When Telemarketer Calls Don’t Ring True

There are federal rules that prohibit a variety of unfair or deceptive advertising practices, and enable consumers to stop most telemarketer calls by placing their personal phone and cell numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry (www.donotcall.gov).  The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and other agencies have reported increases in complaints involving telemarketers that may be perpetrating scams or otherwise violating federal and state laws.

According to the FTC, the vast majority of the violations of the do-not-call rules involve “robocalls,” which are pre-recorded phone messages that companies send to thousands of phones at the same time. Some companies continue to make robocalls to people who have signed up for the Do Not Call Registry, using fake “caller IDs” that make them hard to identify or trace. These calls might be scams.

Michael Benardo, manager of the FDIC’s Financial Crimes Section, explained one scam involving a pre-recorded message supposedly from a financial institution or a government agency, describing some “urgent” matter. “If you return the call, you might be asked a series of personal questions using the touch-tone keypad on your telephone. The information you are asked to provide, such as account numbers, personal identification numbers (PINs), birth dates, and passwords, can be used to access to your bank account or commit identity theft,” said Benardo.

He added, “Your financial institution or a government agency would never contact you asking for such information. When in doubt, call your institution or the government agency that the call is supposedly from by using a phone number that you know or that you find, not the number in the message.”

Because it may be difficult to get your money back, remember the following:

If you get a robocall, hang up. Don’t press “1” to speak to a live operator and don’t press any other number to (supposedly) get your phone number off a call list. Doing so will probably just lead to more robocalls.

Never give out personal identification information over the phone unless you initiate the call and know the other party is reputable. This includes bank account and credit card numbers, Social Security numbers, account passwords and PIN numbers.

Thoroughly check out any offer before agreeing to it. Always ask for key details in writing. Carefully read all applications and contracts so that you understand your potential costs, risks and requirements. You also can research an offer with help from your state or local consumer protection agency (start at www.usa.gov/directory/stateconsumer) or your state Attorney General’s office (http://www.naag.org/naag/attorneys-general/whos-my-ag.php).

Assume that any offer that “sounds too good to be true” — especially one from a stranger or an unfamiliar company — is probably a fraud. “Common examples of scams include fake lottery winnings, bogus job offers, and promises of an investment paying significantly above market rates,” said Kathryn Weatherby, a fraud examination specialist for the FDIC.

Resist pressure to make a decision immediately. Here are a few red flags that can help you spot a scam:

  • You’re told to send money or provide bank account information before you receive anything in return;
  • You sense a reluctance on the part of the caller to answer questions or provide written information; and
  • You’re told you already agreed to pay money but you don’t remember that.

If you think you’re a victim, file a complaint with the FTC (at www.ftc.gov/complaint or toll-free at 1-877-382-4357) and with your police. For more tips on topics like reducing robocalls, avoiding phone scams and stopping unwanted mail and calls, start at the FTC’s Web site (www.ftc.gov).

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Buying or Refinancing a Home?

Seven do-it-yourself tips for choosing and managing a mortgage

Do you have a mortgage loan or are you in the market for one? With new disclosures and other consumer protection rules, and fluctuations in interest rates, it’s good to review some key strategies to keep costs down for your home loan.

“Since a mortgage may be the largest and most complex financial obligation you will ever enter into, be sure to do your homework before and after you commit to a loan,” said Jonathan Miller, a Deputy Director in the FDIC’s Division of Depositor and Consumer Protection.

Here are tips on keeping borrowing costs low and thinking ahead about issues that might arise.

For Anyone Looking for a Mortgage

  1. Remember that loan programs can change and lenders’ policies may vary, so research new opportunities before applying for a mortgage. For example, more lenders are beginning to offer borrowers the chance to obtain a mortgage with a smaller down payment. Why is that happening?
    1. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will now buy mortgages from lenders that have down payments as low as 3 percent. This change could lead to more lenders lowering their down payment requirements for borrowers. But be careful. Making a smaller down payment typically means you will pay higher monthly mortgage payments and have greater borrowing costs over the long run.
    2. Also, in January 2015, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced a cut in Federal Housing Administration insurance premiums on mortgages with low down payments. This change will make the FHA’s low down payment loans more affordable.
  2. Don’t be shy about shopping around for a home loan. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and the Federal Housing Finance Agency recently released the results of a survey showing that nearly half of the consumers who took out a mortgage to buy a home in 2013 did not shop around before applying. “Failing to shop means money lost for consumers,” the CFPB said. “Consumers who consider the product offerings of multiple lenders or brokers may save substantial sums.”

