We must have practical cash alternatives for supermarkets and strippers

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If we are going to replace cash with more efficient electronic alternatives, we must have practical solutions to hand for certain niches not suited to digital revolution.

Bitcoins and PCs

Anyone in the e-payment space will not have failed to notice the attention that Bitcoin has been attracting over the last few weeks. I have to say that I was surprised by the interest from journalists — I was even interviewed for the Wired podcast and for New Scientist — for what is, after all, pretty small potatoes. Thanks to its open and transparent nature, it’s easy to see just how big the Bitcoin economy is. This is how it looked on one of the biggest exchanges on 18th May 2011 when I was talking to a European journalist:

Last Price: 7.285; High:7.98; Low: 6.9799; Volume: 34428

[From Mt Gox – Bitcoin Exchange]

So that’s a quarter of a million dollars in trades, although you can’t tell how much of that is people shifting bitcoins between their own accounts and how much is new money coming in. That’s not a huge business. Yet in some of the more hysterical reporting — the most dangerous idea ever, etc etc — you’d think that China was switching its reserves from dollars to bitcoins.

Because on Friday, the Bitcoin experienced a rather dramatic drop. In the words of one anonymous commenter: “it looks like it lost 1/3 of its value in the last 24 hours. Lots of big sells, complaints of liquidity, and pissed off nerds.”

[From FT Alphaville » Bitcoin’s Black Friday]

A couple of weeks later, then, the value has fallen and the first bitcoin heist has been reported.

In the first Bitcoin theft of its size, a user has lost 25,000 BTC — or nearly $487,749 at today’s market rates — to an unknown thief.

[From Close to US$500k stolen in first major Bitcoin theft – Industry]

As I somewhat uncharitably posted on Twitter, “help I want my anonymous, untraceable digital cash back!”. Now we read that Bitcoin is dead, it’s a scam, it’s a bubble etc etc. So what’s the truth? What strategy, if any, should stakeholders in the e-payments space consider?

The only thing that’s even kept Bitcoin alive this long is its novelty. Either it will remain a novelty forever or it will transition from novelty status to dead faster than you can blink.

[From The Underground Economist, Why Bitcoin can’t be a currency]

I think it’s more than a novelty. I’d actually started writing something about Bitcoin a while back, when twitter friends pointed me to a paper “Mobile Payment Systems and Services: An Introduction” by Mahil Carr which says that (with no evidence at all to support the assertion) “mobile payments have to be as anonymous as cash transactions” and I’d been involved in a subsequent discussion about whether bitcoin might be suited to this environment. I couldn’t help but observe that cash is the wrong benchmark: it isn’t as anonymous as some people think.

On April 26, a state police trooper was called to the Subway after the owner said one of her employees found three “obviously counterfeit” $20s in the safe. The owner checked the surveillance video and saw one of her employees, the 17-year-old boy, take bills from his pocket and exchange it for money in the cash register… Before exchanging the bills, the employee marked the bills with a counterfeit marking pen, which resulted in a dark brown mark, meaning they were fake.

[From subway counterfeit money: subway counterfeit money, teens charged with making fake money on computer scanner – mcall.com]

In a world of mobile phones, twitter and CCTV, anonymity is a high bar to set. In the virtual world, however, anonymity can be an implementation choice, should it be a requirement for a payment system. Personally, I don’t think it is. Transactions need to be private, not anonymous, and that means a different set of design principles. In all of my experience, even during my days as an firm proponent of anonymity as a key element of retail transaction schemes, I never saw the slightest demand for this from any of the stakeholders, including consumers. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that new technology could not, quite easily, lead to entirely new ways of making payments recognising the fact that the underlying technology has changed beyond all recognition in the previous generation.

Visa processed 37 billion transactions in FY2008, or an average of 100 million transactions per day. That many transactions would take 100GB of bandwidth, or the size of 12 DVD or 2 HD quality movies, or about $18 worth of bandwidth at current prices.

[From Cryptography, Law and Privacy Blog: Re: Bitcoin P2P e-cash paper]

Will Bitcoin be the new technology to revolutionise money? To answer that, I have to step back a little. Generally speaking, I think there is a problem with language, because people (I mean normal people, not people like us) never think about what money is or how it works. Sterling (the currency) could continue to exist even if there were no notes printed by the Bank of England or coins produced by the Royal Mint. People could sign contracts for Sterling payments, but those payments would be commuted for execution: when the payment falls due, the counterparties agree on a mechanism for exchange (which might be Dollars in a bank account, Euro bank notes or cowrie shells). Why would they, then, sign a contract in Sterling in the first place? Well, it’s because they expect the currency to serve as a means for deferred payment in that its value in the future is predictable. I’m not saying that this always works well, because currencies are not as stable as might be hoped, but that’s the theory.

