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    Identity Theft: The Latest Ways to Protect Yourself

    By Krystal Steinmetz

    Criminals want your debit card data, and they'll stop at nothing to get it. Many retailers, including Target, are cracking down on fraud and data breaches at the checkout counter, so thieves are concentrating their efforts elsewhere: U.S. automated teller machines.

    According to The Wall Street Journal, ATM debit card theft has skyrocketed to its highest level in 20 years.

    "The incidents, in which thieves steal information from debit cards to make counterfeit plastic, are taking place at ATMs that are owned by banks as well as independently owned cash kiosks in shopping centers, convenience stores and restaurants," the WSJ said.

    FICO data reveals that debit card theft at ATMs on bank property soared 174 percent from Jan. 1 to April 9, compared with the same time period in 2014. Successful debit card information theft at nonbank ATMs jumped by 317 percent.

    Wow.

    "These tremendous spikes in fraud are unprecedented," John Buzzard, manager of FICO's card-alert service, told the WSJ.

    If you're a criminal armed with the right tools, it's not overly difficult to steal debit card information and make counterfeit plastic cards, Consumer Affairs reports. It's also much worse for a thief to get your debit card info, compared with your credit card info, because your debit card withdraws your money directly from your checking or savings account versus borrowing money from a credit card company.

    "This means that even if your debit card fraudulent-charge complaint is ultimately settled in your favor, with the bank ultimately making full restitution to you -- you still have to go without your money while the matter is being resolved," Consumer Affairs said.

    Experts recommend covering the keypad when you enter your PIN and using bank ATMs whenever possible.

    Check out "How to Avoid the Latest ATM Scam," for more tips on protecting your card and PIN info at ATMs.

    Have you been the victim of debit card fraud at an ATM? Share your comments below.

    Like this article? Sign up for our newsletter and we'll send you a regular digest of our newest stories, full of money saving tips and advice, free!

     

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    IRS Breach
    J. David Ake/AP
    By STEPHEN OHLEMACHER

    WASHINGTON -- More than 100,000 taxpayers have had their personal tax information stolen from an IRS website as part of an elaborate scheme to claim fraudulent tax refunds.

    The information was stolen from an online system called "Get Transcript," where taxpayers can get tax returns and other tax filings from previous years. In order to access the information, the thieves cleared a security screen that required knowledge about the taxpayer, including Social Security number, date of birth, tax filing status and street address, the IRS said Tuesday.

    "We're confident that these are not amateurs," said IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. "These actually are organized crime syndicates that not only we, but everybody in the financial industry, are dealing with."

    Eighty percent of the of the identity theft we're dealing with and refund fraud is related to organized crime here and around the world.

    The IRS said it is notifying taxpayers whose information was accessed. The IRS is providing them with credit monitoring services.

    Koskinen wouldn't say whether investigators believe the criminals are based overseas -- or where they obtained enough personal information about the taxpayers to access their returns. The IRS has launched a criminal investigation. The agency's inspector general is also investigating.

    Identity thieves, both foreign and domestic, have stepped up their efforts in recent years to claim fraudulent tax refunds. The agency estimates it paid out $5.8 billion in fraudulent refunds to identity thieves in 2013.

    "Eighty percent of the of the identity theft we're dealing with and refund fraud is related to organized crime here and around the world," Koskinen said. "These are extremely sophisticated criminals with access to a tremendous amount of data."

    Congress is already pressing the IRS for information about the breach.

    'Deeply Concerning'

    "It's deeply concerning that taxpayer information has been compromised," said Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. "Protecting the taxpayer is supposed to be the IRS's top priority, and we need answers from them."

    Koskinen said the agency was alerted to the thieves when technicians noticed an increase in the number of taxpayers seeking transcripts.

    The IRS said the thieves targeted the system from February to mid-May. The service has been temporarily shut down.

    Taxpayers sometimes need copies of old tax returns to apply for mortgages or college aid. While the system is shut down, taxpayers can apply for transcripts by mail.

    The IRS said its main computer system, which handles tax filing submissions, remains secure.

    In all, the thieves tried to access information from 200,000 taxpayers, the IRS said. They successfully got information on 104,000 of them.

    During this filing season, about 140 million taxpayers filed returns. About 23 million people successfully downloaded transcripts from the website used by the thieves.

    The agency is still determining how many fraudulent tax refunds were claimed this year using information from the stolen transcripts. Koskinen provided a preliminary estimate, saying less than $50 million was successfully claimed.

    Suspicious Returns

    Thieves can also use the information to claim fraudulent tax refunds in the future. As identity theft has exploded, the agency has added filters to its computer system to identify suspicious returns. These filters look for anomalies in the information provided by the taxpayer.

    Until recently, tax refund fraud has been surprisingly simple, once thieves obtain a taxpayer's Social Security number and date of birth. Typically, thieves would file fake tax returns with made-up information early in the filing season, before the legitimate taxpayers filed their returns -- and before employers and financial institutions filed wage and tax documents with the IRS.

    The refunds would often be sent electronically to prepaid debit cards or bank accounts.

    IRS officials say new computer filters are helping to stop many crude attempts at identity theft. This year, the IRS stopped almost 3 million suspicious returns, Koskinen said.

    However, old tax returns can help thieves fill out credible-looking returns in the future, helping them get around the IRS filters.

    Tax returns can include a variety of personal information that can help someone steal an identity, including Social Security numbers and birthdates of dependents and spouses. The IRS said the thieves appeared to already have a lot of personal information about the victims.

     

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    Spotify Chief Content Officer Ken Parks News Conference
    Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty Images Daniel Ek, co-founder and CEO of Spotify, speaks at a news conference last week in New York.
    Starbucks (SBUX) turned heads earlier this month, striking a deal with streaming-music darling Spotify. The partnership will allow Spotify's premium subscribers to earn reward points that can be redeemed at the leading premium coffee chain.

    It's a pairing that makes sense in theory. Spotify has more than 60 million active subscribers worldwide, with more than 15 million of them on board as paying members. If Spotify is paying for the right to issue Stars -- the points issued in the My Starbucks Rewards program -- as a tool for attraction and retention, it could be a win-win move.

    However, then we get to an interesting wrinkle in this partnership. Spotify users will be able to suggest songs from Spotify to include in the music playlist of their preferred Starbucks store. That seems pretty inspiring, until you begin to wonder if walking into a store will result in the awkward aural transition of going from Skrillex to Kanye West to Florida Georgia Line between sips of your Caramel Brulee Frappuccino.

    Sure, that will never happen. Starbucks is trying to cultivate a specific premium user experience, and sonically speaking, that involves a steady flow of smooth indie tunes. However, if your favorite store ignores your Spotify suggestions -- and that's what will probably happen, as the Top 50 playlist on Spotify is far removed from the hipster sets that currently play at Starbucks -- it will lead to disillusioned customers who were duped into thinking that they actually had control of the jukebox.

    Once again, Starbucks will get it wrong when it comes to music.

    The Long Divide Between Java and Jams

    Starbucks has always wanted to be a tastemaker in the world of music. Walking into a store opens up access to its Pick of the Week, which is available as a free iTunes download. Starbucks used to hand out promo codes for the iTunes downloads until it improved its in-store Wi-Fi.

    Starbucks has even put out its own musical releases. Did you know that it was Starbucks that released Paul McCartney's "Memory Almost Full" CD in 2007? It was the initial release on the Hear Music label that the coffee giant launched that year -- and if the "Hear Music" moniker sounds familiar, it's because it was also the name of the coffee-centric music store that Starbucks tried to roll out a few years earlier.

    Hear Music was a chain of five CD stores that Starbucks acquired in 1999. It went on to open three more flagship stores, incorporating the signature premium brews of Starbucks into a dynamic music environment with listening stations and music sales. It never truly took off. CD sales were peaking. However, this has never stopped Starbucks from trying to score the soundtrack of its customers.

