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How to Get ‘Unstuck’ From Your Starter Home

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Source: iStock

Andrew Cordell bought his first home at the worst possible time — 10 years ago, right before the housing bubble burst.

He’s not going to make that mistake again.

“We had immediate fear put in us as homeowners,” says Cordell, 40. “We know how dangerous this can be.”

So the small “starter home” he purchased in Kalamazoo, Michigan back in 2007 now feels just about the right size.

“When we bought, we figured we’d get another home in a few years,” he says. “But the more we settled, the more we thought, ‘Do we really need more space?’ We don’t actually need a large chest freezer or a large yard. Kalamazoo has a lot of parks.”

Apparently, plenty of homeowners feel the same way.

It’s a phenomenon some have called “stuck in their starter homes.” Bucking a decades-long trend, young homeowners aren’t looking to trade up — they’re looking to stay put. Or they are forced to.

According to the National Association of Realtors, “tenure in home” — the amount of time a homebuyer stays — has almost doubled during the past decade. From the 1980s right up until the recession, buyers stayed an average of about six years after buying a home. That’s jumped to 10 years now.

Expected Median in Tenure in Home
Source: 2017 National Association of Realtors® Home Buyer and Seller Generational Trends

 

Other numbers are just as dramatic. In 2001, there were 1.8 million repeat homebuyers, according to the Urban Institute. Last year, there were about half that number, even as the overall housing market recovered. Before the recession, there were generally far more repeat buyers than first-timers. That’s now reversed, with first-time buyers dwarfing repeaters, 1.4 million to 1 million.

This is no mere statistical curiosity. Trade-up buyers are critical to a smooth-functioning housing market, says Logan Mohtashami, a California-based loan officer and economics expert. When starter homeowners get gun-shy, home sales get stuck.

“Move-up buyers are especially important … because they typically provide homes to the market that are appropriate for first-time buyers,” he says. When first-timers stay put, the share of available lower-cost housing is squeezed, making life harder for those trying to make the jump from renting to buying.

Getting unstuck from your starter home

There are plenty of potential causes for this stuck-in-a-starter-home phenomenon — including the fear Cordell describes, families having fewer children, fast-rising prices, and flat incomes. But Mohtashami says the main cause is a hangover from the housing bubble that has left first-time buyers with very little “selling equity.”

Buyers need at least 28 to 33 percent equity to trade into a larger home, and often closer to 40 percent, he says. Those who bought in the previous cycle might have seen their home values recover, but many purchased with low down payment loans, leaving them still equity poor.

That wasn’t such a problem before the recession, as lenders were happy to give more aggressive loans to trade-up buyers. Not any more.

“In the previous cycle you had exotic loans to help demand. Now you don’t. [That’s why] tenure in home is at an all-time high,” Mohtashami says. “Even families having kids aren’t moving up as much.”

Fast-rising housing prices don’t help the trade-up cause either. While homeowners would seem to benefit from increases in selling price, those are washed away by higher purchase prices, unless the seller plans to move to a cheaper market.

“You’re always trying to catch up to a higher priced home,” Mohtashami says.

Cassandra Evers, a mortgage broker in Michigan, says she’s seen the phenomenon, too.

“It’s not for lack of want. It seems to be the inability to afford the cost of the new home,” she says. “It’s not the interest rate that’s the problem, obviously because those are at historic lows and artificially low. It’s because to buy a ‘bigger and better house,’ that house costs significantly more than their current home. The cost of housing has skyrocketed.”

U.S. Homebuyers and Student Loan Debt (by Age)
Source: 2017 National Association of Realtors® Home Buyer and Seller Generational Trends

There’s also the very practical problem of timing. In a fast-rising market, where every home sale is competitive, it’s easy to lose the game of musical chairs that’s played when a family must sell their home before they can buy a new one.

“Folks are concerned about selling their current house in one day and being unable to find a suitable replacement fast enough,” Evers says.

Cordell, who lives with his wife and eight-year-old son, says the family considered a move a few years ago and briefly looked around. But they quickly concluded that staying put was the right choice.

“We looked at some homes and we thought, ‘I guess we could afford that. But we don’t want to be house broke’,” he says. “We don’t want to take on so much debt that ‘What else are we able to do?’ What if one of us loses our job? I guess you could say we have a Depression-era sensibility. … Who would want to get upside down on one of these things?”

The Urban Institute says this stuck-in-starter-home problem shows a few signs of abating recently. Repeat buyers were stuck around 800,000 from 2013 to 2014. Last year, the number pierced 1 million. But that’s still far below the 1.5 million range that held consistently through the past decade.

There are other signs that relief might be on the way, too. ATTOM Data Solutions recently released a report saying that 1 in 4 mortgage-holders in the U.S. are now equity rich — values have risen enough that owners hold at least 50 percent equity, well above Mohtashami’s guideline. Some 1.6 million homeowners are newly equity rich, compared to this time last year, and 5 million more than in 2013, ATTOM said.

“An increasing number of U.S. homeowners are amassing impressive stockpiles of home equity wealth,” says Daren Blomquist, senior vice president at ATTOM Data Solutions.

So perhaps pent-up repeat homebuying demand might re-emerge. Evers isn’t so sure, however.

“Most folks I talked with are no longer interested in being house poor and maxing out their debt to income ratios. They seem to be staying put and shoving money into their retirement accounts,” Evers says.

The Cordells are content where they are in Kalamazoo and plan to stay long term. If anything would make them move, it’s not growing home equity but a growing family.

“If we ended up with a second (kid), I suppose we’d have to look,” Cordell mused. “But we have no plans for that.”

