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The person-to-person payment service is easy to use – but its simplicity may also make it vulnerable to fraud. Here’s what you need to know
By Dana Dratch | Published: October 18, 2018
If your bank offers a peer-to-peer payment system, it’s probably called Zelle.
Developed and released last year by bank-owned consortium Early Warning Services, Zelle is the peer-to-peer system many banks have incorporated into their own branded apps. It was launched in June 2017 and has recently outpaced Venmo in the amount of cash moving through its network.
Zelle is very easy to use – but its simplicity may also make it more vulnerable to fraud.
If you already use Zelle or are considering it, here’s what you need to know.
See related: When did P2P payments become so ubiquitous?
1. What does Zelle do?
- Zelle lets you send or receive money from one person’s bank account to another individual’s bank account almost instantaneously.
- Both parties have to be enrolled in Zelle – but they don’t have to use the same bank.
2. How to send and receive money through Zelle
- To send either money or a request for money (a bill), you need the email address or phone number your recipient uses to identify their own Zelle account.
- Currently, Zelle is strictly for sending money between individuals.
- You can’t use it to shop online or in brick-and-mortar stores.
3. Where do you find Zelle?
- If your bank offers Zelle – more than 100 financial institutions are currently part of Zelle’s network – you can activate it through your bank’s app, enroll in Zelle and link it to a bank account or debit card.
- If your bank doesn’t offer it, you have the option of downloading the stand-alone Zelle app – available for iPhone and Android devices – and linking it to a debit card.
Banks are hoping Zelle takes some of the starch out of competing peer-to-peer payment systems, like Venmo.
And while Zelle has fewer users than Venmo, it’s moving more money. Consumers used Zelle to transfer more than $28 billion from April through June 2018, twice as much money as users sent on Venmo.
See related: How to send, receive money using Venmo
4. How much does it cost?
- If you access Zelle through a bank, that institution sets any fees. However, it’s free to enroll, to send and receive funds, and to send and receive requests with the vast majority of banks. Check any potential fees with your bank before starting using Zelle.
- If you use the standalone app, there are no fees for opening an account or for sending or receiving money or money requests.
5. How long does it take for a Zelle payment to arrive?
Zelle payments are often instantaneous. And that’s another good reason you want to verify all the information and double-check the amount before you send money.
Tip: Verify that a recipient’s phone number or email address isn’t just theirs, but is also the same one they use on their Zelle account. Since Zelle identifies users by phone numbers or email addresses, this acts as the unique identifier.
6. Is there a limit to how much money someone can Zelle?
That varies by bank, according to a Zelle representative. Individual banks set daily, weekly and monthly limits.
7. What happens if I accidentally send the wrong amount or send it to the wrong person?
“Today, the payment is irrevocable,” says Ackroyd. “Once that payment’s gone, you can’t get it back.”
As with many P2P payment systems, there’s no guaranteed way to retrieve money once it’s been sent through Zelle.
Not everyone agrees, however, that’s how it should be.
If a payment “goes to the wrong person, you have federal rights,” says Lauren Saunders, associate director for with the National Consumer Law Center. The same applies “if you send to the wrong person or the wrong amount,” she adds. “That is an error that is covered, and [the laws] do apply.”
Christina Tetreault, staff attorney with Consumers Union, agrees. “Is it clearly covered by the law? Yes,” she explains. However, providers aren’t always complying.
“We’ve seen that people complain about sending money to the wrong person, and there doesn’t seem to be a reliable way to get that money back,” Tetreault adds. “We think service providers should be helping consumers get that money back.”
Consumer advocates would also like to see additional layers or prompts to help consumers catch misdirected payments before they’re sent, she says.
In addition, some banks include steps in their send/request process for consumers to validate that users are sending money to the correct recipient.
Tip: Send a small amount – 50 cents or $1 – first, just to check the right person is receiving it, recommends Early Warning Services payment products director Chris Ackroyd.
- Double-check and make sure you’re sending it to the right person, says Steve Kenneally, senior vice president for payments and cybersecurity policy with the American Bankers Association. “Unfortunately, a lot of that responsibility comes back to the consumer.”
- If you do have a problem, raise a ruckus. “I would file a complaint with the CFPB [Consumer Financial Protection Bureau],” says Saunders, as well as the state attorney general’s office. “It’s really important that regulators are seeing the problem.” And in some cases, they can also help you fix those situations.
8. Is the money protected against loss, fraud and theft?
Yes and no.
- The Electronic Funds Transfer Act governs Zelle transactions. If your bank account is hacked, or someone you’ve never authorized uses Zelle to take money from you account, your bank should reimubirse you – as long as you report the loss promptly.
However, depending on the bank, you could be out the money for up to 10 days while the bank investigates. And if the bank decides you authorized the payment, your loss could be permanent.
Also, the law doesn’t necessarily protect you if your purchase is defective, a scam or not what was promised.
- When it comes to using Zelle to buy from people you don’t know for goods or services you haven’t yet received, an FAQ on Zelle’s website explains, “These transactions are potentially high risk. Neither Zelle nor the participating financial institutions offer a protection program for any purchase or sale conducted using Zelle.”
- Bottom line: Only use Zelle if you’ve already received the goods or services, and only with people you know and trust. And never give anyone else access to your Zelle account or your passwords.
See related: 3 major mobile payment security risks, and how to avoid them
9. What kind of security features does Zelle offer?
That depends on your bank. And this is where it pays to do some digging before you simply sign up and start using the system.
A New York Times article published April 2018 discovered security levels and options for Zelle varied widely from bank to bank, making the P2P system vulnerable to fraud.
- For instance, some institutions offer two-factor authentication to access money through Zelle, while others don’t.
- Some banks will alert consumers every time the Zelle account is used to send or receive money, or allow consumers to set alerts. Others don’t.
Consumer Reports recently examined five of the most popular P2P services – including Apple Pay and Venmo – and ranked them on a scale of 1 to 100. It gave Zelle’s standalone app a 50 (its lowest score), citing the need for better data security and data privacy.
The magazine also recommended instituting controls to make it more difficult for users to send payments to the wrong person.
Tip: It’s smart to ask your bank about their safeguards, alerts and policies for Zelle.
- What will they do if you goof and send money to the wrong person?
- Do they consider it fraud (and will they help you regain money), if promised goods or services are not provided?
- Do they offer two-factor authentication before someone can use Zelle to access your account?
- Will they alert you if someone uses Zelle to access your bank account?
- What additional safeguards can they offer you?
See related: How to choose a P2P payment service
11. Are Zelle transactions public?
No. Zelle transactions can only be seen by the sender, the recipient and their banks.
13. Do I need extra security?
If grabbing your phone equals accessing your bank account, it’s time to get serious about device security.
- Lock your phone, says ABA’s Kenneally. And set up the same safeguards you would with your online banking – username, unique password and hopefully a fingerprint password, he adds.
- Another smart move: Shorten the lock time on your phone and set a password or PIN to unlock it, says Eva Velasquez, president of the Identity Theft Resource Center. That way, a stranger who snags your phone will have less time to take your money, too.
Tetreault agrees with using fingerprints for verification. “With an app dealing with your money, that should be the default.”
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