Be Aware of Hurricane Matthew Charity Scams


Natural disasters are awful. They bring out human empathy and the need to help in some way. Often, helping out means to donate money to charitable organizations that assist those in need after events such as hurricanes. Unfortunately, cyber criminals pounce on this and often send out phishing attacks in the aftermath hoping to lure people into giving money to their bogus causes. The United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) has issued an alert warning users to “remain vigilant for malicious cyber activity seeking to capitalize on interest in Hurricane Matthew.”

It’s always important to use caution when opening attachments and links in email messages that arrive unexpectedly. Even if it appears that the sender is familiar, that is not always the case. It is not difficult for cyber criminals to imitate someone from your address book or otherwise these days. Take a moment to confirm with the sender that it is indeed legitimate before taking action.

Also make sure that anti-virus software is installed on every computer and device used to connect to the Internet. Keep these updated at all times with the latest security files.  Also be sure to install all critical and security patches and updates as soon as they are made available to you. This doesn’t apply to computers only, but also to any mobile devices used. Mobile malware is on the rise. In fact, over the first half of this year, smartphone malware infections rose by 96% over the previous six months according to Nokia’s Threat Intelligence Report.

Enable the anti-phishing feature of the browsers you use. This is a common feature in most of the well-known browsers.

It’s not just email that scammers use to phish. Often big events are used to grab your attention on social media such as Facebook. It may show up as an advertisement or even on your feed as if it was sent or authorized by one of your “friends.” Don’t trust these blindly. Again, do some research to make sure before clicking on them or giving money to any charity advertised in such ways.

If you want to donate money to such causes, take some time to follow a few simple guidelines before giving money to any of them:

  • If you get an unsolicited phone call or email message, it’s best to find out the name of the organization and do independent research before giving money. Don’t provide any information to someone who calls you out of the blue.
  • Don’t wire money or provides funds in the form of a pre-paid card or gift card. Scammers often ask for this and it should always raise red flags.
  • Call the organization and ask if the solicitor is authorized to ask for donations on its behalf.
  • Do some research on the charity before giving money. Look on websites that provide information on various charities and complaints about them so that you don’t give up cash to scammers.

If you have been or suspect you may have been the victim of a charity scam, contact the FTC and report it. Information can be found on the FTC Complaint Assistant page of the FTC’s website.

© Copyright 2016 Stickley on Security

Think Twice About Spending That Bonus


When is a bonus not a bonus? When you fail to think about what that extra income will mean to your overall finances.

I don’t mean to spoil the fun. Bonuses, particularly if they recognize your great performance during the year, are rewarding in a number of ways beyond money. It means your work is being noticed and you might rise higher in the organization – always a good thing.

However, in many organizations, bonus compensation has developed and transformed to a new entity, very different from how it was a generation ago. So before you book your dream trip to an exotic beachfront resort, take a closer look.

According to human resources and management consulting firm Aon Hewitt, (, some 90 percent of employers have either implemented or are considering something called “variable pay systems” that mean a greater reliance on “incentives, bonuses and cash awards,” to reward high-performing employees.

Employers are signing on because it helps them slow the growth of overall payroll, which is the biggest fixed cost in any business. It also offers a way to boost performance among workers at all levels.

What do one-time bonuses or a conversion to a variable-pay system mean for you? Potentially, this could result in changes to your tax situation, the overall value of your employer- and government-based benefits and therefore, your long-term financial picture. Here are some questions to ask:

What kind of bonus is it? Make sure you understand whether a bonus is a one-time award or a shift to an ongoing bonus system. This is a money and a career question. If you are going to be evaluated under new benchmarks and measurements for work you’ve done every day, you should fully understand these new guidelines and how you can maximize them in your best interest.

Get qualified advice. A one-time bonus or a long-term change in the way you’re being compensated is an important financial event. Consider speaking with a qualified financial planner or tax expert about any bonus news you receive and see how they think you should handle the money. Keep in mind that the Internal Revenue Service generally considers bonuses as supplemental wages that can be taxed at a higher rate. Check IRS Publication 15 for more detail. Keep in mind that your salary level – not extra money you get from bonuses or other incentives – provides the basis for calculating your employee benefits and what a lender might offer for mortgages or other credit. In some cases, it might be better to save or invest that bonus than to spend it outright.

Ask questions. Read any paperwork that accompanies your bonus information, write down questions and take them to your employer’s designated human resource representative or manager directly.

Be practical, but don’t forget the fun. Consider treating your bonus like your paycheck – evaluate what essential needs should to be addressed first and figure out what you can spend for fun.

