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Credit Card Penalties, Fees Bury Debtors

Regulators say it is appropriate for lenders to charge higher-risk debtors a higher interest rate, but that negative amortization and other practices go too far, posing risks to the banking system by threatening borrowers' ability to repay their debts and by being unfair to individuals.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge David H. Adams of Norfolk, who is also the president of the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges, said many debtors who get in over their heads "are spending money, buying things they shouldn't be buying." Even so, he said, "once you add all these fees on, the amount of principal being paid is negligible. The fees and interest and other charges are so high, they may never be able to pay it off."

Judges say there is little they can do by the time cases get to bankruptcy court. Under the law, "the credit card company is legally entitled to collect every dollar without a distinction" whether the balance is from fees, interest or principal, said retired U.S. bankruptcy judge Ronald Barliant, who presided in Chicago. The only question for the courts is whether the debt is accurate, judges and lawyers say.

John Rao, staff attorney of the National Consumer Law Center, one of many consumer groups fighting the bankruptcy bill, says the plight consumers face was illustrated last year in a bankruptcy case filed in Northern Virginia.

Manassas resident Josephine McCarthy's Providian Visa bill increased to $5,357 from $4,888 in two years, even though McCarthy has used the card for only $218.16 in purchases and has made monthly payments totaling $3,058. Those payments, noted U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Stephen S. Mitchell in Alexandria, all went to "pay finance charges (at a whopping 29.99%), late charges, over-limit fees, bad check fees and phone payment fees." Mitchell allowed the claim "because the debtor admitted owing it." McCarthy, through her lawyer, declined to be interviewed.

Alan Elias, a Providian Financial Corp. spokesman, said: "When consumers sign up for a credit card, they should understand that it's a loan, no different than their mortgage payment or their car payment, and it needs to be repaid. And just like a mortgage payment and a car payment, if you are late you are assessed a fee." The 29.99 percent interest rate, he said, is the default rate charged to consumers "who don't met their obligation to pay their bills on time" and is clearly disclosed on account applications.

Feddis, of the banker's association, said the nature of debt means that interest will often end up being more than the original principal. "Anytime you have a loan that's going to extend for any period of time, the interest is going to accumulate. Look at a 30-year-mortgage. The interest is much, much more than the principal."

Samuel J. Gerdano, executive director of the American Bankruptcy Institute, a nonpartisan research group, said that focusing on late fees is "refusing to look at the elephant in the room, and that's the massive levels of consumer debt which is not being paid. People are living right up to the edge," failing to save so when they lose a second job or overtime, face medical expense or their family breaks up, they have no money to cope.

"Late fees aren't the cause of debt," he said.

Credit card use continues to grow, with an average of 6.3 bank credit cards and 6.3 store credit cards for every household, according to Cardweb.com Inc., which monitors the industry. Fifteen years ago, the averages were 3.4 bank credit cards and 4.1 retail credit cards per household.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the large increase in cards, there is a "fee feeding frenzy," among credit card issuers, said Robert McKinley, Cardweb's president and chief executive. "The whole mentality has really changed over the last several years," with the industry imposing fees and increasing interest rates if a single payment is late.

Penalty interest rates usually are about 30 percent, with some as high as 40 percent, while late fees now often are $39 a month, and over-limit fees, about $35, McKinley said. "If you drag that out for a year, it could be very damaging," he said. "Late and over-limit fees alone can easily rack up $900 in fees, and a 30 percent interest rate on a $3,000 balance can add another $1,000, so you could go from $2,000 to $5,000 in just one year if you fail to make payments."

According to R.K. Hammer Investment Bankers, a California credit card consulting firm, banks collected $14.8 billion in penalty fees last year, or 10.9 percent of revenue, up from $10.7 billion, or 9 percent of revenue, in 2002, the first year the firm began to track penalty fees.

The way the fees are now imposed, "people would be better off if they stopped paying" once they get in over their heads, said T. Bentley Leonard, a North Carolina bankruptcy attorney . Once you stop paying, creditors write off the debt and sell it to a debt collector. "They may harass you, but your balance doesn't keep rising. That's the irony."


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