Things That Can Kill a Business and How to Correct Them

By Robert L. Cain, written for Zip Reports, a company that screens employees and tenants.  Visit their website.

“The Technician’s usual experience is one of frustration and annoyance at being interrupted in the course of what needs to be done to try something new that probably doesn’t need to be done at all.” –Michael Gerber, The E-Myth Revisited

You didn’t sign up for this.  When you bought rental property it was to make profitable investments.  When you went into business, it was to be able to do what you loved doing, were good at doing, and maybe even famous for.  It wasn’t to get new tenants or to hire people.  Those just get in the way of doing what’s important.

The result is, you end up with hassles and in having to manage people far more than you ever wanted to.  After all, you can’t make any money screening applicants.  But you sure can lose money.

One thing I discovered over the years in talking to landlords is that they are good with things, but maybe not so good with people.  They get themselves into trouble because they are both nice and worried.  They talk a tough story, but they are usually pretty nice. The only two times a landlord gets into trouble are when he is in a hurry or feels sorry for someone.   He is in a hurry because the mortgage payment is due and the unit is vacant.  “Got to get some rent money.”  He also wants to help, so may be a sucker for a hard-luck story.  The result, bad tenants.

Small business owners are in a similar situation.  They are good at what they do such as electrical, plumbing, woodworking, writing, making videos, marketing, computer programming and everything else that people start businesses for.  Unless they are an employment agency, they aren’t much good at hiring.  They want to get it done so they can get back to what they’re good at.  The result, employees who may not be the best for the business.

The whole time this tenant selection or hiring process is going on, they have this gnawing suspicion in the pits of their stomachs that they aren’t doing it quite right.  It turns out that gnawing suspicion is often right.

Some 95 percent of tenants fall into the category of “good.”  Probably the majority of employees want to take pride in their work and their jobs.  Trouble is, the bad tenants and less-than-exemplary employees are adept at getting places to live and in finding new jobs.

Nationwide the vacancy rate for rentals is about 7 percent with some cities and states under 4 percent and some even lower yet.  There is a shortage of rental housing so there is an abundance of prospective tenants.  That means landlords can be picky.  We’ll look at how in a minute.

In this market, it’s not so easy for business owners looking to hire.   Small businesses especially complain that they can’t find qualified employees.  That may result from several factors, one being how much the business can pay, and another that they are looking for skills that are in short supply.  Construction is having a particularly tough time of it as the housing boom sees skilled workers already working for large construction companies.  I wouldn’t presume to tell a business owner what to look for when hiring.  Obviously, what to avoid is rushing into a decision or settling for someone whom you know will not work out or worse hurt your business.

But all is not lost.  Let’s look at how to set up a system so tenant selection and hiring are less of a blind dart throw and far less of a hassle, but also effective.

No matter what, every application must meet the following standards:

  1. Application completely filled out truthfully
  2. Verifiable source of income (for tenants)
  3. Ability to verify all information from the application
  4. Appropriate identification and able to verify supplied ID information

First and most important is the rule: never decide to hire or rent to an applicant while you are listening to him or her.  Job hoppers and bad tenants are expert at interviewing.  That’s how they get hired and rented to over and over.  They seem like such nice, responsible people, when in fact, they are just good at seeming like nice, responsible people.  Hire or rent on the spot and you will most likely regret it.  If someone has to “know today,” send your applicant on his or her way.  You have a system in place that takes at least two days to complete.

Second, create the system.  Every property and every job has different requirements.  That is, they won’t work for everybody, so the requirements for every property and job need to be clear in the landlord’s or business owner’s mind.  Write them down and create a checklist for screening.  Writing them down is essential. Then, no matter what, do every item on the checklist without fail.

What are the requirements you create? First, think of your best tenants.  What are their characteristics?  Look at income, rental history, credit.  To hire, think of your best employees. What are their characteristics?  Skillset is important, but just as important is the ability to work with customers, if that’s what they do, and with other people.

For both tenants and employees, what are the absolute minimum qualifications you will accept?  In addition, finding nice people is one of the two most the important considerations.  You do that by checking references.  Why did they leave their last jobs?  How did they get along with their previous landlords or property managers?

The other one is honesty.  There can be no substitute for renting to and hiring honest people.  People who constantly try to “get away” with something or for whom honesty only happens when someone is looking won’t be an acceptable candidate—ever.  Of course, having been fired for dishonest behavior is grounds for an immediate rejection both as an employee and a tenant.

A bad hire or a bad tenant can put you out of business.  Sure, repairs and remodels cost as does advertising, marketing, maintenance and every other aspect of running a business, but those are predictable.  What is not predictable is the cost of a bad tenant or bad hire.

A system works every time if done right.  There’s no guesswork, no rush, no more feeling sorry for someone, only expectations.

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Which Credit Score Works Best for You? If any.

By Robert L. Cain, written for Zip Reports, applicant screening company. Visit their website.

Two credit scoring systems are most used by those who check credit for lending, renting and hiring.  The old “standby” is FICO.  That’s what people think of when they ask what someone’s score is.  It ranges from 300 (never pays anybody) to 850 (just-about-perfect).  Then there’s VantageScore.  They use the same numbers as FICO.  The differences are how they measure someone’s credit worthiness.

The differences are minor but they can be indicators in a couple of ways.  First has to do with how long someone must have credit and how many accounts someone must have before FICO or VantageScore will issue a score.  Another is how they deal with collections, paid or unpaid.  A third is what they consider most important bills. But how valuable is the score itself?

FICO doesn’t score anyone until he or she has at least six months of history.  So for a person just starting out in the world, that means FICO may come back with “no record found.”  VantageScore on the other hand, puts someone with any credit account in their records after just one month.  They have “scoreable” population of 225 million as opposed to FICO’s 190 million partly as a result of that feature.  So if someone doesn’t show up with a FICO score, he or she may have one with VantageScore.

