3 tips when buying a used car

(BPT) – If you’re in the market for a used vehicle, the car-buying process can be both an exciting and daunting experience. Whether you are a first-time buyer or looking for a different model, a car is one of the largest purchases you will ever make. It’s not only important to make sure you have the right car for your lifestyle, but one that makes the most sense for your personal financial situation.

If you are one of the millions of Americans looking to buy, here are some tips to consider.

Get pre-approved

Similar to buying a house, it’s important to know what you can afford before you start hunting for your dream car. If you will be financing a vehicle, getting pre-approved for a car loan may save you a lot of heartburn during your car search.

Interest rates continue to be at historic lows, but it’s important to check in on what rates you may qualify for and how it will affect the price of what you can afford.

“It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of looking for a new car and forget about the affordability piece,” says Renee Horne, vice president of Consumer Lending at USAA. “Before you even begin your search, give your lender a call to see what you can actually qualify for and what will fit in your budget.”

A good tip to keep in mind is to not let your car payment exceed more than 15 percent of your monthly net income. While you don’t have to stick to it, this rule will help give you a rough estimate of what you may be spending each month.

Know what you can afford

Knowing what you can afford reaches beyond your car loan payment. Although used cars are typically less expensive, they may have more maintenance and ownership costs.

“It’s important to look at the total cost of ownership,” says Heather Pollard, vice president of Auto Experience at USAA. “Everyday expenses such as gas, insurance, taxes, maintenance and future repairs are all associated with owning a vehicle.”

Knowing a rough estimate of these expenses will help you stay on budget in the long run. Simple online loan calculators, like this one at USAA, can help give you an idea of how much you can afford.

Narrow your choices

With countless choices available, finding the right car for you can be a challenge. Your budget should help narrow some of your choices, but consider your lifestyle as well.

Do you have young children or plan to start a family soon? Then you might want to consider the highest IIHS safety ratings. Do you frequently travel for work? In that case, improved gas mileage and reduced emissions are important factors. Remember, all those extra upgrades come with a higher insurance price tag and are depreciating assets once you drive off the lot.

Although you may be more inclined to go after a new car with the latest cutting-edge technology, a pre-owned vehicle may be the better alternative for your lifestyle and budget. Better still, used car prices are the lowest they have been in years. Even if you opt for a slightly older version of the model you’re interested in, many used models still offer similar advanced features while saving you thousands of dollars in the end.

Need help finding the right car for you? The USAA Car Buying Service can help.

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Changing weather patterns leave homeowners underinsured

(BPT) – The U.S. has experienced significant shifts in the frequency, severity and locations of natural disasters — including floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires — during the past decade.

As a result, more than 800 emergency or disaster declarations were made in the U.S. from 2005–2015, according to FEMA data. The insured losses stemming from natural catastrophes such as these average $24 billion annually.

Homeowners face severe risks from these disasters, yet many have not connected the dots between these shifts and the impact on their home insurance needs. A recent survey commissioned by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) found that fewer than 22 percent of homeowners view weather patterns or disasters as an important factor when updating their homeowners insurance policy. Missing these links can be costly.

“Changing weather patterns can dramatically impact what insurance should be carried on a property,” says Mike Consedine, NAIC chief executive officer. “When homeowners don’t regularly review their policies, important gaps in coverage can be missed. You should re-evaluate your risk profile at least once a year to ensure your existing homeowners policy provides the protection you need.”

Despite Consedine’s recommendation, the survey revealed that 56 percent of homeowners have not reviewed their insurance policies in more than a year. Fourteen percent are unsure when — if ever — they last reviewed their policies.

If it’s been awhile since your last insurance review, there’s no better time than the present. When evaluating your policy, consider the following questions:

1. Am I now at risk? Are earthquakes, wildfires or other disasters now a threat in my state or region? If you live in Oklahoma, for example, the risk of earthquakes has significantly increased in the last decade. Do I need flood insurance? Some incidents such as floods are not covered by a typical homeowners policy, so you’ll need additional coverage.

