Take Control of Your Finances: Part 1

Track Every Penny You Spend (Article #1 in a Series of 5) 

Would you like to have more control of your money? More than ever before, Americans are drowning in debt.  According to Experian’s National Score Index, at least one in ten consumers has more than 10 credit cards in their wallets. The overall average number of credit cards per consumer is four.  And, the average balance for the American family is approximately $7,400 in credit card debt. 

How can you avoid being in this situation? There are five critical steps to follow to help you get more control of your finances, which are: 

  1. Track Every Penny You Spend
  2. Develop a Useful Budget
  3. Start an Emergency Fund
  4. Get Out of Debt
  5. Focus on Your Future

In this article, we will focus on the first step in the process, which is:  “Track Every Penny You Spend.”

One of the first things you need to do to get your finances in order is to track everything you spend…down to the last penny.  It doesn’t matter how you track your spending, you just need to do it. 

Some people track expenses automatically using a computerized money management program, such as Quicken or Microsoft Money.  Others track their spending manually by saving receipts and entering them into a cash notebook or on a computer spreadsheet.  Whichever method you choose, stick with it, make it a habit, and record your transactions as soon as possible. 

For example, every morning as part of her daily routine, Jane downloads her checking transactions on her computer through Quicken and then categorizes them.  That way, she only has to categorize a few transactions from the day prior rather than many transactions from a week or month ago. She does the same with all of her credit cards and any other accounts she has.  At the click of a button, she then knows exactly how much she has spent to date, how she is doing in comparison with her monthly budget, and most important, how much she has available in her accounts.

This step in the process is all about gathering data, not judging how you spend your money or making drastic changes to your current money management habits.  When you see something written down, you may be motivated to live within the budget you have created.  You may find that you are spending too much on fast food, or maybe the cost of commuting is much higher than you thought due to higher gas prices.  Whatever the case may be, it gives you the first step in taking control of your finances. 

You should gather data regularly and keep record of what you are spending for at least 30 to 60 days so you will know what your tendencies are in terms of monthly spending.  Then, you will be ready to move on to the next step in the process, which is:  “Develop a Useful Budget.”

Reference:  http://www.nationalscoreindex.com/ScoreNews_Archive_13.aspx, http://www.indexcreditcards.com/creditcarddebt

Make Your Tax Refund Work for You!

It’s easy for us to think of this year’s tax refund as free money coming to us courtesy of Uncle Sam. However, the truth of the matter is that the check you receive is a return of your own hard earned money. And since you’re going to get your own money back, why not use it to get ahead of your financial goals?

In 2014, sixty-nine percent of those polled by American Consumer Credit Counseling indicated that they had used their tax refund to pay down debt and get ahead on monthly expenses, including rent, utilities, and car payments. In 2013, twenty-six percent indicated they would put their refund into savings, while forty-five percent said they would use it to pay down credit card debt. The National Retail Federation saw that forty-six percent of its 2014 survey respondents intended to cushion their emergency savings with their returns, with nearly six in 10 young adults between 18 and 24 putting their refunds into savings.

The results of these surveys are indicative of a growing, budget-friendly and money-savvy trend: Americans are opting out of tax-time splurging and are focusing on getting ahead. Here are a few easy ways to get yourself set up for success as tax season approaches:

  • Take advantage of a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. VITA programs offer free tax help to those who generally make $53,000 or less, persons with disabilities, the elderly, and limited English speakers. Qualified individuals can receive basic income tax return preparation assistance from IRS-certified volunteers.
  • Use Form 8888 to split your refund.  Why rack up more debt on your credit card in an emergency when you can set aside savings to cover it interest-free? The IRS provides taxpayers with multiple avenues to receive and save their refunds. Take advantage of direct deposit to your checking account to pay off debts and automatically deposit a portion of your refund to your savings account.
  • Need more inspiration to save? Enter to win with SaveYourRefund. SaveYourRefund has 101 cash prizes, including 100 weekly prizes of $100 and one grand prize of $25,000.
  • Take the America Saves pledge to make a commitment to yourself to save. Get emails to keep yourself motivated and/or sign up for text message reminders to get tips and advice about your savings goals.