    As part of the announcement, the CFPB launched an online toolkit called “Owning a Home” (www.consumerfinance.gov/owning-a-home) to help consumers as they shop for a mortgage and make smarter decisions on home loans.

    It’s best to compare offers from several different lenders before making a final decision. And keep in mind that you do not have to use a lender suggested by your real estate agent or anyone else involved in your home purchase.

  3. Understand the pros and cons of adjustable-rate mortgages. Also known as ARMs, these mortgage loans generally start out with low introductory rates for a certain time period. A low rate may be appealing, but be sure you know how much that rate could rise, when, and under what circumstances. By law, the lender must disclose this information to you. When the lender considers your ability to repay the loan, it must take into account possible rate hikes during the first five years of the loan.

    “You also shouldn’t assume that you will have the option to refinance an ARM or sell your home to escape higher payments later on,” said Elizabeth Khalil, a Senior Policy Analyst at the FDIC. “Mortgage interest rates have been low over the past few years, but they may be higher in the future, meaning that refinancing your ARM may not significantly lower your payments. This is also a reason to think seriously about a fixed-rate loan, which may be somewhat more expensive but has predictable payments.”

    Whether it’s a fixed or adjustable rate, be sure you understand all the terms of any loan you are considering before you decide whether to take it. If you have questions, consider consulting with a HUD-approved housing counseling agency (see contact information at the end of this article) or an attorney.

  4. Watch for new mortgage disclosures. The CFPB has developed new disclosures that, by law, lenders will be required to use beginning on August 1, 2015. For most new mortgages and refinancings, four previously required disclosures of settlement costs and key loan terms (including the “Good Faith Estimate” provided within three days of applying for a mortgage and the “HUD-1 Settlement Statement” of actual costs at closing) will be replaced by two new forms intended to provide clearer and more useful information to consumers. The CFPB has detailed information about the new disclosures at www.consumerfinance.gov/knowbeforeyouowe.
  5. Consider how a mortgage could affect you in retirement. Carrying significant mortgage debt can create payment problems for retirees living on a fixed income. Some consumers may even delay retirement due to mortgage debt. “Even if you’re many years from retirement, consider now how long you intend to carry a mortgage, have a plan for paying it off, and be sure that timeframe lines up with your goals for career and retirement,” said Kathleen Keest, also an FDIC Senior Policy Analyst.

For Current Homeowners

  1. Keep an eye on the servicing of your loan. The entity that collects your payments and performs other duties for your mortgage lender, perhaps including responding to inquiries and initiating foreclosure actions against delinquent borrowers, is referred to as the loan servicer. It may or may not be the same company from which you got your loan, and it may be replaced by another servicer over the life of the loan, perhaps multiple times. By law, you must receive advance notice when the servicing of your loan is transferred to a different company. And under new rules, you cannot be charged a late fee if an overdue payment to the new servicer is received within 60 days after the transfer of duties.

    “If your loan servicer changes, carefully review your account to confirm that your payments are being accurately credited,” suggested Senior Policy Analyst Glenn Gimble. “Also by law, prior to closing on your loan you must receive a disclosure about how often the lender transfers servicing. The answer may influence your decision to accept a loan from this lender or to choose a different lender, maybe one that services its own loans.”

  2. Research the potential risks and benefits of home equity products. A loan secured by a homeowner’s “equity” in a home can be an economical way to borrow money because the interest rate is typically low and, for many people, the interest paid will be tax deductible. Generally, the equity is the current appraised value of a home minus what is owed on the mortgage. “As home values rise in a number of areas, home equity products are again becoming more popular, but it’s important to keep in mind that, just like with a mortgage, your home is at risk of loss if you fail to pay the loan,” cautioned Gimble.

