Friday, April 28, 2006

Original Batman Credit Card on eBay

Via Bayraider comes news of an original Batman credit card from the Batman TV series up for auction on eBay. Opening bid $1999.99.

According to the seller, Starwares, the Batman credit card is a prop from the 1966 TV show, and the cardholder is William Dozier, the show's producer and uncredited narrator.

The card has a list of Terms & Conditions on the back, including #3: "Bills payable on receipt. Delinquent accounts result in loss of credit privileges and a big spanking."

By the way, looking at the auction page, Starwares says it is now "excepting" Paypal. I can handle some bad spelling, but "excepting"? That's too much.

Find a better credit card at:

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Why Am I Paying for Their Political Calls?

Somewhat off-topic for this blog, but vaguely financial is my anger at these automated political calls that have popped up constantly in recent years. Number one, it's annoying, but worse, when I don't answer the calls and they roll over to my voice mail, I'm actually paying for them, because I am charged some small fee for checking my voice mail.

It's sort of like the fax machine thing where people spam your fax machine and you pay for the ink and paper to print out their junk ads. The do-not-call list was supposed to stop that practice, but good luck figuring out where the heck those faxes are coming from.

At my last high school reunion, one of my ex-classmates had been fairly successful at his business using the practice of marketing by fax. This was before do-not-call lists, so he wasn't doing anything illegal, but I felt like slapping him. What a disrespectful thing to do to your customers, to expect them to use their paper and ink to print out your ads. Think if you sent an ad to a prospect through the mail that was postage due or made collect calls to prospective clients--you think they'd stand for that?

Why are politicians allowed to do this? You guessed it--because the politicians make the laws, and they've exempted themselves from the do-not-call lists.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

I'm preapproved for the Amex Rewards Plus Gold Card

Per today's mail, I'm preapproved for the American Express Rewards Plus Gold Card. I'm obviously honored, but I can't decide if I want to take them up on it.

There's no fee for the first year, but then it's $150 yearly. I get upgraded to the Membership Rewards program from the Membership Rewards Options program if I do it, but I don't know quite what that means to me. I'd get double points at gas stations, supermarkets, drug stores, the post office, one point everywhere else.

If I was putting $10,000 a month on my Amex card, I'd snap this up. But, as it is, I'm not sure how to do the math on whether the enhanced rewards would be worth the card.

Looking at $150 annual fee, that's equal to about 15,000 points in a rewards program. So, let's say I would put $3000 per month on my card, or $36,000 yearly, for 36,000 points total if I was using a no-fee card. And say I use this Rewards Plus card for about $700 worth of groceries, gas and other services that get me double miles each month, meaning about $8400 per year as part of that $36,000 overall. So $27,600 at one point and $8400 at two points (16,800 points), that would be 44,400 points. If you subtract 15,000 from the 44,400, you get 29,400, which is fewer points than I'd get if I didn't have the annual fee.

But then there's the Membership Rewards thing that seems to be some sort of upgrade. And they seem to think they're giving me sopme sort of upgrade on travel rewards, too, but I can't understand exactly what I'd be getting. Maybe that's the difference between Membership Rewards and Membership Rewards Options?

I guess I'll have to pass. It's just not spelled out clearly enough what this new card would give me over what I'm already getting.

I Bonds & Career Development

Two items, one worth knowing and one worth thinking about:

Financial columnist Terry Savage has an article today about the I Series Savings Bond that currently delivering 6.73%, but could go down to 2% next week. It's a long-term investment, you have to hold it 5 years if you don't want any penalties, but that's a pretty nice rate if you want to park some money risk-free. But you have to hurry--Savage explains why in her column.

Over at Yahoo Finance, Jim Citrin has a thought-provoking piece about career development, and how branching out as your career moves forward can take you to all sorts of unexpected and neat places that you would never get to if you overspecialize.

He uses the example of former Senator George Mitchell, who is now leading Major League Baseball's investigation into steroid abuse after being chairman of Disney and negotiating a peace deal in Ireland and of course being a Senator. His point is that Mitchell got some of these gigs because he'd taken a varied career path.

