Category Archives: My Two Cents

If Lost… Then What?

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At the end of May, I was on my way to an event, when a flash of pink on the sidewalk caught my attention. I stopped and realized that I was looking at a small square of leather. I bent down, picked it up and turned it over in my hands. It was a wallet with a MetroCard, some credit and debit cards and a driver’s license in it. I pulled out the license, looked it over, and walked over to the restaurant that was a few feet away from where I had just found the wallet. I must have made a few people nervous, staring at them and then down at the license, to see if anyone there resembled the photo. No luck. I then pulled out my phone and tried a few quick searches, online, to see if I could figure out how to contact this woman. Her name was more common than I imagined; several options came up and none appeared to be her. Yes, her license had an address on it but, the license had been issued several years earlier and people in New York City can move around quite a bit, in search of amenities such as a view, an elevator or affordable rent. As I was running late, I decided to go to my event and put my search off until later. On my way, I spotted a parked police car. I got excited, thinking that I may be able to hand over the wallet, but the excitement faded when I got close to the car and found that there was no one sitting in it.

When I got home and had more time to do so, I hunted down the woman whose wallet I had found and delivered it to her. Even if she had cancelled her cards, I am sure she was happy to get her stuff back – who knows maybe her MetroCard still had 29 days of use left on it. That experience reminded me of a time, years ago, when someone stole my handbag at the airport. I was livid that someone had invaded my space and even stood yelling, in the terminal, for the thief to just take my cash and give me back my stuff. Suffice to say, that did not happen. I did, fortunately, have a kind gentleman give me money to get the train back home. However, a few weeks later, my phone rang and it was the airport, calling to tell me that my bag had been found. They had been able to contact me because I happened to have a dry-cleaning slip in my wallet, and my phone number was on it. I was lucky that I had that slip in my bag but these two events really got me thinking about recovery plans, not just in business, in other aspects of our lives.

With a wallet, for instance, you can keep a business card in the wallet, or put a small card in your wallet with an email address and/or phone number so that, should you be unlucky enough to lose the wallet and a kind stranger picks it up, they can contact you and figure out how to get it back to you. It is an easy thing to do and could be hugely useful. It doesn’t even have to be your usual email address, if you have fears about your inbox being inundated by unwanted email, you can create an email address that you keep for moments such as this.

We never think that we will either lose our stuff or have it stolen from us but it can happen to any of us. It can be personal or it can be a business loss, such as a system crash, or theft and, in all cases, having a recovery plan will go a long way to make recovery less stressful and less expensive. If, at this very moment, you lost everything on your computer, what would you do? Does the thought give you heart palpitations because you would lose very important data, with no way of getting it back? Would you have to shell out a lot of money and spend valuable time working to try to recover everything? Would you wonder whether or not your business could survive such a loss? If this thought is a scary one to you, you should be thinking about sitting down with trusted professionals, to create and put a comprehensive protection and recovery plan in place. You should review various scenarios, even if you think it wouldn’t happen to you. Things to consider when doing this:

  • Are you backing up your data on a regular basis? Automating this process is a great way to make sure that it happens – you don’t want it to all depend on your remembering to do it.
  • Where are you keeping your backups? Do you keep a backup offsite and unconnected to your current system? You don’t want your backup corrupted, should your system go down.
  • Are you checking the integrity of your backups? It isn’t helpful to think you have been creating backups and find out, when you need the backup, that the process was not occurring.
  • Now that you have backups, do you have a recovery plan? Do you know what you are going to do should things go awry? Does your staff know? Do you have the plan in writing and in a space where it can be easily accessed? Have you trained your staff in this recovery process?

There are people who are well-trained in helping you create a backup and recovery plan and that can start with your CPA. You want someone who has experience and knowledge regarding best practices that are practical, useful and effective.

We are humans who work with technology that we have built and we must, therefore acknowledge that we are not infallible and we must therefore create, review and update our contingency plans. And that plan can never just be relying on the kindness of strangers.

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Now That I Think About It…

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When we talk about fraud and how it tends to happen, the classic fraud triangle is most commonly used to help us understand how it all happens. The sides of this triangle represent opportunity, pressure and rationalization. In this triangle there is a person, just a regular old person, like you and me. Fraud can happen to anyone and fraudsters are often regular people who find themselves under pressure, faced with the opportunity to perpetrate a fraud and the ability to rationalize it all.

Sometimes this person may face pressures. Maybe she has a family member who gets sick and now they have to deal with massive bills. Maybe the person has a gambling problem. Maybe he wants to live the jet set life that he sees his friends living. Whatever the reason may be, these people feel under a lot of pressure to get their hands on more money than they are currently earning.

Pressure or not, maybe this person sees an opportunity to defraud. Perhaps he can sign checks, AND, he has custody of the checkbook AND he performs the company’s bank reconciliations. He has all this access and responsibility and no one checking his work. So, now he has access to the money and he can doctor the books to cover up his wrongdoing. However it works out, these people see a weakness that they can take advantage of.

The third leg of this triangle is rationalization. This is where a person tells himself that there is a justification for what he is doing. Maybe she tells herself that she really needs the money to deal with this one emergency and this will happen only once. Maybe she then tells herself that this will happen only once and, to boot, she has been a loyal employee for a while so the company really owes her a little leeway for all that she has done. Maybe she tells herself that once she is out of this spot of trouble, she will pay the company back and it will be like it never happened in the first place. Maybe he tells himself that he is underpaid and that what he is doing is merely taking the money that he is rightly owed for all the hard work and time that he puts into the business. The rationalizations that people use are practically endless.