2. What has changed in my home? If you’ve moved in with your significant other or an adult child has returned home, consider the impact their belongings will have on your coverage. Create a home inventory and update it annually. The NAIC’s MyHome Scr.App.book app (available for iPhone and Android) lets you quickly capture images and descriptions of your possessions. Keep in mind personal items like jewelry, antiques and artwork may require special insurance coverage.

3. Do I save my receipts? Take photos or save receipts from major purchases and store them in a safe place away from your house or apartment. Quick access to these receipts will make filing a claim much easier.

4. What home improvements have I made? Renovations and additions can change the value of your home. Make sure your homeowners insurance policy reflects your home’s current value. Some security or smart home features may qualify you for premium discounts.

5. How can I learn more about being prepared? Get educated about your insurance options now to avoid surprises later. Insure U’s new Disaster Prep Guides can help determine the best course of action before, during and after a disaster strikes. The guides include information and tips for tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and wildfires.

For unbiased information and resources to help you rethink insurance, visit insureuonline.org. For insurance information specific to where you live, contact your state insurance commissioner.

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Changing weather patterns leave homeowners underinsured

(BPT) – The U.S. has experienced significant shifts in the frequency, severity and locations of natural disasters — including floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires — during the past decade.

As a result, more than 800 emergency or disaster declarations were made in the U.S. from 2005–2015, according to FEMA data. The insured losses stemming from natural catastrophes such as these average $24 billion annually.

Homeowners face severe risks from these disasters, yet many have not connected the dots between these shifts and the impact on their home insurance needs. A recent survey commissioned by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) found that fewer than 22 percent of homeowners view weather patterns or disasters as an important factor when updating their homeowners insurance policy. Missing these links can be costly.

“Changing weather patterns can dramatically impact what insurance should be carried on a property,” says Mike Consedine, NAIC chief executive officer. “When homeowners don’t regularly review their policies, important gaps in coverage can be missed. You should re-evaluate your risk profile at least once a year to ensure your existing homeowners policy provides the protection you need.”

Despite Consedine’s recommendation, the survey revealed that 56 percent of homeowners have not reviewed their insurance policies in more than a year. Fourteen percent are unsure when — if ever — they last reviewed their policies.

If it’s been awhile since your last insurance review, there’s no better time than the present. When evaluating your policy, consider the following questions:

1. Am I now at risk? Are earthquakes, wildfires or other disasters now a threat in my state or region? If you live in Oklahoma, for example, the risk of earthquakes has significantly increased in the last decade. Do I need flood insurance? Some incidents such as floods are not covered by a typical homeowners policy, so you’ll need additional coverage.

2. What has changed in my home? If you’ve moved in with your significant other or an adult child has returned home, consider the impact their belongings will have on your coverage. Create a home inventory and update it annually. The NAIC’s MyHome Scr.App.book app (available for iPhone and Android) lets you quickly capture images and descriptions of your possessions. Keep in mind personal items like jewelry, antiques and artwork may require special insurance coverage.

3. Do I save my receipts? Take photos or save receipts from major purchases and store them in a safe place away from your house or apartment. Quick access to these receipts will make filing a claim much easier.

4. What home improvements have I made? Renovations and additions can change the value of your home. Make sure your homeowners insurance policy reflects your home’s current value. Some security or smart home features may qualify you for premium discounts.

5. How can I learn more about being prepared? Get educated about your insurance options now to avoid surprises later. Insure U’s new Disaster Prep Guides can help determine the best course of action before, during and after a disaster strikes. The guides include information and tips for tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and wildfires.

For unbiased information and resources to help you rethink insurance, visit insureuonline.org. For insurance information specific to where you live, contact your state insurance commissioner.

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Secrets smart investors use year-round to save on their taxes

(BPT) – Come tax time, many people work to locate tax breaks. While this is always a smart financial move, a little-known way to help build your net worth is to keep taxes top of mind throughout the entire year.

Reducing taxes means you keep more of what you earn, according to Nick Holeman, a financial planning expert at Betterment.com.

“You can’t control the stock market, but you can control some of your taxes,” Holeman said. “Knowing how your investments affect your tax bill can help you save money not just on April 15th, but for years to come.”

Check to see whether your long-term investment strategy is running efficiently with these tips from Holeman.

