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SOLUTIONS AND BEST PRACTICES FOR EFFECTIVE FINANCIAL REMEDIATION PROGRAMS

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Lorri Staal

Lorri E. Staal, GCG

Since its inception, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau(CFPB) has processed more than one million consumer complaints stemming from alleged errors, processing mistakes, technical glitches, and other issues related to credit cards, ATMs, marketing programs, debt collection practices or loan services.Today’s technology makes it easier than ever for consumers to identify, report, and join existing complaints, placing banking and financial institutions in a reactive – and often costly – position.

Of the thousands of complaints filed each week, many will require some form of programmatic consumer remediation, instituted either voluntarily or by regulatory mandate and frequently requiring payments be made to consumers who have been affected by an identified error. Consumer payments, however, account for only a fraction of the cost of remediation, which can strain a financial institution’s resources and compromise its reputation.

Lorri Staal

Lorri Staal

The following is a look into how financial executives can execute remediation programs effectively to minimize cost, avoid burdensome penalties and corrective actions, and enhance favorability among consumers and regulators.

Voluntary vs. Mandatory Remediation Programs

Financial institutions are generally governed by the same set of industry regulations, from the Dodd-Frank Act to the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Breaches of those legal and regulatory standards, regardless of intent, will garner attention from regulators and enforcement agencies, which require urgency in both restoring consumer loss and repairing the internal systems that prompted complaints.

Mandated remediation programs, while less common than voluntary programs, often limit the role financial institutions take in the design and execution of remediation and may even restrict their involvement in changing internal systems and processes following remediation. The nature of mandatory programs enables regulators and lawmakers to impose additional fines, audits, and reporting processes, making it critical to get ahead of remediation whenever possible.

Voluntary programs employ a self-policing and self-reporting approach and can help financial institutions avoid significant penalties and external audits. Oftentimes, the act of self-reporting errors is taken into consideration when configuring penalties. In fact, corrective action required by regulators may be less onerous or avoided entirely when institutions voluntarily identify and report customer complaints.

The CFPB and other regulators will consider a number of key factors when determining remediation and oversight requirements, including the type and severity of the violations, the effectiveness of the proposed remediation in resolving violations, and both the history and the efficacy of prior remediation programs.

For that reason alone, developing a plan to respond quickly and decisively in the event of a consumer complaint or regulatory violation is crucial. Financial institutions can decrease reaction time and make remediation programs scalable and repeatable by building the following service capabilities into their infrastructure, establishing a relationship with a third-party remediation provider, and conducting vendor onboarding and security clearance processing in advance.

Data Compilation + Transfer

The first, and arguably most important, process in customer remediation is the compilation and transfer of customer data from the financial institution to its third-party remediation administrator, which involves considerations such as quality assurance and security.

From a quality perspective, it’s imperative that customer and data records are complete, accurate, and formatted appropriately. Partial information and incorrect formatting can result in added costs and delayed timelines, which may attract attention from enforcement agencies.

Simple mistakes can be costly. For example, when data is missing from a file, the theinevitable back-and-forth between and among departments in the institutions and their vendors to complete data sets can add significant fees to remediation. Incorrect or incomplete addresses often result in a higher rate of undelivered payments, which may raise red flags for auditors. And when internal audits and data files fail to include all affected customers, additional waves of “catch-up” payments must be processed, which both increases expenses and compromises consumer and regulatory confidence.

Once internal mechanisms are in place to ensure accurate data analysis and formatting, institutions must consider their processes for transferring data to third party support agencies. It is advisable to determine and agree upon security protocols with remediation partners in advance, such as when and under which protections data will be shared.

Further, financial institutions should require that their administrators develop and host secure, online portals to facilitate the safe transfer and sharing of sensitive consumer data between and among remediation vendors. These portals are not only critical to preventing fraud throughout remediation, but they also afford institutions access to real-time program updates and reports.

Notification Process

Once remediation data has been compiled and analyzed, institutions begin the important work of reaching consumers with the intention of making them whole again. This is achieved, in part, through a comprehensive consumer notification process.

