Friday, April 29, 2011

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I post (most of) these blog entries and my Bloomberg columns over on my Facebook page.

If you'd like to follow what I'm doing and writing about "like me"over there.

Happy Friday!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Dealing With Debt Collectors-Part 2

If you are contacted by a collection agency regarding erroneous bills or debts, it could be an indication of identity theft; an imposter may be using your identity to make purchases, open accounts and obtain credit.

Review your credit report to quickly identify fraudulent activity or make corrections.

What if you are being contacted by debt collectors about debt that you do owe? Here's some advice from the Better Business Bureau:

Know your responsibilities. It is not against the law for a debt collector or creditor to contact you regarding unpaid debts. Try working with them to resolve issues. Discuss a payment plan and request obligations in writing.

Complain about abusive practices. Report harassment, threats and other violations of federal telemarketing laws to the FTC. File a BBB complaint if you believe a debt collector is acting unethically. Also, research state laws on debt collectors, which may vary.

Stop collector calls. According to federal law, a debt collector cannot continue to contact you — at work or home — if you tell them to stop. Write a letter telling them not to contact you anymore. Save a copy of the letter then send the original via certified mail and request a return receipt. If a debt is owed, the collector or creditor can still take legal action to collect funds and may contact you to inform you of their action.

Know your rights. Review the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), which sets standards for collection agencies and prohibits abusive tactics. The FDCPA is enforced by the FTC and violations should be reported.

Debt collectors:
May not make false or deceptive claims.
Are not allowed to make idle threats, express or implied, or use abusive or profane language.
Should not discuss consumers' accounts with unauthorized third parties.
May not inaccurately report credit information and pressure consumers to pay debts they do not owe.
Must investigate the validity of a dispute over a debt.

Report Scams. Debt collection victims can file complaints with the Better Business Bureau, Federal Trade Commission, Internet Crime Complaint Center, State Attorney General's Office and other local consumer affairs agencies.

The American Collectors Association (ACA International) processes complaints on its member debt collectors; find out if the debt collection agency is a member.


If you need help managing your credit, check out the BBB's tips for getting out of debt.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Invent Your Future

I'm off to the 2011 Invent Your Future Conference!

Looking forward to learning from world-renowned authors and business experts and meeting some empowered - and empowering - women in Santa Clara this week.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Beware Phony Debt Collectors

It's bad enough that you've fallen behind on bills and you're getting "dunning" calls from debt collectors - an experience all-too-common during my childhood.

But it could get worse. Of all the complaints reported to the Better Business Bureau, collection agencies place in the top five. And phony debt collectors - criminals trying to steal your identity - are proliferating.

"Oftentimes, scammers will impersonate legitimate debt collectors to illegitimately obtain financial information. These fraudulent calls can be harassing and threatening," the BBB says.

Here are some red flags that should help you identify fraudulent debt collectors:

Get documentation to help determine if the callers are actually identity thieves or if a debt is actually owed.

By law, a debt collection agency must provide a validation notice within five days of contacting you about the debt. Within 30 days of receiving their validation notice, send the debt collector a written request to further verify the debt details.

Do not provide personal or financial information unless the validity of the debt and the debt collector has been confirmed.

Get the debt collector's name and contact information to research the agency further. Search on the Internet to see if they have a website or a BBB Business Review

Cross-check contact information and call them using a phone number from a public or online directory. Verify that the representative who called is affiliated with the agency.

Be wary if the debt cannot be verified or if no documentation is received. Advise them to stop contacting you and register with the National Do Not Call Registry.

Don't ignore debt collectors, even if you do not owe the funds. It is best to respond immediately, even if you don't believe the debt is yours. Otherwise, the collector may continue contacting you or file a judgment.

Don't pay. Do not claim a debt that isn't yours or make a payment on a bill just to make the collector "go away." Even just one payment can indicate that you are accepting the full responsibility of the debt. The invalid debt could also reflect as a liability on your credit report.

If no debt is confirmed, contact any involved parties to clear up inaccuracies on your credit report, such as: the debt collector; the creditor or company claiming unresolved accounts; and the major credit bureaus. Write a detailed letter and include supporting documents to prove your case. The Federal Trade Commission provides additional resources for reporting errors.


Later this week, we'll talk about best practices for responding to legitimate debt collectors.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Business Credit Cards

In response to a reader's question, I listed some tips on business credit cards in my L.A. Times column earlier this month.

Here is some additional advice on the topic:

Do your research. Many banks and credit card companies are making various offers, with some attractive perks that may fit nicely with your business needs. But offers run the gamut, so be choosy. You’ll want to find out about offers from both your local banks and national credit card companies.

