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What to do if hackers hold your computer hostage and demand cash

May 23rd, 2016 | Comments Off on What to do if hackers hold your computer hostage and demand cash | Posted in Financial News

Ransomware can ruin your computer and all of your files.

You’re sitting at your computer when you get an email from your local bank saying you were just hit with a charge for a new $1,200 MacBook that you never bought. You click the email and follow the embedded link or download the included receipt to find out what’s up.

Just like that, your computer has been infected with ransomware. You can’t access your files, and all you can see is a timer counting down the time until hackers delete your computer’s drive unless you pay them a fee in iTunes gift cards.

All you can do is scratch your head and wonder what the hell just happened. Well, I’m here to explain that to you — and to help you fight back against ransomware criminals.

The most important thing to remember is this: Never, ever pay the ransom.


Let’s start with the basics. A particularly nefarious form of malware, ransomware is a piece of software criminals use to lock you out of your computer by encrypting its files and holding them for ransom for a specific dollar amount.

If you don’t pay up, you can potentially say goodbye to your photos, tax documents, pay stubs, and any other documents you’ve saved throughout the years.

This isn’t some idle threat, either. If you don’t pay, your documents will disappear or simply stay locked up until you completely reformat your system.

Ransomware programs sometimes require you to pay in Bitcoin, an anonymous currency that can’t be tracked.

However, criminals have increasingly begun demanding payment in the form of iTunes or Amazon gift cards, since the average person doesn’t know how to use Bitcoin, according to Gary Davis, chief consumer security evangelist at Intel Security.

The amount you have to pay to unlock your computer can vary, with some experts saying criminals will ask for up to $500.

To be clear, ransomware doesn’t just target Windows PCs. The malware has been known to impact systems ranging from Android phones and tablets to Linux-based computers and Macs.

Where it comes from

According to Davis, ransomware was actually popular among cybercriminals over a decade ago. But it was far easier to catch the perpetrators back then since anonymous currency like Bitcoin didn’t exist yet. Bitcoin helped changed all that by making it nearly impossible to track criminals based on how victims pay them.


There are multiple types of ransomware out there, according to Chester Wisniewski, a senior security advisor with the computer security company Sophos. Each variation is tied to seven or eight criminal organizations.

Those groups build the software and then sell it on the black market, where other criminals purchase it and then begin using it for their own gains.

How they get you

Ransomware doesn’t just pop up on your computer by magic. You actually have to download it. And while you could swear up and down that you’d never be tricked into downloading malware, cybercriminals get plenty of people to do just that.

Here’s the thing: That email you opened to get ransomware on your computer in the first place was specifically written to get you to believe it was real. That’s because criminals use social engineering to craft their messages.

For example, hackers can determine your location and send emails that look like they’re from companies based in your country.

“Criminals are looking are looking up information about where you live, so you’ll click (emails),” Wisniewski explained to Yahoo Finance. “So if you’re in America, you’ll see something from Citi Bank, rather than Deutsche Bank, which is in Germany.”

Cybercriminals can also target ransomware messages to the time of year. So if it’s the holiday shopping season, criminals might send out messages supposedly from companies like the US Postal Service, FedEx or DHL. If it’s tax time, you could receive a message that says it’s from the IRS.

Other ransomware messages might claim the FBI has targeted you for using illegal software or viewing child pornography on your computer. Then, the message will tell you to click a link to a site to pay a fine — only to lock up your computer after you click.

It’s not just email, though. An attack known as a drive-by can get you if you simply visit certain websites. That’s because criminals have the ability to inject their malware into ads or links on poorly secured sites. When you go to such a site, you’ll download the ransomware. Just like that, you’re locked out of your computer.

How to protect yourself

Ransomware attacks vulnerabilities in outdated versions of software. So, believe it or not, the best way to protect yourself is to constantly update your operating system’s software and apps like Adobe Reader. That means you should always click that little “update” notification on your desktop, phone, or tablet. Don’t put it off.

Beyond that, you should always remember to back up your files. You can either do that by backing them up to a cloud service like Amazon Cloud, Google Drive or iCloud, or by backing up to an external drive.

