Personal Finance: Ask the Experts

Get advice on money matters from The Bee's Claudia Buck and a panel of local experts

September 4, 2013
College students: Here's how to avoid I.D. theft

September marks the annual migration of college students flocking back to college campuses. With student loan debt topping $1.2 trillion, we recently wrote about ways to trim the fat from college costs.

But one of the biggest financial threats facing college students may be identity theft. According to Credit.com, college students ages 18 to 24 face the highest risk of identity theft among adults, partly because they often live in shared housing where others can access their computers, files and other financial facts of life.

Here are some ways students can reduce the odds of becoming a victim of I.D. theft:

August 19, 2013
Back-to-school shopping? Let your kids calculate the costs

In Sunday's column on back-to-school shopping, we shared some tips from experts and parents alike.
One of those, the financial literacy site, Practical Money Skills for Life, recommends letting young kids or teens figure out exactly what school really costs. It's got an easy-to-use calculator where you and your kids can plug in the numbers to see whether you're going over/under budget. The site also offers budget tips, plus advice on how to manage extra-curricular costs for kids' sports, music, theater and other activities.

August 15, 2013
WiFi hotspots at U.S. and foreign airports: Where/what it costs

If you're a frequent flier, this one's for you. Airfare Watchdog has posted a handy chart of WiFi hotspots - what they cost and what they're named - at all major U.S. and foreign airports, everywhere from Pittsburg to Paris.

According to Watchdog's chart, most U.S. airports offer free WiFi but some charge a fee, such as Atlanta ($4.95 for 24 hours), Honolulu ($6.95 for two hours) and New York ($4.95 per hour at both LaGuardia and JFK international airports).

If you're frequently stuck in an airport and firing up your laptop or smartphone, this list might be a handy link.

And yes, Sacramento International is on the list: its WiFi is free and found at "FlySacramento."

August 13, 2013
IRS backs off furlough day; will stay open on Aug. 30

Back in May, the IRS announced a series of one-day furloughs, when it was closing local offices and shutting down many of its taxpayer phone and online services. The five closure dates were scattered from May through August.

But due to "vigorous ongoing efforts by IRS employees to cut costs," the IRS says it is postponing its planned Aug. 30 closure. It made a similar announcement last month, abandoning a planned July 22 furlough date.

That means all of its online tools and local IRS offices, such as 4330 Watt Ave. in Sacramento, will remain open as usual.

In a statement, the IRS said it will re-evaluate the need for another furlough date before the federal fiscal year closes on September 30. So far this year, as part of federal budget-cutting, the IRS put its employees on three furlough days: May 24, June 14 and July 5.

August 12, 2013
Getting rid of robocalls: More tips, tools to get them off your phone

In Sunday's column on how to thwart robocalls, we talked with Aaron Foss, a New York software entrepreneur who's developed a solution he calls "NoMoRobo." The software, which uses standard phone features, is expected to become available to consumers - free - in early September.

Here are some additional anti-robocall suggestions from readers and the Federal Trade Commission:

Paul Schiffmacher of Southern California said he gets lots of calls from solar panel installers or contractors or home remodeling contractors. When he sees an unknown number on his phone's Caller I.D., he has a standard procedure: Pick up the phone and say nothing. The robocaller, hearing no voice contact, will automatically hang up.
Schiffmacher said he doesn't have to waste time on the phone and believes it helps prevents callbacks from the same number.

As mentioned in the story, a number of consumers have volunteered their anti-robocall solutions to the FTC, which has them online in a video.
"These tips might not work for everyone, but the good news is that they're working for some people," said FTC consumer spokeswoman Kati Daffan.

August 10, 2013
Consumer Reports: Best - and worst - prepaid debit cards

When it comes to prepaid debit cards, there are good ones and bad ones. That's according to Consumer Reports magazine, which recently released its first-ever list that ranks 26 prepaid cards according to convenience, cost, safety and how well fees are disclosed.

What it found: a number of prepaid cards have lowered their fees but the information is often hard to find. And some prepaid cards still lack the safeguards that consumers get with traditional debit cards, such as FDIC insurance and coverage for loss from fraud.

"The good news is that prepaid card fees have come down and a number of cards offer many of the same features you get with a bank account," said Michelle Jun, senior attorney with Consumers Union, the magazine's policy arm, in a statement. "But consumers can still end up paying more than they bargain for because fees are often poorly disclosed and can pile up quickly."

All of the low-scoring cards have high, unavoidable fees, including activation and monthly charges.

August 9, 2013
More tips on avoiding scams on vacation or business travels

In Sunday's column on travel scams, we looked at a number of financial frauds that can trip you up, whether on vacation or business.

Here are a few more savvy-traveler tips, from travel companies Fodor's and Lonely Planet.

1. Look back. Whether you're leaving a train seat or a cozy cafe, always look back at your seat to be sure you haven't left behind a backpack, camera or jacket. And never dangle any of those off the back of your chair, where they can easily be swiped.

August 2, 2013
Car sales head list of Top 10 consumer complaints in 2012

Mortgage fraud, "lemon" car sales, abusive debt collectors and shoddy home repairs. Those were among the Top 10 consumer complaints in 2012, according to surveys of consumer protection agencies in 20 states.

The results, based on 360,500 complaints compiled by the agencies, were released jointly by the Consumer Federation of America and the North American Consumer Protection Investigators.

Here's the complete list of complaint categories with specific problems:

August 1, 2013
FTC shuts down S. California debt collectors for abusive tactics

A group of Southern California-based debt collection companies was shut down Thursday by a U.S. district court, based on accusations of "abusive" tactics that included threatening distressed consumers with phony lawsuits and arrests.

The group, operating under seven different business names in Riverside and Orange counties, allegedly had employees pose as law enforcement or lawyers, in order to coerce people into paying debts. According to the FTC's lawsuit, the group was also accused of "calculated campaigns to embarrass consumers" by illegally contacting their employers, friends and family in violation of federal debt-collection laws.

By order of the court, the business assets of the companies and four defendants were frozen, pending the FTC's ongoing investigation. The seven companies went by multiple names, including Asset & Capital Management Group Inc., Western Capital Group Inc., Green Fidelity Allegiance Inc., and Crown Funding Co.

The case is part of the FTC's ongoing crackdown on illegal tactics by debt collectors. Consumers who feel they've been targeted should file a complaint or call (877) FTC-HELP or (877) 382-4357.

July 29, 2013
Readers share more thrifty tips for buying 'gently used' clothes

In Sunday's column on secondhand shopping, we talked about the rise of thrift-store clothes-buying by eco-conscious and budget-minded consumers.

Here are some additional tips and suggestions from readers:
Alice Gruber, an east Sacramento retiree, likes shopping at charity-backed stores whose causes she supports, such as the Salvation Army store on 16th Street or the SPCA thrift store on E street in downtown Sacramento.

Just this week, she bought two pair of cotton pants and four shirts, including a bright-orange San Francisco Giants T-shirt. All for $7.50. She's never paid more than $6 for a pair of dress pants and this summer's swimsuit was only $5.

She also buys luggage and travel totes that she uses on vacations. Some folks, she notes, buy only used clothes for vacations, then donate or discard them before heading home.

Alison Merrilees, a Capitol staffer who was featured in Sunday's story, says secondhand shopping is a great way to buy high-fashion at ultra-low prices, without using up any ecological resources. Here's a look at one of her secondhand ensembles:
Merrilees.JPG

July 24, 2013
Golden 1 gives $320,000 in college scholarships, mostly to Sacramento-region students

Local means lucky.

When Golden 1 Credit Union announced its list of 33 academic scholarships for California college-bound students, the majority were scooped up by Sacramento-area residents.

From Auburn to Yuba City, 25 of the recipients are from the greater Sacramento region. They received academic scholarships of up to $5,000 each for this fall, part of $320,000 in renewable scholarships given to 33 students statewide.

July 23, 2013
Can you inherit or transfer your airline frequent-flier miles?

Maybe, maybe not. That's according to a new survey of major airlines on whether you can inherit or bequeath those coveted frequent-flyer miles.

AirfareWatchdog.com, a consumer site on airline fares, compared seven U.S. airlines, reviewing their websites and calling their customer service centers. What it found: some pretty confusing policies.

For instance, United Airlines clearly states that frequent-flier miles are not the consumer's property and are not transferrable at death. But in calls to United customer service agents, AirfareWatchdog got conflicting answers, from a "full-on 'Yes' to flat-out 'No'."

July 22, 2013
Franchise Tax Board alerts 190,000 California taxpayers they may owe back taxes

Check your mailbox: The state Franchise Tax Board is busily sending out letters to taxpayers who may owe the state.

The letters, mailed to both individuals and corporations, are part of the FTB's regular audits of the 2012 tax season.

On Monday, the FTB said it sent 100,000 letters to individual taxpayers who may have erroneously filed their taxes this year as "Head of Household." It's also posted a short YouTube video about the HOH status.

It's a commonly misunderstood tax-filing status. "We see a high incidence of error because people don't actually read the qualifications," said FTB spokeswoman Denise Azimi, who said about 2 million Californians claim the HOH filing status each year.

Generally, the HOH status is for single taxpayers who have custody of a child or relative. They get a lower tax rate and a higher standard deduction - $7,682, instead of the regular $3,841 deduction - than someone filing as a regular single.

Last year, the FTB said it collected $26 million in back taxes from 38,000 individuals who had wrongly claimed the head-of-household status.

Also, the FTB is issuing letters to 90,000 California businesses that didn't file a tax return last year for their 2011 income. That's about 10,000 fewer businesses than the previous year, said Azimi, who said the reasons that businesses fail to file are "all over the board," from deliberate to unintentional.

The FTB compiles its list of corporations that didn't file a state tax return by cross-checking income records from the IRS, city business licenses, state Board of Equalization and other sources.

"If you hear from us, please respond quickly and fill out the questionnaires," said Azimi, who said not everyone receiving a letter necessarily owes back taxes. But responding promptly can minimize potential penalties, she noted.

July 2, 2013
Beware of phony 'medic alert' offers, says BBB

Dozens of Sacramento-area residents are complaining about automated phone calls offering "free" medic alert products. Instead, the "free" offer results in monthly fees that start appearing on their credit cards, according to complaints filed with the Better Business Bureau of Northeast California.

"They say a friend or family member recommended them for a 'free' medic alert device. But they get hounded into giving out their credit card information ... then find they're being billed a monthly fee of $35," said BBB spokeswoman Cailin Peterson.

She said consumer complaints have come in from Auburn, Roseville and Stockton in recent weeks.

In other cases, the caller says a free medical-alert device has already been ordered for them, but the company needs to schedule a delivery or installation appointment, or asks for credit card or bank account information for service charges.

The automated "robo calls" sound as though they're from a legitimate medical-alert system, such as Life Alert or Medic Alert, which sell medical I.D. bracelets and emergency responders for seniors. On its website, the MedicAlert Foundation warns consumers that scammers are fraudulently using its name to "inappropriately solicit consumers."

"No one can figure out where the calls are originating," said Peterson. The first reports started coming into BBB offices in Wisconsin earlier this year, she said, but have since spread across the country. At least three medic-alert companies contacted by BBB officials have all denied being the source of the automated calls, Peterson said.

June 19, 2013
IRS offers free tax webinar Thursday for small business owners

As part of National Small Business Week, the IRS is offering a free online tax webinar on Thursday for small business owners.

The 1-hour workshop, "Avoiding the Top Tax Mistakes that Small Businesses Make," will cover common errors made on business taxes; reliable strategies for recordkeeping; how to choose a tax preparer and other topics.

