John Oliver on Why The Credit Report Industry is Awful

John Oliver of HBO’s Last Week Tonight did a humorous monologue on why credit reporting bureaus are awful. Appropriately, it was last week and I finally got around to watching the 18-minute video tonight. Here is the full video link, embedded below:

Here’s the condensed version:

  • Your credit report can affect your ability to borrow (and thus buy a home), your ability to rent, the price you pay for all kinds of stuff, and even your ability to get a job. Sheesh, what else is there left?
  • 1 in 20 credit reports have errors that are significant enough to hurt your chances at the rather important things I just listed above. That’s 10 million Americans.
  • In an effort to show Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion how such errors can hurt both reputations and business, they created the three websites Equifacks.com, Experianne.com, and TramsOnion.com. (Warning: I left some of these unlinked because they may be considered NSFW.)

In general, I do not micromanage my credit score, but it is scary than an error outside your control could have such harmful effects on your day-to-day life. Perhaps this information will also motivate you to check your credit and consumer reports if you haven’t done so recently. There are also an increasing number of free and/or ad-supported sources of credit reports, credit monitoring, and credit scores. The bad news is that the error dispute process is still slow and complicated, and after you try patience and perseverance, you may need to lawyer up in order to get their attention.

WreckCheck App – Auto Accident Checklist

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While doing the research for my auto premium comparison post, I noticed that several of the state websites promoted an app called WreckCheck. Created by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC), this free mobile app for iPhone and Android is one of those things you should download onto your phone now to hide away in some folder and hopefully never use.

More than simply a checklist, the app will guide you through the steps you should take following an accident. Ideally, it will keep you calm and collected in a time of stress. The app tells you what to do, and also what not to do. As a backup, you can also print out the checklist in PDF form.

Things you should do:

  • Keep your vehicle information handy ahead of time (glovebox or in-app) including VIN, license plate number, insurance company, agent name, and policy number.
  • Document the time and location of accident (uses your GPS).
  • Take pictures of the accident, including damage to all vehicles involved (uses your camera).
  • Document what happened, including vehicles and people involved (uses your audio recorder).
  • Call the police (tap to call 911). If they are not dispatched, file an incident report.
  • Share only your insurance card information, including name and insurance phone number. You are not even required to share your personal phone number.

Things you should NOT do:

  • Share your home address or drivers license number.
  • Allow someone to take or photocopy your ID.
  • Admit fault.

The app can email a completed accident report directly to you and/or your insurance agent. Finally, the app provides tips on how to file and follow up on a claim. Here are some app screenshots and a explanatory video:

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Big List of Auto Insurance Premium Comparisons for All 50 States

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The standard advice for saving money on auto insurance is to shop and compare prices. You could use a comparison website, but they may not include every insurance carrier listed in your state. A lesser-known fact is that auto insurance is regulated on the state level, where each company must submit their rates for approval. Many states in turn share this information with consumers. Some states also provide complaint data, so you can also view which insurers have the most complaints relative to their market share. Here is an example report for the state of California:

autoins_cal

For the hypothetical scenario above, the difference between the cheapest option (Wawanesa) and the 17th cheapest option (AllState) is over $1,100 a year.

Using this information, a consumer can more efficiently choose to get quotes from the insurance companies which will likely offer them the lowest rates. Individual companies often choose to focus on certain areas of the market – drivers with clean records, drivers with tickets/accidents, teen drivers, and so on. Credit scores are another newer area of focus. Try to find the comparison example that fits your situation the closest.

These premium comparison reports can often be hard to locate, so I manually searched for all 50 states and the District of Columbia and shared my results below. (I used the same template as my free state income tax e-filing post.) Some states share very specific data down to zip code, some share only a few broad example rates, and others share essentially nothing. In alphabetical order (just click on the state):

