The Synthetic Applicant

By Robert L. Cain

Kelvin Lyles had been busy.  When police raided his home in Atlanta in December 2015, they found “information for over 300 synthetic identities, fake driver’s licenses, a fake social security card, and numerous credit cards held in the names of individuals other than Lyles,”  reported the US Attorney’s office. Police said that “Lyles attempted $435,862.10 in fraudulent credit card transactions and succeeded in obtaining approximately $350,000.”  Lyles is now spending three years and 10 months in federal prison for wire fraud.

He had used synthetic identities to establish credit histories involving false Social Security numbers with credit reporting agencies.  He had created synthetic identities to obtain credit cards in the names of people who did not exist, then used online credit processing to charge transactions to credit cards with all the ill-gotten funds going directly to him.

The news release from the US Attorney’s office doesn’t mention whether Lyles rented an apartment with a phony identity, but he probably didn’t apply for work since his criminal activity was so lucrative that he didn’t need a job.  But if he had applied somewhere, the rental or business owner would have had a difficult time finding out that who Lyles claimed to be was fraudulent.

Unfortunately, Kelvin Lyles case is rare, not rare that his crime is unusual, but rare that he got caught and prosecuted.  Synthetic identity fraud is a growing criminal activity and rarely results in a prosecution much less a conviction simply because the crooks are hard to find.  “It’s almost like a ghost is committing these crimes,” said prosecutor Warren Kato with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. Synthetic Identity fraud has become the largest kind of identity fraud accounting for some 80-85 percent of identity fraud, reports ID Analytics.

Because it’s a danger to anyone who checks the qualifications of applicants, it’s up to us to protect ourselves.   With synthetic identities, it’s hard to know if the person who is applying is actually the person he or she claims to be. Synthetic people are hard to pin down, but you can do it with careful screening, by believing only what you can confirm. We’ll look at how in a minute.

There are obvious reasons why someone would use a fake identity. One is credit so bad he or she would be sent packing when trying to rent a Barbie playhouse, but there are far more nefarious reasons.  One is sex offenders.  They are required to register and report their addresses forever, putting a damper on the possibility of their renting an apartment or getting a job. But if they hide their identities, if they become another person entirely, they have a “new life,” so to speak.  Then there are the violent criminals, people you almost assuredly don’t want living in any place you own or working in your business.  New identity, presto! They can live where they want or maybe even get a job.

The General Account Office reports, “Synthetic identity fraud (SIF) is a crime in which perpetrators combine real and/or fictitious information, such as Social Security numbers (SSN) and names, to create identities with which they may defraud financial institutions, government agencies, or individuals.”

Here’s how these crooks create synthetic identities.

Credit Profile/Privacy Numbers (CPN): They are called Credit Privacy Numbers (CPN), or Secondary Credit Numbers (SCN), creating “File Segregation” that begins a new credit identity. The companies that sell them promise new credit lines attached to a new credit report based on the Credit Privacy Number.  The lowest price to create a new self I found on the internet is $250 and up to $1500 for the full package of a “guaranteed 790 FICO score within 30 days and two new credit lines of up to $25,000 each.”  Sounds great, doesn’t it?  It isn’t.

These companies give their customers a new number that looks very much like a Social Security Number, and in fact may be a real one, just not theirs.  One way they do it is by going online and getting an Employer Identification Number (EIN) from the IRS.  It is nine digits long, just like a Social Security Number. Trouble is, in order to obtain an EIN, the IRS wants a Social Security Number that belongs to the person applying for the EIN.  Use a bogus one, and it’s a felony. Another way is by finding the Social Security Numbers of children with no credit history, long-term prison inmates, or dead people and selling it to the their customer as a CPN.  The General Accounting Office indicates that over 1 million children have their identity stolen each year and are 50 times more likely than adults to be a victim of SIF than adults

The third way is by “issuing” a Social Security Number that hasn’t been issued, and in fact may never be issued.  The Social Security Administration lists the ranges.  They might be any numbers that include -83-, second number set, because the SSA doesn’t issue any of those until all the numbers from -01- to -82- are issued. In addition, area numbers, the first three, run from 001-772.  Areas 666 and 734-749 are unused by the Social Security Administration.

Identity manipulation or compilation: slightly different from the CPN, they modify data  slightly to create a new identity that is not recognized by a credit bureau.  They may use an existing  Social Security Number, such as one from a dead person or a child, who has no credit record, and add a new address and such.  They create a new credit record by applying for a credit card.  Because there is no record, they get turned down, but the fact that they applied creates a credit record.  Then they apply for another credit card.  This time there’s a credit record and they may get a credit card with a $250 or $500 limit.  They use it and pay it off as agreed.  That creates a better credit record, albeit a phony one.  They apply for more and more credit, each time getting higher credit limits.  Before long, there’s a whole new person, but, of course, a synthetic one.

The more industrious among them will go so far as to start a shell company to facilitate the creation and maintenance of credit files associated with synthetic identities. The shell company gets a merchant account so it can process credit card charges. The criminal reports transactions charged through the shell company, and in the process, creates a credit history for a synthetic identity. The credit reporting agency might catch on and cancel the account, but the crook just creates another shell company to take its place.

Now they wait.  When they have enough credit built up, they “bust out,” running up huge balances and getting cash. Then they vanish.

How to catch them
If you are an employer or landlord and checking the credit of an applicant, you may see some red flags run up when you look at a credit report.  The first thing to always check is the Social Security Number itself.  By doing a “Social Search,” available from a screening company,  you can see first, the name or names the number belongs to and  second, if it has even been issued at all.  If a number has not yet been issued or is an EIN, it will come back as “no record found.”  That’s a red flag too large to ignore and entitles you to immediately reject the applicant, assuming he or she wrote the supposed Social Security Number correctly.  Another indication might be a credit file that is just a few months old and you’re looking at a 40-year-old person.  Hmmm?  Then there’s picture ID.  It’s difficult to get a driver’s license without proper ID such as a birth certificate, and the license will have the person’s picture, name, address, and birth date on it. Who was the license issued to and what’s the address on the license? Will it always work? No, nothing always works.  After all, Kelvin Lyles had phony licenses.

Doubt everything.  Verify everything.  Check everything by using a screening checklist.  The Federal Trade Commission reports that businesses lose $50 billion a year because of Synthetic Identity Fraud, and it is growing.  Don’t let it grow in your business.

