September 02, 2014
Not All Digital Currencies Are Virtual
Besides a few classic novels, my summer reading list has largely consisted of various papers and reports on virtual and digital currencies. Not all digital currencies are virtual currencies, though these two terms are often incorrectly used interchangeably. For example, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recently issued a warning about the risks associated with Bitcoin and other virtual currencies, yet some media outlets reported that the agency issued a warning about digital currencies. And while the media statements are technically correct since virtual currency is one form of digital currency, they fail to recognize that digital currencies are broader than just virtual currencies. In an effort to clear up confusion and create a better understanding of digital currencies, Portals and Rails offers the following simple framework and definitions.
Digital currency is a digital representation of value and consists of both electronic and virtual currency. Digital currency can be used to purchase physical, digital, and virtual goods. Some, but not all, digital currencies use cryptography as their primary method of security.
Electronic currency, also referred to as e-money, is pegged to a fiat currency. It is a digital representation of value that is government-issued legal tender. The link between electronic currency and fiat currency is preserved and has a legal foundation. The funds of an electronic currency are expressed in the same unit of account as the fiat currency. Examples of electronic currency transactions include payments via credit, debit, and prepaid cards; ACH; and PayPal.
Virtual currency is not pegged to a fiat currency. It is a digital representation of value that is not government-issued legal tender. The funds of a virtual currency are not expressed in a fiat currency. There are currently more than 300 tracked virtual currencies, and as we noted in a Portals and Rails post last year, these currencies can take on multiple characteristics. Examples of virtual currencies include Bitcoin, Ripple, Ven, and Dogecoin.
By Douglas A. King, payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed
August 25, 2014
Forty Years and Still Scamming
I suspect that a lot of us have received a letter or an e-mail supposedly from another country's government official or banker informing us that there were some unexpected riches coming our way. We could become millionaires, these strangers tell us, by claiming a prize from a lottery that we don't remember entering. Or they say we just might become millionaires by helping them transfer money out of their country, since they can't because of some sort of bureaucracy or regulation. Before tossing these letters or e-mails into the trash, did you ever linger for just a moment wondering if these riches could actually be coming to you?
A large number of people, particularly in the United States, think the scam is legitimate and are willing to invest up to tens of thousands of dollars to claim their share of the pot of gold. Sadly, they find not only that there is no gold, but also that there isn't even a pot. This type of fraud is classified as an advance fee fraud because the scam involves the victim having to send money in advance, to cover fees or taxes, before they can receive their share of the bounty. The advance fee fraud is one type of 419 Nigerian fraud, so called because early versions originated in Nigeria, where criminal code 419 describes the fraud. 419 fraud began in the 1970s with letters—often with counterfeit postage marks—that targeted small business owners, requesting their help in handling new oil wealth.
Over the next three decades, the solicitations grew at such a tremendous pace that in 2002, the Department of Justice got a court order to allow postal employees to open every letter from Nigeria that was handled through the United States Postal Service's mail facility at John F. Kennedy Airport. They found that more than 70 percent of these letters contained some sort of fraudulent scheme solicitation.
As law enforcement's focus on Nigeria intensified, the 419 groups moved to other countries. These groups reportedly have major operations in at least 150 countries and the involvement of more than 800,000 people. Ultrascan Advanced Global Investigations (UAGI), an Amsterdam-based association focused on disrupting the operations of criminal networks, stated in a preliminary 2013 report that U.S. victims lost $2.3 billion in 2013—more than in any other country.
As with other types of criminal activity, the techniques that advance fee criminals use have become more sophisticated, evolving alongside technological advances. They've moved their method of solicitation from mail to faxes and then to e-mails. And now, instead of just sending mass mailings or e-mails, many of the criminals are tailoring e-mail messages, lacing them with personalized information obtained from social networks and professional and dating websites. For lottery-themed advance fee schemes, the UAGI estimates that 3 percent of the targets respond and make at least one advance payment.
Even more interesting, the report refutes some common misconceptions about the victims usually being lower income or with less education and desperate for some sort of financial windfall. In fact, a number of high-income professionals are taken in by some of the more sophisticated schemes involving high-dollar ventures including real estate development and medical equipment. The report also notes that, for victims losing more than $200,000, 85 percent of them had recently experienced some sort of life-changing family trauma such as a death, divorce, or major illness.
