Watch Out for These Red Flags to Stay Safe While Shopping Online

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It is hard to overstate the popularity of online shopping. There is almost no category of product that can’t be purchased online. From wedding dresses, to pets and potato chips, consumers are heading online to purchase things that only a few years ago would have been considered strange to buy online. With so many online stores to choose from, it can be hard to tell which are legitimate and which could leave you vulnerable to scam or identity theft.

One of the easiest ways to tell if a website is secure is by looking for a Trust Seal.

“Typically, these seals are associated with secure sockets layer, or SSL for short,” states John Rampton, a Forbes contributor. “This simply means that your site has been verified and that there is a secure transmission for customers to safely enter their credit card information.”

When you are shopping online, you may have run into one of the seals and not even realized it. If you searched for a store through Google, for example, you probably have seen the small logo with a checkmark that states “Google Trusted Stores,” which is the search engine’s own Trust Seal. There are also several other companies that examine stores and give out trust seals.

“While trust seals are an important feature for [an] e-commerce website, which seals are the most reliable?” asks Rampton.  “In a survey conducted by the research group the Baymard Institute, the most trusted badge was Norton, with 36 percent of the votes. This was followed by McAfee (23 percent), TRUSTe (13.2 percent) and BBB Accredited (13.2 percent).”

The other ways that you can determine an online store’s trustworthiness are much less clear-cut than Trust Seals. Online reviews, for example, are one of the most important ways that consumers make decisions about a business’s reputation. If an online store has many positive reviews, you will likely feel safer giving it your credit card information. It is entirely possible for a good online store to not have many reviews, however, and positive reviews can be faked, so it is not a foolproof method.

It is also important to not ignore your gut feeling when shopping online. If you find a product for significantly less than every other store selling it, then that is a definite red flag. Another tactic to keep an eye out for is if a store claims to have the product you are looking for during an initial search, but then tries to redirect you to other similar products because they do not actually have what you need.

Furthermore, if a website doesn’t seem professionally designed, is extremely outdated, or very difficult to navigate, you may want to find another.

“Would you seriously give your credit card information to [a] website that looks like it belongs in 1995?” asks Rampton. “Common sense would say absolutely not.”

You should also look for contact information that would allow you to speak with an employee if you have questions or problems with your order. If there is no way to contact customer service, that is a big red flag.

Once you decide to make a purchase, there are further things to keep in mind.

“Don’t send your credit card details via email, post them on social media (even in a private message), or enter them on an unsecured website,” states Lexy Savvides from Cnet.com. “Don’t give away more information than you need. Retailers generally don’t need to know details like your date of birth or social security number, so why disclose it if you don’t have to?”

If you keep this information in mind and always choose the path of caution, you should be able to shop online without incident.

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How Can Your Business Benefit from Positive Pay?

Tanya Schamaun thinks Positive Pay* “is just smart business sense.” Tanya is the Accounting Director at Winona State University and, along with co-worker Julie Sammann, has been using Merchants Bank’s fraud detection service Positive Pay since May.

“Positive Pay protects Winona State University from fraud. We can detect problems with copied or altered checks quickly and easily,” said Tanya.

Here’s how Positive Pay works: Each day, Winona State provides Merchants with an electronic inventory of checks issued. When the checks presented on WSU accounts each day are processed, Positive Pay matches the account number, check number and dollar amount of each check presented for payment against a list of checks previously authorized and issued by Winona State. All three components of the check must match exactly. When a check is reviewed that isn’t a match in the file, it becomes an “exception item.” Tanya or Julie then has the chance to review the image and can instruct the bank to pay or return the check.

“The whole process is very user-friendly. It only takes a few minutes a day,” said Julie. “Even if you don’t have your own IT department to help you create an inventory of checks to upload to Merchants, you can enter a check manually in a minute or less.”

According to Tanya, “[Positive Pay] is simple to use, even for a small organization. The hardest part is remembering your password!”

To learn more about how Positive Pay can help your business, contact one of our Cash Management specialists today.

