Cybersecurity and COVID-19 Scams

Cybersecurity and COVID-19 Scams

Written By: Erick Aguayo, Chief Compliance Officer

During these uncertain times, it is important to remain vigilant and practice safe internet habits. The global spread of coronavirus has unfortunately resulted in a growth of digital scams, with cybercriminals aiming to profit from people’s fears and their desire for information related to COVID-19. This massive increase in cybercriminal activity coupled with the impact COVID-19 has had on our lives makes life difficult and can feel understandably overwhelming. 

Scams related to COVID-19 and the recently passed CARES Act include robocalls, texts, and email phishing attempts from criminals posing as representatives from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), World Health Organization (WHO), and Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Email recipients have been tricked into downloading malicious software by clicking on links and attachments. Other scams include cybercriminals posing as legitimate businesses claiming to sell products like facemasks, hand sanitizers and medications to help avoid COVID-19. As of the end of March, more than 7,800 U.S consumer complaints have been filed with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), with an average loss of nearly $600 per victim.[i]

During such difficult times with COVID-19 dominating the headlines and impacting our lives, it is important to remember that everyone can practice safe Internet practices and prevent themselves from being victims of cybercrime. We have control over how we interact with emails, answer calls, and respond to solicitations, whether we are in a crisis or not. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), a division of the Department of Homeland Security urges everyone to exercise caution in handling emails received with a COVID-19-related subject line, attachment, or hyperlink.[ii] We should also be careful with social media posts, texts, or calls related to the coronavirus pandemic. Best practices for defending against these cyber scams include:

  • Never give personal information to unsolicited requests over the phone or in email.
  • Don’t click on links in unsolicited emails and exercise caution when downloading email attachments.
  • Use trusted government websites such as the CDC’s and the WHO’s for official COVID-19 information and updates.
  • Don’t respond to unsolicited emails urging you to act promptly to prevent or cope with COVID-19.
  • Set strong passwords with a combination of numbers, letters, and symbols to secure your email, financial, health, and personal accounts.
  • Verify a charity’s legitimacy before making donations online or over the phone. Review the Federal Trade Commission’s advice about avoiding charity scams to make sure your donation will actually go to an organization you want to support.
  • Do not respond to emails from unknown sources requesting personal, financial, or health information.
  • Report any fraud or cyber scams to the Federal Trade Commission: gov/complaint.

At Merriman, we have measures in place to safeguard your information, such as enhancements to how we share sensitive information with you and trusted professionals, and the use of multi-factor authentication solutions to secure access to critical data systems.  These investments in employee training and cybersecurity over the years have also enabled us to better detect and respond to email phishing attempts and fraudulent requests for funds. We value your trust and will continue to take the necessary steps, like calling you directly to verify an information or money request we receive over email, as part of our ongoing mission to protect your information and financial assets. This is always an area of focus for our employees, but especially as our team continues to work from home for the next several weeks. 

We hope that as you spend more time indoors and online, you do so safely and keep an eye out for cyber and robocall scams. Although it is understandable to feel overwhelmed by all the COVID-19 headlines, it is important to remain informed, vigilant, and remember that practicing some basic safety measures can greatly reduce your chances of falling victim to these scams.

 

 

[i] Joseph Marks & Tonya Riley, The Cybersecurity 202: Coronavirus pandemic unleashes unprecedented number of online scams, Washington Post, (April 1, 2020)

[ii] CISA, Defending Against COVID-19 Cyber Scams, Department of Homeland Security, (March 6, 2020)

Webinar | The Fragility of Retirement in the Coronavirus Era

Webinar | The Fragility of Retirement in the Coronavirus Era

 

Our team at Merriman has been diligently following COVID-19 pandemic updates across the world and in our own communities.

We have also been hearing lots of questions from clients, prospects, friends, and family.

Can I still retire or stay retired? Am I still able to relocate as I had planned? Should I sell all of my stocks now? Should I go to cash? Should I use all the cash I have to buy in? Should I file for Social Security earlier than planned? How will I pay for a hospital stay if I need one?

If you are worried about some of these things too, I have good news.

We have partnered with America’s Retirement Forum (a nationwide non-profit dedicated to providing financial education to adults) to organize a webinar that can help.

Why trust me?

I am the Director of Advisory Services at Merriman Wealth Management and an instructor through America’s Retirement Forum. I have been helping people transition into and navigate retirement for over 20 years, and Merriman has been in the business of educating investors since our founding by Paul Merriman in 1983.

