They only sound like Austin Powers villains

Drs Evil, I presume?

Here’s an interesting prediction from the February 25, 1966 issue of TIME magazine: “By 2000, the machines will be producing so much that everyone in the U.S. will, in effect, be independently wealthy.”

I don’t think I’m being premature when I say I think the magazine missed the mark with that one. Not that I blame the writer or editor. It takes only one unforeseen development to send events cascading down a new, never-imagined course.

Take the current year. It has already already presented multiple unforeseen developments sending events cascading innumerable never-imagined courses, and we have barely reached the halfway mark. The year began, you’ll recall, with devastating fires in Australia. Then a deadly new strain of coronavirus rocketed around the globe, and at the moment it shows little intention of abating anytime soon. Then two disparate waves of protests erupted throughout the United States, one of people infuriated at stay-at-home orders, the other of people calling for an end to systemic racism. And let’s not forget murder hornets, a threat that may have been overblown—so far. Speaking of hornets, a strain of them are building “super nests” about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle in the American south.

Oh, and in the U.S., it’s an election year.

In no way do I wish to trivialize the seriousness of any of the above when I say I’ll be surprised if, a few years hence, Hollywood doesn’t crank out a bunch of 2020-inspired B movies. The only thing that’s missing is a real-life Bond-type villain with an Austin Powers-type name.

But wait! Speaking of Bond-type villains with Austin Powers-type names—this just in from the New York Times:

A hacking group calling itself Evil Corp., indicted in December, has shown up in corporate networks with sophisticated ransomware.

Really? Evil Corp?

In fairness to the hackers, they didn’t take their name from an Austin Powers film. They took it from the USA Network series “Mr. Robot.” Campy though the assumed moniker may be, governments throughout the world take them quite seriously. Just six months ago, the United States Department of the Treasury issued this statement:

Today the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) took action against Evil Corp, the Russia-based cybercriminal organization responsible for the development and distribution of the Dridex malware …

Evil Corp is the Russia-based cybercriminal organization responsible for the development and distribution of the Dridex malware. The Dridex malware is a multifunctional malware package that is designed to automate the theft of confidential information, to include online banking credentials from infected computers … Once a system is infected, Evil Corp uses compromised credentials to fraudulently transfer funds from victims’ bank accounts to those of accounts controlled by the group.

This part should be of particular concern to the financial services industry:

As of 2016, Evil Corp had harvested banking credentials from customers at approximately 300 banks and financial institutions in over 40 countries, making the group one of the main financial threats faced by businesses. In particular, Evil Corp heavily targets financial services sector organizations located in the United States and the United Kingdom … Evil Corp has illicitly earned at least $100 million … it is likely that the total of their illicit proceeds is significantly higher.

I’m not sure I agree with the Treasury Department’s use of “earned,” but this is otherwise scary stuff.

And it gets worse. A few days ago, the University of Florida’s Center for Cybersecurity, aka Cyber Florida, reported:

Sophisticated new attacks by [Evil Corp] … were identified in recent days by Symantec Corporation … the company reported that Russian hackers had exploited the sudden change in American work habits to inject code into corporate networks with a speed and breadth not previously witnessed … While ransomware has long been a concern for American officials … it has taken on new dimensions in an election year. The Department of Homeland Security has been racing to harden the voter registration systems run by cities and states, fearing that they, too, could be frozen, and voter rolls made inaccessible, in an effort to throw the Nov. 3 election into chaos.

Right. Because 2020 needed a bit more chaos.

The United States recently issued indictments against Evil Corp founders Igor Turashev and Maksim Yakubets. Trouble is, Turashev and Yakubets are Russian nationals, and the Russian Federation is not known for cooperating with extradition requests. That’s why Edward Snowden was able to enjoy an extended sojourn in Russia uninterrupted by U.S. authorities.

Meanwhile, the basics of keeping clients safe haven’t changed. This includes, as I have written before, keeping them informed as to safety measures they can take on their own:

The trick is to keep clients forewarned and forearmed while avoiding frightening them so much as to lose their confidence. Perhaps paradoxically, the proper presentation of information on staying safe from hackers can increase client confidence by conveying that a financial institution is knowledgeable and cares about its customers.

