Student debt: Scams hit students struggling to pay back loans

Source: Student debt: Scams hit students struggling to pay back loans

Student loan debt has ballooned in the past few years. The Federal Reserve reported recently that Americans owe more than $1.45 trillion in student loans, making it the second-largest segment of U.S. debt (second only to mortgages).

While many students are financing their college education through a mixture of scholarships, grants, loans, personal savings and help from their families, there can be a lot of confusion about the student loan process.

That confusion can make borrowers prone to being victimized by predatory companies, who make false promises of relief and assistance. That’s why federal and state regulators and private watchdog organizations are taking a team approach to battle a variety of frauds and scams directed at students and their families.

The Federal Trade Commission recently announced “Operation Game of Loans,” which included 36 separate actions, including seven FTC cases and other casesbrought by chief law enforcement officers in 11 states and the District of Columbia. In total, the FTC reports, the scams collected about $95 million in illegal fees from consumers.

“Winter is coming for debt relief scams that prey on hardworking Americans struggling to pay back their student loans,” said Maureen K. Ohlhausen, FTC acting chairman. “The FTC is proud to work with state partners to protect consumers from these scams, help them learn how to spot a scam, and let them know where to go for legitimate help.”
Federal actions included cases brought against five companies, including California-based A-1DocPrep Inc., Alliance Document Preparation and Student Debt Relief Group; as well as Florida-based American Student Loan Consolidators and Student Debt Doctor. The companies have been charged with a variety of offenses.
For example, the FTC charged A1DocPrep with contacting consumers while claiming to represent the U.S. Department of Education, while “targeting distressed homeowners” and making false claims they could prevent foreclosure.
Others are charged with making false promises of loan forgiveness; charging illegal upfront fees to assist with reducing student loan balances; and collecting Social Security numbers and other sensitive information to be used to “hijack consumers’ accounts while cutting them off from their loan servicers or the U.S. Department of Education.”

In addition, the FTC announced they had sued two Florida-based operations that allegedly targeted borrowers with fraudulent or ineffective services, while collecting millions in fees.

While Mississippi was not among the states listed in the recent announcement, it’s likely that Mississippians have been victimized by these scams. To help consumers avoid becoming a victim of fraud, the FTC advises us to beware of promises that a company or organization can promise fast loan forgiveness, which often comes from a telemarketer, email or direct-mail piece that claims to be affiliated with the U.S. Government. Scammers can duplicate an official seal, so don’t be fooled.

“Consumers should never pay an upfront fee for help,” continues the agency, “and should not share their FSA ID — a username and password used to log in to U.S. Department of Education websites — with anyone.”

Borrowers can find out about — and apply for — deferment, forebearance or discharge programs for free directly from the U.S. Department of Education or their loan servicer.

For more information about repaying your student loans, visit https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/repay-loans.

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It’s FAFSA time again

Source: It’s FAFSA time again, clarionledger.com

By now, you’d think we’d have gotten used to the Free Application for Federal Financial Aid, known more simply as FAFSA. The FAFSA is required for college students who are seeking any type of federal financial aid, and — on the surface, at least — seems like a straightforward process. But this annual ritual still gives heartburn to parents across the nation; my wife and I have been through it four years running.

Every October, FAFSA opens its online application process for the coming school year, and parents and students go online to claim their share of an estimated $150 billion in financial aid. Families must reapply every year, using information from tax returns and submitting information about their households, income and the student’s financial situation. All this information is used to determine the family’s Expected Financial Contribution to the student’s education.

For several years, the FAFSA allowed applicants to electronically “link” their FAFSA to their tax returns using something called the “IRS Data Retrieval Tool,” which cut down significantly on the amount of paper that families needed to submit. But IRS took down the tool in March, citing security concerns. The action took almost everybody by surprise, prompting angry emails and letters from parents and Congressmen. (The concerns were not unfounded; three people were arrested in 2016 for trying to use a similar service to file fraudulent tax returns.)

But the office of Federal Student Aid, which administers the FAFSA process, reports that the data retrieval tool is up and running and is available for the 2018-2019 school year application process, which opened Oct. 1. It’s still unavailable for parents or students trying to complete or amend a 2017-2018 form.

