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50 Fun Facts About Credit Cards

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I was a little bored one day and thought I’d try to find fifty fun facts about credit cards that I didn’t know before hand and put them all in once place for you all to munch on and enjoy over the weekend. Some of the things I already knew, like the AMEX Centurion card has a $2500 annual fee and a $250,000 annual spend requirement, but others I didn’t, like how American Express started off as a shipping company and later branched out into financial services.

I broke the fun facts into these general categories: Historical Nuggets (with subcategories for each major card company), Useful Things That Make You Go Hmmmm…, Technobabbliciousness, Legal Ways You’ve Been Hosed & Un-Hosed, and Department of Holy Crap They Make A Ton of $$$$$. Historical Nuggets obviously covers the history of cards and the various companies. The Useful Things That Make You Go Hmmmm… covers some useful consumer information that may one day come in handy in your daily life. Technobabbliciousness covers some interesting facts about the technology behind credit cards. Legal Ways You’ve Been Hosed & Un-Hosed covers various court rulings and other legalese that explain why the environment is the way it is (like ridiculous fees and interest rates!). Finally, Department of Holy Crap They Make A Ton of $$$$$ is just a collection of mind-boggling statistics that should make you think twice about starting your own credit card company.

    Historical Nuggets

  1. In the beginning, credit cards were just charge accounts, offered by individual stores and only usable at those stores. The first credit card that could be used at multiple locations was offered by The Diner’s Club in 1950. (full story)
  2. Diners Club issued that first card to only two hundred customers and it could only be used at twenty seven restaurants in New York City.

  3. American Express History

  4. American Express started off as a shipping company in 1850, shipping products across the United States and capitalizing on the limited reach and slow speed of the United States Postal Service. Their main customers were banks and they shipped various financial instruments like stock certificates and other notes. They began selling money orders and traveler’s checks in 1882 and issued its first credit card in 1958. (full history)
  5. In 1984, American Express billed their Platinum Card as extremely exclusive and it had an annual fee of $250 ($484.84 in 2006 dollars). Today, the extremely exclusive card for American Express is their black Centurion card with a $2,500 annual fee! (and requirement to spend $250,000 a year)

  6. MasterCard & Visa History

  7. MasterCard and Visa are networks of banks and financial institutions. American Express is its own company and Discover Card is a subsidiary Morgan Stanley (who is spinning off the business).
  8. Visa was originally called BankAmericard, a card offered by Bank of America in 1958 in California. By 1970, they had created an association, called the National BankAmericard, Inc., of all the US Banks that issued the BankAmericard. It wasn’t renamed to Visa until 1976. (full history)
  9. Visa actually stands Visa International Service Association.
  10. The Visa logo colors were chosen because the blue represented the sky and the gold represented color of the hills in California where Bank of America was founded. (from Wikipedia).
  11. Originally formed under the name Interbank Card Association and they acquired the MasterCharge brand and logo in 1969. MasterCharge was originally formed by four California banks in 1967, who joined together to form the Western States Bankcard Association to battle the BankAmericard of Bank of America. MasterCharge was renamed MasterCard in 1979.
  12. In 1984, MasterCard was the first to use a hologram on its cards to deter fraud.

  13. Discover Card History

  14. Discover Card was introduced by Sears in 1985 and gained notoriety because it charged no annual fee.
  15. At the time, Sears also owned the brokerage Dean Witter Reynolds Organization and the Discover brand was integrated into that organization. When Dean Witter merged with Morgan Stanley in 1997, Discover went along for the ride.
  16. Useful Things That Make You Go Hmmmm…

