What Does Wirecard’s Shutdown Say About Fintech’s Systemic Weaknesses?

Wirecard's UK subsidiary temporarily shut down by the FCA, revealing a number of structural weaknesses in fintech. What now?

The events that have taken place at Wirecard over the past month have been a bit of a shock to the financial and fintech industries.

Not only did the company’s stock price fall from roughly $100 to as low as $1.50 over the course of several days in mid-June (~$5.00 at press time), but a number of fintech firms and other companies that relied on Wirecard’s services have realized how fragile their infrastructure–as well as the regulatory and auditing infrastructure in the fintech world–may be.

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What happened, exactly?

Wirecard has been the subject of a number of investigations and legal troubles for years, but things finally came to a head last month, when the company was supposed to publish auditing results from 2019: instead of providing these documents, the company simply announced that roughly $2 billion was “missing.”

Shortly after this announcement was made, the company’s former chief executive, Markus Braun, resigned; several days after that, Wirecard publicly acknowledged a multi-year accounting fraud scheme, and told the public that the missing $2 billion probably did “not exist” in the first place. Several of the company’s highest officers were terminated.

Then, on June 25th, Wirecard’s Germany-based parent company announced that it would be filing for insolvency; the same day, the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) ordered Wirecard to halt its operations, effective on June 26th.

As a result, many of the companies who relied on Wirecard’s services to process payments or power payment cards were suddenly left high and dry: the customers of numerous fintech firms that depended on Wirecard for debit card issuing and e-money licensing were suddenly left with cards and other services that simply didn’t work.

Companies who rely on Wirecard experienced service outages with varying degrees of severity

On June 30th–four days after the FCA ordered a shutdown–Wirecard was allowed to continue its operations. However, the incident revealed just how quickly global fintech infrastructure can be compromised.

For example, Crypto.com, a company that is known for issuing debit cards linked to crypto-based interest-bearing savings accounts, was affected by the service outage.

Luckily, the company was able to act fast: Kris Marszalek, the chief executive of Crypto.com, told Finance Magnates that “Within 4 hours upon the FCA’s announcement, we [had] resumed operations of MCO cards across all 31 markets in Europe, including shipping new cards,” adding that “there were no disruptions to MCO Visa card programs in other regions, such as the US and Singapore.” All user funds were safe throughout the shutdown.

Kris Marszalek, CEO of crypto.com
Kris Marszalek, CEO of Crypto.com.

However, not every one of the companies that was affected was so well-prepared, a fact that may have had dire consequences for users of these platforms.

Indeed, Diane Brocklebank, commercial director at fintech industry body Prepaid International Forum, pointed out to S&P Global that members of vulnerable groups, such as migrant workers, people relying on charities for assistance during the pandemic, and people unable to get a bank account–may have been badly affected by the shutdown.

”Marquee institutions apparently failed to detect systemic fraud.”

Jeff Truitt, Chief Legal Officer at Securrency, told Finance Magnates that the Wirecard scandal is particularly shocking “because marquee institutions apparently failed to detect systemic fraud.”

Indeed, “Ernst & Young, the Dax index, and the German regulator BaFin”–each of which were ostensibly responsible for regulating and auditing Wirecard in different degrees–”are each known for their quality and reliability, yet unscrupulous actors at Wirecard seem to have engaged in wrongful activity for far longer than they should have,” Truitt said.

“Despite the highest standards, the system failed. The only hero in the saga seems to be the Financial Times, which started reporting on accounting irregularities at Wirecard as early as 2015 in its ‘House of Wirecard’ series.”

Jeff Truitt, Chief Legal Officer at Securrency.

Collateral reputational damage: Wirecard’s shutdown may have hurt fintech companies’ relationships with their customers

However, despite the fact that Wirecard’s shutdown is the responsibility of the company itself, as well as the regulators and auditors that were tasked with ensuring that the company’s operations were “above board”, it’s likely that some of the fintech firms who were relying on Wirecard’s services may have suffered some collateral reputational damage due to wirecard’s temporary shutdown–even though Wirecard’s shutdown was no fault of their own.

Indeed, “in the longer term, this may result in a significant reputational hit for Wirecard’s partners,” said Seamus Donoghue, VP Sales and Business Development at METACO, to Finance Magnates.

“Given Wirecard’s origins working in sectors that other mainstream payment processors avoid,” including online pornography and gambling sites, the firm had evolved into a company that serviced the “alternative” side of the financial world: specifically, “[Wirecard is] one of the chief issuers of prepaid credit cards for fintech and crypto startups,” Donoghue explained.

Therefore, it is these companies that could be affected in the long term: “the reputational blow to the fintech companies using Wirecard’s technology may be considerably more enduring” than the effect on equity and debt holders, Donoghue said.

Seamus Donoghue, VP Sales and Business Development at METACO.

