If You Hear This, You’re Talking to a Tax Scammer

It’s tax season, and scammers are working overtime to get your money. Tax scams are as varied as they are common, but when you know what to look for, you can beat fraudsters at their game and keep them from getting your money and your information.

If you hear or see any of the following 12 lines this tax season, you know you’re dealing with a scammer:

1. “We’re calling from the IRS to inform you that your identity has been stolen and you need to buy gift cards to fix it.”

If your identity has indeed been stolen, no amount of purchased gift cards will get it back. Unfortunately, there is also no way to reclaim funds that are lost through this kind of scam.

2. “You owe tax money. We’ll have to arrest you, unless you purchase iTunes gift cards.”

Yes, this really happened. A 20-year-old college student was tricked into putting $500 onto three separate iTunes cards and $262 on a fourth, when she received a call from an “IRS agent,” USA Today reports. As unbelievable as it sounds, when threatened with arrest, people will believe or do almost anything.

In this ruse, the scammer will make sure to get the access numbers of the iTunes card, which gives them easy and untraceable access to cash.

3. “If you don’t pay your tax bill now, we’ll cancel your Social Security number.”

Your Social Security number cannot be canceled, suspended, frozen or blocked.

“If taxpayers receive a call threatening to suspend their SSN for an unpaid tax bill, they should just hang up,” the IRS says.

4. “We’re calling you about a tax bill you’ve never heard about before.”

The IRS will never initiate contact about an overdue tax bill by phone; they will first reach out by mail.

5.  “This is the Bureau of Tax Enforcement. We’re putting a lien or levy on your assets.”

The Bureau of Tax Enforcement does not exist. If you receive a call from this, or a similar bogus agency, hang up.

6. “This is a pre-recorded message from the IRS. If you don’t call us back, you’ll be arrested.”

The IRS does not leave pre-recorded voicemails, especially those claiming to be urgent and/or threatening.

7. “You must make an immediate payment over the phone, using our chosen method.”

The IRS says that its agents will never call to demand immediate payment using a specific payment method, such as a prepaid debit card, gift card or wire transfer. If you hear this, you’ll know you’re talking to a scammer.

8. “Click here for more details about your tax refund.”

The IRS will never send emails with information about tax refunds. Emails worded like this will lead the victim to an IRS-lookalike site that is actually created by scammers. Clicking on the link will load the victim’s device with malware.

9. “We represent the Taxpayer Advocate Service and we need some information.”

Although the Taxpayer Advocate Service (TAS) is a legitimate organization within the IRS to assist taxpayers, representatives of the TAS don’t call individuals out of the blue. The TAS also will not ask taxpayers to share sensitive information, such as their Social Security number, over the phone.

10. “You owe the federal student tax.”

The federal student tax is yet another invention of tireless scammers. It does not exist, and if you receive a call about it, you’re being targeted by a scammer.

11. “This is an SMS/social media post from the IRS. We need more information.

The IRS doesn’t initiate contact with taxpayers, or ask for sensitive information, via text message or social media.

12. “We don’t need to sign your tax return even though we prepared it.”

A legitimate tax preparer must sign your tax return and will have a valid Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN). If a tax preparer is reluctant to sign yours, or to share their PTIN, you are likely dealing with a scammer.

If you’ve been targeted by any of these tax scams, you can fight back by reporting the scam to the proper authorities. Phishing emails that appear to be from the IRS can be forwarded to phishing@irs.gov. Alert the FTC about IRS phone scams and report Social Security Administration phone impostor scams on the Social Security Administration’s website.

Stay alert during tax season and keep your money and your information safe!

Have you been targeted by a tax scam? Share your experience in the comments.

Learn More:
clark.com
nerdwallet.com
mybanktracker.com
irs.gov

Save Money When Shopping Online

With tens of thousands of people still out of work and the economy still limping toward a recovery, wise spending remains important. And with huge parts of life still happening on your screen, for many, this means saving on online shopping.

Here are some tips for saving money when shopping online:

Wait on every purchase 

Online retailers purposely make it quick and easy to buy the stuff in your cart. Outsmart them by waiting between choosing your purchases and actually purchasing them. This trick serves a dual purpose: First, you may find you don’t really need or even want the item after a few days. Second, the retailer will almost always email a coupon for you to use for the “forgotten items” in your cart.

