MONEY Markets

The Word on Wall Street Is It’s Okay to Be Bullish Again

After the market's triple-digit rebound on Friday, the bulls came out in force — on TV and social media. Here's how the talking heads explain the state of the market after one scary week.

After dramatic drops on Monday and Wednesday, the market took a turn for the better at the end of the week.

And the bulls started coming out of the woodwork.

“…the mid-week storm in the market was really a passing sun shower — though we did not know it at the time,” — Jonathan Lewis, chief investment officer, Samson Capital Advisors.

“…we remain steadfast with our multi-year bull-market scenario, as corrections and periods of consolidation are necessary ingredients to any prolonged bull market.” — Brian Belski, chief investment strategist BMO Capital Markets

“Whether the complete correction is over I’m not positive yet, but there looks to be some relative calm. I think the next leg is going to be higher.” – Jim Iuorio of TJM Institutional Services via CNBC

“The time to rebalance [and buy stocks] is when doing so requires courage and when things look ugly. Right now, investors are worried and see things as being ugly.” – David Kotok, chairman of Cumberland Advisors

A common theme from the bulls is that for all the worries about the global recovery, the U.S. economy looks solid:

“Ironically, the pullback in stocks has occurred against a backdrop of a strengthening U.S. economy.” — Gregg Fisher, chief investment officer at Gerstein Fisher

“The question is whether it is actually the beginning of a bear market. I don’t think so because I don’t expect a recession in the U.S. anytime soon.” — Edward Yardeni, president of Yardeni Research

Of course, Yardeni goes on to add that:

“the Eurozone and Japan may be heading in that direction now. So is Brazil. China is slowing significantly.”

Shouldn’t investors be worried, then, that a recession in the European Union could reverberate in the U.S.?

Fear not, the bulls have an answer for that:

“The impact of an E.U. slowdown on U.S. growth would be minimal: U.S. exports to the E.U. are a small proportion of GDP (2.8% in 2013)…” notes UBS economist Maury Harris.

Many point out that economic factors have not really shifted since a month ago, when the stock market seemed just fine.

“You can go deep in the weeds in this if you like, but the fact is that nothing fundamental has changed in recent weeks or months or quarters,” writes Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

In fact, global economic worries, which have led to lower oil prices, may end up being a boon.

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 9.38.52 AM

Many experts are saying that this week’s wild market swings are actually just the result of “narrative fallacy,” which leads investors to come up with explanations for market moves where they don’t necessarily exist — in this case placing blame on external forces like Ebola and fears of rising interest rates.

But who’s to say that the bulls aren’t the ones who are now coming with plausible-sounding explanations for why the rally should keep going?

For the record, the bears have more entertaining explanations in their quiver. For instance, there’s the McDonald’s theory. As in, “as the Big Mac goes, so goes the global economy.”

Permabear Marc Faber, who edits the Gloom Doom Boom site, noted the following:

“Now, McDonald’s is a very good indicator of the global economy. If McDonald’s doesn’t increase its sales, it tells you that the monetary policies have largely failed in the sense that prices are going up more than disposable income, and so people have less purchasing power.”

And Mickey D’s sales have been slumping badly lately.

Then there’s the so-called dental indicator.

Bloomberg Businessweek reported a nifty theory that says that the rate at which Americans cancel scheduled follow-up visits offers a good clue about the real state of the consumer — and in turn the financial markets.

“This is a forward indicator signifying lack of consumer confidence.” — Vijay Sikka, president of Sikka Software, as told to Bloomberg Businessweek

And the follow-through rate on follow-up dental visits has sunk to about where it was in 2007, just before the last downturn/bear market.

At this stage, it’s impossible to tell whether this is the start of bear market or a buying opportunity. However, what’s absolutely clear is that big dips are just a normal part of being a stock investor.

Despite anxieties about the Dow’s sudden plunge this week, if you look at historical performance, the index typically turns negative for the year often enough that it’s not a good doomsday indicator, says author and investment adviser Josh Brown.

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And at the end of the day, who’s to say which wacky theories wind up being right or wrong?

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 9.40.18 AM

MONEY stock market

3 Ways a Market Swoon Can Put Money in Your Pocket

Money in jeans pocket
Image Source—Getty Images

Though the stock market tumble has been scary, there are some upsides to all the bad news.

With the market down more than 7% in the last month, it’s easy to feel fearful for the parts of your life most immediately affected by a rocky financial world — like retirement savings and job security.

Certainly, there are plenty of good reasons to be cautious about the future, including high valuations and other signs the current bull market may be aging.

But a downtrodden market like this one can create pockets of opportunity for investors and consumers alike. Here are just a few ways you can benefit from the recent pullback.

1. Cheaper gas prices

Thanks to a supply glut and low demand, gasoline prices are hovering at less than $3 a gallon across the United States. And that’s despite international geopolitical unrest, which usually keeps oil expensive.

2. Low interest rates on mortgages

The Fed is keeping short-term rates low, and the sell-off has sent investors into Treasury bonds, driving down the yields that serve as a benchmark for borrowing costs throughout the economy. So mortgage rates have taken a big dip in the last month.

