Consumer Tips

 

Protect Yourself

DO

  • Sign your cards as soon as you receive them.
  • Carry your cards separately from your wallet in a zippered compartment, a business card holder.
  • Keep a record of your account numbers, expiration dates and the phone number and address of each company in a secured place
  • Watch your card during the transaction and retrieve it as quickly as possible.
  • Void incorrect receipts.
  • Destroy carbons
  • Save receipts to compare with billing statements.
  • Open bills promptly and reconcile accounts monthly.
  • Report any questionable charges promptly and in writing to the card issuer.
  • Notify card companies in advance of a change in address.
  • Keep your ATM Personal Identification Number (PIN) a secret.
  • Tear or shred charge receipts credit applications, insurance forms, bank checks, credit card offers and financial statements you are discarding.
  • Be cautious about where you leave personal information in your home, especially if you have roommates or work done in your home.

DON'T

  • Lend your card to anyone.
  • Leave cards or receipts lying around.
  • Sign a blank receipt. Be sure to draw a line through any blank spaces above the total.
  • Write your account number on a postcard or the outside of an envelope.
  • Give out your account number over the phone unless you know the company is reputable.
  • Use your address, birth date, phone number or social security number as a Personal Identification Number (PIN)
  • Keep you PIN number on a slip of paper in your purse or wallet.
  • Don't charge more than you can afford. Before you know it, your monthly payment is only covering interest. If you get behind on your payments, you could tarnish your credit report. This will have a sizable impact on your life, making it more difficult to get a home, car or even a job.

Lost or Stolen Credit Cards

If your cards are lost or stolen, contact the issuer immediately. Most companies have toll-free numbers and 24 hour customer service to take care of emergencies. By law, after you report the loss or theft, you are not responsible for the unauthorized charges. Under federal law, your maximum liability is $50 per card. This is true even if a thief uses your credit card at an ATM machine to access your credit card account.

After reporting the loss, continue to keep a close watch on your billing statements. If there are any unauthorized charges, send a letter to the card issuer describing each charge in question. Tell the issuer the date your card was lost or stolen and when you first reported it. Send the letter to the address provided for billing errors, not the billing address. The address is on the back of each monthly bill.

If you suspect fraud, you may be asked to sign a statement under oath that you did not make the charges in question.

Lost or Stolen ATM Cards

If you report an ATM card missing before its used without your permission, the EFTA says the card issuer can't hold you responsible for unauthorized withdrawals. If the unauthorized use occurs before you report the card loss, your liability depends on how quickly you report it. Report the loss within 2 days after discovering your card is missing and you will not be responsible for more than $50 for unauthorized use. However, if you wait and don't report the loss within 2 days after discovering your card is missing, you could lose up to $500 to unauthorized withdrawal. If you do not report the loss within 60 days after the bank statement is mailed to you, you risk unlimited loss. You could lose all the money in your bank account and the unused portion of your overdraft line of credit.

Credit Cardholder Rights

Refunds of Credit Balances

If you make a return or overpay the present balance, you can apply the credit to your next balance or write your issuer for a refund. The refund must be issued within seven business days of receiving your request. If a credit stays on your account for more than six months, the issuer must make a good faith effort to send you a refund.

Bill Errors

There are rules for issuers to quickly correct billing errors. The issuer is required to send you these rules when you open an account and at least annually. Look on the back of your bill for a billing rights summary.

Typical errors are an incorrect charge; a charge for something you didn't accept; or a charge for something that wasn't delivered as agreed.

If you find a mistake on your bill, it is your right to dispute the charge and withhold payment on that amount while the charge is being investigated. You are still obligated to pay the parts of the bill that are not in question.

To dispute a charge, write to the creditor within 60 days of receiving the bill with the error. The address is on the back of your monthly statement. In your letter give your name and account number, the dollar amount of the suspected error, describe the error and why you believe that it is in error.

Unauthorized Charges

Report the loss before the card is used and you can't be held responsible for unauthorized charges. If a thief uses your card before you report it missing, the most you'll owe for unauthorized charges is $50. Report the loss immediately and follow-up with a letter to the issuer. In the letter, include the date the loss was first reported.