Now let’s move on to this specifc implementation. Bitcoin is a decentralised, peer-to-peer means of exchange. If you have a bitcoin, which is just a string of numbers, you can send that bitcoin (or a subdivision of it) to anyone else on the interweb. If you want to understand how Bitcoin works, a good place to start is the original paper on the topic, “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System” by Satoshi Nakamoto. I’m no expert on cryptography but there’s no reason I know of to question the basic idea: use a computationally difficult challenge to create strings of bits that it’s hard to make but easy to copy, then use digital signatures for transactions. I get my bitcoin (a string of bits) and then in order to transfer them to you I add a digital signature and send them to you. Every time we do a transactions, we tell (essentially) everybody else that the bits now belong to you. The closest analogy to this is the stone currency of the island of Yap, in the South Pacific. The huge stones that represented money never went anywhere, people just remembered who they belonged to.

Every transfer of ownership is public knowledge, and the physical stone can stay in place.

[From Quezi » How is Yap stone money similar to Bitcoin?]

Rather like Bitcoin, in some ways. So far so good. But why would people use Bitcoin? There seem to be three key reasons: one is that they want a cheap, irreversible online means of exchange (cash for the 21st century), another is that they want an anonymous means of exchange (coins for the 21st century) and yet another is that they want to use of non-government currency because they don’t trust governments to manage money properly. Let’s have a quick look at each of these.

Frictionless low-value payments

Now, having been involved in a previous attempt to create a global, decentralised, peer-to-peer means of exchange that addressed the first two of these issues, Mondex, I’m naturally interested to see how Bitcoin develops. I’m frankly sympathetic to many of its goals, because I too believe that a “frictionless” means of exchange for the online world would stimulate a new era of trade, and therefore prosperity. In an essentially frictionless system, where the transfer of value is simply the transfer of bits, the key problem to overcome is that of “double spending”. In other words, if I send you some value (bits), how do you know that I haven’t already sent that value (ie, a copy of those bits) to someone else? There are a number of different approaches.

  • The usual solution is to have a central register.
  • The Mondex solution was to use tamper-resistant hardware (smartcard chips) to store the balances.
  • The Bitcoin solution is to distribute the transaction record across the network (every node knows every transaction), which works provided that the timestamps can be co-ordinated properly (otherwise the nodes wouldn’t know the order of the transactions). When you get a bitcoin, it takes a few minutes before you can spend it again because the network needs to be updated.

Which is best? It’s not really the topic of this post, but I’d say a combination of 1 and 2: a central register plus tamper-resistant hardware so that low-value payments can handled quickly, offline in some environments.

Anonymity

What the general public want is privacy, not anonymity. If I lose my wallet, I want my money back. This is why I always carry prepaid cards when I travel, rather than carrying cash. In fact I’ve just been through the very process of getting my money back because I gave my son a prepaid Euro card to use on a school trip in Spain (a Thomson MasterCard) and he lost it when there were still €70 on the card. No-one else can use that card (they don’t know the PIN and it has no name on it so they can’t pass AVS online) and I am getting the money back. Personally, I think this is closer to the kind of cash that makes sense in the new economy. It’s economically infeasible (although not computationally infeasible) to track and research every payment, but when something goes wrong it can be restored. And if I did use the card for some illegal purpose, the police could get a warrant and Thomson would of course point them to me.

I’m not sure that I want to live in a society where unconditional anonymity exists for payments. I don’t want the bad guys to be able to operate with impunity. But neither do I want every little transaction I make trawled by corporates, the media, the government. The solution has to be payment systems with privacy built-in, so that privacy is the default and it takes legal process to uncover transaction details.

Private Currency

This may well be the most contentious area for debate. I am a Hayekian, in that I would prefer to see a system of competing private currencies rather than government monopolies, because I think that sound money is an important base for the economy. But this issue is, to my mind, orthogonal to the other two. You could implement competing private currencies in anonymous, pseudonymous or absonymous (note to pedants: this is a word I made up, that’s why it fails the spell-check, not because I spelt it wrong) ways and you could implement the mechanism for exchange using all sorts of systems. Whether transactions are reversible or not has nothing to do with the currency.

Trajectory

Is Bitcoin a good currency? I suspect not, but I’m not an economist, so I must defer to the experts. The question that most of our clients are interested in is whether Bitcoin will form a niche parallel economy or whether they will scale into the mainstream economy. I have a suspicion that this won’t happen, and that’s because the anonymity that is the attractive feature to the early-adopting bitcoiners is not attractive to the mass market.

The best strategy is to learn, and to think about ways that the cryptography at the heart of Bitcoin can be used to deliver new kinds of services in a connected environment. I don’t think cash will be one of them.