Invest your tax refund: One smart place to invest your tax refund is in an IRA. Normally, investors might divert a portion of the refund into this account as part of a well-rounded investment strategy and claim the deductions for next year’s tax time. Invest your refund, and you may get a portion of that back in tax savings. Stay in the habit of investing that refund if you can and watch those small returns add up over time.

Think several moves ahead: Investing is complex and from time to time you will have to sell some of your investments; everybody does. It might be to rebalance your portfolio or maybe your goals have changed and your investments no longer match their intended purpose.

Still, smart investors need to think ahead before blindly selling parts of their portfolio. This is because selling could potentially lead to taxes. By carefully choosing which investments to sell, you can help minimize that hefty tax consequence.

One way to do this is to partner with an investment company that has the tools to make this information easy to access and understand. Betterment.com, for example, offers Tax Impact Preview, which lets investors see estimated potential tax on a sale before making the trade. If you don’t think the pros outweigh the cons, don’t do it.

Reorganize your investments: Another way to potentially leverage even small tax advantages into long-term growth is to build your portfolio like an energy-efficient engine, built to run for more miles with less need to refuel. You can help accomplish this by reorganizing your portfolio. Move inefficient investments like international stocks and other assets that are taxed more often into a tax-deferred account, such as an IRA or a Roth IRA. That way, you can enjoy the high growth for less tax. Then, move less-taxed assets, such as municipal bonds, into taxable accounts.

Benefit from losses: Help keep your portfolio in balance by selling off the laggards and replacing them with a similar investment. You can receive a tax deduction from your losses that can help cancel out the taxes you owe on assets that have gains. This is done automatically for investors at many automated services through a strategy called tax loss harvesting. Smart investors should always remember that investments involve risk and may result in loss.

Give to a worthy cause: While it’s important to secure your future, many investors see community support as an important goal. Consider donating a to a nonprofit organization in your community. Not only are you helping to improve the quality of life in your locale, you can potentially claim a deduction from your income tax. It can pay to do the right thing.

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Small nest egg, big dreams? Tips for buying your retirement home

(BPT) – Planning for retirement means making a lot of decisions, including when you’ll stop working, how much you’ll withdraw from your savings each year, and where you’ll live. Many Americans view retirement as an opportunity to move into a house they’ll love and live in for all their golden years. In fact, 64 percent of retirees either have moved or plan to move, according to a Merrill Lynch survey.

Some retirees move to be closer to children or grandchildren, to down-size into a more manageable home, live in a warmer locale, or to secure a more luxurious home where they can easily age in place.

“The decision of where to live in retirement is important and can directly affect quality of life in your golden years,” says Geoff Lewis, President of RE/MAX, LLC. “Research by Trulia shows that in virtually all areas of the country, it makes better financial sense for retirees to buy a home, rather than rent. In fact, buying is nearly 42 percent cheaper than renting for seniors across the country.”

With offices in more countries than any other real estate brand, RE/MAX agents have helped millions, including retirees, find the home of their dreams. Lewis and the RE/MAX team offer some advice for buying your retirement home:

Have a plan

Ideally, you should think about where you want to live long before retirement, but it’s never too late to think about your priorities. Do you want to be close to family or health care resources? Do you desire a home in the mountains or somewhere you’ll never see snow again?

Trulia’s research shows that some of the cities most popular for retirees are also ones where buying a home can save you the most money over renting. Desirable, warm-weather locations in Florida and Arizona offer significant value, even in regions where average home prices are higher.

Make a list of what you want in a home location so you’ll have a starting point for your search.

Don’t delay

If possible, don’t wait until poor health or declining finances force you to move somewhere that’s not your ideal location. Move while you’re still young enough to enjoy your dream retirement home.

Get professional financial advice

It’s important to protect your nest egg and keep it growing throughout retirement. A professional financial planner can help you understand what size mortgage is right for you, so your dream home doesn’t strain your finances.

Be mindful of amenities

When choosing a location and a home, in addition to your personal priorities, it’s important to keep in mind accessibility to amenities important to seniors. Community features such as good transportation, quality of roads, safe neighborhoods, and access to health care, socialization opportunities, shopping and cultural venues are all options to consider.

