How Hackers Can Ruin Your Summer Vacation

From airports to hotels to that cute café you found, it just takes one cybersecurity slipup to turn your holiday into a nightmare.

It was the Summer Olympics in 1996 in Atlanta. Ken Spinner, then a systems consultant — and tourist in the city — lost his credit card information.

But this was more than two decades ago, so it happened the old-fashioned way: a mugging at the ATM.

Today, hackers can steal your banking and credit card information without leaving their couches. That’s particularly worrisome if you’re taking off for the summer. It’s peak vacation time, but it’s also the perfect season for hackers.

As Americans take more than 657 million trips between now and Labor Day weekend, they’re vulnerable to cyberattacks that steal their credit card data and personal information. For cyberthieves, resort hotels and airports make for lucrative hunting grounds.

FREE DOWNLOAD: The Growing Threat of Ransomware and How to Stay Safe

It’s no different from why thieves and pickpockets target tourists on vacation: They’re in an unfamiliar setting, they have their guard down and, more importantly, they’ve got money.

It’s like why people rob banks. That’s where the money is. When people go on vacation they use airports and stay at resorts.

From a cybersecurity perspective, hotels aren’t exactly bastions of relaxation. Over a three-month time-span surrounding the 2016 holiday season, more than 1,200 InterContinental Hotels suffered hacks. Malware has also hit President Donald Trump’s luxury hotel chain, along with Sheraton, Westin, Starwood, Marriott, Hyatt, Kimpton and Wyndham hotels — the list goes on.

In every one of those breaches, thieves stole credit card information from the hotels, leaving thousands of unsuspecting customers open to getting robbed. It’s not just your money these hotels are losing; addresses, phone numbers, names, and check-in and check-out times are all fair game.

unsecured Wi-Fi

Because many hotels are chains, one breached location means hackers can break into the entire network for the mother lode of information. The stolen information can be sold online for up to $50 per account.

The majority of incidents start from a single employee at a hotel getting phished.

So even if your family takes all the precautions to keep your credit card information safe, and the hotel you stay at is safe, it could be a part of a compromised network. You could do nothing wrong and still lose.

Union Built PC feels hotels should invest more in encryption and in testing their security systems regularly.

RELATED: How Union Built PC Resolved the Cyber Terrorism Strike Against JATC Union Local 351

But the breaches don’t stop at hotels. Airports, coffee shops, beaches — any place with open Wi-Fi, really — should have you on the lookout.

Safe Travels

Don’t fret too much, though. There are still ways to keep yourself safe.

When you’re traveling, and don’t have your precious home or office internet access, be wary of any public Wi-Fi network you jump on. You might be setting yourself up for a man-in-the-middle attack.

That’s when a thief will set up a bogus hotspot, made to look exactly like the public Wi-Fi you wanted to get on, like the hotel lobby’s or the airport’s. When you sign on, you’re actually sending all your data to the hacker, without any warnings that you’re being compromised in plain sight.

It happens so frequently that in Singapore more people are afraid of using public Wi-Fi than public toilets.

Plus, people typically have their guard down when they’re on vacation. They won’t consider what the implications are if they go to a rogue Wi-Fi hotspot.

Without question, when on any public WiFi hotspot, avoid banking websites and online shopping. Anywhere you are entering your personal financial information. Always use an encrypted connection. 

RELATED: Protect Your Sensitive Data from Cyber Criminals with the Union Built Cloud

Going Electronically Naked

In some more extreme cases, consider going “electronically naked.” That means leaving every piece of technology at home: your phone, your laptop, your tablet, your iPad – everything! (It’s hard to conceive but read on.)

There are entire retreats dedicated to detoxing from digital life, so the idea of going on vacation without any technology isn’t as farfetched as you may think. Cyber Security experts most often go “electronically naked” when visiting China or Russia. This is where the majority of hackers emanate from.

Enigma Software took a look at cities in the US, Canada and Europe that have the highest malware infection rates. So if you’re heading to any of these cities, you may want to consider going electronically naked:

highest-malware-infection-ratesYOUR TURN

Has your personal financial data been breached? On vacation or otherwise? What happened? What was the resolution process like? We want to hear from you! Sound off in Comments, on the Union Built PC Facebook Page, or on our Twitter or LinkedIn Feeds.

