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Cybercrooks Are Targeting Retirement Accounts

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Hacker working on computer cyber crime (Imager via Shutterstock)

Cybercrooks Targeting Retirement Accounts

When she logged in to view her account in November, she expected to see a balance of more than $80,000. Instead, she saw a balance of only about $8,000.

“I was very shocked by that. I thought there must be some mistake here,” she said.

She soon found out it was no mistake.

“Indeed, my money had been systematically withdrawn over the past couple of months,” Bennett said she learned after contacting her employer’s retirement plan adviser and the mutual fund company that held the money.

Someone had stolen her identity and was able to pose as her, changing Bennett’s mailing address, redeeming big chunks of her mutual funds and having checks mailed to new locations – first to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and then New York City. A bank cashed the first two checks, but when Bennett discovered the heist, payment was stopped on a third check.

But another shock was still in store for Bennett.

When she contacted a representative at the mutual fund company, no immediate guarantee was made that she’d ever see that money again.

“When I tell people they’re like, ‘What?’ And then the next thing is, ‘Well, surely they have to make sure you get your money back.’ And then when I say, ‘Well no, no one will tell me I’m going to get my money back,’ that’s when it gets scary. And that’s when you get people’s attention,” Bennett said.

Unlike with stolen credit cards, a saver’s losses to fraud in retirement investment accounts aren’t limited by federal law, although mutual fund companies typically say they’ll reimburse funds lost to fraudulent activity.

It’s an issue to be aware of as cyberattacks on retirement funds rise.

“Hackers are finding it’s getting harder to hack bank accounts, so they’re saying where else is there more money? Where can we go? And they’ve started to discover 401(k) accounts, they’ve started to discover retirement funds,” said Ed Mierzwinski, senior director of the federal consumer program for the U.S. Public Research Interest Group.

At a 2019 forum for institutions involved in retirement planning, industry expert Larry Goldbrum, of Reliance Trust, told attendees that while overall cyberfraud and account fraud was down – cyberfraud amounted to $14.7 billion in 2018 – fraud in retirement accounts was rising, according to a report by the National Association of Plan Advisors.

Cybercriminals today are “looking for any possible route into people’s financial transactions, and they are increasingly focusing their efforts outside financial institutions’ firewalls,” said Steven Silberstein, chief executive officer of Financial Services Information Sharing and Analysis Center, an industry consortium dedicated to reducing cyber-risk in the global financial system.

“In other words, directly at the public,” Silberstein said. “E-mail compromises, spear phishing and social profiling are some of the key tactics being used to target all types of assets, including retirement accounts.”

In spear phishing, cyberbandits send emails, purportedly from a known or trusted sender, in the hope of persuading potential victims to reveal confidential financial information.

The good news in Bennett’s case is that American Funds, the mutual fund company that holds her retirement savings, has agreed to restore the money she lost, even though at first Bennett said representatives gave her no assurance of reimbursement.

Still, what happened to Bennett serves as a cautionary tale that people with 401(k) accounts and other types of retirement savings accounts need to be on guard.

“The scenarios continue to evolve, so while our nearly 7,000 member financial institutions are constantly developing their cyberdefenses, it’s also critical for consumers to practice good cyberhygiene and be on the lookout for suspicious activity,” said Silberstein, of the Financial Services Information Sharing and Analysis Center.

When crooks gain entry to consumer bank and retirement accounts, the point of entry more often than not is the victim’s email account, said Kevin Bong, director of cybersecurity for the accounting and consulting firm Sikich. Oftentimes, people’s account passwords, obtained in data breaches and then sold on the “dark web” to cybercriminals, are used to break into an email account and take it over without the victim knowing it.

“We’re definitely seeing that by getting just that one account – usually your email account – they use that to figure out, ‘Here’s my bank, here’s where my retirement accounts are,'” Bong said. “You’ve probably got a different password on your retirement account than you do on your email address, but what do you do if you forget that password? Well, you click ‘Forgot Password’ and they email a link to reset your password. So with access to your email address, they really have access to all those other things in a lot of cases.”

