Credit Card Conspiracy

Jane Flasch, March 23, 2007

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You forget to mail your credit card payment on time. The company won't cancel your account, but they will tack on a late fee, about $34 on average.

Those and other fees will add up to $14 billion this year, and that's on top of the additional billions from interest. Critics say its one way credit card companies keep people in debt.

Americans carry 640 million credit cards. That's over two cards for every man, woman, and child. The average household has a $10,000 balance.

Dr. Robert Manning of the Rochester Institute of Technology said, "As wages go down, people don't reduce their consumption. They're just supplementing it with credit."

Manning is a research professor and Director of the Center for Consumer Financial Services at RIT. His acclaimed book, "Credit Card Nation," is the basis for a popular Web site of the same name. He has also frequently testified before Congress.

Now he's finding a larger audience as technical director of the documentary "In Debt We Trust." The movie debuts at Rochester's Little Theater next Friday.

The film puts plenty of blame on the consumers' shoulders for racking up debts. But it also investigates how the credit card industry engineers ways to keep us in debt.

"The best client before deregulation was someone who would pay off their loans," Manning said. "Today the best client since is someone who will never pay off their loans."

The segment about college debt was filmed on the RIT campus.

"We used to train children how to save, now we're training them how to spend," Manning said.

The Web site, Credit Card Nation has a quiz to test your knowledge of credit. Some sample questions:

True or false: If you pay the minimum on your credit card, you will pay off the balance in less than 10 years..

False: Average payments are set at one percent of the balance, paying off a typical card will take 28 to 40 years.

True or false: After the holidays, your statement invites you to skip a payment due to your excellent credit history. You also get a break from finance charges.
False: Interest and fees are added to next month's bill.

Manning adds "You're not paying the interest, let alone the principle for that payment. So their way of rewarding you is to help you get deeper into debt. "

At one time the U.S. economy was based on goods we built and manufactured. Now the factories are overseas and retail stores at the mall are the center of economic growth.

With so many purchases based on credit, the movie questions whether our entire economy is a house of cards waiting to collapse.

To determine just how much you owe on cards and how long it will take to pay them off, click here.

The Credit Card Nation Web site also enables you to buy a DVD of "In Debt We Trust" or other educational materials. Unlike most sites, you can pay by money order.


This story ran on WHAM 13 on March 23, 2007.