You can now manage most aspects of your money without ever consulting another human being. You can budget, borrow, save, invest, buy insurance, prepare your tax return and create a will — among many other tasks — by using apps, websites and software.
But technology still has limitations, especially when you’re facing a money situation that’s complex or involves judgment calls. Consider consulting a human expert in the following situations:
1. You’re dropped by your homeowners insurance
Insurers typically can’t cancel a policy after 60 days unless you fail to pay premiums, commit fraud or make serious misrepresentations on your application, according to the Insurance Information Institute, a trade group. However, insurers can decide not to renew your policy when it expires.
With auto insurance, you often have many options after such a “non-renewal.” Even if you’ve had accidents or multiple claims, you typically can find coverage with companies that specialize in higher-risk drivers.
If a homeowners insurance company dumps you, however, you may have trouble finding coverage, says insurance consumer advocate Amy Bach. That’s especially true if you were dropped because you made too many claims, or your area is considered high risk because of wildfires, extreme weather or crime, for example.
How would other companies know? Insurers share such information in databases, and application forms typically ask if you’ve been “non-renewed” by another insurer, Bach says.
Bach’s nonprofit organization, United Policyholders, recommends seeking out an independent agent or broker who has relationships with several insurance companies. The agent or broker should know which insurers may be more receptive to your application and can put in a good word for you, Bach says. While most underwriting decisions are made by computers, there are still ways for human beings to override the algorithms.
“It will make a difference if [the agent or broker] can call an underwriter that they know and vouch for you as a good bet,” Bach says.
If your area has been labeled high risk, ask your neighbors for referrals to agents or brokers who helped them find coverage. Otherwise, you can ask an accountant, attorney or financial planner if they have recommendations. Friends and family may be able to provide leads as well.
2. You’re facing a “face-to-face” tax audit
Most IRS audits are conducted through the mail and are relatively routine. The IRS sends a letter requesting additional documentation to support a deduction or other tax break you’ve taken. If you mail back sufficient evidence, your case will be closed with no taxes owed. Otherwise, the IRS will mail you a bill.
However, if the IRS wants to meet with you, the stakes get much higher. In fiscal year 2020, the average amount of additional taxes recommended in face-to-face audits was nearly 10 times larger than the average for a correspondence audit: $72,210 versus $7,658, according to IRS statistics.
Even tax pros hire someone to represent them in face-to-face audits, says Leonard Wright, a San Diego certified public accountant and financial planner. Wright has plenty of experience: He was chief financial officer of a company that was audited, and his personal tax returns have been audited four times. In each case, he hired another CPA to represent him.
It’s all too easy to say something you shouldn’t when you’re under scrutiny, Wright says. You could volunteer information that might not be helpful to your case, or get defensive or confrontational.
“You don’t want it to become personal, and you don’t want to ruffle the feathers of the auditor,” Wright says.
If you used a tax preparer, you may assume that person can represent you in an audit, but that’s not always the case. Typically CPAs, attorneys and enrolled agents can represent clients in IRS audits, but other tax pros usually can’t. Your tax preparer may be able to refer you to someone who can represent you, or you can get referrals from friends, family or financial advisors.
3. You’re creating an estate plan
Will-making software and estate-planning sites can help you create essential legal documents if money is tight. Otherwise, you should probably consult an attorney, says Betsy Hannibal, senior legal editor for self-help legal site Nolo.
“Why not get personalized advice that’s tailored to your situation, if you can?” Hannibal says.
Getting help is particularly important if you need or want to do something complicated with your estate like putting conditions on a bequest, providing for someone with special needs or creating a trust, she says. You’ll also want an attorney’s help if you have a lot of debt, because there may be ways to protect your assets from creditors. Finally, consult an attorney if you think someone might contest your will. A lawyer can put additional protections into place and serve as a professional witness that you knew what you were doing, Bach says.
“If someone doesn’t think you were in your right mind, going through an attorney can help make sure that (a legal challenge) can’t go forward,” she says.
This article is meant to provide background information and should not be considered legal guidance.
This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by the Associated Press.
