Brushing – Another Scam

I find myself spending more time cleaning and pitching now that I am spending more time at home. In the toss-pile is a large collection of freebies that were handed out at fairs and tradeshow booths…stress balls, pens with weird gizmos attached, whistles, mini Frisbees, etc.  There is even a package or two of wildflower seeds that arrived in the mail promoting the planting of pollinator fields to save the bees.

The latest free thing that is arriving in the mail these days are UNIDENTIFIED seeds from an UNKNOWN source. Seeds that have not been ordered.  They are arriving mostly from China and Uzbekistan. This is of great concern to the USDA and the State Departments of Agriculture.  These seeds could be an invasive plant that does not currently exist in the US or they may contain seed-borne diseases that do not exist in the US. Some packages have an unknown seed treatment that could be dangerous to human health.

Most likely, these packages are part of a BRUSHING scheme….fake orders used in e-commerce to boost a seller’s rating. Because a shipment has to take place to make an order valid, sellers may ship an empty box or some cheap item. These fake orders can boost the seller’s rating, which can make it more likely that their item will appear at the top of search results on e-commerce sites.

What the USDA and the State Departments of Ag want you to do is…

– Do not plant the seeds

– Do not open the packets

– Do not eat the seed.

– Retain the packages and contact the IDALS (515.281.5321 – Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship) or USDA (515.251.4083 – US Department of Agriculture) for further instructions.

More information from our ISU agriculture colleagues and from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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Public Health Scam

One of our colleagues received this message from the county public health office where she works. If it could happen in one county, it could happen anywhere… as always, be skeptical of unsolicited calls or emails, especially when they request payment!

The email read:

A local bank just made me aware of a scam going around regarding Public Health. Someone is calling people saying they are with the local Public Health office and telling that person they have been exposed to a positive case. The caller then says the office wants to send a COVID-19 test kit and all they need is a $50 processing fee. Public Health will NEVER ask for your banking or credit card information and we wouldn’t be charging for a COVID test to be done.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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ID Theft Protection

Lately I find myself asking my husband if he got the mail because there is not the usual pile waiting for me on the kitchen table. Then I started to wonder if he had already sorted and tossed the junk. Nope! It is not my imagination…there truly is a lot less junk mail these days since COVID 19 began. So much less that it has created a collapse in mail volume. The decline could be as much as 60% by the end of the year, which is bad news for the US Postal Service…considering it has been struggling for about 14 years.

On the other hand,…the supply of junk e-mail continues to grow at a steady pace.  It has even creeped into my text messages. Some emails and text messages look very authentic so, it is important to be alert to scammers. Be wary of messages requesting immediate action. Poor grammar and spelling errors are a good indication the email is fraudulent.

Nearly all e-businesses have a process in place for reporting such emails and texts that are made to look like they are coming from their legitimate company…Facebook, Amazon, etc. You can do a quick search and find how best to notify businesses when you receive messages from scammers; examples include phish@facebook.com, stop-spoofing@amazon.com, spam@uspis.gov. You will probably get an auto-reply indicating that your message was received and appreciated but don’t expect the company to personally reply to your email.

If you are concerned about data breaches or identity theft, you may be considering signing up for identity theft protection services. Before you enroll, it is important to weigh the costs and benefits of various types of services. You also can compare them with free and low-cost services. The federal government’s IdentityTheft.gov website provides free personal recovery plans and step-by-step guidance to help identity theft victims recover.

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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Tips for Shopping Online

On-line shopping has been increasing steadily for over a decade, and now, as COVID keeps people at home more, new users are entering the online shopping world. Do they know how to be a “smart shopper” in an on-line environment? This three-minute video from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) gives practical tips for how to efficiently compare product features and prices, find coupons, and make sure you’re dealing with a reputable seller.

When money is tight, finding a coupon or avoiding shipping costs makes a difference, but it’s easy to forget those steps. I’m a moderately-experienced online shopper and I learned some new tips; I also recognized some tips I’ve heard my very computer-literate adult children discuss.

The FTC “On Guard Online” website is devoted to helping consumers stay safe online, with videos, games for children and teens, and more. It’s definitely worth checking out!

