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METHODS, DEVICES AND SYSTEMS FOR
ELECTRONIC BILL PRESENTMENT AND
BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION 5
1. Field of the Invention
This invention relates to the electronic presentment and payment of bills. In particular, the present invention relates to methods, devices and systems that provide a powerful, 10 automated and flexible infrastructure for electronically presenting, processing, viewing and paying bills and other requests for payment over a computer network, such as the Internet.
2. Description of the Related Art 15 Conventional methods for the receipt, payment and processing of bills derive from the nature of the bills themselves. Paper bills, such as those generated by billers such as utilities, credit card and mortgage companies, for example, must be printed, stuffed into envelopes, stamped or otherwise metered and delivered. Once received, the consumer most often writes a paper check, fills out a paper bill stub, stuffs both in an envelope, affixes postage, and drops off the payment with the post office to be delivered to the biller. The 25 biller, or a designated payment processor contracting with the biller, receives the paper bill payment, records the payment and deposits the check with a financial institution, whereupon the check is sent to a clearinghouse for further processing. Ultimately, the customer's account is debited for 30 the amount of the check and the biller's account is correspondingly credited.
FIG. 1 shows an example of a paper-based bill generation and payment cycle 100. As shown therein, the cycle 100 may 35 include a biller 110 electronically sending bill data to a bill publisher 120. The bill data may include the customer's name, address, amount due, due date, together with any other relevant information, such as the current outstanding balance. The bill publisher 120 then prints out the bills using 40 the biller's data and bill forms. The printed bills may then be mailed and physically delivered to the customer's mailbox 140, most often via the postal service 130. The customer then retrieves the bill from his or her mailbox and eventually 45 remits (at reference 150) the amount due (or some fraction thereof), most often by writing a paper check. The remittance is then stuffed into an envelope, mailed and delivered, most often via the postal service 130, to the biller's lock box 160. A bank or other payment processor 170 then retrieves 50 the payment, processes same and causes the payment to be debited from a customer account and credited to a biller's account, either by electronic or paper funds transfer.
As may be appreciated, the paper-based bill generation 55 and payment cycle 100 depicted in FIG. 1 is often both a lengthy and costly process. To quantify the cost of this reliance upon paper bills, it has been estimated that over 18 billion paper bills are generated annually, at about $1.00 to about $1.50 per paper bill. Moreover, it is estimated that the 60 aggregate processing cost for these paper bills reaches about $14 billion annually. Of these paper bills, the majority are generated by credit card companies and the vast majority of these bills are settled by means of paper checks. 65
Other payment modalities exist. For example, it is now possible to pay some bills by authorizing the biller to issue
a telephone check or to electronically transfer funds. Moreover, certain online payment options are emerging, allowing customers to pay bills electronically. Such online payment services often must print out and mail a paper check to those billers not equipped to accept an electronic form of payment. However, a major obstacle to the widespread adoption of electronic bill payments thus far has been the absence of an effective, reliable, convenient and secure bill presentment infrastructure. Such an infrastructure should allow customers to be presented with and view bills as they would normally appear, in the same or a similar format as their familiar paper counterparts. The customers should then have the ability to view a summary and/or a detailed form of the bill and have a number of options available (such as to schedule bills for auto-payment, for example) to pay the bill electronically. Such an infrastructure should also allow the billers to exercise complete control over the appearance of the bills presented to the customers, and allow a simple and flexible means of uploading, storing and presenting their billing data to their customers. What are needed, therefore, are tightly integrated methods, devices and systems for electronically presenting bills to customers while preserving the billers' corporate identity. Such methods, devices and systems should also allow customers to view and pay such bills without the disadvantages associated with conventional electronic payment systems and/or paper bills and checks.
Bill consolidators exist, which allow customers to electronically log onto a single site on the World Wide Web (hereafter Web) and pay bills originating from a number of individual billers. For example, a customer might log onto a consolidator's Web site and pay their electric bill, their telephone and their cable bill. Such consolidators may be generally categorized as thin consolidators or thick consolidators. Thin consolidators typically carry only bill summaries and refer the customer to the biller's own Web site for further detailed bills and/or further customer service, such as to discuss a disputed bill. Thick consolidators typically carry the biller's entire customer data and often act as their own payment processors. In the thick consolidator case, the biller's involvement in the presentment and payment process may be limited to providing the thick consolidator with the necessary customer bill data and collecting the payment after the customer payment has been received and processed. However, no complete solution is believed to exist to allow thick and/or thin consolidators to preserve the "look-andfeel" of their billers' bills while providing the customer with a flexible and integrated bill presentment and payment infrastructure.
SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION
It is an object of the present invention, therefore, to provide methods, devices and systems for electronically presenting bills to customers while preserving the billers' corporate identity, as embodied in the "look-and-feel" of the bills presented to customers. It is another object of the present invention to provide methods, devices and systems to allow customers to view and pay electronic bills in a flexible manner, without the disadvantages associated with conventional electronic payment systems and/or paper bills and checks.