Find Out What Big Data Says About You — and Fix It
I thought I knew all about the information that consumer reporting agencies were collecting on me. Then I discovered The Work Number — a database that reports every paycheck I’ve received from my company, with net and gross amounts, going back to my hire date six years ago.
Another consumer reporting agency shows the results of a 2016 echocardiogram. (It was normal.) Yet another tracks insurance claims on my home and car. If I’d made too many returns at retail stores or bounced a check at a casino, that could show up in a database as well.
“Any data point that someone can track, there’s going to be a bureau or someone gathering information and selling that information,” says Matthew Loker, a consumer protection attorney in Arroyo Grande, California.
Unfortunately, not all the information being reported is accurate — and mistakes can have serious consequences. Loker says one of his clients lost a lucrative job offer because an employment screening company confused her with a drug smuggler. By the time the error was fixed, the position was filled. Other people have been denied insurance, apartments, bank accounts and government benefits because of database errors.
But discovering and correcting mistakes is no small task.
Dozens of companies are tracking us
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau maintains a list of consumer reporting agencies that’s currently 38 pages long. In addition to the big three credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — the list includes 22 employment screeners, 10 tenant screeners, six check and bank screeners, four insurance reporting agencies and two medical information companies, among others.
Checking all those reports would be a monumental task, says consumer advocate Chi Chi Wu, a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. Even narrowing down the options to the agency most likely to have relevant information can be tough, Wu says.
“Let’s say you’re applying for an apartment,” Wu says. “There are all these companies and you don’t know which one your landlord is going to use.”
You can ask the prospective landlord, of course, but by the time you spot and fix an error in the report, that apartment may be long since rented.
Pick your targets
Privacy advocate Evan Hendricks recommends you start by targeting some of the larger databases. For tenant screening, that could include RealPage or TransUnion SmartMove.
One of the largest consumer data aggregators is LexisNexis, which provides various types of background screening. The report you get back could be hundreds of pages long, detailing everything from traffic tickets and concealed weapons permits to the amount of every mortgage you’ve ever had, bankruptcies, tax liens, evictions and criminal records. LexisNexis also operates the Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange, or C.L.U.E., which collects and reports auto and personal property claims. You can request your comprehensive report at https://consumer.risk.lexisnexis.com/consumer.
If you’re employed, check The Work Number, which is owned by Equifax and has current payroll data for more than 136 million jobs. If your salary information is there — and it probably is — you’ll also see which companies and government agencies have checked it recently.
Government agencies also consult The Work Number files to fight unemployment fraud and determine eligibility for public benefits, among other uses. That alone is a good reason to check your file for errors, Wu says.
“People have been kicked off or risked being kicked off of benefits or accused of an overpayment because of The Work Number,” Wu says.
Request your ChexSystems report if you plan to open a new bank account or had problems with a previous account, such as not paying an overdraft fee or bouncing a check.
If you plan to apply for individual life, health, long-term care or disability insurance, request your files from MIB and Milliman IntelliScript. MIB collects information about medical conditions, while Milliman IntelliScript collects prescription drug purchase history.
What to do once you have your reports
You typically don’t have to pay to request your data, but you may have to wait to get it. Some companies allow you to see your files online, but many require you to submit a form or call a toll-free number to request a report. A company has 15 days to respond once it receives your request, the CFPB says.
If you find any errors, follow the company’s dispute process. If you can’t get the problem resolved, you can file a complaint with the CFPB.
A few companies — including the credit bureaus, RealPage, LexisNexis, ChexSystems and The Work Number — give you the option to freeze your reports. That generally prevents companies from accessing your data without your permission. Freezes can involve some hassle since you’ll have to keep track of a password or PIN, and a freeze could slow down credit or other applications. The trade-off is more privacy.
Speaking of credit bureaus: You’re currently allowed free weekly access to your credit reports through the end of the year. But many other consumer reporting agencies limit your free reports to one every 12 months. So mark your calendar, since checking your data for errors is likely to be a never-ending task.
Why You (and I) Should Name a ‘Trusted Contact’
The investing information provided on this page is for educational purposes only. NerdWallet does not offer advisory or brokerage services, nor does it recommend or advise investors to buy or sell particular stocks, securities or other investments.
