Monthly Archives: March 2017

Culture Blog

You’re Everywhere and Nowhere, Baby

Your Culture is your brand signAndrew Bailey is the top man at the FCA. Chief executive. A man to be listened to.

So, when Andrew gives a speech on conduct to the markets it is usually worth listening to as it will give an insight into what might be coming down the line.

He gave such a speech recently that he titled; “Culture in financial institutions: it’s everywhere and nowhere” in which he talked about how a firm’s culture emerges in large part from efforts that are its own responsibility; that it is for firms to ensure that their desired culture is consistent with appropriate conduct outcomes, to identify the drivers of behaviour within the firm and control the risks that these drivers create and finally that culture change in itself is a challenge, and that he knows it takes time.

No, If you are still reading this, stick with me as there are some key points in this address! The first thing I should say is that often these words are aimed at large institutions, with immense corporate governance strategies and many (many) committee groups. But there is something in this for HLP as a network and for you and your firm.

Fostering a positive culture in your business is an incredible skill. It is one of the key features of any successful entrepreneur or business person. You can see culture in play at some top UK firms. On one hand you have Virgin headed by Branson. A great culture that thrives and gives customers a positive feel about the various Virgin brands. On the other hand you have the likes of Sports Direct (Mike Ashley) or anything headed up by Sir Philip Green in recent years – brands that are tarnished by the reputation of their poor standards of culture and ethics.

Like anything in life, the ‘bad guys’ sometimes win. In financial services the bad guys sometimes get away with large profits, leaving customers out of pocket. The industry is now picking up the tab for the Fuel Investments overseas property investment scam and no doubt the people involved are all enjoying the fruits of their scheme. The FCA are not daft and they will learn from this. One of the tools they will use is to observe culture. To do this they will look at key people in the industry and take note of anyone that demonstrates poor values.

At this time the FCA are pushing forward with changes to conduct rules around the Senior Managers Regime. Eventually these rules will come into effect for all financial services businesses, including intermediaries and will replace the old statements of principal. This will impact on us and you. It will mean that all firms will need to be conscious of standards of governance.

Small firms will have a simplified expectation for governance compliance, for many it will ultimately be measured by how the business owner conducts themselves as individuals. Often this can be seen as a measure of the culture within their business.

So, why was Andrew Bailey’s speech interesting? Well he talks about remuneration, governance and personal responsibility. All these things apply no matter what your size. It is about how small business owners conduct their affairs and themselves and how this naturally manifests itself across the business. Good financial management, with reserves used to protect for a rainy day rather than spent on flash cars. Fair pay and equality. A balanced work force. Tempering of incentives based purely on sales and inclusion of ‘quality’ based bonuses that reward advisers with happy customers. Treating customers fairly and being passionate about good customer outcomes. Good communication across the business.

If you are a business owner you will be holding a controlled function and will be expected to be approved and registered. You can and should expect that the FCA will start to take more interest in all approved persons. They will pay attention to the way such people conduct themselves as this will be an indicator for the culture within the business.

Andrew Bailey’s speech shows a new direction of travel for the FCA and the focus on individual’s will increase. So, if you own a financial services business or are responsible for the running of such a business then be aware – you will need to be more transparent and you can expect greater ‘intrusion’ into your fitness and propriety.

In the coming year you will see a higher level of fitness and propriety checking, which will include requests for credit reports, bank statements and to see evidence of remuneration schemes in place. HLP is not here to catch anyone out or to take punitive action. As ever we are here to help and support and steer you in the right direction. Our aim is to help all business owners understand the FCA’s regime changes and to help you remain compliant.

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Weekly Round-up, 31st March 2017

A Side Swipe

Social media icons on a laptopThe latest Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index reveals that 11.5 million people in the UK do not have Basic Digital Skills. The report also shows that just under one in ten adults (9%) don’t use the internet at all and this group is less engaged and less likely to be persuaded to get online, due to a lack of motivation, than ever before.

The Basic Digital Skills measure, designed by Doteveryone to understand the level of digital skills amongst UK adults, shows that within 12 months, 1.1 million people gained Basic Digital Skills, which is an encouraging improvement. However, there are still 11.5 million people not making the most out of the internet, such as creating content or shopping online. Age is also a determining factor with only 49% of those aged 65+ having Basic Digital Skills, compared to 97% of 15 to 24 year olds.

The Index finds that the last 9% who are not yet online are far less likely to be interested or persuaded of the benefits the internet can offer. As with those lacking Basic Digital Skills, it is the older generation who are even harder to convince.

Over half (51%) of people who are not using the internet have no interest in getting online and this rises to 60% for those aged 60+. Also, more than two-thirds (68%) of those offline say nothing will motivate them to go online – and again this is higher for those aged 60+ (74%). This is a significant increase of nearly 25% since 2016. The Index highlights that nearly three-quarters (73%) of those offline do not believe they can save money using the internet, despite the report showing the savings that can be made. 76% of those aged 60+ also said they did not see how they could save money online.

In a separate piece of research from Scottish Widows based on a survey carried out by YouGov, between 28 January and 4 February 2016, results suggest that for many, taking out life or critical illness cover falls lower down the priority list than having access to an internet connection. Eight in ten (81%) of people in Britain consider internet connection as essential and almost three quarters (72%) see a mobile phone as a necessity. In comparison, only 29% think it’s essential to provide financial security for dependents if they become critically ill and only 40% think it’s essential to provide security for dependents if they die.

