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Security Update: It’s Time to File—Beware of Scams

As the tax season shifts into high gear, criminals also step up their schemes to rob you. They will impersonate IRS employees, set up fake sites to steal your data and deploy many other tactics.

But there are ways to protect yourself:

  • Dismiss calls, emails and texts from people who claim to represent the IRS—the agency only communicates via mail on official letterhead. Hang up, delete, delete.
  • Don’t pay anyone who says he or she is from the government, needs a pre-paid debit card, and threatens to levy fines if you don’t comply.
  • Never reply to emails, texts, pop-ups or ads asking for your personal or financial information.
  • Don’t do your taxes over public Wi-Fi hotspots vulnerable to hacking.
  • Visit us here to learn more about safeguarding your resources.
baby

She’s Having a Baby! (And Saving)

Congratulations are certainly in order if your family is growing. But even with good medical coverage, the costs of labor & delivery are considerable. The price for a normal birth without complications is usually in the thousands. Of course, it’s always important to set aside funds when you’re planning for a new baby, but there are ways to save & pay less.

Before your due date

The best way to save money is to be informed. Contact your insurance company and find out which expenses are covered. Discuss things like length of stay, medications, meals, and other procedures. Don’t be hesitant to treat your agent as your personal consultant—after all, that’s their job.

Do comparison pricing on local hospitals, as what they charge often varies from one facility to another. Ask questions such as the average total amount, when you should expect the bill, and if your insurance plan is accepted. If you don’t have insurance, inquire about cash discounts and payment plans. Depending on your income, you may qualify for financial aid, but you won’t know unless you ask.

At the hospital

Obviously, the health and well-being of the mother and the baby are far more important than any payment. Therefore, trust the counsel of medical professionals. However, you don’t need to receive every service offered. For example, the epidural generally costs hundreds of dollars and some people choose to go without it. Also, if permitted, bring your own over-the-counter pain relievers for after the delivery. That way you won’t be charged $50 for an ibuprofen.

If your family lives near the hospital, they can go home for meals instead of eating at the cafeteria. And don’t stay longer than necessary. Once you’ve received the all-clear from the doctor, see how soon you can check out. It’s intimidating to bring a child home and begin a new chapter of your life, but doing so a little earlier can mean significant savings.

When you’re home

Formula can be expensive, so if it’s possible to nurse your baby, that may be a good option. Also, when the final invoice arrives, check it closely for errors, such as being double-charged. Hospitals will usually bill the mother and child separately, so keep that in mind during your review, because mistakes are more common than you might think. Even if you have insurance, looking for ways to save is certainly beneficial.

return

What’s Your Return Policy?

Now that the holiday season dust has settled and most, if not all, of your Christmas decorations are stored, it’s time to decide which gifts you’re keeping and which ones you want to return. Maybe a shirt is the wrong size, or the family laptop you bought is a lemon—whatever the reason, here are some tips for making sure you don’t get stuck with unwanted clutter.

Review return dates

Exchange timeframes largely depend on the vendors. For example, Kmart purchases can be returned within 30 days, whereas Target allows 90 days. It can also depend on what you buy. Costco doesn’t have a limit for most things, but you’re given three months for electronics & appliances. Check the official site for specific policies.

Retain receipts

Always keep your receipts until the refund window closes. When giving presents, always include gift receipts. Having proof of purchase makes the exchange process go smoothly and it gives you additional options. For instance, some stores will accept returns without receipts, but only provide in-store credit.

Ready at the right time

If you wait until January to return a Christmas gift, you’ll probably be within allowed period and you’ll avoid the crowds. Reduce the chance of waiting in line even further by going early in the morning or late in the evening. Of course, you’ll circumvent this scenario completely by using online returns and simply shipping the merchandise back.

Read the fine print

You may not get the full amount when requesting a refund. Vendors such as Best Buy can charge a re-stocking fee and Amazon might deduct the cost of shipping. If you order from a third-party seller, its return policy may be entirely different. Some stores take returns on a case-by-case basis, so it doesn’t hurt to be kind when you ask.

