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A Landlord Spills Her Secret: She's Buying Starter Homes

If young families in New England can’t find a starter home to buy, she might be partly to blame. As a small-time real estate investor, she swoops in and buys would-be starter homes before families can and turns them into rentals. She says she feels badly about it … but she also feels she has to do it, for her own security, and because tax laws nudge her that way. As a single mother, she and her son live in a condo while she bets long on land, and being a landlord is the only path she sees to financial security.

“It is a dog-eat-dog world out there,” she told me.

At Credit.com, we’ve chronicled the disappearance of the inexpensive starter home, and the frustration that’s causing first-time homebuyers around the country. Smaller, cheaper, older single-family homes — and homes in foreclosure — are being snapped up by investors and turned into rentals around the country. According to RealtyTrac, about one-third of all three-bedroom homes purchased in the past year weren’t bought by people who live in them. They were mostly bought to be turned into rentals.

That’s made life harder for families just starting out, and some believe making America a land of renters instead of owners threatens the very fabric of what makes a community.

So who’s doing the buying? Recently, I got some unexpected insight in the form of reader feedback.

“Regarding your starter home article, I found it lacking,” the reader wrote. “Sure, there may be fewer starter homes available, but why? You seem to blame institutional investors gobbling them up. But why are they doing that?“

You probably guessed that in the next paragraph, she answered her own question.

“Small-time investors are gobbling them up one by one. I live in a condo with my son. But I own a three-bedroom starter home as a rental — I bought it because it was a good deal, in a good school system,” she said.

So I called the woman to hear her side of the story. She agreed to talk with me on condition of anonymity, lest that interfere with tenant relations.

Her main point: Sure, some landlords gobbling up small single-family homes are big corporations looking to squeeze out quarterly profits in this newly lucrative part of the housing market. But not all of them. Some are small-time, hustling homebuyers trying to make money and save for retirement the old-fashioned way: owning land.

A Good Investment?

“I’m just trying to take care of myself and my family,” said the landlord. “Employers don’t take care of people anymore. My father has three pensions, and my parents used to say to me in the ’80s, ‘Get a job with a pension.’ Well, there weren’t many then, and there aren’t any now.”

There aren’t many good answers to retirement savings, either. Savings accounts and CDs offer paltry interest rates. Stock market investments come with serious risks. But this New England landlord, who began buying properties about 15 years ago, found if she could suss out the right deal, rent payments could cover the loan payments she makes.

“I do feel bad, somewhat, that I usurped a starter home potentially from a young family,” she said. “There is some ambivalence … The one I feel bad about is my most recent one, which I had under contract three days after the sign went up and one day after it hit the MLS … It is in a cute neighborhood only two blocks [from] a terrific elementary school.”  

She has bought and sold 14 properties. She’s doing well but hardly rolling in cash. By the time repairs and other surprises pencil out, she insists on being in the black with every property – but not much in the black. When she closed on her first rental in 2002, she cleared about $100 in the black every month. Now, that property generates $700 per month. Her others range from $400 to $1,000 per month.

But she figures her future is fairly secure. As a very rough calculation, were all her mortgages paid off, she’d be generating about $16,500 in monthly income. And that figure is probably conservative.

“Cash flow tends to increase over the years — rents tend to increase faster than property taxes and other expenses,” she said.

An Edge on First-Time Home Buyers

Why do small investors like her have a leg up on first-time buyers? That’s easy. The woman described the transaction she completed just a couple of weeks ago to acquire a new single-family home.

As a “strong buyer” who could promise a quick, hassle-free closing, her offer easily beat out families looking to buy the same home. The bank knows her and her financial situation; she knows properties well enough that she feels comfortable waiving inspections if she needs. The implications of that aren’t lost on her.

“I said to the seller, I wouldn’t pick it apart in the inspection. I already had my financing in place. There’s no way a first-time home buyer would be comfortable, or advised, to do that,” she said. “I don’t know what to say. I guess it’s a bit dog eat dog.”

