- Barclaycard; Shayanne Gal/Business Insider
- Barclays, which issues branded credit cards for Apple, JetBlue, and the NFL, has a practice of rejecting applications from former customers who have fallen behind on payments, even if they’ve improved their credit history.
- The bank’s practice of not pulling credit reports for former customers is uncommon among banks willing to discuss it.
- Other banks say they always request credit reports, even for former customers.
Few financial sectors are as deeply embedded in the lives of Americans as the credit-card industry. It aims to protect consumers from fraudulent transactions, volatile incomes, and lost wallets. Certain credit cards offer attractive perks, such as free travel and cash back, while others are more likely to trap consumers in endless cycles of accumulating debt.
Most significant, its products underpin the US credit-reporting system, which governs access to home mortgages, automobile loans, and credit cards themselves. Who has access to credit, and how that access is determined, matters a great deal.
I had to relearn this lesson last year after I embarked on improving my credit history by applying for a number of cards. I did so to decrease my “credit-utilization rate,” which refers to the percentage of available credit you’re using. Nearly a third of an individual’s credit score, as calculated by the Fair Isaac Corp., or FICO, is based on this statistic.
While the bulk of my efforts succeeded, in a few cases my applications were rejected. My search for an explanation led to obscure online forums in which credit-card enthusiasts spoke of “blacklists” and “lifetime bans,” and to an overlooked corner of the industry that dictates the availability of consumer credit.
My personal process for obtaining credit was essentially random and heavily influenced by advertising. I applied for one card because I saw an online ad for it, another because a credit-monitoring app recommended it to me, and still another because an airline attendant handed me a physical trifold application. Most of these were approved. But two cards turned me down: the Uber Visa Card and the AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite MasterCard.
At first glance, these cards have nothing to do with each other. They’re associated with different companies and belong to competing payment networks. But according to their rejection letters, and the fine print on each card’s website, they have one important thing in common: They’re both issued by Barclays, the British multinational bank.
Founded in London in 1690, Barclays is one of the oldest banks on earth. It entered the US credit-card market in 2004, with its acquisition of Juniper Bank, and now holds more than $24 billion in consumer credit-card debt.
Besides Uber and American Airlines, it issues cards for consumer brands like the National Football League, Frontier Airlines, Barnes & Noble, Priceline, JetBlue, and Apple. Barclays has established its US presence in other ways too. It owns the naming rights to Barclays Center, the massive indoor arena in Brooklyn, as well as Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center, the subway station underneath the arena. It’s the busiest train station of New York City’s most populous borough.
A few weeks after I applied for the Uber and AAdvantage cards, I received letters from Barclays Bank Delaware, the subsidiary that operates the bank’s US credit-card business. Except for the name of the card, both had the same language:
“We have reviewed your application and determined that we are unable to approve you for … the following reason(s): Our records indicate that a previous credit card account that you held with Barclays Bank Delaware experienced charge-off, bankruptcy, severe delinquency or other negative performance. A credit bureau report was not used in making this determination.”
My initial reaction was confusion: I didn’t remember ever having a credit card through Barclays. But when I went back and looked through my old emails, I discovered that I previously had two such cards: one associated with Apple and another with Sallie Mae. I remember applying for and using both cards, but I’d forgotten they were serviced by Barclays.
The embarrassing thing is that both letters were largely accurate. Several years ago, I paid a debt-settlement company to contact each of my creditors to negotiate a lower balance and a repayment schedule. To open those negotiations, however, I first needed to stop making payments on them. That’s probably why Barclays mentioned “severe delinquency.”
It ended up working out. The company reduced the balance of the first card by about $850 and the second one by $1,000. I eventually paid off those and a few other accounts, thereby avoiding bankruptcy. My credit score, after taking a nosedive, has inched upward since.
The letters from Barclays drew my curiosity because, for a few years after the aforementioned negotiations, I was rejected by every credit card I applied for, and for the same reason: My credit score and credit history, as recorded by the three major credit-reporting bureaus, were in disarray. This was discouraging but not entirely hopeless. After all, there are ways to improve both.
The Barclays letters, by contrast, seemed to suggest that my eligibility for another Barclays credit card had been revoked, because their internal file for me overrode my external credit history. They wouldn’t even ask for it, as stated in the last sentence of the bank’s explanation: “A credit bureau report was not used in making this determination.”
“Several different things go into underwriting criteria,” Barclays spokesman Matt Fields said. “We definitely use all three credit bureaus. They are used dozens and dozens and dozens of times every day for new customers. Another piece of that, though, is that we do look at whether an applicant has a past or current relationship with us.”
Fields added that, while no two applications are alike, the bank followed certain guidelines when assessing them. “Let’s say someone had a previous relationship with us, where they charged off,” he went on. “As a general practice, we are not looking to do business with someone who has not honored their obligations with us.”
