Email phishing scams and attempts to steal your information are on the rise as the April 15 tax filing deadline nears, so how can you avoid falling victim to one of these schemes? Phishing attempts have become much more sophisticated in recent years, so it’s even more important to be vigilant in order to protect your personal financial information. In the month of February, Microsoft security experts saw an average of 300,000 phishing encounter attempts across its browser platforms – every single day. These attempted scams will only increase as tax day approaches.

Here are a few simple tips to avoid falling prey to phishing scams.

1. Watch for suspicious emails. Be suspicious of any unexpected emails, and avoid clicking on links or attachments, especially when the email seems “off” to you, or unexpected, like an email from a tax preparation service, your credit card company or a financial institution. Although the email may appear to be genuine on the surface, if it is not part of your regular interactions with the company, it’s worth further scrutiny. You’re always safer using the direct URL of the company and accessing your account from there to process any transactions or to check your account, not by accessing from a link inside an email. Also, any emails claiming to be from the I.R.S. are most likely bogus, as the Internal Revenue Service does not initiate interactions via email, phone, social media or text, and uses the U.S. Postal Service for nearly all communications with taxpayers.

2. Carefully inspect URLs. You can simply hover over links within the suspicious email with your cursor (without clicking it) to view the URL. See if it actually goes to the website where it claims to direct you. URL shorteners provide convenience, but they can sometimes make the inspection difficult. When in doubt, use your search engine to find the correct company URL and go from there. You can also hover over the email sender’s email address to see if it matches the sender you’re expecting.

3. Be wary of all attachments. If you haven’t just made a purchase for tax processing software or used a tax preparation service, don’t be fooled by getting an email containing an invoice from a tax preparation service or software company. Sending fake invoices for services or products is one of the top methods that attackers use to trick people into opening a malicious attachment that could automatically execute malware on your computer. Malicious attachments could also contain links that download and execute malicious programs if you click on them. PDF attachments that contain innocuous-looking links can lead to users accidentally downloading malicious software designed to steal their credentials.

4. Don’t rely on passwords alone. Whenever possible, opt to use multi-factor authentication like the Microsoft Authenticator app for managing your “manage service account” logins and Windows Hello for easy and secure sign-in to your Windows 10 device. They enable biometric authentications such as your face or your fingerprint to quickly and safely log in across devices, apps and browsers without you having to remember passwords. With a Microsoft account, you can also securely and automatically sign in to other cloud-based applications including Bing, MSN, Cortana, and Xbox Live (PC only).

5. Keep your software current. Run a modern, up-to-date operating system, such as Windows 10, and make sure to stay current with the latest security and feature updates, in conjunction with using built-in anti-virus protection like Windows Defender Antivirus.

Don’t fall victim to sophisticated phishing attempts via email. Protect your personal information by informing yourself about the latest scams. With just a little extra care and vigilance, you should be able to steer clear of “phishy” emails and other scamming attempts this tax season.


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Shooter Mother Earth Spirits Downtown Kinston North Carolina

Shooter at Mother Earth Spirits, Downtown Kinston. Photo by Jessica Braxton.

“Let us be-gin,” a phrase you may recognize if you’ve ever visited Mother Earth Spirits in downtown Kinston. These three words are emblazoned on a large canvas welcoming visitors to the distillery.

Kevin Graham, better known as “Shooter,” is the Head Distiller at Mother Earth Spirits, a position he’s held since October of 2014 when the first bottle of gin poured from the still. Originally from California, Shooter relocated to North Carolina prior to working at Mother Earth. Starting out as a home brewer, his passion led him to the soon to be famous brewery where he worked in all facets of beer production before taking on other roles. Over the years, Shooter has made many significant contributions to Mother Earth. He started the brewery tour program, built the souvenir store that is currently located at the brewery and developed the first gin recipe.

In January of 2013, Steven Hill was working to bring the idea of creating a craft distillery to life and was searching for the right person to take the lead. Shooter was instrumental in developing the first recipes and production.