We know that making smart financial decisions isn’t always easy. So whether you’re just starting to look at ways to get ahead in 2015 or are already planning to put your refund towards your goals, remember that your tax refund doesn’t have to go to one place. When you get your hard earned money back, put a piece of it towards paying down debts AND save some for a rainy day. It really is that easy.

This post courtesy of Americasaves.org :

Tammy Greynolds works for America Saves, managed by the nonprofit Consumer Federation of America (CFA), which seeks to motivate, encourage, and support low- to moderate-income households to save money, reduce debt, and build wealth. Learn more at americasaves.org.

Exciting Changes to the Home Possible Mortgage Program

This product has recently been enhanced to make home ownership possible to a wider variety of people.

Why is Home Possible Advantage such a big deal? Because recent changes have made it possible for customers to get 97% financing in addition to many other benefits:

  • Flexible credit parameters
  • Flexible closing cost funding options-no minimum borrower contributions required
  • Low fixed-rate loans and long-term financing
  • In-house servicing on our loans, giving you assurance of quality customer service
  • Reduced mortgage insurance costs

We also offer FREE Pre-qualification and counseling service. Find a mortgage specialist near you.

Apply for a mortgage online.

 

Two Ways Tax Scammers Might Target You

It’s that time of year — tax time. It’s also a great time to get up to speed on tax-related scams – so, we’re passing some valuable information on to you from the Federal Trade Commission, the federal agency entrusted with protecting your rights as a consumer.

Here are two ways tax scammers might target you:

Tax identity theft

This kind of identity theft happens when someone files a fake tax return using your personal information — like your Social Security number — to get a tax refund or a job. You find out about it when you get a letter from the IRS saying:

  • more than one tax return was filed in your name, or
  • IRS records show wages from an employer you don’t know

If you get a letter like this, contact the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit at 800-908-4490. You can find more about tax identity theft at ftc.gov/taxidtheft and irs.gov/identitytheft.

IRS imposter scams

This time scammers aren’t pretending to be you — they’re posing as the IRS. They call you up saying you owe taxes, and threaten to arrest you if you don’t pay right away. They might know all or part of your Social Security number, and they can rig caller ID to make it look like the call is coming from Washington, DC – when it could be coming from anywhere. Leaving you no time to think, they tell you to put the money on a prepaid debit card and tell them the card number right away.

The real IRS won’t ask you to pay with prepaid debit cards or wire transfers, and won’t ask for a credit card number over the phone. When the IRS contacts people about unpaid taxes, they usually do it by mail. 

If you have a question about your taxes, call the IRS at 800-829-1040 or go to irs.gov. You can report IRS imposter scams to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) online or at 800-366-4484, and to the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint.

More Tips for Protecting Your Money this Holiday Season

It’s the time of year when retail companies are filling up your inboxes with ads for special deals on items and promotions. Whether you take advantage of those deals or not, you’re still at risk for being targeted by fraudsters. 

Do you know what to do to protect yourself? Here’s a few debit card tips:

  • Carry only the cards you need. They can’t be stolen or lost if they aren’t in your purse or pocket.
  • Keep credit/debit cards close. Never leave your wallet or purse unattended. 
  • Never let your card out of your sight. Skimming devices, which record card information, can be hidden in a hand or under a counter. 
  • Don’t lend your card to a friend or family member. No matter how much you trust them, your card isn’t in your control if you don’t have it.
  • Always check your receipts and look for unauthorized charges on your statement. If anything looks fishy, report it immediately. 
  • Make a list of card numbers, expiration dates, and the toll-free numbers of your financial institution. Keep this record in a safe place (not in your wallet, with your cards) so you have access to it in an emergency.

