Out of the Inbox: Credit Karma’s Monthly Email is Hard to Ignore

image I get dozens of newsletters and marketing pitches from my various financial accounts every month. While they are interesting to me as an analyst, for the average consumer there’s rarely any actionable information.

However, one financial company consistently drives users to its site month over month with their email missives. And they don’t even have to change the creative.

Free-credit-score provider Credit Karma simply reminds users that it’s been more than two weeks since they last checked their credit score. The company goes on to encourage users to check in every month to to make sure no adverse changes have occurred (see first screenshot below). It’s a simple yet powerful message that drives traffic to the company’s ad-supported site (see second and third screenshots).

I’ve received this message on the 16th of each month this year, except May, when I must have already visited Credit Karma in the two weeks prior. A large yellow button invites the reader to click through to see the latest score (see first screenshot).

And the technique seems to be working. Traffic, measured in unique visitors by Compete, is up six-fold in the past 12 months, to 310,000 visitors in July (see chart below).


Credit Karma email (received 16 July 2009; 10:05 AM Pacific)
Subject: Credit Karma update image

Current landing page after clicking “update” button in email (13 Aug 2009)
Note: Virgin Money’s friends-and-family mortgage offering is the lead product placement while The Easy Loan Site has the top banner. Lending Club is also running a banner across the top.


Landing page two months ago (16 June 2009)
Note: Virgin Money’s friends and family was also the lead product placement, while ING Direct’s Sharebuilder had the banner.  Virgin Money also has a product offer in the middle of the page.


Note: For more info on the market for credit scores and monitoring see our Online Banking Report on Credit Report Monitoring (published Aug 2007).

Pennsylvania State Employees Credit Union is First to Add Free FICO Credit Scores to Online Banking

image In what I hope is the beginning of a trend, Pennsylvania State Employees Credit Union (PSECU) is offering free FICO credit scores to its online banking customers. The CU says more than 200,000 members are eligible to receive free scores.

Although, Wamu and HSBC (note 1) both offer free scores for their respective credit card customers, PSECU is the first financial institution to offer scores to checking account customers within the online banking area.

There is no charge for the service, but members must enroll to participate. A new score will be posted online each month in the online banking area. Members also have the option to receive alerts when their scores are updated.

image The service is powered by Fair Isaac’s MyFICO service. According its press released today, the company is talking with other financial institutions about participating in the  Scores on Statements program. Currently, 1.5 million consumers have access to free credit scores through the service.

Bottom line: Without knowing the financial arrangements, it’s impossible to estimate the ROI. But credit scores have real value to consumers and any financial institution providing them for free is likely to improve its standing. It’s also possible that a free credit score service could be a profit center if fee-based credit report monitoring options are marketed to enrollees of the free service (note 2).  

PSECU page explaining the free FICO score program (link, 15 Jan 2008)


1. Only HSBC’s Sears Solution MasterCard includes the free scores. 

2. See our Online Banking Report on Credit Report Monitoring for more information on the opportunities for retail banks and credit unions. 

Finovate 2008 Credit Karma

image The next presenter is Kenneth Lin, CEO of Credit Karma and Nichole Mustard.

Credit Karma has developed an ad-supported, free credit-report service that launched earlier this year. The company first showed its service at our Finovate Startup conference in April.

What’s new
Credit Karma showed credit score trends by Internet service provider, with Gmail users leading the pack.

Credit Karma today is introducing a credit card simulator, which lets you run what-ifs on what would happen to your score if certain things happened. For instance, it shows that if you applied for a new credit card, the example score would drop 15 points. If a late payment occurred, it would drop more than 50. 

Intersections Inc.’s Identity Guard Brings Back 6-Month Free Trial and Adds Free Credit Report and Score

imageIdentity Guard, the direct-to-consumer credit-monitoring brand from Intersections, has a new logo, homepage design, and a compelling new offer: six months of free credit monitoring (Good Start option) PLUS 30 days of access to your credit report and score (see previous look here).

