What Were The Actual 2018 Tax Changes?

Q: There was so much talk about the proposed changes to the tax code. Now that the Tax forms with post-it notechanges have finally been signed into law, I’m wondering which planned modifications actually became a reality. What were the exact changes made to the U.S. tax code this year?

A: Many of the changes signed into law with the official Tax Cuts and Jobs Acts were quite different from those planned. Remember, though, that none of these changes will take effect until April 2018 at the earliest.

Let’s take a look at exactly how the tax code will be different for 2018.

1.) Changes for the seven income brackets

The current administration initially planned on condensing the income bracket system into just three brackets. However, when the law was finally passed, the seven-bracket system remained in place, though income levels for each bracket were tweaked.

The old income levels for the seven brackets were as follows: 10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33%, 35% and 39.6%. The new rates are now 10%, 12%, 22%, 24%, 32%, 35% and 37%.

2.) Removal of Obamacare penalties

While the administration was not successful in repealing the Affordable Healthcare Act, there will be no penalties for those who choose not to have adequate health coverage starting in the year 2019. For your 2017 and 2018 taxes, though, you will still need to provide proof of health coverage or be held liable for the penalty.

3.) Changes in standard deductions and personal exemptions

The personal exemption has been eliminated, while standard deductions have increased.
In 2017, the standard deduction for the single taxpayer was $6,350, in addition to one personal exemption of $4,050. For 2018, those deductions will be combined into one larger standard deduction of $12,000 for those filing separately, and $24,000 for joint filers.

4.) Child tax credit

Deductions and credits for children under age 16 have doubled from $1,000 to $2,000. There is also a new tax credit for non-child dependents.

The Child and Dependent Care Credit, offering parents deductions for specific child care expenses, remains as-is.

5.) Estate tax exemption

Before the current changes, the 40% estate tax applied to the portion of an estate was valued at $5.6 million for the individual, and $11.2 million for a married couple. The new law will double these exemptions. Taxpayers filing as individuals will be granted an exemption of $11.2 million, while married couples will have a $22.4 million exemption.

6.) Education tax breaks

Original versions of the tax bill included plans for reducing or eliminating several education tax breaks, but none of these changes actually made it into the Tax Cuts and Jobs Acts.

The Lifetime Learning Credit and Student Loan Interest Deduction remain unchanged, and the exclusion for graduate school tuition waivers is also still in place.

However, the new tax bill has expanded the available use of funds in a 529 college savings plan to include other levels of education. You can now use money in those funds to pay for private school tuition or tutoring services for children in grades K-12.

7.) Deduction changes

There have been slight changes in the mortgage interest, charitable contributions, medical expense and State and Local Taxes (SALT) deductions.

The mortgage interest deduction was previously in place for any mortgage debt totaling up to $1 million. Under the new tax code, all mortgages taken after Dec. 15, 2017 and totaling up to $750,000, are qualified for this deduction. Also, the interest on a home equity loan can no longer be deducted.
The charitable contribution deduction has seen two minor changes. Taxpayers can now deduct as much as 60% of their income for charitable donations, up from the previous 50% limit. Also, donations made to universities in exchange for the privilege of purchasing tickets to athletic events can no longer be deducted as charitable expenses.

The cap for the medical expenses deduction has been cut from 10% of adjusted gross income (AGI) to 7.5% of AGI. Unlike nearly all other provisions in the bill, this change is retroactive to the 2017 tax year. Also, it will only apply through 2018.
The SALT deduction, which includes property and income tax, was originally slated for elimination, but was preserved with some changes. The total SALT deduction now cannot exceed $10,000.

8.) Corporate tax rate changes

The modified tax code lowers the corporate tax rate to a flat 21% on all profits. This simplifies taxes for most businesses while providing them with a significant cut as well.

9.) Disappearing deductions

Not every deduction survived the new tax law. Here are some that won’t be in effect for 2018 taxes:

  • Casualty and theft losses that were not caused by a federally declared disaster
  • Unreimbursed employee expenses
  • Tax preparation expenses
  • Miscellaneous deductions previously subject to the 2% AGI cap
  • Moving expenses
  • Reimbursement for employer-subsidized parking and transportation

10.) Repatriation of foreign assets

In an effort to bring some of the country’s largest companies’ profits back to American shores, the new tax law features a one-time repatriation rate of 15.5% on all cash and similar foreign-held assets, and 8% on non-liquid assets held overseas.

11.) Changes to the AMT exemption amount

The alternative minimum tax (AMT) exemption was permanently adjusted to account for inflation. These changes will be most dramatic in 2018 and are as follows:

  • For a single taxpayer or one filing as head of household, the AMT rate will increase from $54,300 to $70,300.
  • For a married couple filing jointly, the AMT rate will increase from $84,500 to $109,400.
  • For married couples filing separately, the AMT rate will increase from $42,250 to $54,700.

