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Mark Strobel
4550 W. Tilghman Street | Allentown, PA 18104
Phone: 610-398-8111 1471 | Office Phone: 610-398-8111 | Fax: 267-354-6254
email: mstrobel@remaxcentralinc.com

My Blog

Consumer Protection Week: IRS Scam Warning

March 10, 2016 2:15 am

Around this time every year, the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (CFPB) National Consumer Financial Protection Week (consumerfinance.gov/ncpw) promotes heightened awareness of consumer rights.

According to the IRS—one of the agencies observing the week this year—one of the most recent and widespread issues affecting consumers are phishing and malware incidents. The IRS has seen an approximate 400 percent surge in these cases so far this tax season.

Consumers affected by this issue reported receiving emails designed to trick them into thinking they are official communications from the IRS or others in the tax industry, including tax software companies.  The phishing scheme asked them about a wide range of topics, including requesting information related to refunds and filing status, confirming personal information, ordering transcripts and verifying PIN information.

Variations of these scams have also been reported via text messages. When people click on these email links, they are taken to sites designed to imitate an official-looking website, such as IRS.gov. The sites ask for Social Security numbers and other personal information. The sites also may carry malware, which can infect computers and allow criminals to access your files or track your keystrokes to gain information.

The IRS urges people not to click on these links. Instead, send the email to phishing@irs.gov.

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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When It Comes to Home Security, Safety Tops Convenience

March 10, 2016 2:15 am

Many homeowners purchase home security systems to ensure peace of mind for themselves and their loved ones—and for most, that preference goes beyond smart home-enabled security advancements, according to a recent survey by LivSecure and The Harris Poll.

"Smart home technology is popular, but the survey shows that homeowners want more than a 'smart thing' when it comes to protecting their home and family,” says Amy Kothari, president and CEO of My Alarm Center. “Homeowners want assurances that help will arrive when their family needs it, and professional monitoring alerts first responders in case of an emergency.”

Survey results show 93 percent of homeowners want the authorities to be alerted by their security system in the event of an emergency, and 63 percent do not consider self-monitored systems as safe as professionally monitored alternatives.

Not all homeowners object to smart home-enabled security, however. The survey found 81 percent of homeowners assign importance to remote monitoring systems, whether through their mobile device, tablet or computer, and 72 percent would like their security system to control other home functions, such as lighting and temperature.

Additionally, survey results show that DIY, or self-installed, security systems are growing in popularity: 49 percent of homeowners are open to installing security systems on their own.

Source: LivSecure

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Spring Forward: Remember to Test Smoke Alarms, Carbon Monoxide Detectors

March 10, 2016 2:15 am

Daylight Saving Time begins this weekend, historically serving as a reminder for homeowners to test smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors. Most homeowners, however, neglect this important, potentially life-saving task.

According to a recent survey by Mister Sparky® electricians, just over 40 percent of homeowners test their smoke alarms each month; nearly 35 percent don’t conduct monthly tests, nor replace alarms every 10 years, as recommended by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). What’s more, one-third of homeowners do not have a working carbon monoxide detector.

The NFPA advises homeowners install smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors outside of each bedroom or sleeping area, interconnecting them so that when one sounds, they all sound. If you need assistance installing alarms or detectors in your home, contact a licensed electrical professional.

Source: Mister Sparky®

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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12 Tips to Protect Mobile Device Data

March 9, 2016 2:12 am

Cyber criminals are targeting mobile devices in growing numbers. To protect the sensitive data on your devices, it’s important to remain vigilant, even if your financial institution implements preventative measures on your behalf.

“Banks use sophisticated safeguards to protect customer information, and it’s important for consumers to take certain safety measures too,” says Doug Johnson, senior vice president of Payments and Cybersecurity Policy at the American Bankers Association (ABA). “Remember that your smartphone or tablet is like a little computer, and any device used to connect to the Internet needs to be protected.”

Johnson recommends the following 12 steps to ensure your data remain out of the hands of cyber criminals:

1. Use the passcode lock on your smartphone and other devices. This will make it more difficult for thieves to access your information if your device is lost or stolen.

