Investment Change for the Better

Change. Progress. Risk.

Gradually, typewriters became word processors and computers. That was progress and made our lives better.

Phones used to be stationary, immovable objects. They were tethered to a desk or attached to a wall. Then phones were introduced which you could walk around your house with. This did not involve much risk, so most people quickly adopted them. They made your life easier and better.

Bag phones were introduced. These were the first “car” phones most people used. They were large and bulky. Then came flip phones, which were used only for calls. In the past 10 years, cell phones became smart phones, with the introduction of the iPhone and similar devices.

Technology gradually evolves. Progress occurs. Our habits change. We get used to the new innovations. They have made our lives better (mostly!) and enabled us to communicate, share information and always be in touch.

In terms of investing, some people have long held individual stocks and watched these stocks grow over the decades. They rely on the dividends these large US companies regularly pay. Others invested in actively managed mutual funds, which have investment managers and researchers to hopefully outperform others, or at least to try to beat an appropriate benchmark or index.

The investment industry has changed over the last few decades. Academic research regarding stocks and investment management has spurred on these changes.

One of the implications from extensive research is that professional money managers cannot consistently outguess and beat the stock market. This is supported by years of industry performance data. (See further data below**) This is one of the core investment principles which we believe.

Our firm adopted this philosophy, based on evidence and much research in 2000-2003, that using globally diversified asset class mutual funds, similar but different than index funds, was better than holding individual stocks or actively managed stock mutual funds.

If you have always held individual stocks, this may seem counter-intuitive. Like transitioning to new technology or other innovations, it may at first seem risky or uncomfortable. Over time, we feel that our investment approach should provide you with greater expected returns and less risk through better diversification.

Another core investment belief is derived from academic research done in the 1980 and 1990s, which showed that stocks have higher expected returns than bonds, that small companies have higher expected returns than large companies and “value” companies have higher expected returns than “growth” companies.  Subsequent research showed that these concepts apply also to international stocks. This research, done by Eugena Fama, led to him being awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2013. He is a co-founding member of the DFA Board of Directors and he serves on DFA’s Investment Policy Committee. DFA is the primary mutual fund firm we use to implement our stock investment philosophy.

If you own mostly large US “legacy” stocks, which I refer to as some of the large US companies of the past 10-40+ years, this research and our real world interactions over the past 15 years shows that you are missing out on significant long-term growth opportunities in your portfolio. You would be missing higher expected returns by not having allocations to small, value and international asset classes. You are also missing investments in other companies, by not diversifying your legacy holdings.

When I considered starting this firm around 2000, I was not aware of this research and this approach to investing.  We adopted concepts that were different than how most people then invested. When we first began working with DFA in 2003, they were large, maybe the 38th largest mutual fund company in the US. Today, DFA manages $460 billion in the US, and more globally, and DFA is the 8th largest mutual fund company in the country.

We were curious back then. The more questions we asked, the more we read, the more logical and rational this approach appeared. Now we are quite confident. We still ask questions. We still challenge conventional wisdom. That is part of our job.

Just as technology and the world changes, the financial world is continuously changing. We keep learning, researching and monitoring, all with the goal of providing you and your family with a better investment experience.

Have you and your investments evolved and changed for the better over time? Are you using the optimal method?

Are you using a “bag phone” or a “smart phone”?

**From Dimensional Fund Advisors website, only 15% of US equity and fixed income funds that were around in 2000 beat an industry benchmark, 15 years later. Over the same time period, 82% of US equity and fixed income Dimensional funds outperformed their benchmarks.

Source: Some of the above information is from DFA’s book, 35 Quotations on a Better Way to Invest.

 

12 Travel and Credit Card Tips for Greater Value and Enjoyment (Part 1)

We advise you on your finances and investments.

But we all spend money. I want to provide tips which can save you money and time, create greater value and help you and your family to have better experiences as you shop, fly, travel and eat out.

Today in Part 1, are 6 tips that you should consider and implement, if they make sense with your lifestyle.

Within the next few weeks, I will post Part 2, with more tips.

