Smart Shopping Pays this Holiday Season

holiday-shopping-flea-markets“Grant me profits only, grant me the joy of profit made, and see to it that I enjoy cheating the buyer”
-Ovid 43 B.C.

The ancient Roman poet Ovid may have celebrated unscrupulous business practices, but most consumers do not. Follow the tips below to help you get the most out of your shopping dollars this holiday season.

Become an advertising critic. Advertisers may use “puffing” to sell a product – a practice that legally allows a certain amount of exaggeration. Therefore, an advertisement for face cream may claim to give your skin a youthful radiance, but it can’t promise to shed 20 years from your appearance overnight, unless it actually can (highly doubtful).

Buy rationally. Compare the prices at multiple places before making a major purchase and avoid impulse buying. Question your need and desire for each item. Avoid shopping when you are hungry, tired, depressed, rushed, or distracted.

Be on-guard when online. Only buy from secure Internet sites (particularly if you are paying with a credit card) and read the privacy policy. Review return, refund, and shipping and handling policies. As with any delivered item, request that the shipper receive a signature before leaving a package on your doorstep, or have it delivered to your office.

Know the warranty. Some are verbal (usually worthless, unfortunately), some implied (that your refrigerator will indeed keep food cold), and some are written. Federal law does not require written warranties, but most come with major purchases. Understand it and save it in a safe place. “Extended warranties” are actually service contracts that you have to pay for (warranties are free). To determine if you really need one, weigh the cost of the service contract against projected maintenance and repair bills.

Nervous about a purchase? Check with the Better Business Bureau for past complaints against a seller or manufacturer before you buy. Happy Shopping!

Copyright© 2005 Balance

Making Holidays Bright – And Affordable


Already dreading what you’ll spend this holiday season? It doesn’t have to be that way.

Gifts aren’t the only budget-busting culprit during the holidays. The weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s are also a peak time for spending on groceries, travel, events, entertainment, energy, clothes and meals out.

Financial advisors recommend you use no more than 1.5 percent of your annual income on holiday spending (, so consider the following suggestions to keep it under control:

Start with a list and make a budget. Begin your planning by listing every possible holiday expense you’ll face – and don’t stop at gifts. Consult the Practical Money Skills for Life comprehensive holiday budget planner ( to help organize your information and track your spending.

Be open about money trouble. If you are facing financial difficulties during the holiday season, don’t spend to hide the problem. Don’t be ashamed to make adjustments and tell friends and family members that you’d like to temporarily downsize your spending until conditions improve. They might actually appreciate a spending reprieve, too.

Build a bargain-hunting strike force. Let friends and family know you’re looking for particular toys, gifts, foods or decorating items and volunteer to do the same for them. Save and share coupons. Encourage your group to find resources, check prices and share requests and ideas via social media. Results can come back in a matter of minutes.

Evaluate all transportation costs. Do you really need to run out of one or two items at a time? Designate certain days of the week for particular items, keep an eye out for free delivery and see if friends and family might want to share errands. Those with large vehicles or trucks can help move, deliver and even install appliances or electronics if they have the skills to do so. Smart transportation choices extend to car pools or public transportation for events and entertainment.

Leverage your creativity. If there’s something you make or do really well that people love, consider making such accomplishments into gifts. From specialty food items your friends enjoy, to clothing or art, anything done well can be a gift. Don’t rule out lessons or skilled labor as potential holiday gifts, particularly for relatives who can’t afford such services at this time. Smart shopping for ingredients or supplies can make such creative gifts a real money saver.

Build a year-round gift stash. If there are gifts or foodstuffs you can buy on sale and keep for a while, you’ll have a ready source of thank-you gifts for hosts, teachers or co-workers year-round. Set aside a similar area for cards, gift tags and wrapping paper. Also keep in mind that many retailers put holiday-themed items on sale before the holidays are finished. If you think you’ll need these items next year, grab your coupons, take advantage and put those items aside for future gift giving.

