File Your Income Taxes Early… Before Someone Else Does It For You

Spring is just around the corner and so is the deadline for filing your 2017 income taxes.

For those of us who haven’t filed our tax return already, this somewhat daunting, annual task is beginning to weigh more heavily on our minds. Many of us are concerned about filing our return correctly, what kind of tax refund or, in some cases, payment we can expect and whether we should do it on our own with an online service or hire an accountant.

But, as we procrastinators begin getting our tax documents together, there’s something else we should keep in mind: tax return fraud.

The IRS launched 1,117 general tax fraud investigations for the fiscal year of 2016. Although this was a decrease from the two prior years, according to IRS, it doesn’t appear that tax scams are ever going away. Unfortunately, with every measure taken by the IRS to prevent this, the schemers/scammers find ways to circumvent it.

Identity theft related tax fraud occurs when an identity thief somehow obtains your name and social security number and uses it to file a fraudulent tax return in your name. This is accomplished in many ways to include phishing emails, snooping through your trash for intact documents containing personal information, hacking into a site/entity that has your personal information, stealing or finding your wallet/purse and public WiFi monitoring.

Once the identity thief has your personal information, they can use this to file fraudulent tax returns with the IRS in order to receive credits or refunds. In most cases, these thieves have the funds distributed via a pre-loaded debit card or direct deposit. This helps them avoid the security measures relating to cashing a paper check.

When this happens, the tax return you file comes under suspicion because it is the second return filed for the same taxpayer. Unfortunately, the burden of proof now lies on you. You will need to send the IRS a Form 14039 (IRS Identity Theft Affidavit). This can be a lengthy process.  If you’re expecting a refund it will not be processed until the IRS confirms your identity, as the actual taxpayer. If you owe taxes, you can be left with resulting collection actions, audits and even aggressive tax collection through the IRS appeals process.

It can become ugly.

But, like many situations in life, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Here are several ways to minimize your risk of falling prey to these sinister scams:

  • File Early (okay, this advice is a little late for those of us who haven’t already filed. But, let’s make sure to keep this in mind next year.)

Filing early lowers the chance of someone doing it before you. This turns the tables on the identity thief, as your return will be accepted by the IRS first and their fraudulent return in your name will be denied.

  • Clear Your Email Inbox and Invest in a Shredder

Most identity theft occurs via the trash. All identity thieves need to file a false return is your legal name, date of birth and social security number.  Think of the people you may have mailed or emailed pieces of this information…a W-9 for an employer, a scanned copy of your passport to a travel agency or a completed form to your healthcare provider.

Don’t keep this information in your email in/sent box. In addition, shred any physical/hardcopy documents containing this information.

  • The IRS Will Never Call You…So, Hang Up

Scammers often call under the pretense they are the IRS and you owe money. They may sound totally legitimate, oftentimes giving you a fake badge number and even sharing knowledge that leads you to believe they really know you.

Hang up! The IRS will never call or email you. The IRS only communicates by physical (snail) mail.

  • If Your Credit Card Company or Bank Contacts You, Call Them Back on an Official Number

Identity thieves may pose as representatives from your bank or credit card company. These scammers may be trickier to catch because these types of organizations do sometimes call.

Don’t give out any personal information with inbound requests. Call the organization back using their official customer service number.

  • Don’t Sign a Blank Return 

If a friend asks you to sign a blank return and they will take care of doing your taxes…don’t do it. Sometimes scammers are found in the least expected place…your inner social circle.

  • Beware of Tax Pop-Up Shops

When hiring anyone to do your taxes, especially those “once a year” tax preparation shops, do your homework and make sure they are legitimate.

Although special attention is being given to identity fraud risks during tax season in this article, this should be a year-round concern. Monitoring your credit on a regular basis yourself or through a monitoring service is the best practice to reduce your risk of becoming the victim of an identity thief.

American Heart Health Month

With February designated as American Hearth Health Month, it seems fitting to help bring attention and awareness to the seriousness of heart disease in the United States.

According to the American Health Association, nearly a quarter of the deaths in the U.S. are caused by heart disease. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in this country, causing 1 in 4 deaths. Cardiovascular disease, including heart disease and stroke, remains the leading global cause of death with more than 17.9 million deaths each year. This staggering number is expected to rise to more than 23.6 million by 2030.

High blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking are the leading risk factors for heart disease. Shockingly (or maybe not), about 47% of Americans today have at least one of these risk factors.

In the U.S., 1 in 4 women dies from heart disease. The most common causes of heart disease in both men and women is narrowing or blockage of the coronary arteries, the blood vessels that supply blood to the heart. This happens very slowly over time and it’s the major reason people have heart attacks.

In addition to the leading risk factors mentioned above, several other medical conditions and lifestyle choices also put people at a higher risk of heart disease, including:

  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Poor Diet
  • Sedentary lifestyle – Physical inactivity
  • Excessive alcohol use

Heart Attack Symptoms – Men vs. Women

Women have a higher risk of dying from a heart attack than men. One of the reasons is because women don’t know they are having a heart attack and, consequently, don’t seek medical help until it’s too late.

Years of clinical research indicate that the symptoms of a heart attack can be different in men and women. Recent findings indicate that women are less likely to experience chest pain, or at least to the degree of pain, than men. Nearly half of the women in a recent study experienced no chest pain at all during their heart attack. Shortness of breath and fatigue were cited as their most common symptoms.

Although women can certainly experience chest pain, they must also be aware of less obvious symptoms like nausea, indigestion, palpitations, as well as shortness of breath and back pain.

Sometimes heart attack symptoms are inaccurately attributed to other health issues such as indigestion. This is why it’s so important to have your doctor administer an EKG test or an enzyme blood test.

With this said, the most common heart attack symptoms for men and women include:

  • Discomfort, tightness, uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing in the center of the chest lasting more than a few minutes…or comes and goes.
  • Crushing chest pain
  • Pressure or pain that spreads to the shoulders, neck, upper back, jaw, or arms
  • Dizziness or nausea
  • Clammy sweats, heart flutters or paleness
  • Unexplained feelings of anxiety, fatigue or weakness, especially with exertion
  • Stomach or abdominal pain
  • Shortness of breath and difficulty breathing

More common symptoms in women:

  • Pain in the arm, especially the left arm, back, neck, abdomen or shoulder blades
  • Jaw pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Overwhelming and unusual fatigue, sometimes with shortness of breath
  • Light headedness or sweating.

The good news is you’re never too young or too old to take care of your heart. While you can’t change certain factors, like age and family history, you can lower your risk of heart disease, and ultimately a heart attack, by making healthy life choices and managing health conditions.

What You Can Do to Prevent Heart Disease 

  • Establish a healthy eating plan. Choose foods low in saturated fats, trans fat and sodium. A healthy diet should include plenty of fruits and vegetables, fiber-rich grains, fish, nuts, legumes and seeds. Limit your intake of red meat and sugar-sweetened beverages.
  • Don’t smoke or use tobacco. When it comes to preventing heart disease, no amount of smoking, including smokeless tobacco, is safe.
  • Regular, daily exercise can reduce your risk of heart disease…and combining this with a healthy eating plan makes the payoff even greater. Activities such as gardening, housekeeping, taking the stairs instead of the elevator/escalator and walking the dog all count. However, you will see bigger benefits by increasing the intensity, duration and frequency of your activity.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight, especially if you carry this extra baggage around your middle, increases your risk of heart disease. Even a small weight loss can be beneficial to your heart health. Reducing your weight by 3 to 5 percent can help decrease your triglycerides and blood sugar, and reduce your risk of diabetes.
  • Get enough quality sleep. Sleep deprivation can lead to more than yawning throughout the day. People who don’t get enough sleep have a higher risk of obesity, high blood pressure, heart attack, diabetes and depression.

Adults typically require seven to nine hours of sleep each night.  If you wake up without your alarm clock, feeling refreshed, you’re getting enough sleep. Sleep should be a priority in your life.

  • Manage stress. Overeating, drinking or smoking are ways some people cope with stress. Find healthier alternatives such as physical activity, relaxation exercises or meditation.
  • Get regular health screenings. Schedule a yearly top-to-bottom physical so you know your numbers – blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol.

As we move through February, let’s use this month, American Heart Health Month, to raise awareness of heart disease and how we can all do our part to prevent it…at home and in our community.


What to Expect from the Tax-Overhaul Plan

Happy New “Tax” Year!

