Can You Spot an Email Scam? (Most People Can’t)

Plenty of folks think they could never be outsmarted by a hacker; plenty of them are wrong. In fact, perhaps 97% are wrong.

Two new studies make this point, and show the devastating consequences of being wrong.

Security firm McAfee has created a tool that lets consumers test their ability to distinguish between real emails and fake “phishing” emails designed to steal their personal information. So far, consumers have failed the test — miserably.

In a report released earlier this month, McAfee said that of the 19,000 plus visitors from more than 140 countries, only 3% of test-takers identified every email correctly.

Even worse, four out of five thought at least one phishing email was real.

“The worldwide average score was 65.4%, which means test takers missed one in four phishing emails on average,” McAfee said.

Those results are dismal. It costs criminals almost nothing to send phishing emails, and this study suggests that they only need to get four of them into a potential victim’s inbox in order to pull off a caper.

That’s bad enough, but traditional phishing attacks are little more than vaguely targeted spam — a fake Bank of America email sent to a million people in the hope than 25,000 are actually Bank of America customers. The really insidious, and increasingly successful, crime is known as “spear phishing.” Rather than send out a million fake messages, spear phishers send out only a handful — or even only one — at a time. These emails are meticulously designed to trick the recipient. A common tactic: A booby-trapped email sent to an important person’s administrative assistant with a realistic-sounding urgent message, such as “Traveling: Please review this document immediately.”

Spear phishing is blamed for some of the most high-profile hack attacks ever. A report released earlier this month by the InfoSec Institute blamed spear phishing for the Target and Sony attacks, and cyberattacks operated by the Syrian Electronic Army and others. The group Citizen Lab provided evidence last year that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had used spear phishing attacks against a group attempting to document human rights abuses in an effort to unmask its members’ location.

“Thank you for your efforts to deliver a true picture of the reality of life in Raqqah,” reads a translation of part of the email, Citizen Lab claims. “We are preparing a lengthy news report on the realities of life in Raqqah. We are sharing some information with you with the hope that you will correct it in case it contains errors. …We also hope that if you happen to be on Facebook, you could provide us with the account of the person responsible for the campaign.”

A recipient who clicked on the attachment in the email was infected with software that attempted to transmit the victim’s location to the sender, Citizen Lab says.

It should be no surprise that phishing emails have also been used to attack workers at America’s critical infrastructure plants and other crucial systems.

“Spear phishing represents a serious threat for every industry, and the possibility that a group of terrorists will use this technique is concrete,’ the InfoSec report concludes.

The best defense against phishing and spear phishing is humility. Yes, you can fall for a well-crafted trick email. It only takes one moment of weakness, one click when you are distracted by something seemingly more important, to make a critical lapse in judgment that can ruin your whole day, or much worse. Your best defense: Be skeptical of every email, even those that appear to be sent by friends or co-workers. If you have any feelings of doubt, don’t click — call.

McAfee offers these additional tips:

  • Keep an eye out for telltale signs. Bad grammar, bad syntax, suspicious senders and links to misspelled URL addresses are all telltale signs of phishing.
  • Also watch for emails from unknown senders or ones asking you for personal information, especially if it’s in a threatening manner.

You may not always know that your information has been compromised until the damage has already been done. However, regularly checking your account statements, credit reports and credit scores for signs of fraudulent transactions and new accounts can help you spot many problems before they become even bigger. You can get your credit reports for free every year from AnnualCreditReport.com, and you can get two of your credit scores for free every month on Credit.com to watch for big, unexpected changes that could be a sign of fraud.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

This article by Bob Sullivan was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


Why Younger Millennials Are Refusing Employer Health Insurance

The Millennial Generation – which includes those born between the early 1980s and about the year 2000 – has hit the workforce across the nation, and these individuals are seeking employment with very specific perks. Ironically, reports reveal that for younger millennials who are ages 18-26, employer-provided health insurance is not one of the most-requested benefits.

This reality flies in the face of what many have assumed about the Affordable Care Act (ACA). After all, aren’t younger people working across the United States supposed to opt into ACA? In fact, they are getting an advantage, but it isn’t through their companies. It’s more likely to be through their parents.

Here’s why younger millennials are refusing employer health insurance plans:

Affordable Healthcare Options for Younger Working Adults

Under the ACA guidelines, adults who are ages 26 and younger can get healthcare coverage under their parents’ healthcare plans. In many cases, this is a cheaper alternative than getting insurance through businesses, which may require that workers pay a premium each month to help offset the cost of the plan.

