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7 Ways to Spot a Loan Scam

Your credit’s trending in the wrong direction, you’re short on cash and you’re desperate for a loan. You need to get your hands on some cash to help pull you out of this tight spot, and you need to do it – fast! Unfortunately, though, it feels like no reputable institution is willing to grant you a loan. And the few that are will do so only with very unforgiving terms.

Then, miraculously, you find it: an ad for an easy loan with great terms that will qualify almost anyone. Best of all, the company is willing to work with borrowers regardless of their financial state. Finally – a way out! It’s the answer you’ve been waiting for. A dream come true. 

Or is it? 

Most successful scams prey on desperate and vulnerable victims. Loan scams are no exception: They specifically target people who are in dire straits and may be willing do anything to get their hands on some cash.But sadly, falling prey to a loan scam will only pull the borrower deeper into the pit of debt. 

Once a loan scammer has snagged a victim, they will begin the process of having the borrower fill out a loan “application.” The victim, eager to get that quick money, willingly shares anything asked of them, including sensitive and personal information. With that info in hand, the scammer can make off with these details and empty the victim’s accounts, charge a shopping spree on the victim’s cards or even steal the victim’s identity.

Sometimes, the scammer may ask for an upfront debit card payment as collateral or insurance for the loan. Obviously, the victim will never see that money again. 

Awareness and caution are the best defense. Here’s 7 proven ways to spot a loan scam: 

1.) There’s no credit check 

Every reputable lender, whether they’re affiliated with a credit union, a car dealership or an online institution, will want to verify that the borrower can, and will, repay the loan before they agree to the transaction. If a lender doesn’t bother checking your credit score and history, you can be sure they have no intention of lending you a dime. 

The single exception to this rule is payday loans. Since these have such short terms and extraordinarily high interest rates, lenders don’t bother with credit checks. They still make money even if borrowers occasionally default on their loans. 

2.) You’re asked to pay an upfront fee 

You shouldn’t have to pay for a loan. When a lender asks you to pay a loan collateral, insurance or fees by prepaid debit card or wire transfer, you’re being scammed! Back out of the deal before it’s too late. 

3.) The lender isn’t registered in your state 

As per the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), every lender and loan broker must be officially registered in the states where they conduct business. A legitimate lender will have a list of states posted on their site to let borrowers know where they’re registered. If you can’t find this information on the site, and the lender refuses to provide further details, they are likely not legitimate. 

4.) The lender is not affiliated with any financial institution 

Authentic lenders must operate under a bank or credit union charter. This information should be clearly posted on the lender’s site. If it’s missing, you might be dealing with a scammer. 

5.) You’re (sometimes strongly) urged to act immediately  

If a lender stresses that you must submit your information and make your upfront payment RIGHT NOW, you’re likely interacting with a scammer. Most loans don’t expire after a few hours, or even a few days. The scammer is only trying to get you to act without thinking.

Exit the site immediately and change your device’s passwords as an extra precaution. 

6.) The site isn’t secure 

Whenever money is changing hands online, you’ll want to verify that you’re dealing with a legitimate site. The site’s address/URL will give you an easy clue: Look for an “s” after the “http” in the address. If it’s there, the site is secure; if it’s not, back out now! 

It’s important to check the site’s security as soon as you hit the homepage. Waiting until you’re ready to submit your information can be too late. Creepy as it may sound, lots of hackers use keystroke loggers, which record as you type. That means, even if you haven’t actually submitted your filled-out application, they may already have all the information they need to scam you. If you check for a site’s security as soon as you’ve connected, though, you’ll exit any unsecured sites before you start typing.   

7.) The lender has no physical address 

Always do a quick online search using the lender’s official name. If it’s legitimate, a search should bring up a physical address and phone number for the company. If the lender’s name doesn’t turn up anything beyond the online world, opt out of the loan immediately. 

Are you short on cash? Don’t get scammed – let us help! Call, click, or stop by MIT FCU today to learn about our personal loans and other ways we can help keep or put your finances back in the black. 

Student Discounts You Can Use

Between astronomical tuition bills, piles of textbooks to purchase, foods costs and supplies, being a college student is definitely not cheap.

Lucky for you, there are loads of companies out there that think you deserve a budgeting break.

Here are five of the best student discounts out there.

1. Amazon

Amazon’s got it all – textbooks, supplies, gadgets, you name it! And, as a college student on a strict schedule, you want to get it all as soon as possible.

But who wants to shell out a hundred bucks a year for Amazon Prime?

Fortunately, you can have your super-speedy delivery service at half the price! Amazon Student offers all the perks of Amazon Prime for just $49 a year, providing you with free 2-day shipping, access to Prime Video streaming, unlimited photo storage with Prime Photos and various other student discounts.

You can even try out Amazon Student free of charge, for a full six months.  When your six months are up, Amazon will ask if you want to join the student program at just $49 a year, and all you need to cash in on this bargain is a valid .edu email address. Doesn’t get much easier than that!

2. Spotify

You need your favorite tunes at your fingertips when tackling your schoolwork, but those Spotify ads take “annoying” to a whole new level. And, as a buck-watching student, you’re not paying the steep price for Spotify Premium.

Luckily for you, Spotify is happy to join the ranks of companies trying to save you money. Just for being a student, they’ll slash the Spotify Premium rates in half, to just $4.99 a month, for up to a year.

You’ll need to submit a recent transcript showing that you are currently enrolled in a school and attending classes, but then it’s hello ad-free jamming sessions!

3. Microsoft Office

Are you a fan of Microsoft Office? As a college student, you can download it for free! Just log onto Microsoft’s webpage and  input your valid student email address to download Office 365, which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. Your coursework just got a whole lot easier!

And it’s no free trial – once you’ve downloaded Office, the program is yours to keep.

4. Adobe

Are you pursuing a career in graphic design? Want to learn how to navigate Photoshop? It just got easier and cheaper for you! Adobe is offering eligible students access to Lightroom and Photoshop for just $9.99 a month! If you want to explore Adobe’s apps, you can do that, too, for just $19.99 a month. It’s more than just spare change, but when stacked up against the usual price for Adobe’s full package at $49.99 a month, it’s a true bargain!

5. Amtrak

Traveling home for the holidays and summer break can get expensive. Choose Amtrak for your next visit home and save big!

The transport company’s 30 train routes run through 46 states, making them a super-convenient choice for those who’d rather not fly. And lucky for you, they offer student discounts, too! You can save up to $155 on every Amtrak trip you take, as long as you’ve got a valid student ID. Make sure to book your trip three days in advance and to bring your ID – you’ll save big with every trip!

What You Need to Know About Smishing Scams

How do you communicate with your nearest and dearest when you’re on the go and can’t make a phone call? Do you send a VoiceNote? Use WhatsApp? Or, do you send an simple text message?

In a world where apps can almost run our lives for us, the humble SMS has outlived them all – and it’s still going strong. Unfortunately, though, texting has come under attack as one of the most vulnerable mediums for identity theft and more.

Here’s what you need to know about an SMS-based scam called “smishing.”

How it works

Smishing scams are similar to email phishing scams in which scammers target victims by sending an email that appears to be from their bank or credit union, internet service provider or one of their favorite businesses. Smishing scams use text messages instead of emails, but their goal is the same as phishing scams’: to establish contact with the victim and access their personal information.

The scam begins with a supposedly urgent text appearing to be from the victim’s financial institution of choice. Sometimes, it’s from a bank or credit union with whom they have never done business!

The text claims the victim’s checking account is locked and that the victim must take immediate action to restore it. Alternatively, the text may alert the victim about a large, unauthorized purchase that was charged to their account. The scammer warns that, if the charge is not contested immediately, the victim will be responsible for the transaction. There are more variations, but they will always convey a sense of urgency to induce panic and trigger immediate and mindless obedience.

The victim is then instructed to call a specified number and, upon doing so, will be asked to share personal financial information. Once they’ve got their hands on this info, the scammer is free to steal the victim’s identity, empty their accounts or go on a shopping spree on the victim’s dime.

Who are the victims?

Smishing scams primarily target people who use mobile banking apps and sites. Victims who use their phones to manage their accounts don’t question when their financial institution appears to contact them by text message and, unfortunately, these smishing scams are often successful.

It isn’t just online banking users who need to be wary of smishing. Fraudsters have widened their net and have recently started sending messages to any cellphone number they can get their hands on.

If you own a checking account and a cellphone, you are vulnerable to a potential smishing scam.


Recognizing smishing scams

If you know what to look for, you’ll be able to spot a smishing scam at first glance.

First of all, your credit union will not use a text message to alert you of a possible fraud or lockdown on your account; we prefer to use more personable contact methods to help ensure your privacy and personal security.

Also, the phone number the smishing text instructs you to call is not ours. We service our members from our own premises, and our number is [617-253-2845]. If you’re told to contact us at a different line, it’s not us you’re calling!

You can also spot the smishing scam just by looking at the phone number. The text will often appear to come from a number that is obviously fake. Alternatively, it can appear to have come from one of your contacts who is kindly letting you know about the trouble with your account. In such cases, ask your friend (directly, not in response to the message) if they actually sent it. If they have no idea what you’re talking about, someone is using their number to lure you into a scam.

If you’ve been targeted

If you receive a suspicious-looking text that might be a smishing scam, do not engage the texter! Jot down the scammer’s number and delete the message. Let us know about the smishing attempt and tell all your friends. You can also alert the FTC at ftc.gov so they can help catch those crooks.

If you’ve fallen for such a scam and your accounts have been compromised, alert your credit card companies and be sure to let us know as well. We’ll help you mitigate the damage and regain control of your finances.

Protecting yourself

You can’t insulate your phone against these scams, but there are some proactive steps you can take to protect yourself, your device and your money.

  1. Always use two-factor authentication. Most credit unions require a two-factor sign-in, but if you have the choice of opting out of this extra step, don’t take it! It’s not worth the added risk.
  2. Strengthen your passwords. Never double your password use across different accounts, websites and apps. Make sure your passwords are strong and unique. Consider using a password manager like Dashlane or 1Password.
  3. Don’t respond. Ignore text messages from unknown numbers, even if they’re not alerting you about a problem with your accounts. A text from an unknown source may be the scammer’s first attempt at establishing contact and determining if you’re a willing target for a future scam.

Make sure you are always on the alert for smishing scams. Don’t let those crooks get their hands on your money!

Debit Card Safety

“And how are you paying for your purchases today?” 

It’s a question we have to answer almost every day. Will you be using cash, a credit card or a debit card? 

It may be instinct for you to pull out any piece of plastic without thinking, but your random card of choice might not be the safest way to pay. Sometimes, you’ll want to use a credit card. And sometimes,  its a better idea to pay with a debit card. Still other times, you’re best off using cash. 

Let’s explore when and how to use your debit card. 

Credit and debit: How are they different? 

They’re both plastic, with a series of numbers, a security code and your name embedded on them. So, how are debit and credit cards different? 

A better question might be: How are they the same? Appearances aside, your credit and debit cards have very little in common. 

Credit cards allow you to choose your purchases now, and pay for them weeks, months or even years later. If you let your balance grow, you’ll be paying for a lot more than it really costs in the way of interest. But, if you make timely payments, you’ll have yourself a small loan that usually costs you1 little to nothing. Credit cards also offer rewards, purchase protection and the ability to back out of a purchase you’ve decided against. You can also contest fraudulent charges on your account, freeze your credit on a compromised card or even close the card completely. 

Debit card transactions, on the other hand, take the money right out of your checking account as soon as you swipe. Some point of sale terminals put a freeze on the amount, removing it from your account a few days later. But, either way, you won’t be able to access that money and you won’t have to worry about paying for it later. There’s no interest here, but there also may be no purchase protection, depending upon your financial institution. Finally, in case of fraud you may need to resort to closing your checking account. However, usually a simple issuing of a new debit card is all that’s needed.  

Which one’s better? It depends on the purpose. Debit cards are great for helping you stick to your budget and won’t send you into a cycle of debt. However, because they may offer very little recourse in cases of fraud, credit cards are usually the better choice in the most vulnerable situations. 

5 purchases you should carefully consider before using your debit card 

According to data from FICO, during the first 6 months of 2017, the number of compromised ATMs and point-of-sale devices was 21% higher than it was in the first 6 months of 2016. Don’t let your card be next! 

Here’s where you may not want to use your debit card: 

1.) At the pump 

Card skimmers at gas stations are on the rise. By choosing to use your credit card instead of your debit card at the pump, you’ll have an added layer of protection against fraud. You can also choose to use cash. It’s the safest way to pay (so long as you watch out for pickpockets!). 

2.) At an isolated ATM 

The ATM at MIT FCU? Definitely safe to use.

The one at the crowded pharmacy? Probably OK.

The machine in a secluded corner of an empty convenience store? Very possibly tampered with. 

Isolated ATMs in locations with very little security and sparse foot traffic are prime targets for hackers. It’s best to give these machines a wide berth and pick up your cash at MIT FCU. 

3.) In an unfamiliar location 

When on vacation, it’s important to think before you swipe. You don’t know the area and you can’t be certain which clerks are to be trusted. You’re better off paying with a credit card or with cash so your purchases are protected against fraud. 

Also, a large charge in an area you never frequent might cause your purchases to be flagged as fraudulent. Let your credit union know about your trip and be careful how you swipe! 

4.) For large purchases 

If you’re springing for a new entertainment center or another big-ticket item, you’re best off using your credit card. It’ll offer you dispute rights in case the product doesn’t turn out how you expected, and you might be granted an extended warranty just for using a credit card.

5.) Restaurants 

Can you really trust the servers at your favorite restaurant with your personal financial information? When you hand them your debit card at the end of the meal, that’s exactly what you’re doing. The server has more than enough time to clone your card and then use it for any purchases they’d like to make. Unless your restaurant has a tableside payment system, you’re better off using a credit card or cash to pay for your meal. 

Look out for skimmers 

Always use caution when using your debit or credit card. Check the payment processor for anything that looks out of place, such as a newer keypad on an older machine, or a hard-to-use slot for your card. Don’t forget to cover the keypad with your hand when inputting your PIN. 

Stay ahead of hackers by using your debit card with caution! 

Should I Refinance My Home Mortgage?

Q: Many of my friends have refinanced their mortgage recently, and they’re urging me to do the same thing. Money is always a bit tight, and the thought of an extra few hundred dollars a month is very tempting. Should I refinance? 

A: Refinancing a mortgage is essentially paying off the remaining balance on an existing home loan and then taking out another mortgage, usually at a lower interest rate. It may sound like a no-brainer, but there are lots of factors to consider before deciding to refinance. 

Why people refinance 

There are many reasons homeowners choose to refinance their mortgage. Here are some of the better ones: 

1.    To take advantage of lower interest rates 

The first, and most obvious, reason homeowners refinance their mortgage is to take advantage of a lower interest rate. The drive behind this reason might be a change in finances, personal life or simply the desire to save money. 

The accepted rule of thumb has always been that it was only worth refinancing if you could reduce your interest rate by at least 2%. Today, though, even a 1% reduction in rate should be reason enough to refinance.   

Reducing your interest rate has several advantages. It can help you build more equity in your home sooner, decrease the size of your monthly payment and of course, save you lots of money overall. 

Say you have a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage with an interest rate of 5.75% on a $200,000 home. Your principal and interest payment is $1017.05. If you’d refinance that same loan at 4.5%, your monthly payment would drop to $894.03  

2.    To shorten the life of their loan 

People sometimes choose to refinance their mortgage because they want to finish paying off their loan sooner. If you have a mortgage with a really high interest rate, refinancing can help you pay off your loan in half the time without changing your monthly payment much. 

3.    To convert between adjustable-rate and fixed-rate mortgages 

Homeowners often opt for an Adjustable Rate Mortgage (ARM) because of the lower rate it offers. Over time, though, adjustments can increase these rates until they top the going rate for fixed-rate mortgages. When this happens, switching to a fixed-rate mortgage can lower the homeowner’s interest rate and offer them stability instead of future rate increases. 

On the flip side, when interest rates are falling, it often makes sense to convert a fixed-rate mortgage to an ARM. This ensures smaller monthly payments and lower interest rates without refinancing every time the rate drops. This is not advisable in the current climate, since interest rates are more likely to climb rather than decrease. 

When refinancing your mortgage is a bad idea 

In certain circumstances, the worst thing you can do for your financial situation is refinance your mortgage. 

  • When you’re in debt – If you’re looking for the extra stash of cash each month to pull you out of debt, you probably shouldn’t be refinancing. Most people who refinance for this reason end up spending all the money they save, and then some. Without making any real changes to your spending habits, giving yourself extra money to blow is only enabling you to fall deeper into debt.
  • When a refinance will greatly lengthen the loan’s terms – If you’ve only got 10 years left on your mortgage and you want to refinance to stretch out those payments over 30 years, you won’t come out ahead. Any money you save on lower payments will be lost in the cost of the refinance and the extra 20 years of interest you’ll be paying on your mortgage.
  • When you don’t plan on living in your home much longer – If you plan on moving within the next few years, the money you save might not even come close to the prohibitive price you paid for your refinance.

What is a cash-out refinance? 

Sometimes, homeowners choose to refinance to tap into their home’s equity and get their hands on a large sum of cash. To do this, they’ll need to refinance with a bigger loan so they can pocket the difference. However, they will need to stay within the loan-to-value, or LTV, threshold of their loan program. The LTV is the mortgage amount divided by the appraised value of the property. 

For example, say you own a home that is worth $400,000 and you owe $240,000 on the mortgage. If your lender has an 80% LTV option, you could refinance into a $320,000 loan and take out the $80,000 difference in cash. 

Cash-out refinances are a great idea if you need some cash for a home renovation, or to pay for your child’s college tuition. It’s best to choose this option only if you can afford the loan terms or will use that money to increase your equity. If you’re going to blow it all on a Caribbean cruise, you might be sailing toward a lifetime of debt. 

How much will it cost? 

Homeowners are often eager to request a refinance until they see what it will cost them. 

Remember all those fees and closing costs you paid when you first bought your house? Prepare to pay most of them again. Broker fees will vary, but a typical refinance will cost anywhere between 3-6% of the loan’s principal. 

Before proceeding with your refinance, make sure you’ll actually be saving money. You can do this by procuring a good faith estimate from several lenders. This will get you your projected interest rate and the anticipated loan price. Next, divide this price by the amount you’ll save each month with your anticipated new rate. This will give you the number of months that will have to pass before you break even from the new loan.

If you don’t plan on staying in your home for that long, or you can’t afford to wait until then to recoup your losses, refinancing may not make sense for you. 

 

Don't Drink Your Wallet Dry!

It’s hot out, so make sure you’re drinking up! In fact, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that adult males drink at least 11 cups of fluid a day and females drink 9. 

What’s in your glass today?  You might be a true coffee-crazy, cola-loving American, but water is your best beverage choice for your health and for your money. 

However, did you know that bottled water may be draining your wallet dry? 

It’s true. Many people pay huge amounts of money for bottled water without even realizing how inflated the price is. So, let’s take a look at the costs of bottled water when compared to ordinary tap water. 

Although service charges, state taxes, and other fees may vary, 1,000 gallons of tap water will typically cost you about $11. With that amount of water, you could fill approximately 7,570 bottles of water at 16.9 fluid ounces each, with each bottle costing you less than a penny. It’s $0.0014 to be exact! 

Assuming you drink three 20-oz bottles of water a day, you’ll need 1,095 bottles a year. If you’d fill those bottles with tap water, it’ll cost you just $1.53 a year. This means that, as soon as you’ve bought a day’s worth of bottled water, you’ve already spent nearly double of what an entire year’s worth of tap-water drinking would cost you! 

Is that water starting to lose its taste yet? 

This doesn’t mean you need to start chugging down awful-tasting tap water just to save on some costs. Luckily for you, there are many ways to get sweet-tasting water without busting your budget. 

Here are some options you may consider: 

DIY chilling 

If you love the taste and convenience of bottled water, you can save big just by buying your bottles in packs of 24 and refrigerating them at home instead of buying them cold while on the go.  Instead of $1 a bottle, you’ll pay just $0.16. If you drink three bottles a day, you’ll pay $175 a year. It’s still a lot more expensive than tap water, but it’s also a lot less than paying for cold bottled water. 

If you’re out of the house for a while each day and you like your water freezing cold, you can freeze the bottles you’ll be using later in the day or invest in an insulated bag that keeps beverages cold. 

 

Water coolers 

They’re not just for catching up on the latest office gossip; water coolers can help you fill all your water needs at home. Of course, you’ll need to spring for the machine itself, but after that one-time cost ($170 on average), you’ll only be paying for refills. 

Prices vary by companies, but a 5-gallon refill of spring or purified water will run you approximately $7. Stockpile your refills in the garage and order multiple bottles at once, and you can get discounts as steep as just $5 a bottle. That’s only $1 a gallon, for cold, delicious-tasting water. With each gallon filling 7.5 water bottles, you’re getting more than 37 bottles worth of bottled water for the price of 5 purchased bottles! 

 

Pitcher filters 

These handy contraptions snap right onto your pitcher of water and filter it on the spot. You can also purchase a pitcher with the filter already attached. Either way, you’ll have your bottled water needs met with just a one-time purchase that averages only $20. 

The downside here is the minimal amount of water a pitcher filter can purify for you in one shot. If you drink large amounts of water or have lots of thirsty people around, this might not be the best option for you. If your water needs are modest, though, a pitcher filter can be a great way for you to get sweet-tasting water inexpensively. 

 

Water treatment system 

If you want to be able to get purified water straight from the tap, this is the way to go. Having an indoor water treatment system installed in your faucet will filter your water before you even turn on the faucet. The obvious benefits here are easy access to unlimited amounts of filtered water whenever you need it, plus purified water to cook with and to use for washing your dishes. 

These filters run about $250 to $400 and usually work with one faucet only. Some companies will actually install a purified water tap alongside your existing faucet instead of filtering it. There are also companies that offer a purification system for all the water in the house, but those will costs several thousands of dollars to install. 

