4 Non-Banks Where You Can Get a Mortgage

Getting a home loan doesn’t require a trip to the bank. In fact, 37.5% of mortgages originated in 2014 came from non-bank lenders, according to Inside Mortgage Finance. That share has grown significantly in the last few years, but it’s not a new concept. Non-bank lending declined dramatically during the mortgage crisis, but the current market share is similar to what it was in the early 2000s, said Guy Cecala, CEO and publisher of Inside Mortgage Finance

Non-bank lenders aren’t all that different from depository institutions that originate mortgages, except non-banks tend to not have physical locations for consumers to visit, and they’re not as regulated as banks. Still, they must comply with rules set by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and state regulators.

“There’s nothing negative associated with a non-bank vs. a bank making you a mortgage,” Cecala said. He’s been covering the industry since 1984. “They can both do as good a job or as bad a job, but it’s not necessarily associated with whether they’re a depository institution or not.”

The increase in non-bank lending mostly affects consumers in that it gives them more options when shopping for a mortgage.

“Before the financial crisis, there was a huge amount of consolidation, and the market was dominated by a small number of large banks,” Cecala said. “In that regard, it’s much better from a consumer standpoint than it was before. … That means you have to do more shopping. It’s up to you to decide which has the best terms or offerings for you.”

Among the common choices for non-bank mortgage lenders are credit unions. Here are a few other non-bank mortgage lenders in the U.S. market.

1. Quicken Loans

Based in Detroit, Quicken Loans is the largest online mortgage lender in the U.S., according to its website, but it was founded as Rock Financial Corp. in 1985 as a branch-based lender. From 2013 to 2014, it closed $140 billion of mortgage volume in 50 states.

2. PennyMac

PennyMac was founded in 2008 and is based in Moorpark, Calif. PennyMac’s website says it has more than 225,000 customers.

3. Nationstar

Dallas-based Nationstar mortgage started in 1994 and says it has more than 2 million customers.

4. PHH Mortgage

PHH Mortgage is a subsidiary of PHH Corp., which was founded in 1946. In 2014, PHH Mortgage closed about $36 billion in mortgage financing.

There are a lot of options. No matter where you end up getting a mortgage loan, it’s important to consider many different lenders and figure out which one has the best offer for you. Mortgage inquiries made on your credit report within 14 or 45 days of each other will count only as one hard inquiry, depending on the credit score model (many hard inquiries will hurt your credit score), allowing you to thoroughly explore your options. Even before you start shopping make an effort to improve your credit standing, because with large loans, a few points on a credit score could have a significant impact on how much you pay. You can see where your credit scores stand for free 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.

The 5 Most Annoying Things About Buying a Home

When you are looking to enter a new living situation, the rent vs. buy decision can be difficult to make. While your specific situation dictates which option is best for you, many Americans find themselves purchasing a home at least once in their life. In fact, it is likely the biggest financial choice you will make.

As you calculate how much home mortgage you can afford to take on, you may think you have every possible cost and possible roadblock accounted for, but there are plenty of steps to buying a home that you may not be able to predict and they’re not the most fun to deal with.

1. Sending Reams of Required Documents

It may seem obvious that there is a lot paperwork involved in the homebuying process, but you could be surprised how flexible and responsive you are expected to be. Your real estate agent, seller, title company, mortgage lender and even attorney are helping to ensure you make all of the many deadlines and requirements, and it can be exhausting. Get ready for requests for personal and financial documentation up until the day of the settlement. It’s best to be as prepared as you can ahead of time and provide these as quickly as you can. This applies to proving your income with tax returns as well as answering any lingering credit questions as well. You can get a full picture of where your credit stands by pulling your free annual credit reports at AnnualCreditReport.com and your credit scores for free every month on Credit.com.

2. Appraisal & Inspection

While it may seem redundant after a seller presumably had the same processes done, astute buyers will organize an independent estimate of the value of the home they are buying and schedule an inspection. This costs a few hundred dollars (paid to a third-party company) and ensures all parties that the home is free of undisclosed structural defects and being acquired at a fair price.

