Folly Beach, S.C. (Bob Sullivan)

Folly Beach, S.C. (Bob Sullivan)

It’s summer – Do you know where your vacation time is?

Yet another study shows Americans leave a lot of their paid vacation time on the table, essentially giving free work to their employers.  The average American donates $500 worth of labor, according to this study.  You also know that even when people do go on vacation, they tend to work at least part of the time — mainly because nearly everyone is afraid of the dreaded “first day back” email pile.

Now comes a bit more clarity on just how much people work while on “vacation.”  Fully 25 percent of milennialls work every single day of their vacations, according to a survey conducted by Alamo Rent A Car.

Every. Single. Day.

It’s easy to blame oppressive bosses for this, and no doubt the continue sluggishness of the economy creates an environment that makes a complete disconnect from the office seem risky. But I’ve made this point many times — workers themselves are often to blame.  Many have an exaggerated sense of their own importance. Many are control freaks. Many are bad at training replacements.  And it turns out that some kinds of people are better at fully separating from their jobs, and the world doesn’t end when they do so.

“Americans who used all of their paid vacation were more likely to unplug while on their trips (54 percent vs. 37 percent) with 40 percent stating they are more productive when they return to work,” the Alamo study found.

In fact, vacations can be good for your career. Last year, I wrote about a study conducted by audit firm EY which found that workers who take vacations are more likely to get promotions and raises.  Maryella Gockel, flexibility strategy leader at EY, said training substitutes is the key.

“When you delegate to others, other people grow while you are gone,” Gockel said. “Vacations can be a very important opportunity for others on the team.”

The effect is broad. Just a few weeks ago, the Harvard Business Review reported on a study by Project: Time Off which had similar results.

“People who take all of their vacation time have a 6.5% higher chance of getting a promotion or a raise than people who leave 11 or more days of paid time off on the table,” it said.

So let’s review: Someone or something is paying you to spend a week at the beach.  And doing so is good for your career, but only if you truly leave the smartphone at home.  And we haven’t even started on the long-term health effects of vacations.

If you haven’t already, stop what you are doing right now and plan a real vacation.  It’ll do a world of good.  And if you are reading this story from a smartphone at the beach, put down the phone and go for a swim. I’ll be here when you get back.

Click to learn about The Restless Project

Click to learn about The Restless Project



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'No interest' deals can still be complex, and expensive (Macys.com)

‘No interest’ deals can still be complex, and expensive (Macys.com)

Buying furniture has always been a perilous, complex affair. You don’t buy a couch the way you buy a television or a laptop computer. You can’t carry the couch out of the store with you (most of the time). Heck, usually you don’t really have a great idea when the couch will get to your living room.

Like all businesses, the furniture industry is undergoing dramatic changes, thanks to the dual challenges of the digital age and the recession. That means both good and bad things for furniture shoppers. The good: There are more choices than ever, including buy-couches-from-home apps. It helps with comparison shopping, too. The bad: Many furniture stores are struggling, which means you are even more likely to encounter aggressive sales tactics and sneaky techniques for adding profits, like funky financing offers. I can’t tell you what color loveseat will best match the carpet in your living room, but I can tell you four gotchas you should watch out for the next time you furniture shop.

Before we get to the Gotchas, however, here’s a bit on the state of the furniture industry. I’m a big believer in knowing your opponent.

Not surprisingly, the bursting of the housing bubble was a killer for the industry, as fewer home purchases mean fewer couch purchases. Furniture sales plummeted 13% between 2008 and 2009, according to this report from analyst firm ABTV.

(This story first appeared on Credit.com.)

It has slowly recovered since, and 2013 was the first year to exceed 2008 sales. However, the meandering recovery of the U.S. economy means the environment for furniture stores continues to be challenging. Demographic changes also add to the struggle. Delayed household formations – i.e. more 30-year-olds living with their parents – has also hurt furniture sales. The continued fascination with “disposable” furniture – think Ikea and Target – hasn’t helped much, either.