  17. Wonder why minimum payments are so low? It allows consumer to carry more debt while keeping to the same low minimum payment. You can give someone with the ability to pay $100 per month a credit limit as high as $5,000 if they only had to pay 2% a month. If the minimum payment were 5%, they could only have a credit limit of $2,000. The lower the minimum payment, the deeper in debt someone could be in.
  18. It is against the merchant agreements of MC, Visa, and AMEX, for a vendor to require you to provide your phone number, home address, or other personal information for credit card transactions. In fact, some states make it illegal for them to require it. (It’s not illegal to ask, but it is if they refuse to process the transaction without that information)
  19. Under the merchant agreements of MC, Visa, Discover Card and AMEX, you do not need to present a driver’s license in order to complete a credit card transaction.
  20. Under the merchant agreements of MC, Visa, and Discover Card, vendors may not require a minimum purchase amount. Under AMEX, it’s more of a hint that the vendor shouldn’t put up any barriers to use but AMEX also has a discrimination rule, so if there is no minimum amount for MC/Visa, there cannot be a minimum amount for AMEX. (Consumerist has all the relevant merchant agreements consolidated)
  21. Under the merchant agreements of MC, Visa, and Discover Card, vendors may not charge a surcharge for using the card (the anti-discrimination rules still apply for AMEX). In some states, it is actually illegal to charge a surcharge for credit card purchases. This rule does not apply to government agencies.
  22. On the flip side, offering a discount for cash payment (over credit card payment) is permitted by all of the card companies (looooophole!).
  23. A merchant may, on taking a personal check, require that you offer a credit card number. It is against merchant agreements to charge a credit card in the event of a bounced check (and it’s also very dangerous to have all that juicy information on one little slip of paper, plus this may also be illegal in your state).
  24. You can lower your interest rate with a phone call. Credit card companies are like cell phone and cable companies, they’re afraid you’ll leave and join with one of their competitors. Use this to your advantage by comparing offers from other credit cards and bringing this information to your credit company.
  25. When you use your card, you agree to the cardholder agreement, you don’t have to sign anything. If you get an update to the agreement, you also agree to the updates once you use your card.
  26. A fixed interest rate on a credit card can change with only 15 days of notice. Fixed is not fixed in the sense that a mortgage loan is fixed, it’s fixed in the sense that the credit card company can change it with only 15 days notice!
  27. If you have multiple balances with different interest rates on one card, payments are generally applied to the balance with the lower interest rate. You will have no choice in the matter and you cannot request it be made to the higher balance. So if you have a $100 balance at 19.99% and a $5,000 balance at 4.99%, your payments apply to the $5,000 at 4.99% first. A note about this will be in your agreement.
  28. The credit card sale process works as follows: The vendor sends an authorization request for the value of the sale. The credit card company checks the card limit and reduces the credit limit by that amount (it puts a “hold” or a “block”) and sends the vendor electronic confirmation that the card is good. The vendor sends a deposit transaction or a sale transaction. The credit card company sends the money. This process is usually quick and painless… with the following exceptions:
  29. Hotels and rental car agencies usually send an authorization request for the estimated cost of your stay or rental and they keep this “block” on your card for 10 to 15 days (independent of how long you actually stay there) even if you pay with something else.
  30. When you use a credit card at a gas pump, the pump authorizes the purchase for something in the neighborhood of $50 first. So if you have less than $50 left on your limit, the pump will reject your purchase attempt.
  31. Restaurants typically will authorize a credit card purchase for the amount of the bill plus 25% (for gratuity), so again, if your limit can’t handle the extra 25%, the purchase transaction will be rejected.
  32. Technobabbliciousness

  33. Ever notice all your credit cards are of uniform shape and size? Their dimensions are governed by the ISO 7810 standard, an international standard for identification cards. Banking cards, as well as driver’s licenses and retail cards, follow ID-1 (passports follow ID-3). If your card has a smart chip, it follows ISO 7816, and if it has RFID, it follows ISO 14443.
  34. The expiration date on the card is “fake.” You can still use the card after its expiration date because the card number on your replacement will be the same. The reason why cards do expire varies from company to company but mostly it’s because the credit cards take a lot of abuse and just need replacing (they estimate the magnetic strip is good for only about three or four years of swiping).
  35. Interested to know what’s on the magnetic stripe? Check out this breakdown of the three tracks on Wikipedia (the rest of the page explains other magnetic stripes).
  36. There are generally two types of magnetic strips, high-coercivity and low-coercivity, with the high-coercivity being stronger and more durable (also requiring more expensive equipment to handle). (from Wikipedia)
  37. Higher-coercivity are usually black and low-coercivity strips are a dark brown, but there are special cases such as American Express’ patented silver colored magnetic strip.
  38. Hotel keys and other low-coercivity stripped cards are susceptible to being scrambled by a weak magnetic force, including cell phones.
  39. Credit card numbers conform to the Luhn algorithm, which is just a simple checksum test on the number. What you do is start from the right and double each second digit (1111 becomes 2121), then add them all together, and you should end with a number evenly divisible by ten. If it doesn’t, it’s not a valid credit card number.
  40. The first digit of the number is the Major Industry Identifier. 1/2 are for airlines, 3 is for travel/entertainment, 4/5 for banking and financial, 6 for merchandizing and financial, 7 for petroleum, 8 for telecommunications. 0 and 9 are for other assignments but you’ll likely never see them. If you look at an American Express card, you’ll see it starts with a 3, a throwback to their travel/entertainment roots.
  41. The first six digits will correspond to the issuer, including the major industry identifier. 34xxxx/37xxxx are for American Express, 4xxxxx is for Visa, 51-55xxxx is for MasterCard, and 6011xx is for Discover.
  42. The rest of the digits (except the last one, which is a checksum digit) is your account number.
  43. Legal Ways You’ve Been Hosed & Un-Hosed