“Verification” is another hurdle which many parents will face. Edvisors.com reports that about a third of FAFSA filers are selected for verification each year. Being selected for verification is a pain and can delay your application, but it’s not a reason to panic. Edvisors.com notes that the U.S. Department of Education uses a “risk model” looking at 14 factors to determine which applications are selected. In addition, some colleges and universities select additional applications to verify some portion of the applications. Some people skate through their entire college experience without ever having to face verification, while others deal with it multiple times.

If you’re selected for verification, Nerdwallet lists five areas in which you may have to submit additional information: tax information, the number of people (including the student) in your household; Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits; and child support and high school completion status. If you’re required to verify tax information for 2017-2018, you will have to submit a paper copy of your tax forms; for the upcoming year, you should be able to use the “Data Retrieval Tool.” You’ll need to complete a verification form the school will supply. Check carefully to make sure everything is complete and accurate.

 And it’s important to stay on top of the process. Most sources I consulted for this column suggest that you check in frequently with the FAFSA site, even after you’ve completed your application, and don’t assume that everything is fine just because you haven’t heard anything. The verification process this year caused a significant backlog at my son’s school, with the university’s financial aid office reporting a six-week delay in disbursing aid to students selected for verification.

And if you’re the parents of a high school senior with college plans, it would be a good idea to go ahead and start the process now. For some advice, visit https://get2college.org/fafsa-2/.

Infant deaths linked to sleep positioner products

Source: Infant deaths linked to sleep positioner products, clarionledger.com

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued a warning to parents of infants and very young children to avoid the use of “sleep positioners” — pillowlike devices also referred to as “nests” or “anti-roll” products. The FDA warned parents on Tuesday that sleep positioners can cause potentially lethal suffocation of babies.

Parents and caregivers purchase the positioners to keep infants (usually younger than 6 months old) from moving around during sleep. The devices consist of a thin mat and wedges designed to elevate the baby’s head or keep the baby from rolling, and come in a variety of designs and colors. A search on Amazon.com found several sleep positioners for sale from $20 to $50.

The FDA reported 12 cases in the past 13 years of babies who have died from suffocation with the devices, most after rolling to their sides and stomach. The agency has also received dozens of reports of babies who were placed on their back or side in the positioners, only to be found later in hazardous positions within or next to the product.

The Mississippi SIDS & Infant Safety Alliance works to educate Mississippians about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and Sudden Unexplained Infant Death. Alliance president Cathy Files said the best environment for babies is a flat surface, unaccompanied by anything else. “We want families to know that there is nothing that they can buy to put in the crib with their baby that is safe,” Files noted. “Sleep positioners are very dangerous for infants to sleep in because they can roll and get the product against their face and they do not have the neck strength or ability to move away, thus posing a danger of suffocation.”

She added that, although some products say they are safe, that claim isn’t supported by the evidence. The FDA agrees. “The FDA has never cleared an infant sleep positioner that claims to prevent or reduce the risk of SIDS,” notes the agency’s website. “And, there is no scientifically sound evidence to support medical claims about sleep positioners.” The agency noted, however, that it had tested and previously approved products designed to alleviate “flat head syndrome” and gastroesophageal reflux disease, but later withdrew its approval after the data from manufacturers failed to show the “benefits outweighed the risks.”

 Each year, about 4,000 infants die unexpectedly during sleep time from accidental suffocation, SIDS or unknown causes, according to the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

To reduce the risk of sleep-related infant deaths, the American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended for years that parents put infants to sleep on their backs, positioned on a “firm, empty surface” such as fitted sheets. Instead of using blankets or extra sheets, clothing should be chosen carefully to ensure it keeps the baby warm, but without overheating.

 Besides the warning against using sleep positioners, Files recommended these practices to ensure a safe sleep environment:
  • Keep cribs and sleeping areas bare. That means you should also never put soft objects or toys in sleeping areas.
  • Always place a baby on his or her back at night and during nap time. An easy way to remember this is to follow the ABCs of safe sleep: “Alone on the Back in a bare Crib.”
  • Share a room with your baby, but not your bed. “Keep baby close to your bed but in a separate safe sleep environment,” Files advised.
  • Consider breastfeeding your baby.According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, breastfed babies have a significantly lower risk of SIDS than those who are not, and breastfeeding has been proven to carry a number of health advantages for both mother and baby.
  • Don’t smoke around your baby. Secondhand smoke has been linked to increased SIDS risk.

