5 Low-Cost Holiday Family Activities

It can be difficult to find something everyone enjoys doing. Uncle Phil wants to watch the football game while Aunt Linda wants to decorate cookies. You’re trying to keep peace without making family time feel like a chore. What can you do to keep everyone happily spending time together without running up a huge credit card bill?
These five activities can help all of you keep the Christmas spirit in your hearts while spending time with your family this holiday season. Best of all, most of these options won’t cost you a dime!
1.) Caroling
It’s a tradition that spans generations. Family and friends get together to spread joy and good will with cheery music. Caroling is an iconic part of the holiday season. If you live in an area where you know your neighbors and the streets are safe, you can carol in your neighborhood. If you don’t, consider making an appointment with an area nursing home or assisted care facility. These homes are often in need of some cheer during the holidays.
You can find sheet music for most holiday classics for free online. You can also find “karaoke” mixes to download onto a smartphone or tablet to help keep your merry ensemble on key. Spending some of your together time practicing is also a good idea. What’s important isn’t how good you sound, though. It’s the fun you have and the joy you spread.
2.) Volunteering
Many churches, food kitchens and other outreach centers offer Christmas dinners for the less fortunate. Spending some of your holiday caring for those who have little-to-nothing can also help keep your family focused on what’s really important. After your kids have unwrapped their presents on Christmas morning, consider taking them to help out at a community pantry. It’ll help them treasure their gifts all the more.
There are plenty of other causes that could use your help. In the days after Christmas, many animal shelters are overwhelmed with “presents” that didn’t quite work out. The overworked volunteers at these shelters need help cleaning up and exercising scared, confused animals. Consider doing some good with your family this Christmas.
3.) Spit-paper
If you’d rather have some light-hearted fun with your family at Christmas, consider this easy game. Sit everyone down in a circle. Each person gets a sticky note or a small piece of scrap paper. On that piece of paper, they write a person’s name – a celebrity, a political figure, even a fictional character. Then, everyone passes to the right.
Without looking at it, every player sticks the piece of paper on their forehead. People take turns asking “yes-or-no” questions about themselves to the group, with the objective of guessing their “new” identity. Questions like “Have I ever existed?” or “Have I been alive in the last 100 years?” are good ways to narrow the range of options. It’s a fun way to have a conversation about current events in a general, light-hearted way.
4.) Re-watch old family movies
Someone in your family may have a huge cache of old tapes in a closet or basement somewhere. These tapes don’t do much besides gather dust for most of the year, but they contain a treasure trove of family memories. If you’re like most families, someone recorded treasured times to document them for posterity, but either never watched them or hasn’t blown the dust off them in years.
Make this Christmas a time to break that tradition. Pick a year and watch the Christmas or birthday parties. Think back to what life was like then and how much things have changed since. Embarrass the kids a little bit in front of their spouses or significant others. You might find it’s a great way to start a new family tradition!
5.) Check out community or school theatre events
There are a great many works of theatre that everyone recognizes as “classics” despite the fact that very few people have seen them. If you asked someone to name a piece of ballet, most might come up with “The Nutcracker.” It features songs that nearly everyone knows, like “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies.” Yet, despite its fame, most people have never seen it.
Many performing arts schools and amateur dance troupes put on productions of “The Nutcracker” around Christmas-time. This can be a low-cost way to see a high-culture event. The ticket price is usually low and some organizations even offer free admission with a donation of canned goods. You and your family can take in a fancy show while supporting young and emerging artists. Look for posters in your local grocery store or other community establishments.
No matter what you do this holiday season, it’ll be made special because you do it together. Have a safe and happy holiday!

The 12 Scams Of Christmas

The holidays are a time of family togetherness and celebration. Scammers know you’re distracted, busy, and emotional. That’s why their schemes are so devilish. They get their own twist around Christmas time.

