Wednesday, September 30, 2015

What To Do If Your Identity Is Stolen your identity stolen is a major pain in the ass. I know. My wife had hers stolen seven years ago and it took over a year to get everything straightened out. If this happens to you, here's what to expect and what to do.

Something Strange Is Going On

Our first hint that something was wrong was when my wife received a letter from a check cashing company that her check had bounced. Since she had never used a check cashing company, something obviously was up. The next day, we also received a letter from a local grocery store chain that two checks had bounced. The letter included images of the checks. They were from a bank that we have never used and, surprisingly, they had her real drivers license number written on them.

First Steps

  • File a police report -We called the store to get some more information, but that was a dead end. The store had already written the checks off as uncollectable and couldn't tell us anything else. So we called the police department to file a report. This was more difficult than you might think. Our local police department told us that because the checks were written at a store in another city, we had to call that city's police department to file a report. When we called, them, they said we had to file with our local police department and, if there was enough evidence, our police department would pass the case on to them for further investigation. So we called our local police again and they finally agreed to send someone out to our house to take our statement.
  • Contact the credit bureaus - Contact the three major credit reporting agencies, Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian, and put a 90 day fraud alert on your account. This can be done over the phone via an automated process. This may also trigger a copy of your credit report getting sent to you. There should not be a charge setting the fraud alert. If you have to pay, you are buying some additional product and not simply setting a fraud alert.
  • Review Your Accounts - If you don't closely review your bank and credit card statements each month, do so now. Look over the last two months (at least) in detail and note any unknown charges.
  • Get New Credit Cards Issued - Even if it seems like credit cards are not involved (which was the case for my wife), you should still call up your credit card companies and tell them you suspect you have been the victim of identity theft and want new credit cards issued. You'll need to update any recurring billing accounts you have to use the new card numbers.

Next Steps

  • Get A Copy Of The Police Report -  When the police report is done, you should get a copy sent to you, but don't wait too long for it. If you haven't received it within 3 days after you gave your statement to the police, call them up and ask for it. The officer who took your statement should have given you his business card and possibly a case number.
  • Submit A Copy Of The Police Report To The Credit Bureaus - You can file a written request with a copy of the police report to each credit bureau and that will extend the fraud alert on your account from 90 days to 1 year.
  • Request A Credit Freeze From The Credit Bureaus - A fraud alert on your account will not stop banks or businesses from opening accounts in your name. All it does is warn the requesting company that you have reported that your identity has been stolen and that they should ask for extra verification before opening accounts in your name. A credit freeze, however, will prevent anyone from opening a new credit account in your name. While a fraud alert will automatically be discontinued after a year, a credit freeze stays in effect until you cancel it. You can temporarily disable a freeze for a fixed number of days if, for example, you know you will be applying for a loan or a credit card at a certain time. We left the credit freeze in place on my wife's file for 3 years. Again, this is free. If you are asked to pay, you have been upsold to some product or service you probably don't need.
  • Get New Checks / Account Numbers - If the identity theft involved your actual bank account numbers, contact your bank and tell them what happened and ask for new account numbers and new checks. In my wife's case, the bad checks were from someone else's account at a different bank. (The police told us the thief likely took the original name and address off the checks with chemicals and then re-printed my wife's info on them.) If you have direct deposit set up to the affected account, contact your employer to get that info updated with your new account numbers.
  • Get A New Driver's License With A New Number - We eventually realized that the thief must have obtained my wife's driver's license number from when her purse was stolen 2 years prior. Although she requested a new license from the Motor Vehicle Division then, she simply got a replacement card with the same number. If your identity was stolen, you'll want a new number.

