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How Identity Verification Works in a Post-SSN World

By Beau Martino on October 2, 2017

140M leaked identities

SSNs are dead. The most recent Equifax hack confirms that.

In a post-SSN world, using one for authenticating an identity is a recklessly insecure business practice that will leave you susceptible to fraud.

For years, we at Cognito have been trying to find ways to move past the old world of identity verification that relies on possession of data. Not only are the industry-standard methods of KBA and SSN verification insecure, but they are also onerous for your customers. The Social Security Number was never supposed to be the private key to your life as it is used today. It emerged as one because it was purported to be secret; the act of knowing a Social Security Number was considered sufficient proof that you are who you claim to be. Thanks to Equifax, that narrative no longer holds any merit.

Beyond the secrecy issue, the primary issue with a Social Security Number is that it is not an authenticatable number, meaning that if your SSN is leaked, anyone is able to use it. When we created Cognito, we needed a number that uniquely identifies a person while also being authenticatable. A phone number fits this description perfectly.


The Post-SSN Solution

Using the phone number as a person’s primary identifier is advantageous for a few reasons:

Phone numbers are ubiquitous. 95% of adults in the US have one and tend to keep the same one for life. This means that there is a very high likelihood that your user has a phone number.

Possession can be proven. Verifying possession of a phone number creates a link between the actual person and their number. Using Cognito creates a link between that phone number and the identity.

Higher barriers to attack. Basing the verification around a phone number creates a much higher barrier to fraudulent activity. Relying on an old verification system would allow a fraudster to commit fraud simply by buying stolen identities on the black market. A company using Cognito removes that possibility and would require a fraudster to try to gain access to a user’s phone, which is much more difficult.


What is the future of SSNs?

Obtaining the SSN of a user will still be necessary for KYC compliance, which means SSNs won’t disappear completely until new regulations are adopted or guidance is given. To help with this requirement, Cognito retrieves the full SSN of a user so that businesses can remain in compliance.

Additionally, despite the massive leak, SSNs have not lost all functionality in an identity verification process. Having some form of unique identifier to associate with an person is still highly valuable for identity verification. Similarly to dates of birth or other non-secretive identifying data, SSNs can help filter through results to locate an identity. With gradual verifications, Cognito can use SSNs in this manner to improve match results.


Any company relying on SSNs to authenticate an identity should be concerned with the release of 143 million SSNs. Cognito is the solution to secure your business and ensure a reliable KYC process in a post-SSN world.

Get Started with CognitoFrictionless, modern identity verification.

6 Tips to Maximize Identity Verification UX

By Alain Meier on August 16, 2017

Users love reduced friction

We’ve helped hundreds of companies optimize their ID verification flows to ensure the best possible user experience. As part of this work, we’ve learned what works - and doesn’t - when onboarding customers and we’ve compiled a list of actionable tips to help keep your users happy.


1. Use text inputs, not dropdowns for date of birth

Despite what you may expect, on average users fill out 3 separate text inputs asking for the day, month and year of their birth faster than they can fill out 3 dropdowns. When coupled with strong data validations, text input date of birth entry increases conversion rates.

2. Autofill state and city information

Use a service like Zippopotamus or SmartyStreets to autofill a user’s state and city information using their entered postal code. Not only will it reduce potential typos but it will also speed up their experience if you collect addresses from your customers.

3. Use gradual verification

We have already covered this extensively in our post about how gradual verification reduces sign up abandonment, but in summary: by using our product, Cognito, you can reduce the number of fields you need to collect on signup making it a lower friction experience.

4. Collect last 4, not full 9 SSN

If your identity verification provider supports it, opt for collecting only the last 4 digits of your user’s SSN and not the full 9 digits. This change can increase conversion rates on the order of 5% depending on the application.

5. Have a fallback flow

A small percentage of your customers will fail electronic ID verification - some of them will be fraudulent, but some will also likely be legitimate. This is why it’s important to still maintain some kind of fallback flow in the event that a user doesn’t pass electronic ID verification such as collecting their physical identification documents like passport or driver’s license.

