Adding momentum to its secured credit card strategy, Citicorp has begun test-marketing to the Hispanic communities of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Houston.

The nation's largest credit card issuer is airing Spanish-language television commercials and has prepared similar print ads in what could be the start of a nationwide effort.

Citicorp officials are not disclosing details of their plan. Like all secured cards, Citicorp's is mainly for people who need to establish or reestablish a record for creditworthiness. Deposit balances serve as collateral for credit lines.

A Market with Potential

The Spanish TV spots began in June and are the only current television ads for the secured card, said Citicorp spokeswoman Maria Rullo. Other promotions are under way elsewhere.

Card issuers see the secured product as a way to reach new customers in an increasingly saturated market. Marketing experts see great potential in the Spanish-speaking communities.

David Thomas, vice president of Strategy Research Corporation West, Irvine, Calif., said: "The attraction of marketing to the Hispanic population is its size and potential for growth. You can't do business in California or Texas without touching this segment."

The market is also relatively untapped. Strategy Research says 67% of Hispanics don't own a credit card.

"There is an element of the Hispanic population [that exhibits] high telephone and airline usage," said Mr. Thomas. "And many card programs target these needs."

Citicorp is not the first card issuer to see the opportunity.

People's Bank of Bridgeport, Conn., was first with a "bilingual" card -- an affinity program begun in 1991 with the Telemundo television network.

In March, First Consumers National Bank of Beaverton, Ore., a private-label card issuer owned by the mail-order firm Spiegel Inc., launched the bilingual Adelante MasterCard.

|Fastest-Growing' in U.S.

The Hispanic-oriented card comes in secured and unsecured versions and includes a fundraising feature -- a portion of revenues goes to scholarships. The interest rate on both the secured and unsecured cards is 18.9%.

"The Hispanic market is the fastest-growing in the United States," First Consumers president J. Richard Speicher said when the program was announced. The bank's marketing partner is Hispanics Northwest Community Development Corp.

On the market since the beginning of the year, Citicorp's standard secured product -- called Citibank Classic -- is a MasterCard or Visa credit card with a relatively high 19.8% interest rate.

The offsetting, 18-month certificate of deposit currently pays 4.5%. The balance can be from $300 to $5,000, and the credit line is equal to that amount.

Citicorp is among the minority of banks that do not accept customers for its secured card who have had a previous bankruptcy or a serious delinquency listed on their credit report. The bank's intent is to graduate the customers to unsecured cards.

When the CD comes due, Citicorp evaluates the customer's payment record. If there has been no delinquency problem, the deposit is returned and the customer is issued an unsecured classic card at the prime rate plus 9.4% -- which at present would come to 15.4%.

But if the customer does not yet qualify for the lower-rate card, Citicorp will not necessarily terminate the credit relationship at the 18-month mark.

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