Column: Technology

Target Breach a Threat to All

By: | February 18, 2014 • 3 min read
Ara Trembly is founder of The Tech Consultant and The Rogue Guru Blog. He can be reached at [email protected]

Computer security breaches that enable the theft of confidential financial information are no laughing matter.  Just ask the 110 million or so people who have been affected by the infamous hack into Target’s customer-facing systems. So why should we in the insurance industry be sitting up and taking notice?

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Internet sources report that this particular break-in used a form of memory-scraping malware technology that captures information as it is being input at the point of sale, but before it can be encrypted in the retailer’s systems.

We in the seemingly safe insurance sector may feel bad for our friends in retail, but before we get to feeling too comfy, it would be wise to consider that retail isn’t the only industry using point-of-sale (POS) devices. In fact, such input devices are used in lots of industries — retail, hospitality and health care among them.

It is that final class of users that should give us pause in the insurance sector. In case you weren’t paying attention, the Affordable Care Act requires electronic record-keeping. This naturally involves uncountable points of sale in doctors’ offices, clinics, and hospitals, not to mention places like Wal-Mart that are beginning to offer insured health care services.

Many of the individuals affected by the Target, et al., breach are promising never to do business with the involved retailers again. But what if the breached party was a major broker or insurer?

In the Target heist, an executive reported that someone had actually installed the malware on its POS systems. How that was done is a mystery at this writing, but one has to assume that these systems were connected to the Internet — which would allow the thieves to then retrieve the stolen data remotely. So, it seems likely that the malware was also remotely introduced into Target’s systems, as well as those of Nieman Marcus and other affected retailers.

These kinds of attacks are not exactly on the cutting edge of technology, however. According to InformationWeek, “Memory-scraping attacks date from at least 2011, when security researchers first spotted an advanced version of the Trackr (a.k.a. Alina) malware, which can be controlled via a botnet.” So, it won’t just be the most advanced thieves who pull off these kinds of crimes. The less-sophisticated, whether here or abroad, will likely be able to do the same.

Personal financial information is an extremely valuable commodity on the black market, and if you’re a criminal, it seems surprisingly easy to steal. Hackers can sell the credit card numbers for $35 to $100 each, while gold or platinum credit cards go for $60 each, business credit cards for $80 and some platinum cards for $100, said Cisco security researcher Levi Gundert in a blog posting. Interestingly, the information stolen in the Target incident includes names, addresses, credit card numbers, PINs and other data that enable thieves to assume an individual’s identity — which could lead to far bigger losses for those who are victimized.

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Here’s the bottom line. Many of the individuals affected by the Target, et al., breach are promising never to do business with the involved retailers again. But what if the breached party was a major broker or insurer? Can insurance companies and brokers — already involved in a dog-eat-dog competition for insureds — afford to have that kind of backlash aimed at them?

The answers remain to be seen, but it is clear that with cyber crime escalating and becoming easier to perpetrate, our industry cannot stand back and hope the boogeyman goes away.

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Aviation Woes

Coping with Cancellations

Could a weather-related insurance solution be designed to help airlines cope with cancellation losses?
By: | April 23, 2014 • 4 min read
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Airlines typically can offset revenue losses for cancellations due to bad weather either by saving on fuel and salary costs or rerouting passengers on other flights, but this year’s revenue losses from the worst winter storm season in years might be too much for traditional measures.

At least one broker said the time may be right for airlines to consider crafting custom insurance programs to account for such devastating seasons.

For a good part of the country, including many parts of the Southeast, snow and ice storms have wreaked havoc on flight cancellations, with a mid-February storm being the worst of all. On Feb. 13, a snowstorm from Virginia to Maine caused airlines to scrub 7,561 U.S. flights, more than the 7,400 cancelled flights due to Hurricane Sandy, according to MasFlight, industry data tracker based in Bethesda, Md.

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Roughly 100,000 flights have been canceled since Dec. 1, MasFlight said.

Just United, alone, the world’s second-largest airline, reported that it had cancelled 22,500 flights in January and February, 2014, according to Bloomberg. The airline’s completed regional flights was 87.1 percent, which was “an extraordinarily low level,” and almost 9 percentage points below its mainline operations, it reported.