Interest on a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is now 4.01%, which means that if you’re sitting on a much higher rate from buying a home a few years ago, now could be a very opportune moment to refinance. Though the paperwork might be intimidating, letting inertia get the best of you could mean leaving literally tens of thousands of dollars on the table.

3. Stock-buying opportunities

When the market takes a big dive, it can be a good moment to purchase stocks, especially if your goal is to buy and hold for the long term. This is particularly true for younger people who have time on their side, as they stand to lose very little in the short term (even if stocks continue to drop) and can gain much more when the market eventually recovers.

So if you are a millennial and have been putting off opening (or upping contributions to) that 401(k), now is your moment to choose a plan. And even Gen X-ers generally have enough years ahead to take on some risk in their retirement portfolios.

Finally, if you’re not a driver, homeowner, or investor, there’s always that trip to Paris you’ve been putting off: Thanks to economic uncertainty in Europe, the Euro is trading for less than $1.30—the cheapest it’s been since last summer.

MONEY stocks

Putting the Market’s Tumble in Perspective

Specialist Jason Notter works at his post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, near the close of trading, Friday, Oct. 10, 2014.
Specialist Jason Notter works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. Stocks continued to fall on Monday. Richard Drew—AP

Investors have some cause for concern — but the recent volatility in the stock market needs to be put into context.

Monday’s late-day selloff left many investors pale, as the Dow suffered another triple-digit loss while the S&P 500 suffered its worst three-day drop since 2011.

Chalk it up to a blitz of bad news — including troubles in the Middle East, the Ebola outbreak, and fears about slowing global growth, particularly in Europe.

But it’s important to put matters in proper perspective.

The major stock market indexes have sunk in recent days, but not by a huge amount.

^SPX Chart

Some stocks have been hit harder — for instance airlines, thanks to fears over the economy and Ebola

^SPX Chart

… and small-company shares, which are more volatile to begin with.

^RUT Chart

Still, even with the sell-off, the S&P 500 has gained slightly more over the past 12 months than its historic annual average of 10.1%.

^SPXTR Chart

And while investors are more frightened than before, as measured by the so-called VIX “fear index”…

^VIX Chart

… the recent spike in the VIX pales in comparison to investor anxiety in 2011…

^VIX Chart

… or in the financial crisis.

^VIX Chart

There is one thing investors should worry about — and that’s market valuations.

Screen Shot 2014-10-13 at 6.01.22 PM

The so-called Shiller price/earnings ratio, which compares stock prices to the past 10 years of average corporate profits, is as high as it was heading into the financial crisis. And history shows that when the Shiller P/E, popularized by Nobel Prize winning economist Robert Shiller, is this far above the historic average of around 16, future stock market returns tend to be muted.

Will that be the case this time? Only time will tell.

MONEY Pop Culture

6 Money Lessons From Ben Affleck Movies

"Gone Girl" and other Ben Affleck films highlight the universal challenges of managing financial and career setbacks

“Want to test your marriage’s weak spots? Add one recession and subtract two jobs.”

That voiceover line establishes tension early on box-office topper Gone Girl, which grossed $38 million this weekend—a personal record for director David Fincher, who adapted Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel of the same name.

Ben Affleck, who plays a laid-off journalist suspected of murdering his wife in the film, is no stranger to characters whose motivations involve money. His portrayal of Gone Girl‘s Nick Dunne is the latest in a string of roles in which the pursuit of financial comfort (or the lack of it) drives motives and actions: There’s also the white-collar-turned-blue-collar worker in The Company Men, the rich and corrupt broker in Boiler Room, and the single father struggling to raise his daughter in Jersey Girl.

In these and other films, the economy and its discontents share the spotlight with Affleck. We mined the actor’s filmography for the ways in which these recurring themes raise questions—and, in some cases, offer insights—about money, job security, and work-life balance. Here are 6 lessons gleaned from Affleck’s oeuvre (the hits as well as the dogs).

  • Gone Girl: Nothing Stresses a Marriage Like Money Trouble

    GONE GIRL, from left: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, 2014.
    Merrick Morton—20th Century Fox/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Without revealing any spoilers, it’s safe to say Gone Girl is a story born of the recession.

    Nick and Amy Dunne, onetime New York “it” couple, experience “his-and-her layoffs” from their magazine-writing jobs in the city, forcing them to relocate to a quiet (fictional) Missouri town.

    Their marriage disintegrates as financial tensions build, in part because of how emasculated Nick feels borrowing money from Amy’s trust fund—and how annoyed Amy feels watching Nick spend it.

    While the whodunnit that follows is hardly typical of most American spouses, the Dunnes share one thing in common with the average U.S. couple: disagreements about finances.

    When MONEY surveyed more than 1,000 married adults this summer, we found that money is the biggest cause of conflict for couples, with 70% of respondents saying they argue about finances—above chores and even sex. In fact, 60% of those surveyed said they check their bank balances more often than they get frisky in the bedroom.

    Improving communication with your spouse about money is not something easily fixed overnight, but there are a few steps you can take. Take a cue from some real couples who have bettered their financial relationship: Create a fair division of labor when it comes to managing household finances, be conscious of showing appreciation of each other, and bring in a third-party mediator before things get really out of hand.

