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The Secret History of the Credit Card

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The Secret History of the Credit Card airs Tuesday on most PBS stations.

The Frontline documentary and a companion article in Sunday’s New York Times show how the credit card experience is getting worse for many people. Interest rates are still low even after recent increases but consumers lured by O% interest offers are paying increasingly high rates on credit cards. And many people aren’t aware credit card companies can raise their rates even if they never miss a payment.

Correspondent Lowell Bergman provides a good history of these changes. The documentary is better at telling the human stories of people caught up in credit card hell than the NYT article (though the article covers other areas such as a lawsuit against Discovery). Neither cover proposed laws to make it more difficult to declare bankruptcy which may have a better chance of passing in a more Republican congress.

Bergman spoke to NPR about how difficult it was to get people to talk about their credit card problems (the movie ‘The Insider’ was partly about how Bergman was able to convince a tobacco insider to give an interview). He does get a few people to talk about their problems. Representatives of major credit card companies refused to be interviewed, but he does talk to people who worked for the credit card industry who say there have to be reforms.

For more on credit cards, see The Truth About Credit which provides an interest calculator to see how long it will take you to pay off your card. Attempts to provide that info on your credit card bill have been defeated in congress.

The website will have lots of background material Tuesday evening and the entire program will be online Friday. Last week’s Is Wal-mart Good for America? is now online.

Los Angeles Now is also on many PBS stations Tuesday as part of ‘Independent Lens.’ Los Angeles Plays Itself explores similar themes through how the city has been portrayed in film. It is unlikely to be shown on television because of rights issues, but it has been playing at colleges and film centers.

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About Steve Rhodes

  • Thanks for the tip – the Walmart piece was interesting – not much new for those who have tracked these issues, except that one saw a cracking of the usual reticence from Walmart suppliers.

  • Helen

    I don’t know if you’ve heard this but Capital One, and the less ethical card companies, can actually ruin your credit for you.

    Here’s what they do:
    You card limit is, say, $1000 for simplicity. The largest balance you’ve ever had on the card is $250. Your current balance is $200.Most cards companies would place your % of card balance at 20% ($200/$1000). Capital ones calculates your % of card balance at 80% ($200/$250) because it’s the “most you have allowed yourself”. The ONLY way to “fix” this is to at sometime have actually maxed out your card. Why do they do this? It makes your credit worse and therefore less attractive to OTHER card companies. What a wonderful way to keep a customer.
    Additionally, bookmark a great credit card resource: creditcardspecialist.com

  • Bliffle

    It’s amazing to me that anyone still pays attention to credit reports in general, let alone credit reports from CC Companies.