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Avoid summertime tax scams

 

Ah, summertime! Warm days, rest and recreation and…tax scams. Thieves don’t stop victimizing unsuspecting taxpayers with their scams after April 15. Identity theft, phone and phishing scams happen year-round. Those three top the IRS’s ‘Dirty Dozen’ list of tax scams this year. Here’s some important information you should know about these common tax scams:

1. Identity Theft.  Identity thieves steal personal and financial information to commit fraud or other crimes. This can include your Social Security number or bank information. An identity thief may file a phony tax return to claim a fraudulent refund.

The IRS has a special identity protection page on IRS.gov. It has many resources you can use to reduce your risk of becoming a victim. The page can also tell you what steps to take if you are a victim of identity theft and need help. This includes how and when you should contact the IRS Identity Protection Specialized Unit.

2. Phone Scams.  In these scams, thieves pose as the IRS and call would-be victims with one goal in mind: to steal their money. Callers will tell you that you owe taxes and demand immediate payment. They will tell you that you must pay the bogus tax bill with a pre-loaded debit card or wire transfer. The callers are often abusive and threaten arrest or deportation. They may know the last four digits of your Social Security number. They also rig caller ID to falsely show that the call is from the IRS.

Keep in mind that if a person owes taxes, the IRS will first contact them by mail, not by phone. The IRS doesn’t ask for payment with a pre-paid debit card or wire transfer. If you owe, or think you might owe federal taxes and you get one of these calls, hang up. Call the IRS at 800-829-1040. The IRS will work with you to pay what you owe. If you don’t owe taxes, call and report the incident to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration at 800-366-4484.

3. Phishing Scams.  Criminals use the IRS as bait in a phishing scam. Scammers typically send emails that purport to come from the IRS. They often lure their targets with a false promise of a refund or the threat of an audit. They may also set up a phony website that looks like the real IRS.gov. These phony sites often have the IRS seal and other graphics to make them appear official. Their goal is to get their victim to reveal personal and financial information. They use the information they get to steal identities and commit fraud.

The IRS doesn’t contact people by email about their tax account. Nor does the agency use email, social media, texting or fax to initiate contact or ask for personal or financial information. If you get an email like this, do not click on a link or open any attachments. You should instead forward it to the IRS at phishing@irs.gov. For more on this topic visit IRS.gov and select the ‘Reporting Phishing’ link at the bottom of the page.

Don’t let tax scams take the fun out of your summer. Be alert to phone and phishing email scams that use the IRS as a lure. Visit the genuine IRS website, IRS.gov, for more on what you can do to avoid becoming a victim and how to report tax fraud.

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Graduates, young adults can still get ACA coverage

By Mona Shand, Michigan News Connection

 

Graduation is just one of several qualifying events which could open the door to the special enrollment period for health insurance plans offered through the Affordable Care Act.

Graduation is just one of several qualifying events which could open the door to the special enrollment period for health insurance plans offered through the Affordable Care Act.

Graduation, marriage and the birth of a child are all major milestones, but many may not realize those significant life events can also open the door to the federal health insurance marketplace, even though the open-enrollment period closed on March 31st. Michigan State University graduate student Nik Koehler decided the best 26th birthday present he could give himself was to purchase health insurance on the federal marketplace.

“When you turn 26 you get kicked off of your parents’ plans, and you never know what’s going to happen,” says Koehler. “Why risk putting yourself into a ton of debt?”

Along with turning 26, the Affordable Care Act allows consumers who experience certain qualifying life events to still enroll in new health coverage. Those events include graduating and losing access to student health plans, moving outside their coverage area after graduation, marriage, birth, adoption or certain changes to income.

Koehler says he hopes many of his friends and classmates will realize they are not invincible, and see the value investing in their health insurance now, rather than paying a penalty or taking the chance of waiting until the next open-enrollment period in November.

“It’s something that I’ve started thinking about recently,” says Koehler. “I would just say to stay insured. You’re risking more. You’re risking losing more money.”

