Your Money: Card firms sweet-talk us deeper into debt

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The Independent Online

The terrible tale of Stephen Lewis, who committed suicide after running up debts of £70,000 on a series of credit cards - even though his job as a production worker earned him only £22,000 a year - becomes still more alarming when you consider that this level of borrowing is not out of the ordinary.

The terrible tale of Stephen Lewis, who committed suicide after running up debts of £70,000 on a series of credit cards - even though his job as a production worker earned him only £22,000 a year - becomes still more alarming when you consider that this level of borrowing is not out of the ordinary.

The Consumer Credit Counselling Service has been inundated with pleas for help in recent weeks and is coming across even greater debts. One individual amassed £200,000 worth of debts on 39 credit cards.

Such sums are truly astonishing. Two hundred thousand pounds is some spending even by the standards of Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines, who had a soft spot for shoes.

The thought of people spending well beyond their means reminds me of an ex-flatmate who would be the first to admit she was bad with credit cards. Even though she had a good job, she didn't have a credit card, following a bad experience as a student when she ran up thousands of pounds worth of debt on her plastic.

She got into such difficulty that not only did she not make the minimum payment to the card provider each month, she didn't even open her statements. She was just too scared. Eventually she sought help, but it took several years to rid herself of her debts and get her finances back on an even keel.

One day she ran into my room, enthusiastically waving a letter. "Guess what?" she said excitedly. "This card is offering me £25,000 credit. I could buy a house with that." (This was several years ago and she is from Manchester, so at a pinch that £25,000 might have bought her a small property there).

Apart from the fact that the rate of interest would have been far higher than on a mortgage, the point is that someone who had experienced real problems with credit in the past, and, frankly, couldn't be trusted with it, should never have been offered such an amount. And she knew it.

I ripped up the letter before she'd managed to convince herself that maybe she could handle a few hundred pounds of credit, even if she didn't spend the full amount.

The spokeswoman from the Association of Payment Clearing Services who tried to defend the industry on GMTV last week said Mr Lewis's case was extremely unusual. But while suicide in such circumstances is, thankfully, a rare course of action, being offered silly amounts of credit is all too common.

I have two credit cards and just this past week both providers contacted me. An email from Egg revealed that it had come to the internet bank's attention that I hadn't used my card recently. To encourage me to do so, Egg was offering me £10 if I spent £50 on my plastic before the end of the month. I think it was only coincidence that this email arrived the week after I had complained in this column about Egg's decision to reduce its cashback from 0.5 to 0.1 per cent from next month. But cashback of, in effect, 20 per cent is what I call an improvement.

The second letter came from Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, with which I have a platinum card. Since January, I have cut right back on my spending, having used my card way too much over Christmas. Yet Morgan Stanley was informing me that my credit limit had been extended to £6,000, even though I didn't request this and my current outstanding balance (which I pay off every month) is not even £400.

This seems to be a cynical move from Morgan Stanley to encourage customers to spend more. I hadn't applied for more credit, yet I was getting it anyway.

Being sensible (well, some of the time), my priority before the month is up will be to spend £50 on my Egg card to qualify for a tenner in cashback.

Luckily, I am not the sort of person to be tempted by £6,000 worth of credit. But unfortunately, plenty of people might be. So the Government must force card providers to be more responsible when dishing out credit. Only then can we avoid someone else finding themselves in the same situation as Mr Lewis.

m.bien@independent.co.uk

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