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Plastic People : Finances: Consumers are surfing from one credit card to another, dodging interest and racking up perks. But one false move and . . . <i> wipeout!</i>

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Time was major credit cards were all about the same--standard interest rates and fees, used mostly for travel and entertainment. You’d qualify for one or two, maybe graduate to gold versions, and keep them until you died.

No more. Today about 25,000 offers compete for your attention with widely varying rates, fees and bonuses, such as frequent-flier miles and Rolling Stones product discounts.

Now you’re likely to be carrying nine or more pieces of plastic.

The more offers and cards, the better to open and close accounts, transfer balances from one card to another, and shuffle your deck for everything from dentist visits to stocks and real estate.

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This is called credit card surfing, and tips for playing are traded like baseball cards at cocktail parties and in cyberspace clubs, where on-line users browse credit card libraries and exchange thousands of messages about how to buy more on credit at less cost.

Even those with little income are getting in on the action. Douglas Creighton, 22, a Pennsylvania college student, deals his hand of 23 cards totaling almost $34,000 in available credit, all secured without co-signers.

“It’s just all fun,” says Creighton, adding that he incurs no interest charges or annual fees for using the cards to gain free perks and build purchasing power.

Jane Smith, 55, a Burbank secretary, has five cards. Last year, she charged more than $1,000 a month, including down payments on a car and a time-share, collecting three free airline tickets along the way.

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“I charge everything I can and pay no interest charges for any of it,” says Smith, who charges only what she can pay for right away.

Industry experts say most surfing activity--switching cards, transferring balances, using cards to get such perks as free gas or flier miles--started about a year and a half ago, when issuers began offering and aggressively marketing credit cards with better rates, fees and advantages such as purchase protection and extended warranty programs.

Some consumers join organizations such as Bankcard Holders of America, a Virginia-based consumer group with more than 50,000 nationwide members.

“Consumers are waking up and saying ‘Hey, I can shop around,’ ” says Ruth Susswein, executive director of the nonprofit organization that opened just more than a year ago.

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“If you take a $2,500 balance at 16.5% and transfer it to a 12% card, you’ll save $112 that first year,” Susswein says. “If you switch to a 7.75% card, you’ll save $219. And you didn’t even have to cut back or do anything different to save that money.”

“For those who pay their bills in full--thereby incurring no finance charges--switching to a card with frequent-flier miles or other rebates can be smart, depending on the offers’ details, such as annual fees or other charges,” she says.

“The thing is, only about one-third of people pay their cards off each month. The others may end up spending a lot more in interest than if they used a lower-interest card with no miles. So it comes down to a cost-benefit analysis.”

Susswein says her organization recommends consumers take teaser rates if they last at least a year. Once the teaser rate is about to expire, it’s good to rate hop, but call your current issuer first and ask for a lower rate. “Many will lower a rate if you’re a valuable customer.”

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To help consumers in a rapidly changing economic climate, Compuserve’s Consumer Forum--with its section titled “Banking and Credit"--began last July.

Since then, 30,000 Compuserve members have joined, with the credit library the most popular downloading site, says forum administrator Edgar Dworsky.

The key for consumers, says Dworsky--whose day job is director of consumer education at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Consumer Affairs--is to find the catch in each credit card solicitation.

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“Some card issuers must stay up nights dreaming up clever but subtle ways to nickel-and-dime their consumers at every turn,” he says. “The name of the game is to find every possible accounting method to increase fees and finance charges.”

To alert forum members and other consumers to less-known and “devious” practices, Dworsky wrote “12 Credit Card Secrets Banks Don’t Want You to Know” (see accompanying story).

Still, savvy consumers have tricks of their own.

“There’s a lot more to credit cards now than just a means to pay,” says Dworsky, giving as example a man who racked up “10 million or some ridiculous amount” in airline miles by charging multiple money orders to a credit card.

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“And at some banks, you can transfer balances and it’s treated as a purchase, so you can double the amount of time before interest accrues and conceivably double rebates,” he says.

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One Compuserve subscriber is Nebraska resident Jeff Hix, 48. By day he works in the financial industry. At night, the self-described “single guy in the 15% tax bracket” handles his personal finances, rigorously manipulating credit cards to his advantage and sharing tips with other on-line surfers.

In spates of forum messaging, he reports that he owns more than six cards and pays off all bills in full monthly, incurring no interest charges. He writes that he consistently uses three cards, cards that have no annual fees and staggered billing dates, adding that he always gets at least 45 days of interest-free purchasing power.

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He says he shops carefully when choosing new cards--not only for interest rates and rebates, but for details such as issuers’ fraud deductibles, time zones in which customer service centers operate and the ability to save the cost of postage stamps by paying with electronic transfers.

“To me it’s a business approach to personal finance,” Hix says. “It’s about cash-flow management.”

For Creighton, credit card surfing is a lark that started about four years ago, when at age 18 he obtained his first Visa card through a school credit union. A month later, an American Express recruiter came to his campus and Creighton signed up.

“That one had a $50 annual fee, but I got $45 free in long distance calls,” he says. “So I figured I’d keep it a year and then cancel.”

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Next came the Citibank special application for students and a Sears application that gave free gifts just for applying.

“I kept constantly applying for that one,” he says. “I got free a two-liter bottle of pop, a calendar for 1992, another one for 1993.” He laughs. “I applied as often as twice in a week and was finally accepted after a year. They must’ve got tired of giving me all those premiums.”

His list goes on: cards with free gas and gas rebates, cards that earned him air miles and merchandise discounts.

He carries nine Visas and MasterCards, plus 14 gas and store cards, using them for everything he can, including college tuition. He pays the bills from his savings, money from an old insurance settlement and some loans from his parents when he gets good grades.

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At last count, the student had $33,750 in available credit.

“It’s kind of neat that I have the power to go out and spend 30K if I want, but I can’t imagine ever doing that,” he says. “Still, sometimes I feel like going across the street, laying down four to five cards and driving off in a new car.”

He says that he “probably has more credit than my parents could get” and adds that he is far from done building his deck.

“By the time I graduate, I’ll have up to $50,000 in credit. And after I get a regular job, who knows?”

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Jerrold Mundis has a different perspective, one that most all credit counselors share.

The New York-based writer, who once was devastated by debt, has for a decade lectured and written about the topic. This month, his 35th book, “Earn What You Deserve: How to Stop Underearning & Start Thriving” (Bantam), hit the stores.

He’s amused by people like Creighton, but worries about their futures.

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“Sure, some can make cards pay, but very few do,” he says. “Very few have the tenacity, clarity, will or time. It’s an illusion that suckers people in but most people who play end up in the red.”

And the profits aren’t all that great anyway.

“Even if they work the system assiduously, the most anyone can make equals by and large not more than a couple hundred dollars a year,” Mundis says. “And if they make just one misstep, the interest they’ll pay generally wipes out any actual profit.”

Mundis says the single biggest warning sign of problems is when a person has any kind of unpaid credit card balance.

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He offers a rough rule of thumb: “If you consistently carry a balance, you’re paying 50% to 100% more for everything you buy. You go out to dinner and charge $50, it cost you $75. Buy a color TV for $400, you’ve paid $600 to $800 by the time you’re done.” Other warning signs are bills piling up, past-due notices, having more than one Visa and one MasterCard, taking more than one or two cash advances in a year.

“No one in control of their finances needs more than one or two cards,” Mundis says.


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