Both VantageScore and FICO penalize for accounts sent to collection, but FICO ignores any account of less than $100 and any that are paid.  VantageScore only ignores paid collections regardless of the amount.  You decide if that’s important to you.

FICO treats all debts equally, but VantageScore puts a premium on mortgage payments.  So if someone is late with mortgage payments, that will knock down his or her credit score with them much more than it will with FICO.

Does that mean that one score is preferable to another in judging the worthiness of an applicant?  It depends on the type of applicant to be judged.  If you hire or rent to young people who may not have much credit experience, certainly VantageScore will provide a better picture.  But both will give a rough idea of how well someone will pay his or her bills.

But do you want to rely completely on a credit score.  With FICO, people can “game they system.”  Experian posted in a blog, that “many borrowers started ‘gaming the system’ by issuing many credit cards, taking on many loans, etc. None of these clearly indicates whether a borrower is creditworthy, and thus, the noise in existing standardized credit scoring methodologies has been increasing over time.”

“Gaming the system” works like this. Both FICO and VantageScore use the amount of credit available as an indicator or creditworthiness but available credit ranks higher with FICO.  So if someone has 10 credit cards each with a $10,000 limit but no balance on any of them, that person has a $100,000 credit limit with none of it used.  That means the credit score would rise precipitously say moving a 680 score up to 800 (just an example, there’s no telling exactly what the result would be).  Nothing to indicate any more responsibility or character, only that he or she could charge up to $100,000, in other words has available credit of $100,000.

And that brings us to the most important aspect of credit scoring.  Certainly a credit score is a great jumping off place. If someone has a credit score of 427, chances are your applicant isn’t in the habit of paying anybody. But, other than the obvious, do you need to rely on a score at all?  Rather would you do better to go by someone’s “accountability, responsibility, character, personality” and other things that only careful screening can determine?  The information on a credit report can tell much more than a score all by itself. Someone who owes lots of money in collections is certainly not the best risk for hiring or renting regardless of the amount of the collections, but how about someone who doesn’t have any bills in collection but has limited credit either because he or she is new to the world or prefers to pay cash and shows promise as a responsible person?  That person can be a much better risk than someone who has lots of credit, has a high credit score, but also several dings on his or her personal record.

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A Bad Tenants’ Primer

By Robert L. Cain
Written for Zip Reports that does applicant screening for employment and rentals. Visit their website

Credit.com published  a primer for bad tenants telling how to get landlords to rent to them.  The article, “Can You Be Denied a Rental Home Because of Bad Credit,” wasn’t meant to be such a primer, of course, but it described the tactics bad tenants already use to weasel into rental properties.

The article discussed seven techniques, four of which are worthwhile for someone who may not have the best credit history. But three of the “techniques” are old hat to bad tenants, but may be new to those aspiring to live rent free. We’ll look at each of these three and how to counteract them.  They are first, find a landlord who doesn’t check credit; second, have a good story; and third, pay several months in advance.  It’s as if the author of the article, Christine DiGangi, took the pages out of the bad tenants’ handbook.

To be fair, people who use one or more of these three “techniques” are not necessarily going to be bad tenants.  Some people religiously pay the rent on time even if other creditors go begging.  Some people take good care of their homes and are considerate neighbors no matter what.  But those are the people whom we would consider excellent tenants. We need to use careful screening to ensure those who do rent from us are consistent rent payers and are good neighbors and property stewards.

First, advises the article, look for a landlord who is a “small operation,” that is, not a management company.  After all, management companies have hard and fast procedures for screening and qualification to rent, one of which is an acceptable credit score, often 620 or higher.  Management companies can’t make exceptions, so an unsatisfactory score will automatically eliminate an applicant.

On the other hand, smaller landlords can overlook poor credit or may never check credit at all.  In fact, they sometimes are so desperate to get the place rented what with mortgage payments due and other expenses that come regardless of whether the unit is rented that they may be less than diligent in screening applicants.  There are only two times a landlord gets into trouble, when he’s in a hurry and when he feels sorry for someone.  We’ll get to the “sorry for someone” reason shortly.

Not checking credit will work only as long as the landlord can verify everything on the application and the qualifications of the applicant are otherwise acceptable. If everything checks out, then maybe a credit report isn’t necessary.  But professional bad tenants often lie on their rental applications and list friends as former landlords and employers.  There’s an easy way to check if a name you got as a former landlord is real: county tax records.  Almost every county in the country has property tax records online.  Just go to the website and enter the address of the property where the applicant used to live.  Does the ownership record match the name on the rental application as the previous landlord?  If not, the applicant has some explaining to do.  Of course, it could be the name of a property manager, but that’s part of the explanation.

Second, the article suggests explaining in person.  That means the applicant has to have a good story, a good explanation for all the bad stuff a landlord may discover.  Those of you old enough may remember the cartoon Li’l Abner.  In it was a character named Joe Btfsplk.  Joe had a black cloud that followed him around everywhere.  Anything bad that could, happened to Joe.  Applicants with a history of “bad luck” are like Joe.  They are the first ones to get laid off; they are the most likely to get into accidents that make it impossible for them to look for work; they are the most likely, then, to not pay the rent and get evicted because they rent from the meanest and most unreasonable landlords.

A one-off unfortunate event is one thing, but a history of bad luck is something else entirely.  Bad things happen to people sometimes, but they are often acceptable people and may make great tenants.  But if bad things happen over and over to someone, the bad will rub off on the rental owner and just add to the string of bad luck that follows the unacceptable tenant around, what with another eviction and unhappy good tenants.