“The American furniture industry is at a turning point. Never known for its ability to respond quickly to change, the industry finds itself emerging from the Great Recession to face some significant challenges,” says the ABTV report. “Slower-than-expected economic recovery, shifting consumer buying preferences, skilled worker shortages, rising labor costs, technology integration, new distribution channels and global competition… It’s a sticky wicket: Baby Boomers are downsizing to smaller spaces, new home sales are increasing gradually, but mortgage reforms have made it difficult for younger homeowners to qualify, given the debt loads many are carrying from student loans.”

These shifts create interesting issues in the furniture industry. Downsizing Baby Boomers often want new things when they leave the five-bedroom house for the two-bedroom condo. But their old things are filling up second-hand stores with great deals, ABTV says.

“The used-furniture market is now glutted with Boomers’ upholstered sofas, armoires, formal dining room sets, and antique collectibles that are being shed in order to downsize,” says the ABTV. “With the market full of the Boomers’ cast-aways, consignment shops and traditional non-profit donation centers such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army have become pickier about what items they will accept for resale and don’t hesitate to turn away anything they can’t use or aren’t willing to pay more for.”

Still, sales at Ashley Furniture, the largest furniture seller according to ABTV, were up 4% between 2013 and 2014, so the story isn’t all bad.

Now that you know a bit more about the furniture industry, here are four things to watch for as you shop.

1. Price Tags

Much like mattress stores, most furniture stores put meaningless price tags on their items.Expect to haggle. And never tell anyone “We got our couch at 50% off,” because that’s nothing to be proud of. It probably means the price tags were too high to begin with. Discounts are distracting. Shop around and get an honest sense of the real out-the-door price for the item in your class, then just make sure you pay a fair price.

2. Costs & Liability

Like financing at a car dealership, delivery is often where a good deal goes bad. The price of delivery should be among the first things you discuss at the store, not an afterthought.

It’s incredibly important to be realistic about your furniture choices. If you order a couch that can’t fit in your front door or up the stairs, and there’s damage during delivery, you’ll have quite a fight on your hands. Demanding that someone try to move a square peg into a round hole can shift the liability to you. One tip: Digital laser tape measurers work great and they’re really inexpensive now. They’re also subtle to whip out in stores. Old fashioned tape measures work, too. Also, some furniture requires assembly on-site. Be sure to understand who pays for what, and don’t forget to add in the cost of tipping the folks who actually do the heavy lifting for you.

3. Getting the Merchandise Home

For most consumers, the nightmare begins after the credit card is swiped. Then, the reality of the delivery schedule kicks in. Many furniture delivery trucks rival the cable guy for late-or-no-shows. Expect to lose a day of work getting your furniture, and maybe two if there’s a cancellation. The best way to protect yourself is to verify the store’s cancellation policy in case of a delivery problem. Make sure you can get a full 100% refund if the store doesn’t live up to its end of the bargain on delivery. In reality, you probably don’t want to cancel a purchase right away if there’s a screw-up, but having the right to do so is important. Nothing lights a fire under a sales person faster than the prospect of losing a commission because the delivery truck screwed up.

4. Financing

The other way deals go bad is the classic “interest-free financing” offer. Such deals can be structured many ways, but they often involve what’s called “deferred interest.” That means the loan is free, but if you fail to pay it off entirely during the free period, you end up paying retroactive interest for the entire time period you borrowed the money. With furniture, the rates are often 20-30%.

For example, shoppers can buy a $3,000 couch and get 24 months “deferred interest.” Pay the bill in full before 24 months, no problem. Pay the bill in month 25, and you might owe close to $1,000 in interest.

Further complicating the deals for consumers is that minimum monthly payments required on the furniture loans DO NOT add up to pay for the entire purchase during the interest-free period.

Plus, applying for store credit this way can hurt your negotiating position. It’s harder to tell a store, “$2,000 and I don’t have a penny more to spend” if that store has already approved you for $3,000 in financing. (If you do finance your furniture, it’s important to know how it’s affecting your credit. You can get a free credit report summary on Credit.com to see the impact that and your other debts have on your credit.)

In the end, the best advice I’ve heard about buying furniture is to go up or down – buy really cheap, because you only want it a year or two, or buy really high quality and plan to keep it a lifetime. In between is where the suckers live. Real wood furniture can be repaired – it can be sanded and stained, for example. Temporary furniture can be broken into pieces and thrown out in the trash. A sort-of-nice kitchen table isn’t worth the money.

