Richard Parke
Richard Parke

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Beware the Grinch: Don't Fall for Seasonal Scams

November 17, 2015 12:58 am

Holiday scammers will be out in full force now that giving season is approaching—and unfortunately, according to a recent report by the AARP, many are unaware of the warning signs. In fact, 70 percent of those surveyed for the report incorrectly answered questions pertaining to some of the most common seasonal scams, including those related to charitable giving and gift cards.

“While most of us focus on family and friends during the holidays, fraudsters are zeroing in on our wallets and bank accounts,” says AARP Chief Advocacy & Engagement Officer Nancy LeaMond. “We’re encouraging consumers to elevate their awareness of some emerging and popular scams, and to also share the information with their families to help keep them safe this holiday season.”

Last year, Americans gave $358 billion dollars to charity, according to the National Philanthropic Trust. Government officials who regulate charities and fundraisers say that while most charities are legitimate, there are many fundraisers, especially telemarketers, who keep 85-90 percent of the money they raise. 

According to the AARP report, 70 percent of those who donated to a charity or fundraiser in the past 12 months did so without asking any questions about how that donation would be spent, and 60 percent made donations without verifying the charity groups were legally authorized to raise money in their state.

To ensure your donation goes to its intended recipient, keep in mind that in most states, professional fundraisers must be registered with the Office of the State Secretary, and also report how much they raise and how much goes to the charitable purpose.

Additionally, just 54 percent of report respondents know that gift cards purchased from a gift rack at a big box store, pharmacy or grocery store are not safer from hackers or thieves than those purchased online. In fact, scammers often visit these locations, secretly write down or electronically scan the numbers off the cards, then check online or call the toll-free number to see if someone has bought the cards and activated them. As soon as a card is active, the scammers drain the funds. By the time you try to use the same card, the money is long gone. 

Nearly two-thirds of holiday shoppers surveyed also say they will buy holiday gifts using a debit card, despite recommendations to the contrary. Remember: with credit cards, you are liable for only up to $50 of fraudulent use. In the case of a lost or stolen debit card, financial losses can be much more significant.

Source: AARP

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Smart Home Tech a Global Affair

November 17, 2015 12:58 am

Smart home technology has taken root in the U.S. and across several countries—and according to a recent report by international market research firm GfK, many of these countries embrace the technology primarily for its safety applications.

In fact, more than half (55 percent) of countries surveyed by GfK, including the U.S., believe smart home technology’s greatest appeal is “security” and “control.” “Energy” and “lighting” came second, followed by “entertainment,” “connectivity” and “health.”

The research also found, however, that barriers to smart home technology exist, regardless of location. The leading barriers across all countries, U.S. included, are price and privacy concerns—indicative of apprehension over recent data breaches and the overall global economy.

Source: GfK

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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3 Fresh Takes on Holiday Décor

November 17, 2015 12:58 am

(BPT)—Does your holiday décor need a reboot? Take a cue from this year’s top trends, says Kirsty Froelich, design director of The Tile Shop.

"Red and green will always be classic, but when it comes to holiday décor, rules are meant to be broken," says Froelich. "Anyone can use inventive color schemes, fun patterns and smart home updates to create spaces that embrace the essence of the season."

Trends to consider, Froelich says, are ones that blend holiday tradition with modern aesthetic. These include:

1. Festive Florals – Fresh or dry floral arrangements are a simple way to adorn your home with holiday cheer. To switch up traditional evergreens or poinsettia, consider blooms in hues of rich purple, crisp white and funky fuchsia. Place a small arrangement on a bathroom vanity to add warmth and color—perfect for those hosting guests.

2. Beautiful Backsplashes – Think tiling a backsplash is too difficult? Think again. Instantly transforming the look of a kitchen or bar space, installing a fresh backsplash is a relatively inexpensive DIY project that can be completed over a weekend. Finish the project before the thick of the holiday season to really reap the benefits.

"There's no better time to let your home shine than the holidays," says Froelich. "Adding holiday greenery, a few metallic touches and whimsical window updates will make your home feel festive. Now's the perfect time to get that tile project done that's been on the back burner, so you can show off your hard work and the amazing new space to all visitors."

3. Wowing Windows – Don’t overlook your windows when adding holiday touches to your home. Visit your local craft store, pick out a bolt or two of fabric that blends with your holiday aesthetic, and have the appropriate lengths cut. Then simply drape and enjoy!

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Got Student Loans? 5 Tips to Avoid Default

November 16, 2015 12:58 am

Most students begin the process of paying back their student loans within six months of graduation, but rising tuition costs and a tepid job market have made many unable to meet the terms of repayment. If this is the case for you, it’s important to consult with your lender about deferment or forbearance, say the experts at the nonprofit organization American Consumer Credit Counseling (ACCC).