Outsmart dynamic pricing

Dynamic pricing is one of the most powerful tools merchants use to get online shoppers to spend more. It involves using sophisticated algorithms and tracking to show shoppers prices based on their location, browsing history and spending patterns. Retailers learn each shopper’s price point and show them products in that range.

Fortunately, you can outsmart dynamic pricing by following these tips, especially when shopping for items with a wide price range, like airline tickets.

  • Clear your browsing history and cookies or shop with your browser in incognito or private mode.
  • Log out of your email and social media accounts.
  • Choose localized websites of international brands instead of being redirected to the U.S. site.
    Time your purchases right

Believe it or not, there’s a method to the madness of online pricing. Learning how to crack the code can help you unlock substantial savings.

Sunday’s your day to score cheap airfare, with Mondays being the most expensive day to book your tickets, according to Airlines Reporting Corporation.

Bookworms are best off shopping for new titles on Saturdays, as this is when Amazon and Barnes & Noble launch most book sales.

Shopping for a new laptop or desktop computer? Major retailers, like Dell and Hewlett-Packard, distribute coupons each Tuesday.

For most other purchases, it’s best to wait until the end of the week for the best deals. According to Rather Be Shopping, most stores roll out discounts and special deals on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

Layer coupons

You may already be in the habit of never completing a purchase without doing a quick search for coupons, but even when you have those coupons on hand, there’s a technique that will guarantee the best savings.

Always use a promo code before a discount coupon. A promo code will take a specified percentage off your entire purchase while a discount code will take off a dollar amount. For example, say you have a 15% off promo code and a $5-off coupon to use on a $100 purchase. First use the promo code to shave $15 off your purchase. Next, apply the discount to bring your total down to just $80. If you’d do it the other way, you’d save less money.

Ask for price-drop refunds

Discovering that an item you purchased yesterday has just dropped in price can be incredibly frustrating; however, some companies take the edge off by offering to refund the price difference within a specific time-frame. Amazon, for example, gives a grace period of seven days from the delivery date to claim discount refunds. You can use camelcamelcamel.com  to monitor price changes on the retail giant’s website.

Use multiple emails for discounts

Many online retailers offer one-time promo codes for new customers, but you can be a new customer more than once. All you need is a different email address.

Don’t shop alone

Take advantage of the many apps, websites and browser extensions that can help you save money every time you shop online. Here are just a few you may want to try:

  • PriceGrabber – Use this app to compare prices on millions of products to find the best deal.
  • Rakuten – Shop your favorite retailers through this site for instant kickback cash.
  • Ibotta – Shoot a photo of your receipt for rebates that will go right back into your pocket.
  • Retailmenot.com  – Check this site for discounts and coupons you may have missed.

Online shopping just got cheap again!

Your Turn: How do you save money when shopping online? Share your best tips with us in the comments.

Learn More:
lifehack.org
blesserhouse.com
people.com
rather-be-shopping.com

Know Yourself, Know Your Money

Title: Know Yourself, Know Your Money: Discover WHY you handle money the way you do, and WHAT to do about it!

Author: Rachel Cruze

Hardcover: 272 pages

Publisher: Ramsey Press

Publishing date: Jan. 5, 2021

Who is this book for? 

Anyone who’s ever wondered why they make the money choices they do and how they can change them for the better.
Anyone who has ever tried to understand why the people in their lives make the money choices they do.

What’s inside this book?

The introduction and explanation of the 7 Money Tendencies:

1. Saver or Spender

2. Nerd or Free Spirit

3. Experiences or Things

4. Quality or Quantity

5. Safety or Status

6. Abundance or Scarcity

7. Planned Giving or Spontaneous Giving

New ways to understand how your parents, your fears and your beliefs impact your money mindset.

5 lessons you’ll learn from this book: 

  • Where you land on the scale of the Seven Money Tendencies and why it matters.
  • Which of the Four Childhood Money Classrooms shaped your money mindset.
  • How the Six Core Money Fears can drive your most common money mistakes.
  • Why you handle money the way you do, and what to do about it.
  • How to take control of your money to achieve financial freedom.

