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February 24, 2019
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Instagram’s fundraiser stickers could lure credit card numbers

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Mark Zuckerberg recently revealed that commerce is a huge part of the 2019 roadmap for Facebook’s family of apps. But before people can easily buy things from Instagram etc, Facebook needs their credit card info on file. That’s a potentially lucrative side effect of Instagram’s plan to launch a Fundraiser sticker in 2019. Facebook’s own Donate buttons have raised $1 billion, and bringing them to Instagram’s 1 billion users could do a lot of good while furthering Facebook’s commerce strategy.

New code and imagery dug out of Instagram’s Android app reveals how the Fundraiser stickers will allow you to search for non-profits and add a Donate button for them to your Instagram Story. After you’ve donated to something once, Instagram could offer instant checkout on stuff you want to buy using the same payment details.

I suggested back in 2013 that Facebook could add a “remove credit card after checkout” option to its fundraisers back in 2013 if it wanted to make it clear that the feature was purely altruistic. Facebook never did that. You still need to go into your payment settings or click through the See Receipt option after donating and then edit your account settings to remove your credit card. We’ll see if Instagram is any different.

Facebook mentioned at its Communities Summit earlier this month that it’d be building Instagram Fundraiser stickers, but the announcement was largely overshadowed by the company’s reveal of new Groups features. This week, TechCrunch tipster Ishan Agarwal found code in the Instagram Android app detailing how users will be able search for non-profits or browse collections of Suggested charities and ones they follow. They can then overlay a Donate button sticker on their Instagram Story that their followers can click through to contribute.

We then asked reverse engineering specialist Jane Manchun Wong to take a look, and she was able to generate the screenshots seen above that show a green heart icon for the Fundraiser sticker plus the non-profit search engine. A Facebook’s spokespeople tell me that “We are in early stages and working hard to bring this experience to our community . . . Instagram is all about bringing you closer to the people and things you love, and a big part of that is showing support for and bringing awareness to meaningful communities and causes. Later this year, people will be able to raise money and help support nonprofits that are important to them through a donation sticker in Instagram Stories. We’re excited to bring this experience to our community and will share more updates in the coming months.”

Zuckerbeg said during the Q4 2018 earnings call this month that “In Instagram, one of the areas I’m most excited about this year is commerce and shopping . . . there’s also a very big opportunity in basically enabling the transactions and making it so that the buying experience is good”. Streamlining those transactions through saved payment details means more people will complete their purchase. Facebook CFO David Wehner noted on the call that “Continuing to build good advertising products for our e-commerce clients on the advertising side will be a more important contributor to revenue in the foreseeable future”. Even though Facebook isn’t charging a fee on transactions, powering higher commerce conversion rates convinces merchants to buy more ads on the platform.

With all the talk of envy spiraling, phone addiction, bullying, and political propaganda, enabling donations is at least one way Instagram can prove it’s beneficial to the world. Snapchat lacks formal charity features, and Twitter appears to have ended its experiment allowing non-profits to tweet donate buttons. Despite all the flack Facebook rightfully takes, the company has shown a strong track record with philanthropy that mirrors Zuckerberg’s own $47 billion commitment through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. And if having some relatively benging secondary business benefit speeds companies towards assisting non-profits, that’s a trade-off we should be willing to embrace.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Alibaba’s Ant Financial buys UK currency exchange giant WorldFirst reportedly for around $700M

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Ant Financial, the financial services behemoth affiliated with Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, has made its first big move into Europe. It’s acquired London-headquartered payments company WorldFirst in a deal that sources tell us is valued at around $700 million.

(That price would also line up with multiple reports from December claiming the two were in talks for an acquisition of around £550 million, or $717 million at current exchange rates.)

This isn’t your average multi-hundred million dollar acquisition. The deal was confirmed by WorldFirst in a note to customers while Alibaba, which curiously didn’t put out an official press release, acknowledged the acquisition to us through a spokesperson.

Yet despite a relatively under-the-radar outing, the deal has potentially significant consequences. It not only underscores the strong market connections between China and Europe, but also the margin (and thus strategic) pressures that many smaller remittance companies are under in the wake of larger companies like Amazon building its own money-moving services, as well as competition from local players in Asia.

One of a number of globally active money remittance services, 15-year-old WorldFirst lets businesses and consumers move money between countries at prices that are lower than regular banks.

