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Venmo adds a check cashing feature, waives fees for stimulus checks

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Venmo this morning announced it will begin to offer a new check cashing service, “Cash a Check,” in the Venmo mobile app. The feature, which is being rolled out to select users starting today, can be used to cash printed, payroll and U.S. government checks, including the new stimulus checks, the company says. Though typically there will be fees associated with the Cash a Check feature, Venmo says these are being waived on stimulus funds for a limited time.

To be eligible to use Cash a Check, Venmo customers will need to have either Direct Deposit or a Venmo Debit Card enabled on their account, location services turned on, and a verified email address.

Customers who gain access to the feature will then be able take a picture of their endorsed check and send it to the Venmo app to review, much like they would if cashing a check in a mobile banking app. The check will be reviewed in a few seconds, though in special circumstances, the review may take several minutes or even up to an hour before the approval decision is made.

If approved, the money will be immediately transferred to the customer’s Venmo account.

Venmo will temporarily waive fees on stimulus checks rolling out now and over the next couple of weeks, but eventually 1% fees will apply to any government or payroll check cashed in the app with a pre-printed signature, with a minimum fee of $5.00. Other checks, including hand-signed payroll and government checks, will have a 5% check cashing fee, or $5.00 minimum, according to PayPal’s terms.

At launch, the Cash a Check service is provided by partners First Century Bank, N.A. and Ingo Money, Inc. Ingo Money already offers a similar feature to Venmo parent company, PayPal, to allow users to cash checks in the PayPal app. 

“We’re always looking for new ways to make it easier for our community to access and manage their money, especially as people continue to experience financial hardships amidst the global pandemic,” said Darrell Esch, Venmo SVP and GM, in a statement about the new service.

“We know that with health and safety top of mind for many, having a safe way to access stimulus payments is essential for many of our customers, especially those who are receiving paper checks and traditionally would have to visit a physical check-cashing location,” he said. “By introducing the Venmo Cash a Check feature, we are not only enabling our customers to access their money quickly and safely from the comfort of their own homes but are also waiving all fees for cashing government issued checks to ensure customers can use their stimulus funds to pay for the things they need most,” he added.

The company’s move into check cashing doesn’t make the peer-to-peer payment app an alternative to online banking, however. Instead, it serves largely as a way for Venmo to benefit from the influx of stimulus payments that are rolling out now to its U.S. users.

Fintech companies have been scrambling to prove their worth to customers by offering faster and easier access to stimulus payments. Banking startups like Current and Chime, for example, began sending out payments to customers ahead of other traditional banking institutions.

In addition, the stimulus funds can help boost Venmo’s bottom line beyond just the fees it charges. As Venmo users gain access to their stimulus payments or payroll in the app, they may then use that money to make transactions with online merchants or with their Venmo debit card. This transactions allow Venmo to make money through transaction fees, as well.

Venmo said the feature is rolling out now to mobile app users on iOS and Android. The company recommends users download the latest version of the app and updated to the latest operating system on their mobile device for the best performance.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Elon Musk says Tesla Semi is ready for production, but limited by battery cell output

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk said on the company’s 2020 Q4 earnings call that all engineering work is now complete on the Tesla Semi, the freight-hauling semi truck that the company is building with an all-electric powertrain. The company expects to begin deliveries of Tesla Semi this year, the company said in its Q4 earnings release, and Musk said the only thing limiting their ability to produce them now is the availability of battery cells.

“The main reason we have not accelerated new products – like for example Tesla Semi – is that we simply don’t have enough cells for it,” Musk said. “If we were to make the Semi right now, and we could easily go into production with the Semi right now, but we would not have enough cells for it.”

Musk added that the company does expect to have sufficient cell volume to meet its needs once it goes into production on its 4680 battery pack, which is a new custom cell design it created with a so-called ‘tables’ design that allows for greater energy density and therefore range.

“A Semi would use typically five times the number of cells that a car would use, but it would not sell for five times what a car would sell for, so it kind of would not make sense for us to do the Semi right now,” Musk said. “But it will absolutely make sense for us to do it as soon as we can address the cell production constraint.”