 

Take the tap challenge! 

There are many ways to drink up, but tap water still holds its place as the cheapest option. Are you up for a challenge? If it’s a safe option in your area, try drinking only tap water for a month. You’ll save huge on drinking water costs and it may just become a lifelong habit! 

Here are some ways to make tap water more palatable: 

  • Slice citrus fruits and let them float in your pitcher to give your water a tasty zing.
  • Soak some pineapple chunks in your water for several hours and remove before serving.
  • Invest in a SodaStream to add some sparkle to your glass.
  • Freeze pureed blueberries and strawberries and use them as ice cubes.
  • Add some Crystal Light or another calorie-free flavoring mix.
  • Steep fresh mint leaves in your pitcher before drinking.

Don’t let your hard-earned money get washed down the drain. Drink wisely this summer and save big! 

Beware Tech Support Scams

You’re always putting yourself out on a limb when you call tech support. You dial the number the company gives you, and perhaps after a while of waiting, you’re connected to someone who may be working on the other side of the world in a completely different time zone. Then you’re asked to give this anonymous person identifying details about your phone or computer and the technical problems you’re experiencing.

Of course, you’re fairly certain the speaker works for your device’s company and you believe it’s perfectly safe to share this information. At the very least, they have contracted with this individual and are tracking their service.

All of that gets a little riskier when you’re asked to allow the tech support agent to have remote access to your device. This step is sometimes necessary to fix the glitch, but it can also be unnerving. Suddenly, it’s as if an invisible person has taken over your screen. Letters you haven’t typed are showing up on the display and the cursor is flying all over the screen, even though you haven’t touched the mouse.

You’re essentially letting someone have free access to a device that houses some of your most personal information. Yikes!

And that’s exactly what tech support scammers are looking for with their nefarious hacks. It’s truly as awful as it sounds: In these scams, fraudsters contact victims and trick them into granting the scammer access to their computers. The crooks may reach out to people through a phone call, insisting the victims have a virus or another problem they’ve somehow detected from the company’s headquarters. Alternatively, they’ll send a popup to the victim’s computer which will flash dire warnings about an impending or existing virus that can be “fixed” by clicking on a link.

There are several outcomes of such tech support scams, none of them good. Sometimes, a scammer will trick you into installing malware on your computer, claiming you have to click on a link in order to heal your computer of its ills. Other times, they might sell you expensive “software” by making the same false claims. Still other times, they’ll direct you to a bogus tech support website where you’ll be asked to input your credit card information. And they’ll oftentimes simply help themselves to the sensitive data they find on your computer and then wreak havoc on your financial life.

Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Scams

Tech support scams are nothing new, but a recent wave of these scams has taken on an ironic twist. The very organization that leads the battle in taking down scammers is being exploited for a particularly heinous hack.

Scammers posing as FTC employees are calling victims, asking for remote access to their computers. They assure victims they can help restore any affected devices to their previous working conditions. Many of them are claiming to represent the FTC’s Advanced Tech Support Refund program.

This program was created to help victims of previous scams collect their refund money from the FTC. The scammers will convince the victims that they are moments away from seeing their money – they just need to provide the alleged FTC employee with remote access to their computer. They may also ask for an upfront payment before the refund can be issued or for checking account information, claiming it’s necessary for the refund to clear.

Of course, none of this is true and the caller has never worked for the FTC. In fact, the FTC will never request remote access to your device or ask you to pay to receive a refund. Also, their refunds are sent in check form via snail mail, and do not require any checking account information at all.

The FTC has alerted the public that the only genuine number to call for information about the Advanced Tech Support Refund program is 877-793-0908. If someone calls you on their own, assume it’s a scam. End the call immediately and report the incident to the FTC.

Recognizing Tech Support Scams

As mentioned, the wave of tech support scams in which fraudsters impersonate the FTC are easy to spot if you know this basic information about the FTC: They will never request remote access to your computer, ask for payment in exchange for a refund, or reach out to you on the phone.

Here’s how to prevent other variations of tech support scams:

  • Never click on a pop-up box that claims your computer has a virus and offers to clean it. This will only infect your computer or grant a scammer remote access to your device.
  • Always call tech support on your own; if they call you, especially if you’re not aware of any problem with your computer, hang up as quickly as you can.
  • Never agree to purchase expensive software online to fix an alleged virus.

If you think you’ve been scammed, tell everyone you know about it and be sure to alert the FTC.  Let’s do our part to put those crooks out of business for good!

Saving On Mother’s Day

I love showing Mom how much she means to me, but with the money spent on a pricey bouquet, a nice gift and dinner out, I’m looking at an awful lot of spending! Is there any way to give Mom a Mother’s Day to remember without it costing a small fortune?I love showing Mom how much she means to me, but with the money spent on a pricey bouquet, a nice gift and dinner out, I’m looking at an awful lot of spending! Is there any way to give Mom a Mother’s Day to remember without it costing a small fortune?

If you find yourself overspending on Mother’s Day, you’re not alone. The average American will spend close to $200 this month, all aimed at making Mom feel special. It’s wonderful to show your love and appreciation, but you don’t need to blow your budget to make that happen.

Read on for some low-cost ways to show Mom how much you care.

1.  Give Mom a staycation

Give your mother a day off – at home! Make arrangements for her to be completely free of all housework on her special day. There’s no laundry, cooking or cleaning for her today! Offer to assume the responsibilities of all her daily chores, being sure to tidy up as per Mom’s standards and to prepare all her meals. You can create a homemade gift card entitling the bearer to one full day of all household chores, and present it to Mom in the morning.

Give your mother a small vacation – she deserves it!

2. Go out – for free

Search your neighborhood forums for local attractions that don’t have an admission fee. You might get lucky with an interesting museum or a beautiful overlook point that’s just a small drive away. Otherwise, you can prepare a picnic lunch, bring along some balls and Frisbees, and spend the day at a scenic park together with the whole family. Pack a portable grill and some hot dogs to make it a full-day event!

3. Make some memories

Celebrate Mother’s Day with the most enjoyable trip of all: down memory lane. Spend some time gathering and editing the best home video footage you can find. Include major family milestones and memorable events and/or vacations. Put it all together and present your gift to Mom on her special day. Then, sit back with the rest of the family and reminisce togethelr about the good old times.

On a similar note, you can give Mom the gift of priceless memories by creating a family scrapbook. Use patterned cardstock, your best family photos, ticket stubs and other fun mementos to help Mom remember old times. If Mom’s a grandmother several times over, you can even have each family member – or each grandchild – design their own page for Grandma.

4. Look for bargains online

If you can’t get around spending money on Mom’s gift, search for seasonal discounts online before spending a penny. You’ll find excellent Mother’s Day deals on Amazon, Coach, Kohl’s and other major retailers, sometimes as steep as 84% off retail price.

Best Buy puts a twist in the discount game by rewarding you for money you spend on Mom. Choose something from the site’s “Top Tech for Mom” section and you’ll get a savings coupon that’s valid until late June – just in time to help you save on a gift for Father’s Day.

5. Have a family movie night

Spend a relaxing day at home binge-watching Mom’s favorite movies together. Prepare lots of fresh popcorn and all of Mom’s best snacks, pour her a glass of her favorite drink, and get comfy on the couch. Remember: Mom is in charge of the remote! It’s her day, after all.

6. Look for restaurant deals

It’s always cheapest to eat your own home-cooked food, but if you know your mom is looking forward to a dinner out, look for local restaurant deals before deciding on a place to eat. Lots of eateries offer special Mother’s Day deals or even free menu items just for moms.

To keep costs down while still enjoying takeout food, order your dinner in. You’ll save on beverages and service fees without the hassle of preparing your meal. Be sure to set the table with Mom’s best china – and to do the dishes when you’ve finished eating.

7. Go easy on the flowers 

Flowers are always appreciated, but they can cost a bundle! Save on Mom’s bouquet by shopping around for the best Mother’s Day deals. Save even more by purchasing your flowers in the supermarket and arranging them in a vase or pitcher you already have in the house.

8.  Game night

For a fun family activity that puts the focus on Mom, turn your favorite games into Mother’s Day material. Love trivia? Put together a list of random questions about Mom’s life, hobbies and daily schedule and play a super fun game of Trivial Pursuit. Pass around the most hilarious pictures you can find of Mom and let everyone take a stab at guessing when and where they happened. Get creative and host the family game night that Mom will always remember.

Showing Mom how much she means to you doesn’t have to strain your budget at all. With a bit of research and proper planning, you can give Mom some priceless memories she’ll cherish forever.

Beware of Social Media Scams

The social media explosion has forever changed the way we interact with one another. In fact, everyone knows that a vacation, a dinner out or child’s milestone never really happened unless you post it on Facebook or Instagram.

But what most people don’t realize is that the advent of social media has generated its own brand of scams.

And they’re as nefarious as they are widespread. Over the last few years, the numbers of social media scams have multiplied exponentially, with fake Facebook and Twitter accounts jumping by a full 100% in just a year.

There are several types of social media scams, but most involve some kind of phishing scheme component. .

Here’s how it happens: Scammers troll your accounts and try to “friend” you. They might have received your contact details from a friend of a friend or through some other roundabout method. Or, they may create a bogus profile or clone the profile of someone you know in real life. Then they’ll get you to share personal information with them without you even realizing it. Often, they’ll ask you seemingly random questions, like the name of your first pet, or your grandmother’s maiden name, and you’ll blithely provide them with the answers.

What you may not realize, though, is that you’ve just given away the security questions for your checking account password and login information. By the time you do realize this, it’ll be too late.

Other times, social media scams involve fake offers and promotions. You might click on a job offer, an incredible prize you’ve supposedly won or a get-rich-quick scheme. All you need to do to get your hands on the goods being offered is….share your personal information.

Unfortunately, that’s all the scammers need to rob you of your identity – and your money.

In yet another scam that has us really riled up, fraudsters will exploit your trust in your credit union to get your attention. They’ll reach out to you while impersonating MIT Federal Credit Union and claim to have incredible rates on personal loans, cash loans or a similar product.

You might think the poster is really us, and willingly click on the embedded link and then follow their application instructions. Sadly, once the ball starts rolling on these scams, it’s nearly impossible to stop. The scammers might then empty your accounts, trick you into making upfront payments to qualify for the loan, or take out another loan in your name, leaving you to foot the bill.

You don’t have to be a victim to these scams. Read on to learn how to spot, prevent and react to social media scams.

How to spot a scam

Watch for these red flags:

  • The poster is offering a deal, prize, job or scheme that sounds too good to be true.
  • You’re asked to make an upfront payment for a job, prize or loan application.
  • A reputable company uses a generic account, such as Yahoo or Gmail, to contact you.
  • You’re told that you qualify for a loan amount that is more than you need.
  • You’re urged to act immediately or risk losing out on the job, prize or loan.
  • The scammer looks like they represent MIT Federal Credit Union, but when you call us up to talk about the offer, no one knows what you’re talking about.
  • You are asked to share sensitive information before you’ve actually applied for anything.
  • A new social media “friend” keeps asking you random questions.

Preventing social media scams

Fortunately, preventing social media scams isn’t all that difficult. All it takes is a bit of common sense and some practical steps.

  • Think before you click. Ignore anything that sounds sketchy or overly intrusive.
  • If a lender has contacted you, check their legitimacy with the BBB at (859) 259-1008, 1-800-866-6668, or www.bbb.org.
  • If you need to take out a personal loan from MIT FCU, contact us directly at 617-253-2845, or through our website at mitfcu.org. This way, you’ll know it’s really us.
  • Never share personal information online with someone you don’t know.
  • Look for a publicly listed street address and phone number that corresponds with the name of any alleged “company” that has contacted you.
  • Never agree to pay for a product or service upfront without being certain of its legitimacy.
  • Check your social media privacy settings on a regular basis. They’re often changed without you knowing it.
  • Never post anything that can be used to steal your identity.

If you are a victim

If you’ve been hooked on the social-media phishing bait, it’s important to do some damage control ASAP.

  • Shut your computer. Before anything else, you’ll want to block the scammer from accessing your computer again. Log off your device and immediately change your passwords, using a different computer or mobile device.
  • Put a fraud alert on your credit. Contact the three major credit bureaus; Equifax, Transunion and Experian, to let them know your identity has been compromised. This will prevent or delay any loans or lines of credit the scammer tries to take out in your name.
  • Let us know. Here at MIT FCU, we want to do our part in stopping scammers in their tracks. By alerting us about a scam, we can watch your accounts for suspicious activity and refuse to honor sketchy charges. Also, if your case involved a fraudulent loan offer using our name, we’ll do all we can to take down the scammers.
  • Alert the Federal Trade Commision (FTC). If you’ve been targeted by a scam, make sure to tell the FTC about it so they can do whatever they can to catch those crooks.
  • Tell your friends. It’s equally important to let all of your friends know about the scam. Consider forwarding them the scammer’s bait in a private message so they know to ignore it if it shows up in their own social media feeds.

Don’t let scammers win! Always use caution when online.   

How Should I Use My Tax Refund?

Q: I got a bigger than expected tax refund this year and I don’t want to blow it all. How can I use it responsibly?

A: You’re already making the better choice by thinking about what to do with your small fortune instead of splurging and then watching it all disappear within a few weeks.

When you receive an unexpected windfall, whether it’s from a tax refund, work bonus or a cash gift, it’s always a good idea to be proactive about how you’ll spend it instead of letting it just blow through your checking account.

Below, we’ve listed some dos and don’ts for you to consider.

Do: Pay down debt

You probably don’t want to see your entire refund go straight to your credit card bill, but you don’t have to take the all-or-nothing approach. Consider earmarking 20% of your windfall toward paying down high-interest debt you may be carrying. You can adjust this number as you see fit, but you’ll be doing yourself a favor by paying off a large chunk at once. You’ll save a ton on interest and you’ll be finished with this debt a lot sooner than you’d planned.

Don’t: Lend out your refund money

It’s sweet of you to want to help a friend or relative out of a tight spot, but lending all of your refund money is not the smartest idea. You might not see that money for a while, and if you do, it’ll likely be repaid in small amounts instead of the large chunk of cash you have now. And that is severely limiting to what you can do with it.

If a friend or relative is in desperate need of financial help, consider lending them a small portion of your refund. Also, be sure to create a repayment plan so you can have some assurance you will see that money again.

Do: Start saving or investing

If you’ve always been waiting until you have a substantial amount of cash in hand to start a savings account or an emergency fund, you’ve just run out of excuses! Take $1,000 out of your refund and use it to start a savings account. You can set up an automatic transfer to take money out of your checking account each month to help it grow, even if you can only afford as little as $10. The head-start you’re getting now, along with the small monthly contributions, will add up quickly.

If you’re feeling super-responsible and forward-thinking, use this opportunity to start investing. The rewards will greatly outweigh any qualms you might feel about not spending this money. Say you receive an annual refund of $2,800 and invest this money at 6% interest. If you continue investing this amount each year, you’ll find yourself with  approximately $250,727 in 30 years’ time.

Now that’s making your refund work for you!

Don’t: Invest in a low-interest account

If you decide to sock away some or most of your refund money, don’t be lazy about it. Keeping all of that cash in a low-interest savings account or an ordinary checking account with little to no interest at all will dramatically decrease its growing power. If you’re not sure where to invest or save your refund, call, click or stop by [credit union] where a member service representative is happy to help.

Do: Invest in yourself

It might sound trite, but you are your own most precious commodity. Advance your career and increase your earning power by using your tax refund to pay for a work-related conference, additional training in your field or for learning an entirely new skill. Money invested in yourself is never wasted!

Don’t: Blow it all on impulse buys

Don’t spend your entire refund without planning or you’ll be setting yourself up for disappointment later. You’ll likely end up with nothing substantial and not more than two pennies of your refund money to rub together.

Do: Reward yourself

While you don’t want to blow it all, it’s OK to celebrate on one or two major purchases you’ve been eyeing throughout the year. Now’s the time to splurge on that pair of designer shoes you’ve been drooling over all season, or to treat yourself to a night out at that expensive new restaurant in town.

Don’t: Receive your refund on a gift card

Gone are the days when Uncle Sam licked a stamp for every refund he sends. Today, you can choose to get your tax refund deposited directly into your checking account, and many tax software programs even offer you the opportunity to get the refund via gift card. While direct deposit is fine, if you’re offered your refund on a gift card, opt out. You always stand the chance of losing the card. A gift card will also limit the ways you can spend your refund money.

Do: Donate to charitable causes

For many people living paycheck-to-paycheck, donating to charity can take a back seat on their list of priorities.

This might be a great time to break that habit. The bonus cash in your pocket gives you the opportunity to give back to your community in ways you might not be able to afford throughout the year. Plus, it gives you a head start on potential deductions for next year if you plan to itemize.

However you choose to spend your refund, consider all of your options carefully before making your decision and you won’t have any regrets.

 

7 Ways to Spring Clean for Extra Cash

When that first delightful spring breeze starts blowing, you know it’s time to get your house in shape.

The warmer weather and the brilliant sunshine pouring through your windows can fill you with boundless energy. You’re going to banish those dust bunnies! Every piece of useless clutter must go! You are on a mission to turn your home into a sparkling palace that is completely free of junk. 

But there’s more than just a neat house awaiting you at the end of all that hard work. Here’s how you can spring clean your way to riches – well, almost. You won’t become a millionaire from your junk, but you’ll put some spare cash in your pocket just by taking a few extra steps while clearing out the clutter. And that’s always a good thing! 

1.) Trade in your electronics 

Don’t throw out that digital camera or printer just yet! Gather all the old gadgets and devices you no longer use and bring them to your local electronics store. They’ll likely offer you a gift card for your treasures. 

Some larger chain stores, like Best Buy, even run a retail-collection program to help you responsibly dispose of your old electronics. You’ll earn a gift card that can help you save money on your next purchase.  

2.) Get cash at the consignment store 

Your outdated clothing from the ‘90s might just be someone else’s idea of high fashion today. We’re looking at you, neon jeans! Instead of filling your local dumpster, bring your old clothing to the neighborhood consignment shop and see what they’re willing to take. If you’re open to traveling a bit, you can search for consignment chains that might be a little further out, like Plato’s Closet for teens and 20-somethings; Clothes Mentor which resells designer clothing for all ages; and Once Upon a Child, a chain that specializes in children’s clothing and toys. 

You can also look up consignment shops online, like ThredUp, Tradesy or Poshmark. And if all else fails, there’s always eBay! 

3.) Trade in your video games 

If you’ve got a serious gamer at home who always needs the latest and greatest, consider trading in your old games at GameStop. You’ll get a store credit that will help support this relatively costly habit and you’ll get rid of that huge pile of video games at the same time!  

4.) Sell old books 

Books take up lots of room, and if no one’s reading them, why not get rid of them for good? Look up your closest Half Price Books locations and bring your collection over to them in exchange for a tidy sum. 

If you’ve got a stack of textbooks lying around, earn back some of the money you shelled out for them by selling them online on BookFinder, Cash4Books or eCampus. 

5.) Sell your expensive electronics 

If you’ve got some older smartphones or laptops that are in decent condition, they should be able to fetch you a pretty penny. Try selling your stuff on Gazelle.com. They offer free shipping, and once your item is officially logged by the company, you’ll get paid via check, gift card, or PayPal. It’s an easier, faster option than selling on Craigslist or eBay. 

6.) Get cash for unused gift cards 

Do you have a pile of gift cards you will never use? It’s time to get rid of the whole lot – and make some money on the side! There are loads of sites that offer a gift-card exchange service, and though you may not make back the full amount, you’ll usually land a decent offer. Besides, if these cards were originally given to you as gifts, any money you make off them is extra. 

Try your luck with your gift cards at giftcard.com, giftcardgranny.com or tradya.com to fatten up your wallet with greenbacks instead of useless cards. 

7.) Donate to charity 

Donating unused clothing toys, or electronics to charity might be the easiest way to get rid of clutter. You’ll be helping out a worthwhile cause and making someone else happy with your belongings. As an added bonus, donating goods to charity will earn you a tax deduction, so long as you keep your receipt. Thrift shop chains like Goodwill and the Salvation Army will happily accept clothing that’s in decent condition, all kinds of housewares, used furniture, toys, gadgets and more. 

You’ll be making someone else’s day and earning a tax break at the same time. 

Spring cleaning is a chore that’s gotta be tackled with lots of energy, time, and hard work. With a bit of extra planning, you can earn some cash in return for the work. 

Why Choose a Credit Union?

Q: I’m thinking of switching my checking account to a credit union. How is it different than using a big bank?

You’re not alone. Many Americans are dissatisfied with their banks. And many of them, like you, are looking to make a switch. In fact, a Gallup poll found that as many as 74% of Americans had “some or very little confidence” in banks, while only 10% said they had a “great deal” of confidence.

As a credit union member, you can expect to have a much more rewarding and meaningful experience. Because credit unions are member-owned and not-for-profit, they are more attuned to the needs of their members and are not driven by investors or their bottom line. Credit union members own a piece of the institution, and the revenue created through operations gets returned to members in the form of better rates, technology enhancements and more.

From the outside, banks look sophisticated and glamorous. There’s all that hype, glossy advertising and flashy logos. But, when it comes down to it, those things don’t matter much. What counts is how each institution will look after your money and what kind of service you can expect from them. And, while banks and credit unions offer nearly identical services and account choices, there are some subtle differences.

Let’s take a look at how having your checking account at a credit union differs from using a bank for the same purpose.

1.) Account fees

To the unsuspecting consumer, big banks may not seem like money-hungry monsters. While they’re happy to hold onto your money, and they might even be super-helpful in setting up your account, once it’s up and running, expect to get hit with fees – just for having an account! And these fees don’t come cheap. According to a MoneyRates survey, the average monthly maintenance fee for a bank checking account is $12. That’s nearly $150 coming out of consumers’ pockets each year!

On the flip side, many large credit unions offer free checking or make it very easy to qualify to have the fee waived. This gives you the ability to set up your account and keep it running without it costing you a dime.

