Monthly Archives: August 2022
10 ways to stay safe online
Protecting information and securing systems and devices is an essential task that seems like an afterthought to some. However, it’s crucial to stay safe online to protect your personal and financial information. There are many steps individuals can take to enhance their cybersecurity without requiring a significant investment or the help of an information security professional. Below are ten tips you can put into action now:
1. Keep your software up to date
Keep all software on internet-connected devices—including personal computers, smartphones, and tablets—current to reduce risk of infection from ransomware and malware. Outdated software is vulnerable to hackers looking to steal personal information, like usernames and passwords, bank account numbers, or even your Social Security number. Configure your devices to automatically update or to notify you when an update is available. If you don’t enable automatic updates, it’s recommended to install software updates as soon as they roll out or check monthly.
2. Enable multi-factor authentication
Two-factor authentication or multi-factor authentication (like biometrics, security keys, or a unique, one-time code through an app on your mobile device) is a simple way to keep your financial information secure, and you should use it whenever offered. If a password is hacked, guessed, or phished, it’s not enough to give the intruder access without the second form of authentication—thus rendering it useless.
Two-factor authentication varies across platforms, but the overall process is generally the same. For example, you log in to your bank account with your username and password. If entered correctly, the server will send an authentication code to a secondary device, typically via text or email. You’ll then enter the unique code to confirm your identity and gain access. If someone is attempting to access your account, they won’t be able to without the authentication code.
3. Use long, unique passwords
Use a long, unique password to keep your accounts secure. A strong password is at least 12 characters long. Focus on positive sentences or phrases that you like to think about and are easy to remember, while also using a combination of letters, numbers, and symbols. Do not use sequential letters and numbers, like “qwerty” or “1234.”
It’s also important to use separate passwords for different accounts. Around 66% of Americans use the same password for more than one account, which can be detrimental if there is a security breach. If you use the same password for your social media accounts and online banking, your financial information can easily be stolen if your social media password were to be hacked.
4. Use a password manager
It’s hard to keep track of multiple complex passwords, but avoid writing your passwords on paper or storing them on an unprotected device. The best way to manage unique passwords is through a password manager application. A password manager is software created to manage all your online credentials like usernames and passwords. It stores them in a safe, encrypted database and also generates new passwords when needed.
There are various free or cheap user-friendly password manager applications that can be used to securely store your information across multiple devices. Bitwarden offers a free personal plan that allows you to store unlimited passwords, use the app on unlimited devices, free sharing for two users, and more. They also offer a family plan for $40 per year that allows up to six users, encrypted file sharing, emergency contacts who can access your vault in case of an emergency, and more.
5. Think before you click
Links in emails, tweets, texts, posts, social media messages, and online advertising are the easiest way for cyber criminals to obtain sensitive information. Be wary of clicking on links or downloading anything that comes from a stranger or that you were not expecting. Clicking on unknown links or opening attachments may install malware, like viruses, spyware, or ransomware, on your device. The software is covertly downloaded, so you won’t notice until it’s too late.
If you do accidentally click an unknown link, disconnect your device from the internet and ensure your files are backed up. Next, scan your device for malware, then change your usernames and passwords. Lastly, set up a free fraud alert on your credit report with one of the three major bureaus: Experian, Equifax, or TransUnion.
6. Report phishing attempts
If you’re at the office and the email came to your work email address, report it to your IT manager or security officer as quickly as possible. Procedures vary between organizations, so be sure you know your company’s policy for reporting phishing attempts.
If you’re at home and the email came to your personal email address, do not click on any links (even the unsubscribe link) or reply to the email. Delete the email altogether. You can take your protection a step further and block the sending address from your email program, too.
7. Use secure WiFi
Public wireless networks and hotspots are not secure, which means that anyone could potentially see what you are doing on your laptop or smartphone while you are connected to them. Limit what you do on public WiFi, and avoid logging in to key accounts like email and financial services. Consider using a virtual private network (VPN) or a personal/mobile hotspot if you need a more secure connection.
VPNs encrypt your online traffic and anonymize your location, allowing you to browse safely and securely. Even if your traffic is intercepted, hackers can’t view your activity. VPNs are becoming increasingly popular due to the ability to unblock geo-blocked content on streaming platforms, and they’re also user friendly.
