Insurance: Having home inventory will help in filing claim

via Insurance: Having home inventory will help in filing claim

PDF:

It’s a tragic picture that’s repeated much too often: A family finds itself on the street, staring shell-shocked at the smoldering ruins of their home, or trying to pick their way through the wreckage after a tornado rampages through their town. What follows is a seemingly endless and gut-wrenching process that can take months or even years as the family tries to regain some sense of normalcy.

In the aftermath of such a calamity, there are a lot of decisions to make and things to do. Homeowners’ insurance is designed to take the brunt of losses and help you get your life back, but most homeowners are ill-prepared to deal with the inevitable question raised by your insurance adjuster: “Do you have a home inventory?”

Simply put, a home inventory is an itemized list (the more detailed, the better) of your home’s contents. Using photos, videos and supporting documents can speed up the claims process. And technology such as smartphones can make the process much easier, but most of us are just not taking the time and effort to do it.

In 2012, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners announced the results of a study that found that only about four in 10 Americans had even attempted to compile a home inventory. That’s probably because it seems like an overwhelming task for homeowners who have more possessions than ever.

The Insurance Information Institute says there are three good reasons to have a home inventory: It helps you purchase the right amount and type of insurance, makes filing a claim simpler, and helps substantiate losses for tax purposes and when applying for financial assistance.

“I tell my clients to think of it this way,” noted Allstate’s Mark Doiron of Madison, who urges all his clients to do a thorough home inventory. “Close your eyes and think about everything that’s in the room around you. Chances are, you are going to miss something. Now, think about trying to do the same thing when your home has just been destroyed.”

Of course, not having a home inventory doesn’t mean you won’t be able to file a successful claim, but it can make the process go much faster, noted Jason Hargraves, managing editor at insuranceQuotes.com. “The inventory is meant to make the process easier for you and the insurance company,” Hargraves told me. “Having to recall your items from memory after a loss can be stressful and you could easily forget something. Giving your adjuster a complete visual inventory also can speed up the process of a claim and serve as documentation for any potential disputes.”

Hargraves advised consumers not to be intimidated by the size of the task at hand, because the best tool to help is probably within your reach right now: your smartphone, which can take and store video. “Just aim, start recording and walk through your house,” he explained. “No special video equipment is required. Several apps are also available to make the process of using your smartphone for this even easier.”

Both Doiron and Hargraves advised consumers to keep receipts for as many items as possible, to document their value. Doiron added that’s especially necessary for any items valued at more than $1,000, such as jewelry, collections or artwork. Update the inventory often, and once you’ve created the record, it’s important to keep it (and supporting documentation) off-site yet accessible, such as in a safe-deposit box. Digital files can be stored in a cloud-based service such as Dropbox.

For more tips, visit the Insurance Information Institute at https://www.iii.org/article/how-create-home-inventory.

Advertisements

Western Union fraud claim deadline is Feb. 12

via Western Union fraud claim deadline is Feb. 12

PDF: Western Union fraud deadline nears

In November, I wrote about the process involved in filing claims if you had been a victim of a wire fraud scam involving wire transfers through Western Union. Since then, I have received emails from several readers asking for more information. Since the deadline for filing a claim is Feb. 12, you should be taking action if you haven’t already done so.

To recap the issue, about a year ago Western Union reached a settlement with several law enforcement agencies after acknowledging it “hadn’t done enough” to stop scammers from using the company’s wire services to collect money from scam victims. Western Union was accused of turning a blind eye to the activity.

The massive $586 million settlement covers consumers who lost money to scammers who directed them to wire money through Western Union between Jan. 1, 2004, and Jan. 19, 2017. With the deadline quickly approaching, the Federal Trade Commission (a major party to the settlement) recently published some reminders and clarifications.

On her blog post, FTC attorney Karen Dodge laid out several things you need to remember regarding the claims process. Here are a few questions and answers:

Do I have to pay to get my money back? No. To file a claim, you must give your Social Security number or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number on the claim form. But nobody will call you to ask for those numbers, or for your bank account or credit card number. Anyone who does is a scammer, so tell the FTC right away. We’ve heard reports about attorneys and others offering to file on your behalf, but you can do it yourself, for free.

