Jeff Gelles: 3 new leaves to turn over for 2013

Sure, you can vow to exercise more in 2013, or to be a better parent or child, or to improve your performance at work or school. All worthy goals - and likely stuff you already try to do, perhaps with frustration at your own foibles.

So how about adding some modest but easily achievable goals.

20121230_inq_consumer30-a
REUBEN MUNOZ / Los Angeles Times, MCT

Here's a list of three Realistic Resolutions for 2013 that won't make you a better person or save the world. But do them and you might save a little money or reduce your risks as a consumer.

Check your credit reports. Maybe you've done this recently because you do so routinely - kudos to you - or because something went wrong, such as a credit denial. If not, resolve to do it soon - maybe even right after you're done with today's paper.

You don't have to pay, whatever you may think from the pitches for credit monitoring from companies such as FreeCreditScore.com. Big surprise: That website is owned by Experian, one of the three main national credit bureaus, along with Equifax and TransUnion, that profit from selling your data - sometimes to you.

Since the middle of the last decade, federal law has required each of the Big Three to provide you with one free report a year. Take advantage of that, and you'll likely learn you don't need to bother with a costly monitoring service or buy a credit score - something, alas, that the Big Three aren't required to give away.

It's easy enough to get your free reports, even if some people get spooked by the safeguards designed to keep imposters away from your personal information. (Yes, you'll have to provide details such as your Social Security number.) The payoff is that you can see the reports nearly instantly online - or you can order them by phone if you're not a computer user.

Online, go to www.annualcreditreport.com and follow the prompts. By phone, call 1-877-322-8228. If you'd prefer using the mail, you can get instructions at that phone number or find a request form on the website.

If your report shows a substantial credit history and no negatives, you can just say no to the bureaus' pitches to sell you a credit score. Yours will be solid. A good strategy is getting an annual report from one bureau every four months, on a rotating schedule, so you'll notice fairly quickly if something goes wrong.

If there are any unfamiliar accounts on your report, a sign of identity theft, follow up immediately by placing a fraud alert on your file. You should also consider requesting a security freeze - a process, also called a credit freeze, that essentially locks your file to outsiders unless you unlock it for a particular loan application or a longer thaw.

The Big Three don't much like security freezes - they make money by selling your data to lenders who want to target people with particular credit profiles. But their websites include security-freeze directions; details and fees vary by state.

If you're worried about identity theft, a security freeze is far less costly than monthly monitoring.

Shop for auto insurance. Even if you like shopping, this is no fun at all. It's confusing and opaque - a crucial thing to buy, but something you hope you'll never have to use.

But consider this: There's a reason that company after company advertises that customers who switch can save 15 percent or more on their annual premiums. It's not a lie, or hocus pocus.

The reason is that insurers now slice and dice the risk pool in different ways, beyond traditional factors such as where you live and whether you've been caught speeding. In particular, many now rely on factors such as credit record, occupation or education to predict how much a potential customer will likely cost in claims. Others, such as Cure Insurance, vow to stick to methods more directly related to your driving.

The result? Studies repeatedly show huge variation in the rates quoted to seemingly similar consumers. Request rates from a variety of companies, and you really might find you can save hundreds of dollars a year.

Upgrade key passwords. Maybe you do this already for financial accounts, since some institutions require it. But e-mail is a common weak link - especially the account you use for "password rescue," the process you initiate when you click a "Forgot password?" button. If a hacker gets into that account, it can be a key to much more.

There are high-tech answers to this problem, such as "password vaults" or apps. But here's a do-it-yourself route to a high-security password: Convert a memorable sentence into a personal code by translating the first letter of each word into a character, making sure to mix in numbers, capital letters, and special characters.

Say you choose, "Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation." Your password might become 4S&7yA0fBf0Tc@Nn by a fairly simple conversion technique: Convert number words (four and seven) to numbers; convert "and" to an ampersand and "a" to an @ sign; convert the letter O to the number 0, and capitalize every other remaining letter.

You can design your own code, say, by making an "E" into a "3," or an "H" into a "#." All that matters is that the sentence and conversions are memorable to you.

 


Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.