If you received a gift card over the holidays, chances are you’re happy about it. After all, what’s not to like? Gift cards allow recipients to buy stuff without taking money out of their pocket — at least in theory.
But gift cards can be a mixed blessing. Forget you have one and it can sit in your drawer, unused, for ages. Receive one for a store you don’t care for and you may find yourself buying things you’d really rather not. Or maybe you’ll overspend and find yourself using that $20 Pottery Barn gift card for a $50 lampshade you don’t really need.
Here are ways to make sure your gift cards stay a blessing — not a curse.
Spend it sooner rather than later
If you intend to use your gift card, it’s better to act fast. Stores may go out of business, may not honor outstanding gift cards after filing for bankruptcy or may close their only location near you.
That’s especially true as consumer shopping patterns continue to shift and brick-and-mortar retailers shut their doors — 2017 saw retail giants including J.C. Penney and Macy’s announce the closure of stores nationwide.
And the quicker you use a gift card, the less likely you are to forget about it. Nearly $1 billion in gift cards went unused in 2015, according to consulting company CEB Tower. That’s a significant sum of money left on the table.
Don’t want to spend? Regift, resell or donate
If you receive a gift card for a store with no nearby location, or one that you simply have no interest in visiting, you can get rid of the card by regifting, reselling or donating.
“It’s important to do an honest assessment right from the beginning and think, ‘Am I really going to use this or is this a stretch?’” says Shelley Hunter, spokeswoman for Giftcards.com, a website that sells gift cards.
Find a friend or family member who will appreciate your unwanted present. And if you can’t, sell it to somebody else. Sites like Raise.com or Cardpool.com allow users to resell gift cards online. Though you likely won’t get the full value of the card back — the cash you get can range from 60% to more than 90% of the original amount — Hunter says it’ll be worth it if you weren’t going to spend it anyway. You’re likely to get closer to the full value for stores that have nationwide footprints and sell a wide variety of merchandise, such as Target or Walmart, Hunter says.
Or consider donating your gift card to a local school, after-school program or homeless shelter.
Avoid overspending — and underspending
A study by payments technology company First Data found that 75% of consumers overspend the value of their gift card by an average of $38. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — a gift card can bring down the amount you spend on something you wanted but couldn’t afford otherwise.
Beware of “gift card creep,” however — spending excessively on something you didn’t really want, just because the card makes it relatively affordable. Plan ahead of time, and ask yourself whether you truly value the item. To get the best deal, you should also look around for coupons and shop when the retailer is having a promotion.
What if you’ve come close to your gift card limit and have a small amount left on your card? Certain states require retailers to exchange the value of the card for cash if it falls below a threshold. Though the threshold is $5 for many states that follow this policy, it ranges from $1 in Vermont and Rhode Island to $10 in California. Some stores may also have policies in place to refund low values for cash, regardless of which state they’re in.
Try new things
Gift cards can be a burden if you feel forced to spend money on things you won’t ever use. But they can also push you to try new things.
“You’re not giving a gift, you’re giving the gift of an experience,” Hunter says of presenting somebody with the store vouchers. So go out on a limb — try that new local restaurant, take the cooking class or browse through that clothing store you’ve been meaning to check out. You might find that your gift card brings more value to you than its worth in dollars and cents.
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The article The Smartest Way to Use Gift Cards originally appeared on NerdWallet.
Chances are good that the Equifax data breach affects you. What do you do next? The short answers: Consider a credit freeze. Scrutinize your credit statements. And check your credit reports from all three credit bureaus.
Equifax says hackers used a website application vulnerability to access the personal information of about 143 million U.S. consumers, or more than half of the country’s adult population. Credit bureaus such as Equifax are an especially sensitive target because they handle detailed financial records, and it’s nearly impossible for consumers to avoid credit reporting. Every time you apply for credit, the personal data — including your name, birthdate and Social Security number — you share can be stored by a reporting bureau.
Most credit card issuers and lenders report consumer activity to all three major U.S. credit bureaus, and your data is likely duplicated at Experian and TransUnion. There’s no reassurance in the fact that only one bureau was hacked.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, this is a 10, and that’s because of the quality of the data … your Social Security number is the skeleton key for your identity,” said Adam Levin, founder of CyberScout, a company offering identity theft and data breach defense services.
Freeze your credit for the best protection
Credit freezes prevent stolen information from being used to open new accounts in your name by restricting access to your records. Without access to your credit history, most creditors won’t open a new account.
“We have to assume that our personal information is exposed and act accordingly,” Levin said. He said a credit freeze has become “a critical thing to do.”
