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Wirecard Scandal: The Frozen Funds and What it Means for Crypto

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Wirecard scandal and what it means for Cryptocurrency.
Wirecard

What is Wirecard?

Wirecard is a fintech payment processing company based in Munich, Germany. The firm functions as a bank, but it is not exactly one. 

Wirecard is a provider of digital payments services, with hundreds of thousands of merchants processing online payments through it. Basically, Wirecard acts as an intermediary between customers and banks. For instance, when someone tries making a payment with a credit card, Wirecard receives that payment, processes it, and settles the corresponding bank.

It prospered by making contactless payments seemingly effortless for its merchants, with customers like Apple Pay, Google Pay and Visa.

The scandal

The payment giant was recently caught in a scandal of $2 billion missing from its accounting books, which have seen the company’s value crash from €104 per stock price to a meagre €3.15, in less than a month.

Wirecard’s chief executive, Markus Braun, who steered Wirecard into becoming one of the financial technology giants in Europe, stepped down a few weeks ago and was recently arrested over false accounting and market manipulation. 

Markus reportedly cooked the books to make Wirecard look attractive to clients and investors. The management board claims that ‘there is a prevailing likelihood that the bank trust account balances in the amount of 1.9 billion EUR, do not exist

Thousands of accounts got frozen

Wirecard filed for insolvency, owing €3.5 billion in one of Europe’s biggest corporate failures, following the revelation that 1.9 billion euros of cash had gone missing from its accounts. 

Wirecard Card Solutions, a subsidiary of the German firm, is responsible for card issuance for the company’s clients. It has an ‘e-money licence’ which allows it to handle digital cash without fully becoming a deposit-taking bank.

The United Kingdom’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), which oversees Wirecard UK, decided to restrict Wirecard’s activities to protect customersʼ money. As a result, a temporary freeze was put in place, on all card activities. This freeze affected a wide range of clients, businesses and customers. 

Thousands of British consumers were unable to have access to their money. British banking applications including Curve, Anna, Pockit and U Account, were impacted by the ban as they relied on Wirecard’s systems to process payments. 

Crypto payment card providers Crypto.com and TenX were also affected by the freeze. Perhaps, the global freelancing community felt some of the most severe impacts within the temporary freeze as one of their most preferred alternatives for online payment services, Payoneer, relies on Wirecard Card Solutions to issue its prepaid cards outside the United States. 

Wirecard was recently cleared to continue regulated activities in the United Kingdom, following a decision from regulators after they successfully completed their audit. All affected businesses, organizations and customers can safely access their money once again.

What does this mean to the cryptocurrency and Blockchain community?

The banks are winning! 

Every shade of maximalists in the cryptocurrency ecosystem demand one thing, mass adoption of their ‘saviour’ coin for the most part, with their secondary interest in the coin price increase.

Several attempts at adoption campaigns have shown that the global transcendence of finance to cryptocurrencies cannot occur without the full involvement of the banks and fintech solutions. The inevitable irony of depending on the help of the jailer to break out of prison.

The brief period of restriction placed on Wirecard Card Solutions, in which customers could not access their money, is a blackout too long for 21st-century finance. 

Loot, a promising United Kingdom fintech app with over 200,000 users, went into administration (this means they got into debt, could not pay back and handed the company over to creditors), with Wirecard handling its card transactions in order to keep customersʼ funds safe. The fintech app is no longer active after gathering so many users. 

These frequent experiences have dented the trust of the people in fintech solutions, the supposed gateway of onboarding newbies into cryptocurrency. 

People will rather stick to the banks, as seen with a frustrated comment from a Loot user saying “Loot robbed everyone”  

Security of funds comes before the convenience of transaction. The banks provide this security to customers and the frequent failures of fintech solutions are the validation they need to stick to the rigid services of the banks. 

Can Blockchain payment channels fill the spot?

The Wirecard scandal reveals that there seems to be a growing blindspot for the fast-evolving financial systems and the failure in oversight by regulators.

Blockchain-based finance payment channels and currencies, still remain the most credible financial system. The immutability of transaction records and smooth exchange of cryptocurrencies across borders, at extremely low charges, is a commendable feature.

However, a lot of work has to go into the convenience of usage for Blockchain finance products. Education, mass adoption, UI/UX and a whole lot more. Should all these elements be put into consideration, the dominance of cryptocurrency would be nothing short of imminent. 

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Crypto Culture

Opinion: The need for crypto education – Case study: El Salvador

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Proof of work, proof of stake, ledger, cryptography, mining and other buzzwords are a feature of the crypto community. However, for a kind of tech that hopes to achieve more mainstream adoption, blockchain has to be put in simpler terms for larger groups of people to understand it enough to want to adopt or use it. The current pundits of blockchain tech are more likely to be starry eyed (and equally cynical) tech enthusiasts as well as traders of different calibers and experiences who are obviously all trying to make profit rather than the layman on the street who’s trying to close off a purchase (the layman could be the trader but I digress).

