Cybercrooks are targeting retirement accounts, and there's no guarantee you'll get your money back

Paul Gores, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Beth Bennett didn’t check on the balance in her employer-sponsored retirement account very often.

“Maybe every couple of months I’d go online and take a look at it,” said Bennett, of Madison, Wisconsin.

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“Indeed, my money had been systematically withdrawn over the past couple of months,” Bennett said she learned after contacting her employer’s retirement plan adviser and the mutual fund company that held the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

Stocks in 2020: Why your 401(k) could face a bumpy ride

The SECURE Act: It could help boost your retirement savings: 5 things to know

Attacks on retirement accounts rising

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.

Data privacy vs. law enforcement: DOJ says Apple hasn't helped unlock Pensacola shooter's iPhones. Apple says it only asked a week ago.

Beware those fishy email messages

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.

How to protect yourself

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.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: 401(k), retirement accounts targeted online, and money not guaranteed

  • Pelosi: Trump's downplaying of coronavirus has cost American lives
    Yahoo News

    Pelosi: Trump's downplaying of coronavirus has cost American lives

    House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sharpened her criticism of President Trump's early dismissal of the coronavirus, saying the delay cost American lives. His denial at the beginning was deadly,” said Pelosi to open her interview with CNN's Jake Tapper. His delaying of getting equipment — it continues — his delaying of getting equipment to where it is needed is deadly, and now I think the best thing is to prevent more loss of life rather than open things up because we just don't know.

  • India reels from migrant worker coronavirus exodus
    AFP

    India reels from migrant worker coronavirus exodus

    Indian authorities struggled Monday to help millions left jobless by a crippling coronavirus lockdown, potentially undermining efforts to stop the virus ravaging the world's second most-populous nation. The exodus has raised worries that those returning may spread coronavirus into rural areas, particularly with authorities resorting to cramming people onto buses and into relief camps and homeless shelters. At the weekend in Delhi, migrant workers and their families fought and shoved their way onto buses organised by India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh.

  • The coronavirus crisis hasn't changed Joe Biden's mind on 'Medicare for All'
    NBC News

    The coronavirus crisis hasn't changed Joe Biden's mind on 'Medicare for All'

    Joe Biden said Monday he still opposes a "Medicare for All" system for health care coverage, arguing that the policy isn't the answer to the growing coronavirus emergency. "Single payer will not solve that at all," the Democratic presidential front-runner told MSNBC's Yasmin Vossoughian in a TV interview. The former vice president's remarks come as the issue remains a Democratic fault line in his battle with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the leader of the national movement for a single-payer system, who is pressing his presidential campaign even as his odds of winning the nomination shrink.

  • 29 Best Closet Organization Ideas to Maximize Space and Style
    Architectural Digest

    29 Best Closet Organization Ideas to Maximize Space and Style

    How to organize your closet like a pro Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest

  • Wuhan Residents Dismiss Official Coronavirus Death Toll: ‘The Incinerators Have Been Working Around the Clock’
    National Review

    Wuhan Residents Dismiss Official Coronavirus Death Toll: ‘The Incinerators Have Been Working Around the Clock’

    Wuhan residents are increasingly skeptical of the Chinese Communist Party's reported coronavirus death count of approximately 2,500 deaths in the city to date, with most people believing the actual number is at least 40,000. “Maybe the authorities are gradually releasing the real figures, intentionally or unintentionally, so that people will gradually come to accept the reality,” a Wuhan resident, who gave only his surname Mao, told Radio Free Asia. A city source added that, based on the aggregation of funeral and cremation numbers, authorities likely know the real number and are keeping it under wraps.

  • US awol from world stage as China tries on global leadership for size
    The Guardian

    US awol from world stage as China tries on global leadership for size

    The US is basically off the map, and China very much is on the map,” Nathalie Tocci, the director of the Italian Institute for International Affairs and a former EU policy adviser, said. Whatever happens in the US elections, what is happening now is going to linger on, simply because what we're going through now is such a traumatic experience … It is going to remain very much in our individual and collective memories. During the Ebola outbreak that began in 2014, the US was a highly visible leading presence on the ground in West Africa, sending emergency medics, troops and supplies.

  • Cuomo: Rate of hospitalizations decreasing
    Yahoo News Video

    Cuomo: Rate of hospitalizations decreasing

    New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said on Monday that the rate of hospitalizations because of the coronavirus pandemic is slowing in the state.

  • U.S. is swiftly deporting migrant children at the border
    CBS News

    U.S. is swiftly deporting migrant children at the border

    Citing a public health order to curb the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration is swiftly deporting unaccompanied migrant minors apprehended near the U.S.-Mexico border, upending a long-standing practice required under a federal law designed to protect children from violence and exploitation. Despite initially maintaining that the new measures would not apply to unaccompanied minors, Customs and Border Protection on Monday said its officials could deny entry to children who cross the southern border alone under an order by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC. The agency said some minors could be excluded from the CDC directive if a border official "suspects trafficking or sees signs of illness."

