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By now, every kid with a lemonade stand has probably received a mailbox full of small-business credit card offers. Over the past year or so, small-business owners and homebased entrepreneurs have become a target market for major credit card companies, and for good reason.
Surveys show that about 30 percent of small-business owners currently have corporate credit cards, and that an additional 30 percent who have been using personal credit cards for business purposes are "ready, willing and able" to make the switch to corporate cards, according to Steve L. Abrams, senior vice president for U.S. corporate products at MasterCard International.
So why the sudden interest in small businesses? According to Abrams, "credit-scoring" surveys show that small companies are a good credit risk and an underserved market. Fraud rates are much lower than with personal cards, and there are fewer defaults. There are also fewer bankruptcies.
Richard D'Ambrosio of American Express Small Business Services agrees that homebased entrepreneurs are good borrowers. "We've found that small-business customers are excellent customers from a risk perspective," says D'Ambrosio. "Contrary to what you hear, delinquencies are not on the rise, nor is bankruptcy a big concern."
American Express was the first company to take advantage of the opportunity by offering "corporate" cards to smaller companies. To attract small-business clients, the company offers an automatic 10 percent discount on domestic overnight delivery services and on business services at Kinko's, as well as special member rates with Hertz rental car company and Hilton Hotels. Companies also get a break when they use their corporate cards to purchase office equipment--a special one- to five-year $25,000 lease line of credit for which repayment is extended past American Express' standard 30-day, full-balance billing cycle. Cardholders also receive quarterly or monthly management reports for accounting purposes.
"Accountants say you shouldn't use personal credit cards for business transactions for a number of reasons," D'Ambrosio says. "One is that the IRS doesn't consider using a corporate card the same as using a personal card for business reasons. [Using a corporate card] sends a signal that you're a serious business owner--that it's not just a sideline you're using to go out to dinner, then writing it off as a business expense."
Visa, meanwhile, offers small-business credit and debit cards and provides detailed spending reports monthly. Cardholders are eligible for discounts of up to 60 percent at more than 11,000 hotels, motels and resorts in 144 countries. Visa also offers medical and legal referrals and assistance, and emergency message, translation and transportation services. Most business purchases are protected for up to 90 days, and warranty and repair periods are doubled for cardholders. Another key feature is a liability waiver that protects businesses from card misuse by former employees.
Visa's instant reward program provides discounts for using selected business services, including CareerTrack products and seminars; computer software, hardware and furniture; and office paper products by Rapidforms Inc.
MasterCard also offers quarterly and year-end financial reports to help small-business cardholders monitor, manage and control spending. Abrams points out that having this detailed information is invaluable for budgeting, tax preparation, planning and auditing.
Like American Express and Visa, MasterCard is planning discounts with vendors of business products and services. In April, it unveiled a joint program with DHL Worldwide Express that offers cardholders a more than 30 percent discount on domestic and international deliveries; cardholders can save $5 or more on domestic overnight deliveries and more for international destinations. MasterCard is also working to develop offers with industry leaders in office supplies, travel, computer equipment, software and telecommunications.
What's next? According to Abrams, the biggest trend is e-commerce. "It's a major force for small-business goods and services," he says. "There's an Internet-hungry community of small businesses and small-
If your piggy bank is a little anemic, consider this: The federal government is sitting on some $25 billion in unclaimed checks, and one of them might be yours. Marked "return to sender," no one has stepped forward to claim these hidden assets: Social Security and Veterans Administration checks, unclaimed FDIC reimbursement for accounts in failed banks and S&Ls, and pension and retirement checks for federal workers. Some beneficiaries have moved, while others have died or simply lost track of their money. State unclaimed property offices hold an additional $13 billion, according to estimates.
Dave Folsom, author of Assets Unknown (Two Dot Press), believes these estimates are conservative, to say the least. "People forget about small sums left in bank accounts and credit unions, deposits for utilities, old annuities, union pension and retirement accounts--any number of places where money just sits until someone claims it."
For instance, Folsom notes that most unions provide death and burial insurance for retired members--on average, between $2,500 and $10,000--but most widows and heirs are unaware of the money. In addition, about 60 percent of health insurance policies carry death and burial riders that average between $5,000 and $15,000. This money also often goes unpaid because no one requests it.
In most cases, companies and agencies charged with disbursing benefits are not required to perform much more than a perfunctory search for beneficiaries, says Folsom. After that, it's up to surviving relatives to do the searching.
Anyone with a deceased immediate family member should go over their loved one's records and make a few phone calls to see whether any accounts have been overlooked, especially if there were multiple changes of address after retirement or the person had Alzheimer's disease or suffered a stroke.
The following contact information should give you a good start in your search for any possible overlooked accounts:
- Social Security Administration, (800) 772-1213, http://www.ssa.gov
- Pension Benefits and Guaranty Corp., (800) 400-7242, http://www.search.pbgc.gov
- Office of Personnel Management, (202) 606-0500, http://www.opm.gov
- Bureau of Public Debt, http://www.publicdebt.treas.gov
- Pension and Welfare Benefits Administration, (202) 219-8771, http://www.dol.gov/dol/pwbalwelcome
To locate unclaimed property offices in your state, look in the blue pages of your telephone directory or contact the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators ( http://www.unclaimed.org ) at (701) 258-8667.
American Express Small Business Services, (800) SUCCESS
Dave Folsom, (800) 286-5669, firstname.lastname@example.org
MasterCard International, U.S. Corporate Products, Attn: Kevin Robinson, 2000 Purchase St., Purchase, NY 10577-2509, http://www.mastercard.com