How to spot fake news

Social media and online platforms are full of misinformation and fake news at the best of times so in the midst of a pandemic, the problem only escalates. Conspiracy theories, fake cures and scams abound – myths that 5G causes coronavirus, that COVID-19 is a biochemical weapon released by China, or that drinking bleach can cure infected patients start to circulate like crazy.        

The power of social media lies in its ability to spread rapidly so the minute we like, share, or retweet something fake, we’re just amplifying it. We’re also more likely to forward something without thinking when we’re scared or angry because we’re anxious to ‘inform’ or protect someone else. 

So now more than ever we need to watch out for fake news. But how to spot what is genuine? And how to stop something going viral? 

Check the source

It’s always good to start from a position of scepticism. Ask yourself, is this real? Look to see who is sharing the information and who has published it. Does the language sound heavily biased or sensationalist? Memes on social media should be viewed with caution. They can often look authentic, especially if they feature a public figure and a quote. But double check the facts – did they actually say that, was it even the right era?   

Look more closely 

Zoom in on a picture to check all the details and confirm whether the location is authentic. Look for shop fronts, billboards, placards, car registration numbers or street signs. Does the language  on the signs in the image tally with the location in the headline? Platforms like Google, Bing, TinEye or Yandex enable you to check when an image first appeared on the Internet so you can tell whether it has been taken recently or it is an old picture doing the rounds.        

Anything odd?

Only the tech companies can really identify a bot account but there are a few things that may ring alarm bells. None of these on their own will mean it’s an inauthentic account but a few  combined begin to look suspicious. So you may see a long string of weird letters and numbers as the handle or username, for example @thedolandld2klht for a fake Donald Trump account. This suggests it has been created by an algorithm. There may be no bio or it may be at odds with the rest of their activity. You can also click on their profile picture and search Google to see if it is genuine or is just a generic stock image. Check through their timeline. Do they post content of their own and engage with other people or do they just keep retweeting content from somewhere else? As a general rule, if you see someone posting 60x times a day on a regular basis, be suspicious.   

If in doubt, don’t share! 


How long is it going to take the economy to recover?

The COVID-19 crisis will push the country into an unprecedented economic slump. Just how big the slump will be is currently unknown but experts’ predictions aren’t optimistic. One independent forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) warned that the economy could shrink by a record 35% by June, in the case of a three month lockdown followed by three months of further restrictions. This is just a prediction, but one thing for certain is that the lockdown will have serious economic implications.

When we start to talk about recovery, things begin to get even murkier as the impact of the current lockdown is unknown. We don’t know for certain how far the economy will fall or whether firms will be able to cope with any partial restrictions when things do begin to return to normality. What’s more, it’s possible that there could be further lockdowns to control future outbreaks before a vaccine is found. 

The government has said that it is “not just going to stand by” and let the economy slide. They have said that they plan to protect millions of jobs, businesses and self-employed people. This said, there is a limit to just how much they can do. The OBR predicts a further rise in the amount of borrowing by the end of the year up to £273 billion, which would represent the largest deficit as a share of GDP since World War Two. 

Robert Chote, chairman of the OBR, said that a drop of 35% in the economy would be “the largest in living memory.” The public body also predicts that unemployment will rise by 2.1 million to 3.4 million by the end of June. This would put the unemployment rate up to 10%, a level not seen since the mid 1990s. 

The total economy is set to contract by almost 13% in 2020. To find an economic shrinkage of a similar size, we need to go back much further than the 90’s or even the Second World War. The last time the UK economy declined by this amount was in 1709 when, again, nature was to blame. ‘The Great Frost’ struck Europe, killing hundreds of thousands and resulting in widespread famine across the continent.

Despite all this doom and gloom, the OBR does expect the UK economy to get back to its pre-crisis growth trend by the end of 2020. They also predict that unemployment will start to  fall, easing to around 7.3% at the end of the year.

Looking further into the future, a large amount of public debt will be the economic legacy of COVID-19. Public debt is expected to remain at 84.9% of GDP in four years’ time after peaking at over 100% by the end of this financial year. Whether this will mean a return to austerity remains to be seen. The UK could place a greater emphasis on tax rises to generate revenue, which could see a rise to corporation tax or higher rate income tax.


Is the UK mortgage market still open for business?

