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Zelle Fraud Protection: What You Need to Know Before Transferring Funds

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Credit cards. Debit cards. Zelle. One of these popular ways to spend money from your bank account is not like the others, and many consumers are finding out the hard way. Zelle is the big banks’ answer to Venmo  — a  consortium of heavy hitters like Bank of America and Wells Fargo lets account holders send cash to each other almost instantly via smartphones or email.

Zelle was a near instant hit: about $75 billion in transactions were made via the service last year, twice Venmo’s volume. But it’s popular with scammers, too. Criminals have flocked to the service because, like wire transfers, Zelle transactions cannot be disputed or reversed, and some consumers have been overly trusting of the service due to its affiliation with traditional banks.

Lauren Driver of Los Angeles sent $2,000 using Zelle in an effort to buy “Hamilton” musical tickets in December. When the seller turned out to be a scammer, she turned to Zelle and to Bank of America, expecting the usual fraud protections would apply to the transaction.  After all, Zelle commercials hawk the service as safe, because it’s “backed by the banks.”

No luck. Driver was told her transaction wasn’t covered by any kind of fraud guarantee.

Consumers have flocked to social media recently with similar tales of woe.  In many cases, banks are declining to help, citing Zelle’s policy. In an emailed statement, Bank of America reiterated that Zelle is intended for sending funds to friends, family and people customers know.

“Banks are saying there is no protection because the consumer initiated the payment,” Driver said.

Which bill pay services have fraud protection?

Zelle

Venmo

PayPal

Square Cash

PopMoney

Fraud policy

Limited. If you, the consumer, initiated the transfer of funds, you are not covered for fraud.
You are only covered if someone uses Zelle to hack into your account.

Venmo does not offer buyer or seller protection.

Limited. Some transactions, such as purchasing an item that was damaged or that you did not receive, are covered if you file a dispute within 180 days. Unauthorized transactions are covered, so long as you file a dispute within 60 days. Not covered: in-person transactions using PayPal are not covered by its purchase protection policy, as well as transactions involving real estate, motor vehicles, or money sent to family and friends.

Sellers protection only

Varies by state

Is Zelle unsafe to use? Yes and no.

It’s no less safe than sticking cash in an envelope and giving it to someone. If that person is someone you know, and you physically hand them the cash, that’s pretty safe. If you stick that envelope in the mail and send it to someone you don’t know across the country, that’s pretty unsafe.

Zelle should basically be handled the same way. In other words, Zelle should only be used for low-dollar, very personal transactions.

Some of the consumer confusion around Zelle was created by the product’s aggressive marketing, which initially touted its security features. In one TV commercial, performer Daveed Diggs rapped, “You can send money safely cause that’s what it’s for / It’s backed by the banks so you know it’s secure.” Citing such ads, Driver said she was surprised that she wasn’t covered for her incident.

What types of fraud are covered with Zelle?

How Zelle defines fraud

As defined by Zelle, this includes only certain kinds of fraud, such as account unwarranted transactions initiated by a hacker — similar to a criminal stealing your credit card and using it to make a fraudulent purchase. On the other hand, when a consumer initiates the transaction — such as using Zelle to send payment to an unknown seller — that is not covered.

The confusion lies in Zelle’s definition of “fraud.”

Zelle does provide some fraud protections to consumers, as required by the Federal Reserve’s Regulation E, which governs electronic transactions.

“Consumers are not liable for unauthorized activity on their accounts,” said Lou Anne Alexander, group president of payment solutions at Early Warning, the firm that operates Zelle for the banks, in an emailed statement.

“Use Zelle to split the bill with your friends for lunch… But never use it for any sizable transaction, or with anyone you don’t know.”

“Unauthorized activity” covers only certain kinds of fraud, however, such as account hacking — similar to a criminal stealing your credit card and using it to initiate fraudulent purchases. On the other hand, transactions initiated by consumers that later turn out to be fraud — when there really aren’t “Hamilton” tickets for sale — are not covered. Credit card issuers often call this “purchase protection” or “dispute resolution.” And Zelle doesn’t offer that.

