Crypto Scam Beware!

I have heard some unbelievably sad stories this tax season and it is only the 3rd week we have been preparing and filing returns.

An older Iowan came to our Free Tax Prep site this week and showed me 2 police reports she had filed earlier this month. She received a call on a Sunday from someone informing her that the IRS was on their way to her home to arrest her because she owed $3000.  She was told that if she paid them immediately, the problem could be resolved.  Of course, the bank was not open but, she could pay them with Bitcoin and there happened to be a Bitcoin ATM just down the street from her home.  She was warned that she had to stay on the phone with them the entire time this transaction was being handled.  One ATM would not dispense the full amount, so the scammer stayed on the phone with her the whole time she drove to the next closest Bitcoin ATM which was in Minnesota. 

Her children got involved when she called them because she now had no money to pay rent or buy food or medications.  The two police reports did nothing to help her recover her losses so, her children helped her enroll in the SNAP program (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) to ensure she had food and a friend lent her $300. 

BEWARE: For victims of a crypto scam, recovering funds is extremely unlikely.  Crypto scams are common. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received nearly 6,800 complaints of cryptocurrency investment scams from October 2020 through March 2021, up from 570 in the same period a year before. Reported losses grew more than tenfold to above $80 million.

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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Invest in Holiday Cheer

Revisiting a holiday post from a previous year, and renewing happy holiday wishes for all!

For readers who celebrate any of the December holidays, today is probably NOT a day when you’re looking for a message or tip about wise use of money.  In my experience, by this point in the holiday season the financial decisions are made; and the need to plan for their repercussions is at least a week away.

For now, in the midst of celebration and family time, it is simply the time to enjoy what life brings. It is likely that the most important gift you or anyone else can bring to holiday festivities is a gift of good cheer.

  • That means not comparing how much you spent with how much someone else spent on a gift. Instead, simply trust that you and everyone else gave with good intentions; this will bring the most joy to your celebrations.
    Note: this includes not judging yourself, as well as not judging others.
  • It means giving the best possible interpretation to the contributions and comments of others. Holiday festivities can bring stressful situations and poorly-thought-out comments; for everyone’s sake, this is a time to tune in to the positive to keep celebrations bright.
  • It means that maintaining and building relationships is more important than any detail that is amiss or any aspect of the feast that is less or more than past celebrations.
  • There is always something to enjoy or be grateful for. Bring a grateful or joyful attitude to celebrations, meals, and to giving and receiving.

No matter how much money you spend on holidays, it is gifts of good cheer, kindness, friendship and joy that will mean the most to you and all those in your world.

We at MoneyTip$ wish you very happy holidays!

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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Protect Your Medical Identity

Medical identity theft is a serious business. According to one study, about 1.5 million adults are victims of medical identity theft each year. FDIC Money Smart offers the following information and consumer tips.

Medical ID theft occurs when someone steals personal information and uses the information to get medical treatment, prescription drugs, surgery and/or other services and then bills insurance for it. If the thief’s health information is mixed with yours, your treatment, insurance and payment records, and credit report may be affected. Sometimes people are denied coverage for a service or medical equipment because their records falsely show they already received it.

All types of people, including doctors and medical equipment companies, have been caught stealing people’s medical identities. About one-third of medical identity thieves are family members. Warning signs of a stolen identity include a bill for medical services not received, contacts by a debt collection company for money not owed, insurance company notification of the limit reached on medical benefits, or denial of insurance for a medical condition you do not have.

To avoid medical identity theft

  • Protect your health insurance cards.
  • Review your Explanations of Benefits (EOB) statements and medical bills for suspicious charges. If you find incorrect information in your records, insist it be corrected or removed.
  • Do not give your medical information to someone who calls, emails, or texts you unexpectedly. It could be a scammer trying to steal your information. Instead, log in to your online medical account from a website you know is real. Or contact the company or provider using a phone number you know is real.
  • Shred papers with your medical identity before putting them in the trash. Remove or destroy labels on prescription bottles and packages before you put them in the trash.

If you suspect medical identity theft, ask your health care provider for a copy of your current medical file. If anything seems wrong, write to your health plan or provider and ask for a correction.

