Homeland Security Secretary Lists Phishing as Top Threat

Experts are often asked what is the biggest threat to cyber security and many answers may be given. If you ask the Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, you will hear something that may surprise you. Sure, if you hook up any device to the Internet, it is likely that someone will start attacking immediately with something for various reasons. But to Johnson, the biggest threat is good old reliable phishing.

Why is this? Because it’s tried and true. It is what catches out many with sometimes very painful results. In fact, it is how hackers were able to leak information from the Hillary Clinton campaign. It’s how Sony Pictures was so famously thrust into the cyber security spotlight, how the Target breach occurred, and how the “bad guys” ended up acquiring very sensitive information on over 21 million people in the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) incident.

It is increasingly critical that everyone knows how to determine if an email message is indeed phishing. It’s not so easy to just look at it and make that call anymore; we will give you that. However, it isn’t impossible either. Most of the time, we can rely on our own intuition. If whatever the message is asking or claiming seems “phishy” or just sounds too good to be true, it is. It really is that simple.

Remember that if you receive an email that you are not expecting, regardless of who sent it, it should always be met with a bit of suspicion. And if it comes from a company like Google or your financial institution claiming something has changed or is amiss with your account, don’t click links or attachments to figure it out. Instead, log in directly to your account using a previously bookmarked link that you know to be safe or by typing the address of the site into the browser. You can see communications or check information that way and feel good about it.

If you are a business, always make sure your employees, staff, and contractors are educated on phishing. Homeland Security tests its people by sending phishing emails promising a big prize. The email asked them to click a link and if they did, there were instructions on where they could go to pick up their prize. When they got there, not only were they disappointed to not get their promised football game tickets, but they also got a lesson on cyber security.

While implementing security tools is also a good idea and well worth the money and effort to protect your home or office network, it should not be the only tool in the toolbox. Always include a cyber security training program for everyone that connects to the Internet. This means spending some time teaching kids and all new Internet users how to browse safely.

Cyber criminals are turning to phishing more often these days not to infiltrate networks, but to capitalize on the gullibility of the human race for a quick buck. Now that means getting ransomware onto those computers. In fact, according to security company PhishMe, more than 97% of the phishing emails they analyzed contain ransomware. So rather than paying up because some nefarious person has encrypted your data, keep current backups of your files. This will allow you to quickly put them back online without sacrificing your hard-earned cash or getting your company into the news for a breach.

© Copyright 2017 Stickley on Security

Planning a Home Remodel that Actually Pays Off

There was a time when contractors building McMansion-style home additions or Michelin-worthy kitchens were a regular sight in many neighborhoods – until around 2006, when the Great Recession began to take hold.

Here’s the good news: home improvements are starting to add value in a rising housing market. Here’s the bad news: you have to be very careful about the renovation or remodeling projects you select to avoid over-stretching your budget.

In general, completing successful home improvements comes down to two critical questions:

Will you get most of your money back when you sell your property? (The days of 100 percent-plus returns on renovations are over, at least for now.)

How will project costs affect your overall financial plan?

Here are questions to fuel your planning:

How long you plan to live in the home after the renovation. The Great Recession proved many homeowners didn’t recoup elaborate – or sometimes modest – improvement costs when selling their homes. Even in a recovering market, it’s good to be wary. For now, renovate for the long haul and your personal enjoyment, not overnight sale.

Neighborhood style and standards. We’ve all seen it – the oversized addition that dwarfs the rest of the houses on the block, the $50,000 kitchen upgrade in a small home where a spruce-up for $10,000 or less would do. It’s important to know how your tastes align with what is salable in your market (see Cost vs. Value, below).

Opportunistic buying and installation times for various projects. Take replacement windows, for example. Collect bids in mid-summer and recheck them in late fall — you’ll likely find significant savings on both windows and installation.

Available renovation tax credits on federal, state and local levels. Are there credits or tax incentives on structural equipment or appliances that can offset the cost of whatever you’re planning?
Potential effect on property taxes. Could an elaborate renovation actually turn off future buyers thanks to higher maintenance costs and property taxes?

Intelligence on recent purchase prices and home features. Smart homeowners keep an eye on recent home sale prices in the neighborhood and the features – or lack of them – that made the transaction.

For more detailed information, seek knowledge on a more local level:

Get to know your neighbors. If your neighbors have done home improvements inside and out, politely ask if they’ll share their story.

Befriend a broker. Real estate brokers and agents are happiest when they’re closing deals, but they like to build long-term relationships, too. The best brokers are happy to share neighborhood renovation value intelligence in exchange for a house tour. They can’t sell a house filled with overpriced improvements.

