WeChat is quietly ranking user behavior to play catch-up with Alibaba

Over one billion people leave behind trails of information on WeChat every day as they use the messenger to chat, read, shop, hail rides, rent umbrellas and run many other errands. And the Tencent app has quietly started using this type of signal to determine whether a user is worthy of perks such as deposit-free […]

Over one billion people leave behind trails of information on WeChat every day as they use the messenger to chat, read, shop, hail rides, rent umbrellas and run many other errands. And the Tencent app has quietly started using this type of signal to determine whether a user is worthy of perks such as deposit-free renting services.

The rating system, which the company calls the “WeChat Payments Score” in Chinese, soft-launched last November across eight cities and has been piloting on a small number of apps. Among them is the Tencent-backed power bank rental service Xiaodian, which waives deposits for users if their points hit a certain benchmark. It’s easy to imagine how the rewards mechanism can help nudge customers to try out WeChat’s panoply of in-house and third-party offerings down the road.

Exactly how WeChat calculates these points is unclear, but a test done by TechCrunch shows it factors in one’s shopping and contract-fulfilling records. We’ve reached out to Tencent for more details and will update the article when more information becomes available.

Alibaba’s affiliate Ant Financial — WeChat’s biggest contender in online payments — has been running a similar assessment engine called the “Sesame Credit” since 2015. Like WeChat’s, it measures several dimensions of user data including purchase behavior and capability to fulfil contracts. People with higher scores enjoy perks like deposit waivers when staying at a hotel, incentives that could keep customers in the house. Sesame points are available through Ant’s Alipay digital wallet that recently claimed to have crossed one billion users worldwide.

The WeChat payments score is reminiscent of Tencent’s short-lived credit-rating scheme. Indeed, digital footprints can also help China’s fledgeling financial system predict creditworthiness among millions of people without financial records. That’s why Beijing enlisted tech companies including Tencent and Ant in 2015 to come up with their own “social credit” scores under state-approved pilot projects.

Over time, regulators became wary of the mounting personal information used by online lending companies and moved to assert greater control over the whole credit-rating matter. In early 2018, it changed tack to crack down on private efforts — including a Tencent-run trial. Beijing subsequently set up Baihang Credit, the only market-based personal credit agency approved by China’s central bank. The government holds a 36 percent stake in Baihang. Ant, Tencnet and several other private firms also got to be part of the initiative, though they play complementary roles and hold 8 percent shares each.

While most countries use credit rating mainly as a financial credibility indicator, China has taken things a few steps further. By 2020, China aims to enrol everyone in a national database that incorporates not only financial but also social and moral history, a program that has raised concerns about privacy and surveillance.

Petal’s no-fee credit card for the credit score-less is now open to the public

Petal, the startup credit card company that’s offering a no-fee credit line to people without a credit history, is now publicly available. Launched earlier this year by co-founders Jason Gross, Andrew Endicott, Andrew Ehrich, and Jake Arenas, Petal has received a $34 million credit facility from Jeffries and Silicon Valley Bank to bring its consumer […]

Petal, the startup credit card company that’s offering a no-fee credit line to people without a credit history, is now publicly available.

Launched earlier this year by co-founders Jason Gross, Andrew Endicott, Andrew Ehrich, and Jake Arenas, Petal has received a $34 million credit facility from Jeffries and Silicon Valley Bank to bring its consumer lending product to the masses.

That money will take Petal beyond the few thousand customers that have trialed the company’s credit card in a pre-release to broad distribution for applicants.

Petal uses information from a customer’s bank account and payments to develop a credit score for individuals who haven’t had time to build up a financial picture that most banks or credit card companies use to create risk profiles and issue credit.

“We use more data than credit history to make credit decisions,” says Jason Gross, Petal’s co-founder and chief executive. “They’re common sense metrics about your finances: how much you make save and spend every month.”

Gross says this window into its customers spending habits allows his company to issue credit lines with higher limits than its competitors and with annual financing rates that are among the lowest for first time borrowers.

Annual percentage rates begin at 14% and are up to 25%, which is the standard for the industry, says Gross. And Petal offers credit limits that are, in many cases, ten times higher than its competitors. Another difference between Petal and its older competitors is the company’s elimination of all fees.

“We want to eliminate traps and fees. We have no fee. No late fees, international fee, or over the limit fees,” says Gross. Petal makes its money on the interest it pays and the transaction charges it receives from vendors when its customers use its card. 