Don’t get burned by special offers. As noted, there are many offers and plans available for small business owners, but pay specific attention to business credit card plans with introductory offers for 0% APR. While this may be a good option for an immediate, high-end purchase to support your business, you need to find out what the conditions for the APR are – under what conditions will it rise, and what are your options if it does rise. Beware of getting stuck with a high APR after the introductory period.

Consider the rewards. Many cards will offer perks for both you and your employees including discounts with preferred vendors and airlines, as well as rewards points.

Lay the ground rules. Make sure your employees know exactly what can and cannot be charged on the credit card. Some cards will let you adjust the credit limit on individual employee cards, as well as limit where the cards can be used.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Happy Earth Day

Are you celebrating Earth Day this year? Hint: It's coming up on Friday!

Here are some ways that small businesses can mark the day, courtesy of Emerald Brand, a tree-free, eco-friendly company.

Offer an incentive for employees who make an eco-friendly commute. Provide a “complimentary vacation day” or “drink on the boss” for employees who ride their bike or take public transport to work on Earth Day.

Talk about Earth “Year." Use the day as an opportunity to talk with your coworkers and supervisors about what the office can do to become more eco-friendly over the next year. From conserving energy, to replacing traditional break room products with eco-friendly substitutes, there are plenty of ways for companies to go green without breaking the budget.

Host an Earth Day pot-luck lunch! Ask your coworkers to bring in delicious, organic foods to celebrate with.

Take some “outdoor” time on Earth Day. It’s easy to become bogged down with work. Take a few minutes on Earth Day to go for a walk, take a few deep breaths, and appreciate your surroundings.

Turn off the lights! And the screens, printers, etc. This will conserve energy when the units are not in use.

Don’t print. Try your best to solely use electronic documents during Earth Day. But if you must…

Use both sides of paper for printed documents. Why use double the paper, when you can cut your waste in half immediately? This is a great policy, particularly for internal documents and drafts.

Challenge other businesses in your building to a contest. Who can save the most over a set period of time? Offer a fun prize (i.e. losing office buys a round for the winners) to celebrate.

Hold an office fundraiser. Pick your favorite environmental cause and work together to make a donation.

Offset your carbon footprint. You get presents on Christmas, right? Give something back to the environment on Earth Day.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Invent Your Future

I'm very excited to be attending the 2011 Invent Your Future Conference for Women next week. The conference, April 26 - 27 at the Santa Clara Convention Center, brings together world-renowned authors and business experts to help women and men reach their full career potential.

There will be 20 educational sessions, outstanding networking opportunities and power-packed keynotes on growth, innovation and change. Here are some highlights:

Keynotes: Guy Kawasaki, author of “Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions;” Jane Stevenson, vice chair, Korn/Ferry International and co-author, “Breaking Away: How Great Leaders Create Innovation That Drives Sustainable Growth - And Why Others Fail;” and Nancy Duarte, author of “Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences.”

Evening in Conversation with Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, author of “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana,” the story of resilient women entrepreneurs operating under the noses of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Julie Hanna, board chair at Kiva and Almaz Negash, founder of Entwine Global will join Lemmon and host Sydnie Kohara, news anchor, CBS News, in a discussion about how technology, social media and micro‐financing are helping to educate girls and support women’s entrepreneurship worldwide.

Entrepreneurial Growth Strategies for Growing Businesses – a clinic with Marylene Delbourg-Delphis, the serial entrepreneur who has assisted emerging companies as a shadow CEO, board member, investor, advisor, M&A facilitator or management consultant, plus entrepreneur and Wildfire Interactive, Inc. founder Victoria Ransom.

“Year after year, Invent Your Future conference alumni demonstrate the great strides we’re making in empowering women to accelerate their careers and businesses,” said Ruth Stergiou, CEO, Invent Your Future Enterprises. “Our top-rated events are an outstanding value for anyone aspiring to reach new heights. We thank the generous corporate partners who share our vision for combining educational programs with practical how-to advice that is elevating women leaders in the world’s most innovative companies.”

Want to join me in the Bay Area next week? Flexible package options are available, including a one-day pass and keynote session tickets. For registration, exhibit package and pricing options call 408-554-4249.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Talking Taxes, Part Two

Getting a refund? Here are some smart ways to use the money, provided by the NEFE:

Pay down debt: Don't start with the biggest balance, which many people instinctively do. Instead, start with the card that has the highest interest rate. If there is money left over after you've paid that one off, move to the next card.

