Monday, June 27, 2016

Trust Your Intuition To Shop Online (And Offline) Safely


In one way, shopping online is very similar to shopping at kiosks, in shops and in malls. Personal and financial safety is always of great importance, but it's easy to forget about safety when we're distracted or in a rush. Either way, online or offline, searching for the best item at the best price can be very distracting, and distraction can be a real problem. 

Think about the actions of a pickpocket for a moment. Professional pickpockets are looking for victims who are distracted, making it much easier to lift wallets, phones, purses and bags from preoccupied shoppers. Victims in hectic airports and on busy sidewalks are often distracted by the crowd, and they might be talking or texting on their phones at the same time, too. 

How many times have you passed through an airport and consciously thought about a pickpocket or a thief? And whenever you're making your way through a downtown crowd or attending a special event, are you thinking about your personal and financial protection? 

If you're not inclined to think about your safety while in a crowd, you're probably not thinking too much about your safety online either. Sadly, unscrupulous online vendors are well aware of that fact. They may set up a website, or a Craigslist or eBay listing, based upon the fact that most shoppers are too busy and too distracted to take a moment to consider their personal shopping safety. 

Trusting your intuition is a very useful safety measure ... assuming you pay attention to it. 

If you just don't feel right about a particular brick-and-mortar store, you probably avoid it, right? That's natural. But do you avoid a website or auction listing just because something doesn't look or feel right about it? If so, good for you. You are ahead of many folks in this area.

Most people who have used online dating sites become well-acquainted with profiles that don't seem to make sense. It's not always easy to identify the problem, but something just seems off, so they click away and check out other profiles as they shop for a possible date. Maybe it's just a feeling, but they learn to trust it. 

Online dating can teach you a lot about using your intuition when you shop online. Even if you haven't explored online dating yourself, no doubt you've heard stories about fakers and scammers who compromised the personal and financial safety of someone they met online. Sadly, it's not an uncommon experience.

That's why internet shopping safety is primarily a matter of considering the real person or company behind every website and each listing you visit. Trust your intuition to guide you. To do this, you have to set aside distractions and you can't be in a rush.

Look for:    
  • Product descriptions that are too short, clipped and inadequate. If a normal person needs more information to make an intelligent purchase, move on to another site to make your purchase. Something may not be right.
  • Spelling and grammar errors that stick out and detract from your shopping experience. Reputable companies hire experienced copywriters and editors to eliminate basic spelling and grammar mistakes. Scammers, many of whom are not located in the United States, skip the expense and try to do it themselves.
  • A physical address in the United States. If you can't find a physical address at the bottom of a website, or on the About or Contact pages, there's a problem. The CAN-SPAM Act requires commercial emails to include the physical address of the sender in the email and on the website to which any commercial email is linked. But, CAN-SPAM does not require websites to list a physical address, and it does not impose a fine as it does on commercial emails without physical addresses.
In other words, the law does not protect you by requiring a physical address on every website, but your own intuition can protect you by raising a red flag whenever you can't locate a physical address. Reputable sellers are eager to provide the information buyers need to identify and verify them. Go elsewhere to shop if you don't find a physical address you can verify online by making sure it matches the business you found on the web.        
  • A secure payment portal. Look carefully at the website address in the address bar at the top of your browser screen. It should begin with https:// because the "s" indicates a level of security you need whenever you're going to enter credit card or other personal information.
However, you may visit a site with an address beginning with http:// (without an "s") and it can also be safe because it will direct to a secure site for credit card or checking account information when you check out. Usually, you'll need to begin a purchase transaction before you know how a merchant is set up to collect your data. So, it's not a bad idea to select one item and simply begin the checkout process, stopping short of clicking, "confirm". That way, you'll know what to expect with your real purchase.

Your Turn: Do you trust your own intuition when you're shopping online? Do you make sure to pay attention and take the time to protect your personal and financial safety wherever you shop? Share your experiences - good or bad - here.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Plan For The Payoff When You Plan Your Student Loans


Planning ahead for college is not just a matter of getting good grades and accumulating a list of extracurricular activities and awards. It's also a process of understanding how to pay for tuition and living expenses during the college years, which often extends beyond the typical four-year period and sometimes also includes graduate school. 

Parents tend to focus on a college degree as the payoff for all the time, effort, money and love they have invested in educating their child. So they invest significant time, money and effort in helping them get accepted by good schools and get situated comfortably when college begins. 

But completing high school and entering college marks the beginning of the rest of your child's life, which generally involves repaying student loans. The payoff for anyone with student loan debt is budgeting successfully for monthly payments, and having the income to make them on time each month. 

You may have the means to keep your student loan borrowing to a minimum, which is ideal. But many parents are looking for every financial advantage available in scholarships and loans. Working together with your child, begin early by considering all the options for minimizing total student loan debt and the forthcoming monthly payments. Do the math together, calculating future monthly loan payments using a student loan calculator, such as the student loan calculator at Bankrate.com. 

When your student understands the long-term consequences of accumulating student loan debt, with monthly payments larger than her apartment rent or car payments, she's likely to become more serious about reducing her student loan debt ahead of time. 