Originally located in the same building as the brewery, consumer demand for the distillery’s products increased rapidly and they soon outgrew the small space. In early 2017, Mother Earth Spirits purchased more equipment and the building they are now operating in at 302 Mitchell Street in downtown Kinston.

Mother Earth Spirits Gin is unlike many other gins. It has a lower juniper and pine tree flavor opting for a more citrus finish. Shooter uses orange and lemon peel to get the award-winning citrus finish that the gin is known for. Since the 2014 release of gin and whiskey, Mother Earth Spirits has earned a total of 10 medals in national competitions.

Although currently available only in North Carolina, Mother Earth Spirits is looking forward to shipping gin to other markets in the near future. Demand has continued to grow and the company recently purchased more new equipment to increase production.

Mother Earth Spirits is also producing a single malt American whiskey. The whiskey is aged in charred White American Oak barrels for at least 24 months. Each batch is hand bottled and numbered, and features notes of caramel, fresh leather and toasted oak. The whiskey is already very popular, and was recently named Best Whiskey in North Carolina!

Shooter is still harvesting whiskey from the old location and it is currently in and out of stock due to the small production abilities from 2 years ago. However, by the end of this year, the whiskey will be properly aged and on the market without any further interruption.

Mother Earth Spirits works hard to provide the highest quality product. Distilling is different than making new brews. “It’s not harder, it’s different. It involves more chemistry than just allowing something to ferment and creating a beer,” says Shooter. “We ferment the wash similar to the beer process but then we extract all the alcohol and flavor discarding the rest, so we have to go through more processes to create the product,” he said.

In addition to creating award-winning gin and whiskey, Shooter’s other passions include fly fishing in the mountains, building and flying remote-controlled aircraft, and playing and listening to jazz, country and rock music. Shooter has always enjoyed music and playing musical instruments—drums, guitar, violin, banjo and bass. He even played once with the members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in the 80s.

Shooter loves to show off the beautiful distillery. You can make an appointment online for a tour and if you’re lucky, you just might even get to meet his dog, “Whiskey!”

Mother Earth Spirits
302 Mitchell Street
Kinston, NC 28501


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Becky Whittington never expected she would be utilizing the experience and skills she gained as a marketing and business teacher to run her own business. She served as a high school teacher for more than 18 years before moving into the role of Testing and Accountability Director for Lenoir County Public Schools. Today, Becky and her husband Wynn run Just Add Salt, a contemporary ladies apparel and jewelry boutique in downtown Kinston.

Visitors and Kinston locals love shopping at Just Add Salt. “Becky makes me feel welcome and her store is a comfortable place to visit,” said Jessica Braxton, a frequent shopper at Just Add Salt. “It’s a place to feel beautiful.”

The idea to open a boutique started as a desire to develop a lifestyle brand. Wynn and Becky were attending a Jupiter Jones concert at the coast several years ago and noticed a variety of fishing and beach shirts. Guided by the premise that salt air and salt water make everything better, they had an idea for a name and Just Add Salt was born. They sat on the idea for three years until Becky retired from Lenoir County Public Schools.

Becky and Wynn opened their store on May 1, 2018. Located on Herritage Street across from Middle Grounds Coffeehouse, Just Add Salt currently stocks a wonderful variety of ladies apparel, jewelry, accessories, t-shirts, candles and other items that may be personalized with custom monogramming.

We recently caught up with Becky to find out more about what’s shakin’ at Just Add Salt.

Chris: “What inspired you to start your own business?”
Becky: “We felt that there was a tremendous need for another option for ladies to find affordable fashion and gift items in the downtown area. We saw the revitalization of downtown Kinston and wanted to be a part of it while contributing to the economy.”

Chris: “What has been your biggest challenge?”
Becky: “Because our customers are so awesome and shop with us frequently, our biggest challenge has been maintaining inventory levels. This is the best problem a business could have!”

