Tag Archives: Cash

Earn after reading: China news app lures with clickbait and cash
December 4, 2018 12:01 am|Comments (0)

BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) – Cai Li, a janitor in Shanghai, developed a serious addiction to news app Qutoutiao, lured by gossipy articles about celebrities and the cash she gets from reading them.

A red packet giving out free cash for new users is seen on the news aggregator app Qutoutiao, on a mobile phone next to a Qutoutiao logo in this illustration picture taken November 26, 2018. REUTERS/Florence Lo/Illustration

Logging on during breaks at work and sometimes at night when she can’t sleep, the 63-year old has earned a few hundred yuan ($ 30-$ 40) over several months, which she says is useful to supplement her income.

With its unusual pay-your-user strategy, Tencent-backed Qutoutiao Inc (QTT.O) – pronounced “chew-tow-ti-ow” – has drawn in 20 million daily readers. A leaderboard shows the top-earning user has raked in more than $ 50,000.

Digital gold coins are earned by playing games that involve reading stories or by convincing others to join up. The current exchange rate is 1,600 coins for 1 yuan, with strong players receiving the title of ‘master’.

The payments are an extreme example of financial incentives from discounts to coupons employed by a new generation of Chinese internet firms as they seek to establish themselves in a market dominated by much bigger players.

“Acquiring new users if you’re competing with Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent and traditional mobile players, you need to come up with something new,” said Zhang Chenhao, Shanghai-based managing partner at technology-focused Prometheus Fund.

On one hand, it has worked. The news aggregator, which listed in the United States in September, tripled its number of daily users over the last year. Third-quarter revenue – nearly all of it from advertising – jumped more than six times from the same period a year earlier to just under 1 billion yuan ($ 145 million).

THE EYEBALL ECONOMY

But the strategy doesn’t come cheap, even if individual amounts paid to users are ‘trivial’ – a word it used to describe the payments in its IPO prospectus.

Qutoutiao spent over 1 billion yuan on marketing in the last quarter – more than its revenue, nearly the amount of its net loss and over seven times what it spent in the same period a year ago.

“It is getting more and more expensive to get traffic,” Chief Financial Officer Wang Jingbo told Reuters in an interview, but said the cash giveaways were a key hook and a long-term strategy.

“It’s the eyeball economy. Previously, people had to spend money to see content, but with the changing internet they no longer have to pay…Not only are they not paying – users now need to earn something as well.”

Since surging on its trading debut, its shares have lost three-quarters of their market value, hurt by a wider economic chill that has hit Chinese stocks and disappointing earnings. It is now worth around $ 1.3 billion.

Industry experts question how long firms like Qutoutiao can sustain cash-burning habits and how they will become profitable.

“It’s very messy. If you lower the amount of money, users will lose interest. But if you raise it, the cost is too high,” said Wei Wuhui, an academic and managing partner at tech-focused venture capital fund SkyChee Ventures.

More broadly, concerns are growing about how some Chinese tech firms, including household names, are generously using discounts and other means to subsidize customers while also taking on other costs in the pursuit of market share.

Meituan Dianping (3690.HK) – a ‘super-app’ whose services include food delivery, restaurant reservations and ride-hailing – saw its stock plunge last month after quarterly operating losses tripled amid a bruising price war with its main rival.

Prometheus Fund’s Zhang noted venture capital funding was tightening due to the slowing economy, pressuring a key funding channel for tech firms.

“This (stage) is purely cash-burning to create a foundation. But in the end you have to deliver value and be profitable. If you don’t make profits, no-one will subsidize you and finance you forever.”

COPYCAT BELIEVERS

Qutoutiao – whose name means “fun headlines” – targets smaller cities and rural areas with content that ranges from cooking tips to videos on how to dance.

CFO Wang said he hopes to have 200 million monthly users at some point, getting towards the estimated 250 million currently commanded by rival news aggregator Jinri Toutiao. Qutoutiao had 49 million monthly active users as of July.

Bytedance-owned Jinri Toutiao recently launched a lite version of its app targeting rural markets and users with smaller phones that includes cash games, a sign it’s taking Qutoutiao’s threat seriously. It even offers 25 yuan for persuading another user to join, trumping Qutoutiao’s 8 yuan.

