U.S. Treasury amends proposal to track nearly all bank accounts

OCTOBER 22, 2021 / 8:13 AM / MONEYWATCH

The U.S. Treasury is amending a plan to track more Americans' bank accounts to limit tax evasion by the wealthy after the proposal garnered severe pushback from the finance industry and conservative politicians.

Under the proposal, first introduced in May, banks would report to the Internal Revenue Service several new pieces of information from U.S. bank account: The total amount of money flowing in and out of an account, with breakdowns for foreign transactions and transfers to the same account holder.

After initially proposing to track bank accounts with more than $600 of inflows or outflows, on the Treasury on Tuesday offered a new threshold. More than $10,000 in transfers in a given year would flag an account for reporting to the IRS, the agency said in a press release. Wage and salary deposits won't count toward that threshold, the Treasury said.

Banks could also round the figures they report to the nearest $1,000, instead of reporting exact figures, the Treasury said.

The initial proposal garnered heated criticism from the finance industry. The American Bankers Association has said the reporting requirements would capture too much information from too many Americans, and has vowed to oppose any effort to get banks to disclose more information — regardless of how high the dollar threshold goes.

"If there are opaque sources of revenue, let's focus on addressing that challenge head-on rather than over-collecting information from everyone in the hope that it shines a light on a small number of tax cheats," ABA vice president for tax policy, John Kinsella, wrote in a recent blog post.

The Biden administration has countered that tax cheating adds up to big bucks going uncollected and it needs a broader base of information to identify taxpayers whose income isn't reported in other ways, such as W2s. It has pledged not to increase audits on families making less than $400,000.

Here are the other details of the hotly debated legislation.

Totals, not transactions
The Treasury proposal would have banks report "gross inflows and outflows with a breakdown for physical cash, transactions with a foreign account, and transfers to and from another account with the same owner."

Banks already report interest income over $10 on Form 1099-INT; this proposal would add a few lines to that tax document, supporters say. No individual spending data will be visible, the Treasury emphasizes — only total money going in or out.

"Banks will not share with the IRS any information to track individual transactions under this proposal, and the IRS will have no ability to track individual transactions," the Treasury said in a blog post.

It's already the law
Supporters of the proposal note that it doesn't actually require any new taxes — it merely allows the IRS to enforce the existing law.

"We are all supposed to pay income taxes on our income," said Steve Wamhoff, director of federal tax policy at the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy. "This idea that you have some sort of right to not tell the IRS about income you have — there is no such right. That doesn't exist."

He added, "We are literally talking about enforcing the law that is already on the books."

The proposal is part of a suite of laws that would close the so-called information gap — taxes that the government doesn't know to collect because of income that goes unreported. A vast amount of those unpaid taxes belongs to the wealthiest 1% of taxpayers — by one estimate, $160 billion a year goes unpaid by this group.

That gap exists partly because, unlike low- and middle-income workers whose income from employment, gig work and savings accounts is reported every year in W-2s and Form 1099s, wealthy people know they often don't have anyone looking over their shoulder. The Treasury estimates that only about 50% of business income is reported, in contrast with employment income, where there's near-perfect compliance.

"If you earn wages, the IRS can see exactly what you make, and garnish your wages," said Megan Brackney, a partner at law firm Kostelanetz & Fink. "For higher-income people, the IRS doesn't have exact information of what they make, and it's harder to collect tax they owe."

"Middle-class and low-income taxpayers really suffer when there isn't tax compliance, particularly among high-net-worth people. I would think that anyone of any political bent would want the wealthy to pay their fair share, not have an opportunity to evade tax."

A senior Treasury official told CBS MoneyWatch that, for anyone who makes income through work, reporting bank account information would only confirm what the government already knows from seeing their W2 and 1099 forms. It would also, however, flag people who report little income but have hundreds of thousands of dollars flowing through their bank accounts.

As Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told CBS Evening News' Norah O'Donnell recently: "If somebody reports an income of $10,000 and they had 3 million [dollars] go out of their checking account, that tells the IRS that's an individual you might audit."

A low cutoff
Some of the initial outrage at the Treasury proposal was focused on the $600 threshold. Coming after a new requirement, effective last year, for online sellers to report more than $600 of income to the IRS, that low figure created the impression in some quarters that the government is out to get middle-income taxpayers for innocent mistakes.

Even at the higher threshold of $10,000, Republican lawmakers claim the new reporting requirement will ensnare middle-class and blue-collar workers, calling it a "surveillance scheme" on Wednesday.

Taxpayers can be excused for thinking the IRS isn't on their side. As the agency's enforcement capacity has dwindled with its shrinking budget, it has relied more and more on automated enforcement tools that catch lower-income taxpayers, with the result that the lowest-earning Americans are today audited at higher rates than the richest.

Combined with the IRS' decades of staffing shortages, some fear that providing the agency more information will only allow it to make more mistakes.

"You have an IRS that doesn't answer a lot of its calls, if not most of its calls. You have an IRS that can't even process paper returns, you have an IRS that can't deal with questions that people have," said Martin Davidoff, partner in charge of the tax-controversy practice at accounting firm Prager Metis.