    There are two basic types of home equity products. One is a one-time loan for a lump sum, typically with a fixed monthly payment. The other is a home equity line of credit (HELOC), which allows homeowners to borrow money one or more times up to an approved credit limit, usually at a variable interest rate.

    Also, some HELOCs have low introductory interest rates that can reset at a higher rate. The federal banking agencies have issued guidance to financial institutions on the importance of early notice to borrowers about impending rate resets and making help available to those facing rate increases that could be difficult to pay. See the Winter 2013-2014 edition of FDIC Consumer News (www.fdic.gov/consumers/consumer/news/cnwin1314/heloc.html) for more on HELOCs and rate resets.

Reprinted from FDIC Consumer News Winter 2015 https://www.fdic.gov/consumers/consumer/news/cnwin15/mortgagetips.html
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Taking Your Money on a Trip: Safe Travels Financially

Your suitcase is packed, you’ve got your travel itinerary, and you’re prepared for the sun and warm weather. But are you all set financially? Unless you have taken the time to consider your money needs, including safety precautions, that pleasure or business trip could turn into a big disappointment and a major expense.

Decide on the amount of cash you may need. You may want to take some cash to pay for small purchases where credit cards may not be accepted. But for your own security, it’s not a good idea to take a lot of cash anywhere. If your cash is lost or stolen, you cannot replace it.

Take a couple of credit cards. They are generally widely accepted (even in other countries), easy to replace if lost or stolen, and your maximum legal liability for unauthorized use is $50 per card. “Just as when you are not travelling, it is best not to carry any more cards than what you expect to use, in case you lose your wallet,” advised Luke W. Reynolds, Chief of the FDIC’s Outreach and Program Development Section.

And, Reynolds suggested taking two credit cards, each with a different payment network logo on the front, such as American Express, Discover, MasterCard or Visa. That is to increase the likelihood, particularly when you are travelling internationally, that you can pay with plastic if a merchant doesn’t accept cards licensed or issued by a certain payment network you want to use.

Note: Using your credit card at an ATM or in a bank to get a cash advance can cost you substantial fees.

Consider other alternatives to cash. Debit cards, which can be used at stores and at ATMs, deduct funds automatically from a bank account. Prepaid debit cards, which are generally not linked to your bank account, allow you to load a specific amount of money on the card for purchases and ATM cash withdrawals. With these or other alternatives, research the potential costs, limitations on their use, and your protections if they are lost or stolen.

Don’t flaunt your cash, bank cards, jewelry or other valuables. “When you travel, modesty is not only the best policy, it may also deter a robber,” said Michael Benardo, manager of the FDIC’s Financial Crimes Section. If possible, leave your jewelry and other valuable items in a safe deposit box at your financial institution or leave expensive items at home. Pickpockets thrive in certain communities, so don’t ever leave your purse, wallet or keys out in the open. Consider hiding extra money under removable insoles in your shoes and putting your credit card in your inside pocket or a waist pack under your shirt or jacket. “You could take a backup or ‘emergency’ credit card with you, but make sure to lock it up in the hotel safe,” Benardo added.

In general, it makes sense to keep your cash, cards, wallets and passports in separate places. If you have a travel companion and you share the same credit card accounts, it may be a good idea to carry one card each from different accounts so you can avoid losing all your cards at once.

Pay your bills before you go, especially if you’re going to be away for two or more weeks. Doing so will eliminate hassles when trying to pay bills from the road, which could include finding a secure Internet connection to log into your financial accounts. You’ll also avoid the risk of forgetting to make a payment during your trip and incurring late fees.

Make a list of key numbers and copy important documents in case they get lost or stolen. Your list could include phone numbers for your credit card companies, banks and insurance companies. Consider scanning and e-mailing this list along with a copy of your driver’s license and (if you’re going abroad) your passport identification page to a secure place, such as your own e-mail address or the e-mail of a trusted friend or family member.

If you are traveling outside of the country, make additional preparations. Notify your bank and credit card companies where and when you will be traveling so that transactions won’t be denied based on incorrect assumptions that your credit or debit card has been stolen. Also remember to verify that any credit card or debit card you plan to use can be used internationally.

