Earlier this month I attended FinCon12, the financial blogger conference. While at the conference, I was met with wonderful greetings such as “So what are you doing here? You don’t even write anymore?” via Greg from WiseBread AND Ben from MoneySmartLife — at two separate occasion, no less.  To which I immediately scoffed and replied to these two fine gentlemen with: “I’m escaping from my parental duty, duh.”

But in all seriousness, one of the main reasons why I frequent conferences such as Finovate and FinCon is to keep an eye out for innovative and interesting financial tools and startups — to which BillGuard.com is one such nifty web app.

While hanging out with Jim and Jeremy, we got a brief wind of BillGuard from its CMO, Mary Anne Keegan, and before she can gave us the full pitch, one of us pulled up the site on our smartphone and immediately thought the whole premise was in fact pretty neat.

“Antivirus for bills”

BillGuard pitches itself as a service that finds bad charges on your bill and help you get your money back. The service is pretty straightforward in its promise. For anyone out there that ever had to call customer service after discovering a charge on their bill from THREE months ago, you’ll know how helpful and stress-relieving the whole process would be if the bad charge was caught earlier, before it gets charged again and again, month after month.

BillGuard.com Main Transaction Page

BillGuard catches bad charges on your bill by analyzing millions of customer billing complaints (crowdsourcing) in order to find deceptive, errorneous and fraudulent charges on your credit and debit card bills. A good example of this would be if everyone and their mom flags “NIGERIASHIPPING.COM” as a potential fraudulent transaction, if BillGuard scans your bill and see this transaction (or variants of it) on your bill, they will flag it and alert you.

The best part though is if you’re dead sure the transaction is a bad one, BillGuard helps you with the dispute process, saving you some time and headache.

Cost and Service

BillGuard is currently free to signup, with up to 3 cards protected for the free plan, and up to 10 cards protected for the “Family plan” which runs $79 a year. Given the free price tag, you really don’t have much to lose to give the service a whirl, provided you’re comfortable with handing your credit card login credential to a third-party web application.

The good news is that BillGuard’s data comes to them via Yodlee, a well-known data aggregation platform that is in used by over 600 leading financial institution, and of course comes with bank-level security. Data is also read-only, meaning that what BillGuard access can only be used to scan and analyze your transaction to find bad  charges — even if your BillGuard login is somehow compromised, the unscrupulous person wouldn’t be able to transfer money or make any changes to your financial account.

BillGuard Add Card Page

The sign-up process is pretty darn straight forward. You put in an email address you’d like to use to sign-up and choose your password. Once the account is created, you can add the credit/debit card account of your choice (screenshot above). For those with multiple credit cards from a single issuer, you can select the specific card you’d like BillGuard to scan vs the defunct one you rarely use (e.g., you use your Costco Amex card more than your Amex Blue card).

For my review, I picked my more frequently used cards: my Delta Amex Card, Chase Freedom Card, and finally the good old classic Amex Blue Cash. Once logged in, BillGuard immediately gets to work, scanning your previous transaction and organizing them in a fairly visually appealing format. The user interface, as you can see from the first screenshot above, is clean and concise. Even if you’re not a savvy web user it should be easy to identify and absorb information.

Making Your Life Just a Tad Bit Easier

One reason why BillGuard immediately caught my eye on initial impression is how simple (and helpful) the proposition is. The service is especially appealing to people like me, who make about 90% of their transaction on a credit/debit card. I simply don’t carry a lot of cash, especially due to my Schwab checking account refunding ATM fees — plus, its nice to get the occasional credit card perks such as cash back, or miles for that first-class ticket to a Euro vacation (but not on Delta Air Lines).

The problem with charging 90% of your transaction on credit/debit is that things can get a bit hectic at the end of the month if you review your bill for any errors (because errors do happen, and to be honest your bank isn’t going to proactively help you find bad charges from nefarious merchants).

As you can see below from my screenshot, I’ve had over 182 transactions in the past 90 days (Cap, you buy too much crap). This comes out to an average of 60 transactions per month — quite a bit of charges to remember and keep in mind.

With BillGuard, you can immediately skim some of the latest charges for potential hiccups.

BillGuard flagging an unsure transaction

On my initial scan, BillGuard flagged a transaction called “Pho Lu” as an “unsure” charge. Mainly because this isn’t something in their database yet. For those quick with their Google-fu (or well versed with Vietnamese noodle soup), you’ll know that this is an Asian noodle joint in Southern California. I suspect as more people in my area uses BillGuard, the merchant categorization will get more rounded-out and the less popular merchants will be identified more precisely.

