Locking your credit reports

It’s been quite a while since I last wrote here… Been busy, a lot of things happened. Learned a lot, and will maybe share some of these lessons here.

But here’s one thing that I finally figured out – how to make sure your credit reports are under your control, for free. Sure, you can pay the credit reporting agencies for the right to control your own information, albeit partial and very limited, but shouldn’t you be able to have that control for free?

I think you should.

Some of these agencies make it relatively easy, if you’re willing to tolerate some moderate levels of targeted advertisements. You’re their product, after all, not a customer. Others – not so much. So here’s how I’m able to lock and unlock my credit at will, with relative ease, and for free – with all the three major credit reporting agencies.

TransUnion

TransUnion is the first agency that I found offering the free locking option (which is different from “Credit freeze” option). You can do it quite easily through their TrueIdentity service. It has several tiers, the lowest of which is free (ad-based) and offers, in addition to the ability to lock and unlock the access to your credit file, credit reports from TransUnion, alerting on credit inquiries, very basic monitoring and recovery services. More advanced (paid) tiers also include 3-bureau reports, dark-web monitoring, higher levels of identity theft insurance coverage, etc. Pretty pricey – $29.95 for just one time fetching of all three reports. You can get much better offerings elsewhere, if you’re willing to pay.

TrueIdentity service used to have a mobile app which made it quite convenient to lock and unlock your reports on the go from the palm of your hand, but they deprecated it and are now only offering the web interface.

Equifax

Equifax also has a free tier service at myEquifax.com. This service also allows locking and unlocking your credit file (including a dedicated mobile app!), monitoring your Equifax credit file, seeing alerts and notifications, and of course – ads. However this service is not a dedicated monitoring offering like TrueIdentity, but rather an interface to your credit file itself. You can use this service to also file disputes and put a full credit freeze on your report from the same interface (only on the web). Pretty useful and convenient.

Experian

For the longest time I couldn’t find a way to control access to my credit file with Experian for free. Sure, I could pay them, but I feel that paying the credit reporting agency for the right to control who gets to see information about me feels like extortion of a kind. The CreditLock product they have is not free, and in fact is quite expensive: $29.95/month last I checked. The free tier exists, but doesn’t allow locking the credit file, only monitoring (and, similarly to Equifax, filing and managing disputes). That is unfortunate.

However I finally found a solution which ended up free for me – have someone else pay for it.

If you read my blog, you’re probably also familiar with various blogs that discuss the credit card point bonuses and other ways to earn benefits from various providers if you’re financially conscious. So, let me introduce you to the American Express Morgan Stanley Platinum Card. The Amex card itself has nothing to do with it, actually, it’s just how I ended up finding the free benefit of controlling my Experian credit file: Morgan Stanley identity protection benefit (https://www.morganstanley.experiandirect.com), which is a free benefit for the Morgan Stanley CashPlus account holders. While I opened that account to gain the “free” Amex Platinum card (as described in the post I linked above), I also discovered the additional credit monitoring benefit sponsored by Morgan Stanley and provided through Experian. That service provides a pretty comprehensive monitoring and alerting, including 3-bureau reports (once a month), high levels of identity theft insurance coverage, monitoring additional information like your email or phone number, etc – services that usually cost quite a bit elsewhere are provided for free, courtesy of Morgan Stanley.

To have access to these services you’ll need a CashPlus account. For a Platinum account, if you want all that for free you’ll need to commit at least $25K deposit + $5K incoming funds every month to Morgan Stanley, otherwise the CashPlus Platinum account can be costly at $55 monthly maintenance fee. But with all its benefits (including the Amex card), if you have the funds to meet the fee waiver criteria – it is definitely worth it. Premier CashPlus account requires less monthly income to waive the fee ($2.5K), and the fee itself is only $15 (compare to the $16.99 monthly cost of the CreditSecure service, a similar credit monitoring offering from American Express, which doesn’t include the Lock option).

So here it is – I’ve got all the credit files locked, and under my control, all for free.

Keep safe out there!

 

Your Little Advisor.

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It’s that time of the year again!

