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December 24, 2010

My blog is moving to Water Rolls Uphill.  I have moved all of the postings there as well.

Please follow me there.  There are more features that allow for ease of use for me and better user interaction you!

Thanks.

Elizabeth

Identity Theft – The Christmas Present You Don’t Want to Receive.

December 22, 2010

Years ago, my information was stolen from the mailbox while I was in college.  I’m 31 now, if that gives you an idea as to how long I’ve been fighting this particular nemesis.  At first, it was computers and cell phones that someone was attempting to purchase.  Fortunately for me they were not successful.  After that I became very careful with my personally identifying information, to the degree that we don’t shred vital papers anymore, we burn them.  Subsequent to my original problem, my debit card number was stolen, copied, and all the monies in my checking accounts were then frozen.  That is a problem because you can’t transfer monies to live on in the interim from brokerage accounts via either wire or ACH transfer when ALL of your banking accounts are frozen.  It took many weeks to resolve that instance to be refunded the original monies plus all the overdrafts.  Then comes the kicker, I applied for a Discover card to get airline miles.  No one around here takes Discover so I was just being foolish.  Shockingly, I was declined as I pay all bills on time and have always kept my financial house in order.  Alarm bells go off.  Not again!!

This time the theft was to the tune of approaching $8,000 in past due utility accounts and additional accounts seem to be found all the time; the gift that keeps on giving!  We may have discovered how this happened and it was through no fault of my own.  That aside, I’ll walk you through the various and myriad steps of dealing with identity theft.

  1. Place a fraud alert with each of the three credit reporting agencies.  Have your credit reports pulled at the same time; this is a courtesy done for fraud victims (or if you’ve been declined credit).  Equifax: 800-525-6285 Experian: 888-397-3742 TransUnion: 800-680-7289.
  2. Contact the Social Security Administration to verify that your social security number is being not used by someone else to gain employment (and not pay taxes!).  Tax liens are not something you want to deal with, ever.  SSA Fraud Hotline: 800-269-0271
  3. Contact local law enforcement and file an incident report with them regarding the identity theft.  Report all open, write off, and collection accounts to law enforcement.  You may need to file subsequent supplemental reports as more accounts are turned over to collections and you have more information (including account numbers, opening dates, final balances, etc.).
  4. Report your case of identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission.
  5. Request a copy of your police report from the records division of your local law enforcement agency.
  6. You will need the police report to place a freeze on your credit.  In many states, the freeze is free if you provide the credit reporting agencies with a copy of the report.  Otherwise the fee can be up to $10.00.  A credit freeze prevents any use of your credit file in extending any form of credit.  Via letter sent certified mail return receipt requested provide your full name, your birth date, social security number, a copy of your driver’s license, and a copy of your police report to the credit reporting agencies.  The addresses are as follows:  TransUnion, Fraud Victim Assistance Department, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92834; Experian Security Freeze, P.O.Box 9554, Allen, TX 75013; and Equifax Security Freeze, P.O. Box 105788, Atlanta, Georgia 3034.  (Edited to add: It may be cheaper, depending on your state’s fees to place the credit freeze electronically via the credit reporting bureau’s individual websites.  Also, for individuals that use their credit file often, such as someone with a small business that opens new accounts frequently, a credit freeze may not be recommended for their situation.  The fees would be excessive to thaw and re-freeze the credit file repeatedly.)
  7. Begin the process of contacting each unfamiliar inquiry, collection, write off, and open account on your credit report and explain that you were a victim of identity theft.  State that your information was used to fraudulently obtain services.  In my experience, they expect you to provide a service address or contact telephone number (which you likely will not have), you can offer your social security number as accounts are usually tracked that way.  If you open the link on each of these items on your credit report, there is either a contact address or phone number.  The fastest way to reach a human who can verify if you have a stale account with them is to call billing and press the button for setting up a payment plan.  If a collection agency has contacted you, DO NOT provide them with your social security number or any type of financial information.  Simply ask them for the last four digits of the social security numbers attached to their file and verify if they are yours or not.  For each fraudulently obtained account, you will likely be asked to complete a fraud package which entails a fraud affidavit and providing copies of documents that prove your identity, as well as a copy of the police report with that creditor/credit account listed on it.  (Edited to add: Why start calling companies that have only inquired about your credit file?  I have found that it means they have turned your account over to a collection agency that will be contacting you shortly.)

Sample Letter to the credit reporting agencies for a credit freeze:

Re: Credit Freeze  SSN: XXX XX XXXX Date of Birth:  Month Date, Year
Ladies and Gentlemen:
I would like a credit freeze placed on my credit file. I have enclosed a copy of my YOURSTATE Driver’s License and a YOUR County Incident Report to verify my identity and status as a victim of identity theft to qualify for a no-cost credit freeze.
Should you require any further information, please do not hesitate to contact me at your earliest convenience in writing at the address below.  Thank you for your assistance with this matter.

Adapt the letter as necessary to reflect your state’s statutes on the allowable costs for credit freezes.  For some states, you will need to include a credit card number, expiration date, and a line allowing them to deduct the fee that is allowable in your state.

