Credit Card Issuers Raising Rates, Fees Ahead of New Law

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By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 2, 2009

Credit card companies are raising interest rates and fees seven months before new rules go into effect that will limit their ability to do so, much to the irritation of Congress and consumer advocates.

Chase, for instance, will raise the minimum payment required of some of its customers from 2 percent to 5 percent of the statement balance starting in August. Chase and Discover have increased the maximum fee charged for transferring a balance to the card to 5 percent of the amount, up from 3 and 4 percent, respectively. Bank of America last month raised the transaction fee for balance transfers and cash advances from 3 to 4 percent. Card issuers including Bank of America and Citi also continue to cut limits and hike up rates, which they have been doing with more frequency since January.

"This is a common practice and will continue to be common, because issuers can do these things for really no reason until February," said John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education for Credit.com, which tracks the industry. "It's what I call the Credit Card Trifecta -- lower limits, higher rates, higher minimum payments."

It's not just the top card issuers making changes. Atlanta-based InfiBank, for example, will raise the minimum annual percentage rate it charges nearly all of its customers in September "in order to more effectively manage the profitability of our credit card account portfolio in a very challenging economic environment," said spokesman Kevin C. Langin.

The flurry of activity, which the banks say is necessary to shore up their revenue losses, has irked members of Congress, who passed a new credit card law, which was signed by President Obama in May. The law, among other things, would prevent card companies from raising rates on existing balances unless the borrower was at least 60 days late and would require the original rate to be restored if payments are received on time for six months. The law would also require banks to get customers' permission before allowing them to go over their limits, for which they would have to pay a fee.

Yesterday, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) once again requested that the Federal Reserve invoke its emergency powers to place a limit on interest rate hikes.

"This is what many of us feared about a law that didn't take effect right away," Schumer said. "It was never going to take this long for the credit card companies to get ready for the new reforms. Instead, issuers are using the delay in the effective date to wring more dollars out of their customers. It is against the spirit of the law, and it is just plain wrong."

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) said the recent rate and fee hikes were "unfair and deceptive and must be stopped."

"Capricious actions like these are why Congress overwhelmingly passed, and President Obama signed, my credit card reform bill: to level the playing field on behalf of consumers," she said.

Bank executives had warned that the new law would force them to increase rates and fees because it would keep them from properly managing borrowers' risk. The argument is that if banks can't raise rates on riskier customers, they will have to raise rates on all.

Scott Talbott, senior vice president of government affairs for the Financial Services Roundtable, an industry group, said there are two reasons for the rate increases. First, he said, consumer credit scores, which banks use to determine if they should lend and at what price, have decreased. Second, the cost of providing credit has increased. "Once the new law is in effect, we anticipate a further reduction in the availability of credit and additional increases in the cost of credit," he said.

Banks have been hit with a record number of charge-offs, or debts they give up on because the borrowers have no way of paying them back. In June, credit card losses hit a record 10.44 percent, according to Fitch Ratings.

Increasing rates and fees is one way they can make up for lost revenue. Since January, of the six major card issuers, Citi has had the largest increase in rates for purchases, according to a report by Credit Suisse.

Samuel Wang, vice president for public affairs at Citi, would not disclose details of the rate increase but said the company adjusts pricing as part of a regular review of accounts. "These changes also reflect the dramatically higher cost of doing business in our industry as we work to preserve the broad availability of credit," he said.

Stephanie Jacobson, a spokeswoman for Chase Card Services, said fewer than 1 percent of its customers will see a monthly minimum payment increase. "Our desire is to have these balances paid back in a reasonable period of time," she said.

Charles Chichester Jr., a 65-year-old retired U.S. Postal Service employee who lives in Fairfax County, was trying to pay off his credit card soon but now fears he will be unable to do so at all. He received a letter from Chase, he said, notifying him that his $373 minimum monthly payment would increase to more than $900. When he called to say he could not afford that, a Chase representative told him to consult with a credit counselor, he said. That's exactly what he plans to do.

"The 900-something-dollar minimum monthly payment is just something I cannot do," he said.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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