1. Get TSA PreCheck, or Global Entry, to save you time and energy every time you fly. These are both valid for 5 years.

  • Global Entry, geared toward international travel, requires an interview and provides for expedited processing through customs at airports and land borders when you arrive back in the US. If you apply for this, TSA PreCheck is included in the $100 cost.
  • TSA PreCheck is only for domestic air travel and costs $85. For more information, go to www.tsa.gov/tsa-precheck .
  • The cost for either is reimbursable if you have one of the following premium credit cards: Citi Prestige, Platinum Card from American Express or Ritz-Carlton Rewards Card, through Chase.
  • Even if you don’t have these credit cards, the average cost of $20-$25 per year is very well worth it. I recommend that your entire family get at least TSA PreCheck. I did this, the process is quick and easy…and you will appreciate it every time you fly.

2. Don’t spend time waiting in car rental lines by signing up for car rental rewards programs, which are free. You can register online. By doing this, you can bypass the long lines at the rental car counters and go right to your car each time you rent. You can do this quickly online, prior to the next time you rent a car.

3. Learn more about maximizing credit card and loyalty strategies. Over the past few years, and especially in recent months, I have read and learned more about the many perks and variety of benefits which are available. A great place to start is www.thepointsguy.com. If you spend the time, you will be amazed at the benefits you can accumulate.

  • If you are loyal to a certain hotel chain, then get their branded credit card. Just getting the credit card will usually get you some free nights. If you use that card for spending or travel, you may move up to elite status, which will get you many perks. I have been loyal to various Marriott brand hotels and now regularly get upgrades, my paid stays and purchases with their credit card rapidly multiply (which can be used for future free nights), special offers, and you get better service from their staff.
  • The Points Guy website recommends SPG (Starwood), which is expected to merge with Marriott, as having the greatest value for their reward program.

4. Consider spending money to get a premium credit card. I once thought it did not make much sense to pay for a premium credit card. However, this can be a wise investment if you will use the benefits.

  • The Citi Prestige Card, which costs $450 per year, provides a 4th night free on any hotel stay of 4 nights or longer (must book through their service), comes with a $250 airline credit which can be used to pay for airfare, baggage fees, in-flight wifi and other items, charges on this card earn 3X for airfare and hotels, can get three free rounds of golf and Admiral Club lounge membership (related to American Airlines). The huge benefit is the 4th night free, if you are planning an extended stay and the hotel is expensive. I may get this card and use it on the second part of a trip next fall.
  • Other cards in this category are Amex Platinum and the Ritz-Carlton Rewards card.
    • The Ritz card offers many perks, such as $300 of travel incidentals (which includes TSA reimbursement), 3 hotel club lounge upgrades per year (hugely valuable if you enjoy the free breakfasts, food and drinks throughout the day), Gold level status, $100 credit on stays of 2 or more nights and much more. The annual fee can easily pay for itself many times over, depending on which perks you use.
    • The Amex Platinum also provides significant hotel savings on bookings through Amex FHR (which may include room upgrades, daily free breakfast, free 3rd or 4th nights), airline incidental reimbursement, Delta club lounge access for card holders and authorized users, Gold status with SPG (Starwood Hotels) and Hilton Hotels, free Boingo wifi and ShopRunner two day delivery service.

5. Monitor your FICO score and use your credit cards wisely. Many credit cards now provide your FICO score monthly or online. This is important, as the better your FICO score, the more accessible various credit cards are. Discover It Card, US Bank, and certain American Express, Citi and Capital One credit cards now provide FICO scores.

  • Do not apply for too many cards at once. Do not cancel older cards, as that will negatively impact your credit score. Make sure you can afford to pay what you charge and pay it off every month. Don’t pay interest on a credit card. If this is an issue, we need to talk about it.

6. Use the points you have already earned! Many people have hundred of thousands of points in many different programs. Do you have tons of Delta or other airline miles? Do you have American Express reward points? Citi Thank you points or Chase Ultimate Reward points? Hotel reward points at many different chains?

  • When are you going to use them? When you plan your next trip, consider redeeming these points. Don’t just continue to accumulate them for tomorrow….enjoy them now, unless you are saving them for a specific trip or purpose.

I truly hope these ideas get you thinking about how you spend and travel, as well as how you can maximize the benefits which are available, if you know and use the right strategies. Just as investing can be complicated, we try to simplify that for you.

If you have other tips and thoughts or opinions about this blog post, I would love to hear them. Please let me know what you think, at bwasserman@wassermanwealth.com.

