July 2017

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How Your Data Get into the Wrong Hands

Chris Vickery, director of cyber-risk research for UpGuard in California, warned NPR listeners recently about a situation in which another high-technology company allowed 198 million voters’ personal information to become publicly accessible online.

When our non-financial information gets loose on the Internet, it can cause financial damage: “If a bad guy has your phone number and can get your PIN, they can, at 3 in the morning, get a code sent to your phone, listen to your voicemails, log in to your bank account and drain all your money,” Vickery said. “Phone numbers are more important than people realize.”  

Callout quoteSquared Away asked him to expand on what occurs when we freely hand over our personal data to retailers, financial institutions, and credit rating agencies, which then sell it to other companies or “data brokers” that buy and resell data.

Q. Is the dangerous situation you mentioned involving voters’ personal information still present, and has any financial fraud resulted from its release?

Vickery. I don’t know of any specific frauds that came out of that situation, but voter data in general – the more we make it available, the more fraud that is bound to come of it. It’s not a good idea.

Q. It has become routine to share our email address, as we’re required to do when we conduct business or buy things online. Is this a bad idea?

Vickery. Knowing that you use a particular email can be very useful to a bad guy. But the fact of the matter is there are a lot of people being careless with their emails. Getting mad at your best friend who gives your email address to an airline to share your arrival time might be a little unreasonable, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect the companies to treat them more carefully than they have been. Companies that buy and sell your data create risks for you.  For example, have you heard of the concept of a “data base of ruin”? That is the concept whereby a dataset is created – maybe not all in one place – a healthcare breach here, a supermarket breach there – and this is all being brought together in one form where a malicious actor can search anybody and, based on one email address that you have authenticated, can get everything on everybody. This data base of ruin is starting to emerge. There are people seeking to do this, and there are already data sets commercially available that are scary in the level of detail they go into.  The more we can protect data and make those things unlikely to be used, the better off we will be.

Q. A 2013 Senate report found that data brokers buying and selling personal information sort people into various categories based on their financial circumstance – in essence there is a profile of every one of us, and it can be used for fraudulent purposes. How do these profiles get compiled?

Vickery. The roots of this stuff probably existed before I was born in 1984.  I can’t tell you exactly where it all came from, but things like voter data bases get rolled into these commercial purposes. Everything you buy at the grocery store with your special discount card gets rolled into these data bases. Anybody you provide data to is turning around and selling it to somebody. …Learn More

Washington DC

Retirement Researchers Meet Next Week

On August 3 and 4, the Retirement Research Consortium will hold its annual meeting in which retirement researchers from around the country will converge on Washington to present their latest findings.

The papers being presented next week will explore the impact on retirement from our health, work-life balance, and family ties, as well the millennial generation’s prospects for retirement. These are just some of the research topics. Click here for the full agenda.

For those who can’t attend, the CRR will provide live streaming of the presentations as they occur. In late August, they will be archived on the CRR’s website.

The Retirement Research Consortium includes the Center for Retirement Research (CRR) at Boston College, which sponsors this blog, as well as the Michigan Retirement Research Center, and the National Bureau of Economic Research. The research being presented at the conference is funded by the U.S. Social Security Administration.  Throughout the year, the findings will be covered in this blog.Learn More

Retrofitting Your Home for Old Age

Brickhouse Design Group Ltd.

Big advances in the construction industry are helping the elderly better maneuver around their homes, and they’re doing it in style.

Ramps no longer look like ramps; they are pleasantly lit walkways with stone paving. Compact pneumatic elevators squeeze into tight spaces.  The lip at the entrance to the shower – the one an elderly person can trip over or that blocks a wheelchair – has cleverly been eliminated. Watch this recent webinar to find out how.

And here’s an interesting idea: a reverse mortgage is one way to pay for the upgrades required for seniors who want to remain in their homes as they age.

That is the punch line in the webinar, which is sponsored (not surprisingly) by the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association (NRMLA).  NRMLA confirms that some loan originators report that the proceeds from federally insured reverse mortgages are being used for the purpose, though this is not widespread – yet.