3 questions this book will answer for you: 

  • How does my childhood impact the money choices I make today?
  • Why do I constantly make money mistakes?
  • How can I change my money mindset for good?

What people are saying about this book: 

  • “Rachel does such a great job of getting to the root of why we make the money decisions (and mistakes) we do. This book is a self-discovery necessity.” — Marcus Buckingham
  • “I have often said if you want to understand someone, look at their checkbook and their calendar. How we spend time and money says a lot about who we are. Rachel goes deep into unraveling that mystery.” — Dr. Henry Cloud
  • “We’re all faced with the responsibility of managing finances. Rachel Cruze dives deep into why we interact with money the way we do… so you can make real progress toward your money goals!” — Candace Cameron Bure
  • “This book will not only change your money habits, it will also improve your relationships — and your life!” — Christine Caine

Your Turn: What did you think of Know Yourself, Know Your Money? Share your opinion in the comments.

Beware Romance Scams

With COVID-19 forcing more singles to meet and date online, America’s most expensive scam is on the rise. Romance scams are all over the internet and can be difficult to spot  While the data for 2020 is not yet available, according to the FTC, Americans lost a collective $201 million to romance scams in 2019.

Don’t be the next victim of a romance scam! Here’s all you need to know:

How the scam plays out

In a romance ruse, a scammer will create a bogus online profile and attempt to connect to singles on dating apps and websites, as well as through social media platforms. After a connection is formed, the scammer will work to build up the relationship with the victim, calling and texting often. Once the scammer has gained the victim’s trust, the scammer will spin a sorry story and ask the victim for money.

The scammer may explain that they cannot meet in person because they are currently living or traveling outside the United States. They’ll claim to be a doctor working for an international organization, a blue-collar worker in the middle of a construction project or to be part of the military and currently serving overseas. They may ask for money to help cover travel expenses, pay for medical treatment, cover customs fees at the airport or to pay for a visa or other official travel documents.

The scammer will ask for payment via wire transfer or prepaid debit card. Once they’ve received the funds, they will disappear. Alternatively, the scammer will ask their “date” to share personal financial information and then go on to empty the victim’s accounts.

How to spot a romance scam

If you’re in the market for a new date and you’re hoping to meet someone online, look out for these red flags:

Profile is too good to be true. If a single’s profile has unrealistic credentials, including a magazine-worthy photo, you’re likely looking at a scam.
Single rushes into the relationship. If the contact comes on too strong, too fast, it may be a scam.

Single asks you for money. Don’t believe a money-starved story of someone you just met online, especially if they start asking you to help them out.

How to play it safe online

Avoid falling victim to romance scams and similar ruses by following basic online safety rules.

First, never share personal details online with anyone whose identity you cannot verify. This includes all financial information, credit card details and personal information that can be used to unlock a password on any of your accounts.

Second, only visit secure sites and keep all the settings on your social media pages private. Never engage in conversation with a stranger who reaches out to you on a platform you’ve just begun using, or who sends you personal texts or emails you without any prior communication.

It’s equally important never to send money to anyone online.

If you suspect a romance scam

If you believe you’ve been targeted by a romance scam, take these steps to avoid further damage:

Research the name on the profile to see if the details check out. You can also use an online background checking tool, such as BeenVerified or TruthFinder, to verify the credibility of the profile.

Do a reverse-image search of the profile picture to see if it’s a stock photo or an image that was plucked off the internet. You can also ask the contact to share a current photo of themselves.

If your research confirms your suspicions, stop all communication with the scammer immediately. Block the scammer’s number and flag their emails as spam. If you’ve already paid a romance scammer with a prepaid gift card, call the company that issued the card to ask them to refund your money.

Report the scam to the FTC. It’s also a good idea to alert the website or app that the scammer is using. You may also consider warning your friends about the scam.

Follow the tips outlined above to keep your love life scam-free.

Your Turn: Have you been targeted by a romance scam? Tell us about it in the comments.

Learn More:
consumer.ftc.gov
romancescams.org
fbi.gov

Beware of PPP Scams

The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) has been a welcome relief for small businesses struggling to stay afloat while also keeping their employees’ incomes flowing during the coronavirus pandemic.

