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18 fun facts about credit cards

The first general-purpose credit cards were made of paper and had a credit limit of $300. My, how things have changed.

By MSN Money Partner Jul 8, 2011 8:35AM

This post comes from Len Penzo at partner blog Len Penzo dot Com.


If you're like me, you never ever give your credit cards a second thought. However, after recently getting stuck in a supermarket line behind a nice lady who decided to pay for her groceries with a giant bag of loose change, I developed a new appreciation for their convenience.


Heck, nowadays I use credit cards to pay for almost everything. Naturally, I also make sure to pay off my balance in full every month to avoid paying interest.


Anyway, this renewed love affair with my credit cards inspired me to learn a little more about them. Here are a few credit card facts you probably didn't know:

  • In 1950, Diners Club became the first company to offer a credit card that could be used at multiple locations. Initially the credit card was accepted at just 14 restaurants in New York. Even so, within a year, more than 20,000 people were using it.
  • Diners Club founder Frank X. McNamara came up with the idea one evening after dining at a restaurant -- and realizing he had forgotten his wallet.
  • By 1952, Diners Club was being accepted by 400 restaurants, 30 hotels, 200 car rental agencies and four florists. Even so, McNamara, thinking credit cards were just a fad, sold his share of the company that year for $200,000 -- equivalent to roughly $1.6 million today.
  • Unfortunately for McNamara and his heirs, credit cards weren't a fad. Around the world, there are now 10,000 credit card transactions made every second.
  • Today, Americans have an astounding 609.8 million credit cards in their wallets. If all those cards were stacked up, they would create a tower 288 miles high.
  • In 1958, Bank of America launched the first general-purpose credit card by mailing 60,000 real BankAmericard credit cards to the good folks in Fresno, Calif. That unsolicited credit card "drop" was the brainchild of bank employee Joseph P. Williams.
  • By October 1959, 2 million unsolicited Bank Americards had been "dropped" throughout California. Unfortunately, the loose lending standards imposed by Williams' ingenious marketing strategy resulted in more than one of every five accounts being delinquent. Credit card fraud caused even more problems for the bank. As a result, Bank of America initially lost $8.8 million on the launch of its new credit card -- and Williams lost his job.
  • In case you're wondering, the first BankAmericards were made of paper and had a credit limit of $300. The terms and conditions also held the cardholder liable for all charges -- including those resulting from fraud. Post continues after video.
  • Today, federal law states that your maximum liability for unauthorized credit card use is $50 per card -- and $0 for any charges that accrue after you report a card lost or stolen.
  • Speaking of fraud, MasterCard introduced the first credit card hologram in 1983 to help thwart counterfeit credit card operations.
  • In 1976, BankAmericard changed its name to Visa. It wasn't the only credit card to rebrand itself: Until 1979, MasterCard was known as MasterCharge.
  • American Express introduced the first credit card made of plastic in 1958. It also introduced the first credit card made of anodized titanium: the highly exclusive Centurion card (informally known as the Black Card).
  • Before you get any bright ideas, keep in mind that on top of the annual $2,500 fee, American Express' Centurion card also has a one-time initiation fee of $5,000.
  • As far back as the mid-19th century, and up until the modern credit card first appeared, high-end merchants issued "charge coins" to their best customers. These coins, usually made of metal, came in a variety of shapes and sizes, and many also had holes that allowed them to be placed on a key chain. The charge coins also had a unique customer identification number stamped onto them.
  • While charge coin identification numbers were usually no bigger than five or six digits, most credit cards today have 16. The first digit in the string is an identifier that denotes the type of industry that issued the card:
    • 1 and 2 are for airlines.
    • 3 is for travel and entertainment.
    • 4 and 5 indicate a banking or financial institution.
    • 6 is for merchandizing and banking.
    • 7 is petroleum.
    • 8 is for telecommunications.
    • 9 is for other assignments.
  • Although the first six digits of your credit card number are known as the issuer identification number, you don't need all six digits to necessarily tell what type of card you have. For example, cards that start with 34 or 37 are American Express. Visa cards start with a 4, and MasterCards start with numbers between 51 and 55. As for Discover cards, they start with 6011.
  • Digits 7 through 15 make up your personal credit card account number. As for the last digit, it's a special number known as a "checksum," that's used to make sure your credit card number is not invalid via a cleverly simple math trick known as the Luhn algorithm.
  • Here's another math trick: Assuming you have a credit card balance of $2,500 with an interest rate of 18%, and only make minimum payments equivalent to the interest for the month plus 1% of the balance, it will take you 17 years to pay it off at a total cost of $5,673.22. Of course, that's only true if you also cut up the card and never use it again. I bet the credit card companies wish you didn't know that.

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