Will the New Consumer Privacy Bill Protect You?

Legislation that would establish new nationwide privacy protections for American consumers was introduced by a group of high-profile Democratic senators on Thursday, including Pat Leahy (Vermont) and Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts). The Consumer Privacy Protection Act would establish federal standards for notification of consumers when their data is lost or stolen, greatly expand the definition of private information beyond financial data, and allow existing state privacy laws to remain in force. Geolocation data and images would be covered by its data leak disclosure rules, for example.

“Today, data security is not just about protecting our identities and our bank accounts, it is about protecting our privacy. Americans want to know not just that their bank account and credit cards are safe and secure, they want to know that their emails and their private pictures are protected as well,” Sen. Leahy said. “Companies who benefit financially from our personal information should be obligated to take steps to keep it safe, and to notify us when those protections have failed.”

Consumer groups cheered the proposal, saying it offered a fresh approach to consumer privacy.

“This is a step forward. This is the first time you get something new in federal legislation. Usually it scales back (protections) in state law,” said Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy at the Center for Democracy and Technology. “It’s good to see some new thinking on the issue, something that actually adds new protections for a lot of people.”

“Everyone from the NSA to the local grocer has become a consumer of our data. So many pieces of our data are being collected, stored, shared and sold, either without our knowledge or ability to understand the process,” said Adam Levin, privacy expert and chairman and founder of Credit.com. “It is long overdue that we expand the definition of ‘personally identifying information’ as well as the protections necessary to safeguard our privacy and data security and require quick notification when our PII is exposed.”

The legislation would require social media firms or cloud email providers to notify consumers if their accounts are compromised, Brookman said. Currently, most disclosure rules apply only to financial information such as credit card numbers.

The legislation comes on the heels of a similar White House proposal called “The Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights Act of 2015,” but goes several steps further than the administration’s proposal, said Susan Grant of the Consumer Federation of America. The White House proposal would allow federal law to supersede state laws, potentially diminishing consumer rights. It also requires demonstration of actual harm before requiring notice.

“(We believe) that federal legislation will only be helpful to consumers if it provides them with greater privacy and security protection than they have today. Most of the bills that we have seen in Congress would actually weaken existing consumer rights and the ability of state and federal agencies to enforce them,” Grant said. “(This bill) takes the right approach, requiring reasonable security measures, providing strong consumer protection and enforcement, and only pre-empting state laws to the extent that they provide less stringent protection.”

Most significant: The legislation creates entire new classes of protected information. Private information is divided into seven categories. Compromise of any one of them would require companies to notify consumers. They are:

  1. Social Security numbers and other government-issued identification numbers;
  2. Financial account information, including credit card numbers and bank accounts;
  3. Online usernames and passwords, including email addresses and passwords;
  4. Unique biometric data, including fingerprints;
  5. Information about a person’s physical and mental health;
  6. Information about a person’s geolocation;
  7. Access to private digital photographs and videos.

Leahy has repeatedly proposed legislation since 2005 that would establish a nationwide notification standard called the Personal Data Privacy and Security Act; it has not passed. While co-sponsors of this new bill include Al Franken (Minn.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Ron Wyden (Ore.) and Edward J. Markey (Mass.), there are, notably, no Republican co-sponsors. That probably dooms the bill, says Brookman.

“They didn’t get a GOP co-sponsor, and that’s not a great sign. Still, having the bill out there is good for dialog on the issue,” he said.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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


NC Senator Michael Lee Article Rattled Some Debt Collection Feathers

Yesterday I published this article about proposed changes to pursing debtors in North Carolina over purchased debt.

That would have been the story, done and dusted. But today I awoke to find InsideARM, an accounts receivable trade publication, leveled some objections at my opinion piece.

InsideARM said, “Rhode calls Lee’s bill, “idiotic,” and “ill-advised, ill-conceived and unwarranted.” Other than potentially calling a state Senator an idiot in his headline, he also characterizes Lee as “ill informed” in the piece.” – Source

They also said, “Rhode also calls another Senator who defended the bill “clueless.” The article’s main contention, that Lee is a “debt collection idiot” is based partly on selective editing.”

