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What I want for Christmas: No more robocalls, a credit bureau butt-kicking, crackdown on scam artists: Money Matters

December 24, 2017

What I want for Christmas: No more robocalls, a credit bureau butt-kicking, crackdown on scam artists: Money Matters

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- It’s time for my 13th annual “What I want for Christmas” list. Some wishes from Christmases past have come true:

Equifax, TransUnion and Experian have come under greater scrutiny to protect people’s privacy and make sure the information they provide to lenders is as accurate as possible.

Most major credit cards now provide customers with their credit score every month at no charge as standard procedure.

Most major retailers have finally -- a year after they should have -- shifted to payment terminals that accept credit and debit cards with EMV chips, which better protect consumers.

Mortgage documents have become straight-forward and easier to understand.

And more children are finally being taught a little bit of personal finance in school.

But unfortunately, my Christmas wish list is still really, really long this year.

I wish:

* All landline and cellphone companies would offer some kind of technology so that customers would have the option of blocking all calls not coming from a live person -- almost all robocalls are unwanted marketing calls or attempts to defraud people. The Federal Communications Commission has said robocalls and telemarketing calls are the No. 1 source of consumer complaints at the FCC.

* People who buy something on sale would realize they’re not “saving money.” Perhaps they’re spending less than they’d planned. But they’re spending money, not saving it. The retail industry has brainwashed us.

* All of us would work harder to educate our friends and relatives about not falling for hoaxes like sweepstakes and “work-at-home opportunities” that involve counterfeit checks. Also, we can’t caution people often enough to avoid calls and emails that trick people into providing personal information.

* Regulators would use the Equifax data breach debacle (personal information of 145.5 million people stolen) as motivation to figure out some things: Why is so much information about a person kept in one place? (We’re talking name, address, Social Security number, date of birth, names of every past employer and past addresses, all credit and loan accounts, etc.) Why aren’t all people’s credit files required to be frozen by default? Why is it so easy for an entity to access the information, even legally? Why don’t we have virtual or one-time use Social Security numbers?

* The nation’s personal savings rate would return to 10 percent, as it was in 2012, when people were still really nervous about the economy. Now, the personal savings rate is about 3.2 percent. In May of 1975, it was 17 percent. So 10 percent isn’t too big of an ask.

* Visa and MasterCard didn’t have policies that prohibit retailers from requiring shoppers to show their driver’s license or other official ID. It would help stop a lot of fraud. Not all. But a lot.

* American Express hadn’t adopted a policy this month that said customers no longer have to sign credit card receipts. Not that signatures mean a whole lot because cashiers usually don’t check them against the back of the card. But a signature ups the game. I think this new practice is harmful to American Express customers. Oh, but maybe this saves you three seconds in the check-out line.

* Banks and other financial companies would care more that some people don’t have computers or don’t want to access their accounts online or through their smartphones.

* People weren’t hired as telephone customer-service workers if they can’t be understood.

* The Federal Communications Commission reined in abusive billing by Verizon and other wireless carriers.

* Consumers would realize that banks aren’t nonprofits. They are companies that need to make more money than they spend. And they have the right to charge some fees -- like monthly maintenance fees -- as long as they’re clearly disclosed up front. If you don’t like the fees, take your business elsewhere. There are more than 6,000 banks and about the same number of credit unions.

* Equifax, TransUnion and Experian could not add information -- good or bad -- to someone’s credit file based just on his or her name and region. Yes, this happens all of the time, even though Social Security numbers don’t match, dates of birth don’t match, actual addresses don’t match, etc. No other matching info besides the name. How is this allowed?

* Regulators and consumer protection folks could figure out how to really crack down on scams, especially ones targeting seniors, and especially ones that come by way of telephone.

* Banks and retailers would take fraud more seriously. If our credit or debit cards are used fraudulently, somebody pays for it. Ultimately, it’s all of us who pay it in the form of higher prices in stores, reduced customer service and higher fees.

* The credit bureaus (Equifax, TransUnion and Experian) provided consumers their genuine FICO credit scores at no charge anytime they receive a free copy of their credit report. In 2003, Congress passed the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act, which forced the three credit bureaus to provide consumers with their credit report at no charge once a year if they ask. The law should be amended to include credit scores.

* Consumers weren’t conditioned to believe the commercials that “for everything else, there’s MasterCard.”

* The just-passed federal tax reform would really lower my taxes, as long as the cuts aren’t financed by borrowing more money from China. I’d love to see a bigger paycheck, especially since my colleagues and I haven’t had a raise in 11 years.

* Motorists had to show proof of insurance to renew their auto registration. And people busted for no insurance would have to pay their premium for a whole year up-front to get their licenses back.

* I could be assured that my sons and pre-school-age niece will live in more prosperous times than I.

* Debit cards carried the same federal protection as credit cards. No matter what your bank says, they don’t. Your bank will do anything to convince you that I’m wrong, but I’m not. Most of the “protections” are voluntary, not mandatory. Ask your bank about what debit card protections are mandated by law, compared with the credit card protections mandated by law. The conversation will probably be short.

* Schools would adopt specific requirements for what they teach about personal finance. They all should teach how to budget money, read an apartment lease and other common contracts, understand compound interest and shop for a mortgage.

* Companies weren’t allowed to advertise scams like 10 percent, no-risk investments.

* Teens and adults could count money correctly and make change in their heads. If your bill is $13.51, for example, you should know you can give the cashier $20.01 with the intention of getting $6.50 in change.

* All consumers who are able would pay their bills on time.

* The U.S. government would learn the same lesson that so many consumers have: Debt is expensive. Occasional debt is OK, but you have to live within your means.

* Merchants weren’t continuing to encourage people -- even beg people -- to open credit card accounts at the checkout register. Target, Amazon and Sears are big offenders.

* There were more honest people in the world.

* Publicly traded companies weren’t allowed to cite “pro forma” results -- otherwise known as the profits they would have had if not for unusual expenses. I’d have more money, too, if we hadn’t been walloped by thousands of dollars in car repairs this year, if my washer and dryer hadn’t croaked within eight months of each other, and if I wasn’t required to take two weeks’ worth of unpaid furlough days each year.

* Annuities were better regulated.

* Companies would be more respectful of our privacy, namely by better guarding our sensitive information, home addresses and phone numbers.

* Companies weren’t allowed to significantly change retirement benefits for people who have already retired.

* People wouldn’t whine about being broke even though they lease an expensive SUV worth more than my first house, have a smart TV that links to their Apple Watch and iPhone 8, plus have a cigarette habit that costs them $6 a day.

Murray is The Plain Dealer’s personal-finance writer. Because of the volume of requests, she cannot help everyone who contacts her.

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