The noticing phase is particularly sensitive as it may represent a consumer’s first and only interaction with the financial institution following an error or complaint. In many instances, remediation program information can be communicated to customers via customized check stubs. In other cases, however, such as when compensation is distributed electronically or a more detailed explanation or language translation is required, a standalone notice is advisable.

Responsibility for identifying the amount and type of information to be included in a consumer notice falls squarely on the institution. Working with multiple fields of data requires several layers of review to ensure information is transferred correctly from the original template to the final files.

While drafting, translating and sending the notice can be done in-house, this work is often outsourced to the third-party administrator. Regardless of which entity does the drafting, beyond ensuring the validity of notification content, financial institutions should consider partnering with their internal communications and legal teams to review the design of content and messaging for customer notifications. Notices that demonstrate genuine concern and empathy and which outline how the institution is moving forward have been shown to positively impact brand sentiment and restore consumer loyalty and confidence.

Compensation + Funds Distribution

Compensation and financial disbursements can take multiple forms, so it’s imperative that institutions support diverse distribution methods and timelines, which vary by remediation type and geographical location of customers.

The distribution of remediation funds to existing customers may occur via account credits, digital disbursements,or paper checks. In cases where consumers’ accounts have been closed, institutions may either send paper checks to the last known address or issue electronic payments to the customers’ account of choice. This reinforces the need for quality control in data collection and transfer; a simple email to former customers for approval to transfer funds to their account of choice may be the most cost-effective manner of distribution, especially if the remediation audience is geographically diverse.

Once payments have been issued, they must be monitored and tracked in consistent intervals (30-, 60-, and 90-days) and reissued as appropriate when requested in writing by the customer.  For checks that remain uncashed at their half-life, reminder emails or letters can be sent to encourage consumers to cash the checks. Additionally, efforts should be made to inform consumers of their right to claim payments via their states’ unclaimed property funds. Together, these strategies will go a long way to demonstrating the institution’s intention to make all customers whole again.

Finally, the pre-existing online portals used for the transfer and analysis of customer data can be leveraged during the distribution phase, providing institutions with real-time access to payment data, such as details on payments sent, received, cashed or pending,or returned as undeliverable. These data sets may be exported in Excel or other formats for easy retrieval and submission to various agencies overseeing remediation programs, keeping the institution in good standing.

Data Security, Privacy, and Anti-Fraud Systems

While the mishandling of consumer data or breaches in data or privacy within financial institutions can prompt consumer complaints, data and privacy concerns do not end there. In large and complex remediations, where consumer data may be handled by multiple internal and external agencies, institutions are solely responsible for safeguarding consumer privacy and circumventing the potential for fraud.

When considering administrators or vendors with which to partner, it is important that selection criteria include robust anti-fraud procedures and key compliance indicators, such as SOC 2 certifications and SOX compliance. Additionally, third-party providers that have been previously retained by leading financial institutions and government enforcement agencies are likely to have been extensively vetted for security measures and best practices, which may also ease regulatory oversight throughout remediation.

Institutions should routinely communicate best practices with their customers, detailing how to communicate securely with their institutions, outlining what type of information will and will not be requested from them and how.Anti-fraud systems,such as secure portals and FTP sites, minimize the transmittal of one-off data spreadsheets, helping to reduce the likelihood of fraud throughout the data analysis and transfer phases.Externally, setting up digital disbursements whenever possible eliminates the need to handle sensitive bank account information, and the use of traceable bar codes on check stubs will facilitate the coordination of returned payments and ensure payments are made only to the affected parties.

Processing issues, mistakes, and other consumer-related errors are a reality within the financial industry, and today’s regulatory landscape mandates that financial institutions react decisively and in good faith to restore consumer loss and to repair internal infrastructure and processes that prompted consumer complaints.

