9 Tips to Stay Safe Online

We’re spending more time online than ever. With each new device that comes out, our options for staying connected increase. Heck, our DVD players are now connected to the internet.

The Net offers convenience, entertainment and ways to stay connected with those around us, but it also exposes us to new threats. We all want the upside without having to worry about the downside.

So what I’ve outlined below is a series of easy-to-remember tips that will keep you happily blogging, buying, surfing…or whatever you do on the Net.

The first and most obvious thing you can do to keep yourself safe is to (1) use strong passwords. For every website you log into, you need a unique password that contains letters, numbers and symbols. For convenience, use one of your hobbies or your favorite sports team and change up the letters a bit. For example, someone who enjoys fishing might choose f1shIngF@n.

Experts recommend using a different password for every site. If you’re like me you visit about three dozen sites every day. Remembering that many unique passwords wouldn’t be possible without a program like LastPass, which remembers your password for you each time you visit a site.

To keep your computer up-to-date against the latest viruses, you need to (2) set your antivirus program to download and install updates automatically. But for it to be any good, you need to put your antivirus software to work occasionally. At least once a month, (3) scan your entire computer for viruses. To round out your toolbox, scan for malware using Spybot Search & Destroy and Malwarebytes.

Your browser, operating system and other software also need to be kept up to date. So (4) don’t ignore the update notifications that pop up on your toolbar, thinking you’ll get to them later. These updates are your best defense against the latest viruses.

Here’s another no-brainer, but some of us still forget: (5) don’t open suspicious emails. If you don’t know who the sender is, do yourself a favor and hit delete without even opening it. And be careful with emails that appear to be from companies or people you trust – I talked earlier about the fake Facebook notification emails.

Since most of us, including myself, do our banking and shopping online, I have three tips to keep your finances safe. First, (6) don’t check your bank accounts on public networks. That includes the free wi-fi you find at coffee shops and airports, but also public computers at the library. These networks are not secure, so anything you type could be intercepted by criminals. You may disagree with me here, but I think it’s best to avoid doing anything involving your finances while on a public network.

When you go to buy something online, (7) look for the lock in the address bar. You should also see the “s” in “https://” telling you the page is encrypted. (8) Your method of payment should always be credit card. If you pay with a credit card and something goes wrong, all you have to do is dispute the charge with your credit card company. But if you pay with a debit card, it’s your money that’s gone and you have to fight your bank to get it back.

I have one last tip for you as you’re getting your daily fix. Criminals are getting more sophisticated every day in their ability to swipe our personal stuff. Online, things aren’t always what they seem to be. So my last tip is to be careful out there. (9) Think before you click and you’ll stay out of trouble.

Photo by hashout.blogspot.com

Where to Find Free Checking

freeI read recently at Bankrate.com that checking fees have risen to a record level in 2012. “The banking industry finds itself in the middle of a fee-for-all.” Sounds a little like the airline industry doesn’t it?

I know what you’re thinking. “You’re probably going to ask me to switch banks, aren’t you?” If you’re at one of the big banks and are unhappy with the way you’re being treated, yes. If you’re happy and feel you’re getting your money’s worth, that’s great. You can probably skip this post and go read one of my other ones.

Here’s the problem. Banks have been limited in their ability to fee you for overdrafts and in what they charge for debit card swipe fees, so they’re looking elsewhere to increase revenue. They’re coming after you in other ways to make up the difference.

I remember when you could walk into just about any bank and open a free checking account, no strings attached. I opened my first account as a teenager in the early 2000s, and back then many banks were giving free gifts to people who opened accounts. Some offered cash. The only bank I’m aware of that offers a reward today is ING direct (soon to be Capital One 360), which gives you $50 for opening an Electric Orange account.

The best way to get free checking is to join a credit union or online bank. According the Bankrate report, 72% of the largest credit unions still offer free checking to their members. Many credit unions participate in an ATM network with other credit unions around the country, so if you use ATMs frequently look into this option before joining one. Many online banks, such as ING Direct and Charles Schwab, offer free access to any ATM in the country. The only downside for online banks is you can’t deposit cash. I get around this by depositing at my credit union and transferring it electronically to my checking account.

I know it’s a pain to switch banks. I’ve gone through the process a few times myself. The trick is to take your time. Give yourself a couple of months to transition your automatic payments. Leave enough money in the old account to cover any remaining drafts.

