Life is full of occasions when you might want to give money to a friend or family member rather than a utility company or a credit card lender. Peer-to-peer money transfers stand by to make personal transactions for you. You might be more familiar with these services by their “P2P” tag. One such provider is Zelle, and Experian indicates that it moved a walloping $187 billion for folks in 2019 alone.
But is it safe? It’s generally recommended that you use the service only to transfer your hard-earned money to close personal contacts, and they must have a U.S. bank account.
What Is a P2P Money Transfer?
You can literally send money via a P2P money transfer by tapping your phone screen a few times. It’s that easy. But these are called “peer-to-peer” transfers for a reason.
The term refers not to you and your best friend, but to two or more computer systems who know and like each other well. They’re set up to share data between themselves without the assistance of any sort of central service or liaison. They eliminate the middle man.
Read More: 6 Best Mobile Payment Apps
What Exactly Is Zelle?
Zelle is a standalone P2P mobile payment app that was the result of a collaboration between 30-plus U.S. banks formed under the name of Early Warning Systems LLC. These banks' mobile/online banking platforms share data with the app.
Other banks offer Zelle as well. They include pretty much all well-known institutions, from Bank of America, Citibank, Citizens, Chase and PNC to Wells Fargo, as well as a few somewhat less renowned names, like Homestreet and Fifth Third Bank. All told, more than 400 banks and financial institutions have joined in.
Zelle isn’t the only mobile payment app out there, but it has the distinction of being free to use. Some similar apps charge service fees that can run as much as 3 percent of the transfer amount.
How to Sign Up With Zelle
As for the recipient of your generosity, they have two options. They can register with their own bank, and this is usually a simple matter of just providing their email address or phone number. But this assumes that their bank is a Zelle affiliate. They’ll have to download the Zelle mobile app on an Android or iOS device otherwise, as will senders whose banks aren't affiliated.
The mobile app requires that the recipient enter a debit card number to accept the money when it’s transferred. They’ll also have to provide an email address or a phone number.
Read More: A Detailed History of Debit Cards
How to Use Zelle to Send Money
OK, so you’re set up and now you want to send your sister $500 to help her out with that security deposit on an awesome new apartment she’s found. How exactly does Zelle work? Your money will move directly from your bank account to hers. It’s that streamlined, but not all P2P networks provide this ease-of-use feature. For example, Venmo does not.
The process should be complete in a matter of minutes, if that long, because the service is set up to bypass the entry of bank account numbers. It’s an “instant” ACH transfer, assuming the recipient’s account is with a participating bank. You need only enter the recipient’s email address or phone number.
Zelle takes over from here, sending an email or text message to your sister to tell her that $500 is waiting for her to claim them. All she has to do is click on the “accept” link.
There’s one catch, however. Someone – either the sender or the recipient of the funds – must be using the service through their bank or credit union. Transfers aren’t accommodated between two parties who are both using the Zelle mobile app.
Some Banks Have Fees and Limits
Zelle doesn’t charge fees, but many banks do, and you could be subject to fees even if your bank doesn’t charge any because your mobile carrier might charge data rates. You might want to check with your bank or financial institution to nail down what they charge, if anything.
Both banks and Zelle impose transaction limits. Zelle limits you to sending transfers totaling $500 per week if you’re signed up with the app rather than with your bank. Otherwise, the limit can depend on your track record.
As for banks, their limits can range anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 a day up to $10,000 to $40,000 a week. These caps are set by the financial institutions, so your best bet is to simply ask your bank what its limit is, particularly because they can change at a moment’s notice. Special rules can apply as well, depending on the type of account you hold and to whom you’re sending the money. There are typically no limits for receiving funds.
Is Zelle Safe?
Of course, we’re talking money here, something near and dear to most of our hearts. Can anything so easy be safe? It depends.
On one hand, you can rest assured that your money isn’t going to be sitting with a third-party transactor because this is a peer-to-peer network. It moves from your bank to the recipient without making a stop in between, and that’s a good thing.
But safety and security depend on human error to a great extent. Yes, you could lose your money if you’re in a rush and you inadvertently enter the wrong phone number or email address for your recipient – or if the recipient gives you inaccurate information. Remember that these transfers happen within minutes, so they can’t be canceled if you realize that you entered “4” instead of “5” after you’ve already clicked “send.”
And, of course, scammers can easily take advantage of this speed if you’re not on your guard. You should never send money for goods or services this way – or to anyone or anything you don’t personally know – because it’s not likely that you’ll get your money back if you’ve been tricked. You authorized the transaction.
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Zelle doesn’t employ the same safety features against bad transactions that PayPal does. You might have some protection under the Electronic Funds Transfer Act, but your best approach is not to send money to someone or something you don’t know in this manner.
As for the safety of your Zelle account, Zelle takes a somewhat hands-off approach to the possibility of that being hacked. The service advises that you should take the matter up with your banking institution if you’re somehow hacked and money is fraudulently transferred from your account.
- Experian: Here’s What You Need to Know About Zelle
- Zelle: Understanding Fraud and Scams
- Clark Howard: 5 Things to Know Before You Use Zelle
- DepositAccounts: Zelle Review – What You Need to Know
- Wells Fargo: What Is Zelle?
- Zelle: Only Send Money to Friends, Family and Others You Trust
- TechTerms: P2P
- Zelle. "What If My Bank or Credit Union Doesn't Offer Zelle?" Accessed Oct. 17, 2020.
- Zelle. "How Long Does It Take to Receive Money With Zelle?" Accessed Oct. 17, 2020.
- Zelle. "Get Started With Zelle." Accessed Oct. 17, 2020.
- Zelle. "Innovation. Powered By Partnerships." Accessed Oct. 17, 2020.
- Zelle. "Are There Any Fees to Send Money Using Zelle?" Accessed Oct. 17, 2020.
- Zelle. "Can I Use Zelle Internationally?" Accessed Oct. 17, 2020.
Beverly Bird has been writing professionally for over 30 years. She is also a paralegal, specializing in areas of personal finance, bankruptcy and estate law. She writes as the tax expert for The Balance.