For more information about reducing SIDS/SUID risk, call the Mississippi SIDS Alliance at 601-957-7437.

Cyberbullying tops parents’ fears about kids’ health

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via Cyberbullying threat to kids, parents say, clarionledger.com

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Most parents never stop worrying about their kids. From the time when we first find out we’re going to become parents, there’s always something to think about, events to plan for, and many of those things keep us awake at night.

While the list of fears may change as our kids get older, they never go away. Initial worries about our kids’ health in the cradle give way to worries about their journey through adolescence and college, and then to concerns about their careers, families and their own children. Of course, for most parents, most of the things we spend time fretting over never come to pass. But that doesn’t stop us from worrying anyway.

Every year, the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan conducts a national survey to determine the things that make us parents toss and turn, producing a list of the top 10 fears of parents of kids from birth to age 18. And — predictably — that list of worries changes with the times. This year, the impact of social media and technology is making its effects felt, as two of the Top 10 parent fears (expressed by parents as something they’re “very concerned” about) are related to technology. Topping the list is bullying/cyberbullying, which more than six in 10 parents expressed as their top concern.

Of course, bullying is an age-old problem, but with smartphones and social media, just about every child is eventually going to encounter cyberbullying from one side or the other. This phenomenon has been linked to increasing suicides among teens, as well as heightened levels of anxiety and stress for many kids.

Being a teen is hard enough without having to worry about someone using social media to trash your reputation or spread hateful rumors. Cyberbullying is still being defined, but most experts agree it’s aggressive behavior that targets an individual using social media or other electronic communications. Given the ability of a single person to use social media to spread information quickly to lots of people, coupled with the emotional roller-coaster many teenagers experience as they progress through adolescence and the importance of reputation, it’s little wonder that it’s become a threat.

“Adults across the country recognized bullying, including cyberbullying, as the leading health problem for U.S. children,” noted Dr. Gary Freed, a Mott professor of pediatrics and the poll’s co-director.

Another tech-related fear of parents is internet safety, including the increasing danger for many kids whose online contacts may appear to be harmless acquaintances in online gaming or chat rooms, but are actually child predators or identity thieves. And concerns about “sexting” (the sending of intimate photos and sexually explicit content in text messages) are rising as well.

But technology (at least, directly) is just part of the picture of the things that make us worry. Parents are also agonizing over their kids’ health. Many parents expressed concern their kids are not eating healthy enough or getting enough exercise, and others worry also about the possibility their kids could fall victim to drugs or alcohol abuse. Also on the list were suicide and depression, teen pregnancy and stress in general.

When broken down by race, the survey produced some enlightening results. For example, while African-American parents expressed many of the same concerns as everyone else, their primary worry was their kids would fall victim to racial disparities and school violence.

Many parents worried about automobile accidents, and for parents of kids under 5, the fear of cancer and similar threats, although, Freed noted, “parents may have concerns about very serious conditions despite the small risk for them.”

If you’re among the parents concerned about cyberbullying, I recommend a great website called ConnectSafely.org. This site lists some common-sense responses to help stop cyberbullying, including some tips for parents on how to effectively address it with their children.

Millennials shooting for financial independence

via Millennials shooting for financial independence, clarionledger.com

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Perhaps more than any generation in history, millennials have been the subject of intense scrutiny. The millennial generation (loosely defined as people born between the 1980s and early 2000s) has been studied endlessly, stereotyped mercilessly and subjected to low expectations. While some of the common beliefs about millennials are probably true, many are likely not.

In an article in Forbes magazine in September, writer Caroline Beaton identified six prevailing myths about millennials that should be retired. Among them, Beaton suggested, are that they can’t live without their parents; that they’re chronically unemployed; that they’re lazy; that they’re sex-crazed marriage-phobes; that they’re born entrepreneurs; and that they shun the traditional workplace and just want to work from home.