Here are some ideas for starting your family conversation about planning for the payoff:
  • Begin your journey by creating an account for both parent and student borrower at  StudentLoans.gov, which provides information on federal student loans, the ones with lower interest rates and more flexible repayment options.
  • Inform your search for student loans at ConsumerFinance.gov, which provides information on private (non-federal) student loans, which have higher interest rates and less flexible repayment options.  Destinations Credit Union works with Sallie Mae to help its members with student loans.
  • Consider studying for a career in public service, which offers student loan forgiveness under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. An initial career in government organizations at any level (federal, state, local or tribal) or not-for-profit organizations that are tax-exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code can lead to many other opportunities in the future.
  • Explore the possibility of serving in the military prior to entering college. Active service-members and veterans of all branches, including the National Guard and Reserves, have several student loan programs available to them under the GI Bill. A calculator to compare the various program benefits is available at  Vets.gov.
  • Utilize a tax deduction of up to $5,250 on tuition paid by or reimbursed by an employer. It's possible to get a job and get a college education at the same time, so giving consideration to getting a job first may be surprisingly smart. Both McDonald's and Starbucks offer employer-paid tuition assistance in certain states.
Many parents and students forget to focus on the reality of a higher-than-average income from technical training, often requiring only two years or less of school. Information technology might be the first type of tech training that comes to mind, but it's important to remember that plumbers and electricians are often billing more per hour than many attorneys.

Think about it ... People will always need to live in structures requiring some form of plumbing. It's not a profession that can be outsourced overseas and it already pays more than an average wage.

A recent New York Times article reports, "Plumbers and the related trades of pipe fitters and steamfitters, who often work in commercial and industrial settings, earned median pay of about $49,000 a year nationally, well above the $35,000 average for all occupations, according to 2012 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The top 10 percent earn more than $84,000 a year. The average in big markets like Chicago and New York is about $70,000."

Planning for college should start with reality, yet it often starts with some form of fantasy instead. If you ask a typical class of middle-schoolers what they'd like for a career, you are likely to hear, "to be a YouTube star," or "to invent new computer games."

Middle school is not too early to begin talking about a real career, and how to prepare for it, plan for it and pay for it. By high school it's a necessity. Help your child see and understand the reality of student loans, and the big payoff they'll achieve by keeping them in line.

SOURCES:
http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/paying-for-college

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Memorial Day: How Did It All Begin?



Originally called Decoration Day, Memorial Day began following the Civil War when American families were counting their losses.  Popular poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow captured the sentiment of the entire nation in the final stanza of his poem, "Decoration Day," published in 1882:
Your silent tents of green 
We deck with fragrant flowers;
Yours has the suffering been,
The memory shall be ours.
In May of 1868, Gen.  John Logan, Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, had issued the following order: "The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land." 

Although many families traveled to cemeteries where fallen soldiers were buried for the purpose of placing flowers on graves, paying their respects and picnicking nearby, nobody was thinking about May 30th as we often think about Memorial Day weekend now. Decoration Day wasn't set aside to be a three-day holiday for kicking off the summer months.
 
Decoration Day Became Memorial Day 
A century after Logan's decree, in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which included establishing Memorial Day as a federal holiday on the last Monday in May. The legislation took effect in 1971 and was intended to give federal employees a three-day vacation, so that's when we all began to see the holiday as a time to relax, perhaps more than as a time to remember and honor fallen soldiers. 

By the year 2000, President William J. Clinton issued an official memorandum for all federal departments because a Gallup Poll had shown only 28% of Americans understood the true meaning of Memorial Day. It stated: 

"... I ask that all Americans come together to recognize how fortunate we are to live in freedom and to observe a universal 'National Moment of Remembrance' on each Memorial Day. This memorial observance represents a simple and unifying way to commemorate our history and honor the struggle to protect our freedoms." 

You may be familiar with the 3 p.m. moment of silence observed by all Major League Baseball teams, NASCAR, Greyhound Lines, and NASA. And if you are traveling on Amtrak or located anywhere along its route at 3:00 pm on Memorial Day, you'll hear train whistles blasting to honor "the service and sacrifice of America's armed services."

The well-known red Buddy Poppies sold on Memorial Day by the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) were also inspired by a poem, "In Flanders' Field," by John McCrae. They represent the blood shed by Allied soldiers in WWI, and the fields of poppies waving over their graves. VFW raises money each year to "honor the dead by helping the living." 

The American Flag - Long May It Wave On Memorial Day 

Maybe you're feeling inspired to fly an American flag on Memorial Day. If so, be sure to follow the proper etiquette.  To fly your flag at half-staff as a symbol of mourning, first raise it to the top of the pole for a moment, and then lower it to the halfway point. On Memorial Day only, the flag is flown at half-staff until noon, then raised up again between noon and sunset. This gesture is intended to represent the respect of the American people raising up the flag once again.  