These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]

Prepaid could be, should be, great

At the risk of turning into the Victor Meldrew of retail payments, I want to make a point about something. When I wrote about some bad experiences with contactless a couple of weeks ago, I did it because I genuinely care about this stuff, and I genuinely want the contactless experience to get better. I don’t think the blog would be useful, particularly to my colleagues in the industry who read it, if it never contained criticism, so long as that criticism is well-founded and honest. Similarly with prepaid. I really like prepaid, I really want it to succeed and I really get upset when it doesn’t work as well as it should.

Prepaid is growing. In the last five years, the volume of card transactions in Europe has grown about 9% per annum but the value has grown 7% per annum (because the average transaction size has fallen) and most of that growth has actually come from prepaid cards [F. Burelli. “Profitability dynamics of card payments” in Nordic Card Markets, Stockholm (Jan. 2010)]. Looking forward, the outlook appears to be pretty rosy. Yet I can’t help feeling that prepaid isn’t where it should be. My recent experiences with prepaid have been pretty good. I had a Visa prepaid card (which has just expired) that we were using as our “house” card at home: the kids used it when they needed to run to the supermarket or buy stuff for school. It had a simple web interface, I could see what they had been spending the money on and I could easily top it up from my debit card. Best of all, it didn’t have a name on it, so if they lost it then no-one could use it in shops (because it’s a chip and PIN card) or online (because they wouldn’t know the name or address associated with the card). Now that it’s expired, I got my eldest to go and get an Orange Cash card which annoyingly has a name on it (review to be posted shortly), so we’ll see if that can take over as house card.

But I digress. Right now, I am annoyed with prepaid. Just as I was leaving for the airport, I remembered that I had less than $100 on my Travelex US Dollar prepaid card. As I was going to be in the US for a few days, I’d need a bit more to cover meals etc so I decided to load a couple of hundred more dollars. Now, obviously I wasn’t going to bother to do that at the airport given the palaver I went through last time: I had £50 in cash in my pocket and I stopped at a Travelex booth in Heathrow to add it to my card and it took about a quarter of an hour and involved taking photocopies of my passport, the card, the receipt as well as answering security questions. The process was, presumably, designed to drive up the cost of prepaid cards to keep them beyond the reach of the poor.

Naturally, I thought that there would be some way to top up online, so I entered my 16-digit card number, my username and password and logged in to my cash passport account, only to find that there is no option for reloading (only for changing PIN and looking at transaction history). I went back to the home page and found that there’s a separate option for reloading, I clicked that, and was asked to enter the first six digits of my card number. This took me back to the account screen. I went back round again, and somehow found another link (I can’t remember what it was now) that asked my for the first six digits again and then took me to a reload screen. I entered the number of my Visa card, my address, the CVV and the amount, and was met with a screen saying tough luck.

Screen shot 2011-05-02 at 12.24.53

I wondered if it might be something to do with credit vs. debit, so I went round the loop again, this time using my Visa debit card instead. After typing in the amount, card number, address, CVV again, I got the same results. Much against my better judgement I decided to call, so I phoned the (mercifully) free phone number on the back of the card. I stupidly chose the option for speaking to an operator, and the line just went dead. So I dialled back and chose account services and then something else and then talk to an operator. I was shocked when a woman answered. After giving her my (I’m not making this up) card numbers, address, name, date of birth and a couple of other things, she put me through to another chap who said he would top up the card. I asked him if it was possible to do it via home banking and he said that it was and that he would e-mail me the details. After asking some more security questions, I started to give him my debit card number and he stopped me and said that he first had to check whether I was on the electoral roll at that address. I gave up, grabbed my BA Amex card and my John Lewis MasterCard and my Visa OnePulse and jumped in the cab.

All the way to the airport I was wondering why it was all so complicated. Why can’t I load via the ATMs at the airport, or using an app on my iPhone or by PayPal. Prepaid should be a simple, inexpensive alternative to cash, not something that has you jumping through hoops! When I got the US, I decided to get another prepaid US$ card, but this time I would register it in the US so that I could have a US BIN and billing address (some stores, such as Levenger, will let you ship internationally but will only accept payment from cards with a US billing address). Although in the end I didn’t have time, because I got sidetracked playing with my new Square, this does illustrate (once again) that there are lots of good reasons for wanting prepaid cards that are nothing to do with not being able to get a credit or debit card.

From the consumer side, prepaid allows consumers to test new opportunities and options without risking a lot of money or putting their bank accounts or credit cards on the line.

[From PaymentsJournal – When It Comes to New Payments Technology, Prepaid Will Lead the Way]

This is a good point, but I feel there’s another reason for thinking that prepaid will be developing in interesting directions, at least in Europe. You don’t need to be a bank to offer prepaid services: the combination of an Electronic Money Institution Licence (ELMI) and a Payment Institution Licence (PI) means that any company can offer a full service: an open-loop prepaid card. I suspect that many of the companies applying for these licences are doing so because they want to use new technology to deliver new services that need payment, if you see what I mean. That is, they don’t expect to earn money from the payments themselves, but from the value-added services that need the payments to take place.

