MaineStream Finance

Category: COVID-19 Personal Finance

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Identity Theft Part II—Identity Theft Monitoring Services

I think I may need to do something more than just checking my credit report for free once a year – what do I do now?

In the June blog, we covered the basic steps of what to do immediately if you find out your credit card, social security number, or other forms of identity or financial accounts have been stolen, particularly for unemployment insurance fraud.  In the case of a stolen credit card number, your bank can just issue you a new card with a new number.  If your social security number is stolen, like in the case of many who are victims of unemployment insurance fraud, your social security number may be out there in the “dark web” forever.  So what to do for the long-term if something about your identity or financial situation has been stolen and you can’t change it? 

Check with groups you are with now.  First check what is being offered by your bank or credit card companies, like Capital One, or affiliations with groups like AARP or AAA.  If you are a Costco member, they offer a service too.  Some of the free or low cost services they are offering do more than credit monitoring for free, like identity theft/social security theft monitoring.

Check with companies who had their systems breached and if you were a customer of theirs. Also if your identity was compromised because a company like Capital One, Home Depot or Dunkin Donuts did not keep your information safe and there was a breach – sometimes they will offer you a free service (here are all known major breaches for the last 20 years).  In the last five years, my name has been part of at least 3-4 breaches and each time, they have offered free monitoring for at least two years (sometimes up to seven).

Paid services for identity theft. Consumer Reports states that it does not think it is worth paying extra for monitoring services, but if you do need that extra peace of mind, you can pay for services that will be actively looking at changes in your credit but also flag any cases in which your data is being passed around or shared in fraudulent ways for sale on the “dark web”.  These services generally can cost between $8 to $35 per month or between $100 to $400 per year. 

You have probably heard of Lifelock – it has the highest profile but is not necessarily the best.  Foolishly, the CEO shared his social security number openly at one point to show how good they are, and fraud was committed (though they have gotten better).  After looking at about 12 different articles from reputable sources that rated the services, we’ve put together the services that were mentioned the most as the top providers (in the order of most mentions – fees are annual for their most basic service).  One of the services below is actually free: Credit Sesame – though the service level is very minimal as you can imagine. 

  1. Identity Force ($100)
  2. Privacy Guard ($120) OR Experian Identity Works ($108) (2-way tie)
  3. MyFICO ($240), Lifelock ($108) OR Identity Guard ($80) (3-way tie)
  4. Credit Sesame (Free) OR Transunion ($300) (2-way tie)

You can probably do well with any of the ones listed above so it may boil down ultimately to the cost and the specific features.  Things to consider, depending on your needs, are:

  • Does it monitor all three credit bureaus or just one? 
  • Can it monitor other family members like kids, spouses, etc.?
  • Will they help me recover from identity fraud if my identity is stolen?
  • How much in identity theft insurance do they offer?  (many offer at least $1 million)
  • How often do I get alerts? (daily, weekly, monthly)
  • Where and what does it monitor?
    • Social Security Numbers
    • Social Media
    • Dark Web where hackers and fraudsters operate

Many experts recommend you NOT use one of the 3 big credit reporting agencies, like Equifax, Experian or Transunion because there can be a conflict of them providing the information being monitored. They especially recommend not Equifax because they are the reason half of Americans (over 160 million) had their credit profiles hacked in 2017.  To learn more on these types of services, here are some of the top articles we found on the topic that we referred to for this article:

Chris Linder, CEO, MaineStream Finance

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Help – I may have been a Victim of Fraud or Identity Theft – What do I do?

Many Mainers have experienced identity theft for unemployment fraud – here is what can be done

You have probably seen the news about thousands of Mainers being victims to scammers falsely filing for unemployment under their names (BDN, May 28, “Maine probing scores of claims as fraudsters target stressed unemployment system”).  This is extremely scary and an awful time to have to deal with it.  Maine does seem to be on top of it more quickly than other states.  Unfortunately, I personally have been part of at least 4 security breaches in the last five years, mostly for my credit card at big box stores, like Home Depot.  The worst part was when my personal information, including my social security number, was stolen when I worked for the Federal Government way back in the 1990s.  Credit card numbers and passwords can be changed, social security numbers cannot (generally). 