In the interest of keeping things in the holiday spirit, let’s look at 12 scams of Christmas. Don’t get taken in by these or similar schemes. Otherwise, you might be footing the bill for twelve drummers drumming and all the rest!

1.) Mobile malice

Be wary of “season-themed” apps that perform frivolous functions, yet demand top-level security access. An app that makes it look like there’s snow on your background image doesn’t need to send or receive texts. Such an app might send premium text messages and leave you holding the bill.

2.) E-card danger

Everyone with an email address will send these little flash programs. Scammers have designed some with malicious code. They can install data leaching programs on your computer and do untold damage. Don’t click links in emails unless you know the sender. Even then, if it looks a little out of the ordinary, it probably is. They may have already fallen victim and it would be good to let them know.

3.) Fake packages

You’ll be receiving unexpected packages this season. Scammers know this and will send realistic-looking delivery failure notifications. They expect you to follow up with them and reveal personal identification information! Head to your local post office or call the parcel delivery service to check with a clerk before you hand over information on the Internet.

4.) Hotel “Lie”-Fi

The FBI issued a warning to this season’s travelers about a malicious pop-up at hotel chains around the country. This scam requests people install a foreign program before connecting to a hotel Wi-Fi network. This foreign program turns out to be data-stealing malware. Remember, Internet connections you don’t own or control can easily be used against you. Before you use the Internet at a hotel, ask yourself if it’s worth the risk. If you do need access, be wary of what you’re installing–there shouldn’t be a need to install anything.

5.) Festive spam

We’ve all gotten used to filtering out spam in our email. Now prepare yourself for it to take on a more holiday-oriented theme. Messages will suggest that off-brand Rolex watches and cheap pharmaceuticals would make excellent gifts. Be careful, though, because these companies might just be in the market for your personal information.

6.) Bogus gift cards

There’s a bonanza of savings to be had buying gift cards through second-hand retailers. Be careful, though, because many of these retailers might be a front for scammers. Gift cards may be invalid, used, or forgeries, and you’ll be left holding the bill.

7.) Fake charities

These crop up every time there’s a major disaster, but they also show up at the holidays. Leaflets and phone calls from organizations with familiar-sounding names will soon appear. To be safe, don’t give to any charity with whom you didn’t start the contact. Do your research and give to charities whose values align with your own.

8.) Must-have gift scams

There will soon be an “it” gift. You’ll know it by the high demand, low supply, and hugely inflated prices. Almost on cue, websites will pop up offering the rare widget at unbelievably low prices. This is a scam – the advertiser doesn’t have the product and is only using the offer to harvest personal information or bilk you of your hard-earned money through sites like Craigslist or eBay, where they will seek payment through PayPal and never send the item you purchased.

9.) Christmas catfishing

“Catfishing” means pretending to be seeking a romantic partner on the Internet to dupe people. Scammers take advantage of the loneliness the holidays can evoke to trick people out of gifts or worse. As tempting as it is to believe in love stories at Christmas, keep your feet on the ground and practice safe Internet dating. A good rule of thumb: If you’re single at Halloween, stay that way until after New Year’s.

10.) Holiday vacation scams

If it’s cold and miserable where you are, it’s always tempting to go someplace tropical for a few weeks. If you’re thinking about getting away, be careful of unrealistic prices or “too-good-to-be-true” travel offers. Scammers have been setting up phony travel sites to harvest personal information. Only book through reputable websites.

11.) Devious Christmas games

If you’re facing a 5-hour flight and a 3-hour layover, it’s fantastic to have a distracting mobile game to pass the time. Be careful, however, not to download the wrong one. Mobile games can harvest data from your phone or steal password information. Always do a quick search to check the validity of the app you’re downloading and read the permissions carefully. A fun game should never ask for permission to send texts or send information to third parties.

12.) Free USB Tricks

Be careful with unsolicited gifts of “free” USB thumb drives. Security firm McAfee warns that many of these devices come pre-loaded with malware. Such scams often target company computers, so ensure you only use approved hardware on your work network. USB storage is cheap enough that you can pass on the freebies.



