MONEY privacy

How Your State Is Helping Scammers Rip You Off

173017288
Steve Shepard—Getty Images

Unclaimed property records are easy targets for fraudsters.

As cybercriminals become more skilled, the privacy practices at many organizations have not kept apace. In the State Compendium of Unclaimed Property Practices that I’ve compiled, I found this to be the case at many state treasuries where the data exposed provides fraudsters with a crime exacta: claiming money that no one will ever miss and gathering various nuggets of personal data that can help facilitate other types of identity theft.

First, you have to understand what “unclaimed funds” are and how they work. Our states are responsible for ensuring unclaimed property makes it into the right hands. Twice a year, organizations like banks and insurance companies report uncollected payouts to their state’s Unclaimed Property Office. From there, the debt is published in a local newspaper, and if it remains unclaimed, the property (funds, stocks, commodities, etc.) has to be surrendered to the state for safekeeping until a claim is made.

Two years ago, there was a total of $58 billion in unclaimed property nationwide. In theory, it’s safe. You need to be able to identify yourself and go through a verification process to collect the money. However, because Social Security numbers and other personally identifiable information (PII) are increasingly easy to find on the dark web, consumers are faced with a potential fraud-frenzy not unlike the spike in stolen tax refunds of recent years. It takes a good deal of information for a fraudster to claim funds that rightfully belong to you, but the danger of PII on unclaimed funds sites cuts both ways – fraudsters can find out that you have unclaimed money and try to gather other information about you in order to claim it, or they can use the information from the unclaimed funds sites to build a dossier on you and target you for other scams.

This is not a hypothetical problem. Interestingly, the first explanations of the issue in a simple Google search (i.e., unclaimed funds identity theft) came not from a state treasury, but a site called Scambusters. One common scheme involves charging a fee to “locate” your unclaimed property. In the process, the swindler grabs personally identifiable information that can be used to commit identity theft. Stories about stolen unclaimed funds abound. In 2011, a Houston woman was convicted for stealing almost $500,000 in tax refunds and unclaimed funds. According to KHOU.com, “Officials said Thomas used public databases to locate the names of the people owed money, then used their personal information to claim the funds.” Texas scored a lone star in the compendium—the worst ranking here.

This has become an issue because of data breaches. News is still trickling out about the millions of federal employees whose personally identifiable information was exposed to hackers because of shoddy data security at the Office of Personnel Management. Between the breach at Anthem that leaked Social Security numbers and the Premera breach that leaked far more specific information (in addition to SSNs), almost 100 million records were stolen. The recent IRS revelation that fraudsters essentially walked through the digital front door and stole $50 million in tax refunds using information accessed in its “Get Transcript” application highlighted the need for more stringent processes at government agencies. That swindle, like so many others, was made possible by a seemingly never-ending string of breaches. The fraudsters had enough information to game the IRS verification process. The same approach could be used with unclaimed funds.

While I am focusing here on the state offices responsible for unclaimed funds, knock on any organization’s door these days and you will find data security and privacy issues.

According to some estimates, there are more (perhaps significantly more) than a billion records “out there.” Therefore, it is crucial that organizations entrusted with our personal information do everything possible to limit our exposure, especially when our money (as well as the integrity of our identities) is on the line.

The compendium found that more than half the country could be doing a better job. Thirty-six states had practices that exposed more personal information than was necessary—ranked “Not Good” (28) or “Bad” (8)—exposing various kinds of data that fraudsters can use to build the type of personal information dossier on an individual (or even a celebrity, we found) that facilitates the commission of identity theft.

What Can We Do About It?

For Consumers: Get your money now! Visit your state’s unclaimed property site as soon as possible to see if you have a claim, and if you do, go through the process before your evil twin does. And, as always, stay vigilant. Just because you don’t have unclaimed funds doesn’t mean a scammer can’t get to you other ways. Monitor your financial accounts regularly for unauthorized charges, and keep an eye on your credit reports and scores for signs of new-account fraud.

For States: Respect your fiduciary duty to protect us and expose less PII in the verification process.

How does your state measure up? Click here to read the full State Compendium of Unclaimed Property Practices.

