June 2019 Savvy Senior Columns

Savvy Senior – June Columns

  1. How a Government Pension Might Reduce Your Social Security Benefits
  2. Thrifty Travel: How Retirees Can Find Cheap Travel Accommodations
  3. How to Protect Yourself from the Social Security Imposter Scam
  4. How to Choose and Use a Home Blood Pressure Monitor

How a Government Pension Might Reduce Your Social Security Benefits

Dear Savvy Senior,
As a teacher for 20 years, I receive a pension from a school system that did not withhold Social Security taxes from my pay. After teaching, I’ve been working for a small company where I do pay Social Security taxes. Now, approaching age 65, I would like to retire and apply for my Social Security benefits. But I’ve been told that my teacher’s pension may cause me to lose some of my Social Security. Is that true?
Ready to Retire

Dear Ready,
Yes, it’s true. It’s very likely that your Social Security retirement benefits will be reduced under the terms of a government rule called the Windfall Elimination Provision (or WEP).

The WEP affects people who receive pensions from jobs in which they were not required to pay Social Security taxes – for example, police officers, firefighters, teachers and state and local government workers whose employers were not part of the national Social Security system. People who worked for nonprofit or religious organizations before 1984 may also be outside the system.

Many of these people, like you, are also eligible for Social Security retirement or disability benefits based on other work they did over the course of their career for which Social Security taxes were paid.

Because of your teacher’s pension, Social Security will use a special formula to calculate your retirement benefits, reducing them compared to what you’d otherwise get.

How much they’ll be reduced depends on your work history. But one rule that generally applies is that your Social Security retirement benefits cannot be cut by more than half the size of your pension. And the WEP does not apply to survivor benefits.

If you’re married and die, your dependents can get a full Social Security payment, unless your spouse has earned his or her own government pension for which they didn’t pay Social Security taxes. If that’s the case, Social Security has another rule known as the Government Pension Offset (or GPO) that affects spouses or widows/widowers benefits.

Under the GPO, spousal and survivor benefits will be cut by two-thirds of the amount of their pension. And if their pension is large enough, their Social Security spousal or survivor benefits will be zero.

There are a few exceptions to these rules most of which are based on when you entered the Social Security workforce.

Why Do These Rules Exist?
According to the Social Security Administration, the reason Congress created the WEP (in 1983) and GPO (in 1977) was to create a more equitable system. People who get both a pension from non-Social Security work and benefits from Social Security-covered work get an unfair windfall due to the formula of how benefit amounts are calculated.

These rules ensure that government employees who don’t pay Social Security taxes would end up with roughly the same income as people who work in the private sector and do pay them.

For more information on the WEP visit SSA.gov/planners/retire/wep.html, where you’ll also find a link to their WEP online calculator to help you figure out how much your Social Security benefits may be reduced. And for more information on GPO, including a GPO calculator, see SSA.gov/planners/retire/gpo.html.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of The Savvy Senior book.
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Thrifty Travel: How Retirees Can Find Cheap Travel Accommodations

Dear Savvy Senior,
Can you recommend some good websites for finding cheaper travel accommodations? My husband and I love to travel but hotel costs eat up our budget so much that we can’t afford to go as often as we’d like. We’ve used Airbnb with some luck but are wondering if there are other options for budget-conscious retirees.
Retired Travelers

Dear Retired,
Accommodations are typically one of the costliest travel expenses. But, if you’re willing to do a little research and preplanning, there are a number of ways you can lower (or eliminate) your lodging costs and live more like a local when you travel. Here are some different options to consider and some websites that can help you locate them.

B&B Clubs
If you like staying in bed and breakfasts and have a spare bedroom yourself, check out the Evergreen Club (EvergreenClub.com) and the Affordable Travel Club (AffordableTravelClub.net).

These are B&B clubs for travelers over ages 50 or 40 that offer affordable lodging in the spare bedroom of other club members, or they may stay with you when they’re on the road. You pay a modest gratuity of around $20 per night, with breakfast. And the clubs charge membership fees of $65 to $75 per year.

