An Electronic Zap Can Pay Your Bills

THANKS to a computer and modem, my check-writing days are over. And I wonder if my cash-toting days aren't coming to an end too. Money, like everything else, is going electronic.

Of course, the federal government, banks, and big investors have been using electronic money for years. They zap millions of digital dollars every day. Now, the rest of us can do the same.

``It's not the invention of electronic money; it's the democratization of electronic money,'' says Allan M. Schiffman, principal architect of CommerceNet.

CommerceNet is a large-scale trial of how Silicon Valley companies can conduct business over the Internet, a prototype of the electronic highway. Companies will offer electronic catalogs and order forms.

More intriguing, though, is what will happen if consumers get on-line with instant buying power.

Since January, I've been using an electronic payment service that suggests one view of the future. It's called CheckFree. For $9.95 a month, it lets consumers pay 20 bills electronically. CheckFree comes with its own software.

But I prefer to use it from within my Quicken personal-finance program. The interface is easy.

Every time a bill comes in, I call up a special electronic payee list from within Quicken. If the company isn't listed, it takes less than five minutes to set it up. I enter the amount and the date I want to pay the bill. The software dials CheckFree's toll-free number and transmits the payment information.

At the designated date, CheckFree pulls the money out of my checking account, sends it to the payee electronically, or, if necessary, by mailing a check.

To be honest, I resisted trying CheckFree for a long time. It's still less expensive to use the mail (a 29-cent stamp and six-cent check versus a minimum 50 cents per electronic payment). Then there's this uncomfortable business of electrons carrying my money around. At least with a paper check, there's something to touch and sign.

Using CheckFree eased my concerns. Within half an hour of loading the software, I had set up and transmitted my first two payments - a credit-card account and a telephone bill.

The first confirmation that things were going right came about a month later, when my credit-card statement showed my electronic payment was received Feb. 18, the same day I had scheduled it. After three months of using the system, no problems have cropped up.

CheckFree is only one form of electronic money. On-line services like CompuServe and Prodigy let subscribers buy things via credit card. Credit-card companies are pushing debit cards, which take the cash out of your account immediately after a purchase. Europe is moving toward ``smart cards'' with an embedded microchip that holds a money value.

What I really want, though, is the ability to zap $10 to an individual's electronic address. That's the breakthrough I think will encourage people to hang out their own shingle along the electronic highway.

Stuck using a particular computer program? Don't run up a long-distance bill calling technical support. Zap a local techie a couple of bucks. Want a back issue of this column? Send me an electronic quarter.

The technology already exists to do all this, says Checkfree Corporation's Mark Phelan. But most of us are not yet geared up electronically.

Mr. Phelan thinks a third of US checks may go electronic by the year 2000, which means several years of waiting before those electronic quarters start rolling in.

* Send your comments on this column to CompuServe (70541,3654) or Prodigy (BXGN44A).

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