Friday, March 31, 2006

Debt expiration dates

Many years ago, I made the brief mistake of subscribing to the Science Fiction Book Club to score some free books. This quickly got annoying, as they would send me their monthly selection every few weeks unless I remembered to send in an "aiee, no, don't send!" slip. I would then have to return the shipped book. Not infrequently, they would fail to log my return. I cancelled my subscription as quickly as I could.

My final return never got logged, and about a year after I ended my subscription I got my first collection letter. In classic collection agency-letter form, this was followed by a barrage of increasingly nastier missives, vaguely suggesting dire consequences if I didn't make right my debt. Said debt was around $18. I figured they would eventually go away, and they did, but it was a few years before the letters dried up entirely.

Cleaning out some old mail a few weeks ago turned up one of those letters, which got me wondering: What's the statute of limitations on debt? Surely, at some point, creditors lose the right to come after you with sharp, pointy lawsuits and credit-record nastygrams.

And lo and behold, they do, thanks to the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. The law mandates how collection agencies can contact alleged debtors, and also forbids chasing debt that's beyond the statute of limitations. Those vary by state, but Bankrate has a nifty chart that offers a good starting point.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The surprising key to credit-card satisfaction

Sorry for the unexpected hiatus. I am the world's worst business traveler -- it always takes me days to recover afterward, and I get incredibly unproductive until the post-travel/jet-lag-blah passes. I have no idea how salespeople and whatnot stand doing it constantly.

Anyway, I return with a rant. When choosing credit cards, I typically look at the fine print about rates, terms, grace periods, etc. Something it never occurred to me to investigate: how annoying is the lender?

My Amex In NYC card has been my main pay-off-each-month card for about 18 months. For several years, I've also had a Providian Visa, which I got to take advantage of the 4% lifetime ARP on transferred balances. I transferred over my credit card debt, paid off a chunk each month, stuck the card in a drawer, and ignored it.

Everything went smoothly until last September, when I was distracted (it was another damn business trip, naturally) and forgot to make a payment. Whoops. I remembered about a week after the due date and promptly sent it off, but by then, the damage was done. Providian whacked me with a $40 late fee. I called, complained, and got it removed, but the really nasty part was that the late payment triggered an APR jump. My 4% rate shot to 20% -- with no formal notice. I found out about the penalty when I saw the sky-high charges on my next statement. I called again to complain, this time about the lack of notice that I'd triggered a rate increase. I also politely threatened to yank my balance off the card if they didn't put my rate back down. They refused, and I went shopping for another transfer offer. Crankily. My balance was low enough that the higher APR wasn't actually costing me that much; I was more annoyed by the shoddy customer service and the principle of the thing.

So, for once, I took an interest in the credit-card offers jamming my mailbox. Chase sent one offering a 0% balance transfer through 2007. I took it, and transferred my Providian balance. (I decided not to cancel the Providian card, though, to keep the free FICO score access.)

The problems with Chase started with my very first statement. I had scoured the fine print of their card offer for catches, but managed to miss the big one: they offer a 0% APR, but charge a transfer fee on balances moved over. I maxed it out and got hit with a $75 charge. Grrrrrrrr. Also, the dangled 'no APR till 2007' promise didn't pan out -- they instead only set my 0% APR period for about three months. Another little fine-print catch: they can change the terms of their offer at any time. Grrr again.

When we got our tax refund, I paid off my credit-card debt and left my Chase and Providian cards with $0 balances. I haven't yet cancelled the Chase card, but I'm highly tempted. My old cards spoiled me. I was unprepared for Chase's constant hard-selling tactics.

The first call was the one that caught me most unaware. A Chase agent rang to 'confirm some information about your account.' It was a few weeks after I'd opened the account, so I figured I'd go along with it. 'Is this your address?' Yes. 'Is this your correct phone number?' Yes. 'OK, Ms. Cowley, I'm enrolling you in the credit-protection plan ...' Wait -- what? I had never agreed at any point in the call to any new 'services' -- I thought I was just confirming information for their records. I emphatically said no, no new services, do not enroll me in anything, and hung up. The agent had a thick Indian accent, and seemed not to follow when I said I hadn't agreed to anything like that. I got the impression he was following a script, and had either missed a step or been instructed that if you get a few minutes into the call, just keep barreling along.

Since then, at least once a week I get a phone call from Chase agents (always from offshore call centers) trying to talk to me about my account. Now, if I'm unluckly enough to answer the phone, I immediately say I don't want any new services and hang up.

Chase also blankets me with mailed offers, of the particularly insidious 'cash this courtesy check to start your new services' variety. One recent one included a $10 check, which would sign me up for a $120/year plan offering 'discounts' at Disney World. I can think of few things more insanely priced and useless.

Luckily, I'm not at all tempted by $10 checks, but such marketing tactics seem deeply deceptive and unethical (though probably legal). Had I known Chase pulled this crap, I would never have gotten their card in the first place. I never expected credit-card companies to be warm and fuzzy corporate Samaritans, but this is skeezier than anything I've experienced with other companies.

So, for any considering Chase cards, be warned!