I’ll be looking out for trends around value-added at this year’s Prepaid Conference in London on 13th-15th June 2011. In an act of magnificent generosity, the wonderful people at Clarion have given me a delegate pass for the conference — worth an amazing ONE THOUSAND FOUR HUNDRED AND NINETY FIVE POUNDS — to give away on this blog as a competition prize. So if you are going to be in London on those dates and you’d like to come along to meet practitioners, thought leaders and me, then all you have to do is be the first person to respond to this post telling me what the conference sponsors MasterCard were originally called when they started in 1966.

In the traditional fashion, this competition is open to all except for employees of Consult Hyperion and members of my immediate family, is void where prohibited and has been designed to be carbon neutral. The prize must be claimed within three months. Oh, and no-one can win more than one of the Digital Money Blog prizes per calendar year.

These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]

Cash and machines

In a comment on an article about mobile payments that I was reading, I noticed that someone wrote

I hate it when a retailer tells me they don’t accept cards. I feel like I have to remind them what year they’re living in. They usually prompt me to use an ATM within their store and accept a 2 dollar or more fee just to get the cash to pay for a candy bar. This results in me leaving the store and finding a 7-11 or some such thing.

[From Paying by phone is insecure and unnecessary. – By Farhad Manjoo – Slate Magazine]

It seems to me that this is the market at work, and I don’t see a problem with that. If some retailers and some customers want to carry on using cash, then fine, let them, but don’t make me pay for it. So long as they are paying the full cost and I’m not subsidising them, so what? (Actually, there is a so what which is to do with the impact on society, but that’s not my point here.) But then I began to wonder why the store would need an ATM at all. Wouldn’t costs be reduced for everyone if the customer could use their ATM card to withdraw money from the retailer’s cash draw? This is the sort of thing that is going on in India.

As a part of the ambitious Unique Identity (UID) card project, a micro-ATM will be a payment platform that would make use of mobile technology and the customers’ UID will serve the ‘know your customer’ (KYC) norms required by the bank to open an account.

[From Banks take to the shrinking cash machine – dnaindia.com]

The micro-ATM is a POS terminal-with-knobs-on so that customers can make “ATM” withdrawals at agents but also open accounts and carry out other basic functions. Presumably these don’t cost the merchants much more (if any more) than regular POS terminals and they must cost less than an ATM, so everyone’s better offer, except for ATM manufacturers.

Perhaps we should stop looking at these band-aids to slap over cash’s inefficiency though. It’s time to get tough. According to recent research by McKinsey and Wincor-Nixdorf (who make, amongst other things, ATMs), cash “in circulation” from the US to Europe through to Asia Pacific is increasing year-on-year,which has resulted in the global cost of handling cash increasing to more than US$300 billion, and retailers bear the brunt of those cash handling costs compared to banks, cash-in-transit operators,cash centers and central banks. As much as 61% is attributed to the cost of handling, transporting and securing cash in the checkout zone and back office of a retail store compared with 32% for a retail bank. Incidentally, I thought I remembered seeing that $300 billion figure a few months ago, and it turns out I did.

Eckard Heidloff, president and CEO of Wincor Nixdorf and Dr. Karsten Ottenburg, chairman of the management board and CEO of Giesecke & Devrient, noted that $300 billion is spent annually on cash processing worldwide. And since the euro’s introduction, the number of banknotes in circulation in euro-member countries has increased 8 percent yearly.

[From Wincor Nixdorf and Giesecke & Devrient form a partnership | ATM Marketplace]

Banknotes “in circulation” going up 8%, while retail sales went up, what, 1% last year? What on Earth are people are these banknotes for? Earlier in the recession, the Bank of England put forward a theory:

As a share of nominal GDP, the value of notes in circulation declined from 6% in 1970 to a low point of 2.4% in the mid-1990s but has since stabilised and then increased, noticeably over the past two years… Rising demand for notes might reflect some loss of confidence in banks and very low interest rates, which reduce the opportunity cost of holding banknotes as a non-interest bearing asset. Andrew Bailey says that is “…pretty good prima facie evidence that there has been an increase in demand for banknotes as a store of value”.

[From Bank of England|Publications|News|2009|Banknotes in Circulation – Still Rising: What Does This Mean for the Future of Cash? Speech by Andrew Bailey, 6 December 2009]

Yes, but a store of value for who? Certainly not for a normal, law-abiding taxpayer like me. Does anyone you know keep cash at home now instead of leaving it in the bank? This isn’t a purely European phenomenon, since the amount of cash has been going up in the USA as well.