I don't totally buy Mitchell as an example, because once you're an accomplished politician all sorts of doors open up, and we're not all going to have that happen. But Citrin also uses the example of an MBA graduate who chooses to do management consulting versus derivatives training. The first gives you wide experience across a lot of industries and builds a network as well, while the latter takes you down a narrow path of specialization. Neither is better, but if you want an interesting career that takes you to new and unexpected (in a good way) places, pigeonholing yourself is not the way to go. Pretty neat article, especially for people who are just getting started in their careers.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

My Investing Shortcoming

Greg Karp's talking about a Putnam Investments listing of the traits that lead to successful investing & financial security. I'm pretty good at most of them, except #3 -- Patience in the face of adversity.

Actually I'm not sure if that's even correct. My investing problem is that I hold on to my loser stocks too long and get rid of my winners too quick, which leads to worse gains over the long haul. Luckily I only play with a small amount of my money & leave the rest to the mutual fund experts, because I repeatedly have been unable to stop myself from selling off when my stocks make a quick jump (I feel so smart to make such a big profit so quickly!) or to hold on when it's obvious a stock is headed for the toilet (the stock has to come back, I'm an investing genius!).

Otherwise, I'm pretty good on the other factors--I resist temptationm for quick rewards and I have realistic expectations (except for those stocks I buy and sell myself, that is). I'm doing OK, but I still haven't learned to be a good stock buyer and seller. I love doing it, but my track record is shameful. I really should just hand all the money over to the pros, but I can't bring myself to do it.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Latest Mail

I got an invite to enroll in the Citi IdentityMonitor program, which costs $9.95 per month, or less than 35 cents a day, as they helpfully note. I believe I could also feed a starving child in some far-off place for 35 cents a day, or buy myself some new pants for less than 35 cents a day, but I digress.

Here's what I get for my money: a credit report, daily "monitoring" of my credit file for suspicious activity, alerts whenever there is a change to my file.

Interestingly, I can also upgrade to a combined 3-in-1 credit report with scores and notification from all three credit bureaus at no extra charge. This of course begs the question: if the upgrade is better and is free, why not just offer it as the basic service?

I can get a free 30-day trial as well as some sort of $25 rebate, too. This offer is going the way of all warranties and protections I am offered -- in the circular file. I like to live dangerously.

In other news, Chase sent me some more checks to pay off other bills at super duper low interest rates. They are pretty relentless with these checks.

Friday, April 21, 2006

I Hate Self-Checkout at the Supermarket

The Washington Post's Caroline Mayer has a very interesting discussion happening on her consumer blog about self-checkout at supermarkets. Personally I hate the things, but people are weighing in on both sides. Here's why I hate them:

1. The stores tout this as if it's a convenience to customers by allowing you to get out of the store faster if you only have a few items. Ha! What happened to the "10 items or less" lane at the store? Gone. So, in reality, the stores just cut their costs by having fewer cashiers available to check people out. This may explain why the self-checkout lines are so long every time I go into my local store.

2. It's a pain in the rump. Yes, I know we use ATMs to get our own money and we pump our own gas, but these self-checkouts are different. You have to scan every single item, and if you do something the machine doesn't like (or it suddenly stops working), you have to figure out what the problem is or locate someone to help you (good luck). If I could throw all my groceries on a belt and press a single button that totalled it all up and then I paid, I'd be fine with checking myself out. Otherwise, I'm not interested in being a cashier (although I'd like to play one on television).

3. At my store, if you pay by credit card, you then have to go to a special table near the self checkouts to sign your card's slip. This requires a human be present to offer you the receipt to sign. The human is not always present, so I stand there like a doofus, looking hopeless so maybe some store employee will have pity on me and come over to help. Other times this human is gabbing with a co-worker, oblivious to me standing one foot away. Perhaps she's forgotten that she has any actual tasks to perform at her job. "Don't ask me, I just work here."

It's getting to the point in this world where every retailer wants you to do everything for yourself. If this is the case, it might make more sense for me to just install a gas pump in my front yard, and buy my groceries from the wholesalers. They can all just back up to my front yard, dump the stuff on the lawn, and I'll pay them. Let's cut out the middleman, since the middlemen are working so hard to take themselves out of the equation by providing absolutely nothing of extra value.

I'm not that old, but I already feel like a cranky old man.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Yesterday's/Today's Mail

One credit card offer, plus one credit card offer that fell out of my newspaper yesterday. Let's explore:

I got an offer for the Discover Platinum Card this week. Interestingly enough, they're only offering me 6 months of 0% on purchases, even though I can snag 12 months online. However, they'll give me a full year on balance transfers. Plus, I get $20 just for signing up, something I don't get online. The regular rewards are the 5% on Get More purchases, which I just discovered (pardon the pun) yesterday means gas and auto-related stuff in the spring and early summer, apparel and school stuff in the late summer/fall and music, books, etc. around the holidays.