You may be wondering what the current situation is with the mortgage market. Have providers stopped lending altogether? Are all new mortgage deals off?  

It’s true that some providers have withdrawn their higher loan to value (LTV) mortgage products.  Nationwide, Santander and Skipton Building Society have recently announced that they’re only going to be offering loans to borrowers with a 75% LTV ratio. So only people who have a 25% deposit or equity in their home will be approved for a mortgage.   

Other lenders, including Barclays, Halifax, Virgin Money and The Family Building Society, have gone even further, reducing the LTV ratio to 60%, while the Coventry Building Society has reduced thiers to 65%.   

As a result, first-time borrowers or those with low equity in their homes won’t be able to proceed with their plans.  

Support for existing customers

Nationwide has stressed the change in policy won’t affect deals in progress. In fact, they say the step has been taken so that they can focus on helping existing members to process ongoing applications.They will still be offering mortgage deals of up to 95% LTV to existing customers.

It’s hoped the changes will be temporary but they were taken to limit new applications so that  providers could concentrate on their existing customers. Many are dealing with thousands of calls from worried borrowers requesting mortgage payment holidays while at the same time coping with staff shortages due to the virus. In addition, as valuers can’t get out to see properties under the current restrictions, it’s not possible for the more complex property purchases to go ahead anyway.  

What’s still possible?            

Despite the difficulties, however, industry experts stress that the mortgage market is very much open for business. Lenders are still working with existing borrowers, advisers are still contacting existing clients to offer support and conveyancers are still communicating with people over whether their housing transaction will complete. Mortgage products are still available, albeit with lower LTVs, and online or automated valuations are still possible for some cases. 

So no one should feel that the mortgage industry is in lockdown. Providers are urging anyone who is concerned to talk to them, whether it’s about taking a mortgage holiday, reducing a payment, remortgaging, doing a product transfer or even starting a mortgage journey. There are many options available, even in the current circumstances.  


Technology bringing the generations together

One positive outcome of the crisis has been the way technology is helping us to stay in touch  with each other, especially across the generations. Various apps are playing a vital role in keeping us entertained in lieu of all the social events and sporting activities being cancelled.   

As staying in becomes the new going out, we’ve highlighted a few ways to keep you connected.    

Video conferencing – not just for work!         

Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts may be effective for those working from home but it’s the video chat app, Houseparty, that has soared in popularity in recent months. 

It’s thought to be more spontaneous than the other apps as it allows you to mimic an actual house party, with friends chatting in different rooms. Previously popular with millennials and Generation Z teeenagers, adults now want to make use of Houseparty for their own connections.    

It’s getting to the point where people are attending more events in the virtual world than they were in the real one. You know you’ve really made it when you’re double booked for two online drinks parties or AperiTVs!

Inspirational ideas on Instagram 

You’ll find many celebrity chefs have taken to Instagram to offer free cookery classes during lockdown. There are lessons on everything from how to cook the perfect curry to how to bake your own bread.

Likewise, famous musicians are giving free ‘virtual’ concerts or even guitar lessons. And, of course, you can recommend your ‘favourite finds’ to friends and family. Why not challenge each other to mini contests, such as who can decorate the best cupcakes?             

Family time  

Regular video calls over FaceTime or Skype are a great way for all the family to keep in touch. Think of novel ways to make this inclusive. We heard of one family, for example, who deliberately arranged the call for lunchtime, propping the tablet up at the table so that it felt like they were all still sharing the meal together.     

Encourage grandchildren to show their grandparents what they’ve been up to. Get them to share stories, music or their artistic creations. Set up a board game challenge. You’ll no doubt find the youngsters can sort out any technical difficulties!   

Keeping fit – online

If you’re worried about what all those baking tutorials might do to your waistline, there are plenty of online exercise classes to sign up for. Joe Wicks has taken the nation by storm with his  YouTube daily P.E.classes. Originally aimed at children, these have proven equally popular with parents and grandparents. Enterprising local gyms and fitness instructors are also offering their usual classes in strength training, pilates and yoga online, so you can stay fit but keep in touch with fellow members at the same time.  

Technology is helping us to keep in touch in new ways with our friends and family through these strange times. Will the tools, which we are embracing now, represent a lasting shift in how we communicate in the future? 


