GEICO Directs Bill Payment Online

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GEICO Direct, the nation's largest direct marketer of auto insurance, is responding to anthrax fears through an alert on its Web site home page encouraging customers to make payments online.

"Due to additional safety controls that have been put in place by the U.S. Postal Service, our receipt of your payment could be delayed," the note said. "You can avoid future delays by making your payment through our online policy holder service center."

The message also calls for new enrollees and touts the benefits of online payment.

GEICO uses television, radio, print and direct mail to drum up attention to its toll-free number. Functioning around-the-clock, the company insures more than 4.7 million policyholders and 7.2 million automobiles.

A spokesman at GEICO was not forthcoming.

"We're in a very competitive industry, and so we just don't divulge a lot about the strategies or the technologies," said Ron Williams in the public relations department at GEICO, Washington, DC.

While GEICO has been the most upfront online about its preferred mode of payments, other financial services companies are getting into the act in the wake of the anthrax disruption.

Citibank, for instance, will take $5 off the bill if customers of its credit cards and other business products no longer request paper statements in the mail. Allstate Corp., Northbrook, IL, will give a discount to customers switching to online payment.

It is not limited to financial services or insurance firms. Whelen Engineering Co., a Chester, CT, supplier of warning lights and sirens, in mid-October faxed customers, saying it was restricting the type of mail its employees would receive. Whelen directed its business-to-business customers to fax orders and electronically transfer all payments to avoid all mailroom delays.

John Olson, president of Whelen, estimated that 50 percent of Whelen's clients pay by electronic transfer.

"Automatic clearinghouse transfer - ACH, it costs nothing," he said. "It takes 48 hours for processing. It costs a buck and a half to write a check. And mail, for 34 cents, takes 10 days to get here. It even took anthrax 10 days to get from New Jersey."

Of course, not all marketers are noticing an appreciable surge in online bill payments or wire transfers.

New York Life Insurance Company Inc. is monitoring the situation closely, a spokeswoman said.

Consolidated Edison Company of New York Inc. sees a status quo. Monthly, the gas and light firm has 149,000 customers who pay by direct debit checking, 110,000 by telephone and 14,000 online.

"Those numbers have remained stable for the past month," said Brenda Peres, media relations manager at Con Edison. "We haven't noticed any changes in the volume of mail payments or on the Internet or phone."

Editor Ken Magill contributed to this story.

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