Q&A: The Hidden Dangers of Credit-Card Debt

Americans are buying with plastic at a staggering rate. From lattes to vacation packages, car payments to home-equity loans, our reliance on credit is increasing. Even the Internal Revenue Service endorses credit cards as a "convenient" way to pay your taxes. The average American family carried about $9,300 in credit-card debt in 2005 reports the nonprofit Consumer Credit Counseling Service in Dallas. But what happens when borrowers who already have sizable debts are offered more credit?

Director James Scurlock, 34, set out to tackle that question in "Maxed Out," a documentary he intended as a comic portrayal of consumer irresponsibility. What the self-described "finance geek" and former publisher of a financial newsletter ended up with however, is a much starker tale—one of struggle, suicide and desperation. "I think the people in the film would like nothing more than to pay off their bills, but they've just gotten to a point where it's not possible," says Scurlock. "And at some point, they're just being preyed on [by lenders] and manipulated and squeezed so hard that they can't ever hope to recover. And that's not right." The indie production won critical acclaim at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas, in March. And in 2007, Simon & Schuster plans to publish a memoir based on Scurlock's interviews and travels during the making of the film. NEWSWEEK's Jessica Bennett spoke with the director about consumer debt and the relationship between low-income Americans and the financial industry. Excerpts: 'Debt,' Scurlock says, 'is the one issue that affects us all.'

NEWSWEEK: Why make a movie about credit-card debt?

James Scurlock: Debt is the one issue that affects all of us—rich or poor, black or white, gay or straight, liberal or conservative. It's such a huge issue, and at the time I just wanted to ask the question, "Why can't so many of us get out of debt? What is it about debt that's so addictive that we can't live without it?" What do you hope to get across?

Two things: one is that the financial industry has changed a lot in the last generation, and people need to realize that ... We're in a totally different time now where we're deluged every day with offers of credit. And the second thing is that I think people need to start getting active with Congress and [pressuring them] into changing the balance that's been so weighted toward the financial industry and against the consumer. What's changed about the lending industry?

The major change is that the industry discovered that the most profitable consumers were the least responsible consumers—college students, people who'd declared bankruptcy, housewives [and] people who were consuming beyond their means. People who would pay anything for credit—any fee or any interest rate because they needed more credit. That's the major change. Before, credit was rationed based on whether you could pay it back, based on your reputation, based on your character to some degree. It's just not that way anymore, and that's a huge change. What's behind the increase in risky borrowing?

There are a few things: first, lack of regulation. Since the early '70s, usury laws have virtually been eliminated so [credit-card companies] can charge virtually whatever interest rate they want. Second, technology. The modern credit system couldn't exist without the technology we have today. Back when Visa was just getting started in the late '60s and early '70s, [credit-card] processing took a long time ... Now, these transactions take place in less than a second. Third: back in the '60s and '70s ... a lot of bankers objected to credit cards and said they were not going to give consumers the noose from which to hang themselves—that was immoral, that was unethical ... They understood that people would abuse credit if given too much of it, and the banker had to fill this role of regulator. That philosophy doesn't exist any more. Has the system of credit ratings changed?

The credit score is what's really changed. Taking all this data and distilling it into a single number and having that number alone determine whether you get a credit card, or a car loan, at what interest rate, whether you get insurance, what you pay for your utilities, whether you can get an apartment. This idea that there's one number that determines your credit is very new, and there's no human interaction, there's no local banker to vouch for you. How often is the information on credit reports wrong?

David Szwak is a [consumer] attorney in the film who spends most of his time now suing credit bureaus over errors. In their depositions of credit-bureau attorneys, they've been told on record that over 90 percent of credit reports have errors on them. And I think anyone in the industry would vouch for that. How difficult is it to get those errors corrected?

Getting something changed on your credit report is incredibly difficult, and it's become even more so because there's no incentive for the credit bureau to take that information off. Because the more negative information on your credit report, the more interest you can be charged, the more fees you can be charged. What protections are there for consumers?

The check is supposed to be Congress, but I think Congress isn't filling that role anymore. There are a lot of watchdog and advocacy groups out there that are trying to represent consumers who have been taken advantage of, or just aren't sophisticated enough to understand what they're getting into [when they borrow]. But I don't think most of us are sophisticated enough anymore. It's gotten so complicated, and complicated by design. The Senate Banking Committee held a hearing last year on the credit-card industry, and practically every senator on the committee—Democrats and Republicans both, said, "I don't understand my credit-card statement." It's meant to be complicated. You contend that the financial industry is exploiting the impoverished.

That was the most shocking thing. We traveled around with this journalist and went to New York, Mississippi and Pennsylvania. If you had told me that Citigroup, which is [one of the] largest financial groups in the world, was trolling the backwoods of Mississippi for customers, I would have questioned your veracity. But they are, and they're finding people. They're going around very poor neighborhoods, in very poor parts of the country, finding people who have some home equity, finding people who've been responsible, who've saved, who have something left, and taking it from them. You say that there's a relationship between poverty and the increase in credit offers.

I think [these offers] are causing poverty. I think what you're seeing is the middle class disappearing, and I think [the financial industry has] a lot to do with that. I don't think they're the only factor by any means. But I think when you go into a solidly middle-class neighborhood and flood it with high-interest loans, yes, you are pushing people into poverty. When you go out and encourage people who are living within their means to refinance their homes so they can go on vacation or buy a new car or fix up their house, and tell them it's great because it'll increase their home equity, you're not doing them any favors. College students played a big role in the film. Why are they so attractive to credit-card companies?

College students are a really attractive market because they have parents who will bail them out, and they love spending money, and they're not nearly as sophisticated as they think they are. And there's a lot of research showing that once you get a customer, they'll stay with you for a very long time. [Credit-card companies] are looking at getting lifetime customers. Two women in the film had college-age children who committed suicide after acquiring a debilitating amount of debt. Was that a surprise?

We started out looking for stories we thought would be funny and illustrative of consumers being irresponsible, because that's the conventional wisdom. But I remember the second or third interview we did, suicide came up, and this woman started crying ... From then on I just remember every interview was so emotional, and suicide came up over and over and over again. And I was shocked—but when people get trapped and they can't see any way out, suicide definitely comes to mind. Everybody we talked to who was a victim of predatory lending said they had considered suicide. How can we curb excessive borrowing?

I think the industry needs to start using income as a factor, and I think they need to act more like insurance companies that audit you and monitor you, and call you and make sure you're still driving the same car, you're still driving the same number of miles, and you still have a job. I think if credit-card companies could adopt that model more, even though they don't think it's to their advantage. And I don't know why there hasn't been more pressure on them to do that. For tips on coping with credit-card debt, visit the nonprofit Consumer Credit Counseling Service's Web site .