Banks, Credit Card Issuers Lend Help to Haiti

Under siege by regulators and public, financial firms step up to help Haiti.

Jan. 19, 2010— -- At a time when the public image of banks and credit card companies has fallen to an all-time low, the past week gave them a chance to show their better side. Almost every major financial company appears to have made some effort to help the people of earthquake-ravaged Haiti.

By Friday, with relief dollars pouring in via credit cards from all over the world, the major credit card companies, including American Express, Visa, MasterCard and Discover, had all announced they were either waiving transaction fees tied to charitable donations or donating any profits from such transactions to such relief causes as the American Red Cross.

Many of these corporate announcements, in some cases coincidentally (and, perhaps, in some cases, not coincidentally) came after some media outlets pointed out that credit card issuers could make millions from the transaction fees they made when people charged their donations. Even if the fees were only 5 cents per transaction, they added up quickly.

There was an angry story at The Huffington Post, and Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., joined in.

Dodd Demands Waivers

Dodd, the Senate Banking Committee chairman who recently announced he would not seek re-election to his seat, issued a statement Thursday urging the credit card companies to waive transaction fees tied to Haiti donations.

"Across the country, Americans are offering their hard-earned dollars to aid the Haitian people, but their donations could do more if credit card companies weren't skimming off the top," Dodd said in the statement. "I urge credit card companies to join the cause and waive the transaction fees that are taking these generous donations away from the Haitian relief effort."

The Electronic Payments Coalition, which represents some 60 credit card and financial services companies and trade groups, issued a statement on the same day as Dodd's statement. It said that all of its members were "making efforts to provide assistance to the relief effort, from waiving the cost of online donations made with debit and credit cards, to making cash donations to the Red Cross and other charitable organizations, to matching employee donations."

Curious Timing

"The entire industry is responding to the crisis in Haiti," said Scott Talbott, senior vice president for government affairs for the Financial Services Roundtable, a Washington, D.C.-based lobby group. "It's the right thing to do."

Asked about the timing of the industry statement, just hours after Dodd's, Talbott said, "I think everyone just had the same idea at once."

Credit card companies have been widely criticized for imposing new fees and higher interest rates in recent months ahead of congressionally mandated credit card user protections set to take effect next month.

Big banks are giving money for Haiti at a time when controversial bonus pools are about to be announced, probably prompting new public backlash.

Regardless of their motivations, financial companies took similar steps supporting the Haiti relief effort:

Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley all announced that they were making donations of $1 million to the Red Cross and other charities poised to help Haitians.

Discover told customers that they could use Cashback Bonus points to make donations and that Discover would match them.

Citigroup, which has been doing business in Haiti since 1971 and has a three-story building in Port-au-Prince that reportedly suffered extensive damage, sent a search-and-rescue team to look for its people. Meanwhile, it donated supplies, such as satellite phones, to the overall effort. Citigroup also said it was donating $2 million to Haiti-relief charities, including $250,000 to the Red Cross, and that it is starting a separate fund for employees.

Manhattan-based investment bank Jefferies Group earmarked a day's worth of trading commissions Friday for Haiti relief, raising approximately $5 million. Jefferies donated an additional $1 million.

ABC News' Charles Herman contributed to this report.