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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 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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