credit card companies and financial institutions?

If not, you really need to do it.

"Set up alerts for things like large transactions, card-not-present transactions and overseas transactions. And these can be sent to your email address or your mobile device by text," explained Al Pascual, Javelin's director of fraud and security. "You're deputizing yourself to prevent fraud and you are going to know better than the bank whether something is legitimate. It's a great way to be an active participant in the process."

Something else you can do. Check your financial accounts every week or so to look for any suspicious transactions. If you spot something, contact the bank or credit card company right away.

Remember: When it comes to identity fraud, the sooner it's detected, the better - losses tend to be smaller and it's easier to undo the damage.

Be involved. Do your part to fight fraud.

More Info: Identity Thieves Changing Tactics to Steal Your Money, Report Says


IT'S TIME TO FILE THAT FINANCIAL AID FORM

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

There are two important rules about getting federal aid for college: You must apply for it and the sooner you do , the better. The process starts by filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form.

David Levy with the financial aid website Edvisors.com says now is the time to do that.

"The studies we've done have shown that students who apply in January, February and March tend to get twice as much grant money, free money, as students who file after April 1," he said.

Some people think they have to wait to do their tax return before they can fill out the FAFSA form. Not so.

"In fact, they can estimate the information and then go back and update it later using a process called the IRS data retrieval system," Levy told me.

And remember this: The student does not have to be accepted to a college or university to apply for financial aid.

David Levy co-authored the new book "Filing the FAFSA: The Edvisors Guide to Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid." You can download it for free from the Edvisor's website.

More Info: Start the 2016-2017 FAFSA Tutorial: The FAFSA in 7 Easy Steps


IDENTITY THIEVES TARGET TAX RETURNS

By Herb Weisman, The ConsumerMan

Tax season is underway and identity thieves will be filing fake returns in order to claim phony refunds by using stolen Social Security numbers.

That's one reason why if you use tax software this year, you will be required to create a stronger password - at least 8 digits long - with numbers letters and special characters.

Remember: Don't use that password for anything else.

TurboTax is offering customers some new security options, such as Multi-Factor Authentication. Turn on this feature - which I strongly advise - and no one can log into your account without a special password that's been sent to your smartphone or other secure personal device.

Tax identity theft is a serious problem. If a thief files a return in your name, using your SSN and bogus documents, he can claim a refund before you do.

It can take months for the IRS to sort things out and get you the refund you're owed.

One of the best ways to protect yourself from tax identity fraud is to file as soon as you can - after you have all the necessary paperwork. Once a return is filed, that Social Security Number is locked and no other return can be filed for that taxpayer.

Remember: If you file electronically use a secure Internet connection. If you mail in your return, send it directly from the post office.

More Information: New Tax Fraud Safeguards May Mean Delays in Getting Refunds


USE THAT ALLOWANCE TO TEACH YOUR KIDS ABOUT MONEY

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Want to educate your kids about being financially responsible?

Consider giving them an allowance - and use that as a way to talk to you kids about the value of money.

"The conversation is key," said Judith Ward, a family finance expert with T. Rowe Price.

Talk to your kids about what they plan to do with their allowance money Are they going to save it? Are they going to spend some of it? Or will they donate some of that money to charitable causes?

"So it really provides you the platform to set the stage and to set some of these good financial habits with your kids," Ward said.

This is not a one-time discussion. It needs to be an ongoing process. Ward suggests using the "think out loud" technique.

"If you're at the store and the kids are with you and you're comparison shopping, think out loud," she said. "Talk out loud about how you're comparing prices or how you've got coupons for certain brands Think of ways to bring your kids into those conversations about money."

More Info: Kids Who Get an Allowance Are More Money Savvy Than Those Who Do Not


FINANCIAL RESOLUTIONS FOR THE NEW YEAR

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

The New Year is the time for a fresh start. It's a chance to do things that will help you in the short-term and pay dividends in the long-term. Here are a few you might want to consider.

Pay your bills on time

Pay bills late and you'll get dinged with penalty fees and take a hit on your credit score.

If you're having a hard time remembering to pay those bills, set up a system. A simple reminder on your calendar might do that trick. If not, contact your financial institution and set up auto pay. Be sure to find out if there's a charge and how much.

Remember: Even if you do set-up auto pay, you still need to keep track of things. Check the bills to make sure they're correct. Make sure the payments are made on time. Watch your checking account to look for any unauthorized payments that need to be challenged.

Start building an emergency fund

You need to have some money set aside to cover life's little surprises - an unexpected car repair, medical expenses or a job layoff.

Financial experts say you should have at least six months of living expenses set aside in savings. If you're self-employed, double that.

Odds are you can't do this overnight, but you can start now. Have a small amount taken out of each paycheck and automatically deposited into a savings account. You won't have that money to spend, but you will have it if you need it.

Pay down your credit card balances and then try to pay them in full each month

Credit card interest rates will be going up this year. By reducing that balance, you'll pay less interest which means you'll be saving money.

Paying off your balance each month is a good financial habit. It can keep you from getting buried in debt. If you can't pay off that bill each month, then you're living beyond your means and need to figure a way spend less.

Make a family budget

Surveys show most adults in this country don't have a budget. That's a big mistake. It's the best way to keep your spending in check and avoid going into debt.

Making a budget doesn't have to be complicated. Just track all your expenses for a month or two: food, clothing, medical, car, housing and utilities. You don't have to track every penny, but don't forget the daily latte or weekly dinner out.

Add up all of your income and see where you stand. Then make cuts accordingly. The sooner you fine tune what's coming in and what's going out, the better. Small sacrifices now can have big consequences during the year.


STICKING TO YOUR HOLIDAY BUDGET

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

It's really easy to spend more than you expected on holiday gifts. That's why it's so important to make a list.

Put down the name of each person and how much you plan to spend on them. Then add it all up. Can you afford that much?

If not, you have two choices. You can cut the list or plan to spend less on some people.

Take that list to the store with you. If you're tempted to buy something that'll bust your budget - skip it.

Remember: While you can find some great deals on Black Friday weekend and Cyber-Monday, there will be plenty of sales later in December.

More Info:

Holiday Survival Checklist

Oops! 6 Holiday Costs We Forget to Budget For


IS LAYAWAY THE WAY TO GO?

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Layaway is the simple way to buy holiday gifts when you don't have cash on hand and don't want to charge it.

"Layaway is kind of an old-fashioned buying plan, but it's really smart," said Edgar Dworsky founder of the website ConsumerWorld.org. "You can't buy the item until you have enough money to actually pay for it. That way, you don't get into trouble with putting too many things on your credit card."

Before you sign up for a layaway plan, read and understand the store's policy:

How long do you have to buy the merchandise?

What's the minimum payment?

When are your payments due? Is it weekly, monthly or a specific day of the month?

Is there a charge for this service - and if so, how much?

Is there a fee or penalty for late or missed payments?

What's the refund policy? If you decide you don't want the item after you make some or all of the payments, can you get a full refund?

Finally, make sure you get all the terms in writing.

More Info:

Using Layaway Plans


WATCH OUT: 'FREE TRIAL' OFFERS CAN BE COSTLY

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

It sounds so good - a risk free trial. Why not buy that product or service, you've got nothing to lose?

Watch out! That freebie may come with strings attached.

With a lot of free trial offers, you're automatically signed-up for some sort of membership or future purchases, unless you cancel without a few weeks. That's why they want your credit or debit card number. It's not just for shipping and handling.

If you don't cancel before that free trial period is up, you'll be charged. And cancelling isn't always easy. In some cases, you may have to ship back the product at your expense.

Before you sign up for a free trial offer, better read the fine print and understand all the rules.

More Info:

Federal Trade Commission: "Free" Trial Offers?


