We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, nearly 1.5 million people used their mobile devices to visit our sites.
Already a subscriber?
Wow! You read a lot!
Reading enhances confidence, empathy, decision-making, and overall life satisfaction. Keep it up! Subscribe.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
Until next month, you can always look over someone's shoulder at the coffee shop.
Already a subscriber?
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, we posted 390 stories about the fire. And they were shared nearly 137,000 times.
Already a subscriber?
Supporting the community that supports us.
Obviously you value quality local journalism. Thank you.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
We miss you already! (Subscriptions start at just 99 cents.)
Already a subscriber?

The "Follow This Story" feature will notify you when any articles related to this story are posted.

When you follow a story, the next time a related article is published — it could be days, weeks or months — you'll receive an email informing you of the update.

If you no longer want to follow a story, click the "Unfollow" link on that story. There's also an "Unfollow" link in every email notification we send you.

This tool is available only to subscribers; please make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.


Please note: This feature is available only to subscribers; make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

Jeanie Stapleton couldn't wait to deposit personal checks with her iPhone.

"Maybe some people don't mind going to the bank. I do," said Stapleton, a part-time legal assistant, wife and mother of 9-year-old twins in Petaluma.

In December she began photographing checks with her smartphone and depositing them electronically via a new feature from Wells Fargo Bank.

Stapleton uses the same mobile phone app to transfer money directly to friends, baby-sitters and relatives. She said the free mobile deposits and person-to-person transfers help her make better use of busy days.

"If I can get those minutes back and spend it on something else, that's more time for me," she said.

Banking is going mobile in a big way.

Both local and national institutions keep rolling out free services for mobile phone owners. And while some ideas aren't yet ready for widespread use, experts foresee a day when smartphones become "mobile wallets," used like credit or debit cards and linked to a system where merchants can offer targeted coupons and loyalty discounts.

Thirty-five percent of U.S. cellphone owners now use their devices to connect to their banks, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center. Only 18 percent did so two years ago.

In comparison, about half of U.S. adults do online banking with a personal computer. That number has changed little in recent years.

At Wells Fargo, mobile banking has grown 30 percent year over year to more than 11 million users. Customers are flocking to it faster than they did to online and telephone banking and to the introduction decades ago of automatic teller machines, said Armin Ajami, a Wells Fargo vice president and senior product manager for mobile.

The new phone features give customers convenience, choice and control.

"They basically have their bank in their pocket," said Ajami.

Two Santa Rosa financial institutions, Exchange Bank and Redwood Credit Union, last fall separately released their own mobile banking apps. Both report that slightly more than one in 10 customers now bank by phone.

And customers for Sonoma Bank in Santa Rosa, part of Sterling Bank of Spokane, Wash., last month began using a new banking app for Apple and Android phones.

Already 15,000 customers have signed up for mobile, "and that's just in its first week and a half," said Patricia Baughman, a senior vice president for Sterling. The mobile users amount to more than 12 percent of customers who already bank with a personal computer.

Consumers have used their own computers for online banking for more than 15 years. They began by checking their balances and transferring funds. Now they can pay bills and even apply for loans.

"The Internet can be very good for taking care of life chores," said Susannah Fox, associate director for the Pew Research Center. "That's one significant advantage that the banking industry learned early on."

For those on the go, even a basic cellphone can check balances, receive alerts and transfer funds among personal accounts by using text messages.

And smartphone users have long been able to access their accounts online as they would by computer.

Maria Vierra of Santa Rosa used her iPhone for three years to access her account via the Redwood Credit Union website. But she downloaded the credit union's mobile app about a month ago after Redwood began to offer the means to deposit checks by phone.

Rather than take off at lunch time to physically deposit a check, she now simply takes photos of it and sends in the images electronically with directions on which of her accounts should receive the funds. In return, she gets an email receipt.

The new feature is attracting plenty of users, said Robin McKenzie, a senior vice president at Redwood. In July, 5,000 checks were deposited. The number hit 13,000 in August.

Vierra, a wife, mother of two children and an executive assistant for Jackson Family Wines, said she rarely steps inside her credit union branch any more.

"I can't remember the last time I was there," she said. When she needs actual greenbacks, she gets cash back while shopping at her grocery store.

