Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Avoid Tax Time Fraud

It's tax time, and that means financial documents are being taken out of locked filing cabinets, copied and dropped into mailboxes across America. In other words, this is prime "dumpster diving season" for identity thieves.

Here are some tips to protect individuals and business owners from fraud,provided by myID.com:


*E-file. When you file your taxes electronically, there will be no paper tax return sitting in your mailbox waiting to be stolen. There are a lot of other benefits to filing your taxes electronically as well. You will get your refund sooner. The IRS can check your returns for accuracy and skipped fields. Use a secure computer when filing electronically; update your anti-virus software

*If you choose not to file electronically, take your envelope straight to the post office rather than dropping it in your mailbox. Personal information privacy means knowing where your documents are at all times.

*If you vacation during tax season, have the post office hold your mail. An overflowing mailbox full of W-2s, 1099s, and end-of-year statements is a gold mine for identity thieves.

*Use your shredder. Consult a tax professional to know what documents to keep and what documents should be shredded. It's extremely important to avoid throwing away anything containing any personally identifying information. Put everything through a shredder before throwing it into the garbage.

*It's okay to store copies of tax returns on a hard drive - this is more secure than e-mail and can be a good way to back up your previous returns. Just be sure to properly dispose of the hard drive when you throw out the computer.

*Be aware of phishing scams. Identity thieves will call or e-mail during tax season and claim they are from the IRS. If you receive a supposed IRS e-mail, it is a fraud. The IRS does not e-mail any correspondence regarding your taxes. If you receive a call from the IRS, take down an extension number and employee name and call the IRS office at 800-829-1040. If the call is genuine, they will be happy to redirect your call back to the right department.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Make Mine a Million

I have been following the Make Mine a Million program for women business owners for several years now.

So I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that its next event comes up next week:

Count Me In is bringing its Make Mine a Million event to Denver on April 4. The mission is to encourage, inspire and help women businesses reach $1 million in revenue. The program has helped thousands so far. Women compete on stage to a panel of acclaimed judges - the winners get financing from American Express, mentoring & coaching, business and marketing tools and more.


Deadline for sign up is this Wednesday, so hurry up and get in on this now!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Know a Teacher?

I'm not one and now that my kids are out of high school I don't know many. But if you do, please encourage them to participate in the 2011 National Financial Capability Challenge:

Just how much do high school students know about managing money? Government and financial education leaders hope to find out by encouraging teachers to sign up for the 2011 National Financial Capability Challenge, which is open now through April 8, 2011. The Challenge is a free online exam that tests young adults’ knowledge about earning, spending, saving, borrowing, risk protection and more. Top scorers are eligible for scholarships and other awards.

Between now and April 8, 2011, any high school teacher or educator who instructs students ages 13-19 can register for the free program, download the toolkit for educators, and prepare their students to take the brief exam. And taking the Challenge can pay off. The Charles Schwab Foundation has announced that it will award select students who excel at the Challenge with $1,000 scholarships and matching grants for the schools. Additionally, the top two scorers at each participating school, plus all students who score in the top 20 percent, will receive award certificates from the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Boosting Profits

Small business owners need to stop chasing payroll and boost profits.

That's the opinion of Patricia Sigmon, a New Jersey computer consultant who spent so much time counseling her small business clients on profitability that she decided to write a book about it.

Cut fixed costs, bundle services and institute contracts, Sigmon says. She's got a lot of good advice in fact: Check it out.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Reality Check

We all like to think that we'll keep living - and working - forever. But the reality is that at some point most of us will need, or want, to retire.

I hope to keep writing - for fun or profit - as long as my faculties and my fingers are in working order. But someday it's likely that I'll give up my formal contracts in favor of full or at least partial retirement.

Because I've been self-employed for more than two decades now, I've had to set up and fund my own retirement nest egg. More and more Americans are in the same boat, with little or no employer-sponsored pension money to count on.

But a new survey finds that a record number of them have lost confidence in their ability to retire comfortably. The 2011 Retirement Confidence Survey done by the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute finds that 27% of workers - the most ever in the two decades of the survey — now say they are “not at all confident” about having enough money to live comfortably in retirement.

The percentage of workers saying they are “very confident” is at 13%, the lowest rate ever measured by the survey.

Part of this sad state of affairs is, of course, our recent recession and its dampening effect on stock portfolios; high unemployment rates; government fiscal crises; rising health costs and on and on. But the EBRI has also warned for years that Americans are not saving enough:

Well over a third say they determined their retirement savings need by guessing. Seventy percent say they are a little or a lot behind schedule in planning and saving for retirement.

More than half of workers say they have less than $25,000 in total savings and investments, excluding their homes.