The quantity of US currency in circulation in the world was $2776 per US resident in April 2009. That’s a lot of currency – the stock held at any point in time is about 6% of US annual GDP. In case you think that’s all held overseas, a study by the Bank of Canada (in the Bank of Canada Review – look it up) shows that Canadian currency outstanding is about 3% of annual Canadian GDP, and most of that has to be in Canada.

[From Stephen Williamson: New Monetarist Economics: The Use of Currency]

These figures seem about right: the US has far more currency out there per person, because more than half of all US currency isn’t in circulation in the US and will never be repatriated, so in the UK, Canada and the US we see approximately the same figure, that M0 is 3% of M4.

These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]

In all conscience

I’m giving a keynote at the Smart Card Alliance conference in Chicago in a couple of weeks. It’s going to be about EMV in the USA. I’ve just been mulling it over, and once again looked at Deborah Baxley’s neat summary of the immediate future for the US cards business:

Banks scrambling to replace lost fee revenue will likely shift focus to credit and prepaid, impose DDA and other fees, along with new account services and comprehensive pricing packages.

[From Changing the Game in Cards – pymnts.com]

It’s not just banks who have to rethink their strategies because of developments in the payment sector. I note that in the UK, according to the Centre for Economics & Business Research reported in Fraud Watch 6(18), nearly 100,000 people were victims of direct debt fraud last year, a direct consequence of the use of chip and PIN at retail POS. As card fraud has become more difficult, the criminals have shifted their focus. Direct debit fraud was one basis point of identity fraud cases a decade ago, now it is a tenth of all cases. Criminals have to adapt to chip and PIN just as banks and merchants do.

A GROUP of seven postmen intercepted letters containing credit cards, switched the microchips of the cards with fake ones and then delivered them to the applicants… the syndicate also had the help of a National Registration Department (NRD) officer who supplied them with the names of the mothers of the real credit card applicants

[From 7 M’sian postmen nabbed for credit card fraud]

It’s interesting to think like a criminal. Well, sometimes. In Chicago, two men were shot by guards while trying to rob a cash transit.

The dead suspect was identified as Jimmy Townsend, 52… a convicted felon and was sentenced to 10 years in prison for two separate armed robbery convictions.

[From 2 suspects shot, one fatally, in armored truck heist – Chicago Breaking News]

Armed robbery is a bizarre crime. I think I’m right in saying that in the UK the average sentence is longer than that for murder. In the US, Mr. Townsend spent years in jail for it, and then got killed doing it again. How dumb did he have to be go back to trying to rob armoured cars. If only he read the Digital Money Blog, he would have known that there are much easier targets.

The heavily-armed gang made off with the tournament jackpot of 242,000 euros ($327,000; £217,000) in early March. Police said a 28-year-old Lebanese man, the fourth arrested in connection with the raid, had been detained on Sunday.

[From BBC News – German police arrest poker tournament heist suspect]

OK, so not all of them got away, but casinos are not a bad idea for enterprising criminals. They do have lots of cash, and often the people in them will not report cash as stolen.

Masked men have stormed a packed casino near the Swiss border city of Basel, making off with hundreds of thousands of francs, prosecutors say.

About 10 raiders pulled up at the Grand Casino in two cars just after 0400 (0200 GMT) and smashed their way in, brandishing machine-guns and pistols. The French-speaking gang ordered the 600 guests and employees to the floor while they emptied registers.

[From BBC News – Switzerland casino is robbed by armed gang]

Criminals follow the path of least resistance. I hope Bankerstuff don’t mind me quoting from a marketing e-mail they sent me concerning a forthcoming webinar.

A Former Bank Robber Shares Security Insights During Live Webinar on April 28 from 2:00 – 3:00pm Eastern

Troy Evans pursued a career as a self-employed addict, drug dealer, gambler and thief for more than 15 years. Ultimately, his disregard of values and discipline resulted in a 13 year federal prison sentence. Facing the obstacles, pressures and violence of prison life, he was determined that his time behind bars would not be wasted… Having met and interviewed over 300 bank and credit union robbers he is able to give us a “look into the mind of the enemy”. Troy answers questions such as… What can financial institutions do to deter a desperate criminal?

I would have thought than an obvious idea would be to not have any cash since, as another bank robber famously remarked, he went “where the money is”? When it comes to card payments, the money is in getting hold of card details and (because of the switch to chip and PIN) PINs. Here, the criminals soon adapted their strategies to deal with the new instruments.

Victorian Police believe international crime syndicates are bribing shop workers in return for access to EFTPOS terminals as part of an elaborate scam. They believe criminals have stolen as much as $80 million from Australian bank accounts over the past year…

The syndicates install cameras in ceilings to film people entering their identification numbers.