Where do I file? Start at FTC.gov/WU. The U.S. Department of Justice is managing the claims process through the company it hired, Gilardi & Co. Your claim will go to Gilardi, but Dodge suggests you start at the claims website.

I think I filed, but don’t remember. You can still file if you have already gotten a form. If you had previously reported your loss to Western Union, the FTC, or another government agency, you might have gotten a pre-filled claim form in the mail. But even if you didn’t, you can still file a claim.

What documentation must I have? While you can file a claim without documentation, copies of items such as receipts and transfer forms can help the Department of Justice to validate your claim.

Can I file by mail? Yes. If you got a claim form in the mail from Gilardi and you want to return it by mail, send it to United States v. The Western Union Company, PO Box 404027, Louisville, KY 40233-4027.

I hold power of attorney for someone else. Can I file on their behalf? Yes. If you have power of attorney for someone, or you represent their estate, you may file a claim on their behalf.

How much money will I get? That depends upon how many people file a claim, and how many claims the Justice Department can validate. I haven’t seen any reliable estimates on how much people might get back.

How long will it take to get my money? Dodge notes it might take a year for the Justice Department to process all the claims and send out checks.

Again, to file claims and for more information, visit http://FTC.gov/WU.

‘Easy Money’? Not so fast

via ‘Easy Money’? Not so fast, clarionledger.com

PDF: easy money

The lure of easy money has gotten a lot of people in trouble over the years. Get-rich-quick hucksters have always been around, looking for potential victims motivated by need or greed. Even people who would ordinarily be skeptical have been taken in, often paying thousands of dollars for books, seminars and “secret” codes and methods of getting something for nothing. Most often, though, they end up with empty pockets.

Recently, federal regulators announced they’d busted the operators of one scheme for allegedly deceiving consumers, promising they could work from home after an initial $49 investment and generate hundreds of thousands of dollars daily by using a software product called the “Mobile Money Code” to create mobile-friendly websites. In reality, the Federal Trade Commission alleges, the $7 million scheme was all smoke and mirrors.

In its action, the FTC charged that Ronnie Montano, Hyong Su Kim (also known as Jimmy Kim), Martin Schranz and their related companies “bilked consumers out of millions of dollars by falsely promising they could earn hundreds to thousands of dollars a day using the defendants’ Mobile Money Code products.” But what consumers got instead were “generic software applications and commonplace information for creating mobile-friendly websites,” the agency noted.

A typical email, sent through an affiliated marketer, promised investors could use a “secret method folks are using to make thousands of dollars per day (seriously!)” or that users can start “generating 60k a month on 100% autopilot.” Users were directed to visit websites such as mobilemoneycode.com, automobilecode.com and secretmoneysystem.com. The ploy was backed by testimonial videos, which the FTC now alleges were done using paid actors to pose as satisfied customers.

The complaint also alleged the company interfered with consumers’ website navigation. If an interested consumer visited the websites and tried to close the website without purchasing a product, they were allegedly blocked with a series of pop-up messages. “Even those consumers who agreed to make an initial purchase were asked to make additional purchases through upsells and add-ons,” the agency noted. And when dissatisfied customers tried to back out through the site’s “60-day hassle-free money back guarantee,” the company made it difficult (if not impossible) for them to get a refund.

 If you are considering putting your hard-earned money into something like this, you should ask a lot of questions, look for red flags, and check them out thoroughly. Warning signs might include:
  • Fake testimonials. Beware of “real life” rags to riches stories that show how ordinary people drastically changed their lifestyles. There are often glitzy videos, showing people living in lush mansions, traveling around the world to exotic locations and being with interesting people. Often, scammers will “seed” their pitches with a few carefully chosen examples of people who were “just like you” until they learned the “secret.”
  • Amazing claims. Ask any self-made wealthy person, and almost all will tell you a story of discipline and hard work, accompanied by trials, successes and failures along the way. But the purveyors of these schemes would have you believe you can change your lifestyle overnight, just by running a simple code in the background of a website or using some “secret” technique. It just doesn’t pass the smell test.
  • Upselling. Once they have your attention and you become an “insider,” get-rich-quick scheme operators will attempt to get you to invest in other products, often with a high price tag.
  • Evasion. If you are paying, you have the right to ask questions and get solid answers. The company should be responsive, transparent and answer your questions honestly. Often though, a visit to a website will only generate more questions. The company’s legal name, physical location, credentials, and key management should be clearly indicated. But a website containing only a sales pitch (or which blocks your navigation) is not a good sign.

