Stay Vigilant While Shopping Online This Holiday Season

Holiday shopping sure isn’t what it used to be. People are turning away from the craziness of the mall, and are instead using their smart phones, laptops and tablets to buy their gifts.holiday-online-shopping-safety

If you’re ditching the usual shopping experience for the less-stressful digital one, you’ll be in good company. Millions of people are expected to head online this year for their gift-giving needs.

But while online shopping provides greater freedom and convenience, it can come with some risks. Cyber criminals are prowling the internet – especially during the holiday season – looking to steal personal and financial information from unsuspecting shoppers. But the good news is that you can keep yourself and your wallet safe by staying on high alert. So, while working your way down your gift list this year, here are some online security tips to consider:

Stay away from sketchy sites. Whenever possible, do your shopping on popular, well-known websites. If you are tempted to buy from an unfamiliar site, be sure to do your research first. Google the name of the company to see if there are any scam alerts, or bad reviews out there. You would never give your credit card information to some creepy stranger on the street, would you? That’s really no different than giving it to some website you know nothing about.

Be wary of any deals that sound too good to be true. Say you’re surfing around and you find a price for an item that’s unbelievable. Chances are that it’s bogus. That’s one of the ways crooks lure in unsuspecting buyers to their sites. Once there, they have ways to con you out of sensitive banking and credit card information.

Be on the lookout for “imposter” sites. Even if you’re looking to buy from a website with a great reputation, or one that you’ve purchased from multiple times, you still need to have your guard up. Online scammers have been known to create fake, bogus sites that mirror the ones you know and trust. So, be sure to double-check the address bar of your favorite online store before entering your sensitive information. If you’re looking to buy on BestBuy.com, but you notice that the URL reads “bestbuy.shoppingstore.net”, then you’re not really on BestBuy.com, you’re on a site called “ShoppingStore.net” that is posing as BestBuy.

Only shop on secure sites. Before typing in your credit card or personal information online, it’s extremely important to verify that your connection to the website is secure. If the connection is not secure, it means the data you enter will not be encrypted, and can be easily accessed by cyber crooks. You can tell whether you are on a secure, encrypted connection by checking the URL in your browser’s address bar. If the URL begins with “https”, and there is an icon of a lock to the left of the URL, it means the connection is secure.

Don’t shop using free Wi-Fi.  Free, public Wi-Fi connections typically don’t have the best safeguards in place to protect you, such as firewalls and encryption technology. The same goes for public computers – they’re usually just as unsafe. If you’re out and about using public Wi-Fi or a shared device, wait until you get home to do your online shopping.

Know your apps. Only use trustworthy apps when mobile shopping. More and more people are turning to their smartphones to shop, and if you’re one of them, use apps provided directly by a retailer. Just as there are many bogus websites out there, there are just as many phony apps waiting to take advantage of you.

Keep up with updates. Make sure your devices have the latest versions of security software installed. And be sure to use the most recent version of your operating system and web browser. This will help ensure that you are properly defended against any newly identified viruses or malware.

Monitor your accounts. You should check your banking and credit card accounts on a regular basis, at least once a week if possible. If you come across any suspicious activity or unauthorized purchases, report them immediately to your bank or credit card issuer.

Most importantly, don’t let your guard down while shopping online. Being on the lookout for anything suspicious will go a long way to keeping your sensitive information safe. Stay vigilant, and don’t let your holiday be ruined by cyber crooks!

CD Laddering Helps Provide An Investment Balance

Striking a balance between having investments that provide solid returns while still having financial flexibility can be a challenge. But an approach called CD laddering can help you maintain that balancing act.cd-laddering-helps-provide-investment-balance

First, a little refresher about CDs, or certificates of deposit. A CD is also known as a “time deposit” or a “term deposit” because it’s set for a certain period of time. The depositor can choose which term they want to go into. CDs are a great way to earn a competitive interest rate and not have to think about setting money aside on a weekly or monthly basis like you would with a savings account.

