[Dave Birch] New York, New York. My kind of town. Sometimes you’re up, sometime’s you’re caught up in a sinister conspiracy…

Chapter 1. It’s Terminal

There was no reason to be suspicious at first. I had no idea they were on to me. I was about to get on the plane, when I decided I needed one more cup of Joe to get the day going. I walked up and ordered. I saw the contactless reader and I tapped my watch against it, just like any normal civilian. I went to pick up my mug and head for a quiet corner. But the dame on the desk had other ideas.

“Excuse me, sir” she said. I spun round, sizing up the situation and lifting onto the balls of my feet, ready for anything.

“I’m afraid it’s been declined”.

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Declined? What the hell! What was the explanation? The watch was a valid MasterCard and the account was loaded with dough, so there was no rational explanation. There’s no way that the folk at Kalixa would have declined a perfectly valid transaction like this. Maybe the transaction never reached them. It must have been sabotage. Maybe… someone was on to me, and they wanted to make my life difficult. They wanted to make me use cash. But who?

I tried not to show any emotion as I walked back and nonchalantly tapped my Visa debit card against the reader.

“That’s fine, thank you” said the girl. Was she in on it? Her veneer of bored indifference might have been just that. But I don’t know, it didn’t seem to add up. Who could tap in to the acquiring network and sabotage a card authorisation like that? I needed time to think.

I left the cafe area and tried to disappear into a corner of the terminal. With the cup at my lips, I started to think. Okay, so when you’re the only guy in the country who has no cash at all, you’re going to stand out. I tried not to look like the guy with no cash, I tried to look like everyone else in the terminal. No, I did look like everyone else in the terminal. But someone out there knew. Someone must be on to me.

One of the guys at the European Central Bank? They could certainly pull the strings. I shouldn’t have called for their board to be arrested for conspiring to evade taxes and aiding and abetting money laundering. I should have kept quiet on that one. Me and my big mouth. But could they organise something like this? Keep it secret? And short notice? No. So maybe it goes higher up than the money men.

The Chancellor. It must be. I tried hard to cover my tracks, but maybe the guys over at Spook Central have made some connections. Sure, the rubes at The Daily Telegraph comments section might not know that “Apoplectic of Woking” is yours truly, but what about the white hats in the West Country? They could have been correlating the devastating and witty attacks on the Chancellor’s economic policies with IP addresses and phone tracking. They could know that it was me making the unanswerable case for a Land Value Tax and the abolition of corporate taxation. They could know.

I needed more evidence.

Chapter 2. Mean streets.

It was warm. Too warm for the thick black overcoat I brought with me to Manhattan. I didn’t fit in, I stood out as the clown that didn’t read the weather forecast. No good. I went back to the hotel and ditched the coat. Back out on Madison I was just like any other citizen. Warm, but not hot. And yes, my pockets were still clean as a whistle. No bills, no coins. But I was pretty sure no one could tell.

I needed to find out if they were still tracking me, whoever “they” might be. I pulled into what looked like an average diner and I ordered the most average lunch I could think of. And yes, it was a pretty average pot roast. When the check came, I flicked my Simple Visa card down, like it was the most normal thing in the world. A guy in a jacket took it away and for a moment I thought I would never see it again, but he came back a minute later with a slip for me to sign. I didn’t want to give anything away, so I picked it up all casual like, and scrawled Sergio Aguero on the dotted line. I tossed the pen back on the table and strolled out like it was nothing. So far so good.

On the way back to the hotel I realised I was thirsty and I wanted to pick up a drink to take back to the hotel. I saw a Duane Reade and glancing left and right to make sure I wasn’t being followed, I slipped in through the door and disappeared between the shelves. Once I was certain I wasn’t being tailed I went to the cranberry juice and I grabbed some milk too. I walked up to the counter and handed them to the sister standing there. She scanned them. I was about to reach for my back pocket and pull out a card, when I noticed something. I glanced down, trying not to look as if I was looking, and spotted an unfamiliar badge on the terminal. Unless I was much mistaken, it was a Google Wallet logo.