"Now they're going to automate enforcement for tens of millions of people, and they're not going to have the personnel to respond to people's concerns," he said, paraphrasing the public perception of the Treasury proposal.

Another element of the White House plan is raising the IRS budget by $80 billion, allowing it to hire more staff to both answer taxpayers' questions and enforce the law.

Privacy at issue
While the ultra-wealthy have an array of tools at their disposal to avoid taxation — including trusts, limited liability corporations and partnerships that can cloak payouts — most of them do interact with the banking system.

Said Martin Davidoff, "I have people with entire businesses they don't report at all, and they just put it in their personal bank account."

That's another argument in favor of a relatively low reporting cutoff, some tax pros say. It's not uncommon for many people to have more than one bank account, and a high threshold for reporting could make it easier to leave money out of sight.

Should I Refinance my Mortgage?

Aug 24, 2021
Excerpt from https://www.ramseysolutions.com/real-estate/is-a-mortgage-refinance-right-for-you

Ever since the Federal Reserve dropped interest rates in 2020, there’s been a new wave of hype around getting your mortgage refinanced. And for good reason too.

Last year, the annual average interest rates for common mortgages was between 2.61–3.11%—the lowest they’ve been since Freddie Mac started reporting several decades ago!1,2 And with the Feds saying they won’t raise interest rates until 2023, now even more folks are wondering, Should I refinance my mortgage?3
Lower interest rates are great and all, but how do you know if it’s the right time for you to actually do a mortgage refinance? We’ll show you how to make a smart decision.

Should I Refinance My Mortgage?

Refinancing your mortgage is usually worth it if you’re planning to stay in your home for a long while. That’s when a shorter loan term and lower interest rates really start to pay off!

The savings you could make from refinancing could be used to help you take control of your monthly bills, pay off your mortgage faster, and save for retirement. Just imagine if you owned your home outright!

How to Calculate Your Refinance Savings
Okay, put on your math hat! Let’s say you bought a $300,000 house with a 30-year mortgage at a fixed interest rate of 4% and had a 20% down payment ($60,000).

After around 10 years of paying about $1,150 per month on your mortgage, your loan balance is now at $200,000. You want to save money, so you consider a refinance.

Using our mortgage calculator, you enter your remaining loan balance of $200,000. To test the refi option, you shorten the mortgage term from your remaining 20 years to 15 years and drop your interest rate down a percentage—from 4% to 3%.

You’ll notice that the shorter 15-year term will make your new monthly payment go up from $1,150 to about $1,400 per month—but don’t worry. You’ve probably earned some raises over those 10 years to be able to afford that $250 increase each month. Plus, you’ll pay off your home five years sooner and save $53,000 in interest!

Just make sure your monthly mortgage is never more than 25% of your monthly take-home pay.

Do a Break-Even Analysis
Here comes the tricky part: The break-even analysis. This is when you compare your refinance savings to how much it costs to do the refi—which includes closing costs that are about 3–6% of the loan amount.4

Continuing with our example, let’s say your refi closing costs are $6,000 ($200,000 x 3%). Great! Now we just need to figure out how long you need to stay in your home for your refi savings to reach that number.

To do this, we need to compare the amortization schedule of your current mortgage to the refinanced option (specifically, how much of your monthly payments go toward interest every year per mortgage).

Will You Stay in Your Home Long Enough to Benefit From a Refi?
Using our example, you’d pay $23,000 in interest over the next three years with your current 30-year loan at a 4% interest rate.

On the flip side, the 15-year refi at 3% interest would only cost you about $17,000 in interest the first three years. That means, after three years, your refi will have made up for its own closing costs ($23,000 - $17,000 = $6,000).

After that, you’ll enjoy thousands of dollars of savings nearly every year until you pay off the mortgage or sell your home! But if you relocate in just 1–2 years after refinancing, you wouldn’t earn back that $6,000 and the refi wouldn’t have been worth it.

Whew—that’s a lot to throw at you! And we know that even when using a mortgage calculator, the math can be pretty complicated. So ask a home loan specialist you can trust for help.

When Should I Refinance My Mortgage?
The time to refinance is when you want to make a less-than-desirable mortgage better. Most of the time, it’s a good idea to refinance your mortgage if it allows you to:

1. Switch From an Adjustable-Rate Mortgage (ARM) to a Fixed-Rate
With your ARM having adjustable interest rates, you might start off with the first few years at a fixed rate. But after that, the rate can adjust based on a lot of factors, like the mortgage market, and the rate that banks themselves use to lend each other money.

Bottom line is, ARMs transfer the risk of rising interest rates to you—the homeowner.

So, in the long run, an ARM can cost you an arm and a leg! That’s when refinancing into a fixed-rate mortgage could be a good financial move. It’s worth it to avoid the risk of your payments going up when the rate adjusts.

2. Reduce Your High Interest Rate to a Lower Rate
If your mortgage has a higher interest rate compared to ones in the current market, then refinancing could be a smart financial move if it lowers your interest rate or shortens your payment schedule.

