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> Posted by Kyle Burgess, Executive Director and Editor in Chief, Consumers Research

From cash to digital currency

Image Credit: FamZoo Staff. No alterations made. CC BY-SA 2.0

Digital currencies, such as Bitcoin and its underlying blockchain protocol, introduce a technical platform for a new global payment infrastructure that has the potential to level the playing field for the 2.5 billion people across the globe who are unbanked or underbanked. The immutable and distributed nature of digital currencies and a number of the platforms built on top of blockchain protocols can provide improved security, efficiency, affordability, privacy, and transparency in financial transactions, as well as a whole host of other transfers of value or information. Furthermore, thanks to the proliferation of mobile devices, blockchain-based digital currencies can even remove the middleman, and serve as a bank in your pocket. However, fully removing a third party intermediary comes with significant risks, as there’s no one to call if you lose your private key (which functions as your password), break your hardware wallet (which acts as your digital vault), or want to dispute a payment because the goods you purchased are damaged (because digital currency transactions are irreversible). Like any other product, consumer protection must be at the forefront of the development and implementation of digital currency and blockchain-based financial services.

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> Posted by Sonja Kelly, Director of Research, CFI

The role of data is increasingly crucial as the financial services industry shifts to digital delivery, alternative analytics, targeted marketing, and data-driven customer segmentation. As outlined in the recent Accion report, Unlocking the Promise of Big Data to Promote Financial Inclusion, the future of financial inclusion will include higher volumes of better quality and more wide-ranging data to expand access, lower prices, reduce bias, and drive innovation. However, the use of big and alternative data in financial inclusion is not a value-neutral trend—nor should it be.

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> Posted by Danielle Piskadlo, Manager, Investing in Inclusive Finance, CFI

Data privacy is officially dead. The U.S. House of Representatives’ vote to overturn the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) internet privacy rules was yet another nail in the coffin, making data privacy a thing of the past.

In previous generations, banking may have been based on personal relationships and a handshake. More recently, it was based on your banking history and financial flows. But for future generations, access to financial products and services will almost undoubtedly be decided by big data algorithms, gobbling-up whatever digitized information, financial or otherwise, the corporate tentacles can seize.

We know what you’re thinking. Won’t this help underwrite previously-underbanked individuals? Of course. And what does data-sharing matter so long as you don’t have anything to hide? Won’t ultra-targeted ads make the consumer experience better? All definitely true. Well, actually there are inherent problems with these lines of thinking, but honestly what’s the point of resisting? The notion of being “data rich” has never been more powerful. And what are negative social externalities in 2017? After all, the U.S. political system breathed new life into the fallacy of “clean coal” earlier this week in the name of making a few bucks.

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> Posted by Carmen Paraison, Project Associate, the Smart Campaign

On January 18th, 2017, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) filed suit against Navient, the largest federal and private student loans servicer in the U.S., for “systemically and illegally failing borrowers at every stage of repayment.” Allegations include:

  • Misallocating student loan payments by failing to follow instructions from borrowers about how to apply their payments across their multiple loans.
  • Steering struggling borrowers toward multiple forbearances instead of lower payments via income-driven repayment plans. (Forbearance is an option that lets borrowers take a short break from making payments, but that still accrues interest.)
  • Providing unclear information about how to re-enroll in income-driven repayment plans.
  • Deceiving private student loan borrowers about requirements to release their co-signer (e.g. a parent or grandparent) from their loans, which can be advantageous given some lenders’ practices surrounding the death of a co-signer.
  • And failing to act when borrowers complained.

Navient currently services more than $300 billion in loans for more than 12 million borrowers.

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> Posted by Ros Grady

The following post was originally published on Ros’ website.

27204912422_277033d622_b2016 has seen a sharp-eyed global focus on clarifying what responsible digital financial inclusion means in practice. This is connected to the increasing recognition that digital financial inclusion brings new and significant risks for consumers, as well as considerable benefits.

The September 2016 McKinsey Global Institute Report – How Digital Finance Could Boost Growth in Emerging Economies – suggests that widespread use of digital finance (payments and digital services delivered via mobile phones and the Internet) could add $3.7 trillion to the GDP of emerging economies – or six percent – by 2025. Which in turn could create around 95 million jobs.

So responsible digital financial inclusion is important.

But what was new in 2016? Consider these important developments:

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In the following post, John Owens offers an overview of his research project with the CFI Fellows Program.

