The Debt Trap

The New York Times has an enlightening piece examining the practices of the credit card industry in the United States entitled The Debt Trap: Banks Mine Data and Pitch to Troubled Borrowers. Though the practice may have tapered off, credit agencies were and are seeking clients using data mining and personalized letters to attract new clients. Even clients who had just emerged from bankruptcy were inundated with letters trying to get them back in debt.

For months after she emerged from insolvency last fall, 6 to 10 new credit card and auto loan offers arrived every week that specifically mentioned her bankruptcy and, despite her poor credit history, dangled a range of seemingly too-good-to-be-true financing options.

“Good news! You are approved for both Visa and MasterCard — that’s right, 2 platinum credit cards!” read one buoyant letter sent this spring to Ms. Jerez, offering a $10,000 credit limit if only she returned a $35 processing fee with her application.

“It’s like I’ve got some big tag: target this person so you can get them back into debt,” said Ms. Jerez, of Jersey City, who still gets offers, even as it has become clear that loans to troubled borrowers have become a chief cause of the financial crisis. One letter that arrived last month, from First Premier Bank, promoted a platinum MasterCard for people with “less-than-perfect credit.”

Singling out even struggling American consumers like Ms. Jerez is one of the overlooked causes of the debt boom and the resulting crisis, which threatens to choke the global economy.

I strongly recommend the Times series The Debt Trap: Interactive series about the surge in consumer debt and the lenders who made it possible. It is an enlightening series and every American and Canadian should read it. One that is a must read is Given a Shovel, Americans Dig Deeper Into Debt. It examines the profit motive that encouraged banks and lending agencies to give people more and more credit:

Lenders have found new ways to squeeze more profit from borrowers. Though prevailing interest rates have fallen to the low single digits in recent years, for example, the rates that credit card issuers routinely charge even borrowers with good credit records have risen, to 19.1 percent last year from 17.7 percent in 2005 — a difference that adds billions of dollars in interest charges annually to credit card bills.

Average late fees rose to $35 in 2007 from less than $13 in 1994, and fees charged when customers exceed their credit limits more than doubled to $26 a month from $11, according to CardWeb, an online publisher of information on payment and credit cards.

Mortgage lenders similarly added or raised fees associated with borrowing to buy a home — like $75 e-mail charges, $100 document preparation costs and $70 courier fees — bringing the average to $700 a mortgage, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. These “junk fees” have risen 50 percent in recent years, said Michael A. Kratzer, president of, a Web site intended to help consumers reduce fees on mortgages.

“Today the focus for lenders is not so much on consumer loans being repaid, but on the loan as a perpetual earning asset,” said Julie L. Williams, chief counsel of the Comptroller of the Currency, in a March 2005 speech that received little notice at the time.

It is a form of credit feudalism. As I have noted, good clients are not those who generate profits as profits are generated by the onerous fees that ding clients whenever they are late for a payment or they go over their credit limits. The profligate spender is in essence their cash cow.

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One Response to The Debt Trap

  1. Marty says:

    Thank you for posting this piece and the link. Definitely something everyone should be aware of.

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