Hindenburg Research says Jack Dorsey’s fintech company facilitates fraud against “unbanked” customers; Block shares plunge
“Our 2-year investigation has concluded that Block has systematically taken advantage of the demographics it claims to be helping. The “magic” behind Block’s business has not been disruptive innovation, but rather the company’s willingness to facilitate fraud against consumers and the government, avoid regulation, dress up predatory loans and fees as revolutionary technology, and mislead investors with inflated metrics.”
Shares of Twitter founder Jack Dorsey’s Block plunged 18% after short-seller Hindenburg Research announced the payment company was its latest short position. Hindenburg alleged that the company permitted criminal activity to occur with minimal controls and significantly exaggerated the transacting userbase of its Cash App, a vital performance metric.
In a report titled, “Block: How Inflated User Metrics and “Frictionless” Fraud Facilitation Enabled Insiders To Cash Out Over $1 Billion,” Hindenburg said:
“Our 2-year investigation has concluded that Block has systematically taken advantage of the demographics it claims to be helping. The “magic” behind Block’s business has not been disruptive innovation, but rather the company’s willingness to facilitate fraud against consumers and the government, avoid regulation, dress up predatory loans and fees as a revolutionary technology, and mislead investors with inflated metrics.”
According to Hindenburg’s report, Cash App’s unbanked customers were accused of engaging in criminal or illicit activity. Additionally, Hindenburg claimed that the compliance programs of Cash App were deficient. During its two-year investigation, Hindenburg spoke with multiple former employees who revealed that internal concerns were ignored and user concerns were suppressed, even as alleged criminal activity and fraud persisted on the platform.
Hindenburg’s detailed report contains internal system screenshots and employee messages. It also highlights alleged financial misreporting. The short-seller alleges that up to 35% of Cash App’s revenue, approximately $892 million, is derived from interchange fees, and should be subject to a regulatory cap imposed on large financial institutions.
However, Hindenburg alleges that Block circumvents this regulatory cap by routing revenue through a small bank.
Hindenburg also claimed that the small-bank routing method used by Block is similar to the same one used by Block’s rival PayPal, which prompted a Securities and Exchange Commission probe.
That’s not all. Hindenburg attacked Cash App’s practices during the pandemic when the government issued stimulus checks to qualified American adults. The report alleges that the lockdowns “posed an existential threat” to Block’s critical merchant services business.
“CEO Jack Dorsey Tweeted that users could get government payments through Cash App ‘immediately’ with ‘no bank account needed’ due to its frictionless technology,” the report said.
Dorsey co-founded Square (later rebrands to Block) in 2009 with Jim McKelvey. The company later launched its first platform in 2010 with a focus on in-person payments and its namesake card reader, which let people accept credit card payments on a smartphone. The San Francisco-based Square has since added a peer-to-peer digital banking app and small business lending received a bank charter and begun offering crypto and stock trading.
Below is a summary of the Hindenburg report.
- Block Inc., formerly known as Square Inc., is a $44 billion market cap company that claims to have developed a “frictionless” and “magical” financial technology with a mission to empower the “unbanked” and the “underbanked”.
- Our 2-year investigation has concluded that Block has systematically taken advantage of the demographics it claims to be helping. The “magic” behind Block’s business has not been disruptive innovation, but rather the company’s willingness to facilitate fraud against consumers and the government, avoid regulation, dress up predatory loans and fees as revolutionary technology, and mislead investors with inflated metrics.
- Our research involved dozens of interviews with former employees, partners, and industry experts, extensive review of regulatory and litigation records, and FOIA and public records requests.
- Most analysts are excited about the post-pandemic surge of Block’s Cash App platform, with expectations that its 51 million monthly transacting active users and low customer acquisition costs will drive high margin growth and serve as a future platform to offer new products.
- Our research indicates, however, that Block has wildly overstated its genuine user counts and has understated its customer acquisition costs. Former employees estimated that 40%-75% of accounts they reviewed were fake, involved in fraud, or were additional accounts tied to a single individual.
- Core to the issue is that Block has embraced one traditionally very “underbanked” segment of the population: criminals. The company’s “Wild West” approach to compliance made it easy for bad actors to mass-create accounts for identity fraud and other scams, then extract stolen funds quickly.