“We want you to pay on time and we want you to build your credit,” says Gross. It’s also transparent about how much interest rates will wind up costing its users, Gross says. “Before you carry an interest on Petal… we show you how much it’s going to cost you… .you have a minimum payment and the statement balance…. All of the costs associated with the minimum payment… we make that information clear,” he said.

Those credit limits and the card’s transparent approach to costs and fees make up for the lack of other perks that cardholders would get with competing lenders.

And, Gross stresses that Petal is for first time borrowers, primarily. People who are looking to rebuild their credit score will likely not be approved for a Petal card. Indeed, the company’s demographics skew younger and solidly middle class, according to Gross.

The typical applicants for the Petal card are in their 20s, and are making somewhere between $30,000 and $70,000 per year.

In the market for the past year, Petal has issued cards to over 1,000 early adopters and is on pace to hit 10,000 borrowers signed up with the company by the end of the year.

The company, which most recently raised a $13 million round Valar Ventures, The Social Entrepreneurs Fund, Third Prime, The Gramercy Fund, Story Ventures, RiverPark Ventures, Ride Ventures and other institutional investors.

In fact, investors are throwing a lot of money at the credit space, and specifically trying to find a way to get at the thin-file customers that are Petal’s target audience. Deserve, a startup backed by Accel Partners (among others) is also pitching potential borrowers with a similar approach.

It’s certainly an important market to address.

“If you look at folks who are thin-file, credit invisible, those who don’t have an accurate score, they’re predominantly young people but they’re disproportionately groups that have historically lacked access to financial services,” Gross has previously saidsaid. “Minorities, immigrants, if you lack a score — or an accurate score — it can cost you very real money throughout your life. Having no score, you’re treated as subprime, you won’t qualify for most financial products, or they’ll be more expensive and inferior.”

Alibaba’s Ant Financial denies stealing from Equifax

Ant Financial has denied claims that it covertly raided Equifax — the U.S. credit firm that was hit by a hack last year — to grab information, including code, confidential data and documents to help recruit staff for its own credit scoring service. The Alibaba affiliate, which is valued at over $100 billion, launched Sesame […]

Ant Financial has denied claims that it covertly raided Equifax the U.S. credit firm that was hit by a hack last year — to grab information, including code, confidential data and documents to help recruit staff for its own credit scoring service.

The Alibaba affiliate, which is valued at over $100 billion, launched Sesame Credit in China in 2015, and a report this week from The Wall Street Journal suggests that it leaned heavily on Equifax to do so. Ant Financial hired China-born Canadian David Zou from Equifax and the Journal claims that Zou looked up employee information to gauge potential hires and squirreled away confidential documents via his personal email account.

Ant was said to have offered Chinese staff at Equifax lucrative raises — reportedly tripling their salaries — with a focus on those who “provided instructions on specific Equifax information… if they jumped ship.” Apparently, however, only Zou did.

Zou, for this part, denies the claims. He said he looked up Equifax team members to help with work on his project in Canada, and forward information to his email account in order to continue his work when he went home.

Ant Financial went a step further with its own denial — from the firm’s statement:

Ant Financial did not use Equifax intellectual property or trade secrets, including code, algorithms or methodology in the development of our credit rating product. Ant Financial has found absolutely no evidence of Equifax software, data or code having been transferred to our systems.

We did not directly or indirectly encourage potential job applicants to obtain Equifax intellectual property or trade secrets. This would be a violation of Ant Financial’s Code of Business Conduct and we would take immediate action against any employee found engaging in this behavior. Further, we have specific agreements with our third-party recruiters that prohibit them from violating intellectual property rights of any parties. If any recruiter is found to have conducted such activities, we will stop accepting candidate referrals from them and may take legal action against them.

Ant said the Journal’s report is “full of innuendo based on disjointed facts and coincidence in timing.”

Beyond Ant, the report claims Equifax firm was also concerned when an unnamed Chinese firm swapped members of its delegation in the run-up to a meeting, a tactic that is apparently common among potential cases of espionage.

The company had been in contact with the FBI, but ultimately Equifax decided against pushing the matter. The Journal’s report also suggested that federal investigators backed down because they sensed that Equifax didn’t believe it had information that Chinese spies would be keen to get hold of. In addition, it hadn’t lost consumer information. Ultimately, of course, that leaked out when the firm was hacked last year.

“The story not only promotes hostility against a specific company, but also paints an overall narrative that maligns Chinese companies as a whole, and further promotes culturally divisive perceptions of ethnic Chinese people in America,” Ant said in its statement, which is attributed to the company’s general counsel, Leiming Chen.

