Tuesday, March 17, 2015

KwikPay and RenWeb -- Nelnet's malware exploits the student loan industry

Was your student loan debt acquired illegally?  How malicious is KwikPay?  The $133 Billion Dollar Questions...


If your student loan balance is going nowhere, and if you use or have been enticed by your loan "servicer" to use a little piece of software called KwikPay -- you may wish to read ahead.  Especially if your intentions are to minimize the actual dollar amount of interest (or interest + principle) paid. 

See:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/04/cfpb-student-loan-payment_n_4726052.html

Background: doing a little research on something only tangentially related to student loans, I happened across a couple intriguing posts on reddit... have a read  here, here and here.  Immediately my intuitive hackles went up:  something is not right.  And thus the "little" research led to more research, and some pretty interesting discoveries. 

First and foremost: be informed that any company that uses KwikPay or Renweb is, in some way, affiliated with Nelnet.  This is not good thing.   

Nelnet, AKA "National Education Loan Network, Inc." is a behemoth publicly-traded, for-profit company that operates under a vast number of names and pseudonyms.  Nelnet operates at least 47 subsidiaries (probably more today; but as of 2008 there were at least 47 -- see Footnote 1) and handles upward of $133.6 BILLION DOLLARS in student loans debts.

This might be an admirable or impressive feat but for the reality that most of the "business" associated with these student loans was obtained illegally.

Keep in mind that the $133.6 BILLION DOLLARS number does not include side deals where Nelnet has aggressively marketed its KwikPay malware and injected it into supposedly "competing" loan service companies such as Edfinancial, Charter One Bank, First Mark Credit Services, etc.   How on Earth one company has been "entrusted" with so much student loan debt-handling is beyond comprehension.   

The fundamental problem with KwikPay is exactly like this redditor mentioned -- that the portions of your payment getting applied to interest and principle are seemingly random, especially for borrowers with multiple kinds of "loans" bundled (aka "consolidated") under this one servicer.  

This malware is programmed to apply interest vs. principle in a way that forces borrowers to maximize interest payments paid to the banks; this, of course, increases both the amount and the lifespan of the loan and makes paying it down that much harder.  The formula for even "simple" interest:  I = prt is easily manipulated when you let them play with the other variables in whatever manner they wish.

Getting this straightened out is not only something they make difficult, but something that they actively discourage you from doing (or know how to do).

Facts: 

Some recent data about Nelnet from a recent earnings report:


"Nelnet Reports Fourth Quarter 2014 Results -

- Servicing $133.6 billion student loans for 5.9 million borrowers under government contract
- 30 percent increase in payment processing revenue driven by RenWeb acquisition
- Purchased $6.1 billion of loans during 2014"

Historical Facts: 


Nelnet was sued a few years ago under the False Claims Act. The details of this https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1oOP-5e5fiSWXdoaVgydTV5cnM/view?usp=sharing
case were obtained through WikiLeaks, and links to the source documents have been included for convenience:

The TL;DR version of a 285 page suit:

As part of some incentive for "quick and dirty" regulation compliance, Nelnet was able to inject its malware into numerous Colleges, Universities, and alumni associations; students and graduates from over one hundred colleges and Universities (see list starting on page 14 or Footnote 2) ... were steered toward using Nelnet's exit counseling software -- software that was specifically designed to induce students into a transaction with Nelnet and JP Morgan / Citigroup for any FFELP consolidation loans.  Highlights from the case:
  • Nelnet made fraudulent and misleading statements on its website that consolidating the FFELP loans with Nelnet entitled them to a 6 month forebearance.
    • By conducing them to consolidate FFELP-eligible loans before their grace period runs out, and by offering them forbearance for which they are not entitled, Nelnet yields loans with higher interest payments and loan balances that extend for longer than they otherwise would. JP Morgan and Citigroup delight in this.
    • Nelnet failed to reveal that by consolidating, borrowers would lose certain rights the government grants on Perkins loans (lower interest rates, ability to discharge) 
  • JPMorgan and Citigroup were named as aiders and abettors to Nelnet for "knowingly assist[ing] in the improper acts, plans, schemes and transactions"
    •  There was a single plan for Nelnet, JP Morgan and Citigroup to obtain payment of US money by presenting as many FFELP claims as possible.  JP Morgan and Citigroup took advantage of this plan to obtain the maximum amount of US money, with overt wrongful acts
  • Nelnet agents were required to make 100+ telephone calls per day soliciting people to complete loan consolidations; they were specifically instructed to present misleading statements regarding eligibility and savings over the life of the loan.
    • However, the facts have shown that "individuals who consolidate their student loans with Nelnet end up paying more interest over the life of their loans and make payments for longer periods of time"