Though Cognito has support for nickname comparison, not all ID verification providers do. If your user’s first name is Richard and they enter Rich, that can cause unnecessary failures and frustration. Test your ID verification provider to see how they handle nicknames and be clear with your users that they should enter their legal name and not a nickname if nicknames aren’t supported.


If you adhere to as many of these tips as possible when verifying your customers, you should see ID verification conversion rates improve considerably. We’re always happy to give you an individual consultation so do not hesitate to reach out.

Get Started with CognitoFrictionless, modern identity verification.

How Gradual Verification Reduces Sign Up Abandonment

By Alain Meier on August 8, 2017

Reduced conversions with identity verification

If you’re currently running identity verification on your users, you are probably leaving money on the table. Any person who begins the sign up process and leaves before becoming a user is lost revenue. In any relationship between a business and a customer, sign up abandonment can be thought of in the following terms:

If the perceived benefit that your customer will get from your product is less than the effort required to sign up, then they will abandon you.

The traditional method of identity verification whereby a company asks for, at a minimum, a customer’s name, date of birth and address - and frequently also their Social Security Number - is onerous and time consuming for users and raises the cost of sign up considerably.

Companies with strict regulatory or anti-fraud requirements are at a disadvantage to other web-facing companies because of the inherent need to increase the required effort to sign up in order to be compliant. They have two levers they can pull: either increase perceived value or reduce effort required to sign up.


How do I reverse ID verification abandonment?

One method of decreasing the effort required to sign up is to reduce the number of form fields required for the user to fill out. But how can you decrease the number of fields collected if they are usually required to run identity verification? Instead of collecting all of the required information at once, Cognito allows you to gradually collect additional customer information as you see fit and pull back the rest of the data that your business needs to onboard the customer. For instance, if your sign up flow only collects name, phone and email, then Cognito can verify your customer’s identity with just a name and phone number.

If Cognito is unable to verify your customer with just a name and phone number, you can prompt the user for any one of: 1. date of birth, 2. full Social Security Number, 3. last 4 of Social Security Number, or 4. their address. In most cases, for no extra cost, Cognito can verify your customer using one or more of these additional data points.


Example gradual verification breakdown

Let’s take a look at a realistic gradual verification flow that starts with collecting just name and phone, followed by date of birth and last 4 of SSN. The table below outlines a realistic match rate at each stage of the gradual verification process.

Verified with Total % of customers verified
Name, Phone 75%
Name, Phone, Date of Birth 85%
Name, Phone, Date of Birth, Last 4 SSN 95%

The key point to remember is that by structuring your verification flow with gradual information collection, you minimize the friction required for the maximum number of users. Using this example, 75% of customers would never need to provide more than just their name and phone number in order to verify their identity.

Gradual verifications are a powerful way to both decrease the number of fields you collect from your users on sign up and increase the security of onboarding users by connecting them with their mobile phone number.

Get Started with CognitoFrictionless, modern identity verification.

SSN From a Phone Number?!

By Alain Meier on July 11, 2017

SSN from a phone number

It’s true - Cognito can return a Social Security Number from a phone number. As crazy as this may seem at first, our ability to link phone numbers with real-world identity is a huge benefit to both consumers and the businesses.

In order to understand why, we need to dive into how fraudsters currently steal your identity to defraud online businesses.

How fraudsters bypass identity verification

The industry standard, knowledge-based authentication - sometimes also called “out of wallet questions”, uses information like your address history, your car loans or mortgage data to ask questions that supposedly only the person to whom this data pertains would be able to answer. For instance, “what color was your 2001 Toyota Corolla?”.

In theory, this is a great idea. It allows you to verify that the person is in fact who they claim to be. But in reality, fraudsters can visit darknet markets and buy bulk data sets containing exactly this data on tens of thousands of consumers and even targeted individuals. Due to the ubiquity of leaked personally identifiable information, the market price for lists of hundreds or even thousands of identities is on the order of hundreds of dollars - a small price to pay for a fraudster.