It says the APR is 10.99%, but based on their calculation of Prime Rate + 3.49%, it would actually be 11.24%. That's the best rate they're showing in the online offer.

Not really looking for a credit card right now, but I'd probably pick the Discover Gas card over the standard card if I was looking right now. I'm a little miffed, though, that they're only offering me 6 months at 0% on purchases. I'm not going to get the card, but I like to think I'm royalty to the credit card companies, and I'm clearly not to Discover.

Out of my newspaper yesterday came an offer for the Citi Diamond Preferred Rewards American Express Card (a finalist in my longest credit card name ever competition). This card offers a pretty generous rewards program of 5 points per dollar on gas, supermarket and drug store purchases, 1 point everywhere else. There's also a $100 gift card in it for me after I use the card for the first time. Interestingly, the newspaper offer has an APR of 13.99%, although their calculation suggests it would now be 14.24%--online you can get this same deal with an interest rate a point lower.

Citi also has this same card as a MasterCard, offering a 12.74% interest rate, but just a $50 gift card after first use. I'm not getting any of these, but it's interesting to see how they market what is essentially the same card differently in three different places.

Another Credit Report Horror Story

Now I know it's the general practice of the media to pick the worst stories and ignore when things are going right, but, still, should these credit reporting agencies really be wielding so much power over us?

Look at this article in the NY Daily News. This woman Marie McGrath had her credit history just wiped off the map by Experian and the only way she got it back was when the newspaper contacted Experian to see what was happening.


Maxine Sweet, a spokeswoman for Experian, acknowledged the company made
multiple mistakes. "It was a mixed file that went to a no record," she
explained. Credit reporting agencies define a mixed file as one that contains
information pertaining to more than one consumer.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, as many as 5% of credit bureau
files could be mixed.

When Experian attempted to separate the accounts in McGrath's file, it "did
not get the identity perfect," Sweet said. "We are now creating her credit
report and making sure that the accounts are linked to the right names."

It was "a mixed file that went to no record"? First off, no average person knows what that means, and, once we know, we're incredulous that your way of handling getting two people's information mixed up is to simply wipe away their credit history.

It's also annoying how these companies jump when they know the media is going to shed some light on their practices, but they ignore the customer up until that point.

Like I said, it's not totally fair to take one problem and pin it on the company or the industry as a whole, but, still, they could at least try to fix it once they know.

Book Review: WSJ Personal Finance Guides

The Wall Street Journal just came out with two personal finance books, The Complete Personal Finance Guidebook and the Personal Finance Workbook. Justin did a new book review of them, which you can find here.

I leafed through them right quick, so I'm not qualified to make a judgment, but Justin thought they were pretty good, especially for those just starting to get their doo-doo together financially.

He's trying to line up an interview with the books' author, Jeff Opdyke, who is one of the main personal finance writers for the Journal. That's not at all confirmed, but that's the goal.

I've been gonme for a few days , but hoping to make up for lost time starting today. I'm starting to enjoy this blog thing; I see now why people get hooked.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Jerry Falwell's Personal Finance Advice

There's a new indie film called "Maxed Out" that ponders the dangers of debt, and Newsweek has a priceless piece of video from the movie--it's Jerry Falwell giving some personal finance advice, "spiritual mathemathics" as it were. Check out the article here and the Falwell video here.

Friday, April 14, 2006

There IS Mail Today! Whoopee!

I wasn't sure if they delivered the mail on Good Friday, but, goodness, they do! There are a lot of postal holidays, so you never know if the mail's going to show up or not. The mail's here, the stock market's closed, not sure if my bank's open.

What I got today was my mortgage bill, due May 1st. I kind of like getting my mortgage bill, because I've been pretty aggressive with it & I like seeing the principal go down somewhat substantially each month. I remember when I got my first house & paid my first mortgage bill--something like $35 came off of the principal. I thought there was some mistake. Luckily I showed it to my mom instead of making an ass out of myself by calling the mortgage company and demanding an explanation.

Also got a come-on for a second mortgage from SouthBanc Mortgage in Herndon, Virginia. They say I "have been pre-selected for up to $63,450.00 or more!!! No Equity Required!" Now that's bad writing there. Have I been pre-selected for up to $63,500.00, or have I been pre-selected for more than $63,450.00? It can't be both.

