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3 Major Charity Scam Red Flags

You’ve probably already received several letters and phone calls from charities asking for donations. Most requests are from legitimate organizations. Some, however, are bogus charities set up by con artists who use the holiday spirit to their financial advantage.

Last year, Americans gave nearly $428 billion to charities, according to Giving USA 2019: The Annual Report on Philanthropy for the Year 2018. That’s a huge incentive for fraud.

If you’re planning to donate, take some time to learn how to spot a charity scam. Here are a few big red flags:

  • Popup charities. Every legitimate charitable association started sometime, and some are still being formed. But natural disasters, endemics and calamities of every type — from Hurricane Dorian to the Ebola virus — seem to spawn an inordinate share of fake charities. You can avoid these popup scams by donating to charities that you trust, which generally means those with a proven track record. If you’re unsure, check out the organization with the Better Business BureauCharity NavigatorGuideStar or similar watchdog group.
  • Evasive answers to fundraising questions. A legitimate caller should be upfront about their charity, the percentage of funds allocated to administration and marketing, and what target groups will be aided by your donation. Whether you’re giving to provide medical supplies, support research or some other worthy cause, don’t be afraid to ask direct questions and expect direct answers. If the fundraiser seems to hedge their responses or knows little about the supposed cause to which you’re contributing, consider a different charity. Beware of vague claims like “educating the public” or “promoting awareness.”
  • Urgent email requests. Websites made to mimic legitimate charities have conned many otherwise careful contributors. Emails asking for money on a deadline may originate from the backroom computer of a scam artist. Never divulge your financial information via email. Call the charity directly and find out if it’s registered in your state (if required). Ask for written information. When in doubt, check it out.

Many charitable organizations are seeking your aid to address genuine hardships. Avoid the schemes of unethical scammers, and your donations will provide help where it’s needed most.

If you think you’ve been contacted by a bogus charity, let the Federal Trade Commission know by filing a complaint.

Time for a Yearly Credit Report

One way to head off fraud during tax season is to get your free annual credit report now. Credit reports often have errors in them; this quick checkup can be the first indication that some form of identity theft has taken place on your account.

The good news is that each of the major consumer credit reporting agencies is required by law to provide you with a free report once a year. Here’s contact information to help you get your free credit report:

Telephone: 1-877-322-8228
Website: www.AnnualCreditReport.com
Via mail: (fill out the online form and mail it to the following address)
Annual Credit Report Request Service
P.O. Box 105281
Atlanta, GA 30348-5281

Listed here are the three major credit agencies and how to contact them directly.

TransUnion
Telephone: 833-395-6938
Web site: www.transunion.com
Via mail: 2 Baldwin Place
P.O. Box 2000
Chester, PA 19022

Equifax
Telephone: 1-800-685-1111
Web site: www.equifax.com
Via mail: Equifax Credit Information Service
P.O. Box 740241
Atlanta, GA 30374-0241

Experian
Telephone: 1.888.EXPERIAN (397-3742)
Web site: www.experian.com
Via mail: P.O. Box 9701
Allen, TX 75013

Reminder: Each agency may try to upsell you into additional paid services. If you find problems on your credit report, work through the credit bureau’s process to correct the error. Also place fraud alerts on your credit agency account if you experience any kind of identity fraud.

The Power of Cultivating Gratitude

Tips on how to be thankful

It costs nothing to say thank you. Yet cultivating gratitude in your life may be one of the most rewarding moves you can make. Not only does it invoke warm fuzzies in everyone involved, expressing your appreciation may actually improve your health and well-being.

A landmark study by gratitude researcher Robert A. Emmons has shown that gratitude can reduce physical illness symptoms and toxic emotions. It can even help you sleep better and longer, according to a study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being.

