Beware of Holiday Scams

Beware of Holiday Scams

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year… for Criminals, Thieves and Scammers

Red and green Christmas tree ornaments in a clear bowl

Photo source: UF/IFAS Northwest District

This holiday season scammers and identity thieves are hoping to take advantage of shoppers who may be too preoccupied with travel, gift-buying, and festivities to notice. Therefore, during the holidays, it is even more important to remain vigilant while shopping in stores or online.

More people are turning to online shopping for their holiday gifts. The National Retail Federation forecasts consumers to spend about $721 billion this holiday season.  However, this increase in online spending comes with a greater risk for thieves to steal your money or your identity.

Here are some common holiday scams and how to protect yourself from becoming a victim:

Deals That Are Too Good to Be True –while shopping online keep the old adage in mind, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”. During the holidays, shoppers are looking for huge deals, and scammers know it. These thieves often set up websites that appear to be legitimate, just to steal your personal information and/or to download a virus onto your computer.

It is important to make sure any site in which you shop contains an HTTPS security designation. Another simple way to know if the website is authentic is to look for the padlock symbol that appears in the address bar of the retailer. Here is an example of an Amazon online address bar.

Holiday Phishing Scams – Around the holidays, beware of emails pretending to be sent from familiar companies like FedEx or UPS. These emails claim to provide links for package tracking information. These links, once clicked on, will either steal your personal information or download a virus onto your computer. Remember, if you receive an email from someone you don’t know or weren’t expecting an email from, you should never click on links. Also, make sure you are using current antivirus software on your computer.

Identity Theft and ATM Skimmers

In Store Shopping:
    • Being vigilant is key to protecting yourself during the holiday season. Thieves target shoppers who are either struggling with packages and bags or those who are unaware of their surroundings. Thieves see this as an opportunity to steal your wallet or credit card numbers.
    • When using an ATM or other key pads, make sure to check for skimming devices that thieves install on ATMs and other card readers. These skimmers are placed over the existing key pad in order to access your account. It is also advised to cover the keypad when entering your pin number while purchasing items or getting money from an ATM
    • After each purchase, take time to put your credit card back into your wallet. Also, it may be worthwhile to purchase an RFID-blocking wallet. These wallets are designed to shield your credit card information from RFID readers and skimmers..
 Online Shopping:
  • When shopping online, experts advise consumers to use credit cards instead of debit cards. In case of fraud, both payments types can be disputed, however debit card payments are automatically deducted from your bank account. Therefore, it may take longer to get your money back.

Gift Cards– Gift cards are a great idea for people on our shopping list. However, a record number of retail stores are closing their doors, so you should consider the retailer’s financial situation before buying a gift card. If the retailer closes or declares bankruptcy, the recipient may not be able to use the gift card.

Package Delivery Theft- Having packages delivered to our homes makes us a target for thieves who case neighborhoods and even follow delivery trucks looking for packages sitting on porches. There are ways to prevent this from happening to you. You can have your packages delivered to their office, a local pick-up area, like a UPS Store or try to schedule delivery times when someone will be home, if possible. Online shoppers can also set up tracking notifications, to know when an item is delivered.

Charitable Giving Tips – Give to charities wisely. At this time of year, we all want to give to charities that pull on our heart strings. But beware of giving money to charities that are fake or irresponsible. Do your research to make sure to support the many legitimate and deserving charities that can use our help during the holidays.

The 2018 Consumer Protection Guide – This guide provides more information about protecting yourself as a consumer, including online identity theft, charity scams, item recalls and more.

The holiday season brings out the best and worst in people. Therefore, you should be vigilant because the holidays are a lucrative time of year for thieves and scammers who are trying their hardest to get into your bank account.

For more tips on how to keep your identity safe and avoid holiday scams, contact Laurie Osgood, UF/IFAS Extension, Gadsden County at Osgoodlb@ufl.edu  or call (850) 875-7255.

