The hidden dangers of oversharing on social media

(BPT) – Locking doors and windows and leaving a light on used to deter criminals from breaking into homes when you were away on vacation, but our obsession with sharing photos and experiences in real time on social media has created a whole new security risk for travelers. According to Mercury Insurance, burglaries involving social media have become all too common these days.

“Instead of looking for physical signs that a home is unoccupied, burglars can simply scan Instagram posts, monitor Twitter feeds and check Facebook for signs that someone isn’t home. Posted photos can also show them exactly what to look for when they break in,” says Mercury Insurance Vice President of Claims Kevin Quinn. “Oversharing on social media is commonplace and built-in smartphone features like geotagging, which share the user’s exact location when they post, are only making things easier for thieves.”

One example is a Mercury claimant who took his family on vacation to Cancun, Mexico. The family was very active on social media, publicizing their upcoming vacation and continuing to post updates throughout the trip. Thieves used this information to break into the claimant’s home and steal nearly $200,000 worth of personal property, along with a Mercedes-Benz parked in the driveway. Many of the items stolen were pictured on the family’s social media accounts, so the thieves knew exactly what to target.

“It’s important to make sure no one in your family is posting your travel plans. Facebook posts checking into restaurants or Instagram photos of your family’s vacation blatantly advertise that you’re away from home and put your property at risk,” adds Quinn.

Quinn offers the following social media tips to consider before taking off on your vacation:

* Never share photos of your belongings. Be careful about displaying any expensive belongings on social media that might entice thieves. Steer clear of posting pictures of expensive jewelry, cash, designer clothing and accessories, and electronics.

* Don’t tag your location. Disable the geotagging feature on your smartphone and resist the urge to check in at locations while you’re away.

* Avoid uploading photos during your vacation. Wait until you’re home to share your family’s trip.

* Be selective about what and with whom you share. Limit your following or friend base on your personal accounts and adjust your privacy settings so that others have a limited view of your profiles. You never know if a friend of a friend is looking at your photos or other posts.

* Never announce your vacation plans on your social media channels. If you plan to go out of town, consider having a neighbor check on your home, or hiring a trusted friend or family member to housesit.

* Verify friend requests. It’s easy for people to pretend to be someone they’re not online, so don’t get “catfished.” Be wary of connecting with people you don’t know.

* Power down your PC. Disable the internet connection to cut off access to any personal information stored on your computer, because unattended machines are easy marks for hackers.

“Live in the moment and enjoy your time with your family. The purpose of vacation is to relax, recharge and experience things in person, not just on a screen. Save the photo sharing and status updates for when you return home — it could make the difference between whether you need to file an insurance claim after your well-deserved time away or not,” adds Quinn.

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5 hacks to save time and money during the holidays

(BPT) – The holidays are a wonderful time of year to spend with family and friends, and to reconnect with those you may not often see. However, the festive season can also be a busy and expensive time. By January, many are left feeling exhausted physically, emotionally and financially. But don’t let the stress of the season stand in the way of the magic — follow these easy tips and tricks to enjoy a more relaxing and joyful holiday season.

* Make a list: And check it twice! Getting organized this holiday season can save you time and money. When shopping for holiday gifts, having a complete list before you enter the store can prevent you from browsing the aisles for items you do not need. You will also have an estimated total cost before shopping, so you can stick to your budget.

* Send e-cards: It is always exciting to receive holiday mail from loved ones, but between the postage and printing fees, sending your own cards can quickly add up. Sending e-cards, however, is a more cost-effective approach and you can send as many as you’d like! You can also apply the money you save to your gifting budget.

* Switch to Straight Talk: From searching seasonal recipes to online shopping, there is no better helper than a smartphone during the holiday season. Straight Talk Wireless recently launched its new Ultimate Unlimited Plan for just $55 per month — helping you tackle the holidays and stream your favorite videos at DVD quality, without worrying about running out of high speed data. Never get throttled again. So treat yourself to the gift of unlimited data by switching to Straight Talk Wireless, the leading no-contract wireless provider that offers customers the best phones on the best networks for less. With no contracts, no credit checks and no mystery fees, your phone bill will be one less cost to worry about this season.