Late saving for gifts? Do it anyway. If you don’t have a holiday fund set up, don’t let that keep you from starting one. Every little bit helps. Take 5-10 percent of your next paycheck and set it aside, doing it each week throughout the holidays. If you keep it up, your holiday fund can eventually become an emergency fund to be used for other savings goals, including retirement.

Take notes for next holiday season. Create a paper or digital file where you can collect ideas for next year. Check print and online resources like Consumer Reports for items that can be bought at specific times of the year at a discount so you are able to hide them for the holidays – but remember where you hid them.

Bottom line: Keeping holidays affordable isn’t a challenge when you’re willing to do a little planning, idea-sharing and record-keeping. Make it an activity you can do year-round.

By Nathaniel Sillin

Americans Report They Spend an Average of $2,746 on Lunch Yearly

lunchtrackerAccording to the results of a new survey of American consumers* commissioned by Visa, intended to call consumers’ attention to opportunities to save and budget in their discretionary spending, respondents report they spend an average of $53 a week or $2,746 per year on lunch. Overall, the most popular spot to eat lunch was home – 42% of Americans said that they typically eat lunch at home. Full-time employees tended to stick close to the office – 53% said that they typically eat lunch at work, including 26% at their desks.

Visa is also introducing the free Lunch Tracker app for iOS to help consumers become more aware of their spending. The app calculates the monthly and annual amount spent on lunch based off of consumers’ input and seeks to help Americans improve spending habits. Users can take the 30-Day Challenge to start saving money, learn cost-cutting tips and share photos of meals with family and friends to show their progress.

“At home or ordering food, small choices have a big impact. Paying attention to what you are spending is essential to financial wellbeing,” said Nat Sillin, global head of financial literacy at Visa Inc. “Most people may not realize that they are spending over $50 a week on lunch. Visa is excited to offer the new Lunch Tracker app to help consumers form better spending habits.”

Visa’s survey also showed that men both outspent women at the lunch counter and were more likely to eat lunch out. Males outspend females on a weekly basis by an average of 60%. One percent of people reported spending more than $50 per lunch on average or more than $9,000 a year, while 32% respondents said that they didn’t buy lunch out at all.

“Grocery store or gastro pub, don’t bust your budget on your midday meal,” said Sillin. “Clipping a coupon or choosing a less expensive item can save you hundreds over the course of a year. Splurging isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it has to fit within your budget. Raiding your savings for a fancy lunch isn’t worth it.”

Additionally findings include:

  • For meals out, Americans surveyed reported spending an average of $20 per week or $1,043 per year.
  • Americans surveyed said they purchase lunch from a restaurant an average of nearly twice a week and spend more than $11 on average per outing compared with only $6.30 on average a day preparing their own.
  • Homemakers reported going out for lunch the least compared to other segments, but splurged more when they did go out. They reported spending an average of $17.60 when they went out for lunch.
  • Students reported eating out more often than any other segment and spent the most on a weekly average at $27.47 while retirees averaged spending the least per week at $13.92.
  • Unemployed Americans reported purchasing lunch out more than once a week on average, spending over $15 on average weekly.
  • Southerners lead the country in both frequency of lunches out and in amount spent. Respondents from the Southern states reported eating out twice per week, spending an average of $1,240 a year eating lunch out and an overall combined average of $2,953 on lunch.
  • Northeasterners reported spending the second most per year eating lunch out at $1,001 on average, trailed by the Midwest respondents at $896 on average and finally the West respondents at $866 on average per year eating out. While Northeasterners reported spending the most making lunch at home, they came in second in overall combined yearly lunch spending at $2,893 on average, once again trailed by the Midwest at $2,519 on average and the West at $2,489 on average.

The calculator and survey are part of Visa’s free, award-winning financial education program, Practical Money Skills for Life, which reaches millions of people around the world each year. Launched in 1995, the program is now available in 10 languages in more than 30 countries. At Practical Money Skills for Life, educators, parents and students can access free educational resources including personal finance articles, games, lesson plans and more.