3. Waiting

No matter how many contracts guarantee the speed and style of your real estate transaction, things come up. It’s a good idea to build time for delays into your plan. Your lender may take longer to close, title issues can come up, and the seller may need more time before moving out are just some of a myriad of issues that can happen – and slow you down.

4. Paying Closing Costs

While this may not sound groundbreaking, the real purpose and final amount of closing costs often surprise first-time homebuyers. Between lender charges, settlement services and various fees, it’s important to be prepared to shell out much more than a hefty down payment. The seller sometimes covers these, but the amount is usually between 2% and 5% of your home’s value.

5. Having to Start Over

While this hopefully will not come up, you must realize as a potential homebuyer that sales can fall through. You are not always in control of whether the sale gets finalized. Shopping for homes is just like anything else in life in that it’s a good idea to have a Plan B.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

This article by AJ Smith was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.

FTC, Illinois Attorney General Halt Chicago Area Operation Charged With Illegally Pressuring Consumers to Pay ‘Phantom’ Debts

The Federal Trade Commission and the Illinois Attorney General’s Office have obtained a court order temporarily halting a fake debt collection scam located in Aurora, Illinois, a western suburb of Chicago. The defendants are charged with illegally using threats and intimidation tactics to coerce consumers to pay payday loan debts they either did not owe, or did not owe to the defendants.

The FTC’s case against K.I.P., LLC, Charles Dickey, and Chantelle Dickey is the agency’s seventh ‘phantom’ debt collector matter.

 “This company scared and tricked people into paying debts they didn’t owe,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Working with terrific partners like the Illinois Attorney General, we will keep going after phantom debt scams like this one and shutting them down.”

“The defendants have threatened and intimidated their way into stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from unsuspecting people all across the country,” Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan said. “Between our two offices, we have hundreds of complaints. It is clear they must be stopped.”

According to the complaint, since at least 2010, the defendants used a host of business names to target consumers who obtained or applied for payday or other short-term loans, pressuring them into paying debts that they either did not owe or that the defendants had no authority to collect. 

Often armed with sensitive financial information, the defendants would call consumers and demand immediate payment for payday loans that were supposedly delinquent.  To pressure consumers to pay, the defendants threatened that they would:

  • Garnish consumers’ wages;
  • Suspend or revoke their drivers’ licenses;
  • Have them arrested or imprisoned; or
  • File a lawsuit against them.

In response to the defendants’ repeated calls and alleged threats, many consumers paid the debts, even though they may not have owed them, because they believed the defendants would follow through on their threats or they simply wanted to end the harassing phone calls.

The complaint also charges the defendants with failing to provide consumers with a notice containing: 1) the amount of the debt; 2) the name of the creditor to whom the debt is owed; 3) a statement that unless the consumer disputes the debt, it will be assumed to be valid; 4) a statement that if the consumer does dispute the debt in writing, the defendants will verify the debt is correct; and 5) a statement that upon the consumer’s written request, the defendants will provide the consumer with the name and address of the original creditor if different from the current creditor.

Finally, the complaint charges that the defendants: called consumers at work when they knew such calls were prohibited by consumers’ employers; harassed and abused consumers; used obscene or profane language; and called consumers repeatedly with the intent of annoying or abusing them.

The complaint also alleges that the defendants violated the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act and the Illinois Collection Agency Act, and that the defendants are not licensed debt collectors as required by Illinois law.

Defendants named in the case include: K.I.P., LLC; Charles Dickey, individually and as an owner, member, or managing member of K.I.P., LLC, and also doing business as (d/b/a) Ezell Williams and Associates, Corp.; Ezell Williams, LLC; Excel Receivables, Corp.; Second Chance Financial Credit, Corp.; Second Chance Financial, LLC; Payday Loan Recovery Group, LLC; Payday Loan Recovery Group; Payday Loan Recovery; International Recovery Services, LLC; International Recovery Services; and D&R Recovery. The complaint also names Chantelle Dickey, also known as Chantelle Rudd and Chantelle Williams, as an individual and as a manager of K.I.P.

