Warren Calls Out Zelle for Scam Uptick as Banks Push Back — Protect Transactions in 3 Ways

US Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on annual oversight of the largest banks of the United States, Washington, Usa - 22 Sep 2022
MICHAEL REYNOLDS / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock.com

A battle is brewing between lawmakers and banking lobbyists over scams involving Zelle, the popular payment platform used by tens of millions of consumers and thousands of financial institutions. How it plays out could impact the way fraud victims are reimbursed by banks.

On one side is U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has sounded the alarm about fraud associated with Zelle and is pushing for stricter regulation of peer-to-peer payment services. On the other side is the American Banking Association (ABA), which claimed it’s all much ado about very little.

In an Oct. 3 report, the Warren office said Zelle “is a preferred tool of fraudsters and bad actors” who abuse the platform’s “instantaneous, easy-to-exploit transfers” to defraud consumers. The report also found that large banks with partial ownership of Zelle have been slow to compensate customers who have been victims of fraud or scams.

Zelle is a subsidiary of Early Warning Services LLC, a fintech company jointly owned by seven major U.S. banks: JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, PNC Financial, Truist, Bank of America, Capital One and U.S. Bank.

“Banks are not repaying the vast majority of cases where customers were fraudulently induced into making payments on Zelle,” Warren’s report said. “Overall, four banks reported 192,878 cases of scams — cases where customers reported being fraudulently induced into making payments on Zelle — involving over $213.8 million of payments in 2021 and the first half of 2022. In the vast majority of these cases, the banks did not repay the customers that were defrauded.”

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Under the federal Electronic Fund Transfer Act, banks are required to repay customers when funds are illegally taken out of their accounts without authorization, Yahoo Finance reported. To help cut down on fraud, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been investigating Zelle and other payment platforms, and is expected to issue regulations that might require banks to reimburse customers for a wider mix of scams and fraud.

The ABA and other financial trade associations were quick to respond to Warren’s report. On Monday, the ABA Banking Journal released its own report saying that Warren “fails to acknowledge that 99.9% of the five billion transactions processed on the Zelle network in the past five years were sent without any report of fraud or scams.”

The ABA specifically criticized Warren’s desire to change the CFPB’s Regulation E, which requires banks to repay customers when funds are illegally taken out of their accounts without authorization. Under Warren’s plan, Regulation E would expand the current liability framework for banks.

Doing so “would force Zelle providers to either scale back Zelle’s popular instant P2P services given the financial risk, possibly limit the instantaneous features or impose fees to recover their additional costs,” the ABA warned.

No matter how the brouhaha plays out, there are steps you can take to avoid being scammed or defrauded on Zelle. Here are three of them:

  1. Be wary of phone calls from people posing as banking professionals in order to trick you into giving your personal information. Banks will never call consumers for personal information unless you initiated the process yourself.
  2. Only send money to people you know. Never respond to third-party ads or promotions requesting that you send money through a payment platform or app.
  3. Maximize your safety settings by enabling multifactor authentication, which requires a second or third step to verify your account when you log onto a device.
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