According to a recent Deloitte survey, 91 percent of people agree to terms and conditions without reading the legal agreement. While reading through the legally complex language may be slow and painful, it’s more important than you think. Here are four reasons why reading entire legal agreements make sense:
- You miss a major technicality. Many agreements have an exit penalty that requires you to pay for a period of time after you terminate an agreement. Others automatically renew your agreement for a year with exit penalties unless you tell them in writing you do not wish to renew prior to a key date. In a recent example of missing a legal technicality, eight teachers claimed the Department of Education (DOE) mishandled a debt forgiveness program that promised to reduce student loans after 10 years of public service. In most of the cases, the teacher’s application was denied because, according to the DOE, they were in the wrong type of loan or payment program.
- You give something away. With extensive agreement documents (PayPal’s user agreement is over 50 pages long!), it’s easy for a company to add language that grants itself rights to something that’s yours. Here are some examples:
- Your identity. Companies like Facebook grant itself rights to use your likeness and personal information for targeted advertising unless you catch the clause and take action.
- Your work. If you create a presentation using some online tools, the agreement might allow the site to use the presentation without your permission.
- Your location. Most navigation software tracks your location even when not using their application. The same is true with most newer vehicles. The only way to catch these tracking rights is to read the clause in the agreement.
- You’re not comfortable with the risks. Data breaches are occurring more often and are hard to prevent. To reduce their exposure to litigation, businesses are continuing to add language to agreements to protect themselves. Your job, as the consumer, is to know these risks when signing up for a new service. The more personal information you provide, the more important it is to understand your legal recourse if the supplier of your service is hacked.
- You miss something good. Reading an agreement to the end may pay off. A woman in Georgia won $10,000 just by reading her travel insurance agreement. The company, Squaremouth, had a Pays to Read program that awarded a cash prize to the first person to read the clause with a cash prize. For most people, it’s more likely you’ll find additional benefits that come with the agreement or laugh at some humor injected by the company. Here is an example from social media company, Tumblr: “You have to be at least 13 years old to use Tumblr. We’re serious: it’s a hard rule, based on U.S. federal and state legislation. “But I’m, like, 12.9 years old!” you plead. Nope, sorry. If you’re younger than 13, don’t use Tumblr. Ask your parents for a PlayStation 4, or try books.”
Very few things in life can create a higher degree of stress than having your Social Security Number (SSN) stolen. This is because, unlike other forms of ID, your SSN is virtually permanent. While most instances of SSN theft are outside your control, there are some things that you can do to minimize the risk of this ever happening to you.
- Never carry your card. Place your SSN card in a safe place. That place is never your wallet or purse. Only take the card with you when you need it.
- Know who needs it. As identity theft continues to evolve, there are fewer who really need to know your SSN. Here is that list:
- The government. The federal and state governments use this number to keep track of your earnings for retirement benefits and to ensure you pay proper taxes.
- Your employer. The SSN is used to keep track of your wages and withholdings. It also is used to prove citizenship and to contribute to your Social Security and Medicare accounts.
- Certain financial institutions. Your SSN is used by various financial institutions to prove citizenship, open bank accounts, provide loans, establish other forms of credit, report your credit history or confirm your identity. In no case should you be required to confirm more than the last four digits of your number.
- Challenge all other requests. Many other vendors may ask for your SSN but having it may not be essential. The most common requests come from health care providers and insurance companies, but requests can also come from subscription services when setting up a new account. When asked on a form for your number, leave it blank. If your supplier really needs it, they will ask you for it. This allows you to challenge their request.
- Destroy and distort documents. Shred any documents that have your number listed. When providing copies of your tax return to anyone, distort or cover your SSN. Remember, your number is printed on the top of each page of Form 1040. If the government requests your SSN on a check payment, only place the last four digits on the check, and replace the first five digits with Xs.
