Lisa Kluever doesn't have much time for personal banking. Even if she had time during her 12-hour workdays at a finance company in California, she wouldn't use her office's Internet connection to do banking.
But in November, Kluever signed up for a service that her bank, San Francisco-based
, began offering this summer. Now Kluever uses her BlackBerry Pearl to watch her checking-account balance whenever she wants, typically during her morning commute.
Kluever's phone has helped on many occasions. Once, a friend bought her a ticket to Hong Kong in December so they could sit together on the trip. She was able to send him the $950 she owed him quickly, since she'd already invited him to join her mobile-banking network. "It was easier to use my phone that way than to call Wells Fargo," Kluever says.
Officials have long dreamed about such mobile banking, when cellphones perform tasks ranging from stopping check payments to providing stock quotes to transferring foreign money. Now, banks such as Charlotte, N.C.-based
Bank of America
as well as Seattle's
have been scrambling in recent months to make such services real.
Experts are cautiously optimistic. "In the 2000 to 2003 time frame, consumers found it hard to get services that functioned as promised, so utilization was low," says Ed Kountz, senior analyst for payments at Jupiter Research. "That's changing. We're seeing things now that are more promising in terms of sophistication."
The change takes place amid the expansion of data networks and advances in cell phone technology. Meanwhile, companies have more potential customers; according to the trade group CTIA, more than 243 million people subscribed to cell phone services in 2007, compared with about 135 million just five years ago.
If you're one of these potential customers, what's the best way to get mobile banking? "I don't know of any consumer today, or even in the next five years, who's going to show up at
and say 'I'm not going to pick the pink one because the mobile banking doesn't look good on it," says Bob Egan, chief analyst at the Needham, Mass.-based financial-services advisory firm TowerGroup.
Instead, Egan recommends waiting until your bank rolls out its offerings, as it almost inevitably will, since he estimates that more than 85% of U.S. banks will have some solution in 2008. "There's no harm in signing up and trying it, but I wouldn't change my checking account for this type of service," Egan adds.
When you hear about the offerings your bank provides, here are a few considerations to ask about before signing up.
Will the service work?
The mobile Web is slow compared with broadband, and it's also more prone to drop connections when you do things like entering an elevator. But banks are addressing such issues. For example, news hit in March 2007 of Wachovia's plans to offer a computer application from mobile banking company Firethorn Holdings that customers can download onto their phones. "The
mobile Web browser is better when you have a very high-end phone," says Ilieva Ageenko, Wachovia's director of emerging applications. "But the
Firethorn application will meet the limitations of a normal cell, so the user gets a more consistent experience" that is faster and smoother.
How secure is it?
Nobody knows for sure. "I don't think this has been road-tested enough to assume it's secure," said TowerGroup's Egan. He recommends finding out if your mobile banking services extend the same password policies as online banking. Bank of America, for example, launched a relatively secure service in May 2007 that not only encrypts information sent between your cell phone and the bank, but also has strict password authentication. Bank of America customers have to pick an image, write a brief phrase and select three challenge questions that the bank can use to verify their identities.
The advantage to a Web-based mobile banking service is that your account information doesn't stay on your phone, available for others to find, as it might in a computer program that you downloaded first. That said, the downloadable applications will erase your data as soon as you finish your task and log out. If your phone gets lost, you can call your bank to get the application remotely deleted from your phone within ten seconds.
Some mobile banking services are riskier than others. Reading your checking account balance, for example, doesn't expose as much information as sending a payment.
How easy is it to sign up?
It can be quick. For example, New York's
launched a program in April 2007 that involves little more than signing in to your online banking account and submitting information about your cell phone. Citi then sends you a text message with a link in it that enables you to install a mobile banking application. The application typically takes less than two minutes to download.
Most banks offer their mobile banking services to existing customers at no additional cost, but you still might have to deal with your cell phone carrier to get Internet capacity if you don't have it already. This, of course, involves wading through service plans that are so varied that you could write an entire article about how to choose one.
Instead of bothering with the Internet, you might be able to sign up for text-messaging services alone. For example, Wells Fargo customers can text the bank to find out how much money they have in their accounts at any given time; within seconds, they'll find the answer in their inboxes.
Have the right phone?
Experts say that phones such as
Research In Motion's
iPhone, Windows Mobile phones,
Razrs and smartphones such as
Treos are among those that handle mobile banking better, especially compared with older phones or the tiny kind that flip open.
If you decide to get your phone rigged for mobile banking, don't expect too much. Dana Gould, senior research analyst in the payments practice at Financial Insights, a Framingham, Mass.-based advisory firm and IDC company, warns against signing any contracts for such services. "People are trying different strategies, but I think they're jumping the gun just so they can say 'yes, we have that too,'" Gould says. "There are a lot of vendors and banks making announcements right now, but we don't see that there's a good solution out there yet," he adds.
Sonja Ryst has worked as a staff reporter at BusinessWeek.com and Dow Jones Newswires, and has written for publications including The Wall Street Journal. She is a graduate of Stanford University.