Monday, February 2, 2009

How credit cards work 2

Operating costs

This is the cost of running the credit card portfolio, including everything from paying the executives who run the company to printing the plastics, to mailing the statements, to running the computers that keep track of every cardholder's balance, to taking the many phone calls which cardholders place to their issuer, to protecting the customers from fraud rings. Depending on the issuer, marketing programs are also a significant portion of expenses.

Charge offs

When a consumer becomes severely delinquent on a debt (often at the point of six months without payment), the creditor may declare the debt to be a charge-off. It will then be listed as such on the debtor's credit bureau reports (Equifax, for instance, lists "R9" in the "status" column to denote a charge-off.) The item will include relevant dates, and the amount of the bad debt.[18]

A charge-off is considered to be "written off as uncollectable." To banks, bad debts and even fraud are simply part of the cost of doing business.

However, the debt is still legally valid, and the creditor can attempt to collect the full amount for the time periods permitted under state law, which is usually 3 to 7 years. This includes contacts from internal collections staff, or more likely, an outside collection agency. If the amount is large (generally over $1500–$2000), there is the possibility of a lawsuit or arbitration.

In the US, as the charge off number climbs or becomes erratic, officials from the Federal Reserve take a close look at the finances of the bank and may impose various operating strictures on the bank, and in the most extreme cases, may close the bank entirely.


Many credit card customers receive rewards, such as frequent flier points, gift certificates, or cash back as an incentive to use the card. Rewards are generally tied to purchasing an item or service on the card, which may or may not include balance transfers, cash advances, or other special uses. Depending on the type of card, rewards will generally cost the issuer between 0.25% and 2.0% of the spread. Networks such as Visa or MasterCard have increased their fees to allow issuers to fund their rewards system. Some issuers discourage redemption by forcing the cardholder to call customer service for rewards. On their servicing website, redeeming awards is usually a feature that is very well hidden by the issuers. Others encourage redemption for lower cost merchandise; instead of an airline ticket, which is very expensive to an issuer, the cardholder may be encouraged to redeem for a gift certificate instead. With a fractured and competitive environment, rewards points cut dramatically into an issuer's bottom line, and rewards points and related incentives must be carefully managed to ensure a profitable portfolio. Unlike unused gift cards, in whose case the breakage in certain US states goes to the state's treasury, unredeemed credit card points are retained by the issuer.


The cost of fraud is high; in the UK in 2004 it was over £500 million.[19] When a card is stolen, or an unauthorized duplicate made, most card issuers will refund some or all of the charges that the customer has received for things they did not buy. These refunds will, in some cases, be at the expense of the merchant, especially in mail order cases where the merchant cannot claim sight of the card. In several countries, merchants will lose the money if no ID card was asked for, therefore merchants usually require ID card in these countries. Credit card companies generally guarantee the merchant will be paid on legitimate transactions regardless of whether the consumer pays their credit card bill. Most of the banking services have their own credit card services that handles fraud cases and monitoring any possible attempt of fraud.Employees that is specialized in doing fraud monitoring and investigation are often placed in Risk Management or Fraud and Authorization or Cards and Unsecured Business.The fraud monitoring emphasize in minmizing fraud losses while doing their best to track down fraudster from getting as much illegal information and using the credit card as their can. The credit card fraud is one of the major problem within white collar crimes that has been around for many decades and eventhough the creation of chip based card (EMV) in some countries was in place to prevent these fraud case,


Offsetting costs are the following revenues:

Interchange fee

Main article: Interchange fee

In addition to fees paid by the card holder, merchants must also pay interchange fees to the card-issuing bank and the card association.[20][21] For a typical credit card issuer, interchange fee revenues may represent about a quarter of total revenues.[22].

These fees are typically from 1 to 6 percent of each sale, but will vary not only from merchant to merchant (large merchants can negotiate lower rates[22]), but also from card to card, with business cards and rewards cards generally costing the merchants more to process. The interchange fee that applies to a particular transaction is also affected by many other variables including the type of merchant, the merchant's total card sales volume, the merchant's average transaction amount, whether the cards are physically present, if the card's magnetic stripe is read or if the transaction is hand-keyed or entered on a website, the specific type of card, when the transaction is settled, and the authorized and settled transaction amounts.

