By Rochelle Gorey is the CEO of SpringFour.
Research into financial health has long shown that low- and middle-income families are one unexpected expense away from an emergency. During COVID-19, many have experienced this reality firsthand. In April, unemployment in the United States soared to the highest it had been since the Great Depression, with 23 million people out of work. By September, many had found work again, but there were still 12 million people unemployed – twice as many as before the pandemic.
Food instability is a growing issue. Quarantining and social distancing have caused or exacerbated mental health issues that require medical attention. Funeral costs for the families of the 200,000 people we’ve lost are high. Bills, debts, and mortgages continue to go unpaid. When people have a hard time making their payments, it’s often because something is amiss in their lives – and during the pandemic, that is the case for millions.
Now more than ever, financial institutions need to step up for their customers. People already trust their banks to protect their assets. They should be able to trust their banks for more comprehensive resources to improve their financial health and get back on their feet, too.
Providing empathy and relief
A survey conducted in July 2020 found that over a quarter of low- and middle-income Americans have been furloughed, let go, or had hours at work reduced due to COVID-19. A staggering 30% are unable to pay their monthly bills on time, and even more have delayed nonessential household purchases and decreased credit card spending.
To help their customers improve their financial standing in the wake of such an immense blow, banks must consider the customer as a whole person. A person who isn’t paying their bills or repaying their debts is not oblivious or careless. They are not paying because they cannot.
That person may need resources that go beyond loans or financial advice. Among the most pressing needs for those affected by COVID-19 are food security, continued access to healthcare and prescription medications, and help finding employment. Others may need affordable childcare or elder care, relief from utility bills, or assistance filing taxes. Before these basic but pressing needs are met, debts cannot be repaid.
A stopgap stimulus payment hasn’t helped enough
Many people received the one-time U.S. government stimulus payment and some have successfully applied for unemployment benefits, but those stopgap measures have fallen short of the help people actually need. Almost half of survey respondents have said that they won’t feel financially secure until they have more than $4,000 available in an emergency savings account.
Despite the need, 40% of respondents are unaware of reputable local nonprofit and government organizations that can help. Yet, more than 80% of respondents say that they trust their banks to provide financial guidance and support. People in the midst of a financial crisis are more vulnerable to predatory lenders and dangerous scams, and banks’ recommendations would provide them with much needed financial assistance and peace of mind.
There are local government and nonprofit resources that exist to help ease the burden, and banks will prove their added value by directing their customers toward them. Even as some resources are exhausted, others are launched to replace them. This isn’t just true during the pandemic, either. During any crisis or natural disaster, people need more help. New costs spring up, and people fall into debt or delinquency. When that happens, collection agents are at the ready to collect, but they can also be at the ready to help.
Helping the customer helps the bank
When a bank employee is able to successfully direct a customer to a helpful local resource, they are able to take pride in the work they do and have confidence in their ability to provide good customer service. Confidence and pride means less employee turnover and increased loyalty to the employer. It also means building a brand that customers engage with and remain loyal to because they received help when they needed it.
For the customer, getting a recommendation for a vetted nonprofit or government resource that helps them address their financial needs makes it possible for them to move one step closer to getting back on track. With the help of those resources, more of their finances are freed to improve their financial health and pay back their debts – another win for the financial institution.
Everything you need to know about APIs for business
By Omar Javaid, president, Vonage API Platform, Vonage
If your work brings you into close proximity with technology, chances are that you’ve come across APIs. Like many of the tech acronyms we hear – DNS, VOIP, SaaS – APIs fall into a category of terms that most of us would consider best left to the IT department. However, APIs are a vital tool for any tech-enabled business, and a basic understanding of them at management level can help to drive sales, increase customer satisfaction, and improve the user experience.
Although they seem daunting, getting to grips with APIs is surprisingly straightforward. API stands for Application Programming Interface, and can be simply defined as a software tool used to control programmes. Essentially, APIs create sets of rules that allow applications to communicate with each other – they are the part of the server that receives requests and sends responses. Today, when data is transferred between a pair (or more) of programs or applications, an API normally makes it happen.
