Working From Home? Take These Critical Cybersecurity Precautions
Working from home computers could be making your business more susceptible to security attacks.
Like many others, my company's entire team has been working from home for the last three months. It's difficult for many reasons, but I recently encountered one big, scary challenge I hadn't thought about--cybersecurity. That's the scary part, it's not top of mind until something goes wrong.
Within the last couple of months, my team realized we were receiving more and more phishing attempts. They looked like emails with subject lines that read "Action required for your SBA Loan," or "You're one click away from reserving your COVID-19 antibody test" or "The WHO says we may all be carriers" followed by a link to click or an attachment to open and learn more. Luckily, my team caught these attempts without opening anything that compromised our data, but it left me with an uneasy feeling like we were somehow more vulnerable than usual.
To understand our cybersecurity better I got in touch with Eric O'Neill, former FBI Special Agent and the National Cybersecurity Strategist for VMWare Carbon Black. He laid out the reasons for the uptick in cyber attacks around the world and helped me protect my company's data.
Cyber hackers and terrorists notoriously hit harder during times of conflict. Starting with the spread of misinformation related to Covid-19 and followed by the political unrest that's gripping the world, rapid information is in high demand. When you pair that with the fear-mongering that is driving common sense right out the window, you get a perfect storm. On top of all that, people are even more vulnerable than usual because they are working from home on personal and unprotected devices.
For a company that has private information for big names in every industry, that's a terrifying thought. So, O'Neill helped me ensure my team and our data were safe by having us implement these procedures.
Safegaurd Your Personal Devices
First things first, get your employees off their personal devices. Request they take their office computers home or, if you have the means, ship them or purchase portable computers for your staff with preloaded cybersecurity and VPN software.
If you're like us, you're readjusting your budget due to unforeseen Covid-related changes, and I wasn't sure this was the best use of our money. However, O'Neill walked me through a few scenarios of cyber hacking that lead to ransom, extortion, and blackmail, and I quickly saw the light.
If you're unable to provide company devices to your employees, there are measures you can take to ensure their personal devices are secure. Buy your team's cybersecurity software for their personal devices and walk them through the installation.
Securing your devices against malware is not the area to skimp. Budget for your data's protection and it will save you money in the long run.
Secure Your Emails
Your company should have an email level of cybersecurity that filters out phishing attempts. This firewall protection filters your incoming emails by IP addresses and rejects any harmful looking emails coming from Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran since these countries are constantly sending broad spectrum attacks to massive email lists.
Turn Your Team Into Spy Hunters
Your firewall protection only covers you so much. If the cyber hacker chooses to bounce the email from Moscow through an IP address in Arizona, then your protection will most likely not catch it. So, it's important to train your team on deciphering phishing attempts. O'Neill calls this training spy hunter training.
Start by having your team turn on 2-step authentication for all emails. When examining an email, O'Neill says there are certain tells a spy hunter should look for.
We already have enough problems out there without dealing with hackers and cyber thieves. So stay safe, be more secure, and, in the end, your business will stay as healthy as you are.
Double click the sender's email to see the actual email instead of the name they want you to see. You can often identify a hacker by an email address that is spelled wrong or slightly off.
Check grammar and spelling. Most times hackers are in a rush or English is their second language and you can find errors that don't make sense coming from the sender they claim to be.
Never click a link or open an attachment from a suspicious sender. If the email is supposedly coming from a bank, institution, healthcare provider or some other partner, log on to their site directly after closing the email browser or call their helpline. Never give any personal information over email.
The article, Working From Home? Take These Critical Cybersecurity Precautions, originally appeared on msn.com
Tax Deductions You May Be Entitled To TakeBefore IRS Filing Deadline On July 15
Though it sounds strange to say, tax season is upon us. Even though it's shorts and sandals weather, a delayed tax filing date of July 15 is one of the silver linings of the coronavirus. While there have been changes in recent years to the types of deductions many of us can take — as well as an increase in the standard deduction which makes itemizing more challenging — this year's unusual circumstances put extra emphasis on maximizing every deduction you can take.