*Fees may apply

Meet Nikki Kemp, Fraud Specialist at Merchants Bank

Meet Nikki Kemp, Fraud Specialist at Merchants, pictured with her husband Ben at the top of Pike's Peak.

Meet Nikki Kemp, Fraud Specialist at Merchants, pictured with her husband Ben at the top of Pike’s Peak.

When did you start your banking career?

Nikki: I started at a much smaller bank in 2011 as a Customer Service Representative. When I first came to Merchants, I worked in the Electronic Banking department and since that time have become our Fraud Specialist.

What is your top fraud prevention tip?

Nikki: It’s difficult to pick one because there are so many tips to preventing fraud. I would say my first tip is to be conscious of where you are using your debit card – physical stores and online. Do you know and trust the company you are purchasing from? It’s important to stick with places you know. If a company or person calls asking you for your card information, be extremely cautious. Keep in mind that the Bank will never ask for your personal information unless you have previously initiated a conversation with us about your accounts or a loan application.

I would also recommend reviewing your bank statements or Online Banking records regularly. Set aside time to review purchases and if you notice something suspicious, call the Bank and talk to your Customer Service Representative or Electronic Banking immediately. If your account goes unchecked, fraud can go undetected for months or even years.

What’s one thing your mom or dad taught you about money?

Nikki: They taught me to be cautious with credit cards. It’s easy to get in over your head if you’re not careful. My husband and I regularly review upcoming expenses and discuss when we should pay with our credit cards versus our debit card. Once our plan is set, we stick to it.

If you could ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange with anyone, who would it be and why?

Nikki: My husband. He has always wanted to go to New York City and I think he would like to enjoy the experience.

Besides money, what’s your favorite green thing?

Nikki: My garden – It’s my hobby outside of work. My family always had a garden when I was growing up and now I have one that’s 14×14 feet in my backyard (I know, because I had to dig out the sod myself!). We grow most of your standard vegetables, like tomatoes, onions and peppers. I also have pots for plants that spread, like strawberries

For more information on our electronic banking options, visit our website.

3 Financial Tips for Snowbirds

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Coordinating your winter travel plans can be chaotic. In the midst of preparing for your trip, keep in mind these three tips to ensure smooth sailing while you’re somewhere warm.

1. Communicate your change of address.

There are several businesses that should be aware of your change of address for the winter season, including Merchants Bank. To ensure you continue to receive important financial, medical or family information or to discontinue specific subscription services, you should contact the following regarding your address change:

  • Your bank
  • The Post Office
  • Your local newspaper (if you have it delivered)
  • Other delivery services

To alert Merchants Bank of your address change, stop in or call your local branch (link to contact us page) to let us know of the change. Please include dates of departure and return as well as the names of other account holders living at your address.

2. Know how to access your bank account information.

Managing your money across a few states or a country is critical to helping you feel at ease during your trip. Make sure you are comfortable with getting information about your accounts and managing your money through one of the following free options:

Or, if you prefer assistance enrolling in any of the listed services, simply contact our Electronic Banking department at 866-496-0522.

3. Be diligent in protecting your identity.

In the course of your travels, there are a number of circumstances that could impact the chance of identity theft. You could lose track of a card, leave financial statements in the mailbox, or post publically on a social media site that you’re out of town, which lets criminals know that your house is empty. Review our security tips to ensure that your personal information is safe.

Click here to view our Snowbird Kit.

Is Online Bill Pay Right For You?

Pros and cons of Online Banking

Pros and cons of Online Banking

This day and age is evolving into a largely digital era, and included in that evolution is finances. Online bill pay is an electronic payment service that allows you to set up secure accounts on the Internet to make one-time or recurring bill payments. Many love this innovative technology for its simplicity and economy, and a few shun it for big businesses’ hidden fees, the possibility of making mistakes and the risk of scams, insecurity and viruses. Read on to see for yourself if online bill pay is right for you.

The first thing a potential online bill payer needs to do is to figure out his or her needs. Do all of your billers accept electronic payments? If not, you will need a bill pay site that will accommodate that by issuing them paper checks. If that is the case, you also need to know to schedule that bill to be paid a little earlier to account for the time your bill pay company needs to send that live check out via the mail (usually about five days).

