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If you still aren’t using your bank’s app, don’t feel too bad. A recent survey of about 10 000 internet banking users in South Africa revealed that less than half of the digital banking population is “very comfortable” using the internet to do their banking – and online banking has been with us for what seems like forever.

Considering that more than half of internet banking users feel uncomfortable doing it, is it any wonder that banking via an app has not taken off as it should have? It’s a real pity that lack of information deprives some people of such a useful, immediate banking option. App banking is generally simple, safe (see “Is app banking safe?”, below) and convenient.

The race to offer the best experience across all digital banking channels is “the next battleground for banks”, according to the 2016 SITEisfaction survey by insights company Columinate. “What was once a war of getting the first app to the market is now a war of having the best banking app in the market,” according to Columinate’s analysis, published the day the survey results were released.

Apps fulfil a particular need for e-bankers: they are the preferred channel for purchasing airtime (67 percent of users), data (52 percent of users) and electricity (36 percent of users ), while the more intricate transactions are left to the traditional channels, according to Columinate.

The consumers who participated in the survey showed the highest levels of satisfaction with the First National Bank (FNB) app, which significantly out-performed all competitors. In the category of best mobile bank, which looked at all mobile banking solutions offered by the banks (Absa, Capitec, FNB, Nedbank and Standard Bank), from apps to mobi-sites for both mobile phones and tablets, FNB was “the clear winner, with 81 (out of a possible 100), followed by Capitec, with 72, and Absa and Standard Bank tied in third place, with a score of 70. Nedbank’s mobile score was a dismal 66.”

Personal Finance staff put their banks’ apps through their paces.


ABSA

Absa’s app scores just 3.1 stars (out of a potential top score of five) in Google Play, with 100 000-plus downloads and 1 074 reviews when we checked. Absa customers tend to either love or hate the app, with most giving it either five stars or one star, and only a few rating it anywhere in between.

A number of critics complain about an inability to switch between accounts if you have multiple accounts, but Absa says linking multiple accounts is on the way. One user, apparently complaining about a previous version of the app, did not feel that using a PIN to log on was safe. Another user complained that the forgotten-password function did not work, and some users of less popular phones complained that the app crashed.

According to Absa’s website, the app is compatible with devices that use iOS, Android and Windows. It works on iOS version 4.1 upwards, but is optimised for iOS 7 upwards. The Windows app is optimised for iOS 8.1 upwards, the website says.

Ease of use

The look and feel of Absa’s most recent app upgrade is a big improvement on its previous rather old and clunky version. The app can be “personalised” with your profile photo, and instead of logging in with your account number and PIN, you now use a five-digit PIN, or your fingerprint if you have a newer model of the iPhone.

The new app features your balance on the landing page and invites you to pay, buy, transfer or send cash. The pay facility enables once-off payments and payments to new and existing beneficiaries, but if you want to set up a recurring payment, you’ll need to use your online banking site.

The buy facility enables you to buy prepaid airtime and data and SMS bundles, but there is no facility for prepaid electricity, which is disappointing.

The transfer section allows simple transfers between accounts. If you use the Cashsend facility, you’ll be referred to the Absa website for the costs of transactions, which I find annoying, so I have yet to test this function.

Information and functional quality

The new app’s menu offers a Manage Beneficiaries function that lets you view payments to saved beneficiaries over the past year, which is really useful when you want to check that payments have been made without having to log into online banking.

The old app had a number of other functions that have been removed from the new app – for example, a branch locator and a foreign currency calculator. Absa says it did 600 customer interviews before it developed the latest version (version five) of the app, and the discontinued features were not key requirements for customers. Additional functionality, based on customer feedback, will be added in future.

Reliability

I have been using both the Absa app and the Standard Bank app for three-and-a-half years and the Absa one seems more reliable, although I have to admit that I use the Standard Bank account more, so that might affect my perception. The Absa app has always worked on Sundays, when I have time to do my banking, while the Standard Bank one is often offline on that day.

Innovation

The new, updated Absa app does not use up any of your data allocation, which means you can view your balances, buy airtime and make payments even if you have run out of data.

My biggest gripe with both apps is their failure to enable users to set budgets on their accounts and receive warnings when they are close to the limit.