And unlike most offers in this industry, this freebie is made with no obligation. Intersections does take billing info as part of the sign-up process, but unlike most others, they will not automatically begin charging a monthly fee at the end of the six-month free trial (see note 1). Last year, Intersections offered the six-month free trial (post here), but did not include the free credit report/score (see note 2). 

Identity Guard hompage (11 August 2008)

Identity Guard homepage (11 Aug 2008)

Separately, I ran across the company’s banner ad today at Amazon’s IMDB site (below). Here, the company is taking a more traditional approach, offering a 30-day free trial plus $3/mo discount on its flagship Total Protection service (regularly $17.99/mo). 

Identity Guard banner at IMDB (12 August 2008)

Identity Guard banner on IMDB (12 Aug 2008)

Landing page from the IMDB banner (12 Aug 2008)

Identity Guard landing page from IMDB banner (12 Aug 2008)

1. I tested the free offer last year and can confirm that they did NOT bill me for the service after it expired, nor did they pester me to become a paying customer at the end of the trial.

2. See our Online Banking Report on Credit Monitoring Services for more information.

Free “Ad-Supported” Credit Scores from Credit.com, Credit Karma, and Quicken Loans

image In August 1997, QSpace (now owned by Experian) was first to bring credit report data to the Web. The cost was $12 per report (see note 1), a price that has changed little over the ensuing 10 years.

Three years later, in October 2000, WorthKnowing.com introduced the concept of ad-supported (i.e., free) credit scores (see Online Banking Report, #66, article reprinted here). But the company failed to make it through the dot-com crash and ceased operations (note 2). Both QSpace and WorthKnowing earned OBR Best of the Web awards for their innovations.

It took seven years for the concept to reemerge, but now two Bay Area rivals are offering free credit bureau info in exchange for permission to present credit and other product offers. And just as I was about to finish this post yesterday, Quicken Loans introduced Quizzle, a personal finance/credit portal that also offers free credit bureau info (yesterday's post here).

Here are the players:

  • image Credit Karma: This San Francisco-based startup, with backing from Prosper's Chris Larsen, is delivering an actual credit score computed by TransUnion, one of the three major U.S. credit bureaus. It does not precisely match the commonly used FICO score from Fair Isaac. And the scale is different, with a top score of 900 instead of 850. The credit score service is still in closed beta, but we'll see if we can get some invites from the company. Credit Karma will be presenting at our FINOVATE Startup conference April 29 in San Francisco, if you want to meet the team behind this new service.
  • image Credit.com: Another San Francisco company, but one that dates back to 1995, recently launched a similar system, called the Credit Report Card. Credit.com CEO, Adam Levine, presented his other company, Identity Theft 911, at our inaugural FINOVATE conference last fall in NYC (video here). Credit.com provides a full evaluation of your actual TransUnion credit report and assigns letter grades to five different components of the overall score (see third screenshot below). The score is shown on a chart at the top that appears to top out at 850. The report is extremely well done. Like Credit Karma, the company earns fees from targeted offers. In our case, we were given a choice of applying for two Citibank cards.   
  • image Quizzle powered by Quicken Loans: Quizzle's business model is completely different because it's run by a financial institution instead of a lead generation site. The idea here is to get customers and prospective customers to use Quizzle frequently so that when the time comes for a new mortgage, the user remembers to apply at Quicken Loans. See yesterday's post for a complete overview.

Credit Karma homepage (15 Feb. 2008)

Credit Karma homepage

Credit.com Credit Report Card homepage (15 Feb 2008)

Credit.com credit report card

Credit.com Credit Report Card (top portion, detailed analysis of each section not shown)



1. QSpace charged $12 for the first credit report, then $5 each to reorder. Data was from Experian (see Online Banking Report #28).

2. TransUnion now owns the WorthKnowing domain name.

Quicken Loans Enters the Personal Finance Space with Quizzle

image Two years ago, computerized personal financial management was a two-horse race: Intuit's Quicken vs. Microsoft Money. Both full-featured. Both relatively easy to use. But both were packaged software apps, clearly not the future of consumer computing.