When Kelvin Lyles gets out of prison, where will he live? Will some rental owner rent to him? Will he apply for a job using a synthetic identity? Check carefully.

Written for Zip Reports, employment and rental screening.  Visit their website for your screening needs.

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Let them screen you before you screen them

By Robert L. Cain

It’s harder and harder to get great employees what with more open jobs than available workers. They are out there, but so are the ones who just stumbled back into the labor force and may not be ideal candidates.  Same for tenants. The best ones, the applicants you dream about—the pleasant dreams, of course— will move somewhere.  Why shouldn’t the good ones call you? Why not to your property?  When they apply and you check them out, they are five-star applicants. But they may check you out, too.  What can you do to ensure that the top job applicants and the top rental applicants put your company or rental property at the top of their lists?

People like to do business with people they like, trust, and have confidence in.  Too many managers and landlords not only don’t qualify, but are toxic.  You know you have a well-run company or rental property.  How do you set yourself apart and entice the best applicants?  Social media is an effective way.

At least 70 percent of people use social media in some way with millennials, 22-38 year-olds, the highest percentage.  Some 80 percent of them use YouTube and 78 percent use Facebook, reports Pew Research, and can and often do use them to check out companies before they apply. The best applicants may screen you before you screen them.  With the job market where it is, attracting the best employees involves showing that your company is a great place to work, better than that cesspool where they work now for the boss who just doesn’t “get it.”  The highest quality tenants are welcomed any place they apply and expect to rent from the best landlords. They check you out through social media, Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Yelp, your website and others.  Here’s how to stand out and attract those applicants.

First, what do you say in any social media platform?  It’s the same thing whether you use Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, your website or anything else.  Never miss the chance to say something good about yourself.  What’s good?  What information that you post says “Call me NOW, but hurry”?  It’s the preemptive strike.  This may be the most powerful tool in your box, and one that others would never think of using but puts you head and shoulders above competing businesses and landlords. Think about what your qualities do for your applicant.—no data dumps, only benefits.  If you have owned the business or been in the rental property business for many years, so what?  How does your experience and expertise make working for you or renting from you a better experience than that of another company or landlord?

As a rental owner, for example, many landlords don’t respond to repair complaints the same day. So you say, “we respond to repair complaints within eight hours,” (or whatever time). The next landlord they talk to will then be forced into the position of answering a question he or she never thought about before or thought was important.  You have made it important because you brought it up. Other landlords may do the same thing you do, but the key is, if you say it, that sets you up as the expert, the standard of performance. People don’t know unless you tell them.

Another example, many businesses have high turnover, but your average employee stays with you for at least five years because you pay attention to employee satisfaction and that has helped make you successful.  Say how you do that.  It sets the criteria for a pleasant workplace.  It is important because you brought it up and sets you up as a great place to work.  Once again, people don’t know unless you tell them.

How long have you been in business or doing what you do?  Many years?  So what?  How does that benefit an employee or renter?  Many years of experience shows you are a stable company, one that most likely won’t go out of business.  That’s a benefit because employees and renters like to be able to depend on where they work or live where they won’t have to look for a new job or a new place to live until they are ready.  Combine that with what a great place you have to work or live and you create a model of desirability.

The most important thing is to think in terms of how whatever it is you do benefits the people who rent from you or work for you.  Just throwing out facts and figures doesn’t relate to any benefit.  Explain the benefit.

Demonstrate expertise.  You most likely make a good case for it on Facebook or your website.  But you can do more.  You may post a blog, but that requires considerable work and may not be something you can do well or even want to do yourself.  Of course, you can hire someone to do it, and that’s the best solution, but you can also reprint information about your industry because you keep up with the latest trends and news. Many websites welcome your reprinting their articles as long as you say where you got it and provide a link to their site. Be extremely careful here and only reprint information from sources that invite you to do so or that have given you written permission.  Reprint an article where the author has warned it may not be reproduced in any form without written permission could well result in a cease-and-desist letter from the website’s attorney and a demand for payment.   When in doubt, ask first. Provide new information regularly so people are enticed to keep coming back.  Good tenants will think, “I want to live there,” and excellent employees will think, “I want to work there.”

Something else to post on social media is your elevator speech.  What do you say when someone asks you about your business?  Many people create a 20-second or so speech that explains about them.  I won’t go into how to create one here.  There’s considerable information about how to do that on the internet.  Write it out and put it on social media.  Then be ready to say it when people call you.  So what if the applicant has already seen your elevator speech on Facebook.  Most likely they won’t remember it word-for-word, just the basic information you provided.  And your repeating it reinforces what you wrote.

But what if you don’t get any visitors after you have done the work? By doing it, you have sold yourself to yourself.  Just coming up with that information and those ideas reminds you of what an outstanding business you have, one that your competition will envy, but probably could never meet the standards of.

Good people like to rent from and work for good people.  The less-than-desirable ones figure there’s no chance they could rent from the top landlords or work for the top companies, so they don’t bother to apply to them. Wouldn’t it be great if after your applicants had screened you, your job of choosing which one to hire or rent to would be made a job of picking from a slate of five-star applicants?

Written for Zip Reports, employee and tenant screening company. Visit their website.

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Cashless Coming to a Store Near You?

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

If you shop at an Amazon bookstore, don’t bother bringing cash. They can’t accept it. Likewise at clothing retailers such as Bonobos, Indochino, Everlane and Reformation.  Then there are Drybar hair styling, The Bar Method fitness studios, and United and Delta airlines. None of them accepts cash, either.  It’s a growing trend to force people to pay with credit and debit cards and their phones.

Of course, the credit card companies are all for it.  Last year Visa doled out $10,000 to 50 businesses for creating videos glorifying going cashless and how it would benefit their bottom line.  The trend is growing, being pushed hard by credit card companies and providers of digital wallets such as Apple Pay and Google Pay.  Jerry Sheldon vice president of IHL, a firm that consults for retail and hospitality businesses, believes 40 to 50 percent of restaurants and stores will be cashless in the next 10 to 15 years.

As it is now, only about 30 percent of payments to businesses are made in cash, reports IHL, that’s down from 40 percent in 2012, with fast food leading the charge with 41.1 percent cash sales, followed by convenience stores and gas stations at 33 percent and mass merchants at 32.1 percent.  At the bottom of the cash acceptors are department stores with only 12.5 percent of their sales in cash.