Let's get started with the most common categories:
Both the Lifetime Learning Credit and American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) are wonderful tax incentives for lower and middle-income filers who choose to pay for higher education. The Lifetime Learning Credit is available for individuals enrolled in undergraduate, graduate, or professional programs, including courses to improve job skills, and is worth up to a maximum of a $2,000 tax credit (or 20% of your first $10,000 in educational costs). The LLC isn't available to single filers earning in excess of $68,000, or joint filers earning in excess of $136,000. The LLC is an excellent deduction for many middle-class adults who are seeking job retraining or to further their education.
The AOTC, on the other hand, is designed for first-time undergraduate students, and is worth $2,500 yearly per eligible student. Furthermore, if this results in zero taxes owed, you can even have up to a $1,000 credit refunded.
To claim the credit, you must have not completed more than four years of higher education, and be enrolled at least half-time for one semester (or trimester) during the year you're claiming.
When comparing the two tax credits, keep in mind that you can only claim one — no double-dipping is allowed, so choose wisely.
The Student Loan Interest Deduction allows you to deduct the lesser of $2,500 or the amount you paid in qualifying student loan interest. The deduction starts phasing out for single earners with a Modified Adjusted Gross Income above $65,000, and is unavailable above a MAGI of $80,000. For joint filers, that deduction starts phasing out at $135,000 and is unavailable above $165,000.
Family and care-related deductions
The Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit allows you to claim a credit of up to $3,000 for each qualifying individual, and $6,000 for two or more qualifying dependents, such as a disabled spouse, or parent for whom you provide caretaking. It's an especially valuable credit for so-called "sandwich generation" people who are caring for both kids and aging parents.
The Child Tax Credit is similar, but applies to a variety of children aged 17 or under who are dependents, including nieces or nephews, grandchildren, step-children, foster kids, or younger siblings. It's worth $2,000 per each qualifying child who is listed as a dependent on your tax return.
The Adoption Tax Credit is permitted for qualifying expenses leading to the adoption of an eligible child. It is fully available to those with a MAGI below $211,160, and phases out above that up to a maximum income of $251,160.
Other common tax credits & deductions
The Earned Income Tax Credit is an excellent tool for many low-to-moderate income earners, especially those with children, as it can provide a tax credit of up to $6,557 if you have three or more qualifying children. To qualify for the deduction, you must meet certain income limits, and have investment income of under $3,600 for the year.
Medical and health expenses can be tax-deductible if you intend on itemizing deductions (rather than taking the standard deduction), and if the costs exceed 7.5% of your Adjusted Gross Income. This deduction category is broad, and encompasses a great variety of treatments, providers, medications, and assistive devices. It can even include reasonable transportation costs to health-related visits or appointments. Similarly, contributions toHealth Savings Accounts are also tax deductible.
And don't forget that if you itemize deductions, you may generally deduct up to 50% of your income used for charitable donations, with certain exclusions and limits.
Finally, although this year has been financially taxing for many of us, it's not an excuse to miss the July 15 filing deadline. Request an extension, if necessary.
The article, Top tax deductions you may be entitled to take before IRS filing deadline on July 15, originally appeared on msn.com
What to Do If Your Kid’s Emergency Fund Is . . . You
If an adult child needs financial help, make sure you can truly afford it before opening your home or your wallet.
Financial fallout from the pandemic is hitting millennials hard — and many will soon turn to their parents for help, if they haven’t already.
Before parents ride to the rescue, financial planners urge them to map out a strategy that doesn’t just plug a short-term need but also makes sense in the long run.
“Often the heartstrings will get pulled — ‘I really have to help them!’— but it can be detrimental to the parent,” says certified financial planner Jeffrey L. Corliss of Westport, Connecticut.
(Of course, financial aid can flow the other way, as many millennials help support their parents. I’m addressing parents here, but most of the advice applies to kids helping their folks as well.)
