Finance houses, from insurers to banks, are using the Internet to promote their products. Even the Bank of England is on-line. More and more companies publish their Internet addresses on their adverts. If they do not, the Internet's search engines, including Yahoo or Lycos, will look for the company by name. Specialist personal finance Web sites, such as Interactive Investor or Moneywise, are also growing in popularity; many contain links to financial companies' own pages.
Unfortunately, finding a site does not guarantee its usefulness. Parts of the financial community are embracing the Internet with enthusiasm, but others seem happy to publish bland corporate information which does little to entice customers to look at their sites, let alone buy policies or invest their money.
The Internet can do a lot more than put text and pictures on a computer screen. A Web site is quite capable of working out a monthly mortgage repayment, a life assurance quote, or a household policy premium. Although financial services companies talk about the technology, few exploit it to the full.
Most sites rework companies' existing brochures. If you want basic information about an investment trust or a personal equity plan on a Sunday afternoon, the Internet is really the only way to find it, though you will have to pay the cost of a local call to go on-line.
Some companies go further. Barclaycard has tested bill payments over the Net. Nationwide's Web site offers a mortgage calculation facility, and the building society plans to let customers open accounts over the Net by the new year.
Royal and Sun Alliance allows browsers to enter their details on-line, and the company will e-mail tailor-made quotes. The firm also expects to sell travel policies via its Web site within two months. According to Simon Holderness, the Internet specialist with the company, it hopes to have on-line quotes for all its products; eventually almost all will be sold over the Web.
Barclays' Web site also offers quotes for travel cover, while Eagle Star is selling car insurance and plans to expand into other areas, even pensions.
Among investment companies, Fidelity's Web site offers product information, for example on its Windfall PEP and investment trusts. There is no interactivity on the site, but Fidelity promises to send browsers written information within two working days. Guinness Flight Hambro offers detailed information on its overseas investment funds, but again there is little that the Internet surfer can do to take matters further.
Internet users can buy books, computer software, flowers and even groceries on-line. But, generally speaking, financial services are taking longer to get established.
One barrier is concern over security. The dangers of "hackers" stealing credit card or bank details from the Net are well publicised, but the risk is quite small. Technically, it is already more difficult for a criminal to find credit card numbers on the Net than it would be to tap into a phone line. New security measures will make the Internet even safer.
Regulatory issues are a bigger hurdle. The Personal Investment Authority (PIA) recently issued guidelines to life insurance, pension and investment companies on Internet advertising, but the authorities still have reservations about selling complex products, including pensions, in cyberspace.
"One of the problems with life and pensions is they are so tightly regulated," says Sue Temperton for Legal & General. "We do give people the opportunity to find out information from the Web site." Any further queries have to be by phone. A button on its Web site automatically prompts L&G's customer service centre to call Web surfers back.
She sees the Web as more than a sales tool, though. "Some companies are using the Web to sell products, but handle after-sales support over the phone," she says. "We want to put more effort into the service side."
Useful Internet addresses: The Independent, www.independent.co.uk; Interactive Investor, www.iii.co.uk; Moneywise, www.moneywise.co.uk; Barclays, www.barclays.co.uk; Barclaycard, www.barclaycard.co.uk; Nationwide, www.nationwide.co.uk; Royal and Sun Alliance, www.royal-and-sunalliance.co.uk; Commercial Union, www.commercial-union.co.uk; Norwich Union, www.norwich- union.co.uk; Fidelity, www.fidelity.co.uk; Guinness Flight, www.guinness- flight.co.uk; Yahoo, www.yahoo.co.uk; Lycos, www.lycos.com
MAKING THE MOST OF THE INTERNET
Use the Internet to research products and prices. The Net can gather vast amounts of information quickly. For now, however, buying a financial product normally means making a phone call.
q Remember that company material is rarely independent; the Internet is just another form of marketing. Editorially independent sites, including this newspaper, give a neutral overview. For independent advice, consider going to an IFA. Some IFAs now operate on-line.
q On-line services (MSN, AOL or Compuserve) have personal finance sites that are a good starting point for research, although some are open only to subscribers.
q UK-based Internet sites should comply with UK regulations. Any site offering advice should be a member of the Personal Investment Authority (PIA) and display its logo.
Don't part with personal details, especially credit card information, unless it is on a recognised company's Web site. Ideally, the site should use encryption to disguise the information. If in doubt, phone the company.