Business

Consumer business by Denisha Maxey

WHEN FOLKS are looking to buy a puppy, they often turn to the internet. Numerous breeders can be found online, advertising cute and cuddly puppies for sale. Tons of photos are posted on websites of adorable pups just waiting for a loving home.


The photos are usually accompanied by a brief biography of the dog, claims of up-to-date vaccines and statements about its wonderful, healthy condition. Some websites also include five-star reviews accompanied by testimonials from previous customers. And then there’s a statement that, to seal the deal, the breeder is offering prices lower than normal at other businesses.
Excited by the opportunity to own the puppy of your dreams, you quickly contact the breeder to initiate your purchase. To your surprise, the puppy is still available! All you need to do is send money through Western Union or MoneyGram and your new puppy will be on its way.
Stop right there! Since the start of this year, Houston Better Business Bureau has received a marked increase in puppy-scam complaints describing the same scenario.
In this scenario, the consumer finds a puppy online, contacts the seller and is told to wire money and wait for their puppy to be shipped. All the complaints end the same way – the puppy never arrives, the “breeder” stops responding to calls and e-mails and now the consumer is out of hundreds of dollars!
If you are looking to buy a puppy, use these tips to avoid being a victim of a cute and cuddly online scam.
Buy from a breeder who has a named physical location. This not only gives you a real address for the business in case you encounter any issues but also allows you to be able to see the puppy before you actually purchase it.
If you have the breeder’s address, you can also tour the facility and see the conditions in which the puppies are kept. Mostly importantly, it avoids your new puppy having to be shipped you.
Check the website and pay close attention to red flags. A fake breeder’s website might look real because the fraudsters might have taken photos from a real breeder’s website. You can copy the images from the website and do an online image search to see if they appear on other sites.
In addition, copy wording from the puppies’ descriptions and paste it into a search engine to look for identical phrases. Often scammers do not take the time to come up with an original website. They just steal another breeder’s information, just like they are waiting to steal your money!
Last but certainly not least, do not be afraid to ask a breeder for several references naming buyers you can contact to verify their experience with the seller.
Never pay for your new puppy by using MoneyGram or Western Union. Always pay by check or credit card, which allows recourse if you do find out you have been scammed.
Finally, do not forget to report any scams on BBB’s scam tracker by visiting bbbhou.org.
Denisha Maxey is director of dispute resolution at Houston Better Business Bureau.

Practical money matters by Nathaniel Sillin

SOME homeowners can’t wait to see the assessed value of their home drop. In fact, they’ll tell you the bigger the drop the better. Why? Your property taxes depend on your tax rate and your property’s current market value, which is determined by a local assessor. You can’t dispute the tax rate but you might be able to show why the assessed value is too high.
An appeal that results in a lower value could save you money for years to come, so start the process by determining when you can appeal your home’s value assessment. You might be able to find the deadline on your local assessor’s website, which might also have instructions on how to file an appeal.
Some areas have a several-month window each year for appeals, often following the annual mailing of assessment value notices. In addition, you might be able to dispute your property’s assessment following a renovation or if you just bought the home.
Check your current assessment for errors. Every year, you should receive an official letter stating the assessed value of your home. If you think your property value is lower than the stated value, start collecting proof to demonstrate your reasoning.
One of the first things to look for is a mistake on your property’s description, which might be on the letter you receive or on your property card, which is available at the assessor’s office or online.
It’s not unheard of for a property card to list an extra bathroom or incorrect square footage. Assessors aren’t always able to look inside a home during an inspection and they might not know about renovations to a home.
Make a note of errors and try to estimate the value of each. You’ll be able to use these as a basis for your appeal. To strengthen your appeal, you might also want to find additional evidence.
Comparable properties. Try to make a list of four to six similar properties in your area and their market value. You could use real-estate websites that list recent or estimated sales prices, ask your neighbors or look through public databases to find official assessed values. If you find the homes’ sales prices or assessed values are lower than yours, or similar but your home is in worse condition, you might have a strong argument.
Repair costs. A leaky roof, cracked driveway or other issue could lower your property’s value. Make a list of the faults, estimate the cost for repairs and take pictures as proof.
Neighborhood changes. A property’s value depends on more than just the home itself. If nearby houses have been recently foreclosed or the schools’ rankings have dropped, your property could be worth less than it was before.
Professional assessment. You could hire a state-certified appraiser to estimate your property’s current value. However, the assessment might cost $300 to $500 and this action might only be a good idea if your research already looks fruitful. In some areas, you might need an official assessment to file an appeal.
Once you organize your evidence, it’s time to file an appeal and present your findings. The appeal process varies depending on where you live.
If you have a simple scenario, such as a mistake on your property card, you might be able to make your appeal over the phone. But some counties require you to submit the appeal online or by mail, or you might have to schedule an in-person review at the assessor’s office.
It could take several weeks to months to hear back. If the decision doesn’t come back in your favor, you could file another appeal with an independent review board.
Bottom line: After gathering evidence, you can make a showing for why your home’s assessed value is too high and potentially lower your property taxes. But think twice if you’re considering selling your home soon. A lower assessed value might affect how much someone is willing to pay for the property.
Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa’s Practical Money Skills For Life financial education programs. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/PracticalMoney. His articles are intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. Always consult a tax or financial adviser for information on how the law applies to your individual financial circumstances.