I later found other people in a similar position. They had flocked to online forums devoted to credit cards (and associated rewards programs) to complain about being placed on the so-called Barclays blacklist and receiving a “lifetime ban” from the bank. Some detailed their frustrating experiences with the bank’s customer-service representatives, who struggled to explain their employer’s policy.
Two things make that policy especially confusing. The first is that the majority of their cards carry the branding of other companies. Of the 23 cards it issues, only three are primarily branded as Barclays. Of the remaining 20 cards, only five carry a small Barclays logo on the front of the card. The websites of the remaining 15 cards – none of which have obvious Barclays branding, and which account for 65% of the bank’s offerings – bury their Barclays affiliations in fine print.
This arrangement isn’t problematic in and of itself. Branded credit cards are not new. But it gets confusing when paired with Barclays’ policy of rejecting former customers based on the bank’s internal records, rather than external credit reports.
If you had a credit card through JetBlue, which offered JetBlue-specific rewards, you likely associated that credit card with JetBlue. So it would seem counterintuitive for Barclays, which operates JetBlue’s credit card, to reject you for a credit card associated with a different company simply because that company also contracted with Barclays.
The second thing that makes this confusing is that the degree to which Barclays’ relies on internal records to evaluate former cardholders who became delinquent – to the point of ignoring their updated credit history, even if that history has been rehabilitated – appears to be uncommon in the credit-card industry, at least among the institutions that were willing to discuss the practice.
I came to this conclusion by asking the largest credit-card issuers in the US about their policies. Three of the five largest issuers – JP Morgan Chase, Capital One, Bank of America – confirmed to Business Insider that they always pull an applicant’s credit report when they apply for a new line of credit. Wells Fargo, a smaller issuer, confirmed it does so as well.
Other banks were less willing to discuss this aspect of their operations. Citigroup, US Bancorp, and Discover declined to comment. American Express and Synchrony did not respond to multiple requests for comment. In fact, Barclays was the only bank willing to confirm that it rejects former cardholders who became delinquent, without seeking their credit reports, as a matter of policy.
In 2017, the top 10 issuers of credit cards in the US held a combined $712 billion in credit-card debt. Slightly more than half of that debt, $358.5 billion, was held by banks that always consider external credit reports. The remaining $353.5 billion belonged to banks that either ignored external credit reports for certain applicants (in the case of Barclays) or refused to disclose their practices.
Their differing responses, or lack of responses, are noteworthy because the US closely regulates how consumer credit histories may be used to make underwriting decisions. Since 1970, when the Fair Credit Reporting Act became law, consumers have had the right to obtain a copy of their credit histories from Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. They can also challenge the accuracy of those histories. In most cases, adverse information is automatically removed after seven years.
At the same time, the law doesn’t require banks to consider those credit histories when assessing the risk of a prior customer. And that can lead to inconsistent policies across different issuers.
“It certainly depends on the lender as there is no rule one way or the other,” said John Ulzheimer, who has studied and written about the credit-card industry for nearly three decades. “Your previous performance with a lender is absolutely considered if and when you make future applications with that same lender.
“If you defaulted on or discharged previous debts with a lender they may simply choose to never do business with you again as a matter of policy.”
Most issuers do both, he added: “They’ll review their own master file for previous performance records and then, if that’s satisfactory, they’ll pull a credit report and credit score as a basis for their decision.”
A certain degree of inconsistency among financial institutions is understandable: It’s not as if competing issuers coordinate, or would want to coordinate, their underwriting processes. But when only a handful of institutions decide who gets credit, and how much, those inconsistencies take on a greater weight. They exist in tension with the fact that having good credit, which heavily depends on access to credit, is a necessity for more and more of our lives.
Fields, the Barclays spokesman, clarified that the bank sometimes reverses rejections if it’s made aware of “extenuating circumstances,” and encouraged me to call the bank’s customer service line to ask about my case. He didn’t know how long Barclays retains records about former customers. But the upshot of our conversation was clear: Because of my prior history with Barclays, I would likely be unable to obtain another credit card through them, at least for a while.
Later, when I called their help line, a Barclays representative told me that he couldn’t discuss my applications or the underlying reasons they were rejected, because it had been more than 90 days since I applied. I would need to reapply for both and then contest the inevitable rejection letters.
A particular practice at a particular bank – and a relatively small one, at least in the US – can’t fully explain the broader system to which it belongs. Obviously, Barclays is not legally or morally obligated to extend a line of credit to me or anyone else. But the power Barclays and its peers exert on the personal lives of Americans should not be ignored.
Credit doesn’t just dictate what kind of cellphone you can buy, or whether you can consolidate student loans under a lower interest rate. It can also influence where you live, where you work, and whom you marry.
Remember this the next time you apply for a credit card.