Millenials Losing Jobs, Income
Even before the pandemic, millennials had lower median incomes, far more debt and a much smaller slice of the nation’s wealth than boomers had at the same age. Millennials — usually defined as those ages 24 to 39 — are more likely than older generations to have lost jobs or household income because of the pandemic, various surveys show.
“I've already seen clients coming in, worried about their kids,” says CFP Deborah Badillo of Miami. “‘They’re going to lose the house! What can I do to help them?’”
Encourage your kids to take full advantage of available financial help before extending yours, Badillo says. They may not know, for example, that unemployment benefits have been dramatically expanded because of the pandemic. Weekly payments are higher and are available to people who normally wouldn’t qualify, including gig workers, the self-employed and people whose hours have been reduced.
In addition, there are many more options for people struggling to pay debt. Most mortgages qualify for forbearance programs that allow homeowners to skip payments for up to a year. Hardship programs have been added or expanded by credit card companies and other lenders. Federal student loan payments have been paused until Sept. 30, and income-driven programs can reduce payment amounts after that.
Another option is a coronavirus hardship withdrawal, which allows people to tap their IRAs and 401(k)s without penalty if they were physically or financially affected by COVID-19. The withdrawals are taxable, but if the money is paid back within three years those taxes are refundable. Raiding retirement funds isn’t ideal, of course, but your kids have many more years to replenish their retirement savings than you do.
Access Your Own Situation
While your kids are filing for unemployment and calling their lenders, take a moment to assess your own finances. Where will the cash for your kids come from? It’s one thing to give away money you’ve been saving for a vacation, since you’re unlikely to travel soon anyway. It’s quite another to undermine your own ability to retire or handle a layoff or other setback.
Some parents make a conscious decision to operate with a smaller cushion, or to delay their retirements, to help their children, says CFP Lazetta Rainey Braxton in New York. Just keep in mind that you may not get to decide when you retire. Many workers retire earlier than expected, often because of a health problem or job loss. Helping your children now could mean you have to lean on them later, Braxton says. If you’re not sure how this financial aid will impact your future finances, a consultation financial advisor could bring you some clarity.
Set Some Boundaries
Financial planners typically recommend deciding how much to give, and then setting clear boundaries about when the financial help will end. That’s tricky now, of course, because no one knows how long the current economic crisis will last.
But parents can still set expectations in other ways, financial planners say. If the child didn’t have an emergency fund, for example, parents can discuss the importance of saving money out of every future paycheck, so the child won’t have to rely on family help again, Braxton says.
“Some parents will just put on a Band-Aid and give them money, but they really haven't helped in terms of their financial capacity,” Braxton says.
If an adult child is moving back home, Corliss suggests a written contract outlining chores and responsibilities, such as how soon they’ll be expected to move out after finding a job. A similar end date can be set for any cash the parents hand out. Corliss says the message should be clear: “We expect you to get on your feet as soon as you can.”
This article, What To Do If Your Kid's Emergency Fund Is....You, was originally originally published by Nerdwallet.com
Coulee Bank Mortgage Center: What To Expect With An Appraisal Right Now
If you’re looking to buy a home this season — or thinking about refinancing — you may be wondering how things have changed in recent months.
Many routine activities, including parts of the home financing process, look a little different now due to social distancing and other safety guidelines.
Getting an appraisal is one such step that you may be curious about. Whether you’re moving up, downsizing or refinancing, we have answers to your home appraisal questions and more:
Q: What is an appraisal?
A: Typically, it’s a process in which a licensed professional comes to the home to look at it and learn as much as they can. Then, they compare it to nearby homes that have recently sold. The appraiser’s job is to gauge the home’s value based on the property and data from the community.
Q: How are they being conducted right now?
A: Many appraisers are doing desktop and drive-by appraisals. The former means that they’re doing research based on local data, comparable sales and other recent appraisals. The latter involves the appraiser literally driving by the home to look at its exterior and the surrounding neighborhood. In both cases, they might also ask for videos and photos of the home’s interior if they’re unable to visit it themselves.
Q: When should I get an appraisal?