Indochino, a custom men’s clothing chain, began life as an online business but added brick and mortar, is “prioritizing other payment methods” besides cash.  Their demographic is 25 to 44 year-olds, many of whom have grown up using digital payments, cards or phones.  In fact only 21 percent of 23 to 34 year-olds pay in cash, down from 39 percent five years ago, reports a Gallup poll.  Sheldon says, “Their lives are wrapped around their little phones.”  In fact, some 70 percent of Generation Zers use mobile banking every day and 68 percent want instant peer-to-peer payments.  They will make up some 40 percent of the population by 2020 estimates Accenture.

Businesses reasoning for refusing cash is tenuous, at best.  Tender Greens salad restaurant for example says that accepting only cards shaves about 10 seconds off taking orders.  Wow! Some savings. And having cash on site also involves more expenses, they say, such as armored cars, running to the bank for change, employee theft, and robberies.  For customers who would rather use cash, too bad.

Some cities and states have responded. Massachusetts, for example, has had a law on the books since 1978 that prohibits businesses from refusing cash.  Philadelphia and Washington, DC, are considering similar laws.

Of course, the credit card companies are ecstatic about the cashless prospect.  An ad in the Washington Post from T. Rowe Price claims “Experts predict that nearly 2.1 billion consumers worldwide will use mobile wallets to make payments in 2019.”  They add, “Mobile payment apps are successful because they make consumers’ lives far more convenient, saving them time and money.”  What they fail to mention is that every sale made through any cashless system has a two or three percent discount that goes to the credit card issuer.  Hence their ecstasy.  Then there’s the advertising revenue.  Every sale will be tracked and merchants will have the opportunity to buy ads touting a product or service similar to what the consumer just bought.  Just the way Google tracks searches now, the mobile carriers and credit card companies will be able to track purchases.

Speaking of ecstatic, the hackers are beside themselves with anticipation. First, there are the mobile phone payments.

Is it the fantastic innovation for consumers that companies such as T. Rowe Price claim it is?  John Rampton in the article “Hacking in Mobile Payments Space” wrote, “There have already been a number of mobile payment platforms that have been jeopardized.

Troy Leach, CTO of PCI Security Standards Council, states in a March 24, 2015 Forbes article, “The risk is that there are many different ways payments can move through the mobile payment platform from SIM, to host card emulation (HCE,) to in-app purchases.” Leach also said, “Each unique type of transaction requires unique risk for how criminals may attempt to circumvent controls to steal cardholder data or commit fraud.” No, I don’t know exactly what all that means, but bad guys probably do.  And you know it isn’t good news for people using their phones to pay for something.

It has to do with Near Field Communications (NFC).  But the problem isn’t with that but rather with the company that provided the hardware and software for the NFC in the store, states the Forbes article.  Over the last few years, the number of hacks of mobile pay is frightening. Companies such as Apple Pay have supposedly fixed the problem, but crooks are always one step ahead.  And they don’t even have to be particularly tech savvy.

An article on copy9.com entitled, “4 Ways to hack into someone’s cell phone without them knowing 2018,” provides easy ways to get it done providing complete instructions for getting into someone else’s phone.

But there’s more.  Several apps are on the market to get into someone’s phone.  They all provide reasons that are perfectly legal and probably legitimate such as watching what your kids are doing, hacking a spouse’s phone, or watching what parents are doing. But what they promise applies to much more than those instances. Just think, you have the capability to do: GPS geo-fencing & tracking, blocking of Internet access, restricting of calls & messages, keyword tracking alerts, logging of (e-mails, apps, keyboard), acessing contacts, browsing history, messages, messengers, social accounts, etc.) Other hacking products will do similar nefarious things.

The opinions of the experts is almost universal. In an article in Entrepreneur magazine, John Rampton cited an ISACA study that only 23 percent of the experts surveyed said they believed that mobile devices are secure enough to keep personal information safe, while 47 percent claimed that mobile payments are not secure.  The vast majority, 87 percent believe mobile payment data breaches will increase in the next year.

Then, second, there are just plain old, run-of-the-mill data breaches. Look at the data breaches of even some of the largest companies, the most recent the Marriott breach that wasn’t discovered for four years and not reported for three months after it was discovered. The list that includes Yahoo!, Equifax, Target, Home Depot, Anthem, the Office of Personnel Management, T-Mobile, Scottrade, and many more is frightening.

Hackers will always find ways to exploit any security problem. They are nothing if not persistent. But you can’t hack cash, only steal it, and the amount is limited and far more perilous to the crook than hacking on the internet. Hacking crime is like a free pass to the bad guys, the risk is miniscule and the potential profits unlimited. How many hackers get caught?  Mark Lanterman, C.T.O. of Computer Forensic Services, estimates it at less than one percent. And how many businesses have been hacked? CBS Marketwatch reports that smaller businesses (1,000 or fewer employees) are more prone with 85 percent estimated to have been hacked, while 60 percent of larger companies have suffered.  What’s worse, many companies never even realize they have lost data to crooks.

Even so, mobile payments and the cashless society may be a near-future fact.  It’s not the savior of society and the wonderful consumer convenience that credit business companies claim it will be.

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New FICO Scoring Plan Looks at 7 Million Possible New Customers

By Robert L. Cain.  Written for Zip Reports employment and rental screening company.  Visit their website.

Credit card issuers and other lenders are desperate.  Their profits have stagnated.  Credit card debt has reached the same level as in 2008, about $1 trillion.  That means, asTed Rossman of creditcards.com says, the lending market is saturated.  Where to get more business?

The lenders came up with an idea and pushed it on Fair Isaac Corporation, author of the FICO score.  Seven million people have too-thin a credit history or scores too low (the high 500s or low 600s) to be of any interest to lenders.  But the lenders still want more business and that possible market of that 7 million people makes lenders’ mouths water.  So what they proposed to Fair Isaac is that they add bank account information to the mix.

FICO, which depends on lenders paying for credit reports they pull for their income, complied and came up with Ultra FICO, a program that will include taking into consideration bank accounts both checking and savings.  If someone in the previous three months kept a savings account balance of an average of $400 and hasn’t bounced a check, he or she could be in luck and get a bump in his or her credit score that just might get that person a brand new credit card.

