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Thomas Skiffington, CRS, GRI, CRB, ABR, ePro, CLHMS, SRES, RECS, CDPE, ECOBROKER
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Perkasie, PA 18944
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Office Phone: 215-453-7653
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Tom's Blog

U.S. Tax Payers Have Low Awareness of Identity Theft Risks during Tax Season

February 13, 2012 6:18 pm

PrivacyGuard, a leading identity theft and credit management product of the Affinion Security Center, recently announced the results of its annual tax and identity theft survey. The survey found that while consumers remain concerned about identity theft, there are some common misconceptions about the risk of preparing and submitting their tax documents, and many are engaging in risky behaviors online that could lead to identity theft.

The Federal Trade Commission's 2010 Consumer Complaint Report, listed tax or wage related fraud as the cause of 15 percent of identity theft claims, higher than credit card fraud, employment fraud, bank fraud, or loan fraud.

PrivacyGuard's survey of 500 people revealed that respondents were aware of the possible risks of sharing personal information during a transaction. Additionally, 88 percent reported that they worry that the organization they are sharing their personal information with could suffer a data breach. Retailers were chosen overwhelmingly (46 percent) as the least trustworthy institution, followed by credit card companies and government agencies. When a data breach occurs, respondents are more likely (38 percent) to blame the institution that was breached than the thieves that stole the data (34 percent).

Although respondents expressed concern about data breaches, the survey reflected some carelessness among consumers when protecting their account information. Only 31 percent had a unique password for each site they use, which could increase the risk of identity theft.

Leary of Tax Preparers; Taking Risks with Online Tax Submission
Respondents expressed mistrust of their tax preparers, with 53 percent feeling concerned or very concerned about identity theft when choosing a tax preparer. This number is up from 41 percent in 2011.
Postal mail continued to be the most trustworthy of delivery options with most respondents (60 percent) listing it as the most secure way to file their taxes. However, the majority of respondents (53 percent) assumes the risk and submits their taxes online.

Low Awareness of IRS Contact Methods
Respondents have grown increasingly ignorant about the methods the IRS uses to initiate contact with tax payers, with many selecting the wrong option: 40 percent believe the IRS can contact them via email, mail or phone and 4 percent believe that the IRS will contact them through email. The IRS does not initiate contact with taxpayers through email. Last year the survey results showed a similar trend, with 50 percent selecting the email, mail or phone option.

"Americans have become increasingly concerned about the risk of identity theft over the past few years," says Christine El Eris, Director of Product for PrivacyGuard. "However, taxpayers need to be aware of the unique risks they face during tax season."

The following tips can help prevent identity theft during tax season:

When Preparing Your Return
1. Be Aware of Suspicious Emails and Phone Calls Regarding Your Tax Refund, Tax Filing or Any Stimulus Checks – Check the IRS website for tips on how to spot scammers and thieves posing as the IRS and a list of known phishes.
2. Be Diligent When Choosing Your Tax Preparers – Ensure that you are working with a credible firm and be extra cautious about new or seasonal offices. Check the IRS website for more tips on how to choose a tax preparer.
3. Secure your computer – If you file taxes electronically, be sure to install updated firewalls and anti-spyware protection to help keep your personal data out of the hands of thieves.

During and After Filing
1. Mail securely – If you file via mail, be sure to mail your return directly from the post office – do not leave your tax return in your unlocked mailbox or at the curb for pickup by your local mail carrier. Your personal information will be vulnerable until it is retrieved by the postal carrier. It is wise to send tax information by first class mail with a tracking number.
2. Safeguard Sensitive Information in Home and Outside – Frequently the greatest threat to personal information comes from service providers or in-home workers or acquaintances. Keep paperwork in a safe location. When carrying this information out of the house, be sure to keep it on you or make sure if you leave it in the car, it is not visible.
3. Micro-Shred Your Documents – Cross-cut shredders just don't "cut" it these days. Use a micro-cut shredder for maximum security. The shred size on micro-cut machines is much smaller – documents are literally turned into dust, offering the highest level of security. And since even a seven year- old receipt can be used by a thief, shredding is still one of the simplest ways to prevent identity theft.

Source: www.affinionsecuritycenter.com.
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Question of the Day

February 13, 2012 6:18 pm

Q: Once I choose a contractor, what items should be covered in the contract?

