Protect Yourself from Identity Theft This Tax Season

With tax season upon us your personal information is floating around everywhere and identity thieves are working overtime to steal it.  From social security numbers to employer and income information, it’s an identity theft nightmare waiting to happen. Unless, of course, you’re a thief. Then it’s identity theft paradise.

Don’t think it can happen to you?  According to Javelin Strategy and Research, 8.4 million U.S. adults were victims of identity fraud in 2007.

Here are some tips to help you stay safe this tax season:

  • Choose your tax preparer carefully. Ask for referrals from friends and coworkers.
  • Beware of unsolicited emails claiming to be from the IRS. Such emails often contain links that automatically download software designed to steal your passwords and account information.
  • Protect your Social Security number. Don’t give out your Social Security number if it’s not necessary.
  • Guard your mailbox. Your mailbox is a treasure chest for crooks this time of year. If someone gets a hold of your tax forms they’ll know your social security number, your employer and how much money you made last year. If you don’t yet have a locking mailbox, now would be the perfect time to get one.
  • Watch the websites you visit. If you use online tax services, just be sure you are dealing with a legitimate site. Clone websites can be easily set up by scammers with the sole purpose of harvesting your personal information.

Tax season is ripe for identity theft, but you don’t have to be a victim. By keeping the above tips in mind, you can get through tax season without putting yourself at an increased risk of identity theft.

Ensure Your Boating Experience Is a Real Pleasure Cruise

Published reports from the U.S. Coast Guard show that boating deaths and injuries increased for the second consecutive year in 2006. Aside from the disturbing trend in boating deaths, the biggest change was actually in the amount of property damage, $43 million in 2006 as compared with $38 million in 2005.

These statistics should serve as a powerful reminder to all watercraft owners to review their insurance coverage. Owners of canoes, small sailboats, and small engine powerboats generally have limited coverage for physical damage included with their homeowner’s insurance policy, but liability coverage has to be added as a policy endorsement. Physical damage coverage is typically equal to 10 percent or less of their home’s property value. If you find the coverage limits offered by your homeowner’s policy to be insufficient, you’ll likely need a separate boat insurance policy.

Since no coverage exists under a homeowner’s policy for larger boats, yachts, jet skis and wave runners, a separate boat insurance policy is a must. Coverage for physical damage includes the hull, machinery, fittings, furnishings and permanently attached equipment up to pre-determined amount. Such policies also provide additional protection for:

  • Injuries to another person
  • Damage to someone else’s property
  • Legal expenses incurred by someone using the boat with the owner’s permission
  • Injuries to the boat owner and other passengers

Even though you may have solid insurance coverage, the Insurance Information Institute (III) offers the following suggestions to help you avoid having to file a claim:

  •  
    1. Check weather forecasts before heading out.
    2. Let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to return.
    3. Check engine, fuel, electrical and steering systems, especially for exhaust-system leaks.
    4. Carry one or more fire extinguishers, matched to the size and type of boat. Keep them readily accessible and in condition for immediate use.
    5. Equip the vessel with required navigation lights and with a whistle, horn or bell.
    6. Don’t overload. Distribute weight evenly.
    7. Don’t stand up or shift weight suddenly in a small boat; and don’t permit riding on the bow, seatbacks or gunwales.
    8. Be sure you bring paddles or oars, a first-aid kit, a supply of fresh water, a tool kit and spare parts, a flashlight, flares and a radio.
    9. Make sure that every person on board wears a life jacket.
    10. Never operate a boat while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

U.S. Coast Guard Safety Initiative Asks You to Boat Responsibly

As boating season approaches, the U.S. Coast Guard is once again expressing concern over the continuing increase in boating fatalities and injuries, and plans to step up its safety education for boaters. Statistics show that for the second consecutive year boating fatalities increased (710 deaths in 2006) as did the number of reported injuries. The reports also reveal some other disturbing facts:

 

  • Two-thirds of all fatalities were due to drowning and 90 percent of the victims were not wearing a life jacket. Simply put, over 50% of boating deaths could have been prevented if the victims had worn a life jacket.
  • Alcohol was the leading contributing factor in approximately one-fifth of all boating fatalities.
  • About 70 percent of all boating fatalities occurred on boats where the operator had not received boating safety instruction.
  • The most reported type of accident was a collision with another vessel. However, capsizing and falls overboard are the most reported types of fatal accidents and accounted for the vast majority (59 percent) of all boating fatalities.
  • Overall, operator inattention, carelessness/reckless operation, excessive speed and passenger/skier behavior are the leading contributing factors of all reported accidents.