Very sadly and quite unfortunately... Nelnet, JP Morgan and Citibank's attorneys + lobbyists were (and still are) very powerful.  They weaseled the judicial system to get this lawsuit thrown out (albeit from one man, not from anybody else who wishes to pursue it).   The bad guys got a small victory -- it was “settled” for a measly $55 million (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/08/13/nelnet-lawsuit-settled-st_n_681856.html), none of which went to distressed students who were taken by this scam.

The original whistleblower – Rudy Vigil – had worked for Nelnet in the heyday of scamming students out of college – he ended up financially destitute and is reported to have filed bankruptcy. 

Now, About RenWeb...


So with that little whistleblower blip taken care of, and the asset of a formula that has been "proven" to work with little or no takedown by the government, Nelnet now sets its sights on target: RenWeb.

RenWeb is a recent acquisition.  It at first appears to be an innocent and simple tool that can allow parents to track their childrens' school involvement; however, it is much more than that.  Pieces of RenWeb allow students to apply for tuition and financial assistance... and it gathers both performance and income-sensitive data, data that is surely very valuable for targeting likely defaulters.  Given Nelnet's historical actions, it's highly likely that this is an attempt to duplicate former success by getting the malware injection even sooner into the process -- by going after students' parents and a number of private or religious-based institutions.

To Do:  

The CFPB is soliciting borrowers’ complaints. The agency invites borrowers to submit complaints online or call a toll-free number: (855) 411-2372.

Senator Elizabeth Warren is just about the only political person who can be counted on to stand up for the rights of student borrowers.  But if you know of any more, please mention them...

Expect to see a lot of lawsuits on the horizon for Nelnet and its cronies.    





KeyWords:  EdFinancial, Nelnet, Kwikpay, Student Loans, 5280 Solutions, Firstmark, Renweb


 Footnote 1:  Some of Nelnet Subsidaries (direct + indirect) are known as Education Solutions, Inc (Lincoln, NE); First National Life Insurance Company of the USA (Lincoln, NE); Lincoln Square Funding, LLC; Nelnet Student Asset Funding Extendible CP;  M &P Building LLC (Lincoln, NE); Peterson's Nelnet LLC (Lawrenceville, NJ); CUnet, LLC (Wyckhoff, NJ); Loanstar Assets Partners, LP (Delaware); Loanstar Assets GP (Delaware + Nebraska); Chela Education Funding, Inc. (NE); College Bound Loans, Inc. (Warwick, RI); National Honor Roll, L.L.C. (Lynbrook, NY); Student Marketing Group, Inc. (Lynbrook, NY);  FACTS Management (Lincoln, NE); infiNET Integrated Solutions (NE);  Shockley Financial Corp (Aurora, CO); SLAAA Acquisition Corp (Lincoln, NE);  Student Loan Acquisition Authority of Arizona, LLC (Delaware + Nebraska); National Education Loan of New England, Inc. (Warwick, RI); MELMAC, LLC (organized in Delaware - based in Portland, ME); MELMAC, Inc. (organzied in Nevada - Portland, ME); NHELP, Inc. (various states and cities); InTutition, Inc. (organized in Florida, based in Lincoln, NE); ClassCredit, Inc. (organized in Florida, based in Lincoln, NE), FirstMark Services, LLC (Woodbury, MN); 5280 Solutions (direct subsidiary Littleton, CO);  National Higher Loan Education Program, Inc (Lincoln, NE);  

