Unlikely as it may seem, Gerri Detweiler, one of the more prominent consumer activists in the credit card area, studied to be an international banker.
But except for a brief stint as a mortgage loan officer right after college, Ms. Detweiler did not pursue her goal of entering the banking world.
Still, the irony of what she could have been and what she turned out to be is not lost on Ms. Detweiler, 30.
In 1987 she landed a job at BankCard Holders of America, the nonprofit watchdog in McLean, Va. She rose to executive director in February 1993, which gave her a high profile in the increasingly intensive media coverage of credit cards.
A year later she surprised many people by submitting her resignation, having decided to operate as an independent consultant. She said she was ready to move on.
Familiar Face on TV
So how will this committed consumer advocate, at home in front of network television cameras, fare on her own in the business world?
One thing seems certain: that Ms. Detweiler will not abandon what she sees as the consumer interest in credit issues. "The primary thing I want to do is work out educational programs," she said in a recent interview.
To that end, Ms. Detweiler, working out of her home in Arlington, Va., has completed half of a six-month consulting assignment with the AFL-CIO, which is offering its nearly 1 million union members a MasterCard issued by the Bank of New York.
Credit-Counseling Hot Line
Her main responsibility is overseeing the development of an information hot line for members who are rejected for the labor-sponsored affinity product. The program has about three million cardholders.
A nonprofit corporation affiliated with AFL-CIO called Union Privilege, which creates consumer benefit programs for the various unions, is spearheading the hot-line project.
"We are doing something that no one has done before," said Iles Minoff, assistant to the president of Union Privilege.
The hot line, which will be tested for 60 days beginning in October, will be staffed with people who can answer union members' questions about how to repair and establish their credit records.
Only One of Its Kind
It is unique, said Mr. Minoff, because no other credit card issuer refers its rejected applicants to an in-house credit-counseling service. The APL-CIO service is designed both for people who were aware of their credit problems before applying for the union MasterCard and for peopie who did not know they had a bad credit record until they were rejected by the bank.
Initially, the hot line will be devoted tO the credit card program, but Union Privilege is considering expanding it to help members who are denied other types of credit or loans.
"If it works, it could be an incredibly valuable service to both consumers and issuers," said Ms. Detweiler. The questions the hot line fields, she said, will reveal what consumers don't know and how the industry can provide better information.
How Does the System Work?
"We are likely to find that customers don't understand how they are approved" for credit, said Ms. Detweiler.
The union MasterCard is a no-annual-fee, no-grace-period program with an interest rate at five percentage points above prime. According to Ms. Detweiler, the program has a good application-acceptance rate, but "even if you turn down 10%, you are talking about tens of thousands of union members every year," said Ms. Detweiler.
She is in charge of deciding what kind of advice and brochures the hot line staff can give to its callers.
Praise from Successor
Ruth Susswein, who succeeded Ms. Detweiler as executive director of BankCard Holders of America, said of her former colleague: "I am glad to see that she is
still fighting for consumers, [because] she is one of the most knowledgeable people in the area of credit."
One of Ms. Detweiler's contributions to the consumer group was the creation of a report called Debt Zapper, which helps cardholders reduce their debt by designing a personal payment plan. Introduced nearly a year ago, Debt Zapper has become one of BankCard Holders of America's staple offerings.
The group offers a bevy of other products. For a $24 annual fee, members are entitled to a himonthly newsletter about credit and personal finance issues, a list of banks that offer no-fee and low-rate credit cards, educational pamphlets, and a list of issuers of secured credit cards.
Members can get Debt Zapper for $10; nonmembers pay $15.
In addition to her AFL-CIO consulting, Ms. Detweiler is a contributor to Good Advice Press of Elizaville, N.Y., which publishes The Banker's Secret Bulletin, a newsletter that offers consumers advice about shopping for bank products.
One issue Ms. Detweiler wrote about recently, and which she is particularly hot about, is how issuers market credit cards to college students.
Contrary to what bankers might assume, Ms. Detweiler believes college students should have credit cards while still in school. She feels that students need credit in case the unexpected arises, but also because it is more difficult to qualify for a credit card after leaving school.
Experience in Debt
Her criticism is not that students are being encouraged to apply for cards, but that they are not properly warned about the dangers of using them.
She should know, too.
Shortly after Ms. Detweiler