Guest blogger, Phyllis Zalenski, Human Sciences Specialist, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach

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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Buying a Home? Be Informed!

Buying a home is a major decision. In fact, it involves several major decisions. But most of us do it very few times in our lives — perhaps only once. That means that, unlike other consumer decisions (buying groceries, choosing a cell phone plan), we don’t have much opportunity to practice, or to learn from experience.

Without much chance to learn from experience, then we need to look for other ways to learn everything that will help us make well-informed home-buying decisions. Completing “A Home of Your Own,” a self-paced learning option from ISU Extension and Outreach, can help build the knowledge and skill needed to make those big decisions with confidence.

Topics include selecting a home that fits your needs, choosing a lender and understanding loan terms, navigating through the closing process, and more. The final section of the course focuses on being a home owner — including how to maintain your home’s value. After finishing the course, you will receive a certificate of completion which you can show to your prospective lender to meet any home ownership education requirements they may have.

The course costs $45 (per person or per couple), and is available 24/7 so you can use it at your convenience. Learn more!

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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Be Vigilant – Forever

A friend of mine received a letter recently telling her that her application for a home equity loan was denied. But here’s the thing: she didn’t APPLY for a home equity loan!

Did she just laugh and throw the letter away? NO, thank goodness – she knew this could indicate a serious problem. It didn’t take long to learn more – all she had to do was contact the lender that had sent the letter.  It turns out that someone ELSE had used HER name and social security number to apply for a home equity loan of several thousand dollars. The loan was turned down due to a couple of small inaccuracies on the application. If the imposter had gotten all the details correct, my friend might have been “on the hook” for that loan – a victim of identity theft.

Do you remember the Equifax data breach a while back? My friend’s information was compromised in that data breach, which is likely how these imposters got her information. That breach was FOUR whole years ago!  Many people went “on alert” for months after that breach – but are they still maintaining that vigilance?

There’s a lesson here for all of us: if your information has ever been compromised in any data breach, you must be vigilant forever. Once the information is out there, the “bad guys” can sit on it for years, even decades, and then start to use it. And frankly, even if you are not aware that your information has ever been compromised in a major breach, you should still be fully vigilant, because not all data leaks are exposed, or exposed promptly. This may feel a little discouraging – how can we possibly protect ourselves?

Credit Freeze. The good news is that we DO have options! One of the most effective steps we can take to reduce our identity theft risk is to put in place a security freeze (known as a “credit freeze”) on our files at all three of the major credit reporting agencies. This became a free option for all consumers thanks to a federal law passed after that infamous Equifax breach. With a credit freeze in place, no one can open any kind of credit account in our name. Even WE cannot open an account in our OWN names with a credit freeze in place.  My example: two years ago I bought a new car, and borrowed part of the cost. I got home from completing the loan paperwork, and almost immediately got a call from the lender: “Hey, we can’t process your loan application till you lift the freeze on your credit file.” He told me which credit reporting agency he was using, and I went into my records to find the information I needed to lift the freeze. I was able to lift it temporarily – just 3 days – and then the freeze went back into place, so I was protected once again.

A credit freeze is an incredibly valuable protection against imposters opening accounts in our names. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau provides information about how to “freeze” your credit file. (https://www.consumerfinance.gov/about-us/blog/free-credit-freezes-are-here/)

Check Your Credit Report. Checking your credit report regularly does not prevent identity theft, but it does help to detect it — and like many other situations, early detection can minimize the damage you experience. The one safe resource for free credit reports is www.annualcreditreport.com, a joint project of all three national credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion). In normal times each consumer is eligible for one free report per year from each of the agencies (a total of three per year). However, during the COVID emergency, until April 20, 2022, we can check our credit reports weekly if we wish. When you receive your copy, carefully review it and dispute any errors you discover. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers a helpful credit report checklist.

Report ID Theft. If you do discover, as my friend did, that your identity has been used fraudulently, be sure to report the incident at the Federal Trade Commission Identity Theft webpage, www.identitytheft.gov. This site outlines steps you can take to defend yourself, and is a good first stop for identity theft victims.