[From EFTPOS scam costs Australians $80m – ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)]

They’re using these PINs (since they can’t make counterfeit chip and PIN cards) with the card details to withdraw cash from ATMs. Once all of the cards and ATMs are chip-only, this avenue will be closed to them. Thus while chip and PIN isn’t perfect, it’s good enough to push criminals into other channels. So: a thought experiment…

Suppose we improve the security of payment systems to the point where they cannot, effectively, be broken. Theft, fraud and hacking are not possible. Where would criminals go next? I think they’re spoilt for choice, so relatively small improvements in payment security would send them off to pasture news.

The poll of 533 firms shows that 55% experienced fraud in the last 12 months, with 61% of these hit more than once, a similar picture to the previous year. In total, 75% of the businesses participating in the study experienced online account takeover and/or online fraud.

[From Finextra: Account takeover fraud plaguing US small businesses]

SME account takeover seems much easier than armed robbery and much more profitable. The so-called man-in-the-middle attacks on OTP systems for remote access to baking accounts are an established attack vector.

According to BillingScore, 19.4% of the value of all transactions in the U.K. premium rate sector are fraudulent, or roughly £1 on every £5 spent. “With the premium rate sector in the U.K. mobile industry currently worth in the region of £700 million, this equates to £135.8 million per year being lost to fraud in the U.K. alone,” the company said.

[From UK mobile operators ‘hide’ £136m annual fraud loss]

A fifth? As opposed to a few bp in cards? I predict that any forward-looking criminal in this scenario will be eyeing up the telecommunications opportunities. So let’s look at what some forward-looking criminals are doing. I think criminals in eastern Europe are a useful barometer, because they tend to be well-educated and computer-savvy. And they get arrested for time to time so we can see what they get up to. Here’s the stash of Romanian hackers arrested last year. You will, of course, note that it does not include low maximum balance prepaid cards or accounts.

77,350 euros, 49,000 U.S. dollars, 64,860 pounds, 60,645 lei, a luxury watch, a rifle, three pistols and 150 grams of gold. 70 laptops, 165 mobile phones, 35 desktop computers, 15 modems, new servers, 10 blank cards, 2425 SIM cards…

[From CyberCrime & Doing Time: Nicolae Popescu, Romanian hacker, at large!]

So not only the usual euros and dollars, but also gold (clearly the hackers were diversifying) and also two-and-a-half thousand SIM cards. Two-and-a-half thousand! Here are people taking the messages of convergence, future-proofing and cloud payments quite seriously. As Eric Schmidt said when still with Google, if you don’t have a mobile strategy then you don’t have a strategy. Now, if you’re like me, you will wonder what on Earth they are going to do with these SIMs. Then I remembered something that I’d read a while ago.

Only days after almost two million Bulgarians registered their SIM cards, the Interior Ministry warns that new forms of abuse are appearing. According to the ministry, two cases had recently been uncovered in which telephone fraudsters had allegedly offered 50 leva to Romas for registered SIM cards, Bulgarian daily Standard reported… the Interior Ministry as saying that it expected a flood of SIM cards, registered to Romas and homeless people, to appear on the market in the coming weeks.

[From Interior Ministry warns of trade in registered pre-paid SIM cards – Bulgaria – The Sofia Echo]

Mystery solved. The answer to why there should be a significant value attached to SIM cards that you can buy for virtually nothing in any shop is, naturally, government policy. After pocketing their windfalls from selling their SIM cards, the homeless and Roma presumably went off to celebrate their good fortune, whereas the criminals went off to figure out how to create a mass supply instead of having to negotiate with individuals.

…only four months into 2010, and organised crime groups already have found ways of beating the system. In fact, there are unsuspecting people right now who are completely unaware that their mobile phones, or names and registration, are being used for serious criminal activities… Radio host Borislav Borissov found out that he was the “proud owner” of about 200 different SIM cards, all registered to his name and personal social security number.

[From Bulgarian criminals ‘beating the system’ of pre-paid SIM card registration – Bulgaria – The Sofia Echo]

I know where I’d invest my criminal dollars! Mobile is the future! No, of course, I’m just joking to make a point. If I really was going to invest dollars in a criminal enterprise, it would be in Somali pirates, except for one sticking point. I’m afraid my strict ethical position will not allow me to deal with these people.

The al Shabaab group, which professes loyalty to al Qaeda, said mobile money transfers (MMT) helped feed Western capitalism and were turning Somalia’s Muslims against Islamic banking practices.

[From Somalia’s al Shabaab bans mobile money transfers | Top News | Reuters]

I cannot do sufficient violence to my conscience to support a group who are against mobile payments.

These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]

Join us at the International Payments Summit on 21st March in London

I really enjoyed the annual International Payments Summit last year, so this year we decided to work with them on a small experiment. On 21st March we’ve helped to put together a 1-day summit on the future of e-transactions, called (somewhat provocatively, I must confess) “cash is dead”.