Interchange fees may consume over 50 percent of profits from card sales for some merchants (such as supermarkets) that operate on slim margins. In some cases, merchants add a surcharge to the credit cards to cover the interchange fee, enouraging their customers to instead use cash,

Interest on outstanding balances

Interest charges vary widely from card issuer to card issuer. Often, there are "teaser" rates in effect for initial periods of time (as low as zero percent for, say, six months), whereas regular rates can be as high as 40 percent. In the U.S. there is no federal limit on the interest or late fees credit card issuers can charge; the interest rates are set by the states, with some states such as South Dakota, having no ceiling on interest rates and fees, inviting some banks to establish their credit card operations there. Other states, for example Delaware, have very weak usury laws. The teaser rate no longer applies if the customer doesn't pay his bills on time, and is replaced by a penalty interest rate (for example, 24.99%) that applies retroactively.

Fees charged to customers

The major fees are for:

  • Late payments or overdue payments
  • Charges that result in exceeding the credit limit on the card (whether done deliberately or by mistake), called overlimit fees
  • Returned cheque fees or payment processing fees (eg phone payment fee)
  • Cash advances and convenience cheques (often 3% of the amount)[23]. Transactions in a foreign currency (as much as 3% of the amount). A few financial institutions do not charge a fee for this.
  • Membership fees (annual or monthly), sometimes a percentage of the credit limit.
  • Exchange rate loading fees (these may sometimes not be reported on the customer's statement, even when they are applied)[24]

Neutral consumer resources


The Government of Canada maintains a database of the fees, features, interest rates and reward programs of nearly 200 credit cards available in Canada. This database is updated on a quarterly basis with information supplied by the credit card issuing companies. Information in the database is published every quarter on the website of the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (FCAC).

Information in the database is published in two formats. It is available in PDF comparison tables that break down the information according to type of credit card, allowing the reader to compare the features of, for example, all the student credit cards in the database.

The database also feeds into an interactive tool on the FCAC website.[25] The interactive tool uses several interview-type questions to build a profile of the user's credit card usage habits and needs, eliminating unsuitable choices based on the profile, so that the user is presented with a small number of credit cards and the ability to carry out detailed comparisons of features, reward programs, interest rates, etc.


The concept of using a card for purchases was described in 1887 by Edward Bellamy in his utopian novel Looking Backward. Bellamy used the term credit card eleven times in this novel.[26]

The modern credit card was the successor of a variety of merchant credit schemes. It was first used in the 1920s, in the United States, specifically to sell fuel to a growing number of automobile owners. In 1938 several companies started to accept each other's cards. Western Union had begun issuing charge cards to its frequent customers in 1921. Some charge cards were printed on paper card stock, but were easily counterfeited.

The Charga-Plate was an early predecessor to the credit card and used during the 1930s and late 1940s. It was a 2 1/2" x 1 1/4" rectangle of sheet metal, similar to a military dog tag, that was embossed with the customer's name, city and state (no address). It held a small paper card for a signature. It was laid in the imprinter first, then a charge slip on top of it, onto which an inked ribbon was pressed.[27] Charga-Plate was a trademark of Farrington Manufacturing Co. Charga-Plates were issued by large-scale merchants to their regular customers, much like department store credit cards of today. In some cases, the plates were kept in the issuing store rather than held by customers. When an authorized user made a purchase, a clerk retrieved the plate from the store's files and then processed the purchase. Charga-Plates speeded back-office bookkeeping that was done manually in paper ledgers in each store, before computers.

The concept of customers paying different merchants using the same card was invented in 1950 by Ralph Schneider and Frank X. McNamara, founders of Diners Club, to consolidate multiple cards. The Diners Club, which was created partially through a merger with Dine and Sign, produced the first "general purpose" charge card, and required the entire bill to be paid with each statement. That was followed by Carte Blanche and in 1958 by American Express which created a worldwide credit card network.

