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Control Your Payment Card from Your iPhone

A while back, I checked my Ally Bank checking account balance and was alarmed at how unusually low it was. Looking closer, I noticed several hundred dollars of charges to HostGator, with whom I’ve never done business. Yikes, someone had stolen my debit card number!

Such problems apparently happen so often with HostGator that the company has a special help page just for fraudulent charges. I was able to get my money back quickly.

The bizarre part is that the fraud occurred on an old debit card that should have been deactivated by the bank. That meant I didn’t have to get a new card, but it shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

It certainly won’t happen to my current Ally debit card, thanks to the new Ally Card Controls app. This simple app lets me turn a card on and off with a switch, control how my card is used, view recent purchases, and receive a notification every time my card is used.

Ally Card Controls is a little wonky. When you first open it, it tells you that you have to authorize it from the main Ally Mobile app. It’s not immediately obvious how you do this. What you have to do is go into Settings in the Ally Mobile app and choose Card Controls. That bounces you to the Ally Card Controls app and authorizes it. You may also notice that Ally Card Controls isn’t optimized for larger screens like the iPhone 7 Plus. But these minor irritations are worth putting up with for the app’s benefits.

In the main screen, you see your card, with a switch to turn it on and off. (If you have multiple cards from Ally, you can swipe between them.) Traditionally, if your card disappears, you have to assume it could have been stolen and call the issuer to have it canceled and get a new one sent out. It’s a huge pain. With the Ally Card Controls app, you can simply turn the card off yourself, just in case, and then turn it on again if you later find it jammed between the car seats.

That’s just scratching the surface. Under Control Preferences, you can choose where and how your card can be used.

  • Locations: Here you can set your card to work only when your iPhone is in the vicinity of the merchant, by turning on My Location. You can also restrict usage to My Regions, which are up to three addresses you provide to Ally. These first two settings apply only to in-store purchases. You can also enable Block International to block any transactions outside your country.

  • Merchant Types: These settings let you control the types of stores where your debit card can be used. For instance, you can enable your card at gas stations but disable it at restaurants. I’m not a huge fan of these categories because they can be vague. What the heck does Personal Care mean? (Probably businesses like hair salons, manicurists, and the like, but there’s no indication of that.)

  • Transaction Types: This restriction is more useful than merchant types since it lets you set where your card can be used. For instance, you can make it so your card can be used at an ATM or in a store, but not online.

  • Spend Limits: You can’t set a daily spending limit, but you can configure a per-transaction limit. That way, you could let kids use your card for gas and have confidence that they won’t go buy an expensive TV.

Below Control Preferences are Alert Preferences. You can set alert rules along the same lines as the control rules, but I prefer to get a notification for All Transactions. I don’t use my card enough for the alerts to be obnoxious, and I find the buzz of my iPhone seconds after I swipe my card to be reassuring.

Last comes the Recent Transactions button, which does exactly what you’d expect.

Options from Other Banks — I don’t want to seem like a shill for Ally Bank. It’s just what I use and thus the bank with which I have the most experience. Other financial institutions offer similar options to disable a card via apps or Web sites, along with providing purchase notifications.

It’s encouraging that some financial institutions let you use an app or Web site to temporarily or permanently deactivate a credit or debit card, control spending, and notify you of purchases, but we’d like to see these features become more widespread.

If you’re aware of other financial institutions who provide interesting features via an iOS app, let us know in the comments!

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