With the exception of Maryland National Bank, area banks have generally done little to restrict credit card use, depending on inflation-scared customers to do the job themselves.
Major issuers of Visa and the Riggs National Bank, which issues Central Charge, have generally stopped soliciting new credit card customers and put a lid on increases in available creduit, but drawn the line at canceling accounts or cutting credit back.
But industry sources say there may be changes ahead with banks considering whether to impose service fees on credit card accounts.
Such charges have spread across the country as banks sought ways to offset rising costs of extending credit. But in some states the fees have been blocked by questions about whether they amount to illegal increases in charges for credit beyond usury ceilings.
In Virginia, state law on the question is unclear, according to bankers. But in Maryland a 1977 ruling by the state's attorney general gives the banks the right to impose the charges, according to the Maryland Bankers Association.
For the time being, however, for many bank credit card customers in the Washington area, credit controls are just a rumor.
"We have not closed out any blocks of accounts or even acted to reduce the availability of credit to active accounts in good standing," said Harry Schoenley, president of Central Charge. Schoenley also said the bank plans no service charge.
"We feel pretty comfortable where we are," he said. "We feel generally the consumer is policing him or herself. People are becoming more conscious of their credit more than in the past, and they are becoming conservative," said Schoenley, who oversees some 500,000 Central Charge Accounts.
At Suburban Trust and United Virginia Bank, two of the major issuers of Visa cards in the area, the experience has been similar, officials said.
Suburban Trust has put a moratorium of at least 30 days on new accounts and on increasing credit limits under Visa card. "But we are not decreasing limits, not increasing the rate of repayment or the amount of minimum payments," said Thomas Brightman, vice president for marketing. "The controls didn't ask banks to speed up payments, they asked us to put a restraint on future credit," he said.
"We find people are voluntarily making larger payments and charging fewer items," he said. Outstanding balances have stablized as a result, according to Brightman.
"We don't anticipate doing anything until we see what the marketplace is going to do," said Jack Fox, senior vice president of United Virginia Bank. "Consumer credit, in spite of the flap in February, has been on a downslide for several months, and we anticipate that trend is going to continue," he said.
Fox said the bank's outstanding balances were growing at a slower rate than before. "We anticipate that credit can be controlled without precipitous action. Consumers are taking action on their own, and we'd rather have a better feel for what they're doing," he said.
Like other banks, United Virginia, which has 450,000 Visa accounts, has stopped soliciting new accounts. "We're in a holding pattern," said Fox.
Several Maryland banks have moved up the date on which interest begins to be owned on credit card purchases. Equitable Trust, effective with this month's billing, will begin to charge interest from the date of purchase, rather than approximately 30 days, after. Several retailers and banks have taken similiar steps.
Housing Banking Committee Chairman Henry Reuss has written Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker asking the Fed to design a questionaire to monitor what banks are doing to comply with credit restraints. Reuss also asked that the results of the questionaire be provided to Congress on a monthly basis.