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Risk of identity theft is high this year, here’s how experts say you can protect your credit

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The rules for protecting credit during the holidays usually don’t vary much from year to year, but in 2020, COVID-19 has changed where and how we shop. And money’s tight for a lot of people. About 40% of Americans said they plan to spend less on holidays this year due to the pandemic, according to a recent NerdWallet survey.

On the other hand, some may be tempted to overspend if mortgage forbearance, loan deferrals or credit card concessions have helped them build savings. But if holiday purchases leave shoppers unable to cover even minimum payments when those other bills resume, their credit will be badly damaged, says Jeff Richardson, senior vice president for marketing and communications at VantageScore, a credit scoring company.

Whether you’re being more generous or watching every penny, chances are you’re shopping online. Tom Quinn, vice president of FICO Scores, a credit scoring and data company, warns that consumers may be at higher risk of identity theft this year. It’s all too easy to go for deals we hope are real or fall victim to increasingly sophisticated phishing messages.

Here’s how experts recommend guarding your credit.

Check your credit score

Many credit cards and personal finance websites offer free credit scores, Quinn says. Choose one that offers a clear explainer of why your score is what it is. Understanding the factors that hold you back — for example, too many cards with high balances — can help you make spending decisions.

How to do it: Pick a source you like and stick with it. Free scores vary in the credit bureau data and scoring model used.

And look ahead, Richardson suggests. If you’re planning to shop for a car or home loan next year, start thinking about your credit health now, he says.

Track how much of your credit limits you use

One of the things that matter most to your score is how much of your credit limits you’re using. That’s called “credit utilization,” and it’s best to stay under 30%. If you can, aiming even lower is better.

How to do it: Many credit cards offer account alerts to help you keep track. Sign up for those, and use your free credit score source to track credit utilization as well.

When you make a list, set a spending limit

According to NerdWallet’s holiday shopping survey, about a third of those who used credit cards to buy gifts were still paying for the 2019 holidays when surveyed in September 2020. Adding to existing balances means higher credit utilization, which can hurt credit scores. Richardson cautions against taking out a loan to “make room” on cards for holiday spending.

Also see: What happens if my debt goes to a collection agency?

How to do it: Find gift ideas that will bring joy without costing much — purchases made using credit card points, framed original art from your child, sharing skills you have. The internet is full of good suggestions. And if money’s tight all around; a suggestion to skip exchanging gifts this year could be welcome.

Think twice about applying for retailer-specific credit

Retailers may offer a discount if you open a credit card with them at checkout. But applying for new credit can ding your score in a few ways. You could lose a few points when the application triggers a credit check called a “hard inquiry.” If you’re approved, a new account will lower the average age of your credit. And cards tied to a specific retailer can hurt your credit utilization because they often have low limits. So make sure it’s worth it.

Quinn says a credit card tied to a specific retailer can be a good idea if it offers a meaningful discount on a big purchase. “That can be enticing,” he says. Beverly Anderson, president of Global Consumer Solutions at the credit bureau Equifax, says a card at a retailer where you frequently shop may also get you early access to sales.

How to do it: Plan ahead; don’t decide at checkout. That gives you time to investigate your odds of being approved. You don’t want to potentially lose credit score points for applying only to be denied. If you’re approved, make a plan to avoid carrying a balance because paying interest will cut into your savings.

Be skeptical, and freeze your credit

Being suspicious can keep you from becoming a victim of identity theft or fraud. Consumers may get phone calls, texts or emails requesting personal data from scammers pretending to be card issuers or retailers. Quinn says when he got a recent email with a subject line “re: your recent Amazon purchase,” his first instinct was to try to recall what he had bought. Then, he looked closer and noticed the sender’s email address wasn’t the official address for the company.

How to do it: Be leery of any communication that asks for sensitive data, such as a card or account number. Don’t click on attachments. If you think a message may be legit, independently verify contact information and initiate a call or email yourself.

Check statements carefully for purchases you didn’t make and report them to your card issuer promptly.

Freeze your credit. It’s free and you can do it by phone or online at the three major credit bureaus: Equifax
EFX,
-0.75%

 , Experian
EXPGY,
-3.87%

  and TransUnion
TRU,
-0.85%

 . You can still use your credit cards, but criminals should be unable to use your personal data to open an account. Unfreezing is easy when you want to apply for credit.

Don’t let up after the holidays

When holiday bills start to arrive, pay at least the minimum on time. A payment that’s 30 days or more past due can devastate your credit score and linger on your credit report for seven years.

Don’t miss: Hundreds of Americans have jumped at the chance to move their home offices to Barbados under ‘Welcome Stamp’ program

Consider setting up autopay to cover at least the minimum payment, Anderson says. That ensures you don’t overlook a bill, and you can always make an additional payment to wipe out more than the minimum.

More from NerdWallet:

Bev O’Shea is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: boshea@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @BeverlyOShea.



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‘I could live on my Social Security and still save money’: This 66-year-old left Chicago for ‘calming’ Costa Rica — where he now plans to live indefinitely

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Editor’s note: This article was first published in September 2019.

A school break changed 66-year-old Martin Farber’s life forever.

In 2007, his daughter — who at the time was attending Illinois State University — decided she wanted to spend a college holiday volunteering in Costa Rica and staying with a local family, he explains. She came home raving about the experience, so, in 2008, Farber — who at the time was living in Evanston, Ill., just outside Chicago, and selling cars — took his first trip there.