A: The process of verifying a home’s value begins after you sign a contract to purchase or refinance it. The appraisal will generally be scheduled for you. It would normally happen within the first few days after all parties agree to the terms of the home’s purchase, but it may be postponed in some cases, due to social distancing guidelines.
Q: How much does it cost?
A: The cost depends on various factors, including the property size and the type of home. Most often, they're a few hundred dollars, which is typically wrapped up into closing costs.
Are you planning on buying a new home? Or are you ready to refinance your current place? Reach out to a Coulee Bank mortgage lender today!
Coulee Investment Center: Five Strategies For Tax-Efficient Investing
After factoring in federal income and capital gains taxes, the alternative minimum tax, and possible state and local taxes, your investments' returns in any given year may be reduced by 40% or more. Here are five ways to potentially lower your tax bill.1
Consider Tax-Deferred and Tax-Free Accounts
Tax-deferred accounts include employer-sponsored retirement accounts such as traditional 401(k)s and 403(b) plans, individual retirement accounts (IRAs), and annuities. In some cases, contributions may be made on a pretax basis or may be tax deductible. More important, investment earnings compound tax deferred until withdrawal, typically in retirement, when you may be in a lower tax bracket. Contributions to nonqualified annuities, Roth IRAs and Roth-style employer-sponsored savings plans are not deductible. Earnings that accumulate in Roth accounts may be withdrawn tax free if you have had the account for at least five years and meet the requirements for a qualified distribution.
Withdrawals prior to age 59½ from a qualified retirement plan, IRA, Roth IRA or annuity may be subject to ordinary income taxes and an additional 10% federal tax. In addition, early withdrawals from annuities may be subject to additional charges by the issuing insurance company.2
Note that, in general, annual withdrawals from traditional IRAs and employer-sponsored retirement plans must begin by April 1 of the year after you reach age 70½. The SECURE Act recently changed the required age to 72 if you were not 70½ by December 31, 2019. The penalty for not taking the required minimum distribution (RMD) can be steep: 50% of what you should have withdrawn. The RMD is not required in 2020 due to the CARES Act so there is no penalty in 2020. Withdrawals from Roth IRAs, however, are not required during the owner's lifetime.
Consider Government and Municipal Bonds
Interest on U.S. government issues is subject to federal taxes but is exempt from state taxes. Municipal bond income is generally exempt from federal taxes, and municipal bonds issued in-state may be free of state and local taxes as well. Sold prior to maturity, government and municipal bonds are subject to market fluctuations and may be worth less than the original cost upon redemption.
Look for Tax-Efficient Investments
Tax-managed or tax-efficient investment accounts are managed in ways that can help reduce their taxable distributions. Investment managers can potentially minimize portfolio turnover, invest in stocks that do not pay dividends and selectively sell stocks at a loss to counterbalance taxable gains elsewhere in the portfolio.
Put Losses to Work
You may be able to use losses within your investment portfolio to help offset realized gains. If your losses exceed your gains, you can typically offset up to $3,000 per year of the difference against ordinary income. Any remainder can be carried forward to offset capital gains or income in future years.
Keep Good Records
Maintain records of purchases, sales, distributions, and dividend reinvestments so that you can properly calculate how much you paid for the shares you own and choose the most preferential tax treatment for shares you sell.
Keeping an eye on how taxes can affect your investments is one of the easiest ways you can enhance your returns over time.
1This information is general in nature and is not meant as tax advice. Always consult a qualified tax advisor for information as to how taxes may affect your particular situation.
2Before investing, investors should consider the investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses of an annuity and its underlying investment options. Guarantees are based on the claims-paying ability of the issuer and do not apply to a variable annuity's separate account or its underlying benefits.
Because of the possibility of human or mechanical error by DST Systems, Inc. or its sources, neither DST Systems, Inc. nor its sources guarantees the accuracy, adequacy, completeness or availability of any information and is not responsible for any errors or omissions or for the results obtained from the use of such information. In no event shall DST Systems, Inc. be liable for any indirect, special or consequential damages in connection with subscriber's or others' use of the content.
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