Rely on real estate pros

Once you know where you want to be, it’s time to find a real estate agent. Well-versed on local real estate trends, RE/MAX agents can help retirees sell their current home so they can make the purchase of their dream retirement home a reality. Visit www.remax.com to search for an agent.

Focus on must-haves

Make a list of must-have features and those you would like your retirement home to have. Share the list with your agent to help him or her focus on properties that meet your criteria. Your list of must-haves and desirables will likely be very different from the list you made when you bought your first home. Now, a single-level house with large bathrooms and a level lot may be more desirable than a two-story with lots of bedrooms and a big backyard.

Finally, says Lewis, keep in mind whether you plan to age in place. “More Americans are looking for homes that will allow them to stay independent and living on their own throughout their retirement years,” he says. “If that’s your plan, look for home features that will help facilitate that, like wider doors, few or no exterior stairs, and good lighting.”

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3 tax hints every investor should know

(BPT) – It’s a common misconception that if you have investments you need to shell out a large chunk of change to have your taxes prepared by an accounting genius. The truth is, it’s easy and affordable to do your own taxes and maximize tax savings — even if you’re an investor.

“First and foremost, gather all of your tax forms and financial information before you get to work on your return. It will save you time when you prepare your return and the process will be much easier,” says Mark Jaeger, director of tax development for online tax preparation software provider TaxAct. “In addition to tax forms from brokerages, employers and financial institutions, you’ll also want to have all documentation about your transactions readily available. That information will help prevent you from overpaying or underpaying taxes on your investments.”

Many DIY tax preparation solutions import transactions directly from brokerages or provided data files. TaxAct, for example, offers electronic import for most common tax forms including W-2 (Wage and Tax Statement), 1099-B (broker transactions), 1099-INT (interest income), 1099-OID (Original Issue Discount), 1099-DIV (dividend income) and 1099-R (retirement income).

However, if you have hundreds or thousands of transactions and you can’t electronically import the related brokerage statements, Jaeger recommends entering your total short- and long-term gains on Form 8949, Sales and Other Dispositions of Capital Assets. Then, you’ll simply attach the statements that list your transactions individually when you e-file your return.

The following helpful tips from TaxAct can help you save time and money when you prepare your tax return this year.

1. Don’t rely solely on your Form 1099s.

Verify the information shown on your Form 1099-Bs aligns with your records. It is a good idea to review cost basis and date acquired. Whether that information is included on your form depends on where the investment originated and how long you’ve held the asset.

Keep in mind even if you don’t see your cost basis and acquisition date on your Form 1099-B, you still have to report that information on your tax return. Without it, any sales proceeds without a cost basis will be taxed as a capital gain.

If you’re still waiting for 1099s or other investment information, Jaeger recommends preparing as much of your return as possible now, but wait to file until you receive it to avoid amending your return.

2. Make sure you report the correct cost basis.

The cost basis is the purchase price of an asset adjusted for stock splits, dividends, return of capital distributions and any other basis adjustments. It is important to use the correct cost basis to accurately report and calculate a capital gain versus a loss, the difference between the asset’s sales proceeds and the cost basis.

Even if your cost basis is reported on Form 1099-B, it is a good idea to check your investment records to verify it’s correct. The cost basis reported on your Form 1099-B is based on the information available to your brokerage, which may not include data needed to calculate the true cost basis. For example, the sale of certain employer stock options may be reported on your Form W-2 and Form 1099-B. If you don’t adjust your cost basis to account for this, your sale may be taxed as ordinary income and as a capital gain.

If you need to report adjustments to cost basis amounts on your tax return, you’ll include the adjusted amounts and an adjustment code next to each that explains the reason for the change.

3. Short- and long-term gains: Make sure you know the difference.

Assets held for more than 12 months are considered long-term and benefit from reduced capital gains tax rates of zero, 15 and 20 percent based on your tax bracket. On the other hand, short-term gains for assets held for less than 12 months are taxed at ordinary rates.

Verify the asset’s purchase date before selecting the short-term or long-term reporting category for the transaction on your tax return. Remember, the date acquired may not be on Form 1099-B. Incorrectly reporting the term may result in overstating or understating your total tax liability.