* Wrap like a pro: Gift wrapping can be one of the most time consuming activities of the holidays. However, there are multiple hacks to expedite the wrapping process. For oddly shaped gifts — use Kraft paper bags and decorate with a silver paint marker. You can also spruce up plain wrapping paper using twine, ribbons and stencils. Be creative if you run out of supplies, in the end it is the thought that matters, not the presentation!

* Monitor for deals: Online holiday shopping has made it easy to avoid the craze of the mall. But another added benefit of shopping from home is finding ways to avoid paying full price. Once you reach the checkout page, do a quick online search for discount codes for that particular site. You will be shocked to find how simple it is to save a few extra bucks or even snag free shipping!

Make it a priority this year to not lose the spirit of the season within the hustle and bustle. While they may seem simple, these few steps will help you put an end to the post-holiday slump before it hits.

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Home smart home: Boost your home IQ with smart appliances

(BPT) – If you think a Jetsons-like home of the future is still a ways off, think again. Today’s smart home is here offering simple ways for consumers to operate their home, adding the ultimate in efficiency, convenience and enjoyment. It’s easier than you think to create a connected home that lets you operate devices throughout your kitchen, living room, laundry room and more — and you can do it all from the palm of your hand or with simple voice commands. In fact, some of your appliances might already be able to help you cook, clean and entertain in ways never thought possible.

Here are five things smart appliances can do to make your life easier right now:

1. Serve as your sous chef

Too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth, but one extra helper sure could make the food prep a lot easier. Consider the SmartThinQ app for LG appliances your sous chef and use it to tackle all those extra jobs that come with meal preparation.

It can preheat the oven at a designated time — perfect for when you’re sitting in traffic and need to have dinner ready in a pinch. Plus, it can download recipes and let you monitor the remaining cooking time from your phone — letting you enjoy time with your family without worrying about a burnt meal.

2. Help with housework

If you have a load of laundry in your LG TWINWash with SideKick, your phone can provide cycle status updates and alert you when the cycle is complete, helping to avoid forgotten laundry in your washer. Plus, you can even start or stop the cycle remotely when you’re out of the house.

3. Speed clean your home

Cleaning the oven may be one of the most mundane and dreaded tasks. Now with your smartphone you can easily start your oven’s EasyClean cycle from the palm of your hand, ensuring one of cleanup’s most difficult jobs is done while you’re off enjoying life’s other adventures.

You can also use the app to start your robotic vacuum on your way home from work for a quick refresh or when you forget the in-laws are coming over for dinner.

4. Help you entertain effortlessly

Hosting a party or even a casual group of guests heightens the need to clean, but let’s be honest, there’s always a chore or two around the house that you run out of time to tackle. Your smart home can help save the day. While tackling another chore, simply use your smartphone app to tell your refrigerator to make more ice to save you a trip to the store. Or turn on your air purifier to rid the house of cooking smells or seasonal allergy culprits. Likewise, a quick touch of your phone allows you to control air conditioners in your home to set your place to the perfect temperature or adjust the temperature as guests come and go.

5. Remember your preferences

Do you ever wish your appliances knew what you were thinking? The more you use your smart appliances, the smarter they get by remembering usage habits and data to better anticipate your needs.

Home smart home

Gone are the days of wondering if you left the oven on when you leave the house or constantly checking on the laundry. Chores may be a mainstay, but with new ways to control your home, you no longer have to tackle them all on your own. Each of the examples above presents an opportunity for you to get more from your house with the touch of a button. And for added convenience, many of the latest smart appliances can also be controlled from other devices, like Google Home or Amazon Alexa. So let your touch or your voice be heard and get the most out of your appliances as efficiently as possible. You’ll be glad you did.

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5 steps to making annual enrollment the most wonderful time of the year

(BPT) – It’s that time of year again. But before you plan your Thanksgiving menu or check off your gift list, it’s time to think about employee benefits.

