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Clicking, Not Queuing
What to consider when banking online

Anybody who has ever made the mistake of joining a Friday lunchtime bank queue will understand why I have been such a fan of phonebanking. Balance checks at midnight, fund transfers at dawn — that's my kind of service. No snaking line, no fumbling teller, no trek to an ATM. But 24-hour telebanking was last century's news. Since HSBC began offering its new e-banking service to some customers in Hong Kong about a month ago, I've been going online and loving it. For my money, netbanking offers all the pluses of banking by phone, with even greater convenience. Forget about pressing all those hash buttons or jotting down confirmation numbers on scraps of paper. This is impersonal banking as it should be — fast, easy and, fingers crossed, secure.

More on the security issue later. Let me first give credit where it is due. HSBC customers often grumble about the London-based bank's old-economy ways. Don't get me started on my experience applying for a tax loan. But online@hsbc has to be one of the best Internet banking products around. It lets you do most transactions short of actually withdrawing cash out of your printer. I have been using it to make payments, from the utility bills to my credit card. So long as you are eligible, registering online takes less than five minutes. You can check your balances in a click. Transfers too are a snap, whether to another account (not necessarily your own), another bank, or another country. And here's a little secret HSBC has been keeping: You can also trade Hong Kong shares. The e-banking service is free, though normal transaction charges still apply. For now, in Asia, only HSBC premium account holders in Hong Kong can sign up, but the bank is gearing up to offer it to more people, while customers in India, Malaysia and Singapore will be included by the end of the year.

HSBC's e-banking isn't perfect. About two weeks ago, I tried to transfer funds from my Hong Kong dollar savings account to a storage firm's Singapore dollar account in a Lion City bank. The system was down. Unable to wait, I had to make my way to the nearest branch to fill out a form and submit it to a teller — a 40-minute excursion. Later, however, the bank redeemed itself when I managed to execute another overseas transfer online. It was a breeze. Keep in mind that banks will not take responsibility for delays or foul-ups due to Internet traffic or technical glitches. Double check the details of an order before clicking to confirm it.

I have looked at other e-banking services. Citibank and Singapore's DBS are among the better ones, though I find their sites too busy and sometimes confusing. The same goes for Hang Seng Bank (a subsidiary of HSBC) and Dah Sing Bank whose systems have been well received. I found the service offered by finatiQ, dubbed Asia's first Internet bank by owner OCBC of Singapore, similarly cluttered and slow, with colors (orange and blue) somewhat hard for the eyes to take. By comparison, HSBC's loads quickly, while its simple design makes it easy for even first-time users to navigate. But to each his own. Take the demo tours that most sites have and decide for yourself which one you prefer.

There are a number of other factors to consider. First, check the technical requirements for using a service. DBS, for example, recommends that your PC have at least a Pentium 133 MHz processor or faster, with 32 MB RAM or higher. The bank suggests a modem speed of at least 28.8 kilobytes per second (kbps). Personally, I reckon that the minimum should be 56 kbps. You will also need a browser with Java and JavaScript enabled. Use the latest versions to be sure that your transactions are safeguarded by the most up-to-date protective software.

That brings us back to the issue of security. Experts will tell you that Net security is improving all the time and there is little, if anything, to worry about. Others will point to the success hackers have had breaking into high-profile websites like Yahoo! as evidence that banking online is unsafe. The main worries: that somehow the information a customer is transmitting may be accessed illegally or else a stranger might log on to his account.

Users should take basic precautions. Don't pick an obvious user ID or password like your name and birthday. A password is less likely to be cracked if it includes a mix of letters and numbers. Don't access your account from a public computer or a PC used by several people. If you do, don't keep your ID or password stored in memory, always log off the service once you are done and dump the browser cache after every use. Your e-bank's site should have an automatic log-off function. If you surf to another site for a few minutes without logging off, a secure service will require you to log in again when you try to return. To be extra careful, you might also check the site's imbedded security certificate each time you log on to be sure it's in order. If you aren't willing to trust your bank's data protection measures or the encryption technology it uses, there's no point even signing up. Peace of mind is worth more than convenience.

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