Make a change if you need to. As more employers adopt variable pay and performance grading systems, consider issues beyond the money. For example, if you are doing work you love, will meeting new performance targets change how you feel about your job? Are you ready to take on the challenges of a workplace where you’re graded and evaluated in a different way than you are used to? In some environments, new employee compensation methods can be liberating and financially rewarding; in others, it can make it tougher to stay. See where you stand, and if changing jobs might be worthwhile, consider looking for a better opportunity (

Bottom line: The way workers are being paid is changing. It’s important to understand how one-time or annual bonuses might affect your long-term finances.


By Nathaniel Sillin

Five proven tips to affording your first mortgage

mortgageIf you’re considering buying your first home, you’ve probably heard a lot of advice from multiple people (whether or not you asked for it). So how do you know what tips to trust? To help you get the best deal on your mortgage, here are six pointers that have been proven to help buyers purchase their first home:

1. Get “down-payment ready” It’s a good idea to make a 20% down payment on your mortgage if you want to start building equity right away (although most lenders will accept less). Either way, begin bulking up your savings now.

2. Boost your creditworthiness Whether or not you’re approved for a mortgage depends largely on your credit profile. Before you apply, reduce large balances and pay more than the minimum every month on credit cards. You’ll likely improve your credit score and demonstrate that you handle credit responsibly.

3. Know your loans A fixed-rate mortgage might be ideal if you plan to grow your family or stay in one house for 30 years. However, buyers who opt for an adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) will often pay less in the beginning of the loan, and may want the flexibility to move within the next 10 years. Know your options and choose the best one for your future.

4. Get professional guidance If you want to buy but aren’t sure how a monthly mortgage payment will fit into your budget, certified financial counselors can help. They’ll break down your budget to make sure you’re purchase-ready.

5. Remember the other costs Of course, a mortgage isn’t the only cost you have to consider. Homeowners have to pay insurance, property taxes, HOA fees and more. Make sure you’re prepared for the total price of homeownership.

A crash course to fixing your credit


A low credit score isn’t a death sentence for your financial future. While it may complicate loan applications and other money matters in the short term, boosting your score is certainly possible… and we can help you sort it out! Here’s a quick guide to begin re-building your credit—today.

Make on-time payments The first step to fixing your credit is also the easiest. If you don’t already, start making on-time payments for your credit cards every month. Consecutive late payments will negatively impact your score, but you can turn the trend around by remembering to pay before the deadline. It may take several months of being on time, but eventually your score will improve.

Avoid multiple hard inquiries Hard credit inquiries occur when you apply for a credit card or loan (soft inquires, by contrast, happen as a part of background checks or preapprovals, and don’t affect your score). If you apply for several loans or cards at once, lenders will likely suspect that you can’t qualify. Not only will you be unable to get the credit you need, your credit score will take a hit.

Re-evaluate your budget As an alternative to applying for more credit to get the money you need, take a hard look at your budget instead. Figure out ways to cut back on spending, and see if you can make bigger payments to your cards or loans every month. If the money just isn’t available, can you pick up a part-time job to supplement your income? Larger payments will reduce your debt (and related fees) more quickly, and lower your credit card utilization. As a result, your credit score will improve over time.

Stay Warm, Save Energy and Lower Your Utility Bill This Winter


Do you turn the thermostat a notch higher or put on an extra sweater when it gets cold? It’s a common household debate as family members try to maintain a balance between comfort and savings during the winter. It’s also a debate you may be able to put to rest by investing in energy-saving maintenance and upgrades.

You can start with a home energy audit, an inspection that focuses on finding areas where your home wastes energy. Professional auditors can cost $300 to $800 depending on the type of audit, but you could consider tackling an audit and some of the changes yourself. Doing so could make your home more comfortable, lower your ecological footprint and save energy and money.

See if you qualify for state-funded weatherization assistance. Look into state-based financial assistance programs before going at it alone. Contact your state’s weatherization agency to review eligibility guidelines, find a local service provider and start an application. If approved, you could receive a professional energy audit and improvements. On average, about $4,000 worth of energy saving-related work was completed over one or two days for the 2015 program year.

If you can’t or don’t want to pay for a professional audit and don’t qualify for assistance, consider conducting a do-it-yourself (DIY) audit.

A DIY energy audit can help you identify ways to save money and stay warm. A thorough inspection of your home can uncover opportunities for improvement, and you be able to rent an infrared camera to help you spot trouble areas. Look over the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s guide to conducting a DIY home energy audit, and create a log of your findings as you go. Keep in mind, where you live can impact what fixes you want to focus on, the type and amount of insulation you’ll need and even your heating system.

