Archive for April, 2007

New features: full international currency support, and automatic currency conversion

April 30, 2007

SpendingLast night, we launched a major revision to the way we handle international currencies. When we first launched, we listed all transactions with a ‘$’, no matter what currency they were really (how very American of us!). Pretty soon after launch, we added a way for you to set the currency for any one account (go to the account page, click “Edit” next to the account name, and you’ll see a currency setting). That helped, but still, the spending/earning summary, tag, and merchant data were all shown as U.S. dollars, and all of our aggregate data reports showed dollars, too.

Brad has been working hard on solving these problems, and we now have a great set of international currency features. Here’s what’s new:

  • If you identify your country when you first register, we’ll set the appropriate default currency for that country, and all of your accounts will default to that currency unless the uploaded file has a different currency type, or you set the currency yourself (as described above). (If you’re already a member, your currency default should now be set if you identified your country when you registered.)
  • You can change your default currency at any time by editing your profile. Log in, click on your username at the top of any page (near the “Upload” link, under the photos), and you’ll see the default currency setting.
  • As you browse the site, all of the site features will be shown in your default currency, including all aggregate data reports, your spending and earning summaries, and your tag and merchant pages.
  • If you upload accounts in more than one currency, when you look at your spending or earning summary or a tag or merchant page, we’ll automatically convert your transaction amounts to your default currency for those pages (using the published conversion rates for your currencies on the day of each transaction). For instance, if you have one account in Euros and one in pounds sterling, and your default currency is Euros, you’ll see your reports including all of the pounds sterling transactions, converted to Euros as of the date of the transaction. (Neat!)

We’re running around the site killing off dollar signs for our international users as we speak — if we’ve missed any, let us know and we’ll fix it. Thanks to everyone who held up under our blatantly isolationist formatting while we got this fixed. And thanks to Brad for making this work so well and so completely automatically. Brilliant.

More on how banks maximize your overdraft charges

April 27, 2007

Wesabe user ‘haberschmidt’ just posted a fantastic piece in the Wesabe Groups section, under the Smart Banking discussion about overdraft fee policies at the top U.S. banks. In the post, haberschmidt details how many different ways Wachovia has found to charge overdraft fees:

As the net effect, there should have been zero fees for overdrafts, but Wachovia ratcheted it up to 7 overdrafts for $245 in fees. I am absolutely appalled, and it has nothing to do with indignation over payment, since I ended up resolving the overdraft protection issue at the branch level and getting the fees removed. […]

Although the branch corrected the overdraft protection issue and reversed the fees, I am closing my accounts. I believe strongly in voting with my dollars and I don’t want to belong to a bank that takes advantage of its customers in this way. It strikes me as a predatory practice, and the kind of thing of which Congress should be aware when it reviews regulation on the credit card companies and other financial industry practices.

The entire post is well worth reading, since it applies to at least nine of the top ten banks in the U.S., and many others besides.

When we first launched Wesabe last November, we were not surprised to see that our #1 top merchant at that point was Amazon, and #2 was Netflix. That matched well with the stereotype of “early adopters.” What was surprising, though, was the merchant #20 was Overdraft Fee. If you think overdraft fees just hit people who are “bad with money,” they don’t — they hit a huge percentage of the population, and as Wesabe has grown, we’ve seen that more and more. Currently, our users have been charged roughly $200,000.00 in overdraft charges in just the past few months — an average of one overdraft charge for each and every person tracking their money on Wesabe. That’s a huge amount of money for consumers to lose, when it could instead be going to pay their bills or improve their lives. We’re out to help our members reduce that number to $0.

The good news is, we also see that almost 70 of those overdrafts, amounting to about $5,000.00 in fees, have been refunded by the banks — including, it sounds like, haberschmidt’s $245.00, and $216.00 in overdraft fees Washington Mutual tried to charge me a few months ago. That’s a good start, but we can get that down a lot from where it is now. In the past three months, I’ve spent a grand total of $1.50 on bank fees — down from $1,425.00 in the year I started working on Wesabe. (And I’m really mad about that $1.50!)