Your Turn: What do you think about the changes in the tax code? How would you do things differently? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!



4 Incredible Facts In Honor Of Black History Month

It’s Black History Month; so let’s celebrate!Martin Luther King Jr.

In honor of Black History Month, Destinations Credit Union is proud to share four little-known facts about African American history, along with a list of fun ways to commemorate black history and culture.

1.) Dr. King improvised the most historic part of his speech

On August 28, 1963, more than 250,000 Americans stood spellbound at the Lincoln Memorial, as Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his iconic address.

While much of his speech went down in the annals of history, perhaps the most famous lines are those in which Dr. King describes his dream of a tolerant, respectful society. Incredibly, those words were likely ad-libbed on the spot.

Dr. King and a group of advisers spent hours polishing the planned speech, and the original version was a lot more political than inspirational. In fact, it did not make any reference to dreams.

Onstage, singer Mahalia Jackson allegedly whispered to King, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin.”

After intoning, “We are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” Dr. King’s talk became more of a sermon.

He continued with the now-famous lines:

“Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream …”

Dr. King’s talk is now considered one of the most successful speeches ever in American history.

2.) Rosa Parks was not the first black woman to stage a sit-in

Before Rosa Parks was on the scene, there was Claudette Colvin.

In March of 1955, the 15-year-old schoolgirl remained rooted to her spot, refusing to move to the back of the bus. This was nine whole months before Rosa Parks’ famous stand. The young girl had been studying the history of black leaders, like Harriet Tubman, in school. Those lessons had triggered many heated discussions about the present-day Jim Crow laws. When the bus driver demanded that Claudette move to the rear of the bus, she refused.

The teenager said, “It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn’t get up.”

3.) The Quakers were the first to protest against slavery

The Quakers were famously known as “The Society of Friends.” Four of these men from Germantown, Pennsylvania wrote the first protest against slavery in 1688.

Drawing inspiration from the Golden Rule, the peace-loving men wrote, “Pray, what thing in the world can be done worse towards us, then if men should rob or steal us away, & sell us for slaves to strange Countries, separating husband from their wife and children …”

This rare document was rediscovered in 2005 and is now part of the Haverford College Special Collections.

4.) One in four cowboys was black

It might not be the picture you’ll get from watching Western movies or TV shows, but at least 25% of cowboys were black.

After the Civil War ended, the old Wild West attracted lots of newly freed slaves seeking freedom and paid work. While they did find a demand for their skills and lots of freedom to live as they pleased, the blacks – and all cowboys – had to contend with many physical dangers while sleeping under the stars and “riding them horses,” such as inclement weather, reckless outlaws and rattlesnakes.


There are so many ways to celebrate Black History Month! Here are just a few ideas to help get you started:

  • Read the poem, “I, Too, Sing America” by Langston Hughes.
  • Bake sweet potato biscuits, a traditional African American-inspired soul food.
  • Jazz up a dull day by tuning into some blues music.
  • Play the ancient African game of Mancala. You can make a board at home using an empty egg carton with the lid cut off, and some beans for game pieces.
  • Look up James Karales’s photos of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches.
  • Read On Beauty by contemporary author Zadie Smith.
  • View Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series.
  • Read the poem, “A Pledge to Rescue Our Youth” by Maya Angelou.
  • Crank up the volume on some hip-hop music, a genre that originated in the ’70s, in Bronx, New York City.



ATM Jackpotting Scam

Hitting the jackpot in an arcade game is enormous fun. You stand there grinning as theMan at ATM machine tickets keep pouring out. And then you get to choose a cool prize to take home.

Recently, though, scammers have given this awesome kind of win a sinister twist by bringing the jackpotting mechanism to Automatic Teller Machines (ATM). This doesn’t mean you can ask for a $20 and the machine will start spitting out hundreds instead. But it does spell trouble for ATMs and their owners throughout the country.

Jackpotting attacks on ATMs have been spreading through Europe and Asia for quite some time.  Recently, though, the Secret Service sent out an alert warning that jackpotting has reached the United States.

The alert was reported by Brian Krebs, who quotes several sources for this warning and cautions the public to be aware and careful of these attacks.

Here’s what to know about the ATM jackpotting attacks.

How does it work?

First, an attacker performs some basic scouting to figure out a way into the ATM. They usually target models with front-facing panels because they’re easier to access. To avoid detection and gain easy access to the machines, thieves have been posing as ATM technicians. They’ve also been using medical endoscopes to reach the insides of the ATMs.

Once the vulnerable area within the ATM is determined, the scammers attach their own computers to mirror the ATM’s software. The thieves will now install malware, which conveniently places the ATM under their control. At this point, the ATM will appear to be out of service for users and so scammers can force the machine to do their bidding from a remote location.

The criminals’ final step in this hack is to program the ATMs to spit out piles of cash and to send “money mules” to go and collect the cash for them.

