Corporations and banks have boosted their security infrastructure and employee training to avoid getting hit by financial fraud, including cybercrime, but individuals and families often are less prepared and, as a result, are a softer target for criminals.
“They’re not giving due consideration to the scores of ways they’re vulnerable and fraud can happen,” says Mona Manahi, head of personal CFO services for Geller, an independent multi-family office firm.
Several stats back this up, including a 30% rise in consumer scams reported by the Federal Trade Commission and a rise in mail fraud by criminals getting access to credit cards and checks reported by the U.S. Postal Service this past spring. A UBS survey found 63% of U.S. family offices reported being targeted by cyber threat actors.
The “great wealth transfer” to a younger generation is also putting large amounts of cash into the hands of millennials and Generation Z, “and they tend to be a little bit more lax in their trustworthiness,” Manahi says, citing how much younger people share information on social media and use electronic payment services.
“What’s happening now feels like a big paradigm shift, and people really need to pay attention,” she says. “It’s like a perfect storm.”
But families can protect themselves often with simple steps, such as wiring big amounts of money through credible financial institutions instead of putting a check in the mail. Manahi and Scott Bush, Geller’s chief client officer, detailed a range of fraud-prevention measures recently with Penta.
Avoiding Cyber Threats
The rise of technology in people’s lives has given criminals more sophisticated ways of commiting crimes, enabling them to target wealthier individuals and families.
A decade ago, criminals might have put a skimmer on a gas station credit card machine to glean data from just about anyone. Today, criminals break into household wireless networks to access email and phone communications that tell them where a family spends money, why they spend it, and where they can find pools of capital to tap, Bush says.
“What’s changed is that the more organized, very high-quality criminal networks have started to realize that they get better bang for the buck if they focus on ultra-high-net-worth families,” Bush says.
Most families allow all their personal financial information to be accessed through the same wireless network they use for watching Netflix or checking email, believing it’s safe because the network is password protected.
“What they often don’t think about is when their children give that same password out to that server to their friends so they can use the Wi-Fi or they plug in the gaming console or they allow all of the people that are helping them maintain the house access to the Wi-Fi so that they can plug their phone in when they’re working at the house,” Bush says.
A simple way to avoid a password getting into the wrong hands is to have two networks in the house, one for personal financial information and another for access to wireless services that anyone can use.
Also, despite lots of education on the topic, most people continue to create weak passwords that criminals can easily decipher, especially once they’ve learned the names of family pets and children, or other personal details.
“If you can focus on securing your household and securing how you manage your personal information, there’s a high likelihood that bad guys just will decide to go somewhere else,” Bush says.
Breaking the ‘Fraud Triangle’
Wealthy families often believe they can keep tight control over their finances if fewer people are involved. But that strategy can lead easily to theft that can go undetected for years. This past December, for instance, a 74-year-old Texas woman pleaded guilty to a scheme of embezzling at least US$29 million from a Dallas charitable foundation and other companies owned by a family, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Manahi brings up this incident in an article for Geller on how families can lower their risks by breaking “the fraud triangle,” a term coined by a Brigham Young professor Steve Albrecht decades ago to refer to the three elements needed to execute a fraud: motive, opportunity, and rationalization. Families can’t address a criminal’s motive or rationalization, but they can remove the opportunity. That greatly reduces the potential for fraud, Manahi says.
Often, that means not giving a single personal assistant, or bookkeeper in the Dallas case, too much access or authority to your finances. One of the simplest controls families can put in place is “segregation of duties,” she says. For example, don’t allow one person to have authority to set up a vendor for payments, execute on those payments, and then reconcile the movement of cash in a checking account.
“Regardless of what their structure is, [every family] should have a very clear set of protocols related to how capital moves,” Bush adds. There should be double or even triple authentication for cash transfers, and everybody who works with the family should be aware of “who has the right to move capital and where it might move to.”
Families should also create an employee manual that clearly outlines security and safety protocols. “Just letting [employees] know that there is awareness, that security is an issue, and they are accountable for it is a great way of creating an environment that is secure,” he says.
Also, families should put systems and processes in place to consistently track where money is spent, how it’s spent, and how it relates to a predetermined budget. Then you or an employee can flag when things are out of line. The idea is to show that “the family cares and that at any time, activity can be inspected,” Bush says.
Even the most diligent families can let down their guard during the summer months or the winter holidays, particularly when they are traveling to far-away or remote locations, which is not unusual for a wealthy family. “They’ll be on safari and all of a sudden there’s a flurry of activity in their account when they’re not available,” Bush says.
Having formal protocols in place to ensure no single person can move money will help. Any protocols should also include instructions for what to do in case of an unusual transaction.
“Not only segregating the responsibilities during that time, but also educating [employees] on what they should be looking for and reviewing and increasing their responsibility during that time,” Manahi says.
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’
Millennials and Gen Z are turning to peers instead of professionals for financial advice. They don’t trust banks, and they are tired of information overload.
Colin Saint-Vil got his money education at the dim sum cart, over a steamy plate of pork buns and turnip cake.
A friend offered to pick up the whole tab on her credit card, “for the points.” At the time, six years ago, “for the points” meant nothing to Saint-Vil, now a 30-year-old planning manager in Brooklyn, so he pressed for more details. They lingered over the dim sum meal as a larger conversation unfolded about annual percentage rates, credit-card debt, payment schedules and more.
Millennials and members of Gen Z prefer to seek financial advice from each other than from parents or from financial professionals. They don’t like overwhelming spreadsheets and marketing material written in seemingly foreign languages. They don’t trust big banks and institutions trying to sell them on investment strategies—as many were raised around the late 2000s financial-crisis. And, they are not wrong: There is a lot to be learned from comparing numbers with peers—from sharing salaries to talking out big decisions like home or car purchases.