Whenever you see a fee on your bank account, ask the bank to refund it, and if they don’t, start looking for a bank that won’t charge you that fee. And check out haberschmidt’s post — it’s great for every consumer to read.

Wheaties bookmarks for April 22nd

April 22, 2007

Good reading for April 22nd:

  • 13 indicted in $3M credit card fraud – Yahoo! News – When talking about security on the Internet, a common argument is, “You give your credit card number to waiters all the time.” Here’s a case of $3 million in fraudulent charges stemming from staff fraud at 40 restaurants. Watch your bank statements!

Upcoming appearances: Mix07

April 20, 2007

Mix07Microsoft has kindly invited me to speak at their Mix07 conference in Las Vegas on May 1st. I’ll be speaking on a panel about privacy policies, where we’ll talk about the question, “How can privacy be used as a competitive advantage?” We care about this topic a lot at Wesabe, and I’m interested to see how the panel plays out. Hopefully I’m not the only privacy nut there!

If you’ll be at the show, please come up and introduce yourself. Brad and I had a great time speaking at the Web 2.0 Expo this past week, and each time we’ve talked, we hear from happy Wesabe users and people who are just getting started with it. I find hearing from people about their experiences hugely motivating and fun. Hope to see you there.

Pop-ups ads tricking people into monthly charges

April 19, 2007

There’s a great article in today’s New York Times about a reporter discovering a $10 fee from a company she didn’t know in her bank statement, and tracking down to the source. It turns out her husband had signed up without realizing it, and she only found it by looking through their bank statement carefully:

The other day, as I was trying to avoid making eye contact with $168.09 (jeans and a T-shirt) and $40.24 (how can a tank of gas cost that much?), I happened to notice a mysterious $10 charge.

It was for WLI*RESERVATIONREWARDS.CO.

It didn’t ring a bell. Was Reservation Rewards a surcharge for a hotel room? A magazine subscription? Or a digital audio download?

I phoned the toll-free number. A customer service representative told me that my husband had enrolled in a subscription service that offered members discount coupons for travel and restaurants. The cost was $10 a month.

That didn’t sound like my husband.

“Maybe when he bought something else,” the customer service representative said. “Like on Fandango.”

She describes that a $10 rebate offer appeared as a pop-up ad, “Good for your next Fandango purchase!” and that all he had to do was enter his email address, since Fandango already had his credit card information. In the fine print, which he didn’t read, it said that by taking the offer he was signing up for Reservation Rewards monthly service. But the punchline came later:

The next day, it got worse. That was when my husband received an e-mail message telling him that he had been a Reservation Rewards member since November 2005.

He phoned from his office to read the message: “We have issued a refund of $160.”

“They charged us $160?” I asked. “You were a member for 16 months?”

“I’ll never buy tickets at Fandango again,” he said.

There’s more to the piece, including an interview with Reservation Rewards’ CEO, and a mention that they are currently subject of a class action lawsuit about their practices. (That link also includes a list of all the sites with which they’ve partnered — and it’s a long and familiar list.)

I think very poorly of these kinds of businesses. Consumers’ wallets are constantly taxed by monthly fees, charges, subscriptions, and penalties that offer them little or no benefit, and act as deadweight loss on their income. Here are a few tips for avoiding charges like these:

  1. As the author of the article suggests, go over your bank and credit card statements carefully. Of course we hope this is one of the benefits of Wesabe, that you have better tools for going through just the new charges, and that you can research any merchant that shows up in your statement to find out what they do and whether they’re worth it for you. However you check your statements, though, be sure that you do.
  2. Ask for refunds of charges you don’t recognize. Every time you see a fee or a charge you don’t recognize, ask what it is, and ask what you have to do to remove it and have it refunded. This works for all kinds of fees, from the subscription charges the author found, to account fees, overdraft fees, and others.
  3. Block pop-up ads. We very strongly recommend the Firefox web browser, since it has pop-up blocking and other security and privacy features built-in. It also does a great job of letting you get to a pop-up window on those rare times when you want to see it. By default, though, you should never have to see those ads.