Resolve it yourself

Finally, if you’re unable to return the item, or you don’t know where the gift was purchased, you can try selling it on eBay, listing it with your local classifieds or posting it on your social media pages. Alternatively, if you’re feeling philanthropic, you can give it to someone in need or donate it to charity—then you’ll benefit from good feelings, as well as a sense of accomplishment as you check off another item from your to-do list.

inventory

Taking Inventory of Your Finances

At the end of the year, most businesses will take inventories in order to gather data, measure success, and learn from shortcomings. For many of the same reasons, conducting a personal inventory of your finances around this time is also a good idea. Here are some tips on how to do it right.

Gather materials

It’s impossible to make accurate evaluations without having the complete story. Most of the information you need can be found on statements provided by your financial institution. Online statements allow you to quickly and easily find account summaries, loan information and tax documents for this year and past years. If needed, you can also print out these statements to compare and contrast your monetary habits from year to year.

Check for errors

When looking through your statements, keep an eye out for any unusual activity, such as double charges, inaccurate deposits, checks that haven’t cleared yet, transaction errors, or possible fraud. If you notice anything unusual, contact your credit union or bank. You don’t even have to wait for your monthly statement—use online banking to check account activity at any time.

Compare spending & saving

Look at where your account balances were at the beginning of the year and at the end. Do the same with your credit card and loan balances. Did you save more than you spent? Take note of your peak spending months and see if you can prepare for those months in advance so you could borrow less on credit next time. This is also a great way to see where most of your money went during the year. Taking regular inventory of your balances will keep you informed and help you avoid denied card transactions, bounced checks, and costly fees.

Take notice of interest

A wise person once said that those that understand interest earn it, whereas those that don’t, pay it. Examine which of your savings accounts offers the highest interest rate and consider storing more of your funds there. Also take note of which loans cost you the most interest, and find ways to avoid having to pay that much again. This could include simply making the minimum payment each month on your credit card or refinancing your mortgage.

Do something different

Taking inventory won’t make a difference in your finances if you don’t make adjustments based on what you learn. Even if you’re satisfied with how much you’ve saved, for example, you can probably find ways to spend less or earn more. As you make annual improvements, you’ll start to become financially stronger with each passing year.

Christmas

Have Yourself a Frugal Little Christmas

After all the shopping and party prepping are done, your holiday budget may feel two sizes too small. If you want to boost your Christmas spirit, but don’t feel like spending large sums of money, here are some inexpensive activities you can do with your family, on a date, or on your own this season.

Decoration expedition

Enjoying elaborate exterior decorations doesn’t have to cost a lot—go on a drive and appreciate your neighbors’ work. There are websites, apps & maps that identify impressive holiday displays, or you can explore and find them yourself. Many cities have lights in public parks with free admission.

Movie marathon

On the other hand, if you’re staying in, throw on pajamas, wrap yourself in a blanket and have a Christmas movie marathon. There are plenty of holiday streaming options available on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and YouTube, or you can turn on the TV and see what specials are playing.

Twinkling story time

Check out classic Christmas books from your local library, such as “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” “The Polar Express,” or “A Christmas Carol.” Turn off all the lights and read stories by the glow of the Christmas tree. You can also play some soft seasonal tunes to fill the room with more cheer.

Magical mall walks

Remember the mall? Even though many purchase presents online these days, shopping centers are full of festive decor, joyful music, aromas of pine & peppermint, and Santa’s workshop. Strolling through the mall without the stress of having to find a gift is a nostalgia-inducing experience.

Christmas karaoke

You already know the songs by heart, so why not throw a holiday-themed karaoke party? After all, as Buddy the elf said, “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.” And if you’re feeling brave, you can take your show on the road and go caroling.

Celebratory crafts & treats

There are thousands of Christmas craft ideas and recipes on the internet. Find those that work with supplies you already have and get creative. Cut out paper snowflakes, bake cookies, write heartfelt cards, set up a hot chocolate bar, or try your hand at DIY candy canes.

Joyful service

There’s something magical about serving others during the holiday season. Shovel a driveway or wrap packages for an elderly neighbor. Pay visits with the treats and crafts you’ve made. Volunteer for organizations that help the homeless and poor. Look for ways to brighten other people’s days and your yuletide spirit will shine even brighter.