Footnote 2:  Schools targeted by Nelnet between 1998 - 2008:  Boise State University; Bowie State University; Central Michigan University; Cleary University; Clemson University; Cleveland State University; College of Charleston; Colorado State University; CC of Baltimore County; ECU; Eastern University; Washington University; Embry-Riddle; Emporia State U; Florida Coastal School of Law; Florida International University; Fort Hays State; Georgia College & State University; Georgia State U; Georgia Tech; Grand Canyon U; Hawaii Pacific U; Idaho State U; Indiana University; Iona College; James Madison University; The U of Kansas; Kansas State U; Langston University; Le Moyne College; Life University; Louisiana State University; Manhattan College; Medical University of OH; Miami University; Midland Lutheran College; North Carolina State; Northeastern State U; Northern Illinois U; Northern Kentucky U; Northern Michigan U; Northwestern State U; Norwich University; Ohio University; Oklahoma Christian University; Old Dominion University; Prescott College; Queens University of Charlotte; San Jose State U (SJSU); South Dakota State U (SDSU); Tarleton; Texas A&M; Texas Tech; Troy University; University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC); Union College; The University of Akron; U of Alaska - Fairbanks; U of Arizona; University of Central OK; U of Colorado; U of Dayton; U of Detroit-Mercury; University of Illinois; University of Kentucky; U of Louisiana; U of Missouri;  U of Maryland; The University of Memphis; University of Nevada; University of New England; University of New Mexico; University of North Florida; University of South Alabama; The University of South Dakota; University of South Florida; University of Toledo; University of Wisconsin; University of Nebraska at Kearney; University of New Orleans; Washburn; Wilkes University;   

Footnote 3:   This author believes that you should never trust website software that uses ".aspx" in its URL bar.

Footnote 4:  Malware is computer software that injects itself into a system and adds significant transactional burden and "load" to systems.  It does not go away on its own and must be forcefully removed.  

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Why I'm a boat rocker.

"You're rocking the boat.  They don't like that."  

A comment I heard just this week... one woman chatting with another woman about how she did it... how was she able to overcome the overwhelming gender bias in this industry and join a team with an employer who actually cares?

How did she do it?  By not rocking the boat.

I've had this ... I guess we could call it a "conversation" with myself at various points in my life.  Usually it's when I'm getting washed ashore and clinging to dear land, gasping for air:  Oh, geeze. I rocked the boat too hard, again!  And everybody, like, freaked out.  They threw me overboard!  How dare they!?  

Why did they do that?  Because I rocked the boat.

Yes, rather than risk their boat getting toppled by little me, they decided that the smartest thing to do is just throw the boat rocker overboard.  Gee thanks.  But the interesting thing is that never has any team member from any boat I've been thrown from stopped with pause to think or ask logical questions about things like physics or wind, materials science, currents or compass...

Because all they can see is that their boat is getting rocked.   

If only they could see... logical questions have logical answers.  It's not the boat rocker who ultimately destroys the boat and ruins everything; it's the boat rocker who exposes the vulnerabilities of the boat and can help everybody be more prepared.  Before it's too late.  But the key is that ... you've gotta let the boat rocker stay on the boat.  Having somebody who's not afraid to push the limits of our boat is a good thing. 

The dearth of women and women in leadership roles in technology is obvious to anybody who has worked in technology.  Once in a while somebody will create a little movement ... some noise or a "non profit" or a summit or something.  But these blips are hardly ever noticed on the larger radar.  They fade and disappear.  People forget.  Men keep getting promoted over women, and they almost never have to fight quite as hard for the raises or pay they deserve.  Venture capitalists keep gladly seed-funding extras from The Social Network.   Firms from A...Z (pardon the pun) keep gladly throwing millions at startups which have been documented to willfully discriminate and retaliate against women.

Partially my (yes anecdotal) observation, but I'm not the only one who has noticed.
 
"We need a national conversation that examines the barriers that hold women back and prevent us from achieving true equality. Additionally and just as importantly, we need personal conversations among us all -- managers and employees, friends, colleagues, partners, parents and children -- where issues about gender are discussed openly.
The blunt truth is that men still run the world." ~ Sheryl Sandberg 2013

My two cents for the conversation is pretty simple:  there are only two different kinds of humans in the world:  Those who actively exploit women, and those who actively speak out against the exploitation of women.   Keeping your mouth shut for fear of rocking the boat -- this is a form of apathy all its own.  