As usual during the last weeks of the year, I’m reminding everyone to consider contributing to charity. This year, this is especially so since you may not be able to get any tax benefit from charitable contributions next year, making you less inclined to contribute.

This year I encourage you to contribute to charities that are invested in keeping our politicians honest (as much as they reasonably can), and provide help to those hurting. In addition, do consider the natural disasters (which seem to be more and more frequent and disastrous, but it’s all natural, nothing is man-made).

Here’s the list of my favorite charities for this year (confirm with your tax adviser on the tax deduction eligibility):

Wikimedia Foundation, Electronic Frontier Foundation – keeps the information accessible to everyone (except for China). For now.

Southern Poverty Law Center, American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Campaign – Organizations fighting for equality and against discrimination and hate.

Planned Parenthood Federation of America – An organization dedicated to providing accessible and affordable healthcare options for women. Women can choose for themselves what care they need, they don’t need old white men to decide for them. But they might need help making that care affordable and accessible, so let’s provide that help to those who need it.

The American Red Cross, UNICEF USA – Organizations helping with disaster relief in Puerto Rico, California, Florida, Texas, and many other places.

NPR, FactCheck.org (through UPenn) – If you want to keep the media honest and independent

And of course, if you want to be able to research the charities – consider also CharityNavigator.org which provides a lot of useful information and metrics about various charities, and is in itself a charity organization.

Have a happy new year, merry whatever it is you’re celebrating, and consider continuing your charitable givings even if they are no longer deductible.

Your Little Advisor

 

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Analyses of the New Tax Reform Coming Out

The new Republican tax reform proposal has finally been published this week, and analyses of it are now coming out on various sites.

One very good analysis came from Michael Kitces on his blog here.

I suggest the readers to read Michael’s analysis as it summarizes the key points very well with excellent examples. It also addresses the issue I raised in my last article – the step-up basis remains intact even with the estate tax repeal, which is a huge windfall for the rich.

My bottom line: mixed benefits for the middle class. Some popular deductions and exemptions will be lost, but others increased and made more useful.

People in traditionally Democratic-leaning states will probably see tax increases because of the SALT deduction limitations, fringe benefits reduction and mortgage interest deduction limitation. Although some impact may be mitigated by the AMT repeal. In any case, these people are of no consequence for the Republicans, so they’re easy target.

The very wealthy (people who own >$20MM) are definitely benefiting. The tax rate reductions will affect them the most, they will likely benefit from the AMT repeal, and from the 25% rate for the passive pass-through income. Reduced corporate tax rate will also help the wealthy as more money will be available to withdraw as dividends. The beneficial treatment of cash repatriation is also a benefit for mostly the very wealthy investors.

In fact, the real estate investors will gain the most. The 25% pass-through income reduces the tax rate of the rental income for high earners by up to 14.6%. The reduction of the property tax and mortgage deductions (and essentially eliminating them for most of the taxpayers) will also be most beneficial for large-scale real estate investors since it dis-incentivizes home ownership. That means more people will stay as renters instead of trying to get their own place – more passive (25% rate) income for the real estate sharks.

One might think the law was written to specifically benefit some wealthy real-estate magnates.

Your Little Advisor

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The Sham of the Estate Tax Repeal

The new tax plan recently announced by the politicians has caught my eye with one thing in particular – the repeal of the estate tax.

Most people think that the estate tax doesn’t affect them. With the $5.49M exemption per person, most people won’t have enough assets at the time of their deaths to actually pay the tax.

However, that’s not the only effect the tax has on estate beneficiaries. And repealing it will not only help the rich save on the tax payments, but will also increase the tax burden on the middle-class families that inherit assets from their parents.

How? Three words: stepped up basis. Which will disappear together with the estate tax itself.

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Trump had almost $1B losses – how does that work?

The Republican Presidential nominee is apparently not as shrewd a businessman as he wants everyone to believe. It has been published that on his 1995 tax return he reported total accumulated losses of almost $1B!

I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether they want to install a president who alone reported almost 2% of total losses reported by individuals in the United States for that year. After all, he runs a campaign based on his credibility as a businessman and promising fixing the US debt and deficit problems, so his staggering net loss in the 1990’s must attest to his experience in that field… Not for success, though. But that’s politics.

