We’ll be giving you credit, whether you want it or not



If you believe the evening news (which I don’t always), you’ve learned that one effect of the national economic meltdown is that it’s darned near impossible to get credit these days.

We’re told that you can’t get credit to buy a car, get a mortgage or pick up a new bass boat. Heck, if you believe the news readers, even the credit card companies are cracking down. They’re carrying so much consumer debt (almost $3 trillion, or about $17,000 per American family), that they see a huge problem on the horizon if people go broke in the recession and stop paying. We’re told the card companies will tighten up their credit policies and stop shilling new accounts to people who are risky. People like college students with no job and no prospects. People with a B.A. in English, for example.

I say if that’s true, you couldn’t prove it by what’s been happening at the Bean homestead.

A few years ago, I wrote a column about the avalanche of credit card offers the wife and I get every week, and noted that in one week alone, I got offers from companies I don’t have a credit card with, and companies I do, that made available more than $150,000 in credit if we chose to use it.

I noted then that if I were a fellow with a more larcenous bent, I’d collect all the credit card offers that come in the mail for a month or so. Then I’d max out every one of the cards with cash advances and retire to Bora Bora under an assumed name — maybe Seldom Seen Smith. (Extra points, and this week’s Genius Award to the first reader who can tell me — without Googling! — where that name came from.) I’d spend the rest of my life drinking rum drinks with little umbrellas in them, deep-sea fishing in my new 40-foot boat and having my banker cool me with palm fronds like a pharaoh.

But I’d never do that. Well, maybe, but not quite yet.

But because I believe it when the experts say this recession might last for a while, we’ve been trying to put our financial house in order. We’ve been paying off credit card balances, and not using the cards for new purchases. If we can’t pay cash, or pay the card off by the end of the month, we’re not using credit.

Which is driving the credit card companies absolutely crazy.

Did you know that when you pay off a credit card, the first response of the company is usually to send you a letter informing you that your credit limit has been raised, and accompanying the letter with a bunch of handy checks you can use to buy stuff?

Well, that’s what happens. In my case, my credit limits have just about doubled. Does that make sense, you ask? It sure doesn’t to me, but maybe somebody ought to ask Visa.

And companies whose cards I seldom use are acting just as strange. Take this example from ExxonMobil, which happened last week.

For years, I’ve kept an ExxonMobil credit card for emergency gas purchases, and that card has a credit limit of about $500, which was just fine with me. But since there aren’t that many ExxonMobil service stations in my neighborhood (and I figure that company makes so much money, they don’t need any of mine), I haven’t used it since 2007.

So I was very surprised when I opened a letter from ExxonMobil last week, and that letter told me I had been approved for, and would soon be receiving, an ExxonMobil MasterCard gas card with a credit limit of $7,500. There was a number to call to access your account, but since I didn’t have the actual card yet, I couldn’t do that. But after about five minutes, and two more calls, I finally got a guy on the line. Here’s a fairly accurate representation of our conversation:

Me: "I just got a letter telling me I’m getting a new ExxonMobil MasterCard, but I didn’t ask for a new card. Is somebody trying to steal my identity by taking out credit cards in my name?"

ExxonMobil guy: "No, sir, the company made a business decision to replace some of the old gas cards with MasterCard gas cards, and you are one who got upgraded."

Me: "Why did you pick me?"

ExxonMobil guy: "Well, you haven’t used your ExxonMobil gas card in a while, and I imagine they thought a MasterCard would be more useful because you can use it for anything you want."

Me: "Can I still use it for gas?"

ExxonMobil guy: "Of course, but you can also use it for anything else you want, including cash advances."

Me: "But I didn’t ask for a new credit card, and I don’t want another one. Do I have to keep it? Can’t I just keep my old gas card with the $500 limit and use it for emergencies?"

ExxonMobil guy: "Well, nobody has ever requested something like that. I suppose it can be done, but that is going to take a while, and you’re going to have to give me some information, and you might have to call another number."

Me: "Never mind, I’m not spending a halfhour on the phone trying to get out of receiving a credit card I didn’t ask for in the first place. Just go ahead and send me the MasterCard, and I’ll cut it up when it arrives."

ExxonMobil guy (in a tone of voice that suggests he’s just realized he’s dealing with a bona fide madman): "Well, sir, that would be your choice to make. Is there anything else I can help you with today?"

Me: "No, you’ve given me all the help I can stand. But let me ask you this: If I keep the new MasterCard but don’t use it for six months, will you folks get nervous and increase my credit limit to a hundred grand?"

ExxonMobil guy: "I don’t know, sir, because that would be a business decision, but you have a nice day."

Me: "You, too, but remember this name: Seldom Seen Smith. Someday, that name is going to be very important to ExxonMobil."

ExxonMobil guy: "I’ll make a note of it and, as I said, sir, have a nice day."


Now I’ll just wait for the new card to arrive in the mail. I figure whatever happens after that, at least they had fair warning. Hoist the Jolly Roger and prepare to be boarded. After all, who knows how long this recession will last? We might all have to become pirates.

Gregory Bean is executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at [email protected]. If your name is George Washington Hayduke, you can call him at home.