Credit card companies tighten their grip

The Associated Press
Thursday March 08, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO — Credit card companies are squeezing consumers with higher interest rates, more late fees, and other charges tucked into the fine print, according to a survey of credit card terms released Wednesday. 

The news comes as Congress prepares to pass legislation making it tougher for people to use bankruptcy to erase credit-card and other debts. The House approved legislation last week and the Senate is the next stop on the bill’s journey to a receptive White House. 

In January, San-Francisco-based Consumer Action surveyed 109 credit cards issued by 49 companies. The results, reported Wednesday, show an alarming trend toward tougher credit terms, said study author Linda Sherry. 

Interest rates, for example, jumped on average more than a quarter of a percentage point to 15.16 percent, compared with 1999 rates. Part of that increase may be attributed to increases in the prime lending rate. 

But little other than hunger for profits could account for other charges, such as late fees and cash advance fees, Sherry said. 

“Every year, when we look at credit cards, the costs just continue to rise,” she said. 

Most of the charges fall to borrowers who already suffer poor credit – those considered greater risks by credit card companies. 

But Sherry warned that such charges might soon find borrowers who now receive multiple new account offers each week and can thus play cards off each other. 

“They are going to look for a way to squeeze those people too, the savvy consumers,” Sherry said. “People are just tearing their hair out.” 

One emerging charge is the late payment fee. 

Every bank in the survey charged a late fee, with the penalty averaging $26, the survey found. Fleet Bank topped the list at $35. 

And, the survey said, banks are becoming less forgiving when asked to wipe out those fees. If it’s just a one-time slip, erasing the charge may be easy – but woe to the borrower who misses several payments in a year, even if it’s just by a day or two each time. 

“They just seem more and more ferocious in the way they’re assessing these fees,” Sherry said. 

It’s not just pay now. Nearly three in four banks will also increase a borrower’s interest rate if a payment is late. The number of banks with that policy increased by nearly 50 percent since 1999. 

Three banks charged borrowers 30 percent interest rates if they paid late, the survey said. 

Credit card companies have logged record profits in recent years. Still, they have pushed the bankruptcy reform legislation now racing through Congress. 

The House passed its bill 306-108 Thursday. The legislation’s progress has been only slightly slower in the Senate, where Democrats recently blocked a Republican effort to rush it through. 

President Bush is expected to sign the measure. 

Bill supporters say it will stem a tide of bankruptcy filings and abuse of the court system. They say bankruptcy abuse creates a hidden tax of about $400 a year on every American family through higher interest rates passed on by consumer credit businesses and other charges. 

Foes say credit card companies are partly to blame for bankruptcy filings. Total credit extended on card accounts jumped 13 percent to $2.9 trillion in the third quarter of 2000 from a year earlier, according to industry figures. 

On the Net: 


Information on the bills, H.R. 333 and S. 220, can be found at http://thomas.loc.gov