Safe Shopping Tips for the Holidays

The holiday shopping season is upon us.  Starting with Black Friday and running through Christmas, the next month will be the busiest shopping period of the year – as it always is.  Each year, online shopping has increased, due to convenience, availability, free shipping from many retailers.  This year, the trend will be even more significant, considering the unprecedented circumstances that continue to surround us with the global pandemic, driving more people to do much of their shopping online.  It also means cyber criminals will be even more dangerous than ever, trying to take advantage of people looking for great deals.

Be aware though, that not all deals are good ones – some are likely to be scams targeting unsuspecting shoppers during peak periods where many people lower their guard in an effort to save or get popular items.  As you do your online shopping, keep a few simple rules in mind to help protect you and your personal information.

Check out sellers – It’s worth doing some research on online retailers, especially ones you don’t know and haven’t used previously, to make sure they are legitimate.  Online and social media reviews can be a good source of information, since customers are typically very quick to post about poor experiences and fraudulent site.   You can also look up companies at the Better Business Bureau.  The BBB also has a scam tracker site where you can look up (or report) scams.  It’s currently showing more than 200,000 scams.  If you’re buying through P2P services, like eBay, make sure you look at the seller’s history, ratings, and feedback.

Hard to find items – Be aware of offers promoting hard to find items.  Scammers often target buyers by offering deals on hard to find items.  Be aware of this and be sure to do your research on retailers.  Though it’s not always the case, if items are sold out at popular retailers – including the brands own e-commerce site – it’s not very likely they are available from other sources.  Your best bet is to shop early to avoid missing out on these items and setting yourself up to fall for a scam.

Be cautious with links – You’re likely to get countless emails from retailers promoting sales and gift ideas.  Many will be legitimate retailers you’ve purchased from in the past but, it’s almost a certainty there will also be fake ones looking to steal your personal information and money.  Some of the emails or texts you receive about amazing offers may contain links to fake websites.  Follow safe practices by carefully inspecting or searching any URLs before clicking on them, looking for typos or poorly written emails, and keeping an eye out for fake sites with URLs that are close to legitimate brands.  Instead of clicking on email links, you may want to search for brands and get to their sites that way.  Sales and specials are usually available directly from the websites as well.  If not, it may be a scam.

Use credit cards – Whenever possible, pay with a credit card.  Most major credit card issuers provide online purchase protection, so your liability will be limited, if any.  Some banks are also extending the same protections to their debit cards, so you should check with your bank to understand your liability.  Using a credit card instead of a debit care also means your primary bank account won’t be compromised if your card information is stolen.

Online payment platforms – Online payment platforms, like PayPal, Google Pay, Apple Pay, and others are another alternative available at many retailers.  The benefit is you are still using your credit card, but because you’re authorizing payment through the third-party platforms, your payment information is never seen by sellers.

Use only secure sites – Always make sure you are shopping on secure sites, indicated by the small closed padlock icon next to the URL in your browser.  While the icon doesn’t guarantee the legitimacy of the seller or the security of their payment system or website, it does mean you have a secure connection to the site, reducing risk of your data being intercepted.

Protect your accounts – Most retailers will allows you to make purchases as guests.  If you don’t have to, don’t sign up for an account with every seller, especially those you aren’t likely to use repeatedly.  For those you do have accounts with, follow your normal best practices, including strong passwords and two-factor authentication to protect accounts.  2FA typically works by sending a confirmation code to your mobile device to confirm your identity.

Security software – Hopefully, you already have a good security solution installed on your home and mobile devices.  They can help protect you against cyber criminals by alerting you when you are trying to access an unsecure or potentially fraudulent site, in addition to all the other security features that help keep your information safe.  As a regular course of action, you should make sure your software is always up to date.

Following these guidelines can certainly help protect you as you do your holiday shopping, but they are good steps to follow all year long.  But, even if you are careful, there’s always a chance your information may be exposed or you may make a mistake.  If you think something has gone wrong and you may have been a victim or fraud or exposed your information, contact your bank immediately to alert them and block your accounts.

