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the secret history of credit cards

» Student Handout

Viewer's Guide

Part I. Review the following terms prior to watching the documentary.

American Bankers Association (ABA) "The American Bankers Association represents banks of all sizes on issues of national importance for financial institutions and their customers. The ABA brings together all elements of the banking community to promote the strength and profitability of the industry. It does this by providing effective leadership in government relations, building strong industry consensus, consistently listening to its membership, and responding to their needs through innovative products and services, public affairs support and legal services." [Source: URL http://www.aba.com]

Bankruptcy: "A legal proceeding that relieves you of the responsibility of paying your debts or provides you with protection while attempting to repay your debts." [Source: URL http://www.nolo.com/lawcenter/dictionary/dictionary_listing.cfm/Term/B23709A5-56E8-4542-8F3E5F2047D40913/alpha/B]

"Deadbeat:" Although "deadbeat" normally means "one who does not pay one's debts," [Source: URL http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=deadbeat], the word has taken on a new meaning for credit card companies. For them, "deadbeat" means someone who avoids interest and fees by paying her/his account balance in full each month rather than paying the minimum amount and carrying a balance. Credit card companies do not earn much from these cardholders. About 55 million Americans pay their bills in full each month.

Interest: "A charge for a loan, usually a percentage of the amount loaned" [Source: URL http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=interest]. The interest rates for credit card balances vary widely, both for one individual's account and for the industry at large. Interest rates for credit cards can change with 15 days notice to the cardholder.

OCC (Office of the Comptroller of the Currency): The OCC (an agency of the United States Department of the Treasury) is responsible for overseeing credit card policies. The U.S. Government Web site says: "The OCC charters, regulates, and supervises over 2,500 national banks and their operating subsidiaries to ensure a safe, sound and competitive national banking system that supports the citizens, communities and economy of the United States."

"Revolver:" According to the credit industry, a "revolver" is a customer who does not pay her/his balance in full each month. The fees and interest these customers pay generate income for the credit card companies. About 90 million Americans do not pay their bills in full each month and carry balances on their credit cards. The average balance is $8000.

"Universal default:" Communication among lending institutions means that a late payment on any debt (e.g. mortgage, car loan, credit card bill) may lead to a consumer being declared in "universal default," which can lead to an increase in fees and interest on all outstanding debts, even those on which the consumer's payments are up to date.

Usury: 1. The practice of lending money and charging the borrower interest, especially at an exorbitant or illegally high rate. 2. An excessive or illegally high rate of interest charged on borrowed money. [Source: URL http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=usury]

Part II: Answer the question you have been assigned as and after you view the documentary.

  1. Tell how the following factors in 1980 led to the move of credit card centers to South Dakota:
    • recession and double-digit inflation
    • usury laws in other states

  2. Law professor Elizabeth Warren notes that families use credit cards to bridge the gap between what they earn and what they spend.
    • What factors can lead to their inability to make required payments?
    • What happens when families like the Muellers in the documentary start missing payments?

  3. What is the view of credit cards from the four "average" people the interviewer consults?
    • What do they find positive about credit cards?
    • What problems do they see with the way credit cards are administered?
    • What does it tell you about what consumers know about credit cards?

  4. Who or what can limit the interest rates and fees that credit card companies can impose?
    • Can the interest rates change? If so, what causes a change?
    • For what do credit card holders pay fees? Is there a limit on fees?

  5. The OCC (Office of the Comptroller of the Currency) is the government agency in charge of monitoring credit card companies.
    • What, according to the documentary, should the role of the OCC (Office of the Comptroller of the Currency) be?
    • Why do the Better Business Bureau of Oakland, California and the District Attorneys of San Francisco and New York criticize the OCC?
    • What role did the OCC play in the Providian case?

  6. Cite some arguments you noted in favor of and against tighter regulation of the credit card industry (interest rates, fees, marketing of cards).

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