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5 Ways to Lighten Holidays for American Servicemen

November 25, 2013 8:54 pm

Until recently, it was possible to send care packages to U.S. service men and women by addressing the package “To Any Service Member” and sending it via the U.S, Postal Service. Increased mailing restrictions now make that impossible.

But if the holiday spirit moves you to remember service members or their families at holiday time this year, there are many non-profit (501c3) organizations dedicated to helping you do just that – and the donations you make are tax-deductible.

Here are a few suggestions to help get you started:

Operation USO – A visit to the website will enable you to donate $25 or more, which the USO will use to send care packages of needed and requested items to currently deployed service men and women.

Books for Soldiers – If you sign up at, you can send requested books, magazines DVDs and more directly to the soldiers who have asked for them.

Operation Wounded Warrior – The organization, which has mailed over 600,000 care packages to deployed service members, now provides Wounded Warrior Care Packages to service members recovering in military hospitals and transition units located on bases throughout the United States. You can start by going to

Operation Shoebox – Donations to this organization pay for the supplies and postage of care packages sent to American troops worldwide. Learn more and get started at

Camp Desert Kids – Through the website at, you can make a donation that will be used to pay for a camp experience for the children of service men and women. The camps use games, crafts, and regional food and drink to help teach kids about the place their parents are serving, helping military children to better understand the deployments that shape their lives.


'Tis the Season for Online Shopping Traps

November 25, 2013 8:54 pm

(BPT) - It doesn't matter if it's the day after Thanksgiving or the night before Christmas, cybercriminals don't take a holiday.

"People are spending with reckless abandon this time of year," says Christopher Elliott, consumer advocate and author of "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles and Shady Deals."

To avoid falling victim to these creative crooks, financial services company USAA advises consumers to watch out for these five common cyberscams.

Fake shopping sites

With all the hype about Black Friday and Cyber Monday, consumers go into shopping mode expecting to find good deals. But it is possible to get sucked in by websites selling counterfeit goods or overseas-based sites that take your money and provide nothing in return.

"Deals that are too good to be true are a huge red flag," warns, a site that collects consumer complaints.

* Never follow links sent by email. If you're going to follow search engine results, learn about the site before you make purchases or provide personal information.

* Watch out for sites with names that sound similar to popular sites or include a brand name in the URL. Research the site by typing its name into a search engine with the word complaints. You can also put the name in the Better Business Bureau database. If you don't find anything wrong, that doesn't necessarily mean you're home free. It could indicate the site was recently created. Scam sites often pop up overnight and quickly disappear when enough people catch on. also publishes user reviews of sites.

Promises of free stuff

Promotions to like a company's Facebook page in exchange for a $1,000 gift card or getting texts with similar ploys have become more prevalent. Why? Because people fall for them. Identity thieves count on consumers entering their personal and financial information to get the freebie.

A company is not going to give away a $1,000 gift card in exchange for a like and won't randomly text you with a similar deal. If you see one of these come-ons, delete it.

Buying through online auctions or classified sites

If you're looking for a deal or an offbeat item, turning to online auctions or classified sites could make sense. But they are also home to numerous scams.

* Use a credit card when buying online. Credit cards can protect consumers against fraud.

* Don't make a payment using a money transfer service to anyone you don't personally know, and use the same caution when asked to pay with a prepaid debit card.

* Don't pay upfront. If you're buying something locally, pay upon receipt of the item.

Phony Black Friday or other ads

If you're planning to shop on Black Friday or Cyber Monday, you want to see the big sales in advance. Cybercrooks know that so they create sites that try to capture traffic from searches for sales fliers. The goal is to get your personal information or have you click a link that loads your computer with malware that captures and transmits your information to them.

* Don't click on random links, and don't download attachments from people you don't know.

* Be sure your malware and virus protection software is up-to-date and turned on.

* If you're looking for Black Friday ads, find legitimate sales information at sites such as or

Holiday vacation deals you don't want

If the idea of spending the holidays on a cruise or lying on a warm beach appeals to you, you may be tempted by an offer laden with freebies. "Anytime you see the word 'free,' alarm bells should go off," Elliott says. "Free cruise. Free all-inclusive vacation. Free flights. All of those things are signs that you are probably looking at a scam."