  44. Minors, those under the age of 18, are not obligated to pay back any charges to their credit cards (unless a parent co-signs, but then its the parent who is on the hook) because they are not allowed to enter into a binding contract.
  45. If there are unauthorized charges on your card, you’re on the hook for $50 each, maximum (unless your agreement says you are responsible for less, you cannot be responsible for more). If you report your card missing and an unauthorized charge appears after you’ve reported it, you are liable for $0.
  46. By law, you are only allowed to dispute charges for “unsatisfactory goods or services” if you made the purchase in your home state or within 100 miles of your billing address and the purchase was for more than $50. (and if you’ve made a good faith attempt to resolve it with the vendor) While a credit card company may not hold you to this, they are protected by the law for purchases outside your home state/100 mile radius.
  47. Credit card companies are prohibited by law from sending you a card that you didn’t ask for, unless it’s a renewal or a substitute card. If you get a credit card you didn’t apply for, contact the Federal Trade Commission and file a complaint.
  48. A common clause in most user/member agreements is that the cardholder waives their right to sue the credit card company. The cardholder must instead go through a binding arbitration hearing with the credit card company and cannot take the company to court or participate in a class action suit.
  49. Before 1996 and the Supreme Court case Smiley vs. Citibank (517 U.S. 735, Thanks j), there were restrictions on how much a credit card company could charge for a late payment. The ruling in Smiley vs. Citibank lifted that restriction and fees that were once around $5-$10 jumped to $30 or more today.
  50. There is no federal law regulating the rate of interest a credit card company can charge! The federal government use to regulate but repealed those laws during the Great Depression and never put them back in place, they now rely on the states to handle usury.
  51. In the Supreme Court case Marquette National Bank v. First of Omaha Service Corp (439 U.S. 299, Thanks j) in 1978, the Court decided that national banks only need to follow the usury laws of the state they are headquartered in, not the state in which their customer resides.
  52. Credit card companies are all headquartered in states with high or no cap on interest rates. American Express is located in Utah (no cap), Bank of America is in Arizona (36%), Citibank is in South Dakota (no cap), Capital One is in Virginia (no cap), Providian is in New Hampshire (no cap), and JP Morgan Chase, MBNA (now Bank of America), Morgan Stanley/Discover, and HSBC are all located in Delaware (no cap).
  53. Department of Holy Crap They Make A Ton of $$$$$

  54. Each American household receives approximately 6 offers a month. The typical response rate is .33% (one third of one percent). You can opt out of these mailings via OptOutPrescreen.
  55. Each direct mailing acquisition costs approximately $80, according to R.K. Hammer, bank card advisory firm.
  56. Credit card companies earned $90.1B in interest in 2006, up from $89.4B the year before (according to R.K. Hammer).
  57. Credit card companies earned $55.2B in fees in 2006, up from $54.8B the year before (according to R.K. Hammer).

