How to stay safe after the Equifax data breach

Equifax disclosed last week that the personal financial information of up to 143 million users had been exposed in a massive hack last July. This represents roughly two-thirds of all credit card holders, so you may be affected.

The delay in disclosing is troubling, and the hack raises questions about oversight of the credit bureaus and even about the impact on their management. We can see the impact on investors: the Equifax share price has dropped over 20%

While we can discuss these issues and more, the priority is shoring up your personal credit.

Impact

Was your data taken? There are links from Equifax, Norton and others where you can attempt to determine the impact on you personally. However, these sites seem to default to “you may be affected,” even if you put in bogus information.

The good news is that Equifax has responded to consumer pressure to make certain services free.

Act now

You will want to act as soon as possible to keep your financial information safe.

“There are so many entities who need to check your credit: when you’re renting an apartment, getting insurance, a new cell phone, utilities,” Liz Weston, a financial planner and columnist at NerdWallet, told BuzzFeed News. “But at this point the breach is so great” that taking measures to safeguard your identity is worth it. She recommends instituting credit freezes.

Equifax free service – sign up on line for the complimentary service being provided by Equifax, which provides the following:

  • three-bureau credit file monitoring with alerts,
  • credit report lock,
  • scanning of suspicious sites for use of your social security number,
  • Equifax credit reporting, and
  • $1 million identity theft insurance covering certain out-of-pocket expenses.

Monitor your cards – review your monthly credit card, bank and loan statements for suspicious activity. You have a right to free credit reports so obtain them and review for unauthorized activity.

Also, watch for unexpected calls or mail, such as debt collectors or people posing as IRS agents, because these may be signs that your information may be in the hands of thieves.

Credit freeze – request a freeze on your credit from all three agencies: Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian. Equifax will not charge you but the others will.

Requesting a credit freeze prevents thieves from using your identity to get loans or credit cards in your name, even if your personal information was compromised by the hack. You essentially pay to bar each of three credit reporting agencies — Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian — from providing a credit report without both your explicit permission and a personal identification number (PIN) that temporarily lifts the freeze. (Freezes do not affect financial institutions or companies you have an existing relationship with, only new ones.)

Make sure to place the freeze with all three bureaus and to keep your PINs for unlocking the freezes in a safe place.

“A credit freeze with only one bureau is incomplete protection,” Mike Litt, the consumer program advocate at the US Public Interest Research Group, a consumer group, said. Consumer experts recommended getting a freeze with all three agencies.

There are companies such as LifeLock that provide bundled services. If cost is not an object, that may be the best course of action. Here is the Lifelock response on Equifax.

Fraud alert – if you are certain that your information has been taken, place alert all three credit bureau websites. You can access the TransUnion site here. Some protection is free, but their premium package costs $9.95

If you are the subject of identity theft, there are many resources now that help you report and recover. The Federal Trade Commission website can help devise a recovery plan to implement.

PINs and passwords – the passwords and PINs you use could be the next issue. You may want to change what you use now and update annually, if not more often.

Updates – Equifax continues to provide updates on the status of the hack and their response.

And news sites continue to report on the hack – see this NY Times article.

Summary

There are many steps to take, and the information taken may not be used for some time. So, you will want to take some if not all the steps outlined above. If you have trouble doing so, or if you have questions, let us know.

And for more reading, the Better Business Bureau is one resource for tips on avoiding scams. And, the FTC is a good resource for identity theft.

Good luck and stay safe!

Tax Law change under the new Trump Administration? Maybe, but too soon for planning

Enacting Major Changes Will Take Time

President Trump made tax reform a key issue in his campaign. He is now president and Republicans are in charge of the House and Senate, so the likelihood of overhauling the federal tax system is better than they have been for decades.

However, President Trump and Congress are trying to enact changes to the Affordable Care Act as well as addressing budget issues and foreign relations. Also, dealing with all the recent hearings involving the FBI have diverted attention. Finally, there are many details that need to be worked out, making it unlikely that major changes will happen until 2018.

Change in IRS Regulations

President Trump has already made changes in IRS regulations. On his first day in office, he temporarily froze tax regulations and then shortly thereafter, ordered that two existing regulations had to be removed for each one that was added. What is the impact?

  • The Trump administration has stated that the two-for-one exchange rule only applies to significant regulatory actions. The rule may not affect the many IRS regulations that are procedural in nature or are needed by taxpayers.
  • One new regulation that has been threatened is the Department of Labor’s new fiduciary rules for retirement advisers. This updated regulation requires retirement advisers to act in their clients’ best interests, which is a stricter standard than was previously required.
  • Also affected are the new partnership audit procedure. A 2015 law streamlined the exam process of large partnerships. The IRS released proposed regulations which implemented the regime on January 18. However, it later pulled the regulations in response to the freeze.

Possible Tax Law Changes – Lower Corporate Tax Rate

Currently, the corporate tax rate tops out at 35%. House Republicans want to lower it to 20% with 25% for businesses that pass income through their owners and for those that are self-employed. President Trump is calling for a 15% corporate tax. In 2014, nearly 25 million Americans filed taxes as sole proprietors (Schedule C), so the change affects many taxpayers.