Credit expert Barry Paperno, who blogs at Speaking of Credit, agreed: “That’s the most extreme method, but it’s also the most effective.”
But this most effective method will cost you in money and inconvenience.
A freeze might cost you a small fee, which varies from state to state, but it’s better than a credit monitoring service. A freeze can prevent fraud, while monitoring alerts you fraud might have happened. It’s the difference between using a deadbolt to keep thieves out rather than a security camera to catch them after the fact.
You’ll also have to pay to lift the freeze each time you apply for credit or need to allow a potential landlord or employer to check your credit. You’ll receive a PIN to “thaw” your credit. Keep it in a safe place.
Here’s how to request a freeze:
Equifax: Call 1-800-349-9960 or go online
Experian: 1‑888‑397‑3742 or go online
TransUnion: 1-888-909-8872 or go online
Even with your credit frozen, you’ll still have access to your credit records and scores. If you don’t already have a way to regularly monitor your score and report information, consider signing up before you place a freeze. Some credit card issuers and many personal finance websites offer them for free. Watching for a big, unexplained change can alert you to potential fraud.
Place fraud alerts if a freeze is too much
If you don’t want to lock out all creditors — perhaps you’re in the middle of mortgage shopping or refinancing — you can place a 90-day fraud alert on your credit. This tells potential creditors to verify your identity before issuing credit in your name.
Contact one of the three bureaus, and it will notify the others.
Monitor your own credit
You’re entitled to at least one free credit report from each credit bureau every 12 months via AnnualCreditReport.com. If you haven’t accessed your credit reports within the past 12 months, do it now. If you’ve reviewed them recently, placing a fraud alert on your credit files allows renewed access.
Use your reports from the bureaus, and any free score and report services you have, to watch for:
New accounts that you didn’t open
Credit inquiries that don’t match when you applied for credit
Balances that don’t match your statements
Deal with your credit cards
Freezing keeps new accounts from being opened, but doesn’t stop fraudulent charges on an existing account. Take these steps to protect yourself:
Check your email and regular mail. Some consumers whose account numbers were compromised are being notified by credit card issuers that they’ll be sent a new card and the old one will be deactivated.
Even if you’re not notified by your issuer and you think your data wasn’t in this breach, don’t relax. Stay vigilant by checking your credit card statements for changes you don’t recognize. If something looks fishy, dig further. Often there’s a phone number listed with the merchant name for the transaction.
Consider signing up for text or email alerts about credit transactions. Many issuers let you set them for charges above a certain amount.
If you see a charge you think isn’t yours, call your issuer right away to dispute it. Your card issuer can’t charge interest or fees on the transaction while it’s being investigated.
What was exposed? Is my data out there?
The data accessed includes:
Information such as names and addresses, birthdates, Social Security numbers and some driver’s license numbers
Credit card numbers for approximately 209,000 consumers
Some documents from about 182,000 consumers’ credit report disputes, including personal identifying information
Consumers can check whether their information is affected at www.equifaxsecurity2017.com. However, the “Check potential impact” process asks you to input the final 6 digits of your Social Security number, which gives security experts pause.
Equifax also opened a call center that you can reach at 866-447-7559. It will notify the subset of consumers whose credit card numbers or dispute documents were affected by mail.
Should I sign up for the free Equifax monitoring?
Equifax is offering all U.S. consumers free credit and identity theft monitoring for one year. But the risk doesn’t disappear after a year. Someone who has your Social Security number has it — and might try to use it — forever.
The service is through TrustedID, an Equifax company. The terms of service include waiving your right to participate in a class-action lawsuit or class arbitration and agreeing to use individual arbitration. The National Consumer Law Center has called upon Equifax to strike that clause. Failing that, the NCLC advises consumers they can opt out of the forced individual arbitration by notifying Equifax in writing within 30 days.
Bev O’Shea is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @BeverlyOShea.
The article Lock Down Your Data After Equifax Breach — Right Now originally appeared on NerdWallet.
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School is out, and summer is upon us. It's time to let loose and have some fun. That sounds great in theory, but it can be horrible for our finances if we aren't careful — especially when it comes to taking summer vacations.
For many people, travel is a significant part of their summer budget, but reckless spending while on vacation can wreak havoc on their finances. People often spend more when on vacation, perhaps because they get caught up in the moment or simply because things are more expensive than at home.
So what can you do this summer to make sure you don't end up with a financial hangover, wondering where the money went or how the credit card bills got so high? Here are a few tips to help you enjoy your summer vacation without derailing your finances.