2. Log out completely when you finish a mobile banking session.

3. Protect your phone from viruses and malicious software (malware) by installing mobile security software. 

4. Use caution when downloading apps. Apps can contain malware, worms and viruses. Beware of apps that ask for unnecessary “permissions.”

5. Download the updates for your phone and mobile apps.

6. Avoid storing sensitive information, like passwords or a Social Security number, on your mobile device.

7. Tell your financial institution immediately if you change your phone number or lose your mobile device.

8. Be aware of “shoulder surfers.” The most basic form of information theft is observation. Be aware of your surroundings, especially when typing sensitive information.

9. Wipe your mobile device before you donate, sell or trade it using specialized software or using the manufacturer’s recommended technique. Some software allows you to wipe your device remotely if it is lost or stolen.

10. Beware of mobile phishing. Avoid opening links and attachments in emails and texts, especially from senders you don’t know. And be wary of ads (not from your security provider) claiming that your device is infected.

11. Watch out for public Wi-Fi. Public connections aren't very secure, so don’t perform banking transactions on a public network. If you need to access your account, try disabling the Wi-Fi and switching to your mobile network. 

12. Report any suspected fraud to your bank immediately. 

Source: ABA

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Your Property: New Safety Measures Proposed for Herbicides

March 9, 2016 2:12 am

Herbicides—more commonly known as weed killers—are applied to landscapes to eliminate unwanted plants, such as crabgrass and dandelions.

Recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it is proposing steps to prevent poisoning from one of the most widely-used herbicides, paraquat, which has caused several incidents of injury and death.

“We are taking tough steps to prevent people from accidentally drinking paraquat and to ensure these tragic deaths become a thing of the past,” says Jim Jones, assistant administrator for the EPA Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. “We are also putting safety measures in place to prevent worker injuries from exposure to this pesticide.”

The EPA is proposing:

• New closed-system packaging designed to make it impossible to transfer or remove the pesticide except directly into the proper application equipment;

• Special training for certified applicators who use paraquat to emphasize that the chemical must not be transferred to or stored in improper containers;

• Changes to the pesticide label and warning materials to highlight the toxicity and risks associated with paraquat;

• Prohibiting application from hand-held and backpack equipment; and

• Restricting the use to certified pesticide applicators only.

Since 2000, there have been 17 fatalities (three involving children) caused by accidental ingestion of paraquat.

Source: EPA

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Shopping for a Loan? Exercise Caution with Peer-to-Peer Lenders

March 9, 2016 2:12 am

Marketplace lending—often referred to as “peer-to-peer” or “platform” lending—is a relatively new kind of online lending. Marketplace lenders may provide mortgages, auto loans, installment loans, student loans or other financial products to consumers, generally marketing both new loans and loans that can be used to refinance or consolidate existing debt. Marketplace lenders use an online interface to connect consumers or businesses seeking to borrow money with investors willing to buy or invest in the loan. Generally, the marketplace lending platform handles all underwriting and customer service interactions with the borrower. Once a loan is originated, the company generally makes arrangements to transfer ownership to the investors while it continues to service the loan.

Unfortunately, many have had problems with loans offered by online marketplace lenders. If you’re considering this type of lender, keep in mind the following guidelines from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

• Remember important consumer protections apply. Marketplace lenders are required to follow federal and state consumer financial protection laws.

• Be careful about refinancing certain types of debt. While some marketplace lenders may advertise lower interest rates, in some cases, you could lose important loan-specific protections by refinancing an existing debt. Specifically, know that you may sign away certain federal benefits, such as income-driven repayment for federal student loans or service member benefits related to debt incurred prior to entering active duty.

• Assess income and spending. Before taking out a loan, evaluate how much you can afford and really need to borrow. Understand the total cost of the loan, as well as what the total cost will be each month.

• Check credit reports. Check your credit report to make sure there are no errors that could keep you from getting credit or getting the best available terms on a loan. Be sure the information in the report is accurate and up to date.

• Shop around. If you’re considering interest rates offered by multiple lenders or brokers, you may see substantial differences in the rates. Compare the costs and terms of loans to find the deal that is best for you.

