Useful and fun: Free app roundup


illustration of phone with apps

Smartphones are cool. These little slabs of glass and circuitry have rapidly made themselves the most useful of tech toys (and the most pernicious of time-sinks, as anyone who’s ever nursed a Candy Crush habit will testify). But a smartphone is only as good as the software it’s running, and most of that software comes in bite-sized chunks called apps. Some apps duplicate functions found on our tablets, laptops, and desktop computers, doing everything from word processing to photo manipulation to web design. Other apps are for fun and for friends, like texting, multi-player games, and popular social apps like Twitter and Snapchat. (Snapchat is still cool, right?)

While many apps are free and supported by in-app advertising, some of the more useful apps cost real money. In general, the more productive an app makes you, the more likely you are to have to pay for it. But there are exceptions! Many government agencies and non-profits offer apps that are both useful and free, so let’s take a look at some of those.

We’ll start with the motherlode, the official app repository of Uncle Sam himself: USA.gov! From finding housing to staying in touch with astronauts, the US government is now in your back pocket (and not just to get at your wallet). Check out the list of available apps freshly updated for 2018. The CDC also has health-related apps worth checking out. There’s quite a few, ranging from a child development Milestone Tracker to a “Can I eat this?” app for travelers to foreign lands.

Not to be outdone by the Feds, many states offer free helpful apps, too. They range from tourist guides to public transit and everything in between! Here’s New York  and California. Other states don’t have their apps so well-organized. You’ll have to get your google on to find them. For you policy wonks, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) has a few state-specific apps to help you keep track of pending legislation.

The American Red Cross has quite a few useful apps as well. They range from instructions in first aid (including first aid for pets!) to emergency bulletins to scheduling blood donations. Find all the Red Cross apps listed in one place.

Speaking of pets, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has an app to help you in pet emergencies, locate lost pets, and maintain your pet’s health records..

Now that you’ve got the doggos and fluffsters squared away, how about the birds? There’s a gaggle of birding apps out there, but one of the best happens also to be free! Merlin Bird ID is from the Cornell University Department Of Ornithology. It helps you identify and track birds by appearance, call, habitat, and season. It’s a great app for new birders, walking you through a five-step process of simple questions to identify the bird you’ve sighted. Or snap a photo of a mystery bird and Merlin will identify it! Listen to bird calls, get acquainted with the birds in your area, and learn which migratory visitors are just passing through. All for free! Plus, using Merlin sends birding data back to the ornithologists at Cornell, helping them track migratory patterns and changes in habitat. It’s available for iPhone and Android.

But don’t get lost in the woods while you’re out there chasing down yellow-bellied sap-suckers! The clever app What3Words has divided the planet (yes, the whole planet) into 9’x9’ squares and assigned each individual square a three-word name. Once you know your three-word identifier you can use it to direct anyone to your location to within 9 feet away! Anywhere on the globe! It’s compatible with Google Maps, Apple Maps, Navmii, and Citymapper, and is increasingly being built in to many car navigation systems. Useful in developing countries without fixed postal addresses, What3Words is also great for having pinpointing your tent at a festival, connecting with your kids at a local festival, finding your friends at an arena, or arranging a group meetup in any big, crowded space. It’s available for Android and iPhone.

We’ll end with an app that you should have on your phone just for emergencies. FireChat is texting app that communicates peer-to-peer via WiFi or Bluetooth. That means no internet connection or mobile phone connection is required. If there’s another device in range, FireChat will leapfrog your message (and any other FireChat messages that have used your device as a node) to that next device, and so forth, propagating messages outward like ripples in a pond, device-to-device. It’s called mesh networking, and in emergencies it can save your bacon. Of course, it only works if other devices are using FireChat (and on iPhones it requires AirDrop, so it’ll only work with iPhones 5 and up). Plus, it’s not exactly what you’d describe as “secure,” though that’s getting better as the app develops. But in a pinch, you never know when it might come in handy, and it doesn’t take up much space. Grab it for Android or iPhone from developer Open Garden. 

Finally, don’t forget to check with your local insurance agent or your insurance company to see if they have an app. If you have an emergency, you want to be able to report your claim quickly!

Posted in Tools | Tagged

Tips to get you through tax season


illustration of woman burried in paperwork

Here in the US, it’s tax season! Unless you’re a CPA (and if you are, thank you for your hard work and sorry for not sorting that shoebox filled with receipts), this fact is unlikely to fill your heart with joy, especially if you’re one of the millions of Americans who does her own taxes.

It’s an annual headache. It’s awful. Did you know that in some other countries, citizens are simply mailed a form that has all their tax data pre-filled? Then they simply check it for errors, make any necessary corrections or additions, and mail it back in. Done and done. Of course, here in the US, we don’t do things that way, because that would be simple and easy, and simple and easy is in direct contradiction to our rough-and-tumble pioneer spirit. Or something like that. But hey, good news: April 15 falls on a Sunday this year, so you have a whole extra day to prepare.