The exploiters have general strategies:  when she's smart, competent, hard working, and nice, underpay her.  She's easy to take advantage of.  Besides, when we really drill down and look at things, she just doesn't  deserve the same basis as the guys on her team.   Or better yet -- why allow her to be part of the company at all?  Why not make sure she's thoroughly plundered of her wages by a middleman "temp agency" or headhunter?  The more fear and job insecurity you can instill in her, the harder she'll try. 

The other strategy the exploiters take is this:  when she's  smart, competent, hard working, and strong enough to stand up for herself, the exploitation takes the form of failure to hire, hiring with a longer "probation" period, bullying, biased performance reviews, or the ultimate insult of getting fired.

I've tried both the "nice" and the "strong" approach, and the unfortunate reality is that neither one really works.   The number of people who actively exploit women is still too big, and the quantitative number of women who aren't afraid to rock the boats is still too small.

But I'm not about to stop rocking boats.

Because it's not the boat rocker who ultimately destroys a boat.  It's the boat rocker who exposes boats that simply do not possess enough integrity to handle the seas.  And those are boats I don't wanna be on anyway.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Crowdfunding IS too expensive - the payments processing cartel everybody needs to know about

Crowdfunding IS too expensive
The payments processing cartel everybody needs to know about 


Crowdfunding is kind of a broadly-generic term.  As a recurring topic and point of discussion among hackers, startup entrepreneurs and "the biz guys", it deserves a special teasing-out.  Just what are people talking about when they talk about "crowdfunding"  ... is it like a Kickstarter campaign for a snazzy newfangled electric skateboard?  Is it a plea for funds that takes the form of a "donate now" button or post on Facebook to help that friend's doggie after it was hit by a car? Her dog needed emergency surgery - it was expensive and urgent.  Or, is crowdfunding some sort of "offering" of equity, like a stake in a potentially-profitable company that dangles future lucrative payout for some initial investment?

For the purposes of this post, let's define crowdfunding specifically as:

Any effort by an individual, group, or organization to raise money through an online campaign.  

Online campaigns where money is handled, authorized, and transferred online?  That's easy enough:  Everybody wants to do everything online these days -- seems so easy, and it should be so much cheaper, right?  Besides, who hasn't seen an online campaign to raise money? 

These campaigns take many possible forms.  As online campaigns go, what do they all have in common?

What they all have in common is the built-in, industry-crafted scam of payment processing fees as cents + percent.  And inflated over-the-top rates where foreign currency exchange is involved.  (But that's another post for another day).
  
Some of the time the do-gooder crowdfunding site doesn't even know it is being subjected to this scam... but sometimes it does, thinking it has no other options.  The most important thing to do is first find out which one of the evil1* Payments Processing Companies (PPCs) your crowdfunding site used or will be using.  Crowfunding sites usually charge BOTH "platform fees" and "bank fees" -- and sometimes crowdfunding sites glue these together to confuse people.  But let's assume, for simplicity purposes, that if they say they have to pay 2.9 percent + $0.30, it's (wittingly or unwittingly) bankrolling the cartel.  A few examples of such players are in the graphic to the left... but there are others.

1* The word "evil" as it is used by the author of this blog means: Anything  incomprehensibly wrong and despicable.
 
PPCs  have figured out that the less you know of the truth about their doings and money-shuffling behind the scenes, the better.  

Players in the cartel cahoot will attempt to claim that by golly, their hands are tied -- look at how everybody charges basically the same thing.  This is "standard".  They pin the blame on "the banks" and how gosh-darn complicated this industry is... those banks sure do deserve to be rewarded handsomely for not only making it so complicated, but also streaming all those transactions.   When they say these rates are not negotiable, they are lying to you.    And if you attempt to ask them why ...  you will probably be given the used car salesman pitch where, oh... it's based on volume or some other equation where they actually control / manipulate one of the measuring variables -- be it time, individual transaction numbers, or sales volume -- to their benefit to make it seem like what they require is "standard".  Their biz guys are smooth talkers... they know exactly what they're doing.  

The truth is that:

(1)  There is NOTHING standard about Interchange.  The findings of a federal investigation concluded that because banks were allowed to set Interchange at whatever they wished, their incentive was to collude and charge the highest as default:  "The interchange fee can be a flat fee, a percentage of the transaction price, or a combination of the two." 

