Learn to Protect Your Identity while Vacationing

When people head out on a much-needed vacation trip, there is often a tendency to relax so much that they let their guard down, which makes them vulnerable to having their identity stolen. Below are some practical steps you can take to avoid being victimized by an identity thief:

  • Inform your credit card company of your travel plans. Call credit card companies and your bank and tell them not only how long you will be away but what your destinations are. This will allow them to set up their fraud alert system, which notifies you if fraud is suspected.
  • Be choosy when using an ATM machine. Opt for ATMs that are situated behind the doors of a bank, if  possible. If the situation arises that your card gets stuck after you have entered your password, stop right away, and call to have the card canceled immediately.
  • Take only one credit card with you. If you only carry one credit card, you’ll be better able to keep track of it, which minimizes the chance of it being lost, or worse, falling into the hands of a thief.
  • Carry travelers checks. While it may seem as though internationally accepted credit cards have put them in the same category as the dinosaurs, travelers checks are still very useful for international travelers. Their biggest drawback is that if you want to exchange them for cash, you must go in person to a local bank when you arrive at your destination. However, they have two major advantages over credit/debit cards: if they are lost, the issuer will replace them free of charge; and if the local ATM is refusing to validate your PIN number, you still have cash on hand. Travelers checks issued in U. S. dollar amounts are widely accepted abroad.
  • Use an encryption program on your laptop. If you must carry a laptop with you, be sure it is encrypted to prevent prying eyes from accessing personal data. It should be locked up in the room/hotel safe when you aren’t in your room. The same goes for your cell phone and your PDA. 
  • Carry your wallet and your passport with you.  Men should always place their wallet and passport in their front pocket. Putting them in a back pocket makes your wallet and passport accessible to pickpockets. For women carrying a purse, place your wallet and passport in one of the inside pockets of your purse, and place the strap of the purse diagonally across your chest. Keep a hand on your bag at all times. It’s a good idea to make photocopies of your passports and other ID documentation and leave them in the room/hotel safe.

Stay alert when travelling.  Take precautions, and don’t give identity thieves an opportunity to turn your vacation into a nightmare.

Tax-Smart Gifts For Children

Many parents and grandparents want to find ways to help the younger generations of their families. Fortunately, there are several tax-smart solutions for helping grandchildren and children.

1. Contribute to a 529 plan. Funds placed in this type of plan can be used for college costs without federal tax consequences. In some states, it is also possible to receive a break in income taxes for contributions. Plan members must usually contribute to their own state’s plan to enjoy a tax break from that state. However, some allow a tax break for contributions made to plans in any other state. Several states give tax breaks to anyone contributing, and there are others that only give breaks to the account’s owner. If this is the case, it is best for grandparents and parents to open separate individual accounts for children. This allows both parties to enjoy contribution deductions. Since there are no limits on 529 plans, children can have multiple accounts. To learn individual state rules regarding tax breaks, discuss them with an agent.

2. Use tax credits for tuition expenses. For those who are making tuition payments, the American Opportunity affords a generous tax credit. However, the student whose tuition is being paid must be in the first four years of college. The exact credit amount may vary from one year to another, so it is best to discuss the current number with an agent. Keep in mind that it is necessary to spend the maximum amount listed for tuition to qualify for the full credit amount. If less than the maximum tuition amount is paid, the credit will be less. There are also household income limits for these. Parents who want to claim the credit must also be able to claim the child as a dependent.

3. Obtain a 529 gift tax break. The maximum gift amount changes from one year to another, so discuss the current limit with an agent. Exceeding the gift limit amount will result in tax consequences. However, it is possible to make up to five years’ worth of contributions in one year without being subjected to that tax. In order to ensure the gift tax is not imposed, avoid giving the recipient any other types of monetary gifts within that period.