InsideARM also stated, “Proponents of the measure argue that North Carolina’s infamous 2009 law targeting debt buyer collection lawsuits went too far, making the collection of legitimate debt onerous in the state. Most in the ARM industry consider the rules to be among the most restrictive in the country.”

But where the objections to the article missed the target was the fact the proposed changes to the law appear to be driven to ease the burden on bad debt documentation and not fairness to both consumers and debt buyers.

Even the North Carolina Attorney General’s office feel S.B. 511 is unnecessary. The Raleigh, NC based newspaper, News & Observer, said, “But Kevin Anderson, who is in charge of the consumer protection division in the state Attorney General’s office, said the 2009 law has been effective in stemming collection abuses. Those abuses included lawsuits against consumers who actually had paid their bills in full or who couldn’t even determine, based on the scanty evidence presented in the complaint, whether they had paid or successfully disputed the bill. The debt at issue can be years old by the time the debt buyers acquire them.” “The rest of the country that hasn’t passed laws like this are still struggling with the problem,” he said. “We would caution against rolling back some of these protections.” – Source

Similar opinions were offered up by the Durham, NC located Center for Responsible Lending, as well. The same N&O article says, “Ellen Harnick, senior policy counsel for the Center for Responsible Lending, complained the debt buyers simply aren’t willing to pay “a little more” for the underlying documentation required by the 2009 law.

That law, she said, was “passed by a unanimous vote in the Senate because, on a bipartisan basis, people were troubled on behalf of taxpayers about what was happening in the courts.”

Harnick also argued that the bill shifts the burden of proof from the debt buyer that brings a lawsuit to the consumer.”

Histrionics aside, I continue to miss the benefit to consumers by removing the current legal requirements bad debt buyers face in North Carolina before going after consumers. The current law requires the debt owner must know the “amount of the original debt” and also have a copy of the “contract, charge-off statement, or other writing evidencing the original debt, which must contain a signature of the defendant. If a claim is based on credit card debt and no such signed writing evidencing the original debt ever existed, then copies of documents generated when the credit card was actually used must be attached debt.”

In North Carolina it would be silly to buy a home or car without documentation and evidence the purchase is legitimate or know the identity of the property and have it well documented. So why does it not make logical sense to make sure purchased bad debt can be authoritatively documented as well?

Apparently the current law in place in North Carolina makes bad debt buyers feel the law “went too far, making the collection of legitimate debt onerous in the state,” as InsideARM says. But it is unclear how the law prevents bad debt buyers from charging ahead to sue and win lawsuits over debt owed as long as they have the basic documentation to prove the validity of the debt. And being able to validate the debt is an issue close to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as well.

InsideARM said, “Rhode contends that Lee may be a debt buyer himself, because his law firm’s website states, “The firm focuses on…debt acquisition.” What Rhode omits is the fact that Lee’s practice focuses almost entirely on commercial real estate, and the unedited passage from Lee’s site reads, “The firm focuses on complex commercial real estate finance, debt acquisition and development matters as well as complicated entitlement and zoning cases.”

For the record, I make no such argument that Lee or his law firm is a bad debt buyer. They simply felt it was an important enough skill to mention it in their firm description. If it is not something they assist with then why mention it? – Source

In my mind the only reason Lee’s experience as an attorney with purchased debt should be a factor is a hopeful awareness about the lack of proper documentation currently owned by bad debt buyers and the reality most consumers don’t defend themselves against unsupported collection lawsuits.

The debt collection industry might be up-in-arms about my opinion S.B. 511 is ill-advised, ill-conceived, and unwarranted but surely making sure all of the documentation validating the debt is on hand makes for a slam dunk lawsuit by the current debt owner to recover money owed them. NC Senator Harry Brown was quoted as saying, “I think the key point of this is, this is debt that someone has gone out and decided not to pay.”

To which I must humbly disagree. I think the key point to the desired change in the law is to relax a requirement for bad debt buyers to have sufficient documentation and data on hand to prove the debt is valid as the CFPB advises consumers to do when approached over uncertain debt.

