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Protecting Your Business from Cyber Threats

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Risk management is a key component in any successful business plan. In today’s world–where data breaches are common occurrences–it’s especially important for business owners to understand the digital risks they face. Are you doing all you can to mitigate the risk of a cyber attack?

Understanding the risks

Many small-business owners may think their organizations hold little appeal to hackers due to their small size and limited scope. However, according to the Small Business Administration (SBA), this naivete may actually make them ideal targets. Small businesses are keepers of employee and customer data, financial account information, and intellectual property. Their systems, if not adequately protected, may also inadvertently provide access to larger supplier networks. “Given their role in the nation’s supply chain and economy, combined with fewer resources than their larger counterparts to secure their information, systems, and networks, small employers are an attractive target for cybercriminals,” reports the SBA on its cybersecurity website.

Consider the following tips compiled from information supplied by the SBA, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Cybersecurity tips

1. Assess: To protect your organization, you must first understand your vulnerabilities. How are your systems protected? Do you collect and store personal information of customers and employees, such as credit-card information, Social Security numbers, and birth dates? If so, how is this information stored and who may access it? Do you have a Wi-Fi accessible to employees and customers? How do your vendors and other third-party service providers protect their information? It may help to engage a professional to help identify your risks.

2. Protect: Ensure you have firewall and encryption technology protecting your Internet connections and Wi-Fi networks. Make sure your business’s computers have antivirus and antispyware software installed and updated automatically. Require employees and others who access your systems to use complex passwords that are changed regularly. Keep only personal data that you actually need and dispose of it securely as soon as it no longer serves a business purpose. Back up critical information and data on a regular basis, and store the backups securely offsite. Assign individual user accounts to employees and permit access to software and systems only as needed. Be especially cautious with laptops and company-assigned smartphones. Question third-party vendors to ensure that their security practices comply with your standards.

3. Document: Establish clear security policies and procedures and put them in writing. Cover such topics as handling sensitive or personal information, appropriate use of Internet and social media, and reporting vulnerabilities. Clearly spell out consequences for failing to follow the policies.

4. Educate: Develop a mandatory employee training program on the importance of cybersecurity. Explain the basics of personal information, as well as what is and isn’t acceptable to post on social media. Employees could unknowingly release information that could be used by competitors or, worse, by criminals. Ensure that employees understand the risks associated with phishing emails, as well as “social engineering”–manipulative tactics criminals use to trick employees into divulging confidential information.

For more information

Business owners who want to learn more can find a wealth of helpful information online. In addition to visiting the SBA’s cybersecurity website, business owners might want to review “Protecting Personal Information: A Guide for Business” and “Start with Security: A Guide for Business,” both available on theFTC’s website.

When Disaster Strikes: Deducting Casualty Losses

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Wildfires, tornadoes, storms, landslides, and flooding…. It’s almost as if you can’t turn on the news without seeing images of a disaster striking somewhere. If you’ve suffered property loss as the result of these events or other circumstances, you may be able to claim a casualty loss deduction on your federal income tax return.

What’s a casualty loss?

A casualty is the destruction, damage, or loss of property caused by an unusual, sudden, or unexpected event. You can experience a casualty loss as the result of something as sweeping as a natural disaster, or as limited in scope as an act of vandalism. You probably don’t have a deductible casualty loss, however, if your property is damaged as the result of gradual deterioration (e.g., a long-term termite infestation).

Calculating your loss

The rules for calculating loss can be different for business property, or property that’s used to produce income (think rental property). To calculate a casualty loss on personal-use property, like your home, that’s been damaged or destroyed, you first need two important pieces of data:

  • The decrease in the fair market value (FMV) of the property; that’s the difference between the FMV of the property immediately before and after the casualty
  • Your adjusted basis in the property before the casualty; your adjusted basis is usually your cost if you bought the property (different rules apply if you inherited the property or received it as a gift), increased for things like permanent improvements and decreased for items such as depreciation

Starting with the lower of the two amounts above, subtract any insurance or other reimbursement that you have received or that you expect to receive. The result is generally the amount of your loss. If you receive insurance payments or other reimbursement that is more than your adjusted basis in the destroyed or damaged property, you may actually have a gain. There are special rules for reporting such gain, postponing the gain, excluding gain on a main home, and purchasing replacement property.