The company claims to have transferred over £70 billion ($90 billion) for customers since 2004, with more than one million transfers made each year. WorldFirst is a player in the competitive remittance market, in which migrant workers send money home to family, who can make transfers online or in person at WorldFirst outlets.

Ant Financial is best known for its Alipay service, which is China’s dominant mobile payment app with over 550 million registered users. Alibaba owns one-third of Ant, which is valued at as much as $150 billion, and it has been pushing to expand its empire outside of China and beyond Asia Pacific, too.

“Alipay and WorldFirst’s capabilities and international footprints are highly complementary,” WorldFirst co-founder and chief executive Jonathan Quin wrote in an internal memo obtained by TechCrunch.

According to Quin, WorldFirst will retain its brand and become a wholly-owned subsidiary of Ant Financial. Many merchants in the UK already accept Alipay, which has expanded to cater for Chinese tourists spending money overseas.

“The tie-up will add WorldFirst’s international online payments and virtual account products to Alipay’s range of technology solutions,” an Ant Financial spokesperson told TechCrunch without disclosing the size of the buyout.

WorldFirst has been financed by private equity investors and, as a private company, it keeps its financial details closely held, but in August 2018 it noted that it had transferred more than $95 billion for some 160,000 customers — businesses and individuals included. A source told us its GMV was around $10 billion a year.

But sources noted that it was under pressure of its own that would have made securing a deal with Ant even more of a priority.

“That whole sector of payments from the West to China sellers for e-commerce is under massive margin pressure from Amazon going direct with its own service, plus new China based entrants PingPong, LianLian and Airwallex,” one executive very close to the remittance space told us. “WorldFirst had recently seen low to declining growth because of this.” Another source said that it had been shopping itself around.

(The Amazon reference is related to Amazon PayCode, a new service it has built with Western Union to let people in markets where Amazon has not launched a local site to pay for goods in local currencies on its platform. The deal was first announced in October last year, and has seen the two companies offering payment alternatives in places like Thailand and Kenya to remove the need to transfer payments in other ways, via Alipay or whatever transfer service a seller or buyer might use.)

The acquisition gives Ant Financial a massive international boost, and for the first time a presence in Europe, but it comes amid some stumbles for the company in its other attempts to expand internationally.

Notably, the company agreed to acquire Nasdaq-listed MoneyGram for $1.2 billion in 2017 after it won a bidding war for the global payment company. Ultimately, however, the deal was blocked by the U.S. government. Bruised by the episode, which set its plans back by a year, Ant went on to raise an enormous $14 billion funding round last summer during which time it presumably kicked off the search for a MoneyGram alternative.

While WorldFirst is based out of the UK, the company last year made a key move to expand its US operations when it was announced in August that it would acquire the retail money transfer business of San Francisco-based startup Wyre, which had built the network on blockchain technology but was selling it to focus on the other side of its business, providing currency exchange APIs to larger B2B customers.

It looked like all systems go for WorldFirst to move deeper in the US after that. But then, the company abruptly announced on February 20 that it planned to close the U.S-based business. The move may have been made to prevent a repeat of that scuppered MoneyGram acquisition.

WorldFirst is closing its business in the U.S. in a move widely seen as a precursor to its acquisition by Ant Financial

Outside of the U.S. and China, Ant Financial has aggressively expanded its presence in Asia through a series of investment deals that have seen it put $200 million into Kakao Pay in Korea, and find similar deals in Southeast Asia. The overall strategy appears to be to replicate the success of Alipay in China, where it offers mobile payments and digital financial services that cover loans, banking and wealth management.

In a show of its global ambition, Alipay just this week announced a deal to bring its payment option to U.S. Walgreens stores. A previous partnership with point-of-sale company First Data added Alipay to four million retail partners Stateside, and the company has similar deals in Europe and parts of Asia.

News Source = techcrunch.com

China’s Alipay digital wallet is entering 7,000 Walgreens stores

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China’s payments heavyweights have been following tourists abroad as their home market gets crowded. Ant Financial, Alibaba’s financial affiliate with a said valuation of $100 billion, now sees its virtual wallet Alipay handling transactions at 3,000 Walgreens stores in the U.S. and is eyeing to reach a roster of 7,000 locations by April.

The alliance will make it breezier for Chinese tourists eager to pick up vitamin supplements and cosmetics from the pharmacy giant, doing away the hassle of carrying cash around. There’s also an economic incentive as Alipay and its payments peers typically charge lower foreign transaction fees than credit card firms.