Google? They’ve certainly got the money and they’ve certainly got the connections. But why would they want me to use cash? It didn’t make sense, so I had to try them out, maybe get them to show their hand. I reached in my coat pocket, and felt the sister’s eyes following me. I pulled out the phone. I glanced at the screen, pretty sure that she couldn’t see, and I touched the Google Wallet icon. Yes, it was working normally. Then I tapped my phone against the terminal, just like it was the sort of thing I did every day. It worked fine. Paid. She gave me a strange look. I couldn’t read it. Maybe she’d made me. Time to go. I jumped in a cab.

“48th and 3rd”, I said. That wasn’t where I was going, it was a couple of blocks away, but I couldn’t take any chances. I didn’t know if the driver was working for them or not. We pulled up at the light on 3rd. I notice the payment terminal in the back of the cab has a contactless reader. My phone was already in my hand. I couldn’t resist it. I tapped. And paid. Google Wallet worked flawlessly. Again. There’s no way it could be those guys, I could rule them out.

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In a flash I was out the cab and round the corner, doubling back to Lexington. I looked at my screen, and got a shock. Who the hell are JTL Management? I thought I’d just paid a yellow cab, but it must have been a fake, one of their stooges who picked me up to see where I was going. These people are clever.

Chapter 3. Black Beans.

I took a different route back to the hotel. A basic precaution, but the sort of thing that a lot of beginners forget. I was racking my brains as I walked. Who was it who had tried to make me use cash? The more I thought about it, the longer the list of suspects. The ATM guys? The cash-in-transit guys? The security guards union, local #198? The drug cartels? Or maybe one of those fancy-schmancy accountants who help the big guys to smurf out the cabbage through overseas branches and then bring it all back without paying tax? My head was hurting.

I pulled out my phone and began to thumb through the headlines. Then I saw something that pulled me up short. I love Manhattan. I love Chipotle. And I love mobile payments. So when I read that Chipotle had a new app so that you could order and pay for the food with your phone, I couldn’t think about anything else. I had to try it. I went into Starbucks, ordered a coffee and sat down. I connected to the free Wi-Fi and then ran up a VPN through Toronto. Again basic precaution, again the sort of thing that a lot of beginners forget. It was only then that I went to the app store and pulled down the new toy. Once it was loaded, I powered it up with my Simple card details, finished my coffee and left, deliberately walking away from the Chipotle on Madison. I went back around the block and crouched hidden in a doorway. I pulled out the phone and ran the app.

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It all worked perfectly. I ordered, giving the name Theogenes de Montford, then I walked in like I owned the place and went to the register to bring home the burrito. Love the smell of beef, sour cream and salsa. I had not even smelt cash all day. My card had worked, my phone had worked, my app had worked. Even though I’d had to turn on data roaming, so the burrito cost me about $200, I felt I was ahead of the game.

Chapter 4. Best and Worst.

I kicked back in my hotel room. Looking for some R’N’R time to myself, I grabbed the iPad and went to hook it up to the hotel’s 42-incher so that I could put my feet up and watch Jools Holland Guitar Heroes. Damn! I forgot my HDMI cable. I went up to 5th Avenue and found the Best Buy. I grabbed the cable and went to the desk. The tootsie at the terminal rang it up. I looked at the POS and saw the contactless symbol. I wanted to blend in. I figured, hey, who is gonna swipe when they could tap, so I got my Google Wallet out and went for it. Disaster. The cash commandos had got there first and…

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Card? What card? I didn’t use no card. The tootsie behind the terminal is giving me the up-and-down. But I got no lettuce, so I reached for my pocket and grabbed my Simple card again. The terminal asked me for a PIN. What PIN? What the hell were they talking about? I didn’t have time to think because the Best Buy broad threw me a curve ball.