Background & Research Questions

More and more online credit providers have started to offer loans to not only consumers but also to SMEs around the world.

Outside of digital banking platforms, new alternative online and digital platforms that target consumers and small SMEs include:

  • Peer-to-peer (P2P) SME lenders
  • Online balance sheet lenders
  • Loan aggregator portals
  • Tech and e-commerce giants
  • Mobile data-based lending models

While the rise of alternative data-based lending has opened new and innovative credit opportunities for individuals and SMEs, these new technologies and providers also come with several consumer protection challenges. These can be categorized into seven main areas:
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> Posted by Nadia van de Walle, Lead, Africa Partnerships and Programs, the Smart Campaign

A keynote speaker at a recent conference I attended described consumer protection as “incredibly important,” before adding that it was also “boring.”  Palpable excitement buzzes around new products or technologies, but consumer protection can be a real buzzkill. After all, it is often viewed as a dry, bureaucratic subject, costly for providers, and entailing barriers to pace of change and convenience.

As the Smart Campaign’s Africa team lead, I’m excited about client protection! And that’s not because it’s my purview. First, I think that client protection should not be seen as pumping the breaks on financial inclusion’s momentum. Rather, it guarantees a longer, more enjoyable ride. Secondly, client protection need not be a dull compliance exercise. It too can crowdsource, beta-test, gamify, and so forth to hack innovative, agile, disruptive approaches. But seriously, as an industry we can consider and engage in client protection practices that are data-driven, and that use behavioral economics, human-centered design, fintech, and other disciplines to not only ensure fair consumer treatment but strengthen financial bottom lines.

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> Posted by Isabel Whisson, Deputy Manager, Microfinance Programme and Ultra Poor Graduation Initiative, and Onindita Islam, Management Professional Staff, Microfinance Programme

This year BRAC in Bangladesh became the largest microfinance institution, in terms of number of clients, to be Smart Certified, signifying to our country market and to the industry writ large that we treat our clients with adequate care.

As a non-profit dedicated to poverty reduction, client welfare has been central to BRAC’s mission since its inception in 1972. In Bangladesh in general, almost all microfinance institutions are non-profits, and so microfinance has always been seen as a tool for alleviating poverty in the country.

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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

When my son Gordon went to the senior prom in his rented tuxedo, he and his girlfriend were a gorgeous sight (see photo). Next day, he was supposed to return the tuxedo, but he couldn’t find one of the patent leather shoes. On the day after that the rental shop called me to complain that the tuxedo was late. Gordon said he had already returned it. I told the shop there must be some mistake. This went on for several days, Gordon insisting he had returned the tux, while I defended him to an increasingly irate tux shop. After a week, I went looking and found the tux stuffed into the bottom of a backpack, along with the shoe.

I came down pretty hard on Gordon for that. Why would an intelligent young man lie repeatedly to his parents over a simple problem that was not going to disappear? Why didn’t he admit the problem on day one instead of digging himself into a deep hole? Why didn’t he take the obvious action of searching for the tux? He paid a big late fee, but the damage to our trust in him was far worse.

I’m telling this story because it reminds me of the executives at Wells Fargo Bank. The CFPB has just come down pretty hard on the bank for opening unauthorized bank and credit card accounts for 2 million customers in a practice involving over 5,000 members of its staff. As a result, the bank is now suffering a $185 million fine, the firing of thousands of staff, and, in all likelihood, a major loss of customer trust.

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> Posted by Sonja Kelly, Director, CFI

A recent Facebook promotion by a U.K. coffee shop offered,  “Like us on Facebook and get a free coffee!” This line would totally get me. Wait… all I have to do is click one little button, and I can save $2? Sign me up!

A free cup of coffee, however, was not the only thing that customers received when they liked the coffee shop’s Facebook page. They also got a very “personalized” experience, complete with the barista at the coffee shop rattling off their job, religion, birthdate, address, mother’s maiden name, and more.

Check out the video that documented the customers’ experiences here:

(My favorite part is when the barista says to the customer, “Oh, we know everything about you, Martin.”)

As part of the CFI Fellows Program one of our fellows, AJ Mowl, has been looking at some of the pros and cons of leveraging consumer data for financial inclusion. As she has relayed to me some of the basic facts about big data, I have become more and more aware of just how big big data is—and what the consequences are when I trade access to my data for services.

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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.