Moving Soon? Keep Costs Under Control

Even if you’re only moving across town, it’s likely to cost more than you think.

According to the latest figures from the American Moving and Storage Association, the average cost of an in-state professional move – based on 7,570 pounds of stuff – is $1,170. The average state-to-state move costs $5,630.

How can you control moving expenses? Start making a master checklist to collect data and consider all costs and personal aspects of a potential move. You may even want to include a pro-and-con list that addresses all conceivable economic and lifestyle outcomes – the real long-term costs and benefits of a move. After deciding whether the move is worthwhile, consider these subsequent steps:

Seek solid advisors. Whether or not you plan to sell a home with a licensed real estate broker or agent, most are open to do a market valuation of your property and suggest repairs or improvements that could maximize a sale price. If you use a qualified financial planner or tax advisor, include that individual in early discussions on how a move might affect your finances. Also, if you’re selling property, find an experienced real estate attorney to review broker and sale contracts.

Get multiple estimates from movers. An early walk-through at your home or apartment by two to three U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT)-registered movers (http://ai.fmcsa.dot.gov/hhg/search.asp) can provide a reality check on how much you’ll want to take and whether you can afford luxuries like packing or storage. Online resources can also help you evaluate those estimates.

Watch for fraud. Recent news reports have highlighted a trend called “hostage load,” a practice whereby unscrupulous moving companies demand more money from customers before finishing a delivery. Getting references from trusted friends and advisors is a good first step to finding the right registered mover for your relocation. DOT has launched the “Protect Your Move” (http://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/protect-your-move) site that allows you to download a moving fraud protection guide and offers tips on proper ways to investigate and hire a mover.

Start downsizing – now. Getting early estimates from movers certainly helps you decide what you’re really willing to take. If there are valuables you think you can sell, consult professional appraisers and even general marketplace sources like eBay to get a realistic idea of value. Otherwise, consider garage sales and donations for the rest.

Insure what you’re moving. Whatever plans you’re making for home or renter’s coverage at the new destination, make sure you have proper coverage in place for the contents of your move. The Insurance Information Institute provides a useful guide (http://www.iii.org/article/getting-right-insurance-coverage-moving) to properly insuring the possessions you’re moving.

Build a cash reserve for deposits, fees and incidentals. Keeping moving costs low can help you handle dozens of smaller and sometimes unexpected expenses that crop up immediately before, during and after a move. Budget for those hidden costs which can include deposits, fees and multiple trips to the discount store, home center or grocery.

Bottom line: Thinking about moving? Give yourself adequate time and resources to plan all aspects of this major life and money event.

10 Open Enrollment Mistakes to Avoid

How much time do you spend reviewing your benefits before open enrollment each year?

If your answer is “not much,” you’re not alone. A recent survey by insurer Aflac (http://workforces.aflac.com/about-the-study.php) says that 90 percent of Americans choose the same benefits year after year and that 42 percent forego up to $750 annually by making poor choices.

Rushing through annual benefits updates or making such uninformed decisions in insurance, retirement or other workplace-based benefits are actually part of a bigger story. Open enrollment is just one part of an overall financial plan: Unfortunately, too many employees see it as the only financial planning they have to do all year.

In reality, a safe financial future depends mostly on the savings, investing and spending decisions you make outside the workplace. As many employers are looking to shrink or discontinue the retirement and health benefits they offer, it’s time to take a fresh look at open enrollment.

Here are 10 benefits mistakes you might want to avoid.

1. Not having an overall financial plan. Your company may offer excellent benefits now. However, the Labor Department reports that average worker tenure at U.S. companies is only 4.6 years, so the biggest open enrollment mistake might be assuming your current benefits assure your financial future. It’s important to work alone or with qualified advisors to determine the right work-based benefits as part of overall spending, savings and investment activities throughout your lifetime.

2. Making choices at the last minute. Your benefits are important and deserve time for consideration. Put your open enrollment dates on your personal calendar with a reminder a few weeks ahead of time to coordinate with qualified advisors if you have them.

3. Forgetting to coordinate with your spouse or partner. Many employers are planning big changes to spouse/partner benefits. While the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) lets parents keep children on their health plans until age 26, more employers are instituting “spousal surcharges” or excluding spousal coverage altogether if they already have access to employer health insurance.

4. Ignoring your state’s Health Insurance Marketplace. Even if you have employer health insurance, things change. If you lose a job or cannot stay on your spouse or partner’s health plan, it might be worthwhile to familiarize yourself with your state’s ACA-mandated health insurance marketplace ahead of time.

5. Underestimating how big life events might affect your benefits. Salary changes, marriage, divorce, serious illness or starting a family are big signals to check your benefits, preferably well in advance of open enrollment. Think through every potential situation you might face and ask questions about how those changes might affect your benefit selections.

6. Passing on flexible spending accounts (FSAs) and health savings accounts (HSAs). FSAs are workplace-based accounts that allow you to set aside money on a pre-tax basis to help you pay for healthcare and dependent care expenses during the calendar year. HSAs, if you qualify, also allow you to set aside pre-tax dollars in a qualified investment or savings account for long-and-short term medical expenses not covered by insurance. They don’t require you to spend out those funds every year. Your workplace benefits counselor, qualified financial advisor and Internal Revenue Service Publication 969 can assist with eligibility, types of accounts, contribution limits and tax issues associated with these choices.