 

Wasting Food is SO Outdated

Wasting Food is SO Outdated

Photo source: UF/IFAS Northwest District

If your family is like most, grocery shopping is a dreaded weekly task.  Typical shoppers usually have an idea of what they plan to purchase based on a previously made shopping list.  Even then, it’s easy to go astray with impulse purchasing, bargain prices, and buy-one-get-one free opportunities that simply can’t be passed up!  Before you know it, the shopping cart is loaded with delicious treasures just begging to come home with you.

Now that you have done the shopping, transported it home, and begun to put food items in their appropriate storage places, you realize the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry are cramped and nearly full.  On a related aside, you should see my parents’ pantry.  They have enough cans, boxes, and packages to feed their entire neighborhood…twice!  Not to mention the two full size refrigerator/freezers that are bursting at the seams.  Like my parents, I suspect many of us have a food overbuying addiction.  So what happens next?  Well, it’s time to clear out the old and make way for the new, of course.  But how do you know what to purge and what is still good to keep?

Food Date Labeling Confusion and Food Waste

Standard or uniform language for food product dating does not exist in the U.S., which makes things tricky when it comes to deciphering expiration dates.  Current Federal regulations do not require product dating (excluding infant formula), but instead allow food manufacturers to voluntarily set and display these dates on product packaging.  With the lack of Federal measures, product dating enforcement is left up to individual states, resulting in consumer confusion over food safety.  The U.S. wastes close to an estimated 40% of food produced annually, which equals approximately 160 billion pounds (Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic).  Of that, confusion over the meaning of date labels seems to be responsible for roughly 20% of safe and edible food wasted by consumers.  Undoubtedly, this hurts purchaser’s pocketbooks and results in $29,000,000,000 of wasted consumer spending yearly (Food Date Labeling Act of 2016, 114th Congress 2D Session).

Food Quality vs. Food Safety

While cleaning out the pantry and cold storage, I also have been guilty of trashing perfectly good food. So many of us unknowingly accept the stamped date as common law not to be questioned. So what does that date actually mean?

The “open” date used by the manufacturer or retailer on food packaging is passively thought of by the consumer as the “expiration date,” or the last date a food can safely be eaten.  This is a very common misconception.  Food safety is not represented by this date, but rather it refers to product quality and freshness.  Dates determined by food companies take into consideration such factors as ingredients, product characteristics and packaging, as well as time and temperatures associated with distribution, retail sale, and storage.

With no current standards in place, a variety of food date phrases are utilized which often are misleading to retailers and consumers.  Most commonly used phrases include:

  • “Best If Used By/Before” indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality.
  • “Sell-By” indicates to the retailer when the product should no longer be displayed for sale.
  • “Use-By” is the last date recommended for use of the product at peak quality. This is only a safety date when used on infant formula packaging.

It’s important to remember that open dates on food products ONLY reflect food quality and NOT food safety (except for infant formula).  For a list of specific foods and recommended storage time frames, check out the FoodKeeper resource at FoodSafety.gov.

Food Spoilage

Knowing the signs of spoilage will help you determine if a food is no longer fit for consumption.  Although the quality date may have passed, the food is safe until it begins to spoil.  Spoiled food may have a different smell, taste, and/or texture with sometimes visible discoloration.  This occurs when environmental conditions (such as temperature, moisture, and oxygen) are introduced which support the growth of bacteria, molds, or yeasts.  Given enough time, these microorganisms multiply rapidly and affect the safety of the food.  If perishable items are not handled and stored properly, spoilage occurs much more rapidly.  Learn more about proper refrigeration and food safety.