And a few more regarding online shopping:

  • When shopping online, check to be sure the sites are reputable and secure. Look for web addresses with “https” in the address.
  • Don’t shop online using public Wi-Fi. Hackers can easily gain access and steal your information. 
  • Don’t respond to emails asking for personal financial information, they are likely phishing emails designed to capture passwords, logins, credit card details etc. 

And, finally, always – ALWAYS - report lost cards and suspected fraud right away!

Online Holiday Shopping: Tips for Keeping Your Information Secure

Online sales are expected to be significant again this year.

How can you maximize your transaction security? If the offer seems too good to be true, it probably is. Don’t get blindsided by the lure of great discounts – the security of your information is what’s most important. If you aren’t prepared and cautious, you could become the next cyber crime victim, the cost of which could far exceed any savings you might have received from the retailer.

When purchasing online this holiday season – and all year long – keep these tips in mind to help minimize your risk:

  1. Secure your mobile device and computer. Be sure to keep the operating system and application software updated/patched on all of your computers and mobile devices. Be sure to check that your anti-virus/anti-spyware software is running and receiving automatic updates. Confirm that your firewall is enabled.
  2. Use passwords. It’s one of the simplest and most important steps to take in securing your devices, computers and accounts. If you need to create an account with the merchant, be sure to use a strong password. Always use more than ten characters, with numbers, special characters, and upper and lower case letters. Use a unique password for every unique site.
  3. Do not use public computers or public wireless for your online shopping. Public computers may contain malicious software that steals your credit card information when you place your order. Additionally, criminals may be intercepting traffic on public wireless networks to steal credit card numbers and other confidential information.
  4. Pay by credit card, not debit card. A safer way to shop on the Internet is to pay with a credit card rather than debit card. Debit cards do not have the same consumer protections as credit cards. Credit cards are protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act and may limit your liability if your information was used improperly. Check your statements regularly.
  5. Know your online shopping merchants. Limit your online shopping to merchants you know and trust. If you have questions about a merchant, check with the Better Business Bureau or the Federal Trade Commission. Confirm the online seller’s physical address, where available, and phone number in case you have questions or problems.
  6. Look for “https” when making an online purchase. The “s” in “https” stands for “secure” and indicates that communication with the webpage is encrypted.
  7. Do not respond to pop-ups. When a window pops up promising you cash or gift cards for answering a question or taking a survey, close it by pressing Control + F4 for Windows and Command + W for Macs.
  8. Do not click on links or open attachments in emails from financial institutions/vendors. Be cautious about all emails you receive even those from legitimate organizations, including your favorite retailers. The emails could be spoofed and contain malware. Instead, contact the source directly.
  9. Do not auto-save your personal information. When purchasing online, you may be given the option to save your personal information online for future use. Consider if the convenience is really worth the risk. The convenience of not having to reenter the information is insignificant compared to the significant amount of time you’ll spend trying to repair the loss of your stolen personal information.
  10. Use common sense to avoid scams. Don’t ever give your financial information or personal information via email or text. Information on many current scams can be found on the website of the Internet Crime Complaint Center: http://www.ic3.gov/default.aspx.
  11. Review privacy policies. Review the privacy policy for the website/merchant you are visiting. Know what information the merchant is collecting about you, how it will be stored, how it will be used, and if it will be shared with others.
  12. Join MS-ISAC’s Twitter Chat. Join the Center for Internet Security (@CISecurity) and Sophos (@Sophos_news) on Tuesday, November 25, 2014 at 2 p.m. EST/11 a.m. PST for a Twitter Chat with more tips for staying safe online this holiday season.  Use #ChatCyberMon to join us!