    Sometimes it works. Starbucks earned props for unearthing early recordings of Ray Charles and Bob Dylan, and countless music icons got an early boost from iTunes promo codes at its stores. However, there are also lines that shouldn't be crossed. Giving Spotify listeners the ability to earn reward points that can be exchanged for steaming beverages at Starbucks makes sense, but pretending that it's going to let customers play DJ for individual stores is never going to fly.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Starbucks. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days, and check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    Google Stock Split Settlement
    Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
    Google (GOOG) is apparently gearing up to populate product searches made on mobile devices with "buy" buttons. The Wall Street Journal reported this month that the new graphical buttons would be available to advertisers, helping them stand out even more on Google's popular search engine.

    This would be a controversial move if consumers weren't already inundated with "buy" buttons on leading e-commerce sites including Amazon.com (AMZN) and eBay (EBAY). Google going this route, particularly on smartphones and tablets, where advertisers have been reluctant to pay as much as they do to reach Google users on PCs, makes a lot of sense.

    Consumers will just have to be smart enough to realize that the new buttons are a monetization tool for Google, and limiting its use to existing sponsors will mean that there might still be cheaper ways to buy these particular products.

    You've Come a Long Way, 'Buy' Button

    Google isn't the first non-e-tailer to go this route. Twitter (TWTR) began testing similar buttons last year, giving advertisers more bang for their marketing buck.

    Introducing the feature to consumers on mobile devices makes sense. It's an area where Google usage is growing at a faster clip than traditional access through desktops and laptops, but the rates that the global search engine leader is commanding are lower than on PCs. The disparity between what advertisers are willing to pay for PC users versus mobile users is explained by the fear that folks on smaller screens aren't as likely to complete transactions as they are on larger computers. A big reason that cost-per-click at Google and other search engines has been declining is that advertisers are paying less for leads generated through smartphones and tablets.

    We saw the number of leads generated by Google climb 13 percent over the past year during the first quarter, but the aggregate cost per click declined 7 percent as most of Google's growth came from access on smaller wireless devices.

    The "buy" button can help. It's probably not a coincidence that eBay, Amazon, and most e-commerce sites incorporate action buttons. It also could only help if Google's product pages with the new buttons lead to checkout platforms with existing payment information already entered. It would make it that much more conducive to finalizing a transaction.

    Push the Button

    The "buy" button could be just the beginning, of course. If the e-commerce wrinkle is successful, why wouldn't Google turn to an "get more info" button that would automatically send relevant information by email to the user? There could also be a "save" button to square things away for future consideration.

    Growth is slowing at Google. Analysts see earnings per share and revenue climbing in the pre-teens this year. The monetization challenge has been eating at margins, and Google has missed Wall Street's quarterly profit targets for more than a year.

    As long as consumers don't react negatively to the "buy" button -- and they shouldn't since it will appear in search engine results that are already clearly labeled as sponsored entries -- Google could be on to something here.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Amazon.com, eBay, Google (A and C shares), and Twitter. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days, and check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    Ford Investigation
    Bill Sikes/AP
    DETROIT -- Under pressure from U.S. safety regulators, Ford is recalling nearly 423,000 cars and SUVs in North America because the power-assisted steering can fail while they're being driven.

    The recall covers certain Ford Flex and Taurus vehicles, as well as the Lincoln MKS and MKT from the 2011 through 2013 model years. Also covered are the Ford Fusion and Lincoln MKZ from 2011 through 2012 and some 2011 Mercury Milans.

    Ford says an intermittent electrical connection can cause the power steering to stop. That sends the steering into manual mode, making the vehicles harder to control. The company says it knows of four crashes due to the problem but no injuries.

    Dealers will either update power steering control software or replace the steering gear depending on the problem with individual vehicles. A new steering gear eliminates the electrical issue.

    In October, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began investigating complaints of power-steering failures on three Ford Motor Co. (F) midsize car models. The probe covered 938,000 Ford Fusion and Lincoln MKZ cars from the 2010 through 2012 model years, as well as the 2010 and 2011 Mercury Milan.

    According to a class-action lawsuit filed in June about the matter, the problem could affect more Ford models, including the compact Focus.

    NHTSA said at the time that it received 508 complaints alleging that the cars lost power-assisted steering, causing increased steering effort.

    Ford said it was unsure if the agency would close its investigation because of the recall. A message was left Wednesday for a NHTSA spokeswoman.

    The company also is recalling 19,500 2015 Mustangs with 2.3-Liter engines due to high underbody temperatures that could degrade the fuel tank and fuel vapor lines, increasing the risk of a fire. No fires have been reported. The heat also can damage the parking brake cable. Dealers will replace a heat shield and add insulation.

     

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    Man using tablet during the flight
    Getty Images
    By Ellen Chang

    NEW YORK -- Hacking is becoming more commonplace, and your data isn't safer 30,000 miles up on in the air.

    While surfing, shopping or sending emails aboard a flight is becoming more popular and is convenient as more airlines are adding Wi-Fi, your connection is just as insecure as hanging out in your local coffee shop.

    Here are some common tips to avoid being hacked at the airport or during your flight.

    If you are going to connect to a free wireless network, check to see if it is a secure, trusted hotspot operated by a known organization such a JetBlue (JBLU), said Sergio Galindo, a general manager of GFI Software, a Durham, North Carolina, developer of IT solutions for small and medium-sized businesses.

    IT admins at airports often don't have the time or resources to constantly monitor for intruders or interlopers.

    Remain skeptical of suspicious-looking network names such as "Free Wi-Fi" or "AmAir2," he said. Avoid logging into sensitive sites or engaging in mobile banking while on a free Wi-Fi network.

    If you have to log-in through a website, make sure the site is secure and looks legitimate such as the fact that that everything is spelled correctly in the URL.

    Paying for wireless connectivity doesn't mean it's secure. Other so-called "secure" Wi-Fi networks can still pose risks because they are difficult to manage. At some airports or airlines, those networks may not be managed at all, Galindo said.

    "IT admins at airports often don't have the time or resources to constantly monitor for intruders or interlopers," he said. "It's important to stay vigilant and follow data security best practices at all times."

    Since airline Wi-Fi networks are similar to public Wi-Fi networks because they are designed with the lowest possible interference against getting users connected, the amount of security on these networks will be "nearly non-existent," said Mark Parker, a senior product manager at iSheriff, a Redwood Shores, California, cloud security provider.

    "Users should assume that they are on a network that could potentially be shared by everyone else on the plane," he said. "This means that there is nothing between your device and the device of that shady looking character over in seat 22D."

    Mobile Devices Can Be Hacked, Too

    It's not only your laptop that hackers can worm their way into. Don't forget about your smartphone and tablet. If you want to avoid the possibility of hacking altogether, turn off the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi on your mobile device and only use the LTE/4G/3G data connection from mobile device, said Jason Hart, a vice president at Gemalto, a Belcamp, Maryland, digital security company.

    "It is easy for hackers to spoof Wi-Fi networks and fool your mobile device into connecting to it," he said. "They do this by setting up spoof networks using commonly used Wi-Fi network names and your mobile device will automatically connect to a Wi-Fi network if it recognizes the name."

    When you are using your laptop, only turn on Wi-Fi when you are connecting to a known Wi-Fi network and always turn on the Virtual Private Network, or VPN, connection which routes your online activities through a private and secure network even when using Wi-Fi.

    Make sure you disable all sharing services like iCloud on a laptop or mobile device. This is crucial, because not doing this means "you're opening yourself up to more data and content that can be stolen," Hart said.

    Use two-factor authentication on everything that requires a password, including social media, because that's "just good security hygiene," he said.

