The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) Watchdog column
Jan 03, 2013 (The Morning Call (Allentown - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Many of us start the new year with renewed energy and good intentions. We're going to hit the gym more and eat less. We're going to save more and spend less.
Here are a few other resolutions you should make.
If you're among the nearly 50 percent of Americans who own a smartphone, don't be a dummy and leave your expensive device prone to theft or hacking.
Less than half of smartphone owners use passwords to protect their devices and more than 40 percent don't have antivirus software, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
Smartphones are so important to many of us, yet we don't treat them with the importance they deserve. Most of us would laugh at the thought of not having virus protection or passwords on our computers, but we don't treat our phones the same way.
Here's what you can do about it.
Check out the Smartphone Security Checker unveiled recently by the FCC. It's free and suggests steps you should take to protect your device, whether it's an Android, Apple, BlackBerry or Windows product.
You can find the information at http://www.fcc.gov/smartphone-security.
The checklist explains how to set up passwords; download security apps that enable remote locating and data wiping in case your phone is misplaced or stolen; backup data on your phone; erase the information on your phone if you want to donate it or resell it; and safely use public Wi-Fi.
"As the processing power and amount of sensitive data stored on smartphones increases, it's important for consumers to treat mobile devices with the same precautions as computers," the FCC said in unveiling the program a few weeks ago.
Another smart thing you can do this year is to pull your free credit reports from the three major credit agencies, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion.
Why Because you never know what's on them. You can't assume they are error-free.
A report last month from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that only about 20 percent of people pull their reports annually.
"This is a shame because -- while we do not know for sure how common inaccuracies are -- it is likely that many additional consumers could identify and correct inaccuracies if they reviewed their credit report," Corey Stone, an assistant director at the agency, testified Dec. 19 before a U.S. Senate committee.
There's no reason for the percentage of people pulling their reports to be that low. It doesn't cost you anything to obtain the reports, and the process is relatively easy and can be done online (www.annualcreditreport.com) or over the phone (877-322-8228).
If there's a mistake on your report that's not in your favor, it could be an anchor dragging down your credit score. That could result in your paying more than you need to if you're shopping for a loan.
Credit reports also can affect you in other ways, too, including whether you get a job, how much you pay for auto or home insurance and your ability to rent housing.
There's debate about just how accurate credit reports are. The Federal Trade Commission is wrapping up an extensive study that should be released soon, and I'll write about that when it is.
Errors can range from the omission of important information that could boost your score to information from someone else being put on your report, which could either hurt or help you.
If you find an error, dispute it by contacting the credit reporting agency and the bank or business that provided the information to that agency. You can find more information on your rights at http://www.ftc.gov/credit.
At the Senate hearing a few weeks ago, Stuart Pratt, president and CEO of the Consumer Data Industry Association, testified that an industry-commissioned study in 2011 found that fewer than 1 percent of all credit reports that were examined had a dispute that affected a credit score by 25 points.
"This study puts to rest the debate about the accuracy of our members' data," Pratt testified.
Chi Chi Wu, an attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, testified that the industry study doesn't tell the whole story because it did not consider several types of errors. She said other investigations had found higher error rates.
She characterized credit reports as being "plagued by inaccuracies" and said errors are preventable.
I haven't done my own investigation of credit reports, so I can't say for certain how common errors are. I can tell you that I've heard from people who found errors. The only way to know for sure if your credit history is accurate is to check your reports.
The Watchdog is published Thursdays and Sundays. Contact me by email at email@example.com, by phone at 610-841-2364 (ADOG), by fax at 610-820-6693, or by mail at The Morning Call, 101 N. Sixth St., Allentown, PA, 18101. Follow me on Twitter at mcwatchdog and on Facebook at Morning Call Watchdog.
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