VSP Vision Care surveyed employees about their attitudes around that special time of year when they must choose a benefits package and found that annual open enrollment is less popular than even tax season. While selecting your benefits may not exactly be a party, there’s no need for dread. They’re called benefits for a reason.

In spite of how important employer-sponsored benefits are, The 2015 Ninth Study of Employee Benefits: Today and Beyond from Prudential shows that people spend very little time considering their benefits. In fact, 32 percent spent just one to two hours on this important topic and 23 percent spent less than 30 minutes.

“The decisions we make during open enrollment can have an impact throughout the next year,” said James Gemus, senior vice president, head of product and business segments, group insurance for Prudential Financial. “These decisions deserve careful consideration and people owe it to themselves to consider every possible option. The research shows us that 55 percent of the time spent on benefit decisions was devoted to medical coverage. That’s certainly understandable, but they should be careful not to overlook other key benefits offered through their employer, like disability or life insurance.”

Make the most of this season’s open enrollment with these tips from Prudential:

1. Review all of your options. Employers and employees often look at medical, dental and vision as taking priority, and with good reason. However, don’t overlook other benefits, such as life and disability insurance, critical illness and accident insurance, which can complement these core offerings and are key to overall financial wellness. Seventy-one percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, according to the study Getting Paid in America. Disability insurance can help protect a portion of your income if you become too sick or injured to work and earn a paycheck. That’s important because 62 percent of bankruptcies are based on a medical event and 78 percent of those who experience medical bankruptcies had health insurance. Critical illness insurance can help reduce the amount of out-of-pocket costs associated with certain serious medical issues. Insurance is a great way to help protect yourself financially from unexpected risks, so explore all of your options.

2. Take advantage of cost and convenience. Purchasing benefits like life or disability insurance through your employer can simplify things for you in two ways: First, you often pay less for them than had you purchased them on your own because you’re taking advantage of group rates; and second, you pay for these benefits through payroll deduction, which is not only simple, but also reduces your gross income, which may help lower your taxes.

3. Make the most of financial wellness programs: In a recent Prudential survey only 22 percent of individuals described themselves as feeling financially secure. Sixty-three percent said that employee satisfaction with benefits is important for their company’s success and employees are increasingly looking to those benefit offerings as a basis for financial security. So as more workers rely on their workplace as a primary source of insurance and savings — 35 percent of workers as of 2015 up from 30 percent in 2013 — employers are trying to ensure that every employee gets the most from the benefits they have. As an employee, don’t forgo this opportunity, ask questions both of your company and your coworkers to learn more about all of your options. It’s your benefits package but it only benefits you if you use it.

4. Look for tools to help make decisions. Often, employers will provide websites where you can not only enroll, but also offer tools like calculators and videos that can help you make sense of your benefits. This means getting the help you need in understanding your financial protection needs and selecting the best options to meet them. So take the time to explore them. It’s time well spent.

5. Ask for help. With all the options out there, it’s easy to feel confused. Speak with your employer’s benefits experts or HR resources. You can also speak to a financial professional and learn more about how to select the coverage that will fit your needs. You may be amazed at the good information that’s available.

The Prudential Insurance Company of America Newark, NJ


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Paving the way to college: 4 things parents need to know

(BPT) – Senior year: It’s a time to finish college applications, solidify friendships and look forward to the freedom and the responsibility that come once that final bell rings. A lot of feelings surface during that final year, especially for parents. While your son or daughter might be overjoyed to finally fly the coop and live independently, you’ll probably be dealing with your own mix of emotions, and you’ll want to be sure they’re ready to begin college in the fall.

For families with a child headed to college, senior year is best thought of as a transition year. Plan ahead to make sure your family stays on track.

To help you and your child with a successful transition, here’s the essential list of landmarks on the road that will take your child from a senior in high school to a freshman in college.

1. Apply yourself in the fall

The journey to college begins early, and by the fall of senior year in high school, your child should be in full transition mode. They should be finishing campus visits and finalizing the list of colleges where they want to apply. Make sure they’ve spoken with admission counselors, thoroughly researched schools they’re interested in and have everything they need to complete their college applications.