If you’ve fallen victim to a get-rich-quick scam, you can file a complaint at http://ftccomplaintassistant.gov.

 

Do you need an extended car warranty?

via Do you need an extended car warranty?, clarionledger.com

PDF: Do you need extended car warranty

Once every few days, my mailbox contains an official-looking letter with a dire warning: My car’s warranty is about to expire, and if I don’t do something about it I’ll be on the hook for some major expenses that won’t be covered by my car’s standard warranty. The letter even has my car’s make, model and year as it tries to persuade me to shell out thousands for an “extended warranty.” Often, the letters refer to vehicles I no longer own, or which are still covered by the factory warranty.

Millions of Americans get these letters every day, along with telemarketing calls and emails. Unfortunately, many consumers take the bait and shell out big bucks to cover the cost of an extended warranty (it’s actually not a warranty at all, but a service contract). The only problem is that much of the time, these products are worthless. It’s important to note that these are different from extended service contracts often sold when you buy a new vehicle.

Statistically, buyers of third-party extended-warranty coverage haven’t been happy with their decisions. In late 2013, Consumer Reports surveyed vehicle owners who had purchased extended warranties (and whose original warranty coverage had run out). More than half reported they’d never used the warranty, despite paying an average of $1,200. And about three in four said they wouldn’t buy an extended warranty again.

Consumer complaints against third-party warranty companies have typically centered around non-coverage of most-likely-needed services, failure to cover for “pre-existing conditions,” expensive deductibles, lack of cancellation options and not being responsive to complaints or questions.

There have been several high-profile cases in which auto-warranty companies have been accused of deceptive practices. For example, in 2016 the Federal Trade Commission announced it was sending $4 million in refunds to consumers who bought policies from a company called My Car Solutions, after a 2010 complaint that the company had falsely claimed affiliation with auto dealers and manufacturers.

 The decision whether to purchase extended warranties (of any type) should be undertaken with some deliberation. First, vehicles are a lot more reliable than they once were, and factory warranties are a lot better, too. Factory warranties vary in what they cover, how long they last and under what conditions they can be used. They’re generally serviced by your dealer, while third-party warranties might not be. According to vehicle website Edmunds.com, most factory warranties don’t charge a deductible for use, while many third-party warranties do.

 

Here are a few other tips about third-party warranties:

No warranty covers everything. Even the best “bumper-to-bumper” warranties have limits on what they’ll cover, so be suspicious of claims to the contrary. And few warranties will cover damage due to excessive or improper use, or failure to perform basic maintenance (the limitations should be spelled out clearly in the fine print).

Make sure your warranty has a servicer. If you purchase an extended warranty without doing your homework, you may find yourself with no one to service it. Before you decide to buy, call your dealership or mechanic and ask whether they will accept the warranty.

Keep up with your car’s warranty requirements and deadlines. When you buy a new vehicle, there should be paperwork that clearly spells out the terms and limitations. Be aware of when the manufacturer’s warranty expires, and what it does and doesn’t cover.

Avoid scams. If you get a solicitation by mail, phone or email, be careful about responding. Some solicitations come from scammers, looking to get your personal information. Instead, contact your vehicle dealer to explore your options when your vehicle is nearing the end of its warranty.

Consider self-insuring for car repairs. Instead of putting money into a costly contract you’ll never use, get a reliable vehicle, service it as the manufacturer prescribes, and take what you would have spent on a service contract and set it aside in a bank account. That way, the money will be there if you need it later (and, if you don’t need it for repairs, you can use it for whatever you want).

For more advice on auto warranties, visit https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0054-auto-service-contracts-and-warranties.

Refunds coming from mortgage company settlement

via Refunds coming from mortgage company settlement, clarionledger.com

PDF: PHH Settlement

Mississippi consumers who faced foreclosures on their mortgages serviced by New Jersey-based PHH Corp. can expect to receive payments in the coming months, thanks to a settlement reached between the company and 49 attorneys general. PHH is the nation’s ninth-largest residential mortgage servicer.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood announced the $45 million settlement Wednesday after the company was accused of improperly servicing mortgage loans from 2009 through 2012.

