Saturday, October 9, 2021

Embargoed by MasterCard/Visa, kratom vendors turn to crypto and eChecks


I spend a fair amount of time tracking real-world use cases for cryptocurrencies. I'm not talking about silly speculation, or millionaire crypto hobbyists using their bitcoins to buy Teslas, or illegal dark web markets that use Monero for payments. I'm talking about actual licit businesses that have turned to cryptocurrency payments -- not because they particularly care about crypto -- but because they need to.

To date, the retail kratom industry is one of the best examples I've been able to find of broad non-speculative licit cryptocurrency adoption. Kratom is a plant that grows in southeast Asia. The kratom leaf can be ground into a green powder that, when ingested, acts as a stimulant. In the U.S., online kratom stores are ubiquitous.

I'm not going to get into whether kratom is dangerous or has medicinal value, or whether it should be legal or not. (For that sort of discussion, I'd suggest visiting the FDA, WebMD, or the Mayo Clinic.) The main point I want to make in this post is that kratom is legal in the US (although several states have banned it).

Although kratom is legal, MasterCard and Visa have decided to prohibit kratom sales from their networks. This poses big problems for online kratom shops. Because the card networks dominate online payments, exile by these oligopolies causes serious financial damage to the unfortunate targets. To survive, the kratom industry has been forced to turn to backup payments systems.

MasterCard's Business Risk Assessment and Monitoring (BRAM) policy, for instance, lists a number of impermissible activities:

Source: Netpay

Most of the prohibited transactions listed by MasterCard are illegal, such as the sale of child pornography. But some are legal, including the sale of "certain types of drugs or chemicals." MasterCard specifically mentions salvia divinorum, a legal drug that has hallucinogenic properties. Although it isn't listed as an example, kratom is usually considered to fall into the same category as salvia.

Acquirers, the financial institutions that connect businesses to the card networks, face large penalties if Visa or MasterCard catch them facilitating prohibited card transactions. To reduce this risk, acquirers will often hire what are called Merchant Monitoring Service Providers, or MMSPs, to scan through retailer data and spot anything that looks dangerous. MMSPs such as LegitScripts are very aggressive about rooting out kratom sales.

Despite the card networks disallowing kratom sales, many of the 20 or so sites that I scanned through still offer card payments. According to my research, kratom sites have a number of ways of securing card availability, one of which is called transactions laundering. That is, a kratom site camouflages its prohibited product sales by routing them through a front store that sells legitimate goods. Eventually these prohibited transactions get caught by the card network or the acquirer, and the site's card network access is revoked. It then has to scramble to build another front.

One commenter on Reddit describes kratom transaction laundering thusly:

"...we can do manual credit cards (as I can) over the phone because we use standard processors that don’t know it’s kratom. We do this by creating Dba’s that have fake web presences selling other products and they don’t find out it’s kratom for a while. Usually we can get a processor to work for 3-12 months before it gets shut down."
(Note: Dba refers to "Doing Business As". A DBA is a business pseudonym or a “fictitious name filing.”)

Another route that kratom sites take to get access to the card networks is to use an overseas aggregator. Kratom Crazy, a website that has since closed for business, describes how and why:

"International is the only way to go because card schemes are less aggressive on banks in international communities. This doesn’t mean they can’t be fined or shut down – oh because they can and still do. No aggregate account we have ever seen has lasted over 6 months before being shut down. The major downside is these accounts are usually 9% fees and up plus 10% rolling reserve over 6 months. So the merchant takes 19%+ off the top immediately plus they have to wait for 2-3 weeks before seeing the first days processing payout. Its a bad deal all around and a massive risk for losing money. In addition, when these accounts get shut down, there is usually no payout to the merchants."
So the upshot is that the sort of card network access that many kratom sites have managed to secure is unreliable and spotty. Indeed, many sites don't accept cards at all, including (at the time of writing) OG Botanicals, Canada Kratom Express, Krypto Kratum, and Rhizohm. Rhizohm's payments page goes to some pains to explain how it would rather be honest than lie to get card access:

Source: rhizOhm


Which gets us to cryptocurrency. Almost all of the kratom sites, including those that haven't been able to sneak themselves into the card networks, accept cryptocurrencies including Bitcoin, Ethereum, Litecoin, XRP, Stellar Lumens, or some other one. Third-party crypto processors like CoinPayments or Coinbase Commerce are typically used for payments processing.