    Breaching most networks or systems is something that can be done easily, said Dave Bennett, CTO of IONU, a data security company based in Longmont, Colorado. While having more access to Wi-Fi sounds like a good thing for consumers, in reality it is just opening more people up to additional data loss because public networks are "hideously unsecure," he said.

    "They can easily be snooped [allowing] them to get access to your data," Bennett said. "It is common for trains, airplanes, airports and hotels to provide wireless access, and these are ripe for being compromised and becoming a common means of data leakage and loss."

    Instead of assuming that you won't get hacked because you have software installed on your laptop, a better strategy is to "always assume that the network is compromised because it almost always is," he said.

    Travelers on a plane are even more vulnerable, because they are more likely to be have their Wi-Fi turned on for hours and do not suspect any intrusion attempts.

    Since airlines appear to be switching to having fliers use their personal computers and wireless devices to deliver in-flight entertainment, this only opens up another connection which can be compromised and give hackers access to people's data.

    Easy Precautions

    If your data is properly protected and backed-up, you are less vulnerable to data loss.

    "Most people don't protect their data or take some easy precautions before traveling," he said. "They are just tempting fate."

    Even someone on your flight could be attempting to hack into your data, Bennett said.

    "Frankly, there are so many different ways in which you can attack someone's computer if you know they are sitting a few seats away," he said.

    Commercially available products can allow a moderately computer savvy person to act as a "man in the middle" of a wireless network, Bennett said. Some of these devices are battery operated and small enough to be carried on board easily and allow the person to monitor, "snoop" and modify traffic flowing through the device such as such as e-mail, instant messages and browser sessions.

    "Even someone who's security conscious can be easily burned by something like the Pineapple device," he said. "Once a hacker on the plane finds a way onto your computer, they can implant malware such as Poison Ivy, with which they can take control of your computer, log your keystrokes to learn all of your passwords and provide a backdoor into your computer and access to your data."

    Travelers should take the same precautions you would with every other public network you use, "you'll just be doing it in a much less comfortable seat at 35,000 feet," said Parker.

    Limit the amount of personal information you have on your portable devices, said Steve Weisman, a Boston lawyer and a lecturer of law, taxation and financial planning at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Use the cloud and opt for dual factor authentication which seeks two forms of identification such as a password and an SMS notification to access it.

    "What you don't have can't be stolen," he said. "Remember, even paranoids have enemies."

    -Written by Ellen Chang for MainStreet.

     

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    Multiple McDonald's
    Alamy
    NEW YORK -- McDonald's is tweaking how it cooks it burgers in hopes of winning back customers.

    To improve the taste of its food, the chain is toasting its buns longer so sandwiches will be warmer, said McDonald's CEO Steve Easterbrook at the Bernstein's Strategic Decisions Conference in New York. He also said the company is changing the way it sears and grills its beef so that the patties are juicier.

    "It's these little things that add up to big differences for our customers," he said.

    Easterbrook, who stepped into his role March 1, said the changes are part of the company's recommitment to "tastier food across the menu." The remarks come after Easterbrook laid out the initial steps for turning around the company's performance earlier this month. Those plans include a restructuring of the company intended to strip away layers of bureaucracy, and an acceleration of refranchising restaurants around the world.

    During the presentation, Easterbrook also said the company will stop reporting monthly sales results.

    McDonald's Corp. (MCD), based in Oak Brook, Illinois, said June will be the last month for which it reports sales at established locations. Those results will be reported with its second-quarter earnings results. Heidi Barker Sa Shekhem, a McDonald's spokeswoman, said the company started reporting monthly sales results in 2003.

    Other major restaurant chains, including Burger King's parent company Restaurant Brands International (QSR), and Yum Brands (YUM), which owns Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut, don't report sales figures on a monthly basis.

     

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    Autos Apple and Android
    APAn iPhone is connected to a 2016 Chevrolet Malibu equipped with Apple CarPlay apps, displayed on the car's MyLink screen.
    By TOM KRISHER

    DETROIT -- By the end of the year, nearly every major automaker will begin offering Apple's CarPlay or Google's Android Auto, two systems that effectively turn a car's dashboard screen into a smartphone.

    General Motors (GM) made the biggest move so far Wednesday, announcing that both systems will be available in seven 2016 Chevrolet models starting in the summer. The Apple system will appear in seven additional Chevy models. Earlier in the week, Hyundai announced the Android system in the Sonata midsize car.

    Experts say the move to systems devised in Silicon Valley is an admission by the automakers that people favor the way their smartphones work over the automakers' own touch screens and voice commands, which have been prone to glitches. The in-house systems have cost the car companies millions and dinged their quality ratings.

    We just want familiar. We want our content, our services that we already own on our phone.

    People are familiar with smartphones and have music libraries, podcasts, social media contacts and other personal items on them, said Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies, a technology research firm in San Jose, California. Automakers, he said, have realized that most drivers can't be bothered learning a whole new car-based system.

    "We just want familiar. We want our content, our services that we already own on our phone. We just want the car to have the representation of that on demand," Bajarin said.

    To get the systems, GM customers will have to purchase a new Chevrolet equipped with the brand's "MyLink" touch screens, which are available on many entry-level models.

    Once people plug into the car's USB port, the system will convert the screen to resemble the phone. The system will then be able to play a person's music library, log on to music apps with a touch, send and receive text messages by voice, and even call up Apple or Google Maps for navigation.

    The number of available apps will be limited to avoid driver distraction, GM officials said. Many can be controlled by voice commands, and video won't be supported by the car system.

    To work with MyLink, Android phones must have at least the Lollipop 5.0 operating system, while Apple CarPlay requires an iPhone 5 or newer model.

    Consumer Choice

    GM will provide CarPlay or Android Car for no additional cost. Although this might cause some drivers to shun MyLink, GM believes that ultimately giving consumers the choice will help it sell more cars, said Saejin Park, the company's director of innovation and portfolio planning.

    Mark Boyadjis, senior analyst for infotainment at IHS Automotive, said the decision doesn't necessarily mean the death of MyLink, Ford's Sync and other systems. The automakers' systems have specific information about the car that Apple or Google can't duplicate -- engine diagnostics, heating and air conditioning controls or even the ability to set up service appointments with dealerships, Boyadjis said.

    GM officials also noted that some car owners might drive in areas without the cellular telephone coverage needed to run the Apple or Google systems. And others prefer not to plug anything in to their cars.

    Initially both systems will be offered in the 2016 Spark mini car, Cruze compact, Malibu midisze car, Camaro and Camaro convertible and the Silverado pickup, both regular and heavy-duty models.

    If something goes wrong with the system under warranty, Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG) would be responsible if the problem originates with their software. GM would handle any problems on its end such as the MyLink hardware, GM said.

    Apple and Android combined control about 95 percent of the world's smartphone market, so having both systems is necessary. International Data Corp. is forecasting Android will have a 79 percent share of the smartphone market this year with Apple's iOS a distant second at 16 percent.

    -AP Technology Writer Michael Liedtke in San Francisco contributed to this report.

     

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    2015 Indianapolis 500 Winner Juan Pablo Montoya Rings In NYSE Opening Bell
    Desiree Navarro/WireImage via Getty Images2015 Indianapolis 500 Winner Juan Pablo Montoya, third from left, rings the opening bell Wednesday at New York Stock Exchange.
    By Noel Randewich

    NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks ended sharply higher Wednesday and the Nasdaq logged a record high close, led by a rebound in technology and health care stocks and optimism that Greece would avoid defaulting on its debt.

    Reports that Athens and its creditors were near a deal pushed the euro higher against the dollar, partly reversing recent moves. EU officials, however, dismissed Greek claims an aid agreement was being drafted.

    Investors said U.S. stocks were oversold in the previous session, when concerns about Greece and foreign exchange pushed Wall Street to its steepest fall in three weeks.

    The fact that the market has been staying at its peaks for as long as it has, with only modest pullbacks, is fairly encouraging.