The FTC and the Illinois Attorney General’s Office appreciate the Aurora Police Department, North Aurora Police Department, Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Northern Illinois, and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service Chicago Division for their valuable assistance with this matter.

For consumer information about your rights under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, see Facing Debt Collection? Know Your Rights. For consumer tips on dealing with phantom debt collectors, see Fake Debt Collectors.

The Commission vote approving the filing of the joint complaint was 5-0. It was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. The court issued a temporary restraining order halting the charged practices, freezing the defendants’ assets, and appointing a temporary receiver to take control of the business.

NOTE: The Commission files a complaint when it has “reason to believe” that the law has been or is being violated and it appears to the Commission that a proceeding is in the public interest. The case will be decided by the court.

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

Why Identity Theft Victims Wait 9 Months for Their Tax Refund

Hundreds of thousands of taxpayers experience significantly delayed refunds every year because of tax-related identity theft. That delay lasted an average of 278 days — more than nine months — according to a new audit of tax accounts resolved in fiscal year 2013 (Oct. 1, 2012 through Sept. 30, 2013) by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. The audit was intended as a follow-up on a previous review to see if the IRS had improved its dealings with identity theft victims.

Well, the delays are still significant, but things seem to have gotten a bit better. The average delay is 34 days shorter than TIGTA found in a previous review, but such long delays can be a huge financial and emotional burden for victims in need of their refunds.

On top of the long waiting periods, TIGTA found that 10% of identity theft cases the IRS resolved were done so incorrectly, resulting in further delays in getting the victim his or her accurate refund. The review found that the time from when the IRS received victims’ tax returns until the IRS paid the correct refund ranged from 16 to 762 days.

Much of the delays come from having the cases repeatedly reassigned to (and sitting on the desks of) assistors. In its prior review, TIGTA found that cases were reassigned an average of 10 times before being resolved, and the frequent transfers often contributed to inactivity on the cases. It all adds up to longer delays between sending a tax return and receiving a refund.

This most recent audit showed that transfers have declined — a case is now reassigned to an average of seven assistors before getting resolved — and the average inactivity on the cases declined, as well, from 277 days to 254 days. Auditors asked accounts management officials about the reasoning behind frequent transfers and summarized the interviews in the report:

“The officials could not recall the specific circumstances as to why these cases were frequently reassigned among the holding queues. … The IRS informed us that the cases are complex and IRS management is more interested in identifying a trained employee to work an identity theft case than the number of case reassignments. Thus, cases can remain in a manager’s inventory, unassigned to an assistor, until the manager finds an available identity theft trained assistor.”

Like many issues at the IRS, the delays stem from limited resources that continued to be strained by budget cuts.

Tax-related identity theft is a huge problem. The IRS stopped $50 billion in fraudulent tax returns related to identity theft last year, but it lost $5.2 billion to the same problem. Consumers caught up in it may want to plan to deal with the IRS with a mix of patience and persistence. Each year, it’s a good idea to file your taxes as soon as you can, because identity thieves’ strategy is to get to your refund before you do. Additionally, monitor your credit for signs of identity theft on a regular basis, so you can avoid or address other financial messes that result from fraud. You can see a summary of your credit report, updated monthly, 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.

Massive Auburn Data Breach Ensnares Applicants, Students & Those Who Never Even Applied

Thousands of students who never even applied to Auburn University have had their personal information, including Social Security numbers, exposed due to a security flaw discovered March 2. Information about 364,012 current, former and prospective students was accessible online between Sept. 1, 2014, and March 2, 2015.

“The exposure resulted from configuration issues with a new device installed to replace a broken server,” a statement on the university website reads. “After securing our server, we implemented additional network security measures.”