4 Signs You’re Ready to Trade Up Your Home

  • YOU’VE GOT PLENTY OF EQUITY: Your home’s value has risen enough that you safely have at least 28 percent equity and, preferably, more like 35 to 40 percent.
  • YOU’RE EARNING MORE: Your monthly take-home income has risen since you bought your first home by about as much as your monthly payments (mortgage, interest, insurance, taxes, condo fees, etc.) would rise in a new home.
  • YOU STAND TO MAKE A HEALTHY PROFIT: You are confident that if you sell your home, you’d walk away from closing with at least 30 percent of the price for your new home — or you can top up your seller profits to that level with cash you’ve saved for a new down payment. That would let you make a standard 20 percent down payment and have some left over for surprise repairs and moving costs that will come with the new place. Remember, transaction costs often surprise buyers and sellers, so be sure to build them into your calculations.
  • YOU CAN HANDLE THE RISK: You have the stomach for the game of musical chairs that comes with selling then buying a home in rapid succession. Also, if you are in a hot market, you have extra cash to outbid others or a place for your family to stay in case there’s a time gap between selling and buying.



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It’s Now Easier for Millions of Student Loan Borrowers to Get a Mortgage

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Student loan borrowers who are making reduced income-driven repayments on their loans will have an easier time getting mortgages under a new policy announced recently by Fannie Mae.

Nearly one-quarter of federal student loan borrowers benefit from reduced monthly student loan payments based on their income, Fannie Mae says. However, there’s been some confusion about how banks should treat the lower monthly payments when they calculate a would-be mortgage borrower’s debt-to-income ratio (DTI): Should banks consider the reduced payment, the payment borrowers would have to pay without the income-based “discount,” or something in between?

It’s a tricky question, because student loan borrowers have to renew their qualification for the lower payments each year, meaning a borrower’s monthly DTI could change dramatically a year or two after qualifying for a mortgage. The banks’ confusion over which payment amount to use can mean the difference between a borrower qualifying for a home loan and staying stuck in a rental apartment.

There’s even more confusion when a mortgage applicant qualifies for a $0 income-driven student loan payment, or when there’s no payment amount listed on the applicant’s credit report. Previously, in that situation, Fannie Mae required banks to use 1% of the balance or a full payment term.

As of last week, Fannie has declared that mortgage lenders can instead use $0 as a student loan payment when determining DTI, as long as the borrower can back that up with documentation.

That announcement followed another Fannie update issued in April telling lenders that they could use the lower income-based monthly payment, rather than a larger payment based on the full balance of the loan, when calculating borrowers’ monthly debt obligations.

“We are simplifying the options available to calculate the monthly payment amount for student loans. The resulting policy will be easier for lenders to apply, and may result in a lower qualifying payment for borrowers with student loans,” Fannie said in its statement.

Taken together, the two announcements could immediately benefit the roughly 6 million borrowers currently using income-driven repayment plans known as Pay As You Earn (PAYE), Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE), Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR), and Income-Based Repayment (IBR).
Freddie Mac didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry about its policy in the same situation.

What This Means for Student Loan Borrowers Looking to Buy

Michigan-based mortgage broker Cassandra Evers said the changes “allow a lot more borrowers to qualify for a home.” Previously, there was a lot of confusion among borrowers, lenders, and brokers, Evers said. “[The rules have] changed at least five or six times in the last five years.”

The broader change announced in April, which allowed lenders to use the income-driven payment amount in calculations, could make a huge difference to millions of borrowers, Evers said.

“Imagine you have $60,000 in student loan debt and are on IBR with a payment of $150 a month,” she said. Before April’s guidance, lenders may have used $600 (1% of the balance of the student loans) as the monthly loan amount when determining DTI, “basically overriding actual debt with a fake/inflated number.”

“Imagine you are 28 and making $40,000 per year. Well, even if you’re fiscally responsible, that added $450-a-month inflated payment would absolutely destroy your ability to buy a decent home … This opens up the door to a lot more lenders being able to use the actual IBR payment,” Evers said.

The Fannie Mae change regarding borrowers on income-driven plans with a $0 monthly payment could be a big deal for some mortgage applicants with large student loans. A borrower with an outstanding $50,000 loan but a $0-a-month payment would see the monthly expenses side of their debt-to-income ratio fall by $500.

It’s unclear how many would-be homebuyers could qualify for a mortgage with an income low enough to qualify for a $0-per-month income-driven student loan repayment plan. Fannie did not have an estimate, spokeswoman Alicia Jones said.

“If your income is low enough to merit a zero payment, then it is probably going to be hard to qualify for a mortgage with a number of lenders. But, with the share of IBR now at almost a full 25% of all federally insured debt, it’s suspected that there will be plenty of potential borrowers who do,” Jones said. “The motivation for the original policy and clarification came from lenders’ requests.”

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Why Banks Are Still Being Stingy With Savings and CD Rates

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Mike Stuckey is a classic “rate chaser,” moving money around every few months to earn better interest on his savings. Lately, that has meant parking cash in three-month CDs at a rather meager of 1% or so, then rolling them over, hoping rates sneak up a little more each time.

“It’s at least something on large balances and keeps you poised to catch the rising tide,” says the 60-year-old Seattle-area resident.

Rate chasers like Stuckey still don’t have much to chase, however. The Federal Reserve has raised its benchmark interest rates four times since December 2015, and banks have correspondingly increased the rates they charge some customers to borrow, but many still aren’t passing along the increases to savers.

Why? There’s an unlikely answer: Banking consumers are simply saving too much money. Banks are “flush” in cash, hidden away in savings accounts by risk-averse consumers, says Ken Tumin, co-founder of DepositAccounts.com. Bank of America announced in its latest quarterly earnings report its average deposits are up 9% in the past year, for example – despite the bank’s dismal rates.

“In that situation, there’s less of a need to raise deposit rates,” Tumin says. “In the last couple of years, we are seeing deposits grow faster than loans.”

Banks don’t give away something for nothing, of course. They only raise rates when they need to attract more cash so they can lend more cash.

