Consumer eViews
FLORIDA CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER TOM GALLAGHER'S WEEKLY NEWSLETTER

Volume 3, Number 1, January 2, 2006 

With the new year having arrived, it is an opportune time for Floridians to resolve to save more money.

We all intend to save, but many of us just don’t follow through on our good intentions. I encourage Floridians to resolve in 2006 to thoroughly review their finances and find ways to save more money.

Personal financial decisions are always an individual’s personal responsibility, but education can also help. The Department of Financial Services has an education initiative available online that can help Floridians make better informed decisions for themselves and their families.  Your Money, Your Life gives virtually everyone access to high-quality information on a wide range of financial topics as it details choices, benefits, and pitfalls in easy-to-understand language.

Read the savings tips below, and visit the Your Money, Your Life website to learn more.


-- Tom Gallagher


SAVE MORE IN 2006

Lower the cost of your outstanding liabilities.
 
Review interest rates on all of your credit cards and loans.  Do research to see if you are paying a higher rate than the current average.  If you are, contact your creditors and negotiate a new rate.  If they won’t budge, consider moving your accounts.  This same rule applies to outstanding mortgage loans.  However, you must also consider fees connected with refinancing and calculate how long it will take to recoup the closing costs.  If you don’t know how to do the cost-benefit calculations, ask a loan officer to do the calculations for you. 

Make additional monthly payments. 
If you decide to keep your current credit card debts or mortgage loan, consider making affordable pre-payments.  Using a mortgage loan as an example, sending in $25 extra a month can save you thousands of dollars in interest and shave years off of the term of your loan.  Hypothetically, if you had a $100,000 loan at 8 percent and paid an additional  $25 per month, you would save more than $23,000 in interest and knock off over three years of mortgage payments.  Send in $50 per month and you save almost $40,000 and even more years off the term of the loan. With credit cards, the same mathematics apply.  The larger the payment over the minimum monthly requirement, the faster the debt gets paid and the less interest you will pay over the over the life of the debt.

Review your bank account to determine if it is the best product for you. 
Review your monthly bank statement to see exactly what fees you paid during the last billing cycle.  For example, are you charged for every check and ATM withdrawals?  You may find you can save money by simply changing from one type of account to another or by consolidating multiple accounts into one.

Pay bills on-line.  
Today, most major businesses and service providers, including utilities and phone companies, have websites for their customers.   With the cost of a postage stamp now at 37 cents, it may be worth your while to pay recurring debts over the net.  You’ll also save the costs of envelopes and avoid late fees because you will have complete control over when the payment gets made and applied to your account. 

Change your computer passwords. 
With identity theft now the number-one fraud in the country, you can’t be too careful when it comes to safeguarding computer passwords and personal information.  Most of us don’t change our passwords frequently enough.  Take the time to change all of your passwords.  Avoid using common passwords like birthdates, names or other familiar codes that can be easily broken.  Instead, use a mix of random numbers and letters.  Hackers will have a harder time deciphering your information if you do. 

Check Your Credit Report.
Make it a New Year’s resolution to check your credit reports on a frequent basis and address any discrepancies or errors.  Reviewing and managing your credit is important for two reasons.  First, if someone has stolen your identity you will know it because you will see inquiries and new debt on the report that you didn’t create.  Second, creditors use credit reports to rate your creditworthiness and establish an interest rate.  By correcting any errors, you may save money on loans and other types of credit.

The Department of Financial Services has launched a statewide campaign to promote financial literacy in Florida among all age groups.  For information on the campaign and more financial tips, log onto www.yourmoneyyourlife.org.


CAREFULLY CHECK CREDENTIALS OF 'SENIOR SPECIALISTS'

The North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA) is urging seniors to carefully check the credentials of individuals holding themselves out as “senior specialists.”

According to Patricia D. Struck, NASAA president, individuals may call themselves ‘senior specialists’ to create a false level of comfort among seniors by implying a certain level of training on issues important to the elderly. But the training they receive is often nothing more than marketing and selling techniques targeting the elderly.

Sales people and the alphabet soup of letters after their names can be confusing, and in some cases, may even be deceptive to seniors.

NASAA’s Investment Adviser Operations Project Group has observed a significant increase in designations claiming to provide the holder with expertise in providing services to investors 55 years and older. Although there are legitimate organizations whose members must complete rigorous programs of study, pass extensive examinations, and have practical experience in order to receive their designations, a number of entities formed in the last few years have created designations with less stringent requirements. Without reviewing the course material for each of these designations, it is difficult to verify the claims made by the promoters.

Securities regulators have opened 26 cases in the past year involving “senior specialists” in the eastern half of the United States alone. Most of the cases involve securities recommendations by individuals who are not properly licensed by state securities regulators.

Questionable senior specialists commonly target senior investors through seminars where the specialist reviews seniors’ assets, including securities portfolios. Typically, the specialist recommends liquidating securities positions and using the proceeds to purchase indexed or variable annuities products the specialists offer.

In many jurisdictions, these recommendations may be viewed as providing investment advice for compensation. The senior specialist would be offering investment advice as an unregistered investment adviser and, therefore, be subject to enforcement action by regulatory agencies.