In a news release, Hood and his counterparts (working through the “Multi-State Mortgage Committee,” or MMC) accused the company of failing to maintain accurate account statements, failing to timely and accurately apply payments made by borrowers, failing to properly process borrowers’ applications for loan modifications, and failing to maintain adequate documentation to determine whether PHH had standing to foreclose.

About 270 Mississippi PHH customers who faced foreclosures should soon be receiving a notice in the mail about how to claim their payments. PHH borrowers who lost their homes through foreclosure will qualify for a minimum of $840, while other PHH customers who maintained their homes despite foreclosure actions will receive a minimum payment of $285. In addition to the payments, PHH must implement a testing and reporting process to ensure it follows the law in the future.

“Our settlement holds PHH accountable for harms homeowners suffered from improper loan servicing and shows our continued dedication to this area,” Hood noted in the news release. “The agreement requires new servicing standards to help ensure that PHH doesn’t repeat conduct that led to improper mortgage servicing and provides financial relief to aggrieved homeowners.”

Attorneys general in all states except New Hampshire signed onto the settlement agreement, noted mortgage industry website Housingwire.com. In reporting on the settlement, Housingwire.com noted that, while PHH officials didn’t admit liability in its statements, it said it’s committed to moving on and correcting past issues.

“We have agreed to resolve concerns raised by the MMC arising from its servicing examination conducted in 2010 and believe that settling this matter is in the best interest of PHH and its constituents,” PHH officials said in a statement to Housingwire. “We have made and will continue to make the necessary enhancements in our operations to ensure we remain compliant and continue to serve our customers in a fair and appropriate manner.”

To read the entire settlement agreement on Housingwire’s website, visit http://bit.ly/2lWi6Vo.

What to keep (and not to keep) in your wallet

via What to keep (and not to keep) in your wallet, clarionledger.com

PDF: Whats in your wallet

For years, ads for a popular credit card company have asked, “What’s in your wallet?” While that question is used to sell consumers on the company’s credit cards, it also points to something we all should think about from time to time: Our wallets often contain vital pieces of information about us that could be used to steal our identities, raid our bank accounts, or compromise our personal safety.

The history of the wallet goes back to antiquity. In ancient times, men and women would carry small pouches containing some of the essentials of everyday life. In 1991, two German tourists hiking in the Alps between Austria and Italy stumbled upon the frozen remains of the “Iceman” (who was later nicknamed Otzi). The mummy, dating from about 5,300 years ago, was found remarkably well-preserved and has helped us understand a lot about life during his time. Otzi was carrying a small leather pouch containing knives, flint and food. This type of pouch evolved into the wallets we carry around with us every day.

According to wallet company Pad & Quill, the first modern (“flat”) wallets were first seen in the 1600s, but they were worn on the belt, as a conspicuous sign of wealth. As people began to carry paper money, identification cards and then credit cards, wallets began to get thicker. Today, most people’s wallets contain a mixture of cash, photos, credit and debit cards, driver’s licenses, ID cards and a variety of other essentials.

The invention of “digital wallet” technology and apps have shrunk the average wallet, but many experts believe we’re still carrying too much around with us. Pickpockets can be found everywhere, and losing your wallet can expose you and your family to a lot of danger. With all the danger, and alternatives provided by technology, perhaps it’s time to rethink our wallets.

The editors of Kiplinger’s, in a recent article, urged consumers to consider eliminating eight things from their wallets. Instead of carrying everything, they advise, make a copy or image of all the items, front and back, and keep the originals and copies in a secure place.

 Social Security card. The first (and possibly most dangerous) thing to remove is the Social Security card. While most Americans grew up being told they’d need to carry their Social Security cards around with them, that advice is no longer useful or safe. Avoid anything with the Social Security number on it. The use of the SSN as a general identifier has shrunk considerably, with the last major holdout (Medicare) phasing out the use of the SSN this year. By April 2018, all Medicare recipients should be receiving a new card with a non-SSN number.

Password cheat sheet. Most people have more than two dozen passwords they need on a regular basis (some have many more). The tendency is to reuse a password, select something easy to remember or write them all down on a “cheat sheet” they carry with them. But all those are risky. Instead, use a password app, or jot them down and keep them in a locked safe in your home.