Why did she feel like she had to buy the property? The landlord says that federal and state tax laws encourage people who own property to buy more property. If she sold a property, she’d have to pay capital gains taxes … unless she used the proceeds to buy another property. Ironically, she can’t use profits from a property sale to pay off her debt, for example, without facing a big tax bill. So instead, she and her small-time investor friends are starting to hoard property.

Debt … or Taxes 

”I really would have liked to sell an investment property — or two or three — and use the profit to pay off student loans, invest for my son’s college, pay off other debt, renovate my 30-year-old kitchen in which the cabinets are literally falling apart, or most of all, pay cash for a single-family house to live in. But I can’t, due to the tax laws,” she said. “Tax laws are designed to keep investors invested. If I do a 1031 exchange and reinvest, I don’t pay the taxes and just ‘park’ my money in another building, that generates some cash flow.”

The landlord began paying attention to the housing market in her late 20s after struggling to find a satisfying career. The germ of an idea for buying properties came from a bit of observation-driven jealousy.

“It occurred to me one day as I saw my landlord walking around my apartment … that he did not have to hold down a real job,” she said. “And then it occurred to me that I was, bit by it, buying that place for him.”

She didn’t act on the feeling until her late 30s, however.

“The real catalyst was when I became self-employed. I was single, 38, [with] no real retirement savings, and I realized I’ve got no backup other than my brains. Luckily, I like real estate and I like old houses.” She also had a law degree and could handle the details of real estate transactions on her own.

When a friend called to ask for legal help with a real estate transaction, she bought the property and rented it right away. She was hooked.

The Costs of Being a Landlord

“People think landlords are just rich and they provide housing for free,” she said. “Tenants have no idea how much things cost … things like taxes, repairs … They don’t realize when they say, ‘Hey, can you send someone over, the oven’s not working,’ I’m looking at a bill of $95 just for the guy to show up, and at least another $50 for time and materials on top of that. A broken screen, minimum $25; re-sanding floors, $2,000; changing locks, $150.”

For one of the “starter” homes she owns, she had to spend heavily before she got her first rent check.

“I put about $14,000 into renovations. Not the fun stuff like a new kitchen but the ugly stuff, like new wiring and fixing a roof and a wall, and fixing the porch and the windows,” she said. “I had budgeted about $6,000, but then the state electrical inspector — because it’s now a rental, and is subject to safety ordinances — required the house to be completely rewired — a shock to me and to the electrician who had inspected the house for me.”

And while repair costs eat into the monthly income her properties generate, she knows the real estate creates a far more secure future for herself and her son.

“A lot of people expect someone to take care of them. A company, a spouse,” she said. “Becoming a landlord got me out of the ‘work at a job and hope and pray that what the employers pay is enough to live on and save for retirement and maybe take a vacation,'” she said. “I am profoundly grateful for the opportunities I have had and the wealth I have built. I just wanted you to know a bit of what might really be going on … as I see the issue with my small-time real estate investor friends … they can’t stop buying or they will get taxed so much that it is unworkable.”

Remember, buying (or selling) a home can affect your credit. You can see where you currently stand by viewing two of your scores, updated each month, for free on Credit.com.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

A Simple Guide to the Different Kinds of Credit Bureaus

You may hear people talk about their credit report as if there is only one, coming from one source. But that’s just not the case. There are many credit reports and credit bureaus out there. When you review your credit, chances are that it is coming from one of the “big three” — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — the main credit bureaus lenders use. Many credit scores are also calculated based on the information contained in the databases of the big three.

Reporting to the Bureaus

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires that if a creditor reports credit histories, the information is accurate. However, creditors are not required to report credit histories of their customers to all credit bureaus. Because of this, not every credit bureau will necessarily have the same information, so your reports won’t always be identical, which is why it’s a good idea to review all of them for any problems. (If you do discover any mistakes, you can read this guide on how to dispute derogatory marks on your credit report.)

“Lenders pay a subscription fee to a credit bureau for the privilege of pulling consumer files,” according to Randy Padawer, a consumer education specialist for Credit.com partner, Lexington Law firm. “And as part of that agreement, they also supply data. Because of this expense, smaller creditors may only be able to report to one or two bureaus rather than all three.”