We’ve welcomed in 2018 and President Trump’s new tax-overhaul plan, which was signed into law on December 22. Even though most of us have already received our first payroll check of the new year, we haven’t seen any changes. The IRS is still working to develop the withholding guidance, which is expected to be issued sometime this month. Once this happens, employers and payroll service providers will be encouraged to implement the new rules by February.

The new tax reform bill makes major changes to the U.S. tax code for both individuals and corporations, to include repealing the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate. Although the Republicans were unsuccessful in repealing the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obama Care, as a whole, under the new bill, non-insured people will no longer have to pay a tax penalty. This change, however, doesn’t go into effect until 2019. So, for 2018, the Obama Care penalty can still be assessed.

This bill represents the most significant tax changes in the U.S. in more than 30 years. Some of the key changes include: 

The number of brackets – seven – remained the same, but rates overall have come down. The top rate falls from 39.6% to 37% and the bottom rate remains at 10%, but covers twice the income compared to the previous brackets. For individuals, these lower rates are scheduled to expire in 2025, unless Congress extends them.

Standard Deduction and Exemptions 

Standard deduction and exemptions will change dramatically under the new tax rules. The standard deduction as the law currently exists is $13,000 for a couple filing jointly and $6,500 for single filers. This number will jump to $24,000 and $12,000 respectively.

The personal exemption, currently at $4,150 for 2018, will be repealed. However, the child tax credit gets a big boost. This currently sits at $1,000 and starts to phase out at $110,000 in income for couples and $75,000 in income for everyone else. Under the new law, however, the credit doubles to $2,000, $1,400 of which is a refundable tax credit. In addition, it doesn’t begin to phase out until $400,000 in income for couples and $200,000 for singles.

Itemized Deductions 

Some major changes are on the horizon for itemized deductions.  State and local taxes can still be itemized, but they are now capped at $10,000. This change is an attempt to address the uproar from states that levy big taxes on their citizens.

Interest on mortgages for primary and secondary homes is still deductible. However, the limit has come down from loans up to $1 million to loans up to $750,000.

Medical expenses in 2017 and 2018 are deductible to the extent that they exceed 7.5% of income…down from 10%.

Capital Gains Tax 

The current structure of the capital gains tax structure, which applies to things like stock sales and sales of other appreciated assets, won’t see much change. However, there are still a few key points to keep in mind.

For example, short-term capital gains are still taxed as ordinary income. Since the tax brackets applied to ordinary income have changed dramatically, as seen from chart above, short-term gains will likely be taxed at a different rate than they were.

In summary, Americans won’t see a significant difference in this spring’s tax return. The proposed cuts in the bill will be more pronounced when most people file in 2019.


Celebrations of the Season

December marks the beginning of the most celebrated holiday season in America. However, many people will be celebrating something other than the highly anticipated arrival of jolly, old St. Nick and the birth of Jesus Christ.

Over the next few weeks, while many of us are rejoicing the season by decorating our trees, adorning our homes with colorful lights and nativity scenes, braving over-crowded malls in an attempt to buy that special something for someone to place under the tree, sending out festive/religious cards near and far, and attending holiday parties, merrily donning our ugly holiday sweaters, others will be celebrating in a very different way.

Yes, Christmas is only one of several holidays, here and around the world, which is celebrated during the month of December.

Bodhi Day 

Buddhists celebrate Bodhi day, which falls on December 8. This celebration recalls the date when Buddha attained enlightenment.

The Day of the Return of the Wandering Goddess

Synchronized with the Winter Solstice, this holiday has been observed by followers of Kemetic Orthodoxy, the religion of ancient Egypt, since about 4500 BCE. It celebrates the return of the Goddess Hathor to her father Ra and the healing of their relationship.


This holiday, celebrated by Jewish people, honors the Maccabees’s victory over King Antiochus, who forbade Jews to practice their religion. For eight nights – this year it starts the evening of December 12 and ends on December 20 (the dates change because this holiday follows the lunar cycle) – Hanukkah is celebrated with prayer, the lighting of the menorah and food. A Hanukkah menorah has nine candles, a candle for every night, plus a helper candle.

Over the eight days, children play games, sing songs, spin a top called a dreidel to win chocolate coins, nuts or raisins, and exchange gifts. Potato pancakes, known as latkes in Yiddish, served with applesauce and sour cream, are traditionally associated with this Jewish holiday. 