Earlier this year, I listened to the podcast “Ponzi Supernova”, a podcast about Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme and what has happened since. One thing that was fascinating about this series was the conversations that Steve Fishman, journalist and narrator of the series, had with Bernie Madoff, infamous perpetrator of a massive Ponzi scheme. Bernie talked about his childhood and how affected he was by his father’s financial failures. Bernie tells Steve that, after seeing his father lose a lot of money and what it did to the family, Bernie swore he would never let that happen to him (perhaps one could see this as a pressure looming over his life). In the early 1960’s, Bernie Madoff violated market regulations and his clients’ trust by losing their money on risky deals. Instead of letting them know that this had happened, he lied to his clients, borrowed money from his father-in-law and carried on as though he was a brilliant investor. Speaking with Fishman, Madoff made it sound as though, because he did not want to fail as his father had, he took these steps so that he could continue to, at least, appear to be successful and very talented.

Bernie Madoff spoke with Steve Fishman a couple of years after he was caught (though, in some versions of his story, he claims he quit). Bernie Madoff also spoke with Diana Henriques, who wrote the book The Wizard of Lies, which is now an HBO Film by the same title. Their interactions also occurred a couple of years after Madoff’s fraud was discovered. After he had plead guilty to his crime. Yet, over and over again, Madoff seemed to continue to make excuses for his behavior and try to minimize what he did. Even though, when pleading guilty, he claimed that he acted alone, he has since changed his tune and as co-conspirators have testified against him, he then seems to say, “well, except for that person, I acted alone”. So, it seems that even after being caught, he is only sharing as much of the truth as he needs to and, what I have found to be most interesting, is that he appears to continue to rationalize what he did.

In an ideal world, one would imagine that having a fraud exposed and pleading guilty would bring a fraudster to his senses. When we imagine a person committing fraud as a regular person who has fallen into irregular behavior, the hope is that putting an end to this irregular behavior will bring this person to her senses and get them to admit that what they did was without excuses; that, even though they rationalized their actions when they perpetuated the fraud, they now saw the error of their ways and realized that the rationalizations were all without merit. During the hearing when he plead guilty, Madoff read a prepared statement where he apologized to his victims. However, even that apology came with a “but” attached. “While I never promised a specific rate of return to any client, I felt compelled to satisfy my clients’ expectations, at any cost.” Yet, listening to Ponzi Supernova, you learn that some clients would demand an adjustment to their statements when they did not receive the return they had been promised. Madoff has also placed blame on his victims, claiming that they knew, or should have known, what they were getting into, that he had warned them and that they did not lose as much as they claimed. And, I have found that it is not just Madoff who does this. The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners talks to people who were convicted of fraud and, in video after video, the perpetrators found ways to hold others responsible for what they did – and this is after they had been found guilty and served their sentences. For instance, one blamed her supervisor for being too trusting, “I don’t blame them but…” she started her sentence. Another stated, “I asked you for help and you said no”, while yet another said “I won’t get caught again”, not “I won’t do it again because I realize it was wrong.

It may be human to not want to admit full responsibility. Perhaps it is too hard for most of us to admit that we have done terrible things. Who really wants to be a monster, blamed for ruining lives, even when those lives are laid out in front for you? And if we are not harshly judging ourselves, even when caught, then can we really adjust our behaviors to do right and get back on the straight and narrow? I don’t know the answers to this but it is something I think about as I perform my work as a forensic accountant. If a person is not able to strip away rationalization and admit that they were just wrong when they perpetuated their fraud, then what are the chances that it won’t be so difficult to do it again?

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Makes You WannaCry

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A couple of years ago a lawyer friend told me about clients who were coming to her office, panicked because their computers had been locked by parties claiming to be the FBI. In order to get their machines unlocked, these fake FBI agents demanded to be paid a ransom. On Friday, over 200,000 machines were locked by people (I assume it was more than one person) who did not even pretend to be good. They encrypted the information on these machines and demanded $300 to $600 per machine or, they threatened, all the data on those machines would be destroyed. This type of attack is called a ransomware attack. A program is introduced into the machine, and it locks and encrypts all the data on the machine. A message pops up on the infected machine demanding that money be paid, almost always via bitcoin. Once the ransom has been paid, the message says, a method to unlock the machine will be sent. If the ransom is not paid within the time demanded, all the data on the machine will be erased. So much of our lives, both personal and business, is stored on computers; can you imagine what would happen if your computer was locked? The mere thought makes my heart speed up.

Earlier this year, a hacker crew called Shadow Brokers released several tools used by the National Security Agency (NSA). Among these tools was one called EternalBlue and this tool exploited a flaw in Microsoft Windows. Armed with the information that was leaked, Microsoft created a patch to fix this flaw and released this patch in March. Perhaps you have now read this far and you are wondering, if the patch was released in March, how did this massive attack happen in May? How many times has a message popped up on your machine while you are in the middle of something. The message tells you that an update is available for your machine. You see it, but you are in the middle of something important. You close the window and delay the update. This can happen over and over again. Some people, irritated by the notices, turn off the alerts altogether. Now, these automatic alerts are only available on versions of Windows that Microsoft is still actively supporting. So, if you have an older version of Windows, such as XP, Windows 8 or Windows Server 2003, you no longer receive alerts for updates. Either way, there are millions of machines that were vulnerable to attack on Friday. And on Friday, ransomware aptly called WannaCry, wreaked havoc all over the world.

