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Keeping an Eye on your Money

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Debt- Collections, Agencies & More

Buffalo's debt collectors accused of bullying

Buffalo builds a new industry out of debt-collecting, but many firms are accused of bullying



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AP - Bar chart shows rise in complaints to the Federal Trade Commission about third-party debt collectors. ...



By Carolyn Thompson And David B. Caruso, Associated Press Writers , On Tuesday January 5, 2010, 3:06 pm EST

BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) -- When Tobias "Bags of Money" Boyland went looking for a new career after serving 13 years in prison for armed robbery and drug dealing, he quickly found something that suited his sensibilities: He opened a collection agency.

<!-- Article Related Media -->It was, in some ways, a natural move for a young man in Buffalo. Desperate for jobs, this chronically depressed Rust Belt city has become home to one of the biggest concentrations of debt collection businesses in the U.S.

"Collections is the Bethlehem Steel of Buffalo," said Boyland, 44, recalling the industrial giant that once employed 20,000 people in the region. "You can make a decent living in a town where there isn't a lot of opportunity."
Between 5,000 and 6,000 people earning $30,000 to $40,000 a year now work at roughly 110 collection agencies in and around Buffalo, an industry created with the help of seed money from the state of New York. The industry has been a rare economic bright spot in Buffalo, the nation's third-poorest city of its size, a place where 30 percent of the people live in poverty.

Yet, law enforcement and consumer groups point to a dark side: Buffalo, they say, has also become a center for some of the worst elements in the business. Debt collectors, some of them convicted felons, have illegally posed as lawyers or unlawfully browbeat people -- threatening to have them arrested or stripped of custody of their children -- to scare them into making payments.

"Get some clean clothes because you're not coming home any time soon," one debtor was told.

As the sour economy leaves people less and less able to pay their debts, the collection abuses have become so flagrant and numerous that state and federal authorities have moved to shut down several Buffalo-area agencies where the most heartless and bullying telephone calls originated. At least 20 people have been sued or arrested on criminal charges.
Boyland himself was forced out of business and jailed in June after authorities said they caught him carrying a loaded, unlicensed pistol as they investigated more than 1,000 complaints about abusive tactics at his collection business.

The regional Better Business Bureau said that in the past three years, it has gotten 4,562 complaints about debt collection agencies in western New York. Of 213 agencies it has graded in the region, 104 were given an "F." And of all the complaints about debt collection received by the Better Business Bureau nationwide last year, about 1 in 10 involved a company in western New York.

Collection agencies began sprouting in Buffalo in the mid-1990s as a spinoff of the city's then-growing back-office and financial-services sector. Like other businesses operating big customer-service call centers, the collection companies were drawn to Buffalo by its inexpensive office space and its willing and affordable work force.

A state development agency has sweetened the pot since 2001 with $1.2 million in grants to four collection agencies. It gave an additional $400,000 in October to a collection company that plans to double its work force with 50 new hires.

"Almost everyone knows someone whose son or daughter has worked for a collection agency," said David Polino, president of the Better Business Bureau of Upstate New York. "This is one of the industries that used to be Bethlehem Steel, the Chevy plant -- all the places where you used to get out of high school and find employment 35 or 40 years ago, it's now call centers."

Industry supporters blame many of the worst complaints on small firms operating on the fringe.

Twenty-eight of the region's collection agencies have a grade of "A" from the BBB for generating few complaints while setting up repayment plans for delinquent credit card accounts, medical bills or loans.

"The vast majority are great businesses that benefit the local economy, do a good job, are respectful, and then you've got a few that are just wacko," said John Nemo, spokesman for the Association of Credit and Collection Professionals, a trade group with 3,500 members.

Boyland blamed the problems at his nine companies on unsupervised employees who abused a chance to make good money. Twelve of his former workers have been arrested and charged with offenses including posing as law enforcement officers to intimidate people into paying debts.
When "Dateline NBC" did a segment on Boyland's business in March, Boyland appeared unrepentant, writing on his Web site that he was "laughing all the way to the bank." But in a recent interview with The Associated Press, he was more contrite, saying he wouldn't have condoned such "ludicrous" tactics.