For the past few years, financial services companies have been bugging me to name a “trusted contact.” Banks, brokerages and insurers increasingly want to have someone to call or email in case they notice suspicious activity and can’t reach the account holder.
I ignored these requests. Trusted contacts are a great idea for older people experiencing cognitive decline, I thought, but that’s not me.
Then a younger friend developed early-onset dementia, and I realized we don’t always get enough warning to put such protections in place.
Clearly, trusted contacts aren’t just good for older people. Anyone’s financial accounts could be vulnerable if they’re displaced by natural disaster, wind up in the hospital, suffer a brain injury or are traveling and hard to reach. Helping your brokerage, bank or insurer connect with someone who knows what’s going on in your life could protect your money and prevent financial catastrophe.
“I love the idea of the trusted contact, because it can really head off any fraud or exploitation before it snowballs out of control,” says Amanda Singleton, a family caregiving expert for AARP and an estate planning attorney in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Trusted contacts can’t make changes
Naming a trusted contact doesn’t give that person authority over your accounts or the ability to see balances or make changes, explains Gerri Walsh, senior vice president of investor education at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, known as FINRA. FINRA is the nongovernmental organization that regulates the securities industry, including brokerages.
Instead, your trusted contact can help financial services companies reach you (if you’re reachable) or identify others who might help. If you’re incapacitated, for example, your contact might connect the company to your legal guardian or the person with power of attorney over your accounts. If you’ve died, your trusted person could provide contact information for the executor of your estate or the successor trustee of your living trust.
You aren’t required to name a trusted contact, but financial services companies — along with regulators and consumer advocates — recommend it. You can change your trusted contact whenever you want, or name more than one. Ideally, a trusted contact is someone you’re confident will protect your privacy and act responsibly.
“It could be an adult child, a close friend, an attorney or some other trusted person that the financial institution can reach out to for extra help to try to reach you,” says Deborah Royster, assistant director for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Office for Older Americans.
A trusted contact could thwart fraud
The push to name trusted contacts started out of concern for older Americans being scammed out of their life savings. More than 369,000 cases of financial fraud of older adults are reported to authorities each year, causing an estimated $4.84 billion in losses, according to a January report by Comparitech, a cybersecurity research company.
But this kind of fraud is notoriously underreported, often because victims are embarrassed, worried that others will think them incapable, or protective of the perpetrators, who may be loved ones, caregivers or neighbors. Comparitech estimates the real toll may be 8.68 million cases and more than $113.7 billion in losses each year.
To help reduce that toll, two new FINRA rules were approved in 2017. The first allows brokerages to put temporary holds on withdrawals when financial exploitation is suspected, and the second requires brokerages to “make reasonable efforts” to get customers to name trusted contacts.
So far, other financial services companies such as banks, credit unions and insurers don’t have similar rules. Even so, some are offering the opportunity to name trusted contacts on accounts, Royster says.
Beware fraudulent email requests
One thing you shouldn’t do is respond to emails that seem to be from your financial institution asking you to name a trusted contact. Those may be scams to steal your passwords or create other havoc, FINRA’s Walsh says. Instead of replying to those emails, consider calling your financial institution or looking on its website for a form that lets you name a trusted contact.
If your financial institutions offer the option, it’s a relatively quick and easy way to add a layer of protection on your accounts, says Abby Schneiderman, co-founder and co-CEO of the end-of-life planning site Everplans and co-author of “In Case You Get Hit by a Bus: How to Organize Your Life Now for When You’re Not Around Later.”
“People should take two minutes out of their day and name a trusted contact,” Schneiderman says.
What Is a Crypto Interest Account?
This article provides information for educational purposes. NerdWallet does not offer advisory or brokerage services, nor does it recommend specific investments, including stocks, securities or cryptocurrencies.
Some cryptocurrency platforms, such as BlockFi and Gemini, have begun to offer a way to earn interest on crypto. The process has parallels with traditional savings accounts, and the rates can be eye-popping, with some in the double digits.
But like most crypto activities, there are big risks in losing more money than you earn with these accounts. Here’s a quick explainer on how crypto interest accounts work.