Some landlords, especially those who have owned rental properties for decades, have a magical power; they have a computer-like brain and can tell by looking at and talking to someone that person’s quality; they are of  the “gut feeling” persuasion.  “I have been a landlord for 25 years and I don’t need those credit reports and all that checking.  I rent on gut feeling.”  They are most susceptible to the stories and the history of black clouds—feeling sorry for someone.

Doubt everything.  Check everything.  See if the “gut feeling” is right.

The third technique is “make advance or larger payments.”  That one can be particularly persuasive for the rental owner who has a mortgage payment coming up and no rent to pay for it.  It’s called the “wad of cash” trick.  It’s a particularly effective negotiating technique that works only with the actual owners, and not with managers or employees.

When you go to the bank and get cash, you know how they count out the money?  It’s crisply laid out on the counter in front of you.  A bad tenant uses the same trick. That’s part one of it.  Part two is putting it in the hand of the owner.  Once that money is in the hand of the owner, it’s unlikely he will be giving it back.  So a bad tenant pays three months in advance because he doesn’t want the landlord coming around.  With a bad tenant, chances are that’s the last you’ll see him or hear from him.  Oh, you’ll hear about him.  That will come with call from the police asking you to come over and secure the front door that was knocked down in the drug raid.  It’s never a good idea to accept more than first and last months’ rent, no matter what.

Incidentally, the wad of cash trick is an excellent negotiating tool if you’re trying to get a deal from a small business owner.  It has to be cash, though, not a check or credit card, because actual dollars have their own feel and smell working in their favor, something checks and credit cards don’t.

Credit.com printed the primer for bad tenants, but rental owners have the tools to counteract each of the tricks the article  suggests.  People with poor credit can be good tenants, just as they can be bad tenants.  The only thing that finds them out is careful screening, doubting everything, checking everything, making sure that the application is completely filled out.  Most important, even if you believe you can do without credit checks, rental standards are essential.  Just who will be an acceptable applicant?

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High Rents Are Both an Opportunity and a Problem

By Robert L. Cain, Copyright 2017 Cain Publications, Inc.  Written for Zip Reports employment and tenant screening company.  Visit their website.

Pew Research and the US Census Bureau say “more U.S. households are headed by renters than at any point since 1965.”  In addition, vacancy rates in many parts of the country are almost non-existent, with under 4 percent in many cities on the West Coast. That information, when combined with the report from Freddie Mac about the marked decrease in low-income housing is welcome news for rental owners and worrisome news for business owners.  Here’s why.

Rental Owners

Renter demographics show that some 65 percent of people under 35 years old are renting.  In the 35-44 year old age group it is four in 10 people, 41 percent.  Even the 45 to 64 year old age group shows more than one in four (28 percent) now renting.  Add to that the shortage of rental housing, and we have the makings of a huge opportunity for turning bigger profits on rental properties.  Multifamily Executive magazine in Sept. 2017 pointed out “Freddie Mac recently projected that an estimated 440,000 new multifamily units may be needed every year to meet the pent-up demand for renters nationwide across all demographics, from millennials to baby boomers.”  It’s simple supply and demand, fewer properties available to rent mean higher rents.

Another interesting fact, and one that is also of interest to business owners is the educational level of renters.  Pew Research points out that 52 percent of people with less than a high school education rent, 38 percent of high school graduates and people with some college rent, while only 29 percent of college graduates do.  I’ll discuss why that is important to business owners in a minute.

Rental owners can now take advantage of the situation by raising both rents and standards.  How high a rent can you charge and not price yourself out of the market?  How high can you set your standards so you get to select from top applicants and not have to cull people who should not be able to rent a Barbie playhouse?

We owe it to  our investments and ourselves to get the highest rents we can and rent to the highest caliber tenants we can.  Of course, the rents a property can command and the standards that are appropriate vary by property.  The only way to establish market rents is by a rent survey.  The only way to establish higher standards is to look at the demographics of top tenants and raise standards to their level.  How many years on the job?  How long at the previous residence?  How good is his or her credit score?  Naturally, our ability to verify all information on the rental application is essential, as always.

Business Owners

Many business owners complain that there is a shortage of acceptable employees and that they end up hiring people they wouldn’t hire when the unemployment rate was higher.  But higher rents and lower vacancy rates can exacerbate the problem.  Lately there has been considerable press about the number of working people who simply can’t afford the rents in their area and end up living in RVs and friends’ basements.  Lack of affordable housing can be a major problem to employers.  After all, you can’t pay someone without even a high school education the approximately $60 an hour it would take to afford a $3,000 a month apartment.  You’re lucky if you can pay one-quarter that.

In many cities that is not enough total monthly pay to cover the rent.  A $15 an hour employee makes only a little over $2,600 a month gross.  Then there’s having to eat and get to work, both kind of essential for performing well on the job.

There’s more to be concerned with.  Apartment List recently did a study where it estimated that 3.3 percent of renters had been evicted sometime or other and 2.4 percent from their recent residence.  Considering that there are about 118 million renters in the US, that means 3.7 million renters have been affected by eviction.

Add to that Apartment List’s findings that almost one in five renters (18 percent) have had trouble paying the rent, either not paying it or paying partial rent, in the last three months.

As we would expect, people earning less than $30,000 a year, or less than $15 an hour, 11 percent of them had been threatened with eviction, with 3.4 percent of them kicked out of their most recent residence.  In fact, going along with that is the fact that people with only a high school education are three times as likely to receive an eviction threat as those who hold a bachelor’s degree.

Interestingly, the city with the highest eviction rate is Memphis, Tenn., where the average rent is $929 a month, with a rate of 6.1 percent.  Just as interesting is the fact that the most expensive cities, San Jose, San Francisco, Boston, and New York had the lowest eviction rates.