 

Here are some simple tips boat owners and their passengers can take to insure their safety while enjoying recreational boating:

Wear your life jacket – As evidenced above, wearing a life jacket is the single most important thing you can do to ensure your safety on the water. And it doesn’t matter how great of a swimmer you are, you should still wear a life jacket!

Take boating safety courses – Boat owners, operators and passengers should complete courses offered by the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and others. The Coast Guard Auxiliary encourages everyone who might be put in a position of having to take command due to incapacity of the owner/operator to take a basic safety course.

America’s Boating Course (ABC) is a new electronic, basic boating course produced through a partnership between the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and the United States Power Squadrons®. It’s available online at www.AmericasBoatingCourse.com and on CD-ROM.

Get a free Vessel Safety Check – Boat owners are encouraged to take advantage of free safety checks offered by the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary. It’s your best way to learn about potential problems that might put you in violation of state or federal laws, or — worse — create danger for you or your passengers on the water.

Vessel Examiners issue no citations. And there are no penalties for not successfully completing a Vessel Safety Check.

Don’t drink and boat – In the marine environment — motion, vibration, engine noise, sun, wind, and spray intensify the effect of alcohol and drugs. These “stressors” cause fatigue — and dramatically affect a boat operator’s coordination, judgment, vision, and reaction time.

Levels of blood alcohol or medications that would have little impact on land can potentially cause a much greater degree of impairment for the operator of a boat. So never boat under the influence!

The complete 2006 Boating Statistics report is available from the U.S. Coast Guard Office of Auxiliary and Boating at http://www.uscgboating.org/statistics/boating_statistics_2006.pdf.

A Winning Game Plan for Tailgating Season

As Fall quickly approaches, the air grows cooler and the leaves begin to turn, many sports fans look forward to their favorite time of year—tailgating season. For some fans, tailgating simply means sitting on the bumper of their car with friends, enjoying a few snacks and drinks before the game. But for the more devoted tailgaters, football season calls for elaborate, well-organized tailgating events that often include a dedicated tailgating vehicle.

If you’re thinking about joining the ranks of these enthusiastic tailgaters and purchasing a tailgating vehicle of your own, here are a few tips you may want to keep in mind:

Buy wisely

Even if you plan to buy a relatively inexpensive tailgating vehicle to be used only on game days, you should still make smart choices about your purchase. Some vehicles may seem like an incredible deal, but oftentimes there’s a catch—such as no car title. You should never buy a vehicle if the seller does not possess the title. This could be a sign that the car was stolen, badly damaged or even declared a total loss.

To make sure you don’t get stuck with a lemon, you should consider requesting a CARFAX Vehicle History Report on the vehicle. These handy reports include an abundance of valuable information, such as title information, flood damage history, lemon history, odometer readings, lien activity, vehicle use and total loss history. After reviewing the report, you may discover that the vehicle you’re considering isn’t worth the expense—even if it does seem like a bargain.

Tailgating vehicle alternatives

While RV’s are always a popular choice for many tailgaters, some fans opt for another type of large tailgating vehicle, like a school or church bus. While these giant vehicles are a great way to transport all your friends, family and supplies to the game, there are a few things you should know before purchasing one.

First and foremost, you’ll have to apply for a Commercial Driver’s License with your local DMV office if you want to buy and drive a bus. (Nothing more than a normal driver’s license is required to drive an RV.) You should also contact the manufacturer of your bus or other large vehicle and find out how many people can safely fit in the vehicle.

Additionally, take your bus or other tailgating vehicle to professional who can ensure that all the seat belts, the air brake system, airbags and tires are in proper working condition. This will ensure that your friends, family members and any other passengers make it to the game safely.

