Remote control

Internet kiosks, such as this one at an Alabama Flying J, allow truckers to conduct online banking while on the road.

Online banking is one of the fastest-growing trends in financial services. Because of their lifestyle, over-the-road truckers are prime candidates to benefit from the nationwide access, improved security and often attractive fees and interest rates that are part of online financial services.

Brian McCaul, vice president of marketing for Transportation Alliance Bank, a subsidiary of Flying J, says the convenience of being able to bank 24/7 appeals to drivers who often lack access to their mail or a branch of their bank.

Truckers with online bank accounts can check them anywhere they have Internet access, and an increasing number of truck stop, restaurant and hotel chains, as well as rest areas, offer wireless service. Drivers can usually pay for this access by the hour, day, month or year. And those who don’t own their own laptops typically can find an Internet kiosk where they can pay by the minute.

Most Flying J’s have web stations where drivers can get online for 20 cents per minute, McCaul says. But those who have TAB accounts can access them for free at those stations and print a free balance statement at the driver services kiosk.

Larry Long, an owner-operator for six years, has banked online since 1996. He uses his laptop and a wireless Internet card or “air card” from Verizon to access his Wells Fargo accounts while he’s on the road. “As a trucker, you don’t really get a chance to go to a branch of your bank, and calling them on the phone is hard, too, because you usually get stuck on hold for a while,” he says.

Owner-operator Sam Simple hasn’t visited a regular bank branch in three or four months. The online service offered through his credit union, VyStar, allows him to check his balance, track transactions and move money around for free. “It saves them money because they don’t have to talk to me as much.”

Online banking offers several advantages, experts say. “It’s a great way to keep tabs on your account on a day-to-day basis, making sure you have sufficient money in your account so that checks will clear,” says Greg McBride, senior analyst at Bankrate.com, a consumer website that provides rates and other financial information. “It’s also a good front-line defense against identity theft.”

People who bank via the Internet tend to monitor their accounts more than those who bank only through brick-and-mortar institutions, McBride says. The frequent visits keep them on guard against errors such as overdrafts. They also can make sure that a check has cleared or that a deposit has been posted for the correct amount almost right away, rather than waiting for a statement to come in the mail.

Long says checking his balance online is cheaper than doing so via an ATM, which can cost anywhere from $1.50 to $3.50. In addition, he has set up automatic withdrawals to pay bills on pre-set dates.

Almost 10,000 of the approximately 17,000 financial institutions in the country offer web access to their customers, says Jim Bruene, founder of Financial Innovations Inc. and editor of Online Banking Report, an industry newsletter. Because most of those 10,000 institutions are the largest, they serve more than 99 percent of the banking population.

Traditional banks and the handful of “virtual banks” that operate entirely digitally offer many of the same services for managing your finances online, say Bruene and McBride. Those features include the ability to access account information at any time of day, pay bills without writing checks, transfer money between accounts and view cancelled or cleared checks.

These services sometimes are free. For example, customers of E*Trade, which offers online banking and investing, can pay bills online and transfer money between E*Trade accounts and outside accounts for free, says spokeswoman Tina Martineau. Customers who have nine or more trades per month or who have $50,000 in their accounts get unlimited refunds on ATM charges, and those with less get five ATM rebates per month – a nice feature for long-haul drivers who frequently access out-of-network ATMs.

Flying J’s TAB offers free online bill paying. In addition, fleet owners of any size can do payroll and settlements through the TAB website at no cost. “It can really help facilitate the payroll process for mid- to larger fleets, and drivers can get access to pay right away through ATM or debit card,” McCaul says.

“Generally, you’re going to have to shop around and compare, because pricing does vary,” McBride says. “The good news is that you’re starting to see more and more things included for free, such as online bill pay.”

As more services are offered for free and Internet access becomes more available on the road, more drivers likely will take advantage of online banking. These services can minimize the problem of having limited home time to manage your finances and help you stay on top of your accounts while you’re on the road.


ADDING A ‘DEADBOLT’ TO TRANSACTIONS
Evolving security measures are making online financial transactions safer than ever. For example, some banks are developing multi-factor authentication, which requires customers to provide more information than simply a user name and password.

Netbank, a virtual bank with about 120,000 customers, is introducing a multi-factor system that creates access “signatures” for each user’s account, says spokesman Rich Jeffers. It records the ways each account is typically accessed, including information about the computer, the Internet service provider address, the operating system and even the time of day. This information forms several signatures of the account.

If someone attempts to access the account in a way that does not match one of the signatures, the system presents the user with a series of questions to which the customer has already provided the answers. An identity thief, without knowing the answers, can’t access the account.

Security based on a user name and password “was like a single lock on a house. Now we’re putting deadbolts on everything,” says Jim Bruene, editor of Online Banking Report. “You’re probably more secure if you do online banking than if you don’t, because you can watch your account easier. Also, you don’t need to worry about someone activating an online banking account in your name if you’ve already done so.”

Analyst Greg McBride of Bankrate.com agrees. Online risk “tends to get overstated just because of a lack of comfort,” he says. Most identity theft takes place through more traditional means, McBride says, such as stealing your postal mail or wallet.

“The alternative to paying online is to write a check, put it in an envelope, put it in your mailbox and raise the flag for the postman, letting any identity thief know that you have personal information there for the taking,” McBride says.


SKIMPY ON BRICK, STRONG ON RATES AND FEES
Probably 30 to 40 virtual (web-only) banks operate with no actual offices for customers to visit, says Jim Bruene, editor of Online Banking Report.

So what advantage do virtual banks have over their traditional counterparts? It’s all about the rates, Bruene says. “They have been the price leaders,” he says. “They have raised the rates on savings soonest, farthest and fastest.”

Web-only banks are able to do this because they have lower costs: fewer employees and fewer buildings to maintain, he says. But the high rates on savings also are the virtual banks’ chief means of competing with traditional banks.

Netbank, the nation’s oldest Internet bank, offers rates that are often five times higher than the national average, says spokesman Rich Jeffers.

That’s not uncommon for online banks. Analyst Greg McBride of Bankrate.com says the average yield on a traditional bank’s checking account is .32 percent, while it is six times that rate – 1.96 percent – at an online bank.

Transportation Alliance Bank, a Flying J subsidiary, has one of the highest savings account rates in the country, a 4.50 annual percentage yield, says Vice President Brian McCaul.

Online bill paying offered through traditional banks often costs $5 to $10 per month, while it’s typically free at virtual banks.

Also drawing more customers to virtual banking are new features such as e-mail alerts when money is withdrawn or when the account balance falls below a certain amount.

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