So you’re looking for a couple of hard-to-find tickets to that “gotta see” sporting event or concert. You find them listed for sale on Craigslist. The price is reasonable, but the seller requires you wire the money using either Western Union or MoneyGram.
A warning light immediately flashes in your brain. Where’s the safety and security in that? Maybe the tickets aren’t real and it’s a scam.
And you’d probably be right.
“Wire transfers continue to be the most frequently reported method for fraud, with a reported aggregate loss of $423 million,” reports the Federal Trade Commission in its 2018 Data Book.
Now, rewind the scenario. Same tickets. Same price. Only this time the seller requests being paid using Zelle.
The seller texts back explaining Zelle is a digital payment system which lets you instantly transfer payments from your bank account to his only using each other’s email address or mobile phone number. No bank accounts are needed and there are no fees. More than 100 financial institutions participate.
Still skeptical, you check out his claim by going online and signing in to your account. Sure enough, the seller is correct. Zelle is offered by your bank, which explains it’s a secure and easy way to send or receive money fast. Like getting paid back for last night’s dinner or sending your sister your share of cab fare.
Now assured, you quickly enroll and send the ticket seller the money using his provided email address. No flashing warning lights this time. You confidently wait for the tickets. But they never come.
The seller stole your cash. And worse? You have no recourse.
“What consumers don’t realize is that Zelle is actually more like Venmo than PayPal — meaning it’s only meant to be used for peer-to-peer digital payments with people you trust, like friends and family,” explains techcrunch.com.
“If a consumer doesn’t know the person or aren’t sure they will get what they paid for (for example, items bought from an online bidding or sales site), we recommend they do not use Zelle for these types of transactions, which are potentially high risk,” said Early Warning Services, the network operator behind Zelle, in a prepared statement.
That means so long as you knowingly send or request money to or from anyone using Zelle — even a crook — your financial institution offers no protection. And depending on the institution, any offered zero liability protection only applies to UNAUTHORIZED transactions, like a crook gaining access into your account.
However, these important liability details are normally found in the financial institution’s “fine print” under its terms and conditions.
And who looks at that?
“Scammers know people aren’t aware of this because Zelle is new,” warns techcrunch.com. “They also know that people will choose to trust Zelle because it’s backed by their bank and because it’s a feature within their bank’s own app.”
My concern is that Zelle users — especially seniors — will assume their bank has their back if anything goes wrong.
“Because it’s already built into several mobile banking services, it’s appealing across generations and tech skill levels,” writes money.com. (That) makes it effortless for, say, your grandma to give you a few bucks for your birthday.”
If you believe you’ve sent a payment using Zelle to a recipient who’s perpetrating a fraud, Zelle says immediately report it to your financial institution. If caught in time, Zelle might be able to reverse the transfer.
But don’t count on it.
The scammer can quickly close their account or assumes the financial institution won’t even initiate an investigation since it’s not liable.
The takeaway here? Whether it’s Zelle, Venmo, Cash App, Western Union, MoneyGram, a debit card, a check, or pre-paid debit or gift card, never send funds to someone you don’t know and — most importantly — trust.
The only way to do that with some degree of protection is to use a credit card.
David Morris is the Sun’s consumer advocate. Contact him c/o the Sun, 23170 Harborview Road, Charlotte Harbor, FL 33980; email email@example.com; or leave a message at 941-206-1114.