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Opening the Door to a Hacker

We use our computers and other devices every day. Often, we use them to access valuable financial and personal information. Just as often, we are using the same device for work, bill paying, and online searches. Accessing bank and other sensitive sites without appropriate security is just like opening the door to a hacker. 

For weeks, many workers have been unable to work from the office due to COVID-19. That means that they could be working outside the protection of their employer’s computer security, opening the door to hackers even wider. So how can you and workers on your team close the door to hackers, no matter where they are located and what devices they use?

Follow these five tips to close the door to hackers:

  • Anti-Virus Software

Anti-virus software scans computer files or memory for certain patterns that may indicate the presence of malicious software. Anti-virus vendors find new issues and update malware daily, so it is important that you have the latest updates installed on your computer. Set security software to automatically receive and download the latest updates so that it is always current.

  • Firewalls

Firewalls provide protection against hackers by shielding your computer or network and preventing malicious software from accessing your systems. Firewalls can be configured to block data from certain suspicious locations or applications while allowing relevant and necessary data through.

  • Phishing emails

Never, never, ever open a suspicious email or click on a link from an unknown source. You could be a target of a phishing attack and your data could be compromised. Same thing goes for clicking on links in pop-up windows and downloading “free” software from a pop-up. You could be installing the spyware that the pop-up claims to be eliminating. 

  • Public Wi-Fi

Avoid using public hot sites. The money you save on your service plan is not worth opening the door to a hacker. Due to its unsecure nature, online access that you can snag from a business down the street should not be used to pay bills or open confidential client files. Hackers can also masquerade as a public hot site and intercept whatever valuable information they can.

  • Two-Factor Authentication

Many providers now offer two-factor authentication protections to add an extra layer of security. Returning users must enter username and password plus another step, such as entering a security code sent via text. A hacker with your username and password is unlikely to also have the device needed to receive the code and complete the process.

Follow these five tips, and you and your workers will close the door to hackers, no matter where they are located and what devices they use.

Tightening the Expense Belt

Dire circumstances – like the economic challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic – call for reexamining business plans, including expenses. If ever there was a time for tightening the expense belt, this is it. But how do you know the number of belt notches you can cinch up before you cut off your business’ circulation and kill it? 

A lot of the answers come from tracking the finances for your business during “normal” operations. You have been doing that, right? If not, during a pandemic is probably a bad time to learn that making informed financial decisions, including where to tighten the expense belt, only works when you track your business financial activity.

Tracking income and expenses may not sound important, but it is the most important financial management activity for your business. Why? Because financial tracking provides the historical record needed to see what income is really coming in and how much it really costs to produce that income and run the business.

Tracking your business financial activity involves three steps:

  • Maintain a record of all financial activity. 

The IRS does not specify a particular system or format for financial records. The only requirement is that financial records are accurate, complete, and provide enough detail to identify the business purpose of each item. Using QuickBooks or another accounting application is an option, but using a spreadsheet can work, too. Expenses should be tracked by category, such as rent, so you know where your funds are going.

  • Organize financial activity using a logical filing system.

No matter what format you use to record your income and expenses, it’s important to keep support documents that capture the five information elements that are required by the IRS – when, what, who, how much, and why. In other words, capture the date, item description, payee/payer, dollar amount, and business purpose to substantiate the expense. 

  • Keep a running total of your financial activity.

Seeing the financial status of your business at a glance is immensely powerful. That power comes from complete and accurate tracking all financial activity and keeping running totals. QuickBooks or a bookkeeper can provide that information in the form of financial statements at any time. Spreadsheet users can achieve the same goal by keeping up-to-date totals for income and expenses. 

Tightening the expense belt during tough times can help to keep your business afloat. Knowing where to tighten the expense belt, and how much, only works when you track your business financial activity. Without a clear view of income that is really coming in and how much it really costs to produce that income, you could cinch that expense belt too tight and cut off your business’ circulation.

Virtual Volunteering

Giving back to the community always feels good. Americans have a strong tradition of giving back by volunteering for nonprofit organizations. Nationally, about 30% of us volunteer for a nonprofit. The Commonwealth of Virginia is the 22nd most volunteering state at 34%. My community, the Washington, DC/Arlington/Alexandria area, tops those averages with 38.3% of residents contributing 148.7 million hours of service worth an estimated $3.5 billion.