Chris: “What do you love most about Just Add Salt?”
Becky: “The best thing about Just Add Salt is our customers.  We love being able to visit with our customers and assist them with finding items that add a little spice to their lives. We also enjoy meeting people from all over the United States and various parts of the world who enjoy spending time with us in Kinston.”

Visit Just Add Salt in downtown Kinston at 209 N Herritage Street.


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Google’s productivity software, G Suite, will soon cost a little more. Google recently announced that prices for both G Suite Basic and G Suite Business will increase for the first time ever. G Suite Basic will go up from $5 per user per month to $6, and G Suite Business will increase from $10 to $12.

Why charge more for G Suite? Google says it has been aggressive in developing new apps, features and benefits like increased storage over the last several years, and that they have tripled the value of G Suite via artificial intelligence, meeting tools and other features.

When cloud companies such as Google, Netflix, and Hulu start increasing prices, it raises a significant concern for consumers and small businesses about control over costs. Can cloud providers just raise their prices by 20% percent whenever they please? And if they do, what can small businesses really do about it?

In isolation, G Suite’s price-to-value argument makes sense. However, prices of cloud-based technology services are creeping higher due to everything from storage prices to trade wars. For a small business, it adds up. For example, a company with 5 users will see annual costs go from $300 to $360.

And for Google, these price increases could really add up. There are four million businesses on G Suite as of January 2019, and G Suite is estimated to represent half of Google’s cloud revenue. The price increase will take effect on April 2, 2019.


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Search Engine Optimization (SEO) has become an increasingly complicated and time-consuming process. If you don’t know where to begin, just thinking about SEO can be daunting.

SEO is not a big mysterious phenomenon. With a little planning, a little effort and consistent work, you can achieve measurable results. We’ve put together a quick checklist any small business owner can use to improve search engine placement.

  • Build content that is relative to your business and the consumers of your products or services.
  • Create/Update your Google My Business Page. Google My Business (GMB) is a free service offered by Google that lets you claim and update your business information at any time. GMB is different from Apple Maps Connect and review sites such as Yelp in that it allows you to upload photos and videos to enhance your listing. This gives you coverage in regular search, photos and videos for all search engines. Make sure your content, address, phone number, business hours and website link are all accurate.
  • Get coverage through local businesses, blogs, organizations and events. Choose places that fall in line with your brand. Local newspapers or media outlets may run stories on your business. Local bloggers with small followings in your area is another option. The idea is to get locals interested in your business and keep your name circulating online.
  • Catch customer attention by using compelling title tags and descriptions. Include your target keywords in your titles and bulleted lists.
  • Research Keywords and update your content. You should be analyzing how people find your site regularly. Knowing the keywords people use to find you gives you the ability to target your content for those search terms.
  • Fix technical issues on your website such as page load speed, broken links, duplicate content, site responsiveness and security.
  • Optimize your images. Every image on your site should be optimized to load quickly, named appropriately and include alt tags with keywords.
  • Use subheadings, such as H2 and H3 tags in your content. They break your content down into easily scanned blocks and give search engines structure for your site.
  • Check your competitor’s websites and make improvements. Find out what search terms they are ranking for, what content is getting attention and the quality of their website structure. Use this research to improve your content and structure.
  • Get reviews. Reviews were one of the leading local search ranking factors last year. You can improve your search engine performance and conversion rate by getting quality reviews and feedback from your customers.

Search Engine Optimization is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes time and consistency, but your effort will be rewarded with an increase in high-quality traffic to your website.


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Jessy at Middle Grounds Coffeehouse in Kinston

Accountant and part-time stand-up comedian turned barista and successful entrepreneur Jessica Dawson decided to pursue her dream of opening a coffee shop on Herritage Street in downtown Kinston in September of 2015. Fast forward three years, the birth of her son Arlo and thousands of frappés later, and she will soon venture into new grounds in downtown Goldsboro.