“Sending money with Zelle is like sending cash, and consumers should only use the service for sending money to people they know and trust. We do not offer purchase protections available through credit cards, debit cards or available for a fee for purchase-specific payment technologies,” Alexander wrote.

It’s understandable that consumers might miss that critical distinction — after all, whether their accounts are hacked or a scammer lies to them, the end result is the same. With credit and debit cards, and even PayPal, consumers can get their money back in most cases by disputing the transaction. But not with Zelle, or its rival person-to-person payment system, Venmo.

Zelle said it is aware of the complaints, and is “working to improve our service, including requiring some consistent (user interface) changes that will help consumers confirm that they are sending to intended recipients.” Those changes might take some time, however.

The bottom line

So what should consumers do? It’s simple, really. Don’t trust Zelle any more than you trust the $20 bill in your pocket. Use Zelle to split the bill with your friends for lunch; it’s perfectly safe for transactions like that. If you’re afraid a hacker might break in and raid your bank account using Zelle, relax. You’re covered for that kind of fraud.

But never use it for any sizable transaction, or with anyone you don’t know. If you do, the banks won’t have your back.

 

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5 Ways the Opioid Crisis is Hurting the U.S. Economy

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

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On March 6, the CDC released data showing incredible spikes in opioid-related emergency room visits since July 2016: in Wisconsin, they were up 109 percent; in Illinois, up 66 percent; Delaware, 105 percent, Pennsylvania, 81 percent.

These are just some of the devastating numbers behind the growing health crisis. The CDC says 64,000 people died from drug overdose in 2016, roughly three-quarters from opioids alone. That rate has risen fivefold since 1999. For comparison, about 37,000 Americans died in automobile accidents in 2016 and 58,000 died during the entire Vietnam war.

Meanwhile, addiction impacts far more than mortality counts.

About 2.4 million Americans have some kind of opioid-use disorder, including prescription drug abusers of OxyContin and Vicodin and illicit users of heroin and fentanyl. A recent Trump administration report found that when the various costs are piled up — with treatment, lost productivity, judicial procedures — the annual price tag is an estimated $500 billion or 2.8% of GDP — that’s $2,000 per U.S. adult. This is over six times larger than the most recently estimated economic cost of the epidemic.

That includes cost of long-term care, opportunity cost, emergency room visits and many other factors. Those costs include about 45,000 emergency-room visits for opioid patients in 2017, and costs associated with making naloxone, an antidote for overdoses, available.

Understanding the depth of the crisis, and its widespread cost, is critical to attracting the focus it will need to repel it.

The economics of the opioid crisis

1. Opioid addiction is so prevalent, it shows up in unemployment data.

Economists have been struggling to understand the stubbornly low workforce participation rate, particularly among men, for some time. An aging population and other demographic factors explains a lot of the trend, but that explanation seemed incomplete. Princeton’s Alan Krueger filled in the blanks by examining county-level opioid prescription rates and labor participation rates, and discovered that higher prescription rates correlated with higher dropout rates. He estimated that about 20% of the reduced rate among men ages 25-54 can be blamed on opioid use. His research also found that two-thirds of prime-age men who aren’t working take prescription pain medication on a daily basis.

Federal Reserve researchers have found that at least some employers are struggling to find workers because potential employees can’t complete drug screening programs.

“Manufacturing contacts in Louisville and Memphis reported difficulties finding experienced or qualified employees, with some citing candidates’ inability to pass drug tests,” stated the St. Louis Fed in its July 2017 “Beige Book” report on regional economic circumstances.

Former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen addressed the issue directly during a July U.S. Senate hearing.

“I do think it is related to declining labor force participation among prime-age workers,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s causal or if it’s a symptom of long-running economic maladies that have affected these communities and particularly affected workers who have seen their job opportunities decline,” she said.

2. Addiction is fueling poverty.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found that the 20 New England counties that had the highest overdose mortality rates have several economic characteristics in common — poverty, disability and unemployment rates that exceed New England averages. These areas also have seen above-average declines in manufacturing and manual-labor occupations since 1970. Meanwhile, a paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research published last year found a pretty dramatic correlation between unemployment and drug abuse: For every single percentage point increase in county unemployment rate, the opioid death rate rises 3.6% per 100,000, and the opioid overdose emergency room visit rate increases by 7.0%.

