Credit approval can be elusive for seniors who may see debt as flaw

Frank Cerabino / Cox Newspapers /


Published Aug 11, 2012 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Can you be too old to get a credit card?

Consider what happened to Madeline Otto, a Tequesta, Fla., woman who was out shopping at a local Stein Mart store recently, picking up a pair of new shoes for her upcoming birthday party — when she will celebrate turning 100 years old.

“When I got to the checkout counter, the cashier said, ‘If you open a charge account today, you will save $10,’ ” Otto said.

Sounded like a good deal. So Otto handed over her driver’s license, and the cashier entered her information.

Moments later, though, the cashier told Otto she was denied credit.

“She said I was too old,” Otto said. “She was so nice. She came around the counter and said she was sorry and gave me a hug.”

Otto was upset, and she contacted me, saying that she was the victim of discrimination against senior citizens.

I never heard of being too old for credit. Neither did Dan Ray.

Ray, the editor in chief of CreditCards.com, spends his working days writing about the credit card industry.

“Credit card companies can do business with anybody they want,” he told me. “There’s no right to credit.”

However, he suspected that Otto’s problem wasn’t her age, but her avoidance of debt.

“Seniors are running into a new problem,” Ray said. “The way credit scoring works is that you have to have something on your credit report in order to score. And many seniors are unscorable.”

Elderly people, he said, think of debt as flaw. They’re proud to have no mortgages, no credit cards, and no car loans. But this makes them invisible to credit card companies, and by living within their means, some senior citizens are thought of as “deadbeats” in the world of credit.

I called back Otto to break the news.

“My credit is clear,” Otto said. “I owe no one.”

“So you have no credit,” I said. “That’s the problem.”

“No, I have a Discover card,” she said. “I pay it right off when the bill comes.”

Oops. That was going to be my advice to her. Ray had suggested that I advise Otto to get a credit card and put a regularly reoccurring charge on it, such as a utility bill. She could pay the card balance off every month without getting charged interest, and it will establish her credit.

But she’s already doing that.

“Are you sure the cashier said you were too old?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

So I called Stein Mart’s corporate offices in Jacksonville, Fla., and spoke with company spokeswoman Linda Tasseff, who has a 98-year-old grandmother in Delray Beach, Fla. Tasseff was surprised by Otto’s story.

“The qualifications go through a standard MasterCard credit check,” she said. “I would be surprised if it’s age-oriented.”

She said she would look into it.

The mystery was solved a day later, when Stein Mart sent Otto an explanation, an apology and a $50 gift certificate. It turns out there really was an age issue with Otto’s credit card request.

But it was nothing like she had imagined.

When Otto turned over her driver’s license to the cashier, the credit check system required only the last two digits of Otto’s year of birth. She was born on Oct. 18 in 1912. The computer registered her year of birth as “12.” The system made the assumption that it must be 2012, not 1912, and denied her request for credit because people under the age of 18 are unable to get credit cards.

When the cashier saw that Otto was being denied credit because of age, she assumed that the 99-year-old woman in front of her was too old, not that the computer system has incorrectly assumed that Otto was a fetus.

So for anybody else out there shopping for your 100th birthday party, you can still put your purchase on a new credit card — just as long as the computer doesn’t think you’re too young.