State Notes
Alabama Click on “Compare Premiums” for the scenario that best fits your own.
Alaska Personal Auto Insurance Premiums Comparison Guide > Premiums Comparison Guide.pdf
Arizona 2015 WEB_AutoPremiumComparison_Publication.pdf
Arkansas Insurance Cost Comparison > Private Passenger Auto
California 2016 Automobile Insurance
Colorado Private Passenger Automobile Premium Comparison Report.
Connecticut None found.
Delaware Automobile Insurance Rate Comparison
Florida Auto Rate Comparison Tool
Georgia Automobile Insurance Rate Comparisons
Hawaii Motor Vehicle Insurance Premium Comparison
Idaho None found.
Illinois No premium info, but some guidance provided including complaint ratios.
Indiana None found.
Iowa Auto Insurance Pricing Guides
Kansas Auto Insurance Shopper’s Guide.
Kentucky Auto and Home Insurance Guide with Disaster Guide and Premium Comparison. [PDF available]
Louisiana Automobile Rate Comparison Guide.
Maine Auto Insurance, Comparison of top 10 policies.
Maryland Auto Insurance – A Comparison Guide to Rates.
Massachusetts Auto Insurance Premium Comparisons.
Michigan Comprehensive Guide to Auto Insurance.
Minnesota None found.
Mississippi Personal Auto Rate Comparison.
Missouri Auto Policies – See policies of insurance companies ranked by market share.
Montana Auto Insurance Price Comparison (pdf).
Nebraska Auto Rate Guide (direct link to PDF).
Nevada Consumer’s Guide to Auto Insurance Rates.
New Hampshire New Hampshire Auto Cost Premium Rate Comparison.
New Jersey Auto Insurance Premium Comparison.
New Mexico None found.
New York No premium comparison, but there are complaint rankings and discount list (pdf).
North Carolina No premium comparison, but there is a Consumer Guide to Automobile Insurance and complaint ratio list for insurers.
North Dakota Cost Comparison Survey
Ohio Shopper’s Guide to Auto Insurance, with example premiums and complaint data.
Oklahoma Rate Comparison Chart.
Oregon No premium comparison found, but the Oregon Consumer Guide to Auto Insurance has helpful info
Pennsylvania A rate comparison guide for Automobile Insurance in Pennsylvania.
Rhode Island Could not find rate comparison, but see Consumers Guide to Auto Insurance for helpful info.
South Carolina Quick Links – Automobile Price Comparison Guide.
South Dakota None found.
Tennessee Limited market share and other info at Personal Auto Policies Rate Changes.
Texas Automobile Insurance Price Comparison
Utah Auto & Homeowner Annual Comparison Tables with Complaint & Loss Ratio Info.
Vermont No premium information found, limited info in Consumer’s Guide To Auto Insurance.
Virginia Auto Insurance Sample Premium Table.
Washington None found.
Washington DC None found.
West Virginia 2011 Annual Survey (see bottom right).
Wisconsin No premium information found, limited info in Consumer’s Guide To Auto Insurance.
Wyoming No premium information found, limited info in Wyoming Personal Automobile Insurance Guide (last updated in 2000, ack!)

 

I have tried my best to locate the information for each state, but it is quite possible I’ve overlooked something or the websites have since changed. Please let me know if you find any errors or broken links.

Exceeding $500,000 SIPC Insurance Limit at Vanguard (or any Brokerage)

sipcThis post is for the fortunate folks who may possibly exceed the often-quoted $500,000 limits for SIPC insurance ($250,000 for cash). The way this insurance works wasn’t necessarily obvious to me, and although it is often compared to the FDIC insurance of banks, there are many important differences.

The Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC) is a federally-mandated and member-funded organization that provides insurance to customers against the insolvency of broker-dealers. If needed, the SIPC can borrow from the US Treasury to meet its obligations. All broker-dealers are required to be members, including Vanguard (brokerage accounts, not mutual fund-only accounts), Fidelity, Schwab, TD Ameritrade, E-Trade, TradeKing, Robinhood, Betterment, Wealthfront, and so on.

Your assets, for examples shares of Apple stock or an S&P 500 mutual fund, are required by federal law to be held separately from the broker’s assets at all times. Broker-dealers are subject internal and external audits, surprise regulatory examinations, and weekly and monthly reporting requirements. Thus, in the vast majority of cases, there are no missing securities and the primary role of the SIPC is to oversee the transition of assets from the failed brokerage firm to another solvent firm. If there are missing assets, then the SIPC will cover of up $500,000 of missing assets ($250,000 maximum for missing cash), per legal entity.

What is a separate legal entity? Per Wealthfront:

The following would qualify as separate legal entities, each subject to the $500,000 limit: your individual account, your trust, your IRA, your spouse’s individual account, trust and IRA, your joint account, as well as a custodial account for a child. Two IRA accounts held by the same client would be considered one legal entity and thus are combined for purposes of insurance coverage. The same combination occurs when a single client holds two individual taxable accounts.

Another way is to simply hold your assets at two different broker-dealers. If you had an individual taxable account at TD Ameritrade and another at Fidelity, that would be two accounts with $500,000 at each.

How often has SIPC insurance actually been exceeded? Only in less than 0.1% of claims. Here are some stats from a Betterment article based on the SIPC 2014 annual report [pdf]:

Since the inception of SIPC in 1971, fewer than 1% of all SIPC member broker-dealers have been subject to a SIPC insolvency proceeding. During those proceedings, 99% of total assets distributed to investors came directly from the insolvent broker-dealer’s assets, and not from SIPC. Of all the claims ever filed (625,200), less than one-tenth of a percent (352) exceeded the limit of coverage.