Many are, however, considering it: one in four older households in a 2014-2015 academic survey reported, after they had received reverse mortgage counseling, that they planned to use their funds to pay for home improvements.

This webinar isn’t exactly exciting. But it will interest baby boomers who are either caring for elderly parents or thinking about their own old age.  One poll found that 87 percent of older Americans would not want to move into a nursing home. But if they want to age in their homes, there’s apparently a lot of work to be done.

“The bulk of long-term care will occur in single-family, owner-occupied homes,” predicted one webinar presenter, citing a study. “But the homes aren’t prepared.” …Learn More

Mid-sized Employer Meets Big 401(k) Goal

Thomas Automotive Family’s service department in Bedford, Pennsylvania.

When Peggy Zembower became the human resources director for Thomas Automotive Family about four years ago, she was dismayed that some long-time employees had never increased their retirement saving above the measly 1 percent of pay they’d started at.

One big issue was that the lowest-paid workers at the auto dealership – like low-wage workers everywhere – felt they couldn’t afford to save in the 401(k). A lack of knowledge about investing and a reluctance to give up control of their money seemed to frighten others out of saving, which meant forfeiting their employer’s matching contribution.

“It bothered me when I saw employees who’d been here five years and up and saw what small amounts they were investing,” she said. “Many lower-paid employees saved little or nothing.”

With her boss’ blessing, Zembower got to work.

Thomas Automotive is a mid-sized company with 280 full-time and part-time workers. Their earnings run the gamut, from employees in the service department earning $11 per hour (or about $23,000 per year) to car salespeople earning as much as $100,000, and Thomas Automotive’s owner, who has four dealerships in Pennsylvania and one in Maryland.

By doing the things retirement experts recommend, Zembower increased participation to 87 percent of employees, up from 53 percent. She did this by instituting automatic enrollment in the 401(k) at 4 percent of workers’ pay and auto-escalation, over time, of the amount saved. (Employees have the right to pull out or to maintain past contribution levels.) These techniques are far more common at large companies.

She goes further, re-enrolling all non-participating employees each April 1st, which requires them to revisit their decision before opting out of the retirement savings plan again.  “We have a few employees who feel we don’t have the right to do this,” she said, “but we do.”

One gets the impression when interviewing Zembower that it is not what she’s done to make the 401(k) plan work better.  It’s how she’s done it, with her gentle insistence that saving for retirement is best for the workers.  Sometimes this means she’ll ask a worker to wipe off his greasy hands and look with her at the retirement calculator placed front and center on the employee page of the company website. …Learn More

Medicaid: it’s Not Just for Nursing Homes

Medicaid serves millions of low-income Americans, many of them elderly. Federal spending on this program now approaches the dollars spent on Medicare, the primary health care program covering virtually all Americans over 65.  Many people confuse the two programs, or cast Medicaid as a program strictly for the poor.  Many are unaware of the financial support that it provides to seniors.

With major changes to Medicaid now being debated, Squared Away interviewed Diane Rowland, executive vice president of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, to learn just what Medicaid does.

Medicaid Basics Chart - Revised

Q. Describe Medicaid’s broad mission and how older Americans fit into that mission.

A. Medicaid’s basic mission has been to provide support from the federal government to the states to enable them to provide health and long-term care services to their low-income populations, which include seniors in many states. This includes both people who need assistance with long-term care, but Medicaid also helps one in five Medicare beneficiaries pay for their premiums and cost-sharing obligations under Medicare. In essence, Medicaid is the gap-filler for many of Medicare’s seniors, including seniors with disabilities who have low incomes.