The program provides eligible businesses with unsecured loans to help them cover payroll, rent and other ongoing business expenses, with the possibility of partial or complete loan forgiveness. The loans are furnished by the Small Business Association (SBA) with applications processed by private lenders or other organizations. There have been many changes and updates made to the PPP since it was first passed on April 24, 2020. Most recently, the SBA began accepting applications for Second Draw PPP Loans on Jan. 11, 2021 from participating lenders.

Unfortunately, the PPP has been plagued by fraud since its inception. In these scams, criminals posing as representatives of the SBA, another government entity or a legitimate lender trick business owners into applying for a loan through their organization, sharing information that can then be used to hack their accounts and more.

Here’s what you need to know about PPP scams and how to avoid them:

How PPP loans are processed

The more you know about how PPP loans work, the stronger protection you’ll have against possible scams.

If you want to apply for a PPP loan, simply download the loan application through the SBA. Fill it out and submit it to an SBA-approved lender. You may also need to provide all or some of the following documents:

  • Tax returns for 2019
  • Payroll reports showing how you achieved your requested total loan amount
  • Documents proving your company’s structure, formation and ownership
  • Verifiable payroll expense documents and breakdown of payroll benefits
  • Payroll summary report with corresponding financial statements
  • Certification that all employees live within the United States. If you have employees overseas, you’ll need to provide a separate list of these workers and their respective salaries.
  • Most recent mortgage or rent statement and utility bills
  • Documentation about how COVID-19 has negatively impacted your business

If you’re applying for a Second Draw PPP Loan, you will also need documentation that showcases how you have used, or plan to use, your original PPP funds.

After you’ve submitted your application, you can sit back and wait for approval. There’s no need to share any additional information on the phone or via email.

How can I protect my business from PPP fraud?

Here’s a list of dos and don’ts to help keep your business safe from PPP scams.

 Do:

  • Be wary of any individuals demanding immediate payment from you, or asking that you make immediate contact with them to be eligible for a PPP loan. These are likely scammers.
  • Only use a lender that is accredited by the SBA. You can find a full list of SBA-approved lenders here.
  • Look for the .gov at the end of each email or website allegedly from the SBA or another government entity, such as http://www.sba.gov.
  • Reach out to your local and state government if you need help applying for a PPP loan.
  • Report any suspected scams to the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and your state’s attorney general office. If a suspicious caller or email contact alleges to represent the SBA, alert the SBA as well.

Don’t:

  • Share any personal information, like your Social Security number or checking account details, with an unverified caller or email contact.
  • Pay for a program that promises to process or expedite a PPP loan request if the organization behind the program is not truly accredited by the SBA. Click on links or download files from an unfamiliar email address. These links could infect your device with malware.

Times are tough all around as the world grapples with the “new normal” and small businesses have been especially hard-hit. PPP loans can help struggling organizations get back on their feet, but scammers don’t want to let that happen. Use the tips outlined above to protect yourself and your business from a PPP scam. Stay safe!

Your Turn: Have you been targeted by a PPP scam? Tell us about it in the comments.

Learn More:
sba.gov
bloomberg.com
ucbi.com
chicagotribune.com

Second Wave of Stimulus Checks Brings More Scams

The second wave of stimulus checks only started hitting checking accounts a few weeks ago, and the BBB  and the FTC are already warning of related scams.

According to the FTC, American taxpayers lost more than $211 million due to COVID-19 scams, with $20.9 million of that amount connected to the first round of stimulus checks.

Don’t get scammed! Protect yourself by learning all about these scams so you know when you’re being targeted.

How the scams play out

Stimulus check scams can take the form of phishing scams, in which a criminal asks victims to provide personal information to receive their check, and then instead uses that information to empty the victim’s account.

In other variants of the stimulus check scam, a victim receives an email prompting them to download an embedded link to receive their check.The link, of course, will infect the victim’s computer with malware.

In yet another stimulus check scam, a criminal impersonates an IRS official or a representative of another government office demanding a processing fee before the check can be sent.

Finally, there have been reports of taxpayers receiving checks that appear to be authentic stimulus checks, but are actually fraudulent. They deposit the check and, soon afterward, a scammer reaches out to them to inform them the check amount was incorrect and they must return some of the funds. Unfortunately, a few days later, the financial institution finds that the check is fake and it will not clear. The victim is now out the money they returned to the “IRS.”