FEDS WANT TO HELP YOU SAVE FOR RETIREMENT

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

The federal government is making it easy for you to save for retirement when your employer doesn't offer a 401(k) plan. It's called myRA.

It's convenient - you can set up automatic contributions - there's no minimum balance and you make small contributions throughout the year.

"People who feel like they just don't have enough money to start saving for retirement can put away a dollar, five dollars, ten dollars every paycheck and they just do that until they reach $15,000," said Sheyna Steiner, a senior investing analyst at Bankrate.com.

And you can rest easy; your money is super-safe. It's invested in an account backed by the U.S. Treasury Department. Because of that, the rate of return won't be great. Right now, it's around two percent, but that's twice the rate of a one-year CD.

But remember, myRA is designed to be a starter account that eventually can be rolled into something else.

"This really helps people build the discipline of saving," Steiner said. "If you're not used to putting away money on a regular basis, this just gets you into that habit and the habit of saving money is going to get most of your retirement saving done."

You can only invest taxable income in a myRA account. You can find out more at myRA.gov.

More Info:

Federal myRA program aims to get workers to start saving for retirement


CAN I POSTDATE A CHECK?

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

A bill is due now, but you won't have enough money in your checking account to cover it for a few days. So you date the check ahead a few days or more, just to make sure you don't get hit with an overdraft fee.

Seems logical, but postdating a check doesn't work.

Once you sign that check, it becomes legal tender and the person who receives it can deposit it and the bank can cash it. The electronic equipment that process checks doesn't look at the date.

So, if that check bounces, you'll get hit with a hefty fee.

By the way, it's not illegal to postdate a check, just not a smart idea.

More Info: Does Postdating A Check Prevent Anyone From Depositing It Early?


CROOKS HOPE TO CASH IN ON SWITCH TO 'CHIP' CREDIT CARDS

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Scammers are trying to cash in on the switchover to those new and more secure "chip" credit cards. They're sending out emails and texts made to look like they're from your bank or credit card company.

The message: We need to confirm your personal information in order to send you the new card.

"They are all designed to do one thing - to get you to click somewhere you shouldn't - whether it's on a link or an attachment that installs malware on your computer or just sends you to a website that asks for personal information that they can use to commit identity theft against you," explained John Breyault, fraud expert with the National Consumers League's fraud.org website.

Don't do it! Don't click on the link and don't respond to the text.

By the way, these fraudsters also use the phone. They'll call and pretend to be with your bank or credit card company.

To make the scam seem legitimate, they may have part of your credit card number and expiration date. They can buy this information on the black market. What they need is 1) the security code on your card to order things online or 2) the password to your account to gain control of it.

Don't give them any personal information. Hang up!

A financial institution you do business with would never contact you and ask you to provide your personal information. NEVER! They already have it.

More Info:

ID Thieves Use Switch to 'Chip' Credit Cards as Fresh Scam Bait


THE PRICE YOU PAY COULD BE BASED ON YOUR CREDIT SCORE

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Sign up for a service, like cable or Satellite TV, mobile phone or Internet service, and there's a good chance the company will check your credit report - and base the price you're charged on your credit history.

Someone with a low credit score could pay a higher price than someone with a good score.

It's called risk-based pricing and it's legal - as long as the company provides you with a written notice that explains why you're getting less favorable terms. That notice must also inform you that you have the right to get a free copy of your credit report.

Get a risk-based price notice and you should order that free report and check for mistakes. If you find something wrong, dispute it right away.

More Info:

How Your Credit History Can Affect Your Monthly Bill


THE MOST AND LEAST RELIABLE NEW CARS

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

So, you're in the market for a new car. Want one that's extremely reliable?

Then you might want to test drive a Lexus, Toyota, Audi, Mazda or Subaru. These are the five most reliable brands, according to the latest Consumer Reports subscriber survey. The least reliable brands are Cadillac, Ram, Jeep and Fiat.

Other highlights of this year's survey:

Buick is the most reliable American brand.

Kia beat Honda this year and by a significant margin.

Honda's Acura brand and Nissan's Infiniti both dropped in the reliability ratings.

Ford remains in the lower half of the rankings, but showed significant gains, with most of its cars scoring average or better.

The most reliable vehicle of all is the Audi Q3. For small SUVs, the top of the pack includes the Kia Sportage, Toyota RAV4, and Subaru XV Crosstrek.

More Info: Most and Least Reliable Cars


ATM FEES HIT NEW RECORD HIGH

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Using the wrong ATM fee can really cost you a bundle.

The average nationwide fee to withdraw money from an ATM that is not affiliated with your financial institution is now $4.52, according to a new nationwide survey by Bankrate.com. And it can be a lot higher in some cities: $5.15 in Atlanta, $5.03 in New York City.

It's easy to avoid these fees, even if you belong to a community bank, credit union or online bank. Most are part of ATM networks that let you access your money anywhere in the country.

"These networks are growing bigger and bigger all the time, so you're not necessarily at a disadvantage by banking with a small institution in terms of ATM access," said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.

The trick is to plan ahead: Where are you're going to make that cash withdrawal?

"You can either check on the bank's website or use your mobile app to see the nearest in-network ATM before you make that transaction," McBride advised.

Remember: If you're really in a pinch for cash, you can always get cash back at the register when you use your debit card to make a purchase.

More Info:

ATM & Overdraft Fees Hit New Record Highs


DON'T ASSUME YOUR CREDIT IS GOOD

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

A friend of mine said to me recently: "I know my credit's good; I pay all my bills on time."

Paying your bills on time is important, if you want a good credit score, but it won't guarantee one. A lot of things go into the mix to come up with those scores.

Never assume your credit is good. You need to check your credit file. You can do that for free every 12 months at each of the three credit bureaus. Just go to www.annualcreditreport.com. This site was set up by the federal government to let you access your free reports.

You can get all three at once or get a report from one bureau now and one from the second bureau in four months and the third four months after that. Even though the information in your file may not be the same at each credit bureau, by using this system, you'll get a year-round look at where you stand.

Check those reports and make sure everything is accurate. Look for potential problems. You may have missed a bill and made a late payment. Or something could be in your file that doesn't belong there.

A survey by credit.com found that 21% of the people who checked their credit reports found a mistake, nine percent had a late payment they didn't know about and 10 percent were surprised to discover a collection account.

More Info:

7 Mistakes That Can Demolish Your Credit Score


HOW TO USE YOUR NEW CHIP CREDIT CARD

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Did you get one of those new chip credit cards? If so, you'll notice that it still has a magnetic stripe on the back. That's so you can use it at stores that don't have chip card readers yet.

With those new card readers you don't swipe, you dip. You insert the chip end of the card into the terminal and leave it there until the transaction is completed.

The chip in the card is generating a unique code to validate the transaction. That's why it's harder to counterfeit these cards.

By the way, there's no change in the way that you use your chip card for online and telephone purchases. You just use the number on the card as you always do. With these purchases, that chip doesn't provide any extra protection.

That's why it's important to continue checking your accounts on a regular basis to look for any unauthorized charges.

More Info:

A Consumer's Guide to Chip Cards

What's That Chip Doing on My Credit Card?


NEW FEDERAL RULES: KNOW BEFORE YOU OWE

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

New federal rules should make it easier for you to know what you'll owe when you apply for a mortgage.

Four disclosure forms have been replaced by two new ones.

The Loan Estimate outlines the key details of the transaction, such as the loan amount, the rate, monthly payments, closing costs and amount of cash you'll need at closing. Since every lender must use the same form, it should be easier to shop around and compare loan offers from multiple lenders.

The Closing Disclosure details the final transaction and should help prevent costly surprises at the closing table. The lender is now required to give you this form at least three business days before closing. This gives you time to review the form and confirm that you're getting what you expected, ask questions and negotiate over any changes.