Now, what should you look for in a free checking account? Aside from FDIC insurance, the two most important features are no monthly maintenance fees and no minimum balance requirements.

Even at the biggest banks there are ways to avoid checking fees. Maintaining a minimum balance or a monthly direct deposit are the two most common ways to avoid fees. That’s great, but what if you lose your job? What sparked my search for a new bank in the first place was a letter from my old bank notifying me of a required direct deposit. I didn’t want something else to worry about if I became unemployed.

For those who won’t jump through the hoops, expect to pay a service fee averaging about $5.50 a month, or $66 a year. The price tags for overdrafts and out-of-network ATM withdraws will pinch you as well. If you insist on sticking with your big bank, use only their ATMs and don’t “opt-in” to overdraft protection.

In the end though, is the convenience of big banks enough to offset the higher fees? That’s a question only you can answer. As for me, I’m willing to inconvenience myself just a little to avoid fees and get better service.

Photo by nerdwallet.com/blog

Why We’re Obsessed with Stuff

Enter the average American’s home and you’ll be greeted with plies of clutter. A stack of magazines on the coffee table. Old mail sitting on the bookshelf. Kids toys lying around everywhere. We’ve bought so much stuff that our houses are bursting at the seams.

When asked why we have all this stuff lying around, we make excuses like “I just don’t have time to clean with everything else going on” or “Shopping makes me happy” or “That’s just always how it’s been.” The reality is, these excuses mask the underlying truth: Our stuff makes us comfortable.

We’ve been conditioned by savvy marketers to consume every time we have a problem. Sex life not what you’d like it to be? Here, buy this Cosmo magazine. Bored? Come to our mall and buy a bunch of stuff you don’t need and probably can’t afford. Instead of being creative, we consume our way out of a problem.

In their book Your Money or Your Life, Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin invented the term “gazingus pins” to describe the stuff we buy through unconscious habit. From the book:

A gazingus pin is any item that you just can’t pass by without buying. Everybody has them. They run the gamut from pocket calculators and tiny screwdrivers to pens and chocolate kisses. So there you are in the mall, a shopping robot on your weekly tour of the stations of the crass. You come to the gazingus-pin section and your mind starts cranking out gazingus-pin thoughts: Oh, there’s a pink one…I don’t have a pink one…Oh, that one runs on solar cells…That would be handy…My, a waterproof one…If I don’t use it I can always give it away…Before you know it, an alien arm (attached to your body) has reached out and picked up the gazingus pin, and off you go to the checkout, still functioning like a wind-up zombie. You arrive home with your purchase, put it in the gazingus-pin drawer (along with the five or ten others) and forget about gazingus pins until your next trip to the mall, at which point you come to the gazingus pin section and…

Now this book was written in the early ’90s, so their pocket calculators and screwdrivers are our e-books and cups of Starbucks. Every time we journey to the mall or the outlet stores to bargain hunt we’re bringing home gazingus pins. Of course we don’t need them. Try telling that to our subconscious.

We even have shows now glamorizing clutter. Hoarders is a show everybody has seen. These people would rather live up to their eyeballs in old newspapers and dead cats than confront their problems head on. They’ve learned to cling to their stuff because supposedly nothing else makes them happy. Then when the cleaning crews arrive, you’d think they were taking a child away.

Not only is hoarding glamorized, it’s supported by the booming self-storage industry. At $23 billion, it’s among the fastest growing areas of commercial real estate during the last 35 years. 84% of US counties have at least one storage facility. One in ten US households now rent a storage unit, up from one in 17 in 1995. This is something that really puzzles me. If you’re in between houses and need a temporary place to store your stuff, fine. But these customers aren’t the prime targets of self-storage companies. No, their target customers are the hoarders who can’t bear to part with their prized possessions. Their target customers have so much stuff that they can’t even fit it all in their houses. 

We must learn to rid ourselves of this false romance with “stuff”. It’s costing us our paychecks, our relationships and our freedom. Set up a plan with your family to go through one room each day. Set up 3 large boxes in every room: one for things that belong in that room, one for things that go in a different room and the last one for giving away. Your goal is to get your life back, one room at a time.

Photo by cbsnews.com

More Stores Pushing Loyalty Programs as a Way to Save

Your key ring could soon be very full.

Businesses are hurting. We’re just not spending at the levels we were before the recession started.

