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Consumer Watch: Be wary of instant-credit offers at checkout

The offers have been everywhere this Christmas season, as in holiday seasons past: Apply now for a new credit card and get money back for today's purchases.

The offers have been everywhere this Christmas season, as in holiday seasons past: Apply now for a new credit card and get money back for today's purchases.

But, as Lauren Bornfriend of Mount Airy discovered last week, "instant credit" may not be as instant as you'd expect, or as it was during the freewheeling era that ended with last year's credit crunch.

If new rules proposed by the Federal Reserve go into effect as planned Feb. 22, those instant-credit offers might get a little tighter still.

At the very least, there may be some new wrinkles at the checkout counter - procedures, such as asking your annual income, that retailers worry will turn off customers and undercut the value of instant credit as a marketing tool and revenue source.

"Instant credit" wasn't the leading villain in the economic collapse. But it played a supporting role as America morphed from a nation of prudent savers and borrowers into a place where "leverage" became a financial device nearly anyone could use, not just the tool of sometimes foolhardy investment bankers.

Consumers leveraged their income to get credit cards and car loans, then leveraged home equity to pay off growing piles of debt. As we now know, far too many leveraged the exaggerated values of homes whose prices were inflated during the housing bubble.

Bornfriend, executive director of the Philadelphia Parks Alliance, was someone who long looked askance at the tide of credit offers. She has a couple of other general-purpose credit cards and pays them off each month. She believes the endless pitches entice consumers to buy things they don't really need.

But after repeatedly seeing the same promotion pop up during checkout on, she finally succumbed to an offer to get $30 back for her purchase - and later called Amazon and Consumer 9.0 to complain.

Bornfriend's beef was that the credit wasn't actually available instantly for the purchase she was making. She thought Amazon was locking her into buying something more to get her $30 discount. "It was saying one thing and giving another," she says.

Amazon says Bornfriend misunderstood the terms offered through its partnership with Chase Bank, which it says provides a $30 credit on a cardholder's first statement if credit isn't approved instantly. In Bornfriend's case, approval took a couple of days.

I can't re-create the pop-up window Bornfriend saw. But Amazon spokesman Craig Berman directed me to a similar pitch on the company's home page, and I can understand her confusion. It says, "Get the Visa Card instantly and you'll automatically get $30 back after your first purchase."

Bornfriend's ambivalence about instant credit puts her in good company. Consumer advocates and others concerned about rising debt have long warned that enticements to new credit encourage consumers to spend more than they can afford.

Those who rely on credit as a marketing tool see it differently. The National Retail Federation says instant-credit offers are a legitimate way to lure customers and promote loyalty, as Amazon tries to do with a card that generates triple-rewards points for purchases.

Mallory Duncan, the federation's general counsel, says the Fed erred when it clamped down on checkout-line instant credit while devising rules to implement this year's new credit card law.

Duncan says retailers understand why Congress and regulators are finally insisting that lenders consider a prospective borrower's "ability to pay" before granting credit. The mortgage crisis, as we all now know, was fed by lenders who amazingly ignored that obvious standard and helped inflate the housing bubble with funny money.

"We didn't object to that," Duncan says. "Any reputable credit issuer does consider a borrower's ability to pay."

But Duncan argues that requiring income or asset information when a customer is applying for a small amount of instant credit at checkout, or trying to make a purchase that requires a modest bump in his or her credit limit, will scare away business.

"You can imagine the conversations," Duncan told me. " 'Sir, I can't approve this purchase until you tell me how much money you earn.' It's not a pleasant conversation."

Duncan makes a legitimate point - at least if you consider offering new credit cards as innocuous as a McDonald's worker asking if you want fries with that burger.

The trouble is, easy credit is a double-edged sword. It supports commerce and can help consumers through rough times - that is, when it doesn't leave them bleeding.

Without the new rules, instant credit can be granted with little basis beyond a quick check of a consumer's credit score - a distillation of borrowing history and payment performance. Even with them, consumer organizations point out, a retailer could grant credit without actually verifying a borrower's income or assets, the same lapse that led to many of today's bad mortgage loans.

The Fed's proposed rules say the mortgage market is different, because of that evidence from recent history. And Duncan does make a reasonable point that checkout-line grants of credit are typically small, especially compared with home loans.

But they add up. Patricia Hasson, executive director of Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Delaware Valley, says it's common for financially distressed clients to have a large number of small credit lines.

"Having small credit cards at five different retailers almost helps you avoid looking at your entire debt picture," says Hasson, whose nonprofit agency expects to see 24,000 clients this year, up 37 percent from 2008.

Facing a single monthly payment often makes people finally confront whether it's worth owing that much money, Hasson says.

It's a question anyone should ask before borrowing. Even in the checkout line.