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Take On Payments, a blog sponsored by the Retail Payments Risk Forum of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, is intended to foster dialogue on emerging risks in retail payment systems and enhance collaborative efforts to improve risk detection and mitigation. We encourage your active participation in Take on Payments and look forward to collaborating with you.

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July 30, 2018


Are You at Risk from Zombie Credit Cards?

Do you have any infrequently used credit cards hiding in the back of a drawer? Maybe a card you applied for to get a discount on a new washing machine? Or a card you used frequently a few years ago that has been superseded by a newer card with better rewards or a lower interest rate? You know, the kind of card you might think is dead but isn't quite.

I had a card like that in the back of a drawer, until my bank canceled it a few weeks ago. The bank pointed out that I hadn't used the card in years but offered me the opportunity to reactivate.

No, thanks. I don't need the extra exposure of a forgotten card that has long outlived its usefulness. It's enough trouble keeping track of the cards I do use.

When it comes to inactive credit cards, it turns out I'm not alone. The 2016 Federal Reserve Payments Study finds that, of general-purpose credit cards issued to consumers, 42 percent were not used to make at least one purchase a month during 2015. As a percentage share, this is about the same as 2012, when 44 percent of credit cards were not used at least once a month. ("General-purpose" cards use one of the four major credit card networks, while "private-label" cards can be used only at a particular merchant or limited set of merchants.)

In 2015, there were 192 million consumer general-purpose credit cards outstanding and inactive. That's about four inactive credit cards for every five adults in the United States. (The adult U.S. population in 2015 was 247 million.)

Of course, inactive cards are not necessarily abandoned cards, as mine was. Perhaps their owners reserve them for a special purpose, or keep them around for times when particular retailers offer discounts. Perhaps they are backups in case primary cards are compromised. Or perhaps they serve as an emergency credit cushion—a "just-in-case" line of credit.

Nevertheless, these account numbers are out there. Mine could be sitting in the database of a magazine that is automatically renewed every year or maybe attached to an expired membership at a website I don't use anymore. It's good to have that card canceled, to avoid the risk that the card will rack up charges, zombie-like.

So what about those infrequently used cards at your house? Are you holding on to an older card because a longer lifespan card could possibly improve your credit score? If not, today might be a good day to cancel and then cut them up.

Photo of Claire Greene By Claire Greene, a payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

July 30, 2018 in cards , consumer fraud , data security | Permalink

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