Several Qutoutiao users said their main interest in the app was the money, but complained it was becoming harder to earn.

Zhai Liyun, 45, a temp worker who lives on the outskirts of Beijing, said she read “clickbait” stories before bed but so far had only earned 20 yuan because most of her friends were already on the platform.

Cai, the janitor, said she was cutting back after her eyesight suffered and she lost weight from going on the app too much – prompting an intervention from her husband and daughter.

“I’ll play in the evening if I can’t sleep but I won’t lose sleep over Qutoutiao. I try not to think about it too much now,” she said.

($ 1 = 6.9437 Chinese yuan)

Reporting by Pei Li in Bejing and Adam Jourdan in Shanghai; Additional reporting by Shanghai newsroom, Sankalp Phartiyal and Euan Rocha in Mumbai; Editing by Edwina Gibbs

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Southwest's Apology to Passengers on Flight 1380 Is Brilliant, and It's Not Just the Cash. Here's Why
April 21, 2018 6:05 pm|Comments (0)

For the passengers who survived the emergency landing on Southwest Flight 1380 this week, on which Jennifer Riordan died, the flight must have been a horrifying experience. 

The pilot and copilot have had been hailed as heroes, and Southwest CEO Gary Kelly was praise for the fast apology and condolence statement he offered via video. But you can imagine that the airline might want to continue to respond to the affected passengers quickly.

Apparently, it has. Even as the federal investigation into the incident continues, Southwest reportedly sent letters with personal apologies and quick compensation to passengers from Flight 1380 just a day after the emergency.

Obviously, any big company that faced a debacle like this needs to do something similar and quick.  Many do, but only in exchange for people offering to drop all claims against the company (more on whether that’s happening here, in a second).

But there’s something interesting in how Southwest handled the issue–a combination of what they offered, and how they worded the apology letter, as reported, signed by Kelly:

We value you as our customer and hope you will allow us another opportunity to restore your confidence in Southwest as the airline you can count on for your travel needs. … In this spirit, we are sending you a check in the amount of $ 5,000 to cover any of your immediate financial needs.

As a tangible gesture of our heartfelt sincerity, we are also sending you a $ 1,000 travel voucher…

Our primary focus and commitment is to assist you in every way possible.

What leaps out at me is, oddly, the smallest financial part of the compensation: the $ 1,000 travel voucher. (Although, it’s funny: psychologically people sometimes put a higher subjective value on a tangible thing valued at a certain amount, then they do on cash.)

Even in the wake of tragedy, Southwest is taking steps to try to keep these customers–as customers. 

As some commenters have pointed out, while the uncontained engine failure aboard flight 1380 was terrifying for passengers, and resulted in loss of life and injury, it’s by no means the first time a flight suffered a similar catastrophe and ultimately landed.

Commercial airlines like a 737 are designed to be able to fly with one of the engines disabled, and professional aircrew train and drill on what to do in this kind of situation. The emergency was deftly handled by Captain Tammie Jo Shults and first officer Darren Ellisor.

Part of why this story was so widely reported however, is that passengers were immediately sharing it on social media. One passenger famously paid $ 8 for inflight WiFi even while he thought the plane was going to crash, so that he could broadcast on Facebook Live what was happening and say a farewell to friends and family.

So, connect this to the travel vouchers. Beyond taking a step toward repairing the relationship with these passengers, what better PR result could Southwest hope for than some positive travel experiences and social media posts from one of them, as a result? 

I wouldn’t expect Southwest to articulate this rationale; that would actually undercut it. And, I do have a couple of other questions about how this all works, for which I’ve reached out to Southwest for answers. I’ll update this post when I hear back.

For example, I would assume that the family of the passenger who died on the flight, Jennifer Riordan, would be treated differently, and maybe also the seven passengers who reportedly were injured. 

There’s also the question of whether these are really just goodwill payments, or a way to quickly settle 100 or more potential claims against the airline. If it’s the more traditional, transactional legal strategy of just trying to settle claims quickly, then that undercuts a lot of this.

However, I’m judging based on the experience of one passenger, Eric Zilbert of Davis, California, that this might not be the case. Zilbert reportedly checked with a lawyer before accepting the compensation,” to make sure I didn’t preclude anything.” Based on the lawyer’s advice, went ahead and did so.

