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Tips for Getting Your Home Ready for Fall

by Alexandra Zega

Now that summer is beginning to wind down and cooler weather is on its way, it’s time to get some of the routine home maintenance out of the way before it gets too cold. If you don’t prepare your home in the fall season, and clean up the yard, when spring comes along, you could be left with an unsightly mess. Lisa Udy, a Realtor in Utah offers the following tips to prepare your home for the cold months ahead.

Clean out the rain gutters – If you have rain gutters on your home, fall is the best time to get them cleaned. Cleaning rain gutters isn’t that difficult of a task, it’s just a tedious one. The easiest way to get rid of the junk is to use a high pressure hose, and then use a small trowel to get rid of the rest of the debris. Once you have gotten rid of all the debris, give your gutters a final spray.

Take care of your pots and planters – If you’re like most homeowners, you have some planters or potted plants sitting around the yard. Before it gets too cold, be sure to empty the dirt out of any pots or planters and put them in a place where they won’t freeze. If you don’t empty or store your planters, there’s a good chance they will either crack or fall apart.

Rake the leaves – Keeping your yard free of leaves is an important task for homeowners. If you have numerous trees in your yard and piles of leaves that you don’t take care of, you might find that your grass is dead once spring arrives. Leaves can smother your lawn and replacing a lawn can cost a lot of money, so it’s a good rule of thumb to get rid of the leaves in the fall.

Weed and feed the lawn – The best time to weed and feed the lawn is in the fall. If you add weed killer in the fall, the weeds will store the poison in their roots during the winter season, and will prevent a breakout in the spring. By feeding your lawn with fertilizer in the fall, you are promoting healthy root growth, and this will help your lawn grow greener and faster in the spring.

Give your tools a tune-up – Once you have finished your fall maintenance chores, make sure you clean your tools and store them in a dry place so they will be in working order once spring arrives. Be sure to store metal shovels with the head upwards, as this will help detour rusting when it dries. Sheers need to be oiled up, wheel barrels should be left upside down and don’t forget to spray off the underside of the lawnmower.


(c) RISMEDIA, Paige Tepping


13 Things An Identity Thief Won't Tell You

by Alexandra Zega

Interviews by Michelle Crouch - Reader's Digest Magazine

Former identity thieves confess the tactics they use to scam you.

1. Watch your back. In line at the grocery store, I’ll hold my phone like I’m looking at the screen and snap your card as you’re using it. Next thing you know, I’m ordering things online—on your dime.

2. That red flag tells the mail carrier—and me—that you have outgoing mail. And that can mean credit card numbers and checks I can reproduce.

3. Check your bank and credit card balances at least once a week. I can do a lot of damage in the 30 days between statements.

4. In Europe, credit cards have an embedded chip and require a PIN, which makes them a lot harder to hack. Here, I can duplicate the magnetic stripe technology with a $50 machine.

5. If a bill doesn’t show up when it’s supposed to, don’t breathe a sigh of relief. Start to wonder if your mail has been stolen.

6. That’s me driving through your neighborhood at 3 a.m. on trash day. I fill my trunk with bags of garbage from different houses, then sort later.

7. You throw away the darnedest things—preapproved credit card applications, old bills, expired credit cards, checking account deposit slips, and crumpled-up job or loan applications with all your personal information.

8. If you see something that looks like it doesn’t belong on the ATM or sticks out from the card slot, walk away. That’s the skimmer I attached to capture your card information and PIN.

9. Why don’t more of you call 888-5-OPTOUT to stop banks from sending you preapproved credit offers? You’re making it way too easy for me.

10. I use your credit cards all the time, and I never get asked for ID. A helpful hint: I’d never use a credit card with a picture on it.

11. I can call the electric company, pose as you, and say, “Hey, I thought I paid this bill. I can’t remember—did I use my Visa or MasterCard? Can you read me back that number?” I have to be in character, but it’s unbelievable what they’ll tell me.

12. Thanks for using your debit card instead of your credit card. Hackers are constantly breaking into retail databases, and debit cards give me direct access to your banking account.

13. Love that new credit card that showed up in your mailbox. If I can’t talk someone at your bank into activating it (and I usually can), I write down the number and put it back. After you’ve activated the card, I start using it.

