updated 6/23/2005 11:37:34 AM ET 2005-06-23T15:37:34

A law firm representing a group of small businesses on Thursday said it has filed a lawsuit against the nation’s biggest banks charging them with illegally fixing prices of credit card transaction fees.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut, charges Visa, MasterCard, Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc.’s Citibank, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and other leading banks with setting “exorbitant” interchange fees, which banks charge merchants every time a customer makes a purchase using a MasterCard or Visa card.

The Wall Street Journal reported details of the lawsuit in its Thursday editions.

The suit, filed on behalf of five businesses in California, Minnesota and Connecticut, seeks to represent the nation’s retailers as a class.

Many businesses have argued that banks, acting with Visa and MasterCard, are illegally fixing prices on interchange fees. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer, negotiated a multi-billion settlement with Visa and MasterCard in 2003. Other retailers like Home Depot Inc., Best Buy Co. and others have either won fee cuts or are in talks to do so, according to the Journal.

Visa said it would vigorously defend its use of interchange fees, which it called “a practice that has been successful in the marketplace as well as upheld as legal and necessary in federal court,” according to a statement from Josh Floum, executive vice president and general counsel.

“We believe the merchants in this suit are seeking to shift their normal costs of doing business onto someone else, the consumer,” Floum added.

Representatives at the major banks named in the suit were not immediately available to comment.

The law firm bringing the suit, Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi L.L.P, said interchange fees represent a hidden tax that raise prices on most products people buy.

“The card-issuing banks that control Visa and MasterCard have the ability to set the interchange fees as high as they want, without any market force to restrain them,” the firm said, adding that it seeks relief to stop the alleged anticompetitive behavior plus damages.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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