Before major projects, consider a home inspector. A home inspector’s job is to determine if the structural and mechanical aspects of a property are up to code. If a home hasn’t had a structural or mechanical upgrade for many years, professional inspection may detect trouble spots and intermediate upgrades that could be far more valuable than cosmetic work.

Talk to a tax professional. Federal and state tax credits and deductions may be available as part of any project you do. The IRS has a current summary (http://www.irs.gov/uac/Newsroom/Energy-Efficient-Home-Improvements-Can-Lower-Your-Taxes) of 2014 energy credits and related resources.

Check your credit reports and scores. If you need to borrow to complete a project, it’s a good idea to check your credit reports and current credit score to determine whether you’ll qualify for a loan. You have the right to get all three of your credit reports – from Experian, TransUnion and Equifax – once a year for free. You can do so by ordering directly from AnnualCreditReport.com.

Talk to a financial planner. Any home improvement project is potentially major when compared to what you earn or have in savings. A certified financial planner can help you evaluate potential projects against the competing financial goals in your life like saving for retirement and your children’s college tuition.

Figure out what you can do yourself. Whether it’s painting, landscaping, carpentry or electrical work, helping with a few DIY finishing touches on a home improvement project can save money. Just make sure you have the time and skill to pitch in.

Bottom line: Approach a home renovation as you would any other major financial decision – do your homework and see how it fits into your overall financial plan.

 

By Jason Alderman

When Retiring Together Doesn’t Make Sense

 

Back when people from the Baby Boomer generation were first planning their lives together, most married couples looked forward to working hard for a few decades, buying a house, raising a family and then retiring together while they still had enough money and energy to travel and pursue favorite hobbies.

Some couples do manage to pull this off and thrive; but for many others, any of a host of obstacles can block their ability to retire at the same time. For example:

  • Thanks to periods of unemployment, home-value decline or 401(k) account loss suffered during the Great Recession, many couples simply don’t have enough money to retire together comfortably.
  • If there’s a significant age difference, one spouse may not have accumulated enough Social Security credits to qualify for a benefit by the time the other is ready to retire.
  • Women often worry that the couple hasn’t saved enough since they’re statistically likely to survive their spouses – often for a decade or more.
  • One spouse must continue working to supply employer-provided medical coverage until both reach Medicare eligibility age (65 in most cases).
  • One spouse is just hitting his or her stride, career-wise, and isn’t ready to slow down.

Among couples who have managed to save enough to retire together, when it comes time to pull the trigger many realize they haven’t fully agreed on where or how to retire; or they discover that their wishes have diverged over the years. This can put tremendous strain on a marriage if you’re not willing to compromise and talk things through.

Long before you actually retire, ask yourselves:

  • Should we downsize to a smaller dwelling or even move to a retirement community?
  • Sell the house, buy a trailer and live like nomads for a few years?
  • Move to a warmer climate or to be nearer our grandchildren?
  • Move to a state with lower taxes or cost of living?
  • Start a small side business to keep money rolling in?
  • Are we finished supporting our children financially?

Even before asking those tough questions, you already should have begun estimating your retirement income needs. Social Security has a helpful online Retirement Estimator that can help ( www.ssa.gov/estimator). After you’ve explored various retirement scenarios, consider hiring a financial planner to help work out an investment and savings game plan, or to at least review the one you’ve devised.

Along with the financial impact retirement will have on your marriage, keep in mind that this may be the first time that you’ve been together, day in and day out. Many people are so consumed by their jobs that they haven’t taken time to develop outside interests and hobbies. Well before retirement, you and your spouse should start exploring activities and networks of friends you can enjoy, both together and independently. Consider things like volunteer work, hobbies, athletic activities or even part-time employment if you miss the workplace interaction and need the money.

And finally, if your plan is to have one spouse continue working for a while, try living on only that one salary for a few months before retiring as an experiment. This will give you an inkling of how well you’ll do financially and whether you might both need to keep working to amass more savings.

 

By Jason Alderman

Some Couples Invest in Their Future in Ways Other Than a Diamond Ring

What does an engagement ring look like? For many people, my wife included, the answer is a diamond ring. While that’s a concept that didn’t became widely accepted until the diamond industry’s marketing campaigns in the mid-1900s, it’s one that holds strong today. However, some couples are going in an alternative direction. The intention isn’t to be cheap, but rather to use the savings to make a different kind of meaningful investment in their future together.

When and how a proposal happens can be a surprise, but hopefully, the answer won’t be. That is likely doubly true if the question is popped without a diamond engagement ring, or perhaps without a ring at all. As always in a relationship, communication is key. While some people may be excited by the idea, it could be a deal breaker for others.