If you’re not in a position to buy real wood new, go to those crowded consignment shops the ABTV report mentions and buy something used. Or try Craigslist, or one of a host of new mobile phone apps, like Sell It.



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Mark Moz - Flickr (click for original)

Mark Moz – Flickr (click for original)

In many parts of the country, housing prices gave returned to pre-recession levels. That’s good news for sellers, bad news for buyers. But buried within the latest housing data is some good news for everyone — everyone on Main Street, anyway.

All-cash buyers seem to be finally retreating. The percent of homes purchased by all-cash buyers share in May was close to its long-term average going back to January 2000 of 24.8%, and well below its recent peak of 42.2% in February 2011,according to data released Thursday by RealtyTrac. It’s one sign that the housing market is on the road back to a normal, “how do we find a place to live?” market, and away from the “how do I make a quick buck?” market.

(This story first appeared on Credit.com. Read it there.)

What’s an all-cash buyer? Someone — or something — with a lot of money. All-cash buyers don’t need mortgages, they just show up with a check and buy a home. Generally, they are big investors, like hedge funds and foreign entities, who have no intention of living in the homes. They skew the market by soaking up inventory that could be purchased by a young family looking for a first-time home purchase. They also make such buyers look bad. If you were a seller and had two offers — one all-cash, and one that still required financing to be arranged — which would you choose?

“As housing transitions from an investor-driven, cash-is-king market to one more dependent on traditional buyers, sales volume has been increasing over the last few months and is on track in 2015 to hit the highest level we’ve seen since 2006,” said RealtyTrac vice president Daren Blomquist.

The out-of-whack housing market has been suffering from a record level of all-cash buyers for the past several years – well above historical norms, according to mortgage expert Logan Mohtashami. He says the retreat of cash buyers is positive development.

“This is a positive as total sales are rising with less cash buyers as a part of the market place…Less cash means more traditional buyers in the system, which means the supply and demand balance is more correlated to Main Street economics,” Mohtashami said. “(This year) is trending between 24%-27% which is still very high, but this is the first time it’s under 30% in every report.”

Of course, the shrinking number of cash buyers doesn’t mean prices are going down. In Manhattan, for example, the average sales price for an apartment just hit a record high — $1.87 million. And it’s not just New York. Home prices in Dallas, Denver, and San Francisco are positively bubble-icious, rising about 10% last year, soaring past pre-recession levels.

But with more first-time homebuyers and fewer inventory, at least the dynamics of home buying might change a bit.

“The competition in the market place is … different,” said Craig King, COO at Chase International brokerage, covering the Lake Tahoe and Reno, Nevada, markets. “While inventory is tight many investors have dropped out of the market and cash deals are not as prevalent as they were. Even in multi-offer situations much has been equalized. This is great news for first-time buyers.“

If you’re looking to buy a home this year, make sure you know how much home you can afford (here’s a  calculator that can help). And be sure to check your credit, since improving your credit scores can save you thousands of dollars in interest over the life of your mortgage. You can get a free credit report summary every month on Credit.com to see where you stand.



 

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CynjaVolume7

What is this?  Learn about the Cynja comic series here

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Tenet owns Conifer, an 'indirect' subsidiary of Syndicated....which ignored debt collection laws.

Tenet owns Conifer, which is related to Syndicated Financial as an ‘indirect subsidiary’….which ignored debt collection laws.

It’s a basic tenet of billing practices, debt collection, and fairness — if someone sends you a bill, and you think it’s wrong, you have the right to dispute it and get a prompt response. It’s also federal law. Except Tenet Healthcare, through a firm that handles some of its bills, ignored that law. For years. In some cases, people who felt their medical bills were wrong had to wait a year for a response, and suffered the consequences — like a ruined credit score — the whole time.  What were the consequences for the company? A $500,000 fine and $5 million in refunds. For perspective, Tenet had revenue of $4.3 billion last quarter.  Last week, Tenet CEO Trevor Fetter sold a tiny bit of the shares he owned in the company for $2.6 million. He still owns shares worth $46 million.

