20 Years of Fintech: How Far We’ve Come Since 2003


It can be difficult to pin down a birth year for fintech, but no matter how you look at it, our industry has come a long way. I was recently reminiscing and found a post published in 2003 by Finovate Founder Jim Bruene titled, The 10 Most Significant Innovations & Developments of 2003. These developments, Bruene said, “provide the best glimpse at the future of online financial services delivery.”

2003 was officially 20 years ago, which makes it a perfect benchmark. I’ve taken a look at the 10 developments and innovations that Bruene deemed “most significant” in 2003, and outlined some of fintech’s most recent updates and persistent struggles.

Phishing undermines trust (for now)

One of the original enemies to widespread adoption of online banking was phishing. In the last two weeks of December of 2003, one (now-defunct) organization had recorded 60 unique phishing attacks, sending an estimated 60 million fraudulent messages.

Those numbers don’t look so bad compared to today’s figures. The Anti-Phishing Working Group (APWG) recorded more than 14,000 phishing attacks per day in the third quarter of 2022, marking the worst quarter for phishing the organization has ever observed. However, while phishing persists, it hasn’t deterred the majority of users from adopting digital banking.

Banks move to boost security perceptions

In this section, Bruene referenced an increase in keylogging incidents, along with one bank’s efforts to circumvent keylogging attacks by adding a keypad on the screen to allow users to click the buttons to enter their PIN instead of typing on their keyboard. The bank also implemented a secondary password requirement.

While these workarounds likely mitigated some of the fraud, they simultaneously introduced more friction for end users. Today, many firms have implemented biometrics to eliminate keylogging. However, while biometrics may have gotten rid of keylogging attacks, the authentication method has not put an end to fraud.

Citibank launches interbank transfers (A2A)

Citibank added online interbank transfers in the fall of 2003, making it the first major U.S. bank to offer such a service. At the time, Citi tapped CashEdge (acquired by Fiserv in 2011 for $465 million) to power the transfers.

Today, of course, the industry doesn’t consider account-to-account transfers an innovation. Rather, the service is now considered table stakes for all banking service providers. What has changed are the rails. A handful of banks have started piloting using the blockchain to transfer funds, especially in the case of cross-border payments.

Press turns positive toward online banking and other online financial activities

Twenty years ago, the dot-com crash was still fresh in the minds of both investors and everyday consumers. According to Bruene, 2003 was a turning point as consumers began to embrace the conveniences and efficiencies of online banking.

Today, while we’re not recovering from a dot-com crash, we are still reeling from the FTX scandal that took place late last year. It is estimated that around $1 billion to $2 billion in consumer funds were lost after the digital crypto exchange failed. And while the event will not result in negative press about fintech in general, it has already soured the press and industry analysts on crypto.

Bank of America hits seven million users

As you may imagine, adoption of Bank of America’s digital banking looked vastly different in 2003. “Bank of America had as many online banking customers as all U.S. banks combined had five years ago (at year-end 1998),” said Bruene. “The bank’s 7 million active users account for 43% of its checking account base, and 22% of all households. Year-over-year growth was an impressive 50%, with 2.3 million new active users.”

Today, Bank of America serves 67 million retail and small business clients. Of those, 55 million use Bank of America’s digital banking services. In July of last year, those customers logged into their Bank of America accounts one billion times– a record number for the bank.

The decline of paper statements begins

While 2003 may have marked a decline in paper statements, it didn’t mark the beginning of the end. According to a 2017 Javelin Strategy & Research report, only 61% of checking account customers have committed to paperless statements. In the report, Javelin suggests that much of this is unintentional. “Consumers now reflexively reach for their smartphones in all aspects of their lives and banking is not an exception,” said Mark Schwanhausser, Director, Digital Banking at Javelin Strategy & Research. “The intent is not to take statements away from customers; it is to provide an alternative that convinces them that paper statements are as unnecessary and obsolete as a checkbook register.”

Banks redesign websites for Yahoo-like clarity

Of the ten developments on this list, this one is my favorite, and not only because of the use of Yahoo! as an example. Optimizing online user interfaces is a science, and by 2003, developers didn’t know as much as they do today about creating user-friendly services.

Today, the shining examples in tech have shifted from Yahoo! to the likes of Uber, Stripe, and Airbnb. And by now, most large firms’ digital experiences exhibit “Yahoo-like” clarity. Still, there will always be room for improving the user experience, especially as consumers become aware of new enabling technologies like open finance.

Real-time credit for remote deposits

In this section, Bruene applauded two FIs for offering consumers instant credit for mailed remote deposits. It baffles me to think about mailing in a paper check to deposit it. However, in a pre-smartphone era such as 2003, there weren’t many other options that didn’t require additional hardware or infrastructure.

Today, while consumers can deposit most checks via smartphone, the deposits still generally take two-to-three days to post in consumer accounts. As a bonus, most firms have discovered a way to turn remote deposits into a revenue generating opportunity by charging consumers for instant deposits into their accounts.

Identity Theft 911 provides a credible source to fight ID theft

Identity Theft 911 has a storied history. The company rebranded to CyberScout in 2017, was acquired by Sontiq in 2021, which was bought by TransUnion in late 2021. Regardless of the multiple transitions, all companies shared a similar mission. Today, TransUnion helps consumers build and grow their credit scores, offers credit alerts, fraud alerts, credit monitoring, and more.

What’s different about this industry today, however, is the number of competitors in the space. Many organizations offer free credit monitoring. Other, paid services offer monitoring and reporting from all three bureaus, identity theft insurance, and more.

Photo by Leeloo Thefirst