“Is it a debit card?” she asks me, all innocent like.

Well, I was just about to tell her, not really. It’s processed through the Visa signature debit system, but the funds are drawn from a shadow pre-paid account because Simple itself isn’t a bank. But then I realised – that would might give too much away. Stupid. I could’ve blown my cover right there. I decided to disguise myself as a harmless idiot, so I mumbled back “don’t know”. She looked at the card – I saw her do it.

“If it’s a credit card, just hit cancel” she says.

No sign of the house dick. I was sure I wasn’t being followed. I hit cancel, sign on the screen and scram. None of this is making sense.

Chapter 5. Declinegate.

My mind was reeling. How could the world of payments be getting so mixed up? Contactless terminals that don’t accept contactless payments! Valid watches being declined! Being asked for a PIN on a signature card! Asking customers to swipe a phone! Who is pulling the strings? It was time to go the papers and get the story out. I had to find a rag to tell my tale. I grabbed the phone book and started with the “As”. I pretty soon found “American Banker”. They sounded like the kind of guys who would go nuts for the inside dope on a front page story like this. I dropped a note to one of their newshawks and arranged a meet at an at out-of-the-way hash house. I waited incognito.

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So I tell the guy. I’m no stool pidgeon, or indeed any other kind of pidgeon. Listen, I tell him, I’m behind the eight ball on this one. I ain’t here to bump gums. Someone out there wants me to break out the benjamins, see, and I ain’t gonna do it. They’re clever, that’s for sure. They’re trying to make it look like incompetence, bad planning and accidents. But it’s a conspiracy and I know it. I ain’t stringing you. This is on the square. Not a flimflam. It’s bigger than that, see. I tell the guy. Put two and two together. So much money spent – but nuttin’ works right. There’s a high pillow in the shadows and he’s your meat.

Chapter 5. Snapped by the Paps.

He was listening. He was listening all right. We arranged a meet for the next day, where I could spill the beans good and proper. I told him about the inexplicable design, the mysterious cab, the puzzling terminal, the incomprehensible messages. I told to look for the money. I told him that coincidences are stories for sheeple. I told him that he didn’t have to dig: the facts are staring him in the face.

But we were seen. Damn it, we were seen. Out of the corner of my I saw the guy in beige overcoat snap us and run. That was it. Game over. I had to leave town.

undercover

Get the story out, I tell him. I gotta blow. Goodbye Big Apple.

These are personal opinions and should not be misunderstood as representing the opinions of 
Consult Hyperion or any of its clients or suppliers

11 comments

  1. Why would you trust information that you got off the Internet?

    I don’t mean that facetiously. I am serious. Specifically, why would I trust information on LinkedIn (or Facebook)?

    We all have experienced spam, urban myths, rigged polls, self-selecting populations and many other forms of fraud and disinformation on the Internet. How do I trust some aspect of the social graph? I can infer some transitive trust – for example, from the legitimacy of the source (LinkedIn & Facebook.) But what is that legitimacy? The user is not the customer. The real customers, the advertisers, have not demonstrated any business case for looking after the users. Neither service is not regulated. I think it is naive and fraud prone to trust the social graphs from LinkedIn & Facebook.

    You talk about trust and fraud all the time, Dave. Fraud detection and prevention is always tied to value, usually monetary. This concept seems poorly understood and rarely implemented for the data in the social graph.

    In fact, I think social hacks are needed more than ever now. I thinking selling trustworthy certifications and attestations is a new growth industry.

  2. Except for the attempt to be incognito (looks kind of like the guy wearing the ski-mask in a convenience store in the current VW convertible TV commercial) … this is classic. But as you found out, and as Dashiell Hammett wrote in The Thin Man … “The problem with putting two and two together is that sometimes you get four, and sometimes you get twenty-two.”

    I am extremely impressed that you were able to manage your way through the day without using cash and without running up against the “the machine doesn’t work” excuse (particularly in taxicabs) or the “please enter your billing zip code” ploy. It would have been interesting to see how a U.S. terminal would have handled a UK Postal code.

