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Diversity in Check-Image Archives at Major Bank Web Sites

New Corporate Insight report examines the effect of Check 21 legislation on check image archives and finds surprising disparities.

Despite the fact that online check images have become commonplace at all major online banking sites, there's a wide disparity in the availability and interactive capabilities of online checks, says a new report from New York-based financial services consultant Corporate Insight. In the second installment of its report on online check images, Corporate Insight analyzed check imaging capabilities based on criteria that included accessibility, viewing options and print/storage alternatives.

The first report was conducted in August 2004, right before Check 21 was passed in Congress, says Doug Miller, Corporate Insights' senior analyst for credit cards. The firm decided to conduct a second report because it was interested in the effects of Check 21 and had begun tracking additional banks, Miller says.

Of the 14 firms that Corporate Insight now tracks—Bank of America, Chase, Citibank, Citizens Bank, E*Trade Bank, Fifth Third, HSBC, KeyBank, National City, NetBank, U.S. Bank, Wachovia, Washington Mutual and Wells Fargo—all now offer online check image archives. Twelve banks were included in the 2004 study, 10 of which featured online check images. Some of the banks have also added new capabilities that didn't exist two years ago, including keyword searching and zoom. There has also been a movement from grayscale to black and white images. This is a plus, since Miller says grayscale is typically "harder to read," noting that the Federal Reserve does not allow grayscale images.

The easier it is for bank customers to view their check images and the longer archives are kept active, the easier it is to convince customers to migrate away from paper statements, Miller says. Eliminating paper statements is an effective cost-cutting mechanism for banks.

While the majority of firms provide clients with check image archives as large as their general transaction archives, Corporate Insights noted a disparity between the check and transaction archives offered by the firms that do not. For example, one firm offered 18 months of account activity and only 75 days of check images. The availability of check image archives ranged from a low of 45 days to a high of two years, with six firms offering archives of three months. Nine out of 14 banks in the report offered their customers access to check images that mirror their transaction archives, Miller says.

The largest disparity between firms offering interactive capabilities was that only a handful of banks allow clients to zoom in on a section of the check, rotate images or change colors for greater legibility.

Miller says that one key finding in this report is that banks don't do a good job of explaining to their customers how they can save check images. Those customers that aren't very computer savvy may have a hard time of figuring it out, he says.

An additional feature that three of the 14 banks offer is the ability to send a private site message, alerting customer service to a false check or questionable check amount. This feature is meant to wean customers from calling the bank, which is often more costly than an e-mail transaction, Miller says.

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