Other National Specialty Consumer Reporting Agencies

As we alluded to earlier, there are other credit bureaus aside from the big three. FCRA classifies bureaus that fall into its jurisdiction as a Nationwide Specialty Consumer Reporting Agency (NSCRAs). There are a number of other NSCRA companies with databases that hold information that may affect your credit, which may include the following:

  • Credit history
  • Medical records or payments
  • Residential or tenant history
  • Check-writing history
  • Employment history
  • Insurance claims

Examples of NSCRAs are LexisNexis (which holds all kinds of personal consumer data, such as bankruptcy information and judgments) and ChexSystems (which holds data on your checking account history). The data in these systems are often vastly different from credit bureaus (which are also a NSCRA). Under FCRA, NSCRAs are required to give you one free copy of your consumer report just like the major credit bureaus.

In addition to free consumer reports, other FCRA requirements for NSCRAs include having a toll-free number and having adequate resources to handle consumer requests and disputes of the information.

Getting a Good Snapshot of Your Credit

No two credit bureaus are exactly the same, and all contain different information about your credit history, which is why it’s important to look at reports from more than one. As we mentioned, you can get a free copy of your credit reports from all three major bureaus once every 12 months by visiting AnnualCreditReport.com. If you’d like to keep a closer eye on your credit throughout the year, you can take a look at two of your credit scores for free, updated each month, on Credit.com.

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This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

How to Unlock Your Phone

Many smartphones purchased from U.S. wireless carriers come locked onto that carrier’s network. If you’re trying to move to a new carrier, and you want to use your current phone rather than buy a new one, you’ll have to unlock that phone before activating it on a competitor’s network.

If you’re with one of the four largest U.S. carriers — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint or T-Mobile — unlocking your phone to enable it to work on any network should be relatively simple.

Last year, all four companies agreed to unlock a carrier-subsidized phone if the customer has fulfilled the requirements of the accompanying contract or installment plan. The companies are required to notify users when their devices are eligible for unlocking.

So if you bought your phone from the carrier at full price without any subsidy, you can unlock it one year after the phone’s initial activation on the network. If you bought a subsidized phone on a two-year contract, and that contract is up for renewal, you can unlock the phone. If you paid for your phone on an installment plan and completed paying for that plan, you can unlock the device.

In all cases, your account must be in good standing, which means there should not be any outstanding bills or illegal usage. The four companies agreed to unlock phones of former customers as well.

If you meet these criteria, you can call your carrier to get your phone unlocked. We’ve listed the numbers for the major carriers below.

Keep in mind that even if your phone is unlocked, there’s no guarantee it will work on another carrier’s network. Check with the other company first to make sure that your phone is compatible with its network.

» MORE: Best cell phone plans

Is my phone already unlocked?

People sometimes search online to find a way to check if their phone already is unlocked. Some websites may charge a fee or ask for personal information to tell you whether your phone is unlocked. Don’t fall for it.

There’s one free, surefire way to know if your phone is unlocked — it’s a minor hassle and should take a few minutes.

Borrow a phone from a friend whose wireless carrier is different from yours. Pop out your SIM card and then put your friend’s SIM card into your phone. If your phone gets service, that means it’s already unlocked. If not, move onto the next section.

How do I unlock my phone?

Each carrier requires a phone call or a visit to its webpage to start the unlocking process. When you call, ask the customer service person to “network unlock” the phone for you.

Here are some numbers and websites to get you started. Read the full policies for details:

Verizon: Call 800-711-8300. Newer 4G LTE Verizon phones come with an already unlocked SIM card slot. Older Verizon phones that operate only on Verizon’s CDMA network may not be compatible with other networks, even if they’re unlocked. (Verizon’s unlocking policy.)

AT&T: You can start the process of unlocking your device on this webpage. (AT&T’s unlocking policy.)

