6 Free (or Cheap) Tools We Used to Make More Money & Get Out of Debt

tools-to-help-grow-your-business

Employment gives us a lot — a sense of security, a regular paycheck, health and life insurance and other perks, but what about our dreams? How much do we give up to be employed by someone else and work on their dreams? How do we change so that we’re both financially free and personally happy?

We paid off $51,000 in credit card debt and became financially free. When we started our dream business three years ago, our goal was to build a business so that — from anywhere in the world — we could help others become financially free. We decided we wanted geographic freedom along with financial freedom. We’ve achieved this through our writing, speaking, videos and podcast.

The same tools that keep us digitally connected to grade school friends and celebrities are also a source for information and a platform to grow a business.

The barriers of entry to start a business today are lower than ever. With a tablet, a website and a few social media accounts, a few hundred dollars spent on moderately sophisticated recording equipment and basic editing knowledge gleaned online, you may be able to turn your hobby into a successful blog, podcast or video show.

The trick is learning how to monetize these mediums. This can be done with affiliate marketing, sponsorships and branding that provide multiple (horizontal) income streams, eliminating the risk of the single (vertical) income stream. But the first step comes in learning about your given industry and what the leaders of a platform or marketplace are doing.

Below are the six tools we still use today to help grow our business.

1. YouTube

YouTube isn’t just for music videos and beauty video bloggers. YouTube is for ME: motivation and education.

Whether we’re paying full or partial attention, motivational videos keep us positive. Starting your own business isn’t easy and there are times we get negative. Negativity must be remedied. As Willie Nelson once said, “Once you replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you’ll start having positive results.” And we’re always looking for positive results.

We’ve used YouTube as a teacher. It’s taught us about creating tags and categories for our website, how to manage lists in Twitter and video editing. We’ve spent hours studying public speakers on their style, tempo and delivery.

If you want videos that both motivate and teach you the art of public speaking, you can’t lose by YouTubing anything with Lisa Nichols.

2. Podcasts

Podcasts supplement YouTube and offer access to today’s leading minds for free and on your own time. Listening while we work, drive or exercise allows us to challenge ourselves to new ways of thinking, which helps us in our personal and professional lives.

Want to know what Mark Zuckerberg is planning next for Facebook? Want to learn what Tim Gunn thinks of today’s fashion? Want to hear what world leaders think of today’s current affairs? Podcasts can be your answer. Two of our favorites are Sean Croxton’s “The Sessions” and Stephen Christopher’s “Business Revolution.”

3. Apps

Can’t afford a personal coach? Neither could we, so we turned to apps. Apps are a great alternative and can be the tools that help get you to where you want your career to go. With just your phone or tablet and the right level of engagement, some business and life coaching apps can be as helpful as some business and life coaching humans.

4. Books

Nothing beats books. Though certainly not new, the accessibility of books is new. On Amazon alone, an average of 1.064 million digital books were downloaded each day, as of January 2016. There are many free books available on Amazon or at your local library. Here’s another secret: Don’t only source your books from the bestseller’s lists. There are great books being published independently. Give someone lesser known a try. Two such books are “True to Your Core” and “Discover. Act. Engage.” These are both powerful books that haven’t been picked up by a major publisher yet.

5. Facebook Groups

Facebook is more than cat videos and memes about the drudgery of the 9-to-5 grind. Facebook groups offer valuable information and support. Whatever your specialty or niche, you can likely find a Facebook group for it. Within these groups, people share their successes and failures, ask questions and throw out ideas. These are motivating and inspiring discussions that can have a much wider reach than they did before the days of social media.

6. LinkedIn Groups

You can do more with LinkedIn than create a digital resume. Like Facebook, but on a more professional level, are LinkedIn groups. LinkedIn groups are especially good for career guidance and networking.

To be fair, you may already be aware of some or all the tools we mentioned. What we hope we’ve demonstrated here are our ways to help you embrace what’s available to you and get you closer to financial freedom.

[Editor’s Note: Saving money and paying off debt can be an important part of any financial plan and can even benefit your credit. You can see how your spending behaviors are affecting your credit by viewing two of your free credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.]

Image: Jacob Ammentorp Lund

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How to Tell If You’ve Been Hacked (& What to Do About It)

youve-been-hacked

Due to the countless ways we connect digitally, the odds of getting hacked are right up there with the likelihood of catching a cold — and like the common cold, you can increase or decrease your risk of exposure to germs that may make you miserable.