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Officially ending a marriage simplifies taxes

Every year during tax season I come across people who are still legally married even though they haven’t had contact with their spouse for years. They cannot file a tax return as “Single.” If they aren’t divorced or legally separated, that leaves them stuck with a “Married Filing Separately” (MFS) tax status.

There are several disadvantages to using the MFS filing status, including:

  • You are not eligible for Earned Income Credit.
  • You can not deduct student loan interest paid.
  • You do not qualify for Education Credits (American Opportunity or Lifetime Learning Credit) related to college expenses.
  • You must know and list your spouse’s name and social security number on your tax form; if you cannot, then your tax return will need to sent in by mail instead of submitting electronically.
  • If one spouse itemizes deductions, the other spouse must also itemize deductions.
  • On the Iowa return, you must report approximately how much income your spouse has; if you cannot, then your Iowa return will need to be sent in by mail.

There is an exception – one group of people who are split from their spouse but do not have to file MFS. These are people who are paying the cost to keep up a home for someone else (typically a parent who is keeping up a home for his/her children).  These individuals can be “considered unmarried” if they have not lived with their spouse at any time during the last six months of the year; if so they qualify for “Head of Household” filing status, which allows them to receive the Earned Income Credit and other tax benefits. However, when the children are grown and the taxpayer can no longer claim “Head of Household,” then they must use Married Filing Separately as their tax status.

“What’s the point of all this?” you may be asking.  I have two reasons for covering this topic today, as this long COVID-extended tax season finally approaches its end.

  • First, I’m tired of breaking bad news to people – the news that their tax return may be difficult to file and they can’t get some of the tax credits they might want.  
  • Second, to put forth the suggestion indicated in the title: If the marriage is over, maybe it would be smart to make that official. If you have reasons to avoid divorce, consider a legal separation if possible. Taking that step would make tax filing easier for both parties.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Laid Off? Health Insurance Options

It’s tough to live on reduced income after a reduction in hours or a job loss, but unemployment benefits can help to bridge that gap, at least for a while. The expanded eligibility and expanded benefit amount provided through federal legislation in response to COVID-19 has helped thousands of Iowans.

Losing employment (or even reduction in hours) often means that workers also lose their health insurance coverage. Depending on the situation, that loss may be even more disruptive than the loss of income. Fortunately, there are some good options available for obtaining affordable health insurance outside of your workplace.

Free Insurance. If your income is below a certain threshold, you may be eligible for free health coverage through the state, and you can apply at any time during the year. This coverage is available to everyone, regardless of whether they are disabled or have children in the home, thanks to the fact that Iowa signed on to the expanded Medicaid portion of the Affordable Care Act.  The income guidelines for this option depend on family size:  for a single individual, the 2020 income limit is nearly $17,000; for a family of four, it is nearly $35,000. There are some nuances in the recording of income, so even if your income is a little above the limit, it is worth applying – you may be eligible. ALSO – even if your income for the first six months of the year puts you over the limit, it is still worth applying if your situation has changed, because the income limits are considered on a month-by-month basis. To apply, contact the Department of Human Services at 855-889-7985.

Coverage for Children. Through Healthy and Well Kids in Iowa (Hawk-I), children and teens under age 19 are eligible for free or nearly-free health coverage up to much higher income levels, so if you are having trouble affording health insurance for your children use the same DHS phone number (855-889-7985) to inquire and apply.

Income too high for free coverage? There are still options! The high cost of health insurance often means that even those with average incomes may find it unaffordable. Through the Health Insurance Marketplace, you can find high-quality health insurance plans; you may be eligible for help in paying the premiums if you do not have access to an affordable employer plan and if your income is below a generous limit. The 2020 income limit here is $49,960 for a single individual, and $103,000 for a family of four. You will be expected to pay part of the premiums, based on your income, but the government will pay the rest. The Kaiser Family Foundation’s Health Insurance Subsidy Calculator will provide a good estimate of the help you might receive.  

To enroll mid-year in coverage through the Health Insurance Marketplace, you must be eligible for a special enrollment period; generally that ends 60 days after your previous coverage ends. Learn more or enroll at www.healthcare.gov or by calling 800-318-2596. Many community health centers offer assistance in considering options and enrolling, as well. 

