Weekly Edgework #23 - Dec. 6, 2004

Plastic Plague

Recently, it seems that hardly a week goes by without experiencing a personal assault by a credit card hawker. I open my mail and find an offer for a newer and better version of the one card I already own. I am satisfied with the simple Visa Platinum card I have. It permits me to pay for items I purchase on the internet or when I travel. I pay the credit card bill every month. And I can spend up to $24,700.00. Just think, I could go out this morning and buy a new car just by slipping my card through the little gizmo on the counter at the local car dealership.

But apparently someone out there thinks I need more credit. Every few months I am offered a new class of credit card from the same company – for an annual fee, mind you. But with this superior plastic I can boost my credit to $50,000.00 or more. Were I to apply for this card I could buy a car, build an addition to my house and go on a Caribbean cruise - simply by flashing my card. Am I to think that someone out there really cares about me and wants me to experience the good life?

But this only constitutes the first wave of the plastic plague assault. There are many other credit card companies who have discovered my address, who knows how. They also regularly send me glossy packages containing enticements to acquire yet another card – with more credit, apart from the credit I already have with Visa. One recently offered $100,000.00 credit on the spot - for signing on the line. Wow, with a little savings thrown in, or credit from another card, I could now purchase a new house in a more upscale part of town!

On weeks I don’t receive such offers in the mail, I am assaulted by a cheery, young female adult decked out as though going to a ball when I enter any one of the larger retail outlets. “Hi! What’s your address and phone number, please. That’s all I need to sign you up for our very own credit card. And just for signing up you get a coffee mug for free!” When I resist and say that I really am not interested – that I have enough plastic in my wallet - my young assailant goes bug-eyed, gawking at me with a well-practiced look of disdain. “Well, you can’t lose on this offer now can you,” I am chided. “And besides wouldn’t you like a new travel coffee mug just for signing your name?” I reply that I don’t drink when I drive and move on, leaving my young assailant wondering what kind of an anti-social moron I am. But she quickly turns to the next victim coming through the door. Perhaps he will be more sociable.

An acquaintance recently took me to Tim Horton’s for coffee. Upon openly his trucker-sized wallet, actually better described as a binder of sorts, he inquired which one of his twenty some cards he could use to pay for the coffee and donuts he had ordered. “Sorry, we don’t accept credit cards for coffee,” he was told. My friend was aghast. “What, you mean you want real money?” After some considerable fumbling he found enough real money but by that time the coffee had cooled off considerably.

I describe my varied experiences with credit card offers as an assault, because that is what it is. It is an assault riddled with deadly deception. It offers me the world now with lots of time to pay later. It feeds on society’s “itch of the instantaneous.” Why save for something you need or want when you can have it right now? Never mind that you will be paying anywhere from 18 to 30 percent interest charges on your unpaid balance. And that for the rest of your life. I know far too many people who depend on the generous credit offered through their credit cards to live a life-style they cannot afford. Of course, when they finally do go to a financial advisor when they are “maxed out” as they say, the first piece of advice they get is to cut up all their credit cards – kill the virus that feeds the plastic plague!

This week I called the number on my Visa statement. When I was asked how I could be helped I said by explaining to me why I must pay 18.5% interest on any outstanding balance on my credit card. Well, that is a competitive rate, I was told. All credit card companies charge at least that amount. Right. I know that. But why, when ordinary loans are available for five or six percent? Well someone else makes those decision, not I. After a ten-minute conversation the young lady I was speaking to agreed with me that many people don’t use their credit cards responsibly. Everyone should be taught in High School how to do that, she said. We did agree that if I paid my bill monthly there was no problem for me. Right, I said, but what about the many who don’t? When I continued to press for further information as to why credit card companies are so aggressive and what percent of credit card holders actually pay their total bill monthly, she transferred me to someone higher up on the food chain.

When I asked the same set of questions of this person I was asked why I needed this information. When I said I was planning to write an article about credit card use in Canada, I was transferred to the media department. Here a man who sounded very professional indeed wanted to know who I was writing for and where this information would be published. When I said I was a free-lance journalist and that I planned to post the article on my own website, he wanted to know its address. Then I was asked to kindly repeat my questions so he could take them down. Why the high interest rate? Why the aggressive marketing? What percentage pay their total bill monthly? Then the man at the top of the food chain said he would get back to me. I guess no one has ever asked these questions before and they need a lot of research. They must be very hard questions because I have still not heard back from the man in the media department.