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WhatsApp Spam Controls Being Bypassed by Software Tool During India Elections

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WhatsApp clones and software tools that cost as little as $14 (roughly Rs. 1,000) are helping Indian digital marketers and political activists bypass anti-spam restrictions set up by the world’s most popular messaging app, Reuters has found.

The activities highlight the challenges WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, faces in preventing abuse in India, its biggest market with more than 200 million users.

With fervent campaigning in India’s staggered general election, which concludes on May 19, the demand for such tools has surged, according to digital companies and sources in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its main rival, the Congress party.

After false messages on WhatsApp last year sparked mob lynchings in India, the company restricted forwarding of a message to only five users. The software tools appear to overcome those restrictions, allowing users to reach thousands of people at once.

Divya Spandana, the social media chief of the Congress, and the BJP’s IT head, Amit Malviya, did not respond requests for comment.

Rohitash Repswal, who owns a digital marketing business in a cramped, residential neighbourhood of New Delhi, said he ran a Rs. 1,000 ($14) piece of software round-the-clock in recent months to send up to 100,000 WhatsApp messages a day for two BJP members.

“Whatever WhatsApp does, there’s a workaround,” Repswal said during an interview at his small, two-bedroom house.

Reuters found WhatsApp was misused in at least three ways in India for political campaigning: free clone apps available online were used by some BJP and Congress workers to manually forward messages on a mass basis; software tools which allow users to automate delivery of WhatsApp messages; and some firms offering political workers the chance to go onto a website and send bulk WhatsApp messages from anonymous numbers.

Rohitash Repswal shows a software tool that appears to automate the process of sending messages to WhatsApp users

 

At least three software tools were available on Amazon.com’s India website. When purchased by a Reuters reporter, they arrived as compact discs tucked inside thin cardboard casings, with no company branding.

WhatsApp declined a Reuters request to allow testing such tools for reporting this story.

“We are continuing to step up our enforcement against imposter WhatsApp services and take legal action by sending cease and desist letters to hundreds of bulk messaging service providers to help curb abuse,” a spokeswoman said. “We do not want them to operate on our platform and we work to ban them”. 

WhatsApp clones
Modified versions of popular apps have become common as technically-savvy hobbyists have long reverse-engineered them. Tools purporting to bypass WhatsApp restrictions are advertised in videos and online forums aimed at users in Indonesia and Nigeria, both of which held major elections this year.

For Indian politicians, WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter are key campaigning tools to target the country’s near 900 million voters.

Two Congress sources and one BJP source told Reuters their workers used clone apps such as “GBWhatsApp” and “JTWhatsApp”, which allowed them to cut through WhatsApp’s restrictions.

Both apps have a green-colour interface that closely resembles WhatsApp and can be downloaded for free from dozens of technology blogs. They are not available on Google’s official app store but work on Android phones.

WhatsApp describes such apps as “unofficial” and says its users can face bans, which means the company can block the account associated with a particular mobile number if it detects unusual activity. Some Congress workers said they did not care.

“WhatsApp occasionally bans some of these numbers, but the volunteers would use new (mobile) sim cards to sign up,” said a Congress member with direct knowledge of the activities.

In Mumbai, a person in the social media team of a senior BJP candidate said no restrictions on JTWhatsApp meant his team could easily send forwards to up to 6,000 people a day, as well as video files containing political content which would be far bigger in size than allowed on the official WhatsApp service.

Reuters was not able to ascertain the overall scale of such activities and found no evidence that BJP and Congress leaders officially ordered workers to campaign this way.

“Business sender”
In New Delhi, digital marketer Repswal said he would typically charge Rs. 150,000 ($2,161) for a month’s service for creating digital content, providing a database of mobile numbers and then sending 300,000 WhatsApp messages.

He uses a piece of software named “Business Sender” which he said he also sells for Rs. 1,000 ($14).

A person can add many mobile numbers in a field and compose messages with pictures. Using a so-called “Group Contacts Grabber” feature, the user can also extract a list of mobile numbers from a particular WhatsApp group with a click of a button.

Repswal didn’t name the two BJP members he worked for, but in a demonstration for Reuters, added dozens of mobile numbers in the software, typed a test message saying “your vote is your right” and hit “send”. Then, his WhatsApp web version started delivering the messages almost robotically, one after the other.

