Work and Money briefs

Keeping Track: home mortgages

Rates begin to rise as the US wages war

Mortgage rates rose sharply last week after it became clear the United States would launch its now ongoing military strike against Iraq.

The average interest rate on 30-year fixed-rate mortgages for the week ending March 21 was 5.79 percent, up from the previous week's record low rate of 5.61 percent, according to the mortgage company Freddie Mac. Rates on 30-year mortgages have been falling for much of this year. The last time 30-year mortgage rates went up was in late February.

Americans guard against identity theft

Incidents of identity theft are on the rise in the United States. And victims of this crime find it can take a long time to repair the damage. Not surprisingly, Americans have begun guarding their personal information more closely.

According to a survey of 1,000 Americans conducted by findlaw.com, an online provider of legal information, 98 percent of people are taking steps to prevent the crime. Among the measures taken:

• 88 percent review bank and credit-card statements for fraud.

• 77 percent destroy credit-card statements and other financial documents.

• 64 percent check credit reports.

• 51 percent never give out their Social Security number.

Such steps are not unwarranted. According to the Federal Trade Commission, the number of identity theft complaints nearly doubled last year - from 86,000 in 2001 to 162,000 in 2002.

Findlaw suggests consumers regularly change their passwords and PIN numbers, order credit reports yearly, shred "preapproved" credit-card offers, and do not reveal personal information to phone solicitors.

Workplaces slow to improve security

Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, some observers anticipated that workplace security in America would undergo a major overhaul.

But 57 percent of employees say their companies have not upgraded their security since the attacks, according to a Gallup poll of 354 adults in early March. Only 16 percent say their companies have upgraded security a great deal over the past year.

Even with the heightened risk of terror attacks, these numbers remain similar to those Gallup obtained last August.

In addition, few workers expressed concern that they would be impacted directly by a terrorist attack, despite warnings from public officials that another attack is almost inevitable. Only 4 percent of employees reported feeling "very worried" that their companies will be the target of an attack. Half of those polled were not worried at all.

The numbers concern some experts.

"I can't help but think that these are the same kinds of calculations that the nation's airlines made regarding airport security prior to Sept. 11; most of these airlines are now going broke," says Dennis Jacobe, chief economist for the Gallup organization. "Terrorists are known to like 'soft' targets. Sometimes a little contingency planning pays off big."

Credit-card balances continue to balloon

The rough economy is playing havoc with credit-card payments for those who carry balances, according to the monthly Cambridge Consumer Credit Index.

Six percent of debtors aren't paying on their cards, and 40 percent are paying only the minimum or slightly more. Some of the survey's other findings:

• Some 44 percent of the respondents said they are incurring debt because they don't have funds to pay for purchases in full, while 56 percent are adding debt but are confident they can pay the full bill.

• Thirty-one percent said they extended their payments last month, while 43 percent paid off their balances.

• More than a quarter, 26 percent, said they did not use their credit cards.

The survey involved 1,000 households selected by random telephone dialing last month.

College hoops tourney costs employers

After some talk of war-related delays, the annual spring ritual of college basketball, "March Madness," got under way this past weekend.

Besides diverting attention away from events in Iraq, the tournament has also distracted Americans from something else: their jobs.

Talk about the NCAA tournament may be contributing to $1.4 billion in lost worker productivity, according to a good-humored research exercise by Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

The company estimated that if each of the 36.6 million American workers with a college degree spent 10 minutes talking about the teams daily - the tournament lasts 15 days - that would amount to $9.3 million per minute, based on an average national wage of $15.38.

None of which is scientific or particularly useful to anyone, save for a chuckle.

But such lost productivity could yield one benefit, says John Challenger, the company's chief executive officer.

"If filling in brackets for an office pool or simply chatting about one's favorite team at the watercooler for 10 minutes or more provides some relief from the otherwise depressing state of affairs," he says, "then it seems worthwhile."

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