Practices of credit card companies under scrutiny

Executives of the nation’s largest credit-card companies will meet with President Barack Obama at the White House on Thursday to discuss growing concerns about questionable practices in the industry.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday that the meeting would be a chance to stress the need for greater clarity in the way that credit cards are marketed and administered. During his campaign last year, Obama strongly supported legislation to improve the rights of cardholders.

“What we want to do is ensure that people can have access to the credit that they need, but that we can also do this in a way that’s transparent and fair and honest. And I think that’s one of the things that the president will talk to them about,” Gibbs said.

A recent survey of credit card practices by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that of more than 400 cards offered online by the 12 largest issuers, all allowed payments to be applied in ways that disadvantaged cardholders, such as paying off lower-interest balances before those that accrue higher interest.

The survey found that 93 percent of the cards allowed for interest rate hikes by changing the account agreements, 87 percent allowed punitive interest-rate increases even when accounts were fewer than 30 days past due and 72 percent allowed promotional rates to be rescinded after one late payment.

Thursday’s meeting, which will include representatives from Bank of America, HSBC and Capital One, among others, comes amid a push by congressional Democrats for legislation to rein in questionable industry practices.

Consumer advocates say that legislation sponsored by Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn, and Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., would bring much-needed relief to Main Street after hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars have been used to stabilize many of the same banks that issue credit cards.

“It’s becoming harder to justify giving the credit card companies carte blanche to do whatever they want, including hurt consumers with substantial, unjustified interest-rate increases now that they’re receiving so much government assistance,” said Travis Plunkett, the legislative director of the Consumer Federation of America.

Many card issuers are raising interest rates and changing the terms of agreements amid the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

From 2007 to 2008, credit card companies raised interest rates on nearly 25 percent of accounts, according to the Pew Trusts, using practices that the Federal Reserve deemed “unfair and deceptive.” The rate increases cost consumers more than $10 billion.

Since the recession began in December 2007, the number of credit card accounts that are at least 90 days delinquent has increased 18 percent, “with future trends not particularly optimistic,” said Ezra Becker, the director of consulting and strategy at TransUnion, one of three major credit-reporting agencies.

The Federal Reserve recently adopted sweeping changes that eliminate many of what it deemed deceptive card practices, but the new regulations don’t take effect until July 2010.

Until then, consumers have little protection from such practices.

According to Dodd’s Web site, Samantha Moore of Guilford, Conn., saw her credit-card interest rate shoot from 12 percent to 27 percent while her credit limit was slashed from $31,500 to $4,500 – after being three days late on a payment.

Credit card companies generally have taken the position that new restrictions will make credit more expensive and harder to get at a time when consumers need it most.

Lynne Strang, a spokeswoman for the American Financial Services Association, said the organization wanted to see how the new federal regulations would affect the marketplace before any new legislation was implemented.

“We also believe that, for the economy to recover, consumers need continued access to credit, and that Congress should take care not to pursue approaches that would further limit borrowing options at a time when consumers are already feeling the effects of a tightened credit environment,” Strang said.

Bank of America spokeswoman Betty Riess said the bank periodically reviewed cardholders’ credit risk and might adjust their interest rates based on the reviews.

Recently BOA increased interest rates for a small number of cardholders whose rates were below 10 percent to better reflect “current economic conditions in which our costs of providing credit have increased significantly,” Riess said.

Last year, more than 90 percent of BOA cardholders ended the year with the same rate or lower rates than they began the year with, Riess said.

On Wednesday, the House Committee on Financial Services will hold a hearing on Maloney’s bill, H.R. 627, The Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights Act of 2009. The legislation would, among other provisions, block credit card companies from increasing interest rates on existing balances.

“Maybe now the card companies will understand that my Cardholders’ Bill of Rights is a solution whose time has come,” Maloney said Monday.

The Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs passed Chairman Dodd’s Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 on March 31.

Copyright 2009, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.