Fast forward to 2008: We now have two dozen startups, several banks, and other financial stalwarts, offering online personal finance of every size and shape (see Online Banking Report 142/143 and 131/132).

image The latest entrant: Quicken Loans, which launched an open beta of Quizzle, an online budget and personal finance portal that features home values, mortgage advice, and free credit reports/scores from Experian (see note 1).

Quizzle also calculates what it calls your Quizzle score based on your credit score, home value, savings, debt, and household income/expenses (see second screenshot, below). Debt payments are imported from credit report data, but users can edit the information or add other items to improve the results.

Quizzle also provides home-value estimates calculated from public records, but in my case, it's no Zillow, and listed a home value that was significantly wrong (see note 1).  But it's simple to edit the number with your own estimate. Quicken Loans should consider tapping Zillow's API to provide a second opinion.

The sign-up process
Signup is simple with users providing name, address, birth date, email address, income, and home-purchase date. Email address is verified with a message that must be confirmed. Then identity is verified online using data pulled from the Experian credit bureau.

This is the same procedure used by every online credit-report provider with one huge exception. Quicken Loans DOES NOT REQUIRE A SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER, a huge usability and privacy gain. The company is allowing credit-report access based on a name/address/birth date match. That's a welcome improvement for the user.

There are a few rough edges in the tool. The home-equity portion is not well explained. In my example, my home value was shown to be about $50,000 more than the loan balance. However, in the equity portion of the tool, it showed that my home equity to be zero. Evidently, the site uses an 80% LTV criteria to calculate the amount of home equity available to lend against. While that's a perfectly reasonable assumption in today's credit environment, it should be spelled out in detail.

But overall, it's a great tool. The really free credit report and score alone are enough of a payback to gain consumer usage. The rest of the Quizzle score is less useful, but still interesting. And seeing it all in one place is fantastic. It will be interesting to see how Quicken Loans pulls me back to the site in the future.

Quizzle is off to a great start, and I look forward to seeing more companies, including banks, credit unions, and card issuers, integrate credit scores/reports into their online offerings (see note 2).

Overall scores:
    Look and feel (user interface) ==> A
    Credit information ==> A+
    Other tools ==> B

Quizzle home (18 Feb. 2008, prior to entering a ZIP code)

Quizzle from Quicken Loans home 18 Feb 2008

Overview pages showing the makeup of the overall Quizzle score

(upper right)

Quicken Loans Quizzle main results page


1. Quizzle uses a 900-point scale for credit scores, padding 50 points to everyone's score compared to Fair Isaac's FICO that tops out at 850. This makes you feel a little better about your score. No doubt, credit score inflation will continue, with someone using a 1,000-point scale in the near future. 

2. WaMu has provided free credit scores to credit card customers for several years.

Experian Upsells ChildSecure, Credit Monitoring for Your Kids


Coincidently, the same day I received my first alert from Experian's FreeCreditReport credit-monitoring service (see yesterday's post here), the company revamped its website's account-management area. The thing you notice right away is the focus on upselling subscribers to the new ChildSecure family plan (see first screenshot below).  

The cost is an extra $6.95/mo, which seems like a good value, considering that you can cover all your kids with a single fee. But the total monthly fee on my plan rises to an eye-popping $18.95/mo or $227 annually. That's a significant investment and hard to justify unless you've previously been burned by fraud (for more on the price/value equation, see our Online Banking Report on the subject published in August).  

Screenshots (24 Oct. 2007)
Logging in yesterday, I was greeted with this popup in front of the grayed-out main page.

They also sell it in a huge banner across the top of the main page and a tab for the ChildSecure option.

Finally, here's the page you see after clicking on ChildSecure tab.

Here's the email sent yesterday announcing the website redesign:

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)

Taking the High Road in Credit Monitoring and Identity Fraud Protection

I was looking at Geezeo's new Facebook app this morning (more on that later), and I noticed one of the best credit report monitoring ads I'd ever seen. 