    The S&P has inched up to a handful of record high closes in May. But the stock market has failed to make what some traders see as meaningful gains, in part because they are concerned about when the Federal Reserve will start to raise interest rates for the first time since 2006.

    "People felt yesterday was an overreaction and I would agree," said Peter Jankovskis, co-chief investment officer at OakBrook Investments in Lisle, Illinois. "The fact that the market has been staying at its peaks for as long as it has, with only modest pullbacks, is fairly encouraging."

    The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) rose 121.45 points, or 0.7 percent, to end at 18,162.99 points. The Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) gained 19.28 points, or 0.9 percent, to 2,123.48 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) added 73.84 points, or 1.5 percent, to 5,106.59.

    It was the S&P's strongest day since May 14 and the Nasdaq's strongest since late January, lifting it to its first record close since April 24.

    Nine of the 10 major S&P 500 sectors ended higher, with technology up 1.8 percent and the health index up 1.1 percent.

    Movers and Shakers

    Broadcom (BRCM) surged 21.8 percent on news the chipmaker was in talks to be bought by Avago Technologies. Avago (AVGO) jumped 7.8 percent.

    Gilead Sciences (GILD) rose 2.5 percent and led gains on the S&P health index.

    The energy sector was off 0.1 percent as the rising dollar weighed on oil prices. The Dow Jones airlines index broke a 5-day losing streak to rally 2.2 percent.

    Michael Kors (KORS) dropped 24.2 percent after the handbag maker reported its slowest quarterly revenue growth since going public.

    Peers Coach (COH) fell 3.3 percent, Kate Spade (KATE) was off 4.7 percent and Fossil (FOSL) dropped 6.5 percent on Michael Kors' report of lower tourist traffic, weak watch demand and shipping delays due to West Coast port disruptions.

    Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 2,242 to 808, for a 2.77-to-1 ratio on the upside; on the Nasdaq, 1,927 issues rose and 845 fell for a 2.28-to-1 ratio favoring advancers.

    The S&P 500 posted 23 new 52-week highs and 4 new lows; the Nasdaq composite recorded 85 new highs and 50 new lows.

    About 5.8 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, below the 6.2 billion daily average for the month to date, according to BATS Global Markets.

    -With additional reporting by Tanya Agrawal.

    What to watch Thursday:
    • The Labor Department releases weekly jobless claims at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
    • The National Association of Realtors releases its pending home sales index for April at 10 a.m.
    Earnings Calendar
    These selected companies are scheduled to release quarterly financial results:
    • Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF)
    • Express (EXPR)
    • Flowers Foods (FLO)
    • Gamestop (GME)
    • Sanderson Farms (SAFM)
    • Signet Jewelers (SIG)
    • Toronto Dominion Bank (TD)
    • Ulta Salon, Cosmetics & Fragrance (ULTA)

     

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    |caucasian|center|color|elderly|gray|health and medicine 2|horizontal|interior|keith brofsky|lifestyle|loneliness|looking|nursin
    Getty Images
    By Juliette Fairley

    It used to be that Theresa Lyons, a single mother of three children, bartered with the elderly relatives in her family. "My aging mother and her sister were helping me pay the rent, gas and electricity bills, and I would take them out to eat and drive them around to where they needed to go."

    That was until 2011 when Blanca Tozzo, Lyons's aunt, passed away and the Department of Children and Families placed her mother, Carmen Hernandez Tozzo, in a retirement home.

    "I have no access to my mom's finances," Lyons told MainStreet. "The only way I can get any money is through a subpoena and blessings from the probate judge." Once Tozzo became a ward of the state under a professional guardian, Lyons said most of her mother's $100,000 in retirement savings was drained. "When I complained, my visitation was taken away," said Lyons, who is in her 50s.

    Huge Losses Found

    Lyons's mother is among the senior citizens losing some $36.48 billion each year to elder financial abuse, according to a True Link study called Friendly Grandparent Syndrome. "These numbers indicate how the guardianship industry destroys the legitimate inter-generational transfer of wealth and in the process irreparably damages entire generations of innocent families," said Dr. Sam Sugar, founder of the Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship in Miami.

    "Elder financial abuse is probably the most unreported crime in the country," said Jack Halpern, CEO of My Elder Advocate, a franchise that works with families to solve elder care-related crises.

    Some $16.9 billion of these losses a year comes from deceptive tactics designed to take advantage of older Americans, according to the 2015 True Link Report on Financial Elder Abuse. "This crime is shielded from public view because the criminal is most often a lawyer in probate court," said Kristi Hood, author of the new book "Probate Pirates." "The probate pirate attorney either directly or indirectly finds a way to pick the pockets of the elderly ward of the state, taking money that should be used to care for the person or charging their adult children exorbitant legal fees for help."

    Uncannily similar to organized crime defined in the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970, probate piracy can involve the involuntary redistribution of assets -- also known as property poaching -- with the elderly person becoming the enterprise that is defrauded.

    'Potential Gold Mine'

    "Unscrupulous charities, probate courts, home repair scammers, retirement homes, neighbors and even distant family members know that a friendly senior with cognitive issues is a potential gold mine," said Kai Stinchcombe, CEO and founder of True Link.

    Baby boomers and Gen X-ers are reportedly expected to be the recipients of $41 trillion from their World War II generation parents as they pass away. "The transfer of wealth is going to last for the next 30 to 40 years," said Dan McElwee, certified financial planner and executive vice president with Ventura Wealth Management. And that money is tempting. "Those of us working in the field have long known that the United States is in the throes of an elder financial abuse epidemic," said Shawna Reeves, director of elder abuse prevention at the Institute of Aging.

    Family members can report the fraud to their local district attorney's office, consumer protection agency, the state attorney general and even the local FBI office. "We are all affected by these scams," Halpern said. "When an elder loses their assets to scam and they need care, they will have to look to welfare and Medicaid."

     

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    The 3 Fastest Ways to Raise a Credit Score

    By Marilyn Lewis

    Do you know your FICO score? If you don't, you are not alone. For many years, this critical data about you was largely behind a pay wall. But that is now changing, finally.

    Your FICO score, the credit score most widely used in lending and banking, can be seen by lenders, bankers, landlords and other business users who want to know about your creditworthiness. But, until recently, you couldn't see that score without paying a fee, even though you are the one with the most at stake.

    Consumers finally are getting free access to their FICO scores in a number of ways, thanks in large part to the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The CFPB last year pushed heads of major credit card companies to allow consumers no-cost, regular access to FICO scores -- the score that lenders typically use, not the educational scores that banks, credit card companies and others often offer consumers instead.

    Your credit score, which is meant to predict the risk of lending to you, is generated by running data from your creditors through a mathematical formula. In pressing credit card companies for change, the CFPB argued that consumers who can monitor their credit scores are able to improve their credit and avoid delinquency.

    FICO, which stands for Fair Isaac Corp., is the company that invented credit scoring. FICO scores range between 300 and 850; the higher the score, the better your creditworthiness. "FICO says its scores are used in 90 percent of the credit decisions in the United States," according to the New York Times.

    Free Access Should Make a Difference

    Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson has long argued it is unfair to keep FICO scores from consumers or make consumers purchase them. After all, Stacy says, insurers, landlords, lenders, merchants and even employers use these scores when deciding whether to offer you credit, rent you a home or give you a job. A poor credit score can affect a military service member's chances of getting or keeping a job with a security clearance, according to Air Force Times.

    You can get a free credit report annually, showing what merchants and lenders are reporting about you to the three major credit bureaus, TransUnion, Equifax and Experian. Get your reports at AnnualCreditReport.com. They allow you to watch for mistakes and correct them, so it's important to do. But a credit report does not contain your credit score. You need to obtain that separately. Learn more by reading How to Get Your Free Credit Report in 6 Easy Steps and see how to raise your credit score by following tips in this article.

