How safe is your mobile banking app?

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SALT LAKE CITY — If you are one of the growing number of people who do your banking using your cellphone, be aware that thieves are working hard to steal your money.

Chris Adzima has taken to banking by smartphone.

"Everything you need to know about your money is right there in your hands,” he said. He checks balances, transfers money, pays bills and even deposits using his phone.

“It takes two minutes, as opposed to in Eagle Mountain, the closest drive (to a bank) is 10 minutes away. That’s a 20-minute round trip,” he said.

Adzima has seen the inside of a bank once in three or four years, he said. And that's increasingly becoming the norm.

According to the Pew Research Center, the number of mobile bankers in the U.S. about doubles every year. Industry analysts predict by 2017, 108 million Americans will be banking with mobile devices.

So, is mobile banking safe?

“You’re concerned that the information is going to fall in the wrong hands for whatever reason,” Adzima said.

It's a very real concern. Last week, security company Kaspersky Labs announced it found that nearly 100,000 malicious programs tried to steal data from mobile phones in 2013. That's more than twice the amount discovered the previous year.

Experts say hackers have become obsessed with stealing money from banking apps.

(Thieves) want to make money. Mobile banking is a brand new opportunity for them.

–Matthew Might

“They want to make money,” said Matthew Might, a cyber security expert at the University of Utah’s school of computing. “Mobile banking is a brand new opportunity for them. So, they’re absolutely interested in this space.”

Many cyber criminals break into smartphones through malware hidden in a game, he said.

“It could be a malicious Angry Birds or something like that,” he explained. “What it’s doing is actually installing a process on your phone that monitors everything you do, including your banking activity at that point.”

Malware-infested games are not the only thing to watch out for. Sometimes, thieves will release fake versions of the mobile banking apps themselves.

“It looks like it might be coming from Bank of America, but it could be a malicious third-party application instead,” Might said.

One protection for people who want to bank with their cellphone is to contact the bank to make sure only the official banking app is downloaded. Then, the absolute worst place to use it is on a public Wi-Fi network, like in a coffee shop or airport where thieves could intercept the data.

Mobile v. online banking
Might said in the long run, mobile banking — if done properly — can be as secure as online banking done on a traditional computer. There is far less malware targeting phones than computers, he said.

For customers who don't do mobile or online banking, it's extremely likely their bank is online. So, they still could be subject to data breaches.

“If you’re in a coffee shop and you do need to use this, I recommend you turn off your Wi-Fi and rely on the cellular technology to do your mobile banking. It’s still possible to intercept that traffic, but it’s more difficult at that point,” Might explained.

Phones should be password protected to thwart those trying to crack banking information the old way, he added.

“If you have a PIN lock and someone steals your phone, at least they won’t get directly in your banking application as well,” he said.


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Bill Gephardt


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