Here is what the CFPB advises consumers to ask for from bad debt buyers attempting to collect:

“The name and address of the creditor to whom the debt is currently owed, the account number used by that creditor, and the amount owed.

  • If this debt started with a different creditor, provide the name and address of the original creditor, the account number used by that creditor, and the amount owed to that creditor at the time it was transferred. When you identify the original creditor, please provide any other name by which I might know them, if that is different from the official name. In addition, tell me when the current creditor obtained the debt and who the current creditor obtained it from.
  • Provide verification and documentation that there is a valid basis for claiming that I am required to pay the debt to the current creditor. For example, can you provide a copy of the written agreement that created my original requirement to pay?
  • If you are asking that I pay a debt that somebody else is or was required to pay, identify that person. Provide verification and documentation about why this is a debt that I am required to pay.

The amount and age of the debt, including:

  • A copy of the last billing statement sent to me by the original creditor.
  • State the amount of the debt when you obtained it, and when that was.
  • If there have been any additional interest, fees or charges added since the last billing statement from the original creditor, provide an itemization showing the dates and amount of each added amount. In addition, explain how the added interest, fees or other charges are expressly authorized by the agreement creating the debt or are permitted by law.
  • If there have been any payments or other reductions since the last billing statement from the original creditor, provide an itemization showing the dates and amount of each of them.
  • If there have been any other changes or adjustments since the last billing statement from the original creditor, please provide full verification and documentation of the amount you are trying to collect. Explain how that amount was calculated. In addition, explain how the other changes or adjustments are expressly authorized by the agreement creating the debt or permitted by law.
  • Tell me when the creditor claims this debt became due and when it became delinquent.
  • Identify the date of the last payment made on this account.
  • Have you made a determination that this debt is within the statute of limitations applicable to it? Tell me when you think the statute of limitations expires for this debt, and how you determined that.” – Source

And it does not stop here with the CFPB. They’ve also said, “The CFPB is concerned that debt collectors do not always have adequate or accurate paperwork or data to support their claims about a consumer’s indebtedness. This lack of information can make it harder for the debt collector to provide the consumer with information to identify the debt or resolve disputes.” – Source

It seems the CFPB feels consumers are entitled to a lot more information than even the current North Carolina law requires. By rolling back the law using S.B. 511 it seems to me it puts bad debt buyers in a worse position moving forward in the face of tougher debt data requirements to almost certainly come. And for me, that’s idiotic for an industry based on data and documentation.

This article by Steve Rhode first appeared on Get Out of Debt and was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


Court Halts Mortgage Relief Operation that Targeted Homeowners Facing Foreclosure

Some People Lost Their Homes: Paid Defendants Instead of Making Mortgage Payments

At the Federal Trade Commission’s request, a federal court halted a sham operation that allegedly told financially distressed homeowners it would help get their mortgages modified, but instead effectively stole their mortgage payments, leading some to foreclosure and bankruptcy. The FTC seeks to permanently stop the scheme and its participants’ illegal practices. It also filed a contempt action against one of the scheme’s principals, Brian Pacios, who is under a previous court order that prohibited him from mortgage relief activities.

“These defendants stole mortgage payments from struggling homeowners, and they pretended to be a nonprofit working with the government,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “We’ll continue to shut down shameful mortgage frauds like this one.”

According to the FTC’s complaint, the defendants, sometimes doing business as HOPE Services, and more recently as HAMP Services, targeted consumers facing foreclosure, and especially those who had failed to get any relief from their lenders. Pretending to be “nonprofit” with government ties, they sent mail bearing what looked like an official government seal, and indicated that the recipients might be eligible for a “New 2014 Home Affordable Modification Program” (HAMP 2).

The defendants called the program “an aggressive update to Obama’s original modification program,” and stated that “[y]our bank is now incentivized by the government to lower your interest rate . . .”