Let’s back up a bit. Tenet, the nation’s third-largest hospital chain, owns a “business process” company named Conifer — it does billing for both Tenet and non-Tenet hospitals.  Conifer has an “indirect subsidiary” named Syndicated Office Systems, which does business under the name Central Financial Control, which has the unsavory job of trying to get people to pay their unpaid medical bills.  You follow?  What’s an indirect subsidiary? I don’t know. What happened when I tried to find out?  I was told no one would answer my question. I’ll get back to that.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently said Syndicated / Central had been engaged in illegal activity and announced an enforcement action against the company.

“Syndicated Office Systems mistreated consumers and prevented them from exercising critical debt collection rights,” said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. “These violations are particularly egregious given the challenges many consumers already face who are attempting to navigate the medical debt maze. Today we are putting a stop to these illegal practices and getting consumers the relief they deserve.”

Here’s what the CFPB says Syndicated / Central Financial did:

  • Failed to respond to more than 13,000 consumer credit report disputes within the 30-day time frame required by law. On average, the company took more than 90 days to respond to consumers’ disputes and, in some cases, took over a year.
  • Failed to send debt validation notices to more than 10,000 consumers. During this time, the company continued to collect over $2 million from consumers who did not receive the notices. These notices can be an especially important consumer safeguard with regard to medical debt, where issues like insurance reimbursements and medical billing processes are commonly fraught with complexity, confusion, and delay.
  • Reported inaccurate information to the credit reporting agencies and then failed to provide a timely response to consumer disputes about the errors.

Most critically, the CFPB said that Syndicated “had no policies or procedures in place to investigate these consumer credit report disputes.” The firm treated them like any other complaint and had no deadline for responding. This went on for at least 2.5 years.

What’s the law? Back in 2010, the Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction Act took effect. It required “furnishers” of credit data to entertain “direct disputes” from consumers — previously, such disputes were handled indirectly, via the credit bureaus. Furnishers, like Syndicated, must investigate the dispute and provide an answer within 30-45 days. Not 90 days, not a year, not whenever the firm gets around to it.

Remember, Syndicated / Central Financial is a separate company set up just to deal with billing issues.

According to the CFPB, it is an “indirect subsidiary” of Conifer, owned by Tenet.  I called Syndicated to better understand what it’s relationship is with Conifer, and after waiting on hold, got an operator who told me I should call or email Sharon Lakes, who is Conifer’s senior director of communications. Not so indirect.

When I got Lakes on the phone, she refused to answer questions about the term, pointing me back to the CFPB statement.  I said some consumers online describe Syndicated as Tenet’s debt collection arm, which she said was inaccurate, but she wouldn’t say more.  When I tried to ask other questions, she pointed me to a statement she had emailed, and said, “that’s where I’m going to stop.”

“Throughout the investigative process, CFC was forthcoming and responsive to all CFPB requests for access to data and other information relating to the company’s medical debt collection policies, procedures and processes,” the statement read. “The CFPB found no unfair, deceptive, abusive acts or collection practices in its investigation.”

Unpaid medical bills are a huge problem and I don’t doubt collecting on them is very hard work. I also understand why Tenet would want to keep an arm’s length from this work.  Syndicated is doing billing work on behalf of hundreds of non-Tenet hospitals.

But it’s incredible that a firm backed by a billion-dollar entity had no procedure in place to deal with the 2010 law. On a more human level, let’s not forget what happened here: sick people went to a hospital, got treatment, got bills they didn’t agree with, complained, and were ignored for months while their credit suffered.

Those folks are getting refunds for the bills they paid under those circumstances, to the tune of $5.4 million.  The lesson for you?  Look at your medical bills, even if they are confusing. Dispute them if you think they are wrong, even if your dispute falls on deaf ears.  If that happens, complain to the CFPB. You might get a refund some day.

And know that through neglect, ignorance, arrogance — who knows why — large companies can and do ignore their responsibilities under the law, and raising a stink is the only way things change.

Read the enforcement action for yourself by clicking here (PDF).