- Even when users were caught engaging in fraud or other prohibited activity, Block blacklisted the account without banning the user. A former customer service rep shared screenshots showing how blacklisted accounts were regularly associated with dozens or hundreds of other active accounts suspected of fraud. This phenomenon of allowing blacklisted users was so common that rappers bragged about it in hip hop songs.
- Block obfuscates how many individuals are on the Cash App platform by reporting misleading “transacting active” metrics filled with fake and duplicate accounts. Block can and should clarify to investors an estimate on how many unique people actually use Cash App.
- CEO Jack Dorsey has publicly touted how Cash App is mentioned in hundreds of hip hop songs as evidence of its mainstream appeal. A review of those songs show that the artists are not generally rapping about Cash App’s smooth user interface—many describe using it to scam, traffic drugs or even pay for murder. [See our compilation video on this here]
- “I paid them hitters through Cash App”— Block paid to promote a video for a song called “Cash App” which described paying contract killers through the app. The song’s artist was later arrested for attempted murder.
- Cash App was also cited “by far” as the top app used in reported U.S. sex trafficking, according to a leading non-profit organization. Multiple Department of Justice complaints outline how Cash App has been used to facilitate sex trafficking, including sex trafficking of minors.
- There is even a gang named after Cash App: In 2021, Baltimore authorities charged members of the “Cash App” gang with distribution of fentanyl in a West Baltimore neighborhood, according to news reports and criminal records.
- Beyond facilitating payments for criminal activity, the platform has been overrun with scam accounts and fake users, according to numerous interviews with former employees.
- Examples of obvious distortions abound: “Jack Dorsey” has multiple fake accounts, including some that appear aimed at scamming Cash App users. “Elon Musk” and “Donald Trump” have dozens.
- To test this, we turned our accounts into “Donald Trump” and “Elon Musk” and were easily able to send and receive money. We ordered a Cash Card under our obviously fake Donald Trump account, checking to see if Cash App’s compliance would take issue—the card promptly arrived in the mail.
- Former employees described how Cash App suppressed internal concerns and ignored user pleas for help as criminal activity and fraud ran rampant on its platform. This appeared to be an effort to grow Cash App’s user base by strategically disregarding Anti Money Laundering (AML) rules.
- The COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide lockdowns posed an existential threat to Block’s key driver of gross profit at the time, merchant services.
- In this environment, amid Cash App’s anti-compliance free-for-all, the app facilitated a massive wave of government COVID-relief payments. CEO Jack Dorsey Tweeted that users could get government payments through Cash App “immediately” with “no bank account needed” due to its frictionless technology.
- Within weeks of Cash App accounts receiving their first government payments, states were seeking to claw back suspected fraudulent payments—Washington State wanted more than $200 million back from payment processors while Arizona sought to recover $500 million, former employees told us.
- Once again, the signs were hard to miss. Rapper “Nuke Bizzle”, made a popular music video about committing COVID fraud. Several weeks later, he was arrested and eventually convicted for committing COVID fraud. The only payment provider mentioned in the indictment was Cash App, which was used to facilitate the fraudulent payments.
- We filed public records requests to learn more about Block’s role in facilitating pandemic relief fraud and received answers from several states.
- Massachusetts sought to claw back over 69,000 unemployment payments from Cash App accounts just four months into the pandemic. Suspect transactions at Cash App’s partner bank were disproportionate, exceeding major banks like JP Morgan and Wells Fargo, despite the latter banks having 4x-5x as many deposit accounts.
- In Ohio, Cash App’s partner bank had 8x the suspect pandemic-related unemployment payments as the bank that processed the most unemployment claims in the state, even though the latter bank processed 2x the claims as Cash App’s, according to data we obtained via a public records request.
- The data shows that compared to its Ohio competitor, Cash App’s partner bank had nearly 10x the number of applicants who applied for benefits through a bank account used by another claimant – a clear red flag of fraud.
- Block had obvious compliance lapses that made fraud easy, such as permitting single accounts to receive unemployment payments on behalf of multiple individuals from various states and ineffective address verification.