Winter Solstice

The Winter Solstice, an astronomical phenomenon marking the shortest day of the year, occurs between December 20 and 23 in the Northern Hemisphere.

Since ancient times, people all over the world have recognized this important astronomical occurrence and celebrated the subsequent return of the sun.

The start of the solar year is a celebration of light and the rebirth of the sun. In Europe, it was known as Yule, from the Norse, Jul, meaning wheel.

St. Lucia Day 

On December 13, this Swedish holiday honors this third-century saint. Many girls in Sweden dress up as “Lucia brides, donning long white gowns with red sashes, and a wreath of burning candles on their heads. They wake up their families on this day by singing them songs and bringing them coffee and twisted saffron buns called “Lucia cats.”


Kwanzaa, which means “First Fruits,” is celebrated December 26 through January 1. This African holiday, based on ancient harvest festivals, celebrates family life and unity, commemorating African heritage. Friends and family gather to exchange gifts and to light a series of black, red, and green candles. These candles symbolize the seven basic values of African family life – unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith.

Three Kings Day 

At the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas comes a day, which is celebrated in Spain, called Epiphany or Three Kings Day. This holiday is celebrated as the day the three wise men first saw baby Jesus and brought him gifts. Many Spanish children receive their Christmas presents on this day.

Yes, this is truly a wondrous time of year! And no matter how you celebrate this holiday season, I hope it is filled with love and laughter, and creating long-lasting memories with family and friends.

Being Smart with Student Loans

Today, student loans have become an inevitable part of attaining higher education.  However, not being financially savvy when taking this money can come back to haunt you long after you’ve received that coveted college diploma.

According to Forbes, in 2017, student loan debt has swelled into a $1.3 trillion crisis. Forty-four million borrowers are shouldering this financial burden, with the average 2016 graduate owing approximately $37,172.

As many families are preparing for college, excitedly completing applications, they should also be accessing the total cost…especially if they plan to borrow.

One of the most important factors of one’s higher education is becoming debt-smart. Knowing how much the money you borrow today will cost you in the future, not just in terms of the monthly payments, but also in total interest, and how this could affect your standard of living, is crucial to living the life you want.

A recent report by the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center cited that student loans have the highest delinquency rates of all consumer debt products today. Most of these delinquencies are due to the fact that the graduate hasn’t been able to secure a job that pays enough to cover their basic living expenses and student loan payment.

Borrowing to pay for college isn’t a bad thing. The cost of going to college is an investment in yourself and your future, which can yield big rewards after graduation. However, the key to obtaining that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, so to speak, is making financially smart decisions today.

Look at the ROI of Your Education

Being debt-smart is about early intervention, examining all the facts prior to filling out the first college application.

One of the first and most important pieces of information to gather is the return on your investment in your education.  You should assess the cost of attending a certain school having a clear picture of what your post-graduation salary could be.

Use common sense. If you’re going to spend $100,000 on a four-year degree that will only earn you $30,000 a year after graduation, it doesn’t make good financial sense.

Target Schools that Offer Grants Over Loans

Many colleges offer all-grant programs, adhering to a loan-free policy. If you meet certain income and asset requirements, you can qualify for these programs and, consequently, won’t be saddled with student loan debt later. There are many websites that offer a list of these colleges and their requirements.

Look at Every Option to Lower the Cost 

Apply for FAFSA, student financial aid, look for scholarships, and, most importantly, talk with a financial aid counselor. Many families underestimate the value of the financial aid office.  They are a wealth of information and have many resources to help make college more affordable. All you have to do is ask.

Get a Part-time Job 

Don’t be afraid to work while going to school. For most students today, having a job isn’t a “nice-to-have,” it’s a must. In addition to generating income to offset the cost of college, a job also provides students with many of the skills employers are looking for when they interview recent graduates. 

If You Need to Borrow, Look at All the Options 

Favor federal loans over private loans. Thoroughly review loan packages, selecting the one that offers the lowest overall (term and interest rate) cost. Make sure you understand the different types of student loans (i.e. fixed and variable rate) and how they are to be repaid.

In addition, know all of the income-based repayment options. With many federal loan programs, you have the ability to lower your repayments if your post-graduate income isn’t adequate.

