COVID-19 raises cybersecurity issues for family offices

By Maureen Milford

The move to working from home revealed vulnerability to phishing among family offices that had not set up proper controls for remote access.

As family offices scrambled to respond quickly to the health and safety issues and the economic turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, they also had to contend with another threat to their organizations.

Since late January, cybercriminals have been disguising themselves as trusted banks, merchants, co-workers, IT administrators and the like to trick people into divulging sensitive data, according to PwC US.

Proofpoint Inc., a cybersecurity company, reports that “coronavirus-related email lures now represent the greatest collection of attack types united by a single theme” that the firm’s research and detection team has seen in years, “if not ever.”

“These phishing emails may use scare tactics to trick users into interacting with malicious links or attachments, or direct them to websites designed to steal their credentials. Any individual within an organization can be targeted,” Proofpoint says.

Working in this treacherous landscape could be particularly dangerous for those family offices whose staff are making their first foray into working remotely.

Danielle Valkner, U.S. family office leader at PwC, spoke with Family Business Magazine about the challenges facing family offices.

FB: Have cybersecurity issues been a concern among single-family offices as COVID-19 has forced staff to work remotely?

DV: Many family offices have been very deliberate in the past in prohibiting or limiting remote access due to confidentiality concerns. Now they may find themselves in a situation where they are scrambling to set up the proper remote access in a well-controlled way at a time when fraud campaigns are spreading quickly. Business email compromise (BEC) scams that are designed to trick victims into transferring sensitive data or funds have skyrocketed in recent months. These scams also look to steal login credentials so [cybercriminals] can infiltrate your organization and compromise your systems and operations.

FB: Could there be an impact on the family’s privacy or safety?

DV: Wealthy families are always a high-profile target for cybercrime. Now that most of the country is working remotely and many are transacting more via email, it is more important than ever to be on high alert for fraud and safety issues. Your employees are your first line of defense, and it is critical to provide education and alerts to employees to [urge them to] be skeptical of email communications and requests from unfamiliar sources or even those that may look familiar on the surface. Common recent attempts include phishing and BEC emails disguised as government announcements with official-looking logos as well as emails with subject lines of interest to your business in light of impacts of COVID-19. [The emails] may attach official-looking documentation such as invoices, shipping receipts and job applications with harmful malware or ransomware embedded in them or links to fraudulent educational, healthcare or charity-related sites that can open the door for malicious activities and threats.

FB: Are family offices simply trying to find their way through this without a map, like every other business and family?

DV: Most likely. Transitioning to remote work at home can be done without compromising security. At a time like this it is important to consult with the experts and ensure you have the tools and risk management processes in place to enhance your monitoring and detection of threats, educate your employees and protect your assets, data and devices.

FB: Will the pandemic fundamentally change the way family offices operate going forward?

DV: Yes, I believe so. The current environment is certainly testing operational, financial and risk management capabilities. It is essential to identify your critical data, processes and reporting needs to drive decisions and enable proper risk management and controls. Family offices should be evaluating their processes and tools to ensure they have the capability to gather, aggregate, report and distribute critical information as well as execute and manage required activities in a well-controlled and timely manner. The current environment may expose some gaps that will need to be remediated. Also, the entire business community is learning the power of digital collaboration tools, which will undoubtedly have an impact on how we conduct business and operations going ­forward.

Copyright 2020 by Family Business Magazine. This article may not be posted online or reproduced in any form, including photocopy, without permission from the publisher. For reprint information, contact    


Article categories: 
September/October 2020

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