The credit card industry has a huge upside here.  Where those people with excellent credit can get interest rates below 10 percent, figure these new people will pay upwards of 29 percent.  Besides, many people with a top-of-the-line credit score pay off their credit cards every month, so the credit card issuers don’t make a dime off interest.  Wow! Just think of it, 29 percent interest on, say, a $1,000 balance.  That’s a payment of about $34 a month, most of which goes to interest, pure profit for the credit card company.  And even if only 3 million people were to take advantage of this new opportunity, that’s conservatively $102.5 million a month in income that they didn’t have before.

Of course, that could be a big savings for some people who depend now on payday lenders who may charge up to 400 percent interest, pawn shops, and loan sharks who may not be as forgiving as either payday lenders or certainly credit card issuers.

This program, which will roll out in early 2019 with just  few lenders and available only through Experian, is entirely voluntary for possible customers.  But count on lenders to push the program with TV and radio ads, touting its benefits to today’s non-credit worthy.

One wrinkle no one has mentioned is that at present, FICO scores do not take into consideration anyone’s income.  Pay your bills on time, have adequate available credit over an acceptable length of time, and you get a good credit score.  Income is left off the mix.  But bank records imply income.  All someone has to do is look at the amounts of deposits to get an idea of how much money someone earns.  Ted Rossman points out “Historically your FICO score has been affected by how well you manage your money, not how much money you have.”

Then there’s the sharing of data.  Maureen Mahoney of Consumers’ Union warns “Participating in this program involves sharing very sensitive banking information with third parties, so consumers should keep that in mind before” signing up.  And once lenders have that information, who will they sell it to?

Acceptance of this new FICO score could be a long way off, though.  Only a few lenders are going to use it in the beginning.  Fact is, many lenders don’t even use the latest FICO scoring models, FICO 9, which discounts the importance of medical debts and may include rent payments, or FICO XD, which adds utility payment and public records to credit files.

Thus, FICO Ultra will not be available to employers and landlords in the beginning, even though it might be a better predictor of how well someone will pay bills than an old-style credit report might be.  After all, if someone religiously pays the rent and has some money in the bank, figure that’s a positive sign.  The only thing to be concerned with is unaffordable car payments that could result in repossessions that could result in not being able to get to work.  But if someone doesn’t have existing credit, the likelihood of having a car payment is slim.

Yes, lenders are getting desperate and there’s a huge, untapped potential market that they want to figure out how to grant credit to.  Their problem will be how to ensure that this untapped market actually pays its bills once it get those credit cards and car payments.

We’ll have to wait and see because many people simply don’t want to use credit, don’t want anyone interfering in their financial lives, and are content with paying cash.  At present there are some 24 million households who are considered “underbanked,” meaning they have checking accounts but use other financial “tools” such as pawn shops, check-cashing stores, and/or payday or auto title loans. Most say they don’t have enough money to open and keep a checking account. Then there are the “unbanked,” some 9 million households. They may never have applied for or applied for credit from a bank because they feared rejection or applied and have been rejected..  They also use the same “tools” as the underbanked.  They use cash or prepaid debit cards and lenders are out of luck.

These are the people whom lenders want to sign up. They see an opportunity what with their bumping up against the maximum of the market they have now.

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Low-Balance Student Loans Can Mean Credit Problems

By Robert L. Cain

School’s not for everyone, but hope is.  Hope can overtake someone’s memory of school experience as he or she thinks about wanting to get ahead and the education or training it will take to do it. Stuck in a dead end job, the only hope for something better is more education (or winning the lottery), they come to realize.  They sign up for classes apparently thinking that the problems they had with school would be different than when they were less than successful before.  But the problems are the same, and what’s worse, life happens—the double whammy.

Because they soon remember and experience why school wasn’t for them, their return to school doesn’t last long, but the student loan they got to go back to school does.  It hangs on albatross-like over their financial situation.  They don’t owe much, but apparently it’s enough to keep them from getting it paid off what with the other bills hanging over them and life grabbing them by the heels and dragging them further down.

A recent study by the Urban Institute looked at who is most likely to default on a student loan and discovered something that seems counter intuitive.  It turns out that the people most likely to default on a student loan are those with a balance of less than $5,000.  A low student loan balance usually means they never finished school and so never got the degree they hoped for. The Urban Institute report found “Borrowers who owe less than $5,000 at the start of repayment are the most likely to default within four years; 32 percent of these borrowers defaulted at least once” in the four years after the loan becomes due. On the other end of the scale, people with student loan balances of over $70,000 have a chance of defaulting of less than 1 percent. In fact, the higher the balances, the less likely people are to stop paying.   The reason is simple: those with higher balances most likely finished school, got degrees, and got better jobs.  Those with lower balances didn’t, but they hoped.

The low-balance loan holders added student loan debt to their already overwhelming other debt. They “are more likely to be in collections on some other type of financial obligation” such as utilities collections debt and medical debt. Plus some have retail debt or bank debt, continues the Urban Institute report.

Defaulting on a student loan requires ignoring, or wishing the bill would go away, for considerable time.  Those loans issued by the government don’t go into default until after 270 days, nine months.  Other debts can go into default or collection after 90 days.  And to default more than once on a student loan requires extensive failure to pay debts in a four-year period.  And what’s worse, when a borrower defaults on a loan, it grows.  Interest keeps getting added to the principal balance sometimes adding more than 10 percent to the original loan amount, so a $5,000 debt might grow to $5,500 or more.

The most common delinquent debts other than student loans were utility collections at 35 percent, medical collections at 41 percent, and credit card debt at 24 percent.  Some 75 percent of the defaulters had some other debt or debts in collection when they defaulted, reports the Urban Institute study. As a result, or because of, these bills, the credit scores of the defaulters were most often between 500 and 540.  It’s as if the world ganged up on them and beat down any hope they had of getting ahead.  They saw going back to school, something that had already shown didn’t work for them, as the only way to get a better job and earn enough money to escape the debt trap.

We have to empathize with them, but they are most likely in a hole they won’t be able to climb out of anytime soon.

Even so, as alarming as these figures are, the vast majority of people with student loans of less than $5,000, or any amount for that matter, repay their loans and never go into default, even if they never completed their education and got that hoped-for better job.