* Survey results are based on 2,033 telephone interviews conducted nationally on July 16-19 & August 6-9, 2015, in cooperation with ORC International’s Omnibus Service “Telephone Caravan.”

Copyright© Visa

Unsecured Security Cameras Turned Into Botnets

Two big exterior security cameras pointed away from each other

When you take a moment to count the number of internet connected devices in your home, the tally may surprise you. There are smart TVs, routers, computers, tablets, smartphones, smart thermostats and refrigerators, security systems, and even toilets that can be flushed from afar. All of those devices are a potential access point for cybercrimals. Recently the security company Incapsula found somewhere around 900 Linux-based closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras had been turned into a botnet.

A botnet is a group of computers that have been taken over without owner permission and controlled as a group to do various types of activities; usually with a malicious intent. According to Kaspersky Labs and Symantec, these pose the biggest threat to the Internet, out-doing spam, viruses, and worms.

While security devices are intended to make us feel more secure, and other internet-connected devices make our lives a little more convenient, there are risks associated with using them.

As with all home networking devices, they must be installed correctly:

  • The first step is to change the default logins and passwords that come with them. In this case, that is exactly how the incident happened. The default login credentials had not been changed.
  • Once they are installed and are internet-capable, the updates to the software and firmware that run them should be downloaded and installed. Often, they sit on shelves for a long time and updates have been released in the meantime. You want those latest ones applied.
  • If your devices have a feature that will allow them to apply updates automatically, switch that to the “on” position. If not, mark a date every quarter or even more frequently, to check for updates. If there are any, apply them right away.
  • Don’t forget to choose strong passwords and use a different one for each device. Make sure they have at least eight characters, are not common words, nor do they contain private details about you or your loved ones. Also include one or more special characters and combine upper and lower case letters. Don’t forget to add in a number or a few.
  • If you are going to have someone else install devices for you, make sure they are qualified to do it securely and are experienced. As soon as they leave, change the passwords.

Incapsula reported that the security cameras had been used to perform a “run of the mill” type of denial of service (DOS) attack using cameras from several different brands that all had less-than-adequate security features out of the box. In some cases, the devices had been compromised by multiple people.

All the compromised devices were running BusyBox and included a variant of the malware commonly known as Lightaidra or GayFgt. This scans the device for BusyBox software and open Telnet/SSH services.

Just because technology makes our lives more convenient, we shouldn’t make it more convenient for cybercriminals to cause trouble. Take a few minutes and secure them.

© Copyright 2015 Stickley on Security

Laundry Expense Load Lighteners

laundry“It’s the little things that get you.” If you’ve gone through a budget counseling session, you have probably heard a similar phrase from a counselor. It’s wisdom born of experience. Look at enough budgets and you’ll see the enormous impact of small expenses multiplied many times over months or years. Laundry is one of those areas where it’s often possible to save big money with just a few small adjustments.


•Wash in cold water whenever possible. It takes much less energy.
•Avoid buying dry-clean only clothes.
•If it’s an option, dry your clothes on the line.
•If you replace your washer and/or dryer, get energy efficient models
•Use less detergent. You can get your clothes perfectly clean with far less detergent than is “recommended.”
•If you have a modern washer and dryer, research the energy-saving features and use them.
•If heat or airflow comes into your drier at the same place lint is captured, clean the lint trap before each load. If not, the lint build-up could be making your drying less efficient, meaning more energy used to dry your clothes.
•Buy generic detergent in bulk.
•Try drying clothes at 80% of the usual amount of time you leave them in. You may be over-drying your garments currently.
•Do fewer loads. This may mean wearing clothes another time or two, or waiting until you have a full load to wash and dry.
•Skip the heavy-duty washing settings. Very few loads actually require this.
•Don’t buy a separate stain stick. Rubbing detergent directly into the stain can work just as well.
•Fabric softener doesn’t really “soften” clothes. Instead it just adds a film over the top of them. Try doing some loads without softener and you may find that you don’t miss it. You can also try the trick many people use and add ¼ cup of white vinegar to each load as a much cheaper alternative.
•Use your washing machine’s high spin setting to make your clothes drier after they have been washed. Drier clothes out of the washing machine means less time in the dryer.