Both local and national banks report strong growth in mobile banking.

Chase Bank said mobile users increased 32 percent year over year to 14 million customers. In the last year, the number using the bank's Quickdeposit photo check deposit doubled and those using its QuickPay person-to-person money transfers tripled.

Bank of America reports 13 million mobile customers, and the number grows by more than 50,000 enrollees each week. Customers on mobile phones and tablets deposit 160,000 checks a day and login 100 million times a month, compared to 190 million online logins a month.

Wells Fargo, Chase and Bank of America all offer free person-to-person money transfers to virtually any U.S. bank account — a service similar to that of e-commerce company PayPal.

Sonoma and Exchange banks and Redwood Credit have yet to provide such transfers. But bankers said they listen to customers about which services seem appealing.

"As a community bank, we try to provide the same services as the larger guys," said Byron Webb, a vice president and manager of electronic banking at Exchange Bank.

Stapleton, the Wells Fargo customer, uses the bank's mobile transfers, known as SurePay, to settle up with friends for concert tickets or to pay her sister for items purchased on her behalf. It saves her the minutes she used to spend writing a check and dropping it in the mail.

As a result, she often doesn't need to use cash.

"If my sister and I go to lunch, instead of splitting the bill, one will pay and the other will send money to the other right at the table," Stapleton said.

More innovations are on the way. One is known as photo bill pay. As with mobile deposit, users snap a photo of any bill, add information about the payee and the bank electronically processes the payment.

But perhaps the most-anticipated feature is the mobile wallet, also known as "contactless payment" using "near field communications" technology. It would allow a customer to pay for goods with a simple wave of a smartphone at an electronic terminal. Merchants could offer those customers special electronic offers and loyalty promotions.

Bankers and experts say the mobile wallet won't become widely used until the industry decides on a standard technology. Even so, 57 percent of bank customers say they would use such a feature, according to a recent study by Ath Power Consulting.

"Consumers are very much ready for these more advanced abilities," said Michael McEvoy, managing director of Ath Power in Boston. "They're really waiting for the banks and the credit card companies to catch up."

Even so, McEvoy doubted the credit card is about to vanish.

"I think it's actually hard to see a compelling reason for dropping the plastic cards entirely," he said. "I think there needs to be a good reason and I'm not sure there is right now."

Mobile banking means fewer customers stopping by their branches. Bank visits for deposits and withdrawals have declined 10 percent since 2010, Javelin Strategy & Research reported in July.

While bankers insist it isn't their primary aim, the switch to mobile banking can be a big cost savings for financial institutions. The typical bank spends $4.25 to process an in-branch deposit, according to Javelin. In contrast, it costs just a dime to process the mobile photo deposit. If 30 million customers deposited checks by phone, the industry could save $1.5 billion a year, analysts said.

Mobile banking now is mostly free, but analysts have been exploring consumer acceptance of possible fees. Thirty-two percent of bank customers told Ath Power they would be willing to pay something for some services — the amount supported ranged from $1 to more than $3. A year earlier only 19 percent expressed such willingness.

McEvoy said consumers reasonably calculate that it's easier to pay 50 cents for a mobile check deposit rather than consuming the gasoline and time required to visit their local branch.

Concerns over online security remain, especially for those who aren't signing up. A March survey by the Federal Reserve Board found that 49 percent of those not using mobile banking expressed concern about the security of the technology.

In response, banks note their policies to reimburse customers for any unauthorized transactions as long as their clients act responsibly — protecting their online passwords, regularly checking their account activity and promptly notifying the bank if they detect improper withdrawals.

Not surprisingly, mobile banking is most popular with young adults. Fifty-three percent of people from the ages of 18 to 29 bank by cellphone. In contrast, only 10 percent of adults 65 and older use the technology.

Nonetheless, more senior citizens will gravitate to mobile banking because they value their independence and want to take care of themselves as much as possible, said Mark Beach, a spokesman for the American Association of Retired Persons.

Mobile banking doesn't require a ride to the bank, freeing many seniors from the need for a caregiver to help with such transactions.

"It's more than a convenience," Beach said. "It keeps the power in their hands."

Show Comment