13 More Things An Identity Thief Won't Tell You 

1. My least-favorite credit card? American Express, because it likes to ask me for your zip code.

2. Your unlocked mailbox is a gold mine. I can steal your account numbers, use the convenience checks that come with your credit card statement, and send in pre-approved credit offers to get a card in your name. Stealing mail is easy. Sometimes, I act like I’m delivering flyers. Other times, I just stand there and riffle through it. If I don’t look suspicious, your neighbors just think I’m a friend picking up your mail.

3. Even with all the new technology, most of us still steal your information the old-fashioned way: by swiping your wallet or purse, going through your mail, or Dumpster diving.

4. I dig through Dumpsters in broad daylight. If anyone asks (and no one does), I just say my girlfriend lost her ring, or that I may have thrown my keys away by mistake.

5. One time I was on the run and needed a new identity so I went through a hospital Dumpster and found a statement with a Puerto Rican Social Security number for a Manuel Rivera. For a good two years after that, I was Manuel Rivera. I had his name on my apartment, on my paychecks and, of course, on my credit cards.

6. Is your Social Security number on your driver’s license or  your checks, or is it your account number for your health insurance? Dumb move.

7. When I send out e-mails “phishing” for personal information by posing as a bank or online merchant, I often target AOL customers. They just seem less computer literate—and more likely (I hope) to fall for my schemes.

8. I never use my home computer to buy something with a credit card that’s not mine. That’s why you can often find me at the public library.  

9. If you use the same ATM every time, you’re a lot more likely to notice if something changes on the machine, like the skimmer I installed.

10. Sometimes I pose as a salesman and go into a small office. After I make my pitch, I ask the secretary to make me a copy. Since most women leave their purses on the floor by their chairs, as soon as they leave the room, I grab their wallet. I also check the top and bottom right-hand drawers of their desks, where I often find company checks.

11. How much is your information worth? I can buy stolen account information—your name, address, credit card number, and more—for $10 to $50 per account from hackers who advertise on more than a dozen black market web sites.

12. Hey, thanks for writing your PIN number on that little slip of paper in your wallet. I feel like I just won the lottery.

13. Sure, it may be nice not to have to put in your password when you use an unsecured Wi-Fi connection. But know this: We have software that can scoop up all the data your computer transmits, including your passwords and other sensitive information.

Sources: Former identity thieves in Kentucky, Florida, Indiana, Virginia, and New York

FHA Launches Short Refi Opportunity for Underwater Homeowners

by Alexandra Zega

RISMEDIA, August 9, 2010--In an effort to help responsible homeowners who owe more on their mortgage than the value of their property, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development  provided details on the adjustment to its refinance program which was announced earlier this year that will enable lenders to provide additional refinancing options to homeowners who owe more than their home is worth. Starting September 7, 2010, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) will offer certain ‘underwater’ non-FHA borrowers who are current on their existing mortgage and whose lenders agree to write off at least ten percent of the unpaid principal balance of the first mortgage, the opportunity to qualify for a new FHA-insured mortgage.

The FHA Short Refinance option is targeted to help people who owe more on their mortgage than their home is worth – or ‘underwater’ – because their local markets saw large declines in home values. Originally announced in March, these changes and other programs that have been put in place will help the Administration meet its goal of stabilizing housing markets by offering a second chance to up to 3 to 4 million struggling homeowners through the end of 2012.

“We’re throwing a life line out to those families who are current on their mortgage and are experiencing financial hardships because property values in their community have declined,” said FHA Commissioner David H. Stevens. “This is another tool to help overcome the negative equity problem facing many responsible homeowners who are looking to refinance into a safer, more secure mortgage product.”

FHA published a mortgagee letter to provide guidance to lenders on how to implement this new enhancement. Participation in FHA’s refinance program is voluntary and requires the consent of all lien holders. To be eligible for a new loan, the homeowner must owe more on their mortgage than their home is worth and be current on their existing mortgage. The homeowner must qualify for the new loan under standard FHA underwriting requirements and have a credit score equal to or greater than 500. The property must be the homeowner’s primary residence. And the borrower’s existing first lien holder must agree to write off at least 10% of their unpaid principal balance, bringing that borrower’s combined loan-to-value ratio to no greater than 115%.