First Level – Immediate Steps: If you are notified of being a victim of unemployment fraud or if you find out via a phone call or letter that you are now receiving unemployment and you shouldn’t be, here is what is recommended:

  1. Call at least one of the 3 credit bureaus to report the fraud – I would suggest you call all 3.  At the same time, you can also ask them to put a freeze on your credit so that no new accounts can be opened in your name – usually is frozen for two years until you request to unfreeze them. Equifax: 1-888-766-0008 / Experian: 1-888-397-3742 / TransUnion 1-800-680-7289
  2. Let your bank know to look out for suspicious transactions on your bank accounts and credit cards.  You may want to ask for a new credit or debit card if you think those numbers have been compromised.   The more you communicate with your bank on what is happening, the more they will want to help you and make things right.  They are on your side in these cases. 
  3. Report the incident at the US Federal Trade Commission at identitytheft.gov or 1-877-438-4338. 
  4.  Notify the Maine Department of Labor for unemployment fraud.  It may not be worth waiting on line for a phone call so you might want to do it online: www.maine.gov/unemployment/idtheft.  Unfortunately, you could typically call the Maine Attorney General’s office but there are reports that they are not taking any new complaints right now. 
  5. Report the incident to your local police department.  While there is not much they can do, this protects you legally that you did your best when you make a claim for lost funds or to not pay a debt incurred. 

Second Level – Ongoing Steps

  1. Change your passwords on critical accounts like banking and your primary email accounts.  I may use a generic password for silly website requirements to register and access something, but when it comes to financial websites or personal email, each account has its own separate password with lots of letters, numbers and punctuation marks that do not spell out any words in the English language – example – instead of “ILoveMickeyMouse” – do “1L0v3M1ckeyM0u53!” It can be a pain but is worth it. 
  2. Be really careful of what personal info you share online and on social media– are you sure you want to share your address and your exact birthday on Facebook? It’s nice to get birthday wishes.  But Facebook does not need to know your exact birthday for you to get birthday wishes.   I always put in a fake year on social media – 1910 is usually my go to – they don’t need to know my exact birthday – just that I am over 18 years old. 
  3. Hold back info when they really don’t need it.  When I know someone like my son’s daycare already has the information or they just don’t need it, I leave it blank – do they really need my social security number for the 4th time?  The more paper with your information out there – the more the chance is that it will get misplaced.  If they really need it or want something like my social security number, I do not email it or write it down, I tell them verbally in person or over the phone. 
  4. Shred the paper you get from financial institutions.  The best, low cost trick is to shred by hand into two different waste baskets and empty them on different weeks.
  5. Check your credit report three times a year for free.  Each credit reporting agency is required to provide you with a credit report once a year by law for free – you can get it at ww.annualcreditreport.com.  I like to spread this out over the year – so for example, request one in January, one in May and one in September.  Check and make sure the debt accounts are correct but also that your previous addresses and employers are correct.
  6. Don’t click or talk to them – go to the original source!  When you get an email or call from a sensitive source like the government or bank that you were not expecting, don’t click on anything or talk to the person on the other end.  Look up the website or phone number of the institution and contact them that way directly.  When you google a company, be careful not to click on the top 2-3 links – those are paid ads that may not be the company you are looking for.  Scroll down a few lines until you find the precise website of the company you are looking for. 
  7. Be careful where you use your debit card.  Many financial advisors suggest you use debit cards so you are not accruing debt on your credit card.  I rarely use my debit card to be honest.  If you can, you can pay off your credit cards each month.  The reason for this is that credit card funds is OPM – other people’s money.  Debit cards are your money – most banks will return the funds to your bank account – BUT – there are a lot more protections on credit cards that if you suspect fraud and you report it in a timely manner, then you will not have to pay those funds.  I would be very careful of using debit cards at places like gas station pumps, other easily accessible payment locations, like vending machines, and stores you do not frequent or when you travel in new, unknown places.  Never use your debit card for online purchases if you can swing it.  Get a low-balance credit card of $500 – $1000 to make online purchases and pay it off at the end of the month. 