And don’t forget to subscribe to our monthly #UnionStrong email newsletter. You may unsubscribe at any time.

5 Hidden Ways to Boost Your Tax Refund

While Americans may disagree on how their taxes are spent, at tax time, most of us are looking for ways to pay no more than we owe, or even boost our tax refunds.

Pressing save on taxes key on keyboard

These five strategies go beyond the obvious to give you tried-and-true ways to reduce your tax liability:

1. Rethink filing status to boost your refund
One of the first decisions you make when completing your tax return, your filing status, can affect your refund’s size, especially if you’re married. While most married couples file jointly — 95 percent did in 2015 — a joint return is not always the most beneficial way to boost your refund. Married-filing-separately status requires more effort, but the time you invest offers tax savings under the right circumstances. Calculating your taxes both ways will point you in the higher refund direction.

The IRS uses a percentage of adjusted gross income — AGI — to determine whether some deductions can be used such as medical and certain miscellaneous expenses. Filing separately gives each spouse a lower AGI. If one of them has a lot of medical expenses, such as COBRA payments resulting from a job loss, computing taxes individually allows that spouse to reach the needed AGI percentage based on his or her own income.

Or, a spouse who spends a lot of time on the road and in the air might have travel expenses such as baggage fees that merit separate filing. Expenses can add up for an unemployed spouse looking for work — long distance calls, resume preparation, career counseling and networking — and could be a sleeping miscellaneous deduction that reduces taxable income. However, choosing to file separate returns has drawbacks, such as losing credits available to joint filers, that you must weigh to maximize your refund potential.

Tax reductions from claiming dependents can cut a single parent’s tax bill when he or she files ashead of household. You need to have one or more children who lived with you for more than six months, and paid more than 50 percent of the cost of keeping a home. Those costs include mortgage and rent, utilities, homeowner’s or renter’s insurance, repairs and food.

Single taxpayers who care for a parent may also qualify for the more advantageous head-of-household status if they paid more than half of the cost of maintaining that parent’s residence for the whole year. Your parent need not live with you; when you pay more than half of their cost to live in a home for seniors or rest home, you can claim head of household.

2. Don’t shy away from tax deductions
Keeping a trip log for your volunteer work, job-hunting and doctor’s appointments may seem like a waste of time, but those miles add up and represent deductions. Parking, toll and bus or taxi receipts support your claim, while a record of the miles you drove lets you write off the cost of using your car through the standard mileage rate. Good travel records could help you reach the needed minimum percentage of adjusted gross income for miscellaneous deductions.

Moving for a new job 50 miles or more away can boost your tax refund because you can deduct moving, storage and travel expenses related to your relocation. You have to work full time at the new job for at least 39 weeks the first year; however, you can take the deduction in the year you move if you expect to meet this time test within the following tax year. You don’t have to itemize to get this tax break to lower your adjusted gross income. Simply figure your total using IRS Form 3903 and attach it to your 1040 return.

Charitable deductions can help your refund cause, too. Record keeping lets you add up the dollars spent doing charity work, in addition to claiming the market value of any clothing or household things you donate. When you bake for a fund-raiser, the cost of your ingredients can be deducted, but not the value of the time you spent baking.

3. Maximize your IRA contributions
You have until April 15th to open a traditional IRA for the previous tax year. That gives you the flexibility of claiming the credit on your return, filing early and using your refund to open the account. Traditional IRA contributions reduce your taxable income. You can take advantage of the maximum contribution and, if you’re at least 50 years old, the catch-up provision, to add to your IRA. If you contributed to a Roth IRA, you may be able to claim the retirement savings contribution credit that also lowers taxable income and result in a larger refund check.

4. Timing can boost your tax refund
And while this line item may be a day late and a dollar short, it’s good to keep in mind for next year. Taxpayers who watch the calendar improve their chances of getting a larger refund. If you can, pay January’s mortgage payment before December 31st and get the added interest for your mortgage interest deduction.

Schedule health-related treatments and exams in the last quarter of the year to boost your medical expense deduction potential.