You should also know how to take advantage of the flexibility of the loan program. With some loan programs, for example, if you enter a public service profession, you can have your remaining loan balance forgiven after a certain amount of time. You should also know if you could consolidate loans to lower your overall interest payments.

Do the Math

There are countless free, college loan repayment calculators out there. So, before you sign on the dotted line, do the math. Determine your monthly repayments and your living expenses where you plan to live. This will give you the big financial picture, keeping you from getting in over your head as well as warding off the possibility of damaging your credit down the road.

In summary, preparation and knowledge is key to financial success. Students who are debt-smart now will be enjoying their wise decisions later.

October: National Cyber Security Awareness Month

October is National Cyber Security Awareness Month.  This annual campaign, which began in 2003 as a collaborative effort between government and industry, was created to raise awareness about the importance of cyber security.

Whether we realize it or not, today, the Internet touches almost every aspect of our daily lives. National Cyber Security Awareness Month (NCSAM) serves to engage and educate both the private and public sectors, through events and initiatives, of the importance of cyber security. Through tools and resources the objective of NCSAM is to increase the awareness of safe online practices and resiliency of our nation in the event of a cyber incident.

With recent legislation and support from the White House, there is an even stronger focus on consumers and their cyber safety. Consequently, this month also marks the 7th anniversary of the STOP. THINK. CONNECT. campaign.  Each year, NCSAM highlights the overall message and capstones of this campaign – Keep a Clean Machine, Protect Your Personal Information, Connect with Care, Be Web Wise, Be a Good Online Citizen, Own Your Online Presence and Lock Down Your Login – and offers the following tips to stay safe online.

Watch for Malicious Email/Spear Phishing

A malicious email can be disguised, looking just like it comes from a financial institution, an e-commerce site, a government agency or any business. It typically urges you to act quickly, often by supplying a link in the email, because one of your accounts has been compromised or your online order cannot be fulfilled without additional information or some other urgent matter requiring your immediate attention.

Spear Phishing involves highly specialized attacks against specific targets or small groups to collect information or gain access to data systems. Once they’ve gained access to the network (e.g. a business’ list of customers), they can launch a phishing attack, posing as the business, and sending emails to their customers that look authentic.

If you are unsure if an email is legitimate, try verifying it by contacting the company directly and/or searching for the company online. But, be sure to do this by not using the information provided in the questionable email.

Protect Yourself When Shopping Online

With the convenience of making purchases with the click of a mouse and next-day delivery to obtaining great deals on an endless catalogue of items, online shopping continues to grow in popularity. This convenience, however, also makes it lucrative for scammers to trick buyers into paying for merchandise they will never receive and obtain your personal information for their financial gain.

Take the following safety precautions when shopping online:

  1. When purchasing items from a new website, read the customers reviews.
  2. When making purchases online, be alert to the kinds of information being collected to complete your transaction.
  3. Use safe payment options. Credit cards are usually the safest option when making purchases online. Credit card companies allow buyers to receive a credit if the product isn’t delivered or isn’t what was ordered.
  4. Always read the return policies to know what to expect if your purchase experience doesn’t go as planned.
  5. When shopping online, make sure the site is security enabled.

In addition to the safety precautions mentioned above, limit the type of business you conduct over open public Wi-Fi connections, including logging into accounts like email and banking, and adjust the security settings on your phone or tablet to limit who can access them.

Keep Security Software Current 

Having the latest security software, web browser and operating system is the best defense against viruses, malware and other online threats. In addition to computers, your smartphones, gaming systems and other web-enabled devices also need protection.

Use Unique Passwords 

The best passwords are the random ones…the ones that are the most difficult for you to remember and the cyber criminal to crack. So, mix it up – use variations on capitalization, spelling, numbers and punctuation. Avoid using names, places and dictionary words and never reuse the same password.

With this said, don’t leave notes with your passwords on your computer or your desk. If you choose to save passwords in a file on your computer, create a name for the file that won’t give it away. If you have a difficult time remembering multiple, unique passwords, use a trusted password manager. Be sure to check out the reviews and reputation of the service.

Data Backup 

Today, our digital devices house vast amounts of our important and cherished data. While very convenient, storing all this on our computer or mobile device comes with the risk of being lost. Data can be lost in many ways including computer malfunctions, theft, viruses, spyware, accidental deleting and even natural causes.

