Q&A: Credit card fraud and automatic payments

Dear Liz: We’ve had three cases of credit card fraud. Each time, the credit card company issued new cards with new numbers and canceled the old ones (along with the fraudulent charges). We had nine monthly auto-payment authorizations set up, and we seethed at the fact that the card company would not offer to authorize our auto-payments via the new numbers. We eventually received late-payment notices and charges, since the old numbers were still on the record with payees. Are there companies that offer updates to payees when cards are canceled, and new ones issued, in such fraud situations?

Answer: Given all the database breaches lately, automatic updates to auto-payments might come in handy.

But it seems you’re on your own. Your agreements with your billers typically state that you’re required to update them whenever a card expires or its number changes. Many billers will alert you when an expiration date is near or if a charge doesn’t go through, but ultimately it’s your responsibility to keep track.

It’s a good idea to keep a list of your auto-payments so you don’t forget to update them all when this happens again. If you don’t have a list, simply checking your past statements should remind you which accounts are on auto-pay.

Q&A: VA health coverage and the Affordable Care Act

Dear Liz: My brother is a Vietnam veteran. Every month since his separation from the Navy in 1969, he has had a monthly premium deducted from his pay and sent to the Veterans Administration for his medical insurance coverage. Last month he received a notice from his employer stating that if he doesn’t sign up and pay premiums under the Affordable Care Act, he will be fined for not having medical insurance. How can this be? He goes to the VA for all of his medical needs. Can this truly be correct?

Answer: People enrolled in VA healthcare don’t have to sign up for additional health insurance or pay additional premiums. Their VA coverage meets the Affordable Care Act’s requirements for coverage.
Your brother’s employer may have sent out a general notice to all employees about the law, rather than one that reflects his individual situation. If the employer believes that VA coverage doesn’t qualify, it should be alerted to this page on the VA site: http://www.va.gov/health/aca/.

Q&A: Pensions and the windfall elimination provision

Dear Liz: As a faculty member who was only recently allowed to participate in our state’s public employees’ retirement system, I will have a very small pension. I’m told that Social Security will then reduce my benefit by up to 50% as a result of the so-called windfall elimination provision. Can you tell me how this is legal?

Answer: Many people affected by Social Security’s windfall elimination provision are outraged that their benefits will be reduced. Before the provision was enacted in 1983, though, people who paid less into the Social Security system wound up getting an outsized benefit.

Here’s why. Social Security is designed to replace more of a worker’s income the less he or she makes, with the understanding that saving for retirement is harder the lower your income.

When you get a pension from an employer who doesn’t pay into the Social Security system, but you also qualify for Social Security benefits from other jobs, your Social Security earnings record can look as if you were a long-term, low-wage worker even when you’re not. Without the windfall elimination provision, you could wind up with a Social Security check that replaces more of your income than you would have received had you only worked in jobs covered by Social Security.

How much your benefit will be reduced depends in part on how many years you worked in those other jobs — the ones that were covered by Social Security. The longer you worked at jobs covered by Social Security, the less the windfall elimination provision affects you, as long as you had “substantial earnings” from those jobs. The amount that’s considered substantial varies by year, ranging from $3,300 in 1974 to $21,750 this year. You’ll experience the maximum 50% reduction if you have 20 or fewer years of substantial earnings. If you have 30 years of such earnings, the provision doesn’t affect you at all.

Q&A: Social Security and same-sex marriage

Dear Liz: My partner of 30 years recently died. Am I eligible for Social Security survivor benefits? I don’t want anything I don’t deserve, but if I’m entitled to something, every penny would be appreciated. I am 54 and make minimum wage.

Answer: Your eligibility for Social Security benefits as a spouse depends on three factors: whether your state recognizes same-sex marriages, whether it did so on the date your partner died and whether you were legally married. (You wrote “partner” rather than “spouse,” which suggests you may not have been.)

The Supreme Court paved the way for Social Security to offer same-sex benefits when it ruled parts of the federal Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional last summer. Social Security has taken the position that it must follow state law in recognizing same-sex marriages and that what matters is where the couple live, not where they married. Even in states where same-sex marriage is currently legal, Social Security denies survivor benefits if it wasn’t legal when the spouse died.

If you are eligible, you can start receiving benefits as early as age 60. (Survivor benefits are available at any age if the widow or widower takes care of a child receiving Social Security benefits who is younger than 16 or disabled.)

