August 30, 2014

Guest Post: The IRS Doesn’t Email and Other Tax Tips for Writers

By Carol Topp

With tax season right around the corner (or upon us) these tax tips from Carol Topp, an author and a CPA, are both useful and timely.

1. The IRS doesn’t email

The IRS does not initiate communication with taxpayers through email. They will only contact you via mail or telephone. Late last year I received an email claiming to be from the IRS stating they were investigating my tax return. I knew it was a scam because the year wasn’t over and my tax return had not been filed yet! If you receive an email claiming to be from the IRS do not reply, click on any links, or open any attachments.

2. Mileage records

I dislike recording my odometer readings, so I use Google maps to calculate mileage instead. Mileage records must be kept contemporaneously, meaning you should not rely on your memory, so I record the destination and mileage in my calendar. The IRS sets the per mile rate and adjusts it annually. For 2012 writers can deduct 55.5 cents per mile.

3. Business use of the home deduction

The business use of the home is a valuable tax deduction for writers, but you must use a specific part of your home only for business. You cannot mix business and personal activities such as letting the kids use your office for homework. For example, my home office is used only for business, but I meet clients at my dining room table which is also used for family meals. I can claim a deduction for my home office but not for the dining room.

4. Tax software can lie to you

“The IRS stopped the home office deduction,” an author told me. I knew that wasn’t correct. She had made a mistake in using the tax software and it failed to include a deduction for business use of the home. If something seems incorrect about your tax preparation software, contact the software provider, or better yet, consult a professional tax preparer. If there was a mistake made on your tax return, you can amend your return up to three years after the due date (plus extensions).

5. New Registered Tax Preparer

All tax preparers are now required to register with the IRS. But not all tax preparers are the same.  Registered tax preparers must pass a competency test and meet continuing education requirements. Tax attorneys, certified public accountants (CPA), and enrolled agents have higher testing and continuing education requirements than registered tax preparers. In addition, CPAs can represent you before the IRS and have ethical standards. They are business advisers, not merely tax preparers.

Carol Topp, CPA is an author and Certified Public Accountant. Her most recent book is Business Tips and Taxes for Writers. If you have a business or tax question, contact Carol at TaxesForWriters.com.

5 Time-Saving Tools for Freelancers

By Gwen Stewart

Time management is a critical tool for freelancers juggling multiple deadlines and assignments. There are a number of online tools designed to help entrepreneurs and creative professionals work more efficiently. Read on for a description of five popular time-saving tools used by freelancers.

  1. FreshBooks: Freelancers spend a lot of time of preparing invoices and handling billing. To streamline the process and handle these tasks more efficiently, consider FreshBooks. This useful app enables you to create professional invoices quickly and easily, bill clients and provide several payment options, and also generate comprehensive billing reports. FreshBooks comes complete with several invoice design options to choose from, making it a great application for small business of all types. You can also import data from several other programs and integrate with other billing systems.
  2. Google Calendar: Entrepreneurs looking for calendar and scheduling applications have a large bounty to choose from, but Google Calendar certainly seems to be one of the most well-liked and oft-used app. The program is easy to use and lets you quickly create multiple calendars to suit your needs for scheduling different projects and keeping track of task progress or events. It can also be linked with public calendars so that you can keep track of client’s progress on projects as well.
  3. PayPal: PayPal is an online payment site that allows individuals and business to accept payments from nearly anywhere in the world. The ease with which you can receive payments and transfer funds to and from your bank helps you save time. PayPal also enables you to create shopping cart buttons, print shipping information, purchase postage, and more. You can request funds, generate and send invoices, and take advantage of several merchant services. [Ed. note: PayPal also has a feature on its smartphone app that allows you to scan checks instead of depositing them at an ATM. However, I discovered that using my bank's smartphone app was quicker than waiting for the money to clear my PayPal account, then transferring it to my bank account. Either way, remote check deposit saves me a trip to the bank!]
  4. Zoho: Virtually everyone is familiar with the Microsoft Office Suite, but now you can go far beyond speadsheets, content creation and presentation tools with Zoho, a web-based suite of tools that includes both office and productivity tools designed especially for small businesses and entrepreneurs. The web-based applications enable you to access tools and documents at any time from any location so you can update an article or resend an invoice even while on the go.
  5. RescueTime: This web-based time management and analytics tool helps you understand how and where you spend your time and attention online. To begin, you tell RescueTime what you consider to be “productive time” online and what you do not. RescueTime simply pays attention to which tab or window you’re currently using and records the time spent. When you’re ready to take the next step, you can ask RescueTime to block certain websites should you find yourself in a more distracted state.