The CFPB is accepting complaints from consumers regarding online marketplace lenders. Because marketplace lenders offer several types of consumer loans, those submitting a complaint should select among the different complaint categories for products and services that best apply to their situation. The CFPB will then forward complaints to the marketplace lender and works to get a response—generally within 15 days.

To submit a complaint, you may:

1. Visit www.consumerfinance.gov/complaint.
2. Call the toll-free phone number at 1-855-411-CFPB (2372) or TTY/TDD phone number at 1-855-729-CFPB (2372).
3. Fax the CFPB at 1-855-237-2392.
4. Mail a letter to: Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, P.O. Box 4503, Iowa City, Iowa 52244

You will be given a tracking number after submitting a complaint, and can check its status by logging on to the CFPB website (www.consumerfinance.gov/complaint).

“When consumers shop for a loan online we want them to be informed and to understand what they are signing up for,” says CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “All lenders, from online startups to large banks, must follow consumer financial protection laws. By accepting these consumer complaints, we are giving people a greater voice in these markets and a place to turn to when they encounter problems.”

Source: CFPB

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Tax Tips: Credits and Deductions for Every Life Stage

March 8, 2016 2:12 am

Each year, millions of taxpayers over-pay by overlooking credits and missing deductions. Don’t let a knowledge gap prohibit you from receiving the maximum refund!

"Major life changes affect the eligibility for specific credits and deductions,” says Mark Steber, chief tax officer of Jackson Hewitt®. “Without help, it's easy to miss them.”

The most overlooked credits and deductions, based on life stage, are:

Students

The American Opportunity Deduction and Lifetime Learning Credits are worth up to $2,500 and are available for students attending a qualified college or trade school, based on enrollment status, tuition and fees paid, adjusted gross income and filing status. 

Single Parents

Filing as 'Head of Household' offers a higher standard deduction and a lower tax rate than filing 'Single.' This is available for single or unmarried taxpayers who pay for more than half of the cost of maintaining a home and have a qualifying dependent.

Newlyweds

Couples who were married last year can file a joint return, which is generally more advantageous. Those who were married at a place of worship or historical site may be able to donate an offering and claim it as a charitable contribution. Brides may even write off the fair market value of their wedding gown if they donate it.

Homeowners

Don't wait until mortgage interest and real estate taxes are bigger than the standard deduction to itemize deductions. These items, and more, can be itemized:  energy-saving upgrades (like energy-efficient windows or insulation) could be eligible for a tax credit up to $500, and tax preparation fees may be deductable on Schedule A.

Families

Families may miss a host of credits, including the Child Tax Credit (a credit of up to $1,000 per child under the age of 17); the Earned Income Tax Credit (one of the largest federal tax credits, worth up to $6,242 based on income and number of dependents); and the Child and Dependent Care Credit (a credit of up to $2,100 to assist with the cost of daycare for dependents [children under 13 and elderly family members requiring care] while an individual works).

Pre-Retirees

Don't miss the Saver's Credit of up to $1,000 per person for contributing to a pension plan or 401(k). Many people contribute to these accounts, but then forget to claim this credit.  People who turned 65 by the end of the tax year are also entitled to a higher standard deduction; however, they should still review expenses during the tax year to determine if itemizing deductions would be more beneficial than taking the standard deduction. 

Source: Jackson Hewitt®

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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This Year's Trends in Nursery Décor

March 8, 2016 2:12 am

If you (or someone you know) will be welcoming a baby in the coming months, now’s a good time to plan an adorable and efficient nursery for the new arrival. Better Homes and Gardens checked in with decorators to learn what’s new and trendy in baby room décor this year:

It’s Back to Pastels… – The recent trend toward bold, bright, primary colors is giving way to preference for pastels—at least according to paint manufacturers, who say pink, baby blue and light yellow are their best-selling nursery colors. You could also consider a creamy neutral shade and warm it up with pastel accessories.

…but Some Like It Hotter – On the other hand, some decorators say a nursery decked out in bold colors remain the choice of parents who don’t want to have to redecorate the room as the child gets older.

Unique Mobiles Are In – The trend is to larger, more vivid mobiles, such as papier mâché balloons, hanging stuffed animals, or abstract flying sculptures.

