Dark side of the biz-tech mar­riage shad­ows con­sumers

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - BUSINESS - By SIVA SANKAR

Last week, the usu­ally perky young woman staffer at a cafe that I fre­quent looked crest­fallen. Four of the 100-yuan notes she with­drew from an ATM turned out to be fakes.

I’ve heard of sev­eral such in­ci­dents not just in China but even in my home coun­try In­dia.

More than 2 bil­lion ci­ti­zens of the two na­tions face a dire risk of pick­ing up coun­ter­feit notes in their ev­ery­day trans­ac­tions as busi­ness and tech­nol­ogy feed off each other. It’s mostly mid­dle-class con­sumers or rel­a­tively low-wage earn­ers who bear the brunt.

In Fe­bru­ary, in the world’s big­gest cy­ber heist, $81 bil­lion was stolen from the Bangladesh cen­tral bank’s ac­count at the Fed­eral Re­serve Bank of New York. In late Oc­to­ber, In­dian banks re­vealed a high-tech fraud that com­pro­mised more than 3 mil­lion debit cards. On Nov 8, In­dia with­drew overnight the legal ten­der char­ac­ter­is­tic of more than 85 per­cent of cash in cir­cu­la­tion citing, among other things, the pres­ence of “high-qual­ity coun­ter­feit notes” in

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the cur­rency sys­tem.

Tech­nol­ogy, it seems, isn’t just the pre­serve of in­vestors, re­searchers, big com­pa­nies and gov­ern­ments. Even fraud­sters ap­pear to be tech-savvy.

Be it the scan­dalous P2P fi­nanc­ing com­pa­nies, stolen pass­words and IDs, hacked smart­phones and com­put­ers, or high-qual­ity fake notes, a tech-en­abled busi­ness or ser­vice al­ways seems to spawn a fraud, sooner than later.

A video on so­cial me­dia shows how easy it is to scan a QR code and steal money from some­one else’s digital wal­let. An in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist in Guang­dong prov­ince re­cently ex­posed how he could buy a col­league’s per­sonal in­for­ma­tion from an on­line mer­chant for 700 yuan.

In Peng­shui county of Chongqing mu­nic­i­pal­ity, Cen Qiong lost her smart­phone, which was later picked up by a san­i­ta­tion worker, whose son used it to trans­fer 10,000 yuan ($1,450) from Cen’s bank ac­count to her Ali­pay ac­count.

And yet, peo­ple are ex­horted to em­brace tech­nol­ogy by e-com­merce com­pa­nies, banks, the travel in­dus- try, mo­bile pay­ment firms, so on, as if cashless trans­ac­tions, e-com­merce and digital bank­ing are fool­proof and the panacea for ills like cor­rup­tion and in­ef­fi­ciency.

For con­sumers, the busi­ness-tech­nol­ogy mar­riage spells an­other trou­ble. Cus­tomer the King is long dead, long live the fraud-vul­ner­a­ble, im­per­sonal tech­nol­ogy.

Com­pared to even three decades back, the num­ber of con­sumers that each mid-, big- and mega-sized com­pany serves is un­be­liev­ably mon­strous now. The com­pany-cus­tomers ra­tio has be­come even more skewed in the e-com­merce age.

Mon­day’s 12-12 on­line shop­ping festival has shown how quickly man­u­fac­tur­ers, ser­vice providers and traders are rid­ing tech­nol­ogy to reach vast numbers of con­sumers world­wide.

Con­se­quently, cus­tomer ser­vice has be­come a sham — au­to­mated, im­per­sonal, time-con­sum­ing, in­ef­fec­tive. When you buy on­line, your fo­cus is on the deep dis­count on a seem­ingly su­perb prod­uct, and quick, safe de­liv­ery. Saves time and money — and since time is money, sav­ings are higher. Logic.

But, next thing, you are hold­ing a sub­stan­dard, prac­ti­cally use­less prod­uct. You con­tact on­line cus­tomer ser­vice. Easy. Tech­nol­ogy at fin­ger­tips.

“The cut­ting tool isn’t sharp but blunt,” you key in.

He/she/it re­torts, “You sharpen the tool and use it.”

An­noyed, you de­mand, “I want a re­fund.”

He/she/it re­torts again, “Send the prod­uct back first.”

If the amount in­volved is less than 50 yuan, would you re­ally bother with the com­pli­cated, long-drawn process of re­turn­ing the de­fec­tive prod­uct? If you had so much time, wouldn’t you go to a phys­i­cal store, check the prod­uct and then buy?

But, un­scrupu­lous on­line sell­ers, and coun­ter­feit­ers ped­dling low­priced junk to thou­sands of un­sus­pect­ing con­sumers, would thank tech­nol­ogy and laugh all the way to the bank.

Tech­nol­ogy isn’t al­ways a bless­ing — e-com­merce is proof.

You or­der a low-fat Ger­man milk car­ton pack on­line. In­stead of the next-day de­liv­ery, you re­ceive a call two days later. Out of stock, ap­ply for re­fund, you’re told. You en­rich your morn­ing cuppa with back-up sa­chets of pow­dered milk.

Af­ter a few days, you place a fresh or­der. Again, no de­liv­ery. No call, and no back-up sa­chets, ei­ther. You make do with black cof­fee. You also discover sell­ers have jacked up the price of the im­ported milk brand’s “1-liter x12 car­tons” pack.

Cloud-based com­put­ing makes al­go­rithm-pow­ered big data an­a­lyt­ics easy. So, if you buy a brand on­line fre­quently, its price will likely rise. Blame the busi­ness-tech­nol­ogy nexus, not in­fla­tion or short­ages.

Con­tact the writer at siva@ chi­nadaily.com.cn

ZOU HONG / CHINA DAILY

A group of repa­tri­ated tele­com fraud­sters are taken into cus­tody on ar­rival at Beijing In­ter­na­tional Air­port.

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