Anthrax Scare Spikes Interest in Online Bill Payment -- or Does It?

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The threat of bioterrorism affecting postal mail either has prompted more consumers to begin paying their bills online, causing a spike in usage of banks' and other financial institutions' online payment services, or has had little tangible effect on the electronic services. It depends on which research firms' data you choose to believe.

GartnerGroup and Jupiter Media Metrix yesterday released studies that looked at the growth of online bill payment services and came to different conclusions. GartnerGroup said that by the end of the year, 32 million Americans will view credit card and other financial statements online, up 60 percent from 20 million a year ago. This increase was in large part attributed to the recent anthrax scare affecting postal direct mail, GartnerGroup concluded.

"Mail safety concerns raised by recent anthrax scares encourage consumers and billers to pursue e-billing and payment channels more aggressively," said Avivah Litan, a financial services payment systems analyst at GartnerGroup, Stamford, CT. The research firm did concede, however, that not all of the increase is attributable to the anthrax scare. Some can be traced to credit card issuers attracting more customers to online bill paying services by offering value-added services.

"One major factor unrelated to recent events is that credit card issuers have succeeded in attracting consumers to online account management by giving them value-added services such as daily balances and responsive self-service," Litan said.

However, Jupiter Media Metrix, New York, said the spike in online bill payment is not directly related to the threat of bioterrorism. The research firm said that a recent analysis of traffic to the nation's largest online billing Web sites showed a slight increase after Sept. 11, but not large enough to conclude it was caused by terrorism.

The research firm looked at the traffic data from some of the largest bill payment Web sites, including American Express and Discover Financial Services, and found that visits to the sites increased by an average of 2.8 percent during each of the past three weeks of October, compared with a 2.5 percent average increase during the past three months.

"Online billing growth began this year, as consumers began responding to targeted promotions and messages from financial institutions," said Jim Van Dyke, a senior analyst and research director at Jupiter Media Metrix. "Barring a much more widespread level of consumer fear, anthrax issues will not have a significant impact on the growth of electronic bill payment and presentment."

The one thing both research firms can agree on is that online bill payment is poised for explosive growth, as services become easier to use and banks do a better job of promoting their services.

GartnerGroup said it expects 64 million Americans to view their credit card accounts and bills online by the end of 2003. Jupiter said online bill payment will more than double in 2002.

"Consumers will steadily embrace online billing as they become more aware of the benefits and the bills become increasingly available online," Van Dyke said.

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