Evictions can make keeping low-income employees problematic.  It is important to check if applicants have been evicted and if they have problems paying the rent.  Asking about trouble paying the rent in job interviews and references from landlords is appropriate in addition to requiring satisfactory credit reports.  An evicted employee can have a problem getting to work and an additional problem of being able to concentrate effectively while at work because of a uncertain financial situation.

So while rental owners are in good shape because they can raise the rent and the rental standards, business owners can have a problematic situation especially with low wage employees.  Careful screening is even more important.

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How to Deal With a Credit Freeze

By Robert L. Cain, written for Zip Reports, applicant screening for rentals and employers. Visit their website.

Most landlords and many employers check applicants’ credit before they rent to or hire them.  Making it more difficult, however, according to the Identity Theft Center, is that since January 1, 2005 there have been 7,954 security breaches with 1,054,627,432 (that’s right, over 1 billion) personal records hacked, including the 145.5 million from Equifax.  The result is that some people have frozen their credit reports so that landlords, employers, or anyone else for that matter, can’t check credit until the freeze is removed.

That can make qualifying an applicant more difficult, or at least delay qualifying.  Let’s look at why and how to work with a frozen credit report.

Once credit is frozen, which can take up to five days once the request is made, credit reports are inaccessible except to the person whose credit is frozen.  Each of the three major credit reporting agencies allow applying for a credit freeze online though the person requesting the freeze must do it for separately for each agency at a cost of $10 each except for victims of identity theft and people over 65, except from Equifax which has offered a free credit freeze because of their recent hacking.

Even with the freeze, which is in place until removed by the frozen consumer, a credit freeze can be removed temporarily for periods of seven, 15, or 30 days by default, but also for just that day or one organization.  Equifax  says that the credit report can be released within minutes.  That’s what they claim.  Whether that is accurate is another question as we’ll see below. The same procedure has to be repeated for each agency.  However, if the applicant can learn which agency the landlord or employer is using, he or she can unfreeze credit for just that agency.

Even so, for an applicant to ensure that his or her credit report is thawed, it is best to allow three to five days says Equifax even though they say another place on their website that a freeze can be lifted in a “matter of minutes.”

The lesson here is that anyone who may need a credit report available ought to unfreeze his or her credit several days before heading out to rent an apartment or apply for a job.  Do applicants always do that?  Of course not, and that presents a challenge for someone who needs a credit report to qualify an applicant.

Applicants also have the opportunity for pulling their own credit reports and taking those with them when applying to rent or for a job.  The thing landlords and employers need to be concerned about is a dummied up credit report.  After all, once the person in question has an actual credit report, anyone with even moderate skill with a word processing program can create something that looks exactly like a stellar credit report, just phony.

Another ploy landlords and employers may encounter is the applicant claiming his or her credit is frozen so can’t be checked.  As discussed above, that simply is not true, and that person might be trying to hide an unacceptable credit report.  If an applicant claims that, the landlord or employer has the option either educating the applicant or rejecting him or her out of hand for lying.  In defense of the frozen consumer, it is possible that he or she didn’t read the entire explanation on the credit reporting companies’ websites and doesn’t realize that credit can be thawed temporarily.  However, someone who took the trouble and learned how to freeze credit most likely would be more knowledgeable than the average person about the entire procedure. Freezing credit is a relatively involved process requiring, even when applying online, coming up with documents and identification that may not be readily available such as a copy of a valid id, proof of address (e.g. copy of utility bill).. Identity theft victims in order to get the free freeze need to provide even more proof of the theft, such as a copy of a police report, identity theft report, or DMV report

A credit freeze protects against someone opening a new account in the identity theft consumer’s name, but it does not protect against a crook using an existing account to run up credit charges.  In order to do that, a consumer needs to create a fraud alert.  That will or may be effective in stopping a crook from running up charges on an account.  When a credit report is ordered or someone uses an existing account, say a credit card, the reporting agency will verify, probably by phone, that the consumer is the one making the application.  A fraud alert doesn’t delay getting a credit report on an applicant like a credit freeze does.

It is essential to check credit for rentals and often important for hiring, and a credit freeze can throw a wrench into the process.  You may have to allow extra time so you can verify everything on a credit report, though the delay doesn’t stop the process. It is important to warn an applicant who has a frozen report that it may require more than three days to get a credit report and then more time to verify the information on it, after the applicant has requested the thaw.

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The Medical Debt Crisis

By Robert L. Cain, written for Zip Reports, employment and tenant screening company.  Visit their website.

Elsie was covered by an employer-sponsored health plan with a $1,000 deductible per person.  Then she had a baby.  At birth, her son acquired additional $1,000 deductible.  That meant, both Elsie and her son were liable for additional cost-sharing expenses up to an annual Out-of-Pocket (OOP) limit,  Those cost-sharing charges could vary depending on the type of service.  For example, an emergency room visit could be as much as $150, not to mention the add-on costs of the doctors who treated her and her son, but also the medicines and supplies needed for treatment.

Things got worse for Elsie (and her son).  Within a year after giving birth,  Elsie needed surgery and her son needed hospitalization twice before he turned three. The cost-sharing bills totaled $20,000 for mother and son.

Then there are what are known as surprise charges.

Elsie’s husband Richard had separate insurance through his employer whose insurance didn’t cover outpatient charges.  So even though Richard’s OOP maximum was $3,000, when Richard got injured in a car accident (not on the job), he had to pay $45 for every three-times-a-week physical therapy treatment, adding up to almost $500 a month or $6,000 per year.  Surprise charges.The sky had fallen on Elsie and Richard who now were in a position of trying to cope with huge medical bills, as it has also fallen on millions of other Americans. Of course, Elsie and Richard were unable to pay their bills and they were turned over to collections. (Elsie and Richard are examples, but both are actual cases, even though they are not husband and wife.)