Red flags

Unfortunately, technology has made it easy for scammers to spoof a Caller ID and to create bogus websites that look authentic. If you know what to look for, you can beat them at their game and recognize a scam before it gets past the first step.

Here are five red flags of stimulus check scams:

1. Unsolicited calls or emails

It’s best to avoid answering unsolicited calls and/or emails from unknown contacts to protect yourself from a stimulus check scam. Similarly, never click on a link in an unsolicited email or text message, as it may contain malware.

According to the BBB Scam Tracker, scammers have also been contacting people through robocalls and leaving messages about the stimulus checks and direct deposits. These calls should likewise be ignored.

2. Messages that ask you to verify or provide sensitive information

The BBB is warning of emails and text messages asking citizens to verify or supply information to receive their stimulus checks. Sometimes, the victim will receive an email instructing them to click on a link to receive their benefit payments. This, too, is a scam. The IRS will not call, text or email any taxpayer to verify their information.

3. High-pressure tactics

If a phone call or email demands immediate action on your part and uses a threat of losing your stimulus payment, you’re likely looking at a scam. There is no action you need to take to receive your check.

4. Fee solicitations

There is no processing fee or any other charge attached to the stimulus payments.

“If you do answer a call, and it’s about your stimulus payment, keep in mind that U.S. government agencies won’t ask you to pay anything up front to receive your funds. Anyone who does is a scammer,” cautions Jennifer Leach, associate director for the FTC’s division of consumer and business education.

There’s also no way to pay extra for receiving your stimulus payment earlier.

5. Inflated check amount

“We’ve seen a lot of scams involving bogus checks that look like government checks in the past year,” says Paige Schaffer, CEO of global identity and cyber protection services at Generali Global Assistance.

For the best way to protect yourself from this scam, the BBB recommends that all taxpayers receiving their stimulus payment via paper check verify that the check is authentic before depositing it in their checking account. Look up the agency or organization that allegedly sent the check to see if it really exists, and check the status of your payment to see if you actually should have received it.

Stay safe!

Your Turn: Have you been targeted by a stimulus check scam? Tell us about it in the comments.

Learn More:
wwmt.com
marketwatch.com
cnbc.com
bbb.org

The Benefits of Using Mobile Payments

Why fumble for your wallet at checkout when you can just pay by using your phone?

With more than 81% of Americans owning smartphones, contactless payments by digital wallet and mobile payment apps are now more popular than ever. Contactless payment is also becoming increasingly available at checkout counters across the country, with six in every 10 retailers accepting digital payments, according to research by the National Retail Federation.

Switching over to paying for your daily purchases with a digital wallet is simple. You’ll need to choose between popular mobile payment apps, like Google Pay, Apple Pay and Samsung Pay. All of these apps are similar, but Google Pay is your app of choice for all Android phones, Apple Pay works with recent Apple devices, and Samsung Pay offers the widest acceptance of all digital wallet apps. Once you’ve downloaded the app, you’ll need to load your credit union credit and debit card information and then finish setting up the app with your personal authentication process. When this step is complete, your app is ready for use.

Here are some of the benefits of using mobile payments.

Convenience

The biggest and most obvious draw of mobile payments is their incredible convenience. No more pawing through cards at the checkout counter while the people standing in line behind you are growing impatient. No more hesitating over a stack of cash. Just pull out your phone, open your digital wallet app and tap or wave your phone near the payment-enabled terminal. It’s that easy.

Security

Using a mobile payment app to complete a purchase has several security advantages over traditional payment methods.

First, it eliminates the need to carry around cash or credit cards, which always has the risk of being stolen or lost. Misplaced credit cards in particular can be a nightmare for consumers, making them vulnerable to full-blown identity theft.

Second, mobile-payment apps use extra security measures to protect the user’s data, such as encrypting all personal information and utilizing bio-metric authentication features, like fingerprint scans and facial recognition.

Finally, each transaction that takes place over a mobile payment app is tokenized. This involves a one-time code generated by the payment terminal, or a “token.”  The token is used to complete the transaction in place of the buyer’s actual payment information. The token cannot be used for any other transaction and is effectively useless if hacked. The buyer is thus protected from fraud.