"Who can build a successful business model from that? It's not possible," he said.

Nationally, the Federal Trade Commission received more than 78,000 complaints about third-party debt collectors in 2008 and announced civil judgments of more than $1 million against agencies. The 2008 complaint total, the most recent complete-year figure available, was more than twice that of 2003. No other industry generated more calls.

For the first half of 2009, the FTC logged 45,050 complaints, an increase of nearly one-third from the same period in 2008.

While the bad economy has been partly responsible for the rise in complaints, another factor has been the emergence of companies that buy portfolios of old debts and make another stab at collecting, often more aggressively. Virtually anyone can buy into the business and get access to the personal information needed to collect a debt -- including people with criminal records.

Over the past year, the New York attorney general's office has picked off some of the companies that generated the most outrageous complaints, including threatening debtors with phony lawsuits or trying to embarrass them by phoning employers and neighbors, both illegal under federal law.
"The tactics allegedly used here are some of the worst of the worst in the debt collection business," Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said in announcing a dozen arrests in September. "The defendants' alleged lies, deceit and intimidation caused many innocent people to pay money they didn't owe just to stop the terrifying calls."

Threatening to have people arrested for failing to pay a debt is also illegal, but that has been happening, too.

Michelle Minton of Springville said she was home alone with her two toddlers when someone claiming to be a lawyer for a collection firm phoned her, told her she owed $2,100 and said a warrant had been issued for her arrest. The only way out, he said, was for her to make a payment immediately.

"If your husband can't make it home from work, your children will have to go to Social Services," he told her.

Minton was certain there had been a mistake, but panicked and gave the caller access to her bank account, which was quickly drained of $900. She found out later the debt was owed by someone else.
"Forty-five minutes of bullying and they got $900," she said.
She and her husband tracked the call to a Buffalo company that has been the subject of other complaints. Cuomo's office is suing the business.
David B. Caruso reported from New York City.

Reference:

http://finance.yahoo.com/news/Buffalos-debt-collectors-apf-2226423347.html?x=0
 
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Price war underway over cell service fees



Tue Jan 19, 2010 2:28PM EST
See Comments (294)
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<FORM id=buzz-top class=buzz method=post action=http://buzz.yahoo.com/vote/>Verizon and AT&T, the two largest cell phone carriers in the U.S. are gearing up for a price war over cell phone service fees.</FORM>
And frankly, it's long overdue: Consumers have been radically overpaying for their cellular service since the dawn of time, with carriers protecting those rates through a series of mergers that has left the U.S. with just four major networks to choose from. Until now, only T-Mobile has seemed interested in trying to be competitive when it comes to pricing while the rest of the market has sat on its collective hindquarters.

Verizon fired the first volley on Friday, announcing major cuts to its unlimited family talk and text plan, from $230 to $150 per month, and its unlimited voice plan from $100 to $70 per month. Other plans combining unlimited talk and text are also going down in price. The new rates go into effect today.

AT&T is following suit, lowering the prices of its individual unlimited plans by $30 as well, putting the two companies back into pricing parity. (Today, smaller carrier U.S. Cellular joined the club, too.)
What's not changing? Prices for anyone with a minutes-based plan, or users who have a limited plan with a set number of minutes a month. I don't have any information on what percentage of users that might comprise, but I imagine it's still the vast majority of them.

The question now becomes if and when these price cuts will spill over to the rest of the market, particularly in the fiercely competitive world of smart phone plan pricing. So far the carriers have been reluctant to start hacking away at these highly lucrative plans -- although a few iPhone competitors undercut the cost of that phone's plan by a few bucks a month as an enticement.

The other concern raised by CNN in the linked story is what will now happen to smaller players like Leap and MetroPCS, all of which are known for rock-bottom pricing and the primary movers in forcing the big carriers' prices down. Without much room to cut, will we see them try to squeeze a few more pennies out and skirt with financial losses? Or could some of these players actually be forced out of business?