Credit unions tend to have less overhead than banks, so there is less reason for them to try squeezing more money out of each consumer. Why, then, would you fork over your hard-earned money to help keep a bank profitable when you can use it to help your own net worth grow?

2.) Overdraft fees

Sometimes, you may miscalculate how much you have in your account and you’ll overspend. If you make this mistake with a checking account at a bank, though, it’s more than just a face-palming moment of regret – get ready to cough up those overdraft fees!

These fees usually top $30, and some banks will make consumers pay the penalty for each transaction they make while their account is overdrawn.

Most credit unions understand that mistakes happen. They’ll be more likely to forgive you for the occasional error. And, while some credit unions do charge an overdraft fee, on average these fees are a lot lower than what banks demand.

Why put yourself at risk of being penalized for an oversight?

3.) Fewer strings attached

Banks will happily accept your money – so long as you’ve got enough of it, that is. Most big banks won’t allow you to open a checking account unless you have a minimum balance of several hundred dollars. In contrast, an incredible 76% of credit unions surveyed by the 2016 Bankrate Credit Union Checking Survey reported that they have no minimum balance requirements at all.

If you’re looking for a place to park your money without having to jump through an endless series of hoops, there’s no question here!

4.) Credit unions are government-regulated

Like banks, credit unions are regulated by a governing authority. This means a federally insured credit union, just a like a federally insured bank, offers federally insured accounts up to $250,000. This means your money is protected no matter which kind of institution you choose for your checking account.

For credit union members, though, it gets even better. Credit unions actually face more restrictions on their investments and loans than banks do. This means your credit union has to be super-careful with your money. They can’t make any rash decisions or investments that might hurt you as a member.

For credit unions, it’s all about doing what’s best for the membership.

5.) Superior service

When you’re banking with family, you don’t have to worry about overworked tellers, curt managers or representatives who are indifferent to your individual needs.

When you stop by your credit union, you’ll be greeted with friendly, familiar faces and representatives who actually care. They’re always ready and willing to help you with whatever you need – whether it’s a question about your checking account, some personal finance advice or direction in a major life purchase.

They’ve got your back – always.

Why choose a credit union for your checking account? The answer is obvious. With lower fees, fewer strings attached, and better service, it’s the best place possible to park your money!

Rising Interest Rates

If you follow the national business news, you are likely getting mixed messages about the state of the economy. While never very reassuring, pundits’ opinions on the stock market and the country’s economic state are changing as frequently as the weather. 

But there’s one area that’s been constant for some time now: rising interest rates. If you’re thinking of taking out a mortgage, or any other large loan, in the near future, you might be waiting until those rates start going down again. 

Here’s why that might not be the best idea. 

Interest rates will continue to rise throughout 2018.

Experts predict that interest rates on financial products will continue to increase throughout the year.  There are several factors triggering this rise, none of which are likely to be resolved anytime soon. Whether you’re interested in taking out a personal loan or a second mortgage, 2018 may not be a very good year for borrowers.

It’s not looking too great for those who are looking to take out short-term loans either. The U.S. central bank raised short-term interest rates a total of three times in 2017, and that trend is expected to continue. Experts claim 2018 will see an additional three interest rate hikes, each being 0.25%. If you need to borrow money, it’s best to consider your plans sooner rather than later to ensure you can lock in before rates get higher.

The inflation factor

Unemployment rates may be down across the country, but wage growth continues to crawl at an almost nonexistent pace. This, in turn, leads to limited price growth, which keeps the inflation rate stagnant. However, the feds are expecting all of this to change in the coming year. They expect wage growth to finally kick off and then set in motion an uptick in inflation and price growth. 

The government wants to stay ahead of any surge in inflation. It does so by increasing interest rates even before there is clear evidence of an inflation peak. In fact, just last month, the feds raised interest rates on short-term loans yet again, citing an inflation scare at the beginning of February as the primary factor behind their decision. 

Financial institutions and credit card companies pattern their own interest rates after the government’s rate. For this reason, it’s best to work on aggressively paying down outstanding debt you have before you’re hit with increased interest rates.

Government deficits and tax cuts

Long-term interest rates have been rising since December. This is largely due to the growing government deficit linked to recent tax cuts. The pending two-year budget plan will put the government even deeper into the red and likely cause those rates to climb even higher.

In short, this trend of rising rates will not become history for a long while.

Mortgages

Mortgage interest rates are now at an all-time high; they are currently close to 4.6% and are up more than 20% from a year ago. 

There are multiple factors driving this increase, including the administration’s proposed tariffs on steel and aluminum and the associated concerns over the U.S. trade market.

For the most part, though, mortgage interest rates are based on the 10-year Treasury yield. When bond yields rise, so do mortgage rates. The recent tax overhaul caused investors to favor stocks over bonds, and consequently mortgage rates have been climbing since the tax plan was first introduced in September.

Some experts are actually predicting a turnaround for mortgages in 2018. They are hopeful that the expected volatility in the yield curve will trigger a similar curve for mortgages, possibly even causing them to dip below 4% sometime this year. However, all agree that by year’s end, the mortgage rate will settle at a stable 4.5%.

No one can be certain of anything, though. And waiting until the rates drop might prove to be pointless. In fact, you might even end up paying a higher rate because of that delay.

The good news

Take heart; it’s not all doomsday forecasts on the economic front!

Greg McBride, Bankrate’s chief financial analyst, predicts a great year for returns on savings. He claims that 2018 will be beneficial for all savings accounts, and especially for CD holders, with an average one-year CD yielding a 0.7% return by the end of 2018.

If you’ve been thinking about opening a share certificate or other ways to grow your savings, talk with us, and start putting your plan into action!

What it means for you

Let’s review the practical steps you can take in this economic environment:

1.)   If you’re thinking of taking out a mortgage or another long-term loan, don’t wait for rates to decrease; it isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.

2.)   Try to pay off your debt at a quicker pace than you’ve been doing until now to avoid getting hit with rising interest rates.

3.)   2018 is a great time to increase your savings and to open a share certificate.

Volatile economy got you stressed? No worries! At MIT FCU, we’re always here to help you through any financial turn. 

Fifteen Tricks to Sell your Home Quickly

Spring is in the air! And aside for the hum of lawnmowers, newly bloomed flowers and the chime of the ice cream truck, spring means the chance at a fresh start in a fresh, new home. 

If you’re looking to sell your home and start over somewhere else, you likely want to see that sale happen as quickly as possible. After all, it isn’t easy to be paying two mortgages at once!  You might also be counting on the proceeds of the sale to help make a down payment on your new home. 

Read on for 15 fantastic tricks to get your home into the hands of its new owners as swiftly as possible. 

1.) Price it right 

You want to get as much as you can for your home, and ironically, that means pricing it lower than the going rate. Find out the true worth of your home, and then hack 20% off that price. You’ll have the buyers rushing to your home – and then bidding up the price to what you really wanted. They may even offer more! 

2.) Choose the right agent 

Do your research before hiring a realtor. Your broker should have an excellent track record that includes lots of recent sales, being updated on the latest market trends and knowing how to use technology to get the word out about your house. Ask for references and credentials before making a decision.

3.) Let the light shine 

After location, the amount of light in your home is the second-biggest selling factor. Change your lampshades, add more lights where necessary and use the maximum possible wattage for every light fixture in your home. You can also scrub your windows, remove the drapes and let the sunshine in.

4.) Rent a storage unit 

You want your house to be clutter-free and your closets to look as spacious as possible. To do this, you’ll probably need to get rid of half the stuff around your home and stored in your closets. Consider renting a mini storage unit to house your belongings until your home is sold.  As a bonus, you’ll have a leg up on the packing when it’s time to move! 

5.) Amp up your curb appeal 

First impressions matter the most. Attract buyers by sprucing up the exterior of your home. Splurge on a striking patio set, trim your shrubs and plant some pretty flowers along your walkway. You’ll likely get a 100% return on the money you spend.

6.) Focus on the kitchen 

The kitchen is where it’s at. Buyers will spend the longest time here, and the offered price will fluctuate according to how updated your kitchen is. Depending on the state of your kitchen, you might want to do a quick remodel, including a fresh coat of paint, new cabinets and more.

Not convinced? Consider this: Replacing your old countertops will run you a few thousand dollars, but a buyer can easily shave $10,000 off the asking price by claiming your kitchen is outdated.

7.) Upgrade – but don’t go overboard 

In addition to the kitchen, you’ll want the entire rest of the home to look its best. It’s a good idea to do basic repairs and some remodeling to make your home sell faster. But don’t go overboard, or you may end up losing money. A paint job and some new light fixtures, door handles and rugs can do the trick.  

8.) Make it impersonal 

To you, it looks homey and lived-in. To potential buyers, it’s just a mess. We’re talking personal effects. Get rid of them before showing your home. You want your visitors to envision their own family and personal belongings here – not yours.

9.) Market it yourself 

Be your own best agent. Let everyone and their neighbor know that you’re selling your home. Post an attractive picture of your house on your favorite social media platforms, tell your friends to tell their friends and be sure to speak in glowing terms about your house to anyone who asks for details. 

10.) Make it sparkle 

Don’t skimp on this one! Give your entire home a deep cleaning before showing it to buyers, scrubbing and buffing until every corner gleams. Nothing turns a potential buyer off like grimy counters or streaks on the bathroom mirror. 

11.) Hide your pets 

Not everyone is an animal lover. If you’ve got some furry critters at home, hide the evidence! Don’t leave out a bowl of dog food or a half-chewed ball of yarn. If you’re hosting an open house, send your pets to a friend’s place for the day.

12.) Time it right 

Spring and summer are by far the most popular times for house hunting. Placing your home up for sale when more people are looking to buy will put you ahead of the game from the start. 

13.) Hire a professional to help you set up your home 

Unless you’ve got an awesome eye for aesthetics, you might want to hire a professional to help you stage and photograph your home. They can help you arrange your furniture so it maximizes space and then shoot photos showing your house in the best possible light. 

14.) Use extra rooms 

Do you have a spare bedroom that houses your baby gear or boxes of your college stuff? Now’s the time to clear it out! Set up an empty room as something useful, like a guest room, an exercise nook or even a hobby room. It will look a lot more attractive to potential buyers than a room full of stuff! 

15.) Encourage people to explore the entire house 

Entice visitors to check out the upstairs and to peek into bedrooms by placing a piece of artwork, a pretty vase of fresh flowers, an interesting light fixture or even painting an accent wall near the end of a hallway or at the top of a set of stairs.

You’re all set! Now get out there and put your home’s best face forward!

Saving on Home Renovations

Is your kitchen in desperate need of a facelift? Bathrooms haven’t been remodeled since Bush was in the White House? (And we’re not saying which one!)


With the warmer weather approaching, many homeowners are thinking of making minor and major household improvements. And for most, the cost will be prohibitive: The average kitchen remodel tops $60,000 and a bathroom overhaul can run $18,000.

No worries, though! With some careful planning and smart choices, you can shave thousands off the cost of renovations.

Here’s 7 terrific ways to save when remodeling.

 

1.) Don’t do a complete remodel

It’s tempting to want to go all out once you’re remodeling, but unless structural damage demands that a room or area be completely gutted, there’s rarely a reason to start from scratch. Instead of knocking down walls and hallways, try to envision the outdated area with a fresh coat of paint, new light fixtures and some minor décor changes.

Is your kitchen a total blast from the past? Instead of giving it an overhaul, consider replacing the drawer handles and knobs, staining the cabinets and refacing the moldings. Perfecting old cabinets can be a full 50% less expensive than putting in brand new ones.

Potential money saved: $30,000.

 

2.) Shop around for a contractor

Choosing a contractor is not a decision to take lightly. You’ll want to find someone honest, professional and reliable – and willing to give you a decent price.

Don’t hire anyone on the spot; check out at least three different contractors before making your decision. Ask for references and meet with each contractor in person to get a feel for their character and professional conduct. Take note of whether they show up on time and their willingness to answer questions. Doing these simple tasks will provide you with important clues about their reliability. Be sure to ask your prospective contractor if they generally stick to their schedules or tend to fall behind. In this business, time is money, and a delay in a project’s completion can cost you a pretty penny.

Finally, be sure to sign a detailed contract before making any final decisions. The contract should stipulate the final cost and estimated timeframe for the project.

Potential money saved: several thousand dollars.

 

3.) Consider long–term costs and benefits

You don’t want to choose the most expensive option for every remodeling decision you’re going to make, but it often makes sense to pay more now if it’ll save you big further down the line.

For example, if you’re installing clapboard siding, you’ll save in the long run by paying more for pre-primed and pre-painted boards. Using the more expensive prefinished claps means you’ll need half as many paint jobs in the future.

Money saved: $1,250 (for a 10×40 area).

 

4.) Pick decent but midgrade materials

Choosing the cheapest materials usually ends up costing more in the future. But that doesn’t mean go with the most lavish and expensive. in general, it’s best to go with the midgrade option whenever possible.

One significant area where you’ll see this at play is in carpeting. Basic olefin and polyester carpeting will run you $1 to $2 per square foot, while wool costs upward of $9 to $11 per square foot.

Money saved: $400 (for a 40-square-foot area).

 

5.) Bring in natural light without windows

Looking to add a splash of sunshine in your kitchen? Don’t cut that gigantic hole in the side of your house just yet! Adding windows is a major deal and there are other, less expensive ways of bringing sunlight into your home.

Instead, consider installing a “light tube.” This genius contraption slips between the rafters on your roof and works to funnel sunshine down and into the living space below.

Adding a double-pane window can run you $1,500, while a light tube is only $500.

Money saved: $1,000.

 

6.) Lend a hand

You don’t have to be super-handy to help out and save money at the same time. You can easily do some of the demolition work yourself, paint some walls or even sand the walls to prep them for painting. If you think you’re too clumsy for even these minor jobs, lend a hand with the cleanup at the end of a project. Why pay a cleanup crew $200 a day to sweep up sawdust when you can handle a broom just fine on your own?

Money saved: $200 a day or more.

 

7.) Increase efficiency, not size

If you feel like your kitchen is too cramped and you need to push out some walls to make it work, think again.  You can easily reorganize your kitchen for maximum efficiency and save tens of thousands of dollars.

Replace large, clumsy shelves with pullout drawers that are equipped with racks for easy, aesthetic storage space. Upgrade your cabinets with lazy susans, dividers, pullout trays and more. Consider hiring a professional organizer to show you how to maximize the space you’ve got; the organizer’s fee and the money you’ll spend on the specialized cabinets will still fall way below the cost of an expansion.

Money saved: up to $60,000.

However you choose to go about your renovations, don’t forget to call or stop by today to learn about our fantastic rates on Fixed Home Equity Loans and Home Equity Lines of Credit (HELOC)!

Beware of Business Scams

How much would you pay for the opportunity to work from home and earn six figures in less than 90 days?

That’s exactly what the Digital Altitude company promised: They said you’d just pay for training and coaching, and then you’d be shown how to pull in the big bucks with almost no effort. Thousands of people jumped at the chance and signed up for the courses.

Unfortunately, Digital Altitude never made good on their promise. Instead, they systematically defrauded victims out of more than $14 million, providing little more than some training videos, several PDF documents and alleged coaching sessions – most of which were simply ploys to get people to fork over even more money.

According to an FTC report made public earlier this month, most people made little or no money through this job-training series. Victims were not paid until they recruited new members, and few earned enough to even cover the various fees they had to pay to take the courses – and certainly nowhere near the six-figure mark!

While the Digital Altitude scam was particularly nefarious, business-opportunity scams are nothing new. They have been part of the FTC’s list of the 10 most common scams for years.

Learn to spot these scams so that you don’t become the next victim.

How it works

Most business scams will reach out to their target audience through ads and videos posted on websites and social media platforms. Look out for the following:

  • Outrageous claims: “You will receive a special guide that will show you how you can earn six figures online in the next 90 days.” This hardly sounds plausible, but too many people get swept up in the generated hoopla and lose their senses.
  • Deceptive, misleading testimonials: The marketing tactics will likely include videos of members spending their days hiking, traveling and tanning at the beach while their accounts swell with little effort on their part.

Almost anyone would drool over a lifestyle like that – and that’s exactly what the scammers are counting on. It’s up to you to see through their bluff and recognize that it’s all an elaborate sham.

  • High-pressure upselling: “If you don’t pay X dollars to move up to the next membership tier, you’re leaving $80,000 on the table!”
  • Free trial periods that aren’t: Sure, the ad might boast that the first two weeks of training are free. But did you read the fine print? That’s where they tell you you’ll first need to pay for the next three months of membership and that, once you sign up, you’ll only have two days to cancel.

Verifying a legitimate business

There’s no reason to believe that every online business opportunity is bogus.

Here’s how to sift out the authentic organizations, and sniff out the scams:

  • Ask for information: The FTC has a Franchise Rule in place to protect consumers against scams that prey on budding entrepreneurs like yourself. Anyone selling a business opportunity at the price of $500 or more must provide all prospective buyers with certain information, including the number of previous purchasers who achieved the claimed results and the names, addresses and phone numbers of the last 10 buyers. Don’t settle for wishy-washy answers. Ask for the actual details before purchasing any business opportunity.
  • Check the Better Business Bureau (BBB): The BBB exists for reasons like this. Visit bbb.org to verify a business’s legitimacy. You’ll find reviews on more than 5 million American businesses on the site.
  • Verify alleged associations: The scammers might make a stab at looking authentic by claiming to be associated with a well-known company. Don’t take their word at face value. Instead, call their “business partner” directly to check if their claim holds any water.

Red flags

Beware of the following when investigating a business opportunity:

  • An earnings claim that does not include the number and percentage of people who actually achieved this claim.
  • Work hours and obligations that sound too minimal to be realistic. Remember: there is no such thing as easy money.
  • A company asking for upfront payment to fund training, or for the employment opportunity. Most legitimate jobs will not ask you to pay for the opportunity to work for them.

If you’ve been targeted

If you think you’ve been victimized by a business scam, be sure to take appropriate action to help stop the scammers in their tracks.

  • File a complaint with the FTC: You can file your complaint online at ftc.gov, or give the agency a call at (877) FTC-HELP (877-382-4357).
  • Notify your state attorney general
  • Call your county or state consumer protection agency: You can find this number listed in the phone book, under county and state government.
  • Alert the Better Business Bureau: It’s best to alert your local BBB branch as well as the branch in the location where your scammer is based.

By arming yourself with knowledge and doing your part to alert the authorities about these scams, you can help protect yourself and others from these money-hungry criminals.

What Were the Actual 2018 Tax Changes?

Q: There was so much talk about the proposed changes to the tax code. Now that the changes have finally been signed into law, I’m wondering which planned modifications actually became a reality. What were the exact changes made to the U.S. tax code this year?

A: Many of the changes signed into law with the official Tax Cuts and Jobs Acts were quite different from those planned. Remember, though, that none of these changes will take effect until April 2018 at the earliest.

Let’s take a look at exactly how the tax code will be different for 2018.

1.) Changes for the seven income brackets

The current administration initially planned on condensing the income bracket system into just three brackets. However, when the law was finally passed, the seven-bracket system remained in place, though income levels for each bracket were tweaked.

The old income levels for the seven brackets were as follows: 10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33%, 35% and 39.6%. The new rates are now 10%, 12%, 22%, 24%, 32%, 35% and 37%.

2.) Removal of Obamacare penalties

While the administration was not successful in repealing the Affordable Healthcare Act, there will be no penalties for those who choose not to have adequate health coverage starting in the year 2019. For your 2017 and 2018 taxes, though, you will still need to provide proof of health coverage or be held liable for the penalty.

3.) Changes in standard deductions and personal exemptions

The personal exemption has been eliminated, while standard deductions have increased.
In 2017, the standard deduction for the single taxpayer was $6,350, in addition to one personal exemption of $4,050. For 2018, those deductions will be combined into one larger standard deduction of $12,000 for those filing separately, and $24,000 for joint filers.

4.) Child tax credit

Deductions and credits for children under age 16 have doubled from $1,000 to $2,000. There is also a new tax credit for non-child dependents.

The Child and Dependent Care Credit, offering parents deductions for specific child care expenses, remains as-is.

5.) Estate tax exemption

Before the current changes, the 40% estate tax applied to the portion of an estate was valued at $5.6 million for the individual, and $11.2 million for a married couple. The new law will double these exemptions. Taxpayers filing as individuals will be granted an exemption of $11.2 million, while married couples will have a $22.4 million exemption.

6.) Education tax breaks

Original versions of the tax bill included plans for reducing or eliminating several education tax breaks, but none of these changes actually made it into the Tax Cuts and Jobs Acts.

The Lifetime Learning Credit and Student Loan Interest Deduction remain unchanged, and the exclusion for graduate school tuition waivers is also still in place.

However, the new tax bill has expanded the available use of funds in a 529 college savings plan to include other levels of education. You can now use money in those funds to pay for private school tuition or tutoring services for children in grades K-12.

7.) Deduction changes

There have been slight changes in the mortgage interest, charitable contributions, medical expense and State and Local Taxes (SALT) deductions.

The mortgage interest deduction was previously in place for any mortgage debt totaling up to $1 million. Under the new tax code, all mortgages taken after Dec. 15, 2017 and totaling up to $750,000, are qualified for this deduction. Also, the interest on a home equity loan can no longer be deducted.

The charitable contribution deduction has seen two minor changes. Taxpayers can now deduct as much as 60% of their income for charitable donations, up from the previous 50% limit. Also, donations made to universities in exchange for the privilege of purchasing tickets to athletic events can no longer be deducted as charitable expenses.

The cap for the medical expenses deduction has been cut from 10% of adjusted gross income (AGI) to 7.5% of AGI. Unlike nearly all other provisions in the bill, this change is retroactive to the 2017 tax year. Also, it will only apply through 2018.

The SALT deduction, which includes property and income tax, was originally slated for elimination, but was preserved with some changes. The total SALT deduction now cannot exceed $10,000.