How to Protect Yourself from Work-at-Home Scams

By Matt Kelly

Working from home has been an emerging trend for a few years, as technology has enabled an increasing number of jobs to be completed from anywhere. This year, in particular, though, has seen a massive increase in the number of people working from home. Some are temporary changes, but many companies have seen the benefits of enabling remote working and have already announced long-term of even permanent expansions of their previous WFH policies.

On the surface, it’s a great opportunity for many people who may be looking for primary or secondary income sources, or who have kids or elderly parents at home who need regular attention. It’s also a way for people to save a little more by avoiding commuting costs – including fuel, wear and tear on vehicles, and eating out regularly.

But, as working from home has become more common – a trend most experts agree is likely to continue – scam artists have recognized that many people are looking for opportunities, whether they have lost their jobs, are looking for a supplemental source of income, or need a remote work opportunity to support children in distance learning environments.

They are preying on the uncertainty and stress that the pandemic has created, hoping to trap people into their scams. The only way to avoid it is to stay informed, be smart, and know what to look for, and look for red flags. These include:

• No skills or experience required – While this may not be the case 100% of the time, most jobs require at least some limited experience or at least have some qualifications (even entry-level jobs).
• High pay rate for limited effort – As the saying goes, you can’t get something for nothing. If it feels like a job offers a higher pay than the work that’s being required, it’s likely to be a scam.
• High return guarantees – Look out for “business opportunities” or “partnerships” that claim to pay off quickly, or that are dependent on your ability to recruit others. These are most likely pyramid schemes.
• Up-front payments – Be wary of any company asking you to pay in advance for training, certifications, manuals, or other materials. You may spend the money and never hear from the company again.
• Pressure to sign – Be wary of offers that try to pressure you to sign up or onboard quickly, including on-the-spot offers without any meeting (whether in-person or virtual). Most legitimate companies will want to speak with prospects before hiring.
• Bank details – Look out for companies asking for your banking information right away. Unless you are 100% certain you have been hired for a real company, you could put your financial information at risk. If you have any concerns, you can always ask your bank’s experts whether something seems off.
• Respected source – Just because you see an offer in your daily newspaper or in a popular job site, don’t assume the opportunity is legitimate. It could still be a scam, and if you see something that doesn’t appear quite right, check with the paper or site and report your concerns.
• Testimonials – Fake offers can easily generate many false references that leverage emotional response to difficult or relatable scenarios (e.g., single moms, COVID-19 job loss, etc.), to get people to buy into their scams.

That said, there are plenty of legitimate work-from-home opportunities out there, and there are steps you can take to verify them before going further.

• Do your homework – Check out the company with state or local agencies, and the Better Business Bureau to see whether the company has a good reputation. Also make sure the company is following the FTC’s Business Opportunity Rule, which requires employers to disclose information about opportunities they are promoting, including references to back up their earning claims. Also check out the company and its management through online resources to see their histories and reputation.
• Ask detailed questions – Make sure you get specific details about how you will be paid, what your compensation structure will look like (salaried, commission-based, combination of the two), who will pay you, how soon will payments begin, are there any costs to the offer and, if so, how will those be paid and what will you get for it?
• Be smart – The moment you feel something isn’t quite right, don’t hesitate to pause the conversation to do more homework, or even just reject the company outright. Any legitimate company will understand your desire to think things over and generally do your research. In fact, some will even view it as a positive trait.
• Job sites – While it’s not foolproof, there are several reputable job sites that specialize in online or work-from-home opportunities and perform pre-screenings on their postings and companies.

Scammers are smart, and they know how to prey on people’s emotions, especially when it comes to financial issues. Your best defense is knowledge and common sense when looking for a job. In addition to these other guidelines, following one simple rule can help protect you and your personal information: “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

How to Avoid Phone Scams

By Pam Reiss

Your phone is probably ringing a lot more than you would like it to, and often, you have no idea who is calling.  We recently talked about how to deal with the annoying sales and marketing calls (phone spam) that we’re all being bombarded with.  But, there’s another big problem that can be an even bigger nuisance: phone scams.  These calls come from criminals looking to prey on unsuspecting victims to get money, information, or both.  There are many different scams going on at all times and they leverage fear, compassion, or simply ignorance to get people to give them information.

