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September 14, 1998

Web banking services
help ease pain of bill-paying

By Timothy C. Barmann

I hate to write checks.

It's not just seeing my balance dwindle -- though that certainly is disconcerting. Rather, it's the check-writing itself: spelling out the payee and the amount. Then there's the signing, stamping, sealing and mailing. At last, the Internet has come to the rescue.

Two local banks, Fleet Bank and BankBoston, have just launched new on-line banking services that make bill-paying a breeze. They also let you view your bank statements, see up-to-the-minute balances and transfer money between accounts.

You don't need special software to access these services if you are already on the Web. That means you can do it anywhere there is Web access -- at work, a friend's house, the library or a Web cafe.

One of the most obvious concerns about Internet banking is security. Frequent reports of hackers breaking into computer networks certainly makes that concern warranted.

"Obviously (security) has been an overriding issue with us when we designed Homelink," said Neal Wolfson, senior product manager for BankBoston's Homelink. "We have gone to great lengths to ensure it is a secure system," he said.

To help make the system secure, information sent back and forth between the bank and your computer is encrypted or scrambled. Because of that, users are required to use browsers that have "128-bit" encryption. Netscape, Microsoft and others are only allowed to distribute these versions in the U.S. and Canada because of U.S. government export restrictions.

I tried BankBoston's Homelink service last month to view my accounts and pay some bills, and overall, I found it easy to understand and use. And much to my relief, the bills I paid with the service actually made it to their destinations in just a few days, just as BankBoston said they would.

However, the service didn't work well with Quicken, Intuit's popular money-management software, even though it has a feature that lets you download your transactions and import them into Quicken or Microsoft Money.

Homelink is free if you just want to view your accounts and transfer money between them; it costs $3.50 for unlimited bill paying, which means you break even with postage saved if you pay 11 bills each month with Homelink.

Fleet's Web Banking is also free for inquiries and account transfers, and $4.50 a month for unlimited bill paying.

After you sign up for Homelink, you log on by going to http://homelink.bankboston.com. You need to enter the number that appears on your ATM card, along with your ATM password to access your account.

Once you log in, your browser loses some of the familiar controls at the top of the screen, such as the back, forward and stop buttons, and the address window that tells you the address of the Web page you're viewing. Those features are gone because Homelink makes your browser run in "kiosk" mode, which was intended for use on kiosks in malls and other public places.

Homelink's Wolfson explained that using the forward or back buttons could interrupt transactions. You are able to navigate the site without them with buttons on each screen.

The initial screen presents you with four choices: account information, transfers, bill payments and other services.

Account information summarizes your BankBoston accounts and the balances of each one. Click on your checking account and it lists all transactions, including ATM withdrawals, checks that have cleared, and on-line payments you may have made. It goes back only 60 days.

What's nice is that you are actually seeing your account in real time. I was surprised that a deposit made with a bank teller was listed a few minutes later.

The transfers area lets you move money between your various accounts, including an overdraft protection account. You can transfer money into that account and payoff any outstanding balances instantly. That will save you a trip to the bank, or at least a stamp and a few days of interest.

The bill-paying feature is the one that promises to be the most useful and time-saving. But the first time through requires some set up. You have to enter the merchant's name and address and your account number with that merchant. After all the payees are set up, you can send the payment by clicking on a box next to the merchant's name and then filling in an amount.

You can also set up recurring payments to be sent automatically, which is ideal for a mortgage or rent payment that doesn't change month to month.

Once you instruct a payment to be made, one of two things will happen. If it goes to a merchant that has an agreement with BankBoston, it will send the payment electronically. Otherwise, an actual check is printed and mailed to the payee. Electronic payments should clear in 2 to 3 business days, and printed checks within 5 business days, said Wolfson.

I found that to be true. All of the seven checks I wrote cleared in 2 to 5 business days.

There are some drawbacks. First, the documentation that comes with Homelink is skimpy. There is little explanation of how things work, details on how to use the service, and what the bank's policies are if a payment it makes on your behalf is late.

Also, when using the bill-payment service, the money is deducted immediately from your checking account. With writing traditional checks, the money is not withdrawn from your account until the check is actually cashed. With Web banking, you can no longer cover the bills you pay today with the paycheck you will deposit on Friday.

I was disappointed with Homelink's integration with Quicken, which is poor at best. The service lets you download activity from your account, which you can then import into Quicken or Microsoft Money.

When I tried doing it, it made a mess of my check register in Quicken. I ended up with duplicate entries for checks I had already entered into Quicken. Wolfson recommends that you don't enter your checks into Quicken manually if you import from Homelink.

But then your traditional checks just show up as "check" in your Quicken register without any category information, which Quicken uses to help keep track of where you spend you money.

What's worse, if you use Quicken to keep track of a loan, such as your mortgage, Quicken normally can determine how much of the payment goes to principal and interest. The Homelink import feature doesn't let you take advantage of Quicken's ability to track loans.

Wolfson said BankBoston may improve the integration with Quicken and Money next year.

If you don't have Internet access, you can still sign up for Homelink. BankBoston will send you the software you need that lets you access it at no extra charge.

Fleet's Web banking is available only to those who already have an Internet connection.

Both banks have demos of their Web banking service on their Web sites and allow you to sign up on-line. Fleet's site is at http://www.fleet.com/ and BankBoston is http://www.bankboston.com/.

Here are some things I discovered about HomeLink you might find useful:

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff writer. His column runs every other Sunday on the Computers and Technology page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.