Authorities Warn Not to Insert Found USB Drives Into Your Computers

USB thumb drive with hand holding on keyboard background

Those little data storage devices called USB or flash drives can really wreak a lot of havoc. They come in all shapes and sizes, different colors, and some even light up when they are inserted into a computer. They are also very intriguing when found lying around and that’s not good. In fact, these little devices have been found to harbor all kinds of malware that gets downloaded to the computers into which they are inserted and often, the user is none-the-wiser.

The police in the Australian State of Victoria recently warned the locals that malware-laden USB drives were being left in their mailboxes. They were found to install fraudulent media streaming service offers and do other harms.

The advice to thwart this type of attack is to never insert one of these devices into your computers unless you know specifically what is on it or that you put it there yourself. Never plug one in that you just find unexpectedly or lying around. If you suspect it may belong to someone you know or have information you need or want, take it to your IT department or a technical support professional and let them find out what it stores. They often have computers available for scanning such items so that malware is not unleashed onto the network or your computer.

Just because the above incident happened in Australia, it doesn’t mean it can’t or doesn’t happen anywhere. In fact, a security researcher demonstrated the dangers of inserting a random USB drive at the 2016 Black Hat Conference. She left nearly 300 of the little drives in various locations around the campus of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign just to see what would happen. The result was that almost half of those who found the drives actually inserted them into a computer and tried to open the file that was stored on it.

Jim Stickley of Stickley on Security was able to use a USB drive to download a file onto a locked Windows 10 computer in less than a minute. He did it as a demonstration to show how fast malware can get onto your computer. A criminal may not have those good intentions.

In yet another case, someone working for the Dutch chemical company DSM found an USB drive in the company parking lot.  That person did the right thing and took it to IT department where it was found to be a cyber espionage attempt. It included a keylogger that could steal user names and passwords. It then sent that information off to an external location.

© Copyright 2016 Stickley on Security

Graduated and On Your Own: Now What?


Fall is here and school is back in session but for many graduates, it’s out for good. If you’re a recent high school or college graduate, this might be the first time you’re on your own. Living away from home and paying for your own housing, food and other necessities can be a tough adjustment. But being on your own for the first time is a new and exciting experience and it offers a perfect opportunity to set yourself up for success.

Make sure you have the right bank account for you. A lot may have changed since you opened your account, so consider changing your account to find the best one for your needs. If you are still sharing a bank account with your parents, consider opening your own. Opening an account can be simple and it’s possible to do so online or over the phone – but you’ll need a minimum deposit amount and documentation like your Social Security Number. For helpful tips, see the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB) guide on opening a checking account.

Live within your means. As you begin your career it’s essential to have reliable income and use it responsibly. A good budgeting guideline to start with is the 50/20/30 rule. Allot 50 percent of your income to necessary costs like housing, 20 percent to financial goals like repaying student loans and 30 percent to spending money. Remember that this is a rule of thumb and you can adjust it to fit your needs. Never spend more than you have, and always pay your bills on time.

Figure out taxes. The most important thing to know about taxes is that you must pay them on time or request a six month extension. If you’ve missed the deadline, don’t ignore the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) – follow their guidelines for repayment. There are multiple ways to pay your taxes and you can download the IRS2Go mobile app to make payments. Check with your parents before filing: if they claim you as a dependent, you won’t be able to claim tax exemptions. Finally, check if you qualify for special exemptions like a student loan deduction.

Take charge of your student loans. First, confirm your loan status at the official Federal Student Aid website where you can also explore your payment options and estimate how long it will take to repay your loans. Always make the minimum payments on time, and if you’re having trouble paying off your loans, don’t ignore them. Contact your lender, explain your situation and pay as much as you can immediately while prioritizing paying off the rest.

Check up on your healthcare. Under the Affordable Care Act, you can stay on your parents’ plan until you’re 26. If you aren’t currently on your parents’ plan or wish to leave their plan, you have several options to explore. Under federal law, if you’re not covered by health insurance you must pay a fee on your next federal tax return. You can explore the different levels of coverage available and estimate how much a plan will cost you at, the federal healthcare website.

Get ready for retirement – yes, really. The younger you start saving, the more valuable your savings are. According to this Bankrate example, starting your savings at age 25 at $2,000 a year will yield a retirement account of $560,000 (assuming your earnings grow at 8 percent every year). But starting10 years later at age 35 will yield just $245,000 at retirement – less than half the money you’d have if you started saving ten years earlier. The earlier you start saving, the more money you’ll end up with – and if you take advantage of an employer-matched 401(k) fund, you can put away extra money for free.