Play it safe

Although tailgating is all about having fun, you’ll want to take a few precautions to make sure you and your guests are completely safe throughout the event. In particular, you should be extremely cautious when it comes to transporting your tailgating equipment to and from the game.

If you plan to tow items behind your vehicle, make sure that the weight is distributed evenly throughout your trailer. Secure or tie down all of the cargo to ensure that nothing falls out of the trailer during the trip. Make sure that all of your trailer’s tires are the same size and type, and check the pressure on each tire before your trip. Also ensure that your trailer brake lights are functioning properly.

Each state has different towing laws, so be sure to check with your DMV about the requirements in your area. You may need to obtain a special permit or license depending on the size and weight of your trailer. Additionally, you should call your insurance company to make sure you have enough coverage for your trailer and any expensive tailgating equipment you are towing.

Of course, you should also take measures to make sure everyone is safe during the actual tailgating event. Be sure to pack a first aid kit, a fire extinguisher and plenty of water in your tailgating vehicle. If you plan to serve alcohol to friends during the tailgating event, make sure that no one tries to drive home if they’ve had too much to drink. Call a cab or ask another friend to drive them home.

Get it insured

With countless vehicles coming and going from a big sporting event, accidents are bound to happen. That’s why it’s so important to insure your tailgating vehicle. Even though you may drive your tailgating vehicle just a few times a year, comprehensive auto insurance is well worth the cost. If your vehicle is severely damaged or totaled, insurance coverage could prove to be priceless.

Don’t Let Your Hard Work Get Washed Away

Just because you don’t live anywhere near a body of water doesn’t mean you don’t need flood insurance. No one’s home is flood-proof. In fact, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) says that 25 percent of all flood insurance claims are paid to homeowners in low or moderate risk areas. That’s because it doesn’t take a body of water, or even a major storm, to cause a flood. Anything from a broken sewer line to a slow moving rainstorm can be a culprit.

Flood damage isn’t covered under your homeowner’s policy, so you must purchase a separate flood insurance policy. FEMA is the only provider of this type of coverage; however, they make it available to the public through insurance companies. That means you can purchase a policy from the same insurance agent that wrote your homeowner’s insurance.

There are two types of coverage:

  • Standard Flood Insurance Policies – If your home is in a high-risk zone, you need this policy. The cost starts at about $500 a year but can run to almost $1,500, depending on a number of factors.
  • Preferred Risk Policies – If your home is in a low or moderate risk zone, your may qualify for a low-cost Preferred Risk Policy. Premiums start at just under $119 a year.

To get specific information about premiums, you can log on to the FEMA web site at http://www.floodsmart.gov/floodsmart/.

Flood insurance policies provide two types of coverage: one for the structure and another for its contents. They can be purchased separately or together, and the FEMA website will show the premiums if you buy them individually or in combination. There is a 30-day waiting period before both of the coverages take effect.

The structural coverage is “replacement cost” coverage, which means the insurer will pay what it costs to replace or repair the structure with materials similar in type and quality to what was originally used when the structure was built, without deducting for depreciation. The maximum amount of structural coverage available for one-to-four family homes is $250,000.

Contents coverage is “actual cash value,” which means the insurer will pay what the item is worth after it has deducted depreciation. The maximum amount of contents coverage is $100,000. Renters can also purchase contents coverage.

In addition to purchasing flood insurance to protect the contents of your home, you can also protect your valuables by taking individual photos of each item, or by taking a video of your home and zooming in on everything of value. This is extremely important if you need to provide your insurer with a detailed list of your possessions.

Keep the photos or video, along with any receipts you may have for the merchandise, in a safe location outside of your home, like a bank safe deposit box. This will ensure that your documentation isn’t lost if a flood or other natural disaster destroys your home.

Practice Safe Winter Driving Techniques

In case you haven’t noticed, winter has arrived and with it comes ice, snow, slippery roads, and poor visibility. Winter driving is necessary and nothing can be done to avoid it.