Gliders Over Rockers – A big, comfy armchair that can hold you plus two makes sense to many moms who expect to have a second child—especially if they will be sharing a room.

Paint Up Above – The trend toward clouds or other designs on the ceiling came about to give baby something more to look at and contemplate than a plain, white-painted ceiling.

Furniture that Transitions – Cribs that convert to toddler beds and changing tables that will become dressers are becoming more popular than ever.

Cut-Outs and Decals – The trend is to jazz up pastel walls with decals or wooden cut-outs. You can use a theme, like a nursery rhyme or storybook characters, or choose abstract designs like geometric shapes the baby will not outgrow as quickly. Gaining in popularity in decals today are safari animals and Disney characters.

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Study: Room for Improvement in Homeowners Insurance Claims Process

March 8, 2016 2:12 am

There’s no denying the benefits of homeownership, but according to a recently released study, one aspect is causing strife: the insurance claims process.

Results from J.D. Power’s annual U.S. Property Claims Satisfaction Study show that satisfaction among homeowners filing a property claim has slipped for the first time in five years, largely driven by dissatisfaction with service interactions and the total settlement. Weather events have also been a significant driver, with homeowners reporting unsatisfactory experiences with insurers handling weather-related claims.

“During times of catastrophic events, insurance companies typically ramp up and have teams of claims professionals poised and ready to process claims locally in the affected region,” explains Greg Hoeg, vice president of U.S. insurance operations at J.D. Power. “However, maintaining a high level of support is not cost-effective when there is a lull in large events and especially when rates begin to fall. Belt tightening to a leaner team can sometimes mean less support and longer response times to process claims.”

Satisfaction with the handling of non-weather water claims—which are most frequently reported—has also dropped nearly 20 points, to 835 on a scale of 1,000. Satisfaction related to mold and fire claims has declined as well, down to 834 and 839, respectively. Conversely, satisfaction with the handling of hail damage and theft claims has moved higher, at 858 and 840, respectively.

Additional findings from the study show that younger property claimants—those likely new to homeownership—prefer their insurer provide contractor recommendations for repair work.

The study measures satisfaction with the property claims experience among insurance customers who have filed a claim for damages by examining five factors; first notice of loss, estimation process, service interaction and repair process.

Source: J.D. Power

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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6 Food Swaps for a Balanced Diet

March 7, 2016 12:12 am

It’s no secret that what we eat can have long-term impacts on our health, but with competing information at every turn, knowing which foods to consume can be challenging.

According to nutritional specialist Amy Musselman, it’s better to fixate less on what we can and can’t eat, as most guidelines dictate, and focus more on making substitutions in our diets. Doing so not only helps maintain a balanced lifestyle, but also wards off disease and illness.

Musselman recommends the following food swaps:
 
Fats – Substitute baking fats, like butter and oil, with good-for-you alternatives like applesauce, avocados, bananas, beans or yogurt. Be sure to increase the leavening agent (i.e., baking soda) when making the substitution, Musselman says.

Lean Meats – Incorporate more chicken, fish or turkey into your diet in place of beef or pork. As an example, Musselman suggests substituting extra-lean turkey for ground beef in a chili recipe.

Processed Foods – Take steps to remove processed foods from your diet, such as chips, cookies, candy, canned goods and pre-packaged meats. Nutritional substitutes for these include fruit, vegetables, nuts, beans, trail mix, popcorn or low-fat cheese, says Musselman.

Refined Flours – When baking, Musselman says, replace refined flours with whole grains, such as barley, oats or quinoa, or starches, such as corn, potatoes or tapioca.

Sugars – Did you know one can of soda contains approximately 40 grams of sugar? This is equivalent to nine teaspoons! If you need to use a sweetener, use one derived from natural sources, such as Stevia, suggests Musselman.

Vegetables – Add more vegetables to your diet by using them as a baking substitute. Use cauliflower as the main ingredient in pizza crust, Musselman offers, or riced cauliflower in place of traditional rice in a fried rice dish.

When making these food swaps, be sure to watch your portions—eat slowly, and savor each bite, Musselman says. To make the most of these diet substitutions, get 300 minutes of moderate exercise each week.

Source: CTCA
 

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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