Statistics, however, don’t seem to bear out all those preconceptions. In fact, most millennials are a lot more like previous generations than we previously thought. For example, research has indicated that, while millennials are living at home much longer, a lot of those are in college and many are living in college dorms (which are counted as “home” by the U.S. Census Bureau). Another example: While you wouldn’t have to look far to support a belief that millennials are lazy, look closer and you’ll find millennials putting their noses to the proverbial grindstone as they start their careers, some working longer hours than even their parents.

 

And in one area, many millennials are holding themselves to standards of financial independence that exceed their parents’ expectations. Bankrate.com commissioned a study of millennial attitudes about when they should be expected to become financially independent. When asked the age someone should be able to pay their cellphone bill, buy a car and cover their housing costs, millennials were more likely to give a much lower age than their parents.

For example, a majority of millennials think they should be expected to pay for their own housing at age 22, pay for their own car at 20 ½ and pay their own cell phone bill at 18 ½. In all three cases, millennials’ average response is about a year and a half earlier than what their parents feel is appropriate, noted the study’s authors.

“Millennials are often stereotyped as being entitled,” said financial columnist Sarah Berger, the “cashlorette” (cash+bachelorette, get it?) at Bankrate.com. “It’s refreshing to see that millennials really do have high expectations of gaining financial independence and getting off their parents’ payroll.”

There were a few regional and political differences. Republicans, on average, believe someone should be able to afford their own car a few months prior to their 20th birthday. That’s almost three years earlier than the average Democrat’s response. As for when they should be responsible for their own cellphone bills, the average answer from millennials was 18, while their parents felt their kids should pay their own cellphone bills around age 20.

Midwestern parents in general favored closing the “bank of Mom and Dad” for housing costs at 22 ½, two years earlier than for Northeastern parents (24 ½). Southern parents were at the lower end of the scale, saying they planned to help with housing until the age of 23.

But these are really just statistics. Individual results may vary, as each child is different and unique. I know parents whose kids left the financial “nest” just after high school, while others are still paying most of their kids’ bills well after they’ve left college. Some of that is probably due to the parents’ unwillingness to cut the apron strings, but the situation is often more complicated than it would appear at first glance. Most parents I know are generous to a fault with their kids (even to the point of enabling their continued dependence).

This seems clear: We parents are likely to bear the fruit of what we sowed when our kids were growing up, plus a generous helping of whatever unique traits God gave them. They learn our habits — good and bad — from watching us, but what they do with that knowledge is as unique as they are. As with any generation, this one will have its share of successes, its share of failures, times they’ll make us proud and times they’ll disappoint us. Chances are, they’ll one day have similar concerns about their own kids’ generation, and maybe they’ll realize we gave them our best.

Do what we say, not what we do?

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Photo: Savvysassymoms.com

via Do what we say, not what we do? on clarion-ledger.com

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Most of us parents like to think we’re setting a pretty good example for our kids. We try to make sure they make the right decisions in every facet of life. I can still remember my parents reminding me to eat right, sit back from the TV, don’t read in the dark, and giving me a thousand other pieces of advice.

Most of the time, we convince ourselves we’re doing a pretty good job of modeling good behavior for our kids, but a new study has suggested many of us are just not setting a very good example when it comes to consuming media on screened devices.

In a first-of-its-kind study released this week, parenting organization Common Sense Media found that, on average, parents spend more than nine hours a day with screen media (smartphones, TVs, computers, tablets, smartwatches and other devices). Most of that use is personal (not work-related). Interestingly, while the vast majority of parents believe we’re setting a good example for our kids when it comes to devices, we’re concerned about their use of technology. And about a third of us are concerned our kids’ use of these devices is keeping our children from getting enough sleep.

“These findings are fascinating because parents are using media for entertainment just as much as their kids, yet they express concerns about their kids’ media use while also believing that they are good role models for their kids,” said James P. Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense. “Media can add a lot of value to relationships, education, and development, and parents clearly see the benefits, but if they are concerned about too much media in their kids’ lives, it might be time to reassess their own behavior so that they can truly set the example they want for their kids.”

