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Citi unveils cell-phone banking

Citibank on Monday became the latest major bank to launch a mobile service. Is it for you?

By Carolyn Bigda, Money Magazine writer-reporter

NEW YORK (Money) -- More people can now bank online - even when a computer isn't handy.

Citibank on Monday launched Citi Mobile, which allows consumers to access their accounts and make transactions from their cell phones. Two other major banks, Wachovia and Bank of America, have unveiled similar versions of the technology in the past few months.

Citi Mobile's offering is unique unique in that you download an application to your phone and connect directly to the bank's site rather than opening a Web browser on your phone. A Citi spokesperson says its method allows for faster a access and transactions.

While this is not the first time that mobile banking has been offered to consumers - banks first introduced the technology in the late 1990s - today, cell phones are more powerful, and consumers are more comfortable with online banking.

"The cell phone is now a ubiquitous device," says Madhavi Mantha, a senior banking analyst for Celent, a financial services research and consulting firm. "And consumers are much more familiar with using self-service applications."

Plus, you now can do more through your cell phone than what mobile banking traditionally has allowed, such as receiving text message alerts from your bank or locating the nearest branch or ATM.

You can check account balances before say, withdrawing cash at the ATM. You also can see if a transaction has cleared, pay bills on the go and transfer money between accounts.

However, there still are some limitations.

While all Wachovia (Charts) online customers are eligible to sign up, Citibank (Charts) is making the service available to customers in Southern California at the end of this week and rolling it out nationwide by mid-summer. Similarly, Bank of America's (Charts) mobile arm will be fully launched by mid-year as well.

Also, though all three mobile services don't depend on a specific wireless service, your phone must have Internet access - which could add to your cell phone bill if Web time is not included in your monthly plan.

Some phones may work better than others, too. Wachovia, for example, recommends your mobile device be equipped with Windows Mobile 5 with Pocket Internet Explorer. Also, the browser must be enabled with 128-bit encryption.

One other consideration is security.

At all three banks, your personal account information is encrypted, helping ward off hackers. And you may be covered under the same protections given to online banking.

Bank of America, for one, extends its "zero-liability" guarantee, which ensures you're not on the hook for unauthorized transactions online as long as you report the fraud within 60 days, according to a bank spokesperson.

Still, analysts recommend taking extra security measures, such as setting up a password to access your cell phone.

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