Spare keys. While it’s tempting to keep a spare house key in your wallet, a thief who steals your wallet already has your address from other documents in the wallet, so giving him a key is a bonus. Instead, keep a spare key with a trusted family member or neighbor in case you need it.

Blank checks. Many people keep a blank check in their wallet for convenience. Checks contain both the account number and routing number, and it would be easy for a thief to forge your signature and possibly could use your driver’s license as ID if they stole or found your wallet.

Other items suggested for removal by Kiplinger’s include passports, multiple credit cards, birth certificates and receipts. To read all their advice, visit http://bit.ly/2liA1ED.

Ensuring many happy returns

via Ensuring many happy returns, clarionledger.com

PDF: Many happy returns

It’s a quandary we’ve all faced. At a Christmas family get-together, a loved one hands you a carefully wrapped gift, adorned beautifully with bow and ribbon, and watches you carefully as you open it.

Brimming with anticipation, you gleefully tear off the paper. Hiding underneath is something you had your eye on. But, your cursory inspection reveals, there’s something wrong. It’s … the wrong size. The wrong color. The wrong style. The next moments are crucial. You don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but you don’t want to lie, either. Inside, you quickly make up your mind you’re going to return it.

Stores are now full of people who have faced the same situation. The holiday return season is upon us. According to Oporto, a technology company that helps companies handle returned and excess inventory, Americans will return about $90 billion in gifts this year. Retailers have been expecting this activity and should be ready for you.

But before you head out to join the out-the-door line at the return desk, there are a few things to remember. Many people have set out to return an item, only to be disappointed because of one of several common assumptions.

First, it’s important to remember that not all return policies are created equal. Retailers vary widely on their return policies, so read up on the policy before you leave the house. Return policies at some stores are very generous; at others, miserly. And despite longstanding myths, retailers are under no legal obligation to let you return a gift unless it is defective or was sold under false pretenses.

Paper receipts are still a thing. The era of the paper receipt is not over, despite the fact many merchants can verify your purchase by using the credit or debit card with which the giver paid. A thoughtful giver will include a gift receipt, which are provided by some retailers.

 You may be eligible for free returns. The National Retail Federation notes that many retailers offer free shipping on returns, which will make it much easier to get your money (or credit) back.
Expect stricter polices in some cases. One of the fastest-growing segments of retail crime is return fraud. In a 2015 study, the NRF estimated retailers lose more than $9 billion to fraudulent returns. These practices take many forms, including returning merchandise that was previously stolen and the use of fraudulent e-receipts. Included in this segment is the practice of “wardrobing,” in which someone buys an expensive item (such as a high-end cocktail dress or expensive TV) with plans to use it once, then return it. When the product is returned to the store, though, it cannot be sold as new and must be sold at a discount. To fight these practices, merchants are starting to become more aggressive about demanding to see identification, charging restocking fees and limiting their return policies.
Be patient. Keep in mind you generally have some time, so it’s not necessary to rush to the store right now. Waiting a few days can help you avoid the crowds. Many stores will still be handling returns through January.

Credit protection: Freeze, lock or fraud alerts

via Credit protection: Freeze, lock or fraud alerts, clarionledger.com

PDF: Freeze lock or fraud alert

When Equifax announced a massive data breach last summer, many Americans were rightly concerned about their credit. Thieves had broken into the credit-reporting giant’s database and had access to at least 143 million records for several weeks over the summer, making off with vital information that could potentially be sold on the black market and used to commit identity theft. Initial reports indicated about 1.29 million Mississippians may be potential victims.

The breach was a disaster of unparalleled scale for Equifax and the credit-reporting industry. It eventually cost Equifax its CEO, and the company even now is having to explain itself to Congress and the nation. The inevitable flurry of lawsuits has followed, including a rare 50-state, class action lawsuit.

In the wake of the disaster, most financial experts advised us to be aggressive in how we protect ourselves and our information. The most common advice was to place a “credit freeze” on your account at all three major credit bureaus, to prevent thieves from opening new credit accounts. Other options included credit locks, or fraud alerts. But many people remain confused about the differences among the options, so I’ve found some sources of information to help explain the differences.

