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Take On Payments, a blog sponsored by the Retail Payments Risk Forum of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, is intended to foster dialogue on emerging risks in retail payment systems and enhance collaborative efforts to improve risk detection and mitigation. We encourage your active participation in Take on Payments and look forward to collaborating with you.

Take On Payments

July 28, 2017


Are Consumers Out of Touch?

According to the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), 791 data breaches occurred in the first half of 2017, an increase of 29 percent over the first half of 2016. This rising incidence of data breaches is a continuation of a trend, as the 1,093 data breaches tracked by the ITRC in 2016 represented a 40 percent increase over breaches in 2015. As data breaches continue to proliferate, I would expect consumers to be very concerned that their payment credentials (credit, debit, and bank account numbers) are at risk of being compromised. Apparently, my expectations are a bit off, which is both puzzling and alarming.

In a just-released report on a survey conducted in May, Transaction Network Services found that only 46 percent of U.S. adults believe that a data breach may have exposed their credit or debit card information. In 2015, 60 percent of the respondents had that fear. So evidence exists that data breaches are on the rise, yet consumers have less fear today than they did in the past.

In its review of the 2017 data breaches, the ITRC found that only 13 percent resulted in the exposure of card data. However, this figure is up from 10 percent in 2016. Social Security numbers appear to be the prime target, with 60 percent of breaches exposing them. Small wonder, as this information is critical for committing identity theft. Why steal a card number when you can steal a Social Security number and apply for any number of credit cards?

I would like to think that, because the industry is making great strides in improving both transaction security, with initiatives such as EMV, and data security, with encryption and tokenization, consumers are feeling that their card data is more secure than it used to be. But the pessimist in me believes that consumers may be a bit naïve about the risks associated with data breaches, and may have also been inured by the proliferating occurrences. Or maybe because of limited liability protections, consumers just don’t care about their card data falling into the wrong hands from breaches. But now is not the time for consumers to drop their guard as data breaches—more specifically, breaches of card data—are on the rise. They must continue to take steps to protect themselves from falling victim to card breaches, such as keeping debit card PINs private and examining credit card and bank statements regularly for fraudulent transactions.

Photo of Douglas King By Douglas A. King, payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

July 28, 2017 in data security, EMV, identity theft, theft | Permalink

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July 24, 2017


FIDO Tightens Authentication's Leash

Our blog often covers user authentication challenges confronting financial institutions and merchants. We feel this topic is essential given that consumers are increasingly going online to make payments and their passwords tend to be weak. Financial institutions and merchants face a difficult balancing act. They must be confident that their authentication tools effectively confirm the legitimacy of the individual attempting a transaction, but they also have to make sure these tools don't create a bad experience for the customer.

A meeting in 2009 between a fingerprint-sensor manufacturer and a global, third-party payment provider to fingerprint-enable online payments quickly turned into a conversation on how to develop an industry standard for the general use of biometrics to identify online users. Ultimately, this meeting led to the formation of the FIDO (Fast IDentity Online) Alliance in 2012. FIDO currently has a global membership of more than 250 companies and agencies spanning the payments, mobile, PC, and transaction security industries.

FIDO's principal effort has been to develop a set of specifications and certifications covering consumer devices, mobile and web applications, and biometric authentication methods for e-commerce applications. Products certified to these authentication specs reduce password dependence, transaction friction, and stolen password attacks such as phishing, man-in-the middle attacks, and transaction replays.

FIDO initially focused on mobile devices—which allow authentication with the fingerprint sensor, microphone, and camera—and developed the Universal Authentication Framework. This framework provides enhanced security using public-key cryptography, with the keys and biometric templates remaining on the mobile device. The user goes through a device registration process that creates the biometric template and a cryptographic key pair on the device and registers only the public key with the online service. To perform a transaction, the customer uses one of the phone's biometric sensors to unlock the private key on the device.

To expand these strong cryptographic authentication capabilities to second-factor use cases on the web, FIDO established a second set of specifications known as FIDO U2F, or Universal Second Factor protocol. With this protocol, the user inserts a certified U2F device, also known as a security key, into a device's USB port or uses the device's Bluetooth or near-field communication features. The application running in a FIDO-compliant web browser first challenges the user for a password and then authenticates the user with the cryptographic private key on the U2F device.

Authentication of customers, especially on a remote basis, will always be a challenge as criminals find more and more ways to spoof identities. The industry's efforts to increase the security of remote payments remain ongoing and the cooperative work demonstrated by groups such as the FIDO Alliance plays an important part in that effort.

