The recent woes of Compucredit Corp., a four-year-old subprime credit card lender, are a reminder of how fragile and volatile that end of the business can be. After the company revealed that its third-quarter chargeoff rate was higher than expected, its stock got slammed and shareholders began slapping lawsuits on the Atlanta firm.

Compucredit - which started life as a marketing firm that got other credit card banks to issue its cards, then won a banking charter of its own - sells cards and fee services (such as accident insurance and payment protection) primarily to people with damaged credit histories or little history at all.

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