By Ben Fox Rubin / CNET

Amazon’s Alexa may turn into the Venmo of voice later this year.

Daon, a Virginia company that develops biometric software for governments and banks, has created a way for financial institutions to let their customers send money to friends, a landlord or just about anyone else using Alexa. And, yes, it will prevent an annoying friend from yelling to your Echo speaker to send him cash.

The company, which helped Mastercard develop its “selfie pay,” couldn’t yet name any banks planning to use the technology, but it said it’s under contract with several “major financial institutions who are interested in pursuing it as a new service.” Daon said these banks have plans to release the new Alexa payment tech in the next nine to 18 months.

“Our banking and financial customers are keen to provide this for their consumers,” Daon CEO Tom Grissen said in an interview.

The new Alexa capability shows the potential of the voice assistant becoming a more powerful agent for consumer banking. The tech could also help Amazon become a bigger player in the banking world, a new area it’s expected to pursue. The world’s largest online store is reportedly looking into partnering with a bank to provide a checking account service for its customers and already offers several branded credit cards.

A handful of banks and financial institutions — including Capital One, Ally Bank and American Express — already offer Alexa skills, the term Amazon calls its voice apps. Many of these skills let you pay off a credit card balance or fund a monthly auto loan payment. Ally’s also allows customers to transfer money between their personal savings and checking accounts. But none of these top financial institutions so far allow their customers to send money to other people’s accounts through Alexa.

Amazon declined to comment on this story.

It’s a crowded payments field

Payments via Alexa could face plenty of competition, so it’s unclear whether people will gravitate toward the new concept. Phones have already made it easy to send and receive money among friends and family, with the help of services like Venmo, PayPal, Square Cash, Zelle and Apple Pay Cash. Google Assistant — Alexa’s primary competition — doesn’t yet offer peer-to-peer payments either.

With many retailers, banks and other organizations rushing to figure out how to connect with customers via voice assistants, it’s important for them to develop new services their customers can regularly use so they can lock them in, said Forrester analyst Brendan Witcher.

“All organizations, banks included, should be putting a strategy together for these devices,” he said. “These devices are selling faster than smartphones sold when they were first introduced.”

How it works

Daon’s Alexa skill isn’t quite as simple as just saying, “Alexa, send mom $50.”

In a demo Monday, Daon software engineer Jason Beloncik turned on the skill on by saying: “Alexa, open Daon Bank.”

“Hello Jason,” Alexa responded. “Thank you for using the Daon Bank Alexa skill. How can I help you today? You can say ‘What’s my balance?’ or ‘Send money.'”

He told Alexa to send Grissen $1,000, and Alexa told him more authentication was required. Using his phone, Beloncik confirmed the transaction was legit and verified his identity by allowing a Daon app to take a picture of his face. He said the app could’ve also authenticated him via voice, fingerprint or a PIN.

In the real world, before sending anyone money using the skill, you would need to add that person as a payee on your bank account online. That should stop anyone within shouting distance of your Echo from stealing your money.

Any bank providing this capability would likely let you use its own app to authenticate purchases, so you wouldn’t have to download a separate app, Beloncik said.

Further into the future, Beloncik said Alexa might be able to authenticate who you are by just using your voice. But for now, Amazon doesn’t let developers grab snippets of a user’s audio, so that option isn’t yet available.


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