(2) There is NO NEED to collect an additional "percentage" of transaction amount ... this practice was invented by banks, for banks.   It does not benefit consumers, brick + mortar stores, people who sell online, people who buy online, or even large companies like Target, Walmart and Amazon.  It benefits banks, financial institutions, and all the evil PPCs out there who get their cut first.  It's AKA double dipping (charging both the payees and payors).  

(3) Back in about 2009 when the market was a literal MONOPOLY with "basically" just PayPal running the show, PayPal on a whim doubled rates to 2.9% + $0.30 and that's why it is what it is today.

"This double-dipping — charging both sellers and receivers for transactions — will result in a major increase in fee revenue for eBay Inc. which owns PayPal."

Why did this happen, and why has the introduction of numerous forces of supposed competition not changed anything?  Why are consumers not more riled up by this?  Lack of knowledge is one reason.  PBS Frontline's documentary: The Card Game is an interesting peek into this world of unethical businessmen, although it's a little outdated now, here ~ early 2015.  Following the payment card settlement for fixed pricing, economists predicted that consumers wouldn't see the benefits.  Retailers aren't seeing the benefits either.  But all of the companies in the cartel are.

Everybody wants to blame everybody else for why things are they way they are.  Indeed, depending on who you're talking to, the details about Interchange get skewed.   Let's take this apart piece by piece:
"One of the problems with interchange fees, say merchants, is that the rates vary depending on the type of card used in the transaction, making it very difficult for businesses to know what they'll end up paying at the point of sale. Debit cards have cheaper interchange fees than credit cards."  
Um, it's either a debit card or a credit card.  For the record, MOST online payment processors have been treating debit card transactions like credit card transactions, and therefore charge the higher interchange -- even when they have no legal right to do so.   Companies in the screenshot charge 2.9 percent + 30 cents ... even when donations are made with a debit card. In fact, you can have an online campaign made entirely by debit cards for a non-profit cause, and still get charged this amount.  Nobody is any the wiser.
"Another problem, say critics, is that unless you're an industry insider, it's almost impossible to figure out how they come up with the interchange rates, how much money is being made, and where it all goes.
Ah ha!  Well, here I am... former industry insider to tell you all about it.  At the company whose CEO set literal fire to literal paper cash to make a point about his delusions of power, it's clear:  these companies see Interchange as free, burnable money in their pockets. If funds are tight, they and their cronies can simply raise the rates in the network.  And because there's no incentive to lower rates (that is - ZERO COMPETITION among these companies) rates will inevitably edge higher and higher... unless something changes.  
"We don't have a lot of data on this," said Adam Levitin, an associate law professor at Georgetown University, who writes frequently about interchange. "There is no data from Visa and MasterCard, and the best way to make policy is to do it on an informed basis."

So who has the data?  The banks do, but they're not about to disclose how profitable this model is for them.  The payments processing companies would, too, right?

Find out from the crowdfunding website -- which evil payments company is it shackled to.  And then go out there and make a difference.

(1)  File complaints with the US Department of Justice + Start a Class Action lawsuit ... file complaints with the United States Department of Justice on behalf of individuals, non-profits or 501(C)(3)s that overpaid fees to Visa, Mastercard, PPCs and banks.  The payment card settlement lawsuit prohibits RETAILERS who accepted part of the 6 billion dollar settlement from suing the "Plastic Card Network", but it does not and cannot prohibit any other organizations who were unfairly subjected to the same plundering.  Why?  Because lawsuits are the only thing that these guys respond to for their wrong and unethical tactics. 

#indiegogo #kickstarter #gofundme #crowdtilt #crowdrise #giveforward

(2)  Demand competition among PPCs ... There is no reason that startups who want to process payments should have ZERO CHOICE in the fees they are required to pay.   There is no reason they should be taking such a hefty cut of money you're donating to good causes, to "the underdog" Kickstarter campaign, or any other transaction online.  Call them out on their baloney, and tell them it's not right.   

Crowdfunding IS too expensive.  But there is something you can do about it... arm yourself with the facts.  And remember, Simba ....