So what are some ways you can make gratitude part of your everyday life? Here are a few tips to help you get started:

  • Write it out. Write out what you’re thankful for in your life. This may mean making a nightly habit of writing in a journal or jotting down a message to a loved one and giving it to them. You could also make some sticky note reminders of what you’re grateful for and hang them on your mirror to read each morning.
  • Share a good memory. Reminiscing often stirs up feelings of gratitude. For instance, think about the time you first met a close friend in grade school. Contact them and tell them how grateful you are that it happened. Send a photo of that family vacation when you all shared a common experience like learning to water ski. When you think about it, you will quickly discover happy memories to share with loved ones.
  • Offer your service. Show your gratitude through your actions. If you appreciate your community, join a group to clean up the park and streets. Provide a positive online review for your favorite local café. Or volunteer at a Veterans Affairs hospital.
  • Lend an ear. Some of the most meaningful moments involve simply being heard. Return the favor. If your sister is usually the one who lets you ramble on about work grievances and family drama, it’s time to give her a turn. Let her know you’re there and ready to listen. Maybe you avoid your chatty (albeit helpful) coworker. When you see them next, give them 5 minutes of your time.
  • Pay it forward. Did your neighbor share a gutter-cleaning hack with you? Next time you see someone on your street cleaning their gutters, offer to lend a hand. See a mom digging for spare change at a check out register? Pay it for her. Let the appreciation of your good deed change someone else’s outlook for the day. When they offer to pay you back, just tell them to pay it forward.

There are opportunities to cultivate gratitude all around us. Refocusing on what you appreciate on regular basis can help you live a healthier, more satisfying life.

Reminder: Major Employment Tax Deadlines

Handling employment taxes can be complicated, especially when you’re required to file important tax documents throughout the year. Here’s a list of key forms and deadline dates to help keep you on track.

Form 941 — Employer’s quarterly federal tax return
This form is used to report income tax withheld from employees’ pay and both the employer’s and employees’ share of Social Security and Medicare taxes.

Employers generally must deposit Form 941 payroll taxes on either a monthly or semiweekly deposit schedule. There are exceptions if you owe $100,000 or more on any day during a deposit period, if you owe $2,500 or less for the calendar quarter, or if your estimated annual payroll tax liability is $1,000 or less.

  • Monthly depositors are required to deposit payroll taxes accumulated within a calendar month by the 15th of the following month.
  • Semiweekly depositors generally must deposit payroll taxes on Wednesdays or Fridays, depending on when wages are paid.

Return filing deadlines:

  • Jan. 31, 2020 –  Due date for filing Form 941 for the fourth quarter of 2019. If you deposited your taxes in full and on time, you have until Feb. 10, 2020, to file this return.
  • April 30, 2020 –  Due date for filing Form 941 for the first quarter. If you deposited your taxes in full and on time, you have until May 11, 2020, to file this return.
  • July 31, 2020 –  Due date for filing Form 941 for the second quarter. If you deposited your taxes in full and on time, you have until Aug. 10, 2020, to file this return.
  • Nov. 1, 2020 –  Due date for filing Form 941 for the third quarter. If you deposited your taxes in full and on time, you have until Nov. 10 to file this return.

Form 940 — Employer’s annual federal unemployment tax return (FUTA)
This return is due annually. However, FUTA tax must generally be deposited once a quarter if the accumulated tax exceeds $500.

  • Jan. 31, 2020 –  Due date for filing 2019 Form 940. If you deposited your taxes in full and on time, you have until Feb. 10, 2020, to file this return. This day is also the deadline for depositing federal unemployment tax for October, November and December 2019.
  • April 30, 2020 –  Deadline for depositing federal unemployment tax for January, February and March 2020.
  • July 31, 2020 –  Deadline for depositing federal unemployment tax for April, May and June 2020.
  • Nov. 1, 2020 –  Deadline for depositing federal unemployment tax for July, August and September 2020.

Form W-2 — Wage and tax statement
Employers are required to send this document to each employee and the IRS at the end of the year. It reports employee annual wages and taxes withheld from paychecks.

  • Jan. 31, 2020 –  Due date for employers to provide 2019 Forms W-2 to employees, and for employers to send copies of 2019 W-2s to the Social Security Administration, whether filing electronically or with paper forms.

Tax deadline extensions for disaster areas
For taxpayers living in designated disaster areas, the IRS extends certain filing and tax payment dates. Taxpayers living in the affected areas (and those whose tax professionals are located in those areas) have relief from penalties for filing under the new extended dates. These filing and payment extensions are also available to some relief workers.

Visit the IRS’s Disaster Assistance and Emergency Relief for Individuals and Businesses page for up-to-date information.