A recent enforcement action by Massachusetts securities regulators against Investors Capital Corp. illustrates how a “senior specialist” designation can be used to hoodwink seniors. According to state regulators, one of the firm’s representatives stated during a seminar that his “Certified Senior Adviser” (CSA) designation – received by taking a three-day course or a home course, followed by a multiple-choice exam –indicated that he had been specifically trained to manage and solve financial problems facing seniors.  According to the state, the seminar steered investors toward investing in equity-indexed annuities as the best way to participate in stock market gains without risk. Equity-indexed annuities are complex insurance products with high commissions and long holding periods (as well as stiff penalties for early withdrawals), which make them unsuitable for many older investors. In November, the state charged the firm with misleading investors, especially seniors, into buying equity-indexed annuities.

In another case, the Pennsylvania Securities Commission issued a cease and desist order in June 2005 against the Association of Senior Counselors and an agent to halt the offer and sale of unregistered securities. According to the state, the agent appeared at a senior’s home with materials saying he had “credentials you can trust,” among which included a “CSA” designation. An investigation determined that the agent had been charged in Connecticut in 2004 with selling unregistered securities and failing to register as an agent of a securities issuer in connection with the alleged sale of promissory notes.

Before doing business with any investment professional, all investors, especially senior investors, should check with their state securities regulator to determine whether the individual is properly licensed and if there have been any complaints or disciplinary problems involving the individual or his or her firm.

NASAA is the oldest international organization devoted to investor protection. Its membership consists of the securities administrators in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the provinces and territories of Canada, and Mexico.


EMERGENCY FINANCIAL FIRST AID KIT

Operation HOPE, Inc. (OHI) is a non-profit, public benefit organization, founded in 1992. OHI is America’s leading provider of economic tools and services and an effective facilitator, lender, advocate and educator for and on behalf of the other America.

Through a series of public/private partnerships and strategic alliances, OHI has developed and implemented programs focused on connecting the minority community with mainstream, private sector resources, and empowering under-served communities.  OHI brings together, under one organizational umbrella, some of the most talented, experienced and successful individuals that America has to offer, both from the minority and mainstream community.

One of HOPE Coalition America's principal products is the Emergency Financial First Aid Kit (EFFAK), a simple tool to help Americans minimize the financial impact of a natural disaster or national emergency. It helps users identify and organize key financial records and serves as a quick reference to their most important financial documents.

Click here to download the free EFFAK.

The companion piece to the EFFAK is the Personal Disaster Preparedness Guide (PDPG) which guides individuals through the survival and recovery steps to be taken prior to an emergency.

Click here to download the free PDPG.

(To view and print the EFFAK and PDPG, you must have Adobe® Reader®. If you do not have this software, you can download it for free here.)


CREDIT CARD TELEPHONE SCAM

Be warned on this sneaky scam that the caller does not ask for your credit card number because the number is already in the scammer's possession.  This information is worth understanding to be prepared to protect yourself.

Here is how the scam works. The person calling on the phone says, "This is (name), and I'm calling from the Security and Fraud Department at VISA.  My badge number is 12460.  Your card has been flagged for an unusual purchase pattern, and I'm calling to verify.  This would be on your VISA card which was issued by (name of bank).  Did you purchase an anti-telemarketing device for $497.99 from a marketing company based in Arizona?" 

When you say no, the caller continues, "Then we will be issuing a credit to your account.  This is a company we have been watching and the charges range from $297 to $497, just under the $500 purchase pattern that flags most cards. Before your next statement is issued, the credit will be sent to (your address); is that correct?"   After your assent that the address is correct, the caller continues, “I will be starting a fraud investigation. If you have any questions, you should call the 1- 800 number listed on the back of your card and ask for security.  You will need to refer to this control number.” The caller then gives you a six-digit number.

Here's the key to the way the scam works. The caller then says, "I need to verify you are in possession of your card. Turn your card over and look for the numbers by your signature."  There are seven numbers; the first four are the last four digits of your card number; the next three are the security numbers that verify you are the possessor of the card.

The caller will ask you to read the three numbers to him.  After you tell the caller the three numbers, the response will be, "Correct, I just needed to verify that the card has not been lost or stolen, and that you still have the card in your possession.  Do you have any other questions?"  The caller then thanks you, says not to hesitate to call back if any questions arise and hangs up.

You actually say very little, and the full credit card number is never mentioned.  Calling back to ask a question,  the real credit card security department reveals that it was a scam and in the past few minutes a new purchase of $497.99 had been charged to the card.

A real fraud report was made and the VISA account closed and reissued with new cards and numbers.  What the scammers need is the three-digit PIN number on the back of the card to go along with the credit card number. 

Don't give it to them.  Instead, tell them you'll call VISA or Master card directly for verification of this conversation.  The real VISA said that they will never ask for anything on the card as it is information in their files.  You may give the scammers your three-digit PIN, fooled into thinking that you are receiving a credit.  However, by the time your statement arrives charges will appear for purchases you didn't make, and then it is necessary to file a fraud report with the credit card company. 

Also file a report with the police, which the credit card companies will instruct you to do.  According to the police, several of these scams are being reported daily. 



Consumer Services HelpLine
(800) 342-2762