Tax Season Is Here…And So Are The Scammers

The start of each new year typically brings renewed resolve to get healthy, strengthened desires for personal improvement, and of course, tax season.

Tax season can mean different things to a lot of people. Some look forward to a large refund; for others, it’s one more thing to tack onto their to-do list. For the scammers out there, it means the annual opportunity to rake in fraudulent refunds has finally arrived. Tax scammers are ruthless. They’re unaffected by the thought of families and individuals dependent upon what is likely their biggest check of the year being denied this financial relief.

If there’s one thing we can be sure of, it’s that there will be scams this tax season. Fortunately, there are safeguards you can take to stay protected this tax season.

  • Schedule time with your tax preparer now so you can get your taxes done as early as possible. This will help decrease the chances that a fraudster will get your refund before you do.
  • Sign up for Scam Alerts from the FTC to stay abreast of all the dirty tricks scammers are currently using.
  • Talk to someone in your HR department to see if you can get your W-2 before it’s mailed out. This will help ensure that you actually receive it so you don’t have to risk it being lost or stolen in the mail.
  • Never send emails with personally identifiable information (PII) attached. It’s best to never send them through email at all, but if you must, you should encrypt your message by making a change in your email’s security settings.
  • Beware of computer scams. These can come via email or as popups on your computer asking for your personal information. The IRS saw an approximate 400% surge in phishing and malware incidents in the 2016 tax season.
  • Always use a professional, trustworthy tax preparer. Sometimes, even national tax preparation chains can scam you out of your money or use less-than-secure procedures when it comes to handling your personal information. Make sure you use someone you trust.
  • Never provide any personal information over the phone to someone who says they are from the IRS. The IRS will never contact you via phone, email or social media.

Tax season is stress enough as it is; worrying about tax fraud shouldn’t have to be a part of it. Maintain a peace of mind by filing taxes as early as possible and by enrolling in an Optima Protection Plan 

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Love and Mortgage: Should Newlyweds Buy or Rent a Home?

Somewhere in your mind, you might have an idealized image of a newly married couple triumphantly sweeping into a dream home with the wife in the husband’s arms. As corny as the tradition might seem, you can also see it as a powerful symbol — two people making their first entrance into the home they now share as owners.

Should you and your new spouse follow that example, or do you have reservations about adding a mortgage to the mix? Consider some of the pros and cons of renting vs. buying as newlyweds, and then take your time in deciding whether home ownership is another threshold you want to cross together.

Your Solution Depends On Your Situation

You’ve probably made dozens of decisions together on your way to the altar, making the call on everything from the registry to the diplomatically arranged seating chart at the reception. And now’s not the time to give in to judgment fatigue.

Take some time to evaluate the respective merits. You may find that personal finances, career aspirations and even the value you place on independence vs. convenience could influence your decision of whether to rent or buy.

The Case for Renting

Some of the reasons that could make renting a home preferable to buying include:

Lower Start-Up Costs — Moving into an apartment typically means paying some moderate expenses, such as first and last month’s rent, specified deposits and the like. Buying a home typically means spending several thousand dollars on a down payment, closing costs, agent’s commission, attorney’s fees and more. If you still haven’t figured out how to pay off the honeymoon, the initial investment could loom large in your decision-making.

More Mobility — The U.S. Census Bureau reports that after age 18, the typical American can expect to move nine times. If you happen to get a new job in a different state, you’ll have a much easier time (relatively speaking) breaking a lease than you would be selling a house.

Repairs Aren’t Your Responsibility — If the toilet springs a leak at 3 a.m., a renter can call the landlord to get it fixed. For homeowners, the burden of arranging and paying for repairs, and possibly filing an insurance claim, falls entirely on them. When it comes to upkeep, a conscientious landlord can be a real convenience.

The Case For Buying

Factors such as these could tip the scales in favor of homeownership:

It’s Usually More Economical — For couples who plan to stay in the same area for several years, buying a house is generally considered the more affordable choice. The expert consensus favors ownership as a much better source of value than renting in just about every U.S. housing market. Also, you can help protect your investment with a home insurance policy that may provide coverage for weather damage, break-ins, and other hazards.

