What Can I Do to Crack Down on Robocalls?


You may not mind if a legitimate robocall provides a helpful announcement from your child’s school or an appointment reminder from a doctor’s office. But sadly, criminals often use robocalls to collect consumers’ personal information and/or conduct various scams. Newer “spoofing” technology displays fake numbers to make it look as though calls are local, rather than coming from overseas, which could trick more people into answering the phone.

Robocalls have been illegal since 2009 (unless the telemarketer has the consumer’s prior consent). In mid-2017, federal agencies announced they are ramping up enforcement by fining violators and encouraging blocking technologies. What should you do if you want to help put an end to this nuisance?

  1. Don’t answer calls when you don’t recognize the phone number. If you pick up an unwanted robocall, just hang up. Don’t answer “yes” or “no” questions, provide personal information, or press a number to “opt out.” Responding to the call in any way verifies that it has reached a real number and could prompt additional calls.
  2. Look into robocall blocking solutions that may be offered by your phone service provider. If they’re available, you may need to follow specific instructions to “opt in.” Otherwise, consider a mobile app or cloud-based service designed to block robocalls; some of them are free or cost just a few dollars.

Consider registering your phone number on the National Do Not Call Registry. While taking this step can help mitigate the amount of robocalls you receive, it’s only a partial solution to the problem. The Federal Trade Commission advises consumers whose numbers are on the registry but still receive unwanted calls to report robocall violations at complaints.donotcall.gov. The phone numbers provided by consumers will be released each day to companies that are working on call-blocking technologies, which largely depend on “blacklists” with numbers associated with multiple complaints.

6 Considerations When Evaluating Your Personal Finances

The arrival of spring often signifies a time of renewal, a reminder to dust off the cobwebs and get rid of the dirt and grime that have built up throughout the winter season. And while most spring cleaning projects are likely focused on your home, you could take this time to evaluate and clean up your personal finances as well.


Examine your budget..and stick with it

A budget is the centerpiece of any good personal financial plan. Start by identifying your income and expenses. Next, add them up and compare the two totals to make sure you are spending less than you earn. If you find that your expenses outweigh your income, you’ll need to make some adjustments to your budget (e.g., reduce discretionary spending).

Keep in mind that in order for your budget to work, you’ll need to stick with it. And while straying from your budget from time to time is to be expected, there are some ways to help make working within your budget a bit easier:

  • Make budgeting a part of your daily routine
  • Build occasional rewards into your budget
  • Evaluate your budget regularly and make changes if necessary
  • Use budgeting software/smartphone applications

Evaluate your financial goals

Spring is also a good time to evaluate your financial goals. Take a look at the financial goals you’ve previously set for yourself — both short and long term. Perhaps you wanted to increase your cash reserve or invest more money toward your retirement. Did you accomplish any of your goals? If so, do you have any new goals you now want to pursue? Finally, have your personal or financial circumstances changed recently (e.g., marriage, a child, a job promotion)? If so, would any of these events warrant a reprioritization of some of your existing financial goals?

Review your investments

Now may be a good time to review your investment portfolio to ensure that it is still on target to help you achieve your financial goals. To determine whether your investments are still suitable, you might ask yourself the following questions:

  • Has my investment time horizon recently changed?
  • Has my tolerance for risk changed?
  • Do I have an increased need for liquidity in my investments?
  • Does any investment now represent too large (or too small) a part of my portfolio?

All investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal, and there can be no assurance that any investment strategy will be successful.

Try to pay off any accumulated debt

When it comes to personal finances, reducing debt should always be a priority. Whether you have debt from student loans, a mortgage, or credit cards, have a plan in place to pay down your debt load as quickly as possible. The following tips could help you manage your debt:

  • Keep track of your credit card balances and be aware of interest rates and hidden fees
  • Manage your payments so that you avoid late fees
  • Optimize your repayments by paying off high-interest debt first
  • Avoid charging more than you can pay off at the end of each billing cycle

Take a look at your credit history

Having good credit is an important part of any sound financial plan, and now is a good time to check your credit history. Review your credit report and check for any inaccuracies. You’ll also want to find out whether you need to take steps to improve your credit history. To establish a good track record with creditors, make sure that you always make your monthly bill payments on time. In addition, you should try to avoid having too many credit inquiries on your report (these are made every time you apply for new credit). You’re entitled to a free copy of your credit report once a year from each of the three major credit reporting agencies. Visit annualcreditreport.com for more information.

Assess tax planning opportunities

The return of the spring season also means that we are approaching the end of tax season. Now is also a good time to assess any tax planning opportunities for the coming year. You can use last year’s tax return as a basis, then make any anticipated adjustments to your income and deductions for the coming year.

Be sure to check your withholding — especially if you owed taxes when you filed your most recent tax return or you were due a large refund. If necessary, adjust the amount of federal or state income tax withheld from your paycheck by filing a new Form W-4 with your employer.

How Can I Protect Myself from Digital Deception?


