Nearly 20 years ago I worked for a small consumer advocacy organization in Washington, DC. Each week we received sacks full of mail from consumers across the country requesting our list of credit cards with low interest rates and no annual fees. If you wanted a low interest rate on a credit card back then, you often had to apply to a bank in Arkansas where interest rates were capped by state law.
Those were the good old days.
Now, interest rates range from zero percent to a high 39 percent. It’s tougher to find (and keep) a good credit card than ever before. That’s because there are many new traps that can snag unsuspecting consumers.
At the top of the list is the “universal default clause” which allows issuers to monitor you credit report and raise your rate if you are late on any bill that appears on your credit report. One major issuer, for example, will hike a 0 percent rate to 24.99 percent if you slip up!
In fact, true “fixed rates” are rare. Many consumers don’t realize that a “fixed” credit card rate isn’t the same as, say, a fixed-rate mortgage. In most states, card issuers can raise the interest rate on a fixed-rate credit card with just fifteen days’ written notice. The new rate can typically apply to existing balances as well as new purchases.
Fees are also on the rise. Take late fees, for example, twenty years ago a late fee on a credit card was still fairly unusual, and typically wasn’t charged unless you were 15 days late with a payment. Now you often must get your payment to the issuer by a certain hour in the morning or you’ll be charged a late fee of as much as $39. Go over the limit and you’ll not only pay more interest, but a steep over limit fee as well.
Foreign travelers are often charged a “currency conversion charge” of 1 – 2 percent of the amount of their purchase. As the result of a class action lawsuit, Visa and MasterCard were ordered to provide refunds of those fees in certain circumstances. The problem wasn’t that the fees were illegal, but it was determined they weren’t properly disclosed. The case is being appealed.
Here are some findings from the nonprofit Consumer Action’s annual survey of credit cards (www.consumer-action.org):
– The vast majority of surveyed cards have significantly higher penalty rates that are triggered by one or two late payments in a period of six months to a year.
– One-fifth of surveyed issuers have shifted to tiered late payments, which Consumer Action interprets as a deceptive way of charging higher-than-average late fees.
– The number of cards with $35 late fees has more than doubled from last year.
– More than half the cards surveyed require cardholders to pay only 2 percent of the monthly balance each month – a disturbing trend that dramatically increases the overall interest paid by cardholders.
– More than one-third of surveyed institutions will not provide a firm annual percentage rate (APR) until they have screened the applicant’s credit history. Instead, they give only a meaningless range of rates before screening, which makes comparison shopping difficult if not impossible.
Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying that credit card companies should not make money. In fact, easy access to credit has helped fuel our economy, especially when the going gets rough. But many consumers now are literally trapped by high-cost debt with few options. I’ve spoken to consumers who feel they have no choice but to file for bankruptcy because their credit card companies all raised their interest rates to between twenty and thirty percent, and they simply cannot manage to pay the balances down. With all the landmines out there for credit card users today, the best strategy is still to pay down debt as quickly as possible and limit yourself to a couple of cards to avoid problems.
Sometimes, of course, that’s easier said than done!