Speed

Mobile payments are super-fast. Instead of counting out cash or inserting a card into a payment terminal and waiting for the transaction to clear, it’s just a one-two-three tap to pay. With mobile payments, checking out in any store can take just seconds from start to finish.

Budgeting and expense-tracking

Digital wallets can be easily integrated with money-management apps, making budgeting easy. Every transaction will be instantly recorded for future reference and review. Additionally, retailers generally offer electronic receipts with mobile payments, as opposed to paper receipts which are easily misplaced.

Safety

Ever since the world entered the alternate reality of COVID-19, mobile-payment apps have enjoyed an enormous boost in popularity. In fact, retailers have seen a 69% rise in contactless payments since the beginning of 2020, according to a study done by the National Retail Federation. This is likely due to the fact that consumers are wary of shopping in brick-and-mortar locations and are hesitant to handle germ-infested cash. Inserting a debit card or credit card into a public payment terminal that processes payments for hundreds of cards a day is not much of a better option. All of this has made digital wallets the chosen method of payment now more than ever, with 67% of shoppers choosing self-checkout options from their own mobile devices over in-person payment.

Mobile payment apps enable consumers to complete a purchase without making physical contact at germ-laden terminals. There’s no need to use a wallet, cash or credit card at all. Just pull out your phone and your transaction is a quick wave or tap away. It’s the perfect way to pay for purchases without compromising your safety.

Mobile payments are the way of the future. There are so many reasons to love mobile payments. They’re convenient, secure, quick and safe.

Your Turn: Why do you use mobile payment apps? Share your favorite benefit of using digital wallets in the comments.

Learn More:
thefinancialbrand.com
mobilepaymentstoday.com
alacriti.com

All You Need to Know About Checking Accounts

The most obvious things in life are often overlooked, and your checking account is just one of them. Most people hardly give a thought to this important account and how to best manage it effectively. We’re here to change that.

Here’s all you need to know about checking accounts:

What is a checking account? 

Your checking account at Advantage One Credit Union offers easy and convenient access to your funds. The minimum balance required for opening a checking account can be as low as $25. Like most financial institutions, we also allow an unlimited number of monthly withdrawals and deposits.

Checking accounts are designed to be used for everyday expenses. You can access the funds in your account via debit card, paper check, ATM or in-branch withdrawals, online transfer or through online bill payment.

Making transactions using the connected debit card, or through a linked online account, will automatically use the available balance in your account and lower the balance appropriately.

A paper check is also linked directly to your account, but will generally take up to two business days to clear. It’s important to ensure there are enough funds in your account to cover a purchase before paying with a check.

Maintenance fees 

Many banks charge a monthly maintenance fee for checking accounts.

According to Bankrate’s most recent survey on checking accounts, only 38% of banks now offer free checking, compared with 79% in 2009. Monthly fees can be as high as $25 a month.

Interest rates

Most checking accounts offer a very low Annual Percentage Yield (APY) on deposited funds, or none at all. Institutions that offer checking accounts with interest or dividends will generally charge a monthly fee, with the fee being higher for accounts that have higher rates. They also generally require a minimum balance in the account at all times or a minimum number of monthly debit card transactions. According to Bankrate’s survey, you’ll need to keep an average of $7,550 in an interest-yielding checking account at a bank to avoid a steep maintenance fee.

Security

Funds that are kept in a checking account at a bank are federally insured by the FDIC for up to $250,000. Credit unions feature similar protection for your funds, with all federal credit unions offering government protection through the National Credit Union Association. State and private credit unions may be insured by the NCUA as well, or through their own state or private insurance. Advantage One Credit Union is insured by the NCUA to offer you full and complete protection for your funds.

Managing your checking account 

Managing a checking account is as simple as 1-2-3:

1 – Know your balance

It’s important to know how much is in your account at all times. This way, you can avoid an overdrawn account, or having insufficient funds to cover your purchases. Being aware of how much money you have will also help you stick to a budget and spend within your means. You can generally check your balance by phone [or via online checking or a synced budgeting app].

2 – Automate your finances

Make life a little easier by setting up automatic bill payment through your checking account. You won’t miss the hassle of paying your monthly bills, and you’ll never be late for a payment again. As a bonus, you’ll save on the processing fee that is often charged on bill payments made via credit card.

