You have an aging parent who needs help with the handling of his or her financial affairs. Perhaps you saw the value of getting your parent to execute a properly drawn power of attorney instrument while the parent still had full mental capacity. Periodically, you sit down, log into your parent’s bank account, and pay your parent’s bills. Later, you may log into his or her retirement account to monitor its performance. You may move some investments around to take advantage of changing circumstances. You’re being a dutiful son or daughter. True, but bear in mind that your innocent activity may also constitute a federal crime.
It’s all too common for people to share passwords and other vital personal information with persons whom they trust. If the person gives up a password to a fiduciary, such as a trustee or an attorney-in-fact, and the information is found on the person’s personal computer or tablet, there is generally no possibility of any violation of law. On the other hand, however, most terms of service agreements tied to online banking accounts, investment accounts, and even social media accounts, require that passwords not be shared. Violation of the online agreement can be a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Acts, the laws designed to prevent hackers from controlling our accounts and emptying our electronic wallets.
Who takes the time to read the terms of service agreements? As you suspect, virtually no one reads the fine print when establishing an account. That fact was illustrated recently in a study by a University of Connecticut communications professor and others. In the test, hundreds of university students agreed to give up their first-born child and turn their personal data over to the National Security Agency in return for access to what they thought was a new social networking site.
Most people think that because you are acting in the best interests of your parents in accessing their banking, financial, or social media information, there’s nothing to worry about – no harm, no foul. That may be true, but the person or entity that may complain about the password sharing is not always the owner of the account. It may be the social media company, an employer, the bank, or someone else who is aggrieved by your activity.
Legal experts note that law-abiding family members, “watching out for Mom,” probably need not worry about criminal prosecution for sharing e-mail and other account passwords. The risk is greater for banks, trust departments, and other professional fiduciaries. Until the federal courts come out clear as to what is and what is not a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Acts, the possibility remains for civil or criminal prosecution when a professional fiduciary’s conduct is questioned and the complaining customer discovers a violation.
In these fast-changing times, maneuvering through the often-uncharted waters of online accounts and fiduciary obligations can be tricky. Instead of trying to work your way through the tangles alone, it’s usually helpful to retain the services of skilled, experienced attorneys. The attorneys at Romano & Sumner, LLC have more than 20 years of combined experience providing expert legal assistance to clients in all types of fiduciary arrangements, from simple power of attorney documents to complex trust agreements. Our services cover the landscape of estate planning and wealth preservation. We have extensive litigation experience in these areas, as well.
At Romano & Sumner, we always listen to you. We advise you as to your options and we can also advise you as to the risks and rewards in virtually any action you may choose to take. We pride ourselves upon our professionalism and client service. We keep our clients informed, returning your calls within 24 hours. We’re ready to assist you as you make the important decisions that affect your family. Call us at 281-242-0995 or complete our online contact form.
Romano & Sumner, PLLC