See the original news story about this topic, which appeared on Credit.com



 

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The Chase warning

The Chase warning

Consumers routinely share their online banking passwords with third-party apps that help with everything from budgeting to tax preparation. Apparently banks would like this to stop. JPMorgan Chase posted this notice on its website in April:

“If you give out your chase.com User ID and Password, you are putting your money at risk,” says a page titled Guard Your ID and Password. “Some websites and software offer tools to help you with budgeting, managing accounts, investing, or even doing your taxes. But if you’re giving them your chase.com User ID and Password, you could be responsible for money you might lose as a result.”

(This story first appeared on Credit.com. Read it there. )

That’s no small threat. In other words, if one of those third parties gets hacked and a criminal takes your money, you could lose it all.

The page goes on to advise consumers who’ve already shared their passwords to immediately change them — and of course, not give the new login information to the third party.

The warning is broad, but popular sites like Mint.com, which perform item-by-item analysis of consumers’ accounts, stand to lose the most if consumers heed the warning. So I asked Mint what it thought about Chase’s post.

Holly Perez, a Mint spokeswoman, said the warning was not really new. Several banks have language in their user agreements telling consumers not to share login information with third parties. She’s right. Here is language from Capital One’s agreement:

“Sharing your Capital One access credentials (with third parties) may represent a breach by you of applicable [agreement or terms and conditions),” it reads. “One of the reasons that Capital One prohibits this type of sharing is that we may not have any information regarding the use of or security environment around this sensitive information at any third party. If you choose to share account access information with a third party, Capital One is not liable for any resulting damages or losses.”

Chase’s new posting is probably the result of the recent increase in high-profile hacks, Perez speculated.

Trish Wexler, a senior vice president at Chase pointed out that similar language was present in the Chase user agreement long before the April post: “If you disclose your Card numbers, account numbers, PINs, User IDs, and/or Passwords to any person(s) or entity, you assume all risks and losses associated with such disclosure.”

Wexler said the post was not aimed at any particular third-party service, and she did not know of any incident which led to the post. It was published out of a desire to put that provision of the user agreement into plain language. She also said the post should not be interpreted as Chase telling consumers not to use any specific service, such as Mint.

“Our job is to make sure consumers can make their own choices based on all the available information,” she said. “Clearly customers want to be able to use services like this. They need to understand there are risks associated with giving out their user name and password, be it to a third-party service or a neighbor.”

Those risks aren’t completely clear, however. Federal banking regulations concerning unauthorized electronic funds transfers are very consumer-friendly. Consumer liability for losses is capped at $50 or $500, depending on how quickly a consumer reports fraud once it is discovered. Even negligence doesn’t increase the consumer’s liability, banking regulators have said. For example, even writing a PIN code on a debit card doesn’t increase the consumers’ liability if the card is stolen and used to make withdrawals.

“Negligence by the consumer cannot be used as the basis for imposing greater liability than is permissible,” the rules say. “Thus, consumer behavior that may constitute negligence under state law…does not affect the consumer’s liability for unauthorized transfers.”

The rules go on to say that banks cannot impose additional liability on consumers.

“The extent of the consumer’s liability is determined solely by the consumer’s promptness in reporting the loss or theft of an access device. Similarly, no agreement between the consumer and an institution may impose greater liability on the consumer for an unauthorized transfer than the limits provided in Regulation E.”

Chi Chi Wu, a banking regulation expert with the National Consumer Law Center, said consumers victimized by theft of credentials from a third-party site would enjoy the same protections as a consumer who divulged their passwords to a hacker.

“The same principles apply,” she said.

Of course writing a PIN code — or falling for a phishing email — is not a direct parallel to intentionally sharing login credentials with a third-party site. Until there is a high-profile test case, it’s hard to say what might happen. For any consumer hit by such a crime, there’s certain to be a big hassle, even if a bank ultimately refunds their money – out of a legal obligation, or free will.

The bottom line for consumers: You don’t want to be that test case. Be extremely judiciouswhen handing out your banking credentials. If you do, be vigilant about what happens inside your bank account. Roughly speaking, you only have two days from the time a fraud appears on your regular statement to report it and be protected by the $50 liability limit. Otherwise, the limit is $500. And if you wait 60 days, the limit is … unlimited. So your real worry should be spotting and reporting fraud promptly. You should also keep an eye on your credit for signs of new-account fraud, which you can do by getting your free annual credit reports at AnnualCreditReport.com if you haven’t already. You can also check your credit scores for free every month on Credit.com to keep an eye on any changes that may signal fraud.