    "Consumers reported that they often do not feel empowered to take action to improve their credit histories and that they rarely apply credit information in their daily lives, such as using their credit reports and scores to negotiate better credit terms," the bureau says it learned from its research.

    Watch Your Score's Movements

    Seeing your FICO score should help as you can watch it change as you borrow, repay and apply for credit. You'll also be able to watch for changes that might signal fraud, or errors being reported by the credit bureaus. Some fluctuation in a score is to be expected, though. The New York Times reports: "Your FICO score from TransUnion may differ from one provided by Experian or Equifax. Also, (FICO spokesman Jeff Scott) noted, scores may change from month to month, depending on how you manage your credit.

    Despite the decided improvements, a big remaining problem for consumers is the inconsistency among the scores offered, even the FICO scores, writes Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary: "Even the scores under the FICO brand can vary. FICO has updated its scoring model several times. But this does not mean that lenders use the latest versions. So even within the FICO scoring system, the score you get free could be different from the one a lender eventually pulls when you apply for credit. Still, FICO -- new or old -- is the go-to scoring system for most lenders."

    It's not a perfect system. It's not a system at all, in fact, just a variety of possibilities that consumers can take advantage of. But, warts and all, free access to FICO scores is more available than ever before. Here are five sources for your score for free:

    1. Credit Counselors

    See and discuss your FICO score by making an appointment with a credit counselor at a nonprofit credit-counseling agency that purchases credit scores from Experian, a credit-reporting bureau, the CFPB says.

    Contracts among agencies and credit bureaus typically prohibit credit counselors from sharing FICO scores with clients. But credit counselors using Experian scores are being allowed to show them to clients, says the CFPB. When calling for an appointment, ask if you will be able to see your FICO score. If the answer is no, keep shopping. Participating national organizations include: The National Foundation for Credit Counseling explains what to expect in these private conversations:
    • Your visit is not reported to a credit bureau.
    • Visiting a credit counselor does not affect your credit score.
    • Nonprofit credit-counseling agencies offer help for free or at very low cost.
    2. Credit Cards

    An increasingly common way to see your FICO score for free is by enrolling in a credit card offering access to FICO scores. Many cards charge an annual fee, so the FICO score isn't free, strictly speaking. It's a fringe benefit offered at no extra charge.

    The Times reports and U.S. News say holders of these cards currently have or will give users access to their FICO scores this year:
    • American Express. A pilot program launched early this year will give some American Express credit- and charge-card holders free FICO scores.
    • Bank of America.
    • Barclaycard.
    • Chase Slate cards.
    • Citi-branded credit cards.
    • Discover.
    • First Bankcard.
    • Merrick Bank.
    3. Auto Loans

    Starting this summer, car buyers financing through these companies can see their scores, The Times says:
    • Ally Financial.
    • Hyundai Capital America (including Hyundai Motor Finance and Kia Motors Finance).
    4. Credit Unions

    So far just a few credit unions are giving cardholders access to FICO scores, according to CNN. They are:
    • Digital Credit Union.
    • North Carolina State Employees' Credit Union.
    • Pentagon Federal Credit Union.
    5. Student Loans

    Borrowers and cosigners of 2014-2015 Sallie Mae Smart Option undergraduate student loans can see their FICO scores, and all Smart Option customers will be able to do so later this year.

    Alternative Credit Scores

    Plenty of other sites offer free credit scores, just not FICO scores. If you can't get access through any of the cards or accounts above, consider an alternative score. You'll at least get a reading on your credit that you can monitor and compare over time.

    Be aware that numerous websites advertise free FICO scores, but there's a potentially expensive catch: These are gateways to fee-based services. You must sign up with a credit card to get a free peek at your FICO score. Cancel the service quickly afterward to avoid charges. You can get free non-FICO credit scores from: FICO's Score Estimator

    Answering 10 questions at FICO delivers an estimated range for your FICO score.

    Do you know where you stand with credit scores and ratings? Share your comments below or on our Facebook page, and share this article with your network on Facebook. Like this article? Sign up for our newsletter and we'll send you a regular digest of our newest stories, full of money saving tips and advice, free!

     

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    Organized Residential Pantry, USA
    AlamyHaving a well-stocked pantry can help you save money.
    By Jon Lal

    There are a few easy ruts to get into at home when it comes to stocking your pantry. Maybe you're committed to cooking more and eating at home, but you feel like you never have the ingredients you need. Or perhaps, you feel like you're always buying expensive cleaning products - and yet you're still missing one or two things when you finally get around to spring cleaning.

    By stocking your pantry with a few key items, you'll find it much easier to prepare inexpensive, delicious recipes. You'll also be surprised at just how much cleaning power a few basic items can have.

    This list of pantry items will vary person to person, depending on things such as dietary preferences and allergies. But it is a good place to get started, as these ingredients are incredibly versatile and can apply to many recipes:
    1. Beans (dry or canned) are a filling and nutritional legume and they're great in chili, as a side dish or added to salad.
    2. Rice is inexpensive and another filling ingredient to have on hand.
    3. Dry pasta will keep in a pantry for a long time and is easy to prepare. It also freezes well in lasagnas.
    4. Oats are a powerful ingredient to have on hand. They can be added into recipes like cookies, granola bars or pancakes, or simply prepared for breakfast by adding in a bit of seasoning or fruit with hot water.
    5. A varied collection of seasonings and spices can last a long time and add flavor to any meal.
    6. Keep both vegetable and olive oil on hand for your baking and cooking needs. Olive oil can be pricey, but it is a splurge worth making even for casual cooks.
    7. Vinegar is a great way to make your own salad dressings, marinades and more.
    8. If you like to bake, a few bags of flour are an essential (and cheap!) item for your pantry.
    9. Broth can be very useful for cooking soups and other savory dishes. It can also make rice dishes more appealing if you cook them with broth instead of water.
    10. Store a can of cooking spray in your pantry and you can keep your pots and pans greased while cooking, helping them wear well over time.
    11. Have jars of tomato sauce and paste on hand for pizzas, pasta dishes, chili and countless other dishes.
    12. A canister of bread crumbs is a good ingredient to stock, too, since they work well as a topping on many dishes.
    13. Baking powder and baking soda are two more essential items for bakers to keep on hand.
    In addition to those pantry staples, you also want to stock certain cleaning products. (Some dual-use items even make both lists!) There are likely a few brand name items you'll want on hand, and for those just make sure you find a coupon online before you buy. But in a pinch, a few of your everyday pantry items will work wonders around the house. Look online or on Pinterest for endless uses of the following:
    1. Baking soda: Your parents or grandparents probably told you to keep an open box of baking soda in your refrigerator or freezer to remove odors, but there are plenty of other ways to use it. Freshen your cat's litter box, sprinkle it on the carpet before vacuuming and combine it with vinegar to clean tile surfaces or drains.
    2. White vinegar is often suggested as an ingredient to combine with baking soda, but it works well on its own, too. A bowl of water and vinegar heated up in a microwave will give you a steam to easily wipe down and clean the inside walls. Apple cider vinegar is getting a lot of recognition lately for its various health and cleaning benefits, so you might want to give that a try.
    3. Keep a basic bottle of dish soap on hand; it works well at cleaning tile and removing stains from clothes.
    4. Hydrogen peroxide is known as a first aid remedy for cleaning wounds, but it's also an incredibly versatile item to disinfect and sanitize many things around the house.
    5. You likely have a few lemons in your refrigerator already. Did you know you can use them to clean cutting boards, polish faucets or shine shoes, all while leaving a fresh scent?
    6. Lastly, keep a bottle of rubbing alcohol on hand to clean windows, remove ink stains and degrease your stove top.
    Jon Lal is the founder and CEO of coupons and cash back website BeFrugal.com, which saves shoppers an average of $27 an order thanks to coupons plus an average of 7 percent cash back at more than 4,000 stores.

