Last Day to File Extended U.S. Income Tax Returns, Why Doesn’t Anyone Remind Me?

image If you are like me, you put off filing the dreaded 1040 as long as possible, and may often have no clue that the final due date (for extended returns) has snuck up on you once again. Then there are those quarterly filing dates that aren’t spaced three months apart (see screenshot; note 1). 

That’s why every financial institution that serves small businesses and the self-employed should do three things:

  • Post the IRS due dates on its website (see screenshot)
  • Provide email/text reminders (opt-in naturally)
  • Blog/Twitter them

Small biz accounting startup (a Finovate 2009 presenter) is ahead of the curve with its handy Self-Employment Tax Calendar:


1. I’ve been paying quarterly estimated taxes for 15 years, and thanks to the calendar, this is the first time I realized they were spaced 3-2-3-4 months apart. No wonder, I can’t remember. 

The Impact of Always-On Mobile Banking


There was an interesting piece by Jessica Vascellaro in the Technology supplement of today’s Wall Street Journal. The title says it all, “Why Email No Longer Rules….and what that means for the way we communicate.”

The primary thesis:

  • Old-school email is a passive way to communicate, more like a letter, and has been overrun by more information than the technology can manage.
  • It will be replaced by more active services (e.g., Twitter, Facebook) that are akin to a conversation with filtering technology to keep noise levels down.

But Techcrunch’s MG Siegler’s take on the matter is even more profound. He argues that the winning technology will be something that combines both active and passive communication, such as Google Wave (see inset; short video explanation here). Users will be able to choose between active or passive, or anything in between, depending on the situation.

Relevance for Netbankers
The passive vs. active communication metaphor is a good one for banking too. Passive banking is the old way of doing things. We waited for our monthly statement, balanced the account, and walked in to the branch or called customer service if there was a problem, usually many weeks after the fact.

Passive banking is not a bad thing. As long as there are no problems or financial shortfalls, it’s the desired state for most customers. 

Telephone banking, then online banking, made it much easier to keep closer tabs on your account. Instead of reviewing transaction activity once per month, most users log in at least once per week to review activity. This helps ease anxiety during the intervals between looking at your data.  

But it’s still passive in the sense that a user deals with banking only when the choice is made to log in. And that passive nature limits the usefulness of online banking in situations where a user needs to pay attention NOW! For example, security issues, low-balance alerts, over-budget warnings, and so on.

Enter mobile banking. With text messages or direct-to-the-phone alerts, users can have an always-on, or active, connection to their accounts. This is great for those infrequent, yet urgent, events such as authorizing an unusual card transaction.

But most users will want to be in active banking mode as little as possible. So the challenge for financial institutions will be to make it easy for mobile users to balance “active banking” (alerts, warnings) with “passive banking” (logging in, requesting more data, changing settings and preferences).

Ultimately, companies that well manage this communication challenge will have customers for life.

Notes: For more info on mobile banking, see our Online Banking Report: Mobile Banking via iPhone (March 2009) as well as our earlier reports on Mobile Banking (Feb 2007) and Mobile Payments (April 2007).

Best of Web: Vantage Credit Union is First to Tap Twitter for Transactional Banking

imageIn 2006, we predicted that every major bank and credit union would someday have a blog (note 1). That prediction was looking downright awful until Twitter came along. The popular, and much-hyped service, is part blog, part social network, and part text-messaging.

Financial institutions have embraced Twitter much faster than blogging because it’s low cost, drop-dead simple to implement, and relatively cost-effective to staff and manage. Our good friend, Christophe Langlois, who has been tracking social media implementations at Visible-Banking for several years, has identified 120 financial institution blogs worldwide. In comparison, Christophe is tracking more than 700 Twitter accounts. Similarly, Jeffry Pilcher’s exhaustive Twitter directory at The Financial Brand lists about 600 Twitter accounts in use by financial institutions.

Vantage CU takes the Twitter plunge
image Although Twitter can successfully be used as a simple one-way broadcast medium (i.e., microblog), it’s also a powerful two-way and group communication service (note 2). Wesabe, in 2008, and Xpenser, earlier this year, were the first online PFMs to leverage Twitter for posting transaction info to user accounts. But St. Louis, Missouri-based Vantage Credit Union took that one step further by allowing users not only to query their accounts, but also to move money between them.