“Student loan repayment is not something you want to put off,” says Steve Trumble president and CEO of ACCC. “Delinquency and default destroy credit and can create problems that follow you throughout your life—making it more difficult to secure a loan or rent an apartment. In some cases, defaulting also allows the government to intercept your tax refunds or garnish your wages or retirement benefits. Defaulting on a student loan is the worst scenario, and it’s important that consumers speak to their lenders before it gets to that point.”

Depending on their line of work or financial situation, a student may be eligible for student loan forgiveness. In order for a loan to be discharged, the borrower must be experiencing circumstances beyond their control.

To better manage repayment of your student loans and avoid default, ACCC recommends:

1. Understanding your loans and loan agreements – It is important to understand the types of student loans you have, the variety of student loan repayment options available, and different programs offered to federal and private loan borrowers. Read your promissory note, which is a legal document. 

2. Making payments on time – Making payments on time is not only the best way to avoid default and eventually pay off your loan; it’s an excellent way to build credit. Building good credit will help when it comes time to make a big purchase, such as buying a house. 

3. Creating a budget – Create a post-college budget that includes all expenses, from credit card payments to utilities and groceries. By creating a budget and sticking to it, you can ensure enough savings to be able to pay your loans on time. 

4. Keeping good records and tracking your loans – Track all payment schedules and keep a paper record of every monthly payment. Utilize the ability to manage your loans online in order to stay up to date. 

5. Addressing any financial challenges quickly – If you’re having trouble making your monthly payment, don’t wait to address the problem. Research your options and talk to your lender. A borrower is usually considered in default if he or she has failed to make a loan payment for 270 days or more. Don’t let it get to that point. You may be able to switch repayment plans, consider an income-driven repayment plan, change a payment due date, or secure a deferment or forbearance.

Source: ACCC

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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On Thin Ice: Are Trees on Your Property Susceptible to Breakage?

November 16, 2015 12:58 am

If temperatures routinely dip below freezing in your area, you’ve likely witnessed the impact ice can have on your property. Ice-covered trees, in particular, are susceptible to breakage from the added weight. But how can you know which of your trees are more likely to give in?

“There are a number of growth features that increase a tree species’ susceptibility to breakage in ice storms,” says Tchukki Andersen, staff arborist with the Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA). “Among them are included bark, decaying or dead branches, increased surface area of lateral (side) branches, broad crowns or imbalanced crowns, and fine branch size.”

Included bark results from in-grown bark in branch junctions. This is a weak connection and increases the likelihood of branch breakage under ice-loading conditions.

Decaying or dead branches are already weakened and have a high probability of breaking when loaded with ice. The surface area of lateral branches increases as the number of branches and the broadness of the crown increase. With an increased surface area, more ice can accumulate on lateral branches; the greater ice load results in greater branch failure.

Many broad-leafed tree species, when grown in the open, form broad crowns (decurrent branching), increasing their susceptibility to ice storms. Examples include Siberian elm, American elm, hackberry, green ash, and honey locust. Trees with imbalanced crowns are also more susceptible to ice damage. In general, susceptibility can vary greatly depending on the time of year, geographic location and overall health of the tree.

When planting a new tree in your yard, you should have a clear understanding of the size that tree is expected to grow. Is it too close to the house? The overhead wires? The sidewalk? Proper tree placement, away from structures, will reduce property damage.

Trees should not be planted in locations where growth will interfere with above-ground utilities—branches that grow into power lines and fail during ice storms create power outages and safety hazards. Trees pruned regularly from a young age should be more resistant to ice storms as a result of removal of structurally weak branches, decreased surface area of lateral branches and decreased wind resistance. Professional arborists can install cables and braces to increase a tree’s tolerance to ice accumulation in situations where individual trees must be stabilized to prevent their failure.

After storm damage has occurred, hazardous trees and branches require immediate removal to ensure safety and prevent additional property damage. Trees that can be saved should have broken branches properly pruned to the branch collar. Loose bark should be cut back only to where it is solidly attached to the tree. A split fork can be repaired through cabling and bracing.

Tree species resistant to ice damage can be planted to reduce tree and property damage from ice storms. Common trees and their levels of susceptibility* include:

Resistant
• American sweetgum
• Arborvitae
• Black walnut
• Blue beech
• Catalpa
• Eastern hemlock
• Ginkgo
• Ironwood
• Kentucky coffee tree
• Littleleaf linden
• Norway maple
• Silver linden
• Swamp white oak
• White oak

Semi-Resistant
• Bur oak
• Eastern white pine
• Northern red oak
• Red maple
• Sugar maple
• Sycamore
• Tuliptree
• White ash

Susceptible
• American elm
• American linden
• Black cherry
• Black locust
• Bradford pear
• Common hackberry
• Green ash
• Honey locust
• Pin oak
• Siberian elm
• Silver maple

*Sources: University of New Hampshire; University of Illinois; United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service; New Hampshire Department of Resources and Economic Development

Source: TCIA

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Holiday Handbook: Tips for Safe Decorating

November 16, 2015 12:58 am

Adorning your home with twinkling lights this holiday season? Keep safety in mind, urges the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), inside and outside your home.