As a result, savings rates remain stubbornly slow to rise. How slow? Average rates “jumped” from 0.184% in June to 0.185% in July, according to DepositAccounts.com. (Disclosure: DepositAccounts.com is a subsidiary of LendingTree Inc., which is also the parent company of MagnifyMoney.com.)

And while the average yield on CD rates is the highest it’s been in five years, no one is getting rich off of them. Average one-year CD rates have “soared” from 0.482% in April 2016 to 0.567% in July. Locking up money long term doesn’t help much either – five-year CD rates are up from 1.392% to 1.504%.

There’s another reason savings and CD rates remain low, something economists call asynchronous price adjustment. That’s a fancy way of saying that companies are more price-sensitive than consumers.

It’s why gas stations are quicker to raise prices than lower prices as the price of oil goes up or down. Same for airline tickets. Consumers eventually catch on, but it takes them longer. So for now, banks are enjoying a little extra profit as they raise the cost of lending but keep their cost of cash relatively flat.

Time to Ditch Your Savings Account? Not Quite.

For that kind of change, is rate chasing worth it?

For perspective, a 0.1% interest rate increase (10 basis points) on $10,000 is worth only about $10 annually.

It’s, of course, up to consumers whether or not the promise of a little more cash in their savings accounts is worth the effort of closing one account and opening another.

Stuckey says rate chasing doesn’t have to be hard.

“I don’t really find it anything to manage at all,” he says. “(My CDs) are in a Schwab IRA, so I have access to hundreds of choices. They mature at various times, and Schwab always sends a notice, so I just buy another one.”

The low-rate environment has impacted Stuckey’s retirement planning, but he’s philosophical about it.

“I have mixed feelings. In 2008, as I planned to retire, I was getting 5.5% and more in money market accounts. High-quality bonds paid 6 and 7%. So lower rates have had an effect on my finances,” Stuckey says. “But … it has been nice to see young people able to afford nice homes because of the low rates. My first mortgage started at 10.5%.”

When will more consumers sit up and notice higher savings rates – and perhaps start pulling cash out of big banks, putting pressure on them to join the party?

“I think 2% will be a big milestone,” Tumin says. “That will be a big change we haven’t seen in five years.”

If you’re really frustrated by low rates from traditional savings accounts and CDs, Tumin recommends considering high-yield checking accounts, a relatively new creation. These accounts can earn consumers up to 4%-5% on a limited balance – perhaps on the first $25,000 deposited. The accounts come with strings attached, however, such as a minimum number of debit card transactions each month.

“If you don’t mind a little extra work … you are rewarded nicely,” Tumin says.

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GOP Moves to Block Rule That Allows Consumers to Join Class Action Lawsuits

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A rule that would make it easier for consumers to join together and sue their banks might be shelved by congressional Republicans or other banking regulators before it takes effect.

Members of the Senate Banking Committee announced Thursday that they will take the unusual step of filing a Congressional Review Act Joint Resolution of Disapproval to stop a new rule announced earlier this month by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (D-Texas) introduced a companion measure in the House of Representatives.

The CFPB rule, which was published in the Federal Register this week and would take effect in 60 days, bans financial firms from including language in standard form contracts that force consumers to waive their rights to join class action lawsuits.

The congressional challenge is one of three potential roadblocks opponents might throw up to overturn or stall the rule before it takes effect in two months.

So-called mandatory arbitration clauses have long been criticized by consumer groups, who say they make it easier for companies to mistreat consumers. But Senate Republicans, led by banking committee chairman Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), say the rule is “anti-business” and would lead to a flood of class action lawsuits that would harm the economy. They also say the CFPB overstepped its bounds in writing the rule.

“Congress, not King Richard Cordray, writes the laws,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), referring to the CFPB director. “This resolution is a good place for Congress to start reining in one of Washington’s most powerful bureaucracies.”

Congress’s financial reform bill of 2010, known as Dodd-Frank, directed the CFPB to study arbitration clauses and write a rule about them. The rule permits arbitration clauses for individual disputes, but prevents firms from requiring arbitration when consumers wish to band together in class action cases.

Consumer groups were quick to criticize congressional Republicans.

“Senator Crapo is doing the bidding of Wall Street by jumping to take away our day in court and repeal a common-sense rule years in the making,” said Lauren Saunders, associate director of the National Consumer Law Center. “None of these senators would want to look a Wells Fargo fraud victim in the eye and say, ‘you can’t have your day in court,’ yet they are helping Wells Fargo do just that.”

Meanwhile, the new rule also faces a challenge from the Financial Stability Oversight Council, made up of 10 banking regulators. The council can overturn a CFPB rule with a two-thirds vote if members believe it threatens the safety and soundness of the banking system. A letter from Acting Comptroller of the Currency Keith Noreika, a council member, to the CFPB on Monday asked the bureau for more data on the rule, and raised possible safety and soundness issues. Any council member can ask the Treasury secretary to stay a new rule within 10 days of publication. The council would then have 90 days to veto the rule via a vote. It would be the first such veto.

The CFPB rule also faces potential lawsuits from private parties.

How to be sure you’re protected by the new rule

Barring action by Congress, the CFPB rule is slated to take effect in late September 2017, with covered firms having an additional 6 months to comply, meaning most new contracts signed after that date can’t contain the class-action waiver. Prohibitions in current contracts will remain in effect.

Consumers who want to ensure they enjoy their new rights will have to close current accounts and open new ones after the effective date, the CFPB said.

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It Could Get a Lot Easier to Sue Your Bank Thanks to This New Regulation

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With looming existential threats from both the Trump administration and the federal court system, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau went ahead on Monday with a controversial rule that will change the way nearly all consumer contracts with financial institutions are written.

The end of forced arbitration?