At the core, Vantage CU’s Twitter service is little different than hundreds of SMS/text-message mobile-banking services already in use around the world. But for Twitter users, it allows account queries from anywhere a Twitter client is loaded: smartphone, laptop, or desktop (note 3).   

How it works
image Vantage CU posted videos showing how it works. But if you are a Twitter user, you can skip the tutorial. You’ll understand right away: After signing up for the service at Vantage (inset), simply follow the CU on Twitter (@myvcu) and send them a direct message whenever you want to see your balance, recent transactions, or to initiate a funds transfer.

While the process is relatively intuitive for Twitter users, the command-code language limits the usefulness. The results look like a throwback to the DOS command line circa 1985 (see first screenshot below). It would be much simpler if the CU offered plain English commands and account nicknames, e.g., “transfer $500 from wifechecking to mychecking” instead of “#trans f9 t0”. Ideally, the CU would support short codes for its power users and plain English commands for everyone else.

That said, it’s pretty simple to remember how to make a checking account balance inquiry, “#bal 9” (9 is the code for checking), which is the primary way the service will be used.


Website implementation
Few members will actually use Twitter banking, at least initially. The main reason to embrace Twitter is for the publicity and brand value, especially when you are first.  Vantage takes full advantage of its first-mover position, placing a headline on its homepage, along with a Twitter feed directly below.

Other things Vantage CU does right:

  • Posted four how-to videos (although, the CU needs to choose a faster host for the videos because the Screencast-based videos run way too slow)
  • Posted FAQs, instructions, and screenshots
  • Wrote a blog post about the new service
  • Proactively reached out to bloggers resulting in great initial coverage (Financial Brand, Everything CU, and Currency Marketing) which can help bring mainstream press coverage later
  • Allows users to subscribe to the Twitter feed via RSS (directly from the CU’s homepage)

image The PR value alone should more than justify the expense of Vantage CU’s Twitter service. And if Twitter continues to work its way into the fabric of consumers’ daily lives, the service could attract a decent following.

In keeping with our 10-year tradition of recognizing new online “firsts,” we are awarding Vantage a 2009 Best of the Web award (note 4) for being the first in the world with full-service Twitter banking.

Vantage Credit Union homepage featuring new Twitter service (5 Oct 2009)


1. See our Online Banking Report: Bank 2.0 (Nov. 2006).
2. For more info, see our Online Banking Report: Leveraging Twitter (May 2009)
3. However, text-messaging users would likely prefer to make balance inquiries directly from their phone’s SMS function, rather than t
aking the time to open the Twitter app or website. The most likely user is someone already using Twitter who decides to do a quick banking inquiry while Tweeting. 
4. OBR Best of the Web awards are given periodically to companies that pioneer new online and mobile banking features. It is not an endorsement of the company or product, just recognition for what we believe is an important development. Vantage Credit Union is the 75th recipient since we began awarding it in 1997.

Out of the Inbox: ShareBuilder Email Thanks Customers After Second Month of Automated Investments

image This is the first time we’ve seen a financial services company reach out and congratulate users for a job well done. In this case, ING Direct’s U.S. retail investments unit, ShareBuilder, sent a congratulatory email message to me after two months of investing through its Automatic Investment Program, which pulls money from outside checking accounts.  

The message has several purposes:

  • To reinforce the investment decision
  • To encourage customers to use ShareBuilder Research
  • To incent users to move other brokerage accounts to ShareBuilder with the $100 bonus offer (see landing page, second screenshot)

What’s not to like here? It’s timely, relevant, to-the-point (only 75 words in the main body copy) and makes users feel good about themselves. The same thing could be done with loan payments, debt reduction, savings account balance growth, and so on.

Email: ShareBuilder automated savings congratulations
(3 July 2009, 6:41 AM Pacific Time)


Landing page for $100-bonus offer
Note: The offer is co-branded with Wells Fargo, which is where I originally set up the ShareBuilder account eight or nine years ago.


Side note: Online account opening warning box
When looking at the new account application, we encountered this popup when attempting to leave the unfinished app and navigate to the ShareBuilder homepage (see note 1).  


1. For more info on the subject of online apps, see our Online Banking Report: Online Account Opening, published two weeks ago. 

Will the Online Personal Finance Specialists Survive?

image I love personal financial management websites. Not so much for the reality, actually I hate tracking expenses, but for the promise. The illusion of having everything under control, never overdrafting, never missing a payment, and with perfectly-shaded multi-color pie charts just a click away (inset from Mint). 