     

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    Couple signing contract
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    Lisa couldn't understand why two of her IRAs hadn't grown much, especially since we were in the midst of one of the biggest bull markets in history. After her divorce nearly four years ago, she contacted a female financial adviser she knew from a local networking group who specialized in serving divorcees. Lisa needed advice on what to do with the portion of her ex-husband's retirement assets which were now under her control.

    Earlier this year, Lisa asked me to review her account statements. She felt something wasn't right. Lisa's adviser had sold her a life insurance policy (which was probably a reasonable decision because at the time of her divorce her children were minors). But then I saw the statement for an annuity which was held in a Traditional IRA. I thought it odd that a woman who at the time was in her late 40's, had equity in her home, and had consistently generated a positive income as a self-employed professional, would be sold an annuity.

    Indexed Annuities Are Complicated and Expensive Investments

    Lisa was absolutely right ... the IRA account had barely grown even though it was indexed to the S&P 500 and Lisa had been making monthly payments for the past 3½ years. This was in addition to the monthly payments she made to keep her life insurance policy valid. If the annuity was tied to the S&P 500 which had continually hit record highs, why didn't her account balance reflect that?

    I asked Lisa to explain the terms of the annuity to me. She couldn't. And after reading the annual statement, I couldn't decipher it either. With Lisa's permission, I called the financial adviser who sold her the annuity. Perhaps I wasn't asking the right questions because her answers left me befuddled. When I still wasn't satisfied, she said there was nothing more she could do and that Lisa should call the annuity company. So Lisa and I called the annuity company together. I explained to the customer service agent that we were trying to figure out the annualized rate of return for this investment compared to the potential return of other investments.

    It's not like I'm a financial novice. I graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania with an economics degree and finance concentration, wrote an Amazon best-seller on investing, and am a financial adviser with an award-winning firm. Yet even I was confused as the customer service agent, who was very nice and polite, tried to explain why there would be a large surrender charge (over 6 percent) if Lisa wanted to move her money into a different investment. So while Lisa ended up losing money on an annuity that was supposedly low-risk, the S&P 500 index to which the policy was indexed rose 78 percent over that same period. I had to ask ... was this a good investment for Lisa, or was it a good investment for her adviser?

    In 2010, (a year before Lisa's adviser had sold the annuity), the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or FINRA, issued an investor alert on equity-indexed annuities. The guys at Motley Fool aren't fans of annuities either. According to this article, the average commission an adviser receives for selling a fixed-index annuity is over 10 percent.

    Watch Out for High Mutual Fund Fees and Deferred Sales Loads

    I'm told annuities have their place and are suitable for many people. I can accept that. What I found unconscionable, however, was the adviser's choice of mutual fund for Lisa's SEP IRA. Ironically, Lisa thought she was doing the right thing by making contributions to the SEP IRA each year with the money she earned from her business. Unfortunately, she was compounding the problem of high fees by continuing to invest in shares of the same mutual fund her adviser had set up.

    I researched the details of the mutual fund which had an 80 to 20 percent equity to fixed income allocation. I felt that investment mix was suitable for a working woman Lisa' age. To my surprise, however, I found the adviser had sold her Class B mutual fund shares which carry a deferred sales load. Instead of getting charged a commission at the front end, Lisa would pay a commission if she sold the shares before a certain number of years. In her case, if she decided to re-allocate her money into a different investment, she would be charged 2 percent of the current balance, even though she had held the fund for nearly four years. So we looked at what would happen if she stayed invested. Unbelievably, the mutual fund carried an annual expense ratio of more than 2 percent, which is nearly three times as high as the expense ratio Lisa paid on similar mutual funds in her Roth IRA (which she selected without the "help" of her adviser).

    I couldn't have found a more perfect example of a Hobson's choice. Either Lisa sold her shares and kept only 98 percent of her money or she continued to hold them and pay well over 2 percent a year on a fund that other mutual fund companies charge two to four times less. It reminded me of the movie, "127 Hours," in which James Franco amputates his own arm.

    Work with a Financial Adviser Who Has a Fiduciary Duty to Act in Your Best Interest

    There are financial advisers on every corner. How do you know which advisers work in your best interest or potentially profit at your expense? As this article recommends, you need to ask the following questions:
    1. How often do you monitor my investments?
    2. What is your investment philosophy and what strategies do you use?
    3. How much am I really paying in fees and how are you compensated?
    A financial adviser who adheres to the fiduciary standard will answer these questions quickly and confidently. When Lisa inquired about hiring me as her new financial adviser, this is how I answered the questions:
    1. At least once a month.
    2. I construct diversified portfolios using individual stocks as well as low-fee ETFs. Depending on your investment objectives, I will purchase ETFs representing various assets classes such as U.S. stocks, international stocks, REITs, MLPs, commodities and bonds. If you want extra income generation or downside protection, I will sell call options against some of your holdings.
    3. Based on the size of your account, my firm's fee is 1.5 percent of assets under management. I am compensated by a portion of that fee. Larger accounts are assessed a lower fee. You will also pay for the trade commissions that our custodian assesses when I make trades in your account. I receive no additional compensation based on which securities I select. There are no conflicts of interest and therefore my interests are aligned with yours.
    Why Don't All Financial Advisers Adhere to a Fiduciary Standard?

    The Obama Administration is seeking comments on a proposed rule issued by the Labor Department that would require financial professionals to act solely in a client's best interests when giving advice or selling investments related to retirement accounts. In its February 2015 report, "The Effects of Conflicted Advice on Retirement Benefits," the President's Council of Economic Advisers found that conflicted advice leads to lower investment returns. Many financial professionals have no fiduciary duty, even when they call themselves advisers, consultants or specialists.

    This proposal would only affect retirement accounts, because financial industry lobbyists have delayed rules that would make all financial professionals adhere to the fiduciary standard when dealing with both retirement and non-retirement accounts. Companies opposed to expanding the fiduciary duty to all financial advisers warn lawmakers and regulators that removing the ability to charge commissions for financial advice will result in consumers with small accounts not being served.

    That's hogwash.

    My solution to serving individuals with small accounts is to provide investment education and coaching through my company, The Options Lady. I essentially charge on an hourly basis and sometimes teach group classes. While I don't offer my coaching clients advice on which securities to buy or sell, I teach them how to make their own decisions. They learn how to open an online brokerage or IRA account; search for stocks and ETFs with low fees or no commissions; read price charts, review analysts' reports and achieve diversification by considering the risks and returns of various asset classes. I have coached clients with as little as $5,000. If the regulations are implemented, investors without much money will be served by innovative financial advisers like me or automated investment services.

    Armies of lobbyists have been trying to delay or kill permutations of these proposed regulations since President Obama signed the Dodd-Frank bill into law in 2010. For the foreseeable future, it's up to you to protect yourself. So when you interview a financial adviser who charges a transparent fee (typically between 1 and 2 percent), you could very well end up paying lower overall fees, not be penalized for selling an investment that may no longer be appropriate for you, and have confidence that you and your adviser's interests are aligned.

     

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    Inside Six Flags Magic Mountain Amusement Park Ahead Of Earnings Figures
    Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
    It's that time of the year again: Regional amusement parks are opening for the season, and national theme parks are bracing for peak summertime crowds. If you find yourself chasing roller coasters and funnel cakes in the coming weeks, you won't be alone. Roughly 300 million guests are expected to visit U.S. amusement parks this year.

    It doesn't have to break the bank. Let's go over some of the tips and tricks to help take some of the financial sting out of a summer of fun at the parks.

    1. Respect the Value of a Season Pass

    If you think you might end up visiting the same park more than once this summer, a season pass is usually the best deal. Six Flags (SIX), Cedar Fair (FUN) and even SeaWorld (SEAS) price their annual or seasonal passes at price points lower than two separate one-day admissions.

