Tracking Credit Card Offers in the Mail

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Last year, I kept track of how many credit card offers were mailed to my house. I included offers addressed to my wife or myself. The number may be of mild interest.


But before I tell you the number, here are a few things to help you evaluate it. I am a small business as well as a consumer. How I ended up on small business lists is somewhat of a mystery. However, it's hard to keep information private. I certainly didn't make an effort to keep my business secret. The consequence is that I received some credit card solicitations that might not have come to me as a consumer.


On the other hand, though I never opted out of prescreened offers, my wife did. She doesn't remember opting out, and if she did, it was more than five years ago. We learned that she had opted out only when we received a credit report using the free credit report available courtesy of the recent revisions to the Fair Credit Reporting Act. But for her opt out, we surely would have gotten even more offers.


I didn't keep separate track of offers addressed to each of us, but I estimate that at least 40 percent came to my wife. Assuming that the opt out worked as it should have, how could this be? Obviously, her offers were not prescreened. Some came from colleges, affinity groups or membership organizations. Some came from financial institutions or credit card companies with which she already does business. American Express is especially relentless in sending offers for new credit cards and other services.


Did I receive a lot of prescreened offers? It's hard to say. I can't tell you my credit score because I don't know what it is. Still, I guess that I have a reasonably good credit history and am likely to get a fair number.


So how many credit card offers came to my household in 2005? 91. That is about one every four days, including weekends and holidays. The most offers (10) in a month came in April, and the fewest (5) came in December. The monthly average was 7 1/2.


The number of credit card offers that we accepted last year was zero. It also was zero in 2004 and 2003. Neither of us remembers when we last accepted a mailed offer for a new credit card. Whether that makes us good candidates for credit offers or bad candidates, I leave to the marketing wizards reading this publication.


Overall, I estimate that the credit granting industry spends about $100 yearly to solicit us for credit cards.


Wait, there's more. I counted only credit card offers. I didn't record all other credit offers that came in the mail, and there were plenty. They included home equity loans, mortgage refinancing, debt consolidation loans, other loan offers and the laughingly mislabeled convenience checks sent by credit card companies along with their bills. I estimate that the other credit offers mailed to our address (including some to occupant) were at least as numerous as the credit card offers. We probably received credit offers of one type or another every other day on average, and maybe more often than that.


I opened each credit card offer and examined it. What can I tell you about them? Nothing. Except that a bunch came from American Express, I couldn't tell you who offered what. I'm sure that we got offers from many of the major banks, but it is all a blur. The mailings all seem identical, with the same format and inserts.


What's the one credit card that I do remember? It's the Capital One no-hassle card that has been prominently and humorously advertised on television. When I asked friends and colleagues about it, nearly everyone could name the credit card and issuing bank. Talk about an effective ad campaign. However, no one confessed to have one of the cards. I'm not sure what that means. It's likely that my friends and colleagues are a bad sample of consumers. As for me, I am a bad sample as a consumer and in just about every other way possible.


So what's the lesson? First, opting out of prescreening has little effect on the receipt of credit card and other credit offers in the mail. You may get fewer offers, but it is likely to be hard to tell. Second, if prescreened offers were prohibited tomorrow, competition for credit would not be much affected. Third, burying consumers in mailed credit card offers seems wasteful, at best. But it's a free country, as they say, and I am sure that the U.S. Postal Service is grateful for it all.


Publication alert: There is a 2005 update to the Privacy Journal's "Compilation of State and Federal Privacy Laws." It lists more than 200 new laws, including the security breach notification laws that are sweeping the states. Learn more about the compilation, order it or download it at www.privacyjournal.net. The author, Robert Ellis Smith, has been a privacy expert and colleague for a very long time.


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