Example of meeting and/or exceeding SIPC limits. So for example, you could have $2 million of non-cash assets at a failed firm in a single taxable account. If 75% of assets are recovered from the failed firm, you get $1.5 million back from the firm and $500,000 from the SIPC. If only 50% of the assets are recovered, that’s $1 million back from the firm, $500,000 from SIPC, and you’d be out $500,000 unless there are additional recoveries in the future.

Again, a recovery rate as low as 50% is highly unlikely based on historical failures. Per the SIPC annual report, the average recovery rate for insolvencies is 99%. Most examples that I’ve seen use a 90% recovery rate as a conservative example.

However, if you altered the scenario above to have your $2 million separated in to $500,000 in your individual taxable account, $500,000 in your spouse’s individual taxable account, and $1,000,000 in a joint taxable account, then even in that unlikely 50% recovery rate you’d be made whole.

Situations covered by SIPC insurance

  • Brokerage firm insolvency or bankruptcy.
  • Unauthorized trading. SIPC covers securities may have been “lost, improperly hypothecated, misappropriated, never purchased, or even stolen” by the broker-dealer.

Situations NOT covered by SIPC insurance

  • Market price drops. Fluctuations in the market value of your investments are not covered. In the event of a claim, you will receive the value of the securities held by the broker-dealer as of the time that a SIPC trustee is appointed.
  • Claims in excess of insurance limits. See above.
  • Certain investment types are not covered. As summarized by FINRA:

    Not all investments are protected by SIPC. In general, SIPC covers notes, stocks, bonds, mutual fund and other investment company shares, and other registered securities. It does not cover instruments such as unregistered investment contracts, unregistered limited partnerships, fixed annuity contracts, currency, and interests in gold, silver, or other commodity futures contracts or commodity options.

  • Certain other types of fraud. For example, if a scam artist tricked you into buying a penny stock which is now worthless, that is not connected to an insolvency by the broker-dealer, and is thus not covered by SIPC insurance.

Excess of SIPC Insurance. Many brokerage firms pay for optional, additional insurance on the private market for their clients called “excess of SIPC” insurance in the unlikely situation where a client may exceed SIPC insurance limits. You should contact your brokerage firm or look through their boring annual notices.

For example, I have the majority of my assets held in a new “merged” account at Vanguard Brokerage Services. Looking through their VBS semi-annual notice, you can find the following:

VMC [Vanguard Marketing Corporation] has secured additional coverage for your account, which applies in excess of SIPC, through certain insurers at Lloyd’s of London and London Company Insurer(s) for eligible customers with an aggregate limit of $250 million, incorporating a customer limit of $49.5 million for securities and $1.75 million for cash.

Note the total aggregate limit of $250 million, though. Last time I checked Vanguard mutual funds had over $3 trillion in assets under management. $250 million divided by $3 trillion is only 0.01%. Of course, most of those assets are not held in Vanguard Brokerage Services (but in institutional funds and other mutual fund accounts outside of VBS). Still, $250 million across all of their accounts doesn’t seem like very much. A few big fish with $50 million accounts and most of that would already be used up.

Additional ways to reduce your risk. The basic idea here is that the only way you’ll lose a big amount of money is a spectacular failure. In the past, the brokerage firms that have had spectacular failures have shared a few common traits – bad behavior. Don’t do anything that would foster such bad behavior.

  • Don’t hold your money at a firm that does proprietary trading. If a broker-dealer trades with their own money, there is a greater chance a bad trade will bankrupt them. Also, there may be a greater temptation to “borrow” some client funds to cover any unexpected cashflow needs.
  • Don’t use margin accounts, stick with cash accounts. In a margin account, technically your broker is often allowed to “borrow” your securities for their own purposes (usually loaning it to other broker-dealers). In a cash account, there is no such permission given. This is a bit extreme in my opinion, but perhaps something to consider.
  • Don’t invest in exotic, non-transparent strategies. If your brokerage firm only sells plain vanilla investments, it is much harder to hide any shady business. Mutual funds and ETFs are highly regulated by the SEC. Hedge funds are not nearly as closely-regulated.
  • Keep good records. You should keep copies of trade confirmations. You should keep copies of your latest monthly or quarterly statement of account from your brokerage firm. A trustee may ask you to supply copies of these documents in the case of erroneous statements or trades.

My two cents. Purely my opinion, but this is how I see it:

  • Keeping your accounts to each stay under the $500,000 limit (and not hold cash in excess of $250,000) is the only way to know that you’ll be 100% covered in the cases listed above. Just because something hasn’t happened in the past, doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Unlikely is not impossible.
  • If your account has between $500,000 and $5,000,000 in it, and you’re holding traditional mutual fund or ETFs inside, you’d need a bankrupt firm with less than a 90% recovery rate to lose any money (possibly much less). That is admittedly quite rare. You will have to weigh the risk against the added hassle of splitting your accounts by either institution or legal entity.
  • If you have more than $5,000,000 at a single account type at one broker-dealer, I think it starts to definitely become worth the extra effort to split your assets by either institution or legal entity. The risk may be small, but the potential losses are big. If you have this much, why mess around?
  • I wouldn’t put too much faith into excess SIPC insurance. They usually come with an aggregate limit and you have no idea how close the firm’s current assets are to exceeding that value. The amount of protection you’d receive is not under your control.