The Loan Estimate and Closing Disclosure mirror each other, making it easy to compare estimates with final loan terms.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has detailed information about the Know Before You Owe rules on its website.


WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT CHIP CARDS

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Chances are you got a new credit card in the mail recently - one that has a small computer chip embedded on the front.

If you didn't, you will soon.

These cards are harder to counterfeit because that chip generates a unique code every time you put it into a store's card reader.

Maybe you've seen and heard all the news stories that mention an October first deadline and you're worried because you didn't get your chip card yet.

Relax. There's nothing to worry about.

That deadline wasn't for you; it was for merchants across the country. As of October first, they're now responsible for credit card fraud in certain circumstances.

If the customer has a chip-enabled card and they don't have a new checkout terminal that can accept it - so they have to run the magnetic strip on the back - and the transaction is bogus, they eat the loss. In the past, the bank covered all credit card fraud.

Again, that's their problem, not yours. For you, the customer, nothing has changed.

Keep in mind: Chip technology won't reduce all credit card fraud. Most chip cards don't require a PIN to complete the transaction, only a signature. So, someone could easily use your card if they steal it or if you lose it.

And chip cards do nothing to prevent online fraud. That's why it's still important to monitor your accounts on a regular basis to look for any unauthorized charges.

More Info:

A Consumer's Guide to Chip Cards

What's That Chip Doing on My Credit Card?


THEY LOOK LIKE GIFT CARDS, BUT THEY'RE NOT

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Checks and coupons are so yesterday. These days, companies prefer to use prepaid cards.

Apply for a rebate and you may be sent a rebate rewards card.

These prepaid cards have also become a popular promotional item. You've probably seen ads that offer a $50 prepaid card if you buy a TV or computer.

These rebate and promotional cards look like gift cards - but they're not. They can expire in just a few months. Some have a monthly service fee that eats away at the value of the card.

Be smart. Get a rebate or promotional card - read the rules. Then use it right away.

Know the rules: Under federal law, gift cards - other than loyalty, award or promotional cards - cannot expire for five years. There can be no fees unless the card is inactive for more than 12 months. And dormancy fees are limited to only one fee per month.

Under Washington law, gift cards sold in this state cannot expire. Balances under $5 can be redeemed in cash. However, state law does not apply to gift cards issued by credit card companies. That's where the federal law has you covered.

More Info:

Beware: Rebate and promotional cards can expire quickly


CONSIDER INSURANCE COSTS BEFORE YOU BUY THAT CAR

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Buying a car, whether new or used, means finding something you want and something you can afford. As you figure out how much you can spend, remember to include the cost of insurance.

There's a good chance the insurance coverage you currently have will cost you more for a new vehicle. If you're trading in a really old car - one that isn't worth that much and you've dropped collision and comprehensive coverage - expect that new insurance premium to be significantly higher.

Online calculators can help you compare the cost of the different models you're considering. Or talk to your insurance company and ask them to run the numbers for you.

One more tip: You should also comparison shop before your auto insurance policy renews each year. That's the only way to know if you're paying too much.

You may get a discount for being a loyal customer, but industry experts say some companies charge long-time customers higher rates, assuming they're not about to go anywhere. The only way to know where you stand is to shop around.

More Info:

How to Figure Out What Your Insurance Payment Will be Before You Buy a New Car


COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT CREDIT SCORES

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

It seems like everyone is talking about credit scores these days. We all know they're important, but a lot of us don't know how they work, according to a new survey from Bankrate.com.

For example, many people believe - erroneously - that you have to carry a balance on your credit card to improve you credit score. Not true. Simply having the card will help your score.

"If you're carrying a balance, you're paying interest on those purchases and you absolutely, positively don't have to do that to build your credit score," said Bankrate's Jeanine Skowronski. "You can make a few small charges and pay them off and you're going to build credit over time, but there's no need to carry a balance and pay interest."

Here 's another misconception: Half of those surveyed mistakenly believe having high balances on their credit card accounts will improve their credit score, as long as they pay off the balance in full and on time each month. Nope.

Carrying a high balance - more than 30 percent of the credit limit on that card - could drag down your credit score, even if you have a spotless payment record.

More Info:

Survey: Do you really understand what kills your credit score?


COLLEGE STUDENTS NEED TO SHOP AROUND FOR FIRST CHECKING ACCOUNT

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

The first year of college is when most people tend to open a checking account. It's important to shop around to find a good one. You'll probably have that account throughout school and after you graduate.

You want to pay close attention to the fees because they can really drain your account. Find out:

Is there a monthly fee, if you don't maintain a minimum balance?

What are the ATM fees?

Is there a fee to use your debit card to make a purchase?

How much are the overdraft fees?

Don't assume all checking accounts are the same. They're not. And don't assume an account with your school's name on it is the best for YOU. You need to do your homework before you open that checking account.

More Info:

College-Branded Banking Accounts May Not be Best for Students


ONE LATE PAYMENT CAN HURT YOUR CREDIT SCORE FOR YEARS

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Bad marks on your credit can last a long time.

A bankruptcy will hurt you for seven to 10 years. But even something as simple as a single 30-day late mortgage payment can drag down your credit score for years.

And get this: The higher your score, the more you'll get dinged for that one late mortgage payment, according to FICO.

If your score is fair, you'd recover in about nine months. With a good FICO score it would take about two-and-a-half years. If you have excellent credit, it could take three full years to bounce back.

The lesson here: Make sure you pay your bills on time.

More Info:

How Long Does It Really Take to Improve Your Credit?


MANY RETAILERS OFFER MONEY-SAVING DISCOUNTS FOR COLLGE STUDENTS

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Back to school sales are great, but college students may be able to save even more.

At Banana Republic, J. Crew and Madewell stores show a student ID card and get a 15 percent discount.

Apple will take $200 off your purchase either in the store or online, if you have a student ID or acceptance letter.

With many online retailers you have to join a student discount program. One called UNIDAYS is free and it offers online discounts when shopping at Claire's, Levi's, Urban Outfitters, and many other sites.

The Student Advantage Discount card is $22 for the first year, but you might be able to make that back with all of the savings you can get with it.

The list of offers includes shoe stores, drug stores and movie theaters. You can get extra student savings on hotels, eyeglasses, hotels and magazines. You can even get discounts on Greyhound, Amtrak and rental cars.

More Info:

Save with Student Discounts


DO YOURSELF A FAVOR - DON'T PEEK AT YOUR RETIREMENT FUNDS

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Have you checked your 401(k) statement recently? With the declines on Wall Street a lot of people will do that.

Not me! I have my long-term investment strategy set and I'm sticking to it.

I follow John Bogle's rule: 'Don't Peek.' Bogle founded the Vanguard family of index funds. He believes that if you don't peek, you won't panic - and you won't do something foolish.

Here's what Bogel said in an interview with MarketWatch: "Don't let all the noise drown out your common sense and your wisdom. Just try not to pay that much attention, because it will have no effect whatsoever, categorically, on your lifetime investment returns."

More Info:

Don't Peek at Your 401(k) Statement

When Markets Tumble, be Like Bogle - 'Don't Peek'


WHY RENTER'S INSURANCE MAKES SENSE

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Most people who own their home have homeowner's insurance. Most renters don't have renter's insurance. That's a big mistake.

A lot of people don't realize how reasonable renter's policies are or they mistakenly believe the landlord will handle any damage to their stuff.

The landlord's policy only covers the building; it doesn't cover your personal belongings. If something happens to that, it's your problem.

Renter's insurance also gives you liability protection. If someone gets hurt inside you rental home or apartment - or maybe your dog bites them - the landlord is not going to cover that.

And just like homeowner's insurance, renter's insurance covers things off premises. For example: a laptop that's stolen while you're away from home.

