In a Nutshell: In an age of automation, algorithms often do the heavy lifting so we can focus on other things. But that mindset can lead to higher fees for services — and sometimes subscriptions we don’t realize we’re paying for. Truebill helps users identify recurring charges and other financial inefficiencies that can put a strain on their budgets. The personal finance tracker, budget planner and bill reminder can also save consumers money automatically by applying for promotional rates on services and credits for outages. Truebill’s sophisticated AI and high level of security allow users to enjoy the benefits of automated transactions while mitigating risk.
Yahya Mokhtarzada didn’t make a habit of checking his credit card statements, but one day in 2016, he discovered a suspicious $39 charge for in-flight wifi. Mokhtarzada knew he hadn’t flown at all the previous month, so he looked back through his past statements. That’s when he discovered he’d been paying the same charge for months without realizing it.
“That was a bit of a shock to me,” said Mokhtarzada, Founder and Chief Revenue Officer of Truebill, an app designed to bring those recurring charges to light. “I mentioned it to my brother, who’s my co-founder, and he lit up and said something similar had happened to him. He had a subscription that was billing him monthly that he’d been completely unaware of. Together, the light bulb just went off.”
The brothers developed a web app that connected to their bank accounts, pulled transactional data, and used algorithms to scan for recurring charges for easy review and verification. That solution became Truebill, a platform that helps consumers eliminate the pain point of unknowingly paying recurring charges for services they aren’t using.
From there, they developed other services, including canceling unwanted subscriptions and identifying additional sources of financial drain. Truebill users can eliminate financial drain from unknown and unused services, which enables them to put their money to better use elsewhere in their budgets.
“The big mission we have is to improve the financial lives of millions of people,” Mokhtarzada said. “That means touching a whole scope of different areas of personal finance and trying to do something across each of them.”
Saving Money by Identifying Unknown Expenses, Applying Incentives, and Finding Credits
Busy consumers can be lulled into complacency when they agree to set parts of their personal finances on autopilot. But not monitoring the charges being made to an account can quickly lead to problems, including budget complications and overdraft charges. Especially for people on limited incomes, getting hit with an unexpected charge can be seriously damaging.
Truebill provides a convenient calendar that shows when expenses are due, enabling users to view upcoming charges and plan accordingly. In the event of an overdraft, Truebill can automatically contact the user’s bank on his or her behalf and request a refund. And, as the company’s mission statement emphasizes, managing everyday finances goes beyond the bounds of unknown charges and overdrafts.
Truebill maintains a database of promotions and incentives offered by companies that provide cellphone service, cable and internet, satellite radio, home security, and other services. These incentives are available to subscribers, but they are not advertised by providers. Truebill can automatically identify and apply for promotions users qualify for, helping them lower their monthly bills.
“We can quickly take a look at a bill, identify promotions and rates they’re eligible for but not receiving,” Mokhtarzada said. “It can end up being pretty significant.”
Truebill also assists users in further lowering bills by tracking outages for phone, cable, and internet service. Providers are legally obligated to credit accounts for service outages and downtime — but only if the consumer requests they do so. Truebill aggregates all service outages and automatically requests the provider prorate the user’s bill.
“Truebill contacts your internet or cable provider and claims a credit for all those outages,” Mokhtarzada said. “That happens monthly and it averages about $12 a month for people.”
If your internet blinks out for half an hour on a Tuesday afternoon while you’re at work, or if your cellphone network goes down for a few minutes one night while you’re asleep, you’re not going to notice such minor outages. But larger outages can be inconvenient, aggravating, and costly in terms of paying for a service you’re not receiving. Truebill can’t stop disruptions like these, but it can stop unnecessary costs from disrupting a Truebill user’s financial life.
Leveraging AI and Machine Learning for Efficient Service
As illustrated in Truebill’s origin story, a human being can easily recognize an unknown charge. But having a live person scan every subscriber’s account statements is not an effective means of providing service. Machine learning and AI are the best tools for the job, but applying those tools creates new challenges.
