1. More Late Fees
Credit card companies are reaping more profit from late fee income than ever before, for three reasons: (1) the average late fee more than doubled between 1992 and 2000, from $12.53 to $27.61, (2) companies have decreased the amount of time between when they mail a bill and when payment is due, and (3) nearly two-thirds of companies have eliminated leniency periods, (the time after a payment's due date before a late fee is assessed).
2. Higher Over-the-Limit Fees
In 2000, only one card charged a fee of less than $20 to consumers who had exceeded their credit limits. The highest fee was $35. In contrast, a 1995 survey found only one bank that charged a fee of $20 or more. Many companies assess this fee to cardholders who exceed their limits by as little as $1.
3. Hidden Transaction Fees
Fees for cash advances, balance transfers, and quasi-cash transactions like the purchase of lottery tickets significantly raise the cost of these transactions. But the terms governing these transactions are buried in the fine print where consumers can easily miss them. Minimum fees, also stated only in the fine print, allow credit card companies to guarantee themselves high fee income regardless of the transaction amount. For example, if XCard has a transaction fee of 3% and a minimum of $10, a cardholder who receives a $50 cash advance will be charged the minimum, $10, which amounts to an actual transaction fee of 20%.
4. Punitive Annual Percentage Rate (APR) Increases
The average penalty APR-a higher interest rate triggered by a late or missed payment-is nearly eight percentage points higher than the average regular (non-penalty, non-introductory) APR. In 1998, by contrast, penalty APRs were an average of 4.5 percentage points higher than regular APRs.
5. Declining Grace Periods
While grace periods (the time during which a transaction does not accrue interest) historically were a full month long, they now average 23 days. Some cards have no grace periods at all.
6. Introductory APRs
Fifty-seven percent of card offers advertised a low introductory APR. The average introductory APR was 4.13% and lasted an average of 6.8 months. But credit card companies use low, short-term introductory APRs to mask regular APRs that are an average of 264% higher. These sharp rate increases are not prominently disclosed.
7. Low Minimum Payments
Low minimum monthly payments are designed to sound attractive to consumers, but they encourage cardholders to pay more in finance charges as the length of time required to pay off a balance increases significantly. Credit card companies have decreased minimum payments in recent years from the historic industry standard of 5% to a current standard of 2% to 3%.
8. "Fixed" APR
Despite their name, so-called "fixed" interest rates can be raised with as little as 15 days notice to cardholders.
9. "Bait and Switch" Credit Card Offers
Direct mail credit card offers generally advertise the premium card the bank has to offer, yet the fine print includes the caveat that the company can substitute a lower-grade, non-premium card if the applicant does not qualify for the premium card. The lower-grade card costs more and offers less attractive terms, facts which are rarely mentioned in the official disclosures of the offer.
10. Tiered Pricing
This new, anti-consumer practice is catching on quickly with credit card companies. In an offer, the company quotes a meaninglessly-wide range of possible APRs: Providian's Aria card, for example, quotes a range of 7.99% to 20.24%. The company then assigns an APR to each applicant once the card is issued, based on the applicant's credit history. Consumers are thus being denied the right to know the terms of a credit card before they accept an offer.
U.S. PIRG serves as the national lobbying office for state Public Interest research groups. PIRGs are independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan consumer and environmental advocacy groups with members around the country. U.S. PIRG's website is www.uspirg.org and the special state PIRG credit card education website is www.truthaboutcredit.org.
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