Sprint: Call 888-211-4727 or start a webchat. Sprint’s network operates on CDMA technology, so even if its phones are unlocked, they may not work on other networks. But you might be able to move the phone to one of Sprint’s MVNOs — or mobile virtual network operators — such as Boost Mobile or Virgin Mobile. (Sprint’s unlocking policy.)

T-Mobile: Call 877-746-0909 or start a webchat. (T-Mobile’s unlocking policy.)

Boost Mobile: Call 888-BOOST-4U (888-266-7848). Boost’s network uses CDMA technology, which is not easily compatible with other networks. Even if your Boost phone is unlocked, you might not be able to take it to another carrier. (Boost’s unlocking policy.)

Cricket Wireless: Call 800-274-2538 or start a webchat. Cricket will unlock your phone six months after it’s activated. (Cricket’s unlocking policy.)

MetroPCS: Call 888-863-8768. MetroPCS will unlock your phone 90 days after its initial activation. (MetroPCS’s unlocking policy.)

U.S. Cellular: 3G phones can be unlocked by calling 888-944-9400; 4G LTE models may already be unlocked or need to be unlocked at a U.S. Cellular store. (U.S. Cellular’s unlocking policy.)

Virgin Mobile: Call 888-322-1122. Virgin operates on a CDMA network like Boost, so Virgin device’s may not be compatible with other networks. (Virgin’s unlocking policy.)

Even if your carrier isn’t listed here, the steps to get your phone unlocked generally are the same: Call the company, go to its website or visit a store. Unlocking your phone is key before moving to another carrier — and you might also get more money for an unlocked phone if you’re trying to sell it.

Stephen Layton is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: slayton@nerdwallet.com.

U.S. Olympians Face a Tax Bill for Their Medals

Embed from Getty Images

Many of the country’s best athletes have given the United States big wins at this year’s Olympics, and the United States is going to give them something right back: a tax bill.

That’s right — winning an Olympic medal comes with a tax bill. The U.S. Olympic Committee pays athletes $25,000 for winning gold, $15,000 for silver and $10,000 for bronze; winners in the Paralympics get $5,000 for gold, $3,000 for silver and $2,000 for bronze.

In the eyes of the IRS, those winnings are taxable income. However, because the United States has a progressive tax system that taxes higher income at higher rates, the size of that Olympics tax bill depends on how much the athlete already makes.

Crunching the numbers

There are seven federal income tax brackets: 10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33%, 35% and 39.6%. Single filers with a taxable income of $32,000, for example, landed in the 15% tax bracket; they paid just 10% on the portion of their income that falls into the lowest bracket — up to $9,225 — then 15% on income above that amount.

Thanks to big-time endorsement deals, some athletes are in really high tax brackets. Someone like gymnast Aly Raisman, for example, who won gold in London in 2012 and again this year in Rio, reportedly has signed endorsement deals over the years with Poland Spring, Ralph Lauren, Pandora Jewelry and Reebok. Someone like her could be all the way up in the 39.6% bracket, depending on how big the deals were, and in that case, a gold medal could generate a $9,900 tax bill.

But if an athlete has a regular job — and many do — he or she may only be in the 25% tax bracket, for example, and that could mean $6,250 in taxes for bringing home gold. Of course, none of this includes state income taxes.

In certain circumstances, athletes can deduct their costs for coaches, travel, equipment and other expenses, which could offset their taxable Olympic winnings. Nonetheless, those medal winnings still become part of the athlete’s income calculations when it comes time to tally federal and state taxes.

Looking ahead

Some states have moved to change their rules. In 2014, Indiana exempted Olympic winnings from state income tax, and California’s legislature is considering a similar course.

Legislation was introduced in Congress in 2012 and 2014 to stop the IRS from taxing Olympic wins at the federal level, but those efforts failed.

Last month, the Senate relit the tax-exemption torch by passing the United States Appreciation for Olympians and Paralympians Act, which would exempt Team USA members from federal taxation on their Olympic wins. The question now is whether the House will take the torch and run with it.

Until then, there may be another reason some U.S. athletes are crying on the medal podium at Rio: They’re doing the math.