Companies large and small have tried luring new customers by offering deals on Groupon and other daily deal websites. These deals have succeeded in getting people in the door, but what they’ve found is that the deals attract mostly bargain hunters and cheapskates. These people come in once for a deal and never return.

Obviously that’s not what retailers want. We know it costs significantly more to attract new customers than to retain current ones. And studies have shown that current customers spend more than new ones. So from the retailer’s point of view, keeping current customers coming back is the gold standard.

This has led businesses to a promotional strategy that’s booming right now: loyalty programs. They come in all shapes and sizes. Among the more popular programs is also one that’s been around for a while: Amazon’s Prime, which offers unlimited free 2-day shipping on most products for $79 a year. Prime’s appeal is that it offers something we all want: free shipping. Amazon has positioned itself as the Walmart of the web with free shipping and good customer service to boot.

Another example is McDonald’s monopoly game. Who doesn’t love Monopoly, right? You go back time and time again, peeling off those little game pieces and filling out your game board. If you’re lucky you’ll win a free Big Mac along the way. I’m not even sure anybody’s ever won the big prize, but that’s beside the point. When businesses make loyalty fun we gladly come back for more.

A final example is the airlines’ frequent flier programs. Many of them have several tiers based on how much you spend each year. The more you spend, the greater your access to benefits like early boarding and plush airport lounges.

Large companies aren’t alone in the game. Over the coming weeks and months you’ll start to see mom-and-pop stores and independent restaurants offering simple loyalty programs to encourage return visits. As an example, a pizza shop might offer a free pizza after you buy seven. You could see spas offering free services after so many visits. These programs will be built to reward existing customers for coming back.

Compare these programs with other types of loyalty I talked about recently: loyalty based on habit or inertia. Your loyalty to a business should be based on how you’re treated and the value you receive.

Some companies actually penalize customers for their loyalty. Among them are cable and cell phone providers, banks, and most auto insurers. They routinely reward new customers with discounts while sticking it to their long-time customers. It’s funny (or sad?) that companies with horrible customer service reputations are most often guilty of this.

Ask yourself why you’re loyal to the companies you do business with. Are you getting a good deal or is inertia at work?

Loyalty programs are a good way for companies to reward repeat customers and maintain their customer base. You benefit too, but only if you’d buy the product or service anyway. If not you’re just throwing money away.

Bottom line: Don’t assume you’ll benefit from loyalty. Use these loyalty programs to sweeten the deal for things you already buy.

Photo by homemadeville.blogspot.com

Is Black Friday Really Cheaper? The Truth About Why We Wait in Lines

It seems Black Friday countdowns start earlier each year. We were barely into October this year and I noticed them cropping up.

For the dedicated bargain hunters among us, the lead up to Black Friday involves making a shopping list, coordinating with others and planning a route. Then, on Thanksgiving night, waiting in lines in the freezing cold.

Last year I participated in the Black Friday mayhem for the first time. I was in the market for a new laptop, and figured Black Friday was the time to strike. The cheapest I could find was at a big box store for $159.

So when Thanksgiving came I grabbed my gloves, hat and scarf and ventured out. I must have been out there two hours, but it felt like five. When they let us in at midnight the real chaos started. Everyone (including me) was sleep deprived and zombie-like. Manners were apparently left at home, as people bumped against each other and ran over anything in the way.

I made my way to the electronics department and stood in yet another line to get my ticket, which would then allow me to claim my laptop. About a half hour after entering the store I had my prize in hand. After waiting in yet another line at the checkout, I made my exit.

Why do millions of Americans put themselves through this every year? I only went to one store, but some people visit several into the wee hours.

It’s all about the deals, right? Well what if I told you that Black Friday isn’t necessarily the best time of year to find bargains?

That’s precisely what the Wall Street Journal found. In their article The Myth of the Black Friday Deal, they explain that most items are cheaper earlier in the shopping season, while some go down in price as you get closer to Christmas Day. Flat screen TVs, jewelry, watches, and toys are cheaper in October, while stuff that didn’t sell well during Black Friday is discounted closer to Christmas. Household items like blenders and mixers are often in the latter category.

Now that we’ve proven good deals aren’t a reason to stand in line, how else might we justify it? Let’s turn to our brains to find the answer.

After our basic needs of food and shelter are met, we aim to be accepted by others. One way we’ve found to do this is to seek social proof: We stand in lines so others will see us standing in lines.