Whether remediation programs are voluntary or mandated, they can be costly and distract financial institutions from their core business objectives. When consumer favorability, brand reputation, and regulatory standing are at stake, a proactive and well-planned approach to customer remediation is key to reducing cost, minimizing oversight and penalties, and getting back to business.

Lorri E. Staal is an assistant vice president of operations at GCG, a leading global provider of legal administration and business solutions.In her role, Staal oversees complex class action settlement and regulatory administrations, particularly those requiring extensive and detailed analyses of complicated data. She has spearheaded more than 300 bank remediation programs and overseen the distribution of more than 1 million checks totaling $64 million to consumers.

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Lockdown 2.0 – Here’s how to be the best-looking person in the virtual room

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Lockdown 2.0 – Here's how to be the best-looking person in the virtual room 1

By Jeff Carlson, author of The Photographer’s Guide to Luminar 4 and Take Control of Your Digital Photos

suggests “the product you’re creating is not the camera, the lens or a webcam’s clever industrial design. It’s the subject, you, which is just on e part of the entire image they see. You want that image to convey quality, not convenience.”

Technology experts at Reincubate saw an opportunity in the rise of remote-working video calls and developed the app, Camo, to improve the video quality of our webcam calls. As part of this, they consulted the digital photography expert and author, Jeff Carlson, to reveal how we can look our best online. 

It’s clear by now that COVID-19 has normalised remote working, but as part of this the importance of video calls has risen exponentially. While we’re all used to seeing the more casual sides of our colleagues (t-shirt and shorts, anyone?), poor webcam quality is slightly less forgivable.

But how can we improve how we look on video? We consulted Jeff Carlson for some top tips– here is what he had to say.

  1. Improve the picture quality of your call

The better your camera, the higher quality your webcam calls will be. Most webcams (as well as currently being hard to get hold of and expensive), are subpar. A DSLR setup will give you the best picture, but will cost $1,500+. You can also use your iPhone’s amazing camera as a webcam, using the new app from Reincubate, Camo.

Jeff’s comments “The iPhone’s camera system features dedicated coprocessors for evaluating and adjusting the image in real time. Apple has put a tremendous amount of work into its imaging software as a way to compensate for the necessarily small camera sensors. Although it all works in service of creating stills and video, you get the same benefits when using the iPhone as a webcam.”

Aidan Fitzpatrick, CEO of Reincubate explains why the team created Camo, “Earlier this year our team moved to working remotely, and in video calls everyone looked pretty bad, irrespective of whether they were on built-in Mac webcams or third-party ones. Thus began my journey to build Camo: an iPhone has one of the world’s best cameras in it, so could we make it work as a webcam? Category-leading webcams are noticeably worse than an iPhone 7. This makes sense: six weeks of Apple’s R&D spend tops Logitech’s annual gross revenue.”

  1. Place your camera at eye level

A video call will never quite be the same as a face-to-face conversation, but bringing your camera up to eye level is a good place to start. That can involve putting your laptop on a stand or pile of books, mounting a webcam to the top of your display screen, or even using a tripod to get the perfect position.

Jeff points out, “If the camera is looking down on you, you’ll appear minimized in the frame; if it’s looking up, you’re inviting people to focus on your chin, neck, or nostrils. Most important, positioning the camera off your eye level is a distraction. Look them in the eye, even if they’re miles or continents away.

Lockdown 2.0 – Here's how to be the best-looking person in the virtual room 2

Low camera placement from a MacBook

  1. Make the most of natural lighting

Be aware of the lighting in the room and move yourself to face natural lighting if you can. Positioning the camera so any natural light is behind you takes the light away from your face, which can make it harder to see and read expressions on a call.

Jeff Carlson’s top tip: “If the light from outside is too harsh, diffuse it and create softer shadows by tacking up a white sheet or a stand-alone diffuser over the window.” 

Lockdown 2.0 – Here's how to be the best-looking person in the virtual room 3Lockdown 2.0 – Here's how to be the best-looking person in the virtual room 4

Backlit against a window Facing natural light

  1. Use supplementary lighting like ring lights

The downside to natural lighting is that you’re at the mercy of the elements: if it’s too bright you’ll have the sun in your eyes, if it’s too dark you won’t be well lit.

