October 29, 2011

Why debit card fees are good for consumers

Transparency in financial services, for the most part, is an oxymoron. The less consumers understand about money and how to manage it, the more banks profit.  So, there is a huge incentive for bankers, brokers, financial advisors and the like to be misleading or hide behind a shroud of complexity.  This is no secret.  

Given that total transparency in the financial services industry, as demanded by vulnerable consumers and a progressive government, is unrealistic, one would think that even a taste of it by its proponents would engender excitement.  Apparently, that is not the case.  Recently, when banks, led by Bank of America, revealed that they planned to charge customers a $5 monthly fee to use their debit cards, public outrage ensued.  So much for moving toward that utopian, consumer-friendly market in which banks actually reveal their fees and choose not to be so conniving!  

The fact that banks are now canceling their $5 charge policies seems like a great win for consumers, but in my opinion, it is not for two reasons.  First, banks will go back to being less transparent and finding more insidious ways to make their profits.  The public outcry over the charge has actually validated, in a way, their notorious, clandestine activities.  Second and most importantly, customers are now less likely to join a credit union, a financial institution that focuses on what is best for its members, not for Wall Street.  Banks realized, although quite late, that if they proceeded with the charge, they would lose a lot of their deposits and business to credit unions. 

In conclusion, when I heard that banks were planning to implement this debit card charge, I rejoiced saying, “What a great opportunity to move consumers from banks to credit unions!”  It seems like this will not happen as I had hoped.  I doubt another pain point so excruciating and publically detested will surface any time soon and therefore promote the credit union cause.  Unfortunately, consumers have once again tricked themselves into believing that the banks have capitulated under pressure and have done the “right thing”.  The truth is that the banks will find another clever way to get their money, and it is much easier to do that when you are still their customer. 

Read ABC News article

October 23, 2011

What should I do now? You decide.


Six months have passed since my last post.  If this blog were a farm in the Old West, iconic tumble weeds that signify no man’s land would blow in the wind across barren fields. Unfortunately, my interest and will to continue in the fight against rogue banks have waned.  Likewise, the excitement and feedback from my supporters have equally diminished. My causes–to share my personal story, to take on the big banks, to educate consumers, and to change the financial system–are old news. So, what’s next?

Well, earlier this year, I worked on an outline for a book that would narrate my story, provide basic tips on how to manage personal credit, and describe the current industry and future trends. I got no further than the outline and a brief summary before I lost interest. I suppose it had something to do with Kickstarter, a popular crowd funding website, rejecting my project. Who can blame them, though?  The book I was hoping to fund would certainly be controversial and compromise the company’s relationships with none other than credit card companies. How could I be so naïve?

Since then, I have dithered on how to proceed. Should I shut down this blog? (If only TypePad didn’t charge a monthly fee!) Should I leave it online as an educational resource?  Should I publish a book? Should I disappear as if nothing happened?  How do I translate my efforts into a legacy that will help people time and time again?  These are the questions that gnaw at me. My biggest fear is to have labored in vain.      

I need your help. I have not made much progress in determining my next step, so I would love to hear what you think I should do at this point. Many of you have supported me and this blog, and I value with the highest regard your input. Thank you.

April 15, 2011

In math we trust: the analytical secrets of credit card companies


I have a heightened sensibility when it comes to recognizing the use of data mining and analytics.  Having studied computer science in college, I am fairly knowledgeable of those disciplines. So it was no coincidence that I was able to draw attention to the ill-conceived data mining practices of American Express.  Ultimately, my public relations salvo against American Express was not about me being a victim; instead, it was about the credit card company understanding the need to change its algorithm.

I am not sure whether American Express made any adjustments as a result of my efforts and the ensuing public outrage—it said it did—but I do believe that all credit card companies learned a sobering lesson: Mathematical models built on dubious assumptions can and do backfire.  In fact, one of the reasons I think my story was so popular—and continues to be today—is that the current economic crisis occurred, in large part, due to our increased reliance on and faith in esoteric and erroneous mathematical models.

During the height of my notoriety, I received hundreds of e-mails from concerned consumers, asking me and giving me insider information about how these models and algorithms work.  I responded to each inquiry and often posted these responses in detail on my blog.  However, I have never delved into the mathematical concepts of data analysis with an emphasis on how a credit card company might use them. Well, not until now. 

My desire to explain some basic methodologies and models on this blog comes from the realization that we live in an increasingly data-driven society.  From internet searches to phone records, from credit card purchases to tax returns, companies have access to huge data sets which enable them to, in many cases, know us better than we know ourselves. The access to and interpretation of such data empowers companies beyond belief. This tremendous power should go neither unchecked nor overlooked, especially by the very consumers who are often the subjects of its manipulation. 

The next few posts will introduce you to the world of analytics.  They will give you confidence to challenge its applications and assumptions.  But most importantly, they will help you gain more control over your destiny, which is increasingly determined by the use of mathematical formulas.

March 27, 2011

Consumers sacrifice privacy for better technology, despite risks

Every now and then, the controversial topic of implanting microchips into human beings for various purposes comes up. I find the debate quite interesting.

Proponents argue that there are many benefits to the procedure. One proponent, PositiveID, a company based in Florida, specializes in implanting a small chip into a customer’s body that holds his or her health records. The benefit is not that obvious, but makes sense: If a customer is a victim of a serious car accident, for instance, and is unconscious or unable to provide critical information, paramedics have instant access to the victim’s important health records via the data chip. These records will facilitate urgent treatment.  Some say that such technology saves lives and should be, in some cases, mandatory. 

On the other hand, opponents argue that such an Orwellian procedure is the beginning of a slippery slope towards a society in which citizens are constantly monitored—and even manipulated by ill-intentioned forces. Many point to issues of security and privacy violation. Perhaps the most compelling objection to the idea, in my opinion, involves hypothetical scenarios in which health records are linked to credit scores. 

I think both arguments are rather silly, especially the former.  Why? Well, the great majority of us already have chips.  In other words, we may not have chips implanted in our arms or brains, but we certainly have chips in our pockets: they are called cell phones.  

