Channel 2 Investigates

WARNING: Mobile banking on public Wi-Fi could open you up to criminals

ATLANTA — Mobile payment apps make it easy to pay for just about anything on the go. But a cybersecurity expert told Channel 2 Action News that where you use those apps could also make it easy for criminals to destroy your finances.

Ashley Fields said that's what happened to her during a trip to New York.

"I, not thinking about the risk, logged into my bank account online on the hotel Wi-Fi," Fields explained.

Moments later, criminals logged into her Chase account and emptied it of $1,800. They transferred the money using Zelle.

Zelle partners with banks and credit unions to let consumers send and receive money. The app, which is connected directly to the user's bank account, works like PayPal or Venmo.

Fields told Channel 2 Action News she hasn't used the service in years and did not approve the transaction.

Cybersecurity expert Tyler Robinson said this type of crime is not uncommon.

"Once you connect to open Wi-Fi or public Wi-Fi, it essentially puts you on the open network and allows people to sniff whatever is going on," Robinson said.

Fields filed a fraud claim with Chase and was shocked when the bank denied it.

"They said, ‘Oh, we're just saying it came from your device it could've been a friend or a family member.' That's not true. That's still fraud if it wasn't me, that's still theft," she said.

Only after Fields contacted the media did Chase put the money back in her account. In an email, the bank told Channel 2 Action News: "We have reimbursed the customer's account after further review and are sorry for denying her initial claim. We've made significant investments in fraud detection and prevention technologies as well as customer education to help stay ahead of fraudsters."


Early Warning Services LLC, the network operator behind Zelle, also stressed security but directed efforts to resolve issues to the banks.

Channel 2 Consumer Adviser Clark Howard says when you set up a payment app there's a simple way to avoid criminals looking to empty your account.

"I don't want you to attach it to the bank account you use to pay your key bills each month, have a separate account. So, if anything goes wrong, you're not going to suffer a catastrophic financial loss," Howard said.

As for protecting yourself when you connect to a public Wi-Fi system, Robinson suggests using a virtual private network (VPN) but says even that doesn't guarantee you will be safe.

"How that (VPN) is configured plays a lot into how well that VPN is protecting you. But for the most part VPNs provide a lot of protection," he said.

Fields wants her situation to serve as a warning for others.

"Hacking isn't something that happens to other people. I know that now," she said.

Early Warning Services LLC sent us the following statement:

Zelle® is a fast, safe, and easy way to send money to people you trust - right from your mobile banking app. As with all digital payment technologies that provide consumers with greater convenience, there exists the potential for fraud. To protect consumers from fraud, Zelle, and its partnering financial institutions, apply layers of protection, including identity verification, multifactor authentication, send limits and real-time fraud alerts. In cases where a consumer's bank account or debit card have been compromised, and unauthorized Zelle payments made, consumers have rights under the Electronic Funds Transfer Act. We recommend they contact their bank immediately to determine an appropriate resolution.