We are entering an era where simply knowing information is not enough proof that you are who you claim to be. There needs to be something more.

How Cognito blocks fraudsters

Cognito protects your identity by linking your phone number with your real-world identity. This phone to identity link allows us to authenticate that you and you alone are signing up for a service.

Imagine signing up for a new bank account with Acme Bank and during the onboarding process you receive a text message with a 6-digit authentication code that says “Did you just sign up for Acme Bank? Enter this code during signup: 1234”. Behind the scenes, we tell Acme bank that, yes, this phone number is associated with you and once you enter the authentication code, you verify that you meant to share your identity information with Acme Bank.

This raises the bar to steal your identity by an order of magnitude. No longer can the fraudster just buy your identity and pretend to be you. They need to either steal your phone or engage in a phone number porting attack - both of which require significant effort and have lower success rates when compared to logging into the darknet and buying new fraud opportunities in bulk.


Knowledge-based authentication (KBA) should be a last resort, not the frontlines, when defending businesses from stolen identities. Not only is Cognito lower friction than KBA, no longer requiring your users to furrow their brows deciding whether their Toyota Corolla from 2001 was purple or magenta, but it also increases the attack barrier to entry and in turn reducing the amount of fraud that businesses have to deal with.

Get Started with CognitoFrictionless, modern identity verification.

5 Pry Features Every Ruby Developer Should Know

By John Backus on May 20, 2017

Pry Features

Pry is a great tool for Ruby. You have probably used it by setting binding.pry in the middle of your code like so:

From: lib/dry/types/hash/schema.rb @ line 58 Dry::Types::Hash::Schema#try:

    40: def try(hash, &block)
    41:   success = true
    42:   output  = {}
    43:
    44:   begin
    45:     result = try_coerce(hash) do |key, member_result|
    46:       success &&= member_result.success?
    47:       output[key] = member_result.input
    48:
    49:       member_result
    50:     end
    51:   rescue ConstraintError, UnknownKeysError, SchemaError => e
    52:     success = false
    53:     result = e
    54:   end
    55:
    56:   binding.pry
    57:
 => 58:   if success
    59:     success(output)
    60:   else
    61:     failure = failure(output, result)
    62:     block ? yield(failure) : failure
    63:   end
    64: end

> (#<Dry::Types::Hash::Weak>)

Pry is much more than a tool for setting a breakpoint though. It is a great tool for exploring code interactively.

Discovering available methods

Pry provides a command called ls that lists methods and variables available in the current scope. In the code snippet above, the ls command would print out the following:

> (#<Dry::Types::Hash::Weak>) ls
#<Dry::Equalizer:0x007fafd29f2b88>#methods:
  hash
  inspect

Dry::Equalizer::Methods#methods:
  ==
  eql?

Dry::Types::Options#methods:
  meta
  pristine
  with

Dry::Types::Builder#methods:
  constrained
  constrained_type
  constructor
  default
  enum
  optional
  safe
  |

Dry::Types::Definition#methods:
  ===
  default?
  name
  options
  primitive?
  success
  constrained?
  failure
  optional?
  primitive
  result
  valid?

Dry::Types::Hash#methods:
  permissive
  schema
  strict
  strict_with_defaults
  symbolized
  weak

Dry::Types::Hash::Schema#methods:
  []
  call
  member_types

Dry::Types::Hash::Weak#methods:
  try

instance variables:
  @__args__
  @member_types
  @meta
  @options
  @primitive

locals:
  block
  e
  failure
  hash
  output
  result
  success

This is a breakdown of all the methods available in the current scope, grouped by the class or module that owns that method. It also lists the available instance variables and local variables. This is a very powerful tool for quickly understanding the role and responsibility of the code you are debugging.

