Get Financially Ready for the Holidays

The holidays are coming. That means shopping and for most of us adding debt to our credit cards. Here are some thoughts about how to get financially ready for the holidays. Consumer Affairs offers some thoughts about how to get your finances together before Christmas shopping season arrives.

Holiday gifts, travel, and celebrations can lead to major debt long after the holidays have passed, but taking steps to get your finances in order before the holidays can help ensure you – and your credit card – don’t start the New Year off on the wrong foot.

Being financially prepared to handle the holidays is a vital part of keeping post-holiday debt at bay. To get prepared, it’s important to have a holiday spending plan in place before you start shopping. Budgeting and planning can help you stay disciplined, even when the pressure to spend is everywhere.

Here are the high points of their advice.

  • Figure out how much you can spend
  • Make your list
  • Save a little each week
  • Choose thoughtful gifts
  • Know that it’s okay to say “no”
  • Use cash, not credit

To get your finances in order for the holidays you need to decide what you can afford to spend. The rest is getting organized so that you follow through on your plan. Make your list of not only who you need to buy presents for but also other expenses such as buying a Christmas tree and food for a family Christmas dinner. When you go out shopping with a list in hand you will be less likely to buy something that busts the budget. And if you work from a fund of cash that you have saved make sure to not only check off what presents you bought for whom but how much money is left of your stash of cash.

If You Are Already in Financial Trouble

Maybe the last of couple of Christmases and other factors have gotten you in debt with maxed out credit cards and unpaid bills. Consider debt consolidation services.

Debt consolidation services are commonly an excellent alternative to filing for bankruptcy. In using debt consolidation one takes out one loan to pay off many others. In general, the person ends up paying a lower rate of interest, only needs to make one monthly payment and sees a reduction in the total of how much he owes. There are a variety of ways that debt consolidation services work. The most common is that a lender is willing to lend money to pay off a large amount of unsecured debt in return for a secured loan. The most common asset involved in securing such a loan is your home. By offering collateral such as you home you will get a substantially lower rate of interest to pay because the risk to the lender is less than that of previous lenders such as credit card companies. Debt consolidation services often negotiate a reduction in loan amount of which part or all is passed on to you. It is important to remember that there are many debt consolidation services and you can shop around for the best deal for you.

If your debt issues are severe, address the issue head on. Consolidate your debt. Put yourself on a budget and make a better financial future your Christmas gift to yourself and your family this year and for years to come.

How to Avoid Impostor Scams

The Fresno Bee reminds us of the help with unclaimed funds scam from the General in Nigeria. This scam has been around for decades. Here is how it works.

Over the last couple of decades we have been warning consumers and businesses about scams that originate in Nigeria. These have been generally letters, faxes and emails targeted at businesses. The communications normally tell the company that they are with one of the Nigerian governmental ministries and are in need of a bank account in America to temporarily place millions or even hundreds of millions of dollars. For the use of the bank account, the business or the consumer will get a portion of the money.

Impostor scams include conspiracy to commit fraud, wire fraud, bank fraud, identity theft and money laundering. One might think that anyone receiving a letter or email from Lagos, Nigeria might have doubts. For example, how did this important general in a foreign land ever get your email or physical address? And, is there really any money? For that matter why can’t they set up a bank account for a wire transfer? And, of course, if they are allegedly trying to illegally move money out of that country aren’t you being enticed into committing a crime along with them? Nevertheless, people do fall for impostor scams and lose lots of money in the process. Of course there is no money in a Nigerian bank account. The scam artist wants your bank account number and wants you to send him some money as a “test.” How do you avoid impostor scams?

Stealing Your Money or Your Identity

If the impostor scammer wants you to send him money that is one thing but what if he wants your personal info because he claims it is necessary to set up a deal in which you will gain $4,000,000? We just wrote about how to avoid identity theft.

Secure your social security number (SSN). Don’t carry your social security card in your wallet or write your number on your checks. Only give out your SSN when absolutely necessary.

Don’t respond to unsolicited requests for personal information (your name, birthdate, social security number, or bank account number) by phone, mail, or online.

