If you like rooting for an underdog, keep an eye on Aereo and its free over-the-air television service with free cloud DVR. Aereo, which started its service in New York, says it will expand into Boston May 15. Aereo captures the free, over-the-air signal of local broadcasters — just as a homeowner would with an HDTV and antenna — then sends it out over the Internet.
The service is available on Apple devices, Web browsers (Internet Explorer 9, Firefox and Safari) and the Roku set-top box. Aereo, combined with a streaming service like Netflix, could lure a lot more people from cable and satellite services.
This week’s review, brought to you by Tribune Newspapers:
The Bem Wireless Speaker Trio, as threesomes go, seems to have traces of The Three Tenors and The Three Stooges in its electronic DNA.
Either it fills the house with song or acts like a bunch of knuckleheads.
The intentions, of course, are all good: Bem (as in “beam”) Wireless designed the Speaker Trio as a relatively inexpensive answer to whole-house audio. The three wireless speakers sit charging on a cribbage-board-size base station and pair, via Bluetooth, to any compatible mobile device, laptop or tablet. The speakers, once deployed, communicate with the base station using the 2.4-gigahertz radio frequency popular in cordless phones.
When all works correctly there’s single-speaker mono music in the kitchen, the living room and an upstairs bedroom; speakers can be placed up to 115 feet from the base station. When everything doesn’t, which was too often during my trials with two sets of Speaker Trios, it’s almost vaudevillian.
Here are few reasons you might not be getting the refund you thought, courtesy of the IRS:
Certain financial debts from your past may affect your current federal tax refund. The law allows the use of part or all of your federal tax refund to pay other federal or state debts that you owe.
Here are six facts from the IRS that you should know about tax refund ‘offsets.’
1. A tax refund offset generally means the U.S. Treasury has reduced your federal tax refund to pay for certain unpaid debts.
2. The Treasury Department’s Financial Management Service is the agency that issues tax refunds and conducts the Treasury Offset Program.
3. If you have unpaid debts, such as overdue child support, state income tax or student loans, FMS may apply part or all of your tax refund to pay that debt.
4. You will receive a notice from FMS if an offset occurs. The notice will include the original tax refund amount and your offset amount. It will also include the agency receiving the offset payment and that agency’s contact information.
5. If you believe you do not owe the debt or you want to dispute the amount taken from your refund, you should contact the agency that received the offset amount, not the IRS or FMS.
6. If you filed a joint tax return, you may be entitled to part or all of the refund offset. This rule applies if your spouse is solely responsible for the debt. To request your part of the refund, file Form 8379, Injured Spouse Allocation. Form 8379 is available on IRS.gov or by calling 1-800-829-3676.
Planning to move this spring? Here are five tips from Experian’s ProtectMyID that will help prevent identity theft:
>> Change your address with all the companies, financial institutions, magazines, and other organizations that regularly send you mail. Identity theft is often carried out by stealing mail. The people who move into your old residence won’t necessarily steal your identity, but they will most likely throw mail that isn’t theirs, and they won’t necessarily take the care to shred it as you would. Prior to your move, change your mailing address through the United States Postal Service. You can even choose the date you want the change to take effect, so feel free to do this task early and cross it off your list.
>> Shed and shred. Moving creates a good opportunity to get rid of things you no longer need, including old documents. But don’t just throw them away; shred sensitive personal documents you don’t need to keep.
>> Keep physical tabs on your identity. Regardless of whether you move yourself or use a moving company, keep your important documents with you in a secured place. When it comes to your identity, a filing cabinet in a trailer isn’t secure enough.
>> Always keep the security of your identity in mind. Hire only a reputable moving company. After all, you are inviting them into your home. And, if your movers are going to pack your belongings for you, secure your important documents prior to their arrival.
>> Manage your technology inventory closely. Many households now include multiple computers, mobile phones, tablets, and other devices storing sensitive information. It would be easy for one to be inadvertently misplaced, or purposely stolen. Make sure your devices are securely packed in unmarked packaging, and that they are locked with strong passwords.
