Friday, December 15, 2006

Are You In (Over Your Head)?

You may be surprised to hear that I’m actually pretty temperate on the topic of credit. Though I’ve seen how debt can cause serious strife, I don’t believe that the lending industry exists to deliberately wreak havoc in the lives of its customers. Profits are profits, and for better or worse this industry profits by siphoning off the earning power of all those who carry a balance. Caveat emptor, cardholders. At least read the Schumer Box before you’re seduced by the suggestion you’re “worthy” of “platinum status.”

My general neutrality ends when lenders cross the line between offering a product and enabling an addiction. Arriva is being positioned as a card designed for the gaming lifestyle. How so? Because the major selling point of the Arriva is the fact that you can get a cash advance of up to 100% of your credit limit. You know, because throwing your car keys or the deed to your house on the table after you’ve lost all your money is only really done in movies.

I won’t belabor the facts about how Arriva charges you 3% on every transaction (makes the $5 fee on casino ATMs seem like a downright bargain), or how Arriva’s interest rates, from 15.49% to 24.49% are significantly above the current industry average of 13.16%. The terms and conditions page lays it all out for you in black and white (and red, with pictures of pretty girls and guys having loads of fabulous fun).

So why does this product fill me with outrage? Because it’s primary attribute is that it enables a problem behavior. “Enabling,” in the addictions world, is defined as depriving the addict from the consequences of their behavior in a way that prolongs the cycle of addiction. Labels can sometimes distract from the point at hand, and I want to be clear that I’m not labeling all Arriva customers gambling addicts. But when you choose to borrow money at 15%+ so that you can continue to gamble, it might be time to take a hard look in the mirror.

For the non-problem gambler, it hurts to lose money. It hurts, but the non-problem gambler uses this environmental feedback to enter a healthy decision-making process that goes something like this:

“I came to the casino with $500 to gamble with. I’ve lost my $500. That sucks. I’d really like to continue gambling – maybe I could win my money back! No, I should step away from the tables (slots, etc.). Five hundred was my limit, and I can’t afford to lose any more.”

The difference between the problem- and the non-problem gambler is that the problem gambler’s persistent impulse to continue gambling overrides the negative environmental feedback. He/she engages in progressively more risky behaviors in order to continue gratifying the impulse.

The Arriva is the enabler here, because this card's entire premise implies that it’s perfectly okay to borrow money to continue gambling. And Arriva is hardly a disinterested enabler. The parent company of Arriva, Global Cash Access, is "a leading provider of cash access products and related services to approximately 960 gaming properties..."

The message that it's okay to borrow to gamble is also obscured by offering rewards and points that seem almost like the consumer is getting a deal.

This is a gross distortion of reality. A person who borrows $5,000 – oops, make that $5,150 because you have to tack on the 3% transaction fee – will pay back $463.59 a month for an entire year, and Arriva will collect $563.08 in interest and fees above the $5,000 you withdrew. That's a great deal for Arriva.

What do you get? Well, you get a chance to gamble with that $5,000 and you get a whopping $37.50 in cash-back rewards (redeemable for food or merchandise on the casino floor). And don’t make a late payment over the course of the year – I computed the above example using 15.49%, the lowest rate offered.

Arriva is a product that profits from the poor choices and limited options of its customers. It might even be subject to products liability regulation because offering high-cost credit for gambling purposes is inappropriate and predatory.

Bottom line: it feels bad to lose money. It feels bad to have to walk away from an activity that’s fun and exciting. It feels bad that this is your vacation, and you don’t want to have to stop having fun on your vacation.

Sometimes things happen in life that are difficult and unpleasant. When we can’t face this, we enter a process of denial that takes away our ability to make good choices. Arriva promises escape (or delay) from the pain of loss or anxiety in much the same way one might use opiates. It’s important that potential consumers examine the dangers of this product, and try to limit their exposure to risk before they’re in an emotionally-charged situation.

When it comes to using Arriva to gamble, just say no!