    Different passes have different nuances. Some include parking, and that will require working the math of how many times you actually do plan on using the pass. Six Flags and Cedar Fair passes also include admission to sister parks. It's an easy value proposition for them to offer, since few visitors plan to travel to other parks. However, if you do plan to travel around a bit this summer, the season pass is an even better deal.

    2. Buy Your Tickets Early

    There are still plenty of ways to make a single day at the park cheaper. Discounted tickets are typically available for folks willing to preorder online. Check your park's website for any e-ticket discounts. Pennsylvania's Hersheypark, for example, is offering single-day tickets at 30 percent off through the end of May when purchased from its website. They have to be used by the end of July.

    Buying tickets online also usually means you have one fewer line -- at the ticket booth -- to worry about during your day at the park. In short, you can save both time and money by buying your tickets ahead of time through the park's official website.

    3. Local Merchants Offer Discounts

    Many amusement parks team up with area supermarkets, fast-food chains, and drugstores, offering prepaid tickets on the cheap. Meijer supermarkets, for example, offer Cedar Point tickets for $12 off the gate rate. To be fair, Cedar Point offers the same $12-off discount to folks buying the tickets online, but it's something to keep in mind for folks who don't want to engage in online transactions.

    A lot of park operators may not promote these local affiliations on their websites, so a smart strategy is to find enthusiast groups online and ask about any area discounts.

    4. Show Up Late

    The key to enjoying a day at the park often is to arrive early. Lines for rides will be shortest during the first hour of a park's operating day. However, that's not always an option. Some folks just can't help but to arrive later.

    Don't worry, there may be a bargain to be had there, too. Some parks offer discounted tickets to folks arriving later in the day. You can show up at Indiana's Holiday World after 3 p.m. and pay $10 less than those who arrived earlier. Cedar Point offers a discount to arrivals after 4 p.m.

    There's also a sweet deal at Hersheypark, where folks with single-day tickets can "preview" the park during the final two-and-a-half hours of operation the night before at no additional cost.

    5. Arm Yourself with Potential Discounts

    There are plenty more discounts that are readily available. If you're a member of AAA or the military or a first responder, many parks extend cheaper admissions. Teachers can get into SeaWorld or Legoland for free. If you're a member of a credit union, there may also be access to discounted tickets.

    Spend as much time researching deals as you do plotting out your day at a park, and you can make sure that you get the most bang for your amusement park buck. It's going to be a great summer to head out to an amusement park, and wild rides don't have to go wild on your pocketbook.

    Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of SeaWorld Entertainment. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Looking for a winner for your portfolio? Check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.

     

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    Woman looking at bills and receipts on floor
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    By Sarah Morgan

    How are you doing, financially? Are you satisfied with the state of your finances?

    Think about your answer to that question and what drove it. If you are like most people, you were probably thinking about your day-to-day financial health -- your ability to pay your bills and buy the occasional movie ticket or latte.

    A recent study from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College found that people's subjective assessments of their own finances are based on those day-to-day measures. That's true even for people who are financially literate. Having a little financial education makes you slightly more likely to worry about not having a retirement plan at all, but it makes you no more likely to worry about having an inactive retirement plan that you're not currently contributing to. As long as you can pay your rent or mortgage, not putting money away for the future won't trouble you.

    In other words, you can't count on yourself to worry enough about retirement to actually prepare for it. It's just too far away to focus on. It is better to automate your savings, so you only have to think about it once. Here are three simple steps you can take to make investing automatic:

    1. Max out your contribution to your 401(k). Most savers don't manage the maximum allowable 401(k) contribution of $18,000. In fact, average deferral rates have actually fallen in the past few years, partly because most plans that automatically enroll workers start them off saving just 3 percent of their paychecks. Check your own deferral rate, and max out if you possibly can.

    2. Add an IRA. If you are already maxing out your 401(k) and you have some more wiggle room in your budget, consider setting up an IRA or Roth IRA. You can save another $5,500 a year this way. Figure out how much you can contribute to this account, and look into setting up an automatic investment plan. Most funds will waive minimum initial contribution requirements if you use this option, so you don't need a lot of cash on hand to start an account, and you won't have to keep remembering to contribute in the future.

    3. Automate your contributions to your regular brokerage account. Don't wait until the end of the quarter, or the end of the year, to decide how much you can afford to put away. Assuming you have already funded an emergency account and have all your monthly bills covered, why let money languish in an ordinary savings account, earning today's meager interest rates, when you could invest it and put it to work for you? By setting up an automated contribution to your brokerage account every month, you won't be tempted to spend the money, and you will take emotion out of your decision to invest. The money will automatically flow into whatever asset allocation you have decided is best for your long-term goals.

    As long as you make sure to choose low-fee options in each of these accounts, set it and forget it is the best way to save. You can't count on worry to motivate you, so you should instead take responsibility for your retirement saving out of your own fallible hands.

    Sarah Morgan is a contributing writer at SigFig. Nearly a million people use SigFig to track, improve and manage over $300 billion in investments.

     

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    <cutline_leadin>IRVINE COMPANY: </cutline_leadin>Broadcom is an American supplier of integrated circuits for broadband communica
    Alamy
    NEW YORK -- Avago Technologies is buying rival chipmaker Broadcom in a cash and stock deal worth about $37 billion, vastly expanding its lineup of products for the rapidly growing wireless device market at a time when sales growth has otherwise been tough to come by for smaller chipmakers.

    Hock Tan, Avago's president and chief executive, says that the deal will make his company the third largest semiconductor maker in terms of revenue and give it the most diversified communications platform in the industry, adding that there is very little overlap between Avago and Broadcom's products.

    Tan said that the proliferation of high-speed data services for wireless devices around the world has resulted in a jump in chip content per wireless device, as well as a surge in the amount of data traffic running through data centers.

    "We believe we are in the beginning stages of enhanced networking in the home as people use their wireless devices to connect to various entertainment, security and comfort functions that are all driven by pervasive broadband access," Tan said Thursday.

    "This acquisition will allow us to access this trend more deeply."

    The combined company will be worth $77 billion and is expected to post annual revenue of $15 billion. The acquisition also is expected to immediately boost Avago's adjusted profits and save it $750 million in costs on an annual run rate basis 18 months after the deal closes.

    Under the terms of the agreement, Avago will pay $17 billion in cash, along with the equivalent of about 140 million Avago shares, which were worth about $20 billion when the markets closed Wednesday.

    Broadcom shareholders will be able to trade each of their current shares for either a cash payment of $54.50, or 0.4378 shares of the new company's stock. When the deal closes, Broadcom shareholders will own about 32 percent of the combined company.

    Job Cuts

    Broadcom Corp.'s chips are used in smartphones, tablets and other devices. In July the company said it would shut down is baseband unit, which made chips that control communication functions in mobile devices. The Irvine, California-based company eliminated about 2,500 jobs in the process, saying it wanted to focus on the broadband, connectivity and infrastructure markets.

    Thursday's deal is the latest and largest in a series of deals for Avago Technologies Ltd. A year ago Avago brought LSI Corp. for $6.6 billion. The move was intended to strengthen Avago's position in the enterprise storage market and broaden its offerings. It later sold LSI's networking business to Intel Corp. (INTC) for $650 million. Earlier this month, Avago bought data and networking equipment maker Emulex for $606 million.

    Avago, which is based in both Singapore and San Jose, California, reported $4.27 billion in revenue in its latest fiscal year, which ended in November. Broadcom had $8.43 billion in revenue in 2014.

    Avago's (AVGO) shares had more than doubled over the last 12 months and they reached an all-time high Wednesday of $144.82. Broadcom (BRCM) shares are up 89 percent in the last year.

    Avago says it plans to fund the cash portion of the deal with a combination of cash and $9 billion in new debt. The deal, which has been approved by the boards of both companies, is expected to close in the first calendar quarter of 2016.