More From Credit.com:

MONEY financial advisers

Cleaning Up After Another Financial Adviser’s Bad Advice

broken piggy bank fixed with tape
Corbis—Alamy

Explaining to clients that another financial adviser has given them bum advice can be awkward. Here's how I do it.

Average Americans have a poor opinion about financial advisers, and with good reason. Too many “advisers” are just salespeople for products that generate commissions for the adviser but rarely deliver the promised investment returns to the client.

As a financial adviser myself, I often see unsuitable investments in prospective clients’ portfolios. I can’t just badmouth those clients’ current adviser. If I point out how this adviser has abused their trust, how are they going to trust me? What can I tell the prospect about another adviser’s bad advice without dragging myself down to his or her level?

Recently I reviewed the investment statements of a prospect family who owned about $1 million in assets in joint taxable accounts and IRAs. The IRAs were invested primarily in variable annuities. The family had already shown me that their retirement income needs were covered by pensions. Their primary interest was in asset transfer to their children.

There’s nothing wrong with variable annuities if used for the proper purpose. For example, clients may have already maxed out 401(k) contributions but still want to set aside additional cash in tax deferred investments. However, there is no reason, in my opinion, why you would ever put a variable annuity inside an IRA. There is no additional tax benefit, but there is an extra layer of cost and complexity and there is a loss of liquidity due to surrender charges. If you don’t like the investment returns of the annuity, it could cost you up to 11% or up to 11 years to get out.

There’s a wrong way and a right way to deliver bad news. The wrong way is a declarative statement along the lines of, “You idiots were totally taken advantage of.” The prospects tend to grab their papers and stomp out the door.

The right way is to engage the prospect in a series of questions and answers; that educates clients without making them feel stupid.

“Tell me about your thought process when you purchased these annuities,” I asked.

“Our broker explained that the annuity would grow tax-free with the stock market, and then at a certain point we could convert to a term annuity which would pay out a level payment for the rest of our lives.”

“Did he note that your assets are already in an IRA?” I asked. “Where growth is tax-free already?”

“No,” they replied.

“Did he tell you that you could also achieve growth by investing in a basket of mutual funds?”

“No.”

“Did he advise you that once you convert to a fixed annuity, there’s no residual value for your children?”

“No.”

“Did he explain that, because of the various fees loaded onto your investment, you were likely to have sub-par returns?”

“No.”

“Did he explain what the surrender charge is?”

“Sure!” they replied. “That’s the insurance company’s way of making sure we stay committed to the annuity.”

“That’s the marketing department’s answer to what a surrender charge is,” I said. “What the insurance company doesn’t tell you is that they paid a commission of up to 11% to your broker on the sale, which the insurance company amortizes over the next 11 years at one percentage point a year. So if you exit in year five, there’s still 6% of that 11% commission to recover, hence the 6% remaining surrender charge.”

By this point, the couple was looking distinctly uncomfortable.

“Look,” I said, “there may have been some other reason why he recommended this strategy. All I can say is that for the needs that you have described, I would have invested you in a plain vanilla basket of fixed income and equity mutual funds. We would have complete flexibility to adjust the asset allocation over time. If for some reason you weren’t happy, you could cancel your relationship with me with an e-mail, no surrender charge. We apply a monthly advisory fee to the assets in this plan, which is 1/12 of 0.75%. The fees you pay me are computed and disclosed to you in our monthly report. As your assets rise in value, so does our monthly fee, so no mystery about my incentives.”

Nobody likes to find out that their current adviser isn’t focused on their best interests — that is, a fiduciary. I provide information, let the prospects draw their own conclusion.

We turned to other topics, and I followed up with a formal investment proposal a few days later. I was not surprised that the family decided a few weeks later to move their accounts to my firm, nor was I surprised that the annuity accounts would trickle in only after the surrender charges had expired. Even though the family had concluded that they had received a raw deal from their current adviser, those annuities still were locked in for a few more years.

———-

David Edwards is president of Heron Financial Group | Wealth Advisors, which works closely with individuals and families to provide investment management and financial planning services. Edwards is a graduate of Hamilton College and holds an MBA in General Management from Darden Graduate School of Business-University of Virginia.