A full list of qualifying life events and more information on the special enrollment period is available at the healthcare.gov website.

 

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Pinnacle Popcorn

Store manager, Cody Crane

Store manager, Cody Crane

If you are looking a unique and delicious gift, or just a tantalizing treat that’s Michigan made, you might want to check out Pinnacle Popcorn, at 4320 14 Mile Road, in the Cedar Rock business district.

The business was established in January of 2013, but current owner Eric Vorpi, a Rockford resident who also owns the Cheshire Grill in Grand Rapids, took ownership this past January. The previous owner was a friend of Eric’s wife, who he said made amazing caramel corn. But she couldn’t make a go of the business. “When she decided to close it, I knew I had to have it. Her recipes are amazing,” he remarked.

They sell a variety of flavored popcorn including regular buttered, caramel, caramel with cashew, espresso caramel, new buffalo caramel (it’s hot!), turtle, cinnamon caramel, cheddar cheese, chili cheese, candy coated, and more.

They can make any color of mix for weddings, parties, corporate gifts, and any size to accommodate. They can also ship it out.

Vorpi said he likes the fact that the popcorn they sell is a total Michigan product. “I get the popcorn kernels straight from a farm in southern Michigan, and we make the finished product at the store,” he explained. “We use real butter, real brown sugar and you can taste it. The quality shows in every bite. Our flavors ‘pop’. I know we make a quality product.”

Customers will also get great customer service when they come in. The store manager, Cody Crane, worked for the original owner, and runs the store for Eric. “She has it down to a science. She pops, bakes, bags, labels, decorates, makes gift baskets, and fills orders—she does everything,” noted Vorpi.

So what are you waiting for? Check out Pinnacle Popcorn today! Summer hours are Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and closed Saturday and Sunday. Visit their website at www.pinnaclepopcorn.com and check out their facebook page for specials. For more info call (616) 866-1300.

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Four Tips for Growing Your Small Business

BUS-Coffee-Shop-Owner-web(StatePoint) Despite the time commitment and financial investment that come with the territory, more than 25 million people nationwide have opted to start a microbusiness – a company with five or fewer employees.

One in every 10 Americans works in a microbusiness, according to the Sam’s Club/Gallup Microbusiness Tracker, a quarterly survey of more than 850 microbusiness owners that provides insights into their economic and emotional concerns. The Sam’s Club survey indicates that women are opening 46 percent of today’s Main Street businesses – from restaurants to daycare centers – far greater than the number of women owned businesses that are over 20 years old.

“I’ve never worked harder in my life or felt more rewarded,” says Molly Beasley of Fairhope, Alabama, owner of Give a Dog a Bone, a Do-It-Yourself dog washing company. “This business is my passion. There’s a lot of satisfaction in knowing you are providing a valuable, affordable service in your community.”

After more than two years working 20 to 40 hours a week at a DIY dog wash in California, Beasley relocated to Alabama and found herself dreaming about opening her own dog wash. Eventually, she decided the timing was right to take the entrepreneurial leap and she hasn’t looked back. Since launching Give a Dog a Bone in 2012, Beasley caters to customers Monday through Sunday and spends her downtime thinking about ways to grow the bottom line.

Indeed, growth in microbusinesses has been driven largely by high personal sacrifice yet overall job satisfaction, according to the survey:

• Over 60 percent of microbusiness owners have financed their businesses from personal savings and nearly as many (55 percent) say having access to cash reserves is a major issue.

• One in three microbusiness owners (31 percent) depend more on second jobs for their personal income than on the business they launched.

• Yet 69 percent of microbusiness owners feel they have the ideal job.

Amidst these findings, one question bubbles to the surface – how can entrepreneurs maintain their passion while dealing with long hours and increasing budget demands? Beasley provides some tips:

• Embrace Perspective: No matter how much you love your company, there will be days when balancing the books creates anxiety. Remind yourself what fueled you to launch your business.