It is believed that the attackers gained access to computers and systems using infected zip files attached to emails. People opened emails and clicked on attachments. These emails did not come from friends and the people clicked on attachments, not knowing what they were opening. Taking advantage of the fact that many organizations store their computer information on servers, making all users interconnected. The WannaCry ransomware, once released by one user, made its way through the interconnected systems and attacked other machines, even those belonging to people who did not click on the infected attachments.

This attack has made many things apparent:

  • Keeping secrets can sometimes go very wrong. The NSA knew that there was a vulnerability in Microsoft Windows. If it was not for the Shadow Brokers leak, Microsoft may not have discovered this vulnerability and they would not have developed a patch to fix it. One can also argue that, if Shadow Brokers had not leaked this information, the hackers may not have known to create WannaCry and none of this would have happened in the first place. I have found, though, that generally speaking, secrets are not kept that way forever.
  • When I wrote about the fake FBI attacks, I stated the importance of keeping your computers up to date. I cannot stress this enough. When the reminders pop up on your machine to update your software, update your software. Install the security fixes. If you don’t want to be disturbed, set up a timetable so that your machine will automatically check for and install updates on a regular basis. Remember, also, to restart your machine on a regular basis. Many installations are not complete without a restart and some updates are triggered by a restart.
  • We live in a time where everyone receives more email than they want to deal with. We run the risk of making careless mistakes, opening up emails and clicking on attachments when we have no idea who sent the email and what is in the attachment. Nowadays, you are almost lucky if the only thing that the attachment does is send out a lot of spam to your friends. More often, click on that attachment can lead to hackers stealing information from you or holding your machine hostage. Sometimes, even when I receive an email, with an attachment, that appears to be from a friend, I will double-check with the friend to make sure that they have sent the email and their account has not been hacked. The extra step may seem tedious but, enough times I have found out that my friend was hacked, so I keep asking when I am suspicious.
  • If your operating system is no longer supported, you should consider getting new software that is. I say this with mixed feelings. Like most people, I hate being forced to buy something when what I already have has been working well for me and when I don’t like the new version. I feel scammed being made to spend that extra money and if the world only contained righteous people I would tell you to keep your software and change it when you are ready. But, we live in a world where people are ready to take advantage of an opportunity to get money out of you. Microsoft stopped providing support for Windows XP in 2014. This ransomware is specifically taking advantage of this fact. It’s a shame, but it is the way it is.
  • Back up, Back up and back up some more. If you are regularly backing up your machine and keeping the backup either in the cloud or on an external drive, you know what you can do when your machine is held for ransom? You can ignore the ransom demand because you have your data saved some place safe. The clock can tick down, the files on your machine can all be delete and, even though it will suck to restore everything, you can do so.

On Monday morning, people are going to go to work and turn on their machines and many machines running Windows XP or that have not been updated in months will be open to attack. Many of those that are attacked will want to pay the ransom because their data has not been backed. Just weeks ago, articles were written about how British hospitals spent nothing on cyber-defense.  On Friday, they could barely function. Maybe they had started having meetings and started discussing taking steps to protect their systems. But, like we all do when that warning popped up, they put it off. I am sure right now they are wishing they had done something to protect themselves because they had to scramble to fix a disaster.

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2017! Three Words! Let’s Go!

img_1043-2Yesterday, I took a moment to look back at 2016 and I am glad that I did. After that exercise in honoring history, I actually changed one of my words for 2017. My words for 2017? That may be what you are wondering. Let me explain. In 2013, Tom Hood introduced me to the concept of Three Words (and that concept came from Chris Brogan). I use these three words to give the year ahead a theme, almost like a rhythm that I can dance to as I go through the year; and isn’t everything better with dance? The process of thinking about my three words and then coming back to them throughout the year, help consolidate, direct and give confidence to what I do and how I do it. As I read over yesterday’s post, I saw my 2016 Three Words dancing over my year, in ways that I had not thought about as I was writing the post – Learn. Fear. Community.

For several days, I thought about what my words for 2017 would be – and how those words would serve to seal my intentions for the days ahead. I think I have it now.

Embrace: In previous years I have written about changing things in my life. Transform was one of my words in 2014. Then, in 2015, Receptive was a word of mine. Last year we moved to a new neighborhood. When I was a kid, due to politics and other adventures in their lives, we moved around a lot. Between first and third grade, I went to four different schools in three different countries, in four different cities. During my first two years in New York City, I lost count of how many places I lived in. I even spent a couple of months camping out on a (very amazing) friend’s couch on weekends, while I worked in Florida during the week. Last year, I talked transformation and I was receptive to talk of moving but, now that I am here, I realize that it is not going to work until I embrace it. This is where I am now with my move, with my work, with my life. I can talk about how great innovations in my line of work are; I can marvel at how awesome some of the tools that are available to us are; I can wax lyrical about the incredible people who cross my path and make me better at what I do, but all of that is not worth much unless I dive in there, snuggle in and just embrace it all.

Persevere: When I started training to run long distance, I learnt about the power of a mantra. The mantra was invaluable to me, when doing hill repeats. I would chug up a hill and repeat, over and over again, “I love hills.” I will say this, I reached the top of that hill and many others AND I hate hills less and appreciate their value. I actually surprised myself when I told a cousin that I wished there were a few more hills around my new home. In 2015, I embarked on a new journey of sorts. I started my own business and decided that I wanted to do work that made me look forward to getting out of bed every day. I loved that my husband’s work, as a photographer, was something he also did for fun. I admired how excited he got about his projects and I wanted some of that. At times I would talk to some people about what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it and they would tell me, “that will never work.” Fortunately, my incredible community (2016 word, hello!) took over and repeated the mantra I had not yet learnt to say myself. However, as the year came to an end, I started to believe. So this year, I shall remember to say to myself, “You got this. You can do this,” not just when I am running, or doing pull-ups. I shall tell myself this as I am serving my clients, community and the public.