Credit freezes and credit locks are similar in many ways. Both keep your credit file off-limits to creditors trying to open new accounts. Both can be easily removed, although there are differences in how that occurs. The key differences, according to most sources I checked, are that unfreezing (“thawing”) your credit file may take a bit longer, locks may cost more, and you may be giving up some of your rights to join class action lawsuits if you put a lock in place.

A freeze is generally considered to be a stronger measure, to be taken in cases where you know your credit has been compromised. A lock might be used if you’re just concerned about the possibility of identity theft in general. A third option, a fraud alert, lets you know when new credit accounts are opened, so you can act immediately.

Both freezes and locks may cost you. Although there has been tremendous pressure from regulatory agencies and lawmakers to force credit bureaus to freeze your credit for free, only Equifax has so far done so (and only through Jan. 31). The financial website Nerdwallet’s Amrita Jayakumar notes that, at TransUnion and Experian, you will still be expected to pay about $10. For a lock, Equifax currently charges a $4.95 monthly fee to maintain the lock, but a free “lifetime” lock is expected in January. TransUnion provides locks for free, while Experian charges a $4.99 for the first month, and $24.99 monthly thereafter.

 When it comes to removing the protection, the advantage may go to credit locks. Both locks and freezes may be removed fairly easily, but removing a freeze can take 24 to 48 hours to take effect. By contrast, a lock (with TransUnion or Experian, not Equifax) can be removed instantly by simply swiping an app on your smartphone. This is important, for example, for people who want to apply for credit at the store cash register to take advantage of discounts.

Consumer Reports, in a September comparison between locks and freezes, said freezes were in general a better option than locks because freezes are guaranteed by law, as locks are an agreement between you and the credit bureau. In addition, the report noted, freezes are in general cheaper (perhaps free).

Regardless of which you choose, a fraud alert is a good thing to add on. It is free, lasts 90 days (you’ll need to extend it), and requires creditors to verify your identity. You only have to call one of the three credit bureaus, and they’re required to notify the other two.

For more helpful information about the three options, including a comparison chart, visit http://bit.ly/2ATZ6MQ.

DNA test kits: Is your privacy at risk?

via DNA test kits: Is your privacy at risk?, clarionledger.com

PDF: DNA Test Kits privacy

Human beings have an insatiable desire to know our heritage. In the past, the best tools to determine our genetic heritage came through family Bibles, scribbled family trees, and stories handed down from generation to generation. Serious genealogists could do a better job, but it was still largely an inexact science. And if there were gaps in our family histories, it was nearly impossible to fill them in.

In the Moak family, a distant cousin published an extensive genealogy nearly 60 years ago, helping spark my interest in the topic.

But with the discovery of the structure of DNA in the 1950s, and the later mapping of the human genome, family genealogists suddenly had new tools available. Now, using a small swab of saliva or cheek scraping, you could find out (broadly, in most cases) where your ancestors came from. Entrepreneurs seized on the technology, and we started hearing about services which could give you a picture of your genetic heritage. Now, ads for services such as AncestryDNA, 23andMe, MyHeritage and others have garnered millions of dollars from consumers eager to fill in the gaps in their family histories.

Typically, consumers pay from $99 to $200, and get a report showing groups and regions from which their ancestors probably originated. A typical report will give you a percentage of the DNA associated with known ethic groups, along with a map showing where those people probably lived. Earlier this month, PC Magazine reviewed five test companies (23andMe, AncestryDNA, National Geographic Genographic Project, HomeDNA and MyHeritage DNA). Their comprehensive report gives a good snapshot of the different services provided. Some have been offering extended services; for example, showing your relative risk for diseases with known genetic markers.

DNA testing has, of course, yielded many promising possibilities in addition to the commercial ones. Some genetic diseases can now be spotted and possibly even prevented. But with all the promise has also come many fears. Some have raised the specter, for example, that insurance companies and drug companies would be interested in information that a person carries genes for deadly (and expensive) diseases. Others have voiced darker fears, for example, that babies with “desirable” traits could be chosen in favor of others with less-desirable genetic potential, possibly leading to a sort of genetic apartheid.

A more present concern, though, is privacy. In a recent blog post, Federal Trade Commission attorney Lesley Fair advised consumers to be wary about how well this potentially valuable information is being protected. “The data can be very enlightening personally,” Fair noted, but a major concern for consumers should be who else could have access to information about your heritage and your health. If you’re thinking about buying an at-home DNA test kit, you owe it to yourself — and to family members who could be affected — to investigate the options thoroughly.”

