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The multiplayer game Among Us has taken the world by storm. It’s been named the best mobile and multiplayer game of the 2020 Game Awards, and it spent months at the top of iOS, Android, and Steam download lists. It’s popular and fun, it’s a great way for friends to connect across distance, and surprisingly, it’s one of the best ways to learn how to minimize risks in the payment industry and underwrite merchants like a pro.

Among Us is a simple game, and on the surface, it has nothing to do with payment processing and everything to do with galactic conspiracy. Four to ten players act as cartoon workers on a spaceship, trying to keep it flying by performing simple tasks in different rooms. Hidden in their midst is an imposter (or two, or three) whose goal is to sabotage the ship and become the last person standing.

When non-imposters notice the imposter’s handiwork lying around, they can call a meeting to discuss evidence and vote for the person they think is the imposter. Anyone who gets enough votes is expelled through the airlock, whether or not they’re the imposter. If the imposters are all identified, then the regular workers win! Otherwise, the imposters take the day.

It’s free to play on mobile, or it can be purchased for just $5 on everything from your PC to the Xbox. While it’s beloved among kids, it’s an all-ages game, with adults playing it just as often.

Why has it become so popular recently? Probably because of the pandemic. Among Us offers a collaborative game that’s perfect for groups of friends to play together and relax when they can’t hang out in person.

But how does this all relate to merchant underwriting?

Merchant Underwriting: An Overview

At its core, merchant underwriting is the process of analyzing a merchant’s account application to decide whether they are capable of meeting the risk standards to start taking payments. The underwriting process helps banks and payment processors trust that the company will meet standards and accept payments appropriately.

Why is merchant underwriting critical for payment companies?

Payment companies have a unique product: money itself. The work of a payment company is to transfer money from buyers to sellers. During that transfer, the payment facilitator is responsible for making sure everyone gets what they’re owed. If you give a seller funds before you receive them from a buyer and something goes wrong, you’ve lost those funds, possibly for good.

Why merchant fraud is the biggest risk for payment companies

While one buyer can only cause a few minor losses before getting banned from your service, a deceptive merchant can cause problems several orders of magnitude larger.

For example, the famous Fyre Festival caused many payment processors huge problems in 2017. As reported in the Netflix documentary Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, this high-profile fraudulent music festival was eventually canceled. Few of the ticket-holders ever received a refund from the festival, so they disputed their credit card charges.

Normally, the merchant would then pay back the payment processor through additional sales, using the next money that came in to pass along to customers requesting refunds. However, since the festival was fraudulent, collecting the funds proved problematic. The payment processor or their acquiring bank were left holding the bill. They did the underwriting, so they took on that liability.

Software companies are becoming payment companies

Today, many software companies and online marketplaces have taken on the role of payment facilitation. These companies often process the payments on their own merchant account, known as a master merchant, and then pay the actual merchant, known as the sub-merchant, their amount minus some fees. That exposes these software companies to all the risks of a payment facilitator, and they need to act accordingly.

The Surprising Similarities Between Among Us Victors and Successful Merchant Underwriters

Among Us is all about finding the few fraudsters in a group. The same skills that go into successfully playing Among Us can give you some insight into the psychology of underwriting merchants safely. For example:

Both are games of deception

Among Us is a game of deception. Much like in the real world, the vast majority of people are honest and well-intentioned. The challenge is to find the very few who are deceptive and are here to harm you.

Fraud thrives when you’re not paying attention

In Among Us, players are completing routine tasks to keep their spaceship running smoothly. In real life, risk managers need to review reports, collect data, and attend meetings to keep the business running. In both cases, the impostors are always lurking in the background, waiting to take advantage of your inattention.

Impostors and fraudsters blend in

The impostors in Among Us blend in and even help the team complete tasks. Fraudulent merchants do the same. They know what a good merchant looks like, and they strive to look as legitimate as possible because they know their game ends when you expose them.

The false wisdom of crowds

In Among Us, the players get together between rounds and communicate to identify the impostors. In his 2004 New York Times best-selling book, The Wisdom Of Crowds, author James Surowiecki popularized the idea that a large group of people is collectively smarter than individual experts. In Among Us, collaboration and group input are key. However, it’s all too easy to sway the crowd to trust the wrong person if a few people get the wrong idea. In the real world, underwriters can fall victim to the same tendency. The best fraudsters act like everyone else and your group already trusts them, leaning on this as social proof that you can trust them too.

It’s easier to trick people you know

What’s easier or more fun than tricking those that you know best? Not much. Fraudsters know that and take advantage of prior relationships or take time to build a clean track record. Then, when you least expect it, the imposter sabotages half the crew, the fraudster makes off with millions, and there’s little you can do about it. Never get caught up in past trust to the point where you forget to do your due diligence.

The Most Fun You’ll Have Improving Your Underwriting Skills

So how can this game help you? Apply it in real life. The next time you interview a risk manager, don’t settle for simply asking about their prior accomplishments. Instead, ask them to play Among Us. Sit back, relax, and watch what unfolds. If they eliminate all the impostors and complete all of their tasks, show them to their new desk. But be warned that the game’s addictive — you might want to make a rule that no one plays on the clock.