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Q&A - How To Prepare Your Home For Winter                    winter hat and coin jar
 
Q: I know I need to prepare my home for the upcoming cold weather, but I don't know where to start. What do I need to do?
 
A:  This year, be prepared. Keep your home warm and safe this winter by following this comprehensive to-do list: 
 
1. Seal your home.  Don't let those brutal winds inside!  Your home is your fortress against the cold, so make it as airtight as possible. Give your home a quick run-through, checking for drafts near the following areas: 
Windows
Doors
Vents and fans
Plumbing areas
Air conditioners
Mail chutes
Electrical and gas lines 
 
Seal up all holes and reinforce existing points of entry with weather stripping. You can pick some up in your local hardware store.  You can also caulk windows and doors to make sure they're truly sealed against the cold. 
 
2. Clean your gutters.  If your gutters are clogged with sodden leaves, they can freeze up and block the drainage, allowing melting ice and snow to slowly seep into your roof and cause excessive damage. You can do this chore on your own, or hire a professional roofer to get the job done for you for under $100.
 
3. Reverse your ceiling fans.  Flick the reverse switch on your ceiling fans to make the blades spin in a clockwise direction instead of counterclockwise. This way, the fans will produce an updraft, which will push the rising hot air down so it can keep the entire room warm. This is especially crucial in rooms that have high ceilings, or are even two stories high. You might find that putting your ceiling fans to work allows you to crank down the thermostat by a couple degrees to trim your energy bill this winter.  
 
4. Prune your trees.  Take a walk around your home's exterior and inspect all trees and bushes near its façade. Look for low-hanging or loose branches that are close to your house. If you find any, prune them now so they don't end up cracking from heavy snow or wind and causing damage to your home.  
 
5. Take inventory of your emergency supplies.  Don't be stuck facing empty store shelves days before the first big storm hits; Prepare now! Stock up on water, canned food, batteries, flashlights and storm lanterns. You may also want to invest in an external charger in case you lose power.
 
6. Turn off external faucets.  Unscrew your garden hose from the spigot and drain your sprinkler system to prevent any freezing. You may need to call in a professional to do this properly.  
 
7. Protect your pipes from freezing.  Did you know that a burst pipe can cost you more than $5,000 in water damage? 
 
Prevent burst pipes with these simple steps: 
Keep your heat on-even when you're not home. You don't need to turn the thermostat all the way up when you're out, but keep it on a moderately warm temperature so your pipes don't freeze and burst. 
Allow your faucets to drip during severe cold snaps so that the water flows through your cold pipes. Allowing the water to stay stagnant puts it at greater risk of freezing. 
Wrap any exposed piping to prevent freezing. You can find foam rubber or fiberglass sleeves for pipes and outdoor hose bibs at hardware stores. 
 
8. Check your heating system. Crank up the heat before the cold blows in to check if everything is in working order. After turning on your heating system, walk through your home to check if every heating vent is blowing warm air. If anything needs repairs, tend to it now before the real cold sets in.  

Beware the Password Scam!

How it works
The victim gets an email from a "hacker" claiming to have cracked their passwords, broken into their computer and used their webcam to watch online activity. They'll threaten to reveal that the victim has been visiting disreputable sites or to loot their accounts-unless the victim pays a steep price.

To prove that they are "legitimate," the scammers will share a password that the victim had used many years ago. They'll often include the password in the subject line to grab the victim's attention.
 
If you receive an email like this, don't panic. There's no professional hacker behind the scam, and no one has watched your online activity. The simple explanation for how the scammer got your password lies in previous breaches.
 
Over the last decade or so, there have been massive database breaches of major corporations, sites, and retail stores like Yahoo, eBay, Target, and more. Thanks to these breaches, there are now huge amounts of personal data and passwords floating around the internet. This data can be easily nabbed by a partially skilled hacker or purchased illegally.
 
How to spot the scam
Many potential victims recognize this scam for what it is as soon as the hacker claims to have dirt on them. For others, the outdated password is their clue. However, for victims who have been using the same passwords for years, this old code might still be in use and the scam seems legit.
 
If you receive an email with your password in the subject line, ignore the message and delete it.
 
Protect yourself
There's not much you can do about the sensitive data loose on the internet. However, you can protect yourself from falling prey to this, or a similar scam. Here's how: 
1. Update your and use strong, unique codes for each site.
2. Choose two-factor authentication when possible.
3. Never open emails from suspicious sources.
4. If you are targeted, alert the FTC at ftc.gov.

