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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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Eight common tax mistakes to avoid

 

We all make mistakes. But if you make a mistake on your tax return, the IRS may need to contact you to correct it. That will delay your refund.

You can avoid most tax return errors by using IRS e-file. People who do their taxes on paper are about 20 times more likely to make an error than e-filers. IRS e-file is the most accurate way to file your tax return.

Here are eight common tax-filing errors to avoid:

1. Wrong or missing Social Security numbers.  Be sure you enter all SSNs on your tax return exactly as they are on the Social Security cards.

2. Wrong names.  Be sure you spell the names of everyone on your tax return exactly as they are on their Social Security cards.

3. Filing status errors.  Some people use the wrong filing status, such as Head of Household instead of Single. The Interactive Tax Assistant on IRS.gov can help you choose the right one. Tax software helps e-filers choose.

4. Math mistakes.  Double-check your math. For example, be careful when you add or subtract or figure items on a form or worksheet. Tax preparation software does all the math for e-filers.

5. Errors in figuring credits or deductions.  Many filers make mistakes figuring their Earned Income Tax Credit, Child and Dependent Care Credit, and the standard deduction. If you’re not e-filing, follow the instructions carefully when figuring credits and deductions. For example, if you’re age 65 or older or blind, be sure you claim the correct, higher standard deduction.

6. Wrong bank account numbers.  You should choose to get your refund by direct deposit. But it’s important that you use the right bank and account numbers on your return. The fastest and safest way to get a tax refund is to combine e-file with direct deposit.

7. Forms not signed or dated.  An unsigned tax return is like an unsigned check; it’s not valid. Remember that both spouses must sign a joint return.

8. Electronic filing PIN errors.  When you e-file, you sign your return electronically with a Personal Identification Number. If you know last year’s e-file PIN, you can use that. If not, you’ll need to enter the Adjusted Gross Income from your originally-filed 2012 federal tax return. Don’t use the AGI amount from an amended 2012 return or a 2012 return that the IRS corrected.

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IRS has $760 Million in unclaimed refunds for 2010

 

 

WASHINGTON — Refunds totaling almost $760 million may be waiting for an estimated 918,600 taxpayers who did not file a federal income tax return for 2010, the Internal Revenue Service announced today. However, to collect the money, a return for 2010 must be filed with the IRS no later than Tuesday, April 15, 2014.

“The window is quickly closing for people who are owed refunds from 2010 who haven’t filed a tax return,” said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. “We encourage students, part-time workers and others who haven’t filed for 2010 to look into this before time runs out on April 15.”

The IRS estimates that half the potential refunds for 2010 are more than $571.

Some people may not have filed because they had too little income to require filing a tax return even though they had taxes withheld from their wages or made quarterly estimated payments. In cases where a return was not filed, the law provides most taxpayers with a three-year window of opportunity for claiming a refund. If no return is filed to claim a refund within three years, the money becomes property of the U.S. Treasury.

For 2010 returns, the window closes on April 15, 2014. The law requires that the return be properly addressed, mailed and postmarked by that date. There is no penalty for filing a late return qualifying for a refund.

The IRS reminds taxpayers seeking a 2010 refund that their checks may be held if they have not filed tax returns for 2011 and 2012. In addition, the refund will be applied to any amounts still owed to the IRS or their state tax agency, and may be used to offset unpaid child support or past due federal debts such as student loans.

By failing to file a return, people stand to lose more than just their refund of taxes withheld or paid during 2010. In addition, many low-and-moderate income workers may not have claimed the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). For 2010, the credit is worth as much as $5,666. The EITC helps individuals and families whose incomes are below certain thresholds. The thresholds for 2010 were:

• $43,352 ($48,362 if married filing jointly) for those with three or more qualifying children;

• $40,363 ($45,373 if married filing jointly) for people with two qualifying children;

• $35,535 ($40,545 if married filing jointly) for those with one qualifying child;

• and $13,460 ($18,470 if married filing jointly) for people without qualifying children.

Current and prior year tax forms and instructions are available on the Forms and Publications page of IRS.gov or by calling toll-free 800-TAX-FORM (800-829-3676). Taxpayers who are missing Forms W-2, 1098, 1099 or 5498 for 2010, 2011 or 2012 should request copies from their employer, bank or other payer.

If these efforts are unsuccessful, taxpayers can get a free transcript showing information from these year-end documents by going to IRS.gov. Taxpayers can also file Form 4506-T to request a transcript of their tax return.

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Home office deduction features simpler option

 

 

If you work from home, you should learn the rules for how to claim the home office deduction. Starting this year, there is a simpler option to figure the deduction for business use of your home.