Exposed data includes names, addresses, email addresses, birth dates, Social Security numbers and academic information. The Alabama university had a 2014 enrollment of 25,912 students, but the pool of prospective students caught up in this incident is perhaps the most startling aspect of the breach. Universities can buy information students provide when taking standardized tests like the ACT or SAT, and prior to 2007, that included students’ Social Security numbers. People who have already gone through college without ever considering attending Auburn have been affected by this lapse in data security.

Investigators working with Auburn have not identified any incidents of data abuse related to this breach, according to the university statement, but if people got their hands on this data, the risk for fraud and identity theft will remain for decades. Auburn is offering two years of free credit monitoring and identity theft protection services to those affected, which may be helpful in the short term, but experts recommend lifelong monitoring when a Social Security number has been compromised.

Identity theft can be costly and time consuming to correct, particularly when a fraudster has engaged in damaging financial behaviors in your name. The sooner you spot unauthorized use of your credit information or identity, the more likely you are to avoid fraud-related problems like inaccurate credit reports, damaged credit scores and all the problems that come with that, like trouble getting a credit card or dealing with high interest rates when applying for a loan. You can keep an eye your credit scores for free every month on Credit.com to look for any sudden changes that may signal new-account fraud.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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

Court Temporarily Halts Company From Offering Mortgage Relief Services

L.A.-based Defendants Deceptively Pitched Their ‘Services’ Online and Over the Phone

Continuing to crack down on phony mortgage relief programs, a federal court has temporarily halted Los Angeles-based Wealth Educators, Inc. and its president from offering mortgage relief services at the Federal Trade Commission’s request. The agency charged the defendants with failing to provide the help they promised homeowners, while charging a hefty up-front fee. The company also told consumers to stop making their monthly mortgage payments, leading some facing the prospect of foreclosure. 

“It’s illegal to charge an up-front fee for the promise of a mortgage modification,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Companies offering such services can’t charge a fee until you have an acceptable written offer from your lender or servicer. If they ask for payment first, walk away.”

According to the FTC’s complaint, since at least October 2012, the Wealth Educators defendants have operated under a variety of names, including Legal Educators USA & Co., Stargate Mutual & Associates, Providence Financial Advocates, and Providence Financial Audits, while selling supposed mortgage relief services to consumers.

The defendants used outbound telemarketing to pitch their programs to consumers. Many of the targeted consumers were homeowners in financial trouble, whom the company promised it could help by lowering their monthly mortgage payment, lowering their mortgage interest rate, or obtaining loan modification or restructuring. The defendants also used websites allegedly set up by Veronica Sesma, the owner and president of Wealth Educators, to advertise the supposed mortgage relief services.

Before providing any services, however, Wealth Educators charged consumers an up-front fee ranging from $1,000 to $5,000, promising the money would be fully refunded if the company didn’t provide the relief it promised. On its website, Wealth Educators claimed it was “America’s Leading Home Preservation Legal Services,” saying that they “. . . act on behalf of homeowners to work with your lender and avoid the lengthy and costly process of foreclosure and the stressful act of eviction that follows…”.

Unfortunately, according to the complaint, while Wealth Educators told many consumers they could get them a loan modification, typically through a government-sponsored program, and even quoted a specific amount consumers’ mortgage payments would be reduced, the company often did not provide the promised relief services. In addition, the company told consumers to stop communicating with their lenders, delaying them from discovering that Wealth Educators had not obtained the promised mortgage relief. Finally, while promising a “100% refund” of the service fee if it did not provide the promised mortgage relief services, consumers who tried to get their money back could not do so.

The FTC charged the defendants with violating the FTC Act and the Mortgage Assistance Relief Services (MARS) Rule, now known as Regulation O. The Rule bans mortgage foreclosure rescue and loan modification service providers from collecting fees until homeowners have a written offer from their lender or servicer that they deem acceptable. In filing the complaint, the FTC is seeking an immediate halt to the defendants’ allegedly deceptive conduct, along with an asset freeze to ensure the preservation of funds for possible consumer redress.