Good heavens, it’s closing in on a month since I last posted.

December 10, 2010

It’s been busy to put it mildly.  Thanksgiving was an utter blowout.  My two older kids had the stomach flu.  The eldest covered the in-laws bathroom with hurl and so she and I headed home with the baby to try to hydrate (didn’t go so well, even with zofran).  Thankfully everyone recovered, including my father-in-law, brother-in-law, and myself all of whom were ever so unfortunate to also contract that stomach flu.  I made a turkey dinner later in the week to make up for my complete lack of a holiday dinner.  It turned out well and was enjoyed by all.

Following that catastrophe, we were told that our youngest might suffer from hearing loss and that it needed to be checked out.  After the pediatrician visit and a phone consult with an audiologist, we were falling apart with worry.  Fortunately, the medical professionals were wrong and the baby simply was sleeping like a brick (through the car alarm, pots banged next to his head, and a ship’s bell rung near him – it was crazy!!).

If you need a good laugh, at my expense, I did convince my husband to take us out to get a Christmas tree (of course I tracked down the sale trees at Pike Nurseries where they were donating a percentage to the Children’s Hospital and to a foster kid gift program).  Needless to say, the tree fell, not once, or twice, but three times – the last two ON me.  Ridiculous.

But the beauty of all this craziness is that it has actually been a wonderful holiday season (Thanksgiving aside – that was awful) for me spiritually.  I’ve pulled back from all the activities that were simply draining my time and resources that weren’t providing our family with much if any spiritual reward.  I have been blessed with the support of the other families at our parish during our deafness scare and had a newfound depth of understanding on the phrase from Our Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done.”  It is so hard to let go of the illusion of control and simply allow for the fact that while we do have freedom of choice in our lives, for good or for evil, we don’t know His Plan and we have to trust that He knows what is best for us.

Homeschooling continues to go well, aside from the eldest learning to read which continues to painfully drag along.  The whole family is looking forward to the science fair project on rockets, especially my husband and our middle son!  I have lots of field trips planned for the upcoming months and we’re closing in on the halfway point to meeting the state’s requirement of 180 school days, although we will continue to school year round in excess of that requirement.  We’re on our third reading program, Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons.  Hooked On Phonics and Explode the Code did not work for our eldest. I’ll have to update with how we schedule our daily tasks related to homeschooling at some point.

I’ve donated 184 items to charity as part of our Advent preparation.  It’s quite bittersweet to be finished with all the tiny things for the children and handing them off for other families to use.  I did completely clean out and organize the attic as part of our preparations.

Today’s goals are fairly simple.   Homeschool, clean, do some laundry, bake brownies for the spouse, make a broccoli chicken casserole, chicken pot pie, and a batch or arroz con pollo while trying to keep the littles from destroying the house!

A Frugal (and cheap) Holiday Season

November 19, 2010

Thanksgiving is next week.  Oh boy.  Usually that means a lot of hustle and bustle, driving all over the place trying to get the “just right” item for whatever perfect image of the family gathering is running through your head.  Not this year.  This year, I’m not doing anything.  I’m driving over to my mother in law’s, spouse, and three kids in tow with only napkin rings and placemats in hand.  What?  Napkin rings and placemats?  Really?

Yes.  That’s it.  As part of our homeschooling program, we’re learning about the Thanksgiving holiday, and guess what, those Pilgrims were broke and barely surviving like so many families today.  When I thought about the cost of a Thanksgiving dinner this year and the associated hassle, I decided that my sanity and my newborn’s happiness and ability to nurse as needed were more important.  Sure, I could try to impress the extended family with a lovely sit down dinner, but why?  Now, onto those napkin rings and placemats.  The children really enjoyed making them.  They are turkeys!  I cut a 1 inch band off of a paper towel tube  and the kids made and glued turkeys on them.  Same goes for the placemats.

For so many families, this Christmas will be very difficult to persevere through let alone thoroughly enjoy given people’s high expectations of a lavishly decorated home with a tree overflowing with gifts.  This year, as we did last year, we are focusing on the truly meaningful activities that we can do and enjoy as a family (and with extended family) that bring the most glory to God and warmth to our spirits.