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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More: Assistance for Internet and Technology

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s Emergency Broadband Benefit launched on May 12th. This benefit provides a discount of $50 per month for eligible low-income households or $75 per month for households on Tribal lands to cover internet bills, as well as discounts on some devices. This program can also be combined with Lifeline benefits.

Reliable home internet and technology provide older adults with more options to access important services and supports, including legal assistance, telehealth services, and portals for economic impact payment eligibility and benefits programs. The FCC has announced that eligible households can apply for the program in three ways: 
– Contact participating broadband providers directly to learn about their application process.  
– Visit GetEmergencyBroadband.org to apply online and to find participating providers.
– Call (833) 511-0311 for a mail-in application, and return it along with proof of eligibility to: Emergency Broadband Support Center, P.O. Box 7081, London, KY 40742. 

Individuals who use videophones and are fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) may call the FCC’s ASL Consumer Support Line at (844) 432-2275 (videophone).   There are resources available to help advocates advertise the program to their clients and community, and it is especially important to share this information with populations who face the greatest barriers to connectivity, including older adults of color, those living in rural areas, and other marginalized groups. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s Emergency Broadband Benefit launched on May 12th. This benefit provides a discount of $50 per month for eligible low-income households or $75 per month for households on Tribal lands to cover internet bills, as well as discounts on some devices. This program can also be combined with Lifeline benefits.

Reliable home internet and technology provide older adults with more options to access important services and supports, including legal assistance, telehealth services, and portals for economic impact payment eligibility and benefits programs. The FCC has announced that eligible households can apply for the program in three ways: 
– Contact participating broadband providers directly to learn about their application process.  
– Visit GetEmergencyBroadband.org to apply online and to find participating providers.
– Call (833) 511-0311 for a mail-in application, and return it along with proof of eligibility to: Emergency Broadband Support Center, P.O. Box 7081, London, KY 40742. 

Individuals who use videophones and are fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) may call the FCC’s ASL Consumer Support Line at (844) 432-2275 (videophone).  

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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Income loss, Covid-19 and protecting your credit score

If Covid-19 has caused you a loss of income, you’re facing questions: What can I do if I can’t afford all my bills? How will this affect my credit score going forward?

The first thing you need to do is develop a new budget. Any time income or expenses change, a new budget (spending plan) is needed. This plan can save time and reduce stress because it helps you look at your financial picture for the whole month all at once, rather than just dealing with each expense as it comes along. Having a well-thought-out plan can make the difference between falling behind on bills and being able to make your payments on time.

A good next step is to contact your lenders — the holders of any loans or credit cards you may have. Ask if you are eligible for any type of assistance. Many financial institutions/creditors are willing to work with consumers due to the current pandemic. You may be able to work out a modified repayment schedule with payment amounts that fit your reduced budget. 

There are various ways that creditors or lenders can help consumers. They may waive late fees, offer payment modification, or even make a new short-term loan. Payment modification may be via reduced payments, interest-only payments, or possibly forbearance (which means making no payments for a period). Remember, accounts in forbearance may be reported to credit bureaus as late or missed payments.

Finally, it is important to review your credit report. You can obtain a free copy from www.annualcreditreport.com. Normally credit reports are available free once a year, but due to COVID, they are available weekly until. Checking your credit report allows you to correct any errors your find, which may boost your score, and certainly ensures your credit is reported accurately and reduces fraud risk. Those corrections may also help with job searches, rental inquires and lower interest rates.

You may also choose to add a consumer statement to your credit reports. Although it will probably not boost your score, it offers you a chance to explain why you were having difficulty paying bills on time like normal. This explanation could make a difference to future employers or lenders that review your credit report. This statement should be brief (100-200 characters).

Today’s guest blogger is Casey Codner, Extension Human Sciences Specialist in Family Finance serving east central Iowa

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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The CARES Act and Student Loans

As noted in our post last spring, the CARES Act provides some relief for those repaying student loans. According to the Federal Reserve, the average monthly student loan payment ranges from $200 to $300 and in 2010, the total of student loan debt surpassed auto loan debt and credit card debt. Clearly, student loan debt affects many families, and the automatic suspension of principal and interest payments on qualifying student loans through September 30, 2020, as provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, has been a boon for those whose loans qualified.