It starts at 11 a.m. and includes a live Q&A session.

Small business owners can register by sending an email to sbse.webinars@irs.gov; or register online

The IRS website has additional free resources for small businesses.

Beyond this week, the IRS is hosting 10 free workshops on federal tax issues that are open to the public, on various dates in August through December.

June 18, 2013
Cyber-thieves: More tips on how to protect yourself from credit card theft

In today's Bee, we look at the pernicious problem of cyber-pickpockets who steal debit and credit card numbers from the computer systems of banks, businesses, restaurants and retailers. Or we can unwittingly give out our financial data to crooks when shopping or chatting online.

How to protect yourself? Here are additional tips:

Check your statements
"Unfortunately consumers' hands are tied and cannot truly protect their credit card information," said Robert Siciliano, a Boston-based security expert for McAfee. His best advice: Be diligent about regularly checking your credit card and banking statements for phony charges.

If you do online bill-paying, you can check your credit card or bank statements weekly, even daily. If you're not online, be sure to check your monthly statement when it arrives in the mail.

"I recommend doing so online," said Siciliano. "Mobile phone apps offered by your credit card companies make it even easier."

June 17, 2013
More Father's Day wisdom from readers

Our Sunday column on Father's Day wisdom, readers and financial experts shared what they learned from their own Dads, as well as what they're passing along to their own kids. Here are a few additional bits of fatherly wisdom:

Think twice
Bonnie Byrnes, a Sacramento mother of three, said her husband's advice during lean times still rings in her ears: "If you can't eat it, don't buy it." In other words, when finances are tight, don't spend money on anything you truly don't need.

By the book
As a father and a retired finance director, Ed Street recommends the "The Wealthy Barber," first published in 1989 by Canadian author David Chilton. Told through the fictional eyes of a young about-to-be Dad visiting his neighborhood barber, it employs humor to dispense lessons on mortgages, wills, savings and other personal finance topics.
"Each time the guy goes in for a haircut, he gets a new lesson," said Street, a Davis resident who gave copies to both his grown kids when they were younger. "It is old but still relevant and an easy read."

Another book recommendation: Sacramento CPA Gregory Burke recently gave his newly married stepson and wife a copy of "Save Wisely, Spend Happily: Real Stories About Money & How to Thrive from Trusted Advisors" by Sharon Lechter. It covers everything from car buying to mortgages to long-term investing.
"I'm hoping they'll read it," said Burke. "They're young and have an opportunity to chart their financial course...to start saving for retirement and benefit from compound earnings."

A lesson in rhyme
"Seldom lend and never borrow,
That will save a lot of sorrow."
That bit of poetical advice came from Gregory Qualls, a retired IBM employee in south Sacramento. He said he learned the rhyme years ago from his own parents and is now passing it on to his grandchildren.

Don't forget laughter
Oroville resident Janice Taylor says her father-in-law, who's 86, has always preached "Pay yourself first," meaning to sock away some savings out of every paycheck. "He wants us to remember to consider our future needs, as well as our present ones."

Another piece of the WWII veteran's long-lasting advice has carried Taylor and her husband through many tough times, financial and otherwise: "Don't both of you lose your sense of humor at the same time."

June 14, 2013
Frugal Father's Day: Gifts for Dad that won't break the bank

Last month, we offered up some low-cost, last-minute ways to celebrate your mom on Mother's Day. Now we're doing the same for dear ol' dad. We've gathered some tips from various websites, including WiseBread.com and About.com. In no particular order, here are 10 low-cost, but heartfelt, Father's Day gift ideas:

1. Fund a dream

Every dad would like to have some luxury that's slightly out of reach: a new car, a vacation trip, a fancy sports item or cool new tool or gadget. Get him started toward his goal by creating a "Dream Fund." It can be as basic as labeling a jar filled with loose change or opening a special savings account. It's not the amount that counts, but that you support his dream.

June 7, 2013
Fatherly financial advice: What's yours?

With Father's Day coming up, we'd like to hear from readers about their favorite fatherly financial advice. It can either be what you learned from your own Dad or what you're trying to impart to your kids.

If you'd like to share some some of your family's fatherly wisdom on money matters, please contact personal finance columnist Claudia Buck at (916) 321-1968 or by email: cbuck@sacbee.com.

May 27, 2013
Summer driving danger: Don't get stuck in a truck's 'no zone'

As Memorial Day revs up the summer driving season, drivers are reminded about one of the biggest dangers: sharing the road with big trucks.

Compared with passenger cars, trucks are heavier, need far more braking distance to stop, a bigger radius when turning, and more maneuvering room to avoid roadway hazards. And they also have lots of blind spots where they can't see your car.

All of which can spell disaster: In 2011, nearly 3,400 people died nationwide in collisions with big-rig trucks, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Of those fatalities, 66 percent were occupants of passenger cars.

May 20, 2013
College/high school grads: Too many gift cards? Swap 'em

It's high school and college graduation season and we know what that means: gift cards. Lots of 'em. (For other graduation gift ideas, see my Sunday column.)
An ever-popular graduation gift, billions of plastic gift certificates are purchased every year - but an estimated $1.7 billion a year sits on gift cards and never gets spent.

For graduates who get too many gift cards to retailers they don't like or want, Nerd Wallet personal finance expert Joseph Audette suggests swapping them.

Sites like CardPool.com, CardCash.com and GiftCardGranny.com let you unload those unwanted cards for cash. The sites cover hundreds of retailers, everyone from Sports Authority and Macy's to Burger King and Starbucks. You can also buy gift cards at a discount off the card's remaining balance.

For instance, CardPool.com will buy your card for up to 92 percent of its value; it sells cards at discounts up to 35 percent off face value. Currently, among dozens of American Eagle gift cards for varying amounts on CardPool.com, a $100 card is listed for $80, a 20 percent discount.

In California, gift cards cannot expire, except in very specific situations. If the gift card's value is less than $10, it can be redeemed at the retailer for cash. But if the company goes out of business, you're basically out of luck.

So if those gift cards are gonna gather dust in a drawer or sit unused in your wallet, exchanging them through an online swapping site could be an answer. Some card-swapping sites have fees; do a comparison before you decide.

And note: One longtime card-swapping service, PlasticJungle.com, announced this month that it is no longer in the business.

May 15, 2013
IRS offices to be closed 5 days between May and August

Due to federal furloughs, the IRS is closing all its offices and toll-free hotlines on five days through summer: May 24, June 14, July 5, July 22 and Aug. 30. All of those dates, except Monday, July 22, are Fridays.

That means some 400 IRS taxpayer assistance centers, such as the Sacramento office at 4330 Watt Ave., will be closed, as well as all IRS customer service lines. Many of the IRS website's tools, such as "Where's My Refund?" also will be shut down.

But it doesn't mean that taxpayers will get any breaks on their tax-filing deadlines. Taxpayers are still required to file their returns and pay any taxes due as usual.

The only break: If an IRS deadline to provide documentation falls on a furlough day, you'll get the next business day to get your paperwork turned in.

May 13, 2013
Mom-friendly grocery coupon sites let consumers save/give

Several Bay Area coupon sites have launched Mom-friendly ways to save and give back at the same time.
One is CouponsforChange, started last August by Michele Boal, co-founder of Mountain View-based Coupons.com.

Whenever someone uses three of the site's 200 grocery, restaurant and personal services coupons, CouponsforChange will donate to national food bank - enough to feed one family.
"It's a Mom-to-Mom thing. You're saving your family money while helping other mothers struggling to put food on the table for their own family," said Boal, the site's chief philanthropy officer.
The donations go to Feeding America, a nonprofit that helps sponsor food banks in numerous cities, including Sacramento. Boal said in the last 10 months, CouponsforChange has donated enough to cover more than 100,000 meals through local food banks.

Another Bay Area coupon site, CommonKindness.com, donates to a charity or nonprofit that you select. How it works: For every grocery coupon you print off its site, CommonKindness donates 20 percent of the advertising fees it receives from the food manufacturer. Consumers can choose from dozens of local and national charities, from pet shelters to arts groups.

In both cases, the consumer gets the full value of the coupon.
"It's a way for someone to feel good saving money for their own family, while giving back without taking anything out of their own pocket," said Boal.

May 8, 2013
For Mother's Day, invest in mom, says financial planning board

Here's a novel idea for a Mother's Day gift: financial security. In launching a new monthly financial blog, Financial Planning for Everyone, the Certified Financial Planner Board in Washington, D.C., says mothers often overlook their own financial needs.

"Perhaps it is time for those of us who love and value the mothers in our lives to step it up a bit," said Eleanor Blayney, the CFP Board's consumer advocate, in a statement. "This year - along with the carnations and chocolates - consider making an IRA or other savings contribution for mom."

As the family's "domestic CEO", women generally live longer, are often single for more years and may not have as many years in the paid workforce. They need to become a little more selfish, says Blayney, about what they'll need to live on long-term.

She recommends that moms consider these steps:

May 6, 2013
Protecting online reputations: More tips on how to use social media

Our recent column on "how to improve your online image" offered tips on making sure that a Google search of your name or company yields the best possible results.

Here are some more tips:

Social media savvy:

Locally, the Social Media Club Sacramento is hosting its next monthly gathering on May 16: "Guerilla PR Strategies for Tech Startups," where five Sacramento-area tech company CEOs will discuss how they "create buzz about their product or service without spending a fortune."

The free event, from 6:30 p.m. to 8:45 p.m., takes place at the Urban Hive, 1931 H St., in Sacramento.

The five panelists are: Elizabeth Dodson of HomeZada; Aaron Klein of Riskalyze; Alexander Lowe of iSnap; Robb Moore of ioSafe; and Brett Owens of Chrometa.

Founded in San Francisco in 2006, the Social Media Club hosts local chapters in 300 cities and countries, bringing together individuals and business to share "digital media literacy." The Sacramento chapter hosts monthly meetings and quarterly workshops to share ideas, tools and tips on using social media effectively.

Help from Yelp:

Small business owners are invited to "Wednesday Webinars" that cover how to use Yelp.com's free tools, including how to respond to positive/negative customer reviews.

This month's webinars are May 15 and May 22.

Small business owners can set up a free account at biz.yelp.com, which lets them access their business listing to update hours, add photos and interact with customers, both publicly and privately.

Since launching in San Francisco in 2004, Yelp says about 80 percent of its 39 million posted reviews are positive, at least three-stars or above.

"Thanking the consumer who writes those (positive comments) is always a plus," said Morgan Remmers, manager of Yelp's local business outreach.

For the negative reviews, she suggests taking "a deep breath" and waiting 24 hours before responding. That lets the comments sink in and helps avoid "any kind of defensive attitude, snarkiness or emotional tone" in your response.

Generally, brevity is your best bet: "Thank you for your comment. We appreciate customer feedback and will discuss your concerns with our staff."

Even though a nasty review feels like a personal attack, by politely responding and acknowledging their complaint, you can often defuse the anger, said Remmers. And if you're lucky, she noted, the writer might soften or even pull down his or her negative quotes.

May 3, 2013
Free 'Avengers' comic books give kids financial literacy heroes

What can Spider-Man teach your kids about money? Plenty, according to the creators of a first-ever financial literacy comic book for kids: "Avengers Saving the Day."