Business Sender was “not supported or endorsed” by WhatsApp and was developed by “Tiger Vikram Mysore INDIA”, its system properties said.

A member of the software support team at Business Sender, Rajesh K., declined to identify the developer by his real name, but said the tool was designed in Lebanon about four months ago and takes advantage of what he called a “loophole” in WhatsApp’s system.

“This is not rocket science or fabricated software,” said Rajesh. “There are hundreds of such software available.”

In April, when a Reuters reporter responded to a text message with an “Election Special” offer of sending 100,000 “bulk WhatsApp” messages for Rs. 7,999 ($115), he was invited to an office in a dusty industrial area of Noida in northern Uttar Pradesh state.

“How many messages you want to send, tell us: 10,000, 1 million, 2 million,” a representative asked, while showing a black-coloured, password-protected website they use for sending bulk WhatsApp messages.

© Thomson Reuters 2019


We discussed what WhatsApp absolutely needs to do in 2019, on Orbital, our weekly technology podcast, which you can subscribe to via Apple Podcasts or RSS, download the episode, or just hit the play button below.

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Without a clear ask, your pitch deck is useless – TechCrunch

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You’ve brushed off your Keynote skills, you’re giddy that you’re finally going to be able to start paying yourself a living wage, and you are excited to start pitching your startup’s next round of funding to your investors. It’s heady times, for sure, but hit the other pedal there for a moment, friend — you may be forgetting something.

After working with hundreds of founders on raising money — including the fantastically popular Pitch Deck Teardown series here on TechCrunch+ — there’s one slide that almost every founder gets woefully wrong. The slide is often referred to as The Ask. Or, as one investor friend calls it, the “what is my $10 million going to buy me”? slide.


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The Ask is a sensitive topic to a lot of inexperienced entrepreneurs, which makes sense. Trying to right-size a funding round can be a little overwhelming, and there are a thousand different ways of building a startup. If you were successful in raising $8 million, you can do things one way. If you raised $12 million, you could perhaps launch more features of your product a little faster, or experiment more, or go after an additional market earlier. You know that. Your senior staff knows that. Your investors know that. But regardless, you need a Plan A.

What do those key metrics need to look like in order to raise not this round of funding, but your next one?

What do you need to do?

A lot of founders will tell you that they are trying to raise enough money to survive for the next 18 months. That’s probably true, but that will be true regardless of how much money you raise. A better approach is to think about what you need to accomplish to raise your next round of funding, and then work backward from there. This is probably a combination of metrics and milestones.

Metrics are the measurable parts of your business that grow and evolve over time. One of the best metrics you have is revenue, but there could be many others: the number of sales, average order value (AOV), monthly or annual recurring revenue (MRR or ARR, respectively), customer acquisition cost (CAC), customer lifetime value (LTV), daily and monthly active users (DAU and MAU), retention rate (usually expressed by its inverse, churn rate) and much more. What do those key metrics need to look like in order to raise not this round of funding, but your next one?

Milestones are also measurable parts of the business, but instead of tracking them over time, they tend to be binary: You’ve either hit a milestone or you haven’t. For startups, this could be key hires; finding the perfect, experienced CFO that can help take your company public is one major milestone a lot of companies at some point need to hit. Product launches (coming out of beta), launches in particular markets (launching only in California) and localization (launching your app in Spanish and French, for example) are also important milestones. Financial milestones are also common; the first time you make a single dollar from any customer is a huge shift in the business. When a customer, on average, starts to make you more money than it costs you to acquire them is another. For earlier-stage companies, completing a customer validation phase by talking to, say, 100 potential customers is a milestone.

When you’re raising money, you will be mapping out a set of milestones that you need to hit in order to validate your company. In addition, you’ll set a number of trigger points for metrics — hitting $1 million ARR, having 5,000 daily active users or finding a combination of customer acquisition channels that means you can acquire customers at a reasonable blended CAC, for example.

So let’s examine how to put together a great “ask” slide by ascertaining what it takes to determine how much you need to raise, how to create a specific set of goals and how to bring it all together in a coherent whole.