Threats, prizes, special promotions are some of the more common tactics scammers use:

  • Debt collection agencies demanding payment;
  • Social Security Administration representatives saying there is an issue with your Social Security number;
  • Lottery scams claiming you’ve won a big prize but need to provide personal information or pay the taxes on your winning;
  • Arrest threats from scammers impersonating the IRS other federal entities;
  • Charities looking for funding, especially after a natural disaster or other crisis;
  • Tech support calls claiming you have a virus or other problem with your laptop or other device, asking you to let them log into your machine remotely.

Currently, there are also many COVID-19 scams circulating, with callers offering masks or sanitizer, testing services, work-from-home opportunities, debt consolidation, or loan repayment plans.  Other scammers are claiming to be with contact tracing services and may tell you there’s an outbreak in your area.

The most important thing to understand if you answer the phone is to never give out any personal information to anyone you don’t know.  That includes things as simple as confirming your name, address, email, or any other information.  Every piece of information you provide, regardless of how irrelevant it may be, is likely to be added to a growing file that scammers piece together and can use or sell to other scammers.  Realize that legitimate organizations aren’t going to call you and ask for sensitive information.

There are really two good options for handling calls from people you don’t know. 

The first is in situations when you answer the phone and realize it’s not someone you know.  Hang up immediately.  That’s the easiest way to avoid giving away any information.  Don’t engage callers, don’t threaten them, don’t even speak to them.  Once you start talking, they realize you are not only willing to answer the phone, but will engage them, which is yet another valuable piece of information.  Don’t even follow prompts to push certain buttons, and do not return single-ring calls.

If you think it may have been a legitimate call from your bank or some other organization, call them – not the number that just called you, but look up their main number – and find out if the call was real.  Legitimate callers won’t mind that you are taking extra precautions.

The other solution many people have started using is to simply not answer the phone if they don’t know the number or it’s not in their phone’s contact list.  Even if you think you might know the number, realize that scammers can easily spoof local numbers to make people think a friend is calling them.  In most cases, friends, family, and other legitimate callers will leave a message and you can call them back.  By not answering, you’re not even providing the small bit of data that you are likely to answer a call – which is valuable information to scammers.

You can also use technology to help.  Your home and mobile phone providers offer tools to help identify or block unwanted calls.  Check with your provider to see what options are available.  Most mobile providers have free and paid versions of call filtering apps that can help protect you.

If you do receive a scam call, you should also report it to the FCC.  How much information you provide is up to you, but the more information you are able to give, the more detail the FTC has to analyze complaint data and identify and react to ongoing scams and identify the individuals behind them.

Scammers count on their victims not being smart enough to figure out what’s going on before it’s too late.  Understanding the tactics scammers use and the ways they try to get information from you can help your identity and your money, and help avoid having to deal with recovering funds (which may not always even be possible) and identity theft.

9 Tips for Safe Online Shopping

Not surprisingly, online shopping has increased significantly over the past four months, with restaurants and retail stores being closed and even those that were open using curbside pickup or delivery.  That trend continues, and even when the pandemic subsides, almost half of consumers say they will continue to use online shopping for home delivery or curbside pickup.

Many have found that online shopping is simply a more convenient option.  In many cases, it offered an opportunity to get items that were otherwise unavailable because stores were closed or items were out of stock due to high demand.  That’s all true, as long as the items arrive as scheduled.

But, many people have also reported not receiving their purchases.  In fact, the FTC says it has received more reports of problems with online shopping, with more than half saying they never received their items.

In some cases, there have been delays, or items have simply gotten lost in transit.  Companies like Amazon typically do a good job letting customers know when their items are delayed.  In many cases, if the item is lost somewhere in transit, Amazon will offer customers the opportunity to request a refund, even though the item may eventually still arrive.  It’s good customer service.