Ownership Builds More Wealth — One aspect of the pro-buying argument revolves around the central idea of wealth accumulation: Homeowners nurture an investment in something that will one day belong to them, rather than simply renting space from month-to-month or year-to-year. Even if you move to a new house before you pay off the mortgage, you still have the equity you’ve built up in your current home.

A Sunnier Market Outlook — Although memories of the housing bubble bust still linger, many indicators point to a stabilized recovery. New regulations have helped curtail risky lending practices, home prices have reached realistic levels and the economy has rebounded. With mortgage rates at historic lows, 2016 could be an advantageous time to become homeowners.

Whichever Way You Go, Go Thoughtfully

The decision to buy or rent as newlyweds depend on immediate realities and long-term possibilities. Do you have plenty of money on hand? Do you have job security? When might you start a family?

You’ll need to consider all these factors, and more, as you figure out whether crossing the threshold right away is a realistic option or just a romantic notion.

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An Overview of Health Insurance Plans

Chances are, you have health insurance—only about 11 percent of Americans are uninsured. But unless you've had experience using your health insurance plan for significant medical treatment, you might not have paid much attention to the details of your coverage. And if you've had to shop for your own coverage or select from among several options offered by your employer, you might have found the choices overwhelming or confusing.

Regardless of where you obtain your health insurance, it's important to understand the terminology used to describe policies and coverage and to be able to compare plans. Knowing how your plan works—before you need to use it—is essential; you don't want to be sorting out the details of your coverage while you're sitting in a hospital room.

Where Can You Turn for Help?

Roughly half of Americans get their health insurance from an employer.

Help with plan selection, enrollment, and using your coverage is always available, regardless of where you get your coverage. If your employer offers health insurance coverage, don't be shy about asking questions. If there's a human resources department at your company, helping you understand your benefits is part of their job.

If you work for a smaller employer that doesn't have a dedicated human resources team, they can direct you to resources that can help you, including the health insurance carrier, the broker who helped the employer choose the coverage, the small business health insurance exchange, or a third-party payroll/benefits company that the employer uses.

Anytime you're verifying benefits or claims data, ask for details in writing so that you know for sure that the information is accurate.

In the case of buying your own health insurance, brokers are available to provide assistance online, over the phone, or in-person—and there's no charge for their services. Brokers can help you compare plans both on and off the exchange. If you know you want to use the health insurance exchange, there are navigators and certified enrollment counselors available to help you enroll. To find the exchange in your state, you can start at Healthcare.gov and select your state. If you're in a state that has its own exchange, you'll be directed to that site.

For Medicaid or Children's Health Insurance Program ( CHIP), your state agency can help you understand the benefits available to you, if eligible, and assist you with the enrollment process. You can also enroll in Medicaid or CHIP through the health insurance exchange in every state.

If you're eligible for Medicare, you can use your State Health Insurance Assistance Program as a resource.

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There are also brokers nationwide who help beneficiaries enroll in Medicare Advantage plans or supplemental coverage for Original Medicare.

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

In some cases, your plan options may be limited, like if your employer offers only a single plan.  But most people have a few choices when it comes to selecting their health insurance. Your employer may offer a range of plans with varying coverage levels and monthly premiums. If you buy your own health insurance, you can select from any plan available in the individual market in your area (on or off-exchange, although premium subsidies are only available in the exchange).

 

 There's no one-size-fits-all when it comes to health insurance. The plan that will be best for you depends on a variety of factors:

  1. Do you have any pre-existing conditions? This is no longer an issue in terms of coverage availability as the Affordable Care Act banned medical underwriting as of 2014. But it will definitely be a factor in terms of picking a plan, because benefits, out-of-pocket exposure, covered drug list (formulary), and provider network vary considerably from one plan to another.

    If one member of your family has pre-existing conditions or is anticipating significant medical expenses in the coming year, you may want to consider enrolling the family in separate plans, with more robust coverage for the family member who's expected to need more health care during the year.

  2. Do you take any prescription drugs? Be sure to check the formularies of the health plans you're considering. You may find that one plan covers your drugs in a lower-cost tier than another or that some plans don't cover your medication at all. Health plans divide covered drugs into categories, generally labeled Tier 1, Tier 2, Tier 3, and Tier 4.