Lower Cost Rentals
There are literally millions of privately-owned properties in the United States and abroad that are offered as short-term rentals. This has become a very popular alternative to hotels for retirees.

Renting a fully furnished apartment or house is usually cheaper than hotel rooms of comparable quality, and they almost always offer more space, a homier feel and a kitchen, which can save you the expense eating out every meal.

Short-term rentals are offered through the individual property owners or property-management companies. Some of the best sites for finding them include Airbnb.com, HomeAway.com and FlipKey.com. These sites are free to use for travelers.

Another nifty site you should check out is The Freebird Club (FreebirdClub.com) that connects 50-plus travelers with 50-plus hosts.

Unlike Airbnb and the other previously listed lodging rental sites, Freebird users pay a $31 fee to join and to have their identities verified. They then fill out a questionnaire asking where they’d like to travel and how much interaction they’d like to have with their hosts. On the other end, hosts are not offering rental properties and a key in a drop box, but their own homes, along with conversation and companionship, for much less than the price of a hotel.

House Sitting
If you have a flexible schedule and you don’t mind doing a few household chores when you travel, house sitting is another option that offers lodging for free.

How it works is you live in someone else’s home while they’re away for a long weekend or even a few months. And in exchange for the free accommodations, you take care of certain responsibilities such as their pets, lawn, garden, mail, etc.

To find these opportunities, try sites like Nomador.com, MindMyHouse.com, HouseCarers.com and TrustedHousesitters.com. They all charge a small membership fee.

Home Swapping
Another way to get free accommodations when you travel is by swapping homes with someone who’s interested in visiting the area where you live.

To make a swap, you’ll need to join an online home exchange service where you can list your home and get access to thousands of other listings. Then you simply email the owners of houses or apartments you’re interested in – or they email you – and you make arrangements.

Most home exchange sites like HomeExchange.com, HomeLink.org and Intervac-HomeExchange.com charge membership fees ranging from $50 to $150.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of The Savvy Senior book.

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How to Protect Yourself from the Social Security Imposter Scam

Dear Savvy Senior,
I recently received a strange call from a Social Security employee. He told me my Social Security number had been suspended because it was involved in a crime, and that I needed to reactivate it and secure my bank funds by withdrawing them and putting them on gift cards. Is this a scam?
Worried Rita

Dear Rita,
Yes. It’s actually known as the “Social Security imposter scam” and it’s becoming a widespread problem in the U.S. The Federal Trade Commission has received more than 76,000 reports about this growing scam in the past 12 months alone. With average losses of $1,500, this scam is quickly becoming one of fraudsters’ favorite tricks.

The Social Security imposter scam usually begins with a consumer receiving a call from someone claiming to be with the Social Security Administration. The caller informs the victim that their Social Security number (SSN) has been suspended because it was stolen or has been involved in a crime.

The phone call may be a robocaller with a message to “press 1” to speak with a fake support representative who then claims to be able to help reactivate the consumer’s SSN.

In a variation on this scam, the caller may also reach out to tell a victim that they qualify for an increase in benefits. All they need to do is provide the scammer with some information. Typically, these callers will ask their victims several questions to get personal information that they can then use to steal their identity or drain their bank accounts.

Because of the numerous data breaches, these scammers may have access to accurate personal information – such as your SSN – that they can use to build trust and appear legitimate. Regardless, before concluding the scam, fraudsters will almost always request payment to “unfreeze” the SSN or to process the increase in benefits. The scammer may request that they be paid via an unusual payment method such as by gift card (and giving the fraudster the gift card number), or some form of cryptocurrency like Bitcoin.

While the scam can be devastating, there are several steps you can take to prevent yourself, and your loved ones, from falling victim to this scam:

Don’t trust your caller ID: Scammers can make it look as if the Social Security Administration is calling and even use the agency’s real number. If you receive an unexpected call from Social Security, don’t answer it. Instead, call Social Security’s customer service number at 800-772-1213 to see if they were actually trying to contact you.