That said, you’ll want to be careful with how you back up your content. That’s because, according to Kaspersky Lab’s Ryan Naraine, some ransomware can infect your backups.

A fake warning used by ransomware criminals.
Naraine warns against staying logged into your cloud service all the time, as some forms of malware can lock you out of even them. What’s more, if you’re backing up to an external hard drive, you’ll want to disconnect it from your PC when you’re finished, or the ransomware could lock that, as well.

Naraine also says you should disconnect your computer from the internet if you see your system being actively encrypted. Doing so, he explains, could prevent all of your files that have yet to be encrypted from being locked.

Above all, every expert I spoke with recommended installing some form of anti-virus software and some kind of web browser filtering. With both types of software installed, your system up to date, and a backup available, you should be well-protected.

Oh, and for the love of god, avoid downloading any suspicious files or visiting sketchy websites.

What to do if you’re infected

Even if you follow all of the above steps, ransomware could still infect your computer or mobile device. If that’s the case, you have only a few options.

The first and easiest choice is to delete your computer or mobile device and reinstall your operating system. You’ll lose everything, but you won’t have to pay some criminal who’s holding your files hostage.

Some security software makers also sell programs that can decrypt your files. That said, by purchasing one, you’re betting that it will work on the ransomware on your computer, which isn’t always the case. On top of that, ransomware makers can update their malware to beat security software makers’ offerings.

All of the experts agree that the average person should never pay the ransom — even if it means losing their files. Doing so, they say, helps perpetuate a criminal act and emboldens ransomware makers.

Even if you do pay up, the ransomware could have left some other form of malware on your computer that you might not see.

In other words: Tell the criminals to take a hike.


Tell Your Beneficiaries About Your Accounts and Policies

May 23rd, 2016 | Comments Off on Tell Your Beneficiaries About Your Accounts and Policies | Posted in Financial News

Let them know how they will receive retirement assets and insurance benefits.

505727053Will your heirs receive a fair share of your wealth? Will your invested assets go where you want them to when you die?

If you have a proper will or estate plan in place, you will likely answer “yes” to both of those questions. The beneficiary forms you filled out years ago for your IRA, your workplace retirement plan, and your life insurance policy may give you even more confidence about the eventual transfer of your wealth.

One concern still remains, though. You have to tell your heirs that these documents exist.

That does not mean sharing all the details. If you have decided that some of your heirs will one day get more of your wealth than others, you can keep quiet about that decision as long as you live. You do want to tell your heirs the essential details; they should know that you have a will and/or an estate plan, and they should understand that you have named beneficiaries for your retirement accounts, your investment accounts, and your insurance policies.

Over time, you must review your beneficiary decisions. In fact, you may want to revisit them. As an example, say you opened an IRA in 1997. Your life has probably changed quite a bit since 1997. Were you single then, and are you married now? Were you married then, and are you single now? Have you become a parent since then? If you can answer “yes” to any of those three questions, then you need to look at that IRA beneficiary form now. Your choices may need to change.

Here is a quick look at how beneficiary decisions play out for a few of the most popular retirement accounts.

Employer-sponsored retirement plans. These are governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which rules that if the late accountholder was married, the surviving spouse is entitled to at least 50% of the account assets. That applies even if another person has been designated as the primary beneficiary. In such a case, the spouse and the primary beneficiary may split the assets 50/50. (The spouse can actually waive his or her right to that 50% of the invested assets through a Spousal Waiver form. A spouse usually has to be older than 35 for this to be allowed.) These rules also apply for other types of ERISA-governed retirement assets, such as pension plan accounts and corporate-owned life insurance.1,2

The Supreme Court has decided that these rules take priority over state laws (Egelhoff v. Egelhoff, 2001; Hillman v. Maretta, 2013) and divorce agreements (Kennedy Estate v. Plan Administrator for the DuPont Saving and Investment Plan, 2008).3,4

If a participant in one of these retirement accounts remarries, the new husband or wife is entitled to 50% of those assets at death. While a plan participant may name a child as the beneficiary of a retirement account after a divorce, remarriage will leave only 50% of those assets with that child when the accountholder dies, rather than 100%, unless the new spouse waives his or her right to receiving 50% of the assets. The new spouse will be in line to receive that 50% of the account even if unnamed on the beneficiary form.1

IRAs. Unlike an employer-sponsored retirement plan, a spouse does not have automatic beneficiary rights with an IRA. That is because IRAs are governed under state laws rather than ERISA. One interesting estate planning aspect of an IRA rollover is that the owner of the new IRA has the freedom to name anyone as the primary beneficiary.1

Life insurance policies. The death proceeds go to the named beneficiary; occasionally, a beneficiary may not know a policy exists.