Over the past several months, thousands of unverified, fraudulent sites have popped up claiming to have many high-demand products available.  Once they receive payment, they simply don’t ship the items and, when customers call to inquire, they claim delays due to the pandemic to avoid being detected as fake for as long as possible.  It was a concern even before the pandemic, which only created another opportunity for fake sites.  Some of these sites even mimic legitimate retailers, making it even harder to tell what’s real and what’s not.

The good news is there are ways to limit your exposure to these scams.  Here are a few tips for smart online shopping to help you steer clear of any issues and make sure you get the products you order.

  • Try recognized brands first. They may not always have what you’re looking for, but it’s a good place to start.
  • Be wary of sites selling products that are in short supply, or name brand products at much lower prices than you would normally pay.
  • Make sure the website is and HTTPS site (not just HTTP), indicating a higher level of security. This is important any time you make online purchases.  Also click on the padlock next to the web address, which will give you even more information about the site’s security.
  • Also check the URL itself. Some fake sites use addresses very similar to legitimate sites to fool people.  If you typed in the address manually, double check it to make sure you didn’t make a mistake.
  • Keep your browser updated. Most browsers will warn you if you’re about to go to an unsafe site.
  • Also keep you security software updated. This is another tool to help avoid malware from suspicious sites.
  • Examine the reviews. Many sites pay for fake 5-star reviews that all sound about the same.  Look for a variety or reviews and ratings.  You can also use sites like Fakespot, which analyzes and rates the validity of reviews on sites.
  • Other resources are available to help check website reputation, like URLVoid or Google Transparency Report. You can also check the Better Business Bureau for its ratings.
  • Pay with a credit card. This may be the best way to protect your money when buying online, regardless of the site.  If something happens and you don’t receive your purchases, or if they aren’t as advertised, you can contact your credit card issuer to dispute the charges if.

Online shopping is often very convenient, and it can be a way to get items that aren’t readily available locally.  But, there’s no question scam sites are a growing issue.  But, scammers are successful because they rely on unsuspecting victims.  Arming yourself with the information and tools to avoid scams or low-quality product knock-offs will help keep you from being disappointed or losing money.

Saving Money Doesn’t Have to Be Difficult

By Cortney Meng

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a financial mess for many people.  Some were laid off, others were furloughed or had shifts reduced, and college students had a hard time finding sources of summer income.  Nearly 70% of American household incomes have been impacted.

The disruption has caused millions of people to dip into their savings accounts, emergency funds, and even retirement savings to manage during the pandemic.  Others have built up credit card debt or have taken out personal loans.  The situation has caused people to rethink their finances, with three-quarters of Americans saying they plan to either save more money in general or put more towards their emergency funds.

That’s not always easy, but personal savings apps like Plinqit – by HTMA Mobile Apps – can help.  With Plinqit, you simply set up your account, define your savings goals and a schedule for making deposits to the account.  Because the Plinqit account is linked to your checking account, there’s not additional effort needed, and Plinqit accounts are FDIC insured, so there is no risk.

The idea is that Plinqit will help eliminate the challenges with saving, including simply remembering to add to your emergency or other savings accounts.  Depending on your goals and means, you can select to add to your Plinqit savings on a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly basis, and you can define the amount that is deposited.

You can check on you progress through the app at any time to see how you’re progressing towards your goals.  You can even set up to five separate saving goals at once.

Plinqit is free to use, though  you may want to add a “break the safe” penalty for withdrawing funds before you reach your goals to help discourage dipping into the account.  But, maybe best of all, when you achieve your goals, you will be rewarded with an additional amount.  You may also earn additional savings by referring others to Plinqit, or by using the Plinqit tool-builder that will help you learn even more about saving money.

There’s never a bad time to start saving, but now may be just a little better.  The Milford Bank is currently offering a $25 savings bonus for singing up an achieving a savings goal through Plinqit.  The thing with saving is that every little bit helps, and small amounts add up to significant savings quickly.  And it works – Plinqit users have saved more than $1 million since the service was launched last year.

