Alyssa Bentz is a Corporate Historian for Wells Fargo.
How do you prove you are you? How can a banker confidently match me to the name on an account?
These are questions customers have asked for generations. From pen and paper to biometric sensors today, Wells Fargo has innovated new tools and techniques to provide answers and secure customer authentication
Getting to know new faces
Doing business with strangers is still risky today, but in the 1800s there were no credit reports or government identification forms. It was especially easy for criminals to move from town to town under false names. To mitigate risk, existing customers could act as personal references for new faces.
Jane Leftwick hadn’t done business with Wells Fargo before. So when a package arrived for her at the local Wells Fargo office, she needed to find a way to prove her identity to the Wells Fargo agent. She came to the office with existing customer Joseph Goods who vouched for her. That same week, Yuen No Tong also brought a friend familiar to the Wells Fargo agent to verify his identity, and ensure that his package was delivered to the right person.
More than a name, signatures as identification
Even today with more advanced identification tools, your signature is still commonly used for authentication. Signatures on receipts can be used by stores and banks to compare with signatures on file and on the back of bank-issued cards. More than a formality, these signatures verify a customer’s identification. If someone cannot produce a matching signature, it might mean that an imposter is at work.
In the 1800s, a signature was the most common form of customer identification, especially when doing business by pen and paper. When Arthur S. Cooper planned a trip from his home in Oregon to New York in 1898, he got a letter of introduction from Wells Fargo’s office in Portland before he left. The Wells Fargo cashier in Portland knew Cooper and wrote up a summary of Cooper’s banking relationship including a recommendation to provide money when needed. This letter, signed by both Cooper and the Portland cashier, ensured that Cooper could access savings and loans even while thousands of miles from home.
Not everyone could provide a signature. Some customers had never learned to write or had a physical impairment that prevented signing. In those moments, a physical description helped provide bank staff with information to verify a customer’s identity.
Like Cooper, William I. Vawter asked for a letter of introduction from the Wells Fargo office in Portland when planning a trip east in 1898, but Vawter had a problem. He had an injured hand and could not sign the letter. Instead, the Portland cashier provided a detailed description for the New York staff:
“As his signature does not appear on letter of introduction, I might mention, in the way of identification, that his right hand is crippled. I believe all fingers are missing. He is tall, slim, dark mustache, weighs about 160 to 150 lbs.”
By the early 1900s, many banks began to organize customer information on cards that contained copies of signatures and other identification information. Called signature cards, these cards represented a crucial tool for bankers in preventing fraud. Kept in locked filing cabinets, these cards provided tellers a tool to verify customer account information. Even when a customer closed their account, the bank kept these cards to ensure that no one could impersonate that former customer in the future.
When a mother’s maiden name became a security question
In addition to signatures and physical descriptions, personal information helped customers identify themselves and authorize transactions. Date and place of birth and mother’s maiden name were particularly useful information to have on file. In 1905, Frankie Norton walked into his local Wells Fargo office in Santa Monica, California. He asked the Wells Fargo agent Miss Zula L. Winn to send a letter to his bank in San Francisco. He instructed his bank to send him $100 from his account by Wells Fargo. To authorize the transaction, he included a note “My Mother’s maiden name was Mary L. D. Rowe” knowing that his bank had this personal information on file.
Biographical information continued to be a key distinguishing detail to verify accounts even when technology evolved from pen and paper to online access.
As photograph technology improved with reduced cost and improved speed, photo identification became more common in the early 1900s. Government identification with photo ID and passports became a useful tool for bankers to use when verifying a check or opening a new account.
In addition to using photo IDs, some banks explored ways of issuing checks and cards embedded with customer pictures.
Secret codes and pins
With the introduction of the ATM, banks needed to develop new security tools that didn’t involve a well-trained teller. Instead, banks issued cards with assigned secret codes or randomly chosen pin numbers. Customers learned not to write down or share numbers as they started using pins for the first time.
Recognizing the difficulty for customers to memorize a randomly assigned number
Wells Fargo became the first bank in California to allow customers to choose their own secret code.
With the introduction of online banking in the 1990s, customers created personalized passwords as well as pins.
While featured in science fiction since the 1960s, using the unique pattern of the eyes as identification began becoming a reality in the 1980s. First Interstate Bank, now Wells Fargo, began testing eye scan technology to verify unique eye patterns of employees by 1982. They hoped to expand the technology over time to use in account verification, but the technology remained limited.
Fingerprinting also became more common in government forms and background checks by the 1980s. Wells Fargo and other banks found ways to leverage fingerprinting for better security. Safe deposit customers used fingerprints to validate their identity and gain access to private possessions. But the ability to quickly scan and digitally compare fingerprints defied the technology of the time.
By the 2010s, the expanded use of the mobile phone with high resolution cameras offered new opportunities for advanced biometric screening.
In 2015, Wells Fargo announced that it had tested fingerprint authentication services used by cell phones and enabled the new tool for customers using the bank’s mobile app. For the first time, Wells Fargo customers could securely access their account information with a simple touch.
At the same time, startup companies worked with Wells Fargo’s Startup Accelerator program to develop software capable of reading the unique patterns in a person’s blood vessels around the eye from a picture taken by a mobile phone.
In 2016, Wells Fargo became the first bank in the U.S. to offer face biometrics to authenticate business customers using the CEO Mobile app. That same year, it also offered voice authentication options to customers.
Today, Wells Fargo is consistently enhancing security measures and implementing new tools to protect customer accounts.