Monchu: My last word is a word that I have borrowed from Chris Brogan. Chris tells us Monchu is an Okinawan word that means “one family”. It essentially means that we treat people who are not our blood as though they are family. I have benefited from this concept forever. As someone who lives very far away from most of my blood, I just don’t know where I would be with my one family. For instance, I just wrote about how I was able to crash on a friend’s couch when I first moved to New York. I didn’t mention that I had only known her for months and she offered her home to me, and her husband and adorable daughter didn’t seem to mind either. That is just one of a million of my stories. I know that I could do a way better job of keeping in touch with people to let them know that they are part of my one family. I know that this philosophy will guide me to be better at what I do and how I do it. I hope to also inspire others around me to embrace this philosophy.

As I share my words for 2017, I want to acknowledge my words from previous years:

2013 – Change, Discover & Motivate
2014 – Transform, Pursue & Collaborate
2015 – Receptive, Synergy & Service
2016 – Learn, Fear & Community

And now for 2017 – Embrace, Persevere & Monchu. I am excited for the year ahead and I know that the view from my new home will help me do so. You see it up above, I can see forever now. I got this.

Tell me, what are your words?

I hope 2017 is your best year ever!

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Over My Shoulder

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I was in high school before I realized how much I love history. Even though I read many historical adventures and would get so caught up in stories that I would find myself being moved in ways movies and television could, I never attached that excitement to any history I ever learnt in school. There was a separation of story and history until I ended up with a history teacher who was so gifted at bringing history to life that I didn’t even really feel as though I was in class.

What has taken a while to sink in is that history is not just about other people’s stories and what they might mean, but it is also about my own stories (along with people around me) and how what I have done, thought and felt in the past is something that I should not only want to record, remember and recognize but also find importance in. In 2013, I started a new approach to beginning my year. Since then, I have given my year a theme, encapsulated in three words. In order to better think on what I would like to make as my theme for next year, looking back at where I have been is invaluable. So, I am taking a moment to take a look at how 2016 went – to learn, to appreciate and to give myself a pat on the back where needed.

Throughout my year, I continued to be amazed by and grateful for the people I crossed paths with – friends, strangers and those in between. It may have been someone telling me not to give up at moments when the thought was threatening to become action. It may have been someone sharing words of wisdom that kept me and my fear, anger or ego acting out irrationally.

In 2016:

  • I moved to a new neighborhood. This was a big deal as I had lived in the same neighborhood for 16 years (my husband had been there for 20), we had many friends that lived conveniently close and more amenities than we knew what to do with. I miss it all AND I am excited about our new path forward.
  • A college friend invited me to take cello lessons with her and another friends and I said yes. We love it – we dream big and take small steps every week toward living those dreams. I know those around us, who get to hear us practicing, hope that we live those dreams sooner rather than later.
  • I was accepted into New York Community Trust Leadership Fellows, a program in nonprofit leadership that has both expanded my mind and exposed me to some truly inspiring, passionate and motivating people and organizations.
  • I had great conversations with high school students, college students and fellow professionals about forensic accounting, careers in accounting and working to do what we love, even when we have doubts about it.
  • I was part of a very exciting launch of the New York State Society of  CPAs Women’s Initiative and, at the end of the year, I became the Chair of the NYSSCPA Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Through the efforts and enthusiasm of my colleagues and the NYSSCPA, I am fortunate to be involved with such important initiatives and committees.
  • I have seen friends stand up for what they believe is right; I have experienced my communities come together in ways that renew my belief in humanity; I have applauded the sheer awesomeness of my people!

The night of 31 December 2016 turned out to be an incredibly windy one. My husband and I had planned on walking around the neighborhood, discovering the various New Year’s Eve celebrations in our new space. However, gale force winds led to a change of plan (isn’t that how life works?) We made dinner and spent the evening talking, laughing and watching various celebrations on television. I made sure to dance before and after midnight

Growing up, my father gave me a diary for Christmas, every year. I was always excited to get mine and, even as I moved away for college and started living away from home, I still got my diary. In yet another chapter of – Parents are Sneaky and Wise – I have discovered the power and importance of being able to look back and how much that helps in looking forward. So, farewell 2016! I am now turning my head to look ahead to 2017. Hello!

 

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Massive Betrayal of Trust

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Photo by Mamnaimie Piotr

On September 8, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) put out a press release that it was fining Wells Fargo Bank $100 million for secretly opening deposit and credit card accounts, without customer approval. In addition to the CFPB fine, Wells Fargo was fined $35 million by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, $50 million by the City and Country of Los Angeles and will have to pay approximately $5 million in restitution to customers. This fraudulent behavior occurred on a massive scale and, based on the CFPB’s investigation, resulted in:

  • Employees opening 1,534,280 unauthorized deposit accounts;
  • Employees submitting applications for 565,443 credit-card accounts, without the knowledge or consent of the people in whose names the applications were made;
  • Employees creating fake email addresses in order to enroll consumers in online-banking services;
  • Employees requesting debit cards for customers, without the customers’ knowledge or consent, and creating PINs to activate these cards.

All of the above has happened only since January 1, 2011. That is about five years in which these shenanigans were going on. During this time, Wells Fargo fired about 5,300 employees but it does not appear that the bank did a lot more than that to change the culture and systems in order to keep these practices from recurring, or that it took any steps to do right by the customers who were affected. To boot, the executive who oversaw the unit where this all happened left without having to pay back any of the almost $125 million that she earned with the bank. To understand why employees engaged in these dishonest practices, it is important to understand how they benefitted.