    Drugs in Tier 1 are the least expensive, while those in Tier 4 are mostly specialty drugs. Drugs in Tier 4 are generally covered with coinsurance (you pay a percentage of the cost) as opposed to a flat-rate copay. Given the high sticker price on specialty drugs, some people end up meeting their plan's out-of-pocket maximum very early in the year if they need expensive Tier 4 drugs. Some states, however, have implemented limits on patient costs for specialty drugs.

    If you're enrolling in Medicare, you can use Medicare's plan finder tool when you first enroll and each year during open enrollment. It will let you enter your prescriptions and help you determine which prescription plan will work best.

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  1. Are you currently receiving medical care from a particular physician or hospital? Provider networks vary from one carrier to another, so compare the provider lists for the various plans you're considering. If your provider isn't in-network, you may still be able to use that provider but with a higher out-of-pocket cost or you may not have coverage outside the network at all.

    In some cases, you'll need to decide whether keeping your current provider is worth paying higher health insurance premiums. If you don't have a particularly well-established relationship with a specific doctor, you may find that selecting a plan with a narrow network could result in lower premiums.

  2. Are you anticipating any expensive medical care in the coming year? If you know you have an upcoming surgery, for example, or you're planning to have a baby, it will likely make sense to pay higher premiums in trade for a plan with a lower out-of-pocket limit.  Keep in mind that you may get a better value from a plan with a lower total out-of-pocket limit, regardless of how much the plan requires you to pay for individual services prior to meeting that out-of-pocket limit.

    For example, if you know you're going to need a knee replacement, a plan with a total out-of-pocket limit of $3,000 might be a better value than a plan with a $5,000 out-of-pocket limit. Even if the latter plan offers copays for doctor visits, the former plan counts your doctor visits towards the deductible.

    It would ultimately be a better deal to pay the full cost of your doctor visits if you know that all of your healthcare spending on covered services will cease once you hit $3,000 for the year. Getting to pay a copay—instead of the full cost—for a doctor's visit is advantageous in the short-term. But for people who are going to need extensive medical care, the total cap on out-of-pocket spending may be a more important factor.

  3. Do you travel a lot?  You may want to consider a PPO with a broad network and solid out-of-network coverage. This will be more expensive than a narrow-network HMO, but the flexibility it offers in terms of allowing you to use providers in multiple areas might be worth it. If you're enrolling in Medicare, your travel plans will probably make Original Medicare—plus supplemental coverage—a better choice than Medicare Advantage, since Medicare Advantage has limited provider networks.

  4. What's your tolerance for risk? Do you prefer to spend more on premiums every month in trade for lower out-of-pocket expenses? Is having a copay at the doctor's office—as opposed to paying for all of your care until you meet your deductible—worth higher premiums? Do you have money in savings that could be used to pay for your health care costs if you opt for a plan with a higher deductible?

    These are questions that don't have a right or wrong answer, but understanding how you feel about them is a key part of picking the health plan that will provide you with the best value. The monthly premiums will have to be paid regardless of whether you use a million dollars worth of healthcare or none at all. But beyond the premiums, the amount you'll pay throughout the year depends on the type of coverage you have and how much medical care you need.

    All non-grandfathered plans cover some types of preventive care with no cost-sharing—meaning there's no copay and you don't have to pay your deductible for those services. But beyond that, coverage for other types of care can vary substantially from one plan to another. If you select the plan with the lowest premiums, be aware that your costs are likely to be higher if and when you need medical care. 

  5. Do you want to be able to contribute to a Health Savings Account (HSA)? If so, you'll need to make sure that you enroll in a High Deductible Health Plan (HDHP) that is HSA-qualified. These plans cover preventive care before the deductible, but nothing else. HSA-qualified plans have minimum deductible requirements along with limits on maximum out-of-pocket costs.

    You or your employer can fund your HSA and there's no "use it or lose it" provision. You can use the money to pay for medical expenses with pre-tax dollars, but you can also leave the money in the HSA and let it grow. It will roll over from one year to the next and can always be used—tax-free—to pay for qualified medical expenses even if you no longer have an HSA-qualified health plan.