3. The individual expense of dealing with opioid addiction is skyrocketing.

One of the more depressing economic facts you’ll find about opioids: The street price of heroin can be less than the cost of a pack of cigarettes in some places. Meanwhile, curing addiction is costly. The Trump administration report calculated that “total nonfatal cost” of fighting addiction among prescription opioid abusers is about $30,000 per patient. Individual costs are rising fast. Between 2009 and 2015, the average cost of an opioid admission increased from $58,500 to $92,400, according to a study of 162 academic hospitals led by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Why? Patients are arriving in worse condition, and require longer stays, the authors speculate.

4. Public money (i.e., you) is paying for most of this.

A 2016 report published in the Medical Care journal authored by experts from the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, estimated that one-fourth of the costs from the opioid crisis are paid for by public sources like Medicare and Medicaid. That might understate the cost, however. Krueger, exploring the problem of labor force participation, found that two-thirds of men not in the labor force and taking pain medication used programs like Medicaid and Medicare to buy their prescription opioids for daily use. And there are plenty of hidden costs. As just one example: There are an estimated $7.7 billion in criminal justice-related costs to opioids, pushing addicts through the court systems and into incarceration. Nearly all of the costs are born by state and local governments; that’s funds which can’t be spent on schools or roads or parks.

How to find help

Start with your insurer. If you or a loved one is suffering from an opioid addiction, there are plenty of ways to get help. For starters, the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) forced health insurers to cover substance abuse and addiction treatment the same as other treatments, through a concept known as “parity.” Combined with the expansion of Medicaid, and removal of the pre-existing condition rules, the ACA made addiction treatment coverage newly available to millions of Americans.

Private plans must cover addiction treatment as other diseases, too. Coverage amounts and deductibles can vary, but some plans will cover all or most of the cost.

Choose your treatment center carefully. Patients need to choose carefully, however. There are 14,500 addiction treatment centers, according to The National Institute on Drug Abuse. Not all of them are covered equally, or by every insurance plan.

Some addiction treatment centers have been criticized for putting profits above treatment, using brokers to find would-be patients with the most generous benefits — and sometimes, committing fraud to insure patients.

Medications can help. Some medications, such as methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone, have been found to help wean patients off their addiction. These drugs are only covered under certain circumstances, however. Meanwhile, fewer than half of private-sector treatment programs offer medications for opioid use disorders, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Family members concerned about loved ones should know about naloxone, the life-saving drug that can reverse the potentially deadly impacts of an overdose long enough to get a patient to the hospital. In some states, it can be obtained without a prescription. A new nasal spray called Narcan® is now also available. Use this site to find a location where naloxone can be obtained. Have access to this before an overdose occurs; there may not be time during an incident.

Ask for help. Family members and those in need of treatment can learn more at Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which has a 24-hour hotline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357), or at their website at http://www.samhsa.gov/find-help

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence and has a 24-hour hotline at 1-800-622-2255, and information is always available at http://www.ncadd.org/

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The Ultimate Guide to Bitcoin

Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided or commissioned by any financial institution. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and may not have been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities prior to publication.

guide to bitcoin

It’s irresistible, and painful, to play the what-if regret game with investments. What if you bought Apple or Amazon stock back in 1997? What if you bought a condo in that tough city neighborhood ten years ago? What it mom didn’t throw out that full set of 1969 Topps baseball cards? Millennials didn’t invent FOMO; investors have struggled with the fear of missing out forever.

Those missed opportunities pale in comparison to what’s going on with Bitcoin, however. Price of a single bitcoin just passed $1,000 in February. It had climbed 15-fold by December, less than one year later. Travel back another few months, or years, and the windfall for early virtual currency buyers is almost unfathomable. Writer Kashmir Hill captured it well; four years ago, she lived an all-Bitcoin week for a story and found a restaurant where she could use the digital currency to buy her friends a sushi dinner. The price: 10 bitcoins. By the end of November, the coins she spent on the sushi would have been worth about $100,000. And now?

