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Cyber Risk and Remote Working

Cyber risk has sky-rocketed in the months that remote working has increased. Hackers know that remote workers often don’t have the same security set-up at home as they do at the office. But even when strong security protocols are in place, hackers get in and data breaches happen. 

Why? Because human action has long been reported as one of the highest cyber risks. Some people just can’t resist clicking on enticing links, no matter where they came from. Temptation to fall for clickbait seems to be even higher for people working at home in their jammies. Plus, people under stress are more likely to act without thinking things through. Hackers know that, too.

In a recent whitepaper titled, “Cyberchology: The Human Element,” 80% of businesses surveyed stated that their cyber risk has increased in 2020. More than 75% of businesses said that one-half or more of their people were working remotely. Up to 47% of survey respondents reported experiencing stress issues. No wonder that cybersecurity breach reports are up 63%!

Click here (yes, a valid link) to read the entire whitepaper. It’s interesting. Plus, it’s free. https://cdn1.esetstatic.com/ESET/UK/Collateral/White_Paper_Cyberchology.pdf

Bottom line, tons of money invested in security can go right out the window if people don’t use systems securely. Your systems are only as safe as the security knowledge and understanding of your least knowledgeable worker. With the extra challenges of remote work and the pandemic, businesses can help workers maintain cybersecurity practices at the office and at home with periodic reminders to:

  1. Keep software systems up to date and use a good anti-virus program.
  2. Examine the email address and URLs in all correspondence to detect a scammer mimicking a legitimate site or email address.
  3. Ignore text messages, emails, or phone calls asking you to update or verify your account information and go to the company’s website to see if something needs your attention.
  4. Never open unexpected attachments until verifying the sender’s email address and use virus scan before opening any document.
  5. Scrutinize all electronic requests for a payment or fund transfers.
  6. Be extra suspicious of any message that urges immediate action.

Human action has long been reported as one of the highest cyber risks. People who click before thinking things through can let hackers into your systems to do all sorts of expensive and embarrassing damage. Periodic cybersecurity reminders, especially for those who are working at home in their jammies, can go along way to reducing cyber risk during this pandemic and over the long run.

Taxes are Part of Getting Married

Taxes are not romantic, even to me. However, taxes are part of getting married. A conversation about income taxes should be part of every engaged couples’ wedding plans. Marriage, like many other life events, impacts how a person’s income taxes are filed. 

Before marriage, taxes are usually filed under the “single” filing status. After those wedding bells chime and the “I Dos” are said, each spouse’s income tax filing status changes to “married.” Engaged couples who are newly married, or about to get married, should be aware of these four points before filing their next income tax return:

  • Taxpayers are required to file income tax returns based on their marital status on December 31st, the last day of the tax year. Couples who get married on New Year’s Eve are considered married for the entire year for tax purposes.
  • Married couples can select the “married filing jointly” (MFJ) or “married filing separately” (MFS) filing status, depending on which option means a lower tax bill. Couples can assess their tax situation annually to select the filing status that results in the lower overall tax liability.
  • Filing MFJ or MFS is a choice. However, it’s important to be aware that different tax rules apply for couples selecting the MFS option. Examples include rules related to itemized deductions, the standard deduction, the capital loss limit, and some refundable and non-refundable tax credits.
  • To plan for filing next year’s income tax return, couples can refer to information from their prior-year tax returns to help determine whether using the MFJ or MFS filing status might result in a lower overall tax liability. Hint – MFJ often results in a lower overall income tax bill.

Newly-married couples can reduce tax stress by learning about how the filing status rules apply to them before filing their next income tax return. Want to know more? Check out the IRS’ webpage with the details about income tax filing status and links to more information https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/correct-filing-status

Taxes aren’t romantic, but they are part of getting married. And the IRS has the perfect wedding gift, a helpful checklist for newly married couples – https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/a-tax-checklist-for-newly-married-couples. No thank you note required.

Your Chances of an IRS Audit

Few words strike fear in the hearts of taxpayers like “IRS audit.” People would rather do almost anything other than get an audit notice from the IRS. But what does an IRS audit really mean? What are your chances of an IRS audit? What happens after you are selected for an audit?