Saint-Vil said when his father was his age, he had already begun investing in real estate, but with property prices now so high and mortgage rates only just beginning to fall, he said he couldn’t imagine being able to follow in his father’s footsteps. He, like many millennials and Gen Z-ers, describe their finances as “fairly good” these days, though they hold a negative picture of the greater economy, according to a new poll of 18 to 29-year-olds from the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School.
Millennials are still reeling from the impact of back-to-back recessions, all while large bank closures and investing scams dominate the headlines. Younger people report a feeling of “financial avoidance” exacerbated by high inflation and the pandemic-era budgeting.
As of June 2023, Gallup polling revealed a historically low faith in U.S. institutions, with younger generations voicing high skepticism. According to Gallup, only 9% of respondents aged 18 to 34 expressed “a great deal” of confidence in banks; meanwhile, 47% and 28% said they have “some” or “very little,” respectively.
But when it comes to winning back young consumers, these same financial institutions haven’t quite given up, and are rolling out new outreach programs and robo advisors, some of which have helped bridge a connection with Gen Z and millennials, said Keith Niedermeier, clinical professor of marketing at Indiana University. But many young people still say they prefer do-it-yourself investing platforms like Robinhood and Acorns over traditional advisers at more established wealth-management firms.
Andrew Ragusa, a real-estate broker based on Long Island, blamed the twin problems of low housing inventory and high home prices for postponing younger buyers’ ownership. The median age of a first-time home buyer in the U.S. is 35-years old as of 2023, according to data from the National Association of Realtors. That is slightly down from an record high of 36 in 2022, but still two years older than the median age in 2021, which is representative of an ageing first-time buyer trend.
When he talks with younger clients now, he detects a gloomy sentiment. “They try to be optimistic, but the overall sentiment is ‘This is supposed to be the American dream: we get a house and we get some financial security and I just have to have faith it will all work out in the end.’ But they don’t have faith it will.”
Fear and shame around being able to buy or accomplish as much as one’s parents might have financially can crop up when millennials talk to elders about their financial frustrations, said Jodi Kaus, director of Kansas State University’s student financial planning centre, Powercat Financial. She’s found that lessons and advice from friends are often more constructive.
Kaus leads a peer-to-peer financial planning centre that pairs up students to work through financial issues. She works to pair people with similar backgrounds: graduate students with graduate students or international students with international students. Talking with someone only a few years removed from your current situation means you’re better able to internalize the messages and execute on their advice, Kaus said.
“Early on, parents even say ‘Are you sure students can help my child?’” she said. “And I say ‘I am more than confident that they can help each other.’
Sharing money tips and financial know-how with your friends doesn’t only benefit the asker, Kaus said. In the Kansas State University peer-to-peer group, the advice giver also learns a lot from their own position, because sharing their story and bonding with a peer helps them to build their own confidence and belief in their financial acumen.
Lindsay Clark, a 34-year-old director of external affairs in Washington, D.C., recalls one lesson she shared with a friend carrying student loans from pharmacy school. Clark works at Savi, a student loan platform, and she offered to cook her friend dinner while they sorted through his loan repayment options. Long after they’d cleaned their dinner plates, they sat together at Clark’s kitchen island, lingering over a plate of homemade hummus and chatting about everything from financial goals to Costco card benefits.
“Those conversations blossom from the transparency, and the visibility makes both people feel really good,” she said. “That creates better relationships overall.”
When you’re talking about money issues with friends, Clark said, you’re not artificially inflating your salary or pretending to know more than you do. And most important, you’re not worried about their ulterior motives.
“You feel safe in that conversation, knowing their intentions are good and they’re not trying to make money off of you,” she said. “And that’s going to lead to better results, because we’re working with the reality here.”
Skepticism of pronounced experts and criticism of established financial institutions is especially common among millennials and Gen Z, Neidermeier said. Studies show people across generations are much likelier to take a friend or colleague’s recommendation to heart over that of a faceless institution, he said; people who spend time on social media just have a greater opportunity to source those answers and field questions.
“What people say to each other over the picket fence is what is the most influential,” he said.
At a certain point, however, talking solely to friends and peers for your financial lessons can be very limiting, said Sarah Behr, founder of Simplify Financial Planning in San Francisco. Relying on your social circle can also put a strain on those relationships; no one wants to be responsible for your disappointment when a financial decision that worked out well for them doesn’t fit as well in your own life.
Behr recommends tuning into your own emotional reactions when assessing peer advice: does the road map they followed align with your own financial values? Does it put pressure on you to live outside your means or challenge your personal risk tolerance? If the answer doesn’t feel clear, that could be a time to outsource to a financial professional who has no emotional connection to you or your financial status.
“‘People have been telling me do this, but I just don’t know if it’s the right thing for me’—I get a lot of calls like that,” said Behr.
Saint-Vil said he and his friends share tips on what high-yield savings accounts offer the best rates, and when he did his credit card research, he chose a card recommended by a friend. When it comes time to work with a financial adviser or even one day a wealth manager, he’ll likely work with someone recommended through a peer. Behr said close to 90% of her business comes by way of client referrals.
Since that first conversation over dim sum, Saint-Vil has thrown his own card onto the table at meals and shared his knowledge with other pals who look confused.
“I have a real wide range of friends who are in many different financial places, but I would say a rising tide lifts all ships,” he said.
Julia Carpenter is the co-author, with Bourree Lam, of The Wall Street Journal’s “The New Rules of Money: A Playbook for Planning Your Financial Future,” a personal-finance workbook published this week by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group.
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’