Monday, March 20, 2006

Rebuff the upselling, score perks anyway

I'm in Vegas this week for a software conference, and my company kindly shelled out for me to stay in style at the conference hotel, the
Venetian. (Motto: "More gilt per inch than Trump's most lurid imagined fantasyland!") When I checked in, the clerk promptly asked if I'd like to upgrade to a larger room. Larger!? Ha ha, no. The basic room is already bigger than my first NYC apartment. Next question: Would I like to upgrade to a room with a view of the Strip? Again, no.

Turns out the only rooms available at the moment all had Strip views -- so I got for free the "upgrade" I'd just declined to pay for. Rental car companies pull this scam all the time. I always book economy cars. (I'm short; I don't need legroom.) Inevitably, the first thing I'm asked when I arrive is "would you like to upgrade to a full-size?" Trick is, many car companies don't even bother actually stocking economy cars any more. More than half the time, when I turn down the full-size upgrade, I get a full-size car anyway for the economy price.

Insurance is another area where rental-car companies famously try to slip in lucrative, unnecessary add-ons. If you have your own auto insurance, you're generally covered for anything that happens with a rental car. If you don't have personal insurance, you still likely have some coverage on your credit card -- many offer policies that cover loss and damage, as my Amex does.

But here's something particularly insidious I hadn't known about before. Two weeks ago, I rented a car from Hertz for a quick day trip to Long Island. While filling out the forms, I noticed a small sign on the counter (very small) mentioning something legalistic about Hertz's optional CDW (collision damage waiver) covering damage beyond the insurance level mandated in NY. Googling turns up the info that New York requires rental car companies to cover collision damage on all rentals -- making Hertz's add-on CDW coverage in NYC even more ridiculous than usual.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Because we really needed another Byzantine credit scoring system

I'd been out of the loop. "No post on the new VantageScore yet?" my sister asked. Er, VantageWTF? Thank god for Google News.

Apparently the Credit Data Triumvirate -- Experian, TransUnion and Equifax -- banded together to unveil VantageScore yesterday, a new credit-scoring model to compete with FICO. VantageScores will range from 501-990 (higher is better), versus the 300-850 scale FICO uses.

What else is different? No one can tell. The Triumvirate is being even less forthcoming than FICO creator Fair Isaac about how their scores are calculated. The promotional propaganda says VantageScore was created "to address the market need for a common sense approach to credit scoring." Like hell. VantageScore was created to address the Triumvirate's crankiness about all the money Fair Isaac collects for holding the keys to the FICO kingdom.

A Fair Isaac spokesman told the LA Times that the Triumvirate "have all had their own credit scores that they have tried to sell against us, and they've been wildly unsuccessful. This is them trying to take another crack at our fortress." Investors suspect it will be a successful crack. Fair Isaac's stock dropped 7 percent yesterday.

So what does this mean for consumers? In the short term, not much. FICO is entrenched in the credit-granting process. The Triumvirate plans to market VantageScore to mortgage firms, credit-card companies and other lenders, and they'll need to individually persuade FICO users to switch. That certainly won't happen swiftly. If VantageScore does catch on, it's likely to exist in parallel with FICO for a long while, with lenders scrutinizing any cases that kick up wildly different results from the two models. VantageScore's backers claim their algorithms (the details of which I have not seen any public comment about) will better predict the credit habits of "thin-file consumers," those with a scant paper trail (like young adults). It's possible they've built a better mousetrap, but the idea of one black-box credit scoring model replacing another black-box model does not fill my consumerist heart with joy.

Consumers won't be able to get their hands on their VantageScores for at least another few weeks, says the Washington Post.

I'm curious if consumers will be required to pay for access to their scores, as they are with FICO. I just rang the Equifax media contact listed for VantageScore queries to ask; I'll report back when my call gets returned.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

More financial paperwork: your social security statement

I'm part of the generation that considers Social Security something mysterious and mythic -- I gather it's supporting a large chunk of the population in their old age and infirmity, but it's nothing I'm banking on in my own retirement planning. Still, it's interesting to have some idea of how it works and where you stand on earning benefits. That's where your annual Social Security statement comes in.

The full story of Social Security's intricacies would require a thesis to explain, but the quick gist is that to earn retirement or disability benefits, you need to accrue "credits" for working. For 2006, you earn one credit for each $970 of wages or self-employment income. You can earn a maximum of four credits per year, so it takes at least 10 years of work to accrue enough credits for retirement payments. Those years don't need to be contiguous, though -- you can earn a few credits, have no income for few years, and pick up again with no problem.

Your annual statement shows how many credits the SSA has on record for you, which is useful to check against your own work records. It also estimates your expected benefits for retirement or disability, and the survivors' benefits that would be available to your family if you die. A sample statement, with explanations, is available at the SSA website.

The SSA automatically sends out statements annually three months before your birthday. If you feel the need to see one sooner, you can also request it online, although the statement will still come to you via snail mail. David's turned up recently, and we realised we haven't seen one for me in a long time. Because we bounce around a lot, I rang the SSA to ask about changing my address in their files. It turns out they pull address information from annual tax filings to the IRS -- so, if you're filing taxes, the SSA should find you and get your statement mailed out properly.