Third Level – High  Security Concerns.  In general, Consumer Reports suggests following the low-cost ways above.  But in my case, I know that my social security number was stolen and it will likely be out in the “Dark Web” for the rest of my life and beyond.  If you think that someone has stolen extremely sensitive information beyond credit card numbers or passwords, you may want to take on a monitoring service that sends you monthly updates and immediate alerts if there are any major changes.  But it can cost up to $15 a month.  These services can monitor not only credit cards but emails, bank accounts, social security numbers for your family, home address, driver’s license number, and passport number.  Here are some possible options if you have concerns:

  1. Check out your bank or credit card company’s website first.  My credit union offers free credit monitoring now.
  2. Did your credit or debit card get compromised at one of these security breaches?  If it did, the company should be offering you free monitoring for at least a year if not 2-3 years.  In 2019 alone, Marriott, Capital One, T Mobile, and Dunkin Donuts had breaches! And that is only the big names and less than  5% of what happened.  Here is a list since the 2000s: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_data_breaches
  3. All three credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian, and Transunion, offer monitoring services – this will cost between $10-$15 a month. 
  4. There are services like Lifelock that monitor much more than credit such as your social security number and bank accounts.  These also will cost money on a monthly basis. 

For more information on what you can do when there is a problem or how to protect yourself, here are some more sites to visit:

-Chris Linder

Originally published June 1, 2020.

To find out more about Personal Finance issues during COVID-19, go here.

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Loss of Employment and Health Insurance – What do I do Now?

I once did consulting for a German company and my contact was completely baffled why I insisted on purchasing temporary health evacuation insurance when working in Haiti – it was the sheer terror of knowing a health evac can cost $100,000+ one-way.  Health costs are terrifying for all Americans – we’re all one car crash or cancer diagnosis from financial hardship, even for those of us who have saved for many years and have decent health coverage.   I saw this first-hand when working with community health centers for many years across the US.  We at MaineStream constantly see health related debt in collections on credit reports, and health costs are the #1 reason for bankruptcy in the US.  Right now thousands of Americans and Mainers could potentially lose their health insurance families in the coming months not just for them but their entire family if they are laid-off. 

There is hope – below are some options and resources to contact if your clients risk losing health coverage during this tough time when we all need health insurance most.  Also, the Governor has ordered that MaineCare will cover all COVID-19 testing (if other plans cannot) regardless of status of the person. Right now, the Maine Equal Justice Program is suggesting you check if you are eligible for MaineCare if you have lost your job – the criteria have been relaxed significantly.

  • CoverMe.gov: The Governor and State of Maine just launched CoverME.gov (or 800-965-7476) to help Mainers find the best option for them through MaineCare/Medicaid, ACA Health Exchange, and others.
  • US ACA Marketplace Health Insurance Coverage at Healthcare.gov for those without coverage with their employer.  A loss of unemployment is an eligible event to enroll outside of the normal period.  Anthem Blue, Harvard Pilgrim, and Community Health Options all provide plans under ACA. 
  • COBRA: Laid-off workers can also go to the COBRA Continuation Coverage website to see if they are eligible to continue coverage from their former employer’s plan for up to 9 months but you will have to pay most of the cost yourself, including the employer’s portion. You might be able to negoitate that portion with your severance. Your employer should offer this to you in most involuntary departure cases. 
  • There are organizations locally out there who can help you figure this out:  
    • Penquis has a Healthcare Navigator, Theresa Cucinotti. Visit the Penquis Healthcare Navigator page or call 207-973-3500.
    • Most Maine Community Health Centers (CHCs), like Penobscot Community Health Center (PCHC,) have Health Navigators, particularly to help with ACA coverage. Health centers also provide reduced price care based on an income-based sliding scale if you are uninsured (I.e. you don’t have to go to the emergency room for non-emergency care).  Most hospitals will also provide healthcare navigators if you ask.

-Chris Linder

Originally published May 18, 2020

To find out more about Personal Finance issues during COVID-19, go here.

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Buyer Beware: Consumer-related scams during COVID-19

Beware of emergency-related scams out there – yes, they are popping up everywhere! Never click on links in emails or texts unless you know the person or institution.  If you are unsure about a phone call or text – look up the organization’s main number online and tell them you will call them back.  Beware of organizations reaching out to you on social media platforms too like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram – and again beware of links. Look them up online, google “[Company Name] and “fraud” or “scam”.  If it’s too good to be true, be very, very wary.  Never pay someone to help you get Federal funds, or IRS checks, or mortgage help – especially don’t go buy a bunch of gift cards – and don’t share your social security number, account numbers, or things like your mother’s date of birth until you log-on directly to the organization’s website like your bank or call them directly at their main 1-800 customer service line. Unfortunately, there are terrible people in the world – it is less than 1% of us – but with technology now, that small percentage can do a lot of damage.  Be very skeptical – make Pyrrho proud (the father of skepticism). You can call MaineStream to help you figure out if something is real or not. We also have a scams section on our Personal Finances during COVID-19 page

US.gov reports that the three most common COVID-19 scams are:

1) Testing and treatment scams (answer: go to your doctor, health insurer, or nearest urgent care center instead)

2) FDIC and banking scams (answer: get your bank’s phone number directly and call them directly – do not reply to them via email or click on an email link or chat with them on Facebook)

3) Checks from the government (answer: never share your personal information like social security until you call them back directly – call the government organization who is supposedly issuing the checks directly – call the State of Maine Attorney General’s office, call US FTC, or call us at MaineStream. You will never pay a fee to get government benefits.)

