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How To Avoid Zelle Scams and Fraud

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The electronic payment method almost all major U.S. banks promote may be the riskiest of all.

Zelle, a peer-to-peer transaction service, allows consumers to transfer money with the click of a button.

But unlike Venmo or PayPal, which customers must enroll in, many banks come with Zelle already turned on.

CBS 2 heard from several fraud victims who had funds vanish after fraudsters used this service to transfer money out of their accounts.

RELATED: Fraudsters Cost Her $6,500, And She Had To Hire Computer Expert To Prove It To Bank Of America

The allure of Zelle – its nearly instantaneous bank to bank transactions – also makes it appealing to scammers.

When you send money to another account, that person has immediate access to it. It's essentially the same as handing over cash.

RELATED: Woman Says Scammers Drained Her Account Through Zelle, But Fifth Third Bank Told Her They 'Can't Prove Anything'

Banks only offer protection for unauthorized Zelle transfers – authorized payments are the consumer's responsibility.

Under the Electronic Funds Transfer Act, which oversees electronic payment services, if an unauthorized person removes money from your account with Zelle, your bank must reimburse you as long as you report the fraud within 60 days after receiving your statement.

When it comes to "legit" transactions, however, consumers have no protection. If you authorize a payment, but do not receive what you were promised, banks are not liable, said Early Warning, the network operator of Zelle. For instance, if you purchase concert tickets from a stranger, but never receive them, you are out of luck. For these transactions, it is better to use a credit card because they have buyer protection.

Written warnings and informational videos scattered around Zelle's website emphasize that you should only transfer money to people you know and trust.

Consumers sending money solely to trustworthy recipients encounter problems too. If you misspell a friend's name or mistype their phone number, it is up to the wrong recipient's discretion to reimburse you.

Banks should present consumers with more black-and-white warnings, such as an additional step to verify the recipient of the money or a clear-cut notification stating the transaction is irreversible, said Bob Sullivan, a cybercrime expert.

Consumers can enable security alerts and notifications available within their online or mobile banking service to be notified whenever any of their banking preferences are changed, said Early Warning.

It is also possible to enable multi-factor authentication, like a text with a code, to prevent someone from hacking your account.

Zelle users should also never provide personal information or verification codes to anyone who calls or emails them out of the blue.

If you fall victim to an cybercrime, you should always dispute it with your bank, Sullivan said.

"Do not take no for an answer," he said.

Sullivan said consumers should demand banks escalate their issues, particularly if they think it falls under the Electronic Funds Transfer Act.

Oftentimes customer service representatives lack adequate training, so they are not fully aware of these laws, he said.

If you do not plan on using Zelle, you can unregister, but this does not necessarily provide fraud immunity. Fraudsters that have obtained your account information could theoretically register you for Zelle again because there is no way to permanently disable it.

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