The rule will ensure that all consumers can join what CFPB Director Richard Cordray called “group” lawsuits — generally known as class-action lawsuits — when they feel financial institutions have committed small-dollar, high-volume frauds. Currently, many contracts contain mandatory arbitration clauses that explicitly force consumers to waive their rights to join class-action lawsuits. Instead, consumers are forced to enter individual arbitration, a step critics say most don’t bother to pursue.

Consumer groups have for years claimed waivers were unjust and even illegal, but in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with corporate lawyers, paving the way for even more companies to include the prohibition in standard-form contracts for products like credit cards and checking accounts.

How to be sure you’re protected by the new rule

Monday’s rule is slated to take effect in about eight months, meaning most new contracts signed after that date can’t contain the class-action waiver. Prohibitions in current contracts will remain in effect.

Consumers who want to ensure they enjoy their new rights will have to close current accounts and open new ones after the effective date, the CFPB said.

“By blocking group lawsuits, mandatory arbitration clauses force consumers either to give up or to go it alone — usually over relatively small amounts that may not be worth pursuing on one’s own,” Cordray said during the announcement.

“Including these clauses in contracts allows companies to sidestep the judicial system, avoid big refunds, and continue to pursue profitable practices that may violate the law and harm large numbers of consumers. … Our common-sense rule applies to the major markets for consumer financial products and services under the Bureau’s jurisdiction, including those in which providers lend money, store money, and move or exchange money.”

A long road ahead for the CFPB

The ruling was several years in the making, initiated by the Dodd-Frank financial reforms of 2010, which called on the CFPB to first study the issue and then write a new rule. But it almost didn’t happen: With the election of Donald Trump and Republican control of the White House, the CFPB faces major changes, including the expiration of Cordray’s term next year.

Also, House Republicans have passed legislation that would drastically change the CFPB’s structure. Either of these could lead to the undoing of Monday’s rule. When I asked the CFPB at Monday’s announcement what the process for such undoing would be, the bureau didn’t respond.

“I can’t comment on what might happen in the future,” said Eric Goldberg, Senior Counsel, Office of Regulations.

Cordray cited the recent Wells Fargo scandal as evidence the arbitration waiver ban was necessary. Before the fake account controversy became widely known, consumers had tried to sue the bank but were turned back by courts citing the contract language.

Under the new rules, consumers would have an easier time finding lawyers willing to sue banks in such situations. No lawyer will take a case involving a single $39 controversy, but plenty will do so if the case potentially involves thousands, or even millions, of clients.

Consumer groups immediately hailed the new rule.

“The CFPB’s rule restores ordinary folks’ day in court for widespread violations of the law,” said Lauren Saunders, association director of the National Consumer Law Center. “Forced arbitration is simply a license to steal when a company like Wells Fargo commits fraud through millions of fake accounts and then tells customers: ‘Too bad, you can’t go to court and can’t team up; you have to fight us one by one behind closed doors and before a private arbitrator of our choice instead of a public court with an impartial judge.’”

The CFPB and Monday’s rule also face an uncertain future because a federal court last fall ruled that part of the bureau’s executive structure was unconstitutional. The CFPB is appealing the ruling, and a decision may come soon. Should the CFPB lose, it will be easier for Trump to fire Cordray immediately, and companies may have legal avenue to challenge CFPB rules.

On the other hand, enacting the rule now may give supporters momentum that will be difficult for the industry to stop — a situation similar to the Labor Department’s fiduciary rule requiring financial advisers to act in their clients’ best interests. While the Trump administration took steps to stop that rule from taking effect, many companies had already begun to comply, and simply continued with that process.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was heavily critical of the new rule.

“The CFPB’s brazen finalization of the arbitration rule is a prime example of an agency gone rogue. CFPB’s actions exemplify its complete disregard for the will of Congress, the administration, the American people, and even the courts,” the Chamber said in a statement.

“As we review the rule, we will consider every approach to address our concerns, and we encourage Congress to do the same — including exploring the Congressional Review Act. Additionally, we call upon the administration and Congress to establish the necessary checks and balances on the CFPB before it takes more one-sided, overreaching actions.”

But consumer groups called Monday’s ruling a victory.

“Forced arbitration deprives victims of not only their day in court, but the right to band together with other targets of corporate lawbreaking. It’s a get-out-of-jail-free card for lawbreakers,” said Lisa Donner, executive director of Americans for Financial Reform. “The consumer agency’s rule will stop Wall Street and predatory lenders from ripping people off with impunity, and make markets fairer and safer for ordinary Americans.”

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Why the “Do Not Call Registry” Can’t Protect You from Spam Phone Calls Anymore

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If you’re afraid to answer your phone, you’re hardly alone. Spam calls have become so common that they’ve basically rendered the “phone” part of “smartphone” useless. Or at least, very dumb. But help might, finally, be on the way.

The Do Not Call list, which debuted in 2004, was perhaps the most popular program operated by the U.S. government in decades — 50 million numbers were entered before the list even took effect. Since then, another 170 million numbers were entered into the registry. U.S. telemarketers quickly learned to abide by the list or face multi-million dollar fines the Federal Trade Commission could impose — and there have been more than 100 enforcement actions.

It worked…for a while. But the combination of internet-based telephones and cheap long-distance calls have made it easy for telephone scofflaws to operate overseas, far beyond the reach of U.S. authorities. Unwanted calls have returned with a vengeance, making some wonder if the Do Not Call list works at all.

How bad is the problem? A firm called YouMail Inc. tries to count the number of robocalls that pester Americans, and the statistics are staggering. YouMail claims that 2.5 billion unwanted calls were placed just in April 2017, equaling 7.7 calls per person.

For fun, YouMail breaks down its data by ZIP code, and found that Atlanta wins for most robocalls received, with about 50 million placed just to the 404 area code in April. Another 35 million arrived at Atlanta’s 678 area code. Houston and Dallas area codes came in second and third. New York City’s 917 area code was fifth, with 29 million.