Photo of David Lott By David Lott, a payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

July 24, 2017 in banks and banking, biometrics, consumer fraud, consumer protection, identity theft, innovation, mobile payments | Permalink

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March 20, 2017


Fraud Reduction at the IRS: Some Happy Returns

On a regular basis, Retail Payments Risk Forum members get asked, "What is the most significant risk facing the industry today?" While we often have lively, wide-ranging discussions on payment matters, we quickly reach consensus when asked the aforementioned question. Generally speaking, we would all answer "cybersecurity" (as would many other experts).

To fully understand the significance of cybersecurity, we have to explore other root risks. For payments, one of the largest issues is cybersecurity attacks that aim to steal identities. Identity theft is a not a new issue, but, more than ever, it's attached to cybersecurity. In the spirit of tax season and identity theft, I‘d like to provide an update on the recent efforts of the IRS Security Summit as it works to protect the industry from identity theft related to tax fraud.

Last year was the first full year for the IRS Security Summit and its seven work groups. Thanks to this industry collaboration, the IRS received 237,750 new identity theft affidavits between January and September 2016—50 percent fewer than what the IRS received during the same period in 2015. In addition, in 2016, the IRS stopped 50 percent more fraudulent returns from processing compared to 2015, preventing $7.2 billion in fraud losses. Even more promising is that fewer fraudulent returns actually made it to the IRS in the first place.

These results show improvements at each point of the tax refund cycle by the combined efforts of tax professionals, state tax agencies, financial services partners, and designated IRS personnel. Several tactical approaches the work groups are developing include:

  • Identification of data elements transmitted on both business and individual tax returns that can be used to identify fraud
  • A program to allow financial institutions to flag suspicious refunds before they are deposited
  • The requirement for tax software products to improve password practices and customer validation procedures
  • A new W-2 verification code for taxpayer authentication
  • The External Leads Program for suspicious refund returns
  • National education and awareness campaigns
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology Cybersecurity Framework for the tax industry
  • The creation of a cyber-threat assessment tool

This year, the IRS Security Summit is continuing its work with efforts cyber in nature. In January, the summit launched the Identity Theft Tax Refund Fraud Information Sharing and Analysis Center (IDTTRF-ISAC). This association will issue early warnings, identify fraud schemes, assess threats, address cybersecurity issues, and provide better data for law enforcement. While the design work for the IDTTRF-ISAC is still in progress, the work group has already reviewed the sharing practices followed by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Aviation Administration. To provide the tax ecosystem a highly secure, web-based information exchange will require dedicated, well-qualified analytic and cybersecurity professionals to join an already effective, mostly volunteer task force.

Photo of Jessica Washington  By Jessica Washington, AAP, payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

March 20, 2017 in cybercrime, identity theft | Permalink

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September 26, 2016


AdmiNISTering Passwords: New Conventional Wisdom

I have lived long enough to go through several cycles of "bad" foods that are now deemed not to be so bad after all. In the 1980s, we were warned that eggs and butter were bad for your heart due to their level of cholesterol. Now, decades of nutritional studies have led to a change in dietary guidelines that take into account that eggs provide an excellent source of protein, healthy fats, and a number of vitamins and minerals. Similar reversals have been issued for potatoes, many dairy products, peanut butter, and raw nuts.

Much to my surprise, much of the old, conventional wisdom about passwords has been spun on its heels with proposed digital authentication guidelines from the United States National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) and an article from the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) Chief Technologist Lorrie Cranor regarding mandatory password changes. Some of NIST's recommendations include the following:

  • User-selected passwords should be a minimum of 8 characters and a maximum of 64 characters. Clearly size does matter as generally the longer the password, the more difficult it is to compromise
  • A password should be allowed to contain all printable ASCII characters including spaces as well as emojis.
  • Passwords should no longer require the user to follow specified character composition rules such as a combination of upper/lower case, numbers, and special characters.
  • Passwords should be screened against a list of prohibited passwords—such as "password"—to reduce the choice of easily compromised selections.
  • They should no longer support password hints as they often serve like a backdoor to guessing the password.
  • They should no longer use a knowledge-based authentication methodology—for example, city where you were born—as data breaches and publicly obtainable information has made this form of authentication weak.

