Can You Trust Zelle?

By Robert McGarvey

 

Big banks have rushed to embrace Zelle – the new breed person to person payment tool – and credit unions too are joining the queue.

And now there is news about rising rates of fraud and criminality involving Zelle.

Time for a rethink?

First off, why Zelle?  Part of the answer is in the immensity of its primary backers, such as Chase, Bank of America, Citi, Capital One, Wells Fargo, USAA, and a handful of credit unions including BECU, First Tech, Schools First, Star One. Many more institutions – credit unions included – are in the queue to go live.

Zelle makes it very easy to send money to anyone with an email account or mobile phone number and a bank account.  No Zelle account is needed.

Some years ago I tried an experiment where I sent small payments to people using services such as Dwolla and the redemption rate was about zero. People asked me if I’d been co-opted by Nigerian scammers.  They just did not want to pick up money involving a service they hadn’t heard of.

Zelle is hard to not have heard of. A lot of TV ads and digital ads support it.

And then there’s how easy it is to get the cash.

Consider this a death warning to legacy but clunky services such as PopMoney.

But the trigger that launched Zelle was the PayPal fueled fire around Venmo which, out of nowhere, had emerged as the p2p tool of choice.  Bankers had snorted at tools like PopMoney but Venmo was different – users liked it, it had fintech heritage, and suddenly p2p was gaining the kind of enthusiasm many had predicted for it but that had stubbornly not materialized.

Bankers decided they needed their own weapon and thus Zelle, which in 2017 moved an estimated $75 billion, twice as much as Venmo, and the scariest bit is that this is plainly early days for Zelle.  Thought of a trillion dollar market is not far-fetched. Pymnts offered this dazzling buffet of Zelle stats: “Earlier this year, Zelle revealed that on average, close to 100,000 customers signed up each day for 2017. It also said it processed more than 247 million payments last year, which marks a 45 percent jump from 2016. It handled a total of $75 billion in peer-to-peer (P2P) payments in 2017, a significant increase from the $55 billion it made the year before.”

And now there are the stories about Zelle as a platform for fraudsters. The New York Times dropped the biggest bomb in a piece that began this way: “Big banks are making it easy to zap money to your friends. Maybe too easy.”

The Times continued: “Interviews with more than two dozen customers who had their money stolen through Zelle illustrate the weaknesses that criminals are using in targeting the network. While all financial systems are susceptible to fraud, aspects of Zelle’s design, like not always notifying customers when money is transferred — some banks do; others don’t — have contributed to the system’s vulnerability.”

Time to re-think Zelle? Not so fast.  Three years ago I wrote a piece for The Street headlined: “Are Peer-to-Peer Money Transfer Apps Unsafe to Use? Worries Focus on Venmo.”

The story started this way: “The Internet has been abuzz for a couple weeks with chatter about documented cases of theft of money from accounts of users of Venmo, the p2p (peer-to-peer) money transfer app that had been the the fast growing darling of Millennials.

One user, in a story reported in Slate, had $2,850 looted from a Chase checking account.”

Sound familiar? Indeed, it sounds exactly like the Zelle growing pains.  Regarding Venmo back then, PayPal told me they had moved fast to put in more security. File this under problem solved was their message.

Similar is getting said about Zelle.  Lou Anne Alexander, head of payments at Early Warning which runs Zelle, told the New York Times: “When there is a problem, we and the banks are proactive. It’s not something we’re putting our heads in the sand about.”

A lot is riding on Zelle for the banks and credit unions that embrace it.

There’s no present reason for a financial institution to panic about Zelle. If fraud reports continue and multiply, by all means, get worried. But for now this all sounds like growing pains and there are enough grown ups in the room to put in the needed fixes.

Color me optimistic.

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