Equally laughable is the alarm caused by a recent article published by The New York Times entitled “It’s Tracking Your Every Move and You May Not Even Know”.  The article, which has caused quite a stir, reveals just how cell phone companies store massive amounts of data about a customer’s location at any given time. While the average consumer can surmise that cell phone companies are able to store and use this data, no proof of these capabilities has been revealed in certain terms until now.  Still, it is not that shocking.  Perhaps the only shock is how much consumers depend on private companies to guard customer data and use it for “benign” purposes. 

Often, our faith in companies to do the right thing comes as a result of our dependency on their products.  I am sure that when cell phones, equipped with GPS features, were introduced to the market, consumers had major privacy and other legitimate concerns.  However, after billions of cell phones were sold and a few years passed, those concerns faded, weakened by what has become a necessary technology.  The same could happen with the nascent, implant debate mentioned earlier. 

In short, the amount of data stored by companies about customers goes way beyond location records obtained by cell phone usage or health records stored by chip implants.  This is just the tip of the iceberg, as it were.  And, most of us know it. The New York Times article focuses on Germany, not the United States where cell phone companies do not have to report what information they collect. Here in the United States, companies are probably more advanced. Regardless, consumers all over the world must understand that as technology advances, so too must the effort to protect individual privacy. It is the only solution in a highly technological world where “unplugging” is not an option. 

Read The New York Times article.

March 07, 2011

Georgia cities lead the nation in credit card debt


The reason for the founding of Georgia, the United States’ thirteenth and final original colony, is unclear.  Some say that the state was founded for and settled by debtors. However, the truth is that Georgia’s founder, James Oglethorpe, only proposed this idea.  After a charter for the colony was approved by King George II in 1732, there were already enough people to settle the southern territory without debtors.

Fast forward about 279 years to today.  One would think that Georgia was indeed founded as a debtors colony and that the state's current denizens share their forefathers’ inclination to assume too much debt. 

According to new research released by Experian, one of the major U.S. credit bureaus, three Georgia cities are among the top 25 U.S. cities where consumers carried the most debt on their credit cards in December 2010.  They are Atlanta, Augusta, and Savannah, the very site where Oglethorpe chose to begin his settlement.  Despite a decrease from the previous year, debt amounts still remain relatively high.  Atlanta’s average bank credit card debt is $4,690; August is $4,575; and Savannah is $4,570.

James Oglethorpe, moved by witnessing first-hand the atrocities of debtors prison in London, dreamed of starting an American colony that gave debtors a chance to start anew. It did not happen quite as he planned.  Nevertheless, now that Georgia cities lead the nation in credit card debt, it seems as if Oglethorpe’s dream did come true, but with an ironic twist.

Read the list of the 25 top cities with the most credit card debt at CNNmoney.com.

February 15, 2011

How we got car insurance pricing based on credit scores

How did we get to the point where car insurance pricing is related to your credit score?  The answer: Now that’s Progressive!

While reading “Marketing Mavens”, a book that analyzes innovative companies, I came across the Progressive case. Since it began selling auto insurance in 1937, Progressive has served the riskiest group of drivers and has enjoyed a respectable market share in its industry.  However, 22 years ago a major regulatory challenge forced it to reinvent itself. 

In 1989, Progressive’s core business was threatened by government regulation in California, a huge market for the company.  The regulation called for a 20 percent reduction in insurance rates, making it virtually impossible for Progressive to survive with drastically smaller profit margins.  As a result, Dave Pratt, the company’s general manager for direct marketing, devised a strategy that would forever change the insurance industry. 

In short, Pratt discovered a strong correlation between credit scores and driving records.  Author of “Marketing Mavens”, Noel Capon, describes the evolution of Progressive’s strategic epiphany: “When Progressive analyzed its customers closely, it found that although they were all relatively high risk, they were by no means all the same size, shape, and cost to serve.  In particular, Progressive discovered that although all high-risk drivers tended to get into accidents, high-risk customers with good credit ratings had fewer accidents than high-risk customers with poor credit ratings.” 

Consequently, Progressive implemented a new business model, charging lower premiums for drivers with high credit ratings and higher premiums for drivers with low credit ratings. By doing this, they were able to attract customers that filed less claims and therefore were cheaper to serve.  Such a pricing hierarchy allowed Progressive to experience tremendous growth rapidly without reducing profit margins.

So, in brief, that’s the story of how we ended up with credit scores determining car insurance premiums, not to mention the recent, pricey ad campaign featuring the ever ebullient Flo.

February 09, 2011

A spoof of the Credit CARD Act

Here is a comedic interpretation of the negative consequences of the Credit CARD Act. I thought it was pretty funny.

February 04, 2011

The gamble of lending peer to peer

Ron Lieber, The New York Times writer who covered my story in 2009, explores peer-to-peer lending in an article posted online today. He examines two industry leaders, Prosper.com and LendingClub.com, which continue to thrive despite regulatory challenges and administrative setbacks. Mr. Lieber alludes to his family's desire to become a peer-to-peer lender, but he is hesitant to signup for fear of doing something "foolish".  The article is an adventurous read and allows you to vicariously experience Mr. Lieber’s internal debate on whether to proceed. He ultimately asks for your opinion: “Would you lend or borrow money at one of these sites?”

Read the entire article at The New York Times.

January 26, 2011

Why it’s hard to sue credit card companies


If you ask credit card holders what a mandatory arbitration clause is, chances are they have no clue. Yet, almost all of us have signed an agreement with such a self-defeating clause in it. 

A mandatory arbitration clause requires that any dispute raised by a customer go through arbitration before a civil lawsuit is filed.  In almost all cases, the arbitrators chosen to hear cases are not neutral; they are partial to the interests of the credit card companies.  Thus, many consumers unknowingly sign agreements that limit their constitutional right to the courts and forfeit any likelihood of a fair resolution. 

However, there are efforts to change the widespread use of such clauses in credit card agreements, employment agreements, franchise agreements, etc. For example, in 2007, the Arbitration Fairness Act (S. 1782, H.R. 3010) was introduced in Congress and called for several new measures, including a consumer’s ability to choose arbitration or the courts. Furthermore, a new movie entitled “Hot Coffee” is increasing the focus on America’s civil justice system. The documentary, which received rave reviews at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, explores the tragic stories of people negatively affected by a civil justice system “under heavy attack”. 

