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How can you avoid falling for the Social Security imposter scam?

The scam generally starts like this. You answer a call or retrieve a voicemail message that tells you to “press 1” to speak to a government “support representative” for help in reactivating your Social Security number. The number on your caller ID looks real, so you respond. The “agent” you reach tells you that your Social Security number has been suspended due to suspicious activity or because it has been involved in a crime.

You’re worried. You know how important it is to keep your Social Security number safe. So when the caller asks you to confirm this number to reactivate it, or says your bank account is about to be seized but the Social Security Administration (SSA) can safeguard it if you put your money on gift cards and provide the codes, you don’t know what to do. If you balk, you may be reminded that if you don’t act quickly, your accounts will be seized or frozen.

Although none of this is true (the SSA will never threaten to seize benefits or suspend numbers), many people have fallen for the Social Security imposter scam, and the numbers are rising. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), more than 76,000 reports of the Social Security imposter scam were filed between April 2018 and March 2019. Reported losses during this period were $19 million, and almost half of the reports were filed in February and March 2019.1

Here are some tips directly from the FTC to help you avoid becoming a victim.

Do not trust caller ID. Scam calls may show up on caller ID as the Social Security Administration and look like the agency’s real number.

Don’t give the caller your Social Security number or other personal information. If you already did, visit IdentityTheft.gov/SSA to find out what steps you can take to protect your credit and your identity.

Check with the real Social Security Administration. The SSA will not contact you out of the blue. But you can call the agency directly at (800) 772-1213 to find out if the SSA is really trying to reach you and why. (You can trust this number if you call it yourself.)

1FTC Consumer Protection Data Spotlight, April 2019

Market Strategies: Three Ways to Play Defense in Your Stock Portfolio

Defensive investment strategies share a common goal — to help a portfolio better weather an economic downturn and/or bouts of market volatility. But there are some key differences, including the specific criteria by which particular stocks are selected. If you are nearing retirement or just have a more conservative risk tolerance, one of these defensive strategies may help you manage risk while maintaining a robust equity portfolio.

Tilt toward value

Growth and value are opposite investment styles that tend to perform differently under different market conditions. Value stocks are associated with companies that appear to be undervalued by the market or are in an out-of-favor industry. These stocks may be priced lower than might be expected in relation to their earnings, assets, or growth potential, but the broader market is expected to eventually recognize the company’s full potential.

Established companies are more likely than younger companies to be considered value stocks. These firms may be more conservative with spending and emphasize paying dividends over reinvesting profits. Unlike value stocks, growth stocks may be priced higher in relation to current earnings or assets, so investors are essentially paying a premium for growth potential. This is one reason why growth stocks are typically considered to carry higher risk than value stocks.

Seek dividends

Whereas stock prices are often unpredictable and may be influenced by factors that do not reflect a company’s fiscal strength (or weakness), dividend payments tend to be steadier and more directly reflect a company’s financial position. Comparing current dividend yields, and a company’s history of dividend increases, can be helpful in deciding whether to invest in a stock or stock fund.

The flip side is that dividend-paying stocks may not have as much growth potential as non-dividend payers, and there are times when dividend stocks may drag down, not boost, portfolio performance. For example, dividend stocks can be sensitive to interest rate changes. When rates rise, the higher yields of lower risk fixed-income investments may become more appealing, placing downward pressure on dividend stocks.

Temper volatility

All stocks are volatile to some degree, but some have been less volatile historically than others. Certain mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) labeled “minimum volatility” or “low volatility” are constructed with an eye toward reducing risk during periods of market turbulence.

One commonly used measure of a stock or stock fund’s volatility is its beta, which is typically published with other information about an investment. The U.S. stock market as a whole is generally considered to have a beta of 1.0. In theory, an investment with a beta of 0.8 might experience only 80% of losses during a downswing — and thus would have less ground to regain when the market turns upward again.

The return and principal value of all investments fluctuate with changes in market conditions. Shares, when sold, may be worth more or less than their original cost. Investing in dividends is a long-term commitment. The amount of a company’s dividend can fluctuate with earnings, which are influenced by economic, market, and political events. Dividends are typically not guaranteed and could be changed or eliminated. Low-volatility funds vary widely in their objectives and strategies. There is no guarantee that they will maintain a more conservative level of risk, especially during extreme market conditions.

Mutual funds and exchange-traded funds are sold by prospectus. Please consider the investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses carefully before investing. The prospectus, which contains this and other information about the investment company, can be obtained from your financial professional. Be sure to read the prospectus carefully before deciding whether to invest.