Here’s hoping the second half of 2020 calms down.

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TBT: “Text neck” and other delights

Originally posted on January 7, 2019

Staying home for months on end can mean more texting, participation in social media, and, at the extreme, actually using a phone to make a voice call. With the first two, we may soon see more cases of “trigger thumb” and related ailments.

“Trigger thumb” in the making?

Over the past decade, monthly texts have increased 7,700 percent. Worldwide we send about 19 billion of them a day. Americans send about two for every voice call they place. People between 18 and 25 send 133 a week. Texting accounts for about a third of the time Millennials spend on their phones.(1)

Only in retrospect is it not surprising that text messages would overtake voice calls. Texting lets you “converse” without being overheard. You can dispense with pleasantries and get to the point. You can reply at your convenience. You can end or pause by falling silent, with no need for “kindest regards,” “yours truly,” or “no, you hang up first.” 

In short, texting is great. Except when it isn’t.

Evil twins

Just as no one foresaw the rapid rise of the text message, no one foresaw the host of problems it would bring. 

Inconceivable as it is, and despite the terrifying toll on human lives, there are still plenty of dopes who text while driving.

More on the amusing side is drunk-texting, which, I suppose, you could call drunk-dialing’s evil twin. And then there’s sleep-texting, a more innocent, often entertaining twin. (I guess that makes them triplets.) Unlike its evil sibs, sleep-texts are usually gibberish, which is a good thing, considering they leave a digital record. Sleep-texting is most prevalent among adolescents and college students, possibly due to their more erratic sleep schedules.

Text neck, trigger thumb, and other pains

Excessive texting correlates with and likely causes physical problems. The Washington Post reports an epidemic of “text neck.” The American Optometric Association warns of digital eye strain. And Rush University Medical Center describes “trigger thumb,” which it defines as …

… the constriction of a flexor tendon in the thumb, may result from repetitive gripping motions such as texting or holding a smartphone. Its symptoms include painful popping or snapping when the thumb bends and straightens; sometimes the thumb even becomes locked in a curled position … 

… Elbows can suffer as well if you spend too much time holding a phone to your ear, resting your elbow on a desk, or keeping your arm bent at an acute angle to use a computer mouse. These positions can contribute to cubital tunnel syndrome, or increased tension in the tunnel through which the ulnar nerve passes in the elbow.

“Fortunately,” Rush reassures us, “many of these conditions are highly treatable.”

Texting certainly risks miscommunication, which can be harmful to relationships, something the financial services industry should note when crafting automatic messages and training help-chat personnel. Kim Schneiderman L.C.S.W., M.S.W warns in Psychology Today that “… texting is not the way to negotiate a relationship.”

… UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian found that 58 percent of communication is through body language, 35 percent through vocal tone, pitch, and emphasis, and a mere 7 percent through content of the message. We all know that good communication is the cornerstone of relationship. So why attempt to resolve a disagreement using only 7 percent of your full expressive potential? … And that’s a generous 7 percent. Consider all the annoying slips of finger that can interfere with clear communication. When the difference between “mad,” “sad,” “bad,” and “glad” is an errant thumb, wobbly finger gymnastics can be costly and confusing.

At least to a point, emoticons have evolved to compensate for the body-language gap. A winky-face can work wonders for ensuring that humor or irony isn’t lost on a message recipient.

It’s important to beware alarmists who cry out unsupported warnings with every technological advance. Sitting too close to the TV didn’t ruin our eyes; radio, then TV, then video games neither destroyed our minds nor rendered reading obsolete; and home video and, later, streaming were not harbingers of movie theaters’ doom. Likewise, I suspect many if not most of the apocalyptic warnings about texting can be safely ignored. 

