Let’s face it—our personal information is everywhere and criminals are eager to get a hold of it and use it for personal gain. In recent years we can’t escape the endless stream of news reports on data theft from major corporations and retailers. The technology and protocol used to protect data has not kept pace with the ability and determination of thieves to hack networks and steal sensitive personal information. Reports of data theft include information ranging from social security numbers and credit card information to the user names and passwords of online accounts. This leaves consumers wondering what they can do to protect their sensitive financial data and their identities from these predators. Here are four simple steps you can take to reduce your risk of becoming a victim.
- Don’t Store Sensitive Information Online
A current trend in cyber crime is the theft of user names and passwords to consumer’s online accounts. Cyber criminals use this information to sign on to existing accounts to steal information and complete transactions, including tax returns. This theft can go undetected because it takes place inside the perimeters of an already established online account. The best way for consumers to prevent this type of crime is to delete sensitive information after a transaction is complete. If you decide to provide sensitive information within your online accounts, do not allow a website to store your credit card information or social security number. Sometimes a website will make it easy and ask if you would like to store your credit card number for later use, other times you will have to delete the information after the transaction is complete. Deleting your credit card numbers and personal identifying information after transactions will make subsequent transactions a little less convenient; however, it will keep your personal information safe if an online account is compromised.
- Provide Less Identifiable Information
Many websites require an online account to be established in order to access website content, even if no financial transactions will take place. Do you ever stop and ask why you need to enter your name and address to read the news, print coupons, or to play an online game? An easy way to protect your personal information in this situation is to provide a nick name and dummy address so that your personal information is not vulnerable. It is also possible to set up an alternate email address for these special situations that will protect the legitimacy and validity of the emails that come into your primary email account.
- Consider Cash or a Pre-paid Credit Card
When shopping at a traditional brick and mortar store, paying with cash is still a viable option. Not only will it prevent the theft of credit card information if a retailer’s network is hacked, but it can help you stay within your budget. Sometimes cash is not an option and often time great deals and convenience are accessible when shopping online. If you want to go a step further in protecting yourself in these instances, consider using a pre-paid credit card to make on-line transactions. The use of a pre-paid card will keep your credit or debit card numbers safe if an online retailer is hacked.
- Monitor Your Credit Report
Even if consumers take all the right steps and are vigilant with their personal and financial data, they still run a risk that their information and identity can be stolen. Many of these cyber criminal rings are set up outside the United States and are untouchable by local law enforcement. For this reason, the schemes and methods of theft become consistently more sophisticated. It is important to regularly monitor your credit reports for suspicious activity. The Federal government requires that consumers have access to each of their credit reports once a year through www.annualcreditreport.com.
Since it’s unlikely the threat of cyber criminals will diminish in the foreseeable future, it’s up to consumers to become vigilant and take additional steps to protect their finances and identities. Making conscious decisions on when and where you share your personal information is a great place to start.
Guest Contributor: Kimberly Love, AFC®, Zeiders
“My goal in teaching is to teach complex financial issues in a manner so that students can apply those concepts in their own lives.”
Teacher, mentor, speaker, inspirer – there are many words to describe Alena Johnson and the impact she has had on her students, fellow educators and the larger community. As a lecturer at Utah State University, Alena has taught over 19,000 students through courses in Family Finance, Financial Counseling and Balancing Work and Family; and she has mentored over 200 students choosing to enter careers in the financial field.
Alena is passionate about teaching about financial concepts and her enthusiasm is well received by students, community and professional audiences. Alena took the Family Finance class at Utah State University from 80 students to a class of 500 with a waiting list. In 2007 her class was voted as the second most favorite class across the entire campus of USU. Alena has not only helped students learn about good money management practices, she has also taught them how to apply them in their own lives.
AFCPE & AFC Professional Impact
Alena has been actively involved with AFCPE since first attending and presenting at the annual conference in 1999. Since that time she has given twelve presentations at the annual conference. She has also been the chair of the Certification Task Force and an invited member of the strategic planning committee and the job analysis committee. She regularly donates her time as a reviewer for symposium submissions and as a Symposium presider.