Key Estate Planning Documents

Estate planning is the process of managing and preserving your assets while you are alive, and conserving and controlling their distribution after your death. There are four key estate planning documents almost everyone should have regardless of age, health, or wealth. They are: a durable power of attorney, advance medical directives, a will, and a letter of instruction.

Durable power of attorney

Incapacity can happen to anyone at any time, but your risk generally increases as you grow older. You have to consider what would happen if, for example, you were unable to make decisions or conduct your own affairs. Failing to plan may mean a court would have to appoint a guardian, and the guardian might make decisions that would be different from what you would have wanted.

A durable power of attorney (DPOA) enables you to authorize a family member or other trusted individual to make financial decisions or transact business on your behalf, even if you become incapacitated. The designated individual can do things like pay everyday expenses, collect benefits, watch over your investments, and file taxes.

There are two types of DPOAs: (1) an immediate DPOA, which is effective at once (this may be appropriate, for example, if you face a serious operation or illness), and (2) a springing DPOA, which is not effective unless you become incapacitated.

Advance medical directives

Advance medical directives let others know what forms of medical treatment you prefer and enable you to designate someone to make medical decisions for you in the event you can’t express your own wishes. If you don’t have an advance medical directive, health-care providers could use unwanted treatments and procedures to prolong your life at any cost.

There are three types of advance medical directives. Each state allows only a certain type (or types). You may find that one, two, or all three types are necessary to carry out all of your wishes for medical treatment.

  • A living will is a document that specifies the types of medical treatment you would want, or not want, under particular circumstances. In most states, a living will takes effect only under certain circumstances, such as a terminal illness or injury. Generally, one can be used only to decline medical treatment that “serves only to postpone the moment of death.”
  • A health-care proxy lets one or more family members or other trusted individuals make medical decisions for you. You decide how much power your representative will or won’t have.
  • A do-not-resuscitate (DNR) order is a legal form, signed by both you and your doctor, that gives health-care professionals permission to carry out your wishes.

Will

A will is quite often the cornerstone of an estate plan. It is a formal, legal document that directs how your property is to be distributed when you die. If you don’t leave a will, disbursements will be made according to state law, which might not be what you would want.

There are a couple of other important purposes for a will. It allows you to name an executor to carry out your wishes, as specified in the will, and a guardian for your minor children.

The will should be written, signed by you, and witnessed.

Most wills have to be probated. The will is filed with the probate court. The executor collects assets, pays debts and taxes owed, and distributes any remaining property to the rightful heirs. The rules vary from state to state, but in some states smaller estates are exempt from probate or qualify for an expedited process.

Letter of instruction

A letter of instruction is an informal, nonlegal document that generally accompanies your will and is used to express your personal thoughts and directions regarding what is in the will (or about other things, such as your burial wishes or where to locate other documents). This can be the most helpful document you leave for your family members and your executor.

Unlike your will, a letter of instruction remains private. Therefore, it is an opportunity to say the things you would rather not make public.

A letter of instruction is not a substitute for a will. Any directions you include in the letter are only suggestions and are not binding. The people to whom you address the letter may follow or disregard any instructions.

Take steps now

Life is unpredictable. So take steps now, while you can, to have the proper documents in place to ensure that your wishes are carried out.

Managing Your Money in a Gig Economy

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 16.5 million people rely on contingent or alternative work arrangements for their income.1 Often referred to as the “gig economy,” these nontraditional or contingent work arrangements include independent contractors, on-call and temp agency workers, and those who sign up for on-demand labor through smartphone apps.

If you are a contingent worker, you need to pay close attention to your finances in order to make up for any gaps in earnings that may occur between jobs. In addition, you’ll have to plan ahead for health-care costs, taxes, and saving for retirement, since you will have to shoulder these expenses on your own. The following are some tips for managing your money in a gig economy.

Prepare for slower periods between jobs

While establishing a cash reserve is an integral part of any financial strategy, it is especially important for contingent workers. You’ll want to set aside enough money to cover unexpected expenses and large bills that may come due during slower months between jobs. A good strategy is to make it a habit to deposit a portion of your income in your cash reserve.

Make sure you maintain good credit

Even a robust cash reserve might not be able to weather a significant downturn in contingency work. That’s why it’s important for contingent workers to have access to credit to help them get through leaner times. Make sure that you maintain a good history by avoiding late payments on existing loans and paying off your credit card balances whenever possible.