An IRS audit can indicate a problem, or not. Basically, an IRS audit is a review of a taxpayer’s tax return and financial documents to determine that income and deductions are reported correctly according to the tax laws. The IRS Deputy Commissioner for Services and Enforcement recently issued the full report of audit actions by income levels. If you’re not up for all the details, here are a few basics about your chances of an IRS audit and what happens if you are selected: 

  • Why is a taxpayer selected for an audit?

Selection for an audit does not always suggest a problem. It can mean that something on a return does not fit a “norm” for similar returns. The IRS also audits returns where information on a return does not match what is reported by a third party, such as interest from a bank account. The IRS could also select a return when performing a “related examination” of business partners or investors whose returns were selected for audit.

  • How does the IRS notify taxpayers of an audit?

Taxpayers are contacted initially by regular mail from the IRS that she or he has been selected for an audit. The IRS notice provides all contact information and instructions, as well as an explanation of the items on the return that do not match or that require additional documentation. All IRS notices include a deadline to reply. Opening and replying on time is an important part of the audit process.

  • How does the IRS conduct an audit?

The IRS manages audits either by mail or through an in-person interview to review the related financial records. In-person interviews could be virtual during COVID-19. Usually, interviews are conducted at an IRS office or at the taxpayer’s home, place of business, or accountant’s office. Mail audit notices will request additional information about certain items shown on the tax return such as income, expenses, and itemized deductions.

  • How far back can the IRS go to audit my return?

Generally, the IRS can include returns filed within the last three years in an audit. If they identify a substantial error, they could add additional years, but not usually more than the last six years. The IRS tries to audit tax returns as soon as possible after they are filed. Accordingly, most audits will be of returns filed within the last two years.

Your chances of an IRS audit are not easy to determine. An IRS audit can indicate a problem, or not. Either way, it’s good to know why you were selected, what could happen next, and how the audit is conducted. No matter what, make sure that you open the IRS notice when it arrives, read all the instructions, and reply by the due date. 

Help for Pandemic Credit Woes

Your Economic Impact Payment was spent a long time ago, your work hours were cut, and your bills are getting harder to pay. Well, you are not alone. Widespread unemployment and economic hardships from COVID-19 are anticipated by financial experts to create a financial and credit crisis. My regular readers have already been alerted to the many scams out there to take advantage of vulnerable people. Those scams include “help” with credit and debt issues. 

Good news! Reputable (and often free) help is out there to help with your pandemic credit woes. Here are three options for credit and debt counseling that really help:

  • Nonprofit Credit Counseling

Reputable credit counseling organizations can advise you on managing your money and debts, help you develop a budget, and offer free financial education. Their counselors are certified and trained in consumer credit, money and debt management, and budgeting. They discuss your entire financial situation with you, and help you develop a personalized plan to deal with your money problems. An initial counseling session typically lasts an hour, with an offer of follow-up sessions. The Federal Trade Commission offers tips on finding an agency and questions you should ask before you start. https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0153-choosing-credit-counselor

  • Credit Union Membership

Credit unions are nonprofit financial institutions, while banks are for-profit, meaning they are either privately owned or publicly traded. Credit unions have lower fees and are all about community. They often provide free financial wellness and other services to help their members make good financial decisions, stay on top of bills and payments, and manage a budget. Check out Bank Rate to find a credit union near you and how to become a member. https://www.bankrate.com/banking/best-credit-unions/.  

  • Community Development Financial Institutions

Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) are banks and credit unions that focus on serving people in low-income communities that have historically been locked out of the financial system. Unlike other financial institutions, CDFIs rely less on credit scores when providing loans and other products. In addition, they emphasize developing long-term relationships with members of the community to help them gain financial literacy, establish savings goals, build credit, and access affordable loans. Check out the official CDFI website to locate a certified financial institution near you. https://www.cdfifund.gov/programs-training/certification/cdfi/Pages/default.aspx 

Millions of people are suffering financial woes due to the coronavirus pandemic. If you or someone you know is impacted and needs help, nonprofit credit counseling, credit union financial wellness services, and CDFIs are some of the reputable resources that are out there for you. It might be difficult to take the first step, but that debt burden will feel lighter after you do. 