Tina Orem is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: torem@nerdwallet.com.

HGTV 'Fixer Upper' homes have become vacation rentals

Many fans of HGTV's "Fixer Upper" are thrilled with the idea of traveling to Waco, Texas, after finding out that they can stay in homes that have appeared on the show.

>> Read more trending stories  

Some of the homes redesigned by designer couple Chip and Joanna Gains have been listed on online property rental services Airbnb and Vacation Rental By Owner.

According to the Waco Tribune, some homeowners who benefited the remodels said they didn't initially pursue the renovations with intentions to rent out their spaces. Instead, they said they felt pressured to rent out the spaces by "Fixer Upper" fans.

Some homeowners said that while they never felt threatened by the fans, people were intrusive when they visited the locations. Many fans would stop in front of the homes to take photos, and others walked up to the houses and asked to go inside.

"They're mostly women in their 50s and tend to be big 'Fixer Upper' fans or Baylor-oriented," Dave Morrow said of visitors to his "Fixer Upper" home, the Mailander House. "(The home’s interior) is very Zen. We keep it like Joanna does -- no clutter."

One woman, Charmaine Hooper, said she and her husband listed their "Fixer Upper" home on VRBO after a friend suggested the idea. 

Upon hearing the news, the couple released a statement through Magnolia House spokesman Brock Murphy:

"We have no problems with our clients' interest in using sites like VRBO and Airbnb to rent out their homes. In fact, we get it. But we are going to be more strict with our contracts involving 'Fixer Upper' clients moving forward. We want to honor our national viewing audience. We want to do remodels for clients' homes. That's the true intent of our show, and we want to ensure that does not get lost in this new vacation rental trend. What started off with perfectly understandable intentions could cast a shadow of a doubt on the much bigger picture, and we are going to do our best to protect that moving forward."

There are 12 former "Fixer Upper" homes available for rental, including the Mailander House, the Gorman House, the Barndominium, the Midcentury Modern House and the Shotgun House.

In a follow-up story, the Waco Tribune pointed out that the house-flipping has the potential to tarnish the "Fixer Upper" brand.

Read more here.

Posted by Magnolia Market on Monday, December 21, 2015

'Brady Bunch' actress sells California home for 10 times original price

Eve Plumb didn't raise three girls in the home she just sold, but she did star as one.

Plumb, best known for her role as Jan Brady in "The Brady Bunch," was just 11 when she purchased the Malibu, California, property in 1969, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The listing on Realtor.com says the house is relatively small -- just 600 square feet.

It sold for $3.9 million, which, as New York Daily News points out, means Plumb made "a ten-fold return on her investment" since she paid just over $55,000 for the property 47 years ago.

The new owners, who are unknown, have spent millions of dollars on a new house design that's in the works, according to Newsy.

Renderings from the design firm Meis show the new 3,300-square-foot home will have glass walls, a wraparound deck and a retractable moon roof.

Mortgage Rates Today, Wednesday, Aug. 17: 30-Year Home Loans Sharply Higher

Thirty-year fixed mortgage rates were sharply higher Wednesday, while 15-year fixed mortgages and 5/1 ARM rates moved up slightly, according to a NerdWallet survey of mortgage rates published by national lenders this morning.

This is the first significant move higher for 30-year home loans since a similar sharp increase was noted on Aug. 8.

Mortgage rates make a move

The NerdWallet Mortgage Rate Index compiles annual percentage rates — lender interest rates plus fees, the most accurate way for consumers to compare rates. Here are today’s average rates for the most popular loan terms:

Mortgage Rates: Aug. 17, 2016

(Change from 8/16)

30-year fixed: 3.63% APR (+0.05)

15-year fixed: 3.02% APR (+0.01)

5/1 ARM: 3.50% APR (+0.01)

Homeowners looking to lower their mortgage rate can shop for refinance lenders here.

New housing construction continues to lag behind demand

The latest data on housing permits, starts and completions continue to reveal a disturbing trend: Construction is still falling behind rising demand. The July report, released Tuesday by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, shows substantial declines year-to-date in multifamily housing permits, with moderate gains in single-family permits.