“Winter is the peak season for home fires, but these fires can be prevented by adopting a proactive approach to safety,” says Lorraine Carli, vice president of Communications for the NFPA. “Understanding the hazards that are commonly associated with the holiday season and following basic safety guidelines can help ensure that the holiday season is happy and disaster-free.”

“Electrical problems are factors in one-third of home Christmas tree fires,” adds ESFI President Brett Brenner. “Be sure not to overburden your electrical system, and be vigilant for warning signs, such as blown fuses or flickering lights, that could signify a serious electrical problem.”

To keep your household safe from fire this season, the NFPA and the ESFI recommend the following tips:

• Avoid using candles when possible.  Consider using battery-operated candles in place of traditional candles.

• Never leave an open flame unattended. Keep burning candles within sight.

• Choose holiday decorations made with flame-resistant or non-combustible materials.

• Use only electrical decorations and lights that have been approved for safe use by a nationally recognized testing laboratory.

• Carefully inspect each electrical decoration before use. Cracked or frayed sockets, loose or bare wires, and loose connections may cause a serious shock or start a fire.

• Follow the use and care instructions that accompany electrical decorations, and always unplug electrical decorations before replacing bulbs or fuses.

• Keep young children away from holiday lights, electrical decorations, and extension cords to prevent electrical shock and burn injuries.

• Avoid plugging too many holiday lights and decorations into a single outlet. Overloaded outlets can overheat and cause a fire.

• Do not mount or support light strings in a way that might damage the cord’s insulation. 

• Never connect more than three strands of incandescent lights together.

• Make sure any electrical decorations used outdoors are marked for outdoor use.

• Keep all outdoor extension cords and light strings clear of snow and standing water.

• Use caution when decorating near power lines. Contact with a high-voltage line could lead to electrocution.

• Turn off all indoor and outdoor electrical decorations before leaving home or going to bed.

Additionally, those purchasing Christmas trees should choose a tree with fresh, green needles that do not fall off when touched. (A fresh tree will stay green longer and be less of a fire hazard than a dry tree.) Add water to the tree stand daily. If purchasing an artificial tree, be sure it is labeled, certified or identified by the manufacturer as fire-retardant. Ensure the tree is at least three feet away from any heat source, like fireplaces, radiators, candles, heat vents or lights, and make sure the tree is not blocking an exit.

Source: ESFI

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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10 Things Not to Buy at the Grocery Store

November 13, 2015 12:55 am

According to the Food Marketing Institute, the average family goes to the supermarket 1.6 times each week and spends an average of $102.90 weekly.

Watching for sales and using coupons can make a dent in the weekly tab. But, say  MarketWatch consumer editors, you’ll almost always pay a premium for some items at the grocery store. To help pare your weekly spend on food and related items, here’s a list of 10 things not to buy at the supermarket:

Beer and Wine – Alcoholic beverages almost always cost between 10 and 20 percent more at the grocery store than at warehouse club stores.

Individually Packaged Snacks – If you regularly buy small bags of chips, crackers, and other lunchbox snacks, you can save 10 percent or more by buying them in quantity through Amazon. Better yet, buy larger, more economical packages and repackage them into sandwich bags.

Cakes – Buy that next birthday cake at a warehouse store, where you’ll pay $18 or less for a half-sheet cake instead of that much or more for a quarter sheet at the grocery store.

Kitchenware – It’s convenient to buy that frying pan or muffin tin while doing your weekly shopping, but you’ll pay an average of 30 percent more at the supermarket than you will at discount retailers or even at the local dollar store.

Office and School Supplies – They are much in evidence everywhere, especially at back-to-school time, but there are few bargains at the grocery store. Look for loss-leader prices at office, big-box, or drug stores.

Personal Hygiene Products – Everything from shampoo and deodorant to razors and blow dryers will cost significantly less at the big-box stores than at the supermarket.

Batteries – For worthwhile savings, buy them at big-box or warehouse stores, or from Amazon. Or pay pennies on the dollar for off-brand batteries at the dollar store.

Cleaning Supplies – There are great savings everywhere if you buy generic brands, but you can save as much as 40 percent on soaps and cleaners by buying them at the dollar store or big-box retailer.

Greeting Cards, Gift Wrap and Balloons – Save up to 50 percent on these items at the dollar store.

Spices – Never pay supermarket prices. Save big at the dollar store, which has a huge selection of commonly used spices.

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Do You Know What Questions to Ask when Joining an HOA?