Big List of Free Consumer Reports (2/2): See Your Confidential Housing, Insurance, & Employment Data

magUpdated and checked for 2016. As these are available only every 12 months, it is a good idea to check them the same time each year.

Here is the second part of my big list of free consumer reports from over 50 different reporting agencies. The first part included your credit, banking, and subprime lending-related information. This part includes your housing, insurance, and employment history. Request your free copy of what these databases have stored about you and are telling prospective landlords, insurers, or employers.

Again, you may not need to check all of these, and many may not even have a file on you anyway. But for example if you are a renter then you’d want to make sure your rental history is clean and correct, because if I was a landlord I’d avoid anyone with previous blemishes on their record.

Rental History

Realpage Consumer Report. Provides tenant screening through their LeasingDesk product, including “the industry’s largest rental payment history database.”

CoreLogic SafeRent. SafeRent provides both tenant and employment screening data, including information regarding landlord tenant and criminal public court records. One free report every 12 months.

Experian RentBureau Rental History Report. “Every 24 hours, Experian RentBureau receives updated rental payment history data from property owners/managers, electronic rent payment services and collection companies and makes that information available immediately to the multifamily industry through our resident screening partners.”

First Advantage Resident History Report. Tenant and employment background checks. One free report every 12 months.

Contemporary Information Corp. CIC provides background checks on prospective tenants and/or employees and contractors for landlords and management companies. Keep records of any rental evictions.

Tenant Data. Provides tenant history reports, including any reported damages, unpaid balances, evictions, lease violations, noise complaints, or unauthorized pets.

Screening Reports, Inc. A national provider of background screening service to the multi-family housing industry.

TransUnion Rental Screening Solutions, Inc. SmartMove provides tenant credit, eviction, and background checks.

  • MySmartMove.com FAQ page
  • To verify your identity and obtain a copy of your report(s), please contact customer service at 866-775-0961.

Auto and Property Insurance

C.L.U.E. Personal Property Report. A division of LexisNexis, CLUE stands for Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange, which collects information that is used to calculate your insurance premiums. This report provides a seven year history of losses associated with an individual and his/her personal property. Includes date of loss, loss type, and amount paid along with general information such as policy number, claim number and insurance company name. This also means you can find out about previous claims on the house you are currently renting or recently bought, even if they weren’t made by you.

C.L.U.E. Auto Report. This report provides a seven year history of automobile insurance losses associated with an individual. Includes date of loss, loss type, and amount paid along with general information such as policy number, claim number and insurance company name.

Verisk Analytics aka ISO aka A-PLUS Loss History Reports. ISO stands for Insurance Services Office, A-PLUS stands for Automated Property Loss Underwriting System. Auto and property loss claim history.

Insurance Information Exchange (now owned by Verisk). Provide reports including your motor vehicle records and driver history, including any traffic violations or related criminal history. May require proof of adverse action to obtain free report.

Utilities

National Consumer Telecom and Utilities Exchange. NCTUE is a “membership of companies that provide services (telecommunication, pay TV, and utilities) […] to aid in risk mitigation.” Basically they track when people don’t pay their phone, cable, or utility bills. One free report every 12 months.

Medical History

MIB (previously known as Medical Information Bureau). Run by 470 insurance companies with 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” like medical conditions or hazardous activities. 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.

Milliman IntelliScript. Tracks your prescription drug purchase history. “Milliman IntelliScript will have prescription information about you only if you authorized the release of your medical records to an insurance company and that company requested that we gather a report on you.”

Employment History

The following companies all offer background screening services for employers. Most will not have any information about you unless you authorized a potential employer to run a background check on you (probably during the application process). Some will not provide you information unless there was adverse action. Otherwise, you can get one free copy every 12 months.

The Work Number. (division of Equifax) They also keep historical income records.

Accurate Background, Inc.

American Databank, LLC.

EmployeeScreenIQ.

General Information Services.

HireRight.

Info Cubic.

IntelliCorp.

Pre-employ.

Professional Screening & Information, Inc.

SterlingBackcheck (formerly Sterling Infosystems)

Trak-1 Technology.

Reminder: Also see Part 1: Big List of Free Consumer Reports with Your Credit, Banking, and Payday Lending Data.

Sources: ConsumerFinance.gov, FTC.gov, AnnualMedicalReport.com, Wikipedia

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

magLinks checked and updated for 2016! Since these are available every 12 months, it is a good idea to check these near or around the same time each year.

There 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.

Some have an online request form, but many require snail mail with proof of identity. You probably won’t 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.

