Providian Starts Caring

Since when did Providian get a conscience?

In the 1990s, Providian Financial (NYSE: PVN  ) was known as the lender to the unlucky -- peddling credit cards to consumers with shaky credit scores. Class action lawsuits (including the largest settlement ever by a U.S. credit card company in a consumer protection case) and the ensuing bad press made some put Providian in the same camp as Lenny's Corner Loan Sharks.

The comeuppance was ugly. As customers' finances tumbled, they took Providian's business -- its share price, its employees' jobs -- with them. The company all but abandoned the subprime business and started wooing a less risky customer base. It now keeps company with the likes of American Express (NYSE:AXP), BankOne (NYSE:ONE), Motley Fool credit card providerMBNA (NYSE:KRB), Citigroup (NYSE:C), and Capital One (NYSE:COF). The makeover is punctuated by a tagline on the company's website: "But we're Providian, a new kind of credit card company."

Indeed it is. In fact, Providian's latest customer acquisition strategy seems downright golden-hearted.

Providian's Real Information program lets customers check their FICO credit score (provided by TransUnion) for free once a month. The perk includes access to score simulators (to see how certain actions, such as paying off a card, might affect one's score) and tracking features.

Brilliant. But even more so, Real Information is a perk that might make a difference where it counts. I don't know how many pre year-2000 subprime customers are left in Providian's client portfolio, but if they've still got an active Providian card, they should take the company up on this offer. According to a Consumer Federation of America/Providian survey released Tuesday (.pdf download), consumers with the lowest income and the least education know the least about credit scores. Only 16% of those with incomes of $25,000 or less understand that a credit score measures credit risk. And 62% of respondents in that income-range falsely believe that married couples have a combined credit score.

Hold off on that letter of recommendation, however. Signs of the old Providian are still in its marketing plans. The Providian Real Rewards program, introduced at the same time as its Real Information plan, is a perk for only those with the strongest willpower.

The card offers the requisite points for purchases (one point for every $1 spent) and even an innovative feature that earns cardholders 500 points for six consecutive months of on-time payments. Sounds good so far. But let me spoil the ending: The third way to earn points is quite simply a bad deal for most customers. Customers who maintain a balance earn 10 points for every $100 in revolving balances every billing cycle.

Do the math: You need 1,000 points to earn a $10 Barnes & Noble gift card, or 10,000 points for a $100 gift card for Macy's. Does carrying a revolving balance of around $8,000 on your card for 12 months sound like a good way to get a $100 gift card?

Still, the kind of temptation Providian set up with its point system could drive its customers right back into the arms of the companies that have taken Providian's old spot in the subprime lending category.

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