Defendants named in the case include: Wealth Educators, Inc., also doing business as (d/b/a) Family 1st Preservations; Family 1st Home Loans; Legal Affiliates & Associates; Legal Educators & Co.; Family 1st Home Preservation; Legal Educators USA & Co.; Stargate Mutual & Associates; Providence Financial Associates; and Providence Financial Audits; as well as Veronica Sesma, also d/b/a Sesma Consulting.

For consumer information about avoiding 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 has entered a temporary restraining order against the defendants.

NOTE: The Commission files a complaint when it has “reason to believe” that the law has been or is being violated and it appears to the Commission that a proceeding is in the public interest. The case will be decided by the court.

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

7 Colleges You Can Attend for Free

There are several ways to avoid taking out student loans in order to get a degree. The first: save a ton of money. That’s usually best accomplished over the course of a child’s lifetime. Another tactic: scholarships. Then there’s the option of choosing an inexpensive school you can pay for out of pocket, probably by working in addition to studying.

Or you could go to a college that’s free.

The tuition-free education is a real thing, but such programs are available only to people who meet very specific qualifications. Here are a few of the best-known colleges where people can attend without paying tuition.

1. Stanford University

At the end of March, Stanford announced it would cover the tuition for admitted students whose parents have annual incomes below $125,000 “and typical assets,” and students whose parents make less than $65,000 annually will also have their room and board paid for by the school. The previous thresholds were $100,000 and $60,000, respectively.

Most Ivy League schools, which are among some of the most expensive in the country, have similar programs. The key is to look at selective universities with large endowments, including Duke and MIT.

2. United States Military Academy

The armed forces colleges, including the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.; the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.; and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y., do not charge tuition. The admission process is grueling and selective, but qualified students receive a tuition-free education in exchange for their military service.

3. Barclay College

Barclay is a Bible college in Haviland, Kansas, that gives resident, admitted students an $11,000 full-tuition scholarship. Unlike the large schools with massive endowments, this Bible college does free tuition on a much smaller scale. The 2013 first-year class included 38 students, and total enrollment hovers around 250 students.

“College supporters fund the full-tuition scholarship so students may graduate with an excellent Christian education without the weight of a debt mountain,” the Barclay website reads.

Many religious and ministry schools, which are generally small, cover the tuition costs of their students through grants. Moody Bible Institute in Chicago is another example of this: Grants pay for students’ tuition, while the student is responsible for room and board.

4. Berea College

At some schools, students literally earn their keep. Berea College in Berea, Ky., is a liberal arts college with about 1,600 students. It’s a Christian college that requires students to work 10 to 15 hours each week on campus or in the community, while taking a full course load. Every student receives the Tuition Promise Scholarship, which is supported by the college endowment and alumni donations, allowing all students to pay $0 of the $23,400 tuition (for the 2014-2015 academic year). Students are responsible for food and housing, but non-loan financial aid is available to qualified applicants.

Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes, Ky., is quite similar, and both Alice Lloyd and Berea are dedicated to serving students from Appalachia. College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Mo., is another Christian liberal arts school that requires students to work and charges no tuition. Deep Springs College in California employs its roughly 26 students to work about 20 hours a week on its farm and ranch. Deep Springs is a two-year school that gives full scholarships to all students to cover tuition, room and board.

5. City University of New York

Students who can meet the high academic standards of the Macaulay Honors College at CUNY receive full-tuition scholarships for four years of undergraduate study, excluding fees. Only New York residents are eligible to be Macaulay Scholars.

It’s a tough program: Students who drop or withdraw from a course are responsible for all expenses. Honors college students must have a 3.3 GPA by the end of their freshman year and a 3.5 by the end of sophomore year through graduation. Students must also study abroad or complete an internship, in addition to 30 hours of community service.

6. Webb Institute

This engineering college in Glen Cove, N.Y., has one major: naval architecture and marine engineering. It’s a very specific (and rigorous) education, but that focus pays for itself. All U.S. citizens and Green Card holders receive full-tuition scholarships (tuition for foreign students is $44,000 this year), though student expenses amount to $18,905 when you factor in room, board, books, and other materials necessary for the program. About 80 students attend Webb.