SageStream, LLC (formerly IDA, Inc.) Per their site, they are a “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 fax or mail in a written 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.

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

CoPatient: Helping You Answer “Is This a Reasonable Medical Bill?”

copatient0High-deductible health plans are still growing in popularity. While these can be a great way to save on your monthly premiums, it also means that when you do have to visit the emergency room, you get to tackle nearly the entire bill instead of a small co-pay. The problem is that most medical bills cannot be understood by mere mortals. Likely, the doctors and nurses themselves have no clue how that $6,344 bill for a broken arm got generated.

Right now there are honest people that just got their bill, but they are frantically doing internet research because they have no idea if their huge bill is correct or what is “reasonable”. It would be nice for this problem not to exist, but until then I wanted to point out a service called CoPatient. They are made of health insurance company veterans and hire their own medical billers and coders.

You send them your unpaid medical bills, and they review it for free to determine if there are any errors or overcharges. They will send you a free estimate of what they think they can do for you. If you allow them to negotiate on your behalf, they work on a contingency basis and keep 35% of the actual savings. If they don’t save you money, you pay nothing.

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Here’s an example patient flowchart (click to enlarge):

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The legwork that the consumer needs to do is request a detailed, itemized bill from the hospital providers. Some tips from ABC News:

Ask what services are covered under your room and facility charges
Ask what treatments were provided
Identify the date and time of when you were admitted
Clarify medical terminology that is confusing
Specifically look for erroneous double charges, for mischarges, and for situations where a charge defies common sense (e.g., a $22 Q tip).

Here are some quick stats, taken from their website and marketing materials:

More than 80 percent of the medical bills that CoPatient analyzes provide opportunities for meaningful savings. On average, CoPatient saves its customers 40 percent on their medical bills. Since its launch in 2014, CoPatient has saved consumers more than $1 million.

According their iPhone app page, CoPatient finds errors on 80% of all bills it reviews and saves folks an average of $3,000. Their FAQ states that it usually takes ~5 days for the review (more for complicated cases), and 3-6 weeks for the appeals and negotiation process. There is no minimum bill size, they will investigate that $500 unpaid bill.

I’ve never used CoPatient myself, but I would definitely consider it if I was faced with a $5,000+ bill that I didn’t understand. I mean, what would I have to lose?

On a related note, this is yet another consumer service that offers to save money on a contingency basis. That is, they only make money if they save you money. A few others:

  • AutoSlash: Helps you track price drops on rental cards. They make money when you rebook at a lower price with them.
  • Paribus: Helps you automatically request price adjustments on all your online retail purchases. They take a cut of the price drop savings.
  • AirHelp, Refund.Me, AirTaxBack: Get fees refunded for certain cancelled or missed flights to/from Europe. They take a cut of the refund.

Consumer Reports on Auto Insurance: Watch Your Credit Score, Shopping Behavior

cr_auto0Consumer Reports (CR) has released a multi-part Special Report on Auto Insurance, included in their September 2015 print issue but also available online without a subscription (at least for now). They analyzed over 2 billion quotes from over 700 companies across 33,419 zip codes. Here are some highlights of what they found.

First, here’s a big picture view of which major car insurers are more expensive on average.

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The biggest individual factor in your premium may be your credit score. Clicking on your state on this 50-state interactive map will give you an idea of the effect of having a “poor” or merely “good” credit score as opposed to an “excellent” one. California, Hawaii, and Massachusetts are the only states that prohibit insurers from using credit scores to set prices.

Often, having a poor credit score with clean driving record is more expensive than having an excellent credit with a DUI/DWI! Here’s a screenshot for Florida:

cr_auto2

Another important factor is your loyalty and tendency to comparison shop other items like cable TV. You often think “Loyalty Discount”, but often there is a “Loyalty Penalty”. If you don’t shop your auto insurance, some companies don’t see something to be rewarded; they see a sucker. In my limited experience, the companies with the lowest quotes to entice you from another company are also the ones to hike up the rates every year afterward. Here’s what CR found:

Geico Casualty gave us whiplash with its $3,267 loyalty penalty in New Jersey and its $888 discount just across the state line in New York for longtime customers. State Farm Mutual consistently provided discounts of a couple of dollars up to a few hundred dollars; Allstate Fire and Casualty and Allstate Property & Casualty tended to prefer penalties.

As noted in a previous post, Big Data knows if you’re comparison shopping or not. Such “price optimization” occurs when they find out you could have saved money somewhere else like broadband internet, but didn’t. Not a price-sensitive shopper? You may get the higher rates. Even states that officially ban the practice don’t really have any foolproof way to know if it’s happening. Here’s what CR found:

Amica Mutual and State Farm told us they don’t use price optimization. Representatives from Allstate, Geico, Progressive, and USAA declined to discuss price optimization.

