Saturday, October 29, 2005

My Life in Fiction

My inner Walter Mitty has always imagined me being a private eye, right down to the Robert-Mitchum-as-Philip-Marlowe hang dog look, trench coat, and weary cigarette. Looks like my inner Mitty has a doppelganger who writes books:

Friday, April 08, 2005

Opt Out, Out I Say

We bought a house in July.

Since then, we've been deluged with credit card and life insurance offers, and offers to borrow against the value of the home.

Before owning a home, credit card offers that began with "You have been preselected. . ." were common enough. Now we're getting about 10 - 15 a week.

It's from these offers that a lot of theft takes place. Theives pull the offers from mailboxes and trash and fill them out, noting a change of address so the new card or loan check is sent elsewhere. Thieves spend the stolen money, and voila, the person in whose name they have swindled is stuck in a battle with credit card companies, banks and other loaning agencies, and the credit rating agencies to undo the damage. And it's not that easy to do undo the damage. It might take years.

Meanwhile, as one's financial life is locked-down frozen, real life still presents challenges that require financial flexibility.

While not as good as being able to put a hold on one's credit to prevent the issuance of credit in one's name, the credit reporting agencies will let you opt-out of being on those lists they sell to banks and insurance companies who can't wait to send you those "You've been preapproved to go deeper in debt" come-ons. To get off those lists, go here:

It only takes a few moments. If you prefer not do this over the WWW, call this number and Opt-Out by phone: 1-888-567-8688.

You can choose to opt out for a 5 years or permanently. You can also choose to opt back in.

I don't know why anyone would want to opt back in if they own a home; the debt only puts the ownership at risk, let alone the risk that a thief will intercept your mail before you get it, or, if you don't have a shredder or fire pit, after you toss it.

The solicitations aren't worth it.

If you need to borrow or want a credit, you don't need to be pre-approved. You can apply and ask for terms that you're willing to live with.

So opt-out today.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Fraud and Stealing -- Not Identity Theft

In today's Boston Globe, Hiawatha Bray suggests a lock on credit reports to prevent theives from using one's credit to steal. Bray's suggestion is along the same line of thinking I outlined in a letter to my congressmen a few days back. Naturally I'm going to forward Bray's article to them. But I need to do it soon before I can't get it from the Globe's Web site.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

What's a Little Snow?

After shoveling away another 6 inches of new-fallen wet and heavy snow, the only recourse was to retreat immediately to summer.

Mind over matter. Plus the drinks stay cold. Try keeping drinks cold in August without hauling an ice-chest.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Today I Wrote Congress

After reading this story in the Washington Post about the usurous practices of credit card companies and the Republican plans to further stick it to people by not allowing credit card debt to be resolved by bankruptcy, I wrote the following to my Congressmen: Rep. Lynch (D - MA), an d Sentators Kennedy and Kerry (D's - MA):

Dear Senator,

Today's Washington Post online reports that the Senate is likely to pass a bill making it hard for consumers to clear credit card debt by declaring bankruptcy. This despite the outrageous and capricious fees credit card companies add to cards, making the companies no better than loan sharks in many cases.

Meanwhile, as laws against usury seem to be a thing of the past, credit card companies, in an age of identity theft, continue to send unsolicited offeres for loans, credit cards and other expensive and fee-laded financial services to our mailboxes. And it's from mailboxes and trashcans that we know most identity theft occurs.

If Congress is unwilling to control the rapacious appetites of credit lenders and their practices, and if they are unable to help consumers who get caught up in those practices, most insidiously interest rates jumping astronomically when a payment's late, even if the payment late wasn't on a different card. One woman in the story had an interest rate of 29.99 percent.

If Congress will not at least do something about that, can they try to do something about identity theft.

Here's an idea.

As a consumer, I should be able to contact TransUnion, Equifax, Experian and other credit agencies and put a hold on credit issued in my name. This won't stop the flood of unwanted credit and loan solicitations I get, since that flood comes from mailing lists being sold and bought, but it would at least protect me from identity theft.

No credit lender processes a credit card or loan without checking those agencies. If they check and see that I have a hold on credit being issued, then they can't proceed. For them to proceed I would have to remove the hold.

Now this isn't perfect --there would need to be a system for a consumer to place and remove holds, one that included verifying the identity of the consumer, but there should be a way to do this.

