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    New York Times: What Does Your Credit-Card Company Know About You?

    The New York Times has an interesting story on the data credit card companies have on their customers. This is a good companion piece to a story they did in February on the customer data being scrutinized by American Express to affect customers’ credit.

    Put another way, credit-card companies are becoming much more interested in understanding their customers’ lives and psyches, because, the theory goes, knowing what makes cardholders tick will help firms determine who is a good bet and who should be shown the door as quickly as possible.

    Luckily for the industry, small groups of executives at most of the large firms have spent the last decade studying cardholders from almost every angle, and collection agencies have developed more sophisticated dunning techniques. They have sought to draw psychological and behavioral lessons from the enormous amounts of data the credit-card companies collect every day. They’ve run thousands of tests and crunched the numbers on millions of accounts. […]

    The exploration into cardholders’ minds hit a breakthrough in 2002, when J. P. Martin, a math-loving executive at Canadian Tire, decided to analyze almost every piece of information his company had collected from credit-card transactions the previous year. Canadian Tire’s stores sold electronics, sporting equipment, kitchen supplies and automotive goods and issued a credit card that could be used almost anywhere. Martin could often see precisely what cardholders were purchasing, and he discovered that the brands we buy are the windows into our souls — or at least into our willingness to make good on our debts. His data indicated, for instance, that people who bought cheap, generic automotive oil were much more likely to miss a credit-card payment than someone who got the expensive, name-brand stuff. People who bought carbon-monoxide monitors for their homes or those little felt pads that stop chair legs from scratching the floor almost never missed payments. Anyone who purchased a chrome-skull car accessory or a “Mega Thruster Exhaust System” was pretty likely to miss paying his bill eventually. […]

    Some credit-card companies began using these and other discoveries to find new customers and to scrutinize existing cardholders. A few firms began sending offers to people who had registered for baby showers or weddings, for example, since data showed that getting married or having a child — in addition to making people buy lots of new stuff — often also makes them more responsible. Other companies started cutting cardholders’ credit lines when charges appeared for pawnshops or marriage therapy because data indicated those were signs of desperation or depression that might lead to job loss.

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