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TOP 5 IN REAL ESTATE NETWORK, Sept. 2010—(MCT) — Get ready for more incentives from bankers, lenders and others to get you to give up on paper and start using online accounts.

While it’s obvious that the people who send you paper statements save money if you do your banking and bill paying online, it’s possible for consumers to share in the wealth, too. All sorts of incentives — or deals — are out there.

If you’re paying off student loans, for example, Sallie Mae offers a 0.25 percentage-point interest-rate reduction for customers who sign up for automated monthly deductions from a debit account. This could initially amount to a savings of about $3 a month for a student with $15,000 in loans at an interest rate of 6.8 percent.

The monthly payment of nearly $173 a month wouldn’t change because the savings would be applied to the principal. Ultimately in this example, the borrower would save more than $300 in 10 years.

Consumers who are pinching pennies should study their bills. MCI, for example, charges $1.99 each month for a paper billing fee.

As bankers talk more about banking online and via mobile phones, consumers need to know the rules and incentives — as well as how to avoid cyber-fraud.

You don’t have to look far to find some financial force or another trying to save paper and costs.

Bank of America recently rolled out its eBanking checking account, which drives customers to do most of their banking via mobile phone, ATM or the Internet. Customers who opt for this account can make deposits and withdrawals electronically without a monthly fee or minimum balance.

The kicker: Customers with this account who do not sign up to receive statements via e-mail and online will pay a fee of $8.95 a month.

The push to save green by going green — and dispensing with postage and paper — doesn’t stop there.

Effective Sept. 30, the U.S. Department of Treasury is ending the sale of paper U.S. Savings Bonds for all federal employees who buy bonds through payroll deduction. For workers outside of the federal government, the paper savings bonds end Jan. 1, 2011.

If you want to keep buying bonds through work, you’ll need to set up an online account at http://www.treasurydirect.gov/.

Consumers can expect to hear more about paperless efforts, mobile-based financial products, and giveaways to boost online activity.

College students, for example, are invited to the Great Sallie Mae Giveaway, a monthly drawing for a chance to reduce a student loan balance by up to $25,000.

How do you enter? Customers must choose to receive electronic account correspondence or use the Sallie Mae online management tool. See http://www.salliemae.com/.

This month, Dallas-based Comerica Bank introduced Comerica Mobile Banking, which allows customers to use mobile phones to bank anywhere they have cellular service. They’d be able to securely view balances, check account activity, perform fund transfers, pay bills and locate Comerica ATMs and banking centers.

You must be a Comerica Web Banking customer to access Comerica Mobile Banking. There is no charge for it, but the bank says customers should check with their cell phone carrier to determine whether standard text and data rates may apply.

Paper isn’t going away altogether.

You’ll still be able to get a paper savings bond from a bank or other financial institution, said Joyce Harris, director of public and legislative affairs for the Bureau of the Public Debt in Washington.

And many places will continue sending out paper statements.

But bankers and lenders say the idea is to offer customers a choice — and possibly some savings.

“Many customers prefer to bank on their own schedule,” said Don Vecchiarello, a spokesperson for Bank of America in Charlotte, N.C.

Bank of America tested its eBanking checking plan in Georgia last November. About one-third of customers opening new checking accounts there have since opted for eBanking, Vecchiarello said.

He said the new product is a way for technically savvy customers to avoid a monthly maintenance fee. But some people, he acknowledged, still like to see a teller when they withdraw or deposit money.

That $8.95 fee, by the way, also would apply to an eBanking customer who uses a teller once or more during the month, instead of an ATM. No fee, however, is charged if the customer merely sees a teller for information, or for a transaction that cannot be completed at the ATM, such as depositing rolls of coins.

The banking industry also would like consumers to use online services to monitor their own accounts as a way to help prevent cyber-fraud.

“One of the big benefits to me from a convenience standpoint is that I can check my accounts frequently,” said Michael Benardo, chief of the FDIC’s cyber fraud and financial crimes section. “The more frequently you check your accounts, the better off you’ll be at managing your money and protecting yourself against account fraud.”

“The most effective way for banks and customers to protect the Internet environment is for us to work together,” said Doug Johnson, the American Bankers Association’s vice president of risk-management policy. “Everyone has to be cognizant of the fact that there are threats out there.”

Increasingly, we’re likely to see electronic banking options that go beyond just using a personal computer.

“You’ll see more banks coming out with mobile banking,” said Mark Schwanhausser, senior analyst, multichannel financial services for Javelin Strategy & Research in Pleasanton, Calif.

About half of households — or 43 million — now pay bills online through their banks and credit unions each month, according to Javelin.

He said some consumers will find that they are not only saving fees by ditching paper, but are better able to watch their overall spending when they regularly view their banking accounts online.

STAYING SAFE:

Keeping your money safe when banking online.

o Never share your password.

o Make sure that your anti-virus software is up to date.

o Know that scammers are trying to get your financial information. So never provide your Social Security number or verify a bank account number to someone who calls or inquires by e-mail. Never verify passwords or PINs, either.

o Watch out for “scareware” — or pop-ups that can frighten you into moving quickly and, ultimately, downloading malicious software.

o Change your online banking password every 90 days or so.

o Do not pick a word or number for your password that could show up on your Facebook account or other social network — such as your dog’s name or your mother’s maiden name or the name of your favorite restaurant. Do not list your exact birth date and year on your social network.

o Read your bank statements carefully and check activity in your account more than once a month.

o Read tips on Online Banking, Bill Paying and Shopping in the FDIC Consumer News bulletin at http://www.fdic.gov/consumers/consumer/news/cnwin0910/. Consumers also can order up to two free paper copies by calling toll-free 888-878-3256 weekdays 8 a.m.-8 p.m. and asking for Department 97.

(c) 2010, Detroit Free Press.

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