Charge up your credit score. Building up credit as a young adult is important for big purchases down the road. Buying a house or purchasing a car are often significantly harder without a good credit score. It’s smart to start building good credit while your expenses are relatively small. For more information, the CFPB has a database of frequently asked questions with everything you need to know about credit cards and credit scores.

Bottom line: Though the transition from student to independent adult may feel overwhelming, you can take this opportunity to get your finances organized and prepare for working life. Building a strong financial foundation early on will help you worry less about your money and allow you to fully enjoy other new aspects of your life after college.

By Nathaniel Sillin

What College Students Should Learn About Money


As you prepare for a new year at college, managing your money may be the last thing on your mind. But, college is the perfect time to instill strong and healthy financial habits, such as budgeting and living within your means.

By starting on the right foot with good saving and spending habits, you’ll have a good chance to set yourself up for a life of financial success. Here are some ideas students – with the help of parents, relatives and the school’s financial aid office – can consider while taking the leap into living away from home.

Create a financial plan early on. Create a general financial plan for your college years right away, and a more detailed budget for the upcoming semester. You can start with estimated costs for tuition, fees, room and board from your school’s financial aid office and fill in the actual numbers once you know them.

Even with financial aid, most college students need to be frugal as they balance major expenses and a limited income from work or parental support. While you may need to take out student loans, the better you manage your personal and educational expenses the less you’ll have to borrow now, and repay later.

Adjust your budget as you go. Your focus should be school, but you can also take time to track your money and stick to your budget. A budget can be a tool and a learning opportunity, and particularly during your first few semesters, you’ll likely have to make adjustments as you learn to balance wants and needs. Try to stick with it and remember it’s okay to make changes (and an occasional mistake) as you go.

Parents can discuss how they manage their personal or family budget and offer suggestions for cutting expenses or finding work. College students may face many financial firsts, such as signing a rental agreement, purchasing insurance or applying for a loan, and parents can share their experiences and advice.

Make your budget add up. Learning how to roll with the punches and live within your means are timeless skills. You’ll have to balance academic obligations with a part- or full-time job to increase your income. But, there are often flexible on-campus jobs you can qualify for if you have a work-study grant as part of your financial aid package.

When it comes to saving, there are all sorts of ways to cut costs on necessities and indulgences. Consider the following three tactics almost any college student can use to spend less money.

  • Use student discounts. Dozens of stores offer students discounts, validated with an official ID, or a .edu email address, and you may be able to save 10 to 20 percent off your purchase. Ask store employees or check online before to see if a store offers a student discount before checking out.
  • Save on textbooks. Look for alternatives to buying new textbooks, such as renting textbooks, buying used books, purchasing or renting e-textbooks or using the library’s reference copies.
  • Mobilize your savings. If saving money is just one more thing you don’t want to think about, you can save your spare cash via your smartphone. Thinking about buying a car next summer or saving money for spring break? There are mobile apps that will calculate how much money you can afford to save at a given moment – whether that’s $20 or ten cents – and will save it for you. You could also set up an automatic weekly or monthly transfer to your savings account through your bank. Chances are you won’t miss the money, and you won’t spend it if you don’t see it in your checking account.

Make a practice of saving for the future. You’ll want to figure out the best way to use your savings. If you’ve taken out student loans, you could allocate some of the money to early loan payments.

Private and unsubsidized federal student loans accrue interest while you’re in school. Making a payment can help you avoid increasing your debt load and save you money on interest. Plus, unlike with some other types of loans, there’s no penalty for making early student loan payments.

Bottom line. College is an ideal time to instill healthy financial habits. Ask your parents or other relatives for guidance, discuss student loans and budgeting with your college’s financial aid office, learn a new skill online or attend a local personal finance workshop or seminar. While you set off on a series of firsts, take advantage of these resources to learn how to manage, save and wisely spend your money.

By Nathaniel Sillin


How to Tackle Your Grocery Bill


Food shopping can quickly take over your budget despite your best intentions. Perhaps it’s due to impulse purchases, unplanned shopping trips, food going bad or a combination of all three. If you’re looking for ways to save money while enjoying nutritious and delicious meals, consider these money-saving tactics.

Stick to your budget to save time and money. Look at your food budget before making a trip to the store. If you don’t have one yet, figure out your overall budget including food costs with a simple budget worksheet. Knowing how much you want to spend and actually spent can help you make informed decisions.

Plan out the week’s meals with your budget in mind. If you make dishes that rely on the same staples, you can save money by using leftovers to create a new dish. But mix things up to avoid boredom.

