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CompuCredit charged over subprime credit cards

WASHINGTON - Credit card issuer CompuCredit Corp. has been accused of using deceptive marketing practices to provide credit in the subprime market in a complaint filed today by the Federal Trade Commission.

WASHINGTON - Credit card issuer CompuCredit Corp. has been accused of using deceptive marketing practices to provide credit in the subprime market in a complaint filed today by the Federal Trade Commission.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. said it was seeking up to $200 million in restitution from CompuCredit and two banks: Wilmington-based First Bank of Delaware and Brookings, S.D.-based First Bank & Trust.

Hundreds of thousands of consumers may be eligible for refunds, said FDIC board member Thomas J. Curry.

The civil action, filed by the FTC in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, said that Atlanta-based CompuCredit Corp. and its wholly owned debt collection subsidiary, Jefferson Capital Systems LLC, offered credit cards with so many strings attached that recipients were left with little to no actual credit.

The cards were marketed under the Aspire, FreedomCard, Tribute and other brand names.

CompuCredit issues credit cards and auto loans to consumers with spotty credit histories. The company had announced earlier today that it expected to be charged.

CompuCredit is accused of misrepresenting the amount of credit that would be available immediately to consumers, failing to disclose up-front fees, failing to disclose that certain purchases could reduce a consumer's credit limit, and misrepresenting a debt collection program as a credit card offer.

Jefferson Capital allegedly violated the FTC Act by misrepresenting a debt collection program as a credit card offer and using abusive collection tactics such as making debt collection calls to individual consumers more than 20 times per day, including before 8 a.m. and after 9 p.m., and on Sundays.

In a release, the FTC describes that offerings by CompuCredit:

Fee-based Visa with $300 limit. According to the FTC, CompuCredit marketed to consumers with subprime credit ratings a Visa credit card with $300 credit limit. CompuCredit then charged as much as $185 in fees that it did not adequately disclose, leaving consumers with as little as $115 in available credit.

Visa with "up to $3,250" limit. According to FTC, CompuCredit marketed to consumers with slightly higher credit scores its Visa credit card offering "up to $3,250" in available credit. The company is accused of failing to disclose that half of the available credit would be withheld for the first 90 days. CompuCredit also failed to disclose that for the first 90 days, the company would monitor consumers' purchases, and might reduce their credit limit for undisclosed reasons, the FTC said.

Debt-transfer Visa program. According to the complaint, CompuCredit and Jefferson Capital marketed a Visa credit card to consumers with charged-off debt. The companies told consumers that their old debt balance would be immediately transferred to the card and reported to consumer reporting agencies as paid in full, the FTC said. Consumers who accepted the offer, however, were immediately enrolled in a debt repayment plan and did not receive a Visa card until they paid 25 percent to 50 percent of their charged-off debt, according to the agency.

CompuCredit has denied wrongdoing, and in a statement released today but before the suit was announced said that it intended to contest the accusations.

"The credit card programs at issue complied with applicable laws and regulations and have exemplified best practices in credit card marketing," the company release said. "In fact, the FDIC repeatedly determined over the years now at issue that the marketing materials fully disclosed fees and terms in compliance with consumer protection laws."

CompuCredit said that its disclosures had been pronounced appropriate by the FDIC.

Further, the company said that the FDIC had retained it to market credit cards to an FDIC-controlled bank.

Also, the company said, its marketing materials meet or exceed current and proposed federal regulations regarding disclosure of credit terms.

The company said that customer-satisfaction surveys conducted regularly since 1999 show that customers understood terms and conditions of their credit card agreements and are satisfied.

Regarding debt-collection practices by Jefferson Capital, CompuCredit said that its collection practices complied with all applicable state and federal laws and regulations.

The FDIC has begun administrative proceedings against the company and the two banks. A third bank, Columbus Bank & Trust in Columbus, Ga., has paid a $2.4 million penalty to settle the FDIC's charges, the agency said.

Columbus Bank & Trust is owned by Synovus Financial Corp.

The Wall Street Journal late yesterday reported that CompuCredit was a target of the probe, sending the Atlanta-based company's shares down $2.54, or 28.9 percent, to $6.25 in Nasdaq trading late this afternoon. The Journal said regulators would seek $100 million in fines and penalties from CompuCredit and the banks.

The company's shares have been pounded in the last year in the wake of the credit crisis. In the last 52 weeks, the share price has been as high as $36.17.

CompuCredit said in a regulatory filing last month that it was the subject of probes by the FTC and FDIC that began in 2006.

The agencies are investigating whether the company's marketing misrepresented fees and credit limits and "whether servicing and collection practices were conducted in accordance with applicable law," the filing said.

A November 2007 report by the nonprofit National Consumer Law Center mentioned CompuCredit as one of the companies issuing what the Boston-based center called "fee-harvesting" cards - those with high fees that eat up most of the low credit limit, leaving the consumer with little real credit but with high price.

The report cited sample terms for a card issued by CompuCredit: a card promising a $300 credit limit, with an account-opening fee of $29, and an annual fee of $150. That left $121 in available credit.

According to a New York Times story on the report, CompuCredit called the report "misleading" and sent a letter to the law center, prepublication, indicating that its cards "meet or exceed the federal regulatory requirements and industry best practices."