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Just when you’ve finished spending a bunch on swimsuits and stuff for grilling out, summer’s over and it’s time for the kids the head back to school. How did this happen? Here are some ways to cut expenses while shopping for all those inevitable, seemingly never-ending things that the season demands.

Create a Budget

This might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s worth mentioning and well worth it before you enter headlong and breathless into the frenzy of a superstore. Make a list of the things you need before you leave the house, then let your fingers do the walking and check prices online. If all this seems daunting, never fear, there’s an app to help: EveryDollar. It will walk you through all the steps you need to make a budget and stick to it.

Use Money-Saving Apps and Websites

In addition to store-specific apps, here are some others to check out before you race out the door. Hollar, known as the online Dollar Store, even has a Back-to-School section. ShopSavvy is an app with a barcode reader that lets you scan and compare prices, both online and locally. Flipp allows users to check ads and coupons from their favorite stores. And there’s also Groupon and Amazon, both of which are always great options.

Sign up for Store Emails

As much as you might not like sharing your email, this is one of the smartest things you can do –  especially when the seasons change. In fact, many stores send out weekly emails. If this gets too burdensome, set up a separate folder for them. But remember this: sometimes stores dangle carrots to get you in. They often offer free things with a purchase that you just can’t say no to, such as fresh-baked cookies or free next day delivery when you pass a threshold of spending. So keep your eyes on the back-to-school prize and you’ll be golden.

Consider Used or Refurbished Items

Those necessary gizmos like computers and calculators can be pretty pricey when new. That’s why seeing what you can buy pre-owned or refurbished is such a good idea. Check eBay or Craigslist for deals, as well as major retailers like Apple or Dell for reconfigured electronic items. You might be surprised what you find.

Leave the Kids at Home

Whether it’s those little hands that put things in the cart or sweet, pleading smiles you can’t resist, it’s a fact: bringing your progeny along when shopping will drive up the cost. Set out on your own so that when you come back, they’ll be thrilled that you bought them a bag full of goodies. You’ll be happy and so will they.

These are just a few of the ways to keep your sanity and stay on budget while back-to-school shopping. If you choose one or all, when it comes to spending, you’ll be way ahead of the crowd and might even earn yourself an A+.

Sources:

https://www.daveramsey.com/blog/back-to-school-budgeting

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Biometric technology has been on the rise as it promises to make the authentication process more secure and convenient. Unlike passwords and key cards, biometrics are something you will always have, can’t share and can’t forget. This makes the biometric approach convenient and at the same time it has lower password management costs.

Biometrics also are said to be difficult to steal or hack; difficult, but not impossible.

Any technology can have loopholes that can be exploited, and that’s why you need to understand it well and take precautions if you decide to use this approach.

The use of biometrics is not new, but its increased presence in the public domain such as banks makes it a topic of interest.

To help us understand the need to tread carefully, let’s first have a peek at the latest biometric security technologies.

New Trends in Biometric Security

Biometric authentication is becoming popular for digital payments, logging in to banking systems and even on smartphones. New trends in biometrics security include:

  • Voice recognition: the human voice is used to create voice prints to be used for user authentication in a voice ID system. 
  • Face recognition: 3D face recognition is another new development that uses sensors to identify the shape of a person’s face. This is done by using facial characteristics such as the nose, cheeks, chin and contours of the eye sockets. 
  • Mobile biometric technology: mobile devices also have joined the bandwagon, and manufacturers are now fitting them with biometric sensors. It is also possible to attach portable biometric-sensing equipment using a USB cable.
  • Biometrics on the cloud: cloud-based solutions have been developed to speed up the identification process. Since users don’t have to spend so much on necessary applications, hardware and infrastructure, this becomes cost effective.

How Secure is the Biometric Approach?

Biometric security is increasingly being used as a preference to passwords, but how safe is this approach? Fingerprints may not be as secure as they are said to be. Consider this, some researchers were actually able to generate fake fingerprints that they called DeepMasterPrints. These fingerprints were generated using a neural network technique to create artificial fingerprints that can work as a “master key.” This goes to show how a system using fingerprints for security can be vulnerable to dictionary attacks using the created MasterPrints.  

