Monday, October 20, 2014

Internet Hygiene - The Best Computer Time Investment You Can Make


Wash your hands after you use the bathroom. Cover your mouth when you sneeze. Brush your teeth daily. These are all basic elements of personal hygiene. We practice them, in part, to minimize the amount of gross stuff that our bodies do, but we also practice them to help protect us from disease.

You might think "Internet hygiene" means wiping down keyboards after you use them and not spilling things on your computer. While these are good habits, there's another range of behaviors that security experts call "Internet hygiene," and it can be the difference between a safe and effective Internet and a world of hackers, bots, and identity thieves.

For most people, the beginning and end of cyber-security is a piece of anti-virus software. Imagining that there is nothing on their computer worth stealing, most users don't take their online security very seriously. Increasingly, that's the attitude hackers are counting on people exhibiting.

One such recent cyber attack, a malicious worm called Game Over Zeus, infected around 10,000 computers. The worm allowed hackers to remotely control infected computers, using them to launch attacks on major websites. In addition, users frequently found their personal files encrypted. A window created by the worm would inform them that, unless they paid a ransom that sometimes was as much as a few thousand dollars, they would lose access to the contents of their hard drive forever.

How did such a vicious worm spread so quickly? Hackers have gotten better about choosing their targets. It's easy to find out-of-date software and exploit known structural weaknesses in it to gain control of a computer. From there, it's a trivial task to create emails that look like they come from the owner of that computer, which makes it easier to infect that person's friends and family members' computers.

Security expert Tom Kellerman compares the state of a compromised computer to a neighbor who always leaves the front door to an apartment complex unlocked. Not only can thieves break into the neighbor's apartment, but they can use their expanded building access to more easily break into other units. If you aren't maintaining the security protocols on your computer and being vigilant about what links you click, you aren't just putting your own security at risk. You're creating a more dangerous Internet for your friends, co-workers, and family, too.

The lesson of Game Over Zeus is pretty simple. Computer viruses spread a lot like human viruses. They infect people who don't practice good hygiene, then spread to their friends and family. If you wouldn't sneeze on your hand before pushing buttons on an elevator, don't practice unsafe internet behaviors.

How can you practice good Internet hygiene? You don't need to be a tech guru to keep your PC safe. Security experts consistently recommend you take at least these five steps.

1.) Download an anti-virus software program, like AVG or McAfee, and keep it up-to-date. Schedule updates for it to run when your computer is on, and don't interrupt the process. Do the same thing with an anti-malware program, like MalwareBytes. Tens of thousands of new malicious programs are being created every day. If you're not regularly updating your security software, you might as well not have it.

2.) Run scans of both anti-virus and anti-malware software on a weekly basis. Just like people with strong immune systems can get sick, even if you have a Mac computer, you can still be infected with malicious programs. If you're on the Internet, you're at risk.

3.) Do it right away. If your computer gives you a message that it needs to download or install critical updates, do it the first time you see the warning. It's annoying to stop what you're doing and restart your computer, but it's better than having your computer compromised. When IT professionals call something a "critical update," it usually means it fixes a known software exploit. Make sure the message that pops up is from a trusted source, however. There are malware programs around that use fake "critical update" popups to infiltrate your computer.

4.) Don't click links that take you to sites you don't recognize, even if they're emailed to you by a friend or family member. These emails are frequently generated by bots to keep malicious software spreading. You clicking that link might make you yet another disease vector.

5.) Don't download, install or run any software you don't recognize. For these bots to keep spreading, at some point human beings have to authorize them. If you're installing software you think might be dangerous, you're putting your computer and the computers of everyone you know in jeopardy.

This might seem like a lot of work, but it's the price of doing business and living in a digital age. With the convenience of a world of information at your fingertips comes the responsibility to maintain the health of that system. Do your part - install and update security software, and be constantly on guard for threats!

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Friday, October 17, 2014

Card Security Breaches: Why They Occur And Who's To Blame

It seems like there's another financial disaster at every turn lately. Target's card databases get hacked. Heartbleed puts your passwords at risk. Home Depot's credit card numbers are compromised. JP Morgan Chase's credit information is breached. Shellshock threatens the integrity of the Internet. It's enough to make you long for the days of the corner store keeping credit on a sheet of graph paper.