So. We have a tax code the size of a refrigerator. A walk-in refrigerator. It’s written in impenetrable bureaucrat-ese, and it has so many loopholes that even the exceptions to the exceptions have exceptions. So buckle in as we take a look at some important things to know about getting your taxes done right.

Get (More) Organized

Every year you tell yourself you’re going to be better organized next year. It happens. But it’s hard to maintain the discipline in June that will pay off next April. Still, the better a job you’ve done of keeping your tax-related documents organized, the easier a time you’ll have when push comes to shove.

Do Your Homework

Modern tax software is pretty good at grilling you with questions you’ll need to answer to properly complete your tax forms. But the more answers you have at hand when you fire that software up the happier you’ll be. Has your employment situation changed since your last filing? How about income you earned from your side hustle? Did you have any employees, contract or otherwise? If you’re self-employed, did you make any purchases that were a business expense, like a printer or computer? Start big and drill down.

Don’t forget deductions

Are you eligible for deductions? Check this handy summary of 2017 Tax Rates, Standard Deductions, Exemption Amounts, and more. And as insurance agents, we’d be remiss not to point out one potential deduction that shouldn’t be overlooked – non-reimbursed losses from theft or casualty events (fires, floods, storms, etc.)

Watch out for the scammers

There are a lot of bad guys out there trying to separate you from your tax refund – and the scammers get craftier every year. The IRS keeps track of the latest tax fraud schemes – there’s a lot of them! There are a lot of tax agent impersonators, too – remember, the IRS will never contact you on social media or via email. Here’s a guide to know when it really is an IRS agent and when it’s not.

Seek Help

Even the best tax software can’t anticipate the minutiae of your individual work circumstances. Spend some time looking over the IRS help pages to check for details you might have missed. If you work from home, can you write off those comfy footy pajamas as a business expense? (Probably not, sadly.) The best solution is to hire a professional tax accountant – she may save you enough to pay for her services!

Don’t Freak Out

Remember: Form 4868 is your friend! This is the form you’ll use to file for an extension, so BEFORE THAT APRIL 16 DEADLINE, submit this little beauty and feel the stress ebb away. Be aware that this form requires you to make an estimated tax payment, so it isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card, but it can come in handy if you’re overwhelmed.

If you’re doing taxes for your business (and why are you doing that?! Get an accountant, jeez!) the form you’ll need to file for an extension is either Form 7004 or Form 1138, depending on your circumstances.

Of course, there’s a whole list of caveats, ifs, and buts swirling around any tax question. Your best guide will be a reputable tax accountant. Start looking soon, they’re very, very busy here in the depths of tax season!

Celebrate Random Act of Kindness Week


heart and statement about random kindness

The world’s a mess, the market’s queasy, it’s the depths of February, and everyone has the flu. But cheer up! It’s almost Valentine’s Day! Let’s spread some love and goodwill by celebrating Random Acts of Kindness Week while we look at some of the good stuff, big and small, happening in the world:

  • Amidst all the hoopla of a Super Bowl victory parade, Philadelphia Eagles rookie cornerback Sidney Jones lost his cellphone. Fans found it and returned it to him, after snapping a few celebratory selfies with the Super Bowl champ.
  • In Wilmington, North Carolina, school crossing guard Minnie Galloway isn’t just keeping kids safe: she’s keeping them warm.
  • But not all of the Good Samaritans directing traffic are crossing guards!
  • Meanwhile in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, restaurant owner Elian Elias devotes a couple of hours of his day to providing free meals to the homeless.
  • In good news for the whole planet, France is two years ahead of schedule in switching away from coal-fired power plants to renewable energy. French President Emmanuel Macron announced at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davis, Switzerland that France would shut down all coal-burning plants by 2021.
  • In Hamilton, New Zealand, Senior Constable Neale Williams recognized a car he’d impounded before. Turned out the driver needed assistance getting her driver’s license, so Williams stepped in and offered his time and money to help her get back on the road – legally.
  • Speaking of random acts of kindness, rapper Drake has been on a roll recently, throwing down more than $125,000 on good works in Miami.

Come on, Drake! You’re making the rest of us look bad!

But you don’t have to have rap-superstar status (or a rap-superstar bank balance) to make a difference. There’s all sorts of ways to get involved, starting right at your front door. To help out in your community, try typing “local volunteering near me” into your favorite search engine.

Need more inspiration? Buzzfeed has you covered with 101 ideas for random acts of kindness. Now get out there and commit some Random Kindness!

The horrifying things people will do for insurance money


insurance fraud - roundup of perpetrators

Who wouldn’t like a little more money? But most of us have some limits about what we’d do to get extra cash. Not this year’s crop of criminals that the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud named to their 2017 Insurance Fraud Hall of Shame. The criminals seem to get worse every year but, fortunately, the insurance fraud investigators were smart and most of these criminals were dumb, stupidly brazen or both. Here’s a brief summary of a few from the lineup.

