Scam alert: your secrets are not safe with the IRS

The IRS recently announced that the tax information of 104,000 filers was stolen by hackers and used to file false returns. The same thieves attempted to steal tax data from an additional 100,000 filers, but were unsuccessful.

The unauthorized access of records occurred between February and May of 2015, when hackers used the IRS’s “Get a Transcript” web tool to access filers’ tax return transcripts. The hackers had previously obtained social security numbers of these 200,000 filers from other sources. The IRS pointed out that their servers were not hacked, but their online service allowed resourceful thieves to access filers’ information.

This breach is especially alarming because IRS Transcripts contain sensitive information about filers. Specifically, they include much of the information reported to the IRS on 1040 and the supporting forms, such as W-2s. The stolen information was then used to file 36,500 fraudulent tax returns seeking refunds. As many as 13,000 of those phony returns were accepted by the IRS, for a total of $39 million in refunds paid.

The IRS acted after discovering the breach by closing down the “Get a Transcript” tool for individual filers. Filers may still request their transcripts, but must do so by mailing in a completed form 4506. The IRS has not indicated when it will provide the online service again.

Their next step was to notify all 200,000 victims, informing them that their social security numbers and possibly other personal data was stolen. For those 104,000 whose tax information was stolen, the IRS is offering credit monitoring services. These victims will receive instructions to sign up for the credit monitoring note: these outreach letters will not request any personal identification information from taxpayers). In addition, the IRS will continue to monitor those tax accounts.

As always, victims may apply for identity protection numbers to prevent the filing of future returns using their information. Additionally, the IRS plans to strengthen its authentication procedures.

The hackers were able to answer many of the “out of wallet” security questions by using information that can be easily found on credit reports and social media sites like Facebook. As a result, the IRS will use questions that are more difficult to answer.

The IRS plans to employ a more proactive approach to prevent future breaches by partnering with private tax software companies, payroll companies and state agencies to share data on uncovered scams. Congress may act as well and may move up the date that W-2 forms must be filed with the government to January 31. This change would make it more difficult for scammers to e-file fake 1040s.

If you were affected by this breach, you will receive a notice in the mail from the IRS. If you do not receive a notice, we still recommend you access your free credit reports annually and stay vigilant about keeping your sensitive data protected.

Investment advice on saving for retirement – now!

Start your investment plan – now! Your future portfolio will thank you

“There’s no time like the present”, especially when it comes to investing. Young adults have a great advantage over other investors: time.

Compounding – The benefit of time is that is allows for interest to compound, which is the ability of an investment to grow by reinvesting earnings. Consider that a single $10,000 investment at age 20 would grow to over $70,000 by the time the investor becomes 60 years old (based on a 5% interest rate). By comparison, the same investment made at age 30 would yield about $43,000 by age 60, and made at age 40 would yield only $26,000. The longer money is put to work, the more wealth it can generate in the future.

Matches – If your employer offers an employer-sponsored retirement plan, like a 401(k), we suggest you enroll in their plan. Not only is savings made easy through automatic payroll deductions, but your contributions are made with pre-tax dollars. Additionally, many employers offer 401(k) matches, which means they will contribute money into your account. If you don’t take advantage of this benefit, then you are leaving money on the table.

Resources – Another advantage young people have is there are now, more than ever, many low-cost services available to make saving and investing easy.

  • Consider the Acorns app. This app rounds up each transaction you make with your debit or credit card to the nearest dollar and invests the change into a diversified portfolio.
  • Robinhood is another useful resource. This app offers commission-free trading of listed stocks and ETFs. They run a lean company which allows them to operate for less. They make their money by accruing interested on investors uninvested cash balances and through fees charged in their upgraded version. This is a low-cost means of entering the investment world.
  • Check out Betterment.com, a robo-planner website for investing using ETFs that holds down fees. You use this to invest your taxable funds and your retirement plans, like IRAs.
  • Also check out earthfolio.com, a robo-planner for investing “with a social conscience.”

Whichever form of investment you decide to take, the earlier you begin, the better. Start building your wealth now! See also: Young people, don’t let this happen to you. Plan for retirement now!