So how can we maintain our local volunteer statistics while COVID-19 is still on the rampage? The Arlington Chamber of Commerce figured it out by moving its Annual Arlington Chamber Volunteer Day to an all-virtual event. In years past, nonprofits hosted Chamber member businesses at their locations to perform service projects like stream and grounds clean-ups and shopping for nonprofit clients. 

This year, the Arlington Chamber created a new format to meet the current needs of the nonprofit community. Businesses registered for virtual nonprofit projects that were in accordance with CDC guidelines for all participants, such as volunteers videoing him or herself reading a book to a child and organizing data in a volunteer database. It was the classic Win-Win-Win for the nonprofits, their clients, and the participating businesses.

Businesses benefit from volunteering in their community in three ways:

  • Visibility

Sponsoring a nonprofit event or connecting your team with on-site (or virtual) volunteer projects is one way to get the name of your business in front of more potential customers. Event sponsorship and volunteering are not free, but if you’re paying to get your business name out there, it may as well be linked with a good cause. 

  • Credibility

When you are doing good, people will assume that you are good, or at least dependable and credible. Establishing your credibility as an honorable and trusted business through volunteering will make potential customers look at your business first when making a purchasing decision. 

  • Employee Enrichment

More than ever before, employees want a job where they can feel good about what they are doing and contribute to a better future. While workers can certainly volunteer on their own time, businesses that provide opportunities to volunteer as a team increase employee engagement, satisfaction, and retention.

Arlington businesses appreciated the opportunity for Virtual Volunteering with local nonprofits at this year’s Arlington Chamber Volunteer Day. Nonprofits and their clients benefited from the Virtual Service Projects and Arlington maintained its strong local volunteer statistics. The ultimate Win-Win-Win!

Virginia’s Tax Filing and Payment Deadlines

As if everything to do with taxes were not confusing enough, changes in response to the COVID-19 crisis are head-spinning. The IRS has changed the 2019 individual tax filing and payment deadlines to July 15th and changed the 2020 estimated tax payments twice. Most of the states have changed their deadlines to match the IRS, possibly to avoid taxpayer confusion.

But not Virginia! I love living and working in Virginia but some of our rules are a bit inexplicable. We vote for state and local officials on odd years when everyone else votes on even years. We call ourselves a Commonwealth and almost everyone else is a State. And our normal individual income tax filing deadline is May 1st instead of the date that is normal for everyone else, April 15th.

For this filing season, it’s even better. Virginia’s Department of Taxation has announced that:

  • Individual income tax returns for 2019 are still due to be filed by May 1, 2020. Taxpayers who are not ready to file by the deadline can get an automatic six-month extension to November 1st. No application is required to file on extension. Please see the Virginia Tax website for details.
  • An extension to file is not an extension to pay. Usually, taxpayers need to pay by the May 1st due date to avoid underpayment penalties and interest. However, for the 2019 tax year, income tax extension payments must be made by June 1st to avoid late payment penalties or extension penalties.
  • Any income tax payments due from April 1st to June 1st – for individuals or businesses – will be considered on time without penalty if paid by June 1st. Virginia Tax will automatically waive any late payment penalties as long as full payment is made by June 1st. If not, the penalty waiver will not apply, and late payment penalties will accrue from the original due date.

Virginia’s Department of Taxation is super strict about tracking taxes due and accruing interest and penalties. This tax season’s deadline changes will certainly catch some taxpayers by surprise, resulting in quite a few late filing penalties and underpayment interest. I doubt that they will accept date changes and deadline confusion as an acceptable excuse to remove those extra charges. 

Bottom line, file or extend your Virginia 2019 income tax return by May 1st and pay anything you owe by June 1st. Don’t get caught up in all the deadline change confusion. Check the Virginia Tax website or your state’s website to make sure you know the latest updates on what you need to do this tax filing season.

What About Estimated Taxes for 2020?

