Brace for the Holidays! Have a plan

As Halloween passes, we know that the season of over-buying and over-eating is approaching, so it’s time to prepare.  You want to enjoy being with friends and family without having the hangover of overspending, or worse, going into debt to finance all the fun. 

Make the gift giving fit with your cash management

Over-buying does not make you happier and usually makes the recipient uncomfortable.  Also, over-spending is likely to make achieving your long-term goals more difficult, which can add to the depression some feel at this time of year.

For gifts, “it’s the thought that counts” rings true.  Most recipients appreciate being remembered for who they are and what they do.  Think back to what you enjoyed most in past holidays and let that guide you.  This can help you stick to your values as you think through the entire process and devise your holiday shopping plan.  The time spent together may be far more important and rewarding than unnecessary giving.

Have a plan

Technology and social media can make shopping easier, but they also make it easier to overspend and end up with credit card debt from funding your gift giving.  

Part of the reason is that many such purchases are spontaneous.  People often regret these unplanned purchases.  Over 70% of people in one survey exceeded their budget and over half bought items not on their list.  This can make the new year bleak (More than 3 in 4 Americans are stressed about going into debt over the holidays — and technology’s not helping ) Counter this by creating a realistic budget, lookout for sales, review your budget to make sure you are on track. 

Budget – If you determine what you can reasonably spend and allocate that to people for whom you want to buy gifts, or give holiday tips, then you have a spending plan that should get you through.  When devising your plan, go back to your financial goals to remind yourself why staying on track is so important.  Include time for present wrapping to avoid time pressure that encourages splurge buying.  Also, you may want to have small gifts on hand for unexpected guests.  You can use budget apps, such as NerdWallet, to create a budget.  When you do, stick to it! 

If the people for whom you are shopping have wish lists, follow them for ideas.  And leave items in your shopping cart overnight to take a second look and avoid regretting a splurge purchase.  Ask “does the person really want or need this?,” especially if you are shopping for yourself!  (It may be wise to avoid, or at least substantially limit, any buying for yourself.) 

Be Wary of Black Friday, Cyber Monday and other retailer tricks

If you do your homework, you can determine if waiting in line or buying on line will be best.  As stated above, create a budget and stick to it.   

Be on the lookout for retailer other tricks like flash sales, loyalty cards, incentives to return for more purchases, misleading refund policies.  Similarly, procrastinating can lead to splurge buying ruled by emotions such as the need to please everyone and get the shopping done.

Avoid scams

With the pressure of the holidays to address all the gift giving, parties and thank yous, stay vigilant for scams.  These can come in the form of bogus IRS and social security calls, credit card offers, computer software deals and fake invoices.  There are many phishing sites you can use to check out whether the offers are legit

Review our Holiday Tipping Guide

As for tipping, see our post Guidelines for Holiday Tips and Gift.

Remember, if you’re unable to tip or give a gift, a thoughtful thank you note will acknowledge those people who are important to you.  You can even make a donation in their name. 

Brace for over-eating and possibly even depression

This blog is does not profess to have any expertise in psychology.  Nonetheless, we have all heard how holidays can be disappointing if not depressing from some.  The Hallmark gatherings promised on TV or social media rarely happen in real life. 

If the holidays are depressing, consider volunteering somewhere, such as a soup kitchen, or getting out for some serious exercise.  Both can lift your mood as well as either help others or improve your health.  Allow time to rest and recover!  And try a warm drink, tea not bourbon, or a warm bath. 

Take care of yourself – it’s hard to help anyone else if you are not in good shape yourself.  But if you are really experiencing holiday depression, speaking to people can help, be that family, friends or professionals.

We wish you all the best for financially sound, and fun, holidays!  And let us know if we can help you plan.

Update on how to stay safe after the many data breaches

If someone manages to steal your social security number, they often try to file a tax return claiming refunds. To prevent this, you either have to file before them or obtain an identity PIN from the IRS on the IRS.gov website.

Here is the link for the ID PIN, and here is the IRS explanation:

An IP PIN is a six-digit number assigned to eligible taxpayers that helps prevent the misuse of their Social Security number on fraudulent federal income tax returns. Call the IRS at 800-908-4490 for specialized assistance,

Please see our prior post, How to stay safe after the Equifax data breach, to learn more about credit freezes and other protections. And let me know if we can help!

How to stay safe after the Equifax data breach

(as also appeared online at IRIS.xyz)

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!

Data and Document Security; Protect Your Stuff!

There are now more tools available than ever to help you organize, access and protect your sensitive data and documents.
man-1187170_1280Well that’s a scary image …

Mobile Devices
The amount of information we store on our mobile devices is staggering: emails, personal contacts, client contacts, banking information, music, and pictures represent only a fraction. You can easily protect this data by enabling the password service, or, in the case of the newer iPhones and iPads, by enabling the fingerprint recognition software.

