For more than two years, special-education teacher Fatemeh Hosseini worked a second job to keep up with the $2,000 in monthly payments she collectively sent to five banks to try to pay $25,000 in credit card debt.
Even though she had not used the cards to buy anything more, her debt had nearly doubled to $49,574 by the time the Sunnyvale, Calif., resident filed for bankruptcy last June. That is because Hosseini's payments sometimes were tardy, triggering late fees ranging from $25 to $50 and doubling interest rates to nearly 30 percent. When the additional costs pushed her balance over her credit limit, the credit card companies added more penalties.
"I was really trying hard to make minimum payments," said Hosseini, whose financial problems began in the late 1990s when her husband left her and their three children. "All of my salary was going to the credit card companies, but there was no change in the balances because of that interest and those penalties."
Punitive charges -- penalty fees and sharply higher interest rates after a payment is late -- compound the problems of many financially strapped consumers, sometimes making it impossible for them to dig their way out of debt and pushing them into bankruptcy.
The Senate is to vote as soon as this week on a bill that would make it harder for individuals to wipe out debt through bankruptcy. The Senate last week voted down several amendments intended to curb excessive fees and other practices that critics of the industry say are abusive. House leaders say they will act soon after that, and President Bush has said he supports the bill.
Bankruptcy experts say that too often, by the time an individual has filed for bankruptcy or is hauled into court by creditors, he or she has repaid an amount equal to their original credit card debt plus double-digit interest, but still owes hundreds or thousands of dollars because of penalties.
"How is it that the person who wants to do right ends up so worse off?" Cleveland Municipal Judge Robert J. Triozzi said last fall when he ruled against Discover in the company's breach-of-contract suit against another struggling credit cardholder, Ruth M. Owens.
Owens tried for six years to pay off a $1,900 balance on her Discover card, sending the credit company a total of $3,492 in monthly payments from 1997 to 2003. Yet her balance grew to $5,564.28, even though, like Hosseini, she never used the card to buy anything more. Of that total, over-limit penalty fees alone were $1,158.
Triozzi denied Discover's claim, calling its attempt to collect more money from Owens "unconscionable."
The bankruptcy measure now being debated in Congress has been sought for nearly eight years by the credit card industry. Twice in that time, versions of it have passed both the House and Senate. Once, President Bill Clinton refused to sign it, saying it was unfair, and once the House reversed its vote after Democrats attached an amendment that would prevent individuals such as anti-abortion protesters from using bankruptcy as a shield against court-imposed fines.