Starting early reduces your survivor benefit significantly compared with what you would get if you wait until your full retirement age of 67. As a survivor, though, you’re allowed to switch to your own benefit later, if that benefit is larger. (That’s different from spousal benefits, where spouses are precluded from switching to their own benefits if they start getting Social Security checks before their own full retirement age.) If your survivor benefit is likely to be larger than any benefit you’ve earned on your own, though, it typically makes sense to delay starting Social Security as long as possible to maximize what you’ll get.

Q&A: Student loan forgiveness and taxes

Dear Liz: You recently wrote about student loan forgiveness. After 15 years as a public defender, my wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and could no longer pursue her career as a lawyer. She applied for forgiveness of the federal student loans she used to attend law school. About three years later, the loans were forgiven. The caveat is that she was required to pay income taxes based on the balance that was erased. The taxes amounted to $63,000. Getting the loan forgiven was easy compared with coughing up the money for the IRS. I thought this should be mentioned.

Answer: The IRS generally considers forgiven or canceled debt as income to the borrower. There are several exceptions, however.

Borrowers don’t have to pay income taxes on student loans forgiven through programs that require them to work for a specific number of years in a certain profession. So public service loan forgiveness, law school repayment assistance, teacher loan forgiveness and the National Health Service Corps’ loan repayment program won’t trigger taxes. Forgiven debt also may be excluded from income if the borrower was insolvent at the time.

Student loan discharges for death, disability, closed schools, false certification and unpaid refunds typically are considered taxable income, however. Forgiveness of remaining balances under income-based repayment programs after 20 or 25 years of payment is also considered taxable.

The taxes owed will be a percentage of the amount forgiven, based on your tax bracket. If you’re in the 25% federal bracket, for example, you’d pay $25,000 for $100,000 of forgiven debt, plus any state and local income taxes. It’s less than the tab you owed, of course, but as you note it can still be a tough bill to pay.

Q&A: The stigma of bankruptcy

Dear Liz: Someone recently asked you about whether they were responsible for their mother’s credit card debt, and at the end of your answer you suggested she talk to a bankruptcy attorney. How can you promote that kind of irresponsibility?

Answer: Some people are quite firm in their belief that bankruptcy should never be an option — even for elderly widows on fixed incomes with no hope of ever paying off their debts. But if enough things go wrong in their lives, these anti-bankruptcy folks might find themselves grateful that there’s a legal way out of the debtors’ prison that their lives would become.

Q&A: Disability and student loan liability

Dear Liz: My nephew was persuaded by a recruiter to attend a for-profit technical college. Then, once he entered, his “advisors” persuaded him to take many, many classes — at full price — always handing him student loan paperwork to get more loans. Then they persuaded him to change his major, necessitating a whole new round of classes and loans to pay for them.

The problem is my nephew has Klinefelter syndrome, a genetic disorder. He was not diagnosed until he was an adult and therefore was left with a mental age of about 12. This is what made him so gullible. He did graduate but in the six years since has not been able to find work because it is obvious to employers that he is mentally challenged. Now his training is becoming obsolete, making jobs even harder to get. This means there is no way he will ever be able to pay back the thousands of dollars in loans. Klinefelter is listed in the disabilities registers, but because he can function, any kind of aid is really hard to get. Do you have any advice on what to do about the looming debt?

Answer: The questionable tactics of some for-profit colleges have prompted regulatory investigations and lawsuits. That doesn’t mean the debt that affected students accumulated will be easy to erase.

Many for-profit colleges rely heavily on federal student loans for their funding. If your nephew’s loans are federal, he might be able to qualify for a total and permanent disability discharge of his federal loans, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of EdVisors, a college resource site.

“He will need a doctor to certify that his disability prevents him from obtaining gainful employment,” Kantrowitz said. “He will also need to earn less than the poverty line annually for the three-year post-discharge monitoring period.”
Kantrowitz has more information about such discharges on his site.
Another option is to consult an attorney, Kantrowitz said. “If he lacked the mental capacity to enter into a contract, he might be able to repudiate the loans,” Kantrowitz said.

Your nephew also may be able to discharge the loans in bankruptcy, Kantrowitz said. Typically student loans can’t be erased this way, but there are exceptions, including one woman in Maryland who was able to erase $340,000 in law school and other education debt after a judge said her Asperger’s syndrome made it impossible for her to hold a job.

“The odds of success are low, but many of the successful discharges involved disabilities, especially when the loan program did not provide for a disability discharge,” Kantrowitz said.