Bonus Fun Fact:

Mastercard’s market capitalization is a whopping $14.24B, American Express’s stands at $71.62B, and Morgan Stanley stands at $86.40B. Visa is not publicly traded (yet). While you can’t compare their market caps because such a large part of Amex and Morgan Stanley’s businesses are not in credit cards, it’s still interesting to look at the numbers. Incidentally, Bank of America has a market cap of $239.17B. (These figures as of 1/11/07)

{ 63 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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63 Responses to “50 Fun Facts About Credit Cards”

  1. Chris says:

    Don’t know if you want to be “Mr. Answer”, but I do have a question: We were 5 days late paying our November 1 bill of $2,000. When our Dec. 1 bill of $5,000 came, there was a $39 late fee and interest charged on the $2,000 and the entire $5,000. We paid our Dec. 1 bill on time/early. When our Jan. 1 bill of $4,000 came, there were interest charges on the $4,000. Total cost for 5 days of being late: $207.

    When we protested to Citibank (and a couple supervisors), they say that they charge full interest (1/12 of 20%) on all balances until everything is paid in full. Since we weren’t considered current until after the Dec. 1 bill was paid, which was into the next billing cycle, they get to charge full interest on 3 months of charges.

    All this smells…dirty to me and I was wondering if you might have some insight. They did offer to send us our terms, but those terms could say they can kill me and that still doesn’t make it valid. I’ve sent this to my attorney — if you don’t know, I’ll reply soon and let you know what he says.

  2. jim says:

    Chris – I don’t mind questions at all and in this case I have an answer for you. If you are late in paying a bill, the grace period part of your agreement is gone. So, when you were late for a couple days you lost the grace period… which is why they charged interest on what normally would’ve get interested charged on. It sucks…

  3. Mark says:

    As far as the “expiration date being fake”, i have attempted to purchase items with an old card (same cc number as the new one) and was told that it did expire. this occurred a while ago so the cc companies may have changed this procedure.

  4. Colin says:

    I recall being sent a “Charge-It” card, unsolicited, when I was still in high school in suburban Chicago. That would have been pre-1965.

  5. kc says:

    I have just received a letter from a collection agency for a credit card I had almost ten years ago when in college. I am still very poor but have recently been issued some credit cards after not being able to get them for years. Should I pay this balance off? or will paying off this balance reactivate this negative credit history by bringing it to the present on my credit score. I have been told that recent credit is more important to your score than past credit. I am trying to get “GOOD CREDIT” after not having any to speak of throughout my 20′s.

    Thanks.

  6. serophis says:

    KC: Whatever you do, look into your rights before you so much as send a dollar to these people. If you have not touched the account in ten years, you are likely past the statute of limitations on it. Essentially, once a certain number of years have passed, the item is removed from your credit score (meaning it doesn’t count against you) and a certain number of years after that (sometimes before depending on the state you’re in), you are no longer responsible for the debt.

    For example: In Kentucky, where I live, the statute of limitations is 10 years, although I have heard this is very high compared to some states. Let’s say that back in 1995 (I was 9 at the time so trust me, this is COMPLETELY hypothetical) I had a credit card and got behind on the payments. The amount was only about $1000, so they didn’t fly lawyers to my house to try and collect, and it went unpaid for years. They contacted me, yelled at me over the phone, threatened to do about anything imaginable to me, and eventually blew themselves out. Then, in 2007, they send me another letter. Now in 2002 my credit report no longer showed the item on it; it didn’t count against my score and it was as if it never existed. Nobody could see that I ever messed up in the past on that item, no matter what kind of credit check they ran. Then, in 2005, the statute of limitations ran out for me, meaning that the creditor is no longer allowed to harass me about the debt. I could send them a CEASE AND DESIST (you can find good templates for this online) letter via certified mail (so I have proof that they got it), telling them that they can no longer contact me. At this point, if they so much as call you or send you a single letter, you can take them to court and sue them for damages of up to $1000 as per the Fair Debt Collection Act.

    Let’s say I didn’t send them that letter. Let’s say the collector who called me was real nice, and said, “Okay, I know you’re in a hard time; how about this: You send me five dollars. It will be considered a good faith payment, and let us know that you at least acknowledge we exist. Then, we’ll go ahead and send you statements, and you just send whatever you can until the debt is paid off.” DON’T FALL FOR THIS!!! That statute of limitations I talked about? The second you send them a single CENT, you essentially acknowledge that the debt IS valid, IS current, and CAN be collected on. They will then re-add the debt to your credit score as a brand new debt, and likely will immediately take legal action against you to collect it, and will reset that 10-year (or 4, 5, 7, etc.) timer.