It is just that people who have had the most problems in school are more likely to end up with unresolved student-loan debt than are those for whom school worked.  There’s nothing we can do about the educational system’s characteristics that affect people who have difficulty with the educational system, but we can be aware that the people with low student loan balances more likely are in financial trouble than those who are repaying higher balances.

Written for Zip Reports employment and tenant screening company.  Visit their website.

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Is Social Media a Solution?

By Robert L. Cain, Copyright 2018 Cain Publications, Inc.

Years ago I worked with a man in his early 20s  who drank nightly, and not just a little.  Every morning, when he managed to actually show up to work, he was so hung over that he could barely function.  He had continually bloodshot eyes, when you could see them, and he reminded me of the Morlocks in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine because had eyes so sensitive to light that he had to avoid bright lights and sunshine. Only wearing sunglasses to allow him to function.  One morning one of his eyes bled because a blood vessel broke from his excessive drinking. No, he didn’t last long, and was summarily fired one day.

Today he would probably have been taking drugs nightly, but result would be the same.  And today, he could well have been celebrating his excesses on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, or Whatsapp.  In those days, employers could rely only on resumes, employment applications, and references.  Likewise landlords could only rely on rental applications, previous landlords, and references.  They had no access to credit reports, of course, as there is now.  But just as telling, there was no social media, either.

Today, some four out of five people have a social media profile, reports statistica.com.  Young adults are even more present, with some 88 percent of 18-29 year olds and 78 percent of 30-49 year olds using social media reports Pew Research.  The younger the person, the more likely he or she is to broadcast on social media what we could consider unflattering information, and the more likely he or she is to leave that information open for anyone to see rather than just friends and acquaintances.

Resumes always look good; employment and rental applications always are at least neutral and try to look good; credit reports can often be telling, but they probably won’t catch the kinds of behavior that might dissuade an employer from hiring or a landlord from renting.  Peeking into someone’s social media posts can be informative and might provide information that would affect the hiring or renting choice.

Depending on the social media and the settings of the user, it can be easy or not so easy to look at what an applicant-user has posted.  For when it is not so easy, you can find numerous YouTube videos that explain in detail how to go about locating someone and reading their posts even when they try to make them private.  I won’t go into the process here; just check them out yourself if you want to see what an applicant might have shown the world.  Instead, let’s look at things that might affect hiring and renting and things that don’t matter.

A Forbes magazine article from April 16, 2013 reported that “A third (34%) of employers who scan social media profiles said they have found content that has caused them not to hire the candidate. About half of those employers said they didn’t offer a job candidate the position because of provocative or inappropriate photos and information posted on his or her profile; while 45% said they chose not to hire someone because of evidence of drinking and/or drug use on his or her social profiles.”

A Computer World article on July 1, 2013, reported, “24% [of employers] said they had rejected applicants after finding information that indicated that a candidate had lied about qualifications.”

A typical response from an applicant is often that it is none of an employer’s or landlord’s business what the applicant does on his or her time.  That is often true but in some cases, not so much.

The obvious “none of your business” social media posts would be gossip about friends, usually, but not always, pictures about a vacation or family get together, usually, but not always, and political beliefs, usually, but not always.

When posts are concerning is when they show irresponsible behavior on the part of an applicant or possibly his or her friends.  For example, if an applicant is applying for a job as a delivery driver and posts about his recent drunk driving arrest, that is definitely a cause for concern and likewise for a landlord.  Drunk driving fines can be financially crippling and drunk drivers may lose their driver’s licenses, which means they may not have the money to pay the rent and they may not be able to get to work to earn money to pay the rent, likewise if someone posts pictures or videos about debauched behavior.  Think about the young man I described at the beginning.

Drinking and even drug use is not a concern if it doesn’t affect someone’s ability to get to work and do the work, but it often does.  The problem with drug use is that it may well affect work and could result in an arrest and jail.

Then there are posts about wild parties. There’s nothing wrong with a party, even a wild one, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the quiet enjoyment of neighbors.  If it does, a landlord might want to think twice or even three times about renting to this individual.  The explanations about why he or she was evicted from the last place will be interesting and will argue that the applicant is entirely blameless and maybe even the “victim of a conspiracy.” Never decide to rent to an applicant while you are listening to him or her.  Check it our further.

Similarly, domestic violence issues can affect someone’s ability to work.  If you were to see a post that said “I beat my old lady because she wouldn’t shut her mouth,” that would definitely be cause for concern for obvious reasons.  Does he have anger issues?  Does he carry them over to the workplace?  Might he not show up for work one day because he had to spend the night in jail for “beating his old lady”?  It’s hard to believe that someone would post such a thing on social media, but people surprise us every day.

For the most part, political beliefs should have no bearing on hiring or renting, but they might if those beliefs involve hate groups.  An employer and landlord can count on problems with an applicant if that person is a racist or has a prejudice against people of another religion. There will be workplace contention and possibly neighborhood contention depending on the racial and religious composition of the workplace and area around the rental.  No, that person’s opinion is usually none of our business. But when it carries over to problems at work or home, it becomes our business.

Resumes, employment and rental applications, references and credit reports are great places to find possible candidates for a job or a rental, but to get a more complete story, use social media to see if what this person does in his or her spare time could affect work or home.

Written for Zip Reports employment and tenant screening company.  Visit their website.

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More Jobs, But Flat Pay and Economic Woes

By Robert L. Cain  Copyright 2018 Cain Publications, Inc.

“They are taking on debt that they can’t repay. A drop in savings and rise in delinquencies means you can’t support the (overall) spending,” said Stephen Gallagher, economist at Societe Generale.  Any dramatic increase in prices, such as gas or the results of higher tariffs could result in “a rather dramatic scaling back of consumption.”

Gallagher was talking about the 40 percent of the population that is driving up consumption and doing so by running up credit card debt, dipping into savings, and just squeaking by every month.  Consumption spending makes up 70 percent of the economy’s output, or $11.8 trillion in 2017.  Historically, the middle and upper-income portions of the economy has driven consumption, but in the last two years, the lower-income portion has driven consumption spending while the upper-income portion has sat pretty, avoiding increases in spending.  What they’re doing with their money is only something we can speculate about.

But that bottom 40 percent is what can create problems for the economy when they run up against a situation where they are overwhelmed with debt and other obligations.  It’s only a car repair away from disaster for many.