 

Disclosure: I use some of the above credit cards, airline programs, and hotel loyalty programs mentioned above. I have not been compensated for any of these comments. They are based on my own experiences, opinions and research, with special credit to www.thepointsguy.com, which I highly recommend. There are many credit cards, hotel chains and airline reward programs, all with varying benefits. The purpose of this post is to make you aware of the potential uses and benefits, not to recommend any specific product or company.

 

What is Your One Thing?

As fall begins and we approach the last three months of 2015, what deserves your attention before December 31, 2015?

Take a step back. What is one thing, which if you focus on, will make a difference in your life, or the life of your family?

As Stephen Covey said, what is something that is important, but not necessarily urgent, that needs to be done?

What comes to mind? What can you be pro-active about? What have you been procrastinating or avoiding?

If you are young, are you saving enough? Are you participating in your company’s 401(k) program? Are you properly allocating your investments within your 401(k)? We can help you with this.

If you have children who are young, have you prepared a will and designated guardians for them? Do you have adequate life insurance? Have you started to properly save for their college education? We can help you with these.

If you are older than 50, have you started to plan how much income you will need for your retirement? Have you checked your social security benefits online? Have you developed a financial plan for a 30 year retirement span? With longer life expectancies, a 30 year retirement will become the norm for many. We can help you with these.

Is there a medical test that you should have done, which you have been putting off? Are you getting regular physicals? We can’t help you with these, but hopefully this gentle reminder will encourage someone to make an important appointment or phone call. I will make the appointment that I have been putting off.

Is there an important conversation that you need to have with someone, or a group of people, which you have been putting off? Please take the initiative and have the conversation. Some of the most important things are accomplished by having what appear to be, in advance, uncomfortable conversations. They may be uncomfortable, but they are usually very worthwhile. We can help you with these.

If you don’t have an idea yet, are you using a password management program, like 1Password or Last Pass? If not, please read these blog posts: How to Securely and Efficiently Manage Your Passwords, Practical Tips for Online Security and 5 Password Security Tips. Password management may not be as important as many of the topics above, but it should be on your list to get updated. We can help you with this.

We view our roles as financial advisors very broadly. We provide our clients with investment management, tax and estate planning advice. We counsel families, individuals and people who are going through life transitions regarding numerous topics, both financial and non-financially related.

We hope this essay helps you to improve some facet of your life. If we can assist you to do this in any way, please contact us.

Are You Earning The Right Airline And Credit Card Rewards?

Redeeming airline frequent flyer miles for free flights is already difficult, and it is going to be getting even harder.

In an excellent New York Times article, “Guesswork in Cashing in Delta’s Frequent-Flier Miles,” personal finance columnist Ron Leiber highlighted that Delta, in particular, is making it harder to obtain information about redeeming frequent flyer miles and will be making further program changes for travel after June 1, 2016.

Delta recently issued a statement, saying “for travel on or after June 1, 2016, the number of miles required will change based on destination, demand and other considerations. But most Award prices will remain unchanged.” As Leiber criticizes, Delta did not provide any further details.

Our thoughts and recommendations:

You should evaluate how to get the most benefit from your travel and credit card spending. What has been best in the past may not be the strategy you should continue in the future.

The theoretical “standard” that 25,000 frequent flyer miles will get you a free flight is a thing of the past. A Delta spokesperson in May stated “you’re going to see that completely change.”

Based on Delta’s statements, you should try to redeem Delta frequent flyer miles as soon as possible. It will likely be advantageous to redeem them for travel before June 1, 2016. This may also apply to other airline reward programs, as they may also impose stricter redemption criteria.

You should determine how best to accumulate and use credit card reward benefits. The optimal strategy may be different for each person, based on their spending, travel habits and locations. The key is to think about this and decide what is best for you.

It makes sense to have a credit card that can provide you with perks such as free checked baggage, which Delta’s American Express card provides. But that does not mean you then need to use this as your primary spending card. You may be able to get better overall benefits than accumulating Delta travel miles from this card.

Using credit cards that offer cash back may be more valuable than frequent flyer airline miles. Some credit cards offer 1-2% in “cash back” for credit card spending, in addition to bonuses that can be as high as 5-6% at varying times and for selected types of purchases. Credit cards such as Chase Freedom and Discover offer these benefits, but these added perks must be activated quarterly. Certain Capital One credit cards offer 1.5% in cash back. You need to research these, as offers and benefits change.