Nor is it always bad when technology changes how we do things. I don’t see anyone complaining about no longer having to lug a bushel of clothes and a washboard to the riverbank. To be sure, pedants rue abbreviations like for you and btw for by the way, fearing that humans will forget how to spell and punctuate. Their concerns overlook that fact that rules do not dictate usage; usage evolves while rules scurry to catch up. Moreover, no one suffered severe injury when catalog and dialog began appearing without an appended –ue.

If the texting tide ever turns, it will not be by design. If and when, it will turn only because capricious human tastes will have once again taken us by surprise. Meanwhile, there’s no sense in beating one’s head against the wall. Those of us who make our living in a digital world are best served by watching the trends, doing our best not just to stay abreast of them but to capitalize on them, and remaining alert to pitfalls so as not to fall into or exacerbate them.


(1) (For these and other statistics about texting, see Irene Rufferty’s article in Medium“50 Texting Statistics That Can Quench Everyone’s Curiosity, Even Mine.”)

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Is it real, or is it Virtual Banking Assistant?

There’s a new virtual assistant in town, and it’s danged smart. Its name, appropriately enough, is Virtual Banking Assistant from Fiserv.* And while virtual banking assistants are no longer new, this one impresses in its cutting-edge conversational capability.

A recent Fiserv press release states:

Rooted in Natural Language Processing (NLP), deep learning and AI technologies from Clinc, Virtual Banking Assistant … doesn’t rely on rigid scripts, keyword matching or other traditional rules-based language. … the software allows for a more fluid and flexible approach that can handle the messiness of spoken language and its varying contexts.

Permit me to demonstrate:

Caller: Hey, so I remember I was in California last year and dropped a bunch of cash on food. Can you show me what that looks like?

Banker: You spent $733.84 from your three bank accounts on food and drink in California, which is 1.95% of your total spending from January 1, 2018 to January 1, 2019.

Caller: What about in Ann Arbor?

Banker: You spent $2631.60 from your three bank accounts on food and drink in Ann Arbor, which is 7% of your total spending from January 1, 2018 to January 1, 2019.

Caller: Hey, I need to transfer a hun’rd bucks from my checking account to my savings.

Banker: Let me confirm your transfer request …

That’s a transcript from part of a video a human caller interacting with Clinc’s technology. Notice that casual speech doesn’t throw the tech off-kilter. For instance, “Hey, so …” is a typical human opener but utterly superfluous. “Dropped a bunch of cash” and “What about” are colloquialisms that could throw many a non-native human speaker. And then there’s “hun’rd” versus “hundred,” a listless contraction indulged by some of the best of us.

If you visit the site and play the video, you’ll also see that the caller changes subjects and backtracks. No matter. The tech keeps right up.

But you might also notice that, despite inflections to a point, the voice still has that telltale sound of separately recorded words cut together. I cannot help wondering if that’s by design. The cut-together sound can subtly let callers know they’re speaking with a conversational AI without outright saying “you’re speaking with a conversational AI.” As Google found out the hard way two years ago when they presented Duplex, it can creep people out to learn only after the fact that they were speaking with an AI.

As interactive technology advances, new terms emerge that can be difficult to keep straight. The Financial Brand’s Bill Streeter provided a helpful summary. “Responding to a question from The Financial Brand,” Streeter wrote, “[conversational AI company Kasisto’s CEO Zor] Gorelov divides conversational AI into four categories, from simplest to most complex:

Bot—is an automated program that runs over the internet, typically behind the scenes. This places it at the bottom of the scale of intelligence and user engagement.

Chatbot—can look for patterns in text and respond with automated answers, usually best at very simple exchanges. Some analysts refer to this as checkbox chatbot.

Conversational agent—engages consumers with its ability to precisely understand the intent of the conversation, and then guides users to complete their goal. A conversational agent is always learning, Gorelov adds.

Cognitive virtual agent—knows the consumer deeply and uses that knowledge to anticipate needs, placing it at the top of the scale for intelligence and user engagement.

Call it what you will, the industry has come along way since voicemail.

*Although Fiserv is my employer, is my personal blog and does not speak for or represent Fiserv in any way.

TBT: Functional is so last-decade

Originally posted July 15, 2014.

