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Free tools check for dangerous websites

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McLEAN, Va. (12/3/07)--Surfing the Web is risky--click on one corrupt site and sophisticated cyberthieves could hand you a sentence of life with spam and malware. Fortunately, just as we dive into the heaviest online shopping time of the year, free tools are available that take some of the guesswork out of surfing the Net (USA Today Nov. 26). Using color-coded icons, these free products flag search results and rate the safety of websites:
* McAfee Site Advisor. The color-coded search results are based on automated safety tests combined with feedback from volunteer reviewers. A red icon warns you the site may contain spyware, spam, viruses, or online scams. A yellow icon indicates the site is questionable. And a green icon indicates the site is clean. Mouse over the icon for more details. * Scandoo. The analysis is less detailed than that of Site Advisor, and it won’t block sites that are questionable, but Scandoo’s advantage is that you can flag sites using one of 26 different Web category filters, such as nudity (
Jason Masterson, information technology analyst at Credit Union National Association, Madison, Wis., leans toward McAfee Site Advisor. “It can be used as a ‘browser plug-in,’ and it integrates well with both Internet Explorer and Firefox,” he said. For more information, read, “Stay Safe When Shopping Online” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

HandFF Radio show IRS guest gives year-end tax tips

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WASHINGTON (11/30/07)--Listen to Sunday’s H&FF Radio show for year-end strategies to cut your tax bill, with other guests giving advice on cutting health care costs and reducing home energy costs. Home & Family Finance airs Sundays at 3 p.m. EST on the Radio America Network. The one-hour program devoted to consumer finance issues is brought to you by America's credit unions and their 90 million members, and is presented by CO-OP Network. Sunday’s show, which you also can hear later via the Internet, features Paul Berry, Washington, D.C., journalist and broadcaster, discussing these topics with special guests:
* “Your Taxes: What to Do Before Dec. 31,” with Mark Green, media relations specialist, Internal Revenue Service, Atlanta, Ga.; * “Cut Your Health Care Costs Without Cutting Corners,” with Dr. William J. Mayer, vice president, medical staff clinical quality, Bronson Healthcare Group, Inc., Kalamazoo, Mich.; * “Military Lending Act, Part II,” with Lillie Cannon, Ph.D., columnist, “Military Money,” and military project program manager, H&R Block, Fairfax, Va.; and * “How to Insulate Your Attic,” with Gale Tedhams, director of sustainability, Owens Corning, Toledo, Ohio.
Home & Family Finance is a resource center for personal finance information at the Credit Union National Association (CUNA). The radio show is sponsored by CO-OP Network, the national credit union ATM network; Cabot Creamery Cooperative, makers of cheddar cheese; and Visa. For more information, read, “Start an Energy Diet: Save Money Around Home” and “New Law Helps Military Servicemembers Avoid Financial Exploitation” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Consumer brief

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* McLEAN, Va. (11/29/07)--If you plan to go somewhere for the holidays but haven’t gotten around to making travel arrangements, you still might achieve that long-awaited getaway--for a price. You might have a tough time finding reasonably priced airline tickets, but a number of travel packages still are available to popular tourist destinations such as the Caribbean. New York also is a popular destination this year. The city will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the New Year’s Eve ball drop in Times Square. And some cruise lines still are offering package deals for travel over the holidays. Websites to visit:,, and (USA Today Nov. 16) …