Credit Worthy News

The British Banking Association’s (BBA) latest high street banking data shows that household borrowing of £13.4 billion in February was 4.6% higher than in the same month last year. Consumer credit is growing at an annual rate of 6.6% whilst gross mortgage borrowing of £13.4 billion in February was 4.6% higher than in the same month last year. After allowing for repayments, February’s net mortgage borrowing was 2.5% higher than in February 2016. Business borrowing continues to be subdued growing by 0.9% annually.

In terms of approvals, for House purchase numbers of 42,613 were 4.6% lower than in February 2016 and 3.5% lower than January but above the 2016 monthly average of 41,287. Those looking to remortgaging were well down on January’s numbers and a little lower than the 2016 average of 25,987 at 25,414. Other advances were 4.8% higher than a year ago.

Parental Support

Man being given the keys to a houseThe proportion of first-time buyers relying on inherited wealth or loans from the ‘bank of mum and dad’ has reached a historic high and the trend looks set to continue, new research by the Social Mobility Commission has revealed.

Analysis of government and housing market data by researchers from the University of Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin University has found that the proportion of young people embarking on home ownership has fallen dramatically. For 25- to 29-year-olds, home ownership has fallen by more than half in the last 25 years from 63% in 1990 to 31% most recently. Many of those who do manage to buy eventually can only do so at an older age.

Increasingly, young people are relying on the bank of ‘mum and dad’ to get a foot on the housing ladder. Over a third of first-time buyers in England (34%) now turn to family for a financial gift or loan to help them buy their home compared to 1 in 5 (20%) 7 years ago. A further 1 in 10 rely on inherited wealth.

It is not only first-time buyers who benefit from parental support – over 1 in 10 (12%) of existing owners are also benefitting from a gift or a loan when buying a new home. In the UK, around a third (30%) of households with dependent children currently hold assets that could be used towards a deposit for the purchase of a home. The report also finds that first time buyers who receive money or a loan from their parents can buy 2.6 years earlier than those who do not.

Testing Times

Aviva Ventures, Aviva plc’s venture capital arm, has announced an investment in Owlstone Medical Ltd, a medical diagnostics company developing a breathalyser that can detect diseases at a very early stage. The company is currently developing tests for lung and colorectal cancer, two of the most common terminal cancer conditions worldwide.

Aviva Ventures provides early stage investment to back entrepreneurs with high growth businesses and, over time, expects to have a portfolio of small investments in a number of companies which have significant potential. Aviva Ventures is part of Aviva’s digital strategy and, through the investments made, will assist Aviva in identifying new opportunities; the development of innovative business models and new digital insurance services and products which make insurance easier for customers.

Ben Luckett, Managing Director at Aviva Ventures observed that technology is evolving rapidly and that traditionally, insurance has supported customers in the aftermath of a problem. Going forward prevention will be just as important as the cure.

Be Uber Careful

Blurred TaxisLeaving something in an Uber is an experience many people will share, whether it be keys or a phone, but the firm has revealed its latest index of items that have been left behind by customers, and it includes some far more unusual possessions. The list only details things left in cars in the US, but some of the highlights are impressive.

Among the index of “most unique items forgotten in Ubers” is a lobster, a sweet potato care package and a smoke machine. Sadly, Uber doesn’t reveal any of the details as to how some of these items came to be forgotten, but it does seem amazing that someone could leave behind their back massage device, bulletproof vest or “valuable Nordic walking poles”.

Watch out if you’re planning to use Uber at the weekend too, because the index also reveals that the most common days for lost items to be reported is Sunday, followed by Saturday. Meanwhile, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco were named the most forgetful cities in the US and Canada.

Weekly News Round-up, 24th March 2017

Holding Up Well

Cardboard Houses on CoinsThe Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML) estimates that gross mortgage lending reached £18.2 billion in February. This is 8% lower than January’s lending total of £19.8 billion, and closely matches the £18.1 billion lent in February last year.

Commenting on market conditions in the trade body’s monthly commentary, the CML senior economist Mohammad Jamei observed that mortgage lending was holding up well, but under the surface buyers face mixed fortunes. On the face of it first-time buyers and customers who are remortgaging are driving total lending, while home movers and buy-to-let remain weak. The weakness in home movers means few properties are coming onto the market for sale, which is aggravating a supply demand imbalance that has characterised the market since late 2013. This looks set to continue at least over the next few months, posing an obstacle for would-be borrowers.

This is supported by the CML’s statistics on home buying when, looking on a seasonally adjusted basis, the month-on-month change in first-time buyer and home mover activity was minimal. First-time buyer lending decreased 2% by value with the number of loans up 2% compared to December. The number of home mover loans increased 3% month-on-month and the total amount borrowed remained unchanged, while year-on-year activity decreased slightly by both value and by volume.

Pocketing The Money

With just over a week to go until the launch of the UK’s new pound coin, the nation’s children are hoping to see more of them in their pocket money. Although the average weekly pocket money (£7.04) is at its highest level since 2007, almost half (41%) of kids think they should be getting more. This year’s figure is a 7% jump from last year (£6.55), and represents a whopping 500% increase from the £1.13 many of their parents would have been receiving in 1987. Despite that, 15% of children believe they receive the same or less than their parents did.