Oh, well. I'm not doing it anyway. See you Monday.

"Luxury" Credit Cards

Forbes has a story this week on luxury credit cards, including the American Express Centurion card, also known as the ultra-exclusive American Express Black card.

The appeal of these cards is to some extent their rich rewards, but since they are generally only offered to very rich people, it's questionable whether rich people carry them for their rewards (not that rich people don't appreciate getting rewards; they didn't become rich by mistake).

Their main attraction seems to be the fact that only a small number of people are invited to carry them and only a small number could even afford to carry them (the American Express Black card requires you to spend $250,000 per year on the card).

Many of them have rewards of private jet travel, which sounds nice but unnecessary, although perhaps Lindsay Lohan does prefer to travel away from the admiring throngs, so for some of us it makes sense.

The world's a crazy place sometimes. Most times, actually.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Jackson Hole Lotta Money

You can't live in Jackson Hole or a lot of other places in Wyoming these days unless you've got the money, honey.

Now, while it may be beautiful, Wyoming is kind of in the middle of nowhere, which probably at one point made it a unique destination for rich people, until all the other rich people decided to get away from it all and showed up in Wyoming, too. Then it just became another place for rich people to mingle with other rich people.

I'm not knocking it. I'd like to be rich and buy a $17 million dollar house with custom heating vents, too. Well, maybe that's not how I'd spend my money, but I have no problem with getting rich.

What's a little depressing is to hear that no one without means can live in Jackson Hole anymore now that the richies have taken it over. They can come in each day to serve up the rich people's Eggs Benedict, but they can't live there.

That leaves me a little torn. It's a supply-and-demand world, and even more than that, it's a survival of the fittest world, at least in terms of whoever has a lot of money gets the best things. Unfortunately, the best things often mean nature and natural wonders that should be open to all. Buying up all the real estate in beautiful places, buying up the beaches, making fewer and fewer nice places for average people to live. Sometimes government limits this, by doing things such as public access parks and beaches, or by limiting home sizes like they've done in Jackson Hole, but for the most part the rich get their way.

I'm not sure where I was going with this, it's just an interesting topic to me.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Capital One Wants Me So Bad

I don't mean to brag, but Capital One wants me so bad that they sent me the exact same credit card offer for their No Hassle Miles Ultra MasterCard today that I received from them back on March 24, or just 19 days ago.

That's not quite as fast of a comeback as the American Express Costco credit card (they only had 13 days in between sending the exact same offer), but it still shows that Capital One wants to have like 10 thousand of my babies.

Are "Contactless" Credit Cards Safe?

A lot of new credit cards are incorporating this RFID (radio frequency) technology that will allow people to just wave their credit cards at special readers to pay for purchases. MasterCard calls it "blink" technology and Chase seems to be working hardest at implementing it. It's basically the same thing as the Exxon Speedpass that lets you buy gas faster or the cards that certain states use to let frequent toll road users zip past the toll booths without stopping.

The potential downside, as always with wireless technology, is that someone could intercept and steal your data. A couple stories on this have cropped up recently.

The Wall Street Journal did a story on Monday about it. Brenden Walker of Canton, Ohio smashed his new credit card so the device wouldn't work anymore. It seems a whole industry is springing up of companies offering protection from the insidious devices. My guess is that many of these companies were previously offering to build bunkers for the Y2K doomsayers.

Mitch Radcliffe at ZDNet also did a blog entry this past Sunday on the situation, titled "RFID: Legitimate fear or fear-mongering?" Radcliffe thinks the devices mentioned in the WSJ story to defeat RFID are a little ridiculous, but he also argues that RFID shouldn't necessarily become the standard, and people concerned about privacy concerns should resist it, which seems easy enough to do.

I don't know. I'm very loosey-goosey with my personal information--there's a decent chance you already have my credit card number and know the combination to my lock at the gym. I know identity theft is real, but I go for the convenience over the security, I guess because I just can't think of a scenario in which having any of my information stolen would really ruin my life versus just being a huge pain in the ass. Someday something will happen & I might change my ways, but for now I'm waiting for my RFID credit card. In fact, I just got a new Chase card, maybe it has one. Unlike Brenden Walker, I won't be taking a hammer to it.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Should a Wal-Mart Bank Be Allowed to Exist?

Wal-Mart wants to be a bank. They say they only want the go-ahead to create a bank so that they can process credit card transactions themselves instead of paying millions of dollars to other banks to have them run the transactions.