And another potentially heavy snowfall was forecast for last weekend, from California to New England.

The sheer amount of cancellations this winter are likely straining airlines’ bottom lines, said Katie Connell, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a trade group for major U.S. airline companies.

“The airline industry’s fixed costs are high, therefore the majority of operating costs will still be incurred by airlines, even for canceled flights,” Connell wrote in an email. “If a flight is canceled due to weather, the only significant cost that the airline avoids is fuel; otherwise, it must still pay ownership costs for aircraft and ground equipment, maintenance costs and overhead and most crew costs. Extended storms and other sources of irregular operations are clear reminders of the industry’s operational and financial vulnerability to factors outside its control.”

Bob Mann, an independent airline analyst and consultant who is principal of R.W. Mann & Co. Inc. in Port Washington, N.Y., said that two-thirds of costs — fuel and labor — are short-term variable costs, but that fixed charges are “unfortunately incurred.” Airlines just typically absorb those costs.

“I am not aware of any airline that has considered taking out business interruption insurance for weather-related disruptions; it is simply a part of the business,” Mann said.

Chuck Cederroth, managing director at Aon Risk Solutions’ aviation practice, said carriers would probably not want to insure airlines against cancellations because airlines have control over whether a flight will be canceled, particularly if they don’t want to risk being fined up to $27,500 for each passenger by the Federal Aviation Administration when passengers are stuck on a tarmac for hours.

“How could an insurance product work when the insured is the one who controls the trigger?” Cederroth asked. “I think it would be a product that insurance companies would probably have a hard time providing.”

But Brad Meinhardt, U.S. aviation practice leader, for Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., said now may be the best time for airlines — and insurance carriers — to think about crafting a specialized insurance program to cover fluke years like this one.

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“I would be stunned if this subject hasn’t made its way up into the C-suites of major and mid-sized airlines,” Meinhardt said. “When these events happen, people tend to look over their shoulder and ask if there is a solution for such events.”

Airlines often hedge losses from unknown variables such as varying fuel costs or interest rate fluctuations using derivatives, but those tools may not be enough for severe winters such as this year’s, he said. While products like business interruption insurance may not be used for airlines, they could look at weather-related insurance products that have very specific triggers.

For example, airlines could designate a period of time for such a “tough winter policy,” say from the period of November to March, in which they can manage cancellations due to 10 days of heavy snowfall, Meinhardt said. That amount could be designated their retention in such a policy, and anything in excess of the designated snowfall days could be a defined benefit that a carrier could pay if the policy is triggered. Possibly, the trigger would be inches of snowfall. “Custom solutions are the idea,” he said.

“Airlines are not likely buying any of these types of products now, but I think there’s probably some thinking along those lines right now as many might have to take losses as write-downs on their quarterly earnings and hope this doesn’t happen again,” he said. “There probably needs to be one airline making a trailblazing action on an insurance or derivative product — something that gets people talking about how to hedge against those losses in the future.”

Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a freelance writer based in California. She has more than two decades of journalism experience and expertise in financial writing. She can be reached at [email protected]
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A Global Perspective

Political risk is on the rise in an increasingly unsteady world.
By: | August 3, 2015 • 5 min read
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As any traveler knows, the world is full of uncertainty and dangerous places, where the challenges of simply trying to run a profitable business far from home are complicated by even greater risks, such as political violence, civil unrest, credit risk, corruption, expropriation of private assets by the government, and more.

Anyone doubting this need only take a look at current events. Some 70 percent of the world’s nations currently have serious corruption problems throughout their governmental and civil service framework. Nearly 40 percent of all nations are experiencing some form of significant civil unrest. Signs of economic distress are everywhere, from falling oil prices to Eurozone debt crises to economic slowdown in China.

Despite such geopolitical risks, the world still needs its businesses to continue running amid dangers that range from warfare and terrorism to punishing economic conditions caused by international sanctions, to simple graft and hostility toward foreigners.