Because first-time employees’ wages are typically limited by their lack of experience, this means they have to pay a smaller percentage of each paycheck on healthcare insurance. In other words, more money can be spent in other areas, such as building a nest egg or paying off college loans.

Without a doubt, for moms and dads with close relationships to their millennial-age children, the decision to keep offspring on their plans allows the young adults to save more income as they begin their careers.

Although parents might have to pay a little more for their children to be on their insurance plans, it’s a smaller amount than the children would pay in deductibles through their employers, which averaged just under $5,000 per year in 2014, if they were forced to get healthcare on their own.

Numerous businesses, especially those that are considered small businesses, only pay for 50 percent of employees’ premiums; thus, the price tag for employer-offered insurance can be daunting for those making relatively low wages.

Other Considerations for Millennials to Refuse Employer-Provided Health Insurance

Beyond remaining on their parents’ healthcare plans, there are a few other considerations that lead millennials to decline health insurance from their companies.

First is that the insurance coverage might not be what they desire or need. They may have shopped on the ACA exchanges and discovered that for their age group, they could get a much lower rate by accepting a plan that was more suited to their current medical needs.

In other cases, millennials may decide to simply shop around for alternative means to get healthcare plans, especially if employers offer added income if an employee doesn’t accept healthcare insurance through the business. This added income could be much more attractive to a worker who is just starting out than the promise of a healthcare plan that’s more suited to an older employee.

Although longer-than-desired waiting periods to be insured through an employer could play a part in millennials’ decisions not to accept healthcare insurance offered by their employers, this may not play a huge role. Under the guidelines issued by the ACA, businesses have to offer insurance to new workers within three months of their start dates of employment. Still, this waiting period, albeit a modest one, could sway some workers’ decisions who are worried about going even a short time without healthcare insurance.

What Happens after Millennials Turn 26

As Millennials begin to age out of opportunities to remain on their parents’ healthcare plans, they start to embrace the idea of being on their employers’ plans instead. Consequently, older millennials are much more likely to sign up with their businesses’ healthcare plans.

It’s a fascinating look at the behavior patterns of a very specific segment of the workforce, and one that employers no doubt need to focus on to make sure they provide what’s needed for their personnel.

This article by Anum Yoon first appeared on Current On Currency and was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


The Unexpected Costs of an Epic Summer

We all look forward to summer. And we try to plan ahead, but there are some costs that seem to come out of nowhere. Your friends and family will pull you in all directions for different commitments you can hardly refuse. That’s why it’s important to plan ahead and adjust your monthly budget to accommodate these fun activities. But remember, it’s OK to say no if you’re hitting your fun-budget limit. FOMO should never be an excuse to overspend.

Even if you think you’re completely prepared, you might want to write yourself a few reminders for the unexpected cost of summer.

Road Trip

What you planned for: Perhaps you’re saving money on this summer’s vacation by road-tripping it instead of taking a plane. You’ve probably accounted for gas money but completely forgot a few crucial factors.

What you forgot to save for: Have you considered toll booths? They’re likely to pop up everywhere. If you don’t have an EZ Pass, remember that change quickly adds up, and you could be spending way more than imaginable. Also, how reliable is that car of yours? You never know when an unexpected expense might occur. Whether it be a fender bender or routine oil change, you better have a little extra cash to get you through.

Wedding Season

What you planned for: Summer is one of the best seasons because of all the wedding fun! Who doesn’t want to celebrate a new bride and groom? Maybe you’ve got your travel plans figured out, but it’s likely you’re missing something.

What you forgot to save for: The gift, of course! If the couple is registered, your hunt might be limited and pricey. Make sure you’ve got enough dough handy to prove to them just how much you care. And unless you’re planning on re-wearing something from your closet (and how often does that happen?), you’re going to need to hit the mall.

Beach Vay-cay

What you planned for: Maybe you’re not cruising to Hawaii this summer, but a week at the beach can be just as relaxing, as long as you remember what to pack. Even if you’ve accounted for the cost of renting, as well as food, drinks, sunblock and the rest of the necessities, there’s always more.

What you forgot to save for: The beach is the ultimate destination for impulse buys, so bring some splurge money. If you have kids, they’re going to whine when they hear those ice cream man jingles on the beach. But if you’re like me.. and you’re someone that simply just can’t adult is obsessed with all kinds of snacks, with a special weakness for ice cream trucks then you need to account for them too. There’s also mini golf, surf shops, booze trips and beyond. That’s not even accounting for the steep prices of the boardwalk, which is always a tempting treat.

Barbecue

What you planned for: If your idea of a perfect summer gathering is a leisurely barbecue at your house, make sure you’ve got everything covered so you’re not running to the story every five minutes. After all, you don’t want to miss out on your own fun and overspend at the last second. Surely you’ve planned for snacks, food and dessert, but what will your guests use to eat them?