  • Boiler Room: Hang Up on That Stockbroker

    BOILER ROOM, Ben Affleck, Giovanni Ribisi, 2000
    New Line Cinema—Courtesy Everett Collection

    Though it’s based on the same pump-and-dump penny stock sale scheme that sent New York broker Jordan Belfort to prison, the 2000 film Boiler Room is no The Wolf of Wall Street.

    For one thing, the “I am a millionaire” speech Ben Affleck’s character delivers to prospective brokers is the closest the film comes to making wealth—and greed—seem sexy. And unlike Wolf, the movie focuses on the consequences felt by victims of the scam, many of whom were older adults conned out of their life savings over the telephone.

    Two big money takeaways from Boiler Room? First, in addition to stressing a relationship, bad communication also makes it harder to protect your family from scams. Harry, one of the film’s fictional victims, might have avoiding losing his money along with his marriage if he had involved his wife in his investment decisions. Likewise, it’s hard to protect vulnerable people in your life—aging parents, for example—if you don’t know how they are managing their money. So, after you sign up for the FTC’s scam alert emails, schedule that tough talk with your folks.

    Second, it’s never wise to invest in something you don’t understand—and most people don’t understand penny stocks. Even if outright fraud is not involved, here’s an explanation from MONEY’s Pat Regnier of why you should beware of penny stocks.

  • The Company Men: To Succeed, You Must Adapt

    THE COMPANY MEN, from left: Kevin Costner, Ben Affleck, 2010.
    Weinstein Company—Courtesy Everett Collection

    Another Ben Affleck flick that plays on class and recession themes, The Company Men focuses on the aftermath of mass layoffs at a shipbuilding company.

    Affleck’s character, Bobby Walker, must adapt to a blue-collar gig installing drywall with his brother-in-law (played by Kevin Costner) after losing his management job at the company and kissing his six-figure salary goodbye.

    Though Walker’s storyline touches on tough experiences that anyone who’s unexpectedly lost a job might recognize, like “humiliating outplacement seminars” and moving in with parents as an adult, an even harder fate is had by Walker’s colleague Phil Woodward. He gets hit not only by downsizing but also ageism, “advised to dye his gray hair and to tweak his résumé to omit any work reference before 1990.”

    Which is not to say that anyone facing a job loss should be without hope. First, if the writing is on the wall, prepare yourself by reviewing your company’s exit policy and downloading the professional contacts you’d like to keep to your personal computer or phone.

    Second, consider this a chance to remake yourself in a new career, as Affleck’s character eventually did. Just be sure you revise your resume to focus on the transferable skills that are relevant to prospective employers.

  • The Town: If You Pick the Wrong Bank, You’ll Pay

    THE TOWN, Ben Affleck, 2010.
    Claire Folger—Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection

    If there’s one takeaway from 2010’s The Town, which Affleck both starred in and directed, it’s to choose your bank wisely.

    Affleck’s character, Doug MacRay, robs a nearby bank with his gang and briefly holds hostage (then releases) a bank manager who happens to live in their neighborhood—a dangerous turn of events, since she can help identify them to the police.

    Hopefully when you’re picking a bank you’re focused on how to avoid fees, not arrest, but choosing the nearest branch still has consequences. The biggest and most visible banks with brick-and-mortar locations tend to be the ones that charge the highest fees and pay the lowest interest among competitors.

    Until MONEY’s 2014 Best Banks in America story comes out on October 31, start evaluating your current bank and decide if you’re ready for a change. If you’re paying ATM fees—or, really, any fees at all—you are probably paying too much.

  • Jersey Girl: Rich Dad Doesn’t Always Beat Poor Dad

    JERSEY GIRL, Ben Affleck, Raquel Castro, 2004.
    Miramax—Courtesy Everett Collection

    Kevin Smith-directed Jersey Girl includes many of the same financial motifs found in other Affleck vehicles, including layoffs and the indignity of going from riches to rags.

    But there are a few key distinctions: In this case, when Affleck’s character, Ollie Trinke, loses his job as a glamorous New York publicist, there’s no recession to blame. He is sacked after trashing client Will Smith (who is cast as himself in the film). Though the situation is played for humor, it is set against a somber backdrop; Trinke’s self-destructive behavior is driven by stress following the recent death of his wife, who left him a newborn to care for on his own.

    As Trinke adjusts to life in New Jersey, where he’s moved back in with his own father, he must grapple with a tough new job (as a garbage collector) and the even tougher challenge of raising his daughter. When, eventually, he gets the opportunity to return to a PR career in New York, the story gets interesting—and highlights big questions about work-life balance.

    Without giving too much away, it’s safe to say one lesson from Jersey Girl is that time with family is precious, and sometimes the best career move you can make is to focus less on your career and more on your kids.

  • Paycheck: Work With What You’ve Got

    PAYCHECK, Ben Affleck, 2003.
    Paramount—Courtesy Everett Collection

    This 2003 film adaptation of the eponymous Philip K. Dick short story might be a tale you can relate to: It follows one man’s quest for justice after receiving a disappointing paycheck.

    Yes, there are some differences between the protagonist (Affleck’s Michael Jennings) and most people. He is, after all, a memory-wiped “reverse engineer” who is also reasonably worried about a future-predicting device that threatens to destroy the financial system and cause nuclear war.