Be wary of Covid-19 email scams

Scandalous though it may sound, cyber-criminals are using the coronavirus crisis to prey on unsuspecting individuals. 

Security experts have said they have seen an increase in email scams over the last few weeks, as if the world pandemic wasn’t bad enough in itself.    

We’re drawing these to your attention not to scare you but to raise awareness and encourage you to be on your guard. Here are 5 in particular to watch out for: 

Click for a cure

This follows the classic technique of tapping into everyone’s deepest wish. People who have clicked on the link, in search of a cure, have had all their personal details stolen. Although the email purports to be from a doctor who claims to have details about a vaccine, the attached document just takes the recipient to a spoof webpage to collect login details.        

The best way to check where a link will take you is to hover your mouse cursor over it. This will  reveal the true web address. If it looks suspicious, don’t click it.

Covid-19 tax refund

This email looks like it comes from HMRC and states that you are eligible for a tax refund. Who wouldn’t be tempted to click on that?!  

But if you do press the “Access your funds now” link it takes you to a fake government web page and encourages you to put in all your financial and tax information.

HMRC would never contact you in this way about a potential refund. The head of e-crime at  Mimecast says, “Do not respond to any electronic communication in relation to monies via email. And certainly do not click on any links in any related message.”

The virus is now airborne

Designed to look like it’s from the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this email’s subject line reads, “Covid-19 – now airborne, increased community transmission.” It uses one of the organisation’s legitimate email addresses but is sent via a spoofing tool. By directing you to a fake microsoft page and asking you to enter your details, the hackers can get control of your email account.

The scams are effective not only because the forgery looks highly plausible but because the perpetrators know that everyone is feeling under considerable stress.

Two-factor authentication is one way to protect yourself so that you have to enter a code texted to you to access your email account.    

A little measure that saves

Purporting to be from the World Health Organisation (WHO), this scam claims that the attached document contains details of how you can prevent the disease’s spread. In fact, it will just infect your computer with malicious software which records every keystroke so that the hackers can monitor your every move online.   

Ignore any emails that claim to be from the WHO as they’re highly likely to be fake. Instead, visit their official website or look at their social media channels for the most up-to-date advice.    

Donate to the fight

The last example alleges it is from the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and asks for donations in Bitcoin to help develop a vaccine. Although it may sound preposterous, the email address and signature evidently look convincing.

The security experts, Kaspersky, say they have discovered 513 files with coronavirus in their title which contain malware. Sadly, just as the real virus continues to spread, so too are these fake emails.  

The golden rule is that if you’re not sure about something or know that a particular organisation wouldn’t normally contact you by email, don’t click on any attachment. If you’re in any doubt about whether something is genuine, do ask a friend or family member. 


How long does it take to beat a bear market?

The current COVID-19 crisis has wiped billions from the world’s financial markets. In the world of investing, such markets where share prices are falling are known as bear markets. 

Beating a bear isn’t easy, but you’ll be pleased to read that in all 10 prior occasions, the FTSE All-Share has completely made up the ground in the next bull market, a market where share prices are rising. Unfortunately, it usually takes longer for markets to rise than it does for them to fall. 

Bear markets are typically nasty, brutish and short, like recessions rather than economic upturns. Again using the All-Share as a guide, the average time it has taken to recover a bear market loss is 648 days, compared to the 385-day average market downturn.

Staying invested even when markets are falling can be wise because if you sell, you own less shares that can potentially gain value when the market starts to rise again. Stock market investing is best conceived as a long term game played over years rather than months.

Watch out for the bear traps

Bear markets are littered with sharp advances which often turn out to be nothing more than small peaks before the downward turn resumes. These are perilous to investors who opt for a ‘buy on the dip’ investment strategy.

For example, during the 2000-03 bear market that followed the dot-com bubble, there were six major rallies in the All-Share that generated a combined gain of 2,030 points, even as the index actually declined by 1,649 points overall during this period. Those who piled into these market rallies would have lost out in the long run.

Nine of the ten largest single day surges on America’s S&P 500 index have been during bear markets. Beating a bear is a slow game, and those who are over-eager can suffer larger losses. 

Trying to see the bottom

Bear markets are like a murky pond – it’s impossible to see the bottom or the trough until after it has passed.