Bennett doesn’t know how a crook got into her American Funds account and started draining it. American Funds said its system wasn’t hacked, and that it sends out notices via postal mail when things like changes of address take place online.

Bennett is executive director of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association. Her retirement savings tool is what’s known a Simple Plan, a tax-deferred, employer-sponsored account with some similarities to 401(k) and 403(b) plans that is tailored for smaller employers.

Asked about Bennett’s case, American Fund issued a statement: “Our mission is to help people save for a secure retirement. When one of our customers is the victim of identity theft, we hold ourselves accountable to immediately conduct a thorough examination of what happened and take appropriate action. We use instances like this to strengthen our practices and conduct additional staff training if needed. We have communicated to the customer that her savings, including any accrued dividends or appreciation, will be reinstated. We will work with law enforcement to aid in their investigation.”

Mierzwinski, of the U.S. Public Research Interest Group, said people can’t assume whomever holds their retirement money will reimburse them after a hack, but he said the biggest companies typically do.

Charles Schwab, for example, states online it will “cover 100% of any losses in any of your Schwab accounts due to unauthorized activity.” Fidelity also says it will reimburse customers for any financial losses resulting from unauthorized activity on Fidelity accounts. American Funds states on its website: “We review each report of unauthorized access thoroughly, file appropriate notices with law enforcement agencies, and, in the event of a financial loss, we assess the facts and circumstances for potential reimbursement to your account.”

Companies do need to investigate the hacks for fraud and make sure law enforcement is notified a crime has taken place, experts said.

Cybersecurity experts say if retirement savers have access to their accounts online, one of the best things they can do is make it very hard for hackers to take over their accounts. Here are some tips they recommend:

Make sure any computer or device used to access accounts is protected by a firewall and has current antivirus and antispyware software.

Be wary of responding to, opening attachments in or clicking on links in emails that ask for your financial information.

Open and read any letters or paper statements from your mutual fund or money manager to see if everything looks accurate, and notify them promptly if it appears unauthorized activity has taken place. Investment firms often also will send letters via postal service to let clients know if any changes have been made to details like a home address.

Sikich’s Bong said one important way of increasing security for an account is a strong password that isn’t used for any other types of online accounts. Long passwords with phrases such as “Dogcatfish22” are better and easier to remember than shorter ones, he said.

“It’s a lot longer so people can’t break it as easily,” Bong said.

Mierzwinski said retirement accounts could be particularly vulnerable because account holders might neglect looking at their statements. In some cases, they’ve been told over the years just to let the money grow and not check on it too frequently. That advice isn’t prudent anymore in an age of cybercrime.

“You know it’s just a statement, but open it,” he said.

Bennett said she wants people to know they need to check regularly on their retirement savings.

“If it can happen to me, it can happen with everybody,” she said.

Follow Paul Gores on Twitter @pgores.© Copyright 2020 Journal Sentinel, All Rights Reserved.

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Sorry AOC, Billionaires Haven’t Made $434B During Pandemic

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Sorry AOC, Billionaires Haven’t Made $434B During Pandemic

Nation’s Billionaire’s See Net Worth Jump $434B in First Two Months of Pandemic

It was an eye-opening headline, and fairly drew the frustrations of a lot of us. This is especially true for the 38+ million Americans who have lost their jobs since the coronavirus pandemic shut down. Our country has been at it a little more than two months ago.

How dare they get richer while we suffer?

Chuck Collins, director of the Institute for Policy Studies Program on Inequality, the co-author of the report, expressed his piece. He said, “The surge in billionaire wealth during a global pandemic underscores the grotesque nature of unequal sacrifice.”

Meanwhile, Frank Clemente, the executive director of Americans for Tax Fairness which co-authored the study, also shared his opinion. He said, “The pandemic has revealed the deadly consequences of America’s yawning wealth gap, and billionaires are the glaring symbol of that economic inequality.”

Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez didn’t want to miss the opportunity to inject her brand of socialism into the public discourse. “Really great system we got here. Can’t imagine why anyone would question how beneficial or sustainable it is for the working class,” she tweeted. This is in response to CNBC running the headline.