Education by financial institutions remains the most valuable tool to defend against these schemes. These institutions should use in-house media and other methods, such as public service announcements, to alert consumers to these scams, particularly those that appear in the FIs' service areas. I know of some institutions that train their frontline staff to watch for such unusual transactions, particularly by the elderly, as a supplement to their anti-money-laundering education. Financial institutions and consumers should report advance fee fraud attempts immediately to the local Secret Service or FBI office for investigation.
By David Lott, a payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed
August 18, 2014
Crooks Target Business Clients
Fraudsters are always looking for ways to take advantage of trusted relationships, such as between a business and their established vendors. The fraudster's goal is to trick the business into thinking they are paying their vendor when the dollars are actually being diverted to the crook. A common scheme is for a business to receive instructions on a spoofed but legitimate-seeming e-mailed invoice to send a wire transfer to the vendor or business partner immediately. The business may pay, not realizing until it's too late that the funds are actually going to a fraudster or money mule. The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) recently issued a scam alert on this scheme noting reported losses averaging $55,000, with some losses exceeding $800,000.
Criminals can perpetrate this type of fraud in many ways. Devon Marsh, an operational risk manager at Wells Fargo and chairman of the Risk Management Advisory Group for NACHA–the Electronic Payments Association, addressed some of the ways at a Payments 2014 conference session "Supply Chain Fraud Necessitates Authentication for Everyone," including these:
- Calling or e-mailing the business, pretending to be the vendor, to change payment instructions
- Sending counterfeit invoices that appear genuine because they are patterned after actual invoices obtained through a breach of the business's e-mail system or a vendor's accounts receivable system
Marsh also discussed important ways to reduce the risk of falling victim to these schemes. As with any e-mail that seems questionable, the business should verify the legitimacy of the vendor's request by reaching out to the vendor with a phone call—and not using the number on the questionable e-mail or invoice. The business should also educate its accounts payable department to review any vendor's payment requests carefully, verifying that the goods or services were received or performed and questioning and checking on anything at all that does not look right, such as an incorrect or different vendor name or e-mail address.
The Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council's 2011 supplement to its guidance stresses the need in an internet environment for financial institutions to authenticate their customers. The concepts this guidance addresses are also sound practices for businesses to use in authenticating their vendors.
By Deborah Shaw, a payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed
August 11, 2014
Improving Mobile Security with Biometrics
During the last year, the release of two smartphones with fingerprint readers by two different manufacturers was met with a lot of excitement. People in the payments industry were keen on the ability of the new phones to better authenticate mobile payments. Fingerprints are one of several biometric methods used today to supplement passwords.
Biometrics refers to techniques that use measurable physical characteristics that lend themselves to automated checking techniques. In addition to fingerprints and vein recognition, biometrics can include voice, facial, and iris recognition, and even DNA matching, among others.
As the Federal Reserve's report Consumers and Mobile Financial Services 2014 noted, consumers' security concerns are a big barrier to the adoption of mobile banking. Mobile proponents believe this barrier can be reduced with the additional security features that mobile phones can provide, along with consumer education. There is no question that the mobile phone offers a number of ways to authenticate the user more positively, using both overt and covert methods. One well-known covert option is the smartphone's geolocation function, which allows verification that the phone is in the location it's supposed to be. Another covert method is "device fingerprinting," whereby a number of digital characteristics about the consumer's phone can be captured and used to verify that the phone being used is the one originally registered.
The most common overt biometric methods being tested today are fingerprint and facial recognition. While only a small number of mobile phones in use today in the United States have fingerprint readers, the vast majority have a camera that could support a facial recognition application. Both of these biometric methods are minimally invasive.
The key difference between biometric verification and user ID and password verification creates the greatest challenge for implementing biometrics authentication: with passwords, unless there is a 100 percent match between the data on file and the data the user enters in trying to gain access, the request is automatically rejected. It may be the legitimate user trying to gain access but maybe he or she forgot the password. Nevertheless, the system rules block access until the user's identity can be authenticated through some other means. On the other hand, the nature of biometrics is such that a 100 percent match between the stored template value and the live template value is rare—possibly because of differences in lighting conditions or angles when biometric measurements are made, or differences between readers, or some other reason. To deal with this gap, the manager of each application has to determine an acceptable accuracy level for both false-positives (whereby a party incorrectly matched is authorized) and false-negatives (whereby the authentic party is denied access). Naturally, false-positives pose the greater threat. False-negatives generally just involve some level of inconvenience until the individual can be authenticated and provided access.