Surprise charges also come from out-of-network (OON) providers.  Those can be any contract employee of a hospital who is not a member of the insurer’s provider network.  For example, someone goes to the emergency room with a laceration that needs stitches.  The emergency room doctor works as a contractor for the hospital, and the hospital doesn’t pay him.  The patient does.  If that doctor is OON, the doctor will send a bill to the patient because the insurance company won’t pay that OON doctor. Patients often don’t even know that the doctor repairing the wound doesn’t have a deal with the insurance company, and of course, never think to ask.  After all, that doctor is working at the hospital.

Another surprise charge, it may not even a doctor but some other service.  Kaiser Family Foundation gives the example of George.  After surgery, he was too frail to go home, so his doctor recommended an inpatient rehabilitation unit of the hospital.  Trouble was, though physically attached to the hospital, that unit wasn’t part of the hospital but was independently owned and operated by a separate company, and that company wasn’t part of the plan network.  That bill ended up $23,000, all on George.

Some 43 million people in the US are in Elsie’s, Richard’s and George’s shoes, about one person in five who have credit reports, writes Liz Weston in her September 4, 2017 column.  What’s worse is that under 8 percent of the collections are paid.

The total amount of medical debt can’t be calculated because not all of it shows up as medical debt.  The Kaiser Family Foundation reports in “Medical Debt Among People with Health Insurance”:  “The total dollar amount of medical debt held in the U.S. is difficult to measure. Medical debt may be masked as other forms of debt, for example, when someone uses a credit card to pay a doctor bill.  The amount reflected on a credit report will indicate credit-card debt.”  A person may also skip a mortgage payment, or more than one, to pay a medical debt.

It’s even worse for the uninsured.  The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that “Among non-elderly patients, nearly half (45%) of the uninsured report problems paying medical bills.”

Medical providers, doctors, hospitals, and such, can turn an account over to a collection agency just one day after it is overdue.  They often don’t, but they can.  Common practice is that the collection agency will not report the debt until it is 180 days in default, so it doesn’t show up as a collection until then.  Even so, it shows as a past-due balance on a credit report.

The folks with medical bills in collection may also have difficulty getting more medical care.  Providers may refuse to treat patients who can’t pay their bills.  The Kaiser Family Foundation used the example of Kieran.  “One hospital to which she owed money refused to pre-register his wife for a hospitalization until overdue bills were paid.”  Others want to avoid further medical bills so they forgo care, even continuing care.

But that’s only part of the story.  Even if someone is making regular payments on a medical bill, the creditor may still turn the debt over to collections even without notifying the debtor.  Some people may be surprised by the call or letter from the collection agency about a bill they didn’t even know they had.  It could be a bill that was sent to the wrong address or even not sent at all before the bill was turned over to collections.

It only gets worse.  Some 62 percent of bankruptcies are because of medical debt reported nerdwallet.com in 2013..  That results in many of the debts being discharged completely with a Chapter 7 bankruptcy or placed in a payment plan in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

But the effect on the economic lives of the people who fall victim to medical debt is enormous.  A credit score can fall more than 100 points, say, for someone with a pre-collection 780 FICO score.  That means he or she will have difficulty renting an apartment, will pay a higher interest rate for a car loan, and may not be hired for a job. Then there is job loss.  Sometimes people lose their jobs because of their health problems or have to quit their jobs to care for an injured or ill family member.

Some people lose their homes because they stop making mortgage payments to make their payments on the medical debt.  Some people stop making car payments and have their cars repossessed.  Others have their electricity shut off. And it may be all for naught because they end up filing bankruptcy anyway.

It’s a terrible thing when medical financial problems plague people, and something that needs fixing.  But there is little or nothing we can do personally except write to our Senators and Congresspeople.

We have to empathize with them, but they are in financial trouble and our businesses depend on  consistent income.  Empathy and business go only so far.  If someone can’t pay the rent or has wages garnished, that is our concern and something we can and must do something about.

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Three Ways They Can Steal Your Credit Card Information

By Robert L. Cain, written for Zip Reports Employee and Tenant Screening Service.  Visit their website.

They are out to get you.  Well, maybe not you personally, just your credit card information. If they get you, that’s only because something you did made it possible for them to get all that information.  What you did was most likely totally innocent and something that people do regularly, but this time those creative crooks found a way to hack your credit cards.

We’ll look at three ways, restaurants, RFID readers, and juice jacking, where bad guys can obtain your credit card information and can use it to run up bills for you.

Restaurants and Drive-Thrus

My wife and I often eat at Chili’s, not necessarily for great food and service, but because it’s close to our house and we can’t think of anywhere else we want to go.  One thing about Chili’s, though, is that you can pay your bill at the table with a table card processor.  All you have to do is push a button and your bill comes up, then slide your card; the machine spits out a receipt (well, if you’re lucky; usually it is out of paper or the receipt printer is jammed).

We ate lunch at BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse a few weeks ago, and when we paid the bill, the waiter processed our card with a hand-held reader while he stood at the table.  The only other time I experienced that was at Heathrow Airport in London where the waiter did the same thing.  Usually, when you get the bill, the waiter takes it away into the inner sanctum of the restaurant to run in the credit card machine. There’s where the danger lies.

He or she has access to all the information on the card including the three-digit security code on the back.  Those who are particularly tech adept can even clone your card with a card-making  machine, all while you are waiting to sign for your meal.

A similar danger is at drive-thrus at fast food restaurants.  If you hand your card to the clerk at the first window (the one where you pay), and if he or she has the proper equipment as is intent on criminal behavior, the clerk can create a clone of your card.  For example, a Pennsylvania woman working at a Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru was arrested in 2015 for using information on customers’ cards to create duplicate cards.