8.) Corporate tax rate changes
 
The modified tax code lowers the corporate tax rate to a flat 21% on all profits. This simplifies taxes for most businesses while providing them with a significant cut as well.

9.) Disappearing deductions

Not every deduction survived the new tax law. Here are some that won’t be in effect for 2018 taxes:

  • Casualty and theft losses that were not caused by a federally declared disaster
  • Unreimbursed employee expenses
  • Tax preparation expenses
  • Miscellaneous deductions previously subject to the 2% AGI cap
  • Moving expenses
  • Reimbursement for employer-subsidized parking and transportation

 
10.) Repatriation of foreign assets

In an effort to bring some of the country’s largest companies’ profits back to American shores, the new tax law features a one-time repatriation rate of 15.5% on all cash and similar foreign-held assets, and 8% on non-liquid assets held overseas.

11.) Changes to the AMT exemption amount

The alternative minimum tax (AMT) exemption was permanently adjusted to account for inflation. These changes will be most dramatic in 2018 and are as follows:

  • For a single taxpayer or one filing as head of household, the AMT rate will increase from $54,300 to $70,300.
  • For a married couple filing jointly, the AMT rate will increase from $84,500 to $109,400.
  • For married couples filing separately, the AMT rate will increase from $42,250 to $54,700.

How to Talk Money with your Partner

What happens when you and your partner have different approaches toward money?

It’s a common scenario.

One partner seemingly knows where every earned dollar goes, while the other is a carefree spirit who thrives on spontaneous decisions and purchases. One partner loves fine dining and thinks nothing of blowing $200 on haute cuisine, while the other is happy with pizza and would rather spend that money on another pair of shoes. And on it goes.

Money is personal. We all have our own ideas of how we think about it, spend it, save it and try to earn it. But, when you’re sharing so much of your life with a partner, it’s inevitable that your individual approaches toward money will sometimes clash.

 

How do you bring up this loaded topic without it spiraling into a heated argument?

 

Once again, it’s MIT FCU to the rescue! Read on for the ultimate guide to discussing finances with your partner.

 

1.) Dedicate a time

 

Let your partner know you’d like to talk about money and, together, choose a time and place that works for both of you. Make it a time when you both can completely focus on the topic without distractions. Allow up to an hour for this discussion.

 

2.) Prepare your thoughts

 

There’s no need to rehearse what you want to say, but it is important to prepare a mental list of topics you’d like to discuss. Include the basics, like budgeting, saving and sharing living expenses, along with any specific issues that are bothering you or that you’d like to change.

 

3.) Start with a vision

 

Don’t jumpstart the discussion with accusatory statements like: “Do you realize you bought seven pairs of shoes this month?” or even, “I think we should stop eating out so often.”

Instead, start with a vision or a goal. Here are a few to get you thinking:

  • Would you like to spend a month touring Europe?

  • Wouldn’t it be amazing to move out of this apartment and buy a home of our own?

  • I’d love to retire at 55. Would you?

  • I’ve always wanted to open my own business and be my own boss. Do you think that’s possible?

Talking about future goals will set a positive tone for your conversation before you get into the nitty-gritty details.

 

4.) Attach monetary values to your goals

 

Now that you’ve shared your goals and dreams, you can start talking numbers. How much would it really cost to spend a month’s vacation in Europe? How much would we need to save for a house in our neighborhood?

 

5.) Create a saving plan

 

You’ve got your numbers; now work out the plan!

 

Together with your partner, create a reasonable savings plan that will help you reach your shared goal. If you’re saving for a vacation, a house or any other dream, work out how much money you’d need to put away each month, and how long it would take to reach your goal.

 

6.) Build a budget

 

You’re ready to turn that dream into a reality. But first, you and your partner may need to trim some of the spending. Here’s where you can gently discuss specific ways to cut back. Don’t point fingers; give your partner the chance to admit to their own shortcomings and be honest about your own vices.

 

Together, work out a monthly budget that accounts for all of your expenses and your new savings goal.

 

If you want to create a detailed budget, now’s a good time to get started. You’ll need to begin tracking all your expenses for the next three months so you have a clear idea of your expenditures and income.

 

You can easily create a budget using a personal finance app like Mint, or just do it the old fashioned way, using a pen and a paper.

 

Having a clear idea of where your money is going will make you a conscious spender and a bigger saver.

 

7.) Discuss money management

 

If you aren’t already sharing some expenses, now’s the time to bring it up. There are no hard rules here; every couple has their own system.But,if you’re living together, it makes sense to split some basic costs, like rent and food supplies. You may want to go 50/50 on this or make another arrangement that better suits your individual incomes.

 

At this time, consider linking one of your accounts or opening a shared account at MIT FCU. We’ve got convenient checking and saving accounts to suit every preference. Just stop by and ask how we can help.

 

However you choose to manage your joint finances, be sure to keep at least one credit card open in your own name. It’s important to establish your own credit history independent of your partner’s. Otherwise, qualifying for later loans can be challenging due to a limited personal credit history.

 

8.) Recognize your partner’s strength

 

When dividing financial responsibilities, assign appropriate tasks that play to each partner’s strengths. Is your partner a stickler for dates and deadlines? Have them assume responsibility for paying the bills on time.

 

Are you a numbers freak? You might want to be in charge of managing your joint investments.

 

Is your partner the more thrifty shopper? Let them do the grocery shopping while you split the costs.

 

Congrats! You’ve made it through the big money talk without any major fireworks! Now go and make those dreams happen!

ATM Jackpotting Scam

Hitting the jackpot in an arcade game is enormous fun. You stand there grinning as the tickets keep pouring out. And then you get to choose a cool prize to take home.

Recently, though, scammers have given this awesome kind of win a sinister twist by bringing the jackpotting mechanism to Automatic Teller Machines (ATM). This doesn’t mean you can ask for a $20 and the machine will start spitting out hundreds instead. But it does spell trouble for ATMs and their owners throughout the country.

Jackpotting attacks on ATMs have been spreading through Europe and Asia for quite some time.
Recently, though, the Secret Service sent out an alert warning that jackpotting has reached the United States.

The alert was reported by Brian Krebs, who quotes several sources for this warning and cautions the public to be aware and careful of these attacks.

Here’s what to know about the ATM jackpotting attacks.

How does it work?

First, an attacker performs some basic scouting to figure out a way into the ATM. They usually target models with front-facing panels because they’re easier to access. To avoid detection and gain easy access to the machines, thieves have been posing as ATM technicians. They’ve also been using medical endoscopes to reach the insides of the ATMs.

 

Once the vulnerable area within the ATM is determined, the scammers attach their own computers to mirror the ATM’s software. The thieves will now install malware, which conveniently places the ATM under their control. At this point, the ATM will appear to be out of service for users and so scammers can force the machine to do their bidding from a remote location.

 

The criminals’ final step in this hack is to program the ATMs to spit out piles of cash and to send “money mules” to go and collect the cash for them.

 

Alternately, scammers may quietly bide their time and only take action a few days, or even a week, later. They will then return to the compromised ATM and program it to dispense all of its cash at once – which they will promptly pocket, of course.

 

What malware is at play?

Krebs’ report suggests that the malware being used in these attacks is Ploutus D, a malware that has been widely used in ATM hacks since 2013. However, this claim has not been verified.

Just this past spring, researchers working in Kaspersky Lab wrote about three relatively simple ways fraudsters can hack and remotely control ATMs. The scammers can use any of these methods, or they may be using Ploutus D, as Krebs believes.

Which ATMs are Vulnerable?

While every ATM in the country is at risk of being attacked, the fraudsters appear to be particularly targeting Diebold Nixdorf-made ATMs.

 

The Secret Service alert also warns that ATMs running Windows XP are “particularly vulnerable” and should be updated as soon as possible. Unfortunately, though the Windows XP Embedded support ended more than two years ago, many ATM owners neglect to install updates as advised, therefore placing their machines at greater risk for hacks.

 

What you can do?

ATM jackpotting targets the machine’s owners and generally does not affect the common citizen. However, you can do your part to stop these crooks by reporting any suspicious activity you see near an ATM.

 

Did you spot a technician who looks out of place? Is an ATM that worked just fine yesterday suddenly out of service? If so, alert the local authorities so they can take appropriate action.

 

ATM Safety

While jackpotting might be relatively new to the U.S. and it’s not yet clear how widespread these attacks are, it’s always a good idea to exercise caution when using an ATM in a public setting. Here are some tips to remember the next time you use an ATM:

 

  1. Always cover the keypad with your free hand when inputting your PIN.
  2. If someone is lurking near the ATM for no apparent reason, do not use it.
  3. Be wary of signs that the ATM may have been tampered with, such as a new-looking keypad, a card reader that looks different than the rest of the machine, or an out-of-place security camera.
  4. Don’t use ATMs that are in unfamiliar neighborhoods or in stores you never frequent.
  5. If you’re withdrawing cash, be sure to secure your money in a wallet immediately after it’s dispensed. Don’t dawdle near the machine.

 

While the full impact of these jackpotting attacks is not yet evident, they are definitely not something the Secret Service is taking lightly. Do your due diligence to help stop the attacks, and always use caution when using an ATM in a public area.

6 Common Tax Mistakes To Avoid

It’s that time of year again! Get ready to break out the calculator and pencils; dig out the enormous pile of receipts, tax forms and pay stubs, and get to work. Drowning in paper and getting numb from all those numbers? Take heart! As soon as you’ve got it all organized and filed, you don’t need to think about your taxes again until next year.

Don’t be too hasty, though. You don’t want to wind up making a mistake that’ll delay your refund, make you accountable for a fee or, even worse, force you to do that dreaded paperwork and math all over again!

Whether you choose to go it alone, use a tax-prep computer program or hand it all over to an accountant, begin by checking out our handy list of common mistakes people make on their taxes.

1.) Faulty math

Believe it or not, one of the most common errors on filed taxes is simple math mistakes. A small miscalculation can throw off all your numbers and get you into trouble with the IRS. Using an online program or a number-loving accountant may mitigate this problem, but it won’t assure you of anything. However you choose to prepare your taxes, be sure to triple-check all the math before filing.

 

2.) Name changes and misspellings

When preparing your taxes, you’re thinking numbers. It’s true that most of the information you’re submitting is in numerical form, but don’t forget to pay attention to everything else on your form! Details matter, and if you use a name that’s different than the one the IRS has on file for your Social Security number, your refund may be delayed or not processed at all. Similarly, if you spell your name wrong, it won’t match the one the IRS has in its system and it could mean trouble for you and your taxes.

 

If you’ve recently changed your legal name because of a marriage or divorce, be sure to let the Social Security Administration know. Otherwise, remember to use the correct spelling of your legal name on all your tax forms. Review every form carefully before filing to avoid frustration later.

 

3.) Omitting extra income

Detailing your earnings from your day job is a given when preparing your taxes. Most of us even remember to include bonuses and extra commission earnings. But many people neglect to include other sources of income, such as freelance work, moonlighting as a consultant and any other side work they may have done throughout the year. If you’ve taken any side jobs in 2017, be sure to fill out a 1099-MISC and to file it along with your taxes.

 

4.) Deducting funds donated to charity

Everyone knows you can write off charitable donations as a deduction, but many people aren’t sure how to go about taking this step. Charity laws are complicated! First, only donations given to an organization with a tax-exempt status can be deducted from your taxes. Second, if you’ve donated food items or used clothing, they had to have been in decent shape to be eligible as a write-off. Finally, calculate the value of your non-monetary donations according to what they would be worth if you’d sell them now. Don’t forget to include those charity tax receipts when you file!

 

5.) Using the most recent tax laws

Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave for all of 2017, you know that the current administration has made some major changes to the tax code. While most of these changes won’t take effect until April 2018, when you file your first taxes for the new year, and even later if you don’t file quarterly.

 

There are some changes that are effective for this year, though, including the following:

 

  • The standard deduction increased to $6,350 for single, $9,350 for head of household, and $12,700 for married filing jointly.
  • The maximum earned income tax credit increased to $6,318.
  • The maximum income limit for the EITC increased to $53,930.
  • The foreign earned income deduction increased to $102,100.
  • Annual deductible amounts for Health Savings Accounts increased for individuals only, to $3,400.

 

When preparing your taxes, be sure to file according to the most recent laws.

 

6.) Signing your forms

Last, but definitely not least, don’t forget the most basic step of signing your name! If you’re filing through USPS mail, be sure to put your John Hancock wherever necessary (and get a receipt for it.) If filing online, you can use a PIN instead. Most signature lines will need to be dated as well.

 

Read through all of your forms before submitting to be sure you haven’t neglected anything or made mistakes. Being super-careful now will help you avoid any future aggravation. And best of all, this way, when you’re done filing, you can finally kiss that paper mountain goodbye!

Energy Saving Tips – What To Look For When Buying New Appliances

There’s no getting away from the fact that our dependence on energy increases daily. With energy-dependent technology driving our lives, ecologists continue to search for ways to save our environment. Focusing on energy-efficient appliances is one way to do that.

Your monthly electric bill may not itemize the specific usage of each appliance in your home. If you are interested in a breakdown, though, you can ask your local electric company for a listing. But about 30% of the charges on your statement stem from your electrical appliances. That’s why the government, as well as the majority of appliance manufacturers, encourage consumers to replace standard devices with new energy-saving ones.

 

So, if your dishes aren’t coming out clean after a run in the dishwasher, or if the ring around your shirt collar has not disappeared after a hot laundry wash, you may be in the market for a new appliance.

 

There could be some good years left in that 10-year-old refrigerator or oven. But, generally speaking, prices for electrical appliances have come down across the board over the years. And once you consider the cost of a new part for your old apparatus, plus the charge for the visit, it just might be worthwhile to chuck the old and buy new.

 

It’s also worth keeping in mind that the new energy-efficient appliances save you money on a monthly basis because they use far less electricity. They also help the environment by cutting down on greenhouse gases emitted into the air.

 

What is Energy-Efficient?

 

So what does it really mean if an appliance is energy-efficient? In simple terms, it means the process used to make the appliance function – spin, clean, cool, heat, etc. is using less energy. This can be achieved in a number of ways, and manufacturers are always adapting new techniques, such as using renewable sources of energy like water or sunlight.

 

Now that you have decided that a modern and energy-efficient refrigerator is what you need, how can you be sure you’re choosing the best product at the most reasonable price?

 

Here are some tips to guide you in your search:

 

1. Determine the total cost. Since the purpose of your new purchase is to save on monthly energy costs, the first thing to consider is the operating costs. That, along with the actual purchase price, should give you the real cost of the appliance.

 

2. Look for the energy rating. There are several reliable rating services that provide information about appliance energy consumption. The federal government uses the yellow and black Energy Star Standard sticker to inform consumers about operating costs and annual energy consumption. This helps buyers compare one clothes dryer to another. Energy Star tests each item independently.

 

3. Select the right size appliance. Running a large machine – even the most energy-efficient one – uses more electricity than a compact one, so don’t buy something bigger than what you need.

 

4. Look for economy choices. Many dishwashers and washing machines offer a variety of different cycles. If you find one with an economy cycle, that will save you money when you need to wash only a small load of clothes or dishes.

 

5. Stay Simple. When it comes to choosing a refrigerator, go easy on the add-ons. According to one independent rating service, a water dispenser or ice maker uses a lot of extra electricity. Also, top-to-bottom fridge/freezer models are more energy-efficient than side by sides. The auto-defrost feature uses heat to speed up defrosting and makes running the refrigerator less efficient.

 

This holds true for self-cleaning ovens as well, so consider the value in this upgrade.

 

6. Contact your utility supplier for the latest ways to save on utility charges. With today’s smart devices, appliances can be programed to use less energy at certain times of the day.

 

7. Check out your home. If you have the time and the extra cash, it may be worthwhile to call in a home assessor to help identify ways you can save on your overall energy and water costs. He or she may be able to tell you how to use your appliances at the most energy-efficient times of day.

 

8. Comparison shop. Never buy the first model you see. Household appliances are not cheap, and to find the most energy efficient one at the best price, shop around. Well-known name brands are always more expensive than lesser-known companies. However, they don’t always offer a better product. If you check carefully, you may find that heating element in the name-brand laundry dryer is exactly the same as the one in a model selling for hundreds of dollars less. Compare the details. You might be surprised.

What The Data Breaches At Uber And PayPal Tell Us

I’ve been hearing about security or data breaches at some large companies I do business with. I’m worried that something like this might result in harm to my credit. What exactly is a data breach and what can I do to protect myself?

As our digital world expands, so does cyber crime. Two companies that recently experienced major data breaches are Uber and PayPal. Chances are, you’ve done business with one or both of these companies. To protect yourself against these and future breaches, arm yourself with knowledge and good habits.

Just what is a data breach?

When a criminal gains access to data sources and sensitive information such as credit card numbers, passwords and license numbers, this constitutes a data breach. Such access can be physical, like when someone has access to your phone or computer. The information in your device can be copied (or ported) to another device. More often, and more nefarious, is virtual thievery accomplished by a number of means, such as bypassing the security measures put in place by you or a company that stores your info in some way. Cyber criminals at Uber and PayPal used this method to steal data.


What happened?

As more people are connected to the Internet and use online services, data breaches are increasingly more common. Uber’s breach exposed the personal information of 57 million customers and Uber workers in 2016. It included names, phone numbers, email addresses, and license numbers. While sensitive information like birth dates and credit card numbers were not exposed, many of these can be attained and paired to the exposed information. PayPal also had a large data breach that potentially impacted 1.6 million customers.

This stolen information can be then used in many ways, including setting up accounts to establish a new identity. It can also be used to use to steal a person’s identity.


How can you protect yourself?

No one who uses the Internet to transact business is completely secure from threats of breaches like these. However, experts in cyber security have some suggestions to lessen your vulnerability.

  • Do not log into accounts using Facebook. When you log in this way, you are allowing Facebook to access more information about you and you don’t have control over how this data is used.
  • Don’t give out too much information. The University of Western Australia’s Centre for Software Practices suggests not giving your age and birth date when filling out profiles. You can make up a birth date and even choose your opposite gender. When using social networks, limit the information you make available. Identity thieves can make quick use of your birth date and hometown. Don’t post these in your profile.
  • Use more than one email account. For social media, using more than one email account can help to keep your data from being accumulated in one place. If you have a large amount of data in one place, losing it all at one time can potentially do greater damage.
  • Be password smart. A surprising number of people use the same password for many sites. This is a problem because if one of your sites is compromised, hackers can try that password on other sites. While it may not be convenient, it is smart to use a different password for each site you use. Every password should be strong with a unique combination of letters, numbers, and symbols.

    Another option is to use a password manager to generate passwords and store them in an encrypted database locally or remotely. An uncrackable password goes a long way to protect your data.
  • Limit your use of credit cards online. Ironically, given the subject of this article, using PayPal is safer than using credit cards when online. PayPal limits the information you are providing. In fact, no customers were harmed in the PayPal data breach.
  • Change identifying information. Pick a new birth year or change your gender on social media profiles. This helps to keep information about you from being linked with information from other sites.
  • Practice good data management. Ceck all of your account statements regularly. Look for suspicious items and set alerts to notify you when a large purchase is made.
  • Check to see if the apps you use are storing information. Some apps actually collect and sell information. Install updates for your apps because the updates typically include more advanced security, or close existing gaps that were recently discovered and exploited.

Mistakes First-Time Homeowners Make

Q: My husband and I have been renting an apartment since we got married. We recently decided to buy our first home. Some friends of ours had lots of trouble with the process, and wound up buying a house they can’t really afford. We don’t want to go through what they did. What can we do to buy our dream home without all that grief?

A: Buying a house is one of the biggest decisions you will ever make. It’s great that you and your husband are planning ahead for this important milestone. These are common mistakes that first-time homeowners make–and how to avoid them.

 

1.) Not Knowing Your Housing Budget

The term “house poor” is an apt one for the many people who buy a house that is costing them more than their income allows. It’s uncomfortable to be in this situation, so you’ll want to avoid buying out of your financial comfort zone.


You sound like planners, so you probably already have a budget and some idea of your expenses for running your current household. Now is the time to review that budget. Some of your expenses are going to increase in a new home – utilities, for instance. If you’re moving from an apartment to a larger home, that can cost much more.


Some of the other budget items may change, too. Renter’s insurance and laundromat costs may drop off the list. Add up all your expenses, but leave out rent or mortgage payments. When you subtract the total of this list from your take-home pay, you will have a pretty good idea of how much you have left for mortgage payments. Find a mortgage calculator online and use it to calculate mortgage payments based on various interest rates. Generally, housing costs should be 30 percent or less of your before-tax income.

 

2.) Looking Outside Your Housing Budget

There is nothing worse than finding your dream home only to realize that it’s way out of your reach. It’s a common mistake to look at properties that are too expensive for your budget. This tends to set you up for disappointment. Even if you manage to purchase the home, you may find yourself in the same situation as the friends you mentioned in your question: too much house and too little money.


After doing your research, you’ll know how much you can afford to spend on a new home. You can then pinpoint properties in your price range.


Most home purchases require compromise. Maybe you’ll decide on a smaller house in a neighborhood with the best schools in the city. If space is your highest priority, you might decide on a large house in a less-exclusive neighborhood. Every house has some advantages and disadvantages, but keep your search within your financial comfort zone.

 

3.) Purchasing Based on Future Changes

If you are having trouble finding a house in your price range, consider ways to reduce your current expenses. This will mean having more money available to make a larger monthly mortgage payment. The mistake some people make is assuming they can make these changes once they own a house. However, these budget changes should be in place before you buy a house, even if it means delaying the purchase. Give yourself at least six months to see if you can stick to your new budget.

 

4.) Treating Your Home as an Investment

First-time buyers often expect that they will be able to sell their house in five or 10 years for a large profit. The last decade has brought major changes to every housing market. While a house in certain areas was almost guaranteed to appreciate in value, this is no longer a sure thing.

Economics professor Art Carden, from the Brock School of Business, has this advice, “Buy a house to live in and be prepared for lots of unseen upkeep costs that range from mowing the lawn to emergency repairs.”

