Payment apps like Zelle make transferring funds easy. Unfortunately, they also make it easy for scammers to get ahold of your money. In 2021 alone, users lost around $440 million on the peer-to-peer payment system.
What’s worse, Zelle warns they’re “unable to assist with getting your money back.” You can report fraud to your bank or credit union. But under federal law, it’s only required to reimburse you for any unauthorized transactions. If you hit “send” on a Zelle payment, banks consider it an authorized transaction, even if you were scammed into doing so.
Worse yet, even in cases deemed unauthorized, only around 10% of victims get their money back.
Zelle and the banks it partners with have come under fire for this several times. Senator Elizabeth Warren has slammed big banks for what she calls “rampant fraud and theft on Zelle” and their refusal to reimburse victims. Legislators are putting pressure on banks to better protect consumers using Zelle.
But for now, it’s up to you to protect yourself.
Common Zelle Scams
These are the most common scams targeting Zelle users.
1. Spoofing Scams
You get a text, call, or email that seems to be from a sender you know — for example, your bank saying there’s been suspicious activity on your Zelle account. They tell you they need your login information to stop it, ask you to click a link to verify your account or reset your password, or ask for personal information to confirm your identity.
These scammers use spoofing techniques to make them look like someone else. They tweak their phone number and caller ID or use a misleading email address to trick you into thinking they’re reaching out from a legitimate company or institution.
2. Me-to-Me Scams
Also known as “pay yourself” scams, these are a spinoff of the spoofing scam. You get a call or text from someone claiming to be your bank. They tell you someone’s trying to make a fraudulent payment from your account and you can stop it by transferring money from your Zelle account back to your bank account.
The account they tell you to send payment to isn’t your bank account; it’s theirs. You end up being scammed by your desire to stop a scam.
A San Jose, CA woman fell victim to this scam when someone claiming to be her bank called her in the middle of a busy work shift. The spoofed caller ID said Wells Fargo, the Zelle payment seemed to go into an account in her name, and she was overwhelmed and frantic. The caller scammed her out of $3,499 — and then laughed at her when she realized what had happened while still on the phone.
3. Impersonation Scams
You get a message from someone you know. They tell you they’re in a bad situation and need money ASAP. For instance, their car broke down and they’re stranded or they’ve been arrested and need bail money. Eager to help a friend, you send the money.
Or, you get a message from a company or institution you recognize, like your utility company asking for an overdue payment or the IRS saying you owe outstanding taxes. Eager to avoid late fees and other penalties, you pay them.
In both cases, the sender isn’t who they say they are. They’re playing on your emotions to persuade you to send money without taking the time to evaluate the request. Former MLB player and color commentator Keith Hernandez almost fell for this scam, but luckily he eventually realized it was “baloney.”
4. Facebook Marketplace & Craigslist Scams
You’re browsing Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist when you see a post for an incredible deal, like deeply discounted tickets to a popular concert or a super-cheap game console. You’re eager to snag this bargain before someone else gets to it, so you don’t think twice when the seller asks for payment via Zelle.
Since Zelle payments happen instantaneously and there’s little consumer protection, this is an easy way for scammers to get your cash and run.
Another scam common on online platforms is the rental scam. You see an ad for a house for rent, and when you respond, the poster says they’re an out-of-state landlord and you can pay the security deposit by Zelle. But the home isn’t for rent; any photos or walk-through videos you saw were likely pulled from the listing for the last time the house sold.
One wise couple in Orange, CA avoided this scam by going to visit the home in question first — and learning from the occupants it wasn’t for sale. Others weren’t so fortunate and sent payment without questioning.
5. Romance Scams
If you’ve ever watched “Catfish,” you know how this scam goes. You meet someone online, either on a dating app or a social media network. They quickly draw you into a whirlwind romance, but for some reason, they’re never able to meet in person. Once you’ve fallen head over heels for them, they hit you up for money for a medical emergency or some other need.
They may or may not be who they say they are, but you’ll never meet them to find out. They just want your money.
Another popular romance scam involves matching with someone on a dating app who claims they need money to get to the date you’re planning. They might say they can’t afford gas or need to hire a babysitter for their kid. You send the money. They never show.
How to Protect Yourself From Zelle Scams
To avoid falling for a Zelle scam, exercise these precautions.
Watch for Red Flags
Telltale signs of a Zelle scam include:
- Unsolicited communications
- Sounding too good to be true
- Tugging at your emotions
- Pressure to act right away
- Sellers who insist you pay only with Zelle
- Weird sender email addresses (e.g., email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org)
- Weird URLs (e.g., www.bankofamerica.com.my/verify)
If you see any of these signs, keep away.
Don’t Send Money to Strangers
Only send money on Zelle to friends, family, and others you trust. Never use it to buy an item from a stranger. There’s no guarantee the person you’re sending it to will give you what you’re paying for.
Make Sure You Know Who You’re Talking To
If you get a request from a company you recognize, double-check that it really is them. Contact the company using the official contact information on its website to verify whether the request is valid.
If you get an unexpected request for money from a person you know, don’t assume it’s them. Ask yourself: Are they contacting you by a method they don’t usually use, such as a social media message when they usually text? Are they using a different email address, phone number, or username than they usually use? Does the writing sound like them?
Even if these things appear on the up and up, reach out to the person by one of the methods you typically use to ask if they sent you the request. You can’t be too careful.
Don’t Respond to Unsolicited Communications
If a message or call appears out of the blue, there’s a good chance it’s a scam.
If you get a text or phone call asking for Zelle payment or your Zelle information, don’t provide it. If the sender claims to be a legitimate company, like your bank, contact the company directly through the “contact us” page on its website.
You can also reduce the number of spam calls you receive by using call-blocking tools.
Be Suspicious of Email Links
Never click a link in an email or text from an unknown sender.
Double-check links in emails from senders you recognize to ensure they’re not a spoof. If you right-click or hover your mouse over a link, you should see the URL it will take you to.
If it looks suspicious, don’t click it. For instance, the email might contain a legitimate-looking URL like www.wellsfargo.com. But when you hover over it, you see the URL the text is linked to is www.wellfargo-verification12345.com.
Antivirus software can also help you identify and avoid unsafe sites.
Use Two-Factor Authentication
Two-factor authentication requires you to provide additional information when you log into an online account. For instance, you enter your username and password on your bank’s mobile app. Your bank then sends you a temporary code (by text, phone call, or email) you must enter to verify your identity and complete the login process.
Two-factor authentication adds an extra layer of protection to your account. If someone gets ahold of your login information, they can’t do anything with it without the temporary code.
Never Give Anyone Your Login Information
There’s no legitimate reason why someone would need your login information. Never give it out, period. And never, ever give out two-factor authentication information.
If you’re a victim of a Zelle scam, chances are your money’s gone for good. However, you can contact your bank to alert them of the fraud and see if they’ll reimburse you. If they won’t, you can file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
You should also report the scam to protect other Zelle users from falling prey to it:
- Zelle: Call 844-428-8542 or visit https://www.zellepay.com/support/report-scam
- FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center: Visit https://www.ic3.gov/
- Federal Trade Commission: Visit https://reportfraud.ftc.gov/#/
And remember, Zelle transfers are instantaneous. The moment you hit “send,” the money leaves your account, and the likelihood of getting it back is slim. So send with caution.