The study, titled the Common Sense Census: Plugged-In Parents of Tweens and Teens, pointed out that many parents are so worried about their kids’ use of media that more than two-thirds believe monitoring their media use is more important than respecting their privacy. It also had some interesting findings about how parents from different races, income levels and educational backgrounds differ in their use of screen time, and the level to which they’re worried about their kids’ device use.

The findings should be a wake-up call for all of us; there’s little doubt that all of this screen use must be having some effect on our children. And while we are justifiably concerned about the potential negative effects of all of these media interactions, it appears many of us just aren’t applying the same logic to ourselves. And — of course — actions speak much, much louder than words.

“Children are great mimics, which is why it is so important that parents introduce real boundaries and balance early on,” Steyer said. “Media will always be a part of life, and every family is different, but in general, we recommend that parents set rules and clear plans so that kids understand what is appropriate.”

One interesting finding from the study might help us rediscover a tradition with which many of us grew up — family dinner time. More than three of four parents who participated in the survey reported that electronic devices are prohibited during family meal times.

Common Sense is trying to encourage that trend with a multiyear national media campaign, #DeviceFreeDinner (#CenarSinCelular in Spanish), to encourage families to stop using their mobile devices at the dinner table. The organization reports that thousands of people have taken the challenge, which will be promoted during the holidays in advertising messages.

So, while we parents are rightfully concerned about all the screens that constantly seek to draw our children’s attention, it might be a good idea to look in the mirror and have an honest conversation with ourselves about the type of example we’re setting. The result could be actually getting to know the people sitting across from us at the dinner table.

How to avoid pitfalls of co-signing loans

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via Bill Moak: How to avoid pitfalls of co-signing loans

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Being asked to co-sign a loan is not as common as it once was, but is still an option in many cases as people with poor (or unestablished) credit seek to borrow money. It may be a nice thing to do, but a new survey has found that co-signing is loaded with potential pitfalls, and you should give careful consideration to the possible implications before you sign on the dotted line. Often, co-signers get burned and if things don’t work out as planned, can be on the hook to pay back the debt, see damage to their credit scores or maybe even suffer from a damaged relationship.

Co-signing allows a third party to agree to take on some of the responsibility for the loan for someone who can’t get enough credit by themselves. According to a recent survey by Creditcards.com, about one in six adults have co-signed a loan or credit card application for somebody else. Most commonly, the co-signer is over 50, helping a child or stepchild obtain a car loan. Co-signing can help your friend or family member get through a tough time, or establish a credit record for the first time. But, a new survey points out, there are many potential hazards that should be investigated before signing.

“Once you co-sign, you are legally responsible for the debt,” said Michelle Dosher, consumer engagement program manager for the Credit Union National Association. “It can be hard on you, and it can be hard on family and friends if that situation doesn’t work out as it was intended.”

Creditcards.com surveyed 2,003 U.S. adults about their experiences with co-signing, illustrating the potential pitfalls. Here are a few of the results:

  • Nearly four in 10 co-signers had to step up to pay some or all of the credit bill because the borrower didn’t follow through on his or her obligations.
  • Twenty-eight percent reported their credit scores dropped because of late payments or nonpayments.
  • About a quarter of respondents said their relationship was damaged because of the arrangement.

“If you co-sign and the person you are co-signing for missed a payment, that amount of debt and any missed payments can become part of your credit history, lowering your score,” Dosher said.

Dosher adds that a default can make your credit score plummet without you even knowing unless you have arranged with the borrower beforehand to keep you apprised on the loan.

“It’s your name on the line,” Dosher added. “You might have excellent credit now, and someone else’s default could ruin your credit score and affect what you are able to do on your own in the future, like refinance a home or buy a car.”

Rebecca Schreiber, a certified financial planner and co-founder of Pure Financial Education, notes that co-signing has declined over the past few decades, probably because people are becoming aware of the potential problems, but some may still decide to take the risk because they want to help out a loved one. “Co-signing is a sign of faith in another person. Sometimes we just see a financial transaction and we forget about the message behind that transaction. But co-signing is making a statement that you believe the other person will behave in a responsible way and you have faith in them.”