“That sushi dinner could have paid for an ivy league degree,” she lamented on Twitter. Now, that’s a regret.

How could a sushi dinner turn into a six-figure windfall? How can you buy a dinner with virtual “money” in the first place? And what should you be doing when it seems like the whole world has gone crazy for digital currencies?

We’ll try to answer those questions for you here.

Before we get started, however, it’s important to remember that the fear of missing out has driven people to make many bad choices in investing, and in life, (you should have stayed at that party and met your future wife, dummy!) for a very long time. So if you are tempted to dip your toe in this brave new world, it’s critical that you understand what you think you are missing out on.

Tom is a virtual currency investor who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. (Bitcoin hackers are very aggressive and scour the Internet for targets, finding them when people brag about their holdings; so if you invest in Bitcoin, keep it to yourself.)

Tom got in early, but he’s suffering from investment regret, too.

“That would be because I sold the bulk of it way back when it was $4000, because I very wrongly thought the bubble could not go much higher,” he said. “Crypto right now is like the wild west … It really is.”

What is Bitcoin? A brief history

To start at the ending, Bitcoin took a big step away from the Wild West this week when a traditional market tied to the virtual currency allowed U.S. investors to make Bitcoin bets the old-fashioned way: through brokerage accounts. On Dec. 10, the Chicago Board of Exchange began the buying and selling of futures contracts on Bitcoin’s value. Investors don’t buy actual coins through these contracts; instead, they are making bets with each other about the future value of Bitcoin. Still, the event marked a remarkable step for an idea that was born from the musings of Internet radicals and almost killed by child pedophiles.

The birth of cryptocurrencies

In the Internet’s early days, no one was really sure how people like Jeff Bezos would make money. To be specific, no one was sure how sites like Amazon would be able to collect money. Credit cards seemed like a risky way to transmit “cash” across the Web — anti-fraud systems were essentially unheard of — so there was a race to create a new kind of cash that could be sent digitally. “Currencies” with names like DigiCash, backed by MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte, and E-gold sprouted up to fill the void. Eventually, eGold would swell to 3.5 million users worldwide.

Virtual currencies offered the added digital-age benefit of making international transactions easier and far cheaper, as they can be used to circumvent transfer fees imposed by of traditional banking systems.

The philosophical origins of virtual currency predate these digital currencies, however, to a group of hackers with a libertarian vibe generally referred to as cypherpunks. They dreamed of creating a money system that was entirely beyond the reach of governments. They blamed much of the world’s ills — inflation, poverty, concentration of wealth — on the power governments can exert by controlling national currencies.

By combining the secrecy of cryptography with a currency, cypherpunks imagined a world of free, anonymous money flows that drained traditional governments of their source of power.

Early hits and misses

Early supporters like Rik Willard, founder of Agentic Group — a consortium of firms that advocates use of blockchain technologies — have always had lofty goals for cryptocurrencies.

“To me, Bitcoin is a globally distributed proof-of-concept for a new understanding and subsequent reconfiguration of intrinsic value creation,” he says. “Like any radical technology before it, digital value will begin to shape us in unimaginable ways, with the end goal, hopefully, of more financial inclusion and an end to enforced scarcity and unnecessary poverty.”

Creating new currencies is tricky work, however, largely because criminals often flock to platforms that seem to be beyond the reach of law enforcement and traditional institutions. E-Gold ultimately collapsed, and its founder jailed, after a 2007 indictment on money laundering charges.

“The E-Gold payment system has been a preferred means of payment for child pornography distributors, identity thieves, online scammers, and other criminals around the world to launder their illegal income anonymously,” the Department of Justice said.

The age of Bitcoin

But the dream of a currency not issued by governments wasn’t dead. About a year later, in August 2008, someone registered the domain name Bitcoin.org. Two months later, a paper attributed to “Satoshi Nakamoto” was posted to a cryptography mailing titled Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System, laying out the concepts for a new kind of virtual money. By January 2009, the first Bitcoin network came online.

What was different about Bitcoin?