What will a meaningful investment look like to the both of you? A friend of mine recently shared with me the story of how he proposed to his now wife, and the decision to forgo an engagement ring altogether.

When they first started discussing marriage and engagement rings, she said she’d rather put the money towards a down payment because starting a home together was more meaningful to her than a ring. He didn’t ask right away, but when he did take a knee, ringless, and ask her to marry him – clearly she said yes. Today they live in the home the savings helped buy, wear only wedding bands and he says neither of them regrets the decision.

A down payment might not make sense for you, but there are other ways to invest in your future together. For some couples, paying down debts or saving for their wedding so that they don’t go into debt might be a better fit. Or, you might want to start a travel or honeymoon fund.

Consider your options if you want to buy a ring. Understandably, the idea of proposing without an engagement ring isn’t for everyone, and there is a middle ground. A less expensive engagement ring with the savings going towards your shared goal.

Here are few options you could discuss with your significant other:

Alternative stones. There are a variety of alternative precious and semi-precious stones you could pick for the ring. Matching a stone’s color to the person’s eyes or choosing their birthstone could imbue the ring with a personal touch. However, be careful about picking a “soft” gem that could be easily scratched if it’s worn daily.
Diamond look-alikes. You could choose a synthetic diamond or a stone that looks similar to a diamond but costs much less, such as a cubic zirconia. Some of the man-made and alternative options can look more brilliant than genuine diamonds, and you don’t need to worry about whether or not the stone is conflict-free.
A solid band. While it won’t have the same flash as a ring with a large gemstone, choosing a smaller diamond or solid metal band with a symbolic meaning could be just as meaningful to your partner.
Family heirlooms can also make for memorable engagement rings and often there isn’t a price tag attached (although a lengthy discussion might be in order). A vintage ring could appeal to some people’s style, or the center stone could be reset in a modern band. In either case, there’s something special about wearing a gemstone that’s been in one of your families for generations.

Decide on your priorities as a couple and act accordingly. According to The Knot’s 2015 Real Weddings Study, an average of $5,871 was spent on engagement rings. For some, there’s no better way to spend money. After all, it’s a ring that’s going to be worn for decades.

However, you can discuss engagement ring expectations before you ask someone to marry you. If a diamond isn’t particularly important, an alternative ring or gemstone, or no ring at all, can be an equally timeless and beautiful gesture of love when you both know the money is going to an important step in your future together.

By Nathaniel Sillin

Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express May Have Been Breached; Check Your Charges

InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) reported recently that they are investigating a possible data breach at some of their brands. Specifically affected are Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express locations, but Crowne Plaza, Staybridge Suites, and Candlewood Suites may also be included. It isn’t known what specific details were accessed, but payment card information of some kind is part of this.

It is advised that anyone using a payment card at the hotels or at retail locations including restaurants in any IHG property be especially diligent at checking payment card statements. If anything looks suspicious, report it right away to the card issuer. While consumers have limited responsibility with regard to fraudulent charges on their cards, it is still up to them to report suspicious charges within a reasonable amount of time. That typically means within 30 days. The sooner these are resolved, the less expensive for the consumer as well as the financial institutions.

Usually breaches like this happen when malware is installed on the point-of-sale (POS) machines in the retail locations. That can happen several ways:

Someone clicks a phishing link or opens an attachment with malware included in it.

A system is not updated with the latest patches and a cyber criminal takes advantage of a vulnerability to get inside the network.

A third party gets access to administrator login credentials.
POS malware has been responsible for many breaches lately included the infamous Target breach, as well as Home Depot. More recently this group included CiCis Pizza, Eddie Bauer, Wendy’s, and Noodles & Company. Other hotel chains that have been hit with it recently include, HEI Hotels, which runs many Omni, Marriott, and Hyatt locations as well as other chains, Hilton, Starwood, and Trump Hotels.

IHG has issued a statement that they are committed to quickly resolving this matter and are continuing to work with the payment card networks. They also have hired a top outside security firm to help investigate.

 

© Copyright 2017 Stickley on Security

How to Cope With a Changing Payday Cycle

A change in a payday cycle can throw a real monkey wrench into your financial planning. Learning to make money last for an entire month or to meet all your expenses on time with staggered paychecks can be a challenge. Here are some ways to alter your money management style if you are struggling with adjusting to a more or a less frequent paycheck.

First things first: Examine your spending plan
No matter whether you get paid once a month, twice a month, or every two weeks, it all comes down to having a plan for your money. Once you know where your money should be going over the course of a month, it becomes a lot easier to figure out the timing aspect. So begin by tracking your income and expenses and creating a spending plan. A spending plan worksheet, online money tracker or mobile app can help you get started out. A good spending plan not only allows you to meet your expenses, but also helps you save for your goals and know how many “treat yourself” expenses you can afford.