Essentially, you put your money in the bank and you know that after your CD term expires, you’ll be able to get your money back with interest that is guaranteed and fixed. There are short-term and long-term CDs available at most banks. Short-term CDs can range from 6 months to a year, while longer terms typically range between 18 months and 5 years.

You can access money in your CDs before they are fully matured, but be prepared to pay a penalty for early withdrawal. On the other hand, if you structure your CDs with a little thought, you can help avoid early withdrawal penalties. This is where CD laddering can help provide financial flexibility.

CD laddering is a great way to be able to have money tucked away and earning a competitive interest rate, but also have access to the funds at regular intervals. There are a lot of different ways to approach CD laddering, depending on the individual’s investment strategy.

CD laddering involves buying a series of CDs at regular intervals so that they’ll mature at regular intervals as well. So over the course of the CDs’ maturity you have access to funds on an ongoing basis.

For instance, imagine you are opening three CDs – each with a $1,000 deposit.  You open a 6-month CD, a 12-month CD, and an 18-month CD. With this type of “CD ladder”, you will have funds becoming available every 6 months, because you’ll have a CD maturing every 6 months. But, at the same time, you’ll have at least some of your funds in a longer-term CD, and a longer term usually means a higher interest rate.

Using this approach, you regularly have a CD maturing, and its funds becoming available. If you decide you want to only use a portion of the funds once the CD matures, you could take out the interest that you’ve earned and roll over the principal into a new CD.

If you have some CDs that are shorter term with a lower interest rate and some that are longer term with a higher interest rate, you benefit because if you average out all the rates, it’s as if you had a longer term CD all along. That’s why financial experts advise having a mix of both.

And CD laddering can also involve rolling over short-term CDs to longer terms at higher interest rates. With this strategy, you end up with several CDs with long terms, but they mature at regular intervals, giving you access to funds if you need them.

To learn more about the CDs that are available at Bank5 Connect, go to http://www.bank5connect.com/home/cds. And while CD laddering may fit in nicely with your overall investment strategy, remember that it’s always wise to consult with a tax adviser before making any major financial decisions.

Be Wary of Fake Apps in the Cybersphere

“User Beware” is a good catchphrase to keep in mind when it comes to apps for your smartphone or tablet. That’s because there are bogus apps out there waiting to snare unsuspecting prey.tips-to-avoid-fake-scamming-apps

These apps will often appear as software programs that mimic legitimate ones, such as apps for popular retailers. But if you download them, you could be setting yourself up for theft of personal or financial information. Or you could end up paying for apps that just don’t work. Worse yet, you might end up downloading malicious software that could keep you locked out of your device until you pay a ransom.

Unscrupulous software developers have found ways to infiltrate app stores with their phony apps, often snaring people with enticing ads. But many of these ads or app descriptions will have misspellings or poorly designed knock-off logos of retailers – signs that they’re not legitimate. That’s because they likely were designed in a rush, or the designers were from overseas (which is typically the case) and English isn’t their first language.

That’s not to say that there aren’t phony apps that closely mirror those they’re imitating. If you’re not sure if an app is legitimate, go to the retailer’s websites in question and see if they have a direct link to the app there. You can also do a search using the retailer’s name and “fake app” in the search box to see if the company has reported that its brand has been hijacked.

Some other ways to uncover bogus apps include:

Checking to see who published the app and when it was published. Phony developers will use similar names as those they’re spoofing for their apps. And scam apps often have recent publish dates, while legitimate ones will have an “updated on” date.

Fake apps have few, if any, reviews. And if they do have some, they’ll likely be generic and short.

Look at how often the app has been downloaded. Legitimate apps will have hundreds, if not thousands, of downloads under their belts. Fake ones won’t rival those numbers.

If an app offers unbelievable shopping discounts, be wary of it. That’s because it’s probably just another ploy to get you to download it.

Look for reviews of an app before downloading it. You should be able to find reviews in the app stores and on the internet. If the app has no reviews, it was likely created recently, and could be a fake. Real apps for big retailers often have thousands of reviews.