The defendants falsely claimed they had a high success rate, special contacts who would help get loan terms modified, and an ability to succeed even when consumers had failed. After obtaining consumers’ financial information, they told them they were “preliminarily approved” and falsely claimed they would submit consumers’ loan modification applications to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, and the “Making Home Affordable” (MHA) program. The MHA application form they sent consumers excluded the page that warns, “BEWARE OF FORECLOSURE RESCUE SCAMS,” and “never make your mortgage payments to anyone other than your mortgage company without their approval.”

Later, the defendants falsely told consumers they were approved for a low interest rate and monthly payments significantly lower than their current payment, and that after making three monthly trial payments, and often a fee to reinstate a defaulted loan, they would get a loan modification and be safe from foreclosure. They also told consumers not to speak with their lender or an attorney.

In reality, homeowners who made the payments did not have their mortgages modified, and their lenders never received their trial payments, the FTC alleged. Instead, they were contacted by an “Advocacy Department” run by one of the defendants, Denny Lake, and told that the department would get them an even better loan modification than the one purportedly obtained through MHA, according to the FTC’s complaint. 

But the “Advocacy Department” was just another trick designed to make sure consumers continued to make all of the monthly trial payments. When consumers raised concerns about continuing foreclosure warnings, sale date notices, and even court dates, they were told their loan modification was being processed or nearly completed.

By keeping consumers on the hook for months, the defendants doubled, tripled, or quadrupled consumers’ trial payments, the FTC alleged.  They told consumers they would put these payments in escrow accounts and eventually pay off consumers’ lenders. In fact, the defendants simply took the money for themselves. As a result, some consumers lost their homes, and most consumers incurred additional penalties and interest as they fell further behind on their mortgages.

The defendants include Chad Caldaronello, also known as Chad Carlson and Chad Johnson; C.C. Enterprises Inc., doing business as HOPE Services, Retention Divisions, and Trust Payment Center; Justin Moreira, a/k/a Justin Mason, Justin King and Justin Smith; Derek Nelson, a/k/a Dereck Wilson; D.N. Marketing Inc., d/b/a HAMP Services and Trial Payment Processing; and Brian Pacios, a/k/a Brian Berry and Brian Kelly. They are charged with violating the FTC Act, the FTC’s Mortgage Assistance Relief Services Rule (MARS), and its Telemarketing Sales Rule (TSR).

Denny Lake, d/b/a JD United, Advocacy Department, Advocacy Division, and Advocacy Agency, is charged with knowing or consciously avoiding knowing the other defendants were violating the MARS and the TSR. A relief defendant, Cortney Gonsalves, is charged with holding money and assets she received from the scam.

To learn how to avoid mortgage and foreclosure rescue scams, see Home Loans.

The Commission vote approving the complaint was 5-0. The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California entered a temporary restraining order against the defendants on April 15, 2015.

This article by the Federal Trade Commission was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


My Mother is on Medicaid and Bank of America is Owed Money

Question:

Dear Steve,

Hi – I have a question – my mother is in a nursing home, Medicaid pays for the home – she must turn over her social security and small pension to them each month. She has no money – she has a credit card from Bank of America with $3500-$4000 on it – she is the only user of the card, I am not listed as an authorized user – I have been making the minimum payments – I can no longer afford to do this – what should I do?

Thank you.

Beth

Answer:

Dear Beth,

If you stop paying then Bank of America may try to collect from her but if she has no assets then there is nothing to go after. Even if they decided to sue her and they won, it sounds as if your mother is what people call judgment proof. This just means there are no assets to go after to try and collect the judgment. Typically, public benefits and Social Security are exempt from being garnished.

Alternatively, your mother could file bankruptcy to legally terminate the debt in about 90 days. In this case she would not face any possible tax liability from the charge-off of the debt and it would stop any future collection attempts.

The cost of filing bankruptcy might be around $1,900 when all is said and done but the rapid elimination of the debt and the ensuing quiet might have some value as well for you and your mother. That is a question you will have to consider.

If bankruptcy sounds like the better way to make your mother’s future days better without the threat of the debt hanging over her, then I would suggest you talk to a local bankruptcy attorney and discuss her specific situation. Most bankruptcy attorneys will gladly talk to you for free.