Let’s talk about the loss itself. How does it work, and why it is actually good for us to have that mechanism in general.

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So Facebook decided to force spam on its users….

It’s been a while since I saw advertisements on Facebook that were not in form of click-baits or Takei’s promoted posts. And Facebook didn’t like that.

So they decided to circumvent ad filters and force the spam on me even though the clearly recognize that the whole reason people like me use ad filters was because the ads provide little to no value to us.

Clearly, they think they can boost revenue by degrading the user experience. Well, what can I do?

Click on all the ads.

Yes, they’ll get paid for that, but the more people do that – the more advertisers will realize that the Facebook “high” CTR doesn’t lead to any conversions, and in fact is causing them to lose customers instead of gaining them.

I don’t really care if Facebook earns more money or not. In fact, if they do – good for them. More money to Zuckerberg’s charity, for all I care. But if a large enough volume of advertisers realize that they’re paying for nothing and the clicks they’re getting are useless – maybe they will force Facebook to be more user-friendly?

Or maybe we all move to Google+ after all?

In any case – if you can’t escape it, click it. If the advertisers think it is a good use for their money to force me memorize what companies and products I’m not going to pay for – that’s their choice.

Your Little Advisor.

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Online banking deteriorating! Or, so I got the Citi’s Costco card.

I mentioned the new Chase online banking website and I wasn’t happy about it.

Little did I know… Just a few days later I had to sign up to the Citi online banking system, with my brand new Citi Costco Visa card. What can I say?.. Hey, Chase guys, your site is awesome!

So what made me so upset about Citi?

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It’s the Prime day at Amazon!

Today is the Amazon traditional “Prime day” sale. Tons of promotions are going on, and if you look carefully enough you may catch a glimpse of that rare beast called “a real deal!”.

If you don’t yet have a Prime account – you can try Amazon Prime 30-Day Free Trial. There are some nice discounts going on, but do your own due diligence and compare prices.

Worth noting, that competitors have sales of their own. Walmart, for example, provides free shipping on any order. Target has already started the end-of-summer/back-to-college sales. Google Express has a 3-months trial that you can try to have deliveries from the local brick-and-mortar stores, if you don’t like what Amazon is doing to the retail market.

While on the topic of Amazon and sales, pay attentionĀ  to this piece of news. Apparently, Amazon are silently experimenting with the “list price” notion. Or rather, lack of it. Many sellers use the “list price” (or the MSRP – Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price) to show how big their discount is, without revealing that the “list price” has never been the actual price for the item. In many cases, as noted in the article I linked to, the manufacturers themselves sell below their own MSRP prices.

What it means is that when you see “50% off”, it may not actually be half the “regular” price. It may be half the MSRP price, which no-one in fact sells at. So even when you see the “original” prices stricken out – do your own due diligence and compare prices on different sites. Including the manufacturer’s. Check the local retailers. You may be surprised by the results. In some cases, you may get the item cheaper in a brick-and-mortar shop next to you rather than online.

Enjoy your shopping!

Your Little Advisor.

 

PS: 712 (7/12) is not a prime number. However, 127 (12/7) is. 12/7 is July 12th as written in most of the European countries.

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So Chase updated their web site. To the AdBlock!

Chase Bank, of which I’m a happy customer, has recently updated their website for online banking.

There was nothing (much) wrong with the old one, IMHO, but it seems to be a trend for online service providers to move to a model of a site optimized for all devices. As part of that Chase decided to redesign their online banking site to be more suitable for tablet/phone users at the expense of the desktop users.

So far so good, from IT perspective it is definitely easier and cheaper to maintain one version that suits all than multiple versions for segmented markets. No complaints there.

But…

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The IRS On-line Transcripts Service is No Longer Available

I wrote a while ago about the new IRS service allowing to download your tax return transcripts online.

Unfortunately, this service is no longer available.

The IRS took the online service down due to the compromised security, after a large amount of taxpayers’ personal information has been accessed by unauthorized persons.

For those who still need to get the transcripts, you can do it by mail, using the form 4506. You can download the form here.

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