There are many people posting their pictures online on social media. Unfortunately, once you do that your images are no longer private. This means that a face can easily be captured from the internet.

Retina scans are considered extremely reliable and accurate more than the iris scan. However, it is the least common as it’s considered to be intrusive.  

Reservations

The use of biometrics is a great development toward security concerns, but it raises privacy issues. Keep in mind that biometric information can easily be harvested – from a distance and without your knowledge. The cloud also is another reason to be concerned. Although biometrics are effective in enforcing security, the data collected has to be stored somewhere. How secure are the databases that store this information? Of course, this increases the possibilities of a breach.

Some reports made public include a potential hack for the palm vein scanner and a claim by a research team at vpnMentor about a leak of millions of fingerprints from BioStar 2, an app built by Suprema. Whether this and other similar claims are true or not, it just goes to show how vulnerable biometrics data can be. It also won’t be long before marketplaces emerge on the Dark Web for actual biometrics.

Remember that unlike passwords, you can’t change your biometrics. If someone had access to a biometrics database, then they would have access to sensitive data.

Another reservation involves the right to privacy for your biometrics. It’s possible for your biometrics to be collected without your informed consent. For instance, in stores where face recognition is used to identify potential shoplifters or to survey shoppers’ behavior. Recently, the FaceApp Challenge created by a Russian company had its share of controversy. Although said to be purely for entertainment, it also means that no one has control over what the company collecting the data will do with it. 

Businesses face the potential risk of getting sued by their own employees. This is because there are some locations that already have a biometric privacy act law. In the United States, the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA) allows users to sue under this law to protect their privacy.

Stay Safe

Since cyber criminals are always working on hacking new security systems, it’s crucial that users of these systems remain cautious. One of the ways to stay safe when using biometrics is the use of multi-modal authentication, which requires input from more than one biometric device. This will help overcome some loopholes, such as the use of copied fingerprints or stolen voice and facial prints.

Luckily, with advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, biometrics can be enhanced. Users can be scrutinized using their online behavior. Since people tend to be creatures of habit, a behavior-based system can develop a more complex user profile. The tracked behavior will help to tell a genuine user from a potential threat.

Since it’s difficult to know if your biometrics have been stolen, it’s best to take precautionary measures that could include:

  • Avoiding unnecessarily sharing personal information, such as the bank account numbers, date of birth or Social Security number
  • Paying close attention to your bills and financial statements
  • Watching out for unauthorized transactions by reviewing your credit card and bank statements.
  • Using other security features on your mobile device.
  • Avoiding using public WiFi. It is also important that you keep your sharing and firewall settings updated.

In Conclusion

The biometric authentication is not a silver bullet. Technically, biometrics are not secret and have similar cyber risks as passwords, only they are exploited differently. Whenever a new technology becomes pervasive, there are individuals who will definitely try to figure it out –especially because these technologies are used to access financial services and private data.

In the digital world, we cannot assume complete security. The best you can do is work with known credible vendors and stick with providers who comply with both federal and state data privacy regulations. Lastly, use technologies that are tried and tested.

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Coming out on the winning side of a lawsuit as a plaintiff can be a gratifying feeling, especially if there is a financial settlement involved. There is likely a sense of both relief and vindication. Unfortunately, far too often people are in for a shock when they realize that they must pay taxes on the award. You can even be taxed on your attorney fees! However, a little tax planning can go a long way, especially if you do it before the settlement is finalized and the award is substantial. Below are the five key rules to know so you can make the right move.

