The average late fee on credit cards has soared to $28 in the United States, while penalty interest rates average 24.51 percent, according to a survey released Thursday by Consumer Action.
The San Francisco-based consumer watchdog’s report came a day after the Federal Reserve Board proposed sweeping revisions of the rules governing the way consumers are notified of changes to the terms of their accounts, including the way penalty rates are applied.
Consumer Action looked at the terms of 83 cards issued by 20 banks, including the top 10 U.S. card issuers.
The average annual percentage rate was 14.53 percent, up from 12.61 percent when the survey last was done in 2005. That largely paralleled the Fed’s boost in interest rates.
Penalty fees and rates generally kick in when consumers pay their bills late, and they’ve risen sharply.
This year’s average late fee of $28 was more than double the $13 that prevailed in 1995 and was up from $27.46 in 2005. Some card issuers charge as much as $39 per incident, the study found.
The penalty rates, which ran as high as 32.24 percent, were up from an average of 24.23 percent in 2005 and 21.91 percent in 2004.
Linda Sherry, a Consumer Action spokeswoman, said she did not think Fed adoption of the truth-in-lending proposals would necessarily change credit card rate and fee practices.
“But I think it will make people more aware, especially of the penalty rates,” Sherry said.
One of the Fed proposals would require credit card issuers to give people 45 days notice before making any changes to the terms of an account. That would give consumers time to repair the problem or pursue other credit options.
Among the credit card provisions that have been criticized by consumer activists is “universal default,” which allows a card issuer to boost a consumers interest rate if the consumer gets into trouble on another loan.
Consumer Action found that in the past year, many credit card companies are saying they no longer impose universal default rate hikes.
But the group found that instead, many have inserted language into their contracts allowing them to change a customer’s rate “at any time for any reason.”
This, Sherry said, “means credit card companies may be hiding universal default — one of their most insidious practices — in a different section of the credit card contact.”