Safe to pay bills online?

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Paying bills online saves time, money and can prevent missed payments. Most banks offer free Internet banking services. Online transactions are secure with point-to-point encryption. To stay safe, avoid clicking on email links, use your own computer, and scan for viruses before banking online.

One of the most convenient things about the internet is the ability to pay bills online. Fortunately, today’s websites make paying for electronic invoices as safe and secure as possible. Paying your bills online saves time, paper, stamp duty and petrol, and can even prevent the mistake of accidentally missing a payment. However, there are some rules to follow and precautions to take.

Most banking institutions offer Internet banking services as a value-added service, free of charge. To get started, simply visit the bank’s website and follow the prompts to sign up for online banking. The process involves creating a set of credentials that you will use to access your private account pages. Once logged in, you can do almost anything you could do within a branch. Check your balance, transfer money between accounts, pay off bank-issued credit cards, and so on.

There are two different ways to pay your bills online. There is automatic bill paying and manual bill paying. If you choose automatic bill payment, money is transferred electronically from your bank account each month to pay your creditors. You can assign as many invoices as you want to automatic invoice payment. It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. The other option is to manually pay your bills online as they are due by logging into the necessary institution or institutions and completing the transactions.

Online financial transactions are performed through a point-to-point encryption protocol. Everything sent from your computer to the website is encrypted before leaving your computer and vice versa. The data is decrypted upon arrival at both endpoints, making it unreadable en route. Web pages that use point-to-point encryption have addresses starting with https, the “s” which indicates that the connection is secure, allowing you to pay bills online securely.

With banking websites playing their part, you will also need to take some precautions to make the process safe. Following the four tips below will be very helpful in reducing your risks.

1. Avoid clicking on email links to reach out to financial institutions. Malicious emails are designed by thieves to trick you into revealing passwords and other sensitive information that appears to come from your bank or other financial institution. Clicking embedded links can lead victims to similar websites (called phishing sites) where visitors unknowingly compromise their security by providing personal information such as usernames, passwords, and account numbers to thieves. To avoid falling prey, if you need to go to a financial institution, use a bookmark or use a search engine to navigate there.
2. Suppose all emails asking for personal or “up to date” information are a scam, even if they appear to come from a legitimate source. “From” email addresses can be spoofed (fake) to appear to be from a real company. If you really think an email might be legitimate, call the institution that supposedly sent the email. Use your address book or a utility bill to get the phone number. Do not call the telephone numbers included in the email, as they may be handled by scammers posing as employees of the institution. Note that banks do not use email to request personal or up-to-date information.
3. Use your computer to pay bills online. A company computer, a friend’s computer, or a public computer may have rootkits or keylogger programs present without the owner’s knowledge. These programs can log your keystrokes in a secret log, stealing usernames, passwords, account numbers, credit card numbers, and more. Logs can be retrieved remotely by thieves without the owner’s knowledge whenever the computer is online, which brings us to the final tip.
4. Scan your computer for viruses and malware before starting online banking. Most people have a firewall and antivirus program installed, but fewer have antispyware programs or programs that scan for rootkits and keyloggers. Check with credible websites like PCWorld, PC Magazine, TuCows, and CNet to get the scoop on recommended scanners. Many of these programs are freeware. Choosing an established program with a solid reputation is a must, as many so-called scanners actually install spyware by masquerading as “cleaners”. If a scanner has to be done manually, it’s a good idea to rescan your computer every month before preparing to pay your bills online.
In today’s electronic world hackers will always remain a threat, but banks have a vested interest in keeping you safe. The key is to practice good habits, minimizing risks and maximizing benefits: if you pay your bills online, your checks won’t be delayed or lost in the mail; you will not have to queue to transfer money; you can see all your account statements, balances and deadlines with just a few clicks on the keyboard; and you can make direct payments in your bathing suit from a beach on vacation or in your pajamas from your favorite recliner. This cannot be said of traditional banks.

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