8. Back up your data
Protect your valuable work, music, photos, and other digital information by making an electronic copy and storing it safely. If you have a copy of your data and your device falls victim to ransomware or other cyber threats, you will be able to restore the data from a backup. Use the 3-2-1 rule as a guide to backing up your data. The rule is: keep at least three (3) copies of your data, and store two (2) backup copies on different storage media, with one (1) of them located offsite.
9. Check your settings
Every time you sign up for a new account, download a new app, or get a new device, immediately configure the privacy and security settings to your comfort level for information sharing. Regularly check these settings to make sure they are still configured to your comfort.
10. Share with care
Think before posting about yourself and others online. Consider what a post reveals, who might see it, and how it might affect you or others. One popular trend on social media consists of answering a list of personal questions, such as the name of your first pet or the street you grew up on. Many of those are common security questions, and you’re unknowingly distributing those answers for hackers to view—and potentially gain access to your financial information.
Following the above steps is essential to keeping your personal and financial information secure. This is the first in a series of cybersecurity education posts meant to help you stay safe online. Over the next few months, we’ll share greater insight and tips on each of the topics mentioned above. In the meantime, we offer additional resources to brush up on your financial education, with ACHIEVE for consumers and small businesses. Click here to start learning today.
Celebrate National Financial Awareness Day
August 14th is National Financial Awareness Day—a day dedicated to preparing for your financial future and building financial stability. It’s crucial to take the time to review your finances because sound monetary decisions can make a huge impact in the long run. Try to complete one of the five items below so you can take control of your finances, and celebrate National Financial Awareness Day.
1. Check your savings
Take a look at your savings account—in the event of an emergency, do you have enough funds to get you through? If not, use today to set goals to ensure you’re saving for the future. Calculate your monthly expenses and develop a plan of action to ensure you have the recommended three to six months’ worth of savings. Don’t have a savings account? Georgia’s Own offers various savings accounts to safely store your money.
2. Reevaluate your budget
Have you found yourself not sticking to your budget lately? Take the time to reevaluate your spending and make changes where you see fit. Periodically reviewing your budget is a crucial step that is overlooked. Make it a habit to frequently assess your budget and see what should be adjusted.
3. Brush up on your financial literacy
Financial literacy is key to being confident in the monetary decisions you make, and it can be easy to forget the basics. Take the time today to brush up on your financial literacy. There are dozens of free tools to help, like ACHIEVE, a free financial literacy program from Georgia’s Own. ACHIEVE offers various topics and videos on essentials like owning a home, financial caregiving, planning for retirement, and more.
4. Take steps to improve your credit
Your credit score is a critical representation of your financial past, present, and future. You need good credit for just about anything, like owning a home, applying for an auto loan, or applying for a credit card—your credit score can even determine the price of your auto insurance. Look at your credit score and see where you can improve. If you don’t know your score, visit the federally authorized site annualcreditreport.com to receive a free copy of your credit report.
5. Get a head start on taxes
It’s never too early to get a head start on taxes. Begin gathering necessary documents, like receipts, expense records, and donations, then put them in an organized folder, so you have them prepared for when you’re ready to file. Preparing paperwork beforehand will save you time—and sanity—when tax season begins. If you want to take it a step further, you can even organize your tax records from the past few years, so you have those prepared if the IRS ever needs to conduct an audit.
We hope these tips help you take control over your financial future. Georgia’s Own is always available to help every day of the year—even when it’s not National Financial Awareness Day. Click here to find more resources to help you make smart money-related decisions.
What is an adjustable-rate mortgage?
There are dozens of factors to consider when buying a house, from your lifestyle and desired neighborhood to your home’s style and features. It also involves finding the right home that fits your budget—including your loan term, interest rate, and monthly payments. If you’re debating your mortgage options, consider if an adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) works for you.
What is an adjustable-rate mortgage?
An adjustable-rate mortgage, sometimes called a variable-rate mortgage, is a home loan with an interest rate that fluctuates throughout the loan term based on the market. ARMs typically start with a lower interest rate compared to fixed-rate mortgages, making them perfect for borrowers looking for the lowest possible rate.
How does an ARM work?
Adjustable-rate mortgages have fluctuating interest rates. Depending on your lender and the ARM you choose, the rate will stay the same for a set period. The rate could stay the same for the first five months or five years—your monthly payment then fluctuates after the lock period. The lock period is the set time where borrowers lock in the typically low interest rate. Once that period ends, the rate resets to the prevailing interest rate.