The FTC's Cranor argues in her post that forcing users to change passwords at a set interval often leads to the user selecting weak passwords, and the longstanding security practice of mandatory password changes needs to be revisited. Her position, which is backed by recent research studies, is consistent with but not as strong as NIST's draft guideline that says that users should not be forced to change passwords unless there has been some type of compromise such as phishing or a data breach. Cranor's post does not represent an official position of the FTC and recommends that an organization perform its own risk-benefit analysis of mandatory password expiration and examine other password security options.

So while I finish my breakfast of eggs, hash browns (smothered and covered, of course), and buttered toast washed down with a large glass of milk, I will continue to ponder these suggestions. I would be interested in your perspective so please feel free to share it with us through your comments.

Photo of David Lott By David Lott, a payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

September 26, 2016 in identity theft, privacy | Permalink

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August 15, 2016


The Personal Cost of Fraud

Last week's post by my colleague Doug King described the check fraud that took place after someone burglarized his wife's car and stole her wallet, including her driver's license and credit and debit cards. The frequency and magnitude of data breaches and constantly reading and researching payments fraud as part of my job have probably numbed me to the personal impact of fraud. When discussing the likelihood of becoming victims of some sort of identity theft fraud, we jokingly paraphrase the slogan in the South about termite infestations: "It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when." Given the data breaches and information available through public records, we operate under the assumption that the criminal element has all the information they need to perpetrate fraud against us and, for those of us who haven't already been victimized, it is likely to happen in the near future. A pessimistic outlook for sure, but one I fear is realistic.

I still get frustrated when I see the many studies that show that, despite consumers' concern about the security and privacy of their transaction and personal information, the vast majority do not adopt strong security practices. They use easy-to-guess passwords or PINs and often use the same user ID and password for their various online accounts, from social media to online banking access. I believe that many financial institutions (FI) and ecommerce providers have passively supported this environment in that they often do not require customers to use stronger practices because they don't want to incur the customer service cost associated with password resets or customer abandonment. The lack of consistent password formatting structures adds to the confusion (some require special characters and others don't allow them).

I certainly don't hold myself out as the poster child for strong security, but our family has adopted a number of the recommended stronger security practices. These include using a simple compound password structure that creates a separate password for each application, creating a more complex password structure for financial applications, establishing filter rules designed to spot spam and phishing emails, and conducting a frequent review of financial accounts to spot unauthorized transactions.

While liability protection laws and regulations generally hold a consumer financially harmless, there clearly is a social and individual cost associated with fraud from the time spent dealing with law enforcement and FI representatives to the issue of not being able to access the funds fraudulently taken until reimbursement is made. Perhaps Doug's wife's requirement for her FI to provide a stronger level of authentication reflects a changing sense of the need by the general public for stronger security practices. I certainly hope so.

Photo of David Lott By David Lott, a payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

 

August 15, 2016 in consumer fraud, cybercrime, data security, fraud, identity theft | Permalink

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David,

Great article highlighting the importance of a consumer experience that includes creating a trustworthy system. "Friction-less" transactions should not be the only driver in the equation. As well, friction has become an ambiguous over used term, that has yet to be measured or defined consistently.

New products in market now, offer low cost alternatives that protect consumers through a simple process, build trust in the system, while alleviating consumer fears and worries that their cards will be compromised. It's time for the industry to think about these solutions differently and change the paradigm. Rolling out a fraud prevention solution doesn't mean compromising the purchasing process. Instead it may actually help create greater consumer peace of mind.

Thank you, Maddy Aufseeser, CEO Tender Armor

Posted by: Maddy Aufseeser | August 16, 2016 at 12:26 PM

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June 13, 2016


What Is GPR Feeding On? Part 2 of 2

In part 1, I shared several studies on the appetite for general-purpose reloadable (GPR) prepaid cards. It turns out there is little public data covering the fraud portion of the industry. I look forward to results from the Federal Reserve's 2016 Payments Study, which added a number of questions related to GPR card fraud.

Last week, LexisNexis® released a fraud study titled Issuers Confront Application Fraud and Account Takeover in a Post-EMV U.S. The study reports that issuers annually lose $10.9 billion to card fraud overall, with 4 percent attributed to all types of prepaid cards (not just GPR), 25 percent to debit cards, and 71 percent to credit cards. The study examines what types of fraud schemes are responsible for losses, but the data is aggregated and not broken down by card type. We will look at these results and I will describe how fraudsters could use prepaid to perpetrate that type of fraud.