Reference: http://tech.yahoo.com/blogs/null/159184
 

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Tax Breaks for Almost Everyone

You'll find lots of new deductions, credits and expanded eligibility rules when you prepare your 2009 tax return.

There's no denying that 2009 was a challenging year for millions of Americans. But filling out your 2009 tax return could bring some welcome relief in the form of a big refund. There are a slew of new and expanded tax breaks for home buyers and car buyers, college students and their parents, homeowners who installed energy-efficient improvements, and the unemployed. Together, these tax savings are expected to boost average tax refunds above last year's level of about $2,800, says IRS spokeswoman Nancy Mathis. The sooner you file, the sooner you'll get your money back.

Here are highlights of what's new for 2009 tax returns.

<TABLE style="BORDER-BOTTOM: #d7deee 1px solid; BORDER-LEFT: #d7deee 1px solid; MARGIN: 10px; BORDER-TOP: #d7deee 1px solid; BORDER-RIGHT: #d7deee 1px solid" width="40%" align=right><TBODY><TR><TD style="PADDING-BOTTOM: 10px; PADDING-LEFT: 10px; PADDING-RIGHT: 10px; PADDING-TOP: 10px">More from Kiplinger.com:

Plan Ahead for 2010 Tax Savings

The Most Overlooked Tax Deductions

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Education Credit
More parents and students can use a federal education credit to offset part of the cost of college under the new American Opportunity Credit. The maximum $2,500 credit is available to eligible taxpayers who paid at least $4,000 in qualified college tuition, fees and required course materials, including books, in 2009. The full credit is available to individuals with incomes up to $80,000, phasing out above that level and disappearing completely at $90,000. (For married couples filing jointly, the full credit is available to those with incomes up to $160,000 and disappears above $180,000.) Those income limits are higher than under the existing Hope and Lifetime Learning credits.
If you claim the credit and owe no tax, you may receive a refund of 40% of the credit, up to a maximum of $1,000 for each eligible student. Other education credits are not refundable. The American Opportunity Credit can be applied only to expenses paid during the first four years of college. Graduate students are not eligible for this new credit, but they still qualify for the Lifetime Learning credit, of up to $2,000 per household, or a tuition-and-fees deduction of up to $4,000. (A credit, which reduces your tax bill dollar for dollar, is more valuable than a deduction, which merely reduces the amount of income that is taxed.)
<TABLE style="BORDER-BOTTOM: #d7deee 1px solid; BORDER-LEFT: #d7deee 1px solid; MARGIN: 10px 10px 3px; BORDER-TOP: #d7deee 1px solid; BORDER-RIGHT: #d7deee 1px solid" width="40%" align=right><TBODY><TR><TD style="PADDING-BOTTOM: 10px; PADDING-LEFT: 10px; PADDING-RIGHT: 10px; PADDING-TOP: 10px">Popular Stories on Yahoo!:

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Parents of some college freshmen and sophomores should bypass the new American Opportunity Credit and opt instead for the supercharged Hope Credit available to students in Midwestern seven states affected by 2008's flooding disaster (Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, and Wisconsin). The top credit on 2009 returns for qualified students is $3,600.

Home-Energy Credits
If you weatherized your home or bought alternative-energy equipment in 2009, you may qualify for either of two expanded home-energy credits, regardless of your income.
You may claim a credit worth 30% of the cost of eligible home improvements on your principal residence, up to a maximum $1,500. The cost of certain high-efficiency heating and air-conditioning systems, water heaters and stoves used for home heating qualify for the credit, along with labor costs for installing them. The cost of energy-efficient windows, doors, skylights and insulation also count, but installation costs do not. You would have to spend at least $5,000 to qualify for the full $1,500 credit.
A second tax credit is designed to spur investment in alternative-energy equipment, such as solar electric systems, solar water heaters, geothermal heat pumps and wind turbines, in new and existing homes. The credit is worth 30% of the cost, including installation, with no cap on the amount of the credit.