To better understand how these things happen, let's first take a look at the steps involved in a financial transaction. Then, we'll see where vulnerabilities exist. Finally, we'll check out a few strategies you can use to keep yourself safe.

When you swipe your debit or credit card at a terminal, the only thing you see is an approval screen. Behind the scenes, the process from the moment you swipe a card to leaving the store with your purchases is complicated. And you want it to be that way. A less complicated process would remove many layers of security.

First, there's an "authentication" process. The point-of-sale terminal in which you swipe your card reads the card's information from the magnetic strip, encrypts it, and sends it to a payment processing center. This facility streamlines the data into a format your issuing company can understand and sends it along. Your card network company - Visa, Mastercard, Discover, etc. - validates the legitimacy of the information. You may be prompted for some information, most commonly your billing ZIP code. This is done to help authenticate the card.

Second, there's the reconciliation process. This is usually done at the end of the day for most retailers. The retailer sends all the day's receipts to a payment processor, which then sends them to the issuing institution - the credit union, bank, or credit card company. That institution debits its member or customer accounts for the amount of the transaction, then sends that money to the payment processor, which sends it to the retailer.

This is an explanation of how things work in a very simplified example, but it gives you an idea of the complexity that's involved in the process of paying with a card. While it's a lot of steps, it's the best system that the brightest minds in the financial industry could develop. Unfortunately, each step also introduces a layer of vulnerability.

The encryption protocol for card authentication can be busted (that was, in part, what Heartbleed was about). The retailer's receipt records they use for reconciliation can be hacked (like what happened to Target and Home Depot). The bank can have their register of accounts hacked (like JP Morgan did). So many layers of complexity create more possibilities for hackers to compromise sensitive information.

You might notice that there's only one step in the process that involves Destinations Credit Union or its computer systems. That comes at the very end of the process, when customer records are debited for purchases. In the latter example, the only victim of that theft was a big Wall Street bank. In such cases, the kind of hacking hardware and know-how that is required to orchestrate such an attack are expensive. Because credit unions are smaller and less centralized, they're much less likely to be targeted by this kind of attack.

That's not to say Destinations Credit Union doesn't take cybersecurity seriously. We keep up-to-date with the latest in computer hardware and software to make sure our members are secure against illegal access. We also have to adapt to a world where everyone else doesn't follow those same values. That means we have to adjust our security protocols to cover for the failings of other parts of that big, messy system.

We're all in this together. The convenience of the modern economy makes things better for everybody. If you go on vacation, you don't have to fuss with traveler's checks or currency exchange troubles. You can take your debit card or credit card and spend just the same. Electronic record keeping helps financial institutions keep costs down and we all benefit from a growing economy. If we want to keep getting these benefits, we all need to put the work in to make sure our networks are secure. Here are five small tips to make your little corner of the Internet more secure.                                                 
  1. Install updates for your computer, tablet, and mobile phone regularly.
  2. Don't open suspicious e-mails or questionable links.
  3. Don't install software you don't recognize.
  4. Monitor your financial statements closely to check for unauthorized activities.
  5. Get an anti-virus program and run it regularly.                      
            If you follow these five steps, you can help make the Internet a safer place for people to share things they love and buy things they need. You can help make sure the big system of merchants, processors, and institutions keeps chugging along while providing benefits to everyone.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Long-Term Planning And Your Auto Loan: How Destinations Credit Union Can Help You Save



If you're thinking about buying a new car, you know that the best time is rapidly approaching. The end of the model year means car prices on current year vehicles will never be lower. That means now is your chance to grab a new car for the lowest possible price.