Guess which county city outranks all its neighbors for enterprise

By Trishna Buch

LEAGUE CITY, Friends-wood and Galveston, watch out – Texas City is miles ahead in the race to the top of the county’s business ladder!
According to a study by financial-advice website WalletHub, the city is the nation’s 39th most business-friendly small city for startups out of more than 1,200 townships included in the survey.
And when it comes to the average revenue per business, the city by the bay is the cream of the crop, tied for first place with Baytown, Deer Park, Port Arthur and Foster City, California, and La Vergne, Tennessee.
Meanwhile, League City is ranked 534th, Galveston 828th and Friendswood 1,036th out of the 1,261 cities included in the study.
WalletHub conducted the study to help build awareness for National Small Business Week, which will run from April 30 to May 6, and to shatter a myth that “bigger is better” when it comes to opening a business.
The study’s report, released on Monday, said that, although there are several disadvantages to opening a business in a small city, including less customer diversity and limited industry options, the likes of Texas City have advantages such as lower overhead costs that are attractive to entrepreneurs.
To rank the cities, analysts compared their business environment, access to resources and business costs. Within those three categories, they studied 16 factors including the average growth in the number of small business, financing accessibility, investor access, the number of startups per capita, average revenue per business, office-space availability and the local cost of living.
As well as earning first place in average revenue per business, Texas City ranked 59th for the growth in its number of small businesses, 140th for human-resource availability, 220th for the length of its average working week, 372nd for its labor costs and 587th for its financial accessibility.
Overall, it took 13th place in the business environment category, 1,152nd place for its access to resources and 600th place in the business costs category to produce its overall ranking of 39th.
Other Texas cities included in the study that finished above the median rank of 631 included Deer Park 17th, Baytown 45th, Port Arthur 94th, La Porte 99th, Spring 172nd, Conroe 387th, Tyler 498th and San Angelo 627th.
On the lower end of the scale were Eagle Pass 655th, North Richland Hills 667th, Lancaster 708th, Nacogdoches 729th, New Braunfels 732th, Weatherford 747th, Edinburg 818th, The Colony 967th and Lake Jackson 1137th.
• The Post was unable to reach a senior member of the Texas City-La Marque chamber of commerce for a reaction to the study’s findings before going to press on Monday evening.