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PayPal's letter to the FCC

PayPal’s letter to the FCC

PayPal has backed down on its robocalling and robotexting policy.

The online money company sent a letter to the Federal Communications on Monday saying it will change its terms of service to clarify when it will use automated calls or texts, and offer an easy way for users to opt out of them.  The FCC sent me a copy of the letter.

The change comes just days before the policy was to take effect as PayPal formally splits from eBay.

Earlier this month, I wrote a story calling attention to PayPal’s upcoming terms of service, in which the firm granted itself broad rights to robocall or robotext consumers for almost any reason, at any telephone number the firm could connect to a user.

The new policy is much more specific.  Gone is the “at any telephone number that you have provided us or that we have otherwise obtained” language.  Also gone is language saying use of the service grants PayPal the right to use texts or calls to market products to consumers.

The new policy indicates PayPal can use autodialers in three specific situations: to contact consumers to collect a debt, to investigate fraud, or to provide notices about account activity.  The policy then makes clear that “you do not have to consent to receive autodialed or prerecorded message calls or texts  in order to use and enjoy PayPal’s products and services,” and provides an opt-out link.

The notice also makes clear that PayPal can only use automated tools for marketing purposes if it obtains additional express written consent.

After my initial story, the FCC sent a letter telling PayPal that its terms “raised serious concerns,” and would potentially violate The Telephone Consumer Protection Act.”  An FCC official met with PayPal’s legal team last week, which led to the change

“We greatly appreciated the opportunity to share with you .. our sincere regret for any concern or confusion this updated provision has caused  the (FCC)  or our customers,” the letter said. It was signed by Louis Pentland, PayPal’s general counsel.

A notice about the change will be emailed to PayPal users soon, the letter said.

In reaction to the initial report about the change, PayPal said consumers could opt out of robocalls and texts, but it wasn’t initially clear how to do so.  Also, the firm had told a customer weeks earlier that no opt out was available. When PayPal consumer Robert Pascarella questioned PayPal about the terms of service on the company’s Facebook page recently, he requested an opt-out for the provision and was shot down.

“Regrettably, there isn’t an opt out option to certain items within our User Agreement,” PayPal wrote on Facebook.

Thanks again to Ed Hasbrouck for initially calling attention to the issue….several years ago.

“I commend PayPal for taking steps to honor consumer choices to be free from unwanted calls and texts,” said Federal Communications Commission Enforcement Bureau Chief Travis LeBlanc. “The changes to PayPal’s user agreement recognize that its customers are not required to consent to unwanted robocalls or robotexts. It clarifies, rightly, that its customers must provide prior express written consent before the company can call or text them with marketing, and that these customers have a right to revoke their consent to receive robocalls or robotexts at any time. These changes, along with PayPal’s commitments to improve its disclosures and make it easier for consumers to express their calling preferences, are significant and welcome improvements.”

Story background:



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This complicated chart explaining gay couple tax filing rules disappears. (BenefitsAttorney.com - click for more)

This complicated chart explaining gay couple tax filing rules disappears. (BenefitsAttorney.com – click for more)

Welcome to the marriage penalty, gay couples!  And the end of the health care benefit tax penalty, along with added Social Security benefits — at least in the 13 states where gay marriage wasn’t formerly legally recognized.

While emotions overflow about today’s Supreme Court ruling, it’s easy to overlook the real-world impact of today’s decision on gay couples. From a personal finance perspective, being a gay couple is complex. It’ll be a bit less complicated now.

“A couple’s lifetime cost of being gay” was calculated in a great piece written several years ago by Tara Siegel Bernard and Ron Lieber. Under a worst-case scenario, the price tag was nearly half a million dollars.  Under certain circumstances, the gay couple penalty fell to $41,000.  The endeavor required a series of assumptions that you should read on your own. It also predated the 2013 Supreme Court ruling that struck down parts of the Defense of Marriage Act which were very costly to gay couples. Since then, the lifetime cost of being gay has depended a lot on where you live.

