Big List of Free Consumer Reports (1/2): See Your Confidential Credit, Banking, and Payday Lending Data

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magThere are many companies out there that make money by collecting and selling data – your personal data. In the past, it was often difficult if not impossible to see what they were telling prospective lenders, landlords, even employers about you. Under the FCRA and/or FACT Acts, many consumer reporting agencies (CRAs) are now legally required to send you a free copy of your report every 12 months, as well as provide a way to dispute incorrect information. There are more CRAs every time I try to compile these lists, such that this time I split it into two parts:

  • Credit, Banking, and Lending-related consumer reports (Part 1, which you are reading here)
  • Housing, Insurance, and Employment-related consumer reports (Part 2, tomorrow)

Some have an online request form, but many require snail mail with proof of identity. You may not want to bother checking all of them (for example if you rarely write checks or use payday loans), but if you’ve experienced any sort of rejection or adverse reaction in these areas the cause might be found inside one of these databases. Keep in mind that you may not have a file with all of these places.

Credit-Related

Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. The three major credit bureaus track your credit accounts, payment history, and other related information like bankrupts and liens. Free copy of each once every 12 months.

CoreLogic Credco. One of the largest credit-related CRAs and often used by mortgage lenders, your CoreLogic Credco Consumer File can contain: previous homeownership and mortgage info, rental payment history, any reported delinquencies, and other debt obligations like child support. Free copy once every 12 months.

LexisNexis. One of the largest personal information databases that includes public records, real estate transaction and ownership data, lien, judgment, and bankruptcy records, professional license information, and historical addresses on file. Free copy, must mail in form.

Innovis. A supplementary credit report and identity verification provider. Free copy once every 12 months.

IDA, Inc. Per their site, they are a “credit reporting agency that produces credit reports and scores from our repository of consumer information contributed by a wide array of companies including leading financial services organizations, wireless providers, utilities, retailers, auto lenders and many others.” Free copy, must mail in form.

Microbilt and subsidiary Payment Reporting Builds Credit (PRBC). Microbilt is a credit reporting agency, per their site a “leading provider of alternative credit data to businesses that want to offer credit and other financial services to the approximately 110 million underserved and underbanked consumers in the United States.” Free copy once every 12 months.

L2C, Inc. A credit reporting agency, appears focused on the underbanked or unbanked population. Limited further details.

Banking-Related

Chexsystems. A consumer information database used by an estimated 80-90% of all banks to help determine the risk of opening new accounts. Think of it as the banks’ version of a credit bureau. If a person commits check fraud or overdraws their account, it will be listed here. In addition, the simple act of opening or closing a bank account may be recorded in their database. Having a negative ChexSystems record can leave you blacklisted from opening bank accounts at most major banks. Free copy once every 12 months. Must order by phone, mail, or fax.

TeleCheck. Per their site, they provide “industry-leading check acceptance, check processing and risk analytics services to merchants and financial institutions.” One of the major companies that protect businesses and banks from bad checks. Must order by phone or mail.

Certegy Check Services. Per their site, a “check risk management company that provides verification, guarantee and risk analytics to thousands of businesses that choose to accept checks as a form of payment for goods or services.” Clients include check-cashing stores and casinos. Free copy once every 12 months. Must order by phone or mail.

Early Warning Services. A collaboration between a group of big banks including Bank of America, BB&T, Capital One, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo. Provides fraud prevention and risk management in relation to bank accounts and payment transactions. Must order by phone.

Subprime-Related (Payday Lending)

The following companies focus on subprime customers with clients including payday lenders, title loan lenders, rent-to-own stores, and subprime auto loan providers.

Teletrack (affiliated with CoreLogic).

FactorTrust. Free copy once every 12 months.

Clarity Services, Inc. Must mail or fax form.

DataX Ltd. Must mail form.

Sources: ConsumerFinance.gov, FTC.gov, Wikipedia

Employer Health Insurance Wellness Programs: Helpful Feature or Profit Center?

healthLike many other folks, I have the majority of my health insurance premiums paid by my employer. I appreciate this and value it as part of my “total compensation” (a fact that they keep reminding me about).

My employer and health insurance provider recently teamed up to offer us a “Wellness program”. These used to be rewards-based programs where you earned points for activities like watching health-education videos, tracking your weight, creating a food journal, etc. You could then redeem those points towards gift cards and such. The idea was to encourage healthy behaviors like eating better and regular exercise with little pushes (“carrots”).

But instead of the “carrot”, it appears they may be switching to the “stick”.