Your head is probably spinning right now, trying to figure out when your 2019 taxes need to be filed and paid, especially if you live in a state that is not following the IRS deadlines changes (looking at you, Virginia). As if that weren’t bad enough, the IRS has changed the due dates for 2020 estimated tax payments at least twice (so far) and several states (and the District of Columbia) are not changing 2020 tax due dates. 

Piece of paper that says "TAX" with hand holding pen
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Confused yet? Your safest move is to check the website for your state and www.IRS.gov for the latest information. But no matter what dates your payments are due, determining whether you need to make estimated tax payments for this year doesn’t look different than in the past.  

Three things to know about 2020 estimated taxes:

  • Who Needs to Pay Estimated Taxes?

If all your income comes from wages, the taxes that your employer withholds and remits for you probably covers your income tax liability. If you are self-employed or if you receive investment or rental income that is not covered by tax withholdings, you should assess your need to make estimated income tax payments. That starts with projecting your federal and state income tax liabilities for 2020. The IRS website explains what to include and how to estimate your tax at this link 

https://www.irs.gov/businesses/small-businesses-self-employed/estimated-taxes.

  • How Much Do You Need to Pay?

Estimated tax payments are based on your estimated income and resulting tax liability. You must pay estimated tax for 2020 if you expect to owe at least $1,000 in tax after subtracting withholding and refundable credits. Withholdings or estimated payments must equal or exceed the smaller of 90% of your 2020 tax liability, or 100% of your 2019 tax liability. Calculate your 2020 tax liability at this link https://www.irs.gov/forms-pubs/about-form-1040-es. See your state’s tax website for information to project your 2020 state tax liability.

  • What if You Don’t Pay Enough?

Interest is calculated on any unpaid balance due, accrued daily from the time the tax liability was created, aka when your income was earned or received, and when the tax is paid. Daily interest accruals can really add to your tax bill, so staying on top of any necessary tax payments is essential to managing expenses. Clearly, the IRS is serious about getting paid on time. Figure your 2020 federal income tax bill by using the IRS Withholding Estimator at https://www.irs.gov/individuals/tax-withholding-estimator.

If you paid a lot when you filed your 2019 income tax return or have income with no tax withholdings, you should look at whether you need to pay 2020 estimated taxes. Don’t feel comfortable doing this yourself? The IRS can also help you find a qualified tax professional to help you out, at this link https://www.irs.gov/tax-professionals/choosing-a-tax-professional.

Your Economic Impact Payment

New financial relief packages to address the coronavirus pandemic are in the news all the time these days. It’s hard to keep them all straight. Of all the new programs, many people are looking out for that Economic Impact Payment from the IRS. When the payments were announced by the Secretary of the Treasury, he projected an issue date of about April 6th. At the time, the IRS said it could take a month.

One month is the estimate for direct deposit payments to hit taxpayers’ bank account, assuming they used direct deposit (or direct debit) for their tax refund or payment. Paper checks could take until August, or longer! So, while you are waiting, here are a few things you might want to know about Your Economic Impact Payment:

  • How much will I get?

The Economic Impact Payment amount varies by tax filing status and adjusted gross income (AGI). Single taxpayers with an AGI under $75,000 will receive the full stimulus payment of $1,200. Above $75,000, there is a sliding scale up to $99,000, where it phases out and there is no payment. For a married couple the numbers are doubled. The Head of Household fling status limitation starts at $112,500 and fully phases out at $136,500. The payment is $500 for each qualifying dependent child.

  • How will I get my payment?

Taxpayers who used their bank information for their 2019 or 2018 tax refund or payment will get the stimulus payment direct deposited into the same account. Social Security recipients who do not file a tax return will have funds deposited into the account used for their benefits. Otherwise, a check will go to the address on file. The IRS plans to have a website for taxpayers without an account on file to provide that information.

  • Will my payment impact my refund when I file my 2020 income return?

The short answer is, “no.” The Economic Impact Payment does not have to be repaid and it will not offset any refund you might be owed when you file your 2020 federal income tax return. The IRS payment that arrives shortly will be calculated on the AGI from 2019 or 2018, not the AGI for tax year 2020, which is not known yet. Therefore, the IRS plans to include a payment “reconciliation” on 2020 federal tax return. Taxpayers who should have received a higher payment because their 2020 AGI was lower will get a “credit.” Taxpayers in the opposite situation – a higher AGI for 2020 – will not have to refund the overpayment.