What you forgot to save for: Chaos will break loose if you realize at the last minute that you’ve spent your budget, but have totally forgotten to account for paper items like enough napkins, plates, cups, plastic-wear, table cloths, and the rest of the necessities. So don’t send that invitation until you’re certain you can manage.

Amusement Park

What you planned for: A classic summer date or family trip is a day at the amusement park. Even if you have a full tank of gas for the ride there and back, as well as ticket costs and a lunch, don’t forget about one of the very first investments (and perhaps the most necessary).

What you forgot to save for: Parking can be a real shocker. Do your research ahead of time to see if you can find a park with free parking, or know what amount you’re going to be expected to shell out. Also remember the parking might require cash only. I also spend way too much money on snacks. *Whispers* Churros I love you. So you can pack some delicious snacks (seriously it’s so much cheaper to do this) or add those costs to your budget while you’re planning.

Make sure you’re not left scrounging for nickels this summer, and plan ahead so you’ll be aware of the many costs that come with having fun. As long as you stick to your budget, you should be able to have a perfectly epic summer.

What are some unexpected summer costs you’ve had to deal with? Are there any that you’re particularly worried about this summer?

This article by Anum Yoon first appeared on Current On Currency and was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


9 Ways to Live Rent Free

How would you like to live rent free? Sounds inviting, doesn’t it? According to the Department of Numbers, the median gross monthly rent paid in 2013 was $905; that calculates to nearly $11,000 annually and more if you live in an area where rents tend to be high, such as Santa Monica, California or Boulder, Colorado. But, if you do a little research, you can find creative ways to live for cheap or even for free. So what are some ways to live rent free?

Cheap or free living is available for college students in exchange for doing a little work.

In October 2014, CBS aired a spot of Steve Hartman on the Road that featured students at the Cleveland Institute of Music who enjoy a rather unusual living arrangement that they treasure. These young musicians are living at Judson Manor, a senior citizen living center. Hartman’s interview makes it obvious the value of these two generations living in close proximity as neighbors at the Manor. They perform for their senior citizen co-habitants and live for cheap.

Gamble House in Pasadena, California is a charming old house and historic landmark built in 1908. It is operated by the University of Southern California. USC students can work as groundskeepers at Gamble House while living there. Learn more about this program from the Gamble House website or from the university housing division.

Perhaps your college or university has affordable housing opportunities such as these. If not, don’t be disappointed. Most universities have dormitories for their undergraduate and graduate students, international students, and for married students. The universities depend on Resident Advisors to live in their dorms and be helpful to the other students that live there, typically with some specific training. Cornell University, for example, is advertising Resident Advisor positions on their website for the upcoming academic year.

Living in someone else’s home for cheap or free is an option for adults of all ages.

You might enjoy being a house sitter. These jobs come with various responsibilities to manage the house while the occupants are away for a long or short time. Look online and you will find numerous websites that list housesitting positions about the country as well as situations where you can swap your home with someone else’s home in a place where you would like to live temporarily.

If you live in a college town, you might consider living in a sabbatical house. Websites such as SabbaticalHomes.com can get you started on you search for cheap or free living on or near campus. You’l be expected to take care of the place as you might with any rental, but these homes are often more upscale.

Sororities and fraternities often need permanent or even temporary house parents to live in the house and make sure the sorority or fraternity residents are being supervised. You’l typically get sumptuous home-cooked food and comfortable living quarters in an area separate from where the students sleep, but expect to deal with the occasional inebriated students or function as a sort of Ann Landers to assist with various matters of the heart.

If you enjoy taking care of others, you can become a nanny or a live-in caregiver to an older or ill person. Expect to have the typical responsibilities that you would have in that work role, but you will get a salary as well as free rent. It may be a great opportunity for you. Numerous caregiver positions can be found on a variety of websites.

Your adventurous spirit can lead you to less conventional, but perhaps more fun, cheap or free living arrangements.

Living in a lighthouse may be what floats your boat. The National Park Service can lead you to the lighthouse of your choice. Specific lighthouses typically have their own websites that inform you of their living arrangements and expectations.

Do you love cruises, but find them to be beyond your budget? Perhaps you would enjoy being employed by one of the large cruise ship companies, such as Carnival or Disney.

Or if you enjoy the open road, enough to give up your house or apartment to take to the road permanently, you may enjoy making a recreational vehicle your new residence. The people who do this claim to love it.

There are many interesting, creative, and fun ways to live rent-free or cheap. Check it out!