MONEY 401(k)

How the Supreme Court Just Improved Your Retirement

The Supreme Court just ruled on an obscure aspect of ERISA. It could be great news for your retirement nest egg.

The Supreme Court just handed millions of retirement savers a helping hand.

You many not know much about ERISA, the body of rules that governs retirement accounts. But chances are you have a 401(k). That means Monday’s Supreme Court decision could indirectly lower investment fees you’re paying. And that’s great news.

On Monday the Supreme Court made it easier for 401(k) investors to sue employers over needlessly costly 401(k) investments. The actual point of contention in the case, known as Tibble vs. Edison, was pretty obscure. It involved how the statute of limitations should be applied to a breach of fiduciary duty.

But because ERISA law is so complicated, companies almost always choose to fight such suits on technical grounds. This time around, the typically business friendly U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of investors, unanimously overruling the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. As a result, employers will be forced to think a little harder about whether similar arguments are likely to prevail in the future.

But the fact is, employers have grown increasingly proactive about regulating plan fees. The reason: Tibble vs. Edison is just a high-profile example of a series of lawsuits launched in the past decade over employers’ failure to police exorbitant retirement plan fees. And many large employers have already reacted to the threat by urging investment firms to lower fees for their employees. As a result, 401(k) plan fees have come down, and investors have had greater access to low-cost options like index funds.

With the Supreme Court weighing in on investors’ side, you can expect that trend to continue.

 

MONEY fiduciary

If Humans Can’t Offer Unbiased Financial Advice to the Middle Class, These Robots Will

Wall Street says it can't be a "fiduciary" to everyone who wants financial advice. But the new breed of "robo advisers" is happy to take the job.

Fast-growing internet-based investment services known as robo-advisers have already begun to upend many aspects of the investment business. Here’s one more: Potentially reshaping the long-standing debate in Washington over whether financial advisers need to act in their clients’ best interests.

If you work with a financial adviser you may assume he or she is legally obligated to give you unbiased advice. In fact, that’s not necessarily the case. Many advisers—the ones who are technically called brokers—in fact face a much less stringent legal and ethical standard: They’re required only to offer investments that are “suitable” for you based on factors like age and risk tolerance. That leaves room for brokers to steer clients to suitable but costly products that deliver them high commissions.

The issue is especially troubling, say many investor advocates, because research shows that most consumers don’t understand they may be getting conflicted advice. And the White House recently claimed that over-priced advice was reducing investment returns by 1% annually, ultimately costing savers $17 billion a year.

Now the Labor Department has issued a proposal that, among other things, would expand the so-called fiduciary standard to advice on one of financial advisers’ biggest market segments, Individual Retirement Accounts. A 90-day comment period ends this summer.

Seems like an easy call, right? Not so fast. Wall Street lobbyists contend that forcing all advisers to put clients first would actually hurt investors. Their argument? Because advisers who currently adhere to stricter fiduciary standards tend to work with wealthier clients, forcing all advisers to adopt it would drive those who serve less wealthy savers out of the business. In other words, according to the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a fiduciary standard would mean middle-class investors could end up without access to any advice at all.

(Why, you might ask, would anyone in Washington listen to business rather than consumer groups about what’s best for consumers? Well, that is another story.)

What’s interesting about robo-advisers, which rely on the Internet to deliver automated advice, is that they have potential to change the dynamic. Robo-advisers have been filling this gap, offering investors so-called fiduciary advice with little or no investment minimums at all. For instance, Wealthfront, one of the leading robo-advisers, has a minimum account size of just $5,000. It’s free for the first $10,000 invested and charges just 0.25% on amounts over that. Arch-rival Betterment has no account minimum at all and charges just 0.35% on accounts up to $10,000 when investors agree to direct deposit up to $100 a month.

Of course, these services mostly focus on investing—clients can expect little in the way of individual attention or holistic financial planning. But the truth is that flesh-and-blood advisers seldom deliver much of those things to clients without a lot of assets. What’s more, the dynamic is starting to change. Earlier this month, fund giant Vanguard launched Personal Advisor Services that will offer individual financial planning over the phone and Internet for investors with as little as $50,000. The fee is 0.3%.