  1. We’re opting out of the spending cycle.  This is a painful one.  So many people equate gift cost with how much we love them that it is extraordinarily difficult to hand them a lovingly made or thought out gift only to be made to feel guilty for our efforts.  This year, I have a case of fruit tea samplers, printed small recipe books of my own favorite recipes,  and will be making mini loaves of my quick bread and pans of cinnamon rolls to give.  Please remember that when faced with an ungracious recipient of your lovingly made or not as costly as expected gifts that the cost of a gift should never be a burden to the giver (You should not incur debts you cannot afford to make others happy!).  As our families are so very generous with the children, we’re buying each child one gift that they really want (our eldest chose a ballet bag to carry her ballet stuff to and from performances and classes, our middle child will probably choose a Matchbox car).  We aren’t exchanging gifts between husband and wife.
  2. We’re continuing on our path of finding spiritually meaningful traditions to share with our children.  Last year, our eldest chose an Advent wreath and we nightly recited the prayers and lit the wreath.  We also instituted a stocking for Jesus, filled with slips of paper with the children’s good deeds written on them.  This year though I think we will write the good deeds on slips of paper that will fill the cradle of the nativity scene so that Jesus can rest as comfortably as possible on the children’s good deeds.  The Jesse tree is also an excellent activity and the children can color and attach the various symbols to a branch they find in the yard.  Our parish offers a family advent morning, which we will be attending.
  3. Christmas cards.  I found Christmas cards at the Dollar Store months ago.  These Christmas cards allow you to place a picture in the front and then the inside is blank to allow you to write your own message.  I am fortunate in having received a tripod for Christmas last year which allows me to take our own family portraits.  I then print our pictures through Snapfish and pick them up at our local Walgreen’s.  Snapfish is a Upromise partner, so we receive a rebate in our kids’ college fund account for printing pictures with them.  (Win!)
  4. We’re trying to scrape together extra cash to give at the holiday offeratory.
  5. We’ll be gathering together all of the items in the house we’re not using or that are forlorn and donating them to Saint Vincent de Paul’s charity store which assists those that are in need.

Advent is coming!  Prepare!

DQ

Black Bean Soup

November 18, 2010

Black Bean Soup

Serves 8

6 cloves garlic chopped

1 small white onion chopped

3 medium carrots sliced/shredded

1 bell pepper diced

1-teaspoon olive oil

1-14.5 ounce can of diced tomatoes

2 teaspoons ground cumin

2 teaspoons chili powder

Dash turmeric

2 cups black beans, rinsed, soaked overnight, drained (option a) and cooked (option 2)

4 cups of chicken broth

Water

4 sprigs of cilantro or dry cilantro for serving

Sauté vegetables and garlic in olive oil.  In a food processor, purée tomatoes.

Option 1: In a crock-pot, combine all ingredients except the cilantro.  Add enough water to cover ingredients.  Check during cooking to make sure that there is enough liquid in crock-pot.  Cook soup on low 8 hours, or until beans are tender.  Ladle into serving bowls and top with cilantro.

Option 2 (for already cooked beans): Drizzle oil in pan.  Saute garlic and onions.  Add rest of ingredients and allow to simmer for an hour.   OR refrigerate overnight to allow flavors to mingle and reheat next day.  Serve topped with cilantro.

Chocolate Applesauce Cake Recipe

November 16, 2010

Chocolate Applesauce Cake

This recipe produces a very moist cake that travels well and hold up well for bake sale type activities.  It stores best covered and should be eaten within three days.  I am baking two for a concession stand this weekend, as well as two batches of coconut sugar jumbles (haven’t posted that recipe yet).

Yield: 1 Bundt cake or 24 cupcakes

½ cup soft butter

¾ cup honey

2 eggs

2 cups applesauce

3 tablespoons cocoa

1 ½ teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 teaspoon cinnamon

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

1 ¾ cups whole-wheat pastry flour

1/8 cup semisweet mini chocolate chips

 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease muffin tins or bundt pan.  Use your Kitchen Aid mixer with the whisk attachment.  Cream the butter and honey.  Add eggs one at a time.  Add applesauce.  If you have homemade applesauce, use it in the stead of commercially prepared and you will be amazed at the flavor difference.   Add dry ingredients on top.  Remove the whisk attachment and use it to whisk the dry ingredients in by hand.  If you’re a sifting type of baker, go for it prior to mixing the dry ingredients  into the batter.  With three kids, there’s not much sifting going on at this household any longer.   Sprinkle the chips on top and fold them into the  batter.  Bake until tests done, 45 minutes to 1 hour for cake, 12 to 20 minutes for cupcakes.

My times are approximate.  My old oven took a longer time to bake and my new oven runs hot.  So please take your own oven’s temperment into account and be flexible with the baking times.

Revisiting composting.

November 16, 2010

Composting is a fairly simple process where you combine kitchen and yard waste to make new soil for your garden or landscaping.  I am honestly shocked by the quantity of vegetable and fruit waste that we produce.  With a focus on recycling and composting, our trash output diminishes to one regular kitchen garbage bag per week.  Unfortunately, the county doesn’t reward us for such efforts.

I tried composting our blueberry bushes this year.  I’m not sure if it helped or hurt.  I am certain that my lack of watering helped kill them though.  Ah, late pregnancy and outdoor chores with the threat of the state bird, the mosquito, helped to knock back the growth of all of our landscaping and what little survived in our garden year over year.

The only drawback to composting that I have found is the attraction factor.  We have squirrels that love to try to live in our attic.  The compost pile is as far away from the house as possible.  My only concern is that the piles, even when properly maintained attract rodents, raccoons, and possums.  None of which are welcome!  Hopefully by mid spring next year I’ll have a huge pile of compost to put on the landscaping in the front of the house, which I’ve been trying to nurture as when we moved in there was no mature landscaping on the property at all.

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