The Federal Reserve in its “Report on the Economic Well-being of U.S. Households in 2017” found that “Four in 10 adults in 2017 would either borrow, sell something, or not be able pay if  faced with a $400 emergency expense.”  That percentage has decreased in the past five years, but the tenuous economic situation of this group has increased.  One in five can’t meet current monthly expenses with their current incomes.  They skip paying someone every month.  Who doesn’t get paid?  Top of the list is credit cards which 49 percent skip paying, followed by phone bills at 27 percent, and utilities (water, gas, electric) at 26 percent.  Not far down the list is rent or mortgage at 17 percent and car payment at 14 percent.

Already, credit card and auto loan delinquencies are increasing at a worrisome rate.  Credit cards have been the fallback source of payment for many lower-income folks but this year has seen a spike in delinquencies. Since 2013, delinquencies increased 22.5 percent to 1.96 percent, the highest percentage since 2010.  Not far behind are auto loans whose delinquencies increased 18.7 percent since 2013 to 1.46 percent, the highest since 2009.  Credit card debt is “only” a $815 billion market, apparently not large enough to give Wall Street shivers if it crashes, but still a mainstay of that 70 percent of the economy.

One reason for the tenuous situation with credit card debt is the easing of qualification for credit cards.  Subprime auto loans are another problem. Reports Pymnts.com “Borrowers in the U.S. are defaulting on subprime auto loans at a higher rate than during the financial crisis in 2008. Data from Fitch Ratings shows that the delinquency rate for subprime auto loans more than 60 days past due reached the highest since 1996 at 5.8 percent. The default rate during the 2008 financial crisis was around 5 percent.”

The reason for this shaky situation for lower-income people is that while the economy has grown, wages have not.  Factor in inflation, and we find that hourly earnings have dropped for 80 percent of the private-sector workers in this country.  These include people working in healthcare, fast food, and manufacturing.  To higher-income people, it doesn’t matter as much because they were ahead of the game to begin with.  But to that 40 percent who live on the edge, it means having to pay some bills late such as credit cards, phone, utilities, cars, and rent.

Who makes up this 40 percent?  The largest determiner is education level.  The Federal Reserve Report says “Those with less education are also less able to handle unexpected expenses.”  For those people with bachelor’s degrees, 80 percent have no problem with bills.  But for those with a high school education or less, only 54 percent are in good shape.  And it only looks to get worse for the less-educated.  The Federal Reserve reports that of the 2.6 million jobs added last year, seven of 10 of them went to college graduates. For high school graduates, only 1 percent could take advantage of the job gains.  That leaves the less educated even deeper in their financial holes with little hope of getting a higher paying job.  And those people with high school diplomas and some college amount to 117.5 million people or 46 percent of the population in the workforce.  That’s a huge chunk of people who are looking for that 1 percent of newly created jobs that require only a high school education to qualify for.

That puts those 117.5 million people in the crosshairs of being on the losing end of employment and income and in a place that may relegate them to a dark corner where they will always be eking out an existence month-to-month. They fearfuly await that $400 bill that will put them in a hole they can’t climb out of.  It is only to going get worse for them.  The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that by 2020, 65 percent of jobs will “require some form of postsecondary education.” That will leave 46 percent chasing 35 percent of the jobs that require only a high school education.

One fact that is particularly concerning and telling is the fact that most of this 40 percent can’t answer five financial literacy questions the Federal Reserve asked correctly.  For example, 57 percent could not correctly answer the question, “Considering a long time period (for example, 10 or 20 years), which asset . . .normally gives the highest returns? [Stocks, Bonds, Savings accounts, Precious metals].

Some 41 percent didn’t know that housing prices could decline, and 36 percent didn’t know that if earnings increase 1 percent and inflation 2 percent, you lose money.  You don’t have to be good at math to figure that one out.

The upshot of all this is that while the U.S. economy is hanging on and people are feeling confident with their economic situations, some may be living an illusion watching their meager savings dwindle and their credit card debt increase every month. Their incomes are simply not enough to cover expenses.  As a result, more and more people, particularly lower-income, must dip into what savings they have to cover month-to-month expenses.  The savings rate, reports the Federal Reserve, fell to 2.4 percent in January, the lowest since 2006.

If the current situation continues, that 40 percent of the population now driving the economy through borrowed money and declining savings, could slow down its spending and drastically reduce that $11.8 trillion, thus sending the U.S. economy into a tailspin.

Written for Zip Reports, applicant screening company.  Visit their website.

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Is Your Applicant’s Identity Synthetic?

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

Charlotte was born in 2012, a healthy, happy girl with responsible parents who immediately found a pediatrician to ensure that Charlotte would continue to be healthy and happy.  When her  proud new parents went to their new pediatrician’s office, they dutifully filled out paperwork including Charlotte’s newly issued Social Security Number.  That was their big mistake.  There is no way that the paperwork they filled out was secure.   It wasn’t long before Charlotte became the victim of one of the latest fraud schemes by crooks, Synthetic ID, when the patient records of the pediatrician were hacked.  The result was something either Charlotte nor her parents might know about for almost two decades.

The impetus for this latest scheme was the EMV card.  You know, that credit card that has an embedded chip, the kind you slide in the card reader and the bank okays the transaction.  In the bad old days, if crooks stole a credit card, they could go on a spending spree until they were either caught or ran up the card to its limit.  Now, though, stolen and counterfeited cards don’t work the way they did in the wild west of credit card theft.  So on to new schemes.

This one is particularly nefarious.  Bad guys hide under carefully constructed rocks and behind carefully cultivated bushes to create a new “person.” They create a fake identity by using a legitimate Social Security Number or even a made-up one, creating a phony name and birth date, creating a phony address, and using a burner phone as a contact number.  The address is most likely legitimate; it may be that of one of their partners in crime, but that’s where the bad guy gets mail.  The best sources of usable Social Security Numbers are children, as in the case of Charlotte, the elderly, the dead, and unused numbers.  Once they have a number, off they go and a whole new person is “born.”

In 2030, when Charlotte turns 18, she may want to get a student loan to go to college.  Trouble is, her Social Security Number was already used by a bad guy for over a year to create a synthetic identity starting 18 years earlier and has red flags all over it.  Now Charlotte has a problem to sort out before she can get a student loan, or maybe a job or rent an apartment.

