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Bank of America offers credit cards with no Social Security numbers needed

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Updated story: Despite early controversy, payment cards for immigrants continue to roll out 

In 2007, Bank of America kicked off a pilot program in the Los Angeles area of offering credit cards to consumers who have no Social Security numbers. "The program was designed to help Bank of America customers build credit history," says BofA spokeswoman Betty Riess. While banks have recently begun to provide checking accounts and sometimes mortgages to the rapidly growing number of undocumented consumers, getting approved for a credit card has been more difficult.

However, Bank of America's new program allows anyone to apply for a credit card who has maintained a checking account with Bank of America for three months without an overdraft, even if these individuals have neither a Social Security number nor a credit history. "The program meets the identification requirements of the USA Patriot Act and the U.S. Treasury Department," says Riess.

Bank of America first introduced its program at five bank branches in Los Angeles, later expanding it to 51 branches in Los Angeles County, which is home to the biggest concentration of undocumented workers in the United States. While it was the bank's intention to roll out the program nationally, according to the Wall Street Journal, it has remained a pilot program in the Los Angeles area instead, says BofA's Riess in an e-mail.

While it has typically been hard for undocumented workers to build credit and increase their purchasing power, Bank of America explained that it is willing to provide credit to someone with little to no credit history.

Citing competitive reasons, BofA would not comment on the cards' popularity. The credit cards offered do charge a high interest rate and an upfront fee. 

Bank of America requires customers to have an Internal Revenue Service number or another example of taxpayer status to maintain an account if they do not have a Social Security number, a spokeswoman explained.

Applicants for the Bank of America credit cards are assessed using "judgmental lending," a concept introduced by MBNA, the credit card issuer purchased by Bank of America in January 2006. Under judgment lending, a potential client's creditworthiness is determined through a subjective review from employees, as opposed to relying on credit scores and other traditional means.

Bank of America says that growth in the Hispanic market is crucial to its continued expansion. While in the past Bank of America was able to grow by acquiring other banks, it now is limited by a regulatory cap that prevents a U.S. bank from a purchase that would give it over 10 percent of total U.S. bank deposits. Therefore, its domestic growth hinges on selling additional products to existing customers or gaining new customers.

Still, critics have expressed concerns about these credit cards, with some charging that Bank of America is knowingly offering a product to people who are violating U.S. immigration law. 

However, Bank of America countered with the argument that it is complying with U.S. banking and anti-terrorism laws. BofA executives explain that the program is about meeting the needs of an untapped group of possible customers rather than being about politics. 

Updated: July 17, 2008



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