Q&A: Credit alert or phishing scam?

Dear Liz: I received a notice from one of my credit card companies stating that they had noticed something amiss in my credit, though not related to their card. The notice suggested I check my credit reports, which I did. Nothing showed up on the reports that was of concern. What else should I do to ensure my credit stays secure?

Answer: Vague “alerts” are a hallmark of phishing emails that are trying to get you to reveal personal information.

If you followed a link in an email to view your credit reports or accessed them on any site other than www.annualcreditreport.com, you may well have handed your Social Security number and other vital data to an identity thief.

If that’s the case, you should freeze your credit reports to prevent the thief from opening new accounts in your name. You might want to do that anyway, given the prevalence and severity of recent database breaches.

Q&A: Authentication apps can help thwart hackers

Dear Liz: I’ve heard that authentication apps are a better way to go than two-factor authentication that texts codes to your cell phone. Can you explain more?

Answer: Two-factor authentication adds an additional layer of security to financial, email, social media, cloud storage and other accounts. The first factor is something you know, which is a typically a password, and the second is something you have, such as a code that’s texted to you or generated by a device or authentication app.

The second factor is important, since passwords can be guessed or stolen in database breaches. Texted codes can be intercepted by hackers, so security experts recommend using an authenticator. Three popular apps are Google Authenticator, LastPass Authenticator and Microsoft Authenticator.

To use an authenticator, you must first enable two-factor authentication on the account you want to protect. Unfortunately, not every account provider offers two-factor authentication, although they should. You can find whether yours does at twofactorauth.org.

If the account provider supports authentication, you’ll typically be asked to take a snapshot of a QR code using the authenticator app to establish a connection between your account and the app. When you later log in to those sites, you’ll be asked to type in the code randomly generated by the app.

Any security approach can be thwarted, but the idea behind two-factor authentication is making your accounts hard enough to crack that most hackers will move on to an easier target.

Q&A: Watch out for shady companies promising to help you repay student loans

Dear Liz: I’m 32 and have a little over $100,000 in student debt from undergraduate and graduate school. I’m trying to get my professional life on track, and I can’t figure out how to pay the loans off. Everything I see online seems shady. What are the questions I need to be asking myself? What are the things I should be searching for on the Internet to help me get control of my financial situation?

Answer: “Shady” is exactly the right word to describe many of the companies promising student loan debt relief. They’re making false promises and charging troubled borrowers fat fees for government help that’s available for free. Many of these outfits get disciplined in one state, only to pop up in another.

If you’re struggling to pay federal student loans, you have several options for making the payments more manageable. You can research income-based repayment programs at StudentLoans.gov. Private student loans don’t have the same consumer protections or numerous repayment options, but you can contact your lenders directly to see what they offer.

The amount of debt you have is large but not insurmountable, especially if it qualified you for a well-paying job.

You don’t have to rush to pay off the federal student loans because those offer low, fixed rates, but you may want to prioritize paying off variable-rate private loans.

Also, don’t let your concern about your debt prevent you from saving for retirement. That, too, will be expensive, and the longer you wait to contribute to a retirement fund, the harder it will be to catch up.

Q&A: The old magazine scam is alive and well. Here’s how to fight back

Dear Liz: I got scammed by a magazine company a year ago. I thought the call was about two magazines I wanted to stop as I was moving. The woman talked fast and took me through the steps with my bank card (which was stupid of me, I now know) as if she was helping and at the end she said, “Oh, those are not our magazines.” Two weeks later I was receiving about eight magazines I do not want. I changed my bank card so the withdrawals would stop, but I get so many collection calls. I hang up and block that number, but then I get more. My bank manager said consumers don’t have to pay for what they don’t want. I have told the collectors that, but they still send bills for $1,200 for three years of magazines.

Answer: Don’t expect collectors for scam artists to help you out. Amy Nofziger, regional director for the AARP Foundation, recommends you contact your state’s attorney general to file a complaint.

“Magazine subscriptions like this are still a huge complaint and the AGs need to know about it, so they [can] file enforcement against the company if needed,” Nofziger said.

You must follow certain procedures to request that the debt collection agency stop contacting you. The AG’s office may be able to help or there may be a separate collection agency board you need to contact. The Federal Trade Commission also has guidance at www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0149-debt-collection.

You also can call and speak to a trained volunteer at the AARP Fraud Watch Network who can help you through the steps. Its number is (877) 908-3360 and you can learn more at www.aarp.org/FraudWatchNetwork.