Update: 3 Ways to Mitigate Fraud After a Natural Disaster
Credit unions instinctively want to help members affected by hurricanes and other natural disasters, but few expect or prepare for increased fraud attempts that may follow.
Just ask executives at the Harahan, La.-based ASI Federal Credit Union, which was slammed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. To help affected members, the credit union, which today has $313 million in assets and 56,000 members, raised its offline ATM limits. Shortly after, nearly 10,000 of the credit union's 80,000 members overdrew their accounts by almost $4 million. Though many members later corrected their shortages, some, then-CEO Audrey Cerise said at the time, “just sat in front of the ATM, playing them like slot machines” with no intention of replacing the funds.
Or ask Issa Stephan, president/CEO of the Freehold, N.J.-based First Financial Federal Credit Union, whose members endured flooding and other damage after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The credit union offered a variety of accommodations to members, including payment plans, advances, and even food and clothing. But because its systems were hobbled after the storm, one person was able to withdraw $70,000 on a home equity line that was actually already closed.
“We’ve been in court since then,” Stephan said of the incident.
To be sure, not all credit unions face certain fraud after a hurricane or other natural disaster. Kim Gay, director of communications for the League of Southeastern Credit Unions and Affiliates, said it hasn't been much of an issue for the 261 credit unions her league represents in Alabama and Florida.
“Members have just been so grateful that we have opened our doors so quickly to serve them, in spite of the disaster all around,” she said. “We have been so responsive to meet member and even nonmember needs that there is usually not a risk of delinquency. Of course, when natural disasters bring job loss and destruction to a community, there is risk for loss of income and credit unions have to work with members who are impacted.”
Nonetheless, when storms arrive, they can bring more than just bad weather. Here are three ideas experts in the hurricane trenches said credit unions can use to mitigate fraud after a storm.
1. Get systems into the cloud.
After Katrina, ASI's systems were offline for some time until it could get a recovery site running from another state, according to CIO Kevin Burke, who joined the credit union in 2007. And because there was no file on hand to verify cards in the meantime, ATMs were accepting old and expired cards.
“Somehow or another the word got out here in the city that ‘ASI is giving away free money,’ and people were just going to ATMs and doing that. In any situation, unfortunately, you’re going to have people take advantage of it. The more information that you have that is real-time, online, available, the less chance that you’re going to be able to [commit fraud],” he said.
Burke said it took a few more storms before the credit union realized it had to get its systems out of New Orleans. Today it runs out of a data center in northern Mississippi that has multiple generators, battery back-ups and a secure location. Now if a storm hits, employees and members can still see real-time, up-to-date balances, he said.
2. When to make the call.
There's no standard signal that indicates when it's time to start making accommodations for lots of members. Instead, credit unions need to develop decision-making systems ahead of time that help determine what accommodations to make and for whom, as well as when programs should begin.
It's not necessary to wait for a FEMA disaster declaration or other official proclamation, Burke noted. Often the decision is part art and part science.
For Stephan and First Financial, for example, transportation issues helped determine when to start making accommodations after Hurricane Sandy.
“Around us was really extensive damage; you couldn't even get to the branch using your car,” he recalled.
His team figured that if it was that hard to get there, who knew what people closer to the water were enduring.
But instinct was a factor, too. At Stephan's own home, hurricane winds blew down 50-year-old trees, narrowly missing windows.
“You see things like that and it becomes very personal,” he said.
3. Make accommodations.
To the extent that it's legal and efficient, avoiding across-the-board accommodations and offering them on a case-by-case basis instead can keep the focus on people who need help and mitigate fraud.
First Financial, for example, didn't raise ATM limits across the board after Sandy, according to Stephan.
“We made the decision because of ATM fraud,” he said. “If people want money, they could give us a call; we would raise it individually, but we didn't do it across the line. We made the decision not to do that.”
Burke said his credit union puts heavy weight on personal contact with members after storms but isn't afraid to send accounts to collection if necessary.
“For members that are impacted by these types of disasters, we are going to be very willing to work with them and be able to be a little bit more flexible with them. As long as we are able to communicate with them, they are in good faith,” he said. “Obviously if there are members that never contact us or never show any attempt, we’ve got to go through the normal processes there, unfortunately.”
The trick, Stephan added, is taking a stance ahead of time on the proper balance between member accommodations and protecting the credit union – and then not feeling bad about that stance.
“You’ll stop the bad guys, but you’re going to hurt some good guys and then you’ll deal with that individually later if you have to. You might lose a few people but still, it's better – you have to protect the credit union. You have to think of that ahead of time.”
Recovery Effort Checklist
There are many ways to help members recover from natural disasters. Here are a few the executives mentioned:
Payment skipping: This allows members to delay loan payments for a period of time. After Sandy, First Financial offered 60 days to affected members, Stephan said.
Reduced-rate car loans with deferred payments: Several ASI members lost their cars (and everything else) in recent floods in Louisiana. This offer helps them get back on their feet, Burke said.
Grants: Credit unions typically work with the National Credit Union Foundation to offer small grants, usually around $500, to help displaced members with immediate needs, Gay noted.
Advances: After Sandy, First Financial advanced a local township money for payroll. It also opened or increased lines of credit to make advances to members short on cash but who had insurance checks on the way.
“Some of them didn't even qualify [for the credit lines], but we would work with the insurance company,” Stephan said.
Donation drives: First Financial collected money, food and clothing for members through its foundation, and it disbursed those things to needy members through the branches as well.