Mortgage rates moved lower for the third consecutive weeks, with national averages at 3.41 percent (30-year) and 2.64 percent (15-year), according to figures released Thursday morning by Freddie Mac.
A week ago, 30-year mortgages averaged 3.43 percent and 15-year mortgages averaged 2.65 percent.
Here are the numbers from New England:
30-year: 3.45 percent
15-year: 2.70 percent
30-year: 3.45 percent
15-year: 2.70 percent
A year ago
30-year: 3.90 percent
15-year: 3.13 percent
Your 2012 tax refund could be a good place to start with saving plan for a college eduction.
The Connecticut Higher Education Trust has a few ideas.
“Faced with the staggering costs of college, many people feel paralyzed and that prevents them from taking the first step,” says Treasurer Denise L. Nappier, who serves as trustee for CHET, the state’s direct-sold 529 college savings plan. “What’s important is that they start to save, even a little bit, as soon as possible. It’s never too early or too late to start and getting started is easier than most people think.”
Determine how much you need to save.
According to the College Board’s Trends in College Pricing 2012, the average cost of a four-year degree at a public college is approximately $17,860 per year. For a private college today, the cost is more than $39,518 per year. There are many tools available to help you calculate how much you need to save. Try this online calculator to create your own College Savings Planning Report.
Set a goal.
Having a goal is important so that you can track your progress. The online calculator will help you determine how much to save based on your goals. Be realistic in how much you can commit to set aside every month. Look at your expenses and see where you might be able to make cuts—a dinner out, keeping the thermostat a few degrees lower, etc. And don’t be ashamed to start small—$25 to $50 a month over time will build a nice savings cushion for college.
Make it a habit.
Save regularly. If possible, look to put money aside from every paycheck to save for college.
Open an account dedicated to college savings.
While any savings account can be used to save for college, a CHET 529 direct-sold college savings account carries many benefits for Connecticut residents. A CHET 529 account can be opened with as little as a $25 contribution and is the state’s only direct-sold 529 college savings plan. Account earnings grow Federal and Connecticut income tax-deferred until withdrawn. To learn more about opening a CHET 529 college savings plan click here.
Make it a family affair.
Encourage family members to contribute to your child’s college savings account. Contributions make great birthday, holiday and graduation gifts. The CHET 529 college savings plan makes it easy for family and friends to contribute online. To learn more about e-gifting, click here.
Here’s a credit-card snapshot from CardHub.com, which released its first-quarter Credit Card Landscape Report:
• The average interest rate for people with excellent credit – 12.79% – is down 1.69% compared to last quarter and 1.46% relative to Q1 2012.
• Rates for people with average or below-average credit are 1.7-3.0% higher, on average, than last quarter.
• Rates for all other card segments show little change compared to last quarter.
• The average 0% intro rate for balance transfers now remains in effect for 10.29 months – 2.39% longer than in Q4 2012.
• The average 0% intro rate for new purchases now remains in effect for 10.13 months – 2.53% longer than in Q4 2012.
• At $76.81, the average cash back initial rewards bonus is 15.4% more valuable than last quarter and 33.77% more valuable than this time last year.
• At 11,446, the average points/miles initial rewards bonus is 10.74% higher than last quarter and 13.89% higher than this time last year.
• Cash advance fees, which now average $10.90, continue to rise – up 23.02% from last quarter and 22.61% from Q1 2012.
• Foreign transaction fees, now averaging 2.24%, continue to fall – down 0.44% compared to last quarter and 5.88% from Q1 2012.
• Balance transfer fees, averaging 2.8%, are unchanged relative to last quarter.
• In Q1 2013, the most common types of consumer credit card complaints dealt with: 1) Billing; 2) Credit Reporting; and 3) Debt Collection.
• In Q4 2012, the most common types of consumer credit card complaints dealt with: 1) Billing; 2) Credit Reporting; and 3) APR/Interest Rate.
• The largest quarter-to-quarter changes in complaint frequency involved issues related to: Credit Determination/ Credit Line (92.3% increase), Payoff Process (39% decrease), and APR/Interest Rate (35.9% decrease).