Indeed, according to Donoghue, this is because “the argument that such companies could offer new services and products” related to cryptocurrencies and other “alternative” financial products, while simultaneously arguing that “their processes and funds were as safe as with traditional mainstream financial service providers” may have been weakened.

”Customers may lose faith in these companies.”

A similar round of collateral damage was felt by cryptocurrency companies in 2018, when electronic payments giant Visa abruptly ended its relationship with WaveCrest, a card provider that specifically serviced cryptocurrency firms, including Bitwala, Cryptopay, Wirex and TenX.

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Andrew Howell, lead blockchain engineer at BlockDaemon, told Finance Magnates that the incident between Wavecrest and TenX caused TenX to lose business–specifically, his own: “on a personal note, I paid for a TenX card back in 2018 and received it only a week before it was shut down,” he said.

Andrew Howell, lead blockchain engineer at BlockDaemon.

“TenX lost my business since I didn’t bother waiting around for two years until they secured a new card issuer. I’m sure this was the case with many other users, and this will likely have a reputational effect on the company that is irreversible.”

Indeed, “customers may lose faith in these companies if they do not have their funds reimbursed in a timely manner and if the companies cannot get their cards reactivated or alternatively find a replacement card issuer in the near term,” Howell said.

However, “in my opinion, this likely won’t affect new entrants to the crypto space as crypto debits cards have predominantly been acquired by enthusiasts who have been around the industry for a while.”

“Wirecard does not appear to have branched out to service crypto firms in any meaningful way.”

Securrency’s Jeff Truitt also pointed out that while Wirecard’s shutdown may have nominally affected the cryptocurrency industry, “Wirecard does not appear to have branched out to service crypto firms in any meaningful way.”

“As reported yesterday, Wirecard’s UK subsidiary issued two crypto payment cards which have now resumed operation,” he said, adding that “few of the press articles relating to Wirecard mention virtual currency at all.”

Rather, the shutdown seems to have had a larger effect on other pockets of the fintech sphere: “payment card issuers like Curve and Pockit have experienced disruptions as a consequence of the Wirecard collapse that are likely to persist for a while,” Truitt told Finance Magnates.

Recognizing possible problems with Wirecard even before the scandal took place in June, some of these companies were reoprtedly already seeking alternatives to the firm before the incident came to a head. For example, S&P Global reported that Curve “had already been in the process of cutting out the middleman before the Wirecard scandal.”

“Wirecard’s collapse will catalyze the innovations of new accounting methods and RegTech.”

Regardless of the specifics of the Wirecard scandal may have affected its client companies, one thing has been made clear: there needs to be some kind of an infrastructural change.

S&P Global reported that the incident ould make some fintechs think about bringing certain aspects of their payments stack in-house, including card-issuing. This would eliminate the need for reliance on third-party solutions.

However, an anonymous industry consultant told the publication that this may not be a positive thing for fintechs: “that would be a very slow, cumbersome process involving additional regulation and licenses, and it would act as a drag on the industry,” the consultant explained.

Instead, what may need to happen is a comprehensive re-evaluation of the systems that are currently in place to prevent this kind of thing from happening to begin with.

Indeed, “Wirecard’s collapse will catalyze the innovations of new accounting methods and RegTech,” said Sky Guo, chief executive of Cypherium, to Finance Magnates. 

Sky Guo is the CEO of Cypherium and founding partner of the OMFIF Digital Monetary Institute and Faster Payments Council.

Guo suggested that blockchain and central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) could be a part of this: “for example, blockchains can be used to implement a triple-entry accounting system, which establishes an unalterable audit trail. CBDCs’ strong regulatory compliance will effectively make fraud more difficult and will tremendously help regulators to fight financial crimes,” he said.

”Financial service companies must continue to deploy and upgrade surveillance and compliance technologies.”

Robert Goldfinger, Certified Anti-money Laundering Specialist (CAMS) and financial crimes expert, also told Finance Magnates that while the shutdown may have had significant effects on end-users, the debit card cutoff is only a symptom of a greater systemic issue.

Indeed, “while this may be viewed as a major test for the fintech industry it also places a priority on the need for transparency of the exchange of data and information,” he said.

Therefore, Goldfinger argues that “the technology emphasis that is in place needs to center on verification, behavior, and automated auditing.”

“Robust communication channels must exist between financial institutions internal auditors, external auditors and regulators. The power and efficiency of the utilization of automation and artificial intelligence to uncover, reveal, identify and act on anomalies and red flags should be recognized.”

In other words, “the key point is all these financial institutions and financial service companies must continue to deploy and upgrade surveillance and compliance technologies to insure protections and regulatory standards are not only in place, but are also working in real-time.”

Robert is a Certified Anti-money Laundering Specialist (CAMS), founding member and former Co-Chair of ACAMS Carolinas Chapter. He serves on ACAMS TODAY editorial task and ACAMS educational task forces.

“One thing that will not change is that criminals and corruption will remain a constant.”


Finance Magnates reached out to Wirecard for commentary on this story, and received this link in response. 

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