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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.

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February 16, 2010


Haitian crisis: Are mobile payment discussions an unexpected consequence?

The earthquake in Haiti caused massive destruction that ultimately leveled the capital city of Port-au-Prince and resulted in the deaths of thousands of people. As charitable assistance has poured in from around the world, an unexpected revelation has come to light with respect to the potential for mobile phone–enabled payments. Within a matter of days, wireless network operaters facilitated millions of dollars in donations, demonstrating how quickly people all over the world could assemble to adopt a single payment method for a specific purpose. Through the use of text messaging, or SMS (short message service), via the mobile phone, consumers could send payments to a variety of charitable organizations providing aid to Haiti.

Convenience of text messaging can drive adoption
I heard someone say recently that "convenience is like a drug for consumers." This convenience is possibly why texting is outpacing e-mail messaging as a mainstream form of communication—the ubiquity of mobile phones makes texting increasingly easier, cheaper, more convenient, and perhaps a natural vehicle for sending payment instructions. According to research released by Nielsen Mobile, the typical U.S. consumer sends and receives more SMS text messages than telephone calls. Mobile SMS is already widely used in developing countries to facilitate mobile money transfers for domestic person-to-person payments and cross-border remittances.

What if something goes wrong?
In many developing countries, mobile money transfer payments are transmitted via SMS without a bank partner to facilitate clearing and settlement. As described in an earlier post, Safaricom's M-pesa service provides mobile phone–enabled payments through text message instructions, with cash-out needs accommodated by agents, typically a village store or wireless retailer. But many of the payments are peer-to-peer in nature and funded by topping up the consumer's mobile phone bill. In the Haiti example, customers also could fund the payment by adding the value of the donation to their phone bills or by debiting a bank account.

Of course, the legal and regulatory environments in the United States differ markedly from developing markets like Kenya, where the M-pesa mobile payments service has grown so rapidly. The risk environments also differ significantly. In Kenya, a consumer faces less risk of loss in a mobile-enabled payment environment than the cash-based system that prevailed only a few years ago. U.S. consumers have many choices in payments and enjoy legal protections if service providers fail to consummate the payment transaction.

So what happens if the $20 donation instruction you sent to Haiti appears as a $200 or even a $2,000 charge on your bill? What if there is a disagreement about the error between you and your wireless carrier? What else could go wrong?

Protection for consumers
One of the growing challenges created by payment innovations is the creation of new laws and rule sets, which provide different protections depending on the payment type. This challenge is further complicated as payments converge and assume different formats along the supply chain. For example, a payment initiated via a credit card on a mobile device is subject to error resolution procedures and consumer protection standards established by the card networks. Similarly, Regulation E covers electronic transactions initiated from a bank deposit account. But if you disagree with a charge to your phone bill for a payment, it is questionable whether the error resolution provisions of Regulation E would even apply. As telecom firms become more important participants in retail payments, what laws and rule sets can consumers look to for protection when things go awry?

Of course, these issues are highly hypothetical but also very possible. Telecom firms and mobile payment service providers are filling new roles in mobile payments, forcing business models that we know today into a new paradigm. Perhaps the crisis in Haiti will serve as a catalyst for proactive thinking on risk issues so that all industry participants can work together to build a safe and trusted mobile sector of commerce.

By Cindy Merritt, assistant director of the Retail Payments Risk Forum

February 16, 2010 in collaboration , emerging payments , innovation , mobile network operator (MNO) , mobile payments , telecom | Permalink

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