Wells Fargo Home Mortgage has begun offering free online bill paying and account review to its entire customer base.

The Des Moines-based division of Wells Fargo & Co. tested the program for 10 months with several hundred customers and opened it up this month to all 2.6 million of them.

They can use it to view their mortgage statements and account history, make monthly payments, modify payment schedules, and customize such features as bill notification dates, payment reminders, and confirmation receipts. These features were added to a menu including application submission, loan-status checking, and balance inquiries.

John Duffy, electronic payment products manager at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, said the goal is to give customers "control, convenience, and flexibility" in managing their loan accounts.

He said he hopes the service will be popular with customers "who prefer the Internet as a delivery channel."

The program is accessible through a Web site linked to other Internet services offered by the mortgage company's San Francisco-based parent. Enrollment takes about three minutes.

Jeff Lebowitz, president of Mortech-LLC, a Silver Spring, Md., company that studies mortgage technology, said the banking company and its mortgage division are generally advanced in developing business-to-consumer applications. The new offering underscores this, he said.

"Every time they add something, it may appeal to a different group," Mr. Lebowitz said. "By doing that, they keep ahead of the competition."

Mr. Lebowitz did have a couple of reservations. The service is only available to Wells' customers, so it obviously will not bring in any new business to speak of. He also said it will have limited appeal, since only about 30% of consumers are "good managers of personal finances or reasonably organized to take advantage" of the program.

Mr. Duffy said that, compared with other mortgage companies, his has a bigger percentage of customers who use the Internet.

That boast gets some backing from Mr. Lebowitz, who said that at yearend 1999 47% of mortgage companies had Web sites and just one-fourth of them featured loan-status checking. Twelve to 18 months from now, he said, about one-fourth of mortgage companies with Web sites, or about 12.5% of the lenders overall, will have billing programs similar to Wells Fargo's.

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