But I’ve always thought that once banks and credit unions added basic PFM functions to their online banking services (see note 1), it’s game-over for most independent PFM sites. They would have to either license their platform to financial institutions, sell out, or close their doors.

Now I’m not so sure.

Mint did something recently that made me reconsider. It was really pretty simple when you think about it. Yet as far as I know, no bank, card issuer, or even credit union has ever taken this on. 

The Mountain View, CA-based startup scanned their members’ credit card statements to identify bogus charges from a known scam. And the company plans to make the resulting fraud alert service a standard part of its offering.  

From American Banker (23 Jan 2009):

Mint Software Inc. is planning to roll out a tool that will automatically scan its 800,000 users’ accounts for potentially bogus charges….Aaron Patzer, Mint’s founder and chief executive, said the idea for the new product came after his company heard of a scam involving Adele Services of Melville, N.Y., a bogus merchant that was making 25-cent charges to millions of consumer accounts. The news was widely reported, and Mint decided to check its users’ accounts its to see if any had been affected; it found 800 that were.

Score 1 for the upstarts.

Bottom line: If the online PFM purveyors harness technology to take better care of banking customers than the banks themselves, especially with practical, money-saving ways such as Wesabe’s Cutback Tool (below), the newcomers have a bright future indeed.


Note: For more info, see our Online Banking Report on Personal Finance Features for Online Banking.

Visa Announces Android and P2P Mobile Initiatives

image Visa today put a stake in the ground to be viewed as the innovation leader, a position that American Express has claimed for some time with its chip cards, social media efforts, and even an online lab site. At today’s “innovation briefing” in NYC, Visa announced several pilots and upcoming initiatives.

Mobile person-to-person transfers
The most far-reaching announcement was the ability for Visa cardholders to transfer funds from one card to another via mobile device. So far, just one bank is participating in the pilot. US Bank says it will make the service available to a few thousand cardholders as a test later this year. PaymentsNews has more details here.

It sounds good, but as always the devil is in the details. For instance:

  • Through what hoops will cardholders have to jump to enable their card and phone for the service?
  • Will the transfers be treated as cash advances triggering fees and finance charges?
  • Will it be available to all cardholders using any mobile phones? 

Visa jumps on the android bandwagon
A more immediate innovation is a location-and-alert-based service built for Google’s android platform, a new mobile system launching in late October. Visa’s new service, to be rolled out initially by Chase Bank (no time frame given), promises some important new developments:

  • “Near real-time” purchase alerts (see note 1) so you can see immediately whether your server added an extra digit in front of your tip on that bar tab. The real-time alert pilot was announced a month ago (here) involving several thousand accounts at PNC Bank, SunTrust Bank, US Bank, Wachovia, Wells Fargo, Royal Bank of Canada, TD Bank, and Vancity.
  • Visa merchant finder based on your location-based/GPS technology  (nice!) with targeted marketing offers (hmmm??). The merchant locations will be integrated with Google Maps.

Again, PaymentsNews has the entire press release here.

1. Visa says that the alerts will arrive “typically before (the consumer) leaves the store.”

2. For more information, see our Online Banking Report on Mobile Money & Payments.

Snack-Sized Innovation: Safe Deposit Box Content Archives

image I heard from a new company last week that has created a service to help life insurance and bank-account holders to notify beneficiaries periodically that they are named on the account. According to (see screenshot below), $1 billion in insurance policies go unclaimed each year due to unknown or lost beneficiaries. Although it sounds simple, tracking down beneficiaries can be a timely and expensive process. Outsourcing some or all of that is an appealing idea.

However, as a consumer-direct service, I don’t think will get a lot of traction. The list price of $29.95 plus $3.95 per month is a lot for twice-yearly postcards (see note 1) to your beneficiaries. But the company is likely more interested in setting a high retail “value” on the service so they can wholesale it to financial institutions for pennies on the dollar.

Using the same concept for safe deposit boxes
While the beneficiary notification is an idea deserving of a second look, I was more intrigued with another of its features, safe deposit documentation and notification service. I just spent 30 minutes last Friday making a trip to the bank to look in my safe deposit to see if my son’s social security card was there (note 2). Of course, it wasn’t. I could have saved the trip if I’d had good records on its contents. I’m sure I wrote it down somewhere, but it would likely take much longer than 30 minutes to find it.