No matter what biometric authentication methodology a system uses, the most important step is validating each customer's biometrics upon enrollment in the program. We will discuss this issue and other challenges for biometric programs in future issues of Portals and Rails.
By Dave Lott, payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed
August 04, 2014
Fishing for Your Private Data
Recently, I received a text from my daughter about an e-mail that appeared to be from her financial institution. The e-mail stated that online access to her bank account would be terminated because she had tried to access her account from several computers. However, she could retain access by clicking on a link. While my daughter's natural reaction was concern that she would lose online access to her bank account, I told her that this was probably a phishing incident.
Unlike the hobby of fishing, phishing is the work of fraudsters. With phishing, fraudsters attempt to dupe a consumer or employee into believing that they must immediately provide personal or private data in response to an e-mail that appears to be (but is not actually) from a legitimate entity. Much like fishing, phishing relies on numerous casts, with the phisher hoping that many of those who receive the e-mail will be fooled and swallow the bait. If they get hooked, malware may be loaded on their computer to monitor their keystrokes and pull out financial service website log-on credentials. Or, in my daughter's case, if she had clicked on the link, it would have most likely taken her to a legitimate-looking web page of the bank and requested her online banking credentials. The volume and velocity by which anyone can send e-mails has created a wide window of opportunity for fraudsters.
In their e-mail, the fraudsters create a sense of urgency by indicating some sort of drastic action will be taken unless the customer acts immediately. Although organizations have repeatedly posted statements that they would never send an e-mail asking for private data, this threatened action often causes the recipient to act without considering the consequences or taking the time to call the company or organization to verify the e-mail's authenticity. If it is not authentic, the individual should immediately delete the e-mail without replying, without clicking on any links embedded in the email, and without opening any attachments.
In addition to the need for consumers and employees to be wary of e-mails that are not legitimate, financial institutions must continually stay abreast of the latest technologies to help combat these schemes and educate customers. In a past post, we discussed steps financial institutions should take to help customers protect themselves from fraudsters. These schemes remain in the news even though banks, businesses, and government entities continue to post educational information and best practices for consumers and employees. As my daughter's example demonstrates, consumers opening bank accounts for the first time are not likely to know these schemes. This example suggests that—in addition to educating both business and consumer customers generally—it would be beneficial for financial institutions to place more emphasis on education concerning these schemes at the time customers open their accounts.
July 28, 2014
Where's the Mobile Payment?
I was a big fan of the '80s Wendy's commercials that featured an older woman uttering the phrase, "Where's the beef?" I recently found myself muttering something similar to myself: "Where's the mobile payment?" In early July, I came across the American Banker website headline "Six Fintech Startups That Wowed Bankers." The article highlighted six tech startups that recently pitched their financial products and services to executives from 15 of the largest banks at a one-day event. I was expecting to read about several mobile payment or mobile wallet startups, but surprisingly, none were mentioned.
According to the article's author, for a fintech startup to capture a banking executive's attention, it must address a need in the marketplace that few others are meeting. Could it be that the executives don't view mobile proximity payments as a customer need? I recently blogged about mobile payments fatigue and received some mixed feedback—but I heard little from our banking community readers. From a mobile payments perspective, they are extremely active in both person-to-person and bill payment initiatives. But outside of a few limited pilot programs, financial institutions have made little noise regarding mobile proximity payments or mobile wallets.
Given the prominent role financial institutions are playing in mobile payments through person-to-person and bill payments, why aren't they actively participating in proximity payments at retailers? Are they failing to meet the needs of their customers? According to the J.D. Power 2014 Retail Banking Study, customer satisfaction with banks is at an all-time high. And though the study found that some banks are falling short of meeting their customers' needs, the large banks covered in the survey experienced a significant rise in customer satisfaction scores, leading me to believe these banks are doing as good of a job as ever in listening to their customers and fulfilling their needs.
Is it possible that there isn't currently a driving consumer need for banks to deliver a mobile proximity payment or mobile wallet solution? My colleague Dave Lott suggested earlier this year that for mobile adoption to take place, the experience needs to follow Andy Grove's 10x rule and be 10 times better than what consumers are used to. What do you think it will take to catch the eyes of banking executives in the mobile proximity payments space?
By Douglas A. King, payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed
July 21, 2014
How Much Will Chip-Card Technology Affect ATM Owners?
