Your phone rings and you don’t recognize the number. Sound familiar? At my house, nine out of ten calls are unknown, or out of area calls. When I have a few “missed call” numbers, I put them in the computer browser to see they are legitimate or a scam. Most of the calls are scams. Phone scams are common, and they often prey on people’s generosity or fear. Nearly 1 in 6 Americans have lost money to a phone scam in the last 12 months, according to the 2019 U.S. Spam and Scam Report.
They are good at it. Scam artists have perfected their pitch, and they use spoofed numbers to make calls look legitimate on caller ID. However, you’ll know it’s a scam if the person on the other end of the phone demands payments via gift cards or wire transfers. Requesting sensitive information such as Social Security numbers, birth dates and passwords should also be red flags. Seniors may be more trusting on the phone. Everyone should have a conversation with an older loved one.
Your best defense against these types of calls is just to ignore them. While some people like to waste a scammer’s time by stringing along the conversation, it may not be wise. Some scams use voice-recording software, and the more you talk, the more likely you’ll say something that the crooks can use to make unauthorized transactions in your name. It’s best to hang up immediately.
Here are the top three scam phone calls:
- THE IRS AGENT CALLING you on the phone. This call isn’t really from the government. The IRS doesn’t initiate contact with taxpayers by email, text messages or social media channels to request personal or financial information. Note: they may call as a follow-up to a letter they have already sent, especially if you gave them a phone number and best time to call as part of responding to their letter. Please report IRS or Treasury-related fraudulent calls to email@example.com (Subject: IRS Phone Scam).
- Technical Support Calls. The caller says they are from a well-known company like Microsoft and have detected an error on a person’s computer. They will then talk the victim through a series of steps to “fix” the problem. A person is unwittingly downloading software that will hijack their system or give the caller remote access. Scammers use it to gather sensitive data or install ransomware, which will then require a payment to unlock a computer’s files.
Older adults may ripe for this scam because they often lack technical sophistication. Younger people might recognize something fishy about Microsoft calling them, but seniors could be more trusting. These calls are always fake. Microsoft and other tech companies do not make unsolicited technical support calls.
- Fake Charity Appeals. Charity scams are especially likely after a natural disaster or other tragedy. The crooks count on the good will of people who want to help. To avoid giving money to a criminal, don’t make any donations to unsolicited callers. Instead, do your own research to select a reputable charitable organization.
If you find yourself the victim of a phone scam, it can be difficult to recover money. However, you should file a police report and contact your bank. If your Social Security number has been compromised, contact the three credit-reporting bureaus of Experian, Equifax and TransUnion to request fraud protections be placed on your credit reports.
It’s April 16 and most of us survived another tax season. Were you happy with your refund or did you have to pay in more than you have in the past? If your refund was too big, or you had to pay in a lot, you may wish to revisit your Form W-4.
Every time you earn income, you’ll most likely owe state and federal income tax. Your Form W-4 determines how much tax is withheld from your paychecks. Your employer deducts taxes based on the number of allowances you claim on your W-4. This system works well if you’re a “standard” taxpayer who files single, has one job, and claims a standard deduction. But if you don’t fit into this category—and many of us don’t—it’s likely that you have too much or too little tax withheld.
Workers complete form W-4 when they start a job. For many people, that is the last time they pay attention to it. Has there been a change in your household – did you add a child, get married or have a divorce, change jobs or did your spouse get a job? Any of these changes may impact your tax status; that means reviewing your form W-4 is a good idea. In addition, changes in tax law may affect your ultimate tax bill; after passage of the most recent federal tax bill in late 2017, some workers consulted with the payroll office of their employer to review their allowances.
When you have too much money withheld from your paychecks, you end up giving Uncle Sam an interest-free loan (and getting a tax refund). Ask yourself if there are better ways to use that money. Why not take home more money in your weekly paycheck? Or invest the proceeds and earn interest on it? On the other hand, having too little withheld from your paycheck could mean an unexpected tax bill or even a penalty for underpayment. Either way, there’s a better way to manage your hard-earned money.
The key to having the right amount of tax withheld is to update your W-4 regularly. Do this whenever you have a major personal life change. For people who wish to avoid providing that interest free loan to the government, the goal is to file a tax return with zero refund and zero owed. While it is rare to get an actual zero as a result, these folks are generally happy if they either owe a small tax bill or receive a small tax refund. If you count on a big tax refund every year, you should also pay attention to your withholding, because how much you have withheld directly impacts your refund.
Is it time to call your employer’s payroll office?
Your credit history has a great deal of impact on your life. This means you should take full advantage of the fact that the three major credit bureaus-Experian, TransUnion and Equifax-offer one free credit report each year for consumers.
Who else is checking your credit? When you check your credit report, you will find out – and you may be surprised. Have you ever received a credit card offer in the mail? Did you wonder how those credit card companies knew that you qualify for a certain credit card with a specific credit limit? It is likely that the credit card company checked your credit history before sending that offer. When someone looks at your credit history for informational or promotional purposes, this is a soft credit check, and it will appear on your credit report for your information.