The first and easiest way to deal with this sort of solicitation is to trash the letter or erase the email. You can report the issue to authorities but US government agencies do not have jurisdiction over what goes on in an internet café in Lagos, Nigeria. You might consider telling your friends about the scam and warning them just in case the scammer sent the same request to folks on your emailing list.

Too Good to Be True

Anyone would certainly like to suddenly come into a few million dollars. But, really, who is going to seek you out as the unique person whom they can trust to make an international wire transfer of millions of dollars. This and other similar scams fall into the too good to be true category. When this happens to you take a deep breath, allow yourself a moment of private fantasy and then come back to reality and forget about it!

Why Do You Trust the Advice of Strangers?

You are looking for the best place to take a vacation. Friends and family offer several good suggestions but you go on the internet and pick a place based on reviews posted on a travel site. Why do you trust the advice of strangers instead of those whom you know? An article posted on the UNLV (University of Nevada Las Vegas) news center looks at placing faith in virtual strangers.

“I’ve heard good things,” a friend says after learning of your tentative vacation plans at a certain beachside resort. You smile, but you’re still gripped with doubt. After all, this is your one big trip this year, and it needs to be postcard-perfect.

Refusing to leave your booking decision to chance, you take to your laptop to consult a more reliable friend: your favorite travel review site. Here, you scrutinize amenities and weigh the opinions of a mostly anonymous lot whose experiences may very well become the blueprint for your vacation.

The author of the article says that we trust word of mouth advice and view internet reviews as trustworthy.

It’s our affinity for word-of-mouth interaction, one of the most persuasive forms of communication, according to research she and others have conducted. “Even though these reviewers are strangers, we think of them as just regular people like you and me. Their word-of-mouth advice is viewed as more objective than advertisers or professional travel experts. Like you, these travelers have invested time and money selecting an experience that matches their expectations. Their perspectives feel like free advice, a glimpse behind the curtain.”

There is, however, a problem here. How do we know which reviews were not written by professionals who were hired to say nice things? And what about when you read bad reviews? The old rule of thumb is that when a customer is happy they tell as many as ten friends and when they are unhappy they tell even more. Thus when we read a bad review we cannot be convinced to use a product or service even at a substantial discount. And, of course, what if that review was written by a hired professional who wrote it for a competitor?

The writer suggests that people use online reviews but include other information sources in making their decisions.

Years ago we wrote about the consumer purchasing decision.

A useful approach to marketing research is to take apart a consumer purchasing decision and break it down into its component parts. Each aspect of the consumer purchasing decision can be approached in such a way as to enhance sales and profits.

This is how a smart retailer looks at your decision. Here are the parts.

  • Perceived Problems, Needs and Desires
  • Searching for Information
  • Assessing Value
  • Weighing Alternatives
  • Decision to Buy

If you totally put your trust in strangers when searching for information you will not independently assess value, weigh alternative and make a sound decision to buy or not. To the extent that a source of information has been helpful on a prior occasion it is a more reliable guide that trusting folks whom you have never met.

What Can You Do to Avoid Identity Theft?

After the Equifax hack that exposed the personal information of about half the country you deserve to be angry at Equifax for how they allowed and then badly handled the data breach. But what can you do to avoid identity theft? We wrote a year ago about how to deal with identity theft.

We all should be aware of and try to avoid identity theft. But what happens if someone has already gotten your personal info, charged on your credit cards or even made a large purchase like a car?

It is interesting to note that when someone steals your credit info they may not run up a lot of charges right away. On the other hand if you don’t pay attention to your credit card statements you will miss out on what may be the first clue.

If they already stole your info you may wish to freeze your credit as noted in our angry at Equifax article.

To freeze your credit at Equifax, you’ll want to go to freeze.equifax.com.

Enter your complete name, address, social security number, and date of birth. On the next screen select that you want your credit report frozen. Then confirm. Write down your PIN code in a secure place when you get it.

But at time of publishing, the site was giving error messages to customers who tried to initiate a freeze. In the meantime, you can also submit your request in writing to this address and supply the same information, per these instructions:
Equifax Security FreezeP.O. Box 105788Atlanta, Georgia 30348

Congrats, your credit report is frozen. Now do the same thing at the other two credit bureaus, Experian and TransUnion.