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Surviving a Crisis

The container flew from my hand and crashed on the ground of the farm lot. My husband stood and watched as I unloaded my frustration and anger. My job that day, while my husband was at his off-farm job, had been to visit with the agriculture lender. It had not gone well. A banker’s pen had drawn lines through our spending plan. The lender, the third in a revolving door of employees, had edited our Cash Flow statement to reflect his view of our potential for success. Our hard work and determination not to default on loans had not been acknowledged. There was no sign of a continued partnership, and our communications with the previous loan officer were not in our file. We were expendable as loan clients during the 80’s farm crisis.

Personal finance is not just about numbers – balancing a checkbook or keeping good records. It reflects our values, priorities, and goals. It’s personal. We define who we are as we provide for our families and participate in the communities where we live. This personal investment makes it difficult for us to acknowledge that we have no control over certain outside events – events that sometimes send a wrecking ball through it all.  COVID-19 will have this impact on families, just like the Farm Crisis of the 80’s did in rural Iowa.

We survived that unpleasant time. We focused on our priorities and recognized that not all financial lenders would be able to support our goals. When rejection seemed likely, we found new partnerships.  When resources became available to reduce our dependence on others, we repaid debts.  It took time. 

Emotional balance is essential if we are to use our minds to identify solutions and put together steps toward resolving financial problems.  Dealing with your feelings is a priority. Communication with family and supportive people can sustain you while you improve your financial situation.

This summer my husband and I will post a Heritage Farm sign on the original 80 acres purchased in 1870 by his Great Great Grandfather.   Life events can be survived! Understanding and taking control of finances is a powerful thing, often requiring assistance. Don’t hesitate to find that trustworthy assistance.

Retirement begins for me at the end of this week and I want to thank you for reading the Money Tips blog. I hope you continue to find this a place for financial news, management advice and resources.

Joyce

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash is a Human Sciences Specialist in Family Finance who wants to keep you ahead of the curve on financial information.

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Nursing Home Residents: Keep your economic impact payment

If finances are tight, the federal economic impact payment being issued through the CARES Act for coronavirus relief may have a big impact on your well-being. Unfortunately, residents of care facilities in many states (including Iowa) are being told incorrectly that they must relinquish their payment.

This problem occurs when an individual is receiving Medicaid benefits to help cover the cost of their care. Nursing home administrators, acting on misinformation, believe they must recover the extra income to defray Medicaid costs. However, the CARES Act specifically labels the payments as “tax credits,” and tax credits are exempt from income and resource limits placed on those who are benefiting from certain government assistance programs.

Nearly every United States household should receive an economic impact payment, including households that receive Social Security, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), or Veterans Administration benefits. The payments should be deposited automatically to the same account where you receive either your tax refund or your SSA, SSI, or VA income. The IRS, which is responsible for issuing the payments, offers a lookup resource to help people track their payment. Note: the look-up link for those who do not file a tax return is separate from the link for tax filers; be sure to use the correct link.

If you have loved ones living in care facilities, especially if they are receiving Medicaid benefits to help cover the cost of care, be on the watch for any attempts to get them to turn over their economic impact payment to the facility. If this has already occurred, it should be refunded; contact the Iowa Attorney General’s office for help if needed. Note: it is important to keep in mind that nursing home administrators who try to claim the payment are not trying to steal; they are trying to do the right thing, but are simply misinformed about what the law requires.

Source: Federal Trade Commission

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Meat Rations

My local grocery store announced that they will limit fresh meat purchases to four items for the current time. Many grocery chains have set limits to prevent shortages. The slowdown of processing at meat packing plants has made this step necessary to balance supply and demand.

I called the meat department for details. A prepackaged retail item counts as one item. Meat case items can be bundled: for example, if I request 5 pounds of ground meat and have it wrapped in 1-pound packages, the five will be over-wrapped with one price tag and count as one item. Canned meat items, including tuna, salmon, spam, etc., do not count toward the purchase limit. Be sure to check with your local store; their policies might be different.

Eggs, peanut butter and beans are nutritious substitutes for red meats and poultry.  Stores may also be marketing institutional cuts. These are larger pieces of meat such as whole loins or rump roasts that can be cut into individual servings and frozen. Another approach is to cook the large cut, then divide the meat into packages appropriate for recipes that call for pre-cooked meats. To freeze meat for later use, place it in a plastic freezer bag and over-wrap with heavy foil or freezer paper. Be sure to add a label with date.