A significant number of workers (20 percent) say they now intend to retire later (at an older age) than they had planned. But almost half of current retirees (45 percent) say they retired earlier than they planned, mainly because of a health problem or disability.


We all got discouraged about retirement when our nest eggs evaporated in the recession. But the good news is that stocks are back, at least for the time being. If you're not up-to-date on your savings or haven't revisited your retirement plans lately, this is a good time to do so.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Brother, Where Art Thou?

Remember Brother?

No, I'm not talking about Big Brother. I'm talking about the typewriter and fax machine company that started in the '50s and sold a lot of the business machines I learned on as a kid and worked on as a young adult.

Well, it turns out that they are one of the smart, legacy brands. They kept up with the times and they are still alive and kicking. Not only that, but they are still supporting businesses, large and small.

In fact, they are awarding one lucky small business owner a $10,000 business grant (and a chance to win other prizes) in a new contest.

Small business owners can enter the contest, which reminds me of the old essay and jingle contests back in the day, now through March 29.

Give it a try!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Luck O'The Neighborhood

Celebrate St. Patrick's Day in your neighborhood restaurant or pub and you'll be a part of reinvesting $2.33 billion in your local community, according to Independent We Stand.

Turns out that 2010 St. Patrick's Day spending was approximately $3.44 billion.

If you plan on celebrating at a national chain restaurant, your local reinvestment drops to only $1.4 billion. So have a green beer and a slice of corned beef and cabbage at a small business, and then get home safely.

Your community will be glad you did.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Wise Giving

Art Taylor, president and CEO of the BBB Wise Giving Alliance:

“Whenever there is a major natural disaster, be it home or abroad, there are two things you can count on. The first is the generosity of Americans to donate time and money to help victims, and the second is the appearance of poorly run and in some cases fraudulent charities.”


We all want to help when a tragedy strikes, and the Japanese trifecta of natural and nuclear disasters is particularly heartbreaking. The Red Cross is taking donations online, via text message and was at The Rose Bowl earlier this week.

If you're searching out other giving possibilities, be cautious. I met a couple guys at a party once who were talking about taking supplies and tents into an earthquake zone. I was so moved by their seeming sincerity that I almost wrote out a check right there. Then I decided I'd better do a little research.

But once I did, I couldn't find any record of them or their organization. It's possible they were completely serious, but I had to wonder how effective naive, inexperienced amateurs would be in a disaster zone.

Here are some tips from the BBB:

Be cautious when relying on third-party recommendations such as bloggers or other Web sites, as they might not have fully researched the listed relief organizations. The public can go to Give.org to research charities and relief organizations to verify that they are accredited by the BBB and meet the 20 Standards for Charity Accountability.

Be cautious about online giving, especially in response to spam messages and emails that claim to link to a relief organization. In response to the tsunami disaster in 2004, there were concerns raised about many websites and new organizations that were created overnight allegedly to help victims.

Find out if the charity has an on-the-ground presence in the disaster impact areas. Unless the charity already has staff in the affected areas, it may be difficult to get new aid workers to quickly provide assistance. See if the charity’s website clearly describes what they can do to address immediate needs.

Find out if the charity is providing direct aid or raising money for other groups. Some charities may be raising money to pass along to relief organizations. If so, you may want to consider “avoiding the middleman” and giving directly to charities that have a presence in the region. Or, at a minimum, check out the ultimate recipients of these donations to ensure the organizations are equipped to effectively provide aid.

Be wary of claims that 100 percent of donations will assist relief victims. Despite what an organization might claim, charities have fund raising and administrative costs. Even a credit card donation will involve, at a minimum, a processing fee. If a charity claims that 100 percent of collected funds will be assisting earthquake victims, the truth is that the organization is still probably incurring fund raising and administrative expenses. They may use some of their other funds to pay this, but the expenses will still be incurred.

In-kind drives for food and clothing, while well intentioned,may not necessarily be the quickest way to help those in need - unless the organization has the staff and infrastructure to be able to properly distribute such aid. Ask the charity about their transportation and distribution plans. Be wary of those who are not experienced in disaster relief assistance.

Look for details when texting a donation. Beginning with the earthquake in Haiti, it’s become common to send a text to make a donation. Make sure you understand the amount to be donated, and whether there will be any service fees charged to your account. Be sure the offer clearly identifies which charity will receive the donation, then check out the charity.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Earning Some Dough

Employment rates are going up and things are looking better. But lay-offs are still happening, including several hundred who lost their jobs at AOL recently.