On Saturday, free "Avengers" copies will be given away at comic book stores in Sacramento and across the country, part of the 10th annual "Free Comic Book Day." The event, sponsored by comic book publishers like Marvel and DC Comics, is expected to give away 4.5 million copies of various titles from America's favorite superheroes, from Batman to Sonic the Hedgehog. Participating stores in the Sacramento area include Big Brother Comics, Empire's Comics Vault, Metropolis Comix, and River City Comics + Games.

"Avengers: Saving the Day" is a special collaboration between Marvel and Visa Inc.'s "Practical Money Skills for Life" website. It features Spider-Man and other Avengers battling bad guys, while slipping in messages about budgeting, banking, saving and other money-minded wisdom.

May 2, 2013
Young entrepreneur's jet company wins NFIB scholarship

He may not have graduated from high school yet, but Sean Burris is already airborne with his first business venture: Classic Jet Tours.

Fueled by his passion for vintage jet airliners from the 1950s and '60s, the 18-year-old has organized two charter flights with paying passengers: on a Douglas DC-8 from McClellan Field in Sacramento and a British BAC 1-11 out of Dallas, Texas.

His company's next charter: a 50th anniversary flight in October aboard the BAC jetliner.

For his entrepreneurial efforts, the Bear River High School senior recently earned a $1,000 college scholarship from the National Federation of Independent Business. He's one of five California high school seniors to win college scholarships in the NFIB's annual competition, which awarded 100 scholarships to business-minded students across the country.

Burris, a Lincoln resident, is majoring in entrepreneurship this fall at Northeastern University in Boston.

April 29, 2013
Sticker shock on high school prom: There's an app to avoid that

Got a teenager attending prom this spring? This year, the average U.S. family will spend $1,139 on high school prom night. That's everything from dinner to dancing shoes. And it's up 5 percent from last year.

Not surprisingly, most of that expense comes out of Mom and Dad's wallet. According to a recent survey of 3,000 families, most parents plan to pay for 59 percent of prom costs, while their teens will cover the remaining 41 percent. "With parents subsidizing this much of the total prom spending, there is little incentive for teens to cut costs," said Visa Inc., which sponsored the annual survey as part of its financial literacy program, Practical Money Skills for Life.

To help keep spending under wraps, Visa just unveiled a new, free, smartphone app, "Plan'it Prom", available on iTunes or Google Play. It lets you create a prom budget that includes the dress, shoes, flowers, hair and makeup, even the pedicure. You put in what you want to spend, then keep track as you shop.

April 24, 2013
Are you a "squeaky wheel" on consumer complaints?

Do you know how to complain and get results? We're doing a story how to effectively complain to a company when something goes wrong with a consumer product. If you had a customer problem and got it resolved by talking/writing/emailing/blogging to a store or company, we'd like to hear your experience. Please contact personal finance writer Claudia Buck at: (916) 321-1968 or cbuck@sacbee.com

April 19, 2013
Beware phony charity scams tied to Boston, Texas tragedies

Consumers are urged to be wary of fraudsters trying to prey on public sympathies for victims of the Boston Marathon bombing and the West, Texas fertilizer plant explosion.

Just a day after the Boston bombing, for instance, the Boston Better Business Bureau reported that one phony charity scam had already surfaced "and more are likely."

The IRS, in a new warning on its website, said "Scam artists impersonate charities to steal money or get private information from well-intentioned taxpayers." The phony solicitations can arrive by email, phone, social media or in person.

Some fraudsters pose as charities, calling to solicit money or financial information. Others send emails, steering people to bogus websites that solicit funds, allegedly to benefit victims. The fake websites often mimic those of legitimate charities or use similar names.

"Social media make it very easy to reach a lot of people quickly, when emotions are running high and people feel the need to take action, any action, to help," said a statement on the BBB's website.

If you wish to donate, be sure you're dealing with a reputable charity or organization. Check out a charity's reputation with the BBB's Wise Giving Alliance or the state attorney general's office.

If donations are solicited on behalf of a family, look for indications of how funds will be used. If a family sets up its own assistance fund, be sure it goes through a third party, such as a bank, CPA or lawyer, said the BBB.

Other tips: Do not give or send cash; donate by credit card or check so there's a record of your donation. Do not give your Social Security, credit card or bank account numbers to anyone who solicits a contribution. Report phony emails to the IRS or the Anti-Phishing Working Group.

April 18, 2013
MoneyWise Teens: Rio Americano students win video award

What's "human capital"? As part of an economics class project, a group of 12th-grade students at Rio Americano High School entered - and won - a video contest that explains the definition of investing in yourself.

Their 4-minute video placed third in a "MoneyWise Teen" contest, competing against 32 other Northern California high schools.

For their third-place finish, each of the four Sacramento students and their teacher received $150 in ceremonies last week at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. They are: Rio Americano economics teacher Allie Armstrong and students Mondana Koshfam, Max Hayden, Victoria Quach and Colin Savage.

April 18, 2013
BBB hosts free paper-shredding event on Saturday

Want to get rid of financial paperwork safely?
The Northeast California Better Business Bureau is hosting a free paper shredding event on Saturday, April 20, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., at the Mel Rapton Honda dealership, 3630 Fulton Ave.

A mobile shredding truck will be on site to instantly shred file-size boxes of paperwork.
Individuals can bring up to six boxes for shredding: The first three boxes are free; for the rest, a $3-per-box donation is requested, benefiting the Boys & Girls Club of Sacramento.

To prevent identity theft, consumers are urged to shred anything containing financial information, account numbers, PINs, birth dates or Social Security numbers.

"Identity theft is a perpetual problem for everyone and damages so many aspects of our lives," said BBB president Gary Almond, in a statement. "The first step in protecting yourself is (shredding) all sensitive items."

In 2012, the Federal Trade Commission said identity theft was the No. 1 complaint reported by U.S. consumers.

April 13, 2013
Countdown to April 15: Where to find last-minute tax help

It's down to the final weekend: Monday is the April 15 tax-filing deadline. Need some last-minute help? Here's where to find it:

THIS WEEKEND

The IRS announced Friday that its taxpayer phone lines will be open Saturday and for extended hours on Monday to help consumers with tax-related questions. The consumer help line - (800) 829-1040 - will be taking calls on:
Saturday, April 13: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., local time
Sunday: Closed
Monday, April 15: 7 a.m. to midnight, local time
(For business-related tax help on Monday, call (800) 829-4933 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., local time.)

Both the IRS and the state Franchise Tax Board have 24/7 information on their websites, including tax calculators, frequently-asked questions, tax extensions/credits. You can download tax forms, e-file your return, pay your tax bill, request a six-month extension to file.

MONDAY

IRS

The Sacramento office at 4330 Watt Ave. in Sacramento is open with extended hours from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. You can pick up tax forms, make payments and get help with questions from volunteer tax assistance . Other Taxpayer Assistance Centers are in IRS offices statewide.

April 12, 2013
Getting a tax refund? Here's where to spend it

If you're the average taxpayer, you're getting a $2,755 from the IRS and about $787
from the state. What're ya gonna do with the money?

While it's tempting to cash it in or charge up the credit card, think twice. Here are some money-wise ways to use those extra refund $$$, courtesy of the National Endowment for Financial Education:

1) Pay off credit cards. One of the smartest uses of a tax refund is to pay down credit card debt. Start with the card carrying the highest interest rate.

2) Start an emergency fund. Put a chunk into a savings account to cover unexpected expenses. Aim for three to six months' worth of income. If that seems too daunting, even $500 in a savings account could help in a financial emergency, like a flat tire, medical bill or other expense.

3) Save for retirement. Invest your refund in an Individual Retirement Account (IRA), where it'll grow tax-free.

4) Do repairs. If you've put off needed home repairs or car maintenance, use your refund to cover those expenses.

5) Prepay bills. Prepay your mortgage, car loan or student loans, or even your annual insurance bill. Be sure there are no prepayment penalties.

6) Splurge a little. If your borrowing/saving are in good shape, use your tax refund for a big purchase: a vacation, a new TV or other pricey technology.

April 11, 2013
K-6 teachers: Win your students free piggybanks

Are you an elementary teacher giving your students money-saving skills?

As part of National Financial Literacy Month, the Comerica Bank branch in downtown Sacramento is offering two Sacramento-area K-6 classrooms a chance to win free piggybanks for every student.

"We want to raise awareness of financial literacy," said Susan Siravo, Comerica's vice president of corporate communications. "It's really important to teach kids the importance of saving and how far you can stretch a dollar."

Siravo said teachers can submit a 100-words-or-less description of a money-managing concept they've been teaching or how they include financial literacy in their classrooms. Two winners will be selected by drawing. Each teacher will receive ceramic, yellow piggybanks for all their students, along with a financial literacy classroom lesson by a Comerica banker.

The deadline to submit an entry - by email to: sesiravo@comerica.com - is April 30. Winners will be announced the first week of May. For questions, call (916) 491-1329.


April 10, 2013
Can I put my current savings in a 401(k) plan from a former employer?

Q: I have about $50,000 just sitting in a regular savings account, not gaining much interest. Recently, I was sent a 401(k) account statement from a job I had over 12 years ago. It only has $100 in there now. Would I be able to use that account and incorporate some of my savings into it and manage my investments? My hope is to place some money in the account where I can gain some interest. I would be open to stock account or an IRA as well, but I am not too familiar with these. I could use some help.

JK
Roseville, CA

April 9, 2013
ScholarShare, the state's college-savings plan, hits $5 billion in assets

State Treasurer Bill Lockyer announced Tuesday that California's college-savings plan, ScholarShare, has reached a record $5 billion in assets held by investors.

That's more than double the $2.24 billion held in ScholarShare accounts five years ago. Since 2007, the number of individuals and families opening ScholarShare accounts has grown from 170,600 accounts to more than 243,000, according to Lockyer's office.

Named for a section of the IRS tax code, ScholarShare and other so-called 529 Plans allow anyone to open a tax-advantaged savings plan for a child's future college education. 529 plans are offered in nearly every state in the country.

California's plan, managed by TIAA-CREF, offers investors a choice of 19 investment options for their contributions. Deposits start as low as $25. When used for tuition, books, fees and other qualifying expenses at public/private colleges or trade schools, the 529 plan withdrawals are free from federal and California taxes.

April 3, 2013
Facing financial hardships? State tax officials offer help

With the April 15 tax deadline just days away, the state Franchise Tax Board urges financially challenged taxpayers to contact the FTB for assistance.

"There may be people waiting until the last minute, who realize they can't pay what they owe," said FTB spokesman Daniel Tahara. "The most important thing is not to ignore it, because interest and penalties mean you could pay significantly more. We want people to know there's help available."

April 3, 2013
April is California's Financial Literacy month: Here's what's for you

No fooling: April 1 is the start of California's Financial Literacy Month (it's happening nationally, too), with free events, workshops and online tools to help us better manage our money.

"It doesn't matter what age we are or what our income is: We all make financial decisions every day," said Alana Golden, spokeswoman for the state Dept. of Financial Institutions, which oversees the state's financial literacy events. "There are so many free resources available that most of us don't take advantage of. You can attend a workshop, log onto a chat line, pull up a brochure on a website...so many things to help us make well-informed decisions."

Here's a rundown of some of the events/tools getting attention this month:

California Financial Literacy Fair - Held annually at the state Capitol, this free event - April 10, 12 noon to 1:30 p.m. - is a chance to pick up info from some 30 nonprofits, state agencies and companies covering varied consumer financial topics: student loans, credit counseling, home mortgages, banking, taxes. It's co-sponsored by state Assemblyman Roger Dickinson (D-Sacramento), state Sen. Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and state Controller John Chiang. It'll be outdoors on the Capitol's north steps.

