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January 10, 2011

Nonbanks and payments innovation: Because that's where the money is

In the past decade, nonbank companies have driven most payments innovations. For the most part, banks have left Silicon Valley startups and other third-party players to develop cool new payments gadgets and platforms that attract venture capital and YouTube views. While this dynamic and free market has allowed for great creativity, it has also meant that many of these new payments tools emerged outside the extensive system of regulations and consumer protections that exist in the banking industry.

This blog previously covered the lack of uniform regulation of the money services business (MSBs), a significant gap given the expansion of financial services offered by MSBs like Western Union and MoneyGram in recent years. While providing a vital service for money transfer, MSBs may be vulnerable to money laundering and fraud schemes, as they lack the robust regulatory oversight that governs mainstream financial institutions. Through a series of industry partnerships, MSBs and other less-regulated nonbank payment companies are integrating with bank operations. For example, CashEdge, a relatively new alternative payment service provider, and MoneyGram recently announced one such partnership that could have implications for anti-fraud efforts.

Last year, MoneyGram paid $18 million in a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) settlement that charged the company had known about fraud on their system but did not work to address it, disregarding law enforcement warnings and willfully ignoring customer fraud complaints against agents. Consumers reported $84 million in losses between 2004 and 2008, but it is likely that many victims did not come forward, and the FTC claims that losses may actually have run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Since the settlement, MoneyGram has invested heavily in anti-fraud measures, including enhanced agent training, improved communication with consumers, and greater partnership with law enforcement and the FTC. In response to questions from the Connecticut Watchdog, MoneyGram explained that these efforts have prevented $30 million in fraud this year and resulted in a 75 percent decrease in fraudulent transactions between the United States and Canada.

However, con artists continue to exploit Americans, evidenced by the recent Make-A-Wish scam. This scam has already defrauded victims of $20 million, with the thieves again using Western Union and MoneyGram to receive payments. Although these companies provide a valuable service to those sending money abroad to family and others, they are still vulnerable to threats from bad actors.

In light of this vulnerability, MoneyGram's announcement this past fall of a partnership with CashEdge to integrate with their POPmoney service bears scrutiny. POPmoney is a bank-initiated peer-to-peer payments service that went live late in 2009 and allows users to send friends and family money through text, e-mail, or online banking. The product has been very popular, with more than 100 banks adopting the service within six months of launch. The new partnership means that POPmoney users will be able to transfer money not just to other bank accounts, but also to any MoneyGram location around the world. These POPmoney-to-MoneyGram transactions will likely be fast and irreversible, using CashEdge’s convenience and MoneyGram's global presence. Furthermore, users will initiate all transactions via online or mobile banking, funding them directly from their primary bank account. Although MoneyGram launched enhanced anti-fraud technology last year for scanning risky transactions, these online transfers would bypass live agents whose training is one line of defense against fraud.

Although there may be considerable risks in integrating MSBs directly to a financial institution's online banking services, doing so could also be an opportunity to fight fraud in these channels. If banks' extensive experience in fraud detection and mitigation were applied to the money transfer business, it could significantly improve consumer safety and experience. If there are lessons to be learned here, they could be applied to a variety of similar partnerships across the industry, improving banks' access to innovation and enhancing the risk management capabilities of new payments products.

By Jennifer C. Windh, a payments risk analyst in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

January 10, 2011 in banks and banking, innovation, money services business (MSB), risk management | Permalink

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