“Transaction fees and other costs can add up, so do some advance research,” Reynolds added. “Identify what you will be charged by your credit card issuer for foreign transactions and consider using a credit card to charge expenses instead of converting your cash to local currency. But also be cautious of offers by overseas merchants to process a credit card transaction in U.S. dollars because that may result in additional fees.”

Reprinted from FDIC Consumer News https://www.fdic.gov/consumers/consumer/news/cnfall14/safetravels.html
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Guard Your Identity, Resources in 2015

Midwesterners, Wisconsinites in particular, are often friendly, trusting, and willing to help a stranger. But sometimes such laudable traits can backfire. Before you respond to a promotion or a plea for help, ask about documentation and security safeguards.

A few common scams have become well-known and most people know not to respond to a money-making deal emailed to them from Nigeria or to a phone call requesting money to get their grandchild out of jail. Yet some scams are less well known and seemingly innocent. If you are contacted by a charity that you’ve never heard of and it seems to be doing wonderful work, don’t take the message at face value. At a minimum, contact their headquarters and check to see that they are listed on the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions’ list of registered charitable organizations: https://www.wdfi.org/ice/berg/Registration/Search.aspx.

Other fraud is less visible, as when a criminal steals customers’ identities through a retailer’s vulnerable computer network. To prevent and limit the damages of identity theft, avoid giving out personal information unnecessarily. And remember to check your debit and credit card statements frequently for unknown purchases. If you find that your account has been robbed, contact your card holders, financial institution, police, and credit bureaus as soon as possible.

Some vendors-such as tax preparers, investment professionals, insurers, and medical offices-have legitimate needs to see personal information. Be especially watchful of any transactions that require the sharing of your Social Security number, birth date, or other personal information.

The Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions, for example, recently reminded investors to be “vigilant about asking questions about a financial firm’s level of cybersecurity preparedness. They should ask about what specific steps the firm has taken to protect personal client information.” said Patricia Struck, administrator of DFI’s Division of Securities.

A good investment firm will not be put off by your questions, but will know that you are careful about safeguarding your identity and resources. Ask if the firm has ever experienced a cybersecurity incident and what safeguards it has in place.

In September 2014, the North American Securities Administrators Association reported that 62 percent of state-registered investment adviser firms participating in a pilot survey had undergone a cybersecurity risk assessment, and 77 percent had established policies and procedures related to technology or cybersecurity.

Likewise, consumers can reduce their risk of becoming the victim of cybercrime or other fraud by identifying areas of potential risk, asking questions, and being vigilant.

Additional resources:

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Your Savings Plan: Balancing Long- and Short-Term Goals

How many savings goals does your family have? Many Wisconsin consumers have a long list of needs and wants. Retirement, college education, a new(er) car, and an emergency fund might top the list of needs. The list of wants is more varied: charitable giving, a boat, a Harley, a snowmobile, an ATV, or maybe an Alaskan or Caribbean cruise. How can you ever fulfill these wants and get ahead?

Whatever your dreams, some goals require a longer period of savings (retirement, college), while others are short-term: adding a deck to the house, taking a fishing trip on Lake Superior, or buying a camper.

Consider tackling them one at a time in 2015. Begin with an emergency fund. Financial experts suggest saving at least three months of expenses as a cushion in the event of a layoff, or to handle a major car or furnace repair. Determine how much you need to meet expenses if your major source of income suddenly ended.

Next consider retirement, college education, or other long-term goals. Depending on your age, available employer programs, and the age of your children, this number will vary.

Then, decide how much to set aside for each goal monthly, beginning in January. If your emergency fund is nonexistent, you may need more than a year to build it up before tackling short-term goals.

Finally, prioritize your short-term goals. If everyone in the family would enjoy camping in Wisconsin state parks, maybe a camper is a higher priority than an item that only one family member will use.

Once you know what you want, its’ easier to strategize how to fulfill your goals. Count yourself lucky if an employer offers a retirement savings plan that can leverage the funds you set aside. Visit your Wisconsin community bank to set up a regular transfer of money into your emergency fund, so that savings happens automatically.