If you can find a loan that offers a drop of 1–2% in its interest rate, you should think about it. But remember, refinance only if you’re planning to stay in your home for a long time, because then you can earn back what you paid in closing costs.

3. Shorten the Length of Your Mortgage Term (Shoot for 15 Years or Less)
If your original mortgage is a 30-year term (or more), then refinancing is a good way to get to the ultimate goal of locking in a 15-year fixed-rate mortgage—ideally with a new payment that’s no more than 25% of your take-home pay.

But if your interest rate is low enough on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage to compete with the 15-year rates out there, make sure refinancing just to get the shorter term isn’t going to cost you more. You’re better off making extra payments on your 30-year mortgage every month to shorten your payment schedule.

It all boils down to this—you want to own your home as soon as possible instead of your home owning you! Use our mortgage payoff calculator to run your numbers and see what your monthly payment would be on a 10-year loan.

4. Consolidate Your Second Mortgage—Only if It’s More Than Half of Your Income
Some homeowners with second mortgages want to roll it into a refinance of their first mortgage. But not so fast! If the balance on your second mortgage is less than half of your annual income, you would do better to just pay it off with the rest of your debt through your debt snowball.

But if the balance is higher than half of your annual income, you could refinance your second mortgage along with your first one. This will put you in a stronger position to tackle the other debts you might have before you pull your resources together to pay off your mortgages once and for all!

Is It Worth It to Refinance?
If you were already tossing around the idea of refinancing, these low rates couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. Getting a mortgage with a 1–2% drop in interest rate can make a huge difference in your monthly budget and ability to pay off your mortgage faster.

Just remember to do the break-even analysis we mentioned earlier to make sure you’ll stay in your home long enough for your refinancing savings to cover the cost it takes to do the refi.

Refinancing costs usually don’t include property taxes, mortgage insurance and home insurance because they were set up when you first bought your home. Remember, you’re revising the original mortgage, not starting completely from scratch.

Refinance closing costs include:
  • Refinance application, new home appraisal and title search
  • Home inspection fee
  • Lender’s attorney review fee
  • Origination fee
  • Points fees
While you may not be able to avoid all of these closing costs, you can avoid paying for mortgage points—fees you pay to the lender when you close in exchange for a lower interest rate. Just ask for a par quote or zero quote. That means the closing cost estimates will not include points.

When Is Refinancing a Bad Idea?
On the other hand, there are definitely times when refinancing your mortgage would not be a good idea. We’ll give you some examples.

It wouldn’t be wise to refinance (and get into more debt) because you want to use the money to:
  • Get a new car
  • Remodel your kitchen
  • Pay off credit card bills
  • Roll up other debt (credit cards, student loans, etc.) into a refinanced mortgage
Wiping out your home equity (your home’s current value minus what you owe on it) to buy new stuff you don’t need puts your home at risk—especially if you lose your job or have other money issues.

Also, the reason you don’t want to roll up other debt into one gigantic refinanced mortgage is because you want to pay off your smaller debts first (and get energized from those wins).
Lumping your student loan debt into your mortgage means it’s going to take a lot more time to pay off those loans and your mortgage too. It puts you even further away from completing either of those goals. No thanks.

What if I Can’t Pay My Current Mortgage?
If you’re out of work right now and finding it hard to pay your mortgage, there’s good news for you. Depending on your specific situation, you may be able to have your mortgage payments lowered or put on hold.5

Doing that can really help to free up the burden you might be feeling right now if you’re worried about when you’ll see your next paycheck.

Want to talk to a Unity Bank Mortgage Specialist about the right refinance path for you?

Schedule an Appointment

Let's Connect

Unity’s Vision Statement is: Be the bank that connects people: employees, customers, community.

We’re constantly thinking about how can we, as employees, relate to this vision statement. How can we “connect” with it? And more importantly, what role do we play in this connection process?

First, let’s consider the importance of the human connection. While technology seems to connect us more than ever, the screens around us disconnect us from nature, from ourselves, and from others. Wi-Fi alone isn’t enough to fulfill our social needs – we need face-to-face interaction to thrive. Technology should be enhancing our connection to others, not replacing it.

Second, we can all agree that the physical and social separations that we experienced due to the Covid-19 pandemic could have lasting effects on our society. Humans are social animals – it’s in our DNA. People in all generations have had different social isolation experiences. Small children have suffered the loss of experiences that are key to their development. Adults in general, lost their daily routine and had increased exposure to social media and news headlines which only added more stress. As a result, the rates of mental illness and drug abuse has gone up steadily. Some scientists postulate that our recent experiences have heightened the risk of behavioral disorders, developmental delays, addiction, and numerous other behavioral changes.
Social connection can lower anxiety and depression, help us regulate our emotions, lead to higher self-esteem and empathy, and actually improve our immune systems. If that is true, neglecting our need to connect, can put our health at risk.