Make your trip to the grocery store even easier with a shopping list. Sticking to a list can help limit food waste and make it easy to get in and out of the grocery store. If you share food shopping duties with a spouse or partner, you can avoid double purchases by using grocery apps that let you create and sync shopping lists.

Stack different discounts and deals to rack up savings. Once you enter the grocery store, it’s time to put your plan into action. Plan for the occasional indulgence and let yourself make impulse purchases occasionally, but try to stick to the list.

You can also often save money at grocery stores by joining the store’s loyalty program. Members get exclusive discounts, and some programs offer additional savings at partner stores. Check your membership account online or with the app before checking out, as some programs have electronic coupons that you need to “clip” to get the savings.

One way to increase your grocery budget is to use one, or several, of the apps that give you cash back when you buy groceries. Sometimes you can even earn cash back on general purchases like a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk. Depending on the app and food, you may need to verify the purchase by scanning the barcode and sending a picture of your receipt.

The store you choose can also significantly impact how much you’ll spend.

Strategically plan your shopping route. Planning your grocery shopping after reviewing your local stores’ weekly sales and coupons can help you determine what to buy and where. Also take the time to explore your neighborhood stores, as one grocer may frequently have high-quality yet inexpensive produce while another might have a great butcher.

No matter where you shop, be mindful of how the store’s design can entice you to make purchases. The outside ring is often where you’ll find the fewest processed foods, however you might notice that you need to walk to the back of the store to grab milk or eggs. The store hopes you’ll be tempted by something you see along the way.

Sticking to your list, refraining from walking through an aisle unless you need to and remembering that the eye-level products aren’t necessarily the best bang for your buck can help you avoid these traps.

Stick to inexpensive foods. Consider choosing store-brand rather than name-brand products as they’re often cheaper, but not necessarily lower quality. You may also want to consider changing what you buy. Filet mignon can be delicious, but so can cheaper cuts of meat and there’s a lot of advice online for how to best prepare them. Staples, such as rice, beans and canned or frozen goods are also a low-cost way to supplement meals.

Bottom line. Buying food is a necessity, but you don’t have to overspend to keep a well-stocked fridge and pantry. By planning your meals and grocery trips, using the money-saving tactics above and carefully choosing where you shop, you can save time and money – and cook up something delicious.

By Nathaniel Sillin

Fintech is Changing Money Management for the Better


Are you stressed about managing your money? Most of us are at one time or another. Whether you’re trying to track your spending or invest spare change, fintech (financial technology) is here to ease your money worries. That’s the promise of the entrepreneurs and engineers working in one of Silicon Valley’s fastest growing industries.

Five Ways Fintech Can Help

Here are just a few examples of how fintech services could help you with your personal finances.

Budgeting easily and efficiently. There are budgeting apps that sync with your financial accounts to let you track your spending and savings in real time. You can even track spending in different categories, receive notifications when you exceed your budget and analyze the data to see where you spend most of your paycheck.

Saving money automatically. Apps can make it easy to grow your savings. Some services use algorithms to calculate how much you can afford to save, and then automatically transfer the money to your savings account.

Investing with minimal effort. Technology has made investing straightforward and inexpensive. Robo advisors are computerized investment management services that offer low fees, a simple setup and customized investment strategies. Using a robo advisor, you can let a computer create and manage your investment portfolio with just a few clicks.

Getting paid back quickly. Say goodbye to post-meal negotiation as you and your friends try to split the check. Mobile apps linked to checking accounts let you send and receive money instantaneously.

Comparing loan offers. There are online services that allow you to enter your information once and receive loan offers from competing lenders. The shopping tools let you compare interest rates and terms, which could save you money over the lifetime of the loan.

You might also be benefiting from fintech developments without realizing it. For example, new technology could be powering your bank’s online chat service or suspicious activity alerts.

Keeping Your Finances and Information Secure

Even if a new app or service seems reputable, it’s important to take steps to safeguard your finances and personal information.

Always research an app or service. Search the name of the app or company and look for reviews. Positive reviews by major media outlets are usually a good sign that the service is considered reliable.

Improve your password security. Password protection is an important aspect of online security. Don’t use the same password for two accounts, financial or other, and try to use two-factor authentication, meaning someone can’t log in with your password alone.

Use biometric authentication. Some banks offer biometric authentication that you can use to access your account from your phone. Rather than type in a password, the phone’s camera or microphone can verify your identity with your fingerprint, eye, face or voice.