Home Buyer's Credit
If you bought your first home in 2009, you may be able to claim a tax credit worth 10% of the cost of the house, up to a maximum $8,000, subject to income eligibility rules. You are considered a first-time home buyer if you, or you and your spouse, didn't own a principal residence for at least three years before purchasing a house in 2009.
Different income eligibility limits apply depending on when you bought the house. If you purchased it before November 7, 2009, you are eligible for the full first-time home buyer's tax credit if you are single and your income didn't top $75,000 or if you are married and your joint income didn't exceed $150,000. The credit phases out for individuals with incomes up to $95,000 and married couples with joint incomes up to $170,000, disappearing above those income levels.

Income Eligibility Limits
Limits are higher for those who bought homes on or after November 7, 2009. And a new 10% credit, with a maximum of $6,500, is available to longtime homeowners who bought a new principal residence on or after that date. The full home-buyer credits are available to individuals with incomes up to $125,000 and married couples with joint incomes up to $225,000. The credit is phased out for individuals with incomes up to $145,000 and joint filers with incomes up to $245,000 and disappears for those with incomes above those levels.
Taxpayers claiming either credit on their 2009 returns must use the new Form 5405, "First-Time Homebuyer Credit". If you claim the credit, you cannot file your 2009 tax return online; you must print it out and mail it to the IRS. See more details in our FAQ on the home-buyer credits.

New-Vehicle Purchases
If you bought a new car, light truck, motorcycle or motor home on or after February 16, 2009, through the end of the year, you may be able to deduct the state or local sales tax or excise tax you paid on the vehicle on your 2009 tax return. The deduction is limited to the tax you paid on up to $49,500 of the purchase price of the vehicle, but there is no limit on the number of qualifying vehicles.
To qualify for the full deduction, your income can't top $125,000 if you are single or $250,000 if you are married filing jointly. A partial deduction is available for individuals with incomes between $125,000 and $135,000 (and between $250,000 and $260,000 for joint filers). The deduction is available whether or not you itemize your deductions. If you claim the standard deduction, file the new Schedule L ("Standard Deduction for Certain Filers"). If you itemize your deductions, you can claim the deduction for the sales tax on your vehicle purchase on either line 5 or line 7 of Schedule A.

Jobless Benefits
Unemployed workers are allowed to exclude the first $2,400 of unemployment benefits received in 2009.
 

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7 Ways to Save Money on Taxes

1. Go green and save some green. You can get tax credits under the Energy Policy Act for reducing your home’s energy use. To find out what qualifies, go to energystar.gov.

2. As long as you itemize, nearly all of your medical expenses can be deducted
, from prescription drugs and doctor visits to surgery. See the full list of medical deductions at irs.gov to make sure you're not forgetting anything.

3. You already know you can deduct charitable donations
, but don't forget any ticket you've purchased that had a "suggested donation." You can also write off out-of-pocket costs you incur while doing charitable work, like the ingredients used in a dish you regularly prepare for a soup kitchen.

4. Certain costs for managing your money that top two percent of your annual gross income
are deductible, like safe-deposit box fees, calls to your broker, tax-prep fees and subscriptions to investment journals.

5. Still paying for that pricey diploma?
Student loan interest is deductible, even if you don't itemize.

6. Send in next January's mortgage payment early
--if you make the mortgage payment in the current tax year, you can deduct the interest this year.

7. Chin up, unemployed college graduate.
If your job-hunt leads you to relocate for your first job, keep track of your receipts as you pack up. Your moving expenses are deductible.

Keep your wallet padded with more than 100 tips for saving money on clothes shopping, your commute, grocery shopping and eating out, and your energy bill.
 

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My Tax Refund Express LLC.

My Tax Refund Express LLC.
IRS Authorized E-File Provider

5413 5th Avenue, 2nd Floor
(Between 54th & 55th Street)
Brooklyn, New York 11220

Business: 718-833-2066
Fax: 718-833-2065
 

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10 ways to save money on gasoline

guest_bloggers-314716996-1277161562.jpg

(Photo: Getty Images)


The United States has a reputation for guzzling gasoline, especially in summer, when increased demand and processing costs drive up the price by an average of 10 to 20 cents per gallon. And while the recession has helped reduce U.S. gas demand in recent years, summer heat — combined with unforeseen variables like hurricanes and oil spills — can still wreak havoc with prices at the pump.

