Is there such a thing as a truly preapproved credit card or loan? That is, are there banks that actually fully investigate potential borrowers, before any application has been completed, and send them truly guaranteed offers?
No, there is no truly, completely, 100% "pre-approved loan." That concept just doesn't exist. The language of calling something pre-approved basically comes from regulation that controls how and when a lender is able to use credit report data in order to market their products. Understanding how pre-approved offers are generated, and how they're regulated, should help answer your question.
To clear the air, in terms of how these offers work, basically this is what happens:
- A lender will decide they want to sell a bunch of consumer product X (credit card, personal loan, whatever).
- The lender will reach out to a credit bureau, or a vendor that manages credit data as an intermediate between lenders and credit bureaus. This will result in the two parties agreeing on a set of terms to describe a population, based on very high level criteria (people in a certain geography, or with a certain credit score, or with or without certain trade lines.) The most typical criteria are based on paper grade (a way to roughly categorize credit scores). Sometimes the criteria will be based on a competitive product (i.e. "give me all people who have a credit card at a different bank"). But generally the criteria available are limited to a subset of typical credit report data (i.e. you can screen based on presence of a certain product with a different lender - give me all people with a credit card, but you can't screen based on targeting an actual specific lender - give me all people with a Chase credit card.).
- The actual list of people to be pre-screened against these criteria may come from the vendor, or, the lender will supply a list of existing customers to the vendor, and ask the vendor to screen based on these criteria.
- Once the terms are agreed on, the vendor provides a "pre-approved" list of individuals back to the lender. This list contains little detail and consists of people from the population identified who passed the basic criteria agreed to.
- At that point, the lender is legally required to make the same offer to everyone on the list. They aren't allowed to pick and choose in any further detail before making the offer, which essentially limits the lender from being able to make a fully-qualified decision, since the data available to create a pre-screened list of only people who pass your full underwriting process isn't available en masse.
The regulations concerning this process came into effect when risk-based lending started to take off, and credit reports became important to the decision making process. Credit bureaus wanted a way to monetize the data they had for marketing purposes, but regulators didn't want to allow lenders to be picky - either based on incomplete information, or based on discriminatory practices (i.e. don't lend to people with a name associated with a certain ethnicity, and so on). Hence, the "if you buy data to support marketing, you must pre-approve in the batch and extend the same offer to everyone" emerged as a rule to make things both safe (lenders won't take the risk of actually extending credit based on limited data) and fair (lenders can't buy the data then be picky about who to make the offer to).
Ultimately the lender could, in theory, choose to make an actual offer of credit to the population that has been identified, but they would literally need to approve the entire population which simply isn't going to happen, since the data necessary to be sure that everyone on the list is truly creditworthy is not available at this point in the process.
So, a "pre-approved" offer simply means that you met some incredibly basic marketing-driven criteria and were on someone's list (either the lender or the vendor) of people who are able to be marketed to. In other words, a pre-approved offer is only able to be made based on limited data.