Is mobile banking really safe?

  @Money August 8, 2012: 10:20 AM ET
mobile safety
NEW YORK (Money Magazine)

Your smartphone is your camera, your calendar, and your communications center. Why shouldn't it be your bank too?

Between apps, the browser, and text messaging, you can check balances, pay bills, transfer funds, receive alerts, and even deposit checks on the go. Some 29% of U.S. mobile users already deploy their devices for such purposes, Javelin Strategy & Research reports.

So what's holding back the majority of people who aren't banking by phone?

More than half of you are hung up on security worries, Javelin found. "Some concerns are simply because the technology is so new," explains Alisdair Faulkner of digital security firm ThreatMetrix. "But some are warranted."

Whether you've already joined the mobile-banking revolution or you're just thinking about it, here's how to be safe.

How hackers can steal your debit card info

Get real about the risks

What mobile users fear most, according to Javelin, is a remote hack.

While this could happen, it's unlikely -- at least for now. With three channels of access (web, app, text messaging), multiple operating systems, and rapidly changing technology, it's challenging for fraudsters to create widespread mobile scams, says Mary Monahan, Javelin's mobile-research director.

Malware, the software likely needed for such an attack, virtually doesn't exist for Apple's iOS. Google's Android platform is more vulnerable, says Kevin Mahaffey of mobile security firm Lookout.

Even so, the threat is small: In the first quarter of 2012, virus-protection company McAfee tracked nearly 7,000 types of Android malware threats (not bank specific), vs. 83 million targeted at PCs.

Experts do expect the malware problem to worsen in coming years. "As we transition into more of a mobile wallet, the risks will increase," says George Tubin, strategist for digital security firm Trusteer. (He's referring to nascent apps that allow you to make in-store payments via phone; the programs -- available from Google, PayPal, and a few retailers -- typically debit from a bank account, credit card, or prepaid card.)

Related: Your most dangerous possession? Your smartphone

For now, however, the most realistic threat is that your phone will be stolen or lost, and end up in the wrong hands. Still, the person would have to be sophisticated to do real damage. Most banks don't keep passwords, account numbers, or check images on the phones.

Dial up your protections

There are steps consumers can take to reduce the -- albeit small -- risk of mobile-banking fraud.

Start by password protecting your device. Yes, a determined thief might get around that barrier, but it's still a good basic safeguard, says Trusteer's Tubin.

Tend toward banking by app, which is usually more secure than web or text messaging, says Monahan. But download only from the official app store and verify that the developer's name matches the name of your bank.

Also, don't save your user name and don't use the same password as on other apps, in case they store it.

Related: Best banking and budgeting apps

Should your phone be lost or stolen, wipe all personal data from it, if possible. (Some devices can be remotely reset to factory settings; find out now if yours is among them.)

If not, contact the financial institution; 61% of big banks let you deactivate their app from afar, Javelin says. Once that's done, notify your wireless carrier to have service turned off.

Review and report promptly

On the off chance that money is stolen from your bank accounts as a result of mobile fraud, you probably won't have to kiss much cash goodbye.

Mobile banking -- like online banking and ATM usage -- is governed by federal "Regulation E," which stipulates that you're liable only for up to $50, provided that you contact your bank within two days of discovering a loss of money.

Most banks take the protection a step further through their mobile- banking guarantee and will waive even that $50 liability, says Doug Johnson of the American Bankers Association.

To limit the amount you could be out, let your bank know ASAP if you discover a rogue transaction on your account statement or if your phone is lost or stolen. To top of page

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