The $100 and 10% rules

After you determine your casualty loss on personal-use property, you have to reduce the loss by $100. The $100 reduction applies per casualty, not per individual item of property. Two or more events that are closely related may be considered a single casualty. For example, wind and flood damage from the same storm would typically be considered a single casualty event, subject to only one $100 reduction. If both your home and automobile were damaged by the storm, the damage is also considered part of a single casualty event–you do not have to subtract $100 for each piece of property.

You must also reduce the total of all your casualty and theft losses on personal property by 10% of your adjusted gross income (AGI) after each loss is reduced by the $100 rule, above.

If you are married and file a joint return, you are treated as one individual in applying both the $100 rule and the 10% rule. It does not matter whether you own the property jointly or separately. If you file separately, you are each subject to both rules. If only one spouse owns the property, usually only that spouse can claim the associated loss on a separate return.

Reporting a casualty loss

Generally, you report and deduct the loss in the year in which the casualty occurred. Special rules, however, apply for casualty losses resulting from an event that’s declared a federal disaster area by the president.

If you have a casualty loss from a federally declared disaster area, you can choose to report and deduct the loss in the tax year in which the loss occurred, or in the tax year immediately preceding the tax year in which the disaster happened. If you elect to report in the preceding year, the loss is treated as if it occurred in the preceding tax year. Reporting the loss in the preceding year may reduce the tax for that year, producing a refund. You generally have to make a decision to report the loss in the preceding year by the federal income tax return due date (without any extension) for the year in which the disaster actually occurred.

Casualty losses are reported on IRS Form 4684, Casualties and Thefts. Any losses relating to personal-use property are carried over to Form 1040, Schedule A, Itemized Deductions.

Getting help

The rules relating to casualty losses can be complicated. Additional information can be found in the instructions to Form 4684 and in IRS Publication 547, Casualties, Disasters, and Thefts. If you have suffered a casualty loss, though, you should consider discussing your individual circumstances with a tax professional.

Cost of Living: Where You Live Can Affect How Rich You Feel

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Do you find yourself treading water financially even with a relatively healthy household income? Even with your new higher-paying job and your spouse’s promotion, do you still find it difficult to get ahead, despite carefully counting your pennies? Does your friend or relative halfway across the country have a better quality of life on less income? If so, the cost of living might be to blame.

The cost of living refers to the cost of various items necessary in everyday life. It includes things like housing, transportation, food, utilities, health care, and taxes.

Single or family of six?

Singles, couples, and families typically have many of the same expenses–for example, everyone needs shelter, food, and clothing–but families with children typically pay more in each category and have the added expenses of child care and college. The Economic Policy Institute (epi.org) has a family budget calculator that lets you enter your household size (up to two adults and four children) along with your Zip code to see how much you would need to earn to have an “adequate but modest” standard of living in that geographic area.

What areas have the highest cost of living? It’s no secret that the East and West Coasts have some of the highest costs. According to the Council for Community and Economic Research, the 10 most expensive U.S. urban areas to live in Q3 2015 were:

Rank Location
1 New York, New York
2 Honolulu, Hawaii
3 San Francisco, California
4 Brooklyn, New York
5 Orange County, California
6 Oakland, California
7 Metro Washington D.C./Virginia
8 San Diego, California
9 Hilo, Hawaii
10 Stamford, Connecticut

Factors that influence the cost of living

Let’s look in more detail at some of the common factors that make up the cost of living.

Housing. When an area is described as having “a high cost of living,” it usually means housing costs. Looking to relocate to Silicon Valley from the Midwest? You better hope for a big raise; the mortgage you’re paying now on your modest three-bedroom home might get you a walk-in closet in this technology hub, where prices last spring climbed to a record-high $905,000 in Santa Clara County, $1,194,500 in San Mateo County, and $690,000 in Alameda County. (Source: San Jose Mercury News, Silicon Valley Home Prices Hit Record Highs, Again, May 21, 2015)

Related to housing affordability is student loan debt. Student debt–both for young adults and those in their 30s, 40s, and 50s who either took out their own loans, or co-signed or borrowed on behalf of their children–is increasingly affecting housing choices and living situations. For some borrowers, monthly student loan payments can approximate a second mortgage.

Transportation. Do you have access to reliable public transportation or do you need a car? Younger adults often favor public transportation and supplement with ride-sharing services like Uber, Lyft, and Zipcar. But for others, a car (or two or three), along with the cost of gas and maintenance, is a necessity. How far is your work commute? Do you drive 100 miles round trip each day or do you telecommute? Having to buy a new (or used) car every few years can significantly impact your bottom line.

