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Consumers Ask: Have Even More Important Financial Notices Been Pushed Online?

Consumers who followed our coverage of new U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) rules that allow employer-sponsored retirement plans to automatically switch from paper to digital notices without asking are now wondering if similar abuse of communications preferences is happening with individual investment accounts.

The short answer is yes. And the remedy is the same: You'll have to proactively reclaim your right to paper.

Here's what's happening. Important notices about investments had been mailed to stakeholders by default for generations, the purpose being to keep consumers informed with readily accessible documentation for their records. But in recent years, as more people voluntarily opted in to digital communications, both government and industry decided that all consumers should receive important correspondence about their investments electronically -- whether they made that choice for themselves or not.

Now, we're seeing a new rule from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the regulator that oversees activities related to individual investors. Under SEC Rule 30e-3 - Optional Internet Availability of Investment Company Shareholder Reports Rules -- the investment-related paper documents that consumers are accustomed to receiving will soon stop arriving in the mail.

The silver lining is that consumers still retain the right to receive paper documents, but they must request it.

Many Individual investors, holders of mutual funds, annuities and IRAs will likely miss the fine print in quarterly, semi-annual, annual and periodic notices about plan holdings and performance that is intended to warn them that these documents will no longer be mailed in the future. Consumers may also receive standalone communications, for instance a postcard with minuscule print, alerting that important documents will no longer be mailed by default.

Consumers who haven't seen any warnings about the shift from paper to internet availability should take a closer look at their most recent individual account documentation. The wording will vary across companies, but all must clearly provide steps and contact information - address, phone number and/or website -- to preserve or reclaim paper notices. Some consumers may have already stopped receiving mailings while mail delivery for others might not end until later this year.

For the time being, the categories of important notices that will default to electronic delivery are limited to fund or plan information like assets held, overall performance and fiduciary disclosures about the investment vehicle, not individual account details. While the SEC did not go as far as the DOL in allowing personal financial statements to default to digital delivery, large financial services firms have been pushing for this. It should be no surprise if they eventually get their way, but in the meantime consumers have the burden -- and the right -- to reclaim their paper notices.


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