If you are financially able to make payments on your student loans, however, it would save you money in the long run. Any payments you make between March 13 and September 30 will be applied directly to principal! This will help you pay off your loans faster and reduce interest cost.

If you are hoping to benefit from a student loan forgiveness program (such as those that might be offered in exchange for teaching or practicing medicine in under-served areas), there is more good news. The suspended payments count towards any student loan forgiveness program, as long as all other requirements of the loan forgiveness program are met.

If you wish to check on details of your student loan debt, you can check your information on the National Student Loan Data System at https://nsldsfap.ed.gov/nslds_SA/. Through this website, you will be able to review your Financial Aid information including, federal loans, grants, and current student loan status. You can find additional information about student loan repayment options on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau website .

Keep in mind that as it stands now, suspended payments must resume beginning October 1, so start planning accordingly. You can find additional information about student loan repayment options on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau website . In addition, any updates from the federal government will likely be posted at studentaid.gov/announcements-events/coronavirus.

Mary Weinand

Today’s guest blogger is Mary Weinand, ISU Extension and Outreach Human Sciences Specialist in family finance, who serves southeast Iowa.

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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Volatile Markets

Watching your investment portfolio fall in value is never fun. You and I both wish we had a crystal ball to answer questions like: How long will it last? Is it a good time to buy or shift assets to stocks? How will this impact my retirement plans? Is the best course of action to stay on track?

A historic look at the stock market shows a majority of years with positive returns. Data from accounts that regularly move money in and out of the markets offer evidence that unless the timing is perfect, the account holder is likely to miss periods of growth and/or sell investments at a time that turns out to be less than ideal. With that in mind, in most situations it is good advice to “stay the course”. Based on history, it is appropriate to feel confident that when an account has an ample time frame, recovery does occur after dips.

One action to consider at this time would be to look at your overall balance and distribution of assets. If the current markets are making you feel really uncomfortable, it could be a sign your risk tolerance does not matched your allocations; if so, you can develop a plan to revise your allocations and re-balance your portfolio.

The Secure Act changed required minimum distributions (RMD) rules, allowing individuals to wait until age 72. It is a silver lining for some retirees, allowing recovery time for investments before the first withdrawal is required.

The drop in stock values is also a positive for individuals who have planned Roth conversions. Moving investments at low value will result in lower taxes for the distributions and result in upside growth in a non-taxable account.

Turning the current volatile economic situation into an opportunity to learn more about your finances is also a positive action step. Evaluating your spending and savings habits can lead to reduction of debt, building an emergency fund, and keeping your finances on track.

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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Gift Cards: Know What You are Buying and Giving

Wondering what to buy someone on your gift list? For many shoppers, a gift card is the answer. Gift cards are convenient and found in multiple retail locations as well as through online merchants. According to the National Retail Federation, consumers plan to purchase three or four gift cards this season with an average amount of $47 per card. The most frequently purchased cards are for restaurants, department stores, coffee shops, Visa/Mastercard/American Express/Discover, and entertainment such as movies or music.

Consumer Reports and the Iowa Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division offer these tips when purchasing gift cards:

  • Buy directly from stable and trusted sources. If a retail business closes, the recipient has a worthless card. Use caution when ordering cards through online gift card resellers.
  • Read the fine print and look for fees (activation or inactivity), costs to purchase the card, as well as any shipping and handling fees if you order the card through a website or by phone.
  • Retailers are not required to replace a lost or stolen card. However, some may with proof of purchase. Include the original receipt with the card.
  • The card’s Personal Identification Number (PIN) should be under a protective sticker and not scratched off. Scammers copy gift card codes then steal money loaded on the card.
  • Remember that a merchant card is valid only at the walk-in or online store of the issuing retailer.
  • Make sure the intended recipient will use the card. A large number of gift cards are unspent. Someone in a different region of the U.S. may have fewer options to use the card. Alert the recipient if the card has an expiration date.

If you have a dispute regarding a retail gift card, you can file a complaint with the Iowa Attorney General, Consumer Protection Division (www.iowaattorneygeneral.gov or 515-281-5926 or, toll-free at 888-777-4590) or the Federal Trade Commission (https://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov or toll-free at 877-FTC-HELP)

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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