Starting this year, if I don’t complete an in-person health exam, 30-minute online survey, and telephone coaching session annually, then the employer contribution towards my health insurance premiums will be cut by around 40%. For example, if my employer used to contribute $800 a month towards health insurance and I don’t jump through all the hurdles, my out-of-pocket costs will increase by $320 a month. This program is managed by a for-profit publicly-traded corporation called Healthways (ticker HWAY).

Healthways, Inc. provides well-being improvement solutions that help people improve their physical, emotional and social well-being, thereby improving their health and productivity and reducing their health-related costs.

I’m a skeptical person, so this basically translates to “Healthways makes money by making people cost less to insure.” They can do this in two ways:

  • Decrease health insurance claims by improving employee health through cost-effective strategies.
  • Decrease employer-paid premiums by increasing the employee-paid portion for lazy or forgetful employees.

I really don’t know how much these mandated tasks will improve worker health. I suppose some people who never see a doctor on their own may find out they have hypertension or high cholesterol. I know my wife and I pretty much went through the motions (took about 4 hours altogether including travel time) in order to prevent that huge premium hike. It was a financial no-brainer. On the other hand, I would love to see what percentage of workers fail to complete all the tasks by the deadline and how much extra money that brings in.

Free FACT Consumer Reports: Banking, Insurance, and Employment History

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Annual reminder for 2014. The best known part of the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACT Act) is that you can get a free copy of your credit reports from all three major credit bureaus once every 12 months. However, there are also several other consumer databases that you should check as well which are also available absolutely free once every 12 months, and they can also have a significant financial impact. If you got one last year, you can now get another one and reset the 12 month clock.

ChexSystems Banking History
ChexSystems is a consumer information database used by an estimated 80-90% of all banks to help determine the risk of opening new accounts. Think of it as the bank’s version of a credit bureau. If a person commits check fraud or overdraws their account, it will be listed here. In addition, the simple act of opening or closing a bank account may be recorded in their database. Getting a negative ChexSystems record can leave you blacklisted from opening bank accounts at most major banks.

Get your free ChexSystems consumer report here.

Medical History Used For Insurance Underwriting
MIB (previously known as Medical Information Bureau) is run by 470 insurance companies and has a “primary mission of detecting and deterring fraud that may occur in the course of obtaining life, health, disability income, critical illness, and long-term care insurance.” They record information of “underwriting significance” for those who have applied for life and health insurance with MIB member companies. If you have not applied for individually underwritten life, health, or disability income insurance during the preceding seven year period, then you probably don’t have a record.

Get your free MIB consumer file here.

Insurance Claims History
CLUE stands for Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange, and they collect information that is used to calculate your potential risk of loss and thus your insurance premiums. You can also find out about previous claims on the house you are currently renting or recently bought, even if they weren’t made by you.

The C.L.U.E. ®Personal Property report provides a seven year history of losses associated with an individual and his/her personal property. The following data will be identified for each loss: date of loss, loss type, and amount paid along with general information such as policy number, claim number and insurance company name.

The C.L.U.E. ®Auto report provides a seven year history of automobile insurance losses associated with an individual. The following data will be identified for each loss: date of loss, loss type, and amount paid along with general information such as policy number, claim number and insurance company name.

Get your free CLUE Auto and Personal Property Reports here.

In addition, you should also request your free A-PLUS report (Automated Property Loss Underwriting System), which is a smaller database that also contains information about property loss claims.

LexisNexis Personal Reports Full Disclosure File
As one of the largest personal information databases in the US and a for-profit company (part of Reed Elsevier), LexisNexis should just rename themselves Big Brother, Inc. You can request a “Full File Disclosure” that supposedly includes all of the information that they have on you – including public records, real estate transaction and ownership data, lien, judgment, and bankruptcy records, professional license information, and historical addresses on file.

Request your LexisNexis Full File Disclosure here. You’ll need to fill out a PDF form and snail mail it in.

This is part of my annual checklist at the beginning of each new year.

2013 New Year’s Resolution Follow-Up

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It’s time to check up on our 2013 New Year’s Resolutions, which I gave the eloquent theme “Get our crap together” (in case one or both of us dies). I will roughly follow this GYST checklist.

Will and trusts. We are fortunate to have a family friend who is an estate lawyer, and she was able to assist us with creating all of these legal documents. They included:

  • Designating a Durable Power of Attorney for financial and medical decisions, including backups.
  • Designating who would take care of our children, including backups
  • Distribution of assets and personal items. Mostly the money will go into a trust for the kid(s).

Living Will. In case one or both of us are incapacitated, this included:

  • Medical power of Attorney and backup in case of being physical incapacitated
  • Advanced directives
  • Discussions of our wishes with family.