“It was a big surprise to me — bumpy roads, dogs barking in the streets,” he says. “I wasn’t enamored at first.”

But as his daughter began traveling there more and eventually moved there for a year, he took additional trips to Costa Rica. It quickly grew on him — in particular, the people. “The Costa Rican people are warm, open and friendly. I felt less invisible in a strange country in a strange town where I didn’t speak the language than I did in Evanston.”

And the more time he spent there, the more it impacted him: “On one of my trips there, I thought: My daughter’s life makes more sense than mine,” he says. “There was nothing wrong with my life, but I felt that my life was out of context with who I’d become. … I would have bills and make money to pay them, but that had ceased to be satisfying,” he recalls. “I knew I needed to change my life — there was no more joy in what I was doing.”

What’s more, when he’d return from his Costa Rica trips, people noticed. “I would come back, and my friends and therapist would say: You seem better after you go,” he says with a laugh.

A view from the hot springs near Martin Farber’s home in Costa Rica.


Martin Farber

So in 2014, he packed up and moved to Orosi — a picturesque, lush small town with waterfalls and hot springs a little over an hour’s drive from San Jose — promising himself he’d stay for two years. It’s been five, and he now plans to stay in Costa Rica indefinitely. (Though Farber notes that, to him, “it’s not a retirement; it’s a chance to lead a new and different life.”)

Here’s what his life is like, from costs to health care to residency to everyday life:

The cost: While many expats spend way more living in Costa Rica, Farber says: “I could live on my Social Security and still save money.” He says “a person can live on $1,200 per month, two people on $2,000.” The key, he says, is to live more like he does and as the Costa Ricans do — in a modest home, eating local food and purchasing local goods.

Indeed, Farber himself spends just $300 a month for rent (he rents a home from a friend who moved recently and gave him a good deal), roughly $225 a month on groceries and just $50 a month total on water and electricity (the temperate climate in Orosi means you rarely need heat or air conditioning). The veteran Volkswagen
VOW,
+0.96%

 
VLKAF,
+0.98%

salesman saves money by not owning a car (those over 65 ride municipal buses for free), which can be a significant expense in Costa Rica; for his cellphone, “I pay as I go … roughly $10 may last me a couple weeks or more,” he says, adding that “many people handle there their cellphones this way. You can get them recharged anywhere.”

His major expense is travel: He goes back to the U.S. to visit his mother in Florida several times a year and lately has spent part of the summer in Chicago helping out a friend with a dealership there. He also spends a good amount of money on health care. He says that while flights can be had for as little as $350 roundtrip during offseasons, the cost can be much higher the rest of the year.

In the saddle.


Martin Farber

Health care: Farber, who has permanent resident status in Costa Rica, says he pays about $90 per month to participate in the country’s health-care system — adding that the health care he’s received has been very good. (A 2018 study of health-care quality and access in more than 190 nations ranked Costa Rica No. 62.)

When he developed a detached retina, though, he paid for the procedure out of pocket so that he didn’t have to wait for the required surgery, he says — adding that the entire procedure cost him about $5,000. “I would have had to have waited four days,” he says, if he had not paid to expedite matters. “That might have been fine, but it might not.” And he adds that the quality of care depends on where you get it in the country.

Lifestyle: Though Farber says that he “moved here with no goals and no agenda,” he’s found plenty to do. “I take Spanish lessons two days a week for two hours a day. It’s been great. I never thought I would acquire a usable language in my 60s,” he says. He also rides his bike all around the area, does some writing and belongs to a community group that undertakes projects to improve the area.

And he often simply takes in nature, which he says has been an essential part of why he feels calmer and more relaxed in Costa Rica than in the U.S. “I live at 3,000 feet but in a valley surrounded by coffee fields and lime trees and water. At night, if I open the windows, I can hear the river rushing by,” he says. “It is very calming … hundreds of trees everywhere … you know the Earth is alive.”

The historic Iglesia de San José de Orosi.


iStock

Cons: “I don’t want to overglorify. It’s not without its problems,” Farber says of Costa Rica. “There are social problems and downsides.” He notes that crime and petty theft can be a problem (“I am cautious,” he says of his approach) and seem to have increased since he moved there, and adds that he misses out on some cultural things because of where he lives. And, he says with a laugh, “I can’t order Thai food at 9 at night.” But, he adds: “These are trade-offs — in the afternoon, I get to walk in the coffee fields and see flocks of parrots.”

Residency: To qualify for Costa Rica’s pensionado visa, expats must prove that they have a pension of at least $1,000 coming in each month. (Here are the details of that program.) Once you have lived in Costa Rica for three years, you can apply for permanent residency. Farber used a lawyer to help him figure out the ins and outs of residency options; his entire path to permanent residency took about a year, he says.

The bottom line: “After five years I am still amazed and surprised that I made the decision to lead a life I never thought I would,” he says. And while he may not stay in Orosi forever — “the town doesn’t have an ambulance, [and] I don’t know what it will be like to be 80 there,” he says — he does plan to stay in Costa Rica in no small part because of the people and sense of community. “I have the feeling that life is good here,” he says. “It’s hard sometimes, but we are all in it together.”



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