Beware: Tax refund predators are waiting
People who don’t have much money during the rest of the year can become big targets during tax refund season.
For those living paycheck to paycheck, tax refunds — which average around $3,000 — may be the largest chunk of unobligated cash they see all year. Retailers hope to get some of that money, but so do debt collectors, buy-here-pay-here car lots and purveyors of interest-free loans that come with fat fees. People flush with cash need to proceed with caution.
Paying old debts
Collectors step up calls and mailings during tax season because they know more people “will have some extra cash to address past problems,” says Michael Bovee, president of debt settlement company Consumer Recovery Network in Spokane, Washington.
But people who are ready to settle old debts also can turn the situation to their advantage, Bovee notes.
“Use tax time as leverage (by telling) a debt collector the offer you are making is as good as it gets, and it could be another year before you have anything extra in your budget,” he says.
Many old debts have been sold to collectors for pennies on the dollar, which people may be able to settle for 20 to 50 percent of the original amount, Bovee says. That’s the good news. The bad is that paying old debts typically won’t help the credit scores most lenders use and could cause other collectors to come out of the woodwork.
“Settling often means updates to your credit reports, and that can bring other debts to the surface that had gone quiet,” Bovee says.
Shopping at buy-herepay-here car lots
The pitch is tempting: Use your refund as a down payment to replace your old, unreliable car — regardless of how bad (or nonexistent) your credit may be. Unfortunately, you may be replacing one junker with another, and not for long.
The Better Business Bureau warns that buy-here-payhere lots often hawk older, high-mileage cars, typically with steep markups and high interest rates. The payments can be so big that borrowers fall behind, which allows the dealerships to seize and resell the vehicles — sometimes over and over.
People with bruised or nonexistent credit shouldn’t assume buy-here-pay-here lots are their only option. Credit unions and regular dealerships are increasingly willing to offer auto loans for subprime customers.
In addition, more than 150 nonprofits affiliated with Working Cars for Working Families offer low-interest loans, matching funds for down payments and even free cars for those in need.
Borrowing against a refund
Several years ago, regulators put the kibosh on tax refund loans that charged exorbitant interest rates. The newest incarnation — the “interest-free tax refund loan” offered by tax preparation services — may not be as benign as it seems.
People typically have to pay tax preparation fees to get the loans for a portion of their refunds. Those fees — for services they might not pay for except to get the refund loan — can represent a sizable chunk of the loan.
A $200 fee, for example, represents an annual percentage rate equivalent to 480 percent on a one-month $500 loan. If the loan were $1,000, the APR would still be 240 percent.
Randell Heath isn’t sure how hackers got into his company’s website — all he knows is a supplier called, saying the site had become an online store selling Viagra and Cialis.
The problem might have been at the company that hosts the site. It might have been that Heath’s passwords weren’t strong enough. But the invasion taught Heath a lesson that computer experts say many small business owners still need: Keeping your company’s computers and online sites safe requires continual vigilance as new kinds of attacks emerge.
“I’m planning on attending a ‘Cybersecurity for Small Business’ briefing,” said Heath, president of Coldsweep, a Mountain Green, Utah-based company that uses dry ice to clean surfaces.
The chances of a small business being invaded, of having computers, smartphones, tablets and even bank accounts hacked because of poor cybersecurity, are rapidly growing. And some
Students are developing a virtual reality game based on James Joyce’s “Ulysses” as part of a class at Boston College.
The goal of “Joycestick” is to expose new audiences to the works of one of Ireland’s most celebrated authors, as well as to give a glimpse of how virtual reality can be used to enhance literature, said Joseph Nugent, the Boston College English professor who is coordinating the project.
“This is a new way to experience the power of a novel,” he said. “We’re really at the edge of VR. There’s no guidance for this. What we have produced has been purely out of our imagination.”
Nugent and his students hope to release a version of the game on June 16 in Dublin during Bloomsday, the city’s annual celebration of the author and novel.