It turns out that 17 Wesabe users have charges from Reservation Rewards, totaling $397.00. Because of the way our privacy wall works, we have no way of knowing who those people are, but I’ve written a Wesabe tip pointing to the article, matched against “Reservation Rewards” as a merchant name. Now, whenever a Wesabe user gets one of those charges, this is what they’ll see in their accounts:

res rewards

That tip link has pointers to the Times article, the class-action information, and the toll-free number you can call to ask for a refund. This is one of the big ideas behind Wesabe — one person does the research to root out this charge, and everyone on the site benefits. It’s easier to watch your statements closely when they’re telling you right there what to look for.

I’m glad this reporter tracked down the charge. Hopefully, having this practice highlighted in the New York Times will make it harder for them to continue doing business by taxing consumers with underhanded offers.

Coming Soon: Automatic upload for everyone, world-wide

April 16, 2007

I get emails like this one a lot these days:

Hi Marc,

Does Wesabe support automatic uploading of AMEX card data? I’m considering getting one (card), but I’m not sure I want to if it won’t work with Wesabe. (Yes, Wesabe has become that important to me.)

Fortunately, the answer is yes, American Express (in the U.S. at least) is very easy to sync with Wesabe. The Wesabe Uploader prompts you for your American Express username and password, stores those on your local hard drive (so you don’t have to enter them into our web site), and then automatically syncs your data for you every 12 hours. That’s great — American Express is doing the right thing by making it free and easy for its users to get access to their own data, and the result is that American Express users have the tools they need to make better decisions with their money.

Unfortunately, many banks and credit cards, in the U.S. and around the world, don’t make it that easy. They don’t support the open standards that allow their customers to automatically sync data to Wesabe or other personal finance applications. They require users to search all over badly-designed web sites just to find their own data. Worst of all, they charge fees — as high as $10 a month — for access to your own financial history. What a rip-off, and what a terrible way to help their customers manage their money. As you can see from the email above, they’re making a mistake — here’s a credit card customer saying that he’s choosing a card based on how easy it is to get access to his data. And nowadays I get emails like that all the time.

We think all of those restrictions, hurdles, penalties, and hassles are wrong, bad for consumers, and ultimately bad for the economy. We think that nothing should stand between a consumer and free, easy access to their own financial records, especially when those records can help that consumer build a better life. In the long run, we think it’s better for the banks and credit cards, too — if their customers start leaving because they can’t get at their data, that’s bad for them, too.

So, we’ve been hard at work on a new tool that will solve this for everyone — not just in the U.S., but for any account around the world (as long as it exports one of our supported formats). We’re really excited about it. You won’t have long to wait.

(Want to help us test it? Drop us a line at support@wesabe.com, and we’ll set you up. If you don’t hear back for a bit, sit tight — we’ll roll it out in waves to make the tests more effective.)

Wheaties bookmarks for April 16th

April 16, 2007

Good reading for April 16th:

A day late and $1.50 short

April 12, 2007

A big part of Wesabe is people helping each other make better financial decisions. Today one of our members, “someoneelse,” posted a link to a Boston Globe article about Bank of America adding a $1.50 finance charge for former MNBA credit card holders (B of A acquired MNBA in 2005) on any balance carried forward. So, if your finance charge would have been $.30, they round up to $1.50…just because…just because they can. Or in B of A’s words in its letter to customers, the company added the minimum finance charge “due to a change in our business practices.” Like I said, because they can.

This will probably generate millions of dollars in incremental fee revenue (benefit of scale) by leeching just enough money from their customers without causing so much pain that they actually react. If you’re affected, “someoneelse” also linked to a Consumerist article explaining how to opt out of this charge.