It helps to start with a plan for your summer vacations. You don't have to rule out spontaneity entirely, but having an overview of when and where you'd like to go, what you'd like to do and how much it will cost gets you started off on the right foot.
You can also do some research to identify deals ahead of time. Many hotels offer discounts during offseasons, and some airlines have lower fares when you fly during off-peak times. Services like Airbnb offer competitive prices for lodging and may help you reduce expenses if you eat some meals in instead of going out.
With a plan in place, you can start saving for your trip. Creating a separate “fun fund” helps cement why you're saving the money and can help you keep your eye on the big prize when lesser temptations, like a new TV, arise.
To determine how much you need to save each month, divide the cost of the trip by the number of months you'll be saving. Major trips, such as to a Disney location or overseas, may require significant planning and a longer time horizon to save. For instance, taking a $6,000 trip every three years would require you to save around $170 a month. If you wanted to do this more frequently, you'd have to save even more.
If “staycations” or weekend getaways are more your speed, you may not need to save as aggressively or as long. You can build these trips into your spending plan by setting aside an extra 5% or 10% from your check each pay period.
You can also get the whole family involved by encouraging your children to set aside a portion of the money they receive from birthdays and allowances for parent-free spending while on vacation.
Set a daily spending budget for your trip and don't exceed it. Include what you'll spend on food, activities, lodging and anything else that might come up. You can also get your children involved in the planning, having them participate in the family's budgeting. Even young children will benefit as they are exposed to responsible spending.
But remember, setting these spending limits means being realistic. If you have to budget $500 a day for a five-day trip because you plan to eat at restaurants for every meal and you want to bring souvenirs home to friends and family, so be it. It's more important to be realistic about what you'll spend and to save for it than it is to convince yourself you won't spend much and go two or three times above what you budgeted.
Once you've settled on how much you'll spend, stick to it. It's easy to talk yourself into not counting little purchases like a coffee here or mouse ears there, but those little purchases add up and can have a significant impact on your vacation fund. Give yourself a 3% to 5% buffer in your budget for the “Oh, that's so cute” and “Man, I just need to have that” moments — we've all had them.
With practice, you'll get better at estimating how much you'll need each day, but having a cushion can help in case you underestimate.
Most of us aren't going to plan a vacation down to the minute, but with money saved up in a “fun fund” and a cap on your daily spending, you can enjoy yourself and avoid maxing out your credit cards.
The article Enjoy Your Summer Vacation — Without Maxing Out Your Credit Cards originally appeared on NerdWallet.
Identity theft continues to be a booming business: In 2014, 17.6 million Americans fell victim, and cybercriminals made off with $15.4 billion. And tax refund theft remains a lucrative piece of that business, despite the IRS' efforts to stamp it out.
How do hackers do it? In one scam, they filed bogus returns with information harvested from the IRS' own files or by using Social Security numbers.
Then they waited for the direct-deposit refunds to flow in. Victims usually didn't know anything was wrong until the IRS refused to accept their tax returns.
Here are some of the defenses that the IRS, state tax agencies and the e-filing industry are building to combat scammers:
Quicker responses to warnings. Thanks to technological enhancements, the IRS now receives warnings if a large number of returns come from a single computer address within a short period of time.
Delaying refunds. This allows the IRS time to recognize that more than one return has been filed for the same Social Security number. Previously, the IRS issued e-file refunds seven to 10 days after it received a return. The new target is 21 days.
Earlier filings of W2 forms. Businesses had been required to issue wage and payment statements to workers by Feb. 1, but didn't need to file them with the IRS until June. Now both will be due by Jan. 31.
Sharing information: Intuit, which makes TurboTax, and H&R Block have agreed to share more information more promptly with the IRS about filings they consider suspicious.
Safety begins at home, of course. The IRS also has advice for taxpayers on identifying — and more importantly, avoiding — tax refund fraud:
Always use security software with firewall and anti-virus protections, as well as strong passwords.
Learn to recognize phishing emails, calls and texts from thieves posing as legitimate organizations, such as your bank, credit card company and even the IRS. The IRS will never try to contact you via phone or email.
Don't click on links or download attachments from emails if you don't recognize the sender.
Protect your personal data. Don't routinely carry your Social Security card, and make sure your tax records are secure.
If you think someone used your information to file a return, contact the IRS immediately. Specialists will help you file your tax return, receive any refund you're due, and protect your account from identity thieves in the future.
© Copyright 2016 NerdWallet, Inc. All Rights Reserved
You’re not the only one joyfully anticipating the holiday season. Cyber criminals are all aflutter, too, as they look forward to the killing they’ll make ripping off innocent shoppers like you. Here are some of the most common ways these thieves operate, because awareness can help you avoid becoming yet another victim.
