Commentary: Welcoming the online world of 21st-century banking

Mar 01, 2008, 5:00am

Change doesn't come easy for most of us, especially when it involves money. If you're like me, you still remember the first time you walked into a bank to open an account - the fortress-like building, the prim and proper employees, tellers behind their glassed and barred cages. It was an intimidating experience, but somehow you knew that your money would be safe behind that imposing brass door to the bank vault.

Key Points

Change doesn't come easy for most of us, especially when it involves money. If you're like me, you still remember the first time you walked into a bank to open an account - the fortress-like building, the prim and proper employees, tellers behind their glassed and barred cages. It was an intimidating experience, but somehow you knew that your money would be safe behind that imposing brass door to the bank vault.

That image remains buried deep within the psyche of many Americans. For them, the idea of online banking produces a sense of uneasiness. "Will my money be safe?" "What kind of receipt will I get when I make a deposit?"

Those worries and others are fading as millions of savers and investors welcome the 21st-century approach to managing money.

More than 20 million Bank of America customers now conduct their business online.

The highly successful ING DIRECT is one of several banks with no physical branches; all of its business is conducted online.

How about you? If you haven't yet dipped a toe into online banking waters, here are some advantages that you may want to consider:

Timesaving convenience

As a busy professional/business owner, time is one of your most valuable assets. One of online banking's chief attractions is conducting business from your store, home or office.

No more driving to the bank only to wait in line for a teller or an open drive-in window. With online banking, you can squeeze your banking business into spare moments at your computer or on the phone.

Safety

With computer viruses, hackers and other safety concerns, it's no wonder that questions about security are at the top of the list of questions asked by consumers.

That's why banks have developed high-tech security measures designed to make safety problems a rarity. Chief among those is high-end encryption - a highly effective process that scrambles data so that only the intended receiver can use it.

Online banking also uses passwords and personal identification numbers (PINs) that you select, adding to the safety of your transactions.

No form of banking is entirely safe, but most experts agree that today's online banking is at least as safe as traditional banking.

Ease of use

Even if your computer literacy score falls below that of the average 8-year-old, you should find it easy to conduct your business online.

Most banks use highly intuitive systems that are simple to navigate. Built-in checks and double-checks provide safeguards against your own mistakes. Even if you make a mistake, you can usually correct it with a click or two.

Paying your bills online

Arguably, one of the most important reasons for the growing popularity of online banking is the convenience and economy of paying bills online.

At the current cost of 41 cents postage for each check mailed (sure to continue rising), plus the cost of buying checks, the savings in money and time is becoming an irresistible lure to computer-savvy business owners and professionals.

Online banking systems are easy to use, and experts say security is a minor concern.

"Online bill payments are at least as secure as paper checks," says Elizabeth Robertson, senior analyst at the research firm TowerGroup.

Some experts say banking and paying bills online actually reduces the odds of identity theft, by cutting off thieves' access to the papers they need.

User-friendly Web sites make online bill paying almost as easy as logging on to check your e-mail. You may even sign up for a system to pay recurring bills, such as utilities and office rent, that requires no action at all on your part.