In short, when it comes to signing any agreement, especially a credit card agreement, make sure you read the fine print, because that’s probably where you’ll find a mandatory arbitration clause.   As I like to say, the big print giveth and the fine print taketh away.   

Additional Resources:

January 25, 2011

5 ways your bank spies on you

Today I received an e-mail message from a fan of this blog, informing me that I was mentioned in an MSN Money article.  I had no idea.  (It didn’t show up in my Google alerts.)  Naturally, I searched and found the mention. The article, entitled “5 ways your bank spies on you”, is a great read, so check it out.

January 22, 2011

Is charging interest on a loan immoral? A surprising historical perspective

The idea of charging interest for the use of money is ingrained in our culture, as American as apple pie and baseball.  Nowadays, hardly anyone questions the philosophy on which the practice is based.  Instead, we argue how much interest is too much.  If we were to go back in history a few hundred years, we would learn that the current wrangling over rates is somewhat surface and that there exists a more potent debate beneath.   

Around the 14th century, religion had the most influence on thoughts regarding usury, which during those times meant charging any interest at all. The Catholic Church took a solid stance against it.  Numerous Biblical passages in both the Old Testament and New Testament condemn or restrict usury. Likewise, passages in the Quran are interpreted to condemn the practice. Chris Anderson’s bestselling book “Free”, which explores the topic briefly, highlights some examples of the Catholic Church's official condemnation:

Pope Clement V made the belief in the right to usury heresy in 1311, and abolished all secular legislation that allowed it.  Pope Sixtus V condemned the practice of charging interest as ‘detestable to God and man, damned by a sacred canons and contrary to Christian charity.  

Perhaps the most compelling description of the religious argument of the times is found in a Wikipedia entry regarding the subject:

… usury creates excessive profit and gain without “labor” which is deemed “work” in the Biblical context. Profits from usury are argued not to arise from any substantial labor or work but from mere avarice, greed, trickery and manipulation. In addition, usury is said to create a divide between people due to obsession with monetary gain. Most importantly, usury is the derivation of profit from biological time, which is linked to life, considered sacred, God-given and divine, leading to excessive worrying about money instead of God, thus subjugating a God-given sanctity of life to man-made artificial notions of material wealth.

Conversely, contemporary proponents had no moral objections to usury and thought that the service justified the cost.  Regarding the labor argument, they retorted that the labor induced when administering a loan constituted work and that charging interest was an optimal model to quantify and compensate that effort, especially over time.

Without delving deeper into the arguments—I hope my cursory introduction of two basic arguments is clear—I pose the question to you: Do you believe that charging interest for the use of money is immoral? Why or why not? What situations, if any, are acceptable?

January 20, 2011

Prepaid cards are the new axis of credit evil


A few weeks ago, I praised the launch of the Kardashian prepaid card.  Now, much to my chagrin, I am eating my words.  And the Kardashians are being sued for $75 million for withdrawing their endorsement of their “Kard”, which failed miserably and drew a wave of objections for its exorbitant fees. 

Despite the Kardashian debacle, prepaid cards are growing in popularity. According to the USA TODAY, “The total amount of branded prepaid cards is expected to exceed $440 billion by 2017, quadruple the estimated value in 2009, according to independent research commissioned by MasterCard.” Put another way, when the tween stars from the movie “Twilight” are used to sell financial services, something big is brewing.    

As if on cue, consumer activists and politicians have refocused their criticism from traditional credit cards to prepaid cards. Consequently, the relatively good image of prepaid cards is fading fast. No longer are they being touted as a safe or responsible alternative to unsecured credit cards, especially for consumers aiming to build credit. 

Opponents of prepaid cards highlight the excessive fees for features that are normally free with more mainstream products.  For example, there are fees to load the card, withdraw money, maintain an active account, and even cancel the card. Also, prepaid cards are not heavily regulated and do not fall under the Credit CARD Act. One of the most expensive cards (endorsed by popular radio host Tom Joyner) charges an $8.95 monthly fee to keep the account active.

On the other hand, proponents argue that having such cards are better and less expensive than using a check cashing business, a popular option for the unbanked.  Furthermore, they tout the flexibility of the cards to pay bills and make everyday transactions. 

In short, despite the recent spate of criticism and political cries for regulation, I still think the concept of a prepaid card is solid.  Moreover, there are good options on the market. In fact, Walmart offers a product with very low fees. As is the case with many credit products that thrive on misdirection and deceit, we must better educate all consumers, especially the most vulnerable ones, about the dangers of really bad products. Otherwise, the bloodsucking vampires will prevail.

Read more about this topic at USA TODAY.

January 19, 2011

Smartphones to replace credit cards in U.S. this year


Imagine a world without credit cards.  Instead of pulling out those pesty plastic cards, consumers make purchases simply by waving their smartphone near a receiver. 

For example, say you want a Coca-Cola from a high-tech vending machine.  You simply order what you want, take out your cell phone, and wave it to summon forth your refreshment. It’s almost as simple as waving a magic wand.

This is no futuristic scenario. In fact, it is reality in Japan and South Korea, two of the most technically advanced countries in the world.  The United States is behind, but not for long. 

This new technology called Near Field Communication (NFC) is coming this year.  It will make electronic payments effortless and those plastic cards relics of the past.  An expert familiar with NFC’s debut in the States says that smartphones that support NFC are just now hitting the market.  Likewise, thousands of merchants are installing receivers to accept this new payment form. 

So, what’s been the hold up?  In short, companies are working to establish a uniform platform and determine what merchant fees will be.  Despite these challenges, tremendous progress is being made. The tipping point is near. 

While there are certainly some advantages to NFC—efficiency seems to be the most touted—what do you think are the drawbacks? 

Read more at Inc. Technology.