A Word From Very well

Health insurance is essential but it can also be frustrating and complicated. Regardless of whether you have a government-run plan, coverage offered by your employer, or a policy that you bought for yourself, a solid understanding of how health insurance works will serve you well.  The more you know, the easier it will be for you to compare plan options and know that you're getting the best value from your health insurance coverage. And rest assured that help is always available if you have questions.

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Obamacare Enrollment: 4 Things to Know

 

If you’re interested in getting coverage under the Affordable Care Act for 2016, now’s the time to start shopping. Enrollment opened on November 1 and will continue through January 31 (though, you’ll need to make your final selection by December 15 if you want a policy in place by New Year’s Day). Even if you’re happy with your current ACA policy, it’s a good idea to review your options in the Marketplace, since each new year brings changes to plan costs and benefit designs.

Here are 4 things to watch during this open enrollment period.

1. Rising premiums. This year, premium increases are steeper than last year. Benchmark plans (the second lowest cost silver plan sold in each market and to which tax credits are tied) will jump by an average of 7.5% for 2016. But that’s just the average across 37 states using Healthcare.gov.

Costs will rise much higher in some states. For example, if you live in Oklahoma, you’ll pay an average of nearly 36% more for benchmark plan premiums.

The good news is that most people will be able to offset rising costs by shopping and changing plans. A government analysis found that people who switched plans within the same tier level in 2015 (bronze, silver, gold) spent nearly $ 400 less for the year on premiums after tax credits than they would have if they stayed in their existing plans.

2. Changing costs. The price of a plan’s premium isn’t the only cost that will change. Each year health plans make adjustments to out-of-pocket costs as well. So, check plan deductibles – the amount you must spend before insurance helps cover the bills. You’ll also want to note co-pays and co-insurance associated with going to the doctor or filling prescriptions.

To help you get a sense of what your overall costs are likely to be with different plans, Healthcare.gov is now offering a cost calculator, as well as tools to help you search for plans by participating doctors and covered medications.

3. Provider networks and drug coverage. Generally, plans sold on Healthcare.gov will continue to offer limited provider networks with access to fewer doctors and hospitalsAnd, there are more plans being sold this year that offer no out-of-network coverage at all.

Narrower networks that include fewer doctors are generally cheaper. But there’s a trade-off. Going outside your health plan’s network can lead to high and unexpected costs.

Another detail to check: The list of participating pharmacies and the drugs each plan covers to make sure you’ll have coverage for the medications you take.

Also, make sure you understand the associated costs you’ll face when you go to fill your covered prescriptions. For example, most plans put medications on different tiers that come with varying out-of-pocket costs. And, some plans have a separate deductible for prescription drugs. The way in which these costs are applied can have a huge impact on how much you ultimately spend.

4. Tax credit calculations. Tax credits are available to help lower the cost of insurance for individuals earning between $ 11,770 and $ 47,080 per year. Those earning less than $ 29,000 per year may also qualify to have their out-of-pocket costs reduced.

If you’re already getting a tax credit and don’t renew your plan through Healthcare.gov, your income will be automatically updated by the government with the most current information available.

Still, it’s a good idea to update your information during open enrollment to ensure that you’re not receiving too much or too little help, and to report any changes to your income or household size during the year to keep your information current and to avoid surprises at tax time.

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What Car Warranty is Best for Me?

Whether you're shopping for a new or used car, most people have a general idea that a warranty is a good idea. Warranties are often considered to be a form of "insurance" - you pay out a fee and in exchange, your car will be fixed if anything breaks on it, but unfortunately, it's not quite that simple. There are different types of warranties and a warranty might not necessarily cover everything that you think it will. Here is everything you need to know:

What Exactly is an Auto Warranty?

A warranty is a contract between either you and your dealership or you and your manufacturer. At its simplest, a warranty sets out a specific amount of time and mileage; any defects and repairs that are necessary under that time and mileage amount are automatically covered under warranty. Warranties usually last around three years or 36,000 miles. They can also be extended upon vehicle purchase. This is very common when used vehicles are purchased. 

But an auto warranty is not a type of insurance even though it is often presented as one. Auto warranties are only designed to fix parts that are considered to be defective or faulty. They are not designed to fix parts that have broken down from wear-and-tear, collisions or other issues. There are also different types of auto warranties that you need to understand.