A few thoughts:

1) thanks to “someoneelse,” the Consumerist, and Bruce Mohl (the Boston Globe reporter) for bringing this to light. A buck here or there might not sound like much, but recognizing the cumulative effect this action will have on consumers’ bottom line is critical

2) Comments on these stories have shown that consumers overwhelmingly see this change as a “gotcha fee.” Will outrage translate into action? How convenient is the local branch if every piece of mail from the bank requires action or they’ll jack up your fees?

If a company changes your terms or engages in a business practice that you don’t agree with, call them out. And if that doesn’t work, YOU can make a change… by moving your business somewhere else. Of course that only happens when push comes to shove. But it does feel like B of A is giving these customers a not-so-friendly nudge, doesn’t it?

Upcoming events: Super Ninja Privacy Techniques at Web 2.0 Expo

April 7, 2007

Brad and I will be presenting our Super Ninja Privacy Techniques for Web App Developers talk at Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco on Tuesday, April 17. If you’re attending, please drop by and say hi. We had a great response to the talk when we gave it at ETech, and it was fantastic to meet so many Wesabeans who attended. Hope to see you there!

New features: the new Groups tab, full-text RSS feeds, and public pages (!)

April 6, 2007

Tonight we pushed out the biggest change to Wesabe since we launched — and this is just the first one we have planned this month.

First, we’ve heard from many Wesabeans that you were confused to find a bunch of discussions going on in a tab called “Goals,” and also that it seemed like you had to be an expert to participate in a discussion about a goal (like “get a better mortgage”). We also felt that with some of the changes coming up for the Goals tab, it was going to get way too crowded and overloaded. So, we’ve taken a few big steps. We’ve created a new “Groups” tab which is just for discussion groups — about money, things you spend money on, your financial goals, Wesabe itself, or just about anything else. The Groups tab has a new, cleaner and simpler UI for discussions, and we’ve made it clear that anyone and everyone should feel welcome to ask questions, contribute ideas, or just hang out and chat — expertise isn’t a requirement!

Groups

We’ve also taken the discussions out of Goals, and moved all of the discussions that have already started over to the new Groups area. Anyone can create a new group, and the person who creates the group automatically becomes moderator of it (and can promote other members to be moderators, too). Moderators currently can edit the group name and purpose, and later on will have other super powers, too.

The Goals tab is currently just for listing your goals and associating spending targets with your goals (to help you save money for them). In the near future, we’ll be adding a set of new tools to help you plan out how you’re going to get to your goals, track your progress towards each goal, and allocate money from your spending towards a particular goal.

While working on the new Groups tab, Coda added in a frequent feature request: full-text RSS feeds for every group. We had a lot of debate before launch about what the right approach for this should be, but in this revision, Coda argued, “I personally hate summary RSS feeds, and I don’t feel like implementing something I hate.” So now we have full-text RSS feeds! If you use an RSS reader like Bloglines or Google Reader, you can subscribe to RSS feeds for all of your groups at once (on the main Groups tab), any individual group, or any individual discussion.

Finally, the new Groups tab is the first Wesabe tab you can use without registering for the site at all — it’s completely open to the public (you still have to register to post in the discussions, but anyone can read any discussion, or subscribe to any Groups RSS feed, without registering). We wanted to make it easy for people to find and explore Wesabe without having to sign up, and then let people sign up once they’ve gotten interested. The Groups tab is the first of many parts of the site we’ll be making public over the next few weeks. The more information we can make public, the better — we want everyone to be able to learn from the fantastic information our members are sharing. (Of course, we’ll never make your personal financial data public, and we’ll always give you the option of participating anonymously or not at all in the public parts of the site.)

Thanks to Coda for all the hard work in launching these new features and porting over the discussions from Goals. I’m really excited about this change, and about the other new features we have coming up shortly. Stay tuned, and keep all the fabulous feedback coming!