Warning that "plastic popping may pop us right into the poor house," Rep. Frank Annunzio (D.-ill.) said that overuse of credit cards may be a more serious problem than companies will admit.

In a speech prepared for delivery last night to bank marketing officials, Annunzio, who is chairman of the House Banking Consumers Affairs subcommittee, declared, "At the same time we hear there is no problem (about credit card charge-offs), I am being told privately by bank operational people that there may well be a grave problem."

He continued: "My concerns were heightened when the comptroller of the currency moved recently to require banks to move up the date when a credit card account is considered delinquent. The banks protested so loudly that the comptroller pulled back the proposed regulation."

An aide to Annunzio said the comptroller wanted to push the current 120-day grace period back to 90 days. The aide said collectors who pick up bad credit cards told the subcommittee the situation was a lot worse than bank officials care to admit. He added that banks routinely are giving delinquent customers extensions and there-by underreporting their losses to regulators.

The administration is anxious to curb consumer credit to cool off the economy, but banks are reluctant to curtail this lucrative source of income.

Annunzio laid part of the blame on the marketing industry, which he said has done "too good a job in merchandising" bank credit cards. He also faulted the industry for "a lack of integrity in selling bank services."

Annunzio told his audience he saw no reason why a credit card issuer should receive more than 18 percent interest annually plus a merchant's discount. "There is enough money in credit cards without manipulating finance charge formulas and adding other hidden costs," he added.

The congressman announced he would introduce legislation within two weeks to prohibit computing fiance charges on the average daily balance with current purchases added. The bill was defeated in committee during the last session of Congress.

Annunzio's Financial Services Disclosure Act is designed to oblige banks and thrift institutions to tell how they calculate interest on savings accounts and to reveal what strings are attached to so-called "free" checking accounts. He cited a Federal Reserve study showing that onetenth of the banks did not tell customers about conditions involving charges for below-minimum balances. "To me, this is outright fraud," he said.

Annunzio also had a few thoughts about why electronic point-of-sale transactions -- in which the customer's bank account is automatically debited have met such a cool public reception: "Over and over, we (in the Congress) were told that consumers would go into restaurants, eat big steaks, pay for the meal with a debit card and then reverse the transaction." He noted that in Wisconsin -- the only state where electronic funds transfers can be reversed -- not a single transaction had yet been reversed. (Reversibility is the electronic equivalent of stopping a check.)

"You cannot ask the consumers to strap themselves into a financial electric chair and execute themselves by pushing the debit card," Annunzio said. He called on the bank marketers to be innovative, institute reversibility and assure themselves of "an overnight success." Reversibility was removed last year from EFT legislation at the demand of industry.