The figures are from the latest Halifax annual Pocket Money survey, which tracks the evolving saving and spending habits of the nations’ children and their parents. It’s likely all of them will have received the existing ‘round pound’ in their pocket money at some point but the coin, introduced in 1983, will be replaced next week (28 March). That news seems to have gone unnoticed by many of today’s kids, with almost half (43%) initially unaware a new 12-sided coin was being introduced.

However, once told about the new bi-metallic pound, which the Royal Mint claims is the world’s most secure coin, excitement grew among children. More than two-thirds (69%) want to receive it in their pocket money and one in four (44%) said they’d pop it straight in their piggy bank for safekeeping. The British tradition of piggy banks is alive and well, with eight out of 10 (80%) children using one to save. Budding young savers are picking up the habit from their parents, more than three quarters of whom (76%) had a piggy bank as a child, and 62% said they still used one today.

Today’s children haven’t picked up all of their parents’ saving and spending habits. Only a fifth (21%) said they would spend a new pound coin on sweets, while almost a half (43%) of parents admitted this would have been their first purchase at that age.

Outlook Uncertain

House sold signAccording to the latest House Price Index from the Nationwide, the annual rate of house price growth was little changed in February at 4.5%, only slightly higher than the 4.3% recorded by the Building Society in January. House prices increased by 0.6% over the month, after taking account of seasonal factors. Recent data suggests that the UK economy has continued to perform relatively strongly. The economy accelerated slightly in Q4, expanding by a healthy 0.7% quarter-on-quarter, and the unemployment rate remained stable at an 11-year low of 4.8%.

As with other financial institutions, the Society suggests the outlook remains uncertain, but along with most other forecasters, they expect the UK economy to slow through 2017 as heightened uncertainty weighs on business investment and hiring. Nationwide also suggest that consumer spending, a key engine of growth in recent quarters, is also likely to be impacted by rising inflation in the months ahead as a result of the weaker pound.

Nevertheless, in their view, Nationwide expect a small rise in house prices of around 2% to be more likely than a decline over the course of 2017, observing that low borrowing costs and a dearth of homes on the market will continue to support prices.

Time To Care

New analysis by Royal London shows that the typical person entering residential care will face total bills of between £50,000 and £93,000 depending on where they live. Variations in house prices around the UK mean that this could amount to anything from 18% to 56% of the value of the average house.

For residents in the North East of England, where the average house price is just under £129,000, an average stay of thirty months in a residential home costing £554 per week would eat up 56% of the value of their home. By contrast, for those living in London where the average house price is around £484,000, thirty months of average residential care costs of £666 per week would only account for around 18% of the value of that property. For most people in later life, their family home is likely to be by far the largest asset on which they will need to draw to meet care costs.

The length of time for which someone stays in a residential home can vary widely, and for those with the longest stays, the total bill can exceed the value of the typical house in several parts of the UK. Based on academic evidence which shows that 10% of residential home residents have a stay of 6.5 years or more, for residents of Wales, Northern Ireland and four English regions (North West, North East, Yorkshire and East Midlands) such long-stayers could face a total bill in excess of the value of the average home.

Stop The Pidgeon

Broken car after an accidentPigeons, cows and deer are among animals that have caused more than £600,000 of damage to vehicles belonging to people over the age of 50. The biggest culprits were unruly deer that have caused more than £360,000 of damage in the past 12 months, according to analysis of Saga Car Insurance claims data.

The company said one policyholder was returning home when a deer darted into the road and the resulting head-on collision put the customer’s car out of action with £4,000 of repair costs. A customer had a lucky escape when travelling on the motorway, as a pigeon flew across the carriageway and collided with their vehicle. While the driver was able to carry on with his journey, he was left with £1,000 of damage.

Another policyholder parked their vehicle in a farmer’s field – much to the curiosity of some cattle that surrounded the vehicle. When the owner’s dog barked from inside the car, the frightened cows kicked out before running away, causing almost £1,000 of damage. One driver was returning home when a dog ran into the road and, unable to swerve in time, the collision caused £2,500 of damage.

Another policyholder was left in disbelief when four escaped horses galloped towards his vehicle as he journeyed to the shops. One of the horses collided with the vehicle, smashing the bumper, headlights, wing mirror and doors, causing £5,000 of damage and putting the customer’s car out of action. Another customer was on his way to work when a badger jumped out of the bushes at the side of the road and collided with his car. The startled commuter was left stranded with almost £2,400 of damage to his vehicle.

Weekly Round-up, 17th March 2017

Basket Case

Grocery ShoppingNon-dairy milk, such as soya, rice and oat milk, are being added to the ONS’s inflation basket for the first time, reflecting the increase in the popularity of dairy-free diets, with the rise of campaigns such as “Veganuary”. In addition, gin is returning to the basket after a 13-year absence, with gin consumption on the rise, partly thanks to the significant growth in the number of small gin producers.

Also returning are Bicycle helmets after a 12-year absence, following the significant increase in the popularity of cycling due to sporting successes by British cyclists in the Olympics and the Tour De France. Children’s scooters, which have proven highly popular in recent years, are also being added, replacing children’s swings.

Basic mobile phone handsets are, however, being removed from the basket as their decline in popularity, following the rise of smartphones, has been making it difficult to collect consistent prices for them.

