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Credit card abuse will persist despite reforms

May 7, 2009

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— I have no doubt that those working to reform the credit card industry mean well. But neither Congress nor the president can fix the fixation that many Americans have with using credit rather than cash.

The House has passed a Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights. The Senate is moving forward, ratcheting up the restrictions on lenders.

President Obama has laid out his vision of reforms for plastic, which has become as essential in the lives of most Americans as a driver’s license or Social Security number.

But people will still be able to swipe their way into massive debt in seconds — and that ease of borrowing has produced hundreds of thousands of credit addicts.

Lingering loopholes

Several of the protective measures being pushed through Congress contain exceptions and conditions under which lenders can still penalize consumers.

These loopholes allow issuers to continue to exploit the card users who are at the most risk, and my prediction is that many of these people will voluntarily opt in for the mistreatment.

Currently, many card issuers reserve the right in their cardholder agreements to increase the interest rate at any time, for any reason.

Banking and credit union regulators have already passed rules that will prohibit lenders from unilaterally raising interest rates on existing balances. The legislation that is likely to be passed would do the same.

The problem is the exceptions are so wide that a lot of consumers will still get themselves trapped. For example, retroactive interest rate increases on existing balances will be permitted by lenders if a cardholder is more than 30 days late on a payment or if a consumer fails to comply with a debt workout agreement.

So just who do you think will still get these rate increases — which we’ve seen can soar to 20 percent or higher?

Most people aren’t late paying their credit card bills because they’re triflin’ around. They are late because they are in financial trouble. They don’t have the money. The exceptions being proposed in Congress won’t help these folks.

Congress and President Obama are trying hard to stop credit card issuers from allowing consumers to go over their credit limits.

To reduce oppressive over-the-limit fees, credit card issuers would have to get a customer’s permission to set up their account to process transactions that would place them over their credit line.

This “gives consumers control over their own credit behavior,” said a senior administration official who is working with the Treasury Department on the president’s credit card reform initiative.

Over-the-limit purchases

I’ve stood in the store behind people who hand over their credit cards and close their eyes and silently pray that the charges will be approved. Who do you think will opt in to allow over-the-limit purchases?

It won’t be the people who never or rarely carry a balance or stay significantly below their credit limit. These cardholders don’t have to pray when they get to the checkout line. They understand that when you use more than 30 percent of your available credit, it can lower your credit score.

I’m not a betting woman, but if I were, I’d wager that a lot of people will opt in to allow charges to go through even when they are over their limit. You might elect to opt in telling yourself it’s just in case of an emergency.

There’s an effort to make credit card agreements and statements easier to read, using plain language. Account statements would display how long it would take a consumer to pay off an existing balance and the total interest cost if only the minimum payment was paid.

“We’re going to require clarity and transparency,” the Treasury official said in an interview.

I have a radical idea. Let’s have point-of-sale transparency.

Before a credit transaction can be approved, cardholders should be required to read a short notice indicating how much they owe on their card and how long it will take them to pay the debt back if they only make the minimum payment. Some consumers might actually consider their debt situation and opt out of the transaction. Imagine that.

During a radio segment I participated in with Michel Martin, host of National Public Radio’s “Tell Me More,” Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J., said one of the untended and unfortunate consequences of the credit card reform may be to restrict credit availability.

Every year, Americans pay around $15 billion in penalty fees, according to the Treasury Department. Nearly 80 percent of American families have a credit card, and 44 percent of families carry a balance.

We act in this country as if having a credit card is a God-given right. The elimination of unfair and punitive credit card practices should result in fewer people using plastic. Yet some cardholders will sabotage the credit reform movement because Congress can’t simply legislate away the fact that many people are too financially vulnerable to have access to an unsecured line of debt.

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