According to the CreditCards.com poll, co-signers tend to be:

  • Older than 50. Twenty-four percent of 50- to 64-year-olds have co-signed a loan or card for someone else, followed by 22 percent of those older than 65. Only 14 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds have been co-signers.
  • Wealthy. Of those who earn more than $75,000 annually, 24 percent have co-signed for someone else, compared to only 11 percent of those who earn less than $30,000.
  • Helping a child or stepchild. Nearly half (45 percent) of co-signers have done so on behalf of a child or stepchild. Co-signing for a friend was a distant second at 21 percent.
  • Signing for an auto loan. Auto loans accounted for 51 percent of all co-signings, followed by personal loans (24 percent), student loans (19 percent) and credit cards (16 percent).

“If you could help an adult child go from a rental situation into homeownership and they just don’t have the credit score built up yet, (co-signing) can be great way to get them started,” said Karen Lee, an author and financial planner. When it comes to helping out a child or stepchild, 58 percent of 50- to 64-year-old co-signers have done this as well as 53 percent of co-signers older than 65.

Having to pay a loan for which one co-signs can put a serious strain even on the strongest relationships. To avoid the pitfalls, here are a few red flags that might make you think twice:

  1. The person has a pattern of not meeting financial obligations. “We all know people who are financial train wrecks,” Lee said. “If one of your financial train-wreck friends comes to you for help, but they’ve ‘turned over a new leaf,’ I would still avoid that situation.”
  2. You’re not financially stable yourself. In addition to evaluating the person you may co-sign for, you need to evaluate your own financial well-being. Do not sign on the dotted line if you are feeling financial strain. “If you don’t have (the funds) to literally give away right now, don’t do it,” Lee advises.

For the complete survey results, visit www.creditcards.com/credit-card-news/co-signing-survey.php.

Baby monitors allow hackers, voyeurs into homes

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via Moak: Baby monitors allow hackers, voyeurs into homes, clarionledger.com, 1/27/2016

PDF: Baby monitors

New parents (and even experienced ones) spend a lot of time worrying about their babies. And with good reason; there are a lots of things to be worried about. You can’t be there 24/7 to watch your baby in the crib or as they play in their room, so technology came to the rescue a couple of decades ago with the introduction of the baby monitor.

At first, these were just pretty walkie-talkies, which allowed you to have a base unit in the baby’s room and a monitor elsewhere in the house to let you hear what was going on. Later came video monitors that provided real-time feed through Wi-Fi and made the feed available online. Now, you can keep an eye on your little one from your workstation anywhere.

But many parents might be lulled into a false sense of security when they use this technology; that feed might not be secure. Back in September, the trendy blog Fusion Network published an article revealing the results of security tests done on nine video monitors, and the results were not promising: eight of the nine monitors tested got an “F,” and Fusion awarded one a “D-minus.” It turns out that hacking into the monitors and hijacking the feed were child’s play for hackers.

All of this scrutiny comes after increasing reports of baby monitors being used to remotely spy on people, verbally abuse infants and bring embarrassing attention to the camera manufacturers (and highlight the problem) by posting live feeds from 1,000 baby monitors on unsecure websites. All this creepy activity has led to increased concern from parents and privacy advocates, who worry that the monitors could not only lead to sick voyeurism, but also could allow hackers a doorway into the home networks and lead to identity theft.

Last week, the Federal Trade Commission reported that it had tested five baby monitors to determine their level of security. They found two of the five didn’t encrypt the feed to make it more secure and only one required a complex password.

So, how can you protect your baby and your family from unwanted intrusion? The FTC’s Seena Gressin offered these tips:

  • Make the monitor’s security features a priority.When shopping for a baby monitor, look for ones that use strong security protocols to transmit audio and video feeds to your home wireless router and to the internet. WPA2 is a standard wireless security protocol for home routers. To protect the feed on the internet, make certain the monitor uses an industry standard encryption protocol, such as SSL or TLS. Check the package or contact the manufacturer to find out.
  • Use the monitor’s security features. Once you’ve purchased a monitor with good security features, use them! Keep the monitor’s software current and check its password settings to make certain it requires a password. Then, choose a strong password and enable the monitor’s security features so that it encrypts information transmitted via the internet.
  • Access the monitor securely. When accessing the monitor from a mobile device, confirm that your app is up-to-date and consider password-protecting your mobile device as well.