7. Curtis Institute of Music

The Curtis Institute of Music is a conservatory in Philadelphia that provides full scholarships to all students, valued at $38,728 for undergraduate students and $50,701 for graduate students. Students must first pass an application screening to receive the opportunity for an in-person audition in Philadelphia.

“Admissions to the Curtis Institute of Music are based on artistic promise alone,” its website says. Enrollment, which is about 170 students, is limited to available space in the symphony orchestra, opera department and programs in piano, composition, conducting, organ, guitar and harpsichord.

In case you haven’t spotted the theme here, specificity and talent are the keys to attending a school without paying tuition. Even for schools without such stringent admission requirements, outside scholarships are often similarly competitive. At the same time, you don’t have to be a prodigy or vocation-oriented student to avoid unaffordable student loan debt.

Finding a school that will provide you the best value requires a lot of time and research, but using student loans isn’t a terrible thing, either. Consider the starting salary for the profession you’re pursuing, and work hard to make sure your debt load will not exceed that figure upon graduation. Finally, make sure you understand loan repayment options, so if your debt burden becomes difficult to manage, you can maintain a balanced personal budget while avoiding damage to your credit standing. (You can check your credit scores for free 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.

5 Credit Cards for Teens

When Americans turn 18, they are considered adults under the law. That means that they can vote and be tried as an adult, but it’s also the first time that they are able to apply for a credit card account in their own name, though they’ll have to jump through a few hoops first.

Under the CARD Act of 2009, no credit card may be issued to a consumer under the age of 21, unless they have a co-signer who has the means to repay the debts or they can prove they independently can repay the debt.

The problem is that teenagers by their very nature have little or no credit history. (You can see if you’re considered “scoreable” by checking your credit scores for free on Credit.com.) Nevertheless, some credit card issuers are so eager to acquire new customers in this age group, that they can offer cards specifically tailored to their limited credit profiles. These cards for teens and young adults will have lower requirements, in exchange for fewer rewards and higher interest rates than those offered to the general market.

So here are five credit cards, none of which charge an annual fee, that are just right for teens, students and other young adults.

1. Discover it Chrome for Students

This card offers 2% cash back on all dining and as purchases, on up to $1,000 spent each quarter, and 1% cash back on all other purchases. In addition, Discover will waive a cardholder’s first late payment fee, and there is never any penalty interest rate applied. New cardholders will also receive 0% APR promotional financing for six months, and a standard rate of 12.99% to 21.99% after that.

Other benefits include a free FICO credit score on monthly statements, online, and in their mobile app. In addition, the Discover card maintains an excellent reputation for customer service.

2. BankAmericard Credit Card for Students

This card offers new applicants 0% APR promotional financing on new purchases for 15 months, and a standard interest rate of 10.99% to 20.99%. Otherwise, this is a fairly simple card from a major retail bank, so young adults have the opportunity to conveniently manage all of their accounts in one place.

3. Wells Fargo Cash Back College Visa Card

Wells Fargo offers this student card that features 3% cash back on gas, grocery, and drugstore purchases for their first six months card membership. After that, cardholders earn 1% cash back on all purchases. An innovative benefit is a cellular telephone protection program which offers up to $600 of coverage against covered damage or theft at no cost except for a $25 deductible. The coverage is effective so long as you use your Wells Fargo credit card to pay for your service bill.

4. Capital One Journey Student Rewards card

This card features 1% cash back on all purchases, plus a 25% bonus on the cash back each month when cardholders pay their balances on time. Further, cardholders receive a higher line of credit after they make their first five monthly payments on time, as part of Capital One’s Credit Step program. There is no a foreign transaction fee on this or any other Capital One credit card.

5. Citi ThankYou Preferred Card For College Students

New cardholders earn 2,500 bonus ThankYou points after making $500 in purchases within three months of account opening. Cardholders also receive double points for dining and restaurant purchases, plus one point per dollar spent elsewhere. Points are worth about one cent each toward a variety of merchandise, gift card, and travel options. New cardholders also receive seven months of 0% APR promotional financing on new purchases, and a standard rate of 13.99% to 23.99% after that.