This planning exercise may reveal that your income is too low – or your monthly expenses too high – to meet your savings goals. If that’s the case, revisit your budget to search for costs that might be cut or consider ways to increase your income.

When your emergency account reaches your goal, set up a separate account for your priority short-term goals and have your automatic deposit go to this new account. Whenever you withdraw funds to pay for something from your emergency account, you can return to making deposits to it until it again reaches the level you set. Eventually you will have both an emergency fund and an account to use for some of the items on your “most wanted” list.

Family financial management is an art as well as a science. Your financial plan impacts your daily life, reflects what’s important to you, and shapes your legacy.

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How Long to Keep Financial Records?

If paper decluttering was one of your New Year’s goals, you may be wondering which financial documents you can safely shred. While some documents need only be kept for a few months, others should be kept for several years, or in some cases indefinitely.

The length of time varies according to the reasons you might need the documents in the future. You might need older W2 forms to answer a tax question from the Internal Revenue Service or Wisconsin Department of Revenue. Documentation of home or property maintenance costs might be useful when you decide to sell your property, and utility records might be helpful when deciding to upgrade your furnace.

The IRS has three years to audit your tax return, and you have three years to file an amended return. Still, the IRS can challenge your return for up to six years, so it’s a good idea to keep these records for seven years:

  • W-2 and 1099 income forms
  • Year-end bank and brokerage statements
  • Receipts or cancelled checks for deducted expenses
  • Home purchase or closing statements, insurance records, and receipts for

Home ownership is a special case and homeowners should keep these records for six years after selling their home. They should also retain records of legal fees and commissions related to selling their home. These expenses are added to the original purchase price or cost basis and can lower their capital gains tax.

On the other hand, some documents need to be kept for only a few months. There’s no need to hold onto most canceled checks (or their electronic copies) or debit and credit card receipts for more than three months after you’ve reconciled them with your statements. If, however, the purchase will be reported as an itemized deduction on your income tax return, keep this documentation for seven years.

And there’s no need to keep monthly loan statements once you have received a year-end summary, but always keep final payoff notices in case the loan mistakenly goes into collection and you need proof.

Still, there’s no getting around it: some records should be kept indefinitely, for example:

  • Records of IRA contributions (particularly nondeductible contributions)
  • Annual summaries of retirement/savings plan statements
  • Copies of your tax returns
  • Receipts for big purchases – jewelry, rugs, appliances, antiques, cars, collectibles, furniture, computers – as proof of their value in the event of loss

To reduce paper clutter, you can scan your records and save them as PDF files. (Be sure to back them up!) And before tossing any document that contains a Social Security number or bank account number, shred it to deter identity theft.

Additional resources:

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Go Local!

As you begin or continue your holiday shopping on Black Friday, the Independent Community Bankers of America® (ICBA) and Union State Bank are encouraging consumers to Go Local this holiday season with their purchasing, dining and spending. By supporting small businesses throughout the holidays, consumers will be putting money back to work in their communities.

“As consumers across the country prepare their holiday shopping lists and get started with purchasing either in stores or online, it’s important to remember that many locally owned and operated small businesses offer exceptional products and services,” said John Buhrmaster, ICBA chairman and president and CEO of 1st National Bank of Scotia, N.Y. “By going local for the holidays—even if it’s not every item on your list—you you will make a huge difference in your local economy by putting dollars to work in your neighborhood.”

Union State Bank and its employees realize the importance of America’s small businesses, and are looking forward to continuing our support of them throughout this holiday season We are proud to support fellow small businesses and play a part in helping our local economy thrive.

Happy Thanksgiving!   Go Local!   Happy Shopping!

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Online Holiday Shopping TIps

The holidays are right around the corner and consumers are being bombarded with ads for discounted merchandise, free shipping and other special deals during the holiday season, and in particular for Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Last year, more than $1.7 billion was spent online on Cyber Monday, making it the highest volume day in history for online sales.

Online sales are expected to be significant again this year.

How can you maximize your transaction security? If the offer seems too good to be true, it probably is. Don’t get blindsided by the lure of great discounts – the security of your information is what’s most important. If you aren’t prepared and cautious, you could become the next cyber crime victim, the cost of which could far exceed any savings you might have received from the retailer.