Some people will commit murder. Joseph Meyers and his wife wanted money for a new trailer and to jump start a trucking business. To get the money they burnt a disabled friend alive in his home in a foiled attempt to collect $165,000 in insurance. Joaquin Rams was deeply in debt so he killed his own year-old son, hoping to collect $550,000 in life insurance. How’d he get caught? Who takes out nearly a half million dollars in life insurance on an infant?

Others will run drug brothels disguised as treatment centers. Kenny Chatman ran several “sober homes” in Florida – but in reality, he kept residents addicted so that he could bilk insurers of $25 million. He kept some female residents locked up, pimping them out. Some residents overdosed, some died. Chapman was sentenced to 27 years and millions in restitution.

Some people will run dangerous, painful medical scams. Eye doctor Salomon Melgen bilked Medicare for up p $136 million by misdiagnosing and frightening patients into painful, botched laser and needle treatments that often left the poor patients with severe injuries. He treated up to 100 people a day, diagnosing them for expensive treatments whether they needed them or not.

Some people will build elaborate crime rings. Some fraudsters build such large, complex fraud rings, one has to wonder what they might have done had they turned their energy to good rather than bad. Attorney Eric Conn lived up to his name, scamming $600-million in the nation’s largest federal disability ripoff. The flamboyant lawyer called himself “Mr. Social Security.” He bribed a local judge, psychologist and doctors to rubber-stamp disability claims for clients, regardless of their health.

Some people will even crash a plane while in it. Theodore R. Wright III crashed his plane in Louisiana coastline waters to collect insurance money. He had a partner in crime who was with him and who sued for supposed injuries, so they collected on the plane and on the bogus injuries. Because he had recorded part of his crash “ordeal,” he was a media darling and might have pulled it off, but he and his co-criminals got greedy. They also wrecked another plane, a Lamborghini, and a 45-foot sailboat before being found out.

There are a few others that we didn’t cover. Most of these were huge news stories – you can Google names and learn more about any of these crimes. In all but a few cases, the perpetrators exploited trusting people in the commission of their crimes.

There are many, many fraud crimes that don’t reach this magnitude. With luck, you’ll never have friends, relatives or service providers in your life who are so larcenous and cruel. But even if you are not a direct victim of fraud, you pay an indirect cost – we all do. The Coalition reminds us that insurance fraud is an $80-billion national crime wave that is driving up your premium.

Posted in Fraud

High tech cars equal high cost repairs


schematic of headlight depicting costly technology in cars

It used to be that when you opened your car’s hood, you could look straight down and see the pavement beneath the engine. There was room to get your hands in there; to change a belt, tighten a hose clamp, pull a spark plug, or swap out an air filter. Try that with a new car and you’re in for a frustrating time: every gap under the hood is filled, every available space crammed with technology. Our cars are no longer simple mechanical chariots of iron and fire. They’re sleek, smart, and integrated into the wider world in ways that would sound like science fiction to the shade-tree mechanics of yesterday.

A new car runs on average 100 million lines of code. That’s more software than the Large Hadron Collider, the Mars Rover, and the Hubble Space Telescope – COMBINED. Everything from braking and the firing of pistons to the temperature of the seats and the mix of air in the passenger compartment is regulated and monitored by software.

Higher repair costs translate to higher insurance rates

All those sensors add up. As vehicles get more complex, the costs to repair them are rising. This, of course, increases insurance rates. Nationwide, the average cost of auto insurance went up from $915 in 2015 to $980 in 2016.  By 2017 the average cost of auto insurance was $1,060. This is expected to climb to $1,150 in 2018, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

An important contributing factor is where these expensive sensors are placed: they’re often on bumpers, front grilles, and side mirrors, the same spots that see the most incidental damage. Even an undamaged sensor can get knocked out of calibration in a seemingly minor fender-bender, affecting everything from adaptive cruise control which relies on front-facing radar to automatic headlight-dimming that uses tiny cameras to “see” oncoming traffic.

“The insurance industry is very focused on the repair costs associated with these new technologies,” said Matt Moore, senior vice president of the Highway Loss Data Institute at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “When the reduction in the crash risk associated with any advanced driver assistance system is greater than the increased repair costs then insurance premiums will likely go down,” Moore said. But in the short term, he expects the dollar value of collision claims to rise approximately 2% per year.

Of course, not factored into this accounting are all the injuries and deaths that these expensive safety features prevent. Maybe paying a little more for repairs now is worth it, when you consider that now drivers are walking away unscathed from accidents that in the past would’ve meant disability or death. It’s up to us as responsible drivers to use the tools we’re given to drive smart and drive safe – and when we do that, everybody wins.