Instead of focusing on the negative aspects of your credit history, the banner ad features "testimonials" of the significant savings available with good credit (the banner above claims a $310 savings in her house payment). The stories are provided under the header, "Credit Diagnosis." And, I was initially impressed after clicking through the ad to find a good, landing page with more of the same.

However, the mostly-anonymous company behind the banner, FreeCreditReportsInstantly.com uses a $1, 7-day trial come-on for its $29.95/mo credit report monitoring service. I have no problem with the company charging what the market will bear. And to its credit, FreeCreditReportsInstantly (FCRI) does disclose the go-to fee on the first page of the application. But I think the typical young Facebook user is not going to be happy seeing $29.95 monthly fees on the credit or debit card.   

Why would anyone pay $360/yr for credit monitoring?
The Internet was supposed to make it hard for companies to charge 2x to 3x the going rate when dozens of competitors were just a few clicks away. But here we have a company doing just that and evidently bringing in enough revenue to afford a Facebook ad buy, not to mention holding down the number 3 ad slot on Google searches for "free credit reports" (note 1)?

The answer is complex. It has to do with consumer confusion over the whole business of credit scores, ID theft, and the government-mandated free reports which is what most Googlers are looking for when they type "free credit report." And consumers must share part of the blame too. In a rush to get "something for nothing" they blindly fill out "free trial" forms without reading the fine print or taking time to investigate alternatives.

Taking the high road
But the dizzying array of credit monitoring options provides an opportunity for banks and credit unions to do the public a great service, and turn a nice profit, by educating their customers and offering value-priced alternatives: 

  1. Credit scores/monitoring: Instead of pushing credit monitoring services that are too confusing and too expensive for the mass market, provide customers with their credit score each month, and if it takes a dive, alert the customer and provide the tools to access their credit report to investigate any potential problems (see our post yesterday and note 2).
  2. Identity fraud support: Citibank's Identity Theft Solutions advertising blitz was a nice humorous break from most bank advertising. However, I think it did a disservice by making full-blown identity fraud seem more commonplace than it really is. Consumers needn't be frightened, they need to be careful, they need to understand what to look for, and they need to know where to turn in the event of suspected fraud.

And since most banks and credit unions don't have the resources to provide full-service fraud assistance, turnkey solutions providers have stepped up to fill the need. We are lucky to feature one such company at our Finovate conference next Tuesday in NYC.

Full-service education and victim response from Identity Theft 911
Five years ago, I met the entire Identity Theft 911 team when they were in Seattle making sales calls. It was refreshing to see someone in the identity fraud space taking a genuine interest in helping the end-user out of a jam, rather than simply trying to get them on the hook for a $150+/yr monitoring service. And over the years, I've kept in touch with the company chairman, Adam Levin, as he's worked the trade shows to garner support for Identity Theft 911 and his other company, Credit.com. Adam will take the stage Tuesday morning in NYC to demonstrate the full range of his company's resources to help banks and credit unions make their customers feel MORE secure, rather than more afraid (see screenshot below of AFL-CIO Employees Federal Credit Union's Identity Theft 911-powered services, link here).  

1. Search performed from Seattle IP address mid-morning on 26 Sep 2007.   

2. For more information on credit monitoring, see the latest Online Banking Report here.

Keeping Your Credit Score at 98.6 Degrees

Just like a fluctuating body temperature is an indicator of your underlying health, your credit score is a similar measure of your financial well being. Yet, in a recent poll of Facebook users age 18-24, we found that fewer than 20% had seen their credit report or credit score within the past year (see note 1, 2).

Furthermore, today's tightened credit market has put a premium on having a good credit score, even in the upper end "prime segment." Here's the tease from the top of the Personal Journal section of today's Wall Street Journal, "Lending squeeze raises the bar on credit scores." (article here, see note 3).

Clearly there is a need here. Most U.S adults, especially younger ones, should track their credit score at least quarterly. However, fewer than 10% of adults subscribe to credit monitoring services, partly because of their cost and partly because of the hassle (see note 2).