Of course, this doesn’t mean every passenger is happy with the gesture. For example, Marty Martinez of Dallas, the passenger who became famous after he livestreamed the emergency landing over Facebook Live, said he’s not satisfied.

“I didn’t feel any sort of sincerity in the email whatsoever, and the $ 6,000 total that they gave to each passenger I don’t think comes even remotely close to the price that many of us will have to pay for a lifetime.”

Even so, Southwest sort of got what they’d probably like to see in his case, anyway: a tangible demonstration that despite the experience aboard Flight 1380, he’s willing to fly with the airline again.

The proof? He gave his quote to an Associated Press reporter, the account said, “as he prepared to board a Southwest flight from New York.”

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China's Leshi Internet flags $1.8 billion loss for 2017, citing LeEco cash crunch
January 31, 2018 6:10 am|Comments (0)

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Chinese video-streaming firm Leshi Internet Information & Technology said it expects a net loss of 11.6 billion yuan ($ 1.83 billion) for 2017, citing a cash crunch at embattled technology conglomerate LeEco that hurt its revenues.

Leshi had reported a profit of 554.8 million yuan in 2016.

It was once the main listed unit of LeEco which was founded by Jia Yueting. Last year, property developer Sunac China became Leshi’s second-largest shareholder and Jia subsequently resigned as chairman and CEO from the company but remains its largest shareholder.

Leshi is trying to recover debt owed by Jia. It said last week it is seeking equity stakes in the car businesses of Jia for debt owed by him and his companies amounting to as much as 7.5 billion yuan ($ 1.17 billion).

Leshi flagged the expected loss for 2017 in a statement to the Shenzhen stock exchange on Tuesday evening.

The announcement sent Leshi’s shares plunging by the daily limit of 10 percent on Wednesday, the sixth consecutive day they have tumbled the maximum allowed since resuming trading a week ago following a 9-month suspension.

(This version of the story corrects fifth paragraph to show announcement was made to Shenzhen stock exchange, not Hong Kong stock exchange)

Reporting by Sijia Jiang; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Muralikumar Anantharaman

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Coinbase probes possible insider trading after sharp rise in bitcoin cash
December 20, 2017 12:52 pm|Comments (0)

(Reuters) – Major cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase said on Wednesday it will investigate accusations of insider trading, following a sharp increase in the price of bitcoin cash hours before it announced support for the virtual currency.

Bitcoin cash, a clone of bitcoin, jumped to $ 8,500 on Coinbase’s exchange on Tuesday afternoon, hours before the San Francisco-based exchange launched trading in bitcoin cash.

Trading in bitcoin cash will be suspended until 1200 ET (1700 GMT) Wednesday, a Coinbase status page showed.

Meanwhile, bitcoin, the world’s most popular cryptocurrency, fell more than 10 percent on Wednesday to a one-week low of $ 15,800. Bitcoin has risen some 1,700 percent this year and nearly 80 percent this month alone.

“If we find evidence of any employee or contractor violating our policies — directly or indirectly — I will not hesitate to terminate the employee immediately,” Coinbase Chief Executive Brian Armstrong said in a blog post. (bit.ly/2CMbaA3)

Additionally, Coinbase employees have been restricted from trading in bitcoin cash for several weeks, Coinbase said on Twitter.

Earlier on Tuesday, traders on Twitter alleged that news of Coinbase’s launch of bitcoin cash support had been leaked before the official announcement.

Bitcoin cash was created on Aug. 1 when Hong Kong-based exchange Bitfinex said a minority of bitcoin miners would create a new version of bitcoin to make trading faster and easier.

Reporting by Nikhil Subba and Mekhla Raina in Bengaluru; Editing by Amrutha Gayathri and Sai Sachin Ravikumar

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Tesla: Management Is Paid To Burn Cash
November 28, 2017 12:14 am|Comments (0)

“Odds are very high that I’ll go to my grave without ever having shorted a stock.”
Steer Clear of the Short Side – by Mohnish Pabrai Published by TheStreet.com on August 13, 2003

Prior to Tesla (TSLA), I attempted only one short position, and it wasn’t based on any fundamentals. Rather, it was based on a personal dispute with a corporation (seems as though I forgot the Buffett adage that a stock’s feelings aren’t hurt when I short it). Needless to say, I lost money on the bet, albeit less than $ 100 in an options trade. A year has passed, and I’ve taken on my second and more informed short position, via buying put options against Tesla.