The Next Year And Beyond

  • Stay Vigilant - Monitor all bills and statements line-by-line for at least the next year. You never know when some other charge will show up.
  • Follow Up With Police - About 3 weeks after we filed the police report, we heard back that the person bouncing checks in my wife's name had been caught. The police will want to know if you want to press charges. You do. You most likely will not have to go to court - the police already took your statement, after all - but if you don't press charges, the thief could be let go. Saying you want to press charges will also keep you informed of the progress of the case. You'll get letters after each court appearance explaining what was done and what the thief's eventual sentence was.
  • Keep Copies Of Everything - Keep copies (paper or electronic) of everything you receive regarding this process, especially the police report. You'll need it for evidence this actually happened to you. Years later, we received a letter or two from debt collectors trying to collect for the bounced checks. We had to send them a copy of the police report to prove the debt was not valid.
  • Monitor Your Credit Report - You'll get a free copy of your credit report when you file the fraud alert, but continue to monitor your credit reports. (This is something you should be doing anyway.) You can get a free copy once a year by going to (Beware of the various upselling offers to try to get you to spend money. By law, they have to give you your report for free. Just your report - not your credit score.) If you request a copy from a different company every four months, you can basically monitor your credit all year long. Set a reminder in your calendar. Note that if you have a credit freeze on your account, you cannot request a copy of your report online. You'll need to do it by mail and provide a copy of one or two valid identification documents with the request.
  • Protect Yourself - Take steps to prevent this from happening again. Don't leave your car unlocked or leave valuable possessions in it. Invest in a shredder and shred any document that has an account number on it. Use a password manger like LastPass to create secure, different passwords for each website you use.

 Having your identity stolen sets in motion a whole chain of events that sucks up hours of your time and can causes lots of headaches. You can get through it and recover, but you have to pay attention to details and watch your finances like a hawk for a good amount of time.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Don't Leave Money On The Table: Discounted Gift Cards

Gift cards are some of the most popular gifts given. About two-thirds of all American consumers have purchased a gift card at some point - there's millions of these things floating around. But you'll always find people who don't want to use them for some reason. Either the card is for a store they don't shop at or they forget they have them, or some other reason. As a result, there is over $1 billion dollars loaded on gift cards that goes unclaimed.

Companies have sprung up to help consumers tap into those funds. People can sell their unused gift cards for cash to these companies, who them turn around and sell them to others who want them at a slightly higher price, but still a discount to face value. And larger companies are getting into the act. Costco sells gift cards now for all sorts of venues - you can get a $50 gift card to a restaurant for $40. Instant $10 savings!

But if you know where to look, you can get even bigger savings. A couple of websites that buy and sell gifts cards that I have used are Gift Card Granny and Gift Card Rescue. These sites offer guarrantees that the cards they sell are valid, which is a nice for my piece of mind. Although they sell cards for all types of stores, you'll find the biggest discounts on cards for specialty stores - cards for places like Pier 1 Imports, Williams Sonoma, or Ann Taylor often can be had for discounts in the 20% to 35% range. The smallest discounts are found on cards for places that everyone shops at frequently - places like gas stations and grocery stores. Often, these discounts are only 3% to 5%. In my opinion, that's not even worth it - your savings won't even cover your sales tax.

This is a great option to keep in mind when you are planning a large purchase. For example, a couple of years ago, I found two china cabinets I wanted to buy at Pier 1 Imports. The total price, with tax, was about $650. I went online and searched for discounted Pier 1 gift cards. I found a bunch and bought them. Here's my order. The column on the left is the card value and the column on the right is what I paid for it.

So I bought $645.74 in gift cards for $516.57. That's a 20% discount. And I bought these cards with a credit card that gives me 1% cash back, so my savings were actually 21%. I don't remember if this was my situation or not, but if you then wait to buy your item at the store until it goes on sale, you can save even more.

I ended up getting $650 worth of furniture for about $520 dollars. That's a savings worth shopping for.

As I mentioned, not all the gift cards these sites sell are good deals. Sometimes the discount is so slight, it's not worth it. And companies have caught on to this practice and sell their cards directly to the sites for small discounts, which get even smaller as they are passed on to you. But if you know you are going to make a large purchase from a specialty store, it worth the few minutes it takes to check these sites for discounted gift cards. You could save a hefty chunk of change and not leave any money on the table.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Elon Musk Biography

I finally got around to reading Ashlee Vance’s biography of Elon Musk and I must say, I have a new view of him and his companies. If you are looking for details about his personal life, you won't find much here. The book doesn’t go into too much detail about that, other than to give basic background on his youth in South Africa and touch briefly on his marriages. I found the most interesting parts of the book to be those about Space X and Tesla and how they were built and how they operate. (Solar City was just briefly touched on, as you would expect since Musk doesn’t actually run that company and is only on its board of directors.)