If you can find a good estate lawyer, I would recommend that route as they should have the experience to explain all of the potential issues in your state including being prepared for future law changes. I may try to write about the general issues later once I learn more. I also meant to compare my documents with those produced by services like Legalzoom, but haven’t gotten around to that. As for costs, it will vary depending on how complicated your situation is and how many additional documents you need prepared and reviewed (power of attorney, trust, etc.).

Life insurance. We each have a $1,000,000 term life insurance policy. We think this number is more than adequate given our future expected needs and our existing savings. If one of us dies, the other will ideally not have to work anymore. If both of us die, there should be enough to cover all living expenses plus any educational expenses. To get an idea of cost, try Term4Sale.com.

Short-term disability. We both have short-term disability through our employers. I don’t feel it is necessary to buy an additional individual policy as we have sizable cash reserves.

Long-term disability. Mrs. MMB obtained an individual long-term disability insurance tailored to her profession. This was done through a recommended local insurance broker. I did not pursue buying a long-term disability plan. This is due to the fact that I felt our portfolio is large enough to provide a substantial cushion, and also due to the fact that the physical demands of my job aren’t very high and thus I worried it would be hard to qualify for benefits. Upon further thought, however, I do think I should at least price it out. Another thing to do in 2014.

Financial Education

  • Passwords. All major passwords are stored in an encrypted password manager, with most sites having a unique complex password such that one hacked database won’t affect the security of other accounts. My wife uses it all the time now and is familiar with it.
  • Cash reserves. We have one year of expenses in cash held in an FDIC-insured bank account. This will provide a cushion so that nobody will have to worry about money until life insurance proceeds arrive.
  • Spousal budget education. We did have a few discussions about our current monthly cashflow situation (income and expenses) and what spending levels could be supported with our current portfolio and with the addition of any life insurance proceeds.
  • Spousal investor education. Can my spouse manage the finances without me? Probably, but not as optimally as I’d like. I did very little in this area, and this will be the focus on our 2014 resolutions.

I think we did pretty good in terms of estate planning, but for 2014 I’ll need to be much more proactive in sharing my investing knowledge. I’d like to learn how to make some simple videos and share them on Youtube.

Health Savings Accounts: Defer Reimbursement But Keep Receipts Forever

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I always tell myself to do more research on Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), but I lack motivation because we have great health insurance benefits and not even the option of an HSA-eligible high-deductible plan. I know, what a tough problem to have ;).

Still, the benefits of HSAs include tax-deductible contributions, tax-free earnings growth, and tax-free withdrawals when used for qualified medical expenses. Because of this, HSAs are often nicknamed “Healthcare IRAs” and have the potential to be very useful for retirement planning.

A popular tip is to contribute the maximum allowable amount to your HSA every year ($3,300 individual, $6,550 family for 2014) and then invest that tax-deferred money so that you can have a big pile of money eligible for healthcare expenses when you are old and creaky. Some people recommend not taking any withdrawals even if you have current medical expenses and just pay for it out-of-pocket. This way, your contributions will be able to enjoy potentially decades of tax-free growth. There is no maximum allowable balance. There is no mandatory disbursement age.

In addition to all that, the Mad FIentist has a great post on How to Hack Your HSA where I learned that:

  • There is no time limit between when you incur a qualified healthcare expense, and when you can make a tax-free withdrawal of the same amount.*
  • By saving up all your medical receipts but not claiming them, you can effectively defer that qualified withdrawal indefinitely. For example if you pay your $2,000 bill now, you’ll still be able to take out $2,000 tax-free at any time you wish in the future. Meanwhile, that initial $2,000 can be left in there to grow in a variety of investment options, like stock index fund or ETF.

Now, you can still only take out $2,000 tax-free and not whatever that $2,000 grew to. However, as you get older you will likely have more medical expenses including copays or coinsurance payments. HSA money can also be taken out tax-free to pay for COBRA premiums and Medicare deductibles and Part B/C/D premiums. Finally, once you reach age 65, withdrawals for non-qualified reasons will be taxable as income without penalty, acting very similar to a Traditional IRA. If you did that before 65, you’d be subject to a 20% penalty.

This is an intriguing wrinkle, but I’d be wary of keeping my receipt for 20 or 30 years and then trying to redeem them. The IRS states that you “must keep records sufficient to later show that the distributions were exclusively to pay or reimburse qualified medical expenses, that the qualified medical expenses have not been previously paid or reimbursed from another source”. What if the IRS starts asking questions? The doctor’s office that did the procedure may be long gone. How do you prove that you didn’t just Photoshop the receipt?