Furthermore, are your bill amounts the same every month? If not, a scheduled — not automatic — payment through your financial institution might be your best bet; that way, you have access handily to your checking and/or savings account information for variable amounts so as to avoid overdrafts.

There are many free online bill pay websites available to consumers; there are also many financial institutions that offer it via their websites, as well. Be sure to read all disclaimers and fine print to alleviate the fear of hidden fees. It may be a good idea to choose your next financial institution based in part on if they do offer free online bill pay, if that is what strikes you.

Similarly, you can put the control into the hands of the lenders and have the billers debit your account by signing up on the creditor’s own site. Whichever way you choose, automatic, scheduled payments help avoid late fees; they also have the potential to be a very well-organized way to manage your bills.

Dan Kadlec, a personal finance journalist for TIME Magazine, recommends doing all of your banking online for its personal and environmental efficiency.

“Stamps, envelopes and physical checks are an obsolete expense. You’ll save time, too,” Kadlec said. “But best of all, your bank will automatically keep track of what you spend and where you spend it for easy review, which makes budgeting a lot simpler.”

Reducing paper waste by banking and paying bills online does more than save the trees; it helps save the planet by reducing the fuel used by the vehicles that transport the paper statements, bills and checks. Javelin Strategy & Research found that if every U.S. home viewed and paid its bills online, the switch would cut solid waste by 1.6 billion tons a year and curb greenhouse-gas emissions by 2.1 million tons a year.

Some things to look out for

The main concern for anyone doing absolutely anything online these days is security.  But it doesn’t have to be distressing. Make sure your computer has the latest virus protection, never access your account from a public wi-fi system or on any sort of shared device and change your passwords regularly. Also, be on the lookout for messages that claim to be from your financial institution or bill pay company; they could be phishing scams from con artists trying to gain access to your account information. Don’t give out any personal or account information without confirming the source first. As mentioned before, monitor your accounts and statements and watch out for any transactions that you didn’t authorize.

Additionally, one must be careful of typos while paying bills online. You wouldn’t want to accidentally pay $36,000 for a $360 bill, right? Misplaced decimals are small, but frightening. Also alarming is the possibility of forgetting to hit the “Submit Payment” button at all. About 0.18 percent of online bill payments are challenged for mistakes every year (not including errors consumers catch and fix on their own), which translates to millions of snafus when taking into account the billions of payments submitted online each year.

Most of the time, financial institutions or companies will help sort out any problems, but Nessa Feddis, a senior vice president at the American Bankers Association, confirmed that it is much more efficient to just do it correctly the first time.

“It is very easy in this electronic world to get caught up and move quickly, hit the send button before we mean to. We all need to take time, pause — and make sure the transaction is accurate,” Feddis said. Feddis recommends signing up for the bill pay site’s e-mail alert system, and that of your financer, as well, to be notified when a payment or change in your account has been made. This will help catch any mistakes or fraudulent behavior.

Weighing the pros and cons

In short, the positive qualities of online bill pay are abundant, but the practice is not without its difficulties. There are a lot of aspects to consider, such as the convenience factor based on your specific circumstances. It can be a very quick and efficient way to disseminate money because it can be done all in one setting, and it also saves the environment in more ways than one.

On the other hand, Internet security is always a concern for any interaction done online, and mistakes are an inevitable part of life, so vigilance and awareness are a huge necessity in managing finances online. The responsibility of weighing these options and making an informed decision is that of each consumer individually.

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Improving Financial Health

8-14 FinanceHealthAdvice is easy to find on the Internet; sometimes it’s so easy to find that it’s overwhelming and discouraging. Financial advice is especially abundant, making it hard to sift through when you want to find the best steps to take to improve your financial health. Fortunately, all you have to do is start with the following steps and you will be on the path toward better financial health today.

Personal finance refers to the way that you manage your money now, such as by budgeting, and how you plan for the future, such as through investing. How well you handle your personal finances is your financial health. To improve your financial health, you must take control of your current spending and make sure you have a realistic and profitable plan for the future.