While these tips by themselves aren’t going to having you rolling in the money, over the course of a year they could save you hundreds of dollars.

© 2013 BALANCE

Arming Yourself Against Cyber Attacks


Cybercrime is growing and morphing into a type of criminal octopus with tentacles reaching far beyond anything previously imagined. Snaking its way into our lives in alarming ways, data breaches are currently producing subsets of cybercrime, some likely to include organized crime. Consumers are in a tizzy, wondering how to arm themselves against a continually evolving and persistent threat. In a 2015 Internet Organized Crime Threat Assessment (IOCTA) report, the key findings of their cybercrime investigation show how crime is shifting to take advantage of data breaches, ATM crimes, and malware-infested websites.

In just the past three years data breaches account for 100s of millions of data records of US citizens. Criminals are using this data to build comprehensive profiles of Americans to better execute their attacks. This data makes spearphishing campaigns extremely effective. The more information known about the target, the easier it is to gain trust and convince them to click a link, open an attachment or execute a fraudulent wire funds transfer. We do have several ways we can protect ourselves from this cybercrime wave. The key is realizing that we must all take an active role in our security. Long gone is the day when we could ignore the news and believe “it will never happen to me”.

Protecting Your Information from Data breaches

Data Breaches are seeing a dramatic rise in public reporting. This public knowledge is leading to subsets of cybercrime. Extortion and fraudulent transactions are becoming commonplace, in some cases leading to health problems and suicide (think Ashley Madison public breach).

It really isn’t a matter of if you will become a victim of a data breach. Chances are high that you already have. If you are one of the few that has not, it is definitely a matter of when. While you cannot prevent it completely, you can do something.

  • Monitor your payment card statements and charges often. The more often, the better. In any case, do it at least once a month and alert your financial institution of anything that does not look right. The sooner you deal with it, the faster it can be remedied and at the least cost to you and your financial organization.
  • Take advantage of the free annual credit report you are entitled to by staggering when you order them. Get one from each of the three major credit bureaus every four months. This will allow you to see potential issues and take care of them before they get out of control. Even if information is not fraud, but perhaps there is a previous address listed that is unfamiliar to you, notify the agency to get it removed. This could be just a mistake, but it could also indicate attempted fraud.
  • If you are at the register to make your purchase, choose the option to use your debit card as a credit card. This provides more protection to you and will prevent a thief from getting your card number and your PIN and creating a fake one to empty your bank account.

ATMs are Still a Hot Place for Cybercrime

ATMs still remain a popular target for cybercriminals who consistently create new ways to attack them.

  • When using ATMs, find one in a well-lit area or that has a locking vestibule. These are less attractive targets for criminals who may want to put card-skimmers on them. In addition, it is just better for your physical safety.
  • Before putting your card into a slot, make sure it isn’t a skimmer. New ATMs have technology making it extremely difficult or impossible for these to be implemented. However, sometimes criminals are successful with very simple techniques, such as attaching the card-reader to the ATM with double-sided tape. So, if you suspect something odd, give the reader a jiggle. If it moves, it may be a skimmer. Then call the financial institution to have them check it out.

Website URL’s Do Not Tell You That You Have the Wrong Address

When browsing the web, you don’t get the “incorrect address” notes that sometimes appear on letters that are misdelivered by the postal carriers. Instead, you could find yourself at a site that houses malware and just by showing up, you could execute some nasty virus.

  • Don’t click on links that arrive in email messages unless you are expecting them or are 100% certain they are safe. Manually type it into the address bar to be safer.
  • Before typing in a web address, check it carefully. Different spellings of names, or using “.net” as opposed to “.com” is something sneaky cyberthieves count on users not to notice. Also look for slight misspellings of the organization’s name. Criminals count on you not paying that close of attention to those little details.
  • Once you have used what you know is a safe URL for sites such as your financial institution and healthcare sites, bookmark them and use those to locate the site. Don’t click on links in email messages to get there.
  • Make sure that there is a lock icon at the top of the browser or somewhere on the page or that the address is preceded by “https:” if you are entering sensitive information into a website form. If you are not certain it is a secure site, don’t go further.
  • Pay attention to those warnings telling you that a site may not be secure. They are there for a reason and can protect you. Take a few seconds to read the warning before going further.