 

[As we have stated in past posts, we recommend investing passively, using ETFs or index funds, so you save fees. You can buy a diverse set of ETFs, set up your portfolio and sleep until you rebalance next year.]

5 Things Every Young Person Should Know About Retirement – You’ve got time, so use that time well!

If you are young, you’ve got time, and if you use that time well, you may even make up for the possibility of no pension and no Social Security benefits.

1. You won’t have what your parents had – no pension and no social security. Millennials are the first post-war generation to face retirement with virtually no pension. Fewer than 7% of Fortune 500 companies offer pension plans to new hires. Also, the way that the Social Security system is currently funded, there will be no reserves by 2033. Social security benefits are paid to retirees from the tax withholdings of the current workforce and also from the Social Security Reserves. Once the reserves are depleted, it is estimated the tax revenues the collected at that time will only be enough to pay out three quarters of the scheduled benefits. There are measures Congress could take to head off this eventual depletion, like changing the benefit formulas, raising payroll taxes or increasing the cap on taxable wage income. Until any changes are actually implemented, don’t count on any benefits!

2. Learn how to save and spend – now! It’s never too late to adopt good spending and saving habits, and the sooner you do it, the better. The more you can set aside that is invested now, the better off you will be. Also, avoid accruing any high interest rate debts. You can make your coffee at home if that is what allows you to max-out contributions to your 401(k) plan, especially if your employer matches what you contribute. If you do not have employer-sponsored plan, open a Roth IRA or even a traditional IRA. It’s a lot easier to put money aside now than it is to play catch-up in your 40s. And you can set up auto-debits so the investments are made as soon as your paycheck hits your bank account – keeping it out of your shopping slush fund!

3. We’re living longer, healthier lives. Longer, healthier lives are good, but they also require more investments at retirement. If you hit the Social Security full retirement of 67 now, the Center for Disease Control estimates you will live to around 86. That’s 19 years of retirement that you need to fund. But, if you are younger, living a longer, healthier life, then you will likely live longer, requiring more funds, unless you choose to work later in your life.

4. The good news is you have time. The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College suggests that, by setting aside money at age 25, you will need to save only about 10% of your annual income to retire at 65. If you wait to save, the percentage you need each year increases. If you wait ten years, starting at age 35, your target savings increases to 15%. Wait until you’re 45 and you’ll need to save 27% of your annual income. Imagine if you were 55 today and wanted to retire at age 67? The message is: don’t wait!

5. You also have great resources. With smartphone apps and do-it-yourself trading services, investing is more accessible and less costly than ever. Also, there are more affordable investment products available like ETFs (see our post), so you avoid high fund manager fees. Saving on fees means more to grow for your retirement. Over the course of 40 years, those fund manager fees add up to real money.

In sum, start saving now. Set up a simple portfolio and adjust it as you go along. The time you’ve got now will reward you later!

Boosting social security

A client forwarded the Kiplinger’s article reprinted below about how paying back money to Social Security can result in a recalculation that creates a higher benefit.

It is a strategy that works, so long as you live long enough.

With the risk of dying before you equal the payback, you may want to have life insurance equal to the amount you have to repay, to last until the benefits received equal that amount

You have to factor that cost into your calculation (as you would if you picked an employee benefit over the joint and survivor benefit from a pension).

Let me know if you want our input on the calculation for you or someone that you know

Thanks,

Steven

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Secret Ways to Boost Your Social Security

Four legal strategies for adding as much as $12,000 a year to your retirement income.
By Mary Beth Franklin, Senior Editor
From Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine, July 2008

Some retirement decisions are irreversible. But many retirees will be happy to learn that choosing when to start collecting Social Security benefits is not one of them.

When John Rothenhoefer, 70, found out that he could increase his Social Security benefits by about $1,000 a month by taking advantage of a do-over strategy, he thought he’d struck gold. As it turns out, he might as well have won a mega lottery. Out of the 32 million retirees who collect Social Security benefits, Rothenhoefer was one of just 71 people this fiscal year to take advantage of an obscure option that lets you halt your current benefits, pay back all you have collected interest-free, and restart your benefits at a new, higher rate based on your current age.