Alternately, scammers may quietly bide their time and only take action a few days, or even a week, later. They will then return to the compromised ATM and program it to dispense all of its cash at once – which they will promptly pocket, of course.

What malware is at play?

Krebs’ report suggests that the malware being used in these attacks is Ploutus D, a malware that has been widely used in ATM hacks since 2013. However, this claim has not been verified.

Just this past spring, researchers working in Kaspersky Lab wrote about three relatively simple ways fraudsters can hack and remotely control ATMs. The scammers can use any of these methods, or they may be using Ploutus D, as Krebs believes.

Which ATMs are Vulnerable?

While every ATM in the country is at risk of being attacked, the fraudsters appear to be particularly targeting Diebold Nixdorf-made ATMs.

The Secret Service alert also warns that ATMs running Windows XP are “particularly vulnerable” and should be updated as soon as possible. Unfortunately, though the Windows XP Embedded support ended more than two years ago, many ATM owners neglect to install updates as advised, therefore placing their machines at greater risk for hacks.

What you can do?

ATM jackpotting targets the machine’s owners and generally does not affect the common citizen. However, you can do your part to stop these crooks by reporting any suspicious activity you see near an ATM.

Did you spot a technician who looks out of place? Is an ATM that worked just fine yesterday suddenly out of service? If so, alert the local authorities so they can take appropriate action.

ATM Safety

While jackpotting might be relatively new to the U.S. and it’s not yet clear how widespread these attacks are, it’s always a good idea to exercise caution when using an ATM in a public setting.

Here are some tips to remember the next time you use an ATM:

  1. Always cover the keypad with your free hand when inputting your PIN.
  2. If someone is lurking near the ATM for no apparent reason, do not use it.
  3. Be wary of signs that the ATM may have been tampered with, such as a new-looking keypad, a card reader that looks different than the rest of the machine, or an out-of-place security camera.
  4. Don’t use ATMs that are in unfamiliar neighborhoods or in stores you never frequent.
  5. If you’re withdrawing cash, be sure to secure your money in a wallet immediately after it’s dispensed. Don’t dawdle near the machine.

While the full impact of these jackpotting attacks is not yet evident, they are definitely not something the Secret Service is taking lightly. Do your due diligence to help stop the attacks, and always use caution when using an ATM in a public area.

Your Turn: Do you still use ATMs in public places? Have you ever had a less-than-perfect experience?



Why More People Are Opting To Watch Big Games At Home

When your favorite sports season is in full swing, and as your favorite teams play in

gold football icon

important games, it’s time to decide where to watch the game. While going to a live game is exciting and sports bars have their appeal, more people are choosing to stay home.

Fewer People Watching at Sports Bars

In cities with NFL teams, as well as in cities without NFL teams, “Sunday sports bar foot traffic dropped by double digits between the 2015 and the 2016 season.” (1)

Why the move from sports bars?

Increasingly, people are choosing to stay at home rather than going to their favorite haunts to watch their games. The proliferation of options for online watching is at least one way to explain this trend.

Lots of fans, however, say it it just too expensive to hang out in a sports bar. The food tends to be costly and not worth the high price tag. Also, more people are trying to eat healthier food, a goal that’s easier to achieve at home.

There may be an unspoken competition to keep up with the drinking levels of others in the bar. That can lead to more expenses, in addition to other potentially serious ramifications, such as getting home late or not being able to drive safely at all.

About half of today’s football fan base is female. Women often find bars to be a less than ideal environment for watching sports, with distractions ranging from mild flirtations to outright harassment. It’s often simply not worth the hassle. For both women and men, the quiet, unthreatening home environment is a definite advantage.

What’s the Appeal of Home Watching?

First and foremost, the appeal of home viewing comes with the ability to control the remote. You are the captain of the ship when you watch at home. When watching on DVR, you can fast forward through commercials you don’t like or pause and get up for a snack. This is a luxury that viewers at the bar, or even at a live game, simply do not have.

What’s the most important aspect of watching the big games? Food, of course! At home, you can prepare your favorite dishes and snacks at a fraction of the cost of bar or stadium food and drink. You can choose healthy options and keep the calories down along with the costs.

Another advantage is flexibility. Thanks to online devices, you can run an errand at mid-game, keep up with the score on your mobile device and return home to finish watching the game. In our busy world, this flexibility makes a huge difference. In fact, it appears that some of the people who used to frequent sports bars are actually going to other places. “Instead of watching the game, fans appear to be finishing their errands. In 2016, hardware stores and gas stations experienced a 12% uptick in Sunday visits from people who frequented sports bars those days the year prior, according to Foursquare. Foot traffic to pharmacies and grocery stores also increased.” (2)

What About Atmosphere?

Many people like the camaraderie of watching games with like-minded fans. This is a legitimate reason to leave the comfort of home and seek out the hallowed halls of the sports bar. However, having a game night at home is increasingly the choice that many fans are making. You can invite the people you feel most comfortable sharing your team’s ups and downs with, and avoid the others at the sports bar who can spoil your fun.

