Originally created 03/06/02

Online billing has become popular but can increase chance for errors

In the midst of the Information Age, not only can you buy anything you want online, but you can also pay most of your bills there.

Utilities and phone companies market electronic bill payment as convenient, safe and cheaper than postage. More than 2 million households viewed and paid bills online last year, according to Jupiter Media Metrix, a Web-based Internet analysis group.

But online payment packages differ, and not every biller has the technology to accept electronic funds transfers from your bank account.

A vast majority of online bills are paid by banks on the back end by paper check - and it's not always more efficient, said Patti Murphy, a Maryland consultant on consumer processing.

"Say the bank has 11 customers who have online bill payment with the same power company," she said. "The bank will cut one big check for that group and give it to the utility with a list of whose bills it pays. ... It increases the possibility of human error."

Few of these systems offer to pay late fees associated with their administrative errors, Ms. Murphy said, adding that the "non-electronic form of electronic payment" detracts from the consumer's control.

Georgia Power says it has a completely electronic form of online bill payment. The company serves more than 40,000 customers through Checkfree software that processes payments electronically, spokeswoman Lolita Browning said.

Many companies offer a way to pay online with a credit card instead of debiting a checking account. Some companies post billing information on their Web sites; others send it out via e-mail.

The important thing is to make sure your company has the ability to accept electronic payments, said Rob Unger, the director for electronic billing and payment for the National Automated Clearing House Association, an industry trade organization.

"In some cases, electronic payment is not completely electronic," he said.

Reach John Bankston at (706) 823-3352 or john.banks@augustachronicle.com.


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