In addition, the existing loan to be refinanced must not be an FHA-insured loan, and the refinanced FHA-insured first mortgage must have a loan-to-value ratio of no more than 97.75 percent. Interested homeowners should contact their lenders to determine if they are eligible and whether the lender agrees the write down a portion of the unpaid principal.

To facilitate the refinancing of new FHA-insured loans under this program, the U.S. Department of Treasury will provide incentives to existing second lien holders who agree to full or partial extinguishment of the liens. To be eligible, servicers must execute a Servicer Participation Agreement (SPA) with Fannie Mae, in its capacity as financial agent for the United States, on or before October 3, 2010.

8 Steps to Prevent ID Theft

by Alexandra Zega

provided by

ID theft is real but overhyped by companies selling pricey services. These eight steps can secure your identity for less.

After trending downward for four years, identity theft is on the rise again. Last year more than 11 million consumers were hit by the crime. That's a record, according to Javelin Strategy and Research, a California company that has surveyed 5,000 adults on the subject every year since 2003. The jump is partly a result of the recession, Javelin says, when fraud tends to spike.

But you don't need to sign up for expensive services offered by credit-reporting bureaus and other companies to keep your identity safe. Most of their products are unnecessary or ineffective, or they duplicate things you can do yourself -- free. Our own assessment of some two dozen identity-theft protection products crowding the market found dubious value. Here's how to protect yourself.

1. Get Serious, Not Scared

Don't let the horror stories freak you out. The worst-case scenario -- where someone opens new credit-card accounts or commits other crimes using your name, Social Security number, or other information -- is relatively uncommon. That nightmare happened to less than 1 percent of all U.S. households in 2005, according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Justice. Half of that group resolved the problem, usually in less than a day to two weeks.

The most common form of ID theft isn't even what most people think of as ID theft. It's old-fashioned credit-card fraud and check-kiting, with someone fraudulently accessing your credit- or debit-card account. It affects about 4 percent of households. What's more, in most cases, your liability is legally limited, and credit-card issuers or banks pay the direct losses, not you. Most victims suffered no out-of-pocket costs last year; those who did lost only $373 on average, half the amount lost in 2007, Javelin says. That's well below the $1 million to $2 million guarantees that many identity-theft protection services trumpet to suggest that your losses could be catastrophic.

You can protect yourself by taking these low-tech, common-sense precautions:

• Never give your Social Security number or other information to strangers who call, text, or send e-mail messages to you, even if they seem legitimate, as with phony "phishing" e-mail that looks like it comes from your bank. And don't write your Social Security number on checks (except those you send to the IRS), noncredit applications, or other forms.

• Never leave your wallet or purse unattended. Don't carry your Social Security card, rarely used credit cards, or written PINs or passwords.

• Store financial account statements, medical records, and tax filings in a secure place at home, especially if you let workers or others inside, and shred those documents when you no longer need them.

• Don't post your date of birth, mother's maiden name, first pet's name, or other personal information on websites like Facebook, Flickr, Friendster, LinkedIn, MySpace, or Twitter. They're often used to verify your identity and could allow an imposter electronic access to your accounts.

• If your bank or credit-card issuer offers free online or mobile alerts that will warn you of suspicious account activity as soon as it's detected, sign up for them. The alerts are different from the expensive credit-monitoring services that banks also sell. (You don't need those.)

2. Place Security Freezes and Fraud Alerts

You can shut out ID thieves before they cause damage by placing a security freeze on your credit reports at all three major credit bureaus: Equifax (NYSE: EFX - News); Experian; and Transunion. It will prevent anyone from looking at your credit report except for the companies that already have a financial relationship with you, certain government agencies, and other exempt entities. To sign up for one, go to each bureau's home page and look for the security-freeze link.

If a lender can't pull your credit report, it isn't likely to grant new credit to someone else in your name. So a security freeze is an excellent deterrent against fraud. But like all deterrents, it isn't fail-safe. "Some creditors, such as payday lenders, will give credit without getting a credit report," says Rebecca Kuehn, assistant director of the Federal Trade Commission's division of privacy and identity protection.

If you haven't placed a security freeze and you spot a sign of identity theft, put an initial fraud alert on your credit report immediately. That's fast, free, and stays in place for 90 days. It also gives you additional legal protection. After that, request a security freeze.