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Tracking Klarna’s plunging valuation – TechCrunch

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Welcome to The Interchange! If you received this in your inbox, thank you for signing up and your vote of confidence. If you’re reading this as a post on our site, sign up here so you can receive it directly in the future. Every week, I’ll take a look at the hottest fintech news of the previous week. This will include everything from funding rounds to trends to an analysis of a particular space to hot takes on a particular company or phenomenon. There’s a lot of fintech news out there and it’s my job to stay on top of it — and make sense of it — so you can stay in the know. — Mary Ann

A humbling time for Klarna

Welp, I had a whole other topic planned for my intro today and then the Klarna news hit.

In case you missed it, on July 1, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Swedish buy now, pay later behemoth and upstart bank is reportedly raising $650 million at a $6.5 billion valuation, giving new meaning to the phrase “down round.” The news was shocking, to say the least. Why, you ask? Well, in June of 2021, Klarna was valued at $45.6 billion after closing on a $639 million round of funding — making it the highest-valued private fintech in Europe at that time.

When Klarna confirmed that raise on June 10, 2021, CEO and founder Sebastian Siemiatkowski sat down with me (via Zoom) in an exclusive interview, detailing why he was so excited about the company’s “explosive growth” in the U.S. and how it planned to use its new capital in part to continue to grow there and globally. He also said that an IPO was still in its sights “but not anytime soon.” The company then had 18 million users in the U.S.

Fast-forward to 2022. As of February, Klarna had 23 million monthly active users in the U.S. and 147 million globally. It reported 32% higher revenue of $1.42 billion for 2021.

By May, Klarna had laid off 10% of its workforce, or 700 people.

As TC’s Romain Dillet reported, the company didn’t name a single reason for the layoffs. Instead, Siemiatkowski listed different macro and geopolitical factors that led to the decision.

“When we set our business plans for 2022 in the autumn of last year, it was a very different world than the one we are in today,” he said. “Since then, we have seen a tragic and unnecessary war in Ukraine unfold, a shift in consumer sentiment, a steep increase in inflation, a highly volatile stock market and a likely recession.”

Now the company could be slashing its valuation by an astounding 1/7 to $6.5 billion. Notably, Klarna has not confirmed this, but, startlingly, the projection for the company’s alleged latest funding round and new valuation has steadily declined in recent weeks. The Wall Street Journal reported on June 16 that Klarna was considering raising capital at a valuation of around $15 billion. Even that new figure represented both a dramatic decline from Klarna’s mid-2021 valuation of more than $45 billion and the $30 billion figure it was reported to be targeting earlier this year, as our own Alex Wilhelm noted here. So from $45 billion to $30 billion to $15 billion to $6.5 billion. It’s hard to imagine it going even more downhill from here.

It’s also important to note, though, that Klarna is not the only BNPL provider that has seen a decline in valuation. As another tech enthusiast tweeted on Friday, competitor Affirm’s stock is also down significantly. On July 1 alone, shares were down 5% to $17.13 at the time of my writing this at about 2:30 p.m. CT, giving Affirm a market cap of $4.9 billion. That’s down from a 52-week-high of $176.65. Ouch.

Image Credits: Twitter

Weekly News

Speaking of valuations, Alex examined how after financial technology startups saw their fortunes rise during the venture capital boom in 2021, they’re now suffering from a slump of a similar scale. The damage, he wrote, is not unidimensional. Instead, pain around the fintech sphere is varied and multifactorial.

The layoffs in fintech continue. Amount, a company that reached unicorn status last year, recently laid off 18% of its workforce. The exact number of how many people were affected is not known, but when TechCrunch reported on its last raise in May of 2021, the company said that it had 400 employees. If that is still the case, then about 72 people were let go. Amount was spun out of Avant — an online lender that has raised over $600 million in equity — in January of 2020 to provide enterprise software built specifically for the banking industry. It partners with banks and financial institutions to “rapidly digitize their financial infrastructure and compete in the retail lending and buy now, pay later sectors,” CEO Adam Hughes told TechCrunch last year.