Disputes About Merchandise or Services

You have the right to dispute charges for unsatisfactory goods or services. You must first try in good faith to resolve the problem with the merchant. You have this protection only when the purchase price was more than $50 and the purchase was made in your home state or within 100 miles if your home. All purchases are covered regardless of the amount or location if the credit card issuer owns or operates the merchant or if the issuer mailed you the advertisement of the property or services.

If these conditions don't apply, you might consider taking action in small claims court.

Shopping for Credit Cards

Know how you will use your card each month. Even if you have made a well- intended resolution to pay off your credit card each month, look at your payment history and be honest with yourself about how you will pay. If you pay off your bill each month, then look for a card with no annual fee and the lowest fees. If you carry a balance each month, look for a card with the lowest APR and lowest fees. Usually a low, fixed rate card is better than a low, variable rate card. Also, make sure that the credit limit meets your needs, and the card is widely accepted.

  • Shop around for the plan that is best for you.
  • Look for the introductory rate and how long it will last.
  • After the introductory rate ends, what will the regular rate be?
  • Investigate other fees: annual fee, application fee, processing fee, annual fee, late fee, over-the-limit fee and balance transfer fees.
  • If the card has a variable rate, when will it change?
  • How long is the grace period?
  • What happens if you go over the credit limit?
  • Understand a plan's fees and terms before you accept the card.
  • Pay bills promptly and in full to reduce finance and other charges.
  • Keep receipts and reconcile charges when your bill arrives, just like your checkbook.
  • Carry only the cards you think you will use.
  • Closely check everything you receive from your credit card company, it may contain notification of a rate change

Additional Credit Card Options

Some options are already included, some you have to ask for, some you can turn down.

  • Cash rebates
  • Discounts
  • Insurance on travel and auto rentals
  • Additional warranties or guarantees on some products
  • Frequent flier miles

Credit Reporting Agencies

If you have ever applied for a credit card, a personal loan, or insurance, there is a file about you. This file includes where you work and live, how you pay your bills. It even includes whether you have been sued, arrested, or filed for bankruptcy.

Credit Reporting Agencies (CRA) gather and sell this information to creditors, employers, insurers and other businesses. The most common type of CRA is the credit bureau. CRA's sell the information about you in a credit report to creditors, employers, insurers and other businesses. CRA's and businesses that supply information to them are regulated under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA)

These are the three major CRA's. Contact each of them because more than one may have a file on you.

Equifax
P.O. Box 740241
Atlanta, GA
30374-0241
(800) 685-1111
Experian
PO Box 949
Allen, TX
75013-0949
(888) Experian (397-3742)
Trans Union
PO Box 1000
Chester, PA
19022
(800) 916-8800

You have the right to know everything that is in your credit report and usually the sources of the information. The CRA must also give you a list of everyone who has requested you report in the past year, two years for employment related requests. The CRA may charge you up to $8.50 for a copy of your report. It is a good idea to check on your credit report every year or two to verify the accuracy of your report.

Types of information collected by credit bureaus:

  • Identification and Employment Information - Name, birth date, Social Security number, employer and spouse's name, employment history, home ownership, income and previous address
  • Payment History- Shows how much credit you have received and whether you pay on time.
  • Inquiries- CRA's are required to keep a record of all creditors who have requested your credit history within the past year and the businesses who have requested your records for employment purposes over the past 2 years.
  • Public Record Information- Public record events such as bankruptcies, foreclosures or tax liens.

If you have accurate negative information in your report, it can appear on your record for up to 7 years. Bankruptcy information may be reported for 10 years. Information about criminal convictions has no time limit.

Credit Card Scams

Ads Promising Debt Relief

In your effort to get out of debt, be cautious of advertisements that offer quick solutions. This debt relief may actually be bankruptcy, the option of last resort. Bankruptcy has a long-term negative impact on your creditworthiness, affecting your credit, future job searches, insurance and your hunt for a place to live.

Advance-Fee Loan Scams

According to the FTC, these scam companies prey on consumers with poor credit. They charge an up-front fee and guarantee that applicants will get the credit they want such as a credit card or personal loan. The upfront fee usually ranges from $45 to $149 but they may be illegal. The offer is illegal if guarantees a loan if you pay in advance. Often these are advertised in the classifieds, mailings or local cable and radio stations, featuring "900" numbers which result in charges on your phone bill. The ads promise "money to loan regardless of credit history." Legitimate creditors offering extensions of credit may require an upfront application or appraisal fee but they will never guarantee in advance that you will get the loan.