Phone Cloning and Digital Self Defense

Most of us realize a clone is a genetic copy of something else. But, did you know it is possible to clone a phone? Cloning a phone means that the identity of one phone is copied to another phone, making a nearly exact replica of the original. This frightening practice happens more than you might imagine.

Cyber forensic expert Ali Dehghantanha says, “On average, we check our mobile phones about 110 times a day. We use them for just about everything from summoning an Uber car, paying for our latest Amazon purchases, receiving prescriptions and even tracking shares and trading on the stock market.”

 

Mobile phones, though, are also a major source of security breaches, and your phone number is the only thing a hacker needs to launch a major attack.

 

Why Clone a Phone?

Hackers clone phones so they can use them or sell them to people who use them to make calls and to get access to data on the phone. When a phone is cloned, the calls made by the hackers are seamlessly billed to your account. But that’s just the beginning.

 

Think of all of the information on your phone: financial accounts, credit cards, apps of all kinds. Once the hacker has access to the phone, there is no end to the financial damage that can be done.

 

The hacker or criminal can listen to you from their own phone and even use the camera on your phone to watch you. He can look at your pictures, read your messages, access your passwords and view your contacts.

 

Additionally, these cloned phones are convenient devices for criminals to use because they are harder to trace. Cloning is particularly prevalent in drug-related crime, since drug dealers must maintain constant contact with their sources and clients. To avoid their calls being traced, the dealer may use a cloned phone for a few days and then throw it away and use another one.

 

It may even appear to authorities that you are engaged in criminal activity if the phone number is used this way. The police may target you because of a cyberattack where your phone number was used.

 

There are a number of ways a hacker can clone a phone. Generally, every phone has a unique serial number and phone number. When a cellphone is cloned, it is reprogrammed to transfer these settings from a legitimate phone. The easiest way to clone a phone is to use readily available software. There are hundreds of sites that offer phone hacking software, so this is not a rare occurrence and requires little technical expertise.

 

How do you know your phone has been cloned?

Often, you will be unaware that your phone has been cloned until you notice some unusual occurrence, such as credit card bills that include charges you didn’t make, financial account withdrawals and unusual items on accounts, such as Uber or Airbnb. You may be contacted by your financial institution about a loan you did not actually apply for.

 

However, you can sometimes detect hints that the phone has been cloned. You may receive a lot of wrong number calls or hang-ups when you answer the phone. You might have difficulty making outgoing calls or retrieving messages. Your phone bill may contain unknown numbers.

 

How Can You Protect Yourself?

While cellular companies have many methods in place to identify cloned phones, there are some things you can do.

 

First, always review your phone bill. If there are numbers you don’t recognize and charges that are much greater than usual, you may suspect trouble. Have your provider run a diagnostic test to check for viruses that may have resulted from cloning.

 

Another way to possibly detect cloning is to put your phone number into a search engine, such as Google, to see if any links include your number. You can also use someone else’s phone to call your number and see if someone picks up. Contact your financial institution to see if anyone has tried to open credit cards or loans in your name. Make sure your phone is password protected. Create new passwords and PINs for all the accounts that may be available on your phone. Finally, you may have to resort to restoring your phone to its factory settings.

 

If you determine your phone was cloned, contact your phone provider and the FBI. You can use the FBI website and select “Tips and Public Leads in the Reporting Crime” section. It is important that you do this, so the authorities can follow up on the information you provide.

Combating The Financial Mistakes Of Our 20s And 30s

People starting out in their careers often focus on the here and now while ignoring the future when it comes to finances. As you climb the ladder of success, you tend to think that the raises and promotions will endlessly continue. It can seem like you have forever to plan for the future.

People starting out in their careers often focus on the here and now while ignoring the future when it comes to finances. As you climb the ladder of success, you tend to think that the raises and promotions will endlessly continue. It can seem like you have forever to plan for the future.

As millions of Baby Boomers will tell you, the future comes faster than you can imagine.

While there are lots of financial mistakes we can make, here are six that are common and avoidable. If you’re starting out, know the pitfalls, and maximize your chances of avoiding them.

 

Mistake #1: Not Planning for Retirement

Retirement seems like a lifetime away, but the only way to make sure that you have what you need to retire is to start planning early. This is probably the most common mistake we make in our 20s and 30s. It is also the easiest one to avoid. If you start saving for retirement when you get your first job, even if it’s a very small amount, you will establish the habit as well as start to build savings.

Short-term goals, like a new car, can overshadow what seems like the very long-term goal of retirement. However, it’s wise to get your priorities straight early on so you’ll reap huge benefits. As Suba Iyer, a financial writer, said, “When I started my first job. I thought retirement was too far away and I should be saving for some immediate needs like getting a car. The end result-I didn’t save for retirement or a car or anything else. I just spent my entire salary.”

 

Mistake #2: Spending Too Much on a Car

Speaking of cars … that’s something that trips us up when we’re young. While it may make financial sense to buy a new car, be careful not to buy more car than you need. A flashy and expensive car may be tempting, but keep your long-term goals in mind and choose a car that serves your current needs without sabotaging your savings.

 

Mistake #3: Not Using a Budget

Unless you are fortunate enough to have parents who explained what a budget is and how to use one, you may have no idea where to start.

You may look at a budget as something you don’t need because you are not making enough money, Or you may see it as something that will restrict your spending or is just too much trouble. However, a budget can help you at any level of income and can even give you financial freedom because you can see where you are spending. And they’re less trouble than you think. It can be as simple as tracking money in and money out. As you make more money and your expenses get more complex, you can customize your budget from there.

 

Mistake #4: Overusing Credit

While most people know that credit cards can get us into trouble, it is very easy to fall into the debt trap. You start carrying a little balance on your credit cards and it builds up. You may then have to dip into savings to pay your credit card bills.

Avoid this situation by using credit sparingly and only for identified and planned purchases. Implement a plan to save for major purchases and pay for most, if not all, of them in advance. “Start shifting your mindset so that debt no longer seems normal and stop creating new debts,” says Andrew Josuweit in a recent Forbes article.

 

Mistake #5: Having No Emergency Fund

For the same reasons we tend to skip proper retirement planning, we also skip saving for emergency situations. In our 20s and 30s, we tend to think we’re invincible, but illness or job loss can happen at any time. An emergency fund should cover your expenses for at least three months.

 

Mistake #6: Not Having Adequate Health Insurance

While health insurance is expensive, it is short-sighted to skip this vital component of your financial portfolio. Just one hospitalization can get you off course and cause real financial hardship. Health insurance is not optional, and young people are the first to ignore this rule. The cost may seem prohibitive, but it comes back to priorities and future planning.

Financial Preparation For 2018

2018 is almost here. Are you ready?

Remember the Boy Scout motto: Be prepared! A brand-new year, always ripe with resolutions, is the perfect time to reassess your financial attitude, improve, and vow to do more.

“It’s a time of planning for going forward,” shares Sallie Krawcheck, co-founder of Ellevest. “We see a lot of people, often over the Christmas holiday, but certainly in the new year, taking stock of where they are on their personal finances and investments.”

Have you taken any steps to prepare for the financial realities of the coming year?

Here are some tips to get you started.
 

Tune your budget

It’s a great idea to begin the new year with a plan. A budget is just that-a plan that starts with the income you expect, along with your fixed expenses, such as rent or mortgage costs, homeowners association fees, insurance, utilities and transportation costs. The plan also incorporates your savings goals.

Then, the money remaining is designated for your other expenses. A realistic budget will help you set your financial goals and remind you to stick to them. These last few days in December, as the year draws to a close, is the perfect time to assess last year’s budget or to create a new one if you don’t yet have one in place.

Reviewing where you spent last year’s money will help you make better choices in 2018. If you did not save money for retirement, for example, this can be a new budget item.

While planning for the coming year, make sure to include a method for tracking your spending. You can do this on a spreadsheet or you can simply tag items in your financial account.

Even with a solid strategy in place, there will always be surprises along the way. Losing a job, a leaking roof or an illness can throw off your entire plan. Be sure to build an emergency fund into your budget.

 

Plan ahead to meet your goals

Next, consider how you will accomplish your goals. You’ll have short-term goals, such as purchasing a new car or home, as well as long-term goals, such as saving for retirement. Each set of goals requires a different kind of planning and saving.

Financial planner, Rachel Rabinovich, recommends setting up a separate savings account for each goal. This way, you can easily track your progress.

Experts suggest working backwards to determine how much you need to save for a specific goal. For instance, if you dream of taking an expensive vacation two years from now, determine the total cost of the vacation and then establish a reasonable time-frame and the amount you’ll need to save each month to reach that goal. Make sure the amount you plan on setting aside each month is doable, or you may just have to move your goal over by six months or more.

 

Spend mindfully

You can also make your financial future more secure by identifying the difference between your needs and wants. Needs are necessary for your survival, and include items like food and shelter. Wants are things that are not necessary but you would like-such as a luxury car or European vacation.

First, tend to your needs. Then, based on what’s left to work with, consider your wants. This might sound obvious, but for many of us, the line between wants and needs is often blurred. This can lead to awfully tight financial situations, even prompting us to “borrow from Peter to pay Paul.” By clearly differentiating between what you want and what you need, you can avoid this outcome in 2018.

 

Maximize retirement contributions

Retirement plan contributions can be a valuable source of savings, especially if you have the option of employer-matched funds. If you do, be sure to take advantage of them!

Also, check with your HR contact and your accountant to make sure you are contributing the optimal amount to your 401K and IRA. For the coming year, you can contribute $5,500 to a Roth or traditional IRA, or $6,500 if you are making “catch-up” contributions.

 

Check your flexible savings account (FSA)

If you have unspent money in your FSA, now is the time to use it. These pre-tax dollars often have to be spent before the end of the year. Do you need a new pair of eyeglasses? Are your teeth in desperate need of a cleaning or repair? This might be a good time to spend that money on self-care and other needs you’ve been pushing off. You don’t want to lose this money, so be sure to use it if you can.

 

Put the brakes on holiday spending

Avoid going overboard on your holiday spending. Think three times before you pull out your credit card. Going over budget now can mean spending the first few months of 2018 playing catch-up with your credit card bills. Spend less, and start the year off with a clean slate!

Surviving the Holidays With Your Sanity Intact

The holiday season is a special time. With Charlie Brown on TV and carols on the radio, and an ever-growing list of people to shop for, it’s easy to get carried away.  The pressure to over-shop and overspend when you’re rushing to buy everything on your list can be overwhelming. No worries, though; we’ve got you covered! Read on for fantastic pre-and post-holiday tips to ensure you’ll have a holly, jolly December without breaking the bank.

6 Pre-Holidays Tips

 

1. Revise your gift list

Gift giving is a treasured tradition, but chances are, lots of the people you exchange gifts with would be as relieved as you’d be to be taken off your list. Narrow down your gift list. Talk to coworkers and acquaintances about just exchanging cards this year, or make a deal to only exchange homemade or inexpensive gifts.

This way, you can focus on buying special gifts for those closest to you instead of generic gifts for everyone you’ve ever met and their cousins, too.

 

2. Organize a Yankee Swap or Secret Santa

Still got a list that’s a mile long? Try one of these creative solutions! A Yankee Swap or a Secret Santa activity not only saves money and stress, it adds a bit of intrigue and playfulness to the holiday. These swaps are great for family gatherings, office parties and neighborhood get-togethers.  Everyone involved only needs to bring a single gift – and it’s always fun.

Set a reasonable price cap on gifts so no one ends up leaving with a candy cane while the person next to them hauls off a flat-screen TV.  You can check out online tips for organizing a fun and affordable Yankee Swap or Secret Santa.

 

3. Bake holiday treats

Another great way to reduce the financial weight of your gift list is to break out the baking supplies and start whipping up your own holiday treats instead of buying gifts.

It’s hard to know exactly what your friend will like as a gift, but no one turns down a tin of homemade holiday cookies! Use your favorite traditional recipes, or try something new and different.

 

4. Make a budget and stick to it

This tip sounds a bit obvious.  After all, we all plan to stick to a budget, right?  But make this the year it really happens!

Don’t set yourself a ballpark budget.  Set an absolute limit to how much you will spend on the holidays this season.  This will encourage you to plan your spending rather than grabbing impulse items as you move through a store.  It will also encourage you to look for great deals, which brings us to our next tip.

 

5. Make use of holiday deals….but don’t get distracted

It’s easy to become hypnotized by deals. Prices drop and we go wild, spending more than we originally intended because we don’t want to miss out on those “crazy, low holiday prices.”

Take a deep breath.  Make use of these deals wisely by buying items on your list at a discounted price.  But don’t be tantalized by the deals to the point that you buy things you don’t really need….or even want.

 

6. Rethink giving

We know that the holidays are all about giving – but giving doesn’t need to mean spending money.  Instead of running to the mall again, think of other ways you can give that will help improve your community, make the world a better place, and truly brighten someone’s holiday.

It’s the perfect time of year to volunteer at local soup kitchens, homeless shelters and charity organizations. This kind of giving doesn’t cost a dime, but can be a memorable and significant experience for all involved.

To find local volunteer opportunities, click here.

 

2 Post-Holiday Tips

 

1. Use those gift cards

Gift cards are a typical holiday gift, but many people forget they have them, and they go unused.

Put all of your gift cards in your wallet and spend them creatively.  Maybe you don’t care for coffee on the go, but you can buy a package of ground coffee beans at Starbucks and use it at home.  Use that iTunes gift card to rent a movie instead of taking the family out.  Whatever it might be, use these gift cards and appreciate them for what they are – money in your wallet.

 

2. Invest in next year’s regifting effort

In addition to gift cards, you’ll probably find yourself with a bunch of gifts you don’t really want.  Some of these can be saved and re-gifted next year or used as birthday gifts throughout the year – scented candles, bottles of wine, bath products, etc.  Even if you don’t actually want it, you can find someone else who does!

NerdWallet: The World Of Finance, Explored

What kind of hurricane insurance do I need if I own a home in Miami?

A credit card is promising me a free hotel stay in Vegas – what’s the catch?

Does it ever make sense to apply for an online business loan?

Is my auto insurance provider really giving me the best rate available or am I being taken for a ride?


If you’ve got specific questions like these about your finances, check out NerdWallet.

The small startup that quickly blossomed into a company pulling in more than $100 million in annual revenue is focused on giving the public an inside look into the world of finance – with no strings attached. There are no credit card companies or big banks backing the website.  NerdWallet isn’t sponsored by an insurance company or an investment house. It’s just a bunch of self-professed nerds researching and studying the latest in financial news, investing, credit card offers and more, just to offer the public a view on money from the inside out.


On NerdWallet, you’ll find unbiased comparisons between insurances, credit card offers, student loans, investment options and more.


As a company that’s barely reached adolescence, NerdWallet thrives on new age-style management. The several hundred employees enjoy a friendly, open office, a fully-stocked kitchen, quarterly hackathons, and an innovative “Fail Wall” where they share their personal and professional shortcomings on brightly-colored Post Its. The relaxed atmosphere and sense of teamwork fosters creativity and commitment to the company’s goals, which you’ll find filtered down in NerdWallet’s spot-on financial articles, analyses and advice.


NerdWallet is more than just write-ups on the latest financial news. It’s a virtual goldmine of everything related to money. On the site, you’ll find quotes for auto insurance searchable by ZIP code, feedback on some of the biggest names in investments and other helpful information. If you can’t find the information you’re looking for on the site, you can also submit your question and await an answer from NerdWallet’s network of financial advisers.


The website is still growing, and its long-term goals include building a financial advice app, anticipating every question that is asked – and already having the answers – on NerdWallet, and broadening the scope of topics explored so nothing in the world of finance is overlooked.


As the company states: “We’re on a mission to provide clarity for all of life’s financial decisions.”

Got a specific money question? You might just find the answer on NerdWallet.com.


If an online forum is not for you and you’re looking for live answers and personalized advice, call, email, or stop by MIT FCU today. We’re always here to help guide you!

Beware Of Banking Scams

Scammers never take a break. They’re always dreaming up ways to con you out of your money. Recently, there’s been a significant uptick in scams involving checking accounts at many financial institutions.

In these scams, criminals will utilize social media to connect with the victim.

They usually pose as representatives of a bank or credit union and milk the victim for sensitive information, like account numbers and passwords. Since the scammers are using the credit union’s social media accounts, the victims often won’t hesitate to share this information. When the scammers have what they need, they will proceed to empty the victim’s accounts and then disappear.

Often, when the scammers receive a response from the victim on social media, they will redirect the victim to what appears to be the financial institution’s website. The victim, thinking they are on the site they frequently use, will quickly input their username and ID, which the scammers will then use to empty their accounts or open credit cards in the victim’s name.

Sometimes, the scammers will impersonate helpful member representatives who are seemingly looking to answer your questions. You’re used to our representatives being helpful and always on call to assist you, so you won’t see anything strange with the scenario.

Other times, the scammer may claim your account has been compromised and you need to immediately update your information. They’ll be oh-so-helpful with this step. Until you share your information with them, that is.

Still other times, scammers will pose as representatives of a sweepstakes or some other contest that you’ve “won.” All you need to do is share your account information and your passwords to be made into an instant millionaire! Except that, of course, you won’t.

Don’t be the next victim! Be aware and be alert. Here’s what you need to know about this scam:

 

1.) Check URLs

Scammers are becoming increasingly more suave at posing as companies their victims are familiar with. You can check a site’s authenticity by double-checking the URL on the web address. Make sure it matches [credit union’s]site exactly. You can also check a site’s security by looking for the “S” after the “http” on the web address.

 

2.) Be suspicious

Awareness can be your best protection. It’s easy for a scammer to pose as a member representative on social media, but if you’re on guard, you’ll spot these fakers. Is a representative claiming there are problems with your account when everything seems to be in order? Are they asking you to share sensitive information through insecure channels? Is someone promising you’ve won a contest you’ve never entered? If things don’t add up, it’s best to opt out.

 

3.) Reach out to your credit union

It may be difficult to determine whether the people you’re talking to are the real thing. If you think you’re dealing with MIT FCU but things suddenly start looking fishy, there’s a simple solution. Hang up or log out of whatever medium you’re engaged in and call us yourself. You can always reach out to us at 617-253-2845. This way, you’ll know you’ve really reached us and you’re not being scammed. Be sure to call this number and never use another number suggested by a suspicious-acting “member representative.”

 

4.) In case of fraud, take action

If you suspect you’ve been taken for a ride, let us know as soon as possible. The sooner you catch a scam, the better off you’ll be. We’ll also be able to alert our other members and work on catching the crooks who’ve conned you.

It’s also a good idea to let the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) know about the scam. The more information you share, the easier it will be for the feds to nail those scumbags. Contact the FTC at FTC.gov.

 

5.) Protect yourself

It’s a good idea to practice basic safety and protective measures with your accounts.

Here’s how:

A. Safeguard account details: Never share account information without being certain about who you are talking to.

B. Use good password hygiene: Use complex passwords and change them often. Be sure to use different passwords for each of your accounts.

C. Choose extra protection: Opt in for two-factor identification when logging into your accounts. That’s an extra level of protection for you and another hurdle for scammers to scale.

D. Set up alerts: Choose to receive an email or a text message when transactions on your account exceed your typical level of spending.

E. Monitor your accounts: It’s a good idea to check your accounts on a regular basis, [and with our app, this is now easier than ever.] In most cases, you will be responsible for fraudulent charges on your account if you report them more than 60 days after your monthly statement is delivered.

Updates On The Equifax Breach

It’s been several weeks since the massive data breach at Equifax became public knowledge. The panic that followed the astounding news has given way to anger, bafflement and an overwhelming sense of helplessness.

This isn’t the first data breach our country has seen, nor is it the biggest. Sadly, it’s almost become a routine thing: We read the headlines screaming about a major company that’s been hacked, a public outcry ensues and then it all fizzles out. There may be a lawsuit brought against the company a few months down the line, and some of us might take some extra precautions, but then it all becomes yesterday’s news – forgotten and irrelevant.

But this time, it’s different.

First, Equifax is at the core of our personal information and cybersecurity ecosystem. When our trust in one cog in this system wavers, who’s to say we can trust the system at all?

Second, Equifax is an independent company that regularly receives information about almost every American without consent. Most of us have never knowingly volunteered to give our information to the credit reporting agency; it’s simply part of the system. When viewed through the lens of this tremendous data breach, it seems like we have almost no control over this sensitive information.

The Equifax breach won’t disappear quietly, and the ripple effect of the hack will be felt for months, and possibly for years to come.

While there are still many more questions than answers, lots of factors have been clarified, and here at MIT FCU, we want to pass that crucial information on to you.

Here are some of the most common questions answered:


Is Equifax being held accountable for the breach?

It most certainly is! While any company with the best security can be hacked, Equifax is being critiqued for having a weak security system and an unprofessional and ineffectual reaction to the breach.

To date, the credit bureau has been marked in more than 50 class-action lawsuits. It is also under investigation by the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Justice and at least 33 state attorneys general. Both houses of Congress are requesting information, and Equifax’s CEO is expected to testify within the next few weeks.

While angry victims are demanding justice, it is likely that Equifax will argue that it bore no responsibility or obligations to the affected individuals, as it had no direct relationship with them.

What is Equifax doing about the breach?

The credit bureau’s reaction to the breach has been highly criticized from every angle. During the first few days after the breach, the company charged people for freezing their credit. Though the fee has since been waived, the public was enraged at this near-extortion.

Also, the company set up an insecure website to help people determine if they were affected. The official site is www.equifaxsecurity2017.com. However, on several occasions over weeks following the breach, the company’s Twitter account directed people to a fake phishing site: www.securityequifax2017.com. Though all fraudulent sites have since been taken down, Equifax has been condemned for using a domain that is so easy to impersonate by phishing sites and for actually directing people to the fake site.

In all fairness, though, the company did take positive action to limit the potential damage caused by the breach. Equifax has waived the fee on credit freezes and is also offering free credit monitoring for one year.