    But more relevant to the everyman, a key plot point involves Jennings anticipating a $92 million paycheck and instead receiving a envelope full of trinkets—an only slightly exaggerated version of how many people feel looking at their post-tax pay stubs.

    If, like Jennings, you find your paycheck isn’t quite what you hoped for, it’s not actually the end of the world. Just as Affleck’s character discovers that the trinkets are worth more than they seem, you might find you’re able to work with what you’ve got if you follow these two simple moves.

    First, make sure you are minimizing the taxes you owe to the IRS. Contributing the maximum to your retirement account and taking investment losses when appropriate can help you reduce your taxable income, meaning you’ll fork over less to Uncle Sam at tax time.

    Second, consider negotiating for a raise. Since there’s less opportunity to snag pay bumps as workers get older, there’s no time for procrastination on this point.

    Related:

    QUIZ: Which TV Couple Is Your Money Style Most Like?
    QUIZ: Which Movie Matches Your Travel Style—and Dream Destination?

MONEY office etiquette

Germans Say “Nein!” to Late-Night Work Email. Here’s How You Can, Too

Mariella Ahrens attends the Dresscoded Hippie Wiesn 2014 at Golfclub Gut Thailing on August 28, 2014 in Steinhoering near Ebersberg, Germany.
Turns out Germans may have us beat when it comes to balancing work and play. Gisela Schober—Getty Images

Sick of your boss's 3 a.m. emails? Maybe you should move to Germany—where support is growing for a law banning late-night work communication.

Despite their reputation for industriousness, it turns out Germans have a thing or two to teach us about work-life balance.

The country has shaved nearly 1,000 hours from the annual schedule of its average worker (compared with 200 hours in the U.S.) in the last half-century. And now a movement is growing there to make after-hours work emails verboten.

A newly initiated study on worker stress led by the German labor minister is expected to lead to legislation preventing employers from reaching out to employees outside of normal office hours. (That might surprise those who’d expect such a thing only from the French.)

Though the law wouldn’t come to fruition until 2016, Germans—and Europeans in general—are still slightly better off than Americans in the meantime. While the average work week in major developed countries is 47 hours, that number balloons to about 90 hours per week for U.S. workers (vs. 80 for Europeans) if you include time that people are checking email and staying available outside of the office.

“We have become such an instantaneous society,” says Peggy Post, a director of The Emily Post Institute and expert on business etiquette. “We’re expected to be on call 24/7.”

And all this late-night work isn’t without consequences: Studies have found that staying up checking work emails on smartphones actually makes workers less productive the next day because of effects on sleep. Other downsides include more mistakes and miscommunications.

In lieu of practicing your Deutsch and moving your whole life overseas, take back your “offline” time by doing the following:

1. Become an email whiz while at work.

One major reason we’re forced to take to our phones late at night and on weekends? Because it’s so hard to get actual work done during work these days, due to smaller staffs, long meetings, floods of email, and noisy open floor plans.

At least in some jobs, the more you get done during regular hours, the less you’ll be penalized if you aren’t available during evenings or weekends. Some experts suggest giving yourself a specific window during the day to handle emails. See nine specific tips on more efficient emailing from former Google CEO Eric Schmidt here. With smart rules, like “last in, first out,” you can become a speed demon.

And if you just can’t pack it all in, you might also think about a quick end-of-day meeting (preferably at the scheduled end of day) to check in with whomever you’re most likely to get emails from later on.

2. Make sure you understand the expectations.

You assume your boss wants an immediate response to that late-night brainstorm, but are you sure? It’s worth finding out.

Alison Green, who blogs at AskaManager.org has suggested phrasing your question as follows: “Hey, I’m assuming that it’s fine for me to wait to reply to emails sent over the weekend until I’m back at work on Monday, unless it’s an emergency. Let me know if that’s not the case.”

But what if the boss says that you really are expected to be at the ready? You might need to communicate your dissatisfaction with these terms—rather than succumbing to burnout.

Again, the words you choose are important. Green suggested the following: “I don’t mind responding occasionally if it’s an emergency, but I wonder if there’s a way to save everything else for when I’m back at work. I use the weekends to recharge so that I’m refreshed on Monday, and I’m often somewhere where I can’t easily answer work emails.”

Post agrees that how you speak up goes a long way toward getting the result you want. “Without whining, try to share specific constructive solutions,” says Post. “For example, you could suggest having employees take on separate after-hours times to be on call for different days of the week.”

3. Stop the cycle.

Remember, you’re perpetuating the expectation when you engage in these email chains. Should you write back once at 10 p.m., those above you will likely begin to assume that you’ll be available at that time (even if they didn’t initially expect you to be).

Likewise, if your boss emails you, you might feel that you’re in the clear to contact those below you in their free time. But that’s a no-no, according to many experts.

While you may simply be trying to send something while you remember it, you are actually putting someone else in the same predicament you’re in. Some suggest limiting yourself to answering or writing emails to between 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., unless there’s a particularly urgent need or project—though the right window for you probably depends upon your company and office culture.

And if you do have your most brilliant thought at 2 a.m.? Go ahead and write it, but then use a tool like Boomerang that lets you schedule it for a more reasonable post-shower hour.

