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March 31, 2009

Foreclosure and renters, some help

Advice for renters whose homes are in foreclosure: Every Wednesday, personal finance writer Harriet Johnson brackey answers your questions about coping in this economic downturn. Submit your question in the form at the right.

Is there a program for renters of homes that are going into foreclosure that would enable the renter to stay?

You can stay, but in foreclosure, the question is, do you want to?

The landlord hasn’t been paying the mortgage and probably won’t be fixing anything that breaks. You have between eight and 12 months from the first foreclosure notice to when the house or condo is sold at a foreclosure auction, says attorney Karl Klein of The Klein Law Group in Miami. When it is sold, your lease terminates and you will probably be evicted, because the new owner will want to empty it out and try to sell it.

Your options are few. Freddie Mac has a program to rent foreclosed homes to tenants on a month-to-month basis. And some, not many, landlords are offering “cash for keys,” to get you to move out quickly so they can put the home on the market.

Worried that your financially stressed landlord won’t give you back your security deposit and last month’s rent?

Write a letter to the landlord saying that he has “broken the lease” by interrupting “your quiet and peaceful enjoyment of the premises,” says Broward attorney Charles L. Simon, who specializes in landlord-tenant law.

Tell him to apply your last month’s rent to your next monthly payment. Then apply your security deposit to the following month.

After those two months, you will resume paying your normal rent for as long as you stay.

(Bank that money. You can use it for your next deposit)

Do not stop paying your rent altogether – even if you don’t trust your landlord..

The landlord still has the right to evict you, as long as he controls the property.

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Consumer Confidence ticks up

Consumer confidence rose in Florida three points to 65 in March, a University of Florida survey says. But don't let that little uptick fool you. "Until
there is a clear message that things are changing for the better, we
expect consumer confidence to continue to move up and down as
conflicting economic news trickles in," said Chris McCarty, director of UF's Survey
Research Center at the Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

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Housing Crisis: Tell me your solution

Still looking for your solutions for the real estate crisis.

Herbert C. Haber of Tamarac thinks helping people to stay in homes they can't afford hurts the whole neighborhood...He writes:

The homes are quickly identifiable by the lack of maintenance which is evidenced by the poor appearance of their exteriors....Another facet of the same problem occurs at the meetings of the homeowners' association. Prior to the distress in the residential real estate market, votes to spend money on the upkeep of commonly owned community facilities were routinely unanimously approved by voice votes. Today, whenever proposals are voiced for the expenditure of relatively small amounts of money to upgrade the appearance of the community by planting seasonal flowers, improving irrigation, etc., such proposals are invariably opposed by voting blocs composed mainly of homeowners who have been assisted to remain in homes they are not able to afford. It appears to me that the community's 95% body is being wagged by its 5% tail.

As a result, all of the homes in the community have lower values....

What do you think? Helping those in trouble hurts those who are not?


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March 30, 2009

Solve the Housing Crisis: Change Mortgages

One of the ideas for solving this real estate crisis is to force banks to get real. To lower the amount of many home mortgages.


And how? Attorney Jeffrey Tromberg of the Florida Debt Relief Center in Fort Lauderdale wants to see the bankruptcy law changed. So that judges can force banks to lower the mortgage loan amount.

They can't do that now. Bankruptcy judges can force a change in the mortgage on a vacation home. But the judge can't do anything about the mortgage on a primary residence.

The lenders pretend this "loss" hasn't happened. But South Florida home prices are down, on average, by 45 percent from the 2005 peak. If you borrowed back then, your home is not nearly worth what you paid for it.

"Would someone who bought a stock at $100 and reads the papers today seeing the stock is now at $40 pretend that he still has a $100 asset?" Tromberg asked.

The $60 is gone, whether the investor sells the stock or not.

The Obama administration favors the idea of changing the bankruptcy law, too.

Guess who doesn't like it?

Banks and mortgage lenders.