Debra Karplus is an occupational therapist, accountant, teacher and freelance writer. She is a writer for Advance for Occupational Therapy Practitioners. Learn more about her at DebraKarplus.blogspot.com. Ms. Karplus is also a frequent contributor to TheDollarStretcher.com. Visit TheDollarStretcher.com today for more non-traditional housing options.

This article by Debra Karplus first appeared on The Dollar Stretcher and was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


10 Places Where Homebuyers Can Still Find Deals

In most of the country, buyers have the advantage over sellers in the housing market. In April, 59% of counties in RealtyTrac’s monthly Home Sales Report reported that homes sold at less than market value, on average. In 27% of counties, homes sold at above market value, and in 14% homes sold for almost exactly their estimated worth. The data comes from 315 counties with a population of at least 100,000 and at least 100 home sales in April.

The places where it’s a seller’s market aren’t much of a surprise: Six of the 10 counties with the best seller’s markets are in California and two are in the D.C. area, which are known for their high costs of living and tight real estate markets. The top buyer’s markets, however, are a bit more mixed, though they’re mostly east of the Mississippi River (the farthest west being on the river) and in the South.

It’s important to note that the data only includes sales in which the sales price and estimated market value is available, and 14 states do not require the sales price to be included on the sales deed — the most-populated non-disclosure state is Texas. (That doesn’t mean there’s no data from those states, rather, some data may not be available because of the laws.)

So if you’re looking to buy a home and hope for a better deal, here are the top 10 buyer’s markets in the country.

10. Muscogee County, Ga.
Average sale price, as a percentage of estimated market value: 86.6%

Muscogee County is in western Georgia, along the Alabama-Georgia state line. Its only city is Columbus and is roughly 100 miles southwest of Atlanta. The average sales price of a home or condo in Muscogee County was $96,183 in April.

9. Westmooreland County, Pa.
Sale price percentage of market value: 86.5%

Greensburg, the county seat of Westmooreland County, is about 35 miles east of Pittsburgh (about an hour drive) and is considered part of the metropolitan area of that city. The average market value of a home in Westmooreland county was $110,476 in April, but buyers on average paid $95,596.

8. Washington County, Tenn.
Sale price percentage of market value: 86.1%

Sitting just west of the Cherokee National Forest, Washington County is known as the “Birthplace of Tennessee,” because it is Tennessee’s oldest county. It was established as part of North Carolina, which now shares its eastern border. In April, homebuyers paid an average of $137,586 for a home in Washington County.

7. Union County, N.J.
Sale price percentage of market value: 85.8%

Union County is part of the New York Metropolitan Area, so it unsurprisingly has one of the highest average market values on this list of great buyer’s markets. The average home sale price was $271,845 in April, compared to the $316,975 average market value.

6. Iredell County, N.C.
Sale price percentage of market value: 85.3%

The county’s largest town is Mooresville, best known for its race track and as the home to dozens of NASCAR teams, and it’s located just about 30 miles north of Charlotte. Homebuyers paid an average of $177,933 for a home in Iredell County last month.

5. Chittenden County, Vt.
Sale price percentage of market value: 85.2%

About a quarter of Vermont’s population resides in Chittenden County, the county seat of which is Burlington. Of the 10 most buyer-friendly housing markets, Chittenden has the highest prices. Homes sold for an average of $273,842 in April, and the estimated average market value was $321,379.

4. Bartow County, Ga.
Sale price percentage of market value: 84.3%

Bartow County is about 45 miles northwest of Atlanta, though it is considered part of the Atlanta metro area. Homes sold for an average of $125,047 in April.

3. Beaver County, Pa.
Sale price percentage of market value: 82.0%

Like Westmooreland County, Beaver County is also near Pittsburgh — the county seat, Beaver, (both are named after the Beaver River) is about 35 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. Homes are pretty inexpensive here, selling for an average of $95,631in April.

2. Baltimore, Md.
Sale price percentage of market value: 77.7%

Baltimore is an independent city and does not belong to a county (one of three cities in the country like that, outside of Virginia, where there are dozens of independent cities). The average home sold for $99,673 in April.

1. St. Louis, Mo.
Sale price percentage of market value: 76.6%

St. Louis is also an independent city and the only place on this list that is west of the Mississippi River. With an average market value of $85,979 in April, St. Louis has one of the lowest property values of any of the 315 counties in the RealtyTrac report. With the average home price at $65,877 in April, St. Louis is about as much of a buyer’s market as you can get.