When traditional currency is used for transactions, third parties are always involved. Cash changes hands, but a government provides that cash and promises it has a certain value. When money is electronically wired, banks add or subtract the money from balance sheets. More important, they supply “trust” that enables parties to believe they are getting what they deserve out of a transaction. Outside of old-fashioned bartering, there was no way to conduct business without invoking a third party institution to provide trust.

Bitcoin changes this model by allowing peer-to-peer transactions that don’t require outside blessing and verification. Instead, all transactions are published online, in a completely transparent format as a shared ledger, so they are verified — not by a bank or a government — but by the network itself. No trust required. Blocks of data are continually added to a chain providing an audit trail that confirms every transaction. Ever. That’s the blockchain.

The decentralized nature of the blockchain is key. Whenever there’s a discrepancy — say, someone tries to add inaccurate information — the many nodes on the network arm-wrestle over which data is correct and builds consensus. Then, the data is replicated across the network.

This decentralized-by-design feature means there isn’t one central authority which could be manipulated for fraud purposes, or by a government or corporation seeking control. It also means it’s virtually impossible to fake a blockchain transaction once it’s approved, or to remove one. This is sometimes called distributed “trustless” consensus. In anarchy, security.

The comeback cryptocurrency

Bitcoin’s timing was impeccable. The cryptocurrency’s radical libertarian (anarchist?) ideology found plenty of bedfellows in the early stages. The global financial crisis that began in 2008 stoked the flames of bank skepticism and helped create a population ready to consider dramatic alternatives. In 2011, Bitcoin immediately became popular with Occupy Wall Streeters, who used it to accept donations and run some operations.

But it was still a bumpy ride. While Bitcoin transactions are very public, the parties in the transaction can remain anonymous. They use a cryptographic key to access their money, hence the term cryptocurrency.

So Bitcoin predictably attracted the same crowd as eGold. In 2013, Bitcoin faced an existential threat when U.S. federal authorities cracked down on a criminal haunt called Silk Road, a popular site used to buy and sell illicit drugs. Bitcoin was the currency of choice for Silk Road criminals, and authorities seemed ready for another E-gold-like crackdown. The FBI seized 174,000 Bitcoins when it shut down Silk Road, leading many to fear that users would abandon the cryptocurrency.

While Bitcoin’s value fell briefly by about one-quarter after Silk Road’s closure, it quickly recovered (to $125…feel that pang of regret again?), and transactions kept flowing. Meanwhile, rather than marginalize Bitcoin, governments around the world slowly started to legitimize it.

Ironically, a decision in 2013 by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network to require Bitcoin exchanges to register as money-service businesses — like payday lenders and other non-bank financial institutions — probably helped Bitcoin along. It was seen as tacit admission by the U.S. that it could not afford to drive Bitcoin overseas and cede the development of cryptocurrencies to places like Asia.

Since then, numerous factors have contributed to the meteoric rise in Bitcoin’s value. Chief among them: copycats, called alt coins.

There’s hundreds of cryptocurrencies now, all trying to cash in on the Bitcoin craze through their own Initial Coin Offerings. When these occur, buyers leap in, usually investing with Bitcoins. Later, they often convert the new coins into Bitcoins.

All that activity pushes up the demand for Bitcoins. Other reasons are critical, too. Many startups are encouraging investments in Bitcoin. The echo chamber of financial media keeps focus on fantastic returns early investors are getting, whipping up the FOMO, which in turn leads to more investment, which whips up the price.

And finally, perhaps the biggest reason: Everyone from taxi driver to baristas to grandparents are now talking about Bitcoin. Cryptocurrencies aren’t just for early adopters any more; now they have attracted what Wall Street calls “retail investors.”

That means there’s a lot of more money from a lot more people kicking the tires on a Bitcoin investment. More buyers and more money mean higher prices.

How to buy and sell Bitcoin

value of bitcoin

So, how do you get in on this?

There are two ways to obtain Bitcoins; you can buy them, or you can “make” them, through a process called mining.

New Bitcoins are created, it would seem, out of thin air as a “reward” when computers compete to do the nuts and bolts work of confirming blockchain transactions. Anyone can mine —investor Tom, mentioned above, mines for alt coins using a network in his garage — but as time goes by, the processing power required to mine continues to swell.

