Identity theft fears? Get a credit report, credit freeze

Dear Liz: I divorced 32 years ago. Recently, I received calls from a collection agency about a debt that has not been paid. I discovered that my ex used my phone number as one of his contact numbers. My number is supposed to be unlisted and unpublished, but he found it online. I have stopped receiving calls from the agency, but how do I stop this from happening again?

Answer: Please check your credit reports to make sure your ex didn’t swipe even more sensitive digits: namely, your Social Security number. If his credit is bad, he may be tempted to pretend to be you in order to get credit cards, loans or other accounts. That’s identity theft, and there are steps you should take now to protect yourself.

You can access your credit reports for free at AnnualCreditReport.com. (If you’re asked for a credit card number, you’re on the wrong site.) Look for any accounts that aren’t yours and consider freezing your credit reports at each of the bureaus. Credit freezes prevent someone from opening new accounts in your name. You can thaw the freeze whenever you need credit, also for free.

You can’t prevent someone from adding your phone number to their credit applications, but under federal law you can tell a collection agency to stop contacting you, and it must comply. Make the request in writing.

Profit sharing and retirement

Dear Liz: I work for a wonderful company that has a generous profit sharing plan. I am 61 years old and plan on working until I am 65 and eligible for Medicare. Due to some health issues, I am reducing my hours and this will significantly reduce my income for the next four years. I thought this was a good plan because it keeps my health insurance intact, but now I am wondering if the lower earnings will affect my profit sharing when I retire. I know the final distribution is based on earnings and time on the job. Should I retire now, while my income is up, or should I wait until I am 65?

Answer: There are a lot of moving parts to any decision about retirement. How much will health insurance cost and how will you pay for it? How much do you have saved and how long are those funds likely to last? What’s the best time to apply for Social Security and how will that affect your retirement fund withdrawals? (It’s often best to delay Social Security as long as possible and draw down retirement savings instead, especially if you’re the primary earner, but individual situations vary.)

Money is a finite resource, but so are time and energy. Every additional year you work could put you in better financial shape, but means one less year in which you could be enjoying retirement.

Consider talking to your human resources department to find out exactly how your reduced hours are likely to affect your profit sharing payout. Then take those numbers to a fee-only financial planner who can examine the rest of your finances and talk with you about the best glide path into retirement.

Revisiting a Medicare penalty

Dear Liz: As a county employee of 44 years, I was offered the option to contribute to Social Security in the mid-1970s. It was not mandatory and I declined. When I retired in 2004, I did not apply for Medicare as I wrongly assumed that I would not qualify. I have since learned that I can apply for Medicare but that I would have to pay $499 per month as a late enrollment penalty on top of the monthly premium. Do you know any way that I can get a portion of the late penalty waived?

Answer: As your situation shows, not getting sound advice about Medicare can be expensive. Failing to sign up for Part B coverage, which pays for doctor’s visits, can incur penalties of 10% for each 12 months you were eligible but didn’t enroll. The penalties are typically permanent.

There is an appeals process, but your chances of success may not be great unless you can prove that you delayed enrollment because of bad advice you got from a government representative. Medicare has more information on its site.

Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at asklizweston.com.

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