If you’re planning to buy a home in the next year, now is the time to start looking at your credit reports and credit scores to make sure your credit is in good shape by the time you search for your new home. This calculator can help you figure out how much house you can afford. You can get your free credit reports every year from AnnualCreditReport.com, and you can get two of your credit scores for free on Credit.com, updated every 30 days.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

This article by Christine DiGangi was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


Ouch! A Data Breach Now Costs $3.8 Million

From the consumer perspective, finding out your information has been compromised in a data breach is an annoying and costly interruption, but the business side is pretty unpleasant, too. The average data breach now costs the targeted company $3.8 million, or $154 per stolen record containing sensitive information, according to the newest edition of an annual report from Ponemon Institute, a data-security research organization. The average cost of a data breach is at its highest point in the 10 years the Ponemon Institute has been publishing its Cost of a Data Breach study.

The Cost of a Data Breach figures are based on interviews between the Ponemon Institute and security representatives of 350 organizations across a dozen countries: Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom and the United States.

Breaches are most expensive in the U.S. and Germany, at $217 and $211 per stolen record (as opposed to the opposite end of the spectrum: $78 in Brazil and $56 in India). Breach costs also vary by industry. For a health care organization, the average cost per stolen record was $363. In retail, each stolen record costs a company $165.

There are many variables in what determines the cost of a particular breach, including whether the security lapse was a result of human error or an organized attack (cyberattacks are more costly). In general, data breaches are getting more expensive. That $3.8 million a company loses to an average data breach is a 23% increase from the 2013 report, and about 40% of that comes in the form of lost business. In 2013, data breaches cost organizations an average of $1.23 million in lost business, which increased to $1.57 million in this year’s report. In the U.S., lost business cost companies $3.72 million after a data breach, up 3% from 2014.

In its findings, the report highlights plenty of areas for organizations to improve if they want to reduce the cost of a potential data breach, but for consumers, there’s not really a positive takeaway. Your information is in the hands of companies that may or may not succeed in protecting it, so it’s crucial to take charge and have your own system for responding to a data breach. Monitor your accounts and personal information as best you can — checking your credit is a great way to detect fraud (you can get your free credit report summary on Credit.com, updated monthly) — and act quickly to stop any unauthorized use of your identifying data.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

This article by Christine DiGangi was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


5 Credit Card Mistakes You Can Bounce Back From

Few credit card users (if any) get through life without making a financial misstep or two when using plastic. Even something that seems like an innocent oversight could seriously damage your credit standing, but in many cases, a single mistake isn’t a big deal. Before you start kicking yourself, find out if there’s a simple solution to whatever credit card problem you’ve run into.

1. Missing a Payment

One of the worst things you can do is fail to pay your credit card bill on time, because your payment history is the single factor with the largest impact on your credit standing. One missed payment could significantly knock down your credit score — the higher your score is, the further it can fall after a missed payment.

Make sure you don’t do it again. If your late payment was a one-time thing, your score will bounce back within a few months, because it’s when you have a pattern of risky behavior that your credit score can really suffer. Yes, you’ll have to deal with the negative fallout of that single missed payment, but a little patience and discipline going forward will make that a problem of the past soon enough.

You might even be able to undo the damage. If you have a history of never missing a payment and you call your credit card issuer to explain the circumstances, it might give you a break. If nothing else, your issuer might reverse the late fee.

2. Spending Too Much

When your credit card balances creep closer to your credit limit, your credit score suffers — that balance-to-limit ratio is called your credit utilization rate, and it is one of the most influential factors in your credit score, after payment history.

If you realize you’re using too much of your available credit (you should aim to keep it below 30% of the limit, and the lower the better), do what you can to pay down the balances and use less of the cards’ limits. You may see your score improve significantly if you drastically reduce your credit utilization rate from one month to the next.

You can also consider returning unnecessary purchases. Check your card’s benefits, because some credit cards offer return protection, even if the retailer won’t issue a refund.

3. Losing Your Card

You can avoid a lot of headaches by canceling a lost card as soon as you realize it’s not in your possession — it usually takes only a quick phone call. If you use the lost card to pay bills, make sure to update those accounts if you cancel the account. It may seem inconvenient, but it’s probably worth it, given the alternative of trying to reverse fraudulent charges and any impact they may have had on your credit standing.

4. Closing a Card

Maybe you thought closing a credit card would help your credit score, but when you check your credit score, you see that your score went down. That’s because closing a credit card reduces your available credit, and if you don’t also reduce your overall credit card balances, your credit utilization rate will go up.

It may not be something you can do quickly, but focus on reducing your credit card balances as much as possible, so you can lower your credit utilization rate to where it was before you closed the account — even better, get it lower than it was before. That may mean using your credit cards a lot less than you used to or paying down debt more aggressively than you were before, but if you want to recover from the damage you did by closing the account, that’s one of your only options.