Before I go I wanted to leave you with three easy action items you jump on right now to address your situation. Just click here.

“Steve

Get Out of Debt Guy – Twitter, G+, Facebook

If you have a credit or debt question you’d like to ask, just click here and ask away.

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This article by Steve Rhode first appeared on Get Out of Debt and was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.


After the SendGrid Hack, Beware of Phishing Scams

Email has become a critical tool for transactions — from the sending of Uber receipts to delivery of hotel coupons. Naturally, companies that send mission-critical consumer emails often turn to third-party firms like SendGrid to manage the delivery of millions of messages. Of course, as third parties that maintain trusted relationships with both consumers and corporations, such email providers are an obvious target for hackers. Imagine the damage a criminal could do if he could believably pose as a giant tech firm and send out emails to all consumers? Such emails could ask millions of users to reset their passwords, for example, or update their credit card information, or even send bitcoins.

Such attacks are now under way. SendGrid, which has 180,000 customers and sends emails for giants like Uber and Spotify, said this week that a hacker who broke into company systems earlier this month did more damage than initially believed.

On April 9, the firm confirmed to The New York Times that a Bitcoin-related client account had been compromised and used to send phishing emails to its customers. But on Monday, SendGrid said additional investigation revealed that one of its own employees’ accounts had been compromised and used to access several SendGrid systems in February and March.

“These systems contained usernames, email addresses, and . . . passwords for SendGrid customer and employee accounts,” the firm said on its blog. “In addition, evidence suggests that the cyber criminal accessed servers that contained some of our customers’ recipient email lists/addresses and customer contact information.”

SendGrid says it has not found evidence that customer lists were stolen, but it “cannot rule out the possibility.”

The firm is urging its clients to change passwords and enable two-factor authentication.

It takes only a little creativity to imagine all the damage a hacker who managed to steal customer email lists and credentials could do. But a harrowing tale told by cloud provider Chunkhost.com on its website offers a cautionary tale. Co-owner Nate Daiger wrote last year that a hacker talked SendGrid into changing its point of contact email from support@chunkhost.com to support@chunkhost.info, then used that change to retrieve a password reset email on two bitcoin-using clients. Fortunately, both clients used two-factor authentication, Daiger wrote.

“Our customers’ accounts were protected and the attackers were stymied. But it was really close,” he wrote.

Corporate clients who use third-party email services should be on notice: hackers are actively targeting such accounts. Meanwhile, here’s an important notice to consumers: You can’t believe everything you read, even an email that appears to come from a company you trust. Hackers can sent out very believable-looking phishing emails with requests for password changes or payment information. You should always be skeptical of such emails, but now, you have new reasons to be so. When feasible, avoid clicking on links in emails and instead visit websites directly by typing the site address into your web browser’s address bar.

If you have given up sensitive information to a phisher, it’s important to take steps to control the damage. If it’s an account number, report your account info as stolen so the bank or card issuer can close the account, or take similar steps to stop or undo any instances of fraud. Keep a close eye on your account statements, and check your credit reports and credit scores for signs that someone has opened an account in your name, or is using an existing one. You can get your credit reports for free every year from AnnualCreditReport.com, and you can get your credit scores for free from several sources, including Credit.com.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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


Retirement Account Balances Reach a Record High

It’s no secret Americans aren’t great at saving for retirement. Actually, the research on that is pretty startling, but it seems people who are saving might be getting better at it. Retirement account balances have hit record highs and contributions have increased, according to an analysis from Fidelity Investments, one of the largest mutual fund companies in the country.

At the end of quarter one 2015, the average Fidelity 401(k) balance was $91,800, up 3.6% from last year, and the average individual retirement account balance was a record high of $94,100. Among 401(k) account holders, a record 23% increased their contribution from 2014.