As Leiber’s article points out, you should be trying to get a benefit of at least 1%, if not closer to 2% on your credit card and frequent flyer points. It can be very difficult to calculate the real value of airline and hotel award points. We think credit card cash-back rewards may be worth more than airline frequent flyer miles, which can be hard to use and determine if you are actually getting at least 1-2% value. Leiber’s article cites a few websites that provide more detailed information on this topic.

Hotel reward points and perks may also be more beneficial than airline frequent flyer miles, particularly if you also use a hotel’s branded credit card. If you do travel frequently and stay at certain hotel brands, it may make sense to use that hotel’s branded credit card. This can provide you with significant benefits, like immediate or quick free points (= free room nights), additional points for each stay, elite status (like room or club level upgrades) and other benefits.

Other credit card and related recommendations:

 * If you have a credit card that offers quarterly benefits, like Discover and Chase Freedom, make sure you activate these benefits each quarter. They can send you an email alert quarterly, which simplifies this.
* Redeem your cash back points. If you are accumulating cash back on a credit card, you don’t need to let the cash back balance to keep growing. For example, redeem your money every 3 months.
* Try to use your frequent flyer points in the near future, to test their availability and quantify the benefit, as well as to use them before they lose even more “value” in 2016.
* A premium credit card with an annual fee may make financial sense, if you actually utilize the “extra” benefits.
* Read the fine print and understand all the benefits of your credit card or reward program. Some provide benefits in case of overnight airline cancellations, club level upgrades (which can be a $100-$300 per night benefit), and airline incidental refunds (including for in-air Wi-Fi, food purchases and extra baggage fees).

 

If you want to know what’s in my wallet, or discuss what is in your wallet, let me know. I’d be happy to discuss this with you.

The Positive News

All too often, the media or financial analysts focus on the negative, rather than the positive. While researching and reading over the past week, I’ve come across the following positive items.

  1. Housing starts in June, 2015 were 26.6% higher than last year and permits to build new homes rose 30% compared to June, 2014. Both statistics are 8 year highs. These show continued economic recovery and indications of builder and consumer confidence.
  2. The price of crude oil dropped below $49 per barrel in the US on July 23rd, which is lower than any time in the last 3 years. If it remains around these levels, expect gas prices to continue to fall.
  3. Jobless claims in the US for the week ended July 18th was the lowest level in 41 years. While the weekly figure may be an aberration, the seasonally adjusted claims of 225,000 is far less than 6 years ago, when nearly 600,000 Americans were applying for claims each week.
  4. The federal deficit continues to fall. Last week, the government reported that the current fiscal deficit will be $455 billion, which is less than the $483 billion predicted in February 2015 and far less than the $1 billion annual deficits during the financial crisis around 2008-10.
  5. Apple stock fell after their earnings report Tuesday afternoon, as some of their results were slightly less than some analysts’ expectations. They are pretty impressive to me. Apple reported quarterly revenue of $50 billion, profits of $10.7 billion and 47.5 million iPhones sold during the 3 months ending 6/30/15. They sold 35.2 million phones during the same quarter last year. Apple now has cash on hand of $202.8 billion. The first iPhone was sold approximately 8 years ago. They may sell 200 million iPhones in 2015.
  6. While the Greece debt crisis is important for its impact on the European currency and its lenders, the country is economically tiny in relation to most of the world. Its economy is smaller than Peru and half the size of Ohio’s economy. Its stock market capitalization is just 0.03% of the MSCI All Country World Index. Its debt is large compared to the Greece’s economy, but represents only about ¼ of 1% of world debt markets.

The media’s attention on negative issues, as well as the overwhelming volume of information today, can cause you to lose focus on the bigger picture. Our role is to help you have a broader perspective, so that you can be confident and financially secure, to live the life that you and your family desire. We hope this information helps you to be positive.

5 Password Security Tips

The best way to protect yourself and your personal identity online, that you can control, is your effective use and management of your online passwords. You cannot control whether someone is able to hack into a major website. You can control your passwords, which could significantly limit the effect of online hacking and security breaches.

Put simply, hackers will use the information they obtain from one website to access other websites. If they have your email address and a frequently used password, you are subject to much greater online security risk. This is why it is important that you do NOT use the same password(s) at many or all of the websites you log into. By following the steps below, you can greatly reduce this risk.

The goal of this blog post is to help you get started with better password management and to significantly improve your password security.

