Why Banks Are Hiking Credit Card Rates


It might be unethical, probably even reprehensible, but credit card companies are reaching deep into their bag of tricks to raise card rates, hike fees, and squeeze as much cash out of card customers as they can.

A new report from the Pew Health Group’s Safe Credit Card Project has the skinny, with 400 credit cards from 12 of the largest U.S. banks still putting the screws to credit card consumers this holiday season.

The good news is that the window is closing. New credit card reform rules begin on Feb. 22, but that still gives card issuers about 60 days to wring as much cash from credit card companies as possible. “One hundred percent of credit cards offered online by the leading bank card issuers continue to include practices that will be outlawed once legislation passed in May takes effect next year,” says the Pew Report.

In other words, not one major U.S. credit card provider is backing off on rate and fee hikes in advance of the new credit card rules — thus giving their customers a break and raising the bar for good customer service in a tough economic climate. “Since passage of the Credit CARD Act, we found that credit card issuers have done little to remove practices deemed unfair or deceptive by the Federal Reserve,” says Shelley A. Hearne, managing director of the Pew Health Group, which wrote the report. “In fact, some of the most harmful practices have actually grown more widespread — not one of the bank cards reviewed would meet the legal requirements outlined in the Credit CARD Act, which is bad news for consumers.”

Evidently, card companies are betting that customers won’t notice — or at least won’t change card carriers just because of a few “under-the-wire” interest rate hikes in advance of next spring. With 100% of banks still raising card rates, they have little to worry about.

What specifically has Pew found that would point to banks continuing to slam consumers with higher rates and fees? Let’s take a look:

  • 99.7% of card carriers raised interest rates on outstanding balances.
  • 95% of card companies applied payments in a manner that Pew describes as “likely to cause financial injury” to cardholders.
  • 90% of card companies are using “hair trigger” rate hikes that come into play after a card customer makes just one or two late payments. In many cases, late payments can raise interest rates to a median range of 29%, Pew says.

The fallout has been significant — and more expensive for credit card customers. According to Pew, the median annual percentage rate on U.S. bank credit cards is between 12.24% and 17.99%. Back in December 2008, that median range was 9.99% to 15.99%. Altogether, bank credit card rates have risen by up to 20% in 2009, compared to 2008.

In its defense, the bank credit card industry says that consumers shouldn’t be surprised that interest rates are going up. After all, the American Bankers Association counters, more and more consumers are defaulting on their credit card debt, leaving card issuers holding the bag. That leaves card companies with few options, other than raising interest rates to shore up its default losses.

A lot is riding on the new credit card reform laws. According to a White House fact sheet, Americans pay around $15 billion in credit card penalty fees. In addition, 80% of American families have a credit card, and 44% of families carry a balance on their credit cards.

If credit card companies don’t back off, look for that last number to rise in the few months leading up to Feb. 22.

—For the best rates on loans, bank accounts and credit cards, enter your ZIP code at BankingMyWay.com.

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