For global and multinational companies, keeping an eye on their political risk profile is as important as handling worker safety, environmental impact, products liability, or any other insurable risk. Thankfully, political risk exposures are insurable as well, and Starr Companies is there to provide its clients with robust political risk insurance coverage, a suite of unique support services that truly is second to none, and the ability to educate clients on how to manage their political risk.

Political risk hazards generally fall into one of the following categories:

Breach of Contract and Non-Honoring of Financial Obligations

Starr_BrandedContentThese related hazards involve the failure of a local actor to uphold their contractual or financial obligations to a foreign investor, and the inability or unwillingness of local authorities to intercede on the foreign investor’s behalf. This is perhaps the most common form of political risk hazard, as it is a major problem in any environment where there is substantial economic instability and/or corruption.

Confiscation of Property

Also known as “expropriation,” “ownership risk” and “nationalization,” this is when a government seizes property or assets without compensating the owners for them. An overt example of expropriation would be a revolutionary government seizing an office building or a factory belonging to a foreign-owned corporation. An example of creeping expropriation would be a series of successive events by a government to gradually deprive an investor of their property rights.

Regulatory Changes

This is when the local laws change in such a way as to constrict foreign investors’ economic activity in some way. It could range from creeping expropriation to changing taxation or labor laws that might simply make it far less profitable or far less efficient for a foreign entity to operate in a local jurisdiction.

Inconvertability of Currency

Also known as “transfer risk,” this is when a government takes action to prevent the conversion of local currency to another form of currency, making it difficult or impossible for foreign investors to transfer their profits elsewhere. This tends to happen in countries undergoing some kind of political crisis, like when Zaire—now the Democratic Republic of Congo—declared a new national currency in 1980.

Political Violence

Starr_BrandedContentProperty or income losses stemming from violence committed for political purposes, including, but not limited to declared and undeclared warfare, hostile actions taken by foreign or international forces, civil war, revolution, insurrection and civil strife (politically motivated terrorism or sabotage).

Kidnap and Ransom

Political violence might also manifest itself as a kidnap, ransom and extortion hazard, but that is typically covered by a separate, specialized policy.

To protect against these risks, insurers can provide comprehensive and custom-tailored political risk solutions, which at a client’s request can be broadened to cover investment contract repudiation, currency inconvertibility and political violence. Such policies typically last for periods of 5 to 10 years. Protected assets for this coverage include fixed assets (e.g., a factory, farm, warehouse or office), mobile assets (e.g., harvested natural resources, raw or manufactured inventory or mobile equipment), leased assets (e.g., aircraft, watercraft or construction vehicles) and investment interests in assets abroad (e.g., money dedicated to funding a foreign project, held in a host country bank and subject to expropriation).

Kidnap & ransom coverage protects company personnel and family by providing financial reimbursement for such an event. Depending on the insurer, some K&R programs also provide independent expert consultancy before and after a potential act of kidnapping, ransom or extortion.

Starr_BrandedContentGreat insurance coverage isn’t enough to adequately protect against political risk, however. Businesses need extra support to stay on top of their exposures, and to know what the latest geopolitical developments are.

 

Starr Companies, for example, does this through Global Risk Intelligence, a specialized team of political risk experts with long-standing backgrounds in national intelligence and international affairs. GRI delivers to Starr clients a unique risk advisory service that spans the gamut of commercial property & casualty exposures. GRI also produces two assets that are extremely helpful. The first is the Executive Intelligence Brief, a world-class monthly analysis of ongoing geopolitical developments (especially in emerging markets) available exclusively to a carefully selected readership of top executives. The second is the Global Risk Matrix, a quarterly ranking of the overall political security risk of every country on the planet.

The world’s geopolitical landscape is changing at a remarkable pace, with new risks and uncertainties arising in even the unlikeliest of places. And yet, as business becomes ever more globalized, insurers can provide their clients with tailored coverage to absorb the losses that stem from political turmoil. By finding the right insurer, with the financial strength to cover their risks as well as the analytical acumen to help turn risk into opportunity, businesses can create partners in prosperity anywhere in the world.

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This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Starr Companies. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.




Starr Companies is a global commercial insurance and financial services organization that provides innovative risk management solutions.
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