Bank email: Is anybody home?

Hands holding money in front of computer

I'm a lawyer, so I like to get things in writing.

This is particularly true with banks, where customer service representatives tend to make mistakes over the phone.

If I have a question, I want to ask it -- and have it answered -- by email.

Most banks offering online services have email features. Many have "secure" systems, on which you can make an account-specific inquiry.

Other banks, however, limit you to "general inquiries."

One big online bank -- American Express -- doesn’t offer even that. Although the bank can email you, you can’t email it. Whenever you get an online message from American Express, it tells you to reply by calling its toll-free number.

And not all banks with email features actually provide good service, which, for me, means both responsiveness and reliability.

At OneWest, which has a "secure" system, I’ve sent three emails over the last five weeks about a CD account. None have been answered. Perhaps the ghost of IndyMac is at work here.

And, at Wells Fargo, a customer service representative recently advised me that "we are unable to fulfill your request through email" when I asked, without identifying my account, where to send an IRA form. (I guess that information was too "sensitive" for Internet transmission.)

Also, e-mail responses aren’t always correct. It seems to me that the reliability of a bank’s email reply is inversely related to the amount of "boilerplate" it contains.

During tussles with HSBC Advance, I received email assurance that it was "our pleasure to have serviced your banking needs" and "providing excellent customer service to our account holders is one of our guiding principles."

What was missing was accurate information about my account.

But there are good -- even excellent -- bank email systems.

I’ve found Nationwide Bank’s system to be the best in terms of both responsiveness and reliability. I always get a prompt reply, it always addresses the question I asked and the answer is always understandable and accurate.

I even feel comfortable using Nationwide email to transact banking business, like establishing a payable-on-death beneficiary, rolling over a CD at maturity or withdrawing interest.

Runner-up honors are shared by Discover Bank, MetLife Bank and Allstate Bank. (It’s too bad Allstate has such crumby CD rates.)