Written By: Erick Aguayo, Chief Compliance Officer
During these uncertain times, it is important to remain vigilant and practice safe internet habits. The global spread of coronavirus has unfortunately resulted in a growth of digital scams, with cybercriminals aiming to profit from people’s fears and their desire for information related to COVID-19. This massive increase in cybercriminal activity coupled with the impact COVID-19 has had on our lives makes life difficult and can feel understandably overwhelming.
Scams related to COVID-19 and the recently passed CARES Act include robocalls, texts, and email phishing attempts from criminals posing as representatives from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), World Health Organization (WHO), and Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Email recipients have been tricked into downloading malicious software by clicking on links and attachments. Other scams include cybercriminals posing as legitimate businesses claiming to sell products like facemasks, hand sanitizers and medications to help avoid COVID-19. As of the end of March, more than 7,800 U.S consumer complaints have been filed with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), with an average loss of nearly $600 per victim.[i]
During such difficult times with COVID-19 dominating the headlines and impacting our lives, it is important to remember that everyone can practice safe Internet practices and prevent themselves from being victims of cybercrime. We have control over how we interact with emails, answer calls, and respond to solicitations, whether we are in a crisis or not. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), a division of the Department of Homeland Security urges everyone to exercise caution in handling emails received with a COVID-19-related subject line, attachment, or hyperlink.[ii] We should also be careful with social media posts, texts, or calls related to the coronavirus pandemic. Best practices for defending against these cyber scams include:
Never give personal information to unsolicited requests over the phone or in email.
Don’t click on links in unsolicited emails and exercise caution when downloading email attachments.
Use trusted government websites such as the CDC’s and the WHO’s for official COVID-19 information and updates.
Don’t respond to unsolicited emails urging you to act promptly to prevent or cope with COVID-19.
Set strong passwords with a combination of numbers, letters, and symbols to secure your email, financial, health, and personal accounts.
Verify a charity’s legitimacy before making donations online or over the phone. Review the Federal Trade Commission’s advice about avoiding charity scams to make sure your donation will actually go to an organization you want to support.
Do not respond to emails from unknown sources requesting personal, financial, or health information.
Report any fraud or cyber scams to the Federal Trade Commission: gov/complaint.
At Merriman, we have measures in place to safeguard your information, such as enhancements to how we share sensitive information with you and trusted professionals, and the use of multi-factor authentication solutions to secure access to critical data systems. These investments in employee training and cybersecurity over the years have also enabled us to better detect and respond to email phishing attempts and fraudulent requests for funds. We value your trust and will continue to take the necessary steps, like calling you directly to verify an information or money request we receive over email, as part of our ongoing mission to protect your information and financial assets. This is always an area of focus for our employees, but especially as our team continues to work from home for the next several weeks.
We hope that as you spend more time indoors and online, you do so safely and keep an eye out for cyber and robocall scams. Although it is understandable to feel overwhelmed by all the COVID-19 headlines, it is important to remain informed, vigilant, and remember that practicing some basic safety measures can greatly reduce your chances of falling victim to these scams.
[i] Joseph Marks & Tonya Riley, The Cybersecurity 202: Coronavirus pandemic unleashes unprecedented number of online scams, Washington Post, (April 1, 2020)
[ii] CISA, Defending Against COVID-19 Cyber Scams, Department of Homeland Security, (March 6, 2020)
Have you ever been interrupted during something important by a phone call from an unknown number within your area code? The first one you let go, but in the back of your mind you come up with all the important messages that call could be trying to deliver. Is someone hurt and trying to call you? Has there been some emergency? While those thoughts stir in the background, the same number calls you again. This time you pick up, sure it is terrible or important news only to hear “Congratulations! You have won a free cruise to the Caribbean”. This kind of attempted exploitation is easy to stamp out, and all you have to do is hang up the phone. Unfortunately, attempts to steal your personal information and money can take on many, less obvious forms.
The term “financial exploitation” means the illegal act of taking economic advantage of someone for one’s personal gain. Examples of this include forging checks, bank account theft, and abusing a power of attorney authorization. Financial exploitation is on the rise today as the baby boomer generation reaches their 60s and 70s, and begins to rely more on caregivers and family members to help them manage their health and financial matters. According to the Senate Special Committee on Aging, senior citizens lost an estimated $2.9 billion from financial exploitation in 2018. Unfortunately, only 1 out of every 44 cases gets reported to local and federal law enforcement. It’s important to note that senior citizens are not the only adults at risk of financial exploitation. Any adult relying on others down the road to make financial decisions for them, can fall victim to this type of crime. This can happen when family members, “friends” and caretakers begin demanding personal loans after learning about the vulnerable state of health of the adult. If the vulnerable adult is dependent on the individual for health care services or other necessities, they may feel pressured to lend them the money.
Federal and state authorities along with financial institutions, have recognized this growing crime against vulnerable adults & senior citizens, and have passed laws and created new best practices for preventing this type of fraud. As a fiduciary, Merriman takes great pride in putting our client’s best interests first. If we suspect you may be the victim of financial exploitation, we will take the appropriate steps to protect you and your assets. That may mean reporting the incident to state authorities such as Adult Protective Services or working with your account’s custodian to prevent funds from being withdrawn.
Since this is an important decision, and one we do not take lightly, Merriman has recently created its own form that allows us to contact a designated individual(s) when we suspect our clients may be victims of financial exploitation and their health status is the primary reason. This allows us to be in touch with someone familiar to your specific situation who can give us additional information to dispute or validate our concerns.
We encourage you to be mindful of this growing risk, shield yourself from personal relationships that center around you giving them money, as well as designate a trusted contact for your advisor or custodian to reach if they suspect you may be the victim of financial exploitation. Please note that this individual will not be authorized to make financial decisions for you.
At Merriman, we believe it is important to help you do more than just grow your wealth. It is for this reason we share this concern as a way to help protect the wealth that you have worked countless years to accumulate, and to keep it away from those looking to exploit your hard work and discipline. We encourage you to ask your advisor about completing a Trusted Contact Form during your next review to ensure they know who to contact if they believe you may be the victim of attempted financial exploitation.
If you believe you would be a good Trusted Contact person for a close friend or family member, please feel free to use this article to start the conversation with them about placing you in that role. That way you can help to look out for them in the same way your Trusted Contact will look out for you.
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