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AmEx pays cardholders to end accounts

An American Express credit card

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Kai Ryssdal: Here is today's man-bites-dog story. American Express is going to pay its customers. AmEx is offering $300 dollars to some of its cardholders to cancel their accounts. No, no altruism here. It's high credit card delinquencies instead.

As Marketplace's Janet Babin reports from North Carolina Public Radio.


JANET BABIN: Credit card companies make money when we carry a balance. That's the business model. Usually they give you incentives to become a card member. Now comes American Express with an offer to pay customers $300 to close their accounts.

Curtis Arnold: You know it's kind of crazy.

That's Curtis Arnold with Cardratings.com. He says "kind of crazy," because in many ways the deal makes sense. American Express announced last week that delinquencies rose more than expected in January. And the company says it needs to cut more than $1.5 billion in expenses. Arnold says AmEx is either getting creative, or desperate.

Arnold: They're not doing this necessarily out of the kindness of their hearts. They're doing it as a way to hedge risk.

American Express wouldn't say how many customers got the offer, only that some had stopped making payments on big balances, and had little new account activity. Other credit companies are expected to follow AmEx's lead. And for good reason. The average rate of uncollectible credit card accounts has jumped from 2-8 percent. Unemployment is still ticking up, and for many, economic recovery is just the name of a bill out of Washington.

Analyst Greg McBride at Bankrate.com says in this environment, credit card companies need to play defense:

Greg McBride: The ways that they do that: cut back credit lines, close out cards that haven't been used to this point.

And, if you're American Express, pay people to go away. Selected customers have until the end of the month to accept the offer.

I'm Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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