In addition, council tax is being added to CPIH, which includes owner-occupier housing costs and is the most comprehensive measure of consumer inflation. As well as updating the goods and services that are included, ONS also updates the weight each item has within the basket to ensure the overall inflation rate reflects households’ spending habits as closely as possible.

Lower Rentals

February’s Countrywide Lettings Index shows that rents in Great Britain were lower than in the same month last year, the first annual drop since November 2010. Nationally rents fell 0.6% over the last year with, in February, the average rent in Great Britain £921 a month, £5 less than in February 2016. But rents are still £112 (14%) a month more than their previous peak in 2007.

The fall in the average national rent was driven by London and the South East where the cost of a new let fell 4.7% and 2.6% respectively. The research suggests it has taken seven months for falls in these regions to bring the national rental growth figure below 0%. Apart from London and the South East, every other region of the country saw rents continue to rise, albeit at a slower rate than last month. Outside London rents rose 0.8% year-on-year, but the rate of growth slowed in nine of the eleven regions in Great Britain. The East and West Midlands were the only regions recording faster rental growth in February than in January.

The slowdown in average rental growth is probably driven by a fall in the number of tenants looking for a home combined with higher numbers of homes available to rent in London and the South East. While in Great Britain there were 5% more tenants looking for a home than at the same time as last year, London (-3%) and the South East (-5%) both had fewer tenants looking than last year (table 1). There was more tenant demand in every other region of the country with the biggest increases in the East Midlands, the East and the North West.

The surge in the number of homes available to rent following the rush to beat the stamp duty deadline is now beginning to subside. There were 10% more homes available to rent nationally in February 2017 than last year but the rate of growth has halved since last month. London, the South East, the South West and the East of England were the only regions to record double digit growth in the numbers of homes available to let. The increased level of stock available is likely to continue bearing down on rental growth in the coming months.

Stay Safe

Cifas, the UK’s leading fraud prevention service, has released new figures showing that identity fraud has hit the highest levels ever recorded. A record 172,919 identity frauds were recorded in 2016 more than in any other previous year. Identity fraud now represents over half of all fraud recorded by the UK’s not-for-profit fraud data sharing organisation (53.3% of all frauds recorded to Cifas), of which 88% was perpetrated online. 

The vast majority of identity fraud happens when a fraudster pretends to be an innocent individual to buy a product or take out a loan in their name. Often victims do not even realise that they have been targeted until a bill arrives for something they did not buy or they experience problems with their credit rating. To carry out this kind of fraud successfully, fraudsters need access to their victim’s personal information such as name, date of birth, address, their bank and who they hold accounts with. Fraudsters get hold of this in a variety of ways, from stealing mail through to hacking; obtaining data on the ‘dark web’; exploiting personal information on social media, or though ‘social engineering’ where innocent parties are persuaded to give up personal information to someone pretending to be from their bank, the police or a trusted retailer.

Cifas has seen growing numbers of young people falling victim in recent years and this upward trend continued in 2016 with almost 25,000 victims under 30. In particular they saw a 34% increase in under 21s, and therefore Cifas is again calling for better education around fraud and financial crime and urging young people to be vigilant about protecting their personal data. 2016 also saw increases in victims aged over 40, with 1,869 more victims recorded by Cifas members.

Steady As She Goes

The remit of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) is to set monetary policy to meet the 2% inflation target, and in a way that helps to sustain growth and employment. At its meeting ending on 15 March 2017, the Committee voted by a majority of 8-1 to maintain Bank Rate at 0.25%.

The Committee expects a slowdown in aggregate demand over the course of this year, as household demand growth declines in reaction to lower real income growth. Official estimates of retail sales have weakened notably, consistent with this expectation, although other indicators of consumer demand such as consumer confidence have been steadier.

CPI inflation increased to 1.8% in January, and the MPC expects it to rise above the 2% target over the next few months, before peaking at around 2.75% in early 2018 and drifting gradually back down towards the target thereafter. The projected overshoot entirely reflects the expected effects of the drop in sterling. Pay growth has remained subdued, while measures of inflation expectations remain at levels broadly consistent with the achievement of the inflation target. Eight members thought that the current stance of monetary policy remained appropriate to balance the demands of the Committee’s remit. Kristin Forbes considered it appropriate to increase Bank Rate by 25 basis points.

Super Hero Wanted, Good Rate Of Pay

Job interviewSome of the strangest job titles have been revealed by Glassdoor, including Customer Happiness Hero and Genius. The recruitment firm said a study of thousands of vacancies on its site showed some interesting jobs as well as more traditional roles.

Among the weirdest were: A Tug Master – the person responsible for safe operations of a tug vessel, an Econometrician – a type of economist who integrates statistics and maths, a Customer Happiness Hero, a customer service job with a fancy name. If these weren’t attractive to the job hunter there was always room for a Genius – a troubleshooter at Apple stores and a Scrum Master – the facilitator for a development team.

A Glassdoor spokesman said: “We all have a pretty good idea what a finance manager, HR manager, electrical engineer and graphic designer does, but some jobs are a bit more niche, with weird and wonderful job titles that would have most people scratching their head to work out what the job actually is.”

Compliance Update

Cyber Crime – It’s a Real Risk to Your Business

Cyber CrimeOur Partner firms vary in size and complexity. Small firms working from a single lap top through to large and complex businesses with a network of computers and various systems. Different business models, different systems, but with a single, common threat from cyber-criminals.