Synthetic IDs are relatively easy to set up what with so much financial activity online.  Of course, this brand new person doesn’t have a credit file, but he will shortly.  He does that by applying for a credit card and gettting turned down, naturally, but that creates a file.  Step one is a success.

Now he has to establish credit.  He can do that by becoming an “authorized user” of someone else’s card.  That could well be one of his crook cronies who also used faked credit to establish a credit record.  Equifax explains in its white paper “The Stark Reality of Synthetic ID Fraud,” “An authorized user is someone who is granted access to another person’s credit card account.  Authorized users receive full access to the account’s credit line, but are not legally responsible for paying the balance. . . from their use of the account.” After account holder’s bills have been paid regularly and on time for six months, our brand new person has a credit record and can apply for a credit card again.  This time he will likely get one.  Step two is a success.

Credit established, now he can get utilities in his name, cable service, cell phones, online bank accounts, cars, and many other things that require a credit check.  Step three is a success.

Then, he applies for more credit, either loans or credit cards, all online because face-to-face is an iffy proposition.  He can accumulate thousands of dollars in credit on his way to the “bust out.”  Step four is a success.

Now he lurks, staying current on bills, but waiting for the ideal moment to “bust out” from under his rock or behind his carefully cultivated bush, ready to take advantage of all that hard work.  He maxes out every credit line and “disappears.”  Actually, disappears is probably a misstatement, since he never “appeared” in the beginning.  It was all a sham.

Creditors come looking for him, but he’s nowhere to be found because he doesn’t exist.  After a few futile months, they write off the charges.  A study by Equifax found that synthetic ID fraud costs communications and energy providers up to $25 million a year.  The average charge-off is $866 per account, and the average wireless loss is $1,500 per account.  The study found further that half a million accounts were potential synthetic identities in 2017.  Another study done by Auriemma Consulting Group (ACG) estimates that 5 percent of accounts charged off and up to 20 percent of credit losses and up to $6 billion in the past year are attributable to fake identities.  They don’t include store credit cards or auto loans in their calculations, so the total is likely much higher.

The study only looked at credit issues, not how much rental owners and managers and employers may lose.  Rental owners can be especially vulnerable if they don’t do a proper job of screening applicants.  They may run a credit check, but it comes back that the person has decent credit.  And that’s all the further they check.

The best way to combat such people is a thorough check.  First, the driver’s license has to match  the information on the rental application.  Driver’s licenses require that someone show up in person at the Motor Vehicle Department of show ID proving they are who they are.  That requires at least a birth certificate and possibly other government-issued identification.  Yes, someone could dummy up one of those, but the idea behind a synthetic identity is to steal actual money, not drive under a new identity.  Even so, no driver’s license is required to register a vehicle, so the car he is driving could be registered to the synthetic identity.

That said, the driver’s license name has to be the same as that on the credit report.  Just ask to see the license.  Now check the previous residences.  Don’t just call the names and phone numbers listed as previous landlords, they are likely his criminal buddies.  Go online to the county property tax records and find the name of the owners of the properties where he said he used to live.  If they don’t match the names of the previous landlords, your applicant has some explaining to do.  Chances are he won’t explain.  He’ll just vanish.  Better he vanishes now than six months from now owing several months’ rent.

Checking employers could be another interesting piece of research.  Same drill here.  Look up the actual phone number of the employer and see if it matches the one on the rental application.  If it doesn’t, he has more explaining to do.  Once again, he most likely won’t explain.

And what about Charlotte?  Baby Charlotte would certainly not check her credit, but parents can and might want to think about it. If an actual credit report appears, they will want to act to ensure that when Charlotte is old enough to need a Social Security number for work, school, or a place to live, the record is red-flagless.

Ira Goldman of ACG said, “Synthetic fraud will continue to be a key migration point for fraudsters in credit card, auto finance, and other segments of consumer lending.”  Those who stand to lose the most would do best to redouble their efforts to combat it by double and triple screening of applicants.

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The Crippling Stigma of Underemployment

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

The cellophane from the newly minted bachelor’s degree diploma was barely in the recycling bin when his career was permanently crippled.   Joe graduated at the wrong time, 2008.  The Great Recession ran from 2007 to 2009 and put Joe and his fellow graduates in a career hole that they might never escape from.

They went looking for their first jobs and found there were few of them.  Still ringing in their ears were the exhortations of their commencement speakers  such as Bono who said to the graduating class of 2008, “What are you willing to spend your moral capital, your intellectual capital, your cash, (and) your sweat equity in pursuing outside of the walls of the University of Pennsylvania? The world is more malleable than you think and it’s waiting for you to hammer it into shape.”  Their hammers just weren’t big enough.

These graduates earn less money than their peers earned 25 years earlier reported the Federal Reserve, and they were doomed to continue earning less for at least the next 10 years and possibly their entire careers.  A May 2018 study by the Strada Institute  found “The first job is critical. Those who start out well employed rarely slide into underemployment. An overwhelming number of workers who were appropriately employed in their first job continued to hold positions that matched their levels of education five years later (87%). Almost all of those appropriately employed at the five-year mark were still at that level 10 years later (91%).”

So Joe’s earnings as a barista at Starbucks, the only job he could find, doomed him to lower earnings than his bachelor’s degree might have meant than those who graduated 10 years later.  The report continued, “The financial costs of underemployment are substantial. We estimate that underemployed recent graduates, on average, earn $10,000 less annually than graduates working in traditional college-level jobs. This imbalance leaves underemployed graduates generally on weaker financial footing as they start their careers.”  The only graduates who seemed to have dodged the Great Recession bullet were STEM graduates (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), and some others that we’ll look at in a minute.

Joe was just unlucky to have graduated in 2008, one of the worst years in recent history to have earned a degree.  All graduates who end up taking jobs that could well have gone to those without a bachelor’s degree end up in the same boat.  A 2006 Harvard University study by Lisa Kahn found “Wage loss ranges from 1%-13% each year, relative to the cohorts with the minimum state and national unemployment rates, or close to $80,000 over the first 20 years of a career.”

The Strada Institute study found that 43 percent of the 2008 graduates took jobs that didn’t require a college degree.  Five years later two-thirds of them were still underemployed, and 10 years later three-quarters of those underemployed after five years were still working for less money than those who graduated in better economic times.

