Wall Street's infatuation with Internet stocks may have cooled, but consumers' interest in online financial services continues to grow.
A flock of Internet banks has risen up, offering above-market interest rates on deposits and easy transfers among accounts, as well as access to automated teller machines for cash. Traditional banks, too, are scrambling to expand their online services and, in the process, jettison worries that cyberspace will render their brick-and-mortar offices useless.
According to a recent report by Goldman Sachs & Co., from 3 percent to 4 percent of U.S. households now use online banking. That's a far cry from the 30 percent to 35 percent of retail securities trades conducted online, but analysts predict that cyberbanking will begin to catch up, growing to 20 percent in two to three years.
They say the top selling points are the ease of moving funds and paying bills electronically, as well as the ability of customers to check on accounts any time of day with a few keystrokes.
Drawbacks include consumers' concerns about Internet privacy and security, as well as the requirements that users have a computer and Internet access.
Signing up for cyberbanking is fairly easy at Web sites of banks that consider themselves pure Internet banks -- such as Net.Bank Inc. of Atlanta (www.netbank.com), Telebank of Arlington (www.tele bank.com) or Security First Network Bank of Atlanta (www.sfnb.com).
First Union Corp. of Charlotte, a traditional brick-and-mortar bank that ranks as the nation's sixth largest, makes signing up more complicated at its site (www.first union.com), though the company says it is updating its online access. For now, consumers must scroll through several screens extolling the advantage of online services before getting to the nitty-gritty of how to sign up: Existing bank customers call a toll-free number. New bank customers call a different toll-free number, or can apply online to open a checking account.
First Union officials say they are opening 3,000 to 4,000 online accounts a day and that 20 percent of those are customers new to the bank.
Citibank, which is part of Citigroup Inc., the nation's largest financial services company, has easy-to-follow steps to apply online at www.citibank.com. A test run, though, is hard to do unless you already are a Citibank customer.
The pure Internet banks are eager to build a deposit base, so they offer above-market interest rates.
For example, according to Bank Rate Monitor, on May 26 First Union was offering 1.49 percent interest on a money market account with a minimum balance of $2,500. Telebank was offering 4.69 percent for the same deposit amount. NetBank yesterday offered rates from 3 percent to 3.93 percent on money-market accounts. Both Telebank and NetBank do charge monthly service fees on some accounts, however.
The Internet banks don't have their own ATMs, but do offer their customers access to national systems such as CIRRUS and HONOR.
The Internet banks typically don't charge an ATM fee, but the bank that owns the ATM being used usually does, so customers have to factor in such costs when comparing services.
Traditional brick-and-mortar banks such as Citibank and First Union -- what analysts now call land-based banks -- generally don't offer higher rates for online deposits or lower rates for online loans than what customers could get from walking into a bank branch. They hope their bigger size and array of services, including branch offices and wider networks of free ATMs, will be an advantage with a large segment of the population.
Internet banking so far has been most popular with affluent, well-educated consumers, though as a group they remain slightly less affluent and well-educated than customers who invest online, according to the Goldman Sachs report.
Online bank customers have median household incomes of $63,860, compared with online securities investors, who have median incomes of $78,460, according to the report.