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Dear Liz: My cousin had his house broken into a little over a year ago. A lot of things were taken, but insurance replaced most of what he thought was missing. This year after he filed his return he was contacted by the IRS, which told him that a return using his information had already been filed and the refund check cashed. The IRS is investigating the situation now, but I really worry about what is going to happen to his Social Security in the future if someone else is using his numbers or those of his children. Do you have any information on what steps he should take?
Answer: Theft of tax refunds is a growing problem. In fact, tax identity theft is the No. 1 fraud on the IRS’ list of Dirty Dozen Tax Scams of 2012.
The fraud is often perpetrated by organized criminal gangs that con, steal or buy people’s personal information to create bogus returns. Some people fall right into the bad guys’ hands by responding to emails that purport to be from the IRS. (The IRS doesn’t email people to request personal or financial information.)
If the problem isn’t resolved within a few months, your cousin should contact the agency’s Identity Protection Specialized Unit at (800) 908-4490.
Since the criminals already have his Social Security number and other important financial information, he also should put security freezes on his credit reports at all three bureaus. Links to the bureaus and other information for identity theft victims can be found on the IRS’ site at http://www.irs.gov.
Dear Liz: I hope you can offer me some advice regarding a large credit card debt. My 28-year-old grandson is currently enrolled in college part-time and is employed. Over the last few years, he was not in school and unable to find work. He has, consequently, accumulated a total debt of $7,000 on his three credit cards. What would you advise him to do? He is paying the interest only on his debts as that is all he can afford.
Answer: Today’s minimum payments require credit card borrowers to repay a portion of principal along with the interest owed that month. If he truly is paying only interest, then he’s paying less than the minimum required and his credit scores have probably taken a big hit.
Let’s assume that he’s actually paying the minimums on his cards. He needs to increase his payments if he wants to work his way out of debt faster. That will require earning more income (by working more hours or taking a second job), cutting expenses or both.
Seven thousand dollars is not an insurmountable amount of debt, and certainly not something he should file bankruptcy over. But he may want to talk to a legitimate credit counselor about budgeting strategies or, if he’s really in a bind, a debt management plan that would allow him to pay the debt off over time at lower interest rates. He can get referrals from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at http://www.nfcc.org.
What you shouldn’t do is offer to pay this debt, even if you can. Struggling to repay this debt could teach him not to carry balances in the future. If you pay the debt, the only thing he learns is that he can count on Grandma to bail him out of his own messes.
Dear Liz: In your book “Your Credit Score,” you note that one of the best ways to improve your credit score and lighten your credit card load is to get a personal loan with a credit union and pay it off in installments.
I have two high-interest credit card balances that are hovering right near my credit limits (a little over $15,000 total) that comprise the vast majority of my debt. I’d love to get an installment loan to pay them off, but I’ve applied several times and several places for personal loans — including my credit union — and have either been denied or not given a sufficient loan to cover the total amount. I also don’t have $15,000 in cash sitting around in a savings account to secure a loan of that size.
In this situation, what would you recommend? The minimum payments on these two cards are roughly $190 and $160 each, and I’d love to be able to combine them and maybe even save a few bucks too.
Answer: What you seem to be talking about is a secured personal loan, rather than one that’s unsecured. Secured personal loans typically require that you have an equivalent amount in a bank account or certificate of deposit as collateral for the loan. If you have the cash, though, you wouldn’t need the loan — you could use the money to pay off your debt.
Unsecured personal loans don’t have collateral. The bank or credit union is relying on your word that you’ll repay the loan. Not surprisingly, lenders can be pretty picky about whose word they will trust. Few will take a risk on borrowers with poor credit scores — and those maxed-out cards, accompanied by all those loan applications, aren’t helping yours.
For now, give up the idea of getting a loan. Instead, take whatever cash you have to pay down the cards as far as you can. Retain $500 or so as an emergency fund, but put the rest to use in eliminating this high-rate debt.
Next, start cutting expenses so you can free up more money to repay your debt. Do you eat out? Cut back. Pay for TV? Ditch the cable. Take vacations? Stay home for a while. None of these sacrifices has to be more than temporary, as long as you’re willing to stop adding to your debt.
Paying credit card debt is a lot like losing weight. If you don’t make much effort, you won’t get much result. But sending in big payments each month will help you see progress pretty quickly, which can inspire you to keep going.
Once you’ve got the debt paid off, don’t charge more on the cards than you can afford to pay off each month.
Dear Liz: Should my retired wife (age 74) and I (age 78) refinance our home just to lower our monthly payment by $100? I’m considering going for a five-year fixed at 2.74% followed by a 25-year variable. Our outstanding loans amount to $200,000. The value of our home has decreased to $400,000. My wife is fearful of the 25-year variable.
Answer: As she should be. According to mortality tables, she’d have to live with it longer than you will.
You two are old enough to remember the double-digit inflation of the 1970s and the havoc that wreaked. If inflation like that (or anything close) were to return, your mortgage payment could quickly become unaffordable.
Economists are concerned that all the cash that’s been pumped into the economy to fight the downturn could spark inflation if growth resumes. Too much cash chasing too few goods is what traditionally has led to serious inflation.
In any case, lenders know that today’s record low interest rates won’t last. That’s why they’re so eager to push loans that will become variable at some point — so that the borrowers will be the ones to shoulder the interest rate risk.
Some borrowers can take that risk, but they tend to be younger folks whose incomes are also likely to rise if inflation returns. For people on fixed incomes, the math really doesn’t work.
Do yourself and your wife a favor. If your current loan has a fixed rate, stay with what you have. If it doesn’t, consider refinancing to one that does.