• Find Balance: Sometimes it might seem impossible to relax, but devoting even 60 minutes weekly to non-business related activities will help you recharge.

• Become Resourceful: Find ways to save money, time and energy. Try multitasking, such as purchasing business supplies while waiting for a prescription to be filled, or patronizing retailers with special early shopping hours for business owners. Consider streamlining home expenses by eliminating cable or cooking at home.

• Make Changes: Stay motivated by experimenting with new methods and tools. Attending trainings or online webinars about your industry can help re-ignite your creativity and even lead to business growth.

For more insights from the Sam’s Club/Microbusiness Tracker, visit www.samsclub.com/newsroom.

In a recovering economy, it’s no surprise microbusinesses are growing. For many, the job satisfaction is worth the time and financial investments.

 

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Top five tips for spotting fraud

 

(NAPSI)—Investors can sometimes overlook signs that indicate an offer really is too good to be true. This can leave them vulnerable to fraud and financial predators.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) is the federal government agency that regulates the commodity and security futures, commodity options, swaps, and retail foreign currency exchange markets. It also works to protect the public from fraud, manipulation, and abusive practices in the highly volatile, complex and risky commodity futures and options markets.

To help, it offers the following “top five tips” on how to spot fraud. Much of this material was developed from research conducted by the FINRA Investor Education Foundation.

• What’s the rush? Investors should be cautious any time they are pressured or rushed into making a decision about an investment opportunity. Is the offer described as being good for only a limited time or in a limited quantity? Are you being led to believe you are part of a special group being notified? Take time to evaluate the offer and don’t allow yourself to be rushed into making any financial decision. Most legitimate offers will be there tomorrow.

• Favors are rarely free. When the person on the other end of the trade offers to do a “small favor” for you in return for a big favor, it may be a ploy to distract you from the business at hand. It’s best to stay focused on the opportunity, not to look for bargains.

• Beware of the “Phantom Riches” tactic. This is when a con artist dangles the prospect of unrealistic wealth, enticing you with something you want but can’t have. Consumers should consider whether the salesperson is dangling incredible returns or guarantees. It’s important to remember that all investments carry some risk.

• Selling credibility. This is when the con artist tries to build credibility by appearing successful, claiming affiliation with a reputable organization or touting a special credential or experience. A seller may have a corner office, framed diplomas or certificates and wear an expensive suit, but appearances really can be deceiving. Check out the seller’s actual qualifications.

• Watch out for third-party endorsements. When someone talks about a lot of people you know investing in the opportunity and that you shouldn’t be left out, it’s probably a good idea to keep your hand on your wallet and your wallet in your pocket until you learn more.

Top To learn more, visit www.cftc.gov/consumerprotection.

 

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Lori Visser joins Cruise Planners, as franchise owner

BUS-CruisePlannersCruise Planners offers local travelers exclusive cruise and land vacation packages through national affiliate

Lori Visser announced that she has joined Cruise Planners-American Express Travel, the nation’s largest home-based travel agent franchise network in the travel industry. Affiliation means Visser can now offer vacationers exclusive pricing on a wide range of cruise and destination wedding packages, private cruise sales, as well as cabin upgrades and special amenities such as shore excursions, discounted fares, travel gifts and more. As a Cruise Planners travel advisor, Visser also provides specialized land and tour packages to the most sought-after destinations around the world.

“Everyone travels, and it’s important to use a trusted travel specialist to help get the most value out of a vacation,” Visser said. “As a Cruise Planners travel expert, I take the stress and hassle out of planning a vacation for my clients. Through the resources available to me, I am able to make educated recommendations based on value, destination, group size and seasonality, among other things to customize the best vacation possible. Since Cruise Planners has achieved top-producer status with every major cruise line and with many major travel partners, I am able to provide my customers with the best value along with my expertise and personalized service.”

“Even though I own a Cruise Planners franchise, I sell complete vacation packages from exotic getaways to romantic retreats and culturally-immersed European experiences to customized African safaris,” Visser said. “Some people want to go on a cruise one year, and then a land-based vacation the next – I offer them a one-stop-shop with a personalized touch.”