Lost/stolen cards: 28 percent of total card fraud

GPR card information can be lost or stolen in a variety of ways—as can happen with all payment card instruments. When the fraudster acquires the account numbers, he or she can then sell, clone, or counterfeit new cards to make fraudulent purchases. The most common schemes include:

  • Skimming magnetic stripes via compromised ATM or POS terminals
  • Cyberattacks/data breaches
  • Simply lost or stolen cards

"Lost or stolen" also include information obtained from extortion by coercive measures and deceptive marketing. Fraudsters trick consumers into loading funds on a prepaid card and then handing over the account information. Some prepaid issuers have included warnings about this type of crime on their packaging. Some recent schemes include:

  • Pretending to represent a creditor or utility and convincing victims they are overdue on bills and must immediately make a payment using a prepaid card
  • Money-winning schemes (I always win cruises) whereby a consumer must pay taxes on the winnings with a prepaid card

Account takeover: 20 percent

These schemes typically involve business bank accounts. However, a blog by Kreb’s on Security describes a well-known case involving prepaid. Cybercriminals allegedly breached a number of payment processors over a two-year period. They acquired account information and changed account balances and daily withdrawal limits. The criminals then used the breached payment card information to clone cards to use at ATMs all over the world and withdrew nearly $55 million in cash.

Application fraud: 20 percent

Ultimately, this scheme involves the criminal opening a GPR account under a stolen or false ID, using stolen funds to open the account. Schemes that fit into this category are:

  • Filing fraudulent tax returns and sending refunds to prepaid accounts. (I recently blogged on this.)
  • Buying prepaid cards with stolen or counterfeit cards, a growing scheme that essentially creates free money out of stolen funds

Counterfeit cards: 16 percent

Counterfeiting usually occurs in conjunction with other fraud schemes. Counterfeit cards (and even lost or stolen cards) can be sold, often at a discount to the purchaser, potentially making their way into the hands of law-abiding citizens through wholesale websites.

Maybe fraudsters stock their pantry with prepaid cards, but are these common schemes unique to GPR cards or prepaid accounts? Although it's easier to open a prepaid account with little direct human contact, couldn't we substitute debit card or credit line accounts in any of these fraud schemes? Every type of monetary instrument experiences fraud but the prepaid industry has worked diligently to address these common areas. The vast majority of prepaid customers are legitimate users that have chosen this type of product for economic or payment preference reasons.

Photo of Jessica Trundley By Jessica J. Trundley, AAP, payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

June 13, 2016 in cards, debit cards, fraud, identity theft | Permalink

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April 25, 2016


Be Careful, Be Very Careful

Less than halfway through the spring season of banking and payments conferences, the dominant theme of cybercrime is ringing loud and clear. In the 2015 conferences, it was virtual currency, but this year, it is the threat of cyberattacks against individuals and business in both widespread and singular manners. At a payments conference last week, a representative of the Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) told the session audience about her center's work. The IC3 has served since 2000 as a conduit for the public to provide information to the FBI regarding suspected Internet-facilitated criminal activity. IC3 tracks and investigates hacking, money laundering, identity theft, advanced fee, and ransomware schemes. It also tracks and investigates efforts to steal intellectual property and trade secrets.

In its latest annual report, IC3 provides detailed statistics on Internet-related complaints and trends. In 2014, the center received almost 270,000 complaints, accounting for more than $800 million in losses. Average monthly complaints received were 22,452. Complaint volume peaked in July at 24,521; the month with the fewest was February, with 20,888.

I asked the IC3 representative about the top complaints the unit was currently seeing. She indicated that email compromise of targeted businesses was the primary complaint and the one that generally resulted in the highest financial loss per complaint. It is common for employees in accounting areas to be targeted. They receive spoofed emails instructing them to initiate wire transfers or to change invoice remittance payments to fraudulent parties and locations, often accounts at financial institutions located in eastern Europe or the Asian-Pacific region. Although representing less than 1 percent of the total complaints filed in 2014, the losses from business email compromise accounted for 28 percent of the total losses reported, and from January 2015 to January 2016 the loss rate increased 270 percent.

Advanced fee schemes involving home rentals or sales, automobile sales, dating services, and lottery/prize winnings are also common. As the name implies, the criminals gain the confidence of victims and demand upfront payment as a sign of good faith. Once they receive the first payment, they will often try for additional payments before disappearing.

Finally, intimidation or extortion schemes are becoming more prevalent. The criminal generally contacts the victims by phone, accuses them of being past due on tax payments or utility bills, and says if immediate payment is not made, their property will be confiscated or they will be arrested. Often the criminal has used social engineering or public records to obtain legitimate data to make their representation of the agency seem more legitimate.

