By ROB TRICCHINELLI, Capital News Service
COLLEGE PARK (Oct. 11, 2007) - "Don't be a sucker" was the rallying cry at the University of Maryland here on Thursday, as campus activists handed out literature warning students of the potential risks of having a credit card.
The event was part of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group's "Truth About Credit" campaign, launched this week to try to change the way credit card companies market to college students.
"We're looking for reforms," said Chris Leuchten, a campus organizer with Maryland's PIRG chapter. "Credit card companies are trying to take advantage of students."
Companies try to attract students with promotions, like free T-shirts and other teasers, without informing them of the risks involved with having a credit card, said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for U.S. PIRG.
Credit card companies are "a rogue industry," he said.
When students miss payments, they can be hit with charges and fees that deepen their debt.
"Minor delinquencies are responded to unfairly," Mierzwinski said.
College students graduate with close to $4,000 in credit card debt, the campaign said.
College students, especially younger ones, are favorite targets of credit card companies, some education officials say.
"They have not developed skills in a way to make the best decisions," said Gwen Duffy, executive director of Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.
Students "want to look like they have means," she said, and having a credit card is one way of doing so.
The University of Maryland already prohibits "off-campus vendors," including credit card companies, from "selling, soliciting, marketing and promoting" their products on campus, Diane Krejsa, a university counsel, said.
"We don't allow exceptions for certain companies, even if those companies think it's a good idea for students," Krejsa said.
Marketers target students in ways other than direct campus solicitation. The campaign will tackle all sides of marketing to students.
One way is through counter-marketing, where student activists such as those in College Park try to inform other students about what they call hidden risks of credit cards.
By appealing to students "the way marketers do," Duffy said, the counter-marketing campaign could have "more impact on students."
The campaign also wants to ban gifts in marketing credit cards, to regulate marketing techniques like posters and flyers, to prohibit companies from buying lists of students and to discourage terms and conditions that "take advantage of students."
Credit card company advocates, however, believe the problem is overstated.
"A T-shirt isn't the only reason to get a credit card," said John Hall, a spokesman for the American Bankers Association, who added that credit cards are "a product students can and should have access to as young adults."
"You shouldn't make policy based on a small minority" that may have trouble with managing credit, he said.
The University of Maryland activists wore light-blue polo shirts with a "Feesa" logo—spoofing Visa's—and warned of, "Free gifts now. Huge fees later."
Their table, the only one organized in Maryland out of more than 30 this week at universities nationwide, promoted safe credit card use and solicited petition signatures.
They also passed out lollipops that said, "Don't be a sucker."
One student activist, junior Rachel Levy, said she was "foolishly taken in" and signed up for a credit card to get a free T-shirt.
"I know I was a sucker," she said. Once she signed up, she was bombarded with junk mail and it became a hassle for her to cancel.
"I didn't think that much about what I was doing."