As an American Express Travel Services Representative agency, Cruise Planners offers special programs for both American Express card holders and non-card holders, offering even more added value to vacationers.

For more information, contact Lori Visser of Cruise Planners at 616-263-1777 or visit www.globespinnertravel.com.

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How to accelerate business growth

 

Essentially every business needs to grow – to better serve markets and to provide opportunity for key staff.  Also to replace customers that move on, for any reason.  That means businesses need a steady supply of new customers to prosper.  How can business owners find those customers?

Extra thought on how to connect with prospects, and keep existing customers loyal, will pay dividends.  Think about:

Why is your product or service better than the competition?  Do you provide more selection?  Do you provide “end to end” solutions?  Differentiated products and services increase loyalty – and opportunity for margins.

Who is an ideal customer?  Be as specific as possible.  Age, gender, income level, work location, home location all can be relevant.

How can you best to connect with your ideal prospect?  Envision your ideal customer to identify how to connect.  Prospects under 40 (or 50?) get most of their information from digital sources.  Traditional mediums will have lower “yield”.

What can you provide to get their attention and loyalty?  Give prospects something.  A coupon, a short message (like this column) establishes a connection – and makes an “ask” more acceptable.

Are all customers very happy with their experience?   Take care of everyone experiencing your product or service.  Your reputation is critical.  Especially in today’s world, people believe friends and reviewers more than anything that you can say about yourself.

Getting professional help will move you more quickly and effectively – in creating the essential messages and in using communication channels.  Not all of us are creative writers or graphic artists.  Not all of us are experts in Internet based communication tools.  But professionally produced messages and delivery is easily noted.

And consider a mentor from SCORE.  Our local Grand Rapids chapter has about 40 experienced volunteer mentors – more than 1200 years of business leadership – in a variety of industries.  And we work together on behalf of you and your company.

All SCORE counseling is offered as a free and confidential community service.  There are 389 SCORE chapters around the country assisting entrepreneurs.  While counseling is always free of charge, local chapters also offer small business workshops and seminars for modest fees.

To learn more about SCORE and its counseling services, call 616.771.0305 or email your questions to score@grandrapids.org.

 

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Warning: What to do about the “Heartbleed” bug

BUS-Warning-Heartbleed-web

By Katherine Hutt, BBB

Unless you’ve been vacationing on a tropical island for the past few days, you’ve likely heard of the “Heartbleed” bug, a computer security vulnerability that can reveal the contents of a server’s memory and expose private data such as user names, passwords and even credit card information.

The Heartbleed bug exploits a flaw in the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) of popular open source software called OpenSSL. SSL is the standard security technology that establishes an encrypted link between a user’s web browser and the server where a website is hosted. It is used to secure numerous kinds of data transfers, including email, instant messaging, social media, and business transactions. Encryption is essential to Internet security.

The flaw, discovered on April 7 but apparently in existence for two years, means that attackers can copy a server’s digital keys and use them to impersonate servers to decode communications from the past (and, potentially, the future).

For businesses:

BBB recommends that businesses immediately check to see if their website(s) use Open SSL or have been vulnerable. One way to check, recommended by tech/media website CNET, is a tool at https://filippo.io/Heartbleed/ developed by a cryptography consultant. If vulnerability exists, businesses should work with their IT department or computer professional to install a more secure SSL on their websites.

For systems administrators:

Systems administrators should follow the advice of US-CERT, the Computer Emergency Response Team. Although this information comes from the U.S. government, it is applicable to systems in other countries.

For consumers:

CNET has also published a list of the top 100 websites, which it is updating regularly as it checks for vulnerabilities and repairs. Consumers can check this list or use the tool mentioned above to see if websites they regularly use are free of problems, or have fixed vulnerabilities.