Cutting back on serving sizes or using recipes that stretch the protein content are other solutions.  Stir-fry recipes put more emphasis on vegetables. Rice, pasta and beans in a recipe may make it possible to reduce the amount of meat or poultry to ¾ or ½ the amount in the original recipe and still supply adequate nutrition. Low cost, protein-stretching recipes are available at the Spend Smart Eat Smart website.

To extend the quality of raw meats in your refrigerator, store the cuts at 40 degrees or less.  The meat drawer is designed to provide the ideal conditions for storage. The temperature in the freezer compartment should be zero degrees or less.  If your refrigerator does not have an internal thermometer, you can purchase one at appliance or hardware stores. 

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash

Joyce Lash is a Human Sciences Specialist in Family Finance who wants to keep you ahead of the curve on financial information.

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An Ounce of Prevention

I shouldn’t be surprised by the increased number of bogus offerings, threats and scare-tactics arriving in my inbox, mailbox and phone. Scammers are offering everything from face masks to toilet paper and expedited deposits of the stimulus payments. Identity theft and related scams often spike during times of crisis. So…desperate times require extra diligence on our part, to protect our identity and our hard earned money.

The three national credit-reporting companies, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion, are offering free weekly online credit reports through April 2021. By requesting a free credit report at https://www.annualcreditreport.com/index.action, an individual will get a report from all three companies with the single application.

By establishing a “myEquifax” account at equifax.com/personal/credit-report-services/free-credit-reports  or by calling 866.349.5191, individuals can receive six free credit reports every twelve months from Equifax, through December 2026…that is in addition to the one free report that can be obtained each year from all credit reporting companies at AnnualCreditReport.com.

While checking your credit report is an important habit, there are other things individuals can do to protect their identity and improve their score.

  1. Pay all your bills on time if possible. It may get difficult with layoffs and furloughs, but try to make at least your minimum debt payments by their due date every month to avoid hurting your credit score.
  2. Contact your lenders for help and ask about hardship options as soon as possible—ideally before you miss a payment. Lenders may be able to temporarily lower your interest rate or payment amount, or pause your payments for a period of time. Lenders may also be able to place your loans in deferment or forbearance, which would eliminate payments for a time; as a result, there would be no late payments to report to the credit bureaus. Under the CARES Act, when a consumer contacts their creditor before falling behind in payments, and reaches an agreement with the creditor to a modified payment plan (reduced payments or forbearance), then the creditor may not report late or missed payments to the credit reporting company as long as the consumer follows the agreement. That protection for the consumer lasts until the later of July 26, 2020 OR 120 days after the COVID-19 national emergency declaration ends.
  3. Check your credit regularly and make sure the information is accurate. You can identify any potentially fraudulent activity and respond to it before it damages your credit.
  4. Dispute inaccurate information immediately. Remember that disputes need to be made with each credit bureau where the disputed information appears.
  5. Contact your service providers. If you do not think you can pay your utility, cell phone, cable or other monthly bills, reach out to your providers to see if they offer flexible payment options during this time.
  6. Be extra vigilant about protecting your identity. If you fear identity theft may occur or has occurred in your name, you can also place a free security freeze on your credit file so lenders cannot gain access to it. This prevents people from applying for credit in your name. You can lift the freeze at any time, for free.
  7. Seek financial management help. The Iowa Concern Hotline (800.447.1985) can put you in touch with a financial consultant who will provide confidential information and discussion, free of charge.
  8. For those with investment or retirement accounts, U.S. market fluctuations could cause significant concern. Before you make any rushed decisions with your investments, consult a reputable investment professional who can look at the details of your situation and provide personalized financial guidance on what actions, if any, you should consider at this time. Not sure where to start? The professionals at the firm holding your investments or with your employer’s retirement plan can be a first contact for analysis of your situation.
  9. Make a budget and plan ahead. If you think current conditions may affect your income or finances, consider tightening your budget to help make sure you have enough funds to cover your expenses.

For more information about free help and guidance during these difficult times, check out https://www.extension.iastate.edu/iowaconcern/.

Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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