Enormous server farms around the world are now devoted to “winning” Bitcoins, using copious amounts of electricity as they do it.

So most people obtain coins by buying them, usually on a Bitcoin exchange, where traditional currency, like dollars, can be traded for cryptocurrency.

The largest bitcoin broker is called Coinbase, which says it now has 13 million accounts — more than stock brokerage Charles Schwab. Coinbase works like an exchange for beginners, but it’s really a front-end for an exchange called GDAX, or Global Digital Asset Exchange, formerly called Coinbase Exchange.

To buy Bitcoin from Coinbase or another broker or exchange, you’ll have to download software called a cryptocurrency wallet. The wallet will be used to store the cryptographic keys that are needed to unlock virtual currency value. Coinbase, like other brokers and exchanges, also supports some alt coins, like Ethereum and Litecoin.

People invest in alt coins because they are much cheaper, and theoretically offer a chance at greater investment returns, though they can also be more risky. Not all coins, or all exchanges, are supported by all wallets.

Selling coins simply requires reversing the process. Bitcoin holders use a broker or exchange to move transfer virtual currency back into traditional currency, like dollars. That money is then transferred back to a traditional bank account.

Can you buy Bitcoins with a credit card?

Yes. But only through a wallet application and an exchange.

To keep things simple, a new user who wanted to get started on cryptocurrency can download wallet software from Coinbase, link a traditional bank account (such as a checking account or a credit card) to the Coinbase account, and begin buying bitcoins almost immediately. There’s a fee associated with each transaction (at Coinbase, it’s 3.99% for credit or debit card transactions).

No one gets rich on Coinbase in a week or two. New investors can only buy tiny fractions of Bitcoins — credit and debit card depositors are limited to $150 during the first week, for example.

But note,Buyers can’t sell right away. They have to wait a week; that can be frustrating if the value of a coin investment rises quickly, as it has recently. Coinbase users can increase their buy/sell limits through a variety of steps, including identity verification and creating a history of transactions. The throttled on-boarding process helps prevent fraud.

Bitcoins can also be purchased and sold using ATMs that are scattered around the world. They aren’t very practical, however. Transaction fees are high, and there are only a few thousand machines. They’re more of a novelty.

Spending Bitcoin

Spending bitcoin is no picnic. Many journalists have imitated Hill’s “live life for a week on Bitcoin” project; they usually come away frustrated. Yes, Bitcoin acceptance has slowly increased.

BitPay.com claims 100,000 merchants worldwide accept it. Earlier this year, Starbucks announced support for Bitcoin through its mobile app and integration with a wallet called uPayYou. Plenty of familiar online services, like Overstock.com and Expedia, take Bitcoin, too.

There are plenty of pain points along the way, however. If you thought waiting for chip-enabled credit card transactions was annoying, wait until you get held up making a Bitcoin-based purchase. Bitcoin transactions must be confirmed and added to the Blockchain, which can take several minutes, or even hours.

Risk & Rewards

There’s an bigger challenge with larger transactions. Bitcoin is so volatile that it’s risky to use for large purchases.

“Shark Tank” star Kevin O’Leary recently told CNBC that when he recently tried to settle a $200,000 international Bitcoin transaction, the other party insisted he buy insurance to guarantee the value of the Bitcoins wouldn’t fall. The risk outweighed any savings that might have been earned by avoiding bank fees or currency conversion fees.

Bitcoin comes with an even greater risk, however: It comes with virtually no consumer protections. If Bitcoins are lost or stolen, they are gone forever.

Tom says he mined 100 Bitcoins fairly early on, but his hard drive crashed, so they are simply gone. Coin thieves are also hard at work hacking wallets, which don’t necessarily come with built-in security.

Writing in Medium, Cody Brown tells the painful story of looking on helplessly while a criminal took control of his cell phone, opened his wallet, and drained $8,000 worth of Bitcoins. Users are so concerned that some have taken to purchasing physical “hardware” wallets they can essentially hide at home.