(blog comments disabled - see them here or here)

Monday, September 23, 2013

What the JOBS Act means for startup funding: beware the cookie lickers

photo credit:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/42621781@N08/
Seed money.  Angel investing.  Venture capital.  Funding start-ups that aspire to be "big business" has become a strange beast.   Today is the official effective date for Title II of the JOBS Act, which many are hopeful can kick off a New Great Era of fundraising.   But in many ways, this is a huge red herring.

Once upon a time pretty much any company that wanted to could raise money according to a broad array of "blue sky" laws which varied by state:
Blue sky laws developed in the frenzied years leading up to the Great Depression, in response to fact that more and more ordinary investors were losing money in highly speculative or fraudulent schemes promising high investment returns, such as oil fields and exotic investments in foreign countries

But after the hype, boom, bust and onset of the Great Depression, thinking changed a bit.  The passing of the Securities Act of 1933 was done with the belief that selling such "risky" early-stage investments to the general public left too much room for swindling.  You know -- bad guys running off with Grandpa's life savings (Which never happens today.  Right, Bernie Madoff?).  Accredited investors are the only ones who can 'afford' to lose, so let's make rules that allow only them take risk that yields high reward -- apparently this was the logic behind Rule 501 of Section D of the Securities Act of 1933, a rule which states that entities need a certain "net worth" to participate in investments which potentially might go public.

But of course, by shielding "small time" potential investors from swindlers, so too were those small- time investors denied opportunities to reap rewards earned from their decision to take risk.   As a result, the next 80 years or so saw an entire profiteering industry sprout up around capital finance, start-ups and highbrow private investing -- an industry "for the elite, by the elite" -- hedged on early access and exclusive access, it is essentially wealth funneling wealth.  It perpetuates by protecting first (usually via preferred stock) the wealth of the wealthiest "if and only if; then and only when" a tiny bit might "trickle" down to common shareholders -- including founders themselves!

If you think this logic sounds a little hokey, you're not alone. Several arguments for scrapping the "accredited investor" rules have floated around, but during the last 80 years, exactly zero headway has been made.   Fred Wilson commented in a May, 2012 Forbes article:
The biggest issue: there is simply too much money. Although $30 billion continues to flow unabated into venture-backed companies annually in the U.S., venture capital as an asset class hasn’t outperformed the market since the early 90’s, when only $10 billion was put to work.
What's happening?  In plain English what's happening is this -- that "exclusive access" members' only club is getting fat, tired and cranky.  Despite the fact that it already has too much on its plate and not enough time to chew, its people just won't stop licking cookies.  Many of those licked cookies are going to waste.

Enter the JOBS Act to "Jumpstart our Business Startups", a plan to help those little guys with freshly baked cookies -- what can be done to change things and help them get their cookie empires off the ground?   Should we make it easier for these guys to advertise their cookies?  Yes!  But first we should probably get rid of the law that makes it illegal to advertise cookies.

September 23 is the official effective date for Title II of the JOBS Act, which many are hopeful can kick off a New Great Era of fundraising.  But in many ways it's a huge red herring:  all it permits is the mere existence of information.  Start-ups now may "legally" use the Internet and/or public airwaves to inform the public that they're looking for capital to grow their business!  Then, with whatever attention their hype is able to attract, those start-ups may be asked to get in line to have their cookies licked by an authorized VC cookie licker.
Of course, the trends threatening VC’s bode well for entrepreneurs. More competition among investors means easier financing and better terms for startups. The eye-popping valuations of some companies may already be a reflection of this phenomenon. Wilson admits that this glut of funding is also probably good news for the economy, job creation and the proliferation of new goods and services.

But whoa. . .  big caveat here --  if a cookie seller accidentally let their cookies get licked by somebody who isn't "legally" allowed to lick cookies, they may get in #BigLegalTrouble and have to wait an entire year to get in the back of the line again.  Seriously.

The spin on this from the VC side seems to be that there 'ought' to be  more competition among VC's ... but is that the issue?  Last time we checked, competition among VCs wasn't the problem; as Paul Graham stated in his recent essay, it's competition for that "first" bit of VC attention that every entrepreneur needs to get the ball rolling:
The biggest factor in most investors' opinions of you is the opinion of other investors. Once you start getting investors to commit, it becomes increasingly easy to get more to. But the other side of this coin is that it's often hard to get the first commitment.