While the best advice is to not drive at all, that’s not an option for most of us.  If you must drive, here are some simple precautions you can take to minimize the risk of accidents and injuries:

  • Decrease your speed and leave yourself plenty of room to stop. You should allow at least three times more space than usual between you and the car in front of you.
  • Brake gently to avoid skidding. If your wheels start to lock up, ease off the brake.
  • Turn on your lights to increase your visibility to other motorists.
  • Keep your lights and windshield clean.
  • Use low gears to keep traction, especially on hills.
  • Don’t use cruise control or overdrive on icy roads.
  • Be especially careful on bridges, overpasses and infrequently traveled roads, which will freeze first. Even at temperatures above freezing, if the conditions are wet, you might encounter ice in shady areas or on exposed roadways like bridges.
  • Don’t pass snow plows and sanding trucks. The drivers have limited visibility, and you’re likely to find the road in front of them worse than the road behind.
  • Don’t assume your vehicle can handle all conditions. Even four-wheel and front-wheel drive vehicles can encounter trouble on winter roads.

If you should lose traction:

  • Take your foot off the accelerator.
  • Steer in the direction you want the front wheels to go. If your rear wheels are sliding left, steer left. If they’re sliding right, steer right.
  • If your rear wheels start sliding the other way as you recover, ease the steering wheel toward that side. You might have to steer left and right a few times to get your vehicle completely under control.
  • If you have standard brakes, pump them gently.
  • If you have anti-lock brakes (ABS), do not pump the brakes. Apply steady pressure to the brakes. You will feel the brakes pulse — this is normal.

If you should get stuck:

  • Do not spin your wheels. This will only dig you in deeper.
  • Turn your wheels from side to side a few times to push snow out of the way.
  • Use a light touch on the gas, to ease your car out.
  • Use a shovel to clear snow away from the wheels and the underside of the car.
  • Pour sand, kitty litter, gravel or salt in the path of the wheels, to help get traction.
  • Try rocking the vehicle by shifting from forward to reverse, and back again. Each time you’re in gear, give a light touch on the gas until the vehicle gets going.

The Big Freeze: How to Prevent Freezing Pipes

Imagine waking up on a frigid winter morning, throwing on your bathrobe and stumbling down the stairs to make a pot of coffee—only to find your kitchen is filled with water. Each winter, about a quarter of a million families find themselves in scenarios like this all because of water pipes that freeze and burst.

Not only can a pipe eruption ruin your day, but it can also cause thousands of dollars of damage to your home. Your furniture, carpet, photos and floors could be completely water-logged and even ruined from a single bursting pipe. As a matter of fact, just a three millimeter crack in a pipe can dump up to 250 gallons of water in your house in a single day. Whether your home is outfitted with copper or plastic PVC pipes, no one is immune to pipe bursts—both of these pipes can rupture.

Fortunately, you can take a few precautions to protect your pipes and avoid the hassle of a messy, expensive pipe burst. If you want to steer clear of the rising flood waters, follow these simple steps: 

Bundle up those pipes: Before winter arrives, take time to insulate all the exposed pipes in your crawl spaces, garage and attic. Because these pipes are open to the elements, they are more vulnerable to freezing. Don’t be shy with the insulation—the more you use, the less likely your pipes will freeze and burst.

Use heat tape or thermostatically-controlled heat cables to wrap your high-risk pipes. Make sure the product is approved by an independent testing organization, such as Underwriters Laboratories, Inc. Use exterior tape for outside pipes and interior tape for indoor pipes, and carefully follow all the installation instructions.

Seal the cracks: Look for air leaks near your pipes. If arctic air seeps through even a tiny crack, your pipes can quickly freeze and burst. To keep the cold out and the heat in, seal up every leak with caulk or insulation.

Put the garden hose away: Before the temperature plummets below freezing, disconnect your garden hose and shut off the indoor valve.

Bump up the thermostat: Never set your thermostat below 65 degrees in the winter. The temperature inside the walls and attic, where your pipes are located, is much colder than the inside of your house. If you let the indoor temperature drop below 65 degrees, your exterior wall pipes are at high risk of freezing and bursting.

Let the water trickle: Turn on one faucet in your home and let warm water drip throughout the night. Even a tiny trickle of water can help prevent your pipes from freezing. If possible, use a faucet on an outside wall.

Protect your home when you’re gone: If you’re going out of town, ask a friend or neighbor to check your house each day. Tell them to look for any signs of a burst pipe and make sure it’s warm enough to prevent pipes from freezing.