The financial services industry says robo-advisers shouldn’t change the argument. Juli McNeely, president of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors, argues that relying on robo-advisers to fill the advice gap would still deprive investors of the human touch. “It all boils down to the relationship,” she says. “It provides clients with a lot of comfort.”

But robo-adviser’s growth suggests a different story. Wealthfront and Betterment, with $2.3 billion and $2.1 billion under management, respectively, are still small but have seen assets more than double in the past year.

And Vanguard’s service, meanwhile, which had been in a pilot program for two years before it’s recent launch, already has $17 billion under management.

Vanguard chief executive William McNabb told me last week that, although Vanguard had reservations about the specific legal details of past proposals, his company supports a fiduciary standard in principle. Small investors, he says, are precisely the niche that robo-advisers are “looking to fill.”

 

 

 

 

 

MONEY financial advice

Even a “Fiduciary” Financial Adviser Can Rip You Off If You Don’t Know These 3 Things

man in suit with briefcase stuffed with bills
Roy Hsu—Getty Images

After years of fits and starts, the move to require brokers and other financial advisers to act as fiduciaries—essentially making them put their clients’ interests first—seems to be gaining traction again. Witness President Obama’s recent speech at AARP on the topic. Whether a fiduciary mandate eventually comes to pass or not, here are three things you should know if you’re working with—or thinking of hiring—an adviser bound by the fiduciary standard.

1. Fiduciary status doesn’t guarantee honesty, or competence. The idea behind compelling financial advisers to act in their client’s best interest is that doing so will help eliminate a variety of dubious practices and outright abuses, such as pushing high-cost or otherwise inappropriate investments that do more to boost the adviser’s income than the size of an investor’s nest egg. And perhaps a rule or law requiring advisers to act as fiduciaries when dispensing advice or counseling consumers about investments will achieve that noble aim.

But you would be foolish to count on it. Fact is, no rule or standard can prevent an adviser from taking advantage of clients or, for that matter, prevent an unscrupulous one from using the mantle of fiduciary status to lull clients into a false sense of security. As a registered investment adviser with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Ponzi scheme perpetrator Bernie Madoff had a fiduciary duty to his clients. Clearly, that didn’t stop him from ripping them off.

Fiduciary or no, you should thoroughly vet any adviser before signing on. You should also assure that any money the adviser is investing or overseeing is held by an independent trustee, and stipulate that the adviser himself should not have unrestricted access to your funds.

2. Your interests and an adviser’s never completely align. There’s no way to eliminate all conflicts of interest between you and a financial adviser, even if he’s a fiduciary. If an adviser is compensated through sales commissions, for example, he may be tempted to recommend investments that pay him the most or frequently move your money to generate more commissions. An adviser who eschews commissions in favor of an annual fee—say, 1% or 1.5% of assets under management—might be prone to avoid investments that can reduce the value of assets under his charge, such as immediate annuities. Or, the adviser might charge the same 1% a year as assets increase even if his workload doesn’t.

My advice: Ask the adviser outright how your interests and his may deviate, as well as how he intends to handle conflicts so you’ll be treated fairly. If the adviser says he has no conflicts, move on to one with a more discerning mind.

3. Even with fiduciaries high fees can be an issue. Much of the rationale over the fiduciary mandate centers around protecting investors from bloated investments costs. But don’t assume that just because an adviser is a fiduciary that his fees are a bargain, or that you can’t do better. Advisers can and do charge a wide range of fees for very similar services, and fiduciaries are no exception. So ask for the details—in writing—of the services you’ll receive and exactly what you’ll pay for them. And don’t be shy about negotiating for a lower rate, or taking a proposal to another adviser to see if you can save on fees and expenses.

A fiduciary may have a duty to put your interests first. But that duty doesn’t extend to helping you find a competitor who may offer a better deal. That’s on you.

Walter Updegrave is the editor of RealDealRetirement.com. If you have a question on retirement or investing that you would like Walter to answer online, send it to him at walter@realdealretirement.com.

More from RealDealRetirement.com:

Should You Claim Social Security Early and Invest It—Or Claim Later For A Higher Benefit?