Here’s the general conclusion:

What we found is that behind the rate quotes is a pricing process that judges you less on driving habits and increasingly on socioeconomic factors. These include your credit history, whether you use department-store or bank credit cards, and even your TV provider. Those measures are then used in confidential and often confounding scoring algorithms.

What can a consumer do about all this? Consumer Reports wants you to write to your state’s insurance commissioner, and they have a petition template ready for you. David Merkel of The Aleph Blog says you should simply fight back the market-based way: comparison shop your personal insurance lines every 3 years.

Bid it out. Bid it out. Bid it out. What do you have to lose? If loyalty means something to the insurer, they will likely win the bid. If it doesn’t, they will likely lose. Either way you will win. If you have an agent, they will note that you are price-sensitive. The agent will become more of an ally, even if it doesn’t seem that way.

[…] You don’t need transparency, or more regulation. You don’t get transparency in the pricing of many items. You do need to bid out your business every now and then. You are your own best defender in matters like this. Take your opportunity and bid out your policies.

I tend to agree with Mr. Merkel. However, I am still a long-time customer with State Farm. I’m happy to see that State Farm was found to consistently providing loyalty discounts and claims not to engage in price optimization. I shopped around for auto quotes in 2013 and GEICO was cheaper by about $372 a year. However, I had to balance that with the knowledge that GEICO will probably hike my premiums every year and also I’ve had excellent claim service from State Farm. Perhaps it is time for another comparison shop.

PolicyGenius Review: Long-Term Disability Insurance Quotes for Bloggers and Freelancers

policygenuis_logoI would say that the insurance with the highest ratio of most-needed to least-bought would be long-term disability insurance. According to the Social Security Administration, just over 1 in 4 of today’s 20-year-olds will be become disabled at some point before reaching 67. According to a Harvard study, lost income due to illness was a contributor in 40.3% of all personal bankruptcies in the US. Here is a chart that shows the average duration of disability claims lasting more than 90 days, measured from the start of disability to (at most) age 65.

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Sometimes your employer offers group LTD coverage, but what happens when you switch to another job that doesn’t have it, or you get disabled while unemployed? Not all group plans are convertible to individual policies. Finally, what if you are self-employed? Many people are freelance graphic designers, writers, and other hard-to-define jobs.

PolicyGenius is one of many sites that offer online insurance quotes, but their specialty is straightforward information and non-pushy quotes for “young, self-directed people”. They sell:

  • Term life insurance
  • Long-term disability insurance
  • Renter’s insurance
  • Pet health insurance

I have to admit, the fact that they actually listed “blogger” as a legitimate job was the spark that made me want to get a quote from them. I also liked that they only sell term life insurance, and not whole life, permanent life, or indexed-confusing-whatevernot.

Another plus is that they have quotes from all seven major LTD insurers, and the quotes you get should be identical to everyone else’s for the exact same policy from the exact same insurer. That is, there are no various levels of markup depending on where you buy it from, like there is for Tide detergent or a Toyota Camry. The commission to the seller is already baked into the premiums.

I applied for a long-term disability insurance quote, which they call “insurance for your paycheck”. PolicyGenius has a modern, comfortable user interface. First, they’ll ask for basic information like gender, birthdate, and state of residence. Click on any screenshot to enlarge.

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Income. Usually a policy won’t pay more than about 50% to 60% of your current income. I’m guessing they don’t want to make it too appealing an option!

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Health info. Pre-existing conditions are usually excluded. The worse your health, the more likely you’ll become disabled.

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Monthly benefit. Obviously the higher that is, the higher your premium.

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Waiting period. The longer you are willing to wait before claiming a disability, the lower your premium.

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Benefit period. How long do you want to be able to claim benefits?

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Additional riders. There are coverage options which you can add or remove.

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I made a quote with my own personal details, but also an additional quote for the following theoretical situation. The quotes still require additional underwriting, meaning you’ll probably have to submit supporting financial documents and complete a physical examination (blood, urine, body measurements). Here’s a rough outline:

  • Female, non-smoker, California resident, age 33.
  • Current income $5,000 a month. Policy benefit $3,400 a month.
  • Self-employed blogger for 5 years (classified as Reporters and Correspondents).
  • 90 day waiting period, claim until age 65.
  • Own occupation, residual disability, and non-cancelable.

After 3 business days, I was e-mailed a quote of $265 a month from Principal Financial Group for this situation. This was significantly higher than the $130 to $175 a month estimate that was given initially, and much higher than the $98 a month quote I got for myself. My guess is that my monthly benefit was relatively high at 68% of current salary? I have also read that women are quoted higher premium when statistically likely to have a baby since pregnancy causes a lot of disabilities. I wrote back to them asking what things I could tweak (like a lower monthly benefit and/or a 180-day waiting period) in order to get the premium down to around $100 a month.