Save Money With These Year-End Ideas

There’s still time to reduce your potential tax obligation and save money this year (and next). Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Estimate your 2019 and 2020 taxable income. With these estimates you can determine which year receives the greatest benefit from a reduction in income. By understanding what the tax rate will be for your next dollar earned, you can understand the tax benefit of reducing income this year AND next year.
  • Fund tax-deferred retirement accounts. An easy way to reduce your taxable income is to fully fund retirement accounts that have tax-deferred status. The most common accounts are 401(k)s, 403(b)s and various IRAs (traditional, SEP and SIMPLE).
  • Take your required minimum distributions (RMDs). If you are 70½ or older, you need to take required RMDs from your retirement accounts by Dec. 31. Don’t forget to make all RMDs because the fines are hefty if you don’t — 50 percent of the amount you should have withdrawn.
    Keep in mind, even if you don’t have RMDs yet, removing a planned amount from your retirement accounts each year may be more tax efficient than waiting until you are required to do so.
  • Manage your gains and losses. Rebalance your investment portfolio, and take any final investment gains and losses. When you have more losses than gains, up to $3,000 can be used to reduce your ordinary income. With careful planning, you can take advantage of this loss amount each year.
  • Finalize your gift-giving strategy. Each year you may gift up to $15,000 without tax reporting consequences to as many individuals as you choose. Consider any gift-giving you wish to make up to the annual limit. This could include gifts of cash or property, and investments.
  • Donate to charities. Consider making end-of-year donations to eligible charities. Donations of property in good or better condition and your charitable mileage are also deductible. Receiving proper documentation that acknowledges your contributions is important to ensure you obtain the full deduction. Have a plan by knowing your total deductions for the year to help you decide how much and when to donate. Pulling some donations planned for 2020 into 2019 may be a good strategy.
  • Review your automated billing transactions. This is a good time to identify what automatic monthly expenses should be reviewed for reduction or elimination. You may also discover billing for services you thought were canceled. This specific review often catches errors that a simple account reconciliation may be missing.
  • Organize records now. Start collecting and organizing your tax records to avoid the scramble come tax season.
  • Develop your own list. Use these ideas as a jumping off point to create your own list of annual review items. It might also include reviewing college savings accounts, beneficiaries, insurance needs, wills, and going through an aging parent’s financial accounts.

Amazon and eBay Sales Tax ALERT!

If you or your business sells product on Amazon using the Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) service, you are well into the multi-state sales tax mess … even if you are not aware of it. You may be asking yourself:

  • Do I now need to register my business with every state and collect tax on their behalf?
  • Do I really have physical nexus? What about economic nexus? What is nexus?

Background

The old sales tax standard required you to collect and remit sales tax only in states that you have a physical presence (also known as physical nexus). The recent South Dakota vs. Wayfair, Inc. decision by the Supreme Court then legitimized the concept of economic nexus. This means your business could be required to collect and remit sales tax based on where you ship a product and not whether you ever set foot in a particular state (economic nexus).

The bigger mess

States were quick to jump on the bandwagon and actively identify Amazon, eBay and Walmart sellers to demand sales tax for website sales. Some states, like California, got even more aggressive and decided that FBA sellers actually have physical presence because Amazon may put your product in a warehouse in their state. They got seller lists from Amazon and sent out threatening letters to small sellers demanding back sales tax, even though businesses have no way to retroactively collect the tax because the customers are Amazon customers.

Marketplace facilitator to the rescue?

To help address this mess and alleviate the need for small businesses to collect and remit sales tax forms to 50 states, many states acknowledged the problem and have passed what is called Marketplace Facilitator laws.

In short, it’s on the facilitator, NOT you. States with these laws require Amazon, Ebay and similar companies that facilitate sales for resellers to collect and remit sales tax on reseller Amazon activity. There are more than 30 states that have adapted these laws.

You DO NOT need to register your business to collect sales tax in states that have Market Facilitator legislation unless you are otherwise required to do so.