Friday’s ruling means gay couples will no longer have to pay a tax penalty when their spouse has employer-provided health care coverage. Before 2013, all gay couples were subject to the health benefit federal tax penalty.  If an employee enrolled a gay partner in health insurance, the added cost of the plan borne by the employer was considered imputed income, and subject to local, state and federal tax.  Opposite-sex spousal coverage is tax free.

To see how painful this could be: an anonymous gay friend of mine got a kick in the teeth when her spouse  lost her job not too long ago. While she was lucky enough to get the spouse added to her company’s health benefits, a second kick came when she found out she had to pay taxes on $400 additional “income” per month.

After the 2013 ruling, the federal tax obligation on this benefit was eliminated, but some state tax obligations remained.

“If your state does not recognize your marriage, you will probably have to pay state income taxes on these benefits,” says Lambda Legal,  in an excellent blog on the topic from earlier this year.

Thursday’s ruling makes gay spouses eligible for tax-free health coverage benefits in all 50 states.

The 2013 Supreme Court ruling had also cleared the way for Social Security spousal benefits, but because the Social Security Administration eligibility is determined by state residence, the SSA is bound to honor the marriage status recognized by states, so the new rules didn’t apply in the 13 states that were gay marriage holdouts. ( The Social Security Administration had been encouraging gay couples in those states to apply for benefits anyway, in the event the rules changed.)

“Spousal benefits” means that after a death, the surviving spouse can claim their partner’s benefit in place of her or his own if the check is bigger.  The lower-earning spouse can also have his or her benefit increased to 50 percent of the higher-earning spouse while both are alive.

Today’s ruling clears the way for gay couples in all states to file a joint tax returns as “married.” Before today, gay couples could file federal returns as married (again, since 2013), but rules varied wildly on state taxes. (If you are brave, visit this page and try to digest the author’s impressive chart)

So taxes will be simpler. That might not be a reason to celebrate, however.  Many couples who wed are unpleasantly surprised by the “marriage penalty.” It impacts couples where one partner earns considerably more than the other, lifting the lower-paid partner into a higher tax bracket.  It’s no small concern. Back in 2004 (ok, admittedly it’s old, but it provides some guidance), the Congressional Budget Office looked at the revenue impact of legalizing gay marriage.  While a total of 1,138 potentially expensive federal benefits would be newly eligible to gay couples, the added tax collected via the marriage penalty would more than cover the cost. Back then, the CBO estimated that legalizing gay marriage would actually add $700 million annual to federal coffers.

Finally, today’s ruling clears up confusion over death taxes, too.  Gay couples have been exempt from federal death taxes since 2013 — all assets could be transferred to a surviving spouse tax free. State death taxes, which are usually a bigger concern because they kick in at lower asset levels, were another matter, however.  Gay couples had faced added tax liability in states where their marriages weren’t recognized; they are now on equal footing with opposite-sex couples.

Significantly, the ruling removed ambiguity about what tax and financial rules govern gay couples. Previously, couples who were married in a state that recognized gay marriage could end up with different rights when moving to — or even traveling within — a state that did not.

Be sure to consult a professional if you have any questions about your tax situation — particularly when it comes to estate planning.

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shaneivery

Shane Ivery (displayed with Ivery’s permission)

School can be a pretty inefficient, and very expensive, way to learn. That’s why a new crop of sharply focused, boot-camp like training programs hold out so much promise. CNBC asked me to explore the world of alternative higher education recently — mostly computer coding crash courses. Nothing will replace college, but these programs provide a compelling alternative.

Schools like Flatiron in New York City seem tailor-made for young adults like Sharnie Ivery, from Brooklyn. Less than two years ago, Ivery, 23, was miserable in a dead-end retail sales job. He’d already dabbled in computer programming, so he tried a few college courses, but he already knew the material he was being forced to study.

“The pace was really slow,” he said.

So he dropped out. Then he got into Flatiron.  The school usually charges $15,000 for a three-month course, but Ivery was selected for a special program sponsored by New York City which gave him five-month’ training for free.