Wells Fargo is valued at over $250 billion, making it the most valuable bank in United States, by this yardstick. Wells Fargo was also considered to be the king of cross-selling. Cross-selling is a practice where banks sell more than one service to a customer. For instance, say you open a checking account with Wells Fargo. If the person that you open your account with convinces you to then open a savings account, a credit card account and a mortgage, all of that is cross-selling. At Wells Fargo, employees were paid and received bonuses based on the number of different services they were able to sell to customers. At times, employees would have to work unpaid overtime hours in order to reach these goals and would be threatened with losing their jobs if they did not do enough cross-selling. These employees were told to do “whatever it takes” in order to meet sales goals and this turned out to include engaging in the fraudulent behaviors I noted above.

With the pressure to perform in order to increase earnings, through bonuses, or merely keep a job, the retail employees, at least 5,300 of them, found many opportunities to game the system. Controls at Wells Fargo, when it came to ensuring accounts were valid and authorized by customers, appears to have been very lax. For instance:

  • Employees were able to sign up customers for banking services and would use fake email addresses that used wellsfargo.com as the domain name, such as 1234@wellsfargo.com or none@wellsfargo.com. Doesn’t that seem rather brazen? It also seems like a security shortfall on the part of the bank, that the application process wouldn’t flag an email that doesn’t exist in your own system.
  • When employees opened fake deposit accounts, they would fund these accounts by transferring a customers money from an authorized account to the fake account. Sometimes, as a result of the transfer, the authorized account would incur insufficient balance and overdraft fees. Also, the fake accounts would also incur fees and Wells Fargo would withdraw money from the authorized accounts in order to pay these fees.
  • In a similar manner, credit card accounts opened, without the approval or knowledge of customers, would incur annual and other fees. At times, these customers would find that they were in collections and their credit scores had been affected by accounts that they did not even know they had.
  • Some customers actually received credit cards for accounts that they had not authorized. When these customers contacted Wells Fargo to complain about these cards, they were told to simply destroy the cards. Destroying a credit card does not close the credit card account, nor does the shredding of a card do anything as far as the shredding that your credit profile may have taken.
  • In order to meet quarterly goals, employees would hold back applications for account openings. The manual applications, that included sensitive personal information, would be stockpiled in an unsecured manner and the accounts would only be opened in the next sales goal period, in a practice referred to as sandbagging.
  • Wells Fargo also misled customers by telling them that they could not get one service without getting a bundle of other included services. That would be like opening a checking account and being told that you cannot do so unless you open a savings account and get a credit card with the bank.

With how widespread these practices were, it seems that employees were sharing knowledge about how to best bulk up their cross-selling numbers, without actually cross-selling. Also, when customers complained about fees, it is unclear how much of a follow-up there was to discover if what had happened was a mistake or not. Then, when Wells Fargo discovered this behavior and fired an employee, the bank did not take any steps to let the impacted customers know that their information had been used to open accounts in their name and, if applicable, charge them fees. The bank did not go back and refund customers the fees they had been charged, unless the customer raised a stink about them. When I was discussing this case with my husband and explaining how customers were negatively affected, he had a tale of his own. He has a credit card (not Wells Fargo) and the company changed his credit card information, without letting him know. When he sent payment on his account, they accepted the payment, without telling him that the account was closed, and then charged him interest and fees on the balance that had been moved to a new account. He, not the credit card company, had to figure out what had happened and he, not the credit card company had to calculate the monies that needed to be refunded to him and make sure that the company was not just holding money on a nonexistent account but actually crediting it to his account.

As a result of this case, in addition to the fines that Wells Fargo has been ordered to pay, there are steps the bank has been ordered to take in order to improve the culture and strengthen the system so that this kind of behavior can be prevented, detected and corrected in the future. This includes:

  • Employee training to prevent “Improper Sales Practices” and improve integrity at the bank;
  • Creating monitoring processes and policies to effectively deal with customer complaints;
  • Creating systems to ensure that customer approval is received before accounts are opened on their behalf;
  • Revising the basis for how employees are paid and reviewing sales goals to ensure that they are not unrealistic and do not impose unreasonable pressure on employees.

Wells Fargo will continue to be monitored for five years, to make sure that they comply with the CFPB’s consent order.

On your part, with all your accounts, you can check to make sure that they accounts that you have are ones that you have authorized and that transactions made in your name are valid. Some steps that you can take are:

  • Review your credit report on a regular basis to make sure that all accounts listed are ones that you know about. Several financial institutions offer free credit reports to customers. If this is not an option for you, you can visit the Annual Credit Report website. On this website, you are entitled to credit report per year, from each of the three major credit reporting companies. A strategy to employ is to check a report with one agency every four months;
  • Check your bank statements regularly (at least monthly) for any transactions that are incorrect. Even if it is a small amount, look into a transaction. That small amount could be an indication of something bigger;
  • If you receive a card in the mail that you did not apply for it, follow-up on it and make sure that it is cancelled. Then check your credit report again.

On the Wells Fargo website, the Chairman and CEO states that “Everything we do is built on trust.” It seems that many employees have been playing lip service to that value and we know that, even with trust, it is important to verify. Take the time to check in on your finances. There may be mistakes that need fixing and there may also be pressured employees who are trying to get ahead or merely hold onto their jobs by engaging in dishonest practices.

