Dial up your pocket ATM

The cell-phone and banking industries have conspired to cook up yet another high-tech task for all of us to learn: mobile banking.
And according to Consumer Reports Money Adviser, it’s catching on fast: Some 39 million Americans are already accessing their bank accounts through their cell phones. The good news is that it’s a lot simpler and, with the proper precautions, safer than it might appear to be at first.
Mobile banking is similar to Internet banking, which is used by some 50 million Americans. The main benefit is that your cell phone is more portable than even the smallest netbook. There are three mobile-banking modes:
Text banking is the simplest method and uses any messaging-enabled cell phone, but its capabilities are limited. You sign up with your bank and get account information by text messaging. For example, if you peck out “Bal” on your cell and text it to MyBofA (692632), within a few seconds Bank of America will text you back with the available balances in your deposit accounts and your credit-card balance.
Mobile Web banking provides more functionality than text banking, including the ability to transfer funds from, say, savings to checking, and pay bills. But it also requires a smart phone or a so-called feature phone — a type of cell phone that can access the Internet better than a regular wireless phone but is not optimized for the Web the way smart phones are. You can also use a tablet computer, such as the Apple iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab.
Banking apps provide all the capabilities of mobile Web banking, but they’re designed especially for your specific bank and phone model. Most banks have apps tailored to the iPhone, and many have them for the iPad as well as smart phones with Blackberry and Android operating systems.
Consumer Reports Money Adviser answers some questions about cell-phone banking:
Why bank by smart phone? Mobile banking is convenient. For example, you can review your account balances while waiting in a checkout line to see if you should use your credit or debt card for the purchase. You can also transfer money between accounts, monitor availability of deposited funds, and pay bills. Your bank can send text alerts when your checking balance is low or when withdrawals and deposits are posted to your account. You can get alerts for debit and credit-card purchases that exceed a set amount, which might indicate fraud.
How much does it cost? Banks typically charge no additional fees for mobile banking because automation reduces their operating costs. But you might incur fees from your cellular service carrier. For example, if you buy texting by the message, you’ll pay 20 cents per text sent and received, which means it can cost 40 cents to check your balance. Consumer Reports Money Adviser warns that that can get pretty pricey, especially if you check balances frequently.
Is it secure? Fear that a crook will steal money from their bank accounts by using their cell phone is a major reason consumers don’t sign up for mobile banking. But numerous mobile-banking security redundancies provide plenty of assurances. For starters, if the worst happens, once you report your phone lost or stolen, your carrier can disable it and your bank can shut off phone access to your accounts.
What if you don’t realize for a few days that the phone has been filched? The federal Electronic Fund Transfer Act limits your liability for unauthorized electronic banking transactions to $50 as long as you report the theft to the bank within two business days of learning about it. But because banks want to encourage the use of mobile banking and other cost-saving automation, they might provide even better protection. You can also get security software for your mobile device, which is similar to the antivirus, antispyware, antiphishing protections sold for personal computers.

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