When I think about the term Unity, I think about it as being together or at one with someone or something. It’s the opposite of being divided. This is a word for togetherness. When a group of people act as one and are on the same page, they’re displaying unity. In contrast, when people are bickering and disorganized, there’s no unity. Sound familiar? It sounds like making connections to me.

Since Unity Bank is owned by a family, we have a Unity Family Philosophy statement:
We are grateful for the blessing and privilege of meaningful work. Every person in the Unity Family – bankers, directors, advisors, owners, community members – contributes to our work together. Every person in this family is valued, included as a necessary contributor, and worthy of our respect and appreciation.

It is important to not only connect with others, but to help everyone feel valued and appreciated. There are many ways to connect with others.

So, the question is, as a community, how can we connect with each other? How can you facilitate connection in your neighborhood, work, or school? We’d love to hear what you’re doing. Post in the comments below.

Terry Rosengarten, Unity Bank President & COO

Your Money is Safe and Sound in a Bank: Here’s Why
At times of uncertainty, one thing you can always count on is the safety of your money at a bank. When you deposit your money at a bank, you get the comfort of knowing that your funds are secure and insured by the government, you don’t have the same level of protection when your money is outside the banking system, and uncertain times are exactly when you want the certainty and dependability of a bank.

Banks have plans in place to handle a range of emergencies, so our customers’ funds remain protected and accessible. Every bank in the country is required by law to have disaster recovery and business continuity plans in place with multiple backup systems. The bank's regulator regularly examines the bank to make sure we have detailed, tested disaster recovery procedures and business resumption plans. Therefore, your bank is the safest place for your money. It’s FDIC-insured and accessible, thanks to bank technology that allows you to pay bills, make deposits and send payments from anywhere, anytime.

If you were to look at past emergencies or disaster recoveries, you would find that banks have a proven record of effective emergency preparedness and disaster recovery. Throughout history, U.S. banks have been prepared for and responded to recessions, natural disasters—including pandemics—and other business disruptions. When faced with natural disasters and unexpected events, banks have a proven record of operating smoothly, protecting consumers’ deposits and providing continued access to their funds. Lessons learned from previous health threats—including the avian flu, SARS and Ebola, —have strengthened the banking industry’s ability to prepare for and minimize disruption due to a pandemic.

Customers can be rest assured, knowing that during this challenging time, banks remain the safest place for your money and the best option for meeting your financial needs. We encourage you to reach out to your bank if you have any further questions or concerns. We are all in this together.

Meaningful Work

Some people spend their whole lives trying to figure out what their purpose is. Meaningful work has been continuously recognized as a key employee engagement driver. Deloitte reported in its’ Talent 2020 series, the survey results of 560 employees from virtually every major industry and global region. One of the top 3 engagement drivers that they identified: meaningful work.
In a recent Harvard Business Review, it was noted that more than 9 out of 10 employees, are willing to trade a percentage of their lifetime earnings for greater meaning at work. Across age and salary groups, workers want meaningful work badly enough that they’re willing to pay for it.

On January 20th, 2020, more than 130 Unity Bankers and board members gathered in St. Cloud to focus on meaningful work. Participants were asked to list 5 tasks that they do each day and determine whether those tasks added meaning to their day. If the answer was no, the participant was challenged to think whether the task could be eliminated, automated or transferred to a team mate. At the conclusion of this thought provoking exercise, each participant wrote their idea of meaningful work on a puzzle piece and all of the 130 pieces were joined together in a giant jigsaw puzzle.

The importance of excellent customer service was further reinforced at the Unity gathering when participants listened to John McHugh talk about the employee first principles and the service standards of Kwik Trip. It is not enough to just have great customer service but it is important to go the next step of creating loyal customers.

“It was inspiring to see how many of my fellow employees had the same meaningful work statement: caring for my customers.” Kay Maurstad, Unity Bank Teller

In the Harvard Business Review noted above, they found that employees with very meaningful work, spend one additional hour per week working, and take two fewer days of paid leave per year. With regards to the sheer quantity of work hours, organizations will see more work time put in by employees who find greater meaning in that work. More importantly, though, employees who find work meaningful experience significantly greater job satisfaction, which is known to correlate with increased productivity.

Another benefit to meaningful work comes in the form of retained talent. This same Harvard Business Review noted that employees who find work highly meaningful are 69% less likely to plan on quitting their jobs within the next 6 months, and have job tenures that are 7.4 months longer on average than employees who find work lacking in meaning. This can add real dollars to the bottom line.

Meaningful work only has upsides. Employees are more productive, quit less, and gravitate to supportive work cultures that help them grow. Creating meaningful work in our local communities can help us be sustainable. It is something worth considering.