Things have flipped. Not long ago the likes of Starbucks and McDonald’s enjoyed a competitive advantage by providing free onsite Wi-Fi. Today, that’s pretty much de rigueur. Providing onsite Wi-Fi is not so much a competitive advantage as not providing it is a competitive disadvantage.

Likewise, offering mobile banking, once the sign of a forward-thinking financial institution, no longer impresses. To do that, mobile banking must do more than function. It must connect.

We have made strides since the original hardware-delivered bank experience known as the ATM. Though you could name them, paint them, network them, and install more of them in more places than the competition, still, an ATM was pretty much an ATM. Today’s digital banking, however, needn’t be so clone-like. As yet, not too many banks seem to realize that. Unlike old ATM technology, today’s digital technology and devices allow for positive interactions, even personal ones, with a strong brand.

Here’s a quick look at how a few forward-thinking financial institutions are breaking out of the “Functional Only” box.

Tip: People will spend time on your site—when it’s fun. Walk into any public place and watch the number of people interacting with portable devices instead of with each other. While you’re at it, note that no one is making them do it. People willingly engage with the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Minecraft, Flipboard, and more because, well, these virtual places have personality, and they’re fun. Some financial institutions have given their websites social and entertainment appeal, and found that clients return more often and linger longer. Need I point out that returning more often and lingering longer build loyalty and present a marketing opportunity?

Get ’em young. Ordinary financial institutions stew about attracting rising generations once they come into money of their own. Smart financial institutions start earlier, when those generations are still kids. They load their sites with educational pages, games, social tools, and more. By the time young people with no money morph into young adults with careers and money of their own, they have been already won over.

Personalize the impersonal. At first it seemed that the use of technology in banking would eliminate the personal touch; instead, it turns out that technology can convey it. A good interactive system connects clients with bank people via live chat, tweets, social media, and even, when desperate times call for it, telephone. A screen is no longer a barrier. It is a conduit.

Check register? What’s a check register? Even the staunchest paper defender must concede that checks are obsolescent. If the majority of people do not want to write checks, it follows that the majority do not want to write their transactions in a check register, either. But that doesn’t mean they want to give up oversight and control of their money. Hence the rise, indeed, the inevitability of online Personal Financial Management (PFM) tools.

I dare to you to show your laundry. It’s becoming increasingly fashionable for companies, financial institutions included, to post client reviews on their websites. But if readers suspect that you parade the praise while conveniently hiding the pans, you lose all credibility. At that point, posting reviews is no more effective than not posting reviews. That is why some brave banks post negative comments right along with positive ones. With the negative ones, they also post the bank’s response as to how it plans to make things right. This validates the rave reviews, which creates trust, and shows clients how you deal with problems, which, if you handle them properly, also creates trust. Don’t worry about the occasional irrational client who can’t be pleased. Your customers are on to them more than you think.

There are two problems with ideas like the above. First, they cost money. But then, it costs more not to make the investment, thereby losing clients to a competitor who does. Second, they require vision, which, let’s be honest, is often what “can’t afford it” really means. If someone anonymously printed this article and left it on your desk, you know who you are.

For details and examples of the above plus other ideas, I commend you to the The Financial Brand post, “12 Technology Trends Shaping Financial Marketing.”

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Of cows and digital payments

In 1796, Dr. Edward Jenner observed that people once infected with cowpox, which is seldom deadly, later tended to prove immune to smallpox, which often is. It was from that observation that Jenner went on to develop a smallpox vaccine.

Hang on to your hat, because I’m about to liken cows to digital payments.

The late eighteenth century dairy industry grew in response to market demand for dairy products. That it would prove crucial to developing a lifesaving vaccine was pure serendipity. Likewise, the current digital payments industry grew in response to market demand, in this case for speed and convenience. That it is now a major part of curbing SARS-CoV-2 transmission is, too, pure serendipity.

According to Square, none other than Coco-Cola debuted the first mobile payment transaction …

… in 1997. The beverage retailer created special vending machines that enabled consumers to pay for their drinks by sending text messages from mobile devices.