Why a Soft Credit Check?
The Fair Credit Reporting Act requires the major consumer credit reporting bureaus to keep a record of all the businesses that look at your credit score. A soft credit check is when your credit is pulled for any reason other than you applying for a loan or new credit. Examples of soft inquiries include:
- Reviews of your credit score or history by an existing lender with whom you have an existing line of credit
- Reviews by potential landlords
- Reviews of your credit for insurance purposes
- Pre-approved credit offers
- When you check your own credit report or score
Typically, soft inquiries remain on your credit reports for two years to give you a clearer picture of all the institutions that have checked your credit. These soft credit checks don’t affect your credit.
What Is the Difference Between a Soft Check and a Hard Check?
A hard credit check occurs after you apply for any type of credit, such as a credit card, a mortgage, personal loan or an auto loan. Once the credit application has been submitted, the potential lender makes an inquiry into your credit score and history to see whether you qualify for the account.
If your credit report shows a large number of hard inquiries, that may negatively impact your credit score. This is because numerous hard inquiries indicate high credit risk to lenders; lenders assume that frequent applications for credit indicate that you’re having a hard time managing your finances.
No matter how many soft inquiries appear on your credit report, your credit score will not suffer in any way. The more hard inquiries you make, the more your credit score will be negatively affected by those inquiries.
Life is full of surprises and events that sometimes shatter our daily routines and our finances.
Conventional wisdom says that the money in an emergency fund would be earmarked for “unexpected expenses.” That is true. However, let’s think about what expenses actually are (and are not) unexpected.
Expenses that are not unexpected: monthly and annual bills
- Regular annual or semi-annual expenses are not unexpected: these include property taxes, car insurance premiums, annual life insurance premium, eye exams and other once-a year expenses. You can plan and prepare for these expenses by setting aside a fixed amount each month. Since you know these expenses are coming, they cannot truly be considered emergencies.
- Occasional maintenance or repairs, such as a leaky roof or a dishwasher breakdown are not fully unexpected. either. The same is true for other ordinary home repair, care repair, and moderate medical bills. You may not know exactly what expenses will come up, but if you have a body, a car or a home, you need to expect to spend money on maintaining them. Setting aside money each month will build a fund for home repair and maintenance, car repairs, and ordinary medical bills.
What expenses are truly unexpected?
An emergency fund is intended for expenses that fall outside the categories of “annual bills” or ordinary maintenance of home, car, and health. Unexpected expenses are events like losing your job or being struck by a massive, out-of-the-norm health-related bill beyond what insurance will cover. Emergency funds are designed for expenses that are highly unusual, not for common occurrences.
Bottom Line: It is possible that the savings account you were labeling as an “Emergency Fund” is actually your “Yearly Expense and Maintenance Fund.” That’s a good fund to have. But perhaps you also need an emergency fund.
Have you reviewed your beneficiary list recently? Why should you do this? Some of the biggest headaches experienced by tax, legal and financial advisers occur when their clients are not current with their beneficiaries.
During a meeting of older adults, I had a woman admit that her mother was her beneficiary. In the same breath, she mentioned that her mother had been dead for 14 years. I highly encouraged her to change her beneficiary as soon as possible.
If you have not left clear and up-to-date instructions, your heirs will face real legal obstacles; sometimes long and expensive legal and family disputes result, often not ending well. Many of these mistakes are so easy to avoid: simply check your beneficiary forms while you are still breathing! Encourage your family members to do the same.
Any big life event – such as a birth, a death, a marriage, a divorce, a remarriage, a new grandchild, or a change in the tax law – is a reason to revisit your beneficiary forms. My brother-in-law had three brothers and all three had been through divorce; there were children and remarriages. In those situations, updating beneficiary forms is critical.
Avoid the headaches. To avoid beneficiary form problems, it is important to name a contingent beneficiary in case the primary beneficiary precedes you in death or chooses to disclaim the benefit.
Take an inventory of all retirement accounts and investment accounts — locate beneficiary forms for each one. After reviewing and updating them now, and adding contingent beneficiaries to each, mark your calendar to review them annually. Keep on file a copy of the most current beneficiary form for all your accounts, and make sure your family members know where to locate them.
Since we are on holiday break – and have already spent our money on holiday gifts and entertaining — what are some ideas that can entertain the family at little or no cost?
Whether it is checking out a DVD at your local library or from the Red Box or playing card or board games in the evening, there are ways to find entertainment without putting a hole in your pocket.
If you have young children, you may have a chalk mural on your driveway if the weather is warm. Even baking cookies together can be a fun family event. I remember as a child, my mom would sometimes make a batch of yeast bread dough and my sister and I would shape the dinner rolls. In addition to being an enjoyable family activity, working together in the kitchen is also a chance to start teaching your child cooking skills that they will use in their later years.
