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Pick up the tab by texting

Cash, credit or text? Cell phone payments are coming to the U.S. as companies like Feed Tribes launch new services.

Forgot your credit card? Don't have cash on you? No worries--just use your cell phone to pay the bill.

That's what some folks in Boulder, Colo., can do if they sign up for an account with a Boulder-based start-up called Feed Tribes. The company's setup lets customers pay a check using a text message. This week, the company launched its service in three Boulder locations of a restaurant chain called Noodles & Co.

Here's how it works. Consumers sign up through the company's Web site, establishing an account that's linked to a checking or savings account. When customers are ready to pay the check at a Noodles & Co. (or at another merchant offering the Feed Tribes service), they punch in a short SMS code for Feed Tribes. A PIN number is used to access the customer's account, and a few seconds later, he receives a code back from Free Tribes that's good for 15 minutes. Then the customer gives that code to the cashier, who enters it into a machine that debits the account.

Executives from Feed Tribes said their text-based payment method is not only convenient for consumers, but also allows merchants to have a closer marketing relationship with their customers. Noodles & Co., for example, can send marketing messages to customers who opt to receive them.

"The convergence of the cell phone at the point of sale allows merchants to build interactive loyalty with their customers," Feed Tribes CEO Rod Stambaugh said in a statement. "You may not read the newspaper or look at a billboard but you will definitely use your mobile phone each day."

Feed Tribes says that Noodles & Co. is the first chain to use its service. But the Colorado company isn't the first that allows businesses to accept payments from cell phones. Throughout Asia, cell phones have been used for several years to pick up the tab.

In Japan, cell phones with embedded computer chips allow people to hold up their phone to a sensor to buy everything from a train ticket to a bottle of Coke. The technology is spreading to other regions, as well. Some towns in Germany are testing the technology to let people buy electronic bus tickets and loyalty cards. It's also being used to offer discounts at some stores.

Motorola announced earlier this year that it is building handsets equipped with a specific chip to pay bills. The M-Wallet service will initially allow cell phone users to do banking chores and to pay bills at participating retailers.

But there are security and privacy concerns. Critics fear that hackers could pickpocket electronic wallets. They also say that using phones to make purchases gives phone companies, merchants and marketers too much information about people's spending behavior.