If you're a savvy enough consumer to wait until dealers are desperate to sell, you owe it to yourself to wait just a little bit longer to do your research on financing options. Don't be fooled by dealer promises of zero percent financing. Let's take a look at three hidden costs that come with these advertised low rates. 
  1. You may not qualify for zero percent financing. Car commercials don't talk about the fine print, but dealers place a pile of restrictions on zero percent financing. If your history with credit is anything less than perfect, don't expect to qualify for these rates. Roughly 60% of people who apply for those loans get rejected. 
  2. These loans are usually short-term. If the dealer is offering zero percent financing over the life of the loan, expect it to be no more than 3 years. This means a much higher payment than you'd have on a 5- or 7-year loan. Additionally, many zero percent financing offers only cover part of the life of the loan - usually 6 months. After that, you'll be paying more in interest.
  3. Most importantly, choosing zero percent financing will usually prevent you from taking advantage of other discount options. Zero percent financing is offered instead of manufacturer rebates and other discounts. Also, these financing packages are usually incompatible with special discount programs like Ford's Friends and Family package.
This last hiccup can mean zero percent financing is actually more expensive than a loan obtained through a private lender, like Destinations Credit Union. To see this effect, let's take a look at some numbers. We'll assume that you're paying $20,000 for a car. You're presented with two choices. You can take 0% financing on a 3-year loan or you can get 1.74% APR* on a 5-year loan from Destinations Credit Union, plus a $2,000 rebate. Let's see how those options break down.
 
If you take the 0% financing option, your monthly payment will be $555. Assuming no other fees or problems, you'll pay $20,000 over the lifetime of the loan. Your payments will be higher, and if you can't make one of them, you'll be paying more in interest next month (in addition to all the months that follow).
If you take the rebate and reduce the cost of the car to $18,000, your monthly payment will be $314 for a 5-year loan at the credit union - a much more reasonable amount. Over the lifetime of the loan, you'll pay a total of $18,808. That means you will save $1,192 and have a lower car payment.

Even if it's not incompatible with cash back incentives and other rebates, having outside funding lined up before you go to the dealership can be a tremendous advantage in negotiating. By continually postponing questions of financing, you can let the dealer think there's still money to be made. This position might lead them to give you more on your trade-in, lower the price of the car or offer you more options.

The loan you get to pay for your car may be the biggest financial decision you make outside of your home. You owe it to yourself to do your research and treat this momentous decision with diligence. You wouldn't buy a car just because it had an enticing price tag. Why would you do that with a loan?

Remember, dealerships make money from financing. They want you to finance your car through them, because it's one more way for them to profit from the sale. It's also one more piece of information they can use to manipulate the total price of the car in their favor. You can take that power away from them by doing your research on car financing.

If you're considering buying a new car, your first call shouldn't be to the dealership. It should be to Destinations Credit Union. Our professional staff can answer any questions you might have about auto loans and other options to finance your new car. Buying a car is one situation in which that old cliche` "knowledge is power" really is true. Take the time to educate yourself about your vehicle financing options (visit the AutoSmart section of our website to help with your research). Your wallet will thank you for it! Call Destinations Credit Union today. 

*APR=Annual Percentage Rate.  Rates may be higher based on credit history.

 


Thursday, August 28, 2014

Top 7 Home Improvements You Can Do Yourself With A Little Help From Destinations Credit Union

Stop and take a look around your house. Are you delighted with everything in it? This is where you spend a good portion of your day, and where you and your family build happy memories. There's no reason why it should be anything less than your dream home.

It can be expensive to hire a professional to redo some part of your home, and choosing a contractor can be a stressful process. Instead of shelling out tens of thousands for a contractor, why not consider these great home improvement ideas that you can do yourself!

1) The deck of your dreams

With cooler fall weather on the way, you might be thinking about turning your boring outside space into an outdoor living room! Whether you're after a raised wood deck to give your guests someplace to sit or a classy brick patio for lounging by the grill, a usable outside space can make a big difference in how you enjoy your home. The charming visual addition to the outside of your home is a great way to add value, too.

While this is a big project, it's big on rewards, too. Start by drawing up some plans - remembering that you're basically building a series of wood boxes that are bolted together. Draw up a shopping list of things you need, and head over to Destinations Credit Union to get the financing done. Then, head to your local home improvement store for lumber, bolts and a few new power tools.


2) Paint a room ... or a whole house!