Coverage is much cheaper than most people realize. The national average right now for renter's insurance is about $15 a month. That's a small price for a lot of protection.

More Info:

Millennials Lack Renters Insurance and Believe Its Costs Over $1,000

Renting your place? Skipping this could cost you


A GOOD CREDIT SCORE MIGHT SAVE YOU MONEY ON HOMEOWNER'S INSURANCE

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Here's another reason why you want to have a good credit score - it could save you a bundle on your homeowner's insurance.

That's right; many insurance companies now consider creditworthiness as one of the factors used to determine your premium price.

Most consumers probably have no idea how much credit plays a factor in what we have to pay for home insurance," said Laura Adams, an insurance industry analyst with insuranceQuotes.com. "And the rate increases that we're seeing (based on this information) are probably much higher than what the average person would guess."

According to a recent study done for insuranceQuotes, a homeowner in Washington with a fair credit score will pay, on average, 42 percent more than someone with excellent credit. That's a potential difference of more than $275 a year.

Don't know what your score is? You'd be smart to find out. And if it's low, see what you can do to boost it. You may already get a credit score from your financial institution or credit card.

If not, you can sign up for a free score on a number of websites, including Credit.com, CreditSesame and CreditKarma.

How much credit affects your home insurance rate may surprise you


WHAT YOU SHOULD HAVE IN YOUR FINANCIAL EMERGENCY KIT

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

The recent wildfires remind us that in an emergency you could be forced to evacuate your house in a hurry.

That's why it's so important to have your critical documents in one place so you can grab them on the way out the door.

These would include copies or originals of the family's medical insurance cards, Social Security Cards, passports and birth certificates.

You also want information about your insurance policies, contact info for your bank, credit card companies and mortgage lender. It wouldn't be a bad idea to have a checkbook and the spare key to your safe deposit box.

It's a good idea to scan these documents and store them online or in a safe place away from your house.

Weather Emergencies: Getting Your Financial House in Order


WHY WAS MY CREDIT CARD DECLINED?

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

It's embarrassing: The clerk says your credit card transaction was declined. What's with that?

It could be a technical glitch - or something else.

If you've hit your credit limit or that purchase will push you past the limit, the transaction may not go through.

If you've missing a few payments, you can expect the card to be shut down.

It's also possible the card company's computers spotted something that appeared to be a warning sign of fraud and turned off the card until someone is able to contact you.

The algorithms used to spot fraud look for all sorts of things that are out of the ordinary. It could be a really big purchase that's doesn't fit your spending profile or a whole bunch of little purchases in a very short period of time. That happened to me once.

Should you find yourself in this situation, call the company at the 800-number listed on the back of your card to find out what's going on. You may be able to get the card unfrozen right on the spot.

7 Times an Issuer Could Freeze Your Credit Card


THINGS TO BUY IN AUGUST

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Labor Day is late this year, September 7, but you can already find some end of summer sales underway. The experts at DealNews.com say look for big discounts on patio furniture, barbecue grills and summer clothing.

Stores are running sales on back to school supplies, and not just pens and pencils. DealNews says this is the best time of year to buy a laptop. Their analysis of the data shows that laptop prices typically drop an extra eight to 25 percent in August and early September.

Deal News says if you want to save money on an iPhone or iPad, wait until the new models come out in September. Once they do, older models will be discounted.

The Best and Worst Things to Buy in August


HOW TO HELP YOUR KIDS SAVE MONEY ON AUTO INSURANCE

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Want to help your kids save money on their car insurance? You might want to consider keeping them on your family policy.

According to a new survey by insuranceQuotes.com, an 18-year old in Washington who buys an individual policy will pay, on average, about 28 percent more than if they continued on the family policy.

"And that's really just a huge incremental cost that they don't have to undergo," said Laura Adams, senior analyst at insuranceQuotes. "If they stay on mom and dad's plan, mom and dad are certainly going to pay more, but it's a heck of a lot less than the teen is going to pay on their own."

If you want to encourage your son or daughter to be financially independent, just have them pay for all or part of that premium increase.

"That makes everyone happy," Adams said. "Mom and dad are getting reimbursed and the teen is getting insurance at the lowest rate possible."

And of course, that extra cost will drop each year as your son or daughter gets older.

Should young drivers stay on their parents' auto policy or get their own?


Shopping For a Loan Won't Hurt Your Credit Score

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

You know that if you apply for credit, the lender will check your credit history. And that credit check could lower your credit score a little bit.

So, is it a mistake to comparison shop by applying with several lenders when you need a car loan, home loan, mortgage or student loan?

The answer is a qualified no.

If you apply for that money within a short period of time - typically within 30 to 45 days - those credit checks by various lenders will be treated as a single inquiry.

In other words, you won't get dinged multiple times for shopping around for your money. And by shopping around, you greatly increase your chances of finding a better rate on that loan.

Can Shopping For a Loan Have an Effect on My Credit?

Private Mortgage Insurance: Don't Pay Longer Than Necessary

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

If the down payment on your mortgage is less than 20 percent of the sale price, you're probably paying private mortgage insurance. PMI protects the lender if you default. The cost of this PMI is added to your monthly mortgage payment.

Once the principal on your loan hits 80 percent of the home's selling price, you can ask for that PMI to be cancelled.

It's not automatic. You must have a good payment history and be current on the loan, be free of any liens and be able to prove the property has not declined in value.

So keep track of where you stand on paying down that loan and try to get rid of PMI as soon as you qualify. It could save you thousands of dollars a year.

Bankrate.com points out that your lender must automatically cancel PMI when your outstanding loan balance drops to 78 percent of the home's original value.

Private Mortgage Insurance, or PMI: Just the Basics

DO YOU HAVE LIFE INSURANCE? IF SO, DO YOU HAVE ENOUGH?

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

You buy life insurance to protect your loved ones should something happen to you. But a lot of families in this country don't have life insurance, according to a new survey by Bankrate.com.

"We found it rather disturbing that 37 percent of the parents in this survey - parents with kids under 18 - told us they have no life insurance whatsoever," said Bankrate's Doug Whiteman.

The survey also found that a lot of parents who do have life insurance, don't have enough.

"A third of the respondents told us they have $100,000 in coverage or less, and for the average family that is just not going to cut it," Whiteman said.

If you're young and in good health, life insurance can probably fit into your budget. A 25 year old non-smoker can get a $250,000 term life policy for less than $30 a month.

How much life insurance do you need? Every family is different, but here's one common recommendation.

"You need seven to ten times your income," Whiteman said."If you make $50,000 a year, then you'd want to have at least $350,000 in life insurance."

Online calculators at Bankrate and other websites make it easy to figure out what's right for you.

Survey: How many of us have life insurance? And how many have enough of it?

WILL THAT BE CASH OR CREDIT?

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Impulse purchases can quickly break your budget. And it's a lot easier to buy things that aren't on your shopping list when you pay with plastic - credit or debit.

If you find yourself in this situation, you should try using cash.

With cash, you can't spend more than you have with you. And you'll never have to deal with high-interest debt to cover those impulse purchases.

Try it - and you'll see that psychologically, there's just something different about spending money. You think more about what you're going to buy.

Obviously, you can't do this for big purchases, but for little shopping trips, give it a try.

AUTO INSURANCE DISCOUNTS

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Auto insurance companies offer a variety of money-saving discounts, but in many cases, you have to ask for them - and most people don't.

Do you qualify for a marriage discount? Insurance companies typically charge less to married couples.

Can you get an occupational discount? Some companies give teachers, nurses, accountants and police officers safe driver discounts?

There are also good student discounts and low mileage discounts.

It's a good idea to review your coverage every year to see if you qualify for any discounts based on a change in your life or your driving habits.