Whether you’re replenishing your emergency fund or just starting one, trying to pay back a loan, or have a wedding or other expense in the future,start saving now so you won’t have to worry when you need the extra money.

Sign up at milfordbank.plinqit.com by August 15th and get a $25 bonus upon completion of your primary goal!

Don’t Forget Bulk Pickup to Help Get Rid of Clutter around Your Home

By Pam Reiss

Every year, we all collect all kinds of junk in our homes, including broken items, things we no longer need or use, older items that have been replaced, and more.  They are all taking up space, creating clutter, and keeping our homes from being as neat as we might like them to be.  You probably have things you have forgotten about and haven’t even seen in years.

Whether it’s your living space, basement, attic, garage, shed – or all of them – you’ll be surprised at how much space junk takes up.  This is a great time of year to work on getting rid of some of the clutter around your home to make it all more manageable.

That’s particularly true if your city does bulk waste pickup, as many do this time of year – Milford is starting its bulk pickup on June 1 (see start dates below).  It makes it much easier to get rid of some of your larger junk, instead of having to lug it to the dump or letting it continue to take up space around your home.

The first step is to create a plan.  Take a look at where you want to clean up and take inventory of any larger items you want to get rid of.  Once you remove larger things, you have a lot more space to work with as you clean.  Then, it’s a good idea to work on one space at a time, but if you’re up against a bulk pickup deadline, though, you may want to start by going through each space to take out those items and then go back for the smaller items and organization.

It’s a good idea to create four staging areas for the rest:

  • Garbage/recycling – Anything you are getting rid of goes in this pile. Keep a pile for bulk pickup, and put regular garbage directly into a large garbage bag.
  • Donate/sell – You may have clothes, books, toys, household items that you’ve outgrown or simply don’t use anymore. If they’re in good condition, consider donating them – there are plenty of people in need, and you may be able to take a tax deduction on your donations (consult your tax advisor for specifics).  You can also sell them online through local social media tag sale pages or, if you have a lot, and have the motivation, you can hold a yard sale.  Check with your neighbors to see if they want to have a combined sale.  You may be able to de-clutter your home and make a few dollars in the process to add to your emergency fund.
  • Keepers – Inevitably, you’re not going to want to get rid of everything you haven’t used in a while. There may be things with sentimental value, things you’re saving for your grandkids, and some items with specific uses that you want to keep.  Put those in s separate area and make a logical plan for storing them, including labeling storage bins and boxes to make them easy to find when you need them.
  • Out of place – One of the biggest signs of clutter is things being out of place. Sometimes, it’s out of pure laziness, but often, it’s because putting things back where they belong is difficult, because of the clutter.  Put these things into their own pile, so you can put them in their proper places – or even better, put them away immediately.  In the future, make a point of putting things back where they belong when you’re done using them.

You should check your local bulk waste guidelines for any additional requirements and prohibited items.  Things like old paint, propane tanks, grass clippings and many other items have other disposal specifications.  If you have larger items, you may need to cut them into smaller pieces, or take them to the dump yourself.

Milford’s bulk waste pickup start dates are based on your normal garbage pickup day:

  • Monday garbage – Bulk pickup starts on Monday, June 1
  • Tuesday garbage – Bulk pickup starts on Monday, June 8
  • Thursday garbage – Bulk pickup starts on Monday, June 15
  • Friday garbage – Bulk pickup starts on Monday, June 22

Once you’ve gotten rid of some of the clutter around your home, you’ll be in a better place to make use of the things you own.  It’s also very easy to re-clutter areas you have cleaned.  Keep in mind how much nicer things look when they aren’t cluttered – and how much effort it took to clean and re-organize.  Hopefully, that will help you keep things neater.   Keeping things tidy and in good order is also helpful for managing your budgets.  Now that you know what you have and where you’ve stored them, you will be less likely to buy duplicate items.