You can also set up direct deposit to have your paycheck land right in your account.

Finally, ask us about automatic monthly transfers from your checking account to savings so you never forget to put money into savings.

[You may also want to consider signing up for overdraft protection, or to have funds transfer from your linked savings account to checking when your balance is getting low.]

3 – Keep your account well-funded, but not over-funded

Financial experts recommend keeping one to two months’ worth of living expenses in your checking account at all times. This way, you’ll always have enough funds to cover your transactions without fear of your account being overdrawn. You’ll also be able to cover the occasional pre-authorization hold that a merchant may place on your debit card transaction until it clears.

It’s equally important not to keep too much money in your checking account. Once you’ve reached that sweet spot of two months of living expenses, it’s best to keep your savings in an account or an investment that offers a higher APY, such as a money market account or a share certificate.

Checking accounts offer the ultimate in convenience and accessibility. Now that you’ve learned all about these often overlooked accounts, let this financial tool help you manage your finances in the most effective way possible.

Your Turn: How do you manage your checking account effectively? Share your best tips with us in the comments.

Learn More:
investopedia.com
discover.com
bankrate.com
thebalance.com
kiplinger.com

Don’t Get Caught in a Weight-Loss Scam!

January is prime time to get into shape.

This year in particular, many Americans are struggling to shed the “quarantine 15,” or the pounds packed on during all those months when life happened over Zoom and nobody saw what you were wearing below the waist. In fact, the snack company that brings us Oreo cookies and Ritz crackers reports that sales have increased  by more than 16% since 2019. And hard as it may be to believe, at some point in the future, it will no longer be socially acceptable to attend a business meeting, a friend’s formal dinner party or your sister’s wedding while wearing sweatpants.

Unfortunately, scammers know this as well as anyone, and they are out in full force, trying to scam consumers with bogus weight-loss products, miracle drugs and more. Gyms aren’t far behind, with many of them offering misleading contracts that are impossible to get out of once they’re signed.

Don’t get scammed! Lose the pounds you’re looking to shed this winter — not your money.

Here’s what you need to know about weight-loss scams and how to avoid them.

1. Gym scams

Scams at the gym generally fall into the category of false advertising and misleading claims. The BBB https://www.bbb.org/article/tips/13250-bbb-tip-joining-a-gym urges consumers to take the following precautions before signing up for a gym membership:

  • Check the gym on BBB.org  to see what previous and current customers have to say about it.
  • Ask about a free trial so you can see what the gym is like before signing a contract.
  • Don’t feel pressured into signing a contract. A reputable gym will grant you the time and the discretion to review the contract and to make the decision at your own pace.
  • Calculate the true cost of a membership. Gyms often lure new members with low prices that are only valid for an “introductory period.” Can you afford to pay the full monthly membership when this period ends?
  • Understand the terms of the contract. If anything is vague or unclear, don’t hesitate to ask a salesperson to explain it to you.
  • Find out the gym’s cancellation policy. What happens if circumstances beyond your control make you unable to attend the gym?

Despite your best efforts, you may end up getting scammed by the gym. Perhaps the terms of your contract were ambiguous, or you failed to calculate the extra added expenses that were only tacked on after the first month. In other circumstances, gyms will automatically renew a membership at the end of a contract unless the member takes action. And some gyms tack on extra “maintenance fees” without being up front about it when the contract is signed.

If you believe your gym has acted in bad faith, you may have legal options. Several states, including California, New Jersey, North Carolina, New York, Maryland, Ohio, Oregon and Washington, have statutes for the health club industry. Facilities that fail to comply with these laws are subject to penalties and fines. If your gym fails to reimburse you for what you believe was a falsely advertised contract, it may be worthwhile to pursue legal action.

You can also file a complaint with the BBB at BBB.org.

2. Weight-loss product scams

Bogus diet products and programs are the most commonly reported health care scams to the FTC. These can range from miracle drugs promising instant weight loss, companies paying social media influencers to promote their unproven products and even phony websites filled with fake articles about celebrities who allegedly saw amazing results with these products.

Scammy weight-loss products can be ridiculously overpriced, may contain harmful or unregulated drugs or may offer a free trial that comes with hidden charges.