What should I do now?

If you haven’t already done so, it’s best to take steps toward protecting your credit. Visit www.equifaxsecurity2017.com to determine if you’ve been targeted. If you have, consider placing a credit freeze on your accounts. This will prevent a new creditor from accessing your credit report and will stop a criminal from taking out a loan in your name.

Request and review a credit report from the three credit bureaus every few months. Look for suspicious activity and unfamiliar charges and always dispute fraudulent transactions immediately.

You can also sign up for Equifax’s credit monitoring service, but remember that if you’ve been targeted, this move will only delay identity theft and other credit crimes for one year. After that, it’s your responsibility to frequently monitor your credit reports for suspicious activity.

Currently, only 11% of the victims have taken action toward protecting their credit. Too many people are assuming they have not been affected – and will need to pay the price later. Don’t delay; if you haven’t taken the above steps yet, take them today!

Are my Social Security benefits at risk?

Unfortunately, when a criminal gets their hands on your personal information, one of the most heinous crimes they can commit is stealing your Social Security benefits.

If you’re already receiving your monthly benefits and you’ve been targeted, a criminal can redirect your payments toward a new checking account and keep the money for themselves. If you have not yet filed for Social Security, they may access your information, file for benefits on your account and then direct those benefits to their own address.

If that happens, when you’re ready to file and collect your benefits, you’ll find that you may have actually been receiving them for years! You will then need to prove that your identity was stolen and you haven’t yet received one dollar from the Social Security Administration.

Don’t let this happen to you!

If you’re already receiving benefits, monitor your payments carefully. If you miss even one payment, report it immediately. It’s also smart to keep all your documents from the Social Security Administration so that you can easily prove your identity, should the need arise.

If you haven’t yet filed for benefits, it’s equally important to preserve all related documents. That way, if you are victimized, you’ll have an easier time proving you haven’t actually been receiving your benefits during that time.

The effects of the Equifax data breach are staggering. With the proper precautionary steps, though, you can minimize its impact and keep yourself and your money safe.

Mutual Funds for the Beginner Investor

Are you ready to dip your big toe into the deep sea of investing?

Mutual funds might be a great place for you to start. With as little as $1,000 to invest and a broad exposure to different stocks, mutual funds are a safe choice for the beginner investor. When you invest in a mutual fund, you’re buying a collection of stocks, bonds, other securities or any combination of such assets. You purchase shares in this fund, and for a fee, a manager makes all the buying and selling decisions in the portfolio.

Not quite autopilot, but pretty simple, right?

Before jumping in, though, it’s important to note that 80% of mutual funds don’t beat the market. However, if you do the appropriate research and select the right kinds of funds, it can provide you with instant diversification and expose your portfolio to a range of sectors, industries and companies. Risk is also lower with a mutual fund, since you’re not solely dependant on the success of a single company.

Mutual funds are also fairly inexpensive, since you don’t need to pay a commission every time you purchase more shares in your fund. Once you’ve determined that you’d like to invest in a mutual fund, here’s what you can do to get started:

 

1.) Save for your first mutual fund purchase

You can invest in a mutual fund with as little as $1,000. Some companies have slightly higher initial purchase amounts, so if you’ve already chosen a mutual fund to invest in, make sure you are clear on how much money you’ll need to get started. After that initial purchase, subsequent purchases of the same fund can be as low as $100.

Bear in mind, though, that investing always means risking a loss – only invest if you can really afford to lose the money. If you’re ready to take that first step, start putting money away toward your first investment.

 

2.) Choose your mutual fund

This is the most important part of your investment. It’s more than just finding the best performers; you’ll also want to clarify your investment goals and long-term strategy. For example, if you’re saving for retirement, your time horizon is likely a decade long or more. This means you can afford to take more risk and can allocate more of your investment assets to stock funds over bonds.

Here are some types of funds you might want to consider:

  • S&P 500 index funds – Index funds hold the same securities that are found in an index. They have very low expense ratios while providing the investor with exposure to tens or hundreds of stocks representing a variety of industries. S&P 500 Index funds invest in approximately 500 of the largest companies in the U.S. They are managed passively and have low operating costs because their primary goal is to mirror the holding and performance of an index.
  • Balanced funds – Also called hybrid funds or asset allocation funds, these mutual funds invest in a balanced asset allocation of stocks, bonds and cash. The asset distribution is fixed and it invests according to an acknowledged investment goal or style.
  • Target date mutual funds – These funds invest in a mix of stocks, bonds and cash that is appropriate for a person investing until a predetermined year, which is usually the individual’s anticipated date of retirement. The target year is part of the investment name. As the target year approaches, the fund manager gradually decreases market risk by shifting fund assets out of stocks and into bonds and cash.

Once you’ve chosen a category for your mutual fund, you’ll have to choose a company. Doing the proper research on any company you are considering is crucial. Find company annual reports and more through sources like Bloomberg, Financial Sense, Forbes, MarketWatch, Nasdaq and The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Look for companies that offer no-load funds. These are ideal for the beginner investor since they are free of “loads,” or broker commissions and sales charges. Some of the best no-load mutual fund companies include Vanguard, Fidelity and T.Rowe Price.

 

3.) Open an investment account

Once you’ve chosen a company for your investment, you’ll need to open an investment account at a brokerage firm or your mutual fund company to purchase your fund. This won’t cost you anything (at least, it shouldn’t); you’ll simply need to follow the procedures of your chosen company. You can do this easily online.

At this point, you’ll need to know which type of account will work best for your investing needs. Here are the basic account types and a brief explanation of how each one works:

  • Individual brokerage account – A regular brokerage account established for an individual. Contributions are not tax deductible; investors pay taxes on capital gains and dividends.
  • Joint brokerage account – Similar to an individual brokerage account with the distinction of having two account holders, typically spouses.
  • Individual retirement account (IRA) – Qualifying individuals can make non-taxable contributions. Growth is tax-deferred; account holders don’t pay taxes until withdrawals are made.
  • Roth IRA – An individual retirement account funded with after-tax dollars. Contributions are not tax-deductible, but growth is tax-deferred and qualified withdrawals are tax-free.

 

4.) Invest

Congratulations! You are now ready to purchase your first mutual fund. Once you’ve completed this final step, you’ll have laid the foundation for your investments. You can now build upon that foundation by purchasing more shares of this fund and even adding more funds for greater diversity.

Then sit back, and watch your money work for you!

Everything You Need to Know About the Equifax Breach

In a recently revealed breach, the scope of which the country has never before seen, 143 million Americans may have had their personal information exposed.

Equifax, one the nation's three major credit reporting agencies, reported a massive data breach that lasted from mid-May through the end of July. Hackers were able to access people's names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and even some driver's license numbers. They also stole credit card numbers of approximately 209,000 people and dispute documents containing personally identifying information of 182,000 people. It wasn't just Americans who were targeted - the hackers also got their hands on personal information of some UK and Canadian consumers.

Right now, the situation is still developing and there are many more questions than answers. Researchers are seeking explanations for the site's outdated security system, an accurate number of those affected and the impact this will have on the future of credit reporting.

Meanwhile, though, people are wondering if they've been affected and what they can do about it. If you have any type of credit product such as a credit card, mortgage or auto loan, there's a chance your personal information may have been compromised. Instead of panicking, though, it's best to learn all you can about this data breach and then take the proper and practical steps toward protecting yourself against future damage.

If this sounds daunting, take heart - MIT Federal Credit Union is here to help! We'll walk you through some suggested steps and clear instructions for what you can do now.

 

1.) Find out if your information was exposed

You can do this by visiting an Equifax created website for sharing information about this issue, equifaxsecurity2017.com. Click on the "Potential Impact" tab and enter your last name along with the last six digits of your Social Security number. The site will tell you if you've been affected by the Equifax breach.

Since your SSN is sensitive information, be sure to complete this step only on a secure computer that uses an encrypted network connection. Once you're visiting the Equifax informational site, you'll also find easy access to frequently asked questions about the breach. In addition, Equifax has set up a call center to assist consumers. The call center's hours of operation are 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily (weekends included), Eastern Time. That number is (866) 447-7559.  

 

2.) Sign up for free protective services

Whether your information was exposed or not, U.S. consumers are being offered a full year of complimentary credit monitoring and other services through Equifax's TrustedID product. The site will provide you with a date to return and sign up for these services. Be sure to follow up on the designated date because the last day for enrollment is Nov. 21, 2017.
The protective program includes the following features: Equifax credit report copies; three-bureau credit file monitoring, providing automated alerts of any major changes in your credit reports; Equifax credit report lock, preventing third parties from accessing your Equifax report; Social Security number monitoring, which performs online searches of suspicious websites that may list your Social Security number; and $1 million identity theft insurance, which covers some expenses in the event of a stolen identity.

Be warned, though, that the fine print of this service contains a catch. The terms of service agreement for TrustedID states that enrollees must employ arbitration over civil courts in order to settle any disputes. Critics of the company argue that Equifax is taking advantage of victims by forcing them to sign over their rights. You may, however, decide that the benefits offered by this service far outweigh its negative fallout.


3.) Place a credit freeze or a fraud alert on your files

If your information has been exposed, consider placing a credit freeze on your credit bureaus. This will make it more difficult for someone to open a new account in your name, though it won't stop a thief from making charges to your existing accounts.

Instead of a credit freeze, you can choose to place a fraud alert on your files. This will warn creditors that you may have been victimized by identity theft, alerting them to verify that anyone seeking credit in your name is really you.

Even if the Equifax site did not tell you you've been exposed, it's always a good idea to closely monitor your credit card and financial accounts for charges you don't recognize.


4.) File your taxes early

Tax identity theft is more common than you think. If your SSN was accessed in this breach, it's best to file your taxes as soon as you have all the necessary tax information. Don't let a scammer use your SSN to get their hands on your tax refund. Also, be sure to respond immediately to any letters you receive from the IRS, though be suspicious of any emails or phone calls claiming to be from the IRS, as the IRS will not initially notify you using such means.

The Equifax breach may be one of the worst the US has ever seen, but by taking the proper steps toward protecting yourself, you can minimize any potential damage.

Time your Purchases

Do you have a friend who is always gloating about the amazing bargains she found throughout the year? Do you wish you could be that person who somehow knows exactly when to buy everything? With this money hack, you can! Everything has a season for markdowns, either because its real season has just passed, stores need to move merchandise to make room for updated versions, or because it’s just slow season for retailers. Below is a helpful calendar that takes you through the best buying times for everything you could possibly want throughout the year.

January: computers, holiday goods, gift cards, wrapping paper, holiday cards, Christmas decorations, bed linens, towels

February: furniture, washing machines and dryers, wedding items, air conditioners

March: luggage, digital cameras, golf clubs, frozen foods, boats, winter coats

April: vacuum cleaners, cruise tickets, winter clothing

May: appliances, gym memberships, spring clothing, cookware and dishes, refrigerators

June: laptops, vacation tickets, tools

July: jewelry, ice cream, summer apparel, picnic and party supplies

August: office supplies, grills, swimming apparel

September: cars, airline tickets, mattresses, bikes, patio furniture

October: toys, jeans, outdoor goods

November: candy, gadgets, televisions, small appliances

December: champagne, athletic gear, wedding dresses

All You Need to Know About Ransomware

This past year has seen some of the worst cyberattacks in history. From the WannaCry attack in May to the Petya attack in June, thousands of people have lost thousands of dollars and valuable data to criminals using ransomware.

Ransomware has been tagged as an “epidemic” by major security companies. Like a virus that keeps evolving, new strains of ransomware are constantly emerging, many of them using new and original techniques that haven’t been tried before.

You probably already know the intended goal of ransomware is to kidnap a victim’s data and demand payment for safe return. Educating yourself about the workings of ransomware will help you remain alert, aware, and keep your money and data safe.

Here’s all you need to know about ransomware:

What is ransomware?

Ransomware is a subset of malware. However, instead of trying to steal user credentials and interrupt key processes like most forms of malware, it tries isolating a victim’s data and then demanding payment for the data’s release.

Ransomware is often embedded inside harmless-looking software and applications. It activates as soon as the user launches the program. Devices can also be infected through email links or malicious websites. Victims may not know they’re under attack until they find that their files are locked and a ransom demand is asking for money for the return of those files.

How does a ransomware attack work?

There are two primary types of ransomware: locker and crypto.

Locker ransomware locks victims from using important device functions like accessing a desktop or browsing the internet.

Crypto is the more common form of ransomware. It encrypts files and demands a ransom payment for their return.

In a crypto ransomware attack, a user’s device is infected with a malicious code which will select certain files and encrypt them using a unique algorithm. Victims will then receive a warning screen accusing them of breaking the law or simply informing them that they’re under attack. The cybercrooks will demand a ransom payment, usually in bitcoins. Then, a countdown timer begins, forecasting the files’ deletion if no payment is made.

What is bitcoin?

Bitcoin is a form of digital currency that allows you to pay for goods or services easily, remotely and anonymously. You can send bitcoins digitally using a mobile app or a computer.

This currency is stored in a digital wallet, which resides in the cloud or on your computer. It’s almost like a checking account, only it’s not insured by the FDIC nor is it subject to any regulations. Also, bitcoins aren’t tied to any country and have no credit card fees.

Each bitcoin transaction is available on a public log. However, only wallet IDs are revealed – the names of buyers and sellers are anonymous. This assured anonymity is the reason bitcoin payments have become the payment method of choice for cybercriminals.

To make a bitcoin payment, victims are usually instructed to download anonymous browsers for visiting a URL hosted on anonymous servers.

To pay or not to pay?

Should the victim of an attack pay the ransom for their files’ return? That is the million-dollar question!

While many are quick to give a blanket “no,” other experts say it may be worthwhile to pay the ransom.

Joseph Bonavolonta, the assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Cyber and Counterintelligence Program, claims that the FBI often advises people to pay the ransom.

He explains that when more people pay the ransom, it keeps the ransoms low. He also believes that most scammers will keep their word and decrypt the victim’s files.

However, other FBI officials disagree with Mr. Bonavolonta’s remarks and urge victims not to pay ransoms. They say there is never a guarantee of the files’ return, and that agreeing to the cybercrooks’ demands encourages more attacks.

One thing everyone agrees on, though, is that victims should seek assistance from law enforcement agencies. When victims share the names of their attackers or the details of their attack, the law enforcement agents will be able to tell them whether they’ve seen this group attack before and whether the group tends to return encrypted files.

If your computer’s been infected and you decide to pay the ransom, you may be looking at a payment that falls anywhere between $200 and $10,000.

Before you pay, though, find out if there’s a decryption tool online. You may be able to find the keys to decrypt your files on your own.

If you decide not to pay the ransom, shut down your computer and disconnect from your network. Scan your computer with an anti-virus or anti-malware program and let it remove everything on your device.

Prevention

It’s always best to be proactive. Ward off strangers by strengthening your email’s spam filter. Also, don’t ever click on suspicious links or download mobile apps from unfamiliar application stores.

Make sure your operating system (OS) is protected with a strong firewall, spyware and sufficient, updated anti-virus software.

It’s equally important to back up your files on an external hard drive or on a USB every few weeks.

Despite your best efforts, you may be the victim of a ransomware attack. If the unthinkable happens, keep your cool, contact a law enforcement agency to get info about your attacker, and check for a decryption tool online. If you do decide to pay, make sure to take preventive measures against future attacks.

Beware The Make-A-Wish Charity Scam

Did you know that Americans donate a collective $373 billion to charity every year?

Generosity makes the world go round. Whether it’s helping out an established organization like the Red Cross or donating to a smaller charity through crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe, charity is wonderful.

Except when it’s not. Because, sad as it may be, there are hundreds of crooks who hide behind the security of a charitable organization to rob victims of their money. These scammers impersonate well-known charities or create a bogus one, then solicit funds and pocket the cash.
 

Most recently, scammers have used the Make-A-Wish Foundation as cover for luring victims into losing huge sums of money. This incredible organization is dedicated to granting the most longed-forwish of each terminally ill child. They can make anything happen, from a Disney trip to a baseball that’s autographed and personally delivered by Kris Bryant.
 

Sadly, scammers are now abusing the Make-A-Wish Foundation and our desire to do good to con people out of their money.
 

Here’s how it works.
 

The scammer calls the victim and announces that they’ve won hundreds of thousands of dollars in an alleged sweepstakes conducted by Make-A-Wish. The caller claims to be a government representative of the FTC or another federal institution. The “government official” then explains that the “winner” must pay thousands of dollars for taxes and insurance before they can lay hands on their winnings. To make the call seem authentic, it often bears a 202 area code – that of Washington, D.C., which is the headquarters for the FTC and most federal agencies.
 

Of course, there is no sweepstakes and the caller is no government official.
 

In fact, on the Make-A-Wish website, the organization clearly asserts that it does not conduct sweepstakes, ever. If you fall for the scam and wire your money over or share your personal financial information, you’ll never hear from the caller or your money again.

There are several blinking red lights here that should alert you to the fraudulence of this call.
 

First, the FTC has more important things to do than hand out sweepstakes prizes. Second, you should never have to pay money to claim a prize. And third, no legitimate organization will ask for such large amounts of money to be paid over the phone.
 

If you’ve been contacted, do your due diligence to stop those crooks from preying on other victims. Report the scam immediately at FTC.gov. Next, let Make-A-Wish know. You can notify them through their website, at FraudAlerts@wish.org. Do your part to prevent these scams from succeeding.
 

Unfortunately, this latest scam is not the first to use a charity for cover, and it certainly won’t be the last.
If you love giving to charity and helping those who are less fortunate, you may be feeling doubtful now. Going forward, how can you possibly know when a charity that’s soliciting funds is a genuine appeal and when it’s a scam?
 

As always, [credit union] is here to keep you and your money safe. Here’s how to verify that you’re donating to legitimate charities:

1.) Don’t donate over the phone

In general, it’s best not to donate over the phone. It’s difficult to determine authenticity, and up to 95 cents of every donated dollar can go to the telemarketer who just interupted your dinner.


2.) Be wary of sob stories

Tear-jerker tales may get us to part with our money, but a legitimate group will not rely on sob stories to solicit funds. When an organization is preying on your heart strings to the point of discomfort, you may be falling for a scam.
 

3.) Donate with caution after catastrophe

Natural disasters bring out the kindness and generosity in people. They also bring out the crooks. Well before Hurricane Katrina even struck land, the FBI uncovered 4,000 websites with the storm’s name in their titles, most of which were run by criminals who lived overseas.

When disaster strikes, though, you do want to help – and you still can. Just make sure your money is going to larger organizations and names you recognize. Don’t wait for them to reach out to you. Donate through the charity’s website or by calling them yourself. This way, you’ll know you’ve reached the right party.
 

4.) Know the charity 

When choosing a charity, do some research. Find out what the charity stands for and about the programs and fund-raising campaigns they run. This way, when someone calls impersonating this organization while collecting for a cause you know they don’t support, you’ll recognize the scam. If all the victims of the Make-A-Wish scam knew that the foundation does not conduct sweepstakes, the scam would never get off the ground.
 

5.) Read the reviews

Aside from checking out the charity’s official website, you’ll want to read some third-party reviews. You can check for a charity’s legitimacy on objective review sites like CharityNavigator and CharityWatch.
 

6.) Ask for info

You’ll sometimes be asked for donations over the phone, and the caller will sound genuine and sincere. You’ll be tempted to give money, but first, verify that the solicitor is indeed representing a charity. Ask for details. What is the organization’s mission? How will this money be used? Will you receive a receipt for tax purposes? If the caller isn’t forthcoming or confident with their answers, hang up!
 

7.) Give safely

As always, never wire money to an unverified recipient. It’s like paying with cash – there’s no way to get it back. Similarly, only provide sensitive information if you’re absolutely certain the caller is genuine. As mentioned, if you’re in doubt, contact the organization on your own to donate funds.
 

Donating to charity is a beautiful thing. Don’t let a bunch of fraudsters ruin it for you or the beneficiaries of your compassion. Learn how to recognize charity scams so you can continue giving with a full heart.

Save Money While Vacationing Abroad

Winging your way across the ocean, whimsical browsing in quaint shops and dining on exotic fare in an outdoor Paris cafe are the things that make up dream vacations.

But when you’re wondering whether the money changer has taken you for a ride or you’ve busted your budget after only two days, that dream can quickly turn into a nightmare. Here’s how to get the most for your money and be a savvy traveler while vacationing overseas:

1.) Use credit cards

Traveling abroad is one of the times when credit card use is highly recommended. Swiping your plastic will greatly simplify your money matters while you’re on vacation. You won’t be left wondering if you’ve been given a good exchange rate for your dollars or if the souvenir you’re fingering is outrageously overpriced when you’re paying with your own currency. Credit cards are also harder to pickpocket than wads of cash. Even if they are swiped, one quick phone call can put a stop to the fallout, whereas stolen cash is gone forever.

 

Before you board your flight, though, you’ll want to ensure your card is ready for swiping while abroad. First, determine whether your card has a foreign transaction fee. If it does, you might want to apply for a new one without a fee. Also, make sure your credit card company knows about your travels and won’t flag your purchases as fraud activity. Lastly, if you do not yet have a chip-enabled card, be sure to carry your passport with you, as many European countries don’t accept magnetic-strip credit cards without proper identification.

 

2.) Know the local currency exchange rate

While primarily using credit cards will minimize the hassle of exchanging currency, it won’t eliminate it. There will be the occasional vendor who will only accept cash, making that exchange necessary.

Make sure you know what the current exchange rate is before you set foot on foreign soil. You can easily access this information by downloading an exchange app that tells you how your dollar stacks up against the world’s currencies. XE Currency and My Currency Converter are two great options.

Also, when given a receipt or a bill, ask for the price in the local currency. Foreign merchants know you can’t make heads or tails of the exchange rate, and that by quoting a price in American dollars you’ll think you’re getting a great deal. In truth, though, they could be taking advantage of your naivety by hiking up the price just for you. When you ask for the price in local currency, you can determine the equivalent in American dollars on your own, and whether you are indeed getting a good deal or not.
 

