Tax Return ID Theft

April 1st, 2015

My friend prepared his own taxes this week using an online site. When he transmitted his return, he received a message back indicating he had already filed.  Imagine his surprise to learn that he was receiving a very large refund…considering he is self-employed and knew he would be owing a large amount. Things got even messier when he learned this refund was to be deposited into “his” new checking account, that he did not open.  The IRS told him it will take at least 8 months to resolve this mess.

If you receive a notice from the IRS and you suspect your identity has been used fraudulently, respond immediately by calling the  phone number on the notice.

If you did not receive an IRS notice but believe you’ve been the victim of identity theft, contact the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit at 800-908-4490 right away so your tax account can be secured and your SSN or ITIN can be matched. Also fill out the IRS Identity Theft Affidavit, Form 14039.

You should also:

  • Report incidents of identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission at www.consumer.ftc.gov or the FTC Identity Theft hotline at 877-438-4338 or TTY 866-653-4261.
  • File a report with the local police.
  • Contact the fraud departments of the three major credit bureaus:
    • Equifax – www.equifax.com, 800-525-6285
    • Experian – www.experian.com, 888-397-3742
    • TransUnion – www.transunion.com, 800-680-7289
  • Close any accounts that have been tampered with or opened fraudulently.

More information is available at IRS.gov:

~Brenda

Consumer Knowledge

If you are last minute income tax filer….

March 26th, 2015

GettyImages_481414909It’s countdown time to the IRS deadline (April 15). If you miss this date you will incur penalty for late filing, interest on any amount owed, and penalty for late payment; these charges will be  added to your balance due. If you file an extension, but don’t pay all of the balance due by the deadline, you will incur interest on the unpaid amount and penalty for late payment.
NOTE: if you file late, but have a refund coming, there will be no penalty.

Remember: take advantage of tax credits and deductions whenever you’re eligible.
Credits include: Home Energy Improvements; Hybrid/Electric Car; Retirement Saver’s Credit; Education Tax Credits; Earned Income Tax Credit; Child Tax Credit; and Adoption Tax Credit.  And if you might benefit by itemizing deductions, gather complete information on medical expenditures, charitable contributions, unreimbursed business expenses, and more.

File electronically as it is accurate and fast.
Try Free File which is simple, and available to those with incomes below $57,000. Go to the IRS website, www. IRS.gov  and click on the “Free File” icon.  If your income exceeds $57,000 there is a Free File fill-able form.

Choose Direct Deposit for Refunds
You can split the refund up to 3 different accounts if you’d like to make deposits to different savings funds.

Check for Errors and sign using your electronic signature number (or if you mailing a paper copy, be sure to sign your form).

~Susan

Consumer Knowledge, Goals, Saving

Zombie Debt

March 24th, 2015

GettyImages_538706435 You know about the Zombies craze, but did you know there is Zombie Debt? What is Zombie debt?

Zombie debt is old debt or debt not actually owed by you, but which is somehow haunting the presumed debtor. The debt is more than three years old and long-forgotten, or it belonged to someone else like someone with the same name or a deceased parent.

You may receive a phone call that turns into badgering, harassment, threats to sue and other inappropriate actions. If you ever get a collector asking you to pay up on a debt that has “come back to life,” make sure your rights have not been violated.   Key tips to keep in mind:

  1. Don’t acknowledge the debt. You need to look into your situation – but don’t say anything that would indicated that the debt is yours.
  2. It is illegal to “re-age” a debt – that is, to report an old debt to a credit reporting agency as if it’s new.
  3. Get verification in writing: ask for proof that you owe the debt.
  4. Check the statute of limitations to find out whether you are responsible for the debt anymore. In Iowa, the statute of limitations on a written contract is 10 years; oral contract is 5 years; injury is 2 years and property damage is 5 years.
  5. Write a letter explaining that you are not responsible for the debt, you do NOT acknowledge it, and you demand they stop harassing you or you will take legal action.

Finally- Watch your credit report carefully.

For more information: http://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0149-debt-collection
~ Susan

Consumer Knowledge, Credit ,

Renters Insurance – Not just for young adults

March 19th, 2015

insuranceUsually when I talk about the importance of renters insurance, I’m thinking of young adults – college students, those just getting started in life.  Young adults may not be aware renters insurance even exists.  However, people of all ages may need a reminder that renter’s insurance is important!

Even though 96% of homeowners have homeowners insurance, only 37% of renters have renters insurance, according to a 2013 poll by the Insurance Information Institute.  That’s frightening, when you think about it. If any of those households was hit with a fire or tornado, they could be financially devastated.

Yet, as I was recently reminded, even people who have had homeowners insurance for years might forget to immediately obtain renters insurance when they make a change.  Perhaps they’re downsizing from a house to an apartment.  Or they may be in transition – moving to a new city and testing it out before deciding whether to purchase a home.

You definitely do not want to be “between” insurance plans when disaster strikes.  If you know someone who may be making a housing transition, remind them to obtain renters insurance coverage without delay!

