A 13-year-old in Maine recently received a preapproved gold card offer with a $5,000 credit line.
"I don't think he ever held a paper route," said David Leach, the Maine Bureau of Banking's director for consumer outreach, who heard about the solicitation from the boy's mother.
The youngster did have a subscription to an upscale skiing magazine, which likely triggered the direct-mail offer, Mr. Leach said.
It was just one example of how more and more credit cards are finding their way into the hands of students before they graduate from high school.
Mr. Leach, who writes consumer booklets and travels across Maine speaking to high school students, has found in informal surveys that more than 10% of high school seniors have a credit card. That is twice the level of just two years ago, he said.
"These students getting credit cards are getting into a lot of trouble," Mr. Leach said.
Credit counselors, consumer advocates, and other observers nationwide are reporting that credit difficulties are engulfing ever younger consumers. But most of the evidence remains anecdotal, as hard numbers are difficult to find.
Gerri Detweiler, author of "The Ultimate Credit Handbook," said it is hard to nail down statistics because credit card companies say their data bases don't have answers about age characteristics.
For instance, when a card is first issued, banks might know a student is in college, but after that they can't say what the person is doing.
Ms. Detweiler has heard tales while hosting credit discussions on the Internet. Recently, a parent said her 14-year-old got a card, and the issuing institution knew the child's age, Ms. Detweiler said.
The Consumer Federation of America hears questions about the trend but also lacks statistics to back it up, said executive director Stephen Brobeck.
"Some card companies are targeting students who have jobs or savings accounts," Mr. Brobeck said. "We're particularly concerned if parents have not approved these cards because, after all, most of these students are minors. They have little training in personal finance."
The earlier students get cards, the less prepared they are to deal with the responsibilities and consequences, Mr. Leach said.
Though parents might be able to supervise high school age kids, it can be trouble when they arrive at college with a card or move into their own apartment after high school with a low-paying job.
"They don't understand," Mr. Leach said. "It really affects their financial vitality."
The Consumer Federation of America, which is working with Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy 2d on a broad-based bill that would police marketing practices, believes the biggest danger to students is in quickly approved credit increases, Mr. Brobeck said.
Credit limits can be sizable despite a lack of income. A child of a colleague of Mr. Brobeck, a college student with no job, recently received a card offer with a $10,000 line.
Ivy Hecker, a vice president with National Credit Counseling Services, Columbia, Md., said she did not think much about credit cards in the hands of minors until she observed them first-hand.
Ms. Hecker is a volunteer mentor at a school in an affluent community between Washington and Baltimore.
When one ninth-grader proposed doing a study of the heavy debt carried by his peers, "quite frankly, I didn't understand," she said.
It turned out that many of the boy's classmates were hundreds or thousands of dollars in debt. Using mostly retail store cards, the students buy trendy items like $100 sneakers, Ms. Hecker explained. But shouldn't the credit cards have to be in parents' names?
"Absolutely not," Ms. Hecker said. "That's what's absolutely crazy about this."
She conceded that she, too, has no firm handle on the true magnitude of the problem.
With all the attention placed on college-age students' credit problems, perhaps high school issues haven't been adequately explored, she said. "Maybe, falsely, we've been assuming it's not a problem."
Robert A. Bugai, president of College Marketing Intelligence, North Arlington, N.J., is not surprised that high school students have credit cards. "The old marketing saying is 'be there first,'" he said, and card issuers "are trying to get there before their competitors."
Mr. Bugai, who has made a career of investigating crooked marketers and scams, said unscrupulous salespeople are at fault for many of the cards in minors' names.
He contended the worst offenders have students fill out multiple-page applications and doctor the forms later. Card issuers are aware of the practices, "but they turn a blind eye," he said.
Apparently not First USA Inc., which recently sent apologies to members of the U.S. Figure Skating Association after its marketing materials went to a number of minors.
"We do not market to children," said Tony Plohoros, a spokesman. "It's a shame this happened."
MasterCard International and Visa U.S.A. leave age requirements up to card issuers. Both associations have programs aimed at educating high school students about credit card use and related financial matters.
MasterCard spokesman Edward Dixon said the company tries to be proactive in educating teenagers. "We do not market to anyone below age 18," Mr. Dixon said.
Mr. Bugai said marketers get student names from lists. Some purportedly show who took the SATs.
List compilers often fraudulently use the SAT name and do not have access to official data, said Brad Quin, director of admissions and enrollment services for the College Board, which oversees the college entrance examinations.
Mr. Quin said there has been an increase in the number of fraudulent marketers illegally using the SAT name when contacting a student whose name was found elsewhere. The College Board provides students' names only to interested colleges and universities after the student gives permission, he said.
Most scams involve college financing. Mr. Quin said he has not noticed an increase in credit card marketers' using the College Board's name.
But with stories of children's receiving credit cards becoming ever more common, consumer education might have to start even earlier.
"Middle school might be right," Mr. Leach said.