This week one Partner firm has suffered a security breach and right now a customer is hoping the police will be able to recover their £10,000 deposit. I urge all business owners to read this article to see what happened and how you can take steps to reduce the chance of it happening to you.

“Hi Liz, it’s Mr Smith here. I transferred the £10,000 deposit last Friday to the account that you provided on your email, but I’ve just received your next email to transfer another £2,500 and wanted to just double check this with you?”

“I’m sorry Mr Smith – I’m not sure what you mean, we would never ask you to make a payment to us for that amount. I haven’t sent you any emails in over a week?”

[silence]

“Mr Smith – are you still there?”

“Oh no, I’ve made a terrible mistake….”

The names are different and there were a few more expletives at the end, but this is pretty much how the conversation went. Fast forward 20 minutes and it became obvious that a hacker had managed to access the mail server in this business and take over the adviser’s email account, or create a look-a-like email to masquerade as the adviser – at this stage we are not sure which, or how. But it happened. And Mr Smith is now £10,000 worse off and hoping the police can help trace the money or hope that the banking system is kind to him.

You will have heard stories like this and you may well have received scam emails yourself. You probably laughed them off, thinking that they were a poor attempt to take money from you. 15 years ago, it would have been an email from a friend stuck in Paris having had their passport and money stolen; “Can you send me some money to the following account?”. 10 years ago, it was a Nigerian minister looking to move money out of the country – “send me your bank details”. 5 years ago, a long-lost cousin in America had passed away and named you in their will. All poor attempts and, obviously, a scam. You wouldn’t fall for that, right?

Now, though, the hackers can produce an email that uses your firm’s branding, comes from an email address that looks very similar to yours and shows an understanding of the transaction that is taking place. This suggests emails are being tracked and watched. Someone has probably hacked into your system.

You really need to take this threat seriously and educate yourself and your staff on safe practice within your business. Share this article with your staff and make sure they understand that this could happen in your business.

What Should You Do To Protect Yourself?

The first thing is to make a coffee and spend 15 minutes reading the rest of this article. Understand how the internet works and what steps you and your team can take to mitigate the risk. Then you should train your staff; get everyone together for 15 minutes to make sure they understand the risk and take precautions when they are on-line. Finally, communicate with your customers. Tell them that you never send bank details or requests for payments over email.

We all spend a large amount of time browsing the Internet. It is therefore a good idea to follow some simple guidelines:

SSL Sites. When visiting sites, make sure the site is protected by an SSL certificate. SSL certificates provide an encrypted, secure tunnel of communication between your browser and the site you are visiting. It also serves to authenticate the owner of the site. Depending on your browser, sites using SSL are identified by the letters “HTTPS” at the beginning of their URL as well as a “lock” symbol near the URL. If you can avoid sites not using SSL, do so.

SSL 'Lock' Symbol

Passwords. You have heard this many times before. Do not use the same password across different sites! Criminals know this and take advantage of it. You would be surprised how easy it is for cyber criminals to obtain your password. The best passwords are very long and consist of upper and lowercase letters, numbers and symbols. Consider using a safe password vault for storing passwords so that you do not have to worry about remembering lots of complex passwords.

Be careful what you download. Do not download and install applications from sites that are not 100% trustworthy. Installing applications on your computer is the number one way to get infected with malware. If you are not 100% sure, stop and do not install. It is better to err on the side of caution here. Some malware can be downright nasty.

Multi Factor Authentication. Multi factor authentication is a method used to identify you and grant you access to websites, such as a banking site. Although not 100% secure, multi factor authentication is more secure than single factor. One popular form of MFA involves your mobile device. The site requires you to type in a password as one form, and then requires you to type in a code that is delivered to your mobile device as a second form of authentication. Now the criminal would need more than just your password to access your account. Much more secure although certainly a bit inconvenient.

When using email, you should be aware of the following:

Email. Electronic mail. Imagine our world without it. Our productivity levels would plummet. Every day, billions of emails are sent around the world. It is an extremely efficient and inexpensive method of communicating. Unfortunately, this huge volume of emails is a perfect opportunity for cyber criminals to strike. Three popular methods of security compromise are attachments, fake links and phishing scams.

Attachments. Malware is often spread by means of attachments to emails. The safest thing is to never open an attachment. If you must, I would only do it from a known source (known sources are not always evident; viruses spread by sending emails from the infected person’s computer to recipients in their contact list). Having good anti-malware software and high security settings in your mail client also is helpful.

Fake links. Another common trick is to include links in the email body that seem to point to a known, trusted location but actually take you to a different, malicious site. Do not ever click on these links.

There are a couple things you can do here:

  • Most mail clients will allow you to hover over the link to see the true destination. If the URL is to a different site, don’t click on it. Another common giveaway is the URL will point to a foreign country. Don’t click on it if you want to play it safe.
  • The other thing to do is to view the email source. This process can seem a bit cryptic since you will be looking at HTML tags in the case of an HTML formatted email but it allows you to “look under the hood” of the email to see the truth.

Phishing Emails. Phishing emails are typically fake emails that appear to come from legitimate sources (e.g., your bank, a service provider). These emails usually try to direct you to a spoofed website where it attempts to obtain private information such as passwords, credit card info.

Some common giveaways to phishing emails are:

  • Poor grammar and misspellings. If you see this, delete it.
  • Fake links. These emails tend to contain fake links as described above. Follow the same suggestions.
  • The domain of the email may look legitimate but it is not. For example, you could get an email from, say, what seems to be Metro Bank using the email address MetroBank@securityonline.com. A little bit of research will show you that the domain name is fraudulent.