  • Kremlin Fights U.S. Sanctions, Backs Maduro in Rosneft Deal
    Bloomberg

    Kremlin Fights U.S. Sanctions, Backs Maduro in Rosneft Deal

    The Kremlin's sudden shift of ownership of multi-billion-dollar oil projects in Venezuela shields oil giant Rosneft PJSC from further U.S. sanctions but keeps Moscow firmly behind embattled President Nicolas Maduro amid a wider stand-off with Washington. Russia is not walking away from Maduro and will seek to thwart U.S. efforts to depose him,” said Vladimir Frolov, a former diplomat and foreign policy analyst in Moscow. Moscow is just shielding Rosneft from sanctions which could result in a blanket embargo on all Rosneft exports.

  • Coronavirus: 'Millions' of Americans could be infected, expert warns
    BBC

    Coronavirus: 'Millions' of Americans could be infected, expert warns

    Dr Anthony Fauci, the face of the Trump administration's coronavirus task force, made the prediction on Sunday. Dr Fauci added that the US, which now has the most recorded cases of the virus in the world, was the "focus" of the global outbreak. "We've got a serious problem in New York, we have a serious problem in New Orleans, and we're going to be developing serious problems in other areas," he said.

  • US extends Iran nuclear cooperation sanctions waivers
    Associated Press

    US extends Iran nuclear cooperation sanctions waivers

    The Trump administration on Monday renewed several waivers on U.S. sanctions against Iran, allowing Russian, European and Chinese companies to continue to work on Iran's civilian nuclear facilities without drawing American penalties. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signed off on the waiver extensions but couched the decision as one that continues restrictions on Iran's atomic work. Current and former officials familiar with the matter said Pompeo had opposed extending the waivers, which are among the few remaining components of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that the administration has not cancelled.

  • The coronavirus death rate in the US is far higher than that of the flu — here's how the 2 compare across age ranges
    Business Insider

    The coronavirus death rate in the US is far higher than that of the flu — here's how the 2 compare across age ranges

    REUTERS/Andrew Kelly The flu and the new coronavirus have similar symptoms, but the latter is far deadlier. Here's how the two diseases' death rates compare among various age groups in the US. The coronavirus is five to 10 times more deadly than the flu for those between the ages of 0 and 45.

  • 'Italy is closed': A reporter's account inside Rome, where coronavirus brought the city to a halt
    NBC News

    'Italy is closed': A reporter's account inside Rome, where coronavirus brought the city to a halt

    The first sign that things were going to be different on this trip came when we passed through a completely empty customs hall after having our body temperatures checked by security staff wearing masks and gloves. When correspondent Matt Bradley arrived from Philadelphia the following morning, the crew on his American Airlines flight handed him a couple of bottles of water as he exited the plane. Nothing is open in the airport,” he was told.

  • Outrage in India as migrants sprayed with disinfectant to fight coronavirus
    Reuters

    Outrage in India as migrants sprayed with disinfectant to fight coronavirus

    Indian health workers caused outrage on Monday by spraying a group of migrants with disinfectant, amid fears that a large scale movement of people from cities to the countryside risked spreading the coronavirus. Footage showed a group of migrant workers sitting on a street in Bareilly, a district in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, as health officials in protective suits used hose pipes to douse them in disinfectant, prompting anger on social media. Nitish Kumar, the top government official in the district, said health workers had been ordered to disinfect buses being used by the local authorities but in their zeal had also turned their hoses on migrant workers.

  • Saudi to raise oil exports to record levels as price war rages
    AFP

    Saudi to raise oil exports to record levels as price war rages

    Saudi Arabia said on Monday it will raise its oil exports to a record 10.6 million barrels per day starting from May despite a global supply glut, escalating a price war with Russia. Oil prices are languishing at 17-year lows as the coronavirus pandemic threatens a painful global recession that could further sap demand. Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter which already announced a sharp production increase for April, said it would add additional supplies to the global market, deepening a glut.

  • A 90-year-old woman who recovered from the coronavirus said her family's potato soup was partly responsible. Here's the recipe.
    INSIDER

    A 90-year-old woman who recovered from the coronavirus said her family's potato soup was partly responsible. Here's the recipe.

    Geneva Wood, 90, was hospitalized with the coronavirus in early March. Days later, the hospital called in her family to say their goodbyes. While her prognosis looked bleak, Wood survived and credited her family, God, and potato soup for her recovery.

  • The U.S. is preparing for a medical supply airlift of unprecedented scale
    The Week

    The U.S. is preparing for a medical supply airlift of unprecedented scale

    As hospitals across the United States face a shortage of medical supplies in the face of the novel coronavirus pandemic, planes are gearing up to bring in reinforcements. The first aircraft in a series of flights scheduled by the White House over the next 30 days arrived in New York from Shanghai on Sunday morning, bringing with it 12 million gloves, 130,000 N95 masks, 17.6 surgical masks, 50,000 gowns, 130,000 hand sanitizer units, and 36,000 thermometers, all of which will be distributed throughout the New York tri-state area. A non-government distributor had actually already bought the supplies and planned to sell them in New York, but they'd normally arrive on ships.

