Credit card issuers use final days before consumer protections to make card terms more deceptive, unfair

The House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted this week to accelerate the implementation of the Credit CARD Act, which will provide protections from some abusive credit card practices.

 
Currently, the Act will not take effect until February 2010 (or later, for some provisions). Credit card issuers argue that the provisions of the bill are too onerous to implement all at once.

In the meantime, the Pew Safe Credit Cards Project released a report that found that issuers have actually increased the number of practices deemed “unfair or deceptive” by the Federal Reserve since last year. The lowest advertised interest rates rose by 20 percent since December of last year, while 99 percent of bank-issued credit cards allowed the issuer to raise the interest rates on outstanding balances without notice—that’s up from 93 percent last year. Ninety percent of bank-issued credit cards allowed the issuer to continue charging penalty interest rates, which charge a premium of as much as 17 percentage points above the advertised interest rates, indefinitely—even after a cardholder has resumed regular payments. These terms are merely punitive and do not encourage better behavior on the part of the card user.

The report also highlighted some troublesome new trends in the credit card market, such as the increasing prevalence of partially variable rate credit cards. On these cards, interest rates can rise according to an index rate, but rates cannot fall below a certain minimum—this means that issuers benefit when interest rates rise, but borrowers do not capture the benefit of low interest rates.

Clearly, many credit card issuers will use any lag time before the Credit CARD Act comes into effect to ramp up abusive, deceptive, and unfair practices. The sooner issuers must implement the Act’s protections, the fewer borrowers will be taken advantage of by exploitative credit card terms.
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