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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 have a First World problem: I earn $500K, and have $1 million in assets. Should I buy a $30K bracelet during a global pandemic?

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I have a mundane First World problem that may or may not warrant your attention. But I read your column, and thought you could help me. It’s something that has been troubling me for some time. Should I buy a $30,000 piece of jewelry?

I have a $500,000 stable annual income, no debt, my kids have their private college tuition and retirement fully funded, and I have an additional $1 million in investable assets in various bank and brokerage accounts. My husband and I are in our late 40s, early 50s.

We have always lived a financially disciplined lifestyle. We avoid impulse buys, while spending liberally on things we truly enjoy and care about, including annual multi-week vacations for the family, organic food, home upgrades for our hobbies, and supporting our favorite charities.


‘The good news is, this particular brand of jewelry has been holding its value very well over a long horizon.’

I personally adore quality designer jewelry, and get a little thrill every time I look at them on my wrist and finger. I have never spent $30,000 on one piece of jewelry, and I feel some guilt spending that much money on something primarily for myself, not the family.

This particular piece, a bracelet, has been on my radar since 2019, and I found myself coming back to it time and again. I spent hours following online discussion threads, researching its resale value (in case my daughter doesn’t want it) and insurance against loss, etc.

The good news is, this particular brand of jewelry has been holding its value very well over a long horizon; in fact, it boasts the highest resale value in the last couple of years, according to top luxury resale and consignment sites.

However, I just can’t bring myself to pull the trigger: spending almost 3% of our investable assets on a piece of jewelry just feels very excessive to me. I tell myself to reconsider in a few years when we get to a higher net worth to make the purchase easier to justify and stomach.

My husband said I should buy it sooner, and enjoy it for a few more years. I realize the jewelry aspect makes this a highly personal-preference question. I guess a more generic question could be, does a $30,000 discretionary spend sound reasonable in our financial situation?

A Bracelet Lover

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at qfottrell@marketwatch.com, and follow Quentin Fottrell on Twitter.

Dear Bracelet Lover,

Before the world and its mother comes down on you like a ton of bricks for asking this question during a pandemic — and before said world and its mother comes down on me for answering your question — I will say that I find your letter curious. Not “$30,000 bracelet” curious. But curious, nonetheless.

The reason: I don’t believe this magnificent, guilt-ridden obsession is really about the bracelet at all. The object of your desire could be anything: It could be a Tesla Model 3 or a used GT-R. It could be a Fabergé egg, aluminum siding, or even a $30,000 Hermès Kelly clutch bag.

It’s extravagant in the way a motor vehicle or kitchen reno is extravagant. Did you know the average cost of a light vehicle in the United States is over $40,000? You can’t drive a $30,000 bracelet, but you can wear one and drive a $10,000 car to get you from A to B. Who’s more mundane now?


‘The reason: I don’t believe this magnificent, guilt-ridden obsession is really about the bracelet at all. The object of your desire could be anything.’

I get it. There is a thrill in buying something so outrageously out of your price range. How will that make you feel? What kind of connection will you have to this object? Will other people notice it? Will you tell them how much it cost? Would owning it confirm any privately-held ambitions you have for yourself?

You are not just buying a $30,000 bracelet. You are, perhaps, buying your way out of an old way of seeing yourself. That may or may not last. Or maybe you truly believe that it will bring you joy as a family heirloom, and you can resell it at the same or a higher value, if a prospective buyer or the real world come knocking.

Will wearing such an item give you more confidence to sail past the snootiest members of your tennis club or the maître d’ at the most popular Michelin restaurant in town? Please know that I’m not speaking about you here. I’m talking about anyone who splashes out, during a pandemic or not.

About the pandemic. Researching this purchase may lift your spirits, and actually help you escape the mundane. It may or may not be a coincidence that you choose now to do something so bold and new. It’s a $30,000 sop to coronavirus. A million-dollar spit in the ocean during a truly difficult year.


For some people, spending $30,000 on one luxury item is a way of showing their spouse or, indeed, themselves that they are worth that much.

For some people, spending $30,000 on one luxury item is a way of showing their spouse or, indeed, themselves that they are worth that much. The diamond industry, for better or for worse, is based on that conceit. You need a rock on your finger to show the world that it’s true love.

For others, it’s about showing the world that you can’t mess with them and, like Leona Helmsley, the Queen of Mean, will show the world there are no little people, only big handbags — like this woman who sued a country club in New Jersey after a waiter spilled wine on her $30,000 Hermès Kelly clutch bag.

Would I spend $30,000 on a piece of jewelry if I were in your position? Probably not. Should you? That’s not for me to say. That’s for you to find out. The great Suze Orman would probably give you a “yay” or “nay” on the matter, but I’m not Suze Orman. That’s not my gig, nor is it my style.

I’ll tell you what is my style: A pair of chocolate brown Donna Karan trousers that I bought for a friend’s wedding in New York 20 years ago. I had traveled here from Dublin. A friend took me to Saks Fifth Avenue. I was fresh out of college, and thought, “How expensive could they be?”


You have formed an attachment to this bracelet, or at least to the idea of this bracelet. Let that go for a moment. What else you could do with $30,000?

I rolled up to the cash desk after they were adjusted three ways from Sunday, and the clerk told me they were $450. I handed over my fresh-out-college credit card and watched in horror as the cashier rung up the equivalent of one month’s rent. I was Jason, and those threads were my golden fleece.