Neighborhood Financial Events - Four neighborhood sessions offer free information on consumer fraud, foreclosure, bankruptcy, mortgages, estate planning, investments, scholarships, banking and taxes. Sponsored by state Assm. Dickinson and state Sen. Steinberg, the dates/locations are:
April 10, Arthur F. Turner Community Library, 1212 Merkley Ave, West Sacramento
April 11, Greater Sacramento Urban League, 3725 Marysville Blvd.
April 16, Clunie Community Center, 601 Alhambra Blvd.
April 18, Fruitridge Community Center, 4000 Fruitridge Road;
All events are from 5:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m.

Mexico Consulate Financial Week - Running daily, April 22-25, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., the Consulate General of Mexico office at 2093 Arena Blvd. in Sacramento is offering free Spanish-language advice on banking, credit and other financial topics.

California Financial Literacy Month blog features a daily writeup on different local programs that revolve around money matters, from Bank of the West's "Moonjar" money-saving boxes for kids to Golden 1 Credit Union's financial workshops and webinars.

"Do Something" - During tax month, the nonprofit DoSomething.org has teamed up with H&R Block to encourage young people - age 25 and under - to spread financial wisdom. Now through April 30, teens and 20-somethings can host a personal finance workshop with at least two friends, then be entered for chances to win $10,000 and $1,000 scholarships. There's no cost to host a Do Something workshop: free online handbooks are provided on three topics; debt, credit cards and personal finance.

Senior Financial Fraud webinar - The state's Senior Gateway is sponsoring a Financial Fraud webinar on April 23 at 11 a.m.,

FoolProof - This new site - aimed at teens and 20somethings - in April is hosting a series of "gullibility" quizzes - to test your financial smarts on everyday purchases.

March 28, 2013
Free tax help heading into April 15 filing deadline

Want free help getting your taxes filed? As the countdown to the April 15 filing deadline grows shorter, there's no shortage of places where you can get free help preparing your 2012 tax return.

The easiest is by IRS-trained volunteers, who offer free help to seniors and modest-income taxpayers at numerous locations through the Sacramento area. Typically, they're at schools, libraries and community centers. To find a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) or Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) site near you, the IRS has easy-to-use search tools that let you find VITA and TCE sites by ZIP code.


March 27, 2013
Online shoppers: BOE says it's time to pay California use tax

If you shop online, chances are you probably don't keep track of whether you paid
sales tax on every purchase.

But the state Board of Equalization is reminding taxpayers: You may owe taxes and there's an easy way to pay up.

Whether it's catalogue clothes, mail-order car parts or eBay purchases, the state requires a "use tax" on purchases from out-of-state sellers who don't charge California sales tax. (What you owe is based on the sales tax rate in effect for where you live.)

And it's supposed to be paid when filing your 2012 income taxes this year. If you don't have receipts, the BOE has a handy Use Tax Lookup table that spells out exactly what you owe, based on income. (The LookUp table applies only to purchases of personal items priced below $1,000 each. For items above $1,000 each, you would need to have a receipt and pay the applicable sales tax.)

March 23, 2013
Didn't file a 2009 tax return? The IRS could have your refund waiting

Didn't file a 2009 tax return? You could be missing out on federal tax refunds of up to $5,657.

The IRS is reminding more than 984,000 U.S. taxpayers who didn't file in 2009 that they could be eligible for tax refunds. In California, there's an estimated 100,700 taxpayers who could be be in line for a median refund of $516, according to IRS estimates.

In some cases, taxpayers didn't file a 2009 return because they didn't owe anything. But thousands could still be eligible for a tax refund, especially if they had minimal income that qualifies them for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit.

There's a three-year window to claim an IRS tax refund, which for 2009 returns will expire this year on Monday, April 15. If you don't file a return by then, the money is gone.

For questions, call the IRS helpline at (800) 829-1040. To locate 2009 tax forms, go to the IRS website's "Forms and Publications" page or call 800-TAX-FORM (800 829-3676).

March 21, 2013
Investors warned about 'Profitable Sunrise' online scam

Californians are being warned about an online investment scheme run by "Profitable Sunrise," a company that seeks to lure investor victims through Biblical references.

The California Department of Corporations recently issued a "desist and refrain" order against the company, its parent company, InterReef LTD, and its principals, identified as Roman and Radoslav Novak.

According to the CDC, Profitable Sunrise falsely claims "risk free" investments with returns of up to 3 percent per day.

CDC spokesman Mark Leyes said Profitable Sunrise appears to operate similar to a Ponzi scheme, where new investors' money is used to pay off older investors.

The company advertises a number of investment plans, including short-term "hard money loans" to U.S. and global businesses. But the company is not authorized or licensed to do lending or sell securities in California.

Profitable Sunrise is running "a massive, international scheme that takes advantage of religious affinity to deprive investors of their money," said CDC commissioner Jan Lynn Owen in a statement.

Similar warnings have been issued in other states, including Alabama, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Jersey and North Carolina, as well as countries like New Zealand.

Californians who've invested with Profitable Sunrise are encouraged to file a complaint at www.corp.ca.gov or call (866) ASK-CORP.

March 19, 2013
Check 'n Go customers: You may qualify for online loan refunds

Thousands of customers of Check 'n Go, a payday and installment loan lender, are reminded they could be eligible for refunds, according to a $4.3 million settlement with the San Francisco City Attorney's office.

Under terms of the settlement, more than 12,800 Californians who took out Check 'n Go installment loans of $1,500 or less between November 2006 and June 2008 could be eligible for refunds of interest, fees and finance charges, ranging anywhere from $20 to $4,675.

The deadline to apply is March 28.

Check 'n Go, which has more than 12 outlets in the greater Sacramento region, was accused of charging exorbitant interest rates - as much as 400 percent when annualized - on online, short-term installment loans of $1,500 or less.

March 9, 2013
Military spouses: Fellowships for financial advising careers open until March 31

If you're a military spouse looking for a new financial career, there might be a scholarship in your future. Now through March 31, online applications are open for the FINRA Investor Education Foundation's Military Spouse Fellowship Program.

It's a chance to learn more about personal finances, debt counseling and money management skills, both for your own family and for career opportunities. Fellows are covered for all course materials, online webinars and exam fees needed to earn the Accredited Financial Counselor (AFC) designation.

The fellowships are open to military spouses of retired or active-duty service members in all branches: Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, Navy. Widows/widowers of service members are also eligible.

In the past eight years, 385 individuals in the program have graduated as accredited financial advisers, getting jobs as counselors at military family support centers, tax centers, financial aid offices and credit unions throughout the U.S. and overseas, according to FINRA.

You can read profiles of recent FINRA fellowship participants.

March 8, 2013
IRS offers free tax workshops for small businesses

Small business owners can get free advice on payroll taxes and other basics at a series of IRS-sponsored workshops offered statewide, now through December.

In the Sacramento area, there are more than 20 different workshops held in various locations, covering payroll taxes, recordkeeping systems, business income/deductions, as well as how to file and pay business fees.

They're designed for those currently running a small business or contemplating doing so. Several are offered in Russian or Spanish.

If you'd rather get the info from your computer, the IRS offers a series of online videos for small businesses and the self-employed on its Virtual Small Business Tax Workshop page.

March 5, 2013
IRS: All taxpayers can now file their 2012 returns

Fire up your tax forms: Ending a nagging delay in the 2012 tax season, the Internal Revenue Service announced it has finished updating, installing and testing new forms, instructions and other changes to its massive tax-processing systems.

That means all individual and business taxpayers can now file their 2012 federal income tax returns, including those who had to wait to claim various business and personal tax credits or deductions, such as residential energy credits.

This year, the IRS could only accept 2012 tax returns in phases, starting in late January. The delay was primarily due to last-minute "fiscal cliff" tax laws enacted by Congress, which required the IRS to scramble in getting those changes incorporated into its computers.

With less than six weeks before this year's April 15 filing deadline, the IRS is reminding taxpayers that the best way to file an accurate return is to e-file, choose direct deposit if expecting a refund and use online tax-help resources.

Those who need more time to finish their tax returns can get an automatic, six-month tax-filing extension by going to the Free File link or filing IRS Form 4868.

February 28, 2013
Whole Foods CEO: Big Business needs to re-invent itself

Businesses aren't bad.

But they've got a nasty reputation as greedy, selfish, exploitative, profit-at-all-cost companies. And it needs to change.

That's the message of Whole Foods Market founder and co-CEO John Mackey, who urged a UC Davis audience this week to embrace his "Conscious Capitalism" movement, based on his belief - and a book - that good businesses can change the world.

"Capitalism has been the greatest value-creator in the world ... but the reputation of business is so terrible in our society," he told a crowd of 500 in Freeborn Hall Wednesday night. The event was sponsored by Capital Public Radio and the UC Davis graduate school of business.

In a shout-out to today's young entrepreneurs, Mackey urged them to take the reins in redefining what makes a successful business.

February 28, 2013
Accounting majors could score scholarship money

They're among the most sought after of college graduates: accounting majors. If you're one of them, there could be some scholarship money in your future.

The National Society of Accountants Scholarship Foundation is giving away more than $28,000 in scholarships for the 2013-2014 academic year to accounting majors enrolled at two- and four-year universities, both public and private.

The online application deadline is March 10.

Last year, 31 college students nationwide received Society of Accountants' scholarships, ranging from $500 to $2,000 each. Students are selected based on their academic record; leadership, school and community activities; work experience; statement of goals/aspirations; and family circumstances.

February 27, 2013
Empty-Nesters: Have your adult kids moved back home?

We're doing a story on how parents adjust when their adult children move back home after college, losing a job or other circumstances. If that's you, we'd like to hear how you manage the transition in terms of financial contributions, house rules, etc. Please contact business writer Claudia Buck at (916) 321-1968 or cbuck@sabee.com

February 26, 2013
Want to save more money? America Saves Week shows you how

Still shaking off the recession, roughly half of all Americans have a tough time saving money. That not-so-surprising news comes from two new surveys timed to America Saves Week, now through March 2.

The first survey, issued by Bankrate.com, found that only a bare majority - 55 percent - of U.S. adults had more in emergency savings stashed away than they did in credit card debt.

Consumers showed up better in the second survey, by the Consumer Federation of America, with 64 percent saying they had enough in savings to cover a doctor's bill or a car repair. But only 50 percent were saving for retirement in a 401(k) or other investment vehicle and just 43 percent said they were putting aside enough in savings to reach their goals.

Clearly, we can all brush up our saving-money skills. That's the encouragement behind America Saves Week, and its companion campaign, Military Saves Week.

February 25, 2013
IRS warns of tax scams via phony emails, calls and letters

In Sunday's column, we wrote about the late start to IRS tax refunds. But there's another side of tax refunds the IRS wants you to know about: scams.

With tax season underway, it's warning taxpayers to be wary of bogus IRS emails, texts, calls and letters that attempt to trick individuals into giving out personal financial information. Sometimes the scam artists send letters about a supposed refund. Other times they email using a fake website to try and get you to disclose financial information.

To avoid getting scammed, here are some IRS reminders:

1. The IRS never contacts taxpayers by email, texting or social media to request personal or financial information. Nor will it ever ask for private financial information like PIN numbers, passwords or personal access codes to credit card or bank accounts.

2. Be wary of phony IRS websites that may look like the real thing. The official IRS website is www.irs.gov. Do not be fooled by sites claiming to be the IRS but ending in .com, .net, .org or anything other than .gov.