Reduce tax bill next spring with simple tuneup now

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WASHINGTON (11/28/07)--As 2007 draws to a close, it’s time for a tuneup--a money tuneup, that is. Implementing simple tax planning strategies now could save you big bucks come tax time next year ( Nov. 1). A year-end tuneup is good advice for anyone, but it’s particularly important if you’ve experienced a change in circumstances during the past year: marriage, divorce, death of a family member, job change, purchase or sale of a home or business, or other major event. When it comes to reporting income and deductions, it’s all about timing and techniques to reduce your overall tax bill. Not all techniques will be relevant to your situation, so seek the advice of a tax professional. And remember that some strategies won’t reduce your taxes if you’re subject to the alternative minimum tax (AMT).
* Prepay some 2008 bills now. You’ll be able to write off the deduction earlier. Common examples include paying state income taxes or property taxes early, and paying your January 2008 mortgage bill before Dec. 31. * Pad your retirement account. Employees can sock away up to $15,500 of pre-tax salary in a 401(k)--it grows tax-deferred until you withdraw it in retirement. Workers age 50 or older before the end of the year can contribute an additional $5,000 a year. And you can contribute $4,000 this year to an individual retirement account (IRA) or $5,000 if you're age 50 or older. * Sell off loser investments. If you have significant capital gains in 2007, sell some losers and use that amount to offset capital gains (PR Newswire Nov. 7). If your losses are larger than your gains, deduct--up to $3,000 in any one year--the capital loss against other income, such as salary. Then carry over additional losses into subsequent years when you can use them to offset future capital gains. * Energize it. There’s still time before Dec. 31 this year to install energy-efficient storm windows and doors for a tax credit of 10% of the costs ($500 maximum credit), or a high-efficiency air conditioning system or water heater for a $300 tax credit ($500 lifetime cap). And there’s a tax credit of 30% of the cost to install solar panels, solar water-heating equipment, or a fuel-cell power system in your home ($2,000 maximum credit). * Buy classroom supplies. Teachers and teacher’s aides can deduct up to $250 of the cost of certain items used in the classroom--books, supplies, software and other computer equipment. Hurry--this deduction expires at the end of the year unless Congress extends it. * Spend down your health-care flex account. Not every company grants an extension to March 15, 2008, to spend 2007 flex dollars. The use-it-or-lose-it provision means unspent dollars go to waste, so schedule eye exams, prepay orthodontia bills and stock up on prescription and certain over-the-counter drugs. Check with your human resources department for a list of accepted charges. * Keep receipts for charitable donations. All monetary contributions--regardless of the amount--now require documentation such as a canceled check or a receipt from the charity. New Internal Revenue Service rules went into effect in October 2006.
Finally, if you anticipate a large refund, consider cutting back on withholding, which will put more money in your paycheck now. Use Kiplinger’s withholding calculator at to run some numbers. For more information, read “Credits and Deductions Save You Tax Dollars” and “Preparation Softens Blow of Alternative Minimum Tax” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Shrinking credit card float One more reason to pay bills online

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KANSAS CITY (11/27/07)--Call it the case of the shrinking grace period. Call it sinking the float. Call it deceptive. But whatever you call it, it’s probably going to result in more consumers paying their credit card bills online ( Nov. 10). More credit card issuers are shortening the grace period--the time in which you have to pay the bill before the interest-rate clock starts ticking--from 30 days or 25 days down to 20 days in some cases. That means your payment, if sent by snail mail, may not reach the issuer in time to avoid late payment penalties and possibly higher interest rates. Keep in mind, too, that you often rate a grace period only if you carry no balance. With late fees climbing to all-time highs of around $39, and late payments triggering higher interest rates even on other forms of credit held by the card holder, consumers need to be on guard, monitor bills, and read the fine print on notices sent by issuers. Experts warn that some issuers hope you slip up and miss the due date, resulting in higher profits for them. If you have a tendency to cut it short, there are two alternatives:
* Pay the bill when you get it. A 20-day grace period gets even shorter if it takes the bill two or three days to reach you. * Pay the bill online. Avoid the snail mail shuffle that could cost you plenty in late fees and higher interest rates. Arrange for payment to be made two or three days before the due date and avoid the snail-mail shuffle altogether.
For more information, read, “Online Banking Makes Money Management Simple and Safe” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Weak passwords invite fraud