  • Can I walk outside? Is the virus on my shoes? Q&A with experts
    CBS News

    Can I walk outside? Is the virus on my shoes? Q&A with experts

    "CBS This Morning" assembled a panel of experts — CBS News medical contributors Dr. David Agus and Dr. Tara Narula and CBS News business analyst Jill Schlesinger — to answer questions from viewers around the country who want to know how the coronavirus affects their health and their finances. Q: Can you get tested to see if you may have coronavirus already? Dr. Agus: That's our dream, is to have a test in the blood to see who had the virus and who had an immune response.

  • Trump news – live: President now admits coronavirus deaths won’t slow until June as hospital ship arrives in New York harbour
    The Independent

    Trump news – live: President now admits coronavirus deaths won’t slow until June as hospital ship arrives in New York harbour

    Donald Trump has extended the timeline for the US to remain in lockdown over the coronavirus pandemic until at least 30 April, abandoning his “aspiration” to have the country back in business by Easter. The White House's top infectious disease expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, has meanwhile warned that his projection of a potential 100,000 to 200,000 American deaths is “entirely conceivable” if not enough is done to mitigate the crisis, with the president commenting that containing the disaster to that level would represent “a very good job”.

  • Two senior cadets, among 1,000 seniors isolated at the Air Force Academy, died by suicide within days
    USA TODAY

    Two senior cadets, among 1,000 seniors isolated at the Air Force Academy, died by suicide within days

    WASHINGTON – Two deaths of cadets by suspected suicide since Thursday at the Air Force Academy, where 1,000 seniors are the only students on any military campus in the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic, has rattled the service from senior leadership to its trainees. The Air Force's top civilian and military brass rushed to the academy on Monday to reassure cadets and steer the service through the turbulence of a global crisis and tragedies close to home. Unlike the Army and Navy, the Air Force has kept cadets on campus – socially distant in single rooms, away from their roommates – since the coronavirus began upending military and civilian life earlier this month.

  • Wuhan's death toll could be astronomically higher than the Chinese government has reported, some residents say
    Business Insider

    Wuhan's death toll could be astronomically higher than the Chinese government has reported, some residents say

    Associated Press Officials in Wuhan, China, reported that 2,535 people in the city have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. But some residents contest the official death toll, citing an increase in the shipment of urns to the city's eight funeral homes. "The incinerators have been working round-the-clock," one resident told Radio Free Asia.

  • First minor with coronavirus in New York City dies
    NBC News

    First minor with coronavirus in New York City dies

    The first death of a minor who tested positive for coronavirus in New York City was reported Monday, as the city's death toll rose to 790. Like the majority of those who have died from COVID-19, the minor had an underlying health condition. While the vast majority of COVID-19 deaths in the United States have been among people above 18-years-old, this is not the first U.S. death of a minor.

  • Indian police fire tear gas at jobless workers defying coronavirus lockdown
    Reuters

    Indian police fire tear gas at jobless workers defying coronavirus lockdown

    Police in India fired tear gas to disperse a stone-pelting crowd of migrant workers defying a three-week lockdown against the coronavirus that has left hundreds of thousands of poor without jobs and hungry, authorities said on Monday. Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered the country's 1.3 billion people to remain indoors until April 15, declaring such self-isolation was the only hope to stop the viral pandemic. But the vast shutdown has triggered a humanitarian crisis, with hundreds of thousands of poor migrant laborers employed in big cities such as Delhi and Mumbai seeking to head to their homes in the countryside on foot after losing their jobs.

  • Venezuelan ex-general surrenders to US on drug trafficking charges
    AFP

    Venezuelan ex-general surrenders to US on drug trafficking charges

    A retired Venezuelan general who was charged by the United States with "narco-terrorism" along with President Nicolas Maduro and other officials has surrendered in Colombia to US authorities, prosecutors said Saturday. "The national Attorney General learned that Mr Cliver Alcala surrendered to US authorities," the Colombian prosecutor said in a statement, adding there was no arrest warrant when he gave himself up. Alcala turned himself in on Friday to the Colombians, who in turn handed him over to US authorities, the El Tiempo de Bogota newspaper said.

  • Photo of health care workers flying to help NY gets love
    Associated Press

    Photo of health care workers flying to help NY gets love

    A photo of health care professionals from Georgia on a Southwest plane on their way to help with the coronavirus outbreak in New York is getting lots of love online. It had been shared by tens of thousands on Facebook and Twitter, with many comments praising the health care workers for their bravery. An Atlanta ramp agent took the photo of the health care workers, other passengers, and flight crew before the plane pushed back from the gate on Friday, Southwest Airlines spokesman Derek K. Hubbard said on Sunday.