Bank of America created the BankAmericard in 1958, a product which, with its overseas affiliates, eventually evolved into the Visa system. MasterCard came to being in 1966 when a group of credit-issuing banks established MasterCharge; it received a significant boost when Citibank merged its proprietary Everything Card, launched in 1967, into Master Charge in 1969. The fractured nature of the U.S. banking system meant that credit cards became an effective way for those who were traveling around the country to move their credit to places where they could not directly use their banking facilities. In 1966 Barclaycard in the UK launched the first credit card outside of the U.S.

There are now countless variations on the basic concept of revolving credit for individuals (as issued by banks and honored by a network of financial institutions), including organization-branded credit cards, corporate-user credit cards, store cards and so on.

In contrast, although having reached very high adoption levels in the US, Canada and the UK, it is important to note that many cultures were much more cash-oriented in the latter half of the twentieth century, or had developed alternative forms of cash-less payments, such as Carte bleue or the Eurocard (Germany, France, Switzerland, and others). In these places, the take-up of credit cards was initially much slower. It took until the 1990s to reach anything like the percentage market-penetration levels achieved in the US, Canada, or the UK. In many countries acceptance still remains poor as the use of a credit card system depends on the banking system being perceived as reliable.

In contrast, because of the legislative framework surrounding banking system overdrafts, some countries, France in particular, were much faster to develop and adopt chip-based credit cards which are now seen as major anti-fraud credit devices.

The design of the credit card itself has become a major selling point in recent years. The value of the card to the issuer is often related to the customer's usage of the card, or to the customer's financial worth. This has led to the rise of Co-Brand and Affinity cards - where the card design is related to the "affinity" (a university, for example) leading to higher card usage. In most cases a percentage of the value of the card is returned to the affinity group.

Collectible credit cards

A growing field of numismatics (study of money), or more specifically exonumia (study of money-like objects), credit card collectors seek to collect various embodiments of credit from the now familiar plastic cards to older paper merchant cards, and even metal tokens that were accepted as merchant credit cards. Early credit cards were made of celluloid plastic, then metal and fiber, then paper, and are now mostly plastic.


Credit card debt has soared, particularly among young people. Since the late 1990s, lawmakers, consumer advocacy groups, college officials and other higher education affiliates have become increasingly concerned about the rising use of credit cards among college students. The major credit card companies have been accused of targeting a younger audience, in particular college students, many of whom are already in debt with college tuition fees and college loans and who typically are less experienced at managing their own finances.

A 2006 documentary film titled Maxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lenders deals with this subject in detail.[28] The nonprofit group Americans for Fairness in Lending works with Maxed Out to educate Americans about credit card abuse.

Another controversial area is the universal default feature of many North American credit card contracts. When a cardholder is late paying a particular credit card issuer, that card's interest rate can be raised, often considerably. With universal default, a customer's other credit cards, for which the customer may be current on payments, may also have their rates and/or credit limit changed. This universal default feature allows creditors to periodically check cardholders' credit portfolios to view trade, allowing these other institutions to decrease the credit limit and/or increase rates on cardholders who may be late with another credit card issuer. Being late on one credit card will potentially affect all the cardholder's credit cards. Citibank voluntarily stopped this practice in March 2007 and Chase stopped the practice in November 2007.[29] The fact that credit card companies can change the interest rate on debts that were incurred when a different rate of interest was in place is similar to adjustable rate mortgages where interest rates on current debt may rise. However, in both cases this is agreed to in advance, and is a trade off that allows a lower initial rate as well as the possibility of an even lower rate (mortgages, if interest rates fall) or perpetually keeping a below-market rate (credit cards, if the user makes his debt payments on time).