Tax “To Do” List for Closing a Business

Data from Yelp Inc., the online reviewer, shows that more than 80,000 businesses permanently closed from March 1st to July 25th of this year. About 800 small businesses filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy from mid-February to July 31st, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute. They estimate that total bankruptcies in 2020 could be up 36% from last year.

Closing a business is a tough decision. It’s painful. It also creates a long “To Do” List, including final tax responsibilities. Figuring out everything that needs to be done can be confusing. Fortunately, the IRS recently launched a redesigned webpage to help business owners and self-employed individuals navigate federal tax steps when closing a business.

The IRS’ “Closing a Business” webpage has explanations, instructions, links, and forms for:

  • Filing a Final Return and Related Forms

You must file a final return for the year you close your business. The type of return you file and related forms you need will depend on the type of business you have (e.g., sole proprietor or partnership). 

  • Take Care of Your Employees

If you have employees, you must pay them any final wages owed, make final federal tax deposits, and report employment taxes. You must also provide an IRS Form W-2, Wage and Tax Statement, to each employee. 

  1. Pay the Tax You Owe

Whether it’s by check or online, all taxes must be paid in full. 

  • Report Payments to Contract Workers

If you have paid any unincorporated contractors at least $600 during the calendar year in which you close your business, you must report those payments.

  • Cancel Your EIN and Close Your IRS Business Account

The employer identification number (EIN) assigned to your business is the permanent federal taxpayer identification number for that business. The IRS will not close your business account until you have filed all necessary returns and paid all taxes.

  • Keep Your Records

How long you need to keep your business records, such as employment tax records, depends on the document. Generally, tax records should be kept for four years and copies of tax returns should be kept permanently.

The IRS’ “Closing a Business” webpage outlines the steps needed to close a business and help take care of any employees. No matter the business type, information on this page https://www.irs.gov/businesses/small-businesses-self-employed/closing-a-business helps business owners and self-employed individuals understand what to do after making the tough decision to shut down.

Taxes and the Growing Gig Economy

Smartphones and apps have made it easier for people to find work, or “gigs”, through new online marketplaces. But gig workers may not understand all the tax obligations of their work situation. For example, companies will probably classify them as independent contractors instead of employees, making them responsible for taxes, insurance, and other financial obligations that employers usually take care of. 

The gig economy was growing before COVID-19. Now that work is booming because of even more gigs that are lined up via apps or websites, also called digital platforms. Examples are:

  • Driving a car for booked rides or deliveries, such as Uber and Uber Eats;
  • Renting out property or part of it, such as on Airbnb;
  • Running errands or complete tasks, such as TaskRabbit; or
  • Selling goods online, like on eBay. 

Digital platforms are businesses that match workers’ services or goods with customers. Instead of the customer directly paying the worker, the customer pays the platform, and the platform pays the worker. Platforms are supposed to issue a year-end income report to workers (i.e., on IRS Form 1099-K or 1099-NEC/MISC). Workers that earn income via a digital platform are required to maintain financial records and report all income on her or his income tax return, just like any other freelance worker. 

Knowing about the tax obligations for gig workers is vital because many don’t receive a year-end tax report, like a 1099, for all their work. Income from gig work is generally taxable, regardless of whether workers receive information returns or not. Gig workers also need to know about the business expenses they can deduct to reduce their taxable business income. 

Keeping up with the tax rules is a growing issue as the gig economy grows. The IRS recently launched its Gig Economy Tax Center to help gig workers navigate through what they need to know. Check it out here –  https://www.irs.gov/businesses/gig-economy-tax-center

The Gig Economy Tax Center is designed to make it easier for taxpayers to find information about a variety of topics including filing requirements, quarterly estimated income tax payments, and deductible business expenses. They even produced a video to break it down for you –  https://www.irsvideos.gov/Individual/PayingTaxes/UnderstandingTheGigEconomy.

The gig economy is growing. Gig workers who educate themselves on all the tax rules for reporting income and allowable business expenses can get it all done correctly and quickly, leaving more time for earning income with more gigs.

