BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : JULY 10, 2000 ISSUE
BUSINESSWEEK INVESTOR

Track Your Worth on the Web
You can monitor your finances on a single page

When I tried to explain this killer Internet application to a friend, his eyes glazed over as soon as I mentioned its name--''aggregation.'' But even without a sexy-sounding title, this new technology is a real winner if, like my friend, you have several mutual funds, retirement, checking, and savings accounts, a wallet full of credit cards--and a hectic schedule. Aggregation lets you bring your financial affairs together on a single, personalized Web page that instantly displays your bank, brokerage, mutual fund, credit-card, and even bonus mile accounts. You can do all this for free because aggregation services get paid by financial institutions.

Until I sat down at my computer and created my own aggregation Web page, I didn't understand how the technology could help me. After visiting Yodlee.com, the one among six independent aggregators (table) with the broadest services, it took only an afternoon to consolidate my entire financial portfolio online. Now, whenever I have a question about a specific account balance, I go to

Yodlee's Web site, click on auto-log-in for whichever of my accounts I want to visit, and within seconds I have my answer. I'm no longer stuck listening to canned music while waiting for customer service to take my call or wasting time surfing from Web site to Web site in search of my data.

SECRET CODE. Besides going directly to an aggregator, you can reach one through many banks, brokers, or financial Web sites. Chase Manhattan (CMB) and America Online (AOL), for example, offer Yodlee's service. CNBC.com and VirtualBank.com, a Web-based lender, offer a service from VerticalOne.

Whether you reach an aggregator directly or through your bank, a site isn't that difficult to set up. But it does require some knowledge about how to navigate the Web. To start, I made sure my Web browser used 128-bit encryption, which automatically converts data into a secret code for transmission over a public network. To ensure privacy and security when transmitting personal financial information, most financial Web sites require this level of encryption, and they'll tell you if your browser lacks it.

My old version of Netscape didn't have 128-bit encryption. But the company, like all browser suppliers, will provide it in updated software. So I went to Netscape's Web site at www.netscape.com and downloaded the latest version of the browser, 4.7. But most financial institutions provide hyperlinks to upgraded browsers to make downloading easier.

I then went to the Web, located all the companies with the personal accounts I wanted to monitor, and established online relationships with them, which allowed me to access personal information directly. You need to do this before you can create your own page.

Some companies allowed me to access my personal information immediately after I keyed in my account number and Social Security number. But others insisted on sending me a PIN number by regular mail first. Be patient: PIN numbers provide additional security and can be changed later to a chosen password. Once I had established a user ID and password for each of my accounts, I was ready to set up a personalized Web page.

At this point, I started wondering about the security of my files at Yodlee and other aggregators. Indeed, worries about handing over account numbers and passwords are slowing the acceptance of aggregators, the first of which appeared last August. That's one reason fewer than 300,000 people to date have signed up with aggregation services, most of which are affiliated with banks or Web financial portals. Banks and brokers, of course, say they wouldn't be offering aggregation unless they were confident about security (BW--June 12, 2000). That won't satisfy everyone. To protect the information, aggregators use multiple layers of encryption, independent audits, and palm scanning to limit staffer access to personal account information. Yodlee keeps all passwords and user identification data at a third-party site, where security personnel monitor the system nonstop.

DIRECT FEEDS COMING. What's more, employees at banks and brokers can't see encrypted personal information. Still, it's always best to log out after using any service. Aggregators say that in the future, they may offer software security updates that can be downloaded. All Web aggregators use a technology popularly known as ''screen scraping,'' which lets them grab text from sites run by financial institutions or sites where you may have stored some of your portfolio data. Because the Web sites often shut down or get hacked, aggregators are moving toward getting direct feeds from financial institutions. Yodlee says it will start receiving direct feeds later this summer.

After slogging through Yodlee's terms and conditions, which limit its liability in such matters as loss of data, I clicked on the ''agree'' button and created a log-on name and password. Then I typed in more information about myself, including my e-mail address, and my personalized page was ready to be filled up. Clicking on the start button, I found an outline on the left side of the page with such headings as finance, communication, general, news, shopping, travel, and mobile. The finance category had subheadings that included credit cards, bills, banking, and investments. Selecting credit cards let me choose from an alphabetical list of card issuers. When I found my name, a box popped up asking for the user identification and password.

Once I typed in that information, I clicked on ''add,'' and Yodlee confirmed that my card had been inserted in my personalized Web page. To confirm that I had done things correctly, I clicked on ''View My Yodlee'' and automatically got my current credit-card balance, available credit, and minimum payment amount. Only the last four digits of the account were listed, so even if someone could see my personalized Web site, he or she wouldn't know my credit card number. In similar fashion, I then added the corresponding data from my other accounts.

Typically, the aggregator automatically grabs updated information each evening, making it available the following morning. But around-the-clock updates should proliferate as the aggregators increasingly take direct feeds from financial institutions.

Once I had input all the accounts I wanted to monitor, I scrolled to the top of the page and noted my account snapshot: the totals for investments, credit-card balances, and most of my assets and liabilities. I could view the last two on a pie chart and click on the refresh button to update the data. To be sure, my financial picture wasn't complete: Aggregators still don't show data that's offline, such as car loans, store credit cards, leases, insurance policies, or certain credit lines. Even so, it's great to get so much of my financial life in one handy package.

By LINDA BERLIN

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