Paying Off Student Loan Debt

Student loan debt is terrifying. You left for school with the best of intentions. You worked your tail off for four years and got a degree. You throw your cap into the air in celebration, and by the time it lands, you have a bill for $29,400.

When dollar amounts are that high, it’s difficult to make them seem real. As a recent grad, you have all kinds of financial obligations. It’s easy to let those student loan notices pile up and focus on furnishing a household, buying a fancy car or starting your adult life.

That’s the path many young adults are taking. According to the Department of Education, only 56% of student loan borrowers are repaying their loans. This is a problem that’s going to get worse before it gets better. A study in the Wall Street Journal estimates that the debt load is going to increase by 6% per year.

It’s difficult to pay down that debt, but it’s possible. Even making just $30,000 per year, you can pay down your loan in 3 years. There’s no big secret; it’s just a matter of spending less than you make. The inspiring story of Zina Kumok, a 27-year-old marketing professional, can offer some help to struggling grads. Let’s take a look at 3 pieces of advice for paying off debts in record time:

1.) Find your motivation

Getting out of debt is always an instrumental good. People don’t pay off their loans for the fun of it; they do so to get earlier or better access to something else they want. For Kumok, it was about her relationship. She was getting married and didn’t want to burden her new husband with her debts. She knew that the number one cause of fights between married couples is money, and she didn’t want hers to start off on a bad foot.

Finding a motivation is central to making the debt-free project work. Getting rid of your debt will be expensive and it can be easy to think of the opportunity costs to repayment. With that $30,000, you could buy a luxury car. You could spend a month in Europe. You could buy five expensive coffee drinks every day for a year. If you don’t have a goal, that’s all you’ll see when you write checks to the loan company every month. Getting motivated to reduce debt will help you avoid the temptation to cheat on your budget.

There are as many motivations as there are graduates. Maybe you want to get debt free to reduce your stress. Maybe you need to boost your credit score before buying a house or car. Maybe you want to reduce your debt so you can start saving for retirement. Finding and focusing on a motivation to get out of debt can make sticking to a debt-free plan easier.

2.) Cut your expenses

Kunok was taking home about $2,500 per month and only had about $300 to go toward paying off her loans. She was working difficult shifts and forced to travel most weekends to see her fiancé. She took a chance and applied for a job with more regular hours.

Kunok caught a bit of a break by finding work in the city where her fiancé lives. This meant they could move in together, saving money on rent, utilities and transportation. They also found another roommate, allowing them to further split the costs of living. She translated those cost savings directly into a higher loan repayment and was able to quadruple her payment.

The biggest areas of expense in your budget are likely rent and transportation. Taking big steps, like getting a roommate, moving closer to your job or using public transportation will make big dents in your budget. Saving a few dollars by switching to store brands can help, but you won’t see real progress that way. Live like you’re still in college for a few more years. Eat ramen noodles, share a 10×10 space with another person, and call Chinese takeout and a DVD from the library a romantic dinner date. Defer these savings onto your loan repayment process.

3.) Don’t forget to budget for fun!

A budget of pure austerity is one you’re not likely to stick with long-term. Constant denial and deprivation can really tax your willpower. You can build in some money for relaxation and rest. Kunok and her fiancé put aside a little money for a few vacations. They set a budget and got away for a while. Kunok admits it was a little hard to relax, but the time away from work was great for them both.

Make sure you put room in your budget for little indulgences. Whether it’s travel, dining out or a hobby, you need to take care of yourself. It can be difficult to commit to unwinding if you’re staring down several thousand dollars in debt. However, taking care of yourself will save you more in the long run.

Budgeting for your fun can be a way to ensure you enjoy it. If your luxury money gets eaten up by tiny bits, like a candy bar here or a cocktail there, you’re less likely to mindfully enjoy it. If you save and plan, though, you will be more cognizant of the experience and more likely to remember it.