Recently, 60 Minutes did an expose on the insurance industry. Major insurers had withheld more than $7.5 billion in life insurance death proceeds from beneficiaries. They had a contractual reason for doing so: the beneficiaries had never stepped forward to file claims.5

While many of the policies involved were valued at $10,000 or less, others were worth over $1 million. The deceased policyholders had either failed to tell their heirs about the policies or misplaced the copies and the paperwork. Their heirs did not know (or know how) to claim the money. As a result, the insurance proceeds lay unclaimed for years, and the insurers only now feel pressure to pay out the benefits.5

Update your beneficiaries; let your heirs know how vital these forms are. Make sure that your beneficiary decisions on retirement, brokerage and bank accounts, college savings plans, and life insurance policies suit your wealth transfer objectives.

This material was prepared by MarketingPro, Inc., and does not necessarily represent the views of the presenting party, nor their affiliates. This information has been derived from sources believed to be accurate. Please note – investing involves risk, and past performance is no guarantee of future results. The publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting or other professional services. If assistance is needed, the reader is advised to engage the services of a competent professional. This information should not be construed as investment, tax or legal advice and may not be relied on for the purpose of avoiding any Federal tax penalty. This is neither a solicitation nor recommendation to purchase or sell any investment or insurance product or service, and should not be relied upon as such. All indices are unmanaged and are not illustrative of any particular investment.

1 – [4/21/16]
2 – [4/21/16]
3 – [9/17/13]
4 – [6/3/13]
5 – [4/17/16]

Love and Money Can Go Together

May 23rd, 2016 | Comments Off on Love and Money Can Go Together | Posted in Financial News

shutterstock_3109250Money has always found its way to the top of the list of disagreements between couples.  Because two people may have entirely different styles of financial management, the vows to have and to hold, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, may not hold up when money is co-mingled.  But there are steps you can take to ensure that you both live happily, and financially, ever after:

Communicate expectations and set financial goals

Few couples really talk about money before the wedding.  Ask important questions like which is more important, owning a home as soon as possible or taking vacations each year?  Couples need to sit down and open up their checkbooks, tax returns, billing statements and brokerage accounts to discuss what they have, what their financial goals are, and how they’ll manage their money from month to month.

Plan a budget – and stick to it

Budget not only for the big items like a new car or home, but also for the smaller ones like holiday and birthday presents. It’s important to keep track of all your expenses, especially because these may be new to both of you. Create a system to pay the bills like signing up for on-line bill payment.

Establish an emergency fund

Experts recommend at least three months’ worth of living expenses should be saved for emergencies like a major home repair or temporary loss of work.

Plan for retirement

Do you both want children? The baby’s birth is a good time to start saving for education, but until then, couples should maximize their retirement savings.

If disagreements persist, keep separate accounts

For some couples, four accounts may work best: a joint savings account for emergencies and investments; a joint checking account into which each spouse pays according to his or her income; and individual accounts to cover personal expenses.  Keeping some money separate eliminates the need to ask permission!

Take turns paying the bills

By doing this, you’ll both know where the money goes.  One may be more organized than the other so if you agree that one partner is the bookkeeper, review the bills together every month.

Home Protection Tips

May 23rd, 2016 | Comments Off on Home Protection Tips | Posted in Financial News

shutterstock_271088966Most burglaries do not occur in the dead of night like most people think. Instead, they tend to occur between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. when people are at work. Thieves also strike when homes show obvious signs that no one is there. So, while you are at work, always keep your doors and windows locked. Also, if someone calls you and claims to be seeking information for a survey, do not provide information about your schedule or daily life. They can use this information to decipher when you will be away.