Security

Absa’s website answers the question “Is the banking app safe to use” with a one-liner that does little to inspire confidence: “Yes, our app is on a secure platform and you can bank safely.” Actually, the security of online, mobile and app banking was upgraded recently by the introduction of SureCheck, built on proven Entersekt technology (see Capitec and Nedbank, below), which requires you to authenticate each transaction directly from your mobile device. – Laura du Preez


CAPITEC

Capitec’s app has been installed more than a million times, which is significant considering that the bank has about 4.2 million primary customers (those who make regular deposits, mainly salaries). Android users who’ve rated the app on Google Play have given it an impressive score of 4.2 (stars) out of five. Of the 11 100-odd people who reviewed the app, the overwhelming majority rated it highly: 6 939 gave it a perfect five stars; 1 906 gave it four stars; and 944 gave it three. Similarly, Apple users have also given the app a big thumbs up: a four-plus rating. It’s not hard to see why.

Ease of use

As you would expect, Capitec’s interface is clean and simple, featuring a menu of a modest five options: transact (allowing you to pay beneficiaries, manage recurring payments, buy airtime or electricity, and so on); save (if you’ve opened a tax-free savings account, or a flexible or fixed savings account within your Global One account, you can use the app to view these balances and move money between accounts); manage your credit (view balances in any loan accounts and make payments to a credit account); manage your cards (stop lost or stolen cards immediately, or change your daily card limits); and budget (set up a budget to manage your spending).

Some users have been critical of the plain design and the absence of a dashboard showing all your balances and/or your net worth at a glance. Others, myself included, have battled with the usability of the budgeting function, which is cumbersome compared with the 22seven budgeting and investing app (www.22seven.com). For example, it doesn’t automatically or intuitively allocate regular expenses to obvious categories, which means you have to manually allocate each expense to the relevant category. If you have allocated X amount for groceries and you exceed that amount, the app shows you as much.

Information and functional quality

In line with Capitec’s no-frills philosophy, you won’t find any “nice-to-have” info on the app, so don’t expect to find any interest rate calculators, or exchange rates. What is lacking is a branch and ATM locator. Apart from the less-than-impressive budget function, functional quality is tops.

Reliability

I’ve been using the app for five months, and not once has it been down for maintenance or offline – at least as far as I am aware. 

Innovation

Capitec’s app shows you how one of the big credit bureaus rates you as a consumer of credit. Although you don’t get your credit score, the app indicates – in graphic form – whether you’re a good or a bad risk. The needle on the dial gave me the best rating, but then under the heading “Ways to improve your rating” suggested I “build up a credit history on revolving accounts such as Capitec’s credit facility”, which sounds more like an encouragement to consume credit than a means of improving a rating that is already tops.

New features of the latest version include the ability to: stop and/or dispute debit orders; buy airtime in custom amounts; pay a Capitec Bank client using their verified cellphone number; and email yourself e-stamped statements, which I found super useful.

The app does not use your data if you’re an MTN, Vodacom or Cell C subscriber. Only Telkom Mobile subscribers carry the cost of data when using the app. 

Security

I love that Capitec’s app is secured by Entersekt, a product that verifies your mobile device, rather than your SIM. So if you were to become the victim of a fraudulent SIM swop, any communication from the bank to your number would not be picked up on any device but your own. Before the app is activated on your device, you have to go into a branch so that the bank can authenticate you using fingerprint technology.

What I like about Entersekt is that, instead of sending you SMSes via a cellular network provider, it sends you encrypted messages to your phone. These are “push-based authentication”, meaning you’re asked to accept or reject a transaction with a single tap on your screen. So, assuming someone has taken over your account and tries to transfer your money out of your account, you will get a message asking you to authorise the payment. If it’s a fraud, you merely reject it. – Angelique Ardé


FIRST NATIONAL BANK

FNB’s app is a winner, if the stats are anything to go by. Over 10 000 of the 16 000 people who have rated it on the Google Play Store give it a top, five-star rating. The app scores an average 4.2 stars. When it was launched in 2011, it received gushy praise, and justifiably: it is quick and easy and does a multitude of tasks well. This year, it was voted best banking app in the Internet Banking SITEisfaction Survey, which measures internet banking quality and user experience in South Africa.

