In the jargon of the credit-card industry, I'm a gamer, though not an especially active one: I have few qualms about dumping a card in favor of another one with better terms. This has probably not helped my FICO score particularly, but it's saved me a few bucks here and there, and it's given me some familiarity with a number of major card issuers. Before you take any of this to heart, remember: your mileage may vary. My specific set of qualifications, payment pattern and whatever probably doesn't match yours, so do not assume you will have exactly the same results I did. Card issuers are listed in alphabetical order.

American Express
Product used: Clear
Amex has always portrayed itself as a purveyor of superior service, mostly to compensate for its relatively low acceptability compared to Visa/MasterCard. It's an image not entirely unjustified: they're not hard to get on the phone, and they can handle most any issue in a single call. Their Web site is clunky but improving; they do balance transfers well, and unlike most, send snailmail to confirm.

Bank of America
Product used: Platinum Visa
I wound up with a B of A card as a result of their acquisition of Fleet. I had differences with Fleet, and once fought them over an interest-rate increase; they backed down. B of A has so far honored the Fleet terms. They send out way too many convenience checks; on the other hand, most of them offer discounted terms. B of A also has those little keychain-sized cards, which I assume I'll lose, so I put mine away.

Capital One
Product used: Gold MasterCard
In the early 1990s, when I was still rebuilding my life, I got a secured card from Signet Bank Virginia, Capital One's predecessor. Over the years, I deposited some $850 in the account; my credit line was eventually extended to twice this amount. For some inscrutable reason, they offered me an unsecured card at the same interest rate; I took them up on it and canceled the secured card. It took them only two weeks to return the sum on deposit, which, after accumulated interest, was about $930. I dropped the newer account during one of my periodic portfolio reshapings. Recent Capital One offerings have not been particularly interesting.

Product used: Platinum MasterCard
Chase acquired my Chemical Bank card account in the middle 1990s; I stayed with them for about ten years, but their constant adjustments of interest rates became wearying, especially since they were not inclined to adjust them downward. On the upside, they were willing to extend truly spectacular credit limits, and occasional specials were deeply discounted. I have since canceled this card, though they also service my Platinum Visa card, which remains active. One of the better credit-card Web sites.

Product used: Affiliated store cards (Sears, Shell) only
I admit to a grudge against Citi, mostly because they're the only card issuer ever to send me an offer clearly marked "Pre-Approved" and then turn down the application. What's more, apparently they can't do it immediately: they provide a good Web interface to send an online application, but they can't seem to issue a decision on the spot. At the moment, I can't think of any reason to apply for one of their cards; they're coming up with new and interesting packages, but obviously they don't want to send me one. I am tempted to cancel the store cards, since I owe nothing on them, but I'll bide my time for now.

Product used: Titanium MasterCard
The HSBC operation in the States unites the former Household Bank and the erstwhile Direct Merchants Bank, the latter a spinoff of now-defunct Fingerhut. Both catered to low-end accounts. I got a Household card when they purchased an earlier account I had had; their service was okay, but they seemed a bit slow to process payments, which cost me a late fee one month. I have since canceled this account. DMB of late has gone after Spanish-speaking customers in a big way; I consider their service to be good, though you wonder what a firm is thinking when it raises your credit limit from $100 to $12,500. They also litter your mailbox (and your statement) with convenience checks, always at a variable rate that rises sharply at the six-month point.

Juniper Bank
Product used: Platinum MasterCard
This small Philadelphia-based bank with Canadian backing is getting into the affinity-card business in a big way. Their standard product is good, but doesn't stand out in any way; their Web site is better than average and handles balance transfers easily. In an industry where two-year renewals have been the standard and three, even four-year renewals are becoming common, Juniper last year sent me a one-year renewal. I think they're trying to tell me something.

MBNA America
Product used: Platinum MasterCard
MBNA is the only card issuer who has never tried to sell me another product (such as identity-theft insurance) during a card-activation call. They send out excessive numbers of convenience checks often two batches a month. My specific card had a rewards program attached to it; when the sponsor of that program opted to cancel it, MBNA switched me to a different (and more flexible) rewards program. As of last week, they were acquired by Bank of America, so things may change, but I am hopeful. Their Web site, previously more funky than functional, seems better these days.

Product used: Classic Visa
If you're a Target shopper, this card's rewards (1000 points and you get ten percent off anything you buy in the store, all day, no matter how many trips you make) are worthwhile, and they have an active charity program, which is nice. Almost makes up for the blah interest rate.

Washington Mutual
Product used: Platinum Visa
This bank is new to the business; they acquired Providian, an issuer which used to cater to subprime accounts, barely escaped being liquidated in bankruptcy, and now seeks a higher grade of customer. I've had three different accounts from them at three different levels; they like to tweak interest rates, but they are or, at least, Providian was willing to deal if you complain loud enough. Of late, they have shown no interest in balance transfers. Current Web site gives your FICO score, updated monthly.

As of January 2006, the top six issuers, per

  1. Bank of America (including MBNA)
  2. Chase
  3. Citibank
  4. Discover
  5. Capital One
  6. American Express

The three at the top now control a startling 59 percent of the US market; the top six have 79 percent.

Again: these are my experiences. If yours aren't exactly the same, well, you're not me, either.

The Vent

  7 January 2006

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 Copyright © 2006 by Charles G. Hill