I loved those dress pants. They moved like slow motion. I cared for them like priceless silk and, one day, I dropped them into a dry cleaners in Dublin. I noticed some lights were out that day, but I paid no heed. It was 2008. The dry cleaners went bankrupt, and padlocked its doors. I never saw those Donna Karan trousers again.

What has all that got to do with your $30,000 bracelet? Three things. 1. This piece of jewelry has something to teach you, and you don’t have to buy it to learn what that is. 2. This is a trouser- and judgment-free zone. 3. Our monetary dilemmas are rarely about what we think they’re about.

You have formed an attachment to this bracelet, or at least to the idea of this bracelet. Let that go for a moment. What else you could do with $30,000? Something different, but equally novel that perhaps could also have an impact? You don’t even have to spend the money on you.

Buy or don’t buy it. Remember this: However it makes you feel, you can feel that way without it. Whatever properties, provenance or millesimal fineness this piece of jewelry holds, your own qualities as a human being outweigh it. Whatever obsession it sparks in you, you can out-spark it.

The Moneyist: Before I give my fiancée a $7,000 diamond engagement ring, I want her to promise to bequeath it to my daughter

Hello there, MarketWatchers. Check out the Moneyist private Facebook
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 group, where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Readers write in to me with all sorts of dilemmas. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.

By submitting your story to Dow Jones & Company, the publisher of MarketWatch, you understand and agree that we may use your story, or versions of it, in all media and platforms, including via third parties.

The Moneyist: ‘The thought of her keeping these ill-gotten funds just chaps my behind’: My granddaughter, 7, lives with me — yet her mother received her stimulus





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My son, 18, says I should hand over the $1,400 adult-dependent stimulus. He claims it belongs to him. Who’s right?

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Dear Quentin,

We’re having a debate in our house regarding the latest stimulus payment. I claim head of household and have two 18-year-old adult dependents that I claim on my taxes. I received a $1,400 stimulus for each of us. My 18-year-old son claims that I must give him this money stating that it is meant to be given to the adult dependent.

I say it’s not meant for him, as I claim him as a dependent on my taxes because I pay more than half of his household expenses (actually all of his expenses) and this money will be used to offset the expense of raising him. If you have any information you can share to shed some light on the debate at hand, I’d much appreciate it.

I keep searching the internet for some proof that I must give him this money but keep coming up empty-handed.

Fingers crossed

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at qfottrell@marketwatch.com, and follow Quentin Fottrell on Twitter.

Dear FC,

If the money was meant for your son’s use, it would have been sent to your son. The clue is in the wire transfer. He is a dependent and, as such, the money is meant to be used for his care. They are emergency funds to be used for food, clothing, utilities, and anything else that adds to the cost of running a household and, yes, stimulating the economy.

Let’s assume your son is correct in his belief that the money is for his use, and could (or should) be used for his own expenditures — from meals out with friends to new sneakers. In that case, he should be of independent means and pay for everything else: rent, food, transportation. I have a feeling that $1,400 would be used up pretty, pretty, pretty fast.

If you have a balance on your credit card for family purchases, what reason would your son have for you not using part of the total economic stimulus payment to pay that balance off? This is an opportunity to lay bare the economics of running a household, so your son can have a bird’s eye view on how to manage a budget, and the costs of each family member.


‘The problem with putting food in the cupboards: Some kids think it appears there magically. And I don’t only mean that the food is conjured up through some act of existential bookkeeping.’


— The Moneyist

The problem with putting food in the cupboards: Some kinds think it appears there magically. And I don’t only mean that the food is conjured up through some act of existential bookkeeping, but that it actually makes its way from the supermarket bags to the cupboards without any human intervention whatsoever. It takes time to earn the money, shop and to put those groceries away.

As an adult dependent over the age of 16, your son did not qualify for the first two stimulus checks. Under President Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, however, parents may claim their adult children as dependents. The amount is based on your income (payments fall for individuals earning $75,000 a year and up and couples making $160,000 a year or more).

The $1,4000 is not based on your son’s circumstances and, as such, the money should be used at your discretion. If you can afford it, however, I suggest talking through your son’s priorities and working with him on how he could spend all or part of the $1,400. It may be that you can help your son feel empowered to spend it on his own upkeep.

But — and this is a big “but” — if he wants you to buy necessities while he uses the money for his own enjoyment, that’s called “pocket money” not an economic impact payment, and that’s something he is given as a child or needs to earn himself. If you decide upon a potential compromise, the final answer will be determined by your son’s own financial priorities.

The Moneyist: I’m a farmer in my late 30s, live a frugal lifestyle, and my son has a disability. Should I pay extra on my mortgage — or save for retirement?

Hello there, MarketWatchers. Check out the Moneyist private Facebook
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 group, where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Readers write in to me with all sorts of dilemmas. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.

By submitting your story to Dow Jones & Company, the publisher of MarketWatch, you understand and agree that we may use your story, or versions of it, in all media and platforms, including via third parties.





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These money and investing tips can help you decide whether to ‘sell in May and go away’

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Don’t miss these top money and investing features:

Sell in May and go away? Not so fast. These money and investing stories, popular with MarketWatch readers over the past week, can help you position your portfolio as the U.S. stock market enters its typically weaker six-month stretch — although that certainly wasn’t the case in 2020. So while it makes sense to seek out market sectors that are stronger in the summer months, it doesn’t change the fact that time in the market, and not market-timing, has been the most reliable creator of wealth.



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