How to file a settlement claim if you were affected by the Equifax data breach


data breach illustrated by an open padlock

Were you affected by the 2017 Equifax data breach? You might have been because 147 million records in the US alone were exposed. If you’d like a refresher on the event, we talked about it in a blog post, along with the remedies available at the time Equifax Data Breach:

Before you dismiss this as ancient history, check this out: The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently announced that Equifax has agreed to a global settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and 50 U.S. states and territories. The settlement includes up to $425 million to help people affected by the data breach.

If you were affected, you might be eligible for

  • Up to 10 years of free credit monitoring
  • A cash payment of $125 in lieu of credit monitoring
  • Payment for time, expenses or losses related to the breach (capped at $20,000)

For more details on what you might be eligible for, see the FTC’s summary of the Equifax Data Breach Settlement

Here’s how to file a claim:

  • The first step is to find out if your information was exposed: use this look-up tool.
  • If your data was exposed, you must file a claim by January 22, 2020. You can file a claim online, or see instructions for filing a hard copy. It’s a fairly easy process. Here are FAQs if you want to learn more.

It may seem nearly impossible to protect your data from being exposed, but don’t give up!  See our post on 66 ways to protect your identity and privacy for tips.

New consumer protections for prepaid debit cards


woman's hand holding colorful prepaid debit cards

Prepaid debit cards are more and more common in our daily lives. They’ve become the standard for gift cards. Parents find them a convenient way to send a child off to college with a stipend of credit to use for spending and emergencies. Some employers even use them to pay their workers. And, increasingly, instead of issuing a check for a refund, more and more companies are issuing prepaid credit cards. A report in the LA Times talks about some of the problems that practice can create for consumers: More refunds are being made with prepaid debit cards. Is that a good thing for consumers?

Just a few of these problems include:

  • You become fair game for marketing from the financial firm that issues the card
  • The card may have a finance charge if it is unused for a period of time, eating into the value
  • Prepaid cards are often forgotten and go unused
  • You have to read the fine print to learn about fees, expiration and other terms of use
  • Some cards have limitations on where they can be spent

New consumer protections now in effect

Starting on April 1 of this year, consumers will have more protection when they opt for prepaid debit cards, thanks to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau – but to activate that protection, users must register the cards on the card issuer’s website. Consumer Reports explains: New Prepaid Card Rule Goes Into Effect.

Prepaid cards issued on April 1 and thereafter will have clear disclosures of key fees on the outside packaging so that consumers can compare cards before they buy.

Consumers who use these cards will also be protected from liability in cases of unauthorized transactions or fraud, as users of debit cards have long been.

The rule applies not only to the plastic you buy in brick-and-mortar stores but also to payroll cards, cards for government benefits such as Social Security. It also applies to funds held in dedicated “stored value” accounts on mobile person-to-person payment services like Venmo and Cash.

Among the protections that the article explains in detail:

  • Protection from unauthorized errors and charges
  • Disclosure if the card has no FDIC insurance coverage
  • Basic account information at no charge
  • Limits on how overdrafts are handled

Prepaid cards are popular for a variety of reasons. They’re more secure than cash and they work much like a debit card, but they don’t require pre-approved credit. But until now, consumer protections have been limited.

As with most financial vehicles, if pays to be a savvy consumer. US News featured a good overview, including the pros and cons, in an article about how prepaid credit cards work. It talks about the types of cards, offers alternative payment options, and compares the benefits to those of secured credit cards and debit cards. Be an informed consumer!

Never plug a space heater into a power strip


burnt power strip cord

The recent frigid weather from the polar vortex prompted fire officials to issue warnings about space heaters, which are a frequent source of home fires: Never plug a space heater into a power strip or an extension cord. Space heaters have a high energy load and should be plugged directly into a wall outlet. Power strips are not designed to handle the energy load of a space heater and can overheat and cause a fire.

Check out this screen grab of a recent tweet from the Deer Lake Fire Rescue department:

Heating equipment is responsible for nearly half of home heating fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Energy.gov says that when buying and installing an electric space heater, you should follow these general safety guidelines:

  • Electric heaters should be plugged directly into the wall outlet. If an extension cord is necessary, use the shortest possible heavy-duty cord of 14-gauge wire or larger.
  • Always check and follow any manufacturer’s instructions pertaining to the use of extension cords.
  • Buy a unit with a tip-over safety switch, which automatically shuts off the heater if the unit is tipped over.

The Electrical Safety Foundation International offers this safety infographic.

Home Heating Fire Prevention infographic

Don’t fall for any fake Santas: the 12 scams of Christmas


caroon orf a fake Santa in a police lineup

Busy this season? You probably are – everyone gets caught up in the year-end holiday madness. But no matter how busy you may be, there’s one group of people that never rest: online thieves, crooks and scammers. With just a few weeks left in peak shopping season, scammers are pulling out all stops to try to separate you from your money. Don’t let any fake, scam Santas ruin your holidays. The Better Business Bureau keeps an eye on active swindle schemes and offers an updated list for this season: 12 Scams of Christmas: What to Look For and How to Avoid Them.

