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AI VS. THE CROOKS: CAN MACHINES BEAT THE FRAUDSTERS?

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Konstantin Bodragin, Business Analyst and Digital Marketing Officer at Bruc Bond

 

Over the last couple of decades, AML has taken centre stage in the banking world. Nowadays, AML, shorthand for anti-money laundering, drives strategic planning and organisational structuring. AML concerns keep many a manager up long into the night, as the risks are huge, the penalties for infractions potentially devastating, and the criminals – especially in the era of COVID-19 – ever more enterprising. While the prevention of money laundering is paramount, the weight and risk faced by financial institutions may feel onerous to many. Luckily, the banking landscape is changing rapidly, with automation and AI making the burden significantly lighter to carry.

Banks and financial institutions face a two-pronged problem. On the one hand, the pace of digital payment is growing exponentially. Much of the world’s trade is now conducted through purely digital conduits. But it’s not only the volume of digital payments and users growing, so is the speed of transactions, with instant payment systems being deployed around the world.

The increases in speed and volume are of course good news for the bottom line, but require significant resources to handle effectively. Resources that many in the banking industry are struggling to provide adequately. The industry is shrinking rapidly, with bank closures, mergers & acquisitions, and a massive reduction in the workforce dominating headlines in the last decade. COVID-19 has only accelerated the trend, with bank after bank announcing imminent layoffs and reductions in trading. With the squeeze on resources, many banks would have struggled to keep up with the increased workload regardless of any other constraints, but here they are faced with the second prong: the complexities of AML.

AML regulations have grown thick and convoluted in recent decades, and with penalties as severe as truly massive fines and personal liability for offending compliance officers, it is taken extremely seriously. And for good reason. Fraudulent and criminal activity is costing the global economy many billions each year, with the lighter end of the spectrum meant to merely enrich the perpetrators, while at the other lies terrorist financing and socially damaging criminality. Nevertheless, it is a significant strain on banks’ already constrained resources, directly at odds with the growing pace of global digital trade.

To alleviate these pains, bankers and financiers of all varieties are scrambling to adopt the newest technologies to combat money laundering effectively, efficiently and with minimal costs. For this, AI seems to be the answer, and everybody wants a piece of the action. In 2020, you would struggle to find a fraud prevention company that doesn’t have the words ‘AI’ or ‘machine learning’ somewhere in its description.

Machine learning, one of the tools underpinning the AI fight against fraud, means the use of algorithms and statistical models to allow computers to perform tasks without specific instructions. In the context of payments, this means allowing computers to make decision related to AML compliance with no human intervention. While letting go of control is a scary prospect for many a financier, it may be the only right thing to do for effective AML implementation, both to prevent money-laundering incidents and to reduce the rate of false positives.

Current statistics indicate that for every fraudulent transaction stopped by a bank’s compliance team, some 20 legitimate transactions are prevented from going through by understandably overcautious compliance officers. Not only does this represent a serious hit to the bank’s bottom line, it wastes whatever precious resources are at the team’s disposal.

With current, manual methods, any suspicious transaction needs to be investigated in a process that can take anywhere from an hour to several days or weeks, often requiring the input of numerous team members and stakeholders across several departments. The cumulative resource drain is palpable, and the end result is that transactions are often rejected not due to any illegality, but because it is simpler, quicker and cheaper to do so. It is simply easier to suspect everyone and reject transactions outright. With AI systems, this process can take an entirely different shape.

Machine learning algorithms learn from human behaviour, create and continuously improve user profiles and use this information to validate transactions. Where this technology shines are with onboarding and transaction verification. Or rather, whenever a known user’s identity needs to be verified. A distinct change in a user’s behaviour is serious cause for alarm and indicates potential fraud, with someone pretending to be a user they’re not.

Unfortunately, AI cannot provide everything we want. When it comes to the cross-border and B2B space, AI is more limited in its uses. While businesses demand increasingly faster account opening and onboarding, the entirety of the process can’t be automated. The problem stems from a difficulty in standardising. Variations in geography, type of business, corporate structures, and even the individuals involved mean that a risk profile must be created for each case individually. Even if the processes could be automated to a higher degree, the risk to reward ratio may mean that the investment in AI isn’t sufficiently attractive. Simply put, financial institutions are rightly anxious about an automated system messing up in complex cases that could lead to massive fines or worse.

Moreover, there exists a question of accountability. When a decision is made by AI, how are you then able to find the exact reason behind why a transaction is not stopped when it should have been – other than to blame it on the algorithm? Using AI makes it very difficult to audit payments, as the fuzzy logic of Machine Learning is almost entirely obscure to us humans.

In short, yes, AI and automation are providing a much-needed breathing room for banks, financial institutions and fintechs looking to alleviate some of the AML burden. However, they are no panacea. Real-life, human bankers will stay with us for a while longer. And for those looking for banking with a friendly face, that may not be such a bad thing after all.