Wikipedia confirms Coca-Cola’s innovative vending machine and adds a bit of backstory:

In 1983, a research paper by David Chaum introduced the idea of digital cash. In 1990, he founded DigiCash, an electronic cash company, in Amsterdam … It filed for bankruptcy in 1998. e-gold was the first widely used Internet money, introduced in 1996, and grew to several million users before the US Government shut it down in 2008 … PayPal launched its USD-denominated service in 1998.

The moment the market experienced digital payments convenience, the race was on to see who could deliver the best, the easiest-to-use, the most secure, the most comprehensive, and the fastest. Nor has the race slowed. Today it is less that accepting mobile payments and touchless cards presents a competitive advantage—and more that not accepting them presents a competitive disadvantage.

Digital payments in turn spawned today’s massive gig economy—a term that has existed only for a couple of years. Suddenly people were turning to Lyft and Uber and paying via their respective apps instead of calling cabs. People were ordering restaurant food via GrubHub, DoorDash, and others, and paying via those companies’ respective apps.

Digital payments, touchless cards, and the gig economy caught on because people liked them and, as a result, demanded them. Little did anyone suspect that in the spring of 2020 the entire world would be advised to socially distance, stay home if at all possible, and avoid hand-to-hand contact.

All of which, though difficult enough, would have been all but impossible without a gig economy to deliver needed goods to our door—and without digital payments to obviate the need for tangible currency.

Indeed, prior to the pandemic, McDonald’s came up with an app that let customers pre-order, pay via the app, and pull into a designated parking space where an employee would walk the order to their car. Now, a few months into the pandemic, the McDonald’s innovation has become a widespread, vital health measure, and is generically called “curbside pickup.”

So it is thanks to digital payments that, not by design but by serendipity, as Finextra recently reported, that UK citizens have been able to go …

… an average of 44 days without using cash as they ditch notes and coins for contactless payments during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a survey from Nationwide Building Society. Of 2000 people polled by Nationwide, more than a quarter have gone two months or more without cash. Nearly a third admit they don’t even remember what they last bought with cash. Meanwhile, the building society’s customer data shows a 44% increase in tap-and-pay transactions since the week of 23 March, when Brits were asked to stay at home.

Only a few years ago, such would not have been possible. What began as a convenience is now a need. Even Boomers, typically last to embrace new technology, are taking advantage of digital payments. recently reported:

U.S. millennials were early adopters of person-to-person (P2P) payment apps, while Baby Boomers sought out financial institution-based P2P options and older consumers were slow to join in—until now. Fiserv’s Vice President of Product Management Derek Swords told PYMNTS in a recent interview that P2P usage across demographics is on the upswing, especially since the COVID-19 outbreak.

“[The pandemic] is kind of throwing lighter fluid on a fire that was already burning,” he said … “we are seeing new user growth at about 19 percent and transaction growth increasing by roughly 9 percent per month. We’re certainly seeing more people jumping into the pool and starting to take advantage of P2P through their bank or credit union.”

Swords said consumers haven’t just been rethinking their payment methods during weeks of being stuck at home: They’ve radically rewritten their lives to adopt digital solutions for a host of interactions, from work to school to shopping.

And while the post-pandemic recovery is now underway, there’s reason to suspect consumers won’t immediately abandon their digitized lives, Swords said. Digital systems that work better than their pre-pandemic analogs will likely see continued gains — and Swords believes that includes P2P payments.

For example, he said, when consumers use a P2P service like Zelle, which financial institutions can offer to their customers via Fiserv, “more likely than not, they’re going to keep using it because they find that it really meets a need in their lives.”*

What began as gee-whiz technical innovation and caught on by virtue of convenience has, by serendipity, turned out to be a boon to survival. There’s no doubt that by the time the current pandemic subsides, it will have left in its wake substantive societal changes. Handshakes will likely be a thing of the past. Hand washing will be a more frequent habit, at least for a while. And how people conduct business—and, especially, how they pay—will likely never be the same.

*Disclosure: Fiserv is my employer.

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