A: According to the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, a well-written contract should contain the following information:

• The contractor’s name, address, telephone and license number, if applicable;
• Details about what will and will not be done;
• A detailed list of materials for the project, including model, brand name and color.
• The approximate start date and substantial completion dates.
• A written notice of your right to cancel a contract within three business days of signing, without penalty – provided the contract was solicited at some place other than the contractor’s place of business or appropriate trade premise.
• Financial terms that are spelled out clearly, including payment schedules and any cancellation penalties.
• A one-year minimum warranty identified as either “full” or “limited” to cover materials and workmanship, as well as the name and address of the party who will honor the warranty.
• A binding arbitration clause, in the event a disagreement occurs.

You may also want to include a statement that you will not be responsible if payment to the contractors’ subcontractors and suppliers are not made. You may also want to establish that the contractor should obtain all the necessary permits and that all blank spots in the contract be filled in with phrases like “does not apply.”
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Do's and Don'ts on Air Travel and Pregnancy

February 10, 2012 6:10 pm

Congratulations! You've just received the news that you're expecting. Did you already have travel plans booked? Or are you planning to take a babymoon prior to the little one's arrival but not sure about the safety of flying while pregnant?

Air travel is generally safe for pregnant women. However, traveling pregnant does come with some warnings. To help ease some of the anxiety, read on for a sample of the travel tips from the team at Cheapflights as well as some of the very practical advice we've collected from experts on flying while pregnant.

1. Quick tips for healthy air travel while pregnant
• Travel with at least one companion who also has your emergency contact info in addition to your doctor's number programmed into their phone.
• Carry documentation with your expected date of delivery, doctor's contact info, and your blood type.
• Stay hydrated. Dehydration on airplanes can be worse when you're pregnant, so drink plenty of caffeine-free, non-alcoholic fluids before, during, and after the flight.

2. When is the best time to fly? According to the American College of Obstetricians & Gynecologists, air travel is safest for pregnant women during the second trimester—weeks 18 to 24. If you are considering a flight during your pregnancy, check with both your doctor and the airline before you book.
According to one of our experts, Colleen Lanin of TravelMamas.com, "In the first trimester you may be too nauseated to enjoy your time away. In the third trimester you may be too uncomfortable and not feel up for doing much of anything."

3. Each airline has its own rules for flying while pregnant - If you're booking your flights with an agent, let them know that you're pregnant when you book your flight and check that you are permitted to fly. If booking your flights online, be sure to check the airline's website. It is worth calling ahead to alert the airline about your pregnancy—this should also ensure that you get special service to keep you comfortable. It's also recommended that you avoid smaller planes that fly below 7,000 feet, and choose larger planes with pressurized cabins.

4. Make yourself comfortable - Especially during pregnancy, reserving the right seat on the airplane can make a difference. You will need to be able to get up and move around the plane. Try and reserve a spacious seat when you make your booking. Many airlines' websites have information about the varying legroom on each of their seats. If you plan to travel pregnant, it's worth spending a few extra bucks to get a bit more room. Be aware, though, that traditional "extra legroom" seats, such as those on the exit aisles, are often not permitted to those who are pregnant.

Another of our experts, Jodi Grundig of MomsFavoriteStuff.com, adds this tip, "While I generally love direct flights, if you are flying long distance, two shorter flights may be better. That way, you can get out, stretch, eat a nice meal and recharge."

5. Tips for your vacation - Once the flight's over, it's time to enjoy the vacation. Here are just a few more things to consider:
• Skin is more sensitive during pregnancy, so wear stronger sunscreen than usual.
• Keep a list of names and numbers to be contacted in case of emergency.
• Keep a list of local hospitals from the embassy or tourist board.

Source: www.cheapflights.com.
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Word of the Day

February 10, 2012 6:10 pm

Zoning. Procedure that classifies real property for a number of different uses: residential, commercial, industrial, etc. in accordance with a land-use plan.
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Question of the Day

February 10, 2012 6:10 pm

Q: Are shared equity and shared appreciation mortgages the same?

A: No. With a shared appreciation mortgage, or SAM, a borrower receives a below-market interest rate in return for the lender receiving a share, usually 30 to 50 percent, in the future appreciation of the property upon its sale.

Introduced in the early 1980's, when interest rates were high enough to make qualifying for a mortgage a real challenge, the SAM has never really caught on. Adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs) proved more attractive.
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Toothpaste Matters: What’s in Your Tube?

February 10, 2012 6:10 pm

Most parents are careful about learning what’s in the stuff their kids eat and drink. They avoid artificial dyes, preservatives, chemicals, and sweeteners. Yet ask just about any of those same folks if they have ever looked at what is in their toothpaste and you’ll likely get blank stares.

Considering the fact that children—and adults—ingest toothpaste twice a day every day, it’s probably the most frequent thing we put in our mouths other than water or other beverages. And still, most people have never looked at what is in their toothpaste.