Scammers are almost as fast as first-responders: When there’s a tragedy like the Newtown killings and now the Boston bombing, the phony charities quickly follow.
The state Department of Consumer Protection and the attorney general’s office are warning consumers about the potential fakes.
“Once again, we know that compassionate, caring individuals and groups will want to offer whatever assistance they can,” said DCP Commissioner William M. Rubenstein Tuesday. “But because scammers are always poised to exploit tragedy for personal gain, we want to remind donors to beware of the potential for scam charities to proliferate, and to be wary about providing any money in response to emails, websites, door-to-door collections, mailings or telephone calls in the name of helping victims of Tuesday’s bombings.”
The attorney general’s office offers these tips when considering donations to aid victims of the bombings:
• Donate to well-known, established charities; it is the best way to ensure that your donation is used appropriately. Find a charity with a proven track record that is making help available to the victims, first responders, and families.
• When giving to any organization, designate the preferred use for your donation (e.g. “for the families of Boston Marathon victims”), and do so in writing whenever possible.
• Do not give your personal or financial information to anyone soliciting contributions.
• Avoid cash donations if possible. Pay by debit or credit card, or write a check directly to the charity.
• Do not make checks payable to individuals.
• Be extra cautious when responding to e-mail and telephone solicitations on behalf of supposed victims. These methods of solicitation are more likely to be part of a scam.
• Delete unsolicited e-mails and don’t open attachments, even if they claim to contain video or photographs. The attachments may be viruses designed to steal personal financial information from your computer.
• Watch carefully for copycat organizations. Criminals are likely to set up bogus sites to steal the identities and donations of generous, unsuspecting individuals. When giving online, be sure to find the charity’s legitimate website. You can access accurate links to the sites of each bona fide charity at Charity Navigator (www.charitynavigator.org).
• Social media sites can also perpetuate scams. Do not blindly give via these vehicles. As with any charity, investigate the groups behind such pleas to ensure that they come from a legitimate organization.
• Both the need for donations and the opportunity for giving will be present for some time. Therefore, do not feel pressured into making contributions; reputable charities do not use coercive tactics. If you feel pressured at all, you are most likely being scammed.
Charities that collect funds in Massachusetts are required to register with the Massachusetts Office of the Attorney General, and donors should confirm that any charity they plan to support is appropriately registered at this web page.
Western Digital’s WD TV Play has your number. You’re 18 to 55 years old, technologically savvy, a Windows user with movies and music in assorted formats and assorted resolutions on a PC or external hard drive.
You’re a stream-your-own-content kind of creature. And you watch back episodes of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” on Hulu. (Or perhaps not.)
A streaming media player, better known as “a box,” is a favorite for watching Internet video on an HDTV using services like Netflix, Vudu and Hulu Plus or listening to Internet audio services like Pandora and Spotify. The boxes connect to an HDTV using an HDMI cable and access the Internet with either a direct connection to a router or by joining a home network.
The WD TV Play is Western Digital’s newest, smallest and least expensive streamer, shaped like the sub-$100 competition — a Roku box or Apple TV — but costing less ($70, often discounted to $60). The WD TV Play, indeed, is among the least expensive ways to stream high-definition (1080p) video. Though it stocks the usual Internet audio and video streaming services, the WD TV Play is better suited to playing music and movies already in your home’s media library.
Twelve tax scams and how they work, courtesy of the IRS:
The IRS’s annual ‘Dirty Dozen’ list includes common tax scams that often peak during the tax filing season. The IRS recommends that taxpayers be aware so they can protect themselves against claims that sound too good to be true. Taxpayers who buy into illegal tax scams can end up facing significant penalties and interest and even criminal prosecution.