The Study’s Flaws

The top five US billionaires explicitly mentioned in the article are all Democrats. These include Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Larry Ellison. But setting that irony aside, the problem is that the article is simply dishonest, points out MarketWatch columnist Steve Goldstein.

“The study… examines billionaires’ wealth between March 18 — the rough start date of the pandemic shutdown, when most federal and state economic restrictions were in place — and May 19. It relied on the Forbes’ billionaire list, which itself is built around stock-market performance.”

The flaw, as Goldstein points out, is that the beginning and end dates used for the study are incorrect.

“Think about that in the market context. The pandemic did not start March 18 (nor, of course, had it ended on May 19), and certainly market concerns about the pandemic did not start March 18. Far from it.”

He says that to see a true picture of how much money the billionaires made – or lost – during the pandemic, they need to expand the date range.

“A more logical way to think about whether billionaires got richer, or not, is to think about the performance from the Feb. 19 peak in the market, after which more investors began to get concerned by the novel virus. You then get to see who got richer even in the face of the crippling economic blow.”

If you use this revised date range, Goldstein says the truth is that billionaires have actually lost money since the market peaked and the pandemic began

“Cumulatively, the top 50 billionaires lost $232 billion between the market’s peak and this Tuesday. If the remaining billionaires on the Forbes list lost wealth at the same roughly 12.5% rate that the top 50 experienced, that’s another $200 billion–plus wiped out.”

So while it’s easy to run a headline that bashes billionaires, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

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American Consumers Will (Or Won’t) Drive The Economic Recovery

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American Consumers Will (Or Won’t) Drive The Economic Recovery

If you are wondering how the stock market has climbed nearly 30% from the March 23 lows while the country has lost 20 million jobs in April, you’re not alone.

It’s head-scratching to try and think of a scenario where stocks are worth as much or almost as much as they were back in February when the country had a 3% unemployment rate compared to 14.7% today.

A common refrain from analysts and Wall Street veterans is that the stock market is forward-looking. So everything bad happening today has already been priced in. Or perhaps with parts of the country slowly reopening, that the economy will quickly spring back to life. Maybe there’s justifiably a belief that no matter how bad things get, the Federal Reserve will step in and flood the market with liquidity, effectively removing any downside risk.

Consumers

Whatever the real reason is for the surge in stock prices since late March, there’s one thing that many analysts say will either spur the market higher or send it crashing back down to the March lows: you and me, the consumer.

“It’s all going to come down to consumer spending. If we’re all sitting inside and not out spending money in September-October, the market’s not going to like that — the market will go down,” said Scott Wren, senior global market strategist at Wells Fargo Investment Institute, in a recent interview.

Consumer spending accounts for roughly 65% of our country’s GDP. So if consumers don’t feel comfortable leaving their homes and getting back out to shopping centers, malls or restaurants, it’s going to be nearly impossible for a sustained economic recovery.

Richard Cordray was the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He says consumers “are likely to come out of the covid-19 crisis no longer able, or willing, to bear the same load as before. That means that Wall Street investors counting on ordinary families to continue propping up the business cycle are likely to be sorely disappointed.”

“First, the rapidly deteriorating job market will hurt consumers badly, and for many the damage will not be temporary. Until last month, unemployment was at historic lows: It was 3.5 percent in February. More hours worked meant more income for most families while pushing the wage curve higher. All that positive momentum is gone. Unemployment is certain to spike above 15 percent soon, and many small businesses that operate on thin margins will go bankrupt.

“Second, many businesses will not regain the same vigor because they are dependent on strong consumer demand. Inevitably, some Americans will remain unemployed longer than others. Those who go back to work quickly are still likely to emerge from their experience of sheltering at home with less ability to resume spending at the same levels. Large numbers of households are falling behind on major debt obligations, such as rent or mortgage payments, auto loans, and credit card bills. Even those who return to pre-crisis jobs will have to cope with the burden of this overhanging debt, which will constrain their discretionary spending for months or even years to come.