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Two Hours… And Counting

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Oh man! I may need treatment to recover from working out my health care expenses. For several years now, my shoulder has hurt. I have had it looked at by a doctor and I went through physical therapy until I had used up all that I was allowed to use, and treatment didn’t really work. My shoulder still hurt a lot. I then got sidetracked by all kinds of other things going on in my life and so I pretty much lived with the pain (eased a bit by massage, ibuprofen and Salonpas). Finally, I decided that enough was enough and that life should not be lived in pain, so I went to see the doctor who helped me out when I fractured my knee. I love his guy. He is absolutely awesome. And it is a great and special thing when you establish and relationship where you are treated like an adult with a brain and all your questions are answered and things are good. You feel great, until you start to talk money. Then you feel all kinds of unwell again.

I am a person with health insurance and I believe it is pretty good insurance because it is pretty widely accepted and my co-payments are decent. I understand that choosing an out of network doctor is bound to be very pricey. However, several years ago, I had some pretty terrible experiences when I went with in-network doctors that were recommended to me by my insurance website and not by a fellow medical profession. Now, when I find someone who treats me with respect and seems to have a vested interest in my being healthy and fully recovered, I tend to stick with that person. I understand that this can come with a premium; I just wanted to know what this premium might be. So, there I was, discussing a treatment plan and then payment plans. The treatment plan ended up being the easier part of things to understand. Let me tell my tale…

Looking at a schedule of my health insurance benefits is like solving a complex math problem, where suddenly I need my calculator and a whole lot of patience. I have to factor in a deductible and then calculate the split between what insurance will then cover and what I have as an out-of-pocket expense. I sat down with the office manager at my doctor’s office and he went through the various costs of my treatment and then he pulled up the Fair Health Consumer website. The office manager then explained to me that, because my doctor was out of network, we should go over what the treatment could, potentially, cost me. He explained to me that even though my insurance would cover a percentage of my “eligible expenses”, what that meant could make a huge difference to my wallet. I found out, this week, that things can get very complicated and expensive.

First of all, the health insurance company will determine the reasonable and customary cost of a procedure. This is the average fee charged in a particular geographic area. Then, for out of network providers, regardless of what the provider charges, the health insurance company will cover costs based on the reasonable and customary cost. However, a health insurance plan may determine what they will cover, based on a published rate allowed by Medicare. This rate has nothing to do with the average cost of a procedure in the part of the country where your treatment occurs. This rate can be wildly different from the reasonable and customary rate and this can result in a big difference in how your wallet looks at the end of the day. For example, you could have a procedure that has a reasonable and customary cost of $10,000. If your health insurance covers 60% of this rate, your out-of-pocket expense will be $4,000 or 40% (I am, for the sake of simplicity, assuming that there is no deductible). Now, if your health insurance uses the Medicare based rate, they could reimburse you only about $300 (this is a comparison that I actually did on the Fair Health Consumer website, and not something that I made up, as extreme as the difference is). That means here, your out-of-pocket expense will be $9,700. That is a significant difference. So it is very important to have an idea of what you are going to pay beforehand, Otherwise the doctor’s bill may give you a heart attack, in addition to all your other issues. The health insurance companies say that they have switched to the Medicare rate in order to push out of network doctors to become in network doctors in order to get better reimbursement rates from them, but what I have read of how this rate came about does not appear to support that claim. However, it seems to me that the patients are the ones who are suffering, being that they are the ones who then get the gigantic bills from the provider that they have chosen to use. And this could be because they have looked at their explanation of benefits and calculated their out-of-pocket based a reasonable cost. Imagine that.

With this in mind, the office manager gave me a list of information, including the codes for the treatment and suggested that, beyond visiting my insurer’s website and reading their explanation of benefits, I actually call and have conversations about what exactly the explanations mean. So began my adventures in telephone conversations regarding my health insurance benefits. I made my first call, thinking I would be on the phone for a few minutes but I didn’t hang up until over an hour later and I was still clueless. The man I spoke to was very friendly and polite and he took my information but then as we got into what I should expect my out-of-pocket expense to be, things became very murky and confusing. It appeared that he could not access out of network information for what my cost would be and, he was not clear on what rate my out-of-pocket expenses would be based. After an hour of us hanging out on the phone, trying to figure things out, he found a form that I could submit in order to get a quote from the health insurer but he seemed to not know how to get it to me. So he said he would call me back or email me before the end of the day. He did neither.

The next morning I called again and, even though this particular insurance company representative seemed to have access to a little more information, she too was very vague and kept telling me that she could not tell me how much things might cost me or what would be reimbursed. That is a bit scary since I was calling to make sure that I would have as few surprises as possible. About an hour into a very frustrating and circular conversation, I mentioned that the day before, the representative had mentioned a form and a client advocate. She claimed she had never heard of such a thing but she put me on hold as she went to investigate. She came back on the line and said she had found this form but she could only either fax it to me or send it via snail mail (I could go into a whole rant about why, in 2016, people can’t email you something and, instead, you have to figure out how to get your hands on a fax machine).

So, now I am at a point where I have sent information in to the insurance company and I am now waiting (for 2-3 business days, per the form) for a response on the eligible expense for my treatment – the first step in calculating out-of-pocket expenses. I am hoping that my future does not hold more protracted conversations where things end up even more confusing than they were going in. I would feel dumb, but the health insurance representatives seemed to know about as much as I did about what my insurance policy does and does not cover. I hope that I can get to a point where I can make an informed decision about what to do next. And my lesson, almost, learnt that I am sharing here – don’t take the website blurb at face value; don’t take the information booklet at face value; don’t assume you know what is going on. Keep asking questions, even if you get so frustrated that you want to throw your phone across the room. If what you are being told about your insurance doesn’t make sense, ask to speak to someone else. I could tell you what I think about all of this, but I am going to stick with telling you to ask the questions until you get clarity (even if it is very expensive clarity). Insurance is a very murky space and those dark spots could turn out to be a lot of money coming out of your pocket.

