Co-signed credit cards: Unloved option poised for comeback?

Co-signed credit cards have been disdained by experts as financial folly and shunned by credit card issuers as a troublesome product.

Yet, despite their reputation as the ugly ducklings of the credit world, co-signed credit cards may be poised for a comeback, pushed back into use by a changing regulatory landscape and a recession that has card issuers looking to spread risk.

One of the top credit card issuers in the United States, Discover, plans tooffer it in the coming months, by the time the major provisions of the Credit CARD Act of 2009 kick in Feb. 22, 2010. "We will be offering co-sign capabilitiesby the time the new law takes effect," says Matthew Towson, a spokesman forDiscover.Another, Capital One, is considering it.

But co-signing is a touchysubject. Many of the top U.S. card issuers refused to comment to onwhether they plan to offer them. Several wouldn't even disclose whether they currentlyoffer co-signed credit cards.

Co-signing's problemCo-signed credit cards aren't the industry's most cuddly product. By definition, credit card co-signers get a bad deal. They have all the legal responsibility for the debt, and none of the charging privileges. That has made co-signing for credit cards an undesirable choice, say financial experts.

Co-signed cards typically have been used within families, allowing relatives with bad credit -- or youngsters with no credit -- access to a credit card, since a more responsible family member has agreed to pay if something goes wrong. It often does. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling's advice is typical: "Think long and hard before agreeing to co-sign a loan," say its tips on lending to family.

In recent years, with the rise of other waysof accessing plastic -- from becoming an authorized user or joint account holderto whipping out a debit card -- there was little reason for card issuers to offer co-signing to theircustomers. Of the top 10 credit cardissuers, only two -- or possibly three, depending on who you ask -- allow a third-party to co-sign for someoneelse's debt. (See chart: "Which credit card issuers offer co-signed cards?")

But that could change. InFebruary, a provision of the Credit Card Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act willprohibit those under 21 from obtaining credit cards unless they can:

  • Show that they have sufficient income to pay the bills; or
  • Get a co-signer.

Themeasures are meant to prevent young adults (especially college students) whohave little income from getting inover their heads with plastic.

What happens in February?Observers see the new law giving issuers a nudge toward offering co-signed cards to young consumers and their more-established relatives. "I would expect to see morecompanies perhaps evaluating that option," says Lynne Strang, a vice presidentof the American Financial Services Association, a Washington, D.C.-based industry group.

"I expect to see it among someissuers, and others won't" offer it, she says. "I think it's going to be mixed,depending on what their research and their customers tell them."

And one consumer advocatebelieves that more issuers will offer co-signing if they want to continue tocompete for the lucrative college-student market.

"Ithink that the companies, if they want to provide cards to people between theages of 18 and 21, will have to" offer co-signing, says Linda Sherry, directorof national priorities for Consumer Action, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group."Otherwise, they'll be at a disadvantage to the rest of the market."

A long-term risk for co-signersOne consumer group points to a gap in the CARD legislation as one which could potentially leaveadult co-signers on the debt hook for decades.

"Thereis nothing in the CARD Act that prohibits the card issuer from saying theco-signer is still liable even after the cardholder turns 21," says Chi Chi Wu,staff attorney for the Boston-based National Consumer Law Center. Andco-signers, who think they are just vouching for young adults for a finiteperiod before their 21st birthdays, may not understand that, shesays.

"Soa parent or guardian could still be on the hook for that debt" 10, 20 or 30years later, Wu says.

Advocatesare suggesting that the Federal Reserve, which is still reviewing theregulations, either set a finite time line for responsibility or require aco-signer to check a box if he or she agrees to be responsible for the billafter the cardholder turns 21, says Wu.

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