Because consumption is king in our culture, people who consume are “cool”. We believe that others’ opinions of us will be positive if they see us in line to buy the newest iPhone or a 55 inch flat screen.

Aha! Who knew a basic concept of psychology could explain one of our culture’s most popular rituals? MarketWatch calls it “queue chic”, and explains that waiting in line is a shared experience. This fits in with another basic human characteristic: We are social beings. It’s in our nature to associate with others and share our lives with them. In our quest to gain their acceptance, we want to be seen as making the right buying decisions.

So if you’re going shopping on Black Friday to prove how cool you are or to share the experience with others, fine. But if you’re going for the deals, don’t bother. As the Wall Street Journal says, you’re probably wasting your time.

As for my laptop, it turned out to be a dud. It froze up every time I played a video, so I returned it a week later and bought an iPad instead. Last year’s Black Friday excursion will be my one and only.

Are you going Black Friday shopping this year?

Photo by paulhorton.wordpress.com

Your Credit Affects More Than Just Your Finances

Isn’t this recession supposed to be over?

Millions of Americans continue to have their credit trashed as this unofficial recession drags on. According to FICO, a quarter of Americans now have a credit score below 600. Late payments, foreclosures and even mistakes on our credit reports have taken their toll.

Use this as an excuse to check your credit report and dispute any errors.

If you’re not buying a house or applying for a credit card anytime soon, you may think you’re in the clear. The truth is, your credit affects more than just your ability to get a loan or credit card.

Here are six areas of your life that are affected by bad credit:

1. Relationships First, and perhaps most surprising, having bad credit might affect your relationship with your spouse. To all you guys out there listening to your wives complain about how dingy your apartment is and how much she wants a house, you need to get your (financial) lives together. Do it for your marriage, your sanity, whatever. Your credit needs to be in good shape so you can get her that house someday.

Maybe those who need to worry most are the ones who aren’t married yet. I’ve heard stories about one person calling off the engagement after finding out the other’s debt level.

Whether you like it or not, debt attaches to you like a parasite. It is part of who you are. If you owe big bucks, you have a greater chance of falling behind on payments. And when that happens, your credit is trashed. That may make you look unattractive to your future mate. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

2. Career It’s now common knowledge that having bad credit affects your ability to get a job. The most recent report I saw said that 47% of employers use credit checks to screen potential employees.

Personally I think this is a terrible idea. Credit reports are not good indicators of character or ability to do the job. The only reason employers should be checking your credit is when the job specifically deals with money.

3. Renting an Apartment Every apartment complex I’ve ever applied to live at has checked my credit. For good reason – you’re signing up to pay them over $10,000 a year in many cases. Your landlord wants an idea of how you’ve handled bills in the past.

An extra perk: I once had a landlord waive the security deposit because I had good credit. So make sure to negotiate when signing the lease.

4. Getting Insurance Car insurance companies think that those with bad credit are more likely to cause an accident. Baloney. In some cases they may outright deny you coverage, but it’s more likely that good credit will earn you the best rates. I’m not sure why, that’s just the way they play.

Homeowner’s and renter’s insurance works the same way. These companies believe that you’re more likely to set your house on fire if you have bad credit. You need good credit to play their game and get the best rates.

5. Setting up Utilities If you think about it, utility companies (water, electric, gas, etc.) extend you credit every month. They provide you service then bill you after the fact. If you have bad credit you may be required to pay them a larger deposit to open your account.

6. Cell Phone Service In today’s world it’s difficult to function without a cell phone. Similar to utility companies, cell phone providers bill you for service you’ve already used. Before they let you sign up for an account, they pull your credit. They just want to know if they’ll get their money each month.

Photo by about.com/careers

Gas Price Gotcha

I was filling up the car this week at a station I’d never been to before, enticed by the low price posted on their sign. After swiping my credit card at the pump I noticed the price I would be paying was eight cents higher than the one I saw on the sign. I looked closer and saw two different prices listed on the pump – one for cash and one for credit. Turns out they had posted the lower, cash price on their sign.

Some stations put “cash price” on their signs, but others try to be sneaky about it. I think it’s fine if stations want to charge different prices based on how you pay. But what’s not OK is trying to hide it. We should be given the information up front to help us make a decision.

I was digging around on Gas Buddy to see if they broke down the prices into cash and credit, but I didn’t find anything. This makes finding the best price in advance very difficult.

Just something to keep in mind as you’re traveling this holiday season.