PPL Electric Utilities Corp., based in Pennsylvania, reports an increase in the number of customers who pay their bills electronically – from 32,000 a year ago to 48,000 today. This move to online payments saves the utility both time and money, and PPL is planning to introduce more self-service options in an effort to encourage customers to pay online. There is room for improvement – some 75% of PPL's customers still put their cheques in the post.

However, consumers who pay utility bills online or through third-party payment companies have been warned that these services are not always free, and that extra charges and delays could be involved. While many utilities do not charge a fee for bills paid online, the customer's bank might do so. And third-party vendors who take credit or debit card payments over the phone do charge incremental fees for the service.

Many utilities have closed their walk-in payment centres in an effort to curtail costs. But customers without cheque accounts are unlikely to have access to computers for online payments, and it is this group that is causing consumer watchdog groups some concern.