Tax strategy: Under this change, individuals who are high-earning could become independent contractors or set up LLCs to shift income and advantage of the lower corporate tax rate. Additionally, those who own pass-through businesses could reduce their salaries and take higher profits.

This is how residents of Kansas responded to a similar state law. The state is now working to repeal a law passed in 2012 that exempted pass-through firms from state income tax. The result was that many individuals and businesses in the state restructured their business as pass-through entities or created new businesses to take advantage of the tax break. In just a few years, the number of pass-throughs in the state almost doubled. The state is now facing a large budget deficit as a result because the pass-through exemption is estimated to have cost the state $472 million in 2014 alone. The cost for 2015 was even higher.

The impact of this tax strategy on the 15% tax at the federal level would be expensive. It is estimated to cost up to $1.95 trillion in lost tax revenues over the next ten years. The Trump administration is considering ways to prevent abuse of this low tax rate but any attempt to prevent gaming the system will likely add more complexity to the tax code. Tax-savvy practitioners will likely still be able to find loopholes.

Tax only on Income Earned inside the US

Worldwide income is taxed presently, with credits for foreign taxes paid. The proposed law would generally tax only income that is earned within U.S.

Multinational Tax: A new, low tax on multinationals is part of the proposed tax, added to raise revenue to fund other rate reductions.

Estate Tax Repeal

Republicans would like to repeal the estate tax. President Trump would impose a tax on pre-death appreciation of assets, with a $10 million per couple exemption. There would be no step up in basis at death. And it is likely that gift tax rules would be retained.

Even if the federal estate tax law is repealed, many states will continue to impost a tax. Massachusetts only exempts $1 million of assets passing to someone other than a spouse, such as a trust. New York and other states have higher exemptions. Thus, planning is still important for most people.

Planning Opportunities

With the uncertainty of any change being enacted, this is not an easy year for planning. For example, this may not be the year for a Roth conversion, if tax rates will go down next year. It may not be the time for complex estate planning techniques involving irrevocable transfers, if the estate tax is eliminated in 2018.

We will keep monitoring this to assess any moves that do make sense and update this post when the likelihood of real changes becomes clear.

Amplify Cash Flow by Maximizing Credit Card Rewards – Playing the Rewards Game

With a bit of planning and discipline, credit cards can provide users with real benefits.

These steps can help you maximize the available rewards:

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1. Reward types: Before you begin your search, determine the type of reward you are looking for: cash back, travel, gift cards, etc. Once you know what you are looking for, begin your search for the best card for each type of reward.

2. Strategy: After you review available cards and select one or more for the rewards you want, develop a strategy to use your cards to get the most out of their reward terms. You may find that some cards offer different rewards for different types of purchases. For example, a card my offer 6% back for food purchases, another may offer 3% for gas, while another may offer 2% back on all purchases. Develop your “credit card portfolio” based on what is being offered. Understand the cards’ rules and be prepared to play by them.

3. Fees: You want to avoid paying any late fees, which average $34, because these fees quickly undermine any rewards you may earn. On the other hand, annual fees may be worth paying depending on the rewards being offered. For example, if you earn 6% back on purchases, then a $75 annual fee may make sense. You can always call the company and try to have the fee waived. If you signing up just for the sign-up bonus, then you will probably want to cancel the card before the fee is incurred.

4. Apply: Once you have narrowed down the cards with the best offers for you, apply for the credit cards within a two day period to minimize the number of inquiries recorded on your credit report. Multiple inquiries may damage your score.

5. Tracking: Develop a method to ensure you are using the right card for the right purchases. This can be anything from notes, to an Excel workbook to using QuickBooks.

6. Card balances: Keep your credit usage to 20% to 30% of your available credit because your credit score is affected by the amount of credit you use.

7. Payments: Pay off your balance every month. If you allow yourself to carry a balance, the interest rates you incur will diminish or wipe out any rewards you earned.

If you try any of these ideas, let me know how they worked for you!

Robo-Advisors may be just what we need!

Should you really fear Robo-Advisors?

Reading financial news, you see many posts warning of robo-advisors, telling you how you really need a human advisor, how you can robo-proof your investment business, or how robo-advisors are merely a fad and will die off when everyone realizes how evil they are.

All these posts have it backwards. They are apologists for entrenched firms attempting to protect their turf when individuals need help.

Shift from pensions to 401(k) plans hurt individuals

Last century, many large employers provided pensions as a benefit. These were large portfolios that could hire good advisors and thus performed well. However, by the end of last century, retirement funds had shifted to 401(k) and similar plans, where individuals managed their own portfolios.

Institutional portfolios hire great managers so many are able to beat their various market indices. In contrast, individual investors historically achieve less than half the returns of their related indices.

Poor performance by individuals managing their own retirement funds is a key factor in the current crisis facing Boomers who are under-funded for retirement. (Note to Millennials: don’t just speak to your parents, do your own planning so this doesn’t happen to you!)

Why do individuals invest poorly?

