Tuesday, October 29, 2002

Want Bills by Snail Mail? It Might Cost You Money
For years, businesses have cajoled customers to view their bills online, mostly by offering cash, gift certificates, sweepstakes prizes and other incentives in return. A tough economy, though, has led to an even more aggressive stance.

In a move to cut administrative costs and save on paper and postage, some have started billing customers a few extra dollars a month for paper statements.

Leading the charge are telecommunications companies like Primus and MetroPCS. Some lenders and insurance providers, like State Farm Insurance and USAA, are charging a few customers for monthly paper statements. Credit card issuers like American Express are adding paper fees to merchant accounts, and online services that initially mailed statements, like NetBank and Ameritrade, the online brokerage firm, have begun charging for them, setting a standard for some new businesses that want to do the same.

These companies say consumers should be ready and even eager to go paperless because Internet transactions have become more secure, not to mention more familiar and accessible.

Some consumers argue that charging for paper bills punishes people who are not comfortable handling their finances online. After all, not everyone owns a computer or has a fast Internet connection. About 60 percent of American households have a computer at home and Internet access. Though many more people can use a computer with a fast link at the office, several said they were uncomfortable transmitting sensitive financial information while on the job. Companies that want to eliminate paper are asking for too much too soon, these people suggest.