The goal of a particular hacker may be the creation of a spamming-for-dollars botnet or cracking a target that requires an enormous amount of computing power. It might be grabbing information for identity-related crimes. Increasingly, it involves ransomware that takes an organization’s servers hostage until extortion demands are met.

There are so many phishing schemes floating in cyberspace, so many pitfalls set by hackers, the chances are good you’ve already come in contact with malware of one stripe or another. One recent estimate found that more than half of the infected files in cloud storage apps get shared.

Digital hygiene isn’t much different from any other kind, but in the same way parents pass on common sense advice to wash your hands frequently during cold and flu season, it’s crucial to learn about your various exposures and how to spot trouble when it happens.

The most important behavior needed here is restraint. If you’re not sure about a file or a link, take a breath and listen to the cyber angel sitting on your shoulder who says, “Don’t click.”

When It Happens?

The best way to reduce the odds of falling for something is to accept the premise that that you will almost certainly get hacked — in the event that for some reason beyond the ken of understanding you haven’t been hacked already.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do everything you can to prevent it, but the real thing to focus attention on is the telltale signs that a hack has already happened.

Identifying Social Media Nightmares

The most obvious sign that your social media account has been hacked is the appearance of posts that you didn’t put there, whether they show up on your timeline or feed — often spammy-looking advertisements for goods or services. You may also discover messages that you didn’t send, or be unable to access your account after a hacker has changed the password and your recovery email and phone number.

If you log in to any of your social media accounts and find a random flood of new friends or there’s suddenly a bunch of complete strangers you are now following that you neither confirmed nor requested, you’ve been hacked and need to take action.

Related, though not hacking per se, is account-cloning. This is what happens when a hacker creates a timeline that looks just like yours but isn’t — a copy made of stolen photos and information from your timeline to trick your friends into providing personal information that can (and most likely will) be used to turn a profit.

What To Do: On Facebook, regularly monitor the active sessions on your account. If you see logins from strange locations or posts that you don’t recognize on any social media account, assume there’s a problem and immediately change your password (not to “password” or 1234567). If you see that someone has cloned your timeline, follow the instructions on Facebook’s Help Community site. Instagram users should go to its Help Center. And Twitter followers of the non-Carlos Danger variety — i.e., those who’ve actually been hacked — can go to its Help Center as well.

Keeping Your PCs Clean

If you are running older versions of software with known security issues or have failed to upgrade your anti-virus software, the odds are better than ever that your machine has been infected with some form of malware.

Signs that your PC has been compromised are many and various, but one of the key ways a compromise manifests itself is slowness. Nothing else is going on (no programs are running), but your computer takes F-O-R-E-V-E-R to accomplish the simplest tasks. Other signs: Toolbars, programs and pop-ups appear; there are new programs in Windows Start Up, you can’t shut down or your anti-virus program is disabled.

What To Do: Most everything you need to know to remove malware from your PC can be found online. The bottom line: Do something. Don’t assume that because your computer is working more or less that everything is okay.

Safeguarding Your Mac

Although it’s not as common, iOS can, and does, get hacked. The signs are similar: Your machine is moving glacially on the simplest tasks, strange pop-ups appear. You may discover fake anti-virus programs.

What to Do: Visit the Apple Genius bar, but bear in mind, many Anti-Virus programs can be the culprit as they sometimes require serious processing power. Regardless, your destination is the same since the experts at the Genius Bar will be able to determine the issue quickly and most likely solve your problem that day.

Protecting iCloud

The indications that your iCloud account has been compromised are numerous. You may start receiving emails about password changes or attempts to login in to your iCloud account. If you use two-factor authentication, you may get requests for your token or security code even though you didn’t initiate the process.

While you may think it’s a glitch, it probably isn’t. Ignore these emails at your peril. Chances are good that it’s either a hacker or your kid. Either way, you need to take action.

Watch out for downloads and iTunes purchases that you don’t recognize, and if your phone no longer works correctly or does strange things, you may well be having a problem.

What To Do: Change passwords, and if that doesn’t do the trick, head over to the nearest Genius Bar.

Smart Email Security

It’s relatively easy to hack an email account, so the first rule is to stay vigilant. Check your email regularly and also monitor your Sent file. That may give you the first indication of a problem.