Consumer Repair

Companies search for consumer with poor credit histories with the promise to help erase bad credit and bankruptcy from the credit file. After you pay them hundreds or thousands of dollars in upfront fees, these companies can do nothing to improve your credit report; many will just vanish with your money.

Under the Credit Repair Organizations Act , credit repair organizations are required to: truthfully describe their services; charge you only after they have completed promised services; receive your signature on a written contract and complete a three day waiting period (during this time you can cancel the contract without paying any fees).

Avoid companies that

  • require payment before services are provided;
  • do not inform you of your legal rights and the steps you can take for yourself for free;
  • recommends that you do not contact the credit bureau yourself;
  • recommends that you create a new credit report by applying for an Employer Identification Number to use instead of your Social Security Number;
  • advise you to take steps that appear illegal such as disputing information in your credit report or creating a new identity. If you take illegal action and commit fraud by following their advice, you may be subject to persecution.

It is a federal and prosecutable crime to make false statements on a loan or credit application, to misrepresent your Social Security number and to use deception to obtain an Employer Identification Number from the Internal Revenue Service.

Credit Card Loss Protection Offers

Don't buy "loss protection" insurance; there is no need for it. If you did not authorize a charge, follow your credit card issuer's procedures for disputing charges.

These are typical, fraudulent claims made in loss protection offers:

  • you are liable for more than $50 in unauthorized charges on your credit card account;
  • you need protection from computer hackers who can access your credit card number and run up a huge charge on your account; and
  • a computer bug could make it easy to put unauthorized charges on your credit card account. If you are a victim of any of these scams, contact the State Attorney General of the Better Business Bureau. Both of these should be listed in your local phone book.

Shopping Online

When shopping online, make sure you are aware of fraud, your transactions are secure and your information is protected.

Steps to recognize, avoid and report Internet fraud:

  • Use a secure browser- Most computer come with the security software that scrambles the purchase information you send over the Internet. You can also download some free browsers over the Internet.
  • Keep records of you online transactions. Merchants may e-mail you important information about your purchases.
  • Review monthly credit card bills and bank statements for errors as soon as you receive them. Contact your credit card issuer or bank immediately if your credit card or checkbook had been lost or stolen.
  • Review the Web sites security, refund and privacy policies.
  • Keep your personal information private. Don't give your address, telephone number, Social Security number or e-mail address- unless you know who's collecting it and how they will use it.
  • Give payment information only to businesses you know and trust, and only in appropriate places like order forms.
  • Never give your password online, even to your Internet service provider.
  • Prevent exposure to a computer virus. Do no download files sent to you by strangers or click hyperlinks from people you don't know.

Identity Theft

Unfortunately, identity theft is a growing problem. Someone uses your name, social security number, mother's maiden name or other personal information to commit fraud or engage in unlawful activities. Common forms of theft are making unauthorized charges on an existing credit card, taking out loans in another person's name, or writing checks using another person's name or account number. The extreme case is taking over the victim's identity and opening a bank account, getting a credit card or a home mortgage, even working under the victim's name.

The Federal Trade Commission initiated several consumer protections that help victims of identity theft clear their records.

Fair Credit Billing Act- Provides for correction of billing errors and limits consumer liability for unauthorized credit card use.

Fair Credit Reporting Act- Holds credit reporting agencies (CRA's) responsible for correcting inaccurate information in credit reports. Entities that give information to CRA's are required by the FCRA to provide accurate information. Also limits disclosure of consumer credit reports only to businesses with a specified purpose.

If Identity Theft Happens to You:

  • Report the theft to the FTC 1-877-ID-THEFT (438-4338).
  • You will receive counseling and assistance and the FTC forwards complaints to the appropriate agency.
  • Notify you local police department because they can help capture and prosecute the thieves. A police report also helps prove the identity theft.
  • Contact your local bank and cancel ATM cards, checking and savings accounts then open new accounts. Stop payments on outstanding checks.
  • Report missing driver's license to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

For more information about identity theft, go to the FTC's web site:www.consumer.gov/idtheft.

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