Dentist and national oral health care expert Harold Katz, suggests that needs to change. Many ingredients in some commercial toothpastes are of questionable benefit and some are just plain bad for you.

Consumers have become increasingly aware of the hidden toxins in foods, beverages and eating and drinking utensils, he says. They avoid high fat and high sodium foods, sulfates in their personal care products, aerosol sprays, and toxic chemicals in their household cleaners.

“They’re taking no chances, and rightfully so. Remember the rush to replace plastic baby bottles with glass ones after the BPA scare in 2008?” he asked.

However there has been a surprising lack of attention to toothpaste, Katz says. The dentist suggests that all consumers – but especially parents – take the time to read their toothpaste tubes today. Effects of potentially unhealthy toothpaste ingredients are multiplied in the smaller bodies of children.

Here are a few ingredients to stay away from:
• FD&C blue dye No. 2: This commonly used toothpaste dye is one of several on the list of additives to avoid, maintained by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. It’s said to be linked to learning, behavioral and health problems, severe allergic reactions, and headaches, among other problems.

• Sodium lauryl sulfate:
The American College of Toxicology reports this ingredient in cosmetics and industrial cleaning agents can cause skin corrosion and irritation. Doses of .8 to 110 grams/kilogram in lab rats caused depression, labored breathing, diarrhea and death in 4 out of 20 animals.

• Triclosan: An anti-microbial ingredient, the federal Environmental Protection Agency lists triclosan as a pesticide and regulates its use in over-the-counter toothpastes and hand soaps. According to the agency’s fact sheet, “Studies on the thyroid and estrogen effects led EPA to determine that more research on the potential health consequences of endocrine effects of triclosan is warranted. … Because of the amount of research being planned and currently in progress, it will undertake another comprehensive review of triclosan beginning in 2013.”

• Saccharin and aspartame: Both of these artificial sweeteners are on the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s list of additives to avoid.

Toothpaste buyers should look for natural ingredients, such as aloe vera juice, which cleans and soothes teeth and gums and helps fight cavities, according to the May/June 2009 issue of General Dentistry, the Academy of General Dentistry's clinical, peer-reviewed journal. Aloe vera tooth gel is said to kill disease-causing bacteria in the mouth, Katz says.

Also, avoid all toothpastes that contain sodium lauryl sulfate, a harsh detergent that has been linked to canker sores. Toothpastes that are free of sulfates include Weleda’s Salt Toothpaste, TheraBreath and Tom’s of Maine.

Brush your teeth at least twice a day and get children into the habit from a young age, Katz says. You’ll have fresh breath, avoid painful dental problems, and be far more likely to have your teeth in your mouth when you go to sleep at night as you age.

Just be sure to check what’s in your family’s toothpaste and avoid buying anything with problematic ingredients. And when it comes to brushing kids teeth use a pea-sized drop of paste on the brush—no more—and oversee brushing to ensure young children don’t swallow their toothpaste, says Dr Katz.
Source: www.therabreath.com
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Buying Federal Real Estate

February 10, 2012 6:10 pm

If you are a citizen looking to purchase Federal real estate, the federal Government Services Administration (GSA) Office of Real Property Utilization and Disposal stands ready to handle your Federal real estate acquisition, utilization and disposal needs.

According to the GSA, there are three easy steps to finding and buying surplus Federal real estate through their Office of Real Property Disposal. As in any real estate transaction, bidders participate in an open, competitive market for the best purchase price.

PBS serves as the Federal Government’s builder, developer, lessor, and manager of government- owned and leased properties. And PBS is the largest and most diversified real estate organization in the world—responsible for managing the utilization and disposal of Federal excess and surplus real property government-wide.

There are three relatively easy steps to get started if you want to consider acquiring a PBS property:

Step 1 – Find Available Real Estate
Property Disposal Websites GSA publishes current and upcoming public sales information on its free website: www.propertydisposal.gsa.gov.The website features a U.S. map, which allows users to search for properties by state and type. Additional federal properties can also be found at www.govsales.gov, the official site to buy U.S. government property from various Federal agencies.

Step 2 – Obtain an Invitation for Bid
GSA provides all the information necessary to bid on a particular property in the Invitation for Bid (IFB) package. You can obtain an IFB for a specific property by clicking on: propertydisposal.gsa.gov - or by calling the applicable GSA regional office.