For those of us who don’t have a crystal ball, it’s impossible to foresee exactly how low markets will fall. Taking a slow and steady approach is probably your best bet to conserve your portfolio’s value. This might mean a lower return than a brash approach, but you’re not putting too much money at risk. Additional pain is suffered by those who plough lots of capital into ‘bear trap’ short term rallies.


How to avoid going stir-crazy during the coronavirus lockdown

The effects of the government enforced isolation period is being felt across the whole nation. It’s difficult for all of us to stay at home except for essential travel and one form of daily exercise. We need to adapt and find new things to keep our days filled to keep our spirits up.

Give yourself “micro-lifts” throughout the day

One of the main difficulties with self-isolation is that you’ll begin to miss the “micro-lifts” you have peppered throughout the day. Often it’s the little things, like popping out of the office to get a coffee at your favourite cafe or going to the gym, that enrich your daily routine with enjoyment and meaning.

The lockdown obviously means you’re going to lose many of your regular “micro-lifts”. So creating new ones is essential to keep your spirits up.

These could be anything, from a regular Skype call to a daily yoga routine. Be creative and try to turn the situation on its head, looking at what the increased time at home enables you to do rather than what not going out prohibits you from doing.

Learn something new

Not only does learning a new skill slow cognitive ageing, it provides you with the sense of achievement that comes through deepening your knowledge of something. While now isn’t the time to enroll in a face-to-face group class, there are plenty of online options available.

Many education providers, including some American Ivy League colleges, have responded to the coronavirus crisis by offering free courses online. A quick Google search will reveal the wealth of courses available. Studies show that learning which challenges you to come out of your comfort zone has the greatest boost to mental health.

Keep a healthy diet

When staying at home, it can be tempting to regularly snack to stave off boredom. Unfortunately, this means you’re likely to be consuming more calories and unhelpful fats. Mental health charity Mind suggests that healthy eating can improve your mood, give you more energy and help you think more clearly. 

Keeping to regular mealtimes and eating a balanced diet, high in fruit and vegetables, are two important features of a healthy diet. Of course, you can still treat yourself once in a while…

Keep a routine

When you’re at home, it’s easy to end up still in your pyjamas at 3pm because you don’t have to see anyone else during the day. Although it can feel nice to slow down and let yourself be lazy, in the long run this can be bad for your wellbeing.

Try to maintain a sense of routine as far as possible. If you’re working at home, try to work regular hours and get up at a sensible time. 

This said, don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s important that routine doesn’t become monotony. Be flexible and remember to change things up from time to time.

Will late payments become a thing of the past?

There’s no getting around it; late payments are crippling for Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs). Nearly a quarter of insolvencies are caused by late payments. In fact, if all payments were made on time there would be a £2.5 billion boost to the British economy, according to a 2016 report by the Federation of Self-Employed and Small Businesses (FSB). 

Thankfully, there’s a chance that late payments might soon become a thing of the past. At the end of January, Labour peer Lord Mendelsohn introduced a Private Members Bill to the House of Lords that could make things harder for persistent late payers.

The bill would legislate a 30-day limit for all invoice payments, enforced by the Small Business Commissioner, who would have the ability to fine repeat offenders.

What’s more, the bill would also attempt to curb what are known as ‘predatory payment practices.’ This refers to practices that aim to squeeze suppliers by promising fast payment in exchange for a discount and imposing charges for onboarding or staying on supplier lists.

The bill is likely to be welcomed by many small businesses as it represents a strong-armed approach to a practice that regularly damages smaller firms. 

The Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT), the world’s largest professional body for accountants, “very much welcomes the measures being proposed by Lord Mendelsohn and hopes other politicians, from all parties, back this important Private Members Bill.” 

Previous attempts to crack down on late payments had an emphasis on voluntary measures rather than concrete punishments such as fines. Increasing the power of the Small Business Commissioner might just make frequent late payers take their invoices a bit more seriously.

One of the main problems with late payments is that they cause cashflow problems for companies, compromising the flexibility that is essential to thrive in the fast moving world of modern business. 

Late payments also hamper businesses’ productivity. SMEs spend more than a working week chasing late payments – a total of 56.4 million lost hours a year, according to figures published by Intuit Quickbooks in November 2019. There comes a point where the time and money spent chasing down a payment can devalue the original work to the extent that it becomes questionable whether it was worth doing in the first place.