    You need to also look at your credit score and make sure this is no longer there. If you see something there that shows the negative item, and shows a “Date of Last Account Activity” of anything other than 10 years ago, you need to file a lawsuit against that collector for fradulent account activities. What probably happened was that some overzealous collector said to themselves, “Hey, I work on commission…if I pay five dollars out of my own wallet and say it is from this person, the debt will become valid again, and I can get hundreds of dollars worth of commission by collecting on it!” Trust me, it happens more often than you’d think, and left unchecked, could ruin your credit, get you in trouble with your job (if you work in a job that requires good credit), raise your insurance, increase your interest payments, and ruin your life.

    There are many resources online that you need to look into and make sure you are using to your full advantage. The federal government has rules and regulations set up to protect you, but only if you know what rights you have.

  7. Denise W. says:

    I had an American Express card for my husband’s business, we were canceled by AMEX and had to pay it back over the course of a year. This was originally a non-interest account, the typical AMEX card. Anyway, once they canceled us, they decided to charge me about $3000 in fees, which I paid most of. I’m now down to the last $800 and it’s all fees, the balance was paid off last year. We got a little behind and they are threatening to “review” this account and add fees on top of the fees. I can’t believe this is legal to “fee a fee”, did I confuse you? In any case, I’m livid because these are just the last of the fees that they added onto the balance, how can they justify adding a fee to an already existing fee? Help me to understand this please!

  8. R. A. says:

    While on our honeymoon in 1984, my wife and I were defrauded by a very slick timeshare sales person in Cancun Mexico. Promising to break up payments over 6 months, he submitted all six signed vouchers in the same month. This violation of the terms nearly crushed our marriage before we began. We were unable to make the lump sum payment American Express conducted a full court press, despite our requests to cancel the transaction. After our request fell on deaf ears, we saught relief through the courts and filed for bankruptcy in 1985.

    We are still married 22 years and 3 children later. We struggled, paid back taxes and exercised fiscal responsibility to build our credit scores.

    Our 20 year old son went to work for COSTCO and was given a family membership and as a perk. He applied and received an American Express Rewards card with a $500 credit limit and gave his applied for and received a second card in my name. I helped him keep his bill current and because of his mother and my early experience, tried to impart a sense of responsiblity with his credit.

    He quit his part-time job with COSTCO and I applied for a COSTCO membership in my own name. I also applied for my own American Express card but to my surprise, I was rejected for the American Express card. When I called to find out why I was rejected, they said that I owed $3000 since 1984. I was practically apoplectic. How could this be? I’ve monitored our credit reports regularly for years and there hasn’t been any reference to this account or balance due or past due. (The bankruptcy was >10 years old).

    Do I have legal resource in this case or are? Isn’t this discrimination?

  9. Chris says:

    RA, discrimination? How? It sounds like American Express did not internally forgive your debt with the bankruptcy. It is not on your credit report, so it looks like the bankruptcy did its job. I may be mistaken, but while they may not be able to legally continue to report the debt as outstanding to the credit agencies, they still retain the right not to do business with you again.

  10. sally says:

    i never had a good day at all this week because of my freinds being in another state!

  11. richard says:

    Someone needs to write an article like this for UK legislation as well. Interesting though to know the history of such a well known institution like VISA and Mastercard

  12. Rob Stone says:

    i am interested in getting the definition of “Date of Last [Account] Acivity.

    may be different by state (in which case interested in new york) but failing that, in general.

    is it date of last activity on the card (as in charges)? date of last payment to the creditor? and if its the last payment date, does a “settlement” count as “last activity”?

    clearly am trying to figure out how to define the 7 years from “last activity” because over the years, the creditors seem have been moving the goalposts even though all were settled completely.

    thanks for your insight.

  13. Lauren says:

    Jim,
    Is it illegal to charge business and personal charges on the same credit card, if we pay each item separately from appropriate accounts? I have been doing this for years, and my accountant just informed me that it is not legal, which I think is wrong information, but cannot locate a place to find the answer — can you lend me some correct facts?? thanks — Lauren

  14. buergday says:

    Here’s a fun fact…
    If you had a typical department store credit card and were to make just the minimum monthly payments, it would take you nearly 14 years to pay off a balance of just $1,500? Add up the finance charges over that period, and your total payments would come to $4,924.77 — more than 3 times your original balance!