Card Guard

Card Guard: Powerful Protection for your Transactions

Your financial information can be stolen at any time of the year, but people are particularly vulnerable during the holidays, just because everyone’s spending more. But when you have Card Guard® from America First, you control when, where & how your Visas are used—giving you the best possible protection.

Our revolutionary security app is free and available for Apple and Android devices. Download it, then log in to your account and pick the credit, debit and ATM cards you want to manage.

Customizable Control

If you misplace a credit card, for example, you can flip a switch and it will be disabled. Once you’ve retraced your steps and realize, for some reason, that you put your card in the fridge, you can quickly and easily turn it back on.

Another feature lets you set geographic limits on where cards can be processed. You can also choose to allow transactions only if your smartphone is in the vicinity. If anyone tries to use your card number in a store outside of this pre-determined area, or if the scammer doesn’t have your mobile device with them, the purchase will be declined.

Card Guard also lets you allow some transaction types and decline others. Or you can determine which card you want to be used at certain department stores, gas stations, restaurants, and grocery stores. This kind of control can prevent theft or help you manage your budget.

Additionally, your card can deny any transactions above a pre-determined spending threshold, stopping scammers from buying things with huge price tags. However, some criminals start by buying something smaller to test the card, which is why you want to set up real-time alerts.

Instant Notifications

These notifications are one of the coolest things about the Card Guard app. Once real-time notifications are enabled, your phone will deliver instant alerts about specific transactions or when your card number is being used at all. So, if you get an alert in the middle of the night, you can quickly review the transaction and see if you need to turn your card off or if it’s just your recurring charge from Netflix.

Add extra protection to all your purchases with Card Guard today.

school

Back-to-School Savings

Kids aren’t the only ones who get anxious about going back to school. As summer winds down, many parents are financially stressed because all of the supplies & extras they’re going to purchase. Here are some tips to save a few bucks this year.

Reading

Research it beforehand. Check out popular sites for discounts on backpacks, folders, laptops, calculators, colored pencils and whatever else you need. Follow your favorite stores on social media to see when deals are available. Sales occur at different times, so keep a list and compare prices.

You don’t have to shop exclusively online or at big-box stores, either. Get your local supermarket’s ads and browse dollar stores for inexpensive essentials. You may even find some great bargains at secondhand stores or yard sales.

Writing

Make a combined list of what each child needs for the upcoming school year. Picking out cute accessories or extras is fun, but they can add up—especially if you have a large family. Stick to what you wrote down and you won’t find yourself surprised by the total tab.

Consider sending an email or group text to other moms & dads about buying school items in bulk. A teacher may request two highlighters, for example, but you can go in with five others and buy a pack of ten, sharing the cost.

Arithmetic

First, do the math to see how much you’re going to spend. You can even involve your kids in this process to teach them basic budgeting techniques. Have them chip in with some of their own money if they want to buy something extra or upgrade to an item that features their favorite movie character on it.

Buying early can also lower your bill. If you know the basics of what your child should have, you can spread out the purchases during the year. Alternatively, since prices are usually lower after classes start, you can stock up on cheap supplies for the following year. A stockpile of school items will make you feel more prepared and you’ll save more, too.

send money online

Six Easy Ways to Send Money Online

Not too long ago, when a restaurant check was brought to a group of friends, everyone would chip in with cash. In fact, many people today still think they need bills to pay people back. But you can now send money online to friends and family with any of the following simple and secure options.

PayPal & Venmo

PayPal is probably the most well-known peer-to-peer payment system, with over 197 million active accounts. And while many use it to make purchases online, you can also transfer money to someone else with it. If the sender and recipient both have PayPal accounts with a financial institution, there aren’t any fees unless you’re sending funds to another country. Venmo is owned by PayPal and offers many of the same services. Plus, it allows you to post payments with commentary to your social feed, which your friends can see.

Google Wallet

If you have a Google account, you have access to Google Wallet, letting you send money online to other people via email addresses or phone numbers. There are no fees and it can be used for occasional commercial transactions, but corporations and non-profit organizations cannot receive money through Google Wallet.

Popmoney

Paying with Popmoney is easy. All you need is the recipient’s email address or mobile number. You can also send personalized greetings for special occasions like birthdays, weddings or graduations. Future-date payments are available for rent and other bills. Going to Popmoney.com costs $0.95 per transaction. But for America First members, Popmoney is free!