Does your device use the Android operating system? If so, go to your settings and then to security and check that you’re set up to prohibit third-party app downloads from untrusted sites.

Generally speaking, it’s probably best to keep your guard up before downloading any app.

Keep Thieves from Getting Their Hands on Your Passwords

When’s the last time you changed the password for your online banking account? Or for the website where you pay your credit card bill? If you can’t remember, now’s a good time to switch it up. And don’t create a new password that’s easy to figure out, or use the same password you’re already using for other accounts. That’s just looking for trouble.prevent-thieves-from-getting-your-passwords

Cyber security experts offer a number of tips to help ward off online thieves. And rightfully so, since millions of people fall victim to cyber-crimes every year.

Have a password that’s easy to remember? Chances are it’s going to be easy for a thief to figure out, too. Sure, it’s hard to forget “123abc”, but using such a short and simple password is an open invitation to cyber theft.

Mix it up. Experts recommend using a combination of upper and lower case letters, numbers, and symbols to create a password. And throw in a made-up word or two, like “beahighve” or ‘”jabberwockysnark”.

Don’t get personal. You know how you post all those photos of your pet on Facebook and mention her by name, then use that name as a password? That’s easy pickings for a thief. So stay away from such things as names, birthdays and addresses.

Make it long. The longer the password, the harder it is to crack. That is, if you follow the previous suggestions for creating a password.

Don’t share. This may sound rude, but passwords aren’t meant to be shared with friends, partners, family members, or neighbors. They’re intended to protect you and your information. So keep them to yourself.

Alter them frequently. It’s recommended that passwords be changed every month or so.

Get some help. If you’re having a tough time keeping track of all your passwords, there are software programs that can manage them for you. Some are free; others you have to pay for. These programs store your login credentials for all the websites you use, and help you access those sites automatically. They encrypt your password database with a master password, which is then the only password you have to remember.

Stay out of the public eye. That free Wi-Fi at the coffee shop down the street may be enticing to use, but it’s not going to protect you from cyber crooks. They love public Wi-Fi because it gives them easy access to people’s passwords and online accounts.

Don’t get lazy. Isn’t it great how some websites will “remember” your login and password information for you so you don’t have to type it in every time you visit those sites? Convenient, yes, but this “remembering” feature is yet another avenue cyber thieves can use to uncover your login credentials.

Remember that when it comes to passwords, the first line of defense is you. So don’t open yourself up to thievery by failing to follow these basic password safeguards.

October is National Cybersecurity Awareness Month

Learning how to identify online fraud and understanding how fraudulent activity happens helps with prevention. Here are some past blog posts with information on identity theft and prevention.october-is-national-cybersecurity-awareness-month

How to Avoid a ‘Card Cracking’ Scam
What You Need to Know about Ransomware
3 Ways to Verify a Legitimate E-mail

Check back throughout the month of October for blog posts with tips and information on protecting yourself from cyber criminals.

Check Your Credit Reports Regularly and Thoroughly

Knowing what’s in your credit report is very important. It can help alert you to identity theft before it ruins your credit history, and it can have a significant impact on whether you will be extended credit for a major purchase or for a financial move such as refinancing your mortgage. Credit reports are used by creditors, insurers, and other businesses to evaluate applications for credit. In some cases, they’re even reviewed by potential employers before offering you a job. These credit reports are loaded with information such your bill payment history (including late and missed payments), how much debt you have, and how much credit you have available to you. A positive credit report can mean better interest rates on loans and more favorable consideration from credit card companies.check-your-credit-history-regularly

There are three major credit reporting companies that compile and manage these reports – Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. Fortunately, under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, you can order your credit report from each of the three credit reporting agencies for free once a year. The nation’s consumer protection agency, the Federal Trade Commission, enforces this law in an effort to promote the accuracy and privacy of the information in your credit reports.

When reviewing your credit reports, it’s important to look closely at all of the information provided to ensure it’s accurate. Incorrect information in your report could have a negative impact on your credit history. For example, if you’ve always paid your mortgage on time, but there are missed or late payments noted, you’ll want to contact the credit reporting agency to have the discrepancies remedied.

