A handful of cutting-edge credit unions are reaching their members through the Internet.
Credit union members can jump into cyberspace to send messages, fill out loan applications, or transfer funds between accounts.
More institutions are expected to join as the industry embraces high- tech delivery systems to cut costs and offer a new means of access to its members.
"We are all seeing the future through a veil but there isn't any question that this is an important area for credit unions," said Charles W. Filson, president of the consulting firm Callahan & Associates.
Stanford Federal Credit Union is as far ahead in this field as any. The $153 million-asset institution set up shop on the Internet late last year because most of its 29,000 members - students, faculty, and staff of Stanford University - have Internet accounts.
Members can connect to the credit union's PC-based home banking system through the Internet. Using it they can check account histories, transfer funds, apply for loans, and pay their credit union Visa bills, among other transactions, said Michael Roth, network administrator for the Palo Alto, Calif., institution. Other services, such as paying bills, will be on-line soon.
Besides being convenient for the membership, service through the Internet is less expensive than teller transactions and comparable to ATM transaction costs, Mr. Roth said.
Operating on the Internet does cost the credit union about $7,000 a year in access fees, plus other maintenance costs. Although the credit union doesn't now charge its members for the service, it might in the future.
"At this point we're trying to promote maximum usage of the system," Mr. Roth said. "We're trying to see how many people want to use it."
Members calla the credit union through the Internet 5,000 to 6,000 times a month, he said.
"For a lot of people, this is going to be the way to bank in the future," Mr. Roth said. "Eventually anything you can do at a physical branch you should be able to do electronically."
The credit union has layers of security in place so high-tech pirates can't ransack members' information, said Stanford Federal chief executive Warren Marshall.
"We've never had an instance where a person has broken into an account," he said.
Naval Air Federal Credit Union in Virginia Beach went on the Internet in March because its members are deployed across the country, said Phillip Richards, assistant vice president of strategic planning and marketing for the $461 million-asset credit union.
The credit union began accepting loan applications in April. Mr. Richards said revenue from loans made through cyberspace should be sufficient to cover costs of about $10,000 a year.
Although the future of banking through the Internet seems promising to most industry officials, there are concerns that enterprising hackers could wreak havoc on members' accounts.
So concerned is William Brooks, chief executive of Lafayette Federal Credit Union in Kensington, Md., that the institution doesn't put account information on the Internet. Instead, the system is used simply as a means of communicating with members, some of whom work overseas.
Thomas Sargent, chief executive of First Technology Federal Credit Union, said fears about rampaging hackers are overblown.
"There's sufficient security out there; it's just a question of making use of it," he said.
The Beaverton, Ore., institution will go on the Internet later this month and begin executing transactions in August. It will have systems in place that will encrypt, or scramble, account information.
To prevent tampering, a computer that restricts access to the mainframe - a firewall - will be put into place, he said.
Kevin Knight, network services manager for the Golden 1 Credit Union, said that potential problems shouldn't prevent credit unions from exploiting another means of reaching its members.
"One has to recognize that doing business has risks," he said.
The Sacramento, Calif., institution has just finished purchasing equipment and plans to go live later this year, Mr. Knight said.