Using Emojis and Geo-Location in Your Financial Investigations

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Think emojis are used only for personal text messages from Gen-Yers? Think again. According to Wale Ayantoye, emojis within payment apps could help you spot drug deals, gambling transactions, prostitution and fraudulent business trips.

Ayantoye is a Global Sanctions Consultant at Square Inc. and he shared his experience of using data from emojis combined with geo-location to catch illegal activities by savvy fraudsters. “It’s more of a cat and mouse — we are thinking, ‘how are we going to catch up with them?’ and they are thinking ‘how are they going to evade our programs?’ ” said Ayantoye. “For any compliance or fraud program, you need access to all of the information you can get.”

And, yes, emojis can become part of valuable information. “With emojis we get the opportunity to communicate a lot, especially in this generation when people want to say so little, yet they say so much.”

Emojis were first created in 1998 by Shigetaka Kurita, an engineer at the Japanese phone company, NTT Docomo. According to Ayantoye, there are currently more than 3,000 emojis in the Unicode Standard record. The variation of these emojis includes gender, skin tone, flags, foods and other components that are used to express feelings and emotions.

“The evolution of human language is endless,” Ayantoye said. “Coming from someone who has visited over 27 countries and who has lived and worked in six of them, the diversity is truly amazing. Emojis go beyond being meaningless pictures or a lazy way that millennials express themselves; rather, they are like a primitive language. These tiny emoji characters have become a part of our daily means of communication. With one emoji, you can say a lot with fewer words.”

At Square, Inc., Ayantoye and his colleagues use emojis, partnered with geo-location, to implement a risk-based approach to conducting financial investigations. He said when he first mentioned looking at emojis to his colleagues they asked how they would know what something stood for or what it would actually mean. Ayantoye said that they would use it to get a better picture of what a person is trying to communicate. “If you have only one set of parameters that only catches languages or certain words when transactions take place, imagine the amount of transactions you’re going to miss every day, especially when the transaction does not include any words, rather emojis.”

By understanding and interpreting this other language all on its own, investigators can begin to see a whole new set of information. Look at the examples below that Ayantoye used in his presentation. The time, subject (with only emojis), transaction amount and location (using ping cell tower information) all yielded a viable conclusion to Ayantoye and his team.

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As Ayantoye said, fraud investigators need access to all of the information they can get their hands on. It is important to not rule out a new language just because you may not use it regularly or because it might not even look like a typical language. Opening up your mind, and your investigation approaches, to all possibilities of how people communicate will only give you more information to work with.

“The war against financial crime and money laundering won’t be ending anytime soon,” Ayantoye said. “Criminals are getting smarter, and it is our collective responsibility as fraud and compliance analysts to find modern ways to combat this situation.”