If you're not feeling up to building much, you can make your house feel new again with a fresh coat of paint on the interior. Choose colors that complement your furniture and flooring, but choose slightly different shades for different parts of the house. Maybe you want to paint your kitchen and dining room in mellow earth shades to give it a sense of coziness, but you want to paint your bedroom a calming blue to help you sleep.

This can be a great project to get the kids involved in, too. Wall paint, sponges, and scissors can let children paint fun and imaginative shapes on their walls. A sense of ownership over the design might encourage them to help keep it a little cleaner as well. You can get creative in main spaces, too! Try painting an accent wall to change the light effects in your living room! Aside from paint, brushes, and rollers, make sure you get covers for furniture and floors and painters' tape.

3) Fix up an entryway!

Your front door is the first thing people see when they come into your home. You want to make sure it says great things about you and your family. A little bit of time and effort can make this part of your house feel more welcoming while also saving you time and effort.

You can make relatively minor changes here. Metal house numbers, trim paint and a few planters can make your front stoop look much nicer. You can also make some serious investments. A new door can really liven up the front of your house. New weather stripping can make your front door more energy efficient to save on winter heating costs. Nice light fixtures can take a little time to install, but they can make your house both more charming and a little safer. Sketch out some ideas, then head to your home improvement store to figure out what you need to make your front door the talk of the neighborhood.

4) Add a splash of class with a tasteful backsplash

The section of wall above the sink can see a lot of water damage. Left uncovered, this can lead to mildew and even mold behind the sink. A backsplash is an attractive option for preventing that damage.

While these are typically done in tile, there's nothing stopping you from looking at wood bead board, ceiling tile or wallpaper. You could even turn them into a functional addition to your organization system with chalkboard, whiteboard or magnetic film! Write up a recipe or meal plan to help keep your prep work organized in the kitchen, or write a fun morning greeting to your kids in the bathroom! There's no limit to what a backsplash can do for your home. Head down to your local home improvement store to see what kind of material you want to use, and don't forget to pick up adhesive to stick it all together!

5) Create a new outlook with new windows!

Installing new windows can seem like a daunting task, but they'll pay for themselves. Energy efficient windows with new molding and stripping can significantly reduce your energy bills. Plus, having new windows and screens will make your home look well-cared-for when it comes time to sell.

Do some research on energy efficient two- and three-ply windows. Figure out which will both fit your budget and hold long-term value. Remember, though, that the general rule is you get what you pay for. Cheap windows won't conserve much energy.

6) Refresh a tired kitchen or bathroom with new fixtures!

Your faucets and knobs see a lot of abuse. They get touched by grimy hands, splashed by soapy water and can build up calcium and rust even if you're careful about washing them. Because they're usually metallic, they tend to draw a lot of eyes. Dull, streaky fixtures can suck all the energy out of a kitchen or bathroom.

Replacing them, though, is pretty easy. In the bathroom, you can get sleek, modern fixtures that will save you sink space for storage. In the kitchen, consider getting a detachable head with a vegetable sprayer to make cleanups easier. Whatever you do here, you'll end up with a nicer looking kitchen or bathroom.

7) Bring your stuff together with built-in storage!

If your house looks like most others, it's chock-full on the inside with memorabilia and keepsakes. Tossed about the room, this can look cluttered and dingy. It makes it hard to clean and dust. Adding more furniture, though, can make a space feel cramped and tiny.

Instead, think about adding more built-in storage. Whether you just want to hang a shelf over an entryway, put some coat hooks by the door, or build a bookshelf into a living room wall, built-in storage is a great way to display your treasured memories without shrinking a room with too much stuff. Installing it requires lumber, mounting tools and a few other gadgets that DIY experts should have no trouble identifying.

When it comes to improving your home, Destinations Credit Union is ready to be a partner every step of the way. You may have heard about home equity loans and lines of credit, but you may have thought you can't use it for small remodeling projects. However, it's actually one of the most common uses for those accounts.

Let's talk. You supply the ideas, Destinations can supply the home equity loan or line of credit to make your dreams a reality. Call 410-663-2500 and speak with a loan officer and start enjoying the equity in your home today.

