New credit card practices change companies, customers alike
The Federal Reserve is expected to release final rules this month to prevent unreasonable fees by card companies.
BALTIMORE - The credit card reform signed into law a year ago by President Barack Obama is not only causing the industry to change but scaring some consumers straight.
Under the law, credit card statements must disclose how long it will take to pay off a balance if you make only the minimum payment. For Norma Kaplan of Baltimore County, it would take her 13 years to pay off the $9,000 balance on her card, and over that time she would pay about $4,200 in interest. That has inspired her to pay more.
"It made me feel terrible," the 76-year-old widow says. The statements, she says, "should open up a lot of eyes."
The overhaul of the credit card industry includes a range of reforms that give you more time to pay, limit when card issuers can raise rates and cap upfront fees that used to nearly wipe out subprime borrowers' credit limits. The bulk of the changes took effect in February.
And it's not over yet. The Federal Reserve is expected to release final rules this month to prevent unreasonable fees by card companies. The Fed has proposed banning inactivity fees and prohibiting penalties that exceed the dollar amount involved. In other words, no $39 late fee on a $15 bill. Final rules will kick in Aug. 22.
But already, consumers and industry observers are forming opinions about the reform's impact. Some provisions don't go as far as consumers want, while others aren't quite as protective as they first appear. And other provisions are actually helping.
Among the positive changes: Consumers now get an extra week to pay a card bill, and they must be given a 45-day notice before a rate increase. And there's the revamped card statement, which must disclose what it takes to wipe out the debt in three years in addition to the disclosure about minimum payments.
These cold, hard numbers have motivated one-quarter of customers to start paying more than the minimum, according to a poll of about 2,000 consumers by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
Kaplan always paid more than the minimum, but she started adding an extra $65 toward her monthly bill. She is also paying off another card with a smaller balance. And she's trying not to use plastic.
Another recent survey of about 1,000 consumers by CreditCards.com found that three out of four cardholders say their accounts are "in better shape" than they were a year ago, before the overhaul. Some of them noted receiving lower rates and increased credit limits.
"The credit card industry has been forced to be more transparent, and its worst practices have been banished," says Daniel P. Ray, editor-in-chief of CreditCards.com.
Of course, not everyone is happy. One-quarter of respondents to the CreditCards.com survey said they were worse off and complained of higher rates, new annual fees and the addition of a fee for a paper statement. These unhappy consumers tended to be younger and less wealthy.
One of the biggest criticisms of the reform law is that it gave the card industry too much time to implement changes. Card issuers began raising rates and lowering limits before reforms took effect.
In response to that, the law as of August will require card issuers to review rate increases twice a year, going back to January 2009, to see if those higher rates are still warranted - although experts advise consumers not to pin their hopes on a change of heart from the card issuer.
John Slike, a retiree from Parkville, Md., says his rates on retail cards jumped to about 24 percent before reforms took effect. He says he's disappointed the law didn't cap interest rates, though he added that other reforms in the law "were absolutely needed because the credit card companies were just running ... over people."
Curtis Arnold, founder of CardRatings.com, says card issuers also added new fees in the past year. Some are freezing reward miles or points of customers who are late with payments and then making them pay up to $29 as a reinstatement fee to get rewards back, he says.
Then there are the reforms that don't offer as much protection as first thought.
For example, the law says issuers can't charge you a fee to pay by phone, unless you make a last-minute payment on the due date, Arnold says. But many of those paying by phone do so because the bill is due right then, he says.
"It's a huge loophole, and that gives them a right to assess a fee" as high as $29, he says.
Consumers also might be disappointed by a provision that's supposed to help them pay off debt faster. It dictates that when a credit card has multiple rates - one for new purchases and another for cash advances, for example - issuers must apply payments above the minimum to the highest-rate debt first.
But that means card companies can apply the minimum payment to the lowest-rate debt, and cash-strapped consumers who can't afford to pay more are not getting any relief from this provision, Arnold says.
Some provisions might not work the way some would want, but overall the law is working well, says Robert Lawless, a law professor with the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign.
"There's a lot of misplaced criticism that credit card companies are raising fees and doing some things that circumvent the law," he says. "Some of the things that the credit card industry is doing are not so much circumventing the law as doing the things the law intended for the credit card industry to do."
For instance, he says, the new law makes it less attractive to extend credit to marginal borrowers by making it more difficult for card companies to quickly raise rates or change other terms.
He also notes that bringing back annual fees makes card pricing more transparent. Before, the most vulnerable consumers paid higher rates and fees - essentially subsidizing everyone else.
And there are good deals to be had for some consumers.
Arnold of CardRatings.com says that while the freewheeling days before the credit crunch haven't returned, card issuers are feeling more comfortable about extending credit. Some issuers are rolling out attractive introductory rates that rival deals of a few years ago, Arnold says.
"It has to do with the fact that the reform is behind us. Issuers were trying to figure out how to survive in this environment," Arnold says. They found that they can survive by tweaking their business model, he says.
Even Parkville resident Slike says he's getting offers for low-rate cards, including one with no interest for a year.
Eileen Ambrose is a personal finance columnist at the Baltimore Sun. Send her e-mail at email@example.com. She cannot give individual advice.
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