- Keep your scammer alert on high. Never give out any part of the number over the phone or via email. Do not even confirm your SSN to someone who happens to read it back to you on the phone. If this happens to you, file a police report and report the theft to the IRS and Federal Trade Commission.
- Proactively check for use. Periodically check your credit reports for potential use of your SSN. If suspicious activity is found, have the credit agencies place a fraud alert on your account. Remember, everyone is entitled to a free credit report once a year. You can obtain yours on the Annual Credit Report website.
Replacing a stolen SSN is not only hard to do, it can create many problems. Your best defense is to stop the theft before it happens.
According to the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, nearly 30 percent of businesses are victims of payroll malfeasance, with small businesses twice as likely to be affected than large businesses. Here are four scary payroll fraud schemes you need to know:
- Ghost employees. A ghost employee does not exist anywhere except in your payroll system. Typically, someone with access to your payroll creates a fake employee and assigns direct deposit information to a dummy account so they can secretly transfer the money into their own bank account.
- Time thieves. Time stealing happens when employees add more time to their timecard than they actually worked. Sometimes multiple employees will team up to clock each other in earlier than when they arrive or later than when they depart for the day.
- Shape-shifting commissions. In an attempt to bump up a commission payment or attain a quota, sneaky sales employees may alter a sales contract to their benefit. A typical tactic used by a dishonest salesperson is to make a booked sale appear larger than it is and then slide a credit memo through the system in a later period. Companies with complicated commission calculations or weak controls in this area are the most vulnerable.
- External swindlers. A popular scam, known as phishing, starts with a fraudster impersonating a company executive through email or over the phone asking an employee with access to payroll data to wire money or provide sensitive information. These imposters can make the correspondence look very real by using company logos, signatures and email addresses.
Tips to combat payroll fraud
Being aware of the threats is a start, but you also need to know how to stop them. Here are some tips to reduce your company’s payroll fraud risk:
- Better internal controls. While most employees are trustworthy, giving too much control over your payroll to one person is not a good idea. Separating payroll duties and formalizing an approval process protects both your business and your employees.
- Review payroll records. Designate someone outside of the payroll-processing department to periodically review the payroll records. Have them review names, pay rates and verify that the total payroll matches what was withdrawn from the business bank account.
- Perform random internal audits. During an internal audit is when you can really get into the details to look for potential payroll fraud. You can do an in-depth review of the whole payroll system or select a random sample of dates and employees. Keep the timing of the audit under wraps to prevent giving someone the chance to cover up their misdeeds.
Managing your business payroll is a daunting task by itself, and actively protecting against fraud adds additional complexity. Please call for help with your business payroll needs.
You’re working at the office, getting stuff done around the house, or hanging out with family when – wham! – a phone call, email or text alerts you that something is wrong with your finances. When a negative financial event hits, don’t let it take you down. Here are some common mistakes and steps to remedy each situation:
- You overdraw your bank account. First, stop using the account to avoid additional overdraft fees. Next, manually balance your account by reviewing all posted transactions. Look for unexpected items and fraudulent activity. Then, call your bank to explain the situation and ask that all fees be refunded. Banks are not obligated to refund fees, but often times they will. The next steps vary based on the reason for the overdraft, but ultimately your goal is to bring your account back to a positive balance as soon as possible.
- You miss a credit card payment. Make as big a payment as possible as soon as you realize you missed it. Time is of the essence with late credit card payments – the longer it goes, the more serious the consequences. Then call the credit card company to discuss the missed payment. You might be able to get a refund of the late fees, and perhaps a reversal of the interest charge.
- You forget to file a tax return. Gather all your tax documents as soon as possible, and file the tax return even if you can’t pay the taxes owed. This will stop your account from gathering additional penalties. You can then work with the IRS on a payment plan if need be. The sooner you file, the sooner the money will be in your bank account if you’re due a refund. If you wait too long (three years or more), any potential refunds will be gone forever.
