BillGuard makes a game of zapping fraudulent charges

By Mick Weinstein , written on July 29, 2013

From The News Desk


When a Web-based service releases a mobile app these days, it’s not usually noteworthy. If the company wasn’t thinking mobile first, it’ll quickly have to become mobile second, which is often just an extension of its core functionality to the devices inexorably taking over our computing lives.

And that’s how I saw the new iPhone app from BillGuard (the “people-powered antivirus for bills”) the first time I opened it last week. But the more I use this app, and the more I consider the current state of payment security, the more I realized that the stakes and the opportunity for BillGuard, which bills itself as "The Smart Inbox for your money," and this particular app are actually much bigger. It appears I’m not the only one who's impressed. As I write this, it is the no. 2 finance app in Apple’s App Store.

Consider three elements in payment system security: vetting vendors, the safety of account data, and the ubiquity of consumer use. On the vendor-vetting front, a slew of new payments apps have made it faster and easier than ever to set up a card-based merchant account, and, in the process, have dramatically lowered vendor approval standards. Square, for example, boasts that once you sign up as a merchant, “you’ll be accepting [card] payments on your smartphone or iPad in minutes” -- which of course makes it not at all surprising when merchant fraud stories like this become more common. New point-of-sale services like Square have actively and aggressively lowered the bar for merchant accounts, shifting that risk onto themselves -- and cardholding consumers -- in their efforts to capture early market share in mobile POS.

Meanwhile, individual card account data has also become less secure. We’re seeing highly sophisticated wholesale hacks of tens of millions of card numbers, which are resold on the online black market for a few bucks apiece. No reality-based card issuer, with or without an EMV chip on its card, believes it can fully secure card data from a motivated hacker team on the other side of the globe.

The radically lowered vendor standards and now-common mass security breaches wouldn’t be a big deal if credit cards became less ubiquitous, but the simple plastic credit card has so far resisted any broad new infrastructure shift of the sort Dwolla presents. So we have more card-based payments than in the past, joined with greatly lowered merchant and card-level security, a recipe for disaster from the consumer’s perspective. Technology in this case is currently working against the consumer, and the banks’ own fraud protection algorithms just kick up more annoying false positives to cardholders every day.

Enter BillGuard, based in Tel Aviv and NYC, which alerts U.S. credit and debit card holders to problematic charges through crowdsourced, consumer-based flagging and its own big data science. A new BillGuard sponsored industry report on deceptive and unwanted “grey charges” finds that American cardholders were hit with no less than $14.3 billion in deceptive charges in 2012 -- about half of which were subject to refund, according to BillGuard.

Now, if card issuing banks were forward-looking, they’d be partnering more actively with BillGuard, because, as I blogged more than than a year ago, it is “the type of anti-fraud service that card issuing banks should have produced on their own long ago.” Unfortunately “retail banks are lumbering, reactive beasts that simply don’t function in anything resembling a consumer-centric or collaborative manner.”

Surprise... the banks still haven’t come around to fully adopting BillGuard, despite co-founder and CEO Yaron Samid relentlessly pounding the Manhattan pavements over the past couple years to demonstrate to commercial banks how much his app and crowdsourced fraud flagging could save them.

So the company is doubling down on its consumer-based offering with this new iPhone app. The app is slick and well designed, with a Mailbox-like feel and thoughtful touches like the ability to one-click text someone a question about a particular charge, complete with auto compose (“Hi, I have a charge I don’t recognize: “Bill’s shoes” on July 9. Do you know what it is?”).

BillGuard hopes that as it moves from a “set and forget” web service to a mobile app that encourages users to validate every charge, we'll come to scan our credit/debit card items the way we check our email, actively, with a sense of purpose, community and (at some level) pleasure. Your first two cards on BillGuard are monitored for free; additional cards require a premium upgrade to $4.99/month (“BillGuard family”), though it's making that available as a one-time, in-app purchase for $9.99.

Given the sorry state of payments security, we should all be doing this. But will we, any more than we check our existing card provider statements? BillGuard is betting that if it provides an app that gives satisfaction on the usability and dispute resolution fronts, we will. That is, we’ll actually come to enjoy the process of finding and zapping grey charges, if the company helps us along by lowering the friction in reporting questionable charges and providing a Gmail-like ‘priority inbox’ for questionable charges based on what others in its user network are reporting.

What, a charge for some mysterious electronics I supposedly ordered from a fly-by-night store in London?

Zap! Take that fraudulent charge! BillGuard makes it fun to cheat you out of cheating me.