It’s perfectly legal, says Mark Lassiter, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration. But don’t expect the claims representatives at your local Social Security office or the employees who answer the agency’s toll-free number (800-772-1213) to be familiar with the details. “Our service representatives can go an entire career and never encounter this situation,” says Lassiter. He recommends that you download Form 521 (“Request for Withdrawal of Application”) from the agency’s Web site (www.ssa.gov) and visit your local office in person.

This strategy is just one of four little-publicized ways we uncovered to help you maximize your Social Security benefits. Each tactic applies to a specific situation; if one of them is yours, you could be in the money.

A “sweet deal”

For someone like Rothenhoefer, who had been collecting monthly checks for eight years, the price of repaying Social Security benefits can be steep — $100,000 or more in some cases. But he thinks it’s well worth it. Not only will his monthly check be about 75% larger than his previous benefit, but it will also increase with inflation each year for the rest of his life. And if John dies first, his wife, Charlotte, 67, will collect the same monthly amount as a survivor benefit for as long as she lives.

Here’s how it works: Let’s say you qualify for full benefits of $1,600 a month at your normal retirement age of 66, but you decide to begin collecting your benefits at 62. Your retirement benefits will be reduced by 25% for the rest of your life — to $1,200 a month, in this example — because you’ll be collecting a smaller benefit for a longer period of time.

On the other hand, if you delay collecting benefits, you will receive an 8% credit for every year beyond your normal retirement age until you reach 70, when your maximum benefit will be 132% of what you would have received at age 66. In this example, you would receive about $2,100 a month at 70 — a $900 difference.

Maybe you decided to collect benefits early out of fear that you wouldn’t live long enough to collect the larger delayed benefit. But now that you’ve made it to 70, you may regret your decision and wish you were receiving a larger check.
In order to get one, you must first file Form 521 at your local Social Security office to request a withdrawal of your application for benefits. Your retirement benefits will stop almost immediately — and if your husband or wife receives spousal benefits based on your work record, his or her benefits will stop, too. Then the Social Security Administration will send you a letter telling you how much you need to repay (including any spousal benefits). That process may take several weeks. Once you repay the benefits, you can reapply for new, higher payments based on your current age.

If, for example, you received $1,200 a month starting at age 62, plus annual cost-of-living adjustments through age 70, you would have to repay about $130,000. That’s a lot of money, but for some people it’s worth the price to get an additional $900 a month in retirement. By comparison, it would cost a 70-year-old man about $190,000 to buy an immediate annuity that would provide $900 a month initially, plus annual inflation adjustments and a 100% survivor benefit. That’s 46% more expensive than “buying” a lifetime annuity from Social Security.

Rothenhoefer thinks it’s a “sweet deal.” He concedes the strategy could backfire if both he and his wife were to die before they recoup their investment, which will take about ten and a half years. Still, he says, “it’s worth the gamble,” particularly because his wife stands a good chance of living into her nineties, as her mother and grandmother did.

There’s another financial downside: You may have to go without Social Security benefits for a few months while the agency sorts out how much you have to repay and you reapply for benefits. When your benefits stop, so do the automatic deductions that cover your Medicare premium. You’ll have to pay the Part B premium yourself — currently $96.40 a month for most retirees — until your Social Security benefits resume.

Crunch the numbers

Boston University economics professor Laurence Kotlikoff says repaying and reapplying for Social Security benefits is a “fantastic option” for some people. But it can involve a lot of number-crunching to determine whether it’s the right decision for you. Kotlikoff offers case studies on his Web site, www.esplanner.com. For $149, you can access his sophisticated financial-planning software, which lets you create your own comprehensive retirement plan, including an analysis of the pros and cons of a decision to pay back your Social Security.

John Greaney, who started the Retire Early Web site (www.retireearlyhomepage.com), says that members of his online community were aware of the repayment strategy but treated it as an urban legend. When Greaney took the time to research it last summer, he realized that it was an even better deal than he had first thought. That’s because when you repay your Social Security benefits, you can claim either an itemized deduction or a tax credit (whichever results in bigger savings to you) for the taxes you paid on your benefits in previous years. The calculations are complicated, but you can get all the details in IRS Publication 915, Social Security and Equivalent Railroad Retirement Benefits, at www.irs.gov.