If you're planning to travel over Memorial Day weekend, whether visiting cemeteries or to simply enjoy a vacation, look around for discounts offered to military families and veterans, active or retired.  Museums, cruise ships, amusement parks, motels, restaurants and chain stores often choose to honor service men and women with military IDs, American Legion and VFW membership cards or VA letters.
Military.com lists Memorial Day events around the country with frequently updates. Visitors to the Washington D.C. area will find many commemorative events scheduled on Sunday and Monday, but perhaps most popular will be the National Memorial Day Parade on Monday, May 30th. It begins at the corner of Constitution Avenue and 7th Streets, NW and ends at 17th Street.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs' website lists Memorial Day ceremonies at national cemeteries in every state, with starting times and contact information included.  Although it occurs a few days before Memorial Day, one tradition at the Arlington National Cemetery may inspire you to develop your own traditions this year:
"For more than 60 years, the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) has honored America's fallen heroes by placing American flags at gravesites for service members buried at both Arlington National Cemetery and the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home National Cemetery just prior to Memorial Day weekend. 
"This tradition, known as "Flags in," has been conducted annually since The Old Guard was designated as the Army's official ceremonial unit in 1948. Every available soldier in the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment participates, placing small American flags at each headstone and at the bottom of each niche row."
Can you picture it? That's over a quarter-million little American flags waving at one national cemetery alone. How will you pause to honor those who have given their lives for our freedom on Memorial Day this year?
SOURCES:

Friday, May 20, 2016

Ransomware: The Modern Equivalent Of Being Tied To Train Tracks


When we think of ransom, we typically think of a black-and-white movie with a kidnapper leaving notes made from a variety of newspaper cuttings. Today, ransom is much less melodramatic, much more common and targets something you might not expect: your computer files. 

In late 2013, the ransomware threat was added to the list of things that can kill your computer alongside bugs and crashes. Hackers made a new bug that's capable of taking over a computer, encrypting all its files and displaying a brief message demanding money to decrypt them. Sometimes, affected companies or individuals would pay up, the hacker would decrypt the computer as promised and everyone would be on their merry way. Victims would sometimes refuse to pay the fees in the given time and would then lose their valuable files forever. And sometimes, victims would fork over the cash, only to have the hackers disappear with the files still locked and therefore as lost as before the victims paid up.
One study estimates that in its first 100 days as a scheme, ransomware infected 250,000 computers. It earned the hackers a collected $6 million in bitcoins. If that trend continued, we can expect that they've hacked at least 24 million computers in the past two years. including one major hospital that reportedly forked over $17,000 to get its files back.
The original operator of ransomware, Cryptolocker, was shut down in May of 2014. Still, many ransomware copies arose shortly after and continues to wreak havoc. The program continues to evolve, now locking computers and displaying menacing countdowns to create a heightened sense of urgency to pay up.

The question now, of course, is what you should do to protect yourself. For starters, if the only computer you have to worry about is a private computer, ransomware is a less significant risk. Ransomware scammers tend to target computers of companies that have the capability to hand over large sums of money. If your computer handles the larger functions of a company, there are still some steps you can take to protect yourself.

1.) Don't trust online solutions

For starters, there are many software programs that promise to completely rid your computer of ransomware, but those are best left on the virtual shelf. Ironically, some of those alleged file-saving downloads are actually ransomware in disguise. Your best bet is to backup your files however you can - onto an external hard drive, onto a separate computer or even on paper. Anything you do will ensure that, when the hackers come, you'll already have those encrypted files elsewhere. It's advisable to check at least once a month to ensure everything you need is safely backed up.

2.) Hold onto your money

While it might seem like the only option that gives you a chance to get your files back, the FBI has issued a statement asking people not to pay such ransoms. If hackers are paid, they have more incentive to continue, and payment really doesn't influence whether they decrypt your files or not. "The FBI does not condone payment of ransom, as payment of extortion monies may encourage continued criminal activity, lead to other victimizations, or be used to facilitate serious crimes," as FBI Special Agent Christopher Stangl elaborates in an interview. If you're desperate for your files, paying may seem like the only option, but consider the difference that could be made if no one paid them anymore. Crime syndicates would be stopped without any work from the FBI.

3.) Call the cops, but don't hold your breath

Many are currently asking whether anything significant has been done by the FBI to this point. This includes Sen. Ron Wyden, who wrote to James Comey, the director of the FBI, to ask how the agency intended to clean up the ransomware problem. Comey responded that they were making progress, but pointed out that making arrests wasn't easy as "most of the top cybercriminal actors are located outside of the United States." Still, he went on to assure Wyden that, "The FBI is committed to following the money in investigating all crimes with a financial component; ransomware is no exception."

4.) Back up and stay safe

While the FBI has its best men on the task of catching these cyber culprits, it's your responsibility to be as safe as possible until they do. Back your files up. Don't click on any sketchy-looking links. Buy security that a trusted provider assures you is safe. Ransom is no longer a thing of black-and-white movies; but in the digital age, it's still our job to protect ourselves.

SOURCES:
Photo Source:  From Barney Oldfield's "Race For A Life" 1913 Silent Movie.
http://www.pcworld.com/article/2901672/how-to-prevent-ransomware-what-one-company-learned-the-hard-way.html