So, it’s important to back up your files – make copies of your data, select the hardware or method of storage and safely store the device that holds your copied files – on a regular basis.


Heath Savings Accounts – Growing in Popularity

The popularity of Health Savings Accounts, HSAs, has soared over the past 10 years. Designed as a way to help people manage high-deductible health insurance plans, financial experts believe that the attractiveness of these accounts will only continue to grow.

HSA Qualifications

If you are currently enrolled in a high-deductible insurance plan (HDHP), you can qualify for a HSA. By the 2017 definition, the IRS defines a HDHP for an individual as a plan with an out-of-pocket maximum of $6,550 and a minimum deductible of $1,300. For a family, the out-of-pocket maximum is $13,000 and the minimum deductible is $2,600.

How does a HSA Work?

Most health insurance providers offer HSAs. But, if yours doesn’t, you can open an account at most financial institutions.

If you qualify, you can currently contribute up to $3,400 as an individual and $6,750 as a family. Adults over 55 can increase these amounts up to an additional $1,000. If your place of employment offers a HSA, you can set up automatic contributions directly from you payroll.

Using a debit card or checks for this account, you can use these funds for eligible medical expenses. These include deductibles, co-pays, coinsurance and many other qualified medical expenses not covered by your insurance plan. However, you may not pay your medical insurance premiums with HSA funds.

The balance of a HSA, unlike Flexible Spending Accounts, rolls over from year to year. Consequently, you never lose your savings, even if you leave your employer.

Once you’re over the age of 65 and enrolled in Medicare, you can no longer contribute to a HSA. However, you can still use the balance of your savings for out-of-pocket medical expenses. If you use the money for non-medical expenses, you will have to pay income tax on that amount…and a penalty if you’re under 65 years old.

Triple the Tax Benefits

Three tax benefits make HSAs especially appealing. HSA contributions are pre-tax/tax-deductible, just like an IRA. This means your contributions are made before your income is taxed. In addition, you don’t incur taxes on the account’s growth, either. And lastly, the money withdrawn to pay eligible medical expenses is also tax-free.

The Investment Potential of a HSA

HSAs can be invested in mutual funds, stocks and other investment vehicles to generate more money. Financial experts tout the HSA as one of the best tax-free investment accounts out there, especially for those investors that have already maxed out their 401(k) and IRA contributions. The HSA provides yet another place to save in a tax-advantaged way.

For more information and/or to open a Health Savings Account contact or stop by one of our banking locations today.





Paying Off Credit Card Debt Fast

Americans owe a lot of credit card.

Shockingly, recent numbers show that Americans owe more than $1 trillion in credit card debt. That’s greater than the GDP of all but 15 countries.

According to WalletHub, which analyzed 2016 credit card debt in this country, the average American family owes $8,377. Additionally, this report also showed an upward trend per household, jumping 6 percent in the past year. Household debt is now as high as it was during the Great Recession.

Household income has grown by 28 percent over the past 13 years. This increase, however, has lagged behind the cost of living, which increased more than 30 percent during the same period. Consequently, Americans are taking on increasing amounts of credit card debt, one of the most expensive ways to borrow, to bridge this gap. With the average credit card interest rate of 18.76 percent, the average household pays approximately $1,292 in credit card interest each year.

Although this exorbitant, and continually growing, amount of card debt is a serious threat to our economy and the overall financial health of the heavily indebted, it doesn’t mean Americans are doomed to be indebted for life. But, remedying this situation requires major change and time.

Unfortunately, short of filing bankruptcy, which damages your credit for many years to come, there isn’t any magical, a quick wave of the wand, fix. Eliminating your credit card debt will require long-term behavioral changes as well as discipline. Careful spending habits and steady debt eradication is the key to gaining financial freedom.