Alibaba’s Ant Financial denies stealing from Equifax

Ant Financial has denied claims that it covertly raided Equifax — the U.S. credit firm that was hit by a hack last year — to grab information, including code, confidential data and documents to help recruit staff for its own credit scoring service. The Alibaba affiliate, which is valued at over $100 billion, launched Sesame […]

Ant Financial has denied claims that it covertly raided Equifax the U.S. credit firm that was hit by a hack last year — to grab information, including code, confidential data and documents to help recruit staff for its own credit scoring service.

The Alibaba affiliate, which is valued at over $100 billion, launched Sesame Credit in China in 2015, and a report this week from The Wall Street Journal suggests that it leaned heavily on Equifax to do so. Ant Financial hired China-born Canadian David Zou from Equifax and the Journal claims that Zou looked up employee information to gauge potential hires and squirreled away confidential documents via his personal email account.

Ant was said to have offered Chinese staff at Equifax lucrative raises — reportedly tripling their salaries — with a focus on those who “provided instructions on specific Equifax information… if they jumped ship.” Apparently, however, only Zou did.

Zou, for this part, denies the claims. He said he looked up Equifax team members to help with work on his project in Canada, and forward information to his email account in order to continue his work when he went home.

Ant Financial went a step further with its own denial — from the firm’s statement:

Ant Financial did not use Equifax intellectual property or trade secrets, including code, algorithms or methodology in the development of our credit rating product. Ant Financial has found absolutely no evidence of Equifax software, data or code having been transferred to our systems.

We did not directly or indirectly encourage potential job applicants to obtain Equifax intellectual property or trade secrets. This would be a violation of Ant Financial’s Code of Business Conduct and we would take immediate action against any employee found engaging in this behavior. Further, we have specific agreements with our third-party recruiters that prohibit them from violating intellectual property rights of any parties. If any recruiter is found to have conducted such activities, we will stop accepting candidate referrals from them and may take legal action against them.

Ant said the Journal’s report is “full of innuendo based on disjointed facts and coincidence in timing.”

Beyond Ant, the report claims Equifax firm was also concerned when an unnamed Chinese firm swapped members of its delegation in the run-up to a meeting, a tactic that is apparently common among potential cases of espionage.

The company had been in contact with the FBI, but ultimately Equifax decided against pushing the matter. The Journal’s report also suggested that federal investigators backed down because they sensed that Equifax didn’t believe it had information that Chinese spies would be keen to get hold of. In addition, it hadn’t lost consumer information. Ultimately, of course, that leaked out when the firm was hacked last year.

“The story not only promotes hostility against a specific company, but also paints an overall narrative that maligns Chinese companies as a whole, and further promotes culturally divisive perceptions of ethnic Chinese people in America,” Ant said in its statement, which is attributed to the company’s general counsel, Leiming Chen.

Credit Karma acquires mortgage platform Approved

Credit Karma, the service best known for providing free credit score monitoring and other financial advice (mostly to millennials), is getting into the mortgage business. The company today announced that it has acquired Approved, a mortgage platform that brings modern technology to a process that even today often still involves faxing documents back and forth. The […]

Credit Karma, the service best known for providing free credit score monitoring and other financial advice (mostly to millennials), is getting into the mortgage business. The company today announced that it has acquired Approved, a mortgage platform that brings modern technology to a process that even today often still involves faxing documents back and forth. The companies did not disclose the financial details of the transaction.

At first glance, this may seem like a bit of an odd acquisition, given that Approved is mostly a service for banks and mortgage brokers. But it also makes perfect sense for Credit Karma to get into the mortgage business.

Indeed, Credit Karma Chief Product Officer Nikhyl Singhal told me that he sees this as the natural next step in the company’s evolution.

“As we’ve expanded, you’ve seen us move from credit cards as a way to help members with that part of their life to first personal loans to auto — meaning auto loans, auto insurance,” he said. “Today, we’re really talking more publicly about mortgage. Mortgage being for many of our members the most important financial decision they’ll make.”

It’s also no secret that Credit Karma’s largest user base is millennials. As they get older and start getting to the point where they consider buying a home (assuming they are in the financial position to do so), the company obviously wants to keep those users engaged on their platform and offer them more services.

Singhal also stressed that 80 percent of Credit Karma members are active on the service before they get a new mortgage — and Credit Karma obviously knows all of this because it is able to collect a lot of very detailed financial data about its users.

