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Fighting online fraud in real time

by Jennifer Johnson,

Elisa Ahern

With the explosion of online spending during the pandemic — as well as fake accounts — the pressure is on for businesses to distinguish good customers from the bad. 

At digital verification company Ekata, Elisa Ahern ’15 can help clients fight fraud in real time.

Recently acquired by Mastercard, Ekata flags risky transactions via metadata and machine learning scores that behave similar to a credit score. 

A business can send in information such as a name, IP address, email and phone number as a data packet to Ekata, which runs it through a software interface that gauges the risk level of that data — does the email match the name? How many times has this phone number been used in Ekata’s network? — then returns its responses back to the business to approve or reject the transaction. 

Ahern translates the results of these complex products to clients and internal audiences in a role she describes as a “customer-facing data scientist.” Her clients range from small businesses to major companies as the need for online fraud prevention continues to grow, especially among marketplaces whose brand integrity relies on a seamless account setup or qualified sellers. And sometimes they need help fast. 

After a major fraud attack caused one well-known marketplace to lose money by the minute, Ahern turned a normally months-long process into one that lasted 10 days — and closed a large sales contract in the process. 

It’s the perfect job for her, she said, as it makes use of her social skills and technical knowledge of Python and SQL.  

“You get to go on customer calls, meet with a lot of big companies that need solutions, and help them quantify their problem,” she said. “I never knew this role existed and I could have never predicted that this is where I would end up.” 

From physics classes to data jobs

A physics major at Willamette University, Ahern focused on a well-rounded education, balancing her interest in science and math with sports and German

Language classes introduced her to Associate Professor Aili Zheng, who led her to a Fulbright scholarship in Frankfurt after she graduated from Willamette. Then she was off to the University of Oregon for a master’s degree in bioinformatics — genetics fascinated her — and after graduate school, moved home to Seattle to start the job hunt. 

One lesson she learned at Willamette became particularly useful for interviews. Despite the relatively challenging subjects she’d tackled, none proved as difficult as her freshman year sculpture class. 

She was no artist, she said, and her fingers were covered in blisters as she tried to build sculptures in a class that tested her perfectionist nature. But working on something she wasn’t innately talented at was not only important for her future career, it was a great growing experience, she said. 

“It forced me to look at the world in a different way and I met a lot of people I’d never meet otherwise. And for the record, I somehow got an A-minus in that class,” she laughed.   

Anecdotes like these gave her confidence in interviews through repetition and practice, and she soon landed a hybrid job as the sole revenue data scientist for Seabourn Cruise Line, a brand owned by the Carnival Corporation. 

Primarily responsible for building an optimizer for the brand’s ticket pricing, Ahern’s role expanded to involvement with its marketing, business operations and a bit of everything else. She was intimidated — this was her first job, she knew nothing about business and she was the only technical person on the team — but she worked through her discomfort, retaught herself SQL and embraced new skills.  

The role also set her up for an opportunity at pet service, “a startup within a startup” where Ahern worked with data scientists, business stakeholders and marketers to determine future investment projects in Canada. But the pandemic hit and Rover reduced its workforce, sending Ahern on the job hunt again. 

This time, her future boss found her on LinkedIn — both were Fulbright recipients — and now she’s in a job she loves. Down the road, she’s considering mentoring or possibly management, whether it’s at Ekata or another company. 

“You never know what’s going to happen, but I’m extremely happy where I’m at,” she said.  

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