Ask the expert: What is a USDA loan?

Many people are currently hoping to live the American Dream of becoming a homeowner, and according to Nerd Wallet, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s special home loan might just be the ticket they are seeking.

While this department might seem an unlikely place to find a loan for a new house, the point of the program is to help growth in the more rural parts of the country where incomes are typically lower than their urban counterparts. To spur that growth, USDA loans come with excellent benefits.

One of the most significant incentives for going after a USDA loan is that they require no money down at all to secure the loan and it guarantees lower interest rates. This will help young buyers or families that otherwise struggle to save up for a down payment on a traditional loan. Nearly 140,000 families were able to take advantage of this in 2014 alone.

The loans work in a couple of ways: loan guarantees and direct loans. With a loan guarantee, a buyer will use a local lender affiliated with the program. Then, the government will act as the guarantor on that loan so that the buyer will have access to better terms, much like how it would work using a co-signer. A direct loan is one issued straight from the USDA, and these are found among the low- and very low-income applicants to the program. Subsidies with direct loans can bring the interest rate down to as little as one percent.

The supply of houses that are eligible for the loan are located in rural areas. There are, however, some options in more suburban locations that could strike a right balance for daily commuters.

Applicants must also fall within some specific income, debt, and credit score thresholds and these vary from location to location. Typically, the monthly payment on the home cannot exceed 29 percent and credit scores should be at or above 660. USDA mortgage lenders will also be looking for a good payment history to other creditors, and applicants with a score under 580 will have to undergo a more thorough review.

Ransomware threat grows; small businesses at risk

A recent uptick in hackers using ransomware to take their victims’ data hostage means that organizations should aggressively move to back up data — and teach employees how hackers work.

According to PC Magazine, in a ransomware attack criminals deploy malicious code through email or websites. The code then encrypts computer data so that the company can no longer access it.

Criminals then demand payment for unlocking it.

The technique has been very successful. Ransomware reports rose 35-fold from the last quarter of 2015 to the first quarter of 2016. Some extremely high profile cases have made big news, such as the U.K.’s National Health Service data that cost the organization $100,000 in ransom and an estimated $1 billion in damages.

However, small businesses are just as likely — or more likely — to have a ransomware attack. In fact, according to PC magazine, some criminals exclusively target small businesses, which rarely have the IT resources in place to prevent such attacks. One attack on a small business can not only disrupt commerce, but likely poison relationships with larger companies.

Employees themselves are often responsible for letting the hackers in by downloading malicious files through email. These email attachments can masquerade as innocuous pdfs, but, in fact, they are executable programs. No one should ever click on an attachment in email if they do not recognize the sender.

Even legitimate websites can often host malicious programs and one visit to such a website can mean ransomware infection. Malicious links are one way these programs take over. Users should never click links or popups to update extensions, for example.

Preparation is key. Constantly update all computers. Updates might be a pain, but they are critical since updates often address security issues. Cybercriminals love old operating systems. They know how they work. They may not know yet how to compromise the newest and best systems.

Experts recommend deploying so-called hosted endpoint security to manage computers, networks and mobile devices. These inexpensive programs are provided by companies such as F-secure, Webroot Secure, and Avast.

Finally, a great step to take in avoiding ransomware involves finding a backup solution to fall back on in case the defenses fail and the data is already being held for ransom. Sophisticated solutions exist that allow a company to maintain several layers of backups that can be rolled back to a time before hackers compromised the data just like nothing ever happened.

If you are attacked, should you pay? Experts say no — easy to say but not easy to do if you are facing catastrophic data loss. But remember, these are criminals. There is no guarantee they will restore your systems after you pay and every chance they won’t.

Keeping track of a child at a theme park

One minute you are holding your kid’s hand, and the next, he’s gone.

At a crowded theme park, jostling crowds or just a busy kid can quickly turn a fun day into a terrifying experience for child and parent.

That was one mother’s fear as she struggled to hold on to her child at a theme park and she came up with a clever solution.

Michelle Walsh solved the problem that day by writing her cell phone number on her child’s arm. But later she improved upon the idea, creating the SafetyTat, a temporary tattoo for kids.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the plan worked well for one family touring a huge science center. In an instant, they lost track of their 4-year-old daughter. Then, just as quickly, the mother’s cell phone began ringing: Security had the child at the front desk. The tattoo worked.

SafetyTats are sold in children’s stores, amusement parks, travel stores, and online at safetytat.com.

You can get sticky labels with a place for a phone number and medical information.

Customized water-based tattoos can also be ordered online.

Renting out a room to travelers?

Millions of people are renting rooms in private homes instead of hotels. And millions are doing the ‘hosting.’

Before you join the crowd to rent out a room for that extra dash of cash, review your homeowners insurance.

Likely, your homeowners insurance doesn’t cover damage or liability if you rent rooms, according to How Stuff Works. Once you rent a room, your home becomes a business.

Be sure to talk to your insurance agent before you rent out a room. You might be well advised to get a landlord policy to cover liability and damage. That is especially true if you have a pool.

Can a Solo Entrepreneur get Commercial Insurance?

People who own their own businesses and have no other employees working for them may think that they don’t need to invest in commercial insurance. The truth is, though, that having commercial insurance is of the utmost value regardless of how many employees a business employs. Even if it is just a solo entrepreneur, having insurance protection is going to be incredibly important. 

Why is commercial insurance important for a solo entrepreneur? 

Just the same as any other type of business, a solo entrepreneur can get into trouble with slander, especially in today’s age and time with social media. With the right insurance policy, though, a business owner can rest assured that he or she will have coverage in the event that a lawsuit is brought against the company. 

Having commercial insurance is also important because it can provide income protection in the event that something was to happen to the company. Take for example the company endures a loss of important documents due to fire and is unable to operate for a period of 30 days. How will the business owner make money during this period of time? With the right insurance coverage, it becomes possible to take advantage of income protection, thus allowing the business to stay afloat even during and after a disaster takes place. 

For those who own their own business, it is highly recommended to consider the many benefits that go along with having commercial insurance. If you have questions about this type of insurance, please do not hesitate to reach out and contact an insurance agent with InsureUS serving the Cypress, TX area. 

Facts to teach your new teen driver

Teen drivers are inexperienced, usually distracted, and impulsive, statistics show.

That’s every single teenager, from the A student to the wild child.

That won’t come as news to the insurance industry, which charges high rates for teen drivers. But, teens might not know the dangers of their own inexperience. Parents who are teaching their kids to drive might point out some sad truths.

First, teens have a lot of car accidents and car accidents kill.

Of all age groups, 16-year-olds have the highest crash rates, and a full third of all deaths among 13- to 19-year-olds are likely to occur in a car crash. In fact, more than 3,000 people die in car accidents every single day.

Second, teens are unusually distracted behind the wheel.

According to dosomething.org, more than half of teen drivers admit they use a phone while driving.

More worrisome is that texting can take eyes off the road for almost five seconds — a lot of time for something to go wrong. Car and Driver Magazine did a study on this and found texting while driving had the same effect as driving drunk.

Teens must learn to leave their phones unanswered while driving. That’s a lesson adults can learn too since 27 percent of adults have read or sent a text message while driving.

Third, driving around teen friends can be deadly. Fatality rates increase with each extra passengers in the car. It’s dangerous for the driver and for the teen rider. Fewer than half of teens say they would speak up if the driver was scaring them.

Teens must also recognize that their inexperience can get them into trouble. Driving in poor conditions such as snow, fog, or rain can be dangerous and teens must give the task their complete attention.