How To Protect Your Nest Egg From Shifting Government Policies

Your 3 Most Pressing Social Security Questions Answered

MONEY fiduciary

Obama to Wall Street: Stop Acting Like Car Salesmen

Obama at the podium giving a talk
Alex Wong—Getty Images

President Obama will push for a "fiduciary standard," which would require financial advisers to act in clients' best interests.

It’s an issue that’s pitted Main Street against Wall Street for years. Now President Obama is wading into the murky question of what ethical duties financial advisers owe their clients when they recommend products like mutual funds and annuities.

On Monday, President Obama plans to use an AARP event to tout something known as the “fiduciary standard,” which would require financial advisers to act in the best interests of their clients, much as a lawyer must do.

That may seem like a no-brainer. But in fact, investment pros who call themselves “financial advisers” currently are not required to give clients the best advice or products that they can offer. They never have been. In the eyes of the law, financial advisers—once more commonly known as stockbrokers—are like car salesmen or the guys selling TVs at the local big box store: They can and do tout products that offer the heftiest profits and commissions.

To be sure, investment advisers have never been allowed to recommend just any investment. Current law requires they sell investments that are “suitable” for their clients based on factors like age or risk tolerance. In practice, however, that often means actively managed mutual funds with hefty sales loads or annuities with complex and expensive guarantees. Compared to low-cost index funds and exchange-traded funds, these investments can end up costing savers tens of thousands of dollars over the years it takes to build a retirement nest egg.

Raising the legal standard to a fiduciary one might stop that practice. That’s a big reason that consumer advocates, including the AARP and the Consumer Federation of America, have been calling for years to require all advisers to act as fiduciaries.

Both the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Labor, which has jurisdiction over 401(k) plans, have taken stabs at requiring advisers to become fiduciaries. The issue was a key point of contention in the debate of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. While the bill ultimately included language that appeared to authorize the SEC to implement the financial standard, five years later the proposal is still stalled. One key point of contention: Financial advisers that work on commission tend to take on less wealthy clients. That has allowed Wall Street firms—and especially big insurance companies whose agents sell annuities—to argue that tougher rules would deprive middle class investors of advice.

Of course, it may seem strange that members of Congress would listen to what big business thinks is best for middle class investors while ignoring AARP and the Consumer Federation of America. But that only speaks to the strange ways of Washington—and, of course, to the ingenuity and determination of the financial services lobby.

The White House push appears to focus on advice doled out to investors in retirement plans. While that’s a huge group of investors, it’s not clear what effect, if any, the proposal would have on advice regarding taxable investment accounts. Any new rules could also be crafted to permit brokers to continue to earn commissions, something that many investors advocates are likely to see as a potentially fatal loophole.

MONEY financial advisers

What Is a Fiduciary, and Why Should You Care?

Your investments are at stake, explains Ritholtz Wealth Management CEO Josh Brown (a.k.a. The Reformed Broker).

MONEY financial advisers

My Client Is Making a Terrible Financial Choice. What Do I Do?

Wallet being protected by little green army men
John Lamb—Getty Images

When panic drives someone to make a self-destructive money decision, it's the financial adviser's job to protect the client from himself.

Suppose one of my clients has his heart set on using half of his retirement account to buy each of his grandchildren a new car. Or a client in a panic over falling markets wants to sell all her stocks and buy gold. What is my responsibility as their financial planner? How far should planners go to try to keep clients from making serious financial mistakes?

It’s important for planners to respect clients’ competence and ability to make their own life decisions. Client-centered planners also need to remember that the goal is to help clients get what they want, not what the planner might want or think the client should want. On the other hand, should a planner stand idly by and watch someone walk off what the planner perceives as the edge of a financial cliff?

Part of the answer to this dilemma stems from a planner’s legal obligation. Most advisers who sell financial products have no fiduciary duty and are not legally required to put their customers’ interests first. Fiduciary advisers, which include those who are fee-only, do have a legal obligation to act in their clients’ best interests.

What is the legal responsibility, then, of a fiduciary planner who believes clients are about to do themselves financial harm?

Let’s say I have a client who is about to do something that may be viewed by a court of law as “extreme” or “imprudent.” (An example would be putting all his money into one asset class like gold, cash, or penny stocks.) At the minimum, I would need to protect myself by carefully fulfilling my legal responsibilities. This would include making certain I emphasized to the client that, given the research and data available, his actions could hurt him financially. I also would want to be sure the client fully understood and took responsibility for his actions.