Use these suggestions to help protect your home while you are away:

  • Install motion sensor lighting around your home and garage.
  • Place automatic timers on your lights and set them for different times for different rooms.
  • Do not leave your valuables such as jewelry, art work or electronics sitting out in plain view. Hide these items in inconspicuous places such as old laundry detergent boxes.
  • Place “Beware of Dog” and home alarm signs in your yard. Even if you do have a dog or an alarm, this may deter potential thieves from trying to enter.
  • Alert friends and neighbors when you will be away for an extended period of time so that they can look out for suspicious behavior.
  • Have a neighbor shovel or mow your grass if you will be away for a few days. This will give the impression that someone is at home.
  • Put a hold on your newspaper if you go on vacation.
  • Never leave information about how long you will be gone on your answering machine.
  • Contact your local police department to request that an officer visits your home to evaluate how secure it is and offer some improvements.
©2008, 2016 Zywave, Inc. All rights reserved.

May, 2016 – Monthly Economic Update

May 23rd, 2016 | Comments Off on May, 2016 – Monthly Economic Update | Posted in Monthly Economic Update

May, 2016 - Monthly Economic Update

LinkedIn Users Might Want To Change All Of Their Passwords ASAP

May 23rd, 2016 | Comments Off on LinkedIn Users Might Want To Change All Of Their Passwords ASAP | Posted in Lifestyle

A 2012 LinkedIn hack was much bigger than previously expected, with well over 100 million people potentially at risk, the professional networking site announced earlier this week.

If you’ve been a member of the site for that long, it’s possible that your personal details and password were leaked online by hackers. Assuming your email address has remained constant all this time, you probably got a message like this earlier in the week:

Discomfiting? You bet. While the passwords were encrypted — an additional layer of security that essentially masks the characters — hackers have “cracked” most of them, Motherboard’s Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai reported on Wednesday. In other words, it’s quite possible that your email and password are in the wrong hands right now.

That’s a big problem if you use the same password across websites. Think of it this way: If a hacker sees from the LinkedIn hack that your email address ends in, he or she might try logging into your inbox with the same password from the LinkedIn breach. If it works, all of your messages are now exposed, potentially including banking information or allowing access to other sites.

To keep yourself safe, you’ll want to immediately change any of your passwords that match the one you used on LinkedIn. Start with your email. The best practice is to use a unique password on every service — to avoid this exact situation should hacks occur.

You should also enable two-factor authentication on any sites that allow it. (LinkedIn does, for example.) Generally, this unfortunately named security feature will send a text message to your phone with a special passcode whenever someone (including yourself) tries to log into a service from an unrecognized device. A hacker might get your password, but they probably won’t have your phone as well, which means they’ll stay locked out.


The 8 Avocado Hacks You Want And Need

May 23rd, 2016 | Comments Off on The 8 Avocado Hacks You Want And Need | Posted in Lifestyle

Avocado is a glorious food. Those folks who know it show it with complete adoration. From finding ways to incorporate avocado into every meal to showing one’s love with avocado swag, fans of this green fruit are fierce.

For all you avocado devotees out there, we put together a list of the eight most essential avocado hacks because you deserve it. And because it’ll help you eat even more avocado.

1. OR You can quickly ripen a too-hard avocado by putting it in a paper bag at room temperature. If all goes well, it can mature to perfect guacamole-making texture in a matter of days. This may not be lightning fast, but it speeds up the natural process significantly.

2. If you need an avocado to mature faster than that, add an apple, banana or pear. The fruits emit ethylene gas, a compound that promotes ripening.

3. OR, if you really can’t wait, bake it in the oven. Slice the avocado, top with lemon juice, and cook at 300° for 10 minutes.

4. To preserve a perfectly ripe avocado you’re not quite ready to eat, pop it in the fridge. This will slow down the ripening process.

5. However, if you’ve already cut into that avocado, be sure to cover it before refrigerating —  lemon juice, apple cider vinegar or good ol’ fashion Saran Wrap will help keep it from turning brown.

6. If you’re out of breakfast dishes or baking pans or both, just use an avocado — this is also known as the eggocado. Just drop an egg into the hole of an avocado, bake until set and eat. Best breakfast around.