Imagine that you receive an email with an urgent message asking you to verify your banking information by clicking on a link. Or maybe you get an enticing text message claiming that you’ve won a free vacation to the destination of your choice — all you have to do is click on the link you were sent. In both scenarios, clicking on the link causes you to play right into the hands of a cybercriminal seeking your sensitive information. Just like that, you’re at risk for identity theft because you were tricked by a social engineering scam.

Social engineering attacks are a form of digital deception in which cybercriminals psychologically manipulate victims into divulging sensitive information. Cybercriminals “engineer” believable scenarios designed to evoke an emotional response (curiosity, fear, empathy, or excitement) from their targets. As a result, people often react without thinking first due to curiosity or concern over the message that was sent. Since social engineering attacks appear in many forms and appeal to a variety of emotions, they can be especially difficult to identify.

Take steps to protect yourself from a social engineering scam. If you receive a message conveying a sense of urgency, slow down and read it carefully before reacting. Don’t click on suspicious or unfamiliar links in emails, text messages, and instant messaging services. Hover your cursor over a link before clicking on it to see if it will bring you to a real URL. Don’t forget to check the spelling of URLs — any mistakes indicate a scam website. Also be sure to look for the secure lock symbol and the letters https: in the address bar of your Internet browser. These are signs that you’re navigating to a legitimate website.

Deducting 2017 Property Losses from Your Taxes

Hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, winter storms, and other events often cause widespread damage to homes and other types of property. If you’ve suffered property loss as the result of a natural or man-made disaster in 2017, you may be able to claim a casualty loss deduction on your federal income tax return.


What is a casualty loss?

A casualty is the destruction, damage, or loss of property caused by an unusual, sudden, or unexpected event. Casualty losses may result from natural disasters or from other events such as fires, accidents, thefts, or vandalism. You probably don’t have a deductible casualty loss, however, if your property is damaged as the result of gradual deterioration (e.g., a long-term termite infestation).

How do you calculate the amount of your loss?

To calculate a casualty loss on personal-use property, like your home, that’s been damaged or destroyed, you first need two important pieces of data:

  • The decrease in the fair market value (FMV) of the property; that’s the difference between the FMV of the property immediately before and after the casualty
  • Your adjusted basis in the property before the casualty; your adjusted basis is usually your cost if you bought the property (different rules apply if you inherited the property or received it as a gift), increased for things like permanent improvements and decreased for items such as depreciation

Starting with the lower of the two amounts above, subtract any insurance or other reimbursement that you have received or that you expect to receive. The result is generally the amount of your loss. If you receive insurance payments or other reimbursement that is more than your adjusted basis in the destroyed or damaged property, you may actually have a gain. There are special rules for reporting such gain, postponing the gain, excluding gain on a main home, and purchasing replacement property.

After you determine your casualty loss on personal-use property, you have to reduce the loss by $100. The $100 reduction applies per casualty, not per individual item of property. Two or more events that are closely related may be considered a single casualty. For example, wind and flood damage from the same storm would typically be considered a single casualty event, subject to only one $100 reduction. If both your home and automobile were damaged by the storm, the damage is also considered part of a single casualty event — you do not have to subtract $100 for each piece of property.

You must also reduce the total of all your casualty and theft losses on personal property by 10% of your adjusted gross income (AGI) after each loss is reduced by the $100 rule, above.

Keep in mind that special rules apply for those affected by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. The Disaster Tax Relief Act of 2017 increased the threshold for claiming a casualty loss deduction to $500, waived the requirement that the loss is deductible only to the extent it exceeds 10% of AGI, and allowed a deduction even for those who do not itemize.

Also note that the rules for calculating loss can be different for business property or property that’s used to produce income, such as rental property.

When can you deduct a casualty loss?

Generally, you report and deduct the loss in the year in which the casualty occurred. Special rules, however, apply for casualty losses resulting from an event that’s declared a federal disaster area by the president.

If you have a casualty loss from a federally declared disaster area, you can choose to report and deduct the loss in the tax year in which the loss occurred, or in the tax year immediately preceding the tax year in which the disaster happened. If you elect to report in the preceding year, the loss is treated as if it occurred in the preceding tax year. Reporting the loss in the preceding year may reduce the tax for that year, producing a refund. You generally have to make a decision to report the loss in the preceding year by the federal income tax return due date (without any extension) for the year in which the disaster actually occurred.

Casualty losses are reported on IRS Form 4684, Casualties and Thefts. Any losses relating to personal-use property are carried over to Form 1040, Schedule A, Itemized Deductions.

Where can you get more information?

The rules relating to casualty losses can be complicated. Additional information can be found in the instructions to Form 4684 and in IRS Publication 547, Casualties, Disasters, and Thefts. If you have suffered a casualty loss, though, you should consider discussing your individual circumstances with a tax professional.


New rules for 2018 and beyond

Recent tax reform legislation eliminates deductions for casualty losses that occur in 2018 through 2025, except for losses in federally declared disaster areas.

The legislation also makes changes that apply retroactively to 2016 and 2017 for net disaster losses arising from 2016 federally declared disaster areas.