Keep tabs on important deadlines and stay organized to avoid missing any critical due dates. For example, will they want to apply early decision or early action? If so, make sure you have weighed how this could impact your financial plan for college.

2. Focus on financial aid from the start

For many parents, one of the biggest anxieties around college is the cost. Don’t forget that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) opens on Oct. 1, and some aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Make sure you submit the form as soon as it’s available.

Because everyone has different needs, figuring out how to finance your child’s education requires some research.

At College Ave Student Loans, you can find private loan options for parents and students. Even if you’re not ready to take a loan out yet, parents and students can try out the fast and easy pre-qualification tools to find out if their credit pre-qualifies for a loan, and what interest rates they could expect, all without impacting their credit scores. Calculators are also available to help you explore your options and see how you can customize the loan payments to fit your budget.

3. Spring time is decision time

Early in the spring, your child will start to receive their first acceptance letters. Once they’ve heard from all of the schools where they applied, they’ll have a big decision to make.

They need to do more than just decide which school to attend; they’ll also need to send in a deposit, complete their housing form and accept financial aid packages.

A crucial step in this process is comparing award letters from the colleges where your child has been accepted. In reading these letters, pay close attention to how schools list the total costs. For instance, some schools will subtract the awarded loan amount from the total cost of attendance, while others will not. This could make the net cost of some schools appear less than others when in reality they are not, so take your time reading the documents.

4. Tie up everything in the summer

Before they head to campus, you and your children should create a budget to keep tabs on college bills. This will help you to stay on track financially and set the right expectations about how they need to manage their money.

You can help your soon-to-be freshman by working with them to outline a monthly budget that will take into account expected and unexpected expenses. Take a look at their financial aid packages and any income they might be earning and block out the monthly mandatory expenses. Then decide how much money they can spend on things like entertainment.

If you find that scholarships, grants and federal aid don’t cover everything, private loans could be one solution for some college-bound students.

For parents and students, senior year is an exciting period. Knowing what steps to take and staying ahead of financial matters with useful tools like the ones at College Ave Student Loans can help make the transition easier for everyone.

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Don’t be misled by these down payment myths

(BPT) – Confused about how much you need for a down payment on a house? You’re not alone.

Whether it’s your first time buying a home or you’ve been around the block, calculating the right amount for a down payment can be a challenge. Many admit that accumulating down payment funds is one of the more daunting parts of the homebuying process. However, the down payment hurdle is not always based on financial reality, but rather on a longstanding myth — that 20 percent of a home’s purchase price is required. In fact, almost half (45 percent) of first-time buyers thought they needed 20 percent or more for a down payment, according to Bank of America’s 2017 Homebuyer Insights Report.

While putting 20 percent down was an established rule of thumb for previous generations, people are rethinking the former one-size-fits-all approach to homeownership.

So, what’s the magic number?

Is it 3 percent? 5 percent? 10 percent? 30 percent? With so much uncertainty about down payment requirements, it’s no wonder people have trouble determining when and if they can buy a home. The truth is, however, that the magic number varies from one homebuyer to the next. According to the National Association of REALTORS, buyers put an average of just 6 percent down when buying a home, far below common perceptions. With this truth in mind, prospective buyers can access tips and tools that will help them create a plan that’s customizable to their financial situation, helping them feel confident in their decision to buy.

Whether you’re financially stable or could use a little assistance, don’t feel trapped by the 20 percent down payment — it’s a myth after all.

Knowledge is (buying) power

With U.S. homeownership near a 50-year record low, according to Rosen Consulting Group, it’s important that potential buyers understand the affordable housing options available to them so they have the opportunity to pursue their dreams of homeownership.

Down payments don’t need to be intimidating. There are affordable entry points to homeownership for creditworthy buyers, many of which require down payments as low as 3 percent. Prospective homeowners can explore ways to lower upfront figures by searching for down payment and cost-saving programs, using tools like Bank of America’s Down Payment Resource Center. This database has more than 1,000 local and national assistance programs and is a way to navigate and research many of the existing options in the buying space.