When purchasing online this holiday season and all year long keep these tips in mind to help minimize your risk:

  1. Secure your mobile device and computer. Be sure to keep the operating system and application software updated/patched on all of your computers and mobile devices. Be sure to check that your anti-virus/anti-spyware software is running and receiving automatic updates. Confirm that your firewall is enabled.
  2. Use passwords. It’s one of the simplest and most important steps to take in securing your devices, computers and accounts. If you need to create an account with the merchant, be sure to use a strong password. Always use more than ten characters, with numbers, special characters, and upper and lower case letters. Use a unique password for every unique site.
  3. Do not use public computers or public wireless for your online shopping. Public computers may contain malicious software that steals your credit card information when you place your order. Additionally, criminals may be intercepting traffic on public wireless networks to steal credit card numbers and other confidential information.
  4. Pay by credit card, not debit card. A safer way to shop on the Internet is to pay with a credit card rather than debit card. Debit cards do not have the same consumer protections as credit cards. Credit cards are protected by the Fair Credit Billing Act and may limit your liability if your information was used improperly. Check your statements regularly.
  5. Know your online shopping merchants. Limit your online shopping to merchants you know and trust. If you have questions about a merchant, check with the Better Business Bureau or the Federal Trade Commission. Confirm the online seller’s physical address, where available, and phone number in case you have questions or problems.
  6. Look for “https” when making an online purchase. The “s” in “https” stands for “secure” and indicates that communication with the webpage is encrypted.
  7. Do not respond to pop-ups. When a window pops up promising you cash or gift cards for answering a question or taking a survey, close it by pressing Control + F4 for Windows and Command + W for Macs.
  8. Do not click on links or open attachments in emails from financial institutions/vendors. Be cautious about all emails you receive even those from legitiatmate organizaitons, including your favorite retailers. The emails could be spoofed and contain malware. Instead, contact the source directly.
  9. Do not auto-save your personal information. When purchasing online, you may be given the option to save your personal information online for future use. Consider if the convenience is really worth the risk. The convenience of not having to reenter the information is insignificant compared to the significant amount of time you’ll spend trying to repair the loss of your stolen personal information.
  10. Use common sense to avoid scams. Don’t ever give your financial information or personal information via email or text. Information on many current scams can be found on the website of the Internet Crime Complaint Center:http://www.ic3.gov/default.aspx.
  11. Review privacy policies. Review the privacy policy for the website/merchant you are visiting. Know what information the merchant is collecting about you, how it will be stored, how it will be used, and if it will be shared with others.
  12. Join Our Twitter Chat. Join the Center for Internet Security (@CISecurity) and Sophos (@Sophos_news) on Tuesday, November 25, 2014 at 2 p.m. EST/11 a.m. PST for a Twitter Chat with more tips for staying safe online this holiday season. Use #ChatCyberMon to join us!

What to do if you encounter problems with an online shopping site?

Contact the seller or the site operator directly to resolve any issues. You may also contact the following:

The Federal Trade Commission – http://www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov

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Holiday Gatherings: Counting the Costs

From Thanksgiving to Three Kings Day, many Wisconsinites budget carefully for holiday gift giving. But what about holiday entertaining? Have you ever hosted a party where the guest list grew beyond what your budget – or location – could handle? Or maybe last-minute menu additions or Packer decorations pushed the price of your gathering skyward.

Whether you’re considering a Thanksgiving dinner, a Christmas morning breakfast, or a late-night New Year’s celebration, a little planning can help you relax and enjoy the event as much as your guests.

Food and beverages are often big budget items. If you’re a skilled chef and truly enjoy every minute spent in the kitchen, fine. If not so much, consider purchasing a main entrée or festive dessert from your local caterer and then adding your own sides, breads, and garnishes. You don’t need to serve each guest a mini beef Wellington. Google “frugal recipes” to find tasty dishes that fit both your budget and your available preparation time.

Remember, time is money, too. If you spend so many hours in the kitchen or on crafting party decorations that you’re exhausted by the time of the party, you will have defeated the point of the event – even if you do end up with useful leftovers or decorations you’ll reuse.