What About Watching the Game Live?

While most sports fans agree that there’s nothing better than seeing their favorite team play live, when pressed they may admit that it just isn’t that comfortable to sit in the hard stadium seats or fight the crowds. Oddly, some fans report that even if they go to a live game, they watch it again on TV when they get home because they feel they missed too much by actually attending the game.

While paying pricy cable bills can be painful, going to a live professional sporting event can be much more expensive for a one-time event. In addition to the price of a ticket, there’s parking to consider as well as the cost of concessions and any souvenirs.

For many reasons, from costs and health benefits to personal control, it’s clear that skipping the sports bar and the stadium is a growing trend.

Your turn: How do you prefer to watch your favorite games? Live, at a sports bar, or at home?

1. Foursquare, Steven Rosenblatt. https://medium.com/foursquare-direct/game-time-declines-d2a7d93ba37f  

2 Market Watch, Jacob Passy. https://www.marketwatch.com/story/why-we-should-pour-one-out-for-sports-bars-2017-08-17  

3 Is Watching Sports on TV Actually Better Than Being at the Game? Dan Levy. http://bleacherreport.com/articles/923563-is-watching-sports-on-tv-actually-better-than-being-at-the-game  

What Happened With Security At Intel?

In the world of tech, security breaches are no anomaly. Nearly every week brings Lock on computer chip boardscreaming headlines about a breach that can potentially expose thousands, if not millions, of users to hackers and identity thieves. But early this month, a potential breach was discovered that may require tens of thousands of computers and Android phones to be redesigned.

A huge security flaw was found in the architecture of computers and devices designed by Intel, the world’s largest manufacturer of PC microprocessors. Further research revealed that there were actually two separate vulnerabilities, both of which could allow hackers to access the most sensitive parts of computers, and by extension, the information contained therein.

The flaw was discovered by Google researchers who claim it affects nearly every modern device used today. And, of course, there are many questions being asked by many consumers:

  • Does this mean we all need to trash our computers and smartphones?
  • Are we all at risk of being hacked?
  • What steps has the company taken to repair the problem?
  • Does every computer need to be redesigned?

So many questions! No worries, though; we’ve got answers. Here’s what you need to know about the Intel vulnerabilities:

The two flaws

The exposed bugs are respectively called Meltdown and Spectre, and each presents a separate potential problem.

Meltdown is considered to be the less significant threat and has already been fixed in many computers with an effective patch.

The Spectre vulnerability is a bit more problematic. It involves the foundation of the chips that form the computer’s infrastructure. This means it is likely that the problem cannot be fixed unless the devices are redesigned and replaced.

Perhaps more frightening is the fact that the flaw affects an allegedly secure area of the chip architecture, where information like passwords and encryption keys are stored. If exploited, it can grant hackers unchecked access to all this information.

It is important to note that the two discovered flaws represent problems in the hardware of the product, and not in the software, making them more difficult to patch. This also means the number of affected devices is astronomical, and includes operating systems like Windows, Linux, Android, macOS, iOS Chromebooks and more.

Can the flaws be fixed?

As mentioned, the Meltdown flaw can be easily amended with a patch. While the patch effectively resolves the vulnerability, it also tends to slow down computer systems by a full 30%. In some cases, it has caused systems to crash unexpectedly. Despite these drawbacks, Intel urges all consumers to use the patch.

Spectre, on the other hand, has no known fix. While fearful consumers are demanding a redesign, many experts claim that redesigning computers may not even resolve the flaw. That’s because there is currently no known solution for the problem. This can mean that it will be many years before computers and chips include complete fixes for the Spectre flaw.

Aside from Intel’s patch, frantic mitigation efforts have been coming from every corner of the technology industry, from chip vendors to OS vendors like Microsoft and Apple.

Several weeks after the flaws became public knowledge, every major tech company has released patches or an updated system that can effectively resolve the flaws.

Have the flaws been exploited?

The greatest threat these flaws pose is to serve as an easy hunting ground for hackers. But there’s good news: There have been no known exploits of the flaws thus far. In fact, the company is keeping all the details of the two problems under wraps, so attackers won’t know specifically how to access them for entry into private computers and devices.

How has Intel responded to the flaws?

Security researchers have actually known about the flaws for months – and have been secretly working to patch them during that time. In fact, most consumer systems are already patched against Meltdown.

Intel has also made several statements in response to the discovery, though it hasn’t addressed the problem of Spectre and the potential need for a massive redesign of its product.

“Check with your operating system vendor or system manufacturer and apply any available updates as soon as they are available,” Intel said in its initial press release. “Following good security practices that protect against malware in general will also help protect against possible exploitation until updates can be applied.”

Is Intel the only company that has been affected by the discovery?