4. Assist grandchildren or children in contributing to a Roth IRA. There is no age minimum for a Roth IRA. However, contributors must earn income from a job. This means that children who have a job and are of legal working age can contribute. The job does not have to be based on a structured payroll. Lawn mowing, odd jobs and babysitting can also be counted. Kids may contribute up to the amount they earn each year. However, they must keep the contribution amount below the annual maximum. To learn more about this number, discuss it with an agent. Most young kids want to keep the money they earn, which means adults can contribute for them instead. They may withdraw all of the money without paying taxes after they reach age 59½. Current contributions can grow significantly over time, so this is a great way to give a long-term gift to children or grandchildren.

5. Provide children with a custodial account. While this type of account does not afford the same tax advantage as some other options, it is a valuable tool for teaching kids about investing. The money in the account can be used for anything that is beneficial to the child until he or she reaches majority age. When this happens, the child takes over the account. To learn more about contribution rules, discuss them with an agent.

6. Make tuition payments to the college itself. Any payments made directly to an educational institution are exempt from the gift tax. This benefit is afforded to anyone who makes a tuition payment, so grandparents or parents who want to help their children or grandchildren will not be subject to the gift tax. Keep in mind that this rule does not apply for room and board charges. 

Financial Tools for your Phone – 3 Must-Have Apps

Image

Anyone can pay bills from their mobile device, but wouldn’t you like to do more? Like, track your investments and net worth from the same application? Or simply track a budget? And wouldn’t it be cool to find out the cheapest gas in town?

There’s an app for that! The following applications are available on both the Android and iPhone/iPod platforms.

Freshen your finances with Mint

By far, the most popular application for managing accounts across multiple institutions is Mint.com. This powerful personal
finance software, developed by Intuit, calls itself “the best free way to manage your money”. TIME Magazine agrees, choosing this application as one of the “50 Best iPhone Apps of 2011”.

Mint presents you with real-time access to ALL of your financial accounts, automatically categorizes your purchases, and helps you set and track your savings goals. You’ll receive alerts and reminders if you want them, and advice for paying off debt or preparing for taxes. You can even ask Mint to analyze your lifestyle and goals to provide you with recommendations
for changes that can save you a lot of money.

Mint’s pleasing-to-the-eye design, coupled with friendly and simple (but not simplistic) language, makes it easy to understand all of the information, no matter how in-depth you go.

Over eight million people use the award-winning Mint.com, and the mobile applications have earned a 4.2 rating in Google Play and a 4.5 rating in iTunes.

Grandma gets an Upgrade: the Envelope System

You know the envelope system – create purchase categories with a specified budget, then write the name of each category on a separate envelope. Fill each envelope with cash in the maximum allowed dollar amount, and make all purchases for each category with the money from its corresponding envelope. No cash = no purchase until the time period renews and the envelope is refilled. This method of budgeting may be old-fashioned, but it survives because, for many people, it’s very effective.

Easy Envelope
Budget Aid
allows you to utilize modern technology via the web or mobile apps to accomplish the same thing. Simply set up the personalized spending categories that you need – for example, Eating Out and Clothing – with their appropriate maximum, then record your purchases on your phone. The app will track remaining funds, tell you whether you’re on target for your specified your time frame, and produce various pie charts and reports for you when you need them.

Advantages:

  • It’s set up to be used by multiple members of
    the family, so you’re all working out of the same virtual envelope.
  • If you prefer to use a credit card for all
    purchases (for ease of one monthly payment, to accumulate points or miles, etc)
    you can still use the app.
  • Everything you need to use the app is completely
    free, but upgrades – which cost no more than $8/month – provide for importing
    bank statements, automatically recording scheduled payments, and more.

Disadvantages:

  • You’re not dealing in actual cash, so if you
    really need to feel the sting of greenbacks physically leaving your hands to
    deter overspending, consider using real envelopes – then tracking your
    purchases with the app.

EEBA – pronounced together as “EE-ba” – was developed by Dayspring Technologies, and has earned a 4.5 star rating in both Google Play and iTunes.

Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime – for Gas?