“Honestly, I find schools work one of the least efficient ways for someone to learn anything,” he said. “Flatiron was very focused on programming. That’s exactly what I wanted to learn and that’s exactly what I did there. The work was super difficult but at the same time there was a support system. We all helped each other.”

Flash forward five months. Just as Ivery’s Flatiron program was ending, he attended a job fair was immediately hired as developer at BounceExchange, a web software company.

“The skills I had lined up exactly with what the company was looking for,” he said. “For me, I’d say getting a job was really easy.”

“Honestly, you can’t compare college to Flatiron. I learned so much at Flatiron. In college the only thing I did was was read text books and listen to professors talk for hours.”

Here’s the lead of my CNBC story. You can read the rest at CNBC.com

It seemed like a classic utopian vision. Free prestigious university classes delivered online, open to anyone, offering the potential to slay the college debt monster.

Instead, so-called Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs) proved how little students often learn from online classes. Dropout rates as high as 90 percent were reported, and it seemed that traditional higher ed’s stranglehold as the gateway to higher-paying jobs was even tighter.

But new models of higher education alternatives are rising from those ashes that really can challenge—or neatly supplement—a college degree. MOOCs have morphed into hybrid programs with a more human touch, and ultrafocused, skills-based training courses in fields like computer programming are proving to be real contenders, offering 90 percent-plus job placement rates.

Continue reading on CNBC.com



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The email from Expedia

The email from Expedia

UPDATED: Third party blamed for unauthorized access.

Some Expedia.com customers are getting emails from the firm warning that a would-be criminal has obtained “unauthorized access … (to) your name, phone number, email address and travel booking.”

The details are being used in an attempt to trick customers into sharing even more personal information, the firm says.

I obtained a copy of the email from a source.

“Please note that credit card information was not compromised,” the email says.  The warning tells recipients that someone is using the information — apparently obtained somehow from Expedia — in an attempt to trick consumers into divulging payment information.

It then urges recipients not to click on any links in the messages “or comply with any requests for your personal data or credit card information.. do not transfer money to any bank account listed in this email and/or SMS message.”

Expedia confirmed the authenticity of the warning to me.

“We are aware of a scenario involving fraudulent communications to a proportion of consumers who have booked on our site from an individual claiming to represent our organization or the hotel at which they have booked a room,” wrote Ingrid Belobradic, an Expedia spokesperson, “We have investigated this phishing incident thoroughly, and impacted customers are being or have been notified and advised of any appropriate action they may need to take.”

UPDATE 5 p.m., 6/24/2015 – , Sarah Gavin, head of communications at Expedia, says the data was not stolen from Expedia, but rather a third party. The data was stolen by a criminal who successfully phished a partner hotel and obtained that hotel’s login credentials, and subsequently stole names and other information about consumers who had used the Expedia system recently to book a stay at that hotel.  The theft was limited to consumers who booked at that hotel, which she declined to identify. 

Expedia representatives have taken to Twitter in recent days to issue a few warnings about a phishing scam, though it is unclear those Tweets are related to this warning.

“Hi @Expedia, just got a weird automated message apparently from you guys, sounds like a scam asking for cc details,” wrote one consumer four days ago. In response, Expedia wrote, “We’re sorry to hear you were targeted by these phishing scam phone calls. ”

In another exchange a user who booked a trip recently was told he had won cash to be used towards a recent booking.

“Just got phone call winning $2600 towards trip,need valid credit card to check into resort.Wanted to let you know about this. SCAM?” wrote the user. Expedia’s response: “Phishing scam targeting Canadian and US residents. Our information security team has indicated that there has been no data…” The Tweet is cut off at that point.

It’s hardly the first time a large travel site like Expedia has been targeted by an email scam. But use of authentic personal information, such as details of a recent booking sent to consumers’ cell phone number or personal email, make a phishing attempt seem far more realistic — more like a spear phishing attack.

Expedia said it works continually to improve the security of its service.

“As an enhanced security measure, we have implemented a multi-factor authentication process in partnership with our hotel partners and have distributed various education mechanisms to our partners for further understanding of the sensitivity and importance of these type of fraudulent activities,” Belobradic said. “Our security team continually works to address situations such as this and is always focused on making sure our sites are as secure as possible.  We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this incident may have caused.”



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