Remember, Social Security will never suspend your number or call and demand money: If anyone tells you something different, you’re being scammed.

Don’t give out personal information: Never give out your Social Security number, bank information or other personal details to an unknown caller. If you already did, visit IdentityTheft.gov/SSA to find out what steps you can take to protect your credit and your identity.

Don’t trust the caller just because they may know some of your personal information: It’s most likely a scam if the person on the other end asks to confirm your information.

Talk about the experience: Those who’ve been targeted should alert friends and neighbors about the call to spread information and report the scam to the FTC at FTC.gov/complaint.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.
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How to Choose and Use a Home Blood Pressure Monitor

Dear Savvy Senior,
I just found out I have stage 1 hypertension and my doctor recommended I get a home blood pressure monitor to keep an eye on it. Can you offer me any tips on choosing and using one?
Hypertensive Helen

Dear Helen,
It’s a smart idea! Everyone with elevated or high blood pressure – stage 1 (or 130/80) and higher – should consider getting a home blood pressure monitor. Home monitoring can help you keep tabs on your blood pressure in a comfortable setting. Plus, if you’re taking medication it will make certain it’s working, and alert you to a health problem if it arises.

Home Monitors

The best type of home blood pressure monitors to purchase are electric/battery powered automatic arm monitors, which are more reliable than wrist or fingertip monitors. With an automatic arm monitor, you simply wrap the cuff around your bicep and with the push of one button the cuff inflates and deflates automatically giving you your blood pressure reading on the display window in a matter of seconds.

Many monitors today also come with additional features like irregular heartbeat detection; a risk category indicator that tells you whether your blood pressure is in the high range; a data-averaging function that allows you to take multiple readings and get an overall average; multiple user memory that allows two or more users to save their readings; and downloadable memory that lets you transmit your data to your computer or smartphone.

You can find these monitors at pharmacies, medical supply stores or online, and you don’t need a prescription to buy one. Prices typically range between $40 and $100.

In most cases, original Medicare will not cover a home blood pressure monitor, but if you have a Medicare Advantage plan or a private health insurance policy it’s worth checking into, because some plans may provide coverage.

Some of the best automatic arm monitors as recommended by Consumer Reports are the Omron 10 Series BP786N ($75); Rite Aid Deluxe Automatic ($60); Omron Evolv BP7000 ($70); and A&D Medical UA767F ($45).

How to Measure
After you buy a monitor, it’s a good idea to take it to your doctor’s office so they can check its accuracy and make sure you’re using it properly. Here are some additional steps to follow to ensure you get accurate readings at home.

  • Relax: Don’t exercise, smoke or drink caffeinated drinks or alcohol for at least 30 minutes before measuring. Sit quietly for at least five minutes before you take a measurement and remain quiet during the test.
  • Sit correctly: Sit with your back straight and supported (on a dining chair, rather than a sofa). Your feet should be flat on the floor and your legs should not be crossed. Your arm should be supported on a flat surface (such as a table) with the upper arm at heart level. Make sure the middle of the cuff is placed directly above the bend of the elbow. Check your monitor’s instructions for an illustration.
  • Put the cuff directly on your bare skin: Putting it over clothes can raise your systolic (upper) number by up to 40 mmHg.
  • Measure at the same time every day: It’s important to take the readings at the same time each day, such as morning and evening. It doesn’t matter whether you do it before or after taking medication. Just be consistent.
  • Go to the bathroom: A full bladder can rise your systolic pressure by 10 to 15 mmHg.
  • Take multiple readings and record the results: Each time you measure, take two or three readings one minute apart and record the results by writing them down, or using an online tracker (see com).

For more information on high blood pressure numbers and how to accurately measure it at home, visit Heart.org/HBP.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of The Savvy Senior book.

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