Here are resources and places you can call for help or learn more on scams:

-Chris Linder

Originally published April 20, 2020

To find out more about Personal Finance issues during COVID-19, go here.

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Weathering COVID-19 financially

some tips and tricks and resources out there

Below is some guidance, resources, and tips and tricks on how to weather COVID-19 financially.  It is changing hourly and many organizations, governments, and individuals are jumping in to help – so there is hope! 

One of the more comprehensive sources to explain the Federal economic stimulus support is in this New York Times article (free to access and regularly updated): F.A.Q. on Stimulus Checks, Unemployment and the Coronavirus Bill

We have a lot more info on health insurance, taxes, leave, employment, student loans, etc. on our Personal Finance during COVID-19 website at and Penquis’ website for our COVID-19 response.

  • Debt Payments – preserving cash – list out your biggest fixed-amount bills and call your lenders ASAP (like right now or this weekend).  You may likely get a 30-day to 90-day grace period.  But please note, you will have to pay it all back eventually – and interest charges will still accrue during the grace period.  The more you communicate with lenders quickly and honestly, the more they will want to help you.  They have a lot of discretion right now to help. You can call our housing or personal finance teams for help. 
    • Mortgages – If your loan is under HUD/FHA, VA, USDA, Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac (about 95% of all mortgage loans) – you will likely be eligible for a 3-6 month deferral (and maybe more after the first six months).  Call your lender, ask them if you are under any of those programs and tell them you are undergoing a hardship due to COVID-19 and would like to understand the options for deferring.  Most foreclosures are halted and Maine courts are closed.  If you were already in foreclosure, things may be different – call our housing counseling team for help.  [Please note, MaineStream is none of these, but we will work with current borrowers for deferral hardships.]
    • Student loans – All federal student loans can get a deferral with a no-interest period through September 30, 2020.  For private or state-funded programs, it will depend on each. Call your lender and figure out what your options are.
    • Credit cards – There is no mandate to give a grace period, but most credit card providers are offering grace periods or an ability to lower your minimum monthly payment (e.g. right now the minimum payment is $200 – if you can afford $25 monthly – ask for that).  If you have decent credit, it may make sense to ask for an increase in your line of credit.  (Just in case – please be careful of new debt right now-this is a “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” kind of debt!)
    • Car Loans – Like credit cards there is no grace period mandate, but many of the lenders for these loans are the same banks offering help for mortgages and credit cards.  Call your lender and ask if there is anyway to have a grace period or reduction in monthly payments. 
  • Rent and Avoiding Evictions– In the beginning of the crisis, the mandate only pertained to HUD-financed properties or FNMA-funded properties – for which there are not many in Maine.  Now in Maine, all evictions are not allowed and the courts are still closed. Either way, call your landlord now if you feel there will be a hardship and work something out.  Many have forgiven a month or two, most offer a deferral of 1-2 months, and some are swapping for barter, e.g. paint a room for them for barter.  If a landlord tries to self-evict or locks you out, call the Penquis/MaineStream Housing Counseling team, Pine Tree Legal and call your local code enforcement team at your city or town – you have some rights and most people will come to you in your defense. 
  • Unemployment Insurance.  If you are not working or working less due to COVID-19 – you are eligible for unemployment insurance now in Maine.  The website and phone lines at Maine DOL (1-800-593-7660) are backed up, but do keep trying. Maine Equal Justice Project (626-7058), Pine Tree Legal, and the local career centers (11 across the state) can help as well. 
  • Saving money/costs ideas.  Bangor Daily News and Hello Homestead have a great series of articles on how to save money using different ingredients for cooking, saving energy, etc. 

-Chris Linder

note: this was originally published on April 6, 2020

To find out more about Personal Finance issues during COVID-19, go here.