To give a real-world example: when a user types Instagram’s URL into their browser and hits the Return key, a request is subsequently transmitted to Instagram’s remote servers. That browser then processes the response code it receives and displays the page. For the browser, Instagram’s server is an API – allowing it to communicate and relay information back to you without interruption or delay.
The job of the API is to simplify the complex data exchanged between these servers, and to make the interaction as seamless as possible for the end user. Considering that the vast majority of our business and personal lives now take place virtually, any solution that optimises the online experience is extremely valuable.
Using APIs to improve the customer experience
One of the core benefits of APIs is that they enable businesses to free themselves from the time consuming and costly process of developing in-house software to power a single core application. Instead, developers can outsource certain tasks to remote “off-the-shelf” APIs, saving time, money, and allowing resources to be channeled elsewhere. These add-on services allow businesses to offer a more complete, one-stop solution to customers, whilst streamlining the process to optimise user experience.
Although we may not always realise it, APIs are playing a vital silent role in almost every purchase and interaction we have online. Take booking a holiday for example. As we browse comparison sights, APIs are working furiously behind the scene to aggregate information from airline databases, hotel websites, and excursion providers. The API performs the back and forth needed to retrieve the information, whilst we are able to sit back and view all of the results on the same page. Simplifying this process enables travel comparison websites to make the search for holidays quick and easy, and encourages customers to stay on the site by offering all that they need in one easy to consume package.
APIs also allow smaller businesses to utilise tools provided by some of the world’s largest and most successful companies. Google’s Calendar API for example could be used within a beauty salon website to enable customers to book and schedule treatment reminders, whilst Apple’s weather tool could be plugged-in to an events company website to give customers real-time weather updates. While the API’s developer does retain ultimate control over how the API is used, there are still countless ways to integrate these tools to benefit your business and improve the functionality of your website.
The recent Covid-19 pandemic in particular has highlighted the value of an API class that normally receives little attention; communication APIs.
Today, companies are boosting spending on unified communications-as-a-service (UCaaS), along with video conferencing, collaboration, and voice technology solutions given the exponential growth in home and remote working as a result. Where face-to-face contact is limited by necessity, businesses need to be able to communicate with employees and customers in ways which are secure, simple, and cost-effective.
Given how rapidly the technology landscape changes, APIs are the clear solution to avoiding the expense of developing tools from scratch, in addition to harnessing the power of the advanced features offered by established API providers.
Using them, businesses are able to adapt to suit changing customer preferences; for example offering an online chatbot to handle customer queries, or by using multi-channel messaging to connect with customers via WhatsApp or Messenger. These tools are not only useful, but can also allow you to gain intelligence into a customer’s preferences and habits – both useful marketing gauges.
On the other hand, comms APIs can also help to address problems that may crop up internally within organisations and workforces. There are APIs which allow callers to automatically sync calendars, meaning that meetings will only be scheduled when all parties can attend. There are also APIs for timezone conversion, permissions requests, and for video link calls and messaging. With the work from home trend continuing for the foreseeable future, investing in these areas is critical if businesses want to keep delivering at the highest levels.
Considering all of the above, it’s clear that we can expect to see the adoption of APIs continue. Developers are constantly working to create increasingly sophisticated products, and many have moved towards exclusively building and hosting APIs, rather than building the apps themselves – creating a so called “API Economy” of sorts.
This focus on creating the best possible APIs has allowed smaller businesses to harness the collective expertise of the world’s largest and most successful companies, and the chance to use these tools represents a fantastic opportunity for growth. The reach of APIs extends far beyond the IT department, and with a basic understanding, they can be used by senior management and leadership teams to optimise all areas of the business – not bad for three small letters.
Unexplained Wealth Orders: Rightly Celebrated or Over-Rated?