“New construction is failing to keep up with household formation, meaning that the low vacancies in rentals and the tight supply of homes for sale will continue to be a key theme for housing in the months ahead,” Jonathan Smoke, Realtor.com chief economist, said in a news release. “Single-family is continuing to show gains, but the gains in permits are weaker than the gains in starts. Builders are starting what they already permitted earlier this year but are not bullish about demand this fall and winter.”

NerdWallet daily mortgage rates are an average of the published APR with the lowest points for each loan term offered by a sampling of major national lenders. Annual percentage rate quotes reflect an interest rate plus points, fees and other expenses, providing the most accurate view of the costs a borrower might pay.

Hal Bundrick is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: hal@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @halmbundrick.

Why You’ll Always Need Cash

In snow-swept Sweden, the rise of mobile payments is making cash so sparse that some bank robbers have been left with nothing to steal.

But in the U.S., that day probably won’t come anytime soon.

People have been predicting the demise of cash for nearly 50 years, says David Stearns, professor of money and technology at the University of Washington. As banks began adopting computers and credit cards made their appearance half a century ago, many predicted the elimination of paper currency. “We read in the mid-’60s about how cash [was] going to go away in a decade,” he said.

“Well, that didn’t happen.”

Not sold yet on mobile payments

It’s true that more people are trying mobile payments. According to a study by research firms PYMNTS and InfoScout, 24% of respondents had used Apple Pay in June 2016, up from 13% a year earlier. But during that same period, the number of people who “rarely consider using Apple Pay” jumped from 23% to 34%. In other words, Apple Pay attracts first-timers but has a hard time convincing them to stay.

What’s more, cash remains widely popular. A 2014 study by the Federal Reserve showed that cash is used to complete 40% of transactions, most of them less than $20. And a solid 30% of consumers also listed cash as their preferred way of paying.

If anything, it seems mobile payments will become just one more way to pay.

Plenty of places take only cash

Odds are that in your town there are a few cash-only restaurants or shops. Indeed, 55% of small businesses in the U.S. don’t accept plastic, according to a survey by financial software company Intuit.

Accepting credit cards can cost a business up to 4% per transaction, says Mallory Duncan, general counsel at the National Retail Federation, and mobile payments like Apple Pay can be just as expensive for merchants.

“If [mobile payments are] done in a way that simply replicates what credit cards do, they’re going to suffer from the same sort of disfavoring from merchants as credit cards,” Duncan says.

Currency’s other value

It’s not just necessity that binds us to cash. From the tooth fairy’s quarters to bills received on birthdays, cash can also be sentimental. It can even convey a nation’s values.

Just look at the attention paid to the recent decision to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. Barbara Howard, founder of Women on 20s, a group that advocated the change, says that placing perhaps the most famous of American abolitionists on our currency reveals “a transition in our consciousness.”

Cash is more than a way to pay for stuff, she says. “[It’s] how we project ourselves to the rest of the world.”

» MORE: This Is What the ATM of the Future Will Look Like

Amber Murakami-Fester is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: amufe@nerdwallet.com.

This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by USA Today.

Sean Talks Credit: You Don’t Have to Pay for Credit Card Fraud

Last year, I became a victim of credit card fraud. I found out about it when my credit card issuer, Chase, sent me a text asking whether I had spent $2,600 at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York.

I sat in my kitchen near San Francisco, confused. I was about to call my wife and ask if she had bought something there online. But just as I reached for the phone, Chase called me. The customer service representative told me that the card had been used a second time, at another high-end store in New York. This time the charge was even larger.

Panic set in. I told the service representative that I hadn’t made make the purchases.

So, what was the response? If you think I’m about to tell a cautionary story of financial ruin by way of fraud, you’d be mistaken.

Here’s what really happened: The representative thanked me for my time. She told me the transactions had been removed from my statement, my account had been frozen, and I’d get a new card in the mail in a couple of days. In about three minutes, the mess was resolved.