Start an emergency fund: Put a chunk of that refund into a bank account so you will have a reserve to pay for an unexpected setback. Strive to sock away three to six months’ worth of expenses. If you can't do that, try to put at least $500 in a savings account where you won't touch it except for emergency.

Save for the future: Invest your refund in an Individual Retirement Account (IRA). Money set aside in an IRA will grow tax-free, and the contribution may be deductible. If you invest in a Roth IRA, the account will be completely tax-free after age 59-1/2.

Pay for needed repairs: If money has been tight and you have put off needed home repairs or work on your car, use your refund to foot the bill.

Prepay bills: Use your refund to prepay your mortgage, car loan, student loans, your annual insurance bill or your quarterly tax payments. Just make sure there are no prepayment penalties.

Splurge a little: If your borrowing and saving strategies are in good shape, go ahead and use your tax refund for a big purchase you have been putting off, such as a vacation or new technology.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Talking Taxes

Last week, we talked about the NEFE survey on taxes and tax refunds.

If you're due for a refund, there are several ways you can elect to receive your money. We simply got a check in the mail and stuck it in a savings account.

But there are smarter, and more strategic, ways to get your refund:

Direct deposit: You can file a request to have your refund allocated among three different accounts, such as checking, savings and a retirement account. If you file electronically, the money should reach your accounts within seven to 10 days; if you file a paper return, it takes four to five weeks.

Paper check: It can take up to six weeks to receive your refund in the mail. Half of those who prefer getting a mailed check do so because they don't want to give out their bank account information online. Waiting a while for a check to arrive also gives them time to think and plan what to do with the extra money.

Debit cards: Your tax refund money can be loaded onto a debit card within two weeks of filing your tax return. A debit card gives you fewer options, however. You generally cannot transfer the money to a savings account, so you have to spend it.
You may be charged a fee for every transaction, checking the balance, or simply a monthly fee for maintaining the card.

Refund anticipation loans: If you choose a refund anticipation loan, you will get your money right away, but it could come at a very high cost. You will be subject to a significantly high interest rate. You also may be charged a filing fee and a same-day processing fee, which can add up to hundreds of dollars. You could end up in debt and unable to pay back the loan if you do not get the refund amount you were planning on.


However you choose to receive your money, here's how to check the status of your refund:

*Call the IRS Refund Status Hotline - 800-829-1954.

*Check Where’s My Refund? on the IRS website.

We'll be going through some advice for what to do with your refund later this week. For more tax tips on filing your taxes and receiving and spending your refund right now, visit Smart Money.

Monday, April 4, 2011

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Friday, April 1, 2011

Tax (Refund) Time

I seem to be one of the few Americans who actually has to write a check sometime around April 15 each year. While I do pay quarterly taxes, it seems as if, most years, I do wind up with additional tax liability every spring.

This is, overall, a good thing. Typically, it means that I've earned more self-employment income than anticipated the previous year.

So, I'm not complaining (I'm really not ...).

However, it turns out that this year, I got a tax refund! (A happy event, although it does mean that my freelance income was down in 2010.)

Right now, our refund is parked in a savings account while we ponder what to do with it. But what do other Americans do - and how many actually get refunds?

Turns out that a whopping 77 percent of taxpayers received refunds last year, and many of them deliberately structure their withholding to do so. The average refund was about $3,000.

We have friends who do this. They basically have the government hold their money throughout the year, while they charge major purchases on their credit cards. When their large refund comes through, they use it to pay off all those bills they've accumulated the previous year.

I always thought this was silly, because not only are they foregoing interest they could be making by investing that withholding, they're also racking up credit card charges and interest they don't need to if they just employed a "pay as you go" strategy.

But it turns out that my friends are not alone, and their strategy may work for lots of people:

According to an early February online poll commissioned by the National Endowment for Financial Education*, 49 percent of those who withhold more from their paychecks to receive a larger refund and expect a refund this year say they plan to pay down debt and 44 percent plan to put the money toward savings.

Some filers receive tax refunds unintentionally based on their withholding decisions. For others, a large tax refund is part of their financial plan. The NEFE survey finds that 30 percent of filers intentionally withhold more from their paychecks so they can receive a larger refund when they file their taxes.

According to the NEFE survey, among the respondents who withhold more from their paychecks to receive a larger refund, 9 percent stated they are likely to spend the money without knowing for certain where it goes, while 26 percent of those who choose to have more money in their paychecks instead of a larger refund are likely to spend the money mysteriously.


So, if you're getting a refund, how should you request it? And what should you do with it? We'll talk about that next time.

*The National Endowment for Financial Education is an independent, nonprofit organization committed to educating Americans about personal finance and empowering them to make positive and sound decisions to reach financial goals.