The idea is to discuss the world of digital transactions (which, of course, in our world means digital money and digital identity) to help organisations who are putting together strategies make some realistic decisions about where future competitive advantage may lay. Naturally, reflecting my own prejudices, there will be plenty of discussion about opportunities for financial services organisations to either provide or exploit the coming range of digital identity services.

As organisers, Consult Hyperion have a couple of complimentary delegate places to give away, so if you plan to be in London on 21st March 2011 and you’d like to come along to the Lancaster London and join in the discussion, please e-mail me ASAP and I will arrange. Don’t pass up this offer as we have a great bunch of people coming along for panels, discussions and networking, see you there.

These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]

Will they or won’t they pay?

The outsourcing company Accenture conducted a survey to find out if consumers want to use their mobile phones for payments. Unsurprisingly, there is a strong correlation between countries where people have already used their mobile phones for payments (eg, China) and where people wanted to use their mobile phone for payments (eg, China).

Overall, 69 percent of survey respondents in Asia indicated they favored using mobile phones for most payments, led by Chinese consumers (76 percent) and India (75 percent), followed by Korea (56 percent) and Japan (47 percent). Outside of Asia, the next highest positive response was in Brazil, where 70 percent of consumers favored using mobile phones for most payments… asked if they had used a mobile phone to make purchases in the past six months, nearly half (47 percent) of tech forward consumers in China indicated they had, followed by Korea (42 percent) and Japan (33 percent).

[From Interest in Mobile Phone Payments Strong Among Most Active Mobile Users Despite Security and Privacy Concerns | Business Wire]

Now, the figures cannot represent a desire for mobile out of a lack of alternatives. I’m in China right now, where China UnionPay already has gazillions of cards out there and I’ve been using my splendid Travelex prepaid Visa card all day without a problem (some shops just wanted signature, some wanted online PIN and signature, I don’t know why). Meanwhile, back home, the situation looks rather different.

In the U.S. and Europe, combined, however, only 26 percent of respondents favored using mobile phones for most payments.

[From Interest in Mobile Phone Payments Strong Among Most Active Mobile Users Despite Security and Privacy Concerns | Business Wire]

Oh well, I guess there’s no need to spend much money on m-payment solutions in Europe or the US then, when only a 100 million or so people will want to use them, especially so in the US where another survey shows that few consumers are prepared to pay for m-payments.

However, the [Yankee Group] consumer survey results also indicate that less than 10% of respondents would be willing to pay extra for mobile transaction services such as mobile banking, mobile coupons and mobile payments

[From Less than 10% of US consumers willing to pay for mobile payments • NFC World]

But hold on, I thought. If you asked consumers in the US if they were prepared to pay for debit cards then only 10% would have said yes. Yet everyone has (and uses) a debit card. Hhmmm…

So who does pay for debit cards then? In the US, where the merchant fees are much higher than in Europe, transaction fees are the major source of income. But the economics of debit are different in Europe where the already lower debit interchange and fees mean that in some countries (eg, the Netherlands) the banks lose money on every debit transaction, whereas in some countries (eg, the UK) they make a small but vanishing margin. Yet debit is profitable for banks. Why? It’s because the major component of income from debit schemes is not the transaction fee but

  • The interest foregone on current accounts. Consumers who use their debit cards keep money in their current accounts to fund and the bank earns interest on that money.
  • The fees earned from unauthorised overdrafts and such like. If you are out spending on your debit card and you see something that you want, you might go into the red to get it. Or you might make a mistake.

This led to an interesting twitter conversation with Forum friend Scott Loftesness. As Scott pointed out, people do, of course, pay for debit cards, but they just don’t see explicit pricing. But they might, if the “Durbin debate” ends with issuers being forced to reduce interchange. The National Retail Federation (NRF) in the US has told Congress that delay to debit card swipe fee reform will save banks and their customers more than a billion dollars for every month of delay. Actually, that’s not quite what they said…

A postponement of the debit card swipe fee reform could cost US retailers and their customers more than $1bn per month, the National Retail Federation (NRF) warned Congress.

[From Debit fees regs delay could cost $1bn]

I wrote before that if retailers think that they are being so grotesquely overcharged for debit schemes then they should start their own, and I do have to say that I am puzzled that more of them haven’t already gone down the decoupled debit route, especially those with strong loyalty databases (eg, Tesco).

My wife’s visit to Target this week prompted a revisit to the decoupled debit space. Target’s value proposition: hand me your check and sign a release form, you will then receive a RedCard linked to your checking account and good for 5% off all future purchases

[From Decoupled Debit « FinVentures]

Retailers in the US, it seems, prefer a different kind of competition. A little while ago I read a piece in the Financial Times, which I couldn’t find given five minutes googling, that said that the regulatory capture of $1 billion a month, most of it going to America’s biggest retailers, wouldn’t make any difference to the prices that consumers pay. I’m sure that’s true, and I don’t suppose banks pass on all of that billion to customers any more than retailers would, but let’s face it: someone has to pay.