 

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Cheating Mysteries

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When I first started running long distance, my goal was to run the New York Marathon. After I completed the Chicago Marathon, things changed a little. Of course I still held my breath every year, hoping to make it into the New York Marathon. But I also had another distant dream – qualifying for the Boston Marathon. It was a distant dream because I would need to run a qualifying time in order to get into Boston and my pace at that time was nowhere near one that would get me into Boston. Over the last few years, my pace has improved and qualifying for Boston has become a more attainable dream. Over the years, I have also come to know more runners and have found that many of us aspire to qualify. I know I am always in awe of a person who has qualified for Boston – it is no mean feat.

With the line of work that I am in, I should not have been surprised, but I was, when I read a recent Runner’s World piece about people who cheat to get into the Boston Marathon. I wanted to run the New York Marathon because I was inspired by the runners who ran past my block, the runners who would touch all five boroughs that make up the city that I call home. I enjoy running races in cities and towns that I have never been to, as I find it a great way to visit and discover new places. When I think about Boston, I don’t necessarily think about running the race itself. The power of Boston, for me and for many that I speak with is in what it takes to qualify. That is the challenge. So, when I read about people who cheated by getting someone else to run a qualifying time in their place, or by cutting a course, I was baffled. Where is the joy in telling someone that you achieved something that you didn’t or that you had someone achieve on your behalf? When I speak with fellow runners, I tend to speak with like-minded people who are just as baffled as I am.

This article reminded me that just because one cannot understand the motivations of a cheater, it does not mean that the cheating will not happen. The fact that many of us cannot understand this motivation is exactly what those that cheat bank on. If no one can imagine how or why someone would fake qualifying for the Boston Marathon, the chances are high that a person will get away with faking in order to qualify for the Boston Marathon. This is something that we all should be mindful of, beyond the realms of the Boston Marathon. Way too often, a business owner or manager will forgo instituting checks and balances in their company, because that business owner can’t imagine that anyone that works for them could be the kind of person that would defraud them.

It is important to take steps to keep from being blindsided by your world view. Precisely because you can’t imagine how a person could behave in a fraudulent manner is why you should seek out the services of a forensic accountant, whose job it is to both imagine how a person could defraud you and how to prevent and detect such actions. We all hope that people will be honest, but it is a sad truth that for various reasons, people will cheat. In the context of the Boston Marathon, perhaps some people feel that they are so close to a qualifying time that a little cheat is not such a bad thing. Maybe some people hunger for praise, even if they have not earned it. Maybe some people just don’t think it is a big deal to cheat in order to get into Boston and see it as a victimless crime. In the context of a business, some people may face personal pressures that they feel push them to fraud. Some people may feel that they are not sufficiently appreciated by their employer and may, therefore, feel justified in taking from that employer. No one is immune from the pressures or motivations that lead to fraud, but what we can do is take steps to make it as difficult as possible to be defrauded.

 

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2016! Three Words! Boom!

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Hey there 2016! In 2013, I officially put aside New Year’s Resolutions. This is because I was introduced to the concept of Three Words, by Tom Hood, who found this idea from Chris Brogan. I have found the three words to be a great way to give my year a point of consolidation and mindfulness. I have found the three words to be invaluable. I find myself bringing up these words in conversations and in my writing and I am sure I must sound like a broken record to some people. I am happy to be a broken record if this helps me live a life of greater focus and productivity. I am just about always trying to do too much and I have found these three words give me greater direction.

Last year, my three words were Receptive, Synergy and Service and I found these words coming up often during 2015. I faced several challenges during the year, I embarked on new ventures and my life took turns that I never imagined. During that time, my words from 2013 all the way through 2015 helped form my rallying cry.

As 2015 neared its end, I wondered what my words for 2016 would be. I took the time to look back and think about where I have been and then think forward to where I would like to go and what I want my compass to look like as I travel. Today, I have my words for 2016.

Learn: During my various adventures in 2015, I things thrown at me that I could either try to ignore or take lessons from. My brother got married and that brought a lot of my family together in one place. It is always amazing to me that, for as much as I think I know the stories of my family, when we come together there are new and incredibly interesting things that I learn. My husband and I also spent time together with his aunt where she regaled us with stories of her youth and his family history. As much as I think I know, I find that there are still more ways to expand my mind and that should I choose to, I can keep on learning. I hope to learn in formal settings, in informal setting and totally by surprise.

Fear: I am sure that at some point in my writing I have shared my irrational fear of rodents, a fear that is not very helpful for a person who lives in New York City. I remember once, years ago, I was living in an apartment an old building. The old buildings in New York are lovely to look at but come with holes, holes that mice like to climb through, especially when it gets cold. One evening, I was hanging out on the couch when suddenly a mouse scuttled across my floor. I was frozen on the couch, afraid to move lest the mouse and I collide. People tell me that the rodents are more afraid of me than I am of them; I beg to differ. I ended up calling my neighbor, from the couch and, luckily he came by and dealt with the mouse. Now, I am not about to dive into a close encounter with a rodent, but I am learning that the times that I have been able to get past my fears are the times that I have been able to have new adventures. I started my own business this year and I am learning to not let my fears about failure, about the unknown or about anything else hold me back. I am also having a great time exploring life and learning new things about myself and those around me.