The robocall problem has been intractable for a series of reasons — mainly, because it makes the criminals who run scams like fake IRS debt collection like these a lot of money. But two other technology reasons stick out.

1. Criminals can “spoof” caller ID numbers.

First, it’s become easier for criminals to “spoof” caller ID numbers. That not only keeps consumers from blocking numbers, it can also make them more likely to answer. Calls that appear to come from the recipient’s own area code — or even share the same first six digits of their phone number — suggest a local call, so consumers are tempted to answer.

2. The telecom industry has a hard time stopping suspicious calls.

Second, the telecom industry has avoided implementing technology that would stop many suspicious calls because the firms claim they are legally required to connect calls, and they don’t have the authority to decide what is spam and what isn’t.

Years of frustration and consumer complaints finally nudged the Federal Communications Commission toward action last year, and it created the Robocall Strike Force. In August, tech heavy hitters like AT&T, Google, and Microsoft gathered in Washington, D.C., to discuss ideas.

Then in March, with the FCC under new leadership, Chairman Ajit Pai indicated he would go ahead with proposals from the task force. Specifically, he would call for a change in rules that explicitly gave telecom firms the right to cut off spammers.

“Under my proposal, the FCC would give providers greater leeway to block spoofed robocalls. Specifically, they could block calls that purport to be from unassigned or invalid phone numbers — there’s a database that keeps track of all phone numbers, and many of them aren’t assigned to a voice service provider or aren’t otherwise in use,” he wrote in a Medium post explaining the change. “There is no reason why any legitimate caller should be spoofing an unassigned or invalid phone number. It’s just a way for scammers to evade the law.”

Later in March, the FCC approved the proposal. The work isn’t done, however. There’s now a public comment period; a vote to enact the new rules won’t happen until later this year. Then there will be a transition period as carriers implement their spoofed-call-blocking technologies.

How to stop unwanted spam phone calls

Relief is in sight, but it’s not time to turn your ringtone back on just yet. For now, consumers can investigate third-party services like Nomorobo ($2/month, iPhone only, see a review here) or Hiya (free, see iTunes reviews here) that claim to help by using blacklists and other methods to identify spam callers. Some providers and smartphones offer their own free call-blocking options, but they are cumbersome to use. Consumers can Google phone numbers that call, just to see if others have complained online about them. Or simply keep screening those calls for a bit longer.

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Student Loan Companies are Failing College Graduates in a Crucial Way

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college students Teenagers Young Team Together Cheerful Concept

The vast majority of student loan borrowers who default and rehabilitate their loans are set up to fail again because of bad advice, a new government study claims.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says a stunning 9 out of 10 of these high-risk borrowers were not enrolled in affordable repayment plans, such as income-driven repayment — meaning their monthly payments were much higher than they had to be. Predictably, those borrowers were five times more likely to re-default on their loans, racking up $125 million in unnecessary interest charges along the way.

Conversely, students who were enrolled in income-driven repayment plans, which reduce payments based on the borrower’s income, were much less likely to have trouble making on-time payments. Fewer than one in 10 re-defaulted when enrolled in income-derived repayment, the CFPB said.

Loan servicers are responsible for informing borrowers about their options, but the CFPB has alleged previously that they do a poor job of it.

A Government Accountability Office report in 2015 found that while 51% of borrowers were eligible for a repayment program that could lower their payments, only about 15% were enrolled in it. The CFPB complaint database is littered with allegations that servicers make enrollment unnecessarily hard. And earlier this year, the CFPB and the state of Illinois both sued Navient — the nation’s largest servicer — and alleged the firm systematically failed to inform borrowers of their options. (Navient denied the allegation.)

Tuesday’s report focuses on a more narrow group — those who had stopped paying their student loans but had recently restarted payments and “rehabilitated” them. The group, which consists of about 600,000 borrowers, is considered the riskiest of the 43 million Americans who owe student loans.

Their plight shows the system is broken, said CFPB Student Loan Ombudsman Seth Frotman.

“For far too many student loan borrowers, the dream of a fresh start turns into a nightmare of default and deeper debt,” Frotman said. “When student loan companies know that nearly half of their highest-risk customers will quickly fail, it’s time to fix the broken system that makes this possible.”

The Student Loan Servicing Association, a trade group that represents servicers, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Roughly one in three student loan borrowers are late to some degree on their monthly payments. The Department of Education estimates that more than 8 million federal student loan borrowers have gone at least 12 months without making a required monthly payment and have fallen into default.

At-risk borrowers should know there are multiple programs designed to help them avoid default — income-contingent repayment, income-based repayment, and “pay as you earn” are all designed to keep payments at between 10% and 20% of income. Some offer payments as low as $5 per month, depending on income.

Details are available at the Department of Education website. Consumers should not take advice from websites claiming to offer student loan help — many are scams — but should instead contact their loan servicers directly.

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How Plastc Customers Can Use the 540-Day Rule to Get a Credit Card Refund

The editorial content on this page is not provided by any financial institution and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Thousands of consumers were left holding the bag — and out about $150 – when all-in-one cardmaker Plastc announced recently it was never shipping a product.

Is there any chance consumers can get their money back?

Yes. Even those who’ve already been told by their credit-card issuing banks that the charge is too old to dispute. Read on to learn about a little-known rule that gives credit and debit card customers up to 540 days to file a dispute in some situations. Even if you aren’t a Plastc victim, there’s a powerful consumer lesson to be learned here.

To refresh your memory, starting about four years ago, several firms announced products that promised to thin out Kramer-sized wallets everywhere — a single, digital credit card on which all other plastic cards could be loaded. New technology would let the makers of Plastc, Coin, and several others rewrite the magnetic stripe in real time, eliminating the need to carry around multiple credit cards. Optimistic buyers raced to preorder the gadgets. One by one, they were all disappointed, as so far, no all-in-one card has proved viable.

