Hackers targeting cash sharing apps Zelle, CashApp and Venmo. Here’s what you can do to stay safe

ATLANTA — Marriage and family therapist Natalie Liberman has worked for years to build a solid financial foundation.

“That money has been earned pennies by pennies,” she told Channel 2 Investigative Reporter Justin Gray.

Liberman said it took a scammer moments to take that foundation away.

She told Gray the first sign of trouble came when her phone would not stop ringing.

“I woke up one morning and started getting incessant phone calls,” she said.

The next day Liberman learned her phone had been spoofed. Hackers were able to empty her Bank of America account using the money sharing app, Zelle. Liberman lost $15,000.

“It made me feel so incredibly vulnerable and exposed,” she said.

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Liberman isn’t alone. Channel 2 has reported thieves targeting victims through cash sharing apps like Zelle, Cashapp, and Venmo for years.

In 2019, a thief hacked into Ashley Field’s Zelle account after she used hotel Wi-Fi to log into her bank.

“They got my login and password and logged in right behind me,” Field said.

In 2020, Cashapp customers Sharon Moore and Steven Wynn told Gray they were tricked into transferring money by someone posing as Cashapp customer service.

“They were just so smooth. By the time you realize something just is not right, all of your money is gone. All of it,” Wynn said.

Last month Gray spoke with Jeremy Kelly, who was tricked by a fake rental scam. The fraudster told Kelly paying with Zelle would make it easier.

Channel 2 consumer adviser Clark Howard told Gray he’s not surprised the crooks used Zelle. It’s the app Clark is most concerned about.

“It’s the wild, wild west right now, and it’s not safe at all,” Clark said.

Zelle was created by the big banks to compete with apps like Venmo, which is why Kelly thought it would be safe.

“It’s through a bank. So, if anything happens, I can go to the bank and stop the transactions,” Kelly said.

Howard told Gray that’s not the case. He said Zelle gives thieves a direct path to the user’s money, and many customers are automatically signed up by their bank for Zelle without knowing.

“They use the Zelle app and they’re off to the races with your money,” Howard warned.

He said when it comes to consumer protections, the technology is ahead of the law right now.

“The federal regulations are silent on this area, because the regulators and the legislators never could have anticipated having an app like Zelle, Cashapp or Venmo.”

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Channel 2 reached out to Ohio senator Sherrod Brown, who chairs the Senate Banking Committee, about this issue.

In a statement, Brown said, “I’m concerned about hacking and bad actors and will continue to monitor how banks are keeping consumers’ money safe.”

Early Warning Services LLC, the operator of Zelle, said, “We continually invest in fraud-fighting resources.”

Zelle pointed customers directly to their bank if they’ve been impacted. They told Channel 2 money will be returned, “if a fraudster or hacker gains unauthorized access to a bank account.”

Liberman told Gray that was the case for her. She said after four months of calls and emails, she’d gotten nowhere. It was only after Channel 2 contacted Bank of America that her money was returned.

“If it wasn’t for you guys, I have no idea if I would ever be able to get my money back,” she said.

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Howard says the simplest way for consumers to protect themselves is to opt of the Zelle service.

If you’re using apps like Venmo or Cashapp, Howard says to create a separate bank account to link to it and only put money in there for those transactions.

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