GasBuddy.com is a
popular network of websites where over half a million users per day input the
current cost of a gallon of gas at their local stations. The mobile app uses
this information in conjunction with your GPS location to pop up the prices at
gas stations near you. (The information is also accessible via the website by
inputting your ZIP code.) Prices are deleted from the system if not updated
within 24-48 hours. This ensures the information you’re getting is “surprisingly
accurate
“.

Why do people report the stations’ prices? Other than an
altruistic desire to provide fellow citizens with useful information, reporting
current prices gets you entries into GasBuddy’s weekly prize
giveaway
– usually a $250 gas card.

Currently, GasBuddy simply displays the cheapest price for a
gallon of gasoline at that station; a future version will display both cash and
credit prices. How can you be sure that that your trip across town (or across
the street) will actually save you money? Ask GasBuddy.com’s Trip Calculator!

All in all, it’s a handy tool in this time of crazily fluctuating gas prices. GasBuddy enjoys a 4.6 star rating in Google Play and a full 5 star rating in iTunes.

What Parents Need to Know to Keep Their Kids Safe Online

Homeland Security Investigations of the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement is one of the country’s largest investigative agencies. One of their top priorities is enforcing laws that protect children from online sexual exploitation. ICE’s Operation Predator initiative has brought more than 8,000 arrests of predators targeting children in the span of one decade.

Millions of children are the victims of online sexual predators every year. ICE estimates that about 20 percent of young girls and 10 percent of young boys will be exploited before they are adults. Sexual exploitation leaves children with physical, emotional and psychological scars. Operation Predator spans internationally to exercise ICE resources and disciplines for tracking and identifying offenders. Agents are stationed everywhere, and they work with Interpol and other agencies to increase cooperation and effectiveness as part the Virtual Global Taskforce. The following steps show several ways parents can keep their children safer online.

Decide what types of sites are allowed and prohibited. Parents should read the sites their kids are interested in before allowing regular access. If the site’s privacy statement is not acceptable, parents should find a similar site with better provisions.

Block sites with inappropriate content. It is important for parents to learn what types of sites have inappropriate content. Newer platforms of Windows such as Windows Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8 all have intuitive tools for this purpose. If children use xBox games or chatting features online, it is important to utilize all safety features for these options.

Set download limits. If children are allowed to freely download what they want, it can be hard to track files. Parents should require kids to ask permission before downloading anything. Shared music files, games and other items often contain spyware that could compromise the online safety of the entire family, so this should be a strict rule.

Set up different user accounts. By doing this, parents can use the administrator’s account and monitor other users’ activities. This will help children avoid the temptation of breaking rules, and it will help parents know when rules have been broken. It is also possible to set specific controls and safety settings with an administrator’s account.

Adjust Internet browser privacy levels. These can be customized on almost every type of browser. Some levels are preset and block certain types of sites. Parents can also manually enter specific sites they wish to block. For example, a parent who does not want children to access social media sites could block these specifically.

View activity logs regularly. To stay current with kids’ online activities, parents should view history logs frequently. Some kids may be savvy enough to delete their history, which is why parental controls used on an administrator’s account are valuable. These will show their tracks whether they erased them or not.

Use spyware detection programs regularly. Parents should invest in a good spyware detection and removal program. It should be run regularly to find and eradicate any spyware programs. These can sit on a computer undetected for long periods of time and are like virtual funnels that leak information to third parties. These parties may be hackers looking to steal money from bank accounts or child predators looking for addresses and online identities of children. For example, a predator could use stolen information to find a child’s online social media profile. Predators often make fake accounts to establish contact with children this way, so parents should be aware of this.

Talk to kids about online strangers. While this suggestion may seem ineffective to some parents who have rebellious teens, it is still important to do. If kids hear this enough, they will at least remember what they heard. Explain how predators use the Internet to exploit kids. Providing some real-life examples of cases where children were hurt by these predators can help kids understand just how serious the issue really is.