January 18, 2011

Banks begin to extend consumer credit, target those with balances

Today all across the country thousands of consumers are receiving a flattering letter, a billet-doux of sorts, that makes them feel accepted and loved by their charming credit card company. The letter, which reeks of enthralling affectation characteristic of a no-good ex hoping to reconnect, informs them that their credit line has been increased, that because of their improved credit or on time payments they can now spend more money they don’t have. The exciting moment causes giddy consumers to forget how bad the relationship was just a few years ago. They begin to daydream about how they will spend this new money—perhaps a trip to Disney, a dinner for two, or simply bills. So begins the sad story of mass recidivism, the return to American overconsumption enabled by those god-awful credit cards.

My hunch just a few weeks ago served me right and was verified by The Wall Street Journal this week: For the first time since the Great Recession started in 2008, banks are beginning to make many more loans to consumers.  In general, this isn’t a bad thing, but the extension of credit to consumers who haven’t quite learned the lesson of good credit management will pick up old habits and overextend their obligations.  This is likely the case with those who carry balances.  These revolvers are the target of credit card companies looking to increase profits quickly. Thus, as revolvers spend more and creditors increase loans, we could see a return to the unhealthy credit card debt levels of early 2009.

Here are a few important statistics from The Wall Street Journal article:

- Bankcard loan originations increased 17% in the third quarter of 2010 as compared to the third quarter of 2009. 

- Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan told analysts last month that industrywide, credit-card holders who carry balances "have actually started to borrow just a little bit more: not a lot, but 3% or 5%."

- At Discover, customers who revolve their credit-card balances increased their spending in September, October and November.

Read the entire article at The Wall Street Journal

January 17, 2011

Win $1,000 for shredding your credit card

If you’re ready to get out of debt and willing to create a video about it, you could win $1,000 or other prizes from the folks at LendingClub and PerkStreet Financial. Submit a video of you shredding your credit card to qualify for the chance of winning a $1,000 grand prize in the form of a Visa gift card. Every week, the contest organizers are selecting additional winners of a $50 Visa gift card every Wednesday through the end of January. Two Visa gift cards totaling $600 will be provided to the winners of the “Most Creative Shred” award.

Read full article and contest details at ConsumerismCommentary.

January 06, 2011

Frank statement on Congresswoman Bachmann’s effort to repeal the Dodd-Frank Act

Washington, D.C. – Congressman Barney Frank, Ranking Member of the House Financial Services Committee, released the following statement in response to Congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s effort to repeal the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act:

“Michele Bachmann, the Club for Growth, and others in the right-wing coalition have now made their agenda for the financial sector very clear:  they yearn to return to the thrilling days of yesteryear, so the loan arrangers can ride again – untrammeled by any rules restraining irresponsibility, excess, deception, and most of all, infinite leverage. 

“Their effort to repeal the new financial reform law reveals the hypocrisy of right-wing claims that they are concerned with ending uncertainty in the economy. Now that we have put in place a set of rules that allow financial markets to function but which also curb their excesses, Representative Bachmann and her allies want to reintroduce uncertainty by going back to exactly the situation that led to the financial crisis in the first place.

Continue reading "Frank statement on Congresswoman Bachmann’s effort to repeal the Dodd-Frank Act" »

December 30, 2010

U.S. credit card agreements unreadable to 4 out of 5 adults

If you’ve ever thought that credit card agreements are difficult to read, then you’re not alone. 

A recent study conducted by Credit.com confirms what we’ve all suspected: Credit card agreements are not written in the simplest language. In fact, evidence from the study supports the idea that agreements may be written to utterly confuse us all.

Read the interesting details of Credit.com’s detailed study, which concludes that the average credit card agreement is written at a 12th grade reading level, “making them not understandable to four out of five adults.”

December 23, 2010

Credit card companies loosen the reins, raise credit lines

They’re back.  It seems as if credit card companies, perhaps longing for the halcyon days of windfall profits, are beginning to loosen the reins on certain customers. 

During the past few weeks, my wife and I have received letters from different creditors, informing us that in light of improved economic conditions and our good stewardship, our credit limits have been raised.

Have any of you received similar letters?

December 17, 2010

Chase hit with SEC whistleblower complaint over credit card practices

Linda Almonte, a former employee of JPMorgan Chase (JPM) who is suing the bank for wrongful termination, has just upped the ante: She has now also filed a whistleblower complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The core allegations add context to her lawsuit, and they charge Chase with grotesque and illegal practices involving its credit card debt processes...

Read full article at DailyFinance.

My fascination with microcredit and its potential to eradicate world poverty

Cover - Small Loans, Big Dreams 2 Microcredit has consumed me. Since being introduced to the concept—or should I say movement—two years ago, I can’t get enough. 

Why my interest in microcredit better known as microfinance? 

First, I am fascinated by the proven idea that small loans—often as small as $40—given to the poor in primarily underdeveloped countries can help to alleviate extreme poverty.  These microloans provide seed capital to mostly poverty-stricken women who use the money to pursue an entrepreneurial endeavor like selling crops or homemade baskets. Profits from their businesses often result in more money for healthcare, education for children, and other benefits. Thus, living standards are improved considerably.  

Also, I believe in the power of entrepreneurship—more than anything else—as a means to attain self-sufficiency and prosperity.  The success of microfinance is due, in large part, to the great possibilities that entrepreneurship affords. 

Finally, just as fascinating are the impressive repayment rates of the millions of loans administered by microfinance intuitions (MFIs). Some funds have a delinquency rate as low as 1.5 percent.  (Read a previous post: “The world’s poorest more creditworthy than Americans”.)  The success of the industry has even sparked the interest of wealthy investors, looking for new asset classes with steady growth and low risk. 

For those who are equally captivated by the promise of microfinance or at least interested in learning more about this innovation, I suggest you read “Small Loans, Big Dreams” by Alex Counts, President and CEO of the Grameen Foundation.  Mr. Counts harmoniously narrates the parallel struggles and successes of borrowers in Bangladesh and Chicago, while interweaving the biography of microfinance pioneer and Nobel Prize winner, Muhammad Yunus. The book is a compelling and honest treatise on microfinance—its pitfalls and promise—but ultimately delivers newfound hope of eradicating world poverty through credit.  

