Dream Vacation or a Nightmare?

As you dream of summer fun, we are reminding consumers of vacation scams that can turn a dream vacation into a nightmare.

The BBB has tips for avoiding vacation scams:

Don’t believe everything that you see. The site may have the logo or design of a legitimate hotel or booking site, but that can be easily copied from the real website.  Check out the company on bbb.org to see what others are saying.

Get everything in writing.  Before providing any form of payment, get everything in writing. Make sure all verbal agreements are also provided in writing. Review all terms and conditions, taxes and fees, and cancellation policies.

Don’t pay upfront.  Never pay upfront, or with a wire transfer or prepaid debit card for any vacation package or rental. Use a credit card or PayPal in case the charges need to be disputed.

Verify reservations. Follow-up directly with the airline, rental car company, hotel and/or cruise line to confirm arrangements have actually been made to your specifications. It may even be a good idea to search the web for the address of the vacation rental property or, if renting a home or condominium for a week, the place where you will be picking up the keys.  Unfortunately, in some situations, victims of travel scams have discovered that reservations were never made and were provided fake confirmation numbers.

Look out for fake contact info. Some consumers report calling the 1-800 number posted on a scam hotel booking site to confirm its legitimacy. Scammers simply impersonated the front desk of the hotel.

Double check the URLs. Scammers pick URLs that look very similar to those of legitimate sites. Always be sure to double check the URL before making a purchase. Be wary of sites that have the brand name as a subdomain of another URL (i.e. brandname.scamwebsite.com), part of a longer URL (i.e. companynamebooking.com) or use an unconventional top level domain (brandwebsite.net or brandwebsite.co)

Look for a secure connection. Make sure your personal information is being transmitted securely by ensuring the web address starts with “HTTPS” and has a lock icon.

Watch for too-good-to-be-true deals. Be sure to comparison shop and be suspicious of a site that has prices significantly lower than those listed elsewhere.

 

Tips for Trusting Your Tax Preparer

Most people get help filing their taxes, either from computer software or a professional tax preparer. Scams have some consumers concerned about who they can trust with their financial data and private information.

A paid tax return preparer is primarily responsible for the overall, substantive accuracy of your tax return(s). If there is a problem with your return or you are audited by the IRS, the tax preparer can help you address the issue and can often represent you. The preparer is required to sign your tax forms (paper or electronic) and provide their preparer tax identification number (PTIN), a number assigned by the IRS.

Better Business Bureau advises taxpayers to be extra cautious when choosing a tax preparer, since that person or company will have access to your personally identifiable information (PII). Here are some BBB tips to help you find a tax preparer you can trust.

Get Referrals. To find a tax preparer, start by asking friends and family for recommendations, then check BBB Business Reviews at bbb.org. Look beyond the letter grade; complaint details and Customer Reviews will tell you about others’ experiences.

Make sure they are properly registered. A tax preparer must obtain a PTIN from the IRS. Never let someone work on your taxes unless they have this number. Don’t be afraid to ask about this or other qualifications; a capable professional does not mind questions.

Look for credentials. Anyone with a PTIN can prepare your tax forms for you, but some tax preparers have more training and qualifications than others. Enrolled agents, certified public accountants (CPAs) and attorneys have unlimited rights to represent their clients to the IRS on all matters. Other preparers can help you with forms and simple IRS matters, but are limited otherwise, and they can’t help you if they didn’t prepare your form. Learn more about tax preparer credentials on the IRS website.

Keep a watchful eye for promises. Be wary of any tax preparation service that promises larger refunds than the competition, and avoid tax preparers who base their fee on a percentage of the refund. Also be wary of “refund anticipation loans,” which can take a hefty chunk of your refund in commission. Refunds are processed quickly these days, so it’s a better bet to just wait for the real thing rather than pay a premium to get it now.

Search for free tax programs. There are several free government programs that prepare taxes free of charge if you meet an income requirement; go to the IRS’s Free File page for more information. Check with your state government to find out about their program (search “file tax free” and your state’s name in a search engine, and look for .gov websites).

Tax Software and Apps. If you plan to file yourself, use tax software or an app that provides both excellent data security and good customer service. Some of the top names in tax prep software are BBB Accredited Businesses, so check with bbb.org first.

Newman at cash register

New Year, Better Wallet: 7 Budgeting Tips for Everyone

Many people start the new year with leftover debt from the previous year, and additional interest month after month just makes the problem worse as the year goes on. If one of your resolutions is to create a budget or get out of debt, BBB has some tips and tools to help you get on the right track to a better financial future.

  • Track your spending. Whether you prefer an app on your phone, computer software, or simply a notebook to jot down your expenses, keeping track is critical. It helps you see where you are actually spending your money, rather than where you think you are.
  • Categorize your spending. Create categories based on necessities (housing, utilities, food, transportation) and luxuries (entertainment, dining out, travel). If you have credit card balances, student loans, car payments or other debt, make “debt reduction” one of your necessary categories.
  • Set up a budget. Once you have an idea where you are spending money, you can set up a realistic budget. There are free online tools to help you, so there is no need to spend a lot of money. Be cautious of scams, however, and never share personal identifying information (PII) unless you are sure of the site’s legitimacy.
  • Pay down debt. One method is to pay off the credit account or loan with the highest interest rate first (the “ladder method”). Another is to pay off the smallest balance first so you feel a greater sense of accomplishment (the “snowball method”). Use whichever methods works best for you. The important thing is that you are doing it.
  • Pay bills on time. Consider online bill-paying that eliminates writing checks, buying stamps, etc. Automatic payments can be scheduled ahead of time and can help you avoid late fees and penalties for missed payments.
  • Save for the big things. Big purchases, such as vacation or holidays, can easily blow your budget. Avoid going into debt for these expenditures by saving up ahead of time and only spending what you are able to save. Many banks and credit unions offer savings clubs that might help.
  • Save for emergencies. Emergencies – car or home repair, unexpected medical expenses, job loss – can blow your budget. Financial experts suggest an emergency fund of 3-6 months’ living expenses. If that is too ambitious, start smaller and build up.

Cat Money