During a Facebook Live chat on Sept. 29, 2016, Plastc CEO Ryan Marquis apologized for production delays. Less than 7 months later, the company announced its bankruptcy.

The makers of Plastc sure tried, however. At least, they said they did. Back in the fall, Plastc CEO Ryan Marquis took to Facebook to claim the firm had raised $9 million from 80,000 “backers,” and once again promised that success was around the corner. On April 21, Plastc gave up, announcing it was declaring bankruptcy. That left thousands of consumers wondering what would become of their preorders.

For the earliest backers, like Andrew Goodman, there’s probably very little hope.

“I’ve been a backer since April 2015 and certainly have no delusions of getting my money back,” said Goodman, who lives in West Chester, Penn. “I was given a flat ‘no’ from both Amex customer service and the third party they refer you to for complaints on purchases older than 12 months.”

[Read more: The Unfulfilled Promise of ‘Smart’ Credit Cards]

The 540-Day (or 120-Day) Rule

But others, who gave Plastc their money a year or so ago, shouldn’t give up hope, even if they are initially rejected by their bank. A little-known rule governing most credit card transactions — so little known that even many in the banking industry don’t know it — means many consumers are eligible to dispute their transactions up to 540 days after they were initially posted.

Reddit threads and Facebook pages set up for disgruntled consumers are full of conflicting information, with some saying they’d managed to get a refund, while other say their card-issuing bank denied one, citing a 120-day time limit for disputes.

There is a 120-day time limit for disputes, but there is confusion over when that 120-day clock starts. The answer for Visa users, however, is quite clear on a document that sits on Visa’s website called “Visa Core Rules and Visa Product and Service Rules.” In a section titled “Chargeback Time Limit — Reason Code 30,” Visa tells participating banks and merchants that the clock doesn’t start until the purchased merchandise was supposed to be delivered — with a limit.

“If the merchandise or services were to be provided after the Transaction Processing Date, 120 calendar days from the last date that the Cardholder expected to receive the merchandise or services or the date that the Cardholder was first made aware that the merchandise or services would not be provided, not to exceed 540 calendar days from the Transaction Processing Date.”

Since customers were only told their orders wouldn’t be filled April 21, that rule suggests the 120-day clock starts then, not on the date of the transaction. In other words, while some banks have been telling Plastc buyers they can’t dispute their charge if it was processed earlier than January of this year, that Visa rule says folks who ordered as far back as November 2015 still have the chance to dispute. That’s a big difference.

So for clarification, I called Visa.

“Your read of the rule is correct,” said Visa spokeswoman Sandra Chu. “It’s 120 days from (the notification of non-delivery).”

Chu advised consumers who are told otherwise by their Visa-issuing bank to have a link to the Visa service rules handy and point customer service agents to that section. The rules, she said, are required for any credit or debit transaction that is processed on the Visa network.

What about other credit card issuers?

Mastercard did not immediately return my call for comment, but its “Chargeback Guide” contains similar language. In a section titled “Time Frame,” the criteria is listed as “15 to 120 days from the delivery/cancellation date of the goods or services.” Another section mentions a 540-day overall limit.

American Express media relations did not offer an answer to the question, and I was unable to find official documentation online. An old response from the firm’s official Twitter account hints that consumers – at least back in 2011 – had a long time frame to file disputes over purchases they never received as promised.

“For non rcvd orders u can disputed even after 65 days from charge.U are given 60 days from promise date of delivery 2 dispute,” the account said at the time. That contradicts the explanation Goodman received, however; if MagnifyMoney gets clarification, we’ll update this story.

Discover didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, some consumers with even older-than-540-day transaction dates say they’ve received goodwill refunds for Plastc from their banks.

So the moral of the story is: Always call your bank and ask. And if you get no for an answer, don’t assume that’s the only answer.

Bob Sullivan
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Bob Sullivan is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Bob here

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The Unfulfilled Promise of ‘Smart’ Credit Cards

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plastc card

The idea seemed brilliant in its simplicity: Combine all the credit cards in your wallet into one slick, card-sized gadget with a chameleon-like magnetic stripe that could be swiped anywhere. All-in-one cards promised the end of bulging wallets forever.

Coin, the first well-funded entrant into the category, made a huge first impression thanks to a slick social media campaign and viral videos — one was seen 10.2 million times on YouTube. Imitators like Plastc and Swyp jumped in on the excitement and into the fray.

Frank Barbieri, a tech enthusiast and investor, was among the first to spot and share an ad for Coin.

“I was excited about the promise,” said Barbieri, who paid $50 on the spot to get in line to be among the first Coin customers.

The company said it wanted to raise $50,000 via pre-orders when it opened the doors on Nov. 13, 2013.  It reached that goal — theoretically, 1,000 orders — within 47 minutes.

But minutes have turned into hours, days, and years … and those early enthusiasts are still waiting for their one card to rule them all. Coin has come and gone. Its wearable payments technology was sold to FitBit in May, and the company stopped producing its flagship product. What’s left of the category seems little more than Facebook pages where frustrated consumers beg for the status of their pre-orders.

Failure to Launch

 

Plastc, which was considered a close competitor to Coin when it launched in October 2014, is currently taking orders for its $155 product but has yet to ship a product. In a Facebook Live post in September and in an e-mail sent to customers*, the company said it has 80,000 pre-orders and has raised $9 million in revenue since its launch (*Updated on May 2, 2017: This has been updated to reflect the source, which was a Facebook Live video posted on the now-defunct Plastc Facebook page and also an e-mail sent to Plastc customers from Plastc CEO Ryan Marquis on Sept. 13, 2016). But it has repeatedly disappointed consumers with delays. Earlier this year, the ship date was bumped from April to August or September, according to a message attributed to CEO Ryan Marquis and posted on several online venues, including Reddit. The message offered consumers an opportunity to get a refund, but Marquis urged folks to be patient.

