Every mailbox in America seems littered these days with credit card offers. The banks must know it's junk mail, so they let the envelopes make the pitch: Preapproved credit. Borrow up to $100,000. Rates as low as 5.9 percent. No annual fees.
Lawyers, machinists, college students, even people on welfare get the same too-good-to-be-true come-ons -- as shown once you read the fine print and discover the rates soon double or triple.
Credit card issuers mailed a staggering 2.4 billion of these spiels last year for Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover and others. Laid end to end, the offers would circle the globe a dozen times.
In a bizarre twist to the credit story, those who have filed for bankruptcy are now thought by some companies as a good credit risk.
Why on earth would someone who just walked away from their debts be considered a good risk?
Simple. They can't file for bankruptcy for another seven years.
"That is simply the most irresponsible level of marketing there is," said Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America. "It's called bottom feeding in the credit card industry."
Brobeck has no problem placing the blame for the bankruptcy boom.
"The single most important reason for this expanding debt," he said, "is relentless, aggressive credit card marketing by issuers, chiefly banks, who have increasingly been targeting low- and moderate-income households."
Nonsense, say the banks and credit card companies.
They say the wide availability of consumer credit is vital to the U.S. economy. Bank cards help contribute to consumer spending that accounts for two-thirds of the nation's gross domestic product, they say.
"I don't think there should be such a thing as preapproved credit," said a disabled Korean War veteran in Buffalo who ran up a $12,000 credit card debt. "I think you ought to go to a local bank, have an interview with someone just like you were applying for a loan."
For one credit card, said this veteran, he was approved after he put down his income from small
disability pension, food stamps and a government housing allowance.
If the solicitation isn't coming by mail, it's over the telephone or even e-mail. Telemarketers make millions of dinner-time calls offering people more credit than they would ever need.
After these billions of come-ons, about two of every 100 people getting the pitch actually take the offer.
But the profits are so high -- the average interest rate is 18 percent, or more than double the prime rate -- the flood of preapproved credit continues to wash over America.
It has been less than 50 years since the first all-purpose credit card was introduced. Credit cards are now so much a part of life that:
Americans carry more than 500 million credit cards, an average of seven cards for each adult.
Customers charged more than $1 trillion on credit cards in 1996, according to the Consumer Federation of America. Almost $4 billion of that was carried over from one month to another.
An estimated 56 million to 60 million American households carry revolving credit card debt from month to month. The debt averages $6,000 to $7,000.
Households with revolving debt every year spend about $1,000 each on credit card fees, interest and the cost of home equity loans used to pay off credit cards.
About one in 20 credit card holders walk away from their debts, an $8 billion cost that other credit card users will eventually pick up.
Bankruptcy rates are soaring -- more than a million Americans filed last year -- and two-thirds of those surveyed by a national bankruptcy review commission cited credit card debt as one of the primary causes.
But Visa USA said a survey of 11,000 bankruptcy petitions showed it was too simplistic to blame going broke on credit card debt. Most people suffer a financial calamity that causes their bankruptcies, the survey showed.
Too many people file for bankruptcy too easily before seeking help, Visa analysts say, and too many people still make enough income to repay some of their debts.
Visa is seeking changes in bankruptcy law that would make it harder for those with the ability to pay to walk away from their debts, and say restricting credit is the wrong approach.
The competition among Visa's 6,000 issuers is healthy, said David B. Sandor, director of public affairs for Visa USA.
"The battle here is not to get more cards in your wallet," said Sandor, "but to get the credit card in your wallet that you use the most."
These disputes were unheard of before Feb. 8, 1950, when three men gathered for lunch at a restaurant called Major Cabin's Grill near the Empire State Building in Manhattan.
Matty Simmons, who would go on to produce "Animal House" and the Chevy Chase "Vacation" movies, was a young publicist at that historic lunch.
The food is long forgotten, but not how Simmons' companion paid for the meal. He produced a piece of cardboard, the waiter accepted it as payment, and the way we pay for things changed forever.
On the card was printed the words, Diner's Club.
"It was the first all-purpose credit card," Simmons recalled in an interview from his California office. "There were stores that had cards you could use at their store only, but you could use Diners Club in a lot of different places."
It was Simmons' job, he recounts in his book "The Credit Card Catastrophe," to hustle the card to New York restaurants and sell the concept.
Perhaps he did too good a job.
In no time at all, Diner's Club signed up one million members and watched as first American Express and then the banks come out with their own credit cards.
Simmons remembers an early meeting when Diner's Club considered lowering its income levels for membership. Joe Titus, a Diner's Club executive, accurately predicted more than 40 years ago what is now taking place:
"It's wrong. We're giving a blank check to men and women who won't be able to control their spending and will wind up in heavy debt and in court and eventual bankruptcy. It's bad business for us, and it's not fair to them even if they beg us for the damn card."
There is no begging these days for a credit card.
The credit card industry says that despite all the offers for pre-approved credit, most pitches still require customers to fill out an application.
How closely the financial information in those forms is checked, however, is open to question.
"I received preapproved credit cards after I became disabled," said Steve Pyda of Niagara Falls. "I said I could really use the money, so I signed up. I got an extra $13,000 after I was disabled.
"I went and used that up to consolidate the other ones," Pyda added. "I figured I could make it. I just couldn't."
Pyda went to U.S. Bankruptcy Court in May and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. He had $140 in assets and $58,741 in debts, almost all of it from credit cards.
He walked away from court owing nothing. His entire credit card debt was wiped clean.
Pyda says both he and the banks deserve the blame.
"It's definitely both, the credit cards for being too easy and the consumer for charging too much," he said. "The third wrench, for me, is I became disabled. I was making a grand a week, and all of a sudden I was making nothing."