In accordance with the above-described objects and those that will be mentioned and will become apparent below, a computer-implemented method of presenting an electronic bill from a biller to a customer over a computer network, according to an embodiment of the present invention, com- 5 prises the steps of receiving biller-originated bill data and bill format data over the network into a bill presentment and payment database; storing the inputted bill data and bill format data in a first area of the bill presentment and 10 payment database called the loading and staging area; validating at least the stored bill data; swapping the validated bill data and the format data from the first area to a second area of the bill presentment and payment database, the second area, called the active area, being accessible to the :5 customer; and presenting the bill to the customer, the presented bill being formatted according to the format data and incorporating the validated bill data.
According to an embodiment of the present invention, the 20 method may further comprise storing historic information of bills in a third, customer accessible area of the bill presentment and payment database called the active area. The bill format data may include a plurality of bill templates, each of the bill templates defining a distinct appearance for the bill. 25 A plurality of bill template rules may be evaluated based upon the validated bill data and one of the plurality of bill templates may be selected to format the bill presented to the customer. For example, one of the bill template selection 3Q rules may compare a current date with a due date of the bill. A plurality of auto pay rules may be evaluated to determine whether a request for payment should be automatically generated after the validated bill data and the format data has been swapped from the first area to a second area of the bill 35 presentment and payment database. The bill data may be arranged in the first area as at least one database table, which may be swapped into the second area after the bill data is validated. For example, the aforementioned database table
(s) may include a bill summary table and a bill detail table. A status table may be generated for the bill, to indicate the current status of the bill. Both the bill data and bill format data may originate from a plurality of billers, each biller of the plurality inputting its own bill data and its own biller- 45 specific bill format data. A step of maintaining an activity log of biller-specified predefined business events and of generating a notification upon an occurrence of one of the biller-specified predefined business events may also be carried out. An audit trail record may be maintained of all or selected table-affecting events within the bill presentment and payment database. Each customer may be represented in the bill presentment and payment database as a user account, each user account including a biller account for each biller 55 from whom the customer receives bills, a list of which payment instruments the customer uses to pay the billers and at least one biller-definable flexible field. A plurality of customers may be registered simultaneously into the bill presentment and payment database in a batch mode by 60 loading XML or OFX-formatted customer data into the first area via Hypertext Transfer Protocol (http) or by file transfer, via File Transfer Protocol (ftp). According to further embodiments, the present invention may also be viewed as 65 a computer system implementing the above detailed method and a computer readable medium having data stored thereon
representing sequences of instructions which, when executed by a computer, causes said computer to perform the above-detailed steps.
BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS
For a further understanding of the objects and advantages of the present invention, reference should be made to the following detailed description, taken in conjunction with the accompanying figures, in which:
FIG. 1 shows an example of a paper-based bill generation and payment cycle.
FIG. 2 shows an electronic bill generation and payment cycle, according to an embodiment of the present invention.
FIG. 3 is a conceptual diagram illustrating the relationships between billers, customers, consolidators and payment processors, according to an embodiment of the present invention.
FIG. 4 is a block diagram illustrating a structure of a database for electronic bill presentment and payment, according to an embodiment of the present invention.
FIG. 5 is a block diagram of the dynamic template generation for bill presentment, according to an embodiment of the present invention.
FIG. 6 is a block diagram of a system architecture for managing the database of FIG. 4, according to an embodiment of the present invention.
FIG. 7 is a block diagram of a computer on which embodiments of the present invention may be implemented.
DESCRIPTION OF THE PREFERRED
The present invention includes electronic bill presentment and payment methods, devices and systems. As shown in FIG. 4, the present invention may be implemented as a database 400 comprising a first, second and third areas 420, 430 and 440, respectively. In the description to follow, the first area 420 may also be referenced as a staging area, the second area 430 as an active area and the third area 440 may be referenced as an archive area, for reasons to be detailed below. As shown in FIG. 4, the staging area 420, the active area 430 and the archive area 430 each may be a subdatabase of the database 400 or each may be a functionally separate database linked to one another at least in the manner shown by the arrows 427, 428, 437 and 438.
According to the present invention, billers (e.g., billgenerating entities, such as credit card companies, utilities, mortgage companies, for example) have the option of transmitting bill data 402 and/or bill format data 404 to the electronic presentment and payment database 400. The bill data 402 may include, for example, a customer identifier, an amount due and a date due for each of the biller's customers that have opted to pay their bills electronically. Other information may also be included in the bill data 402 including, for example, account balance, minimum payment and customer service information, for example. The bill data stream 402 may be coded according to any number of formats such as, for example, the Open Financial Exchange (OFX) format (available at the OFX home page on the World