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What Does Your Credit-Card Company Know About You?
May 29, 2009 3:34 PM

It's pretty scary, actually.

Here are the facts:

Just a little more than two decades ago, the credit-card business was a quiet, slightly boring industry dominated by banks looking for easy revenue. Card issuers made money by collecting annual dues and interest payments from cardholders as well as fees from merchants each time a customer used a card. Then the math whizzes arrived. They emphasized that the biggest profits didn't come from people who always paid off their bills but rather from less-responsible clients who never paid their entire balance, and thus could be milked through silently skyrocketing interest rates, late fees and other penalties. Since 1995, the percentage of the industry's income from cardholder fees has more than doubled to 40 percent. In 2005, as the push to sign up cardholders peaked, the industry sent out more than 10.2 billion credit-card solicitations, which would cover more than the entire world's population. Two years later, card companies collected $40.7 billion in profits before taxes, according to R. K. Hammer, a credit-card advisory firm. Today Americans carry an average of 5.3 all-purpose cards in their wallets, and the average household has $10,679 in credit-card debt, according to the industry publication The Nilson Report.

And now?

Gone are the days of handing out cards willy-nilly and hoping that the cardholders who dutifully pay up will offset the losses from those who default. Today companies are focusing on those customers most likely to honor their debts. And they are looking for ways to convince existing cardholders that if they only have enough money to pay one bill, it's wiser to pay off their credit card than, say, the phone.

Put another way, credit-card companies are becoming much more interested in understanding their customers' lives and psyches, because, the theory goes, knowing what makes cardholders tick will help firms determine who is a good bet and who should be shown the door as quickly as possible.

Card companies began running tens of thousands of experiments each year, testing the emotions elicited by various card colors and the appeal of different envelope sizes, for instance, or whether new immigrants were more responsible than cardholders born in this country. By understanding customers' psyches, the companies hoped, they could tell who was a bad risk and either deny their application or, for those who were already cardholders, start shrinking their available credit and increasing minimum payments to squeeze out as much cash as possible before they defaulted.

But the real breakthrough came in 2002:

The exploration into cardholders' minds hit a breakthrough in 2002, when J. P. Martin, a math-loving executive at Canadian Tire, decided to analyze almost every piece of information his company had collected from credit-card transactions the previous year. Canadian Tire's stores sold electronics, sporting equipment, kitchen supplies and automotive goods and issued a credit card that could be used almost anywhere. Martin could often see precisely what cardholders were purchasing, and he discovered that the brands we buy are the windows into our souls -- or at least into our willingness to make good on our debts. His data indicated, for instance, that people who bought cheap, generic automotive oil were much more likely to miss a credit-card payment than someone who got the expensive, name-brand stuff. People who bought carbon-monoxide monitors for their homes or those little felt pads that stop chair legs from scratching the floor almost never missed payments. Anyone who purchased a chrome-skull car accessory or a "Mega Thruster Exhaust System" was pretty likely to miss paying his bill eventually.

It goes on from there. You should read the entire thing.

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