10 Low-budget Ways to Give Your Home a New Look

By Tina Mason

It’s been a crazy few months, with most of us stuck at home and most businesses closed.  Even now, as some places start to re-open, many of the restrictions, especially on group gatherings, remain in place, and it could be some time before things get back to normal.

In the mean time, what can you do to pass the time?  You’ve already streamed the entire Netflix library, read several books, and could really use something new to break up the monotony.  You may have some larger projects you want to get done around the house, and this is a good time to work on those.  If you’re ready for a major home improvement project, and need a home improvement loan or home equity line of credit, one of our specialists can help you with great rates.  There are probably many contractors looking for work right now, so it could be a good time to get those projects started.

But, given we’re still in the middle of so much uncertainty, maybe you’re not ready for such a large investment.  There are still plenty of ways to give your home an upgrade without spending a lot.  Here are just a few projects you can do on your own that will give your home a new look.

Paint the front door – Your door is the first thing most people notice, even if they’re just passing by.  It’s certainly how most people enter your home.  So, if it’s looking a little faded or run down, try giving your door a fresh coat of paint.  You can even go with a completely different look with a color change.  Don’t forget your shutters.

Patio/deck accent lighting – There are many styles of outdoor string lights available that can give your outdoor area a new look and add character for your summer nights.  Even if you’re not entertaining right now, you’ll enjoy being outside with just your family more than ever.

Build a fire pit – Sure, you can buy a fire pit, but why not enjoy the satisfaction of making one yourself?  You may also save a little money doing it yourself using inexpensive wall blocks or pavers from your   hardware store.  When you’re done, you can set up your outdoor furniture around your fire pit and enjoy the ambience year-round.  But, make sure you follow common safety procedures when lighting and putting out your fires.

Plant a garden – Have a little extra space in your yard or an old garden area you haven’t maintained in years?  This is a great time to get a new garden going, and you don’t need much to do it.  With some wood or plastic edging and maybe some decent soil, you’ll be ready to plant your own vegetables and herbs in no time.  For a little extra visual appeal, you can build a raised bed garden.  You might also want to consider building a fence around it using 2×2 posts and some garden fencing.

Window or deck boxes – If you don’t have room for a garden, you could always start with deck or window boxes.  You can plant herbs or certain vegetables, depending on the size of you boxes, or you can put in flowers to add some color around your patio or deck areas.  You can find fairly inexpensive boxes, or if you have a few simple tools, make one.

Solar lights – You can create a totally new look for your gardens or walkways by adding some inexpensive solar landscape lighting.  They will not only look great, but can make it easier to navigate in the dark – especially if you need to get to the fire pit you just built.

Organize your basement – Over the years, your basement, shed, garage, or closets have probably become cluttered with various items.  This is a great time to turn those into projects by cleaning them out, organizing them, and probably finding you can get rid of some unused or old items that are just taking up space.  When you’re done, you’ll be able to find things more easily, and probably have created more space for storage.  You can add new shelves if you need even more space.

Accent walls – Are you tired of the same old look in your living room or bedroom?  Think about painting one of the walls a different color to create contract and give the room a new look.  If your ceilings are looking a little old and grey, try giving them a new coat of paint, too – especially if you have an older home with popcorn ceilings you just can’t stand.

Update your kitchen cabinets – A simple way to give your kitchen a brand new look is by refinishing your cabinet doors.  It can be as simple as a new coat of paint to give them a totally new look, or you can replace them with a different style at much less cost than replacing the entire cabinet.  Want an even bolder new look?  You can make inexpensive glass front doors using plexiglass.  Adding new knobs completes the touch, or you can just start with that if you want to keep it simple.  While you’re at it, replacing your doorknobs is another way to give your entire home a bit of a new look.

Rearrange your furniture – Sometimes, all it takes is a little creativity with the furniture you already have to completely refresh your home.  Try different arrangements, keep an open mind, and you may be surprised at how easy it is to create a totally redesigned living space with no investment at all.

There are countless other ways you can improve your home inexpensively.  Get creative, get advice from friends, take a look at what you have around the house that you can repurpose, and you may be surprised at how easy it is to turn any room into a brand new experience.