Intel is taking most of the heat for the two flaws, but research revealed that, while Meltdown mostly impacted Intel chips, Spectre affects other chips, including AMD and ARM processors and IBM’s Power chips.

Fingers continue to point at Intel, as the world’s largest company of chip makers. The company clearly knew about the problem for some time and failed to let the public know. Critics also claim Intel is not responding to legitimate concerns, and is continuously brushing off pointed questions about Spectre.

As a consumer, what do I need to do now?

First, don’t panic. As of now, the vulnerabilities have not been exploited by hackers. Second, know that Intel is hard at work trying to fix the flaws and will keep sharing patches and updates as they become available. Be sure to apply any updates as they reach the market and keep your antivirus software updated and operating at its strongest level.

Your Turn: Do you think Intel is doing all it can to mitigate the two flaws?



What You Need to Know about Government Shutdowns

After experiencing a government shutdown for about a half-week, you may have beenImage of the capital in the background yellow caution tape in foreground wondering what longer shutdowns mean for you. Which government offices and agencies stay up and running, and which of them are shuttered until the shutdown ends?

Here’s what you need to know about government shutdowns.

What is a government shutdown?

A government shutdown is an official closure of all nonessential government offices due to a lack of approval of the federal budget for the approaching fiscal year. Approval can only be reached if Congress passes every one of the spending bills related to the federal budget. If no agreement is reached, the shutdown continues, forcing many federally operated programs to halt all their work and services. Some programs will stay open, operating on a contingency plan. Others will subsist on cash reserves for as long as they last.

In short, a shutdown cannot be resolved until a compromise is reached and a spending bill is passed.

What happens to government employees?

A government shutdown doesn’t mean an extra week’s vacation for federal workers. Quite the contrary, as thousands of federal employees are placed on furlough, or on unpaid leave. In previous shutdowns, government workers who went on furlough were paid retroactively once an agreement was reached and the shutdown ended.

There are many government programs that are considered essential, and keep operating as usual. However, most of these workers are not paid for their work.

Which government agencies are affected by shutdowns?

As mentioned, all essential government agencies are typically running as usual. Several of them will be understaffed until the shutdown ends, and many employees are not getting paid for work done during the shutdown. In addition, here’s how a shutdown will affect various federal agencies and divisions:

1.) Military

The military is considered an essential agency, and all overseas operations will be executed as usual. Military personnel are expected to report to work as usual, and according to The Washington Post, they are paid in full unless the shutdown stretches on.

It’s important to note, though, that many civilian Department of Defense employees are not working during shutdowns, including military academy instructors and private maintenance contractors.

2.) Veterans’ Affairs

More than 335,000 of the VA’s 377,000 employees are expected to continue working throughout a shutdown.

3.) Social Security

Social Security checks will be distributed on schedule, and most of the SSA’s staff will continue to work despite the shutdown.

4.) Postal Service

Neither rain, nor snow, nor government shutdown can keep your mail carrier home. Though the Postal Service is a government-owned agency, it operates on its own stream of revenue and is not affected by the shutdown.

5.) The Justice Department

Criminal litigation will proceed as planned and all courts will continue to operate as usual throughout the shutdown.

6.) Housing and Urban Development

Only 300 of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 7,800 employees are exempt from furloughs. Since it’s operating with only a fraction of workers, the department continues to provide essential services – like housing for the homeless – but private applications for government housing aid will likely be delayed.

7.) Education

The DOE’s contingency plan calls for upward of 90% of its staff to be furloughed during the first week of a shutdown. Only 6% of its staff is expected to return to work if the shutdown lasts more than a week.

8.) Passports and visas

Passport and visa applications will be processed as usual, but many applicants will experience delays due to some shuttered processing facilities.

9.) White House

During the January 2018 shutdown, 1,056 members of the Executive Office of the President were placed on furlough, while 659 workers are considered essential and continue to report to work. All furloughed staff was expected to report to work on Monday, Jan. 22. However, they were only allowed to remain in the building for four hours and to engage in “shutdown activities” such as setting out-of-office messages and issuing instructions for non-furloughed colleagues.

10.) TSA and air traffic control

The TSA and air traffic control are deemed essential and therefore operate as normal.

11.)Homeland Security

Close to 90% of the Department of Homeland Security’s employees are considered essential and work as usual.

12.) National parks and landmarks

In 2013, national parks were closed to the public during the government shutdown. However, during the 2018 shutdown, national parks, recreation areas and monuments remained in full operating mode. Most landmarks, such as Independence Hall in Philadelphia, were closed. The Statue of Liberty, in New York, reopened with the city picking up the tab for operating costs.

Economic effect

Government shutdowns have always had a devastating effect on the economy. With loan processing delayed and halted, attractions shuttered and thousands of businesses that rely on the patronization of furloughed workers suffering a loss, the economy can take a hard hit. In the past, an estimated $20 billion in revenue was lost during a shutdown. Had the 2018 shutdown extended further, with many parks and recreational centers operating as usual, the losses may not have been as severe.