Typical trouble spots and simple solutions. The following are common trouble spots and potential improvement you might want to make.

Keep the cold outside air out. The DOE estimates that you can save 5 to as much as 30 percent on your energy bill by just reducing drafts. Check for leaks around your doors, windows, plumbing, cabinets and other potential outlets. Also look for dirty spots on your wall, ceiling and floors as that could indicate air or moisture is getting in. Use foam sealant to fill in large gaps you find and caulking or weather stripping for smaller leaks. Covering drafty windows and doorways with storm windows or doors could also be a worthwhile investment.

Consider adding more insulation. The insulation in your walls and ceiling may not meet today’s recommendations. Reinsulating or supplementing what you have could help your home stay warm, or cool, and might not be as difficult as you imagine in easy-to-access attics or basements. However, you may want to check with a professional who can recommend what type of insulation to use and warn you of potential ventilation, fire or moisture hazards during and after installation.

Regularly inspect your heating systems. Heating systems can cost thousands of dollars to replace. While it may not be a DIY job, you may be able to prolong your system’s life by hiring a professional HVAC contractor to inspect and tune up your system before each winter. Some utilities also offer free in-home inspections of gas appliances. A job you can take on is checking the air filter and replacing it to the manufacturer’s specifications or when it looks dirty. You could also check for, and seal, holes, leaks and poor connections in the ducts.

Weigh the costs and benefits before investing your time or money in a winterization project. Some of the items on your checklist could be no-brainers, but others might require more thought.

Bottom line: A home energy audit can help you identify ways to improve your energy efficiency and make your home more comfortable. Whether you hire professionals, apply for government assistance or do it yourself, preparing before winter hits means you can enjoy a warm home without stressing over the energy bill.

By Nathaniel Sillin

Make Sure Every Dollar You Give to Charity Counts


Deciding to make a charitable contribution can arise from a desire to help others, a passionate commitment to a cause or the aim to give back to a group that once helped you or a loved one. Choosing which organizations you want to support can be difficult. There are over a million public charities in the United States according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, and every dollar you give to Charity A is a dollar you might not be able to match for Charity B.

Whether it’s a friend’s charity run or supporting an animal rescue, often the decision to give comes down to a mix of internal and external factors. You have to determine which causes are most important to you, and with outside help you can compare how effective various charities are at using their funding.

Many non-profits do incredible work, but it’s always smart to verify their claims. You can start your due diligence by double checking an organization’s tax-exempt status using the Internal Revenue Service’s (IRS) Exempt Organizations Select Check Tool. Once you verify its non-profit status, you want to make sure it’s well run and makes a significant impact. There are several non-profits that evaluate and rate charities. You can find their guidance online and use it compare charities and inform your gifting.

Sometimes a specific event rather than a general cause can spur you into action. When this happens, if you want to be sure that your money goes to support that particular cause you might want to narrow your search to charities that let you specify how your donation will be used. Otherwise, your money might not directly support those affected by the crisis.

Donating to a non-profit with effective programs and processes is the way to go if you’re trying to help as many people as possible, but you can also make contributions to individuals or families through a crowd-funding website. There’s something special about knowing exactly who and how you’re helping, and they’ll appreciate the aid from a stranger. Similarly, you can help entrepreneurs by making a microfinance loan through a non-profit. You can relend the money you’re paid back to continue supporting small businesses.

If you’re looking for ways to increase your contribution, ask your employer if it has a matching program. Some companies will double, or even triple, your gift to select nonprofits. If your company doesn’t offer such a program, you could speak to your human resources department or boss about establishing one.

Third-parties also fund matching campaigns for charities. You can ask a charity if there’s a campaign running and make sure your donation qualifies. Unless there’s a pressing reason to make a donation today, you may want to put your money aside and wait until a matching campaign starts.

You might be able to increase your financial impact without outside help if you can claim a tax deduction for your donation. Calculate your tax savings each year and put the money back into your charity fund. Donated-related deductions can sometimes be confusing, and you may want to check with a tax professional or look online for tips from the IRS.

Your charitable gift could be the start of a legacy of giving among your family. By making donations a regular event during your children’s formative years, you’re establishing charitable giving as a family value that they can take into their adult lives. To engage children, make a donation to support a child’s favorite cause and show them how the money makes a difference. For example, you could follow up a donation to a non-profit animal rescue with a visit to the shelter to see how the money helps the staff take care of the animals.

Bottom line. Making a donation is one way to support a cause you believe in and ensure your gift has a meaningful impact. You can do this by having money available when it’s needed, donating to worthwhile charities, looking for ways to increase your financial impact and passing on a legacy of giving.

By Nathaniel Sillin