Beware those enticing ads that turn up on Facebook and other social media sites offering vouchers, gift cards and deep discounts, as well as the online surveys these ads often link to. These offers are often only empty promises designed to steal your personal information.
Additionally, if you receive concert, theater or sporting event tickets as a gift, never post pictures of them online. Cyber thieves spend lots of time monitoring social media, just waiting for the opportunity to create phony tickets they can resell from your barcode image. If your ticket is resold, you might just find yourself out of a seat on the night of your event. It’s also unwise to post live from an event that gives criminals a heads-up that your home is empty and ripe for picking. Better to wait until the next day to post about the wonderful time you had.
It may be a mystery to you how cyber thieves got your private email address, but it’s chillingly clear they’re up to no good. Your inbox may fill up with all kinds of legitimate-looking product offers and delivery notices this holiday season, but clicking on links of bogus ones or entering personal information on the linked sites can provide criminals with the opportunity to steal your identity.
With mobile apps available for just about everything, it’s a sad sign of the times that certain free mobile apps (often disguised as games) have been specifically designed to steal personal information from your phone. This is a particularly scary development since many people use their phones to secure their cars and homes. For this reason, only install apps from familiar companies and, at the very least, find a third-party review from a trusted site if you’re interested in an app from an unfamiliar source.
Lots of people use portable USB drives, which makes it all the more important to avoid those being distributed as giveaways this holiday season unless they’re from a trusted source. These innocent-looking devices are often used as a method of introducing malware to computers.
A spirit of generosity is traditional at holiday time, but if you’re not careful, your donations may never make it to the needy. Fake charities that skillfully tug at your heartstrings abound at this time of year, just waiting for you to willingly give your hard-earned cash to scammers. Before donating, be sure to check out charities thoroughly, to make sure that they’re not only legitimate, but also that they allocate the bulk of funds toward their causes rather than “administrative costs.”
These strategies will also help keep you a step ahead of scammers:
Scammers may be smart, but you can still outsmart them. A little foreknowledge and caution go a long way toward ensuring you’ll enjoy a safe and memorable holiday season.
© Copyright 2016 NerdWallet, Inc. All Rights Reserved
As routine financial tasks move online, you may have fallen out of the habit of banking at a branch office. If so, receiving a paper check can be a hassle, requiring a special trip just to deposit it.
Thankfully, mobile depositing is now widely offered by banks and credit unions, allowing you to put that refund from the cable company or birthday check from your uncle into your account without having to go to a branch.
Financial institutions that offer remote depositing generally do so through smartphone apps. Although the procedure can vary, in most cases you start by endorsing the back of the check, the same way you would if you were depositing it with a teller or at an ATM. The app prompts you to snap photos of both the front and back of the check and send them through the phone to your account provider.
If you have multiple accounts at the same institution, you’ll need to select the one you want to receive the money. Most of the time, you’ll be asked to enter the amount you’re putting in. The app usually has software designed to read important information from the photos, such as account and routing numbers and the amount of the check. But having you punch in the dollar figure reduces the chance of a software error that accidentally moves $20 into your account when the check was for $200, for example.
Ideally, the same privacy and security safeguards are in place whether you’re conducting a transaction online with your computer or logging in with a mobile app. Depositing a check by phone is no different. Financial institutions are refining and improving online security practices all the time, and their customer service departments can answer questions if you’re concerned.
You can decrease your risk of having your personal financial data stolen by changing your passwords frequently, using an authentication code on any mobile device you use to access your financial accounts, and avoiding using unsecured Wi-Fi networks at cafes, hotels and other public places.
If the camera on your phone isn’t of good quality, it may be hard to take a clear enough picture. To improve your chances, lay the check on a flat surface like a table, and make sure it’s well-lit. Some apps require the image to include all four corners of the check, so make sure you’re not cutting off part of it when you take the photo. To be safe, allow a small margin around it.
In many cases, there are restrictions placed on money deposited by mobile app. Some financial institutions limit the total dollar amount you can put in this way each month, or won’t accept individual checks over a certain amount. Sometimes, these limits are lower if you’re a new customer, and you’re allowed greater freedom to deposit checks with the mobile app after you’ve had your account for a while.
Although paper checks are becoming less common, you may still receive them from time to time. Having the option to deposit them with your smartphone eliminates a lot of the associated inconvenience. This will only be more true as the technology improves.
© Copyright 2016 NerdWallet, Inc. All Rights Reserved