Facebook Messenger

Did you know you can do more than send funny GIFs in Messenger? Transferring money is easy once you have a debit card attached to your Facebook account. Just open a conversation with a Facebook friend, click the dollar sign symbol at the bottom of the chat window, enter the amount you want to send, then select Pay. Use the same button to request funds. You can also create a PIN to add an extra layer of security.

Snapcash

Send some money along with your pics using SnapChat. Attach your debit card to the account, swipe right on a friend’s name — just as you would to chat with them — and type a dollar sign and the amount. This will make the green Snapcash button appear, giving you the ability to send money online to any of your contacts. If funds aren’t claimed within 24 hours, they’re returned to the sender.

So the next time you need to split a lunch tab or pitch in for a gift, there’s no need to pull out your wallet or run by an ATM. Use one of these services and take care of it with your phone.

shopping online

Tower Defense: How to Stay Safe While Shopping Online

These days, going to a store to buy something might feel like a hassle — most prefer internet purchases. In fact, a recent study shows that 80% of Americans are shopping online, a number that keeps going up. Unfortunately, it means cybercriminals are becoming more advanced, too, making it equally important to stay safe while shopping online. Here are some tips to help prepare you for the virtual battle against identity theft and credit card fraud.

Gathering Intel

Sometimes the best deals aren’t on popular sites such as Amazon or eBay. But if you’re visiting one for the first time, do your research. Look up reviews and check out the company’s reputation before entering any information. And trust your feelings: if it’s a strange URL, has a dated look, is loaded with excessive pop-ups or anything else that seems shady, it’s probably worth going somewhere more credible.

Also, look for https:// at the start of the web address. This lets you know they encrypt sensitive data and keep your information private. Browsers additionally display green boxes & text or lock icons in the address bar when the connection is secure. Using official company apps on mobile devices also ensures better security.

Fortifying your Defenses

You are your own first line of defense against hackers. For example, avoid buying over public Wi-Fi connections and remember to keep your browsers updated to prevent breaches.

Don’t offer more information than necessary when creating accounts or checking out — only enter the required fields. If a company wants more than that, walk away. No reputable store will ask for your Social Security number or PIN. If you do create accounts, use secure passwords and change them periodically.

Credit card purchases are common & safe options, with automatic protections built in. You can also put an extra layer of security between you and vendors with systems like PayPal. Plus, America First provides Visa® cards that come with free identity theft recovery services in case you’re ever a victim.

Defending your Stronghold

Once you buy, keep an eye on your account for the transaction to clear. Using free online banking regularly is a good way to avoid any unwanted charges. Also, file your email receipts in a dedicated folder. That way, you won’t be fooled by spammy emails about fake purchases.

If you get a message about something you didn’t buy, don’t click on any links. You can also spot scams by looking at the sender’s address. If it says Google, but the email is coming from ggl24601@hs-42.ithosting.biz, you can safely assume it’s fraudulent. To confirm if it’s legit, go to the company’s site and contact their support team.

Finally, if you suspect any breach or compromise, contact your financial institution immediately. With all the threats out there, it’s hard to feel completely safe while shopping online. But if you do your research, take proper precautions and stay on guard, you can avoid many of these virtual pitfalls.

Protecting your Resources Online

In today’s 24/7 online culture, it’s essential to stay alert and protect yourself against fraud. Here are some tips that can help:

• Review your credit report at least once a year from each of the three national reporting agencies. These are available to you without a cost

• Monitor your account activity as often as possible, easily and conveniently, with free online & mobile banking.

• Take advantage of our Card Guard® mobile security app that puts you in control of your America First Visa® — you decide when, where, and how it’s used.

• Beware of unfamiliar attachments & links. If you’re not sure of the source, don’t click.

• Add a firewall to your devices. These prevent unauthorized users from gaining access.

• Properly dispose of your documents & statements containing personal and financial information. America First hosts free events at which you can bring materials to one of our branches and we will shred them for you. Check out a schedule here.

Remember, it’s always wise to take every available precaution when you’re navigating the Internet for personal, social, and business reasons. And be sure to use this link for updates regarding how we are constantly working to safeguard your resources.