By Steve Rosen
Tribune Media Services
My oldest son received a college graduation gift of sorts in May from Citibank -- a shiny, silver credit card with the activation sticker attached.
One problem: He neither wanted nor asked for it.
A young twenty-something not craving a piece of plastic? Crazy, isn't it?
When my son headed to college four years ago, he had been coached not to sign up for any credit card solicitations, especially those coming from people hawking "free" T-shirts, pizzas, water bottles or who knows what else. He said he never knowingly strayed -- the only credit card he carries in his wallet comes from his bank.
So when Citibank's letter arrived a couple of weeks ago, my wife and I were so angry that not even asbestos mitts could have put out the flames as we passed that card back and forth. If only the bank could have witnessed our wrath.
At the same time, our grad wanted to know what to do with the card and whether destroying it might harm the credit record he's trying so carefully to build up.
He's certainly not alone with these types of questions. Credit cards are hot-button issues in many households with college-age children, many of whom will have racked up thousands of dollars in debt by the time they graduate. Indeed, the average undergraduate owes more than $2,000 on credit cards, according to 2004 data from Sallie Mae. That number -- the latest available -- is almost certainly higher today.
To address some of the questions that came up in our house, I turned to Ben Woolsey, director of marketing at CreditCards.com, an online resource site that monitors the credit card industry. He offered straightforward tips that helped us and could help your student too.
As in our case, if your student receives a credit card that he or she did not apply for and does not want, Woolsey said the safest thing to do is to destroy the card and shred the letter.
That should eliminate any worry of identity thieves snagging personal account information. Don't toss the card in your sock drawer and forget about it -- if it falls into the wrong hands, there's always a chance the account could be activated, even though it takes a call from your home phone.
What about the impact on your student's credit history?
Destroying the card shouldn't adversely affect a credit rating, Woolsey said. However, because banks are generally prohibited from mailing unsolicited credit cards with activation stickers, Woolsey also recommended checking with the issuer to confirm a new account is not on the books.
"Double-check to make sure the card application wasn't somehow initiated by someone -- either by mistake, prank or fraud," he said.
As for the dozens of pre-qualified offers mass mailed year-round, Woolsey said, "there is no negative credit score effect" of running these through the shredder.
On the other hand, he said, the best way for a college student to build up credit history is simply to get a credit card and use it responsibly.
If your son or daughter is ready for a credit card -- those younger than 18 must have the consent of a parent or legal guardian -- here are some strategies from Woolsey on choosing and using plastic wisely:
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