There are three primary reasons I entered into a short position with Tesla, which I’ve outlined below:

  1. David Einhorn copycat position – Often times I rely on smart value leaning hedge funds for position ideas. Einhorn – founder of Greenlight Capital – wrote one of my favorite investing books on his short position battle with Allied Capital called Fooling Some of the People All of the Time, a Long Short Story. The book details his research style as well as methods of identifying potential short candidates. In “short” (pun intended), Einhorn clearly does his research, and he does it thoroughly. So I feel pretty good riding the coattails of his research and following him into the position. However, the book reminds me that short positions can take years to pay out, as was the case with Allied Capital’s ponzi scheme.
  2. The second reason is that the market is generally overvalued right now, according to the Buffett market value indication of Wilshire 5000 total market index to GDP. In this market, I have found it difficult to find conservative value stocks, so I am exploring the short side. In the event of a market downturn, this gives me some exposure to profiting from the correction.
  3. The last reason is based on my own research of Tesla – I’ve highlighted a few points below:
    1. Tesla has managed to pay stock-based compensation to management of $ 872 million while managing to have negative $ 10.8 billion in free cash flow since inception (2010), having never once yielded a profit on an annual net income basis (see 10-year financial results).
    2. Questionable accounting techniques – like capitalizing IPR&D costs and not listing any allowance for doubtful accounts in 2016 10-K (see page 68 and page 67).
    3. Management incentives – the majority of this article will compare the management incentive plans for Tesla and General Motors (GM). As you will see, Tesla management has no direct incentive to earn profits or cash flow, unlike GM.

As of the winter of 2017, David Einhorn has two high-profile auto manufacturer positions: General Motors and Tesla. I will spend some time comparing management base salaries and milestones that trigger bonus incentives from the two companies.

Below is a copy of Tesla’s management and CEO stock option plan in the 2016 10K (page 92 of the PDF):

CEO Stock Option plan 2012:

In August 2012, our Board of Directors granted 5,274,901 stock options to our CEO (the “2012 CEO Grant”)…

Each of the ten vesting tranches requires a combination of one of the ten pre-determined performance milestones and an incremental increase in our market capitalization of $ 4.0 billion, as compared to the initial market capitalization of $ 3.2 billion measured at the time of the 2012 CEO Grant.

As of December 31, 2016, the market conditions for seven vesting tranches and the following five performance milestones were achieved and approved by our Board of Directors:

Successful completion of the Model X Alpha Prototype;

Successful completion of the Model X Beta Prototype;

Completion of the first Model X Production Vehicle;

Aggregate vehicle production of 100,000 vehicles; and

Successful completion of the Model 3 Alpha Prototype.

December 31, 2016, the following performance milestones were considered probable of achievement:

Successful completion of the Model 3 Beta Prototype;

Completion of the first Model 3 Production Vehicle;

Aggregate vehicle production of 200,000 vehicles; and

Aggregate vehicle production of 300,000 vehicles.

A close reading of the incentives for CEO Elon Musk shows that none of his 5.2 million of stock option grants are based on actual earnings or cash flow generation for the business. Rather, the CEO incentives are based on prototype and production goals, all of which – as Tesla shareholders and analysts have seen – drain cash at an alarming rate. With these types of CEO incentives, it is no wonder that Tesla has raised $ 4 billion in cash from equity raises and $ 8.4 billion in cash from debt offerings since 2007. In light of the fact that the company has yet to turn any sort of profit in any fiscal year of existence, I find it shocking that shareholders are not up in arms regarding these management incentives. It seems like Tesla shareholders are swooned by Musk’s refusal to accept his CEO’s salary compensation of $ 45,760 cash, due to the California law that requires employees be paid minimum wage. I look at this gesture – like Musk’s high-profile vehicle prototype reveals – as a red herring, obscuring the fact that Musk continues to lead an operation that runs on cash from financing activities and not from cash from operations. Indeed, Musk pays himself – via stock options – with equity and debt financing from investors solely from achieving milestones that are financed through shareholder dilution and debt leveraging.