But what can you do to avoid identity theft in the first place? The US government offers suggestions for how to avoid identity theft at USA.gov. They write that there are several kinds of identity theft including Child ID theft, Tax ID theft, Medical Id theft, Senior ID theft and Social ID theft. Each of these is a specific problem. Here is what they say about how to avoid Identity theft.

  • Secure your social security number (SSN). Don’t carry your social security card in your wallet or write your number on your checks. Only give out your SSN when absolutely necessary.
  • Don’t respond to unsolicited requests for personal information (your name, birthdate, social security number, or bank account number) by phone, mail, or online.
  • Contact the three credit reporting agencies to request a freeze of your credit reports.
  • Collect mail promptly. Place a hold on your mail when you are away from home for several days.
  • Pay attention to your billing cycles. If bills or financial statements are late, contact the sender.
  • Enable the security features on mobile devices, especially if you have contacts, banking websites and applications saved.
  • Update sharing and firewall settings when you’re on a public wi-fi network.  Consider using a virtual private network, which can give you the privacy of secured private network.
  • Review your credit card and bank account statements. Promptly compare receipts with account statements. Watch for unauthorized transactions.
  • Shred receipts, credit offers, account statements, and expired credit cards, to prevent “dumpster divers” from getting your personal information.
  • Store personal information in a safe place at home and at work.
  • Install firewalls and virus-detection software on your home computer.
  • Create complex passwords that identity thieves cannot guess easily. Change your passwords if a company that you do business with has a breach of its databases
  • Review your credit report once a year to be certain that it doesn’t include accounts that you have not opened. You can order it for free from Annualcreditreport.com.

You can do things to avoid identity theft but it requires a plan and following through. Make a copy of the to do list at USA.gov and do those things to protect your identity.

Are You Angry at Equifax? You Should Be!

Another hack of a huge data base has occurred and more people have had their personal information stolen. Identity theft seems to have become a way of life and even though we may take steps personally to avoid it.

We all should be aware of and try to avoid identity theft. But what happens if someone has already gotten your personal info, charged on your credit cards or even made a large purchase like a car? There were two good articles in the Chicago Tribune about identity stolen, $159K in unpaid loans and credit damage.

Well, here we go again. This time according to NBC News a massive Equifax data breach affects about half of the US population.

A massive cyber security incident at Equifax – one of the largest credit reporting agencies in the United States – may have exposed private information belonging to 143 million people – nearly half of the U.S. population.

The breach, which was discovered July 29, includes sensitive information such as social security numbers, birthdays, addresses, and in some instances, driver’s license numbers. The agency said 209,000 credit card numbers were exposed in the breach, which includes customers in Canada and the United Kingdom.

If you are not angry at Equifax you should be. According to the news report three Equifax executives sold stock in the company days after the breach but the theft of data was not reported until six weeks later! Can anyone say lawsuit and punitive damages boys and girls?

What, besides suing these folks, are your options? What can you do if your information was involved?

A follow up article states that you need to freeze your credit to protect yourself.

To freeze your credit at Equifax, you’ll want to go to freeze.equifax.com.

Enter your complete name, address, social security number, and date of birth. On the next screen select that you want your credit report frozen. Then confirm. Write down your PIN code in a secure place when you get it.

But at time of publishing, the site was giving error messages to customers who tried to initiate a freeze. In the meantime, you can also submit your request in writing to this address and supply the same information, per these instructions:

Equifax Security FreezeP.O. Box 105788Atlanta, Georgia 30348

Congrats, your credit report is frozen. Now do the same thing at the other two credit bureaus, Experian and TransUnion.

You will need to pay the other two but freezing credit with Equifax should be free providing that you can get through to them! Now, here is the part where you should be even angrier at Equifax and the other two credit agencies. These folks are dealing with a lot of angry customers who are finding it difficult to freeze their credit which is the one way to protect themselves in this situation.

As of early Wednesday afternoon, all three major credit reporting agencies intermittently gave error messages and prevented consumers from filing online requests to have their credit reports frozen.

Equifax’s website said “System Currently Unavailable – Error 500” and suggested consumers try contacting the other credit bureaus.