In case you’re concerned, those mobile credit card processors are about as secure as security can make them as they are 128-bit encrypted and tokenized.  It would take a super computer over 1,000 years to break 128-bit encryption, longer than bad guys want to deal with.  Tokenization is a substitute data element where your card data is never stored intact anywhere, making it nearly impossible for hackers to reassemble it through decryption or reverse engineering. It enables a sender/receiver to communicate back and forth without displaying any sensitive data.  No, I don’t understand exactly how that works, but it does and is one more layer of security.

There are a couple of ways to avoid being victimized in restaurants where your card disappears into the back room.  The obvious one is to pay cash.  Another is like closing the barn door after the horse is out by looking for unauthorized charges on your card.

RFID

You can spot an RFID-enabled card by the four curved lines that represent a signal emission.  They can be read by a card reader up to six inches away.  In fact, it doesn’t even have to come out of a wallet or purse; the card reader can read them as someone stands at the checkout in a store.  Smartphone apps also enable contactless payments where they are set up in stores. Trouble is, a crook with an RFID reader that he or she can buy on Amazon for as little as $8 can also read the card financial information.

I watched a You Tube video of a man who sat in a shopping center with a remote card reader attached to a laptop and captured data as people walked by.  No, he didn’t do anything illegal with it, but showed the people whose cards he had hacked.  He later read his own card and created a credit card on a hotel key card and used it to buy coffee at Starbucks.

The simplest way to avoid that problem is simply wrapping aluminum foil around the card in your wallet or purse.  That stops the signal from the RFID chip.

Juice Jacking

Your smartphone is about out of charge and, of course, you left your charger at home.  It will go dead in just a few minutes, but all is not lost.  There in front of you is a public charger.  Not so fast.  That charger could steal all the information on your phone.

Here’s how it works.  Smartphones all have a common feature to charge, the USB connection.  Look at the charger on your phone and you will see that although there may be an AC plug, there’s also a USB plug plugged into that.  That USB connection is what enables you to transfer or synchronize information from your phone to a PC or somewhere else that permits it over the same cord that charges it.

Even though it isn’t a common trick for bad guys—yet—it’s a real danger when it is in place in a public charger.  The hacker installs a device that captures the data off a smartphone as it is plugged into the public charger.  Many people keep their entire lives on their phones including credit card numbers and contactless pay apps, that operate like RFID, where you can pay for an item or items simply by waving your phone in the vicinity of the payment processor.

The nefarious device can suck the data out of a phone in as little as a minute when it is plugged into a public charger assuming the malicious device is attached.

The first public explanation of this hack came at a 2011 DEF CON security conference in Las Vegas where three hackers using inexpensive equipment created a juice jacker to demonstrate how vulnerable people would be when they plug their phones into public chargers.

How worried should you be?  Probably not too.  The chances of a public charger hacking your phone are slim, because this particular crooked behavior hasn’t caught on—yet..  Still, there’s no reason to take a chance.

If you do have to plug into a public charging station, turn your phone off or sign off so it requires your password to access your data.  Carrying an extra battery doesn’t hurt either.  Safest of all is never having to charge your phone in public at all, of course.  That means keeping it topped off.  Also, if you can, carry a charger with you that you can plug into an electric socket.

The bad guys are always out to get you and looking for new and more creative ways to steal important information and data.  Restaurants, RFID chips, and juice jacking are three ways they steal credit card information.  Just so you are forewarned.

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A Lie, the Truth, or a Dream?

By Robert L. Cain, written for Zip Reports.  Visit their website.

A clerk at Home Depot offered us a Home Depot credit card.  We told her that we have credit cards we never even use so don’t need another one.  She said they made her offer them to everyone, but then told us that it had taken her and her husband five years to climb out of the credit card debt hole they had dug for themselves.  That’s the truth and something that would make her a likely candidate for taking on as an employee or tenant.

Many people have dug themselves holes they can only dream of climbing out of. They approach us to hire them or rent to them. We have to decide if the story they tell us about their less-than-stellar credit history is a lie, the truth, or a dream.  Obviously the woman at Home Depot was the truth.  But how about these?

“I’ve learned my lesson.” “I’m still learning.” “I just need another chance to prove myself.” Dreams or lies? Certainly not demonstrable truth.

The cogent point is that we and our businesses are not there to “help them out” or “give them another chance.”  We owe it to our customers and/or tenants to ensure that the people we hire or rent can show us they are at least somewhat responsible financially.  So how do we determine the difference between a lie, the truth, and a dream?  We’ll look at some ways to sort that out shortly.

The credit situation always affects hiring and renting but maybe more so of late. The biggest issue, of course, is student loan debt.  It amounts to $1.34 trillion, more than either credit card or auto loan debt.  Credit card debt is “only” $764 billion and auto loan debt “only” $1.17 trillion with millions of people in trouble with one or more kinds of these debts.

Plus, there’s no bankruptcy escape from student loan debt, so those people with student loans who default are more likely to see their wages garnished than are those with other debts.  Time magazine reports that someone defaults, goes 270 days past due, on a student loan every 29 seconds, that’s 2,929 people a day, 1,087,448 people a year. Even so, an auto loan in default can mean a car getting repossessed and a credit card debt default can mean bankruptcy or wage garnishment assuming the debtor has filed a bankruptcy in the past seven years and still managed to get another credit card.

None of those options is a plus to an employer or rental owner.  Still, the people with suffocating student loans, choking credit card bills, and flesh-eating auto loans need to get jobs and find places to live.  Can we believe their stories? They always have one, and some are so practiced and seemingly true that they may convince us.  After all, they have been rejected so many times that they have their story down to an art.

The clerk at Home Depot was telling the truth.  She had solid evidence of a change in her family’s desire to escape crippling debt.  Others not so much.