The idea of boosting your Social Security benefits may be enticing, but you still have to figure out how to pay for it. Kotlikoff’s case studies weigh the pros and cons of using other assets to repay the benefits. Greaney created a spreadsheet that assumes you collect benefits early, invest all the money, then repay the benefits with earnings to spare. The spreadsheet also factors in the tax refund.

But Rothenhoefer had another idea. With his mortgage paid off, he decided to take out a home-equity loan and use the extra income from the bigger monthly Social Security benefit to repay the loan. “I didn’t have to touch my savings, and I’ll get a tax deduction on the interest,” says Rothenhoefer, who lives in Ellicott City, Md.

One word of caution: Although this strategy can work well if you are already collecting benefits and like the idea of starting over at a higher monthly rate, it’s riskier to plan to collect reduced benefits now with the intention of repaying them later. For one thing, you might not live long enough to take advantage of the repayment strategy. In that case, your spouse would be left with a reduced survivor benefit. Plus, there’s no guarantee that Congress won’t tinker with the provision when it eventually turns its attention to

Social Security reform.

Tactics for couples

Two other income-boosting strategies give couples a way to maximize their Social Security benefits. A recent paper by the Center for Retirement Research recommends that the spouse who is eligible for lower benefits collect them early, while the higher-earning spouse delays taking benefits until they are worth more. Then, when the primary breadwinner dies, the spouse with the lower benefit will “step up” to a much higher survivor benefit as the smaller retirement payment drops off.
In the past, it wasn’t always possible to implement such a strategy. For example, a wife with little or no work history would have to wait until her husband actually started collecting Social Security to apply for spousal benefits based on his work record, equal to half of his monthly check.

That’s not the case anymore. The Senior Citizens’ Freedom to Work Act of 2000 allows a worker to “file and suspend” Social Security benefits once he or she has reached full retirement age. Under this law, the higher-earning spouse (usually the husband) could file for benefits, allowing his wife to collect her share, and then suspend his own benefits while continuing to work and building a bigger payment for the future. This kind of planning works best for couples in which one spouse has substantially higher lifetime earnings than the other.

There’s also a way for married couples with similar incomes to enhance their benefits. In that situation, once you reach your normal retirement age, you can apply just for spousal Social Security benefits and delay the start of your own, higher benefits.

Let’s say, for instance, that a man and his wife are both 66 years old and each is entitled to retirement benefits of $1,500 a month. She decides to retire, but he wants to continue working. He can apply for spousal benefits based on her work record — worth $750 a month in this case — and delay claiming benefits based on his own work history until he reaches age 70. At that point, his check would be worth about $2,000 a month.

Take care of the kids

Older men who are widowers or divorced often get remarried to younger women, and it’s not uncommon for them to start second families. So when these do-over dads start collecting Social Security benefits, they may still have minor children at home. More than 500,000 children currently receive monthly payments based on a parent’s Social Security retirement benefits.

If you’re in this situation, you can put aside the money for your kids — you might even be able to get Uncle Sam to foot the bill for their college education. That’s what one 67-year-old man in Austin, Tex., plans to do. Although he didn’t want us to use his name, “Bill” was happy to share his story.

After the death of his first wife several years ago, Bill married a younger woman, and they’re expecting their first child this year. When the baby is born, he or she will receive monthly Social Security checks worth up to half of Bill’s benefit until the child reaches age 18.

Bill plans to stretch those benefits even further by depositing them in a state-sponsored 529 college-savings plan. By contributing to a 529, he’ll be able to use the earnings and distributions tax-free to pay for tuition, books, fees and other qualified expenses. If the child received $500 a month, for example, and the account earned an average 5% annual return, the college fund would be worth about $175,000 in 18 years. Depending on where you live, you may also qualify for a state income-tax deduction on your 529 contribution.

Despite the Social Security system’s long-term financial problems, you don’t need to feel guilty about trying to maximize your benefits, says Mary Jane Yarrington, a policy analyst with the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. “These new strategies bring public attention to the fact that Social Security is truly valuable and that there are ways to make it even more worthwhile,” Yarrington says.