5 On Your Side

Protections for credit card users in the works

Posted April 23, 2009 4:58 p.m. EDT
Updated April 23, 2009 7:48 p.m. EDT

The days of complex fine print, sudden interest rate hikes and extra fees may soon come to an end.

The U.S. House and the Senate are both pursuing bills that would give consumers protections from the credit card industry.

Carol Chapman welcomed the idea. She said she paid her bill on time and still saw her interest rate jump from under 2 percent to almost 30 percent.

"Who pays 30 percent? I mean, it's almost like loan sharking to me,” Chapman said.

That consumer outrage led President Barack Obama to press for changes. Thursday he met with top executives from the nation's biggest credit card issuers.

"The days of any time, any reason rate hikes and late fee traps have to end," Obama said.

Credit-card debt went up 25 percent in the past 10 years, reaching $963 billion by January, according to numbers released by the White House.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, the executives told Obama that current credit-card regulation "is probably enough." But Obama said he wants more legislation to protect consumers.

From March 2007 to February 2008, credit card companies raised the interest rates of nearly a fourth of all accounts. That cost consumers an estimated $10 billion in extra finance charges.

Gibbs says lawmakers are stepping in because many of the big banks that are raising fees and penalties got billions in taxpayer bailout money.

Congress is also taking action by working on a so-called "Credit Card Bill of Rights." The bill would stop companies from suddenly hiking interest rates, plus put a cap on many fees and extend billing cycles.

"We believe with President Obama's support, we can do it – and working American families deserve it,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y.

Credit card company executives also told Obama that they are working to make contracts simpler for card holders, but some argue creating tougher rules will only make credit harder to get.

In December, the government adopted new rules requiring companies to only be able to raise rates on new cards and future purchases, rather than on current balances. Also, companies must give customers 45 days notice before changing the terms of an account.

The problem is the rules don't take effect until July of 2010, and some say that is why credit card companies are raising rates and fees now.