When it comes to Gmail in particular, it’s easy to see if you are having an issue. To be sure, go to Last Account Activity at the bottom of your Gmail Inbox. This will show you the last 10 logins. If you don’t recognize something there, you may have a hacker in your stuff.

Next, email forwarding can be an issue because no one ever checks it, but hackers use it all the time. You can make sure your email is not being forwarded by going to settings and then to the Forwarding and Pop/IMAP tab. POP/IMAP is another way a hacker can tap into your email, since the feature allows email to appear on any device that has the password. Best to disable this feature if you’re not using it.

At the end of the day, getting hacked is becoming almost as commonplace as breathing, but it needn’t be an extinction-level event. That said, if you download ransomware, it can be costly. (If you ever have reason to believe you were hacked, it’s a good idea to monitor your credit for signs of identity theft. You can view a free credit report summary, along with two free credit scores, updated every 14 days, on Credit.com.)

There is no magic wand and impenetrable moat that keeps the bad guys out. You must be thoughtful, deliberative and cautious in order to avoid the tricks and traps that are laying in wait behind a cute baby panda video.

Image: Pinkypills

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Afraid of Catfishing? A New Tool Is Trying to Make the Internet Safer

fake-internet-followers

Anyone who’s read oddly positive online reviews or happened on Twitter users with suspiciously large followings knows that the Internet is full of fakes. Bogus followers or fake reviews aren’t just annoying — they call into question the very notion of crowdsourcing, one of the Internet’s most valuable tools.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are hard at work developing automated tools to separate fake from real, attempting to restore the credibility of the wisdom of crowds. They call their new system Fraudar, a play on the word radar, and it works by detecting users who are almost certainly real. The Fraudar algorithm is open source, meaning it’s free for any company to use.

Those who create fake reviews and followers have long been engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with sites that facilitate sharing. Simple techniques like buying Twitter followers still work, but they are fairly easily uncovered. You’ve probably seen Twitter users with huge numbers of followers and accounts followed, for example, which is a sign that the user simply engages in follow-for-follow schemes.

Taking that scheme to the next level, criminals create two layers of fake accounts — “fraud” and “accomplice.” Accomplices are designed to act more like real users, and work to connect with actual users. These accomplices then interact with “fraud” accounts – accounts used to sell 1,000 Twitter followers, for example, or to commit actual scams on online auction sites — lending them an air of legitimacy. These two-sided arrangements form what researches call a bipartite core.

Plotted on a graph, the lines between various users trying to game the system on both sides form a dense center, hence the name, said Christos Faloutsos, professor of machine learning and computer science at Carnegie Mellon.

“It creates a very strange constellation [wherein] 1,000 people agree to admire the same two or three people,” he said. “This is a red flag.”

To avoid detection, fake account managers further try to camouflage themselves by mixing in authentic users. That’s where you come in. If you’ve ever been proud that some seemingly Internet famous person asked to follow you, you were probably being used. Fake accounts also follow real famous folks, like Lady Gaga or President Barack Obama, to add additional camouflage.

“They do this to make their accounts look normal,” Faloutsos said. Such camouflage works more often than not, he added, because current methods to detect fakes are not “adversarially robust.”

Detecting Normal Activity

Fraudar works because, ironically, it’s good at spotting normal activity. It picks out likely real users, them separates them from the clusters it spots. When those are removed, the bipartite core can easily be revealed.

“The algorithm begins by finding accounts that it can confidently identify as legitimate — accounts that may follow a few random people, those that post only an occasional review and those that otherwise have normal behaviors. This pruning occurs repeatedly and rapidly,” Carnegie Mellon said. “As these legitimate accounts are eliminated, so is the camouflage the fraudsters rely upon. This makes bipartite cores easier to spot.”

The algorithm works in part because it’s capable of scanning massive amounts of data very quickly. In real-world experiments using Twitter data for 41.7 million users and 1.47 billion followers, Fraudar fingered more than 4,000 accounts not previously identified as fraudulent, including many that used known follower-buying services, Carnegie Mellon said.

“The algorithm is very fast and doesn’t require us to target anybody,” Faloutsos said. “We hope that by making this code available as open source, social media platforms can put it to good use.”

Twitter did not immediately respond to Credit.com’s request for comment on the experiments.

Ultimately, Carnegie Mellon hopes the tool can be used to spot fake product reviews, fake advertising offers and even politicians who exaggerate their Internet popularity.

