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The U.S. bail bonds system raises serious consumer protection concerns

> Posted by Allyse McGrath, Specialist, CFI

In a criminal justice system that accepts cash in exchange for temporary freedom, a predatory financial service has taken root and become yet another barrier. In the United States, bail bondsman and global insurance companies are netting between $1.4 billion and $2.4 billion annually from vulnerable people who are unable to pay the bail they need to remain out of custody before they are tried. This is not a new problem. It’s been going on since the early days of the modern U.S. criminal justice system.

Those accused of crimes are given an option to stay in jail or put up an amount of money (bail) for their release prior to trial. (It is important to note that people at this stage are presumed innocent under law.) The bail acts as a commitment device for people to show up to their court hearing. The bail amount is returned if the defendant shows up. If they do not, the court keeps it. Bail amounts vary greatly based on the severity of the crime in question as well as the potential flight risk of the accused party. The average bail amount for a felony arrest is about $10,000, roughly two months’ worth of the median annual income in the United States. In a study of nearly 30,000 cases where bail was set in New York City, only 37 percent of defendants could afford to pay bail.

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Consumer protection is a driver of revenue, and not a regulated compliance cost

> Posted by Dylan Lennox, Partner, MFX

Educating digital financial services (DFS) providers to understand that consumer protection is a core business strategy is as important – if not more important – than consumer protection regulation supervision if we hope to ensure that vulnerable consumers are well protected. For this reason, as I articulated in my last post, I would like to see DFS providers and their managers take the lead when it comes to driving consumer protection, and that consumer advocates and regulators’ efforts are aligned to make sure this happens.

There are many possible reasons why DFS managers are not taking the lead, however, beyond a general lack of awareness of consumer protection and its importance:

  • They might be driven to achieve short-term targets with limited resources, prioritizing their time, budgets and activities to meet high ROI expectations. Or they might be under pressure to launch innovations and take advantage of the “next big thing” like digital credit or data monetization.
  • They could lack the necessary knowledge and experience in their teams to properly address consumer protection. Such know-how involves truly understanding customers’ needs, developing intuitive user interfaces, designing appropriate sales incentive structures, assessing customers’ loan affordability, and implementing effective internal control frameworks to address security, loss of privacy, or fraud risks.
  • Or perhaps the technology they have implemented does not have the required functionality to properly implement basic consumer protection requirements – like those of data security, for example. In such a case, it is left up to the individual DFS managers to make specific technical developments to address consumer risks. Such an institution-by-institution approach increases the overall cost of consumer protection to the industry and decreases the likelihood that it will be implemented as these measures compete with other priorities.

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> Posted by Dylan Lennox, Partner, MFX

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After launching and operating mobile money businesses in a number of markets over the last ten years, I was aware of the necessity of protecting consumers. I knew it was a regulatory priority alongside important issues such as AML and interoperability, but that’s where I left it: in the compliance box, while I waited to be told what to do. All the consumer protection literature I read gave me the same heavy feeling, laden as it is with long lists of requirements: protect customer’s funds from loss and fraud, ensure proper disclosure and transparency, keep their data private, make sure customers can have their complaints resolved, and so forth. These looked like the core business processes I needed to implement anyway, so I felt we would be in fine shape if we were ever to have a supervisory inspection. I never looked any deeper.

In the days when enabling regulation meant “Please leave us alone to grow,” I kept my head turned firmly in the direction of my business goals, growing a base of active customers to reach scale, and then taking advantage of those network effects. After all, financial inclusion was also an objective we shared with the regulator, and as long as we were growing they maintained a light touch.

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> Posted by Sonja E. Kelly, Director of Research, CFI

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As we have watched events unfold in Iran, it has become increasingly clear that major problems with stability and security of funds in the financial system is a driver of civil unrest and political instability.

Over the last few weeks more than a dozen people have been killed and thousands have been arrested in demonstrations across the country. These demonstrations have involved tens of thousands of people in the most significant public display of opposition that the government has seen in a decade. The magnitude of this unrest is significant, and global concern is growing.

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> Posted by Carmen Paraison, Senior Program Associate, Africa, the Smart Campaign

Nigeria has an ambitious target of including 70 percent of its population in the formal financial services fold by 2020, from a baseline of 44 percent with access to an account in 2014. But financial inclusion involves a lot more than account access. The Center for Financial Inclusion defines financial inclusion as a state in which all people who can use them have access to a full suite of quality financial services at affordable prices delivered by a range of providers in a competitive market with convenience, dignity and consumer protections, to financially capable clients. Protection for consumers is an important part of that definition, and I recently had the opportunity to visit Lagos to learn more about consumer protection challenges in the country. In particular, I wanted to see how Smart Certification can help Nigeria reach its financial inclusion goals in a way that provides benefits to customers.

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If digital financial services are so convenient and affordable, why are uptake and usage rates among individuals with lower incomes so low? Monique Cohen explores the mismatch between products and money management needs.

> Posted by Monique Cohen

This maxim governs much of our financial lives, rich or poor. Yet, we offer financial services to the unbanked and underbanked, largely ignoring it. The thinking around customer centrality as it affects financial services for the poor emphasizes appropriately responding to people’s needs and wants for financial services. But, as Kim Wilson pointed out, this is still not happening:

We have an agenda, which is this: please be our customer, have your needs, express them so long as they are about digital payments or failing that, using a bank account – a lot – and preferably, digitally. Else, we don’t give a damn. We don’t care about your archaic methods… We desperately want and need you to modernize, to become just like us. Otherwise we have no justification for all the work we do and all the money we spend.