Obviously, we need a larger pool of potential investors / cookie-lickers to woo.  How, exactly can this happen?

The problems that existed at the time of the Securities Act of 1933 -- and the subsequent red tape and paperwork formalities to protect Grandpa's life savings -- surely these were well-intentioned protections.  But the reality of the world today is such that there are too many cookies going to waste.  The professional cookie-lickers of the world just don't have time to sample all the great cookies today's entrepreneurs are making.   Gambling halls and casinos (which certainly are just as likely to swindle Grandpa's life savings) don't require minimum net worth or income limits for patrons, so why are they imposed on investors, where the potential for Return on Investment (ROI) is significantly more feasible?

Title II doesn't address the core problem, but hopefully it can attract more attention and scrutiny to the issues preventing many small and medium-sized businesses from taking root.  Namely -- "accredited investor" rules are antiquated and unnecessary, and they do more harm than good for many small and medium-sized businesses that just want to sell cookies.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

It's time for a Price War in Payments

Bring on the price war.
image
Price wars are great; they are the very epitome of what our American capitalist economic ideals are all about: competition.

But for the last several years something else has been going on.  For the last several years, every single swipe of your debit card — every single “submit payment” click or iPhone tap for your favorite song, every single “$0.35 debit card fee” gasoline pump authorization button press you’ve been forced to accept has been much, much higher than it needs to be …  about 800 percent higher:
their initial analysis that concluded the actual cost of a debt transaction was only 4 cents.”
You read correctly.   A few days ago (before being bought by Mr. Jeff Bezos), The Washington Post broke the news that a Federal judge had overthrown the cap.
In a strongly worded decision, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon said that the Federal Reserve had not properly interpreted the 2010 financial overhaul law, which directed it to revamp the way banks charge merchants for accepting debit cards. The Fed rule “runs completely afoul of the text, design and purpose” of an amendment authored by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) to limit these fees to the actual cost of processing debit card transactions.
What does this mean?  It means that our capitalist system is not working properly.  For the last several years, we’ve all essentially been forced, when engaging in natural economic activity, into padding profits of banks and other payments processors (such as my former employer, Balanced and its competitors WePay, Stripe and PayPal) who should be competing with each other for merchants' business.  But instead, these evil companies have are all part of the same snake pit, charging the same fees. 



With collusion, they and the banks (Chase, Citibank and WellsFargo -- just to name a couple) have a great deal; their collective “guaranteed” profit margin is much better — more money to throw around and lobby to keep things just they way they are, more huge VC rounds for those willing to hop in bed with the big banks, more barriers to entry for the little guys.

This is NOT a regulated industry, but it should be.   The only function of government should be to ensure competition, and STOP monopoly pricing and oligopies.  

By 2009, banks were reaping $16.2 billion in revenue from the fees.
This was ~4 years ago; a more modern calculation would surely yield a much higher number.  Indeed, as mentioned in my recent post the Durbin amendment was specifically targeted at this  discrepancy.

Basic economics shows that rather than engage in a price war, it is more profitable for them all to agree to tout like it’s “law” that these “Interchange Fees” set by the government are just not negotiable.  While this is a partial truth — that the Fed set a non-negotiable portion, that non-negotiable portion is actually the “max” but confusion around fixed and variable components inflated both sides.

Let’s break down the costs of the actual information.  Could it really be so simple?  Yes.  It is not nearly as complicated as they’d like us to think; from my recent post on Hacker News
The swipe is the recording of the
 - credit card # (16 digits long)
 - day/time/place of swipe or "submit payment"  
 - expiration date
 - cvc code

which, when put together, all add up to one little thing called an “auth” code which can be used to attach a particular transaction to a particular instance of potential fraud.  Maybe… 200 - 999 bytes for the swipe data alone.  The fraud detection and “cost of equipment” and other such items bundled in the price are other things they should be competing on, as well. 

Think of the cost of storing or transmitting one small text file.  Now that we mention it:  4 cents for even 999 bytes seems pretty high, actually.  

As an Industry expatriate, I will gladly testify that the only way change could have been done was from the inside out: some high-tech “startup” from Silicon Valley could have been the first mover and propagated this change without any Federal intervention.

But they don't want change... they don't want to stop the extortion; they are Evil.