Jeff recommends adding supplementary lighting if you’re looking to really enhance your video calls. After all, it looks like remote working will be carrying on for quite some time.

“The light can be just as easy as a household or inexpensive work light. Angle the light so it’s bouncing off a wall or the ceiling, depending on your work area, which, again, diffuses the light and makes it more flattering.

Or, for a little money, use a softbox or a shoot-through umbrella with daylight bulbs (5500K temperature), or if space is tight, LED panels. Larger lights are better for distributing illumination– don’t be afraid to get them in close to you. Placement depends on the look you’re going after; start by positioning one at a 45-degree angle in front and to the side of you, which lights most of your face while retaining nice shadow detail.” 

In some cases, a ring light may work best. LEDs are arranged in a circle, with space in the middle to put the camera’s lens and get direct illumination from the direction of the camera.

  1. Centre yourself in the frame

Make sure you’re getting the right angle and that you’re using the frame effectively.

“You should aim for people to see your head and part of your torso, not all the space between your hair and the ceiling. Leave a little space above your head so it’s not cut off, but not enough that someone’s eyes are going to drift there.”

  1. Be mindful of your backdrop

It’s not always easy to get the quiet space needed for video calls when working from home, but try as best you can to remove anything too distracting from your background.

“Get rid of clutter or anything that’s distracting or unprofessional, because you can bet that will be the second thing the viewers notice after they see you. (The Twitter account @RateMySkypeRoom is an amusing ongoing commentary on the environments people on television are connecting from.)”

A busy background as seen by a webcam

  1. Make the most of virtual backgrounds

If you’re really struggling with finding a background that looks professional, try using a virtual background.

Jeff suggests: “Some apps can identify your presence in the scene and create a live mask that enables you to use an entirely different image to cover the background. While it’s a fun feature, the quality of the masking is still rudimentary, even with a green screen background that makes this sort of keying more accurate.”

  1. Be aware of your audio settings

Our laptop webcams, cameras, and mobile phones all include microphones, but if it’s at all possible, use a separate microphone instead.

“That can be an inexpensive lavalier mic, a USB microphone, or a set of iPhone earbuds. You can also get wireless lavalier models if you’re moving around during a call, such as presenting at a whiteboard in the camera’s field of view.

The idea is to get the microphone closer to your mouth so it’s recording what you say, not other sounds or echoes in the room. If you type during meetings, mount the mic on an arm instead of resting it on the same surface as your keyboard.”

  1. Be wary of video app add-ons

Video apps like Zoom include a ‘Touch up your appearance’ option in the Video settings. This applies a skin-smoothing filter to your face, but more often than not, the end result looks artificially blurry instead of smooth.

“Zoom also includes settings for suppressing persistent and intermittent background noise, and echo cancellation. They’re all set to Auto by default, but you can choose how aggressive or not the feature is.”

  1. Be the best looking person in the virtual room

What’s important to remember about video calls at this point in time is that most people are new to what is, really, personal broadcasting. That means you can easily get an edge, just by adopting a few suggestions in this article. When your video and audio quality improves, people will take notice.

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Bringing finance into the 21st Century – How COVID and collaboration are catalysing digital transformation

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Bringing finance into the 21st Century – How COVID and collaboration are catalysing digital transformation 5

By Keith Phillips, CEO of TISATech

If just six or seven months ago someone had told you that in a matter of weeks people around the world would be locked down in their homes, trying to navigate modern work systems from a prehistoric laptop, bickering with family over who’s hogging the Wi-Fi, migrating online to manage all financial services digitally, all while washing their hands every five minutes in fear of a global pandemic… You’d think they had lost their mind. But this very quickly became the reality for huge swathes of the world and we’re about to go through that all over again as the UK government has asked that those who can work from home should.