7. Get the most out of an avocado by cutting it into quarters and peeling the skin away. It’s the most efficient way to eat this fruit.

8. If you’re unsure whether an avocado is ready to eat, look underneath the stem. If the skin under the stem is brown, it’s too ripe. If it’s green, it’s good to go. And if the stem doesn’t come off easily, the avocado isn’t ripe yet.

Now you can go on and eat lots of avocados. And we’ve got the recipes to help you do just that.


The Benefits of Pets (Why Pets Help Kids)

May 23rd, 2016 | Comments Off on The Benefits of Pets (Why Pets Help Kids) | Posted in Lifestyle

Children love their pets — and for good reason. Creatures large and small teach, delight, and offer a special kind of companionship.

Everyone knows that kids love animals. A quick safari through your child’s bedroom will remind you just how densely imaginary critters populate the storybooks, movies, music, toys, decor, and clothes of childhood. In real life, the amount of money we spend on our pets has nearly doubled in the past 10 years, rising to more than $38 billion, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. That figure dwarfs the toy business ($23 billion) and candy industry ($24 billion).

Overall, an estimated 4 in 10 children begin life in a family with domestic animals, and as many as 90 percent of all kids live with a pet at some point during their childhood, says Gail F. Melson, PhD, professor emeritus of developmental studies at Purdue University, in Indiana, and the author of Why the Wild Things Are: Animals in the Lives of Children.

When I was growing up, I always had at least one dog padding beside me on every adventure, and my wife was raised on a farm. So we planned all along to make animals a part of our child’s life, and we are delighted by how enthusiastically our daughter, Natalie, has embraced pets. Her natural zeal and passion for critters of all kinds has led to our current menagerie of one German shepherd, three cats, a freshwater aquarium, a confoundingly long-lived tank of mail order Sea-Monkeys, and, because we live on 4 1/2 acres of Pennsylvania woods, an endless series of cameo appearances by turtles, mice, moles, frogs, toads, tadpoles, ducks, geese, and slugs — to name just a few of the creatures that have come to visit.

All these beasts have been beneficial to Natalie’s development, but we’ve been surprised by how wide-ranging those benefits have been. Like most parents, my wife and I counted on the commonsense idea that having pets around would help teach our daughter responsibility, and maybe empathy. But we’ve also learned that the presence of animals in our house helps foster her emotional, cognitive, social, and physical development. And I’ve discovered there’s plenty of solid evidence to back that up.

Here are five reasons to let the fur fly in your home.

How Pets Help with Learning

While book groups are the rage among her mother’s friends, Natalie has her own reading tribe: We often find her curled up in her bed or lying in a den of blankets in a quiet nook of the house, reading to one or more of her cats. She pets them as she reads, stops to show them pictures and ask them questions. She even reassures them during scary parts of the story.

That’s no surprise, says Mary Renck Jalongo, PhD, education professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and author of The World of Children and Their Companion Animals. Educators have long known that bringing therapy animals (mostly dogs) into schools helps developmentally challenged kids learn. Now they are finding that all children can benefit from the presence of a nonjudgmental pal with paws. In one study, children were asked to read in front of a peer, an adult, and a dog. Researchers monitored their stress levels, and found that kids were most relaxed around the animal, not the humans. “If you’re struggling to read and someone says, ‘Time to pick up your book and work,’ that’s not a very attractive offer,” Dr. Jalongo says. “Curling up with a dog or cat, on the other hand, is a lot more appealing.”

How Pets Provide Comfort

In another study, children were asked what advice they would give less-popular kids for making friends. The top answer didn’t focus on a cool toy or must-have sneakers. It was: Get a pet. Whether a hamster or a horse, Dr. Jalongo says, an animal gives a child something to talk about and a shared interest with other kids.

Animals are also a great source of comfort. Dr. Melson asked a group of 5-year-old pet owners what they did when they felt sad, angry, afraid, or when they had a secret to share. More than 40 percent spontaneously mentioned turning to their pets. “Kids who get support from their animal companions were rated by their parents as less anxious and withdrawn,” she says.

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