Checking your credit reports on a regular basis can also help you to spot identity theft. For example, if you notice addresses on your report that you’ve never lived at, or credit card accounts you’ve never opened, there’s a good chance someone could be fraudulently using your identity, and harming your credit history in the process. If you notice anything suspicious in your report that makes you think your identity has been compromised, contact the credit reporting agency immediately.

It’s important to note that the credit reporting companies don’t share information with each other, so it’s possible for the information in one agency’s report to differ from your reports from the other two agencies. Some people prefer to order their free report from all three reporting agencies at the same time to help identify any inaccuracies across them. Other people choose to stagger their free reports, ordering a free report from one of the three reporting agencies once every four months. This strategy can help you to keep closer tabs on your credit throughout the year.

The only website that is authorized to provide you with your free annual credit reports under the Fair Credit Reporting Act is http://www.annualcreditreport.com. If you’d prefer to order your free reports by phone, you can do so by calling 1-877-322-8228. You can also print out and mail a request form to Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281. You can download the form via this web address: https://www.annualcreditreport.com/manualRequestForm.action.

Once you’ve ordered all three of the free credit reports you’re entitled to annually, you can still order more, but you’ll have to pay for them through the individual credit reporting agencies. However, there are some special circumstances that could entitle you to more than one free credit report from each reporting agency. These situations include having your credit limit reduced, being denied credit, or becoming a victim of identity theft.

No matter what your situation, staying on top of your credit history is a sound and smart way to keep track of your financial health.

Your Child’s Financial Independence Starts With You

Helping your child get their financial footing is a lot like teaching them to ride a bike. When you first start out you’ll need to give them lots of help and guidance.your-child-becoming-financially-independent

The older they get, the more confidence they’ll have and the better they’ll be able to keep their financial balance. The ultimate goal, of course, is to have them become financially independent.

There are lots of ways to get them headed in the right direction. Here are some to consider:

  • Help them understand needs versus wants. Their needs include essential things such as food, clothing, and shelter. On the flip side are their wants – a new cell phone, a puppy, a new car. Explain that “needs” should come before “wants” when dealing with finances.
  • Set the example when it comes to living within your means. Don’t overspend and don’t buy things for the sake of having them. Kids pick up quickly on your habits and will usually mimic what you do.
  • Teach them the importance of creating a budget and sticking to it. This includes explaining income and expenses and striking a balance with the intent of incurring little or no debt. Show that a budget is one of the most important financial tools at their disposal, and that it should be relied upon and updated on a weekly or monthly basis.
  • Let them pay their way. As your child gets older and starts incurring regular expenses – cell phone usage, car insurance, gas – have them contribute toward paying these expenses. It makes them aware of how much things cost and gives them a better appreciation of what you’re paying for. It also allows them to take another step toward their financial independence.
  • Don’t’ give your kids everything they want. Whether they’re a toddler or a teenager, you should explain when you think something they’re asking for is unnecessary or isn’t within your budget.
  • Encourage children to get a job in their teen years. From part-time work during the school year to a full-time job during the summer, having them earn an income is an essential part of their road to independence.
  • Discuss credit cards with them. Teach your child the proper way to use a credit card, gain a credit history, and maintain a good credit score. This means paying your credit card bill in full every month. Explain to them that if they only pay the minimum due, they will incur interest charges that will continue to pile up until the balance is paid off. In other words, they’ll be living beyond their means and creating debt that could become unmanageable. On the other hand, if they establish a good credit record, it will pay off when they go to get a loan for such things as a car or college tuition, because lenders will be more inclined to provide funds based on a solid credit history.
  • Don’t let them ignore bill due dates. Teach your children the importance of paying their bills on time – another factor that comes into play as far as maintaining a good credit background.
  • Teach them to save! Explain to them the importance of putting aside funds in a savings account on a regular basis. Then take it one step further and allow them to start saving at an early age. Many banks and other financial institutions have special savings accounts designed specifically for youngsters, as well as for kids in their teenage and college age years.