5 Steps to Better Password Protection:

  1. Identify the following websites you frequently use:
    • Your online e-mail account.
    • The bank account that you access the most online, or use the most.
    • The credit card that you access the most online, or use the most.
    • The website that you visit the most, which has a password or username.
      • This does not need to be a financial website, just one you visit frequently.  It could be an online newspaper or sports website.
    • Websites that also have the same passwords as any of the above websites.
  2. For each of the websites listed above, change your password for these sites.  This should take you less than 30 minutes, at the most.
  3. When you change your passwords, follow these basic concepts:
    • Your password for each website should be different.  Do not repeat passwords.
    • Each password should be at least 8 characters, and include a random combination of all the following:  capitalized letters, lower case letters, at least one number and other symbols.
      • Examples: 59*Tm@8W, MT27&$keAP
  4. For the other websites you’ve identified under #1 above, which you have repeated passwords at multiple websites, change a few of these passwords over the next week.
    • For example, 5 website passwords each day, for the next week.
  5. Start to use a password manager program, which helps to save and retrieve your passwords, and can log into websites without you having to remember all your passwords.
    • I use and highly recommend 1Password.  There are other programs, some which are cheaper, but this is a great one.
    • By using 1Password, you can login to their app or icon on your internet browser and 1Password’s program will enable you to login to most websites without you having to remember each and every password.
    • 1Password stores and helps you create new passwords.  Their program works across all devices, so you have your passwords with you, on your phone, PC or tablet.  This is way better than paper.

 

We have more detailed suggestions, which you can read in these previous blog posts: Practical Tips for Online Security and How to Securely and Efficiently Manage Your Passwords.

Our goal is to provide our clients with a secure future. As technology has become pervasive in our society, internet and password security is an important aspect of your financial well being.

We truly hope that you take the steps recommended here.

If you have questions, or would like further guidance on this topic, please contact Brad, at bwasserman@wassermanwealth.com.

This is Big – and Full of Energy

We often refer to this motto: “Focus on things that matter and things you can control.”

Today, we want to focus on something different, something which matters a lot, but which we have no direct control over: the long term trend towards much cheaper oil and gas.

Sometimes you may not realize when a broad and important trend has begun or is occurring. Increased knowledge provides you with greater clarity, which results in more confidence about the future.

We want to emphasize the importance of the energy revolution which is occurring through the technological breakthroughs of fracking and horizontal drilling. This is likely one of the great societal changes of our time, similar to the changes which have come from the microprocessor.

Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) have increased U.S. crude oil production by 3.6 million barrels a DAY in less than four years. This has resulted in a crash in oil prices, even though oil demand has remained very strong, both in the U.S. and worldwide.**

Three years ago, the price of oil was around $88 per barrel. Last July, oil was $96 per barrel. Today, and through much of 2015, oil has traded at $60 or below, and is now around $52-53 per barrel.10 Year price of oil chart through 010615

We think the long term trend for oil prices is to remain near the $50-60 per barrel range, or go even lower.

There may be volatility and swings in either direction, as demand and supply adjust. As compared to oil prices of the past, the long term trend should be lower, not higher.

What has caused the huge oil price decline?

The technological advances in fracking and hydraulic drilling has resulted in the huge decline in oil prices. The operators have reported “they can produce more profitably today at a price of $65 a barrel than they could at $95 a barrel three years ago… Where can they be profitable three years hence – $40 a barrel? $30? The oil patch today is afire with the same technological imperative and competitive mission that has powered the U.S. electronics revolution – think Moore’s Law – to dash headlong down the learning curve, crushing costs and prices and making up for it in volume.” **

The U.S. and the world are no longer subject to the OPEC cartel controlling oil prices. The frackers are using “just-in-time” production. OPEC cannot simply withhold supply, as that would cause prices to increase. Frackers would quickly react by investing and increasing drilling and production of new and existing wells. Oil production is no longer dependent on multi-billion investments with many years of lead time. And as productivity and innovation increase, which they are quickly throughout the world, the cost of oil production will go lower.

Why is this important to you and your financial future?