Unsurprisingly, statistics show that lockdown restrictions introduced by the UK government in March, led to a sharp increase in people adopting digital services. Banks encouraged its customers to log onto online banking, as they limited (and eventually halted) services at branches. This forced many customers online as their primary means of managing personal finances for the first time.

If anyone had doubts before, the Covid-19 pandemic proved to us the importance of well-functioning, effective digital financial services platforms, for both financial institutions and the people using them.

But with this sudden mass online migration, it’s become clear that traditional banks have struggled to keep up with servicing clients virtually. Legacy banking systems have always stilted the digitisation of financial services, but the pandemic thrust this issue into the limelight. Fintech firms, which focus intently on digital and mobile services, knew it was only a matter of time before financial institutions’ reliance was to increase at an unprecedented rate.

For years, fintechs have been called upon by traditional players to find solutions to problems borne from those clunky legacy systems, like manual completion of account changes and money transfers. Now it is the demand for these services to be online coupled with the need for financial services firms to cut costs, since Covid-19 hit the economy.

Covid-19 has catalysed the urgent need to bring digital transformation to a wider pool of financial services businesses. Customers now have even higher expectations of larger institutions, demanding that they keep up with what the younger and more nimble challengers have to offer. Industry leaders realise that they must transform their businesses as soon as possible, by streamlining and digitising operations to compete and, ultimately, improve services for their customers.

The race for digital acceleration began far before the recent pandemic – in fact, following the 2008 financial crisis is likely more accurate. Since the credit crunch, there has been a wave of new fintech firms, full of young, bright techies looking to be the next big thing. Fintechs have marketed themselves hard at big conferences and expos or by hosting ‘hackathons’, trying to prove themselves as the fastest, most innovative or the most vital to the future of the industry.

However, even during this period where accelerating innovation in online financial services and legacy systems is crucial, the conditions brought about by the pandemic have not been conducive to this much-needed transformation.

The second issue, which again was clear far before the pandemic, is that fact that no matter how nimble or clever the fintechs’ solutions are, it is still hard to implement the solutions seamlessly, as the sector is highly fragmented with banks using extremely outdated systems populated with vast amounts of data.

With the significance of the pandemic becoming more and more clear, and the need for better digital products and services becoming more crucial to financial services firms and consumers by the day, the industry has finally come together to provide a solution.

The TISAtech project was launched last month by The Investing and Saving Alliance (TISA), a membership organisation in the UK with more than 200 leading financial institutions as members. TISA asked The Disruption House, a specialist benchmarking and data analytics business, to create a clearing house platform for the industry to help it more effectively integrate new financial technology. The project aims to enhance products and services while reducing friction and ultimately lowering costs which are passed on to the customers.

With nearly 4,000 fintechs from around the world participating, it will be the world’s largest marketplace dedicated to Open Finance, Savings, and Investment.

Not only will it provide a ‘matchmaking’ service between financial institutions an fintechs, it will also host a sandbox environment. Financial institutions can pose real problems with real data and the fintechs are given the space to race to the bottom – to find the most constructive, cost-effective solution.

Yes, there are other marketplaces, but they all seem to struggle to achieve a return on investment. There is a genuine need for the ‘Trivago’ of financial technology – a one stop shop, run by an independent body, which can do more than just matchmaking. It needs to go above and beyond to encompass the sandboxing, assessments, profiling of fintechs to separate the wheat from the chaff, and provide a space for true collaboration.

The pandemic has taught us that we are more effective if we work together. We need mass support and collaboration to find solutions to problems. Businesses and industries are no different. If fintechs and financial institutions can work together, there is a real chance that we can start to lessen the economic hit for many businesses and consumers by lowering costs and streamlining better services and products. And even if it is just making it that little bit easier to manage personal finances from home when fighting with your children for the Wi-Fi, we are making a difference.

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What to Know Before You Expand Across Borders

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What to Know Before You Expand Across Borders 6

By Sean King, Director of International Tax at McGuire Sponsel

The American retail giant, Target Corporation, has a market cap of $64 billion and access to seemingly limitless resources and advisors. So, when the company engaged in its first global expansion, how could anything possibly go wrong?

