While millions of pre-paid card users have seen their funds frozen as a result of the Wirecard scandal, some using cryptocurrency-based debit cards have been able to retain access to their money.
On Friday, the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority said it had blocked money movements from the UK-based subsidiary of the now insolvent parent company, German-based Wirecard AG, out of concerns that client funds might be at risk.
The freezing of the accounts of Newcastle-based Wirecard Card Solutions caused users of a number of pre-paid card services, including Curve, Pockit, U Account, McLear Ring, Anna Money, CardOneMoney, FairFX and Payoneer, to lose access to the money they had put on their cards.
This is because Wirecard Card Solutions offered so-called payment processing services to the affected card issuers, all of whom are now looking to replace Wirecard with other intermediaries.
“At scale, moving across providers is not trivial”
While most of the card issuers have issued statements saying client funds are safe, it’s unclear how long it may take to unfreeze them.
Interviewed last week by Sifted, Niv Subramanian, a fintech consultant, said that switching from Wirecard Card Solutions to other payment processors like Prepay Solutions or Marqeta could take some time.
“At scale, moving across [providers] is not trivial,” she said.
“We appreciate that this is hugely disruptive to you,” one affected pre-paid card issuer, CardOneMoney, said on its site.
“Please be assured that our team are working tirelessly with the FCA and Mastercard to get you back up and running as soon as possible,” the firm said.
However, the issuer of one type of pre-paid card caught up in the Wirecard turmoil seems to have found a way to give users their money back—by using cryptocurrency.
Crypto.com, which issues a visa card backed by clients’ deposits of cryptocurrency, has said that it has already refunded its users.
“To give you access to your funds immediately, we have completed a conversion of all balances into stablecoins and credited the crypto wallets of card holders. GBP card balances have been converted to TrueGBP and EUR to USDC,” Crypto.com said in a statement issued this weekend.
Stablecoins are digital tokens designed to maintain a stable value against existing fiat currencies, like the US dollar, euro or pound sterling.
TrueGBP is issued by TrustToken and USDC is issued by Coinbase.
“You can always redeem 1 TrueGBP for 1 GBP, giving it a stable price,” TrustToken says on its website.
Coinbase says its USDC token is tradeable for other assets, including traditional fiat currencies, on nineteen different cryptocurrency exchanges.
Cryptocurrency-backed Visa and Mastercards have a chequered history, perhaps because they have offered an obvious way for those owning large amounts of cryptocurrency to cash out their holdings without going through the identity checks required by traditional financial institutions.
An earlier attempt by Gibraltar-based Wavetech to issue prepaid crypto cards with access to the Visa and Mastercard networks was shut down in January 2018 for poor regulatory compliance, with fines levied by the Gibraltar financial regulator on senior Wavecrest executives.
“One of the problems [those who had made their fortunes from taking advantage of crypto’s unregulated origins] faced was that as crypto strove to become more mainstream, it found itself having to buckle to regulatory pressure to become more compliant with anti-money laundering (AML) and know-your-customer (KYC) regulations,” Izabella Kaminska, editor of FT Alphaville, wrote this weekend.
“This was particularly the case for any crypto dealing operations interfacing with the fiat world, or offering conversion to dollars, euros or pounds (or any other form of real money),” she said.
“That posed a particular problem for those unable to make the regulatory grade or those who could not prove how their fortunes had been made,” Kaminska said.
“So followed the urgent scramble for crypto-funded Visa and Mastercards in the community. The view was that if third-party card issuers could be persuaded to take the crypto conversion risk directly (both in terms of value fluctuation and AML/KYC risk), the crypto rich would finally find a round-about way to unlock their fortunes,” she said.
“And from an intermediary issuer perspective, the potential profit from servicing the locked-out sector certainly made the risk a tempting one to take.”
Now, it looks as though using cryptocurrencies to back Visa cards and Mastercards may have gained an unexpected benefit—dodging the freezing of bank accounts that’s associated with a corporate insolvency like Wirecard’s.
“Crypto is a disaster area for anti-money-laundering rules”
Transactions in stablecoins like USDC and TGBP are settled on the ethereum cryptocurrency blockchain, outside the enforcement perimeter of the traditional financial system.
According to long-standing cryptocurrency sceptic David Gerard, crypto-backed payment cards are a glaring loophole in the current regulatory framework, even as governments worldwide are trying to enforce traditional KYC rules on cryptocurrency exchanges and other virtual asset service providers.
“Crypto companies often try to issue crypto-backed debit cards—these either tap into an exchange balance of cryptos, or you top them up yourself with cryptos,” Gerard said this weekend.
“The merchants get paid in actual money, from the card provider selling the crypto backing. Crypto is a disaster area for anti-money-laundering rules—because there’s so much dirty money, and separating out allegedly-clean money is all but impossible,” he said.
“No decently-run financial institution wants to go within a mile of this—so the card issuers tend to be dodgy chancers, crypto true believers, or (of course) both,” he said.
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