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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Business On The Side

Mary Weinand
Our guest blogger is our colleague Mary Weinand, Human Sciences Specialist, Family Finance, in southeast Iowa

Given the economy, many people are trying to make ends meet with a side job or small business. Before you begin, consider what expenses might go with the business as well. Running a business can be profitable but it can be expensive too. Deductible expenses help entrepreneurs with many of the costs of running a company. Business owners include expenditures on tax returns so that not all of the business sales are taxed as earnings.

The IRS realizes there is a cost to doing business but there may be limits and timing issues for many deductions. Business expenses are reported in the year they are paid – which can differ from the year income is earned. There are some exceptions to this rule, which can allow a business to carry a loss forward to the next year. If your expenses exceed your income for the year you may be able to carry forward some of the business expense to the next year. Check with your tax accountant to make sure you are reporting correctly on your taxes.

According to IRS.GOV, you have to file an income tax return for 2018 if your net earnings from self-employment were $400 or more. If your net earnings from self-employment were less than $400, you still have to file an income tax return if you meet any other filing requirement listed in the Instructions for Form 1040.

Generally, the amount subject to self-employment tax is 92.35% of your net earnings from self-employment. You calculate net earnings by subtracting ordinary and necessary trade or business expenses from the gross income you derived from your trade or business. You can be liable for paying self-employment tax even if you currently receive social security benefits. The law sets a maximum amount of net earnings subject to the social security tax. This amount changes annually. All of your net earnings are subject to the Medicare tax.

Some common deductions for small businesses:

Vehicle – If you use your vehicle in your business, you can deduct vehicle expenses. If you use your vehicle for both business and personal purposes, you must divide your expenses based on actual mileage.

Employee Salary – If you pay someone to perform business services then you can deduct their salary or contract services on your taxes. Be sure the service is related to the business and not for your personal benefit. For example, if you own a home cleaning service you can’t deduct the employee salary to clean your own home.

Interest – You can deduct the expense of interest for money borrowed for business activities.

Business-Related Education – You can deduct seminars, classes, educational tapes or CDs, and convention fees related to your business.

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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Identity Theft and Your Tax Return

Social Security numbers have to be correct on tax returns. At the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance sites we receive an immediate reject on the return if the name and numbers don’t match Social Security records.  We also receive a reject code when a social security number has already been used on a tax return. Individuals must still file a return, but with the electronic submission blocked, it must be a mailed copy.

The IRS  and Iowa Department of Revenue will send you a letter saying more than one return was filed in your name.  Be sure to respond to the letter promptly. Use the internet to validate the IRS phone number and address (scam artists are now creating very good look alike letters). Call and discuss the evidence needed to support your tax return submission.

A letter will also be sent if the IRS or Iowa Department of Revenue has a record of earned income that you didn’t report on a return. It may mean your SSN was used by someone else so they could avoid paying taxes on their earnings.

Social Security numbers can be obtained through scams or by buying numbers that were stolen in a security breach.  If you have been notified that someone has committed tax-related identity theft with your personal information, report it promptly. Go to identitytheft.gov to complete and send the IRS Identity Theft Affidavit.  By doing this, you will also file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and obtain an ID Theft Recovery Plan.

After your identity is falsely used for tax purposes, the IRS will send you an annual PIN number (a new number each year). This PIN number will be added to your tax return to verify your identity to the IRS, and will prevent anyone else from continuing to use your social security number on false claims.

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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Defining Unexpected Expenses

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.

 

 

Susan Taylor

Resources are important whether you are looking to rent your first apartment, pay your bills, buy your first home or send your child to college. There are many ways to save money to reach your goals, and hopefully ISU Money Tip$ will be one of them. I enjoy traveling, needlework and am a novice gardener.

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Have You Reviewed Your Beneficiary List Recently?

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.

Susan Taylor

Resources are important whether you are looking to rent your first apartment, pay your bills, buy your first home or send your child to college. There are many ways to save money to reach your goals, and hopefully ISU Money Tip$ will be one of them. I enjoy traveling, needlework and am a novice gardener.

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