~Barb

Consumer Knowledge, Insurance

Buying a Car? Tips about auto loans

March 17th, 2015

car moneyMy daughter will be buying a car for the first time in the next few months.  Choosing a reliable, affordable vehicle is an important decision, and she is researching it carefully.

She faces a second major decision, as well – one she may not yet have thought about:  a car loan.  Even though she has accumulated enough savings to make a sizeable down payment, she will still borrow a portion of the cost. Unfortunately, it’s common for people to put a lot of energy into choosing the right car and negotiating the best possible purchase price, and then simply take whatever loan comes their way.  Note: the same thing happens with houses and home loans, too. 

Before you choose your car:

  • Check your credit report (do it free at www.annualcreditreport.com) weeks or months before you plan to buy.  Why? If you find any inaccurate information on your report, you’ll have time to get that information removed.
  • Work with a local lender to get pre-approved financing for a car loan.  You might start with your own bank or credit union, but it can also be wise to shop around with several different financial institutions to see where you can get the best terms.  Getting pre-approved does not mean you have to borrow the money from that lender, but it gives you a reference point for comparison.

While you are car-shopping:

  • If you’re working with a seller (such as a car dealership) who can help arrange financing, don’t mention the interest rate you’ve been offered for your car loan until after you have seen what is the best rate they can offer you.  This allows you to choose the option that is best for you.
  • Some experts recommend not even mentioning that you have been pre-approved for financing elsewhere until after you have definitely negotiated the vehicle’s purchase price.  Why? Some dealers might reduce their selling price on the car, thinking they’ll make it up with a little extra profit through the financing.  Settling the purchase price before even discussing financing may enable you to negotiate a better price.

Check this FDIC article for more tips!   ~Barb

NOTE: The FDIC publishes a quarterly on-line magazine, FDIC Consumer News.  It’s a terrific source of unbiased information.  You can subscribe to receive an email notification of topics with easy-to-use links.   c

Consumer Knowledge, Credit, Smart shopping

Yard Sale Savvy

March 12th, 2015

ydsaleA friend got herself in a pickle. A small health emergency created a desperate need for cash. My typical response is: Sell what you do not need, do not use, or cannot afford. My second response is: decrease your expenses AND increase your income. If an unexpected expense throws your finances into a tailspin, then it is probably going to require more than an immediate infusion of cash to keep your head above water through the next 6 months.

My friend did not own a single large item that she could sell to bring her the cash she needed, so she decided to do a garage sale. Spring is the perfect time.  A two day sale maximizes profits for the time and energy needed to prepare for a sale. You can open and close your sale any time you want but, early shoppers are usually the best ones.

Take the time to clean and dust the items you’re selling. Fold clothing to ensure it looks presentable and is free from wrinkles and stains. These tasks won’t take up too much of your time and will make a huge difference, since people are more likely to buy things in good shape. Make the shopping experience easy by grouping like items together. Sort clothing by size and gender.

The resale value of used items and clothing is typically only a small percentage of what they cost new. Nicer items might go for a premium, but you risk annoying your shoppers if you price items too high. If you’re worried about overpricing or underpricing your items, consider what you’d be willing to pay if you bought the item secondhand.

There are free and cheap ways to get the word out. Put a free ad on Craigslist and your personal Facebook page. Many communities have their own “garage sale” Facebook pages.  Create and hang outdoor signs that will help guide people to your yard.

Big items such as tables, sofas and dressers tend to lure people out of their cars.  If people can’t see them, they might just drive on by. Place big items outside and on full display, instead of tucked away in your garage.

A garage sale is hard work, but it almost always pays off by freeing up extra room in your home and putting cash in your hand.  ~Brenda

Consumer Knowledge, Goals, Saving, Smart shopping

Considering Solar?

March 10th, 2015

solar

Solar energy has changed a lot from the 1970’s when my dad created his own system to heat his house. It continues to change, becoming more efficient and less expensive. A solar energy system reduces the cost of the electricity you use, but it doesn’t reduce the amount of electricity your household needs.

A second strategy is to take steps which improve your home’s energy efficiency. Investing in efficiency measures is generally less expensive than installing a solar energy system, and gives you a greater return on investment. If you improve your home’s energy efficiency before going solar, you will need a smaller and less expensive solar energy system.

By combining the two strategies – improving energy efficiency and installing a solar system – you could potentially produce all or most of the electricity your household needs. This will be a long-term investment so you should analyze all costs and likely savings or payback before making a decision.

There may be tax credits, rebates and incentives that you will want to factor in which will shorten the time it takes to recoup the cost and see real savings. The payback periods can range from seven to twenty years without incentives.

Owning a solar system can be insurance against energy cost increases that affect other power sources. Alternatively, some homeowners choose to lease a solar system rather than owning.