While it’s great to have a snapshot of how some workers are increasing their commitment to saving for retirement, national savings figures fall incredibly short of the Fidelity numbers. Among working-age households, 45.3% do not have retirement accounts, according to a January 2015 report from the National Institute on Retirement Security. The figures are based on 2013 data. That’s 39.6 million households. Americans have an average of $2,500 in their retirement accounts, an average brought down significantly by the large portion of people without any savings.

There are lots of reasons this is concerning, but on an individual basis, reaching retirement age without adequate savings can have dire financial consequences. A lack of savings may lead you into debt or prevent you from paying bills, both of which can damage your credit. You never know when you might need something that requires a credit check, which is part of why it’s so important to plan for long-term financial and credit stability.

The credit implications are important — you can keep an eye on your standing by getting a free credit report summary each month from Credit.com — but saving so you can live comfortably and avoid debt can have a major impact on your overall well-being. You may not be anywhere near that average 401(k) balance of $91,800, but every little bit of savings can mean a lot for your future.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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


Despite Legal Uncertainties, Some Pot Dispensaries Accept Credit Cards

It’s been more than a year since legal recreational pot sales started in Colorado, and as much as dispensary owners enjoy the booming business, they’re sick of swimming in cash. Though the Department of Justice released regulations last year allowing banks to accept money from legal dispensaries, it’s still a federal crime — the announcement that the DOJ won’t pursue institutions that process legal pot money hasn’t been enough to make everyone comfortable.

It seems some Colorado business owners have run out of patience waiting for the banking industry to get on board with legal cannabis sales. According to a poll of 78 state-licensed dispensaries in the Denver area conducted by FOX31, 27 (or 47%) of them would be “willing to accept Visa or MasterCard as payment.”

Some of them may be working with financial institutions that have decided to accept money from legal cannabis sales, despite federal laws, but they’re probably trying to downplay or conceal the nature of the business, FOX31’s investigation suggests. Credit card transactions conducted at legal dispensaries produced receipts with company names like “AJS Holdings LLC” and “Indoor Garden Products.” Even though the federal government has said it will stand by and let legal dispensaries use the banking system and the credit card transactions it enables, that hasn’t erased the concerns over Drug Enforcement Agency audits for money laundering.

Given that credit card processing at marijuana dispensaries remains risky, it’s interesting that nearly half of the companies polled by FOX31 said they’d accept credit cards. (It was unclear from the story if the dispensaries polled actually have the ability to process such payments or if they’d merely like to.)

If it’s becoming more common for dispensaries to accept credit card payments, that’s both good and bad for consumers. The good thing is the ability to pay as you prefer and allow you to walk into a dispensary without a bunch of cash in your wallet. On the other hand, using a credit card may lead consumers to spend more than they can afford, potentially accumulating credit card debt. Then again, all consumer goods pose that threat — the important thing is to spend within your means, whether you’re buying indoor gardening products or “Indoor Gardening Products.” What you put on your credit card doesn’t matter to your financial and credit stability, but how much you charge and how you manage that balance does.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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


13 States Where People Have the Best Credit

Good credit is synonymous with opportunity: It allows you greater access to things like apartments, auto loans and mortgages, not to mention more affordable interest rates on credit products. Unfortunately, the majority of U.S. consumers have what’s called a subprime credit score, meaning their credit history makes it difficult or impossible to get some services or receive low interest rates on financing.

In fact, only in 13 states do the majority of consumers have near prime, prime or super prime credit, according to TransUnion TransRisk Score data from the third quarter of 2014. The TransRisk Score assesses consumers using a scale of 150 to 934, with anything below 700 considered subprime. Nationwide, 55.6% of consumers had subprime credit in Q3 of 2014, and Mississippi had the most consumers with poor or bad credit: 69.2% fell into the subprime or lower category, according to an illustration from the Assets & Opportunity Scorecard produced by the Corporation for Enterprise Development.