A final possibility, if your nephew has federal student loans, is to sign up for an income-based repayment program. If his adjusted gross income is less than 150% of the poverty line, his required payment would be zero and he would be eligible for the discharge of his debt after 25 years.

Q&A: Credit card debt and surviving spouses

Dear Liz: You’ve answered a number of questions regarding credit card debt when a person dies. But I haven’t quite seen the answer I need. If a spouse dies, and the remaining spouse is not on the credit card account, is it still the responsibility of the survivor to pay the card? Does the answer vary by state? Or is it a federal law?

Answer: As you read in previous columns, the dead person’s assets are typically used to pay his or her debts. If there aren’t enough available assets to pay the creditors, those creditors may be able to go after the spouse in certain states and certain circumstances.

In community property states such as California, debts incurred during a marriage are typically considered to be owed by both parties. Other community property states include Arizona, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin. In the rest of the states, a spouse’s debts are his or her own, unless the debt was incurred for family necessities or the spouse co-signed or otherwise accepted liability.

Collection agencies have been known to contact spouses, children and other family members and tell them they have a legal or moral obligation to pay the dead person’s debts, regardless of state law. If you are married to someone with significant debt, contact an attorney to help you understand and perhaps mitigate your risk.

Q&A: Who is responsible for credit card debt after death?

Dear Liz: My mother, who is widowed, has credit card debt. When she dies, are my sister and I responsible for that debt? There is no estate, but she does have a small amount of life insurance that mainly would go toward her funeral expenses and fixing things in her home to get it ready for sale.

Answer: If your mother owns property, then she has an estate. If she has any equity in the property when she dies, some of that equity might have to be used to pay her debts.

You and your sister, however, are not responsible for your mother’s debts. The life insurance also does not have to be used to pay debts if your mother names a beneficiary (or beneficiaries) for the policy and at least one of the people named outlives her. In that case, the insurance proceeds would go directly to the beneficiaries, bypassing the probate process.

If she doesn’t name a beneficiary, the insurance proceeds may be included in her estate and used to pay her final bills, including credit card debt.

If your mother can’t pay what she owes, she should consider talking with a bankruptcy attorney about her options.

Q&A: Debit card fraud follow-up

Dear Liz: Regarding your recent answer regarding a mysterious debit charge, I beg to differ with your quoted source, Odysseas Papadimitriou of Evolution Finance, who said it was unlikely to be fraud. It took me all of 30 seconds to search online for “credit card fraud small amount” and found multiple reliable sites dedicated to just the kind of small-amount fraud your reader was asking about. I’m amazed that anyone claiming the slightest amount of expertise in credit card scams wouldn’t be aware of this. Ironically, nothing would help the scammers more than purported experts advising the public at large to ignore this type of fraud and assume instead it’s the result of their own oversight. Why such clearly wrong-headed advice is appearing in your column is beyond me.

Answer: Small-amount fraud is a problem — for credit cards. The original question and Papadimitriou’s answer related to a debit card transaction. While small-amount fraud is certainly possible with debit cards, Papadimitriou said the far more common pattern was for thieves to attempt to steal as much as possible before the card was shut down. That, and other details of the transaction, led him to conclude the credit union was probably correct that the transaction wasn’t fraudulent.

Dear Liz: In reading the story of the person with the errant charges on a debit card, I had a similar issue. I found a charge in a town where I had not traveled, at a business I was unfamiliar with. My bank wanted me to contact the business and explain my issue. I said NO! It turns out someone had “keyed” in my debit card number for a $19 charge in error. My response to my bank was that they made the error on giving away my money and that if they wanted to continue being my bank, they would resolve this issue and replace my money. It took about two weeks, but the merchant complied with the bank’s request and gave back the money.

Answer: In the original question, the transaction occurred in the questioner’s home town and the credit union said a PIN was used. It’s highly unlikely that both a debit card number and its PIN would be randomly entered in error.

But your experience highlights the problems inherent in using a debit card. Fraudulent transactions come directly out of your checking account, and you sometimes have to fight with your financial institution to get the money back.

With credit cards, you don’t have to pay the questionable charges until the credit card company investigates.

It’s vitally important to review all transactions on both debit and credit card accounts, and to question any unfamiliar charges. In this case, the merchant wasn’t clearly identified and the customer certainly has the right to push the credit union for more detail. But when all indicators point to forgetfulness rather than fraud, the reader may have to accept that the charge was legitimate after all.