If you do get a LTD quote yourself, be sure to read all the tips during the quote process and also wade through the entire detailed proposal package for what is excluded. My thoughts are to treat this as true insurance (as opposed to a payment plan), which means you are trying to just cover catastrophic events and hope to never make a claim. That means I tried to make the benefit just big enough, the waiting period as long as I could bear, but I kept the claim period to age 65 in case I become permanently disabled.

I’m sure there are other quote comparison websites out there and also good (human) independent insurance brokers. I chose to run a quote at PolicyGenius because it was easy, convenient, and less intimidating than other places that I’ve tried. If you’ve gotten individual long-term disability insurance, please share your own experiences in the comments.

Big Data Knows If You’re Comparison Shopping… Or Not

cheapscore0One of the few benefits of getting older is that my car insurance premiums are much lower today than in my 20s. But is that low rate caused by insurance companies knowing that I recently switched high-speed internet and refinanced my mortgage twice? Via drawpoker of Bogleheads, here’s an NPR article called Being A Loyal Auto Insurance Customer Can Cost You about the practice of “price optimization”.

“Well, it’s really profit maximization,” says Bob Hunter, with the Consumer Federation of America. He says insurance companies can buy software that compiles an astonishing amount of data on everyone who buys almost anything, anywhere.

“They have all the information on what you buy at your grocery store. How many apples, how many beers, how many steaks,” he says. “They have all the information on your house. They have incredible amounts of information on are you staying with DirecTV when Verizon is cheaper.”

A sophisticated algorithm crunches that data and spits out an index showing how sensitive a customer is to price increases. Only the insurance company knows the index.

From a USA Today article on the same topic:

Many insurance companies now use a sophisticated data-mining technique called “price optimization” to set rates just high enough that inertia keeps customers from shopping around. Research found that the longer customers had been with their insurers on average, the greater their savings when they switched, due to all the rate increases they experienced during their loyal years. […]

A 2013 Earnix survey found that 45% of large insurance companies and 26% of all insurance companies in North America currently optimize prices, with an additional 36% of all companies reporting they plan to adopt this technique in the future. What this means is that given two customers with identical risk profiles, the one who’s judged less likely to switch carriers if his rate increases will pay more.

In other words, forget just FICO scores affecting your insurance rates. Your grocery club card, your mortgage quote requests, your switching from cable to DSL, your social media activity, it all could be funneling into some sort of “Frugal Cheapskate” Score. If you don’t shop around elsewhere, you probably won’t shop around for your insurance so they can hike it up without worrying about you jumping ship.

If you want some hints as to where you should start your comparison shopping, you may want to check with your state insurance department. For example, California provides some numbers for your rough situation without needing any personally-identifying information. Here are some numbers for a married couple living in Alameda Country, driving 9k to 16k a year, with no accidents or violations. The lowest average premiums are coming from USAA, Wawanesa, and Anchor General.

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Your Homeowner’s Insurance Deductible Should Be Catastrophically High

housemoneyThe NYT Times Haggler just helped a reader who made two small claims on his homeowner’s insurance for (1) a fallen ceiling fan and (2) a stolen bike. Not only did State Farm deny both claims, but they subsequently refused to renew his insurance the next year! This is a unique circumstance, and I’ve heard of co-workers with similar problems. But of course the power of daylight again helped this lucky reader:

After the Haggler’s interactions with State Farm, Mr. Joseph sent an email to the Haggler with the subject line “It worked!” A representative at the company had contacted him and, in conversation, was much more forthcoming than Ms. Risinger. Mr. Joseph learned that in New York City, the average for homeowners is one claim every 38 years.

“Two in two years,” Mr. Joseph recalled this rep telling him, “that makes us concerned.” But after digging deeper into Mr. Joseph’s claims, the company decided that it wanted to keep him as a customer.

You should never make a claim for such small things like a stolen bike or broken appliance (especially if apparently it’s not even covered). Every claim you make will be recorded in an insurance database forever. As a result, if you’re not going to make a $500 or $1,000 claim, then why would you set your deductible to $250 or $500? Set it to $2,500 or higher if you can swing it. I’ve been inching ours up over the years, and I believe it is now $10,000 and even higher for natural disaster insurance. Enjoy the lower premiums, but remember to stock up your emergency fund in return. I used to have a special rider for my wife’s engagement ring, but cancelled that as soon as the value become “non-catastrophic” for our finances.

And we’ve all learned a valuable lesson: Homeowner’s insurance is for disasters. Which means that if you’re lucky, you’ll spend money on it for years and years and never get a dime back.

Exactly. Insurance is not an investment, a maintenance plan, or a replacement for properly securing your property. Insurance is there to protect you from something truly catastrophic happening, like your entire house burning down and them putting you up in a residential hotel for months while they rebuild it (which happened to our friends).