The ls command also lets you drill down into different parts of the current scope. We can use ls --locals to view the names of local variables alongside their current values:

> (#<Dry::Types::Hash::Weak>) ls -l
result = {
  :name=> #<Dry::Types::Result::Failure
    input=nil
    error=#<Dry::Logic::Result:0x007fafd2cb98d0
      @success=false,
      @id=nil,
      @serializer=#<Proc:0x01@lib/dry/logic/rule.rb:47>>>}
hash = {:name=>nil}
output = {:name=>nil}
success = false
block = nil
e = nil
failure = nil

Learning without documentation

Pry makes it easy to search for methods under a namespace. For example, if we wanted to find methods for handling xpaths with Nokogiri, we can use find-method:

> find-method xpath Nokogiri

Nokogiri::CSS.xpath_for
Nokogiri::CSS::Node
Nokogiri::CSS::Node#to_xpath
Nokogiri::CSS::Parser
Nokogiri::CSS::Parser#xpath_for
Nokogiri::XML::Document
Nokogiri::XML::Document#implied_xpath_contexts
Nokogiri::XML::Node
Nokogiri::XML::Node#implied_xpath_contexts
Nokogiri::XML::NodeSet
Nokogiri::XML::NodeSet#xpath
Nokogiri::XML::NodeSet#implied_xpath_contexts
Nokogiri::XML::Searchable
Nokogiri::XML::Searchable#xpath
Nokogiri::XML::Searchable#at_xpath
Nokogiri::XML::Searchable#xpath_query_from_css_rule

We learn some interesting features from this list:

  1. We can convert CSS selectors into XPaths
  2. We can search XML documents with #xpath and #xpath_at

If we want to learn more about how to precisely use one of these methods we can use the stat command:

> stat Nokogiri::CSS.xpath_for
Method Information:
--
Name: xpath_for
Alias: None.
Owner: #<Class:Nokogiri::CSS>
Visibility: public
Type: Bound
Arity: -2
Method Signature: xpath_for(selector, options=?)
Source Location: /dev/gems/ruby/2.4.1/gems/nokogiri-1.7.2/lib/nokogiri/css.rb:22

If we wanted to learn how the method works, we can use show-source:

> show-source Nokogiri::CSS.xpath_for

From: /dev/gems/ruby/2.4.1/gems/nokogiri-1.7.2/lib/nokogiri/css.rb @ line 22:
Owner: #<Class:Nokogiri::CSS>
Visibility: public
Number of lines: 3

def xpath_for(selector, options={})
  Parser.new(options[:ns] || {}).xpath_for selector, options
end

We can also see nice, syntax highlighted code examples using show-doc:

show-doc-usage

These handful of commands are a great daily resource for debugging and exploring new gems. Give it a try!

Say Hello to Cognito

By Alain Meier on May 3, 2017

Hello Cognito

We founded BlockScore in 2014 with the goal of making verifying your users as easy as Stripe made billing your users. Over the past 3 years, we’ve learned a tremendous amount about the identity data industry while helping our customers onboard millions of users and wanted to make a change to reflect that.

Starting today, we are renaming from BlockScore to Cognito. Along with this name change, we are also announcing our completely re-imagined identity verification product. The most common feedback we get with our traditional product is that it requires too much intrusive information to verify a user and that knowledge-based authentication is too high friction while not providing enough security benefit. Our new product directly addresses these two concerns:

Cognito is dramatically lower friction

All Cognito needs to verify a user is a phone number. Using this input, we return your user’s real-world identity including their name, date of birth, address, and SSN. If a user can’t be verified using just a phone number, you can send us another request using their name, date of birth, address, SSN or any combination of the above as inputs and we will attempt to verify them again.

Our gradual approach allows you to give the majority of your users the best signup experience possible while maximizing verification match rates. This means that our built-in fallback is still a better user experience than our competitors’ best case scenario. Cognito adapts to your signup flow rather than defining it.

