Credit cards, plus speed of technology, add up for customers


Question: What do you get when you cross the promotion-happy credit-card industry with the IPO-crazed Internet?

Answer: Just about anything you want.

American Express Co. weighed in last week with Blue, a new credit card boasting of an introductory rate of 0 percent, online access to account statements and the ability to download into Quicken or Microsoft Money programs.

Prefer a traditional rewards program? Club Lycos and Nextcard dole out bonus points for each dollar charged on their cards. They also guarantee Internet purchases by promising to make good in cases of fraud.

Lacking a computer? The first million folks to sign up and qualify for First USA's FreeMac card, and to commit to 36 months of Internet service from Earthlink at $19.95 a month, get an iMac for free. Sign up on the Internet at http: //

What's going on?

"The name of the game since 1992 for card issuers is to give away something your competitors don't have," explained Robert McKinley, who keeps tabs on the insanity at http: //

The stakes are higher in cyberspace for two reasons. Consumers are still reluctant to use credit cards on the Web. E-retailers hope to improve comfort levels by coaxing card issuers to guarantee purchases or roll out new technologies.

Meanwhile, card issuers covet a presence on the Web because card technologies are evolving. Smart cards, those with embedded chips, promise to take over most payment functions someday.

Ready access is a strong argument for switching to e-cards. Reviewing transactions online or downloading them to their own computers, cardholders can avoid surprises on monthly credit-card bills.

Freebies represent a good reason to switch, too.

McKinley credits the Internet's curious brand of economics for the generous nature of the offers. Web traffic, rather than profits, drives advertising sales -- and initial public offering prices.

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