You can't get a job in the U.S. without showing --in person-- proof of citizenship. So what if every bank branch, every credit union branch and other institutions were obligated to work with the credit agencies in such a way that you could walk into those places, and verify your identity and then from those institutions, create an account with the credit agencies, and from that account, you can place a hold on your credit.

The credit industry is awash in billions of dollars generated from onerous fees and usury. They should be able to fund this small bit of consumer protection.

Thank you for considering this idea.


Nick Carbone

SAT: Is It Useful?

In a guest opinion piece in today's New York Times, "Topic: Essays Are Useful. Discuss." Curtis Sittenfeld concludes by writing, "Although the cottage industry preying on the SAT anxieties of parents and students has grown since I was a teenager, I still don't believe the test matters very much. I'm glad the SAT is including an essay not because I think the SAT is important, but because I think writing is."

I feel pretty much the same way. There are enough alternate routes into college without betting the farm on having to have high SAT scores. And I agree with Sittenfeld that even a five paragraph essay is better than the analogies test. If anything, it's an easy type of essay to write, so high school instructors will be able to teach kids how to write during their test-training sessions (and make no mistake, high schools will devote some time to training kids on how to pass the SAT writing exam).

Still, it's a pretty dumb system overall. The fact is that with a little practice and coaching, kids can bring up their SAT scores. And as Jay Mathews points out in "How to Ace the SAT Essay in 6 Easy Steps" coaching doesn't have to involve big bucks to Kaplan or some private tutor. A book on getting ready will do, or even cheaper in my view, visiting The College Board's Website for practicing and improving your writing for the test.

Still, there is that anxiety. Ironically I began to notice it visceral this past year, when my daughter became a highschool sophomore, and the school's guidance department held a meeting for parents to talk about the SAT and college admissions processes and how not to be anxious about them. I don't know whether people were already anxious or the meeting triggered their anxieties, but it didn't seem to me that people were less anxious. The message of the meeting was, in short, senior year will be here in a blink, and so now is the time to plan for college admitting hurtles and test preparation.

Among the recommendations re: the SAT -- take the practice tests, starting the sophomore year. Now the practice won't have the writing portion, but pay the fee and take it anyway. The sophomore test wouldn't be used in figuring the official SAT score. Meanwhile, as 10th graders, kids in Massachusetts have to pass a state-mandated MCAS test in order to graduate. I think with MCAS my daughter doesn't need to deal with the sophomore edition of the SAT too. And even without the MCAS, I wouldn't do it.

I also am encouraging my daughter not to take the PSAT her junior either. Again, in Massachusetts she's take a standardized nearly every year in one form or another, so practicing how to do that is a waste of time and money.

Also, my wife took the PSAT her junior year of highschool, and then took the SAT her senior year. She did much, much better on the SAT and was accused essentially of cheating. The statisticians at the College Board determined that there couldn't be an improvement as big as hers. She was forced to take the SAT yet again.

So why in the world would I want my daughter to take a PSAT? National Merit Scholarships? That's not likely. It's a bad percentage bet; her grades are mostly A's, with a B or two every now and again, and that's just enough to keep her out the NMS winner's circle. She sees enough standardized testing as it is.

Also, PSAT scores are now passed on to colleges, according to the guidance counselor, so it's not really just practice any more.

The SAT once will be enough, thank you.

All this talk about taking the practice because it's hard; take the practice because it's important; take the practice so you get into the college you want -- that's the stuff of anxiety.

Better this from my point of view. Take the test once and don't worry about it. It really is not that important and it certainly is not predictive of any damn thing about how a student will do in college. Take it once so schools have the scores if they want them as part of an overall package. However, if a school only takes students with scores of a certain rank, then to hell with that school. There are plenty of good places to learn -- often with better teachers than those that try to be exclusive about SAT scores -- that won't use the lower-than-their-standard SAT score as an excuse to scam you out of your admissions processing fee as they in mere seconds put your admissions folder in the "no" pile without so much as the few seconds it took to check your score.

That's the second part of this.

Admissions. We're not going to play the cast a wide net admissions game either. We'll pick one or two schools we like, and apply there only after we check on how they process admissions. And chances are, depending on scholarships of one kind or another (and plenty exist that don't depend on SAT scores), we might just opt for our kids to do the first two years at a community college, where they'll at least get to work with instructors who want to be teachers primarily.