Fair urges consumers to comparison-shop services to see how they intend to protect your information. “Scrutinize each company’s website for details about what they do with your personal data,” she urges. “Rather than just clicking ‘I accept,’ take the time to understand how your health, genetic, and other sensitive information will be used and shared. Hold off on buying a kit until you have a clear picture of the company’s practices.”

And in this era of ever-bigger breaches of computer systems with sensitive data (this summer’s blockbuster Equifax breach is just the latest), it’s important to recognize the risks. These companies don’t just collect your DNA; they also collect payment and demographic information about you that could potentially be valuable to thieves.

So, shop carefully, monitor your credit, and be ready to report problems. Fair urges consumers who have experienced problems or concerns about genetic testing companies to report them to the FTC; she noted the agency has already acted against companies they accused of failing to protect their customers’ privacy. To file a complaint, visit https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov/#crnt.

Mortgage payments jeopardize retirement years

via Mortgage payments jeopardize retirement years, clarionledger.com

PDF:Mortgage retirement 1Mortgage retirement 2

Mortgages have been a part of American life for generations. Very few people — especially early in their careers — have the resources to plop down the full payment on a home, so the vast majority of us live with a monthly mortgage payment.

In past generations, the mortgage was often paid off well before the golden years, but increasingly, people are carrying their mortgage payment with them into retirement.

According to the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, in the decade between 2001 and 2011, the percentage of Americans 65 and older who hold a mortgage increased from 22 to 30 percent. And the rate jumped to more than 21 percent for homeowners 75 and older, up from just 8.4 percent in 2001. That means a lot of baby boomers are going to be sinking money into mortgage payments deep into their retirement, while their parents at similar ages would have been living in homes they owned free and clear.

The causes are varied: The average home costs a lot more than it used to, while average wages haven’t kept up with rising costs. In addition, with the rise and fall of interest rates, many people cyclically refinance their mortgages and open home equity lines of credit to get much-needed cash. While a lower interest rate is a good thing for borrowers, refinancing tends to extend the loan period.

In October, the Federal National Mortgage Association (otherwise known as Fannie Mae), issued a report about the issue. “The leading edge of the large baby boom generation has reached retirement age with a greater likelihood of carrying housing debt, raising concerns about their retirement financial security,” Fannie Mae noted in its report. “The oldest boomers, who were aged 65-69 in 2015, were 10 percentage points less likely to own their homes outright than were pre-boomer homeowners of the same age in 2000.”

As a result, Fannie Mae warned, some retirees may find their financial security reduced, with less money available to cover living expenses. It could also increase vulnerability to foreclosure and limit the “accumulation of housing wealth.”

Of course, many people consider housing debt to be just a part of their financial portfolio and manage it as they would any investment. But the volatility of the markets in recent years has made that decision more difficult, especially for consumers who have enough money socked away to pay off the mortgage if they had to.

Financial expert Wes Moss, who hosts the nation’s longest-running live call-in, investment and personal finance radio show on Atlanta’s WSB radio, wrote about the issue recently on the Clark Howard website. As to the question of whether seniors should pay off their homes into retirement, he says the answer is “a qualified yes.” He gives a couple of pointers:

  • Pay extra. Paying more than the minimum payment (or making an extra payment each year), Moss advises, can have dramatic effects over the long term. “Most happy retirees who own their homes outright paid off their mortgage early little by little, making more than the minimum monthly payment over several years,” he said. “In my experience, probably 70 percent of retirees who are mortgage-free used this method to reach that goal.”
  • Don’t raid your retirement savings to pay off the mortgage. Although it might be tempting to do so, he notes, withdrawing extra money from your IRA or 401K will generate tax penalties and increase stress. While taking money from other savings is a better option, it could leave you in a lurch later if you need the cash. Moss advocates the “one-third rule.” If you can pay off your mortgage with no more than one-third of your non-retirement savings, you should consider doing so,” he said.

As always, though, it’s wise to consult with a qualified professional before making any investment decision. For some good advice on finding a certified financial planner, visit The Motley Fool’s website at https://www.fool.com/investing/general/2015/06/05/how-to-find-a-certified-financial-planner.aspx.