Tricks, Not Treats -- Pew Study Finds 'Deceptive' Credit Card Practices Rising

The practices of credit card companies continue to draw lawmakers' attention.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., earlier this week announced he was supporting legislation that would force the credit card industry to comply with the new laws starting in December, two months ahead of schedule.

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., meanwhile, has proposed legislation imposing an across-the-board rate freeze on credit card companies.

Bank of America Vows Cooperation

Scott Talbott, senior vice president for government affairs at the Financial Services Roundtable, a banking, credit card and securities industry lobbying group, defended the industry moving to, in some cases, increased interest rates and/or higher fees by pointing out the realities card issuers are facing on two fronts.

"Rates and fees are in response to increased risk presented by borrowers and by economic conditions in general," Talbott said. "We are talking about the riskiest form of lending. Bottom line: People are free to shop around."

Outrage over credit card industry practices, and in particular BofA practices, literally reached critical mass earlier this autumn when a Red Bluff, Calif., woman named Anne Minch posted a video on YouTube venting her rage and disgust over BofA's decision to hike her rate from around 13 percent to 30 percent.

Speaking forcefully into the camera and aiming her comments at bank honchos, Minch vowed to boycott her payments in protest. The video went viral. Eventually, she got results: BofA agreed to take the rate back down to 13 percent.

Betty Riess, a BofA spokeswoman, explained that while she could not disclose any customers' specific account information, she could confirm that the bank reached out to Minch, and that after getting some additional information regarding her situation the parties "reached a mutually agreeable resolution."

Riess said she could not comment on the Howards' situation, but she said the bank takes a fair and responsible approach to lending, adding that "when we do provide credit to students, we have a strong educational component and provide information about fees and terms up front."

BofA does appear to be trying to offset growing negative perception. Bank executive John Collingwood, BofA's director of federal government relations, earlier this month fired off a letter vowing cooperation to House Financial Services Committee chairman Rep. Barney Frank.

Collingwood's letter, which BofA has made public, stated: "In light of the concerns expressed to us by our customers, Bank of America will not implement any change in terms (risk or economic based) rate re-pricing of consumer credit card accounts between now and the effective date of the CARD Act. We believe that this is responsive to the concerns we have heard and is consistent with other consumer oriented policy changes we have made recently, like giving customers much more control over the risk of incurring overdraft fees and substantially limiting the application of those fees."

How Consumers Can Fight Back

John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education for Credit.com, a San Francisco-based provider of credit card data, says the Pew study confirms what his own research has shown. The Web site's surveys of credit card users over the past three months revealed that 45 percent of respondents indicated that card companies had either raised rates, imposed higher fees, increased minimum payment, reduced credit lines or shaved reward programs, up from 33 percent in June.

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