Walgreens products are already available to Chinese shoppers through Alibaba’s Tmall online marketplace, which connects customers to brands. It competes with JD.com to bring high-quality overseas products to the country’s increasingly demanding consumers.

According to a Nielsen report released last year, more than 90 percent Chinese tourists said they would use mobile payment overseas if given the option. Digital payments have become a norm in China’s urban centers and top policymakers are planning to replicate that cashless ubiquity among rural villagers by 2020, announced a set of new guidelines this week.

Ant Financial is continuing its aggression in North America despite a major fiasco last year when the U.S. government killed its $1.2 billion plan to buy money transfer firm MoneyGram, a deal that could boost Ant’s global remittance capability. Within the American borders, Ant has tapped into its partners’ retail networks. By March last year, Alipay was accepting money across 35,000 merchants through its tie-up with local payments processor First Data.

Alipay is currently available at 3,000 Walgreens stores in the U.S. / Photo: Ant Financial

Digital payments are especially popular with first-time outbound tourists, many of whom hail from smaller Chinese cities and may not own international credit cards. According to a recent report published by Ant, the number of people from third-and-fourth-tier cities who used Alipay abroad was up 230 percent during this past Lunar New Year.

“This really highlights how mobile payment is taking root in China’s outbound tourism market,” said Janice Chen, head of the business operation for Alipay’s cross-border unit. Overseas usage from travellers born between 1960 and 1979 similarly saw robust growth last week.

Alipay’s big push into North American also includes its foray into Canada. In one instance, diners in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton — destinations that draw a lot of Chinese tourist and students — can now use Alipay to order food and skip restaurant lines. The setup comes from a deal between Ant Financial and Canadian food startup ClickDishes.

Alipay’s archrival WeChat Pay has also flexed its muscles overseas. To chase after Chinese tourists, the Tencent-owned wallet recently pushed into Japan through a partnership with chat app Line. In Hong Kong and Malaysia, WeChat has attempted to get a slice of the indigenous payments market by running localized versions of the wallet and luring users with money. During Lunar New Year, WeChat Pay shelled out millions of digital hongbao — red packets filled with cash traditionally handed out during the festive period — to users in these two regions.

News Source = techcrunch.com

PayPal shutters Malaysia office as part of customer service reorg

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Payment giant PayPal has closed its office in Malaysia as part of a restructuring of its customer support teams.

The office, located in capital city Kuala Lumpur, was home to a team of customer service agents that catered to PayPal users across Asian region and beyond. Now, its responsibility will be assumed by other offices, which include locations in the Philippines, China and India.

A PayPal spokesperson explained to TechCrunch that the move is aimed at consolidating a range of different employees at PayPal offices to help blend a range of employees under the same roof. The closure of the office doesn’t impact the PayPal service in Malaysia.

PayPal confirmed the office will close this year in a statement. The company emphasized its efforts to transition affected staff into new jobs both inside PayPal and with other companies:

We have made the difficult decision to close PayPal’s Operations Centre in Malaysia by the end of this year. The work currently being delivered at our Operations Centre in Malaysia will gradually move to other locations. This internal reorganization does not affect our customers in Malaysia, who can continue to use our products and services as normal.

We regularly review our global site structure and staffing to ensure the support and services we provide at each site best meet the evolving demands of our customers. Our Operations Centre in Malaysia has done a remarkable job serving our customers since the site opened in 2011. However, this decision was made to align our investment in sites that are better equipped to support the future needs of our customers and our company.

Our priority now is to do everything we can to set up our employees for future success and we are fully committed to helping them as they transition to the next step in their careers. As well as offering comprehensive separation packages, we have built an on-site careers center to promote job opportunities and provide immediate assistance to employees.

PayPal was the first company to pioneer digital payments but it has fallen behind in Asia and other emerging markets as mobile payment players and messaging apps have stepped up.

WeChat, which offers integrated QR code payments, dominates China, while WhatsApp is experimenting with payments in India, its largest market with 200 million active users, in a move that may well expand to other markets including Southeast Asia, where it is widely used. Other challengers with digital payments include Line, which offers payments in Japan, Taiwan and Thailand, and Alibaba’s Ant Financial, a major player in China that is making aggressive moves in Korea and Southeast Asia.

News of the Kuala Lumpur office closure was first reported by Malaysian media.