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 Jason Steele was distributed by the Personal Finance Syndication Network.

I Never Knew I Had a Debt in Collections. What Are My Rights?

Imagine this scenario: You get a phone call from a debt collector, who tells you they’ve reached out a few times to get you to pay a debt. But you never got any letters or phone calls and maybe you didn’t even know the debt existed in the first place.

For a lot of savvy consumers, this may signal that they’re dealing with a debt collection scammer, but it could be for a more logical reason — you just didn’t get the notice.

We’ve had several Credit.com commenters lately ask us how long they have after their “dunning notice,” which has to be sent via mail within five days of their first phone contact with a collector, to ask for validation of the debt.

One commenter said he worked on a ship and did not receive mail (or presumably phone calls) when the letter informing him of the debt collection arrived.

What the Law Requires

Here’s a little background. In the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, Congress gave consumers the right to request verification (also referred to as “validation”) of a debt.

Ordinarily, this process starts when you get a phone call from a debt collector. Within five days, the debt collector must mail you a notice with specific information about the debt they say you owe, and an explanation of your rights. If the initial contact is by mail, the notice should contain that information.

That letter triggers your rights, giving you 30 days to request validation of the debt. Once you have asked for it, the collector must stop collection efforts until it has fulfilled your request. (The bar for what constitutes validation of debt is fairly low, but you should at least receive information on when the original debt was incurred and to whom.) Whether it’s 10 days or 10 months before the collector responds, attempts to collect have to stop.

This right is considered significant; in fact, even if the debt collector unintentionally fails to comply with this part of the law, it has violated the FDCPA. And timing is everything: That first notice from the creditor must come within five days of the initial contact and after that the consumer has 30 days to initiate the verification process.

Unfortunately, these initial notices may look like junk mail and consumers sometimes overlook them.

Credit.com contributor Michael Bovee, founder of the self-help website Consumer Recovery Network, says it is smart to request validation of the debt. The worst that can happen is you’ll be in the same shape you were before you requested it. And the best? “In some instances where a debt collector has limited or poor access to the documentation, or other media substantiating your debt, they will stop trying to collect from you. You may even prevent collectors with shoddy records from suing you,” he said.

If No Letter Comes

But what if you don’t get the letter that triggers all these deadlines?

According to National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) staff attorney April Kuehnhoff, if a consumer says they didn’t get the initial notice, and the debt collector can show they likely mailed it in the course of their normal business, the burden of proof may be on the consumer to establish that the initial notice was not sent to the right address. But if the debt collector sent it to the wrong address and was returned to the collector as undeliverable to the consumer, then there’s a good chance the collector did not fulfill the requirements of the law if it didn’t update the address and deliver the notice as required. “Even if the letter is not returned, the debt collector may not have complied with the FDCPA if the letter is mailed to the wrong address, especially if the individual never lived at that address or hasn’t lived there for years,” she said by email.

She also notes that if the consumer does not request verification within 30 days after receiving the initial notice of his or her rights, the debt collector is not required to provide verification.

But Bovee says that because of pending federal changes to debt collection rules, legitimate debt collectors are often treating random or unprovoked debt validation requests (where no collection phone call was even made) as if they were timely requests in response to normal collection notices. So you have nothing to lose by requesting a validation of the debt even if you are not doing so within 30 days of receiving the initial notice.

He suggested getting in touch with the original creditor and trying to track down who actually owns (if your debt was sold), or is collecting the debt for your creditor. Because the last thing you want to do is to pay the wrong person — and have that unpaid collection item continue to hurt your credit score. You may also find information on who’s attempting to collect from you by checking your free annual credit reports. You can also get a free credit report summary every 30 days on Credit.com to watch for changes to your report.