  1. The Origin of the Claim Largely Determines the Tax Consequences
    The taxation of legal settlements is based on the origin or reason of the claim. For example, if you win a wrongful termination suit against an employer, your award will be taxed as both wages and likely some other income for whatever is allocated to emotional damages. On the other hand, if you sue the contractor who built your house for damage caused by his negligence, the settlement might not be deemed income at all and you could treat it as a reduction of the purchase price of the real asset. There are many exceptions in this area, and it always depends on the facts and circumstances of the case.
  2. Physical Injuries Produce Tax-Free Awards, but Emotional Distress and Damages Are Taxable
    Damages received for suits involving a physical injury or illness are tax-free. Suits for emotional distress and defamation are taxable, including the physical symptoms of emotional distress (gastrointestinal problems, etc.). Be careful as the latter can be ambiguous, so agreeing on the nature of a physical symptom as the cause or result of emotional distress is best done with the defendant before you finalize the case.
  3. Allocating Damages
    Legal disputes typically involve several issues and courses of conduct. As a result, settlements typically have multiple types of consideration, each with potentially different tax treatments. If the plaintiff and defendant both agree on the tax treatment before finalizing the case, then you can allocate the total damages to certain categories and save taxes. Such agreements are technically non-binding on the IRS, but they are rarely challenged.
  4. Attorney Fees 
    Plaintiffs who use a contingent fee lawyer are typically taxed on receiving 100 percent of the money recovered. This means you have to pay taxes even on the portion of your settlement that the lawyers keep as their fee. This is still the case even if your contingent fees are paid directly by the defendant. In clear cases of physical injury where the entire settlement is non-taxable, there’s no issue – but if your award is taxable, you’ll need to be careful.

    Take an example where you collect a contingent fee settlement for emotional distress and receive $200,000, with your lawyer taking 30 percent or $60,000. In this case, you’ll typically be liable for taxes on the entire $200,000 and not just the $140,000 you keep. To make matters worse, aside from legal fees in employment and certain whistleblower claims, there’s no corresponding deduction for legal fees. There are potential ways to mitigate this, but tax advice early in the process is key.

  5. Punitive Damages and Interest
    Generally, punitive damages and interest are always taxable. For example, take a case where you are hurt in an automobile crash and receive $100,000 in compensatory damages and another $3 million in punitive damages. The $100,000 is tax-free, whereas the $3 million is taxable.

    Interest is treated similarly. Even if you receive a tax-free type of settlement, but it took time to finalize the settlement through the pre- or post-judgement process, the interest you receive is taxable. Therefore, it is often advantageous to settle a case instead of having it go to judgement.

Conclusion

The taxation of legal settlements and awards are nuanced and largely depend on the facts and circumstances of the case at hand. There are, however, many opportunities through proper tax planning to minimize the tax consequences, but only if you are proactive and plan early in the process.

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According to an Aug. 13 press release from the office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR), there will be a 10 percent tariff levied against $300 billion of Chinese imports effective Sept. 1. The same press release announced a modification, after hearing from the public and business owners, exempting some of the $300 billion in Chinese imports from the 10 percent tariff until Dec. 15.

Items Subject to the 10 Percent Tariff on Sept. 1

Highlights from the USTR’s list include select types of coffee, fruit, vegetables, insects and bees. Along with dairy products, livestock such as sheep, horses and goats are subject to the 10 percent tariff.

Items Subject to the 10 Percent Tariff on Dec. 15

The USTR pointed out that many of the items recently exempted include consumer goods such as computer displays, select shoes and clothes, LED lamps, slide projectors and playing cards. Other items on the list include notebooks, video game systems, toys, snowshoes and parts, fishing rods and reels, paint rollers and microwave ovens.

2019 Forecast

When it comes to industry experts and associations, it looks like there will be limited impacts from the trade spat between the United States and China, coupled with pressure from government shutdown in the beginning of the year. According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), 2019 is expected to see an increase in spending between 3.8 percent and 4.4 percent – or more than $3.8 trillion.

Initial figures per the NRF detail that retail sales for 2018 increased by 4.6 percent, outpacing the organization’s growth expectations of 4.5 percent. 2018’s figures are compared to 2017’s of $3.68 trillion in retail sales. 2018’s estimates factor in a 10 percent to 12 percent increase in online sales, which is also expected for 2019. One caveat for these projections by the NRF is that it doesn’t include dining, gas stations or auto dealers. GDP is expected to grow about 2.5 percent over 2019.

The NRF explained that due to lower energy costs, specifically tame retail gas prices and low interest rates, there should be minimal negative consumer impact. However, the NRF cautions that while the retail industry has been able to cushion the 10 percent tariffs, if tariffs increase to 25 percent, it will have a greater impact on consumers’ costs and retailers’ profitability.