So tell me what you think? Should banks be forced to lower loan amounts -- to reflect the real value of home mortgages?

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March 28, 2009

How can we juice up the housing market?

What do you think would solve the real estate crisis? That's something i will be talking about on television next month and I'd like to hear your ideas.

I think low mortgage interest rates, now the lowest in almost 60 years, might get things started.
Here's what I wrote about that today:,0,8300.story

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March 25, 2009

Awards: Good News

I'm delighted to share my editor's message with you...

The Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW) announced that Harriet was one of three business journalists at mid-sized papers across the country named best columnist in its annual Best in Business contest.

Here is an excerpt of what the judges had to say:

Harriet Johnson Brackey helps readers navigate the complexities of the economy and personal finance with deft,
demonstrating a keen knowledge of her topics without speaking down to readers. More importantly, she delivers real utility, speaking directly to the issues affecting average people. Her column on the panel of financial planners who took readers' questions for three hours offered real insight into their fears and practical solutions for overcoming them.

Anne Vasquez
Business Editor

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Fraud, Morgan Stanley and Investment advice

This just in, from the self-regulatory organization that polices stock brokers...

"Washington, DC — The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) announced today that it has fined Morgan Stanley & Co. $3 million — and ordered it to pay more than $4.2 million in restitution to 90 Rochester, NY-area retirees — to resolve charges that its supervisory system failed to detect and prevent brokers from persuading Eastman Kodak Company and Xerox Corporation employees to take early retirement based upon unrealistic promises of consistently high investment returns and by espousing unsuitable investment strategies."

Which leads me to remember...

Financial Self-Protection Rule Number 67854098&%@#:

Don't take retirement advice from someone who wants to get his hands on your retirement money.

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March 24, 2009

Coping in tough times: Tax breaks you can use now

Submit your question to Personal Finance Writer Harriet Johnson Brackey in the form at the right. Every Wednesday, you can read some of the questions and answers.

Are food stamps taxable?


What about unemployment benefits?

For 2009 only – so this does not apply to the tax return you need to file by April 15 for 2008 – you can exclude from your income up to $2,400 of unemployment benefits, says Bob D.
Scharin, senior tax analyst with the tax and accounting business of Thomson Reuters.

What about cancelled debts?

If it’s credit card debt, that cancelled debt is usually taxable income.
But, there's an exception if you are in bankruptcy or if your are considered insolvent. Scharin says the IRS defines insolvent as your assets are less than your liabilities.

What if I sold my home in a short sale?
Your lender will probably send you a 1099 form, which reports income from a real estate transaction. But you many not have to add that to your taxable income.

Scharin explained that the cancelled mortgage debt is not income to you if:

It was for your primary mortgage on your principal residence.
If the debt was cancelled between 2007 and the end of 2012
If it’s not over $2 million.

Under recent tax law changes, if you meet those provisions, you don’t have to pay tax on a mortgage that is forgiven. You should be sure to keep good records in case you ever are questions about this. The IRS also gets a copy of that 1099 form.

Anything else about the tax code that can help in these tough times?

Scharin says if you’ve had a big drop in your income, you should look over your return one more time. You may now be able to squeeze in some deductions or tax credits that either you couldn’t take when your income was higher or you were only partially eligible to take. “You could be missing out on things like the child tax credit or an education credit,” Scharin said.

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March 23, 2009

Investment fraud: Scams, schemes and me

Here’s why I don’t like to write about fraud:

It’s always the same story over and over again.

Somebody with bad intent swindles an investor because the investor didn’t look into the person, the brokerage or the investment. The investor trusted. Asked no others for advice. Didn’t check the background. Assumed because the person was on the radio or in his church that it was all good. Never heard a negative word about the person.

Second reason I don’t like to write about fraud: There’s too much of it. It could be all I ever write about.

Last week, an official with the Securities and Exchange Commission said the SEC has “dozens” of investigations underway, looking for fraud in hedge funds, in derivatives, in mortgages, in homebuilders.