Strategies to help pay off credit card debt fast:

  1. The most obvious one…stop using your credit cards. This doesn’t mean you should close your credit card accounts – this can actually hurt your credit score. However, if you are prone to impulse buying on credit, put the cards away!
  1. Use a card with no balance for normal purchases. You pay interest immediately on new purchases when you use a card with a balance.
  1. Budget more towards debt repayment. Budget as much as you can towards debt repayment. If you have balances on multiple cards, with about the same interest rate, attack the one with the smallest balance first. Dedicate the largest portion of your credit card repayment budget to this card. Once this card is paid off, attack the card with the next smallest balance…and so on and so on, until all of your credit card balances have been paid in full. This is more of a psychological strategy than a financial one…you’ll feel a huge sense of accomplishment when you’ve paid off that first card.
  1. Reduce expenses. One of the quickest ways to eradicate credit card debt is to cut your spending and apply that savings toward your credit card debt. This requires a plan…a budget…and sticking to it. By closely examining your family’s spending habits, you are sure to find several ways to cut your monthly expenses.
  1. Make extra payments using new money. Cutting expenses can only take you so far. Find ways to generate some extra income – work an extra day on overtime a week or have a garage sale – and put this extra money, including any tax refunds or unexpected income, towards your credit card debt.
  1. Ask for lower interest rates. This may or may not work. But, it’s worth the try. Knocking four interest rate points off a $10,000 credit card balance can save you hundreds of dollars in interest annually.
  1. Pay off the highest interest debts first. If you have credit cards with much higher interest rates, pay those off first. Pay the minimum required on every card except the one with the highest interest rate. Put most of your debt repayment budget toward the balance with the highest interest rate. Once this card is paid off, do the same with whichever remaining card balance has the highest rate. This strategy helps you devote less money to interest and more to paying off debt.
  1. Make two payments per month. Most credit card companies use average daily balance to compute interest charges. So, instead of paying one larger payment per month, break it up into two monthly payments. You’ll lower the average daily balance…so, you’ll pay less interest! To magnify this effect, try making a payment every week.
  1. Transfer debt to zero-interest credit cards. Transferring some or all of your debt to a card with a lower interest rate can make repayment much easier.
  1. Get a debt consolidation loan. This is only a good idea if you can get an interest rate lower than the average of the rates you’re paying on your credit cards and you make a definite plan to pay off the loan quickly.

Any of one of these strategies can be helpful on its own. However, implementing several of these strategies simultaneously will help you pay off your credit card debt more quickly.

The ATM Celebrates Golden Anniversary

On June 27, the world’s first ATM, automated teller machine, was turned into gold to commemorate its 50th anniversary.

The ATM was jointly developed by inventor John Shepherd-Barron and De La Rue Instruments, a company specializing in printing newspapers, just over five decades ago.

So the story goes, the ATM was conceptualized after Barron arrived at his bank a minute too late one Saturday in 1965, leaving him without cash until the bank reopened on Monday morning. Extremely frustrated by this experience, Barron began thinking that getting cash should be as easy as getting a chocolate bar from a dispensing machine.  Consequently, two years later, the first ATM was opened at the branch of Barclays bank in Enfield, north London. This was the first of six cash dispensers commissioned by Barclays.

When the ATM first debuted in Enfield it made a huge splash in the media, sending many other European banks racing to debut their own. However, most consumers viewed these “cash machines,” eventually known as ATMs, as a cumbersome novelty. Predating the debit card, the original ATM required customers to insert a single-use paper voucher, which was mailed back to the customer to prevent fraud, and key in a four-digit code, we now call a PIN, to access their money.

America’s first ATM debuted at Chemical Bank in Rockville Center, New York on September 2, 1969. Although several inventors worked on the early versions of the cash dispensing machine in the U.S., Don Wetzel, an executive at Docutel, a Dallas company that developed automated baggage-handling equipment, is generally credited with the development of America’s modern ATM.

By the 1970s, with the introduction of the debit card, the ATM became more consumer-friendly, and began handling multiple functions, including providing customers with their account balances. By the mid-2000s, as ATMs began supporting check deposits, consumers began seeing what was once thought of as only a cash dispenser in a whole new light.

Today, ATMs have spread across the world, and people think nothing of walking out of their houses without a penny in their pocket. There are approximately 70,000 cash machines in the UK, 425,000 in the U.S., and an estimated three million across the globe. The world’s most northerly ATM is located in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway and the most southerly is located at the McMurdo station at the South Pole.

However, with all the plastic in our pockets and the continued hype of mobile payments today, does the ATM, which Paul Volcker, chairman of the Federal Reserve under Presidents Carter and Reagan, once touted as “the only thing useful banks invented in 20 years,” have a future?

According to Raheel Ahmen, head of customer experience and channels at Barclays, the birthplace of the ATM, even though there’s been a huge uptake in digital banking and card payments, cash remains a crucial part of people’s day-to-day lives.