In these sorts of deals, at some point you're going to be asked to a pay "taxes" or a fee. "Once you buy in, they'll promise you the world and they'll ask you to wire money," Elliott says.

* Use only trusted travel sites and rental agencies when booking.

* Don't fall for gimmicks that make a pricey vacation look like something you can get for a fee or a couple of hundred dollars. When those tantalizing promises are dangled, Elliott says, "don't walk away – run."


Word of the Day

November 25, 2013 8:54 pm

Broker. Licensed individual who acts independently in conducting a real estate brokerage business; also a person who buys and sells for another for a commission.


Q: How Do Lenders Define Bad Credit?

November 25, 2013 8:54 pm

A: It is all those things that appear on your credit report that are unflattering. They include: missing a credit card payment, defaulting on a previous loan, filing for bankruptcy in the past seven years, or not paying your taxes.

Other black marks include a judgment filed against you – perhaps for non-payment of spousal or child support – or any collection activity.



Itchin' to Update Your Kitchen? Five Steps to Create the Kitchen of Your Dreams

November 22, 2013 6:39 pm

Remodeling the kitchen. When you decide to tackle this daunting undertaking, you want to do it right. And, you're not alone. Forty-nine percent of homeowners plan to completely gut their existing kitchen and start with a clean state, according to a recent survey by Regardless of the scope of your project, if you're itchin' to update your kitchen, follow these five steps to design the space you've been dreaming about.

Step 1: Create a budget

Before picking up a single tool or seeking contractor recommendations from friends, it's important to determine how much you're willing to spend to achieve your ideal kitchen. Whether needing basic upgrades or a complete remodel, setting your budget will help to create a realistic plan from the start. There are a wide range of impactful updates to change the look of your space no matter what the price tag.

Step 2: Think about what you need (and what you want)

Take a step back and think about how you use the kitchen. Are you an avid baker who needs more counter space for rolling out confections? Do you like to make homemade pizza and the thought of a stone oven makes you drool? No matter what your dream space looks like, there's one area that everyone should update - the kitchen faucet.

Because it sees so much use on a daily basis, think about ways to make tasks easier, like installing a new pulldown faucet. From preparing meals and washing dishes, to watering plants and filling pitchers, you'll quickly notice the difference made by this simple update.

Beyond a new faucet, here are some of the most popular - and most desired - items for the kitchen, according to the Houzz survey:

  • Fifty percent said a chef's stove was their dream appliance
  • Seventy-five percent of respondents want soft, neutral colors in the kitchen
  • Sixty-five percent are looking to coordinate with stainless steel appliances
  • A custom pantry is the most popular kitchen storage item, followed by a utensil drawer
  • Granite is still the most desired countertop material

Step 3: Research and plan

Sources for ideas and inspiration are infinite - especially online. Sites like Pinterest and Houzz provide endless eye candy and design concepts for your new kitchen space; Houzz can even provide recommendations of local professionals to contact. To visualize a few of the upgrades you're considering - not to mention touch and feel them - visit a local kitchen showroom as they have a number of vignettes and "rooms" designed throughout. Magazine articles and features can also provide valuable how-to information and design advice. Just be sure to save any favorite ideas in one place, making everything easily accessible when it's time to get started.

Step 4: Determine your approach

Will you hire a pro or do most of the work yourself? If you're going to change the layout or remove walls in the kitchen, it's best to work with a professional contractor. Rewiring electrical or adding new light sources are also jobs best left to a certified electrician. If you're an avid DIYer, you may feel comfortable installing new cabinets, flooring and countertops. But there are certain projects, like the demo, painting and installation of a new faucet that anyone - and any skill level - can easily tackle.

Step 5: Get to work

If you haven't begun working on your kitchen project yet, you're not alone; 68 percent of Houzz respondents haven't started construction, either. But with the perfect plan and a list of updates to incorporate, it will be simple to create your dream kitchen space.

Source: Houzz, Moen



Do You Have a Family Business Succession Plan?

November 22, 2013 6:39 pm

A solid succession plan is essential to the longevity of a family business.

