Dear Liz: I think I’ve been scammed, but my credit union has decided I’m simply forgetful. I noticed a debit to my checking account that I did not recognize from a merchant I cannot identify. The merchant name appears on my statement as simply “Portland Portland OR.” My credit union can tell me only that it is a used-merchandise store or secondhand store. I questioned the charge by email and replaced my card. Then I got a letter from the credit union upholding the charge, saying that my card and PIN were present at the time of the transaction. I never did learn the merchant’s name. Can this merchant really not be identified? The $10.48 in dispute is unimportant compared with the complete opacity of the supposed purchase. No name, no address, only a day and time. Is this mystery the best the banking system can do?
Answer: Your credit union could identify the merchant by contacting the card network that processed the transaction, but has apparently decided it’s not worth the effort, said Odysseas Papadimitriou, chief executive of Evolution Finance, which operates the CardHub.com card comparison site. You can demand the credit union identify the merchant for you, but there’s reason to believe this transaction is legitimate, he said.
It’s not just because a personal identification number was used, however, since PINs certainly can be stolen. Hackers have compromised keypads at Michael’s stores and Barnes & Noble, among other retail chains, while Target said encrypted PIN data were stolen in its massive database breach.
But the use of a PIN combined with the small amount of the transaction indicates the culprit here likely is forgetfulness rather than an identity thief, Papadimitriou said. ID thieves are unlikely to make one small transaction and then wait, he said.
“They try to extract the max they can before they get shut down,” Papadimitriou said.
Still, your experience should make you think twice about using a debit card for a retail transaction. With debit card fraud, you may have to fight with your financial institution to get the money back, since the transaction comes directly out of your checking account. With credit cards, you don’t have to pay a disputed transaction until the card company investigates.
Dear Liz: In your column about saving loose change, another reason to keep a couple of coffee cans full of coins is for when we have the “Big One.” ATMs and banks and stores that rely on computers will be down, but loose change and small bills will be spendable.
Answer: Every disaster preparedness kit — which every home should have — should include some cash for emergency spending. But the cash should be in the form of bills, not change, which will add unnecessary weight to your kit if you have to evacuate. A few hundred dollars in bills are easily carried — not so the 20 or 30 pounds of change that make up an equivalent amount of spendable money.
Dear Liz: I just had to giggle at the husband who wanted to save his coin change for an emergency. Yes, this seems so silly now, but back in the day prior to debit cards my mom started saving all her loose change in a coffee can when my husband and I got engaged. Ten months later, she had saved enough for my wedding dress! When we had our first child, we started saving all our loose change, and 10 years later, we had saved enough for a trip to Disneyland. Obviously, we are saving less and less change since we so seldom use cash anymore, but we still keep a coffee cup to collect the loose change and still manage to turn in about $100 a year to the bank.
Answer: The key is to regularly deposit the coins, rather than letting them pile up. But a few readers cautioned that it might be worth carefully sorting through older stashes of coins:
Dear Liz: You gave a good answer to the question about cans of coins. You also should advise the party that if the cans have older coins — pre-1965 — the value of those dimes, quarters and half-dollar coins is tied directly to the price of silver. At $20 per ounce, 90% silver coins are worth about fourteen times their face value. A dime would be worth about $1.40, a quarter about $3.50, and a half-dollar about $6. At the same silver price of $20, 40% silver half-dollars are worth about $2.50 each. If you use a commercial sorting service you will lose the value of these coins. If you sort them while watching TV as I do, you will recover it. Lastly, if you do roll the coins, return them to the bank immediately. If your house is burglarized, as mine was, the rolls of coins on your desk will be gone in an instant.
Answer: Ouch. Sorry for your loss. You aren’t the only one to find gold (or rather silver) in your coins:
Dear Liz: I inherited much loose change. I started going through it and found a nice can of Buffalo nickels (each worth more than a nickel) and 22 pounds of silver quarters (made before the sandwich coins) worth $7,744 less handling and processing fees. It still came to a tidy sum. Let your letter writer know that it may pay to sort through that mountain of loose change.
Dear Liz: My husband recently told me that he has saved many coffee cans full of loose change over the years. When I suggested we might at least roll the change to make it easier to count should we ever need it, he was not interested! I understand he just wants it available in an emergency, but just the transportation of these things to a coin counter (that may or may not be available) makes me want to find a better way to honor his idea of saving change in a more realistic way. Perhaps roll while watching TV, then ask a bank to convert to dollar coins as a way to reduce the bulk?
Answer: It’s hard to imagine how your husband expects to deploy those coins in an emergency. Does he envision lugging them to the grocery store or gas station? Does he imagine any retailer would accept a coffee can of change as payment? Many retailers won’t even accept rolled coins, since they don’t know what’s inside those wrappers.
Converting the coins into bills, or better yet to savings in a bank, is a far more practical option. You can use commercial coin sorters, but they typically take a hefty cut. Coinstar, for example, charges a 10.9% service fee, although that is waived if you choose to be paid with a retailer’s gift card or voucher.
Another place to check is your bank. Some have coin sorters available to customers, although you may have to deposit the result rather than take it immediately in cash.