Community: I say it all the time and it remains true – nothing happens without community. When I started my business I found support from friends, family and colleagues. I found support from strangers. Had I realized the power of community, I may have taken the leap earlier. An instrumental aspect of collaboration and synergy is community. As I continue on this incredible adventure, I want to be mindful of the great things that can be achieved by a community.

Just a moment to look back on my words from prior years:

2013 – Change, Discover and Motivate
2014 – Transform, Pursue and Collaborate
2015 – Receptive, Synergy and Service

And now: Learn, Fear and Community

I am unbelievably excited at the prospect of looking fear in the eye and saying, “bring it on.”. For it is through these experiences that I shall learn and it is with these moments that I shall be able to connect with my community and build that community. AND I have an extra day to do all of this this year. So, tell me, what are your words?

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When To Fold ‘Em

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We are a household of sports fans and this tends to be just about the only live television that we watch. Because we can’t fast forward through the commercials during live games, I have watched commercials about daily fantasy sports. A lot of commercials about daily fantasy sports (DFS). It doesn’t matter whether it is DraftKings or FanDuel, as they both seem just about the same. I have heard about how you can win millions, practically for free, and about how easy it all is. I know nothing about fantasy sports, and I have come away mostly irritated by how ubiquitous the advertising is than wanting to try out the daily fantasy sports scene. I also don’t trust them when they tell me that I could win money for nothing and, instead, I wonder how they could claim to give away so much money for nothing and still pay for the many, many ads that are everywhere we look.

Answers came to me at the beginning of October, when a DFS scandal hit the news. As the story went, a DraftKings employee released key information earlier than he should. This information, if known, would give someone a tactical edge when playing fantasy football. The same employee also won $350,000 betting at FanDuel. Even though this doesn’t look good, DraftKings says they are certain that, even with an extra $350,000 in his pocket, their employee did not act improperly – he merely made a mistake. As I read the story, I shook my head in disbelief. I was surprised by several things. First of all, I was surprised to discover that Daily Fantasy Sports betting is not considered to be gambling. Now, I know hardly anything about daily fantasy sports, so it may indeed be a game of skill and not luck. However, especially with terms like “betting” used when talking about it, it sure does look a lot like gambling. That said, interviews that I have seen and read show those who spend a lot of money on DFS referring to it as investing. Nevada recently shut down DraftKings and FanDuel, declaring that DFS is gambling and that the two companies need licences before they can operate in that state. So, in that regard, let’s go with more and more people are agreeing with me on the whole “is it gambling” question.

More surprising, though, was the employee betting. To have a company that runs the betting allow its employees to bet as well smacks of impropriety, regardless of whatever steps the companies claimed they took to keep things on the up and up. Both FanDuel and DraftKings would not let their employees bet with them but those same employees, armed with whatever insider information they might (or might not) have, were able to go to competitor sites and bet there. And bet they did and how surprised are we to find out that the top winners in daily fantasy sports tended to be employees of DraftKings and FanDuel (though never from their own employer, of course).

As I read articles and watched news pieces on what was going on in the Daily Fantasy Sports realm, I kept exclaiming, to anyone within earshot, “who thought this was okay? How could they think it was okay?”

I couldn’t believe that management at this company could look at the set up was acceptable. Maybe they did, or maybe they just thought they could get away with it but it has me wondering about what operation and control policies other entities have in place that either do not protect them and their assets, or even put them at greater risk. Just because you institute a rule, it does not mean that it is a good or useful rule. For instance, DraftKings employees, with all the inside information they potentially had access to, could not place a bet with their employer, DraftKings. However, they could log into FanDuel, their competitor and use their edge when placing bets there. And the policy was mirrored by FanDuel. Looking in from the outside, both companies appeared to be acting unethically, and just about always, perceptions are as powerful as reality. If it looks as though someone is having a $350,000 party with your money, the facts will matter very little to you.

It might feel very managerial to make rules in your organization, but if all they serve to do is fill operations manuals and make you feel good, they are achieving less than nothing. It is worse than not making rules at all because, at least when you don’t have regulations, you have no illusions about whether or not you are protected. On the other hand, creating a free for all entity may make you feel like the cool kid and may even have people clamoring to work for you. However, among those clamoring, it is almost guaranteed, will be those seeing ample opportunity to commit fraud and perhaps lay waste to your business. There are very important reasons why people like me preach setting up your business in ways that prevent and detect fraud and two of these reasons are protecting your assets and protecting your reputation.

Now, FanDuel and DraftKings are finding themselves on the defensive and being given the cold shoulder by entities who do not want to be tainted by the growing scandals. They are being investigated by state and federal authorities, and are now scrambling to clean up an image that would never have been sullied if they had formed their operating and control structures correctly and ethically, in practice and appearance, from the get go. Now they are tripping over themselves, doing things like creating self-regulatory bodies in order to regain the trust of the public. Judging from what I have read, that is not working very well – something that happens when a company has betrayed the public’s trust. Instead these companies are being put under the microscope and their reputation is taking a beating. They are on the defensive now and all of this could have very easily been avoided. If you are running a business, you should ensure that you consult with a qualified professional to avoid issues such as:

  • Conflict of interest in perception and reality;
  • Approaches that compromise your reputation; and
  • Procedures that may cross legal lines.

Spending time and resources doing things property in the first place is less costly, in dollars and reputation, than trying to clean things up after the damage is done. That kind of disaster can be very difficult to come back from. Is it something you are ready to bet on?

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