Fraud surrounds us, especially in South Florida, where daily, it seems, court cases and law enforcement officials have a growing, never-ending stream of cases.

Each one is important.

And that’s why, even though I don’t like it, I write fraud stories anyway.

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March 20, 2009

Interest rates: Cheap mortgages, rush to refinance?

Should you refinance your mortgage to take advantage of falling interest rates?
Here are some answers on interest rates and getting a new mortgage.

How low will mortgage interest rates go?

Lots of people are talking about 4 percent, down from today’s 4.98 percent average.
I hope the market will not get locked up, as buyers insist on not refinancing their mortgages until rates fall to 4 percent.

How quickly should you try to grab a better rate?

At least one mortgage broker tells me that the drop will be very swift and short, meaning homeowners should refinance as quickly as possible. But you have to note that the last time the Treasury started buying up bonds, rates fell sharply at first, but drifted downard for more than a month afterward.

Will you qualify?

You can, for up to 105 percent of your home’s current value, under Treasury Department guidelins.

Can you get the deal done?

Mortgage companies and banks have cut and cut staff in the last year and a half. They are at bare bones staffing levels, I’ve heard.
And yet I saw that applications to refinance loans surged 21 percent last week.
So it may not be easy to put in your application, because there may not be enough workers there to handle it.

If you are refinancing, tell me how it's going. I'm working on a story about it and I'd like to chat.

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March 18, 2009

Tax: Free Tax Help in Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade this weekend

Need help with your taxes?

Internal Revenue Service offices in Miami, Plantation and West Palm Beach will be open to offer help this weekend. For free.

Dozens of volunteer tax assistance sites will also be working Saturday. For a list of Florida volunteer tax program sites and their hours this weekend, click here;,,id=204543,00.html

The IRS will prepare tax returns, for free, for those whose income is $42,000 or less.

Employees will also answer questions and offer advice to those who are having trouble paying their taxes due to the downturn in the economy.

IRS offices normally don’t have weekend hours.

But on Saturday, the South Florida IRS offices that are open from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. are:

7850 SW 6th Court, Plantation
1700 Palm Beach Lakes Blvd., West Palm Beach
51 SW First Ave., Miami

(Beyond South Florida, the other Florida offices open Saturday are:
2891 Center Pointe Drive, Fort Myers
400 West Bay St., Jacksonville
7410 S. US 1, Port St. Lucie
9450 Koger Blvd, Saint Petersburg
5971 Cattle Ridge Blvd., Sarasota
3848 W. Columbus Drive, Tampa)

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March 17, 2009

Coping in tough times: Mortgages, can they be changed?

Every week, The Sun Sentinel answers your questions about how to survive this economic downturn. Submit your question in the box at the right.

We have been asking for a loan modification for our mortgage. We’re 60 days behind on the payments. My lender says it can’t be done. Is that true?

You’re right. You’re wrong. Sound familiar? Anyone trying to fix a mortgage these days has to feel confused.

Even though, as I have reported, major lenders – Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and others -- say they’re working under the new Department of Treasury program to modify mortgages to make them more affordable, readers and consumer advocates are telling me that few people are getting approved.

To be fair, the Treasury program only began this month, Bank of America spokeswoman Juman Bauwens pointed out.

So if you applied last month, it was harder to get through the process.

The rules on what lenders will do are changing all the time, says attorney Jeffrey Tromberg of the Florida Debt Relief Center in Fort Lauderdale. A lender might refuse to talk until you’re behind on your payments while another might not talk to you because of that.

If you want to give this a try, Tromberg, who is also Florida chair of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, says you should write a “hardship letter.” Explain how you got into financial trouble, what you’ve done to address your problems (sold the second card, cut your grocery bill, for example) and how you plan to get out of this situation.

Also, go to the lender with all your financial paperwork in order, says Bank of America’s Bauwens – loan information, proof of your income and a list of your debts and expenses.