December 16, 2010

Visa, MasterCard stocks plunge as Fed releases new rules to cut debit fees

Visa and MasterCard stocks plunged today as the Federal Reserve Bank released proposed rules to reduce debit-card interchange fees by 90 percent. The Fed has until Jul. 21 to implement new rules as outlined in the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul. 

Analysts say that these new rules, if implemented, will pose a serious threat to the profit margins of Visa and MasterCard.  Currently, U.S. debit accounts for about 20 percent of Visa’s revenues. 

Retailers, however, welcome the new rules, which would allow them to maximize their profits and to reduce prices for customers.  Many hope that the reduced fees will be closer to those in Europe.  As reported by Bloomberg, “A 75 percent cut in the interchange rate would put the U.S. on par with the 27 nations of the European Union.”  

The rules are in a comment period after which the Fed will vote on them. 

Read more about this major story at Bloomberg

December 13, 2010

One good reason you should walk away from your mortgage

One of the most common questions or requests for help that I receive goes something like this:  “Kevin, my home is severely underwater?  Should I walk away?  If so, how will a mortgage default affect my credit score?”

Many people who seek my advice on this matter aren’t in dire financial straits.  They neither have taken on too much debt nor have been reckless in their finances.  Contrarily, they have been reasonably good stewards, but worry that they are in a terrible deal, one that won’t get better anytime soon. 

I never answer this question directly, giving only information to help people make an informed decision.  Everyone’s situation and values are different.  However, new information published today strengthens the decision to walk away from a mortgage in cases where homes are underwater.

Almost two years ago, I wrote a prophetic article “Fair Isaac Corporation (FICO) increasingly irrelevant” in which I posited that banks would rely less on credit scores and more on other subjective factors to assess creditworthiness.  It appears that this prediction is a reality, as consultants have created new categories to help banks focus on potential customers who, based on a credit score alone, would be too risky. 

As reported today in The New York Times, these new categories (in order of most to least creditworthy) are “strategic defaulters”, “first-time defaulters”, and “sloppy payers”.  They help creditors distinguish between consumers who have the same or similar FICO scores.  

What does this mean? It means that those who walk away from a mortgage a.k.a. “strategic defaulters” have newfound hope of ascending from the depths of credit purgatory sooner than seven years. According to The New York Times article, strategic defaulters are those “whose credit scores were damaged because they walked away from a home when its value dropped below what was owed on the mortgage. These borrowers made a bad bet on real estate but may otherwise be prudent risks because they make a good living.”

So, in short, this new information will help people solve their moral conundrum of whether or not to walk away from their mortgage.  But, as I often say, this game is always changing. What seems like hope today could be horror tomorrow. Make sure you consider all the possibilities and consequences of such a crucial financial decision.

December 11, 2010

Wikileaks founder costs Bank of America nearly $4 billion, suddenly lands in jail

Am I the only one that finds it peculiar that Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, landed in jail suddenly after issuing threats to at least two major U.S. banks?

In a recent interview with Forbes, Mr. Assange talked about the imminent release of bank documents, saying "It will give a true and representative insight into how banks behave at the executive level in a way that will stimulate investigations and reforms, I presume.” He later says that the disclosure “could take down a bank or two."

Whoah!  It doesn’t get any bolder than that. I can only imagine how my battle with American Express would have come out differently if I had said on CNN that what I plan to reveal could take down the bank. 

Anyway, the moment Mr. Assange threatened major banks, one of which is rumored to be Bank of America, he suddenly ended up in jail.  His indictment of Bank of America cost shareholders nearly $4 billion, as spooked investors jettisoned the stock.  The timing of Mr. Assange’s arrest is no coincidence.  I image elite bankers, the Illuminati, making personal calls to government officials and lawyers: “We’ve got to fix this—and fast!”

What do you think?

Read more about this at The Street.

December 10, 2010

How credit cards with no spending limits can hurt your credit score

A great article recently published by The New York Times investigates how credit cards with no limits can hurt your credit score.  I highly recommend that you read it.

Also, be sure to read this article: “There is no such thing as a credit card with no limit”. It will help you better understand how some of these cards actually work.

December 07, 2010

You gotta Levitt: S.E.C. chairman admits to not being able to read a prospectus

Would you be shocked if I told you that the Securities and Exchange Commission (S.E.C.) chairman cannot read a prospectus?  Well, as ridiculous as it sounds, that certainly was the case with former S.E.C. Chairman, Arthur Levitt.

Mr. Levitt, S.E.C. chairman during the Clinton years, admitted in his 2002 book “Take On the Street” that he had trouble understanding a prospectus when he was chairman.  In his semi-autobiographical book, he goes on to say how embarrassed he was about this gross incompetence. 

Continue reading "You gotta Levitt: S.E.C. chairman admits to not being able to read a prospectus" »

December 03, 2010

Think twice before you ‘Like’: Social media are credit card companies’ newest weapon

Better risk management: That was the biggest and hardest lesson learned by credit card companies during the credit crunch, which started in fall of 2008.  Ever since that frightening period—some call it 'The Great Recession’—consumers and businesses alike have experienced tighter risk management through closed accounts, reduced credit lines, higher interest rates, and more stringent guidelines for credit applicants. 

In an unprecedented effort to minimize their risk, credit card companies and banks have sought every possible resource at their disposal to capture and to store more information about customers—and that includes using social media. While many consumers understand that companies have access to their transaction histories and credit reports, most overlook the tremendous metadata available via social media companies like Facebook.  With the help of such new media, credit card companies have almost a 360 degree look at their customers. 

Continue reading "Think twice before you ‘Like’: Social media are credit card companies’ newest weapon" »

December 01, 2010

Financial literacy foundation donates $1 million to EEI, Inc.

Newrosenfoundationlogo I am really proud to have helped make this happen. As Donald Trump would say, "This is huge!"  I have supported EEI for years with time and money, because the financial literacy and entrepreneurial education of young adults is so important in today's society.

The Jonathan D. Rosen Family Foundation (JDRFF), dedicated to improving financial literacy, today announced a contribution of $1 million to Economic Empowerment Initiative, Inc., a 501(c)(3) also known as EEI, Inc.

The commitment will enable EEI to pursue challenge grants with a value of up to an additional $2 million over the next four years as well as to support their existing financial literacy and entrepreneurship...