Cyber Risk and Working from Home

With so many people working from home, cyber risk is higher than ever before. When you work from the office on your employer’s systems, security features are often in place that reduce the risk that “bad actors” will gain access to your data. But those security features don’t usually extend from the office to workers’ homes. 

Increased cyber risk results when basic IT controls aren’t addressed, leaving systems vulnerable to hacks and malware. Employers whose workers are accessing their business systems from home must train and provide remote support in these four IT control areas to reduce cyber risk:

  • Firewalls and Anti-Virus Software

Home-workers should be required to install a firewall and anti-virus software. Firewalls protect against outside attacks and can be configured to block data from suspicious locations while allowing relevant and necessary data through. However, firewalls do not prevent attacks; they only protect against malicious traffic. Anti-virus software scans computer files and memory for patterns that may indicate the presence of malicious software based on known malware from cybercriminals.

  • Program and System Updates

Home-workers should download and install all program and system updates. Skipping updates and patches creates vulnerabilities that can be exploited by hackers and scammers. Outdated updates were the reason for some recent – and awfully expensive – cyber fraud events at Equifax and Home Depot, among others. Workers should set up updates to be pushed automatically to their home computers and other devices to ensure they stay up-to-date.

  • Passwords and Two-Factor Authentication

Home workers must use passwords for all business systems access and should be encouraged to use two-factor authentication protections to add an extra layer of protection. Two-factor authentication means the user must enter username and password plus another step, such as entering a security code sent via text to a mobile phone. Passwords used at home should follow the same length and strength protocols as when they are used at the office.

  • Phishing Emails

Home workers should be trained never to open an email from a suspicious source, click on a link in a suspicious email or open an attachment without scanning it first. Otherwise, your worker could be a victim of a phishing attack and your data could be compromised. Workers should never click on links in pop-up windows, download “free” software from a pop-up, or follow email links that offer anti-spyware software.

More working from home equals increased cyber risk because basic IT controls at the office don’t automatically extend to home. This scenario can leave systems vulnerable to hacks and malware. Employers must train and support their home workers about firewalls and anti-virus software, system and program updates, passwords, and phishing scams to reduce cyber fraud and protect their business systems and data.

Expectations for Your Bookkeeper

A business owner’s time is too valuable for keeping accounting records and running financial reports. Also, most business owners don’t have enough accounting expertise to keep the books accurately and completely. Between a lack of time and expertise, business owners can wind up with inaccurate accounting records that lead to expensive mistakes.

Outsourcing your bookkeeping to a qualified professional is one of the best decisions you can make as a business owner. A bookkeeper provides accurate and up-to-date financial information. Engaging a bookkeeper also frees up your time to develop new sales and plan for growth.

So, after you engage a bookkeeper, how do you ensure that she or he provides that accurate financial information so you can make good business decisions? Sounds simple, but setting these four expectations is the best way to get the bookkeeping services that you need:

  • Standard Tasks

Clarify the tasks and deliverables that will meet your needs, such as keeping accounting records up-to-date, ensuring information is categorized correctly, and reconciling financial activity. Establish a schedule for monthly financial statements and other reporting needed to manage your business.

  • Critical Thinking

You need someone who can focus on the details and on the big picture, and who also understands how they work together. She or he must be a problem solver, assessing information and developing solutions. Projects and tasks must be logically prioritized and followed through to completion.

  • Two-Way Communication

If your instructions or processes are not understood, your bookkeeper must be willing to ask for clarification or help. Communication is critical; it is better for your bookkeeper to ask questions rather than guessing or keeping quiet. Good bookkeepers handle day-to-day issues and know when to escalate an issue to you.

  • Technical Proficiency

A 21st-century bookkeeper can conduct most, if not all, of your financial business electronically. That includes accessing the bank statement, paying bills, and sending financial reports. Your bookkeeper should be proactive about securely using technology. It will save both of you time and reduce human error.

You depend on your bookkeeper to provide complete and accurate financial information so you can make good business decisions. Setting expectations for what your bookkeeper will deliver, when, and how is the best way to get things done the way you need them. Once you and your bookkeeper have that important conversation about expectations, your time and attention can be focused on building your business.