Based upon recent developments, business earnings will face greater challenges. According to the United States Trade Representative’s Aug. 23 press release, tariff rates for $250 billion worth of Chinese imports currently subject to a 25 percent tariff rate will increase to 30 percent effective Oct. 1. For the $300 billion in Chinese imports described above, those going into effect Sept. 1 and Dec. 15, instead of being subjected to a 10 percent tariff, each batch will be subject to a 15 percent tariff rate.

With the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) forecasting a drop in the United States’ gross domestic product (GDP) by 0.3 by 2020, Daniel Fried explains that there’s no doubt the U.S.-China trade tensions have and will take a toll on the economy. Fried explains how they’ll affect consumer spending and business expenditures:

  • The initial impact is that consumers and businesses will have a lowered purchasing power.
  • The next impact is that businesses will either slow or decide to divert investments elsewhere, such as realigning their supply chains to mitigate the tariff impacts.
  • There’s also concern that while businesses may lose international business, that might be offset by domestic consumption.

With Fried and the CBO projecting the mean income for households will be reduced by $580 by 2020, based on 2019 purchasing power, it’ll certainly make consumers think twice about where and how to allocate their spending. This will likely take a toll on companies’ sales figures and likely future earnings reports.

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When it comes to an employer’s responsibility for non-exempt workers, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, there are many requirements businesses must follow related to payroll. In one example, there are strict regulations on what information employers must document for each non-exempt worker. While there’s no requirement on how the information is recorded, there are three main categories.

Personal details: This should include the employee’s name, complete address, Social Security number, date of birth and gender.

Job details: This must include the worker’s job description and hours clocked in each day and week.

Pay details: The employee’s hourly wage based on straight time, and how employees are compensated – be it hourly, weekly, project or item-based. It should include the number of hours worked each week, per day or per week non-overtime earnings, overtime earnings per work week, and the compensation paid to employee for the pay period. Also included should be the day of the employee’s check, for what time period worked is described, and all deductions or increases to the worker’s wages.

Depending on the type of record, employers have different time requirements for record archival. Payroll records must be maintained for 36 months. Schedules, timecards and deduction records for employee earnings must be held for 24 months and be readily accessible for inspection by the U.S. Department of Labor.

When there is minimal deviation from an employee’s schedule, employers simply have to confirm the employee adhered to the schedule. When there is a large deviation (working fewer or more hours than normally scheduled), the actual number of hours worked should be noted. It doesn’t matter how time is kept for an employee, as long as it’s kept – be it manually written by the worker, a supervisor or HR rep or with a time clock.

Other Documentation

The IRS explains that employers are required to complete Form W-2 to maintain compliance with tip and wage payments. This should be completed and submitted by the end of the calendar year.

Employees who fill out the Form W-4 can mitigate estimated tax liability by specifying how much to have withheld from their compensation by their employer. An employee can claim exemption from federal income tax withholding if she had no income tax liability the prior year and does not expect to pay taxes in the coming year. However, the employer is still required to deduct the FICA tax for that employee.

FICA Tax

Also known as the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA), employers are required to withhold two different types of taxes: Social Security and Medicare. According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), employers are responsible to calculate and remit these taxes based upon each employee’s wages.  

For the 2019 tax year, Social Security taxes for employer and employee are both 6.2 percent, or 12.4 percent total. This tax is limited to the first $132,900 in wages. The Medicare withholding rate is 1.45 percent of wages for both employer and employee, totaling 2.9 percent. Unlike Social Security taxes, for Medicare there’s no cap on the employee’s total salary. Additionally, for wages exceeding $200,000 for 2019, only the employee is taxed an additional 0.9 percent, in addition to the 1.45 percent (for a total of 2.35 percent of any wages exceeding $200,000 for the 2019 calendar tax year) for Medicare taxes.

Individual Estimated Taxes

Estimated Taxes are meant to satisfy many forms of taxes, and not just income tax obligations. It also includes the alternative minimum tax (AMT) and self-employment taxes. Whether it’s a single entrepreneur, a business partner or someone with equity in an S corporation, as long as they have $1,000 or greater in tax obligations, they have to pay estimated taxes, generally on a quarterly basis. When it comes to corporations, the threshold for estimated tax payments is $500 when they prepare their taxes.  In additional to taxpayers under the tax liabilities outlined above, estimated taxes are not required for individuals who meet the following: there was no tax owed for the preceding year, the individual was a U.S. citizen or resident for the entire year, and the last tax year was for 12 months. Also note that self-employed workers must pay both the employer and employee portion of the FICA tax.