Read the entire press release at Atlanta Daybook.

November 30, 2010

Just when you thought you knew something about mortgage securitizations


If you ever needed more proof of just how complicated the mortgage crisis is because of securitization, you’ve got it. Try to follow all of these transactions for one mortgage without getting a headache. It took one year to put together this flow chart.

View a higher resolution chart with an introduction at ZeroHedge.com.

Credit Card Max-and-Walk: Consumers Learn How to Game the Banks

I am mentioned today in an article published by the Huffington Post.  Possibly, my campaign, NewCreditRules.com, has empowered not only honorable consumers, but also the less scrupulous ones.

Read the article at HuffingtonPost.com.

November 25, 2010

The shocking stats of credit card debt in America

Instead of reading the esoteric reports provided by the Federal Reserve or financial analysts, check out this user-friendly chart which is an excellent overview of credit card debt in America.  View the entire chart at CreditSesame.com.


November 21, 2010

Survey: Seniors too embarrassed to ask for help, a major cause of financial trouble


One of the biggest obstacles to achieving good financial health is the lack of communication.  Put another way, a great majority of Americans does not like to talk about money.  Crippled by feelings of shame and misguided optimism, Americans with financial problems often do nothing to improve their lot, hoping for a miracle.

We all know that the first step to overcoming a problem is admitting that there is a problem. As trite as the saying is, it is true, especially when it comes to extirpating bad financial habits.  Fewer and fewer adults are willing to take that difficult first step of acknowledgement.

As evinced in a recent survey, this is increasingly the case with retirees who find themselves in dire financial straits.  Members of the so-called Greatest Generation continue to increase their credit card debt with no intention of paying it off before they die.  They ignore the warning signs of financial disaster, blaming the faltering economy or simply giving up.

An insightful article released in USA Today provides fresh data about this trend and stresses the importance of communication when fixing problems of personal finance.

November 16, 2010

David Silberman to run credit card unit of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Elizabeth Warren, the special White House adviser assigned to set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has selected David Silberman of the Kessler Group to run the unit that will research and write rules for credit cards, according to…

Read more about this major appointment as reported by Bloomberg.

November 10, 2010

Kim Kardashian offers prepaid card for kids

I’m going against the grain on this one, but I’m convinced that I’m right: MasterCard’s move to use Kim Kardashian, the ultimate shopaholic with recherché tastes, as a spokesperson for its new prepaid card product is brilliant—at least from a marketing standpoint. She has tremendous influence with her audience of teens.  With that said, however, I am more interested in how this partnership exposes the hypocrisy of some consumer advocates.

Continue reading "Kim Kardashian offers prepaid card for kids" »

November 03, 2010

Fitch: Credit card write-downs to continue falling

Tighter underwriting, better customer payment habits and "a substantial cleansing" of past-due accounts helped drive improvements in bank credit card portfolios during the third quarter, Fitch Ratings said Wednesday.

In a review of quarterly results for the major credit card issuers, the agency noted that four large banks have written off 14 percent or more...

Read more about this as reported by Bloomberg Businessweek.

October 26, 2010

Colleges should do more to protect students from credit card disaster


It’s like a trusted guardian selling off his teenager into slavery—financial slavery.  Universities and colleges have become salivating sellouts, taking millions of dollars from banks that wish to push credit cards on young and impressionable students.

Perhaps that was too harsh—I take it back—but there are similarities, if at best remote.  These lucrative deals are great for the colleges and banks, but put the financial future of students in peril, especially those who have no idea of how to manage their finances. 

Continue reading "Colleges should do more to protect students from credit card disaster" »

October 21, 2010

Obama says Republican Congress may repeal credit card protections

For the past few weeks, President Barack Obama has been stumping for Democratic congressional candidates all across the country. He has warned consumers the many reforms his party has passed in the last two years could be repealed if Republicans recapture Capitol Hill. President Barack Obama has focused his ...

Read more about this as reported by Creditnet.

October 05, 2010

Credit card delinquencies hit 9-year low

More Americans who’ve been behind on their bills are catching up, according to a quarterly report from D.C.-based American Bankers Association.

Read more about this as reported by The Washington Business Journal.

September 02, 2010

Doctors push medical credit cards, spark investigations


Imagine this unsettling scene.  You lie in the emergency room of a hospital.  After being hit by a drunk driver, you are critically injured. Barely conscious and in tremendous pain, you find out that your insurance company will cover only some of the costs of your vital surgery.  Realizing the gap of coverage and your inability to pay for it, your doctor pulls out a credit card application and says, “Don’t worry. We offer this great medical credit card that is interest free.  Just sign here on the dotted line, and we’ll get you put back together in no time.” As you sign the agreement, your doctor smiles, elated that he gets some payment upfront and that he gets a kickback from the creditor.  

This scenario dramatizes a growing problem: doctors pushing medical credit cards. In fact, the number of complaints about doctors promoting medical credit cards has risen in recent months.  Some of the complaints are so outrageous that they have sparked the ire of New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo, who recently announced an investigation into the health-care lending industry. Other state attorneys are pursuing rogue doctors who take advantage of patients, many of which are not fully aware of the credit card terms.

Continue reading "Doctors push medical credit cards, spark investigations " »

August 23, 2010

Loopholes of the Credit CARD Act

ABC News takes a look at some of the loopholes of the Credit CARD Act. Read more details in the written article.

August 05, 2010

The best fan letter ever

  This makes it all worth it.

Today I received the following letter from a recent college graduate. After reading it, there was no doubt in my mind that every minute I devote to helping people, especially young adults, to maintain good credit is worth it. Thanks, Jillian, for the inspiration and encouragement to continue this blog.

Dear Mr. Kevin D. Johnson,

I haven't yet had the pleasure of meeting you so please let me introduce myself. My name is Jillian. I just wanted to say thank you for your website NewCreditRules.com.