News Source = techcrunch.com

The plot to revive Mt. Gox and repay victims’ Bitcoin

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It was the Lehman Brothers of blockchain. 850,000 Bitcoin disappeared when cryptocurrency exchange Mt. Gox imploded in 2014 after a series of hacks. The incident cemented the industry’s reputation as frighteningly insecure. Now a controversial crypto celebrity named Brock Pierce is trying to get the Mt. Gox flameout’s 24,000 victims their money back and build a new company from the ashes.

Pierce spoke to TechCrunch for the first interview about Gox Rising — his plan to reboot the Mt. Gox brand and challenge Coinbase and Binance for the title of top cryptocurrency exchange. He claims there’s around $630 million and 150,000 Bitcoin waiting in the Mt. Gox bankruptcy trust, and Pierce wants to solve the legal and technical barriers to getting those assets distributed back to their rightful owners.

The consensus from several blockchain startup CEOs I spoke with was that the plot is “crazy”, but that it also has the potential to right one of the biggest wrongs marring the history of Bitcoin.

The Fall Of Mt. Gox

But the story starts with Magic: The Gathering. Mt. Gox launched in 2006 as a place for players of the fantasy card game to trade monsters and spells before cryptocurrency came of age. The Magic: The Gathering Online eXchange wasn’t designed to safeguard huge quantities of Bitcoin from legions of hackers, but founder Jed McCaleb pivoted the site in 2010. Seeking to focus on other projects, he gave 88 percent of the company to French software engineer Mark Karpeles, and kept 12 percent. By 2013, the Tokyo-based Mt. Gox had become the world’s leading cryptocurrency exchange, handling 70 percent of all Bitcoin trades. But security breaches, technology problems, and regulations were already plaguing the service.

Then everything fell apart. In February 2014, Mt. Gox halted withdrawls due to what it called a bug in Bitcoin, trapping assets in user accounts. Mt. Gox discovered that it had lost over 700,000 Bitcoins due to theft over the past few years. By the end of the month, it had suspended all trading and filed for bankruptcy protection, which would contribute to a 36 percent decline in Bitcoin’s price. It admitted that 100,000 of its own Bitcoin atop 750,000 owned by customers had been stolen.

Mt. Gox is now undergoing bankruptcy rehabilitation in Japan overseen by court-appointed trustee and veteran bankruptcy lawyer Nobuaki Kobayashi to establish a process for compensating the 24,000 victims who filed claims. There’s now 137,892 Bitcoin, 162,106 Bitcoin Cash, and some other forked coins in Mt. Gox’s holdings, along with $630 million from the sale of 25 percent of the Bitcoin Kobayashi handled at a precient price point above where it is today. But five years later, creditors still haven’t been paid back. 

A Rescue Attempt

Brock Pierce, the eccentric crypto celebrity

Pierce had actually tried to acquire Mt. Gox in 2013. The child actor known from The Mighty Ducks had gone on to work with a talent management company called Digital Entertainment Network. But accusations of sex crime led Pierce and some team members to flee the US to Spain until they were extradited back. Pierce wasn’t charged and paid roughly $21,000 to settle civil suits, but his cohorts were convicted of child molestation and child pornography.

The situation still haunts Pierce’s reputation and makes some in the industry apprehensive to be associated with him. But he managed to break into the virtual currency business, setting up World Of Warcraft gold mining farms in China. He claims to have eventually run the world’s largest exchanges for WOW Gold and Second Life Linden Dollars.

Soon Pierce was becoming a central figure in the blockchain scene. He co-founded Blockchain Capital, and eventually the EOS Alliance as well as a “crypto utopia” in Puerto Rico called Sol. His eccentric, Burning Man-influenced fashion made him easy to spot at the industry’s many conferences.

As Bitcoin and Mt. Gox rose in late 2012, Pierce tried to buy it, but “my biggest investor was Goldman Sachs. Goldman was not a fan of me buying the biggest Bitcoin exchange” due to the regulatory issues, Pierce tells me. But he also suspected the exchange was built on a shaky technical foundation that led him to stop pursuing the deal. “I thought there was a big risk factor in the Mt. Gox back-end. That was may intuition and I’m glad I was because my intuition was dead right.”

After Mt. Gox imploded, Pierce claims his investment group Sunlot Holdings successfully bought founder McCaleb’s 12 percent stake for 1 Bitcoin, though McCaleb says he didn’t receive the Bitcoin and it’s not clear if the deal went through. Pierce also claims he had a binding deal with Karpeles to buy the other 88 percent of Mt. Gox, but that Karpeles tried to pull out of the deal that remains in legal limbo.

