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Suburban housewives who had never received cards were getting billed for thousands of dollars of charges.» Graph: Market Share of Top 10 General-Purpose Credit Card Issuers View the effects of consolidation."Nobody's historically more suspicious of outsiders than South Dakotans,'' Bill Janklow, the former governor of South Dakota, told FRONTLINE in a recent interview. When something's only selling for .20 a bushel, you certainly can't afford to be paying almost 50 cents a bushel to ship it.'' The calls were from Citibank, which was having a serious problem of its own.But it was 1980, South Dakota's economy was a mess, and suspicion was an instinct that Janklow could not afford. "It was very simple,'' said Walter Wriston, then the chairman of Citibank.But the concept of far-off banks soliciting the masses with open-ended lines of credit challenged the traditions of small-town lending. People were outraged by what some called usurious temptations, and bankers were flooded by massive defaults.

So by early 1980, with New York refusing to go along, Citibank set out on a search for new place to base its credit card division. Usury laws were still on the books in the vast majority of the states. In an effort to stimulate the local economy, South Dakota was in the midst of eliminating its usury laws. To preempt concerns from local banks about new competition, Citibank also promised to open only "a limited" bank. "All we want to do is use it to issue cards.'' For Mr. "To me, this wasn't a credit card deal, it was a jobs deal," he said. I was slowly bleeding to death." With bipartisan support and backing from South Dakota's banking association, Janklow proposed a special "emergency'' bill. "I was going to sleep at night thinking that we were the new financial center of America.'' But other states were quick to catch on.

Janklow: If South Dakota would quickly pass legislation that would enable Citibank to move its credit card operations to the state, they would bring hundreds of high-paying white collar jobs to the state. The industry's ambition was evident from its earliest days.

The unlikely alliance would clear the way for Citibank to turn a money-losing credit card operation into a vastly profitable business. When Bank of America launched the nation's first general-purpose credit card in 1958, it simply dropped 60,000 of them in a mass mailing to residents in Fresno, California.

The bank hoped to attract customers with a new type of "revolving" credit line, which could be used for purchases everywhere and paid off over time. Wriston recalled being asked by his boss at Citibank.

The idea was to tap into the pent-up consumer demands of World War II baby boomers. "And I said, 'Look, we just put five years of our life in a brown suit carrying an M1 rifle, and we want the refrigerator now.' '' Before long, banks all over were using credit cards to compete for new customers. "And the old guy with a green eyeshade gave you credit or he didn't." Still, the first decade of "credit cards drops" had produced little profit and a lot of chaos.

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