On its face, this is reasonable. After all, Target, Harley-Davidson, BMW, Nordstrom and others have their own banks, so why shouldn't Wal-Mart?

On the other hand, some feel that Wal-Mart using its banking charter for benign purposes is about as likely as Iran using enriched uranium to spread peace.

I'm a little torn here. I'm not anti-business, and I don't necessarily think Wal-Mart getting a bank charter is a sign of the apocalypse (those Iranians getting nukes could be, though). But there does come a time when a successful business has to be reigned in before it starts to systematically wipe out the rest of the economy.

What I'm trying to say is if Wal-Mart gets their charter, don't be surprised if Microsoft suddenly wants one. Or Google, for that matter.

On the other hand, big retailers often sell off their credit card businesses when they realize that their strength is as a retailer, not as a finance company. This same thing could easily happen to Wal-Mart (although if they really just want to process their own credit card transactions, this is all just talk).

I'm not really a fan of Wal-Mart, but I say let 'em bank. However, I would also encourage Citigroup, Bank of America and other banking behemoths to begin production of cheap clothing in China, just to hedge their bets.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Today's Mail 4/10/06

No credit card offers today. I have to say I'm surprised--I really don't get as many credit card offers mailed to me as I thought before I started tracking my mail like some sort of junk culture anthropologist.

I still got plenty of mail:

  • J&R Music World Computer World Everything World sent me a catalog. I don't shop with them, but used my American Express points to buy an iPod Nano from J&R (via the ShopAmex reward option that allows you to buy from anyone), so now I'm on J&R's list. (The ShopAmex option is nice in a way, because you have a greater selection, but for items like the Nano that aren't part of American Express' regular rewards program, you use twice as many points to get anything -- e.g., $300 Nano cost 60,000 points. I really wanted that Nano, though.)
  • Joe at Progressive Urban Real Estate would like me to call him for all my real estate needs. I don't have any, but Joe looks nice enough.
  • Mutual fund statement. This one did OK for the first quarter, but not nearly as well as the others. It's got a good track record, though, so I'm not distressed.
  • My other mutual fund wants me to send in my proxy statement as there is a change in fund management being voted on. This has been a good fund, but the guys who have been shepherding it for 15 or 20 years just quit, so now I'm not sure what to think. I'll keep it for now & see how the new managers do. I really should vote but since I don't understand what the heck's going on, I'm abstaining & will decide if that money stays with them based on how this shakes out.
  • Geico wants to give me an auto insurance quote.
That's it. More enlightening mail news tomorrow.

Building Up and Cashing Out

This morning's Washington Post has one of my favorite kinds of stories, about people who built companies out of nothing and then cashed out for gobs and gobs of money.

The people profiled today are business owners who built their businesses mainly by being government contractors. Sure, you know about government contractors like Halliburton who feed at the trough of the Iraq rebuilding, but these are smaller companies that have never had Dick Cheney at the helm but built up enough of a business to sell out for ungodly sums of money.

If you want to get rich in this life, the surest way is to start your own company. Yes, it's risky, but the potential is great and the need to bust your a** everyday to make a buck gives you a kick that few other jobs will.

I've started a number of small companies and done fairly well, but I've never broken the bank the way these people have. But one thing I never had in all the years of being my own boss was the dread of Monday morning. Every week I saw the potential, the possibility of landing a big client or seeing an advertosement bring in a ton of new business. Even if those things didn't actually happen often, the possibility of them happening made work a gas, something I looked forward to instead of dreading. I highly recommend it.

In fact, I'm getting closer to taking that plunge again. (As fun as being an entrepreneur can be, it can also be exhausting and leave you in need of a break. Especially if you've done it more than once.) I'm scanning the business sections, checking out the Web to see what kinds of services people need. So far I'm thinking health care, but I'm not sure where the greatest needs are. But I'm open to other possibilities.

What business would you start?

Friday, April 07, 2006

Old Navy Gift Cards and Retirement Account Statement

No credit card offers in the mail today.

However, I did receive $100 worth of Old Navy gift cards thanks to my Chase Flexible Rewards credit card. I'm actually going to drop this card because I rarely use it anymore, so I decided to cash out my rewards and get some new clothes for the summer. Old Navy stuff doesn't last very long, but you can get a ton of stuff for $100, and I decided to go for quantity over quality.

