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In the famous words of former US president Ronald Reagan during the Cold War, “Trust, but verify.” This is the philosophy attached to ThisIsMe — a South African startup out to help prove that your online self is real.
“The gap is simple. Everything people do today online is based on trust,” explains company CTO David Thomas. Online tasks that have succumbed to fraud, phishing attacks and scams can include everything we do online from finding a date, buying her expensive jewellery and then signing up for health insurance.
An Economic Crime Survey 2014 released last year found that South Africa companies are most prone to fraud and phishing than any other country in the world.
Thomas also points out that the country’s FICA (Financial Intelligence Centre Act), which was introduced in 2001 to combat money laundering and other financial related crimes, is simply outdated considering modern society’s dynamics.
While the online world faces dilemmas with trust and identity, the offline world is hampered by inaccessibility and inefficiency. Have you ever had your driver’s licence renewed or stood in a queue at Home Affairs? It’s not the most fun you could have on a Saturday afternoon.
ThisIsMe launched its product in September 2014 with five shareholders on board, geared to fix these problems through an online verification platform. Users who register on the online platform can skip the face-to-face verifications, which means that — for one thing — opening up a new bank account doesn’t require you to drag yourself down to the nearest branch.
Among these are big names such as Mark Chirnside, the founder of the popular uKash and former CEO of Naspers’ PayU. Nadeem Shahid, on the other hand, is an entrepreneur and former professional cricketer, together with Juan Furmie, who has a strong background as a systems consultant, and an anonymous investor. For the large part, though, the main brain behind ThisIsMe is Thomas, who has a strong background in IT systems management.
As it stands, today you can register for your ThisIsMe account via email, verify your bank account, add supporting documents like your Identity Document and proof of residence, link to your mobile and social media account, and voila: third parties can verify you. Perhaps this sounds like a lot of effort but if all goes according to plan, you’ll only have to do this once.
ThisIsMe’s mission is to get South Africa’s top 100 online suppliers online on board by the end of the year. “We are now focusing on classifieds, online dating, ecommerce, banks and other financial institutions,” says Thomas. He notes that the company is already in talks with one of the country’s top online classifieds.
In the world of classifieds, ThisIsMe wants to improve platforms’ online sales by giving its prospective buyers peace of mind. Legitimacy in the online classifieds space is a huge deal. Gumtree SA, for example, is forced to manually vet buyers and sellers on its platform. But with ThisIsMe, making a sale or signing up new customers for banks and insurance companies is basically a few clicks away.
In the long term, the company is looking to ultimately enable people to vote during election time using ThisIsMe. “People shouldn’t stand in queue to vote,” Thomas argues.
Chatting about the business model, Thomas says that “It’s always free to the user. Merchants, though, are billed on a per request basis, where pricing depends on how much information they require on that specific user. This varies anywhere from R15 to R75 depending on what information.”
Thomas adds that ThisIsMe provides an API request for larger clients or a customised hosted solution for smaller merchants. Interestingly, the company is also currently working on a user-driven business model.
“Eventually, we’d like to extend ThisIsMe in the social media space. If you want to add the educational qualifications, for instance, we’ll take care of the verification process. We want you to create a full online and self management profile. Imagine your LinkedIn profile linked and verified with your education history,” he says.
Now, in a data paranoid world where the NSA and Project Prism is on everyone’s tongue, asking users to give up their valuable information such as mobile numbers, bank account details and the like seems like a tall order (though users are said to be completely in charge of their own information).
“If a merchant or institution requests your information, the user has the ability to deny that request,” explains Thomas. “Unlike credit institutions that can access user information without your consent, ThisIsMe allows you to lock your information down and determine who gets what.”
On the security front, Thomas says: “We’ve implemented a full Extended Validation certificate and have done a full PCI (Payment Card Industry) audit. We’ve also integrated a two authentication password system. ThisIsMe takes the same precautions an online payments service would, even though it’s not that.”
Going forward, the company wants to have over 1 million users sign up to the service by December 2015. After this, it will eventually launch its service in the United States. “If we can make it work in South Africa, we can make it work anywhere,” says Thomas.