More tools and details are available about how much of an Economic Impact Payment you will get and when you will get it. The Washington Post has put out a “stimulus calculator” to help people determine the amount of the stimulus payment based on their income and family size. Plus, as usual, the IRS website has you covered: https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/economic-impact-payments-what-you-need-to-know

Scammers Jump on Pandemic Fears

Most of us are preoccupied with staying at home, learning to work remotely and keeping children from going stir-crazy. Scammers see these grim times as an opportunity to jump on our fears about health and finances. I guess it’s their “job,” but still…

The last thing that people need right now is someone adding to their stress when they are looking for answers about how to pay their bills and maintain their health. But scammers know when people are vulnerable and open to solutions that sound too good to be true. And they’re smart! Scammers pivot from their everyday crimes and refine them for the “fear of the day.”

Man wearing a mask in dark room in front of computer

Only days after pandemic fears became widespread, the Better Business Bureau was already reporting that government imposters are calling about COVID-19 relief. As part of the scam, callers suggest that you might qualify for a special COVID-19 government grant, after first verifying your identity by asking for confidential information. Variations on the scheme involve contacts through text messages and social media posts. 

Other twists on the scam suggest that you can get more money from the government – or get your stimulus check faster – if you share personal details and pay a small “processing fee.” Do not take the bait! Stimulus checks are free money from the government. You do not need to spend money to receive your check. And there are no short-cuts – even for a fee.

The Internal Revenue Service will deposit your check into the direct deposit account you previously provided on your tax return or send you a paper check. The IRS will not call and ask you to verify your payment details. Do not give out your bank account, debit account, or PayPal account information – even if someone claims it is necessary to get your stimulus check. It is a scam. The IRS has information about detecting and reporting imposters trying to take your hard-earned money at https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/tax-scams-consumer-alerts.

Protect yourself! If you receive a call, do not engage with scammers or thieves, just hang up. If you receive texts or emails claiming that you can get your money faster by sending personal information or clicking on links, delete them.

Perhaps one day, scammers will turn their efforts to non-criminal activity. Until then, keep your guard up and don’t let scammers jump on your pandemic fear.

Business Finance Crisis Management

Businesses are all being affected differently by the current coronavirus pandemic. Many are experiencing a steep drop-off in business activity and revenue. Some businesses have stopped operating altogether. But they all have one thing in common – times of crisis require a plan for crisis management, especially when it comes to finances. 

Planning for a crisis will not prevent the crisis from occurring; crisis management is intended to mitigate the impact of the crisis on business finances. It’s analogous to your physical health. Planning for a healthy lifestyle doesn’t prevent illness, but it can reduce the duration and severity of the illness.

Businesses should follow these three steps to mitigate the impact of a crisis on their finances:

  • Assess Financial Position

As soon as a crisis occurs or appears to be imminent, business owners should immediately assess overall financial positions related to liquidity and payment commitments. Up-to-date, complete and accurate financial recordkeeping and a monthly review of financial reports will arm business owners with the knowledge to adapt quickly. Immediately knowing the financial status of your business is immensely important, especially during, or leading up to, a crisis.

  • Conserve Cash

During times of crisis, cash is king. Even more than usual. When business activity slows down or stops, businesses are less able to predict revenues and cash flow, resulting in a reduced ability to forecast how long cash balances will last. The only thing to do in a crisis is to hang onto cash to avoid missing crucial bill payments, like rent and payroll. Also, verify the availability and interest rate for any existing signature loans or lines-of-credit that could be needed to keep the doors open during a crisis.

  • Scrub the Budget

Assuming that a crisis was not baked into this year’s budget – and let’s face it, that almost never happens – many businesses probably budgeted for expense and revenue items that no longer make sense, under the circumstances. Examine each budget category for both revenues and expenses to identify what items will not occur, increase, decrease, or need to be added based on the type and anticipated duration of the crisis.

Businesses that are affected by a crisis can take steps to mitigate its impact on business finances. Assessing the business’ financial position, conserving cash and scrubbing the budget are three steps that businesses can take to adapt quickly to a crisis and withstand a steep drop-off in business activity.