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Gov't tightens credit card rules

New government rules will make it harder for credit card lenders to raise rates on existing customers -- which could push banks to charge higher fees for new credit.

Federal bank regulators said today they'll tighten rules for credit card issuers. For Citibank, Chase, Bank of America, and other banks that issue Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Discover, starting in mid-2010:

-  No boosting your rate because you've fallen up to 30 days behind on some other, unrelated bill.
-  No "late-payment" charges or fees for at least 21 days after you use the card.
-  No raising rates above a promised price.
-  No charging retroactive interest -- for example, after a "0%" offer expires.
-  If you have another loan with the bank, at least half your payment has to be applied to your highest-interest debt.
-  No more two-cycle billing, where you could get slapped with extra interest from bills you already paid.
-  Fees can't be more than half your credit limit. -- The whole 286 pages can be viewed here.

Sounds pro-consumer. The National Small Business Association, which lobbies for limits on credit card fees, praised the changes (except the delay in enforcing them) and called on Congress to do more, sooner, to "address a host of practices that defy free-market capitalism".

But Judith Rinearson, a former AmEx lawyer who now represents card banks for Bryan Cave LLP in New York, called the changes "a two-edged sword...This discourages low introductory rates. Banks are going to be more careful on who they give credit to." Which means poor people and borrowers with "dings" on their record will likely pay higher rates, up front.