Do Your Part at Home

  • Plan meals in advance and make a specific grocery list. Check the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry to utilize what you already have on hand.
  • Don’t overbuy! Especially be aware not to purchase excess perishable items that are likely to spoil quickly.  These may be foods that require cold storage, fresh bakery items, and fresh produce.
  • Always look for and compare date labels of an item; choose the one with a later date.
  • Store foods promptly and properly for food safety and best quality. Discard potentially hazardous cold food items that have not been properly refrigerated for 2 hours or more.
  • Keep a thermometer inside the front of your refrigerator and check it regularly to be sure it stays below 40 degrees F.
  • Thaw foods safely! Thawing in the refrigerator is the safest way, but using cold running water or defrosting in the microwave are acceptable ways to speed up the process. Never sit foods out at room temperature to thaw!
  • Recognize the signs of food spoilage and promptly discard foods that smell funny, have off-flavors, obvious mold growth, or sticky or slimy textures (such as fish, poultry, and deli meats).
  • Evaluate each item in your pantry and consider whether or not it’s something you want to continue to store and use or want to remove.
  • High temperatures affect the shelf life of shelf-stable foods so it’s important to store dry goods and pantry items in temperatures at or below 85 degrees F. Use the “First In First Out” (FIFO) method of rotation, using older items before newly purchased ones.  Read more about Shelf Stable Food Safety.
  • Discard cans that are rusty, bulging, or leaking, as they are at a high risk for containing the deadly pathogen that causes Botulism. Never taste suspicious foods!  Take extra caution by disposing of cans and jars into a tightly closed plastic bag before placing in an outside trash receptacle.

Help Families in Need & Keep Unused Wholesome Food Out of Landfills

Mistakenly discarded food products, not only is the U.S. but globally, have created a sad cascade of wasted resources and money with increasingly negative environmental and social implications.  Food banks and local community organizations have plenty of under-served and needy families who can benefit! Remember, it’s safe to donate dry and canned goods, perishables, and other food related items that are beyond the quality date of the product.

Find a food bank near you.

We all can do our part to reduce the amount of wasted food, save money, help the environment, and help our communities!

 

Additional Resources:

https://www.usda.gov/oce/foodwaste/sources.htm

https://www.usda.gov/oce/foodwaste/resources/donations.htm

USDA Food Safety Information, Food Product Dating

USDA Food Labeling Fact Sheets

 

Florida Saves Week: Build Your Savings a Little at a Time

Florida Saves Week: Build Your Savings a Little at a Time

Photo Source: University of Florida

It’s tax time, and many of us will be seeing refund checks soon—time to celebrate!

Now, what are you going to do with all that extra cash?

Maybe you have some bills to take care of, and it’s certainly a good idea to get those off your plate. But after that, let’s say you have some money left over. What then?

Think about putting those extra dollars in a savings account. Or, if you don’t have a savings account, open one. Even if it’s just $100, that first deposit could be the start of a lifelong savings habit.

Which brings us to another question:  Why is it important to save?

Let me answer that question with another question:  If you had to cover a $1,000 unexpected expense today, could you do it?

These little emergencies come up all the time. Your car needs repairs. You get sick and miss work. You have to travel out of state unexpectedly. These challenges are just part of life, but you can be prepared to meet them.

That $100 you tuck away is not much now, but consider this:  If you saved $100 each month for a year, you’d have $1,200 in your bank account. That’s a good financial cushion that can keep you afloat when the unexpected happens.

Need a little encouragement to stick to the savings habit? The Florida Saves Pledge (floridasaves.org) is a great tool for setting financial goals. With this pledge, you’re making a commitment to work toward some type of savings objective, such as an emergency fund, a down payment on a house, or even retirement.

As a Family and Consumer Sciences Agent in Washington and Holmes Counties, part of my job is to help our community members learn to take charge of their money. In fact, there are people like me all over the state helping their neighbors with everything from horticulture to nutrition and youth development. We’re a network of experts who make up the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension. And we’re here to help, today.

For more information, contact your local Extension Office.

 

What Will Happen to the Family Farm?

What Will Happen to the Family Farm?

