It's a breeze to keep track of all of your accounts over the Internet. But while consumers have embraced online banking with gusto and are doing ever more of their shopping on the Internet, they haven't flocked to online account aggregators. That's too bad, because those aggregation services -- which typically are free -- can make it easy for consumers to keep up to date on what they owe, how much money they have in the bank and how big that stack of frequent flyer miles has grown. And all that information can be compiled in one place, on a secure Internet site, that updates the balances daily and serves as a portal to all of your financial Web sites. All under one password.
Compare that with the old-fashioned way of stacking up all of the bills and financial statements that come to your mailbox each month, a credit card bill one day, a bank statement the next, then another brokerage statement and one more credit card bill. It doesn't take long for all those documents to stack up.
The modern day alternative isn't so simple either, recalling all of the passwords and Web sites for your online banking, credit card, frequent flier and other Internet-based services.
But by consolidating all of that information in one place under a single password, the online account aggregators, as they're called, make it easier to see where you stand financially at any given moment, not just the day the statement was issued.
It's also not just financial sites that work with the account aggregators, either. Consumers can track their e-mail, frequent flier miles, online auctions and news from the site.
Here's how the aggregators work:
Once you select an aggregator's site, you need to set up an account with your own user name and password.
Then you'll be asked to supply information about how to access each of the accounts you want to track online. That means you'll have to provide the sign-on information for each of the credit cards, bank and investment accounts that you want the aggregator to follow. If you haven't already signed up for online access to those accounts, you'll need to do that.
Once all that information has been compiled and your aggregation site has been set up, the aggregator then takes that information and turns it into a single, customized Web page that brings all of that information, updated daily or as often as you wish, to your computer screen.
What makes the aggregation services nice is that, once you've got your account set up, you don't need to sign on to each different account to get your latest information. The aggregator does it for you.
But you may not be able to access all of your accounts through an aggregator. While Yodlee's service can cull information from more than 2,000 Web sites, smaller banks and credit unions, and even some credit cards aren't accessible through aggregators.
Still, consumers aren't flocking to sign up as analysts thought they would just four years ago, when Celent Communications, a Massachusetts research firm boldly predicted that about 36 million Americans would be using an aggregation service by this year.
Instead, the number is just a fraction of that. Yodlee Inc., one of the leading providers of account aggregation services, says it has more than 4 million users. While that's five times the number of households that were using account aggregators at the turn of the century, it's a far cry from the lofty expectations for the services.
That means aggregation hasn't been much of a boom for the banks and other Web sites, such as Yahoo!'s expense manager and Citibank's MyCiti service, that now offer the services. "While many partnerships have been announced, few have resulted in significant new business or revenues," said Shaw Lively, an analyst at Financial Insights, a Massachusetts research firm.
Instead, Lively predicts that account aggregators will roll out new or enhanced services, such as for bill presentment, bill payment and even the ability to transfer money from one account to another, that will make them more valuable to consumers.
"This application of aggregation has strong potential to generate use of the technology, while simultaneously creating greater momentum toward electronic billing and bill consolidation," said a report by the TowerGroup, a Boston consulting firm.
Account aggregation also is an opportunity for banks, because it gives them a glimpse at their customers' financial information, which can help them target their marketing efforts for other products, such as insurance and mortgages, based on the data it collects through the aggregation service. It also gives them another way to build relationships with their customers.
All this is happening at the same time that consumers are embracing online banking, a cousin to the account aggregators that faces many of the same barriers, ranging from security fears, confusion about the cost and a fear of making mistakes.
The TowerGroup estimates that online banking has been growing by a 9 percent annual rate and now is used by roughly one of every four U.S. households.
Early on, aggregators were plagued by worries about how customer information was gathered, with many financial institutions questioning the practice of "screen scraping," where a customer's data is gathered from other Web sites with the permission of the consumer. That resistance has largely waned, and many of the early banking industry critics are offering the services now.