John Wasik

When debt collectors call, hang up

Jan 31, 2011 15:24 UTC

A trader talks on his mobile phone outside of the New York Stock Exchange in New York May 6, 2010.  REUTERS/Lucas JacksonMy 80-something father was recently disturbed by some calls he was getting regarding debt collection. Why are they calling me, he wondered?

At first, he was worried because he was unsure if he had forgotten to pay a bill or had co-signed on a loan for a sibling. I told him that debt collectors can’t call you for something you don’t owe. If there was something due, they would have to send you something in writing. It was probably a scam. He ignored the calls and they stopped.

Debt harassment is a perennial problem, yet most people get intimidated when they get these calls, particularly this time of year. You have many rights, but most people don’t understand what they can do to protect themselves.

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act is actually one of the better consumer protection laws on the books. Policed by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), it has a number of safeguards that are designed to prevent harassment.

The FTC logged almost 120,000 debt collector complaints in 2009, which was up slightly from the previous year. Most of the inquiries involved in-house or third-party collectors, who make money on getting consumers to pony up.

5 essential truths missing from financial crisis report

Jan 27, 2011 21:44 UTC

DAVOS/FINANCEWhen I think about what government officials and banking executives knew before the blowup of 2008, I think about the people of Fortuna, a small town nestled next to an active volcano in Costa Rica.

Like the residents of Fortuna, Federal Reserve and Treasury officials knew they were watching a soon-to-erupt volcano with the combination of residential lending, derivatives and banking abuses. The regulators, rating agencies and banking industry were clearly in denial about the worst-case scenario.

As the consensus conclusions of yesterday’s Financial Crisis Commission (FCIC) report showed, “the captains of finance and the public stewards of our financial system ignored warnings and failed to understand and manage evolving risks within a system essential to the well-being of the American public.” Human folly, greed and hubris caused this $11 trillion debacle.

Fire your financial adviser, unless they are a fiduciary

Jan 24, 2011 16:01 UTC

Eric Brown, a senior registered sales assistant with Double Diamond Investment Group, works at the company's office in Parsippany, New Jersey March 23, 2010.  REUTERS/Lucas Jackson If you have a conventional stock broker or agent acting as a financial adviser working on commission, fire them.

Now that the SEC has endorsed a “uniform fiduciary standard of conduct” for brokers and investment advisers, there’s no reason to settle for anything less. This is a financial professional who, by law, must put your interests first.

In the past, the SEC did little to protect you from the ravages of a commission-driven world. Few knew the difference between a “financial consultant” (a broker) or a “certified financial planner” or “registered investment adviser.” The latter two are fiduciaries.

Five reasons to dismember Bank of America

Jan 21, 2011 15:26 UTC

Taxis pass the Bank of America branch in New York's Times Square June 30, 2005.  REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton BANKGBank of America should be broken up. It’s the sick man of finance that isn’t going to get better in its present state.

It would be prudent for shareholders, good for taxpayers and even better for the global financial system. As its stands now, it’s too big to succeed, has more financial migraines than California and Illinois combined and needn’t be a candidate for another public bailout. Been there, done that.

As one of the world’s largest banks with the biggest U.S. branch network, brokerage/wealth management division and the top municipal-bond underwriter, it’s a behemoth that’s difficult to manage and a poor value proposition in its present structure.  The bank just posted its second straight quarterly loss, partially due to a $2 billion write down of mortgage follies, which are far from over.

What mortgage brokers don’t tell you: Hidden penalties abound

Jan 17, 2011 15:53 UTC

A sign reading "Honey... Stop the car!" is seen as it announces a house for sale in Silver Spring, Maryland, May 23, 2010. Photo taken May 23, 2010.   REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst There’s a host of information a mortgage broker or banker won’t tell you up front that may increase the cost of your financing.

You could pay much more on a mortgage than your initial quote rate based on a rating system used by government mortgage insurers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Brokers and bankers rarely tell you this coming in the door. They want to lock you in to a loan as soon as possible. With rates rising, this is really important to know.

In the wake of the biggest real estate meltdown in American history, the devil’s in the details when you apply for a loan. This hidden rating system will penalize you with a higher rate if your credit score is low or you apply for certain types of loans. It’s being employed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government’s captive mortgage entities, which account for about 80 percent of new loans now.

The Prairie State pestilence: Pensions, budget woes spread

Jan 14, 2011 18:10 UTC

Protesters demonstrate during a rally against government cutbacks for social services in Aurora, Illinois, June 18, 2009. REUTERS/John GressThe fiscal malady that plagues Illinois — and its painful treatment — may be coming to a state, county or municipality near you.

What will cure this spreading pox on the populace? Higher taxes, lower spending and that rare commodity: political honesty.

I feel the pain since I live in Illinois and will pay higher taxes. This couldn’t be more personal to me. My daughters’ school district is owed state money and has fired teachers. My father’s teachers’ pension fund (among others) has been methodically underfunded for years. I went down to our state capitol last year with other University of Illinois alumni to lobby the state legislature to pay more than $400 million in unpaid education bills.

Lazy portfolios win again in 2010

Jan 10, 2011 16:56 UTC

A Chinese investor looks at share prices at a securities exchange in Shanghai March 28, 2005. REUTERS/Claro Cortes IVThose of you who diligently invest from reclining chairs with passive portfolios, rejoice! You had another good year without doing much of anything.

Not only did you get more out of life by not watching business TV channels, stock prices on your smartphone or fretting over the latest blip on Wall Street, you built up your retirement portfolio without much effort.

Those of you who thought you were smart and safe by piling all of your money into bond funds, turn off your TV. There’s a better way.

Hey GOP, cut Medicare Part D first

Jan 7, 2011 17:00 UTC

Now that House GOP members are off and running with scissors to trim the federal budget deficit and healthcare, I have a suggestion for immediate cost savings: Medicare Part D.

This is the part of Medicare that pays for most of prescription-drug costs for about 45 million Americans. While it may seem that this is cruel and unusual punishment to take away this benefit for older Americans, I have an alternative plan that will reduce the deficit and save money for taxpayers.

Contrary to the House leadership’s position, my health reform would save taxpayers billions, lower drug costs and engage the noblest of free-market principles.

6 top financial trends for 2011

Jan 3, 2011 17:31 UTC

Trader Theodore Weisberg smiles as he wears a hat from March 1999, the first time the Dow rose above 10,000, on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, October 14, 2009. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid  Although the old Chinese curse “may you live in interesting times” has a certain irony about it, this year will certainly not be dull for investors.

To prepare for it, you’ll need a plan, as always. I suggest you craft an investment policy statement that puts down in writing your goals and the amount of money you don’t want to lose. Then plan accordingly.

Resolutions are not on my list, nor is a budget, which doesn’t work for most people. Just stick to growing your money in a sustainable way.