How to Choose the Right Online Bank

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — BankingMyWay shows, on a regular basis, that online banks’ interest rates are as good, if not better, than traditional bank rates. That’s not a big surprise – online banks don’t have the overhead of old-school financial institutions, and can use that leverage to offer higher rates.

But does that mean you should sign up for an online bank account? Maybe, but do your homework before make any commitments.

First, some good news on online savings accounts, at least relative to traditional savings accounts. BankingMyWay’s Weekly Savings Rate tracker posts the average bricks-and-mortar banks savings account at 0.163% this week. But if you go online, at web-based banks like Ally Bank or INGDirect (Stock Quote: ING), you can garner savings account rates at or above 1%.

You can also open an online savings account with very little capital. Many online banks offer accounts with low (even $1) minimum deposits. Most also come with no annual fees.

But higher rates and lower fees, as compelling as those benefits may be, don’t mean you should jump into an online savings account head first. Instead, ease in gently (and smartly) by following these key steps:

Check for security. One tried and true benefit of banking at a bricks-and-mortar financial institution is that your money is safe, secure, and sound. That’s not to say that online banks aren’t safe, but with the acceleration of Internet fraud in this day and age, checking any potential online bank’s security operations is a no-brainer.

Aim for an online bank that offers security that goes beyond the basic username and password system. You want a bank that offers PIN numbers, personal questions that need to be answered before access is granted, and other “personal” security customization practices. Also, do a quick Google search to check the online bank’s track record on identity theft. Has it been victimized before? Does it offer 100% fraud protection? Does it offer identity theft assistance if you are victimized by cyber-fraud?

Make sure it offers online bill pay. Your online financial institution should also offer the same personal finance services that the biggest banks offer. That includes online bill payment directly from your savings account. Not every online bank offers direct online bill pay, so be sure to ask how your account will be set up. How will money be disbursed? Is security for those payments fraud-proof? Will the bank cover any minor overdrafts triggered by a bill payment? Those are good places to start.

Check the bank’s reputation. You wouldn’t buy a new car without knowing how it performs, so why would you open an online savings account with a bank that you hadn’t checked out first? Check with the Better Business Bureau to see if any consumer complaints have been made against the bank, and do some Internet searches for websites, message boards and chat rooms that offer reviews on your online bank.

Read the fine print. Many online banks don’t allow things like deposits via mail (or if they do, it may be with long processing delays), or (obviously) any walk-in service. That may not sound like a big problem, but that means you won’t be able to deposit a paycheck or a personal check from a friend or family member down at a bank branch. The paycheck part is easy to solve with an online bank: have your employer set up direct deposit the bank. But the personal check business is murkier – you’ll need to have your friend or family member transfer the funds electronically (through a service like PayPal), or by other electronic means like a mobile phone payment app if you want to get that cash processed in due time. Just know going in that paper-checks can be problematic with online banks.

Also, check to see that your online bank is fully funded and that your deposits are FDIC-insured. The FIDC has a handy “Bank Find” section on its website that allows you to check out any financial institution – before you allow it to handle your deposits.

Online banking is here to stay – no doubt about that. But make sure your online bank is also here to stay before you commit any of your hard-earned cash to its management.

—For the best rates on loans, bank accounts and credit cards, enter your ZIP code at BankingMyWay.com.

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