There are other steps you can take to keep the bad guys out:

Firewalls. Firewalls come in two flavours, software based firewalls and hardware based firewalls. Firewalls are an essential part of your arsenal against cyber criminals. Think of a firewall as the “Gate Keeper” to your computer infrastructure. It is designed as the first point of contact between the Internet and your computer systems. It decides what type of traffic to allow into your network and what kind of traffic to block from entering.

It is critical that firewalls be properly configured. Doing so is a bit of an art. Hire the right IT company to do the work. Well worth the money.

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). Do you have a remote office or employees that work from home? If so, you may want to invest in VPNs. A VPN establishes a secure connection from one location to another over an unsecure line, such as the Internet. Think of it as having a secure, encrypted “communication” channel between your office and a remote location. Others can see the data being sent back and forth but they can’t understand it. The data is encrypted and private. Like firewalls, VPNs are also available in hardware and software form. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Talk to an IT professional for guidance.

Anti-Virus/Anti-Malware Software. AV/AM software works by constantly scanning computer files and memory for patterns or “signatures” of known viruses/malware. The files identified as viruses are then quarantined and eventually deleted. There are many different types of AV software. Every IT person I know has their own favourite. Some are free and others are not. AV/AM software is another tool you can use to protect yourself but be aware that it is not 100% protection. You see, AV/AM software vendors are always playing “catch-up” to new threats. Microsoft Windows 8 included Microsoft’s own malware protection software called Defender. It continues to be included in Windows 10. It is free and, if you have nothing else, then you should use it. Keep it current and run a scan on a regular basis.

Ransomware. This one is nasty. Ransomware is a form of malware that disables use of your computer or access to files. One type of ransomware locks you out of your PC. You can’t log in until you pay the ransom. The other common form of ransomware encrypts files on your system. I have seen the later first hand and it can be completely disabling. The malware finds files on your system and encrypts it so that you no longer are able to access them. These files can be Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, accounting data, or databases. The cyber criminals claim to hold the key to decrypt your data if you pay them.

How do you get infected? The same as any other malware. It could be an attachment to an email that you open, or an application you installed on your computer from a malicious website. Once infected, the process begins the encryption process and leaves you helpless.

What do you do if you are the victim of ransomware? Well, you have two options. One, you pay the ransom. Problem here is that you have no guarantee that you will get the decryption key once you pay. Your second option is to not pay the ransom and instead restore your data from a non-infected backup. Which is a great link to the final bit of advice…

And Always:

Backup, backup, backup! One of the most important steps you can take to protect yourself from cyber-crime is to implement and maintain a strong backup procedure including good retention policies. Good backups will save you if you fall victim to ransomware. A good backup procedure must include onsite and offsite (aka “cloud”) backups.

  • Onsite backup. This form of backup often involves backing up to magnetic media such as tape. Other forms involve backing up to hard disks in a network attached storage devices.
  • Offsite/Cloud backup. Additionally, to your onsite backup, you should implement a method of backing up to an offsite location. There are several vendors that provide cloud backup.

Please, keep your business secure and your customers safe.

Weekly Round-up, 10th March 2017

Supply and Demand

According to the Halifax, house prices in the three months to February were 1.7% higher than in the previous quarter; down from 2.3% in January. The annual rate of growth fell to 5.1% from January’s 5.7%, the lowest since July 2013.

The Bank’s housing economist Martin Ellis suggests that housing demand is being supported by an economy that continues to perform well with employment still expanding. The combination of a low supply of both new homes and existing properties available for sale is also pushing up prices.

Figures from the Halifax indicate that the annual rate of house price growth has, however, nearly halved over the past 11 months. The Bank highlights a sustained period of house price growth in excess of pay rises has made it increasingly difficult for many to purchase a home and that this development, together with signs of reduced momentum in the jobs market and squeezed consumer spending power, is expected to curb house price growth during 2017.

Holiday blues

Making some form of a New Year’s Resolution can be a good way to break habits or try out something new for the year ahead. It’s perhaps little wonder The Nationwide Savings survey, which polled 2,000 British adults, shows that four in ten (42%) people pledged to save more money in 2017 – the third most popular resolution after doing more exercise (48%) and going on a diet (43%). However, around a third (32%) admitted to having broken their resolution by mid-January, so it is perhaps unsurprising that saving remains a challenge for many.

Around a third of people (30%) state a holiday is their biggest spend of the year aside from Christmas, while a fifth (22%) didn’t go on holiday last year because of a lack of savings. However, more than one in ten (12%) would like to be able to pay for their holiday in 2017 upfront with savings, rather than using forms of credit like they usually do. A quarter (23%) of respondents claimed their main savings priority was to build a pot of money as a buffer for emergencies and those unexpected bills which may crop up throughout the year. Another 18 per cent wish they could make home improvements, as a lack of savings prevented them from doing so last year.

The top five things people were prevented from doing last year due to a lack of savings were holiday – 22%, home improvements – 18%, buying a new car – 12%, buying a new TV – 8% and travelling to see friends and family – 9%.