Monday, August 25, 2014

7 Ways To Save Without Suffering



We all know we should save more money than we do. Whether we need to pay down debt, build an emergency fund or save for retirement, we need to cut spending and increase our savings. It's the only way to build financial security.

Yet before considering what to cut back on, try these handy tips to save money without noticing the difference.

1.) Stop subscription music.
If you pay for a subscription Internet radio service like Pandora or Spotify, you're probably overpaying for music. The same is true if you're paying on a per-song basis through a service like iTunes. Consider, instead, buying CDs. You can find Imagine Dragons 2012 project Night Vision for under $5 on Amazon, or the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack for less than $8. Streaming music services have cut the bottom out of the physical media market, and you can pick up the savings. Just copy the songs to your computer and transfer them to your mp3 player, and you can jam out for less.
           
2.) Cut back on cable
Take an honest look at how many movies you watch in a month. If you're paying $15 a month for HBO or a similar fee for another premium channel package, you're paying for a lot of content you probably never watch, and the overall selection is limited. For half the price of HBO, you can subscribe to Netflix or another streaming service and get a lot more viewing options. You could even go with Amazon Prime and get free two-day shipping on all your purchases while getting access to a fairly hefty video library.
           
3.) Time your vacations to travel for less
Summer tends to be the most popular travel time for tourist-happy destinations like Miami and New Orleans. If you're planning a trip to one of these stops, traveling between February and April can save you money on your hotel reservation. Hotwire, the hotel booking site, sees an average decline of 30% at tourist locations during the off-season.
           
4.) Swap to an off-brand cell provider
You can cut down your cellphone bill considerably by switching away from a big-name carrier. If you're on Sprint, AT&T or Verizon, you can save a considerable chunk by switching to a brand like Cricket, FreedomPop or Straight Talk. These carriers buy time in bulk from the major companies and resell it at a discount. They don't subsidize phones or maintain well-staffed stores, so their costs are lower. You can get unlimited talk and text for one line for less than $15, and data, if you need it, for less than $20 for a 2 GB per month plan. These services don't always travel particularly well, so if you need your phone while far from home, they may not be right for you. Still, at that price, it can be hard to say no to savings on a phone bill.
           
5.) Start reading paper books
Just like the streaming service has cut the core out of the price for physical media, the popularity of e-readers has done the same thing to the dead tree pulp market. This is particularly true in used books, where time-tested classic paperbacks can be had for as little as a penny. More current and popular titles, like John Green's The Fault in our Stars, can be had on eBay for under $5, compared to the $10 for an ebook. Cheaper still, head over to your local library to get your fill of new releases, old classics and great books you've never heard of.
           
6) Check out Amazon Subscribe and Save
For commonly used goods, like tea and coffee, Amazon's Subscribe and Save function can cut back on the time and money you spend shopping. If you go through a 72-count box of K-Cups every month, you can save $2 per month off your coffee bill by scheduling automatic deliveries of your java through Amazon. A dedicated tea drinker can save $1 per month on a 160-count box of Yorkshire Gold. With free shipping for orders over $35 (or if you have Amazon Prime, as mentioned above) and automatic ordering, this system can be your set it and forget it path to savings.
           
7.) Get rebate shopping!
For costs you can't avoid, like groceries, it's best to avoid as much pain as you can. That's where online rebate apps come into play. Newly released iBotta, available for iOS and Android devices, offers a list of participating retailers and a list of rebates, usually between $.25 and $1.00. One of the most popular is a $.25 rebate on a gallon of milk - something you'll likely buy anyway. After you finish shopping, you take a picture of your receipt with a smartphone or tablet and upload it to iBotta. They confirm your purchase and credit your rebates, along with bonuses for regular redemption, referring friends, and completing other challenges. iBotta can be an easy way to knock $5-10 off your grocery bill.

Bonus Tip:  Sign up for a Kasasa Rewards Checking with Destinations Credit Union and get paid to have your checking account...every extra dollar helps.  You can even open a Kasasa Saver Account and have your rewards automatically swept into your savings each month!

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