Here’s a brief summary – click through the link above to learn more and to find out ways to prevent being a con victim.

1. Look-Alike Websites – these usually come by email offers so buyer beware of what you click!
2. Social Media Gift Exchange – a new twist on the old pyramid scheme.
3. Grandparent Scams – emergency calls for cash help from crooks posing as relatives or friends. Hint: elderly are particularly vulnerable, but hardly the only victims.
4. Temporary Holiday Jobs – fake employers trying to get personal information from unwary applicants.
5. Free Gift Cards – a common phishing scam bait.
6. E-Cards – More people rely on electronic versus traditional cards. So do more phishers – be careful what you click in emails.
7. Fake Shipping Notifications – Phishers know that most people are ordering or getting holiday gifts and you might get tricked by a phony mail alert.
8. Phony Charities – Giving is great, but check with BBB or with sites like Charity Navigator.
9. Letters From Santa – great when they are legit but use a trusted source.
10. Unusual Forms of Payments – If the seller wants prepaid debit or gift cards, wire transfers or payments through third parties, that is a scam alert!
11. Travel Scams – Phony email offers and scam sites are common all year, but especially in this heavy travel season.
12. Puppy Scams – These play on your emotion, but at the heartstrings and wallet. Get your puppies from trusted sources!

We recommend this age-old advice: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Be suspicious of emails. Hover over links before you click, or better yet, go directly to the site by typing in the URL. Rely on trusted vendors and be wary of email or online offers from companies you don’t know. BBB says that if you come across any of these scams this holiday season help protect yourself and others by:

Here are some tips we’ve offered from prior years:

 

 

How to block those spammy, scammy phone calls


cartoon image of man yelling "don't cal me"

By 2019, nearly half the calls made to cell phones will be fraudulent, claims a recent report by First Orion, a phone and data transparency solution provider. This is a huge increase. In 2017, about 4% of cell phone calls were scammy. By 2018, that number had grown to almost 30%. And the upward trend continues, thanks in part to new dirty tricks like “neighborhood spoofing”, in which a scammer spoofs the area code and prefix of the caller dialed, to increase the likelihood of getting an answer.

It’s pernicious, it’s annoying, and it seems like the bad guys are always one step ahead of the technological solutions deployed to end their schemes.

Case in point: third-party blocking apps only blacklist known spam numbers. While this is useful (and while the companies offering this service update the master list of bogus numbers regularly), these apps won’t protect you from spoofed calls, which generally originate from legitimate phone numbers that have been temporarily taken over by scammers.

The good news is that phone manufacturers and cellular service providers, in collaboration with government regulators and third-party privacy and security companies, are rolling out new tools to help you keep your phone as free of spam as possible.

So what can you do?

First, register your number with the Federal Trade Commission’s Do Not Call list.
You’ll need to fill out some information and reply to a confirmation email to complete the process. This will also allow you to report spam numbers directly to the FTC, which helps everyone get rid of these annoyances. Reporting unwanted text messages is easier – just forward them to 7726 (SPAM). Most US carriers participate in this program, which uses the submitted information to blacklist numbers and to try to block future spammers.

Second, use your phone’s built-in capabilities to block as many known spammers as you can.

On Android devices, open the Phone app and select the number. Tap “More” and choose whether to block calls, block messages, or block everything originating from that number. You can also add numbers manually by going to Phone > More > Settings > Call Blocking > Block List.

On iPhone, go to Phone > Recent > Info > Block This Caller. At the confirmation message, choose “Block This Contact”.

Your cellular carrier also has services in place to help you win (or at least try to tie!) this frustrating game of spammer whack-a-mole. Note, however, that these services are generally NOT free.

Combining the power of the federal Do Not Call List with the technology sitting on your cell phone carrier’s servers with the software built into your phone can help you stem the tide of scammy calls.

There are also third-party apps available for all models of smartphones that will help you block unwanted calls, blacklist scam callers, and cut down on the annoyance of robocalls. Again, most of these are not free (except Hiya), and almost all require a renewing subscription. But if you’re inundated with these calls, they may very well be worth it. Check out apps like Hiya, Nomorobo, Robokiller, and Truecaller.

Or, if you are an iPhone user, you can deploy the nuclear option: go to Settings > Do Not Disturb > Allow Calls From > All Contacts. Then turn on Do Not Disturb. Permanently. Now you’ll only receive calls from numbers already in your contacts. Everyone else will be blocked. This is great, until it isn’t – you probably want that call about the new job to get through, and you never know when you’ll get an emergency call from an unknown number. So while not perfect, this technique will absolutely still your squalling iPhone if needed.

And if all else fails, you can just let those unrecognized calls roll right over to voicemail.