Keeping the electronic crooks and hackers at bay
Crooks and hackers lift identities, clean out bank accounts or empty wallets and are often competent, clever and persistent. While everyone is on their radar, the wealthy stand out for the size of their assets and their vulnerability. However, you can do a lot to protect yourself, most of which involves simple, common-sense steps.
The two biggest security threats you face are your computer and household staff. The information stored on your laptop and electronic devices often tell your financial life story. Meanwhile, many trusted employees are given access — paying bills, handling accounts and using credit cards on behalf of the families they serve.
An electronic thief only needs your email address to begin. If a thief gains access to your computer, there is plenty to explore, from financial statements and bills to tax returns and emails with financial advisers. To limit your vulnerability, consider the following:
• Don’t help the bad guys. Hackers often “phish” for information, sending an email that purports to be from your bank/broker, asking for sensitive information or to click a link, a move that could unleash a virus.
• Double down on authentication. Unfortunately, changing your password regularly is not enough. You will make it difficult for hackers by using “two-factor authentication” for online accounts that offer it. Enabling this feature adds another wall of protection, requiring a separate access code after the password is entered, which changes every few seconds. If someone tries to log into your account without the access code, in most cases the system will not only keep them out but will alert you to the attempt.
• Install up-to-date defensive software. Include anti-virus protection and a personal firewall.
• Operate using the fewest privileges possible. Create a user login as well as an administrator login. As a user, you will be able to access programs, but will need the administrator password to download programs or make changes to the device.
• Thin out sensitive files. Don’t use your email as a repository for financial records.
• Be wary of going online where networks are unsecured, making you particularly vulnerable to malware. It is safer to connect when traveling to your own portable, secured, modem.
• Travel light. Bring a “clean” phone and laptop, empty of all sensitive information. In certain countries, security is largely unobtainable.
Should an attack succeed, speed is of the essence in limiting the damage:
• Spread the word. Notify everyone with whom you have an account via phone. The hacker may still be on the job and could block such a message from reaching its intended recipient.
• Change your email credentials, perhaps even change platforms. And once you make the change, spread that news.
• Consider bringing in a professional. If your computer is compromised, you will likely need a professional to clean your devices.
Hackers often contact a bank or financial adviser posing as the person they have just hacked. Using the victim’s email address, or a fake email address, almost identical to the victim’s, they try to arrange the transfer of funds.
Less worry at home
You trust your household staff. You may have gotten close enough to them to think of them as family, but, to protect your family, a number of safeguards are needed:
• Put things away. Keep all sensitive documents in a locked cabinet or desk and make them available only to the person regularly working with them.
• Stay engaged. Make sure you receive statements, bills and financial reports in sealed envelopes and examine them closely before your staff processes and makes payments. Also, review copies of canceled checks.
• Keep control of the final payment step. Banks typically have software allowing levels of access during the payment process (one person prepares payments, a second person reviews and authorizes payment).
• Tighten up the credit strings. Put a monitoring system in place barring new credit accounts to be opened without a phone call to you.
Be realistic about trust and be careful not to unfairly accuse a staff member. Build a system around your staff, adopting the aforementioned steps, diminishing the risk of breaches and false accusation.
Wealth confers many privileges, not least a buffer against some of life’s vicissitudes. But in the case of hackers, it does the opposite. For them, the wealthy are not random targets – algorithms are even used to search them out. With this in mind, be sure to build your own buffer. It won’t take long, and the dividends may go on forever.
Drew McMorrow is president of Ballentine Partners LLC.