“Third, the wrenching experience of the covid-19 pandemic is likely to change many consumers’ behavior. As happened in the Great Depression, this crisis has reminded people of the fragility of their financial situations, making them more cautious about borrowing and spending. Social changes, too, are likely to linger. Until people feel sure about an effective vaccine and manageable treatment for the virus, they may be reluctant to travel or even to circulate as widely as they used to, producing lower levels of economic activity overall.”

The Effects of Job Loss

And Avi Dan, the CEO of Avidan Strategies, says the damage from the unprecedented job losses could last for years in what he calls “America 2.0”

“After most recessions had ended, consumers’ attitudes and behaviors often return to “normal” within a couple of years. This time it may be different. Given the unprecedented extreme events we are witnessing, consumers’ optimism just might be replaced by a heightened sense of economic vulnerability. Caution might replace consumerism, and this could persist for a decade or longer.

“Given these facts, there is a good possibility that consumer attitudes and behaviors, shaped during this recession, will linger substantially beyond its end, as we enter a new national phase, America 2.0. The majority of consumers may well retain the different consumption habits developed during the recovery with what they’ve adapted to during the recession.”

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Unemployment Rate Balloons To 14.7%, Expected To Get Worse

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Unemployment Rate Balloons To 14.7%, Expected To Get Worse

April’s jobs report is out, and it shows a stunning 20.5 million jobs were lost last month, ballooning the unemployment rate to 14.7%. This mirrors Wednesday’s report from ADP that showed 20.2 million private-sector jobs were lost.

Economists expected a reading of 21.5 million jobs lost, according to Dow Jones.

The 14.7% unemployment rate is the highest our country has faced since the end of World War II.

“This is the biggest and most acute shock that we’ve seen in post-war history. It’s a dramatic loss of output in a very short period of time,” said Michelle Meyer, head of U.S. economics at Bank of America.

Meyer anticipated a loss of 22 million nonfarm payrolls and an unemployment rate of 15%. The industry hit hardest by job losses was the service industry. About 8.6 million jobs were lost in leisure and hospitality, and Meyer warns that it’s unknown how quickly those jobs will come back.

“In recession, the service side tends to be a lot more resilient. This time around, the services are in the epicenter, given how the Covid pandemic has impacted the economy,” she said. “Usually it’s the cyclical, more externally oriented parts of the economy. There’s a question of how quickly the service sector can come back after this.”

Expected Peak

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, expects that job losses will peak in the coming weeks, but the headline unemployment rate could be an eye-popping 20% in May.

He says that if we don’t get a second wave of infections as the country re-opens, the unemployment rate will quickly drop by the fall, but doesn’t expect a full recovery until there’s a vaccine.

“Then we’ll get a bounce if we don’t get a second wave [of infections] in the summer months. The unemployment rate will be cut in half by Election Day. Then we go nowhere fast until there’s a therapy we all feel good about — not only a vaccine but one that’s widely distributed.”

He expects the economic impacts to linger and companies will be forced to make hard decisions about opening or permanently closing, and what their staffing needs will be.

“It’s just the pervasive uncertainty. The virus is still out there and can come roaring back. People just won’t be traveling, business won’t be investing. There won’t be the same kind of global trade. People just won’t get back to normal. People will be distancing,” said Zandi.

He added, “There’s going to be a lot of business failures and bankruptcies. You can already see it. They’re going to be in such a weakened state they aren’t rehire the people they had before.”

Not a Clear Picture

Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank President Neel Kashkari was on NBC’s Today Show yesterday. There, he warned that today’s jobs report doesn’t give the clearest picture of job losses amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“That bad report tomorrow is actually going to understate how bad the damage has been,” Kashkari explained, adding that the reported unemployment rate could be as high as 17% — a brutal number, no doubt — but he says the true number may be as high as 24%. “It’s devastating,” she then said.

Meyer, for her part, hopes the number is lower, for no other reason than our nation’s psyche.

“There are a few metrics that Main Street pays attention to. One is the S&P 500, and the second one is what is the unemployment rate,” she also mentioned.

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