Hooked On Plastic

As a bicycle messenger, Dennis Christenson learned to dodge New York cabbies and navigate the streets. It was his credit cards that caused him to crash, reports CBS News Business Correspondent Anthony Mason.

"The (credit card) offers came so frequently, it was, like, why not," Christenson recalls. He ended up with eight cards and a staggering credit limit that was "probably close to $100,000," Christenson says.

Christenson ran up $40,000 in debt on a salary of $37,000. And the banks kept raising his credit limit.

"They would send me a letter saying you have this much more credit, he says. "And before I knew it I was drowning."

Christenson is one of a record number of Americans filing for bankruptcy: 1.4 million last year. But credit card companies keep flooding our mailboxes with four billion offers a year.

Consumer advocates complain that, by mail or by phone, banks will now offer credit cards to just about anyone with a pulse. They're not far wrong.

"Miss Beth Sholom" gets a lot of those calls. There's just one problem: Beth Sholom is a synagogue.

"They say, 'Hello, Beth?' They have an offer for me. Would I be interested in a very low interest rate credit card," says Rena Greer, an executive assistant at the synagogue.

Charles Juntikka, New York's busiest bankruptcy lawyer, says credit card companies are "almost like drug pushers in a sense. They want to get you hooked on credit."

Juntikka handles 1,500 cases a year and says that when it comes to blame, the credit card companies should get equal billing.

"They lend middle-class people virtually half of their disposable salary for the entire year. So they know they can't pay it back. That's why they target them," he says.

"It doesn't do the credit card companies any good to put money in the hands of people who can't handle it," says James Chessen, chief economist for the American Bankers Association. "We always say that if you can't afford to repay your debt within a couple of months, then you shouldn't be charging them."

But try to find that advice in those enticing offers with their low teaser rates. The real cost is in the fine print.

The White House believes it's time for a consumer protection bill.

"Many consumers don't understand that when they pay only the minimum balance on their bills, it may take years to pay them off," says first lady Hillary Clinton.

For example, if you borrow $5,000 at 15 percent interest and make only the minimum monthly payment, it would take you 32 years to pay off the card at a total cost, including interest, of nearly $13,000.

"The credit card industry has become like the new loan sharks. Because they get effective rates of return that if a guy on the street did it, he'd go to jail," Juntikka says.

The Consumer Protection Bill, now in Congress, would require prominent disclosure of those costs on all offers and statement. Banks oppose the legislation.

Credit cards made Dennis Christenson feel like he was on easy street. Now he's trying to pedal his way out of a credit jam.

  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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