MONEY Banking

Here’s One Thing You Probably Shouldn’t Get at Walmart

Cracked piggy bank with Walmart logo
MONEY (photo illustration)—Getty Images (photo)

Walmart's new partnership with GoBank may be a decent option for those unable to get a checking account from a traditional bank, but most consumers (even low-income ones) can find a better deal.

When Walmart announced Tuesday that it would soon be offering checking accounts for the masses—so its customers could, ostensibly, conveniently deposit their checks where they purchase all their household goods—we saw an opportunity to compare the new banking option to its competitors.

Thanks to research compiled for MONEY’s annual Best Banks in America story, the latest version of which will be out on newsstands on November 28, we were able to measure up the new account against more than 200 other checking accounts.

But before we jump into our analysis, it’s important to understand what exactly Walmart is doing. First of all, the retailer is not technically its own bank (since its efforts to become an official deposit institution were basically foiled by the banking industry in 2007). The Walmart will simply offer a GoBank account through its partner Green Dot, an FDIC-insured banking platform that currently issues Walmart’s prepaid card.

The GoBank checking account—no savings as of yet—comes with a relatively low $8.95 monthly “membership fee” (essentially a maintenance fee) that can be waived with a $500 monthly direct deposit. But perhaps more interesting is the fact that it has no overdraft fees whatsoever, and virtually anyone—even those with terrible credit or a history of bouncing checks—will be approved for an account.

Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate.com, says GoBank’s low eligibility requirements are unique in the industry and could be helpful to people who have frequent trouble with overdrafts. But McBride cautions that the people described make up a small subset of most consumers. Just one in seven bank customers have had more than one overdraft in the last year, meaning an even smaller subset of that group would be in dire need of GoBank’s leniency.

As it stands, the vast majority of people—even those with low incomes or mediocre credit scores—are able to qualify for checking accounts with similar or better terms than what GoBank offers, says McBride. Many competitors offer perks GoBank does not, such as interest payments or free use of out-of-network ATMs.

Below, we’ve set the account against some of the better options for standalone checking:

Account Maintenance Fee Minimum Interest Out-of-network ATM fees Overdraft fees? Credit score check to open?
Walmart’s GoBank Checking Account $8.95 (waived with a $500 monthly direct deposit) 0% $2.50 No No
E*Trade’s Max-Rate Checking Account $15 (waived with a $200 monthly direct deposit) 0.01% $0 (and all third-party ATM fees are reimbursed) Yes No, but they do check on past overdraft history.
Capital One’s 360 Checking Account $0 0.20% $0 Yes, but only $0.03 a day for every $100 of overdraft balance Yes
Ally Bank Interest Checking Account $0 0.10% $0 (and all third-party ATM fees are reimbursed) Yes Yes

For our Best Banks feature, MONEY also looked at mobile apps, and from what’s been announced so far, GoBank’s app does sound state of the art. A built-in budgeting program called Fortune Teller asks users to input their various bills and expenses, along with their salary and pay day. And once all the information is entered, users can ask Fortune Teller’s opinion before they buy something by entering in the price.

In theory, this sounds great—most people could use a virtual slap on the hand when they’re about to overspend. But the devil is in the details. It’s unknown how much of a financial buffer Fortune Teller’s algorithm leaves when it tells a person he or she can afford a purchase. And when the advice is coming, however indirectly, from a store that has plenty of things to sell to you, you’d be smart to be skeptical.

In other words, just because you can afford that $1,000 Gollum Halloween party prop doesn’t mean you should buy it. And just because you can get easily approved for this bank account doesn’t mean you should apply.

Related:

MONEY 101: How do I pick a bank?

MONEY Taxes

How Identity Thieves Stole $5.2 Billion from the IRS

Invisible Man at computer
Getty Images

And how to make sure you won't be their next target.

More than $5 billion, with a B: that’s how much the IRS estimates it mistakenly paid to identity thieves last year, according to a new study from the Government Accountability Office. The thieves filed fraudulent tax returns on behalf of unsuspecting citizens, and the IRS didn’t catch the fraud until after long after the refund checks had been sent. The only good news? It could have been a lot more money. The IRS estimates it identified and stopped another $24.2 billion in attempted fraud — but the agency acknowledges it’s hard to calculate the full extent of the problem.

Here’s how thieves get away with it: You usually receive a W-2 from your employer by the end of January, then file your tax return by April 15. During that time, thieves steal your identifying information, file fake returns on your behalf, and collect the refund check. It all happens pretty quickly, since the IRS tries to issue your refund within three weeks of receiving your return.

Employers have until March to send their W-2s to the Social Security Administration, which later forwards the documents to the IRS. The IRS doesn’t begin checking tax returns against employers’ W-2s until July. The GAO has found that it can take a year or longer for the IRS to complete the checks and catch the theft.

The easiest way you can deter this kind of fraud? File early, and file electronically. Once the IRS receives a return with your social security number, the agency will reject any duplicate filings and notify you right away. The IRS is also piloting an initiative to issue single-use identity protection PIN numbers to taxpayers who have verified their identities.

Still, the danger could be growing: As recently as 2010, tax- and wage-related identity theft made up just 16% of all ID-theft complaints at the Federal Trade Commission. Last year that portion rose to 43%. Below are four more common ways ID thieves can strike — and what you can do to protect yourself.