Jessy and her husband James, high school sweethearts, plan to open their second Middle Grounds Coffeehouse location in mid-January. Renovations have been underway for several weeks and excitement is brewing with Goldsboro locals. As someone who works downtown, it’s nice to see new and unique businesses open here. Downtown Goldsboro can use a place to get a good cup of coffee,” said Mark Blizzard.

We recently caught up with Jessy to find out more about her grind.

Chris: What inspired you to start your own business?
Jessy: “I wanted to give people a place to belong, a place to call their own, and I was attracted to the freedom and independence of running my own business.”

Chris: What has been your biggest challenge?
Jessy: “Finding and hiring the right people. I do my best to find people with the same love for others like I have. The people that work with me have to know how to brighten someone’s day. I can teach anyone coffee, but finding good people is hard.”

Chris: What do you love most about Middle Grounds?
Jessy: “The community and sense of belonging. I love when I walk in and everyone knows my name, and not just because I’m the owner. I enjoy seeing others make connections and spread the love in my shop. I feel like Middle Grounds has become a magical place in the midst of a world that can be so chaotic at times.”

Chris: What are some interesting facts about your business most people don’t know?
Jessy: “The renovation work was completed with a lot of help from my family. My mom and dad built all of the tables at the shop, and my husband James built the pallet wood wall and painted the MG logo on the brick wall feature that is framed by 100 year old tobacco barn beams. And, there are three hidden camouflaged doors at Middle Grounds.”

Watch the Middle Grounds Facebook Page for news about opening day in Goldsboro!

Middle Grounds Coffeehouse
212 N Herritage Street
Kinston, NC 28501

114 S Center Street
Goldsboro, NC 27530


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Thanks to the 2017 state budget approved by the North Carolina General Assembly which took effect on January 1, the personal income tax has dropped from 5.499% to 5.25%. In addition, the corporate tax rate has been lowered from 3% to 2.5% in our state.

Just five years ago, North Carolina had the highest personal and corporate income tax rates in the region. With the recent changes, our state now boasts the lowest personal income tax rate in the Southeastern United States other than Florida and Tennessee (both of which do not impose personal income taxes), and the lowest corporate tax rate in the nation among the 48 states that levy such a tax.

This is a welcome change for small businesses and entrepreneurs in our state. “Just last week our small startup wrote about a dozen payroll checks. Every single incentive to help us grow is welcome,” said BJ Murphy, CEO of Magic Mile Media and Publisher of “Small business owners in North Carolina work tirelessly to provide food not only for their families, but for their colleagues and employees.”


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Small Business Saturday is just around the corner, and for shoppers across the country, it means supporting local businesses and taking a day to let them know how much they are appreciated. It’s a day of shopping, sales and an overall emphasis on community as we reflect upon the importance of our local entrepreneurs, who continue to be a driving force in today’s economy. While communities prepare to shop small in a big way, it’s also an opportunity for small businesses to flex their muscles and grow their business. To do so, small businesses need to be prepared for the increase in activity Nov. 24 will bring this year. Here are some tips to help small businesses achieve the greatest possible success this Small Business Saturday.

Create a support network

It’s all about who you know. Preparing for Small Business Saturday doesn’t have to just be in the weeks or month ahead; instead, get ready for the big day by cultivating relationships year-round. Tap into social or local networking groups for advice from seasoned entrepreneurs and small business owners for Small Business Saturday and the holiday shopping season ahead. Grab a coffee with other entrepreneurs to run through your plans for the big day with them or brainstorm potential marketing efforts to enhance the day’s success. You may even want to tag team with a second business in your neighborhood to find creative ways to collaborate on sales and special offers to maximize your exposure and help promote fellow small business owners.

Grab the right gear

A day in the life of an entrepreneur is often extremely on-the-go. As a result, a laptop or a mobile device is a critical lifeline for small business owners. A mobile device allows you to foster real-time communication within your team and with your customers no matter where you are. These days, it is extremely important that your customers have real-time access to someone in your company. Research shows that customers spend 20-40% more money with brands that engage and respond to customer service requests directly over social media. Engagement is a very important aspect of building a brand, creating customer community and developing trust between you and your customers.