Congress works hard when trying to reach budget plans to satisfy all parties. Hopefully, if shutdowns do occur, an agreement is quickly achieved and the shutdown comes to an end.

Your Turn: Did the most recent government shutdown effect you or someone you know?



What The Data Breaches At Uber And PayPal Tell Us

Q: I’ve been hearing about security or data breaches at some large companies I do Uber and PayPal logosbusiness with. I’m worried that something like this might result in harm to my credit. What exactly is a data breach and what can I do to protect myself?

A: As our digital world expands, so does cyber crime. Two companies that recently experienced major data breaches are Uber and PayPal. Chances are, you’ve done business with one or both of these companies. To protect yourself against these and future breaches, arm yourself with knowledge and good habits.

Just what is a data breach?

When a criminal gains access to data sources and sensitive information such as credit card numbers, passwords and license numbers, this constitutes a data breach. Such access can be physical, like when someone has access to your phone or computer. The information in your device can be copied (or ported) to another device. More often, and more nefarious, is virtual thievery accomplished by a number of means, such as bypassing the security measures put in place by you or a company that stores your info in some way. Cyber criminals at Uber and PayPal used this method to steal data.

What happened?

As more people are connected to the Internet and use online services, data breaches are increasingly more common. Uber’s breach exposed the personal information of 57 million customers and Uber workers in 2016. It included names, phone numbers, email addresses, and license numbers. While sensitive information like birth dates and credit card numbers were not exposed, many of these can be attained and paired to the exposed information. PayPal also had a large data breach that potentially impacted 1.6 million customers.

This stolen information can be then used in many ways, including setting up accounts to establish a new identity. It can also be used to use to steal a person’s identity.

How can you protect yourself?

No one who uses the Internet to transact business is completely secure from threats of breaches like these. However, experts in cyber security have some suggestions to lessen your vulnerability.

  • Do not log into accounts using Facebook. When you log in this way, you are allowing Facebook to access more information about you and you don’t have control over how this data is used.
  • Don’t give out too much information. The University of Western Australia’s Centre for Software Practices suggests not giving your age and birth date when filling out profiles. You can make up a birth date and even choose your opposite gender. When using social networks, limit the information you make available. Identity thieves can make quick use of your birth date and hometown. Don’t post these in your profile.
  • Use more than one email account. For social media, using more than one email account can help to keep your data from being accumulated in one place. If you have a large amount of data in one place, losing it all at one time can potentially do greater damage.
  • Be password smart. A surprising number of people use the same password for many sites. This is a problem because if one of your sites is compromised, hackers can try that password on other sites. While it may not be convenient, it is smart to use a different password for each site you use. Every password should be strong with a unique combination of letters, numbers, and symbols.

    Another option is to use a password manager to generate passwords and store them in an encrypted database locally or remotely. An uncrackable password goes a long way to protect your data.

  • Limit your use of credit cards online. Ironically, given the subject of this article, using PayPal is safer than using credit cards when online. PayPal limits the information you are providing. In fact, no customers were harmed in the PayPal data breach.
  • Change identifying information. Pick a new birth year or change your gender on social media profiles. This helps to keep information about you from being linked with information from other sites.
  • Practice good data management. Ceck all of your account statements regularly. Look for suspicious items and set alerts to notify you when a large purchase is made.
  • Check to see if the apps you use are storing information. Some apps actually collect and sell information. Install updates for your apps because the updates typically include more advanced security, or close existing gaps that were recently discovered and exploited.

Your Turn: Unfortunately, almost everyone has a nightmare story about a personal data breach situation. What is yours? How did you handle it?



Phone Cloning And Digital Self Defense

Most of us realize a clone is a genetic copy of something else. ButMan holding cell phone, did you know it is possible to clone a phone? Cloning a phone means that the identity of one phone is copied to another phone, making a nearly exact replica of the original. This frightening practice happens more than you might imagine.

Cyber forensic expert Ali Dehghantanha says, “On average, we check our mobile phones about 110 times a day. We use them for just about everything from summoning an Uber car, paying for our latest Amazon purchases, receiving prescriptions and even tracking shares and trading on the stock market.”

Mobile phones, though, are also a major source of security breaches, and your phone number is the only thing a hacker needs to launch a major attack.

Why Clone a Phone?

Hackers clone phones so they can use them or sell them to people who use them to make calls and to get access to data on the phone. When a phone is cloned, the calls made by the hackers are seamlessly billed to your account. But that’s just the beginning.

Think of all of the information on your phone: financial accounts, credit cards, apps of all kinds. Once the hacker has access to the phone, there is no end to the financial damage that can be done.

The hacker or criminal can listen to you from their own phone and even use the camera on your phone to watch you. He can look at your pictures, read your messages, access your passwords and view your contacts.