To make matters worse, the 2016 Proxy statement states that Elon Musk’s interests “align” with shareholders because he owns 22% of shares outstanding. That seems to explain why the CEO’s compensation package is indirectly related to shareholder profits since his vote represents nearly a quarter of voting power. For critics of this view, I should point out that Musk is not on the compensation committee of Tesla’s board. Nevertheless, I find it hard to believe that he doesn’t have any weight with the milestones created by the compensation committee when he holds 22% of the stock.

In theory, stock options are generally shareholder-friendly ways for compensation committees to align shareholder and management interests. In Tesla’s case, however, the theory does not align with the practice because Tesla’s achievement milestones that trigger stock options are not profit or cash flow milestones. In truth, Tesla’s compensation milestones are highly capital intensive. The milestones incentivize management to burn cash, which is exactly what management is doing.

By contrast, I compared Tesla’s compensation package to that of General Motors, David Einhorn’s long automotive investment. Below I copied a screen shot from GM’s 2016 proxy statement that outlines the STIP (short-term Incentive plan) for GM’s executive team. Admittedly, none of the GM executive management team is so austere as to accept a minimum wage base salary of $ 45K, like Elon Musk. Nonetheless, I believe the overall GM STIP is far more aligned with shareholder interests than Tesla’s.

The first STIP measure is EBIT – earnings before interest and taxes. This is a levered measure of profitability. The second GM STIP measure is adjusted FCF (free cash flow). As many readers know, free cash flow measures cash flow from operations minus capital expenditures, an important denomination for capital intensive industries like automotive. Many investors consider free cash flow the gold standard of profitability because it is a shareholder consideration of the cash left over in a business after reinvesting in capital projects. The last two measures of the GM executive incentive plan are around global market share and global quality, again both of which align to shareholder interests, albeit not necessarily directly profit related.

There have been many great critical pieces written about Tesla, especially from the Wall Street Journal. Elon Musk publicly attacked journalists and editors that wrote the negative pieces about Tesla in the Q3 earnings call, ultimately attacking their journalistic and personal integrity, calling “shame” upon them. Frankly, I found Elon’s Q3 opening response quite odd, not to mention hypocritical in light of his aforementioned compensation package. Indeed, Elon’s behavior in the Q3 earnings call reminded me of Allied Capital’s management to short sellers in Einhorn’s book Fooling Some People All of the Time.

Short Positioning

Looking at the cost benefit of a straight short sale vs. buying put options, I found that the options strategy was more attractive for me. For one, a small and or individual investor is usually not intending to impact the stock price by selling short. Moreover, I agree with the general proposition from Mohnish Pabrai: “Why take a bet where the best return is 100% and the downside is unlimited?” With buying long-term put options, you can capture downward movement of the stock without knowing exactly when (or if) the stock will move. Furthermore, you are risking less capital through options leverage to potentially make more than 100% of the invested capital. Below is a basic analysis I put together comparing an outright short sale of Tesla versus buying long-term put options (the January 2019 contract):

I purchased the 280 strike price because 280 is around a recent support line for the stock, using technical indicators. I made the purchase in October 2017, when Tesla was trading around $ 340. As the table above demonstrates, a price of about 240 yields an even return percentage from an outright short sale compared to buying the 280 put options. Thereafter, the put options leverage starts to kick in, and the yield of the options are far more attractive. Additionally, the capital risks with a put option limit the amount of capital you can lose.

In terms of selecting which option contract to buy, I used basic technical analysis. Looking at the chart below, if Tesla falls through the 280 support price, then it has a long way to go down to the next support price (see chart below):

In the spirit of a Pabrai/Buffett style value investor, don’t sell short. However, if you’re going to be a value investor and take short positions, consider buying put options on stocks with the following characteristics: a company with no profits, a leveraged balance sheet, lots of cash burn in a highly capital intensive business, double-digit negative ROIC, and a management with incentives to spend cash (as opposed to making profits). For what it’s worth, that’s how I found myself short Tesla.