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California Obamacare Health Insurance Sample Quote

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healthOpen enrollment for individually-bought health insurance through state exchanges was supposed to start October 1, 2013, although several states experienced some delays and/or technical glitches. If your state exchange isn’t up and running yet, you can still estimate your premiums and tax credits here.

However, I was able to get a sample quote from the California health exchange website CoveredCA.com using my family’s demographic information.

Income: Above 400% of federal poverty line (roughly $60,000 for a 3-person household), so no tax credits or premium assistance.

Number of people: 3, specifically

  • One 35-year-old male
  • One 35-year-old female
  • One under-18 dependent child

Here are the monthly premiums I was quoted for each plan tier. The lowest quotes for our family situation were all from Blue Shield of California. $628 a month for Bronze, $722 a month for Silver, $910 a month for Gold, and $1,042 a month for Platinum.


(click to enlarge)

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How to Estimate Your Obamacare Health Insurance Premiums and Tax Credits

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Open enrollment for “Obamacare” will start October 1, 2013 for coverage that will start January 1, 2014. Find your state’s exchange website at Healthcare.gov. Plans will be broken down into four tiers: Bronze, Gold, Silver, and Platinum. People 30 and under will also have a catastrophic coverage-only option. While the cost of these plans will not be based on any pre-existing conditions, they will depend on factors like age, tobacco use, and geographic location.

Based on approved insurance plans in 48 states, the average individual premium will be $328 monthly for the cheapest Silver option and $249 for the cheapest Bronze option. This is before any tax credits. Subsidies will be provided to households with annual income up to 400% of the federal poverty level (FPL) (~$88,000 for a family of four). Individuals and families earning less than 250% of FPL (~$27,000 for an individual and ~$55,000 for a family of four) are also eligible for additional cost-sharing credits.

You can get a rough estimate of your tax credits by using this Kaiser Family Foundation calculator. Once 10/1 rolls around, check the official exchange website instead. Any subsidies are paid directly to the insurer, and you only have to pay the difference.

The Department of Health and Human Services released a report with premium estimates for the 36 states with federally-supported exchanges (data as of 9/18/13).

For example, in Texas, an average 27-year-old with income of $25,000 could pay $145 per month for the second lowest cost silver plan, $133 for the lowest cost silver plan, and $83 for the lowest cost bronze plan after tax credits. For a family of four in Texas with income of $50,000, they could pay $282 per month for the second lowest cost silver plan, $239 for the lowest silver plan, and $57 per month for the lowest bronze plan after tax credits.

HuffPost condenses the tables into a nice map:

US Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Stats 1978-2012

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The U.S. Census Bureau just released its 2012 annual report on Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States. A good recap of the data can be found via the charts in this slide presentation [pdf]. Below is my even-briefer summary.

The US median household income (inflation-adjusted) was roughly $51,000 in 2012. This number has decreased or remained stagnant each year since 2007, and is actually about the same as in 1989.

The 2012 official poverty rate was 15.0 percent, and roughly the same amount of the population was without health insurance coverage, 15.4%.

I think this report provides some perspective about the realities of many families today. As a household that earns more than average, this reminds us that it is quite possible to spend less, as many others already do out of necessity. I am not one of those money gurus that tells everyone that they can get rich and retire early; it will always be very difficult for most people. I want to take advantage of my current situation, save money and use it to create future income and financial freedom, and then hopefully that will enable me to help more people down the road.

Car Insurance Quote Shopping and Credit Checks

After doing a car insurance quote comparison test, I wanted to clear up any confusion regarding applying for car insurance and your credit history. Here’s why you should be able to get quotes from as many insurers as you like without worrying about your credit score.

Will auto insurance companies check my credit?

Probably. According to recent surveys, over 90% of insurance companies (including the top 5 auto insurers) use credit information in their underwriting process. It’s not the only thing, just one of the many things that gets considered like your driving record or accident history. There is a historical correlation between certain behaviors like high credit limit utilization and filing an insurance claim. Insurance scores weigh various factors differently than in standard FICO scores.

However, certain states including California, Hawaii, and Massachusetts do not allow the use of credit information in the underwriting or rating of car insurance. Texas had a similar bill proposed in 2013, but I don’t think it was passed.

When will they check my credit?

Either during the premium quote process, or when you actually pick one and apply for insurance. (Some will also check your credit upon premium renewal.) Out of the four insurance companies that I got quotes from, only Progressive asked for a Social Security number and it was optional (I declined to provide it). However, all of them get permission from you to run a credit check in the fine print when you apply for a quote.

For some companies, the initial quote provided assumes you have acceptable credit, and during the application process they check your credit and may adjust the quote based on any negative information. For example, your report may show a high utilization percentage of available credit.