Though family businesses account for a staggering 50 percent of the gross domestic product of the United States, only 52 percent of family business owners have faith in younger relatives' ability to sustain the business for generations to come, according to a PwC survey reported by Forbes.

To assuage such concerns, here are five tips on how to form a family business succession plan:

  • Discuss the succession with the family. It's not uncommon for business owners to make bold business decisions without consulting anyone. But to get your family members on the same page, develop a collective vision and establish shared goals and objectives for the business.
  • Recognize blood isn't always thicker than water. Continued family involvement in the leadership and ownership of the company doesn't mean you need to shy away from professional management. As Forbes suggests, identify and retain a team of professional advisors.
  • Establish the succession plan's involved parties. Identify successors -- both managers and owners -- and decide who will run the day-to-day operations. Have a clear idea of the active and non-active roles of family members.
  • Plan for an ownership transfer. There are many different options for transferring your ownership interest to the next generation. Talk to your attorney and your accountant about the best way to transfer your business to limit gift and estate taxes. Be sure to address these issues in the event of death or divorce, too.
  • Balance the needs of the aging and the youthful. Address the retirement needs of family owners, but don't brush off the goals of next-generation management. To avoid future decision-making disputes, put meeting minutes in writing and share these documents with everyone.

To explore family business succession strategies that meet your specific needs, consulting a small business attorney may be a good place to start.

Source: FindLaw



Word of the Day

November 22, 2013 6:39 pm

Seller’s market. One with few sellers and many buyers.


Q: Do I Have to Disclose a Parent's Gift to the Lender?

November 22, 2013 6:39 pm

A: Lenders prefer that you do.  But relax, you are not penalized in any way for receiving parental help.  An estimated one-third of all first-time buyers purchase homes with a loan or a money gift from parents.

Lenders also will approve gifts, with the proper documentation, from relatives, friends, an employer, church, municipality, or nonprofit organization – although stricter restrictions may apply for gifts from friends and relatives other than parents.

Expect the lender to ask you to present a gift letter stating that a repayment of the "gift" is not expected. The amount of the gift and the date it was given should be clearly stated in the letter, along with the donor's name, address, telephone number and relationship to you.

The lender also can ask to see a few bank statements to ascertain if the money was recently placed into the account.

A gift may be more acceptable than an actual parental loan, particularly if the loan must be paid back immediately, which could contribute to an increase in your monthly debt – something a lender may frown on.


Stocks: Ten Trading Survival Techniques

November 22, 2013 6:39 pm

In our sluggishly recovering economy, there are many threats to your bank account: job loss, underemployment, falling incomes, rising costs, and more. Wouldn’t it be great if you could earn some extra cash to counteract this slow financial bleed…and maybe even sock away some money for the future? If you enter the world of stock trading, you can.

But wait, you think. Isn’t stock trading mostly for Armani-suited Wall Streeters who spend all day shouting “Buy! Sell! Buy! Sell!” into their BlackBerries? Real people like me don’t actually make money by taking the things Jim Cramer rants about on CNBC seriously…do they?

Actually, they do. You don’t have to be a Wall Street hotshot to use stock trading as a responsible and lucrative way to increase your income, say authors Michael Griffis and Lita Epstein.

“It’s true that trading used to be the domain of institutional and corporate representatives, but now technical advances have leveled the playing field, making trading much more accessible to individuals,” says Griffis, coauthor along with Epstein of Trading For Dummies®, 3rd Edition. “If you’re disciplined and are willing to learn, you can develop a winning trading strategy.”

That—helping individuals learn how to competently and confidently trade—is the purpose of Trading For Dummies®, 3rd Edition. In this accessible volume, Griffis and Epstein explain the how-tos of trading in plain English, covering topics including stock charts, trading techniques, analyzing trends and indicators, and much more.

“Before you get started, it’s important to understand the differences between trading and investing, which many people incorrectly assume are the same thing,” comments Epstein. “Investors buy stocks with the goal of building a balanced portfolio and hold them for a long time—often decades. Traders, on the other hand, hold stocks for as little as a few minutes or as long as several months—more rarely, a year or more. In other words, trading tends to be much more fast-paced and involved than investing.”