While most states are dominated by subprime borrowers, that’s not the case everywhere. Here are the 13 states where consumers with near prime, prime and superprime credit (scores of 700 and above on the 150 to 934 TransRisk Score scale) make up the majority of consumers with credit scores:

13. (tie) Connecticut
Consumers with near prime or better credit: 51.3%
Average credit card debt: $14,147
Borrowers 90+ days past due: 3.25%

New Hampshire
Percentage of consumers with near prime or better credit: 51.3%
Average credit card debt per borrower: $11,269
Percentage of borrowers 90+ days past due on any debt: 2.62%

11. Washington
Consumers with near prime or better credit: 51.5%
Average credit card debt: $11,670
Borrowers 90+ days past due: 2.52%

10. Wisconsin
Consumers with near prime or better credit: 51.6%
Average credit card debt: $7,420
Borrowers 90+ days past due: 2.54%

9. Montana
Consumers with near prime or better credit: 52.5%
Average credit card debt: $7,722
Borrowers 90+ days past due: 2.54%

8. Massachusetts
Consumers with near prime or better credit: 53.2%
Average credit card debt: $12,151
Borrowers 90+ days past due: 2.69%

7. Hawaii
Consumers with near prime or better credit: 53.6%
Average credit card debt: $12,673
Borrowers 90+ days past due: 2.4%

6. Nebraska
Consumers with near prime or better credit: 53.7%
Average credit card debt: $6,424
Borrowers 90+ days past due: 2.26%

5. Iowa
Consumers with near prime or better credit: 53.9%
Average credit card debt: $5,887
Borrowers 90+ days past due: 2.78%

4. Vermont
Consumers with near prime or better credit: 54.2%
Average credit card debt: $9,822
Borrowers 90+ days past due: 2.62%

3. South Dakota
Consumers with near prime or better credit: 55%
Average credit card debt: $6,630
Borrowers 90+ days past due: 2.43%

2. Minnesota
Consumers with near prime or better credit: 57.1%
Average credit card debt: $9,277
Borrowers 90+ days past due: 2.47%

1. North Dakota
Consumers with near prime or better credit: 57.2%
Average credit card debt: $6,005
Borrowers 90+ days past due: 2.11%

Payment history and debt amount are two of the most influential factors that determine credit scores, which is why we included some related data in these state rankings. Keep in mind that the debt amount factor includes how much of your available credit you use, not just how high your balances are. Even if you have little debt, if you have little available credit on your credit cards, your credit score may suffer. To see how your payment history, debt amount and other behaviors affect your credit standing, you can check out your free credit report summary on Credit.com.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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


Homeownership Rate Sinks to Lowest Level Since 1993

The percentage of U.S. residents who own their homes is at the lowest point it has been for more than 20 years, according to a report from the U.S. Census Bureau. In the first quarter of 2015, 63.8% of people owned their housing units, down from 64.8% at the start of 2014 (these figures are seasonally adjusted).

The Census data includes decades of quarterly, seasonally adjusted homeownership rates, and those rates have not fallen below 64% since 1993. The rate was 64% in the fourth quarter of 2014. The margin of error for quarterly homeownership rates is 0.3%, meaning the change from the end of last year to the start of this year wasn’t statistically significant. The year-over-year change is.

Homeownership peaked in the second quarter of 2004 at 69.4% and has generally declined since. Looking just at first-quarter data, the homeownership rate has steadily fallen from a high of 69.2% in 2005. Among consumers younger than 35, homeownership is far less common than it was six years ago, when nearly 40% of that age group were homeowners. As of last quarter, not quite 35% of them are (not seasonally adjusted). The greatest decline in homeownership over the last year came in the 35- to 44-years-old category: It fell from 60.7% in quarter one 2014 to 58.4% this year.

There are many reasons homeownership rates have fallen. Though foreclosure rates have fallen in recent years, they still remain historically high. Former homeowners who went through foreclosure likely haven’t yet been able to return to the real estate market, which partially accounts for the higher number of renters.

On top of that, mortgages aren’t easy to get. Lending standards have eased a bit since the recession, but even consumers with decent credit are still finding it difficult to secure home loans. Given that climate, the most control consumers have over attaining their dream of owning a home is to get their credit in good shape (you can see where you stand by getting a free credit report summary on Credit.com). Coupled with a solid financial standing and an affordable market, a credit history of on-time payments and well-managed debt can improve consumers’ chances of loan approval.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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


Can Wired Cities Outsmart Hackers?