Other experts advise you consider unplugging the unit when it’s not actively being used, such as when no one is at home, and change the passwords often on your home’s Wi-Fi network as well.

Back-to-school shoppers taking their time

Published in the Clarion-Ledger print edition on 8/27/2015. 

PDF: Back-to-school shoppers taking their time

Where did the summer go? While many Mississippi adults wax nostalgic for the “good old days” when we didn’t go back to school until after Labor Day and point out to today’s “coddled” generation that we managed to make it to adulthood without having air-condi­tioned buses — or even air-conditioned classrooms — the reality is that today’s back-to-school experience is a far cry from what it was back then.

Today’s parents must navigate a maze of required supply lists, lab and workbook fees, back-to-school meetings and endless fundraisers.

When my Mom went to the local dollar store with her back-to-school shopping list for elementary-school me, it was indeed a lot simpler. The list consisted mostly of nonspecific essentials such as “loose-leaf paper,” “lunch box” and “Elmer’s glue.” It was also a far shorter list; much of a student’s supplies were provided at the school (often by the teacher out of her own pocket).

By contrast, the required supply list for a second-grader at one of our Jackson- area schools has 19 separate items, many specific — i.e., “8 folders with pockets and brads 2 (1 plastic, 1 paper) each color — red, blue, yellow, green.” And a note at the bottom reads: “Note: Additional supplies may be requested by your child’s teacher when school begins.”

If you’ve gone to the local big-box retailer recently, the school-supply area can be a zoo. Shopping for your kids has become a stressful event, and it seems at least some people are taking their time to finish. A recent study commissioned by the National Retail Federation bears that out. According to the NRF’s Back-to-School Spending Survey, the average family with children in grades K-12 has completed just half of their shopping at this point.

“As expected, families are carefully measuring where, when and how they should spend on fall apparel items, school supplies, electronics and other necessities,” said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. “Late summer promotions and sales tax holidays around the country are likely contributing to the delay in back-to-school shopping this year, which means the next few weeks could be exceptionally busy for retailers large and small.”

Mississippi held its sales tax holiday on July 31 and Aug. 1, with many families taking advantage of the opportunity to buy certain items without having to pay sales tax.

And if you look around, many retailers are still holding sales and promotions to get you into the stores. “Retailers, hoping to strike a chord with both budgetconscious and valuefocused parents, will roll out hard to pass up promotions designed to capture the attention of those last-minute shoppers,” Shay noted.

The survey found about one in five parents admit to not having even started their shopping, but that’s down a bit from last year’s 23.6 percent. A few families (about 13 percent) say they’re done.

Here are a few more findings from the survey:

  • Coupons and promotions continue to resonate; those who have already started shopping indicate about half of their purchases (51.3 percent) were influenced by coupons, sales and promotions, down from 58 percent last year.
  • When it comes to classroom needs, the survey found parents are on the hook to contribute several items. On average, parents say 64.4 percent of their purchases of pencils, folders and other school supplies are influenced by classroom lists or school requirements. In addition, 45.9 percent of their electronics purchases for back to school are influenced by the lists and requirements of their family’s schools.
  • As for where consumers will finish their shopping, discount stores will see the most traffic (53.4 percent), while 46.8 percent will shop at department stores, 36.6 percent at clothing stores and 12.8 percent will wrap up at electronics stores; 27.2 percent will check out retailers’ best online deals, up from 24.8 per­this time last year.

But before we complain about the anarchy in the school-supply aisles or gripe about having to write that check for the lab fee, it’s a good idea to keep in mind that most teachers still pay for at least some supplies out of their own funds and school administrators are trying to stay ahead of a bewildering array of laws and regulations, while they’re all simultaneously trying to help our kids grow and succeed. (In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess some bias here; I was raised by a teacher, herself the daughter of educators.)

As parents, while it might be hard to navigate the back-to-school maze, it’s part of holding up our end of the partnership to help prepare our children for the day they’ll be the ones doing the back-to-school shopping. So, take some comfort in that truth as you search frantically for that last box of “Crayola fine-tip classic colored washable markers.”