“In large part because of its dynamic nature, trading is not a risk-free activity,” notes Griffis. “Although some losses are inevitable, you’ll want to minimize their frequency and severity so that you can stay solvent to trade another day. Our book will give you the principles and advice you need in order to do that.”

Here, Griffis and Epstein review ten of the top trading survival techniques to keep in mind as you enter the world of trading:

Build your trading tool chest. Before you buy anything, you need to be certain that you have the right mix of trading software, hardware, and Internet access to be successful. You need the right tools to identify trading candidates; display and interpret charts; research trading opportunities; screen stocks for technical or fundamental constraints; and monitor and analyze your portfolio, open positions, market indexes, sectors, and trading statistics.

“In summary, the proper tools are the core of any good trader’s business,” says Epstein. “They’re critical to finding the right trades and then monitoring those positions after you’ve found and entered them. Without the right tools, your chances of success drop dramatically, so don’t scrimp in this area!”

Choose and use your favorite tools wisely. As you begin sorting out your software and hardware and making contact with other traders, you’ll probably find out about the hundreds of tools and charts that are out there on the market.

“You don’t need to learn and use them all,” assures Griffis. “To avoid driving yourself crazy, pick the top two or three trading tools that make sense to you and fit your trading style. Take your time getting to know how they work and how best to interpret the information they generate. Use them to build the types of charts that match your trading style and don’t worry about learning all the new gadgets. If your tools are working and you’re making a good profit, don’t rush to add the newest tool innovation.”

Use both technical and fundamental analyses. You may have heard that all traders use technical analysis and believe that fundamental analysis is a waste of time. Don’t believe it. Although technical analysis is crucial to finding the right entry and exit points, fundamental analysis improves your ability to make the right stock choices, given market and economic conditions.

“You’ll find as a trader that knowing the current state of the economy and the state of the market is critical,” comments Epstein. “Using a combination of fundamental and technical analyses, your chances of identifying bull and bear markets and finding phases of transition and consolidation improve dramatically. Your best trading opportunities are at the beginning of these phases of change, so be sure that you understand the six phases of the market—bullish transition, bull market, bullish pullback, bearish transition, bear market, and bearish pullback—and know which sectors offer you the best trading opportunities within each of those phases.”

Count on the averages to make your moves. You may think that using data from averages to find the right time to enter or exit a position is counterintuitive, but moving averages can be powerful trading indicators. Moving averages actually smooth out the data for you visually and help you identify any trends. Although they can’t predict the future, they nevertheless help you understand the past so you can more effectively extrapolate what may happen to a stock in the future.

“Be sure to find out how to use moving averages and what they mean,” instructs Griffis. “After you understand them and what goes into them, you can manipulate moving averages to your advantage and to coincide with your trading style.”

Develop and manage your trading system. You need to have a road map that helps you find buy and sell signals for your trades. A trading system is such a map. It’s developed using a collection of tools created from technical and fundamental analyses, all woven together to let you know when it’s time to enter or exit positions.

“You can buy trading systems off the shelf, but these systems are available to thousands of others who ultimately will end up with the same buy and sell signals,” points out Epstein.

“To be able to trade outside the pack, you need to develop your own trading system, using your own favorite tools. Although you can use tools provided in off-the-shelf software packages, you want to develop and adapt a trading system that fits uniquely with your personality and trading objectives.”

Know your costs. Trading isn’t cheap. Even if you’re using stop or limit orders, you’ll rarely end up executing trades at the exact entry or exit prices you plan. Some slippage (or the difference between the quoted price and the actual price for the security) is bound to occur, so in addition to carefully monitoring your commission costs and transaction fees, you’ll also need to keep an eye on slippage costs.

“In addition, don’t forget to consider the tax man,” warns Griffis. “If you’re trading stocks that you hold for less than a year, any profits you make are taxed as current income instead of at lower capital-gains tax rates.”

Have an exit strategy. Knowing when to take your profits and get out and when to accept your losses and close a position before it becomes even more damaging can be among the hardest lessons any trader must learn. All too often you’re enticed by the win and want to ride it to the absolute top.