Q. Virtually everyone over 65 enrolls in Medicare? So why do seniors need Medicaid?

A. Seniors need Medicaid, because over one-quarter of seniors have very low incomes. Medicare doesn’t pay for 100 percent of medical care, and some of the gaps in Medicare coverage are unaffordable for low-income seniors. They can’t afford Medigap policies to help with Medicare’s cost-sharing requirements. Many struggle even to pay their Part B premiums. One of the first roles of Medicaid – and over the 52-year history of the program – was always that the program was going to fill in the holes for seniors under Medicare. Medicaid’s other role is that Medicare does not provide a lot of the benefits that seniors need in nursing homes and in their communities. At one time, Medicaid also helped with prescription drugs – back when Medicare didn’t cover them. In many places, Medicaid will also help to pay for dental, eyeglasses and other services Medicare doesn’t cover. Essentially Medicaid has always been the wraparound for Medicare for both the benefits Medicare doesn’t cover and for the financial obligations that Medicare imposes on low-income people.

Q. Nearly two-thirds of nursing home patients are on Medicaid. This nursing home funding isn’t just for the poor, is it?

A. Medicare will pay for some nursing-home coverage immediately after hospitalization, but it does not include a benefit that helps people who need long-term assistance, especially people with cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s or who need other services that require substantial help at home. Nursing homes are expensive – $90,000-$100,000 per year – so even if someone enters a nursing home with their own resources, they quickly spend that down. Once they spend it down, Medicaid picks up the remainder of their care. Many good, hard-working, middle-class seniors who retire – if they or their spouse need nursing home care – quickly become unable to pay the full cost of their nursing home stay, and that’s when Medicaid kicks in. …Learn More

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Retirement Calculators: 3 Good Options

The Internet offers many free calculators to baby boomers wanting to get a better handle on whether their retirement finances are on track.

The operative words here are “on track,” because each calculator has strengths and weaknesses.  Calculators aren’t capable of providing a bullet-proof analysis of the complex factors and future unknowns that will determine whether someone has done the planning and saving required to ensure a financially secure retirement.

With that caveat, Squared Away found three calculators, listed below, that do a good job. They met our criteria of being reliable, free, and easy to use.  Many other calculators were quickly eliminated, because they were indecipherable or created issues on the first try.

Most important, each calculator selected covered the assumptions crucial to an accurate analysis. All ask such obvious questions as how much an older worker and spouse (or single person) have saved, their portfolio’s returns, and estimates of their Social Security and pension income.  The first calculator below asks how much money the user wants to leave to his children, and all three include the user’s home equity, a major resource that most retirees are loath to tap but are under increasing financial pressure to consider. Also, the first two ask more detailed questions – and are more time-consuming – than the third, which is the best option if you want just a rough estimate of where you stand.

Finally, this blog’s writer tested each calculator and compared the results with her personal adviser’s customized analysis. Each time, the outcomes were in the same ballpark as the adviser’s.  A fourth good option is to use the calculator provided by the financial company managing your employer’s 401(k) – most of the major providers offer them. …Learn More

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IRAs Fall Short of Original Goal

Nearly 8 trillion dollars sits in Individual Retirement Accounts, or IRAs. This is nearly half of all the value held in the U.S. retirement system, which also includes employer pension funds and 401(k)s.

A big reason IRAs were created in 1974 under the Employer Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) was to give individuals not covered by retirement plans at work an opportunity to save in their own tax-deferred accounts.

So, are IRAs helping these workers?

IRAs “have drifted very far from their original intent” of helping those who need them most, researchers for the Center for Retirement Research conclude in a new study.

Who is eligible to receive tax benefits for saving in an IRA has morphed over the years since ERISA’s passage, but the original description is still relevant to millions of Americans: about half of U.S. private-sector workers today do not have a tax-exempt retirement plan at work. Low-income workers are even less likely to have one.

To determine who benefits from IRAs today, the researchers first tracked down the source of the trillions of dollars held in IRAs. Only 13 percent of the money that flowed into IRAs in 2014 was from people putting new savings into these accounts. The rest was from rollovers of funds accumulated in employer 401(k)s, which usually occur when a worker retires or changes job. (ERISA did delineate rollovers as a second purpose of IRAs.) …Learn More

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