Riggs Bank of Washington is offering to give away 500 screen phones in an effort to make electronic services appealing to those with low or moderate incomes.
The bank views the souped-up phones-which have fallen into disfavor in recent years as personal computers became the preferred medium for home banking-as a way to "get our foot in the door," said Russell Simmons, senior vice president of business and community development.
Though many bankers are seeking ways to attract and profitably serve the unbanked population, Riggs wants to bring them immediately into the on-line realm.
Mr. Simmons said that in the process the $5.5 billion-asset banking company may be able to earn points for Community Reinvestment Act compliance because it will be demonstrating commitment to its community and, presumably, generating loans in needy areas.
"Certainly we'd like to receive credit for the CRA," Mr. Simmons said.
In choosing screen phones, Riggs is moving in a direction many other companies rejected in recent years. Online Resources and Communications Corp. of McLean, Va., the home banking outsourcing firm and provider of the phones Riggs is using, has seen demand for them decline.
"It sounds like Riggs has a successfully focused initiative that has public relations value," said Catherine Corby, senior vice president of electronic commerce at Speer & Associates, an Atlanta consulting firm.
Riggs' giveaway-pricing strategy is also somewhat radical, but it is an approach that electronic banking advocates have floated in the past as a way to accelerate creation of a "critical mass."
"But it is difficult for a bank to make a successful business model when giving away devices to consumers," Ms. Corby said.
Riggs' screen phone offering complements a PC-based service, also provided through Online Resources. "We were concerned that low- and moderate-income people could not afford a computer," Mr. Simmons said.
Riggs so far has signed up 20 heads of households for the phone service. "We may get new customers," Mr. Simmons said.
"We can provide electronic home banking to people who could not ordinarily take advantage of it," he said. "These people may not have been in the banking system before."