Much like the evolving landscaping of the U.S. Tax Code, the world of payroll is also subject to ongoing changes that are imperative to maintaining compliance.

Sources:

https://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs21.htm

https://www.irs.gov/businesses/small-businesses-self-employed/understanding-employment-taxes

https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p15.pdf

https://www.irs.gov/publications/p505

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If you have a relative who recently died and left you in charge of his or her finances, you are not alone. You probably have colleagues at work in the same boat. A neighbor or two (or 10) and even your millennial yoga teacher might very well be working through a quagmire of wills, probates and assets nobody can find. You are definitely not the only one.

The internet has made it much easier to keep track of our checking, savings and investment accounts. But the elder generation generally missed out on the convenience of dashboard consolidation and app trackers. What most of them leave behind are file cabinets full of bank statements and old bills, bookshelves of file folders and prospectuses – perhaps once carefully catalogued. You may start rummaging through papers and not find anything more recent than five years ago.

How do you wrap your hands around investments and assets you know your dad owned but have no idea where they are?

Bear in mind that when there is no activity in an account for a year or more, assets may be deemed dormant or abandoned. They could eventually become property of the domicile state through a process called escheat, so it is important that you do not wait too long before finding lost assets.

Start at Home

If your parent used a computer, you should get access to his file folders and dig into his email account to see if he received any electronic communications from financial companies. If he wasn’t computer literate, then start with the mail. It may take six months to a year to get your hands on all of the paperwork, but if your relative did not sign up for electronic delivery then companies are required to send him statements through the U.S. mail.

If no one continues to live at his home, the easiest way to do this is to notify the post office to route all of his mail to your address. To do this, you will need to complete a Forwarding Change of Address order at the post office and provide proof that you are authorized to manage the deceased’s mail.

As you’re rummaging through Dad’s paperwork, here are some tips on what to do:

  • Look for bills and check if those entities are holding a utility deposit;
  • Look for statements for bank accounts, bonds, stocks, mutual funds, CDs, dividend or payroll checks, life insurance policies and retirement accounts;
  • Look for any record of a safe deposit box, such as a bill for the rental or a key; if he has one it is most likely located at his bank branch;
  • Contact his past employers to ask if they have any record of pensions, retirement plans or employer-purchased life insurance for your parent.

Once you get your hands on any statements, call the company or broker listed. You will need to send them certain documents to verify your parent is deceased (or a durable power of attorney document if he is incapacitated). Different firms and circumstances might have different requirements, but you’ll definitely need to send a copy of the death certificate. You may also be asked to provide a Court Letter of Appointment naming you as executor, a “stock power” of attorney that enables you to transfer ownership of stock, a state tax inheritance waiver, affidavit of domicile, trustee certification showing successor trustee, and/or a letter of authorization for joint accounts.

You’ll need to call and provide these or similar documents for each institution where your parent holds assets. Don’t worry, these companies have trained staff to help guide you through the legal process of how to manage the assets of deceased account owners.

Move to the Internet

Check unclaimed property lists at every state where your father lived. Get started at Unclaimed.org, a free website that allows you to search for unclaimed property held by each state. Also search at MissingMoney.com to conduct a national search.

Go to the Pros

If you’re sure your relative had more assets than you’re able to find, consider hiring a forensic accountant. These professionals have the tools and expertise to find offshore accounts, shell companies and other types of financial accounting practices. For example, a forensic accountant may request an IRS transcript that reports past 1099-DIV and 1099-INT distributions. Note that banks are required to issue such forms for account activity involving $10 or more.

You also may want to share your task with your own financial advisors. They might be able to recommend ways to help you track down, transfer and manage your parents’ assets, particularly if you need to set up income sources for another parent or relative. The point is, you don’t have to go it alone. This is a common problem and there are experts to help you work through it – but it will likely take time, patience and a lot of paperwork.

 

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