Dale L. Reistad still has his fingers crossed about the checkless society.

"I've been pursuing the 'checkless society' goal for 25 years now," said Mr. Reistad, a payment systems pioneer who is widely credited with coining that term.

"I probably underestimated the strength of the check infrastructure."

Mr. Reistad, 64, who began talking up an all-electronic future in the 1960s, has high hopes that electronic banking will nudge his dream toward reality.

Now a banking consultant in Alexandria, Va., Mr. Reistad has stepped forward to head a committee to address how people without bank accounts can receive government payments electronically.

The federal government faces a Jan. 1, 1999, deadline to convert almost all its check payments to electronics, typically in the form of direct deposits like those prevalent in the Social Security program.

"The biggest challenge will be convincing the unbanked that they should sign up to do whatever they have to do in order to participate in this program," Mr. Reistad said.

"The promotion of it, the public relations behind it, the packaging of it, the use of incentives, will all be a factor in driving this."

For the Online Banking Association-a year-old trade group based in Corte Madera, Calif.-Mr. Reistad is forming a committee of 12 to examine the issue. Their first meeting will occur during the association's conference in May.

The government-payment mandate may be a lever for banks to pull lower- income people into the banking fold.

"In parts of the country where there is a fairly decent percentage of unbanked, no banking institution in its right mind is going to ignore the opportunity," Mr. Reistad said.

The Federal Reserve Board's 1995 survey of consumer finances indicated 13% of U.S. families had no type of transaction account and 15% lacked checking accounts.

Of those 15% without checking accounts, 85% had incomes under $25,000.

"A lot of these unbanked people made a conscious decision not to open a bank account in the past, and something has got to convince them that now is the time to do it," Mr. Reistad said.

He envisions banks offer-ing-and heavily advertising-depository accounts for benefits recipients who could use cards to do business through automated teller machines, telephones, and the like.

"Most of the unbanked people have access to telephones and many of them are now utilizing prepaid telephone cards for the first time, so they're getting into the swing of using that particular equipment," Mr. Reistad said.

"You want the use of the card to be as acceptable to merchants as any other kind of card," he said. "I think that will be automatic with the system, and I think the government is pushing for that."

After serving as the American Bankers Association's first automation director, Mr. Reistad founded Payment Systems Inc. in 1968.

He sold the influential consulting and research firm to American Express Co. in 1975; it now operates as a subsidiary of NFO Inc. in Tampa.

Mr. Reistad, who was president of the Electronic Funds Transfer Association from 1985 to 1989, is now president of Interactive Finsys International Inc., a consulting company he founded in 1995.

He also has been a vocal proponent of interactive television, founding the Interactive Television Association and working with the ill-fated Eon television shopping and banking channel.

With on-line banking starting to catch on, Mr. Reistad swells with pride.

"These are exciting times," he said. "Almost every bank I know of is planning for the Internet society. ... It's healthy. It's something we're going to live comfortably with in the banking industry over the next 25 to 50 years.

"The fact is that any person now who has been in the school system for the past 15 years has learned how to use computers and other electronic devices, and they are prequalified for this banking environment, which they weren't in the early days," he said.

"You have the children being trained, you have the ATM networks and the card-issuing institutions gearing up for this, and now even the government is developing electronic replacements for checks-all of that starts to add up."

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