Last week, my colleague Doug King wrote a post about the impact of the migration to chip-card technology on financial institutions that issue cards, with a focus on the smaller issuers. What happens with ATMs is an aspect of the chip-card migration that hasn't received much media attention. This may be because the liability shift timetable for ATMs—for MasterCard, it's October 2016; for Visa, October 2017—comes after the merchants' October 2015 deadline.
Of the roughly 430,000 ATMs in the country, nonfinancial institutions own just over half. The size of these independent ATM deployers (called IADs) range from two large companies with installed ATM bases of 60,000+ machines to thousands of small independent owners with a handful of ATMs. The conversion to support chip cards can cost these businesses up to $500–800 per machine. This impending ATM upgrade has echoes of the Triple DES (or Triple Data Encryption Standard) upgrade that Visa and MasterCard mandated in 2003, with a 2007 deadline. That upgrade involved strengthening ATM transaction security to better protect cardholder's personal identification numbers. Like today's chip-card upgrade, some of the older ATMs did not have the computing power necessary to support the upgrade, which meant the owners had the additional expense of replacing or decommissioning these machines. The independent-ATM installed base declined by more than 12 percent from 2007 to 2009 because many of the owners could not afford the Triple DES upgrade.
The costs of the current upgrade come at a time when the operators are seeing a constriction of their revenues. ATM usage has not kept up with the increased number of machines, which has resulted in lower average volumes per ATM and lower transaction revenues. The increased use of debit cards at retailers along with the cash-back option that many retailers offer are primary reasons for the lower usage.
The ATM owner has two main sources of revenue: interchange fees and surcharge fees. The card issuer pays the interchange fee; the cardholder pays the surcharge, which the ATM owner adds to the transaction amount. (The cardholder may also incur a "foreign transaction" fee from their financial institution for using an ATM outside their financial institution's network, but the ATM owner receives no portion of that fee.)
For 10 years, net interchange revenue to the IADs been steadily decreased. An industry survey showed that average interchange revenue per cash withdrawal dropped from $0.555 in 2006 to $0.3625 in 2012. ATM owners have some ability to raise their surcharge amount, but they have to remain competitive. (The average ATM surcharge amount for ATMs is about $2.50, according to Bankrate.com’s 2012 Checking Survey.) To offset these profitability constrictions, ATM owners are continuing to look for additional revenue sources, such as video advertising or branding their ATM with the name of a financial institution.
As the chip-card deadline for ATMs gets closer, Portals and Rails will continue to monitor and report on its impact.
By David Lott, a retail payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed.
July 14, 2014
EMV Train is Gathering Steam: Procrastinators Take Warning
With each passing day it becomes more apparent that the United States’ EMV train—the one carrying the chip-embedded credit and debit cards—has left the station and is gaining steam for the ride towards the October 2015 POS liability shift timetable. In a June 12 press release, the EMV Migration Forum estimates that 100 million EMV cards (approximately 9 percent of the card base) will be issued by the end of 2014 plus an estimated 4.5 million chip-capable terminals (approximately 40 percent of terminals) will be installed by year’s end. Demonstrating different perspectives on the speed of the EMV train, two research groups, Aite Group and Javelin Strategy & Research, released their card conversion estimates:
Javelin also projects that 53 percent of POS terminals will be chip-enabled by the end of 2015.
The newly released PULSE 2014 Debit Issuer Study perhaps best captures EMV’s gathering speed. Of the issuers surveyed for this study, 86 percent plan to issue EMV cards in the next two years, compared to only 50 percent in the previous year’s study. However, the study reveals there is a bit of discrepancy between the EMV plans of large and small financial institutions. About 22 percent of community banks and 17 percent of credit unions have no EMV issuance plans compared to only 4 percent of large banks.
We know from experience that fraud generally migrates to the weakest link. So the EMV issuance findings are a bit troublesome, especially when we consider that the study found credit unions and community banks had already experienced significant increases to their signature debit fraud rates in 2013 from 2012 compared to large banks. Further, in 2013, credit unions and community banks had fraud rates approximately 25 percent and 15 percent, respectively, greater than that of large banks.
Despite the EMV naysayers, the U.S. payments industry is moving ahead with this initiative. For those smaller financial institutions waiting to see how EMV will unfold, the future has become clearer. By not acting, those financial institutions could become the "weakest link" and an easier target for the fraudsters compared to peers and competitors that do migrate. The train is rumbling down the EMV tracks, but there still is time to get an issuance plan in place.