3. If you get a suspicious email, do not reply or click on any attachments or links. Instead, forward it to: phishing@irs.gov. (Put "suspicious website" in the subject line.)

4. If you receive a phone call from someone claiming to be an IRS official but you're skeptical, ask for their name or IRS badge number. Contact the IRS at (800) 829-1040 to ask if the IRS has a legitimate need to contact you. Do the same if you get a fax or letter that doesn't seem legitimate.

5. Visit the IRS website for more details on how to report scams and examples of IRS fraud.

February 22, 2013
Sacramento ranks in Top 50 in U.S. big-city credit scores

OK, we didn't make the Top 10. But residents of the greater Sacramento region did pretty well in a recent national ranking of average credit scores.

According to TransUnion, one of the major credit reporting bureaus, Sacramento logged in at No. 34 among 100 of the biggest metropolitan regions. Our average score? 674

That's not quite as robust as the San Jose/Sunnyvale/Santa Clara area, which nabbed the country's top spot with a score of 700, followed by San Francisco/Oakland/Fremont at 696. That's based on TransUnion's range of 501 (poor) to 990 (excellent).

February 18, 2013
Small business owners: Bee hosts free financial advice for 2013

What's ahead in 2013 for you and your business? From state/federal taxes to healthcare to employee benefits, there are numerous challenges and changes facing Sacramento's small business owners.
On Thursday, March 7, The Bee and KFBK will co-host a "Small Business Financial Q&A," where you can get answers from state and local experts to your questions on taxes, retirement planning, employee health benefits, retirement plans, and other bottom-line issues.

The four local experts are: Kevin Thelen, CFP and retirement plan specialist with Genovese Burford & Brothers; health benefits experts Cheryl Mellow of Ames-Grenz Insurance Services; employment law attorney Larry Kazanjian of Palmer Kazanjian Wohl Hodson; and CPA Greg Burke of John Waddell & Co.

In addition, representatives from the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce and the state's GOBiz program will be on hand to answer questions.

The event, co-hosted by Sacramento Bee personal finance columnist Claudia Buck and KFBK financial advisor Kelly Brothers, will be held at the Bee, 2100 Q St., from 6-7:30 p.m.
Admission is free but you need a ticket to attend. To register, go to: beebuzzpoints.com and click on "Bee Events".

February 4, 2013
How to stop unwanted mail, emails and telemarketing calls

In a recent personal finance column, we wrote about how to de-clutter the paper and emails clogging up our lives. Here are some additional options:

DMAChoice - A service of the Washington, D.C.-based Direct Marketing Association, a trade group of more than 3,600 companies, it enables consumers to delete their names from mailing lists, including credit cards, banks, catalogues, magazines and retailers. You also can stop mail for deceased persons and mail addressed to "Current Resident" or "Occupant." Requests can take up to 90 days to become effective but are good for three years.

For unwanted emails, DMAChoice offers Email Preference Service (eMPS), which lets you get off many - but not all - email marketing lists. It does not apply to most charitable, political, alumni or professional organizations. Registration is free and good for five years.

DoNotCall - To stop most telemarketing calls, contact the National Do Not Call Registry, sponsored by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, at (888) 382-1222 or www.DoNotCall.gov. You can register up to three phones, including mobile phones, and it's permanent.

January 31, 2013
Remember when company stock shares were paper?

In today's era of online stock trading, it's almost unheard of to get a paper share of stock.

But in their heyday, paper stock certificates were 8x10 works of art, embellished with flourishes, fancy type faces and engraved images. Today, there's an online industry of collectors devoted to vintage stock certificates

We're doing a story on collecting those old paper stock certificates. If you have some you'd like to share with us, please contact Claudia Buck at (916) 321-1968 or cbuck@sacbee.com.

January 26, 2013
Want free advice on getting ready for retirement?

If you're nearing retirement age and want some free, online advice from financial experts, Kiplinger's magazine has it. On two days - Feb. 7 and Feb. 12 - the personal finance magazine is hosting a free web chat, "Jump-Start Your Retirement Plan Days."

On both days, you can get ask questions and get free, one-on-one advice from financial planners with the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors. According to NAPFA, its fee-only advisers normally charge $150 to $300 an hour.

Among the advice topics: Retirement savings (IRAs, Roth IRAs and 401(k)s); taxes (such as gift and estate taxes); Social Security and income-investing; othe financial challenges, such as saving for college or paying down debt.

The online chats are scheduled both days from 6 a.m. to 2 pm. Pacific Time. You can submit your questions a week early, starting this week.

January 25, 2013
IRS: Low-income workers could get up to $5,800 tax refund

Low-income workers got a friendly reminder from the IRS today: You could be eligible for up to $5,800 in refundable tax credits.

Known as the "Earned Income Tax Credit," it's intended to help low-to-moderate-income workers who earned up to $50,270 in 2012.

But as many as one in five eligible taxpayers never sign up. "This year, millions of workers could qualify for EITC for the first time, and the IRS urges them not to overlook this valuable credit," said acting IRS commissioner Steven T. Miller, in a statement.

January 22, 2013
Own a home-based business? IRS makes it easier to file tax deductions

If you own a home-based business, it could soon be a whole lot easier to claim a federal tax deduction. Starting next year, the IRS says those who work from home can use a new, "significantly simplified" form to figure out what to claim for business use of their home office.

That's instead of the 43-line form that's now used to fill out the so-called "home office deduction."

The change applies to 2013 incomes taxes to be filed next year, not those filed this April.

The IRS said the new option, capped at $1,500 per year, will reduce the paperwork and record-keeping burden on small businesses by 1.6 million hours a year. The deduction is based on $5-per-square-foot for up to 300 square feet of home office space.

Existing rules, such as requirement that a home office must be used exclusively for business, still apply under the new option.

It could ease tax preparation headaches for millions. In tax year 2010, the most recent data available, the IRS said nearly 3.4 million taxpayers claimed deductions for home-based businesses.


January 21, 2013
'Ultimate Cheapskate': Jeff Yeager's money tips on AARP's YouTube

It's January, the traditional month when post-holiday wallets are depleted and everyone can use a good laugh. With that in mind, the AARP recently launched a new feature on its YouTube channel: "The Cheap Life," a series of 3-to-5-minute weekly episodes with Jeff Yeager, the self-proclaimed "Ultimate Cheapskate."

Something of an acquired taste, the lively Yeager has been writing, talking, blogging and TV-ing about how to live frugally for years. In the 40 episodes he's creating for AARP, he includes his frugal Hall of Fame/Shame (those who've excelled/failed at being frugal), his wacky ways of re-using everyday household items (a travel pillow from a winebox bladder?) and frugal cooking tips (chicken-giblet pate, anyone?).

If you're looking for some humorous - but decidedly real - tips on how to cut costs on just about anything 'n everything, give him a look.

January 18, 2013
Money 'CheckUp': Online financial tool now in Spanish

Need a tuneup on your financial life? An easy-to-use online tool, "MyMoneyCheckUp," is now available in Spanish.

Originally launched in 2011 by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, it's an easy, step-by-step calculator where you fill in your monthly income, mortgage/rent payments, spending/saving habits, etc.

In return, it gives you instant feedback on how/where to make improvement in five areas: budgeting, credit, saving, home equity and retirement planning. The Spanish version, aimed at Hispanic families, was announced this week.

And it's not just for those struggling with finances. Gail Cunningham, NFCC spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., said several of the foundation's CEO-level executives tried MyMoneyCheckUp and discovered places in their own family finances where they could improve.
Give it a try.

January 10, 2013
Better Business Bureau: Top 10 consumer scams for 2012

Some preyed on recent, horrific disasters. Others have been around for years.

For 2012, the Northeast California Better Business Bureau has issued its list of the Top 10 worst consumer scams reported here and nationally.

"Our list highlights the scams that are the newest or most outrageous," said Gary Almond, president of the BBB serving northeast California, in a statement. "While consumers seem to be getting savvier, these scams only become more prevalent (using) new technologies."

Here are the BBB's top ten scams of 2012 and how they snare victims:

January 8, 2013
IRS: Most taxpayers can start filing federal taxes on Jan. 30

Blame it on the fiscal cliff: The official IRS tax filing season is off to a later start this year.

The IRS will start accepting tax returns from most taxpayers - an estimated 120 million households - on Jan. 30. That's about eight days later than it originally expected to launch the 2013 federal tax season.

But not everyone can file then. Due to complex tax law changes that went into effect Jan. 1 when Congress passed its last-minute, fiscal-cliff legislation, some taxpayers will have to wait until late February or early March to file their 2012 return.

That includes those who are claiming residential energy credits, property depreciation or general business credits. That's because the IRS needs additional time to update several forms that require more extensive computer programming and testing.

In a statement, the IRS said it will be working closely with the tax software industry and professional tax preparers "to minimize delays and ensure as smooth a tax season as possible under the circumstances."

January 8, 2013
Are you getting a paper Social Security check?

On March 1, the U.S. Treasury will stop sending paper checks and require every Social Security recipient to switch to electronic payment: either direct deposit or a debit card. That affects about 399,000 folks in California. If you're getting your SS check by mail, we'd like to hear from you. Please contact personal finance writer Claudia Buck at (916) 321-1968 or cbuck@sacbee.com.

January 1, 2013
Personal Finance: Most popular 2012 columns

From mystery shopper scams to finding long-lost money to the rush to refinance home mortgages. In 2012, the personal finance columns that grabbed readers the most were all hit-the-wallet topics. Here's a look back at the Top 10 reader favorites:

1. Thousands of U.S. consumers, many angry over new fees, switched their bank during a nationwide "Bank Transfer Day" 610,000 ditched banks in 'fee-asco'

2. Who knew boring, ol accounting could be so attractive? A look at one of the hottest hiring sectors around: Accounting degree opens job possibilities

3. How owners of a small business - ChocolateBakery.com - successfully took the leap from brick-and-mortar to an online-only company:
How a small business succeeded online

4. Lured by get-paid-to-shop jobs, many lose money in a classic check scam: 'Mystery shopper' scam robs bank accounts

5. The state controller's office is sitting on $6.4 billion in unclaimed property, some of which could be yours:
State wants to connect unclaimed goods with their rightful owners

6. Making sure your heirs don't deal with financial/emotional chaos after you're gone:
Will you inherit cash or chaos?

7. Record-low interest rates create a stampede for refinancing home mortgages: Is a mortgage refinance right for you?

8. Teaching your college kids how to earn an "A" in managing their money:
College freshmen need to learn their money limits

9. Getting rid of an unwanted timeshare with losing $$ to scam artists: Timeshare resale scams surging

10. Avoiding computer identity theft by cyber-crooks:
How to plug online ID leaks

December 31, 2012
Financial advice? Top 5 most popular 'Ask the Experts' questions

Each quarter or so, we rotate a new panel of Sacramento-area experts, who answer readers' questions on financial topics: taxes, investing, personal finances and wills/trusts. The "Ask the Experts" advice is free; the questions are all over the map. Here are the Top 5 most popular posts of 2012:

Estate taxes:
Should Mom gift now, or wait for Congress to act on the estate tax?
Should a parent be gifting in 2012 to avoid estate tax in 2013?

Selling Mom's house after a reverse mortgage:
Do heirs pay tax on sale of inherited residence?

Buying CalPERS "airtime" retirement credits:
Looking toward retirement, should I buy airtime with CalPERS?

Social Security benefits:
Did Social Security pull the rug out from some early retirees?