What to do if you encounter problems with an online shopping site?
Contact the seller or the site operator directly to resolve any issues. You may also contact the following:

The Federal Trade Commission – http://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov

Fraud Alert: Watch Out for Black Friday Scams

It’s almost the Hap-hap-happiest time of year, but that doesn’t mean we should be relaxed in protecting our accounts. Black Friday and Cyber Monday are the busiest on-line shopping days. Here’s a few tips for watching out for the fraudsters: 

  1. Too-good-to-be-true coupons: these are coupons that offer free phones or tablets on sites all over the Internet. Don’t fall for it. Make sure the offers are from a legitimate company.
  2. Watch out for alerts via email or text that you just received a package from FedEx, UPS or the US Mail, and then asks you for some personal information. Don’t enter anything. Think Before You Click!
  3. There is also a fake refund scam going on that could appear to come from Amazon, a hotel, or a retail chain. It claims there was a “wrong transaction” and wants you to “click for refund” but instead, your device will be infected with malware.
  4. Be super-wary of bulk email with BUY NOW offers or anything that looks slightly “off”.

If you think you might have been scammed, stay calm and call your credit card company or bank. Getting a new card might be a little inconvenient, but it’s a small price to pay for a little more safety.

Holiday Travel Plans

Fraud is becoming more and more frequent and it’s no longer limited to online scams. Our fraud team works 24/7 to monitor and protect you from suspicious transactions. And, because we’re so careful, sometimes that can occasionally mean an inconvenience to you if you’ve swiped your card in a state other than the one you live in - and we don’t know you’re there.

Bottom line is… if you’re planning to be out-of-state for the holidays this year, make sure you let us know about those plans. Please, also keep your contact information up-to-date so our fraud team can reach you in a time of need.

Do you need to get us an update or let us know about your plans? Contact your local branch or our customer service representatives at 1-888-262-5456.

Fictitious Correspondence Regarding the Release of Funds Supposedly Under the Control of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency

Fictitious correspondence, allegedly issued by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) regarding funds purportedly under the control of the OCC and possibly other government entities, is in circulation. Correspondence may be distributed via e-mail, fax, or postal mail.

Any document claiming that the OCC is involved in holding any funds for the benefit of any individual or entity is fraudulent. The OCC does not participate in the transfer of funds for, or on behalf of, individuals, business enterprises, or governmental entities.

The correspondence may indicate that funds are being held by a specific financial institution and that the recipient will be required to pay an “approval fee” before the Federal Reserve Wire Network will release the funds to the beneficiary.

Attached is a copy of the “Interim Stop Order” document. E-mails being sent in regard to this scam appear to be sent from officials at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland and the United States Department of Financial Institutions, but they are not. E-mail addresses utilized in the electronic correspondence may be from [morgjamesin@yahoo.com] or [usdepartmentfinance@yahoo.com]. This material is being sent to consumers in an attempt to elicit funds from them and to gather personal information to be used in possible future identification theft.

Before responding in any manner to any proposal supposedly issued by the OCC that requests personal information or personal account information or that requires the payment of any fee in connection with the proposal, recipients should take steps to verify that the proposal is legitimate. At a minimum, the OCC recommends that consumers

  • Contact the OCC directly to verify the legitimacy of the proposal (1) via e-mail at occalertresponses@occ.treas.gov; (2) by mail to the OCC’s Special Supervision Division, 400 7th St. SW, Suite 3E-218, MS 8E-12, Washington, DC 20219; (3) via fax to (571) 293-4925; or (4) by calling the Special Supervision Division at (202) 649-6450.
  • Contact state or local law enforcement.
  • File a complaint with the Internet Crime Complaint Center at www.ic3.gov if the proposal appears to be fraudulent and was received via e-mail or the Internet.
  • File a complaint with the U.S. Postal Inspection Service by telephone at (888) 877-7644; by mail at U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Office of Inspector General, Operations Support Group, 222 S. Riverside Plaza, Suite 1250, Chicago, IL 60606-6100; or via the online complaint form at https://postalinspectors.uspis.gov/forms/MailFraudComplaint.aspx, if the proposal appears to be fraudulent and was delivered through the U.S. Postal Service.

Any information regarding the subject of this or any other alert that you wish to bring to the attention of the OCC may be sent to occalertresponses@occ.treas.gov.

For more information please visit http://www.occ.gov/news-issuances/alerts/2014/alert-2014-33.html