Worst of all, exchanges themselves have proven to be unreliable. The Japan-based Mt. Gox exchange, once the world’s largest, closed in 2014 after $450 million worth of Bitcoin were lost or stolen. Dozens of smaller security incidents at exchanges are chronicled at the website Blockchain Graveyard.

To security expert Harri Hursti of Nordic Innovation Labs, this fragility is cryptocurrency’s Achilles’ heel.

“The one key feature of conventional financial systems is that pretty much any erroneous transactions or illegal actions can be unwound and reversed,” he says. “In a blockchain economy, your monetary value can disappear in a cloud of bits with a typo — not to mention intentional crime.”

Is Bitcoin an investment or a currency — or both?

Because there’s still a lot of friction involved in spending Bitcoin — certainly more than many other methods, from debit cards to Apple Pay — Bitcoin is a poor currency at the moment. It’s most practical use as a currency is probably in third-world countries and places where the existing currency is already volatile and Bitcoin provides an immediate benefit.

Outside of these extreme environments, there’s plenty of debate about Bitcoin’s long-term potential as a currency. Brian Armstrong, founder of Coinbase, says that Bitcoin is largely an investment at the moment.

“Bitcoin is 80% people buying and selling as an investment and 20% usage. I think in five years those numbers could be inverted,” he wrote last year.

That split isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As an investment, Bitcoin also serves as a store of value, the same purpose traditional gold serves for people who think their government’s policies will lead to dramatic inflation. You could also think of Bitcoin as the digital-age version of hiding money in a mattress.

Should I invest in Bitcoin?

It goes without saying that consumers shouldn’t invest money in Bitcoin that they can’t afford to lose, or that they’ll need for something in the next couple of years. Whether or not you can stomach that risk is a question only you can answer for yourself.

As a high volatility investment, impacted by hundreds of factors that create a calculus beyond the capacity of individual investors to compute, it really isn’t much different from gambling.

A long list of investing titans, beginning with Warren Buffett, have warned consumers not to throw money at Bitcoin. Remember, fear of missing out can make you do dumb things.

One reason not to avoid investing in Bitcoin: Because you think it has no intrinsic value, it’s not worth anything in the real world, or any those similar arguments. All currencies have this problem. Why is a hundred dollar bill worth $100? Because Uncle Sam says so. If you recycled that piece of paper, you’d get a tiny fraction of that. So dollars have no intrinsic value, either. All currencies — including hard currency, like gold — are ultimately some form of group delusion.

It’s not the intrinsic value that matters; it’s the depth of the “delusion.” As long as people have faith a currency is valuable, it is.

Now, you might not trust the Bitcoin mania, or the exchanges, or your own hard drive, and those would all be sensible reasons to stay away — for now. But people like Willard believe virtual money, in some form, is inevitable.

“Whether Bitcoin, as a brand, lives or dies is ultimately inconsequential. The fact is that natively digital currencies are here to stay and a multiplicity of new digital value possibilities is inevitable,” says Willard.

There is wide consensus that the blockchain technology underlying Bitcoin is of real and lasting value. As with so many gold rushes before, the only group nearly guaranteed to make money are — not people digging for gold — but companies selling the shovels to the diggers. While the metaphor is inexact, that’s partly why Tom isn’t buying crypto coins, but rather mining for them.

The way he looks at it, even if the coins he mines fall to zero value, he still hasn’t lost everything. He still has his servers in his garage.

“I can, as an example, build and sell gaming machines on top of them, and potentially recoup my entire investment if things went sideways,” he says.

In other words, if his cryptocurrency investment fails, there’s always video games.

Can You Be Taxed on Bitcoin Investments?

The short answer is yes. The IRS issued guidance back in 2014 saying convertible virtual currencies, like bitcoin, would be treated as property for taxation purposes, much like stock, cars and land investments. Income from virtual currency transactions is reportable on income tax returns.

However, the long answer is a bit more complicated.

If you sold bitcoin:

You may have a tax liability if you sold cryptocurrency for cash, bought anything using cryptocurrency, traded cryptocurrency — like bitcoin — for other cryptocurrencies — like altcoins, or were paid in cryptocurrencies. You’d pay what’s called a capital gains tax on any gains or loss realized when the investment was cashed out.

