As accountants, it’s easy to spend so much time ensuring you’re up to date on recent regulations that affect your clients and new applications that can help you streamline services your clients needs. As a result, you may overlook some of the most basic ways you can help your clients. And, the most pressing client need you may not be meeting? Financial cybersecurity awareness.
It’s natural to focus on the business consequences of sizable corporate breaches such as Equifax. But, the reality of the situation is that breaches like these represent the compromised financial data of millions of individuals, 143 million in the case of the Equifax breach in 2017 and 50 million in the case of the Home Depot breach in 2014, costing consumers an estimated $172 billion globally. According to the 2017 Norton Security Report, cybercrime cost U.S. consumers $172 billion of their own money in 2017.
For individuals who do not carefully monitor their credit scores and credit reports, this represents an enormous liability. Consumers are increasingly aware of the danger: eight in 10 Americans are concerned about whether businesses can safeguard their financial and personal information and one in four say they have reduced or eliminated their online presence because of concerns about data security. Others plan to shop at different stores, freeze their credit or use alternative currency.
So, what can accounting firms do to help support their client’s consumer financial security? Here are a few lessons you can pass along from the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA):
- Recommend that clients monitor their credit reports and set protections, especially for minors living in their home. Get a free credit report from major reporting agencies TransUnion, Equifax and Experian.
- Educate clients on common phishing tactics and remind them not to provide personal information from an unsolicited communication. Always call the number on your bank statement or on the back of your credit card, even the solicitation seems like it’s from a brand or financial institution they recognize.
- Suggest clients keep their Social Security number private unless absolutely necessary. Few businesses can legally require a Social Security number, so assume it’s optional. Tell them to write “Available upon request” whenever they’re asked to write it down on paperwork, such as in healthcare situations.
- Encourage clients to secure their Internet connection by using only password-protected WIFI. Tell clients not to access or handle any private data when connected to unsecured networks in public.
- Ask clients to shop local and use cash or check whenever possible. A limited digital footprint will go a long way toward limiting the potential for data breach.
If a client thinks they’ve been a victim of identity theft, let them know which entities to contact. Start with the credit card company or financial institution, file a police report, and then file a 14039 Identity Theft Affidavit with the IRS.
Accounting firms are not responsible for the consumer behavior or credit scores of individual clients. However, the more you can educate, guide and help protect your clients in all of their financial matters, the stronger a relationship you’ll build. It's both in your best interest and your clients to share some basic financial cybersecurity information.