Switching to digital billing statements? Here's what you need to know.

Beware of these drawbacks to switching to e-statements, consumer advocates caution.
Image: Happy Couple Making Online Payment
A new Consumer Action survey shows that the way you receive a billing statement can significantly impact your behavior — how likely you are to review that bill.Portra / Getty Images
Get the Better newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Herb Weisbaum

It seems like everything is going digital, so it’s no surprise that businesses of all sizes (and even some government agencies) are pushing us to choose “environmentally friendly” paperless billing. Some companies encourage the switch by charging a monthly fee to continue getting paper statements.

But many people are not ready — or able — to transition to digital delivery. They want paper billing statements that arrive by “snail mail.” An estimated 24 million Americans still don’t have broadband connectivity, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts.

An online survey of more than 2,600 people by the non-profit group Consumer Action, found that a majority preferred paper for:

  • Medical bills: 74 percent
  • Property taxes: 71 percent
  • Motor vehicle renewals: 69 percent
  • Insurance: 66 percent
  • Utility bills: 63 percent
  • Credit card statements: 61 percent
  • Phone bills: 56 percent

Why are paper statements still so popular? As one respondent put it: “By mail, it’s easier to stack, organize and utilize in the bill paying process each month; cannot possibly keep track of all the personal emails I get daily.”

FEAR OF MISSING THE BILL

“People are afraid they're not going to see the bill and they just won't risk it,” said Ruth Susswein, Consumer Action's deputy director of national priorities. “Some are worried that they'll miss a bill because they scroll right past it or that it will end up in their junk folder or get caught by a spam filter.”

Scott Burns from Jamestown, N.Y., took the Consumer Action survey. Even though he likes the convenience of paying online, he wants hard copies of his billing statements.

“It's there, in your face, so to speak. It's not just one line in your ever-expanding inbox,” Burns told NBC News BETTER. “With all the spam we get, an email bill is easy to miss, even if you’ve tagged it.”

While the preference for paper statements and bills is clear, the Consumer Action survey found that a majority (56 percent) of respondents, like Burns, prefer to pay their bills online.

Tip: If you get digital bills, put an ongoing reminder in your calendar as to when they should arrive. That way, if they don’t, you won’t wind up making a late payment.

That’s what I do, after I got burned. Last year, I missed an electronic credit card bill for $25, got hit with a $25 penalty fee and saw my credit score drop when the late payment was reported to the credit bureau.

Get the better newsletter.

FEWER PEOPLE REVIEW DIGITAL BILLS

The Consumer Action survey shows that the way you receive a billing statement can significantly impact your behavior — how likely you are to review that bill.

More than three-quarters (78 percent) of those who get paper bills by mail said they review the transactions on that statement. On the other hand, only 43 percent of those who use electronic delivery said they go online to review transaction details.

Consumers who fail to look at their monthly credit card statement are “less likely to identify any erroneous or fraudulent transactions,” the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau noted in a 2015 report. They’d also miss the standard mandatory statement disclosures, such as the minimum payment warning.

John Breyault, who runs the National Consumers League’s Fraud.org website, says anything that discourages people from reviewing their bills before they pay is a problem.

“To combat fraud, it's very important for consumers to review their bills on a regular basis to look for suspicious charges and take action should you find something,” Breyault said. It's a lot easier to miss bogus fees or charges if they're in tiny print on a little smartphone screen than it is when you have a piece of paper right in front of you.”

Online billing presents a new opportunity for scammers.

“Scam artists are very good at making fraudulent emails look real,” Breyault told NBC News BETTER. “Get an email with a link you're supposed to click to view and pay the bill, you could very easily be tricked into providing personal information that could be used to commit identity theft.”

Tip: The secure way to pay your bills online is to open your browser and go to the website without clicking any links in an email, no matter how real it looks.

YOU HAVE A RIGHT, IN SOME CASES, TO GET A PAPER BILL

The push for paperless communications is only going to increase, if for no other reason than it costs less than printing and mailing billing statements. In some cases, change will take place automatically.

Do you, the customer, have any say in this?

“If the law requires information to be provided in writing, then an electronic version can substitute for that only with the consumer's consent,” said Lauren Saunders, associate director of the National Consumer Law Center. “And you have the right to revoke that consent at any time.”

Federal regulations require certain financial institutions to provide paper statements. According to Consumer Action:

  • Banks must issue written statements on any account that can be accessed electronically. They must also provide statements for any month that the customer made at least one ATM/debit card transaction, electronic bill payment or direct deposit.
  • Credit card issuers and mortgage lenders are required to provide monthly statements.
  • Investment firms must provide customers with a statement at least quarterly, or for any month in which there’s been activity.

Written statements are not required for:

  • Home equity lines of credit
  • Reverse mortgages
  • Timeshare loans
  • Fixed-rate loans paid with a coupon book
  • Mortgages serviced by qualifying “small” servicers or a Housing Finance Agency

Financial apps that transfer money have no legal obligation to provide statements. Prepaid card issuers are only required to make account transaction information available online and balances by phone, unless a consumer requests a written account history.

Keep in mind: If you were switched to a digital bill without your permission or didn’t realize you consented, you have the right to switch back to paper, but there may be consequences, such as being charged a fee.

The Keep Me Posted North America campaign supports a consumer’s right to choose, for free, whether they want to receive important financial information on paper or digitally.

MORE FROM BETTER

Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.