 

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Finance

WHY THE NORDICS WILL CONTINUE TO LEAD THE WAY IN DIGITAL PAYMENTS

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By

Kriya Patel, CEO, Transact Payments

 

While the recent introduction of PSD2 — the second iteration of the EU’s Payment Services Directive — has undoubtedly had an effect on the entire continent of Europe, some regions have been in a better place to take advantage of it than others. Largely thanks to a historical willingness to foster and embrace innovation, the Nordic nations were already something of a global leader in the electronic payments space even before PSD2. Now, it looks as if the Nordics is on course to be the first region in the world to fully realise digital transformation in payments.

With a combined population of 21.39 million, the Nordic markets of Sweden, Denmark and Norway have the highest penetration of electronic transactions anywhere in the world. It’s estimated that cash is only used in 3% of transactions in Norway, with this number only slightly higher in Sweden. Given this context, it’s no surprise that there are nearly twice as many payment cards as there are people, at 41.86 million cards. These cards are used for around 7.8 billion transactions annually — worth more than £205 billion — made at just under 600,000 point of sale (POS) locations and online.

You could be forgiven for thinking that given the advanced state of play in the payments market that there would be few opportunities left for incumbents or new entrants to take advantage of. However, for those who are willing to innovate and diversify there could be market share up for grabs. And there are also plenty of things that payments players in other regions can learn from this market. In this article, we will examine what these opportunities and lessons are.

 

Highly developed market

E-commerce accounts for a very large proportion of overall electronic transactions in the Nordics at between 19 and 22%. It’s a segment that is continuing to grow rapidly, even though cards remain the preferred way to pay online and in person.

In fact, cards account for a huge 85% of all in-person transactions in the Nordics, with debit cards used for two-thirds of all purchases in Denmark, for example. In the background, this is enabled by a highly functional consumer-permissioned digital identification system known as BankID that makes Know Your Customer (KYC) compliance for e-commerce much more straightforward for vendors and customers. This scheme, which was first envisioned more than 20 years ago, is one of the key reasons why this region has made such strong advances in digital payments.

Since 2015, all three Nordic markets have embraced digital wallet solutions – Norway’s Vipps, Sweden’s Swish and Denmark’s Bankort. In the case of Denmark, their digital wallet grew from the Bankort debit card solution shared by major Danish banks. Across all three markets, these home-grown wallets have seen strong growth, with Swish reporting the fastest usage growth in the over-45 segment. These domestic wallets are currently looking to grow their functionality, with parking and bill payments being added on top of peer-to-peer (P2P) money transfers and a debit function.

 

Digital wallets to expand functionality

As digital wallets rise and cards continue to be used for a very wide range of purchases, the Nordic markets continue to seek opportunities to reduce cash use for everyday, low-value purchases such as parking and street vendors. This will create room for mPOS (mobile Point Of Sale) and soft POS systems providers, as well multi-function card products. Loyalty is also likely to be another area for growth, with players keen to ensure that they can retain existing customers and attract new ones from their competitors.

One of the most interesting areas in the Nordic region’s payments landscape is how these digital wallet solutions can expand internationally. While digital wallets are growing rapidly in the domestic space, the capacity of these wallets to be used outside the Nordic region is still very limited. Creating international links for Nordic-only solutions will certainly be an area of growth in the coming years, so providers looking to partner with banks or wallet providers should find a receptive audience in these markets.

As with other European markets such as Spain and Germany, we’re also seeing the rise of specialist banks built to meet the needs of smaller companies in the Nordics. Banks such as Norway’s Aprila are expanding rapidly by taking advantage of PSD2’s Open Banking mandate to access SME credit data and deliver innovative payment products and lending solutions. Corporate credit and debit card products will be a major growth area in the near future as SMEs will finally get the attention they deserve.

There’s a great deal that other regions can learn from the Nordics. While the combined population of the three countries adds up to only around one-quarter of Germany, for example, the relatively low population density has proved a fertile ground for digital payments. It will be interesting to see how some of the more innovative services we see in this region can make international links, or how players in other regions try to replicate them.

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Banking

THE GROWTH OF DIGITAL BANKING: WHY COLLABORATING WITH FINTECHS IS CRUCIAL TO ADAPT TO CUSTOMER DEMANDS IN LIGHT OF THE PANDEMIC

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The growing customer demand for a seamless digital banking experience looks set to transform how the entire banking industry operates. Traditional banks have been left playing catch up with the emergence of new fintech players and challenger banks. The demand for slick digitally finance solutions is led by the digital native generations, the millennials and Gen Z. However, the coronavirus pandemic accelerated the uptake of online shopping and remote working for whole swathes of the population. Even the older generations have been left wondering why accessing banking services online remains so cumbersome.