What is a crypto interest account?
A crypto interest account is generally a crypto platform’s offering that lets you earn interest on digital assets that you’ve bought. You agree to lend out Bitcoin or altcoins (any cryptocurrency that isn’t Bitcoin) in exchange for interest. This is similar to how savings accounts work at banks: You deposit money, then the bank lends it out and pays you back plus interest. You can generally take your money out anytime.
“It does work conceptually identical to how banking institutions lend money,” says Ryan Greiser, a certified financial planner in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
But the differences in rates and risk, among other factors, are huge.
7 things to know about crypto interest accounts
1. Rates can be astronomically high
The crypto firm BlockFi, for example, offers rates from 0.10% to 9.50% on its website, and the firm Celsius has several yields around 9% — with one nearly at 14% — for U.S. customers (there’s a 17% rate for non-U.S. customers). The best high-yield savings accounts, in contrast, tend to have interest rates closer to 0.50% annual percentage yield. And the national average rate for a regular savings account is 0.06%.
2. Returns over time are hard to compare
With traditional savings accounts, everything is in U.S. dollars so you can estimate the total possible interest you can earn in a year, assuming a rate doesn’t change. When browsing a crypto firm’s rates, however, you might be looking at dozens of digital assets with varying levels of volatility. It’s good to be familiar with at least two broad types of digital assets:
Native cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum can have daily fluctuations in value.
Stablecoins such as USD Coin are a type of cryptocurrency with value that is pegged to the U.S. dollar or another real asset.
3. Withdrawal fees and limits may apply
Watch out for fees that may vary by cryptocurrency and might not be listed in U.S. dollars. Also, check for any minimum or maximum withdrawal amounts. Some crypto firms offer different types of access:
Flexible terms have no constraints on when you can withdraw.
Fixed terms require agreeing to not access funds for a period, generally a few months. These fixed-term yields have parallels to certificates of deposit, a type of savings account where you lock up funds in exchange for a higher rate. (If the idea of locking up crypto for more rewards appeals to you, you may also be interested in crypto staking, which involves helping to verify valid crypto transactions on a blockchain network.)
4. Crypto has big risks
Risks include but aren’t limited to:
No deposit insurance: Crypto interest accounts are not insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, so if a firm goes bankrupt, there’s no government guarantee that you can get funds (including interest) back.
Default risk: What if a borrower can’t pay you back? Greiser recommends understanding what measures a crypto exchange is taking in case borrowers default on their crypto loans (which might be using the crypto you’re lending). Crypto exchange Gemini, for example, explains on its site how it’s regulated by the New York government and how it vets borrowers’ risk management processes.
Digital assets can lose value, and some can go extinct: There are more than 13,000 cryptocurrencies, according to market research website CoinMarketCap.com, and it’s unlikely they’ll all go up in value over time. Some might even go away completely. You can find “dead coins,” or previous crypto that went out of circulation, on websites such as Coinopsy and Deadcoins.
5. Regulation of crypto interest accounts is underway
In September, Coinbase — the biggest U.S. crypto exchange — canceled its launch of a lending product that would earn interest for customers. This action occurred after Coinbase received notice that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission threatened to sue, though the reason wasn’t clear, Coinbase wrote in a blog post. In addition, securities regulators in two states have ordered BlockFi to stop opening new interest accounts for customers, according to BlockFi’s website. There’s likely more regulation to come, which could affect the usage of these accounts.
6. Not all crypto firms work in all states
BlockFi’s and Crypto.com’s platforms, for example, aren’t available to New Yorkers, though the accounts are options in most states.
7. Crypto is not for everyone
Greiser says the person who has the right risk appetite, time horizon and willingness to do their own due diligence and research may consider crypto interest accounts. In doing research, you’ll likely need to learn various technical processes, such as how to transfer crypto between platforms or from a crypto wallet outside a platform and how to report crypto earnings or losses for taxes. If you’re just getting started, consider these three questions before buying cryptocurrency.
The author owned Bitcoin and Ether at the time of publication. NerdWallet is not recommending or advising readers to buy or sell Bitcoin or any other cryptocurrency.