1) Purloined paper.

Have tax documents sent to a P.O. box or delivered electronically so they can’t go missing. Shred extra copies. “Your tax return needs to be treated as an item of extreme privacy,” says Staten Island CPA John Vento.

2) Unsecure networks.

Never file electronically over public Wi-Fi or a network that’s not password-protected. Make sure you have up-to-date antivirus software and a firewall on your home computer.

3) Dodgy emails.

Be leery of any email claiming to be an IRS notice of an outstanding refund or a pending investigation; the IRS will never email you to request sensitive information. Forward suspect messages to phishing@irs.gov. Other electronic traps: fake websites similar to irs.gov, and tweets purporting to be from the IRS (@IRSnews is the verified handle).

4) Phone fakes.

In October of last year, the IRS warned of a sophisticated phone scam in which callers already knew the last four digits of your Social Security number and mimicked the IRS toll-free number on your caller ID. If the IRS calls you out of the blue, hang up and call back (800-829-1040).

This advice was excerpted from MONEY’s 2014 Tax Guide.

MONEY salary

5 Ways Women Can Close the Pay Gap for Themselves

woman standing at bottom of steps with man standing above her
iStock

New Census data found that women earn 78¢ to every $1 men do. These moves can help you get closer to even on your own paycheck.

If you have two X chromosomes and a job, the latest numbers on the wage gap will likely leave you feeling frustrated: Women make only 78¢ for every dollar a man makes, the Census just reported, marking all of a 1¢ improvement over 2012.

Meanwhile, Republican senators blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act this week, which called for greater salary transparency and would have required employers to be able to prove that wage differences were based on factors other than gender.

Overcoming the barriers to equal pay isn’t proving to be easy. And there are some factors we can’t move the needle on as individuals. For example, childbearing counts against us, in what economists have dubbed the “motherhood penalty.” We pay both a per-child wage penalty and also may be dunned for working fewer hours because of our caregiving responsibility. And then there’s straight-up discrimination, which is very hard to prove despite being so palpable to many of us at certain moments in our careers. (Perhaps this explains why one study found that 41% of the pay gap is unexplained!)

Closing the gap a penny at a time is still progress. But for those of you who don’t want to—or can’t—wait around until 2058 to see equal pay, here are five strategies to at least get you closer to even with your XY counterparts.

1. Negotiate smarter…

Working women have heard it all before: We’re not aggressive enough in asking for higher pay; we are bad at negotiating. But if do negotiate aggressively, well, that gets held against us.

But we’ve got to find a way to make it work for us if we want to get paid a fair wage.

So what can we do? Hannah Riley Bowles, a senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School who has done research on what makes women successful in negotiations, has found that being collaborative—using “we” and trying to take the perspective of the company and hiring manager—tends to be more effective than other approaches.

She also emphasizes authenticity, so try to come up with language that feels comfortable and natural for you to use.

2. …and from the outset.

A 2011 study by Catalyst tracked 3,300 high-performing students in M.B.A. programs as they began their careers, and found that while 47% of women and 52% of men had countered the initial offer made for their current job, only 31% of women vs. 50% of men had countered the offer for the first job they had out of grad school.

While it’s good that women are catching on to the importance of negotiating, we need to encourage them to do it sooner.

“Failing to negotiate your salary from the start is not only an initial mistake; it is one that will continue to follow you and will be compounded over the years, disadvantaging you throughout the remainder of your career. Every raise you get, every bonus you receive and even the number of stock options you are awarded, will be smaller because these amounts are normally determined as a percentage of your artificially low base salary,” wrote Lee Miller, author of A Woman’s Guide to Successful Negotiating on six-figure job-search site TheLadders.

Say you started out $5,000 behind your male peer, making $40,000 vs. his $45,000. If you each got 3% raises for each of the next five years, you’d be making $46,371 vs. his $52,167, expanding the difference to $5,798 and you’d have given up $26,546 in income differential in those years.

The longer this goes on, the harder it is to catch up.

3. Push for promotions early on.

According to Payscale, “women’s pay growth stops outpacing men’s at around age 30, which is when college-educated women typically start having children.” Furthermore, women’s pay peaks at age 39 at $60,000, vs. $95,000 at age 48 for men.

That suggests that a smart move would be to try to move up the ladder before you decide to raise a family.

“How women negotiate their career paths is arguably a more important determinant of lifetime earnings than negotiating a little extra money,” Hannah Riley Bowles told The New York Times recently.

4. Work in a fairer field.

Part of the problem, according to Sarah Jane Glynn, associate director for women’s economic policy at the Center for American Progress, is that a large proportion of women are clustered in a relatively few fields: 44% are in 20 occupations. And typically within those professions, the majority of workers are women. As Glynn has written,

“Female-dominated industries pay lower wages than male-dominated industries requiring similar skill levels, and the effect is stronger in jobs that require higher levels of education.”

So just try for a higher-paying male-dominated field, right? That can help. Harvard labor economist Claudia Goldin found that, for college grads, moving into such a profession would eliminate an average 30% to 35% of the wage gap.

