Local banks, credit unions join in mobile banking tech development

Football scores, grocery lists, learning to speak French: there’s an app for that. Now, banks are offering smartphone apps to help their customers access accounts no matter where they are.

SRP Federal Credit Union released its applications for iPhone, iPad, Android and BlackBerry four weeks ago, and president Ed Templeton said it has been downloaded more than 5,000 times already.

“We’re just overwhelmed with the response,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve had one call about questions or problems with the app.”

Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase led the charge into mobile banking, and now a growing number of smaller financial institutions are following suit. Bank of America launched mobile-banking services in 2007, and Chase began offering mobile services through the iPhone platform in 2009.

A recent study by Forrester Research found that adoption of mobile-banking services has more than doubled since early 2009, and it is predicted to grow by about 20 percent a year over the next five years, reaching 50 million U.S. consumers by 2015.

What has been a item for national and regional banks has trickled down to the locally-run banks and credit unions, such as SRP.

According to Regina Kennedy, of Georgia Bank & Trust, creating a smartphone app for their customers was an easy decision.

“It’s really just another piece of technology we feel like people will go to more and more,” she said. “Almost like another channel to our Internet banking.”

Their app allows customers to check their balance, make transfers and check on transactions anywhere they have cell phone service.

Georgia Bank & Trust will release its app next week for employee testing, and it will be available to customers before the end of the year.

“Mobile is such a fast-growing space, it’s even more important to stay tune to how our customers want to access their finances,” Templeton said. “It’s here to stay, and it will be a part of the choices customers will come to expect.”

For SRP, the best app was just something that worked as an extension of their internet banking Web site.

“A question the financial community has been asking for some time is, exactly what is mobile banking and what are customers looking for? You ask 10 people and you’ll get 25 answers,” Templeton said.

SRP is working on an update to the smartphone app that would allow customers to use their automatic bill pay service as well. The update should be available by the end of November.

Armin Ajami, the vice president of Wells Fargo mobile banking, agreed that mobile banking is only a tool to help customers manage their money conveniently and securely.

“Fundamentally, our mobile banking is just a part of serving our customers,” Ajami said. “It comes down to listening to what our customers want.”

Wells Fargo rolled out it first mobile-banking option in 2007, and has nearly 6 million mobile customers. The apps are available for Android, iPhone, BlackBerry and Palm smartphones in addition to a mobile browser site and text-message banking.

Smartphone apps aren’t a must-have for every bank. Randy Potter, the CEO of Savannah River Banking Co., said its primarily professional and small-business customer base hasn’t really put up a demand for this technology. The bank is moving in that direction, but its primary focus is listening to customers and what they are looking for out of their bank.

“We’re probably a few years away from that,” Potter said. “It’s more suited for a young, tech savvy audience and that’s not really our market.”

Templeton said that for SRP, security was a priority when designing a way for customers to bank through their smartphones.

“We’re very protective of our members’ records,” he said.

When customers download the app, SRP requires special authorization, signature verification and a temporary password to guard against security breaches. Once everything is verified,the SRP app allows customers to check account balances, transfer funds, track transactions and even see charts on balance levels in the past.

Security is always a concern when managing money with technology, but Kennedy said customers can rest assured that the bank has made the app’s security watertight.

“It’s always a good idea to keep your phone password protected, but this app is just as secure as the rest of our banking,” she said.

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