How They Rig The Credit Card Game

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, March 11, 2007

My son had a problem recently with a classmate who was acting very aggressively when they played tag. Whenever it was this little boy's turn to chase the kids, he always ran after my son to tag him out first.

"It really hurts my feelings," my 8-year-old son said.

"Well, son, tell that kid you won't play with him anymore if he continues to come after you all the time," my husband said while trying to console our son.

"Why doesn't he play fair, Dad?" my son kept asking with watery eyes. "It's just not right."

"Son," my husband said firmly. "Some people won't play nice and when they don't, you just shouldn't play with them."

"Okay, Dad," my son said. He stopped playing tag with that little boy.

If only adults could follow the advice my husband gave our son. We can often be complicit with companies that don't treat us fairly. For example, credit card companies often don't play nice when you hit a financial rough time.

Actually, they frequently don't play fair even when we do everything according to their terms. Take "universal default," for instance. It's an industry practice in which the credit card issuer reserves the right to hike your interest rate if you are late or overextended on another credit account.

Then there is the practice of two-cycle billing. Under this method, the interest is calculated on the balance you carry over the previous two months. In a simplified example, let's say you start the first billing cycle with a zero balance and then charge $1,000. You make a payment of $900, leaving you with a balance of $100. You would expect to pay interest only on that remaining balance. However, with a two-month billing cycle, you pay interest not only on the $100 balance, but also on the $900 from the first month. Even though this is unfair, many consumers carry cards that bill them this way. Why?

Most recently the Senate's permanent subcommittee on investigations took a look at certain credit card industry practices. Credit card executives were summoned to Congress in January and again for the subcommittee hearing this month to defend outrageous fees and interest rates.

To prove how unfair the practices are, the subcommittee panel brought in one consumer, Wesley Wannemacher of Lima, Ohio, who testified that he got a Chase credit card in 2001 to help pay for wedding expenses. His limit on the card was $3,000. He charged $3,200.

"My wife and I wanted to show everyone a good time and have a memorable experience," Wannemacher said in his written testimony to the Senate panel. "As a young adult, I really had no idea just how much my wedding would cost."

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