A National Tragedy With a Link to P2P Lending

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Last week a tragedy occurred in San Bernardino, California. Since that time the media have been covering the story from every possible angle as they typically do. Then yesterday, Fox News reported that one of the shooters, Syed Farook, took out a $28,500 loan from WebBank. I thought that was curious because I know that WebBank doesn’t make consumer loans but they do originate loans for Lending Club and Prosper among others.

It soon became clear that the loan likely came from Prosper and suddenly P2P lending was dragged into the media circus. I have lost count how many interviews I have done in the past 36 hours and how many times I have had to answer such ridiculous questions as:

  1. Is P2P lending going to become the new way for terrorists to get funding?
  2. Prosper must have really low standards to allow a loan like this to be approved, right?
  3. Shouldn’t the government crack down on these unregulated lenders like Prosper?

There have been many similar questions along these same themes. I didn’t really want to write about this but with all the persistent headlines today and yesterday I felt that someone in our industry needed to say something. Prosper would not comment on the story on the record. They would not even confirm or deny the existence of such a borrower on their platform, citing privacy laws. Here is their official response:

Prosper is prohibited by law from disclosing any non-public, personally identifiable information regarding any loan originated through our platform. All loans originated through the Prosper platform are subject to all identity verification and screening procedures required by law, including US anti-terrorism and anti-money laundering laws. As part of our standard procedures, we also confirm that all loan funds are disbursed into a verified US bank account in the borrower’s name. Like all Americans, Prosper is shocked and saddened by recent events in San Bernardino.

Here is my take on this whole story around Prosper and WebBank and their connection to this tragic event. According to Reuters, Syed Farook did take out a loan on Prosper some time in mid-November. From what has been reported, he had a stable government job, a decent income and no criminal record. From what we know about his life before the shooting he was the kind of borrower that could have received a loan from any number of sources.

I have been following this industry for many years now and I have never read more misinformation about P2P lending and Prosper than I have since the news broke yesterday. Here are some important points that need to be noted by all reporters before writing a story:

  • All loans on Prosper are issued by WebBank in Utah. This bank is regulated by the FDIC and loans issued must comply with all federal lending regulations. This means that the same standards that apply to borrowers on large banks like Chase or Wells Fargo also apply to Prosper borrowers.
  • All potential borrowers are screened against the government’s Office of Financial Assets Control (OFAC) lists prior to any loan being made.
  • Borrowers identities are verified using multiple data points and credit histories along with public records are reviewed before an underwriting decision is made.
  • The loan proceeds must be deposited into a valid U.S. bank account.

Some reporters have quizzed me on loan purpose saying we should make sure that people use the proceeds of their loan for its stated purpose. But this is simply impossible to police in a free country like ours. If you take out a home equity loan from a bank and tell the loan officer it is for home improvement but you really want to pay for an engagement ring do we really want to regulate that? Besides, if you apply for a credit card you don’t have to tell the credit card company how you intend to use your available credit. Nor should you.

Having said this, I still believe that our industry has room for improvement. With all the data now available there is likely more we can do to detect potentially suspicious activity. One of the more interesting questions I received in the last day and a half was from a Wall Street Journal reporter who asked me about the speed of the application process at companies like Prosper. Given that borrowers can receive their money in just a few days are we being thorough enough in the vetting process. Is there more we could be doing? I know there are many companies in our industry very focused on identity verification and fraud prevention and these companies are only going to become more important now.

The San Bernardino shooting was a national tragedy. But the involvement of Prosper and WebBank is not the story here. So, please reporters, do more research before pointing a finger at P2P lending as the problem. We are in a highly regulated industry with strong borrower standards that continues to make the lending process more efficient and transparent. We are not perfect but we are also not part of the problem here.

  • Peter Renton is the chairman and co-founder of LendIt Fintech, the world’s first and largest digital media and events company focused on fintech. Peter has been writing about fintech since 2010 and he is the author and creator of the Fintech One-on-One Podcast, the first and longest-running fintech interview series. Peter has been interviewed by the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, The New York Times, CNBC, CNN, Fortune, NPR, Fox Business News, the Financial Times, and dozens of other publications.

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