Feature Story

Software That's Checking You're Who You Say You Are

by Jason Deign

Hoaxers beware: banks worldwide are using programs that can confirm your identity over the phone… and in seconds

The financial services industry is bringing technology to bear in the fight against identity theft. Voice biometrics software that can tell a hoaxer just from their voice is being installed in banks worldwide and in many other large organizations that do business through call centers.  

Companies such as Agnitio and ValidSoft have developed systems that are so precise they can distinguish between the voices of twin siblings and can even confirm you are who you say you are when you are calling from a mobile phone with plenty of noise in the background.

Major banking groups, such as Barclays, are deploying these systems to ward off mounting levels of identity theft.

“While data on the financial services industry is hard to come by, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that 16.6 million people suffered $24.7 billion in financial losses due to identity fraud in 2012,” says Andrew Humber, Agnitio’s senior director of marketing communications.

More than 13 million consumers suffered from identity fraud in 2013, according to the financial services research firm Javelin Strategy & Research.

Pat Carroll, founder and chairman of ValidSoft, sees this figure set to rise in 2015, in particular because 2014 saw a massive increase in data breaches with many well-known institutions.

“Identity theft has ballooned in 2014, which will be remembered as ‘the year of the breach’,” he says. “We know it’s endemic. The signs suggest 2015 is set to be even worse.”

The problem with traditional security systems is that once a hoaxer gets hold of your personal details it is relatively easy for them to exploit your credentials online.

Much online security relies on ‘personal’ information that is readily available, such as emails addresses or phone numbers and passwords that are often fairly easy to crack.

Voice biometrics, or voiceprinting, can help overcome these challenges because voices are almost impossible to fake. “We measure the sound coming from more than 30 different parts of your vocal tract,” Humber says.

The sound produced by your nose, mouth, and throat is so unique that voiceprinting systems can not only usually tell it apart from anyone else’s, but can also identify it even through the muffling effects of a dodgy phone line or a bad cold.  

And to increase the level of assurance even further, call center operators can use voiceprinting in three different ways. For ‘text dependent’ identification, the caller has to repeat a specific phrase that is matched against previous recordings in a database.

In ‘Text independent’ recognition, meanwhile, the system compares normal speech, such as the things you say in the first few seconds of a call to your bank, to a much larger bank of recordings. Finally, for the highest level of security there is conversational voiceprinting.  

This is where you establish your identity by reading out a specific phrase, such as a randomly generated one-time password sent to your mobile phone, when prompted by an interactive voice response system.

The combination of your unique voiceprint and a code that only you could have is almost impossible to spoof, experts say. And voice biometric technology allows banks and other service providers to check each voiceprint against a blacklist of known fraudsters’ voices.

If for some reason the system still cannot confirm your identity, for instance because of problems on the line, the contact center can always fall back on traditional methods of identification, such as ending the call and then calling you back on the number you have on file.

This is bad news for criminals and good news for the rest of us. But the benefits don’t just end with cutting fraud. Establishing your identity is increasingly important for many more mundane tasks, from using online services to dealing with public sector bodies.

In New Zealand, for example, the Inland Revenue has seized upon voiceprinting as a way of making it easier for people to access self-service options through its contact center.

“Inland Revenue needed to address the growing and unsustainable phone traffic to its contact centers, which often included low-complexity but time-consuming calls,” explains service manager, contact implementation, Jared Mortlock.   

“The uniqueness of a voice biometric, along with the fact that it can’t be removed, lost, counterfeited, or forgotten, made this an excellent solution and an advantage over knowledge-based verification or user IDs and passwords.”

The Inland Revenue’s ‘Voice ID’ service went live in January 2012 and around 60 percent of people who call the department each day are enrolled with it. “We are proud to have more than 1.35 million voice ID customers enrolled,” says Mortlock.

“This means that New Zealand Inland Revenue has the highest level of voice biometric enrolments per capita in the world. This is a significant achievement.”

ValidSoft’s Carroll believes this is just the start, though. “The implementation of biometrics on Apple devices and recent announcements from MasterCard and Visa on the need for biometrics is all good news for us, it shows biometrics are now going mainstream,” he says.

“This overall development may eventually add to a sustainable anti-fraud effort.”

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