Less than two years after opening its first Canadian store in 2013, Target shut down all133 Canadian locations and terminated more than 17,000 Canadian employees.

Expansion of an operation to another country can create unique challenges that may impact the financial viability of the entire enterprise. If Target Corporation can colossally fail in its expansion to Canada, how might Mom ‘N’ Pop LLC fare when expanding into Switzerland, Singapore, or Australia?

Successful global expansion requires an understanding of multilayered taxes, regulatory hurdles, employment laws, and cultural nuances. Fortunately, with the right guidance, global expansion can be both possible and profitable for businesses of any size.

Permanent establishment

Any company with global ambitions must first consider whether the company’s expansion outside of the U.S. will give rise to a taxable presence in the local country. In the cross-border context, a “permanent establishment” can be created in a local country when the enterprise reaches a certain level of activity, which is problematic because it exposes the U.S. multinational to taxation in the foreign country.

Foreign entity incorporation

To avoid permanent establishment risk, many U.S. multinationals choose to operate overseas through a formal corporate subsidiary, which reduces the company’s foreign income tax exposure, though it may result in an additional level of foreign income tax on the subsidiary’s earnings. In most jurisdictions, multinationals can operate their business in the foreign country as a branch, a pass through (e.g., partnership,) or a corporation.

As a branch, the U.S. multinational does not create a subsidiary in the foreign country. It holds assets, employees, and bank accounts under its own name. With a pass through, the U.S. multinational creates a separate entity in the foreign country that is treated as a partnership under the tax law of the foreign country but not necessarily as a partnership under U.S. tax law.

U.S. multinationals can also create corporate subsidiaries in the foreign country treated as corporations under the tax law of both the foreign country and the U.S., with possibly two levels of income taxation in the foreign country plus U.S. income taxation of earnings repatriated to the U.S. as dividends.

Check-the-box planning

Under U.S. entity classification rules, certain types of entities can “check the box” to elect their classification to be taxed as a corporation with two levels of tax, a partnership with pass-through taxation, or even be disregarded for U.S. federal income tax purposes. The check the box election allows U.S. multinationals to engage in more effective global tax planning.

Toll charges, transfer pricing and treaties

When establishing a foreign corporate subsidiary, the U.S. multinational will likely need to transfer certain assets to the new entity to make it fully operational. However, in many cases, the U.S. multinational cannot perform the transfer without recognizing taxable income. In the international context, the IRS imposes certain outbound “toll charges” on the transfer of appreciated property to a foreign entity, which are usually provided for in IRC Section 367 and subject to various exceptions and nuances.

Instead, the U.S. multinational may prefer to license intellectual property to the foreign subsidiary for a fee rather than transfer the property outright. However, licensing requires the company and foreign subsidiary to adhere to transfer pricing rules, as dictated by IRC Section 482. The U.S. multinational and the foreign subsidiary must interact in an arms-length manner regarding pricing and economic terms. Furthermore, any such arrangement may attract withholding taxes when royalties are paid across a border.

Are you GILTI?

Certain U.S. multinationals opt to focus on deferring the income recognition at the U.S. level. In doing so, they simply leave overseas profits overseas and delay repatriating any of the earnings to the U.S.

Despite the general merits of this form of planning, U.S. multinationals will be subject to certain IRS anti-deferral mechanisms, commonly known as “Subpart F” and GILTI. Essentially, U.S. shareholders of certain foreign corporations are forced to recognize their pro rata share of certain types of income generated by these foreign entities at the time the income is earned instead of waiting until the foreign entity formally repatriates the income to the U.S.

The end goal

Essentially, all effective international tax planning boils down to treasury management. Effective and early tax planning can properly allow a company to better achieve its initial goal: profitability.

If global expansion is on the horizon for your company, consult a licensed professional for advice concerning your specific situation.

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