As Banks Start Nosing Around Facebook and Twitter, the Wrong Friends Might Just Sink Your Credit

Pay up, or we'll spam your newsfeed!

Can't pay? Well, what about your friends?

Let’s take a trip with the Ghost of Christmas Future. The year is 2016, and George Bailey, a former banker, now a part-time consultant, is looking for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage for a co-op in the super-hot neighborhood of Bedford Falls (BeFa). He has never missed a loan payment and has zero credit card debt. He submits his information to the online-only, but halfway through the application process, the website asks for his Facebook login. Then his Twitter. Then LinkedIn. The cartoon loan officer avatar begins to frown as the algorithm discovers Mr. Bailey’s taxi-driving buddy Ernie was once turned down by PotterBank for a loan; then it starts browsing his daughter Zuzu’s photo album, “Saturday Nite!” And what was this tweet from a few years back: “FML, about to jump off a goddamn bridge”?

A new wave of startups is working on algorithms gathering data for banks from the web of associations on the internet known as “the social graph,” in which people are “nodes” connected to each other by “edges.” Banks are already using social media to befriend their customers, and increasingly, their customers’ friends. The specifics are still shaking out, but the gist is that eventually, social media will account for at least the tippy-top of the mountain of data banks keep on their customers.

“There is this concept of ‘birds of a feather flock together,’” said Ken Lin, CEO of the San Francisco-based credit scoring startup Credit Karma. “If you are a profitable customer for a bank, it suggests that a lot of your friends are going to be the same credit profile. So they’ll look through the social network and see if they can identify your friends online and then maybe they send more marketing to them. That definitely exists today.”

And in the last year or so, financial institutions have started exploring ways to use data from Facebook, Twitter and other networks to round out an individual borrower’s risk profile—although most entrepreneurs working on the problem say the technology is three to five years away from mainstream adoption.

“Credit score is a lagging indicator,” said Brett King, a tall, puffy Australian with white blond hair who is the founder of the online-only bank Movenbank and author of BANK 2.0: How Customer Behavior and Technology Will Change the Future of Financial Services. “At best, your credit score is about 60 days behind. What we’re trying to do is look for things that reflect the likelihood of a future default, rather than what’s happened in the past.”

Movenbank is an online bank in private alpha release that replaces plastic credit and debit cards with a mobile device such as an iPad or smartphone. Mr. King is a major proponent of the questionable young science of using social media to evaluate creditworthiness.

When it comes to online privacy, Mr. King subscribes to the Mark Zuckerberg school of thought: standards are evolving, and the world will be better for it. (As long as you’re connecting and sharing, only good things can happen to you!) “Our view of what ‘private’ is, is changing,” Mr. King said. “We make friends with people we barely know!”

He predicts that banks will soon start asking customers to verify their social media profiles. Not everyone has a social media presence, of course, so submitting your Twitter handle will first be pitched as a way to provide customer support or account alerts, which will later open the door for “more complex products,” Mr. King said.

Employers have already started using social media to evaluate potential candidates, and in 2009 a woman in Quebec stopped receiving disability payments for major depression after Manulife decided, based on beach vacation photos on Facebook, that she seemed happy enough to work after all. “I’m sure that insurers now are looking at Facebook profiles and saying, ‘You’ve said you’re not a smoker? Well how come in three of these ten photos where you’re out with friends, you’re smoking?’” Mr. King said.

That means that tweet, “Just got fired, man. Spending my severance at the bar!” may have been ill-considered.

Mr. King is especially interested in identifying customers who can evangelize the service to a sizable crowd of cloud-friends. Movenbank requires users to connect their Facebook accounts upon registering, data from which will be baked into a proprietary “CRED” score, a number that determines which rates and products are available. The exact recipe is still being written, but eventually Movenbank will boost your CRED as you hook it up to your accounts on Twitter, LinkedIn and even eBay, which calculates a reputation score based on buyer feedback. It’s not the only metric, Mr. King said, but a strong Twitter presence could tip the scale in favor of a marginally risky borrower.

Much of this is driven by enterprising techies looking for the next big sector of the economy to disrupt with a social twist. Back in July, the 34-year-old internet pundit, angel investor and startup entrepreneur Kevin Rose, best known as the founder of Digg, sat down in front of his webcam in a t-shirt and baseball cap to talk to the internet about credit cards. “This might be potentially the dumbest, least-vetted idea I’ve ever put out there,” he said. “What if we could make credit cards a little more social?”

Mr. Rose was just spitballing, and his idea seemed innocuous enough. But there’s a nightmare scenario: if banks learn how to use social media, they could gather information they aren’t allowed to ask for on a credit application—including race, marital status and receipt of public assistance—or worse, to redline segments of the social graph.

In other words: choose your online friends wisely, for they may one day determine your APR.

As Banks Start Nosing Around Facebook and Twitter, the Wrong Friends Might Just Sink Your Credit