Cognito improves user authentication

Because we are able to link a phone number with a real-world identity, all you have to do is confirm that a user is in possession of her phone using a one-time passcode and you have a much stronger level of identity assurance that she is who she claims to be. Not only is this a lower friction experience than KBA, but it is also a significantly more secure solution. Cognito ends buying black market data to bypass questions about address history or car loans.

What happens to our current products?

To our current customers, all of our traditional products will remain fully supported and maintained. Some of our customers, big and small, will not want to switch to Cognito and we won’t force you to. We will, however, offer current customers special deals if you would like to switch over.


The team has worked incredibly hard to bring this product to you and we look forward to hearing what you think.

Alain Meier - CEO, Cognito

Get Started with CognitoFrictionless, modern identity verification.

Thinking of Using Social Data?

By Chris Morton on April 28, 2017

Social data

Using a social network for verification became popular to reduce signup friction and tie your user’s real world identity to their online identity. Social networks will return limited, user-reported data. However, for many applications such as insurance, lending, sharing economy, and banking, more trusted sources are required and those sources of data cannot be self reported. Regulated sources include credit bureaus, government agencies, and bank records.

Here are some characteristics of the data types and uses.

Social data

  • Data is reported by a user over time and stored in various databases
  • Data may contain errors or false information
  • Creating multiple online personas is simple and common
  • Data can be changed at will by the user
  • Fast way for users to signup on a desktop without having to fill out long forms

Regulated data

  • Data is collected from authoritative, regulated sources and maintained in controlled repositories such as financial institutions
  • Data is required to be kept up-to-date
  • Creating a fake identity is illegal and requires significant effort and takes years of fraudulent activity to look authentic
  • Data can only be used for anti-fraud and KYC use cases

When is social data a fit?

Social network verification is a great way to reduce signup friction when the user is on a desktop and the impact of fraud is low. For services that required a higher level of trust, traditional identity verification uses name, date of birth, address, and social security number. With mobile signup flows becoming so common, supporting mobile is now a requirement instead of an advantage. 66% of companies that saw a decrease in customer loyalty over the past year do not have a mobile app. However, it’s not enough to simply offer an app and mobile support, you must optimize the entire customer journey for the unique needs of a mobile user without asking for too much personal information.

As mobile devices have become more common, having the user enter their social network username and password is quite cumbersome on a phone screen. Additionally, for trusted services, asking for personal information and social security number dissuades users. A new alternative that offers both convenience and a high level of user trust is Cognito. Using a name and phone number, you can reduce signup friction and ensure the highest level of trust.

Get Started with CognitoFrictionless, modern identity verification.

Why Startups Get Millennials and You Don’t

By Brock Gettemeier on April 24, 2017

You have a new killer website or app where your users can get right down to business after completing a standard sign up form. Sounds great, right? Then why are mobile abandonment rates so high? The number users who view your site on their mobile phones is enormous and growing. If you’re tired of leaving money on the table when frustrated users ditch your lengthy mobile signup flow, it’s time to take action. Cognito can help.

It’s no secret that the attention span of millennials can be a short, and that’s ok. Who wouldn’t get bored with a ten field sign up form that needs to be verified by 12 different forms of government ID and all three of your neighbors? That might be a slight exaggeration, but the point is, the more fields there are to fill out in your signup, the higher your abandonment rate is going to be.

We’re all avid phone users, we love using our mobile devices for so many things because it’s easy. Want to order a pizza? No problem. Need to do some shopping? Two clicks and done. Want to apply for a loan? 12 forms of ID and your right arm please.

What can you do about it?

By making your verification process easy. All you’ll need is your customer’s name and phone number. No wasting time with sending scanned pictures of IDs or making unnecessary visits to the bank just to show you’re really who you say you are. Cognito has developed an automated way to reliably pull back rich, regulated KYC data including name, date of birth, SSN, past addresses, and more with just a customer’s phone number. Our goal is to help you decrease customer abandonment and increase your profits.