I have yet to ever apply for a credit card for fear of losing the game to unwritten rules. As a first generation college student, I did not have the privilege of financial knowledge nor assistance from my family. I worked full-time to support myself and my collegiate career while avoiding credit cards like the plague. Now I'm a recent graduate embarking on the real world realizing what many already knew, credit was a 'necessary evil'. Banks and credit companies are very friendly in giving you limited information (key word: limited), but thanks to your website I'm able to start off on the right foot in the credit world with the knowledge and "know-how" to protect myself and my family.

It may seem odd, but just know that your efforts and actions are greatly appreciated.

Warm thanks,
"Credit Freshman"

July 31, 2010

New tricks, same credit card companies

New tricks, same deck of cards

The Wall Street Journal, in an article published today entitled ”The New Credit-Card Tricks”,  confirms my 2009 premonition: If the Credit CARD Act is passed, credit card companies immediately will find ways to recoup their loses with new fees and tricks.

Read about some of these new fees and tricks that have consumers and advocates ruffled. 

July 25, 2010

Elizabeth Warren replies to my e-mail

Elizabeth Warren, consumer champion

I often hear people complain about the arrogance, self-importance, and off-putting nature of Harvard students, alumni, and professors.  This couldn’t be farther from the truth—well, at least my truth.  My experience has been the complete opposite of the nose-tilting stereotype. In fact, I have found these same people, especially professors, to be some of the most down-to-earth, engaging, and accessible people.

Continue reading "Elizabeth Warren replies to my e-mail" »

July 15, 2010

Who's right? The American Banker’s Association or The Standard & Poor’s/Experian Consumer Credit Default Index?

Who is right?

I am stumped.  Perhaps you can help me explain what seems like a contradiction. 

CNNMoney.com recently published the following headline: Credit card delinquencies fall to 8-year low.  This story is based on a report by the American Banker’s Association (ABA).  On the other hand, The New York Times published an article about how credit card default rates are still rising to record levels.  This story is based on a study completed by The Standard & Poor’s/Experian Consumer Credit Default Index. 

The ABA posits in the CNN article that “About 3.88% of bank credit card accounts were past due by 30 days or more in the first quarter of the year.”  However, The Standard & Poor’s/Experian Consumer Credit Default Index indicates, as reported by the New York Times that “In the three months through April the default rate on credit card loans had climbed to 9.14 percent, the highest since the index began to be calculated in 2004.” To be in default, an account must be at least six months behind, unless the lender has already written it off or the borrower has filed for bankruptcy.

Perhaps I am comparing apples to oranges. I can think of two reasons: 1) The ABA is looking at “bank credit card accounts”, perhaps a more restricted data set, and 2) the definitions of past due and in default differ.  But, do these reasons--and others unbeknown--adequately explain a difference of 5.26 percent?  Intuition tells me that the ABA number should be much higher, perhaps as much as double the 9.14 percentage.

I am sure that the key to resolving my confusion is a better understanding of each organization’s methodology in assessing the data.  However, the discrepancy just does not make much sense to me at all.  

What do you think?

July 12, 2010

I’m credit card debt free, finally

Financial Freedom

Crapulous. Yes. It’s a word, and it’s the first word that comes to mind when I think of our nation’s excessive, self-obliterating appetite for easy credit during these past few years. In many cases, we consumers are to blame for the economic implosion, not the big banks which cry in their defense “we simply supplied a demand.”

Before you accuse me of siding with the likes of Lloyd Blankfein or sounding self-righteous like President Jimmy Carter in his scathing “malaise” address to the nation on Jul. 15, 1979—about two months before I was born, by the way—hear me out. 

At some point, we consumers have to take matters into our own hands and become totally responsible for our financial welfare.  And I don’t mean that in a revolutionary, militia-like, or tea party way. It’s easier than that.  Simply put, we must rid ourselves of dependence on credit in all aspects of our lives. 

July 10, 2010

Credit where credit is due

Credit where credit is due

Every now and then, in order to countermand what one may misconstrue as an overwhelmingly negative blog, I share an entry of praise.  Below is a letter I wrote today to a market president of Wachovia, a division of Wells Fargo & Company.

Continue reading "Credit where credit is due" »

June 12, 2010

Marketing challenges hinder growth of credit unions

Marketing challenges hinder credit unions' growth

Everyone should be a member of a credit union instead of subjecting themselves to the often harmful whims of a commercial bank. If you are not a member of a credit union, you are giving away your hard-earned money. Do yourself a favor and join as soon as possible one of the 8,000 plus credit unions in this United States (46,000 around the world).  

I will not go into detail about the many benefits of joining a credit union.  (I have already talked about them in previous posts, one of which includes a hilarious video, by the way.)  However, I will say that, in general, credit unions have lower interest rates, provide better service, and care more about you as an individual.  In short, the relationship you will have with your credit union is similar to the relationship you have with your own mother.  Ultimately, she has your best interest at heart and so does the credit union.  

Naturally, you would think that disgruntled consumers would be leaving their banks in droves.  Not quite.  Membership of credit unions grew just 1.4 percent in 2009 and 1.6 percent the year before. Despite the fact that large commercial banks precipitated the financial crisis and continue to gouge their customers, credit unions have not been able to seize this golden marketing opportunity and significantly increase membership.  

Why the modest gains?  A recent The New York Times article explores some of the major challenges credit unions have in marketing themselves, starting with the misleading and sometimes fear-invoking term credit union.    

More articles on credit unions:

June 02, 2010

Debt collectors resort to racist and terroristic threats

Pay your bill, you #(*&#$@!

I have a family member who works in collections. She is pretty good at it, too. She tells me that given the economic downturn and new credit card laws, it has become increasingly difficult for her and her colleagues to meet their quotas. Collectors that do not meet their goals are fired.  Ironically, many of the ex-collectors themselves will end up in arrears and experience the same unyielding collection tactics they administered.   

I am not insinuating that you should have any sympathy for debt collectors. However, I am attempting to explain possibly why collectors are going to extreme measures to collect debts, even debts as small as a few hundred dollars. In the same way that debtors are under extreme pressure to pay their bills, collectors are under extreme pressure to collect debts.  

Below are two of the most outrageous cases of debt collectors resorting to appalling tactics that obviously violate the law—and both stories broke within the past two months. 