Additionally, these cloned phones are convenient devices for criminals to use because they are harder to trace. Cloning is particularly prevalent in drug-related crime, since drug dealers must maintain constant contact with their sources and clients. To avoid their calls being traced, the dealer may use a cloned phone for a few days and then throw it away and use another one.

It may even appear to authorities that you are engaged in criminal activity if the phone number is used this way. The police may target you because of a cyberattack where your phone number was used.

There are a number of ways a hacker can clone a phone. Generally, every phone has a unique serial number and phone number. When a cellphone is cloned, it is reprogrammed to transfer these settings from a legitimate phone. The easiest way to clone a phone is to use readily available software. There are hundreds of sites that offer phone hacking software, so this is not a rare occurrence and requires little technical expertise.

How do you know your phone has been cloned?

Often, you will be unaware that your phone has been cloned until you notice some unusual occurrence, such as credit card bills that include charges you didn’t make, financial account withdrawals and unusual items on accounts, such as Uber or Airbnb. You may be contacted by your financial institution about a loan you did not actually apply for.

However, you can sometimes detect hints that the phone has been cloned. You may receive a lot of wrong number calls or hang-ups when you answer the phone. You might have difficulty making outgoing calls or retrieving messages. Your phone bill may contain unknown numbers.

How Can You Protect Yourself?

While cellular companies have many methods in place to identify cloned phones, there are some things you can do.

First, always review your phone bill. If there are numbers you don’t recognize and charges that are much greater than usual, you may suspect trouble. Have your provider run a diagnostic test to check for viruses that may have resulted from cloning.

Another way to possibly detect cloning is to put your phone number into a search engine, such as Google, to see if any links include your number. You can also use someone else’s phone to call your number and see if someone picks up. Contact your financial institution to see if anyone has tried to open credit cards or loans in your name. Make sure your phone is password protected. Create new passwords and PINs for all the accounts that may be available on your phone. Finally, you may have to resort to restoring your phone to its factory settings.

If you determine your phone was cloned, contact your phone provider and the FBI. You can use the FBI website and select “Tips and Public Leads in the Reporting Crime” section. It is important that you do this, so the authorities can follow up on the information you provide.

Your turn: Has your phone been cloned? How did you find out about it? Did you suffer financial loss? Share your experience and any tips on how to prevent security breaches with us.

The Conversation. How to Stop Your Phone from Being Hacked. Ali Dehghantanha.https://theconversation.com/how-to-stop-your-phone-from-being-hacked-58898 

Techwalla. How to Check If a Cell Has Been Hacked or Cloned. Lissa J.https://www.techwalla.com/articles/how-to-check-if-a-cell-has-been-hacked-or-cloned 
Seminar Presentation on Mobile Phone Cloning. Shishupal Nagar.https://www.slideshare.net/sisnagar/mobile-phonecloning 
Federal Communications Commision. Cell Phone Fraud.https://www.fcc.gov/consumers/guides/cell-phone-fraud

Mistakes First-Time Homeowners Make

Q: My husband and I have been renting an apartment since we got married. We recently

piggy bank next to money tree

Piggy bank and money plant. 3D modeling and rendering

decided to buy our first home. Some friends of ours had lots of trouble with the process, and wound up buying a house they can’t really afford. We don’t want to go through what they did. What can we do to buy our dream home without all that grief?

A: Buying a house is one of the biggest decisions you will ever make. It’s great that you and your husband are planning ahead for this important milestone. These are common mistakes that first-time homeowners make–and how to avoid them.

1.) Not Knowing Your Housing Budget

The term “house poor” is an apt one for the many people who buy a house that is costing them more than their income allows. It’s uncomfortable to be in this situation, so you’ll want to avoid buying out of your financial comfort zone.

You sound like planners, so you probably already have a budget and some idea of your expenses for running your current household. Now is the time to review that budget. Some of your expenses are going to increase in a new home – utilities, for instance. If you’re moving from an apartment to a larger home, that can cost much more.

Some of the other budget items may change, too. Renter’s insurance and laundromat costs may drop off the list. Add up all your expenses, but leave out rent or mortgage payments. When you subtract the total of this list from your take-home pay, you will have a pretty good idea of how much you have left for mortgage payments. Find a mortgage calculator online and use it to calculate mortgage payments based on various interest rates. Generally, housing costs should be 30 percent or less of your before-tax income.

2.) Looking Outside Your Housing Budget

There is nothing worse than finding your dream home only to realize that it’s way out of your reach. It’s a common mistake to look at properties that are too expensive for your budget. This tends to set you up for disappointment. Even if you manage to purchase the home, you may find yourself in the same situation as the friends you mentioned in your question: too much house and too little money.

After doing your research, you’ll know how much you can afford to spend on a new home. You can then pinpoint properties in your price range.