Don’t hesitate to ask your guests to help by bringing a dish they’re known for, a vase of flowers, a bottle of wine or jug of cider. If a guest has a flair for food presentation, maybe he or she would be willing to come early and help with the final touches.

Your guests might also like to help with any entertainment or the party ambience. They may have music, videos, or photos to share, or crafty decorations to show off. Crafting a wreath, ornament, or gingerbread house could even become a party focus, with guests taking home their creations.

Don’t forget craft malls or discount the discount stores. You may find the perfect invitations or decorations at your nearby Dollar Store or outlet mall. Your home may also be a source of items saved from previous years that you can adapt to your newest party theme. Hint: candles can dress up any table, even if the candle holder is hollowed-out apple or a mirror repurposed as a reflective tray.

If many guests have young children and you have the space, pool your resources to hire a teen to plan activities and watch over the young ones. The kids will be thrilled to have their own party and the parents will be happy their children are safe and close at hand.

For other ideas, visit these websites:

  •  The Wisconsin Public Service company offers energy saving tips during the holidays, including entertaining.
  • A Wisconsin Law Journal article offers tips for office parties, and some can be useful for consumers, too.
  • The Festival Network lists Wisconsin craft fairs where you can purchase exquisite items or collect ideas for decorations to create yourself.


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What’s This Computer Chip Doing in My Credit Card?

You may have recently received a new credit or debit card from your financial institution and noticed that it contains a computer chip. If you don’t have a chip card yet, though, you can expect to receive one by late 2015. What does the transition to chip cards mean for you?

A microchip makes it less likely your payment card will be used for a fraudulent transaction in person, such as at a store. “Compared to the magnetic stripe cards that we are accustomed to, it is much more difficult for criminals to create fraudulent cards that contain microchips,” said Jeff Kopchik, a Senior Policy Analyst at the FDIC. “Many European countries have been using chip cards for several years, and fraud rates for in-store transactions in those nations have declined significantly.”

Why is the chip card more effective in preventing the use of fake cards? “The chip will change the encrypted numbers for every transaction to ensure the authenticity of the card each time it is used,” added David M. Nelson, an FDIC Examination Specialist. “Hackers trying to get chip card authentication numbers are chasing a moving target that will be useless to them.”

You still need to be on guard against fraudulent purchases made with your card online, over the telephone or by mail. Unlike with in-store transactions, there is no card-reading device receiving the secret, one-time authentication code from the microchip that verifies the card’s authenticity. Kopchik said this largely explains why there was a significant increase in online card fraud in Europe immediately after chip cards were introduced.

What can you do to protect yourself? As with any credit or debit card, monitor your account on a regular basis and report unauthorized transactions to your financial institution as soon as possible. If your chip card is used in a fraudulent transaction, your liability will be limited by federal rules. Also under the rules, your card is considered stolen if a hacker steals your account information electronically.

You may need to begin using a PIN for credit card transactions. While chip cards are most effective against counterfeiting, they provide less protection if your chip card is stolen and used by a thief in person at a store or other business. To provide further protection in these circumstances, many chip cards will require the user to enter a personal identification number to authorize a transaction. This is similar to what debit card users have done for years.

Expect to find a different type of card payment terminal at stores. You may already have noticed these new terminals at a few large stores. With some of them, the chip card is inserted into the terminal, similar to an ATM. “Just make sure you don’t get distracted, leave your card in the reader and walk out of the store without it, which people have been known to do,” warned Nelson.

For other payment terminals — those that accept what are called “proximity cards” — all you have to do to pay is to place your card in front of the reader or gently tap the card against the reader.

Initially, your chip cards will probably also have the conventional magnetic stripe on the back. This will allow you to use the card at merchants that have not yet upgraded to the new payment terminals. “Your new chip card may take some getting used to, but the added security is well worth the effort,” added Kopchik.

The microchip simply contains the same personal information that is printed on the outside of the card. Nelson noted that the chip in the card contains no personal information about the cardholder other than his or her name and account number, which also is the same as what is stored on the magnetic stripe.

If you are planning to visit Europe, you may want to request a chip card from your financial institution. That’s because many European merchants no longer accept magnetic stripe cards.


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