Family picking blueberries at a u-pick farm. Credit:  UF/IFAS Tyler Jones

The question of what happens to the family farm is often riddled with many emotional opinions.  So much so that families may not communicate effectively about their wishes or plans.  Many life events can change the dynamics of a family farm.  Whether marriage, children, divorce, illness, retirement or death, significant events can require a plan or a change in the transition plan.  Planning in advance of a crisis or significant life event increases the chances that the family farm will successfully transition to someone who is ready to carry on the family business.  Having a plan also can lead to clear communication that reduces the likelihood of family conflict and stress.  Yet, four out of five Florida farmers do not have written estate plans.

You can take steps to protect your family and your family farm by attending the University of Florida IFAS Extension workshop, “Ag Saves:  Preparing for Later Life Farming.”  This workshop will help you ensure that your wishes are honored when the time comes.

You and your partners are invited to learn together how to:

  • Discuss the future of the farm
  • Assess your future financial needs
  • Talk with local experts in financial planning, estate planning, and taxes

Join us for this complimentary program on Wednesday, February 21, 2018.  Lunch and materials will be provided.  Program sponsors include UF/IFAS Extension, U.S. Trust, Pacific Life, and Merrill Lynch.

Registration will begin at 8:30 a.m. Central Time/9:30 a.m. Eastern Time.

Program will begin at 9:00 a.m. Central/10:00 a.m. Eastern and conclude at 1:00 p.m. Central/ 2:00 pm. Eastern.

Register Online: http://bit.ly/2AOv0JC

Registration deadline: February 14, 2018.  Choose from 3 Locations in Northwest Florida: 

Okaloosa County Extension Office (host site)
3098 Airport Road
Crestview, FL
850-689-5850
Jennifer Bearden: bearden@ufl.edu

Jefferson County Extension Office (satellite site)
2729 W Washington Hwy.
Monticello, FL
850-342-0187
Julianne Shoup: juliannes@ufl.edu

Gadsden County Extension Office (satellite site)
2140 West Jefferson Street
Quincy, FL
850-875-7255
Laurie Osgood: osgoodlb@ufl.edu

Register online or contact Kendra Zamojski at hughson@ufl.edu for more info.

 

2018 Tax Filing Season Begins Jan. 29 -Tax Returns due April 17, 2018

2018 Tax Filing Season Begins Jan. 29 -Tax Returns due April 17, 2018

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) announced recently the nation’s tax season begins Monday, January 29, 2018.  The IRS also reminds taxpayers claiming certain tax credits to expect a longer wait for refunds.

Nevertheless, many software companies and tax professionals accept tax returns before January 29, 2017.  Be aware!  These prepared returns cannot be submitted until the IRS system opens.  Any money received prior to the opening of the Income Tax season may cost you!  Early refunds are often charged processing fees as well as interest.

In 2017, under the change required by Congress in the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act, the IRS is to hold refunds claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC).  The IRS expects the earliest EITC/ACTC-related refunds to be available in taxpayer bank accounts or on debit cards starting February 27, 2018, if these taxpayers choose direct deposit and there are no other issues with their tax return.

For taxpayers not claiming the EITC/ACTC-related refunds, three weeks is the normal time it takes for a tax return to be processed, factoring in weekends and holidays.  In fact, calling the IRS will not expedite your return/refund; typically, an IRS representative can only research the status of your refund 21 days after you file electronically and 6 weeks after you mail your paper return.

Nevertheless, it is your inherent right to both pay taxes and communicate with the IRS about the status of your taxes.  You can start checking on your refund status electronically 24 hours after filing your taxes electronically or three weeks after mailing a paper return.

Note:  The filing deadline to submit 2017 tax returns is Tuesday, April 17, 2018, rather than the traditional April 15 due date. This year, April 15 falls on a Sunday, and this usually would move the filing deadline to the following Monday – April 16.  However, Emancipation Day – a legal holiday in the District of Columbia (DC) – will be observed on that Monday, which pushes the nation’s filing deadline to Tuesday, April 17. Under the tax law, legal holidays in the District of Columbia affect the filing deadline across the nation.

Choosing to both e-file and provide a means for directly depositing refunds remains the fastest and safest way to file an accurate income tax return and receive a refund.

Adapted from the IRS Website.