Graphic For Story Card

 

“I hope you stick around. Plastc Card is going to be an AWESOME product,” he wrote.

In July, the company announced another delay, blaming a typhoon that wreaked havoc with its parts suppliers in Asia. The release date was pushed into the fourth quarter of 2016.

When we reached out to Plastc, the firm said it was shipping orders “in late Q4 (Nov/Dec) of this year.”   But separately, CEO Ryan Marquis said on a Facebook video released in late September that only a small group of buyers would receive their cards this year, as part of a test group, and the rest wouldn’t be shipped until next year.

“Stop lying to your (way too) loyal customers about when this outdated product is going to ship,” wrote Steve Bierfeldt on the firm’s Facebook page. Bierfeldt, a 30-something who lives in the New York City area, told me he ordered the product more than a year ago. After this latest delay, he requested a refund.

During a Facebook Live chat on Sept. 29, 2016, Plastc CEO Ryan Marquis apologized for production delays.
Plastc CEO Ryan Marquis apologized for production delays during a Facebook Live chat on Sept. 29, 2016.

“I hope you stick around.”

“They’ve missed 3 or 4 public deadlines, and there is nothing to indicate they have a working prototype, much less a finished product,” Bierfeldt said. “It certainly seems they are stringing along customers and hoping the bottom doesn’t drop out. I hope they can pull it together because the idea of the product is a good one.”

Plenty of Plastc consumers aren’t convinced the product will ever arrive, and aren’t shy about complaining. On Plastc’s Facebook page, the firm is currently offering a T-shirt giveaway, leading another buyer to write, “Want my card not a damn T-Shirt.”

Plastc did not answer additional questions about the consumers’ frustration.

Michigan-based Stratos card got a lot of attention when it launched and began shipping some all-in-one cards in May 2015, but in another sign of how tough the market is, the firm nearly went under less than a year later. At the 11th hour, Stratos sold to Ciright One, a Pennslyvania-based firm working on a similar product. Ciright’s “One” card will pitch a slightly different angle, promising to help consumers keep track of their gift card balances, while also allowing use of credit cards.  The firm’s website says its One Card will ship in 2017.

Bad Timing and Mixed Results

Bad Timing and Mixed Results
Plastc, which is currently taking orders for its $155 product, says it has 80,000 pre-orders and has raised $9 million in revenue. But it has repeatedly disappointed consumers with delays

Why are all-in-one cards, and their elegantly simple idea, such a dud? There are plenty of reasons.

The key technology involved, which predates Coin, is called “dynamic magnetic stripe.” Installed on a gadget like Coin, it would theoretically allow consumers to load multiple cards onto the same device.  Then it would change, chameleon-like, so it would look like the original bank-issued piece of plastic to any point of sale terminal. Fine so far.

But Coin and its ilk had bad timing. Barbieri was lucky enough to get an early version of Coin, but he found he could hardly use it anywhere. Just as Coin arrived, stores began abandoning the magnetic stripe in favor of EMV chip debit and credit cards. Coin had no way to deal with that.

“So it was a complete bust. [I] had to carry cards anyway,” Barbieri said.

But the chip issue is just the beginning of the problem faced by all-in-one card makers, says James Wester, a payments analyst at IDC Financial Insights. He’s not surprised that gadget makers shipwrecked while trying to change the way consumers spend money. Many tech firms have run aground before.

“Trying to participate in the payments space is very hard,” Wester says. “A lot of folks who try, find out the hard way.”

For starters, Coin and its imitators had to do the near-impossible: compete against a product that’s free and simple. Bank plastic doesn’t cost anything and works pretty much immediately. Cards like Coin cost money and have to be loaded and maintained.

“Is [carrying too many cards] a problem worth paying $50 to solve?” Wester asks. “When your largest competitor is a free product, that’s going to be really hard.”

As is clear from the continuing angst over conversion from magnetic stripes to chips — not to mention the fits and starts suffered by giant entrants Apple Pay and Google Wallet — old consumer payment habits die very hard. People don’t want to have to think about how they spend money; they just want it to work.

Coin, which had shipped two versions of its product, gave up earlier this year and sold its technology to Fitbit. A message sent to CEO Kanishk Parashar wasn’t returned.

Silver Linings

The long-awaited Swype card shipped its first batch of cards this summer, after prolonged delays. However, the card has one major flaw: it is not EMV chip-enabled.

Swyp shipped its first batch of long-awaited cards this summer after prolonged delays. Users are already complaining about the card’s major flaw: it is not EMV chip-enabled.

Not that all all-in-ones are giving up. Swyp, which promises a similar product it calls the “smart wallet,” shipped a batch of cards this summer to consumers who pre-ordered them.  But these cards suffer from the same problem as Coin’s first batch: they only work as magnetic stripe cards, and can’t be used to complete EMV chip transactions.

Swyp is no longer taking pre-orders for them.  The firm says on its website that the cards will go on sale next year. It also says Swyp will support both EMV and NFC in the future, but doesn’t say when.

Wester, who comes across as very cynical of all-in-one cards, thinks that firms like Plastc might actually have a window of opportunity created by the current chaos in payments. Consumers are still frustrated by the clunky changeover to chip credit and debit cards, and the associated slowdowns at checkout. Adoption of mobile phone payment or other schemes using wireless Near Field Communication (NFC) tap-and-pay technology has been sluggish too.