If you don’t have anyone who can check your home, consider shutting off and draining your water system before you leave. Keep in mind that if you have a fire protection sprinkler system in your house, it will be disabled when you shut off the water.

Know the signs of a pipe freeze: If you turn on your faucet and no water comes out, this could be a sign that your pipe is frozen. Leave the faucet on and call a plumber.

You may be able to thaw the frozen pipe yourself with a hair dryer. Start warming the pipe as close to the faucet as possible, working toward the coldest part of the pipe. Never try to thaw pipe with a torch or open flame.

Deal with the pipe burst: If your pipes freeze and burst, turn off your water at the main shut-off valve and leave the water faucets on. Call a plumber right away.

You should also call your insurance agent or company as soon as possible. Although your insurance adjuster doesn’t need to see the spill before you clean it up, you should at least inform them of your situation.

Move electronics, furniture, carpet and other items away from the water. Start mopping up the water and try to make temporary repairs to protect your home from further damage. Be sure to save all of your receipts for any money you spend related to the pipe burst. Your insurance company may be able to reimburse you for temporary repairs. Try to avoid making expensive permanent repairs until your insurance adjuster has a chance to assess the damage.

Obviously, no one wants to deal with the costly and messy aggravation of a pipe burst. To avoid this nightmare, take the proper measures to protect your pipes and your home. However, it’s also important to ensure your family is prepared to act swiftly and smartly if a pipe does rupture.

Above Average Hurricane Activity Expected This Year – Check Your Insurance Coverages Now

According to the latest forecast from researchers at Colorado State University, the U.S. coastline has an above-average chance of getting hit by at least one major hurricane this season. Researchers estimated the likelihood of at least one hurricane with a category of 3, 4 or 5 making landfall this season at 63%, above the average for the last century of 52%.

The official Atlantic hurricane season runs June 1st through November 30th. Once a storm is within range of land it is too late to change or add coverage. Therefore, it is imperative that homeowners review their insurance policies now.

Make sure your homeowners’ policy reflects your needs in the following areas related to hurricane coverage:

Hurricane Deductible – Some states have implemented separate deductibles for hurricanes based on a percentage of the home’s insured value. Note that wind damage caused by non-hurricane storms is subject to your policy’s general deductible not the hurricane deductible.

Flood Insurance – Flood damage is not covered under a standard homeowners’ policy, but flood insurance is essential in high risk areas.

Replacement Cost vs. Actual Cash Value – Replacement Cost policies cover the amount needed to replace or repair a home without a deduction for depreciation. These policies generally cost about 10 percent more, but they provide much more comprehensive coverage than Actual Cash Value policies.

Guaranteed or Extended Replacement Cost – Provides additional coverage if widespread damage inflates the cost of building materials and labor.

Inflation Guard – Automatically adjusts policy limits to reflect changes in construction costs so you do not have to increase your limits each year.

Building Code Upgrades – If your home is severely damaged, it will need to be rebuilt to comply with current building code standards that could add increased building costs. Law and ordinance coverage ensures these extra costs are covered.

Additional Living Expenses – Covers the costs of living elsewhere while your home is being rebuilt or repaired.

To protect your assets in the event of a hurricane, also:

  • Inventory, photograph or video tape all household items. Keep receipts, inventory lists, copies of your insurance policy and insurance company contacts in a safe place that can be accessed in the event of a storm.
  • To minimize losses, take steps to protect your property when a hurricane is imminent, such as covering your windows with shutters, siding or plywood.
  • Keep materials such as plywood and plastic on hand in case you need to make temporary repairs after a storm. Keep receipts as repairs are made, as they may be reimbursable by your insurance company.

Be wary of rushing into a contract or placing a hefty deposit with a company for repairs. Unfortunately, fraudulent contractors often flock to natural disaster sites, so it is important to consult your insurance agent before hiring anyone.

Check Coverage Before Hitting the Road in Your RV This Summer

Whether you drive 600 miles a year in your RV (recreational vehicle) or 6,000, you need to have suitable insurance protection before hitting the road. Because insurance policies tailored to the needs posed by motor homes, recreational vehicles, fifth-wheels and/or travel trailers vary from state-to-state and policy-to-policy, it is important to insure your RV with at least the basics.

