The Equifax breach and you: be proactive

Earlier this year, hackers were able to breach the security of Equifax, one of the three national credit reporting agencies. More than 143 million Americans – nearly half the entire country – were exposed to the attack, and may have had their personal information stolen (including names and birthdates, and Social Security and driver’s license numbers).

Equifax is still determining exactly whose data has been exposed. While you wait to find out, it’s worth taking a few proactive steps to make sure your info isn’t misused by hackers. 1. Start checking. Visit Equifax’s website at www.equifaxsecurity2017.com and enter your last name and last six digits of your Social Security number. The site will tell you whether it’s likely or not your data has been exposed, and put you on a list to get more information. You can also sign up for a year’s worth of free credit monitoring.

  1. Watch your statements.Start checking your credit card statements, and pay special attention to cards you don’t use often. The initial reports from the breach were that hackers may have been making charges on underused cards.
  2. Check your credit reports.You can look for suspicious items on your reports, such as new accounts being opened in your name, at all three credit report agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Free annual reports are available at www.annualcreditreport.com. You may want to stagger your use of the reports to one from each agency every four months. More frequent checks will cost you a small fee.
  3. Freeze your credit.If you suspect you may become a victim of identity theft, you can place a credit freeze on your profile at each of the three credit reporting agencies. This stops new accounts from being opened in your name. Note that you’ll have to unfreeze your accounts if you want to apply for new loans or make your credit accessible for things such as job applications.
  4. File your taxes early.One of the most common ways identity thieves use your information is to try to claim a tax refund with your data. This was the most common scam in 2016, according to the Better Business Bureau. If you file your tax return as early as possible, you shut down this opportunity for any would-be thieves.
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Year-end tax checklist

As the year draws to a close, there are several tax-saving ideas you should consider. Use this checklist to make sure you don’t miss an opportunity before the year is out.

  • Retirement distributions and contributions. Make final contributions to your qualified retirement plan, and take any required minimum distributions from your retirement accounts. The penalty for not taking minimum distributions can be high.
  • Investment management. Rebalance your investment portfolio, and take any final investment gains and losses. Capital losses can be used to net against your capital gains. You can also take up to $3,000 of capital losses in excess of capital gains each year and use it to lower your ordinary income.
  • Last-minute charitable giving. Make a late-year charitable donation. Even better, make the donation with appreciated stock you’ve owned more than a year. You can often can make a larger donation – and get a larger deduction – without paying capital gains taxes.
  • Noncash contribution opportunity. Gather up noncash items for donation, document the items and give those in good condition to your favorite charity. Make sure you get a receipt from the charity, and take a photo of the items donated just in case.
  • Gifts to dependents and others. You may provide gifts to an individual tax-free of up to $14,000 per year in total. Remember that all gifts given (birthdays, holidays, etc.) count toward the total.
  • Organize records now. Start collecting and organizing your end-of-year tax records. Estimate your tax liability and make any required estimated tax payments.
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Shaping up your finances in 2017 may seem like a big goal, perhaps even too daunting. But if you take one small step at a time, these small steps will add up. Here are suggestions.

* Shift out of automatic. Have you established automatic bill pay at your bank or service provider, or automatic charges to your credit card?

Small step: Look for payments for goods or services you no longer use, such as recurring monthly subscriptions, and cancel them.

Big goal: Reduce total expenses and increase savings.

* Take the urgency out of emergency. Sure, you know that having an account with enough funds specifically earmarked for emergencies is a good idea. But the amount you need to save seems overwhelming. The good news is you don’t have to immediately fund six months of living expenses.

Small step: Set up a separate account with automatic deposits of $5 or $10 per paycheck, perhaps with funds you’ve redirected from those unused recurring monthly subscriptions.

Big goal: An emergency fund with enough cash to cover six months of expenses.

* Give yourself credit. Maybe you intend to pay off your credit card debt. But do you have a plan? Knowing where you stand is the first step in getting to where you want to be.

Small step: Make a list of your cards, the balances, the minimum payments, and the interest rates.

Big goal: Eliminate finance charges by being able to pay off your balance each month.

* Retire your excuses. Does your employer offer a retirement plan? If so, you may be leaving money on the table.

Small step: Find out what amount is on offer as “matching” funds. That’s money your employer will add to your account when you make contributions.

Big goal: Maximize your retirement contributions.

Small steps can lead to big improvements in your financial well-being. Contact us for more tips.

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