By Nicola Sharp of financial crime specialists Rahman Ravelli considers the attention given to unexplained wealth orders – and emphasises that they can be challenged.
There is little doubt that many sectors of the media – and their readers – enjoy a story that involves an unexplained wealth order (UWO). They do, after all, have many of the ingredients that many look for in a good tale: allegations of wrongdoing on a large scale, someone being made to hand over assets worth more than most people will earn in a lifetime and the sense that justice has been seen to be done.
In the latest UWO, which was widely covered in the media last week, Leeds businessman Mansoor Mahmood Hussain was compelled to hand over property worth just short of £10M, after being accused of acting as a money launderer. He has been ordered to surrender the assets because the National Crime Agency (NCA) believed his wealth was the proceeds of crime, and so considered him a suitable target for a UWO.
Introduced by the Criminal Finances Act 2017, UWOs give law enforcement agencies powers to require persons to explain how they came to possess their assets, and to show that their wealth has come from legitimate sources. A UWO can be sought without any civil or criminal proceedings having begun. There is no need for the subject of a UWO to have been convicted of an offence or to have had a civil law judgement against them. Agencies can apply to the High Court for a UWO against any property valued at over £50,000, if the person owning it is reasonably suspected of being involved in serious crime (or connected to a person who is) and there are reasonable grounds to suspect that a person’s lawfully-obtained income would be insufficient to allow that person to obtain that property.
Like Zamira Hajiyeva before him, Mansoor Hussain’s inability to provide a credible, innocent explanation for his wealth has cost him – and generated headlines. Hajiyeva may be best known for somehow racking up £16M of expenditure at Harrods. But this only became known when she was the first person to be the subject of UWOs. The NCA expected her to explain how she had bought a £11.5M Knightsbridge house and a £10.5M golf course in Ascot, bearing in mind her husband is the former head of the state-owned International Bank of Azerbaijan, had a salary of no more than $70,000 and was convicted of fraud and embezzlement. Earlier this year, she lost her appeal against the UWOs, thus enabling the media to re-run her story and giving the NCA the chance to make approving noises about UWOs being a valuable tool in tackling illicit finance.
But before there is a rush to applaud UWOs, it should be said that the NCA’s relationship with them has been a chequered one, to say the least. Since becoming available to the NCA, the agency’s success rate with UWOs has been patchy. This is despite the standard of proof for UWOs being significantly lower than that required in criminal cases. Last year saw the NCA granted three UWOs for London property valued at £80M. Yet less than a year later, these UWOs were discharged, with a judge criticising the NCA’s “unreliable’’ assumptions and “artificial and flawed’’ reasoning. The Court of Appeal then refused the agency permission to appeal this decision.
While a UWO is a tool that enables law enforcement agencies to seize assets they believe are the proceeds of crime without anyone ever being convicted, it does not yet appear to have become the great weapon against illicit wealth that many would have hoped. Of the four cases begun since UWOs were introduced, two are still being contested. Mansoor Hussain’s case is the first time a UWO has successfully led to the recovery of assets from an individual.
Although, a UWO can be seen as effective in certain situations, it will often be considered the most (and perhaps only) viable option when a prosecution has failed or when the authorities do not believe there is enough evidence for a realistic chance of a conviction.
When being faced with an UWO it should be remembered that whilst agreeing to settle and hand over property is not an admission of guilt, anyone facing a UWO must consider carefully how they respond to the authorities. It is vitally important to take the right advice. Deciding how to proceed when assets worth millions are at stake can be the biggest decision a person ever has to make.
In such circumstances it will often be the case that an intelligent, robustly-argued challenge to a UWO – and, in particular, to the allegations being made by the law enforcement agency seeking the UWO – will bring success. But that success will depend on knowing precisely how to respond – and who to turn to – if and when you become the intended target of a UWO.