- In an apparent effort to preserve its growth engine, Cash App ignored internal employee concerns, along with warnings from the Secret Service, the U.S. Department of Labor OIG, FinCEN, and State Regulators which all specifically flagged the issue of multiple COVID relief payments going to the same account as an obvious sign of fraud.
- Block reported a pandemic surge in user counts and revenue, ignoring the contribution of widespread fraudulent accounts and payments. The new business provided a sharp one-time increase to Block’s stock, which rose 639% in 18 months during the pandemic.
- As Block’s stock soared on the back of its facilitation of fraud, co-founders Jack Dorsey and James McKelvey collectively sold over $1 billion of stock during the pandemic. Other executives, including CFO Amrita Ahuja and the lead manager for Cash App Brian Grassadonia, also dumped millions of dollars in stock.
- With its influx of pandemic Cash App users, our research shows Block has quietly fueled its profitability by avoiding a key banking regulation meant to protect merchants. “Interchange fees” are fees charged to merchants for accepting use of various payment cards.
- Congress passed a law that legally caps “interchange fees” charged by large banks that have over $10 billion in assets. Despite having $31 billion in assets, Block avoids these regulations by routing payments through a small bank and gouging merchants with elevated fees.
- Block includes only a single vague reference in its filings acknowledging it earns revenue from “interchange fees”. It has never revealed the full economics of this category, yet roughly one-third of Cash App’s revenue came from this opaque source, according to a 2022 Credit Suisse research report.
- Competitor PayPal has disclosed it is under investigation by both the SEC and the CFPB over its similar use of a small bank to avoid “interchange fee” caps. A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request we filed with the SEC indicates that Block may be part of a similar investigation.
- Block’s $29 billion deal to acquire ‘buy now pay later’ (BNPL) service Afterpay closed in January 2022. Afterpay has been celebrated by Block as a major financial innovation, allowing users to buy things like a pair of shoes or a t-shirt and pay over time, only incurring massive fees if subsequent payments are late.
- Afterpay was designed in a way that avoided responsible lending rules in its native Australia, extending a form of credit to users without income verification or credit checks. The service doesn’t technically charge “interest”, but late fees can reach APR equivalents as high as 289%.
- The acquisition is flopping. In 2022, the year Afterpay was acquired, it lost $357 million, accelerating from 2021 losses of $184 million.
- Fitch Ratings reported that Afterpay delinquencies through March 2022 had more than doubled to 4.1%, from 1.7% in June 2021 (just prior to the announced acquisition). Total processing volume declined -4.8% from the previous year.
- Block regularly hypes other mundane or predatory sources of revenue as technological breakthroughs. Roughly 31% of Cash App’s revenue comes from “instant deposit” which Block says it pioneered and works as if by “magic”. Every other major competitor we checked provides a similar service at comparable or better rates.
- On a purely fundamental basis, even before factoring in the findings of our investigation, we see downside of between 65% to 75% in Block shares. Block reported a 1% year over year revenue decline and a GAAP loss of $540.7 million in 2022. Analysts have future expectations of GAAP unprofitability and the company has warned it may not be profitable.
- Despite this, Block is valued like a profitable growth company at (i) an EV/EBITDA multiple of 60x; (ii) a forward 2023 “adjusted” earnings multiple of 41x; and (iii) a price to tangible book ratio of 13.1x, all wildly out of line with fintech peers.
- Despite its current rich multiples, Block is also facing threats from key competitors like Zelle, Venmo/Paypal and fast-growing payment solutions from smartphone powerhouses like Apple and Google. Apple has grown Apple Pay activations from 20% in 2017 to over 70% in 2022 and now leads in digital wallet market share.
- In sum, we think Block has misled investors on key metrics, and embraced predatory offerings and compliance worst-practices in order to fuel growth and profit from facilitation of fraud against consumers and the government.
- We also believe Jack Dorsey has built an empire—and amassed a $5 billion personal fortune—professing to care deeply about the demographics he is taking advantage of. With Dorsey and top executives already having sold over $1 billion in equity on Block’s meteoric pandemic run higher, they have ensured they will be fine, regardless of the outcome for everyone else.
Initial Disclosure: After extensive research, we have taken a short position in shares of Block, Inc. (NYSE: SQ). This report represents our opinion, and we encourage every reader to do their own due diligence. Please see our full disclaimer at the bottom of the report.