Alternatively, your bank may supply you with wrappers — or it may not accept change at all. The only way to know is to call and ask.
If you do decide to roll the change, consider making a small investment in a coin sorter. You can spend $200 or more on a commercial version, but there are well-reviewed versions on Amazon that cost around $25.
Dear Liz:I have a garage full of old financial records. I believe I need to keep only seven years of information for tax purposes. Is that correct? However, I have decades of receipts on house repairs and improvements since I believe there is some cumulative tax credit that might someday be important. Also, I have kept receipts on personal and household purchases in case of a loss that required an insurance claim. Am I keeping too much paper?
Answer: Yes. Here’s what you need to know.
Many tax experts recommend hanging on to your tax returns indefinitely, but you can shred most supporting documents after seven years when the risk of audit ends (unless you’re significantly underreporting income or committing fraud).
When it comes to assets such as homes or stocks, you should keep supporting documentation for as long as you own the asset plus seven years.
That includes receipts for home improvements, but not repairs. You can’t take a deduction for either home repairs or improvements, but the cost of improvements may help you reduce any taxable profit should you sell your home. In Publication 530, the IRS defines an improvement as something that “materially adds to the value of your home, considerably prolongs its useful life, or adapts it to new uses.” Examples include putting an addition on your home, replacing an entire roof, paving your driveway, installing central air conditioning or rewiring your home. You can’t include improvements that are no longer part of your home. If you install carpeting and then rip it out to install hardwood, for example, you can no longer include the carpeting cost as an improvement.
You would have to have a considerable profit for those receipts to come in handy. The first $250,000 of home-sale profit, per person, is tax free. If you’re married, that means you wouldn’t face capital gains taxes on your home sale unless your profit exceeded $500,000.
Keep in mind that the IRS accepts electronic records. If you’re concerned about tossing paperwork you might later need, consider scanning everything first and maintaining a backup copy off site, either in the cloud or in a safe-deposit box.
Chances are good your insurer also accepts electronic records and scans of receipts, but call and ask first. Keeping receipts for insurance purposes is a good idea, as long as you cull the ones for items you no longer own.
Dear Liz: After reading your column about the best ways to pay while traveling in Europe, I want to share my experience. I was unhappy with the foreign transaction fee charged on my Citibank credit card, so on my next trip to Europe I primarily used my Capital One card. Imagine my disappointment to find that Capital One’s currency conversion formula was much less favorable to me than Citibank’s.
Answer: Credit card expert Odysseas Papadimitriou suspects you were comparing purchases made on different days, or even on different trips. Although one of your cards charges a foreign transaction fee and the other doesn’t, both cards get the most favorable rate from their card network’s exchange rate. Visa cards would get the Visa card network exchange rate, while MasterCard would get the MasterCard network exchange rate. If both your cards were Visas, for example, they would get the same exchange rate, but the one that charged the foreign transaction fee would increase your cost by that amount (typically 1% to 3%).
There may be “tiny” differences between those Visa and MasterCard exchange rates on a given day, but one wouldn’t be “much less favorable” than the other, Papadimitriou said.
And the exchange rates are certainly better than what you’d get by exchanging dollars for euros at a bank in advance of your trip, or by using currency exchange services once you got there.
So the fact remains that the cheapest way to convert currency is to do so automatically by making purchases with a credit or debit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. Here’s another suggestion for reducing fees abroad:
Dear Liz: One option for folks traveling to Europe to save money on ATM withdrawals is to check with their bank and find out if there is a checking or savings account that carries the benefit of the bank canceling foreign ATM fees as well as their own fees. Before I traveled to Scotland to visit my daughter, I switched accounts at my bank to one where there are no fees for using other banks’ ATMs. Worked brilliantly!
Answer: If your own bank doesn’t offer this option, it may be worth setting up a checking account with a bank that does. As mentioned in the previous column, Charles Schwab’s high-yield checking account offers unlimited ATM fee rebates worldwide with no foreign transaction fees, and Capital One 360, the online bank, waives ATM fees and absorbs MasterCard’s 1% foreign transaction fee. USAA Bank charges a 1% foreign transaction fee but doesn’t charge a fee for the first 10 ATM withdrawals.
Dear Liz: You recently suggested people consider putting their charitable donations on automatic. While I have automatic deductions for savings because I do not want to constantly remind myself to do it, I want to remind myself of all other expenses. For me, prudent money management requires attention to all expenses. Your thoughts?
Answer: Many people find that automatic payments make their lives easier. They’re able to meet their obligations (and avoid late fees, in the case of bill payments) while minimizing time spent in repetitive tasks each month.
But none of your expenses should be “out of sight, out of mind.” Automatic payments don’t eliminate the need to carefully review your credit card and bank transactions each month. Reviewing your bills periodically, and making adjustments as necessary, is an important part of responsible money management regardless of whether you take advantage of automatic transfers.
Dear Liz: I’m in my early 30s and never carry cash. I charge everything on my debit card. This seems to be a topic of discussion in my office. My co-worker keeps getting his identity stolen and says that using debit cards to pay for everything wreaks havoc on your finances. He says I should use my credit card instead. I just finished paying off all the expenses that creep up when buying a house and really don’t want to start using credit cards again. I don’t think I’d be as good as keeping track of where my money goes when it’s not coming automatically out of my account. But I don’t want to end up losing it all now that identity theft is running rampant. What’s the best solution here?