Also, like many government agencies, the Social Security Administration is in charge of all sorts of bizarre, semi-random tasks. Such as compiling lists of the most popular baby names each year. (2004 winners: Jacob and Emily. The records go back to 1880, when the top names were John and Mary. Stacy has been plunging like a stone since its popularity peak in 1973.)

Sunday, March 12, 2006

A very elaborate way to scam credit card companies

A number of personal-finance bloggers like to play arbitrage with
zero-percent balance transfer offers
from credit-card companies. The basic idea: Credit card lenders are strafing people with offers for limited-time 0% APRs on balance transfers. You accept, take out the biggest balance transfer you can get (generally something in the $5,000-$20,000) range, and tell the lender to transfer the balance from another card where you're not actually carrying a balance. That creates a massive credit on the second card. You call that second lender, tell them to cut you a check for the refund, and take that money and park it in a high-interest savings or money-market account like ING Direct's (current promotional rate: 4.75% APY). You set up automatic payments to zap over monthly minimums to the card with the massive balance. When the 0% APR expires, you pay it off. Meanwhile, you've gained several hundred dollars risk free from the interest you've earned.

I think it's a silly game to play. There are practical considerations. tracked what doing this did to his FICO score over the course of a year -- since you're running up huge liabilities, FICO freaks out. (His score bounced around between a 612 and a 751). If you're late with a payment, your 0% APR disappears. If you use the card with the balance for anything else, you start owing finance charges: When you have a low-rate balance transfer on a card, and then use it for a new purchase, that new purchase becomes the very last thing that your repayment dollars are applied to.

Still, in the right circumstances, you can pull this trick off and make money with it. I still think it's pretty silly. likes to muck around with this. In "The Value of A Great Balance Transfer Deal," he breaks down the math behind one of them: an $11,000 balance transfer from Citibank at 1.9% APR will net him $600 after tax over three years. This game strikes me as a hell of a lot of work for $200 a year. The only reason I can see for doing that is that you're a finance geek and enjoy the work. Which is a perfectly fine hobby, but there must be more lucrative investment schemes out there, if you're willing to devote that kind of time and attention to detail ...

For those who do want to fuss with extracting the very best possible rates on money socked away in savings, though, my friend Stephen pointed out an excellent resource: a Bank Deals blog. The site tracks and compares rates on money-market, CD and savings accounts ... for fun. Yow. Still, yay for financial geeks!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Minimum Visa/Mastercard charge requirements not allowed

NYC is home of the small grocery shopping trip. I don't have a car and am limited to the groceries I can carry on my own. That, combined with my own scheduling scatteredness, means I do near-daily grocery runs for whatever items I need for that night's dinner. Which means I make a number of grocery trips where I'm buying just one or two things and spending something like $6. No problem if I have cash; big pain if I haven't hit the ATM recently, since nearly every small deli/bodega I shop at has those "sorry, $10 minimum on credit card charges" signs.

Turns out minimums are a violation of Visa and MasterCard's merchant agreements. If you want to charge your 75-cent candy bar, you're technically entitled to. MSNBC covers this in a recent "Ask the Consumer Man" column. Some Googling turned up further confirmation, including an NY Better Business Bureau page on the issue.

In actual practise, I don't know that I'll challenge the policy at places I shop regularly. Kicking up a stink may or may not work, and is unlikely to endear me to the shop owners. But the pharmacy I hate, but occasionally stop in at anyway because it's close, which claims a $25 minimum on credit-card purchases? There, I may make a scene next time I'm caught short-cashed.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Because the best price point is free

Another in my very infrequent frugality series: Microsoft is giving away completely free USB thumb drives. (Offer good in the U.S. only. Sorry, international readers!) Loaded with Microsoft propaganda, of course. Since they can be pretty useful devices, I figured I'd pass it along. My sister was quite astounded this weekend when I introduced her to her first flash drive, which we used to transfer MP3s between computers. (I was impressed -- her circa-1999 iMac had no problem with the drive and required no drivers.) Thumb drives seem to be the tech tchotchke of choice these days; I tend to get piles of them in press kits. Still, it's nice to have an alternative to small-capacity-and-breakable floppy disks!

(The answers to Microsoft's questions are '2' and true to all the rest.)

Colour-shifting ink, watermarks, and a really obscured motto

New $10 bills are rolling out today, featuring more colour and the catchy slogan "We T[splot]N People."

Now if only they would start making the bills out of plastic instead of paper, David could stop griping out how our colourless paper money doesn't feel like real currency. Whereas when we go to Australia, I feel like I'm playing with Fisher Price My First Money(tm).

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Frozen assets

Over the weekend, my sister and I were talking about financial matters. She said she'd come up with a way to control credit-card impulse spending: she froze her card.

I assumed she meant she'd had the issuer halt new purchases. No. She literally froze the card.

"When I want to buy something, I have to spend a few hours thawing the card," she said happily. "And then I usually decide it isn't worth it."

I think we should pass a bill requiring Congress to give this a try, as a deficit-reduction measure. And then pass another bill authorizing the construction of a really, really big freezer. I'm thinking we could repurpose West Virgina for the cause.