    In morning trading, Avago shares slipped 24 cents to $141.25 in morning trading, while Broadcom shares fell $1.19, or 2.1 percent, to $55.96.

    -AP business writer Marley Jay in New York contributed to this report.

     

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    By Nandita Bose

    CHICAGO -- Amazon.com (AMZN) said Thursday it will offer limited free same-day delivery under its Prime shipping service as retailers try to outdo each other on delivery deals, and expanded the service to San Diego and the Tampa Bay Area.

    Amazon offers same-day delivery to Prime members for $5.99 an order and non-members for $8.99, plus 99 cents a unit. The online retailer will allow Prime members free same-day shipping on orders over $35, Greg Greeley, head of Prime, told Reuters.

    We know same-day delivery volumes will grow dramatically now that we are making it free.

    "We know same-day delivery volumes will grow dramatically now that we are making it free," he said.

    Amazon's announcement comes within days of rival Walmart Stores (WMT) saying it plans to test a new unlimited online shipping service this summer for $50 a year, a move that may hurt Amazon, which has an annual $99 Prime shipping service.

    Google (GOOG) also recently launched its Express shopping option that allows retailers that do not have same-day delivery capabilities, to use its network in certain markets. Google Express costs $10 a month, or $95 a year.

    Amazon launched Prime a decade ago offering free, two-day shipping -- at first charging $79, then raising the service to $99 last year. In 2009 Prime launched same-day delivery and last year started a one-hour delivery service, Prime Now.

    Prime has become the cornerstone of Amazon's growth -- and a testing ground for new services ranging from television programs and movies to delivery-by-drone.

    In 2014, Amazon spent billions of dollars on Prime shipping and has invested $1.3 billion in its Prime video service.

    Earlier this year Amazon said U.S. Prime membership increased 50 percent in 2014. In December, it said customers ordered more than 10 times as many items via same-day delivery this holiday season, compared to a year earlier.

    The same-day delivery service is already available in cities such as New York, Philadelphia, the San Francisco Bay area, Seattle, Atlanta, Boston and Baltimore, among others.

    A recent study of 1,400 online shoppers by Walker Sands Communications found that free shipping was the feature most likely to get people to shop online, followed by free returns and one-day shipping. The study also found nearly 96 percent of respondents had made a purchase from Amazon in the past year.

     

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    College graduates around the country are currently coming down from the post-graduation highs and either waking up to screeching alarms way earlier than they ever had class or the sinking realization that getting a J-O-B is crucial to adult-life survival.

    First paychecks might get blown on rounds at the bar in celebration of being a successful adult, after all student loan payments don't kick in for another few months. The lucky ones getting a signing bonus could be tempted to splurge for an upgraded set of wheels or an above budget apartment. There are just so many mistakes a 22-year-old with limited financial experience is likely to make.

    But in this time of celebration and uncertainty, one rule should reign supreme when making money decisions: the less than 50 percent rule.

    Keeping Fixed Expenses in Check

    Life after college is immediately followed by decisions about where to live, how much to pay for an apartment, how to handle student loan debt, figuring out transportation costs and budgeting for everyday spend. It can be enough to send business majors into a bit of a tailspin.

    The goal should be to keep fixed expenses like student loans, rent and cost of transportation at less than 50 percent of your monthly take home pay.

    Keeping to this ratio may be difficult in major cities, but millennials striking out alone for the first time should recognize living in a pricey city is often a privilege. Moving to New York or San Francisco to pursue your dreams is admirable, but it shouldn't continue to sink you into debt. Don't finance your dreams on credit cards or personal loans. Your future self will thank you.

    The Calculation

    Wondering if you can meet the 50 percent rule? Well, the typical millennial needs to first calculate monthly payments on student loans.

    The grace period may still exist for another five months, but it's important to know how much your lenders will be demanding from each paycheck.

    You can use studentloans.gov to get an estimate on your federal student loan payments and look into income-based repayment plans and forgiveness programs to help soften the blow.

    Once you have your student loan payments figured out, subtract that number from your monthly take home pay to see how much is left each month for your remaining fixed expenses.

    The cost of your apartment and transportation is in your control, but your student loan debt is more-or-less set in stone. If your loans will be eating up a significant chunk of each paycheck, you're restricted on apartments you can afford and need to minimize the cost of transportation.

    Millennials who managed to evade the bear trap of student loan debt should moderate the 50 percent rule to 30 or 40 percent and be sure to get serious about saving for retirement and short-term goals early on. Don't think of avoiding student loan debt as a reason to be makin' it rain in your early 20s just because you don't have major debt.

    Avoid the Regrets of Your Peers

    Young graduates, don't be fooled into thinking that handling personal finances is something you can focus on when you "grow up." Your slightly older peers would caution you to take heed of the warning to get in control of your money now.

    A recent survey by MagnifyMoney.com of millennials who graduated in the last four years yielded four big regrets from the mid-20-somethings.
    1. Not saving enough: 31%
    2. Not learning personal finance in school: 26%
    3. Not being more careful about loans and debt: 23%
    4. Not establishing credit sooner: 19%
    These regrets are easy to avoid if you take the proper steps now.

    Fortunately, you have the advantage of foresight to keep from making the same mistakes people who graduated no more than four years ago made. By starting good financial practices now and spending no more than 50 percent of your income in fixed expenses, you'll be able to set yourself up for wealth in the future.

    Erin Lowry writes for DailyFinance on issues relating to millennials, money and personal finance. She is the blogger behind Broke Millennial, where her sarcastic sense of humor entertains and educates her peers. She is also the content director for MagnifyMoney.

     

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    Be Savvy About Repair Service
    The truth is, there are many repair service companies that will try to scam you. Here's how to avoid the trouble.

    "Fix-it fraudsters," as they are called, will ask for payment in advance and then buy materials for cheap in order to pocket the leftover money. But a legitimate repair service will have credit lines with local suppliers so you don't get charged a dime until your repair job is complete.

    Also, watch out for any technician that asks to take your appliance away for repairs. Nowadays virtually all appliances can be fixed in-home so there's never a good reason for your appliance to leave your house.

    Remember, when it comes to hiring a repair service, being a little bit savvy can save you money and a lot of headaches. Looking out for these red flags will get your appliance repaired, without doing damage to your savings.

    View Poll





     

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    By Lucia Mutikani

    The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly rose last week, but remained at levels consistent with a strengthening labor market.

    Initial claims for state unemployment benefits rose 7,000 to a seasonally adjusted 282,000 for the week ended May 23, the Labor Department said Thursday.

    Claims for the prior week were revised to show 1,000 more applications received than previously reported.

    The dollar fell against a basket of currencies, while prices for U.S. Treasury debt rose slightly.

    Despite last week's increase, claims stayed below 300,000, a threshold associated with a firming jobs market, for a 12th straight week, an unusually long stretch given a sluggish economic backdrop.

    Outside the energy sector, which has suffered thousands of job losses because of a sharp decline in crude oil prices, layoffs remain subdued even as economic growth is struggling to rebound strongly after slumping at the start of the year.

    April data on retail sales and industrial production suggest the economy was growing modestly early in the second quarter, but upbeat reports on housing, consumer confidence and business spending plans hinted at some acceleration as some drags on growth either fade or ease.

    Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims slipping to 270,000 last week. A Labor Department analyst said there was nothing unusual in the state-level data.

    The four-week moving average of claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, increased 5,000 last week to 271,500.

    Thursday's claims report showed the number of people still receiving benefits after an initial week of aid rose 11,000 to 2.22 million in the week ended May 16. The so-called continuing claims covered the period during which the government surveyed households for May's unemployment rate.

    The four-week moving average of continuing claims declined 70,250 between the April and May survey periods, suggesting a dip in the jobless rate from a near seven-year low of 5.4 percent last month.

     

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