Other popular posts:
How much is Mom/Dad worth around the house?
Tax debtors could lose DMV or professional licenses
IRS wants volunteer tax preparers; no experience necessary

For 2013, we hope you'll be among the first to post an "Ask the Experts" question! To submit a question, click on one of the ASK A QUESTION topics on the right of this blog.

December 28, 2012
Top picks for 2013 credit cards

A new year, a new credit card? If you're in the market for a credit card with better rates than what's now in your wallet, a number of credit card-comparison sites are listing their top picks for 2013. Take a look:

Best Cash Back:
Chase Freedom Visa
Blue Cash Preferred (American Express)
Fidelity Investment Rewards

Best Airline/Travel:
Starwood American Express
Capital One Venture
Chase Sapphire Preferred

Best Low-Interest:
Citi Simplicity
Capital One Platinum Prestige
Simmons First Visa Platinum
Navy Federal Credit Union Visa Platinum

Best Small Business:
Chase Ink

Best for College Students:
Citi Forward
Citi Dividend

For details, go to CardRatings.com, NerdWallet.com or LowCards.com

December 20, 2012
FDIC's money tips for teens and young adults

In Sunday's column on money-minded holiday gifts for kids, we offered parents and grandparents some ideas for giving to kids, teens and young adults.

Add to that: The FDIC recently issued an online newsletter aimed at young adults and teens: "Quick Tips for Managing Your Money." It covers practical info on borrowing, banking, saving and avoiding scams. There's advice on getting the best car loan, avoiding costly credit card mistakes, starting a savings account, how to do mobile banking safely and how to spot email/texting scams.

There's also a section for parents/grandparents on teaching money-managing skills to kids. Best of all, it's free.

December 17, 2012
Free tax-filing help for U.S. military families

TurboTax is offering free tax help to those currently serving in the U.S. military.

On Wednesday, the company is hosting an online webinar, "Last Minute Tax Tips That Save You Money and Get You a Bigger Refund" on Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. PST. It will include year-end tax tips for military families. You can log in online.
Also, through Feb. 14, TurboTax is letting enlisted military families file their taxes - for free - using its new military tax software. The software covers tax-filing issues specific to U.S. military members and their families, such as tax deductions/credits for uniforms, relocation, combat pay, travel and/or job training expenses.

The software is available free for junior enlisted personnel. Those ranked E-g through officer can get the $30 software at a discounted price.


December 10, 2012
Financial pros offer more ideas on charitable donations

In Sunday's personal finance column, we wrote about ways to make smart donations to your favorite charities. Here are some other ideas from financial pros:

1) Donate stocks, bonds or mutual funds - held for at least a year - that have gone up in value:
"Rather than just writing a check to a charity, review your portfolio for appreciated securities you have held for more than a year," said consumer advocate Eleanor Blayney, in a recent release from the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc., in Washington, D.C. "Not only do you get a (tax) deduction for the market value of the securities donated, but you get the additional benefit of avoiding the capital gains when the security is sold."

2) Another idea: Create a charitable gift annuity. Essentially, it's a swap: You give a charity a sizable monetary donation; in return, the charity pays you a set amount of income for life. Typically, it's a fixed interest rate and is partly tax-free. As AARP.com money columnist Jane Bryant Quinn notes: Although they pay lower interest rates than annuities sold by insurance companies, gift annuities give donors two benefits: a tax break and the reward of giving to a favorite charity.

If you have questions, consult with a certified financial planner or your tax adviser.

December 7, 2012
What's your best financial gift for kids/grandkids?

Whether they're young adults or tiny toddlers, what are some of your favorite money-minded gifts for kids and grandkids? A piggy bank, a share of stock, a wad of cash, a teachable moment?

We're gathering ideas from parents, grandparents and professional advisers on some of the best money-minded holiday gifts for kids - of any age.

If you'd like to share yours, please contact personal finance writer Claudia Buck at (916) 321-1968 or cbuck@sacbee.com.

November 27, 2012
It's 'Giving Tuesday': A day for donating, not spending

If Thanksgiving was about giving gratitude, today is about giving back. It's so-called "GivingTuesday", a new nationwide campaign to encourage more giving - in time, money or services - to charitable causes this holiday season.

On the heels of Black Friday/Cyber Monday's devotion to spending money, "GivingTuesday" invites families, businesses and individuals to do more giving.

As the website puts it: "We have a day for giving thanks. We have two (days) for getting deals. ... Wouldn't it be great to have a day for giving back?"

The first-ever effort involves major sponsors like Microsoft and United Way, as well as some 2,000 participating local organizations, ranging from animal care to health issues (diabetes, Alzheimer's, etc.) to education to environmental causes.

Among the Sacramento-based groups taking part: California ReLeaf, First Tee of Sacramento, Red Rover (animal crisis care), Sierra Service Project and Women's Empowerment.

November 26, 2012
Cyber Monday: Beware of online shopping scams

It's Cyber-Monday, the traditional kickoff to online holiday shopping. It's also a day to be smart about avoiding online shopping scams. Here are some tips from consumer groups and online safety companies:

1) Make sure the website address starts with an https, not http, says McAfee security expert Robert Siciliano in a recent blog. The letter "s" indicates encryption is being used to protect your information.

2) Check the site's URL. Be sure it's BestBuy.com, not BestBuyz.com. Scammers sometimes change a single letter to lure you to a fake site.

3) Don't make online purchases from your laptop using a public WiFi connection, such as in a coffee shop. Hackers in public locations can tap into your computer to steal information or cause havoc.

4) Use a credit card. You'll have better protection and an easier time disputing any fraudulent charges. Print your online shopping receipts and check them against your credit card's monthly statements.

5) Beware of Facebook and other social media scams, especially when checking in via your mobile phone, says the National Consumers League. Be wary of clicking on holiday deals, gifts, giveaways and promotions that may pop up on your phone.

November 23, 2012
Holiday shoppers: You may owe "use tax" to BOE

Attention, holiday shoppers: The state Board of Equalization is reminding Californians that they may owe "use tax" on their online or out-of-state purchases.
Generally, use tax is owed when you buy something from a business - a mail order catalog, an online retailer, a TV shopping network - that's located outside California but doesn't charge you tax.

Under a new state law, out-of-state sellers must collect the tax if they make more than $1 million in annual sales to California consumers. But "even under this new law, most major out-of-state online retailers, like L.L. Bean and Overstock.com, are not required to collect sales tax as long as they don't have a presence in California," added Runner.

The new law, which became effective September 15, requires out-of-state sellers to collect tax if they make more than $1 million in annual sales to California consumers and at least $10,000 of those sales come through referrals from California-based affiliates.

The average California family owes about $61 in use tax each year, according to the BOE. Those who don't save their receipts can calculate what they owe based on last year's tax return. For more information: www.boe.ca.gov
The state has required payment of use taxes since 1935, an effort to prevent out-of-state retailers from having a competitive advantage over California-based vendors. According to BOE estimates, the unreported and unpaid use tax costs the state more than $1.1 billion a year.

November 13, 2012
Military urged to seek relief for mortgage troubles

In honor of Veterans' Day, military veterans and active service members are urged to file a complaint if they're having trouble with their mortgage lender.

The outreach is part of this year's $25 billion federal settlement with five major mortgage providers - Ally, Bank of America, Citi, JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo - to provide relief to millions of homeowners who struggled to keep their mortgage during the recent recession.

That National Mortgage Settlement, announced in March, has specific provisions for military members. Among them, mortgage lenders:

--Must repay service members for a wrongful home foreclosures made after Jan. 1, 2006;
--Give refunds of at least $500 if service members were wrongfully charged more than 6 percent interest on loans after Jan. 1, 2008;
--Cannot foreclose on a property within 9 months of a military member receiving "Hostile Fire/Imminent Danger" pay, unless a court order is obtained.

Attorney Joseph A. Smith, Jr., the settlement's monitor, said he wants to know "if any of our nation's veterans are experiencing wrongful treatment from their mortgage service, as it will help me better oversee the settlement and ensure they find appropriate counsel for their issue."

Smith cannot intervene on an individual's behalf, but is overseeing compliance with the nationwide settlement.

Any service member having mortgage trouble should call
Military OneSource at (800) 342-9647 or file a complaint with the Office of Mortgage Settlement Oversight.

Additional help for borrowers - military or not - who lost their home to foreclosure between Jan. 1, 2008 and Dec. 31, 2011, is available through the National Mortgage Settlement office or by calling (866) 430-8358. Assistance is for those with loans through the five banks named in the settlement, not loans owned by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.

November 12, 2012
Seniors: Get free help Sunday on Medicare prescription drugs

Seniors can get free help Sunday picking their 2013 Medicare prescription drug plan, as well as a review of their personal medications.

The free counseling on Medicare Part D prescription plans is offered by University of the Pacific graduate pharmacy students, an annual outreach effort by the Stockton campus.

The Sacramento event is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Vietnamese Martyrs Catholic Church, 8181 Florin Road. It's the first time in three years the UOP program will be offered in Sacramento. Other clinics will be held in Stockton, Lodi and Modesto.

For Part D prescription coverage, pharmacy students will help seniors determine the most cost-effective Medicare plans, based on doctors, premiums and drug choices. They'll also evaluate a person's entire list of medications to determine if there are any problems with dosages or combinations.

In addition, seniors can get free flu shots, as well as testing for blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes and bone density.

To schedule a Sunday appointment for Part D assistance, call (209) 965-7343. Seniors should bring their Medicare card and their list of prescriptions with dosages.

November 6, 2012
Investors and consumers: Beware of Hurricane Sandy scams

It happens after every natural disaster: con artists try to exploit a tragedy for their own financial gain.

As cleanup of Hurricane Sandy's devastation continues on the East Coast, consumers and investors in California and nationwide are being reminded to be wary of phony solicitors, investment offers and other scams that prey on the disaster.

"Scammers are getting good at their game," said Joanne McNabb, director of Privacy Education and Policy for the state Attorney General's office in Sacramento. Just as with Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or Japan's earthquake/tsunami last year, phony solicitations for disaster-related donations can arrive by email, fax, phone, tweets, Facebook or other social media.

"Unless you initiated the contact, ignore it and delete it," said McNabb. "If you want to give to the Red Cross or another charity, check their web site or your phone book and contact them directly."

In other cases, investors can get duped by fraudulent appeals related to disaster-related technologies, such as water extraction, home restoration or earthquake-resistant buildings.

"Individuals, including those receiving lump sum insurance payouts, should be extremely wary of potential investment scams related to Hurricane Sandy," the SEC recently posted on its website.

October 30, 2012
Medicare helpline offers advice for Sacramento region seniors

As we noted in Sunday's personal finance column, the Medicare clock is ticking.

That's because seniors 65 and older (and younger Medicare recipients who qualify due to disabilities) have about a month left - until December 7 - to choose their healthcare coverage for 2013.

As anyone who's tried it knows, sorting out your Medicare choices can be very confusing. "Very bright people are struggling with the decisions they have to make," said Margaret Reilly, a regional program manager for the Health Insurance Counseling & Advocacy Program, a state-sponsored free counseling service.

This year, some Medicare plans are changing premiums or adjusting prescription coverages and some are leaving the local area altogether. That's why Reilly is urging anyone with Medicare questions to contact HICAP's local office in West Sacramento, which serves nine counties: El Dorado, Nevada, Placer, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Sierra, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba.

Volunteer counselors are available weekdays to answer your questions. To contact the local HICAP office, go online or call (916) 376-8915. The office is located at 3950 Industrial Blvd. in West Sacramento; hours are weekdays 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (closed from noon to 1:30 p.m.)