How Siloed Data Leaves Financial Institutions Open to Fraud
By Stephany Lapierre, CEO Tealbook
Reducing the risk of fraud is a top priority for all financial institutions since fraud is responsible for massive profit loss, as well as the degradation of an institution’s integrity and brand.
In trying to prevent fraud, most executives look to protect themselves from the outside in, implementing layers of security and launching reactive measures. However, in order to truly protect your organization from fraud, it’s imperative to begin by looking at your existing internal structures. The most critical and often overlooked area to assess is how your organization obtains, enriches, and distributes data.
Streamlining and scrubbing your data can increase profitability without adding to resource spend. Having good data allows you to complete your due diligence on vendors and external entities your organization regularly deals with. It favorably adjusts your efficiency ratio and reduces risk by eliminating redundancies, conflicting information, and information gaps. In addition, it allows smaller teams to operate with increased scale and effectiveness. In turn, this leads to a more effective vendor vetting process and less room for error in payment information verification.
Conversely, poorly managed data is confusing and deceiving and can play an unfortunate role in giving fraudulent access to outside parties through internal miscommunications. For example, updates could be made in one system and not another, and suddenly different departments are working with different data sets like payment information or legal formation documents that regulators look for in audits, and no one knows what is true or accurate. This effect snowballs over time, creating massive holes in the integrity of the data, creating unnecessary risk exposure and audit failures.
All of these vulnerabilities can serve as the foundation for developing a risk management protocol that may be rendered useless if it is based on poor data. It is impossible to properly vet vendors and suppliers or verify payment information if the data is unreliable.
By investing in a solid Data Foundation, you’ll see an increase in the success of your risk management and fraud prevention measures. In many instances, you won’t need to add more steps or resources, just power your existing systems with clean, agile, and accurate data to see improved efficiency.
Here’s a closer look at the most common vulnerabilities within a typical financial institution’s data ecosystem:
Fragmented Organization Structure
As organizations grow and scale, it’s inevitable that different subsections will become isolated from one another and begin different processes for data management. Poorly managed systems can exacerbate this lack of communication and threaten data integrity.
It may not seem like cause for concern if a few different arms of an organization aren’t completely in sync. However, in the financial space, this issue rarely applies to just one or two organizational divides. For example, a prominent US-based financial institution boasts over 90 business units, all of which need to be synergized in order to prevent inaccurate data, redundancies, and problems with regulatory information gathering. This siloed information is, unfortunately, a common practice that needs to be addressed.
Unmanaged Proprietary Systems
In an attempt to serve data in a highly specialized way, many institutions have explored developing proprietary data systems for internal use. However, because of factors like employee turnover or an inability to keep up with data integrity best practices, these legacy systems quickly become obsolete and unmanaged. Their custom nature also renders them inflexible and unable to integrate with other solutions.
When trying to work around an unmanaged system, different branches of an institution may turn to different solutions. When work is being done across different platforms, this reduces visibility and increases risk for inaccuracies, which leads to poor decisions, costly rework, and potentially fraud.
If your organization is reliant on a proprietary system, consider if that system is functional and scalable. If it’s not, you may want to look into a flexible data management system that can work with other technologies.
Disparate Information Across Systems
Mergers, acquisitions, and growth also lead to using and implementing many different ERP solutions and antiquated legacy software that are forced to communicate with each other using painful manual efforts. A major problem arises from the fact that these systems operate across numerous lines of businesses, all with different siloed data. By having so many siloed systems that could be compromised with harmful data, these disparate data sources leave banks and other financial institutions exposed to unnecessary risk.
Different departments have different needs, so it makes sense that they would use different solutions, but it’s important that those solutions pull from a single source of truth in order to prevent the types of data inaccuracies that lead to vulnerabilities.
Closing the holes in your data integrity is the most proactive way a financial institution can defend against fraud. As hackers get increasingly creative and aggressive, it becomes even more critical that organizations have a trusted Data Foundation to base their decisions on. This can be achieved by ensuring that siloed systems are powered by consistent and accurate data from a single reliable source.
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