Be­ware: Tax re­fund preda­tors are wait­ing

Austin American-Statesman - - BUSINESS -

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.

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