Using a powerful ID verification method is a proven measure that leads to a higher conversion rate. Don’t leave money on the table by distracting your valued leads with a lengthy signup flow. In a world where attention comes at a premium, you can’t afford to lose customers simply because the verification process is too long. Cognito is the solution for improving your mobile signup conversion rate.

If you want to dramatically decrease your signup abandonment, see Cognito.

Get Started with CognitoFrictionless, modern identity verification.

How to Fix Your Verification Conversion Rate

By Brock Gettemeier on April 1, 2017

Improving Verification Conversion

When you go to signup for an account, do you get excited to enter your personal information into the looming wall of blank white boxes? No, and neither do you customers. You need to start thinking about the onboarding process from the customer’s perspective.

Businesses are finally realizing that a lengthy signup process results in abandonment and dissatisfaction for the customers who do get through it. This experience is not the first impression your customers deserve. Studies show that conversions increase 120% by reducing the number of form fields from eleven to four.

So what can you do?

Stop collecting unnecessary data! Accelerate your signup flow and reduce the required keystrokes as much as possible. Balancing data collection with a low friction signup flow can be a challenge, but it is one that will have a direct impact on your bottom line. In industries such as banking, lending, gaming, and P2P where a signup requires verifying the identity for KYC compliance reasons, it is crucial to make the first stage of the customer journey as seamless as possible.

Groundbreaking technologies, such as BlockScore’s Cognito verification, easily balance identity verification requirements with a true user-centric signup. To optimize for mobile and online signups, Cognito requires only a phone number and name. With those inputs, the API returns your customer’s full name, address, past addresses, date of birth, and full SSN from regulated sources such as credit bureaus and government records. This significantly reduces the amount of information your customer needs to provide while still satisfying business needs for complete information.

In addition to reducing abandonment, Cognito also does more to mitigate fraud as seen in our comparison blog post. This all translates to the most streamlined customer experience, happier customers, and more revenue to your bottom line.

Cognito vs. Traditional ID Verification

By Chris Morton on February 7, 2017

Cognito vs. Traditional ID Verification

Traditional methods of electronic identity verification use a two phase approach. The first phase asks the user to show “this is who I am” using name, date of birth, address, phone number, and social security number. The second phase challenges the user to prove who they are by assembling questions from that person’s past, often called Knowledge-based Authentication (KBA).

KBA has been an industry standard for over a decade. Unfortunately fraud-mitigation techniques become stale as fraudulent actors find ways around them. While KBA can be tuned to increase efficacy, such as limiting the time permitted to respond to questions and limiting the number of attempts a user has to retry failed question sets, fraudulent actors have augmented black markets to include information that can be used to pass KBA questions.

Even as early as 2010, Gartner warned clients that “criminals can get their hands on anyone’s KBA or identity information through the black market exchanges.” To make matters worse for KBA, Gartner notes that businesses experience KBA failure rates up to 30% depending on the population. For every KBA failure, authentic users may be turned away or required to pass a costly manual process if they are willing to go through the hassle.


How Cognito differs

With a traditional verification, only information needs to be compromised. With Cognito, possession of a person’s phone or compromising the phone network is required to pass user authentication.

Cognito exceeds traditional ID verification and KBA in the following ways.

Near ubiquity. Nearly everyone in the US has a phone number

Provable possession. By sending a text message or placing an automated call, you can prove the person is in control of the phone number associated with their identity records

Low friction. It is much easier to verify and authenticate possession of a phone than to answer intrusive financial questions that the user often does not remember

Secure. Compromising a phone adds a layer of complexity outside of just purchasing KBA information through the same black market that sells identity information

Fraudsters use the path of least resistance to commit fraud and test exploits en masse. Millions of identities are trafficked through black markets and used to create fake accounts. While KBA does add a layer of difficulty, a very small hit rate can yield a lucrative return on stolen identity information. Because Cognito requires possession of a device in addition to compromised identity information, black market identity information isn’t sufficient to pass a Cognito verification.

Get Started with CognitoFrictionless, modern identity verification.