October 15, 2008

No Interest? No Interest! Discover Card Puts the Junk in Junk Mail

You gotta love asterisks* — those little stars that tell you some juicy bits of information are lying far from the statement you just read. The late great novelist David Foster Wallace turned the footnote into a powerful literary tool; “notes and errata” make up nearly 100 pages of his 1079-page novel Infinite Jest, and they’re as compelling to read as the main body of the novel itself.

Then I got a massive jest of sorts from Discover Card in my mailbox…

The exterior of the envelope proclaims “0% APR* On Transferred Balances + Rate Good For Life Of The Balance = No Worries.” The back of the envelope lists a return address (company name omitted) and the footnote: “*See inside for details.”

Nice marketing pitch, Discover. It worked: I opened the envelope. And inside I found a credit card offer so convoluted, it would have Henry Paulson scratching his head. Here’s how it starts (I’ve included boldfacing, underlining, etc. just as it appears in the letter)…

“Now you can enjoy a low 0% APR* on balance transfers FOR LIFE of the balance, plus 0% APR* on all your purchases until March 2009 with the Discover More Card.”

OK, sounds good — though isn’t “low 0%” a little redundant? As opposed to, say, a “high 0%? Never mind. What’s the next enticing sentence?

“Want more? Extend your 0% APR FOR LIFE* on transferred balances simply by making two purchases or cash transactions each month, beginning May 2009.”

So, wait, my “FOR LIFE” comes with conditions? And what’s with the galaxy of twinkling asterisks here?

So I flipped over the letter to find the fine print — though there’s not much “fine” about it. You know those two purchases you have to make to prolong your wonderful 0% offer? If you’re carrying a balance, any new purchases will start getting assessed your “standard APR” of 9.99% to 15.99%. And what if you make cash advances? Those IMMEDIATELY get hit with a whopping 23.99 APR%. And don’t forget the way credit cards work: you can’t pay off those high APR purchases and advances until your first charges are paid off — you know, the ones earning “0%”. Hmmm, 0% ain’t what it used to be.

In fact, yet another asterisked footnote points out that you might not get that 0% at all!

“If you are not approved for this offer you may be approved for another offer with different rates and terms.”

That other “offer” is 3.9% interest on the transferred balance, with a “standard APR” of 15.99% and 18.99%!

And, by the way, if you happen to go over limit or miss some payments, your “default rate” may be “up to 30.99%.” That’s not a typo: 30.99%.

So, when exactly will Discover tell you which offer you get — the 0% or the 3.9%? Why, AFTER you get the card. Of course, they make it convenient to transfer balances NOW on your application form.

Oh, there’s one more little note: even if you qualify for that “0% APR for life,” there’s a 3% Balance Transfer Transaction fee (4% if you get the crappy offer).

Finally, to make sure that no stone is left uncharged, Discover also has cash advance transaction fees, late fees, and overlimit fees on top of the higher punitive interest rates.

But don’t worry. Really. Because that’s what this direct mail says in big bold letters:

“No Worries: Accept the worry-free, big-rewards card today!”

Why worry? It’s just money…

Sorry, Discover, I’ve received better offers from friends of Nigerian princes. This is one offer I can refuse.

*Ha! Made you look!

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

2 Responses

  1. These people should be ashamed of themselves because (imo) the majority of people that would fall for it would be the elderly.

  2. I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to write this post. I just got the very same offer from Discover that you described in the mail and was definitely tempted. I was thinking of transferring a high balance from another credit card. I guess my father was right, “If it sounds too good to be true it probably is!”

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