Come up with a budget…and stick to it

Because your income flow fluctuates, you’ll need to come up with a budget a bit differently than someone with a regular income. Your first step should be to determine your monthly expenses. If it helps, you can break them down into two types of expenses: fixed and discretionary. Fixed expenses are expenses that will not change from month to month, such as housing, transportation, and student loan payments. Discretionary expenses are expenses that are more of a “want” than a “need,” such as dining out or going on a vacation. Once you come up with a number, you should determine how much income you need to keep up with all of your expenses.

For a contingent worker, it’s especially important to stick to your budget and keep your discretionary expenses under control. If you are having trouble keeping on track with your budget, consider ways to cut back on spending or find additional sources of income to make up for any shortfalls.

Consider your health insurance options

Unfortunately, as a contingent worker you don’t have access to an employer-sponsored health plan. However, you do have health insurance options. If you are a recent college graduate and still on your parents’ health insurance plan, you usually can stay on until you turn 26. If you are no longer on your parents’ plan, you may be eligible for a government-sponsored health plan, or you can purchase your own plan through the federal or state-based Health Insurance Marketplace. For more information, visit healthcare.gov.

Plan ahead for taxes

In a traditional work arrangement, employers typically withhold taxes from employees’ paychecks. As a self-employed worker, you’ll have to plan ahead for federal and possibly state taxes so you don’t end up with a large bill during tax time. The IRS requires self-employed individuals to make quarterly estimated income tax payments, so make sure you set enough money aside each time you get paid to go toward your tax payments. Because contingency income fluctuates from month to month, the IRS allows you to make unequal quarterly payments. In addition, you’ll be responsible for paying a self-employment tax, so you need to account for that as well. For more information, visit the IRS website at irs.gov.

Don’t forget about retirement

While being self-employed has benefits, it also comes with tough challenges. In particular, a lack of structured benefits, such as an employer-sponsored retirement plan, can lead contingency workers to end up sacrificing their retirement savings. And even though anyone with earned income can set up an IRA, the contribution limits are relatively low — $6,000 in 2019 ($7,000 if age 50 or older).

Fortunately, there are some options that may allow you to make larger retirement contributions. Consider contributing to a solo or individual 401(k) plan (up to $56,000 in 2019, not counting catch-up contributions for those age 50 and over) or a SEP IRA (25% of your net earnings, up to $56,000 in 2019).

1U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Contingent and Alternative Arrangements Summary, June 2018

What are the warning signs of financial scams targeting older individuals?

If you or someone you know has been targeted by a scam artist who is trying to steal money or personal information, you’re not alone. According to the Senate Special Committee on Aging, older Americans lose an estimated $2.9 billion annually to fraud and exploitation, a number that is probably substantially underreported. 1

Most scams start with a call, an email, a text, or an official-looking letter that appears to be from a government agency or a legitimate company. Sometimes the scam artist will go door-to-door soliciting business or donations to charity.

Scam artists are very good at gaining the trust of well-meaning people by convincingly impersonating someone authoritative, knowledgeable, or trustworthy — such as an IRS agent, a tech repair person, or even a relative. They play on your sympathy or make convincing threats to pressure you to go along with a scam. “Send money or provide personal information right now,” they say, “if you want to help someone or prevent something bad from happening.” Here are some typical scenarios.

  • IRS scam: “You owe back taxes and penalties. Send payment immediately via a wire transfer, or you will be arrested.”
  • Sweepstakes scam: “Congratulations, you’ve won a prize! To collect it, provide us with your bank account number so we can deposit a check.”
  • Grandparent scam: “Hi Grandma, it’s me. Don’t you recognize my voice? I’ve been in an accident and need money for car repairs. Send gift cards, and don’t tell anyone because I’m embarrassed.”
  • Home repair scam: “I was just doing some work down the street for your neighbor, Bob, and I saw that you need some shingles replaced. I can do that for half the price I usually charge if you pay me in cash today.”

If you are targeted, never give out personal information or send money. You don’t need to make a quick decision. Call a friend, a relative, or the police for advice. Report the scam immediately to a fraud hotline such as the Senate Committee’s toll-free hotline, (855) 303-9470.

1 U.S Senate Special Committee on Aging, 2019

 

IRS Circular 230 disclosure: To ensure compliance with requirements imposed by the IRS, we inform you that any tax advice contained in this communication (including any attachments) was not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used, for the purpose of (i) avoiding tax-related penalties under the Internal Revenue Code or (ii) promoting, marketing or recommending to another party any matter addressed herein.

Prepared by Broadridge Investor Communication Solutions, Inc. Copyright 2019