By Douglas A. King, payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed
July 07, 2014
Fighting the High-Tech Criminals
The days of small gangs or the lone criminal committing "grab-and-go" robberies or counterfeiting checks and currency are certainly not over. However, crime stories involving millions of dollars and criminal networks that span the globe tend to grab the headlines these days. Just about everyone has heard about the recent data breaches at major retailers and ATM cash-outs that have netted criminals millions of dollars. A presentation at a recent payments security conference addressed the role of high-tech criminal groups in such crimes and the major threat they present to the security and reputation of our payment system. The speaker described how law enforcement agencies are working vigilantly to shut down these large global criminal enterprises and their cybercriminal activities.
The speaker detailed the composition of a criminal network, which closely resembles the organizational structure of a multinational corporation with numerous subsidiaries. This image shows the major components of the criminal enterprise.
- Executives—These people serve as the originating group and ultimate beneficiaries of the spoils of their successful attacks. They identify the types of criminal cyberactivity to pursue, including identifying the target companies or computer systems.
- Financiers—If the executives don't have the financial resources to carry out their scheme, they often link to a funding source. The financiers may receive a share of the executives' profits as compensation, or they may simply treat the transaction as a loan, charging interest until the loan proceeds are repaid.
- Exploiters—The hackers and software personnel identify vulnerabilities in software or systems and write malware code to compromise a target's account credentials. They normally receive compensation based on the type of attack and the level of sophistication.
- Botnet operators—A botnet is a network of compromised computers. The botnet operators, sometimes called "bot herders," control these systems. They run automated programs in the background, so they are often undetected by the legitimate computer owners, to send massive amounts of spam, conduct spear phishing attacks, or in some other way launch attacks against their targets. Botnet operators receive payment based on the number of compromised computers they use and the time required for the attack.
- Money mules—These players are in the most vulnerable group; they are the people on the street, retrieving the stolen funds and sending them, minus their cut, to the executives. Some law enforcement authorities have said that mules' share of the ill-gotten proceeds can be as high as 60 percent, depending on an operation's level of risk.
While these players are closely linked, they are generally separate criminal groups that have developed niche roles. The separation provides some safety to the executive group in that if members of one of the linked groups are arrested, executives can find another group to take their place so they can continue their illegal activities.
The major global criminal networks have proven to be formidable because of their resilience, but they are not invulnerable. Law enforcement agencies in the United States and other countries are working together to attack these networks through a variety of strategies. Unfortunately, in many cases, the core criminal leaders are physically located in safe havens, so called because local policies may prevent extradition or because governmental officials may be complicit or corrupt so they ignore the criminal activity as long as the targets of the crime are outside their borders.
Portals and Rails salutes the law enforcement personnel for their tireless efforts in this constant battle.
June 30, 2014
A Call to Action on Data Breaches?
I recently moved, so I had to go online to change my address with retailers, banks, and everyone else with whom I do business. It also seemed like an ideal opportunity to follow up on the recommendations that came out after the Heartbleed bug and diligently change all my passwords. Like many people, I had a habit of using similar passwords that I could recall relatively easily. Now, I am creating complex and different passwords for each site that would be more difficult for a fraudster to crack (and at the same time more difficult for me to remember) in an attack against my devices.
I have found myself worrying about a breach of my personal information more frequently since news of the Heartbleed bug. Before, if I heard about a breach of a certain retailer, I felt secure if I did not frequent that store or have their card. Occasionally, I would receive notification that my data "may" have been breached, and the threat seemed amorphous. But the frequency and breadth of data breaches are increasing, further evidenced by the recent breach of a major online retailer's customer records. This breach affects about 145 million people.
As a consumer, I find the balance between protecting my own data and my personal bandwidth daunting to maintain. I need to monitor any place that has my personal data, change passwords and security questions, and be constantly aware of the latest threat. Because I work in payments risk, this awareness comes more naturally for me than for most people. But what about consumers who have little time to focus on cybersecurity and need to rely on being notified and told specifically what to do when there's been a breach of their data? And are the action steps usually being suggested comprehensive enough to provide the maximum protection to the affected consumers?
Almost all states have data breach notification laws, and with recent breaches, a number of them are considering strengthening those laws. Congress has held hearings, federal bills have been proposed, and there has been much debate about whether there should be a consistent national data breach notification standard, but no direct action to create such a standard has taken place. Is it time now to do so, or does there need to be more major breaches before the momentum to create such a standard makes it happen?