The Federal Trade Commission is suing Walmart for sitting by while scammers bilked customers out of more than $197 million, the agency alleged in a statement. It’s seeking a court order that would force Walmart to give money back to customers, on top of civil fines. In a brief response, Walmart described the lawsuit as both “factually flawed and legally baseless.” Money transfer scams are widespread, and they can involve everything from promises to share an inheritance to lies about a family emergency. They happen just about everywhere, from Zelle, Venmo and Cash App to crypto ATMs and popular dating apps. In this case, the FTC alleges that Walmart “turned a blind eye to fraud” that went down inside its stores.

Robinhood made headlines three times over the past week. First, Taylor looked at how the stock trading and investing app was blindsided by the surge in interest from the first big “meme stock” after Redditors and other retail investors rallied around $GME and sent its price into the stratosphere. Jacqueline Melnik then addressed the rumors that FTX is looking to acquire Robinhood in this piece. And then Alex broke down for us why a crypto exchange might want to buy Robinhood in the first place.

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), less than 2% of financial institutions’ CEOs are women, and for executive board members the figure is less than 20%. Why does this matter? Apart from the obvious lack of opportunities for talented women, there are broader implications for business resilience as well as economic policy at national and international levels. Read more at Fintech Futures.

Cash App last week launched Round Ups, allowing customers to invest their spare change into a stock of their choice or bitcoin every time they use their Cash Card. Cash App said the product would allow Cash Card users “to seamlessly accumulate bitcoin and stock investments through everyday purchases.”

If you haven’t heard yet, there is a fintech conference on the water coming to San Diego, California, on August 10. Fintech Fest 1.0 is bridging together leaders from Brex, Encore Bank, Mastercard, Checkout.com, Figment, Sift and many others for business meetings and discussions on the largest boat on the West Coast. You can get 40% off ticket prices this week only.

Speaking of discounts, be sure to take advantage of this amazing deal. TechCrunch+ is having an Independence Day sale! Save 50% on an annual subscription here. More information here. And the two-for-one ticket to TechCrunch Disrupt sale will expire on July 5.

Funding and M&A

Seen on TechCrunch

Drive now, pay later: Startups make EVs more accessible by putting off the biggest bill

A look into how Conversion Capital plans to back early-stage fintech startups out of its new 6x larger fund

HomeLister wants to make selling your home more of a DIY affair, and cheaper

Brazilian motorcycle rental startup Mottu revs up with $40M to help more Latin Americans become couriers

Here’s Carta’s response to venture becoming more global

Sava, a spend management platform for African businesses, gets $2M pre-seed backing

And elsewhere

GoCardless goes after Plaid with Nordigen buy

Knox Financial to expand loan products with $50M in funding

Zilch draws $50M more funding to buck BNPL industry woes

That’s it for this week. For our readers in the U.S., I really hope you’re enjoying the long weekend and Happy Independence Day. And to all of you, have a wonderful week ahead. To borrow from my dear friend and colleague Natasha, you can support me by forwarding this newsletter to a friend or following me on Twitter. Xoxo, Mary Ann

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Equity crowdfunding appears immune to market volatility, on track for its best year yet – TechCrunch

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Equity crowdfunding — or community raises, as the fundraising platforms involved prefer to call it — has grown steadily over the last few years. Regulations governing the process continue to evolve in the market’s favor, and 2022’s venture funding pullback may be the final piece needed to quiet the fundraising strategy’s naysayers for good.

This year looks poised to be monumental for equity crowdfunding, which entails raising capital through specific filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, including Reg CF and Reg A, from a mix of investors that don’t have to be accredited.

Over the past few years, equity crowdfunding has shed much of the stigma that used to imply that only companies that weren’t good enough for VC raised this way. Some traditional VCs have even scouted on the platforms or encouraged their portfolio companies to pursue the process. But with the fundraising climate now showing cloudy skies, equity crowdfunding is getting ready for a field day.


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More than $215 million was invested in startups on equity crowdfunding platforms this year through the end of May, according to the Arora Project, a Republic-owned platform that curates crowdfunding initiatives and tracks data, up from around $200 million in the same period last year. Crowdfunding campaigns raised a total of $502 million in 2021.

While that isn’t too big of a leap, industry players are encouraged by the growth and see scope for more improvement later in the year, as crowdfunding typically sees an uptick around the fourth quarter.

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