Research by Tide uncovered that the average late payment has risen to £8,500, an increase of over £2,000 on 2016 figures, suggesting that there is a growing culture of paying after the agreed date.

We’re curious to see whether Lord Mendelsohn’s Bill manages to change anything. Watch this space.


A new £20 note but are we heading towards a cashless society?

A new polymer ‘‘Turner’’ £20 note recently entered circulation which the Bank of England claims is its most secure banknote ever. The new note replaces the ‘’Adam Smith’’ £20 note that has been in circulation since 2007.

Artist JMW Turner is the new face of the £20 note. He is considered one of the finest British artists of all time and painted The Fighting Temeraire which was voted the nation’s favourite painting in a BBC Radio 4 poll.

Security on the new note is tight – £20 notes are the most commonly forged banknote, accounting for 88% of detected forgeries in the first half of last year.

Enhanced security features include a large see-through window with a depiction of the Margate Lighthouse and the Turner Contemporary, Turner’s self-portrait and a metallic hologram which changes between the words “pounds” and “twenty” depending on how the note is tilted. The notes also have a purple foil patch containing the letter “T”, a nod to the Tate Britain where many of Turner’s paintings are displayed.

Sarah John, the Bank of England’s chief cashier, said: “Moving the £20 note to polymer marks a major step forward in our fight against counterfeiting.” There are currently two billion £20 notes in circulation so replacing them all is no mean feat. The Bank estimated, however, that half of all ATMs across the UK would be distributing the new notes within just two weeks of the launch.  Old notes, however, will remain valid legal tender for six months.

The new banknote was produced in association with the Royal National Institute of Blind People, to make money more accessible for people with sight loss. There are three separate clusters of dots along the short side of the note to make handling cash easier. 

The new plastic £20 notes are longer lasting than the paper notes they are replacing. However, there are doubts about exactly how long these “long-lasting” notes will be used for as we move towards a cashless society. Contactless cards and quick online payments have revolutionised how we spend over the last decade.

The Financial Inclusion Commission estimates that cash payments will account for fewer than one in 10 payments by 2028. Campaigners warn that the UK is moving rapidly towards becoming a cashless society with little research into how this will affect the country.

In the last year alone, 13% of free-to-use UK cashpoints have closed and a quarter of all machines now charge people to withdraw their cash. Campaign groups are calling for legislation that will force banks to provide cash access to curb this trend.

How to get your child on the property ladder

It’s a tough environment for first time buyers. Rising house prices and stagnant wage growth have pushed up the average age of buying a first property to 33. What’s more, first time buyers need to borrow 18 times more than those in the 1970s.

Given this context, it’s unsurprising that more and more parents and grandparents are giving their loved ones a helping hand to get on the property ladder. However, because there are several ways of doing this – all with their distinct advantages and disadvantages – it can be hard to find the right way to help out. Here is a breakdown of a few common ways of giving the next generation some extra support:

Gifting a deposit

Gifting a deposit might seem like the most straightforward way of helping your child, but there could be unexpected tax implications. For instance, cash gifts of over £3,000 in one year may be subject to inheritance tax, if you die within seven years of making the gift. 

If you do think gifting a deposit could be a good option, you might want to act sooner rather than later. A cross-party group of MPs is currently proposing an overhaul of the IHT system where all gifts over £30,000 will be subject to a flat 10% tax rate.

Guarantor mortgages

A common alternative to directly gifting cash is to use a guarantor mortgage. These mortgages are sometimes referred to as 100% mortgages because they don’t require the borrower to put down a deposit. Rather, a parent will lock up cash in a savings account with a lender or agree to use their property as collateral if the buyer defaults on repayments.

If you use savings as security, you’d normally need to place either 5% or 10% of the cost of a new property into a savings account with the lender for several years (three or five years are the standard). The interest returned varies from lender to lender, with some not paying any at all.

Joint mortgages

These mortgages allow you to buy a property together with your child. Notably, this option increases your child’s chance of getting a mortgage in the first place as your income will be taken into account. 

However, it can be expensive and risky. As your name will be on the deeds of your child’s home, you’ll need to pay the stamp duty surcharge if you already own a property. What’s more, you’ll be jointly responsible for repayments.