In this webinar I’ll discuss:

  • The short and long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy
  • Why this recession may be different from what you have lived through before
  • 5 specific steps designed to protect and maximize your retirement income in the middle of a pandemic (yes, you can implement them yourself)
  • 6 strategies and issues to discuss with your advisor

In this time of worry, false information, and uncertainty, make the choice to spend some of your time learning about what you can do to retire well. And the best part is that you don’t have to put your health at risk or leave the house. All you need is 30 minutes and an internet connection to watch this free webinar.

Click here to watch the webinar now!

Don’t delay: Some of the strategies discussed in the webinar are time-sensitive. I would hate for you to miss an opportunity or to take action without having all the facts. We want to help you avoid mistakes and take the proper steps toward securing your financial future.

Stay home, be well, and use this unprecedented time to get informed. Feel free to reach out with any questions.

How does the CARES Act impact me?

How does the CARES Act impact me?

 Written by: Matt Mathiesen & Phuc Dang, CPA, CFP®

With news about the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, people across the country have been wondering what might be contained in the almost 900 pages of legislation. While we can’t cover every provision of the new law, this post highlights some of the sections that will have the biggest impact for individual taxpayers.

Looking specifically at how the $560B dollar portion of the $2T dollar legislation will benefit individual taxpayers during this pandemic, here are the broad highlights for you to consider:

 

“Advance” rebate payment

An “advance” rebate payment of up to $1,200 per adult and $500 per child under 17 will be sent out to households. There are income limits that will start phasing out the rebate base on your adjusted gross income and filing status.

 

These payments are based upon either 2019 (if already filed) or 2018 tax return data. If you don’t receive a rebate payment now due to high income on your prior return, you may still be eligible for a refundable credit on your 2020 tax return if you qualify based on your 2020 income.

You can find out more information about the rebate payment on the IRS website.

 

RMDs are no longer required for 2020

For individuals in their RMD stage – RMDs for all retirement accounts and Inherited IRAs are no longer required for 2020. You may be able to return already distributed RMDs (except from Inherited IRAs) taken within the last 60 days. There are specific steps required to ensure it is done properly, so be sure to consult your advisor.

 

Additional options to use retirement assets to help cover expenses

There are some additional options available to tap retirement assets to help cover expenses. It’s important to note, that some are only for Individuals impacted by the Coronavirus. This is someone who:

  • Has been diagnosed with COVID-19,
  • Has a spouse or dependent who has been diagnosed with COVID-19,
  • Experienced adverse financial consequences from being quarantined, furloughed, being laid off, or having work hours reduced because of the disease,
  • Is unable to work because they lack childcare as a result of the disease,
  • Owns a business that has closed or operate under reduced hours because of the disease, or
  • Meets some other reason the IRS decides is considered impacted.

Impacted individuals can withdraw up to $100,000 in 2020 with modified rules

  • These distributions are not subject to 10% early distribution penalty or mandatory withholding.
  • The taxes on these distributions can be spread evenly over three years.
  • The distributions may be repaid to the retirement account within three years to reduce or eliminate the taxable income.

The retirement plan loan limit increased from $50k to $100k for all borrowers

  • 100% of the vested balance can be used for the loan up to the $100k maximum.
  • Payments on the loan can be delayed for up to 1 year.

Unemployment benefit changes

For individuals who are filing for unemployment, unemployment benefits now start in the first week of the claim. Unemployment Compensation is increased by $600 per week via federally funded dollars, for up to 4 months of claims. Unemployment Compensation is extended for 13 more weeks in addition to what one would normally be eligible for under state law.

 

Federal student loan changes

Required loan payments are suspended through September 30, 2020 and no interest will accrue during this period. The suspensions are not automatic; borrowers should contact their loan provider to pause payments.

 

The pandemic has caused financial hardship for many Americans, and the CARES Act is only the latest in what is sure to be an ongoing battle to help people and businesses get back on their feet. At Merriman, we are dedicated to staying on top of the ever-changing landscape to help your family make the best financial decisions. Please reach out to us if you would like to discuss how any of the above provisions may affect you.

 

Reason #8 Why Clients Hire Merriman: We Hold You Accountable

Reason #8 Why Clients Hire Merriman: We Hold You Accountable

Our work at Merriman is all about empowering our clients to live their lives fully. Having a financial plan in place and professional investment management provides peace of mind that allows people to focus on what they love to do most.

We conducted a survey to see why our clients chose Merriman and why they’ve continued to work with us throughout the years. We compiled their top ten reasons—in their own words—and decided to showcase their responses in a ten-part blog series. This is part eight, out of ten.

Reason #8: “I’m grateful you guys hold me accountable. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t do it.”

Staying accountable is a powerful tactic that works well whether you’re trying to eat more vegetables, show up to 52 yoga classes per year, or finish the first draft of your novel. The same applies in financial planning. You’re much more likely to stay on track when you’re regularly checking in with someone. That’s where we come in.