More Than 4 in 5 Americans Not Asking for Car Insurance Discounts

Have low mileage? You may qualify for a 17% car insurance discount

PUT YOUR SAVINGS ON AUTOPILOT

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

You want to save. You try to save. But by the end of the month, there's no money left to save.

Here's a better way. Pay yourself first! Make saving money a part of your monthly budget and make it happen automatically.

Talk to your employer and arrange to have a certain amount of each paycheck deposited into a savings account. Yes, you will have a little less in your paycheck. That should encourage you to figure out ways to cut back a little bit on your spending. It's a simple idea - and it really works.

4 Ways to Trick Yourself Into Saving More Money

WARNING: INTEREST RATE REDUCTION SCAM

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

The phone rings and the friendly voice on the recorded message offers you a simple and guaranteed way to lower your credit card interest rate. Maybe you've gotten one of these calls from "Rachel at Card Member Services."

It's a scam.

Press one to talk to a representative and they'll tell you they work for your bank or credit card company. That's a lie.

Victims who take the bait either get nothing for their money or the scammer does something that they could have done on their own - for free - such as asking the credit card company for a hardship rate reduction.

If you are struggling to make payments on your credit card, contact a reputable credit counselor. You can find a nonprofit agency near you by going to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling website.

Robocall Credit Card Interest Scam Continues to Plague Consumers

WHEN YOU MIGHT WANT TO CANCEL A CREDIT CARD

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

You've probably heard the warning: Close a credit card account and it will hurt your credit score. And that's generally true - although in most cases, it won't hurt that much.

So don't be afraid to get rid of a card with an expensive annual fee, especially if you don't use it anymore. And there's no need to keep a card with interest rates that are no longer competitive.

Just don't cancel a bunch of cards at once. And certainly don't cancel any cards before you're about to apply for any sort of credit. That could really hurt you.

If you have credit cards that don't cost you anything, you can just put them away and keep that line of credit open. That's good for your score.

4 Times It Makes Sense to Close a Credit Card

CAN A DEBT COLLECTOR TEXT ME?

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Debt collectors are now using text messages to contact people. Can they do that?

Yes, as long as they follow the rules - and some are not.

These unethical companies are sending out texts designed to trick you into calling them. For example, they may make it seem like the text is coming from your bank and credit card number.

The Federal Trade Commission recently sued debt collectors who were making threats in their text messages. That's illegal.

A debt collection agency is required by law to identify itself and the reason for contacting you in every communication - including texts. And it cannot make false threats, such as you'll be arrested if you don't respond - because you can't be arrested for not paying a debt.

Be wary of all strange texts that ask you to call an unknown number.

FTC Cracks Down on Deceptive Debt Collection Texts

WARNING: STUDENT LOAN DEBT RELIEF SCAMS

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Millions of people are struggling to repay their student loans, and scammers are targeting them with bogus debt relief programs.

These companies promise to a get you a special deal that you can't get on your own. Not true.

They may also claim to be affiliated with the Department of Education. They're not.

All they want is to do is charge you a big upfront fee to do what you can do on your own - for free.

Need help dealing with student debt? Visit the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's website at consumerfinance.gov.

Feds Ask Facebook, Google and Bing to Help Stop Student Loan Scams

THE DOWN PAYMENT: BIGGER MAY BE BETTER

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Despite all the talk about cash transactions, most people who buy a house still need a mortgage. And to get that mortgage you'll need to make a down payment.

More cash upfront could help you get a better rate. It also means you won't have to borrow as much, which will reduce the total amount of interest you pay. If you plan to stay in that house for a long time, the savings will really add up over the years.

Remember, if you can't come up with enough to cover around 20 percent of the total property value, you will be required to buy mortgage insurance. That's an added expense for insurance that protects the lender, not you.

How Important Is Your Down Payment on a Home?

Down payment on a home: Just the basics

Down Payments: How much you need to save

TRAVELING ABROAD WITH YOUR CREDIT CARD

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

A lot of us will travel abroad this summer. Before you leave home, contact your credit card company to let them know where you're going.

If you don't do this and you use that card outside the U.S., the bank's computers may flag that as a fraudulent transaction and shut down your card.

Remember: You'll get the best conversion rate from your credit card company, so don't let the friendly merchant convert your purchase to U.S. dollars. That may seem convenient, but it's costly.

Finally, if you have more than one credit card in your wallet, leave at least one in the hotel safe, just in case something happens.

5 Ways to Keep Your Credit Cards Safe When you Travel

THE MAGIC OF COMPOUND INTEREST

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Saving for retirement should start when you're young - as soon as you get your first good job.

That way, you'll benefit from what's called compounding; that is making interest on your interest.

Make single deposit of $10,000 at five percent interest, compounded yearly, and after 25 years, you'll have nearly $34,000. That's the magic of compounding.

This is why you need to put money into your 401(k) account even if your employer doesn't offer a match. It takes time for compounding to work.

3 Financial Realities New Grads Have to Face

A NEW WEBSITE FOR VICTIMS OF ID THEFT

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

It's hard to know what to do or where to turn when you're the victim of identity theft.

That's why the Federal Trade Commission just launched a new website called IdentityTheft.gov that should be a big help.

At IdentityTheft.gov you'll learn what steps you need to take right away to protect yourself - and then what to do next.

The new site not only gives you basic information about reporting the fraud and freezing your credit reports, it includes specialized instructions and tips for specific forms of ID theft, such as medical and tax ID fraud and data breaches.

The site has links to the only government-authorized source for getting your free credit report every year from each of the three major credit bureaus.

You'll also find tips on what to do when you get notified that you're the victim of a data breach and how to deal with a debt collector who contacts you about a debt you don't owe.

IdentityTheft.gov is also the place to go to learn about this crime and the warning signs to watch out for.

THE HIGH COST OF A CASH ADVANCE

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Need a small loan right away? You might be tempted to borrow from your credit card company. It's called a "cash advance" and it's really convenient. It's also very costly.

CreditCards.com just surveyed 100 major credit cards and here's what they found:

The average interest rate on a cash advance is 24 percent APR. That's a lot higher than the average credit card purchase interest rate (on an unpaid balance) which is currently about 15 percent APR. (Some gasoline credit cards charge almost 30 percent for a cash advance.)

The interest starts immediately. You don't get the same interest-free grace period you do with purchases.

Expect to pay a fee, typically five percent of the advance or $10, whichever is higher.

So does a cash advance ever make sense? I put that question to Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst at CreditCards.com.

"Cash advances can be the best of a bunch of really bad options when times get tough, but they're definitely something to avoid under normal circumstances because of the high interest rates and fees," he said.

More Info:

How Much a Cash Advance Will Really Cost You

WHEN DOES A LATE BILL HURT YOUR CREDIT SCORE?

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

It happens, for a variety of reasons - you forget to pay your credit card bill on time. Will that hurt your credit score?

It depends on how late you are. Credit card companies typically don't report a late payment to the credit bureaus until you're 30 days past due.

Of course, you will get hit with a late payment charge and interest on the unpaid balance. If this is your first time missing a payment, call your credit card company and ask if they'll waive the fee this one time.

Remember, the later the payment - the more you go past 30 days - the worse the ding to your credit.

If you always pay your bills on time, a single slip up won't be all that serious, but if this becomes a pattern, your credit score is going to get clobbered. In that case, you need to figure out why you're falling behind and take steps to correct the situation.

More Info:

How Late Can I Pay a Bill Before It Hurts My Credit?

WHY DO YOU NEED TO CHECK YOUR CREDIT REPORT?

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

More than one third of the adults in this country (35 percent) have never checked any of their credit reports, according to a new study by Bankrate.com. Another 14 percent say they typically go more than a year between checks. That's alarming.

If you don't check, you won't know if the information in your credit report is accurate - and that's the information used to generate your credit scores.

