Forgot your ATM Card? At Wells Fargo, Your Smart Phone Will Suffice

Editors' pick: Originally published March 27.

Ever stopped at an ATM for cash only to realize all you had with you was your cell phone?

At Wells Fargo (WFC) , that's no longer a problem. The San Francisco-based bank announced an upgrade today to all of its 13,000 ATMs allowing customers to make cash withdrawals using smartphones rather than debit cards.

"This is really about convenience and choice," Jonathan Velline, Wells Fargo's head of ATM and branch banking, said in a phone interview. "The response from our customers has been terrific." 

Other large financial institutions, including JPMorgan Chase (JPM) and Bank of America (BAC) , have announced similar upgrades to ATMs, but Wells Fargo is the first to roll the digital service out to its entire network. Staying abreast -- or ahead -- of such adaptations is vital to Wells and other U.S. banks, whose customers withdrew $5.8 billion from ATMs during 2015, taking an average of $122 each time, a Federal Reserve study found. 

To access cash without an ATM card, the nearly 20 million customers who use Wells Fargo's mobile app will be able to obtain an eight digit one-time ATM access code, which will be sent directly to their phone.

"They can go in and request the one-time access code and still get their money and get out of that embarrassing situation," Velline said.

Wells Fargo has wrapped strong safeguards into the digital ID process, he added. The eight-digit code, for instance, is only valid for 30 minutes and it must be followed by the customer's regular four-digit personal identification number, or PIN.

"We've embedded security into the design," Velline said. "There's a lot of layers of security around the application itself."

In at least one way, it's even safer than using a plastic card since it doesn't provide an access point for "card skimming," a process in which thieves attach an electronic device to an ATM card reader that captures users' card numbers and PINs, he added.

Wells Fargo is introducing its digital service as CEO Tim Sloan works to rebuild the bank's image after a scandal around the opening of 2 million unauthorized consumer accounts by workers trying to meet sales goals of eight products per customer.  

The bogus accounts, created over a period of five years, led to the dismissal of more than 5,300 employees and a $185 million settlement with the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and local governments. Afterward, government clients pulled back from lucrative bond deals, and then-CEO John Stumpf abruptly retired. 

Sloan, who has acknowledged the bank's failings, said it's committed to "being better every day" and regaining the trust of its customers. 

That includes "driving the future of banking," he said. "Our industry changes every day. That's why we created the Payments, Virtual Solutions and Innovation Group in October, to bring together teams that are driving the next generation of payment options and digital and online offerings."

The bank said that later this year it will unveil technology that allows its customer to use the near-field communication features of their Wells Fargo digital wallets to access ATMs. That's the same process that allows merchants to accept cash-register payments via Apple Pay (AAPL) or Android (GOOGL) Pay without using either a card or a PIN. Currently, 5,000 of the bank's ATMs have the hardware to connect with its digital wallet.

Wells Fargo fell 1.2% to $55.15 on Monday amid a broader selloff in finance stocks. The company is scheduled to release its first-quarter earnings and hold its annual stockholders meeting in April.

EXCLUSIVE LOOK INSIDE: Wells Fargo, Apple and Google are holdings in Jim Cramer's Action Alerts PLUS charitable trust portfolio. Want to be alerted before Cramer buys or sells the stocks? Learn more now.

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