Finally, if you request validation within 30 days and the collector doesn’t provide it, or if you otherwise believe a debt collector is breaking the law, you file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau or contact a consumer law attorney for help.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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

11 Million Servers Have a July Expiration Date. Is Your Data Safe?

Old car buffs know that it gets harder to maintain an old clunker as time goes by. Parts for a 1975 AMC Pacer just aren’t easy to find. You know what’s even harder? Finding “parts” for old software. You can hunt around eBay for a Pacer door handle. But you can’t get a security update for Windows XP. That means you actually can keep the old Pacer running, but you really can’t keep a WindowsXP box running.

You might recall the gnashing of teeth that occurred this time last year when Microsoft stopped supporting Windows XP. The firm’s warnings about this change are ominous.

“PCs running Windows XP after April 8, 2014, should not be considered to be protected,” it said.

This, in fact, is the future of all software — at least the way we make software today. It’s a dirty little secret of the digital age. We think data is forever, and in one sense, it can be. On the other hand, software should really come with an expiration date. It often does, if you know how to read between the lines. Microsoft calls it a “lifecycle.” That’s why this year’s gnashing of teeth involves Windows Server 2003, which will be issued its death certificate in July. That’s a problem for companies rather than individuals, but you get the idea. Microsoft’s lifecyle page lists the planned obsolescence of all the company’s operating systems. An estimated 11 million systems run on Windows Server 2003 and chances are your or my data is on more than one of them. Let’s hope they’re all aware of the July cutoff date, but the likelihood is that it got past a few of them.

In the normal course of life, this isn’t a problem for the vast majority of consumers. You probably haven’t owned a WindowsXP computer in a while. Old hardware dies, and new features arise, nudging most people to upgrade long before the software itself “dies.” (Though WindowsXP maintains a remarkably persistent small market share, according to Netmarketshare.com)

The problem is the dynamic nature of the digital world. You just can’t stand still, even for a year or two. If you are like me, you mostly need a computer to type on and perhaps watch a few videos. You didn’t need Word 2013, or even Word 2003. Heck, I use Notepad to write memos and stories half the time. But in the digital world, you can’t avoid the constant upgrades. They are a fact of life — as real as hackers trying to raid your computer and steal your identity.

This matters because you might think your personal data is safe today, and a company you work with might think your personal data is safe today — and both things might be true, yet your data might very well be unsafe tomorrow. In fact, that’s nearly certain to be true unless you or your company intervene somehow. That’s the nature of our dynamic, digital world.

One way this dynamism manifests itself: privacy settings. Most people install apps, like Facebook or kids’ games, make their privacy selections, and then never think about it again. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon recently examined this phenomenon and found that if they nudged users continuously, inviting users to examine the consequences of their selections, they often changed their privacy settings. Of course. When you install an app, you don’t really understand how it works, or how you’ll ultimately use it; and many apps, like Facebook, frequently change privacy settings or invent new features that need to be considered separately. Set-and-forget doesn’t work in the digital world.

Meanwhile, corporations that use today’s top-grade security software to protect your credit card information or Social Security number must be vigilant and learn when someone has hacked the software so they can turn to tomorrow’s top-grade security software.

If all this makes you feel like the world is moving beneath your feet, it is. For too long, we’ve discussed personal privacy in very black-and-white ways — you are either safe, or at risk. That’s just not how it works. Privacy and security are an ever-changing world of risk assessment. All you can do is make the best bet you can, over and over.

This is where my car analogy comes in handy. Nobody drives a car until it breaks down…well, no one should, anyway. Regular oil changes are essential — maybe not as frequent as your mechanic says, but they are essential. And so it is with your digital life. Don’t just check your credit once and forget about it; check it regularly, even monthly if you can (you can check it for free on Credit.com). Don’t install apps on your phone and forget about them: Go through them every three months or so and remove what you don’t need. Back up all your family photos and critical documents at least once each quarter. Change your online banking passwords at least once a year. Google yourself at least that often. And yes, buy new computers every 3-5 years. That gives you a chance at a digital fresh start.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

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