Risks of Tesla Short Position

Headline for an article from Electrek: “Elon Musk teases Tesla shorts who lost an estimated $ 5 billion since the beginning of the year.” – Fred Lambert – June 8, 2017

There are inherent risks being short Tesla. While buying long-term put option contracts limits capital lost to the cost of the premium on the option, there is still a chance it never materializes. As the Fred Lambert headline suggests, many have been short Tesla and lost plenty of money on the trade. As of November 26, 2017, Tesla short percentage of float is 26%, and it has been in that percentage range all year.

In anticipation of the Model 3 ramp, the stock has managed to run up 61% in a year when TTM net income is negative $ 1.4 billion and TTM FCF is negative $ 4.8 billion. You just don’t know when bubbles are going to pop, and the past year’s Tesla stock price is evidence to that point. Of course, I could be wrong about Tesla, and it might not be a bubble. The Model 3 ramp could be perfectly successful, and the company could turn a profit whereby the current $ 315 price is supported by a realistic valuation metric like P/E, EV/EBITDA, DCF, etc. A simple look at Tesla’s financials since IPO show no evidence that this will happen, but it is a possibility.

Generally, I believe that people are motivated by their incentives. While it certainly is possible that Tesla could switch from a cash burning corporation to one with positive cash flow streams, I would point out what I’ve been saying in this article: Tesla management incentives are not designed for profitability. I would argue that management incentives are designed for high profile showmanship – the like of Steve Jobs would be proud of – for expensive and fancy cars that burn shareholders’ cash.

In closing, I would like to point out that eight years after the Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) IPO, the company made $ 400 million of net income in 1988 with $ 545 million in cash and $ 1 billion of total liabilities on the balance sheet. With all the comparisons between Elon Musk and Steve Jobs, those financials suggest that Steve Jobs ran his company more like GM (post 2009 government bailout) than Tesla.

Disclosure: I am/we are short TSLA.

I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

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Uber fights proposed rule in Mexico's Cancun barring cash fares
November 20, 2017 6:02 pm|Comments (0)

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Uber Technologies Inc, which has been facing a wave of regulations in Latin America, is fighting proposed rules in Cancun that the ride-hailing service says could drive it out of the top Mexican beach resort.

The logo of Uber is seen on an iPad, during a news conference to announce Uber resumes ride-hailing service, in Taipei, Taiwan April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Legislators in Quintana Roo, the southeastern state that includes Cancun, are considering a proposal that would bar drivers from accepting cash and set minimum value and age criteria for the cars used for trips.

Accepting cash from users is often seen as making drivers robbery targets.

Federico Ranero, general manager for Uber in Mexico, said the law would have grave implications for the company’s operations in the tourist destination, where 40 percent of trips are paid for in cash.

“This regulation, if it is passed as it is, would so limit the service and so drastically affect the experience of our users and driver-partners that Uber would feel obligated to suspend its operations in the state of Quintana Roo,” Ranero said in an interview.

Fernando Zelaya, president of the state legislature’s transportation commission and one of the lawmakers who presented the initiative, could not be reached for comment. But his staff said legislators could discuss it as soon as this week.

Last month, lawmakers in the central Mexican state of Puebla approved new rules aimed at stricter vetting and monitoring of ride-share drivers working for companies like Uber and Cabify after the recent murders of two female college students.

Senators in Brazil scrapped parts of a bill last month that would have treated ride-hailing companies like traditional taxi services after a lobbying effort by Uber that included a trip there by new Chief Executive Officer Dara Khosrowshahi.

By specifying the value and age of drivers’ cars, the regulation in Quintana Roo is among the more onerous in Mexico, said Carlos Martinez, who heads the Center for Citizens and Consumers, a group that has studied the proposals.

“You have here a clear barrier to entry in the market,” he said.

Ranero warned that tourism in Cancun, a relatively small but growing market for Uber, could take a hit if the company leaves.

“The tourists trust Uber,” he said.

Cash payments have proved to be a thorny issue for Uber as it pursues growth in emerging markets where many consumers do not have credit cards. After a wave of attacks on drivers in Brazil, Uber began using social security numbers to verify the identity of riders who pay with cash.

After testing various methods in Mexico, Uber has been authenticating such riders through their Facebook profiles, Ranero said.

Reporting by Julia Love; Editing by David Alire Garcia and Lisa Von Ahn

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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