For future investments, you may want to consider waiting to sell assets with large gains or holding periods approaching one year. For more investment tax tips visit www.irs.gov. To learn how you can easily and affordably file your own return with TaxAct, visit www.taxact.com.

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Tax tips for extension filers with investments

(BPT) – It’s a common misconception that if you have investments you need to shell out a large chunk of change to have your taxes prepared by an accounting genius. The truth is, it’s easy and affordable to do your own taxes and maximize tax savings — even if you’re an investor.

“First and foremost, gather all of your tax forms and financial information before you get to work on your return. It will save you time when you prepare your return and the process will be much easier,” says Mark Jaeger, director of tax development for online tax preparation software provider TaxAct. “In addition to tax forms from brokerages, employers and financial institutions, you’ll also want to have all documentation about your transactions readily available. That information will help prevent you from overpaying or underpaying taxes on your investments.”

Many DIY tax preparation solutions import transactions directly from brokerages or provided data files. TaxAct, for example, offers electronic import for most common tax forms including W-2 (Wage and Tax Statement), 1099-B (broker transactions), 1099-INT (interest income), 1099-OID (Original Issue Discount), 1099-DIV (dividend income) and 1099-R (retirement income).

However, if you have hundreds or thousands of transactions and you can’t electronically import the related brokerage statements, Jaeger recommends entering your total short- and long-term gains on Form 8949, Sales and Other Dispositions of Capital Assets. Then, you’ll simply attach the statements that list your transactions individually when you e-file your return.

The following helpful tips from TaxAct can help you save time and money when you prepare your tax return this year.

1. Don’t rely solely on your Form 1099s.

Verify the information shown on your Form 1099-Bs aligns with your records. It is a good idea to review cost basis and date acquired. Whether that information is included on your form depends on where the investment originated and how long you’ve held the asset.

Keep in mind even if you don’t see your cost basis and acquisition date on your Form 1099-B, you still have to report that information on your tax return. Without it, any sales proceeds without a cost basis will be taxed as a capital gain.

If you’re still waiting for 1099s or other investment information, Jaeger recommends preparing as much of your return as possible now, but wait to file until you receive it to avoid amending your return.

2. Make sure you report the correct cost basis.

The cost basis is the purchase price of an asset adjusted for stock splits, dividends, return of capital distributions and any other basis adjustments. It is important to use the correct cost basis to accurately report and calculate a capital gain versus a loss, the difference between the asset’s sales proceeds and the cost basis.

Even if your cost basis is reported on Form 1099-B, it is a good idea to check your investment records to verify it’s correct. The cost basis reported on your Form 1099-B is based on the information available to your brokerage, which may not include data needed to calculate the true cost basis. For example, the sale of certain employer stock options may be reported on your Form W-2 and Form 1099-B. If you don’t adjust your cost basis to account for this, your sale may be taxed as ordinary income and as a capital gain.

If you need to report adjustments to cost basis amounts on your tax return, you’ll include the adjusted amounts and an adjustment code next to each that explains the reason for the change.

3. Short- and long-term gains: Make sure you know the difference.

Assets held for more than 12 months are considered long-term and benefit from reduced capital gains tax rates of zero, 15 and 20 percent based on your tax bracket. On the other hand, short-term gains for assets held for less than 12 months are taxed at ordinary rates.

Verify the asset’s purchase date before selecting the short-term or long-term reporting category for the transaction on your tax return. Remember, the date acquired may not be on Form 1099-B. Incorrectly reporting the term may result in overstating or understating your total tax liability.

For future investments, you may want to consider waiting to sell assets with large gains or holding periods approaching one year. For more investment tax tips visit www.irs.gov. To learn how you can easily and affordably file your own return with TaxAct, visit www.taxact.com.

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The lowdown on low down payment mortgage

(BPT) – You would like to buy, but you can’t manage that 20 percent down payment. Does this sound familiar?

The down payment is the biggest impediment to buying a home according to surveys, but in reality many individuals can qualify for a mortgage with as little as 3 percent down.

It is important to compare loans and do the math. Consider your closing costs (the cash you need in-hand), the monthly mortgage payment, and if that payment will go down or up in a few years. Paying a few more dollars each month in the beginning can sometimes save borrowers money in the long term.

