04/30/2009 - They won't break your legs for a late payment, but, beyond that, credit card companies can resemble the most abusive loan sharks. Usurious interest rates, dunning notices, surprise fees, arbitrary cuts in credit lines, and other dark practices have only gotten worse since the economy's collapse, hitting even cardholders with good credit who always pay their bills on time. Add to this the fact that Bank of America, Citigroup, and other large financial companies that issue credit cards have received billions in taxpayer bailouts—while rewarding executives with extravagant compensation—and it's hard to imagine a less sympathetic adversary.
Sensing the mood is ripe, the US House is expected today to vote on a credit cardholder's bill of rights. Co-sponsored by Representatives Barney Frank of Newton and Carolyn Maloney of New York, the bill would end the most egregious practices that have enraged consumers. The list is long: applying payments only to the lowest-interest balances and letting high-interest charges mount; changing the rules on late fees; applying multiple fees for a single credit-limit violation; and something called "universal default," which triggers a spike in interest rates because of a late payment on an unrelated bill, such as an electric or gas bill.
* * *
The banks call the legislation anticompetitive, but consumers are the ones with few choices. A survey last month by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 93 percent of the nation's 663 million cardholder agreements allow the company to raise any interest rate at any time for any reason.
Read the full editorial Rein in These Card Sharks on the Boston Globe's Web site.
Pew is no longer active in this line of work, but for more information visit the Safe Credit Cards Project on PewHealth.org.