3.) Dining on a budget

You haven’t fully experienced a city without trying the local eats, but that doesn’t mean you need to blow your budget on pricey restaurants. Instead, dine out in a high-end restaurant during one evening of your stay, and get creative for the rest of your vacation.  You can pick up some supplies at a local grocery, delighting in the foreign packaging and strange food items displayed on the shelves. Enjoy a light lunch at a street cafe for half the price of a dimly-lit restaurant. Or, make the rounds of the sidewalk vendors for a meal that will satisfy your craving for exotic cuisine while still being easy on the wallet.
 

4.) Screen your car rental

Before you book that car, review your itinerary to be sure it’s absolutely necessary. If a set of wheels is a must, search through discount booking sites like Priceline.com and Kayak.com to help you snag the best possible deal. Next, check whether your auto insurance provider will cover accidents while overseas or if you need to purchase insurance. Also, be sure to scan the traveler reviews of any rental companies you’re considering to see if they have inflated their rental rates in the past. Lastly, review local traffic laws to ensure that you drive safely and that you don’t drive on the wrong side of the road!
 

5.) Use cheap transportation

If you feel like you can get away without booking a car, you’ll save even more by using the cheapest transportation available. Don’t call a cab! Get the real feel of the city by walking to your destination. Hop on a bus or board a train to rub shoulders with the locals and imbibe their culture and mentality. Be sure to check for any traveler’s discounts before purchasing tickets, as many hot spots for tourists offer great deals for vacationers.
 

6.) Steer clear of the ‘only here’ mindset

When you’ve finally made that long-awaited trip abroad, you want to do, well, just about everything. After all, when will you get another chance like this? You don’t want to go home regretting missed opportunities. But make sure you don’t overdo it and wind up broke! It’s best to create a detailed itinerary and a reasonable budget before setting out on your trip. Include all the things you want to do, and narrow it down as much as possible to just the attractions that are truly unique to your destination. This way, you’ll get your dream vacation without breaking your budget.
 

Having trouble scraping together the funds for your dream getaway? Call, click or stop by today to ask about joining a vacation club or taking out a vacation loan. We’re here to help make that dream a reality!

6 Ways To Save On Your Summer Vaca

The ocean is calling – and so is the open road. Your dream vacation awaits! But first, you need to work out the financial details. How are you going to pay for your getaway? How much can you realistically spend? Where is the money for your vacation going to come from?

The ocean is calling – and so is the open road. Your dream vacation awaits! But first, you need to work out the financial details. How are you going to pay for your getaway? How much can you realistically spend? Where is the money for your vacation going to come from?

Ideally, a plump vacation fund that’s fed throughout the year is the way to go. Unfortunately, though, we often don’t think about how to pay for vacation until it’s a few weeks away. To make things even worse, according to LearnVest, an alarming 74% of Americans go into debt to pay for a vacation.

Don’t become part of that statistic! Be proactive in planning your vacation by saving up for it in advance. Forgo some luxuries in the months or weeks leading up to your vacation and save the extra cash for your getaway. Consider running a yard sale featuring all of your forgotten treasures and use the profits to fund your trip. Skip your weekly dinner out for a while and put the money in your vacation budget.

Now it’s time to plan your vacation! When you’ve got the money saved up, create a realistic vacation budget. These six vacation saving tips will help you plan the perfect getaway while staying well within your budget.

 

1.) Timing is everything

Be a savvy shopper. There is an ideal window for buying everything, and booking airline flights is no exception. Flight prices generally fluctuate until departure day, but experts say the sweet spot is 54 days before your travel date. If you don’t want to be busy checking prices all day, sign up for emails from a savings alert site. Let them know which dates and locations you’re interested in, and they’ll let you know when a flight goes on sale so you can book your discounted tickets before they’re sold out.

 

2.) Clear your cache

Hotel and airline sites use cookies to determine what you’re shopping for. They’ll see which days you’re searching and raise their prices accordingly. Beat the system by clearing your cache before every new search so they can’t read into your browser history. You might see as much as a 50% drop in prices when searching with an empty cache!

 

3.) Sweet-talk your way to savings

Just because your hotel room is pre-booked, it doesn’t mean you can’t save. Don’t be shy about asking for an upgrade at check-in. About 78% of hotel guests who request an upgrade at the front desk actually receive one. Some face-to-face schmoozing can go a long way!

Also, by 6 p.m., most hotels know which rooms will be filled for the night. If you check in later in the day, you’ll have a better chance at getting the keys to the room with the incredible view – even with your economy-class price tag.

 

4.) Never pay full price

You can score a deluxe vacation without the deluxe price tag – all it takes is a little research. Check sites like coupondivas.com, entertainment.com and Groupon.com for amazing deals and deep discounts for local eateries and entertainment centers. You can also find cheaper tickets to nearby amusement parks by looking for sellers on Craigslist. Also, if you’re traveling with kids, don’t forget to look up restaurants with “Kids Eat Free” promotions.

 

5.) Freebie fun

Challenge yourself to enjoy one day of your vacation without spending any money at all. Search local sites and blogs for write-ups about fantastic free things to do nearby. You might find a charming family farm, a gorgeous waterway, a fun splash pad for the kids or a scenic hiking trail. Or, just spend the day at the closest beach!

Don’t eat out on this day either. Many hotels include a continental breakfast – take full advantage. For lunch, you can picnic on sandwiches. Dinner can be something effortless and delicious that you brought from home or pick up at a local supermarket. Consider packing a travel grill or panini maker for easy meals. You can heat up some hot dogs or burger patties, or bring some baguettes and an assortment of sliced cheeses for fresh paninis. Round off the meal with some pre-sliced veggies.

You’ll be surprised at how much fun you can have without spending a penny!
 

6.) Save your mega event for the last day

The taste of dessert is what lingers after the meal is through. End your vacation on a sweet note by saving your most exciting event for your last day away.

If you’re unsure of how you’re going to fund your getaway, call, click or stop by to ask about taking out a personal loan or joining a vacation club. We want to help you make your dream vacation come true!

Summertime in Scam City

Scammers don’t take summers off. In fact, some scams ramp up during the summer, particularly those geared toward vacations or travel.

An increasingly common one involves hotels. You’re awakened at night by a phone call from the front desk saying there’s been a problem with your credit card. Then, you are asked to read the number one more time, presumably to run it again. The scammers hope you’ll do something while half-asleep that you’d never do when wide awake: give out credit card info to a stranger on the phone.
 

Other hotel guests find pizza delivery menus slipped under their doors, and when they place an order using a debit or credit card, they get no extra cheese … just a stolen identity.
 

Another scam involves a cabbie who unloads your bags at the hotel or airport in a rush, then speeds away with at least one of your bags in the trunk. Sgt. Jerry MacDonald of the Las Vegas Police Department has seen plenty of this one: “Trust me when I tell you, they’ll snatch your luggage up faster than you can blink an eye.”

Scams can happen anytime, though. And they can happen anywhere. Scammers often take advantage of the very technologies we’ve grown to depend on. For instance, a recent version involves cellphones and the number 72. You might receive an awful call telling you of a death in the family followed with instructions to call another number beginning with *72 for details (a hospital, perhaps, or a doctor). But there’s no death and no doctor; this just transfers your number to the scammer, who can give it to anyone in the world, with you picking up the tab. Don’t use *72 or any other number to forward calls to someone you don’t know.


Phones are also the medium for juror scams, in which individuals get calls saying they’ve failed to turn up for jury duty and asking for personal details so the court can cancel an arrest warrant. They may also suggest they confirm those details for possible future jury duty. Be aware: Courts never seek details like a credit card or Social Security number over the phone. If in doubt, contact the court directly. And report the incident to the police.


Speaking of police, there are reports of scammers telephoning as bogus cops, saying the marks have been photographed breaking the speed limit. They are demanding a hefty fine (payable by credit card, naturally). Don’t be cowed; legitimate police officers don’t do this. Ever.


Everyone uses text messaging today, so text phishing has become as common as email phishing used to be. Scammers will send a text message, supposedly from your bank or credit union, asking you to visit a website that, once again, asks for personal details to “unlock” or “verify” your account. As a general rule, never follow a link you’re not sure about.


A new twist on the scam phone call has been reported by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS): scammers are calling immigrants in the US pretending to be from Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). They threaten people with investigation or a lawsuit, throwing around terms like “affidavit” and “allegations,” and of course they tell you to pay by money transfer or gift card. The IRCC, like the USCIS, doesn’t collect payments this way, and they have no reason to ask for basic personal info they would already possess (date of birth, for example, or passport number). And they don’t threaten to arrest or deport people.


David Dewey, director of research at Pindrop Security, says scammers thwarted by the added protection of chip-embedded credit cards have now turned to mobile wallets, tapping into accounts through Apple Pay, Google Wallet, Samsung Pay, Android Pay, PayPal and others.


Dewey put the security of mobile wallets to a little test: He secretly copied credit card numbers and expiration dates from a few colleagues, then a little Google investigating revealed the answers to “secure” identification questions (such as a colleague’s mother’s maiden name). Within minutes, Dewey had strolled over to Whole Foods and bought lunch for the office. (The colleague was reimbursed.)


“It’s amazing how easy it was to add somebody else’s credit card info to my Apple Pay account,” Dewey says. There will always be new scams to take advantage of new technologies. Check your credit card statements carefully for unexpected charges.


Finally, with new Medicare cards on the way (no longer showing your Social Security number), scammers are taking advantage by calling, claiming to be from Medicare. They are asking for your Social Security number or demanding you pay for your new card. Hang up, and report scams to the FTC. Medicare will never call you, and your new card is free.


No matter your circumstances, if you get a call or email asking for your money or personal information – stop. Don’t wire money. Just hang up. You’ll remember your summer much more fondly.

Newlyweds: Don't Let Financial Stress Take the Cake

There are so many things to think about when you’re just married, or about to be, and no one would rate finances as the most exciting of them. In fact, studies show that money (not relatives) is the number one reason couples argue. Those financial arguments (again, not relatives) are one of the top predictors of divorce.

So, how can you avoid becoming a statistic? Here are some tips.

Talk To Each Other

A poll by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling found that 68% of engaged couples held a negative attitude about discussing money. 45% considered it “necessary but awkward,” while 7% said it was “likely to lead to a fight.” Five percent said they thought it would cause them to call off the wedding.

The result? Couples just don’t talk about finances. A Fidelity survey said more than one-third don’t even know their partner’s salary. The irony is that 72% of those same couples said they communicate “very well” about financial matters.

It’s not surprising, when you think about it. What’s romantic or sexy about debt, budgets, taxes, wills, and the like? But, while there isn’t a plan to keep every newly married couple happy, experts agree: Don’t wait to talk about money.

Taxes, for example, are boring (and scary), but they may be important right now. If you and your spouse are employed, the “marriage penalty” may force you to pay more taxes when married than while you were single. So, think about marrying in January rather than December. But if one spouse earns most of the money, you’ll enjoy a “marriage bonus” and pay less than two singles; a December wedding might be wise in that scenario.

Speaking about money now is definitely important, but so is how. A 2004 study by SmartMoney found that more than 70% of couples talk about money at least weekly. So what’s the problem? “Most of us don’t know how to talk about money,” says Mary Claire Allvine, a certified financial planner. “People tend to be emotional and reactive, not strategic.”

Whether you talk about money weekly, monthly or on some other schedule, what matters is that you agree on a system and stay open to changing it.
 

Get Started

Taking the first step can be difficult, so start off easy, with questions like “What’s your first money memory?” or “How did you spend your allowance?” Then move on to some of these:

  • “Are you a spender or a saver?” – If one of you is a saver and the other a spender, create a budget that considers both styles. Studies show that men and women spend differently. Women often take care of daily expenses (groceries, utilities, clothes) while men make larger purchases, such as TVs, cars or computers. The amounts might be the same, but the perceptions are very different. About 36% of partners don’t talk to each other about big purchases, and that’s a recipe for disaster.
  • “Are you in debt?” – A TD Ameritrade survey found that 38% of couples were “only somewhat” or “not at all” aware   of their partner’s debts. When you get married, your spouse’s debt doesn’t automatically becomes yours, but what he or she owes will affect both your choices. For instance, heavy credit card debt could make it more difficult to buy a home. Make reducing debt a priority.
  • “What are your financial goals?” or “Where do you want to be five or twenty years from now?” – People who identify specific goals make faster progress toward savings and investing targets. But first, you need to agree on what those targets are: buying a home, starting a family, being debt-free? List your individual goals, then share them with each other and make a joint plan.

Know what’s important to each of you. What do you value more, things you can keep or experiences to remember?       Maybe one of you wants to buy a house while the other thinks saving for retirement is essential. Get these things out in the open early.

 

Trust Each Other

A recent Money survey revealed that couples who trust their partner with finances feel more secure, argue less, and have more fulfilling sex lives. That level of trust, though, isn’t common among newlyweds. “We’re intimate with our partners in so many ways before marriage, and yet money remains off the table,” says Paula Levy, a marriage and family therapist.

Be honest. If you made a purchase you shouldn’t have, own up to it. Some 40% of men and women confess they’ve lied to their spouse about the price of something they bought, and lying about money can have huge repercussions.

Support each other. Retreating doesn’t help, and neither does finger-pointing. Work together to come up with a game plan.

 

You’re Still Individuals

Celebrate the differences. If your partner is a bargain-hunter, put him in charge of the spending while you invest the savings. And decide on a monthly amount each of you can spend, no questions asked. The average amount couples say this should be, according to Money, is $150.

There are pros and cons to opening a joint bank account. SmartMoney found that 64% of couples put all of their money in joint accounts, while 14% kept everything in separate accounts. For many newlyweds, the ideal choice may be both: yours, mine, and our accounts. Once you’ve determined shared living expenses, both of you can contribute your portion of those costs to the joint account based on your share of household income.

 

Ask For Help

If you and your spouse find money conversations tough, you might want to bring in a financial planner or other professional. We can help – that’s why they’re there. Take steps now to ensure that money won’t put rocks on your path to wedded bliss.

Beware of WannaCry Ransomware

On Friday, May 12, an unprecedented virus spread through the internet, creating enormous damage and loss. The WannaCry ransomware, as it is called, attacked 57,000 computers in less than a day.

Ransomware works by holding a victim’s data under “ransom.” The virus encrypts the data and holds it hostage unless the victim pays a ransom, and the files are promised to be decrypted for the user.

The WannaCry virus demands a payment of $300 in exchange for decrypting infected files. If the victim does not pay within three days, the ransom doubles to $600. When seven days go by without payment, WannaCry deletes all the files.

By the following Monday morning, more than 200,000 systems worldwide were infected by the virus, with European countries being hit the hardest.

If your computer is infected, it’s best not to pay the ransom. Instead, restore backup files to your computer or seek help from a professional. Paying up doesn’t guarantee your files’ return and it encourages attackers to infect your computer again.

Here are 5 steps you can take to keep your computer safe:

1.) Create a backup of your files

Invest in an external hard drive and make regular backups of your data. This will protect your files in case anything happens to your computer. You can also subscribe to a cloud backup service and regularly store your most important data. There are multiple free (to a limit) cloud services you can use, such as Google Drive, Apple iCloud or Dropbox.

2.) Use Microsoft’s fix

Upon discovering that WannaCry spread through a weakness in Microsoft Windows, the software giant released a fix for the vulnerability. Protect your computer by using the fix to strengthen its code.

3.) Update your operating system

No one knows if there are any other weaknesses in Windows that can be exploited for another virus. It’s important to update your OS to the most recent version, preferably to Windows 10, as soon as possible. The more updated your software, the less likely it is that it contains such vulnerabilities.

4.) Use a firewall

A strong firewall will prevent ransomware from accessing your computer. Since malware is always evolving, it’s important to update your firewall on a regular basis to ensure protection from the most recent malware.

5.) Avoid suspicious websites and emails

It’s easy for hackers to infect your computer. All they need is for you to click on a banner ad and – oops! Malware is installed and it can access you computer and all your files.

Following a link in an email can also infect your computer. When online, be on guard. Never visit suspicious-looking sites or click on ads that look shady. Don’t download anything you can’t explain or click on links found in emails from companies you’re not familiar with.

No one knows when WannaCry will stop circulating, but it always pays to be careful. Take the necessary measures to protect yourself today.

What you Need to Know About EMVs

Are you a swiper or a dipper? Chances are, you have at least one EMV chip-enabled card in your wallet.

EMV, which stands for Europay, Mastercard and Visa, and has been used for years throughout the world, was introduced in the U.S. about 18 months ago. The cards are also called smart cards, chip cards, smart-chip cards and chip-enabled smart cards.

Here’s what you need to know about the new generation of cards.

1.) Increased protection against fraud

The number one reason the U.S. is making the switch to chip cards is to curb rampant credit card fraud. Things have gotten really bad – before the switch, the U.S. was home to nearly half of the world’s credit card fraud!

Experts pin the high rate of fraud on the outdated system the U.S. had been using. The magnetic strips on your old credit and debit cards store static, unchanging data. That means anyone who gets their hands on that data can do whatever they want with it, like racking up huge bills, emptying accounts and taking out loans in your name.

In contrast, EMV cards create a unique transaction code for each purchase you make. That code cannot be used again, so even if a fraudster steals the chip information from a point of sale, they won’t be able to use that transaction number for another purchase. The data transmitted during each transaction is also encrypted, adding more to the security measures it offers.

EMV technology will not prevent data breaches from occurring, but it will make it much harder for criminals to profit from what they steal. Experts are hopeful this shift will significantly reduce credit card fraud in the U.S., and studies show that U.S. counterfeit fraud rates have already decreased. According to Visa, chip-enabled merchants saw a 52% drop in counterfeit fraud from 2015 to 2016.

 

2.) How it works

Like their counterparts, chip cards are processed through the two steps of card-reading and verification. However, there’s no quick swipe involved. Instead, you’ll be asked to insert, or dip, your card into a terminal slot, and then leave it there as you wait for the transaction to process.

When your card is dipped, data is transmitted from the card chip and the issuing financial institution to verify the card’s legitimacy and to create the unique transaction code. This process will take a bit longer than a swipe.

Aside for dipping, EMV cards can also support contactless card reading, also known as near field communication, or NFC. NFC-equipped cards are tapped against a terminal scanner, which reads the data from the card’s embedded computer chip.

Contactless transactions are faster and more consumer-friendly than dipping; all you need to do is tap! Unfortunately, though, the equipment needed to scan them is expensive, so this option is not yet widely available.

After you’ve inserted your card into the payment terminal, the card acts just like your ordinary magnetic-stripe card. You may be asked for a PIN or a signature, which will be transmitted to the payment terminal for verification and approval. If your merchant is not equipped with a chip-card reader, your EMV card can also be read with an ordinary swipe.

You may find yourself at a point-of-sale terminal, unsure of whether to dip or swipe. No worries – the terminal will guide you. If you enter a card into a chip-reader slot that hasn’t been activated, it’ll prompt you to swipe your card. Likewise, if you try swiping instead of inserting into an activated chip-reader, you’ll be prompted to dip your card instead.

 

3.) Fraud liability changes

The shift to EMV presents several changes for merchants and financial institutions. Issuing new cards and purchasing new processing technology is an expensive undertaking.

But there’s more than just cost involved. The switch to EMV represents new liability rules.

Though fraud is harder to pull off with chip cards, it’s still possible. In the event that an EMV card is frauded, who is held responsible?

The rule with transactions conducted using counterfeit or stolen magnetic-strip cards is pretty straightforward: consumer losses fall back on the payment processor or issuing financial institution, depending on the card’s terms and conditions.

Card chip-fraud works somewhat differently. Since the Oct. 1, 2015 deadline created by the four major U.S. credit card companies, the liability for card fraud has shifted to whichever party is the least EMV-compliant in the transaction. This means if the merchant is not equipped with chip-card reading equipment, they will be held responsible. If the consumer’s financial institution has not provided them with an EMV card, they’re footing the bill.

So, while replacing payment processors and issuing new cards is an initially expensive venture, it will save businesses and financial institutions the huge cost of being held responsible for fraud payouts in the long run.

 

4.) Increase in online fraud

The EMV transition is not all good news on the fraud front. Though it helped cut in-store fraud in 2016, it also gave consumers a false sense of security, spiking online fraud. Chip card or magnetic strip, for an online purchase, makes no difference at all. When buying something on the internet, it’s up to you to be extra vigilant and ensure you aren’t being frauded.

Fortunately, protecting yourself against online fraud is easy. First, always shop with a reputable retailer and read reviews before sharing your card information. Never give personal information over email, or authorize a wireless money transfer for a website or merchant if you are not familiar with them. Also, consider using tokenized systems like ApplePay, where your personal information is transformed into a numerical token instead of an actual card number.

Beware Of Fake Checks! Protect Yourself From The Latest Scam

Despite a rapidly changing economy and a constantly evolving banking system, personal checks don’t look all that different from the way they looked 50 years ago. They represent a system of trust and goodwill. Recently, though, they’ve been used as the means for pulling off some nasty scams.

The National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) has recently cautioned consumers to be extra wary of an uptick in the circulation of fake check scams. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also recently issued an alert regarding a fake check scam.

There are several variations of the fake check scam, but they all end with the victim losing thousands of dollars.

The scam may be done under the pretext of a work-at-home job, an online sale or a sweepstakes that you’ve miraculously “won.” You’ll be asked to deposit a check or money order worth several thousands of dollars more than the amount you’re supposedly owed and then wire the difference to your contact. They’ll always have a story to explain why that process is necessary – such as they’re avoiding complicated overseas tax laws, an error on their part or they need you to cover fees. If they’ve “employed” you, they may claim that these checks are from their “clients” and need to be processed after you’ve deducted your portion.

