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Money April 2014

Dollar Sense

Potpourri: Stuff You Should Know about Your Security, Your Money and How to Keep More of It

By Teresa Ambord

Resist buying software in response to unexpected pop-up messages or e-mails, especially ads that claim to have scanned your computer and detected malware. That's a tactic scammers use to spread malware. Ask yourself why a software you have not authorized is scanning your computer.

Your Friend, the Dearly Departed… What’s-His-Name?

Have you gotten an e-mail funeral notice lately? One that comes without the name of the deceased? It’s another in the long line of scams, hoping to tweak your curiosity long enough to get you to click a handy link… a link that leads to a place you do not want to go.

It comes as an apparently solemn notice of a funeral service, complete with condolences and an invitation to a “celebration of your friend’s life,” and a link where you can find out where and when the services will be. So nice of them to let you know. But oops! They forgot one important detail: the name of the dearly departed. Of course you simply must find out who has died, and the only way to do that is to click the link. But don’t.

Here’s a scam notice which I received in e-mail recently, with the heinous link disabled.

Hubbell

Simply Compassionate

Death notification

We would like to express our deepest sorrow for the untimely death of your beloved friend and inform you about the life service celebration that will take place at Hubbell Funeral Home on February 24, 2014, at 2:00 p.m.

Please follow this link to get funeral invitation.

Please be there to honor the memory of your friend with her closest people.

Our best wishes and prayers,

Jason Guy, funeral home assistant

Note the words under “Hubbell” which are “Simply Compassionate.” Very touching, in fact, they hope to touch you right in the old pocketbook. Rest assured, in this scenario there is no dearly departed. If there was, his or her name would not be a mystery and it’s unlikely that a funeral home would be so crass as to send it out in e-mail. Scammers are counting on your curiosity to get you to click the link, but the link may upload malicious software into your computer, says the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

What happens then? Your computer can crash, can be used to monitor and control your online activity, thieves can glean your personal information and eventually your assets. They can load your e-mail up with spam, and even use your computer to commit fraud.

The FTC – which is the nation’s consumer protection agency -- offers the following pointers to reduce your risk of getting malware and spyware on your computer.

  • Keep your security software updated.
  • Download and install software only from websites you know and trust.
  • Make sure your browser security setting is high enough to detect unauthorized downloads.
  • Use a pop-up blocker and don't click on any links within pop-ups.
  • Resist buying software in response to unexpected pop-up messages or e-mails, especially ads that claim to have scanned your computer and detected malware. That's a tactic scammers use to spread malware. Ask yourself why a software you have not authorized is scanning your computer.
  • Back up your data regularly.
  • Don't click on any links or open any attachments in e-mails unless you know who sent it and what it is.
  • This bears repeating…don't click on any links or open any attachments in e-mails unless you know who sent it and what it is, or unless you long to have your identity stolen and assets picked clean. This cannot be emphasized enough, yet people do it all the time, and the results are disastrous.

You can complain to the FTC by going to FTC.gov and type in “complaint.” For phone contact, call 1-202-326-2222. You should register your complaint, but don’t expect a resolution. If you believe you have malicious software on your computer there are various programs to remove the malware, some of which are free. But you might be better off to shut the computer down and get help. If you don’t know anyone who is a whiz with computers, take it to computer experts and ask them to clean it up for you. And then… don’t click on unfamiliar links.

 

Could You be Owed a Property Tax Refund?

Yes! This is even more likely if your house value has dropped in the last few years, as most have. A few years ago Money magazine did a story stating since the decline of housing values began, about 60% of U.S. homeowners are overpaying their property taxes, yet only 2% of those homeowners pursue refunds. The accounting firm of Coopers & Lybrand said, “Challenging tax assessments is like fighting a traffic ticket — if you show up you usually get something for it.”

How far can you go back? It depends on where you live. Counties and municipalities vary in how long they will keep an overpayment before it is forfeited. My county, Shasta County in far northern California, is ahead of the curve. As property values fell in recent years, I have received two checks for overpayments, one for nearly $600, and I did not have to pursue them myself.

However, this is not the case with all property tax authorities. Some don’t notify homeowners at all.
   
Where to begin? Your local tax assessor’s office. Financial adviser and author of Fixing the Money Thing, Gary Keesee, says:

  • Check to see that the square footage the assessor has on file is correct.
  • Note whether changes to your property are recorded.
  • Compare your home’s value against three or more comparable homes in your immediate neighborhood. If your home’s listed value is significantly higher than the others, you may have a case worth challenging. Real estate appraiser, Linda James says you can contact a local realtor to find homes which compare to yours in value.
  • If you do have a case, your assessor will be able to walk you through the next steps to take. There are companies which specialize in doing this for you, for a fee of course. But you can do it yourself.
  • Keep in mind, if you believe you have overpaid, the burden of proof will be on you. Depending on how high property taxes are in your area, this could be an investment of time which will pay off handsomely.

 

Will an Appraisal Affect Your Property Tax?

While you are thinking about your home’s value, here is a common question: If you get your house appraised, is there a danger your property tax will rise? Have no fear. If you hire an appraiser, the report he or she generates is for you. These professionals do not forward the reports to local government authorities.

The SFGate.com Home Guide says, “A home appraisal is a good value determination tool, though a homeowner might worry that it could ultimately cause his property taxes to go up. Fortunately, having a home appraisal won't cause your property taxes to rise.”

 

April and May are the Best Months to Buy… What?

Readers Digest is kind enough to advise readers when it’s the best time to buy certain items.

Here’s what they say is on tap now:

April is the best time to…

  • Book a cruise, whether you book at the last minute or far in advance.
  • Buy a vacuum cleaner, since the new models come out in June.
  • Shop at thrift stores, because people are cleaning out closets and that means newer items at a bargain.
  • Get a deal on winter clothing, which is being moved out to make way for spring collections. The discount could be dramatic.

 

May is the best time to…

  • Get a gym membership. The New Year’s resolution craze has passed and many people are exercising outside. Gyms may offer great deals to draw in bodies.
  • Buy spring clothes as Memorial Day sales abound.
  • Shop for cookware and dishes. These go on sale as wedding season nears.
  • Get a deal on a refrigerator, as last year’s models will be discounted to clear out the storeroom.

 

Teresa Ambord is a former accountant and Enrolled Agent with the IRS. Now she writes full time from her home, mostly for business, and about family when the inspiration strikes.

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