Five Plans to Pay Down Debt
Have credit card debt? You're not alone. According to analysis from NerdWallet, the average U.S. household owed just under $7,000 in revolving credit card debt (the balance carried from month to month). Credit card debt has increased almost 6% in the past year and more than 34% in the past five years. Unlike more benign debt like a mortgage—where you gain assets (equity in the house) as you pay off the debt—credit card debt is a drag on your finances with no benefit to you. With interest rates rising, now is the perfect time to make a plan for becoming debt-free. There are several strategies you can use to pay off your credit card debt in manageable increments. Here's a look at five of the most effective options:
  1. Follow a Budget
    The first step in paying down debt is to create a monthly household budget. This will give you an accurate view of how much you make, how much you spend, and how much you can afford to put toward paying off debt each month. It can also help you see where you can redirect some money each month toward paying down your credit card debt. One popular example is to commit to skipping the morning coffee run every day and putting the extra toward your debt. For example, if you spend an average of $3.00 on your coffee every weekday morning, that's $60 every month you could put toward paying down your debt. That's $720 in a year! If you're not sure how to set up a budget or track your expenses, ask your bank. Most financial institutions have tools built into their online banking software that can help you.
  2. Increase Your Monthly Payments
    The most effective plan for paying down credit card debt is to pay more than the minimum balance every month, even if it's only by a few dollars, and always pay on time. By doing this, you will decrease the amount on your credit card bill that's only interest on what you didn't pay from last month, and you'll avoid costly late payment fees that make it harder to pay off your balance each month. If possible, increase the amount you pay each month to cover more than what you owe for that month. For example, if your total credit card bill is $1,000 and you spent $500 this month, pay $750 even if the minimum payment is only $25.
  3. Tackle the Highest Interest Rate First
    If you're carrying debt on multiple credit cards, a great plan is to focus on paying down the one with highest interest rate first. This approach is effective because it gives you the most bang for your buck. The higher the interest rate, the more expensive the debt is and the more it will cost you in the long run. For example, if you owe $3,000 on a 20% interest credit card and $4,000 on a 15% card, this strategy advises paying off the first credit card debt first because it will have a bigger long-term impact than paying the higher balance first.
  4. Sort Debts by Principal Size
    Another possible strategy is to sort your debt by the principal size (the amount you still owe, not including interest). One school of thought says to pay off the largest principal first, because it typically has the largest monthly payment. Therefore, once that debt is paid off, you'll have more money left each month to apply to other debts. On the other hand, some think that paying off the smallest principal first works better. That strategy is most effective if you've experienced a financial windfall (such as a higher-than-expected tax refund) and are able to completely eliminate one of your debts. For example, if you've been carrying $2,500 on a credit card that you don't use anymore, using your tax return to completely pay off the card and then cancel it will be more beneficial than spreading that money around to all of your debts and then continuing to make just the minimum payment on that credit card.
  5. Consolidate
    Finally, another plan that works very well for many people is to consolidate your debts into a single payment. Sometimes done by taking out a home equity loan or a personal loan, consolidation is an effective way to combine all of your individual debts into one loan with one payment, ideally at a better interest rate than what you were paying. This is a common tactic for credit card debt held on multiple cards with similar interest rates. If you are able to consolidate, it may feel like you've just eliminated a lot of debt, but be sure to control your spending to avoid piling more debt on top of what you already owe.

If none of these strategies seem to be working, or you feel that you need help selecting the best plan for your circumstances, speak to a professional. Your banker will be able to assess your situation and recommend a plan of action that you can achieve.

Fake Money
On January 26, 2020, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers seized $900,000 in counterfeit U.S. currency near International Falls, MN. On September 20, 2019, a fraud group tried to pass off counterfeit $100 bills in at least seven businesses in Eau Claire, WI. Across the nation counterfeiting is spreading. In November 2019, the U.S. Secret Service launched Operation Quick Glance, which was a nationwide alert to private sector partners, state and local law enforcement agencies in advance of the holiday shopping season.