But whether you're planning a cross-country road trip or just trying to avoid spending your paycheck on commuting, there's plenty you can do to save money on gasoline. The best strategy is to simply drive less often, maybe carpooling or biking instead, but don't feel discouraged if that's not an option.

Check out these 10 ideas for ways to cut back the amount of time and money you spend at gas stations this summer:

guest_bloggers-446104718-1277224709.jpg

(Chart: fueleconomy.gov)



1) Slow and steady wins the race
Gasoline mileage drops off in most cars once you're going faster than about 60 mph (see chart at left). For every 5 mph you drive over 60 mph, you're essentially paying an extra 24 cents per gallon of gas.
Try using cruise control on interstates and other highways to maintain a constant speed. It can also help to use your car's overdrive gears, which save fuel and engine wear by reducing your speed.

2) Be cool in traffic
Aggressive driving — speeding, swerving, sudden acceleration and braking — is not only dangerous, it can lower your gas mileage 33 percent on highways and 5 percent on city streets. Revving your engine while stopped is even more wasteful.

3) But not too cool
Air conditioning can be a big drain on gasoline, so make sure you don't just leave it on absentmindedly, and certainly don't leave it on while windows are open, even if they're just cracked. You can improve your fuel efficiency in stop-and-go traffic by turning off the A/C and rolling down the windows instead, but that's not necessarily always the best idea.
When driving above 55 mph, especially for long periods on highways, the opposite is true — open windows make a vehicle less aerodynamic by letting in air, which increases air resistance and decreases fuel efficiency. On long road trips, using air conditioning could actually improve your mileage by up to 20 percent.

4) Don't just sit there
On top of pointlessly pumping out greenhouse gases without actually getting you anywhere, idling automobiles also contribute to ground-level ozone, airborne particulate matter, and other near-surface air pollution. These emissions can aggravate asthma and even hinder breathing in otherwise healthy people, especially children and the elderly.
If you're just idling to warm up your car in winter, it still only needs to run about a minute. Anything beyond that is just wasting gas.

5) Stay in tune
Fixing a car that needs a tune-up or has failed an emissions test can improve its fuel efficiency by an average of 4 percent. More serious problems, like a faulty oxygen sensor, can reduce mileage by up to 40 percent.
And don't forget to get an oil change roughly every 3,000 miles or three months, whichever comes first (or you could look into installing an Electro-Lube Oil Refiner, which reportedly eliminates the need for oil changes while boosting efficiency 3 to 4 percent).

6) Get pumped
Keeping a car's tires properly inflated can improve fuel efficiency by about 3.3 percent. It's also safer and lengthens the lifespan of your tires, since under-inflated tires lose their tread quickly in addition to wasting fuel. Regular checkups for your tires' alignment and balance aren't a bad idea, either.

7) Take a load off
While it mainly affects smaller cars, carrying extra weight means burning extra gasoline, no matter how big your vehicle is. On average, you may be cutting your fuel efficiency by up to 2 percent for every 100 extra pounds you haul.

8) Develop motor skills
Using the manufacturer's recommended grade of motor oil can boost mileage by 1 to 2 percent. Try to also use the lowest grade of gasoline that's appropriate for your car, since high-octane grades cost several cents more per gallon.
Check your owner's manual to be sure, but as long as your engine doesn't start knocking, you're probably OK. Switching from premium to regular gasoline would save hundreds of dollars every year.

9) There's a cap for that
Gasoline can evaporate from a vehicle's fuel tank if it's able to find an opening, which is bad for your wallet and your lungs. Make sure your gas tank's cap is tightened securely after you fill up, and if the cap's threading is stripped or it fits too loosely, you might want to buy a new one.

10) Join the masses
Carpool or, even better, don't take a car at all — walk, ride a bike, or take mass transit. It saves you money, improves your personal health, and helps the planet by keeping greenhouse gases out of its atmosphere. See MNN's guide to greening your commute for more ideas.
 
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