Gran & Grandad

New research from Santander Mortgages highlights the increasing dependence on the “Bank of Gran and Grandad”, as almost one in 10 (eight per cent) first time buyers (FTBs) now rely on them for their deposit, a four-fold increase compared to those who bought their home five years ago (two per cent). Over the past five years there has been a large shift towards turning to family for help in order to get a foot on the property ladder. Of those currently looking to buy, 32 per cent will use a family loan to help with the deposit, a sharp increase from the 13 per cent of current homeowners who asked for financial help from their families.

The bank’s study, which took a snapshot of FTB attitudes towards the property market, revealed that FTBs estimate their deposit will be, on average, 32 per cent of their salary. However, a significant one in five (19 per cent) expects to pay more than half of their annual income on their deposit. In comparison, current homeowners estimated that when they bought their first home, their deposit was an average of 20 per cent of their yearly income, with only 5 per cent of them spending more than half of their salary on a deposit.

The research also reveals a sizeable imbalance when it comes to home deposits and gender. Almost a quarter (23 per cent) of women expect to spend more than half of their annual salary on their deposit. This compares to just 14 per cent of men who expect to spend the same proportion of their salary.

Despite the extra help from family members, FTBs saving for a deposit expect to do so for an average of five years. A whole year longer than those who bought their first property five years ago, who saved for an average of four years. This difference is likely due to the much higher proportion of those who say the cost of everyday living expenses eats into the amount of money that could otherwise be saved (40 per cent of current first time buyers’ versus 18 per cent of those who bought five years ago).

Despite these steep increases, FTBs appear optimistic about the property market with 10 million UK adults planning to buy their first home in the next five years. Indeed, 45 per cent of those looking to buy are more positive now than they were a year ago, compared to just 20 per cent whose confidence had declined. The research also shows the health of the UK economy has had little effect on those planning to buy, with 44 per cent saying that while they are concerned, they will go ahead with their purchase regardless, and 39 per cent claiming that economic factors will not affect their decision to buy at all.

Be Aware

Backup planWith three national cancer awareness campaigns taking place in March – Prostate Cancer, Ovarian Cancer and Brain Tumour – Scottish Widows is highlighting the fact that millions of Britons are under-protected should serious illness strike.

A fifth of the population (21%) admit that their household would not be financially secure for any length of time if it lost its main income through unforeseen circumstances, according to research from Scottish Widows. And more than a third (36%) would resort to raiding their savings if they were unable to work. Despite this, however, only a third (32%) of people have life insurance, and just one in ten (9%) have taken out critical illness cover. Statistics highlighted by Scottish Widows about serious illness are also striking. Prostate cancer is the most common cause of cancer in men in the UK and one in eight men will be diagnosed with this illness during their lifetime, while around 20 women are diagnosed with Ovarian cancer every day. In addition, ten people a day die of a brain tumour, and this is the chief cause of cancer deaths in children and young people.

The average age of diagnosis for prostate cancer in 2015 was 57, while the average age for ovarian cancer was 47. More than half (55 per cent) of brain tumour claimants were male, the youngest being 30 years of age. The cancer awareness campaigns coincide with the publication of a new report – No Small Change – by Macmillan Cancer Support, which reveals that thousands of middle-aged people in the UK are being forced to borrow money from their parents because of the cost of having cancer. Macmillan estimates that more than 30,000 people with cancer in their 40s have borrowed money from their elderly parents, and more than 2,000 have moved in with their parents or parents-in-law after having to sell their house.

The charity says that 28% of people with cancer of all age groups – an estimated 700,000 individuals – are vulnerable too because they have no savings to fall back on. And for 83 per cent of cancer patients, lost income and increased expenditure brought about by the disease costs them an average of £570 a month.

Happybot

Watching nature programmes and animal documentaries can reduce our stress levels and make us happier, new research shows. Even watching small clips of shows such as Planet Earth II boosts emotions of awe, contentedness, joy and amusement and reduces anxiety, fear and tiredness, the BBC Earth study found.

Creators behind The Happiness Project now plan to use the findings to produce more content bringing viewers closer to the natural world and their own well-being. BBC Worldwide’s realhappinessproject.com website, launched on Wednesday, will include interactive elements such as a “happybot” which creates a personalised montage of natural history clips to suit each user.

Findings from the research, in collaboration with University of California, Berkeley, come weeks after Planet Earth II broke viewing figure records with its release in the US. During the study, 7,500 global participants were asked to fill in surveys about their mood before watching clips of Planet Earth II, dramas and news stories, and their reactions were monitored with facial mapping technology and psychometric tests.

Results showed that women experienced more dramatic emotional changes than men when watching the nature show clips, while people aged between 16 and 24 showed the biggest reduction in feelings of nervousness, overburden and fatigue. Reviewing 150 further studies as part of the project, Berkeley’s Professor Dacher Keltner found that our connection to nature enhanced our attention, cognitive performance and sense of calm, made us more social and effective team-workers and could even improve our physical health.

Weekly Round-up, 3rd March 2017

Discount Rate

Medical care iconsThe Lord Chancellor has announced a change in the discount rate, which is a figure used to help set compensation pay-outs when people suffer serious injuries, for example following a car crash or medical negligence. It has been reduced from 2.5% to -0.75%, effective from 20 March 2017.

Some claimants choose to receive their compensation in a series of payments over time but most will opt for a lump sum. Part of the process for deciding the appropriate amount is considering how that lump sum payment when invested will grow over time, meaning a claimant is able to earn a return on that money for the rest of their lives. The Discount Rate is applied to ensure that the lump sum takes account of the expected return. It is a calculation used by justice systems all over the world, and the UK is not unusual in having a process of this type.