The Supposed Villain

The Sunlot has since been trying to handle the bankruptcy proceedings, but that arrangement was derailed by a lawsuit from CoinLab. That company had partnered with Mt. Gox to run its North American operations but claimed it never received the necessary assets, and sued Mt. Gox for $75 million, though Mt. Gox countersued saying CoinLab wasn’t legally certified to run the exchange in the US and that it hadn’t returned $5.3 million in customer deposits. For a detailed account the tangle of lawsuits, check out Reuters’ deep-dive into the Mt. Gox fiasco.

CoinLab co-founder Peter Vessenes

This week, CoinLab co-founder Peter Vessenes increased the claim and is now seeking $16 billion. Pierce alleges “this is a frivolous lawsuit. He’s claiming if [the partnership with Mt. Gox] hadn’t been cancelled, CoinLab would have been Coinbase and is suing for all the value. He believes Coinbase is worth $16 billion so he should be paid $16 billion. He embezzled money from Mt. Gox, he committed a crime, and he’s trying to extort the creditors. He’s holding up the entire process hoping he’ll get a payday.” Later, Pierce reiterated that “Coinlab is the villain trying to take all the money and see creditors get nothing.” Industry sources I spoke to agreed with that characterization

Mt. Gox customers worried that they might only receive the cash equivalent of their Bitcoin according to the currency’s $486 value when Gox closed in 2014. That’s despite the rise in Bitcoin’s value rising to around 7X that today, and as high as 40X at the currency’s peak. Luckily, in June 2018 a Japanese District Court halted bankruptcy proceedings and sent Mt. Gox into civil rehabilitation which means the company’s assets would be distributed to its creditors (the users) instead of liquidated. It also declared that users would be paid back their lost Bitcoin rather than the old cash value.

The Plan For Gox Rising

Now Pierce and Sunlot are attempting another rescue of Mt. Gox’s  $1.2 billion assets. He wants to track down the remaining cryptocurrency that’s missing, have it all fairly valued, and then distribute the maximum amount to the robbed users with Mt. Gox equity shareholders including himself receiving nothing.

That’s a much better deal for creditors than if Mt. Gox paid out the undervalued sum, and then shareholders like Pierce got to keep the remaining Bitcoins or proceeds of their sale at today’s true value. “I‘ve been very blessed in my life. I did commit to giving my first billion away” Pierce notes, joking that this plan could account for the first $700 million he plans to ‘donate’.

“Like Game Of Thrones, the last season of Mt. Gox hasn’t been written” Pierce tells me, speaking in terms HBO’s Silicon Valley would be quick to parody. “What kind of ending do we want to make for it? I’m a Joseph Campbell fan so I’m obviously going to go with a hero’s journey, with a rise and a fall, and then a rise from the ashes like a phoenix.”

But to make this happen, Sunlot needs at least half of those Mt. Gox users seeking compensation, or roughly 12,000 that represent the majority of assets, to sign up to join a creditors committee. That’s where GoxRising.com comes in. The plan is to have users join the committee there so they can present a united voice to Kobayashi about how they want Mt. Gox’s assets distributed. “I think that would allow the process to move faster than it would otherise. Things are on track to be resolved in the next three to five years. If [a majority of creditors sign on] this could be resolved in maybe 1 year.

Beyond providing whatever the Mt. Gox estate pays out, Pierce wants to create a Gox Coin that gives original Mt Gox creditors a stake in the new company. He plans to have all of Mt. Gox’s equity wiped out, including his own. Then he’ll arrange to finance and tokenize an independent foundation governed by the creditors that will seek to recover additional lost Mt. Gox assets and then distribute them pro rata to the Gox Coin holders. There are plenty of unanswered questions about the regulatory status of a Gox Coin and what holders would be entitled to, Pierce admits.

Meanwhile, Pierce is bidding to buy the intangibles of Mt. Gox, aka the brand and domain. He wants to then relaunch it as a Gox or Mt. Gox exchange that doesn’t provide custody itself for higher security.

“We want to offer [creditors] more than the bankruptcy trustee can do on its own” Pierce tells me. He concedes that the venture isn’t purely altruistic. “If the exchange is very successful I stand to benefit sometime down the road.” Still, he stands by his plan, even if the revived Mt. Gox never rises to legitimately challenge Binance, Coinbase, and other leading exchanges. Pierce concludes, “Whether we’re successful or not, I want to see the creditors made whole.” Those creditors will have to decide for themselves who to trust.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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