Another controversial area is the trailing interest issue. Trailing interest is the practice of charging interest on the entire bill no matter what percentage of it is paid. U.S Senator Carl Levin raised the issue at a U.S Senate Hearing of millions of Americans whom he said are slaves to hidden fees, compounding interest and cryptic terms. Their woes were heard in a Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing which was chaired by Senator Levin who said that he intends to keep the spotlight on credit card companies and that legislative action may be necessary to purge the industry.[30]

In the United States, some have called for Congress to enact additional regulations on the industry; to expand the disclosure box clearly disclosing rate hikes, use plain language, incorporate balance payoff disclosures, and also to outlaw universal default. At a congress hearing around March 1, 2007, Citibank announced it would no longer practice this, effective immediately. Opponents of such regulation argue that customers must become more proactive and self-responsible in evaluating and negotiating terms with credit providers. Some of the nation's influential top credit card issuers, who are among the top fifty corporate contributors to political campaigns, successfully opposed it.

Hidden costs

In the United Kingdom, merchants won the right through The Credit Cards (Price Discrimination) Order 1990[31] to charge customers different prices according to the payment method. As of 2007, the United Kingdom was one of the world's most credit-card-intensive country, with 2.4 credit cards per consumer.[32]

In the United States, until 1984 federal law prohibited surcharges on card transactions. Although the federal Truth in Lending Act provisions that prohibited surcharges expired that year, a number of states have since enacted laws that continue to outlaw the practice; California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Massachusetts, Maine, New York, Oklahoma, and Texas have laws against surcharges. As of 2006, the United States probably had one of the world's if not the top ratio of credit cards per capita, with 984 million bank-issued Visa and MasterCard credit card and debit card accounts alone[33] for an adult population of roughly 220 million people.[34] The credit card per US capita ratio was nearly 4:1 (as of 2003)[35] and as high as 5:1 (as of 2006).[36]


Credit Card redlining is a spatially discriminatory practice among credit card issuers of providing different amounts of credit to different areas, based on their ethnic-minority composition, rather than on economic criteria, such as the potential profitability of operating in those areas.[37]

Credit card numbering

The numbers found on credit cards have a certain amount of internal structure, and share a common numbering scheme.

The card number's prefix, called the Bank Identification Number, is the sequence of digits at the beginning of the number that determine the bank to which a credit card number belongs. This is the first six digits for MasterCard and Visa cards. The next nine digits are the individual account number, and the final digit is a validity check code.

In addition to the main credit card number, credit cards also carry issue and expiration dates (given to the nearest month), as well as extra codes such as issue numbers and security codes. Not all credit cards have the same sets of extra codes nor do they use the same number of digits.

Credit cards in ATMs

Many credit cards can also be used in an ATM to withdraw money against the credit limit extended to the card, but many card issuers charge interest on cash advances before they do so on purchases. The interest on cash advances is commonly charged from the date the withdrawal is made, rather than the monthly billing date. Many card issuers levy a commission for cash withdrawals, even if the ATM belongs to the same bank as the card issuer. Merchants do not offer cashback on credit card transactions because they would pay a percentage commission of the additional cash amount to their bank or merchant services provider, thereby making it uneconomical.

Many credit card companies will also, when applying payments to a card, do so at the end of a billing cycle, and apply those payments to everything before cash advances. For this reason, many consumers have large cash balances, which have no grace period and incur interest at a rate that is (usually) higher than the purchase rate, and will carry those balance for years, even if they pay off their statement balance each month.

Credit cards as funding for entrepreneurs

Credit cards are a creative, yet often risky way for entrepreneurs to acquire capital for their start ups when more conventional financing is unavailable. It is rumoured that Larry Page and Sergey Brin's start up of Google was financed by credit cards to buy the necessary computers and office equipment, more specifically "a terabyte of hard disks".[38] Similarly, filmmaker Robert Townsend financed part of Hollywood Shuffle using credit cards.[39] Director Kevin Smith funded Clerks in part by maxing out several credit cards. Actor Richard Hatch also financed his production of Battlestar Galactica: The Second Coming partly through his credit cards. Famed hedge fund manager Bruce Kovner began his career (and, later on, his firm Caxton Associates) in financial markets by borrowing from his credit card.

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