A monster storm is on a collision course with New York City and an evacuation is under way. The streets are clogged, and then it happens. Every traffic light turns red. Within minutes, the world’s largest polished diamond, the Cullinan I, on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art from the collection of the British Crown Jewels, is whisked away by helicopter.

While this may sound like the elevator pitch for an action film, the possibility of such a scenario is more fact than fiction these days.

Cesar Cerrudo is the chief technology officer at IOActive Labs, a global security firm that assesses hardware, software and wetware (that is, the human factor) for enterprises and municipalities. A year ago, Cerrudo made waves when he demonstrated how 200,000 traffic sensors located in major cities around the United States—including New York, Seattle, Washington, and San Francisco—as well as in the UK, France and Australia, could be disabled or reprogrammed because the Sensys Networks sensors system that regulated them was not secure. According to ThreatPost, these sensors “accepted software modifications without double-checking the code’s integrity.” Translation: there was a vulnerability that made it possible for hackers to reprogram traffic lights and snarl traffic.

A widely reported discovery, first discussed last year at a black hat hacker convention in Amsterdam, highlighted a more alarming scenario than the attack of the zombie traffic lights. Researchers Javier Vazquez Vidal and Alberto Garcia Illera found that it was possible, through a simple reverse engineering approach to smart meters, for a hacker to order a citywide blackout.

The vast array of attacks made possible by the introduction of smart systems are many. With every innovation, a city’s attackable surface grows. The boon of smart systems brings with it the need for responsibility. It is critical for municipalities to ensure that these systems are secure. Unfortunately, there are signs out there of a responsibility gap.

According to the New York Times, Cerrudo successfully hacked the same traffic sensors that made news last year, this time in San Francisco, despite reports that the vulnerabilities had been addressed after the initial flurry of coverage when he revealed the problem a year ago. It bears saying the obvious here: Cerrudo’s findings are alarming. With the information of how to hack the Sensys sensors out there, was San Francisco’s security protocol nothing more than dumb luck? How could it be that the same issue was imperiling the safety of San Franciscans?

The integration of smart technology into municipalities is a new thing. The same Times article notes that the market for smart city technology is expected to reach $1 trillion by 2020. As with all new technology, compromises are not only possible, but perhaps even likely, in the beginning. The problem here is that we’re talking about large, populous cities. As they become ever more wired, they become more vulnerable.

The issue is not dissimilar from the one facing private sector leaders. Organizations must constantly defend against a barrage of advanced and persistent attacks from an ever-growing phalanx of highly sophisticated hackers. Some of them work alone. Still others are organized into squadrons recruited or sponsored by foreign powers—as we have seen with the North Korean attack on Sony Pictures and the mega-breach of Anthem suspected to be at the hand of Chinese hackers—for a variety of purposes, none of them good.

The vulnerabilities are numerous, ranging from the power grid to the water supply to the ability to transport food and other necessities to where they are needed. As Cerrudo told the Times, “The current attack surface for cities is huge and wide open to attack. This is a real and immediate danger.”

The solution, however, may not be out of reach. As with the geometric expansion of the Internet of Things market, there is a simple problem here: lack of familiarity at the user level—where human error is always a factor—with proper security protocols. Those protocols are no secret: encryption, long and strong password protection, and multi-factor authentication for users with security clearance.

While the above-noted protocols are not a panacea for the problems that face our incipiently smart cities, they will go a long way towards addressing security hazards and pitfalls.

Cerrudo has also advocated the creation of computer emergency response teams “to address security incidents, coordinate responses and share threat information with other cities.” While CERTs are crucial, the creation of a chief information security officer role in municipal government to quarterback security initiatives and direct defense in a coordinated way may be even more crucial to the problem-sets that arise from our new smart cities. In the pioneering days of the smart city, there are steps that municipalities can take to keep their cities running like clockwork.

It starts with a proactive approach to security.

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

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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