Practical money matters by Nathaniel Sillin

THE PICTURE of retirement that many of us have is a post-work period filled with travel and plenty of relaxation. It’s a time when you can finally take up a new hobby, sink into the pile of books and enjoy more time with family and friends.
The reality is that many people haven’t been able to save enough money to enjoy this idealized retirement. What might their retirement look like?
You might be working for longer than you expected. Many people undergo a period of “phased retirement” and either reduce their hours or start a new part-time job after retiring from a full-time schedule.
Even those who don’t have a financial need might find that they value the activity and connections work brings to their lives. Without savings, continuing to work might not be a choice, but you can still look for fulfilling opportunities.
Continuing within the same profession part-time or taking on related consulting work could be the most financially rewarding route, if it’s an option. Alternatives such as customer-service positions with a retailer are popular among some retirees. There are also internet-based jobs that allow you to work from home.
Social-security payments could be the sole source of income for retirees who don’t have a pension or savings and stop working. Your social-security benefit depends on when you were born, how much you’ve paid into the program, when you start to take benefits and whether or not you’re eligible for a government pension.
Once you start receiving benefits, you’ll lock in your monthly amount, although it will be adjusted later to account for inflation. So deciding when to start taking social-security benefits is important, as it can impact your income for the rest of your life.
Claiming benefits once you reach your full or normal retirement age, 65 to 67 depending on when you were born, is when you’ll receive 100 per cent of your monthly social-security benefit. Taking benefits early can lock in a lower rate, while waiting can increase the monthly benefit.
In 2017, if you’re eligible for the maximum benefit and start claiming at 62, you’ll receive about $2,153 per month. If you waited until you were 70 this year, you’ll receive about $3,538 per month.
You can use the social security administration’s online retirement age calculator to see how taking social security early or waiting can affect your benefit.
You might have to downsize and make lifestyle changes. Moving to an area that has a significantly lower cost of living could mean the difference between living with financial challenges and having a comfortable retirement.
Some people look for less expensive areas close to family members or even an expatriate community abroad.
If you decide to stay in the same area, a smaller home can lower your property taxes and maintenance costs. You can also take any profits from the sale of a larger home and pay off debts or build an investment portfolio.
Housing aside, there are many ways to downsize your lifestyle, such as selling a vehicle, shopping at secondhand stores and cutting back on monthly entertainment expenses.
One helpful part of aging is that you’ll be eligible for all sorts of new discounts and benefits. Look online for lists of stores or organizations that offer senior discounts. You can use National Council On Aging’s online BenefitsCheckUp to see which benefits you might be eligible for based on your ZIP code and personal information.
Bottom line: Many aging Americans don’t have enough savings to fund their lifestyle through retirement. Deciding when to take social-security benefits and where to live in retirement are two of the most pressing questions on the horizon. No matter what you choose, you might need to supplement your income with part-time work and look for ways to significantly lower your cost of living in order to enjoy retirement.
Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa’s Practical Money Skills For Life financial education programs. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/PracticalMoney. His articles are intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. Always consult a tax or financial adviser for information on how the law applies to your individual financial circumstances.

Consumer business by Denisha Maxey

EVERY TIME you download an app on your mobile phone or other electronic device, a pop-up display asks for permission to access your data. Permission is requested to access your contacts, videos, photos and locations. If you decline the request, you might not be able to download the app.
Why is this information so important to companies? The answer is simple – for app-providing companies, your data equals big dollars. Information held in your phone or other electronic device, such as your contacts’ phone numbers, e-mail addresses or the locations of places you frequent is valuable.
Such information helps companies tailor their advertising efforts to fit “your” needs. When you are online reading the news or listening to music, have you ever noticed how advertisements pop up that are related to your recent online searches?
If you have recently searched the internet for a dentist or restaurant, or shopped from a clothing website, pop-up ads will match the items in which you have shown recent interest.
Companies are willing to pay millions of dollars to access your data and use it to generate revenue and there are several different ways that they utilize it.
Consumers’ data can be used for marketing purposes, new products or services research to create targeted advertisements. It is also sold to third-party companies.
Data collection can be beneficial not only for companies but for consumers as well. Just as you can select your personal preferences when setting up a social-media account, your data can be used to personalize the list of advertisements you see and the products and services you are offered.
Your online activity can be used to help shape your online experience but, as more companies start to depend heavily on consumer data for their business needs, it is also essential that they are transparent as to which consumer data they will collect and what it will be used for.
Consumers are less inclined to grant access to their data if they are not aware of what it is being used for. They are more likely to allow access if they know it involves benefits such as receiving coupons and special offers from retailers and other companies with which have previously initiated business interactions.
Consumers have an expectation that companies will manage their personal data responsibly.
Reviewing a company’s terms and conditions when it asks for permission to access your personal data can give you a better understanding of what data will be collected and how it will be used. But most people do not take the time to review the terms and conditions because it can be quite lengthy and contain technical language they might not understand.
However, we all should still take the time to review the information and educate ourselves on how our data is being used. Our mobile phones and other electronic devices hold personal information that’s not only valuable us but to commercial interests as well. Be an informed consumer and fully understand how a company is utilizing your data.
Denisha Maxey is director of dispute resolution at Houston Better Business Bureau.