Answer: What you like most about your debit card — that the charges come directly out of your checking account — is also its greatest flaw. A bad guy who gets access to your account can drain it, and you’re left fighting to get your money back.
Contrast that with fraud on a credit card: You’re not required to pay the disputed charges while the credit card issuer investigates.
That doesn’t mean you should never use a debit card, but you should avoid using it in higher-risk situations. Using a debit card for online purchases isn’t smart, because your computer could be compromised with malware and because merchants often store purchase information in less-than-secure databases.
You also shouldn’t hand your debit card to anyone who could take it out of your sight, such as a waiter at a restaurant, since that person can swipe it through a device called a skimmer to steal the card’s relevant information before handing it back to you. Gas stations and outdoor ATMs can be risky as well, since criminals can more easily install devices to swipe your information than at more protected, better supervised locations.
Even at trusted merchants, though, things can go wrong. Tampered debit card terminals at Michaels craft stores allowed thieves to access customers’ bank accounts.
Using a credit card clearly has advantages, and doesn’t have to be an invitation to debt. Most issuers allow you to set up text and email alerts that let you know when balances exceed limits you set. Apps on your smartphone can help you keep track of charges as well.
Vigilance is the key to limiting the damage caused by identity theft. You should review transactions regularly on all your credit and bank accounts, regardless of what method you choose to pay.
Finally, keep in mind that debit cards do nothing to improve your credit scores, since debit cards are not attached to credit accounts. Light but regular use of credit cards can help achieve good scores, which in turn will save you money on mortgages, auto loans, utility deposits and, in most states, insurance premiums. You don’t need to carry a balance to have good scores, so exercising a little discipline in tracking your balances and paying them in full each month can save you money.
Dear Liz: My son is 12 and receives a regular monthly allowance that I’ve been giving to him in cash. I think it might be time for a checking account. I would like to teach him about using a debit card and not overdrawing his account. All the banks that I have called will not open an account for a minor, even a joint account. I’ve heard about prepaid cards being used for allowances, but I’m concerned about the fees.
Answer: You’re right to be concerned. You wouldn’t be teaching financial responsibility — the whole point of an allowance — if you gave him a prepaid card larded with fees to access his own money.
Prepaid cards, also known as prepaid debit or reloadable cards, typically aren’t linked to a checking account as regular debit cards would be. Instead, you can “load” them with cash in a variety of ways and then use the card to spend that money wherever regular debit cards are accepted. Many prepaid cards also can be used to withdraw cash at ATMs.
Unfortunately, many issuers charge fees to open, use and close their cards. Monthly “maintenance” fees and fees to replace cards or talk to customer service are common. Some of the most expensive cards are the ones endorsed by celebrities. Those marketing expenses have to be recouped somehow, and fat endorsement contracts often seem to be paid for with higher-than-average fees.
The Chase Liquid card doesn’t charge most of the usual fees. There’s no fee for activating a card, closing an account, getting paper statements or paying bills. The card can be loaded with money for free at a Chase bank branch or Chase ATM. Withdrawing cash at a Chase branch or Chase ATM is also free. The monthly fee is $4.95, but it’s still one of the cheapest cards available, she said.
The Bluebird doesn’t charge a monthly fee, and activating the card is free if you apply online. The card allows free ATM withdrawals within the MoneyPass network if the cardholder is enrolled in direct deposit; other withdrawals incur a $2 fee. The card can be loaded for free from a bank account or by using cash or a debit card at a Wal-Mart. Loading with a debit card costs $2.
You’ll still face age limits, but there’s a work-around. Most cards have to be opened by someone 18 or older. A child must typically be 15 or older just to have his name on the account as a joint user. (With the Bluebird the age limit is 13.) So you would have to open the card in your own name and then give it to your son to use.
Another option may be to simply wait a year. Some national banks, including Wells Fargo and Chase, offer teen checking accounts for those 13 and older, although the accounts may not be available in all areas.
Dear Liz: A few years ago I finished paying off my debt and now am in the very low-risk credit category. I have savings equal to about three months’ worth of bills and am working to get that to six months’ worth. I’m wondering, though, about an emergency that may require me to pay in cash (such as a major power outage that disables debit or credit card systems, or the more likely event that I forget the ATM or credit card at home). How much cash should a person have on hand? Is there a magic number?
Answer: There’s no magic number. You’ll have to weigh the likelihood you’ll need the green, and the consequences of not having it when you need it, against the risk of loss or theft.
Many people find it’s a good idea to tuck a spare $20 into their wallet for emergencies, and perhaps another $20 in their cars if they’re in the habit of forgetting their wallets or their plastic.
Cash for a disaster is another matter. Power could go out for a week or more, or you may need to evacuate and pay for transportation and shelter at a time when card processing systems are disabled. A few hundred bucks in cash probably would be the minimum prudent reserve you’d want to keep in a secure place in your home. You may decide that you need more.