Investors, savers and borrowers have been pummeled by financial institutions. But we have ways for you to fight back…
Bottom Line/Wealth asked four top financial experts how you can fight back when a financial institution misleads you…
Big banks tell you: Our recent mega-merger is really good for you.
Reality: Big banks are more likely to impose lofty fees and stiff requirements while offering lower rates on savings than many small banks and credit unions. And many of the big banks are raising various fees in response to the financial crisis. That can hurt. For instance, banks overall are charging an average of $29 for a bounced check, up 34% from a decade ago, and overdraft fees are expected to jump to as high as $40 in 2009.
To fight back: Ask for your bank’s schedule of fees, and pay special attention to notices that terms are changing. Federal law requires banks to mail these notices to customers and post a notice in the lobby of each branch 30 days before the change goes into effect. Also ask whether your bank will send e-mail or cell-phone alerts whenever your account balances fall below a specified level. Many do.
Consider shifting your banking to another financial institution, such as a smaller bank, an online bank, a credit union or even a brokerage firm, such as Fidelity Investments or Charles Schwab. Fidelity and Schwab both offer checking accounts that pay interest, reimburse ATM fees, let you direct-deposit your salary and have no minimum-balance requirement.
To find an institution that will charge less than a big bank — and possibly treat you better — check www.bankrate.com, which compares interest rates on certificates of deposit (CDs) and evaluates institutions for financial soundness, and www.findacreditunion.com. Once you’ve chosen a new institution, ask it for a switch kit, offered online by most banks and credit unions to make the shift easy. These kits include forms to close your old bank account and redirect your direct deposits and automatic withdrawals to your new one.
Source: Robert D. Manning, PhD, is professor of consumer finance at Rochester Institute of Technology and director of the Center for Consumer Financial Services, both in Rochester, New York. He is author of Credit Card Nation: The Consequences of America’s Dangerous Addiction to Credit (Basic Books). www.creditcardnation.com.
Insurance companies tell you: We’re forced to hike your home-owner’s rates because of disastrous weather and large claims around the country in recent years.
Reality: Homeowner’s premiums since 2003 have soared — for example, up 50% in Massachusetts and 21% in California. That’s partly because insurers have changed the way that they assess risk. Now, instead of basing your rates on the odds of a disaster occurring over a 30- to 100-year period, the new models base risk probability on the past five years. With that methodology, two destructive hurricanes or blizzards in a five-year period raise your probability of future risk — and your premiums — more than if the same events had been averaged over a 30- to 100-year period.
To fight back: Insurers share information with one another from a database called the Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange (CLUE). It keeps track of every claim you make. But as with credit reports, lots of errors find their way into your CLUE report, which in turn can raise your rates. Order your free CLUE report at www.choicetrust.com. Dispute mistakes at www.consumerdisclosure.com.
Source: J.D. Howard is executive director of the Insurance Consumer Advocate Network, an insurance consumer advocacy organization in Branson West, Missouri (www.ican2000.com). Howard has worked in the insurance industry since 1965, mainly as an insurance adjuster.
Brokerage firms tell you: Your broker has left our firm, so we’re assigning you a great new one.
Reality: If you don’t have a large, important account at your brokerage house, you probably will wind up with a broker who is not very experienced or talented.
To fight back: You pick the broker. First, decide whether you value your old broker enough to follow him/her to the new brokerage. If you decide not to move, ask your departing broker which broker he would use at your current firm. Check your prospective broker’s employment, educational, financial and criminal backgrounds and whether there have been any customer complaints. You can do this for free through the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (800-289-9999 or www.finra.org/investors — click on “Tools & Calculators” then “BrokerCheck”).
Interview the new broker. Find out if you have similar investment philosophies. Ask how he would alter your portfolio. Then ask the branch manager to assign you to your chosen broker. Most will comply.
Source: John Gannon is the senior vice president for investor education at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) in Washington, DC, which oversees 5,000 brokerage firms. www.finra.org.
529 COLLEGE SAVINGS PLANS
Plan marketers tell you: A 529 college savings plan offers tax breaks plus great flexibility.
Reality: The IRS limits you to just one change in your investment choices per calendar year, even in a volatile market like the current one.
To fight back: If you want to make an additional change in your investment choices, transfer your account to a similar 529 plan in a different state… or switch the beneficiary on the plan to another child who will go to college, which allows you to shift investment choices… or cash out your 529 if it’s worth less than the amount you put in. You’ll owe no federal taxes or penalties because they’re assessed only on earnings.
Careful: If you took a state tax deduction for your contributions, you may have to pay state income tax now.
If you do have losses in the plan, you may be able to deduct them on your federal income tax return by withdrawing all assets from the account. The loss can be claimed among your “miscellaneous itemized deductions.” These also include items such as legal, investment and employee business expenses, and their total is deductible to the extent that it exceeds 2% of your adjusted gross income.
Caution: No deduction for such miscellaneous items is allowed under the alternative minimum tax. Consult your tax adviser.