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MADISON, Wis. (11/26/07)--Don’t even think about shopping online this holiday season until you’re sure you have a strong password. Without it, you unwittingly leave yourself open to identity theft, says the Credit Union National Association (CUNA) Center for Personal Finance. If you’re typical of many computer users, you have a weak password--one that’s easy for hackers to crack. One example is any word in the dictionary; con artists have written software programs that search every word in the dictionary to uncover the key that can open your files. Another no-no is using personal information, such as birthdays or names of family members and pets. And using consecutive keys on the keyboard, such as qwerty, is a gift that keeps on giving for identity thieves. The key to a strong password, according to Microsoft, is to use a variety of characters and make it both random and lengthy. The greater the variety, the better:
* Combine letters, numbers and symbols. Each character you add increases your protection from fraud. A password without symbols needs to be considerably longer to have the same degree of protection as an eight-character password with symbols. * Randomly capitalize some letters. Sprinkle them throughout your password. * Stray from typical symbols. Don’t forget about punctuation marks, slashes, dashes and brackets--symbols not on the upper row of your keyboard. * Use a phrase or sentence to help you remember. Here’s one example, “My #1 dog is a cross between Boxer/Lab,” becomes the password “m#1diacbB/L.” Remember this phrase and you won’t forget this seemingly random combination of letters, numbers and symbols. * Avoid easy-to-guess passwords. This includes your login name, sequences (123456789), or look-alike characters (M@ddie).
Finally, take time to check the strength of your password. Use Microsoft’s online tool at (search “password checker”) to see how your password stacks up. For more information, read, “Stay Safe When Shopping Online” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

HandFF Radio How todays mortgage market affects you

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WASHINGTON (11/21/07)--Sunday’s H&FF Radio Show guests zoom in on the mortgage and housing markets--what the current situation means for you and how stronger consumer protections can help. Home & Family Finance airs Sundays at 3 p.m. EST on the Radio America Network. The one-hour program devoted to consumer finance issues is brought to you by America's credit unions and their 90 million members, and is presented by CO-OP Network. Sunday’s show, which you also can hear later via the Internet, features Paul Berry, Washington, D.C., journalist and broadcaster, discussing these topics with special guests:
* “A Look at Today’s Mortgage and Housing Markets,” with Dr. Frank Nothaft, chief economist, Freddie Mac, McLean, Va.; * “How the Mortgage Meltdown Affects the Market and You,” with Michael Farr, president and majority owner, Farr, Miller & Washington LLC, Washington, D.C.; and * “Strengthening Consumer Protection in the Mortgage and Housing Markets,” with Allen Fishbein, director of housing and credit policy, Consumer Federation of America, Washington, D.C.
Home & Family Finance is a resource center for personal finance information at the Credit Union National Association (CUNA). The radio show is sponsored by CO-OP Network, the national credit union ATM network; Cabot Creamery Cooperative, makers of cheddar cheese; and Visa. For more information, read, “What to Do When Your ARM is Due” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Move over PSP--Its time to IM

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WASHINGTON (11/20/07)--Instant messaging (IM) is just one more way teens are communicating today. Nearly half of kids, age 13 to 18, said they use IM, according to an Associated Press-AOL poll (Associated Press Nov. 16). And IM isn’t just something kids use once in a while to send a message or two. One of 10 kids said they spend three hours or more a day instant messaging, and 17% said they send 100 IMs a day. Chances are if you have kids they’re IMing--and they’re not going to stop. Instead of being scared of the technology, Microsoft encourages parents to:
* Learn the technology. Install the same IM program your kids use. Start chatting with friends and family. This way you’ll understand the technology your kids use every day. * Set time limits. Just as you might set time limits for watching TV or playing video games on Play Station Portable (PSP), make a rule about how much time children can spend online and stick to it. Consider purchasing software that tells kids how much time they have left on the computer. * Tell children to communicate only with contacts they recognize. Kids should decline and block messages from people or names they don't know. * Keep the computer in a central location. This can help you monitor what your kids are doing online and whom they communicate with.
For more information and to get a grasp on what all those IMs mean, read “OMG, It's an IM Lingo Guide for Parents” in Home & Family Finance Resource Center.