Watch out for a few things.

Tromberg notes that Florida legislators last year banned anyone from taking an upfront fee for arranging a loan modification --- except for attorneys. The Florida Bar recently warned attorneys about partnering with foreclosure “consultants” or other non-lawyers whose goal is to skirt that law.

And, be clear about what you’re getting in to. Not all loan modifications result in lower monthly payments. Sometimes, new fees or the payments you missed are rolled back into the loan, making your principal larger than before or your loan term longer.

Because few loans are being made and many aren’t lowering the payments for troubled borrowers, Tromberg says, “I am not seeing a lot of loan modifications succeed.”

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March 16, 2009

Madoff: Who deserved the blame?

My story over the weekend of how the money flowed to Bernard Madoff from South Florida drew many reactions.

Here's one from a Boca Raton investor who says he approached Madoff, but Madoff turned him away, refusing to take his money.

"So yes, he did turn some people down but it had nothing to do with the amount they wanted to invest. Who knows how his mind worked?

"In my opinion, as in the minds of the many thousands who are suffering now, all of his and his wife's properties should be taken by the government and used to repay some of the investors.

"And yes, there has been a lot of hanky-panky going on for too many years. The SEC should also be taken to task for not keeping tabs on his operation.

"Of course, these people salivated with the promise of those unusual high percentages paid them. Didn't they for one minute wonder about it all or did they close their minds to it thinking that the money tree lives on?"

What do you think?
Shark swallowing the fish?
Is anyone blameless here?
Where were the regulators?

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March 13, 2009

Another Victim Speaks

“We were very friendly,” said Dr. Anthony Stefanelli, a retired orthopedic surgeon, who lives in Fort Lauderdale.

He’s talking about Michael Bienes, the accountant who rounded up thousands of investors and hundreds of millions of dollars for Bernard Madoff. Stefanelli had several accounts with Madoff.

“All my money, all my family’s money is gone. All my grandchildren’s money is gone. My Children have nothing left,” he said. “All my retirement money.”

Bienes, he said, “swore to me he didn’t know” about Madoff.

And says Stefanelli, “I don’t think he did. I don’t think he pulled it off intentionally.”

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March 12, 2009

Speak Up

Was it enough?

For Madoff to say he was "deeply sorry" and "ashamed"?

Is that all we're going hear from this now admitted criminal?

No, not for me. For me, I want to know why. And not the usual reasons why. Greedy, sure. Arrogant, yes.

But beyond that, why did he systematically ruin thousands of people and charities and families? What was his reason? He knew exactly what he was doing but why?

What do you think?

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Another Victim's Voice

Madoff got his say.

Now let's listen to Lisa Shavelson, a 35-year-old single mother.

She has a three-year-old son. She has a college degree, but she lost her job. And she has lost the income she once received from an investment with Madoff.

She gets very little child support, she says, because when that arrangement was made, she was getting income from the Madoff investment. Now that it's gone....she wrote to me...

"I was up all night trying to figure out what I am going to do. I can't afford the mortgage on my house anymore, I can't afford bills and I can barely afford food.

I have no idea where my son & I will go, or what we will do.

Before I opened my laptop, I was taking pictures of the crystal candlesticks that my aunt gave me for my wedding. It's about the most expensive thing I own."

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March 10, 2009

Coping in Tough Times: How to get a lower mortgage payment

The Sun Sentinel answers your questions about survivng the economi downturn every Wednesday in Your Money. Use the box at the right to submit your questions.

We have a 10-year mortgage with Citibank and the payments are killing us. Does the government have some sort of modification program where we can lengthen the mortgage and lower the monthly payments?

There is now. The Making Home Affordable program launched March 4 actually gives lenders an incentive to modify loans, bring the interest rate down to as low as 2 percent and to extend the term of the loan for as long as 40 years.