This long term trend toward much lower oil prices has many significant benefits for each of us, as well as corporations and governments throughout the world. Some of the benefits are:

  • Costs will be greatly reduced. The cost of gasoline will be less. Transportation costs of materials and parts will be less, increasing corporate profits and reducing the rate of inflation.
  • Government spending will be less than if oil prices were higher. Just imagine how much gas and oil products the U.S. Government and military utilizes. The more they save, the less they spend (or borrow).
  • The lower the cost of oil, the lower the rate of inflation. If inflation is lower, than interest rates will remain low. The Federal Reserve has stated that one factor in keeping interest rates low is that inflation is below their 2% target rate.
  • Interest rates’ remaining low by historical standards helps to improve corporate profits, lowers the cost of borrowing, and encourages economic investments, all which are positive for world-wide stock markets.

Conclusion

Daniel Yergin is one of the world’s foremost energy experts. He is a Pulitzer Prize winning author of many books, including his 2011 book on energy, The Quest. In this book, written only four-five years ago, Yergin significantly underestimated how quickly fracking and horizontal drilling would have on the supply of energy. While I highly recommend this lengthy book, it is clear that technological change can occur faster than even a top expert can anticipate.The Quest book cover

Yergin concludes The Quest with these thoughts on energy and technological innovation:

“It…is the search for knowledge, which advances technology and promotes innovation… What has been accomplished since could not possibly have been imagined. The challenges of meeting rising energy needs in the decades ahead, of assuring that the resources are available on a sustainable basis to support a growing world, may seem daunting; and, indeed, when one considers the scale, they truly are… But what provides for reasoned confidence is the increasing availability of what may be the most important resource of all—human creativity.

A famous geologist once said, “Oil is found in the minds of men.” We can amend that to say that the energy solutions for the twenty-first century will be found in the minds of people around the world. And that resource base is growing. The globalization of demand may be shaping tomorrows needs. But it is accompanied by a globalization of innovation. The generation of knowledge and the application of science have increasingly become a worldwide endeavor; and the links and interactions, amplified by ever-widening information and communications systems, multiply the speed and impact of what can be accomplished. This means that the resource base of knowledge and creativity is expanding. This will fuel the insight and ingenuity that will find the new solutions…That is at the heart of the quest, it is as much about the human spirit as it is about technology, and that is why this is a quest that will never end.”***

So instead of worrying about the Greek debt problems, let’s focus on the positives of the technological advances our society has made. Then keep focused on your goals and personal financial plan.

P.S. If you want to see a great sketch by Carl Richards on the Greece issue and you, click here.

Sources:

**The Shale Boom Shifts into Higher Gear, by Donald Luskin and Michael Warren, WSJ, May 31, 2015

***The Quest, by Daniel Yergin, 2011, The Penguin Press.

Practical Tips for Online Security

Online security is a growing problem, and will continue to be. The suggestions below are intended to be helpful and practical. Implementing them may seem overwhelming, but are strongly recommended. Even if you take a gradual approach to implement these ideas, you will be more secure.

  • You should never use the same password or just a few passwords for all of your online activities.
  • You should try to use as many unique passwords as possible.
  • Your passwords should be strong, which means they should contain at least 8 characters or more, and have at least one of each of the following, as permitted by a specific website: capitalized letter, lower case letter, number, other type of item (such as @, #, $, %, *, &)
    • Bad passwords: 1234567, password, Mary123
    • Better passwords: g8*RT@wj, RtyU&3#5
    • See the difference?
  • You should change your passwords at least 2 times per year. As many people use the change to and from daylight savings time to check their smoke detector batteries, the same can apply as a reminder to change your passwords two times per year.
  • When asked for security questions, you should not use the same questions and answers over again across multiple websites. If a website was hacked, this backup security provision would then be worthless at other websites.
  • Do not store your passwords on a piece of paper or sticky notes. Do not carry them around in your briefcase or purse.
  • For security questions, be creative. It is not a quiz. You don’t need to use real answers. For example, if the question asks you what street you grew up on, you don’t need to use the real name of the street. Make up a different street name, and keep track of it.
    • This strategy is recommended, as many of the questions ask for items that could be public knowledge or easily searchable by someone else.
    • Sample question and answers:
      • City you were born in? Bad answer: Detroit
      • Good Answers: Costco, Macy’s, red, Middlebelt
  • These recommendations may sound complicated and difficult to implement. If you use a password manager program, such as 1Password or LastPass, implementing these suggestions is much easier and realistic. These applications can store and enable you to retrieve all your passwords, security questions and other data. These programs can be added to your computer, laptop and mobile devices such as an iPad and cell phone.
    • I have used 1Password for a number of years. It takes a little learning, but it is incredibly worthwhile and a huge timesaver.
    • See my prior blog post on using 1Password, Click here.
  • If you get an email notification from a website or financial institution, you should not click on the link in that email, as it could be fraudulent. It is better to go the website directly yourself and login to handle the matter. This way you will know that you are actually going to the website you intend to.
  • If you go to a website and you need to have them send you a new password, username or security question, be sure to then change that item again, after you have logged on. Then you should delete the email they sent to you, with the new information.
    • For example, if you forget your password to wsj.com and they email you a new one, you should logon to wsj.com, use the new password they just provided, then immediately change it to a completely different password that you have not previously used.
  • Do not ever respond to requests for money or wire transfers, even if sent from a good friend or someone you know, stating it is urgent or an emergency. If you get an email request from a friend for money, always call the person. Verify the authenticity of the request, but not via email or online. This account may have been hacked and the person you are replying to may be a hacker, even though you think it is someone you know.
  • Do not email your social security number, your birthdate, or credit card numbers and security code.