“When you sell it because it’s considered an investment, you need to consider gains and losses,” said Marla R. Chambers CPA, CFP, a senior financial planner at Buckingham Financial Group in Dayton, Ohio.

Gains are classified as short term or long term. Short-term gains are on investments held for one year or less, and long-term gains are on investments held longer than one year. Short-term gains are taxed at the individual’s tax rate. The tax on long-term gains varies based on your income bracket. They can be as little as 0% if you’re in the 10% or 15% tax brackets. According to the IRS, most taxpayers pay a tax rate no higher than a 15% rate. The limit on long-term capital gains is 20% for the highest earners.

Trading cryptocurrencies

If you traded one kind of cryptocurrency for another, you may not need to pay taxes on the transaction since you didn’t cash out, but rolled over any gains into another investment, as many do with a property sale.

“You don’t pick up the gain or loss until you actually sell the property,” said Chambers.

How to report cryptocurrency gains on your taxes

Some crypto owners will receive a tax form 1099-K from the exchange they use to include in their taxes. For most, it will be up to them to report.

Coinbase, for example, issues a 1099-K form to any customers who “received at least $20,000 cash for sales of virtual currency related to at least 200 transactions in a calendar year.” They will also provide a copy of the form to the IRS.

You’d report sales and other capital transactions, and calculate the capital gain or loss on Form 8949, then summarize any capital gains and deductible capital losses on Form 1040, Schedule D. You can deduct up to $3,000 in losses, or $1,500 if you are married and filing separately.

What’s important to get right on this form is how much you initially invested in the digital currency, called your cost basis. This is why it’s extremely important to maintain careful records of every single bitcoin transaction. You should be able to download and print out a record of transactions from the exchange you use.

The IRS may or may not know how much you initially paid for your cryptocurrency. If they don’t, they assume your initial investment was $0 and may overtax you based on the sale amount.

“If you’ve received a notice from the IRS and they say you owe a certain amount, it’s important to have someone look at it and make sure the IRS has considered the cost basis,” said Chambers.

She gives the following example:

Assume in 2018 an individual invests $10,000 in January and sells it in March for $20,000.  Then, he invests the $20,000 in April and sells it for $50,000 in May. He turns around and invests the $50,000 in June and sells it for $80,000 in December. If the taxpayer fails to report the sales along with the cost basis on his tax return, he will receive a bill from the IRS for the $150,000 in sales assuming zero in cost basis. In reality, the total gain in this instance is not $150,000, but $70,000.

Bitcoin AcquiredBitcoin SoldCostSalesShort-term Gain
January 2018March 2018-10,00020,00010,000
April 2018May 2018-20,00050,00030,000
June 2018December 2018-50,00080,00030,000
-80,000150,00070,000

If you feel you’ve been overtaxed by the IRS, you’ll need your carefully maintained documentation of crypto transactions to prove you initially paid what you say you did for the crypto.

Those who follow crypto’s libertarian ideology may not like the idea of the government leveraging taxes on their investment gains, but they shouldn’t try to evade the tax man, says Chambers. In fact, Chambers says to report the investment no matter how small the gain or loss to avoid trouble.

“If people think, ‘Well I’m going to fly under the radar and not get caught,’ they shouldn’t do that,” she said. “Why not just report it, you may not owe any tax and you could sleep better at night? It’s always best to just report it and to do what is right.”

If it’s not about “doing the right thing” for you, consider this: Anyone convicted of tax evasion is subject to a prison term of up to five years and a fine of up to $250,000. If convicted of filing a false return, they are subject to up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Another thing to keep in mind: The feds can decide to request crypto platforms to disclose consumer data and information, as they have with Coinbase in 2016.

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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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Articles, Mortgage

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

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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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Consumer Watchdog, Featured, News

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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Update: The CFPB arbitration rule is officially dead.

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

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News

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.

Advertiser Disclosure: The products that appear on this site may be from companies from which MagnifyMoney receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site (including, for example, the order in which they appear). MagnifyMoney does not include all financial institutions or all products offered available in the marketplace.

Bob Sullivan
Bob Sullivan |

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

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