Almost like an ATM in your pocket

  • By Quinn Russell Brown <i>For HBJ</i>
  • Wednesday, February 5, 2014 3:54pm

Matthew Mikulsky knows the power of going mobile.

He runs Chatter Creative Solutions, an Edmonds advertising agency that designs mobile versions of websites for businesses in the Seattle area.

So he was jazzed when his company’s bank, Boeing Employees Credit Union (BECU), began offering a remote check deposit feature through its mobile app a little more than a year ago.

Chatter Creative now does all of its banking with smartphones. That includes check deposit, bill pay, balance inquiry and transfers between accounts.

“A client will pay us via a check, and once that check arrives we crack open the BECU app,” Mikulsky said. “I don’t have to drive anywhere. I get a check and deposit it. It’s almost like having an ATM machine in my pocket.”

Mikulsky’s wife, Gretchen, is the company’s director of operations. She works mostly from their Lynnwood home so that she can look after their 3-year-old daughter, Nora.

“She takes care of everything that goes in and everything that goes out, money-wise,” Matthew Mikulsky said. “She uses the app even more than me.”

BECU is the fourth-largest credit union in the nation. Originally started for Boeing employees 78 years ago, it now has nearly $12 billion in assets and 840,000 members across the Puget Sound area. About a quarter of those members are active mobile banking users.

A mobile app fits into BECU’s remote operating model. Only two of their 43 locations have tellers, and members have been able to deposit checks by scanning them with their home computers for years.

Mobile banking isn’t exactly new. Wells Fargo, for example, launched its app six years ago. But an American Bankers Association study from October found that 8 percent of people now say that mobile is their preferred way to bank. While that may seem like a small figure, it’s a 30 percent increase from 2012. suggested 2014 may be the “Year of Mobile Banking,” citing last year’s 25 percent increase in smartphone ownership and 60 percent increase in tablet ownership.

Predictably, mobile banking is most popular among young people, many of whom use cell phones to do yesteryear’s desktop tasks. If they do everything else with mobile devices, it makes sense to bank that way, too.

“Our membership tends to be on the more tech-savvy side, so they were clamoring for it,” said Howie Wu, vice president of Virtual Banking at BECU.

Still, Wu says older generations have also embraced the app.

Mobile check deposit accounts for over 10 percent of BECU’s total check volume. Members can deposit up to a million dollars per transaction. There were 156,000 deposits totaling $108 million in December alone, Wu says.

“Just through mobile deposit, not counting ATMs, branches,” he said. “When we look at our statistics and our metrics, every month incrementally we outdo the prior month in check volume.”

The state’s second largest credit union, Washington State Employees Credit Union (WSECU), is all aboard the mobile craze, as well. Vice president of public relations Ann Flannigan says they have a “mobile first” attitude these days.

“Every product, every service, every way we try to meet members’ needs, we think about it first through the lens of how those things will be experienced by our members on their mobile devices,” Flannigan wrote in an email.

WSECU launched their app in 2008. It now features mobile check deposit and has more than 52,000 active users.

Smaller organizations are doing their best to keep up. NorthWest Plus Credit Union, which has about 17,000 members throughout Washington, launched their mobile app at the end of 2013. Cathy Henry, assistant vice president of marketing, says it’s slowly catching on.

“Those who use it love it,” Henry said of the 473 members who have signed up.

Amid the race to provide the newest and quickest way of doing things, some just want to stick to what they know.

“A lot of people still like the brick-and-mortar aspect of banking,” Henry said. “Especially if somebody has something happen, like the Target breach. They want to talk to people, they like that face-to-face.”

Security is a big concern. Many people simply don’t feel comfortable using a cell phone to send payments and deposit checks. But Wu says all of BECU’s data is encrypted and that the mobile devices don’t store any of it.

“So even if someone were to grab that data stream out of the air, they still wouldn’t be able to get any of the information,” Wu said. “Only BECU behind our secure firewalls has the keys to de-encrypt.”

The folks at Chatter Creative aren’t too concerned about security.

“Having it in your pocket, you can watch it a little closer,” Mikulsky said. “You’re constantly in there. If there is any fraud going on, you’d be alerted to it quicker than you would be with a piece of plastic.”

When Mikulsky asks his friends who own small businesses if they use mobile banking, their response is often an emphatic no.

“There’s a lot of people who just don’t,” he said.

“They think it’s a security issue,” his wife Gretchen added. “A friend of mine who’s a chiropractor uses mobile banking for her practice. But I don’t hear too much of it, honestly. I think people think it’s not safe, but it’s actually more secure.”

Wu anticipates a future where all banking can be done on mobile devices, but he doesn’t see it happening anytime soon.

A quick way to deposit checks is a godsend for small companies like Chatter Creative, but it’s not practical for big corporations.

Sometimes a personal relationship with a banker is preferred or even necessary.

Then there are those doing their personal finances at home, for whom a desktop monitor can be easier on the eyes than squinting at a smudgy cell phone screen.

“I think mobile banking is just another channel,” Wu said. “It’s like another lane on the highway. You could almost call it the expressway.”

Tips for Mobile Banking

Seemingly simple camera phone technology can be frustrating. When your check is ready for its close-up, follow these steps:

  • Make sure the room is well-lit.
  • Choose plain, dark surfaces.
  • Hold your phone directly above the check and make sure everything is in the frame.
  • Don’t use flash.
  • Tap on the screen to make your camera focus on the check.
  • Above all, get a clear image.

Source: BECU