Operation Quick Glance focused on specific types of easily detected counterfeit currency: Motion Picture, Chinese character/foreign writing, and “Replica” notes. In 2019, the Secret Service reported a 120% increase in the passing of Chinese character/foreign writing notes and a 25% increase in the passing of Motion Picture notes.
Ten Tips to Identify Fake/Counterfeit Currency:
  1. Get a feel for it. Unlike the cotton-linen blend that real dollars are made of, fake bills are often made of high-quality paper.
  2. Look at the color. Counterfeiters typically use an inkjet printer and have a hard time getting the color right. Typically, fake bills are a bit too dark.
  3. Test the color-changing sections. Take a bill of $10 or and look at the denomination number in the bottom right corner. It should appear copper when you hold straight up and down. Now tilt it 45 degrees away from you—the color will change to green on a real bill. If you happen to have a $100 note, pay attention to the brown picture of the Liberty Bell over a lighter brown inkwell. When you tilt the bill, that section will change, too. If it stays one color, you have counterfeit money in your hands.
  4. Hold the bill to the light. Every $5 bill and higher has a couple of security features that aren’t always visible. If you hold your bill against the light, though, you’ll see some new developments. Each one has a security thread that goes in a straight line from top to bottom but on a different side of each note. Plus, you should also see a watermark of the same portrait that’s on the front of the bill—unless it’s an imposter.
  5. Check the portrait quality. When money is made, the U.S. mints use a process called intaglio printing to put the pictures on the bills. The ink goes in the engraved areas, instead of on the raised areas of the plate, like an inkjet would use. That’s why fake bills look flat, while real ones have an almost 3D quality. Experts suggest that it is like looking at a painting vs. looking at a picture.
  6. Hunt for weird phrases. Normally the top right corner on the front says “the United States of America”, but at second glance, you might notice some counterfeit money says something weird, like “for Motion Picture Use Only.” By law, prop money made for movies needs to be either bigger or smaller than a real bill and have only one side printed. Some movie sets don’t follow those rules, though, and print convincing fake bills for the screen.
  7. Check the border. Because the borders are so intricate, a counterfeiter’s bad print job might mess it up. The line could look blurry, or the color could be darker than normal.
  8. Pick at the fibers. Give the white space on your bill a close look. The cotton-linen blend U.S. currency is made of has little blue and red threads sitting randomly in each note, and sometimes the fibers will even poke out a bit. It might be hard to tell without a magnifying glass, but even if a fake bill looks like it has the strings, those “threads” are really just pictures printed flat on the counterfeit money.
  9. Compare the serial number to other bills. If you’re suspicious of the big stack of cash you just received, double check the security numbers. Most counterfeiters are making multiple copies of the same bills. Often, they’ll have three or four originals, but some will have just one, meaning every fake note will have the same serial number. It might be odd if multiple bills have the exact same serial number.
  10. Keep your guard up. Whether you’re holding a yard sale or selling an old car, be cautious when taking cash from strangers. Sure, you’ll want to be careful if you’re accepting hundreds or thousands of dollars in cash, but even little splurges could leave a chance you’re getting duped. A big red flag is someone trying to purchase something of low value in high denominator bills who wants change.
You might think that counterfeit money is only found in big cities. However, that is not the case. At one of the Unity Bank branches, we recently discovered a counterfeit $5 bill that a waitress had tried to deposit. Our teller noted that the bill had the words “Replica” and “For Motion Pictures” on the front.

If you google the words, “counterfeit money for sale”, you get over 9 million results. Federal law prohibits anyone from “forging, counterfeiting, or altering any obligation or security of the United States with the “intent to defraud” any other person. Counterfeiters can be given up to 20 years in prison or up to $250,000.

If you have questions about counterfeit money you can contact your local community bank or your local Secret Service Field Office.

Tax Preparation

Tax season is always seems to sneak up on us. Once year end is over and all of the resolutions have been made (and some broken), it is time to plan for 2020 and prepare for spring taxes.  Organizing and reviewing your finances can help reduce stress during tax season, too! Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

Dispose of old records 
Go through all of the paper files and receipts you've saved over the past year and place everything into either the "File/Save" or "Toss/Shred" pile. Items that should be shredded include ATM receipts, bank deposit receipts and credit card statements, once the accounts are current. Utility statements can also be discarded after they've been paid. This helps protect you against identity theft as well as clutter. If possible, switch to e-statements to reduce the amount of paper lying around. Save pdf files or copies of the e-statements until they have been paid, then archive or delete them. Note: Tax information should be kept for seven years, so be sure to put those in the "Save" pile.

Update your beneficiaries
Look back at insurance and retirement account policies to make sure the beneficiaries are current. If your marital status recently changed or you experienced the loss of a spouse or child it is especially important to update your beneficiary information. Make sure the money will go where you want it to go if it gets distributed today, not where you wanted it to go when you first signed the policy. This is also a good time to reassess your insurance coverage - is the amount you originally signed up for still enough to protect you and your family?

Cash in your rewards
Go through any credit card points, airline frequent flyer miles, store credits, loyalty club memberships, etc. Schedule when you'll need to use these benefits by before you lose them. If you're currently paying a fee to participate in these programs (such as an annual fee for a credit card) do the math to figure out if the reward outweighs the fee. If it doesn't, consider dropping the program.

Organize your credit cards
Cut up and cancel cards that you haven't used in six months or more, especially if they carry an annual fee or have a higher interest rate than your other cards. You'll have more space in your wallet and fewer bills to worry about. If you're trying to eliminate debt, try to stick with just one or two credit cards or a debit card. If you're carrying debt on multiple cards, talk to your local bank about the possibility of consolidating that debt into a single payment so you can close the extra card accounts. 

No matter what areas of your personal finances need a little dusting off, taking a little extra time this spring to work on your money issues will make budgeting throughout the rest of the year much easier. 

Money Safety Tips

By the end of the year, an estimated 1.92 billion people will be digital buyers. That means around 25% of everyone on the planet shops online. With that many consumers on the web, it’s no surprise that criminals are flocking to the digital space, too. You can fight back against the hackers and frauds who may try to steal from you with a few precautions and common sense. Protect your wallet when shopping online by paying attention to the tips below:

Monitor Your Accounts
Proactively monitoring your financial accounts (such as bank and credit card statements) can help you catch errors and spot potential fraud at the first sign.

Always Think Before You Click
To avoid infecting your computer or mobile device with malicious software, never click on a link to a deal or special savings on a social networking site or in an unsolicited email.