Gwen Stewart is a business development professional and writer for Outbounding.com. Her line of work requires she have a reliable way to send files as well as a solid strategy for meeting tight deadlines. Any spare time she can scrape together finds her hiking, reading, and enjoying the company of great friends.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Guest Post: Top Security Tips For Using Public Wi-Fi

Ed. Note: Tim Sohn’s post about places freelancers can access free Wi-Fi proved pretty popular even before Superstorm Sandy, but Reese has a good point about security. Read on for her tips about keeping your data secure while surfing on public Wi-Fi. Do you use any of these strategies? Or do you know of others? Leave a comment and let us know!

By Reese Jones

Public Wi-Fi can be a great way to get online, often for free, while you’re out and about. More and more people are making good use of their local Wi-Fi hotspots when using their smartphones or laptop computers. However, others are still wary of using public Wi-Fi due to the associated security risks. If you want to be able to access the internet using public Wi-Fi while keeping your personal data safe and secure, then here are a few tips to bear in mind.

Use Firewalls

One of the easiest ways to protect your computer when using pubic Wi-Fi is to make sure that your firewall is turned on. Most operating systems will already have a basic firewall installed, but it may not automatically be enabled. Although your firewall won’t offer complete protection, it can offer a degree of security when accessing public Wi-Fi networks.

Visit encrypted sites

In addition, you should also try to use SSL encrypted sites whenever possible. HTTPS and SSL connections encrypt data sent to and from a web server, so it becomes unreadable to hackers – something which can prove particularly important when entering passwords and other confidential information. Although most websites that require you to enter information will be automatically encrypted, it is worth double-checking to make sure the site URL starts with https:// rather than just http://, as this indicates a higher level of security.

Use Virtual Private Networks or VPNs

If possible, it is always a good idea to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN), as this will encrypt all information which you send and receive, even when you use an unsecured public Wi-Fi connection. In effect, you will have the security of a private network, even when using a public internet connection. Some businesses provide employees with their own VPN, especially if they might be required to work while on the move. However, if your employer doesn’t have a VPN for you to use, sites such as anchorfree.com also offer Hotspot Shield, a downloadable app which ensures VPN security settings are always in place.

Check your file and printer sharing settings

Your computer’s file and printer sharing capabilities can make you much more vulnerable to hackers when using public Wi-Fi. When at home or in an office, this feature allows you to share files and printer systems between more than one computer. However, by leaving sharing enabled when using public Wi-Fi, others using the same network may be able to access your private data more easily, especially if it is not password-protected. Simply disable the file and printer sharing feature to stay secure.

Beware of evil twin networks

It is also a good idea to double-check the name of the Wi-Fi connection you are planning to use. Hackers have been known to use “evil twin” networks, which use a similar name to the one you were hoping to connect to, and are designed purely to collect passwords and data. Whether you’re accessing Wi-Fi at a restaurant, train station or café, it can be worth finding out the exact name of the Wi-Fi network which they provide. The Wi-Fi connection is likely to be even more secure if you are required to give a password to gain access to the network.

Turn off your wireless and work downstream

Although Wi-Fi hotspots are often pleasant places to work, you may find that you do not always need to connect to the Wi-Fi network for the entire duration of your stay. If this is the case, then it can certainly be well worth turning off the wireless when you’re not using it in order to ensure your security. You may not have actively connected to a particular Wi-Fi network, but leaving your Wi-Fi enabled still leaves your computer vulnerable when in a public Wi-Fi hotspot.

