Wells Fargo & Co. is bolstering its on-line brokerage service with individual retirement accounts.

Through instant IRA openings, Wells is seeking to one-up aggressive on- line brokers and mutual fund companies like Charles Schwab Corp. and Fidelity Investments that offer more limited on-line IRA services.

Though these companies let prospects initiate the application process on-line, they require that paperwork be mailed in.

Wells seems to stand alone in the scope of its IRA capabilities, said Bill Burnham, senior analyst for electronic commerce at Credit Suisse First Boston in San Francisco.

"A visitor can set up an account on-line, write a check, and mail it to us ... on April 15 at 11:59 p.m.," said Daniel Hilken, Wells' national product manager of retirement services.

On-line banking customers can dispense with mailing checks and electronically transfer funds into their IRAs. Though a confirmation package must be returned in the mail, accounts begin earning interest as soon as they are funded.

The on-line IRAs are the latest in a series of offerings from the San Francisco bank as it seeks to compete with brokers. Wells initiated on-line trading last August, ahead of many other commercial banks.

The $200 billion-asset holding company was the first major bank to offer Internet account access.

"For a bank like Wells Fargo, which is very progressive in on-line banking services," offering IRAs is "not surprising," said John Payne, a consultant at Cerulli Associates, a Boston-based research and consulting firm.

Wells also has established a Web-based service to assist customers in electronically filing federal and state tax returns using a version of Intuit Inc.'s WebTurboTax software.

Supplementing its IRA offering are large helpings of information. For example, "IRA 101" tutorials explain differences between Roth and traditional IRAs.

"Last fall we did a Roth study and found that a lot of people weren't rolling over into them simply because they didn't understand them," Mr. Hilken said.

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