The biggest improvements are to the way Nationwide handles transfers and bill payments over the net. This has been the weak spot for most internet banking offerings: they either require users to register in advance to pay a bill, or have no bill-payment facilities at all.
Nationwide customers can now set up, amend, and cancel bill payments and standing orders online. Better still, the Nationwide now supports ad-hoc payments to accounts at other financial institutions. This has several potential uses, from paying off a chunk of the mortgage to opening an individual savings account.
The Nationwide has extended internet banking, so it now works with its InvestDirect, Cash Builder and Smart Account savings accounts as well as the society's FlexAccount current account. From this month, the Nationwide will also accept applications for mortgages, credit cards and loans through its website. Home buyers can go as far as an approval in principle for a mortgage without leaving their computer screens.
The Nationwide's internet service provider (ISP) is changing too: from August the service, which currently costs pounds 7.50 a month, will be free. Along with most of the "free" internet services on the market, the Nationwide will charge for calls to technical support, at 50p per minute. Online time is charged at local rates.
The Nationwide says its free internet service will be open to anyone, whether or not they are a member of the society.
Fair trade on the net
The Consumers' Association, and its internet arm, Which? Online, have developed a code of practice for companies doing business over the net. Firms that sign up to the code will become Which? Web Traders, and display a logo on their home pages. Which? has already signed up some big names, including Go, British Airways' low-cost airline.
Companies' details are checked by Consumers' Association lawyers before they can join the scheme. Member firms have to meet minimum security requirements. They must protect their customers' credit card numbers, trade fairly, and have a procedure for dealing with complaints. Consumers' Association staff will monitor sites in the scheme, but web users will also be able to complain to the association if there is a problem.
Firms that fail to put the matter right will be obliged to leave the scheme.
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