Reviewing your credit report is also a one of the best ways to spot identity theft. If a thief has applied for credit in your name - it should show up on your report. See something strange and you need to find out what's going on.

You can get a free report from each of the three credit bureaus every 12 months at annualcreditreport.com. This site was set up by the federal government for this purpose. Remember, you will need to provide your Social Security number - that's how they access your credit file. So, make sure you do this from a secure computer.

More Info:

FTC: Free Credit Reports

When Should I Review My Credit Report?

5 Reasons to Check Your Credit Report

WHAT ARE DISCOUNT POINTS?

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

When shopping for a mortgage, you may run across loans that have what are called discount points. Discount points refer to prepaid interest - paid in a lump sum when you get the loan.

Each point is one percent of the loan amount. So for a $100,000 mortgage, one point is $1,000.

By paying points, you'll get a lower interest rate and a slightly lower monthly payment. This could be a smart move, if you plan to stay in that house for awhile - since it will take time for those savings to add up.

Online calculators can help you figure out how long it will take to make paying points worthwhile.

More Info:

What are mortgage points? Should you pay them?

KIDS & CREDIT CARDS

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Your son or daughter wants a credit card, but they can't get one on their own, so they've asked you to be a co-signer. That's a bad idea. Here's why.

As a co-signer, your credit is on the line. You are equally responsible for any debt incurred. If your child doesn't use the card responsibly, that will hurt your credit score as well as theirs.

And because the monthly statements go to the primary account holder - your kid - it won't be easy for you to monitor how they use that card. Are they running up a big unpaid balance? Are they making the payments on time?

There is a better option: Making your son or daughter an "authorized user" on one of your existing accounts.

You kid will get a card with his or her name on it, even though those charges show up on your bill. That means you're still responsible to pay them, but you will be able to monitor that card in real time and shut it down at any time.

As an authorized user your child can start building that all important credit history. A good credit history will translate into a good credit score - something that's critically important these days.

Everything to Know About Authorized Users on Your Credit Card

Your First Credit Card: What You Need to Know

WARNING: PHISHING SCAMS ON THE RISE

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

You hear it all the time when there's a data breach - the hackers only got email addresses. That's supposed to make victims feel better.

The fact is hackers can do a lot of damage with stolen email addresses. They can use these addresses to trick people into providing them with some really sensitive personal information - it's called phishing and this scam is skyrocketing.

Let's say the crooks steal email addresses from a bank. They can target the bank's customers with an official-looking message that appears to be from that financial institution. This increases the odds that people will believe it is real and respond.

Here's the rule: Any company or government agency that needs your password or PIN or account number, already has it. They would never ask for it via email. NEVER!

A primer on phishing from OnGuardOline.gov

Majority of Americans fall for email phishing scams

DEBIT CARD OVERDRAFT PROTECTION

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

A lot of people are confused about overdraft protection on their debit cards. So let me explain how it works.

Debit cards are set up so you cannot overdraw your checking account. If you try to get cash at an ATM or buy something at the store - and there isn't enough money in your account - that transaction will be declined. But you will not pay a fee.

Sign up for "overdraft protection" and you will be able to overdraw and you will be charged a fee for that service - typically about $35.

Not sure how your card is set up? Check with your bank.

I would ask this question: What happens if I'm about to make a debit card transaction that would overdraw my checking account - will it be declined or will it be approved and I pay a fee? You can change the setting at any time.

If you think there may be an occasion where you need to overdraw the account - say, in an emergency situation - find out if there's a better option. Linking your checking account to your savings account or a credit card is typically a cheaper way to go.

USE ACCOUNT ALERTS TO SPOT FRAUD

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

No matter how careful you are, a crook can always find ways to steal your personal information. That's why it's so important to monitor your financial accounts. The sooner you spot fraud, the sooner you can deal with it.

Don't wait for those monthly statements to arrive. Go online and check your financial accounts at least once a week.

You should also set up account alerts. These alerts, via text or email, can warn you of potential problems in real time.

For example, you might want to be notified if your credit card is used for a foreign transaction or for a cash advance at ATM. You can get alerts if a check of a certain amount, say $500 or more, is drawn on your account.

You should be able to set up these alerts online. It's quick and easy to do.

DO YOU WANT AN EXTENDED CAR WARRANTY?

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

You can't buy a car without getting the pitch for an extended warranty. What do you do?

Consumer Reports says they're rarely worth the money.

The magazine surveyed subscribers and found that more than half the people who bought an extended warranty never used it. And those who did, spent far more for the coverage than they saved in repairs.

Only one in four car owners who bought the extra coverage said they would definitely do it again.

Consumer Reports says you'd be better off buying a reliable car that suits your needs, budget, and taste. Then take good care of it.

Read More:

Is it worth buying an extended car warranty? Peace of mind comes at a cost

PREPAID DEBIT CARDS: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Prepaid debit cards are growing in popularity.

Unlike credit cards, you can only spend what's loaded on the card. For that reason, these cards make it easier for some people to track their spending and stay within their budget.

Yes, there are usually fees involved, but for someone who constantly overdraws their checking account, this might be a cheaper way to go.

A recent survey found that prepaid cards are especially popular with Millennials who don't want their purchases tracked.

Keep in mind: Prepaid cards do not help you build a credit history because there's no credit involved.

Prepaid debit cards can have a lot of fees and those fees vary greatly from card to card, so if you decide to get one, you really need to shop around.

Activation fees are fairly common. They range from about $2 to $10. Some prepaid cards don't charge this fee if you order online.

Look for a card without a monthly fee or that waives the fee if you load a certain amount on the card each month.

Find out if that card can be used at an ATM and if there's a charge to check your balance or withdraw cash.

Read More:

Bankrate

Consumer Reports

TODAY

Bankrates

DEALING WITH DEBT COLLECTORS

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Debt collectors have a job to do, but the law limits how they can do it.

Collectors can't call you before 8am or after 9pm, unless you agree to it. And they're not allowed to call you at work if you tell them not to call you there.

They cannot lie to you, threaten you or harass you. No name calling, no obscene language and no threats of violence. And they can't say you'll be arrested if you don't pay up right away - because you can't be arrested for owing money.

Anyone can claim to be a debt collector. The person calling you could be legit or they could be a con artist. There's no real way for you to know for sure. So, what do you do?

Ask for written proof that you owe the debt. Every collector is required to send you a written "validation notice" within five days after they first contact you. It's the law.

The notice must give you the name of the creditor, how much you owe and how to proceed if you don't think you owe it.

Want a debt collector to stop calling? Send them a letter and they must stop. Of course, that doesn't make a legitimate debt go away, and they could still sue you. But the calls should stop.

Read More:

Your Debt Collection Rights

Fake Debt Collectors

WHERE TO GET FINANCIAL HELP

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

The economy is improving, but a lot of people are still worried about their personal finances, and having problems dealing with it.

One in four adults in this country is not paying their credit card bills on time. They're rolling that debt over month-to-month and watching the balance grow bigger and bigger.

Help is available - often for free, or at very low cost. A non-profit credit counselor can get you on the right track before you wind up buried in debt. To find one near you, call 1-800-388-2227 or visit the National Foundation for Credit Counseling website.

Read More:

When it Comes to Finance, Many Americans are Clueless

THE PREMERA DATA BREACH

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Premera's data breach notification letters are going out and a lot of people are asking me if they should sign up for the two years of free credit monitoring?

Yes, it's free! And it will provide extra protection for you and your family.

But even the best monitoring program can't catch all forms of identity theft. So you'll need to be on the lookout for anything that signals a problem, such as a strange bill or collection notice, or a sudden change in your credit score.

If something doesn't make sense, don't ignore it. You need to check it out.