- You lose your wallet. Start by calling all of your debit card providers, then your bank and the credit card companies. Next, set up fraud alerts with the major credit reporting companies and get a new driver’s license. Finally, if you think it was stolen, file a report with the police.
- You miss an estimated tax payment. Estimated payments are due in April, June, September and January each year. If you are required to make estimated payments and miss a due date, don’t simply wait until the next due date. Pay it as soon as possible to avoid further penalties. If you have a legitimate reason for missing the payment, such as a casualty or disaster loss, you might be able to reduce your penalty.
Remember, mistakes happen. When they do, stay calm and walk through the steps to correct the situation as soon as possible
Simply said, it’s extremely important to update your beneficiary list and keep it up to date. Consider making it a priority or things might not go as you planned.
It’s not uncommon to lose track of your beneficiaries, including which accounts have them, and who you designated. However, it is important to keep them current.
Make your beneficiary designations a priority
When you designate a beneficiary for an account, that person inherits the assets in the account, regardless of what your will says. That’s why updating your will periodically may not be enough.
Typically, you’ll have beneficiaries for each of your IRAs, your 401(k) or other retirement plans, annuities and insurance policies. Your designations could be out of date just because of life’s changes. Since you made your initial choices, you may have married, had children or divorced. Some of the beneficiaries you chose could have died, divorced or married. Their circumstances could have changed so you no longer want them to be the beneficiary.
Tax laws change frequently as well, and they can have an impact on your choices. Choosing the wrong beneficiary, or failing to name a contingent beneficiary, can affect the long-term value of your IRA assets after you die. That’s why it’s important to review your choices with tax consequences in mind.
How to update your designations
At a minimum, you should have copies of your beneficiary designations in one place. If you don’t, call the trustees of your retirement accounts and your insurance agent and request copies.
Then review the documents and decide what changes you’d like to make. Make an appointment to review your decisions with your tax- and estate-planning advisor. Discuss matters such as naming secondary beneficiaries and whether to name your estate as a beneficiary (which is sometimes not a good idea).
Finally, send your changes to the account trustee, ask for a confirmation, and keep copies in your records. If you have questions about tax consequences or other tax matters related to your estate, contact our office.
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Hawkinson Muchnick & Associates PC
Don’t let a thief turn you into a festive fool this season. Follow these tips to avoid holiday shopping fraud, whether you’re buying online or at your local mall.
It’s not surprising that identity thieves and con artists love the holidays. More shoppers, more deals and more buying motivation makes the season rife with opportunities to steal. But you don’t have to let the holiday spirit cloud your shopping safety judgment.
Here are a few tips to avoid fraud, whether you’re shopping online or at your local mall:
- Shop on websites you trust. During the holidays, your e-mail inbox may be filled with unsolicited messages urging you to “click here.” Don’t. Scammers set up websites that mimic legitimate stores. They want your personal information so they can steal from you. Stick to reputable stores and sites and you’ll be better off.
- Background-check your choice charities. Many legitimate church groups and nonprofit organizations engage in fundraising activities during the holidays. If you’re confident that the group is above-board, go ahead and donate. But if something seems off – hold on to your money.
- Be attentive — especially at the mall. Large shopping centers offer scammers ample opportunities to steal. Don’t be fooled by someone selling a typically expensive product for way less money than it’s worth. Make sure you keep track of your purse, wallet and shopping bags. And be aware of your surroundings when you leave the mall. If you don’t feel completely safe walking alone through a dark parking lot, ask a security guard to escort you.
- Purchase gift cards wisely. These little pieces of plastic can be great stocking stuffers, but they’re also prime targets for crooks. Scammers have been known to copy numbers from gift cards hanging in store displays. They then call a toll-free number to learn when the card is activated and use the card number to make purchases. One way to avoid this is to buy from retailers who keep gift cards behind the checkout register.
Contact our office today if you’d like accounting or business and financial planning assistance. We are always here to answer your questions and serve your tax and financial planning needs!
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Hawkinson Muchnick & Associates PC