The size and frequency of data breaches of financial institutions, retailers, health care and insurance companies, and government agencies have led some people to conclude that just about everyone's personal identification information has been compromised to some level. I believe it is sensible to be a bit distrustful and apprehensive about the legitimacy of offers or information you might receive through emails or websites, especially those with which you are unfamiliar. Many of the attempts are easy to spot but many others involve highly sophisticated techniques, so one should be extremely careful when on the Internet.

Photo of David Lott By David Lott, a payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

April 25, 2016 in cybercrime, data security, fraud, identity theft | Permalink

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April 11, 2016


Combat Gear for Tax Season

Recently, a local newspaper reported on two ex-bankers who were sentenced for their roles in a two-year-long fraud scheme. These ex-bankers created fraudulent bank accounts, then generated more than 2,000 false tax returns totaling more than $2.8 million in fraudulent refunds. The IRS has plenty more stories of tax fraud to tell.

Currently, "file taxes" is number one on my to-do list, and maybe yours. Do you shiver considering the possibility a tax return in your name has already been filed by someone else? Criminals, organized or not, know they can earn a living by filing fake returns. Even a legitimate taxpayer who owes taxes can be a victim of identity theft tax (IDT) refund fraud, as defined by the Internal Revenue Service's (IRS) Security Summit. (Note: The Electronic Tax Administration Advisory Committee, which reports to Congress, calls IDT refund fraud stolen identity refund fraud, or SIRF).

Formed on March 19, 2015, the Security Summit joins the IRS, state departments of revenue, and members of the tax refund ecosystem to discuss ways to combat IDT refund fraud. The Summit currently has seven working groups, including one focused on refund authentication and fraud detection. We have blogged before on the importance of data analytics in detecting fraudulent filings; this working group is attempting to strengthen these data tools. The working group also laid out best practices for software providers in enhancing identity requirements and strengthening validation procedures. At the end of last year, Congress provided a big assist in these efforts by passing the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes, or PATH, Act of 2015, which closes one of the biggest loopholes in the tax refund process by requiring employers to electronically file W-2 forms and 1099 forms with the IRS by January 31 of each year instead of March 31. This new requirement, which becomes effective in 2017, will allow federal and state taxing authorities to match returns with actual W-2s for the first time.

The Security Summit also has a Financial Services Working Group, which explores ways to prevent criminals from using stolen identification credentials to establish financial services products such as checking accounts and prepaid cards that would allow the criminal to access the proceeds of fraudulent returns. After all, fraud may not be realized until after processing the tax return. Refunds are distributed either by check or direct deposit via ACH, which can be sent to a prepaid account (card) or traditional bank account. The IRS can't determine which account type an ACH refund is destined for since routing number and account number aren't standardized by account type, nor is there a database of routing numbers to identify prepaid accounts. Some have suggested that knowing when it is a prepaid account could be helpful in risk rating the return before sending the refund. The Financial Services Working Group has developed a standard state ACH file-naming convention so that state tax refunds can be identified by the industry in order to apply enhanced fraud filtering. Suspicious state tax refund deposits can be detected based on amounts, name matching, account type, length of relationship, and volume of deposits or withdrawals. The new format standard will strengthen fraud control systems in that all tax refund deposits will be able to be further scrutinized.

The Security Summit has a total of seven working groups, and they have their work cut out for them. While I shiver to think I could be a victim to identity theft, I support the progressive efforts to stop this crime, especially in the pre-filing and pre-refund stages so the criminals can't see a reward for their efforts.

Photo of Jessica Trundley By Jessica J. Trundley, AAP, payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

April 11, 2016 in ACH, consumer fraud, fraud, identity theft | Permalink

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February 8, 2016


Will Biometrics Breed Virtual Clones?

In the middle of last November, our group, the Retail Payments Risk Forum, hosted a conference on the application of biometrics for banking applications. For me, one of the important "ah-ha" moments from the conference was hearing about the potential downside to the technology. While the various speakers and panelists certainly pointed out the powerful security improvements that could result from an increased use of biometrics, there were also thoughtful contributions about what could go wrong. To illustrate one of these downsides, let me take you back to the breach that occurred at the United States' Office of Personnel Management (OPM) earlier this year. For those who may have applied for a position with a government agency over the last 20 years or so, the form letter notifying you of the potential breach of your personal data read like this:

Since you applied for a position or submitted a background investigation form, the information in our records may include your name, Social Security number, address, date and place of birth, residency, educational and employment history, personal foreign travel history, information about immediate family as well as business and personal acquaintances, and other information used to conduct and adjudicate your background investigation.
Our records also indicate your fingerprints were likely compromised during the cyber intrusion. Federal experts believe the ability to misuse fingerprint data is currently (emphasis mine) limited.… If new means are identified to misuse fingerprint data, additional information and guidance will be made available.