Why that occurs is discussed in Lisa Kahn’s paper, but she only speculates from available literature.  She speculates “if workers who graduate in bad economies develop disparities in human capital accumulation then they will be less productive than their luckier counterparts, even years after graduation, and we will see long-term effects.”  She says further, “These individuals should have lower average wages controlling for experience (relative to graduates who entered in a thick market and probably found matches more quickly) because they have spent more time in bad matches (i.e., where they are less productive).” Let’s look at what her speculation means in more understandable English.

It means that once someone has taken a lower-paying, lower-prestige job, that shows a prospective employer that that person isn’t as qualified as someone who has never taken a lower-paying, lower-prestige job.  Employers also look at current wages for prospective employees and may see a qualified prospect whose wage history indicates that he or she will work for less than another prospective employee who has never been underemployed.

Another speculation has to do with the person who is underemployed.  He or she may be so desperate to escape a low-paying position that the lower relative salary of the job he or she is applying for looks far better than the pay that person is getting now despite what other people in similar jobs are paid.

But that leaves 57 percent of graduates who were not underemployed. They did better than others and continue to do better than others in the job market.  Of course some of them were STEM majors, but others found a way to use their skills by emphasizing those skills of value across a range of industries.  Skills such as computer coding, writing, and critical thinking are of value in every industry.  A 2007 study conducted by The Conference Board, “Are They Ready for Work?” found that lack of written communications skills was the biggest workforce problem with 80.9%, four out of five, workers showing a deficiency.  Another lacking skillset was oral communication.  Along with effective writing, effective oral communication is a skill lacking in many people, not just 2008 college graduates.

Then critical thinking is essential.  In my own experience teaching college, I found that most college students are simply unable to think logically through different situations. They jump to conclusions, have no ideas about logical fallacies, and so are duped by propaganda from salespeople, advertising, and politicians.

What those who were never underemployed, aside from the STEM graduates, did was emphasize their writing, communication, and critical thinking (and maybe computer coding) skills rather than their major where there may have been far too few jobs to accommodate these them.

Possibly a new approach is necessary from college graduates to cut the risk of their being eternally underemployed.

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The Fumbling of Credit

By Robert L. Cain, written for Zip Reports.

Credit Karma calls them “Credit Fumbles.”  In fact they liked the term so much they trademarked it.  They define it as “phenomenon where young adults, new to credit and many without financial education, make largely avoidable financial mistakes.”  They hired a survey company find out just how prevalent Credit Fumbles are.  They discovered that of those they surveyed, all aged 31-44 years old, more than two-thirds of them had experienced at least one Credit fumble before they were 30.

The credit fumbles were either overspending on credit cards, missing payments, having an account turned over to collection, or completely defaulting on a loan.

A fumble in football can mean something as serious as a turnover that results in a touchdown for the other team or as insignificant as the loss of a couple of yards.  There were lots of turnovers for touchdowns, or at least big yardage gains by the other team.  It found that three of four who fumbled their credit had a negative impact on “their quality of life.”  The large majority, 69 percent, didn’t know what or understand what a credit score was when they got their first credit card.  The result of these miscues was that 61 percent said a credit card company turned them down, 10 percent had an employer refuse to hire them because of bad credit, and 26 percent had to move back home with parents to try to recover their financial health.  The study didn’t ask how many were turned down by landlords to rent an apartment, but you can imagine how that went.

How did all this come about?  Many “experts” blame the lack of financial education young people receive.  Most people receive no financial education in high school and then they are turned loose on the world, or the world is turned loose on them. And they are babes in the woods. But I never received any financial education in high school decades ago, so that is nothing new.

One thing that went on until 2010 was credit card companies swarming on college campuses like piranhas gobbling up the credit of 18-year-olds.  “Can you breathe? Good.  Got a pen?  Sign here.”   And as a reward for signing up for a credit card, the credit card companies gave them free t-shirts, gift cards, and magazine subscriptions.  Even though the Federal Reserve sort of stopped that practice in 2010, it hasn’t helped those who went to college before the law went into effect, and that would include almost all of the 31-44 year olds who were surveyed for Credit Karma.

Under the new rules credit card companies have to stay at least 1,000 feet away from college campuses, must establish that an applicant can most likely pay the credit card bill, and can’t use the “breathe and sign your name” system for anyone under 21. They have to get a co-signer to get a card. They also can’t give away “tangible items,” such as t-shirts and such.  What they can give away are discounts, reward points, and promotional credit terms, plus gift certificates to restaurants.  The dirty secret here is that universities made big bucks from the credit card companies for allowing them to set up tables on campus.  The colleges still do make big bucks, they just game the system a little.

Why would credit card companies extend credit to naïve 18-year-olds?  They figured mom and dad would bail their kids out.  And they did in many cases, but not in all of them, hence the 26 percent moving back home with parents.

Of course, then there are the student loans.  It’s a broken record, but the Federal Reserve reported that 43.3 percent of young families, head of household younger than 40, had education-related debt.  And that debt has risen steadily to $33,300 in 2016 from $30,700 in 2013.  Some 72 percent of college grads carry some debt.  Then there are those who have student loan debt but no diploma, those who had to drop out of college.  They are in even more serious financial trouble because their incomes tend to be less than those of college grads.

Even grads aren’t doing as well, though.  The Great Recession had a huge impact on wages and wages have not recovered.  The Federal Reserve reports that wages have been all but flat since 2000.

It wasn’t that long ago when this situation was rare and individualized.  As late as the mid-1980s, for example, in order to get a credit card, someone had to have a job and prove he or she could pay the bill.  And college expenses have risen astronomically since the 1980s.

Collegeboard.org reports that annual tuition and fees at a public, four-year college went from $3190 in 1987-88 to $9970 in 2017-18.  That far outpaces the rate of inflation which would mean that that same $3190 in 1987 would now be $7007.92 today, an increase of 120 percent. But college tuition and fees rose 213 percent.  That doesn’t include housing and food, either.

The credit issues will remain a problem for the foreseeable future. Even with low unemployment, wages have remained flat and the “Credit Fumbles” brought on by a lack critical of thinking ability still haunt people.  Of course, financial education would help, but younger people are still babes in the woods.

 

 

 

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