At one point, TransUnion’s website couldn’t be accessed at all. Then it put up an error page featuring a stock photo of a model sitting at a computer, alongside the caption, “The website is temporarily unavailable.Please check back later.”

Experian’s website simply says, “Loading”

If you believe that your personal information was stolen keep trying and when you finally can, go ahead and freeze your credit. You will get a pin number that allows you and only you to unfreeze it. That, of course, assumes that the hackers don’t come back and steal that as well! Meanwhile call your lawyer, your congressman and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

How to Prevent Colon Cancer

Everyone dies eventually. But there is no good reason to rush to an untimely death. In this regard we look at the second leading cause of death in the USA, cancer in all of its forms and at a preventable form of cancer, cancer of the colon. The contributors to getting many types of cancer are known. How to prevent cancer in those cases is to pay attention and follow a few simple rules. Let’s look at colon cancer.

Colon Cancer

How do you prevent cancer of the colon? First of all this disease develops over a decade or more and starts with polyps which are abnormal tissue growths that resemble flat bumps or miniature mushrooms on stalks. Removing polyps when they are benign (non-cancerous) prevents colon cancer. If you have a close family history of colon cancer (parents, siblings) your risk is significantly higher. But what else can you do to prevent this type of cancer? These recommendations are listed on cancer.org on their colorectal cancer page.

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Exercise regularly
  • Avoid processed meats such as hotdogs and lunch meat
  • Avoid excessive amount of beef, pork, lamb or liver
  • Do not cook meats at excessively high temperatures
  • Eat three servings a day of whole grains, fruits and vegetables
  • Keep your alcohol intake below two glasses of wine or two bottles of beer a day
  • Reduce or cut out smoking
  • If you have inflammatory bowel disease or a close family history of colon cancer start getting screened with colonoscopy at age 40

Java Anyone?

While you are cutting back on red meats, alcohol and tobacco don’t cut back on your coffee intake. Science Daily reports that there is a decreased risk of colon cancer in coffee drinkers.

Whether you like your coffee black, decaf, half-caff or even instant, feel free to drink up. Researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center of Keck Medicine of USC have found that coffee consumption decreases the risk of colorectal cancer.

For insights into how coffee helps prevent other cancers and diseases read how to avoid cancer by drinking coffee on the BuyOrganicCoffee.org website.

Prostate cancer, endometrial cancer, and colon cancer may all occur less often in long term coffee drinkers. To avoid cancer by drinking coffee it appears as though one needs to drink as much as four cups a day although some research studies show benefits in individuals with lower levels of coffee consumption. In general the benefits of coffee in the case of reducing the incidence of cancer have to do with chemicals called antioxidants found in roasted coffee.

Changes in diet, exercise and weight all help but the gold standard for preventing this disease is to get screened. When do you start?

Screening Colonoscopy

Again from cancer.org here are the recommendations for screening for colon cancer.

Starting at age 50, men and women at average risk for developing colorectal cancer should use one of the screening tests below:

Tests that find polyps and cancer

  • Colonoscopy every 10 years
  • CT colonography (virtual colonoscopy) every 5 years
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy every 5 years
  • Double-contrast barium enema every 5 years

Tests that mainly find cancer

  • Fecal immunochemical test (FIT) every year*
  • Guaiac-based fecal occult blood test (gFOBT) every year
  • Stool DNA test every 3 years

Colonoscopy should be done if test results are positive.

If you have a close family history of colon cancer or if you have inflamatory bowel disease screening should start at age 40.

Carbs and Not Fat Are Bad for Your Health

Remember a few years ago when everyone was supposed to eat lots of carbohydrates (carbs) and avoid fats? Then eating lots of beef was supposed to be the best thing for your health. Your doctor probably tells you to avoid too much high cholesterol food so that you won’t get heart disease. Now, it turns out there may be more to the story. CBS News reports a new study implying that carbs are bad for your health and not fats!

A large, 18-country study may turn current nutritional thinking on its head.

The new research suggests that it’s not the fat in your diet that’s raising your risk of premature death; it’s too many carbohydrates – especially the refined, processed kinds of carbs – that may be the real killer.

People with a high fat intake — about 35 percent of their daily diet — had a 23 percent lower risk of early death and 18 percent lower risk of stroke compared to people who ate less fat, said lead author Mahshid Dehghan. She’s an investigator with the Population Health Research Institute at McMaster University in Ontario.