Purchasing power correlates with responsibility and accountability. With that said, if buyers put in the time to research and educate themselves on affordable-housing solutions, they will discover that homeownership may be closer in reach than they thought.

Be realistic, not idealistic, about buying a home

While you want to confirm that you are in a financial position to comfortably make monthly mortgage payments and properly maintain a home, you don’t have to have a perfect financial situation. Before you begin house hunting, there are things you can look into to get prepared. Checking your credit score will give you a better understanding of how you’ll be viewed as a potential borrower. While having a healthy credit score is ideal, there are options for applicants with limited or nontraditional credit histories. For instance, Bank of America’s Affordable Loan Solution mortgage accepts nontraditional forms of credit history, meaning buyers can show financial accountability in the form of monthly rent payments and utility bills. This low down payment program allows buyers to put down as little as 3 percent, and there is no mortgage insurance requirement.

Beyond formalized down payment assistance programs, many first-time buyers today get help from family in the form of gifts or assistance from employers. It’s also common to ask the seller of a home to contribute toward closing costs, which can help reduce out-of-pocket costs to close a loan.

Educational resources that support and inform the modern homebuying process allow buyers to feel confident in choosing an affordable solution that makes buying more accessible. Homeownership remains the best way for families to build wealth and stability over the long term, and busting common down payment myths helps people overcome the obstacles that stand between them and their dream of homeownership.

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All home warranties are not created equal

(BPT) –

Having a home warranty is a smart way to help deal with the inevitable home repair problems that all property owners face at one point or another.

After all, a good home warranty can mean getting expert help when your HVAC system needs to be fixed, your water heater needs to be replaced, or your refrigerator requires a new part.

But unfortunately, all home warranties are not created equal. And shopping for a home warranty can be tough, especially if you aren’t familiar with home warranty coverage and providers.

So to find a home warranty that will protect your home and budget, here are three important questions to ask, along with a few tips on what to look for in a top-notch home warranty.

1. What’s covered?

Some home warranties are only good for appliances. Others focus on systems within your house, such as your air conditioning, heating or plumbing systems. The best warranties offer broad protection at a fair price, and even allow you to select from various coverage approaches based on your needs.

When shopping around, inquire about exclusions, limitations and non-covered expenses. Most, if not all, plans DO have these. For example, there may be a cap on the amount of coverage for a particular item; an environmental disposal fee, required in some counties, may be excluded from coverage; or modifications, not covered under the home warranty, may be needed to bring a covered system up to code or in compliance with new standards.

2. Is the price affordable?

Obviously, you’ll want to initially know the specifics of how much a warranty will cost you — not just for the annual price of coverage, but also for future service calls.

When purchasing an American Home Shield warranty, you choose a $75, $100 or $125 fee for your service requests, which gives you the flexibility to pay more or less for your annual contract. As with all home warranty companies, the price of an American Home Shield warranty plan varies based on multiple factors, including the specific type of plan you choose and your state of residency. But basic coverage starts at about $300 and goes up to around $600 annually for more comprehensive plans — a bargain considering the cost of replacing things in your house that will likely break down at some point.

When considering cost factors, also ask if all the items you want covered are included in the base cost of the plan, or whether you will need to add additional items to create the perfect plan for your home.

3. Does the home warranty cover just mechanical components?

Before you buy any home warranty, inquire about the extent of coverage different companies may provide based on normal wear and tear of an item — as well as any limitations.

Many components of home systems and appliances contain both mechanical and non-mechanical features. While the primary goal of a home warranty is to repair or replace covered items so that they function mechanically, American Home Shield covers both mechanical repairs and certain non-mechanical items, such as handles, doors, knobs and shelves.

That doesn’t mean everything is covered, of course. So let’s say your child stands on your dishwasher door and breaks the seal. Sorry, but that is NOT a covered repair, because it is not “normal” wear and tear.

Also, what happens if a repair person comes to your home and, despite his or her best efforts, simply can’t fix something covered under your home warranty?