Ease of use

The FNB app is user-friendly, relatively simple and boasts good functionality. The look and feel are clean and logical and you can do most things, from buying Lotto tickets to transferring money into a listed beneficiary’s account or buying airtime or data. You can transfer money from one account to another and view balances and transaction history. Useful features include the ability to draw cash without a card (invaluable if your wallet or purse gets nicked) and buy pre-paid electricity.

Information and functional quality

Some might argue that the FNB app is over-specced. You can check your share portfolio, access FNB’s business directory, and monitor rewards like savings at partner stores (Checkers) and the status of your eBucks … all this without being cluttered. On the other hand, I have yet to come across an app, or a feature within an app, that replaces the spreadsheet I use every month to do my budgeting.

Reliability

I’ve used the app for what seems like years. If I have any criticism, it is minor: the app sometimes shuts down, but that could be because I’ve been putting it through its paces, trying to do too many things too quickly in a poor-signal area.

Innovation

There’s no specific innovation in the app that warrants crowing about; rather, FNB’s record of innovation (it was named the most innovative bank in the world in the 2012 BAI-Finacle Global Banking Innovation Awards) is reflected in the app.

Security

The app doesn’t boast any special security features, but I do appreciate that FNB offers free Trend Micro antivirus and malware protection for all devices, including smartphones and tablets. To download the software, log on to your online banking profile and hit the Trend Micro link. – Gregory Pierre


NEDBANK

Nedbank’s app rates a modest 3.6 stars (out of a potential top score of five) in Google Play, with 100 000-plus downloads and 3 737 reviews when I last checked. What’s slightly disturbing is that, although 1 722 people have awarded it five stars, many others (733) believe it’s worth only one star.

Critics have drawn attention to frequent freezing and crashing, some proposing that the app developers check out the Capitec and Standard Bank apps to learn about good user interfaces and functionality. Ouch. Against that, my own experience of the app has been quite positive.

Ease of use

The disarmingly simple interface features 15 icons providing access to routine banking functions (payments, transfers, statements, etc), a market watchlist, Nedbank Private Wealth information and the purchase of Webtickets or insurance products. Some icons, shaded out by default, offer an opportunity to activate NetBank Business, unit trusts, share trading and prepaids (airtime and electricity). Navigation is easy, but finger trouble can be a problem when backtracking: several attempts to hit the “Menu” button returned me to the landing page, requiring me to re-enter my PIN.

Information and functional quality

You get most of the information you are likely to need for everyday banking, and there’s a useful “Tools” page with calculators for home loans, motor vehicle finance and personal loans.

The branch and ATM locator quickly identified my location, asked me to confirm it, then steered me to 10 Nedbank ATMs less than four kilometres from my home. A forex calculator delivered the current buy/ sell rates for major foreign currencies.

Reliability

As a new user, I was surprised to discover that banking services were unavailable on two occasions, neither of which would logically fall into a “scheduled maintenance” window.

Similar experiences are reported by Google Playstore critics, some of whom are scathing about the app’s unreliability.

Innovation

A “Simply Biz Locator” button allows you to search for a business nearby, by industry or by name (note that your device’s GPS should be switched on for optimum accuracy). I like the Market Watchlist function, which allows you to enter a share name and features the time of the last trade and price per share, courtesy of Nedgroup Private Wealth Stockbrokers.

Security

Nedbank’s app is secured by Entersekt, an award-winning local company with a large and rapidly growing international footprint. The SDK (software development kit) platform provides two-factor authentication without the need for one-time passwords (OTPs), using your mobile device as the second factor of authentication. This promises to counter “all phishing, proxy Trojan horse, keystroke logging, call forwarding and number porting attacks”. To get started, you authenticate yourself via your regular online banking credentials (profile number, PIN and password), then provide a new five-character PIN to gain access to the app’s various functions. – Alan Duggan


STANDARD BANK

I’m not an “appy” person. I’ve tried one or two, but doing banking on my phone just seems too risky. But I have to concede that the convenience, speed and ease of use may yet persuade me to get with the digital programme.

Users have given the app an average rating of 3.6 stars in the Google Play Store.

Ease of use

Signing up was simpler than I expected: all I had to create was my Standard Bank ID, consisting of a personal email address and a password, and then I was able to sign up using my online banking details. You can access all your digital banking platforms using the same ID – very convenient. All my cards and accounts that were already linked online were available on the app, so I could start transacting without further ado.