Most insurance specialists agree that comprehensive coverage is, indeed, a must as it covers most direct, sudden, and accidental losses including those caused by collision, theft, vandalism, fire, smoke, landslide, windstorm, lightning and hail. You may also want coverage for RV awnings, satellite dishes, and other accessories. There are even policies that cover emergency expenses including lodging or travel expenses home if the RV is damaged or destroyed by a covered loss while more than 50 miles away from home.

Look for an insurance policy that provides adequate campsite/vacation liability, coverage for when the RV is parked, and for when you are using the RV as a temporary residence. Because it protects the RV from costly depreciation, total loss replacement coverage may also prove to be useful and is well worth the minimal added cost.. With total loss replacement coverage, the RV owner gets a new RV of similar kind and quality if the vehicle is destroyed within its first five model years. This is unlike standard automobile policies that only pay the actual cash value of the RV at the time it is destroyed. Add replacement cost coverage on personal belongings that are stolen from the RV or destroyed while in the RV and you can rest assured you will be adequately protected.

RV owners should also consider buying a special stationary policy that offers extensive comprehensive and contents coverage if the RV is used as a seasonal or permanent residence. This includes coverage for liability, medical payments to others, and property damage claims caused by an accident for which RV owners may be held liable . Your homeowners or auto insurance policies may not cover exposures related to the use of your RV as a residence – even if just seasonal.

Because such special coverage policies vary from one state to the next and some coverages aren’t offered in all states, it is important to do your homework, or better yet, your “RVwork,” and find a policy that suits your travel needs.

Insure Your Boat In and Out of the Water

Millions of Americans take to the water each year during boating season, traveling the coastlines, rivers, lakes and canals all over the country. The watercraft range from simple rowboats to jet skis to small motorboats to luxury yachts. Boat owners spend significant amounts of money buying and maintaining their boats. The need for insurance protection when the boat is on the water is obvious, but many boat owners question the need for it during the off-season. However, insurance is just as important when the boat is in storage as when the owner is using it.

A typical boat insurance policy provides a package of coverages, including:

* Damage to the boat, motor, and trailer;

* Damage to portable property used in the maintenance and operation of the boat, including things like anchors, life jackets, oars, tools, skis and surfboards, lights, and fire extinguishers;

* Damage to other types of property, including sports equipment, clothing, and other personal effects;

* Damage to equipment on shore, such as boat covers;

* The cost of recovering a sunk or stranded boat;

* The cost of emergency service and towing;

* Damage to non-owned or substitute boats;

* Loss of fishing tackle;

* Liability coverage for injuries or damages for which the boat owner is legally responsible; and

* Coverage for injuries the boat owner or others on the boat suffer in an accident with an uninsured watercraft.

A boat owner will need these coverages if her boat gets into a collision with another boat, or if thieves steal scuba gear from it, or if fire damages the motor. However, losses are still possible while the boat is out of the water. Progressive Insurance reports that nearly two out of every 10 boat claims it receives from northern states occur between Labor Day and Memorial Day, when most owners are not using their boats much. Some examples of losses that could occur:

* The storage building housing the boat over the winter burns to the ground.

* Vandals damage the boat in the middle of the night while it’s in the owner’s driveway.

* A neighbor’s child, playing in the owner’s yard, runs into the boat stored there and injures his head.

* Someone steals the boat and its trailer from the yard at a repair shop.

* While the boat is stored in the yard, heavy snow melt causes a flash flood that damages the boat’s interior, including the mechanical system and the radio.

Some insurance companies offer “disappearing deductibles,” where the deductibles for collision and damage losses from other causes decrease by a certain amount for every claim-free year the policyholder has. Those companies will grant this benefit only to boat owners who keep their insurance continuously in force with them.

A professional insurance agent can provide advice on the types and amounts of coverage a boat owner needs. She can also recommend insurance companies that have expertise in boating, good claims-paying practices, and reasonable prices. Insuring a boat all year round can be expensive, but compared to the cost of a large uninsured loss, it may well be worth the cost.