Children's Social Security numbers were also exposed during this breach, so they could be targeted for identity theft. Parents need to be on guard.

The non-profit Identity Theft Resource Center says look for these warning signs:

Collection calls or notices for a debt incurred in your child's name

Mailings that would generally be for someone over the age of 18, such as pre-approved credit card offers, jury duty notices or parking tickets

An insurance bill or explanation of benefits from a doctor listing medical treatments or services that did not take place

A notice from the IRS that your child's name and/or Social Security number is already listed on another tax return

The ITRC has prepared A Guide for Parents - Child Identity Theft Indicators that lists many more red flags.

Read More:

Nearly 13 Million Americans Victimized by ID Thieves in 2014

WHEN IT'S OK TO GIVE OUT YOUR SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

You know it's important to guard your Social Security number and only use it when absolutely necessary. Here are some of the times when you must provide your SSN:

When you do anything that involves a credit check or requires the IRS to be notified

When you contact a credit bureau to get your credit report or put a fraud alert or freeze on your file

When you apply for government benefits

If you are asked for your number at other places - whether it's the doctor's office or your kid's school, find out if there's another "safer" way to identify yourself. You'd be surprised how many times there's a better option.

Or just leave the link blank and see what happens.

Read More:

Bamboozled: When you should and shouldn't give out your Social Security number

5 Places Where You Should Never Give Your Social Security Number

DOES A SAVINGS ACCOUNT MAKE ANY SENSE?

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Let's be honest - with today's low interest rates, putting your money in a savings account is only slightly better than hiding it under the mattress.

And yet, having a savings account makes sense as a safe place to park your rainy day fund. If there's an emergency, you may need quick access to cash.

Yes, you will earn more with a certificate of deposit, but you'll pay a penalty if you need to withdraw the money before the maturity date.

By the way, when it comes to that emergency savings fund, your goal is to have enough socked away to cover living expenses for six to 12 months.

Read More:

Despite Low Returns, Traditional Savings Accounts are Still Popular

THE 411 ON A CREDIT SECURITY FREEZE

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

You want to protect yourself from identity theft and you've heard about something called a credit freeze.

A freeze locks your credit file which should keep anyone - including you - from accessing it to open new lines of credit.

"A credit freeze is actually one of the most robust protection methods that consumers can employ," said Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the non-profit Identity Theft Resource Center.

A freeze does not hurt your credit score and it does not affect any of your current relationships with creditors.

If you've been victimized by an identity thief, the service is free. Otherwise, there's a small charge to freeze your account at each of the three credit bureaus and a small charge to thaw it, if you need to apply for new credit.

A freeze won't protect you from all forms of identity theft, just financial fraud. Even with a freeze, you still need to be vigilant. There are lots of ways an ID thief can hurt you.

Read More:

Washington State Attorney General's Office - Security Freeze Procedures

Federal Trade Commission: Credit Freeze FAQs

THE FINAL TAX DEDUCTION OF THE YEAR

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

The clock is ticking, but there's one last thing you may be able to do to reduce your taxable income for 2014 - contribute to a traditional IRA. You have until April 15 to do it.

For those younger than 50, the maximum deductible contribution is $5,500. It's $6,500 for those 50 and older. How much you can contribute will also be based on two other factors: your income and whether you or your spouse has a retirement plan at work.

If you own a small business, you might be able to put more into what's called a SEP IRA. That stands for Simplified Employee Pension IRA.

Remember: Make sure any contribution is noted as being for 2014.

Read More: 3 Last-Minute Tax Moves

CREDIT SCORE CONFUSION

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

A lot of people are confused about what goes into their credit file. It's important to know because that information is used to generate credit scores. Lenders use these scores to decide whether to extend you credit and if so, how much you will pay in interest.

A recent study by TransUnion (one of the big three credit unions) found that half the people surveyed think their scores will go up if they get a raise. They won't.

Credit scores tell a lender if you're a good risk, not if you can afford to pay. You could be worth a fortune and still have little or no credit.

Income - whether it's from a job, unemployment benefits, alimony or public assistance - is not included in your credit file. In fact, your employment status isn't even listed.

More Info:

No, getting a raise doesn't improve your credit score, and other widely-held misconceptions

7 Items Your Credit Report Won't Reveal

GETTING YOUR HOME READY TO SELL

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Home buyers tend to focus a lot on the kitchen and the master bathroom.

You don't need to gut an older bathroom, but the experts at Consumer Reports suggest investing a few thousand to spruce it up.

Try to make the bathtub and shower look new. In some cases, that might mean new grouting for the tiles.

Because it's a relatively small room, a few improvements in the master bath, like a stone countertop, new floor or new vanity, will have a big impact - and greatly increased the value of your house.

One more tip: Consider replacing older toilets. Buyers want water-saving models.

Good pictures are a must

You've heard it a million times: Curb appeal sells a home. But these days, most buyers will get their first look at the place online. That's means the pictures you post need to sell that house and get them to the curb.

Don't even think about using the camera on your smartphone. You need high-quality pictures, both inside and out. Natural light is the best. And be sure to get close-ups of architectural details or interesting features, like a fireplace.

If you aren't able to do it yourself - hire someone. You'll be glad you did.

When's the best time to post your pictures? Consumer Reports say Thursday or Friday, just before your weekend open house.

The March issue of Consumer Reports is filled with important information for anyone who plans to buy or sell a home. Here are links to some of the key articles in this issue.

Top 5 Ways to Boost the Value of Your Home: Learn how to make 10 percent more money when selling your home

4 Red Flags That Can Ruin a Home Sale: Problems you shouldn't ignore when buying or selling a house

Home-Sale Mistakes That Cost You Money: Buyers and sellers - Doing a deal right can mean tens of thousands of dollars in your pocket

Best Ways to Finance Home Repairs: Fixing up your home can be a smart investment

Real Estate Agents Confess Their Dirty Little Secrets: These 7 bad behaviors will cost you money.

CHECK OUT THE C.L.U.E. REPORT FOR THAT HOUSE

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Before you buy a pre-owned home, ask the seller to give you the C.L.U.E. report for that property.

CLUE is the acronym for Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange, a giant database used by the insurance industry to store information on past homeowners claims.

The records go back about seven years and they're based on the address of the loss, not the owner of the home.

Insurance companies assume that past claims at that address could lead to more in the future. So something that happened at that house before you buy it could drive up your insurance premiums.

More Info: Do you know what's in your CLUE report?

KIDS CAN BE VICTIMS OF IDENTITY THEFT, TOO!

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Child identity theft is a growing problem. A crook that snags your son or daughter's Social Security number can use it for years without getting caught - and ruin your child's credit history in the process.

Here are some red flags to watch out for: Your minor child is getting collection calls, pre-approved credit card offers, jury duty notices or parking tickets.

A few more warning signs: You get a notice from the IRS that your child is listed on another tax return or a doctor's bill for medical treatments your kid didn't have.

The Identity Theft Resource Center has prepared A Guide for Parents - Child Identity Theft Indicators that lists many more red flags.

Read More: Millions of Children Exposed to ID Theft Through Anthem Breach

THE DOWNSIDE OF A BIG TAX REFUND

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

You're planning to get a big tax refund this year. Good for you. Well, actually it's not so good. You could have used that money during the year to pay bills or put away in savings.

Instead, you gave Uncle Sam an interest-free loan. That's not very good tax planning.

If you're in this situation, you'd be smart to readjust your withholdings so you have no refund or a very small one coming back to you next year.

Then, figure out how much money you won't pay in taxes each paycheck and have it automatically deposited into a savings account.

Maybe you're expecting a big tax refund and you can't wait to spend it. Might I suggest a few better ways to use this windfall?

Put that money into your retirement account or start the emergency fund you've been putting off. If you already have a rainy day fund, add to it. The goal is to sock away six to nine months of living expenses.