I also got a statement from one of my retirement accounts--it went up 10% in the first quarter! Awesome. I haven't always been a great investor, but I did manage to find two mutual fund companies that are off the charts in the returns they've delivered. I won't name them because I don't want too much money hitting those funds and screwing it up for me, but I will say they are not household names, and I did my due diligence before picking them. So if you're looking for a mutual fund, look hard at past performance and think long-term--these funds aren't flavor-of-the-month funds. They look at the long-term and they deliver over the long term. There have been times when the markets have been great and my funds have been not-so-great, but they stick to their investment philospohies and it's paid off over and over again. I wish I was as smart as the people who run these funds, because they must be filthy rich themselves, and I am not, at least not so far.

Have a good weekend.

What's Wrong with the Chinese?

HSBC and Citigroup are jumping into the China market whole-hog, and they've signed up millions of new credit card customers. The problem is, the Chinese don't revolve balances. Seems their culture does not value going into debt. It's estimated only 2% of Chinese credit card customers revolve a balance, compared to 54% in the U.S.

The credit card companies are convinced they can train the Chinese to change their evil ways, and given the West's success at pushing American cultural norms into countries the world over, no doubt there will soon be a need for credit counselors throughout China. Actually I just might pursue that idea--it's the entrepreneurial brainstorm I've been waiting my whole life for.

Gotta go.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Today's Credit Card Offers + Other Mail

Well, today American Express sent me an offer for the Costco TrueEarnings Card. I received this same offer 13 days ago. It appears to be the exact same piece of mail--they must be pretty sure I want one of these cards.

Netflix also wants me, and says they can give me a deal as low as $7.99 per month. The best deal on their Web site is $9.99 per month, so I'm feeling special, but I'm not going to do it. I did it once before & I just don't have time to watch enough movies to make it worthwhile. I like sitting in theatres, too, and only watch so many movies at home. I guess I'm going against the trend that way.

I also received an offer of a home equity line of credit from my mortgage company.

The local school district also sent me a newsletter about what's up in the school district. My kid doesn't show up anywhere in this issue, so I'm tossing it.

Credit Scores Held Hostage

Michelle Singletary's talking today about the new VantageScore credit scoring system that the credit reporting agencies have cooked up to try to devise more uniform credit scores (right now there's a big variance from agency to agency). My boss has already given an opinion on the plusses and minuses of this system, so I won't bother, but Singletary actually spends more time in her column discussing how to make sure your credit report is accurate, and that's what I'd like to discuss.

Your credit scores are used by a variety of lenders to judge whether you get credit from them and at what rates. Credit cards are obviously one financial product that would use credit scores to determine rates, but more important are the rates you get on your home mortgage and to some extent your auto loans. So it's important to keep a good score.

Singletary talks about how to get your score fixed if credit agencies have the wrong info, and she says you need to go to the source -- namely, the financial institution or merchant that supplied the credit agency with the faulty info. And here's where the problem potentially comes in.

Suppose you send in your credit card payment 10 days before it's due but when your next bill comes you see a late payment fee on your statement. You call the credit card company and dispute the charge. The company says your payment didn't make it on time. You say "bullfeathers" and refuse to pay the fee and while you're at it, you tell them you want to cancel the card altogether. They say they'll cancel it just as soon as you pay that late fee otherwise it will stay open. And as long as you refuse to pay that late fee they'll keep your account open--to a certain extent holding your credit score hostage by continually telling the credit agencies that you are not paying your bill, even though you dispute the fact that the late fee should be on the account at all.

Do you think the next potential lender is going to be interested in this brouhaha or are they just going to look at your credit report and say "this one's untrustworthy" and turn you down or give you a crappy rate?

I'm not saying this happens very often, but I've had experiences like this where I just paid the fee because I didn't feel like putting up the fight and potentially damaging my credit. I felt taken advantage of, powerless.

There oughta be a law.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

In the Mailbag

No, this is not where I answer reader letters, mostly because no one has written me letters. This is where I look at my mail and tell you what I got.

First, credit cards. No new offers, exactly, but American Express wants me to take on additional Blue credit cards and hand them out to my family members to do with as they please, including, according to them, my daughter for a haircut, my spouse to buy dinner for the kids (I guess I don't eat), or the nanny to pick up diapers.

Huh? As Mr. T would say, I pity the fool that decides to get additional cards and hand them out to family members (and the nanny for God's sake!) as if they are toy poker chips. Say goodbye to your money and hello to bankruptcy court.