ARMs are typically advertised as two numbers. The first number represents the lock period, or the length of time your initial interest period lasts. The second number represents how often your rate changes once the lock period ends. For example, a 5/1 ARM has a fixed interest rate for the first five years. Once the five years conclude, the rate can adjust once annually until the loan term ends.
Most ARMs feature an adjustment cap, which limits how much the interest rate can fluctuate at each adjustment period. A 7/1 ARM with a 5/2/5 adjustment cap structure means the rate remains unchanged for the first seven years of the loan. During the eighth year, your rate can increase by a maximum of five percentage points (the first “5”) above the initial interest rate. After, your rate can adjust yearly (either up or down) a maximum of two percentage points (the second “2”), but it can never increase more than five percentage points (the third “5”) over the life of the loan.
What types of ARMs are available?
Hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage
Hybrid adjustable-rate mortgages have a fixed-rate period, followed by an adjustable-rate period during which interest rates can increase or decrease. The borrower will pay the principal amount and interest throughout all loan periods. Some standard hybrid ARMs include 3/1, 5/1, 7/1, and 10/1—meaning they offer a fixed rate for the first three, five, seven, and 10 years, with rate adjustments allowed once every year afterward. Other hybrid ARM options exist but are less popular, such as a 5/5 ARM, which has an initial, five-year, fixed-rate period. It then transitions to an adjustable-rate phase in which the interest rate adjusts once every five years.
Interest-only adjustable-rate mortgage
Interest-only (I-O) adjustable-rate mortgages offer the option to only pay interest for a set amount of time before you begin paying the principal balance, as opposed to paying both principal and interest. With an I-O home loan, you have smaller monthly payments that gradually increase as you begin to pay the principal. Most I-O periods last three to 10 years—the longer your I-O period, the larger your monthly payments will be after the I-O period ends. I-O ARMs tend to be a little riskier, as borrowers assume the risk that interest rates will rise, plus a larger payment once the interest-only period ends.
What is the difference between a fixed-rate and adjustable-rate mortgage?
Fixed-rate mortgages have a different structure than adjustable-rate mortgages. Comparably, fixed-rate mortgages retain the same interest rate for the entire loan term—meaning the monthly mortgage principal and interest payment remains constant. For borrowers on a strict budget, fixed-rate mortgages can be a more practical option, as you know exactly how much you’re responsible for each month. Fixed-rate loans also offer coverage from sudden or significant increases in monthly mortgage payments if interest rates rise.
Adjustable-rate mortgages typically charge less interest during the introductory period, thus offering a lower initial monthly payment. If interest rates go down, ARMs can be a cheaper option than a fixed-rate mortgage. But, if interest rates rise, an ARM can become costly.
For example, a borrower is looking at a $300,000 mortgage, and they are debating between a 5/5 ARM or a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage. With the 5/5 ARM option, the borrower is looking at an interest rate of 3.5% for the first five years of the loan—their monthly payments for the first five years would be an estimated $1,347. However, after the lock period, this payment will reset using an interest rate that could potentially increase your monthly payment. With the 30-year, fixed-rate option, the borrower is looking at an interest rate of 4.5%—their monthly payments (assuming they do not refinance) will remain at $1,520 for the entire loan term.
When should you choose an adjustable-rate mortgage?
There are various situations when a borrower should choose an adjustable-rate mortgage rather than a fixed-rate mortgage. ARMs are perfect for borrowers who have jobs requiring frequent relocation, allowing them to enjoy the stability of home ownership at a lower cost in their current location. If you’re purchasing a starter home with plans to expand in a few years, or if you’re in the opposite situation and are planning to downsize, an ARM may be for you. Lastly, ARMs are great for those who expect an increase in income, such as doctors in residency. They may presently have a lower income and high student loan balances but they can reasonably expect their income to increase—and handle the uptick in costs.
Borrowers who expect to stay in their homes for a long time may be better off with a fixed-rate mortgage since the payments are dependable and consistent. The same is true for those who have a strict budget. Fixed-rate loans mean you’re paying the same amount each month, and ARMs may be too much to take on if your finances are tight—even if that’s a few years from now.
Choosing an adjustable-rate mortgage or fixed-rate mortgage is just one consideration when purchasing your home—and Georgia’s Own is here for every step. With various mortgage options that fit your needs and budget, like 5/5 and our new 7/1 and 10/1 ARMs or 30- and 15-year fixed-rate loans, our mortgage specialists are here to help you find a loan that works best for you. Click here to learn more about our mortgage options or contact a mortgage specialist today.