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NEW CREDIT PROTECTIONS ARE NOW IN EFFECT

Consumers got new credit protections Oct. 1 when the Fair Credit Reporting Act went into effect. Here are the main points of the new law:

Credit bureaus have a 30-day deadline for fixing mistakes in credit reports, with consumers to be given written results within five days of completion of the investigation.

Creditors -- not just credit-reporting bureaus-- have new obligations to provide accurate information or correct errors.

No credit reports may be ordered by employers on job applicants without their written permission.

Toll-free phone lines with humans, not just recordings, must be available to consumers calling credit bureaus during business hours.

Any consumer report that contains personal medical information can only be released with the consumer's consent.

Consumers can call toll-free numbers to remove themselves from lists used by credit-card companies and some direct marketers to solicit them by mail. The special "opt-out" numbers are: Equifax, (800) 556-4711; Experian (formerly TRW), (800) 353-0809; Trans Union, (800) 680-7293. You need only call one, the Federal Trade Commission says.

Credit reports, formerly free when consumers were denied credit, insurance or employment, now are free for denial of a larger variety of services, such as a bank account or an apartment. People not denied credit will have to pay no more than $8 for a report.

Forget Roth if couple files separately

A lot has been written about Roth IRAs, the terrific new kind of individual retirement account that will be available next year -- but there's a little quirk in them that hasn't been publicized.

To refresh: The Roth is an IRA into which you can put up to $2,000 a year, leave the money for at least five years and until you are over 59 1/2 , then withdraw, tax free, what you put in plus the earnings. The contribution is not tax-deductible when you put it in, only when you take it out.

As has been amply reported, a couple filing jointly can put a total of $4,000 a year into a Roth IRA if they have adjusted gross income up to $150,000, or can make a reduced contribution on income up to $160,000. A single person with an income up to $95,000 can deposit $2,000, and a reduced amount on up to $100,000 in income.

But here's the quirk: A married couple filing separate tax returns does not qualify for the Roth unless each has income of less than $15,000! It's an anomaly that the investment industry is trying to get Congress to reconsider if it files a bill making technical corrections to the tax act. Such bills are often proposed to iron out problems noticed after legislation is passed.

A mailbox is as dangerous as a phone

While you were guarding your telephone against scam offers, one came in the mail.

Law enforcement has been focusing on telemarketing fraud and Internet scams, but regular mail "is still a favorite medium for con artists," says Jodie Bernstein, director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission.

Thus the FTC, the Postal Inspection Service, the National Association of Attorneys General, and the American Association of Retired Persons havelaunched "Project Mailbox," to collect and review direct mail for future possible prosecution or other enforcement action.

Kenneth Hunter, chief U.S. postal inspector, said scam victims often are older people who fall for dishonest sweepstakes, guaranteed-prize schemes, crooked charities, foreign lotteries and medical scams.

An FTC tip sheet entitled "Is There A Bandit In Your Mailbox?" and other information can be found on the FTC's Web site, http://www.ftc.gov; from the agency's Public Reference Branch, Room 130, 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20580; or by telephone (202) 326-2222.

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