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A firewall against online scams, wherever they come from

Ask Silver is starting with a handy WhatsApp chatbot

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When I was introduced to today’s startup, I thought ‘helping the elderly avoid scams’ was quite a small idea in the grand scheme of things.

But Ask Silver changed my mind when I spoke to them. Scroll down to read all about what they’ve done so far, and where they’re going.

But first:

  • A couple of accelerator application deadlines are coming up… on the same day.

  • Both Baltic Ventures (based in Liverpool but open to startups from anywhere) and the Turing Innovation Catalyst (aimed at A.I. startups in Greater Manchester) have their application deadlines on 31 May.

– Martin

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Ask Silver wants to be a firewall against scams, wherever they come from

Silver co-founders Alex Somervell and Jonny Pryn

In summary:

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The internet is a minefield of scams. Your phone’s SMS inbox might well be the same. Heck, scams can even come through your letterbox.

Ask Silver is a startup with the aim of becoming a kind of firewall for scams. While pitched as a solution for the elderly, it could be useful for anyone who just wants a quick sense-check on something they’ve received and a helping hand staying safe.

The longer-term goal is to build a suite of tools to block scams across channels such as messages, emails, phone calls, or web browsing. For now though, the startup has built an MVP in the form of a WhatsApp chatbot that allows anyone to check if something they’ve received is a scam.

Once you’ve added the chatbot to your contacts, you can pop it open any time and forward a message to it, or send it a screenshot, or even a photograph of a suspected scam.

The text of the suspected scam is then analysed and compared with a database of scams Ask Silver is building up. This also draws on information from the Financial Conduct Authority, and Google’s Safe Browsing API.

If the chatbot then finds a match, it will warn you to stay away. But even without a match, the chatbot can be useful. It analyses for spelling mistakes, suspicious URLs, as well as language that might be in line with manipulative behaviour, to identify something that might be a scam, even if it’s not been seen before.

Then, users can report a scam to the relevant authorities with a tap. As co-founder Alex Somervell explains, it can be hard for individuals to know exactly who needs to be notified of a particular scam, so Ask Silver automatically figures out where any report should go.

“This tool is built with accessibility in mind. Targeting the elderly, this has to be super simple,” says Somervell, explaining why Ask Silver has built its initial product to run inside the ubiquitous messaging app, WhatsApp. 

Here’s a brief walkthrough video Somervell has recorded:

The business model

While Ask Silver could try to charge end users, let’s be honest; not many people are going to want to pay for scam protection, no matter how useful it might be to them.

And so while the startup isn’t generating revenue yet, Somervell sees its greatest potential in building commercial relationships with financial institutions.

“The banks next year are likely going to be refunding billions of pounds to the consumer. And regulation is moving against the banks to force them to refund more and more. One of my family members lost almost £150,000 in scams, and £120,000 was refunded off the bank's balance sheet.”

Scale that kind of payout across the UK, or beyond, and it’s easy to see how banks could view paying for Ask Silver as a way of protecting their own revenue.

The story so far

Somervell and his fellow Ask Silver co-founder Jonny Pryn have been building businesses together for almost a decade.

Their first business, One Third Stories, was a subscription offering providing books designed to help children learn a new language. They sold that and launched a direct-to-consumer, personalised comic book business which Somervell says is still running in a completely automated fashion.

With ambitions to build something with greater scale and impact, the pair interviews elderly people and their families to identify pain points in their lives.

“We found time and time again, people talking about the challenges around finances, specifically scams and online banking. That really resonated with me, given my experience with my family member. We realised there was a problem there that needed to be solved.”

An example of uploading a screenshot to the Ask Silver WhatsApp chatbot

What’s next

With the WhatsApp chatbot now up and running, Ask Silver is talking to potential partners, such as charities and police forces

“We’re talking to organisations that have a vested interest in protecting their members or their customers. So we're looking at them being our distribution model, where we’ve built this free tool that they can give to their users for free,” says Somervell.

Planned next on the product roadmap is a tool built for a specific channel, such as phone calls, texts, or emails. Over time, this will be expanded to cover all channels.

Somervell says this will help Ask Silver build datasets to help the startup build a better ability to detect scams than anyone else.

“That becomes our flywheel. We’ll have the biggest, the most up-to-date database, which is a reason for customers to join, which in turn increases the size and the accuracy of that data.”

Read on for more on Ask Silver

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