Host an event

Knowing when and where to reach your audience is critical. Avoid an over-saturated market by honing in on your niche through an event. Utilize Small Business Saturday to get to know your potential consumers on a personal level through focusing on building relationships and increasing social engagement. These relationships will help inform what information is of most interest to them so that you may best capture their attention. Don’t be afraid to use in-store promotions or hit the pavement to raise awareness ahead of the event.

Create specific goals

Small Business Saturday is a great opportunity to get very specific with your goals. Start breaking down long-term goals into conquerable achievements surrounding Small Business Saturday. Craft a timeline that focuses on important milestones in your business that seem challenging yet obtainable. For example, set a benchmark sales goal for the day that is achievable or strive to increase the amount of traffic to your small business. By creating specific goals, you and your employees can stay on track and feel accomplished at the end of the day.

Be social

Bolster your presence on social media by creating compelling content and building up your following. Use multiple social platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat to connect with different audiences within the local community, share news and communicate with potential customers. Take advantage of free online social media marketing courses and analytics programs that will help you increase your brand credibility, awareness and appeal. You can also drive traffic by offering giveaways or deals that enhance social engagement and expand your reach. Also, don’t forget to use unique hashtags, especially during Small Business Saturday, to track success and to tag your business location for more visibility and to see how clients and potential clients are reacting to your products.


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In today’s digital world, there’s an app for that – whatever “that” may be. Devices like smartphones and tablets are becoming the dashboards of our lives. Depositing a check? Snap a picture of it and tap the button on your bank’s app. Does your son or daughter at college need money? Transfer it electronically. Forgot to pick up milk? Hop online and order it. Fueled by smart technologies, mobile devices and 24/7 connectivity, the way consumers browse, shop and pay is increasingly digital.

For small to medium-size businesses (SMBs), that can present a challenge. This year alone, 280 million Americans are expected to go online every month, according to eMarketer research, and Pew research estimates that eight in ten Americans will make an online purchase. Yet, according to research by Visa, less than half of SMBs have an online presence. Similarly, for in-store shopping most consumers (78 percent) surveyed by Visa say that they prefer making payments digitally either with a card or their phone. Does your SMB accept digital payments both online and in-store?

As digital commerce continues to expand, SMBs that don’t jump onboard risk being left behind. In an effort to understand more about what consumers want from SMBs, Visa and a consortium of partners surveyed more than 400 SMBs and nearly 2,500 consumers.

The result is a guide on how SMBs can grow their businesses in an increasingly digital world: “Digital Transformations of SMBs: The Future of Commerce.” It offers actionable tips for technology and digital upgrades that SMBs can implement to help grow their businesses, including a “how to” on digital payments, marketing and advertising tactics, new service considerations and customer loyalty programs.

Some of the findings that came out of the survey might surprise you. Here are three key reasons why SMBs should go digital:

Consumers expect it, but you’re not offering it. While 90 percent of consumers say they want to support small businesses, there is more to the story. Consumers still expect convenience, and today, that means digital offerings. This creates a big problem for SMBs, whether they realize it or not. Visa’s survey found that only 15 percent of SMBs sales are conducted via digital channels, yet 61 percent of consumers surveyed plan to increase their online purchases in the next 5 years. That represents a significant gap between what consumers are planning and what SMBs are delivering.

It may help the bottom line. Moving, storing and securing cash, checks and money orders takes valuable time and is also subject to fees, losses and theft. Based on survey responses collected from SMBs, Visa estimates the surveyed SMBs’ average cost of processing digital transactions was 57 percent less than cash transactions. This, based on annual sales volume, number of cash versus digital transactions, and processing costs for digital and cash payments (inclusive of direct expenses and labor costs). Adding digital payments may help businesses increase sales: two-thirds of SMBs surveyed shared that they believe customers spend more when using cards versus cash.