7. Leaving retirement selections unchanged. As the Aflac data indicates, many individuals don’t change their investment focus in self-directed retirement plans for years. That’s why reviewing options in advance is essential.

8. Overlooking wellness options. Many employers pay for exercise, cholesterol screenings, weight loss, smoking cessation, immunizations or related benefits that can make you healthier, save money and possibly lower health premiums.

9. Bypassing transportation breaks. If you drive or take public or company-sponsored transportation to and from work, you may qualify for specific discounts or tax deductions. IRS Publication 15-B covers these programs and how to use them most effectively.

10. Forgetting education benefits. If an employer is willing to train you to advance in your career, don’t pass it up. However, get advice on the possibility of tax liability for these benefits. Separately, check out employer-sponsored education grant or scholarship awards for you or your kids – that can be free money.

Bottom line: Open enrollment is just one piece of a well-organized financial puzzle. Make sure your employer provided benefits choices compliment savings, investing and spending decisions you’re making on your own.

Facebook Friends Are Duping You With Malvertising

They are at it again; although they really don’t ever seem to let up either. The cybercriminals are taking advantage of “chatty” users. They are employing social engineering techniques combined with online advertising to make a lot of money. This time the vehicle of choice is Facebook Messenger. To make it an even slicker trick, they are changing what users see based on various factors, such as the operating system or browser being used.

Kaspersky Lab researchers discovered this new malvertising campaign that infects all platforms. The initial infection is via Facebook Messenger, but the researchers are not sure how the users’ information is retrieved in the first place. They suspect it could be from hijacked browsers, via clickjacking, or by using stolen credentials from separate incidents.

In any case, it works this way: A video is received that appears to be from someone on the user’s contact list. When that is clicked, other websites collect information about the user’s system such as the browser and operating system, language, geo location, etc. Then it redirects to a Google document with a dynamically generated video thumbnail. If that thumbnail is clicked, he or she is redirected again to a customized landing page displaying something different based on the browser and operating system.

The analysts found that Firefox users saw a phony Adobe Flash Update and Google Chrome users got a video of a fake Chrome extension. Safari users saw yet something different.

The lesson here is the same as watching for phishing attempts. If you receive a chat or text message unexpectedly, it should be deemed somewhat suspicious. Don’t reply to the message, but contact your Facebook friend some other way to find out what the message is all about. If they confirm that it’s OK for you to click, go ahead. Although, be aware that even links that are confirmed and seem harmless may do damage behind the scenes.

In the case of this one, it does not appear that any Trojans or other types of malware are installed when clicking through the links. It is clear, however, that whomever is behind this scam is making a lot of money on click through advertising and probably getting real access to victims’ contacts.

© Copyright 2017 Stickley on Security

Medicare Fights Fraud With New ID Cards

Medicare knows the information safety of its many members is at risk. There’s been a steady increase in identity fraud for seniors, with 2.1 million reported cases in 2012 growing to 2.6 million in 2014. That’s one big reason Medicare is introducing new replacement cards for all fifty million-plus members. The newly designed (and still red, white and blue) cards will begin mailing in April 2018 and finish by April 2019. The new card takes a major step toward improving the safety of member information by removing Social Security Numbers. The new cards will automatically be sent to recipients, with absolutely no action required on the part of members.

With the good news for Medicare recipients comes the need for an info-scam safety lesson. There’s no shortage of fraudsters ready to exploit the new cards­ and their owners. Medicare strongly suggests all those card-carrying members and the people who know them learn how to protect one’s Medicare ID Card. Being best-informed about “information thieves” and their scams is a very effective deterrent.

New Medicare Card Safety Feature

Social Security numbers are removed and replaced with 11 randomly chosen letters and numbers called the Medicare Beneficiary Identifier (MIB). Those whose cards don’t currently carry an SSN will also receive a new card with an MIB. Still, the new cards carry valuable information and should always be safely stashed away.

How to Stop Scammers

-Once you receive your new card, immediately destroy the old one. Use a crisscross shredder or scissors to cut the old card to bits. Dispose of the pieces safely and responsibly. Whenever possible, don’t toss an entire destroyed card in the same receptacle. Believe it or not, they can be reconstructed by very patient and dedicated thieves.

-Medicare has websites for questions and education informing new card recipients about scams. You can visit the Medicare website for more details. Remember, if you’re contacted by a suspected scammer, hang up and immediately call Medicare to report the incident. Get the phone number off the Medicare website.

-Beware of any contact regarding new cards. Do not provide any information to someone claiming to be from a federal agency (Medicare, Social Security, IRS, etc.) who asks for money to replace the old card; verify sensitive information; and/or threaten a loss of benefits. This is a thief. Always hang up and immediately report the attempt to Medicare.