It’s also imperative that consumers change passwords on all sites, particularly those that retain personal identifying information. Change your password after confirming that the site is not vulnerable or has fixed its SSL.

The “Stop. Think. Connect.” campaign offers the following suggestions to protect your identity:

Secure your accounts: Ask for protection beyond passwords. Many account providers now offer additional ways for you verify who you are before you conduct business on that site.

Make passwords long and strong: Combine capital and lowercase letters with numbers and symbols to create a more secure password.

Unique account, unique password: Separate passwords for every account helps to thwart cybercriminals.

Write it down and keep it safe: Everyone can forget a password. Keep a list that’s stored in a safe, secure place away from your computer.

Own your online presence: When available, set the privacy and security settings on websites to your comfort level for information sharing. It’s ok to limit how and with whom you share information.

BBB also suggests choosing passwords that are phrases (for instance, ilovetofish) and making each letter O into a zero to make the password more complex. Look into password management software to help you keep track of really “long and strong” passwords.

BBB’s servers do not use Open Source SSL. All of its websites have been checked and found to be free of vulnerabilities.

- See more at: http://www.bbb.org/blog/2014/04/warning-heres-what-to-do-about-heartbleed-bug/#sthash.5DtW50Dn.dpuf

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Can’t File By April 15?

 

E-pay and payment agreement options available to people who owe tax

 

The Internal Revenue Service reminds taxpayers that quick and easy solutions are available if they can’t file their returns or pay their taxes on time, and they can even request payment options online.

The IRS says don’t panic. Tax-filing extensions are available to taxpayers who need more time to finish their returns. Remember, this is an extension of time to file; not an extension of time to pay. However, taxpayers who are having trouble paying what they owe may qualify for payment plans and other relief.

Either way, taxpayers will avoid stiff penalties if they file either a regular income tax return or a request for a tax-filing extension by this year’s April 15 deadline. Taxpayers should file even if they can’t pay the full amount due. Here are further details on the options available.

More Time to File

People who haven’t finished filling out their return can get an automatic six-month extension. The fastest and easiest way to get the extra time is through the Free File link on IRS.gov. In a matter of minutes, anyone, regardless of income, can use this free service to electronically request an automatic tax-filing extension on Form 4868.

Filing this form gives taxpayers until Oct. 15 to file a return. To get the extension, taxpayers must estimate their tax liability on this form and should also pay any amount due.

By properly filing this form, a taxpayer will avoid the late-filing penalty, normally five percent per month based on the unpaid balance, that applies to returns filed after the deadline. In addition, any payment made with an extension request will reduce or eliminate interest and late-payment penalties that apply to payments made after April 15. The interest rate is currently three percent per year, compounded daily, and the late-payment penalty is normally 0.5 percent per month.

Besides Free File, taxpayers can choose to request an extension through a paid tax preparer, using tax-preparation software or by filing a paper Form 4868, available on IRS.gov. Of the more than 12 million extension forms received by the IRS last year, over 7 million were filed electronically.

Some taxpayers get more time to file without having to ask for it. These include:

* Taxpayers abroad. U.S. citizens and resident aliens who live and work abroad, as well as members of the military on duty outside the U.S., have until June 16 to file. Tax payments are still due April 15.

* Members of the military and others serving in Afghanistan or other combat zone localities. Typically, taxpayers can wait until at least 180 days after they leave the combat zone to file returns and pay any taxes due. For details, see Extensions of Deadlines in Publication 3, Armed Forces’ Tax Guide.

* People affected by certain recent natural disasters.

Easy Ways to E-Pay

Taxpayers with a balance due now have several quick and easy ways to electronically pay what they owe. They include:

* Electronic Federal Tax Payment System. This free service gives taxpayers a safe and convenient way to pay individual and business taxes by phone or online. To enroll or for more information, call 800-316-6541 or visit www.eftps.gov.

* Electronic Funds Withdrawal. E-file and e-pay in a single step.