An advisor will help you take decisive action and hold you accountable to your plan, keeping you on track to achieve everything that’s important to you. Think of your financial path forward as something that’s all yours. We make a plan to mirror the life you’re hoping to live. This is about what you want and what you’re striving for. Then, we hold you to it.

If you’d like to feel more confident about your financial future, take the first step: contact us. We’ll get to know you, your goals, and your values, so you can start living life fully. We’re looking forward to hearing from you!

Check out the previous installment in the series.

I’m Planning to Leave Assets to Charity – How Does the SECURE Act Change That?

I’m Planning to Leave Assets to Charity – How Does the SECURE Act Change That?

 

 

The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act passed in late 2019, creating significant retirement and tax reforms with the goal of making retirement savings accessible to more Americans. We wrote a blog article detailing the major changes from this piece of legislation.

Now we’re going to dive deeper into some of the questions we’ve been receiving from our clients to shed more light on topics raised by the new legislation. We have divided these questions into six major themes; charitable giving, estate planning, Roth conversions, taxes, stretching IRA distributions, and trusts as beneficiaries.  Here is our first  of six installments on charitable giving.

 

In my estate plan, I’m planning to leave some of my assets to charity. What should I be mindful of with the passage of the SECURE Act?

Perhaps the largest consideration is which assets the charitable donation should be made from. While IRAs and other traditional retirement accounts have always been a good choice, the SECURE Act increases the value of using these accounts for charitable giving.

Because charities don’t pay taxes, they are not impacted by the new compressed RMD rules.

For an individual with traditional retirement accounts, Roth accounts, and taxable assets outside a retirement account wanting to give to charity from their estate, the preference would be:

  • Traditional IRA: Make charitable donations from here. Even if only part of the account is gifted to charity, the decreased remaining balance will reduce the taxable income the beneficiary realizes each year.
  • Roth IRA: Leave these to individuals instead of charities. Even though Roth IRAs still have annual RMD, the income removed from a Roth account will not be taxable for the beneficiary.
  • Taxable Accounts: Individuals should be preferred over charities. There is no requirement to take income in a given year, and the beneficiary likely received a step-up in cost basis, minimizing the tax impact when used.

If your goal is to both leave money to charity and create an annual stream of income for a beneficiary that lasts longer than the 10-year rule for new inherited IRAs, a charitable remainder trust may accomplish these goals.

As with all new legislation, we will continue to track the changes as they unfold and notify you of any pertinent developments that may affect your financial plan. If you have further questions, please reach out to us.

 

 

 

 

Disclosure: The material provided is current as of the date presented, and is for informational purposes only, and does not intend to address the financial objectives, situation, or specific needs of any individual investor. Any information is for illustrative purposes only, and is not intended to serve as personalized tax and/or investment advice since the availability and effectiveness of any strategy is dependent upon your individual facts and circumstances.  Investors should consult with a financial professional to discuss the appropriateness of the strategies discussed.

Reason #7 Why Clients Hire Merriman: We’re Encouraging

Reason #7 Why Clients Hire Merriman: We’re Encouraging

Our work at Merriman is all about empowering our clients to live their lives fully. Having a financial plan in place and professional investment management provides peace of mind that allows people to focus on what they love to do most.

We conducted a survey to see why our clients chose Merriman and why they’ve continued to work with us throughout the years. We compiled their top ten reasons why—in their own words—and decided to showcase their responses in a ten-part blog series. This is part seven, out of ten.

Reason #7: Merriman gives me encouragement when I need it most.”

Working out. Eating right. Making a financial plan. If any of us are going to transform healthy habits into a lifestyle, we all need support and encouragement along the way.

Last year, Aimee Butler, one of our Merriman Wealth Advisors who is also a certified Financial Planner, had a new year’s resolutions to focus on growing her yoga practice from attending 100 yoga classes per year to 150. You can read her whole story here: “Why Downward Dog is Greater Than Wine.

Whether it’s getting to a yoga class three times a week or scheduling a time to review your financial plan, Aimee found that it’s easiest to transform a small goal into a lifestyle when you find an accountability partner who keeps you on track and motivated. In the same way a personal trainer helps you get into shape, a financial advisor encourages and motivates you towards financial health. If you’re looking for a little encouragement, we’re here to help you find just that.

This year may be about spending more time with your family and less time in front of a screen. Or, it might be about booking that dream vacation or volunteering for a cause you care a lot about. If sitting down with a financial advisor is on your list, call us. We love being encouraging financial guides so you can get back to living your life to its fullest.

To learn more about how we can help you unlock financial freedom or to schedule a discovery meeting, contact us via our website or call 206-285-8877.

Check out the previous installment in the series.