As Singhal noted, Credit Karma has been working on getting deeper into the mortgage business for about 18 months. “The acquisition is just the continuing effort of saying, ‘look, we’re serious about taking our scale and being that trusted destination for our members as it relates to helping them with their mortgage.'”

Credit Karma already offers some mortgage brokerage services, and today’s acquisition is meant to help speed up this process with the help of Approved’s technology. “What approved has spent a lot of time doing is working with lenders to help them automate and make them more efficient,” Singhal explained. A more efficient process, Singhal expects, means the lenders can reduce rates and save Credit Karma members money.

Approved CEO Andy Taylor and CTO Navtej Sadhal are both Redfin alums, so they know this business well. Taylor told me that he believes that Credit Karma will allow him to scale his service up beyond what a stand-alone company could’ve done. Taylor tells me that he sees Approved’s mission as helping consumers navigate the often tedious and painful world of getting a mortgage. “Moving to Credit Karma is going to immediately give us the sort of resources and immediate scale to continue to drive that mission-driven work,” he said. “We can reach significantly more people than we could otherwise. We can spend less time focusing in on the minutia of building the lender system and more time focusing on bringing transparency to the transaction and having a better loan application process.”

FinAccel raises $30M to build a digital credit card for Southeast Asia

FinAccel, a Southeast Asia-based startup that offers a digital credit card service in Indonesia, has closed a $30 million Series B round as it begins to consider overseas expansion. The company launched its ‘Kredivo’ service two years ago to help consumers pay online in Southeast Asia, where credit card penetration is typically low, and it is essentially […]

FinAccel, a Southeast Asia-based startup that offers a digital credit card service in Indonesia, has closed a $30 million Series B round as it begins to consider overseas expansion.

The company launched its ‘Kredivo’ service two years ago to help consumers pay online in Southeast Asia, where credit card penetration is typically low, and it is essentially the combination of a digital credit card and PayPal. The service is available in Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy, where it uses a customer’s registered phone number — there is no physical credit card — and a dedicated checkout on online retail websites.

For consumers, the service offers a 30-day payback option and then more longer-term options of three, six and 12-month payback windows. The 30-day option is interest-free, but other plans come with a 2.95 percent per month charge on the reducing principle, which effectively makes it 25 percent flat.

FinAccel says it has credit scored close to two million consumers in Indonesia, while on the retail side it has partnered with 200 online sales platforms including large names such as Alibaba’s Lazada, Shopee (which is owned by U.S.-listed Garena), and unicorn Tokopedia, which counts SoftBank and Alibaba among its investors.

This new investment, by the way, is a notable one for Southeast Asia, which has generally been considered to have a gap in Series B funding, so $30 million for a two-year-old business is quite something.

The round itself is led by Australia’s Square Peg Capital — in what is one of its highest-profile overseas deals to date — alongside new investors MDI Ventures, which is affiliated with Telkom Indonesia, and UK-based Atami Capital. Existing investors Jungle Ventures, Openspace Ventures, GMO Venture
Partners, Alpha JWC Ventures and 500 Startups also took part in the round.

FinAccel founders (left to right) Umang Rustagi (COO), Akshay Garg (CEO) and Alie Tan (head of product engineering)

The startup raised a seed round of over $1 million in 2016, before quietly raising a $5 million Series A last year, FinAccel co-founder CEO Akshay Garg revealed in an interview with TechCrunch.

Garg, who founded ad tech firm Komli, said the company is processing “hundreds of millions” in U.S. dollars per year and the immediate plan is to keep growing in Indonesia. Already, however, it is eyeing up potential expansions with its first move overseas is likely to be in Southeast Asia in early 2018, although he declined to provide more details.

“Our goal is to become the preferred digital credit card for millennials in Southeast Asia,” he told TechCrunch. “Those are consumers who are mobile-first and already bankable. The credit gap in this market is huge, there’s no electronic verification and other things that we take for granted in the West just don’t work here.”

FinAccel isn’t going after the unbanked in the region, but it also isn’t going after banks either. Garg said that it is possible that the company might try to work with banks in the future in order to grow its market share and offer new products.

One area it is looking at is financial products — such as loans for personal, educational and emergency purposes — but there could be ways to leverage its online presence and adoption among young people and work with existing financial institutions, which he believes simply aren’t equipped to reach out in the same way.

“We don’t see ourselves disrupting the banks, we are more partners,” he explained. “We could partner on balance sheet and on issuing credit cards to offer more efficient and seamless financial inclusion at best possible rates.”