Tax Bill - Some Key Changes

RETIREMENT ACCOUNTS
Despite efforts to create limitations on the availability of pre-tax contributions to 401(k) retirement plans, Congress decided to leave retirement plans largely untouched after receiving powerful pushback from taxpayers in all sectors of the economy. The Act did make some minor changes though, including changes to a rule regarding the ability to convert funds in traditional IRAs to Roth IRAs. Currently, taxpayers have the ability to convert funds from a pretax IRA to a post-tax Roth IRA and pay tax on the money that is converted. Taxpayers also currently have the ability to change their minds and undo this conversion through a process called recharacterization. The Act has repealed the rule allowing recharacterization of a Roth IRA back into a traditional IRA after a conversion.

MORTGAGE INTEREST TAX DEDUCTION
The final Act will not affect current homeowners; it would allow them to continue to deduct the interest paid on up to $1 million of mortgage debt. New homebuyers will only be able to deduct the interest on up to $750,000 of their mortgage principle on home purchases scheduled to close on or after January 1, 2018. The new cap expires at the end of 2025.  It is important to note that the MITD only applies to those filers who opt not to take advantage of the new standard deduction, which is $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 for joint filers under the Act. Those individuals who opt to still itemize, will also be able to deduct up to $10,000 in state and local property taxes under the bill.

HOME EQUITY LOAN INTEREST DEDUCTION
The Act limits the deductibility of interest paid on some home equity loans/lines of credit for loans beginning after December 31, 2017, depending on the purpose of the loan. The Internal Revenue Code currently distinguishes between "acquisition" debt, meaning loans to buy, build or substantially improve a main or second home, and other "home equity" debt. The Act does not alter this distinction, but eliminates the deduction of "home equity" debt and limits total "acquisition" debt to $750,000. Existing home equity lines of credit may also not be "grandfathered" into receiving the deduction. Additionally, beginning in 2018, any interest accrued on certain existing home equity loans/lines of credit may not be deductible. The suspension expires at the end of 2025. 

This article is for general information purposes, as we do not provide tax advice.  Individuals should consult their tax advisor for specific questions.


Important Update about your EMV Chip Debit Card

When you use an EMV chip-enabled debit card to make a payment, most merchants that are equipped with EMV chip card terminals give you the option of paying as either “Debit” or “Credit.” Either option may require you to enter your PIN.  Always inform the cashier "you want to choose credit.”  You might encounter the two options - US MasterCard or International MasterCard, always choose International MasterCard; and your transaction will be completed as a credit transaction.  You may also see US MasterCard and MasterCard, choose MasterCard and your transaction will be completed as a credit transaction.  Please note, you may still be required to enter a PIN, but as long as you select credit, International MasterCard or MasterCard, the transaction will be processed as a credit transaction and not Point of Sale (POS).  If you don't see these options, the merchant you are shopping with has decided for you; and they will only route it through US MasterCard as a POS transaction.

Many members who make purchases with their debit cards at certain retailers, no longer have the option of choosing “Credit” when making their payment. Unfortunately, some stores have made the business decision to require their customers using a debit card to use the “Debit” option and enter their PIN, thus making the “Credit” option unavailable. When your purchase, if over $50, goes through as a pin-based POS debit transaction, it will incur a nominal 50 cent fee.

If a retailer does not permit you to select “credit” at the sale terminal, you have the following options:

  • Complete the transaction and pay a 50 cent fee
  • Cancel out of transaction; and pay with a First Service VISA Credit Card instead
  • Cancel out of the transaction and pay with a check or cash

Let your voice be heard!  If a retailer tells you that you no longer have an option on how to pay for your transaction – we encourage you to call or write the store. Let them know that as a consumer, you want them to bring back your choice on how you pay for your purchases.


Additional online resources:

  • MyCreditUnion.gov - Financial tools and calculators, including college savings, student loans, mortgages and retirement savings. Users also have access to a personal budgeting worksheet.
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  • Pocket Cents - A financial literacy tool for all age groups which provides personal finance lessons and tips for groups including youth, tweens, teens, young adults, families, seniors, parents, educators and service members.

Click here for additional free Consumer Protection links to protect your identity and personal information.