Wells Fargo appears to have taken the lead on cardless ATMs.

All 13,000 of its ATMs can now be accessed without a debit card, the bank announced Monday. The alternative method involves logging into the bank's mobile app to receive an eight-digit access code, which is then punched into the ATM along with the customer's PIN.

"We believe the future is cardless, and the launch of One-Time Access Code provides our 20 million mobile banking customers another convenient way to manage money," Brett Pitts, the bank's head of digital for virtual channels, said in a news release.

Although banks of various sizes have been rolling out cardless ATMs for a couple of years now, a major bank bringing the technology to its entire fleet of ATMs is noteworthy.

Brett Pitts, head of digital for Wells Fargo virtual channels.
Brett Pitts, head of digital for virtual channels for Wells Fargo.

Bank of America, for instance, has incorporated cardless technology only into a little more than half of its 16,000 ATMs. However, it has plans to begin replacing older machines this summer with next-generation models and to have its whole fleet upgraded by the end of 2017.

JPMorgan Chase also began piloting cardless ATMs last year. As of February it had only a few hundred such machines out in the wild, but roughly 6,000 more — about a third of the bank's 18,000 ATMs — were "upgraded and ready to go," The New York Times reported.

Banks aren't making a big push to integrate cardless technology merely for customers who would rather not tote their debit cards around. The idea is to integrate physical channels, such as ATMs, more thoroughly with banking apps.

"Every time a customer walks up to an ATM or into a branch, chances are they're carrying a phone, and we believe the real power of mobile is the ability to enhance the customer experience at our ATMs and branches," Jonathan Velline, Wells Fargo's head of branch and ATM banking, said in the release.

In addition to the access code method, later this year Wells Fargo customers will be able to initiate cardless ATM transactions using the tap-and-pay technology of smartphones equipped with near-field communication. More than 40% of Wells Fargo ATMs currently have NFC capability, the bank said.

While cardless ATMs may keep consumers safe from some forms of identity theft, at least one Chase customer has had money stolen through a cardless ATM.

In November 2016, a man reported that $3,000 — the maximum daily withdrawal amount — had been removed from his account. Someone had gotten ahold of the username and password for his mobile app and then used the app to withdraw cash from one of Chase's new cardless ATMs.

"At no time is the Chase customer asked to enter his or her 4-digit ATM card PIN," Brian Krebs reported in a blog post highlighting the issue earlier this year.

Wells Fargo does require customers to enter their PINs along with the unique eight-digit codes, providing an additional layer of security. According to recent descriptions of Chase's "eATMs," it seems that Chase may have begun to require this second step as well.

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