In other mail news, I received a bill from my accountant for doing my taxes. He's a pro, and does a good job (I think, really I only know that I haven't been audited yet, who knows otherwise, he could be robbing me blind). But the bill is high--thus my previous rant about taxes (and legal proceedings) becoming too complicated for anyone to do anything themselves any more, forcing us to pay others for what should be transparent exercises. OK, off the soapbox...

I got a little flyer with an ad for a ClearVue antenna booster that you simply plug into your TV or stereo for a crisper TV picture or better FM reception. Only $29.95. I'm always amazed when I get ads like this -- it looks like a product from 1975. No thanks.

I also got the Major League Baseball Spring Catalog, actually two of them for whatever reason. I love baseball, but I don't like to buy too many pro sports paraphernalia--as much I love watching the games, it's hard to let go of the fact that they are grossly overpaid. On the other hand, I'd hate to see my Cleveland Indians pack up and leave the way the Browns did a few years back. By the way, the White Sox just scored two in the sixth to go up on the Tribe 3-2. Cliff Lee had been pitching pretty well up until then. Indians have wasted a number of scoring opportunities.

What else... Ad from a furniture store, letter about my kid's 529 plan (which you should get one of if you have kids), local radio station promo, and a catalog for office furniture from Topdeq. Despite my annoyance at the spelling of Topdeq, it looks like decent stuff. I might take a closer look -- I don't need anything, but I like office furniture for some reason.

Until tomorrow...

Whose Fault Are Faulty Tax Returns?

A new study by the Government Accountability Office shows that commercial tax preparers, which seems to mean the storefront types versus individual CPAs, got 100% of tax returns wrong when the GAO went undercover to see how effective they were. The sample size was only 19 returns, of course, but nevertheless I suppose it's legitimate to guess that the numbers would be the same across all such preparers (well, maybe not the 100%--as soon as one preparer gets a return right that would blow the average).

The GAO wants consumers to be careful in how they choose tax preparers, which is good advice, but how about creating a tax code that isn't so complicated that we require professional tax preparers who can't even be trusted to get it right? How about making it possible for the average person to do their taxes without tearing out their hair?

There's a bad trend in this country toward forcing people to pay large sums of money to do things that common sense would tell you they should be able to do themselves.

Here's an example: this guy in Dallas set up a "fan" Web site about a local mall called the Shops at Willow Bend. He wasn't trying to make money from it or anything, just giving info about this new retail mall that he thinks is going to be cool. The mall developers come after him with their lawyers to shut down the site, and this guy doesn't like their hardball tactics, so he decides to fight them in court.

Problem is, he's not a lawyer and doesn't know how to file the myriad papers that a court of law requires for every single little maneuver that takes place, so he's flying blind, getting it wrong half the time and in danger of losing his case simply because he doesn't understand a process that the legal community has created to make it almost impossible to represent yourself in court.

I'm not against lawyers, and I certainly think using a lawyer in court would be smarter than not using a lawyer. But the fact that the legal system is set up in such a way that it is almost impossible to proceed without a lawyer (and they're not cheap if you haven't heard) is just plain wrong, just as a tax system that is so complicated that tax preparers themselves can't figure it out is wrong.

So the GAO can go to the Senate Finance Committee and smugly report their "a ha!" findings about tax preparers if they choose, but what they should be telling the Senate is that they've created a horrible system that forces people with no money to go sit in a storefront tax shop and pay someone to mess up their taxes a little less badly than they would mess them up if they did the taxes themselves.

I know, this blog is supposed to be about my credit card offers, but I can't help myself sometimes.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Yesterday's Mail

Yesterday's mail came a bit late but I got a lot of stuff, including a new credit card and my first credit card offer in about a week.

First off, I got my new Chase Cash Plus Rewards Visa (the names of these cards get longer and longer, just think if they sponsored a college bowl game with this card, it could be the Chase Cash Plus Rewards Visa Bowl). This card gives 5 points on gas, grocery and drug store purchases and 1 point on any other purchases, and you can turn the points into cash or use them for gift cards.

I'd been using the Amazon credit card because I like getting books and CDs as rewards, but this card actually gives me more flexibility--I can still use my rewards at Amazon if I want, but I can also get cash or get gift cards at places like Gap, Home Depot, Target, Marriott, Starbucks, etc. if I choose. It appears I only get the rewards every time I reach 5,000 points, but that's fine. I'll do that easy.