Avoid Public Wi-Fi
Online purchases require transmitting your credit card, bank account information, or other financial information over the internet. Using a public Wi-Fi connection to do so puts that sensitive information at risk. Hackers can tap into unsecured Wi-Fi connections at hotspots like coffee shops and airport terminals to capture it without you knowing. The new, more secure EMV chip cards do not protect against this kind of fraud.

Be Proactive
Finally, take action if you hear about a data breach or other fraud that could affect your accounts by changing your passwords.

Money Tips:  What You Can Do to Stop Elder Abuse

You, or someone you know, could become the victim of a growing crime in America — financial abuse of older Americans. Seniors are increasingly becoming targets for financial abuse. As people over 50 years old control over 70 percent of the nation's wealth, fraudsters are using new tactics to take advantage of retiring baby boomers and the growing number of older Americans. Senior financial abuse is estimated to have cost victims at least $2.9 billion last year alone.

Over the next two decades, Minnesota's 65 and older population will increase by 72 percent. In 2017, one in nine seniors reported being abused, neglected, or exploited. Law enforcement, advocacy groups, and Minnesota bankers are working together to prevent financial exploitation of our state's seniors, and you can help, too!

Seniors are extremely vulnerable to financial swindle due to isolation, cognitive decline, physical limitations, health problems and/or recent loss of a loved one or friends.  With their significant assets, equity in their homes and steady incomes from retirement funds, older adults are prime targets for scam artists, including scammers operating on the internet, telemarketing, home repair, financial advisers and fiduciaries, and people holding powers of attorney.  Unfortunately, many times family members and caretakers can take advantage of seniors in their vulnerable state.

In order to help, you need to first, understand what financial exploitation is. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines elder financial abuse as "the illegal, unauthorized, or improper use of an older individual's resources by a caregiver or other person in a trusting relationship, for the benefit of someone other than the older individual." Common examples include forgery, misuse or theft of money or possessions, and use of coercion or deception to surrender finances or property. 

The exploiter may describe themselves as “family caregivers”, while the truth is that they are dependent on their victims for financial assistance, housing and other support.  This risk further increases when the exploiter knows where important papers are and has access to person information such as social security numbers or pin numbers.

Financial exploitation can happen in many ways. A person may have the legal authority to manage someone’s money but makes unauthorized expenditures of a vulnerable adult’s funds, or fails to use the funds for his/her food, clothing, shelter, health care or supervision. It could also be a person that has no legal authority but disposes of money or property anyway.

Financial institutions are on the front lines to help stop financial abuse of senior citizens, identifying irregularities in a customer’s financial activity and reporting it to the appropriate authorities.  We all need to work together to stop this injustice.  

Learn to recognize the red flags of financial abuse. Keep a close watch on your elderly family members and friends and look for signs such as unusual spending or withdrawal patterns, frequent purchases of unusual or out-of-character items, unpaid bills and/or utilities being turned off, or the presence of a new "best friend" who is accepting generous "gifts" from the older adult.

Erratic or unusual banking transactions or change in banking patterns could include any of the following:

  • Frequent large withdrawals, including daily maximum cash withdrawals from ATM’s
  • Abnormal nonpayment for normal services, such as utilities and insurance, indicating a loss of funds or access to funds
  • Debit transactions that are not normal for an older adult
  • Uncharacteristic attempts to wire large sums of money
  • Closing of CDs or accounts without regard to penalties
  • A caregiver or other individual showing interest in the older adult’s finances or assets
  • An individual not allowing the older adult to speak for him/herself
  • A caregiver not willing to allow the older adult to have a conversation alone
  • The older adult shows unusual degree of fear or submissiveness toward a caregiver
  • The older adult expresses fear of eviction or nursing home placement if money is not given to the caretaker
  • The financial institution is unable to speak directly with the older adult, despite repeated attempts to contact the person
  • A new family member, caretaker, or friend suddenly begins conducting financial transactions on behalf of the older adult without proper documentation
  • The older adult abandons current relationship in exchange for new “friends”
  • A sudden change in the elder’s financial management, such as a new power of attorney or a new family member or individual, and
  • The older adult lacks knowledge about his/her financial status or shows a reluctance to discuss financial matters.

If you witness any of these signs of red flags, you should contact the authorities, so the situation can be investigated and the exploitation be stopped.  

Unfortunately, in most cases the abuser is someone the elderly person knows and trusts. Many times the perpetrator is a family member. They may express feeling that the elderly person's belongings are rightfully theirs. The abuser may have financial difficulties such as a tendency to gamble. They may also express fears that the victim will "use up" all of their savings and deprive the perpetrator of an inheritance. Non-relatives may move from community to community in order to avoid detection. They may also try to gain access to elderly persons by masquerading as a counselor or by finding a job as a caretaker. 

Below is a list of commonly reported forms of financial exploitation reported to Adult Protective Services agencies.  These could be done by a person the senior knows and trusts or a stranger.

