Sunday March 25, 2012

PITTSFIELD

As long as a home computer can't print cash or approve a mortgage, brick-and-mortar banks and ATMs will remain a necessity.

But online banking nonetheless is on the rise in the Berkshires, with the increasing sophistication of money management tools and security systems sweetening the pot for those who log on to pay bills, or budget and move around their money.

Some of the largest financial institutions in the county report rapid growth in the past several years of the evolving online practice that they say does not supersede the need for traditional teller transactions.

"It's definitely steadily increasing -- each month there are more online banking users," said Lori Gazzillo, a spokeswoman for Berkshire Bank. "It's becoming a very popular option for customers, but I wouldn't say it's an alternative to visiting."

Berkshire Bank, which officially acquired Legacy Banks in July 2011, is the largest financial entity in the county. The bank counts about 35,000, or 31.5 percent, of its total customer base as online users.

At Greylock Federal Credit Union, Executive Vice President John Bissell said there has been a 10 percent rise annually for the past three years in the number of credit union members taking advantage of the online banking portal. There's also been an additional oomph coming from the more recent advent of online banking from mobile devices, which he said has doubled at the credit union in the past year.

Greylock is the county's largest credit union, and about 25 percent of its members -- 16,200 people -- are active online banking users.

"We believe that as smartphones become ubiquitous, and as everyday consumers become more comfortable with online security, e-banking will become even more widely adopted," Bissell said via email.

Customers are still using the physical banks, he added, but the online component has allowed the institution to bring in more customers without needing to expand its footprint.

"We have been able to continue growing our membership and our share of wallet without adding additional branches in the past few years," Bissell said, "and that is due in part to widespread use of e-banking."

Fueling the growth of online banking is the erosion of customer jitters about Web security, with more older people -- who may have previously been wary -- inputting their bank account numbers into the Web.

"I think that's all been evaporating. I think members have really come around," said Jim Wojtaszek, vice president of marketing at Greylock Federal Credit Union. "They've found that their financial institution is willing to pull out all the stops to make sure what they're doing is in the most secure environment possible."

The efficacy of that philosophy comes in part from the fact that e-banking security often appears several layers deeper than the usual username/password combination -- an element that may annoy some people.

"Some customers look at it as an inconvenience -- it may take a little longer to log in," Gazzillo said, "but it's there for your protection."

While computers and smartphones can't yet produce legal tender like an ATM can, Berkshire Bank has cut down on the number of trips to the bank that certain businesses need to make with a system that allows them to deposit checks electronically.

A total of 118 of its commercial customers are equipped with a "remote deposit capture" scanner that digitally transfers check information into their account. Finance managers can then shred the check and call it a transaction.

The average customer often can use his or her online account for services like paying bills, which allows them to take care of their monthly utilities, for instance, with a few clicks rather than a written check and stamp.

E-statements, which can replace monthly paper documents, and account alerts indicating when money is low are also among the standard tool kit.

But with great convenience comes occasional complication. Portions of banks' call centers are now devoted to answering questions from hamstrung customers who, for instance, accidentally added a zero to the wrong place in a money transfer or locked themselves out of their account by inputting the wrong password too many times.

"We just walk them through the reasons they'd be receiving that error and easily resolve it," said Shenna Bradford, manager of the contact center at Greylock.

To reach Amanda Korman:
akorman@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6243
On Twitter: @mandface