(My Amazon card gives me a $25 gift certificate at every 2,500 points, so I'd get the rewards faster, but I like the flexibility with this Cash Plus card. I might be saying goodbye to the Amazon card altogether. It's been a while since I've overhauled the cards I'm carrying.)

In other mail news, I got an offer from Universal Savings Bank for their Upfront Reward Visa. If you've never heard of this, it's sort of a strange card. You sign up for the card and get a free laptop computer--IF you transfer at least $5,000 from another card AND keep at least a $3,500 balance for at least 18 months. The APR I'm being offered is 9.99%--looking online it's possible you could be offered 10.99% or 11.99% as well.

My offer says I'd get a Dell Inspiron B120 Notebook Computer worth $850. Online you'll also find the choice of an IBM Thinkpad, an HP laptop, or a Dell desktop system.

It's not a horrible deal. It's tough to calculate this out, because you have to keep the $3,500 or above limit, but, using this calculator, I can see that if I float that $5000 balance for two years at 9.99% making minimum payments, I still only pay about $734, less than the computer is worth--but that doesn't take into account that making minimum payments (with no new purchases) would take me below the $3,500 threshold, head's starting to hurt. I'm just going to figure it's a wash--if I got this card I'd pay about the same in finance charges over that period as it would cost to just buy the laptop outright, but of course I'd get the laptop upfront (thus the card name), so that might be a bonus.

After you're allowed to completely pay off the card, though, there are no more rewards coming as far as I can tell, so then you have a card with fairly low interest but no other benefits. That is a pretty low rate, actually, but I don't know if you could initially forgo the laptop and just get the card for its interest rate without transferring any balances. Probably not. I don't have big balances, though, so this card's not for me anyway, so why am I wasting my time? (Oh, yeah, they're paying me to blog about my mail. Almost forgot.)

This is a long post, so I'm not going to talk about my other mail. If today's mail is slow, maybe I'll add in some interesting observations about my water bill to thrill you.

Monday, April 03, 2006

At What Age Is A "Card" Appropriate?

Michelle Singletary is not happy. The Washington Post personal finance writer had her 10-year-old daughter return from a birthday party requesting a prepaid Hello Kitty debit card like those she saw the birthday girl for presents. Singletary's response? No way.

I both agree and disagree with Singletary. I agree that the debit's card's fees make it a poor financial product -- there's no reason to spend $10 a month for the pleasure of having Hello Kitty on your card as a 10-year-old.

But Singletary's beef is more with the fact that these cards are like training wheels for credit cards, encouraging kids to join the plastic society that too often leads to burdensome debt. I see her point, but eventually most people do start to use credit cards, so at what age is it appropriate to use some sort of debit card as training wheels, or should they be forbidden until adulthood.

Singletary calls credit cards "evil" and the "plastic devil", so it's easy to see where she comes down.

I agree that no ten-year-old should be using plastic of any kind, but I'm not sure where the line is. Once college comes around, kids can get cards without their parents having anything to say about it. Is it better to let them have some experience with how credit (really, debit in most cases) works before they start charging pizza and textbooks?

Whaddya think?

Is Identity Theft Growing or Not?

The Justice Department put out a report yesterday saying that about 3% of Americans have been victims of identity theft in the recent past, a figure that is about a third of what another government study had said in the past. In February, Javelin Research did a survey that put the number at about 4 percent.

The Javelin study found that about half of identity theft victims actually knew the person who stole their info -- so the identity theft bogeyman might just as easily be your next-door neighbor who stops by for a cup of sugar (I know, no one does that anymore, but I couldn't think of another example very quickly) as a conniving meth addict hiding in the bushes trying to read your ATM PIN.

Of course 3% is a lot of people in actual numbers, so I'm not trying to underplay it, but is it really a problem that's getting worse? Or do certain media (especially local TV news programs in my experience) like to play it up as another one of their shocking revelations with reports titled "Hands Off My Pocketbook!" or "The Thief You Can't See"?

I've had credit cards stolen when I was a little careless, but the credit card companies make so much money off of their system that they're more than willing to let me lose my card every so often with absolutely no liability. It's a hassle digging up your account numbers and getting things reissued, but life's a hassle in general, so you take the good with the bad, at least IMO.

I guess your take on this might depend on whether you've been a victim of identity theft or not. Or how bad the identity theft was.

How about you? Have you been a victim? Was it a big deal or no?