To locate HICAP offices in other counties, go online or call (800) 434-0222.

October 11, 2012
State updates list of Top 500 delinquent taxpayers

Look out, deadbeat taxpayers.

Last month, it was the state Board of Equalization. Now the Franchise Tax Board has released its updated list of its Top 500 tax delinquents: those who owe at least $100,000 in unpaid income taxes. The list includes both individuals and corporations.

On the personal side, the offenders range from Halsey Minor, the Bay Area-based creator of technology news website CNET, who the state says owes $10.7 million in taxes, to Daniel Harralson, a horse racing owner in Clovis, who is listed as owing $140,000.

Those listed as corporations include Sacramento attorney Roxanne T. Daneri, who the FTB says owes $336,000, and D&P Products Inc., whose tax bill is listed at $258,000.

And under new state legislation, every name on the Top 500 list is turned over to state licensing agencies, who have the option of canceling or not renewing their professional and occupational licenses. Those listed also risk losing their driver's license and cannot enter into any state contracts.

It's part of the state's continuing effort to close California's $10 billion so-called "tax gap," the difference between what's owed and what hasn't been coughed up by taxpayers.

The state BOE released its updated list of those owing back sales and use taxes in September.

October 10, 2012
Golden 1 offers free shredding of financial paperwork

Got personal papers you want shredded? Golden 1 Credit Union is hosting a free community shredding event on Saturday, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

It will be held at Golden 1's operations center, 8945 Cal Center Drive in Sacramento, near the corner of Watt Avenue and Folsom Boulevard.

Golden 1 hosts the twice-a-year shredding events to help consumers avoid identity theft by destroying documents that contain sensitive information, such as Social Security numbers, financial account numbers and medical or legal information. In addition to paper, DVDs, CDs and floppy disks will be accepted. Consumers can drive up and drop off up to five file-size boxes, which will be shredded while you watch.

October 5, 2012
K-12 students: Win prizes in money-saving video/photo contest

Calling kids and teens: Your money-saving photos or videos could win prizes in two new nationwide contests announced this week. Here are details:

"Lights, Camera, Save!" is a video contest for teens ages 13-18, sponsored by the American Bankers Association and participating banks. Teens can submit rap songs, puppet shows, parodies or other 90-second videos that illustrate the importance of savings or using money wisely.

Three national winners will get $3,000, $1,500 or $500 toward their savings goals, with similar matching gifts to their schools. The winning videos will be posted on YouTube as part of a national savings campaign.

For entries, teens can contact their local participating bank; in the Sacramento area, that's U.S. Bank or Golden Pacific Bank. Entries can be submitted Nov. 1-30.

October 4, 2012
Staying safe online: readers share their tips

In a recent column on how to avoid getting hacked online, we talked with several cyber-security experts.

Since then, we've also heard from readers, who shared their own tips. Here are a few:

One of the column's recommendations was to use strong online passwords, at least 8 characters long, with a mix of letters and numerals. But a New Mexico reader, Chuck Denk, suggested that might not be enough. He suggests that passwords should be longer: 12 characters. According to a Georgia Tech Research Institute study, sophisticated software is making it easier for hackers to break into your accounts by rapidly trying various 8-character combinations.

Denk also recommends Last Pass.com, a free password manager for Windows, Mac, Linux, iPhone, Blackberry, Android

Another reader, Robert Ilgen of Concord, noted the column's advice from a McAfee security expert: "Don't click links in the body of an email. Ever."

"Good advice," said Ilgen, "but that takes the fun out of seeing what your friends send you. Would it make sense to Google the sites that our friends send so that we can see if the sites are safe?"


October 1, 2012
Today is California's 'Plan Your Giving' Day

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett started it. But the effort to convince America's billionaires to donate half their wealth to charitable causes after they're gone has trickled down.

Spurred by a group of volunteers in Sacramento, the state Legislature designated today, October 1, as California's "Plan Your Giving" Day, when everyday residents are asked to consider setting aside money in their wills or trusts to causes they believe in, whether it's SPCA or cancer research or kids.

No one is asked to give up a dime now; it's all about planning ahead to leave a little something to charity. In Sunday's business section, we'll be talking with folks who've done just that, as well as other efforts to encourage financial giving.

September 28, 2012
Women entrepreneurs: SBA offers live Q&A help in October

Are you a woman wanting to start or expand a small business? During October, the U.S. Small Business Administration is hosting a series of weekly, live web chats for women entrepreneurs.

The series, part of National Women's Small Business Month, features live Q&As with SBA experts who will offer women advice on how to assemble a business plan, find funding sources, learn about government contracting, obtain mentors and build a profitable business.

No registration is required but questions can be submitted in advance online. (Go to: www.sba.gov and look under "What's New")

September 27, 2012
Tax debtors could lose DMV or professional licenses

California is getting tougher with tax deadbeats, who could lose their driver's license or their working professional licenses if they owe more than $100,000 in unpaid taxes.

Under a new California law that went into effect this summer, both the state Franchise Tax Board and the state Board of Equalization are now required to send their lists of California's Top 500 delinquent taxpayers to state licensing agencies that could use the information to yank driver's licenses or professional licenses, anything from real estate agents to hair stylists to doctors.

The BOE sent its Top 500 list to licensing agencies in late August; the FTB will send its list in mid-October. Those on the list are also prohibited from entering into any contracts with state agencies.

September 17, 2012
Money Mart payday loan customers may be eligible for refunds

If you were a Money Mart payday loan customer, you could be due some money. As part of a $7.5 million settlement, the San Francisco Attorney's Office is looking for Money Mart customers who took out certain types of payday or installment loans between 2005 and 2007.

California consumers who took out the loans, sometimes called "Cash 'till Payday" or "CustomCash" loans, could be eligible for refunds of $20 to $1,800, depending on their claim. The refunds apply to the interest, fees and finance charges they paid, based on a settlement announced in July by SF City Attorney Dennis Herrera.

In a consumer protection lawsuit, Herrera accused Money Mart (and a related company called Loan Mart) of targeting low-income borrowers and charging "exorbitant and illegal" interest rates for payday loans and short-term installment loans.

If you think you're eligible for a refund, call the Money Mart hotline at (866) 497-5497 or fill out a claim form from the San Francisco Attorney's Office. The deadline to file a claim is Monday, October 1.

September 13, 2012
Brown signs bill to let drivers show insurance on smartphones

Heads up, drivers. Starting in January, when you get pulled over and have to show an officer proof of auto insurance, you can flash your phone.

Under a bill signed recently by Gov. Jerry Brown, California is one of seven states that allow consumers to use their smartphone or other mobile device to show they've got insurance. That means no more fumbling around in your glove compartment to find your paper copy.

Instead, insurers now have the option of providing consumers with electronic proof of coverage: via email or an app for mobile devices. The paperless option is voluntary, both for insurance companies and individuals.

September 10, 2012
How to prevent your cellphone from getting hacked

In a recent Sunday column, we talked about how to protect yourself against online I.D. theft.

Several readers emailed us, asking for more details on how to protect their mobile phones. They're wise to ask: Most people don't even realize their mobile phones can be just as vulnerable as their home computer, said Robert Siciliano, online computer security expert with McAfee. "There are thousands of viruses targeting mobile phones and millions targeting PCs," he noted in an email.

Siciliano said the best defense: Getting regular security updates to your mobile phone's operating system. These so-called "security patches" are issued by manufacturers to thwart the bad guys.

September 7, 2012
Learn more about saving for college and California's 529 Plan

If you hadn't noticed, it's officially National College Savings Month. The California treasurer is hosting events to get the word out to parents and grandparents about ScholarShare, California's 529 Plan for college savings.

ScholarShare informational booths will be open at events from Sausalito to San Diego, including these in Sacramento:

Sunday: Grandparents Day at Fairytale Town

Wednesday: Wellness Awareness Expo, Dept. of Motor Vehicles office, 2570 24th St.

Sept. 29-30: ScholarShare Children's Book Festival, Fairytale Town

September 4, 2012
Tips to prevent ID theft: Security freezes, credit checks

My Sunday column on preventing online identity theft offered tips from cyber-security experts. Here three more tips, including one from a reader.

1) Column reader Curtis Carroll, a map company sales manager in West Sacramento, recommends getting a "security freeze" on your credit files. He's had them for about 10 years with each of the three credit reporting bureaus (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax). To him, it's peace of mind. "If I lose my wallet, I have to replace my credit cards and driver's license. But I don't have to worry that someone is trying to open accounts in my name," Carroll said.

With a security freeze, if someone tries to use your name to open an account, the access to your credit files is denied. If you're applying for a job, car loan, mortgage or anything else requiring a credit check, you can have the security freeze temporarily lifted.

August 31, 2012
Money-management milestone: Mint.com hits 10 million users

Here's a money-management milestone: Mint.com, the personal finance website, announced this week it's landed 10 million users. Once a tiny startup that was purchased by Intuit in 2009, the Mountain View-based website enables consumers to manage their finances online: setting budgets, tracking spending, charting financial goals, sending bill alerts, etc.

While it's not the only money-management site out there, Mint.com is probably the biggest and most widely known. And it's free. In past years, it's landed on Kiplinger personal finance magazine's "Best Of" lists.

Among other money-managing sites: MoneyStrands.com, Yodlee.com, as well as many banks and credit unions that offer their own online budgeting/savings tools.


August 27, 2012
IRS wants volunteer tax preparers; no experience necessary

Want to be an IRS tax preparer? The IRS is seeking volunteers to provide free tax help to seniors as well as taxpayers who are low-income, disabled or with limited English skills.

Calling it "people helping people," the IRS requires no previous experience. Volunteers will be trained and certified in how to prepare simple individual tax returns that can be filed electronically. Other volunteer jobs, such as greeters at tax centers, also are available.

"Yes, anyone can sign up. ...The only skill needed is the desire to help people in your community," said IRS spokesman Richard Panick in an email.

August 24, 2012
FBI extends job hiring deadline to Aug. 31

Good news for those who want to be an FBI special agent: Extending its deadline by another two weeks, the FBI is now accepting job applications until Friday, Aug. 31.

Specifically, the FBI is seeking candidates who are CPAs, Chinese-Mandarin speakers and those with computer skills in cyber-network administration.

As reported in my recent column on law enforcement jobs, the FBI is among the few law enforcement agencies currently hiring, at least in California. Nationally, it accepts only FBI special agent applications for two weeks twice a year - in March and August.

Applicants must be between 23 and 36 years old, with a four-year college degree and at least three years of full-time work experience. To apply, go to: www.fbijobs.gov.

August 20, 2012
More financial tips for parents of college-bound students

Column Extra: My Sunday column on "freshmen finances" covered money-management advice from college families and financial experts. Here are a couple more resources/suggestions:

Get campus help

Don't overlook campus financial aid offices, which have numerous resources for students. Hundreds of universities, including UC Davis and CSU Sacramento, offer their students free access to CashCourse.org, which has tips on budgets, saving money, even how to "eat cheap" in college.
Sac State's website also has "Financial Aid TV" videos on money basics.

August 13, 2012
Stock-picking expert from BetterInvesting in Roseville

Picking stocks takes some expertise. On August 25, the Sacramento chapter of BetterInvesting, the national nonprofit for individual investors and investment clubs, is hosting a how-to session with a nationally known expert.

The speaker is Ken Kavula - a Michigan-based member of four investment clubs, president of BetterInvesting's Mid-Michigan chapter and a longtime investment speaker. He'll share his stock-picking techniques, especially how to evaluate small company stocks.