So what do you do if you lose a job and have to spend time looking for a new one? Here are some tips from consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch:

Sell Your Stuff
A good alternative to the yard sale is to sell your stuff on Craigslist or eBay, depending on the quality and whether you want to deal with shipping. Both sites allow you to sell nearly everything, from furniture and bikes to artwork and crafts. CraigsList is free and organized by region. Consult the CraigsList FAQ before you begin. eBay will take a cut of your profits and requires more technical savvy, but it's a good outlet for collector's items, higher-end electronics, etc. Read the eBay Sellers Guide before you get started.

Rent Out a Room
Sharing living expenses can put more cash in your pocket. Make sure you draw up a lease agreement specifying rent, security deposit terms, length of stay, etc. This becomes even more important if you're renting to someone you know.

Monetize Your Web Site or Blog
You're already spending a ton of time on your blog or Web site. Why not earn some money from all your labor? Google AdSense and nine other sites listed on MoolaDays require little to no supervision: Once it's there, you don't need to do much more.

Sell Your Hair
Sales for generous lengths of tresses reportedly can net you several hundred to over a thousand dollars. WiseBread explains how to sell your hair and includes sites where you can list and market hair.

Resell Your Unused Gift Cards
The average American household is holding on to $300 in unused gift cards. In fact, an estimated $30 billion to $40 billion gift cards lie unspent in dresser drawers across the country. You can sell the gift cards you're no longer using to resale companies for a percentage of the face value and they will sell them at a discount price to others who will actually use those precious pieces of plastic. GiftCardGranny.com can link you up with the highest-paying gift card resellers in the industry.

Give Blood
Some plasma banks pay up to $35 per pint. In the United States, federal regulations state that an individual may donate two times in a seven day period, with a minimum of two days in between donations. DonatingPlasma.org provides details and a searchable plasma-bank database to help you find a plasma bank in your area.

Become a Human Guinea Pig
If you live near a university with a med school, you can earn anywhere from $15 to $2,000 for taking part in a clinical research study. The National Institutes of Health lists thousands of clinical studies that need volunteers.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

It Was the Worst of Times

I've been researching the concept of "crowdsourcing" for a special project recently, and so this "worst of" list recently caught my attention.

In fact, I notice that these "best of" and "top ten" or "least likely" lists always grab my eye. I don't know what it is, but they're hard to pass up.

I never structure my own columns that way, or after the "five things you need to know about" trope, because it seems too boring.

But I probably should try it. I certainly can't help but read these headlines myself.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Retailers Beware

Groupon and its competitors are not for everyone.

Your $5, Please

There are so many free resources cropping up for entrepreneurs I can hardly keep track of them all.

Here's one that lists a whole bunch of services you can get for $5.

Really? I haven't purchased anything for $5 in - I can't remember how long. I thought the $5 purchase had gone the way of the .05-cent ice cream cone, which was the going price at my local Sav-On Drugstore (Sav-On!) when I was a tiny child. (It was quite a shock when the single cone went up to a dime. What was the world coming to!?)

Anyway, it's obvious that most folks offering something for $5 are hoping to up-sell you into a contract that's just a tad more lucrative. So take these for what they're worth (which would be $5, actually).

But maybe it's not such a bad idea. Experts are always advising small business startups to heavily discount - or even give away - their services to strategic early clients. FiveRR may just be the logical extension of that principle.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Kidworth

Having learned responsible financial management the hard way, I'm a big proponent of financial literacy for kids.

So is Rudy DeFelice, founder and CEO of a free website I learned about recently. Kidworth allows families to set financial goals with their kids and work toward their achievement together.

Rudy was a corporate lawyer for many years at premier international law firms. He served as CEO of a VC-backed software and internet information company for nine years, a position he left to found Kidworth. He is a graduate of Harvard Business School and The University of Connecticut School of Law and lives in Pacific Palisades, California, with his wife Wendy (an attorney and founder of a foundation that is building schools for destitute children) and their three kids.


My grown sons have, thankfully, inherited the thrifty gene that seems to infect both their parents. And they appear to be natural savers, not spenders. But if you have younger children and need to instill some fiscal discipline, give it a try.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Getting Up to Date

In the midst of getting a total computer overhaul, downloading new versions of my software, installing them and "integrating" my saved data this week. Whew!

The good news is that I basically have a new computer (double memory, fresh hard drive, Windows 7 and new versions of all my software) for about half the price of buying and configuring new hardware.

The bad news is that blog entries are falling behind.

Here are a couple of recent columns I have written for Smart Answers at Bloomberg Businessweek. I think they are both really interesting - but of course I'm biased!

Coming up next week: The straight dirt on Groupon, LivingSocial and the myriad (and I'm talking myriad) similar online couponing sites that target small retail operations.