With an AHS home warranty, if a repair person can’t fix a covered item, AHS will replace it.

That doesn’t mean you will necessarily get the precise brand and color of, say, a washing machine or dryer. After all, you may have bought your laundry set four years ago, and the manufacturer might not even make those exact same models or colors today.

However, if your washer and dryer do fizzle out completely, AHS will install a replacement that has similar operational features.

What’s more, at American Home Shield, 98 percent of service requests are dispatched to local repair technicians within 24 hours.

Using your home warranty wisely

Regardless of the type of home warranty you buy or whom you buy it from, always follow the maintenance guidelines specified for your home’s appliances and systems. Likewise, it’s a smart idea to have those systems and appliances regularly serviced.

Taking both of those steps can prevent many service repair calls and help reduce your overall cost of homeownership.

Ultimately, an excellent home warranty provides you with a solid asset that helps safeguard one of your biggest investments.

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How to save on healthcare costs in 2018

(BPT) – (BPT) – Your cable bill, entertainment expenses, grocery extras — these often top the list when people sit down to discuss where they can save money.

One expense you should consider in 2018 is your healthcare costs. Since autumn marks the beginning of the annual open enrollment period for employees, now is the ideal time to sign up for a new health benefit plan or make adjustments to your current plan.

Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) and Flexible Spending Accounts (FSAs) are two options for people looking to save money pre-tax in the New Year. An FSA, which is provided by your employer, allows you to save funds for eligible healthcare expenses. An HSA — which you can obtain on your own or through your employer — is a tax-advantaged savings account that allows you to set aside money to cover medical expenses throughout your lifetime.

Both accounts have the major advantage that the full amount of your pre-tax dollars may be used toward care that you or your family may need. Employees who enroll in an FSA can contribute a portion of their salary pre-tax to pay for qualified medical care expenses within the plan year, while an HSA provides people with qualifying high-deductible health plans the ability to rollover balances and pay for current and future medical expenses.

Awareness and interest in HSAs has increased this year, with the highest levels of interest stemming from Millennials and Gen Xers, according to the 2017 Flexible Spending Account and Health Savings Account Consumer Research study commissioned by Visa and conducted by C+R Research. This nationwide online research was conducted in March 2017, with the FSA survey conducted among 1,306 consumers and the HSA survey conducted among 1,090 consumers.

Key features of HSAs that are most appealing to consumers include the ability to roll over unused dollars from year to year, pre-tax contributions, and having money available to pay for healthcare services.

The study indicates that 91 percent of FSA users agree that saving money, since contributions are pre-tax, tops their list of reasons for having an FSA. Sixty-four percent of FSA users believe that FSAs help them be more prepared and plan for healthcare expenses. In fact, 22 percent of their healthcare purchases (most notably routine doctor visits and vision expenses) on average would not be made if they didn’t have an FSA.

One of the most convenient ways to access funds in an HSA or FSA is with a Visa Healthcare Card, which allows people to use funds in their HSA or FSA to pay for qualified medical expenses wherever Visa debit cards are accepted, making it easy to pay for expenses such as:

*Co-pays and deductibles


*Dental services: Cleanings, orthodontia, dentures

*Physical exams

*Vision care, including exams, new glasses, laser eye surgery

*Hearing exams and aids

*Medical equipment such as blood pressure monitors, thermometers

*Smoking cessation programs

For added convenience, many pharmacies, grocery stores and other retailers that sell healthcare products have the capability to distinguish between covered items and non-covered items when you pay for them, so you don’t have to wonder whether something is covered.

By using a Visa Healthcare Card at these locations, you no longer have to pay out-of-pocket and then submit receipts to be reimbursed for your medical expenses, saving you time and money!

These are all great reasons why 80 percent of FSA users surveyed prefer to access their funds with their FSA card over other methods, and why 76 percent of HSA users surveyed say a debit card linked to an HSA makes paying for medical expenses convenient. As you review your options this open enrollment season, ask your employer if it offers an HSA or FSA with a Visa Healthcare Card to provide easy access to your funds. To learn more, visit

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