Hackers have dismantled hospitals, held a North Carolina county’s computer system hostage, and stolen the personal information of basically half of all Americans. And that was just in 2017.

Who’s to say they won’t go after investment accounts next? Lucky for you, the industry is already on it.

Sheltered Harbor, which launched quietly as an idea in 2014, is a not-for-profit, industry-led initiative to enhance the protection of the retail financial services industry. It’s so under the radar there’s not even a Wikipedia page about it. But rest assured, some of the nation’s biggest financial institutions, clearing houses, core processors and industry associations have been working diligently to create standards and test its process with early adopters to prepare for the worst-case scenario—a cybersecurity attack on U.S. bank and brokerage accounts.

The voluntary Sheltered Harbor Specification (detailed here) went live last year. In a nutshell, it pairs up banks and brokerage firms to support each other as “restoring institutions” in the event of a disabling attack. Participating organizations do this by standardizing their data formats and uploading their customer data daily to a secure data vault.

The data will stay intact and accessible if needed—exactly as when it was archived,” explains the organization. “Think of this as a fall-out shelter for customer data, with each institution providing its own data vault.”

It’s not so much a safeguard for the bank or brokerage firm, but for the customer, who can gain basic access to their accounts and funds through the restoring institution. (In other words, no need to panic.)

According to a December 2017 Bloomberg article, banks, credit unions and brokerages representing 400 million accounts—or 70 percent of the U.S. retail accounts and 60 percent of brokerage accounts—have signed up to participate.

According to another Bloomberg article from this month, Sheltered Harbor is expected to expand to cover retirement accounts, like 401ks, soon, although the organization is mum for now on any details.  

The expansion makes sense to many, considering that a recent Investment Company Institute report pegged total U.S. retirement assets at $27.2 trillion, with $7.7 trillion in all employer-based defined contribution retirement plans and $5.3 trillion in 401ks.

Some cybersecurity experts say participation in Sheltered Harbor, which is fee-based, doesn’t look all that different from having a solid backup and recovery plan in place. There are, however, some skeptics who say that Sheltered Harbor may just be a marketing tool in disguise. No matter which you believe, there is no doubt that some sort of security measure for your nest egg is vital.

A call to your financial institution should let you know if they participate—or plan to. If the answer is no, it’s still a good idea to understand their consumer account protection offerings.

Your FMB Wealth Management advisor can also help you understand what these safeguards mean for your accounts.


The FMB Advisors Blog

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