Amex to pay $112.5 million for violating consumer protection laws


American Express credit cards are arranged in New York, Monday, Jan. 22, 2007. American Express is refunding $85 million to about 250,000 customers and is paying $27.5 million in civil fines to settle charges of deceptive practices. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

In the latest in a series of credit card industry settlements, American Express will pay $112.5 million to resolve allegations of abusive debt collection practices, late-fee charges and deceptive marketing, federal regulators announced Monday.

Customers, in some cases, were charged late fees based on a percentage of their debt in violation of federal law. Others were misled to believe that if they partially paid off their debts, the remaining balance would be forgiven.

In direct-mail offers, American Express promised customers $300 and bonus points when they signed up for its Blue Sky credit card program. Yet customers never received the advertised money. All of the alleged activity occurred between 2003 and the spring of 2012, regulators said in the enforcement order against American Express.

The credit card company is refunding $85 million to about 250,000 customers, while paying a total of $27.5 million in civil fines to four federal agencies, including the Federal Deposit Insurance Fund and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

“Several American Express companies violated consumer protection laws . . . at all stages of the game — from the moment a consumer shopped for a card to the moment the consumer got a phone call about long overdue debt,” said Richard Cordray, director of the CFPB.

American Express is not admitting any wrongdoing, but agreed to end the practices in question and conduct an independent audit.

“We’re cooperating fully with regulators, taking responsibility for correcting the issues and compensating customers where appropriate,” company spokeswoman Marina Norville said.

American Express will submit a reimbursement plan to regulators, and then begin disbursing payments within 90 days. The majority of the refunds will be provided to customers who were charged high late fees. Eligible consumers who still have an American Express card will receive a direct credit; others will receive a refund in the mail.

The subsidiaries named in the agreement are American Express Travel Related Services Co., American Express Centurion Bank and American Express Bank FSB.

A number of the charges against American Express are similar to those leveled at Discover and Capital One, which were both accused of using deceptive tactics to sell credit card services.

Danielle Douglas covers the banking industry for The Washington Post.
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