What’s the idea here? In simple terms, there’s an education gap in the industry that essentially is hindering or slowing down the rate at which blockchain tech is becoming mainstream. Added to the drama is the fact that many cryptocurrency platforms are not owned and/or sanctioned by world governments. While public opinion on governments may look sour from time to time, people still have a propensity for trusting authority especially when it comes to value exchange. Therefore, there is a level of mistrust in schemes not government sanctioned especially since the technology that enables it to all work is misunderstood or not grasped at all.

However, to say that a central authority’s nod of approval is all that is required would be a shaky conclusion. El Salvador just recently made the cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, legal tender. It should have been a happy ever after or a close approximation of that. However, it seems that public opinion on the use of the cryptocurrency as lawful money is still in the red. El Salvadorians have been protesting a rushed adoption of the digital currency as well as the fallout from the practical display of crypto market volatility. Hours after the “Bitcoin Law” came into force, Bitcoin lost as much as 18.6% of its value.

In El Salvador, even as progressive as such an initiative seems, the rollout looks to be full of issues. One that particularly stands out at this time is the lack of education the El Salvadorian public has about a currency that they are now required by law to use. A study carried out in August questioning 1,281 people showed amongst other things that people didn’t know about or understand Bitcoin. According to the study, only 4.8 per cent of respondents correctly identified Bitcoin as a cryptocurrency and that 7 out of 10 people did not fully understand what it is. The survey also showed that 2 out of 10 people had never heard of Bitcoin before. This is mind numbing for a country that has deployed the cryptocurrency as legal tender.

Not surprisingly, there has been some opposition to its use. From the study, 68% of those polled disagreed with the use of Bitcoin as legal tender. 8 out of 10 respondents had little or no confidence in the use of Bitcoin. And, how would they? It’s apparent that many didn’t understand it well enough or at all to even develop that confidence in the first place. There have since been protests since the law came into force. Although, one cannot remove the political connotations present in the demonstrations, they still underscore a discontent at the heart of which lies a gap in education.

In other parts of the world, say, Africa, cryptocurrencies and their vast intricacies do seem popular. If you have a smart phone and internet connection that is. At the end of the day, Africa still has a comparatively low penetration of technology and internet connectivity varying based on the country in focus. The world has looked upon the rise of the blockchain industry in Africa, even calling it the next frontier because of the tremendous growth the sector has witnessed on the continent. But the big picture often hides the details, amongst which is the fact that said growth is driven largely by a specific age demographic in a handful of countries. And just as mentioned earlier, many are truly only in it to win it, casting to the side any cryptocurrency that no longer shows promise. But hey, at least some African nations are flirting with the idea of having state sanctioned digital currencies. Hopefully they do things better than El Salvador has.

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Opinion

The Digital Tender: A Game Changer?

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Game changer
Image Credit: Kabiru Yusuf

2 billion people still lack access to formal financial institutions according to data released by the World Bank. This implies that a wide gamut of individuals across the globe are constantly stripped of their financial rights and left in the shadows. This is true of the sophisticated systems of traditional paper transactions that are rarely encouraging and laden with obscurity. 

With this in mind, it is only right that we outsource innovative channels that will provide the vast majority of people with affordable means to manage their financial lives and grow. This must be acted upon in a bid to maximize opportunities for people to express their financial freedom using a secure, affordable, and qualitative approach. 

Presently, the financial space is abuzz with a ‘fresh’ type of currency. One that is fast gaining momentum and seeks to achieve a satisfactory ambition. Digital currencies in today’s economy have been observed to hold the potential to completely revolutionise how money is perceived in society. The influx of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, Ethereum and a host of others has, over the years, topped off several conversations on the role that these electronic currencies might play and how their seeming prospects could be utilized to foster growth and financial inclusivity. Regardless of the nature of the transition that a country may adopt, it is needless to say that a legally issued digital currency will be a welcome initiative. It will further provide businesses with the avenue to flourish through a safe and timely financial instrument as the digital currency. 

Moreover, with the countless challenges that plague paper currency transactions, digital currency offers a decent consolation. It satisfies the people where they are and augments their monetary options. The inflation rates across Africa are largely dismal. In Nigeria, it stands at a sorry state of 18.2% — and shows no signs of slowing down. A digital currency will surely serve as insurance against uncertain waves. It is simple, seamless and guarantees a decent store of value. Sounds like a smart choice, right? 

Also, a recent report by the Bank of America admits the intrinsic value that digital currencies have in emerging economies if fully embraced. The President of El Salvador, already leading the charge, announced this year on June 5th that he has commenced plans to make digital currencies a legal tender in the country. The acceptance of digital currency by a nation’s central bank will also ensure that transactions are conducted credibly. It will inevitably block leakages and occasions of fraud in the financial landscape. Not only that but there will also be a huge reduction in administrative and operational costs which is incurred by the government. 