“Joycestick,” in many ways, fills in the blanks of the novel, as many of the places key to the story have been lost to time as Dublin has evolved, said Enda Duffy, chairman of the English Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has tried a prototype of the game.
“The VR version in this way completes the book,” she said. “It makes it real. ‘Ulysses’ is an ideal book to be turned into a VR experience, since Dublin is, you might say, the book’s major
Independence is empowering. There’s value in taking care of yourself: You’ll have the means — and perhaps the confidence — to handle life’s inevitable hiccups, rather than relying on others to bail you out. After all, your parents might not have the cash to help if they need to focus on their own financial security instead.
Becoming financially independent might not happen immediately, and many young adults aren’t there yet: 61 percent of U.S. parents with adult children assisted their kids financially in the prior 12 months, a 2015 Pew Research Center study found. But that doesn’t mean accepting help is of the things small businesses are encouraged to do to make themselves more visible, like having blogs, can also make them more vulnerable.
Symantec, a maker of computer security software, analyzed threats and cyberattacks that its network encountered and found that 43 percent of all cyberattacks in 2015 targeted small businesses.
From 2014 to 2015, Symantec saw a 36 percent increase in new malware, and a nearly 80 percent increase in new variations of the character.”
There have been a number of efforts to bring works of literature into the gaming world, including a computer game of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” that became a hit in 2011 as it mimicked the look and feel of a classic, 1980s-era Nintendo game.
But the Boston College project is unique for trying to incorporate virtual reality technology, says D. Fox Harrell, a digital media professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“It requires multiple entry points and modes of interpretation, malware targeting Android users. The company also counted one instance of malware in every 220 emails, a bigger risk than one in 244 in 2014. A primary culprit was attachments or links that employees click on, allowing hackers to damage or delete files, track a user’s actions or steal data like passwords.
Many owners believe they don’t have the resources — human or financial — to keep their companies safe, which takes keeping up with frequent security updates. so it will be fascinating to see how their VR system addresses these aspects of the work,” he said.
Considered the epitome of the 1920s-era modernist literature, “Ulysses” traces a day in the life of an ordinary Dubliner named Leopold Bloom. The title reflects how the novel draws parallels between Bloom’s day and “The Odyssey,” the ancient Greek epic.
“Joycestick” isn’t meant to be a straight re-telling of “Ulysses,” said Evan Otero, a Boston College junior majoring in computer science who is helping to
“The CEO is also the marketing person and also the (information technology) person. They simply don’t have the wherewithal to manage computing platforms day to day,” said Tom Desot, chief information officer at Digital Defense Inc., which helps companies protect against cyberattacks.
Desot estimates that a company with 30 to 50 employees might have to spend upward of $50,000 initially to give all its equipment the best possible protection, which includes sophisticated software and firewalls to keep intruders out, and then thousands each year to keep their security up to date.
But there’s a bigger problem: owners’ willful ignorance, says Diana Burley, a professor at George Washington University.
“You don’t necessarily understand how vulnerable you are, because you think, why would someone target me? I don’t have that much in assets, I’m not lucrative, why would I be a target,” she says. “We operate in an environment of complacency.” develop the game. Instead, the game lets users explore a handful of key environments described in the book, from a military tower where the novel opens to a café in Paris that is significant to the protagonist’s past.
The project represents an extension of what academics call the “digital humanities,” a field that merges traditional liberal arts classes with emerging technology. Nugent has had previous classes develop a smartphone application that provides walking tours of Dublin, highlighting important landmarks in “Ulysses.”
Joseph Nugent, a professor of English at Boston College, wears virtual reality goggles at the Boston school’s VR lab in January. Nugent is coordinating a project in which his students are developing a virtual reality game based on James Joyce’s seminal modernist novel, “Ulysses.” They hope to release a version on Bloomsday in Dublin this year.
Randell Heath, president of a sandblasting company near Salt Lake City, shows off his website on a laptop in Sandy, Utah, last month. The website was hacked recently and turned into an online Viagra store.