Individual investors are seen as a contrary indicator:

  • If they are buying, then the market is near its peak and it is time to sell; and
  • If they are selling, the market has reached its bottom and it is time to buy.

Here is a case in point:

We saw the regret and pride response in action beginning in March 2000, the largest purchase of mutual funds in the history of the stock market. Fast forward to 2008, just before the “Great Recession” market downturn, and stock prices were falling, but investors refused to sell at a loss. As the market continued to fall, investors held off until they simply couldn’t take it any longer. Many sold their stock near the bottom and missed the following upswing that began March 2009. Forbes – Why average investors returns are so low.

To summarize, individual investors perform poorly due to these factors:

  1. Lack of access to good investment advice; and
  2. Investment psychology. For more on the psychological factors to which individuals fall prey, see Seven deadly sins of investing to avoid.

There is a third factor: High expenses in form of commissions and other fees.

Robo-advisors address all three factors. 

  • First, automating advice permits good advisors to offer services to small investors. Betterment with automated rebalancing and tax-loss harvesting is a good example.
  • Second, automation lowers costs, so fees charged can be reduced. Combine that with use of ETFs and you have dramatically reduced expenses.
  • Last, robo-advisors are immune to greed and fear so their performance will not suffer the way performance of individuals may. No robo-advisor would wait until the market hit bottom to sell, as in the case of 2008 summarized above.  

Bring on the Robos!

What is my conclusion? Not only are robo-advisors here to stay, they may be just what individual investors need so they can retire well!

7 things to do when starting a business to avoid nasty surprises

The only thing that hurts more than paying an income tax is not having to pay an income tax. Thomas Dewar

When you decide to start a business, taxes may be the last thing you think about. However, not realizing that you owe the self-employment tax as well as income taxes can lead to a nasty surprise when you file your taxes. This post is aimed at avoiding that costly surprise.

But, before we discuss the self-employment tax, there are other important steps to take when you become self-employed. Here are the 7 things to do after you start your own business to avoid nasty surprises:

Avoid nasty surprises – set up bookkeeping, form your entity, get licensed, buy insurance, and pay taxes

Bookkeeping – set up bookkeeping using software like QuickBooks (either online or on your laptop). You don’t want to be scrambling to find receipts at tax time or not be able to tell somebody if you are making money or not.

You can save time by downloading from your bank and credit card companies. If you set up things well, all income and every expense will be properly categorized for your profit and loss statement, or P&L. The P&L and balance sheet help you monitor your business to see how well you are doing and are essential for preparing your tax returns. The balance sheet will also come in handy if you need to apply for financing.

For all these steps, you may want to hire an accountant or speak to an attorney.

Entity – for many small businesses, being a sole proprietor is appropriate. You avoid paying corporate excise taxes and filing annual reports. However, if you have partners, you may want to form a partnership, corporation or LLC (details on choosing are beyond the scope of this post).

If your business involves risks that could lead to law suits, form a corporation or LLC to shelter your personal assets from liabilities of the business that insurance may not cover. Make sure that any actions you take for the business are in your capacity as an officer or manager – i.e., never sign personally.

Remember, you may want to consult with an attorney.

Get licenses, file annual reports and pay local taxes – certain businesses require a license to operate. Most entities are required to file annual reports. And, your city may impose taxes on the personal property in your business. Be sure to find out so you don’t owe penalties for failing to file and pay.

Buy health and other insurance – in addition to liability insurance, you will want to obtain health insurance if you are no longer working for another employer. You may get favorable treatment for this expense on your income taxes. You can also purchase insurance to cover damage to equipment, loss of data, identity theft and so on.

File payroll taxes – if you hire people to work for you and pay them over $600 per quarter in any year, you need to report the compensation. If they are independent contractors, you file a form 1099 with the IRS. If they are employees, you file a W-2 with the Social Security Administration. You also provide these forms to your people for the income tax filings.

You may need to withhold and remit FICA and Medicare taxes. Also, your employees may request that you withhold and remit federal and state income taxes (unless you live in a state that does not impose income taxes). Failure to withhold and pay to the IRS and state can lead to serious penalties.

Pay your income tax – one big shock for many who start a business is how much they owe in taxes. When you received a paycheck, you probably did not focus much on the fact that your employer withholds federal and state income taxes and FICA and Medicare taxes. And, you never had a chance to spend what was withheld.

However, when you run your own business, you have full access to the pre-tax income, so you must diligently allocate funds ahead of time so that you don’t come up short at text time. To avoid owing interest on the taxes due, you make estimated tax payments each quarter to the IRS and state.

Pay the self-employment tax – when you were an employee, your employer withheld FICA and Medicare taxes from your paychecks. The employer also contributed FICA and Medicare taxes on your behalf

When you become self-employed, you are responsible for both the employee and employer amounts. This tax is based on your net self-employment income

A lot to remember, right?

Maybe, but knowing and planning is far better than trying to scrape together money in April to cover taxes you did not expect.

Good luck with your new business!

In future posts, we will examine partnering with others, assessing your profitability, rules on deducting expenses, and entry into the real estate market.