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Web Payments Could Surpass Checks Soon

By Alex Bard

By the end of this year, the number of bills paid online could surpass the number paid by checks. If you've got a credit or debit card, a computer and an Internet hookup, you're ready to go.

Why fill out the check? Then you have to find the bill and a stamp. If it's close to being a late payment, you have to hurry to the post office, mail it and pray it gets there on time so you can avoid the late fee.

But if you have an Internet connected computer, your bill paying is free, both monetarily and time wise.

According to a recent poll by Harris Interactive, a research firm, the gap between the number of bills paid by check and the number paid online has closed significantly in the past year. More than 37 percent of bills are paid by check; 35 percent are paid online. The remaining 28 percent are paid with cash, debit cards or other payment methods.

Last year, only 25 percent of bills were paid online and 46 percent paid by check.

Banks are now starting to aggressively market online checking, as are utility companies. It saves them personnel costs and gives the consumer a greater sense of control.

The caveat with these numbers is that the Harris poll was commissioned by CheckFree, which helps banks and billers build online bill presentment and payment services.

"The days when people see the U.S. mail as a safe and rational place to do our bills are numbered," said James Van Dyke, president of Javelin Strategy and Research, a consultancy based in Pleasanton, Calif.

According to Javelin, roughly half of all households with Internet access have paid bills at a biller's Web site; about 40 percent have paid bills through a bank or credit union site in the previous month. Analysts say consumers still greatly prefer to pay bills at the Web sites of their financial institutions, not just because customers trust banks and credit unions with their finances, but also because these Web sites can display and process multiple bills at once.

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Banks once charged for the use of online services because they weren't willing to pay what the companies that processed the information charged. This cost was passed on to the consumer.

According to Catherine Graeber, an analyst with Forrester Research, a technology consultancy, a bank's online bill payers are substantially more likely than their check-writing counterparts to rely on the bank for credit cards and other financial services, and they also call the bank less frequently, so they are less costly to serve. "Online bill pay does have a halo effect," Ms. Graeber said.

The New York Times says the technology has steadily improved, making it simpler to understand and use. Bank of America, which was the first to offer a free service, in 2002, and which claims to have the most online bill payers of any bank, with 7.7 million, has tweaked its system regularly in recent years.

According to Sanjay Gupta, Bank of America's e-commerce executive, users now typically enter nothing more than the company name and account number to sent payments, whereas in years past they were required to enter the company's full address, among other things.

Matthew Lewis, CheckFree's executive vice president, said the company had created new sources of revenue over the past year, crunching data for banks and helping them identify potentially fraudulent transactions. But he said CheckFree's core mission remained focused on consumers.
"Mainstream America is increasingly finding ways the Web can really improve their lives," Mr. Lewis said. "We want to make this more part of the way Americans live their lives."

About the Author:
Alex Bard is a staff writer for WebProNews covering technology and business.

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