And the researchers found that folks with a diet containing less than three percent saturated fats have a higher risk of death than the general population.

Contrary to expectations people whose diets contain an average of 77% of calories from carbohydrates have a 28% higher risk of dying. The study was published in the British Medical Journal, Lancet. It looks at associations of fats and carbohydrate intake with cardiovascular disease and mortality from 18 countries on 5 continents.

The relationship between macronutrients and cardiovascular disease and mortality is controversial. Most available data are from European and North American populations where nutrition excess is more likely, so their applicability to other populations is unclear.

Researchers recorded dietary intake of 135,000 study participants. They did this over a ten year period with follow ups at about 7 years.

 During follow-up, we documented 5796 deaths and 4784 major cardiovascular disease events. Higher carbohydrate intake was associated with an increased risk of total mortality.

There remains a lot to be done before experts can provide clear dietary guidelines from all of this but it would appear that living in abject fear of eating fats is a bad idea and that constantly chowing down on low nutritional value carbs is bad. In other words an apple which has carbs is better than a bag of potato chips.

How about Eating Your Vegetables?

The study noted that as part of a balanced diet fruits and vegetables are a good idea. However, there appears to be no extra added value beyond three or perhaps four servings a day. It would appear that in the end moderation is a good idea. A friend of ours has always said that she simply eats what she likes to eat, in reasonable amounts and is doing just fine, thank you.

Things to Do in Preparation for a Hurricane

The news is full of information about the most powerful hurricane to hit the USA in a decade. If you live on the coast what are the things to do in preparation for a hurricane? Time discusses how to prepare for hurricane Harvey.

Leave: People living right on the shore where a category 3 hurricane is likely to hit should board up their homes and leave. The storm surge could well wash away their home with them in it. Anyone who lives in areas where hurricanes are likely should have an evacuation plan in mind. Where to go, where to stay and how to remain in contact with family are important.

Supplies: Anyone who is staying and planning to ride out the storm needs supplies. Here are some essentials:

  • Food and water for three days or more
  • Medications
  • Pet supplies
  • Flashlights and batteries, candles for when the power goes out
  • A whistle to signal for help
  • First aid supplies
  • Cash
  • Extra clothing and blankets
  • Gas tanks filled for all vehicles
  • Battery powered radio/TV

Turn the temperature in refrigerators and freezers to maximum cold so if the power goes out food will remain cold longer and not spoil as fast.

Preserving Information

Individuals should make sure that family photos, important documents and keepsakes are not on lower levels where they will likely get wet and ruined in the event of flooding. For businesses there is the issue of preserving data as well. Data Center Knowledge offers hurricane preparation tips for data centers.

Keeping data centers operational during natural disasters can be critical to the health and safety of the affected area’s residents, as they supply the lines of communications for many first responders and provide access to valuable information about weather conditions and the state of the area’s infrastructure.

“You have to make sure that all staff are trained on emergency preparedness for events that you are anticipating or not anticipating,” Rentzke said. “Make sure the staff understands the contingency plans, the escalation plans, the coordination from security. Make sure that if you need to load-shift any potential equipment, you know which equipment needs to be load-shifted, if you need to drop power at some point, or lower the power.”

Anyone whose services are essential and cannot leave is in the same boat and this includes hospitals and clinics, police, emergency services and others. All need to have the basic supplies we listed as well as backup power supplies a and communications ability. Moving essential equipment to upper floors to prevent electrical shorting from flood waters is a good idea but difficult for larger items.

Communication

In advance of a hurricane make sure to always have emergency contact numbers available and make sure as the storm bears down that you cell phones are charged. Having portable chargers that are also charged up is a good idea to prolong your ability to communicate in the event of a prolonged power outage and isolation.

If You Have Student Loans You Should Have Life Insurance

If you are a young student who needs help paying for your education you may seek student loans. Because you are young and have no credit history you may need someone to cosign for your debt. The lender Sallie Mae writes to consider a cosigner.

A student loan cosigner is a creditworthy adult who signs for a loan along with you. It’s a legally binding agreement stating that they’re willing to share the responsibility of repaying the loan on time and in full.