Ideas to help memory-challenged customers like myself:

  • Simplest: It would be great if my bank had a simple email-like software app available near the safe-deposit area where I could list the contents of the box and then email the info to myself AND store a record of that communication within online banking so I could access it years from now when the email is long lost.
  • Harder: In addition to manually entering info, have a scanner available so that I can scan copies of the documents in the safe deposit box for a digital record.
  • Hardest: Extend the service to the home/office and allow me either to store items virtually, using my home/office scanner, or by uploading/emailing documents into the virtual safe-deposit box. This is the core idea behind vSafe from Wells Fargo.

However, as Tripp Johnson at Gonzobanker so eloquently laid out in this article, there are  serious questions regarding overall demand for virtual safe-deposit services, not to mention pesky compliance issues that cannot be ignored. homepage (29 May 2008; see note 3) homepage


1. Why TWICE yearly? Once per year seems like plenty. Or how about one postcard and one email message each year? (Update 1 June: The reason for mailing 2x per year is that the U.S. Postal Service forwards mail only for six months, so with this frequency the company ensures it gets the forwarding address. (See comment #2 from Michael Hartmann of

2. My bank is requiring a faxed copy of my 18-year-old son’s social security card in order to add him to my account. I’m all for good authentication (who isn’t?), but that seems extreme. More on that in a future post. 

3. Sometime during the past 10 days, added the “member of American Bankers Association” seal. It’s a reasonable touch, but it only means they’ve paid at least $1,250 for a service membership to the ABA.

Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg Loves Mint, Hates Financial Email

imageIt was online banking week in Walt Mossberg’s popular Wall Street Journal technology columns. Yesterday in The Mossberg Solution, authored by 20-something Katherine Boehret and edited by Mossberg, Mint’s personal finance service received a half-page article so complimentary I had to look twice to make sure it wasn’t an advertisement. Boehret couldn’t find a single thing wrong with the service, although she did wish for bill payment capability so she could do all her banking with Mint. I’m sure she’ll have her wish granted relatively soon.

image In today’s Personal Technology column entitled, How to Avoid Cons that Can Lead to Identify Theft, Mossberg himself dropped a bomb which will impact bank-marketing efforts for years to come. His first of seven tips for safe computing:

Never, ever click on a link embedded in an email (from your) financial institution….

That’s harsh, but it’s also understandable why he’d take that stand. Mossberg strives to make technology issues understandable to non-techie readers. However, it would have been better to add, “unless your bank adds account-specific personalization to the messages so you know for sure where they originated.” 

Action items
Many financial institutions, including Citibank and Bank of America, have long used personalization to distinguish legitimate messages from phishing attempts. Financial institutions with good personalized messaging should consider a public outreach program to counter the negative perception from the Mossberg column. It also might be a good time to remind front-line employees how to respond to customer concerns about phishing emails.

For more information, see our Online Banking Report on Marketing Security

Quicken Loans is *Really* Using Twitter

imageLast week, I may have jumped the gun when I thought I'd found a bank using Twitter (post here). It's pretty apparent that E*Trade is not officially involved with that Twitter account.

But the ever diligent Ann-Marie Murphy was quick to add to the comments that her company, Quicken Loans, is *really* using Twitter to support its Quizzle personal finance site (see Quizzle coverage here). Beginning Feb. 22, the mortgage lender has posted 52 updates through last week (those would be called "tweets" if you are a real geek). That's about one per day, a good steady flow, without inundating the follower. 

Here's Murphy's rationale for using Twitter:

We've found it to be a great way to chat with our site visitors, get honest and helpful feedback to make the site better and give interesting home-related tips to followers. I especially like the instantaneous feedback. Ask a question, get a bunch of answers from folks who enjoy helping others.

Now this is what a real Twitter update stream looks like, complete with custom design. Nice.

Twitter page for Quicken Loans

E*Trade Bank Posts Savings Rates on Twitter

imageI was searching Twitter today to see if any major brokerages were using it to reach out to customers. The only hit was E*Trade which is using Twitter to update its Complete Savings Account rates. It seems to be coming from the bank, but it's possible someone else, perhaps an employee or fan, is responsible for the two entries: the first on March 12 announcing a 3.45% yield and then on April 1 when the rate dropped to 3.01% (note 1).

Regardless of who's responsible, it makes sense to use the new channel for outbound communications. If nothing else, the 90 seconds spent creating those two entries have already generated a favorable mention in this blog. 