The reason I tell this terribly anticlimactic story is to illustrate a crucial point: As a consumer, your liability for fraudulent credit card charges is almost always going to be $0. We should do what we can to protect our accounts, of course. But when bad things happen, the issuers and merchants pay for it — not you.

What protects you

It wasn’t a random act of kindness from the credit card issuer that saved me from paying for those fraudulent charges. In fact, my bank was just following the rules.

Here’s what protected me, and what protects you, from paying for credit card fraud:

  • Federal law. The Fair Credit Billing Act caps your liability for credit card fraud at $50 per transaction. It’s $0 for transactions made after you’ve reported your card stolen, or for fraudulent online purchases and other card-not-present transactions. This law isn’t subject to time limits, says Lauren Saunders, associate director of the National Consumer Law Center. You’re protected even if you report the fraud months after it happens. The FCBA protects consumers’ credit card accounts to a greater degree than similar laws that shield consumers from fraudulent checking or savings account withdrawals or debit card fraud. As a result, credit cards are the safest form of payment.
  • Zero liability protection. Credit card networks, like Visa and MasterCard, take the law a step further with zero liability protection policies. Under these rules, you aren’t liable for fraudulent purchases made on your account unless you’re guilty of “gross negligence.” Issuers define this term differently. For many, it means not reporting the fraud within two billing cycles, or falling behind on payments. But even if you did these things, Saunders notes, you’d still only be liable for up to $50, because you’d still be protected under the FCBA.

Because of these protections, you get the benefit of the doubt when you’re reporting fraud. Your issuer can’t charge you interest or fees on the transaction in question while it’s being investigated. After you dispute the charges, your issuer will freeze your account to prevent more fraudulent purchases and issue you a card with a new number.

Not all unwanted credit card purchases are protected under these rules. Your issuer won’t consider it fraud if an authorized user, such as your spouse or child, goes on a spending spree, for example. And if a purchase was made by a family member or close friend without your permission, it likely won’t be considered “unauthorized” unless you’re willing to file a police report.

But for mystery charges, like the one I received from Saks Fifth Avenue, these policies offer peace of mind. Even if your issuer denies your claim, the law is on your side. If you don’t have any luck with your issuer, file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and provide supporting documents to have your dispute reconsidered.

» MORE: How to report fraudulent charges on your credit card statement

Stay calm and read your purchase history

Often, your issuer will catch fraud before you do, as in my case, but don’t rely on that. Some charges can fall through the cracks, and you don’t want to end up unknowingly paying for things you never bought in the first place.

Review your credit card purchases regularly, and report any suspicious charges right away. This way, you can take full advantage of federal protections and your issuer’s zero liability policy.

Here’s how you can monitor your accounts easily:

  • Download your issuers’ apps. Check your recent purchases with a couple of taps on your smartphone.
  • Set up text notifications. Some issuers allow you to get texts whenever a purchase is made on your account.
  • Check your mobile wallet history. With certain banks, you can view your entire purchase history on mobile wallet apps, such as Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Android Pay.

Reviewing your purchases doesn’t have to take much time — maybe a few minutes per week, at most. But even a quick review of purchases can save you some hassle and money.

» MORE: How credit card numbers are stolen

Doing our part

As consumers, we don’t have the power to completely eliminate fraud, no matter how careful we are.

We can’t control which issuers and merchants adopt EMV technology, ensuring more secure transactions. It’s not up to us to prevent future data breaches. We’re not going to ask the store clerk prior to every credit card transaction, “Before I go through with this purchase, can you show me proof that your store complies with the latest security standards?”

When it comes to fraud, our main responsibility as credit card holders is to report it. That’s all. We don’t have to investigate it, and we sure as heck don’t have to pay for it. Your issuer’s response upon receiving your report will probably start with “Thank you.”

Sean McQuay is a credit cards expert at NerdWallet. A former strategist with Visa, McQuay now helps consumers use their credit cards more effectively. If you have a question about credit, shoot him an email at asksean@nerdwallet.com. The answer might show up in a future column.

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