Since private student loans are credit-based and many students don’t have a credit history yet, it may be difficult to get approved for a loan. When a creditworthy adult cosigns a student loan with you, their good credit can make it easier for the loan to be approved.

Student loan cosigners aren’t just for undergraduate student loans. If you’re applying for a graduate student loan and you don’t have a credit history, you might also benefit from having a cosigner.

Cosigners are often parents and they are responsible for paying all of your student debt if you do not. What if you die unexpectedly? You were expecting to pay off your loans over the years and now mom or dad will be faced with paying off your debt as they head into retirement. Basically if you have student loans you should have life insurance.

Student Loan Hero suggests a term life insurance policy.

It’s a situation that no parent wants to think about – the prospect of outliving your child. Having to bury the child you raised is an unspeakable tragedy. But if you were a student loan cosigner for your child’s private loans, you may be in for more trouble than just heartache.

As a co-signer, in most cases, you are legally and financially responsible for repaying the debt should the borrower pass. You may be able to work something out with the lender, but private student loan lenders are much less flexible than their federal loan counterparts and you could be on the hook for the remaining balance.

Dealing with such a tragedy already comes with a high emotional cost, but suddenly you could be dealing with a high financial cost as well. So what can co-signers do to protect themselves financially? Get life insurance.

Term life insurance pays in the event of death of the insured and will do so for the term of the policy. This sort of life insurance does not have any value if you want to cash it out. It is typically designed to pay funeral expenses, student or other debts and even leave a nest egg for a young spouse who is left raising your children without your help. The term of the life insurance can be set so that by the time you quit paying for the policy you have paid off your student debts and have enough money in the bank to pay expenses should you die and leave some money for your spouse and children.

Beating Back Robo Calls

There is hope for those who are tired of getting robo calls, unwanted and unsolicited telemarketing messages. Consumer Reports offers information and tips for fighting robo calls.

If you receive robocalls, there are steps you can take to help block them.

A federal judge in June ordered Dish Network to pay a $280 million fine for making millions of illegal robocalls to numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry. According to a recent Consumer Reports survey, at least 62 percent of AT&T, CenturyLink and Verizon customers reported receiving six or more robocalls per week.

And the problem has gotten worse. Now, consumers are being bombarded by these calls straight to their cell phones.

For calls that aren’t bypassing the ring, phone carriers are now offering different tools to help.

If you have AT&T you can use a free app for iPhone 6 and higher and for androids. It automatically blocks scam calls.

T-Mobile also offers free scam call blocking.

There are apps with both Sprint and Verizon that show the caller’s name on your screen even for calls not on your contact list. And there is a robo call blocker called Nomorobo that might be just the thing. Xfinity discusses how to stop unsolicited calls to your home with this service.

XFINITY Voice service works with Nomorobo to block unsolicited robocalls to your home. Nomorobo is a cloud-based service that hangs up on or blocks illegal robocaller or telemarketer calls from calling the intended home phone number.

Learn how to set up Nomorobo with your XFINITY Voice service. You’ll need to be at home in order to complete the activation with your home phone line.

This is used with Xfinity. Take a look to see if it might help you. It costs about $20 a year.

Do Not Call Registry

There is a national do not call registry set up by the Federal Trade Commission. You can register you phone and report unwanted calls from telemarketers. However, you may still receive calls from charities, political groups, surveys or debt collectors.

Report the Bums

If you are on the do not call registry and you still get phone calls report it. This is how Dish Network ended up paying a $280 million fine. If you get unwanted telemarketer calls 31 days or more after registering report the fact and let the FTC know what the call was about. Regarding debt collectors they must abide by certain rules too.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the nation’s consumer protection agency, enforces the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), which prohibits debt collectors from using abusive, unfair, or deceptive practices to collect from you.

If a collector contacts you about a debt, you may want to talk to them at least once to see if you can resolve the matter – even if you don’t think you owe the debt, can’t repay it immediately, or think that the collector is contacting you by mistake. If you decide after contacting the debt collector that you don’t want the collector to contact you again, tell the collector – in writing – to stop contacting you.

If these folks don’t follow the rules you can report them as well.


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