Credit card issuers and other companies are eager to move from paper to electronic billing, but consumers are cold to the idea, according to a study by PSI Global Inc.

In a survey covering 2,800 households, 63% of respondents said they felt it is more "reliable and secure" to send bill payments by mail than on- line, the market research firm reported. Even more-74%-said they like the "privacy" of paying with paper checks, and 72% preferred the "convenience" of that method.

PSI Global of Tampa reported that 7% of respondents said they would like to begin receiving and paying bills through the Internet within a year; 16% said they would like to start doing so within three years.

Nevertheless, PSI Global projected that up to 15% of U.S. households will immediately adopt electronic bill payment when it becomes more widely available. At first, companies might need to offer discounts and incentives for customers to use the service, the research firm said.

Companies that send out a lot of paper bills are looking at electronic bill presentment and payment as a way to cut down on retail billing costs. Companies that have switched to electronic payments for business-to- business procurement say the method saves a lot of money.

Though corporate vendors are gradually embracing electronic payments, billers are concerned that consumers will not adopt similar systems, PSI Global said.

It said consumers are expected to make 15.9 billion bill payments in 1999, 80% of them originating from the top five billing sectors: credit card companies, other lenders, utilities, communications companies, and insurance firms.

Though relatively few people are eager for on-line billing, the "good news for billers" is that nearly 50% of U.S. households already have personal computers, said Beth Robertson, vice president and director of billing and payment research at PSI Global.

More than one-third of these computer owners use financial management software, Ms. Robertson said. "The infrastructure is in place for large numbers of consumers to accept" electronic bill presentment and payment.

As a prelude to on-line billing, credit card issuers have been letting consumers view their statements through the Internet. This is "a first in moving people to a higher comfort level," Ms. Robertson said.

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