Protect yourself again password peeping Toms

Lastly, it is also a good idea to be aware of the more physical risks of using public Wi-Fi. When you go online in a public place, you run the risk of having other looking over your shoulder and reading what’s on your screen. Take care that these peeping Toms (and Tomasinas) don’t see you typing in any passwords or credit card details. It can be a good idea to avoid accessing sensitive material altogether when using public Wi-Fi connections, and to keep your wits about you when entering confidential information.

Reese Jones is a tech and gadget lover, a die-hard fan of iOS and console games. She started her writing venture recently and writes about everything from quick tech tips, to mobile-specific news from the likes of O2, to tech-related DIY. Find more about her and her work at Reese+ and tweet her @r_am_jones.

Image courtesy of Just2shutter/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Guest Post: Essential Legal Resources for Freelancers

Unless you happen to have a J.D. yourself, you may not know about the legal issues that could effect freelance writers and self-employed workers. It won’t take long for you to realize that having contracts is an essential part of contract work, at least if you want to get paid. But even then it could be like pulling teeth to get your clients to hand over a check for services rendered.

The long and short of it is that running your own business means wearing a lot of hats, and you simply can’t do everything on your own. Luckily, there are plenty of resources out there that can prove handy for whatever your legal needs. Here are just a few to help you out–before you get into hot water.

Writing Resources

  1. Creative Commons. This service provides free tools that let you easily secure your creative work and assign the freedoms you want it to carry. The service and software are simple to use and an essential site for any creative professional concerned about protecting their work.
  2. Legal Guide for Bloggers. For you bloggers, the Electronic Frontier Foundation provides a comprehensive summary of blogging and U.S. law. Issues ranging from fair use to free speech and privacy are all covered on this thorough site. With the Legal Guide for Bloggers bookmarked you can cease to wonder whether a blog post will get you into trouble and focus on producing content. They help you with content too, even provide information on utilizing the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to buried information.
  3. U.S. Copyright Office. Another website every writer should get to know. Your writing is copyrighted the minute you release it in a public form, but the U.S. Copyright Office is where you can, for a fee, register for further protection on your work. However, the FAQ is free and remains the best tutorial around on copyright law.

Freelancing Resources

  1. ContractPal. This online service is one you’ll definitely want to bookmark in your browser. While contracts for your type of job can be as simple as a work order from the company that’s contracting with you (specifying the basics like work to be done, time of delivery, and amount of payment), many contractors like to have their own legal documents in place to protect them from issues like liability and non-payment. This business process-outsourcing site allows you to go paperless and send documents quickly and securely so that you can focus on work.
  2. Docracy. Not all independent contractors have cash just coming out of their ears, so you may be on the lookout for a services that provides cheap access to legal document templates. Docracy is that resource, and in truth, all of the templates on their website are free. All you have to do is download the consulting or sale document of your choice, alter it to reflect your personal needs, and you’ve got your basic contract. It may not be as ironclad as having something drawn up by a lawyer, but for most freelancers it will be sufficient to get the job done, so to speak.
  3. SBA.gov. Many independent contractors decide to form LLCs (limited liability corporations) as a way to protect themselves and their personal assets from business-related legal issues. If you opt to go this route, you may want to pop over to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) website. Most people view this site as a good resource for small business grants and loans (and it is), but it also has information on taxes, labor laws, social security, and more.
  4. Business attorney. As an independent contractor working from home you’re unlikely to need the services of an automobile, accident, or injury attorney. But you may need a lawyer at some point, and you want to make sure you hire the right kind. There are all kinds of specializations within the legal community, and you’ll need to find someone who is not only a business attorney, but who is familiar with your particular type of business. This will ensure that you have the most targeted legal services available.

Leon Harris  is a contributing writer for Hornsby Law, the premier Atlanta injury attorney.