Will it affect my credit score? Hard vs. soft pulls

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Auto Insurance Quote Comparison Results: State Farm vs. GEICO vs. Allstate vs. Progressive vs. Liberty Mutual

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Inspired by reader experiences, I set aside an hour today to obtain auto insurance quotes from the major providers in my area. Insurance companies provide different quotes for “new customers” and “renewals”. Guess which one is usually lower? Also, many insurers choose to focus on specific types of customers such young, high-risk, or low-risk. Finally, I’ve also moved around a lot so I’ve noticed that my quotes change significantly based on where I live. The bottom line is that insurance prices vary for a lot of different reasons, and the only way to know which one is cheapest for you is to compare quotes directly.

It will help to gather the following information first:

  • Personal information. Full name, birthdate, occupation, education level, accident history. None required Social Security Number, but others might.
  • Car information. Many pull this from DMV records automatically. Year, model, date of purchase, own/lease/finance, and security system details.
  • Driving patterns. Is the car primarily used for work/commute/pleasure? How many miles driver per year?
  • Insurance details. Have your current bill handy to know your specific coverages, limits, and deductibles.

The Results!

The totals shown are 6-month premiums for two cars and include liability, personal injury, collision, and comprehensive coverage. Exact same limits and deductibles for all insurers.

  • State Farm (existing) – $665 per 6-month period. This includes various discounts like accident-free, multiple-cars, etc.
  • GEICO – $479. The cheapest quote by far, beating State Farm by $186 per 6 months, or $372 a year. This follows anecdotal evidence that GEICO is pricing their insurance very aggressively for new customers.
  • Allstate – $693. Slightly more expensive than State Farm. I noticed that they have a lot of optional “bells and whistles” features like accident forgiveness. They also offer a discount for electronic bills and auto-pay from bank account. The price shown includes these discounts.
  • Progressive – $849. Way higher than State Farm. Their claim to also provide quotes from other car insurance companies was also very disappointing. They couldn’t provide any other quotes at all. After changing my existing insurer, they said State Farm’s rate would be between $696 – $5,922. Not helpful.
  • Liberty Mutual – $568. Cheaper than State Farm by $194 a year. Not bad but higher than GEICO for me.
  • USAA – ???. I tried as I’ve heard good things about USAA, but I do not have the proper military affiliation to be eligible for their car insurance.

$372 a year is pretty significant. I’m definitely intrigued by this cheap GEICO quote, but I have to do some more research as I also have homeowner’s and umbrella insurance from State Farm and I’m not sure how the total package price would differ.

State Farm Insurance Payment Plan (SFPP) Review

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Ever since we started cutting back our work hours in order to share childcare duties, Mrs. MMB and I have kept a closer eye on our monthly spending patterns. One of the headaches for budgeters is dealing with large lump-sum payments like those for home/car repairs, healthcare bills (human repairs), and home/car/life insurance. Our homeowner’s insurance is due annually (we don’t use mortgage escrow anymore), life insurance is due annually, and auto insurance is due semi-annually.

We use State Farm for all of these insurances due to our positive claim experiences in the past and their multi-line discount. When I asked about payment options, they told me about the State Farm Payment Plan (SFPP). I’m sure that most other major insurers have a similar program.

Pros

  • Steady monthly bill. With this plan, all your insurance bills get averaged into equal monthly, quarterly, or semi-annual payments. We chose monthly as that is how we visualize our spending.
  • Float. Let’s say your total bill is usually $1,200 once a year. If your policy is renewing today, then instead of paying $1,200 upfront now, with SFPP you pay $100 per month spaced out over the next 12 months. So you’re gaining some additional float time on your money. If you’re already paid up then you have to wait until renewal to start an SFPP.
  • Pay with credit card. You can use a credit to pay most bills already, but some auto-pay plans require a linked checking account. SFPP allows you to pay with a recurring charge on any Visa/Mastercard (no American Express). This is good news for those earning credit card rewards.
  • Chose payment due date. I don’t use this, but if you find it convenient you can select your specific payment due date each month (any day except 29th, 30th, or 31st).

Cons

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Affordable Care Act Summary for Self-Employed, Unemployed, and Early Retirees

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Much of the discussion around The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) aka Affordable Care Act aka Obamacare has been about politics. But it’s the law, it’s constitutional, and a lot of things are happening soon. For most full-time workers that wish to keep their employer-provided health insurance, little will change. However, things will be very different for the self-employed, unemployed, uninsured, and those seeking semi-retirement or retirement before age 65 and Medicare. You can use it even if you already have employer-provided insurance, although you may become ineligible for certain tax credits. There’s way too much information to cover everything, but here’s my summary of the developments.

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