> Posted by Ignacio Mas, Executive Director, Digital Frontiers Insitute
All languages have a set of untranslatable words, single terms which capture feelings and experiences that in other languages take many words to convey. (I wonder: is there a word that conveys that in any language?)
One such word in Spanish is desamparo. Dictionaries triangulate it on the English meanings of abandonment, neglect, helplessness and distress. Abandonment comes closest: that feeling of not having anywhere else to go, of not finding anyone who even cares about your issue. It´s neglect and helplessness in its terminal stage. Its effect is more than just distress: it undermines one´s sense of humanity – that you are visible, that you have agency, that you count. Think Kafka.
We know that desamparo comes primarily from inescapable power and bureaucracy, but can technology lead us down the path of greater desamparo? When we look at this question, we tend to focus on those unfamiliar with or without access to modern technologies. But undesirable as any form of exclusion is, such desamparo will only result if the use of the technology is inescapable. So what financial inclusionistas must not do is set our goal to be the eradication of alternatives (going entirely cashless, eliminating informal or semi-formal financial services). You don´t include people by excluding solutions.
But there is another type of technology-induced desamparo, and that´s the one I am feeling right now. Let me explain.
I´d opened an account at an early U.S.-based, pure-play, online banking service provider, Simple. I had just left a job and wasn´t sure where I was going to live next, so I put down a friend’s address on the form. I then left the U.S., lost my U.S. phone number, and the account remained unused for some years. When I tried to log in recently, username and password didn´t match (I imagine because they´d expired). I´ll spare you all the back and forth: they would only reset my password if I told them my phone number or address, and I remembered neither (Which friend? And so many have moved since!). For my own security, I was told, I needed to gather my information and call back.
There was no consideration of people at a life stage that involves nomadism. No trace of irony on the insistence that of all the things the bank knows about me the only two they were willing to check me against were the most public ones: my address and phone number. How about asking me my balance, how long ago did I do my last transaction, what goals had I set on the system, what is my linked bank account, other identifying information on the scanned ID I must have provided at the time of account opening, or the old expired username/password? Surely knowledge of any of these would do as good a job if not a better of giving the bank confidence to allow me to access my account?
Having failed through all of the bank´s channels (all of a sudden that word became a little more odious in my mind), where to next? Ah, I thought, let me try the consumer complaint service of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). An answer came within days: “The company was unable to respond to your complaint because they believe you may have been a victim of fraud. You may want to contact the company directly for more information.” A total non-sequitur. After some further back and forth in which I sought interpretation of this puzzling answer I was told there was no possibility of follow-up, but I could always file a new complaint. The CFPB just plays messenger.
So desamparo set in. No path to reclaim my own money. Nobody cares.
What can I do next? In the old days, I would go to the branch and raise hell until the branch manager showed me into his/her office. Now all I can do is to make myself an online nuisance. So I am not-proud to announce that, after many years of noble resistance, I have now posted my first tweet ever:
Interestingly, Simple responded to my tweet within minutes – on a Sunday. Not helpfully, but it´s a start. Follow our multiple twitter miscommunications since then here. Am I now back on the path of recovering my money? Should I need to do this to get my money back?
There´s of course nothing like personal experience to tinge your professional thinking. So here go some thoughts relating to the business of financial inclusion.
Poor people everywhere will continue opting out of formal financial services as long as that entails getting into relationships they feel they can´t control.
It´s not ok to say you´re inclusive if you pushed even a small percentage into desamparo.
Let´s recognize the idiocy of basing the security of our digital money on the public disclosure of our private information (first, phone number and address; then your first pet´s name…).
We should talk about consumer protection not as a bunch of actions that providers must take but rather as a bunch of feelings they should never let customers have. Statistics, of the corporate or regtech sort, will never be a substitute for empathy and customer care.
Can we have a discussion on the moral basis for our industry?
Image credit: Robin Hutton
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