I recently attended a conference that featured cyber security experts from Charles Schwab. One of the speakers was formerly with the FBI’s cyber security division. They explained that online hacking and obtaining your passwords, user names, etc. is a huge business. These hackers know that most people (73%) use the same passwords across nearly all the websites they log into.

Hackers may obtain your login information from something like espn.com (non-financial) or your e-mail account.  Once they have one piece of information, it may be useful to them to start to gathering other data and eventually accessing your bank, credit card or more personal websites. This is why I’m recommending all these steps above.

I hope you take the time to implement these recommendations.  Change a few passwords today!

How to Securely and Efficiently Manage Your Passwords

Technology has added many wonderful things to our lives. But the multitude of passwords we all need to know is not one of them.

Managing and remembering passwords, PIN numbers, user names and router logins has become challenging.  For your own security, your login passwords need to be different and strong. You should not be using the same passwords for multiple websites, particularly bank accounts, credit cards and your email login.

One of our goals as a firm is to make your life simpler and easier to manage, with less stress. We want to recommend a solution so you can securely manage all these passwords and data. Using a program to remember and easily retrieve this data should be part of your everyday life.

For many years I have used a program called 1Password. It is an integral part of my life and I cannot imagine managing all this data without 1Password or a similar program. 1Password can be added to almost any computer, phone or tablet that you own. I have added the app to my iPad and iPhone and the program to my Windows PC. They also have apps for Android devices.

We recommend that you obtain one of these programs, take the time to learn how to effectively use it and put all your data into the program you choose.  We are not specifically recommending 1Password, it is just the one that I’ve used for many years. Similar programs you may want to consider are LastPass and Dashlane.

What are the benefits of 1Password?  How do I use it?

  • When I sign into my bank account via the Internet using 1Password, it automatically puts in the user name and password for me. After I click on my bank in 1Password, I am logged into my account information. I don’t need to remember my user name or password.
  • It does the same thing when I sign into most credit card accounts. I don’t need to remember any of this information. If it doesn’t automatically pre-populate, then it is easy to cut and paste the username and password from 1Password to the website.  This saves you from re-typing your user name and password, making it easier to have more complicated passwords.
  • If someone is at my office or home and wants to use my secured wifi, I can easily provide them with the router password, as it is stored in 1Password. I don’t have to scramble and search for the router login information.
  • To use one of my ATM cards, I have stored the PIN number within 1Password. I just access the app and look up my PIN number.
  • 1Password can assist you in storing your passwords, it can evaluate the strength of your current passwords and it can generate new passwords for you (with a password recipe function that allows you to set the length and whether you want symbols, numbers or other items in your password).

Other features:

  • It remembers your prior passwords, if you are required to change certain passwords over time.
  • Auto fill function can populate data you have to repeatedly enter, such as your home address and credit card information when ordering items on the web.
  • You can write notes within each section of 1Password, so it is quite flexible.
  • Many categories of data can be stored and then easily retrieved. There are categories for website logins (of course), as well as credit cards, membership programs, bank accounts, email accounts, routers and identity items such as social security numbers and passports. These can also be helpful to securely store the data of close family members that you may need to know.
  • You can store secondary login information, such as security questions. This way, you will know the answers immediately.
  • And did you ever consider that you don’t need to provide the real answer for some of these questions? The answer to many of these questions are publicly known, so a hacker may know the real answer. Instead, if these questions are only being used for login purposes on a specific website, create a different high school, first home or car, your mother’s maiden name and store your answer in 1Password. Now you have improved your personal security.