If you’re looking for help with your student loan situation, contact Destinations Credit Union. We have activities designed to help you budget, save, and plan for retirement. Call, click, or stop by Destinations Credit Union today!  

Remote Deposit Applications: The Convenience Of The Future, Today!

Imagine you’re talking to someone who’s been in a coma for 20 years. They see

you pull a device out of your pocket or purse that is more powerful than the biggest, fanciest computers from the last time they were conscious. What’s more, it’s got a GPS, a digital camera and enough storage capacity to fit the Library of Alexandria on it hundreds of times over. The smartphone has been a technological revolution, and it’s slowly becoming the way more and more of us handle most of our affairs.

It’s really no surprise, then, that smartphones are the way people in this dazzling science fiction future do even basic things like depositing checks. Yes, remote deposit applications are becoming more common and offered by more financial institutions every day. With the passage of the Check Clearing for the 21st Century Act (AKA: “Check 21”), financial institutions are quickly moving toward a world of digital checking. Thanks to the Act, a digital image of a check is now a legally binding document, just like the check itself. This change is what opened the door to direct deposit from your pocket. 

Here’s how the system works. Someone writes you a personal check. You take a picture of the front and back of the check with your smartphone using the app provided by your credit union. The app on your phone then transmits the images to your credit union, which can immediately deposit the check into your account.

Everyone who works with checks can stand to benefit from remote deposits. Small businesses can take personal checks without a waiting period, enabling them to take more forms of payment from more people. Busy workers can deposit paychecks without having to race the clock to make it to their institution before closing time. Consumers can quickly and securely transfer funds to their savings.

Institutions also benefit from the efficiencies that are gained by offering by remote deposit. Paper checks have to be scanned and processed by hand, which takes lots of labor hours. Remote deposit takes considerably less time, allowing financial institutions to keep costs lower and pass the savings onto members through better rates and other programs.

The one downside for consumers is the absence of “float.” Typically, it takes checks a day or so to be processed. So, writing a paper check might give a consumer a little time to get the money together and put it in the bank. Because remote deposit works much faster, the “floating” period, the time between when a check is written and when it’s deducted from the account, is much shorter. “Floating” a check like this is illegal and can cost a fortune in fees, fines and penalties. It’s a bad practice even when it is possible.

Concerns over security are largely unfounded. While the remote deposit application does make it possible to deposit the same check twice, unique check identifiers make this process very easy to detect. One Kentucky man attempted to operate such a con with Western Union money orders and managed to defraud Kroger grocery stores of $12,000 before he was caught days later. The money was returned and the perpetrator went to jail. Realistically, the same concerns exist with photocopied paper checks, a problem that barely registers in the minds of most security experts. In fact, data clearinghouse EasCorp estimates that many more of these “double-deposit” incidents are simple accidents rather than complex frauds.

Conversely, remote deposit may be a way to stop an under-reported style of check fraud known as check kiting. In a kiting scam, a criminal writes a check with insufficient funds from one account, then writes another check from a different account, also one with insufficient funds, to cover the first check. Because paper checks typically take a day or two to process, these “floating” checks are never returned for insufficient funds and the scammer gets away with the balance of the first check. Thanks to the nearly instantaneous return of mobile deposit checks, this kind of fraud is much more difficult, if not impossible.

Worries about data theft or other hacking can also be put to rest. Cellphone data encryption is the same as the encryption for any other Internet service. Check images are no more likely to be stolen from a cellphone than they are from a check clearinghouse after a paper transaction. There’s nothing unique about cellphone data that makes it easier to steal.

Taking reasonable precautions with remote deposited checks will make life considerably easier. If you choose to take advantage of remote deposit, keep the check for a brief period after your remote transaction – no more than 7 days. This holding period is to ensure the image was of sufficient quality for every institution in the chain and that there are no issues with processing. Once that period passes, clearly mark the check as deposited and shred it. This could be quite a bit of paperwork if you’re a small business owner who takes a lot of checks. But if you just want to use it for your paycheck, it shouldn’t be too hard to keep up.