    While we are definitely increasing coverage of the various payment vehicles and account types, we have a long way to go to reach ubiquity and omnipresent access to the user’s choice of payment product. And of course, as a major airline learned yesterday, then we need to ensure 99.9999% uptime in our connectivity to our business-critical systems.

    Let me know when the movie is to be released.

  3. I don’t usually appreciate your blogs to rid the world of cash, but I gotta say, I found that really entertaining. Nice job!

  4. Love the tone you set here. As William Gibson said, “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.”

    What you’re showing is the natural next stage of mobile payments: the technology is here, now the players are trying to work out which economic models work (for real, not theory) and which customer experiences people prefer. Both of these will shake down over the next couple of years as we all decide if we want to pay using (forgive me) VHS or Betamax.

    More please.

  5. totally confused by the mixture of irony and reality. But seriously, what if you did call out the ECB on fraud? Or BCCI on money laundering? You wouldn’t want to be quite so plugged in to the payments grid until things had blown over!

  6. More inspiring even than usual.

    Some disorganised thoughts:

    There probably isn’t a conspiracy. Things just go wrong. Even if there were a conspiracy, that would probably go wrong.

    The pap? Another mistake. Thought he’d found Joseph Stiglitz in a coffee bar.

    Shirts are the new ties
    (We can all play the gibberish game.)
    Mr Aguero signed the payslip. The shop got paid anyway. Identity is not the new money.

    Material money is dirty and expensive to handle, can be lost or stolen from you by a pickpocket, it is useful for snorting cocaine through, and for cleaners, gardeners and builders to evade tax and for laundering drug money, see above. All true.

    On the other hand you can’t lose the wad of notes in your pocket by telling someone your Twitter password. Would “dematerialised money” (© BCSL) be any better? You never(?) argue the case. It might be worse. Case not proven.

    Disk space is very expensive these days which is presumably why you only get 12 characters to identify a payer on some money transfer systems. I had to tell a supplier once who thought I hadn’t paid him to look for “BUSINESS CON” (as in Business Consultancy Services Ltd) on his paysheet. Do you get the same problem with “CONSULT HYPE”?

    Thing is, you won’t have a clue in a year’s time who JTL Management Inc. are or why you paid them $7.10. And they won’t have a clue who Consult Hype is. So much for identity and money. The cabbie didn’t accept your payment because you’re Mr Aguero but because his boss trusts Google.

    And it’s still fiat money, isn’t it. It’s just that it’s not a government being trusted but a web company. Completely different. No. Wait a minute. That’s Google. Hugely more powerful than any government …

    Fiat isn’t going away. Nor Ford, come to think of it. (Ford is the new Latin for trust? Discuss.)

    Swipe the phone through the slot?
    No. Eat the barcode. More nutritious than the sandwich.

    Anonymity. You are a stout defender thereof. Material money generally benefits from anonymity. It can be misused. Up your nose. But it’s still a benefit withal. Are you sure you’re against material money?

    And in favour of having a single credential for access to all your bank accounts? Long live the multiple logon ID-and-password tuple, I say, Mr Aguero.

  7. Hello – Danielle Stroud from Kalixa here. Really sorry to read that you couldn’t pay at Heathrow Airport with your Watch2Pay. We’re looking into the issue at the moment. We must ensure that people can use their NFC watch to pay for their coffee (and toasties) wherever they are in the world. Thanks for a great read.

    [Dave Birch] Thanks for taking the time to get in touch Danielle, really appreciate it.

  8. @Dave – I think there are a lot of Terminals out there that for some reason cannot format responses correctly for PayPass transactions and consequently the POS forces an internal decline – I have seen the very same issue at “a famous coffee chain named after an emperor” and others… hence why I migrated to payWave to avoid declines (it didn’t work – still get random declines).

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