During the previous presidential election cycle, there were accusations of fake followers. In 2011, Newt Gingrich was accused of buying nearly a million Twitter followers. Then in August 2012, a CNET report noted Mitt Romney gained 116,000 Twitter followers in one day, which was wildly out of pattern. The issue isn’t one-sided. The Daily Mail said Barack Obama has nearly 20 million fake followers.

The issue is important because if fake reviews are allowed to crowd out real content, users will begin to ignore them altogether.

“It’s widespread right now because it works,” Faloutsos said. “But it distorts reality and translates dollars into false impressions. We are trying to stop that.”

(Editor’s Note: Keeping a close eye on your credit can help you monitor for signs of identity theft following other forms of fraud that can occur over the internet, such as email phishing. You can view two of your credit scores, updated every two weeks, for free on Credit.com.)

Image: jean gill

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How Staying Off Social Media Can Keep You Safer & Happier This Summer

sharing-on-social-media

Let’s face it, there’s no bigger downer than working all day and coming home to images of other people’s awesome vacations — that is, nothing except maybe coming home to find out you’ve been robbed or had your identity stolen.

According the Pew Research Center, 65% of adults use social media, and among people aged 18 to 29, the percentage skyrockets to more than 90% of the population. For a family with kids, a staggering amount of information finds its way onto potentially public forums. As usage increases, so too does the risk of identity-related crimes.

FOMO Gets Real

The good folks at Merriam-Webster added about 2,000 new words to the company’s unabridged dictionary this year, among them, “FOMO,” an acronym that stands for “fear of missing out.” This fear has created an environment where hundreds of millions of social media users overshare every morsel of their lives as a quid for connecting in a virtual setting with others who have a similar unquenchable thirst.

Unfortunately, this type of over-sharing — and, even, FOMO, itself — could be leading to bigger issues.

Feeling Depressed?

It really could be FOMO. Studies have shown that the fear of missing out causes anxiety and depression, and that it can resemble addiction. And here’s the problem with that: The attendant distraction level produced can open the door to mistakes. Distraction is all a thief needs to scam you. FOMO exposes you and your family to crime.

A good fraudster or scam artist can use all kinds of information — things that seem completely un-useable to the non-criminal mind — to profit at your expense.

And, if you don’t think getting robbed should count as an identity-related crime, consider the fact that burglars and identity thieves routinely scour social media to find targets — including people who are on vacation. The home address and current location of a social media user can be relatively easy to figure for a savvy surfer.

While a lot of FOMO happens on social sites like Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook or YouTube, there’s plenty happening by way of text, too, especially among young people who can easily generate hundreds, even thousands, of messages in no time.

On the texting front, with so many texts whizzing around you and your kids, it is way too easy to click on a phishing link that downloads malware, and from there it’s just a matter of time before you are scammed.

FOGRO (Fear of Getting Ripped Off)

The antidote for all this fevered activity? FOGRO, or fear of getting ripped off. And while, admittedly, it isn’t as much fun to say, it might be a step in the right direction.

The key to rightsizing FOMO might be admitting it could be a problem. That may be all it takes to instill a little fear of getting ripped off, and with that, a slightly less reactive connection to the media we use, whether social or person-to-person communication.

Even a momentary pause before posting or clicking can mean the difference between a normal day and a nightmare.

Talk about the pause button with your family, and why it matters.

Since it seems unlikely that current trends in social media use are going to take a turn for the safer, I thought it might be helpful to review how to best navigate social media so it’s use is more secure.

Rules for Safer Social

  1. Set privacy settings as tightly as possible. Don’t let strangers see anything that can be used to verify your identity or that of your children (date of birth, email address, place of work, home address, schools attended, places where you’ve lived, maiden names, etc).
  2. Don’t interact with strangers, and talk to your kids about what it means to accept followers on the various accounts they use.
  3. Since there are bragging rights attached to likes and followers, make sure your family understands what kinds of information can be used to scam you.
  4. Nothing personal: I know people who refer to their children by number on social media, and others who wish happy birthday to their own kids online with everything but his or her Social Security number. Less is more (security) when online.
  5. Never click a link that’s texted to you, and make sure your kids don’t either.
  6. Turn off location services. This feature isn’t necessary on social. Location services tell people — including crooks — where you are and where you aren’t. Don’t use this feature.