Another not-quite-as-well advertised functionality of BillGuard is “transaction search,” which lets you look up some of the more questionable transactions & merchants out there. Unsurprisingly, you’ll see lots of complaints on credit score charges or various fees — and funny enough, lots of complaint on unknown World of Warcraft charges.

Quick Skim on Recurring Charges, Fees, and New Merchants

Another helpful portion in BillGuard is the immediate ability to see your recurring charges, potential fees from your bank, and new merchants that you recently frequent (so even if its flagged as OKAY, you can double check later to see if all is peachy).

BillGuard.com New Merchant Transaction Page

A quick look at my recent new 7 merchants  shows:

  • Paypal Blackdecker – Bought a refurbished handheld vacuum cleaner for $17.
  • Wayfair – New crib, mattress for the kiddo at Wayfair, my new favorite online shop.
  • Walmart – Funny that I don’t visit enough that this got flagged as new merchant.
  • Cox Orange – Internet bill. AT&T DSL is so much cheaper but oh-so-unreliable.
  • Gamefly Digital – Guild Wars 2 for the wife. No joke.
  • Vons – Didn’t have a Vons in my previous location so this came up as new.
  • Hyatt Hotels Denver – For my recent aforementioned FinCon12 trip.

This is pretty handy as it gives me a quick glance of the charges thats happening, plus reviewing recurring charges also reminded me that I really need to cancel my monthly Equifax subscription (which I no longer actively use):

BillGuard Recurring Charges Scan

Come to think of it, I probably should cancel the Netflix account since I hardly use it these days too…

Who It’s For and Who It Isn’t For

All-in-all I find the service to be pretty impressive and useful and the free price-tag is icing on the cake. Having said that, there are definitely some people who might not find BillGuard attractive what-so-ever.

BillGuard is perfect for you if:

  1. You charge most of your transaction on your credit/debit cards.
  2. You’re the family “CFO” and you can always use an additional tools to help make sense of things – especially when there’s multiple cards to juggle
  3. You still read every line of transaction in your bills, but can use the “extra pair of eyes” (or in this case, millions of eyes) to catch things you may miss
  4. You have a transaction on your credit card you’d like to dispute with the merchant and you don’t know where to start

BillGuard isn’t right for you if:

  1. Cash is king. You simply don’t use your credit/debit cards enough to warrant such a service (though you can make the argument that if you don’t use your card enough, its nice to have a service checking it for unsuspecting, real fraudulent charges vs finding out months later)
  2. You’re adverse to online banking, let alone giving your login to another website other than your bank. Some people just aren’t comfortable with this aspect, even if no transactions can be made via their bank’s credit card login information. And to be honest that’s okay. You shouldn’t use a service you’re not comfortable using.

A Quick Glimpse Into the Near Future

For those who live & breath their daily transactions on credit/debit cards, BillGuard will seem like a no-brainer service that should have been available years ago. While some current PFMs do offer part of the features (e.g. notifying you when you have a fee on your account), crowdsourcing merchants and transactions goes a long way in identifying fraud (and scales much better). If the service hits a certain critical mass, I suspect its data will be fairly robust and the transaction dispute process will be even more painless (how awesome would it be if you can solve a dispute and get your money back within 24 hours?).

While the service is US-only so far, its potential is pretty big for markets such as Europe and Japan, where mobile payments / NFC transactions are already populating in abundance, and consumers are already comfortable with moving to a cashless system. As the US eventually plays catch up (or maybe not, I still personally like to spend cash at small mom and pops even though I’m a credit lover), I can see how services like BillGuard may come built-in to your bank logins or third-party banking apps.

BillGuard seems to be gravitating towards the mobile market too as they just released their service for Passbook in iOS 6. They will most likely have an Android/iOS app version soon, though the web app worked fine enough on my iPad and Galaxy Nexus.

At the end of it all, its a good time for financial nerds and OCD personal finance people such as myself. We now have much more tools at our disposal — not only to help us figure out our financial life, but also keep a safe watch over our financial nest eggs. Personally for me, even if the fraudulent charge is some measly $5 charge, if I can dispute it in a painless and non-time-wasting manner, then I’m one happier camper.

Related Links & Resources:

If you think this review was handy, keep an eye-out for some more financial startup/tools I’ve been meaning to review through the years: SaveUp.com, ReadyForZero, FutureAdvisor, Betterment, and you’ve probably already heard of CreditKarma and CreditSesame.