© Copyright 2017 Stickley on Security

How to Manage Your Money After a Natural Disaster

Floods, fires, earthquakes, and other natural disasters can wreak havoc with your personal life – including your finances. The following tips can help organize an action plan to tackle potential difficulties.

Insurance

-If it is safe to enter, assess your home’s damage, and make a list and take pictures of damaged and destroyed property and possessions. Gather whatever receipts you have for affected items.

-If your home is uninhabitable, see if your insurance company covers the cost of a hotel or temporary lodging.

-Review your insurance coverage, and file claims as soon as possible. Respond promptly to any requests for additional information.

-When dealing with a claims adjuster, take notes during the conversation.

-If you disagree with the insurance company’s settlement offer, be polite but firm in your request for reconsideration. You may want to hire an independent claims adjuster to help you determine a fair amount and build a case. If appealing is not effective, you may want to hire a lawyer to explore your legal options, but be sure to weigh the costs against the potential gains.

Credit

-Take inventory of your credit cards. If you cannot locate them, call the issuers immediately to report them missing.

-Use credit cards prudently. You may not have the means to repay a large balance in the future.

-Avoid using cash advances. The interest rate is typically higher than for purchases, and interest accrues immediately, making a cash advance a pricey way to acquire funds.

-Beware of scams. Pass on credit and loan offers that seem too easy to obtain, list a 900 number, or require you to pay something before receiving money. If you need a loan, contact a lender you know and trust. If you are in a declared disaster zone, you may be eligible for a Small Business Administration disaster loan, which can be used to repair your home and/or replace personal property. (See www.sba.gov/content/home-and-personal-property-loans for more information.)

-Do not reveal your Social Security number, credit card information, or checking account number over the telephone unless you made the initial phone call. Always beware of giving out sensitive information by email, as no email is completely secure.

-If you are unable to pay all of your creditors, be proactive and communicate with them as soon as possible – you could save your credit history from future damage. Following these actions can help:

  • Explain your situation honestly and in detail.
    Request specific solutions. Depending on your circumstances, ask for either reduced or suspended payments. Be realistic – never propose more than you can afford to pay.
  • Give a date that you will be able to resume normal payments.
  • Provide relevant documentation.
  • Keep copies of all correspondence.
  • Update your creditors regularly

Income and Expenses

-Develop a financial priority list. Your spending plan may be seriously affected by reduced income and increased expenses, so consider each line item carefully. What bills do you absolutely have to pay, and what bills can wait or be eliminated for now? Also make a priority list for any replacement products that you need to buy.

-Keep the majority of your money in your financial institution. Cash in pocket is far riskier than cash in a checking or savings account. Even if your financial institution was affected by the disaster, you will likely still be able to access your money.

-Research tax breaks that you may qualify for due to your situation. You may be able to deduct causality-related losses on your federal income tax return and/or qualify for other special tax benefits. (See www.irs.gov or consult with a tax professional for more information.)

Reconstruction

-If needed, make immediate temporary repairs (e.g., board your windows) to secure your home and prevent further damage. But do not enter your property if it is not safe to do so.

-Be cautious of contractors who knock on your door asking for work or place a flyer in your mailbox or on the street. Con artists often come out of the woodwork to prey upon those left vulnerable after a disaster.

-Get estimates from at least three licensed, bonded contractors. Check their complaint history with the Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.org), and ask for and contact references.

-Always get a written contract, and don’t pay the full amount up front. Generally, you should not have to pay more than 30% initially. The final payment should not be made until the job is done.

-Make sure that repairs are done in accordance with local building codes and that you get a permit for any work that requires a permit.

Additional resources

Here’s where you can find help after a disaster:

-Your state and county offices of emergency preparedness.

-Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Visit www.fema.gov or call (800) 480-2520.

-American Red Cross. Visit www.redcross.org and search for your local chapter.

 

BALANCE

Three Fun (and Affordable) Activities You Can Only Do in Fall

Fall can be summed up in one word: relief.

The cooler temperatures help you shake the summer heat, and more importantly, the plethora of seasonal activities provide relief for your wallet. Indeed, autumn is packed with opportunities for having fun on a budget. Check it out:

1. See fall foliage

Fall is a great time to get outside. For the essential seasonal experience, plan a hike with your family or friends that includes views of the changing leaves.

In many areas, foliage tends to burst in the fall in spectacular shades of red and gold. But even if your local trees put on a more modest show, sightseeing is a completely free experience.

2. Throw a DIY Halloween party

Halloween and fall go hand in hand, and you can harness the spooky holiday spirit by throwing a DIY party. Don’t worry about expensive snacks and decorations; stick with classic Halloween treats (and tricks) instead. Jack-o-lanterns and themed homemade snacks can go a long way to capturing the mood. Bonus points if you make it a costumes-required party.

3. Pumpkin carving

You don’t have to be an accomplished artist to enjoy carving pumpkins. Indeed, all that’s required are pumpkins (obviously), family or friends, and a little inspiration.

Feeling competitive? See who can carve the scariest, silliest or most creative jack-o-lanterns. (The winner gets an extra helping of Halloween candy.) When you’re done, don’t forget to add candles and snap a spooky photo of your handiwork.

BALANCE
September 2017