When, as the final step in the qualification process we pull a credit report and discover that this person has credit that wouldn’t allow him or her to buy a painted rock, we need to hear decide about the entire story ?  It may be a good story, and I’m sure you’ve heard most of them.  They’ve “learned their lesson.”  Have they?  What evidence do you have that their lesson is learned? Has that lesson resulted in action to correct their mistakes? It is not up to us to take their word for it; it is up to them to prove it.

How do they prove it?  One way is a demonstrated improvement in their credit situation.  For example, if they had $50,000 in debt and now they’re down to $40,000, obviously something happened to get their debt load reduced.  What was that?  Was it something that shows they are doing something positive to bring down their debt? It is up to them to tell us, not up to us to assume that they are getting a clue.

For example, if they had gone to a financial planner, worked out a way to climb out and are actually using the plan, that is the truth.  But shouldas and couldas don’t get it.  “I should have been more careful, but now I’m going to start paying off my bills” is not a response that encourages confidence.  Chances are, they will fall right back down to the bottom of the hole they dug for themselves, pick up the shovel that’s still stuck in the dirt at the bottom just waiting for them, and dig some more.  Sure, they’ve “learned their lesson” but learning a lesson and actually putting something into place to correct the errors of their ways are two different things.  Still they want you to give them a chance to prove themselves.  Prove it first, then come back and talk to me. What they have said is either a lie or a dream.

“What’s your plan for success?”  “How’s that working?”  “What progress have you shown?”  “Convince me I should believe that you are going to get yourself in a better situation.”

We need to worry when a credit report shows crippling debt not just staying the same but increasing.  We need to worry when we see current 60-, 90-, and 120-late payments on a credit report.  Planning to do something about it doesn’t bring down the bills.  Actually doing something may.

When we need to worry less is when we see 60-, 90-, and 120-day late payments over a year old but are current now, when we see debt balances decreasing, when we hear their plan for climbing out that is actually in place and working, when we hear their dream of being debt free is not just a dream but a process in place.  Until then, there’s no reason to believe they have learned their lesson or deserve another chance to prove themselves.  Let them prove themselves first.

We see applicants who have debt problems and some of them will be excellent candidates for employment or renting, but they are the ones who are in the process of correcting those  problems.  The people who dream about being out of debt, who know they have a problem but aren’t doing anything about it, who haven’t got a ladder so they can climb out of their debt hole are poor risks.  The proof is in a working plan. Make them show the proof.

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Screening in Both Tough and Good Times

By Robert L. Cain.  Written for Zip Reports.  Visit their website.

With the unemployment rate hovering around “no qualified employees” available, it is becoming more and more of a challenge to pick and choose the person who can do the job you want done.  Rental owners and managers have the opposite “problem,”  too many applicants.  Even so, the solution is the same.  We’ll look at that in a minute.

Yes, there are people out of work who don’t qualify as unemployed, but the labor department doesn’t count them.  Those are the people who are either “discouraged,” that is, given up looking for work as a bad idea or who are working in place-holder, temporary, or part-time jobs.  The Bureau of Labor describes “discouraged” as those who did not actively look for work in the preceding “four weeks for reasons such as thinks no work available, could not find work, lacks schooling or training, employer thinks too young or old, and other types of discrimination.”

They amount to some 8.4 percent of the population, including those who are considered by the Labor Department to be “unemployed.”

That group could be among those who apply for an available job.  Not the ideal situation.

However, a more telling statistic is that only 78.4 percent of the 25-54 year olds are in the labor force leaving 22.6 percent, or more than one in five, outside looking in.

Rental owners, on the other hand, in most parts of the country, have the opposite situation.  The national vacancy rate sits at about 7 percent, with some cities in the country at under 4 percent and Portland and Los Angeles at under 3 percent.  That means there are almost no vacancies and those that pop up are immediately swamped with applicants.  There are areas of the country where vacancy rates exceed 10 percent, and in those areas, the solution we will discuss still applies.

There’s a fly in the ointment, though, or maybe another fly.  The wheels of the economy are wobbling.  They haven’t fallen off yet, but the signs are there that all is not well.

For example, of the 107 million auto loans, 6 million of them are at least 90 days past due.  The real fly in the ointment is the number of subprime auto loans in trouble, some 9.1 percent report Standard and Poors data.

Of the 44 million student loans, 40 percent of them, 17.6 million, are either in default or at least 90 days past due.  That’s the combined population of Ohio and Indiana.  Of that 44 million student loans, 11.3 percent are in default, meaning 270-plus days past due.  That’s 4.972 million people, more than the population of Alabama.

Then there’s the credit card debt.  Of the $746 billion that people owe, $4.077 billion is seriously delinquent, amounting to nearly 10 percent of the people who have credit card debt.

Finally, there’s mortgage debt.  The total mortgage debt is $12.78 trillion, and of that the Wall Street Journal reports 5.54 percent of that is delinquent.  That is the highest figure excluding the recession numbers since they started keeping track in the early 1990s and exceeds the first quarter 2008 numbers. Of course, mortgage debt isn’t an issue for rental owners and managers.

All those numbers mean factoring in this information in deciding whom to hire and rent to.

What’s do employers looking to hire need to do?  What about rental owners and managers who have the opposite problem from employers?  The answer is the same: describe your ideal employee or tenant.

Obviously employers still must take care in hiring so they get employees who can not only do the job but also have the potential to be employees they want to keep.  That means deciding the minimum acceptable applicant.  And write it down.  Make a checklist on which all the boxes have to be checked for an applicant to get so much as an interview. That can include education, job experience, ability to get along with others, drugs, and credit situation.  Keep in mind debt situations that could affect someone’s ability to do the job. People whose cars are about to be repossessed or who are about to be evicted or foreclosed on are too big a risk what with those people possibly ending up not being able to get to work.

