Debt-collectors and credit card companies: the psychologists of predatory lending

The NYT has an in-depth look at the pop-psych training that bill collectors are getting, using profile data sucked out of card histories to figure out how to get inside debtors' heads and get them to cough up money they can't afford. This is driven by the long-term strategy of offering cards to poor credit risks on the grounds that they'd be apt to get into debt and cough up huge amounts in interest payment, unlike well-heeled yuppies who pay every bill on time.
The exploration into cardholders' minds hit a breakthrough in 2002, when J. P. Martin, a math-loving executive at Canadian Tire, decided to analyze almost every piece of information his company had collected from credit-card transactions the previous year. Canadian Tire's stores sold electronics, sporting equipment, kitchen supplies and automotive goods and issued a credit card that could be used almost anywhere. Martin could often see precisely what cardholders were purchasing, and he discovered that the brands we buy are the windows into our souls -- or at least into our willingness to make good on our debts. His data indicated, for instance, that people who bought cheap, generic automotive oil were much more likely to miss a credit-card payment than someone who got the expensive, name-brand stuff. People who bought carbon-monoxide monitors for their homes or those little felt pads that stop chair legs from scratching the floor almost never missed payments. Anyone who purchased a chrome-skull car accessory or a "Mega Thruster Exhaust System" was pretty likely to miss paying his bill eventually...

To see how one company transforms thousands of low-paid employees into telephone psychiatrists, I attended a day of Bank of America's four-week training program at the company's Delaware offices. (I was allowed to attend on the condition that I neither identify nor interview the trainees during the course.) At the front of the classroom, a poster explained the company's "Customer Delight Model." The trainees were supposed to "provide a delightful opening," "employ delightful words," "acknowledge and empathize" and "personalize with a POWER close." They spent the morning discussing hypothetical cases, like a cardholder with twins whose husband announced he had fallen in love with another woman. He handed over divorce papers, had a moving truck outside and in short order took over the house and left the cardholder with two kids, only $400 a week and a ton of credit-card debt.

What Does Your Credit-Card Company Know About You?