May 22, 2010

Credit card default rates still rising to record levels

Standard & Poor’s/Experian Consumer Credit Default Index

The Standard & Poor’s/Experian Consumer Credit Default Index indicates that credit card default rates are still rising to record levels.  The default rate is now at 9.41 percent, the highest percentage recorded since the index began in 2004.

On a more positive note, as the unemployment numbers continue to improve, indices will begin to reflect an abatement of defaults.  In fact, some indices are already beginning to show the rate slowing down.  Naturally, there will be a lag in indicators as consumers get back to work and begin paying their bills.

Overall, the fact that default rates are so high does not bode well for a speedy economic recovery, which will be fueled, in large part, by a healthy and confident consumer. 

Read more about the newest statistics as reported by The New York Times.

May 06, 2010

Visa misleads customers. Compliance is not “courtesy”.

  What did you say Mr. customer service representative?

About a month ago I received a letter from Visa, informing me that it will be canceling my credit card account. As I normally do when I get such bad news from a creditor, I put down the letter and let my nerves cool for a few hours.  This was especially bad news because of two problems: 1) This account, opened in college, was the oldest account on my record. Thus, closing it will have a major effect on my credit score.  2) I will no longer have access to personal credit.  (I still have my American Express card open, but I have avoided using it altogether because of the company’s insidious policies.)

After cooling down, I realized that this can turn out to be a good thing.  More than ever, I will be forced to maintain positive cash flow, which I have.  So, I decided to pay the outstanding balance of $2,569.85 in full and to close the account on my own terms.  (I wanted to make sure that my credit report shows that I closed the account, not the creditor. Also, I looked forward to the added satisfaction of sticking it to Visa first.) 

Right before I paid off and closed the account, the customer service representative says, “As a courtesy, I will waive the $14.95 fee for expedited payment via the phone.” I almost had a fit. According to the new Credit CARD Act, companies can no longer charge such a convenience fee.  I stayed quiet, fuming smoke through my ears and nose.  I was not in the mood to inform the representative of the law. I was most eager to pay the account off, close it, hang up, and blog about the experience. 

In short, I share this because it shows the continued skulduggery of some credit card companies which have not learned their lesson.  The more things change, the more they stay same the same.

April 27, 2010

Great documentary: "Maxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lenders"

This is a great documentary on credit and predatory lending.  Released in 2006, "Maxed Out" is a sobering film that will change how you look at the industry and its often devastating effects.  Make sure you watch until the very end.  You will be terribly surprised.

Follow up on Twitter!

About Me

Greetings! I’m Kevin D. Johnson, a business owner who has recently assumed the role of consumer advocate and internet activist. Atlanta, Georgia is my home.

My Story

Upon returning from my wonderful honeymoon in Jamaica in October 2008, I received what I thought was an ordinary American Express bill, but to my surprise it was a disappointing letter informing me that my credit line was reduced by about 65% for a highly suspicious and discriminatory reason. Considering my excellent credit score and pristine payment history, it just didn’t make sense. However, what does make sense are the unfair and insidious policies that I have uncovered when asking why. It is time to change them.

Good Morning America tells my story.

The Goal

I created this web site to document and share my challenging journey to change what is wrong, unfair, and unjust in the credit card industry. The ultimate goal of this web site is to inform consumers of ways to stand up for themselves against treacherous business practices and to educate consumers about how to improve their credit. Finally, I hope to encourage a more open dialogue with credit card companies about their policies–good and bad.


I am proud to say that this blog's unyielding demand for change led to an important amendment in the final Credit CARD Act signed by President Obama on May 22, 2009. Despite this major accomplishment, there is still more work to be done.

View video of bill hearing in Maryland

Testifying at a bill hearing in Annapolis, Maryland

Speaking Engagements

In an effort to educate as many people as possible about financial management, especially about how to manage the current credit crisis, I have begun to speak around the country at colleges, universities, corporations, chamber of commerce meetings, congressional hearings, trade organization meetings, etc. Having acquired a wealth of information that will help to empower people and to improve their financial future, I feel that sharing this information is the least I can do to make a positive impact. For information on my availability for speaking opportunities, please send an e-mail to Jennifer Silverman at jennifer@silvermanworldwide.com.

Speaking at a university


All information provided on NewCreditRules.com is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for professional financial advice. Information on NewCreditRules.com is subject to change without prior notice. Although every reasonable effort is made to present current and accurate information, NewCreditRules.com makes no guarantees of any kind. This web site may contain information that is created and maintained by a variety of sources both internal and external. These sites are unmoderated forums containing the personal opinions and other expressions of the persons who post the entries. NewCreditRules.com does not control, monitor or guarantee the information contained in these sites or information contained in links to other external web sites, and does not endorse any views expressed or products or services offered therein. In no event shall NewCreditRules.com be responsible or liable, directly or indirectly, for any damage or loss caused or alleged to be caused by or in connection with the use of or reliance on any such content, goods, or services available on or through any such site or resource.

Popular Posts

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  15. A comprehensive list of "toxic" mortgage companies

  16. Speaking engagement brings a pleasant surprise

  17. Credit card securitization encourages fee-based profit model

  18. Everything bad about the credit card industry exposed

  19. The Credit CARD Act is great, but not strong enough

  20. Companies cancel cards of responsible customers

  21. What’s your credit score, President Obama?

  22. Fair Isaac Co. will no longer sell Experian-based credit scores

  23. Why merchants suffer just as much as consumers do (Part I)

  24. Big defeat for consumers, small victory for American Express

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  26. What’s your horror story? Do you have praise for a company?

  27. Beware: These stores could harm your credit! (Part II)

  28. Beware: These stores could harm your credit! (Part I)

  29. Major banks cope with shame of being on welfare

  30. What affects your credit score

Great Resources

  1. ChangeInTerms.com

  2. Complaints.com

  3. ConsumerAffairs.com

  4. Consumerist.com

  5. CreditMattersBlog.com

  6. CreditSlips.org

  7. DefendYourDollars.org

  8. Epinions.com

  9. GotaClassAction.com

  10. My3Cents.com

  11. PlanetFeedback.com

  12. RipoffReport.com
* List provided by ChangeInTerms.com.

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