You could also consider opening a new credit card to increase your overall credit limit, but if you just closed a card, it’s likely you may not want to open a new one. Apply for credit only when you need it, because applying for new credit can hurt your credit score, too.

5. Falling Into Debt

Just because you’ve gotten into credit card debt before doesn’t mean you should never use credit cards again (though for some people, that’s the only way to stay debt-free).

First of all, if you’re currently in debt, explore your options for getting out. You might be able to make a debt-payoff plan yourself, but if you do the math and realize you can’t afford to pay off the debt within a few years or the task is too daunting to do alone, consider going to a reputable credit counseling agency for help.

You can rehabilitate your credit by making future loan and credit card payments on time and keeping your debt balances low. When working to improve your credit standing and minimize your debt, consider using a credit card very sparingly and paying it off immediately — you may not want to carry it with you, to avoid the temptation to overspend. As you work to rebuild your credit, it can help to monitor your credit score over time to check your progress. You can get your credit score for free through many sources — including Credit.com, where you can get two of your credit scores updated every month.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

This article by Christine DiGangi was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


Cash Back vs. Miles: Which Credit Card Perk Should I Choose?

Last year my parents casually mentioned that it could be their last Christmas in the home they have lived in for nearly 50 years — the house I grew up in — as they would be putting it up for sale in the spring. I hadn’t planned to visit them over the holidays, but I quickly went online looking for tickets. My heart sank when I saw airfare was quadruple what I normally pay to fly from Florida to Michigan. It seemed hard to justify paying that much for a weekend visit. Then I remembered the bonus miles I had earned by getting a new travel rewards credit card and quickly cashed a good chunk of them in for a ticket.

I had a wonderful time and was glad I went. And I was thankful I had accumulated the travel rewards that made it possible.

When it comes to rewards credit cards, you have a lot of choices. And part of the decision-making process involves deciding which type of card is better. Two of the most popular types of rewards, by far, are cash back and travel rewards. Is one better than the other?

The Case for Cash Back

There are compelling reasons for choosing cash as your reward. The main one is obvious — everyone can use cash! Here are some more.

Very generous rewards. Some cards give you as much as 6% cash back in certain categories such as groceries, gas, restaurants, etc. Sometimes these higher payouts apply to specific types of purchases all year long, while in other cases, categories rotate (usually quarterly).

Cash is a flexible reward. Cash back should probably get the award for the most flexible reward. After all, you can spend it on anything you like: travel, entertainment, or anything else you can imagine. There’s no other reward that offers that degree of flexibility.

Cash in multiple ways. Most issuers allow you to “cash in,” so to speak, in a variety of ways. For example, with the Citi Double Cash MasterCard, which was recently named the Best Cash Rewards Credit Card in America, once you have accumulated at least $25 in cash rewards, you can redeem them for a check, a statement credit or a gift card, or you can request funds be deposited into a linked Citi savings or checking account, or certain linked checking accounts.

Abundant no-fee options. If you absolutely hate paying an annual fee, a cash-back card can be just the ticket. There are many cards in this category that carry no annual fee; in fact, none of the 2015 Best Cash Reward Credit Cards picks charge one. If you pay your bill in full, you truly get something for nothing here.

But Wait…

But there can be a few downsides to these programs. Some cap the amount you can earn, usually in specific categories with higher rewards. So, for example, with the Discover It card, you can earn unlimited 1% cash back on all purchases, but you can get 5% cash back on purchases in certain categories. 5% cash back applies to the first $1,500 in spending in those rotating categories each quarter.

And a cash-back card can sometimes feel, well, unrewarding. If you put your earnings toward a statement credit or spend it on something you’d buy anyway, it may be a little bit of a letdown since you haven’t used it for something special or memorable.

The Case for Travel Rewards

Travel reward cards may offer a variety of perks, from airline miles that can be used to purchase tickets for flights, to free hotel stays, free checked bags, priority status with airlines or hotels and more. Here’s why one of these cards may be your best choice.

It will force you to take a vacation! If you’re one of the 40% of Americans who don’t use all their paid vacation days, accumulating travel points may give you that extra nudge you need to actually go somewhere. Miles or points can also be useful for trips where the out-of-pocket cost is high, but the number of miles needed isn’t.

Upgrade to luxury. Many travel rewards card aficionados use their miles to take trips that would normally be out of reach, such as international flights in business or first class. These adventures may often be ones you wouldn’t want to bust your budget to pay for, but that become great memories over time.