What Types of Warranty Coverage Exist?

  • Drivetrain and Powertrain warranties - These warranties are designed to ensure that the very essential components of the vehicle last: the engine, transmission and the associated parts. Drivetrain and Powertrain warranties protect against manufacturer defects of these components, but will be voided if they haven't been properly serviced (such as with regular oil changes).
  • Bumper-to-bumper warranties - The standard bumper-to-bumper warranty is a three-year warranty (or 36,000 miles) that governs the parts of the vehicle from bumper-to-bumper. If these parts are considered to be defective, they will be repaired as needed.
  • Rust or corrosion warranties - This type of warranty is rare, but may be tacked onto the other warranty. This covers rust and corrosion if it occurs due to a defect.
  • Federal emissions warranties - This warranty is more popular now and will cover any repairs necessary to ensure that the vehicle meets its emissions standards.
  • Roadside assistance - This is another specialty warranty that offers roadside assistance if a vehicle breaks down. Most people already have this through their insurance.

How Does a Warranty Work?

To go through a warranty, you must first contact the vehicle entity you have a relationship with: either your dealer or your manufacturer. They will then direct you to the repair shop that will work with you. 

Warranties can be voided if an individual does not maintain their vehicle properly. Auto Tek provides complete auto services that will ensure that all the parts of your vehicle are well-maintained so that you can stay within your warranties.

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Making Home Warranty Comparisons

 

Home warranties take the hassle out of home ownership and give you peace of mind by protecting your family from unexpected and costly bills when major systems or appliances fail. However, coverage options vary widely from provider to provider and choosing the right plan can be tricky. Here is a checklist that details what to look for in a home warranty and how you can choose the provider that's right for you.

Initial Considerations

  • Make a list of all your appliances and systems. Determine which ones are critical to your family's needs, are costly to repair or replace or are at risk of breaking down.
  • Home warranties are designed to fill in the gaps left by homeowners' insurance, but there is potential, however small, for some overlap. Also, some of your appliances may be covered under other warranties. Check and compare these policies so that you're not paying twice for the same coverage.

Coverage

  • Verify which home warranty providers offer coverage in your area. Then narrow your search based on your priorities. Some providers offer fixed plans that cover a list of appliances or systems, some specialize in only a few specific ones, while others offer the option to customize your home warranty benefits.
  • Understand the various levels of coverage. You may find that the advanced coverage offered by one provider is equivalent to the standard coverage offered by another.
  • Take note of the pre-conditions and limitations to any coverage under consideration. Many plans won't cover appliances or systems with pre-existing conditions or costs that arise from improper installation or maintenance.
  • Are you planning to sell your home? Ask if the home warranty is transferable.

Cost

  • Determine the annual cost and what's included. The cost of home warranties varies significantly depending on where you live, the kind of home you live in and what you choose to cover. Some plans include additional services, while others have a more scaled-down offering.
  • Ask about service fees or deductibles. Home warranties take care of much of the heavy lifting when it comes to repairing costs, but there still may be additional fees, such as one for each home visit if something breaks down. Compare any added costs.
  • Establish whether there are limits on the maximum amount a provider will pay for repairs.

Service

  • Easy access to a service network is one of the biggest home warranty benefits. With just one phone call, you can schedule a home visit for a wide range of maintenance issues. Investigate how many in-network contractors service your area and make sure there are a variety of specialties represented.
  • Inquire about the provider's screening process and selection criteria for their contractors.
  • With some companies, the service provider may be different from the company selling you the home warranty. Make sure you can find contact information for the company that will ultimately be servicing your warranty.
  • Ask about the provider's service level agreements, average response time and claims process. Many providers offer the convenient option of requesting service and filing a claim online, but it's also good to know that you can reach a representative when you need one. Compare the level of follow-up documentation each company may require.

Reputation

  • Check out consumer ratings and reviews to learn about other customers' experiences. You want to make sure you choose a reputable provider.
  • Peruse a company's social media and online presence to help confirm its legitimacy and level of consumer focus. Is this a company that places the customer first?
  • Verify that the home warranty providers you're considering are properly licensed if you reside in a state that requires it. These requirements vary by state.
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