Until now the perceived drivers of uptake of digital financial services (DFS) have been their assumed attributes of convenience, timeliness and affordability, relative to current formal and informal financial service offerings. However, with uptake and usage levels of only 30 percent for digital financial services, it is clear that this rationale falls short. Impediments to high usage continue to be overlooked.

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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion

Millions of American households use payday loans each year. The question of whether these lenders are legitimate or scams is complicated, Elisabeth Rhyne finds.

I recently browsed the website of CashNetUSA, a company that offers payday loans and related products in 38 states across the United States. The website was easy to read and presented the application process and the (very high) charges simply and clearly. But I wanted to know more. Is this company legitimate? Does it live up to its promises? Will I experience any problems along the way? More broadly, how can a consumer tell whether an online payday lender is trustworthy?

I had no peer or family member to ask about this, so I turned to online credit provider reviews and began a Google-based armchair investigation.

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Insights from new CFI Fellows research on integrating human touch in Kenya’s digital financial services landscape.

> Posted by Alexis Beggs Olsen, CFI Fellow

Mbugua, owner of a restaurant, a butchery, and a dry goods store in Nairobi, Kenya has actively used financial services to grow his businesses from the meager beginnings of a small stall selling boiled cow heads. He is currently juggling four digital loans and two microfinance loans. Whenever possible, Mbugua prefers to interact with his financers digitally to save time. Yet, like most of the Kenyans my research associate and I spoke with as part of our CFI Fellows research project, Mbugua considers in-person interaction to be critical at certain stages. “Face-to-face is tiresome. There’s a time factor,” he said. “But it’s 100 percent perfect. Your questions will be exhausted. And you can’t negotiate with the phone.”

Our research seeks to understand when and why customers prefer human over digital interfaces across their financial services customer journeys – and vice versa. We focused on value-added financial services, including loans, savings, and insurance, and we chose Kenya because of the country’s deep penetration and market maturity of mobile phone-based financial services. We conducted in-depth qualitative interviews with 104 respondents.

We discovered that a “centaur” solution—one that unites the strengths of both tech and human touch—offers the most promise for both customers and financial service providers (FSPs) targeting the base of the pyramid.

Digital interfaces outperform human interaction in a number of areas: digital services are often more convenient (once you learn how to use them), more predictable and consistent (with the exception of loan approvals and rejections, which are often opaque), and less stressful for customers during collections. However, most Kenyans – even those who already use low-touch digital products – prefer to interact with a person face-to-face at key stages in their customer journey. We found that while Kenyans are very comfortable conducting transactions digitally, other key aspects of the financial service customer journey are not adequately handled by digital means alone.

Like most of our respondents, Mbugua wants to interact directly with a person to accomplish three critical tasks:

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> Posted by Center Staff

Are you working to expand quality financial services access? The 2018 Harvard Business School – Accion Program on Strategic Leadership in Inclusive Finance is accepting applications for what will be another exceptional week of learning and exchange among world leaders in financial inclusion. The program will take place March 25-30, 2018 at the HBS campus in Boston, Massachusetts. We hope you’ll join us!

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> Posted by Ana Ruth Medina Arias, Lead Specialist for Latin America and the Caribbean, the Smart Campaign

“The risk is to regulate by anecdotes and not by evidence.” – Mariela Zaldivar, Deputy Superintendent, the Superintendency of Banking, Insurance and Private Pension Fund of Peru (SBS Peru)

In recent years, Peru has called for our attention not only for being at the top of the Global Microscope’s international country rankings for the most conducive environment for financial inclusion, but also for its historic collaborative effort to establish a fully-interoperable nationwide digital payments platform (Bim) to support the supply of financial services. But buckle up, there is more.

The country’s regulator, the Superintendency of Banking, Insurance and Private Pension Fund of Peru (SBS Peru), has taken client protection very seriously, and despite already having very robust systems (on grievance redress and dispute resolution, for example), it continues to lead with groundbreaking policy changes based on evidence and research to ensure that regulation is aligned with the needs and capabilities of the end client. The Smart Campaign is proud to have collaborated with the SBS on these policy changes.

Client Voices was a research project of the Smart Campaign that directly asked clients in four countries (Peru, Benin, Georgia and Pakistan) about their experiences with financial providers and what they thought constituted good and bad treatment. In Peru, the project was made possible through strong support from the SBS, which was involved from the very beginning, providing substantive inputs to all project phases. However, their engagement did not stop there. The SBS is also committed to implementing the client protection recommendations arising from the project.

Here is how the SBS turned the major findings of the research into an opportunity for policy improvement in the area of financial consumer protection.

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Credit Suisse is a founding sponsor of the Center for Financial Inclusion. The Credit Suisse Group Foundation looks to its philanthropic partners to foster research, innovation and constructive dialogue in order to spread best practices and develop new solutions for financial inclusion.

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog, except where otherwise noted, are those of the authors and guest bloggers and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Financial Inclusion or its affiliates.