Kavula will also cover how to balance a portfolio between large, slow-growth stocks and smaller, faster-moving stocks. And he'll show how he screens stocks, including a list of some of his favorites that investors might want to consider for their own portfolios.

Tickets are $40 per person and include breakfast. The event runs 8 a.m. to 12 noon at Sun City Roseville, 7050 Del Webb Blvd., in Roseville. To register or for more details, contact BetterInvesting local coordinator Nancy Hogan at (916) 737-8123 or www.betterinvesting.org/sac

August 6, 2012
Top consumer complaints: bedbugs to mortgage fraud

My Sunday column touched on a little-known but nagging category of consumer gripes: RV park membership contracts.

But what are typically the biggest sources of consumer complaints nationally? Last year, it was deceptive auto sales, mortgage-related fraud and debt collection practices. And among the fastest-growing categories: Bedbug infestations in apartments, timeshare sales, "Do Not Call violations" and fraudulent rentals of foreclosed properties.

Those stats are according to a recent survey by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and the North American Consumer Protection Investigators (NACPI). Their list is based on 2011 reports from 38 consumer agencies in 22 states, including three in California: the state Dept. of Consumer Affairs, the Los Angeles County Dept. of Consumer Affairs and the San Francisco district attorney's office.

Here's the complete list of Top Ten consumer complaint categories:

August 2, 2012
U.S. credit cards more friendly for international travelers

For those traveling overseas for work or vacation, it can sometimes be tricky to use a U.S. credit card.

That's because the magnetic stripes on the back of most American credit cards sometimes don't work in Europe, where the cards typically use a different, microchip technology. Try to swipe your U.S. card at an Italian train ticket kiosk, for instance, and it might get rejected.

But that problem could disappear. Some major U.S. credit card issuers are now offering chipped cards to their overseas travelers, says Bill Hardekopf, CEO of LowCards.com.

July 26, 2012
Rental cars: Get the extra (often pricey) insurance?

If you've ever rented a car - here or overseas - you know it's always one of those confusing decisions: Should you get the extra - and often pricey - rental car insurance?

If you're a credit card user, buying that extra insurance may be unnecessary, because the major cards - American Express, Discover, MasterCard and Visa - all offer car rental insurance as a standard perk.

That's the message from a new study by CardHub.com, which recently compared car rental coverages of all four major credit cards. Overall, it ranked Visa highest for the most comprehensive coverage.

To be eligible for your credit card's coverage, the full vehicle rental must be charged on your credit card and you must decline the supplemental insurance offered by the rental company.

But there are some quirks and odd little twists:

July 17, 2012
Here are some more options for financial 'beach books'

If you're looking for some good reads this summer, my Sunday column on so-called financial "beach books," has some great picks by local financial professionals.

We also recently chatted up Jean Chatzky, the personal finance author and Today show TV commentator, who shared her summer reading list.

"I just downloaded a few mysteries, including "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn. And "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business" by NY Times reporter Charles Duhigg."

Not surprisingly, Chatzky also recommended her newest book, "Money Rules: The Simple Path to Lifelong Security."

"It's an easy read; there's one rule to a page. It's a good one to send with a kid going off to college, for sure."

July 13, 2012
Foreign travel: Is it worth it to exchange $$ at your local bank?

In a recent Sunday column on summer travel tips, one of the topics was the best way to get cash while traveling in foreign countries.

A Davis reader, who's planning a trip to England, asked a follow-up question: Is it a good idea - or a waste of time - to get foreign currency at your local bank before leaving the country?

Here's the blunt reply from Ed Perkins, travel writer for SmarterTravel.com: "It's a waste of time - and a waste of money. Unless you're trading really big amounts, your own bank likely gives you a lousy rate - maybe not as bad as an airport kiosk, but worse than you get with almost all plastic."

His advice for overseas cash still holds: Use a credit card for major purchases like hotels and restaurants, but get cash using your debit card from a foreign bank's ATM machine.

July 7, 2012
UCDavis: Another way to get an accounting education

In a recent Sunday column, I wrote about the demand for college accounting majors, who are avidly sought-after by employers. To meet the demand, there's a new UC Davis master's degree in professional accounting that's starting this fall, as well as a longtime master's degree at CSU Sacramento that's taught online-only.

But it turns out there's another route to getting an accounting education at UCD, through a certificate program designed for working professionals. Here's what John O'Neill, marketing director for UC Davis Extension, wrote us:

"UC Davis Extension has been offering this program for nearly a year, and it's designed for professionals who want to switch their focus to accounting or just become compliant with the new CPA regulations going into effect in 2014. The total cost is less than $5,000, and graduates are fully prepared to take their CPA exam."

July 6, 2012
Reverse mortgages: Tips for seniors

In a recent post, we wrote about a new report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which is concerned that seniors may be confused or unclear what they're getting into with a reverse mortgage.

That scrutiny prompted the industry group, the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association, to announce a "Borrow with Confidence" campaign to more fully explain how a reverse mortgage works. It created Your Road Map to a Reverse Mortgage.

July 2, 2012
Road trippin': Save time, money with these summer travel tips

My Sunday column on summer travel tips is designed to save you time and money. Here are some extra tips that weren't in the column:

Road trippin'
If you'll be driving long distances, consider roadside assistance coverage. It's there if you need a tow truck, a dead battery jumpstart or you lock your keys in the car. There's the tried-and-true AAA, as well as plans through some insurance companies, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and others. Fees vary. Basic AAA and AARP plans, for instance, run about $60 a year.

Local eats
If you want to avoid fast-food freeway meals, stop at produce stands or farmers' markets for fresh fruits, nuts and snacks. For restaurants, ask the locals or check websites like www.Roadfood.com, which lists readers' favorites nationwide. In the Sacramento region, its picks for "authentic regional eats" run from Ford's Real Hamburgers in Land Park to Al's Place in Locke to Putah Creek Cafe in Winters.

Foreign travel extras
Here are a couple extra notes about overseas travel from Ed Perkins, a SmarterTravel.com correspondent:

June 30, 2012
Reverse mortgages: Risky business or good for seniors?

Reverse mortgages - where homeowners 62 and older tap into their home equity - are appealing to many cash-strapped seniors.

Instead of paying a monthly mortgage payment, these seniors "reverse" their home loan and pull out their equity, either as a lump sum or in installments. When they move, sell or die, the mortgage balance and accumulated interest must be repaid.

But a new report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says reverse mortgages are becoming more risky.

Among its key findings: Reverse mortgages are more complex and harder to understand than in the past; more seniors are taking lump sum payments, making them vulnerable to investment losses and financial scams; mandatory counseling needs to be beefed up, including for spouses.

Have you done a reverse mortgage? We'd like to hear your thoughts on how it's helped or hurt your finances. Contact me at (916) 321-1968 or cbuck@sacbee.com

June 26, 2012
Summer travel tips? We want to hear your vacation $$-savers

Heading out on a road trip this summer? Flying the friendly skies to your destination? This week, we're gathering tips from readers on ways to save money while travelling. It can be your favorite travel tips on just about anything: Cellphones, snacks/food, packing ideas, you name it.

No matter where you're going or how you're getting there, we'd like to hear from you. Please contact personal finance writer Claudia Buck at (916) 321-1968 or cbuck@sacbee.com.

June 25, 2012
What's love gotta do with it? When it comes to money, plenty

Two hearts, one checking account. When it comes to money, it's not always easy being compatible. Couples often have different attitudes, different spending styles, different ideas about how to save and spend.

As the summer wedding season warms up, two women certified financial planners - one in LA, one in NYC - are hosting a "Love & Money" webinar today at 5 p.m. It's aimed at ensuring that women know how to talk about money with a romantic partner in a healthy way.

Check in to ask questions and see why Los Angeles-based CFP Brittney Castro says talking finances together can be just as fun as "sharing a bottle of wine together."

June 25, 2012
Want a job? Get an accounting degree: Sac State has online program

My Sunday Personal Finance column focused on a new, first-ever UC master's degree in accounting that's starting up this fall at UC Davis and UC Riverside.

And it's perfectly timed since accounting graduates are among the most sought after by U.S. employers. According to a recent survey of 600 companies, the most hard-to-fill jobs include: software developers, sales representatives, registered nurses and - yes - financial analysts and accountants.

The new UC degrees fit with a recent California state law requiring an extra year of accounting studies - essentially a master's degree - to qualify for a CPA license, starting in 2014.

June 22, 2012
Credit card complaint? Here's where to log financial gripes

If you're lucky, you have no complaints about your credit cards. You pay your bills on time; you don't get dinged with extra fees or unexpected charges.

But if you're one of the thousands of U.S. consumers who are unhappy with their credit card issuer, you've got a place to gripe. And see what others are complaining about, too.

On June 19, the federal government's new consumer watchdog agency - officially called the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau - allowed a peek inside its big database of credit card complaints. Since the agency opened last July, it's logged about 45,600 consumer complaints on credit cards, as well as mortgages, student loans and other financial products.

June 19, 2012
Need advice on managing your money? Ask the Experts

Got a question about taxes? Need some advice on retirement planning? Want to know the best approach to your 401(k)? Trying to sort out Mom and Dad's trust?

If you've got questions, our "Ask the Experts" trio has the answers. This week, we're introducing a new group: Kay Brooks, an estate planning attorney with Weintraub Genshlea Chediak Tobin & Tobin in Sacramento; Walt Romatowski, certified financial planner with Castellan Financial Advisors in Roseville; and John D. Winters, wealth advisor with Morgan Stanley Smith Barney LLC in Sacramento.

They join our roster of standing experts: IRS spokesman Jesse Weller on federal taxes; State Franchise Tax Board spokesman Daniel Tahara on state taxes; and Terri Carpenter, careers expert with the Sacramento Employment & Training Agency (SETA) on job hunting.

They're all part of our "Ask the Experts" online feature, where readers can post questions - and get free advice - on a medley of financial topics: taxes, investing, personal finances, wills/trusts. To post your question, look under "Ask A Question" in the right rail on this blog or go to www.sacbee.com/ask



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Meet Our Financial Experts

Claudia Buck

Claudia Buck is The Sacramento Bee's personal finance columnist. Read all her columns here. Contact her at cbuck@sacbee.com

Terri Carpenter

Terri Carpenter offers advice on job hunting, retraining and career counseling. Carpenter works at Sacramento Works Inc., the career and job training arm of the Sacramento Employment and Training Agency (SETA). With 15 years in the field, she has hands-on experience with everyone from first-time job seekers to career professionals seeking advice after a layoff or looking for a mid-career change. Ask her a question.

Carlena Tapella

Carlena Tapella is a partner in the law firm of Webb & Tapella Law Corp. in Sacramento. The firm specializes in estate planning and probate, such as estates, trusts, conservatorships and litigation. She is a past president of the Sacramento County Bar Association's Estate Planning & Probate Section. Ask her a question.

Kimberly Foss

Kimberly Foss, certified financial planner, is the founder of Empyrion Wealth Management in Roseville. With nearly 30 years in the financial industry, her clients include women in transition, small business owners, retirees and "pre-retirees." Ask her a question.

Jesse Weller

Gregory Burke, a CPA and tax expert with John Waddell & Co. in Sacramento since 1984, worked as an IRS tax auditor for six years. He’s a past chairman of the California Society of CPAs. Ask him a question.

Daniel Tahara

Daniel Tahara takes your questions about California taxes. Tahara, a spokesman for the state Franchise Tax Board, has 10 years of experience as a tax auditor. Ask him a question.



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