Remember, you’re always one click away from trouble. (If you believe you’ve been a victim of identity theft, you may want to monitor your credit. You can view two of your scores, updated each month, for free on Credit.com and view your annual credit reports at AnnualCreditReport.com.)

More on Identity Theft:

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17 Ridiculous Tweets About How to Spend Your Money

LaughingShoppers

Money is wonderful. And terrible. And exciting and exhausting and confusing and pretty much any emotion you can possibly feel. When you think about it that way, it’s not surprising we make mistakes with our money, put off decisions we know we should make or wish we could just have someone else deal with our finances every once in a while.

Twitter is a fantastic reflection of people’s complicated relationship with money. Like when we know buying something doesn’t make a lot of sense but we get it anyway:

Or want other people to justify our spending habits:

There are a lot of hilarious and ridiculous things people tweet about money, and even when it’s not serious, it’s relatable. For example, we’ve all had this feeling:

And definitely had this realization:

But that doesn’t stop us from doing things like this:

Or ignoring our instincts:

Or flat-out making decisions we know make no sense:

But it’s not just you:

Peer pressure, man:

It’s not like you don’t try to make good decisions and be responsible:

But there’s always something else you could do with your budget:

Plus, choosing between needs and wants can be really confusing:

(Brake. Drake. So close.)

It’s like money and logic are in a constant competition:

And of course, food complicates everything:

(Yes. If pizza is the question, the answer is always yes.)

In all seriousness, figuring out your finances and knowing when to save while still having fun can be stressful, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. What’ll really be frustrating is if you end up dealing with debt or bad credit because you made a lot of bad financial decisions. The good news is, with most money problems, you can find a way to recover. You can learn about how to improve your credit here, and you can track your financial goals, like your credit scores, for free on Credit.com.

More Money-Saving Reads:

Image: Vesna Andjic

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Can Your Smartphone Wreck Your Credit Score?

smartphone credit score

Credit scores have traditionally been based on past data: Lenders analyze a borrower’s payment history, her amount of debt and credit age in order to determine how likely she is to pay back her debt. But as society becomes more data-driven, could lenders start turning to smartphones to measure our creditworthiness?

In developing parts of the world, a few already are. Several Silicon Valley startups have launched mobile apps that use data culled from smartphones to underwrite and make micro-loans to users in countries such as Kenya and Tanzania, The Wall Street Journal reports. Here’s a look at how the new technology works and what it might mean for your credit score.

How the Apps Work

By downloading these apps onto smartphones, users grant micro-lenders access to any information, including texts, emails, time and duration of calls and payment records. Underwriting algorithms have begun to recognize that infrequent travel, fast-draining batteries and sending more texts than one receives are red flags, while evening phone calls, which show price sensitivity as they’re cheaper, receiving more texts and gambling—yes, gambling—are signs you’re reliable, WSJ says.

By analyzing these and other factors, lenders can deliver immediate approval and financing to customers. For instance, on the startup Inventure’s website, it says most of its small-dollar loans can reach borrowers across Africa in less than five minutes.

Are They Coming to a Phone Near You?

Using smartphone data in underwriting may work in emerging markets, such as South Africa or Nigeria, where banks (and financing) can be scarce. But the startups WSJ spoke with didn’t mention any plans to bring their tech to the U.S. And if they were to try, widespread adoption may prove difficult. Financing is easy to get in the States, so that could potentially negate the privacy tradeoff consumers would have to make to access a loan. Plus, financial institutions using this type of technology would need to be careful not to run afoul of fair lending laws.

That’s not to say the types of social data found on a smartphone won’t affect your ability to score a loan. Some alternative lending startups in the U.S. scan social media accounts as part of their loan decision process. And recently an executive at the credit scoring giant FICO suggested that Facebook profiles could have some worth in determining a person’s ability to repay. (FICO did clarify that timeline updates aren’t used to calculate credit scores.)

Even if social media can’t hurt your credit, other data has already made its way onto certain reports. Specialty renters’ reports, for instance, consider a tenant’s history, while credit scores designed to help the underbanked examine deeper credit card transaction data, among other things, to help those outside the traditional credit scoring system.

As such, consumers should think twice before posting on social media or other outlets. And no matter what data is in use, it’s important to keep an eye on your credit. You can pull your credit reports for free each year at AnnualCreditReport.com and see your credit scores for free each month on Credit.com. Scanning these reports for errors can be a great way to keep scores intact and prevent identity theft.

More on Credit Reports & Credit Scores:

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