For this exercise, we compare a $234,900 home purchase (the national median home price as of December 2016), with a 5 percent down payment and a 720 FICO score. And because calculators and loan terms vary, consider these costs as examples only. A mortgage professional can provide you with specific estimates.

Conventional loan with PMI

A conventional loan is a traditional mortgage from a lender that is not insured by a government agency. With a 5 percent down payment, the borrower finances the remaining 95 percent over 30 years with a 4 percent interest rate. Private mortgage insurance (PMI) is required because of the low down payment and is $78 of the monthly bill, making the total monthly mortgage payment $1,143.

Pros: A borrower can get a conventional loan with PMI with as little as 3 percent down. PMI can be cancelled once 20 percent equity in the home value is reached, which means your monthly bill decreases.

Cons: For some borrowers, a 5 percent versus 3 percent down payment may be a better deal as costs may be lower. However, for many prospective homebuyers looking to lock in low interest rates, build equity and home appreciation faster, an option to get into a home with the lower down payment may be better.

A combo loan (aka piggyback mortgage)

A piggyback involves two separate loans simultaneously. In this scenario, the first “primary” mortgage covers 80 percent of the loan with a 30-year fixed interest rate of 4 percent; the second loan is for 15 percent with 10-year fixed interest rate of 5 percent; and the remaining 5 percent is the down payment. The total monthly mortgage payment would be $1,271.

Pros: The borrower will not pay PMI.

Cons: It may be a more expensive as the borrower will pay closing costs on two loans. And unlike PMI, the piggyback loan doesn’t cancel, but will be paid off over the term of the mortgage. The second loan often comes with higher interest rates too.

FHA loans

FHA loans are mortgages insured by the government through the Federal Housing Administration. The limits for FHA loans typically are lower than conventional mortgages. However, FHA mortgage insurance cannot be cancelled and must be paid for the life of the loan. FHA has other specific requirements, like the condition of the home. In this scenario, the mortgage is set at 95 percent of the home’s value with a 30 year fixed interest rate of 3.75 percent. The total monthly mortgage payment would be $1,199.08.

Pros: A borrower can get a FHA loan with as little as 3.5 percent down and a FICO score as low as 600 may qualify.

Cons: FHA mortgage insurance cannot be canceled, so your monthly bill won’t be reduced the way it is with a conventional loan with PMI. Also, FHA loans are subject to an upfront fee of 1.75 percent that is financed over the life of the loan.

No matter what you choose, do the math and compare so you can make an informed decision. If the conventional option sounds appealing, LowDownPaymentFacts.com provides more information.

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4 tips to help protect your identity this tax season

(BPT) – Tax season is a busy time for everyone. From accountants and small business owners to families and individuals, especially as more people choose to file their taxes themselves. Unfortunately, it’s also a busy time of year for cybercriminals who use the flurry of activity to swindle sensitive personal information from unsuspecting victims.

In fact, the Norton Cyber Security Insights Reports revealed that online crime has become so prolific, 36 percent of U.S. consumers believe it’s only a matter of time before a criminal steals their identity.

Take for example, Melissa, a marketing manager from Chandler, Arizona, who last year received an alert from her online tax filing service that her account password had been changed. But she dismissed the notification as a mistake.

“Two days later I got an alert from LifeLock about a credit card that I hadn’t opened.”

Thinking this was strange, Melissa followed up with her tax filing service and found that a criminal had accessed her account, stolen enough personal information to open a credit account in her name and redirected her tax return to another account.

Fortunately, Melissa was able to resolve her case but she is just one of a staggering number of individuals who’ve fallen victim to criminals lurking the web. According to research from Symantec, cybercriminals launched more than 1 million web attacks against internet users every day in 2015. While this statistic may seem shocking, there are things you can do to help protect yourself and your identity from cybercriminals.