The app has the same look as Standard’s new online banking site, but it took some fiddling around to figure out how the functions were organised. The main transaction and payment functions are accessed from a tab on the right, while functions such as linking and managing your accounts, finding a branch and applying for products are grouped in a menu on the left. These menus have no “back” function, and your instinctive urge to use the back function on your phone can result in you logging yourself off the app. You have to remember to touch the background behind a menu to stop the menu from being displayed. I found this somewhat finicky.

Information and functional quality

When it comes to transacting, you can:

  • Make once-off payments;
  • Make inter-account transfers;
  • Send InstantMoney to a cellphone;
  • Pay beneficiaries;
  • Withdraw money by sending a voucher to an ATM or Spar store;
  • Buy airtime or data; and
  • Buy electricity.

The functionality for making payments is the same as it is in online banking. You can change your daily withdrawal and credit card limits, add, change or remove beneficiaries and set up recurring payments. You can view the three most recent payments to a beneficiary and view your transaction history going back four months on your credit card and six months on your current account.

The Explore Products section invites you to apply for a number of products, including a home loan, vehicle finance, online share-trading, foreign exchange and insurance. However, you cannot sign up for these products on the app; you will be directed to the Standard Bank website, or told to visit a branch or phone a toll-free number.

Reliability

The version I downloaded (version 2.1.3) was updated on September 1, and has been downloaded over 500 000 times. It has a rating of 3.6 out of five stars in the Google Play Store. It received some high praise, but other users have complained about random crashes and being unable to access their accounts after updating from the previous version. Despite my ageing and faulty smartphone, I have had no problems logging in at various times of day. Payments were processed quickly and my first pre-paid electricity purchase went through without a hitch.

Security

Standard Bank’s website does not provide any information about the app’s security features, or how clients are protected when using the app. The app does automatically sign you out if it detects inactivity on your account after five minutes – useful if you leave the app running, as I often do. – Mark Bechard


IS APP BANKING SAFE?

Many people resist app banking because they fear that it’s not safe. However, pundits suggest that app banking is actually safer than online banking via your desktop or laptop computer.

Andrew Henwood, the chief executive of Foregenix, specialists in digital forensics and information security, says banking via a mobile app is less prone to attack and thus less risky. This is partly because of the relative complexity of a phone’s operating system, as opposed to a typical home PC running Microsoft Windows. “Additionally, mobile phones are generally more up to date from a software perspective than the typical home PC, where many folks are still running Microsoft Windows XP, released in late 2001.”

People tend to upgrade their smartphones every two to three years, he says. “Thus, a smartphone and an associated banking app is more up to date and likely a lot more secure.”

Be that as it may, what about the risks of me downloading a malicious app – there are reportedly about a million of them out there, some posing as banking apps? How am I to know whether or not I’m downloading my bank’s official app?

If you download from reputable sources only – for example, the Apple Store or Google Play Store – you should be safe, Henwood says.

As a rule, you should never “root” (if you have an Android) or “jailbreak” (if you have an iPhone) your smartphone. These are terms used to describe you gaining “root access” to your phone’s operating system, which allows you to circumvent any restrictions set by the manufacturer and, for example, download apps that are not available on your app store.

“These stores have significant investments in ensuring that the majority of the apps are malware-free. Additionally, confirm that the app from the official store is written by the banking institution and not an unknown third-party developer,” he says. You will find information about the developer of the app at the bottom of the page in the app store. For an extra layer of security, you could also opt to download to your phone the antivirus software that your bank offers free to all customers who use digital platforms.

Yolande Steyn, the head of innovations and digital at First National Bank (FNB), says app banking has an additional layer of security, because it is installed on a user’s smartphone or tablet, and usually these devices are protected by a device-lock code, pattern or fingerprint to unlock the device.

You are advised to protect your device in this way and to install antivirus software such as Trend Micro, which is offered free to FNB customers, she says.

“Make sure that no personal information, PINs or passwords are stored on your device as a contact or a message. Enable services such as Apple Find my iPhone or Android Device Manager to find, lock and erase your phone in the event of loss or theft.”

And if your device is lost or stolen, immediately report it to your bank’s fraud hotline so that the bank can block your profile. – Angelique Ardé