On the flip-side, however, several obstacles ranging from volatility, regulatory problems, issues of privacy and trust may hinder widespread acceptance of a decentralised tech–currency. Yet, having a global consensus to fashion a regulatory framework on the digital currency mantra will by far assuage some of these challenges. It is only a matter of time. “There are of course barriers to mainstream adoption, but they are far from insurmountable,” says Iqbal Gandham, the UK Managing Director of eToro.

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Opinion

Cryptocurrencies and the Problem of Regulation

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Bitcoin protection
Image Credit: Kabiru Yusuf

There has been a gradual rise in the adoption of cryptocurrencies, and rightfully so. Cryptocurrencies have the potential to become huge disruptors to global financial systems in that they intend to perform the same functions as the traditional fiat currencies, but more efficiently. Cryptocurrencies are known to be digital assets, native primarily to a chosen network of interconnected devices. They can either be transacted basically as a utility (i.e native to a particular sector) or on a broader scale where they are bought and sold for a price determined by market conditions. They are traded on exchanges similar to the stock market, where investors buy and sell cryptocurrencies just like they would buy and sell shares on the stock exchange.

Cryptocurrency is extremely unpredictable and volatile, especially since it has no intrinsic value. This volatility is a main feature of cryptocurrencies, and the main reason the UK’s financial regulatory authority, the FCA, has described cryptocurrencies as high-risk, speculative investments that could potentially lead to a total loss in investment due to manipulations that can occur as a result of individual or institutional factors. Despite this, crypto has massive support from the financial industry. Institutional investors and companies like Tesla, and investment banks and financial services firms like JP Morgan, include Bitcoin in their portfolios.

Despite the growing popularity, there are few consumer protections and regulations for cryptocurrency, and in the wake of this many fraudulent activities are on the rise based on the supposed feature of anonymity that cryptocurrencies operate upon.

Legal Concerns Around Cryptocurrency Use

The U.S. Attorney General’s cyber-digital task force 2020 report identified three areas of concern with cryptocurrency use:

  • Direct use of cryptocurrency to commit crimes and finance terrorism
  • Using cryptocurrency to launder money and evade taxes
  • Cryptocurrency theft and investment fraud.

In general, a common legal concern about cryptocurrency is the level of anonymity  that cryptocurrency can offer. This creates a perfect environment for criminal activities. Cryptocurrency developers are now offering anonymity enhanced cryptocoins (AECs) like Monero, Zcash, and Dash, specifically to make tracking transactions more difficult.

With all of these in view, the regulations and policies around cryptocurrencies and their adoption in different countries of the world literally differ from each other. While a nation such as Nigeria would ban financial institutions from performing any form of transactions using crypto currencies, owing to the basic ideology that it fosters more harm than good in the nation, countries like the United States would adopt the use of cryptocurrency for the enhancement of financial transactions.

Comparative Summary of Regulations

One of the most common actions identified across the jurisdictions of different nations is government-issued notices about the pitfalls of investing in the cryptocurrency markets.  Such warnings, mostly issued by central banks, are largely designed to educate the citizenry about the difference between actual currencies, which are issued and guaranteed by the state, and cryptocurrencies which are not.  Most government warnings note the added risk resulting from the high volatility associated with cryptocurrencies and the fact that many of the organizations that facilitate such transactions are unregulated.  Most also note that citizens who invest in cryptocurrencies do so at their own personal risk and that no legal recourse is available to them in the event of loss.

Many of the warnings issued by various countries also note the opportunities that cryptocurrencies create for illegal activities, such as money laundering and terrorism.  Some of the countries surveyed go beyond simply warning the public and have expanded their laws on money laundering, counterterrorism, and organized crimes to include cryptocurrency markets, and require banks and other financial institutions that facilitate such markets to conduct all the due diligence requirements imposed under such laws.  For instance, Australia, Canada, and the Isle of Man recently enacted laws to bring cryptocurrency transactions and institutions that facilitate them under the ambit of money laundering and counter-terrorist financing laws.

Some jurisdictions have gone even further to impose restrictions on investments in cryptocurrencies, the extent of which varies from one jurisdiction to another.  Some (Algeria, Bolivia, Morocco, Vietnam) ban all activities involving cryptocurrencies.  Qatar and Bahrain have a slightly different approach in that they bar their citizens from engaging in any kind of activity involving cryptocurrencies locally, but allow citizens to do so outside their borders.  There are also countries that, while not banning their citizens from investing in cryptocurrencies, impose indirect restrictions by barring financial institutions within their borders from facilitating transactions involving cryptocurrencies (Bangladesh, Iran, Nigeria, China, and Colombia).

While Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have generated dizzying returns for investors, there are significant risks and regulatory issues to consider. There are very few consumer and investor protections that address cryptocurrency, and the exchanges that deal in it.

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