Consumers want digital loyalty plans. Only one in five SMBs surveyed offer a loyalty program, but rewards can drive consumer preferences. Seventy-eight percent of consumers say they’re more likely to choose a business that has a loyalty program, and of those, most say that they check out the programs before trying a service, a restaurant or a store for the first time. Every SMB knows that differentiating themselves is a key to success; a loyalty program is an excellent way to stand out from competitors. Why do a digital loyalty program and not, say, a paper punch card? Because nearly all consumers surveyed – 90 percent – prefer digital.

If you want to find out more about how to go digital, download the “Digital Transformation of SMBs: The Future of Commerce” guide at It’s free, and it’s filled with actionable tips to help you get started.

*References to consumer and small business preferences are based on findings from the survey Digital Transformation of SMBs: The Future of Commerce. Survey was commissioned by Visa and conducted by a third party research firm, Maru/Matchbox, during February and March 2018 and administered in English to U.S. 425 small and medium size businesses with storefront or at home business in food/dining, retail, services and grocery industries, and 2,458 consumers taking into account balanced income, age and regional representation.


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Protection against cyber attacks is crucial for any small business. A surprising report says that the average small business website is attacked by bots 44 times a day; however, many small businesses can’t picture themselves as a target. It’s easy to think that only large companies are subject to cyber threats, and therefore, overlook developing cybersecurity systems and tools due to cost and lack of resources. This is the exact reason why hackers will target small businesses – they are expecting to find weaknesses. It is essential for small businesses to protect their data, develop backup measures, and build recovery plans to counteract cyber threats in order to reduce the risk of losing everything they’ve worked so hard to build.

As technology continues to advance, small businesses need to consider what new technologies are best to help them, and protect critical business and customer information. There are several key areas for small businesses to focus on.

Secure access

Customer and business data needs to be protected at all times and everywhere it lives within the business. Cyber attackers use automated-malware to constantly search for weaknesses in data security and then employ ransomware to seize data and systems to extort billions of dollars a year from businesses around the world. According to the FBI, more than 4,000 attacks occur every day. Technology features such as strong passwords, multi-factor authentication and time locks can help secure points of access, and there is a wide variety of hardware and software available to help small businesses do so.

Without previous technology experience, it can be hard for a small business to know where to start when it comes to purchasing and implementing cyber-security solutions. Working with an IT adviser can significantly help with these decisions.

Secure network

Along with protecting access points, network data also needs to be protected at all times. Keeping a network secure protects valuable customer data.

Businesses can most effectively do so by leveraging encryption, which scrambles the data into unreadable code on your wireless network, making it more difficult for hackers to intrude on your information. Any kind of compromise to customer data can take down a small business; thus, taking strong precautions is crucial.

Data backup and recovery

Small businesses often do not back up their data. According to the FCC, nearly half of small businesses report that they never back up data. This puts small businesses at a major risk of losing key information if a data breach or disaster event ever occurs. Threats to data can come from cyber attacks, natural disasters or even user error. Making backup copies of data is like having an insurance policy to help ensure your business is able to continue operating under all types of circumstances.

Proactive data protection and backup can help small businesses reduce the risk of downtime, lost production and even loss of customers. Cloud backup services can automatically detect and back up new and changed files from laptops and servers even after the initial file is uploaded. This can provide a second line of defense against malware attacks. Management, compliance and other reporting requirements can be met, and the need for additional storage hardware can be reduced.

Staying protected

Keeping up with the fast pace of technological change can be difficult, but embracing and adapting new technologies can improve efficiency and provide a competitive advantage. Data backup and cyber-security can protect business information from threats and keep systems running smoothly. In addition, website attacks and cyber threats are growing in numbers daily. Recent studies show that more than 50% of all internet traffic is from automated sources such as hacking tools, scrapers, spammers and bots. It is absolutely critical that you take proper measures to secure your online presence.


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