Personal finance: Add some PEPs to future plans

Internet Investor

First Direct, Britain's first and biggest "direct" banking business plans to offer PC Banking free of charge to its customers. This is not an internet-based service but an intranet, on the bank's own secure private network. It has been on free trial to 5,000 customers since June last year. First Direct says it may offer the service over the internet in the future, depending on customer demand. I had planned to review the service in some detail - there is apparently a demonstration of its service on the bank's website.

The reason why I haven't looked at the website is because it will not let me. Well, that's not quite true. It will not let me without sending a "cookie". Normally, I avoid techno-jargon but this is one piece of it of which anybody using the web needs to be aware.

The best analogy for a cookie is Caller ID on telephones. Caller ID lets the person you are calling know your telephone number. Cookies work in much the same way. A website knows who has logged on by looking at your cookie. Anything you tell a website that uses cookies, it will remember the next time you visit. Anything you do at a website that uses cookies it can also remember, tracking a behaviour pattern - allowing the business behind the site to tailor its products to you and target you with special mailshots.

Cookies, so the argument goes, smooth the path of consumerism, making sure you only get business offers that interest you. They have also sparked a serious debate about privacy issues.

Anyway, FirstDirect will not let you access its website without sending a cookie. Which raises two questions. First, is it polite for a website to do this? No, it is not. (Imagine being escorted out of your local supermarket by a bouncer because you refused to tell them your address.) Second, is it safe to accept the cookie? That depends on how much you value your privacy.

The bottom line is I didn't feel like accepting First Direct's cookie. So I did not get to view the website. Many commercial websites now have cookies. However, most tend not to refuse you access if you refuse the cookies.

Another piece of web jargon you may come across is "search engine". Search engines are the internet's telephone directories, basically automated programmes which seek out and note the addresses of other websites which match specified criteria.

This month a new engine, FinanceWise, made its debut on the web. Set up by Risk Publications and IBM's Securities and Capital Markets Division, it is a free web search engine for banking and finance professionals. But it is also going to be a handy tool for individual investors.

By indexing only sites and pages relevant to the world of banking and finance, FinanceWise bypasses the millions of megabytes of irrelevant data returned with mainstream search engines. In fact, it is the only engine to offer three types of search option. You may search by keyword; by specific classes of products, suppliers, information or companies; or by sector listings.

FinanceWise is the first search engine to focus specifically on financial websites. However, directories (which tend not to be automated) of financial websites have been available for some time, including the UK Personal Finance Directory on Moneyworld and the Financial Information Net Directory (FIND).

First Direct: www.firstdirect.co.uk

FinanceWise:

www.financewise.co.uk

UK Personal Finance Directory: www.moneyworld.co.uk

FIND: www.find.co.uk

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