“Wise traders plan their exit points at the top and bottom of each position long before they ever enter that position,” Epstein shares. “And more important, they stick to their plan. Getting caught up in the emotions of a winning trade is easy, but don’t forget you’re operating a business. Take your profits when you reach your goal and get out so you don’t risk turning a winning position into a loss. And when you do make a mistake, own up to it quickly, take your hit, and get out of the position. If the stock recovers, you can always reenter the position at a later time.”

Watch for signals; don’t anticipate them. After you make a decision to buy a stock, you may find that you’re impatient to actually get into that position. You start watching the charts and waiting for the right signal to buy. Often, you’ll see charts move close to your planned signal but not actually reach it.

“Be patient,” Griffis instructs. “Wait for the signal you’ve designated in your plan. Don’t anticipate any moves, even if the stock price is getting close to that point on your charts. You may miss the perfect entry point, but you’ll be less likely to make the fatal mistake of entering a position before the signal is triggered, only to see your stock reverse course and be forced to take a loss.”

Buy on strength; sell on weakness. Buy on strength and sell on weakness is a mantra you’ve probably heard frequently from investment and trading gurus. The reason for its popularity is a good one: It works! And it needs to become your trading way of life.

“When you see a stock showing strength and heading into an uptrend, it’s time to buy,” says Epstein. “When you see a stock falling and showing signs of entering a weakening period, it’s time to sell. If a weak stock takes a turn for the better, you can always reenter the position.”

Keep a trading journal and review it often. The best way to improve your trading skills is to keep track of what works and what doesn’t. After each trade, take the time to write down the details of what went right and/or wrong with that trade, and why. You can improve only what you measure, so measure everything and put it in a trading journal.

“Don’t forget to review the contents of your journal every week,” instructs Griffis. “You may find that reviewing your successes is enjoyable but reviewing your failures is difficult. Failure, however, sometimes is the best teacher. Try figuring out why your failed trades didn’t work and what you could’ve done to improve your results. And, of course, don’t ignore your successes. After all, you need to know what works and why so that you can incorporate those winning strategies more consistently into your trading system.”

“How successful you become as a trader depends on how well you use your tools, gather the necessary information, and interpret the data you have,” concludes Epstein. “While these survival techniques aren’t a complete guide by any means, they will help you to make smart decisions while avoiding potential pitfalls.”


Sunshine State Storm, Timeshare Scams Can Victimize Anyone

November 22, 2013 6:39 pm

You can learn a lot from various consumer protection agencies and other government agencies in virtually every state in the nation. In many cases, situations being reported in one state are actually happening across numerous states and even the entire country.

With the potential for serious storms and hurricanes threatening homeowners and properties this fall and winter, we picked up on this warning from Florida's Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR).

That agency recently noted that a frequent problem after a disaster is “fly-by-night” contractors who take deposits before starting work or final payment before finishing. The agency offers some good advice that is applicable far beyond Florida, however.

When seeking a post-storm contractor, the agency advises property owners to be cautious of repair businesses or individuals who:

  • Solicit door-to-door,
  • Arrive in unmarked vehicles,
  • Have a post office box or temporary address,
  • Claim they are from another county or state and are in the area solely to help disaster victims,
  • Or claim that they were doing work in the area and noticed that your home needed repairs.

The agency advises that if your home is in need of repair, you should get at least three itemized estimates and check each contractor’s address, license, and complaint history; never agree to a cash-only deal; and ask for a written estimate and inspect the terms carefully before signing and agreeing to any offer.

Honest contractors earn the majority of their business through referrals from satisfied customers, they don't have to to travel door-to-door to find business. Ask contractors to justify their bids by listing the work/materials that are included - this allows you to make valid comparisons between any estimates.

Florida's DBPR also recently issued a consumer advisory after learning that individuals falsely posing as Department employees are allegedly targeting victims of timeshare scams. The callers are asking victims for cash to pursue refunds for the money they lost in order to obtain full repayment for the victims.

Remember, no matter where you are, the rule of thumb is - do not respond to any unsolicited caller saying they represent a government agency by giving out personal information, by sending money or authorizing them to deduct money from a bank account.


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