A lender who cuts the monthly payment to 31 percent of the borrower’s gross monthly income potentially can also receive a payment from the Treasury Department to offset that reduction.
The program works for borrowers who are at risk or falling behind on their mortgages as well as those who are up to 60 days delinquent. The guidelines cover mortgages owned by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as well as those lenders that are receiving federal bailout money. It applies to loans amounts up to $729,750.

And, it can help lenders refinance loans that are underwater, or slightly higher than the value of the home. So check with your lender.

At least one, Fifth Third Mortgage Company, said it would automatically review more than 200,000 mortgages to see who might be eligible.

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March 9, 2009

Strong Reacion to Madoff Story

Hate him? Feel sorry for him?
Emotions run from one to the other when it comes to Michael Bienes, the South Florida accountant who lead thousands of local investors to Bernard Madoff.

Some reactions I heard:

I read your piece this morning.
i appreciate your very comprehensive work on Bienes.
My take would not be very sympathetic to Bienes and the many greedy individuals and organizations that wanted to be
in a very escoteric partnership with Madoff.
Bienes view of Madoof went from "God" to devil.
Bienes's greed would exclude the average Joe who was yielding 4% on his investment.
His need for exclusivity and class greed has been rewarded
in a just manner.


Bienes was just a plain accountant. Everyone knew that. He didn't know about Madoff. I feel sorry for him.

I'm a Catholic and I'm very concerned about the charities. This isn't over yet.


Where did the money go?

What's your reaction?

If you missed the story, you can read it here:,0,2609097.story

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March 6, 2009

Let the Lenders Mow the Lawns

The Mortgage Bankers Association reported yesterday that nearly 60 percent of the sub prime loans in Florida in the fourth quarter of 2008 were delinquent or at the start of foreclosure.

Okay, that's it for the even-handed journalist tone.

Six out of ten loans gone bad? And whose fault is that?

I mean, six out of ten Floridians are not unemployed.

So, if they have jobs, what is wrong?

Is it, perhaps, the loans? Or the lenders who made them?

If, six times out of ten, we tried to make a telephone call but the system could not connect, would we accept it? If the lights didn't go on six times out of each ten that we flipped the switch, would we all say, that's not the electric company's fault?

No. We'd grab those companies and say you're part of our structure. We cannot be a civilized developed country unless this works right, unless there's power and telecommunications.

And we can't function with lenders who do not know how to lend.

If I were a banker or a lender, I'd be standing on top of a hill calling for regulating the whole lot of 'em in the mortgage industry. Hey everybody, here are the new rules and we all play by them.

You want to lend to speculators? Go ahead. But charge a high price because you're taking a high risk.

But you don't wreck our system by paying big commissions to someone who can push a loan on to a borrower you know won't be able to repay.

This is a dream but, Could we perhaps find out who made each of those delinquent loans and send them out to cut the weeds down around the house and to bring the full force of the lending institution into a discussion about what can be done at this point? I mean, they talked to them when they made the loan. They can't talk now, when the loan went bad?

Could we go trailing after the bank and lending executives and their bonuses over the last six years and ask them to pay the money back, to stabilize the system today?

Six out of ten loans gone bad? That's the borrowers' fault?

Apparently 22 percent of loans made in Florida are sub prime, more than the national average. And far more have gone bad here than in the rest of the nation.

That's not the sign of a sick industry?

Or, maybe not. Maybe these lenders are amazing good at pinpointing the deadbeats and turning them all into homeowners.

If they're so good at that, it should be cinch to recognize someone who will pay back a loan because they promised to.

Nationalize the banks? Nope. I don't want to own them.

But regulate them. Or what's left of them.

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March 3, 2009

Coping in tough times: CD rates low but inflation lower

The Sun Sentinel answers your questions about the downturn every Wednesday in Your Money. Submit your questions in the form at the right.

Will my certificate of deposit at Wachovia be honored by Wells Fargo?

Wells Fargo completed its acquisition of Wachovia last Dec. 31.