But that’s not always a home run. Goldin found that female aircraft pilots and financial advisors earn less on the dollar compared to male peers than the average worker, at 71% and 73% respectively.

Goldin did find that the pay gap is much smaller than the average in certain fields—including ad sales, dental hygiene, HR, chemistry, pharmacy, and computer programming. But she pegs the slim difference to the fact that these fields allow a specific kind of flexibility that allows one worker to easily sub out for another, if, say, someone has to stay home with a sick kid.

5. Toot your own horn.

That Catalyst study of M.B.A. grads found that, of those women who said they made their achievements known to others in the organization, 30% had greater compensation growth than peers who did not promote themselves.

Some of the qualities found in these folks: “ensuring their manager was aware of their accomplishments, seeking feedback and credit as
appropriate, and asking for a promotion when they felt it was deserved.”

Sounds easy enough on paper, but in real life, this kind of self-promotion isn’t always easy for women.

To make it more palatable, Laura Donovan of Levo League suggests being selective about the moments you do this (e.g. yes to scoring the $1 million client, no to pushing through the report that’s expected of you), choosing the right audience for your message (don’t blast the full staff), and focusing on facts rather than self-congratulation (“I just wanted you to know that we’ve signed the contract with Client Y, for $1 million over two years….”).

Also, focus on the upside: The Catalyst study suggested that self-promotion can help you gain sponsorship from important allies who can help you further advance in your career, and hopefully get you closer to closing the pay gap.

MONEY Careers

10 Social Media Blunders That Cost a Millennial a Job — or Worse

Fake Facebook post
Photo illustration by MONEY. Lumi Images—Alamy (inset); Sean Murphy—Getty Images (main)

A generation that lives its life on Facebook and Twitter learns the hard way that the bar for what can get you fired is surprisingly low.

As managers grow savvier (and Facebook privacy settings grow meaningless) it is increasingly foolish to assume that those years-old photos of you double-fisting shots won’t come back to haunt you—and maybe even wreak havoc on your career. A whopping 93% of recruiters check out social media profiles of prospective hires.

“Social media is now so woven into the fabric of young people’s lives that they forget not everything is suitable to put out there,” says former hiring manager Alison Green, who runs askamanager.org. “People are looking.”

So remember your boss, work colleagues, and hiring managers can see your most polarizing tweets, even if they aren’t following you. And even if your public Facebook profile looks like Fort Knox, anyone can see images you’re tagged in by using graph search. Typing “photos of person’s name” into the search window reveals hidden pictures. Test it out to see how creepy it is.

Also note that a social media mistake can ruin your shot at a job without you ever knowing. Green, for example, never told a certain oversharing applicant (let’s call him the “masturblogger”: see #2 below) about why he wasn’t hired for a job at her nonprofit. “To people who don’t lock down their accounts because ‘it’s never been a problem,’ I say, you don’t know whether that’s true,” she says.

If you’re not at least a little worried yet, here are 10 real-life mistakes, ranked from least to most egregious, that could cost you your next job—or worse, make you the next viral cautionary tale.

10. Drinking in a photo—even if you’re over 21. Yes, seriously. A teacher in Georgia was asked to resign because of a Facebook photo of her holding wine and a beer.

9. Complaining about your job. A British teen was let go from a marketing gig after colleagues saw a Facebook post in which she described her job shredding paper as “dull,” even though she didn’t mention the name of the company.

8. Posting while you’re supposed to be working. A city clerk in California’s Bay area was asked to resign this year for allegedly tweeting during council meetings when she was supposed to be taking down meeting minutes. In her resignation letter, she described the job as a “mind-numbingly inane experience I would not wish on anyone.”

7. Making fun of your boss / team. An EMS employee was booted for badmouthing her boss on Facebook (though she ended up with the National Labor Relations Board on her side), and a Pittsburgh Pirates mascot, whose work included racing on the field in a pierogi costume, was briefly fired for a post criticizing the contract extensions of two players—though he was back in his costume a week later.

6. Making fun of clients or donors. While working at a nonprofit, Green nearly fired an employee after the young woman snarkily tweeted a photo of a donation card on which a donor had written eccentric comments. Not only was it in bad taste, says Green, but it revealed the donor’s name. After deleting the tweet (and getting an earful about judgment and boundaries), the woman kept her job.

5. Talking smack about a job before you’ve even accepted it. Technically, the then-22-year-old in question says she had already turned down an internship at Cisco before sending out a tweet saying she’d have to weigh a “fatty paycheck” against “hating the work,” but her subsequent infamy serves as a lesson to other prospective hires.

4. Blowing your own cover. A bank intern who asked to skip work because “something came up at home” became a victim of internet shaming after his boss saw a Facebook photo of him holding a beer, dressed (more or less) like Tinkerbell at what appeared to be a Halloween party. The photo, plus screenshots of his supervisor’s response— “hope everything is ok in New York. (cool wand)” —went viral, though it turns out he was never actually fired.

3. Revealing company secrets. Back in 2011, it was widely reported that an extra on Fox’s award-winning show “Glee” was fired after tweeting spoilers for an upcoming episode. In tweets that are still visible on his feed, a series co-creator told her, “Hope you’re qualified to do something besides work in entertainment” and “Who are you to spoil something talented people have spent months to create?” But according to the extra herself, Nicole Crowther, she hadn’t actually worked on the show that season and the spoilers were just speculation—not inside information. That didn’t stop her story from going viral, complete with online harassment: “I received physical threats of violence, and death threats through social media,” Crowther told MONEY.