We Are Our Own Worst Enemies

The human element is something cyberthieves count on for successful attacks. Over the past two years, two-thirds of incidents involving cyber espionage were done via spear phishing. This is a form of social engineering using information about particular people working in targeted industries, such as government or financial organizations. Keeping employees educated with common social engineering tactics used by cyberthieves is critical for minimizing attacks.

Many attacks start with something simple like a phone call or a visit to your office. A nice person calls asking for information on the phone and because he or she is so charming, you feel like they can be trusted. There are also stories of criminals walking into offices claiming to be pest control, the HVAC repair people, or maintenance of some type. Often, they are never questioned and are allowed to roam wherever.

  • Don’t let those not authorized to work in your environment walk around without an escort. If you work in a financial organization, don’t let them out of your site even to use the restrooms. Wait outside for them.
  • Even if they have a badge, it doesn’t mean it is real. Verify that someone requested they show up before moving on.
  • Just because someone says they are from IT, it doesn’t mean you should give them your information. They don’t need your passwords, so don’t give them away.

Secure Passwords and Login Credentials

Social engineering gurus count on the ability to get passwords and login information out of you. They also count on getting any information out of you that will help them piece together a story. Online dating websites are common places for these cybercriminals to stalk victims. They will connect with someone and collect bits of information until they have gained trust and have enough information to use it against someone. Many will pose as military members and play on emotions of military families who know someone in a similar situation or have been in such a situation themselves. Money is usually the target. Therefore, keeping information safe is paramount, especially information that could get someone into your financial accounts.

  • Avoid using common verbiage like popular words and phrases, and particularly information that can be gleaned from your public websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. Change them periodically and don’t reuse them.
  • Make sure your passwords are strong and include at least eight characters with special characters, upper and lower case letters, and numbers.
  • Use different login credentials for each online site; particularly those that store any sensitive data such as financial information.
  • Never give your user names or passwords to anyone. Legitimate organizations will not ask for them. There is a well-known scam where someone will call you and pose as someone in the IT department and ask for your passwords. Don’t give it to them. Instead, hang up and call back separately to confirm it was them and let them know someone just asked you for your credentials.

Preventing Malware from Wreaking Havoc

Malware such as banking Trojans stealing account information are still popular with cybercriminals. The malware Dridex and Dyre, which both use attachments to target online bankers are now top of the list for malware crimes.

It is always worth repeating that identifying potential phishing email messages is a valuable skill to have. Phishing email messages are the number one way malware gets distributed and executed. And again, they often involve some element of social engineering. Often, when email addresses are stolen, they are used to spam friends and others that you know. Getting a message from someone you know may give you a sense of security that the cybercriminals take advantage of when creating messages.

  • Look for poor language skills and typos in the messages. Be suspicious if you spot those.
  • Make sure the logos of a company supposedly sending the message are indeed the right ones. Criminals are getting pretty good at copying the logos, but they are often not of the highest quality and often they miss some details.
  • If you receive an attachment or link in an email, approach with skepticism. Contact the sender directly, and mention you received an email from them and are wondering if it’s safe to open or click.

We live in a world where data and information is everywhere, whether we intend it to be or not. The Internet is a great tool and it is nearly impossible not to participate in some capacity. Just learn ways to secure your information and you will be able to take advantage of it more securely.

The Internet Organized Crime Threat Assessment (IOCTA) report found that many of those negative aspects of being on the grid are still very prevalent and likely won’t go away any time soon. For example, social engineering never goes out of style. Passwords are still a weakness and malware just won’t go away.

© Copyright 2015 Stickley on Security