Banks, credit unions and card issuers are ideally suited to fill this gap. At a minimum, low-cost one-click access to their credit score would provide customers with an important early warning system to stave off potentially debilitating personal finance woes (note 4).


1. Be aware that this is a completely unscientific online poll of 200 Facebook users who say they are age 18-24 in their Facebook profile. The results should NOT be projected to the larger population. It was conducted on July 23, 2007 by Online Banking Report (see note 2).

2. For more information, see the latest Online Banking Report on Credit Monitoring.

 3. And over at another Dow Jones effort, the FiLife blog, the writers have been on a bit of a mission to pressure banks and card issuers to make credit scores freely available to customers (see post here). FiLife is a joint effort between Dow Jones and IAC, the parent of Lending Tree and GetSmart.  

4. According to the FiLife article cited above, among top-10 banks, only WaMu currently provides free access to credit scores for its credit card customers (see inset).

Anatomy of a Webpage: Citibank Business Credit Card

In terms of website design, I find most Citibank pages to be somewhat busy. But overall, the pages usually work well due to the eye-catching graphics, appropriate use of colors, and good copywriting.  

I've had a Citibank Business AAdvantage credit card for at least a decade. Even though I don't visit the site often, maybe once every few months, I find that it's generally easy to find what I'm looking for. 

As you can see in the business card example below, the bank uses purple and green "buttons" to catch your eye, then inserts important key words within them to drive action:

  1. The purple, "Fraud is not your fault" reinforces that customers are not liable for unauthorized transactions, something most people are still concerned about, even though their liability is minimal. The button leads to a page that discusses advanced fraud fighting tools such as virtual account numbers and a picture card.
  2. The navy, "How much have I spent lately?" allows users to quickly drill down into a key area of concern for most card users. Although not as powerful as Wells Fargo's My Spending Report (previous coverage here), it's still a good starting point for many users.
  3. Finally, the bright green, "Help prevent an identity crisis" pitches the bank's credit monitoring solutions (note 1).

Citibank Business Credit Card main account overview page (22 Sep 2007)


1. For more information on bank and credit union opportunities selling credit report monitoring see our most recent Online Banking Report.

LifeLock’s Engaging 2-Minute Television Spot

Today, I was home for lunch and my son was watching a recorded episode of Myth Busters, a great show as anyone with a pre-teen child knows. As he was fast-forwarding through the commercials, I happened to see a glimpse of a LifeLock spot (see inset).

My son knows I like the commercials better than the shows, so he graciously replayed the entire thing for me. It seemed to go on forever, he said, "like a sponsored program of its own." Which from him is actually a compliment, I think. I checked out the replay online and saw that it was a 2-minute spot (note 1).

It features street scenes of New York (I think). It plays like news coverage as the big "billboard trucks" drive through town plastered with CEO Todd Davis's social security number in red, 3-foot high numbers. Interspersed are man-on-the-street soundbites from astonished pedestrians and a great testimonial from a LifeLock customer who credit the company from saving him from having someone buy an $83,000 RV in his name. It also has Mr. Davis pitching the product through a bullhorn on a crowded Manhattan street.  

It's a real in-your-face commercial, but I really liked it. It does a great job of grabbing attention, reinforcing the benefits, and providing a can't-miss call-to-action. It's a good compliment to the over-the-top print ads featuring the CEO's social-security-number (see previous coverage here and note 2).

LifeLock uses two different URLs in the commercial, the normal <lifelock.com> and <lifelocktv.com>. Both point to the same page now, but the company must be considering a distinct landing page for the TV URL.

The video is available in the lower-left corner of the company's homepage (below). For more information on the market for credit report and identity theft services, see our most recent Online Banking Report here.

LifeLock 2-min television spot


1. The commercial doesn't appear to be on YouTube yet, so I was unable to post the actual spot here.

2. A half-page version of LifeLock's social-security-number ad was in a recent WSJ.