Utilities. The cost of utilities can vary by location, weather, usage, and infrastructure. For example, residents of colder climates might find it more expensive to heat their homes in the winter than residents of warmer climates do cooling their homes in the summer.

Taxes. Your tax bite will vary by state. Seven states have no income tax–Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming. In addition, property taxes and sales taxes can vary significantly by state and even by county, and states have different rules for taxing Social Security and pension income.

Miscellaneous. If you have children, other things that can affect your bottom line are the costs of child care, extracurricular activities, and tuition at your flagship state university.

To move or not to move

Remember The Clash song “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” Well, there’s no question your money will go further in some places than in others. If you’re thinking of moving to a new location, cost-of-living information can make your decision more grounded in financial reality.

There are several online cost-of-living calculators that let you compare your current location to a new location. The U.S. State Department has compiled a list of resources on its website at state.gov.

What’s the best way to back up my digital information?

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In writing or speaking, redundancy is typically not recommended unless you’re really trying to drive a point home. When it comes to your digital life, however, redundancy is not only recommended, it’s critical.

Redundancy is the term used to refer to data backups. If you have digital assets that you don’t want to risk losing forever–including photos, videos, original recordings, financial documents, and other materials–you’ll want to be sure to back them up regularly. And it’s not just materials on your personal computer, but your mobile devices as well. Depending on how much you use your devices, you may want to back them up as frequently as every few days.

A good rule to follow is the 3-2-1 rule. This rule helps reduce the risk that any one event–such as a fire, theft, or hack–will destroy or compromise both your primary data and all your backups.

1. Have at least three copies of your data. This means a minimum of the original plus two backups. In the world of computer redundancy, more is definitely better.

2. Use at least two different formats. For example, you might have one copy on an external hard drive and another on a flash drive, or one copy on a flash drive and another using a cloud-based service.

3. Ensure that at least one backup copy is stored offsite. You could store your external hard drive in a safe-deposit box or at a trusted friend or family member’s house. Cloud storage is also considered offsite.

If a cloud service is one of your backup tactics, be sure to review carefully its policies and procedures for security and backup of its servers. Another good idea is to encrypt (that is, create strong passwords that only you know) to protect sensitive documents and your external drives.

So at the risk of sounding redundant (or driving the point home?), a good rule for data backup is to have at least three copies on at least two different formats, with at least one copy stored offsite. And more is always better.

Should I delay taking my first RMD?

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Your first RMD from a traditional IRA and an employer retirement plan must be taken for the calendar year in which you turn 70-1/2. However, if you’re still working, you can delay RMDs from your current employer’s plan until the year you retire (but only if allowed by the plan and you are not a 5% owner).

In general, you must take your RMDs no later than December 31 of each calendar year to avoid a serious tax penalty equal to 50% of the amount you failed to withdraw. However, a special rule applies to your first RMD. You have the option of delaying your first distribution until April 1 of the following calendar year.

You might delay taking your first distribution if you expect to be in a lower income tax bracket in the following year, perhaps because you’re no longer working or will have less income from other sources. However, if you wait until the following year to take your first distribution, your second distribution must be made on or by December 31 of that same year.

For example, assume you have a traditional IRA and you turn 70½ in 2016. You can take your first RMD during 2016 or you can delay it until April 1, 2017. If you choose to delay your distribution until 2017, you will have to take two required distributions in that year, one for 2016 and one for 2017. This is because your distribution for 2017 cannot be delayed until the following year.

Receiving your first and second RMDs in the same year may not be in your best interest. Since this “double” distribution will increase your taxable income for the year, it will probably cause you to pay more in federal and state income taxes. It could even push you into a higher federal income tax bracket for the year.

In addition, the increased income may result in the loss of certain tax exemptions and deductions that might otherwise be available to you.

Obviously, the decision to delay your first required distribution can be important. Your tax professional can help you decide whether delaying the RMD makes sense for your personal tax situation.

 

IRS Circular 230 disclosure: To ensure compliance with requirements imposed by the IRS, we inform you that any tax advice contained in this communication (including any attachments) was not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used, for the purpose of (i) avoiding tax-related penalties under the Internal Revenue Code or (ii) promoting, marketing or recommending to another party any matter addressed herein.

Prepared by Broadridge Investor Communication Solutions, Inc. Copyright 2016