Sure you can purchase anything online from Tom Clancy's latest thriller to porcini, but just try buying a mutual fund.

There's hope, though. Now that

Congress

has passed the bill that does away with the need for an ink signature, fund investors will soon have lots of chances to click on the dotted line.

Current laws don't specifically outlaw opening accounts online, but they don't provide much guidance, either, leaving mutual-fund companies uncertain as to whether electronic signatures constitute a binding agreement. Undaunted, a handful of small to midsize fund companies already have taken the online plunge. The new bill, which resolves the signature matter for fund companies, should open the floodgates for online fund buying as the industry rushes in.

About 15 firms are currently mulling over the idea and will likely release their online options by year's end, fund consultants say. Among the biggies are:

Fidelity

,

Strong

and

Scudder

, each with e-commerce initiatives in various stages of development. Just four fund companies offer the option now.

Last week, Congress approved a bill giving electronic signatures the same legal standing as paper signatures. President

Clinton

has said he would sign it. The law is set to take effect Oct. 1.

Strong, of Menomonee Falls, Wis., says it's been preparing for the new law. "Before the signature bill we already had some things in progress in anticipation that the (bill) would pass,'' says Brian Melter of the company's e-commerce department. Melter says Strong will "easily'' have the initiative in place in the next six months. Before that, it's implementing other paperless alternatives, such as account statements and routine account maintenance. Soon investors will have the option to stop the paper flow in their mailboxes completely, Melter says.

Fidelity wouldn't provide a time frame for its own plans, other than to confirm that it would offer its mutual-fund clients the option by the end of the year. A company spokesman said that the firm was lobbying for the legislation to pass and now sees it as a green light.

So far, mainstream mutual funds haven't been quick to embrace the new technologies. "Because the mutual-fund industry is so highly regulated, they've been very conservative,'' says Steven Miyao, senior vice president for e-business strategies at New York consultant

Kasina

. But consumers have shown an interest in buying funds via the Web. At

Invesco

, a focus group showed that 70% of participants wanted the online option.

But progress has been hamstrung in part by disagreement over the need for a physical signature to make a contract valid. The new law puts electronic signatures on equal footing with the paper-and-ink variety. There also have been concerns about the potential for fraudulent accounts.

By taking the time to go to a Web site and filling out the application form, that is seen as indicating a willingness to enter into an agreement, says Pamela Wilson, a mutual-fund lawyer with

Hale & Dorr

in Boston.

Using that rationale, four mutual-fund companies have simply plowed ahead: Invesco, the Denver-based fund complex with $36 billion in assets under management started its initiative in October;

Marsico

, also of Denver, has been accepting online accounts for the past two months;

Quant Funds

of Lincoln, Mass., with $240 million in assets, started this month; and

whatifi.com

, an online mutual-fund company selling index funds managed by

Barclays Global Investors

, will offer the option once the site launches in a few weeks.

Invesco says it's had success with paperless account openings. Since October, the company has signed up about 35,000 new accounts online, which represent around 10% of its total accounts and 40% of accounts sold directly, says Jon Pauley, vice president of electronic commerce.

"If someone wants to buy our mutual funds, I don't think they'll choose us only because we offer online account openings,'' says Pauley. "But it can be an advantage.''

Still, it's been a slow movement and the big funds have been reluctant to participate. Companies would have to "change their whole business model,'' says Pauley.

While the questions about the validity of electronic signatures have been resolved by the new law, lingering concerns remain at fund companies regarding fraud. Invesco says it uses several ways of verifying a person's identity, such as confirming the Social Security number. At Strong, Melter says he's concerned with ensuring shareholders can't use false information to tap into other people's bank accounts.

Quant and Invesco have gotten around that concern by redepositing money back into a bank account that originated the mutual-fund account. Monica Chandra, director of product marketing at whatifi.com, says her firm will verify information while an investor is filling out the application form. If a red flag goes up, they'll be prevented from completing the application process.

As an added security measure, Invesco and Quant follow up online account openings with confirmation phone calls and Invesco limits online purchases to $25,000. Quant's ceiling is $10,000.