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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Sponsored: Lexington Insurance

Pathogens, Allergens and Globalization – Oh My!

Allergens and global supply chain increases risk to food manufacturers. But new analytical approaches help quantify potential contamination exposure.
By: | June 1, 2015 • 6 min read
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In 2014, a particular brand of cumin was used by dozens of food manufacturers to produce everything from spice mixes, hummus and bread crumbs to seasoned beef, poultry and pork products.

Yet, unbeknownst to these manufacturers, a potentially deadly contaminant was lurking…

Peanuts.

What followed was the largest allergy-related recall since the U.S. Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act became law in 2006. Retailers pulled 600,000 pounds of meat off the market, as well as hundreds of other products. As of May 2015, reports of peanut contaminated cumin were still being posted by FDA.

Food manufacturing executives have long known that a product contamination event is a looming risk to their business. While pathogens remain a threat, the dramatic increase in food allergen recalls coupled with distant, global supply chains creates an even more unpredictable and perilous exposure.

Recently peanut, an allergen in cumin, has joined the increasing list of unlikely contaminants, taking its place among a growing list that includes melamine, mineral oil, Sudan red and others.

Lex_BrandedContent“I have seen bacterial contaminations that are more damaging to a company’s finances than if a fire burnt down the entire plant.”

— Nicky Alexandru, global head of Crisis Management at AIG

“An event such as the cumin contamination has a domino effect in the supply chain,” said Nicky Alexandru, global head of Crisis Management at AIG, which was the first company to provide contaminated product coverage almost 30 years ago. “With an ingredient like the cumin being used in hundreds of products, the third party damages add up quickly and may bankrupt the supplier. This leaves manufacturers with no ability to recoup their losses.”

“The result is that a single contaminated ingredient may cause damage on a global scale,” added Robert Nevin, vice president at Lexington Insurance Company, an AIG company.

Quality and food safety professionals are able to drive product safety in their own manufacturing operations utilizing processes like kill steps and foreign material detection. But such measures are ineffective against an unexpected contaminant. “Food and beverage manufacturers are constantly challenged to anticipate and foresee unlikely sources of potential contamination leading to product recall,” said Alexandru. “They understandably have more control over their own manufacturing environment but can’t always predict a distant supply chain failure.”

And while companies of various sizes are impacted by a contamination, small to medium size manufacturers are at particular risk. With less of a capital cushion, many of these companies could be forced out of business.

Historically, manufacturing executives were hindered in their risk mitigation efforts by a perceived inability to quantify the exposure. After all, one can’t manage what one can’t measure. But AIG has developed a new approach to calculate the monetary exposure for the individual analysis of the three major elements of a product contamination event: product recall and replacement, restoring a safe manufacturing environment and loss of market. With this more precise cost calculation in hand, risk managers and brokers can pursue more successful risk mitigation and management strategies.


Product Recall and Replacement

Lex_BrandedContentWhether the contamination is a microorganism or an allergen, the immediate steps are always the same. The affected products are identified, recalled and destroyed. New product has to be manufactured and shipped to fill the void created by the recall.

The recall and replacement element can be estimated using company data or models, such as NOVI. Most companies can estimate the maximum amount of product available in the stream of commerce at any point in time. NOVI, a free online tool provided by AIG, estimates the recall exposures associated with a contamination event.


Restore a Safe Manufacturing Environment

Once the recall is underway, concurrent resources are focused on removing the contamination from the manufacturing process, and restarting production.

“Unfortunately, this phase often results in shell-shocked managers,” said Nevin. “Most contingency planning focuses on the costs associated with the recall but fail to adequately plan for cleanup and downtime.”

“The losses associated with this phase can be similar to a fire or other property loss that causes the operation to shut down. The consequential financial loss is the same whether the plant is shut down due to a fire or a pathogen contamination.” added Alexandru. “And then you have to factor in the clean-up costs.”

Lex_BrandedContentLocating the source of pathogen contamination can make disinfecting a plant after a contamination event more difficult. A single microorganism living in a pipe or in a crevice can create an ongoing contamination.

“I have seen microbial contaminations that are more damaging to a company’s finances than if a fire burnt down the entire plant,” observed Alexandru.

Handling an allergen contamination can be more straightforward because it may be restricted to a single batch. That is, unless there is ingredient used across multiple batches and products that contains an unknown allergen, like peanut residual in cumin.

Supply chain investigation and testing associated with identifying a cross-contaminated ingredient is complicated, costly and time consuming. Again, the supplier can be rendered bankrupt leaving them unable to provide financial reimbursement to client manufacturers.

Lex_BrandedContent“Until companies recognize the true magnitude of the financial risk and account for each of three components of a contamination, they can’t effectively protect their balance sheet. Businesses can end up buying too little or no coverage at all, and before they know it, their business is gone.”

— Robert Nevin, vice president at Lexington Insurance, an AIG company


Loss of Market

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While the manufacturer is focused on recall and cleanup, the world of commerce continues without them. Customers shift to new suppliers or brands, often resulting in permanent damage to the manufacturer’s market share.

For manufacturers providing private label products to large retailers or grocers, the loss of a single client can be catastrophic.

“Often the customer will deem continuing the relationship as too risky and will switch to another supplier, or redistribute the business to existing suppliers” said Alexandru. “The manufacturer simply cannot find a replacement client; after all, there are a limited number of national retailers.”

On the consumer front, buyers may decide to switch brands based on the negative publicity or simply shift allegiance to another product. Given the competitiveness of the food business, it’s very difficult and costly to get consumers to come back.

“It’s a sad fact that by the time a manufacturer completes a recall, cleans up the plant and gets the product back on the shelf, some people may be hesitant to buy it.” said Nevin.

A complicating factor not always planned for by small and mid-sized companies, is publicity.

The recent incident surrounding a serious ice cream contamination forced both regulatory agencies and the manufacturer to be aggressive in remedial actions. The details of this incident and other contamination events were swiftly and highly publicized. This can be as damaging as the contamination itself and may exacerbate any or all of the three elements discussed above.


Estimating the Financial Risk May Save Your Company

“In our experience, most companies retain product contamination losses within their own balance sheet.” Nevin said. “But in reality, they rarely do a thorough evaluation of the financial risk and sometimes the company simply cannot absorb the financial consequences of a contamination. Potential for loss is much greater when factoring in all three components of a contamination event.”

This brief video provides a concise overview of the three elements of the product contamination event and the NOVI tool and benefits:

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“Until companies recognize the true magnitude of the financial risk and account for each of three components of a contamination, they can’t effectively protect their balance sheet,” he said. “Businesses can end up buying too little or no coverage at all, and before they know it, their business is gone.”

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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 Lexington Insurance. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.




Lexington Insurance Company, an AIG Company, is the leading U.S.-based surplus lines insurer.
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