Save big bucks. Some co-branded airline credit cards can save you a lot of money on checked luggage fees, and can be particularly valuable for families who travel together. For example, the Citi Executive/AAdvantage World Elite MasterCard card from American Airlines offers one free bag for the cardholder and up to eight companions.

But Wait…

Many of the most lucrative travel rewards cards charge hefty annual fees of at least $75, to as high as $400 or more. (Many times, however, the fee is waived the first year.) Additionally, you may need excellent credit to qualify.

Before You Choose

No matter which type of reward card you choose, take the time to check your credit scores before you apply to find out where you stand. (You can get two free credit scores updated monthly at Credit.com.) Then take some time to think about which reward you are most likely to use so you can choose a credit card you are likely to use for the long haul. While switching credit cards is fine every once in a while, frequently opening and closing new accounts can negatively affect your credit scores.

“I would say that travel rewards are best for premium class international travel and by those who enjoy finding the value of these systems, and have flexible travel schedules,” says credit card expert and Credit.com contributor Jason Steele. “For most others, I think cash back offers the best value.”

Still undecided? Get them both. You can get a cash-back credit card and a travel reward cards and use each to earn maximum rewards. For example, if you’re feeding a large family you might choose a cash back card with higher rewards for purchases at grocery stores. Max out those rewards then use the travel rewards card with free checked bags to save big bucks on your next vacation. Take some time to analyze how you use your card to figure out which combination works best for you.

Note: It’s important to remember that interest rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products frequently change. As a result, rates, fees and terms for credit cards, loans and other financial products cited in these articles may have changed since the date of publication. Please be sure to verify current rates, fees and terms with credit card issuers, banks or other financial institutions directly.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

This article by Gerri Detweiler was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


Sen. Al Franken: Millions of Americans Are Struggling to Pay Off Student Loan Debt & It’s Damaging Economic Growth

Last year, at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, I met Joelle Stangler, a sophomore who was the incoming student body president. Joelle had graduated from Rogers High School in Minnesota as the valedictorian, with a 4.12 GPA. Joelle doesn’t lack motivation.

Both of Joelle’s parents were teachers, and in fact she comes from a long line of educators going back six generations. But a couple of years ago, Joelle’s mother made the difficult decision to quit her job as a 5th grade teacher to go work in the private sector to help send her four kids to college. Even with her mom’s sacrifice, Joelle, who is finishing up her third year of college, already has $20,000 in student loans, and she estimates that her total debt will be around $35,000 by the time she graduates next year.

It didn’t use to be this way. Things have changed a lot since my wife Franni and I went to college in the early 1970s. A full Pell Grant paid for almost 80% of a public college education. Today, it pays for less than 35%.

[Related Article: Can My Student Loans Keep Me From Getting a Credit Card?]

Today, the total amount of student loan debt held by Americans is more than $1.3 trillion – more than the total amount of credit card debt in our nation. Student loan debt doesn’t just affect the individual lives of the 40 million Americans who carry the debt. Student loan debt also has an enormous negative impact on our nation’s economy. I recently spoke with Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, and he explained that student loan debt dramatically limits people’s ability to buy a home, save for retirement and start a business. These types of big-ticket purchases help keep our economy growing, and delaying these acquisitions is damaging to the long-term well-being of our country.

So students are coming out of college with crippling debt that holds them back. Yet we keep telling young people that they need to go to college in order to aspire to the middle class. And that’s true; in fact, college graduates earn over 60% more per year than high school graduates. We should be encouraging more Americans to get a college degree, but they shouldn’t have to take on huge amounts of debt that will take decades to pay off.

[Related Article: Can You Get Your Student Loans Forgiven?]

Part of the reason that this debt is long term is because borrowers are paying high interest rates. Many college graduates are locked into loans with interest rates as high as 10%, which makes it all the more difficult to pay off. When interest rates are low, homeowners, businesses and even local governments regularly refinance their debts. However, the federal government – despite being the biggest student lender by far – offers no refinancing option to student borrowers. Once you graduate with high interest rates, you’re stuck with that high interest rate forever.

So I’m doing something to fix that problem. Earlier this year I joined Sen. Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts in introducing the Bank on Student Emergency Loan Refinancing Act. Our legislation will allow borrowers to take advantage of lower interest rates and refinance their student loans. This will help millions of Americans, like Joelle, cut down their debt and keep more of their hard-earned paychecks.