November 13, 2015 12:55 am

Neighborhood Link (neighborhoodlink.com) defines a HOA, or homeowner association, as a legal entity created to manage and maintain the common areas of a community. Typically these "common areas" consist of things like pools, clubhouses, landscaping, parks, streets and roads.

HOAs are typically set up by the original developer of the community with a set of rules called "Declaration of Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions," otherwise known as "CC&Rs". One of the primary functions of the HOA is enforce and ensure that these "CC&Rs" are adhered to by individual homeowners.

One real estate blog recently posted a helpful punch list of questions to ask if you are buying a house or condo that is governed by a HOA:

- How much are the dues?
- What is the history of the due increases?
- Does it include building insurance or not?
- What are the specifics of the insurance and what insurance will you be required to carry vs. the HOA carries it for you?
- Are there HOA budget reserves for things like concrete repair, deck repair, staining/painting/etc?
- Do maintenance contracts look reasonable to you? Is one of the HOA members also one of the contractors?
- How much are transfer fees and capital reserve requirements?
- How many units are owner-occupied versus rented out?
-  What is the current status of all membership dues? How many units are past due and by how much?

In addition, get the minutes from the past year's HOA meetings and read them to learn what topics they cover. This will tell you how picky they are and what type of violations spur actions against residents.

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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Ready to Relocate? Avoid Hiring a 'Rogue Mover'!

November 13, 2015 12:55 am

Are you ready to relocate? If so, the Better Business Bureau cautions folks to be very selective before hiring a mover to avoid common problems, some of which may or may not be illegal.

Every year, the BBB and law enforcement officials hear about "rogue movers" who demand an additional and unexpected payment before releasing possessions to their owner. In addition, consumers may also be held responsible for additional charges if the moving company puts belongings in storage pending payment of the final amount.

The most common disputes in the BBB database involved damage to or disappearance of personal belongings, difficulty obtaining compensation for damage, a final bill well in excess of the original quote and damage to apartments, homes and condos caused by movers during the process.

Anyone with a truck and a website can claim to be a mover, and unfortunately, the moving industry is plagued by con artists who don’t adhere to best marketplace standards for honesty and ethical conduct.

The BBB recommends consumers watch for the following common red flags before hiring a mover:

- They prefer to give you an estimate over the phone, sight unseen. That preliminary estimate will likely be lower than the actual cost when the job is over.

- They demand a large sum of money before the move. However, it is not unusual for a mover to ask in advance for $100 or $200 to make sure you don’t cancel and leave them hanging the day of the move. Usually, the bill must be paid in full the day of the move.

- Be wary if you cannot find a local address, contact information and proof of licensing or insurance on their website, or if they use a generic truck.

The BBB recommends consumers thoroughly research prospective moving companies at bbb.org before hiring.

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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5 Ways to Budget for Holiday Shopping

November 12, 2015 12:55 am

It’s not uncommon for shoppers to get a head start on purchasing gifts for the holidays, but shopping before the December rush is fast becoming the norm, according to American Consumer Credit Counseling (ACCC), a nonprofit organization.

“More people realize that waiting until December to start your their holiday shopping can result in extremely high credit card balances that are impossible to pay back,” says ACCC President and CEO Steve Trumble.  “Spending small amounts on holiday gifts from each paycheck can prevent overspending and over-relying dependence on credit cards. It can also make the total amount spent on holiday shopping rather manageable.”

There are many ways shoppers can start saving on holiday spending:

1. Do Your Research – Shopping before Black Friday has its perks. You have time to do research before you hit the stores. Call around and go online to find the best deals. You should also try to consolidate your shopping trips to a few stores to cut down on transportation costs. 

2. Set a Budget and Save – Know your budget, make it non-negotiable and then save enough to afford that budget. A financial calculator can help you determine how much you will need to save on a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly basis to save a certain amount for holiday spending. That way, you can start putting money aside now for holiday expenses.

3. Debit Instead of Credit – Use debit instead of credit cards. A debit card automatically forces you to spend only what you have, and allows you to avoid paying interest. It also prevents you from creating an enormous bill that may take months to pay off. 

4. Open a “Holiday” Account – Many banks have a “Christmas Club” account intended to help people save for the holidays. Consumers can start putting money into the account each month, and the bank only allows you to withdraw money from it on a certain date so you are not tempted to take out money prior to the holidays. 

5. Make a List and Check It Twice – Plan a list of gifts ahead of time for people and buy them before the holiday rush. One way to do this is to carry your list with you. All too often shoppers will get distracted by flash sales and “bargains” and end up with a trunk full of items that were not even included on the shopping list. By simply carrying a list with you, whether it is hand-written or on a smartphone, shoppers can save themselves hundreds in unwanted and unnecessary items. 

Source: ACCC

Published with permission from RISMedia.


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