Examine how you think about your paycheck
When you get a paycheck, do you already think about all the ways you can spend it? Or do you find yourself just hoping the money will last until the next check comes? If so, you may want to re-examine how you think about your paychecks. Once you have a spending plan, the next step is figuring out what you want to achieve with your money. Write down your short-term, mid-term and long-term financial goals and how much money they require. Next, figure out what you have in your savings, the pay periods or months until the target date, and the savings you’ll need per pay period or per month to achieve your goal. You can make your own worksheet or use a financial goals worksheet. Instead of just trying to make the money last or cover your expenses, think of your paycheck as a way to get you closer to achieving those goals. Goal-setting resources online, such as the Dream It and Achieve It mini-site, can help guide you in getting your own plan in place.

Here are some techniques for putting that paycheck to work for you:

The calendar approach
One potentially difficult aspect of multiple paychecks in a month is having bills due on different dates and not having a lump sum at the beginning of the month to divide among the bills. To combat this problem, open a calendar and record all your bills’ due dates for next month. Then you can use the timing of the bills to determine which bills will be paid with which paycheck. It is best to try to even out the total amount due for the bills for each paycheck. If it seems like too many bills might be falling in the period for one of your paychecks, try to pay some early in order to spread them out to make them more manageable.

The envelope system
Before computers, many families used paper envelopes with cash in them to separate out the money that would be going to particular bills. The goal is to control spending by setting aside budgeted amounts for each category of bills into separate envelopes. With this method you would have an envelope labeled for each bill like your rent, insurance, utilities, etc. When a need arises to spend money, you use the money out of the appropriate envelope. While you could still do that if you feel most comfortable with it, for many people it is best to not have large sums of cash lying around the house.

A more secure option would be to use different accounts with your financial institution or prepaid debit cards to assign money to certain bills. You can even have direct deposit into the separate accounts. However you decide to set up the accounts, the key is to have one account set up specifically for bill payment money. And if you have already done a spending plan, you should have a pretty good idea how much money you will have to pay those bills as well as your other expenses.

If you have multiple monthly paychecks and don’t have enough money in the first one to cover all your bills, you can use a “half-and-half” approach. First figure out the total amount you pay on bills each month. You can automatically have half of that total put into your “bills” account with the first check and then the second half put in when your second paycheck comes. If you get paid weekly, you could put in approximately a quarter of the amount each pay period. If you want to make it even easier, set up automatic payments of the bills from your dedicated account.

The credit card method
The Credit CARD Act of 2009 dictated that credit cards now must have a 21-day grace period. In other words, you have 21 days to pay off any charges you made on the card before interest can be added to the bill. If you are having trouble coming up with the money to pay a certain bill by the due date, putting the charge on a credit card will buy you some time. However, this approach takes discipline. You must pay off the credit card balance within the grace period or, in the final analysis, you will end up paying more for the bill because of the interest charges. It is also vital to avoid using the credit card to pay for non-necessities. When deciding which credit card to use to pay a bill make sure to consider the fees. Compare cards to find the right fit for you. Make sure to compare the Annual Percentage Rate, grace period, credit limit, annual fee, and late fee. Or use a Credit Card Search Checklist worksheet to help you make the comparison.

The cushion
This is the easiest technique to manage once you get it going, but it can also be the toughest to start. The concept is to get enough money in the account you pay bills with to not have to worry about potentially overdrawing. Ideally, you would want to have at least half your total monthly living expenses as a floating balance in the account you use to pay bills. That way, if you get multiple paychecks each month, you should have enough to cover your bills for the month when you get your first paycheck. Then you don’t have to stress about making it to the next paycheck. However, this can be easier said than done if you are living paycheck-to-paycheck. But when you do your spending plan, make a list of items you could eliminate or cut back on for 1-2 months. By making some small sacrifices for a few weeks, you could set yourself up for years of less worry.

Avoid salary advance or “payday” loans
While the idea of getting money based only on a promise to pay in a few days or weeks can sound attractive, be aware of the consequences of having to pay extra money to get caught up on bills. Needing salary advance loans more than once a year is generally considered a sign that your personal financial plan needs some adjustments to create more savings for unexpected expenses.

Try the above methods before turning to salary advance loans. If you find that none of these techniques work for you, contact your financial institution to see if they provide loans with relatively low interest and other terms that make them a better option than salary advance companies.

Switching to smaller paychecks more often or larger paychecks less often can take some adjustment. But developing a plan for your income will help you take the change in stride and may even lead to a better personal system for maximizing your money.

Revised January 2016.