2. Sexual oversharing. Green once interviewed a young man whose resume included a link to a private blog—which described personal details about chronic masturbation. “I suspect he’d left that link on there by accident, but it demonstrated very poor judgment,” says Green. Needless to say, he did not get the job.

1. Posting something embarrassing on the corporate Twitter feed. A contracted social media strategist was canned after accidentally posting a tweet on Chrysler’s company feed, instead of his personal feed, insulting local drivers: “I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to f****** drive.” Given the circumstances, Chrysler’s response was surprisingly sanguine.

MONEY Google

10 Ways Google Has Changed the World

Google Earth view
Google

It's been a decade since Google went public. Here are 10 ways the company has transformed the market—and our lives— since.

Back in 2004, investors weren’t entirely sure what to make of Google, and skeptics abounded. Fast-forward to today, when we can look back at how far the company has come, in ways that inspire both awe and concern. Below are 10 examples of its influence.

1. It has changed our language. Despite Microsoft’s best efforts, there’s a reason “Bing” never caught on as a verb, let alone as a beleaguered anthropomorphic meme. The phrase “to Google” is so popular that the company is actually worried about losing trademark rights if the term becomes generic, like “escalator” and “zipper,” which were once trademarked.

2. It has changed our brains. Recent research has confirmed suspicions that 24/7 access to (near) limitless information is not only bad for human discourse—it’s also making us worse at remembering things, regardless of whether we try. And even if we aren’t conscious of it, our brains are primed to think about the Internet as soon as we start trying to recall the answer to a tough trivia question. Essentially, Google has become our collective mental crutch.

3. It set the stage for Facebook and Twitter’s sky-high valuations. Yes, lofty valuations based on mere speculation were also common back in the dot-com fervor of the ’90s, says Ed Crotty, chief investment officer for Davidson Investment Advisors. But Google broke new ground by proving that even just the potential for a huge audience could pay off in a big way.

“In the early days, when people were thinking in terms of web portals, the barriers to entry didn’t seem high for search,” Crotty says. That meant Google’s competitive advantage wasn’t clear. But “the tipping point was when Google was able to scale up their audience enough to attract ad agencies, and then further improve their algorithms, since those get better with scale. That’s partly why you see tech companies now willing to forgo profits for a period of time in order to build an audience.” And also why investors are willing to throw money their way.

4. It has taken over our cell phones. Since the first Android phone was sold in 2008, Google’s mobile operating system has bulldozed the competition. Today it claims nearly 85% of market share, nearly doubling its hold over the last three years. Next stop, self-driving cars?

5. It has transformed the way we use e-mail. Gmail was invented a decade ago, before bottomless inboxes were a sine qua non. It’s hard even to remember those dark ages when storage space was sacred—and deleting emails was as tedious-but-necessary as flossing. Today our accounts serve as mausoleums, housing long-forgotten files, links, and even whole relationships. Google itself has touted alternative uses for Gmail, such as setting up a virtual time capsule for your newborn—though in practice accounts can’t be owned by anyone under 13. But even that last point is about to change.

6. It’s changed how we collaborate. Back in 2006, Google acquired the company behind an online word processor named Writely. With that bet, Google created a world where it’s taken for granted that people can collaborate on virtually any type of document, whether for work, play, or (literally) revolution.

7. It has allowed us to travel the globe from our desks. Yes, MapQuest was popular first. But Google Maps (and Earth) has become much more than a tool for measuring travel routes and times. Since Google Street View came onto the scene in 2007, it’s been possible to “visit” distant destinations, give friends a virtual tour of your hometown, plan ahead of trips, and waste even more time on the Internet. Of course, the more popular a tool, the more useful it is to those who’d like to spy on us.

8. It has influenced the news we read. Ranking high in Google search results is serious business and can have a profound effect on the success of companies, media outlets, and even politicians. When I just Googled “how SEO affects journalism,” this link was at the top of my search results. How is that significant? Well, for one, that story itself has been so successfully search engine optimized that it still tops the list despite being four years old.

But most importantly, many of the concerns raised in the piece have not gone away—such as the pressure to “file some pithy blog post about the hot topic of the moment” at the expense of covering stories that would be prioritized based on traditional measures of newsworthiness. What that means for you, the reader: more headlines like this and this.

9. It has turned users into commodities. We all love free stuff, but it’s easy to forget that services offered by companies like Google and Facebook aren’t truly “free,” as data expert Bruce Schneier has pointed out. Remember that all of your data (across ALL of the services you use, and that includes Calendar, Maps, and so on) is a valuable good that Google is packaging and selling to its real customers—advertisers.

10. It’s changed how everyone else sees YOU. Unlike your Facebook profile, the links that turn up when potential employers (or love interests) Google you can be near-impossible to erase. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Google uses the fear of embarrassing search results to encourage people to manage their image through Google+ profiles.

Related:
4 Crazy Google Ambitions
The 8 Worst Predictions About Google

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