Millennials delay milestones due to student loans

via Moak: Millennials delay milestones due to student loans.

If you’re a parent trying to help your college student navigate the choppy waters of financing college, it can be daunting. The Federal Financial Aid form, known as FAFSA, is itself tricky and often infuriating because of the maze of online security you must navigate. And if you happen to be selected for random “verification” of your FAFSA data (as we were this year), that can add even more gray hairs to your head.

Unless your student is among the lofty few who cries when she gets anything lower than an “A” or if you’re either independently wealthy or below the poverty line, you might not be stressing out over it. Scholarships, savings and grants will usually fill the bill in those cases.

Some of us were smart enough to start putting money aside when they got their little bundles of joy home from the hospital. But for most middle-class families, paying for college usually requires an eclectic mix of scholarships, mason-jar funds, largesse from family and friends — and loans. Today’s average college graduate will have barely had time to unpack boxes in their new apartment (or their parents’ house) before they get their first bill from their student loans.

Increasingly, that debt is putting a substantial crimp in their plans. While they may be young and idealistic, they may have to put off saving the world for a while because they have to pay back those loans.

A new study released by Bankrate.com shines some light on this disturbing trend. More than half of millennials with current debt from student loans are reporting they have “delayed major life events” because of that debt. Those milestones include rites of passage such as buying their first home or car, starting a retirement nest egg or even getting married and having children. The trend is not just present among millennials; older Americans are also likely to be carrying student debt well into middle age, where it can potentially crash into retirement.

Economists and policy makers should worry about this, because the longer new graduates wait to enter the economy, the longer it takes them to start contributing, investing in the economy on a larger scale and paying taxes.

“Student debt is often portrayed strictly as a millennial issue, but the truth is that Americans of all ages have put their lives on hold due to student debt,” said Steve Pounds, Bankrate.com analyst. “Delaying major life milestones such as buying a home or saving for retirement doesn’t only affect the individual and his or her family; it also has ill effects on the overall economy.”

A key finding about the study is that many people with student debt never really received good information about the risks and responsibilities of student loans in the first place. As with any credit, responsible borrowing also carries with it the necessity of understanding just what you’re getting into. Deferral, (which allows students to defer making any payments until after graduation) can provide a false sense of security, and is really just kicking the can down the road. But eventually, the bills will come.

More than half of student loan borrowers in the Bankrate.com survey say they didn’t receive enough information or advice about the financial risks of taking on education loans. Sixty-six percent of millennials, more than any other age group, have this complaint.

A lot of people are in this boat, and it is getting a lot of attention. Famously, one man named Lee Siegel decided earlier this year he’d had enough after being hounded by bill collectors trying to collect on 40-year-old student loans. He announced in a New York Times op-ed that he was not going to pay any more, and urged others to do the same.

His stance garnered him near-universal (and justified, in my view) outrage from nearly all quarters, but does point to an increasing frustration with a system that encourages people to finance skyrocketing education costs with loans against their future earning potential. And the aforementioned study details some of the implications of encouraging young people to begin their careers in a financial hole.

The fact is, though, there are alternatives to financing your college education with unmanageable debt:

Make sure you exhaust all alternatives. Many sources of funding, such as grants and scholarships, don’t have to be paid back. You don’t necessarily have to be in the top tier of your class to qualify, and some programs are specifically to help students from a particular geographic area, course of study or other criterion.

A four-year college may not be necessary. Mississippi has one of the best community college systems in the country, many of which offer programs to qualify you for all types of careers — many of them lucrative. And community colleges can be more affordable than four-year institutions, and have exclusive financial aid offerings as well. Consider military programs as well — many of them will finance college for you in exchange for a specified commitment after graduation.

Shop wisely. If you are getting a loan, shop around. Some private lenders have programs that offer excellent interest rates and options.

Mississippians have an excellent program that helps link Mississippi families and students with information and advice about going to college. Get2college.org can be reached at (601) 321-5533, in central Mississippi; (228) 875-4441 in south Mississippi; and (662) 349-2789 in north Mississippi. It’s a must-visit for any family who is trying to navigate the college-financing maze, and is well worth your time.