The tax scams that made the Dirty Dozen list this filing season are:
Identity Theft. Tax fraud through the use of identity theft tops this year’s Dirty Dozen list. Combating identity theft and refund fraud is a top priority for the IRS. The IRS’s ID theft strategy focuses on prevention, detection and victim assistance. During 2012, the IRS protected $20 billion of fraudulent refunds, including those related to identity theft. This compares to $14 billion in 2011. Taxpayers who believe they are at risk of identity theft due to lost or stolen personal information should immediately contact the IRS so the agency can take action to secure their tax account. If you have received a notice from the IRS, call the phone number on the notice. You may also call the IRS’s Identity Protection Specialized Unit at 800-908-4490. Find more information on the identity protection page on IRS.gov.
Phishing. Phishing typically involves an unsolicited email or a fake website that seems legitimate but lures victims into providing personal and financial information. Once scammers obtain that information, they can commit identity theft or financial theft. The IRS does not initiate contact with taxpayers by email to request personal or financial information. This includes any type of electronic communication, such as text messages and social media channels. If you receive an unsolicited email that appears to be from the IRS, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Return Preparer Fraud. Although most return preparers are reputable and provide good service, you should choose carefully when hiring someone to prepare your tax return. Only use a preparer who signs the return they prepare for you and enters their IRS Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN). For tips about choosing a preparer, visit www.irs.gov/chooseataxpro.
Hiding Income Offshore. One form of tax evasion is hiding income in offshore accounts. This includes using debit cards, credit cards or wire transfers to access those funds. While there are legitimate reasons for maintaining financial accounts abroad, there are reporting requirements taxpayers need to fulfill. Failing to comply can lead to penalties or criminal prosecution. Visit IRS.gov for more information on the Voluntary Disclosure Program.
“Free Money” from the IRS & Tax Scams Involving Social Security. Beware of scammers who prey on people with low income, the elderly and church members around the country. Scammers use flyers and ads with bogus promises of refunds that don’t exist. The schemes target people who have little or no income and normally don’t have to file a tax return. In some cases, a victim may be due a legitimate tax credit or refund but scammers fraudulently inflate income or use other false information to file a return to obtain a larger refund. By the time people find out the IRS has rejected their claim, the promoters are long gone.
Impersonation of Charitable Organizations. Following major disasters, it’s common for scam artists to impersonate charities to get money or personal information from well-intentioned people. They may even directly contact disaster victims and claim to be working for or on behalf of the IRS to help the victims file casualty loss claims and get tax refunds. Taxpayers need to be sure they donate to recognized charities.
False/Inflated Income and Expenses. Falsely claiming income you did not earn or expenses you did not pay in order to get larger refundable tax credits is tax fraud. This includes false claims for the Earned Income Tax Credit. In many cases the taxpayer ends up repaying the refund, including penalties and interest. In some cases the taxpayer faces criminal prosecution. In one particular scam, taxpayers file excessive claims for the fuel tax credit. Fraud involving the fuel tax credit is a frivolous claim and can result in a penalty of $5,000.
False Form 1099 Refund Claims. In this scam, the perpetrator files a fake information return, such as a Form 1099-OID, to justify a false refund claim.
Frivolous Arguments. Promoters of frivolous schemes advise taxpayers to make unreasonable and outlandish claims to avoid paying the taxes they owe. These are false arguments that the courts have consistently thrown out. While taxpayers have the right to contest their tax liabilities in court, no one has the right to disobey the law.
Falsely Claiming Zero Wages. Filing a phony information return is an illegal way to lower the amount of taxes an individual owes. Typically, scammers use a Form 4852 (Substitute Form W-2) or a “corrected” Form 1099 to improperly reduce taxable income to zero. Filing this type of return can result in a $5,000 penalty.
Disguised Corporate Ownership. Scammers improperly use third parties form corporations that hide the true ownership of the business. They help dishonest individuals underreport income, claim fake deductions and avoid filing tax returns. They also facilitate money laundering and other financial crimes.
Misuse of Trusts. There are legitimate uses of trusts in tax and estate planning. But some questionable transactions promise to reduce the amount of income that is subject to tax, offer deductions for personal expenses and reduced estate or gift taxes. Such trusts rarely deliver the promised tax benefits. They primarily help avoid taxes and hide assets from creditors, including the IRS.
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