  • Theft: involves assets taken without knowledge, consent or authorization; may include taking of cash, valuables, medications or other personal property.
  • Fraud: involves acts of dishonestly by persons entrusted to manage assets but appropriates assets for unintended uses; may include falsification of records, forgeries, unauthorized check-writing, and Ponzi-type financial schemes.
  • Real Estate: involves unauthorized sales, transfers or changes to property title(s); may include unauthorized or invalid changes to estate documents.
  • Contractor: includes building contractors or handymen who receive payment(s) for building repairs, but fail to initiate or complete project; may include invalid liens by contractors.
  • Lottery scams: involves payments (or transfer of funds) to collect unclaimed property or “prizes” from lotteries or sweepstakes.
  • Electronic: includes “phishing” e-mail messages to trick persons into unwittingly surrendering bank passwords; may include faxes, wire transfers, telephonic communications.
  • Mortgage: includes financial products which are unaffordable or out-of-compliance with regulatory requirements; may include loans issued against property by unauthorized parties.
  • Investment: includes investments made without knowledge or consent; may include high-fee funds (front or back-loaded) or excessive trading activity to generate commissions for financial advisors.
  • Insurance: involves sales of inappropriate products, such as a thirty-year annuity for a very elderly person; may include unauthorized trading of life insurance policies.

If you suspect that elder financial abuse or exploitation has occurred, you should contact your local authorities or your local Adult Protective Services agency. 

There are simple steps that can be taken to safeguard personal information and protect aging men and women from financial abuse. Below are a few:

  • Plan ahead to protect your assets and to ensure your wishes are followed. Talk to someone at your financial institution, an attorney, or financial advisor about the best options for you.
  • Shred receipts, bank statements and unused credit card offers before throwing them away.
  • Carefully choose a trustworthy person to act as your agent in all estate-planning matters.
  • Lock up your checkbook, account statements and other sensitive information when others will be in your home.
  • Order copies of your credit report once a year to ensure accuracy.
  • Never pay a fee or taxes to collect sweepstakes or lottery “winnings.”
  • Never rush into a financial decision. Ask for details in writing and get a second opinion. 
  • Consult with a financial advisor or attorney before signing any document you don’t understand.
  • Get to know your banker and build a relationship with the people who handle your finances. They can look out for any suspicious activity related to your account.
  • Check references and credentials before hiring anyone. Don’t allow workers to have access to information about your finances.
  • Pay with checks and credit cards instead of cash to keep a paper trail.
  • Feel free to say “no.” After all, it’s your money.
  • You have the right not to be threatened or intimidated. If you think someone close to you is trying to take control of your finances, call your local Adult Protective Services or tell someone at your bank.
  • Trust your instincts. Exploiters and abusers often are very skilled. They can be charming and forceful in their effort to convince you to give up control of your finances. Don’t be fooled—if something doesn’t feel right, it may not be right. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Remember:  Never give personal information, including Social Security Number, account number or other financial information to anyone over the phone unless you initiated the call and the other party is trusted. 

It’s Still a Good Time to Become Financially Fit

New Year, New Me, right? We’re well into the new year and you may have dropped your New Year’s Resolution to become financially fit. Don’t despair. It’s still early in the new year and a great time to clean up your financials, adopt better spending habits, and start saving more. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

Make a budget and stick with it
This almost cliché financial advice is repeated so often for one important reason: it works. Start by tracking your spending, once you’ve tracked how much money you spend over the course of a few weeks, you can look for trends in what you’re spending. These trends help you start planning on how much income goes towards necessities (like rent/mortgage, utilities, groceries), and see areas where you can cut back (rarely-used subscription services, eating out less) and start putting away a portion of your income towards a savings goal. The most important part of a budget is sticking with it, once you start tracking your spending you should make sure to take time every day or every few days to log your spending and compare that to your planned spending.

Deal with any debt
Debt is an extremely stressful thing to deal with but the new year is a time to get a handle on any debt that may have piled up around the holidays. Debt should be something factored into your budget like your electric bill and tracked. Although it may be daunting, contact your creditors to discuss your situation, they may be willing to work with you to put together a repayment plan. If you're carrying debt on multiple credit cards, talk to your local bank about the possibility of consolidating that debt into a single payment so you can close the extra card accounts. No matter what you do, addressing debt instead of ignoring it will help you get a handle on it and make positive progress.

Shop around
Many times people will stick with whatever they find first, be it their internet provider, car insurance, or brand of soup, but that may not be the best deal, especially a few years down the line. There’s nothing wrong with being loyal to a company but just because they’ve been your cable provider for a few years isn’t necessarily a good reason to stay with them and doesn’t ensure that you are getting the best value for what you are paying. Look around to see what other companies are charging for similar services, you may find that your current company is priced competitively or you may find that you can get a better deal elsewhere. One thing to beware of is a cheaper product or service that is cheaper for a reason, make sure you are still getting a similar quality or ask yourself if you are ok with a downgrade.

Making a commitment to financial health and wellness can be a great way to start the New Year on good footing that can last throughout the year and your life.