In terms of the broader aspect of what financial planners owe to their clients, meeting this legal obligation is not enough. In my view, fiduciary planners’ obligation to put clients’ interests first includes an ethical responsibility to do no harm. Sometimes this ethical and legal responsibility requires planners to give clients information they may not want to hear.

As we focus on the clients’ goals and help them carry out their wishes, part of our role is to make sure they have all the information they need. This gives us a responsibility to educate ourselves so the advice we offer is as sound as we can make it. We also need to do whatever we can to help clients hear and understand that advice.

Clients who are hovering on the edge of a financial cliff are typically about to act out of strong emotions such as fear. They often can’t take in financial advice until they are able to move through that fear. It only makes things worse if financial advisers shame clients, bully them, or abandon them to their fears. The challenge for planners is to help clients reach a more rational place so they can gather additional information and make decisions that will serve them well.

With the right kind of support, clients are almost always able to get past the fear that is pushing them to make imprudent decisions. Providing such support by working with clients’ emotions and beliefs about money, perhaps with the help of a financial therapist or financial coach, is well within a financial planner’s ethical responsibility. Our role is not merely to do no harm. It is also to use all the tools we have to help clients act in their own best interests.

———-

Rick Kahler, ChFC, is president of Kahler Financial Group, a fee-only financial planning firm. His work and research regarding the integration of financial planning and psychology has been featured or cited in scores of broadcast media, periodicals and books. He is a co-author of four books on financial planning and therapy. He is a faculty member at Golden Gate University and the president of the Financial Therapy Association.

MONEY financial advisers

You Mean I Have to Pay for Financial Advice?!?

When financial advisers switch from working on commission to charging clients directly, they can run into resistance.

Financial advisers who transition from a commission-only business to a fee-based model are often stymied about how to explain their new fees without sending existing clients packing.

Some fear clients will feel sticker shock upon hearing they need to pay fees out of pocket instead of having costs deducted from investment accounts. Advisers also worry clients may question why they’re now paying a fee equal to one percent of their assets under management, instead of a fraction of that for their load funds.

The problem is that most investors don’t understand how adviser compensation works or how it affects the services they receive, says John Anderson, a practice management consultant with SEI Advisor Network, a unit of SEI Investments in Oaks, Pa. Many investors do not know what it means for an adviser to be a fiduciary, or somebody who acts in a client’s best interests, Anderson says.

A 2011 study by Cerulli Associates, a consulting firm in Boston, showed that 31 percent of investors thought financial planning services were free and one-third didn’t know how they paid for advice. What’s more, most investors prefer to pay hidden commissions instead of account fees, according to Cerulli studies.

Some clients might push back when advisers begin asking for fees, but their concerns usually dissolve once advisers show clients the benefits.

FOCUS ON SERVICES

Morgan Smith, an adviser in Austin, explained the ethical obligation of a fiduciary to his clients when he transitioned to a fee-only practice. “I asked, ‘Would you rather work with someone whose compensation structure has nothing to do with your best interest or someone whose structure is based on your best interest and goals?'” he says.

Every client except one, a day trader, stayed on. But some asked why they would pay him if their investments declined. He told them his advice would pay off more in a down market and that “when your investments go down, I get paid less,” he says.

Sheryl Garrett, whose Garrett Planning Network includes more than 300 fee-only advisers, says clients need to understand the difference between advisers who can afford to give advice because they sold a product and advisers who are objective because they have “no skin in the game.”

Clients who are paying for advice also need to know what other problems advisers are solving in exchange for the additional compensation, says Anderson. He tells advisers to create a one-page list of their services. That may include rebalancing clients’ portfolios and analyzing their future social security benefits.

He also starts client conversations by highlighting what they’ve recently accomplished, such as filling in paperwork to name beneficiaries for IRA accounts.

Anderson and Garrett both believe in showing clients that their daily decisions have more of an impact on their finances than the investments or insurance products they buy. It’s a holistic approach that often wins over clients, they say.

Related: Find the Right Financial Planner

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com