Kathy Harrison, a spokesperson for Wells Fargo-Wachovia said terms on CDs from Wachovia will remain the same until the CDs mature. That’s good news, because a few months ago, Wachovia was offering some attractive rates.

When those CDs expire, Greg McBride, senior financial analyst at, says those who hold them will come face-to-face with much lower rates. After the Federal Reserve cut its target federal funds interest rate to close to zero in December, CD rates plummeted. A six-month CD now averages a 1.64 percent return, down from 3.2 percent six months ago in September.

Your best strategy now: Be glad that inflation is next to zero, because even a CD paying little keeps you ahead of rising prices.

Don’t lock up your money for very long, McBride advises. Because while five-year CDs are paying just under 3 percent now, inflation could come roaring back at a higher rate over the long term.

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Managed Bankruptcy? Mike Jackson on Auto Bailouts

A note from my colleague Doreen Hemlock....hjb

As the federal government moves to take a bigger stake in Citigroup and other banks, there's growing talk of a larger government role in the U.S. auto industry too.

Mike Jackson, chief executive at AutoNation, the country's largest auto retailer, says one option gaining popularity is a " government-sponsored bankruptcy" for financially troubled GM.

A traditional Chapter 11 bankruptcy would be "catastrophic," Jackson says, because there's not enough credit available from banks to allow GM to reorganize and emerge leaner. The carmaker and many suppliers would go bust, costing millions of U.S. jobs. U.S. taxpayers would never recoup their loans to GM, he says.

A better option, Jackson believes, is for government to lend more to GM -- with conditions, including big concessions from its unions and bondholders. Loans would be the fastest and cheapest way for taxpayers to get repaid, he says.

But with the public wary of further loans, a managed bankruptcy might be next best. The government would finance GM's restructuring and oversee negotiations. Unions and bondholders likely would end up conceding more, and the process would take longer and cost more, but taxpayers would get their money back, Jackson says.

The growing prospect of a government-sponsored bankruptcy might even avert one, serving as leverage in GM's ongoing negotiations and prodding concessions faster, says Jackson. He expects "very intense" talks and "gnashing of teeth" in the coming weeks, as auto sales languish.

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March 2, 2009

Tax Cut for Families under $50,000

There was a crowd -- in the comments on my blog -- last week that defended the rich against an increase in capital gains taxes. I was surprised. .

Wonder how you'll feel about this:

The Obama tax proposals contained in his budget would mostly wipe out federal taxes for a family of four making less than $50,000, according to an analysis from Deloitte Tax .The firm used a set of assumptions about typical deductions that the family would take.

But at the other end of the scale, Deloitte says the same family making $300,000 could see its taxes go up by $1,100. And, yikes, at $500,000, the tax bill could increase by $11,300.

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About the author
You've got the job of managing your money. No one in school taught you how. But you and I, we can teach each other, how to handle it, how to save for retirement, how to make money last, how to educate the kids, how to make a budget work. The conversations I have with my readers are fun. Money's important, but discussing it does not have to be boring.

Harriet Johnson Brackey Harriet Johnson Brackey, the personal finance columnist for the Sun Sentinel, is an award-winning business reporter. Her columns for 2008 were named "The Best in the Business," a national award chosen by her colleagues at the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.

Brackey has worked at Business Week magazine and at USA TODAY, where she was a founder and part of the original staff of the Money section at the country's first national newspaper. After nearly 11 years there - spent covering the 1980s bull market, the insider trading scandals, the 1987 crash - Brackey left Washington, D.C., and came to The Miami Herald. She spent the next decade writing a column about personal finance that chronicled the stock market's Internet boom and bust, as well as the popular Money Makeover features.

Brackey also has done commentaries for Marketplace Money, which airs on National Public Radio and The Nightly Business Report which is broadcast on more than 250 PBS television stations nationwide. She also has been a radio guest on WLRN’s Miami Herald News.
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