5 On Your Side

Credit card companies 'reward' customers with higher rates

Posted March 12, 2009 4:36 p.m. EDT
Updated October 12, 2011 9:49 a.m. EDT

— A lot of credit card users recently got big surprises. Their interest rates jumped, and their credit limits shrank.

It is not just happening to people with late payments or large balances. Up-to-date paying customers are being hit with interest rate hikes, too.

The credit card industry is trying to boost revenue as the tough economy leads to rising default rates, and once-loyal customers are also being made to foot the bill.

A WRAL.com GOLO member says he recently received a notice his credit limit was "slashed by 33 percent." Another user found out his limit was cut the hard way, when he tried to use his card and was "informed it was declined." Yet another user says his Chase credit card "jumped from 14 to 24 percent interest."

Capital One sent some customers a notice that read because of "extraordinary changes in the economy" the interest rate "is going up to 17.9 percent." If you miss a payment, the rate goes up to 30 percent.

“They can become very extreme, very quickly, if you miss even one payment now,” said Rebekah O'Connell, Triangle Family Services credit counselor. “The banks are feeling squeezed right now. They're looking (for) every route they can to increase their revenue. Credit card holders are easy targets."

It is legal to Increase interest rates, and it usually affects current balances. One card's pamphlet that WRAL's 5 on Your Side looked into stated "the right to change the terms of your account including APRs (annual percentage rates) at any time, for any reason."

“It's kind of changing the rules in the middle of the game,” O'Connell said.

While you can try negotiating, most credit card companies aren't budging – though they will usually keep the prior interest rate on your remaining balance if you close the account and make no new charges that way.

“That may or may not help. It might keep you at your existing rate, but you've closed off one of your lines of credit, which can ultimately impact your credit score,” O'Connell said.

As an alternative, try a smaller community bank or credit union.

“They generally have more consumer-friendly rates than some of the large banks. Going forward, I think your relationship with your bank is going to be something that will be critical to you getting the best rates overall on your accounts,” O'Connell said.

The best advice? Don't use credit cards.

“Get the cards out of your wallet. Don't use them,” O'Connell said.

Under new federal rules, companies will only be able to raise interest rates on new cards and future purchases, not on current balances. They also will have to give customers 45 days' notice before changing the terms of an account.

The downside is that the rules don't take effect until July of next year.

O'Connell also said that if you have a reward credit card, use the points as soon as possible because many of those programs could go by the wayside.