Her impact on AFC® professionals has been incredibly important to the organization. As an instructor of the AFC Webinar Review sessions, her guidance and expertise has helped individuals prepare for and pass the AFC examinations. She has aided both traditional enrollees in the program, as well as FINRA Foundation Military Spouse Fellows. In addition, her experience and understanding of the AFC competencies, has allowed her to play an integral role in examination and study guide development and maintenance for the AFC certification program.
Wide Spread Impact
Alena has created multiple publications to help individuals and educators improve money management skills in themselves and others. These publications have been used by individuals and educators throughout the world. Some examples include:
The Step-Down Principle – A simple, effective way to help individuals reduce their expenses incrementally. After its initial presentation in 1999, Alena Johnson’s Step-Down Principle has been used by financial counselors, educators and extension agents throughout the nation.
The Financial Checkup – A booklet that guides individuals through an annual self-financial assessment, offering several worksheets to help a person determine their current financial situation, where they want to go and how to get there.
Financial Remedies – A companion booklet to The Financial Checkup booklet that helps individuals cure problems discovered while completing their own financial checkup.
Financial First Aid – Designed for non-financial professionals to help individuals improve their money management skills. This booklet can be used by marriage and family therapists, clergy, extension agents, social workers and anyone else who encounters financial situations in their own practices.
Alena’s publications are frequently used in University coursework, by eXtension agents and financial counselors, and by therapists and social workers throughout the country. Her impact as an educator is wide spread, and the advice and knowledge she has imparted in her classroom and through her publications continues to impact individuals nationwide.
To know who you are, both personally and professionally is an amazing feeling. To have the confidence in knowing that conquering the world…or at least your little piece of it…is just around the corner is a heady feeling. To truly comprehend and be thankful for the fact that you can’t do it alone? Now that’s growth.
For most of my 38 years, I’ve considered myself a leader – I’ve encouraged, I’ve coached and I’ve inspired. But I’ve been able to do these things in large part because of the people who have directly influenced my life, both personally and professionally. I have built a network of people who have taught and directed me. People who have helped me develop into the woman I am today. I have been encouraged, coached and inspired.
As with financial security, we must build a solid foundation for growth. As financial professionals or students of finance, we know that without a savings plan, a budget and appropriate insurance, we cannot grow our wealth potential. My foundation includes a husband who supports me in my dreams, the FINRA Foundation which awarded me a scholarship to help me earn my AFC® (Accredited Financial Counselor) certification and my children who are surprisingly interested in my budgeting and savings tips.
In 2014, as a PhD student in Kansas State University’s Personal Financial Planning program, I applied for the AFCPE Symposium Student Scholarship. In my Student Scholarship recommendation letter, my professor included a comment, “I do not believe that Kate has met a stranger…” It’s true. I’m not shy. I believe that meeting and interacting with others opens up so much potential for friendship, development and opportunity. This kind of interaction doesn’t always come easily. It’s a skill that must be nurtured and developed.
Networking is about being interested in meeting others, learning about others and figuring out what you can do to help others. It’s about being outside of yourself and focused on who others are and what you can do for them. The same is true for those you meet. It’s a nifty little dance that has some give, some take and a whole lot of focus on building relationships.
Networking is going in to a room, no matter how big the crowd, and seeking out people you want to meet, or maybe people you didn’t even know that you wanted to meet. Once you meet them, sincerity is imperative. Self-deprecating humor can help break the ice, but the number one key to networking is intent – intent to meet others, determine their interests and see if there is a way to work together to better both of your futures.
I am so thankful for the experience I had at the 2014 AFCPE Symposium. If you are a financial practitioner, educator or researcher there is a student out there waiting for you. Someone who has questions about which way to go, how to do what they want to do; a student who needs encouragement to persevere and keep their focus on the potential ahead of them. There is a student out there who may feel that they have all the pieces of the puzzle together, but could use a little help thinking forward about how to continue growing their area of interest.
If you are a student in the financial counseling and planning field—the BEST possible thing you can do for yourself is to find a mentor. A mentor can help you develop needed networking skills and introduce you to others in the field that can help you as well.
Life is full of changes, developments, wants and needs…kind of like our budgets. There are things that we can absolutely do on our own. But why take the journey alone? If we can grow ourselves by helping grow someone else, then we can expand our network, improve our area of influence and better the growth and reputation of Accredited Financial Counselors throughout the world.