Start by applying these four simple tips to keep your personal information away from cybercriminals this tax season:

1. File your taxes as early as possible. The sooner you file your taxes, the harder it will be for criminals to file taxes on your behalf for a refund, which a thief can do with only your date of birth and Social Security Number. (And don’t think this information is difficult to find, it could already be for sale on the Dark Web if you were impacted by a data breach.) If you want some extra protection this tax season, consider contacting the IRS to see if you’re eligible for an Identity Protection PIN. It’s a six-digit code that is assigned to you by the IRS to help prevent misuse of your SSN on fraudulent federal income tax returns.

2. If you’re filing your taxes online, use a secure Wi-Fi connection or a Virtual Private Network (VPN). One of the best ways you can help protect yourself when e-filing is to use a secure internet connection and not a public Wi-Fi network. If you are not sure about the security of your internet connection, use a VPN – an easy-to-use technology that ensures a secure connection.

3. Remember the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) only communicates through the United States Postal Service. They will never request personal and/or financial information through email, text messages or social media sites. If you receive a letter in the mail and you’re not sure if it’s legitimate, use the IRS lookup tool to find your letter: www.irs.gov/individuals/irs-notice-or-letter-for-individual-filers

4. If you receive a phone call from someone claiming to be from the IRS, ask for their name, badge number and call back number. Report the call to the U.S. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) at 1-800-366-4484 and provide this information to confirm the authenticity of the caller’s request. If the caller isn’t willing to provide this information, hang up and report the incident to the IRS.

If you believe you’ve been the victim of an IRS scam, you may also report this to the TIGTA at their website: www.treasury.gov/tigta/contact_report_scam.shtml. Don’t delay in doing so. After all, it’s your identity and it is up to you to protect it every single day.

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5 fast shortcuts to make your home sparkle this spring

(BPT) – We all know that one person who just adores cleaning. But for the rest of us, it’s a necessary evil that gets old very quickly!

Before you tackle that long list of spring cleaning tasks, try some of these cleaning hacks designed to make these chores faster and easier. When cleaning is fun and even effortless, you’ll feel more energized and gain the momentum you need to knock out your list of chores. Afterward, your house will sparkle from top to bottom, which is its own reward!

1. Find smarter tools

Throw out the messy bucket and mop and reach for a smarter floor solution that’s efficient and fun to use. For example, the O-Cedar EasyWring Spin Mop & Bucket System has a built-in wringer that offers superior moisture control of the mop, which makes it safe and easy to use on all hard floor surfaces — even hardwood! The hands-free wringer requires a simple press of the foot pedal to easily spin out the water and help finish the job with less mess and faster drying times.

2. Try natural solutions

Commercial cleaning solutions can add extra costs to your deep cleaning session, not to mention the harsh chemicals can leave behind unpleasant odors. Why not experiment with everyday pantry items? These often cost less and are just as effective in their cleaning power.

A simple solution of warm water and vinegar removes built-up grime from your floors, while leaving a clean, rinse-free finish. Just add a half cup of distilled white vinegar to a gallon of warm water and start mopping.

If you dislike the smell of vinegar, add a couple drops of your favorite essential oil — the fresh scent will be like a small reward!

3. Shortcut to shining windows

If you want streak-free mirrors and clean windows without the hassle, Cas Aarssen, author of “Real Life Organizing: Cleaning and Clutter-Free in 15 Minutes a Day” and the YouTube channel ClutterBug, has this expert tip: Add a teaspoon of cornstarch to your favorite glass cleaner and shake until dissolved. Cornstarch improves the cleaning power of the solution and makes streaks a thing of the past, so you’ll get the job done more quickly.

4. Use a cleaning method that also protects

Aarssen has an easy tip that will not only shine up your kitchen appliances, it will repel fingerprints and food splatters often left behind. Just spritz on a little wood furniture polish and rub in with a soft cloth until the surface shines like new.

5. Clean up top

Dust can collect on those high, hard-to-reach places, such as decorative molding and ceiling fans, making cleaning day more difficult. To clean your ceiling fan without showering dust bunnies everywhere, an old pillowcase is your best tool. Spritz the inside of the pillowcase with a vinegar and water solution and slip it over the blades of the fan, pulling it back to trap the dust.

For those tough to reach moldings and corners, use a sturdy rubber band to wrap a microfiber cloth around the end a broom, and give those hard-to-reach areas a clean sweep!

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