First USA has revived a credit card tradition of dubious repute: mailing unsolicited cards to consumers.
What makes it legal is that First USA's Platinum Connect card arrives as a telephone card loaded with an hour of calling time. Activating it as a credit card requires a telephone call or mailed application to the Banc One Corp. subsidiary.
Congress, in the Truth-in-Lending Act, outlawed the mailing of unsolicited credit cards after the practice caused widespread losses and abuses in the 1960s. First USA has hit upon "an interesting way to get around the law," said Donald M. Berman, president of Cardholder Management Services, Plainview, N.Y.
First USA executives expect a strong demand for Platinum Connect, which is available in MasterCard and Visa versions with both telephone and credit card features.
An actual plastic card in the mailings seems to attract more attention than the average piece of junk mail.
"We were taken aback by the overwhelming consumer response to the card," said F. Bennett Brake, senior vice president in charge of Platinum Connect. He would not say how many people had signed up for what is described as a phone card with an optional credit card feature.
"Consumers believe there is a lot of flexibility with phone cards, which have expanded rapidly in the last 18 to 24 months," Mr. Brake said.
No other credit card company is sending out cards in solicitations, said Robert G. Skolnick, executive vice president of BAI Global, a Tarrytown, N.Y., firm that tracks credit card mailings.
"Sending out cards as opposed to applications is a very powerful" technique, said Matthew Auriemma, vice president of Back Pages Inc., a Westbury, N.Y.-based company specializing in patented credit card products. Mr. Auriemma said First USA is eliminating the monthlong process of applying for and receiving a credit card.
But it takes a little effort to understand how Platinum Connect works.
First USA highlights the 60 free phone minutes, which are available whether or not the recipient activates the credit card. When the calling time is depleted, cardholders can replenish it by calling a toll-free number and charging the amount to any credit card.
Customer service representatives then prompt callers to apply over the phone for the credit feature. The card carries a 3.9% interest rate for seven months, which then rises to 9.99%. There is no annual fee.
To sweeten the deal, First USA gives a reward of 10% of the phone card purchases. People who use Platinum Connect as a credit card will see their balance reduced by the accrued reward amount every four months.
Even if the credit feature is not activated, cardholders can still earn reward dollars, cashing them in at retail outlets that accept MasterCard or Visa. The credit line in such instances is equal to the amount of reward dollars accrued.
"It's a complicated product," said Anita Boomstein of the New York law firm Hughes Hubbard & Reed. She wondered whether it might run into trouble with Meridian Enterprises Corp., a St. Louis marketing company that has sued a number of large credit card companies for patent infringement.
Meridian claims its patent protects a process for electronic crediting of rebates to cardholder accounts. All those sued by Meridian have reached legal settlements except for Chase Manhattan Bank and Shell Oil Co., which offer a cobranded MasterCard.
Meridian's attorney, Spiro Bereveskos, said he was not aware of the First USA phone-card offer. First USA's attorneys have looked at the Meridian patent and found "no patent issues," said David Webster, a First USA spokesman.
First USA is planning a series of products on the Platinum Connect model, requiring a customer who receives a card to activate it. The next will be a gasoline card called Platinum Supreme, but the Delaware-based bank declined to provide further details.