Enable location-based alerts. Geolocation tracking can add an extra layer of security to your account. With your permission, banks can use GPS data from your smartphone to help verify that you’re with your card when it’s used for a purchase.

Use several accounts. Keeping your assets in several accounts can help limit your risk. Even if one account is attacked, you’ll have access to your other money while the financial institution looks into the matter and makes you whole.

Bottom Line: Fintech is changing the way people save, spend, borrow and manage their money. Though there are important security risks to consider, these new innovative and intuitive services offer something for everyone.

By Nathaniel Sillin

Preparing to Become a Caregiver


Becoming a caregiver for an aging relative is a profound expression of love. You may find that you will begin to take on many of the responsibilities they might have had while raising you. Like raising a family, being a caretaker can be physically, emotionally and financially challenging but it is also extremely rewarding. It’s a responsibility that millions of people take on each year out of love for their families.

Whether you are preparing to care for a parent or another relative, understanding and preparing for the financial implications can help you provide the best care possible.

Start the discussion with your family

Whether you think you’ll provide direct care, decide to hire a caregiver, or both, you can work with your family members, including the relative in question, to create a plan.

Starting the conversation early can help you all reach conclusions without pressure to make a quick decision. You may want to cover the types of care that are available and learn which your parent prefers. For example, does he or she want to stay at home for as long as possible or prefer to live in an assisted-living home or elderly community?

You should discuss who’ll be responsible for managing personal, financial and medical affairs if your parent can’t handle those responsibilities anymore. Beyond making a verbal agreement, a parent can give someone legal authority by signing durable power of attorney agreements, which keep the delegation of decision-making authority intact even if your parent becomes incapacitated. There are two durable powers of attorneys, one for medical-related decisions, and a second for legal, personal and financial decisions.

Your parents might also want to execute a living will, also known as an advance directive. It has instructions for the medical treatments they want, or don’t want, if they are unable to communicate.

Determine what resources are available to your parent

Your financial situation may depend in part on your parent’s finances and the assistance that’s available to him or her from outside sources. Creating a list of these resources ahead of time can help you all plan for the future.
Your parent’s finances. Together with your parent, and possibly with the assistance of a financial planner, you can create a list of your parent’s current financial assets and future income.
Government and non-profit programs. Medicare and Veteran Affairs benefits may be available for those that are 65 or older. Medicaid, a joint federal and state program, often provides benefits to those with limited income, although the qualifications and benefits can vary by state. There are also non-profit organizations that provide helpful services to the elderly.
Family assistance. Whether it’s unpaid care or financial assistance, also take into account the family’s contribution to your parent’s care. Call a family meeting with your parent, siblings and extended family to discuss how you’ll take care of each other.
Professional support. You could hire an outside expert as well. A quick internet search may turn up organizations that specialize in working with families and elderly family members to plan for the future.

After gathering this information, you’ll have a better understanding of where the caregiving funds will come from and how they can be used. You may also discover gaps in coverage that you may want to fill in on your own.

Look for tax savings while paying for care

As an adult child and caregiver, there may be ways to structure an arrangement to improve your parent’s, and your own, financial situation.

Working with a tax professional, you may find there are ways to use the tax laws to maximize your parent’s money. For example, if your mother has gifted you money, you could then use it to pay for her medical expenses. If you’re able to claim the expenses as a deduction, you could put your tax savings back into her “medical care” fund. You might also be able to claim medical expenses you paid on behalf of your parent, which could include supplies and at-home caretaking, as an itemized deduction.

Find the best services you can afford

There are many different types of programs available, and someone might move back and forth from one facility or service to another as their health and preferences change.
Home care. Non-healthcare related assistance, such as buying groceries, preparing meals, cleaning the home, helping with bathing and other day-to-day tasks.
Home health care. At-home health-related support, including services from a physical therapist, nurse or doctor.
Assisted living. Assisted living homes are non-healthcare providing facilities that may provide supervision, a social environment and personal care services.
Skilled nursing home. A care facility designed to deliver nursing or rehabilitation services.

Your parent’s location can impact which option makes the most sense, and you can research and discuss the pros and cons of your parent moving. For example, some states have Medicaid waiver programs that allow Medicaid recipients to receive care in their home or community rather than in a nursing home or long-term care facility. Also, a parent that lives near or with a relative might only require part-time outside care.

Bottom line: As you prepare to take care of aging parents, work with them to understand their wishes, needs and financial situation. Together you can explore the family’s ability to provide physical and financial support and learn about the help available from government, non-profit or other programs.

By Nathaniel Sillin