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Consumers want credit card rules to take effect

Fed up with rising fees, interest rate hikes, limit cuts and other harsh changes to their credit cards, most consumers want the date for major reforms moved up.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Fed up with rising fees, interest rate hikes, limit cuts and other harsh changes to their credit cards, most consumers want the date for major reforms moved up.

But some observers say those impending reforms have prompted banks to issue even more of the changes at a time when credit card holders are down.

The latest proof that consumers are having trouble paying their credit card bills came early Wednesday, in JPMorgan Chase's third-quarter results.

The bank, the largest U.S. credit card issuer measured by both the number of cards it has out, more than 119 million, and the amount of debt its customers carry, over $165 billion, reported a $3.59 billion profit. But its credit card division lost $700 million, as it set aside almost $5 billion to cover bills consumers can't pay. It was the only one of seven units to post a loss for the quarter.

JPMorgan said nearly 6 percent of cardholders were at least 30 days behind on their payments.

Analysts expect no better results from the credit card divisions of Citigroup, the second-largest U.S. issuer, and Bank of America, the third largest, when they report on Friday.

That's in part because statistics that measure consumer behaviors like bill paying trail the broader economy. Even if a recovery is under way, JPMorgan said it expects credit card problems to continue through the first half of next year, a view echoed by most who follow the industry.

But the way many consumers see things, while they are struggling to pay off their debts, banks have been moving to make it harder to do so.

A new survey done for found that 45 percent of consumers said their card company has changed their agreements by doing things like hiking fees, upping interest rates, raising the minimum payment due and cutting credit limits. The latest move was by Bank of America, which said late Tuesday it will impose annual fees of up to $99 on certain cards starting next year.

There was some hope among consumer advocates after the Credit CARD Act was made law in May that card companies would ease up with such measures, but the opposite has happened, said Adam Levin, chairman of, a consumer-oriented Web site. That's one reason that 56 percent of the people who responded to the survey said they want the new regulations moved up. "They're doing what they do and they're going to continue to do what they do, until their ability to do what they do is curtailed," Levin said.

Congress is considering pushing up the date most of the Credit CARD Act takes effect to Dec. 1, instead of Feb. 22. A bill that would change the date is currently before the House Financial Services Committee, and will be voted on in coming days.

But it's unlikely that moving the date will provide the help consumers are hoping for.

For one thing, the part of the law that requires banks to give consumers 45 days notice before they change terms like card interest rates, fees or minimum payments already took effect in August.

That part also requires banks to offer consumers a chance to opt out of such changes by closing the account and paying off the balance at the old interest rate. But closing accounts can backfire on consumers by causing their credit scores to fall.

Meanwhile, the interest rate hikes and other changes keep coming.

The survey found that 27 percent of respondents said their interest rate was increased, up from 19 percent in a similar survey done in June. Just short of 19 percent said fees were increased, up from 14 percent in June. And 17 percent said minimum payments were increased, up from 12 percent in June. The telephone survey of 1,000 people was done Oct. 10 and 11.

These changes are part of the "unintended consequences" of the tighter regulations, said Peter Garuccio, a spokesman for the American Bankers Association.

"Both the regulators and Congress understood that in taking the steps that they did, there would likely be higher prices and reduced credit availability," Garuccio said. Congress essentially accepted higher costs as a trade-off in exchange for more consumer protection, he said.

It's not just the CARD Act, but also the weak economy that has led banks to make these moves, he added, noting that the rate at which banks write off bad credit card debt typically tracks the unemployment rate. JPMorgan posted a 10.3 percent charge-off rate, and expects that to rise to 10.5 percent in the first half of 2010. The unemployment rate reached 9.8 percent is September and is predicted to pass 10 percent in the coming months.

Credit card issuers have to take into account both the broader economic risks and the regulatory landscape, Garuccio said. "The two can't really be separated right now."

In the big picture, consumers shouldn't expect friendlier practices any time soon, no matter when the new regulations kick in.

That makes it more important that consumers take control of their own credit, and make sure they use it responsibly, said Levin, of "The reality with all of this is hopefully a better informed, better prepared consumer will be a better borrower, a less risky borrower over time."