How your social media account could help you get a loan

When signing up to rent a home in Adelaide, Jacquie Lamont was faced with a modern-day decision that is likely to confront more and more consumers.

If she was prepared to let a business trawl through her social media accounts, she could get access to a potentially handy financial product.

In her case, instead of handing over the full $1800 rental bond, the IT worker had the option of paying a non-refundable $250, if she granted a business access to her social media account.

The service is available through Trustbond, a joint venture between Suncorp and Spanish start-up Traity. In order to qualify, a customer must allow Trustbond to look through their Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts to determine whether they can be trusted to care for the property.

Lamont, 47, had little hesitation in allowing access to her social media profile, and believes the idea could provide more "equal access" in the highly competitive rental market.

"For people who for whatever reason have been denied access to a rental property, I think it's a brilliant way to open that door. So for me, it becomes a tool for social justice," she says.

Although this specific service is currently available only in South Australia due to tenancy laws, it is an example of a wider trend sweeping through financial services.

Data trove

The boom in social media use has created a trove of data about consumers, and the finance sector is keen to put this information to use.

Banks, insurers, credit bureaux and financial technology companies are working at ways to use this data to verify your identity, and figure out the risks of lending you money, or providing insurance.

That means that just as banks have traditionally looked at your job, your income, and your spending habits, they may soon be keen to also look at your Facebook friends, or who you engage with on Twitter.

Indeed, it is already happening overseas and there are moves to introduce such a system in Australia. China's government is creating a massive "social credit" system that aims by 2020 to have a database rating all of its citizens on their trustworthiness.

Social scoring

In late 2017, an Australian start-up called Lodex launched with the goal of introducing "social scoring" locally, another way of predicting credit risk.

The idea is that customers can apply to have their "social score", which is determined by an algorithm that sifts through their email account, and that banks will use this information alongside more traditional credit scores when assessing clients.

The platform then acts as a "market place" for loans and deposits. Banks and brokers can look at a customer's traditional credit score, and their social score, and then bid for their business.

Lodex co-founder Michael Phillipou says at this stage no banks are offering loans based on social scores, but he is hopeful this will change if he can prove the predictive power of social scoring.

"We'd like to believe that in the short term, we'll be able to demonstrate some correlation and it will be up to discussions with those individual lenders and organisations to take the insights which social credit scoring can offer."

Identity checks

Fintechs such as peer-to-peer lender Moneyplace also look at a customer's social media as part of their identity checks, to prevent loan fraud.

So, how can a business figure out whether to trust you based on your social media accounts or email?

Phillipou says if a customer wants a "social score" through Lodex, they can allow an algorithm to plug into their main email and look at "12,000 variables within their email and contacts".

This includes such details as how quickly you respond to an email and whether you write a title in the subject line. The idea is that when all 12,000 variables are put together and analysed, it produces a score which can help predict whether you will repay the loan.

"What's been shown is that the way you interact with friends, family and acquaintances, the behavioural analysis correlates to how you will behave when you're going to pay back credit with a bank," Phillipou says.

Semantic analysis

Suncorp's Trustbond works differently, but it is a similar concept.

The founder of Suncorp's partner Traity, Juan Cartagena, says the company sifts through data obtained through platforms including Twitter, Airbnb, and Facebook. One technique it uses is "semantic analysis", looking at things such as reviews of you as a guest on Airbnb, to build a picture of how likely you are to look after a property.

"If people say that you are a wonderful guest, you will be in the top 90th percentile of all Airbnb. If people say you are a nice guest, you are in the lowest 10th percentile," he says.

It may also collect information from your digital social network including your friends, photos, tweets, "likes", followers and status updates.

Cartagena says the technology could potentially be used in all sorts of scenarios where people find it hard to prove they can be trusted financially.

"This happens to all sorts of people. Young families, freelancers, migrants - people who don't have a traditional blue-chip background. They are subject to the evils of the traditional credit industry."

Data assets

Suncorp's executive general manager of global partners, Nigel O'Rorke, says Trustbond is also a test for people owning their own data and using this as an asset.

"Your digital profile is an asset - and it can be used to determine whether you're suitable for tenancy," O'Rorke says.

KPMG's national leader for banking and global co-lead for fintech, Ian Pollari, says the move towards a "gig economy" is another reason why banks are increasingly keen to look through customers' digital footprints.

If more people move towards contract work, with less-stable incomes, banks will need to look at other ways of assessing risk, aside from traditional data such as pay slips, or your employment.

"As more people move to contract forms of employment, this will become an important dimension," Pollari says.

It is also a way to target millennial customers who may have less of a credit history.

Privacy concerns

But what about the obvious privacy concerns?

The 2017 breach of US credit bureau Equifax, in which a cyber attack affected the financial data of up to 143 million Americans, illustrates the serious privacy and security issues at stake.

Lodex's Phillipou points out that having a "social score" is completely optional.

He says the algorithm looks only at metadata, not personal information. Its service is provided by Lenddo, which he says operates in 20 countries overseas, and has never had a breach of data.

Cartagena acknowledges customers are worried such technology will probe what they get up to in their private lives, but he says this isn't the goal when it is trawling through Facebook.

"People always think of the example, oh, you are going to look at my drunk pictures," he says.

"It's not like that, it's more about consistency of the network. You say that you live in Sydney, do you have any friends in Sydney? You say that you studied at Harvard, do you have many friends from Harvard?" Cartagena says.

Whether Australian consumers are willing to allow such detailed sharing of their personal information with big companies remains to be seen.

But the forces of technological change suggest we will only be seeing more financial institutions trying to delve further into their customers' digital lives.

This story How your social media account could help you get a loan first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.