We have become heavily dependent on these devices that, if we lose them or they malfunction, we could spend days trying restore or replace the data on the device. To protect against this potential headache, you should back up the device regularly. You can also shift more application content to cloud services such as iCloud or G Cloud.

Computer Safety
If you know the sickening feeling of losing an important file that you saved on our computer, then you know you do not want to risk losing all the data on your laptop. That’s why we recommend backing up your important files to an external hard drive, remote server, cloud storage or online back-up program. Some of you may want to make the backup occur automatically, so that all files are stored on a regular basis. Others may prefer to do so manually. If so, be sure to set a reminder that works for you so that you frequently safeguard as much of your important data as possible.

In addition to backing up your files regularly to an external location, we recommend you install anti-virus and malware software. When you buy a computer, an anti-virus program is often included. Make sure the virus definitions are updated constantly. Also, you can add more projection for free, such as Malwarebytes.

Original Documents
There are certain documents that deserve an extra level of security, like original copies of your estate plan (link to planning) for the inevitable. For these documents that hold significant legal and personal importance, place them in Ziplock bags to prevent water damage and store them in either a fireproof safe or a safety deposit box.

Conclusion
Taking these small steps each of you can take now to protect your tax and financial information will prove invaluable if the unexpected occurs.

Scam update for more on Cyber-Attackers, Cloud Computing – be Vigilant!

We wrote before about the need for vigilance to protect you from cybercriminals. We drew on input from Norton Antivirus about social media scams. In this post, we draw upon the Kiplinger’s Tax Letter and SingleHop.com site.

IRS e-mails – You might not think that tax preparers would fall for e-mail scams, but some do. The 2-27-15 Kiplinger’s Tax Letter describes use of bogus e-mails asking professionals to “update their IRS e-services accounts and their electronic filing ID numbers plus provide personal data.” As we have said in prior posts, the IRS categorically states that they do not send out e-mails.

Cloud Computing – SingleHop is a company endeavoring to be private cloud experts. They champion users holding cloud servers accountable for maintaining high level, monitored and updated security for all client files. Their recent newsletter notes that over 250,000 complaints were filed with the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center (ic3.gov) in 2013 alone, of which over 20% were under age 30. (For more on how “private cloud” computing fits in the internet infrastructure, here is a helpful SingleHop page: [[https://www.singlehop.com/private-cloud-hosting/|SingleHop site]])

They caution you not to rely on links from e-mails to the websites you frequent. Instead, they encourage you to create bookmarks for these websites to ensure that you are logging onto the site you intend. They also favor sites that use two levels to authenticate you before granting access to personal information. “With such methods, after logging in with your password, the site will text or email you a single-use code that must be entered. Only the registered phone number or email address will receive the code, making it that much harder for hackers to gain unauthorized access to your accounts.”

Scam Update – With the cautions from both sources in mind, we updated our post, to help you remain vigilant:

//Hidden URLs// – Those shortened URLs are convenient, but they may be links to websites you don’t want to visit, or worse, they could install malware on your computer. SingleHop admonishes, “Especially look out for slightly misspelled words or words that use unexpected characters, such as substituting a “0” (number) for a “0” (letter) — for example, HOME DEPOT. If something looks even a little bit fishy, delete the email or close the site immediately.”

//Phishing Requests// – When you get an invitation to click on any link, think twice. When you click, you may be taken to a fake Twitter or Facebook or to a bank, credit card issuer, or another financial institution login page. SingleHop says “Phishers will design their sites to look exactly like the website of your” institutions. If you fall for the fake website, and enter you username and password, the cybercriminals can use your information on the real website to gain complete control of your account.

//Hidden Charges// – Be wary of those online quizzes that offer to tell you interesting information about yourself like which 1960s sitcom star you resemble. If the quiz asks you for personal information, such as your phone number, stop. If you continue, you many end up subscribing to some service that charges a recurring monthly fee.

//Cash Grabs// – It’s great to make new friends, but maybe not by “friending” strangers on Facebook. That person you just friended on Facebook may soon be asking you for money. You can avoid this situation by limiting your social media connections to people you know personally. Ignore friend requests when you do not know the person and have no friends in common.

//Chain Letters// – Sure, you want to be sure that Microsoft will donate the millions it promised to some worthy charity if you keep the online chain letter going. However, such “chain letter” e-mails are a way for spammers to access your friends to connect with them later. Also, you never know to whom your friends will forward the letter.

Sites that are popular with users are popular with criminals, so remain vigilant when you are on line, and, of course, keep your antivirus and anti-malware software up to date. Be wary and think twice before clicking on a suspicious link!