Most home purchases require compromise. Maybe you’ll decide on a smaller house in a neighborhood with the best schools in the city. If space is your highest priority, you might decide on a large house in a less-exclusive neighborhood. Every house has some advantages and disadvantages, but keep your search within your financial comfort zone.

3.) Purchasing Based on Future Changes

If you are having trouble finding a house in your price range, consider ways to reduce your current expenses. This will mean having more money available to make a larger monthly mortgage payment. The mistake some people make is assuming they can make these changes once they own a house. However, these budget changes should be in place before you buy a house, even if it means delaying the purchase. Give yourself at least six months to see if you can stick to your new budget.

4.) Treating Your Home as an Investment

First-time buyers often expect that they will be able to sell their house in five or 10 years for a large profit. The last decade has brought major changes to every housing market. While a house in certain areas was almost guaranteed to appreciate in value, this is no longer a sure thing.

Economics professor Art Carden, from the Brock School of Business, has this advice, “Buy a house to live in and be prepared for lots of unseen upkeep costs that range from mowing the lawn to emergency repairs.”

Your turn: Do you have tips for avoiding house buying mistakes? Share them in the comments.

Money.Kathryn Vasel. 4 things first-time homebuyers need to  know.http://money.cnn.com/2017/05/11/real_estate/first-time-home-buyer/index.html
Investopedia. Amy Fontinelle.https://www.investopedia.com/articles/mortgages-real-estate/08/ten-worst-mistakes.asp 

CNBC. Maggie Overfelt. 8 biggest mistakes first-time homebuyers make.https://www.cnbc.com/2014/07/17/8-biggest-mistakes-first-time-homebuyers-make.html

Getting Through the Winter Blues

Winter brings cozy fires, happy holidays and fun sports like ice skating and skiing. It can Little girl huddled under a coatalso bring some things that are less welcome. With sunshine being scarce, many people get the winter blues. This depressed state is often made worse by the financial realities of winter, which include higher energy costs and money spent on holiday festivities.

Here are some ways to get proactive and beat the blues before they start.

Budget for Holiday Spending

It might be too late this year, but it is not too early to think about strategies for next year. Consider what you actually have in hand to spend without using credit. Then, make a list of all your holiday expenses. These expenses might include gifts, travel, special foods and entertaining.  Consider a holiday club account to meet those expenses next year.

If you have family or friends you usually exchange gifts with, speak to them about putting a dollar limit on spending. Think of some other ways to celebrate in addition to gift giving. Maybe a holiday potluck would work. Have a family game night. Plan an at-home New Year’s party.

Doing rather than buying can lift your spirits. Psychology professor Tom Gilovich of Cornell University says you’ll be happier and have longer-lasting happiness if you spend your money on experiences instead of things.

Also, consider making your own gifts, because a handmade gift can be more meaningful than something store-bought. Have the whole family participate in making fruitcake or jam. Even the youngest members of the family can help with decorating and wrapping the gifts.

This is a great time to talk with your children about financial realities and budgeting. Instead of making a long list of presents they want, have the kids pinpoint one or two items that are really important to them. Talk to them about the expenses you have and reassure them that there will be plenty of joy even without being overwhelmed with presents.

Keep Warm

Energy costs can be a source of worry. However, there are some things you can do to cut your energy costs.

For starters, check your house to make sure you have enough insulation. Look for places in the house where you may be losing heat, such as loose windows or cracks. You can fill these cracks yourself or hire someone to come in and do it. The money you spend will be recouped quickly in the form of lower heating bills.

Try to keep your thermostat at a lower temperature. Get your family in the habit of wearing sweaters and socks in the house. Small afghans on the couch are attractive and useful for cuddling and keeping warm. Buy some extra blankets for the beds and lower the temperature even more at night.

If it is in your budget, a new programmable thermostat can save you money. You will be able to adjust room temperature according to your schedules, keeping it low when no one is home. You can set the thermostat to kick in more heat before you get home from work, so the house will be warm when you arrive.

Do It Yourself

When the kids are home from school, it’s easy to fall into the trap of keeping them busy by going out for treats — pizza, hot chocolate or a warm meal. Start doing more of this at home. Make a large pot of chili or some cocoa for the family. It’s easy and more fun than bundling everyone up to go out. It will save you both money and time.

In general, you can save quite a bit of money if you have been buying expensive coffee on the way to work or throughout the day. Hone your skills as a barista, brew your own and save a bunch.

Consider Credit Counseling

If you are still feeling blue and think it may be related to your finances, start the new year off with free counseling for members offered by Destinations Credit Union’s partner, Greenpath Financial Wellness. A sure way to beat the winter blues is to get a confident feeling about being on top of your financial wellness. “The more you plan, the less you spend,” says Ellie Kay, a California financial planning expert.

And that can make a world of difference in many areas of your life.

Your turn: Are you feeling down about your financial situation? Does the cold weather have you feeling depressed? What are some strategies you’ve used to combat the winter blues?