That constraint points to the same conclusion for the possibility of Tesla developing a van, Musk added, and the lifting of the constraint will likewise make it possible for Tesla to pursue the development of that category of vehicle, he said.

Tesla has big plans for “exponentially” ramping cell production, with a goal of having production capacity infrastructure in place for a Toal of 200 gigawatt hours per year by 2022, and a target of being able to actually produce around 40% of that by that year (with future process improvements generating additional gigawatt hours of cell capacity  in gradual improvements thereafter).

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Pro-Trump Twitter figure arrested for spreading vote-by-text disinformation in 2016

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The man behind a once-influential pro-Trump account is facing charges of election interference for allegedly disseminating voting disinformation on Twitter in 2016.

Federal prosecutors allege that Douglass Mackey, who used the name “Ricky Vaughn” on Twitter, encouraged people to cast their ballot via text or on social media, effectively tricking others into throwing away those votes.

According to the Justice Department, 4,900 unique phone numbers texted a phone number Mackey promoted in order to “vote by text.” BuzzFeed reported the vote-by-text scam at the time, noting that many of the images were photoshopped to look like official graphics from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Some of those images appeared to specifically target Black and Spanish-speaking Clinton supporters, a motive that tracks with the account’s track record of white supremacist and anti-Semitic content. The account was suspended in November 2016.

At the time, the mysterious account quickly gained traction in the political disinformation ecosystem. HuffPost revealed that the account was run by Mackey, the son of a lobbyist, two years later.

“… His talent for blending far-right propaganda with conservative messages on Twitter made him a key disseminator of extremist views to Republican voters and a central figure in the alt-right’ white supremacist movement that attached itself to Trump’s coattails,” HuffPost’s Luke O’Brien reported.

Mackey, a West Palm Beach resident, was taken into custody Wednesday in Florida.

“There is no place in public discourse for lies and misinformation to defraud citizens of their right to vote,” Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Seth D. DuCharme said.

“With Mackey’s arrest, we serve notice that those who would subvert the democratic process in this manner cannot rely on the cloak of Internet anonymity to evade responsibility for their crimes.”

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Tesla is willing to license Autopilot and has already had “preliminary discussions” about it with other automakers

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Tesla is open to licensing its software, including its Autopilot highly-automated driving technology, and the neural network training it has built to improve its autonomous driving technology. Tesla CEO Elon Musk revealed those considerations on the company’s Q4 earnings call on Wednesday, adding that the company has in fact already “had some preliminary discussions about licensing Autopilot to other OEMs.”

The company began rolling out its beta version of the so-called ‘full self-driving’ or FSD version of Autopilot late last year. The standard Autopilot features available in general release provide advanced driver assistance (ADAS) which provide essentially advanced cruise control capabilities designed primarily for use in highway commutes. Musk said on the call that he expects the company will seek to prove out its FSD capabilities before entering into any licensing agreements, if it does end up pursuing that path.

Musk noted that Tesla’s “philosophy is definitely not to create walled gardens” overall, and pointed out that the company is planning to allow other automakers to use its Supercharger networks, as well as its autonomy software. He characterized Tesla as “more than happy to license” those autonomous technologies to “other car companies,” in fact.

One key technical hurdle required to get to a point where Tesla’s technology is able to demonstrate true reliability far surpassing that of a standard human driver is transition the neural networks operating in the cars and providing them with the analysis that powers their perception engines is to transition those to video. That’s a full-stack transition across the system away from basing it around neural nets trained on single cameras and single frames.

To this end, the company has developed video labelling software that has had “a huge effect on the efficiency of labeling,” with the ultimate aim being enabling automatic labeling. Musk (who isn’t known for modesty around his company’s achievements, it should be said) noted that Tesla believes “it may be the best neural net training computer in the world by possibly an order of magnitude,” adding that it’s also “something we can offer potentially as a service.”

Training huge quantities of video data will help Tesla push the reliability of its software from 100% that of a human driver, to 200% and eventually to “2,000% better than the average human,” Musk said, while again suggesting that it won’t be a technological achievement the company is interested into keeping to themselves.

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