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Pros and cons of RightTrack or SnapShot devices

Insurance companies are starting to offer discounts if you plug one of their devices, often called a RightTrack or SnapShot, into your car’s ODB2 port.

One of my college buddies asked me about them when his insurance company offered his family a 5% discount to plug these into their cars, and then make them eligible for up to another 25%. Those are compelling numbers. So what are the potential drawbacks?

Read More »Pros and cons of RightTrack or SnapShot devices

Another breach, more credit-card advice

So Minnesota-based Supervalu, an operator of grocery stores, had a data breach in the midwest last week. If you’ve shopped at Cub Foods, Farm Fresh, Hornbacher’s, Shop ’n Save, Shoppers Food and Pharmacy, or former Supervalu chains Albertsons and Jewel-Osco between the dates of June 22 and July 17, and you paid with a credit or debit card, call your credit card company or bank.

If you need a new card, it’s much faster to let them know than for them to try to figure it out. And in the meantime, continue to use the card for everyday purchases to establish normal behavior. Don’t run up debt, but you want to establish where you are, so if someone buys the card info and tries to use it, it will stick out. And if their small transaction did happen to go through and they tried a larger one, it’s a little less likely to go through if you’ve run the balance up a little. These are little things you can do to make things harder for the criminals and easier for the banks, and potentially make it easier for the authorities to find the criminals.

Why the Target data breach news keeps getting worse, and what you need to do

As you probably know, last year some still-unknown criminals stole a whole bunch of credit and debit card data from Target. And the story keeps changing. First there weren’t any PINs. Then they got the PINs, but no personally identifiable data. Well, the latest news indicates they got credit card numbers, names, addresses, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and for a whole lot more people, and probably from a longer length of time than just late November to mid-December.

There are a few things you ought to do if you shop at Target, which many people do.Read More »Why the Target data breach news keeps getting worse, and what you need to do

Cutting through the fluff around the Target PIN breach

OK, so Target is back in the news, and it’s nowhere nearly as bad this time but there’s some posturing and some fluff in the news, so I’ll take it upon myself to demystify some of it. Some of it’s PR fluff, and some of it’s highly technical, so I’ll cut through it.

I’m just glad–I guess–to be talking about this stuff outside of a job interview. Like I said, this time the news isn’t nearly as bad as it could be.Read More »Cutting through the fluff around the Target PIN breach

What I’m doing to protect myself after the Target data breach

As you’ve probably heard, Target had a bad month. Between the days of 27 November and 15 December, about 40 million credit card numbers were stolen, making it one of the biggest breaches of its kind in history. As far as we know, the card number and security code were stolen, but debit-card PINs and addresses were not.

Target says they have contained the breach and are cooperating with credit card companies and authorities. Cringely has some analysis, but it has more for people like me to think about how we do things at work than it does for consumers.

And, well, as luck would have it, I shopped a lot at Target between the days in question. And I used both my credit and debit card during that time. Here’s what I’m doing, some of which may be counter-intuitive.

Read More »What I’m doing to protect myself after the Target data breach

Two simple ways to increase your credit score

I have a friend who makes more money than me, has no debt except for a small mortgage, and his credit score is 150 points lower than mine. By becoming more like me, you can increase your credit score.

The key difference between us is that he puts a couple thousand into a checking account at the first of every month and pays for everything with a debit card. I do the same thing, but use a credit card, and pay the credit card off at the end of the month.

Read More »Two simple ways to increase your credit score

No, it doesn’t take a “serious hacker” to crack wi-fi through WPS

John C Dvorak is raving in PC Magazine about Netgear wireless routers and range extenders and how easy WPS makes it to set them up–and providing some very seriously flawed security advice along the way.

“Note that WPS is crackable by serious hackers using brute-force attack, but any SOHO user not dealing with government secrets should be fine.”
Read More »No, it doesn’t take a “serious hacker” to crack wi-fi through WPS

My Zinio adventures

My Classic Toy Trains subscription lapsed. I decided I wanted to subscribe to the digital edition and see if I liked the paper reduction enough to live with the DRM restrictions. I can always switch back to paper next year, right?

So I went to and tried to subscribe, and had nothing but problems getting them to take my money.

Read More »My Zinio adventures

Don’t fall for get-rich-quick schemes: Check out the claims before you sign

The pitch sounded too good to be true. While most bank accounts in the United States are paying a piddly 4% interest, and rates are more likely to go down than up, there’s another country whose economy is booming, is one of the safest places in the world for your money, and routinely pays 9, 10, or even 14 percent interest on three-month CDs.

I clicked the banner ad. I read what the guy had to say. But I didn’t sign on the dotted line. Here’s why.First, there’s no shame in checking out what the guy has to say. Maybe he does know something nobody else knows. That’s fine. What’s wrong is signing up without checking out the claims in more detail.

In this case, the sales pitch was for 3-month CDs in Iceland. Icelandic banks offer tantalizing interest rates, but there’s a catch.

The salesman said the reason is because Iceland’s economy is booming. Do some more research, however, and you’ll find the real reason for the outlandish interest rates is because the Icelandic Krona isn’t a very stable currency. They offer these tremendous interest rates in hopes that foreign investors will pump their currency into the Icelandic economy.

I did some more digging, and the value of the Krona versus the dollar varies wildly. In the same year, it can be as high as 80 Kronas to the dollar, and as low as 50. Doing a little math, if your timing is perfect and you buy low and sell high, your $10,000 investment could be worth more than $17,000. You make about $900 off your interest, and $6,000 off market timing. But if you time it badly, your $10,000 investment could drop to $6,800 in value, in spite of the high interest rate.

This is what my dad used to call a "Las Vegas investment." If it wasn’t inherently risky, they wouldn’t be paying these kinds of interest rates. And it’s pretty clear to me why everyone isn’t doing it.

But here’s another problem: The U.S. banks that sell Icelandic CDs charge you a 1% fee on the front and back ends. So they charge to convert your dollars into Kronas, and then when you pull your money, they charge you again to convert back to US dollars. In effect, that 9% CD immediately becomes a 7 percent CD.

The other problem is there’s a $10,000 minimum. You should never tie up more money than you’re willing to lose in a risky short-term investment, and for the average person, 10 grand is a lot of money.

If you’re looking for a safe place to store money for a short period of time and get a good interest rate, a lot of banks and credit unions have started offering so-called "extreme checking" accounts to attract new customers. These accounts often pay in the neighborhood of 5.5 to 6 percent, have a small minimum and a $25,000 maximum, and usually have a few other requirements you have to meet, such as making a certain number of transactions per month with your debit card. But otherwise it just acts like a plain old checking account that lets you add and withdraw funds at will. The rate isn’t that much lower than what you can get in Iceland once you pay the conversion fees, and you have easy access to the money in case of emergencies, and best of all, there won’t be any unpleasant surprises in three months if the exchange rate isn’t favorable.

Unless you can afford to tie up $10,000 until some random, future date when the dollar happens to be low against the Krona and your CD is eligible to be cashed in, I can think of a lot of better ways to invest. If you’re looking for a long-term investment, this is a good time to buy stock index funds because stock prices are in the toilet right now. The long-term returns will be good, and you don’t have to be nearly as precise about your timing. For a short-term investment, a high-interest checking account looks better to me. You don’t need as much money and there’s much less commitment.