Remote deposit isn’t just the future of mobile banking, it’s already here. And it’s an exciting time for it. If you’re one of the 45 million people who take advantage of smartphone banking services, you should be excited about remote deposit, too. It won’t change your life, but it will make a lot of your transactions easier, faster, and safer than ever before.

If you want to access remote deposit to Destinations Credit Union, download the Sprig for Co-Op application from the Google Play Store or iTunes Store.


Hackers Develop New Attack Method: Charities

It’s around this time of year that most charitable organizations run their biggest fund-raising drives. In so doing, they’re getting millions of contributions from many new contributors. Yet while they must make it as easy as possible for folks to donate, their limited personnel are overworked, making it difficult to thoroughly review all credit card authentication data.

Meanwhile, another group is working some holiday overtime too: Internet scammers. Because many consumers are shopping for goods they don’t usually buy, fake websites pop up, taking advantage of this inexperience to harvest payment information. The biggest challenge is sorting out the real sites from the fake or canceled ones. These two problems may have more in common than you think.

A new report by security firm, Phishlabs, unveils a shocking new strategy for solving that hurdle. Hackers use a chat-based program to transmit credit card information to make a small donation. If the transaction is successful, the program confirms the data the hacker supplied is legitimate.

In essence, hackers are using charities as a trial run for stolen credit card numbers. To understand what this means for you, let’s look at how the authentication process works, why charities are ideal targets, and how to keep yourself safe.

Authentication explained

Before you make an online transaction, the retailer will take some steps to verify your identity. You provide a credit card number, a security code and some other information. The form might ask for your billing address or ZIP code, for example. The idea is to keep your account safe by requiring several authentication factors. It works fairly well at frustrating casual scammers.

That’s why this bot is so useful to cyber-criminals. It can check data in low-risk, easily concealable ways. The operators of these services charge a fee in “credits” to would-be scammers. They earn these credits by paying for them or by performing a variety of “services” for the operator’s criminal enterprise.

By making a small donation to a charity, the bot can check to see if the information a scammer stole works. These donations are usually between $1 and $5 to one of a selected range of charitable organizations. If the payment sends, the scammer is free to use the information to buy other, more expensive goods.

Why charities?

Charities are the perfect target for this kind of operation. They use the same authentication strategies as every other business, but they seldom have the resources to investigate fraud. They also want to make it as easy as possible for people to donate. This means they use static donation website names and don’t use anti-bot software like Captcha. This makes them easy for a program to target.

Charities are also good targets because they have little at stake in stopping fraud. Defrauding a retailer puts them out the goods they sell. A fraudulent credit card used to buy a TV leaves the seller of that TV responsible for replacing the TV. Nothing like that exists for a charity. The donation amounts are usually miniscule, so their loss won’t seriously affect budgets.

Finally, charities are good targets because they are innocuous. Average consumers are more likely to overlook small charges to charitable organizations. They might think of them as contributions they made without thinking about it.

Protecting yourself

If you take all the usual measures to keep your identity safe online, this shouldn’t be much of an issue for you. If you think your information might have been stolen,though, consider taking the following steps:

1.) Watch for oddly specific amounts that have been sent to charities in your statement. Neither you nor your partner would give $4.48 to a charitable organization.

2.) Be preemptive in your giving. Donate to charities where you’ve done your research and only give to those that align with your values. Keep a list of charities you support and check your statement for any organization not on that list.

3.) Report these charges immediately both to your card issuer and to the charity on your statement. They can use a variety of indicators to track other fraudulent charges and catch other scammers in the act.

Beating this scam requires care and vigilance, just like every other scam. You need to know where your money’s going and be careful with where you make your payments. Don’t shop at websites you don’t know and trust, and don’t give out credit card information to anyone you don’t know. Check your statements regularly and report any suspicious activity.