“Today, what consumers are asking for is to be able to bank wherever and whenever, and through different channels,” says Bernardo Batiz-Lazo, a professor of business history and bank management at Bangor University in Wales. “People are changing the way they consume in the same way that banks are trying to change the way they operate.”

What does this mean for the future of the ATM…and ultimately the consumer? According to the banking industry, it means ATMs will hurtle right along with us into the future, bringing a whole lot of new and exciting technology our way.

So, happy golden anniversary ATM, and here’s to another 50 years!

Ransomware – A Rising Cyber Threat

The ransom business is booming. However, today’s threat doesn’t come in the form of a note composed of letters clipped out of a newspaper. It’s a new spin on the ransom note where criminals unleash an attack on your PC and its data through malicious software called ransomware.

What is ransomware?

Ransomware is a malware that locks your computer keyboard or computer to prevent you from accessing your data until you pay these data kidnappers a ransom. This digital extortion is not new – it’s been around since about 2005. But, the ransom cryptware that encrypts your file using a private key, which only the attacker possesses, has greatly improved.

Is ransomware on the rise?

Ransomware has come a long way since it first showed up in Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe. The growth in digital payment methods, particularly Bitcoin, the most popular method for demanding ransom because it prevents extortionists from being tracked, has greatly contributed to ransomware’s spread.

The FBI recently issued an alert, which included ransomware and fake antivirus scareware scams. The FBI estimates that criminals are netting an estimated $150 million a year through these scams. However, according to identity theft experts, ransomware is far scarier than the scareware scams because when an attack occurs, it can easily escalate from a potential data loss to potential identity theft to a data breach in the form of extortion.

How does ransomware work?

Similar to scareware, this digital assault begins by duping its victim by persuading him/her to click on an infected popup advertisement or taking him/her to an infected website. But, instead of trying to trick their victim into buying fake antivirus software, these criminals hold their victim’s computer hostage and attempt to extort a payment to return his/her data. Very often the ransomware attacker puts pressure on the victim, stating that his/her data will be destroyed in a specified time period if the ransom is not paid.

Often, the criminals only ask for a nominal payment, figuring that the victim will more likely pay to avoid the hassles and heartache (e.g. losing irreplaceable pictures) of dealing with the virus. Yet, when multiplied by thousands, this nominal payment quickly turns into a healthy income for these aggressive attackers.

Ransomware doesn’t just affect desktops or laptops, it also targets mobile phones. In 2015, masquerading as a porn app, ransomware targeted Android users and allowed attackers to lock up the victim’s phone while demanding $500 ransom to regain access.

Today, individuals, businesses, government agencies, academic institutions and even law enforcement agents have been victims. This vicious malware can infect a victim’s digital device via a malicious email or website, or even become infected straight through someone’s computer via a backdoor.

These types of attacks can have a devastating impact, from losing precious personal data to shutting down hospital services in the middle of emergency procedures. That’s why it’s so important to prevent ransomware attacks from happening in the first place.

How to avoid these ransomware attacks?

1.  Use reputable antivirus software and a firewall. Maintaining a strong firewall and up to date antivirus software is critical to preventing a ransomware attack. It is equally important to use reputable antivirus software from a reputable company because of all the fake antivirus software out there.
2.  Back up often. By backing up files to an external hard drive or an online backup service, the threat of a ransomware attack is greatly diminished.
3.  Enable the popup blocker. Popups are the prime tactic used by digital criminals. If a popup appears, click on the “X” in the right-hand corner.
4.  Always exercise caution. Don’t click on links in emails and avoid suspicious websites.
5. If attacked, immediately disconnect from the Internet. Disconnect from the Internet to keep your personal data from being transmitted back to the criminals. Simply shut down your computer and start fresh – re-installing software and downloading backed-up data. If you’re wary about doing this, take your computer to a reputable computer repair shop.
6.  Alert authorities. If you are the victim of ransomware, don’t be tempted to give in and pay the ransom. Ransomware is a serious form of extortion…crime…and your local FBI will want to know about it.

As these cyber criminals become more and more savvy…and potentially threatening, the best offense is still a good defense. Taking precautions to protect your information and continually being alert are the best solutions to avoid becoming a ransomware victim in the first place.