Prospective lenders are supposed to see a fraud alert on your credit file and call you to find out whether the application is legitimate. Filing a fraud alert is appropriate anytime your identity information is compromised, such as when your wallet, cell phone, or computer is lost or stolen, or if your home or car is broken into. But you should also do it after more-subtle warning signs, such as finding unauthorized charges on your credit-card statement (even if quickly resolved) or failing to receive expected bills or mail.

Fraud alerts are free; security freezes typically cost $5 to $10 per person per credit bureau each time you place or temporarily lift one. Prices range from free to $20 depending on state law. But if you're a victim of ID fraud, freezes are usually free. You can initiate a freeze online directly with each credit bureau; for fraud alerts, you only need to inform one bureau, which will pass the request on to the other two.

3. Secure Your Devices

If you access the Internet on your computer, you probably already know about the need for a firewall; regularly updated anti-virus, anti-spyware, and anti-phishing software; and strong passwords with upper- and lower-case letters, numerals, and symbols like #, &, and $. But you might not think about other wide-open doors to your identity. Make sure your smart phone, iPad, other mobile devices, and portable flash drives containing personal data have security applications and encryption in case they're lost or stolen.

4. Keep an ID-Theft File

Because identity theft is now a fact of life, it's a good idea to set up a folder for certain documents and data and keep it in a secure place. Include credit reports, security-freeze documents and passwords, copies of annual privacy notices, security-breach notices, and potential ID-theft evidence, such as mail to your address in someone else's name. This is also the place to keep photocopies of the contents of your wallet -- the front and back of your driver's license, credit cards, club membership cards, etc. -- in case it's lost or stolen.

5. Review All Your Personal Data Files

Check your credit report periodically for items that you don't recognize -- such as accounts, judgments, liens, collections, bankruptcies, and other possible footprints of identity theft -- and dispute all erroneous and fraudulent information. Under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, you're entitled to one free copy of your credit report every year from each of the big three credit bureaus. Stagger your requests so that you'll get your file from one of them every four months.

You should order your free reports at You're also entitled to an additional free report from each bureau whenever you place an initial fraud alert on your credit report.

Other data brokers keep files on you. Irregularities could mean someone is using your ID to work, tap your health benefits, rent homes, or write bad checks. You have a right to free copies each year and to dispute errors in them.

6. Stop Unsolicited Credit-Card Offers

One way crooks steal your name is by swiping preapproved credit offers from your mailbox to open an account. They can then watch your mailbox to lift the new card you didn't know was coming. You can stop credit bureaus from selling your name to lenders by going to or calling 888-567-8688. Opting out should stop most offers, and it's free.

Other credit offers might come from affiliates of financial services companies that already have a business relationship with you. You can stop them by paying attention to the annual privacy rights notices you get from banks, brokers, and other financial companies and exercising your right under federal law to prevent them from "sharing" (translation: "selling") your information with affiliates and others. Do the same with retailers and websites.

7. Monitor Accounts Often

It's no longer enough to wait for your monthly credit-card or checking account statement to look for suspicious activity. For added protection, sign up for online access to your accounts and check them regularly, even daily. "Almost a third of victims told us they became aware of an identity theft when they noticed missing money from an account," says Katrina Baum, acting division director and senior statistician at the National Institute of Justice. "What this tells me is that it really behooves consumers to be vigilant about checking their financial statements and paying attention to their account activity."

And don't assume that the paper checks listed are legit. Crooks can tap into your funds using fabricated checks with a fictitious name, address, and bank -- as long as they use your real account number.

Monitor your telephone bills (landline and cellular) to find any unauthorized "cramming" charges for phony services and purchases. As cell phones increasingly become mobile payment devices, fraudulent charges are showing up there, too.

8. Respond Rapidly

If you suspect you've been a victim of identity theft, act quickly. Immediately contact your creditors and financial institutions to report unauthorized charges or debits, and close any compromised accounts. Place fraud alerts and security freezes, and get your credit reports from all three credit bureaus so you can review them for irregularities. File a report with your local police and the FTC, and step up your own account monitoring. Chances are good that these actions will resolve the problem in relatively short order and at little or no cost.

Don't let the incident scare you into signing up for identity-theft protection or credit-monitoring services -- unless they're free, which is often the case for a limited time after corporate or government data breaches. Make sure a breach notice is not an identity-theft trick itself, and remember to cancel the subscription when the free period runs out

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