Banks have never lost out because of their gracious generosity in allowing customers to use cheque books, debit cards or cash machines for free.

[From The end of free banking would be another slap in the face | Chris Leslie | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk]

This is what people in the UK genuinely believe. As Scott says, they see debit cards as free. There’s no way you can now charge them for them. So why wouldn’t mobile payment cost be bundled into the bank account fee just as the debit card cost is? Actually, I suspect that it won’t be, for the simple reason that I don’t believe that consumers won’t pay. Mobility has value. If you had asked me whether I would be happy to pay an 8% transaction fee for using mobile payments a few months ago then I would have told you no way. But that’s exactly what I did last week when I went and parked at Woking station, cheerfully paying a 40p extra charge for using RingGo (a mobile payment for parking scheme) rather than use cash for a £5 parking charge.

Scott asks how mobile payments can deliver additional value to the merchants. I would say that in my recent dealings with issuer/acquirer/merchants, three general themes have emerged (I stress that these are general: they don’t relate to any specific project we are involved in).

  • The first is that retailers like mobile wallets. anticipate lower online abandonment rates with mobile wallets and I suspect they may also anticipate a higher average sale than with cash in physical environments.
  • The second is that retailers expect to be able to use these mobile wallets to interact directly with consumers through loyalty products, coupons, special offers and so on.
  • The third is that mobile should mean fewer disputes and chargebacks, which cost retailers time and money.

All of which means that the retailers will incentivise customers to use mobile, so customers will use it even if it costs them an explicit fee versus the implicit fee associated with debit. Ultimately, I’m pretty sure, that the fact that only 10% of consumers say they will pay doesn’t mean anything.

Benjamin 3D

[Dave Birch] The US is soon to release a new $100 bill. But why? What do they do with $100 bills? They’re not, as you might imagine, needed to support commerce and trade.

In 2001 the Federal Reserve estimated that 90 percent of the $100 bills ordered by the Federal Reserve (which accounts for the overwhelming majority of C-notes ordered nationwide) were paid out to foreign banks

[From Hundred-dollar bills are for criminals and sociopaths. Why do we still print them? – By Timothy Noah – Slate Magazine]

Around two-thirds of all of the US dollars in “circulation” are not in the US at all and are unlikely to be repatriated. This represents a tremendous interest-free loan from the rest of the world to Uncle Sam. But is this income sufficient to outweigh the negative effects of cash?

So why do we keep printing $100 bills? As with any valuable export, we worry that if the C-note ceased to be available to foreign criminals and dictators, another paper currency would take its place. The leading candidate would be the 500 euro note,

[From Hundred-dollar bills are for criminals and sociopaths. Why do we still print them? – By Timothy Noah – Slate Magazine]

Well, that’s true, and the conspiracy theory that the European Central Bank (ECB) only had the 500 euro note printed in order to replace the $100 bill in the stashes of drug dealers and tax evaders is widely recirculated. But that’s a reason to scrap 500 euro notes, not to print more $100 bills, especially when the $100 bills have to be completely re-designed anyway.

But the biggest upgrade is a blue “3D Security Ribbon”… The strip contains a series of images of bells and digits; tip the note, and the images come into 3D relief. “It only takes a few seconds to check the new $100 note and know it’s real,” says Larry R. Felix, Director of the Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

[From US Treasury: New 100 dollar bill needs 3D tech – CSMonitor.com]

Sounds exciting. But why bother? Why not just forget about the $100 (and, for that matter, the $50 bill)? After all, high-denomination notes have been withdrawn before, and for much the same reason. We have to weigh up the overall impact on society and try to make the right decision, and sometimes that decision might mean a radical change.

In 1969, the Treasury stopped issuing $500, $1,000, $5,000 and $10,000 bills specifically to impede crime syndicates — the only entities that were still using such large bills after the introduction of electronic money transfers.

[From Turn In Your Bin Ladens – NYTimes.com]

And before I get deluged with e-mails calling me a New World Order stooge intent on introducing the Mark of the Beast across the USA, let me merely point out that if the public were to desire anonymity for payments (they don’t, by the way) then it’s possible to create anonymous electronic money: this is an implementation choice, not any sort of technological constraint. Of course, the fact that the US government stops producing high-denomination notes doesn’t necessarily mean that they will disappear…

Malaysian police have arrested a Lebanese man allegedly carrying fake currency with a face value of $66 million after he tipped a hotel staff with a $500 note, an official said Friday.

The largest U.S. note currently in wide circulation is a $100 bill. But police found bundles of $1 million, $100,000 and $500 notes in the man’s hotel room in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday, said Izany Abdul Ghany, head of the city’s commercial crime unit.

[From $500 Tip Leads Police to $66 Million in Fake Bills – ABC News]

If only all counterfeiters were that good!

These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]


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