Every so often there will come a day ­— like today — when we’ll have so many good questions stacked up we have to clean out the mailbag.

These are real questions and comments from real readers. And I’m here to give you real answers and honest feedback.

Let’s dive in.

How trustworthy are these three agencies? Weren’t there massive security breaches lately?

— Jon R.

The three agencies Jon is referring to are the three credit agencies that keep track of and collate all the important financial agreements that take place throughout the States — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

We’ve talked about them a good bit recently, as you have to work with them when protecting your identification.

The credit agencies are who you talk to if you want to put a freeze on your credit (meaning no new accounts can be opened in your name without reaching out to you directly). And these agencies will often be the first place you’ll see any fraudulent activity — so monitoring them is important.

The credit agencies are also responsible for your credit rating, and by extension the interest rates you get from banks and credit cards. So even if you aren’t worried about identity theft, what they do and how they handle your information have a huge effect on you.

Now, to answer Jim, you absolutely can’t trust them.

As he noted, Equifax had a massive security breach in 2017, losing the information of nearly 150 million people (you’re almost certainly one of them — get paid out by the settlement, or free identity protection, by filing here).

But you can’t ignore them either.

You see, these companies have your information already. They’re gathering data on you whether you want them to or not. You have no say in the matter — because you aren’t the customer.

Banks that want to figure out how good a bet you are to pay off your debts — they’re the customers of these ratings agencies.

So you might as well work with them to give yourself the best chance possible of protecting your identity.

A few of us, myself in particular, have been making a living with treasure hunting for some time. We just don’t advertise it. I’m in a ghost town in Utah as I write this email. I have dug Civil War buttons and buckles, Revolutionary War buttons and buckles, gold and silver coins, rare bottles, rare porcelain license plates and whatever else funds this lifestyle. I have sold on eBay and to private collectors and used major auction houses through the years. Much goes on that the general public isn’t aware of.

— Jeff A.

Thanks for sharing your hobby — scratch that, your career — with the rest of us, Jeff.

Most treasure hunters are only in it for the stories, the history, the excitement of the hunt. But if you truly love treasure hunting — like Jeff and my friend Matt Bovie — you can actually earn a nice living doing it.

Glad to see you carrying that spirit out into the world, Jeff. And I hope you found something surprising poking around that ghost town in Utah.

I thoroughly enjoyed your article on how to beat a cheating company. I am having an issue with American Express (have been a good customer for 30 years). They are raising my interest rate considerably, claiming I have a better rate than other customers who are currently applying and blaming my FICO score, which is good.

Disputed and received yesterday the same language as above. Do you have any suggestions on how to handle this?

This is very unfair.

— Cynthia G.

Hi, Cynthia — first off, I’m sorry you’re going through this.

My article on beating cheating companies has a lot of useful tricks — but I didn’t have enough space to go into every eventuality.

So let’s tackle your problem.

The first thing you should do is get your credit scores from all three rating agencies. If you’re using a free online service like Credit Karma, that’s a great start — but they often only get credit ratings from one source.

If there’s a discrepancy between your scores, you might have a credit problem that you’re entirely unaware of (and one that probably isn’t your fault — millions of clerical errors every year cause other people’s debt to show up on a stranger’s report).

Assuming this isn’t the issue, though, your next step will be to call American Express. Ask if they have a customer satisfaction team. If so, get transferred there.

When you deal with someone in customer service, calmly, clearly and in a friendly manner, lay out your issue and how you’d like it resolved.

Odds are good you’ll get an initial run-around. That’s fine — ask to speak to a supervisor.

Repeat the process until you eventually reach someone with enough authority to act (most customer service representatives can only parrot the company line — higher-up management types can use discretion).

If they continue to refuse to budge on your interest rates, ask if there are any special programs or other credit cards they could give you with lower rates. (Make sure they don’t come with any unexpected fees.)

If that still doesn’t get you anywhere, threaten to cancel your card and take your business elsewhere. And then — this is the important part — do exactly that.

You have plenty of options when it comes to credit cards. And many of them will offer fabulous interest rates as introductory offers.

Odds are it won’t come to that. American Express generally has good customer service, and they certainly won’t be eager to lose a customer of 30 years.

But sometimes you have to be willing to walk away. If you do, I can virtually guarantee American Express will come begging, with a lower interest rate and other perks thrown in, trying to win back your business.

Remember — the customer isn’t actually always right. If you’ve ever worked retail or customer service, you know this intimately.

But the customer does always have the money. And with money comes power. Don’t be afraid to use it.

Unconventionally yours,

Ryan Cole

Ryan Cole
Editor-in-chief, Unconventional Wealth

P.S. Unhappy with your interest rate or another aspect of your credit card? There are a lot of great ones out there, with huge perks for first-time (and returning) customers. Some people get new credit cards every year just to take advantage of the perks — and pay for things like vacations with nothing but credit card points. You don’t have to go that far — but you certainly should check out what’s available today and see what card perks make sense for you.

Ryan Cole

Ryan Cole is the editor-in-chief of Unconventional Wealth. He’s been covering the alternative investment space for nearly a decade and writing about finance and investment for almost 20 years.

Ryan has walked the walk for years, living a very unconventional life. He’s led snowmobile tours through the mountains of Colorado, settled in Japan for five...

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