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Learn how to get your federal income tax refund fast

Published 3/14/11  (Modified 3/29/11)

Learn how to get your federal income tax refund fast By Jim Sloan

I drove by one of those sign wavers dressed up as the Statue of Liberty this morning. Maybe you've seen one or two of them in your town. They wear green costumes and direct people to the offices of their employer, Liberty Tax Service, which prepares tax returns for people.

Weird thing was this particular sign waver had a beard. The Statue of Liberty endures some pretty harsh conditions there in New York Harbor, but last time I checked things weren't so bad that the towering lady had grown a beard.

Other changes expected in your federal income tax return

There are some other things about this federal income tax season that are off kilter, as well. For one thing, outfits like Liberty Tax Service and other businesses that figure out your tax deductions for you are not likely to be making as many refund anticipation loans as they used to.

Those loans are attractive to many people who can't afford to pay to have someone prepare their return. With a refund anticipation loan (RAL), though, they can have their return completed and e-filed and the company will give them a check right away--minus the "processing fee" and the tax preparation fee.

The tax preparation companies' RAL business has been handicapped this year by the IRS's decision to stop providing tax preparers with "debt indicators," which let the companies know when their client's refund might be withheld for

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Financial Scams: why they work and how to beat them

Published 2/25/11  (Modified 3/22/11)

Financial Scams: why they work and how to beat them By Kelly Richardson

The topic of financial scams is one I'll never grow tired of researching or reporting, because I was a victim. A little over two years ago I went through one of the darkest financial chapters of my life--and it all started with a seemingly innocent email. Here's what happened.

I bank with one of the majors. It's not important which bank I use because the dangers are present with even the best online banks. Because I do most of my banking online, I'm used to seeing frequent emails from this bank. And the email in question was no different. It looked perfect. The bank's logo in the top right corner, legalese in fine print at the bottom--everything I, and you, would expect in an email from the bank.

And after clicking on the hyperlink requesting a verification of my account information, the damage had been done.

Why we fall victim to financial scams

While no one really knows precisely why we're lured by the empty promises and cardboard facades of financial scams, recent research has pointed to an entire range of physiological reasoning behind our actions. Research by the University of Exeter revealed these fascinating findings:

  • Previous victims of a scam are more likely to show interest in responding again
  • Recognizing and understanding the subject of a scam has shown to actually increase the risk of 'over-confidence'
  • Victims aren't necessarily poor-decision makers but might be easily persuaded and less
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4 things you should know about tax audits

Published 2/25/11  (Modified 3/22/11)

4 things you should know about tax audits By Richard Barrington

The words "IRS audit" are enough to send a chill down the spine of even the most conscientious taxpayer. They evoke Kafka-esque images of a relentless bureaucratic inquisition, but are they really as bad as all that?

Since most people have never been through an IRS audit (after all, only about 1 percent of all individual returns are audited), much of the fear of a federal income tax audit is simply fear of the unknown. To ease that fear by removing some of the unknown, here are answers to four fundamental questions about tax audits:

1. What does it mean to be audited? An audit is not an accusation of any wrongdoing, but just a request to review the numbers and supporting documentation of your tax return. While a tax audit is popularly thought of as a face-to-face process, most of them take place through the mail. Of 1,425,888 audits of individual tax returns in 2009, 326,219 took place in the field, and 1,099,639 were handled via correspondence.

2. What triggers a federal income tax audit? Lest you feel unfairly singled out if you receive notice of an IRS audit, keep in mind that some returns are selected for audit randomly. Another trigger might be computer analysis that shows your return to be an outlier from the norm in terms of things like the level of tax deductions claimed. A real red

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Southwest Airlines' updated rewards card can help you travel

Published 2/19/11  (Modified 12/18/13)

Southwest Airlines' updated rewards card can help you travel By Jim Sloan

Southwest Airlines and Chase Card Services are raising the bar in the increasingly crowded field of airline rewards cards with the March 1 launch of the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Credit Card.

The latest incarnation of the popular carrier's credit cards switches the currency of rewards from credits and reward dollars to points, and expands the opportunities travelers have for cashing in those points.

Spending your credit card points

In addition to redeeming points for free flights to any of Southwest's 69 destinations in 35 states, card members will also be able to redeem points for international flights on more than 50 airlines flying to more than 800 destinations. You can also spend your points on rooms in more than 70,000 hotels worldwide, rental cars, cruises and gift cards at more than 45 retailers.

You can earn points by using your Southwest card to buy everyday stuff, such as dinner at participating restaurants. You earn the most points (2 per $1) when you buy Southwest tickets or patronize one of their partners in the hospitality and car rental fields, but you can also earn a point for every dollar you spend on other purchases.

Unlike previous Southwest cards, this one has no blackout dates, so every seat that's available for purchase with cash is also available for purchase with your points. Your points won't expire--provided you have "at least one qualifying earning

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The return of the reset button: Zero percent balance transfer offers make a comeback

Published 1/20/11  (Modified 4/11/13)

The return of the reset button: Zero percent balance transfer offers make a comeback By Richard Barrington

Did you ever wish life had a reset button?

Sometimes you just need a fresh start, to get organized and get on top of things. If you've accumulated some credit card debt, a zero percent balance transfer program might be just the reset button you need. No, it won't make your debt go away, but a zero interest balance transfer can give you the breathing room you need to start paying down your debt.

Balance transfer offers went into hibernation during the financial crisis, but they are making a comeback. The number of special interest rate and balance transfer offers increased in 2010 compared with 2009, accelerating as the year went along, according to SmartMoney.

Credit card companies are focusing on customers with the best credit ratings, so if you think you might qualify, here are three things you should know about zero percent credit card offers:

1. How they work.

Some specific examples show how banks are starting to get more generous again with their balance transfer offers:

  • Citibank has a zero percent introductory APR balance transfer offer on their Citi Simplicity Card. With this card you would pay the greater of 3 percent or $5 on any transferred balance, but beyond that you'd pay zero percent introductory APR for 18 months on transferred balances. You'd also get 18 months of zero percent introductory APR on new purchases.
  • Discover's it card offers zero percent introductory APR on balance transfers for the first 14 months...
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Banks or credit unions: Which will give you the best bang for your buck?

Published 12/9/10  (Modified 3/9/11)

Banks or credit unions: Which will give you the best bang for your buck? By Sierra Black

You've probably heard good things about credit unions. Or maybe you've just heard of credit unions for the first time, and are wondering what all the fuss is about.

Putting credit unions in context

Credit unions are not-for-profit organizations that provide most of the same services a bank provides. You can get a checking account through a credit union, as well as savings accounts, CDs and even mortgages. They're member-owned, so there are no shareholders to report to and no profit motive behind the banks' practices.

Think about the difference between public library fines and video store late fees, and you'll have a sense of what this means to you as a consumer.

I had my first credit union account when I was a teenager, at the credit union where my mom does all her banking. At the time I wasn't a picky bank customer, and it served all my needs just fine. I changed banks when I went away to college, and ended up in the clutches of a major national bank for several years.

Since then, I've bounced from credit unions to commercial banks and back again a few times. Right now, my accounts are split between a checking account at local brick & mortar bank and a high yield savings account at an online bank. Doing the research for this article, though, has pretty well persuaded me to switch back to a credit union.

Credit unions pros

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