Bottom line: If you have homeowner’s insurance, you should set your deductible as high as you can tolerate. It should be a painful number. Take your premium savings and put it towards your cash reserves.

FidSafe Review: Free Digital Document Storage from Fidelity

fidsafelogoI have a couple of accounts at Fidelity Investments (solo 401k and taxable brokerage), and recently they sent me letter about a new service. FidSafe is a website that stores digital copies of documents for free and is open to the public, no relationship with Fidelity required. (It is technically from Fidelity Labs, owned by Fidelity Investments.) I signed up for an account and took it for a spin.

Sign-up Process
You are only required to provide a name, e-mail, and birthdate (18+ only). It is highly recommended to provide a mobile phone number as well because they support two-factor authentication, and you can choose to have it activated for every login attempt or only on unfamiliar devices.

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Security
In addition to the two-step login authentication mentioned above, FidSafe states that all files are encrypted both in-transfer and while stored on their servers. You can also upload files that you encrypted yourself, although that will make them more difficult to share with others. FidSafe employee access to your personal data or documents is also restricted.

Finally, they have something called an “Identicon” that helps confirm that you are viewing a legitimate e-mail or web page from FidSafe. Similar to what some banks have when you log in. You can choose from a limited selection of patterns and colors:

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Storage Limits
FidSafe users will each get 5 GB of storage space without charge. You can see your storage status under “Settings [Gear Icon] > General”. Individual files are limited to 200 MB in size. Files shared with you by others do not count against your storage consumption.

File Types
Their site states that files of any type can be uploaded. I uploaded various test files of PDF, PNG, JPG, DOCX (Word Documents), and XLSX (Excel Spreadsheets) formats and they all worked fine and were able to be shown by their in-browser viewing tool. As for what files to store, they provide a suggestion list in their FidSafe Fundamentals Kits here.

User Interface and Design
Here is a screenshot of the main dashboard. The user interface is clean, mobile-friendly, and relatively intuitive. They offer a brief walkthrough tour, and I found it easy to get started right away. (It really shouldn’t be that complicated in any case…)

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Sharing Documents With Others
You can either choose to share specific personal documents with other users all the time, or designate someone to have access to all your documents only upon death. In both cases, the person you are sharing with must be invited through via e-mail and sign up for their own FidSafe login and password (and provide name, e-mail, birthdate).

For immediate sharing, your designated “Contact” can only view the specific documents you share with them. You can choose to give them view-only access or add the ability to download.

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Here are some details on the “Share Upon Death” feature:

To sign-up for the service, under “Settings” you will provide the last 4 digits of your SSN and a designee (one of your existing FidSafe contacts). Upon notification of your death, FidSafe verifies your death certificate and shares your FidSafe content (only documents and notes; passwords are not shared) in the designee’s FidSafe account. Any time after signing up for this service, you can change the designee or unsubscribe to the service.

[…] When FidSafe is notified of your death (by family member, attorney, etc.), FidSafe collects the notifier’s contact information (first name, last name, email address, phone number) and decedent’s information (first name, last name, email address used for FidSafe registration). FidSafe will also need a copy of decedent’s certified death certificate mailed to the following address – Fidelity Labs FidSafe Support, 245 Summer Street V3A, Boston, MA 02210. If the death certificate is verified, FidSafe will share decedent content in designee’s FidSafe account.

Support
Call 800-453-3332 or e-mail support@fidsafe.com

Conclusions: The Good

  • Having a secure, central place where you store your family’s important documents can be quite useful for estate planning and other needs. There may be an emergency (fire, natural disaster, medical) or you might just be applying for a mortgage or a new passport.
  • Providing online access can make things much easier if important people live far apart.
  • There are numerous start-ups out there now that try to combine digital storage and estate planning, but FidSafe is backed by an established, reputable company (that may have a lot of your personal information already).
  • All available security mechanisms appear to be supported, including two-factor authentication and file encryption. I’m not sure what additional measures could be added.
  • Did I mention it’s free?! Other places can charge $75 a year.

Conclusions: The Concerns

  • The fact that this is a free feature can also be seen as a negative because what happens if Fidelity feels a need to “reorganize” or “streamline” their operations and discontinue the service. It probably isn’t a huge expense but it surely costs something to support. This is the type of service you’d want to be around indefinitely.
  • If you choose to share sensitive documents with other people, then you are depending on them to keep your information secure. If you share your file with someone who uses the same password everywhere or downloads the file onto their home computer (or even prints it out), then that can become the weakest link. Making things view-only is a partial solution.
  • FidSafe is digital-only, so original documents still need to be stored securely (although you can note their locations in FidSafe). You should also consider an offsite, physical backup of any computer files in someone else’s safe or a bank deposit box. (This Forbes article says high-quality optical discs may be more reliable for long-term storage than flash drives and hard drives.)