The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, an independent overseer of U.S. securities firms, said earlier this year that it had received an increasing number of reports of customer funds stolen "as a result of instructions emailed to firms from customer email accounts that have been compromised."
FINRA said the incidents highlight "some of the risks associated with accepting instructions to transmit or withdraw funds via email."
Both the securities group and the FBI called on companies and financial professionals to do a better job of authenticating transactions.
Williams' accountant, you could argue, should have known better. But he was receiving emails from his client's email address that appeared to be genuine, including information and turns of phrase unique to Williams.
"The reality is that we've all become comfortable with technology, and technology makes it easier for scammers to carry out their crimes," said Gerri Walsh, FINRA's vice president of investor education.
The take-away for me from Williams' tale of woe is that consumers should get in touch with their financial institutions and agents and insist that all requests for transactions be confirmed by phone — at a number on record with the banks. Never allow money to be moved on the strength of an email alone.
Google, like most Internet companies, also recommends paying close attention to your password — make it strong, change it often — and enable so-called two-step verification that requires a code also to be entered for anyone to access your email account.
Also be very careful with mobile devices. Many people leave themselves logged in to email accounts on their smartphones or tablets. That can be a recipe for trouble if you lose or misplace your gadget.
In Williams' case, he's now $8,629 wiser as a result of his experience. But that's a pretty darn expensive lesson.
Pay phone charges
Anyone who has had to use an airport pay phone knows you can be smacked with sky-high charges.
In response to a column I wrote about calls that can run $20 for just 20 seconds of chit-chat, state Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) said he'll introduce a bill Friday that would require signs on all California pay phones warning users of potential costs.
"Pay phone companies are ripping off consumers by taking advantage of misleading signage on their phones," Lieu told me. "Taking advantage of people who are stranded because of plane delays and bad weather, or troops in areas with no cellphone service, is not right."
Lawmakers shouldn't hesitate to approve his common-sense solution to a ridiculous problem.