Rental owners and managers will do best to follow the same pattern.  Who is the ideal tenant?  If the vacancy rate in your area is bouncing on zero, you have the luxury of picking and choosing— making the rental standards such that only the highly qualified need even apply.  You can be selective about time on the job, qualities as a tenant as described by references, and amount of debt, factors that might make paying the rent a challenge.  The most important thing to keep in mind is don’t budge from your requirements no matter how “persuasive” an applicant is.  You have to follow all your procedures, something that might take a couple of days, before you can say yes or no.  Of course, it’s first come, first checked.  But you know that.

Remember, standards that are too strict can be loosened, but those that are too loose are much harder to tighten.

Yes, employers and rental owners and managers face the opposite situations, but the solution is the same, set up the criteria of whom you will accept.  If you don’t know who is acceptable, how will you know when he or she shows up? Of course, employers may want to be a little more lenient as far as credit goes, but not so much that the door is wide open for anyone who can breathe and who may show up for work every so often and somewhat sober.

For rental owners and managers, it means your standards in low-vacancy and no-vacancy areas are so stringent that only the most qualified will bother to apply.

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Two Issues: Beware of Reduced Student Loan Payments; and How to Ensure Judgments Appear on Credit Reports

By Robert L. Cain, written for Zip Reports, visit their website.

Reduced Student Loan Payment Concern

Here’s something to watch out for on credit reports: student loan payments.  About 43 million people have student loan debt, with industry estimates at around $1.4 trillion nationwide. Of that 43 million, over five million participate in one reduced payment plan or another on their loans.

That has allowed the borrowers to have their monthly payments lowered because of their incomes and family sizes.  The reduced amount they pay appears on their credit reports.  That amount, of course, varies depending on their income and family size.  Mortgage lenders, until April 2017, ignored the payment that showed on a credit report and instead calculated one percent of the total loan amount as the payment.  Fannie Mae changed that, but the calculation is about what the monthly payment would be were it not for a reduced payment plan, the monthly payment that shows on the credit report.  That makes for more people able to qualify for a mortgage.  However, that’s not what we are concerned with here.

So, for example, if a student loan was $40,000, one percent of that is $400, the expected, non-reduced payment that Fannie Mae mortgage lenders used before April 2017.  Now if the borrower had gotten the reduced payment and it was now $100, good for him or her.  But there’s a concern for employers and rental owners and managers.  You see, the reduced loan payment must be “recertified” every year and any income and family size changes reported.

Different programs calculate the payment reductions differently, and the ways they do it is enough to make you scratch your head.  Regardless, the payment amount is recalculated every year when the borrower “recertifies” the payment reduction.  Go to studentaid.gov for their explanation of the process.

Our concern is that the payment we see when we check an applicant’s credit could change markedly when he or she “recertifies” at the end of the year.  Thus, if you rent to someone and rely on say $100 as the monthly payment, if your new tenant has a new job that pays three or four times what his or her old job paid, that monthly payment could skyrocket in just a few months, making it difficult to pay the rent, especially after your new tenant goes out and buys a new Cadillac Escalade with a $850 a month payment to celebrate the new job.

The other issue is if the borrower neglects to “recertify.”  The payment then reverts to its original amount, probably the one percent of the loan amount.

Likewise for an employer, the new employee could end up unable to keep up rent payments and the car payment when he or she loses the reduced federal student loan payment thus getting evicted or having the car repossessed making getting to work problematic.

Sometimes a credit report will show a $0 monthly payment on a student loan.  Why, I don’t know, but the loan is not paid off.  A payoff would show in a different place.  The borrower has a reduced payment that isn’t recorded accurately on the credit report and requires the same precaution that any other amount would.

Just be aware that reduced student loan payments aren’t permanent and could change annually. You are safer recalculating the same way mortgage lenders have done.

How to ensure a judgment gets on a credit report

As we discussed last month, beginning July 1 judgments will appear on credit reports only if they contain a minimum of a name, address, and Social Security number and/or date of birth so the debtor can be properly identified.  It is up to county court clerks to record the judgments, but if we get a judgment against a debtor, we have to be diligent in ensuring that all that information appears on the judgment.  If it doesn’t, that individual who stiffed you could get off scot free and never worry about satisfying the judgment because the judgment never appears on the credit report.  He or she could go merrily along running up new bills and not paying them, either.

One huge advantage of a judgment is that the person against whom the judgment is filed can’t buy anything on credit until at least the judgment is satisfied, assuming the judgment shows on his or her credit report.  That means you might get paid.  Likewise, your judgment could keep the deadbeat from getting another job or renting an apartment.

I spoke with Attorney Dean Shyshlak of  Portland, Oregon, who told me the reason Social Security Numbers and dates of  birth stopped appearing on court records is identity theft.  Judgments, and all court actions, are public record and anyone can look at them either by going to the courthouse or maybe even going online.  That means if a Social Security Number or date of birth shows up, a criminal can create an instant new identity to use or sell to someone.  Even so, most state laws require that both the Social Security Number and date of birth appear on all money judgments. It has become optional for other court records for judgments than money judgments to contain identifying numbers that could result in identity theft.  In fact, some court clerks may automatically leave off such numbers on all judgments they record, despite the fact they are required for money judgments. Why is anyone’s guess.

Here’s how to ensure your judgment gets picked up by the credit reporting agencies.  Make sure that the judgment information contains a Social Security and/or a date of birth, or at least the last four numbers of the Social Security Number.  If the person against whom you obtained the judgment wants those identifying numbers removed, he or she can request it, but removal would probably violate state law.

What happens if the identifying numbers are left off and you want to ensure that your judgment appears on that person’s credit report?  Call the court clerk or county clerk and complain.  Ask what you need to do to get the required numbers on the judgment.  If you don’t get satisfaction there, talk to supervisors, then keep working your way up the ladder, if need be.

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