To be healthier, how about a hike in the woods or taking the children to play in the park? With help from seed catalogs, why not plan your own garden? You will reap the produce next summer. As a family, go for a bike ride. Have a family pick-up game of one-on-one basketball or invite the neighbors over for a game of volleyball. Invite the neighbors in for a potluck barbeque and have activities for the kids and adults.
In the summer, visit a drive-in movie theatre or tour a dairy farm or a police or fire station. Enjoy a free concert in the park or community festival. Visit the public library, check out movies, books, games, music, and take advantage of the programs that the library offers. Read a good book for enjoyment.
Best to you and your family as we start a new year!
Last November, my brother-in-law’s vehicle was broken into at the nearby grocery store parking lot. He had done some banking prior to pulling into the grocery store to pick up a pizza for the night’s meal. While he was in the store, his money and cell phone were stolen. There was also damage done to both driver and passenger doors, his console, and the car’s paint. There were surveillance cameras in grocery store’s lot, but it was hard to identify the perpetrator.
When my sister and brother-in-law returned from the holidays, they picked up their held mail at the post office; while they were there, a man had money stolen from his vehicle parked outside the post office, also after a visit to the bank. Note: Both of these incidents occurred in daylight in a large U.S. city.
Based on his recent experience, my brother-in-law was able to encourage the man to call the police and file a complaint; this would help him to file a claim with his insurance company. Depending what was taken, he might also want to contact his bank, and/or place a fraud alert on his credit reports. In addition, he would need to make arrangements to have his vehicle fixed. These were all steps my brother-in-law had needed to take a few weeks earlier, plus he had to deal with the theft of his phone; fortunately, since my brother-in-law’s information on his phone was backed up in the “cloud,” he was able to be back in business soon after the phone was replaced.
We do not always think about who is watching us, but in both of these cases, someone was watching while they visited their banks. These incidents remind us: don’t let your guard down, and watch your surroundings. That guidance is especially important during the upcoming holiday season when many of us make more purchases than usual and may leave things in our cars.
How many times do we go somewhere feeling we are safe, and therefore do not pay attention to the environment around us?
With the upcoming time change (from Daylight Savings back to Standard Time), take a few minutes this week to make your home healthier for your family. Here are six tips:
- Test your smoke alarm and replace the battery. Using smoke alarms in your home cuts your risk of dying in a fire in half.
- Wash your hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds – enough time to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. Each year about 48 million Americans get sick from eating contaminated or improperly prepared foods.
- Make your home smoke free. Never let anyone smoke anywhere in or near your home. Parents are responsible for 90% of their children’s exposure to smoke.
- Program the number for poison control into your cell phone: 1-800-222-1222. If you use a land line, post the number near the phone. Each day in the United States over 300 children (ages 0-19) are in emergency rooms for poisonings.
- Do a 3-minute “clean sweep” Pick one small area of your home- like your junk drawer or stairs and take 3 minutes to sort the items. Get rid of what you do not need. Clutter can collect dust, mold, and other allergens and gives pests a place to hide. If clutter is on the floor or stairs, it can cause you to trip and fall.
- Check your locks. Make sure locks function correctly and that a child can operate them in an emergency.
October is always a fun time of year. I grew up near the Spoon River Scenic Drive in western Illinois, where every fall included two fun weekends of visitors checking out the crafts, antiques, and food.
You can experience leaf peeping, apple orchard visits and cider donuts, fall art shows and festivals. Living now near Wisconsin, I now also enjoy cheese festivals with music!
Bike rides as well as walks can benefit from the good fall weather. Don’t forget the pumpkin patch and corn maze fun. Capitalize on the farmer’s market – local produce, jellies and jams.
Many of these opportunities are near where you live. Take advantage of your local resources and opportunities. You don’t have to travel hours away to visit theatre, museums, art exhibits and great food. These opportunites are in your backyard – experience the offerings and make family memories.
First, what is a Digital Asset? It is personal information that is stored electronically on either a computer or an online “cloud” server account. If you use a computer, a password protected cell phone, social media, OR if you make online purchases, pay bills or do banking online – you have digital assets to consider.
Generally required is a user name and a password and/or PIN to access. If a family member or friend becomes incapacitated or passes away, it is almost impossible to retrieve information without the user name and log in information.
Take time to record all of your digital assets in a safe place. Share the information with the person to whom you have granted power of attorney, with your executor, and with other trusted people who would need to have it.
Need help identifying the potential digital assets? Consider the following:
Electronic Devices; Benefit Accounts; E-mail accounts; Financial accounts; online merchant accounts – Amazon or Zappos.; Organization Accounts; Photography and Music Accounts; Publication Accounts; Social Media Accounts; Video Account; Virtual Currency Accounts with Cash Value; and Web Site Accounts.
So how do you plan for your digital assets?
Use specific language in estate planning documents (will, trusts, and power of attorney) that authorizes your representative to handle digital assets as well as tangible assets. Make a list of your digital assets in your will as you would for untitled personal property. Don’t include private information (e.g. passwords) in your will, however, as it becomes a public document after someone dies.