Here’s how to spot a weight-loss product scam:

  • Advertised products sound too good to be true, touted as “revolutionary” or a “miracle breakthrough.”
  • Product promises a specific amount of weight loss in a specific amount of time.
  • A search of the company on the BBB website brings up negative reviews and reports of scams.
  • As a general rule, it’s a good idea not to trust weight-loss products that offer you results without requiring you to change your eating habits or lifestyle. In addition, weight-loss body wraps, patches, creams, lotions or gadgets are always scams. The FTC cautions that nothing worn or applied to the skin can produce substantial weight loss.

If you’re looking to drop some of those pounds you packed on during quarantine, it’s best to go the old-fashioned route: Eat less and move more. Keep your money safe from weight-loss scams!

Your Turn: Have you been targeted by a weight loss scam? Tell us about it in the comments.

Learn More:
bbb.org
wnep.com
stories.avvo.com
aarp.org

Five Steps to Take After a Financial Disaster

As we sail into 2021, many Americans are struggling with the aftershocks of financial disaster. Whether it’s due to a layoff, a smaller workload, medical expenses or a change in family circumstances, the financial fallout of COVID-19 has been devastating for people in every sector of the economy.

Recovering from a financial disaster, due to a pandemic or any other reason, is never easy; however, with hard work and the ability to look forward, it can be done. Here’s how.

Step 1: Assess the damage

Take a step back to evaluate exactly how much financial recovery you need to do. Are you thousands of dollars in debt? Do you need to find a new job? Do you have new ongoing costs you will have to cover each month? Are there any other long-term financial implications of the recent disaster, including alimony and IRS liens?

It’s also a good idea to review your overall financial picture at this point, including your current income and ongoing expenses.

Crunching the numbers and putting it all on paper will make it easier to take concrete steps toward recovery.

Step 2: Accept your new reality and stay calm

Shock and denial are valid stages of grief for any major loss or disaster, but in order for recovery to be possible, it’s important to reach a place of acceptance about your new reality. You can vent to a close friend or your life partner, express your feelings in an online journal or a paper-and-pen version, de-stress with your favorite low-cost hobby and then let go. Revisiting the past and constantly harping on what could have been will only drain you of the energy you need to move on.

Tim Essman, a financial professional with West Coast Wealth Strategies and Insurance Solutions in San Diego, also stresses the importance of remaining calm during an economic downturn. Don’t make any rash moves out of panic and fear, he cautions, as the best move in a financial crisis is to keep things stable until you can evaluate the situation and make rational decisions.

Step 3: Outline your goals

Before you get started on the actual recovery steps, define your primary objectives. Are you looking to rebuild a depleted emergency fund? Find gainful employment that will help bring your income back to its previous level? Pay down your medical bills?  Outlining your goals will make it easier to move ahead.

As you work through this step, remember to choose goals that are SMART:

Specific — The goal should be clearly defined.

Measureable — It’s best if there’s a way for you to measure the goal, such as dollar amounts, credit score numbers, etc.

Attainable — Set a goal that challenges you, but is possible to achieve.

Realistic — Your goal should not be completely out of reach.

Timely — A goal without a deadline is just a wish.

Step 4: Create a Plan

You’re now ready to create a full-blown plan to help you reach your goal. Your plan should consist of consecutive steps that lead to a life of complete financial wellness.

Here are some steps you may want to include in your plan:

  • Trim your spending until you can consistently spend less than you earn.
  • Build a small emergency fund to help get you through an unexpected expense.
  • Seek new employment or new income streams, as necessary. Consider moonlighting, blogging or selling stuff online for extra cash.
  • Start paying down debts. You may want to consolidate your debts with an unsecured loan to make this step easier.
  • Save more aggressively, with an eye toward your retirement and another toward a large emergency fund with up to six months’ of living expenses.

Step 5: Make it Happen

It’s time to put your plan into action. If you were careful to set goals that are SMART, you should be able to take the first steps in your plan immediately.

Be sure to review your plan occasionally and adjust it if any changes are needed.

Times are hard, but with a forward-thinking attitude and the willingness to work hard, we can all recover.

Your Turn: What steps have you taken toward financial recovery after COVID-19? Share them with us in the comments.

Learn More:
www.thesimpledollar.com
financialmentor.com
blog.massmutual.com