Another smart idea: pay down your debt, whether that's credit card bills or student loans. A lower balance will lower your interest payments and give you a bigger cash flow each month.

More Info: How to Put Your Tax Refund to Good Use

HOW A CREDIT CARD BALANCE COULD HURT YOUR CREDIT SCORE

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Did you know that your credit card balance affects your credit score - even if you pay off the balance in full each month? It does.

A high balance - one that's not even close to your credit limit -- can hurt your score.

That's because the formulas used to compute credit scores look at how much of your available credit you've used. It's called your credit utilization or debt-to-credit ratio.

The lower the better - definitely 20 percent or less. That means if you have a card with a $10,000 limit, you should try to keep the balance below $2,000.

More Info: Burning Question: What's the *Right* Balance to Keep on a Credit Card?

CAN A SINGLE LATE PAYMENT HURT YOUR CREDIT SCORE?

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

If you want to maintain a good credit score - and we all do - you need to pay your bills on time, all the time.

A single late payment of 30 days or more could make a big dent in your score.

One way to avoid this is to set up automatic payments, so the money comes right out of your checking or savings account on the due date.

If you don't feel comfortable automating the process, then set up alerts, so you get a text or email reminder when a payment is due. These alerts can also help you avoid costly late fees.

More Info: Is One Late Payment Really That Bad?

COULD A SMALL EMERGENCY CAUSE A FINANCIAL DISASTER?

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Life is full of costly surprises and a lot of people don't have enough savings to cover them.

A recent survey by Bankrate.com finds that fewer than 4 in 10 Americans - only 38 percent - could handle a $500 car repair or a $1,000 medical emergency without going into debt.

"The concern here is that something as small as a $500 car repair could really send people into a downward spiral financially that may be really difficult to recover from," said Claes Bell, an analyst at Bankrate.

Everyone should have a rainy day fund - and now's the time to start one.

The best approach is to put your savings on auto-pilot. Have a few dollars taken out of each paycheck and automatically deposited into a savings account - and build that into your family budget.

It's also a good idea to set up a separate account for that rainy day fund. That way you won't be tempted to touch it.

See the full survey at Bankrate.com

FRAUD ALERT: SCAMMERS PRETEND TO BE IRS AGENTS

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

The phone rings and the caller claims to be with the IRS. He says you owe money and if you don't pay right now, you'll be sued or arrested.

The fraudster may say you can pay by credit or debit cards or a wire transfer. But in most cases, you'll be told to go buy a prepaid debit card and then call back with the account number.

Hang up! This is a scam. And a lot of people are falling for it.

Remember this:

The IRS doesn't demand payment over the phone.

You cannot be arrested for an honest tax mistake.

If there's ever a problem and the IRS wants to contact you, they'll send you a letter in the mail.

More Info: IRS Personalization Scam

Fraud Alert: Scammers Pretend to be IRS Agents

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

The phone rings and the caller claims to be with the IRS. He says you owe money and if you don't pay right now, you'll be sued or arrested.

The fraudster may say you can pay by credit or debit cards or a wire transfer. But in most cases, you'll be told to go buy a prepaid debit card and then call back with the account number.

Hang up! This is a scam. And a lot of people are falling for it.

Remember this:

The IRS doesn't demand payment over the phone.

You cannot be arrested for an honest tax mistake.

If there's ever a problem and the IRS wants to contact you, they'll send you a letter in the mail.

A Simple Solution to an Overload of Passwords

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

You've heard the advice: You need to have different passwords for all of your online accounts. It's one of the best ways to protect yourself from a hack attack and indentity theft. But let's be honest, most people don't do that.

So here's a compromise.

Create a few really strong passwords for your critical accounts - bank, credit card, brokerage firm - accounts that could result in serious financial harm if a crook gets in.

Never use those passwords on something with low security, like a neighborhood bulletin board.

What's a strong password? It has lots of characters, upper and lower case letters and symbols. Don't use anything obvious like your pet's name or your birthday.

Want to find out just how secure your current passwords are? Go to: How Secure Is My Password?

A Password Manager is a simple way to deal with the overload of passwords. There are several really good free ones. Here's a list of the Best Password Managers from PCMag.

Home Sales in the Northwest are Hot, Hot, Hot!

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

When it comes to home sales, the Seattle-area has some of the most competitive neighborhoods in the country.

According to a recent study by Redfin, sellers in Ravenna, Wallingford, Seward Park and Education Hill in Redmond often get multiple offers - significantly above asking price. Many are for cash. These houses often sell in about a week or so.

That's good news if you plan to sell, not so great if you hope to buy.

"Really, if a property survives over a week on the market, it's typically due to price or some sort of condition that needs to be corrected," said Redfin agent Chad Pluid.

If you're looking to buy, you need to be prepared to make an offer as soon as you see something you like. Go to a lender and get prequalified for a loan. That way you'll know how much house you can really afford to buy.

Washington State Residents Can Deduct Sales Tax in 2014

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

Think state sales tax when you prepare your federal tax return. Once again this year, if you itemize, you get a sales tax deduction.

There are two ways to calculate that:

You can add up all the state and local sales tax you paid last year, if you have receipts

You can use the IRS sales tax tables which base the deduction on your income

If you made a really big purchase last year - maybe you bought a car or boat or did some major home renovations - you can claim that sales tax in addition to what the IRS table gives you.

It just makes sense to shop around for mortgage money

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

A house is the most expensive purchase most of us will ever make. That's why we work so hard to find the right one.

So why not shop around for the money to buy it?

According to a new government survey by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, almost half the home buyers in this country don't do this. That could be a costly mistake.

Check with your bank or credit union, contact a mortgage broker and search online.

Use the APR or Annualized Percentage Rate to comparison shop. That one number takes into account the interest rate, as well as any points or fees that you'll have to pay.

Dealing with Credit Card Debt

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

So you spent a lot of money in December paying for all those presents with your credit cards.

Don't freak out - there are some things you can do to deal with that credit card debt.

Pay more than the minimum. Otherwise, you'll be making interest payments on that balance for years to come.

Prioritize your payments. If one card has a significantly higher interest rate, pay as much as possible on that card and make the minimum payments on the rest.

Make bi-weekly payments. Rather than waiting to make a payment each month, make half the payment every two weeks. By doing this, you will have made one extra payment by the end of the year.

Where are mortgage rates headed in 2015?

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

If you plan to buy a home or refinance your home, you need to consider what might happen to mortgage rates in the coming months.

The benchmark 30-year fixed mortgage is just under four percent right now. Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com, expects rates to go a bit lower early in the year.

McBride predicts greater volatility as we move into the middle of the year and learn more about what the Federal Reserve plans to do about interest rates.

Even so, McBride expects the 30-year fixed to stay well below 5 percent throughout the year - nothing that would stop a well-qualified buyer.

It's time to get moving on financial aid for college

By: Herb Weisbaum, The ConsumerMan

The New Year means families with high school and college students can start looking for ways to pay tuition. That means filling out the FAFSA or Free Application for Federal Student Aid form.

This is something you want to do right away. Don't wait until your family has filed its federal income tax return or until you've been admitted to a school. Many colleges have very early deadlines for their own federal aid.

Financial aid experts tell me that students who file the FAFSA in January, February or March receive on average twice as much grant funding as those who file later.

Edvisors.com publishes free information and tools to help students and families plan for and pay for college. Click here to download the free Filing the FAFSA book. You might also like to read their tip sheet: Top 12 FAFSA Errors to Avoid.

Whether you've just applied to attend college in the fall, are currently making student loan payments, or are a student borrower in default, Consumer Action's new free Student Loan and Education Resource List offers useful, reliable resources to help you meet your financial obligations and get out of debt sooner.

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