If you don't have access to the Internet, the regional GSA office responsible for available property in your state can provide additional information. IFB packages generally include the following information:

• location of the property
• property description
• maps
• pictures
• zoning and land use regulations
• environmental conditions
• general terms of the sale
• directions to the property
• Inspection guidelines

The final part of the process—acquiring your government-owned property—will be covered in a future segment.
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Warm Weather Heats Up Termite Activity

February 10, 2012 6:10 pm

According to Atlanta-based pest control leader Orkin, the above-average temperatures much of the U.S. has seen recently could mean earlier termite activity. Subterranean termite swarms have already been seen in south-central Florida and will move west into the Gulf states, north into the Carolinas and then spread throughout the country.

When the temperature rises above 60 degrees, termites often swarm inside homes before moving outdoors to search for food and water. Jim Warneke, Orkin's Southeast division technical services manager, noted homeowners should not assume termite swarms are flying ants, a common misperception based on appearance. Termites are found in every state except Alaska and thrive in warm and damp, humid climates.

"Termites get moisture from the ground or use moisture found in a home or building from leaks or condensation," says Warneke. "Moisture combined with increasing temperatures make springtime conditions in the South ideal for termite activity."

Even though termites are most visible in the spring, they can damage property year-round. According to the National Pest Management Association, termites cause about $5 billion in damage per year in the U.S. Warneke suggests homeowners contact a pest management professional if they suspect any termite activity, because the warning signs can be subtle and often go unnoticed until structural damage has already occurred.

"Signs of an infestation can include termite swarms, mud tubes and piles of discarded wings," says Warneke. "After the termites swarm—usually during warm spring days—they can shed their wings and leave piles of them behind."

Termites are attracted to light, so swarms are typically found around lighting fixtures and windowsills. Mud tubes act as a protective tunnel and provide moisture for the termites. The mud tubes are about the size of a pencil and usually run vertically on the inside or outside of a building's foundation.

Warneke recommends the following tips to help prevent termites from entering your home:
• Keep gutters clear, and direct water from downspouts away from your home.
• Do not pile mulch or allow soil to accumulate against your home's siding. This could provide access for termites to enter your home.
• Pay close attention to dirt-filled porches and crawlspaces. Termites could have easy access to wood through cracks in foundation walls or if wood is in contact with the soil.

Source: http://orkin.com.
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Finance for Two: Money Tips for Smart Couples

February 10, 2012 6:10 pm

Love is in the air on Valentine's Day as tokens are exchanged between couples for the sake of St. Valentine. This year instead of the traditional cards, candy and flowers, opt for a present that could leave a lasting, positive effect on your relationship: money management. It's one topic frequently ignored and can cause turmoil in any relationship.

Fighting about finances is a problem in many relationships. According to a study conducted by Money Magazine, 13 percent of couples say they fight about money several times a month. "Worrying about individual finances is a strain by itself, and throwing another person's financial habits into the mix can sometimes be overwhelming," says Steve Johnson, Regional President, M&I, a part of BMO Financial Group. "I'm no Cupid, but agreeing on certain points financially can establish guidelines, direct actions and hopefully prevent future disagreements."

Johnson suggests four financial topics that every couple should discuss:
Budget: Establishing a budget for certain monthly items like dining out, entertainment purchases, and grocery spending can help make future arguments disappear. At least once a month, there should be a regular "budget night" where you and your partner get together to discuss your joint financial status. You can review spending and savings activities, and then make financial adjustments and decisions together.
Prior Debt: Coming into a relationship, you or your partner may have student loans, a car loan, credit cards, overdraft lines of credit, etc. Cash flow can be greatly affected by previously accumulated debt. Additionally, a big influence on your financial health as a couple is the way you each handle your debt obligations. Knowing your partner's credit history can offer a glimpse into the future. If either or both of you have had problems making payments in the past, that can have a negative impact on your ability to rent an apartment, get a joint loan, and will result in higher rates charged by utility and insurance companies. Developing a plan to improve upon past mistakes can remove a lot of strain from your relationship.
Savings Goals: Whether you want to save for a trip around the world or want to put money in your 401(k), financial goals need to be established up front. For most, the top three financial goals include buying a home, saving for retirement and building up an education savings account. Making your wishes known to your partner can help the two of you establish a financial plan that incorporates what is important to both of you.
Major Purchases: Be open and honest about major purchases. Simply discussing a purchase beforehand can save you from a potential fight.

Financials do not have to become a stress point within a relationship, so this Valentine's Day say "I love you" with a thoughtful conversation about finances. By discussing financial topics and handling resources as a team, managing money as a couple can be a little easier.

Source: BMO Harris Bank N.A.
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Word of the Day

February 10, 2012 6:10 pm

Acceleration clause. Stipulation in a mortgage agreement that allows the lender to demand immediate payment of the entire loan balance if any scheduled payment is missed.
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