For those of you not familiar with Twitter, it's a communications tool that allows users to post short (140 characters max) updates about what they are doing, what they are thinking, or anything else. Unless the user chooses to make their updates private, anyone can read them, just like a blog post. That's why Twittering is sometimes called micro-blogging. But it's more like "broadcast instant messaging" for most people who's musing will be seen by just a handful of friends, family and/or colleagues.

For more info from an actual Twitter user, read Ron Shevlin's recent post.



1. I suspect it's an "unofficial" Twitter page because they didn't put APY behind the percentage, although that is spelled out in the short bio section in the upper right, and they are not using the company logo.

Credit Monitoring Needs More Integration with Online Banking

Today I received my first alert (see screenshot below) since subscribing to Experian's credit-monitoring service about 4 weeks ago. While I appreciate the heads up, the user experience is not at all what I want.

Here are the problems: 

1. Cries wolf. All the alert tells me is that there was a "key change" posted to my file. Is it a routine credit inquiry (which I was expecting) or did someone just open an account at Best Buy in my name? The only way to find out is to log in to my FreeCreditReport account, which took three minutes since I couldn't remember the username/password. Please provide more info in the alert so I can better gauge the severity of the situation.

2. Not phish proof: While Experian does use my first and last name in the salutation, thereby improving believability, additional personalization is needed to help users know it's genuine, especially when the company's log-in process requires input of a social security number confirmation after login. 

3. Not enough trust: I've worked with Experian for more than a decade so I know and trust them. However, the average Joe/Jo doesn't really know whether FreeCreditReport is a trustworthy company or not. Credit monitoring alerts are too easy to miss if they don't come from a recognizable and trusted name. It would be much better if they came from the user's financial institution or card issuer, someone with whom they do business on a monthly basis, so the emails don't end up in some spam filter.

4. Not integrated with online banking: I really don't want to remember yet another username and password, nor do I want to spend five minutes of my day logging into another website to verify there are no criminals using my credit files. Credit monitoring and credit scores should be integrated into online banking so I can keep track while doing my normal banking.

5. Doesn't tell me what to do: In this particular case, I knew about the inquiry, but what if I didn't recognize it. The website doesn't provide any info on what to do if I did not authorize the inquiry, which could be the first sign of serious identity takeover (see screenshot below).

For more information, see our recent Online Banking Report on Credit Monitoring Services here.

Email alert from Experian's FreeCreditReport service (24 Oct. 2007)

Password Reset Alert from American Express

I received an email from American Express late last night after resetting my password earlier in the day (see screenshot below). I can never remember my AmEx password, because I can't use my usual one due to the company's surprisingly short field of just 8 characters that also doesn't support special characters. I have it written down somewhere, but I can never find that either.

I went online late Friday afternoon to pay my overdue bill at I was pretty sure it was one of three possibilities, but after two unsuccessful attempts, and with the website warning me the third attempt would cause a lockout (note 1), I decided to go through the online reset process instead. 

That was easy. I just needed the card number, the code on the front of the card, and the answer to a security question. At that point, AmEx displayed my username and let me reset the password. It's one of the easier reset processes I've tested. That's a benefit to customers and helps cut customer service costs for AmEx. 

But the thing I liked most was the email message sent later that night informing me of the password reset (screenshot below). But I don't understand why it was sent more than six hours later. Why not send it right away? That would be way more impressive to customers, and would help reduce any potential fraud or privacy violations. Better yet, send a text message right to the customer's mobile, so they have real-time knowledge of the account changes.

Email Critique
Personalization: The company uses two pieces of personalization, cardmember name and the last five digits of the account number, to differentiate this message from the average phish. Excellent.  

Subject line: Your American Express Forgotten User ID is good and right to the point

From: "American Express" using an American Express email address. Good.  

Headline: Verify Your Account Transaction is a little confusing. All I did was reset my password. I'm not sure that average person views that as a "transaction."

Copy: The copy is short and to the point, but it could use a little editing for clarity. The third sentence, "If you did contact us…." seems unnecessary. And "If you did not complete the retrieval…." is not very user friendly language.

Design & Layout: Excellent.

Overall Grade: A- for the message, B- for timeliness


1. We recommend allowing more than three attempts before lockout. It's pretty easy to forget a digit or make a typing mistake. See our Online Banking Report on Security (#119) for more information.