How secure are payment apps? Business owner says banks initially wouldn't return money

Man says he lost thousands with Zelle

Touted as one of the easiest ways to send money to people you know, Zelle is a person-to-person digital payment service offered through most banks and credit unions.

More than 100 million people use the service, according to a company news release. Because banks offer it, most people might assume it's secure, but a Florida business owner said he lost thousands and neither Zelle nor his bank did anything initially to make it right.

Andrew Miller is a property manager and the owner of Miller Real Estate.

In January, eight of Miller's clients sent their rent payments to him using Zelle, which he said they had done numerous times before. This time, however, Miller never received the payments.

According to a police report, the payments totaled about $6,500.

"You're money's at risk," Miller said. "It shocked me that I was the victim of this."

Miller said he banks with Wells Fargo. Four of his eight clients use Wells Fargo, two are with Chase and two are with Bank of America, Miller said.

Miller said his bank informed him the email address he uses for his Zelle account was now associated with a Chase account under the name Inthai Corporation Inc., with which Miller said he is not affiliated.

All of the payments sent using that email address went to the wrong person, Miller said.

"At first, (I was in) disbelief," Miller said. "Honestly, I thought there was an error, that somehow it was a simple mistake that they could fix in a minute."

The bank had no explanation for how the email change happened, Miller said.

So, how secure are payment apps?

Andrew Von Ramin Mapp is the owner of Data Analyzers in Lake Mary, Florida, which teaches companies about cybersecurity. He said that while digital payment platforms can be convenient, that convenience comes with a price.

"The more we try to simplify things and make them easier and more convenient, the more we're also neglecting the security component," Mapp said.

When KPRC's news partner, WKMG-TV in Orlando, inquired about the situation, Early Warning Services, the network operator of Zelle, either couldn't or wouldn't explain exactly what happened to Miller.

The company did send the following statement: "We assist our participating financial institutions in investigating and resolving reported incidents of unauthorized transaction activity facilitated through Zelle -- including restricting the ability to send or receive money to enrolled mobile phone numbers and email addresses associated with the unauthorized activity," Meghan Fintland, the director of influencer relations, wrote in an email. "In cases where a consumer's bank account has been compromised, Zelle and its participating financial institutions adhere to all applicable laws and regulations that afford consumers protection from unauthorized activity."

Wells Fargo officials said they could not discuss individual customers' accounts, but did issue a statement regarding Zelle.

"When we become aware of an issue encountered by a Wells Fargo customer using Zelle, we work directly with our customer. While we do not comment on customers due to customer privacy and confidentiality, we can report that Wells Fargo has a thorough investigation process in place to research all claims, including working with Early Warning Services (EWS), which operates the Zelle payments network. We communicate our findings with our customers directly, and the specific actions we take depend on the issue," Gabriela Lambertus, the assistant vice president of corporate communications for the Central Florida region, wrote in an email. "As always, we are happy to assist and encourage customers to contact us who have questions about Zelle or concerns about their accounts."

Michael Fusco, with JP Morgan Chase, confirmed his company is conducting an investigation.

Matthew Dailey, with Bank of America, said the money was delivered as directed by the bank's customers. 

"We're also working with the receiving bank to resolve the issue," Dailey wrote in an email.

Miller said he might go back to requiring his clients to write checks.

"Until they come through and tell us what really happened here, so we all know," Miller said, "it's not safe. It's just not safe."

Initially, all of the banks refused to refund the customers their money because they don't assume risk from Zelle. After WKMG advocated for the consumers, the banks listened and returned each customer their money.

Experts say that as a consumer, you need to know that most digital payment platforms including Zelle, Venmo, Cashapp, Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Facebook Messenger, do not have buyer protection, so you use them at your own risk.