The brave new world of check writing isn't much more convenient than the old way. Oh sure, "e-checks" cut down on processing costs for retailers, e-tailers, and banks. But customers still have to use the oldfangled perforated book of paper money to pay for stuff.

Despite what the name implies, e-checks require shoppers to hand an actual check to the cashier. The difference is that the cashier gives the check right back to you after the transaction is recorded. (Don't worry, the returned check is voided so that no one can triple-charge you for milk and T.P.)

E-checks are being touted as the newest, safest way to pay. Once the routing/transit and account number is recorded, no other humans handle your paper check -- scrutinizing your middle name and jotting down your phone number and address -- thus cutting down on chances for fraudulent activity. And unlike old-fashioned checking methods, electronic transactions are protected under federal regulations.

The Electronic Payments Association (NACHA) says that U.S. consumers will send more than 1 billion e-checks this year. That's twice as much ether loot we e-checked (it's a bona fide verb now, right?) in 2002. NACHA estimates that 167 million paper checks were converted into e-checks through in-store transactions in 2002.

As with most things in life, watch out for extra fees for e-checks (yeah, the irony of providing a less labor-intensive payment, and then charging us for it, is not lost on us). And if you bank at a credit union, verify if the account number on your check is the same number required for an electronic payment. According to, credit unions often use a different account number structure than banks.