The new option will save you time because it simplifies how you figure and claim the deduction. It will also make it easier for you to keep records. It does not change the rules for who may claim the deduction.

Here are six facts from the IRS about the home office deduction.

1. Generally, in order to claim a deduction for a home office, you must use a part of your home exclusively and regularly for business purposes. Also, the part of your home used for business must be: your principal place of business, or a place where you meet clients or customers in the normal course of business, or a separate structure not attached to your home. Examples might include a studio, garage or barn.

2. If you use the actual expense method, the home office deduction includes certain costs that you paid for your home. For example, if you rent your home, part of the rent you paid could qualify. If you own your home, part of the mortgage interest, taxes and utilities you paid could qualify. The amount you can deduct usually depends on the percentage of your home used for business.

3. Beginning with 2013 tax returns, you may be able to use the simplified option to claim the home office deduction instead of claiming actual expenses. Under this method, you multiply the allowable square footage of your office by a prescribed rate of $5. The maximum footage allowed is 300 square feet. The deduction limit using this method is $1,500 per year.

4. If your gross income from the business use of your home is less than your expenses, the deduction for some expenses may be limited.

5. If you are self-employed and choose the actual expense method, use Form 8829, Expenses for Business Use of Your Home, to figure the amount you can deduct. You claim your deduction on Schedule C, Profit or Loss From Business, if you use either the simplified or actual expense method. See the Schedule C instructions for how to report your deduction.

6. If you are an employee, you must meet additional rules to claim the deduction. For example, in addition to the above tests, your business use must also be for your employer’s convenience.

For more on this topic, see Publication 587, Business Use of Your Home. It’s available at IRS.gov or by calling 800-TAX-FORM (800-829-3676).

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Are you the next target?

From the Better Business Bureau

“I am convinced that there are only two types of companies: those that have been hacked and those that will be. And even they are converging into one category: companies that have been hacked and will be hacked again.”—Robert Mueller, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

Are you the next target?

Prepare and protect your data and your business from cyber-crimes. What’s new in cyber security? Everything. As soon as we think we know how to protect our data, resources, and identities, there is a new way to attack, steal, or use them.  Learn the latest techniques and best products to take your security to the next level at the Grand Rapids Çyber Security Conference on April 23 at the LV Eberhard Center on April 23, 2014 7:30 a.m.-12:00 p.m.

This event has content and sessions for any size of business, as well as consumers, covering a range of topics from basic to advanced.

Join us for two plenary Keynote sessions: one featuring Colby Clark, Director of Incident Management from Fishnet Security at 8 a.m. and at 11 a.m. Jennifer Puplava, Attorney from Mika, Meyers, Beckett and Jones, who specializes in intellectual property law and technology law. There will be other speakers and panelists as well.

There is no charge for this event but registration is strongly recommended. A light breakfast and refreshments will be served throughout the morning.

To see all the session speakers and topics lined up, and to register, go to http://securitysummmit.weebly.com/.

 

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The Math of feeding the world

National Ag Day is March 25

One farmer = 144 people fed and clothed. America’s food producers play a vital role in feeding an ever-growing and increasingly affluent global population.

One farmer = 144 people fed and clothed. America’s food producers play a vital role in feeding an ever-growing and increasingly affluent global population.

(NAPS)—The next time you’re enjoying a meal, take a moment to think about where the food came from. Think about the family farmer or rancher who helped put it on your plate—not only that day but all 365 sunrises a year for you and the other 7 billion and counting people around the world American agriculture feeds. The family farmers and ranchers across the country—less than 2 percent of the U.S. population—produce the food, fuel and fiber people around the world depend on to survive.

Simply put, one farmer today produces enough to help feed and clothe more than 144 people on Earth. They contribute to the food and energy security of the nation, providing the safe, healthy, abundant and affordable food we expect each time we visit the store or restaurant. All without fail.

It’s one reason for the annual celebration of National Ag Day—this year, on March 25 (though any day is a good time to be grateful to America’s farmers)—a nation’s tribute to thousands of farm families.

According to the Agriculture Council of America (ACA), the national organization charged with promoting National Ag Day, it’s important that consumers understand where their food comes from and that many of today’s farmers use the latest technologies and safe, modern, sustainable practices to raise vegetables, fruit, meat, milk, eggs and other foods.

The ACA believes an accurate, basic understanding of how food is produced and how it gets from farms to their family’s plates will give consumers a greater appreciation for farmers who produce it and greater confidence in the wholesomeness of the food they eat.

Farming and ranching take a passion and a dedicated 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week commitment. For farm families, it’s a way of life that requires tremendous knowledge and financial resources and is greatly dependent on weather and market conditions to be successful.

For further information about National Ag Day and how your food is produced, go to www.agday.org.

 

 

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