What you need to know 

  • Know the states. Know which states have Marketplace Facilitator laws. If you don’t, you could unwittingly register your business with a state when you do not have to do so.
  • Some states deploy deceptive tactics. For example, California passed a Marketplace Facilitator law effective October 2019. Despite this law, the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration (CDTFA) is actively soliciting (threatening?) small businesses who sell on Amazon to register and remit sales taxes for a time period prior to this date without disclosing the new law. To make matters worse, their sales tax registration form could make you personally liable for business-related sales tax and disclose your confidential supplier list. It may also be filled with other legal entrapments.
  • Know the minimums. Even states without Marketplace Facilitator laws typically have minimum thresholds before they require you to collect and remit sales tax. Every state is different, but the typical limit is 200 transactions or $20,000 in sales.
  • Check out streamline states. Collecting and remitting sales tax is a daunting task for any small business. Using a third party sales tax administrator is very expensive. There is some help, albeit still complicated, for registering with 23 states that are part of a streamline sales tax agreement.

    Sales tax collection in multiple states is not for the faint of heart. Streamline Sales Tax  and Bill Track 50 are a few of the popular sites that can help.

Bill Collector Calling? Know Your Rights

Maybe you’re behind on paying your bills because of circumstances outside of your control. Or perhaps there’s been an error in billing. Either way, these scenarios may lead to a run-in with a debt collector. Fortunately, there are strict rules in place that forbid any kind of collector harassment in the U.S. If you know your rights, you can deal with debt collection with minimal hassle. Here’s what to remember:

  • You have a right to details — without harassment. When a debt collector calls, they must be transparent about who they are. They need to tell you: “This is an attempt to collect a debt, and any information obtained will be used for that purpose.”
    In addition, debt collectors cannot use abusive language, or threaten you with fines or jail time. The most a debt collector can truthfully threaten you with is that failure to pay will harm your credit rating, or that they may sue you in a civil court to extract payment.
  • You don’t have to put up with 24/7 calls. Debt collectors may not contact you outside of “normal” hours, which are between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. local time. They may try to call you at work, but they must stop if you tell them that you cannot receive calls there.
    Keep in mind that debt collectors may not talk to anyone else about your debt (other than your attorney, if you have one). They may try contacting other people, such as relatives, neighbors or employers, but it must be solely for the purpose of trying to find out your phone number, address or where you work.
  • You can tell them to stop. Whether you dispute the debt or not, at any time you can send a “cease letter” to the collection agency telling them to stop making contact. You don’t need to provide a specific reason. They will have to stop contact after this point, though they may still decide to pursue legal options in civil court.
  • You can dispute collection. If you believe the debt is in error in whole or in part, you can send a dispute letter to the collection agency within 30 days of first contact. Ask the collector for their mailing address and let them know you are filing a dispute. They will have to cease all collection activities until they send you legal documentation verifying the debt.

If a debt collection agency is not following these rules, report them. Start with your state’s attorney general office, and consider filing a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, as well.

Another Year, Another New 1040

In 2018, the government attempted to “simplify” the tax-filing process by drastically shortening Form 1040. The result was six new schedules that created a lot of confusion. Now the IRS is attempting to ease some of that pain by revising the form and removing some schedules. Will it help? Here is what you need to know:

  • More information on the main form. To make it easier for the IRS to match pertinent information across related tax returns, new fields have been added on the main Form 1040. For example, there’s now a spot for your spouse’s name if you choose the married filing separate status. In addition, there’s a separate line for IRA distributions to more clearly differentiate retirement income.
  • 3 schedules are gone. What was your favorite memory of Schedules 4, 5 and 6? Was it the unreported Social Security tax on Schedule 4? Or the credit for federal fuels on Schedule 5? While those schedules will no longer exist, those lines (and many others) have found a new home on one of the first three schedules. Less paperwork, but still the same amount of information.
  • You can keep your pennies! For the first time, the IRS is eliminating the decimal spaces for all fields. While reporting round numbers has been common practice, it’s now required.
  • Additional changes on the way. The current versions of Form 1040 and Schedules 1, 2 and 3 are in draft form and awaiting comments on the changes. Because of the importance of the 1040, the IRS is expecting to make at least a few updates in the coming weeks (or months) before they consider it final. Stay tuned for more developments.

How to prepare for the changes

The best way to prepare is to be aware that 1040 changes are coming. The information required to file your taxes will remain the same, but some additional hunting will be necessary to find the shifting lines and fields on the modified form.

Remember, changes bring uncertainty and potential for delays, so getting your tax documents organized as early as possible will be key for a timely tax-filing process.