NFC-enabled plastic allows “contactless credit cards,” which are popular in Europe, but are nearly unavailable in the U.S. And that could be an opening for a card like Plastc. (On its site, the firms says it will support NFC, but not chips, at launch). Tap-and-pay NFC transactions can be nearly instantaneous, which might attract consumers and create a value proposition, Wester said. And if they are integrated into wearable devices, which is Fitbit’s master plan, they could give runners an easy way to grab a bottled water without slowing them down.

Still, Wester repeated many times, creating a brand new form of payment is among the most challenging areas of technology innovation. It’s so challenging that he offers his entrepreneurial friends this advice:

“If you have money to burn on a smart idea, don’t go into payments,” he said. And if you have money to burn on a product, consider spending it on something other than a pre-order for a payments gadget.

Bob Sullivan
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Bob Sullivan is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Bob here

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6 Things You Should Do Immediately If You Have a Yahoo Account

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Sunnyvale, CA, USA - Apr. 23, 2016: Yahoo Inc. Headquarters. Yahoo Inc. is an American multinational technology company that is globally known for its Web portal, search engine Yahoo! Search, and related services.

Yahoo says 500 million user accounts have been compromised, and they are telling users to change their passwords. That’s good advice, and below you’ll find better advice from security firm Sophos.

But first: For the next several days, or even weeks, beware emails that appear to come from Yahoo. Now will be a great time for phishers to trick users into following alleged “change your password” links that actually lead to hacker-controlled sites.

Now, onto the better advice:

  1. Change your Yahoo password immediately.
  2. Reset this password, if you’re reusing it on other online sites. Cybercriminals are now using tools that sniff out passwords reused on other, more valuable sites to make their work easier and to make the stolen passwords and other hacked data more lucrative on the dark web.
  3. Make all new passwords different and difficult to guess – yes, you need to create different passwords for every site you visit.
  4. Include upper and lower case letters, numbers and symbols to make passwords harder to crack – refer to the Sophos Password Quick Tips guide for creating stronger passwords.
  5. Don’t trust password strength meters – these are unreliable and inaccurate.
  6. In general, it’s always good practice to update your passwords, password manager and security questions if you hear of a potential data breach that might affect you. Even data breaches from several years ago could still impact you today.

I disagree about using a new password for every site. I mean, it’s a lovely idea, but it’s just not realistic.  Instead, I’m an advocate of having password families.

One simple password for throwaway accounts you don’t care about, like newsletters;  one medium-hard password for sites that require a registration, but don’t involve money; and then one really strong password for financial accounts that you change on a regular basis.

For that tough password, use something clever, like the first letter of every word in a sentence.  Like this: I Was Born on November 1 in North Dakota — IWBoN1iND (I wasn’t, by the way).  Change a number to a symbol and you are in good shape, like IWBoN!iND.

Now, as for how often you should change your password — I asked a bunch of experts that question not long ago and got some interesting answers.

Graham Cluley – Independent computer security analyst, formerly of Sophos and McAfee (more about him)

I only change my password if I’m worried a service has been hacked/compromised. I have different passwords for each site. In fact, I reckon I have over 750 unique passwords. I use password management software. I think requiring people to regularly change their password is a bad idea. it encourages poor password choices, (such as) ….passwordjan, passwordfeb, etc.

Depends.

Mikko Hypponen – Chief Research Officer, F-Secure (more about him)

For your corporate network account? Several times a year. For an online newspaper that requires registration in order to read it? Never.  As always, it’s about threat modelling: Figure out which services are the important services FOR YOU. Then use a strong, unique password on those, and change it regularly. For non-important sites: who cares.

James Lyne, Global Head of Security Research at Sophos, speaking specifically about corporation passwords (More about him)

The requirement to change your passwords is a preventive measure that is designed to minimize the risk of your already stolen password being cracked and used. Over 2014 there have been a huge number of attacks which have led to the loss of password hashes (or other representations). These password ‘representations’ require time and effort for attackers to crack and reverse to their plain text form. Depending on the hashing scheme in use and the resources of the attacker this can take little, or a very long time. Changing your password regularly helps manage the risk of an attacker stealing your password hash from the provider (without you knowing) by increasing the probability you have changed it before they use it.

There is a real balance to be struck with password rotations. Some enterprises set painful rotation rules that require staff to regularly learn a new password and commit it to memory – ironically this can lead to staff producing poor passwords to meet the requirement which again ironically makes it much easier for the attacker to break. Providing the service provider does their part and secures your password with an appropriate storage mechanism often using a significantly longer, complex and hard to guess password is a much better defence. Good luck to the cybercriminal going after a 128 character password stored as a (moderately poor) SHA1 hash.

Password managers help you generate long and complex passwords that will be hard to crack even if lost, that said, if you go this far and implement a manager you may as well rotate your passwords once in a while as you don’t need to remember them and it helps minimize the risk of attackers using stolen credentials (particularly on sites that store your password poorly).  Most enterprises would do well to consider how to improve their password storage security and the strength of the original password over a 30 day rotation period.

Harri Hursti – independent security researcher, famous for “The Hursi Hack” of voting machines (more about him)

This is not (an easy question) … because also changing the password too often can become a security risk

It greatly depends. Passwords I use more often, over the internet and are in sensitive sites are changed 2-3 times a year. Then there are very important passwords which are either used very seldom or are used in more secure environment and those I change once a year, or not even then.

Chester Wisniewski and Paul Ducklin, senior security advisors at Sophos. (More about Chester and Paul)

The answer, loosely, is this.

Change a password if any one of these is true:

  1. You suspect (or know) it has been compromised.
  2. You feel like changing it.
  3. You have been re-using passwords and have decided to mend your ways.

We explain better in the podcast “busting password myths,” I think.

The podcast is 15 minutes, however, the first two minutes address this very question and may be worth your time.

 

Bob Sullivan
Bob Sullivan |

Bob Sullivan is a writer at MagnifyMoney. You can email Bob here

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