Study: Credit card issuers ensnare many in debt traps
Share with others:
A new report on credit card debt accuses card issuers of pushing consumers to borrow beyond their means and calls for new regulations to end the most abusive industry practices.
The 35-page report, released yesterday by the National Consumer Law Center in Boston, says the industry's tactics are particularly devastating to older Americans who have fewer resources to dig themselves out of a hole.
Credit cards are everywhere, the report said, noting that there are roughly 2.3 general use credit cards in circulation for every man, woman and child in the country.
"The main problem is that the industry is set up to make the most profit from those consumers who get into trouble with credit cards," the report said, citing such things as penalty fees, punitive interest rates, deceptive marketing and minimum payment terms that keep cardholders in a cycle of debt.
The report described one woman on Social Security disability who stopped using her credit card and tried to pay off the $1,963 balance but was hit with a "tidal wave" of charges that left her deeper in debt. Over a six-year period, she made nearly $3,500 in payments but saw her balance swell to $5,564.
Card issuers' profits hinge on "squeezing consumers as long as possible," the study said.
A spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association declined to comment on the report. It comes on the heels of a Federal Reserve study that defended card companies, saying they a good job of assessing people's ability to pay before offering them credit.
The law center study recommended a series of steps aimed at curbing credit card debt, including prohibiting the "most dangerous" credit card practices and requiring better disclosures about terms, fees and interest rates.
The report also recommended promoting debit card use as an alternative, but only if consumer protections against fraud are strengthened to match that of credit cards, and if banks stop permitting customers to overdraw their accounts and inadvertently incur a string of overdraft charges.
The result of those recommendations may be that so-called convenience users -- people who pay off their credit card balances each month -- will end up paying higher fees in the future, the report said. It also may mean that consumers with poor or no credit histories will find it harder to get credit. Both may be acceptable trade-offs, the report said.
Among the recommendations in the report:
Prohibit late charges as long as the payment is postmarked no later than the due date. The restriction is intended to crack down on card companies that set weekend or holiday due dates or early-morning cutoff times for posting payments to trigger more late fees.
Prohibit over-limit fees if the card issuer permitted the credit limit to be exceeded.
Limit creditors to charging one over-limit fee when a consumer exceeds the limit instead of a fee each month the consumer stays over the limit.
Prohibit card companies from raising interest rates retroactively on an outstanding balance and ban "universal default" policies that allow card issuers to boost rates when customers are late paying other creditors.
Prohibit mandatory arbitration clauses for settling disputes. Their use "has been a tremendous barrier for consumers seeking redress for credit card abuses," the report said.
Prohibit unilateral changes in terms. If consumers agree to a change, give them the right to repay existing balances under the old terms.
The law center plans to release a second report next month on help available for seniors overwhelmed by credit card debt. It said many seniors find themselves ensnared in a debt trap because they use credit cards to pay for such necessities as food and medical bills.
First Published July 28, 2006 12:00 am