Author Archives: Joni Larson

Protect Yourself From Port-out Scams

Mobile phones not only contain our personal details and information about everyone we know; they are used to verify our identities and unlock access to our financial accounts.

Now scammers are using a process called a “port-out” to hack into our phones to change our passwords, steal our personal data and even empty our bank accounts.

Basics of the port-out scam

A port-out scam starts by manipulating the legitimate process you can use to move your mobile phone number from one carrier to another. A scammer calls a carrier and impersonates you to request that your mobile phone number and SIM card data be transferred to a new carrier and device owned by the scammer.

Once the scammer successfully ports out your number in this way, they are often able to use that as leverage to gain access to all your online accounts. That’s because like other online accounts, banks will respond to requests to change your password by sending the new password or a PIN to your phone.

Once the scammer uses a ported-out phone to change your passwords, not only are you locked out from accessing your accounts, but the scammer can now begin emptying them.

How to protect yourself

The key security vulnerability of the port-out scam is with the mobile phone carrier. When a customer calls to request changing their phone number to another carrier and device, the carrier will ask them to provide a PIN number. For some U.S. carriers including T-Mobile, the default PIN has been the last four digits of the customer’s Social Security number, unless they changed it to something else.

If you recall, last year the credit reporting agency Equifax disclosed that more than 143 million Americans – more than half the country – had their data exposed in a hacking security breach. The information exposed included names linked with phone numbers and Social Security numbers – in other words, everything a hacker would need to try a port-out scam.

Recently, T-Mobile sent text messages to customers warning them to change their PINs. It also set up a port-out protection page: https://www.t-mobile.com/customers/secure

No matter what carrier you use, it’s worthwhile updating your security information and PIN. It can take only minutes and it may avoid the devastating consequences of this scam. Make sure that the new PIN you choose is different from your carrier account password.

Here are the PIN protection links for the other three major U.S. carriers:

  • AT&T: http://about.att.com/sites/cybersecurity/ni/blog/porting
  • Sprint: https://shop2.sprint.com/en/legal/PIN_intro_popup.shtml

Verizon: https://www.verizonwireless.com/support/account-pin-faqs/

Get Your Small Business Off the Rocks

Every small business eventually hits a rough patch. It’s easy to get discouraged when it happens. But look at the upside: you have infrastructure in place, you have existing customers and most importantly, you have the hard-won experience of knowing what works and what doesn’t. With that in mind, here are some ideas to get things back on track:

  1. Focus on triage. Just like a hospital ranks patients for attention according to the severity and urgency of their injuries, you need to rank your biggest issues. First list what needs to be done urgently, such as paying bills, making payroll and delivering orders. Then rank what is most important long-term, like reviewing expenses, improving marketing and advertising, and gathering sales leads.

    This process means setting aside the idealistic business plan you had before you ran into problems and focusing on the nitty-gritty business realities of revenue, expenses and cash flow. You can pick up the business plan after you plug the holes in the boat, and revise it based on what you learned from your difficult period.

  2. Cut costs. If you are running into troubles you may be spending money on things that aren’t working. Try this exercise before trouble is seen on the horizon: ask yourself what you would eliminate first if your business situation took a turn to the worse. Second? Third? You’ve just made your cost-cutting priority list.
  3. Get market information. When your business isn’t working well, you need to take a closer look at your market. Look at what your most successful competitors are doing. Pick the brains of your customers, your vendors and your employees for their opinions about the products, services and companies in your industry.
  4. Improve your offering. Based on what you’ve learned from your market research, make improvements to your product or service. Use your research and business experience to help you narrow down your list to a few ideas, which you can then test through trial-and-error. One of the most disciplined ways to do this is through A/B testing: create two versions of your offering with one variable changed. Keep whichever one does better and scrap the other, then offer a new A/B test using the improved version. Your products or services will get better over time based on market feedback.
  5. Improve your operations. Your product or service may be great, but for some reason it’s not getting the attention of customers. Meanwhile, a competitor may be outselling you with something inferior. If that’s the case, you’ll need to revamp your operations: your marketing, advertising, sales and online presence. You can use the same A/B process you used to improve what you’re selling to improve how you sell: change one variable at a time and learn from trial-and-error what works and what doesn’t.

Remember, great businesses are those that address problems and use them to grow. When seen in this light your business will often become stronger as a result of periodic challenges.

Update on the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA)

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) was passed by Congress in a hurry late last year, and the IRS and tax preparers have been working to digest some of the more thorny issues created by the tax overhaul. Here are the latest answers to some of the most common questions:

  1. Is home equity interest still deductible?

The short answer is: Not unless you’ve used the money to buy, build or substantially improve your home.

Before the TCJA, homeowners were able to take out a home equity loan and spend it on things other than their residence, such as to pay off credit card debt or to finance large consumer purchases. Under the old tax code, they could deduct interest on up to $100,000 of such home equity debt.

The TCJA effectively writes the concept of home equity indebtedness out of the tax code. Now you can only deduct interest on “acquisition indebtedness,” meaning a loan secured by a qualified residence that is used to buy, build or substantially improve it. If you have taken out a home equity loan before 2018 and used it for any other purpose, interest on it is no longer deductible.

  1. I’m a small business owner. How do I use the new 20 percent qualified business expense deduction?

Short answer: It’s complicated and you should get help.

Certain small businesses structured as sole proprietors, S corporations and partnerships can deduct up to 20 percent of their qualified business income. But that percentage can be reduced after your taxable income reaches $157,500 (or $315,000 as a married couple filing jointly).

The amount of the reduction depends partly on the amount of wages paid and property acquired by your business during the year. Another complicating factor is that certain service industries including health, law, consulting, athletics, financial services and accounting are treated slightly differently.

The IRS is expected to issue more clarification on how these rules are applied, such as when your business is a mix of one of those service industries and some other kind of business.

  1. What are the new rules about dependents and caregiving?

There are a few things that have changed regarding dependents and caregiving:

  • Deductions. Standard deductions are nearly doubled to $12,000 for single filers and $24,000 for married joint filers. The code still says dependents can claim a standard deduction limited to the greater of $1,050 or $350 plus unearned income.
  • Kiddie Tax. Unearned income of children under age 19 (or 24 for full-time students) above a threshold of $2,100 is now taxed at a special rate for estates and trusts, rather than the parents’ top tax rate.
  • Family credit. If you have dependents who aren’t children under age 17 (and thus eligible for the Child Tax Credit), you can now claim $500 for each qualified dependent member of your household for whom you provide more than half of their financial support.
  • Medical expenses. You can now deduct medical expenses higher than 7.5 percent of your adjusted gross income. You can claim this for medical expenses you pay for a relative even if they aren’t a dependent (i.e., they live outside your household) as long as you provide more than half of their financial support.

Stay tuned for more guidance from the IRS on the new tax laws, and reach out if you’d like to set up a tax planning consultation for your 2018 tax year.