I also wrote two bipartisan bills with Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa that would help students and families better understand college costs before taking on debt. Our Net Price Calculator Improvement Act makes online cost-calculation tools more user-friendly in order to give students and their families a better estimate of college expenses before they decide where to apply. Sen. Grassley and I have another bill that will require schools to use a universal financial aid letter. Right now, these letters are confusing – they often don’t clearly explain the difference between a grant and a loan, which means students and families may take on debt that they don’t know they have to pay back. Our bill would make sure that students and their families get uniform information so they can make apples-to-apples comparisons between what the different schools are offering.

[Related Article: A Credit Guide for College Graduates]

We have a lot of work to do and a long way to go to reduce student debt and make college more affordable. But it’s critical that we do. Addressing college affordability will not only make college accessible to more Americans, but it will also help more young graduates start a business sooner, buy a home earlier and start a family – things far too many young people have been forced to delay because of being saddled with college debt. That’s not only good for those graduates, but is enormously beneficial to our economy.

This story is an Op/Ed contribution to Credit.com and does not necessarily represent the views of the company or its affiliates.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

This article by Sen. Al Franken was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


5 Reasons You Shouldn’t Give Your Email Out Like Candy

Email addresses are like opinions—nearly everyone has one. It is the most public piece of personal information you have besides your name. But what you may not know about your email address could hurt you.

Your email may not seem like personally identifiable information at first blush, and for good reason. It is a requirement of everyday life. Asked for a list of sensitive personal information, I feel pretty certain that most people wouldn’t think of their email address right away. It’s not like a Social Security number, or even your date of birth. However, to an identity thief, your email address is one of the pathways into your financial life.

More and more regulators and legislators are codifying email addresses as sensitive personal information and adding it to the definition of PII in laws and regulations for this reason. In the wrong hands, an email address can be a big problem.

1. It’s the Command Center for Your Online Life

If a thief gets control of your email account, you are vulnerable to attack elsewhere. Many passwords reset via email, so even if you use a separate, long and strong password on, for instance, your bank account, a thief with access to your email can reset it. Many sites offer the choice between password reset via email or a mobile phone. Choose the latter for greater security.

2. It’s an Easy Way to Speak Directly to You

Email is the vehicle of choice for phishers and spearphishers. That’s why so much effort on the part of fraudsters has gone into designing email messages that look like the real thing. Gone are the days of bad graphics, bad grammar and spelling that would put a 5-year-old to shame. Cyber scammers use email because it works. Offering a deal that is too good to be true; scaring the daylights out of the email recipient about an existing account, or a new account or suspicious activity; threatening big penalties for unpaid tax bills — the triggers are too many to list.

Providing personal information via email or entering sensitive personal information on a website designed to look like a financial or government institution can be a sort of Pavlovian response for many people. If you fall for the trap, you will become an unwitting co-conspirator in the theft of your own identity.

3. It Contains Other Sensitive Information

Your email address often contains your name; your name and a number that means something to you or others who know you; or your name in combination with the name of the company where you work. Even if it doesn’t contain your name, it may include the year you were born, the college you attended or your favorite band. All of that information becomes tiny breadcrumbs that can be used by scammers to piece together passwords, answer security questions or even just help the thieves appear like they know who you are so they can get you to send cash or give up even more sensitive information.

4. It Often Doubles as a User ID

Take a moment to think about the number of websites that either prompt you to use your email address in the user ID box or even pre-populate the user ID box with your email address. The theory is that consumers don’t want to be bothered to come up with different user ID for their email, financial services and social networking sites. Using an email address makes it really simple by keeping things uniform and easy.

But what’s convenient for you is just as convenient for scammers. Hackers and identity thieves can also get into your accounts faster if you use an email address as your user ID, and it’s the first thing they try. Consider the fact that it places them 50% down the road toward gaining access to your financial life.

5. Scammers Can Use It As ‘Proof’ They’re Legitimate

One of the many ways that identity thieves work is by running a con, often when they have a few pieces of information, like a phone number and email address and home address, and want to parlay that into more useable data points. This typically involves the deft deployment of known facts to create the illusion of access in the hope of getting still more.

How it works: If a crook has your email address, they can usually cobble together other facts about you, like your name, where you live, where your kids go to school—any information that is online and contains both your email address and an implicit statement of fact about you: e.g,. your email on a PTA meeting list. A scammer can then call you up and use those facts to “prove” they know you in an attempt to get access to your financial accounts or other information they need to steal your identity. Never provide information to someone who contacts you. Ask for the name of the organization that contacted you, find their number independently and contact them directly.

If you bear in mind that email can get you in trouble, and act accordingly, you can save yourself a lot of grief. Sharing doesn’t always mean caring. When it comes to your email address, your need to share would be better served by giving money to a charity.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

This article by Adam Levin was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.