You access the program by creating and then remembering one master password. This is common among all these types of programs. There are special tips for developing and then remembering this master password, as this becomes the “key” to your life. This password should be very strong and you should give this password to a family member and someone else you trust, in case you forget the one password which opens these types of programs.  (See blog post “Toward Better Master Passwords”).  To optimize 1Password, you can use Dropbox or iCloud to sync your data across all your devices. I use Dropbox for this.

1Password also has “Security Audit” features. It identifies weak passwords, duplicates and other information to help you decide which Logins to revise. They have also added a feature called “Watchtower,” which lists all vulnerable websites that you have entered into the program. These are identified due to security breaches or viruses, such as the recent Heartbleed security bug. The Watchtower feature must be enabled.

You should use strong passwords and not use the same passwords or login information multiple times.  By using a program like 1Password, it is easier to manage all of your login information. You will be able to create much stronger passwords. You will have the confidence to change your passwords more frequently. And you will save time by not having to type in user names, passwords and other information.

Sound valuable, right? Will you take the next step and start using a password management program?

Note:

For more information on 1Password, see AgileBits.com.  For additional assistance learning about 1Password, see “Take Control of 1Password” at takecontrolbooks.com.   The program is available for purchase at their website or sites such as iTunes. To purchase 1Password, there are various options, depending on what type of computer and devices you use. You may want to consider their various package bundles. The programs are not free and we would not want them to be. Agilebits, the developer of 1Password, has created an important security service and have continually updated and improved their products.  We have not been compensated in any way by 1Password or AgileBits.

What you should do about the credit card security breaches

Credit card security breaches have been in the news frequently over the past months. What actions do you need to take to protect yourself?

Who has been affected?  People who shopped and paid with any credit or debit card in the following stores may be impacted:

  • Target retail stores between November 27- December 15, 2013
  • Neiman Marcus retail stores during 2013
  • Michaels Stores recently, no specific dates have been disclosed.

The largest credit card security breach incurred at Target. Keep in mind that any credit card that was used at these stores during the affected time periods could be impacted in the future. That could be a Target Card, a Neiman Marcus card, as well as American Express, Visa or MasterCard credit or debit cards.

What is the most important thing you can do now?  The most important step an individual can take is to diligently monitor the affected credit card activity on a very regular basis. We recommend you review the card activity online, at least weekly. The stolen card data from this crime may be resold and activated at some point in the future. Your card could be impacted this week or months from now. At a minimum, carefully review your monthly statement.

What is the benefit of the free credit monitoring services that are being offered by these retailers?

 Target and Neiman Marcus are offering one year of free credit monitoring services to affected customers. While we recommend you take advantage of this service, it does not really address the problems caused by the breach. The impact of the breach is someone may use your card data to make unauthorized purchases on your affected card account in the future. A credit monitoring service is not going to prevent or notify you of these unauthorized purchases. 

Credit monitoring services are primarily to let you know if a new credit card has been opened in your name or for signs of identity theft. These are not the primary risks from these security breaches, based on current information.

How should you enroll in these free credit monitoring services?

Be careful and do not click on links from emails, unless you are very sure of their source.  We recommend that you sign up for these services by going directly to the retailer’s website (by you typing the site address on your computer, not by clicking on links).

I registered for the credit monitoring offered by Target, even though I regularly shop there and was not notified by them of the credit monitoring service. To enroll in this service, go to:  creditmonitoring.target.com. It is a two step process. After going to that web address, Target will email you an activation code sent from targetnews@target.com.  Next, at the credit monitoring website (Experian), you will need to provide personal information, such as your full name, address and social security number.

For information regarding Neiman Marcus, go to neimanmarcus.com/infosecurity, which will also offer credit monitoring service by Experian.

You do not need to pay extra money for a credit score, unless you want it. These free services provide you full reports of all of your credit card accounts and account histories, but a FICO score (or comparable score) cost extra.  See our prior blog post on free credit reports, which you are entitled to annually, at Truly Free Credit Reports.

If you have any further questions, please contact us. We are here to assist you with various aspects of your financial life.