Paying property taxes by New Year’s Eve could make the difference between itemizing and taking the standard deduction, and thus, a bigger refund. If you’re self-employed, you can pay your fourth-quarter state estimated taxes in December, rather than in January when they’re normally due, to increase your itemizing potential.

5. Become credit savvy and refund happy
Credits work better than deductions as refund boosters. For each credit dollar, your taxes go down a dollar. Yet, 20% of eligible Americans don’t claim the earned income tax credit. If you’re working and meet the guidelines, you may be eligible for EITC even if you’re single with no children. If you have kids, the child-care credit may help you.

For those with children in college, credits related to higher education expenses, such as the American Opportunity Tax Credit, could provide tax relief. We spoke with CPA Miles Brkovich of Bennett & Brkovich, LLC in Latrobe, Pennsylvania and he says; “The American Opportunity Credit is great because up to $1,000 is refundable. That means you could receive as much as $1,000 even if you had no tax liability. The total credit is $2,500 and applies only to the first four years of undergraduate higher education expenses. If you’re in grad school or beyond, you may be eligible for the Lifetime Learning Credit.”

Tax laws change frequently, and credits come and go, so staying informed can be financially rewarding. Credits for home improvements that save energy keep more money in your wallet throughout the year and at tax time. For example, an investment in an alternative energy heating system for your home could let you claim 30 percent of the cost through 2017.

YOUR TURN

Do you have any tips to add to this list? We want to hear from you! Sound off on the Union Built PC Facebook Page or on our Twitter or LinkedIn feeds. And don’t forget to subscribe to our monthly #UnionStrong email newsletter for articles like this one delivered straight to your inbox.

This article is for general informational purposes designed to help you put these valuable deductions on your radar. Union Built PC employees and principals are not certified accountants. Please be sure to check with your tax adviser to see if you qualify for a particular credit or deduction.

9 Home Safety Tips for the Holidays

The holidays are a wonderful time full of food, family get-togethers and traditions, but the holidays can also pose many safety concerns, so it’s best to be cautious. From lighting candles to hanging Christmas lights, there are plenty of safety hazards that can occur during the holidays. Let’s take a look at nine home safety tips for the holidays to keep you and your family safe.

holiday-safety-tips

1. Inspect Lights
Carefully look at your holiday light strings every year, and be sure to throw away any cracked lamp holders, frayed cords or loose connections. When you replace bulbs, you need to unplug the lights and match the voltage and wattage to the original bulb.

2. Buy a Fresh Tree
If you buy a live Christmas tree for your home, try to purchase a fresh tree since they are more fire resistant. Always keep your tree watered, and keep open flames away from it.

3. Lights Out
When you leave your house or go to sleep, make sure to turn off your holiday lights.

4. Timed Lights
Use a certified CSA International outdoor timer to switch on and off your holiday lights. Your lights should be turned on after 7:00 p.m. to avoid the electricity “rush hour.”

5. Check for Certification
Your holiday lights, extension cords, spotlights, carbon monoxide alarms, gas appliances and electrical decorations should be certified by an accredited certification organization like CSA International, UL or ELT to make sure they comply with safety standards and performance. Look for the certification mark on the product package to ensure you are making a safe purchase.

6. Don’t Connect Extension Cords
You should never connect two or more extension cords together. Only use a single cord that is long enough to reach to the outlet you need without stretching.

7. Keep Electrical Connectors Off the Ground
If you are hanging lights outside, keep electrical connectors off the ground and away from metal gutters. Also use insulated tape or plastic clips to keep lights secure.

8. Choose the Right Ladder
Make sure you select the right ladder size for the job if you are putting up lights on your house. Check for a certification mark to make sure the ladder complies with safety standards.

9. Check Your Furnace
Prevent CO hazards in your home by hiring a professional heating contractor to do a maintenance checkup of your furnace and ventilation system. You will want to clean or replace your furnace filter often during the winter months.

YOUR TURN

How will you keep your home safe during the holidays? Sound off on the Union Built PC Facebook Page, or on our Twitter or LinkedIn feeds. And don’t forget to subscribe to the monthly Union Built PC UNION STRONG eNewsletter for articles, tips and guides like this delivered straight to your inbox.