Bay Area users say Zelle lost their money

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You may be seeing the banking ads and billboards urging customers to use Zelle -- touted as the easiest way to send money to someone you know. (KGO-TV)

You may be seeing the banking ads and billboards urging customers to use Zelle -- touted as the easiest way to send money to someone you know.

All you do is type in the email or mobile phone number and your money is whisked away.

So easy....but is it too easy?

"If you fat finger it and type one tiny thing wrong, your money is gone,'' said Loni Frankland of Livermore, whose daughter Devin lost nearly $2,500 when she used Zelle on the Wells Fargo website to pay her first month's rent.

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Devin typed in the wrong email, swapping her landlord's first and last names. It sent her money to a complete stranger in Georgia, And she couldn't get it back.

"We notified the bank within 15 minutes and they said oh no problem wait ten days,'' Devin's mom said. "Ten days later the bank didn't know what we were talking about. And they said, 'we can't do anything, it was your mistake. Tough, you are outa luck."

Consumer advocates say the system is appealing because it's so easy and fast. But they say that's also what makes it potentially dangerous.

"It's a very risky form of payment,'' said Consumer Action's Joe Ridout. "Unlike other banking options, there is no two-factor authentication to make sure it's going to the right place. And once you send it, you don't have any recourse for a misguided payment, or any of the same protections under the law that you get with other payment options like credit cards or debit cards."

Zelle's terms of service explicitly say the service is not responsible for payments going to the wrong place due to incorrect information provided by the customer.

However, David Doney of Pacifica said he used Zelle on his Wells Fargo mobile app to pay a $500 rental deposit and typed in all the correct information. Still, his landlord never got the payment.

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"That sent me off on this path of trying to figure out where the money went,'' he said. After months of inquiries to the bank, Wells Fargo told him the money landed in a different person's account and the bank could not get it back out. Not only that, the bank said it was basically Doney's fault because "we relied on information provided by you" in sending the payment.

Doney had no recourse, even though he'd done everything correctly.

He and the Franklands came to 7 on your side for help.

Since then, ABC7 has received a half dozen complaints about losing money through Zelle, and scores of others are complaining on online consumer forums.

One consumer wrote:

"Neither Zelle nor banks know where transferred money went."

Another said: "Zelle: Nobody let me know where my money went after I sent money"

Earl Magnone of Saratoga wrote to 7 On Your Side: "A friend tried to send me $425 through Zelle...and it never showed up....bank manager has no answers."

Larry Angel of San Ramon also wrote to 7 On Your Side saying he sent money to his brother in law using the correct phone number but the money simply disappeared. Since then, he realized his aunt had used the same phone number to connect to her bank account, but she never got the money either.

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"People think they have the same protections they get with their bank, and that's not the case,'' said NerdWallet banking expert Kimberly Palmer. "It's completely on you. If you mis-enter your mom's email address and you send it to a stranger, it's like you just handed cash to a stranger and you will probably never see that money again."

We asked Zelle about all the complaints. Its parent company, Early Warning Services, tells 7 On Your Side:

"Millions of Americans have successfully experienced Zelle as an easy, fast, and safe way to send money... We recognize for some consumers that their experience with Zelle has not met their expectations. We are listening to, and acting on feedback, working closely with our financial institution partners to resolve issues quickly..."

We reached out to seven major banks that partner with Zelle and heard back from a majority. They all say payments are processed based solely on information provided by the customer but if there is an error, they will try to assist the customer.

But Zelle does not guarantee that misguided money can be retrieved. It warns in its terms of use that: "You are solely responsible for entering the correct mobile phone number or email address for the person you are sending money to... and "you are responsible for any amounts that are transferred to the incorrect person as a result of you entering the incorrect mobile number or email address."

Doney said that doesn't address problems like his.

"I did enter the correct phone number,'' he said. "How can this be my fault?"

Financial experts tell us there are no laws specifically governing peer-to-peer payment systems. However, bank regulators say banks are obligated to evaluate "risk management" for all products they offer. Consumers can file complaints with the FTC.

Wells Fargo eventually refunded both Doney and Frankland "as a courtesy." The bank told 7 On Your Side that it's possible one phone number could be connected to multiple accounts, and it urged customers to make sure they have the correct information before using Zelle.

Some customers suggested sending five cents as a test to see if the money arrives to the right person before sending the full amount.

Loni Frankland warns, use Zelle with caution.

"I feel like taking out a full page ad saying beware!"

For more stories, photos, and video from 7 on Your Side, visit this page.
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