The image the book gives of Musk is of a very driven man who is in pursuit of fantastic goals. He is incredibly smart and doesn’t suffer fools. He drives his employees hard and expects the absolute best work of them. That results in fabulous products like the Model S, but I can only image the toll it takes on his employees. I’m not sure I would want to work for him. He takes a very hands on approach in both companies and the amount of detail he knows about both the Space X rockets and the Tesla vehicles is amazing. Watch this video of him giving a tour of Space X and stop to consider how many parts of the rocket he calls out and explains the use of. I don’t think there is a single component in a Space X rocket he isn’t intimately familiar with. He is obviously incredibly intelligent and has an amazing memory.

The book does a fairly good job explaining Musk’s quest to colonize Mars and his reasons for it, although I think I got a better sense of it from Wait But Why’s posts about their interview with him.

You do start to get a sense of just how drastically he has shaken up both the rocket and auto manufacturing worlds. He literally started Space X and Tesla from a blank piece of paper. Each step in the product manufacturing process was designed from scratch and nothing was done simply because “that’s how it’s always been done.” I think that’s a huge reason for the success of those companies. Existing rocket and auto manufacturers simply can’t do that now. They have become so big that they are risk-adverse and have no incentive to change their processes.  I’ve written about this before and I believe it’s completely true. We will never see revolutionary change from large companies that have been around for decades, especially if they get most of their business from government contracts.

One thing I particularly enjoyed was the book’s second appendix, where Musk talks in depth about PayPal, why it succeeded and how it is struggling now. As a PayPal user, I have to agree with just about everything Musk says regarding what end users want from a PayPal-like service. The appendix provides a great example of how Musk focuses on the end product and how businesses need to design products that will make life easier for people who use whatever it is the business is providing.

The biography paints a picture of a man who is difficult to completely admire. On the one hand, I have huge admiration for what he has done with Tesla and Space X and his goals for those companies. He truly wants to make the world (and Mars) a better place for humankind and he’s willing to put up huge amounts of his own money and effort towards that goal. On the other hand, he can be something of a jerk. He seems to lack social graces and his singular drive for perfection can result in what seems to be a complete lack of empathy for his employees. There are several aspects of his personality that I identify with, but there are others that just make me want to shake my head. I suppose that, just like everyone, he is a person full of contradictions, but because he is in the spotlight and upsetting the status quo in so many fields, those contradictions seem to be more scrutinized than they might be if they were present in someone else.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Wait But Why Interviews Elon Musk

Tim Urban, one of two guys behind the Wait But Why blog, received a call a while back from someone who works with Elon Musk. The caller said Musk reads his blog and wanted to know if he wanted to have an interview with Musk to talk about the various technologies his companies work with. Tim had the phone call. During the call, Elon also invited him out to California to talk in person. Tm went.

Tim has promised this will be a four part series and, so far, only the first three parts have been released. They are fascinating reading. Be sure to set aside some time when you go to read these - all are very long for blog posts, but they are full of great info and are fun reading.

Part 1: The World's Raddest Man

Part 2: How Tesla Will Change The World

Part 3: How (And Why) SpaceX Will Colonize Mars

While you are there, subscribe to the blog. It's full of great posts!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Goal Update: End of August 2015

At the end of each month, I post an update of my goals, including a brief discussion of any notable events that might have occurred during the month. The latest month's figures can always be found under the Featured menu in the menu bar at the top of the blog.

Last updated: End of August, 2015
Current value: $15,148
Change from last month: -$606
Percent of Goal:  13.93%

Note that the funds in this account are invested in stock, so there will be fluctuations in value that are outside my control. I never withdraw money from this account, so any dips are purely due to stock price changes.

Events Of Note Last Month:

I made it through the big stock market drop at the end of the month fairly well. Realty Income stock wasn't really adversely affected. I think it dropped about $1 per share and quickly recovered, although it's down a bit overall for the month - hence the drop in value of my account from last month. I'm still above the $15,000 level, even though I did not add any income from my online courses sales this month. As I mentioned last time, I sent this month's course payments to the IRS as an estimated tax payment. I did reach a milestone for my courses this month however: I hit $5,000 in lifetime sales!

I received $8.15 from my online book sales, including what I think is my first sale in Canada.

Nothing much else of note happened this month.