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More credit card companies are targeting teenagers

Sean McFarlin is a responsible young man who works hard and saves his money. He studies his savings account statements at the end of the month, and he loves to see those numbers grow.

Still, Sean is only 14, and his mom thinks he's way too young to be receiving credit card applications.

"It started when he was 13," Sheryl Frerichs says. "He's had about 10 offers in the last year."

Frerichs, a probation officer, understands that teens under the age of 18 cannot get conventional credit cards without a parent's approval.

But she doesn't like the idea of targeting teens.

"Giving kids credit cards is just asking for trouble," Frerichs says.

Many adults agree with Frerichs. Others call the cards learners' permits, an opportunity to teach children to manage plastic while they are still at home and closely supervised.

"There's nothing wrong with a credit card as long as the user is educated," says Neale Godfrey, who has written 13 books on financial literacy for parents and children.

What is wrong, Godfrey says, is the failure of the credit industry and parents to teach young people how to use the plastic.

"It's like electricity," says Godfrey, who lives in New Jersey. "It's a wonderful thing, but if you stick your tongue in a socket you're going to electrocute yourself."

Young adults 18 and older apply for credit cards on their own and assume responsibility for the debts incurred.

No question the credit industry is in hot pursuit of those young customers _ card issuers set up booths on college campuses throughout the country and woo them with gifts and attractive interest rates.

Godfrey says the credit industry also wants the business of youngsters under 18, even if they are not solicited so openly or so often. "They want the whole family, Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa and the kids, too. They want to develop brand loyalty."

The plastic that high school students can use include credit cards co-signed by parents, debit cards and prepaid cards, which can be loaded to a certain amount by adults, spent by kids, then loaded, spent and reloaded continually.

People in the know in the credit industry are reluctant to say how many kids are actually walking around with cards.

"We wouldn't be offering the product if the response rates weren't strong," says Diana Don, a spokeswoman for Capital One Financial Corp. "We see the (co-signed) cards as an opportunity to teach children to use credit wisely."

Adds Godfrey, "It's relatively widespread. It is not uncommon."

Credit card issuers buy lists of names from marketing companies, who get the information from a variety of places, says Rick Ramirez with the Better Business Bureau Education Foundation. Common sources are public school records, businesses selling items such as class rings, student jackets and graduation invitations and book and CD clubs.

Kids also wind up on credit card mailing lists after they sign up for raffles, subscribe to magazines or shop on the Internet.

For high-schoolers who want plastic and parents who are dragging their heels, here is more food for thought:

+ Each credit card charge is essentially a loan, and if it is not paid in full at the end of the month, the credit card holder will have to pay interest. Skipped payments mean additional fees.

Rudy Cavazos, with the Consumer Credit Counseling Services here, says too often purchases plus interest charges plus late fees spell trouble. It doesn't take long for teens to ruin their credit histories for years to come.

+ Whoever co-signs the credit-card application should monitor the account monthly. If the child can't pay, that adult is responsible for the bill.

+ Cavazos says teens who get into debt should assess their income, if they have one, assess their expenses, then cut back on expenses to whittle away at the debt.

+ Teens in trouble with bills should call the creditor, explain the situation and ask for a decrease in the interest rate. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't, Cavazos says, but it's worth a try.

Also, it's important to maintain communication with the creditor.

+ Parents should resist the urge to rescue their child and simply pay the bill. Says Cavazos, "That's the reverse of the message they are trying to convey."

+ Debit cards may be easier for high-schoolers to manage than credit cards, say Godfrey and other experts.

They look like credit cards, but the costs of the purchases are deducted from checking accounts. There are no bills at the end of the month, and there is nothing to pay back. The only catch is that users must keep track of their debits or they will overdraw their accounts.

+ Practice does not necessarily make perfect. Charla Merrel, director of the Academy of Finance within the Spring Branch Independent School District, says she gave her teenage daughter a secondary charge card that was tied to her own, longstanding account.

The teen did great. She was very responsible. Then she went away to college, got her own credit card and forgot the rules her mom had taught her.

The credit card issuer raised her ceiling from $1,000 to $5,000, and she kept spending. Problem was, she didn't have a job or any means of paying the bills.

Merrel says, "We cut up the card, canceled it, and she paid off the debt. But I hated that she had to learn that way. I don't like these companies soliciting teens."

+ Financial consultant Laury Adams likens the use of credit to a game. "If you have to pay finance charges, the credit companies are the winners. If you pay off your balance every month, (the loan is free and) you are the winner."

+ Credit card users often get it backward when they whip out their cards, Adams says. "Don't purchase something, then make a plan to pay. Make a plan to pay first, then complete your purchase."

+ When it comes to credit card management, teens should be careful about following their parents' examples, says Ramirez with the Better Business Bureau here.

"Sometimes adults don't mind not paying that bill on time or putting one aside until next month.

In the past, it didn't matter that much if you had trouble with a credit report. Today, those black marks can keep you from getting a loan for a car or a home."

Also, says Ramirez, teens who have credit cards should also have jobs. "It is not a toy."

+ Read the fine print on credit card applications, says Catherine Pulley with the American Bankers Association, and shop around for the card that suits.

Consumers who pay off their balances every month should shop for perks such as airline miles or itemized, end-of-the-year statements.

Those who will keep a revolving balance should look for low interest rates. Anything between 7.9 percent and 9.9 percent would be a good fixed annual rate.

Pulley can't stress it enough: Parents need to talk to their kids about money. That's just as important, she says, as teaching them to look both ways before they cross the street.

+ A toll-free number, 1-888-567-8688, helps consumers erase their names from mailing lists for pre-approved offers of credit generated by the major credit reporting agencies.

Sean McFarlin, the 14-year-old who has received numerous credit card applications in the past year, says he's just not ready for the pressure or responsibility that comes with carrying plastic.

Maybe, he says, when he's 17.

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