Survey Energy costs could cut into holiday spending

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WASHINGTON (11/20/07)—Consumers are likely to continue a holiday trend established in recent years of reduced spending on gifts, and this year’s high energy costs are expected to make the seasonal spending increase even weaker than in the past few years, according to the results of the eighth annual survey commissioned by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and the Credit Union National Association (CUNA).
Click to view larger image CUNA Chief Economist Bill Hampel during this morning's news conference at the National Press Club briefs reporters about findings of the Eighth Annual CUNA/Consumer Federation of America Holiday Spending Survey. (Photo provided by CUNA)
The bottom will not fall out of retail spending but it will be softer," said Bill Hampel, CUNA chief economist, said at a press conference held to discuss the survey findings. Thirty-eight percent of respondents said higher gasoline and energy costs will have a negative impact on this year’s holiday spending. This is up from 32% last year. The price of gifts is also playing a role in consumer attitudes toward spending, with 32% saying they would somewhat or greatly decrease their spending as a result. That number was up from 26% last year. “Your family’s current finances” and “your general household expenses” were cited less frequently, with fewer than 30% citing each of these factors. “It is noteworthy how frequently consumers cited rising energy costs as a reason they plan to cut back their holiday spending, far more frequently than they cited general family finances,” said CUNA Chief Economist Bill Hampel. “They are clearly quite concerned about the escalating price of gasoline and home heating oil.” The CFA/CUNA survey was conducted November 8-11 among more than 1,000 representative adults Americans by Opinion Research Corporation. The survey’s margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points. The CFA and CUNA suggest the following holiday spending tips to help consumers avoid falling into a seasonal debt trap:
* Make a budget and list what you will buy and how much you can afford to spend and then stay within that budget: * Comparison shop: You can easily save more than 10% on most items by comparing prices at different stores. Often the savings are even greater; * Pay off your holiday debts quickly and remember you are less likely to overdo is you pay with cash or check than if you use either credit or debit cards; *Start saving now for 2008—open a Christmas Club account: While these accounts do not pay much if any interest, they provide a practical way to save small amounts over time; * Be smart about gift cards: read the fine print on each card. There may be a fee for checking your balance as well as a monthly inactivity, maintenance, administrative, or service fee; and * Pay attention to return policies. Also keep receipts and note time limits, restocking fees, and other factors that may affect your recipient.

Figuring a safe withdrawal rate in retirement

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McLEAN, Va. (11/19/07)--If you’re close to retirement, you’re probably crunching--or thinking about crunching--numbers to figure out how much money you can withdraw in retirement so you won’t outlive your resources. But if you don’t follow general guidelines, you may come up short (USA Today Nov. 9). You don’t know how long you’re going to live, but you can count on this: Fixed income won’t keep up with inflation, most individuals can’t live on Social Security alone, and fewer than one of five retirees is drawing a corporate pension now--and that number is decreasing. With longer life spans, we need to spread our limited resources over a longer period of time. What should you keep in mind when calculating a safe withdrawal rate?
* Life expectancy. Check the charts and add five or 10 years, taking into account your health and family history. Use this to determine how long you want your money to last. * Don’t ditch stocks in retirement. A recent study by T. Rowe Price came to the same conclusion as a study conducted by William Bengen, CFP (Journal of Financial Planning 1994) that analyzed historical data: The allocation mix that yields the greatest success at the time you start taking withdrawals is about 50% stocks and 50% bonds. Stock allocations less than 50% and more than 75%--either too conservative or too risky—are counterproductive. * Start out small. If you want your money to last 30 years, studies reveal that you can withdraw 4% of your portfolio during your first year of retirement. A 3% or even 3.5% withdrawal rate is considered safest, while an initial 5% withdrawal is considered risky, and 6% or more is considered gambling with your nest egg. * Use inflation to calculate subsequent withdrawals. After the first year, don’t use the withdrawal rate to compute how much you withdraw. Rather, use last year’s figure, plus an inflation factor.
For more information read, “Tapping Your Retirement Nest Egg,” in Plan It: Retire Ready Toolkit.