“First, even understanding what transactions are is not a trivial problem,” Mokhtarzada said. “And identifying recurring subscriptions is even trickier. Netflix probably has hundreds of different transaction names. One might be Netflix. One might be Netflx. One might be Netflix followed by a series of numbers. You need intelligence just to recognize what it is.”
Another problem is differentiating between subscriptions and one-time transactions. That may not be an issue with a service like Netflix, which only offers subscriptions, but other service providers allow customers to make one-time purchases as well as sign up for recurring packages. That’s why Truebill developed an AI that can recognize the difference.
“The last thing you want to do is have someone make a single purchase from Dollar Shave Club and then have Truebill tell them they have a subscription and have them freak out,” Mokhtarzada said.
Truebill’s AI can also evaluate bank account balances and, based on their histories, can anticipate the dates for paycheck deposits, when charges are going to come due, and evaluate the risk of overdraft.
Its data set of billions of transactions allows the Truebill system to understand how personal finances work on a day-to-day basis, enabling it to deliver the best experience to its users.
Security Measures Ensure the Safety of Personal Information
Financial information is a major component of modern life, and it’s no secret that such data can be stolen and used maliciously. At the least, that can lead to additional stress, and at worst it can cause extreme financial hardship. Truebill takes the steps necessary to prevent those breaches and protect the financial and personal information of its users.
“Security is a huge priority for us, as it has to be,” Mokhtarzada said.
Truebill does not collect or use login information for bank or credit card accounts. That information is transmitted directly from the user to their financial institutions. The latter return transaction data to Truebill, but without any personal information attached.
“We don’t actually get the name on the bank account,” Mokhtarzada said. “We just get the raw list of transactions.”
Although Truebill must collect some personal information to provide its services to users, that information is not stored alongside any financial data. Instead, each user’s personal and financial information reside in completely separate databases. In the event of a security breach, a hacker would get only one type of data; to get the other, the hacker would have to gain access to the other database. And even then, hackers would lack any means of correlating the data and linking specific information to a particular user.
“They would simply see that a lot of people subscribe to Netflix,” Mokhtarzada said.
New Features Will Help Users Build Positive Financial Habits
After developing and testing the Truebill prototype, the Mokhtarzada brothers invited their friends and family members to try it. Many of these individuals discovered they were also paying for services they either didn’t know about or didn’t use. They, in turn, invited others to use the app. Before long, the prototype had users the brothers had never even met.
“That’s when we realized there was a larger need than we thought,” Mokhtarzada said. “Even 15 years ago, I don’t think a tool like this was as necessary. But today, people’s lives are increasingly automated.”
The purpose of automation is to make life easier, but when people don’t need to pay close attention to something, they usually won’t. As a result, they can become detached from important decisions such as everyday finances. That makes it easier for unintended spending to go unnoticed for stretches of time, often leaving a complicated — and sometimes expensive — mess to untangle. And the habit of relying on automation means we may accidentally let other details slip.
“I get hit with late fees all the time,” Mokhtarzada said. “I’ve even had my electricity shut off, not because of financial hardship but because I simply forgot to pay it –— which happens, but is still a problem.”
To help address that issue, Truebill is introducing a new bill pay feature that shows users when monthly charges will come due. And users can pay their bills directly through the app, either partially or in full. They simply enter the amount, choose their payment method, finalize the transaction, and remove the guesswork and uncertainty from online bill payments.
Bill pay is just one more Truebill feature that helps users eliminate inefficiencies from their financial lives and save money that otherwise may have disappeared into late fees. It is a useful addition to a suite of services that empowers users to enjoy the benefits of automation without its pain points.
With Truebill, consumers can keep up with bills and account balances and leverage the ease afforded by technology to achieve greater financial stability while avoiding hidden pitfalls.