The bottom line is this: reducing energy usage through efficiency and conservation measures will make the biggest difference in your energy bill and should be your first priority. If you want to learn more, check out this guide, Solar Power Your Home by the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service. ~Brenda

Consumer Knowledge, Saving, Smart shopping

EITC and Immigration

March 6th, 2015

Tax-cash-sm-15495-46DG-1804x2712Earned Income Tax Credits (EITC) have hit the news. The controversy involves who can receive the tax benefit. The EITC is an additional tax refund that either reduces the taxes you owe or increases your refund. The amount is based on your income and number of dependents claimed on the tax return. A father who is supporting two children and earns an income of $8,500 washing dishes would qualify for a refund of his tax withholding plus an EITC of $3,390. Why? When an individual who earns $60,000 to $100,000 drives to the restaurant for dinner, he buys gas and pays the same taxes for a gallon that the dishwasher pays when he buys a gallon to drive to work. It takes a bigger chunk out of the dishwasher’s  salary. These common taxes are referred to as regressive taxes and the EITC tries to equalize the tax burden for low income workers. In order to collect the EITC you must have a social security number.

Individuals who are not legal residents of the United States typically won’t have a social security number, but they may have taxable income and an obligation to file a tax return.  To do so, they must apply for and use an individual tax identification number (referred to as an ITIN) in place of a social security number. Individuals without social security numbers are not eligible for the EITC.  If the children on the tax return have social security numbers, but a parent uses and ITIN, then that household will not be eligible for the EITC.

Seeking residency and citizenship status is a process under the guidance of the US Citizenship and Immigration Service and there are terms that define the status of the applicant as they progress through the steps. Depending upon individual factors it can take up to 5 years to complete and during that time an individual must abide by US tax laws and file returns.  An individual will eventually reach the status of “legal resident alien” and then can apply for a social security number following a process established by the Social Security Administration. Once a social security number is obtained they can qualify for the EITC.

As you listen to the discussion about the EITC and immigration reform, keep these basic points in mind so you’ll have a better understanding about the issues being debated.

Joyce

Consumer Knowledge , ,

FAFSA Season

March 3rd, 2015

apply_for_aidA client came to the tax site with a tough question: she isn’t living with her parents and she needs to complete the FAFSA. It’s a tough situation, with no easy answers.  For people who find themselves in this situation, the first step is to determine if they can meet the requirements to claim non-dependent status (non-dependent list). The second is to visit the financial aid office of the school where they plan to attend. There are options, but the application  process will be a little more complicated.

For everyone else, the IRS Data Retrieval Tool will ensure accuracy and simplifies the FAFSA process. Here are guidelines from the Federal Student Aid site:

Students and parents can now access their IRS tax return information using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool for the remaining 2014 school year or the upcoming 2015 school year. The tool provides an easy and secure way to access and transfer the necessary tax return information directly into their FAFSA application. Students or parents who filed tax returns with certain filing statuses, filed an amended tax return, or filed a Puerto Rican or foreign tax return, should not use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. Instead, it’s recommended that they enter their tax return information manually.

To ensure the tax return is processed and the information is available to be transferred into the FAFSA, students and parents should, in most cases, wait three weeks after filing a return electronically, or eight weeks after mailing in their tax return, before requesting tax data from the IRS Data Retrieval Tool.

If they are ineligible or otherwise choose not to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool to retrieve tax return information, their college may require a copy of their IRS tax return transcript (or their parents’ IRS tax return transcript, if they are a dependent student). To order an IRS tax return transcript, they should go to IRS.gov and select “Get Transcript of Your Tax Records” under Tools to get the transcript online or by mail.

Additionally, they can call 800-908-9946, or fax or mail Form 4506-T, Request for Transcript of Tax Return, to receive the transcript by mail. The IRS Data Retrieval Tool for obtaining tax return information is available within the Free Application for Federal Student Aid website for the current school year.

Consumer Knowledge

You know Gray Hair; you know Gray Water. But do you know Grey Charges?

February 24th, 2015

IMG_0011Gray hair may be on your head (or perhaps only your hair dresser knows).

Gray Water is wastewater from wash hand basins, showers and baths or discharge from laundry, dishwashers and kitchen sinks that is recycled on-site for flushing toilets.

Grey Charges appear on a credit card statement – even if you didn’t intend them to be there. One person in four is a victim of these charges. Here are some of the common types:

  • Unintended subscriptions – you thought you made a one-time purchase, but it was really a subscription.
  • Zombie fees – membership fees that you had cancelled, but the fees will not stop.
  • Unwanted auto-renewals – on a monthly, quarterly or yearly basis.
  • Free trial to pay – when a free trial is over the seller converts it to a paid subscription.
  • Negative option – you bought one product, but did not realize that you were buying others at the same time.
  • Cost creep – price continues to go up.

To protect yourself from grey charges:

  • Before you buy, read the terms of service. Disclosures about fees may be hidden or near the end, so take the time to read the entire document.
  • Mark your calendar as a reminder to cancel free trials by a set date.
  • Read your credit card statement closely. Pay attention to the names of companies and to charges for small amounts.
  • Contact the seller to have the grey charges removed.
  • Dispute the charges with your credit card company in writing.

~Susan

Consumer Knowledge, Credit, Saving, Smart shopping