Consumers’ growing desire to access financial services through digital channels has already led to a surge in various new banking technologies which are reconceptualising the banking industry. Consumers have rapidly moved to adopt payment solutions such as those offered by apps like Revolut.

Manoj Mistry

Retail banks continue to launch platforms in the Banking as a Service (BaaS) space, in an effort to remain competitive. An example of this in the UK is how NeoBank (Starling) used to only offer business to consumer (B2C) retail banking services. However, once it launched its BaaS platform, Starling was able to rapidly diversify to include consumer services.

New technologies like blockchain and artificial intelligence (AI) continue to evolve, and look set to have an enormous impact on banking over the next three to five years. The type of cryptocurrencies that we have seen to date look set to be far more tightly regulated, given significant governmental concerns about their potential for misuse in cybercrime and money laundering.

In the blockchain space, the transformative development which will accelerate the rise of digital finance is the advent of central bank-backed digital currencies. The US Treasury has described the creation of a digital dollar as a high priority project. China is already trialling its digital Yuan. Meanwhile, the ECB is actively pursuing its plans to launch a digital Euro. The launch of stable, highly secure digital currencies, underpinned by major central banks, looks set to ensure that digital finance will permeate every area of our lives in the not too distant future.

How we use digital finance is also set to change radically. We are used to seeing new technology emerge from Silicon Valley. However, an analysis by KPMG Australia suggests that a new breed of apps which prefigures the future of digital finance has already emerged in the East. The report notes that “super apps” are “already encroaching on traditional financial services territory”.

Super apps are defined as apps which “essentially serve as a single portal to a wide range of virtual products and services. The most sophisticated apps – like WeChat and Alipay in China – bundle together online messaging (similar to WhatsApp), social media (similar to Facebook), marketplaces (like eBay) and services (like Uber). One app, one sign-in, one user experience – for virtually any product or service a customer may want or need.

“Due in large part to their versatility, super apps have quickly become ingrained into users’ daily lives. It is not unusual for a WeChat user in China to set up a date with a friend via instant messaging, make dinner reservations, book movie tickets, order a taxi and pay for every transaction along the way, all using one single app.”

We are already beginning to see trends in this direction in the Western world, with Facebook launching a marketplace and even a dating service within its social network. Facebook also attempted to launch its own digital currency, Libra, but this move stalled when it ran into significant governmental opposition. However, Facebook hasn’t given up, and it is determinedly pursuing the launch of a revamped stablecoin, Diem, which has been redesigned to address regulatory concerns.

A group of Citi analysts recently wrote an interesting research paper, which predicts that “the story of digital money in the 2020s will be the growth of tokenised money”. Noting that both Big Tech and Central Banks “are building new payment formats and rails,” they say that “while stablecoins such as Diem await regulatory approval, they could benefit from the huge network effects of their Big Tech sponsors. In fact, Diem could be an effective tokenised payment format inside the Facebook universe.” The paper predicts that “Stablecoins, such as Diem, could benefit from the huge network effects of their Big Tech sponsors”. With 3.3 billion monthly users, Facebook certainly has remarkable global reach.

The idea of an integrated tech platform which enables people to interact and purchase goods and services – including financial services – is now being pursued by many major players.

Amazon has long been rumoured to be planning to launch its own bank. Yet, research by CB Insights concludes that, “from payments and lending to insurance and checking accounts, Amazon is attacking financial services from every angle without even applying to be a conventional bank.” This is perhaps not surprising. After all, tech companies rarely replicate existing models. They usually find disruptive new ways to achieve the outcomes that consumers want. Even the messaging service, WhatsApp, has recently moved into financial services with the launch of WhatsApp Pay.

As money becomes digitised and tokenised and ever more areas of our lives move online, the distinction between an online marketplace, a social network and a financial services provider will continue to blur. How traditional financial services companies react to these developments remains to be seen. Some may partner with tech companies in creating new services. For example, Visa and Mastercard were involved with Facebook’s Libra stablecoin project. Visa also responded to the popularity of peer to peer payment services such as Revolut by launching Visa Direct, which enables users to make payments directly to another account in 30 minutes. Most major banks now support Apple Pay, which enables users to authorise payment by scanning their face or thumb.

Banks can also collaborate with tech companies in terms of data sharing, in order to better understand what their customers want. A company like Amazon knows what books people like, what music they listen to and what they purchase. By combining such data with wider financial data, remarkably predictive Big Data models could be created. Some banks might increasingly pursue opportunities to monetise data, while others might make privacy their unique selling point.

The banking sector fundamentally deals with money. Yet, the very nature of money is set to change, as it becomes digitised. Banks are no longer merely competing with each other, but they are both competing and collaborating with tech companies and social networks. Looking ahead, the only certainty we have is that we are in for a period of remarkable change.

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