Of course, these checks are completely phony. Unfortunately, it can take several weeks for a financial institution to recognize a fake check. By that time, you may have already sent the requested amount to the scammer, and by the time you realize the check was fraudulent, it’s too late to reclaim your money. Worse yet, you’ll be responsible to pay the fee for the bounced check. If you didn’t have sufficient funds to pay the amount you sent to the scammers and you were relying on their check to cover the amount, you’ll also need to reimburse the financial institution for that money.

If you think you’re too smart to fall for this scam, think again. Fake checks can be extremely hard to recognize, as they often bear the name and logo of legitimate financial institutions. In fact, the Council of Better Business Bureaus recently released list of the most risky scams, fake check scams rated number two.

Keep yourself safe by following these tips:
 

1.) Wait for clearance

It’s hard to tell if an online job is bogus until your first paycheck clears. Wait several weeks until you can verify that the funds from a deposited check are completely available before making any wire transfers with that money. Never use the funds from a deposited check from an unknown source until you are absolutely certain it has cleared.

 

2.) Ask questions

If an online sale or job sounds suspicious, don’t be afraid to be curious. Ask about the overpayment and the inflated checks. When you’re told a long, rambling tale about overseas charges and company errors, ask more questions. Demand a new check and some sound answers. If you don’t receive what you ask for, rip up the check and shut down any communication you might have had with them.

 

3.) Play hard to get

Scammers find your information by buying lists of potential victims from other scammers, randomly calling thousands of numbers and reviewing your online activity to see if you’re a good target. They’ll check if you click on enticing but unbelievable offers, and determine whether you’re looking for a job. They’ll check whether you open every email you receive and answer every phone call.

Stay one step ahead of their game by being as anonymous as possible. Make sure your number is on the FTC’s Do Not Call List. You can add your number to the list at donotcall.gov. Strengthen your spam filter and never answer emails that sound too incredible to be true. Be wary of answering calls from unknown numbers – just picking up the phone makes you a credible target.

Lastly, if you or someone you know has been victimized by a fake check scam, be sure to report the scam to your local law enforcement agency and to contact your state’s attorney general. It’s also important to file a complaint with the FTC, where it will be filed in a secure online database used to help international law enforcement agencies track down the criminals responsible for these reprehensible scams.

Remember: the best protection against scams is to be informed and to be aware. Always be on the alert for those low-down scammers who are trying to take advantage of your trust and goodwill.

Stay in the know, and stay safe!

Nest: Save On Utility Bills Right From Your Pocket

Nest is a smart thermostat. It allows you to control the temperature of your home right from your smartphone. Within about a week, Nest learns your habits and adjusts to your preferred temperatures.

Who’s it for? Anyone who wants to save money on their heating and cooling bills. Nest automatically lowers the temperature when you go to bed and shuts off when no one is home. The average user saves 10-12% on their heating bills and 15% on cooling bills.

Nest is also great for people who own vacation homes. If you see a big temperature drop coming, but you’re at your full-time residence, you can turn the heat on at your second home so your pipes don’t freeze.

What platforms? iOS and Android

Cost? The app is free. The device itself costs about $250, depending on the retailer. If you need professional installation, it costs between $99-250.

We seem to run our lives from our smartphones, and now we can run our thermostats that way, too. Nest is connected to your Wi-Fi, which allows you to control it from your smartphone.

But the best thing about the Nest thermostat is its intuitiveness. You don’t have to use the app to turn the heat on before you get home from work. You can skip have that moment of panic while on vacation when you realize you left your air conditioner running. Nest knows the rhythms of your life and adjusts accordingly. It knows what time you come home from work and knows if nobody’s home so it makes appropriate changes for you. Plus, you can make adjustments using the app if you need to do that.

Nest comes with some great additional features. You can look at your energy history to see how much you are using. Daily reports show how much energy you’re saving and give tips on how to use less to save even more on your bill. When you’re choosing temperature settings, you’ll see a leaf symbol when you’ve chosen one that saves energy.

You got a great rate on your mortgage with MIT Federal Credit Union. Save even more money by installing Nest!

Plus, now through May 31st, you can enter our raffle to win money towards a Nest or any other home automation product. Stop by any of our three branches to enter and learn more!

Teach Your Little Owls to Fly With Money Talks

The first step to teaching your kids about money is talking about money.

“The most effective way to teach is by having frequent discussions and don’t ever lecture,” said Ted Beck, president and chief executive of the National Endowment for Financial Education, in a recent Wall Street Journal article. “Look for teachable moments and always be willing to answer questions.”

Unfortunately, this can also be the hardest.

A 2015 T. Rowe Price survey found that 72% of parents experienced at least some reluctance to talk to their kids about financial matters, and 18% were either very or extremely reluctant. The most common reasons given were that the parents didn’t want them to worry about financial matters or thought they were too young to understand.

But on his blog, the personal-finance guru and radio host Dave Ramsey encourages parents to be more open with their kids about money, even their failures. Parents’ biggest regrets are often not saving enough or going into too much debt, wrote Ramsey. Being honest about that in an age-appropriate way, he stated, can be a powerful lesson.

So how to start the talk?

  • Ask questions. If you’re going out to eat, talk about the price difference between the options, and ask them which they would choose. If they select the more expensive, talk through what you might have to give up later in the week.
     
  • Make them part of your budgeting. If you’re doing any kind of financial planning for the year, solicit input from your kids. Enlist them in your saving goals—no one watches you more closely than your kids, so they’re natural accountability partners! If you’re uncomfortable revealing too much of your financial picture, you can keep the discussions high level, but involving them makes money less abstract.
     
  • Open a savings account at MIT Federal Credit Union. This is the best way to help them to learn to save for what they find meaningful in life. A lifetime of good savings habits can start now!

Don’t Panic: Filing Taxes As A College Student

Imagine skipping a day of class, then coming into the next session and seeing a test. You open the packet and see what appears to be gibberish staring back at you. Everyone else around you seems to have a perfect grasp of what’s going on, but you’re just stumbling in the dark.

That can be what the process of preparing your taxes can feel like the first time you do them. You’re given a big pile of paper and expected to sort it out yourself. It’s easy to get overwhelmed.

Before you start to panic, though, take a deep breath. There are a few questions that might make your life much easier. Grab that big stack of paper and ask yourself…


1.) Do I even have to file?
There’s an easy way to short circuit this whole process. If you didn’t make much money last year, you don’t have to file taxes. If your earned income (wages and tips) is less than $6,300 and your unearned income (interest and dividends) is less than $1,050, you probably don’t have to file taxes.

Of course, you might still want to do so. If you had a summer job, your employer took taxes out of your paycheck as though you’d been working all year. You might be able to get a little bit of a refund for your effort.

2.) How hard does this have to be?
If your tax situation is relatively simple, you may be eligible to use a form called the 1040-EZ (as in easy). It’s a much more straightforward document. You just enter your wages, your filing status (married or single) and the taxes you’ve already paid. It’s all laid out on your W-2, the form you got in the mail or online from your employer.

The 1040-EZ lives up to its name. It’s one page long. Once you put your name, address and Social Security number on it, you’re about halfway done. You don’t get to claim any tax credits, but there aren’t a lot of tax credits available for college students in any case.

3.) Where can I get help?
You don’t have to go it alone. If you’re feeling antisocial, you can (and should) use an e-filing service. The IRS has a tool to help you pick the best one. It’s available here: https://apps.irs.gov/app/freeFile/jsp/wizard.jsp?ck.

There may also be tax help available. A program called the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) is available on many college campuses. Business students looking to bolster their resumes will frequently volunteer to help with taxes for free. This is especially important if your tax situation is more complicated, like if you’re paying for college on your own or have self-employment income from a side hustle.

Charging Your Phone In Public? Watch That Port!

Smartphones have become an ubiquitous part of our lives. Even if it’s just there in case of emergencies, having a charged cellphone can provide a serious sense of security. That’s why, when the battery meter starts to tick down, a cold sense of panic rises in your stomach.

Many public places have begun to adapt to this change, and provide USB ports in addition to electrical outlets. Rather than jockeying with laptop users and carrying bulky outlet converters, smartphone owners can plug directly into the wall.

Sadly, this wonderful public good has become a playground for thieves. Scammers have hooked tiny computers into some of those ports. When you plug your phone in, they can install malicious programs on your phone. These programs report back personally identifiable information that thieves use to commit identity theft. Alternately, thieves can use the connection to your phone to look through your phone’s contents, stealing browser history data — including passwords. It’s called “Juice Jacking,” and it can take as little as three minutes for them to break your phone wide open.

It’s a phenomenon so new, even security experts are getting suckered. At a recent digital security conference, one security firm ran an experiment by offering public charging cables that anyone could use. Surprisingly, 80% of security experts at the conference used these cables without once inquiring about security!

Obviously, these scammers aren’t everywhere. They choose places where they can do the most damage — airports, coffee shops, shopping malls and other places where people hang out. If you’re at a place you trust, feel free to use the power. However, if you’re in a public place, watch out! Use these tips to stay safe and avoid Juice Jackers.

1.) Carry (or borrow) a power plug
The easiest way to thwart the scam is to only plug your phone into electrical outlets. There’s no computer on the other side there. The only problem with this option is you have to carry around your own power brick.

It’s a hassle to carry one more thing, but it’s worth it to avoid compromising your personal information. Consider shopping around to find a compact, square converter and keep it in your bag. If a power plug is a real hassle, only carry it on days when your phone is low on juice.

You can also use this as an opportunity to strike up a conversation with a stranger. Ask someone using a laptop if they have a plug you can borrow to connect your phone to a wall outlet. While not quite universal, chargers are pretty interchangeable. You don’t need one specific to your brand of phone.

2.) Pick up a battery
You can also carry your power solutions with you. Advancements in battery technology have made them smaller and more efficient than ever. You can find a battery pack the size of a pen that will refill your smartphone on a full charge. Slightly larger packs can provide several days’ worth of charge if you’ve got a little more space.

If it’s too much of a hassle to carry around, try keeping one in your glove compartment for emergencies. That way, you can grab it when you need it and charge it on the road. You’re not carrying around an extra piece of hardware all the time, but you get the security of knowing you’ve got a charge if you need one.

3.) Conserve your power
The easiest way to avoid using a public charging station is not to need one in the first place. There are several things you can do to save your phone’s charge if it looks like you’re running low. Even doing something like changing your wallpaper to all black will help add precious seconds to your run time.

For slightly more savings, keep your apps updated. The reason developers constantly release new versions is because they found ways to make things run more smoothly. Running outdated software could be chewing up your battery life.

Similarly, don’t enable auto-update. This can drain data in a hurry while also burning through battery life. Update apps manually when you’re connected to WiFi, or just disable automatic updates if your battery situation is looking dicey.

Women’s History Month: Women In Finance

Because March is Women’s History Month, we’re taking a moment to reflect on many of the important contributions women have made to society. At MIT Federal Credit Union, we’re proud to be a part of the nationwide celebration of women.

As part of this effort, we’d like to take time to recognize a few important women in the history of finance and entrepreneurship. Here are five lesser-known and underappreciated women who are sometimes left out of the popular economics conversation. That, of course, does not diminish the importance of their trailblazing efforts and work.

1.) Maggie Lena Walker, first female bank president

Maggie Lena Walker was the first woman to charter a bank. The St. Luke’s Penny Savings Bank was a community lending institution designed to promote savings and homeownership, especially among women and racial minorities. Founded in 1902, the bank served the Richmond, Virginia area for several years before it merged with two other banks. Walker went on to serve as chair of the board for the consolidated bank.

By 1920, St. Luke’s had helped more than 600 people buy homes. Walker’s vision and leadership set the standard for community lending institutions. Her bravery and trailblazing business spirit, at a time when women didn’t yet have the right to vote, is truly commendable.


2.) Marie Van Brittan Brown, inventor of the home security system

While few museums will showcase her work, nearly all of them have some modern iteration of the device Marie Van Brittan Brown pioneered. She was the original architect of the home security system. Her system was devised in response to the dangers she perceived in her own neighborhood.

Concerned about the length of time it would take police to respond to a call for help, Brown put a camera on a mobile swivel to enable it to view the front door through each of four peepholes. A motion sensor triggered a recording device, and the system also enabled the homeowner to view and listen to the cameras by using a television set. Brown’s original home security system soon caught on in businesses around the country. She was given an award from the National Science Committee for her work.

3.) Victoria Woodhall and Tennessee Clafin, first female stock brokers

These two pioneering sisters broke the gender barrier on Wall Street. They ran the first female-owned brokerage. Despite the blatant sexism they faced in their struggle, the two sisters made millions advising clients like Cornelius Vanderbilt. While enduring headlines like “Wall Street Aroused,” the two sisters quietly made enough money to put their male counterparts to shame.

Woodhall would go on to be a polarizing figure in the suffrage movement. She made the first recorded run for president as a woman, doing so a full 50 years before women were legally allowed to vote! While her suffrage-based platform didn’t carry the election, her intellect and force of persuasion were instrumental to the passage of the 19th Amendment.

4.) Rosemary McFadden, first female exchange president

Rosemary McFadden broke another gender barrier in finance. She was the first woman to serve as president of any American exchange. Starting her career as a staff attorney for the New York Mercantile Exchange, she climbed the career ladder to become the first female president of that organization or any other trading exchange in American history in 1984.

Despite the steep resistance she encountered as the first woman in a traditionally male position, McFadden was a strong and effective leader. When her term was up, she continued to climb towards greatness. She now serves as deputy mayor of Jersey City, New Jersey.

5.) Abigail Adams, first female investor

The wife of President John Adams is mostly noted for her documentation of the home front of the Revolutionary War and for her strident advocacy for women’s rights in the early years of the country’s founding. A little-known tidbit, though, is that she’s also America’s first documented female investor.

Adams managed the financial affairs for the household while her husband served in war and, later, in the White House. She was quite a shrewd woman, making a great deal of money investing in government bonds. In one exchange in 1783, her husband advised her to invest some money in farmland. She ignored the advice, buying bonds instead. The move made her family quite a bit more money in the long run!

Shop Smart

We've all heard about the consumer psychology at play in the setup of grocery stores. The basics, like eggs and milk, are in the back of the store, forcing you to pass by aisles packed with things you don't need. The checkouts are lined with impulse purchases aimed at catching your attention - and that of your kids. It's no wonder a quick run to the grocery store finds you spending way more than planned. But you can outsmart the store by following these easy tips.

Keep your kids home. If you can swing a supermarket run when the kids are sleeping or when everyone’s at school, go for it. Impulse purchases skyrocket when your cart is loaded with a child begging for “just one more treat” or a toddler who needs to be bribed out of a tantrum.


Stick to your list. This is an old piece of wisdom, but one worth following.


Beware of specials. Store owners are counting on you being too hurried to work out the math and realize that you’re not saving much, especially if it isn’t something you need.


Don’t grab a cart when you only came in for a few items. You’ll feel the need to fill it and won’t realize how much you’re buying.


Follow these easy tips and share with us: How much did you save on your grocery bill this month?

Cloudbleed: What You Need To Know About The Latest Data Breach

For as easy as it makes most aspects of our lives, the internet is far from simple. Services you’ve never heard of can make a huge impact on your life. That’s what we learned from last week’s data leak from Cloudflare, a distributed computing technology service. The leak has been dominating headlines, where it’s earned the name “Cloudbleed,” an homage to 2014’s “Heartbleed” leak.

For as easy as it makes most aspects of our lives, the internet is far from simple. Services you’ve never heard of can make a huge impact on your life. That’s what we learned from last week’s data leak from Cloudflare, a distributed computing technology service. The leak has been dominating headlines, where it’s earned the name “Cloudbleed,” an homage to 2014’s “Heartbleed” leak.

While Cloudbleed is nowhere near as serious, it still represents a threat to the security of millions of people. Cloudflare was used by many popular websites. Here’s what you need to know to keep yourself safe.

 

What happened?

Cloudflare is what’s called a content management service. It serves as a middleman in a lot of internet information exchanges. For example, your browser sends a request to a webpage, which is routed through one of Cloudflare’s servers. Cloudflare verifies that it’s a legitimate request as opposed to a bot or malicious attack, then passes the request on to the website. The website sends data back to you through Cloudflare. Cloudflare provides security against various kinds of attacks, so websites are safer and faster.

The problem is that Cloudflare didn’t always clean up one request before moving on to the next. Bits of data were being sent along with web pages that contained information from previous requests. Some of these bits of data included sensitive information, like usernames and passwords.

No one attacked Cloudflare. This was just a bug in their code that resulted in the accidental release of sensitive data. This means it’s less likely that compromised information will be used maliciously, but it doesn’t mean Cloudbleed can be ignored.

 

Who’s affected?

Cloudflare was a very popular service for websites. Over seven million sites used Cloudflare at the time of the leak. Some of the biggest names on the list are fitness site Fitbit, dating site OkCupid, and review service Yelp. Perhaps the biggest danger was from password manager 1password, which may have revealed password information to other sites. 1password was quick to point out that only encrypted data had been released, so the danger to its users is very small.

The timeframe of the leak goes as far back as September 2016, so if you’ve used one of these sites in the past five months, your personal information may have been released. Since it becomes part of a website, it can then be stored by search engines. Yahoo, Google and Bing have worked together to eliminate the storage of personal information, and Cloudflare has fixed the bug in its code.

While a lot of data could have been affected, not much of it actually was. About one in every 3.3 million web requests turned up unwanted data. Some of that was just information, like messages from dating sites or hotel bookings. Very little of the compromised data was password information. Still, since it’s hard to prove your data wasn’t affected, it’s best to act as though your login information is compromised.

 

What do I need to do?

There are three steps every internet user needs to take right now. First, change your passwords. It’s very unlikely that anyone has not used a Cloudflare site, and that use could mean risk in a data breach. Create new, strong, unique passwords for each site. One good strategy is to put together four words that you think about when you look at the service. This creates a password that’s easy for you to remember, but difficult for a machine to guess.

Second, keep an eye on your account statements. Most often, identity thieves will use information to try to make illegal purchases or cash advances. If you notice any suspicious activity, report it immediately.

Third, where you can, enable two-factor authentication. Two-factor authentication adds another layer of security between would-be thieves and your accounts. In order to log in to your service, you’ll need both a password and a one-time code, usually sent to email or a cellphone. Using two-factor authentication not only stops thieves in their tracks, but it also notifies you that someone is trying to gain access to your accounts.
 

While Cloudbleed isn’t the biggest danger on the internet, it’s still a good reminder that we need to keep our guards up while surfing the web. Just because a page uses a password doesn’t mean it’s always secure. Of course, Cloudbleed also reminds us of one of the ironclad rules of internet security: When in doubt, change your passwords!

Beware of the Fake Tax Form Scam

Tax season is a confusing time. In the midst of a paperwork blizzard, it seems that everyone needs triplicate copies of every document. It's not unusual for someone to lose a copy of an important document and need it to be re-issued. Of course, everyone's busy enough that no one wants to double check.

That's exactly what sammers are counting on with a recent ploy targeting business owners and other people who prepare tax forms.

In this scheme, the scammer sends an email claiming to be a hired company or someone from the IRS. They claim to be in need of duplicate copies of W-2 forms. An overworked clerk doesn’t want an earful from the boss or may fear they are out of compliance with the tax authority, so they send the forms along with little questioning.

Unfortunately, those forms contain a lot of personally identifiable information. The W-2 includes a name, an address and a Social Security number. With that information, fraudsters can open fake credit cards and apply for other loans. They can also file a fraudulent tax return in an attempt to grab a refund check. In short, your W-2 in the wrong hands can mean serious trouble.

What to do if you’re targeted

While the scam was originally directed at HR professionals and others at large corporations, scammers have broadened their net to include school districts, tribal councils, not-for-profits and small businesses.  If you prepare W-2s for employees as part of your job or as a small business owner, be on the lookout for these fake emails. Here’s the sample text from one such message:

“ATTN: Due to some complains (sic) we had concerning the W-2 mismatch, We advice (sic) you to send your 2015 filled W-2 form in (PDF) format for confirmation.”

Notice the strange abbreviations, the spelling and grammar errors, and the poor punctuation. All of these are signs that this is not the professional work of the IRS.

You may also get a message that looks like it’s from a boss or CEO asking for similar information. Watch for the same errors in spelling and grammar. It’s always worth confirming these requests in another message. Also look out for emails from former employees. Scammers may be relying on outdated information.

W-2 security is a pretty big deal. If someone really needs another copy, the safest option is to mail it to the address listed on the form. While email is generally a secure way to communicate, it’s not fully secure and you may not have assurance that the email is correct or uncompromised. There’s no sense taking chances with sensitive information. It’s also very unlikely that someone would need duplicate copies of ALL W-2s. Be suspicious of any such request.

If your information has been compromised

If you fear your information has been unwittingly released by your employer, don’t panic. There are three steps for minimizing the impact that this data breach can have on your life. Your first step should be a call to one of the major credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax or TransUnion. Ask them to put a fraud alert on your account. This will force anyone who wants to issue credit in your name to verify that you’re actually the one asking for it first.

Next, order a copy of your credit report. This will show all the accounts that are open in your name. If you see anything you don’t recognize, call the company and immediately close the account. Also, review statements for the accounts you do have. Check for charges you don’t recognize. If you see any, call the issuing institution and shut down the account. Telling them there’s fraud as soon as possible will limit your liability.

Third, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at www.identitytheft.gov. This will create a fraud affidavit, a document certifying that fraud occurred. This will help you when it comes time to file a police report and take additional steps.

It’s also worth filing your taxes as soon as possible. If a thief tries to file a tax return using your information after you have already done so, the IRS will be alerted to the fraud and thus prevent further damage from occurring. Filing early will ensure that a complete and accurate return is available to investigators who would be looking into possible fraud.

It Costs How Much to Get Married?!

According to a new report by a leading wedding magazine, The Knot, the average American wedding cost has eclipsed $35,000. That’s more than half of the yearly median income! Most of that spending isn’t on lavish luxuries for bride and groom – it comes from the guest list. Couples are inviting more people and doing more for them, trying to create an unforgettable experience for their loved ones.