The Association of British Insurers have challenged the change and would like the discount rate to be as accurate a reflection as possible of what happens when people receive a lump sum payment. The trade body believes the Ministry of Justice has announced a new figure based on an outdated method which does not reflect current investment practices and the investment environment. They are concerned that the change will risk distorting the compensation process and lead to an increase in insurance premiums.

Small Rise

The Nationwide Building Society has announced that the annual rate of house price growth was little changed in February at 4.5%, only slightly higher than the 4.3% recorded in January. House prices increased by 0.6% over the month, after taking account of seasonal factors. The average house price now sits at £205,846.

The Building Society highlighted recent data suggests that the UK economy has continued to perform relatively strongly with a slight acceleration in Q4 of a healthy 0.7% quarter-on-quarter, and a stable unemployment rate at an 11-year low of 4.8%. Despite this they focussed on the facts that the outlook remains uncertain, and, along with most other forecasters, they expect the UK economy to slow through 2017 as heightened uncertainty weighs on business investment and hiring. Consumer spending, a key engine of growth in recent quarters, is also likely to be impacted by rising inflation in the months ahead as a result of the weaker pound.

Nevertheless, in Nationwide’s view a small rise in house prices of around 2% is more likely than a decline over the course of 2017, since low borrowing costs and the dearth of homes on the market will continue to support prices.

City Life

According to the Lloyds Bank’s Affordable Cities Review, over the past five years the average UK city house price has risen by 32% from £169,966 in 2012 to its highest ever level of £224,926 in 2017. In comparison, average city annual earnings over the same period have risen by only seven percent to £32,796. As a result, average affordability in the nation’s cities has worsened with house prices rising as a multiple of average annual earnings from 5.5 in 2012 to 6.9 in 2017.

Edinburgh cityAffordability in UK cities is, on average, now at its worst level since 2008 when the ratio of average house price to earnings stood at 7.2. The average house price in the famous university city of Oxford is £385,372, which is nearly 11 times (10.7) annual gross average earnings in the city (£36,033), making it the UK’s least affordable city. There are five cities with average house prices at least ten times average annual earnings. In addition to Oxford, these are Greater London (10.5), Winchester (10.5), Cambridge (10.3) and Chichester (10.0). The London average figure disguises considerable variations across the capital with central boroughs significantly less affordable than the Greater London average. There is also a notable North – South divide. Lichfield (8.3), York (7.6) and Leicester (7.6) are the only cities outside southern England which appear in the top 20 least affordable UK cities.

The former Scottish capital of Stirling is the UK’s most affordable city. At £173,847, the average property price in Stirling is 3.7 times average gross annual earnings. Londonderry (3.8) in Northern Ireland is the UK’s second most affordable city. Two other Northern Ireland cities, Belfast (4.6) and Lisburn (4.8), are placed 4th and 6th respectively within the 10 most affordable cities. Northern English, Scottish and Welsh cities make up the remainder of the 10 most affordable cities – Bradford (4.4), Hereford (4.7), Sunderland (4.9) and, Durham (5.0) in England, with Glasgow (5.2) in Scotland and Swansea in Wales (5.2).

Don’t Shed a Tier

The Government has concluded its consultation on its reforms on the fee payable for an application for a grant of probate. The consultation proposed moving away from the current flat fee for applications for a grant of probate to a banded structure where the fees increase in line with the value of the estate, up to a maximum of £20,000. The threshold below which no fee is payable from is suggested to move from £5,000 to £50,000, and the Government wanted to remove probate fees from the statutory help with fees remissions scheme.

Following the consultation, the government has decided to proceed with all the proposals as set out in the consultation and, at the same time, by increasing the value of the estate below which no fee is payable from £5,000 to £50,000, they anticipate lifting some 30,000 estates out of paying any fee. The government is also considering whether grant of probate applications should be excluded from the fee remissions scheme and are seeking views on this issue.

These proposals are anticipated to raise around an additional £250 million a year, which is targeted to reduce the burden on the taxpayer of running the courts and tribunals.

The Internet English

Britons in search of fitspiration should concentrate more on HIIT and less on clicktivism at the end of their craptacular working days. These are just a few of the 300 words recently added to OxfordDictionaries.com, which monitors current trends in the use of modern English.

Book with loupeFitness and well-being featured prominently as themes amongst the words added, with fitspiration (a person or thing that serves as motivation for someone to sustain or improve health and fitness), superfruit (a nutrient-rich fruit considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being) and aquafaba (chickpea water used in vegan cooking) all being added to the list of accepted words in common usage.

Other terms that have made the grade include clicktivism; a term to describe actions performed on the internet in support of a political or social cause, regarded as requiring little time or involvement, such as signing an online petition, and drunk text denoting a text message sent whilst inebriated, often one that is embarrassing or foolish.

Some food-related additions to the online dictionary included the north-African spice mixture ras-el-hanout, the South East Asian rice noodle dish pad kee mao, and the spicy Korean paste gochujang. Other additions included bracket-buster, to describe sports games where a low-ranking team unexpectedly defeats a high-ranking team, such as that of Lincoln City’s remarkable upset in their FA Cup fixture against Premier League side Burnley on February 18.