New regulations that capped certain credit card fees, coupled with a dip in card usage, have resulted in consumers paying millions less in penalty fees over the past three years.
The bad news? Credit card issuers are busy dreaming up new types of fees to make up for the shortfall.
"I don't have one bank card client not going through that exercise right now," said Robert Hammer, CEO of the credit card advisory firm R.K. Hammer in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
Companies would charge customers who ...
Call their service center too often
Don't use the card frequently enough
Lose a card or ask for a second one
Receive paper billing statements
Consumers soon could find themselves charged for a lost or second card, for paper statements and even for not using their card enough or for making too many calls to customer service.
Some issuers have started charging from $1 to $5 for customer service calls beyond a certain limit per billing cycle, Mr. Hammer said.
More cardholders also are being hit with fees ranging from $5 to $15 for not using their cards often enough, sometimes when their accounts are inactive for as little as three months, he said.
Card issuers also have been raising traditional fees not subject to federal limits.
Cash advance fees, for example, which used to be 1 percent to 2 percent of the transaction, are now as high as 5 percent, he said.
So-called default interest rates -- the penalty rates that consumers pay when they are late more than once making payments -- also have been heading higher, with some as high as 30 percent, he said.
Card companies have been tightening the screws to make up for the loss in revenue triggered by the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009.
Provisions of the act, most of which took effect in stages in 2010 and were designed to improve credit card disclosures and end abusive practices, took aim at some of the card companies' bread-and-butter revenue generators.
Late fees were capped at $25 for the first violation and $35 for a second offense within six months. Before the new rules, late fees had been as high as $40.
The regulations also prohibited companies from charging fees for going over a card's credit limit unless the customer opted in to allow over-the-limit transactions.
As a result of those restrictions, plus consumers spending less during the recession, penalty fees have fallen for three straight years -- from a peak of $22.9 billion in 2009 to $17.8 billion in 2012.
Mr. Hammer expects that trend to level off.
"I don't see penalty fees dropping a lot this year, because of the other fees banks are charging to make up for that," he said.
New types of fees that could begin to catch on, he said, include charges for custom card designs and for when customers request an increase in their credit limit.
Despite some new fees, cardholders are much better off then they were before protections ushered in by the card act, said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group in Washington, D.C.
"The card act has cleaned up the credit card marketplace," eliminating "gotcha" fees and other abuses, he said, adding that U.S. PIRG and federal regulators are getting a lot fewer consumer complaints about credit cards these days.
Mr. Mierzwinski and other experts say card companies should be careful about rolling out new fees that could trigger an outcry from consumers and another crackdown by regulators.
Consumers can fight back against new fees by staying informed and being diligent about paying their bills on time, Mr. Hammer said.
When it comes to most fees, cardholders have the ability to avoid them.
"If you don't want to pay a late fee, don't pay late," he said. "Don't go over your limit if you don't want to pay over-the-limit fees."
To stay on top of new and higher fees, cardholders should read any mailings from their card issuer. Card companies are required to give customers notice when changing a card's terms.
"Be watchful and read what you get from the bank," Mr. Hammer said. "Don't throw things away, which is what most people do."
Consumers unsure about whether they are subject to certain fees should call their card issuer to find out.
The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau accepts and tracks complaints about credit cards at www.consumerfinance.gov.mobilehome - nation - businessnews
Patricia Sabatini: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3066.