Calculate Net Worth

Some people become overwhelmed by their finances and ignore them. Even if you don’t want to know exactly how much money you do or do not have, it’s important for your financial health that you always stay on top of some basic calculations.

First, take out your calculator and add up all of your assets (the things you own) and subtract your liabilities (the money you owe) from that total. This resulting figure is known as your net worth, a number that describes where you are financially at the current moment.

“Calculating your net worth one time can be helpful, but the real value comes from making this calculation on a regular basis (at least yearly),” according to Jean Folger from Forbes. “Tracking your net worth over time allows you to evaluate your progress, highlight your successes and identify areas requiring improvement.”

Create a Simple Budget

It’s impossible to analyze your current spending and accurately predict your future finances without a budget. Fortunately, budgeting doesn’t have to be complex or time consuming. With a free online tool, such as Mint.com, it’s easy to automatically track expenses and determine how much you spend in various categories per month or week. You can use this information to tighten up on areas where you’re overspending and to determine how much you need to cut back to meet financial goals, such as saving up for a vacation.

Watch out for Lifestyle Inflation

“Most people will spend more money if they have more money to spend,” according to Folger. “As people advance in their careers and earn higher salaries, there tends to be a corresponding increase in spending … a phenomenon known as lifestyle inflation.”

If you want to have a healthy financial future, it’s important to keep lifestyle inflation in check. If you let lifestyle inflation get out of control, it will be much more difficult to save for your financial goals and plan for retirement.

In order to manage lifestyle inflation, be sure to recognize which life upgrades are required and reasonable and which are just a matter of the proverbial keeping up with the Joneses. For example, if you are promoted, you may need to buy nicer clothes, but you certainly do not need a sports car to perform well in your new position.

“Especially if you suddenly got a big jump in your income, keep your former standard of living and funnel the rest into paying off debts or adding to your retirement nest egg,” states Martha C. White from Time. “Since you’re not lowering your existing budget or cutting expenses, you’ll be able to accomplish all this without feeling like you’ve had to cut back or make sacrifices.”

Set Aside an Emergency Fund

Even if you have a well thought out budget, sometimes expenses arise suddenly that can blow your budget out of the water. If you have a $500 monthly automotive budget and you suddenly need an extra $700 for a repair, you will need an emergency fund to tap into.

One-time emergency expenses are one reason for an emergency fund, but they are not all you need to plan for. Most experts recommend saving enough to cover a few months’ expenses, so that your family can stay afloat if you lose your job or need to take unpaid leave.

Creating a category in your budget for your emergency fund ensures that you will regularly add to it and not use all of your discretionary money before you remember your emergency fund.

“Keep in mind that building an emergency fund is an ongoing mission: Odds are, as soon as it is funded you will need it for something,” states Folger. “Instead of being dejected about this, be glad that you were financially prepared, and start the process of building the fund again.”

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Merchants Bank Hires New Information Technology Leader

Rodney Nelsestuen has joined Merchants Bank as Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer.

Rodney Nelsestuen has joined Merchants Bank as Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer.

Rodney Nelsestuen has joined Merchants Bank as Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer, according to Sue Savat, Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer.

“Rodney’s expertise in planning, implementing and managing technology services will be a benefit to our customers. With his leadership, Merchants will focus on technology that best fits the needs of our customers and company operations,” said Savat.

Nelsestuen has been in the financial services industry for his entire career, including most recently at Eastwood Bank as the Vice President of Information Technology. He also has experience as a consultant for global financial institutions and technology companies.

“Merchants’ top priority is customer service and satisfaction. I look forward to contributing to that culture of service by bringing a sharper focus to technology services and the Information Technology team,” said Nelsestuen.

Nelsestuen graduated first in his class from the Graduate School of Banking in Madison. He holds a graduate certificate in Information Systems Management from the Keller Graduate School of DeVry University in Milwaukee and Chicago and a Master of Fine Arts from Hamline University in St. Paul. He received his Master in Business Administration from the Keller Graduate School and his undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin – Madison.