In one of the more absurd public privacy invasions online, Google has announced they are going to use FICO scores to help advertisers target ads at consumers in different credit buckets.
I wonder if at some point in time if AdWords advertisers selling the scammy government grand & biz-op offers will get to use this data to target poor people with low credit scores. It only makes sense that Google would spin this positively stating that it is good for brand advertisers to find credit-worthy customers, which is the story that was marketed in the above linked piece:
Consumers with high FICO scores demonstrate some unique attributes that show they shop carefully for the best cards. For example, shoppers begin using search earlier in their application process, they use the term "best credit cards" at three times the rate of lower FICO shoppers, and they are more likely to use branded terms.
Consumers with high FICO scores use non-branded search terms more than branded -- approximately 60% of high FICO searchers. They tend to search on terms, such as "travel rewards," "low rate," and "balance transfer."
From a marketer's perspective this makes a lot of sense. Smart people who manage their credit well look for tangible benefits in their financial choices...they don't just blindly buy the brand.
The problem is that (so long as the current bankruptcy "reform" remains in tact and taxpayers bail out any banking losses) bankers have little to no incentive to reach people with good credit scores. People who pay their credit cards on time are seen as deadbeats while the least credit worth are the profitable market segment because they use credit ignorantly and accrue billions of dollars in unneeded fees every year:
Overall, we find that debt literacy is low: only about one-third of the population seems to comprehend interest compounding or the workings of credit cards. Even after controlling for demographics, we find a strong relationship between debt literacy and both financial experiences and debt loads. Specifically, individuals with lower levels of debt literacy tend to transact in high-cost manners, incurring higher fees and using high-cost borrowing. In applying our results to credit cards, we estimate that as much as one-third of the charges and fees paid by less knowledgeable individuals can be attributed to ignorance. The less knowledgeable also report that their debt loads are excessive or that they are unable to judge their debt position.
Bankers have historically hidden these fees in illegible 30+ page contracts, as mentioned by Elizabeth Warren
I teach contract law at Harvard Law School and I can't understand my credit card contract. I just can't. It's not designed to be read. Read the Government Accountability Office (GAO) study on this. The GAO looked at credit cards and they said: "Nobody can understand this stuff." Are you kidding me? And understand when you've got terms that say: "In effect, we'll charge anything we want any time we want for any reason or no reason at all," what's the point of reading it?
She later commented on the ideal credit card customer
Every credit card for a credit card company is like a lottery ticket. They're just waiting to see who's going to maybe stumble a little. Maybe get into trouble on a car loan. Maybe nothing at all except they just look vulnerable. They're just in the right zip code. They're just the right profile for people who won't be able to run any place else. And those are the ones you slam. Those are the ones you hit with the 29 percent interest rate, the 35 percent interest rate, the new fees. And then, because of course if you can't pay it, then you get hit with a fee for not paying or for paying late, for going over limit. And the game is afoot. With any luck at all from the credit card company's perspective, these people will become little annuities that will just keep generating profits for the credit card companies for months, for years, maybe forever.
The idea of only servicing legitimate debt needs of customers that can afford their credit card bills has made banking industry executives so angry that they are threatening hitting consumers with lots of bogus new "conveninece" fees:
Now Congress is moving to limit the penalties on riskier borrowers, who have become a prime source of billions of dollars in fee revenue for the industry. And to make up for lost income, the card companies are going after those people with sterling credit.
Banks are expected to look at reviving annual fees, curtailing cash-back and other rewards programs and charging interest immediately on a purchase instead of allowing a grace period of weeks, according to bank officials and trade groups.
This new consumer-credit profiling Google is offering will be far more profitable to use on the poor, the weak, the desperate, the ignorant, and the uneducated. In early research Lawrence Page and Sergey Brin stated
Since it is very difficult even for experts to evaluate search engines, search engine bias is particularly insidious. ... We believe the issue of advertising causes enough mixed incentives that it is crucial to have a competitive search engine that is transparent and in the academic realm.
So were they right back then? Or are the right now? They can't be both.
Update: Sandra from Google's PR team emailed me the following
I've included an outline of the research methodology below the body of this note. Please let me know if you have questions or need clarification on any of the below -- or anything else, for that matter.
* Compete conducted a clickstream analysis on their opt-in panel of 2 million US online consumers, to associate FICO score categories with sites in the Google Content Network.
o The analysis took a look at the online behavior of Compete's opt-in panelists who shopped for or applied for a credit card online between January and March 2009, for the 30 days prior to the application and/or research.
+ Compete, via a sister company that provides secure matching of certain characteristics (one of which is FICO scores) to anonymous/anonymized individuals in the Compete panel, segmented the opt-in panelists into one of three categories, based on their FICO score: Super Prime (720 and above), Prime (600 to 719), and Sub-Prime (below 600).
+ Individual scores and personally identifiable information were not used by Compete, nor were they received by Google.
o Google provided Compete with a list of all sites in the Google Content Network.
o Compete compared how panelists in each FICO band searched and where the panelists spent time on the GCN, and ranked each GCN site based on its ability to reach consumers in particular FICO score bands.
o The ranking/scores of the GCN sites were passed on to Google -- not any information about the credit scores of individuals.
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