  15. jerry says:

    *47. 6 offers a month
    I open them and take out the postage paid envlope and insert their application and write no thanks and mail it back to them
    some one there has to open it and they have to pay the postage

  16. paul says:

    That is a little childish, Jerry. If you don’t want applications you should opt out. I work for a credit card company and a few times some people have sent back the postage paid envelope with nude pictures of themselves…

    And RA: the company I work for (Visa bank) still had bankrupt accounts on file from the early 80′s. We recently purged those but yes, as of 2004 we would decline someone even with perfect credit due to a previous loss taken. You would be amazed at the number of people who file more then one bankruptcy in their lifetime.

  17. Brad says:

    If by signing the credit card agreement the holder waives their right to sue the credit card company, can the credit agencies be sued? The interest rate credit card companies charge are up there with loan sharks (illegal) and the only way to maintain good credit is to stay in debt. I’ve paid off all credit cards, have a good income, own my home, even cleared up erronius items on m credit report but because I’m not using the paid off cards they are unwilling to lower the interest rate. Basically, they consider my credit bad. How is this legal? America needs to wake up.

  18. Matt says:

    Great read. I learned a lot in 10 short minutes, I wish there were 50 more fun facts. As I Business student in my sophomore year of college, I can say that I will be using this knowledge quite often. This article helped me to get ahead of the game (hopefully).

  19. Dave says:

    Didn’t take long to get better educated!
    Could and should be taught in every high school for practical purposes. Thank you

  20. “33. Hotel keys and other low-coercively stripped cards are susceptible to being scrambled by a weak magnetic force, including cell phones.”

    No matter how many times I stay in a hotel, I always manage to do this! You’d think I would learn!

  21. Leah says:

    There is so much unconsistent information about canceling credit cards and how they affect your credit score. I currently have 5 credit cards (all with credit limits of under $800 each). I currently have 4 credit cards paid off and one that I use frequently and make payments on time but never seem to pay in full but do make over-payments. This 5th card is also a secured card.
    One of my credit cards has the lowest interest rate but also has a monthly maintenence fee of $6 and an annual fee. I am wanting to cancel this credit card for several reasons. 1) I don’t want to pay a $6.00 monthly charge – in which they say is to report my information to the credit bureau. 2) The customer service is horrible. 3) They offer me a second card but will NOT increase my credit limit. 4) I do not use the card.

    This card has had some shakiness in payments (not always being made on time) and I just want nothing to do with the company. The card has been cut up for some time now.

    Can you offere advice if it is beneficial to cancel credit cards? How does this impact my credit score and how to most creditors view this? I want to buy my first home in the next 5 years. Thanks in advance.

  22. Clint says:

    quick question:

    If I were to get a credit card and lock it in the safe, would this help or hurt my credit score. Would a credit card company even allow a card to stay valid without use?

  23. KingAdrock says:

    #3 says “American Express started off as a shipping company in 1850… They began selling money orders and traveler’s checks in 1882 and issued its first CREDIT card in 1958.”

    American Express issued their first CHARGE card in 1958. Credit cards (as in cards which you can carry a balance month-to-month) didn’t exist until BofA introduced the BankAmericard.

  24. [...] can read more about the Luhn Algorithm at Wikipedia and here is the aforementioned 50 Fun Facts about Credit Cards post. { 0 comments, please add your thoughts now! }   By [...]

  25. Ryan Wegman says:

    Hey Jim, I stumbled across your site a few months back in a “search-o-rama” much like the App-O-Rama you spoke of earlier.

    Your articles are very insightful and I believe that more people should get involved with their personal finances. many of these people in your subscriber base are very reponsive and involved. Congratulations!!!

    I’d like to speak with you and see if we can set up some type of webinar, teleseminar or something to help raise awareness to people that they still have options.

    Personally I am involved with real estate as an agent, loan modification, debt settlement and all of the crisis stopping activities to help people stay in their homes.

    Seriously if you would be interested in creating some type of venture I believe we should talk. You can find me on twitter at @DrivinRyan or my blog..

    Thank you Jim and keep up the great work.


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