When they accept cards, kratom sites often offer discounts for cryptocurrency payments. For instance, Happy Hippo's checkout page offers a 20% discount:

It's easy to understand why kratom sites would offer such discounts. It's expensive to use overseas aggregators for card payments. By steering a customer to Bitcoin or Ethereum, a kratom vendor saves itself the pain of a 10-15% card processing fee.

But cryptocurrency isn't the only payments option that kratom sites fall back on. Even more popular than crypto is eChecks, a traditional "fiat" form of payment that gets processed via an automated clearing house, or ACH. A kratom buyer inputs their bank routing and account numbers into the payments page, the payment then gets routed to the ACH network and, once cleared & settled, the funds arrive in the kratom merchant's bank account.

In the same way that a business must work with a card acquirer to get access to Visa or MasterCard payments, they must work with an eCheck acquirer in order to accept eCheck payments. But onboarding standards seems to be much looser with eCheck acquirers than card acquirers. For instance, in the screen shot below an eCheck acquirer is actively soliciting all sorts of high-risk industries, including not only kratom but also CBD oil and MLM-based businesses.  

Many kratom sites also accept a bespoke payments method called GreenBean Pay. Users open an account with GreanBean Pay and submit their banking account information. The service then uses Plaid -- a piece of financial plumbing that allows apps to hook into banks -- to link to the buyer's bank account and process the kratom payment.

Lastly, a bunch of kratom sites accept person-to-person payments options such as Cash App, Venmo, Zelle, and Interac eTransfer. (This probably goes against these services' terms of service, which generally limit usage to person-to-person payments).

While these backup options have become vital for connecting kratom retailers to the public, they are not really a great substitute for a card network connection. Cryptocurrency is clunky, awkward, and risky. eCheck is slow. By not offering the convenience of card payments, kratom sites lose out on a steady stream of would-be buyers. And this is evident by how desperate they are to find hacks that get them back into the Visa and MasterCard walled gardens.

In closing, I want to touch on something I mentioned in my previous post on MasterCard and porn. A big reason that card networks refuse to process legal transactions for things like kratom (or, similarly, for salvia divinorum, which I wrote about here) is they don't want to damage their brand. These substances may be permitted by law but they are controversial, and so the networks refuse to touch them.

All businesses have the right to protect their brands. But the card networks are oligopolies, and thus necessary for online survival. And so in my view the card networks should be required to forfeit their right to protect their brands. That is, Visa and MasterCard (insofar as they retain their oligopolistic powers) should not be be allowed to police vendors for what they deem to be controversial but legal products.

Which is not to say that I'm a champion of kratom. I'm only suggesting that the appropriate way to control such a product is not by card network bans, but by the Drug Enforcement Agency declaring it to be a scheduled drug.

The good news is that these sorts of situations are very rare. The card companies allow almost every legal transaction under the sun on to their networks, save a few outliers like kratum. This means that the population of licit businesses that need to use a back-up system like cryptocurrency payments (or echecks) is not very big. But examples like this still warrant our attention. Even if we don't particularly care about kratom, one day a product that we regularly consume could get censored by Visa or MasterCard.

3 comments:

  1. Amazing Post! Strangely today at HN front page there was another discussion about the regulatory powers that credit card merchants had adquired. Maybe we are waking up from a long nap, hopefully it is not too late..

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That was the Economist's recent article: https://archive.is/he2yR

      Delete
  2. Hi JP,

    You may find interesting the story of internet comedian Dick Masterson who started his own payment network.

    As a conservative-ish boundry-pushing comedian he was worried about getting kicked off of Patreon as they had been banning similar accounts. He took the libertarian advice "build your own company" and did just that. He found a small bank and sucessfully created his own payment network for creatives, competing with Patreon. After 18 months of doing well Mastercard blacklisted him, destroying his business overnight with no explaination.

    https://reclaimthenet.org/dick-masterson-new-project-2-mastercard/

    Perhaps they are only just going public with this now as a strategic "testing of the waters," just like apple tried to do with their supposed perfect child porn scanning algorhythem they wanted to look at everyones photos with.

    ReplyDelete