* Credit or debit card. Both paper and electronic filers can pay their taxes by phone or online through any of several authorized credit and debit card processors. Though the IRS does not charge a fee for this service, the card processors do. For taxpayers who itemize their deductions, these convenience fees can be claimed on Schedule A Line 23.

Taxpayers who choose to pay by check or money order should make the payment out to the “United States Treasury.” Write “2013 Form 1040,” name, address, daytime phone number and Social Security number on the front of the check or money order. To help insure that the payment is credited promptly, also enclose a Form 1040-V payment voucher.

More Time to Pay

Taxpayers who have finished their returns should file by the regular April 15 deadline, even if they can’t pay the full amount due. In many cases, those struggling with unpaid taxes qualify for one of several relief programs, including the following:

* Most people can set up a payment agreement with the IRS online in a matter of minutes. Those who owe $50,000 or less in combined tax, penalties and interest can use the Online Payment Agreement to set up a monthly payment agreement for up to 72 months. Taxpayers can choose this option even if they have not yet received a bill or notice from the IRS. With the Online Payment Agreement, no paperwork is required, there is no need to call, write or visit the IRS and qualified taxpayers can avoid the filing of a Notice of Federal Tax Lien if one was not previously filed. Alternatively, taxpayers can request a payment agreement by filing Form 9465. This form can be downloaded from IRS.gov and mailed along with a tax return, bill or notice.

* Some struggling taxpayers may qualify for an offer-in-compromise. This is an agreement between a taxpayer and the IRS that settles the taxpayer’s tax liabilities for less than the full amount owed. The IRS looks at the taxpayer’s income and assets to make a determination regarding the taxpayer’s ability to pay. To help determine eligibility, use the Offer in Compromise Pre-Qualifier, a free online tool available on IRS.gov.

Details on all filing and payment options are on IRS.gov.

 

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Last-Minute Filers: avoid Common Errors

 

The Internal Revenue Service today reminded taxpayers to review their tax returns for common errors that could delay the processing of their returns. Here are some ways to avoid common mistakes.

File electronically. Filing electronically, whether through e-file or IRS Free File, vastly reduces tax return errors, as the tax software does the calculations, flags common errors and prompts taxpayers for missing information. And best of all, there is a free option for everyone.

Mail a paper return to the right address. Paper filers should check IRS.gov or their form instructions for the appropriate address where to file to avoid processing delays.

Take a close look at the tax tables. When figuring tax using the tax tables, taxpayers should be sure to use the correct column for the filing status claimed.

Fill in all requested information clearly. When entering information on the tax return, including Social Security numbers, take the time to be sure it is correct and easy to read. Also, check only one filing status and the appropriate exemption boxes.

Review all figures. While software catches and prevents many errors on e-file returns, math errors remain common on paper returns.

Get the right routing and account numbers. Requesting direct deposit of a federal refund into one, two or even three accounts is convenient and allows the taxpayer access to his or her money faster. Make sure the financial institution routing and account numbers entered on the return are accurate. Incorrect numbers can cause a refund to be delayed or deposited into the wrong account.

Sign and date the return. If filing a joint return, both spouses must sign and date the return. E-filers can sign using a self-selected personal identification number (PIN).

Attach all required forms. Paper filers need to attach W-2s and other forms that reflect tax withholding, to the front of their returns. If requesting a payment agreement with the IRS, also attach Form 9465 to the front of the return. Attach all other necessary schedules and forms in the sequence number order shown in the upper right-hand corner.

Keep a copy of the return. Once ready to be filed, taxpayers should make a copy of their signed return and all schedules for their records.

Request a Filing Extension. For taxpayers who cannot meet the April 15 deadline, requesting a filing extension is easy and will prevent late filing penalties. Either use Free File or Form 4868. But keep in mind that while an extension grants additional time to file, tax payments are still due April 15.

Owe tax? If so, a number of e-payment options are available. Or send a check or money order payable to the “United States Treasury.”

Taxpayers may find additional help and resources on IRS.gov, including 1040 Central and the IRS Services Guide.

 

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