Guest Contributor, Kate Mielitz, AFC®, 2014 AFCPE Symposium Scholarship Recipient
There’s no way around it – financial struggles are can be both difficult and overwhelming. However, if you take some time to visualize where and how your money is being spent, you may find that you actually have more money than you thought. “How,” you ask? Here are three simple steps:
- Develop a Spending Plan.
Because money without a name will disappear, most people who prepare a written budget discover money they didn’t realize they had. Give it a try – you may be pleasantly surprised. However, even if you learn that you are indeed “upside down” every month, your budget is still your friend. Why? Because it tells you the raw truth . . . something only a real friend will do. A family I know (let’s call them the Jones family) recently prepared a budget which told them they were spending $600 more than they were bringing home every month. The good news is that they also discovered that they already had that much money – and more — they just needed to find it and start using it. How? Read on.
- Turn your “extra” checks into Residual Income.
Because Mr. Jones is paid weekly, he receives five paychecks four months each year. His wife, who is paid bi-weekly, receives three checks two months every year. These “extra” checks totaled $5,000 throughout the year – just what they needed to be setting aside for property taxes and homeowners insurance (budget items which come due annually).
Think with me on this: The Jones’s had already budgeted this $5,000 by having $417 automatically transferred from their checking to their savings account each month. However, by agreeing to always obligate their “extra” checks toward property taxes and insurance, they freed up $417 from their budget. Let me hasten to state that this tactic won’t work for those who get paid monthly or bi-monthly because they have no “extra” checks. This family, by finding and utilizing money they already had ($817 a month), did not only meet their budgeted expenses, but also paid an additional $217 each month on debt reduction. Their stress levels have gone way down as their money management skills have gone way up. The Jones family is a happy family.
- Incorporate your income tax refund into your Budget.
The average refund nationwide is about $3,000, but the Jones family normally received more than twice that amount. Think about what is wrong with this picture: They struggled to make ends meet month after month while sending Uncle Sam money throughout the year . . . money the IRS would clutch until the Jones’s filed a proper tax return the following year. By claiming more exemptions on their W-4 forms, this family was able to increase their take-home pay by $400 a month . . . a huge step in the right direction, but still $200 a month short of balancing their budget. Again, they already had this money, but weren’t making use of it until they applied step three.
Have you applied any of these three steps to your finances? How did it go? Do you have any additional tips on finding money you already have? Leave a comment!
Guest Contributor, Deran Tolbert, AFC®, Serco, Inc.
A good credit history is crucial in today’s economy. Far more than just a number, a good credit score can make the difference in being able to access the affordable lending products necessary to go to college, buy a home, or start and grow a small business. Renting an apartment, paying for car insurance, signing up for utilities and even landing a job can also be affected by a person’s credit history – or the absence of one.
Unfortunately, for many of the 64 million Americans with no or “thin” credit files, the ability to establish a good credit history is hampered by lack of access to affordable mainstream credit building financial products. A disproportionately large number of these individuals are low-income and many live in areas underserved by traditional financial institutions. They depend on predatory financial service providers who do not report their borrowers’ on-time payments. Thus, many of these low-income households find themselves trapped in a vicious credit cycle: the use of predatory financial products prevents them from building good credit and their impaired or nonexistent credit furthers ongoing dependence on asset stripping alternative financial products.
As credit reports and scores are used more widely by creditors, employers and other businesses, financial practitioners are recognizing the connection between consumers’ credit profiles and the opportunities available to them. Over the last five years many have begun to embrace credit building as integral to helping low- and moderate-income and other underserved constituents build and sustain financial assets.
Responsible credit building – which combines access to safe, affordable financial products with skilled and relevant financial education — is a powerful strategy for financial practitioners to help the households they serve take control of their financial lives. In just six months, on-time payments reported to the credit bureaus on an installment loan as small as $100 can help an individual with a low credit score increase his or her score by an average of 35 points and move an individual with no credit score to a prime credit score.
A good credit history is not only an asset, it is the means to greater and more sustainable financial stability, savings and asset building opportunities.
Join Credit Builders Alliance (CBA) and AFCPE® for a 3-part webinar series designed to help financial practitioners enhance their understanding of credit building as an asset building strategy and help create ideal conditions for individuals and families to build credit and assets. Begins February 2015: http://bit.ly/1BsDWkL
Guest Contributor Dara Duguay, Executive Director, Credit Builders Alliance