A 12-year-old boy with a subscription to Golf Digest magazine receives a preapproved offer for an MBNA golf affinity card. An investment banker who makes well into six figures and owns a Manhattan apartment finds his mailbox constantly stuffed with solicitations for secured cards.

Though fodder for humorists, stories about preapproved credit mailings addressed to babies, the deceased, and even dogs are no joke to an industry that spends billions of dollars a year on direct mail - which occasionally does more harm than good.

Indeed, the problem is actually getting worse, with response rates to mailings reaching all-time lows despite advances in potentially helpful techniques such as data mining. In the third quarter of 1999 the response rate for direct mailings was just 0.9%, the second quarter in a row it failed to reach 1%, according to BAI Global Inc., a market research firm in Tarrytown, N.Y. According to BAI's estimates, issuers mailed 2.3 billion solicitations through the first three quarters of 1999.

These trends are believed to have continued in the fourth quarter, which would mean issuers shoveled out something approaching $3 billion last year, at an estimated $1 per mailing.

Issuers "feel that with more and more tonnage, at least a trickle response will be better than nothing," said James L. Accomando, president of Accomando Consulting in Fairfield, Conn. "The problem with that is, it sets the organization up as absolutely missing their target."

Poorly targeted mailings can do damage beyond wastage, Mr. Accomando said. "For example, a bank may send someone a secured card offering and offend them, so the next time they send a regular mailing" to that person, it will most likely end up in the garbage.

Card issuers are making an effort to better target customers and are pulling back a bit from their mass-mailing ways.

MBNA Corp. said that the bulk of its customer acquisition is done through affinity group relationships and that mistargeted solicitations are a rarity.

"We mail about 350 million direct mail solicitations a year, and only very occasionally someone can slip through," said Steve Boyden, spokesman for MBNA in Wilmington, Del.

Julia Beaver, vice president of competitive tracking services at BAI Global, said direct mail volume has been decreasing steadily for a year. Issuers mailed 710 million solicitations in the third quarter, 100 million fewer than 1998.

"Issuers have been looking at their strategy and their targeting," Ms. Beaver said, "and my guess is, they are working to eliminate how much waste is out there."

But the continuing problem points to limits on what kind of help is available through new approaches such as data mining. Most of the progress so far has been made on working with existing customers rather than on finding potential new customers.

"There's no question that the leveraging of data mining technologies has not really made it as well into acquisition as it has in customer management," said William C. Hungerford, principal at Strategic Software Systems Inc. in Richmond, Va.

"Issuers are getting much better in portfolio management, in terms of building retention and cross-sell models," Mr. Hungerford said. "But in terms of really powerful response models and list criteria, they haven't come very far."

Mr. Hungerford said one problem is the difficulty banks have in integrating outside data. "There's not a consistency in terms of file layouts or data format," he said.

There is no shortage of companies working to address this issue, including the credit bureaus.

Last week Equifax Inc. announced it would buy the consumer information division of R.L. Polk & Co., a Detroit-based provider of consumer demographic and lifestyle information. Atlanta-based Equifax said it plans to offer issuers a new service: lists of people suitable for "invitation to apply" offers.

And Experian in Orange, Calif., and Acxiom Corp., a demographics company in Little Rock, Ark., are separately working on "ready-to-go" prospect warehouses that offer richer data than credit bureau files.

But analysts said the competitiveness of the card business leaves little leeway for cutting direct mail.

"If you're in the bank card business, it's mail or perish," said Peter DeForest, principal at Portfolio Defense Consulting Group in San Rafael, Calif.

In fact, issuers' creativity is partly responsible for the growing number of stray mail.

"As card issuers become more creative about the sources of data they're getting for their decisioning, they're going to more untraditional sources, and those sources are likely to be more error-ridden than the credit bureaus, " said Randi Weinberg, risk management director at Auriemma Consulting Group in Westbury, N.Y.

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