The conference made clear, to me anyway, that fingerprint data certainly has the potential to be misused—now. Experience leads me to conclude that it is bound to happen, especially if the biometric measurements captured at enrollment are not converted to templates that mask the data.

Biometrics are sure to proliferate in the next few years. I think everyone ought to pause and consider whether or not the security advantages—that have the potential to be turned against us in a moment—are worth it. Consider a future breach and the subsequent form letter from some entity that has built biometrics into its payment process. It could include all of those things noted in the OPM excerpt above. Additionally, victims could also have to be told that their iris, facial, and voice prints along with their DNA were taken. A virtual clone masquerading as me makes me shudder. Imagine standing up when they ask for the real you to do so—and then the dismay at not being believed.

The work to advance biometric security needs not just to be focused on advancing the accuracy and efficacy of the usage, but also to have a heavy emphasis on protecting the data collected—while it's collected and used and when it's at rest, in storage. And no matter how good all of that work is, I hope that choices for transacting business remain. Cash, which requires no authentication, and paper checks, which authenticate with a signature, figure to provide useful alternatives for quite some time.

Photo of Julius Weyman By Julius Weyman, vice president, Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

February 8, 2016 in authentication, biometrics, data security, identity theft, innovation | Permalink

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February 1, 2016


Putting All Our Payment Eggs in a Single Basket

More than 60 percent of risk managers at financial services firms believe the probability of a global, "high-impact event" has increased of late, according to a new survey from the Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation. Worry over actual or potential cyberattacks underpins this belief. In a discussion about the survey, a colleague lamented the invention of computers and wished that our financial transactions hadn't become so dependent on technology. At first I thought to agree until it dawned on me that this thinking is tantamount to tossing the baby with the bathwater.

The problem revolves around thieves, not their tools. We have never been free from worry over theft, and this was true when our best computer was an abacus. When the Aztecs used chocolate for money, counterfeiters of the day took the cacao bean, separated the original contents from the husk, and repacked it with mud. And still, in any place where commerce is overly cash-based, thieves tend to concentrate their efforts, targeting the most vulnerable with everything from counterfeit notes to outright theft. The digital age did not usher in larceny; thieves have always stolen, and hiding from computers won't insulate us from bad guys.

But hold up, you say. A block chain—the part of bitcoin technology that ensures anonymity—just might insulate you. Not to take away hope, but what have we ever invented that hasn't been hacked, cracked, or abused? I can think of nothing, no matter how cleverly conceived or well defended, that isn't eventually defeated.

I don't despair over it all and will say why in a moment, but first I need to note that even with a long list of advances, both in how and what we exchange, the new has not eradicated the old. Coins survived the advent of paper. And despite decades-old, recurring predictions of their looming demise, both coins and paper have survived the magic of computing. As a result, despair gives way to cheer. There are options, and plenty of them.

Options—different forms of payments based on diverse platforms and premises—make for textbook risk mitigation. First of all, what survives gets better. It must so that it can survive. Consider what bills look like today, with their numerous anticounterfeiting elements, compared to what they looked like 20 years ago. Or consider when checks dominated fraud conversations and contrast that to their relative (un)importance in fraud conversations today. Moreover, multiple payment channels and options mean less concentration of risk. To the extent that cash, checks, and more remain—"cyberstuff" too, but with the cyber-world diversified, not overly consolidated—risk can be spread and hence reduced.

An advanced society that wants to endure, stay resilient and strong cannot rely on only one means of exchange based on only one platform. For those wishing for one or just fewer, more modern payment solutions (with apologies to all paper haters), my advice is be careful what you wish for. For the average consumer, my advice is pay attention to the "payments intelligentsia" and be wary of pushes for an advanced, universal, singular way to do payments. Be particularly wary of changes that aren't being called for by the market itself. We can never eliminate risk but we can mitigate it and minimize the extent that bad people can create widespread trouble.

Photo of Julius Weyman By Julius Weyman, vice president, Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

February 1, 2016 in cybercrime, fraud, identity theft, innovation, payments risk | Permalink

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